Monday, June 11, 2012

Education Reform: Hold On To What Works

I keep thinking about Socrates, there on the streets of Athens, asking questions.  No PowerPoints, no laptops, no iPads, just a man in a toga who hated one-word answers.  He didn’t even have a chalkboard.

Why is educational reform tied to technology?  Technology is a tool, and certainly can enhance teaching, but increasingly, it has become the means and the end to everything.  Jobs depend on how often technology is used.  I know of a principal who insists her teachers use blogs, and demands they force their students to comment on those blogs.  The teachers must turn in a list of blogs they follow.  They must contribute videos and pictures to the school website.  They must maintain class pages, updated at least once a day, if not more often.  Textbooks are passé.  Everything that can be known is available on the internet, so who needs a book, right?  Of course, when the technology goes down, as it does so often, the teacher must be quick enough on her feet to pull a lesson out of the air.  And with all this commenting and following and updating, who has time to correct papers or plan interesting and involving lessons?

When did textbooks become the enemy?  When did we give up depth for superficiality?  Forcing someone to blog or comment does not mean he or she has something meaningful to say.  Students fulfill an assignment by typing words, but is this really insightful and enlightening, or is it the 21st century version of busy work?

At the college where I work, every classroom is fully equipped with technology.  The computer is embedded in the lectern, ready to project the lesson on the screen and guide the class through the difficult ideas.  I like this, and I come to class prepared with my flash drive, yet I have had numerous occasions where the technology failed to work properly.  It is not a good feeling to be left standing in front of an eager class without the bells and whistles.  Those are the nightmares of a teacher.

When the technology has worked, I find that students tune out and simply copy what is on the slides, failing to listen to elaborations or discussions.  When I asked why this is, they were happy to tell me.  Too many teachers simply put up a slide and read it to them.  Many wondered why the teacher could not just post the PowerPoint slides online and skip the class meeting altogether.

Education reform does not mean throwing away the past.  I am tired of the charges of “stale teaching” and “dinosaur behavior” hurled at teachers simply because they prefer to keep it “old school.”  There is something to be said for “old school.”  Kids were better educated under the “old school.”  Feel free to disagree, but I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I’ve seen the results.  And I am a walking testimonial to the success of “old school” methodologies.  Just because a method has been used for decades does not make it faulty.  Just because we ask kids a question does not make us fossils.  A question forces them to verbalize ideas in a coherent, concise, ordered manner.  I am shocked and appalled at how inarticulate students are today.

I often conduct a little experiment in my classroom:  I ask for directions to a nearby landmark.  The first response I get is “MapQuest it.”  When I point out the obvious fact that the students know how to get there, I get an incoherent, jumbled, mumbled “turn here” or “go there.”  They cannot tell me streets.  They cannot tell me directions.  They cannot tell me what neighborhood it is in.  When I push, the student turns red, becomes embarrassed, and repeats the mantra:  “MapQuest it.”  We are producing a generation of people who cannot speak or communicate a thought, but for whom short, highly codified, simplistic nonsense tapped into a miniature keyboard is a top skill.

I don’t want to give up what has worked before.  I believe in thinking and questioning and writing on real paper in real time.  Technology has its place, and definitely has merit as a tool for teaching, but it is not the end all.  We must keep a perspective:  technology is one more tool to reach students and get them involved in active learning.  We still need textbooks, even if they are open source textbooks, or are available online.  There are some excellent books available with additional material online, such as videos, pictures, and interactive maps.  We can update our classrooms and methodologies without throwing out everything we have ever learned from educating kids.

Socrates had the simplest of methodologies:  ask a question.  He knew the secret to good teaching was student involvement in learning.  The fire can be lit in a student’s mind not only with touch screens and smash cut video snippets.  Sometimes, a question will do the job just as well.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Lost Narrative of Mitt Romney

The New York Times recently ran an essay by Frank Bruni that made some excellent points.  This presidential race is shaping up to be one devoid of a story, and story is how we live.  Human beings need a compelling narrative.  Barack Obama had one in 2008, the first black man to run for president, the man for change, the man for hope.  He wasn’t totally convincing.  I’m not sure when the book gets written or the movie made, if the audience will find his story a bit trite, or contrived.  He made the attempt to fashion a narrative, and it worked.  He got elected.

Bruni writes:  “If you have any kind of heart, you’re struck by it:  the photograph of Barack Obama bent down so that a young black boy can touch his head and see if the president’s hair is indeed like his own.”  Yes, a nice, photogenic moment that tells a story.  “And that gives many voters an emotional connection to him that they simply don’t have to most other politicians, including Romney, a privileged and intensely private man whose strengths don’t include the easy ability to humanize himself,” says Bruni.

Mitt Romney doesn’t have a story to tell, and that is why he won’t win in November.  Politics might be about many different things, but it is most certainly about the narrative.  He who tells the most convincing story, wins.  Bill Clinton had a Dickensian, rags-to-riches story:  raised by a single parent in a poor Arkansas backwater to become a Rhodes scholar and meet John F. Kennedy.  George W. Bush had a good one:  an alcoholic who finds Jesus and turns his life around to become president.  Ronald Reagan spent his whole life crafting stories first as an actor and then as president, the ultimate heroic figure, although much credit goes to his writers.  George H.W. Bush didn’t have a story, and got elected on Reagan’s coat tails, only lasting a term.  Jimmy Carter lost his narrative thread during his single term, and he failed to bring off the heroic rescue in Iran.  Americans are not cool with heroes who fail.

Bruni finds Romney to be an enigma:  “he hasn’t succeeded in rummaging through his biography for the sorts of broadly inspirational chapters that can help a candidate bond with voters.”  He was a school bully and jokester, the eternal frat boy who never grew up.  Now he is a middle-aged vanilla wafer who cannot seem to muster a strong story about anything, except amassing a fortune and paying far less taxes than nearly everyone else in America.  He is famous for being a Massachusetts governor, where he was, evidently, a completely different human being who just so happened to have the same name as the presidential candidate.  Oh, and he did organize the Salt Lake City Olympics.  With that story, he should be a shoo-in for president, right?  And whenever he opens his mouth, he crashes the story.  He is so prone to verbal flubs that he should never be trusted with any narrative thread, including giving directions or explaining recipes.  His greatest hits sound bites are entertainment for us, and fuel for the debates in the Obama camp.

Obama, however, has his own narrative shortfalls.  He can’t seem to tell the right story.  His staff does not “invoke his rational identity all that frequently,” says Bruni.  I feel that despite all the hoopla that greets his State of the Union speeches and other public orations, he is not an especially compelling speaker, nor a particular empathetic figure.  Clinton was so much better at kissing the babies and hugging the storm victims.  President Obama, quite often, looks as if he wishes he were anywhere else but here.  The cool swagger does not seem genuine.  The singing feels forced.

I wonder if a great man or woman could become president today.  More and more, our politicians operate on another plane of existence while most of us toil day in and day out, worried sick about the future.  When watching the news, I can’t shake the profound feeling that a point is being missed.  While our elected figures bog down in party politics and minutiae, the rest of us are scraping by out here.  In short, the most compelling stories are not found in government, but in our lives.  There you find true heroism.  There is the epic struggle.  There is inspiration, and a story that must be told.

When the book is written on these first decades of the 21st century, I believe the most compelling stories will be found in urban neighborhoods blighted by crime and violence.  There will be achievement in, or in spite of, our failing schools.  If we ever have another American century, I am afraid Mitt Romney, without a convincing narrative, will be lost to history.  Barack Obama will be noted as the first black president.  But the heroes will be teachers, visionaries, artists, and the people who tried to stand under enormous and crushing weight, who waged war against the collapsing economy, and who in the end, rebuilt this society from the ground up.  Until then, we must tell our own stories and be our own heroes.