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Learning at its Best

Whilst Wandering Lonely as a Cloud and Filling Out a Survey to Win an iPad2…

After RSCON3 I noticed an inducement to fill out a survey.  I never win these things, but the questions being asked were quite good ones and allowed me to be a bit provocative in my response.  I mean, really, who was ever going to see this.  Besides, the drawing was already over.  As an intrinsic learner I couldn’t resist the siren call so I filled it out and submitted, but before I did I decided that I might copy over my response to CoopCatalyst as a blog post.  Reflecting on this post before I submit it, I see much that can be argued with.  I am unreasonable at times, but the responses felt right in the Old English sense of the word–straight, not bent. Below are my unbent responses to the survey.

“Creativity scores” are dropping across Western countries over the past decades. What are best ways to teach students creativity and innovation? *

I don’t think you can manage complexity.  And creativity is the most complex cognitive act I can imagine.  Creativity scores are bullshit. To quote Einstein, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”.  Perhaps the best or even the most we can do is to create environments where the expression of creativity is more likely.  We already know what these are:  project based learning, real questions that need answering, and  service learning among others.

How would you measure creativity and innovation? *

I wouldn’t measure it at all. I would just observe it, celebrate it, reflect upon it, and, finally, publish it.  The creations I value the most I cannot and dare not begin to measure–my own children.  Why would I voluntarily choose to measures others’ children?

Studies show empathy dropping across Western countries. What are best ways to teach students empathy in the classroom?

I think that lots of new research done on mirror neurons seems to show that empathy is a natural act and arises from human brain function.  How can we encourage that–by modelling empathy in everyday life and in classrooms.  Students need to have ‘personal action networks’ that put them into the world of social action.  Laura Rendon has a great expression for this.  She calls it ‘sentipensante pedagogy’–thoughtful sensitivity and the careful working together of left and right hemispheres (See Ian McGilchrist’s seminal work on this, The Master and His Emissary).  Or perhaps we can think of this in male and female terms as a  joining of midwifery and husbandry.  Oftentimes this work is at the margins of the ‘field’ where the field represents your students.

How would you assess the learning of empathy?

You’re kidding me, right?  Fuhgeddaboudit.  You’ll know it when you see it and you’ll see it when you know it.  And if you are the kind of teacher (and they are legion) who is not empathic, then I seriously doubt you could measure it anyway.  It is a terrific quandary because all of us are ‘cold’ to others’ feelings at times.  There is some work in positive psychology that points to ways to measure happiness, empathy, and so many of the non-quant datum, but I have my doubts about their usefulness.  I suggest that the most effective work at measuring this stuff is being done by ethnographers and sociologists in qualitative research.  That is not the pragmatic benchmark that most legislatures and schools under the nouvelle regimes of NCLB and RTTT seem to demand and is, therefore, devalued.

Our world is connected and collaboration is a vital life skill. What are best ways to teach students collaboration in the classroom?

The best way I have found is project based learning, service learning, and addressing essential questions in the discipline.  For example, the best way to learn about drama is not to read it (although that is part of the way).  The best way is to put on a show.  The best way to learn literature is to put yourself in the position of the poet, the playwright, and the fiction writer.  That’s why I always have a ‘creative’ element in every lit class I teach.  And all of these can and should have a collaborative element.  In fact many of our students are already doing this.  Creating videos, for example, practically demands it of us.  One thing you do not do is to begin a collaborative unit by teaching students how to use Google Docs or etherpad.  Cart behind not before horse.

How would you measure or assess collaboration?

I put a great deal of emphasis on reflection.  This is multi-genre.  For example, I use ipadio, youtube, blogs as platforms to reflect.  So the question becomes, “How do you see the quality of collaboration forming at every point along the way including a summative one.  Of course, you scaffold a bit by indicating what constitutes good collaboration in a general way, but you make sure you don’t valorize the scaffolding and the ‘best practice’ because that guarantees that you will get what you have already got.  I believe that there should be a strong measure of idiosyncratic discovery in these measures.  I have never tried this, but if you had an app that allowed tagging it would be an empowering practice to get learners to tag their reflections extensively then reflect as above on a regular basis.  And they could use the tags collaboratively in teams as they go through a project to further reflect on their team members’ needs.  I suppose that might also be a way to generate empathy.

We are all global and local citizens now. What are the best way to teach students citizenship in the classroom?

Citizenship is about what we owe ourselves and others in whatever political system we live within.  I seriously doubt that we can practice global citizenship.  Perhaps that simple means that we have universal political values that must be reinforced.  As in most things political, it’s all about the local.  I don’t think politics ‘means’ much past the tribal level.  I don’t mean by this that the U.S. Constitution has no meaning on the local level, but I do think it might have a lot more tribal significance if we brought it’s values to the tribe.  If that means the classroom, then so be it.  Harold Lasswell wrote a very famous book on political theory called Politics Who Gets What, When and How and I think we might ‘teach’ our tribes with that in mind.  In other words get learners to analyze their local citizenship in light of Lasswell or Marx or Michelle Bachmann for that matter because there is wisdom in studying ‘non-examples’.

How do you measure or assess the learning of engaged citizenship?

Of course you measure engagement.  How do you measure engagement?   You look at time on task and stuff generated.  And how do you quantify that?  Alright, tongue firmly dislodged from cheek.  You can quantify anything, but that doesn’t mean you have a firm grasp on the tail of the truth.  What it might mean is that you have tiger by the tail ready to let you know what a bad idea it is to pull that particular part.   You can measure the merely complicated but don’t think it gives you any handle on the complexity.  That cat won’t sit still.

What are the opportunities for learning technology or digital skills/literacies in your classroom?

Every day we talk and share.  We learn from each other the most common ways to do that.  Then we learn some of the uncommon ways to do so.  The key is to have the learning driven by a question or a project or a desire.  All else follows.

How would you assess the learning of technology skills? 

I would do like a master with an apprentice.  Make it so.  If they can’t make it so, then they go back on the road to mastery–practice.  Some of these roads are cul-de-sacs, some are blue highways, some are Interstates and some are unbeaten, unblazed paths.  Students measure them by their usefulness.  Masters measure them by their continued usefulness.  I would assess how they access and achieve mastery as my main assessment because the capacity to continue to achieve mastery is absolute in an environment where change is ubiquitous and inevitable.

What are pitfalls of using technology in the classroom?

A pitfall is for capturing an animal.    Failure is not an option, it is a feature built into the program that we call our minds.  Therefore let us find all the pitfalls by falling in them, avoiding the spears at the bottom, and then pulling ourselves out with the help of our tribe.

Does measuring students’ performance help them to learn? Is measuring the same as assessment?

Measuring is still quantifying.  Observing is not the same as measuring or assessing.  We must measure and reflect.  We must help learners become supreme autodidacts who can measure and reflect their own damned selves.

Why should we measure or assess students performance?

Using conventional, educational jargon?  NFW.  We should observe it, we should immerse ourselves in it, we should participate in it, then we might know it a little better.  Ulitmately, we don’t really measure a medical student’s performance except insofar as we note whether or not the operation did what we mostly wanted it to do.  Does that mean we dust our hands together and say aloud with a diploma, “Done and done.”?  Nope, the world continues to ‘teach’ that student by the same standard. I would not give a single grade if I could manage it.  That’s the lazy way devised by admins who think a walkthrough amounts to anything more than a savage hoax on those who think it proves a damned thing.  I guess the short answer is “no”.

Why shouldn’t we measure or assess students performance? 

Again, wrong words for me.  We should observe and feed back those observations.  We should get better at observing students–that will be a better assessment in the long run than anything we can do.  We should only allow teachers in the classroom who are good observers and who give good feedback.  We should have teachers who observe teachers and give them feedback and feedforward.  I think those folks are called principals and administrators, but I fear most have lost their way.

I remember a couple of summers growing cucumbers under contract for Paramount Pickles out of Louisville, Kentucky.  When we picked them they (gherkin and baseball bat) all went into the same buckets and they all went out the door to the grading machine.  This grader was a thing out of the darkest basement of Kafka’s imagination.  Pour the cukes in one end and through a series of levers and rising and falling boards they would end up graded (1-8) at the other end.  The process itself was benign.  I mean who wants a bruised cucumber.  They don’t process well.  Do no harm was the mantra of the Paramount Pickle Corporation and they didn’t.  Can the same be said for the sorting process that is our public schools?  No, schools are not even as good as a pickle sorting machine.

I can’t believe I put Lasswell, Marx, and Bachmann in the same sentence.  Nor do I know why I created the pickle grader as a metaphor for the modern classroom.  I am unsure what grade you would give that based upon which rubric, but I suppose that is my point. I don’t do the things I love because I think you will praise me or at least criticize the content of my blog or my character.  I do them because I love them and hope you might, too.  You don’t have to worry about empathy or assessment or creativity when students do what they love.  Wouldn’t that be the greatest revolution in education if we all decided that our reason for being as teachers is to help the students discover and realize their passions?

We need to follow our students’ passions, we need to point them down the road to precision and mastery without depleting that passion, and we need to help them bring head and heart together so as to ‘have at’ that dialectic again and again.  I am sure assessment has a part to play in that, but at this moment in education it has overplayed that hand and needs a consequent countervailing force even a small one like this to be what Buckminster Fuller called the ‘trim tab’.  He felt so strongly about this role that he put it on his gravestone, “Call me trim tab.”  Me, too.

About tellio

This website will be dedicated to the miscellany of living la vida English. The audience will be weblog companero: students, teachers, and fellow travellers down this road barely trampled. I will be adding occasional posts about where I am going, where you might be going, or wherever I please. The map ain't the damn territory. I am doing this because I know it makes me feel better about the trip if I have a notebook along with me. All the better to make it digital and public.


4 thoughts on “Whilst Wandering Lonely as a Cloud and Filling Out a Survey to Win an iPad2…

  1. This is great. I seem to agree with you on every point… so I am not sure what help this comment is in challenging you.

    You have shown both the silliness of some of these questions but also how questions or prompts like these can really help you to reflect on your own theories, practices and learnings as long as it is not conditional in measuring you, offer you a prize (Ipad 🙂 or seeking some external result.

    Sometimes I wonder what life would be like there was no contrast of views, the perfect utopia we all dream of… and then I remember, things like Punk music, New Wave cinema, and Dada art. The Status quo offers us a place to move from….but it also give us stuff to rebel against often generating experimentation that might never have come without the need to rebel. I guess this is the tension and paradox of our world and our work.

    I think I might have merged my comments to your post and your comment about Deschooling society…. so be it as Vonnegut would say.

    thanks for sharing this!

    Posted by dloitz | August 14, 2011, 1:23 pm
  2. I love it, Terry.

    Observation, reflection, action, help: what an elegant process for fostering complex behavior. It seems to me that the more prescriptive and complex we get in our schooling, the less complex behavior our students practice and the less ready they are to enjoy ambiguity and its possibilities.

    Is there a way you help your students discover their interdependence before beginning collaborative work, or do you think such interdependence is best discovered through that work? I’m wondering about how to help my kids more richly experience and participate in our community.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 15, 2011, 8:35 am
    • I like to think I am original in this, but I ain’t. I follow the ‘work’ of Myles Horton and community organizers like him. He once said, “What you must do is go back, get a simple place, move in and you are there. The situation is there. You start with this and let grow. You know your goal. It will build its own structure and take its own form. You can go to school all your life, you’ll never figure it out because you are trying to get an answer that can only come from the people in the life situation.” It is a chaos theory for education. When I first read that, I was gobsmacked. The way to get started is to start. What I need to do more of as a teacher within a horribly flawed institution is to put myself inside as an observer/reflector/actor/helper. The more I do that, the more I share the central problem of whatever it is I am teaching, the more likely it becomes that school will seem less like an institution and more like life.

      There are so many ways to do this but they all involve emergence and not hierarchy. I have begun reading Nobel economist, Elinor Ostrom’s powerful book, Governing the Commons ( seems to provide some theoretical underpinnings for this messy zeitgeist (man would that be a great indy band name).

      Thanks for your consistent and kind responses. To more directly answer your wonderful question: provide a focus for group action by showing them what is possible and how it was done, then provoke their passions, then guard them and hold them accountable at the same time to personal and group growth toward it. I have failed way more often than I have succeeded not because the model doesn’t work, but because of my own cowardice not my students. I just didn’t believe in them enough and let myself fall back into the default. Let me know what you might want to do and I will be happy to participate from the inside on the outside.

      Posted by tellio | August 19, 2011, 7:37 am

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