But Who Will Design The Robots?

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In one of his always interesting “Disruptions” column in the New York Times, Nick Bilton held forth on how robots are replacing workers at Amazon and elsewhere. These robots, a researcher at Johns Hopkins told Bilton, “will help augment people’s abilities, allowing us to use robots for things humans cannot do.” And, the Hopkins guy adds, we will always “have to have someone who builds the robots.”

Columnist Bilton is upset for the workers who will lose their jobs, but his column is also a wake-up call. I read it as an implicit critique of a narrow curriculum that puts aside just about anything that encourages the imagination in favor of ‘the basics,’ meaning basic reading and basic math.

Stressing the basics is no way to make sure that we will produce people to design, build and operate robots, or create the future in other ways. We need schools that encourage the imagination, that allow and support deep learning, and that fan the sparks of creativity — not stomp out the fires.

EdTech
In the East Bay, new approaches to education are taking shape.

However, a narrow and unimaginative curriculum is not a new phenomenon. Just as armies are supposedly spending their time getting ready to fight the last war, many schools and colleges seem to focus on preparing young people for the day before yesterday — and have been doing so for a long time.

I have some direct experience in this. In the late 1960s, I taught for two years at a historically Black public college, Virginia State, in Petersburg, Virginia. For a privileged young white man from New England, it was a life-changing experience.

One sociological lesson stuck with me. The college stressed vocational training for its students, most of whom were the first in their families to attend college. While some studied to become chefs and barbers, a very popular major involved computers, which at the time were still pretty new. These students were being trained to be key-punch operators! (Ask your parents!!) It didn’t take a wizard to know that, in a very short time, absolutely no one would be able to make a living as a key-punch operator, but that didn’t slow down the training program. Disrupting that assembly line would have required more than foresight; it would have meant sticking one’s neck out and challenging the comfortable status quo –remember, this was Southside Virginia, not a safe place for African-Americans to challenge the system. Easier and safer to prepare students for yesterday than to make waves and risk one’s own career.

I’ve often wondered what happened to those young men and women. I hope they found other work, and other opportunities to learn new skills.

What about today? Not only are we not challenging the status quo of ‘basic education,’ we seem to be cutting to the bone and getting rid of ‘frills’ like the arts. While I am hearing and reading stories about larger classes and fewer ‘non-essential’ programs in lots of places, Texas seems to be leading the way in cutting education (big surprise).

But, wake up, folks. The arts are basic, as this report from Florida demonstrates. Some of you may have seen our piece for the NewsHour on this topic:

So what do we do about a narrow, boring curriculum and the failing schools that generally seem to accompany that approach? It takes courage to challenge the runaway train of the current approach. As the metaphor suggests, standing in front of a train is not a recipe for a long life. The money and the power are with the status quo.

Some corporations are getting involved, although maybe not as a direct challenge. If you watched the Masters Golf tournament, you saw ExxonMobil commercials about improving America’s competitive position in math and science. That company’s foundation has spent millions on math and science education. (I also liked that many of the ads said ‘Support our Teachers,’ a too-rare message these days.)

Better news comes from San Francisco. Some high tech entrepreneurs there are resisting school-as-usual and getting their hands dirty trying to change things. Right now they seem to be involved because they have children of their own, but let’s hope they are intent on helping other people’s children as well. Let’s hope these interesting approaches to schooling become models, not just boutique luxury items for the privileged.

Cursing the darkness never did anybody any good. Let’s celebrate — and copy — those who are lighting candles to show us the way.

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Digital Natives, Or Digital Citizens?

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I often hear adults describing today’s young people as ‘digital natives,’ usually with a tone of resignation or acceptance: “They are so far ahead of us, but we can turn to them for help,” is the general message I hear.

My reaction is “Whoa there, Nellie,” because to me that kind of thinking smacks of abdication of adult responsibility. Yes, most young people know more than we adults because the fast-changing world of modern technology is alien to us, wildly different from the one we grew up in. But being a ‘digital native’ is not the same as being a ‘digital citizen.’ Young people have always needed ethical guidance and the security of rules and boundaries. That’s more true now because today’s technologies have unprecedented power to harm, as we have seen in documented cases of cyber-bullying and harassment.

I accept the general truth of what someone called the “Three C’s 1-9-90” rule of thumb, sad and depressing as it is. Only about ONE percent of young people are using today’s technologies to create; NINE percent are curating, collecting and critiquing, while NINETY percent are consuming.

If most youth — 90 percent — are texting, playing Angry Birds and Grand Theft Auto, and linking up on Facebook and Google Circles, then we adults should be ashamed.

Unless, of course, we are equally guilty.

And we are.

I would bet that the education community’s use of technology follows a “Two C’s 10-90” rule: TEN percent to create, and NINETY percent to control. I mean ‘control’ broadly, everything from keeping the school’s master schedule, monitoring attendance and grades, tracking teacher performance, and imparting the knowledge we believe kids need to have.

Natives
Our children may be digital natives, but we still need to channel their efforts.

If an important purpose of school is to help ‘grow adults,’ then the creative use of technology — by adults and young people — must be ramped up dramatically. We need to find ways to move kids out of the 90% and into the 1%.

If, on the other hand, a central purpose of school is to produce willing consumers, well, we’re doing fine.

What about Sal Khan and his burgeoning Khan Academy? Doesn’t his approach blend technology and traditional learning in ways that are to be admired? Yes, of course. However, at least so far most of the energy has been devoted to helping kids master the required curriculum. I think that’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient.

Schools today must provide opportunities for young people to create knowledge out of the swirling clouds of information that surround them 24/7. You went to school because that’s where the knowledge was stored. That was yesterday. Think how different today’s world is. Today’s young people need guidance in sifting through the flood of information and turning it into knowledge. They need to be able to formulate good questions–because computers have all the answers.

(I speak about a lot of these themes at greater length in The Influence of Teachers.)

Here are a few ways to harness technology and foster creativity.

1. Every middle school science class could have its own hand-held air quality monitor (under $200). Students could take air quality measurements three times a day, chart the readings, share the information in real time with every other middle school science class in the city, region or state, and scour the data for consistencies and anomalies. That’s creating knowledge out of the flood of information, and it’s real work, not ‘homework.’

2. Students could use their smart phones’ cameras to map their own neighborhoods, documenting (for example) the number of trash cans on street corners. That information could be plotted and shared city-wide, and the data could be examined for patterns and anomalies. Are there more trash cans in wealthy areas? If so, ask the Mayor, the Department of Sanitation and the City Council for an explanation. Again, students will be turning information into knowledge. I wrote about this a while ago in more detail.

3. Why not measure water quality? A hand-held monitor/tester of Ph costs under $100, and the instrument that tests conductivity (ion levels, which relates to purity) is available for under $100. Turbidity — how cloudy the water is — is important to measure as well, and that can be done with an inexpensive instrument and a formula. Students could also measure the speed of the current and keep track of detritus. Then share all the data with other science classes around the city, region and state. Everyone could dig into the information looking for patterns. If one river’s water seems relatively pure until it passes point X, students could endeavor to find out why.

4. Teams of students with held-held Flip Cameras are invited to participate in our Shared Poetry Project and become producers for our YouTube channel.

If you click on the link above, I suggest you watch example #3, which was created by some middle school students in New Jersey.

Work like this is, well, real work. Students are creating knowledge; they are designing projects and seeing them through from beginning to end. These projects have to meet real-world standards because the results are in public view.

These young people will be learning (or reinforcing) real-world skills that will help them once they move out of school. They’re working together, they are gathering, assimilating and analyzing data, they are learning how to present what they are learning, and so on. This is career-track stuff, 180 degrees different from much of the ‘regurgitation education’ that is the hallmark of too many of our schools.

And here are two final benefits: the time they spend doing projects like these (and there are many more good ideas out there) is time they cannot spend playing games or otherwise consuming technology. And because they are using technology to create and are enjoying the fruits of their labor, they will be, I believe, less likely to use technology’s power negatively. Strong in their own sense of self, they are less likely to feel the need to bully and cyber-bully others.

Technology is not value-free. We have choices to make, folks.

In Qatar: Interview with WISE Chairman, Dr. Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani

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Dr. Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani is the Chairman of WISE and Vice President for Education of the Qatar Foundation.  Dr. Abdulla knows the United States well, having gone to graduate school at Colorado State University. I spent a few minutes with this soft-spoken, focused and optimistic leader on the first day of WISE.  He was very clear about his high hopes for the event.

Not on the tape but revealing: When Dr. Abdulla learned that I live in California, his face lit up.  He told me with great excitement about the time he and a cousin rented motorcycles, took a 1-hour driving lesson, and then drove down our Route One from Big Sur down to Santa Barbara.  He told his parents, he confessed, only after the trip had concluded successfully.

Better Late Than Never: Report Back from Day 1 in Qatar

**We ran into some snafus with live posting, so some of my report backs didn’t make it up.  I think you’ll enjoy them anyway, so here’s one from the first day of the conference.**

About 1000 delegates from more than 120 countries are represented here in Doha, Qatar, at WISE, the World Innovation Summit for Education. Plans are to make this an annual event, and it’s backed by the Qatar Foundation and the prestige of Her Royal Highness, Sheika Mozah, the wife of the Emir. She opened the 3-day meeting with a rousing call for innovation in education.

WISEShe reminded us that more than 75 million school-age children are not in school and that nearly 800 million adults cannot read or write. And she sounded a theme that is of profound importance: the education gender gap is wide and growing, because discrimination against women and girls is deeply entrenched.

The need for innovation is clear, because business as usual means accepting severe teacher shortages, funding deficits and low completion rates. Can this conference energize at least some of the participants to work for significant change?

For this stranger,a lesson on arrival had to do with pronunciation of Qatar. I’ve always said ‘ka-TAR’ but they say ‘cotter’, as in cotter pin. The second lesson: This is a new country intent on leaping into the 21st century: Construction cranes everywhere, and what they have already put up is impressive. Google ‘Education City, Qatar’ and see for yourself.

About 50 journalists are here, and the organizers have ‘quarantined’ us at a hotel miles and miles from the meeting hotel, the Ritz. We are downtown, where life happens, and we have a 30-40 minute bus ride morning and night that gives us a chance to see some of Doha. Those ensconced at the Ritz are out on a peninsula, miles from anything else. They do get the famous Ritz chocolate chip cookies, however.

After Sheika Mozah’s speech, we were talked at, about the importance of innovation in education. Why is it that the pedagogy never changes? Does someone believe that’s the best way to communicate?

Off to Qatar for WISE

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I’m headed to the first World Innovation Summit on Education in Doha, Qatar. Hundreds of education innovators, policy makers and experts will be gathering there and I plan on recording video, audio interviews and filling you in on what’s happening there as it unfolds. This week, expect a post a day from me until Thursday, when I return.

To learn more about the WISE conference, visit their website: http://www.wise-qatar.org.