Friday, October 12, 2007

You Will NOT Believe This Story!

I just wrote the following for The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate...

The New York Times reports that New York City Public School teachers accused of wrong-doing or incompetence are made to spend 181 days per year in one of twelve "reassignment centers," commonly referred to as the "rubber room."

A room designed for 26 people routinely warehouses "upward of 75" (one report said, 100) from 8 AM until 3 PM each day. The windowless rooms don't even have a clock.

“From our perspective, it’s not punitive,” said Andrew Gordon, the director of employee relations at the department.

Read the rest of this unbelievable article, Where Teachers Sit, Awaiting Their Fates (NY Times 10/10/07)

Here are a few quotes from a similar New York Post article (9/30/07)...
"David Pakter, 62, has been in a rubber room for a year for buying a plant for his school and giving students watches he'd made, he said...

Pakter, a former "teacher of the year" honored at City Hall during Rudy Giuliani's mayoral tenure, just bought a new Jaguar with his $90,000 salary for 'doing absolutely nothing.'"

"Yet another, an Army reservist who spent almost 3½ years in a rubber room before he retired, begged to be able to go to Iraq instead of staying in DOE Siberia."

"The union now counsels its members to avoid becoming too involved - including even in breaking up student fights - because it could land them in a rubber room."

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

My New Reality Show

Riding on the coattails of CBS’ new program, Kid Nation, I’ve been mulling about ideas for my very own “reality” show about education.

Read the complete article here from The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate.

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Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Last Back-to-School Sale Ever

What if we could stop wasting our money on crap and really improve education?

Originally published in The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate

I nearly forgot that it was Labor Day until I walked into my local office supply superstore and was assaulted with memories of back-to-school shopping. As a kid, getting new cartoon pencils or bookcovers reduced the horror associated with another school year. As a parent, I resented buying materials the public school should provide and wasted too many brain cells trying to remember if "Trapper Keepers" were required or banned this year. The hole in my wallet resulted from satisfying the fetishes of teachers who (it seemed) each required a different color of ink, or no ink at all. Why should I have to remember which teacher required a spiral-bound notebook and which one required a looseleaf? Oh yeah, last year's metal looseleaf binder is now verboten because a kid in Omaha figured out how to turn it into a radio so he could listen to the World Series during class.

Why must we engage in this orgy of consumerism?

Well, we don't have to.

I know some of you must be thinking, "But Dr. Stager, how can my child possibly take a job away from an Indian student without my investment in glitter pens?"

We could work smarter and buy every schoolchild in America a personal laptop computer. The laptop is the protean device. At the most primitive level it's crayons and pens and paint and calculator and notebook and index cards and protractor all in one package. However, the laptop performs all the functions of those tools better and in combinations previously impossible. The sum of the parts is greater than the value of the parts themselves.

Most importantly, traditional school supplies do nothing to make school more relevant or modernize the learning experience for today's students. Pens, papers and notebooks reinforce educational practices of a bygone era and don't require teachers to rethink their practice. Ubiquitous computing has the potential to change everything. With the money spent on school supplies why wouldn't we at least try to make schools better?

You ask, "But Dr. Stager, doesn't a laptop cost even more than a pair of sneakers?" Yes, a bit, but in most school districts a laptop costs less than your kid playing football (not including personnel costs). It has long been the case that the cost of a full-function multimedia Toshiba or Apple laptop - including bag, insurance and extended warranty - costs less per month, per student, than the cost of a trombone rental. We have long valued the investment in a musical instrument and schools know how to provide an instrument for a child who can't afford it.

At the recent EDUCOMM Conference, Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation President & Founder Bruce Dixon presented a vision of how the complete student laptop package can cost less than $20/student per month today. I've long proposed that states could offer generous tax credits for parents who buy their children a laptop and relieve schools of the burden of being in the computer business.

Think I'm crazy? According to the National Retail Federation, Families with school-age children will spend an average of $563.49 on back-to-school merchandise - $18.4 billion in total. That's the equivalent of between 18-20 million full-featured student laptops at current retail prices, before a volume discount. The National Retail Federation reports that the average student will spend $94.02 on school supplies. Add the cost of a calculator and the One Laptop Per Child Computer is paid for immediately. Chuck a few textbooks and we actually save money. Since laptop costs are usually amortized across three to four years, we could revolutionize education by next year's back-to-school.

Photo by Vlada Lazerien - - Creative Commons Non-commercial, attribution & no derivative works license.

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Tuesday, August 7, 2007

What I Hate About Blogging - Part 1 of a series

There are any number of things I read in other people's blogs that I would like to respond to. However, I must carve out the time needed to craft a thoughtful response.

The nature of the user interface of blogs is such that "he who hesitates is unread." If you don't response quickly, you've lost your chance to engage in the discussion. Once a few readers post replies, people stop reading.

As soon as the author posts the next blog, the collective memory of the community abandons the previous topic. It's 4:03 AM and I must surrender to sleep soon.


Engarrafamento photo by Fernando Lins

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Studying? Cheating? Why Both Represent the Status Quo

David Warlick wrote a blog this past weekend, Games • Learning • Society [classroom strategy guides?], in which he discussed gaming, the use of cheat sites by gamers (kids) and the obvious question of whether this phenomena has any implications for school.
"It occurred to me that study guides for tests are a lot like strategy guides for video games," wrote Mr. Warlick.

My response may seem a bit radical...

Studying, which in school parlance really means memorizing, is based on the assumption that learning is unnatural. This is categorically untrue.

"Learning" a computer game cheat code from a web site is a very low-level of learning. It's just looking something up, like much of what schools misrepresent as student research. This activity bares little resemblance to "studying" the violin or "studying" to be a brain surgeon.

Some educators marvel or recoil at students finding cheat codes on the web, but that's only because ingenuity is so rare within the school curriculum. Classroom mischief may offer the richest or exclusive contexts for ingenuity.

If school wasn't based on right and wrong answers, studying would be unnecessary.

Cheating is only necessary when it's viable. Assessment schemes, like tests, are only necessary when teachers are not respected and when teachers don't trust their own instincts.

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

What's a computer game?

It's always kinda weird and creepy when adults, particularly academics, talk about computer games. It's a bit like your grandparents saying, "groovy." That said, your roving reporter David Warlick reports on a presentation by Dr. Angela McFarlane in which she shares some impressive data about teacher attitudes towards the use of computer games in U.K. classrooms.

Dr. McFarlane is an old friend of mine for whom I have the greatest respect. We met at a workshop I led at NECC 1990 and worked together several times in the early 1990s. She is much wiser and more competent than 90% of the folks blabbering on about the educational potential of computer games. (I write about this issue recently in Edugaming - A Bad Idea for All Ages)

Unfortunately, I was unable to hear Dr. McFarlane speak this week, but I suspect that what she means by computer games, may differ substantially from what we Americans mean.

I just wrote the following on Warlick's blog...

You might wish to investigate what the UK considers computer games. As it’s been said, the UK and Australia have long used games in their teaching even if those games (and their formats) would be completely alien to Americans. I don’t suspect that “off the shelf” means Grand Theft Auto or even Math Blaster.

Another old colleague of mine, Mike Matson, had a company, 4Mation, in the U.K. that created graphic adventure games for children. (read about him and his work here. Two of his most famous titles were Granny’s Garden and Flowers of Crystal.

We’ve had graphic adventures in the United States, but they never took off in classrooms. On the otherhand, Matson’s masterpieces sold LIKE CRAZY and were used widely in Commonwealth Countries. I hardly ever visited an Australian or New Zealand school without seeing or hearing about one of Mike's adventure games being used. They weren't simulations as much as they were digital literature.

There are two important facts worthy of your attention:

1) Kids didn’t just play these graphic adventures on the one computer in the back of the classroom. Teachers used them as a catalyst for storytelling, map building and countless interdisciplinary projects. These games were the basis for long complex thematic units. Walls were covered with art and student writing related to the “game.” Classrooms became fantasy lands where students could imagine being inside the world of the computer games.

I fear that few American educators would find the educational benefit in such fantastical sustained classroom excursions. I could imagine such activities being dismissed as fanciful or frivolous.

2) American software publishers could not and would not understand the success of 4Mation’s products. My colleague Sylvia Martinez can tell you about the stunned looks of disbelief on the faces of her colleagues at America’s most popular educational software company (mid-90s) when she brought Mike Matson in to discuss the possibility of working together.

However kids and enlightened imaginative teachers (unmolested by NCLB) recognized the magic.

4Mation is still in business. I believe that Matson has moved on, but the company’s web site features drill and practice titles. Perhaps that’s the American influence on Britain.

Additional Resources

MicroWorlds EX, my favorite software environment in which kids can make their own games and learn what the adult software developers have been keeping for themselves.

Scratch is worth looking at as well. It's not nearly as rich as MicroWorlds EX, but it has many fine qualities. (I'll write an in-depth article about
Scratch soon)

Sylvia Martinez has forgotten more about game design, gaming and the commercial tensions involved in game development than most people will ever know. Sylvia holds a Masters degree in educational technology, was an aerospace engineer, Executive Producer at Davidson and Associates and Knowledge Adventure, created and was VP of a game development company that created platform games for the Gameboy, Playstation and Xbox.

Sylvia has written some terrific articles about why its not that simple to place your faith in educational games as a vehicle for educational progress.

Here are a few articles by Ms. Martinez, President of Generation YES...


Discussion of above article

Game-making with students - resources & rationale from Australia

Game design as an educational activity

Games and learning

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