Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2009

To all the children in this world I wish at least one caring elder, enough food, a meaningful education, the intelligence to know which role model to follow, and a safe place to stay in this world of adult madness and perversion of power.

For all my friends, relatives and page visitors : May the beauty of life be with you!

Original images found on Wikimedia Commons.
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Children_in_Middle_Vietnam.jpg
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Palestinian_children_in_Jenin.jpg
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Children_in_Namibia(1_cropped).jpg
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Babasteve-three_boys.jpg

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Rethinking the Architecture of Teaching

To be able to scaffold students’ learning and to amplify their cultural awareness and their selfawareness, teachers should engage in a process of investigation on how young people see the world and themselves, how they feel about learning and schooling, how they build concepts of something and how they reflect on their own thinking, doing and being.

Teachers don't know more about their students as their students know about themselves. Students and teachers are equally information providers as they are receivers of information. Furthermore, in an active learning community, students and teachers have the opportunity to collaboratively explore multiple ways to construct concepts and generate knowledge, especially if this learning community is guided by a teacher-learner concept where the adult is not necessarily the teacher and the child or the adolescent is not necessarily the learner.

My conviction is that all teaching and learning situations defined by superiority-inferiority, observer-observed, giver-receiver, knower-ignorer, naive thinker - advanced thinker dichotomies should be questioned and systematically reshaped to become opportunities for collective and critical inquiry – breaking down the boundaries between teaching, learning and research.

If teachers are supposed to engage in a professional development they have to develop a deeper understanding of the mechanisms that define educational relationships and ask questions like: Why and what do I teach or learn? Do I teach or learn what I think I teach or learn? What defines a school and an educational relationship? What differences are there between teaching and learning? What is teaching? What is learning? Who decides what has to be taught an learned?

This is true for students as it is for teachers. If young people are supposed to develop a critical attitude and critical thinking they must be encouraged to observe, to study and to analyse their context and to gain a deeper understanding of how social practices and including educational practices are generated.

But, how should young people gain critical understanding, if they are supposed to think critically about everything that happens in the “outside” world but not about what happens in school, the place where they spend a representative part of the day and the context which sometimes even structures their life and thinking for the rest of the day?

This paradigm shift in education requires an honest curiosity by teachers and an intense faith in young people’s will to learn and in their potential to acquire an understanding of the world around them by developing their own view points, by re-building shared concepts or constructing new ones.

Of course, to develop something which we may call research literacy, students should be encouraged to explore a wide range of learning styles and interest and they should also be encouraged to develop a critical position against any intellectual monopoly. It also requires teachers to become participant observers, in an anthropological sense, and to spend more time than they do today, on reflecting on education than on pre-structuring schooldays for their students and on preparing detailed lesson plans and materials in order to transmit pseudo-objective content to the next generation.

To use M. Mead’s three types of enculturation (postfigurative, cofigurative, prefigurative), I think that school is still to much based on the postfigurative model where knowledge is passed from adults to children and where adults have difficulties to conceive of another future for the next generation than their own lives.

The question remains if it is possible for teachers to act as transformative agents in an institution they are supposed to serve? Is it conceivable, that they engage in a critical discourse with their students about knowledge and social practices when at the same time they feel obliged to follow a fixed curriculum, textbooks and participate in national tests?

Yes and no. The answer is no, if teachers think that they can do project-based learning, reflective education and collaborative inquiry and, at the same time, avoid the curriculum, textbooks and tests as a object for critical inquiry.

The answer is yes, if curricula, textbooks and tests are critically analyzed and deconstructed and if their hidden objectives and underlying assumptions are made transparent. If critical thinking is one of the aims of education, then young people must be encourage to think critically about learning, schooling and curriculum, about pseudo-objective textbook contents and testing.

After the PISA surveys conducted by the OECD, Luxembourg, tries to bring major changes to education by changing the way schools evaluate students' learning. I think that indeed there is an urgent need to change evaluation practices but I have serious doubts that a tangible progress in education is possible without a fundamental redesign of the sanitized textbook and worksheets pedagogy and thus the teacher-student-knowledge relationship.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Thoughts on Education

I have set up a new website with my past and current short publications on learning and teaching. You can find it at the address http://www.fiermonte.lu. Some articles are in German, others in English or French. Only one has been translated from French to English. (If someone is interested to provide a translation for anything I have written, feel free to contact me.) Most of the articles have been published in print and some can only be found online. As I am not working in school anymore I have more difficulties to find the time to write although I have quite a few ideas on interesting subjects that I should consider thinking over more in depth. This could best be done by discussing it with other professionals and by writing about it of course. Today I know, that during my teaching days, I didn't write enough to make my thinking more transparent and explicit - to myself and to others. I can remember very well when I said to Gérard Gretsch and Christian Wolzfeld with whom I started to work on different projects in the beginning of the nineties - "I can't write!" because this was what I thought of myself and what was left of fifteen years schooling during which I d been untaught how to write.
I'm convinced that teachers should be encourage - and take the courage and the time - to investigate more on their teaching by writing and sharing their thoughts, but I also know how difficult it is to put something on paper or on the computer if you always expect it to be near to perfection or if you think that others may have such an expectation.

As I have no big ideas and no academic position to defend - which could prevent me to reveal to soon what I'm working on - I will also publish draft articles on what I am currently interested. This does not mean that I wouldn't be happy to be quoted if you use any of my contributions in your work or if you find some interesting ideas in my writings.

To make it easier for everyone to decide on how to use the stuff I've written I will publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution License. You will find a notification regarding this license and links Creative Commons licenses under every article on www.fiermonte.lu.

Monday, September 22, 2008

If only teachers could all be Pygmalions

40 Years ago, in 1968, the psychologist Robert Rosenthal and the principal of an elementary school Lenore F. Jacobson conducted their famous study to test the hypothesis if children would become brighter when expected to by their teachers. The study was conducted in 18 primary school classes from which 20% of the students were randomly chosen to be the "brighter" kids after they all had taken a non-verbal intelligence test which in fact was not taken into account to choose the children.
After 8 month the study apparently showed that a strong "interpersonal expectancy effect", also called "Pygmalion effect" or "Rosenthal effect" had influenced the attitudes of the teachers in a way that as a matter of fact, the randomly chosen kids showed intellectual gains than their non-chosen classmates.

Funnily enough, on this 40th birthday of the Pygmalion-in-the-classroom-study, Luxembourg has introduce standardized testing for third graders for the known reasons which there are, raise the standards after the disastrous PISA study results, accountability and better student's orientation (!). Funny also, that when years ago standardized testing was introduced at the end of the primary school, I said that this would only be the beginning and that it was just a matter of time until standardized testing would be introduced in lower grades. Now here we are. But as it took quite a few years, I can affirm that I was not at the origin of a self-fulfilling prophecy I made - at least I hope so.

For those who would like to get a short overview of the study by R. Rosenthal, here are his own words which I took the liberty to transcribe from the video below. This is a must read for all the teachers especially those in third grades in Luxembourg.

R. Rosenthal: "What we wanted to show was the extend to which teachers expectations could actually effect pupils intellectual performance, for example their IQ scores.
So what we did was, we tested everybody in the school with a test that pretended to be a test that would predict academic blooming - the so called Harvard test of inflected acquisition - and allegedly on the basis of that test but not really we gave each of the teachers in the school the names of a handful of children in her classroom that would get smart in the academic year ahead.

These kids names were taken out of a hat. We chose them by means of a table of random numbers. The children themselves did not know in any direct way that teachers were holding certain expectations for them. Teachers were told not to tell the kids and of course we didn't tell the children either. So the children never knew.

And then when we tested the children a year later we found that those kids who'd be alledgedly to their teachers be showing or going to show intellectual gains, in fact showed greater intellectual gains than did the children of whom we'd said nothing in particular. So the kids actually got smarter when they were expected to get smarter by their teachers.

We've come to feel that there are really four factors that operate in the mediation or communication of these self-fulfilling prophecies, especially in a classroom but not only in a classroom.

So what are these four things that teachers tend to do differently to kids for whom they have more favorable expectations?

The first factor is the climate factor. Teachers tend to create a warmer climate for those children for whom they have more favorable expectations. They are nicer to them. Both in terms of the things they say and also in the non-verbal channels of communication.

The other very important factor is the so called input factor. That one probably won't surprise anyone. Teachers teach more material to those kids for whom they have more favorable expectations. After all, if you think a kid is dumb and can't learn you are not going to put yourself out to try to teach him very much.

Two other factor though make a difference. One is the response opportunity factor, that is
kids get more of a chance to respond if the teachers expect more of them. They call on them more often and when they do call on them they let them talk longer and they help and shape with them the answers that the kids speak out - kind of working together to put the response out.

The last is feedback. The feedback factor works in this way: As you might expect if more is expected of the kid, the kid is praised more, positively reinforced more for getting a good answer out, but interestingly enough is given more differentiated feedback when they get the wrong answer.
One of the ways in which you can sometimes tell a little bit that the teacher does not have very high expectations for a kid is that the teacher is willing to accept a low quality response or won't really clarify what would have been a good quality response. Maybe because he or she feels well what's the use, the kid is not smart enough to profit from this additional clarification.

So those are the four factors climate, input, response opportunity and feedback."

Source:



Additional resources:

Covert Communication in Classrooms, Clinics, and Courtrooms
by Robert Rosenthal - Harvard University
http://www.psichi.org/pubs/articles/article_121.asp

T&C TOWER - Rediscovering the Pygmalion myth in today's education
Expectation stimulates the mind
http://maincc.hufs.ac.kr/~theargus/378/theory_01.htm
(His conclusion lead to the title of this blog post. Thank you Lee Hyae-myung.)

Rosenthal, Robert & Jacobson, Lenore Pygmalion in the classroom (1992). Expanded edition. New York: Irvington

For details on the Pygmalion myth or the play by George B. Shaw, go to wikipedia.org.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Bad times for teachers and students stealing images

As a producer of web technologies that provide teachers and learners with online content production tools I often find myself involved in a discussion around the legitimacy to use images found on the internet in students' and teachers' personal projects.

Although teachers over the globe complain that the internet facilitates plagiarism and encourages copying and pasting of text they usually don't show the same criticism when it comes to using/stealing pictures and graphical data.

It is quite common that teachers themselves consider the web as a free online clip art gallery and that they see no harm in using whatever they can find to pimp up their worksheets, slides or website pages without crediting their sources.

No wonder then, that they apply the same logic to images that students can find and copy-paste to decorate their personal printed or online work. Obviously teachers' sensitivity is different depending of the nature of the data that is used or stolen. In school, written text has a much higher status than an image. While copying and pasting graphical data is considered common practice, copying text without quotation marks and indications of the source is considered being a unscrupulous temptation to cheat and to avoid personal effort.

With TinEye by Idée Inc. now comes a search engine based on an image identification technology capable of finding images and variations of images on the internet. TinEye provides authors of visual data with an easy way to detect copies of their creations on websites even if the original version has been cropped, scaled, merged, renamed or colored.

Of course this is not the only application of TinEye but it is one that could have a major effect on schools.

My advice to teachers: Start today with using license free images (for example from Wikimedia Commons) or own creations. Don't make a difference between respecting authors of written text, of sound productions or of images, name your sources and teach your students to do the same.

(Got the hint from Slashdot)

Image source and copyright information :


"This is a faithful photographic reproduction of an original two-dimensional work of art. The original image comprising the work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason:

This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. (...)"

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Croatian Thoughts

My recent family holidays took me to Croatia, a beautiful country which I already wanted to visit years ago, before Yugoslavia split apart. We drove through Germany and Austria before arriving in Slovenia and finally in Croatia more exactly to the Plitvice Lakes. When the Third Balkan War broke out back in 1991, the maps which were displayed during the head news on TV always made me aware of how close to the country I lived an armed conflict was taking place in Europe.

Now, driving my way through Slovenia and Croatia, I couldn't help but thinking about this tragic event and I scrutinized the landscape to detect some scars that could have been left by this war. But I noticed that in the area we drove through most oft the streets and houses were quite new. Only a few house fronts were covered with bullet holes.

While I was in Plitvice I read in one of my travel guides that it was exactly in this area of these beautiful lakes, that some of the first people had been killed in late March 1991. This "Plitvice Lakes incident" is also known in Croatian as "Plitvice Bloody Easter". This incident "contributed significantly to the worsening ethnic tensions that were to be at the heart of the subsequent Croatian War of Independence." as explained on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plitvice_Lakes_incident). Now I was there with my family to spend some enjoyable days and to contemplate the striking beauty of the landscape.

I read also that Slovenia, the first province of former Yugoslavia to declare it's independence and the first one to be accepted as a full member in the European Union, had been (maybe still is) opposed to the admission of Croatia in the EU because of territorial conflicts between both countries and I thought: Crazy! Political problems are being exported from one structure - Yugoslavia, and imported into an other one - the European Union. Inveterately human!

Reading "The Goddess and the Bull" by Michael Balter about the excavation of the neolithic site in Catalhüyük - I came across interesting fact that it was not agriculture that made people choose a sedentary life and that settlements hat been created long before agriculture was invented. This leads to a important question which archaeologists try to address through their exploration of the past: What made people want to live together in the first place? I liked very much how Balter linked this issue to our present and future by writing: "if we could understand a little better why we all wanted to live together, maybe we would bet better at doing it."

The language differences between the former Yugoslavian provinces and regions has also been a major issue during the conflict and remains an important element in the endeavors to gain or to construct a national identity. When years ago people were said to speak Serbo-Crotatian now they speak Serbian or Croatian which in itself is a mix of the dialects Chakavian, Kakavian and Shtokavian. In a language forum I found an interesting post with questions concerning the similarities or differences between the languages Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian and a very interesting answer which gives an indication of the complexity of the matter http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=36982.

Reading about the language conflicts I could recall a situation in one of the schools I work with, where a few girls tried to teach me the differences between Croatien and Bosnian or Bosniak. The words they chose as examples were very close and sometimes differed only by their intonation. The process of bringing up language differences to construct ethnic or national barriers seemed to have been triggered already. Language is never a neutral or non-political subject. Some may say that it's not the role of the school to address political issues and many teachers will avoid this kind of subject or will simply not be aware of their implications. Especially in Europe we should take this very seriously and teach young people how and why language conventions are constructed, that language barriers are as artificial as territorial barriers and that language is not only a tool to think with but also a tool to construct realities and an instrument that is used to include or exclude others.

The recent conflicts in Belgium between the French-speaking region of Wallonia and the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders is a current example which shows the deep political implications of language differences. If teachers in schools don't want to tackle such problems, who else will? Should we wait until children are grown up to discuss their histories, differences and similarities and how much the construction of their identities is linked to language?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

26 out of 47

26 Years ago I finished my teacher training and I started my career as a teacher in the same year in September. Who was I at that time, who am I now, twenty five years later? I remember being an angry young man, bored and frustrated by school, bored by most of my teachers, impressed by a few, opposed to authorities, especially those without intellectual and ethical strength or empathy, not very gifted and talented but well armed with low self confidence. In my beginning teaching years I wanted to to be a better teacher to my pupils - because of , or despite the ones I had and the schools I visited. I wanted to make a difference in children's life and protect them against the arbitrariness of the schooling system, the brutal social injustice and the predetermination because of their social and cultural background. But while trying desperately to succeed I sometimes unfair and threatening to those that I wanted to protect. I think because it took me to much time to make a difference in someone else's life, because of my impatience and the feeling of powerlessness. It took me years and some charismatic mentors to be able to really listen and talk to children and to be a partner in their own quest. Thank you Christian, Gérard, Roger, Brigitte, Vivian, Françoise, for showing me the way out. After 20 years of civil service, I created EducDesign with Frank and Jos, and I'm still trying to make a difference to the life of others, teachers and children. (Not an easy job, seldom profitable but often rewarding ;-)
I never cared too much about birthdays, especially my own ones, but I'm deeply touched by the greetings I got today, especially those from my former students.
After all the intellectual posts I wrote recently - and considering my age - I think it was time to be pathetic for a moment. Cheers!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

What teachers can learn from new approaches in archaeology

In analogy to archeology, pedagogical reflection doesn't deal with an objective truth or evidence but with a subjective construction which can become - sometimes only for a limited period - a shared truth in a given social context.
For example, an archaeological discovery like a female figurine can be seen as a religious object, or a symbol for fertility, or evidence for a matriarchal society, depending on an archaeologist interpretation of the context where it has been found and on his specific view.

In archaeology like in education different people will tell different stories about a situation or an artifact, a text, an answer, a drawing, an excavated object etc. There is no immediate self-evident nature of a learning outcome as there is no self-evident nature of an archaeological discovery. Decontextualized they become more and more difficult, sometimes even impossible to interpret and the stories told are closer to speculation than to reality.

If from a certain point of view there seems to be an objective evidence than, from a different point of view, others could well have found a different truth. Does this mean that anything is equally true or that the truth is always a bit of everything?
I don't think that extreme relativism, which I encounter frequently in my work with schools, is helpful. Most of the time it is a way to avoid to take a stand, to express an opinion for or against an interpretation and in consequence to avoid that ones opinion could be refuted by others. And, extreme relativism is often a way to avoid to make a decision and to be taken responsible for its possible consequences.

In "Towards reflexive method in archaeology : the example at Çatalhöyük" Ian Hodder, a postprocessual archaeologist describes a new aproach in archaelogy based on reflexive startegies that can be used to work your way through negotiated interpretations in a given context. Hodder calls this approach "reflexive method".

He enumerates a set of twelve methodologies and describes four resp. five themes which I think could be applied to education. After having read the following quotes try to read them again with the word "archaeological" substituted by "pedagogical" or "educational":

In analogy to archeology, pedagogical reflection doesn't deal with an objective truth or evidence but with a subjective construction which can become - sometimes only for a limited period - a shared truth in a given social context.
For example, an archaeological discovery like a female figurine can be seen as a religious object or a toy or a symbol for fertility or evidence for a matriarchal society, depending on an archaeologist interpretation of the context where the figurine has been found and on the archaelogist's specific view.
In an educational context, a non-compliant behavior of a student can be regarded differently depending on the situation where this behavior could be observed, and of course the point of view of the observer. The reason for the behavior could be found in the situation itself or be seen in the broader social context that the child lives in.


Reflexivity,
"By this I mean the examination of the effects of archaeological assumptions and actions on the verious communities involved in an archaeological process."

Relationality or contextuality
"The notion here is that meaning is relational. This emphasis is seen in the reflexive attempts to relate findings to a specific context of knowledge production. but the emphasis is also visible in the inter-relations of contextual and artefactual information."

Interactivity
"The aim here is to provide machanisms for people to question and criticize archaeological interpretations that are being made, as they are being made. (...) The prioritizing (sampling) procedures are arrived at by negotiation between staff members. (...) Interactivity is also facilitated ... by the provision of the data base on the Web (...) and by the provision of information in diary and video form that situates the data base and opens it up for critique and alternative interpretation."

Multivocality
"A wide range of different groups often have conflicting interest in the past and wish to be engaged in the archaeological process in different ways. (...) Mechanisms need to be provided so that different discourses can take place."

"An additional theme can be described as "non-dichotomous thinking" that is the breaking down and questioning of categories and boundaries. (...) It is necessary to bridge the divide between archaeology as either science or humanity either history or anthropology, as either objective or subjective."

To give you an impression on this reflective approach in action visit the official website of the site in Turkey's Anatolian plain known as Çatalhöyük : http://www.catalhoyuk.com

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Points of Viewing Children's Thinking, Ricki Goldman

I recommend this book to all who used camcorders in their class for doing action research or ethnographic inquiries, and to all those who have read my last post on Jacques Duez, the Belgian teacher who used the video camera in his ethics lessons to record the discussions that took place in his classroom and to share it with other classes, the local community or teachers in his school.

Some quotes from this marvelous and inspiring book:

"I sense a crisis looming in front of us, a crisis of technological illiteracy that I believe we can overcome as a society if we simply listen carefully to the stories that young people tell us about their understanding. Although we introduce innovative programs in an attempt to reach students, we do little to find out about how they view their own thinking. Instead, we apply more and more antidotes and theoretical solutions from above. How many more "educational experiments" will we impose on our schools without listening to how children view their learning."

"How can we think that schools are natural settings in which to observe young people? Not only are they social constructions whose purpose is to manage and enculturate the next generation, they are places where performances of gender, class, race, and economic status are played out at every turn of the head."

"Working with analog and digital video data can shift the nature of ethnographic inquiry, redefining its boundaries by blurring the distinctions that previously separated those who are the subjects of inquiry (informants and participants), those who do the recording and interpreting (ethnographers), and those who read the texts (audiences)."

"(…) will teachers ever be able to know what children really knwo in these mediated cultures? And what happens to standards and testing when each child's learning is encouraged to be intrinsically unique? My answer to the first questions is "no". The second question I answer wiht a better question, "What else do you think could replace uniformity and conformity as the measure of learning?"

"The changing role of teachers is not to become the school technologist; it is to enter into the discours with children about what it is to know something in any given culture, even a computer culture. It is to become part epistemologist, part ethnographer, and, always, to become a learner."

"We can look at the school not only as a place that disseminates culture to those who have no choice but to partake in its rituals, but also as a place where cultures emerge and are created, layer upon layer. The school is its own culture, and it contains many subcultures, each with its own past, present, and future. The young people and adults who share the same physical and psychological space for 8 to 10 hours a day are the makers of that culture, not merely its recipients."

Today Ricki Goldman works at the New York University Steinhardt School of culture, Education, and Human Development
http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/profiles/faculty/ricki_goldman

MERLin, the Multimedia Ethnographic Research Lab at the University of British Columbia where Ricki Goldman used to work
http://orion.njit.edu/merlin/people/ricki/index.html

Jacques Duez: On listening to the children

In the last week I was very absorbed by Jacques Duez's work and busy preparing an event where I presented it to teachers. Jacques Duez has worked for more than 30 years as an ethics teacher in Mons (Belgium). In his early teaching he was very soon frustrated with giving lessons to students during which they were When he noticed that what students brought up themselves was much more interesting to them and to him, he started first tape recording and soon video recording what they said about a certain topic and to share those recordings among different classes. He became famous in Belgium at the moment where Wilbur Leguebe a director of documentary movies working for the national broadcast company RTBF and Agnès Lejeune a journalist made a series of five TV documentaries on Duez's work. One of the most interesting aspects of these documentaries was that they contacted Duez's former students to find out what memories they had of their primary school years and their ethics lessons with Jacques Duez, and to what extend it influenced their later life. The sequences showing young adults sharing their perception of themselves as children while reviewing video tapes showing them during their discussions ten or fifteen years ago are quite remarkable.

When I discovered Jacques Duez's work a few years ago (unfortunately after having left teaching) I was very much impressed by his approach, his way of talking to the children and their profound reflections. His approach is very close to that of Vivian Gussin Paley and in the best tradition of people like Françoise Dolto the famous French doctor and psychoanalyst. I was particularly impressed by a story of a boy whose difficult family situation affected his behavior in school and generated the usual difficulties in the relationship with his teachers, classmates and of course with learning. Only after viewing a video sequence on how this boy explained his situation in Jacques Duez's class his teachers realized how difficult this boy's life was, how little they knew about him and how they had kept teaching and expecting a certain behavior from him without any regard to his social background.

What I intended by showing extract of Duez's work was to sensitize teachers to the potential of children's reflecting and to the importance of considering their socio-cultural background when judging their behavior in an educational setting. I also wanted to sensitizing teachers to the fact that school development needs to be considered not only in the light of meeting new or higher standards. First and foremost, school development should aim at improving the general context for learning and for reflecting about learning, and I see listening to children and children's thinking as one of the preconditions to meet that aim.

Event announcement: http://www.olefaschool.org/community
Event picture gallery (pictures by Xavier Maquil, Luc Gilbertz, Christian Schwarz)

Parents / Enseignants … La guere ouvert? Book including DVD and one documentary by Jacques Duez : http://www.decitre.fr/livres/Parents-Enseignants.aspx/9782870034613

Le Temps des Enfants (printed document with DVD, edited by the Observatoire de l’Enfance, de la Jeunesse et de l’Aide à la Jeunesse:
http://www.oejaj.cfwb.be/rubrique.php?id_rubrique=31

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Rethinking Storytelling with Storied Navigation

The MIT Media Lab has published an interesting research project called "Storied Navigation". The project is based on an idea developed by Edward Yu-Te Shen. His thesis has been published under the title and subtitle Storied Navigation : Toward Media Collection-Based Storytelling.

Storied Navigation is said to be novel approach and a tool to construct narratives based on a collection of annotated media sequences like videos and audios. The system is coupled with so called commonsense reasoning technology which helps the user extend his narrative by suggesting related and indexed sequences that could be webbed into the plot.

When reading Yu-Te Shen's thesis I encountered quite a few ideas which reminded me of Ricki Goldam-Segall's work. Goldman-Segall inspired me a lot during the MIRA-Project, when I developed Multimedia Clipboard. I must say that I am a bit surprised, that neither Ricki Goldman-Segall, video ethnography, constructivism or constructionism are mentioned in the references of the thesis, nor the database system Constellations that has been designed by the Media Lab "to enable a community of researchers to catalog, describe, and meaningfully organize data they have collected and stored in digital format or data that is available on the World Wide Web." I'm also surprised because the reader of Yu-Te Shen's thesis is Glorianna Davenport with whom Goldam-Segall collaborated during her Media Lab years where researched under the guidance of Seymour Papert. But maybe it's just because of the fact that the MIT has developed so many technological projects that they stopped referencing them in every thesis.

Anyway, Storied Navigation is an interesting approach and it seems to be a powerful piece of software for educational use. I can easily imagine that it could serve to create digital learning records or conduct ethnographic inquiries to enter into discourse with others - teachers, students, parents - about learning in multiple situations and contexts. Such a tool can also help making sense of and help discover patterns in fragmented or apparently disconnected experiences by tagging and packaging multimedia sequences, descriptions and interpretations.

Of course we shouldn't underestimate that, whatever tool we use for such purposes, recording, collecting and indexing raw data is very time consuming. We also need to acknowledge the fact that meaning is something we don't discover but something that we construct and the possibility that open tools reveal the thinking of the observer as much as the thinking of the observed. Furthermore, depending on the tools we use to produce meaning and to communicate our points of view, they will be different and, valued and understood differently by others.

Website of Storied Navigation

Project abstract with link to Master Thesis
Edward Yu-Te Shen's blog
Edward Yu-Te Shen's blog in English

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Thinking Tools for Parallelism and Decentralized Systems

Is the ethanol production responsible for the rising corn prices and thus responsible for the rising of food prices or is the subprime crisis the reason for all this, and if, where is the connection? Why are the milk prices dropping in Europe, while simultaneously other food prices are increasing and while China is buying high quantities of milk on the global market - isn't there a contradiction? Is the fuel price increasing because there is shortage of oil resources or is it because of the dropping of the dollar, or is the price part of a strategy to push ethanol production? Or if we all pushed ethanol production would it force crude oil prices to drop?

Even if people tend to think so, the phenomena that can be observed are seldom the fruit of centralized control or clear intentions but of decentralized actions and interactions, parallelism, randomness and self-organization. There is no mono-directional causality, but parallel emergence of multiple situations that act simultaneously and generate effects and patterns that mostly couldn't have been anticipated.

Unfortunately, linear thinking models, coupled with memorization and regurgitation of facts are not the best ways to train people to understand complex emergent phenomena and to find creative solutions to unexpected problems like those that arose recently on a macroeconomic level.

Most of our thinking strategies, school curricula, and tools for learning are all rooted in the paper and pencil area. Even thinking tools like mind-maps which help visualizing the interconnectedness of ideas, aspects, causes and effects in a two dimensional and non-linear way are seldom used in school. And if they were, they are not suited to represent the dynamic of systems.

In order to understand the decentralized nature of social, economical or natural phenomena we need to observe and explore the functioning of decentralized systems and overcome the "centralized mindset" as Mitchel Resnick calls it. This can be achieved through the use of tools like Scratch, StarLogo and StarLogo TNG, which offer a graphical programming environment and which have been developed at the Media Lab under the direction of M. Resnick.

Whereas StarLogo, StarLogo TNG and OpenStarLogo don't seem to be very popular yet, there is a growing community creating and publishing Scratch projects, probably also due to the dedicated website, a Youtube stile sharing portal. Have a look here.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Designing Tools for Evaluation

Back in 2000-2002 during a research project called MIRA Multimedia Interface for Research and Authoring I created a tool for reflective practitioners in school called Multimedia Clipboard. Later on, most of the features of this tool have been integrated into the OLEFA IMS-CMS http://www.olefa.com which offers a powerful web based environment including a database module that can be designed and personalized for multiple uses.

Multimedia Clipboard permitted the collecting and grouping of multiple types of data in order to create layered and multi-perspective descriptions and interpretations of learning situations.
With this kind of tools teachers can evaluate students learning products and processes by creating chunks of information, and include background information of situations and concepts in which these products, processes and their interpretation are embedded.

Once an item is created by importing for example a video clip, the interpretation can be broadened by adding descriptions from different perspectives (comments by students, peers, teachers, parents etc.) and deepened or "thickened" by adding layers of information and interpretation (see the concept of "thick descriptions" by Clifford Geertz and Gilbert Ryle).
This approach is a lot different from a quantitative evaluation, but also from a so called evaluation by competencies in which learning is split up into modules, key stages and key competencies and in which students learning outcomes are, in the end, always compared to normative clusters of knowledge.

The greatest difference however lies in the fact that evaluation by competencies is proclaimed to be formative but neither sets the learner nor the teacher in the focus of an inquiry but the implicit norms.

In opposition to this, a descriptive and interpretive (ethnographic) approach puts the learner and the teacher(s) in the focus because their judgments, ethical considerations and theories become part of the evaluation process. Here, teachers are not observers, but actors in a learning process, and an evaluation is created or co-constructed through collaboration and negotiation. And, students are not objects of evaluation and inquiry but co-evolving subjects. A tool like Multimedia Clipboard is as much a instrument for evaluation as a means to gain insight in the functioning of evaluation and the nature and power of the hidden theories involved - including those which gave birth to the tool itself. Furthermore, and because of the non-linearity of the tool, a small change in the tool has the potential to open a high variety of new possibilities to interconnect information. A small change in a check list of competences - which I consider to be a linear system - will never have such an impact.

By adopting open instruments and ethnographic approaches, evaluation will take the shape of a narrative based on self-organization and reflection instead of a diagnosis conforming to a given structure. We will also reach a high level of unpredictability, variety, redundancy and even messiness, while simultaneously reducing centralized control and normative comparability between individual learning outcomes. On the other hand we will open to all actors involved a space for self-reflection, creativity and double-loop learning.

As there is a growing demand for alternative forms to evaluate students learning, I think that evaluation by normative competencies cannot be but a transitional stage before adopting open tools like Multimedia Clipboard which will extend the possibilities and concepts of so called learning records and portfolios and which will at the same time force teachers in a position of self-reflection.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Can school change society or do we have to change society first to have a different school?

This week I attended a conference on the PISA and PIRLS surveys. As the conference had been organized by a teacher union there were some tension concerning the interpretation of the results of the surveys. If the results are poor, it could well be that not only the government but also the teachers have their part of responsibility because they may be doing a bad job or because they had their say in the defining of the curriculum in use. That neither the second nor the latter conclusion can be easily accepted by teachers and their representatives is easy to understand.

What was raised then, was that education may well be victim of circumstances set by society itself. Circumstances that were mentioned were growing individualism, consumerism and strong economic interests. From this perspective it is clear, that society is responsible for the disaster and that it should change first. But is it as simple as that? Maybe the science of complexity could help us out.

According to complexity theory, school is a complex adaptive system which is embedded in and connected to other complex adaptive systems. School is not loosely connected to society, it is an itegral part of society. The actors in the educational system are at the same time actors in other systems like the national economy. Furthermore, what makes school special, is it's long-term influence on an individual - from early childhood to adult life. And as schooling is continuously being extended, the probability is growing that it will have a strong influence on the individuals hence on society. So why shouldn't educational systems be in a position to change other social systems?

If there are doubts that school can change society, we have reasons to doubt that any subsystem (unions, non-profit organizations, governments, laws, family structures etc.) can have a considerable impact on the global system. Is this the case? If we turn to what the science of complexity tells us, I would say that the answer is yes and no.

What is highly probable is, that small changes in school, won't lead to major changes in short-term. At the same time some of the changes will have a long-term effect, but it is impossible to predict which of the changes will have a major effect, when this effect will be perceivable, and if this effect is going to beneficial. Changes in the curiculum, in the the training of teachers, in the way schools are organized will without any doubt, have a short-term impact on school life, but long-term outcomes remain unpredictable.

We have also to consider that while changes in the educational system take place, other subsystems change at the same time, influencing one another and the global system like the society in which they are embedded. We cannot stop the economical system from evolving to have enough time to analyse the impact of changes brought to education. This means, that we make decisions on assumption at a certain stage of a process an this process, or parallel processes are changing the conditions that have lead to these assumptions.

The question is now, how we should decide on what actions to take, if we have no possibility to identify what long-term outcomes an action or a decision could lead to.

In his book "Complexity and Creativity in Organizations" (1996), Ralph D. Stacey posts that "The criteria for quality actions become, not ends, but ethical considerations and criteria having to do with maintaining positions, keeping options open, retaining flexibilty, and revealing errors as fast as possible. The quality action is not one with a predetermined outcome, because that effectively excludes all creative actions, but the action that is morally good in itself, the action that keeps options open by allowing an organization to stay in the game (...)."

If this is true, which I believe to be the case, then we should invest time to define an ethical framework that would help us to choose between possible actions. We should also set conditions in which creativity of a large number of actors is possible so that through a double-loop learning process innovation is possible. The science of complexity also tells us, that there is no justification to an organizational model in which change is built on a decisional hierarchy where "a few do the thinking and the creating while the many do as they are told." (Stacey)

For all those who would like to know precisely what to do (stakeholders or teachers alike), who want to be in controle of the outcomes, who need a blueprint for change that they would then impose on others, and who think that self-organization only leads to disorder, this may not be a very satisfying position. From such a perspective there is no guarantee for success, not even a lot of control and obviously many actions will be futile and will have neither visible or beneficial short-term nor long-term outcomes. But if uncertainty is the price for creativity (and according to complexity science we need a lot of creativity to increase the probability of innovation and to avoid that a system gets stuck in a stable equilibrium) then, we should opt for uncertainty instead of top down control.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

"It is honesty, not rightness, that moves children." Herbert Kohl

During my three days trip to the French Atlantic coast I reread 36 children and Growing Minds, on Becoming a Teacher by Herbert Kohl.

H. Kohl is a great example of a reflecting teacher who is also a gifted writer. He is often qualified as "provocative" educator with "revolutionary" teaching ideas and methods. Considering that his beginning teaching experiences happened back in 1962, in a primary school class in Harlem, with 36 black children, they are indeed revolutionary.
But what stroke me most, is his honesty regarding his first steps in teaching, where he still stuck to the curriculum and tried to establish order and gain authority in his classroom while simultaneously trying to do innovative projects and bringing in his enthousiasm for teaching.
In my view, what he did is the same as most young teachers do (me included, when I started teaching), trying to merge or serve system expectations and a self-image of an innovative, skilled and respected educator.

What makes H. Kohl exceptional to me - as a teacher, not as a writer - is his self-criticisme, the conclusion he drew out of his daily experiences and his statements on the role of the teacher.

It's definitively a must read for every educator regardless if he/she is in his/her beginning or final years of teaching.

I don't want to spoil your pleasure of discovering the books by yourself so I won't quote to much from them, except for the title and the following :

"I've been involved with what has been called open or progressive education for over twenty years and found these concepts frequently misunderstood. One can teach Shakespeare, microbiology, computer math, as well as simple reading , writing and arithmetic, in open ways that leat do understanding, mastery, and occasionally love of the subject itself. To teach in an open way does not mean the loss of content, the indulgence of the whims of students, or the avoidance of complexity. On the contrary, it implies control of content, and the ability to deal with new and difficult ideas and concepts - in other words, the development of sophisticated thinking."

"In a boring classroom where learning is not much more than filling out forms and taking tests, ther's little reason to want to join back in once you've been separated from the group. (...)
Decent nonviolent discipline will only be effective in a learning environment where interesting things are happening. There is an essential relationship between the quality of content an the use of nonpunitive discipline strategies in any learning situation. Effective discipline is dependent upon building an attractive and comfortable world that children don't want to be excluded from, and not upon how you respond in any particular instance."

"Because they saw my researching they learned to do research. They wouldn't have learned had I merely told them to do it."

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Why do arrows never hit their target when used in combination with a teaching machine?

Evaluation by competences has become the new credo of schools and educational reform in many countries in Western Europe.
We all know that giving global marks to students in a subject like mathematics or reading is vague, subjective, and depending on only a few test situations and thus unfair. We also know that this evaluation practice doesn't take into account complex learning processes that students have gone through. This leads to the conviction that evaluation by competences will me more objective and more precise. And, according to a common belief, the more items are taken into account the more precise the picture will be.

But will splitting up complex knowledge into multiple items really improve evaluation? How many items do we need to be able to attest a student that he/she has good reading skills?
Will learning be more effective when we can assume that "teaching to the test" will be transformed into "teaching to the competence item list"? Has there been considered, what difference it makes if the teachers themselves are in charge of defining the items or if the competence lists are centrally defined and distributed to the teachers as normative targets?
What will be the effect on students once they have gone through a schooling system where "myriads" of items have to be taken into account, especially when school has not been able, up until know, to get rid of subtle reward and punishment practices? Are people aware of the possible contradictions between competence items and their contradictory theoretical roots?

An interesting article by Véronique Marchand illustrates how the "evaluation of competences proceeds through reductionism" and states that "the complex action which constitutes every act of thought is reduced to a succession of procedures that become an end in themselves".
http://www.manifestoclub.com/education-competences (English translation)
http://www.sauv.net/competences.php (French version)

When reflecting on this subject, I can't help but thinking that, even if Burrhus Frederic Skinner is not necessarily the direct and only mentor of the approach, it could well be that in in the end he will.
Why? Because the main arguments that are use to "sell" the approach to 'evaluate by competences' like 'reduce or even eliminate failure', 'set reachable targets for everyone', 'increase students motivation to learn' etc. have all been used in a similar way by B. F. Skinner when he argued in favor of his operant conditioning instrument, the Teaching Machine. And we all know that any given school system tends to assimilate (make it similar to what is already in place) new concepts.

It is often said that, if you don't know the history, you are condemned to repeat it. This applies to teaching as well. If you don't know in which theories your teaching practices are rooted, you may be condemned to do what you tried to overcome or to do differently and better.

So you teachers out there, I invite you to analyse what is hiding behind the competence item before checking the box. The item is not necessarily what it pretends to be. And please don't forget to have a look back to the roots of your teaching.
Take the videos below as a start and listen carefully to what Skinner says about the "free will".

Oh yes, what about the title?
Read to Véronique Marchand's article to the end and you will get the explanation.



Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Tower of Babel

I got a lot of comments and questions recently. Thanks to all of you who took the time to comment my posts. Regarding the questions it will take some time to answer them, if I can. But maybe somebody else does have answers. Use the comment to react to peoples questions if you have some hint to a specific subject.

One suggestion I would like to make is that you should try to write your comments in English.
I think that most readers will understand English and expect English, as the whole blog is in English.
If I accept every language, the blog will be something like the Tower of Babel. Unfortunately I know only a few languages and most of the people around the world don't understand Luxembourgish. This makes it difficult to moderate comments. So let's all make an effort and avoid confounding of tongues to keep confusion low.

Besides, I don't give marks here and I don't care about your spelling - I care about the message. And if you are a teacher or a future teacher, try to do what you expect students to do, take your time but don't avoid the difficulty ;-)

The Book of Learning and Forgetting, Frank Smith

This is one of the books I regularly reread and one of those that I wish I had written. On 120 thought-provoking and illuminating pages the author retraces the roots and illustrates the consequences of some of the well established practices that inhabit school. Most of these practices are taken for granted by teachers, parents and politicians. Among these practices you'll find learning through repetition, hard work, individual effort, conditioning, reinforcement, exercises and corrections, testing, rewards and control.
He opposes this "official theory of learning" to a "classic view" of learning which says that most of the time "you learn from the company you keep" from the individuals and the groups you most identify with. We learn "new things" from them by connecting those things to what we already know, to what we have discovered, imagined or understood and by connecting them to our beliefs and theories, and to what we would like to learn.
Smith also says that the question should never be if you are learning, but always what are we learning, because you always learn. I totally agree with that. In reading lessons you could for instance be learning that reading opens new doors to imagination and understanding, or you could be learning, that you are a poor reader, that you will never be a member of the "literacy club", or you could be learning which strategies are most effective to avoid reading until you end up being illiterate - as school expected you to be from the start.
If you are asked to memorize word lists, you may be learning that putting things into short term memory helps getting good marks in tests or, if you have difficulties remembering those words, you may be learning that you probably have a learning disability, that you don't fit, that you have no talent for languages, that your brain is not made for learning, that learning is an endless struggle and a continuous war against forgetting.
Smith also questions the value of testing, measurement and standardization as a means to achieve quality in education. On the contrary, continuous testing diminishes the motivation and the self-confidence of the low scorers. On the other hand the high scorers "become so addicted to tests (...) that thy are reluctant to read or write anything, in school or out, unless a score or a grade will be attached."

Besides the devastating critic Smith has also to offer some interesting suggestions on how to change school, well knowing what questions they will generate. Regarding these suggestions he anticipates:
"The teachers then ask who should bring all this change about. My answer is that they must. Teachers shouldn't expect people outside the classroom to improve their working conditions for them; all their problems were created by people outside the classroom. Teachers must take charge of their own professional lives. How might teachers take charge and improve what goes on in schools? I have a simple answer. They must change the world. And when they ask how they could possibly change the world, I have another simple answer - a little bit at a time. I suggest they start with their own classrooms."

For me, one of the key statements in the book is this one:
"You learn in communities of people who do what you are expected to learn."
My interpretation of this is the following : If you expect your students to write, you have to write and share your writing. If you want them to read, then read and share your readings experience with your students. If you want them to reflect on their learning, then you should reflect on your teaching and share your reflections with them ...
Teachers - think about this!

Monday, April 14, 2008

"I don't know, that I know", Setarcos

Children learn languages that they encounter in their socio-cultural context without formal instruction. This is not only true for their first language but also for a second/foreign language. They are capable of learning hundreds and sometimes thousands of words and expressions on their own. In a school-centered approach to language teaching this hidden vocabulary is usually ignored.
Ok, I know that Socrates said "I know, that I don't know", and you probably guessed that there's is no philosopher named Setarcos.
My point (as usual) is an attempt to lead teachers into a different perspective. For one, teachers often don't know that they don't know about children's real learning capacities or their hidden knowledge. And secondly, students often don't know that they know already a lot more than what they think they know having adopted a school-centered perspective which they hadn't when they were younger.
We all have met one or the other child aged 4 or 5 saying: I speak English! (or any other language which is not one of his mother tongues) listen: "My name is Ben." And when you ask: Great! What else can you say in English? he replies: "Nothing, that's all."
And for sure, have we met children and adults saying : "I don't speak English."
But if we take one or two hours to investigate on the matter, we soon find out that they underestimated their knowledge and that because of schooling they are convinced "that they are not members of the literacy club" as Frank Smith calls it.
I tried to find out more about my daughter's "hidden vocabulary" as I would like to call this language knowledge which is ignored in formal language instruction. If you're interested read my transcript of our short investigation check this link http://en.olefaschool.org/courses/hiddenvocabulary . I working on designing an approach to language teaching that would built upon this "hidden vocabulary" (at least during the first weeks of a course), which every student brings to school. It's not finished yet, and I am open to suggestions and to questions of course.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Become a Reflective Practitioner in Three Steps

My last post was meant to encourage teachers to reflect on their teaching by writing. I'd like to come back to this subject.
Teachers often feel more threatened than encouraged, when they are asked to do what they expect students to do - to write. This tells us a lot about their schooling experience. If you are one of those teachers, or if you have never done the effort to reflect on your teaching by writing, this post is meant for you.
I suppose, that usually you choose from one of the following replies when asked to write down your thoughts or feelings: I am a poor writer. I have nothing really interesting to report. I don't know what to choose from all these events that occur every day im my classroom. When I read what others have written I feel incompetent. I don't know if it's fair to concentrate on one child when all of them deserve my attention. What's the use in writing on something that belongs to the past, even a recent past, when everyday new events occur that are equally important. I have so much preparation to do. How should I find the time to write? I don't like to leave written traces when I'm still searching for the right answer. Why should I spent the time on writing when I can tell it in our next meeting. etc.
(In case you have other excuses I am interested to know them;-)

How can we get past this obstacle? It's not easy, I know it by experience. Let's do it step by step.

First step:
What I say is not: Write down your reflections!
I say : Reflect by writing down your thoughts on your teaching!
What's the difference? Well, you don't need to know in detail what your writing will be about. Whatever comes to your mind is perfect to start from. You don't even need to start with a good question. Often the good questions emerge during writing or only at the end.
Your reflections will take shape during the writing process, trust me. There is no need for having thought out beforehand where to start or to end and what should happen in between. Don't think about details and depth. In short, don't reflect to much before you've started to write. Both are closely connected.
What happened today? Can you think of a specific situation, one child? Was there something you didn't feel comfortable with or something you would like to improve? Is a specific student's behaviour a mystery to you? Was their a conflict difficult to handle, maybe with parents or your principle? Have you been bored by a task, one that you repeat continuously because you think you have to, without being convinced that it's useful?
I am sure you can find something. Sit down at the computer or take a pen and give it a try. A few sentences or one hundred - it doesn't matter. What comes out comes out.

Second step:
What should you do with your writing? You should share it with somebody. Do it as soon as possible. Do it before you've thought it over and over and before you consider deleting the file. Who should you share it with? It can be another teacher or anybody else who could be interested; a parent, your students, your principal, your daughter or son, your grandma, ...
The easiest would be to share it with your students of course. But if you don't feel comfortable with that idea and if you can't think of anybody who maybe interested in your writing, post it here, or send me an email (fr, en, de, lu).
Whoever your conversational partner will be, you will probably get some reaction in return, maybe even a good question. Don't expect to much. It's not that important how much reaction you get. What counts is your effort to write and to share.

Third step:

After having shared your writing with somebody, go back to your text and develop one aspect of it. Or if another subjects turns up keep the first one, add the reactions you got as a comment and a short description of the sharing situation, and continue with the new subject.

Next steps:
Is there a fourth and a fifth step? Yes, of course but it depends on what you have written about and on the reactions you got, and on your reaction to the reactions you got. We'll think about that when you've done the first steps.

That's it for today. I wish you an inspiring quest.
May the courage and passion be with you!

This post has largely been inspired by recent meetings with teachers and the connections I made with some (re)readings like : On Listening to What Children Say, by Vivian Gussin Paley and A Teacher's Quest for a Child's Questions, by Kathe Jervis both published in Teachers, Teaching, & Teaching Education, Ed. M. Okazawa-Rey, J. Anderson, R. Traver.

To finish this post, here's a quote by V. G. Paley: "The act of teaching became a daily search for the child's point of view accompanied by the sometimes unwelcome disclosure of my hidden attitudes. The search was what mattered - only later did someone tell me it was research - and it provided an open-ended script from which to observe, interpret, and integrate the living drama of the classroom." in On Listening to What Children Say.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

I don't know what I think until I see what I say

This title is a declaration by the novelist Edward Morgan Forster (maybe known through some films based on his novels like A Passage to India, A Room with a View or Howards End).
I found the quote in the book "You Won't Remember Me - The Schoolboys of Barbiana Speak to Today" written by Marvin Hoffman in which he comments on "Letter to a Teacher" and reports how he was influenced in the beginning of his teaching career by the writing of the schoolboys of Barbiana.
When coaching teachers I regularly experience their resistance to writing when I suggest that they should try to write down their thoughts or to make short transcripts of classroom dialogue. Most of the teachers I meet have no confidence in their writing skills or feel that they have nothing valuable to write about. I can easily understand these feelings as I used to react in the same way and because I know what a poor and slow writer I am - which doesn't stop me from writing as you can see.
I think that you don't have to be a gifted writer if you have something to say and to share. We all know gifted writers and speakers who most of the time use their talent to demonstrate their superiority or to manipulate and to intimidate their audience or their readers.
Unfortunately most of us - teachers included - have not acquired writing and reading skills as means of self-expression and reflexion. In school we have been trained to think carefully before opening our mouth or before using a pen.
Nobody told us that writing is a way of thinking and that thoughts take shape during the act of speaking (cf. Heinrich Kleist famous essay he wrote in 1805 "On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking". ("Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden").

Teachers in the same way as their students need to take "courage to do without knowing yet how to do it" (P. Meirieu). Only then will they be prepared to be conscientious objectors to textbooks and to a rigidification of a curriculum which both are meant to enable a better transmission of reading and writing skills but too often leave students and teachers voiceless.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Deschooling the Dialogue

I regularly work with small groups of teachers who are willing to question their teaching style in order to enhance the quality of learning, to increase the teaching outcomes and to enrich their relationship with their students and thus improve the social climate in their classrooms and schools.

We usually spent a lot of time together negotiating how learning could be more meaningful to students, more self-directed and less determined by instruction according to textbooks which are seen as the abstract of the obligatory curriculum.

But we also spent a lot of time reflecting on the constraints which teachers perceive as being imposed to them like the curriculum, the marks, the expectations of the teachers taking over their class in the next grade, the expectations of parents who want their children to be well prepared for secondary school or higher education and for a society where competition rules.

An alternative to closed curriculum base instruction is self-directed learning organized around authentic text productions ("free texts" as Freinet calls it) and meaningful content brought up by the students themselves. This approach "values the unpredictable outcome of self-chosen personal encounter above the certified quality of professional instruction" as Ivan Illich puts it.

Of course this presupposes that teachers are partly convinced that learning can be more self-motivated and self-directed, that children need, that they like and that they want to express themselves and that they are willing to learn by themselves and for themselves.

If so, teachers can be fascinated by the motivation of their students and the quality of their reflections but also chocked and confused by their sincerity, especially when they use writing to communicate their personal state of mind, their current emotional disruption, their problems as adolescents, their conflicts with their family, their negative self-image mostly constructed through humiliating experiences in school, their dreams or their sometimes apocalyptical expectations regarding their future.

At the same time through authentic text productions teachers usually make the disillusioning discovery how ineffective their teaching was regarding spelling, grammar and vocabulary. They inevitably have to face their students' incapacity to use in real what they, as teachers, thought they had administered so well to them.

Out of this discovery they not seldom draw the conclusion that they haven't done enough instruction reinforcing their teaching style more than questioning it. (Illich speaks of the "manipulative institutions" (...) which "are either socially or psychologically addictive" where "social addiction, or escalation, consists in the tendency to prescribe increased treatment if smaller quantities have not yielded the desired results." An the students, confronted with their poor spelling usually have adopted the same logic and react in the way that the institution expects them to do - by acknowledging that they should practice more - meaning that they should do more exercises. In Illich's words, students demonstrate already their "Psychological addiction, or habituation, results when consumers become hooked on the need for more and more of the process or product."

In teachertraining teachers have been taught how to organize school around an obligatory curriculum, how to package instruction and certification which means how to do short term testing of instructional outcomes and to validate students work on the percentage of conformity to specific norms.

How should they deal with authentic text productions armed with such teaching concepts and skills, and with textbooks full of pre-constructed content and knowledge? How should they find the time to engage in high quality conversations with their students with all the institutional constraints? How should they organize language learning, mathematics, science, art or any other subject around authentic productions based on self-interest, when these productions are unpredictable, extremely complex, heterogeneous, sometimes provoking, often questioning and demanding?

These are challenging questions, I know. And as a teacher you might want me to give you the answers to those questions. So, what are the answers? Do I have any?
My response as a coach is this:
  • First, it is already an achievement to find questions that really matter and that you share with other teachers.
  • Second, if the answers are not close at hand, that's no reason to abandon the search but on the contrary to pursue the inquiry.
  • And third, if there are any answers, you will probably find them if you share the same questions with your students.
Again, thanks to the teachers I work with and special thanks to Marco and Martine for raising some important issues during our last meeting. Thanks also to Sanela, Claudine and Joël for sharing their concerns and reflections with me.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Die Welle - The Wave


On Friday I went the see the movie "Die Welle". It is based on an experiment by Ron Jones that took place April 1967 in his Highschool history class. Jones' objective was to demonstrate to his students that if the context is right and the slogans strong and clear enough, individuality and critical thinking can easily be replaced by a kind of mass-"consciousness" with fascist tendencies.

In 1972, 5 Years after the experiment Ron Jones wrote down his view of the experience - called at that time The Third Way. You can find his report here :
http://www.vaniercollege.qc.ca/Auxiliary/Psychology/Frank/Thirdwave.html


In this report Ron Jones tells us how it all started: "We were studying Nazi Germany and in the middle of a lecture I was interrupted by the question. How could the German populace claim ignorance of the slaughter of the Jewish people. How could the townspeople, railroad conductors, teachers, doctors, claim they knew nothing about concentration camps and human carnage. How can people who were neighbors and maybe even friends of the Jewish citizen say they weren't there when it happened. it was a good question. I didn't know the answer."

In only five days the students experienced the metamorphoses from critical thinkers to subjects completely submitted to discipline and authority similar to the one of Nazi regime.

Ron Jones : "We have seen that fascism is not just something those other people did. No. it's right here. In this room. In our own personal habits and way of life. Scratch the surface and it appears. Something in all of us. We carry it like a disease. The belief that human beings are basically evil and therefore unable to act well toward each other. A belief that demands a strong leader and discipline to preserve social order."

But the experience not only has an effect on his students but also on Ron Jones himself:
"I now began to ponder not just how far this class could be pushed but how such I would change my basic beliefs toward an open classroom and self directed learning".

For my part I didn't like the end of the film to much. I prefer the version in Ron Jones report on the final day of the experience. But anyway, The film is a must for all educators and good occasion to reflect on some of the classroom rituals they sometimes impose on their students without thinking of possible drawbacks of a "uniform code of behavior" as Jones calls it.

I strongly recommend to read the original report by Jones and also read through the following Wikipedia pages
on the Milgram-Experiment : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_Experiment,
the Stanford-Prison-Experiment : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment
on Jane Elliott, best known for her workshops on racism : http://www.janeelliott.com/
and on Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann's theory of the 'spiral of silence' (Die Schweigespirale in German): http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schweigespirale

Finally Ron Jones' website : http://www.ronjoneswriter.com/

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Teaching Grammar

I have spent part of the afternoon in a primary school discussing with Claudine, a primary school teacher, her recent classroom experiences. She has switched her teaching style from a teacher, textbook and instruction centered approach to a child, activity and reflection centered approach. With all the difficulties she is still facing (she has to give marks at the end of a term for instance and base these mark on some sort of testing) she stresses how motivated her students have become and that the learning outcomes are better or at least not less than before. For example this has been the case for some grammar points. How is this possible, what does she do? She gave this example which illustrates quite well her strategy : Under her guidance (not her formal instruction) her students explore and discover grammatical forms that occur in their writings (free texts on personal or common topics). Then they reflect on these grammatical forms, and apply them in their next or revised text productions. Sounds simple, doesn't it? So what's so exceptional about this approach? Well first of all the teacher has to know, to see and to accept that students "use grammar" while they use language. You can't use language without using grammar - that's a fact. The next thing that a teachers has to admit, is that children can think and want to know things sometimes even about grammar. They also like to discover how things work and most of all - they want to express themselves or should I say, they need to express themselves. And somebody who expresses him or herself does it for natural human reasons not for school purposes alone. Even if it sounds odd, students understand very well the fact that grammar is a means to better master language, to help them clarify and communicate their thoughts and standpoints and to share their understanding of themselves, of others and the world around them.

I know that many teachers will have difficulties to accept that language production should come before language formalization because it's not the way by which they were taught. But what they ignore is that during writing for example students already make grammatical choices and think about grammar even if its not in a formalized technical language.

Inspired by today's discussion I searched on the net and found this interesting website called "The essentials of Language Learning" by the National Capital Language Resource Center and this video on YouTube entitled "You can't SAY you can't PLAY" which is inspired, according to their authors, by Vivian Gussin Paley's books "White Teacher" and "Kwanzaa and Me" (and the title "You Can't Say You Can't Play").

Thanks Claudine for giving me this opportunity to reflection ! I really like this video :

Some Reading Milestones

  • Towards reflexive method in archaeology : the example at Çatalhöyük (edited by Ian Hodder) 2000

  • The Book of Learning and Forgetting (Frank Smith) 1998

  • Points of Viewing Children's Thinking: A Digital Ethnographer's Journey (Ricki Goldman-Segall) 1997

  • Verstehen lehren (Martin Wagenschein) 1997

  • Computer im Schreibatelier (Gérard Gretsch) 1992

  • The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter. Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom (Vivian Gussin Paley) 1991

  • La cause des adolescents (Françoise Dolto) 1988

  • Scuola di Barbiana. Die Schülerschule. Brief an eine Lehrerin. (Edition of 1980) / read in German 1982
    Letter to Teacher by the Schoolboys of Barbiana (1970)
    Lettre à une maîtresse de'école, par les enfants de Barbiana (1968)
    Lettera à una professoressa (Original Edition) 1967


  • Vers une pédagogie institutionnelle (Aïda Vasquez, Fernand Oury) 1967



Documentary Films on Education

  • Eine Schule, die gelingt (by Reinhard Kahl) 2008

  • Les temps des enfants (Jacques Duez) 2007

  • Klassenleben (by Bernd Friedmann und Hubertus Siegert) 2006

  • Lernen - Die Entdeckung des Selbstverständlichen
    (Ein Vortrag von Manfred Spitzer) 2006

  • Die Entdeckung der frühen Jahre
    Die Initiative "McKinsey bildet" zur frühkindlichen Bildung (by Reinhard Kahl) 2006

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft - Wie in Deutschland Schulen gelingen (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft / Incubators of the future / Les serres de l'avenir; International Edition (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Journal de classe, 1ères audaces (1), Les échappés (2), Sexe, amour et vidéo (3), L'enfant nomade (4), Remue-méninges (5) (by Wilbur Leguebe, Jacques Duez, Agnès Lejeune) 2004

  • Spitze - Schulen am Wendekreis der Pädagogik (by Reinhard Kahl) 2003

  • Journal de classe, (by Wilbur Leguebe and Agnès Lejeune; Jacques Duez) 2002

  • Etre et Avoir (by Nicolas Philibert) 2002

  • The Stolen Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2002

  • The Angry Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2001

  • A l'école de la providence (by Gérard Preszow) 2000

  • Blue-Eyed (by Jane Elliott) 1996

  • A Class Divided (by Jane Elliott) 1984

  • Eye of The Storm (with Jane Elliott) 1970

Past quotes of the day

For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong. Henry Louis Mencken

Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.
Antonio Machado

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Immanuel Kant

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. Albert Einstein

To paraphrase a famous quotation, all that is necessary for the triumph of damaging educational policies is that good educators keep silent. Alfie Kohn

We used to have lots of questions to which there were no answers. Now, with the computer, there are lots of answers to which we haven't thought up the questions. Peter Ustinov

I had a terrible education. I attended a school for emotionally disturbed teachers. Woody Allen

A professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep. W. H. Auden

When I was an inspector of schools I visited one classroom and looked at a boys book. He'd written, 'Yesterday, Yesterday, Yesterday, Sorrow, Sorrow, Sorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Love, Love, Love.' I said, 'That's a lovely poem.' He said, 'Those are my spelling corrections.' Gervase Phinn

Real thinking never starts until the learner fails. Roger Schank

If what is wanted is a reexamination of schooling in terms of purpose, structure and process, then testing programmes are the wrong vehicle (...) Caroline V. Gipps

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Albert Einstein

Act always so as to increase the number of choices. Heinz von Foerster

Another way of avoiding teaching is by relying exclusively on a textbook, workbooks, and other commercially packaged learning materials. Teaching is reduced to administering a set curriculum without giving any thought to the substance of what the students area learning or to their particular needs. H. Kohl

The right to ignore anything that doesn't make sense is a crucial element of any child's learning - and the first right children are likely to lose when they get to the controlled learning environment of school. F. Smith

Learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful activity. - Ivan Illich

Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve. - Roger Lewin

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. - Mark Twain

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