Education Evolutions #121

Close up of smartphone in hand flickr photo by shared under
a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Semester one is done. It seems as though it was a particularly speedy semester in retrospect. Reflecting on it, I cannot help but feel like summer was only a few weeks ago, just before the holidays. Unfortunately, at the secondary level, there is no break to set apart the terms like there is in higher education. So the new semester begins as most of us are trying to wrap up the previous one and get everything in the books, as they say.

This week a small theme emerged in the selections. It is pretty well focused on the humanities in some way or another in each article. It just kind of happened organically which for me is always the best way. It would be awfully difficult to produce a weekly newsletter with a new related theme every week, beyond the overarching of focus of education, technology, and teaching.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the last one. The intersection of the old and the new, modern technology and history is always fascinating to me. Plus, as I read it it seemed like it was an article that had been written for inclusion in this newsletter.

Here are three+ curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

Why I’m optimistic about the future of the humanities – CNN – David M. Perry (4-minute read)

This might not be the most accurately titled opinion piece, despite the fact the author may indeed feel more optimistic. His reasons for optimism are fine but more of a reach as far as I am concerned. However, his reasoning for the decline in humanities study is a lot more insightful. Perry’s open anecdotal experiences are revealing and I suspect far from uncommon for professors in the humanities.

The decline of the humanities has been a topic for most of my lifetime. That time frame also coincides with the most precipitous rise of university costs. With the cultural rise of market-think, as well as tuition increases, families increasingly look at college through the lens of return on investment. A university education has become less about learning how to be a better, educated, and well-rounded human being and more about serving as a kind of professional finishing school. Consequently, majors like business, marketing, and finance look a lot more alluring than the dusty halls of the humanities. This doesn’t even begin to address how so many colleges and universities have essentially evolved into banks. Yet, if the humanities are to make a viable comeback the cost of attending college has to become cheaper, full stop. Also, I would humbly submit that failing to reduce college costs and revive the humanities has a consequence and cost that far surpasses what be immediately comprehensible.

Economists Ate My School – Why Defining Teaching as a Transaction is Destroying Our Society – Radical Eyes for Equity – Steve Singer (5-minute read)

Steve Singer is a teacher and prolific blogger with a definite agenda to defend the public school system. The volume that he produces is impressive and many of the points that he makes overlap with a lot of my thinking. This post definitely does. Singer articulates how flawed looking at teaching as a transaction can be. It is harmful to both teachers and students, otherwise known as children in a whole lot of cases. Yet, there is a kind of propaganda that never seems to go away.

Human beings are not products and teaching is not a service, no matter how popular that notion might become. Looking at education as a transaction is beyond reductive. Moreover, the prevalence of looking at life through an economic lens is ultimately dehumanizing. Of course, there are plenty of people in power that benefit from positioning everything in economic terms. It firmly keeps who is winning and losing in stark relief. As Singer suggests buyer beware becomes the rule, although I am not sure it becomes the only one. There are a few other oppressive edicts that help keep people in there place too. In fact, one of many things that the humanities are really good at revealing is that if money is the only metric a whole lot of other things simply don’t matter all that much.

The Way We Write History Has Changed – The Atlantic – Alexis C. Madrigal (7-minute read)

Sticking with the humanities trend, this article is a fascinating look at the intersection of the ubiquity of the smartphone and the practice of doing history. It is a fascinating angle because of just how much the smartphone as a technology has influenced everyday life and the wider effects in areas not necessarily recognized. It is impossible to deny how a pocket-sized camera and computer could completely change the archive experience for a historian.

What is more interesting about this piece, however, is Madrigal’s interrogation of what is gained by the digitizing of artifacts but also what might be lost. Aside from greater efficiency, the idea that digitization might invite more diverse people to get involved in doing history is a more than encouraging development. Also, the idea that historians believe that they can do a better more thorough job is exciting. Yet, recognizing that the process of digitization dislocates the artifact from its context was a particularly insightful thing to include. There is a lot more to that idea and Douglas Rushkoff has written about what kinds of affordances and privileges, as well as consequences come with the digital world in the excellent book Program or Be Programmed. Being conscious of these factors can be crucial, especially in the field of history.

Education Evolutions #120

Close up of smartphone in hand flickr photo by shared under
a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

This holiday weekend was jam-packed with end-of-term grading, subsequently contributing to my getting this issue out a day later than normal. With exams coming up, there is always a bit of a bottleneck of things to do, especially in my classes that will restart with a new group second semester.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the second or middle one. As I compose this newsletter every week on an Apple Macbook, I have long been a user of Apple products and maintain a mild interest in the evolution of the company, I couldn’t help but including this piece looking at the first trillion-dollar company as a country. Plus, it is a gateway to a much longer and deep dive into Apple for anyone interested in following that fancy.

As I continue to consider videos for this newsletter, this one How Big Data Will Creep Into Your Life, Like It Or Not (2:54) seemed like a perfect fit for the kind of topics I tend to include here. It really is about the ever-expanding and unregulated internet of things and just leaves me wondering when, if ever, we will get wise to our lack of rules or understanding of the consequences of all these connected products.

Here are three+ curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

Electric school buses are batteries for the grid – Axios – Joann Muller (2-minute read)

This is a quick read with a couple of links to some other brief stories of more depth on the prospects of electric school buses. My initial reaction was this seems like a great idea. There are so many school buses in service across the country, it is a fleet of diesel vehicles that would potentially be a genuine boon to transform to electric. Removing the pollution alone should be reason enough to look into the possibilities.

It was encouraging to see that Massachusetts is one of the places experimenting with electric school buses. The linked article offers some more information about the current pilot program and calls for the city and regional transit authorities to consider a change. Yet, the real incentive may be in the vehicle-to-grid possibilities raised in this short piece. While the current Bay State effort does not seem to be part of the evolution, it is precisely the kind of large-scale efforts that are enhanced by public investment.

Welcome to Apple
A one-party state
 – Tortoise – Peter Hoskin and Alexi Mostrous
(11-minute read)

The very premise of this article is perhaps the most intriguing of all. Essentially, this is the first part of a multi-part, long-form piece of journalism based on the premise “If Apple were a country…” It comes from a newer publication outfit named Tortoise, a subscription-based publication from England specializing in longer, slower, in-depth journalism. What I have read of there work so far is strong, this being one example.

On some level, I am surprised I have not seen more pieces that treat the largest multi-national corporations with the same paradigm, looking at them as nation-states. Of course, there only three trillion dollar companies (Apple, Microsoft, and Alphabet/Google), which might have something to do with it. Still, based on the treatment given to Apple here, I am definitely curious about Tortoise’s next steps and where this series is headed.

Even if you only read the opening part, this is a fascinating read, especially if you have ever had more than a passing interest in Apple. For me, a kid who remembers the first time I sat in front of an Apple IIe in the library of elementary school, Apple has made the most enduring technology products of my life. I was always partial to the Macintosh from the very beginning over all other computer choices. Of course, I spent plenty of time in the Microsoft/PC world but was more than happy to return to the Mac lineup when the opportunity came. Add to that personal experience, in a world that venerates corporate CEOs it is difficult not to find the late Steve Jobs a fairly compelling figure. In this piece, Jobs is more a shadow of the past as this focuses much more clearly in the company’s present. I am slowly parsing through the rest of the sections.

The Market Fails Education – Radical Eyes for Equity – PL Thomas (8-minute read)

I am a regular reader of PL Thomas’ blog and have cited a number of posts from it in this newsletter. He is an exceptionally good writer and a keen observer and critic within the field of education. His focus on equity within education and observations about it are excellent. He is a bright light in a constellation of strong voices. In this piece, he uses a specific example of an outside professional development vendor as evidence why, as the title suggests, the market fails education.

He makes a case that is both short and strong, exposing that the market approach begat the very parasite that he highlights. Yet, he goes further and exposing the fault lines that make the whole endeavor even more vulnerable. The example, a less than credible source with solutions for dealing with students in poverty afforded an opportunity to not only grow and profit from the very schools and districts that are battling poverty is one of the grand ironies that our current system fosters. the problems are systemic, as Thomas explains.

His counterpoint, using the highway system as an example of a positive symbiotic relationship are exactly the kind of projects that are dismissed or ignored by policymakers seemingly intent on blaming victims of systems that have at best yielded unintended consequences to keep oppressed people down and at worst been designed ensure they stay there. The majority of my life an insidious message that anything publicly funded means “inefficient, corrupt, and/or failing” has only lead to the greatest inequality in over a century. Thomas’ final sentence says it all, “The U.S. needs and deserves a robust and autonomous public education system free of bureaucracy and outside the market that invariably fails education and our students.”

Education Evolutions #119

Close up of smartphone in hand flickr photo by shared under
a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

The new year for a high school teacher always means the sprint to the end of the first semester has begun. This week marks the final week of classes for me and many others with exams looming in the near future. Consequently, that means a lot of grades will need to be reported. So I offer support and solidarity to all the teacher readers of this as they make their way through the mountain of material to wrap the end of term.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is a toss-up between the first and last one. The last one usually gets that honor but anyone unfamiliar with what goes on regarding state demands and textbook production should give the first one a look too. The final selection focuses on issues related to data which gets a fair amount of attention in this newsletter. It will come as no surprise that part of the point is students are more than data.

I have certainly mentioned Anand Giridharadas and his book Winner’s Take All previously here, including a video of him in issue 113. For anyone that has not read the book or not seen a lot of him in the media, this video RSA Minimate: Winners Take All | Anand Giridharadas (4:54) is a really good 5 minute summary of the ideas he is advancing. The visuals are great and help enhance his points. I wish he would have called the Silicon Valley education scheme he mentions what it really is – little more than a digital indentured servitude.

Here are three+ curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories. – The New York Times – Dana Goldstein (10-minute read)

First, I included this story because it is an under-reported issue in education, but even more, it should be understood that this is not news. This textbook editorial wrangling and shaping has been going on for decades. It is not new nor does it look like it is going away anytime soon. Moreover, Texas and California with some nod to New York have always been the states that play an outsized role in this kind of ad hoc, revisionist historiography because of their market size.

Also, make no mistake, one of the factors in the Common Core movement was a profit motive. Textbook publishers were looking for ways to cut costs by avoiding having to produce the kind of multiple versions the main state markets were demanding. No matter what kind of spin there was about all American students learning the same standards, which might seem like an appealing idea, publishers wanted to pad their profits with one-size-fits-all solutions that are cheaper and more efficient to produce, not to mention all the gravy available from the new testing schemes.

Of course, the real problem is that history is never a single, iron-clad narrative. Someone decides what is included and what is not in any story, real or imagined. This what historians spend their lives exploring, interrogating, and producing multiple histories that reveal a grander narrative. Of course, there can be wild disagreement in assembling history, as we have seen recently (The Fight Over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts). What should be more unsettling about what is included in this article is the degree to which politically appointed boards of non-historians are shaping the narrative available to millions of students who are only beginning to understand that the very discipline of history is a contentious one, especially considering the different versions are not only sold in the states that shape them alone. Again, multiple versions are expensive to produce.

Why Are Grades Important? Some Teachers Say They Do More Harm Than Good – Teen Vogue – Zach Schermele (6-minute read)

It is not every day the publication Teen Vogue makes an appearance in this newsletter. In fact, they have been having some journalistic growing pains of late. Still, this was an unexpected and well-sourced piece written in a magazine whose target audience includes secondary students. The breadth of the sources Scermele uses is deep and wide, including practitioners and experts in the education field and mostly avoids a lot of the traps many mainstream education articles find themselves.

First, it is an interesting choice to use an AP teacher as the hook for a going gradeless story. The College Board and Advanced Placement program certainly contributes to a competitive academic culture. So to see an anecdotal lede that demonstrates that the teacher’s experience going gradeless has had no impact on the AP test scores helps strengthen the reporting that aims at revealing more about this alternative approach to grades at the K12 level. Add more classroom teachers to the mix and the story deepens.

Then, adding higher education academics and experts to the story helps add some weight and validity to the topic. Plus, any article that asks Alfie Kohn for comment probably will get my attention. Yet, his research and work is not the only one that the reporter taps. There are other quality sources with links that make this pretty strong piece of reporting on the subject for anyone unfamiliar or new to the topic and looking for some good places to investigate more. I will admit that I was a bit disappointed to see the ever-present John Hattie mentioned, given that he remains the current soup de jour of the education world, despite his meta-analyses being more suspect than is often acknowledged. Still, this article is a great primer for the whole idea for a K12 teacher interested in learning more about going gradeless.

A Teacher’s New Year’s Resolution: Stop Fixating on the Data – The Chronicle of Higher Education – David Gooblar (6-minute read)

While this piece may be in a publication for higher education, there is plenty to consider at the secondary level too. For one, anyone that has not read John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities yet, I cannot recommend that book highly enough. It is not just for English teachers by any stretch. Another reason that bears directly on secondary education is the fixation on data, what can be easily measured versus what cannot, and what implications are communicated to students as a result.

I recently had a couple of conversations with different colleagues about the challenges presented with data availability, use, and challenges. The common thread in both involved how any kind of data might be used and what do we even believe it is telling us, which for me is definitely never above interrogation. Also, one fo the great things about the conversations was a baseline understanding that no one metric was particularly useful, something that is not always a given. Yet, as those conversations marinated in my mind, I keep essentially returning to the eye test, what do my direct observations reveal. Any data that I might consider when assessing a student usually must be coupled with my eye test.

As an educator, I am constantly looking for ways that I can afford students and teachers for that matter choices. It has been one of the steadfast principles of my teaching career. What I like most about what Gooblar writes is how he addresses the challenge of understanding how much help to provide and how much to let them struggle. Chasing the answer to that question in a perpetually changing context for each individual is one the enduring and most satisfying endeavors of the whole enterprise of teaching, at least for me. That has a lot less to do with cold, collected data, although it can at times help inform, and a whole lot more to do with connecting to warm real human beings. It also has a lot to do with my thoughts on grades too, which may be just another data point.