Tag Archives: Stop Stealing Dreams

No Son of Mine Won’t Do No Homework

The notion of school without homework is one which has fascinated me ever since I first encountered it in the writings of Seth Godin.  It was a notion I hadn’t thought about for a while, until Jeff Utecht brought it up during a visit to one of my classes this past Monday.

Briefly: assuming all of your students have easy Internet access (a smaller and smaller assumption as the years go by, even for kids from lower-income families and especially in school districts with a 1:1 device ratio), and acknowledging that, by and large, a teacher is not the best lecturer in the world, nor is lecture/direct instruction the easiest way for all students to learn, then it is reasonable to assume that students are just as able to learn at home – by which I mean, absorb facts – as they are at school.  That being the case: instead of lecturing students at school and giving them packets to practice at home, why not assign them something online to watch or read – a widely accredited blog, a TED talk, an online journal article or two – and have them do that at home; then when they come to school the next day, give them a project to work on which builds on what they’ve learned.  That way, school is an environment in which students are constantly showing what they know, rather than being made aware of what they don’t; students see that learning happens throughout their lives and not just within a classroom; often, students all come to the table with the same information, and if they haven’t understood it, they have each other and their teacher to rely on.  They can do and learn, rather than just sitting back and being taught.  They can see their own, and each other’s, work unfold before them as they create it in a social setting which is seen as a resource rather than a distraction.

A good point was raised during Jeff’s presentation on Monday: if we have the technology to learn anything in the comfort of our own homes, why go to school?  Answer: because we are social animals.  Yet “socializing” is a word I so often hear used negatively in school settings, as in “The boys in my class just like to socialize, and don’t get any work done.”  Do I advocate for spending an entire school day recapping the latest [insert popular culture reference here]?  No.  But I do contend that “socializing” can be an asset to learning – and, used more broadly, is maybe even half the point of putting children together in school.

Anyway, thinking about all this “no-homework” theory (which educators worldwide have tried successfully at this point), I went to my first ever parent-teacher conference this past Saturday.  I observed (and only observed) two different conferences, and one of them went in an unexpected direction: the parent in question wound up rambling extensively on her son’s (not the child she was there to discuss, by the way) “disgusting” (her word) lack of homework which he was getting from his middle school.  She went on and on about how it was going to hurt him in the long run, that he’d be unprepared for schools which gave homework down the road.  (I did not have the chance to ask her whether her son was assigned videos or readings in place of the packets she obviously thought he should be doing.)

I admit I wilted a little bit, and this experience has left me with a couple of questions.

1.  Assuming the “no-homework” model is a good idea (as I have described it above), how do we sell it to parents who almost always will have grown up under a very different scholastic paradigm?

2.  Keeping the same assumption in mind, what do we say when such objections are raised?  Would I, indeed, be doing a disservice to my students by setting up an environment which, as I see it, is better for their learning, yet out of kilter with the way things are done, still, in so many schools today?  If they wind up in some of these other schools, will they be at a disadvantage?  If so, how can I counteract that disadvantage?

I have serious doubts that telling anxious parents “the System is outdated and needs to change” will do anything to assuage fears (of which there are a lot, aren’t there?).  So what do I say instead?

Which Bubble Will Fulfill My Dreams?

Standardized testing has been coming up a lot in recent readings and discussions in my education classes.  I find this fantastically well-timed, as I’m about to take my WEST-E exams in middle-level math and science.  Very briefly: the WEST tests are the state of Washington’s exams, the passage of which is required as part of one’s acquisition of a teaching certification.  In Washington.  I’ve already passed a handful of these exams; these next ones are specifically in pursuit of my middle-school-level science and math endorsements – i.e., they’re meant to prove that I have enough math-and-science knowledge to teach these subjects to 6th-thru-8th-graders.

Standardized testing is a monstrous issue in close orbit around the current maelstrom of American education reform, and I don’t intend to get deeply into all the pros and cons here.  I’ll simply state my position: that standardized testing has been given too much power to force American education in the wrong direction, and I am unsatisfied with the unthinking assumption that it is the best or most efficient method of “fixing” American education.  I am also unsatisfied with the unchallenged assumption that American education is “in crisis” in a way which can be positively affected by standardized testing.  Bill Ayers weighs in eloquently:

“Teachers, parents, and youngsters need to know exactly how the tests are made, who makes them and for what purposes, and who wins and who loses among test-takers.  Without this knowledge, our awe of the power of test scores is a bit like the folks admiring the emperor’s new clothes – everybody else sees it, so it must be there.  Armed with detailed knowledge of the process and the product, we may become like the little boy who can’t see the clothes . . .”

That’s from Ayers’ “To Teach: The Journey Of A Teacher”; Seth Godin’s “Stop Stealing Dreams” is of course also a good resource.  For a more comprehensive (and perhaps less biased) list of the pros and cons of standardized testing, here’s Procon.org‘s page on it, though I warn that many of the “con” arguments are very suspect – for instance, the statement “93% of studies have found student testing, including the use of large-scale and high-stakes standardized tests, to have a ‘positive effect’ on student achievement”.  What does that even mean?

Anyway, I’m looking down the barrel of not one but two standardized tests within the next three weeks.  I decided to get them out of the way early.  I wasn’t too worried about the math exam, as just last quarter I got a 4.0 in a college pre-calculus course – I think (and hope) that makes me safe in this case.  I wanted to make sure I had my science down, though – it’s been a long time since I covered biology or chemistry, for instance, in what I’d call an “academic” setting.

So I did the logical thing: I bought an expensive test-prep book.  My poison of choice was “WEST-E SECRETS: Middle Level Science (013)”, prepared by Mometrix Media LLC, which I now assume is a subsidiary of the Galactic Empire from Star Wars, or some similar organization.  Actually, no – I’m sure a product endorsed by Emperor Palpatine would probably be more devious in its method for crushing wills, rather than doing so merely by an accident of stupidity.

Let me explain what I mean with two selections from the practice test near the back of the book.

“18. Which of the following is NOT an example of one of Newton’s laws of motion at work? a) Once in orbit, a satellite will continue moving around the earth. b) It takes three times as much force to move a block that has twice the mass of another. c) A ball rolling across the floor will continue moving across the floor. d) When a shotgun is fired, the gun moves sharply in the opposite direction of the bullet.”

Now, according to the answer-key, the correct answer is B, and a quick calculation shows that if Force = Mass * Acceleration (Newton’s 2nd Law), and I have a block weighing 1kg, I would need a force of 1 Newton to move that block at an acceleration of 1m/s/s.  If I then had a block weighing 2kg, I would need 2 Newtons of force to move the block at the same acceleration.  Here’s the problem: the only information the answer gives is that I have to move the heavier block.  It doesn’t specify a desired acceleration.  The 2kg block will still move when 1 Newton is applied – at 0.5m/s/s acceleration.  Basically, the statement in B could be true, if a desired acceleration were given – but as it’s written, it could certainly be false.

Compare that with answer A, which the book says is in fact an example of Newton’s laws – the answer key explains that we’re looking at Newton’s 1st Law here – “An object that is at rest will stay at rest unless an external (unbalanced) force acts upon it.  An object that is in motion will not change its velocity unless an external (unbalanced) force acts upon it.”  Notice that I emboldened velocity.  I did this because a satellite in orbit around the Earth is constantly changing its velocity – that, in a way, is what distinguishes an “orbit”, when you’re talking about the trajectories of objects in space.  One object is circling around another, constantly being attracted by the orbited object’s gravitational pull – i.e., constantly being acted upon by an outside force, which stops it from hurtling off into deep space.  The satellite’s speed may not change – well, not significantly, and not if it’s in a near-perfect circular orbit as opposed to an ellipse, and not if it’s in a high enough orbit to avoid friction with the Earth’s upper atmosphere – are you beginning to see why I began to feel, as I stared dumbfounded at this question, that answer A seemed the least perfect picture of one of Newton’s laws, and therefore must be the correct answer to this question?

Here’s one more example, and then I’ll get out of your hair.

“17. Which of the following properties of a meteorite moving through the planet’s atmosphere would change as it approached the surface of the Earth? a) mass b) volume c) density d) weight”

The book’s answer: D, weight.  The correct answer?  All of them!  As an object descends through Earth’s (or any planet’s) atmosphere, it encounters tremendous friction as it has to force its way through dense clouds of molecules which weren’t there when it was happily traipsing through the vacuum of space.  This friction heats the object rapidly and to extreme temperatures; heat causes it to expand (lowering density) but also to burn away (lowering volume and mass).  I’m fairly certain that the book-answer took into account only the phenomenon of the mass of the meteorite getting closer to the mass of the planet, thereby increasing the gravitational attraction between them, which is measured by weight; though by the time the rock hit the planet’s surface (if indeed it got that far), its weight would be much less than if the unaltered rock were somehow teleported straight from the vacuum of space to the surface of the planet.

If this question had been written: “As an asteroid approaches the Moon, which of its following properties will change?”, then, in my mind, D – weight – would be an acceptable answer – the Moon has no atmosphere.  (Another technical point to bring up is the choice of the word “meteorite” in the original question – it’s only going to be called that by geologists who dig it out of the ground, after it hits.  In space it would be an asteroid; within the atmosphere, it would be a meteor.)


Now, I must stress – the above questions are not actual questions from the WEST-E exams, they are questions from a test-prep book which I’m now convinced was prepared by some underground cult of reptilian humanoids bent on world domination.  But nevertheless, they’ve got me worried; I’ve been bingeing on Khan Academy lectures ever since I took the practice-test and got an atrociously low score.  The above questions were only the most confusing and poorly-written selections from the prep book – there were many others which I got wrong simply because it’s been perhaps 10 years since I’ve been required to remember the obscure biology and chemistry terms demanded by the test – which is the other problem with these exams, really: they’re testing one’s ability to cram, and nothing more.  (This also proves to me, at least, the uselessness of the traditional treatment of topics in science: as a boot-camp of term memorization, the unconnected data easily forgotten within a year of the final exam.)  So cram I must, and cram I will.  Will there ever be a point in my life when I can consider myself free forevermore from cramming?  Only time will tell.

The Agitation Station

Below is a selection from a journal entry I wrote for a class a few weeks ago, in which I agitate for an education revolution more than a little bit.  My high-school self would be shocked at how radical I’ve become.  Enjoy.


In a conversation I had with my mother recently, she said something about “Be careful that you’re not getting involved in indoctrination.”  This provided a great segway into me telling her about Seth Godin’s assertions (in Stop Stealing Dreams) that the American public education system has been essentially that for most of a hundred years – a way of training compliant workers.  I think she can see the lack of sense in that.  Actually, I’m very hopeful that most people who have passed through American public education will quickly realize the truth in Godin’s words: they’ve lived it, after all, and I can’t imagine any of them really, really hoping that their children will go through the same thing.  But there are parents and parents, after all, and voters and voters, and too many of them have been trained for too long to fear change, and to avoid really researching and thinking about a problem (because their computers are fearful demi-gods, rather than tools – an attitude they probably also picked up in school, no doubt).

I’m not trying to demean anyone – I myself would certainly be far less knowledgeable about all of this if I weren’t diving headlong into it.  I’m taken back to recent class readings about poverty (Jonathan Kozol’s Fire in the Ashes, among others), and how so many parents don’t have either the time or the resources to be as involved in their children’s education as might be ideal.  The readings on poverty also connect to Godin in showing education to be something which is essentially forced on poor students, with lackluster effort made to show them why it’s relevant.  Who has greater need of imagination than a family struggling to feed themselves and keep their water running?  I’m sure they have it in spades; forcing them to lose it seems like the greatest possible crime a teacher could commit.

It really is shocking to me to be confronted so exhaustively with the degree to which my country’s education system has been designed to rob human beings of the thing which makes us so unique on this planet, and perhaps the universe: imagination.  It’s almost creepy, almost Orwellian, to the degree that I almost want to disbelieve it; but I can’t, the case has been made too well, and all the elements of it are a long-time matter of public record.  Looking back, I can see the effect it’s had on generations of my own family.  I’ll never forget the conversation I had with my grandfather, not all that long ago, when I was flipping through one of my old Astronomy textbooks at the kitchen table at my parents’ house.  He asked me what I was reading, and I told him, and without missing a beat he said: “Astronomy?  What in the world is the practical application of that?”  At the time, all I could do was splutter defensively about Kepler’s laws of motion making Grandpa’s precious satellite-TV-delivered football games possible; but now, looking back, I can tell that what he was really saying was, essentially: “How is that information going to help you get a job?  In the workplace?  On the assembly line?”

Or perhaps, “Why in the world would you learn for fun?”

I don’t blame my grandfather for his attitudes; I’m sure, now, that he was very thoroughly trained to have them, being a product of Midwestern public school in the 30s and 40s.  This ties very well into a question I’ve been wrangling with: why many students come to see being “smart” as bad, something to be avoided; why so many middle and high-schools have money only for sports, where extracurricular activities are concerned.  I just get the sense that there’s this pervasive, self-reinforcing attitude that school is not really meant to train a student to think – it’s meant to – I don’t know what.  Make sure the student’s jumped through all the hoops society requires?  Make sure the student’s done everything his or her parents and grandparents did, thereby confirming his or her willingness to continue their same legacy, with little or no change to the formula?

So much of what I’m writing sounds almost paranoid – I used the term Orwellian above, because ever since I finished the Godin reading for this week I’ve been seeing education as this massive institution organized specifically by the “ruling class” to crank out obedient peasants.  That’s basically the charge that Godin makes (or at least part of it).  What’s truly terrifying is that I’m about to jump into the heart of that beast, and it will be up to a combination of luck, wit, good networking, and grinding labor whether I end up in a school where things are different – or, at least, where I can make a difference.  Or, maybe, pie-in-the-sky, these thoughts will pervade this nation over the next five or ten years, and win people’s hearts, and begin to make a difference across the whole system.  Revolutions have happened before – in fact, it is guaranteed that they will happen again.  I just hope we get the right one this time.

A final thought: I find “revolution” to be actually a rather inappropriate word in this context.  “Revolution” includes the root-word “revolve”, i.e., “return to the starting-point”.  We think of revolutions as massive changes, shifts to a completely new paradigm; but, just to give an example of how this word has changed over the centuries, the reason America’s founders considered themselves “revolutionaries” was because they considered what they were doing to be a return or a restoration of what they saw as their natural rights.  They considered themselves English, after all; and England at that time already had a “democratic” tradition, present in the houses of Parliament and the Magna Carta.  Men like George Washington (a cousin of nobility, it must be remembered) saw “revolution” as meaning “I’m getting back what I’ve been denied”.  It implies a return to an older state – not a dramatic move into completely new territory.

I want American education to move into new territory, not “revolve” into some mythical, nostalgic “good old days” caricature of a past form of itself.  How the heck am I going to bring it about?  At least I can say that I am very, very ready to help make it happen.

Google Is My Brain(?)

This week I read the first half of Seth Godin’s “Stop Stealing Dreams”.  I was delighted to find what I think was a reference to Michio Kaku’s “Physics of the Future”, a book which made a huge impression on me and heavily influenced my decision to become a teacher.  (I’m talking about section 70, where Godin references Kaku’s thoughts on net-enabled contact lenses.)

I highly recommend reading both.  I’ll summarize Godin’s main theme (so far as I’ve read): American public schools were designed (in the early 1900s) to produce compliant, complacent workers to fill positions on assembly lines in American factories.  But most Americans don’t work on assembly lines anymore.  Our economy is no longer based squarely on manufacture and export – the jobs of the future require thinkers, dreamers, innovators, and the current American public education system is not producing those.  We’re producing yesterday’s workers for tomorrow’s jobs, and we can’t afford not to change that.

This idea sparked spirited discussion among my cohort of aspiring teachers.  Many were hesitant to leap on the radical freight-train that Godin was calling all of us to board.  At the beginning of class, several of my colleagues each week are tasked with writing on the board a series of “eyebrow-raising” questions for discussion, regarding that week’s reading.  One of the really interesting ones which we didn’t get around to discussing much dealt directly with one of the most radical ideas in what we read of Godin’s work; I wanted to take some time to address it here:

“Is there a problem with not needing to ‘know’ anything and just being able to Google it?”

I’m sure there are a lot of teachers – a lot of Americans in general – who find Google (and a variety of similar data-retrieval tools) to be a repugnant blight on knowledge.  The assumption many make is that when you can simply call up data on your computer, that means that you don’t have to do any thinking in the process, don’t have to retain the information because you’ll know going in that you can just Google it again later, and by and large will just let your machines do your thinking for you.  It’s easy for people of this perspective to conjure images of a not-too-distant future where human brains have become largely useless mush, people have become happy idiots, and our machines have taken over all the important tasks – including feeding us, clothing us, and smiling in a superior fashion at our simple thoughts and words.  Or, conversely, annihilating us all, having deemed us a useless appendage or potential threat.

I may have described only a tiny wedge of the American population – but I’m using hyperbole to make a point.  There’s a high degree of technophobia still present in our culture; Godin outlines it nicely when he describes how one of the top terms searched on Bing (Microsoft’s factory-standard search engine) is still “Google”, and how, subsequently, one of the top terms searched on Google is “Facebook” (Godin 68).  I know for a fact that my parents and grandparents still experience a high degree of intimidation when faced with a computer screen, and a simple dialogue box with the prompt “search” or, even, “what would you like to find?” is tremendously comforting in that situation.  Is that wrong?  No, it’s just how they feel.  But do we want our children to feel this way, when confronted with technology?

I don’t agree with treating Google as “the lazy way” to learn.  Conveying that attitude is just going to perpetuate American technophobia.  It’s going to make students resistant to those incredibly useful data-retrieval techniques when they actually have to retrieve data for something – be it as simple as how to get to that thing at that one guy’s house, or as complicated as drafting an analysis of the feasibility of converting one’s office-building to solar power.  Why would we deny students the usage of these tools in our classrooms, when we know how useful they are going to be in the professional world of the near-future?  Of the now?

And to assume that the availability of Google (and other tools) induces a lack of ability to retain knowledge, or think, entails dishonesty about what really happens when you search for something online.  People don’t Google something that they don’t care about.  Google is just a tool, not in any sense less valid because you don’t have to undertake a mighty quest to a public library to use it.  Why do we feel that we need to make the acquisition of knowledge difficult?  Don’t we want the opposite?  Isn’t that part of why we’re entering the field of education in the first place – to make knowledge easy to acquire?

Let me just go ahead and Google something right now.  I mentioned solar power before – that seems like a good start.  Upon Googling “solar power”, I clicked on the first three links I got.  One brought me to the Wikipedia article on the subject, which gave me a good outline of the basics and a long list of references for more detailed investigation.  (Wikipedia, by the way, is another oft-disparaged tool that I’ve heard a lot of people scoffing at lately.  Nobody seems to ever scroll down far enough to see the huge lists of outside references and external links.)  The second link brought me to a Bloomberg article on how Hyundai is installing a massive solar array on the roof of one of its factories in South Korea; this array will provide clean energy for some 3200 households.  The article also had numerous links to other information about Hyundai, as well as contact information for the reporter who wrote the article.  Finally, from my original Google search, I got a link to a story in The Hindu (an Indian newspaper) about Rajasthan, an Indian province and a leader in the country’s sweeping efforts to convert to greener energy; the article also touched on the fact that India is currently the 5th-ranked nation in the world in the area of wind-power generation.

So in the space of 15 minutes, I’ve learned the basics of solar power technology, and discovered massive efforts underway in two different countries to implement it.  Did I know those things twenty minutes ago?  Not really.  And one of the most valuable things that Google helped me discover here was a wealth of links to further information, as well as avenues for connecting with other people interested in this topic.  So I have almost limitless possibilities for further investigation.  Who knows where I might eventually end up?

Am I going to lose all this information 15 minutes from now?  Not likely.  I’ve just embarked on a marvelously engaging experience, right before your eyes.  I’ve opened the door to connect with other human beings in disparate parts of the world, all striving toward a fascinating goal.  Google helped me do that.  If I didn’t have Google (or were too afraid to use it), I would, right now, have no idea that solar power will soon provide energy to 3200 Korean households.  I would have missed out on an uplifting and world-expanding fact.

So: is that what we want our students to do?  Miss out on things, because they’re not in the book, not part of the lesson plan, not something we’ll be getting to at this grade level?  Google is not an excuse to “not know” things; it’s rather the opposite.  Google makes it inexcusable not to know something.  To bring this back to Godin: when our society has this power to retrieve any data at any time, what is the use of ramming data into the skulls of our students, admonishing them that they must retain it?  They know it’s not true, which is why they don’t – many of us know the pain of having to re-teach concepts we thought our students should already be “solid” on at this point.  Instead of making them memorize these things, why don’t we spend more time challenging them to use them for something?  Like they’ll have to as adults?

The long and short is that Google is here, has been here for a long time, and isn’t going anywhere.  Why not use it, instead of encouraging students to mistrust it, scoff at it, even fear it?  The more comfortable they are with any number of web tools, the better equipped they’ll be to connect, to invent, and to dream – which is what we need them to do.