Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Another Dream: Nature Schools

I've recently (here and here) talked about two touchstones of inspiration for me: Atul Gawande's writings about the notion of checklists for hospital protocol, and Tom Horn's amazing school in Oregon. Here's a third: Cedarsong Nature School and its kin.

Human beings are experiential beings, and children are especially so. And as we increasingly lose touch with our place in the natural world, we are increasingly in danger of destroying ourselves, and everything we're connected with--which is everything. My ideal school would, like Erin Kenny's Cedarsong,  have children outside--rain or shine, snow or heat--exploring, measuring, comparing, reflecting, listening.

Cedarsong right now is a part-time kindergarten, its set-up closer to daycamp than to K-12 schooling. Students spend all of their time at Cedarsong outside, but that means at most three hours, a few times a week. My questions are:
  • Will our nation's obsession with academic development, to the detriment of all other kinds of development, keep these schools to kindergarten only? Or deter their growth all together?
  • Aside from the standards quandary, could this concept extend past the baby grades, into more academic grades, maybe continuing with the three-hours-outside rule?
  • How about all the way up to high school? How about culminating in an outward-bound sort of project-based program that combined academic concepts with experiential wilderness ones?
  • Can this concept work outside of a "quirky" bedroom communities, as Fox calls Vashon Island where Cedarsong is located, and other regions already strongly predisposed toward producing Nature Children? Could acknowledging the existence nature become at all mainstream again?

Here is a blog that has a list of other nature schools near Seattle. All quite will be exciting to watch them grow.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

What is K–12's checklist?

In my last post I mentioned  Atul Gawande’s article* detailing how many lives a  simple checklist system has saved in ICUs—and how astonishingly difficult it is to widely implement this humblest of processes. Here it is. I have returned again and again to this article over the years, and to similar pieces about how we in the United States are so dazzled by technological complexity that we neglect process. We therefore entirely overlook elegant solutions to  seemingly unsolvable problems.

What are some of the “checklists” that can help schools? That is a guiding question for me. They may not be literal checklists: what I mean is, What are the simple, elegant solutions that, while they can’t solve everything, can unobstruct a least one or two major arteries of dysfunction?

*Gawande later turned this article into a book. Stay tuned for a review.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Living the Dream: Kennedy High

This is the story that has been inspiring me the most the past couple months. Principal Tom Horn pulled together all of the elements of my ideal school and made it a reality at Al Kennedy Alternative High School (also called Kennedy School of Sustainability).

You've got your project-based format, you've got your dedication to getting out from under the six sides of the classroom, you've got your conservation focus and your community focus (combined, just as I've been envisioning, and involving partnerships with area organizations, so those organizations are engaged, too--another piece of my vision). You've got a student population that has not responded to traditional schooling becoming engaged and successful learners.

It's my dream school. It's everything I've been gathering, prepping, percolating, stirring, seasoning, in my mind. This story is one of my touchstones right now (another is Atul Gawande's article from several years back, "The Checklist").

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Technology, Teaching, and TED

I wrote earlier about the value of riffing on, rather than condemning, the Khan Academy open-source content model. Others will no doubt take the idea and run with it, and who better than TED, the much adored clearinghouse of “riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world”?

Ted has created a body of educational videos now available in Beta. At this point, most are TED footage of inspiring people giving talks and seem shoehorned in to this purpose; a smaller number are animated shorts illustrating  a smattering of interesting but decidedly noncentral concepts described in voice-over. The resulting selection is high quality, but odd--supplemental pieces to be used in the classroom to add dimension and whimsy to a topic.

TED gives kudos to Khan, as it should, but these videos, idiosyncratic as they are right now, are far more engaging and effective than the Khan ones. Their pedagogical surround is also excellent--especially the essay-answer style thinking prompts.  They ask for true critical thought, not irrelevant connections or evidenceless opinions that plague so much response work kids are asked to do. Viewers must think about the video, think about something else they know, and draw specific and thoughtful conclusions. And viewers can open and close the material seamlessly while watching the video, a sensible design that makes a fantastic difference in ease of thoughtflow and workflow.

If you register, you can “flip” a video, by which they mean, in this context, that you can customize it with  your own links and questions, and you can share your “flipped” video with other teachers. (It’s confusing that these proponents of "flipping the classroom"  are introducing a different use for the term “flip” here; I wish they’d thought of a different term.) You can also track the number of views, and kids get instant feedback on the multiple choice questions, though I'm unclear on the logistics of student interaction, such as log-ins and saving answers.

Really, it’s quite good. It’s exciting. And I’m not among the throngs of adoring TED boosters.
I’m a bit confused by TED. I like the talks. I don’t love them. They lack depth and…I don’t know. Substance? I know they’re supposed to be inspirational, visionary—not nuts and bolts—but they come off a bit like marketing to me, like the speakers are trying to sell an idea or a product. And I find the surround at once self-important and breezy.

That said, TED, dedicated to visionary ideas as it is, is ideally suited in many ways to participate in re-envisioning school, and TedEd seems an exciting, promising start. A bit random in topic—so far—it’s in beta—but substantial and thoughtfully crafted in content and usage. And! It’s all free.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Ups and Downs with the Khan Academy

Here’s a clear and interesting summation of the rise and (relative) fall of the Khan Academy. Sal Khan, a very smart and caring guy with no teaching background at all, created thousands of simple videos explaining or demonstrating various school topics, from math concepts to history lessons, and put them online for free use by educators, or anyone else. One goal was to “flip” the classroom—get the lecture out of the way via video (which has the added advantage of naturally individualizing instruction, as students pause and rewatch or fast forward as needed) and save the in-class time for focusing on specific areas of challenge or interest and on collaborative work.
Another goal was also to improve educational access--to circumvent expensive textbooks and other  proprietary paid content and content management. If you register as a teacher, you also get access to  tools for tracking student progress. Schools around the nation have been using these videos as another tool for their teachers and an accessible way to work with changing up the use of class time.

I love the idea of flipping classrooms, for a number of reasons (genuine use of technology the way adults and children in  RealLife actually use it, for one, and making more efficient use of time together, for another). And I'm very interested in the improvements open content will bring to paid content, in pricing, flexibility, and responsiveness. But, while I appreciate his effort and passion, Khan's teaching leaves something to be desired. The videos I looked at are confusing and frankly a bit dull, and sound pitched for an adult ear.

Hey, it’s a wide range of materials, freely accessible and readily adaptable to any educator, child, or curious person, and, while Sal Khan is not a teacher, he does seem to know his stuff, contentwise. The Academy is a reasonable, and gigantic, source for raw materials a teacher could integrate into his or her lesson. But I was a bit perplexed about the effusive welcome and Hallelujah surrounding the Academy, and surprised that the Gates Foundation backed it up with tons and tons of money given its nature as a one-man show of raw material.

So I’m glad to see the critiques about his pedagogy and a slowing down of the celebration. That’s healthy. That said, I find roundly rejecting the videos, and making fun of the premise, completely and totally unhelpful. Khan broke ground on a concept, and the publicity, fanfare, and money behind it will put wings on the process of repetition and improvement—very quickly, others will take the idea and run with it. I’ve already seen other examples from teachers who flipped their own classrooms beautifully—they use similar software to record their own lectures and demos, but they also know their students and their pedagogy.

The videos and other tools have been helpful for some. Those who don't like them can skip them. And maybe--certainly, really--the Khan dream will spark even better ways to combine technology, learning, and limited class time.