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Sunday, July 4, 2010

Where It All Begins: Our Educational Headwaters

Columbia headwaters  One of the things I am is a historian. Done the time in the library. Read the original materials. Got the degree. So I tend to take a longer term view of things that people who haven't spent years studying events from hundreds or thousands of years ago do. I also have this tendency to ask annoying questions, like 'where did that come from?' 'when did we start doing that?' 'why did we start doing that?' It bothers me when people don't ask those questions. (Points to whoever tells me who said "A beginning is a very delicate time")
One of the things that also really bothers me (cause I know you were wondering) is when people think they're historians too just because they have the history channel or because they had a history class in college. That's why this kind of crap from the Texas School Board seriously pisses me off no end.  All that is a disclaimer of sorts. I'm no teacher, although I have taught. So I'm kind of going to ignore my own warnings here and just present some ideas on the topic of education.
There are two things that are spurring me on here (three really). The first is that I currently am a paying customer of the U.S. K-12 system (I have a kid in the 5th grade). Why this spurs me on should be obvious. My son is going into the 5th grade next year and I've already seen his curriculum grind to halt to make sure that everyone had time to study for the MSAs. He also sits in a classroom at a desk but more about that in the next paragraph. ;-)
 The second thing is a presentation that Gary Woodill (@gwoodill) from Brandon Hall Research did titled Old-classroom   "The History of Classrooms as Learning Technology" back in August of 2009. I know Gary was nice enough to share those slides with me from that webinar, I don't know if he has them available elsewhere online but they're excellent and I hope he can make them available.
Now books like "Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920" are great at looking at the history of technology (radio, TV, etc) in the classroom but fail to appreciate the classroom itself as a piece of technology, as a tool, as a tool designed to accomplish a purpose. Remember that old joke about the little kid being shown around somewhere like Colonial Williamsburg? Her parents have to explain what everything is, the blacksmith, a loom, etc, until they come to the classroom. There the girl feels right at home...because nothing has changed.
When we look at a hammer, we see pretty clearly what it's purpose is. The beauty of Gary's presentation is that it forces us to look at the classroom as a tool. As a tool designed to accomplish a purpose. Failing to look at the classroom itself as a tool and to consider for what purpose that tool was created is a failing of perspective we can't afford. Why? Because we're starting to do things like create virtual worlds with virtual classrooms in them. Why? Why are teaching adults in classrooms?
Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 
In the forests of the night; 
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 1
We should ask what hand created technology like the classroom. What eye framed its "fearful symmetry" (see picture above for fearful symmetry)? Why? Because the classroom has become such a dominant metaphor not only in K-12 education but in Higher Ed and even in our adult training...even in our virtual worlds. In one sense (please see sign at the top of this post), the classroom represents the headwaters of our experience with education and training. The even deeper tragedy is that its not just the classroom we're blindly propagating...its other ideas which are being seriously challenged like No Child Left Behind and its offspring 'teaching to the test.'
If our sons and daughters are struggling with "No Child Left Behind" then imagine their surprise when they get into the corporate world and find our main operating principle with regard to training could be "No Adult Left Behind." Boy, we have got teaching to the test down to a science don't we? So if classrooms are harbingers because they are where we start our experiences, then look at how some of these systems are doing. You have Bill Gates talking to the National Governors Association in 2005 and saying:
"America’s high schools are obsolete.   By obsolete, I don’t just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed, and under-funded – though a case could be made for every one of those points.   By obsolete, I mean that our high schools – even when they’re working exactly as designed – cannot teach our kids what they need to know today. Training the workforce of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today’s computers on a 50-year-old mainframe. It’s the wrong tool for the times."(1,2)
Ironically enough, one of the most powerful recent voices to critique the current system and the associated reform attempts has been Diane Ravitch in "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education." The Gates Foundation itself isn't spared either. (1) Her message of the failing of testing and of sacred cows like charter schools has been resonant. Her book is in its 7th printing in 3 months. (1,2,3,4) This critique of the current system is that 3rd thing that has been bothering me. I think I also really like Ravitch because she is a historian of educational policy. So what do I want right? I want us and by us I mean the people who frequent ASTD, ISPI, and the  eLearning Guild events, the people who populate #lrnchat, and the people who are charged with using emerging technologies to teach and train..I want us to consider the tools we are propagating. The systems we are perpetuating. The theories and paradigms we use to bolster our plans. These tools, these ideas, these systems, become embedded in our world view since we are indoctrinated in them since childhood. What's the joke about 'who invented water?' 'I don't know but I bet it wasn't fish.' Too true.
We need to critically examine all of this. We need to understand that there is no such thing as a neutral tool. That the creation of every tool is embedded in a cultural context, a milieu of meaning that we must consider when we consider its use. We must learn to not think outside the box but think outside the system. Kill the next button. Kill the idea that no one can fail compliance training but we don't really give a damn if it actually changes behavior or performance by one iota. Kill the idea that taking a course all the way through once and passing produces some sort of meaningful pattern of memory. What would you do if you had a blank slate?
 ....course, that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. (apologies to Dennis Miller)



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