Archive for March, 2012

transistor

A transistor, one of Bell Lab's inventions

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about the article in The New York Times from February 23rd: “True Innovation“. Jon Gertner is the author of a forthcoming book about Bell Labs called The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation and this was a kind of preview. There was plenty of detail about Bell Labs that was new to me, all well and good. What I thought was most thought-provoking was to think of how the characteristics of Bell Labs that Gertner identifies as success generators might or might not be present in schools.

Gertner contends that  Bell scientists “worked on the incremental improvements necessary for a complex national communications network while simultaneously thinking far ahead toward the more revolutionary inventions imaginable.” This idea of combining incremental change and visionary thinking is what struck me. I think this is what schools should do. They should work continually to improve what they do (tweaking this and that) while at the same time be working towards that revolutionary (re-)invention. Gertner states that Mr. Kelly, who ran the lab for many years, believed it was necessary to have “a ‘critical mass’ of talented people to foster a busy exchange of ideas.” If schools can attract and retain talented teachers, they should be all set in this department. A little more respect for the teaching profession would help here, yes? Anyway, what professional doesn’t want to work with a team of talented colleagues? I know some people don’t want to work with a team, talented or not. But, let’s just say you are working with others, not too many people would say, yes give me the duds. So it seems obvious. However, I think that what is not obvious is that you want bunch of talented folks in the same place. It’s not overkill. It means that they will have peers and be able to have that exchange of ideas that is so important for real innovation. This is a place people will want to be! Excited and interested teachers will attract and produce excited and interested students. There’s our critical mass.

According to Gertner, Kelly also set up the building to encourage, if not force, people to come into contact with each other regularly. On top of that, he gave researchers freedom and time. Just let that sink in a little. Employees have a physical space set up to allow and encourage them to run into each other, they have the freedom to follow paths they think will be valuable, and the time to do so. Sound good so far?

There are lots of other interesting details in the article. It’s worth reading the whole thing, in my opinion. What I noticed was the powerful combination of purposeful design of space and culture in the service of understanding. That is certainly what I want to be going on in my classroom. I want to set up a physical space that allows for easy and frequent interaction by students. I want to give my students more freedom to follow their interests, trust them to be serious (serious for 10 year olds) about it, and time to get lost in what they find. And, I want that for myself as a professional. I want to run into all different colleagues regularly, not just the ones whose classrooms are next door to mine. Once I run into them, I want to be able to sit down somewhere and talk, not necessarily in a room filled with laminator fumes on a cast away sofa. I want to have the freedom to do new things and spend time, lots of time, working on how to do what I do best. Some, even many, of these things I already have, but as my students will tell you, I’m not really about half-way. I want the whole thing. I want it for me and for my students.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Vincent Connor)

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20101006 - PRIVATE - IMG_7904So, I’m still thinking about EduCon. The first conversation that I attended was presented by three impressive ladies:  Pam Moran, Becky Fisher, and Paula White. I knew from past experience that I would not be disappointed spending 90 minutes with them. I follow all of them on Twitter, try to keep up with that they write, and have either attended sessions with them before (f2f or virtual) and/or met them. Rather than sum up their presentation, I am sharing what ideas it brought to my mind.

The topic was writing, but we quickly moved to communicating more broadly. One of the things that I have written about before is having my students record themselves reading their essays. I was remembering this as the conversation bounced around ideas about grammar and punctuation. One of the things I like about teaching in the lower grades and at an independent school is that I do not have to give a single grade for writing or reading. Instead I have a skills list that allows me to comment on a student’s ability to do many of the individual parts of writing. So as I wrote last year, listening to my students read their work allows me to focus on the communication of ideas and not get bogged down by the grammar and spelling errors. I need to comment on them too, but I don’t like to have that be the only thing. It reminded me that I need to do this more. I have tended to keep this for more personal essays rather than expanding it to analytical writing. Although everyone could probably use some speaking practice, there is a limit to what I can cram into the school day/week/year. It might be that I should focus on having those students who struggle with the mechanics record more of their essays. It may not be as critical for everyone as some are quite proficient in being able to write what they think.

The other idea that came up for me was the public nature of students writing for a real audience. I am totally for student writing getting beyond the classrooms and hallways. When blogging and using wikis for  writing came up, there was, of course, some push back as to security. There was the usual conversation about students not sharing personal information online. It’s a pretty techie crowd, so we moved on quickly. But, then as we talked about giving students choice and writing about ideas and following their passion, we were talking about students being personal. I have a few things to say on the topic:

  1. It is more of an issue for elementary students; I get that.
  2. Schools routinely publish pictures of students who play on teams or win awards in newspapers or online. These pictures include first and last names as well as year of graduation and sometimes town of residence.
  3. Personal is not the same as private.

I think that we really need to expand the conversation to a distinction between personal information (I like soccer. I love to swim with my family in the summer.) and private information (I live at 123 Main Street. My social security number is). There is a lot of education conversation going on right now about personalizing learning and students writing about authentic interests and sharing those thoughts. Great, no problem, in my opinion. My students are only a few years away from being able to join social networking sites using their real birthdays where they will undoubtedly share both personal and probably some inappropriately private information.

What they are doing now is blogging. Blogging about their ideas and interests. They are neither picking on other students nor navel gazing. I like to think that they are learning to share publicly what is personally of interest. I hope they catch the blogging bug, and get a real serious case of it. Maybe that way they will not be so tempted to fill their networks with pettiness because they will have already built networks around shared interests and ideas. (Cue the dramatic music, sunrise with silhouetted person etc.) Ok, that might be a bit of wishful thinking. But it is still true that we are blogging. It is also true that we have had, and will continue to have, conversations about what is ok to share, what is not ok, and what is a gray area that depends on family comfort levels.

Spending 90 minutes with Pam, Becky, Paula and the other educators in attendance not only gave me a chance to see some of the great work that other students are doing, but it also inspired my to think more about ideas that have been swirling around in my head. Time well spent, for sure.

 

(creative commons licensed photo by Nicola since 1972)