THAT – AHA! – MOMENT

Image courtesy of sq-deal.com

Image courtesy of sq-deal.com

We’ve been blogging about education quite a lot lately. It’s an issue that we see as critical to our society. So, with apologies for being somewhat single minded, we are sticking with that theme in this post as well.

To begin with, we’d like to digress a bit. Our digression takes us into the realm of what might be thought of as ‘working assumptions.’

First Assumption: Human beings are, for the most part, egocentric creatures. That is to say, we tend to think that our viewpoints; our experiences; our situations is generally similar to those of the people around us. We also tend to believe that there are certain common experiences and values based merely on being citizens of this country but we’ll come back to that in our fourth assumption. Certainly, we recognize differences between ourselves and say, millionaires or the homeless, but we tend to think that everyone in our immediate circles such as our neighborhood, our school, our workplace has a relative degree of similarity to ourselves. Those who are radically different from ourselves we are tempted to view with envy, admiration, veneration, revulsion, contempt or indifference; depending on where they fall along continuum from wealth to poverty.

Second Assumption: Fairly recent research shows that as affluence increases, compassion tends to decrease. We believe that this is probably closely linked to the identification/ envy/ revulsion principal cited above.

Third Assumption: We live in a highly categorized, image driven, appearance dependent society. Given that, our responses seem most generous to those who are either most like us or those whom we see as able to best benefit us.

Fourth Assumption: All of us must recognize the role of cultural dissonance in policy making and implementation. To clarify, the word ‘cultural’ does not refer only to say the difference between national, ethnic or racial groups but between concepts like ‘equality’ and ‘liberty’ as described by Yuval Harari in his book Sapiens. (By the way, if you haven’t read this book, you really should. It’s packed with things to think about, whether you agree with Harari’s premise or not.)

Now, with our working assumptions clearly defined, we’d like to move on to an experience we recently had. As writers in the modern world, we need to self promoter through vehicles like this blog; our alternate history blog; and social media. Recently we’ve been very fortunate to see a sharp rise in the number of followers on our @masfiction Twitter account. For whatever reason, a large number of the followers seem to be young adults of either high school or undergraduate age. It was one of those recent young adults who gave us a real ‘Aha!’ moment in one of his tweets.

USA, California, Los Angeles, Portrait of teenage boy (14-15) with smartphone - image courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

USA, California, Los Angeles, Portrait of teenage boy (14-15) with smartphone – image courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

This young man was discussing the temptation and antics that arise whenever his teacher leaves the classroom for a moment. In the tweet he implies that the momentary absence took place during some form of test or quiz. At the risk of betraying our age, our assumption was that, most likely your pal; the cute classmate who has ignored you until now; or the class bully would whisper something like, “What’s the answer to number 7?” Apparently, that is a VERY antiquated viewpoint. His tweet dealt with the temptation to quickly whip out the old smartphone and look up ALL the answers in the intervening moments between the instructor’s departure and return.

Candidly, wasn’t even on our radar as a possibility because, when we last went to school, smartphones were imagined, not real. The current ubiquity of mobile devices which connect instantly to the internet causes us to forget that the first iPhone was released for sale less than eight years ago on June 29, 2007!

Toddler with a tablet - image courtesy of dailymail.co.uk

Toddler with a tablet – image courtesy of dailymail.co.uk

Since that time, mobile computing and mobile access have rocketed forward at a breakneck pace. What is more, the saturation of these devices is increasing even more. Our friend gave his “old” tablet to his three year old granddaughter. She wags it around with her everywhere and knows pretty well how to make it work. She also knows how to contact her grandparents and other relatives using her mom’s iPhone. This child is one year away from entering pre-K; two years from entering kindergarten; and only ten or eleven away from entering high school. That’s just barely longer than smart phones have been around.

Back to those assumptions made at the beginning of this rant. Remember that we said that we are all egocentric creatures and that there are certain common experiences and values based on the fact that we are all raised this country? Well, it’s here that we think the policy makers may be missing the boat. Most policy makers, whether they are from privileged backgrounds or the ‘poor kid who worked hard and succeeded’ background were educated long before the internet let alone before the profusion of mobile devices which now connect to it. Realistically, whether they went to a private or public school, the instructional methodology and base assumptions were very much the same as they were in the 19th century. Believe me on this one. I went to both private and public schools. I also went to good and not so good public schools. The simple truth of it all is that the methodology of instruction was almost universally the same despite the fact that resources, class sizes and such might vary widely, . There was a teacher, who not unlike Socrates, was seen as a reservoir of knowledge and the were the students; those empty vessels into which that knowledge was poured. And this may very well be the problem.

We are formulating curricula based on this antiquated assumptions. If our friend’s three year old granddaughter can use a tablet and a smart phone already, can we really see her as a completely empty vessel? If a high-schooler knows how to access the answers to test questions via the internet but struggles with the moral implications of doing so, is he too still part empty? And, realistically, how many times have we seen or heard that old trope of parents or grandparents asking their younger relatives for help learning how to use a computer, smart phone, or any other new technological device?

We live in a world where an 17 year old just won a $75,000 prize for inventing a low cost, easy to install, usable on existing aircraft, ventilation system which increases the flow of fresh air by 190% while reducing the number of pathogens in the cabin air by 55 times their current level. It’s a world where, in the same competition, an 18 year old won $50,000 for inventing “a better containment enclosure that should allow undersea oil wells to quickly and safely recover after a blowout” while also preventing “the formation of methane hydrate that could potentially clog the pipes”.

These teens are the contemporaries of the young man who resisted the temptation to take out his smart phone in the teacher’s absence. None of them are the empty vessels that they are assumed to be by policy makers. We contend that education needs to undergo a paradigm shift if we are to improve the performance of students in this country. Certainly, there is basic information which needs to be imparted. Fundamental principals need to be taught. But the children in school today and who will enter school soon are no longer empty vessels. They come to school with varying levels of skills and knowledge but it far exceeds the level of knowledge which we, as adults and policy makers, attribute to them.

Teenager using a computer at the San Francisco Public Library - image courtesy of sfpl.org

Teenager using a computer at the San Francisco Public Library – image courtesy of sfpl.org

Kids from impoverished neighborhoods have smart phones. They have access to all kinds of information. Homeless children, even those not attending school, have internet access through shelters, libraries, and friends. They are not ignorant because of their circumstances. They have a very clear picture of our modern world. Perhaps a picture that is much clearer than the one that we have. Their parents don’t aspire for them to remain in destitution. They, like we, aspire for their children’s lives to be better. But policies which shunt funding and talent away from poorer areas perpetuate rather than alleviate the problems. Increased class sizes and over stretched resources only exacerbate the problems. We would do well to remember that the acclaimed and brilliant botanist George Washington Carver and the inventive and innovative Thomas Alva Edison were both from poor families. Edison was even referred to by his teacher as being “addled”. These great America scientists found access to knowledge despite being poor; despite being shunted aside because of race and disability.

Students today also have found access to information outside of the school room. What we must do, if we are to maximize the potential of all our future Carvers and Edisons, is find a way to help them channel that knowledge into inventive, productive, and ethical channels. We need the empathy and compassion to reach out to them and help them up. We need to look past appearances, biases and superficialities to see that the mind which holds the key to the next quantum leap for mankind may very well reside in a poor home or no home at all. We must recognize the culturally dissonant fact that the least among us may have the native intelligence to become the first, to the benefit of us all, if we just recognize that he or she deserves a fair shot at getting there.

CREATIVITY IN EDUCATION

This rant was spurred by the conjunction of several recent news items.

  • Our state is currently under court order to improve education which means our legislature is wrangling on how to fund smaller class sizes, improve instruction, etc.
  • Then there’s the whole furor over the efficacy of the national standards of achievement testing. Is it truly a measure of learning or is it merely a measure of how well we’ve prepped students to take the test?
  • There’s a never ending battle over teacher pay, tenure, seniority and how to determine what constitutes a “good teacher”. (HINT: It’s probably not the result of a customer satisfaction survey. Sometimes, the people who cheese you off the most are the best teachers.)
  • And, how do you fund needed educational reforms? Budget cuts? Salary cuts? Tax levies? Charter schools? Never mind what needs done about an increasingly outdated or even dangerous infrastructure.
image composite  Shuttle courtesy of springfieldnewssun.com - mule team courtesy of yooda.soup.io

image composite
Shuttle courtesy of springfieldnewssun.com – mule team courtesy of yooda.soup.io

All of these things cause my head to ache – a lot! I keep remembering a friend who (quite some time ago) described an organization’s approach to similarly complex problems as, “They’ve got the space shuttle hitched to the 40 mule team and are ready to pull onto the information superhighway.”

Now, our beliefs and opinions on these thorny issues are not the thrust of this blog post. Rather, we want to raise an issue that has largely been abandoned in the rush to demonstrate competency, performance, reform, fiscal responsibility, and more.

image courtesy of dealiciousmom.com

image courtesy of dealiciousmom.com

With all this focus on measurability we’ve lost sight of the vital role of creativity in education. We don’t mean figuring out new ways to convey information. We mean the including the arts as integral parts of an educational curriculum. Art is often the catalyst which make self expression and self confidence possible.

In public education (and let’s be honest here, public education still comprises the majority of preK – 12 instruction), arts programs have been consistently diminished over the past few decades. After all, you can’t measure the benefits of creativity in fuzzy pursuits like painting, drawing, collage making, woodworking, music, etc. Unlike subjects such as science, mathematics or even reading and composition the arts just have too much room for subjective interpretation.

But a recent article on cnn.com suggests that there could be long term benefits to be had from creative pursuits. They may actually help preserve memory. While the article specifically discussed this possible benefit as it relates to staving off Alzheimer’s disease, we can’t help wonder if it might not have broader implications.

image courtesy of greenbrook-montessori.com

image courtesy of greenbrook-montessori.com

Think about this for a moment. If you are a crafter, gardener, woodworker, artist, or whatever – don’t you find that as you are pursuing your creative endeavor, you frequently mull over issues, things you’ve heard, or problems? And just as often, don’t you find that new opinions, thoughts, and solutions present themselves when your subconscious is free to work on them? The mind benefits from cross training as much as the body.

Consider the possibilities for opening new avenues to difficult subjects which might be available through teaching the arts. Music is mathematical. That is a given. But painting can open the door to the chemistry of color or the physics of light. Woodworking and the properties of different woods can lead to inquiring about forestry, agriculture, soil chemistry, environmental effects, climatology, and so forth. Sewing, beading, and crafting can lead to questions of surface tension, material composition (geology, chemistry, thermodynamics, etc), or even to social science issues and the exploration of diverse cultures and communities.

image courtesy of weareteachers.com

image courtesy of weareteachers.com

We don’t intend this rant to be exhaustive but rather suggestive so we’re cutting it very short. However, as we weigh the issues of how to reform our approach to basic education, we would all do well to consider how much we are giving up by leaving creative education to privately funded sources or the “after school clubs”. The caprices of private funding and the economic and logistical limits of clubs may be robbing some of our best and brightest of the opportunity to shine through.  And, in the long run, that may be just as perilous as failing to improve performance in core competency subjects.