Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The game of predictions -- as it's New Year's Eve

I have always liked to play the game of making predictions on New Year's Eve. Everyone comes up with as many predictions as they like, in whatever category they choose -- whether personal (who'll get married, divorced, have a baby, etc.), work-related (change jobs, get acquired, expand, downsize, etc.), political, global, sports, cultural, etc. All are written down and put in a sealed envelope labeled "PREDICTIONS for 2009" -- and stored in a drawer, ready for the next New Year's Eve, when it is opened and the score is tallied -- how many right and by whom.

We never looked more than a year ahead, and you only ever got the honor of being right.

But I recently discovered a website which combines the challenge of long-range predictions with the option of making specific bets (i.e., predictions with potential rewards) -- from those clever people at the Long Now Foundation (Kevin Kelly, Stewart Brand, etc.).

Here is the first bet made, back in 2002 -- between Mitch Kapor and Ray Kurzweil (who has made a famous prediction with his Singularity -- interesting aside: his Wikipedia page is labeled as one of those currently in dispute).

What does the future hold? Here's a possible map -- from Ross Dawson at Trends in the Living Networks (where he also has links to his previous Trend Blends for 2007 and 2008):

And here's the World Future Society's top ten forecasts for 2009 and beyond:

1. Everything you say and do will be recorded by 2030.

2. Bioviolence will become a greater threat as the technology becomes more accessible.

3. The car's days as king of the road will soon be over.

4. Careers, and the college majors for preparing for them, are becoming more specialized.

5. There may not be world law in the foreseeable future, but the world's legal systems will be networked.

6. The race for biomedical and genetic enhancement will -- in the twenty-first century -- be what the space race was in the previous century.

7. Professional knowledge will become obsolete almost as quickly as it's acquired.

8. Urbanization will hit 60% by 2030.

9. The Middle East will become more secular while religious influence in China will grow.

10. Access to electricity will reach 83% of the world by 2030.

Numbers 4 and 7 support the need for developing flexible learners, able to continually renew themselves as experts. And Number 1 means we might be able to resolve those arguments over who said what when ("let's replay the tape from that morning....").

Must go make my own private predictions now...

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Round Two: Creativity -- and Mathematics

Just found some notes on an essay of Lewis Hyde -- "Two Accidents: Reflection on Chance and Creativity" (1998).
"The agile mind is pleased to find what it was not looking for."

"Wandering is the trick, and giving up on 'loss' or 'gain', and then agility of mind."

Dumb luck = luck of chance
Smart luck = craft added to accident, i.e, "a kind of responsive intelligence invoked by whatever happens"

Louis Pasteur quote: "chance favors the prepared mind", i.e., a mind prepared for what it isn't prepared for...

Chogyam Trungpa quote: "magic is the total appreciation of chance"

creation (absolute newness) vs. revelation (accident as a tool of revelation)

Absolute newness = "in a civilization as complex and shifting as ours has become, a readiness to let the mind change as contingency demands may be one prerequisite of a happy life."
Also just read an essay on mathematics and creativity -- A Mathematician's Lament -- by Paul Lockhart -- a damning critique of the typical teaching of mathematics -- devoid of the recognition of its inherent creativity. I want every teacher who teaches mathematics to read this and justify their current practices to me (says the indignant librarian).

Everything he says rings true to me because I had a teacher like Paul Lockhart from 7th grade onwards in my little town in Maine. Thank god for Wally Hayes and Ralph (Danny) Small. They made mathematics come alive -- and made us exercise our mental creativity every day in the name of mathematics. It was pure theater at times -- how Mr. Small would enthuse over a new proof he'd thought up the night before. We believed him when he said he had the quadratic formula framed over his bedstead. We never doubted that he spent his evenings reading mathematics books, enhanced by a bowl of potato chips and a glass of milk.

He never used labels for what he showed us -- he just showed us his thinking and encouraged us to show him ours. I went off to college/university believing I'd never had calculus, because that word had never come up. So I ended up repeating almost a whole year, not really knowing where Mr. Small had left off. But I definitely recognized that what my college professor had to offer was lesser stuff -- it was all just "cookbook" mathematics, whereas I had been trained to do the real thing -- proofs and analysis and an underlying understanding all along, no matter whether I knew what the outside world called it or not.

In reading Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" -- and the luck of Bill Gates to have access to a computer in junior high in Washington state in 1967 or whenever it was -- I can't help but realize that I also was lucky. It was 1972 when I was a freshman in high school that I got to program for the first time. We had a time-share set-up with some computer in Portland and all of us had to write a computer program to solve the quadratic formula. That meant creating an oiled punched-out tape that got fed into the remote reader and loaded into memory. So at 15 I began my relationship with computers (okay, nowhere near the 10,000 deliberate practice hours of a Gates, but..). Maybe it isn't so surprising that in 1980 I ended up in Boston at a software development company, despite my major in Russian Civilization. (I always used to say, languages are languages -- whether natural or mechanical.)

Anyway, here's Paul Lockhart in full force on how math should be considered in the curriculum:
"The first thing to understand is that mathematics is an art. The difference between math and the other arts, such as music and painting, is that our culture does not recognize it as such."

"A mathematician, like a painter or poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanet than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas." [G.H. Hardy]

"Mathematicians enjoy thinking about the simplest possible things, and the simplest possible things are imaginary."

"Mathematics is the art of explanation. If you deny students the opportunity to engage in this activity.... you deny them mathematics itself."

"Math is not about following directions, it's about making new directions."

"A piece of mathematics is like a poem, and we can ask if it satisfies our aesthetic criteria: Is this argument sound? Does it make sense? Is it simple and elegant? Does it get me closer to the heart of the matter?"

"Mathematics is the music of reason."

"The trouble is that math, like painting or poetry, is hard creative work. That makes it very difficult to teach. Mathematics is a slow, contemplative process. It takes time to produce a work of art, and it takes a skilled teacher to recognize one."

"Teaching is not about information. It's about having an honest intellectual relationshiop with your students."

"How ironic that people dismiss mathematics as the antithesis of creativity. They are missing out on an art form older than any book, more profound than any poem, and more abstract that any abstract."
Image credit: gadl via flickr

Common Genius and Creativity

I've been reading and digesting several thinkers/texts/thoughts on creativity -- and the genius of the cultural commons.
(Image credit: lightbulbs by andydoro)
The individual genius is definitely a discredited idea these days.

Malcolm Gladwell addresses this issue in his May 2008 article, "In the Air: who says big ideas are rare?" -- where he uses the example of Nathan Myhrvold and his attempt to create a group capable of generating insights that might lead to scientific inventions and innovation. Gladwell asserts that "the genius is not a unique source of insight; he is merely an efficient source of insight."

Gladwell's latest book, "Outliers: the story of success", similarly argues that those people who achieve extreme success owe a great deal to the fortuitous ecology of their lives. "They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy." And the success of late bloomers, like Cezanne, is highly contingent on the efforts of others surrounding and supporting them (he says in a New Yorker article on October 20, 2008, "Late Bloomers: why do we equate genius with precocity?").

"For Innovators, There is Brainpower in Numbers" ran a recent article in the New York Times, affirming that "truly productive invention requires the meeting of minds from myriad perspectives, even if the innovators themselves don't always realize it." The article interestingly argues that brainstorming (or "idea showers" as some teachers I know prefer to call it -- eliminating that negative imagery), introduced in 1948, has been proved to be less effective than generally believed. Evidently, "individuals working alone generate more ideas than groups acting in concert". Instead, "systematic inventive thinking" is better, where successful products are analyzed into separate components and considered for alternative uses. "The best innovations occur when you have networks of people with diverse backgrounds gathering around a problem."

Clay Shirky, professor of new media at New York University and author of "Here Comes Everybody: the power of organizing without organizations", argues the same thing, especially in regards to the internet and Web n.0. (See here and here for videos of him presenting the ideas of the book.) He refers to the two kinds of social capital -- bonding capital, best envisaged as the number of people willing to lend you a large sum of money without asking when you'll be paying it back, and bridging capital, the number of people to whom you would lend small amounts of money without much fuss. (In other words, bonding capital is more exclusive, bridging capital is more inclusive.)

Shirky asserts it's not how many people you know, it's how many different kinds of people -- that most good ideas come from people who are bridging "structural holes" in an institution -- because too much bonding capital in a group results in an echo-chamber of ideas. This is not creativity born of deep intellectual ability -- it's creativity as an import-export business.

Aside re school librarians: we are particularly well-suited to bring bridging capital (read: new ideas) to planning meetings, interacting as we do with all grade levels.

Gladwell, in an interview, also credits his own writing success with the breadth and diversity of his friendship base, when asked where he gets his ideas:
People tell me things. I have learned, I suppose, how to position myself to have access to serendipitous moments. I fill my life with people from diverse backgrounds. I have friends in academia, in business, in technology. Once you understand the importance of those contacts you can take steps to increase the likelihood of having them pay off. I never come up with things entirely by myself. It's always in combination with somebody. I exploit the entire resources of my friends very efficiently.
Charles Leadbeater, a UK consultant on innovation and creativity, came out with a book similar to Shirky's at roughly the same time -- We-Think: mass innovation, not mass production. Videos of him speaking about the book can be found here -- and there is a 3-minute animated illustration of the book on his homepage. (I must admit, I like his plain confession, This is Not a Blog.)

Leadbeater brings up Lewis Hyde, poet, essayist, and author of "The Gift", a book (first published in 1983) dedicated to exploring the gift economy, especially with regard to the arts, though also including the internet -- and the power of sharing and becoming aware of the gifts cycling throughout society. Hyde was recently the focus of a New York Times Magazine article -- "What is Art For?" -- in which he distinguishes his take on the artistic commons as more academic, abstract, and aesthetically nuanced compared with that of Lawrence Lessig, founder and guru of the (more legalistic) Creative Commons movement. (See Lessig's brilliant TED talk on How Creativity is being Strangled by the Law.)

Hyde's book explores the concept of the gift economy (contrasted to the market/commodity economy), roaming through anthropology, mythology, and poetry (Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound, in particular) -- and likens it to our current understanding of ecology -- that every gift calls for a return gift in a large self-regulating earth system. He notes the traditional types of gifts -- separation gifts, threshold gifts or gifts of passage (birthdays, graduation, marriage, newcomers), and incorporation gifts (goodbye presents meant to give a piece of yourself to someone going away). Transformative gifts are less concrete, but no less important, and cover the situation of a young artist awakened to their life's labor by another's artistic gift to the world, with the paradox of the gift exchange -- that when a gift is used, it is not used up -- and how the only gratitude required is the act of passing the gift along. (I could go on and on -- read the book -- it's available from the National Library for those of you in Singapore.)

Speaking of gifts -- look at this mindmap someone (Austin Kleon) has put up on Flickr re Hyde's book:

It is obvious how this all relates to Web n.0. Here, for example, is a snippet about sharing from a blog posting by Mark Pesce, an Australian future-oriented consultant:
The center of this argument is simple, though subtle: the more something is shared, the more valuable it becomes. You extend your brand with every resource you share. You extend the knowledge of your institution throughout the Internet. Whatever you have – if it’s good enough – will bring people to your front door, first virtually, then physically.
Speaking of giving things away, Seth Godin, major marketing guru, is giving away his most recent book, "Tribes" -- as an audio book. (I listened to it while doing housework one Sunday -- a perfect way to enhance menial tasks.)

His little book is about leaders -- and how tribes (the small units we're going to find ourselves belonging to) need them -- for the 7 C's: challenge, creating a culture, curiosity, communication, charisma, connection, and commitment. He defines leadership as the art of giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work. That leaders give people stories they can tell about themselves -- and that you can't lead without imagination (read: creativity).

Interesting aside: there's a new social anthropology book out by Daniel Miller which argues that in London now every household is, in effect, a tribe.

Another free download (pass that gift on) to note: Little Brother -- a popular young adult novel by Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing fame. Re the creativity of young people in evading Big Brother's attempt to control them and the internet.

Back to creativity: I must, of course, mention a few other TED talks on the subject: Sir Ken Robinson -- if people know any TED talk, it's usually this one: Do Schools Kill Creativity? See also Amy Tan -- and Tim Brown.

I'm going to end with Alison Gopnik, psychology/philosophy professor and child development expert and her musings on why fiction is so attractive to children (oops, humans) in the 2006 Edge "World Question Center".
The greatest success of cognitive science has been our account of the visual system. There's a world out there sending information to our eyes, and our brains are beautifully designed to recover the nature of that world from that information. I've always thought that science, and children's learning, worked the same way. Fundamental capacities for causal inference and learning let scientists, and children, get an accurate picture of the world around them - a theory. Cognition was the way we got the world into our minds.
But fiction doesn't fit that picture - its easy to see why we want the truth but why do we work so hard telling lies? I thought that kids' pretend play, and grown-up fiction, must be a sort of spandrel, a side-effect of some other more functional ability....
So the anomaly of pretend play has been bugging me all this time. But finally, trying to figure it out has made me change my mind about the very nature of cognition itself.
I still think that we're designed to find out about the world, but that's not our most important gift. For human beings the really important evolutionary advantage is our ability to create new worlds....
In fact, I think now that the two abilities - finding the truth about the world and creating new worlds-are two sides of the same coins. Theories, in science or childhood, don't just tell us what's true - they tell us what's possible, and they tell us how to get to those possibilities from where we are now. When children learn and when they pretend they use their knowledge of the world to create new possibilities. So do we whether we are doing science or writing novels. I don't think anymore that Science and Fiction are just both Good Things that complement each other. I think they are, quite literally, the same thing.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Looking back at (the technology behind) our conference

Our conference -- Hands on Literacy -- came off beautifully just over a month ago, with over 260 people attending, but it burned us committee members out so much that we have spent the rest of this term recovering.

In our de-brief we made many notes of things to improve on next time, the most important being: "start planning much earlier" -- like 18 months ahead of time. We really only started working on it in mid-August and it was held mid-November, so it was a miracle it all came off at all.

The use of technology to plan and present the conference was another area for improvement. Wiki and SurveyMonkey worked great for us, but not enough presenters took up the challenge to make their pages their own. Also need to go with online payment/registration, e.g., using something like EventBrite, next time. And in retrospect should have set up Google Group for the committee, rather than relying on just a Google Email account. Getting all committee members up to speed with chosen web 2.0 tools before crunch time is something else.

Several presenters have updated their wiki pages since the conference, including:
But wish more did.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Plastic, recycling, and the future of the book

A question every school librarian must face is, to cover? or not to cover? In plastic.

For our new library, I choose to buy hardcovers whenever possible -- only adding a plastic layer to books with dust jackets where the jacket alone carries a front cover image (i.e., when the hardcover itself is plain). Any paperbacks I buy are being left as is. No sticky-back plastic -- of any kind.

It's a decision of cost -- of the plastic, of the labor spent attaching the plastic, and to the environment which must live with the plastic for its lifetime.

A similar question every school/teacher must face is, to laminate? or not to laminate? My friend Pam Duncan, a head librarian in control of the school's laminating machine, has single-handedly managed to significantly reduce her school's plastic footprint by insisting staff justify each and every act of lamination to her personally.

-- Poster by John Blyberg (CC-Attribution); hat-tip Michael Stephens and then LibraryThing;
FYI: created using Despair, Inc.'s Parody Motivator Generator

Does plastic convey authority? And does it allow users to abdicate personal responsibility? As Tim from LibraryThing comments (on the above poster):
I've wondered if lamination and similar protective techniques in libraries don't encourage the very disaster they anticipate—"Oh, the book has a plastic cover on it? I guess that means its okay if I read it while eating a meatball sub!"
I know I'm doing lots of talking with students about their responsibility to respect books, given that we're not exerting any extra effort to give books extra protection. (Responsibility and Respect are two key terms in the PYP.)

On the other hand, books may rapidly become completely recyclable so when that meatball sub falls onto it, you just pop it in the back of the "recycler/fabricator" that we'll have in our homes -- and produce a new copy (or print out a different book).

Witness the all-plastic, waterproof, completely recyclable book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking How We Make Things, a manifesto calling for ecologically intelligent design.
To eliminate the concept of waste means to design things -- products, packaging, and systems -- from the very beginning on the understanding that waste does not exist.
(p. 104, Cradle to Cradle)
Intentionally recyclable physical books aren't that prevalent yet, though we do have the ability to print and bind paperback books from scratch in minutes, via machines like the EBM (Espresso Book Machine) -- at a cost of a US$0.01 per page.

Watch these two short videos and think how far we have come:

  • 1947 video "Making Books" produced by Encyclopedia Britannica Films in collaboration with the Library of Congress -- a classic black and white informational video showing how books used to be produced -- from the author's manuscript to typesetting to lines to composed pages to copper plates, printing, binding, covering, etc. (Thanks to the graphic artist student Golden Krishna for discovering this precious piece of history -- and my apologies that I can't trace now who led me to his website...)

  • The Espresso Book Machine -- in action!
Which brings me to Brewster Kahle, the inventor, philanthropist and digital librarian, who is trying to bring everything ever published to anyone who wants it -- universal access to all knowledge. He's working to digitize all the texts of the world and, because he still likes the old-fashioned technology of "the book", he's experimenting with machines like the Espresso Book Machine in places like rural Uganda -- to bring books to people who need/want them. Listen to him talk about his various projects at TED in December 2007.

You can't talk about digitizing all the books in the world without mentioning the latest e-book readers, like the Kindle (thanks to John Blyberg for another photo). Kahle and others tout the $100 laptop as a great device for reading e-books. Watch Robin Ashford demonstrate it on YouTube below. (I don't think I'm going to be able to resist buying one....)

Want to read more about the future of books (and publishing and writing)? First, subscribe to if:book, the blog of the Institute for the Future of the Book. Second, you might enjoy reading "The 21st Century Writer" and the accompanying interviews of Tim Reilly, Douglas Rushkoff, Stephen Abram, and Frank Daniels, published in The Futurist (July/August 2008 issue online).
I always thought that publishing was about, first of all, understanding what matters, figuring out how to gather information and then gathering readers who that information matters to. There’s a kind of curation process. What the Internet has done is bring us new methods of curation.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Joy of Literacy

"The single most important condition for literacy learning is the presence of mentors who are joyfully literate people."
-- according to Shirley Brice Heath, professor of linguistics and English and linguistic anthropologist.

What a wonderful phrase -- joyfully literate.

Which makes me think of books about literacy which have made me feel joy over the past year.

Fiction choice: The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett -- a short, humorous fantasy in which the Queen of England stumbles upon a mobile library behind Buckingham Palace and out of politeness and duty starts to take books out -- and how it changes her life.

Of course, at first she's not impressed, but slowly she gets hooked and moves up the ladder of literature. When she later goes back to re-read that first novel, she finds it quite easy and interesting.
And it occurred to her (as next day she wrote down) that reading was, among other things, a muscle and one that she had seemingly developed.
This is the point of my favorite non-fiction literacy book of 2008.

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain represents a snapshot — to be precise, three snapshots — of what we now know about the origins of reading (how the human brain learned how to read); the development of reading (from infancy's influence, to expert reading adults); the gifts and the challenges of reading failure in dyslexia (what happens when the brain can't read). It's a triptych of our knowledge and a frank apologia to this cultural invention that changed our lives as a species and as individual learners....

I use Proust as a metaphor for the most important aspect of reading: the ability to think beyond what we read. The great French novelist Marcel Proust wrote a little-known, essay-length book simply called On Reading in which he wrote:
The heart of the expert reading brain is to think beyond the decoded words to construct thoughts and insights never before held by that person. In so doing, we are forever changed by what we read.
-- Maryanne Wolf summarizing her own book. (See also podcast interviews with her.)
The acme of the reading brain is time to think. So simple, so powerful.

A system that has become streamlined through specialization and automaticity has more time to think. This is the miraculous gift of the reading brain.
Time to laugh, time to hear the author's voice, time to listen to the voice in your own head.

As Wolf points out, the evolution of writing provided a cognitive platform for other skills.

It is not reading directly that caused all these skills to flourish, but the secret gift of time to think that lies at the core of the reading brain's design was an unprecedented impetus for their growth.
She touches a bit on the implications of online reading and changes to come, but not enough. It's a hot topic.

In July 2008 the New York Times published the first in a series of articles looking at how the Internet and other technological and social forces are changing the way people read. See Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?

To accompany it, they also set up a Web Extra: Further Reading about Reading, with links to other interesting articles, such as Slate magazine's Lazy Eyes: How We Read Online (June 2008) and The Atlantic Monthly article in the July/August issue,Is Google Making Us Stupid?: What the internet is doing to our brains.

More recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education weighed in with Online Literacy is a Lesser Kind: Slow reading counterbalances Web skimming, which argues that "we must recognize that screen scanning is but one kind of reading, a lesser one, and that it conspires against certain intellectual habits requisite to liberal-arts learning."

Saturday, September 20, 2008

21st Century Focus at Conferences... near and far...

Hands On: Literacy in the 21st Century Classroom and Library is the one-day conference our Singapore international school librarian network is putting on Saturday, 15 November 2008 at the Australian International School Singapore. It's modeled on the Teach IT conference of the IT educator network, which was offered in November 2005 and 2007. Note that anyone is welcome to attend, whether you work in Singapore or not.

We're still at the Call for Workshops stage (until Sep. 30th). Topics can cover all forms of literacy, whether visual, digital, information, critical, mathematical, historical, scientific, political, media, cultural, spatial, social, ethical, or the traditional textual. We especially welcome workshops with a "hands-on" component or practical application of theory.

Wish I could have attended the Learning 2.0 conference up in Shanghai this week, but with a new campus we were in lock-down mode for the month of September. Others, from our old campus, did get to go, e.g., Ben Morgan gave a workshop on Creating a 21st Century Learning Environment in Your School: From Strategic Vision to Reality (his slide presentation and handouts are available for download from that link page). As IT director, his take is the big picture and I appreciate we've come a long way, however, I still chafe at StudyWiz and its inability to let people roam around and see what other teachers are doing. It's structure is basically silos, or, what happens in your classroom stays in your classroom. It may suit secondary, but not primary. Though we at the East Campus are trying to find ways to be as open as possible, using the StudyWiz junior interface.

Roaming around the Learning 2.0 conference ning, "21st Century" jumps out as a major buzzword. Note these workshop sessions:
Kim gave a workshop at the Teach-IT conference last November here in Singapore and her school, ISB (International School of Bangkok), is pursuing 21st century goals with a passion. See, for example, their ongoing professional development wiki, 21st Century Literacy, complete with minutes of meetings, teams, projects, resources, etc.

Videos and the US election

As an American overseas, I'm leery of mentioning the US too much. It's wise to keep a low profile/voice. We're not liked. Having said that, I can't help but note two great videos about the election.

The Common Craft Show excels at simple video explanations. Here's their latest, on how the US electoral college works (or why voters don't directly elect the president):

If you have been following any of the Sarah Palin media circus, you will appreciate this send-up of Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton from Saturday Night Live, a comedy show:

Tina Fey, Saturday Night Live's former head writer and creator of the show 30 Rock, appeared with SNL's Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton to "battle sexism" in the show's opening skit.

Michael Wesch, Media Literacy, and Classroom Portals

Michael Wesch is a professor of digital ethnography who has learned both from his students and with his students. His videos -- A Vision of Students Today, The Machine is Us/ing Us, and Information R/evolution -- are well known.

Over the summer he did two major presentations, with overlapping content, summarizing his work with students and providing a good overview of the cultural history of YouTube and the role of digital media in learning. He rebuts the digital native/immigrant distinction, saying we're all natives now in this rapidly changing digital environment. He also confirms that while students have been exposed to a lot of media, it does not follow that they are media literate.

One was "An anthropological introduction to YouTube" given at the Library of Congress, June 23, 2008.

The other, "A Portal to Media Literacy" or "Michael Wesch on the Future of Education", was presented at the University of Manitoba on June 17, 2008. This is the one I recommend for teachers, as it was aimed at educators. Wesch has only been teaching for four years and the story of his own learning path is fascinating. (NB: it runs for about an hour, so get a glass of wine or a cappuccino in hand before you start.)

Wesch keeps asking, how can we create students who create meaningful connections? How do we create significance?

He offers this wonderful quote from Barbara Harrell Carson (1996, Thirty Years of Stories):
Students learn what they care about from people they care about and who, they know, care about them.
He discusses first finding a grand narrative to provide context and relevance (i.e., semantic meaning, or a big picture), then creating a learning environment that values and leverages the learners themselves (i.e., personal meaning) -- doing both in a way that realizes and leverages the existing media environment. He asks, how do we move students from being knowledgeable to being knowledge-able?

Wesch uses Netvibes to provide a platform for student participation: Mediated Cultures: Digital Ethnography at Kansas State University

On a much smaller scale, for much younger students, Keri-Lee and I are playing around with Pageflakes to create a portal for our primary school students. My plan is to make a separate Library tab on the page.

Self-Organizing Learning

It's not just a new school year, but also a new colony of a school, that makes me interested in people uncovering new patterns of learning in children, e.g., how they learn without any teachers involved.

Sugata Mitra is behind the "Hole in the Wall" project in India where kids were given access to a screen and a keypad and the internet -- and left to learn it by themselves. In his TED talk -- Can Kids Teach Themselves? -- he also addresses the role teacher attitudes play in kids' learning.

Different research -- this time on teenagers who have plenty of quality access to the internet -- reveals the same self-organizing learning at work, thanks to videogames.

I was trying to think about how to watch students learn something technical on their own but in groups (a la Sugata Mitra's experience). Then suddenly there it was, happening in front of me. Keri-Lee teaches ICT in the other end of the resource center and she was busy helping one student at a terminal. Meanwhile, another child had got hold of the interactive whiteboard pen and was experimenting with whatever had been left up on the screen. Three or four students clustered around, shouting out suggestions of what to press and what to try. Made me think we should leave it up running every break and lunchtime, just to let that group learning continue.

It also made me think about how best to introduce our new library search catalog, when it's ready to go. Might just force them to work in groups of four (even though we have enough terminals for a one-to-one session) and make it a treasure hunt with no instructions, e.g., you have 20 minutes to see how many different things you can do with the new online catalog.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The actual, not the virtual - or the love (ideally) inherent in classroom teaching

Classroom teaching is a physical, breath-based, eye-to-eye event.
It is not built on equipment or the past.
It is not concerned about the future.
It is in existence to go out of existence.
It happens and then it vanishes.
Classroom teaching is our gift.
It’s us; it’s this.
Listening to Margaret Edson talk about her love of classroom teaching, it's not hard to understand her success as a playwright ("Wit" won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize and was filmed in 2001 by Mike Nichols, a movie the critic Roger Ebert recently mentioned as one that hurt too much to watch now that he's had cancer himself).

Don't just read her speech -- watch her perform it. Her delivery is dramatic, poetic, and funny. (I've already suggested her as a speaker for a TED conference.)

Her emphasis on the importance of the face-to-face interaction between teachers and students reminds me of one of my favorite poems -- "Did I Miss Anything" by Tom Wayland -- subtitled, "Question frequently asked by students after missing a class".

Edson spoke at Commencement Day at Smith College this past May -- her alma mater, and mine, which is how I came across her speech -- in one of those usually boring email bulletins. Such graduation addresses aren't always so memorable, though two others I've bookmarked are: JK Rowling on "The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination" at Harvard this year, and the comic writer David Sedaris at Princeton back in 2006.

Rowling's comments on the benefits of failure -- real failure -- makes me think of the need to welcome and recognize risk in our lives (read The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb).

Similarly, her comments on imagination -- that "what we achieve inwardly will change outer reality" -- reinforce Edson's message that it's the journey, not the arrival, that counts in life. Edson claims she wrote her Smith college application essay on the theme, via Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Montaigne. I've always preferred Cavafy's expression of it in the poem "Ithaka".

Edson is passionate about her job as a kindergarten teacher and considers giving children the power to read as the best way she can change the world.
"Reading and writing is power--the thing that gives you the most power in your whole life. I like being part of students acquiring that power. I like handing that power over."