Who Wouldn’t Want Students to Learn Critical Thinking Skills?

I mentioned this on some social networks the other day, but thought I’d post it here as well.

I recently got a call from an automated polling service, which promised me a trip for two to the Bahamas if I would complete the short political survey. I pressed the number for “yes,” more out of curiosity than a burning desire for the Bahamas.

Here are the first two questions, as I remember them.

Question #1, What issues should the presidential candidates be most concerned with in the 2012 campaign?

  1. Rising gasoline prices
  2. U.S. involvement in the Middle East
  3. Staggering unemployment
  4. Health care reform.

I pressed “4” and to my surprise, was asked the same question again. I pressed “4” again, and the same question was repeated. This time I answered “3” and the poll continued on to the next question.

Question #2, Where do you get most of your political news?

  1. CNN
  2. Fox News
  3. The New York Times
  4. (I don’t remember what 4 was)

I pressed “3” and the same question was repeated. It was at this point that I hung up.

Now the critical thinker in me first considers whether the survey automation server is broken. Then I wonder, if it’s not broken, and this exchange was designed, then why? What might someone have to gain by contriving this exchange?

I won’t delve further into the same conclusions that most of you have already made.

Critical thinkers see through manipulations and perhaps might even extend their scepticism to question any and all political survey findings of a similar political tilt — in which case, this type of information fixing would backfire.

My reason for including this story here is that we are told by almost all quarters that..

..They want schools to help their children become critical thinkers.

I mean, “Who wouldn’t?”

New Development: 

Yesterday (May 29) I got an automated call from “Independent Survey Group” asking me the same questions as above and accepting my left-wing Obama’esque answers. Then a human voice came on the line, evidently to offer me two way tickets to the Bahamas. Go figure!

Becoming Future-Ready

“Future-Ready Students for the 21st Century”

It’s the title of the goals document for the North Carolina State Board of Education and it begins with, “..every public school student will graduate from high school, globally competitive for work and postsecondary education and prepared for life in the 21st Century.”  I’d love to ask that appointed body, “What does this mean and how does it translate to the “what” and “how” the children of this state are being educated?”

A few mornings ago, I was working in my office on a fairly redundant task, which usually affords me the opportunity to pay attention to a podcast or partial attention to a movie or TV episode, usually playing over the air to my iPhone.  The 3 1/2 inch display provides less distraction than my iPad or computer screen.

On that morning, I was playing 2010, the sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey. I’ve enjoyed re-watching 2010 over the years because it has more dialog and slightly more action than the original.

Composite of the scene’s camera pan.

What struck me that morning was a scene, where the hero scientist, Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider), is sitting on the beach preparing for his upcoming journey to Jupiter, studying reports, an issue of OMNI (which stopped publishing in 1995), and a portable computer (see right & below).

Notice the computer the former chairman of the American space Agency is using and consider that the scene depicts “mobile computing” in the year 2010 – from the perspective of a film produced in 1984.  More than anything else, the computer resembles Apple’s forgettable Mac Portable, launched only five years later.  Scheider’s 21st century machine perhaps even more closely resembles its more contemporary Apple Iic, with a flat four-inch display and parallel ribbon cable connecting the two.

Predicted Mobile Computing for 2010 Apple IIc – 1984-1988 Mac Portable – 1989-1991

It is also worth noting that the 1968 film predicted human spaceflight to Jupiter in a 460 foot spaceship by 2001.  

These are two fairly unimportant and dramatized examples, but if living through half of the 20th century and a tenth of the 21st has taught me anything, it’s that most attempts to accurately describe what we will do, how we live, what’s important to know, and what we care about 30, 20, or even 10 years from now, is at best a challenging intellectual exercise, and a worse a gross display of arrogance.  

Yet, isn’t this what our institution of education is attempting to authoritatively do, predict what our children need to be taught today to be ready for a future we can not possibly accurately describe.

Tom Whitby addressed this a few days ago in How We Teach Trumps What We Teach.  He questions our concern for content, assessment and data, saying,

Maybe “Content is King” merged with “Data is King” does not add up to a learned individual. Maybe the focus on content, so that education can be easily assessed by Data is really the wrong thing that we should be analyzing. Maybe, how we teach, is a much more important element in learning than what we teach. Maybe the data is totally correct about what it is assessing, but what it is assessing is not what we should be looking at. 

We need to be much more willing and humble enough to say, “Maybe,” a lot more than we do in education.  But even Tom, I believe, does not go quite far enough.  He refers to becoming a “learned individual,” when Eric Hoffer’s famous quote comes much closer to my view, that..

In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. 

How our children learn is critical today, not so much as a point of pedagogy, but for the development of a distinct and most important skill – learning.

The job of education should be to wean children from the teaching, helping them to become, at graduation, independent, skilled, inspired, and responsible learners eager to adopt and adapt to changing conditions, turning uncertainty into opportunity.

Being future ready will not happen because of the rigor of ramped up standards.  It will happen by scaling back the standards as the education years pass, focusing on passion, and providing students with the support, opportunity and facility to learn and to make themselves experts in their shifting fields of interest, fields that educators skillfully usher them through.

David’s “Great Moments in EdTech History”

A few weeks ago, Dean Shareski wrote a blog post (Great Moments in EdTech History), where he said,

I wanted to look back at my personal journey into educational technology and share a few instances of “aha moments” that I think many can relate to.

I so agreed with the items on his list – except for the coffee one – that I thought I would write my own. It’s not intended to be an improvement, and I suspect that many folks will not “relate” so well with some of my moments – ’cause you’re just not old enough, sonny.

My First Experience with a Personal Computer and BASIC

It was a Radio Shack Model I and this was when the hottest PCs on the planet were made by Radio Shack. The “aha” for me was when I realized that this was a machine that you operated by communicating with it. You typed in instructions and it followed.  It even gave you instructions on what keys to press to do what you wanted, and you could change the functions of the keys by changing the instructions.  In the way that only a few technologies in our past had, this was going to change everything.

I had to learn to program, because when the central office purchased the first set of computers for my school (Radio Shack Model IIIs – 16 kilobytes of memory), they didn’t know that you had to purchase software.  So I learned to write BASIC code, so my students would have something to do on those computer – and that changed my life.

My First Apple IIe

The district I became director of tech in had also used Radio Shack TRS-80 computers. But times were changing, and we wanted to step up to the modern, sleeker and more state-of-the-art Apple IIes. They came with a 5 1/4 inch floppy disk that provided a tutorial for operating the machine. Booting it up I was presented with a light green pixelated outline drawing of an Apple computer. The outline of a floppy disk animated into view and the door of the external disk drive appeared to open.  The disk slid into the drive and the operating light of the drive came on —– and it was red. Shudders went through my body and the earth’s crust seemed to shake under my feet. A color other than green. WOW! Anything was possible!

My First Modem

This was actually not such a stupendous moment since it took about three months to get my Apple IIc to communicate with the Hayes 300 baud modem, for which the district had paid $500. But when it finally worked, computers communicating over a distance — well that was cool.  ..and the 300 baud was not a disappointment since it’s pretty much faster than I can read.

A user’s group of school districts in my area (Micro 5) set up a bulletin board system (BBS) so that we could support each other through our computers.

Al Rogers and FrEdMail

This was perhaps one of the greatest pivot points in my career. I knew of Al Rogers (see left) from his FrEdWriter software, a free word processor for Apple IIs. Al had developed a (BBS) whereby a district had its own bulletin board computer (Apple IIe with a 10 MB hard drive) that other modem-equipped school computers could dial into. Teachers and students could post messages (and other writings) to the BBS. In the middle of the night, the district bulletin boards (called nodes) would dial each other passing messages back and forth that were addressed to readers outside the local district. So I could write a message for a teacher in Australia, and over the night, it would be passed from node to node appear in the recipient’s mailbox the next morning.

From “25 That Made their Mark” (2005) 1

A few weeks later our state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) called me asking if I would be willing to pilot a project for a FrEdMail network in our state, with seven other districts. We were called sysops (system operators), and it was the coolest thing ever. We did projects called HistoryLink, WeatherLink and it’s when Global Grocery List started. I joined DPI three years later and sysop’ed the state network, among other things.

My First Presentation with a Mac

The Macintosh, with its mouse, graphical interface and 3 1/2″ disk, was another game changer. But what I remember most about my first Mac production, a presentation for Micro-5 was that....I shadowed everything!

Telnet, FTP, IRC, Gopher

One of the other consultants at DPI had been approached by a university person offering an INTERNET login through his university. She offered it to me.  I’d been able to email in and out of THE INTERNET for some time using FrEdMail. But I had not been able to actually connect. Logging in with TelNet, FTP gave me access mountains of text files located on about a hundred computers around the world. Then Gopher came, which provided a much more usable way of getting to files. Gopher was a world of interlocking menus, starting with a master menu at the University of Minnesota (go you gophers). Selecting options took you to other menus on other host computers until you ended up with the file you needed. Gopher meant that we no longer needed those secret incantations (ftp open, cd 97/files/, get listofearthquakes.txt) to navigate the Internet. The ideas you were looking for became your navigation.

The World Wide Web

WWW had been around for a while before it really caught on. It wasn’t until Marc Andreessen (as an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champlaign) created Mosaic that people started to see the potential. With the Mosaic software, you could mouse around, click on words to link to other documents, and see pictures. Now the information itself became the steering wheel for content navigation.  It was also cool that the default background color for web pages was metal gray.


The best thing about the World Wide Web and Mosaic was that you could show it to people and they didn’t yawn.  Non-techies began to get it, that there was something potentially mainstream about this Internet thing.  One afternoon (1993), while at DPI, I’d reached a lull in my work and downloaded a tutorial for coding HTML.  I was aghast at how easy it was and by the end of there afternoon, I’d already written a web page with hyperlinks and images.  Over the next couple of months I covertly created a mock-up web site for the department and showed it to the assistant superintendent for instruction.  Even though he was not a techie and had his secretary print out his e-mails. he instantly realized the potential and assigned me to create a web site for the agency.  It was the first state department of education web site and was launched in 1994 – on the same day that our newly elected (conservative) legislature demanded a 50% reduction in staff for DPI.  I volunteered for layoff a few months later in exchange for a severance package and have not be traditionally employed since.

Meeting an Inventor

In 1997, I was doing some consulting and training for Advanced Network and Services and their ThinkQuest project.  Part of my work was staffing booths at conferences and giving away ThinkQuest CDs.  Late one afternoon I was working a booth at a European SchoolNet conference in Dublin and a man walked by, in something of a hurry.  He glanced over, stopped and asked, “What is ThinkQuest?”  My partner, a TQ representative from The Netherlands, and I explained it to him and he said, I’ll try to get back here after my talk,” and hurried off.  My partner turned to me and asked, “Do you know who that was?”  I shook my head (which rattled a bit).  “That was Robert Caillaiu, one of the inventors of the World Wide Web.”

I was impressed, though I’d never heard of Caillaiu before.  About an hour later, he came back, fast talking, energetic, possibly a little A.D.H.D., and he asked a lot of questions, and finally asked how I wrote my HTML.  I told him that I’d created a Hypercard stack for my editor, and he said that he had done the same.  He glanced over and asked if that was my Mac laptop, and nodded, “Yes!”

He pulled out a disk, slid it into the slot of his laptop, and copied his Hypercard HTML editor and handed me the disk, which I copied to my Mac. 🙂

Alas, my hard drive crashed a week and a half after I returned home and my dreams of framing Caillaiu’s code and mounting it on my office walls were dashed.


Your first inclination is to skip over this one, but these two acronyms (of which I’m not going to bore you with their complete spelling) elevated me to full wizard status.  HTML enables us to publish information on the web.  MySQL, however, collects, stores, and selectively delivers information, and PHP causes that information to behave in useful and interesting ways.  Sounds pretty tedious, but without these two, we would probably never had seen a Web 2.0.

For me, out of these two acronyms came Citation Machine, PiNet (no longer supported), Hitchhikr (defunct), Education Podcast Network, Class Blogmeister and many others.

Blogs, Wikis and Twitter

Web 2.0 elevated us all to new levels of experience and accomplishment, and it hasn’t slowed down yet.  But what probably impacted me the most was RSS.  I won’t go into detail, except to say that while PHP & MySQL enabled us to do interesting things with information, RSS empowers us to do interesting things with conversations.

Mobile Computing and Apps

Mobile computing has been around forever.  I own an  Apple Newton, which was the coolest things on land and sea in 1993.  But Palm was king for years, because it did about three things really well.  Then the iPhone and the iPod Touch came along with their apps and a burgeoning community of talented and creative app builders – and then the iPad – and we had devices we could carry around with us that could do or become just about anything we could imagine.  These are truly personal machines that, by nature, become more than they were when they launched – and not because of the original designers, but because of people like us with useful (and no limit of useless) ideas and the skills to remold the machines to make them happen.

What’s next?  Well isn’t that what we’re about in education.  But it seems that in this time of incredible creativity, we seem defenseless against powerful interests who want to standardize education, for the production graduates who can be monetized.  Will we serve the beast or do we nurture our children and their uniquely boundless capacity to continually and freely invent futures that serve us all.

1 McLester, Susan. “25 That Made Their Mark.” Technology & Learning Magazine. Nov 2005: 5-15. Web. 22 May. 2012. <http://goo.gl/cxJFt>.


Learning Analytics and the Hands of Evil

Who’s Afraid of the Power

(cc) Flickr Photo by Emersunn

I just learned about “learning analytics” from Audry Waters, a blogger/journalist whom I am reading with increasing regularity. Reporting on the recent Learning Analytics and Knowledge conference in Vancouver, Waters shared a phrase that was used often at the conference, “data exhaust.”

The first time I heard digital data described as exhaust, was by Dave Sifry, the founder of the blog search engine, Technorati.  He said something to the effect of, “The blogosphere is the exhaust of the human attention stream.”  This was pre-Twitter and pre-Facebook, but it was a notion that intrigued me.  I continue to use it in some of my presentations – that we, through our varied and seemingly unceasing networked interactions, are creating an enormous and at least partly useful reservoir of content.  

But I wouldn’t call what we might do with that reservoir, “Learning Analytics.”

What appears to be coming from the conversation around this “new discipline,” as it is apparently called, has more to do with learning management than it does with learning empowerment – and that, in the right context, is not wholly unappealing to me.  The ability to collect the artifacts of ones own digital trails, visualize and analyze what we’ve learned, how we learned it, and what we’ve learned to do with it might represent a personal enticement to broaden, enrich, and more purposefully direct our own digital trails.

Yet, like with so many things, we must ask ourselves, “What might happen if this wondrous new tool were to fall into the hands of evil?”  

A couple of days ago, I posted on Facebook a reference to ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council.  They craft legislation of a specific philosophical leaning and get legislators elected who will pass such legislation under the guise of knee-jerk social issues, patriotic symbolism, and apple pie.

ALEC, which was formed in 1973, operated largely unnoticed until it was revealed that they had penned Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” legislation, resulting in George Zimmerman’s shooting and killing of an innocent teenager, Trayvon Martin, simply because Zimmerman “felt threatened.”

ALEC’s aim reaches far beyond hoodied youngsters and they appear to have a special interest in education.  According to a May 1 Diane Ravitch article in Education Week, the recent..

..explosion of legislation advancing privatization of public schools and stripping teachers of job protections and collective bargaining rights..

..is the work of ALEC. There are so many other examples of short-sighted attacks on public education and the intellectual freedom of teachers (see “Who’s Killing Philly Public Schools?“) that I have grown fearful for our future and more than a little resentful that the learner-empowering tools that I have promoted for 30 years seem to be enabling those who would rather use them to “manage learning.”

When I originally sat down to write this blog post, I had in mind a list of reasons why marketplace education is so potentially destructive.  However, after including so many words into this writing already, I have come to believe that the issue is simple.  Learning, like breathing, is human.  It’s what we do and it is what has made us what we are today.  We breath, we observe, we think, and we learn.

Learning can’t be installed in assembly line fashion, with quality control at the end of each season.  It must be nurtured by a compassionate society and by caring individuals.   

Privatizing public education would be as inhuman as it would be to sell the air – though there are some (ALEC Education Taskforce July 2011) who might like to.

As for Learning Analytics?  It fascinates me, because I believe that there are potent skills we might develop and share, for learning important lessons from the digital trails of a billion people.  

But the power is not in “learning analytics.”  


 So who’s afraid of the power?