Friday, August 5, 2011

Perhaps A New Beginning

As I read the educational web sites I get more depressed and more hurt as I see what seems to me to be much of our civilization putting down teachers for not doing enough of a good job, costing us too much in taxes, having an easy life.  I do get some amusement reading that Brad Pitt (movie star) is on our side knowing full well that his mother is a long time English teacher.  Thank you, Brad.  I needed your pick-me-up.  I find it humous that I can't repeat what he said as he expressed himself with a number of four letter words not normally used in polite society and I am sure his mother would not have approved either as a mother or as an English teacher.  But I wander from my theme of the day.

I also need to tell you that I am reading, no, struggling through the book by Nassim Taleb, entitled:  "The Black Swan".  I suspect I understand about thirty percent of what he has written and even that may be high in understanding.  But I am enjoying the book and it is forcing me to think and ponder.  Whether Dr. Taleb is right or wrong is not material but that he makes me think.  The book can be found in the business section of your bookstore--I am reading it on my Kindle.  

The book is essentially (I think) about prediction and probability.  If you are expecting to see a flock of white swans (my sailboat is named, Trumpeter, after the beautiful swans that winter here in the northwest) and a black swan appears, what would be the probability of you finding that black swan.  And so Taleb is discussing in the most part the futility of predicting market busts, company failures, and natural disasters.  They are the black swans of probability.

Dr. Taleb is a philosopher of considerable stature but one of skepticism, a branch philosophy that has a number of followers and thinkers.  I suspect at this time, Dr. Taleb is one of the leaders in this thinking.  But I too, have held some thoughts about skepticism.  I'm not a big believer in statistics but only as an after effect to see what was happening--I don't always see it as a predictor.  By the way, Dr. Taleb views us "soft scientist" as "amusing."  We are definitely not of his ilk.

It is at this position that I wish to expand on a new thread about education, teaching and teachers.  Still within the realm and purpose of this blog let me wander around in thought about what we might do in education while everything around us is tanking.  Working with the premiss of John Dewey's that society needs to educate its young if society is to continue, what sort of education should we construct?  If we could do anything in the arena of education what would we do?  This is interesting stuff but it may take some time.  Let's get started

I think of our society as a three legged stool.  One leg is the private sector, another leg is the public sector and the third is the government.  We need all three to remain stable.  Government keeps in check the private sector while the private sector supervises the public sector and if public hits upon a society need, quite often the private sector takes it over.  So there is a check and balance among the three sectors.  

So who should take on the burden of teaching our children?  All three sectors could do the job.  However, the private sector needs to make a profit and there is a chance that the curriculum would be to train workers for the private sector.  It's possible.  The public sector could do the task however, it would depend upon donations as it does not have the resources.  Some churches within this sector have traditionally done this task from early days, however, it also included religious instruction as well.  To pray or not to pray, that is the dilemma.  

Home schooling has been viable since the beginning of our country.  Indeed, this was the beginning of education in the United State--on the kitchen table in front of mom or dad.  Even today there are millions of children being successfully home schooled.  Dr. Taleb, in his early years, was home schooled because of wars in his homeland of Lebanon.  He later went to the University of Paris so I suppose his home schooling was adequate.  

A major difference in our government is that we have a separation of church and state, essentially no one religion can have an influence on the children.  Should parents want religious instruction it can be presented after school or on weekends.....or included in home schooling.  

So the government sector has the primary responsibility of educating our children.  But the compromise is that the local parents have the right to decide on the type of education.  At one time, local power by parents was the most influential, however, as states paid more and more of the bill, they gained more and more of the power to decide.  One wonders as the U.S. government pays more and more of the bill through "No child left behind" where the power will reside.

So for the moment, let us say that the governmental sector in our fantasized day dreaming of a utopian educational system is responsible for the education and training of our children.  We'll let the religious schools and the private schools do their own thing--we'll plan our own system of education.

Let's continue by working backwards.  Some call it reversed engineering.  But in any event, we start by taking the end product and going backwards.  What should a graduate of our school system look like.  What do we want them to be able to do?  How do we want them to perform?  What would be valuable about them to our society?

I have an old saying that I like to remind myself from time to time.  "There are people who work with their hands and they are call laborers.  There are those that work with their hands and head and they are called craftsman.  And there are those that work with their hands, head and heart and they are call artist."  I equate "heart' with courage, curiosity, compassion, creativity and courage.  What say you, my friend?  Do you agree?

A repeated item in Talib's "Black Swan" is his acknowledgment that making mistakes are good.  He points out that many of today's advancements in knowledge came through mistakes.  Thomas Friedman (New York Times editorialist) in his recent speech to the Governors Convention, said that we need more people in our society that are willing to make mistakes and more companies that are willing to provide an environment to make mistakes.  Then Friedman went on to list a number of items that were the results of mistakes that are now multi-million dollar assets.  I remember when teaching in the "grades" that when children made mistakes they then learned what the correct option was right.  However, the mistakes seem to emphasized the learning of a concept.  John Dewey would have approved for his emphasis was on the children trying things out--in doing was what he wanted.  

So my first requirement for my graduate student from my fantasized school is to be willing, no, WILLING to make mistakes.  Have the courage to make mistakes.  Understand a mistake is not wrong but a chance to change direction.  Using mistakes I believe is important to learning.  I have seen too many children and adults who are afraid to make a mistake thereby limiting their behavior in many ways.  That is not permissible for growth.  And growth should be a constant.  If I'm not better then I was yesterday then something is wrong.

Another feature I would like in my graduate is curiosity.  Having a desire to learn is a wonderful attitude.  Friedman writes that his journalism teacher in high school was tough as nails--wouldn't let him publish in the school newspaper until he got it right but he has recently said that he hasn't needed another journalism course since then.  But he also had the curiosity to  find out things to write about.  That part didn't come with the class....that was his to begin with.  So I want my students to have a curiosity.

I've already wrote about this scientific experiment that we did in one of my fifth grades.  Take an old thirty-three and a third turntable (garage sales) and place three medium growing pots equally distant from each other on the turn table (use double stick tape).  Plant some sort of beans in each pot and water lightly.  Place turn table and pots in a sunny window and during the school day, turn turn table on to slow revolve (33 rpm).  Then ask the class what will the bean stalks do when they start growing?  Will they lean backwards because of the speed?  Will they lean outwards like on a merry go round?  Will they just grow upwards like they always did in the past?  I had the students write what they thought the beans would do and why, then put that writing aside.  After a few months we got our answer.  And, no, I'm not telling you.  You do it yourself.  Be curious.  There are no wrong answers, just some mistakes.  But my little experiment did promote curiosity in my kids.  We need that in our children.

What else do we want our children to exhibit when they graduate?  What knowledge (and skills and attitudes) are important?  I'll leave you today with something Leslie Briggs wrote years ago that I think is still valuable today.  He said we need only to teach three things to our children.  Just three things.  The first was how to communicate which he included speaking, writing, reading, mathematics, dance, singing, art, plays, pictures and I suppose he would today include video, facepage and tweets.  How to communicate!  The second thing he said we needed to teach our children was the "self."   Who am I?  Why do I do what I do?  Why do I have a bad day?  Why did I have a good day?  The more high tech we become the more "self" we need.  The third item that Briggs said we should teach is the arts--from fine arts to zoology.  Briggs really thought all the rest of the knowledge of the world like history, geography, science was the art of civilization.  

So what do you think?  What would you like to see YOUR graduate look like.  We've only begun--there is much work to be done.  As they say in the soaps, to be continued.

And thanks to the science teacher that I talked to on Wednesday.  You are one of the best.  So thank you for teaching the teachers to be.

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