Preventing the Punkin Chunkin from Going Potemkin Village

So maybe it is the Marine in me, but my mind went straight to a Punkin War.  Teams set up positions around  a Pumpkin Patch, supported by Punkin Artillery, with each team trying to drag as many pumpkins as possible back to their base, all the while avoiding getting jacked up by incoming jack-o-lanterns.  I know, not likely we could get an event premised on hitting students with twenty-pound gords coming in from a mile, but wow would there be some authentic assessment going on.

Ok, on a more serious and less disturbing note.  As a former science teacher I have seen lots of really cool ideas (egg drop contests, spaghetti houses holding up a particular weight) end up having the learning sucked right out of them.  Why?  Lots of reasons but the biggest have to do with time, pedagogy and pride.
Too often the projects are crammed into the curriculum, meaning that the event goes on no matter what students have learned.   Not having nearly enough time to make mistakes and learn from them means many students end up at the final event essentially winging it.  As the final event is set up to be a spectacle, it often goes off without a hitch- pumpkins fly and eggs drop- as long as nobody asks any hard questions.   Ironically, students could have gone through the whole unit without learning much of anything except how to do sloppy half-assed work.   Then someone takes pictures of the whole event that get published in some piece of school propaganda and passed off as learning- true Potempkin Village Pedagogy.  Back to test prep.

Truth is the learning starts when the wheels fall off the project.  Students wing it, which often means the pumpkin goes nowhere, the egg breaks, and the spaghetti house crumbles.  Now we have a problem, which means Continue Reading

Lies, Liars and Living in Lies

In a fairly recent New Yorker article Arne Duncan told the following story:

Once, when Duncan was in high school, a basketball star he knew from Sue’s came to him for help in studying for the A.C.T. test.  “He was being recruited by some big places,” Duncan said.  “He was thinking Marquette, something like that.  And we say down, and he couldn’t read.  He was a B student at Martin Luther King.  This was the year they won the state championship.  He was a good kid.  He stayed clear of gangs, drugs; his teachers liked him.  He did everything right, everything that was asked of him, and he was functionally illiterate.  It wasn’t his fault.  He’d been lied to all his life.  We had a heart-to-heart talk, and I had to tell him.  And he didn’t make it.  He went to junior college, but he didn’t make it.”

Lied to his entire life.  Hmm.  By who?  While Duncan does not explicitly tell us Continue Reading

Pumpkin Chunkin and the Nature of Teacher Work

I read Matt’s post yesterday and I appreciated the way he chose to push folks to look at learning and teaching differently. I thought about it as I was running/waddling through West Philly this afternoon. I was thinking of one particular response to these sorts of proposals: it’s too much work to teach this way.

Let’s think about this for a minute. To build and to really understand a trebuchet or a catapault, you would need to have basic knowledge of force, of how to calculate velocity, of balance,of how bodies in motion behave. As an intellectual problem — how do I hurdle an object the greatest distance — you can see the ways in which basic math (both algebra and geometry) and basic physics could be learned.

But ONLY if it’s done right.

You could spend a month, two months, split between a shop and classroom, and the kids could have a GREAT time, well, Continue Reading

And for an encore…

A lot of the folks who learn about the Workshop come to it by way of the EVX project. This makes sense; it’s inspirational and makes an amazing story. The question that these people always ask Simon and the team is: what are you going to do next?

The most obvious answer, and the one we typically offer, is that we want to start a school. The real product of projects like EVX, we explain, is not cars. It is a way of learning, and a way of Continue Reading

No President Left Behind

Dear President Obama,

If the midterms elections are any indicator you have your work cut out for you in terms of getting another term. If you are accepting advice from people not from Chicago I have an idea for how to get reelected: The Presidential Standardized Test. Here’s how it works.

Declare a presidential “crisis” that is putting our nation at risk of falling behind in the 21 Continue Reading

Learning By Doing

Last week I had the privilege of presenting at TEDxPhilly (see the links in previous blogs). I created an after school program at West Philadelphia High School that has received national attention. I’ve been invited to a few of these events because people want to know how an inner-city after-school program can build bad-ass hybrid cars that beat teams like MIT and big money start-up companies. Continue Reading

More Dewey

As regards the spirit of the school, the chief object is to secure a free and informal community life in which each child will feel that he has a share and his own work to do. This is made the chief motive towards what are ordinarily termed order and discipline. It is believed that the only genuine order and discipline are those which proceed from the child’s own respect for the work which he has to do and his consciousness of the rights of others who are, with himself, taking part in this work. As already suggested, the emphasis in the school upon various forms of practical and constructive activity gives ample opportunity for appealing to the child’s social sense and to his regard for thorough and honest work.

Source: Continue Reading

TED and school

Last Friday, Simon and I were debriefing his talk at TEDx Philly. These types of events are becoming increasingly common. The basic idea is to get a bunch of smart, dynamic, creative people in one place at the same time, have them share their work, and see what happens. The format varies a bit (TED is more presentation based, whereas events like the Aspen Ideas Festival offer more unstructured time for discussion), but what they have in common is the belief that this kind of cross-pollination of people and ideas is generative. Continue Reading