Career Day at Norris Middle

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Brian K. Sohn, Ph.D., Knoxville, TN.

I went to the beautiful Norris Middle School a couple weeks ago in what seemed to be a kind of sitcom setup: the guy on the academic job market speaking at a career day. That is, I’m, um, technically, unemployed. I didn’t know exactly what I should tell them…when you get a PhD these days you’ll likely be on the job market for 2-5 years? What I did tell them was that I just wrote a 7000-word article, it was published in a relatively well-esteemed journal, and, well, I didn’t get paid for it. They were impressed I wrote such a long paper. But I wasn’t really selling academia to middle schoolers.

Since I figured it would be hard to convince any of them to follow in my footsteps, I started with our common experience—I had helped out on a field trip they took to go rock climbing at the Obed. Some of them loved climbing, others thought it pointless. Climbing is a challenge if you care to do it, I told them, if it’s on your radar. I asked them to think of the challenges they enjoy—I got a few volunteers to tell me theirs: video games, guitar, sports, writing stories. I told them to pay careful attention to the who what when where why and how of those fun, driving challenges. It says something important about you.

I told them my story and talked of my driving challenge, the one that’s so important to me that I made a career out of it: teaching. With words, with actions, face to face, through writing. I love to find ways to help students take on challenges that may not have been on their radar. Because the little spark I provide just might turn itself into a passion you have that you didn’t even know existed, and someday may be your career. They seemed to be following me, so I stayed serious.

But it wasn’t some random teaching anywhere I wanted to do. I was sitting in traffic in Marin County and I got the call. GO HOME. I didn’t catch the next plane or anything, but I did not ignore the importance of where I wanted to teach, which was Appalachia. I told the students to harness their passions to improve their communities.

You may be waylaid, sidetracked, sidelined for a time. But always keep in mind the challenges that are your favorites. They will likely change. I left them with a Myles Horton quote—you must be patiently impatient. Don’t just wait, but don’t expect it to be a one-touch process. You want to start liking school? Find the ways you can make school work for you—how school can help you develop your knowledge, experience, and awareness of your favorite challenges.

They asked a few questions, mainly about the length of time it took in school to become a teacher. A handful of them were fascinated that I had traveled in South America and asked about that. I felt pretty good about how it went. And luckily none of them asked how much money I was making!

 

A Second-Year Teacher Still Struggling to Find Place

Izaak Standridge, Knoxville, TN

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Children admiring the view from Sharp’s Ridge

Early on in my M.A.T. program I became excited by the idea of Place-Based Learning. The excitement grew after reading “Out of the Classroom and into the World” by Salvatore Vascellaro. I began to see, with my minds eye, a learning experience for my future elementary students that would allow us to go on walking field trips throughout the neighborhood and get to know individuals and their trades in a similar way that Vascellaro and his students did. I’m in my second year as a first grade teacher at Christenberry Elementary School and that dream has yet to become a reality.

Place Based Learning is encouraged through Common Core State Standards by way of making real world connections with our students (I debated using the word “with” or “for” in the last sentence and felt like “with” was more accurate). After my student teaching at Christenberry, an urban school, I was brought on as a first grade teacher for that following semester there. I began to feel the same excitement that I had when I learned about Place-Based Learning; but so did the reality that I did not know this new place, I did not know this neighborhood, I did not know these students. As a result, learning “with” my students has become my biggest connection to the neighborhood. The partnership developed behind my students and I has caused me to spend many afternoons walking around the neighborhood in search of opportunities to learn.

These walks have allowed me to speculate about these learning opportunities and a few possibilities have come to mind. First, a few blocks from the school lies a city designated birding park, Sharp’s Ridge, that includes a breathtaking overlook view of the city. The birding park also has nature trails and pavilions that would be perfect for outdoor lessons. Second, at the base of the birding park is a trail designated for mountain biking – this prospect is especially exciting due to a recently developed non-profit in town, Kickstand, that seeks to get bicycles in the hands of students living in poverty. The bicycle non-profit also seeks to partner with students to teach general bicycle maintenance and repairs. One walk around the neighborhood planted these seeds and my hope is that possible ornithologists, engineers, athletes, and city planers find their start by learning in place.

Betsy DeVos and Learning in Place

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Brian K. Sohn, Ph.D., Knoxville, TN.

I was among the many who called Senators urging them to vote against the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. I don’t have voluminous knowledge of who she is—I read a few articles about her and her policy advocacy in Michigan. But with my extensive experience in schools and studying education, it is not hard to see that DeVos is both unqualified and a threat to public schools at all levels.

As I understand her work in Michigan, she threw her vast wealth into lobbying for the least restrictive charter schools policy in the country. The result: Michigan is known to have the worst charter schools in the country—a story on NPR about a charter school for aspiring airplane pilots in Grand Rapids also discussed the typical results of “family choice” style policies like those DeVos champions: greater inequity, significantly lower test scores.

I do not see test scores as a gold standard for measuring school success. But when people of a mind like DeVos are allowed to shape policy, their goal is more schools like the aviation school—even if it means the common wealth of public schools is degraded as a result. There is no interest in maximizing the good for the highest number of citizens. The perspective is shaped by antiquated notions of social Darwinism: those that want to be pilots deserve more than those who may or may not know what they want yet, or may or may not have access to the resources required to attempt to attend an aviation charter school. The good of those students who can attend the few amazing charter schools is elevated above the rest of the population, whose test scores may dip by double-digit percentiles.

I oppose school choice and privatization policies in part because they elevate the notion of tax-payer over that of citizen. They encourage people to change schools, often leaving an under-utilized building with history, ties to a community, and perhaps in need of commitment from its constituents. They severe community members from their places. They factionalize. Research shows that the competitiveness they inspire does nothing to increase innovation or achievement.

What we will need in the time of DeVos is greater emphasis on a kind of social institution approach. Parents and community members must work to better their schools in whatever capacity is their strength. If a public school is a deficient institution, the public must work to better it. In the same way we protect the environment by repairing, rather than throwing away a jacket, so we protect communities and the ties between education and place when we work to improve public schools.

Learning by Doing

By Mary Morse, Ph.D.

When you think back to what you remember learning in any formal education setting, I am betting you remember things like field trips, interactive projects, or lessons on topics related to your personal interests. We need something to attach or relate new knowledge to in order to remember it. We need to be able to use this knowledge and to apply it to something that is meaningful to us. When we are learning through an activity that engages us, it allows us to apply the knowledge, and to test it and maybe even create new knowledge through experimentation. Examples of this type of learning can be seen in the use of online resources for self-directed learning and in business learning models.

My son has been teaching himself to do flips and other Freerunning moves by watching YouTube videos and following blogs. His progress has been amazing. He reads to find a trick he wants to learn, watches videos, and then goes outside and practices. When he encounters a problem, he goes back and reads, asks questions, and re-watches videos. Then more practice. He also verbally explains to me what he is doing and what he needs to work on. This process is textbook learning theory in action!

Mary’s son in action.

An important goal for many business training workshops is to get participants to use the concepts that they learn, in their own workplace, within 24 hours. Experience has shown that if new skills are not used in the workplace within 24 hours, they will most likely not be implemented at all. In the training industry, the 10/20/70 model is commonly used as a guideline for employee training: 10% of an employee’s job skills are obtained from formal learning from workshops and formal training sessions, 20% is obtained from informal coaching and interactions with others, and 70% is obtained from on the job experience. I wonder how effective this strategy would be in the classroom.

In a perfect world, all learning would take place in the setting where it is used. In the classroom, often the best we can do is answer the “So what? Why do I need to learn this?” with lessons that provide interaction, stimulate emotional attachment, and create interest. Techniques to accomplish this include discussing concepts in relation to our community and allowing students to approach a project through the lens of their own interests. Involving community members in classroom activities and using local community resources can help students attach meaning to new knowledge. Using online resources supports students in pursuing their personal interests as they work on classroom projects and assignments. These techniques allow students to see value and application in what they are learning.

Mary is a speaker, consultant, and writer with a focus on gifted education and on the importance of parental and community involvement in the education of our children. She homeschools her son and teaches with and helps coordinate her local homeschool teaching cooperative program.

Food is an Anchor

by Laura Sohn, Knoxville, TN.

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If you learn from community, what happens when you need to build community? What happens when despite a supportive network within your community, you want to expand it and also contribute to the community that has supported your endeavors? Recently I was struggling with these questions. While I am not an educator, I am from a family of educators and have always gravitated towards teaching as a way to share my passions.

What I am is an event creator and planner, so the easiest way I know how to start building community is to sit down at a table and break bread. I’ve been doing it my entire adult life. People learn from each other during supper. People find commonalities while passing a plate of roast vegetables. Bridges can be built over a tray of banana pudding.

So for 4 weeks in January I am teaching a version of a home economics class to a group of residents at the YWCA. The housing set up is transitional and the ladies are there for various reasons, mostly domestic violence. They can live there for up to 2 years and are required to have a job.

I am writing this as I am in the middle of the 4 classes. The classes explore how to get a meal on the table, from weekly meal planning, to making a grocery list, to shopping, to preparing the meal. We are using different menus each week; each menu is driven from the class participants. For example, during our first class they asked what I would do for a Super Bowl party menu because they are trying to plan one. So the second class was a healthy, budget-friendly Super Bowl menu.

Each class builds on the last and my lesson plans are altered at the end of each class based on our discussions. As I ask questions, information is shared among participants. For example, one lady let another know she could use her food stamps at the farmers’ market and the market would match every dollar she spends.

During the last class we will get a meal on the table together. I will also hand out a graduation kit containing class notes, recipes, and a food stamp cookbook that they can use. From the first class it was clear this was a group of participants motivated to build more community among residents. They want to start a monthly supper club, they talked about having a plot at a community garden, and more. When we spoke about the community garden option, one of the ladies started crying because gardening has been such an important part of her life and as she transitions out of the situation that resulted in her living at the YWCA she has missed gardening.

Food is an anchor. Food is community. Food builds fellowship. After the first 15 minutes of the first class, I knew I made the right move to expand my community and to work with these ladies to be able to take some steps towards creating their own anchors in what is hopefully a move towards a stable and healthier living situation.

You can find Laura’s website here. Disclosure, she is the editor’s sister.

Humans Need not Apply…to Teach?!

Brian K. Sohn, Ph.D., Knoxville, TN.

In “Humans Need not Apply,” a narrative of the future is presented in which robots will replace at least 25% of existing jobs. Teachers are among them.

The attempts to replace teachers with robots began with computer based instruction (CBI) and scripted curriculum and continues in the guise of “self-organized learning environments” (SOLE). While SOLE offers great potential for people investigating their own places and problems, those formerly enamored with Sugata Mitra and his research (myself included) should know that the “hole in the wall” computers became dominated by adolescent boys playing video games.

If a teacher’s only job was to deliver content, robots may suffice. But content delivery, at every level of education, is given meaning by the relationship between the teacher and the learner. As Nel Noddings says, “subject matter cannot carry itself. Relation…precedes any engagement with subject matter” (p. 36).

Even though people love their smart phones, relationships with devices preclude a place-contextualized series of emotional connections that, for example, a field trip may evoke. As the screen draws the eye, the background upon which the screen appears becomes peripheral. The location of contact, with a mobile device particularly, does not matter.

As we see the failures of virtual academies in Tennessee and elsewhere, let us hope that a trend towards robot “teachers” gains no steam.

 

A Theory of Busy Work

Brian K. Sohn, Knoxville, TN.

I currently work as an instructor for a class in Applied Educational Psychology. It is required for future teachers. Pre-service teachers are uniquely positioned in between being students and being teachers, so they are, in my opinion, most qualified to develop a theory on busy work.

I asked my classes to comment on what characteristics busy work or non-busy work has. We looked at their comments together and pulled out a few ideas and themes, and with subsequent classes I teach, I will encourage the students to build on this current Theory of Busy Work:

Value is a big part of busy work theory: who places value on the work (student or teacher?) How do they show that value? (quality of work, teacher feedback, time given, how many points it’s worth, teacher preparation for the activity or assignment)

Does the work further learning? Is it excessive practice?

Is there a balance between the time spent out of class vs time given in class?

Is there a balance between the time spent working and how much value is placed on it?: for some students if something is easy they will think it’s busy work.

How is the work connected to the other work you’re doing in the class?

Do students perceive the work as redundant?

As teachers we must reveal the intent behind work.

Pre-service teachers are also an ideal audience to learn the lessons of busy work theory: How can they motivate their future students if they give what is perceived to be busy work? As with most of the blog entries I write, I often come back to the same solution. This is a question of motivation, in essence, and if work is real, authentic, and connected to place, students will see it has value beyond the four walls of the classroom.

This is a work in progress, and I hope to add to this theory in the next year. I welcome suggestions.

The Global Pandemic of Education Reform: Bad Science, Bad Business

Education reform efforts are underway around the world.  To borrow from Ken Robinson, nations are trying their best to adapt education to the changing economy while maintaining some kind of cultural identity.  [How much they’re working on the identity stuff I’m not sure.]  Two main influences are driving the way reform is done: science and business.

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The science most closely associated with education these days revolves around the results of standardized test scores.  Whether they be the TCAPs and EOCs in Tennessee, CATS tests in Kentucky, or the PISA and TIMMS tests worldwide, test results are used to “scientifically” measure school success and compare within and among schools, states, and nations. The results are seen by many as valid indicators of achievement and failure, but there are innumerable problems with this system.

In most science, experimenters go to great lengths to reduce their influence on the phenomena they observe or measure.  To see whether or not a certain habitat restoration project was successful, it would be unethical to lure animals back to the area in question with mating calls or temporary stocks of food.  Scientists would work hard to be minimally invasive in their observations, perhaps going so far as to install hidden cameras or at least use camouflage.

But in schools the supposed measuring technique, the test, is not only invasive, it has become the target.  States use carrots and sticks to get schools and teachers to focus like lasers on the tests. Students are tested over and over, year after year. As Bob Lingard says in this article, what we have now is a situation where we are trying to fatten a pig by weighing it.

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With the rise in profile of economics, business and finance practices now have an influence on just about everything. Somehow policy-makers have been convinced that the people making the most money know how to run everything, including schools and hospitals. In education, the idea that putting money into schooling provides an economic return is nothing new, but the extent to which education is borrowing business practices now in an effort to “maximize returns for taxpayers” is extreme.  Students and parents are seen as clients or stakeholders rather than citizens. Parents are encouraged to be smart “consumers” of education for their children and are given school choice through vouchers or parent trigger laws. These reforms are intended to breed competition among schools to improve. Student achievement on standardized tests is the measure for how successful schools are rather than how the schools contribute to solving community problems.

Many reforms desire to increase innovation in schools.  What does innovation require?  In this video, Dan Pink describes a company that gives employees one day a quarter to work on whatever they want.  This day leads to the most innovation due to a combination of freedom and purpose.  In education reform, schools that do poorly on tests are punished.  This clear lack of freedom discourages innovation and encourages a more narrow range of teaching techniques, and of course teaching to the test.

In this article, Valli describes the increase in teacher workload due to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  In business terms, NCLB represented a culture change within education. The new set of expectations for teachers amounts to what, in a normal business, would warrant retraining, extra professional development, and company support. Teachers got no such extra training and were judged on the results of school test scores within 2 years of the implemented changes.  A good business would also pay workers more if they expected such a huge increase in worker productivity.  During the time of NCLB, many states have frozen their budgets and teacher raises did not keep pace with inflation.  In effect, they were asked to work a lot harder for less pay.

Another business-minded reform is related to the curriculum.  Common Core is a national curriculum designed with the intent to prepare students to participate in the global economy. But participate how?  Fundamental business principles could easily dissuade a school district from implementing a national or global curriculum: workers get jobs through individuation and unique skills, not standardization.  If everyone has the same education, where do students get a comparative advantage over their competition for a job?

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Our society’s reliance on economic rationalization, the combination of science and business reforms, is a crutch that has led to greater stratification of our society and a fracturing of communities.  Many students are unprepared for the workforce and unattached to their homes.  Education has been hurt greatly by standardization and psuedo-science.

Many times people complain about complaining.  I don’t like the current system, but I don’t offer any alternatives, they might say.  But alternatives already exist.  There are exemplary schools and programs around the country, and in this blog I sometimes highlight them.  Not every business or science-related reform is all bad, but when they eliminate good programs, we need to fight to stop them. There are groups fighting, and only with lots of work can we build a movement strong enough to counter the technocrats running things now.

MOOC takeover

There sure is a lot of press on MOOCs lately.  That’ll happen when your nonprofit MOOC company gets 60 million bucks from MIT and Harvard or your user numbers are growing faster than Facebook’s.

MOOCs (massive, open, online courses) are just like normal online courses.  But they can have a 100,000 students or more.  While most of the MOOCs are offering certificates upon course completion, some institutions are beginning to offer credit.

One key question is this: for how long will MOOCs stay “open”?  Monetization of the “product” could occur through advertisements, but if you have an international group of consumers that gain even nominal loyalty to your institution through a MOOC, it will be tempting to cash in.

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While generally online courses fail to help students gain the social capital necessary for prestigious employment, in the developing world, MOOCs may offer an alternative to the traditional lines of education created and enforced by the likes of the World Bank.  If MOOCs remain free, citizens of developing countries may be able to rely on them for professional and economic development free from the World Bank’s draconian enforcement of outdated pedagogy.

On the other hand, online courses embody a student-as-consumer mindset, and rarely do anything to connect the learner more closely to their home.  Some professors are managing to help all kinds of learners learn online, but the context of a community of learners is hard to reproduce.  Being around people doing what you are doing is a powerful learning tool.  Look at medical residencies for an example.

I have never taken a MOOC, so it’s hard to be very judgmental.  What techniques do the professors use? Are they like super-professors, capable of teaching 100,000 students at a time?  Do they use small groups?  And what would constitute a small group in a class so large?  100 groups of 1000?

Alternatives Worth a Fight

Check out what’s going on in Seattle in this news piece.

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There are stories from around the country of school protests related to high-stakes standardized tests.

Often we get stuck in a line of thinking that we can’t get out of. We put our blinders on and forget we have choice. It is an uphill struggle.  It does take a fight. It does take bravery. It involves great personal and financial risk. But these stories will hopefully inspire you to resist in creative ways.