Friday, August 29, 2008

The Grand Inquisitor

I've read a few graphic novelizations of literary classics -- Kafka's Metamorphosis prominent among them. When I picked up John Zmirak and Carla Millar's The Grand Inquisitor, I expected something similar. That's not what I got. Instead, I got a traditionalist Catholic retelling of Dostoyevsky's tale from The Brothers Karamazov. And what a retelling. Dostoyevsky told the story of a Christ reborn in Spain who is interrogated by a Spanish Inquisitor. The Inquisitor informs Christ that humans cannot ever hope to live up to his ideas so instead, the Church has established a system of fear, punishments, and control to make their journey to heaven easier.

Zmirak and Millar's retelling casts an African priest from Darfur as the Christ-like figure who finds himself in Rome in the midst of a contentious papal election. The Inquisitor is a liberal cardinal who argues that the liberalization of the Church has been done so that people cannot see the difference between sin and salvation. This would make them innocent of sin and allow them entrance into heaven. The cardinal imprisons the African priest in a mental hospital and uses therapeutic techniques to show the priest the error of his ways.

In evaluating this, I'm of two minds here. As a piece of theology, this book is stunning in its audacity. It is unabashedly traditionalist in its Catholicism. As a one-time traditionalist who still has a soft-spot for this sort of thing, I find the piece refreshing. Ten years ago I would have been floored by how amazing this is. And for traditionalists, this undoubtedly will be. Zmirak and Millar are unrepentant papalists and exclusivists -- for them "extra ecclesiam nulla salus". Islam has nothing to offer but oppression and falsity. Liberals are degenerates at worst and misguided paternalists at best. There's little room for subtlety here. As I've matured as a Catholic, I find this world view stunning in its reductionism and intolerance.

But as a piece of art, this book really is an achievement. The illustrations are beautiful and disturbing, reminding me of Bosch and Bruegel's work with wonderfully out of place portraits of Stalin and Malcolm X thrown in. The writing is poetic and truly lyrical. In the end, this is truly a great book in service of a questionable cause.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Rethinking the BA

I'm generally not a big fan of Charles Murray (think the whole "Bell Curve" issue), but he has a really interesting article in the Wall Street Journal that questions our whole system of undergraduate education. Here's a sample:

"Imagine that America had no system of post-secondary education, and you were a member of a task force assigned to create one from scratch. One of your colleagues submits this proposal:

First, we will set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward to it that seldom has anything to do with what has been learned. We will urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We will stigmatize everyone who doesn't meet the goal. We will call the goal a "BA."

You would conclude that your colleague was cruel, not to say insane. But that's the system we have in place."

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Losing Control of the News

David Carr has an article in the New York Times outlining the steady loss of control of content by the traditional media. Carr does a great job of providing specific examples -- notably the Beijing Olympics -- of how all of these new fangled we applications are changing who determines what the news is. Essentially, the argument boils down to "content is cheap"; something people like Will Richardson have said on many occasions about education. Are we losing authoritative control over knowledge and if so, what does this changing landscape mean for educators?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

East German Nuclear Bunkers

I visited East Germany in 1988, a few months before the Berlin Wall came down. It was an interesting visit filled with everything you'd imagine -- gun-toting guards, waiting in lines, wandering through WWII-era bombed out buildings, etc. YouTube has an amazing video of an East German nuclear bunker designed to house Erich Honecker and his posse.

Monday, August 25, 2008


The Washinton Post has an article that shows how changing demographics are impacting the school-age population. In several nearby counties, the number of "minority" under-5 children has surpassed the "majority". Our population is changing and I wonder if schools are ready for the increased numbers of different cultures we're about to face in our schools. This trend is about to occur in the overall U.S. population in the next few decades. I look at this as an exciting opportunity for intercultural interactions, but there are bound to be bumps in the road as multiple distinctly different cultures begin to mix. My hope is that schools facilitate this process in a way that respects the differences but also allows for common ground and teaches responsible participation in our democratic system. I guess that sounds vague, but I worry about nativist reactions shutting down this development.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Summer Reading/Summer Homework

Another article from the Washington Post, this time on the impact of summer reading/summer homework on kids. The article does a good job looking at the differing opinions. As a parent making sure my kids finish up their assignments, I definitely see both sides of this issue.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Unintended Consequences for the AP

A really interesting article that talks about the origins of the Advanced Placement Program and its unintended consequences. Not that I'm on an AP kick, but I've just run across these the past few days.

Friday, August 22, 2008

AP Bombshell

Scarsdale High School, the Mecca of AP programs, is seriously considering dropping their AP designation. This would be the first public school to drop its AP program, but it joins a list of such Independent schools as Dalton, Spence, Fieldston, and Crossroads (to name a few). Jay Matthews talks about it in his Washington Post column.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube

This is a rather long, but incredibly engaging exploration of YouTube and general web 2.0 stuff.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Does Math Acceleration Work?

The Washington Post has an article that chronicles accelerated math students at the Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland (the school is billed as having a magnet program in math and science). The author asserts that students who had been accelerated from geometry to precalc but were needing remediation in Algebra II.

I don't know enough about the school to pass judgment, but the article's worth a read. Another battle in the math wars...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Innumeracy of the Intellectuals

Inside Higher Ed posted an article entitled "The Innumeracy of the Intellecuals" and bemoans the basic lack of understanding of math and science on our university campuses. A knowledge of the arts and humanities is often seen as a sine non que of any curriculum, but far too many can slip between the cracks with barely a whiff of math and science.

As someone who pretty much fits the mold of the college student who skated past math and the sciences, it's hard to disagree with his assessment and this passage stung:

Intellectuals and academics are just assumed to have some background knowledge of the arts, and not knowing those things can count against you. Ignorance of math and science is no obstacle, though. I have seen tenured professors of the humanities say — in public faculty discussions, no less — “I’m just no good at math,” without a trace of shame. There is absolutely no expectation that Intellectuals know even basic math.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Rethinking Rewards and Punishments

The Washington Post's Shankar Vadanram discusses some interesting research on human motivation. In essence, he argues that extrinsic motivations such as rewards and punishments may not have the effect on people as previously thought. He cites research that shows that people who like what they're doing perform better than those motivated by extrinsic rewards and punishments. His point is a bit more complex, but as we look at motivating students, this is a worthwhile read.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Highly Educated Useless People

Ian Jukes is back with another article that takes our current education to task. His argument is pretty familiar -- that we are creating "highly educated useless people" -- but is he correct? I think there's room for serious debate on the issue, but I don't have the sense that most educators are looking in this direction.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Next 5,000 Days of the Web

The TED Conference web site has posted another very interesting video. This time, it's Kevin Kelly's speculation on where the web is going in the next 10 years or so. It's interesting if a bit dense. I'm not sure if his predictions are hopeful or ominous -- perhaps they are an admixture of both.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Language Immersion

Edutopia recently posted an article about Seattle's John Stanford International School. It's a program that has kids choose a Japanese or Spanish track and half their day is spent learning in the target language and the other half is in English.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Virtual Field Trips

ESchoolNews has an article on the rising popularity of virtual field trips. With rising gas prices and transportation costs in general, schools are starting to turn to alternative sources of exploring the world. It's not quite as good as being there, but I guess it's better than not being there at all...

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Video Production Site

For those of you trying to incorporate some video productions into your classroom, Creating Lifelong Learners has a great collection of links to video how-to guides on the internet.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

"Brain Fatigue"

Scientific American has an article that looks at the topic of "brain fatigue".

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Year of Living Biblically

I read A.J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically a few months ago and enjoyed it quite a bit. He recently gave a talk at the T.E.D. Conference about his attempts to live according to the literal precepts of the Bible for an entire year. If this sort of thing interests you, take a look at my earlier post on the book Rapture Ready.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Clickers in the Classroom

In the midst of all the new web 2.0 stuff, the simple clicker is often overlooked, but Inside Higher Ed has a brief piece on the potential benefits of this device.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Student Textbook Wiki

I ran across an interesting student-developed wiki that is essentially a 20th century history textbook they created. I like the idea in theory and this project actually looks pretty interesting to me.

Friday, August 8, 2008

My Stroke of Insight

I first ran across Jill Bolte Taylor's book "My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey" on the TED website. Her account of her stroke at age 37 is riveting and the fact that she's chronicled this with the training of a brain scientist only makes her story that much more compelling. The book is an interesting combination of her stroke, her recovery, some brief introductory brain science, as well as some self-help stuff.

The account of her stroke is riveting. She experienced some rather psychadelic episodes that make me wonder how others experience these sort of events. What does the brain do during death? What do people experience in a coma? There seems to be an interesting combination of euphoria, disorientation, wonderment, and fear, all of which are competing simultaneously.

I also found her discussion of the hemispheric differences between the left and right side of the brain riveting. The whole "left brain/right brain" distinction is insightful. Her account of her recovery from her stroke provides lots of practical information to stroke victims and their caregivers and friends. Her recovery is truly inspirational and inspired many. Dick Clark named her one of the most influential people in Time Magazine and with good reason.

The fact that a scientist had the logical/rational part of her brain essentially shut down due to a stroke, makes for interesting reading. During this time she got more in touch with her emotional/intuitional side and it seems as if she learned greater patience and forbearance. At times, her language is a bit too New Age for me, but given what she's been through and the lessons she's learned, I may still be using too much of my left brain in thinking about all this.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Madrassas for the 21st Century

The BBC posted a report on an Islamic theological school in northern India that is undergoing a major image makeover.

The teachings at the Darul-Uloom Deoband madrassa are said to have inspired tens of thousands of other seminaries across south Asia - but also groups such as the Taleban.

Now the school is trying to equip its students with 21st-Century skills.

The BBC's India Correspondent Sanjoy Majumder made a rare visit to the institute, which for years has been closed to the outside world.

Take a look here.

Internet Cheating

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article on a disturbing trend on YouTube: how-to videos on cheating. Take a look:

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


I stumbled upon a really interesting news report about a school that has decided the stop homework. In its stead, they have students watch podcasts of teacher lessons. In class, they work on projects, research, and the like. According to the report, there's been some widespread interest in the process.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Designing for Virtual Communities in the Service of Learning

I didn't go to ed school -- I'm one of those private school teachers who opted for the subject-area route. As I look back over my career, I sort of wish that I had taken some education courses. Some of my major "insights" turn out to be things that ed school people learned from the get-go. But books like "Designing for Virtual Communities in the Service of Learning" make me see the other side of things and realize some of the nightmares I avoided.

The book reads like a caricature of every bad graduate school, techno-babble-filled I've ever read. In history, the equivalent was the spate of postmodernist, Derrida-esque studies involving "hermeneutics" and "topologies" of such things as textuality, logocentrism, and the like. Anyway, this book seems to outline the obvious. It develops a typology of communities and the analyzes the methodologies involved in constructing a virtual community. The premise is interesting: can we develop meaningful virtual communities for education? The book itself never seems to get to this topic, however. I look at the pages, read the words, and then I just hear buzzing inside my head. For the life of me, I don't know what the authors are trying to say. Part of it is probably me. I never "got" those types of books in grad school and I think I've just got a mental block. Read this one at your own risk.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

True Enough: Learing to Live in a Post-Fact Society

"True Enough" by Farhad Manjoo, is another in the long line of books that argues that new technologies are changing the way we approach knowledge. Manjoo's contention is that the new media has made it much easier for people to selectively choose what information they process. This allows them to develop their own versions of the truth which are essentially impervious to any outside information. It's an interesting argument, but he does a pretty poor job of actually supporting it.

Manjoo provides lots of case studies ranging from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, to 9/11 Deniers, to those who think that the 2004 presidential election was fixed. In themselves, these case studies are pretty interesting, but he never really convinces me that any of this is essentially different than what preceded the new media. He asserts that the right-wing talk network is different from what preceded it, but provides little in specific proof. Father Coughlin in the 1930s had his own little right-wing network. He compares the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists with the 2004 election conspiracy theorists, but never really shows the difference between the two.

I'm skeptical that Manjoo can ever make his case -- I firmly think that the whole apocalyptic approach to new media is overblown and alarmist. Still, I'm open to the idea that it might be the case. But the author never really makes the necessary logical connections. He provides lots of specific information and he makes lots of interesting assertions, but if you examine the text closely, he never actually links the two together in any meaningful way. Given the author's presumed defense of some sort of objective truth and logic, this is a rather startling oversight.

There are some pretty broad assertions in the book that took me aback as well. He argues that conservatives are more prone to filter out information that contradicts their ideological mindset more than progressives. Now don't get me wrong here, I'm a progressive. But I've known plenty of fellow leftists who are as dogmatic and closed-minded as any conservative. I've also known some pretty open-minded conservatives. He cites one university study as proof. In the end, I think True Enough is as "true enough" as some of the items he tackles in the book.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Johnny Rotten -- Defender of Family Values

Now Johnny Rotten is quoted in the AP as saying that the punk movement was all about "family values". What happened to this guy?

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Buddha by Osamu Tezuka

As history, I have no doubt that Tezuka Osamu's Buddha has taken some liberties with the narrative of the Buddha's life. As a piece of writing, however, this is an excellent retelling of the life of the Buddha. In the first volume of this eight volume series, the reader is given a general overview of some of the main characters and the background story. The Buddha himself only makes an appearance late in the book and even then, he's a baby. There are several narrative paths all of which converge by the end. The narrative flows smoothly and Tezuka does a great job creating between the reader and the several characters and even manages to make some of the more unappealing people rather nuanced and sympathetic.

There will be some people for whom the historical inaccuracies will get in the way of their enjoyment of the book. I would remind those people, however, that some of the most beloved works of literature are themselves gross distortions of history. Shakespeare's "history" plays border on fabrication, Mallory's Mort Darthur isn't exactly accurate and in fact literary representations of historical events have always taken a good deal of license with their subject matter. Yet somehow, there are a group of literary snobs who won't accept contemporary historical fiction and turn up their noses at all contemporary retellings of history. They have no apparent problem with their beloved cannon doing the same, but if contemporary authors do it, it's an outrage. Buddha is a literary retelling of the life of the Buddha and as such, it is most definitively not sold as nor intended to be a historical retelling of his life. It's an enjoyable introduction to this topic and has undoubtedly inspired lots of people to learn more about the life of its subject.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Watchmen

It's hard to categorize The Watchmen. It's a graphic novel, to be sure, but it's got many layers to it. It's a period piece, set in the Cold War. It's an ethical treatise, pitting rival versions of morality against one another. It's an explication of human nature. It's a postmodernist deconstruction of the superhero genre. And it's many more things -- I suspect reading it again will reveal further levels.

Alan More and Dave Gibbons set their story in an alternative universe where superheroes are real, Nixon was elected for a third term,and the U.S.A. won the Vietnam War. The Superheroes, however, are not all that super. In fact, they're pretty pathetic characters whose powers are pretty much non-existent (with one notable exception). The plot centers around the death of several of these superheroes and a few of their rivals and twists into an incredibly detailed (and at times convoluted) story. There are also multiple subplots and numerous secondary characters as well as a comic within the comic and an intriguing text-based extracts from various primary sources set in this alternative timeline.

This isn't a book I enjoyed in they way I enjoyed some other graphic novels, and it's almost more akin to the comic equivalent of Franz Kafka. It's a disturbing and morally ambivalent universe that Moore and Gibbons create and the good guys aren't all that good and the villains are more pathetic than evil. Most of the heroes are pathetic vigilantes and their political philosophy is pretty much racist and fascist. Liberals aren't portrayed much better and come across as either hopelessly naive or as ruthless as their conservative counterparts. The illustrations do a great job of reflecting the atmosphere and Gibbons does a great job of recreating the style of earlier comics; there's a grimy and depressing quality to everything.

The Watchmen deserves its reputation and it deserves all the praise it's received. It won the Hugo Award and was named one of Time Magazine's top novels of all time a few years back. If you have a preconceived notion of comic books or superheroes, this book shatters everything you've thought about the genre. I don't think that everyone will appreciate this book -- there's just something odd and demented about it. I also found it a bit slow to get going but I think that's because I had trouble getting past my preconceived notions about superheroes. If you're patient with the book, though, and give yourself some time to reflect on the book once you've read it, you'll be more than rewarded.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Disrupting Class

Most of us in education are pretty resistant to having people in the business world tell us how to do things. I'm not taking sides on this one, but it's a professional bias. I've learned that the business world actually does have some things we in education could learn. Since everyone went to school, everyone feels they are an expert in the field and as such are qualified to offer their recommendations. One often hears the lament that schools need to be run like a business. Of course, one could argue that schools are actually far more successful than businesses, but that's another story...Like I said, I see both sides of this issue.

So when I picked up Clayton Christensen's Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, I felt all my old biases coming back to me. He's a professor at Harvard Business School and I figured he'd drag out all the old saws we educators hear. But the book was a bit of surprise to me and I found myself agreeing with much of what Christensen had to say. Essentially, the book argues that new technologies ("disruptive technologies") are about to pose a serious threat to traditional education. With the current emphasis on differentiated instruction and individual learning styles, technology-based, individualized instruction is going to subtly, but rapidly, overtake traditional education. I've heard Faith Popcorn raise the same issue at the National Association of Independent Schools' conference, but she was not nearly as convincingly.

These new technologies are developing primarily in the form of online courses offered outside of the traditional school structure. This is an important point for Christensen and he draws a parallel to how home computing developed in the shadow of mainframe computers and eventually gutted that industry. Right now, the online education field is meeting a completely unmet need, serving primarily kids who cannot receive certain types of instruction in their own schools. As this "industry" develops, it's going to be able to provide kids with far more customized instruction to meet kids' different learning styles. He predicts that by around 2012 or so, that around 50% of seat time in classes will be through online courses. I think that's a bit too quick, but I don't necessarily dispute the general point.

He points out that the current system is inherently incapable of adopting this revolution precisely because it is successful. At best, the system will attempt to cram new technologies into the existing paradigm. He points out industries that have tried to do this and failed and he also points to some educational efforts with the same results. None of this is actually an assault on traditional education per se. He argues that it is doing a very good job on its own terms. The problem is that these disruptive technologies are creating a paradigm shift that will make whatever improvements we've made obsolete.

He's not predicting the end of schools as such, but he is arguing that schools are going to look very different in the future. He foresees charter schools and pilot schools becoming more prominent and he argues that we will need to recognize that the idea of comprehensive schools will go by the wayside. We're going to need to customize schools to meet all kinds of learners in the future. He also sees that what teachers do will also change pretty dramatically. He uses that hackneyed line of us becoming "guides on the side" rather than the "sage on the stage". I hate the line, but see his point.

The end of the book seems to drift off topic a bit and has a fairly extensive critique of current educational research, but for the most part, Christensen's argumentation is crisp and concise. His conclusions are definitely controversial and will undoubtedly upset some. I don't know that I agree with him 100%, but I do think he raises some important issues that we as educators need to look into and address head on.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Arab in America

Toufic El Rassi's "Arab in America" is a graphic novel depicting his life in the U.S.A. He's of Lebanese/Egyptian ancestry but grew up in the U.S. His experiences have not, to put it lightly, been pleasant. He tried to assimilate as a young man, but anti-Arab sentiments continually pushed him away. Much of the book is a chronicle of how El Rassi feels American culture has pushed him away and denigrated his heritage. He relates stories pre- and post- 9/11 of how Arabs are portrayed in popular culture; lumping all Muslims under the inaccurate moniker of "Arav"; portrayals of Arabs as inherently anti-American and potential terrorists. He's frustrated at liberals who "speak for him" but don't quite get the source of Arab resentment. He rails against the "War on Terror" and the indiscriminate renditions, imprisonments, and deportations. El Rassi also looks at how his fellow Arabs respond to these conditions -- from attempts to assimilate even more to efforts to embrace their Arab (and Muslim) identities.

The U.S.A. depicted in this book is not a welcoming place and is certainly not the U.S.A. we'd like to think we are. I'm not sure El Rassi's entirely fair to portray this nation as such an uncharitable and intolerant place, but I think he's got legitimate grievances. The anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments are clearly visible as are the violations of civil liberties endemic in our "war on terror". Sikhs have been attacked because they "look Arab" or "look Muslim" (they're not). One of my students, himself a Sikh, brought in a poster that local Sikh businessmen were displaying in their offices and stores that said "Sikhs Love America", in an attempt to stave off misunderstandings and discrimination and (possibly) violence. Arabs and/or Muslims are in an even worse situation than the Sikhs.

"Arab in America" is an unsettling book. I'm sure some on the right would call it an at anti-American work. Indeed, the author ends the book by leaving for Lebanon and seriously thinking of not returning to the U.S.A. But why did he leave? For El Rassi, we rejected him, not the other way around. In my (admittedly limited) interactions with Arabs (and Muslims), there is not so much a sense of anti-Americanism as much as a sense of having been rejected by us. Are there genuine anti-Americans out there? Absolutely. Are there terrorists in the Arab and Muslim world? Surely. But there's also another group of people who are far more complex in their hopes, aspirations, fears, and resentments. To lump everyone together in one category is inaccurate and, to me at least, rather Un-American.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Using A Wii in the Classroom

Another great Edutopia article, this time on using the Nintendo Wii in the classroom. I suspect this is for the younger grades, but the author shows interesting ways to utilize some of the sports games t reinforce math concepts. There are apparently also some features on the Wii that might allow kids to do work in geography and meteorology.

I have to say that the Wii seems a bit on the silly side, but the article does make the case to at least consider using it as a tool to engage kids. I don't know that there's much here for Middle and Upper School kids, but who knows?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Military History

The World History Blog has found a military history site that looks pretty interesting.

The blog states that the site, Real Military Flix

...has war movies and military videos. This includes American basic training films, World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, the two Iraq Wars, the Afghanistan War, and others. There is a clear American bias in the selections but some non-American conflicts are covered as well.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Physics for Future Presidents

The web site Open Culture just posted an article on the book Physics for Future Presidents -- one of the more popular courses at UC Berkeley. You can take the actual course online (see the article for the link). Here's an interesting preview of the book:

The End of the Scientific Method?

Wired magazine has an article entitled "The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete" by Chris Anderson. Everyone in the field of education ought to read it. His basic premise is that the sheer amount of data available now makes the old scientific method -- hypothesize, model, test -- rather quaint. He argues that there are no longer absolute certainties and that there are statistical and mathematical trends. Here's what he says about physics and biology:

But faced with massive data, this approach to science — hypothesize, model, test — is becoming obsolete. Consider physics: Newtonian models were crude approximations of the truth (wrong at the atomic level, but still useful). A hundred years ago, statistically based quantum mechanics offered a better picture — but quantum mechanics is yet another model, and as such it, too, is flawed, no doubt a caricature of a more complex underlying reality. The reason physics has drifted into theoretical speculation about n-dimensional grand unified models over the past few decades (the "beautiful story" phase of a discipline starved of data) is that we don't know how to run the experiments that would falsify the hypotheses — the energies are too high, the accelerators too expensive, and so on.

Now biology is heading in the same direction. The models we were taught in school about "dominant" and "recessive" genes steering a strictly Mendelian process have turned out to be an even greater simplification of reality than Newton's laws. The discovery of gene-protein interactions and other aspects of epigenetics has challenged the view of DNA as destiny and even introduced evidence that environment can influence inheritable traits, something once considered a genetic impossibility.

In short, the more we learn about biology, the further we find ourselves from a model that can explain it.

I don't know that I fully buy into his argument, but I don't think I can discount it either. My uncertainty perhaps lies in a fear that we're all trending ourselves into oblivion, but I can also see how alleged post-scientific method age could be liberating. Fear of the unknown, I guess...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Who Hates Whom?

I'm finishing up Bob Harris' book Who Hates Whom? It's a handy little guide to global conflicts that is utterly depressing. Harris isn't an expert on any of these topics and he openly professes his reliance on others to inform him. But he does a great job of summing up the many global conflicts that we regularly ignore. He discusses all the familiar spate of killings in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel, but he also goes where U.S. media generally fails to go.

Here's a depressingly funny little clip that discusses what the media overlooked the day Anna Nicole Smith died.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

End of the College Lecture?

Will the traditional college lecture be a thing of the past? The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses some ideas being discussed:

Let’s take for example, the course, Introduction to Biology.

The Association of College & University Biology Educators would select 15 outstanding educators who teach Introduction to Biology. The 15 would divide “Introduction to Biology” into 15 modules, with each educator choosing to create and deliver the lecture section of two modules, so there would be two versions of each module. Instead of having just one lecturer, the student would be exposed to 15, hence the moniker, DiversiSection.

Each professor, for his or her two modules, would develop:
— mini-lectures punctuated by demonstrations
— student-immersive simulations
— remedial and enrichment supplementation
— quizzes
— sample reading list, assignments, and exams. Each institution’s academic department or an individual professor could use those or develop their own to better align the course with the professor’s or department’s preferences.

Experts in online education and in the technology of its implementation would be available for the professors to call on in developing their modules.

During DiversiSection classes, a person would be available online to answer questions in real-time.

N.B.: Discussion/seminar sections of those courses would remain in-person, as in a traditional course.

The development of DiversiSections could be funded by government, higher education consortia, the private sector, or public-private partnerships.

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

More On Video Games And Education

Under the heading of doing a topic to death, I ran across an ABC News article that does a pretty good job of showing the pros and cons of using video games in the classroom. The article focuses on the game Immune Attack, profiled in this very blog not long ago.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Spiritual Capitalism

Can capitalism coexist with an ethical code? There are times when I despair about that issue and in my more leftist moments, I seriously doubt this is possible. But Ode Magazine has an article called Spiritual Capitalism that outlines a relatively recent movement to reconcile the apparent conflict between doing good and doing well.

As we move into the post-Bush era and the possibilities for a post 1960s era opens up, I like the ideas presented in the article. And to be honest, I have know committed businesswomen and businessmen who are remarkably ethical individuals, entirely committed to making the world a better place. The article talks about commitment to the environment, social justice, and the like. I'm still somewhat skeptical, but this article gives me cause for hope.

The Flintstones, Sexism, and Cigarettes

I'd heard that the Flintstones had peddled cigarettes but hadn't actually seen the tv ads. Here they are in all their glory:

Sunday, July 20, 2008

"Geek Girls"

Being a nerd or geek used to be an exclusively male domain (at least in the popular imagination). As a recent Newsweek article points out, however, women are making a foray into that social caste. The article is interesting, but it does spend a fair amount of time focusing on this new breed of nerd and their physical appearance. As it turns out, the new geek is not socially awkward but is in fact attractive and self-confident in her embracing of techno-culture. Apparently, her archetype is Tina Fey.

What happens to the more traditional "nerdy" women (or men, for that matter)? Is this just another instance of cultural appropriation by the "in crowd"? or is it really an embrace of nerd culture? Does this mean that social awkwardness and a slightly out-of -the-mainstream appearance won't get you into the nerd clique anymore? Are we going to have to develop a new subcaste for those kids?

As someone who works with kids on a daily basis (as a father and as a teacher), I don't know what to make of the trend. Maybe it's a good thing, but maybe it's absolutely terrible. Maybe the reality lies somewhere in the middle. I feel like my head is ready to explode.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Great Movies Online

Snagfilms is an incredible web site that has a bunch of really excellent films -- "Supersize Me", "The Future of Food", and so on. Here's Supersize Me:

The Disadvantages of an Elite Education

One of the best pieces of writing on elite education. Read it here. I have little to say that could add to the power of the article, so I won't even try.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Intellectual Character

Schools aren't always exactly centers of intellectualism. My own high school was pretty anti-intellectual, truth be told. Ron Ritcheart's "Intellectual Character" is an attempt to foster a true love of learning. The whole concept of "intellectual character" is an interesting one and he defines it more as a set of practiced dispositions and habits of mind in tune with the life of the mind. As such, it is not a mere list of skills or "core knowledge". Intellectual character becomes a way of approaching knowledge. This stands in direct contradistinction to the way many schools currently educate the young.

The book is largely a series of six interconnected case studies that examines ways to engage student's intellectual character. The text ranges from the very theoretical to some very practical advice such as tips on setting the stage for inquiry on the very first day of class. There are suggestions for curriculum development to decorating your classroom and so on. All of this sounds fairly pedestrian, but in fact there are some great suggestions here.

I cannot say that "Intellectual Character" is a great read but it is an important read for educators who worry that we're underselling our kids with a mediocre pedagogy that fills them with facts and sterile "skills". All of this is a tough road and there will be skeptics. None of this is really contained within a measurable series of metrics, but giving students intellectual purpose and direction seems more important to me.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Education Debate

I thought Bob Compton's film 2 Million Minutes is an interesting comparison between U.S. education and the systems in India and China. CNBC recently had a debate between Compton and Washington Post education correspondent Jay Matthews on which systems are most effective. Both people make some pretty interesting points. Take a look here.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


There's all this talk about whether or not all of these new technologies are making us all dumber than we've ever been. If you've read this blog or just browse through my archives, you'll see that I don't believe this to be the case. What I'm starting to wonder, however, is if all of this information is going to make us bored. We can find out pretty much anything we want with a few keystrokes. We can communicate with people from around the world. We can connect with people who share our interests. Does this ever start to become boring?

I remember as a kid sitting at home paging through an old World Book Encyclopedia and reading about the Roman Empire. I spent hours imagining what else was out there. My access to other information was limited to a pretty miserable public library. When I was very young, my grandmother let me order some sort of cheap plastic Greek toy soldiers out of the back of a comic book and when they arrived I was in heaven. Occasionally my aunt, who worked in Manhattan, would pick something up for me. The anticipation of reading these books was incredible and I'd spend hours imagining what would be inside those books. Ordering Strat-O-Matic baseball cards was in an entirely different universe of expectations. But I digress...

Now I can pretty much get anything I want, whenever I want it. And sometimes I find it boring. There's no challenge, no frustration in having to wait, no delayed gratification. Sometimes I feel like I used to feel the day after Christmas -- I got everything I wanted -- now what?

One part of me says that this instant access should allow me to free up my creativity and pursue personal fulfillment. And that's entirely true. I wouldn't want to go back to the limited and limiting world I inhabited as a boy. But some of the mystery does seem gone. Weber discussed the Entzauberung der Welt (The Dis-Enchantment of the World) long before we had an internet, so it's nothing new. Perhaps it's just a natural result of getting older, I don't know.

But I do sometimes feel like we're at the end of an age that's spent itself out. If people like Ken Robinson are correct, then we have the potential to unleash an incredible age of creativity. And I think that more than anything else keeps me going. This outcome is by no means certain and in the end that's what I still find interesting. The movement from potentiality to actuality, the possibilities of the age, this is what gives our age its distinctiveness.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Intellectual Character

Book Review: Intellectual Character: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Get It (Jossey-Bass Education)… by Ron Ritchhart

Schools aren't always exactly centers of intellectualism. My own high school was pretty anti-intellectual, truth be told. Ron Ritcheart's "Intellectual Character" is an attempt to foster a true love of learning. The whole concept of "intellectual character" is an interesting one and he defines it more as a set of practiced dispositions and habits of mind in tune with the life of the mind. As such, it is not a mere list of skills or "core knowledge". Intellectual character becomes a way of approaching knowledge. This stands in direct contradistinction to the way many schools currently educate the young.

The book is largely a series of six interconnected case studies that examines ways to engage student's intellectual character. The text ranges from the very theoretical to some very practical advice such as tips on setting the stage for inquiry on the very first day of class. There are suggestions for curriculum development to decorating your classroom and so on. All of this sounds fairly pedestrian, but in fact there are some great suggestions here.

I cannot say that "Intellectual Character" is a great read but it is an important read for educators who worry that we're underselling our kids with a mediocre pedagogy that fills them with facts and sterile "skills". All of this is a tough road and there will be skeptics. None of this is really contained within a measurable series of metrics, but giving students intellectual purpose and direction seems more important to me.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Should We Let Kids Graduate High School Early?

Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts is proposing that students who demonstrate mastery of the necessary skills.

"We’re moving to a mastery-based system, where you move not by banking seat-time, but by virtue of your mastery of the skills and knowledge needed for the next phase of your education," the official said.

"Some children are ready to move on to a higher level, deeper challenges earlier than others. We should have a vehicle for them," the official said

Read the entire article here. I'd heard Heidi Hayes Jacobs talk about this, but it all seemed rather fantastic and not terribly realistic. And yet here it is.

I find the idea really interesting. Having taught high school seniors for a number of years and about to teach them again), I've often wondered if we keep the kids in secondary education longer than we should. I don't know how this experiment will turn out, but I think it'll be interesting to watch.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Chinglish/Hinglish/Spanglish and the Death of English?

As more people around the world learn English, what's going to happen to he "purity" of the language? Wired magazine looks at the issue in a recent article in respect to China and its efforts to monitor English during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The author concludes that all languages evolve over time and that the Chinglish is likely to influence modern English usage as well.

While I was in India, Hinglish (a Hindi-English mix) is common. People liberally intersperse English into their Hindi (or Urdu or Kannada or Tamil, etc.) conversations and vice versa. Spanglish is another familiar amalgamation here in the US. In NYC, I experienced this all the time.

There are some confusing, frustrating and amusing misunderstandings that come from this richness and diversity of language. Purists will bemoan the loss of our linguistic purity, but looking at the history of the English language, I'm not so sure any such purity existed. English is a pretty promiscuous language and has incorporated lots of syntax and vocabulary from Latin, German, Arabic, etc. It's going to get confusing as English becomes even more of a world language, but I think the prospects are thrilling. Just as we have difficulty understanding Chaucer's English or the English of Beowulf, future generations of Chinglish/Hinglish/Spanglish or whatever else evolves, will have difficulty understanding our patterns of speech. Such is life.

Friday, July 11, 2008

House Of Lords Reaches Out To The Young People

The House of Lords in the U.K. has decided to update its image as a boring chamber where elderly aristocrats snooze through meaningless debates on legislation that the Commons really controls. Wired magazine reports that the Lords is trying make itself more accessible through the creation of a YouTube channel.

Here's their hot new video entitled "Why Get Into Politics?" Given that most British subjects will never even be eligible to serve in the House of Lords, this seems a bit odd How does an essentially aristocratic institution promote democratic participation?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Too Much Homework?

Souly Catholic, a very interesting education blog, has a great article on homework. It raises some of the very same issues I've been struggling with as a parent and educator -- do kids have too much homework? I started out my career as an educator giving piles of homework. When I taught AP European History, the amount increased even more. But in the past few years I've begun to rethink my philosophy and have cut back considerably. Anecdotally, I'm not sure my students are any less capable or skilled than they used to be, but they are a good deal more engaged in what we're learning. I've also noticed that kids often go home and follow up on what we've done in class. In the past year, I've had kids read Sun-tzu, Buddhist scriptures, and the like. That didn't happen nearly as much in the past when I piled work on the kids.

The article does a good job showing both sides of the homework debate but the author is clearly on the side of "less is more". Critics will no doubt point to the loss of "rigor" when homework is reduced, but I often wonder exactly what that means anyway.

The article also has an interesting video on a recent Wall Street Journal article that discussed the same topic:

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Music -- Rameau

I like the French composer Rameau and found this video on YouTube. I won't elaborate -- I think the music speakes for itself. Just to show you that I'm not just about Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols...

Monday, July 7, 2008

God's Harvard

I didn't have any expectations one way or another when I started reading Hanna Rosin's God's Harvard. By the end, though, I was hooked. Rosin does a great job taking a pretty fair look at a "fundamentalist" university. The book examines life at Patrick Henry University in Northern Virginia. The school's mission is to provide a cadre of well-trained and well-connected young women and men to promote conservative Christian principles in the arts, the media, politics and business.

I've spent a fair amount of time in fundamentalist circles and this book gets down the essence of the movement just about right. Rather than the banjo-strumming hayseeds we see portrayed in the media, Christian conservatives are well educated, well-spoken and entirely reasonable.

That's not to say that I agree with the mission of places like Patrick Henry. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that they alarm me to some extent. But to demean these people's faith and commitment serves no good and does not seem to exhibit a commitment to democratic tolerance. God's Harvard really helps promote understanding between groups and people who don't tend to see eye-to-eye.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

American Nerd

As I continue my reconnecting with my inner nerd, Benjamin Nugent's American Nerd provided an interesting stroll down memory lane. The book chronicles the history of nerdiness and the many pursuits and passions that makes one a nerd. Nugent does a good job of outlining the history of the term and shows how such literary giants as Mary Shelly, Jane Austin, and E.M. Forester set the standard for future depictions of the nerd.

The most powerful theme of the book explores the contrast between the nerd and the jock stereotype. The jock is the child of the movement known as "muscular Christianity" in the 19th century. Teddy Roosevelt and "Tom Brown's Schooldays" set the standard for the idea of a "well-balanced" gentleman who stood in stark contrast to the weak and effect intellectual. This contrast reflects the 19th and early 20th century fears that elite W.A.S.P.s were being overwhelmed by more intellectually capable Jews and East Asians.

The book is a bit uneven and Nugent's treatment of video games, and debating don't really add up to much. Still in all, the book is thought-provoking and his discussion of "cool nerds" is pretty funny.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Travels in India

Two of the highlights of the past academic year were my trips to India in July/August and again in October/November. This summer promises to be a lot more tame and my travel schedule includes a lone trip to Madison Wisconsin. It'll be a great trip, but India stands out as a highlight.

I'm including a link in this post to an old blog I kept during my travels in India. Take a look here.

If someone knows how I can easily transfer the info on that blog to my current blog, please let me know.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Iranian Bloggers

Global Voices Online has an interesting post about the Iranian parliament's debate over legislation to allow the death penalty for particularly upsetting bloggers. Depressing.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Plot

I just finished reading another really interesting graphic novel. The Plot was Will Eisner's last piece of writing before his death in 2005 and it's a history of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. That piece has been circulated as "proof" of a Jewish world conspiracy since its publication in the early 20th century. Eisner makes a good effort to show how the Protocols are a piece of plagiarism in a way that is understandable and convincing.

It amazes me that these sort of conspiracy theories still persist despite overwhelming evidence to show the fraudulent nature of their very sources. Eisner does a good job showing how these pernicious myths have a way of surviving even the most through debunking, however, so I'm not sure how or when such an event is likely to happen. For its part, though, The Plot does a good job helping out the cause.

I know that this book got mixed reviews at best, but I enjoyed it immensely and thought it was a fitting last work for Will Eisner.

Curriculum as Conversation

Curriculum As Conversation: Transforming Traditions of Teaching and Learning by Arthur N. Applebee is not a great book in the sense that it's a pleasure to read. It's pretty turgid prose and full of all the eduspeak that embodies most educational writing. But the book is nonetheless great. It puts into words some pretty powerful ideas that create some really interesting potentials for education. The basic premise is that we've spent too long teaching what Applebee calls "knowledge-out-of-context". You know this term whether you've used it because most likely you've experienced it first-hand as a student and perhaps even unleashed some of it on students if you're a teacher (I have). This approach often goes under the name of "coverage" or "background information". Without it, the argument goes, kids will never be able to participate in meaningful conversations. The problem for Applebee is that this information remains "decontextualized and unproductive".

The alternative is "knowledge-in-action" which introduces students into meaningful conversational discourses about a given area. In other words, rather than having students learn all about the basic facts of a given topic, the teacher instead introduces the students into some of the more meaningful conversations that people in the field are having. Sure, students will make mistakes and stumble, but they're more likely to actually care about a given topic and even become engrossed in said topic.

The book is largely rooted in Applebee's research into English curricula, so there's a clear bias in terms of providing concrete examples. There's also a fair amount of theory thrown into the text that gets a bit dense and reminds me of my graduate school days. Mikhail Bakhtin is mentioned frequently, as is Thomas Kuhn and others of that ilk. Still, I found those sections enlightening and they provided some much-needed context to Applebee's premise. The style of this book will, I suspect, turn some people off, but I strongly recommend you read it and get into its core arguments. These are persuasive and worth the attention of educators and administrators.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Ten Cent Plague

David Hajdu, author of The 10 Cent Plague was recently on The Colbert Report. Hajdu's book is an excellent account of the comic book scare of the 1940s and 1950s. Comic books were alleged to corrupt America's youth and lower their intelligence, making them prime targets for leftist manipulation. Congress held hearings and, like the more famous HUAC investigations, ruined many talented artists. The parallels to the video game controversies are uncanny and equally preposterous.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

The Atlantic Monthly has an article by Nicholas Carr entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid". Essentially, Carr wonders what impact the new ways of knowing are having on our intellectual abilities. From the article:

Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. The Net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure.
I think Carr's argument is more of the same that we've heard, but it is thought-provoking and worth reading. He's the only critic of the net that I'm aware of who acknowledges that similar arguments have been made against the advent of writing and printing, so that alone makes him worth paying attention to. And I do think that there is some truth to the fact that we are thinking differently than we used to.

I differ with Carr, however, in his qualitative assessment of the situation. He seems to think that the web is making our thinking more superficial and machine-like. I tend to think that the internet is actually liberating us from mechanical thinking and allowing us to be far more creative in how we apply and interpret and integrate all of that mechanical thinking.

Monday, June 30, 2008

If It's On The Tip Of Your Tongue, Forget It

ScienCentral News has an article on almost remembering things...

In a classic “Seinfeld” dilemma, Jerry draws a blank on his new girlfriend’s name, and the relationship has become too intimate for him just to ask. Throughout the half hour episode, Jerry’s various ploys to jog his memory bear no fruit, and the denouement comes too late to salvage the nascent romance. By the end of the show, the girlfriend has discovered his predicament, become irate, and stormed out of his apartment. And that’s when it hits him: Dolores.

Now, two psychologists from McMaster University are shedding light on the cause of Jerry’s mental block. According to a new study by Amy Beth Warriner and Karin Humphreys, the longer you try to come up with the word that’s on the tip of your tongue, the more likely you’ll be to get stuck on that word in the future.

For years, Humphreys herself endured a Seinfeld-like struggle with the word 'obsidian,' the term for black, shiny volcanic glass. Instead of saying 'obsidian,' Humphreys would think, “It’s like oblong, but no, it’s not oblong. I know that it’s not oblong but that’s the only word coming to mind,” she says.

Take a look at a video report on this subject here.

Teaching As A Creative Act

People sometimes ask why I teach. Since getting my administrative job, people sometimes even ask why I’ve decided to keep teaching. My answer is simple: teaching is a creative act; it is arguably one of the most creative human acts. Amidst all of my meetings and administrative details, the highlight of my day is still when I walk into my 9th grade Modern World History Class.

The idea of teaching as a creative act may seem odd at first glance. Art, music and poetry are all obvious forms of creativity. Scholarship is another form of creativity. While I was working on my still unfinished PhD, I reconstructed past worlds and revived dead men. The best historians are a miraculous combination of the scientist and the poet.

And then I gave up my scholarly creativity to teach high school in Manhattan. My colleagues thought I was insane. I was, in their eyes, an apostate who was fading into obscurity and mediocrity.

What does a teacher create?

The obvious answer is that a teacher creates students. A teacher shapes his students and changes their lives forever. That is also obviously the wrong answer. Students come to class with a whole set of ideas and notions that are completely unknown to me. I may teach them, but that does not mean that my students receive what I teach them in the way that I intended.

So does a teacher create? Not in the way that is traditionally associated with creativity. I cannot perform a composition on the piano or recite my latest poem. My “creations” are autonomous beings with a will of their own. They are not reflections of my creative genius. A sculptor, by contrast, does what he will with the marble. If his creation does not please him, the statue is no more.

It is otherwise with teaching. A teacher cannot merely discard a student’s personality and start from nothing (at least good ones don’t.) I do not work with inanimate objects.

Good teaching involves allowing a human being to create – it allows others to realize their humanity. Teachers open the gates to other ideas, other times, other thoughts. It is the student who chooses to enter. And while we may push or encourage them to walk in, they are their own masters. When they enter those gates, they may look back fondly at us, but they are gone and no longer ours. Teaching is a tragic combination of loss and gain.

My students are not my poems or statues. I am proud of them, not because they are my own, but because they are not my own. They are living, breathing beings that take what I give them and make more of it. They allow me to connect with something beyond myself in a way that other forms of expression and communication do not. Teaching is, in the end, an act of creative giving.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Students Teaching Teachers

Edutopia has an interesting video on a program in Washington State where tech savvy students are tutoring faculty in using technology in their classrooms. Take a look here.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Strange Things Found In Books

AbeBooks sent out a question to its customers asking them to identify strange things they found inside used books. People found, among other things, a rookie Mickey Mantle baseball card, a diamond ring, a piece of bacon, a used q-tip, and the list goes on.

Take a look at the article here.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Rapture Ready

Daniel Radosh's "Rapture Ready" is an exploration into the world of Christian pop culture. Radosh calls this world a "parallel universe" and he clearly approaches it as such. His perspective is that of a self-professed New York liberal Jew and he finds this universe rather odd but in the end he comes to see beyond his own stereotypes and describes a rather complex world. He ranges far and wide, looking into such areas as Christian merchandising (known as "Jesus Junk"), to Christian wrestling, to pop music, to abstinence education, to theme parks, etc.

On the surface, all of this seems somewhat boilerplate and Radosh starts out rather jaded and cynical. Along the way, though, he begins to see there are subgroups and differences in approaches to popular culture. He runs into Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's son, who runs a progressive church out of Brooklyn that approves of, among other things, homosexuality and lesbianism. He finds that even among the more traditional approaches to evangelicalism, there are some who choose to shut themselves off from the world and those who choose to engage in meaningful dialogue with people who disagree with their worldview.

Radosh is by no means an objective observer and there are some really funny, but condescending passages describing some of the cheesier aspects of Christian popular culture. And while there are times he looks down his nose at this whole world, he is honest enough to admit this and he's also honest enough to point out the good side. He genuinely comes to admire some of the Christian comics and to appreciate some of the Christian music he hears. In the end, he says that in order to foster meaningful dialogue between the evangelical world and Radosh's world, there needs to be some mutual understanding and appreciation and, of course dialogue. Rather than just dismiss all of this as drivel and a banal collection of mediocre crap, those of us in the Northeastern establishment need to look for common ground with evangelicals. The alternative is to push these groups further and further into a subculture that licks its wounds and nurtures resentments and hostilities.

One of the best parts of the book is the online appendix, which has a boatload of videos, images, and web links to many of the performers and groups Radosh mentions in the book. It's a truly great addition and if anyone reads the book, I really recommend you follow along with the online appendix. Take a look at it here.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The New P.E.

Edutopia has an interesting video on the "new P.E." There's an interesting display of how technology can help along the process (like using PDAs to track attendance and health info), but the emphasis is on giving kids some different ways to approach physical fitness.

I still can't figure out how to embed videos on this site, so go here for the video.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Young Minds, Fast Times

Marc Prensky's article in the recent Edutopia raises some pretty crucial issues for educators. The synopsis of the article is:

Students have little input into the structure and substance of their own educaiton. The traditional classroom lecture creates massive boredom, especially when compared to the vibrancy of their media-saturated, tech-driven world. But if we were to ask the, we'd learn they prefer questions rather than answers, sharing their opinions, group projects, working with real-world issues, and teachers who speak with them as equals rather than as inferiors.

I found Prensky's denunciation of typical PowerPoint presentations as glorified chalkboard notes to be telling and disturbing.

I don't know that people will agree with the author on everything, but I have to say that he covers student disengagement and boredom pretty convincingly. It mirrors my own encounters with kids nicely. Somehow, I feel that a comparison to sports and the arts bears investigation. In those areas, kids are coached but ultimately have to stand on their own for a public display of their skills. It's only in the classroom where teachers do most everything for the students (i.e., the traditional lecture) and then the students give a private display of their knowledge (i.e., the test, essay, lab, research project, etc.).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Brittanica Goes Wiki

From World History Blog comes news that the esteemed Encyclopaedia Britannica is going wiki. Alongside the pre-existing articles, there are now going to be user-created articles as well. I find this to be an amazing business decision and I wonder about the intellectual consequences of this shift. Is this a major change or not?

Here's a link to the announcement from Brittanica.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Supreme Court Justices Are Designing Video Games

MSNBC reports that retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is involved in developing a video game that will teach students how our judicial system works. The site, called Our Courts, will be fully operations come this fall in time for the start of the 2009-10 school year.

Here's a passage from the MSNBC article:

She said the only way to preserve an independent judiciary was through public education, which she said was failing to produce citizens with enough knowledge about the three branches of U.S. government — legislative, executive and judicial.

The Our Courts project will have two parts, O'Connor said. The first is on online interactive civics program designed to be used by children from 7th to 9th grades either to supplement existing courses or as a distinct unit in the curriculum.

The program, developed with Georgetown University law school and Arizona State University, will be distributed free online.

"It will allow students to engage in real legal issues," she said. Asked to give an example, she said one element would focus on a scenario of a school attempting to stop students wearing a T-shirt with a controversial slogan — a free speech issue designed to elicit argument about the 1st Amendment.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Accelerated Math?

Are we pushing kids too far too early in math? That's the issue raised in a recent Washington Post article. Looking at some school in northern Virginia, there is a rush to have kids in Algebra I by the end of middle school. There are obvious benefits to this, but there are also some serious concerns raised. Foremost among them is the frenetic pace required to get to algebra.

As I've studied math curricula around the world and looked at the recent NCTM and government-funded studies, I wonder if rushing all this math through so quickly is really such a good idea. In places like Singapore, Japan, and China, it seems that the emphasis is more on depth of understanding than it is on just reaching specific target topics. As I traveled through some great Indian schools, I was struck at the depth of the kids' mathematical understanding. The seemed to have achieved "automaticity" and could actually play around with numbers more so I've seen in the US.

All of my observations are highly impressionistic, but they also reflect what others have said and researched. As the "math crisis" grows in the public perception, I think the issue of breadth and depth is going to define how we want to move ahead. I suspect that standardized-testing types will push for more breadth while the more progressive types will push for the increased depth. As an outsider to the whole math issue, my voice isn't quite authoritative, but my sympathies do lie with the progressives on this one.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Johnny Rotten on Judge Judy

When I was a kid, I loved the Sex Pistols. They were everything that was cool for me. My taste for that sort of thing has waned over the years, but they held a place in my mind of youthful rebellion and protest. And then I ran across Johnny Rotten on Judge Judy. I have no comment.

Take a look here and you can almost hear my youthful identity shatter in the background.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Virtual Dissection

ESchoolNews has an article on a movement to replace the traditional dissection in biology classes with a "virtual dissection". I don't quite know where I stand on this issue -- I can see both sides on this one. The ethical issue comes to mind, but the proponents of dissection argue that one needs to have a fully sensory experience to to a proper dissection.

My only real memory of dissection was from 9th grade biology class. We were given the frogs and the entire class proceeded to go to the back of the room and throw them out the second story window onto a crowd of unsuspecting students. This incident wasn't any protest against dissection; we were just a collection of boneheads.

Here's a selection from the article.

Animal-rights organizations are using software donations and other outreach efforts to spur interest in the use of "virtual dissection" tools among schools--adding a new chapter in the debate over whether these tools offer a viable option for teaching biology.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Math and Gender

The AP reports that the gender gap in math performance declines or disappears in countries where greater gender equity exist. The study, conducted by a Northwestern University professor, shows that U.S. is right in the middle of the pack in terms of gender equity and math scores. Gender equity was determined by such factors as the World Economic Forum's gender equity index and the math was based on the PISA exam.

According to the AP article, the report does not look at the reasons behind the findings, but I'd be curious to know what others think about this. Why does the gap still persist? How can we bridge it?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Yearbook Spelling Nightmare

A school just outside Seattle had a pretty unfortunate encounter with a spell checking program.

Max Zupanovic is listed as "Max Supernova" in Middletown Area High School's yearbook.

William and Elizabeth Givler's last name is "Giver" in the book, and Cameron Bendgen's last name was changed to "Bandage." Student council member Kathy Carbaugh became "Kathy Airbag."

And Alessandra Ippolito isn't sure what to think after seeing a caption listing her as "Alexandria Impolite."

For the whole story, go here.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Blogging -- Good for You

Scientific American has a great article on why blogging may be really, really good for you.

Self-medication may be the reason the blogosphere has taken off. Scientists (and writers) have long known about the therapeutic benefits of writing about personal experiences, thoughts and feelings. But besides serving as a stress-coping mechanism, expressive writing produces many physiological benefits. Research shows that it improves memory and sleep, boosts immune cell activity and reduces viral load in AIDS patients, and even speeds healing after surgery. A study in the February issue of the Oncologist reports that cancer patients who engaged in expressive writing just before treatment felt markedly better, mentally and physically, as compared with patients who did not.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Put A Little Science In Your Life

A colleague sent me a really great op-ed piece in the NY Times about science and how it's taught in the U.S. Here's a passage that struck me: teaching our students, we continually fail to activate rich opportunities for revealing the breathtaking vistas opened up by science, and instead focus on the need to gain competency with science’s underlying technical details.

For the full article, go here.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

This Is What I've Been Trying To Say...

Robert Darnton at Harvard just published an amazing article in the New York Review of Books on the "information revolution". His argument is that the current hand-wringing about the internet's destruction of textual stability is untrue. Texts have always been unstable. Here's a brief passage:

Each change in the technology has transformed the information landscape, and the speed-up has continued at such a rate as to seem both unstoppable and incomprehensible. In the long view—what French historians call la longue durĂ©e—the general picture looks quite clear—or, rather, dizzying. But by aligning the facts in this manner, I have made them lead to an excessively dramatic conclusion. Historians, American as well as French, often play such tricks. By rearranging the evidence, it is possible to arrive at a different picture, one that emphasizes continuity instead of change. The continuity I have in mind has to do with the nature of information itself or, to put it differently, the inherent instability of texts. In place of the long-term view of technological transformations, which underlies the common notion that we have just entered a new era, the information age, I want to argue that every age was an age of information, each in its own way, and that information has always been unstable.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Civil Rights Digital Library

The University of Georgia has an amazing online library that documents the civil rights movement in the US in the 1950s and 1960s. There are all sorts of primary source documents -- tv footage, financial statements, transcripts, photos, speeches, etc.

This looks like it would be a great place to craft a student research project.

Friday, June 13, 2008

IIT Courses

The Indian Institute of Technology has posted a selection of its courses online according to Open Culture. I'll warn you that it's not for the faint of heart -- these are really intense courses on such topics as "Electrical-Digital Signal Processing" and "Project Management" and the like. It's all in English and worth a look if you're interested in science and technology.

IIT is one of the world's top centers of scientific research and business management and is harder to get into that MIT or Harvard.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Jesuit Leadership

As I've read through my blog to date, I realize that I never explained the title of the blog -- Ratio Studiorum. It comes from the Latin phrase the Jesuits used to describe their curriculum in their schools.

So why did I pick that as the title of my blog? I admire the Jesuits -- Jesuits guided my education in graduate school and represent to me the best in intellectual achievement and commitment to social justice.

I just finished reading the book Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450 Year-Old Company that Changed the World by Chris Lowney. Lowney reminded me why I've always admired the Jesuits and also made me think more clearly about exactly what it is that I admire in them.

In an amazing book, Lowney outlines four basic principles for leadership: self-awareness, ingenuity, love, and heroism. On the surface, the book looks like one of those inane books like The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun or Robert E. Lee on Leadership or something like that. But this book is decidedly not of that sort.

First of all, Attila and Robert E. Lee were, when all is said and done, pretty pathetic failures. The Jesuits, by contrast, have been remarkably successful as a group. But more importantly, Lowney give one a remarkably humane approach to leadership that is designed for the whole person. As such, it is very different than most leadership books.

He does a nice job outlining Jesuit history and showing how the four principles have been applied over the years. As I see it, their ideals are remarkably suitable for our world today. Lowney stresses that Jesuits are rooted in their principles and ideals, but reflective enough to understand that one must be flexible to compromise on non-essential points. For examples, he cites de Nobili and Ricci, Jesuits sent to live among the people of India and China. Both men remained devout Jesuits but were able to appreciate local customs and cultures. It is a principled ability to navigate in the world and remember what is truly important.

As we move ahead in education, these are principles I think all educators would be well to remember. Let's remember what's essential about education, but also be willing to forgo customs, habits, and traditions that don't compromise our principles.

I recognize that the Jesuits don't have a spotless record in all things and in fact the very term "Jesuitical" is not used in praise. Nonetheless, I think Lowney shows that whatever their shortcomings have been, they have also been resilient enough and principled enough to make a real difference in the world. He also does a good job of "secularizing" the Jesuits' leadership principles so that it applies to people beyond the Catholic world.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


I just finished the book Nerds by David Anderegg. It's worth the read. Anderegg discusses how deeply ingrained the idea of the "nerd" is in American culture and the effect that's had on our development as a nation. He traces the idea back to Washington Irving and Emerson and their juxtaposition of the American "man of action" with the effect, European thinker.

He does a great job trying to flesh out the complexities of these apparently opposite terms and discusses the various shades one may occupy on the "jock/nerd" spectrum. Nerds have been pathologized as potential Asperger's sufferers (like Bill Gates)and denigrated as keepers of useless and arcane knowledge on all matters technological and mathematical. Nerds are one of the last groups one can openly mock without fear of offending people (aside from the nerd, but that's okay).

Given our dismissal of these kids and our acceptance of the taunting they are subjected to in school and in popular culture, Anderegg is not shocked by the fact that we are in the midst of a declining interest in math and science.

The book doesn't really say anything new, but it's a well thought out cultural analysis. As an educator who teaches lots of "nerds" and is pretty much one myself (or am I a geek? I still don't know), this book spoke to me. I do feel, though, that we are in the midst of a nerd Renaissance. From the days of my own schooling to today, there's been a marked acceptance of nerd culture. From the band Weezer to Napoleon Dynamite to pretty much you-name-it, nerds have thrown off their chains of shame and stepped into the light. I like to think that Gen-X played a role in this transformation, but that's another story altogether...

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Video Game for Science

The Federation of American Scientists has released a new video game called "Immune Attack". The game is designed to teach kids the principles of immunology. Some of the beta-testers were AP Biology teachers, so I think it's going to be pretty solid in terms of content. Click here to download a copy of the game. Here's the press release from AFS:

WASHINGTON DC – On Thursday, 22 May 2008, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) launches Immune Attack TM, an exciting, fun and fast-moving video game that teaches the critical scientific facts of immunology from 6-8:00 pm at AAAS in Washington, DC.

The cutting-edge game is designed to teach how the immune system works to defend the body against invading bacteria. The visual elements and simulations are critical for grasping the complex interactions of the biological systems.

“My students were very engaged while playing Immune Attack,” said Netia Elam, AP Biology Teacher at Forest Park High School in Woodbridge, VA. “The video game provides great visuals and allows the students to interact while playing the game. The kids really wanted to master the game and to do that they needed to learn the immunology concepts.” (click HERE to see video of Elam.)

Immune Attack is a complement to the learning that happens in the classroom. The game allows students to use sights, sounds, and touch to get better acquainted with the immune system. It also encourages them to interact with each other and have problem-solving discussions to enhance their game-play and ultimately learn the subject.

Preliminary surveys show that the students who play Immune Attack show an increase in knowledge when compared with students who did not play the game. After playing the game students also showed a higher interest in biology.

"Immunology is a complicated subject to learn. The challenges in Immune Attack give those who might not otherwise be interested in biology the chance to learn in a fun, hands-on manner they won't find in a text book," said Michelle Lucey-Roper, director of the Learning Technologies Program at FAS.

FAS is researching and developing ways to produce complex games and 3-D interactive simulations that will one day revolutionize education and how people learn. These learning games help students and workers learn globally competitive skills in demand by employers.

“Computer games hold special interest to a generation who has grown up with them and show promise as educational tools. Here at FAS, we’re using games to better understand which features can be used to improve learning and to develop guidelines based on that research,” said Henry Kelly, FAS President.

FAS will use Immune Attack with teachers and students across the U.S. to research how to improve the design of games for learning and how they may be used to encourage students to consider careers in bioscience, medicine and other health care professions.

“Games increase motivation, but it is not entirely clear why. For example, games typically include competition - either against a human opponent or a computer-generated one. The research challenge is to determine how these features contribute to learning,” said Kelly.

FAS's interest in games emerged from research that shows advanced learning technologies, such as video games and computer simulations, can help address one of the nation's most pressing needs -- strengthening education and preparing workers for 21st century jobs.

Immune Attack builds on insights from FAS's Learning Science and Technology Research and Development Roadmap, the FAS report "Harnessing the Power of Video Games for Learning", and the Digital Opportunity Investment Trust (DO IT) -- a proposal to transform learning and training for the 21st century. These recommendations have been incorporated into the House version of the Higher Education authorization bill which FAS hopes will be passed by Congress.

Immune Attack was created by FAS in collaboration with teams of game developers, instructional designers, immunologists, teachers, and learning scientists including Brown University, the University of Southern California, and Escape Hatch Entertainment.

To celebrate the premier of Immune Attack, a launch party will be held on Thursday, 22 May 2008 from 6:00 – 8:00 pm. The event will take place in the AAAS Auditorium and 2nd floor at 1200 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, DC (at 12th and H Streets). This FAS event is free, but space is limited.

Speakers include:
Henry Kelly, Federation of American Scientists

John Cherniavsky, National Science Foundation

Bob Hirshon, American Association for the Advancement of Science

Merrilea Mayo, Kauffman Foundation
Science NetLinks , the AAAS K-12 science education web site, will make Immune Attack available to its users for use in the classroom and beyond the classroom. Teachers, students and parents can find Immune HERE.

This FAS event is free, but space is limited. The game will be available in advance and during a demonstration in the AAAS 2nd floor atrium.

* Exclusive swag and free copies of the game will be available.

When: 6:00-8:00pm, Thursday the 22nd of May, 2008

Where: AAAS Auditorium and 2nd floor atrium
1200 New York Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20005

AAAS is located at the corner of 12th and H Streets, NW, Washington, DC (Metro Center stop on the Red Line.)


Monday, June 9, 2008

Learning Chinese - The Game

I read in the Chronicle of Higher Education about something called Zon, an online game that teaches you Mandarin. I haven't tried it yet, but it looks like it puts users in realistic situations and one then learns to use the proper Mandarin to get through. It's apparently a massively multiplayer online game. If it's any good, it could be a very interesting way to learn languages.

When I think ahead about education, I keep wondering if things like this will be a major part of what we'll be doing in education in the future.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Boys' Crisis?

The Washington Post has an article on a study done by the American Association of University Women on boys' performance in schools. The report questions the assumption that there is a crisis in boys' education and argues instead that social class is a much better predictor of underachievement.

I find this article interesting for a number of reasons, but primarily because it calls into question many things I've observed the past few years. For the little I've read of the report, it seems pretty convincing and soundly researched, but I still have the sense that boys just aren't performing at the same level as girls. But the report says that that has been the case for quite some time.

This is one of those liberating moments when I just don't know what to think about the whole issue. What do others think about this issue?

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Meaningful Evaluation

Edutopia magazine has an interesting article on developing more meaningful assessments of student work. The longer I've been teaching, the more I've come to worry about the way teachers traditionally assess work. I don't know that the system developed in the article is the be-all-and-end-all, but it seems to hit at something I've been considering.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Thursday, June 5, 2008

What Are Kids Searching For Online?

According to Thinkronize, a child safe search engine used in many schools, its largely games and dogs. For a look at their press release, look here. It's a corporate product, so there's a fair bit of advertising, but it's still interesting.



1 Games

2 Dogs

3 Animals

4 Civil War

5 George Washington

6 Holocaust

7 Abraham Lincoln

8 Multiplication

9 Math Games

10 Weather

11 Frogs

12 Fractions

13 Planets

14 Sharks

15 Plants

More on Evolution

The opponents of evolution are taking a new approach to getting their views across. According to an article in the New York Times, there is a move in Texas schools to require that textbooks discuss the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution. According to some of the people interviewed, this is more or less the camel's nose under the tent to push in creationist or intelligent design theories.

Texas is a huge purchaser or school textbooks and if it gets the "strengths and weaknesses" language into the curriculum, it could have national implications.