@Gever Tulley brings us Brightworks. A return to the roots of learning.

I had the privilege of sharing lunch with Gever Tulley , the master of fooling around at TedXBloomington.
Many people know Gever for his now famous TED talk about Tinkering School, or for his book ” 50 Dangerous things you should let your children do”. ( associate link). He also did a TED talk around this theme, listing 5 Dangerous things.

He is in the process of starting a new school which will open this fall: Brightworks. His talk at TedXBloomington explained more about the philosophy of the new school.

While listening to his talk, my first reaction was ” I want to teach there”. but moving to San Francisco is not a reality for us, so that quickly shifted to “I want to open the Midwest Branch of Brightworks here”. Part of the reason for this gut reaction is that his theories resonate strongly with much of my education, so I know it works. I was not schooled in some odd charter school, but rather in the public schools of Maryland, back in in the 1970s (shhh) in the Cambrian Era of Education. I grew up in Open Spaced schools, with “unclassrooms”. Then even with the move to High School, we were allowed to test out of the planned curriculum and then design our own research and investigation projects for a month or so at a time. This was in Science, Social Studies/History and English. We did not have the number of outside expert resources coming into our schools, but I grew up between Baltimore and Philadelphia, in an area rich with external resources. When my partner and I wanted to do more research on the Origins of Man for one project, the school system tracked down every Bus already going Down to Washington DC for a field trip, rerouted them to come by and pick us up in the morning, drop us off at the Museum of Natural History and then picked us up to go home at the end of the day. We did this every day for a week, then came back to the school and integrated what we learned with other resources to produce our project. This was not an isolated example, our teachers and the system wanted us to explore and learn and supported it every way they could.
The biggest reason I believe that Brightworks will be a massive success is the student to teacher ratio. At Brightworks the student to teacher ratio will only be 6:1. Our student :teacher ratio was slightly higher than that, but much of the education I got was small group or individual so the interactions with teachers were personal. Starting my Sophmore year, we were designated the first graduating class of a brand new high school. We were the upper classmen, so teachers had far fewer students to track and manage. Regardless of teaching technique, lowering the student:teacher ratio is good for learning. It returns us to our roots of Apprenticeship programs where only small numbers of students learned from Masters. It gives teachers the luxury of time to get to really know and understand how each student learns best and to tailor the experience for them, rather than attempting to mass produce learners from a School Factory.

I believe that what Brightworks is doing is the way that most teachers naturally want to teach, given time and freedom, and more importantly matches how all of us naturally learn. Think hard about how you learn new things, now that you are out of school- I doubt it matches the current modern classroom experience.

They are taking some care to try to balance gender, etc. in the school- so if you are in the San Francisco area and have a girl between the ages of 6-9 check them out they still have about a half a dozen openings. With a policy to have half their students on scholarship, this will not be an experience that is limited to the privileged few.

I am very excited about this experiment and hope the students end up sharing their expositions digitally as well, so we can follow along on their exciting journey of learning.

Network security: public service

You know the cover pages full of adverts that many free internet services ( hotels, restaurants, etc..) have? What if they included a little embedded application that showed a stream of all of the clear text passwords being transmitted over that network as you connected? Obviously, you would not want to attach the login username to it, or make it really useful– just make people aware that there are many applications out there that use cleartext passwords and if you are on an unsecured network, this puts you at risk. I saw a related app on the showfloor at last years SC09 and it raised a lot of eyebrows, even amongst the geeks who attend a supercomputer conference. What do you think the results of this would be in the general public??

Keep it simple?

I know the advice offered up by Dean Rieck in his “Ultimate Blogger Writing Guide” is exactly what I should be doing to increase the readability of my blog and widen my audience. But I find I tire easily of blogs written in small words, with short sentences arranged in short paragraphs. I long for complexity. I crave writing that requires thought and digestions before I decide if I agree or disagree. I love it when an interesting article sends me off to my dictionary to look up a word, which will then be added to my working vocabulary and is certain to show up in a future blog post of my own. I recently used the word “ponder” in a facebook status and had a high school sophomore seriously asking what it meant to “ponder” something. Perhaps, if we were not all trying to write to the lowest, widest common denominator, more readers would be stretched and grow. Then again, maybe they would just stop reading what we have to say…

The blame game: Technology is evil

“Professor Tara Brabazon, from the University of Brighton, said too many young people around the world were taking the easy option when asked to do research and simply repeating the first things they found on internet searches.” So states an article in The Argus earlier today.

This is without a doubt a true statement, what is troubling is her solution :Ban Google and Wikipedia as options for her students doing research projects. I am so very tired of the people playing the blame game and turning the blame around to the newest technology. Yes, too many educators adopt technology without thinking about how/why to use it in their classroom. But many do a great job with it- working hard late at night to update lesson plans to be sure students are learning relevant information, technologies and life skills. The fact that students are being lazy and taking short cuts on their work has nothing at all to do with the technology and everything to do with the nature of students.

Let’s take a little trip back into the way back machine. Way way back when I was in grades 7-10, the xerox copier was becoming much more common place. ( told you I was old) Libraries were starting to make them available to the public for small fees. Usually the fees to copy were small enough that students could easily xerox whole pages from books at once- making the process of note taking very simple. However, some students took the easy way out and were soon turning in research papers that were copies of article out of World Book or Encylopedia Britannica. Others were blindly quoting what third level sources told them without going back and checking facts. Teachers were angry and frustrated at how this new technology was destroying the students ability to write original papers- so they banned the use of xeroxes during library time and you were required to turn in hand written 3X5 index cards with your notes on them to prove that you actually wrote notes and did not just xerox them. In some small percentage of cases, this probably discouraged students from copying whole articles from the encyclopedias- but it never did keep students from blindly quoting and writing the first references that they found and doing fact checking. As a matter of fact, it tended to discourage lots of fact checking, because the process was painfully manual.

The really good teachers incorporated the copy machine into their lesson plans and used it to free up time students would have been manually writing notes and gave lessons in how to be discriminating with sources, do good analysis of opinions and facts stated in articles and spent time helping students learn to find great sources. These teachers focused more on the process of analysis than on the process of hand writing notes.

I do not believe that this was a new story with our generation, either. I have an odd mental picture of University lecturers griping about the deterioration of their student’s memorization abilities, because of the introduction of the printing press.

This is not a new idea- Neil Postman actually addressed this in his book “Amusing ourselves to Death”, in which he posits that the current media format ( specifically television, but also web video, etc..)has considerably eroded our attention span. I do not argue the truth of this, or that it is a mental capability that people need to continue to work on build and enhance. The ability to hold long threads of thought, argument and discourse is part of what allows researchers to innovate and discover new things. However, the solution is NOT to become luddites and ban technology so that we can get our attention span back. There is simply too much information today for very old techniques( memorization, oral tradition) or even moderately old( card catalogs, book indexes, flipping journal pages) to suffice in a comprehensive search of information. A better approach is to first teach effective search technique and then to spend lots of time on the oldest subject around- critique and analysis of sources.