Our Nation Deserves Better Than Rhetorical Posturing

“For decades now, charter schools have been positioned as the cure to all that ails the public school system. Supporters point to them as the gold standard. What we fail to acknowledge, however, is that for every successful KIPP or Democracy Prep, there are mediocre or struggling charters that aren’t improving outcomes. There are leaders and laggards in the charter movement, and many observers choose not to make the distinction.

Moreover, at best, charter schools are a strong value-add to the public school tapestry. Currently, about 4 percent of public school students are enrolled in charter schools. Even if we doubled the number of students in charters tomorrow, that would still leave more than 90 percent of public school students in traditional public schools. The Holy Grail of school improvement simply cannot be based on a type of school that 95 percent of students don’t attend, and likely will never have access to. . . .

The time has come to turn away from the divisive, us-vs.-them approaches of past policy fights. Instead, we must work together with educators to improve our public schools. We must focus on options and opportunities that can have real impact on all our children, not just a select few. And we must do so in a way that improves teaching and learning for all.

Otherwise, we are merely tinkering around the edges, seeking to set the next boundaries for the next fight. Our kids, our communities, and our nation deserve far better than such rhetorical posturing.”

–Patrick Riccards (aka  Eduflack), “It’s Time for Reformers, Educators to Work Together” on EdWeek

Adults need social-emotional learning too

“In some ways, it’s really our teachers and administration who are doing some serious social and emotional learning. When teachers get to know students’ lives, it’s easier to understand where a student’s bad mood or overreaction to a social slight might come from. When a teacher finds out a child is homeless and sleeps on a different couch each week, that teacher is more likely to take a problem-solving approach to student tardiness than a punitive one.”

–Phillip Cantor, “When Kids Connect, They Learn” in the Chicago Sun Times

How a school could better communicate and share information internally

By Selena Wilke (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In a school, there is a lot of information that needs to be communicated constantly across different classrooms, grades, and departments. Traditional forums for sharing are announcements (disruptive), hallways (in passing) and team meetings (if they occur), or email.

Surely there’s a more effective and organized and transparent method for school-wide information to be shared instantaneously, while also preserved for future reference?

Here’s a fascinating potential method for schools to communicate, discovered via a FastCoLab article on WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg:

“Automattic’s secret sauce is a WordPress theme called P2 that every employee publishes posts on all day long. At the top of a P2 blog post is a blank box. When you enter something and hit submit, your update appears in a list below, essentially forming a big, group comment thread. Each P2 post gets its own URL, which can be referenced in other posts. Every project, question, idea, complaint, and conversation gets its own P2, and anyone who wants to can participate.

There are no private P2s. Everyone, from intern to CEO, can weigh in on anything. Most people aren’t interested in most posts, of course, but if ever someone at Automattic needs to know about something–in any project and from any point in history–a P2 record is there.

Each Automattic employee checks the P2s all day long. Instead of email, which decays over time and empowers the sender, P2s are permanent and empower the group.”

How beautifully simple! Setting up a WordPress.com blog (like this one) is free, and it’s easy. A school will want to ensure the site is set to private so that confidential information can be shared.

Making this work would require that all teachers create accounts and are logged in regularly to check for updates. But once this habit is established, you’d have a shared stream of information and dialogue that can be tagged by department, grade, and other agreed upon criteria and so easily searched and resurfaced when needed.

My school is currently utilizing Asana, a project management app, to record our grade-level and departmental meeting minutes (more on using Asana for recording meetings here). What’s nice about Asana is that it connects to Google Apps, and when using it to record notes like we are, it sort of forces you to summarize and condense information in a more strategic and accessible way. It also enables you to tag and assign next steps to specific team members, so it encourages action.

But the simplicity of utilizing micro-blogging to share school-wide information is compelling. I would suggest this to my own team if we weren’t already stretched thin with the use of different programs (MasteryConnect, Engrade, Google Apps, Asana, not to mention SESIS, ARIS, . . .). If anyone out there is doing something similar, please share!

For more on Matt Mullenweg’s use of the P2 theme with Automattic: http://ma.tt/2009/05/how-p2-changed-automattic/

The Impact of Environment on Sitzfleisch

“We don’t need to be victims of our emotions,” Mr. Mischel says. “We have a prefrontal cortex that allows us to evaluate whether or not we like the emotions that are running us.” This is harder for children exposed to chronic stress, because their limbic systems go into overdrive. But crucially, if their environment changes, their self-control abilities can improve, he says. [bold added]

–Walter Mischel, the infamous Marshmallow test man, in an article by Pamela Druckerman “Learning How to Exert Self-Control” in the NY Times

Hi-Lab: A Test of Learning Aptitude

Might we one day take a test that determines whether we require our teaching to be more or less explicit in nature?

“In one study published in Psychological Science in 2013, people’s performance on an implicit learning task correlated with an ability to learn Hebrew words, and in another study published in Language Learning, people who did well on sequence learning tasks (such as those used in the Hi-LAB study) also did well understanding grammar in a second language. It all points in one direction: “that implicit learning may be a large part of how second languages are acquired,” said Bozena Pajak, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Language Sciences at the University of Rochester. . . .

The Hi-LAB can also become a powerful tool in the educational sphere. Because it identifies a person’s learning strengths and weaknesses, the test results could grease a student’s instructional path by showing how they learn best, whether it’s through reading or talking to people, through explicit grammar lessons or watching movies. CASL executive director Amy Weinberg said that a partnership is in the works with IBM to develop a learner management system that would deliver the appropriate language learning material to people based on their test results and other factors.”

–Michael Erard, “Secret Military Test, Coming Soon to Your Spanish Class” on Nautil.us

A Glimpse of My Own School Ecosystem

I am fortunate to work in a great district school. I would happily send my own child (if I had one) to Jonas Bronck Academy. I work in co-teaching classrooms across 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. I actively receive some of the best professional development I could ever get due to the fact that in each of my classrooms every single day, I get the opportunity to observe and collaborate with highly effective teachers.

Here’s a video in which you can get a glimpse of this wonderful school ecosystem. However, what you won’t see is the community of adults who actively surround these children with love each day. Try to keep that community in mind as you watch, because they are what enables what you do see to exist:

Education Benefits Women Unequally (and that’s a good thing)

“For all three abilities tested, there was a relationship between the size of the differences in the amount of education and the size of the difference in cognitive performance: fewer years of education for women was associated with worse scores for women, as you’d expect.

What varied for the three abilities was in the researchers’ predictions for the situation where men and women spent an equal amount of time in education: for memory this scenario was associated with a distinct female advantage, for numeracy a male advantage and for verbal fluency, there was no difference.”

–Tom Stafford, “Are men and women destined to forever think differently?” on Mindhacks

Ok, and So?

“The more experienced I have become as a teacher, the more I have started to filter out people who don’t bring any solutions to the table—even those whose educational ideologies match mine. It’s important for teachers to come together and air our frustrations. But some people seem to love swimming in quicksand, hoping others will join them, as if the movement downward is an actual movement. I love making an irreverent joke about Arne Duncan’s latest speech as much as the next activist, but after a while, my next question is always, “OK, and so?” When sarcasm and vitriol are the only ways of discussing educational policy, we all lose. Whether face-to-face or virtual, teachers’ lounges ought to feel like places for educators to recharge our batteries, not drain them out.

Being about it, any it, requires changing the way we talk about it, too.”

–Jose Vilson, This is Not a Test

Vertical Progress

“When we think about the future, we hope for a future of progress. That progress can take one of two forms. Horizontal or extensive progress means copying things that work—going from 1 to n. Horizontal progress is easy to imagine because we already know what it looks like. Vertical or intensive progress means doing new things—going from 0 to 1. Vertical progress is harder to imagine because it requires doing something nobody else has ever done. If you take one typewriter and build 100, you have made horizontal progress. If you have a typewriter and build a word processor, you have made vertical progress. . . .

The single word for vertical, 0-to-1 progress is technology. The rapid progress of information technology in recent decades has made Silicon Valley the capital of “technology” in general. But there is no reason why technology should be limited to computers. Properly understood, any new and better way of doing things is technology. . . .

The smartphones that ­distract us from our surroundings also distract us from the fact that our ­surroundings are strangely old: Only computers and communications have improved dramatically since midcentury. That doesn’t mean our parents were wrong to imagine a better future—they were only wrong to expect it as something automatic. Today our challenge is to both imagine and create the new technologies that can make the 21st century more peaceful and prosperous than the 20th.”

–Peter Thiel & Blake Masters, Excerpt from forthcoming book, Zero to One, on Fortune

The Sound of Schools: to Catch the Light

An article on Nautil.us* by Brandon Keim, “Decoding Nature’s Soundtrack,” introduces us to a fascinating new area of ecological study called biophony—the soundscapes of living organisms. Bernie Krause introduced scientists to the field through his recordings of ecosystems.

You can listen to one of Krause’s soothing recordings as you read this post:

In each spectrogram, Krause points something out: No matter how sonically dense they become, sounds don’t tend to overlap. Each animal occupies a unique frequency bandwidth, fitting into available auditory space like pieces in an exquisitely precise puzzle. It’s a simple but striking phenomenon, and Krause was the first to notice it. He named it biophony, the sound of living organisms, and to him it wasn’t merely aesthetic. It signified a coevolution of species across deep biological time and in a particular place. As life becomes richer, the symphony’s players find a sonic niche to play without interference.

“The biophony is the pure expression of life, of the given organisms in a habitat,” he says. “When you’re in a healthy habitat, all the species are able to find bandwidth where their voices fit.” He puts an ancient Borneo rain forest onto the speakers. At the top of the spectrogram are bats, their echolocation a bare hint of a sound to human ears; below them are cicadas, a plenitude of insects, one chestnut-winged babbler and nightjars and the booms of gibbons, each in its own place [bold added].

The mathematically spaced variation of leaves to capture the light.

Diversity & Structure

This passage struck me because it connects to a quality I love observing in nature—the way leaves so economically layer, space, and position themselves so as to maximize the capturing of sunlight. They don’t overzealously overlap so much as lushly occupy niches. How beautiful that this same vibrant variation may occur in the sounds of living organisms.

This suggests two ecological principles that also make sense in terms of a school ecosystem. Healthy ecosystems can be said to have these two main qualities: they are diverse, and they are structured.

One area of biophony research is to test if the health of an ecosystem can be measured by its sound. This area holds promise, though there’s not yet enough research to apply it.

Imagine if we could measure the health of a school ecosystem via sound! Though the so-called Losado ratio of positive to negative language has been debunked, I imagine that the sound of a healthy school would trend towards greater positive language use. I also think that you’d hear greater instances of the use of precise academic language.

Rapacity Results in Silence

Another interesting—and disquieting—facet of biophony research is the detrimental impact of human activity on natural soundscapes.

When the patterns of birdsong in those forests are analyzed and turned into mathematical measures of complexity, says Pieretti, the symphonies of communities subject to road-building and intrusion indeed seem to be less structured. Birds call louder and repeat themselves, perhaps to be heard above vehicular din; there’s more noise, but not more information [bold added].

More noise, but not more information. Again, think about a school in which the conditions are toxic. There’s less structure. You’ll hear kids bullying one another in the hallways and classrooms. You’ll hear adults complaining in the teacher’s lounge and office.

Let’s continue with the metaphor. Think of this healthy ecosystem that is both structured and diverse, then think about the policy and political clime of public education. Then think of the voices of parents, children, and teachers being drowned out and silenced.

Although sound indexes of ecological health may be years away, pending rigorous testing, calibration, and codification, Krause says he doesn’t need to wait for the results. He estimates that nearly half of the habitats he’s recorded are now compromised or rendered silent, primarily by human development and insatiable appetites that relegate most non-human interests to irrelevance. Krause requires no scientifically validated tools to hear that feedback. “If you know how to listen to it, then it’s really clear what’s happening,” he says. “As the natural world becomes more silent over time, the question is: Is that what we want?” [bold added]

Indeed. As we attempt to shape school systems into the ideal image of what we value, what other voices do we attempt to silence? And is their silence really what we want?

Barrenness is the end result of a lack of diversity and structure. We all want to catch a piece of the light.

Perhaps we need a new area of study. Eduphony. You heard it hear here first, folks.


* I find the pieces put out by Nautil.us so fascinating that I’ve subscribed to their print magazine—something I haven’t done for any other publication in years. I’m looking for an education research journal to subscribe to, but haven’t yet found one I find compelling (if you have any suggestions, especially one on special education, please let me know).