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New book by Steven Brill describes how schools do not work

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Posted on 20th August 2011 by Judy Breck in Emerging Online Knowledge, SEO and Schools We Have Now

Schools simply do not work as a way of teaching many individual children up to their potential. Schools do not work in teaching groups of children so that every child in a group has equal knowledge. Schools do not work so that a student in a failing inner city school has the same opportunity to learn as a student in affluent districts.

I have been reading Steven Brill’s new book Class Warfare. After a few chapters it hits you in the face: schools cannot be fixed. Brill describes a variety of wonderful people who have realized how schools are failing kids, thrown themselves at the problem, and failed. This has been going on for decades. Why? Because of unions, bad teachers, poverty, race, wrong theories, not caring about children. Well, no. They fail because it is impossible to put a couple of dozen same-age children in a room all day, and day after day, and thereby produce 24 youngsters who know the same thing at the same time. Think about how just plain silly trying to do that is.

Schools we have now in the United States were created in the 19th and 20th centuries. Back then, building schools gave children a place to go to learn reading, writing, arithmetic, and subjects such as history, science, and languages. Except for rich kids whose parents hired tutors to teach them at home, school was about the only place a child could get this knowledge.

By the time we arrived in the closing decades of the 20th century, schools were dominating the lives of youngsters from late toddling until late teens. [Then, convention demands, on to college for more of the same.] Brill does a great job of describing the true disasters schools have become. He quotes Joel Klein, who attempted reform as New York City schools chancellor, as frequently observing: “You just can’t make this s**t up.” Having coordinated a major Mentor project in the New York City schools (1982-1992), and coached and judged high school debaters in the New York city schools (1993-2009), I can tell you Mr. Klein is correct. Schools are seldom much of a place to go to learn very much reading, writing, arithmetic, and subjects such as history, science, and languages.

But lo, in the 21st century there is another place a student can go to learn those things: the web.

The student can now have the web in his pocket or under her arm on a mobile smart phone or tablet. Every kid who has a mobile browser has access to what is known that is equal to the access of every other kid that has such a device. And the device has no idea how rich its owner is, whether it is a boy or girl, and what the kid’s age, nationality, or race are. The device has no expectation of what the kid can learn and it offers equal knowledge to all.

The primary location of knowledge is now the web — certainly much more than the dribs and drabs in textbooks that weigh down school backpacks. Why the heck are we expecting to teach knowledge to our children by dumbing subjects down and filtering them through places where “You just can’t make this s**t up” — in places called schools, where so many incredibly talented and determined people have failed to make things better?

If we make sure all the kids have their own web access to knowledge, schools can be made to work as places to meet with teachers, do discourse, arts, and sports. They will be community centers and socialization places, and of course babysitters for working parents.

Suggestion: Let’s take a break from throwing gifted people, billions of dollars, and yet another generation of children into schools, expecting somehow the kids will learn, and learn equally. Let’s get back to that after we take these steps:

  • See to it every kid has his or her own web browser with wireless access.
  • Make sure the kids know how to find knowledge to learn on the web.
  • Put some real effort into optimizing online knowledge for search engines and natural vetting.

Every child will not emerge from this new approach with the same cookie cutter education. But each child will experience equal access, opportunity, and expectations from the bountiful new virtual knowledge online commons offered freely to all on the web.

BTW: I recommend Class Warfare, based on Brill’s forthright portrayal of the New York City public schools, Teach for America, and other aspects of the education debacle with which I have personal experience. For one thing, it is hard to read this book and continue to think we can “fix the schools.” The great blessing is that the internet and individual access devices have arrived, giving us a new way to put knowledge that is untethered to schools into the hands of any and every child.

Untether student knowledge access from curricula, grades, tests

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Posted on 11th August 2011 by Judy Breck in Biology, Language, Literature, Mobile Learning, Schools We Have Now and Testing

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Yesterday I watched and listened to a recording of Lynda Weinman interviewing Will Richardson. The title of this free Webinar: Personal Learning Networks Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education — which is the title of a new book by Richardson.

The webinar is an hour long. Richardson describes his work aimed at making schools better. The discussion between these two at the end of the hour is frank. They agree and agonized over this reality: The system for conveying knowledge to students in the schools we now have is not working and it is changing very little if at all.

I know, from having been her student in several contexts, that Lynda is a great teacher. I feel sure Richardson is as well. Lynda is a major leader of digital education — essentially the supra-teacher of digital arts. Richardson has been immersed in the school mess for 20+ years — and is a father of young teenagers, and proposes ways for teachers to improve their classes against the system. These two hands-on experts do not have answers for how really to change the schools methodologies so that the kids can get a decent education at school.

From their discussion in the webinar I picked up this new word for how education could change: untethered. It implies for me the concept of handschooling: an individual student engaging knowledge by using a mobile that she owns and controls, providing her with a 24/7 web browser.

I suggest that untethering a student’s access to what is known — cutting access loose from standardized curricula, grades, and tests — is a specific, simple step. Connect a kid: let him engage is mind on his own with algebra, history, ecology and the rest of the subjects that are now for him tethered to the academic (school) brick and mortar world.

With individual wireless access on a tablet or smartphone, a student can while away boring times in school:

Underlying tension for millennials against standardized education

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Posted on 3rd August 2011 by Judy Breck in Connective Expression, Golden Age of Learning and Networks

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The way Millennials live their lives — creating their own iPod playlists, designing their own Facebook pages grates against one-size-fits-all, industrial-era public education policies . . . . The preceding words are adjusted to education from a point made this week by conservative columnist Michael Barone:

In the wake of the 2008 election, I argued that there was a tension between the way Millennials lived their lives — creating their own iPod playlists, designing their own Facebook pages — and the one-size-fits-all, industrial-era welfare-state policies of the Obama Democrats.

Instead of allowing Millennials space in which they can choose their own futures, the Obama Democrats’ policies have produced a low-growth economy in which their alternatives are limited and they are forced to make do with what they can scrounge.

Every parent who has given a youngster his or her own mobile knows that an individual kid is empowered in important new ways by owning the device. That power is far more than the social connectivity the kids enjoy. As Barone points out, in the virtual world accessed through the device, the youngster is no longer constrained to a one-size-fits-all scenario such as school classrooms and curricula demand.

I think the empowerment that a personal mobile connection to the internet gives an individual is as fundamentally transitional as what occurred at these pivotal historical events:

The network science unfolding in the 21st century will continue to give us clearer understanding and a new perspective on the fact that human creativity and progress emerge from patterns of individuals. Top down power and patterns stifle, whether it is in a political campaign or a classroom.

The individual is a node in a network. We are just beginning to understand (see network science) how connectivity both gives power to nodes link out, and wisdom to crowds. Today’s Millennials are like the new Athenian voters, Brit serfs with new liberties, and America’s Minutemen — enjoying new individual liberty and ready to fight to keep it.

Great, great amounts of treasure are being poured toward giving every child a standardized education, and the system is not succeeding. Meanwhile, a new, better, individualized — and far, far cheaper — way of learning is already in the hands of Millennials.


The best that schools offer is never for everybody, mobile fixes that

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Posted on 31st July 2011 by Judy Breck in Biology, Golden Age of Learning, Mobile & Ubiquitous, Mobile Learning and Schools We Have Now

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Until mobile browsers existed, there has NEVER been a way to proved equal schooling to all children. The usual situation is for elite kids to have better schools. The effect of that is for the highest achieving kids in worse schools often to get a worse education than the low end achievers in the best schools.

For decades in the United States there has been hue and cry to give equal opportunity to minority kids by providing them with equal education. Today a high percentage of minority kids are in relatively bad schools, where the top students are learning at a level far below that of their elite contemporaries in schools across town.

Across the world there are many places where children receive rudimentary education, or none at all. There is simply no realistic hope that each of the world’s kids will ever attend an excellent school. At best only some will; those who do will tend to be the children of the powerful and wealthy. Intelligent individual students from poverty and upwardly ambitious environments will mostly attend poor schools or none at all.

For a student to own a mobile with a web browser changes everything by making each child’s access to online knowledge equal with all mobile-equipped students. Take for example this website:

Life on Earth – Gorongosa

Led by E.O. Wilson, a team of scientists, educators, science writers, and wildlife biology students is working in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique until the second week in August to document a story of transformation in this “Lost Eden” of Africa. The expedition is gathering the lessons to be learned from Gorongosa about ecology and evolution, and will present Gorongosa as model biosystem in the upcoming online text book “E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth.”

Granted, students would need to read English to use this website, but the translations to many languages are coming. The fundamental point is this: Because it is on the web, this exploration of Gorongosa is exactly the same for everyone who learns from it. Every student who looks at it is on literally the same page as all the others who do so. This is true for:

The valedictorian of a top Seattle high school
A sophomore at a poor South Chicago high school
A college freshman in Kenya
A sixth-grader in Mongolia
A young teenager an India slum
…  you get the idea ….

In the mid-20th century the USA tried busing kids from their home neighborhoods to balance school equality. Affirmative action attempts to create more opportunity by admitting students who do not qualify for supposedly better schools. Civil rights have been advanced little by these kinds of measures.

Providing individual mobile access to the web to every student makes real the right of each to equality.


Trees communicate using mycorrhizal network

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Posted on 23rd July 2011 by Judy Breck in Emerging Online Knowledge and Networks

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Learn some fascinating facts about forest interactivity from Brian Lamb’s post Do trees communicate? Networks, networks… and from the 5-minute video by Dr. Suzanne Simard embedded there. Wow: Nature’s use of networks for sharing and managing ideas is awesome. We learn here that a forest is able to communicate among its trees which are in need of CO2, and to thereby supply the CO2 to needy trees. Fungi do the job — for real!

Dr. Simard explains (at 2:30)

. . . all these parts are working together — the fungus is working together with the trees. It’s a lot like how our brains work. In neural networks we have — our brains are comprised of neurons and axons and these neurons are physically related, but they are also almost metaphysically related because they are sending messages back and forth and they are building upon each other. It works a lot like a forest ecosystem that is comprised of overlapping networks . . .

The GoldenSwamp is devoted to the concept that knowledge is itself a network, and that it is best served in a network medium. The Web is a network medium. That is what education should use as its primary source of knowledge in teaching and learning.

In any event, you will have trouble not being fascinated by Brian’s terrific post, the sources he links to, and Dr. Simard exciting video about what happens underground in the forest.

Challenge shows the innovative behavior of parrots and crows

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Posted on 11th July 2011 by Judy Breck in Animals, Emerging Online Knowledge and Open Content

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A Public Library of Science (PLoS) One article describes challenging birds in the boxes shown above. Titled “Flexibility in Problem Solving and Tool Use of Kea and New Caledonian Crows in a Multi Access Box Paradigm,” the article is an example of the excellence of science outside of the garden walls of online journals that cling to the paywalled, print past.

PLoS One “is an interactive open-access journal for the communication of all peer-reviewed scientific and medical research.” Articles like the one on the parrots and crows are both excellent sources for the knowledge conveyed, and provide outstanding models for students of scientific investigation and writing. The abstract for the article featured in this post begins:

Parrots and corvids show outstanding innovative and flexible behaviour. In particular, kea and New Caledonian crows are often singled out as being exceptionally sophisticated in physical cognition, so that comparing them in this respect is particularly interesting. However, comparing cognitive mechanisms among species requires consideration of non-cognitive behavioural propensities and morphological characteristics evolved from different ancestry and adapted to fit different ecological niches. . . .

Ocean Topics from Woods Hole go deep into watery knowledge

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Posted on 8th July 2011 by Judy Breck in Biology, Geography and Networks

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Dive into Ocean Topics with Wood Hole Oceanographic Institution experts. The Deeper Discovery page is a node in the network of knowledge from one of the world’s preeminent institutions in the field of ocean studies. Topics in the Deeper Discovery collection: Antarctic ecosystem, season, circulation, ecosystem, abundance, and human impact. There are also links chosen by the Woods Hole experts to Antarctic Ecosystem resources across the Web.

The Woods Hole Ocean Topics homepage is a portal to nine other main areas of ocean study and knowledge.

BBC presents the British History Timeline

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Posted on 6th July 2011 by Judy Breck in Connective Expression, Emerging Online Knowledge and History

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The challenge of making clear the long, complex history of Britain is met admirably by the interactive digital timeline across which the BBC has locked events and people into their positions. The timeline begins at 6000 BC marking the separation of Britain from the European mainland. As of this post, the most recent year is 2005. Any of us who at one time had to learn the sequence of British kings will wish we had had the BBC’s timeline at the time.

A long historical timeline has been tough to create physically until it could be done virtually in the digital world. Lengthy paper versions have been cumbersome or impossible to print, and even tougher to keep up-to-date. Museum walls dedicated to long timelines have been costly and inadequate to provide much detail. Spending some time with the BBC’s British History Timeline is an excellent way to enjoy the benefits of interactive digital technology for timelines as well as to learn some British history.

Tables of elements show how online subjects endure

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Posted on 5th July 2011 by Judy Breck in Chemistry, Emerging Online Knowledge and Open Content

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There are 3 websites for periodic tables of elements that have been the most popular ones on the internet since the 1990s. The article that follows describes them. These three are examples of many excellent websites about academic knowledge that are created by experts in a subject and kept up-to-date and authentic by their authors.

The most remarkable thing about the following article is that it was true in 1999, true in 2006, when I first wrote it, and remains true today in 2011. The three tables of elements described in the article remain in the top Google search results, as they have for over a decade.

Amateur, Laboratory and University Open the Tables: Interactive Tables of Elements
By Judy Breck 2006

One of the most popular early topics for digital education interpretation was the periodic table of elements. The reason is obvious. The table begs to be interactive. On a webpage, each of the elements can become interactive: click on an element and you arrive at its details.

In the late 1990s dozens of tables of elements clogged the popular search engines. Then Google came along to elevate the tables of elements that users liked best. Three of them floated to the top of the Google search return. Those same three have stayed there for several years.

I described these three open education resources for tables of elements in Education Technology magazine in the summer of 2006*:

“On February 28, 1996, eighth grader Yinon Bentor presented his science project to his class at school. It was an interactive periodic table of chemical elements displayed on an Internet browser — a new tool that Yinon had coaxed out of the connecting digital world. At the time there were only a handful of periodic tables on the World Wide Web. In the months that followed his class presentation, Bentor’s project took first place in his school science fair’s brand new Computer Science/Mathematics category and won the “Navy/Marines Distinguished Achievement Special Award” at the 40th Piedmont Region, Illinois Science Fair. These are commendable achievements for an eighth grader, but school recognition was just a beginning.

“The project Yinon Bentor put online a decade ago is still there and he still hosts it and tinkers along with improvements. Two other period tables of elements, one from Los Alamos National Laboratory and another from the University of Sheffield, along with Bentor’s, nearly always are the top three periodic tables listed in a search for “periodic table of elements” on Google.”

These websites are prime examples of open education resources. Are their tables of elements really of high quality? Materials that cost money are better, we feel it in our gut. There must be a highly paid expert inside ivy walls somewhere who has created the superior learning material for every and any subject.

The way the Internet has developed, that line of thinking has proven wrong. In the example of tables of elements, in what kind of superior walled off source of origin would those websites be? The three open tables of elements described here are tended, respectively, by a devoted amateur, scientists at a leading government laboratory, and academics at a major university. Here is what these keepers say about the open education resources they oversee.

Yinon Benton writes on the About page of ChemicalElements.com, the website he has been nurturing and supporting personally since he was in junior high school: “Recently, I’ve added advertising to this site in order to make up for the costs I incur because of having this site on its own domain hosting the site on Pair Networks, a fast commercial host, and in order to make a profit from the work I put into this site . . . . More Coming Soon! I’m always looking to update this site and add more information. If you know of something that would make this page better, please let me know and I’ll do my best to add it in future updates.”

The scientists at Periodic Table of the Elements at Los Alamos boast about their web-child: “Originally this resource, the Periodic Table, was created by Robert Husted at Los Alamos National Laboratory during his time as a Graduate Research Assistant. The Periodic Table that you are currently viewing was inherited by the Chemistry Division from the Computer Division who provided the laboratory some of the internet’s first web sites. This page was given a face lift, tummy tuck, and lobotomy in 2002/2003 by Mollie Boorman.” [Current version here]

The Papa of WebElements, the periodic table at the University of Sheffield, is Dr. Mark J. Winter of the Department of Chemistry. He explains how the website came to be that he continues to tend for thousands of online visitors: “The periodic table on the WWW [is my] first site. Running since 1993, although its origins lie in a HyperCard program (MacElements) I started work upon around 1989.”

Open education resources like the three tables of elements discussed here are custom projects by experts in the knowledge they interface. They virtually let the student look over the shoulder of scholars like Dr. Winter, shown here—sparking study and exciting learning.

* Judy Breck, “Why Is Education Not in the Ubiquitous Web World Picture?” Education Technology, July-August 2006, pp. 43-46.

Duck-billed Platypus found in the EOL

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Posted on 2nd July 2011 by Judy Breck in Animals


The Duck-billed Platypus is designated an exemplar node in the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), cataloged as Ornithorhynchus anatinus (Shaw, 1799).

As the EOL website explains:

The Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) is an unprecedented global partnership between the scientific community and the general public. Our goal is to make freely available to anyone knowledge about all the world’s organisms. Anybody can register as an EOL member and add text, images, videos, comments or tags to EOL pages. Expert curators ensure quality of the core collection by authenticating materials submitted by diverse projects and individual contributors. Together we can make EOL the best, most comprehensive source for biodiversity information . . . .