Friday, March 21, 2014

Keep or Toss?

What can reality shows on television and the "real food" movement teach us about the future of education? It may seem like a stretch, but in reading some of the most recent writing out there about radical new teaching techniques, there may be some parallels worth considering.

You've probably seen those reality shows on TV in which a team of energetic people, usually in matching shirts, sweep into someone's house and clean it out. They sort through all of the clutter and then introduce a system of plastic bins and printed labels to reorganize a person's life. In at least a few iterations of these shows, there is always a series of tarps out on the front lawn for sorting objects labeled "keep" and "toss."

It seems to me that the world is immersed in a massive paradigm shift into a data- and computer-driven age and we are constantly re-evaluating how we interact with each other. Similarly, education, parenting and child development seems to be going through a similar shift -- a metaphorical "keep or toss" of traditional techniques. While it is impossible to ignore the differences in the way that today's young people interact with their world and each other, I sometimes wonder if too much of what we know as "good teaching" is going into the "toss" pile in favor of more free-form, inquiry-driven and high-tech practices.

The rapid pace of change in today's youth is particularly evident to me as a relatively young teacher. Sure, it has been commonplace for decades for adults to see huge differences in the way that young people use technology and behave socially, but to see such a dramatic change in less than one generation is a new phenomenon. It seems like the changes between generations are increasing at an exponential pace.

To acknowledge that this is happening is one thing, but should we fully embrace the way that young people are evolving as 100% inevitable and valuable? What is the perfect balance of what to "keep" and what to "toss?" What happens when too much is "tossed?"

There is no question that students are more successful and more likely to understand and retain information that is presented in a connected and creative way and that is relevant and based in student inquiry. This has been the primary push in educational research and teacher instruction for decades. In just my own career, however, of studying and practicing the art of teaching, this concept has broadened to the extent that much of education writing suggests throwing the entire school paradigm out the window in favor of technology-based student-guided projects and research into topics of exclusively their own choosing. An exemplary article describing this type of movement is this one from Wired.

So this leads me back to the keep piles and toss piles. When our culture largely moved past lecture-based teaching with massive class sizes, I was on board. When we tossed out student shaming as a means of discipline, it was for the better. Several aspects of traditional teaching have been put in the "toss" pile over the years and this was a necessary shift, if a slow one at times.

Even in my relatively young perspective, we seem to be standing at the precipice of putting an awful lot of stuff into the "toss" pile. I am worried that we may not value enough the parts of today's teaching that maybe should remain in the "keep."

The adults in my life have exposed me to subjects and ideas that I may never have discovered without them. They have provided insight into life experiences. They have shared their histories with me. I have also learned arts and skills that may be obsolete, but incredibly enjoyable. As I tell my students all the time, even if a skill or a tidbit of knowledge doesn't affect their lives directly, it puts a little wrinkle into their grey matter and makes them a more well-rounded person and a better thinker.

That said, I don't know if I am ready to give all of this adult input up to embrace a completely student-driven paradigm. And there are plenty of educational think tanks and writers out there would have me feel pretty guilty and entitled about making that statement. I may sound like I am overstating the recent push toward student inquiry, but

Lately, I have been reading through Michael Pollan's body of work about food. I have read Cooked and The Omnivore's Dilemma, but his book that really struck a chord with me recently was In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. The primary thread of the argument is that we as a society need to return to the "real food" of our grandparents' generation. Most of society embraced an industrial food model as the way of the future, as modern and empowering. Women were no longer required to spend countless hours in the home preparing foods by traditional means and other technologies, most notably television, became part of meal time experience.

Initially, this was perceived as the wave of the future, the inevitable march toward progress. Now, however, many deeply regret this transition. The American population is heavier than ever and while our expected lifespan is longer, we are suffering and dying from diet-related health conditions more than ever. Pollan quite convincingly argues that the processed versions of food are never as nutritious as the "real food," and we are paying the price in our mental and physical health. In addition, research has shown that the simple act of eating meals together makes for happier families, healthier diets and even lower rates of drug use and suicide in young people. In this case, the tech-driven wave of the future seems to have provided some progress -- like movement toward gender equality and wider food options -- but also has led us astray.

Why bring up this example of food? Today, the biggest movement in the world of culinaria is one that looks backward to an earlier time instead of toward the future. Locally-sourced and seasonal foods, organic agriculture, and "slow food" are the buzzwords of a culture that has found something wrong and downright dangerous in the quick and unquestioning embrace of how new technology changes ancient and essential human activities. As it turns out, cooking food and sharing it with our families at meal time was pretty darn important. Further, the legacy of our prior generations had something to teach us and it turned out to be really valuable.

I am worried that too quick of a jump into the "future of teaching" and fully embracing technology and the "connectedness" of today's socially-networked society might just be a repeat of the TV dinners and fast food of the last generation. Simply put, the needs and operations of the human mind may not evolve as quickly as our technologies do.

In no way am I arguing that technology should not be part of classroom instruction. As a matter of fact, ours is a very high-tech school and we are finding that assistive technologies like text-to-speech software, teacher websites and visual graphic generators are an important part of our instruction and I have blogged about several of them here, here, here and here, among many other posts. Instead, I hope to merely raise the question of how much is too much to "toss."

Students are exposed to new skills, topics and ideas through the expertise and experiences of the adults in their lives. Learning from adults in order to grow into adults is the quintessential part of youth and adolescence throughout all of human history. While it has been valuable to consider student inquiry, embrace young ingenuity and nourish the experience of childhood, it may be taking it too far when we flip the system on its head and only value the insight and motivation of young people. You can call it self-preservation or an inflated sense of purpose, but I do believe that I have something valuable to offer my students in my life of knowledge and experience, and I think most of them would be inclined to agree.

Artifacts from the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Once again, our textbook zips through another historical event that I felt deserved more attention, so we supplemented the text with a film and a project. I wanted my students to understand just how unknown and expansive the western frontier was during the earliest years of the United States. To say that the country was growing at an unparalleled rate is an understatement. During the Jefferson Administration, the country doubled in size with the Louisiana Purchase and the population nearly tripled. In order to explore and document this new territory, Jefferson appointed Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to traverse the terrain.

The fact that Jefferson still sought to find a Northwest Passage shows how little was known of the new territory. To explore the journey further, we watched National Geographic's production of Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West in class. In the film, we know that there were several goals of the expedition, but among them were to build friendly relations with Native Americans while also formally annexing their lands, but also documenting and mapping what they see and collecting artifacts of the people, animals and natural environment. According to this historical blog, many of these artifacts were dispersed and lost over time.

For our project, students used information from the text, the video and their own research to create their own "artifacts" that may have been lost. For example, it is known that Lewis and Clark spent a significant amount of time with the Mandan people of the Plains and brought back a buffalo hide depicting a battle scene. Several groups created buffalo hides depicting other scenes from the expedition using paper grocery bags. Others created journals with tales from the expedition and included leaves and bone fragments of species previously unknown.

I like this project for a few reasons:

  1. The students really enjoy any opportunity to use art and creativity. There are countless benefits to using technology in the classroom, but they really appreciate times when we power down the laptops and create something with just our hands and some art supplies.
  2. Creating these artifacts made students step back and think about how historical narratives like the textbook are created based on artifacts and other primary sources.
  3. Looking at the artifacts also forced students to reflect on the ways that our knowledge of our world was built. Only recently have we been able to map and observe our world with satellites, sonar and similar technologies. For most of human history, our collective knowledge of the world came from on-the-ground human exploration and experience.
For the project, students were allowed to create journals, samples, maps and other types of artifact evidence from the trip. They looked at online catalogs of real artifacts and watched a film that reenacted the journey to collect information, then began creating. 

They made Mandan buffalo hides depicting famous battles and encounters, journals with leaf samples of real species from the west, as well as recreations of antique maps that showed the journey.

I found this project to be relatively flexible as far as timing and ability levels. Some students got really creative and researched more information about what Lewis and Clark actually collected. Others stayed very concrete and created maps or wrote journal entries. It was also fairly simple to adapt the requirements in order to accommodate shorter time periods as needed.