A “historic” literacy effort in Napa Valley may be less about iPads and “engagement” and more about carefully sequenced, structured learning

the74 breathlessly reports on a digital early learning initiative in California wine-making country, but I’m not sure the lessons promoted therein should be taken at face value.

“The first message is, digital works,” Nemko [the Superintendent and promoter of this effort] says. “Digital is engaging, and the one thing we know is that student engagement is the biggest measure of achievement. If you are engaged more — and this has a breadth and depth because of all the additional games and letter recognition — you are going to learn more.”

But that’s not the message I receive when I read this article. What I see is what happens when a concerted effort is made to provide a systematic and structured effort to address literacy development in young learners. I’m sure all the bells and whistles of an iPad are lovely. But adding animations and interactivity to a text alone are not what promotes literacy growth. What I view as the most powerful levers here are that the initiative is getting parents involved, and they are structuring vocabulary, phonemic awareness, phonics, and comprehension activities around a core body of texts.

So kudos is certainly due to the efforts being made, in public-private partnerships, to promote the literacy development of Napa Valley children. But let’s not turn this into another mistaken boosterist heralding of iPads and personalized digital learning.

A Historic Literacy Effort in California Brings Personalized Learning to English Language Learners, the74

Getting Our Children Addicted

Brownsville

During the week, when I have a few moments to scan Twitter or Feedly or newsletters, I’ll save interesting things to read in Pocket. And sometimes, I’ll get a few moments on the weekend to read some of these articles (sometimes; most of the time I just end up with an endless collection of remarkable things I won’t get to read until months later).

This morning, after reading a NY Times report on the lives of teenagers in Brownsville, I happened to read a Nautilus article on the effort to build non-addictive painkillers, and I found an interesting point of connection between the two.

When you read the NY Times report on Brownsville, “On the Brink in Brownsville,” by Mosi Secret, there is a clear sense that for some teenagers in Brownsville—one of New York’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods—boredom seems a primary cause for turning to violence or crime. For example, in a moment in a local park, the highlight of the day occurs when a man beats up his former girlfriend: “The fight was the most thrilling thing to happen in a long bore of a day.”

In the article on painkillers, “Building the Perfect Painkiller” by Maia Szalavitz, there is a statement, generalized from research, that stands out to me as significant when we consider the lives of our children:

Research has found repeatedly that the longer a drug lasts and the slower it is to reach the brain, the less addictive it is; a short, intense high produces more compulsive behavior.

When I read that, I thought about the general meaning of this as it could apply to education and learning, rather than drugs and highs. For example, turning our children “on” to reading—getting them “hooked” on reading—is an incredibly difficult task, as reading itself is a “high” that is slow burning. And for those of us that love to read, we know that the effort and time is well worth the investment—that in fact there is no better method for learning. But for those of us that don’t love struggling through the words and narratives to discover the deep treasures therein, we may find more intense and immediate gratification in TVs and movies, or online videos of cats, for that matter.

Toy bears playing a desktop video game. Author: Mattinbgn Source: Wikimedia Commons

And when I thought back to Mosi Secret’s report on teenagers in Brownsville, it seemed to me apparent that our society has failed these children and many children all across our nation, not simply because of the tragedy of their being raised in an unstable environment with little access to the wealth of greenery, diverse sources of food, and other benefits of living in richer areas, but furthermore because we are so busy harvesting from, capitalizing off of, and perpetuating their compulsions and addictions, rather than offering them healthy and rich sources of learning.

By Stefan B., Thyras husband (GNU Free Documentation) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0
In that report on Brownsville, you’ll notice that Shamir and his friends are well-versed in the lore of fashion and consumer culture. Something’s working here, in some sense. Any distinctions made between high brow art and street life are largely fatuous at this point. These barriers have been broken. The only barrier that remains, as Shamir points out, is one of simply having the money to buy stuff: “Nobody in Brownsville is paying a thousand dollars and change for a [Hermès] belt.”

So our children have access to knowledge of all the things and stuff they want, and sometimes they’re able to acquire the latest sneaker or gaming system. But they have little access to knowledge of the things that make life so much more than a neverending series of a questing after shallow highs.

Why is this? And why is our society so adept at providing access to “stuff” that perpetuates yet more compulsive behavior, but so terrible at providing access to the knowledge and resources that make life worth living?

Only One Road to Mastery

Statue of Bruce Lee | Chintunglee

A blog I recommend putting into your Feedly or NewsBlur lists (or sign up for the newsletter) is Barking Up the Wrong Tree. Eric Barker provides insights gleaned from research and experts on productivity, leadership, and life fulfillment that are often relevant to the classroom.

In an interview with author Cal Newport about how to become an expert, for example, I found this particular passage interesting, especially in its relation to education:

I think when people want to get better at something the biggest mistake they make is seeking flow. It’s a very enjoyable state. It’s where you’re lost in what you’re doing, you’re applying your skills seamlessly and fluidly, and you feel like you have control. 
But we know from research on how people actually gain expert levels of performance that the actual state in which you’re getting better is one of strain, and that’s different than flow. It’s a state where you actually feel like you’re being stretched. It’s uncomfortable. You’re doing things beyond your current abilities. It’s not fluid. You’re not necessarily lost. Your mind might be saying, “This is terrible. This is terrible. Check your e-mail. This is terrible. What if there is something on Facebook?“ 
We avoid that for the most part, but we know that if you just keep doing what you know how to do already, you’ll hit a plateau almost immediately. So I think the avoidance of strain is the biggest mistake people make in trying to get better.

In terms of education, another way of saying this is that learning, with an eye towards mastery, is not always fun. It requires hard work and going beyond one’s comfort zone.

This is something I’ve written about before in relation to constructivism and the current edu babble about digital natives and 21st century skills. Teachers are under great pressure to magically instill mastery of rigorous academic content in students who may lack essential foundational skills, or don’t yet see any value in education. In general conversations about public education, we all too often infantilize students to the point of subtracting any burden for learning from their shoulders, thereby placing the burden entire on that of their parents or teachers when they fail.

The reality is that in order to go beyond superficial exposure to knowledge and edge towards applicable mastery, students must work hard. And they must not merely work hard in the confines of the classroom, but put in work on their own time.

A simple example of this is mastery of the utterly essential yet hugely complex ability to read. Students might read while in school, but some consider reading a burdensome task that they are unwilling to engage in when not “forced” to. Instead, they opt for activities that require little mental strain, such as Facebook, button mashing video games, facile Hollywood movies, and TV sitcoms. But to become more than a barely proficient reader, in order to become a masterful reader, with an understanding of the world beyond one’s own neighborhood, one must read constantly, one must devour books, sit focused for hours in place, immersed in the struggle with a narrative or informational structure that will, over time and across multiple books, cumulatively, broaden and challenge complacent interpretations and shallow stereotypes of the world.

A great teacher is a gateway to such expansion and challenge, but they cannot substitute for the effort and work which must ultimately come from the student themselves. There is no mastery without hard work.

Right now in the edu sphere there is much talk of instilling “grit” and providing students with the opportunity to learn to “fail.” Indeed. Yet parallel to this conversation, there hovers a mirage of innovative edtech gamification: this idea that if we design the perfect learning experience, students will learn without even knowing that they are learning. They will be fooled by gadgetry and wonder into learning, despite themselves.

Yet all that glitters is not gold. There is only one path to knowledge and mastery — and that is through hard work.

Disagree with me? Great! Provide your rebuttal in the comments, or write your own blog post and post the link! I’m always game for a good debate.