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.