Navigating Education

I almost never go back to the things I highlight on my Kindle.

So a mini-holiday project was to stop me being quite such a knowledge tourist. I’ve built a little tool to make it easier to export, browse and actually think about my Kindle highlights.At the moment it’s set up to randomly send me a highlight by email every day and am kind of enjoying that.

Today’s quote was from Wade Davis’s wonderful book, “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in Today’s World”.

And it made me think about how we use feedback as teachers, the quantitative and the qualitative, and balancing a focus on the particular with a focus on the whole.

Expert navigators like Mau, sitting alone in the darkness of the hull of a canoe, can sense and distinguish as many as five distinct swells moving through the vessel at any given time. Local wave action is chaotic and disruptive. But the distant swells are consistent, deep and resonant pulses that move across the ocean from one star house to another, 180 degrees away, and thus can be used as yet another means of orienting the vessel in time and space. Should the canoe shift course in the middle of the night, the navigator will know, simply from the change of the pitch and roll of the waves. Even more remarkable is the navigator’s ability to pull islands out of the sea. The truly great navigators such as Mau can identify the presence of distant atolls of islands beyond the visible horizon simply by watching the reverberation of waves across the hull of the canoe, knowing full well that every island group in the Pacific has its own refractive pattern that can be read with the same ease with which a forensic scientist would read a fingerprint.

All of this is extraordinary, each one of these individual skills and intuitions a sign of a certain brilliance. But as we isolate, deconstruct, even celebrate these specific intellectual and observational gifts, we run the risk of missing the entire point, for the genius of Polynesian navigation lies not in the particular but in the whole, the manner in which all of these points of information come together in the mind of the wayfinder. It is one thing, for example, to measure the speed of the Hokule’a with a simple calculation: the time a bit of foam or flotsam, or perhaps a mere bubble, takes to pass the known length separating the crossbeams of the canoe. Three seconds and the speed will be 8.5 knots; fifteen seconds and the vessel slogs at a mere 1.5 knots. But it is quite another to make such calculations continually, day and night, while also taking the measure of stars breaking the horizon, winds shifting both in speed and direction, swells moving through the canoe, clouds and waves. The science and art of navigation is holistic. The navigator must process an endless flow of data, intuitions and insights derived from observation and the dynamic rhythms and interactions of wind, waves, clouds, stars, sun, moon, the flight of birds, a bed of kelp, the glow of phosphorescence on a shallow reef — in short, the constantly changing world of weather and the sea.

What is even more astonishing is that the entire science of wayfinding is based on dead reckoning. You only know where you are by knowing precisely where you have been and how you got to where you are. One’s position at any one time is determined solely on the basis of distance and direction travelled since leaving the last known point. “You don’t look up at the stars and know where you are,” Nainoa told me, “you need to know where you have come from by memorizing from where you sailed.”

There’s a rich metaphor in there somewhere.

[If you want some more snippets, the rest of the highlights I made from the book are here: The Wayfinders – Wade Davis. The image is from Elizabeth Lindsey’s National Geographic series]


Adjective Game for English Lessons

I’ve had a very quick stab at hacking together a simple version of a game I used to play as a child.

Whoever is playing chooses their adjectives and then these are dropped randomly into a famous story.

I’ve grabbed the opening to Alice in Wonderland from Project Gutenberg as a first effort. Would love to hear some other possible suggestions.

You can download the game here.

Careful Documentation

This (thank you Cristina) is a great mini-documentary about the impact of documentation as used in the Reggio Emilia schools and with the Making Learning Visible project

Documentation: Transforming Our Perspective from Melissa Rivard on Vimeo.

Intuitively, I am wholeheartedly behind this sort of approach. Instinctively, too, I worry about the biases that come with collecting. A while ago, I was interested in collecting and the biases, problems and difficulties with that. Documentation is clearly prone to that.

To summarise, though it’s a little jarring as a quote, you can use the wonderful Culture of Collecting:

“… if the cultural criterion of the desirable excludes anything tainted by ‘shit’, if the definition of a collectible rests on an implied ritual of cleansing … and if we never touch anything that is not already in a sense ‘our own’, then all conventional collecting can really offer is kitsch.”

Often the display work you see published online, or the student portfolios is similarly kitsch. Student work can be work that is “cleansed” by teachers, so to speak. Displays, while often remarkably talented, are also often remarkably kitsch.

Where the documentary scores for me is that those involved clearly see who “owns” the documentation to be an issue. For older students, what is helpful is that they become the protagonist in their own documentation. That, for me, is the exciting part. And that is what stops it being kitsch.

Mischief on the Moral High Ground

Thoroughly enjoying Jonathan Smith’s “The Learning Game“. This anecdote is from his childhood. His Uncle Bert, a haemophiliac, always stayed with them.

“Every Christmas Day for many years we all gathered in his room for our dinner. After dinner, in my early childhood, we always played cards. I looked forward to this as much as to the turkey because I concentrated so fiercely and I wanted to win. The grown-ups gradually lost interest in the game and drank cider, with only half a mind on the cards. Taking full advantage of that, I usually ended up with the biggest pile of coins, and as the pile grew I pictured the fountain pen I was going to buy. A Platignum pen, or at least I think that’s what it was called. Anyway, I had seen them in the shops.
Uncle Bert, impressed by my judgement and my memory for the cards, egged me on. Continue reading Mischief on the Moral High Ground

Bertrand Russell’s 10 Teaching Commandments

I like these a lot (thanks Maria). They come from a 1951 article in the New York Times, titled “The Best Answer to Fanaticism: Liberalism”, which is well worth a read.

Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

Derek Cabrera and Teaching Thinking with DSRP

Derek Cabrera  is an impressive character – superbright and does good social entrepreneur work.   He’s also decided that thinking can be taught with something called DSRP – Distinctions, Systems, Relationships, and Perspectives.  His new book “Thinking at Every Desk” looks interesting , especially in the knowledge that teachers like Jennifer Orr seem to be getting great results with it as do the various other people listed at Cabrera Research. Definitely food for thought.

Why should children have to collaborate?

Collaboration, in more and more of what I read online, is a pre-requisite of good “21st century” learning environments. I can see why it is important, but as with a lot of online discussions, it seems needlessly binary. One has the sense you either subscribe to the “we should all be collaborating model” or you are a reactionary dolt who just doesn’t get it. I’m not sure it’s a simple a good as people make out, though.

There are various points I’m unclear about. The first is political. As this report comments,

“Working in groups can have considerable drawbacks for learning as well. Many students do not know how to work together and must have good models and instruction for the process. The status of individuals within a group can make some students consistent leaders and others always followers. The person whose ideas are respected in general may not be the person with the best understanding of the problem to be solved. Collaborative learning must also be organized in ways that tap diversity as a positive resource and counteract classroom stereotypes”

In other words, yes collaboration is important but it needs some quite serious social training and/or engineering for children to get the most out of it. How often does this actually happen in class compared to the herd them into groups and see how they get on approach?

The second is character. Not everyone is an extrovert. Yes group work is useful: if nothing else it adds energy to classrooms and gets children engaged. Any introvert, though, who has sat through a seminar with an extrovert full of their own ideas knows how painful group work can be. Susan Cain puts it far better than I can.

It would be a great shame if the quiet of contemplation lost out to the noise of collaboration in schools.

The third is interest. Collaboration seems to trump co-operation. These are different things, though, and I am not sure why one is better than the other. The group approach implicit in collaboration helps foster a group ethos and all the good that comes from shared goals. However, if it is important to personalise learning, then perhaps we need to be careful when we insist on collaboration that the child’s own goals are not too frequently sacrificed to those of the team? Personalisation and collaboration are not wonderfully easy bedfellows.