Erring on the Side of Student Smarts

When asked what was most memorable about high school, my first year university students talk about play performances; athletic competitions; service club activites; and jazz band, choir, or orchestra concerts and trips. Their coursework is forgettable, too often even mind numbing. Why?

In part, because they’re rarely asked difficult open-ended questions upon which reasonable people in the “real world” disagree. Too few adults respect students’ intelligence. Also, we lazily and artificially carve up the subject matter into smaller pieces called math, science, language arts, social studies, foreign language, and art—and thereby fail to frame lessons, units, and courses around especially challenging questions.

I’m in the earliest stages of a new project—curriculum writing for a team of explorers who hope to engage large numbers of students in different parts of the world through their expedition to the South Pole in eleven months.

My plan is to err on the side of student smarts and engage middle and high school students through a series of challenging case studies that rest on open-ended questions upon which reasonable people disagree. If successful, the cases will help teachers help students not just learn factual information about fresh water flashpoints around the world, but also to listen, read, and write with greater purpose; think conceptually; and develop perspective taking, teamwork, and conflict resolution skills.

I’m just getting started. Last week I finished an excellent book about the Columbia River that I highly recommend, A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia (second edition). The author, Blaine Harden, is an excellent story teller. It’s required reading if you live in the Pacific Northwest. The primary question raised by Harden is what’s the best way to operate the world’s largest hydroelectric system? Harden’s story centers on a confounding mix of economic interests, biological imperatives, and environmental values.

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Most of the players in the drama defend the numerous dams that have turned the Columbia into a “machine river”—electric utility providers; irrigators and farmers; tow barge operators; boaters, windsurfers, and waterskiers; Google, Amazon, and Microsoft with their newish server farms; and elected officials and lobbyists who look out for the interests of utilities, irrigators, the internet goliaths, and other river users. The “other side” consists of Indians whose economic, nutritional, and spiritual lives were built around salmon, and fish biologists and Western Washington environmentalists who advocate for environmental restitution.

Students will research, debate, and decide among three possible outcomes:

  1. In the interest of maximum economic growth and inexpensive electricity, maintain the status quo of the “machine river”.
  2. In the interest of compromise and moderate economic growth, allow more water to flow over the dams thereby slightly reducing the total electricity available while simultaneously increasing the number of salmon in the river.
  3. In the interest of environmental restitution, the return of historic salmon runs, and revitalized Indian life, remove the dams and allow the river to return to it’s natural state.

Teachers will assess the relative thoroughness and thoughtfulness of each team’s proposed outcome. More specifically, they’ll be deciding which is most persuasive and why. Interestingly, this “Machine River” case study has real urgency because a federal court in Portland has given the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration until January 1, 2014 to submit a plan on how best to proceed. Many people whose livelihood’s will be dramatically effected by the outcome are anxiously awaiting the Court’s plan.

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Even more challenging than evaluating the costs and benefits of the different possible outcomes, is extrapolating “lessons learned” from the Columbia to other river systems in other parts of the world. For example, Vietnam is upset that Laos is planning to dam the Mekong River. Here’s a question upon which I’ll base an “extension” or “enrichment” activity: Based on Columbia River “lessons learned”, how would you advise Laotians and Vietnamese officials to proceed on the Mekong River? Why?

Even more challenging than applying Columbia lessons to the Mekong is developing a set of principles for 21st Century development more generally. How can local communities, sovereign nations, and international groups maintain healthy economies without compromising natural environments? Or more simply, how do we build vibrant, sustainable communities?

I have more questions than answers. Which is the single best formula for revitalizing schooling.

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The Parent-Teacher Resolution

In many neighborhoods, the time of the year is fast approaching when parents completely freak over their children’s teacher assignments. Particularly Elementary Parent. At our local elementary school, parents, mostly moms, with cell phones ablaze, stampede toward the class lists taped to the front doors. It’s understandable because a good teacher can make a significant positive difference in one year just as a weak one can prove detrimental.

An educational truism—the quality of every teaching faculty at every school in todo el mundo is always uneven. Word that explicitly enough? Every faculty is a mix of really outstanding, good, and weak teachers. The best schools have more of the former and fewer of the later. And yes, I’m either experienced or arrogant (or both) enough to subdivide the teachers at your school after one site visit without (gasp) access to the students’ standardized test scores.

The inevitable unevenness creates a challenge for administrators who have to deal with parents who naturally want the very best teachers for their children. Consequently, they usually tell parents they can’t pick their children’s teachers. Those who get assigned their least favorite choice complain that the other parents manipulated the outcome by volunteering more, bribing or befriending the principal in some way, or both.

Before rushing the school door this year, take a deep breath and consider a couple of things. First, teachers’ reputations, typically based upon a flawed version of telephone tag, are often inaccurate. Consequently, the teacher who you’ve “heard” is a weak disciplinarian, may turn out to connect with your child in ways the “outstanding disciplinarian” never would have. Similarly, that rare male second grade teacher that everyone praises for being in total control may be so in control that students’ creativity is completely squelched. Often a disappointing assignment turns out more positively than expected.

Second, research suggests what we know intuitively, students are resilient. Case in point. I had lots of weak teachers and now I’m a famous blogger. Research indicates that students assigned to weak teachers two or three years in a row, not one, are at greater risk of falling behind their peers.

At this point Conscientious Parent is thinking, what the hell, I don’t care about the research. When it comes to my child’s future, why should I ever settle for a weak teacher? Because of the law of averages. When you roll the dice six times between Kindergarden and fifth grade, odds are you’re going to end up with teachers in all three categories.

At this point, I’d understand if you’re thinking, “Hey, you’re in teacher education. Why don’t you fix it so that every teacher is, like the Lake Wobegon children, above average.” Sadly, and long story short, I have concluded there are intractable problems in teacher education that are unlikely to be fixed in my lifetime.

While working to making the profession more desirable and to improve teacher education, parents should all make the following resolution: I am my child’s first most important teacher. Or in the case of a two-adult home: We are our child’s first most important teachers.

Set your cell phone down, slowly step back from the class list on the school door, and repeat: I am my child’s first most important teacher.

Too few parents fully grasp that. Simply put, they delegate too damn much.

This is what the homeschoolers don’t seem to understand. Students are in school 22% of the time they’re awake throughout the calendar year. You are in charge of the other 78%. Do teachers (and everyone in society) a favor and take the lead. To what degree do you partner with your children’s teachers? Do you make sure they get enough sleep, nutritious food, exercise? Do you limit their screen time? Do you know what they do on-line? Do you model a literate life? For instance, do you read or watch television more? Do you teach them fractions while baking in the kitchen, teach them about world geography while discussing current events at the dinner table, teach them how to apply math through word problems in the car? Are you a stable, committed, affectionate presence who models conflict resolution through peaceful problem solving?

Maybe that’s too many questions of too challenging a nature. Maybe your work is too tiring or you just have “too much on your plate”. Maybe you’d rather just keeping crossing your fingers that you win the teacher lottery.

Home Schooling Is Hip. . .and Selfish

Two recently recommended bloggers with ginormous audiences have written they are going to start home schooling their kids (Penelope Trunk) or wish they had the time to home school their kids (James Altucher).

If public schooling was a stock, everyone would be selling. I get it. Schools adapt to change far too slowly. Most are painfully out of date. Far too often, learning isn’t engaging or relevant enough. But the homeschoolers fail to realize that there has never been a Golden Age of riveting, transformative learning.

T&A (Trunk and Altucher) are the new home schoolers. The traditional home schoolers are religious stalwarts who can’t stomach subjecting their children to multiculturalism, gay rights, evolution, environmental ethics, and the sort.

The new home schoolers believe public schooling will make their largely secular children less curious, less distinctive, less intelligent, less likely to succeed in our 21st Century economy.

The problem though is home schooling is separatism on steriods. A vibrant democracy depends upon children learning to get along with other children different than them.

But who besides Penelope Trunk is more motivated to provide her children an excellent education than Penelope Trunk? I manage my own money because I learned very early on that the guy I paid to do it didn’t care if my assets grew nearly as much as me. No financial planner is as motivated as me. Is there an Adam Smith homeschooling parallel, that if each family pursues it’s best interests, society more generally will benefit in the end?

I suppose, but what percentage of children have a college educated parent or two that have the time and inclination to educate them better than the teachers at their local public school? An infinitesimal one. I want to applaud parents for taking responsibility for educating their own children, but I’m concerned it stems from a deep-seated selfishness. Do the new home schoolers care about other children? About the legions of children who didn’t fare as well as their own in the lottery of life?

There’s zero evidence of social consciousness in T’s and A’s anti-public schooling screeds. They’re not saying we want this society, this economy, and this democracy to thrive. I suspect what they want is for their five or six children to have an upperhand in the inevitable survival of the fittest competition that awaits them.

If people mindlessly congratulate Penelope Trunk and James Altucher for in essence thinking exclusively about their own children’s well-being, and the new home schooling movement grows, the achievement gap will widen, further weakening social relations, our economy, and our democracy.