Friday, April 5, 2013

In Educational Computer Games, It's Not the Learning That's Fun, It's the Computer Games

A couple weeks ago, Pamela Paul wrote a column for the New York Times about the fad for educational computer games in classrooms and in the home. Ms. Paul is justifiably skeptical of these developments, and her article is a good read. The article has a certain charming, almost refreshing crotchetiness:
The concepts of work and play have become farcically reversed: schoolwork is meant to be superfun; play, like homework, is meant to teach. There’s an underlying fear that if we don’t add interactive elements to lower school curriculums (sic), children won’t be able to handle fractions or develop scientific hypotheses — concepts children learned quite well in school before television.
I want to stress that the point here isn't that kids shouldn't have fun in school. There's nothing wrong with making learning fun. A good teacher gets us excited about Catcher in the Rye or the elegance of Newtonian mechanics or the beauty of geometry. The problem with computer game-based learning is that, in nearly every case, it's not the subject-matter that's catching students’ interest; it's something entirely incidental.

What game-based learning leads to, therefore, is not more learning but more games. There is a race-to-the-bottom, from worksheets, to computer math drills, to math-based games gussied up with cool features that distract from the actual math, to games that have no discernible academic content, like those found at the popular website Like addicts, students need more and more bells and whistles to hold their attention, until they receive the drug in its pure form, undiluted by educative content or mental effort.

If you want kids to learn, you have to get them engaged in learning. No proxy will suffice.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Odyssey Initiative

When I started writing this blog, I had the idea that someday it would lead to a large-scale school observation project: traveling the country in search of exceptional teaching practice and innovative school design. My experience in teaching had demonstrated to me what radically different sorts of institutions go by the name "school" in this country and what wildly divergent sorts of wisdom different educators have collected about how children learn and grow. I wanted to go out and see the range of teaching practices and schooling models at work in America.

My own schemes have gone off in other directions, but my friend Todd Sutler is about to embark on a journey much like the one I imagined two years ago. Along with two colleagues, Todd will "tour the best schools and classrooms in the 50 states to observe and document what is already working in American schools." The three researchers intend to use their findings to inform a new charter elementary school, which they are designing and which is scheduled to open in Brooklyn next Fall. The project, dubbed the Odyssey Initiative, is being funded on Kickstarter and is garnering attention within the education world and in the mainstream media as well.

The Odyssey Initiative and the interest it is garnering within education circles-- some of which is quite mainstream-- underscores a strange divide in the world of education research. In the academy and at the higher levels of policy analysis, quantitative methods are ascendant, and even those scholars who are doing qualitative work often rigidly control their observations, reducing teacher behaviors, for example, to a series of numerically coded gestures and expressions, in order to fit the aesthetics and aspirations of hard science. At the same time, educators and school administrators, even those in the heart of the No-Excuses movement, often make prolific use of open-ended observational methods of data collection. Schools that boast of their data-driven instruction still devote more time to classroom observations than to analysis of test-results. And the preeminent exposition of No-Excuses methodology, Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion, is not a would-be scientific analysis of teacher behaviors and student outcomes but a work of close observation and psychological interpretation, carried out by a former teacher.

Observational research is very different from more rigid methods of education research. It requires more art, depends more on the individual impressions and mindset of the researcher. It is harder to generalize from, but often more useful. It can tell us little about universal laws of behavior but can offer great insight into the practice, the techne, of education. It is a practitioner's research method-- and so, it is appropriate that three teachers planning to found a school should use it. I would like to see more education research being done by educators-- for the sake of both the schools and the research.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Writing About Occupy on Huffington Post

Dear Readers,

It's been a very long time since I've written in this blog. For most of the last six months, I've been completely submerged in Occupy Wall Street. I've finally emerged and recently begun writing about my experiences on Huffington Post. If you're looking for something to read, I hope you'll check these out:

Why I Came to Occupy Wall Street and Why I Left: an Introduction
This is the essential feature of political debate in America today: each side repeats its arguments in isolation, oblivious to what the other side is saying; and each is driven by a terror of the other. The result is a volatile and yet strangely monotonous political narrative, which swings wildly between two poles, yet never seems to get anywhere.

You Can't Leave Occupy Wall Street
Before Occupy, the baby boomers used to call us (their children) apathetic. One thing that Occupy has demonstrated is that the problem wasn't apathy, it was despair. When we said, "Why bother," it wasn't because we didn't care; it was because we didn't think we had a shot. But maybe that's letting us off too easy. After all, hope isn't so much a probabilistic analysis as it is a relationship to action. When we have hope, we don't think our odds are any better than when we don't; it's more that we're in the mood to take a gamble. So, maybe hopeless is just another word for lazy, but I think it's more correct to put it the other way around: Lazy is another word for hopeless. That is, if we seemed lazy when it came to marching in the streets, it was because history and society had conspired to convince us that that sort of gamble wasn't worth taking.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How Occupy Wall Street Is Like a Classroom

A speaker on the people's mic, arguing against occupation, at about 20 minutes to midnight
On Saturday night, I watched a miracle of classroom management such as I would never have imagined possible; it didn’t happen in a classroom, and there was no teacher.

Over the course of the evening, a crowd of three thousand or more had gathered in and around the dry fountain basin in Washington Square Park. Returning from the earlier march on Times Square, the attendees were agitated after a day of chanting and dancing, packed, often shoulder to shoulder, between police barricades. There were reports of scores of arrests and a couple of violent incidents. Word had spread of a possible illegal occupation of Washington Square that night. Meanwhile, a line of police officers stood at the entrances to the square, announcing to each arriving crowd that the park would close at midnight—i.e. “you’ve been warned.”

A little after 10 pm, a handful of facilitators from the Zuccotti park occupation stood up on the grate that covers the water jets at the center of the fountain basin and asked the mob to be seated. The general assembly had begun.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Teaching Values Across Cultural Difference

There’s been a lot of discussion on this blog lately, both in the posts and in the comments, about the teaching of values. Most of these discussions have dealt with, if not necessarily middle-class values, at least values taught by middle-class educators—and taught, for the most part, to working-class and poor children, with the idea that these children are short on good values. Today, I want to talk about a different scenario.

I recently happened upon this blog post by “Teacher MRW,” an African-American first-generation-college-graduate teaching in a predominantly white, upper-middle class private school. Inspired by the discussion of moral education generated by my post on the London Riots, MRW writes about the cultural dissonance between herself and her privileged, white students, particularly around conduct, manners, and responsibility. She opens with an anecdote about her attempts to make her students take their hats off when they enter the classroom—a wonderful bit of old-fashioned decorum that my Jesuit-educated 6th-grade history teacher enforced with an iron hand, to my baseball-cap-wearing classmates’ surprise and, at first, consternation, but ultimately half-frightened, half-amused respect. MRW’s demands that “gentlemen take their hats off in class,” as my history teacher used to put it, however, met with only bafflement and resistance, and she finally gave up on the hat battle.

In a lot of ways MRW’s predicament seems to mirror that in which many privileged, white college-graduates (myself included) find themselves, when they take teaching jobs in inner-city public schools. For MRW, however, the gradient of cultural privilege runs in the opposite direction, a fact that drastically alters the terms of the cultural exchange in ways that are frustrating to MRW and far from beneficial to her students. The particulars of the exchange also highlight some of the difficulties facing middle-class education and harken to some of the themes discussed in my last full-length post. (Yes, there are difficulties facing middle-class education; admitting that does not belittle the difficulties facing inner-city education.)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What makes a good principal? Don't ask Michael Winerip.

Last week, The Times published this ridiculous puff piece by Michael Winerip about the principal of NYC's PS 126. The Times has published some excellent education journalism in recent years, especially the long and nuanced pieces that Paul Tough writes for the magazine supplement, but Winerip's column is of a very different sort. Bad, partisan education reporting (and Winerip's article is subtly but definitely partisan) has very real negative consequences for the public debate. I wrote the Times the letter below, which, naturally, they declined to publish. I knew they would— its tone is far too strident— but I'm disappointed that they published this letter instead, which not only praises Winerip's column, but treats it as serious education journalism.

The "letter to the editor" is a fun form. The word-length constraint forces a nice directness and economy. Here's me on "The Secrets of a Good Principal," in 150 words:

Dear Editor,

I don’t know whether Jacqui Getz is a good principal. She may or may not be, but Mr. Winerip’s column sheds no light on the matter. From the column we learn that Getz works hard; that she espouses union-friendly opinions about teacher evaluation (but not that she acts on them); that she talks to students; and that she wears high-heels.

I’ve observed classes at PS 126 and happen to know that over the last few years, it ran a highly innovative literacy program that produced impressive results and inspired other schools. Is this program still in place? Is Ms. Getz supporting or revamping it? These are details that a responsible journalist might report on.

But this column is not journalism, and it leaves the public none the wiser. This kind of negligent reporting is damaging to the entire public debate about education, and The Times ought not to publish it.

Max Bean