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Learning basic history, science, math in kids’ hands

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Posted on 17th January 2010 by Judy Breck in Findability, Golden Age of Learning, Mobile & Ubiquitous, Mobile Learning, Open Content and Schools We Have Now

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Every boy in the picture above (by Griff Witte/the Washington Post) can learn basic history, science, math and more — in spite of what is reported today in a front page Washington Post story:

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — With a curriculum that glorifies violence in the name of Islam and ignores basic history, science and math, Pakistan’s public education system has become a major barrier to U.S. efforts to defeat extremist groups here, U.S. and Pakistani officials say. . . .

. . . according to education reform advocates here, any effort to improve the system faces the reality of intense institutional pressure to keep the schools exactly the way they are.

How widespread is this intransigence toward changing schooling? This kind of stubbornness is not just found in Islamabad. Intense pressure to keep schools as they are ranges in different places and cultures from orthodoxy to tradition to profit issues by vested interests and control demands by unions and, most sadly, a panoply of corruption.

While we deal across the planet with the inertia and intransigence that promises to perpetuate failing schools for at least another generation or two of kids, why not let the kids trapped in these schools learn the basics with handschooling? To do that, we need to get a mobile that browses the internet to each kid, and focus more on sharpening the findability online of basic subjects. Every boy in the picture above could learn his algebra from a mobile friendly tutorial in Urdu, Punjabi – and one day the full range of local languages. My guess is that many Pakistanis of their generation are already doing some handschooling beyond their school walls — or when they have no school to attend.

Internet home access to low-income families de-fangs savage inequalities


Posted on 13th January 2010 by Judy Breck in Mobile & Ubiquitous, Mobile Learning and Schools We Have Now

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Home Access scheme to provide internet access to low-income families has gone live in England. reports:“PC giveaway for school kids is go: 270,000 low-income families getting internet access at home courtesy of the government…”  It is hopeful to think about the possibilities here in contrast to my post yesterday about the persistent and deepening savage inequalities for children in failing American schools.

In the piloting for the program in England, the article reports: “A recent Institute of Fiscal Studies report cited by the government also states that having a computer at home could lead to a two-grade improvement in one subject at GCSE.”

The Detroit Free Press laments that: “Most Detroit Public Schools’ fourth- and eighth-graders were unable to score at a basic math level on a national test this year — marking the lowest performance in the history of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.” A two-grade improvement would be huge in Detroit.

Handschooling is a new weapon against Savage Inequalities


Posted on 11th January 2010 by Judy Breck in Mobile & Ubiquitous, Mobile Learning and Schools We Have Now

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At the end of 2009 we read this headline: Detroit students’ scores a record low on national test. This is once again the sad echo of what, in his 1991 best seller, Jonathan Kozol called Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools. A quotation on the cover of Savage Inequalities from New York Times book reviewer Andrew Hacker says: “An impassioned book, laced with anger and indignation, about how our public education system scorns so many of our children.” Kozol’s powerful depiction of this national tragedy is still a best-seller, ranking today at #1343 on

Wave after wave of “school reform” has failed. We have not ended our scorn of many of our children. Detroit’s record low last year tells us, in fact, that the inequalities have only gotten deeper. Change does not happen. More of the same does not make anything different.

Different, though, has actually become possible. There is something new: let’s do it!

whoDaddyIn 1991 when Kozol’s book was published, the possibility of each child holding everything known in his or her hand was still Star Trek stuff. Today it is real and is happening. The hands in the image above belong to a fourth-grader who is the daughter of one of my nephews. Making each of our children equal to her in knowledge access is just one smartphone away. [Sure, I know homes and teachers vary -- but the equality is profound for the individual child using a mobile internet browser. The reading, writing, arithmetic, history, science, technology are just out there waiting to display on the mobile, and to be learned by whoever is peering at its screen. The device does not ask or care who your daddy is or what sort of school you attend.]

It is a savage inequality of the 21st century for any child in Detroit — anywhere — who does not own an individual mobile internet browser. Making certain that children have handschooling is a new weapon against the scorn of  inequality.

Washington Post and Carnival post DC smartphones piece


Posted on 15th June 2009 by Judy Breck in Carnival of the Mobilists

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Because I linked the piece I wrote yesterday Give smartphones to Washington DC students, to the Washington Post article that prompted me to write in, the WP linked back to GoldenSwamp. Welcome to Post readers!

The same piece was accepted in this week’s Carnival of the Mobilists #178. Welcome Carnivalers! The lovely lady in the red hat is from the Carnival, hosted this week by Volker Hirsch.

Power law reveals elitism in public schooling that we can fix


Posted on 9th June 2009 by Judy Breck in Mobile & Ubiquitous, Mobile Learning and Schools We Have Now

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It is a safe guess that in the best public schools at least 80 percent of students have their own access to the internet through their laptop or smart phone. It is unlikely that even 20 percent of students in the worst public schools have such access. The 80/20 Rule is an expression of the power law, and here makes clear one of today’s education’s heels on the necks of non-elite kids.

Great pertinent news today is the new $99 price for a smart phone by Apple, last year’s iPhone. We have strained and groaned too long at leaving no child behind a standard line of mediocrity. We can now afford (at just $99 per child) to give them all a tool to pursue each’s own curiosity and inherent ability. How can we afford not to do that? Sure, there is more than the cost of the smartphone itself. You have to add about $1000 per year per student for a wireless plan so the internet can be browsed on the smartphone. The cost of public education is roughly $10,000 per year, so smartphone cost is around ten percent of that. It seems certain that smartphone costs will go down and that using the devices instead of printed textbooks will save a great deal of money.

Thinking about students in public schools as populating a bell curve masks the elitism. It makes the kids without the access to 21st century knowledge riches within the internet seem to be okay. We have assumed too long from the bell curve that they are in that safe middle somewhere. We feel good about trying to move some of them up the steep side of the bell curve. Yet I would bet my G3 that 80/20 individual internet access mirrors 80/20 school achievement.

It gets easier and cheaper to fix the inequity revealed by the power law: To provide every teacher and student with a mobile device to browse the internet. We have strained and groaned too long at leaving no child behind a standard line of mediocrity. We can now afford (at just $99 per child) to give them all a tool to pursue each’s own curiosity and inherent ability. How can we afford not to do that?

Grandma’s post featured on Carnival of the Mobilists


Posted on 2nd February 2009 by Judy Breck in Carnival of the Mobilists and Schools We Have Now

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This week’s Carnival host Ram Krishnan of Mobile Broadband Blog invites his midway visitors: A fascinating post by Judy Breck that discusses how eighth-graders in 1900 learned much more in schools than kids today – she includes an eighth-grade test from 1895 (Saline County, Kansas). Come on, take the test and see how you score. You may be surprised!

How kids today could know as much as Grandma did


Posted on 27th January 2009 by Judy Breck in Emerging Online Knowledge, Mobile Learning, Networks and Schools We Have Now

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The picture above shows my Grandma (2nd from right, front row), born in Kansas City in 1884, with some of her schoolmates. Below is the text of an email that is being sent around the internet about how very much more school kids in Kansas learned in Grandma’s day than they do now. Any of the kids in the picture could have told you all about syllabication and the the inclination of the earth, I would bet.

How could kids today know as much as Grandma learned in her Kansas school? There is nothing on the final exam shown below that could not be easily learned by a student with a mobile in her pocket that browses the internet. Grandma would have loved it BTW. When she was a young woman she was a high tech secretary skilled on a typewriter by around 1900.

UPDATE: A reader sent me this message to my email: “The test appears to be a hoax that’s been circulated by email for several years now. [Link to Scopes.] Didn’t want to point this out in the comments though.” I appreciate this reader’s heads up very much, and have just read the Scopes evaluation.
I find it fascinating that Scopes does not seem to say the exam itself is a hoax. Instead it states: “Claim: An 1895 graduation examination for public school students demonstrates a shocking decline in educational standards. Status: False.” [ital. Scopes'] Scopes then launches into a lengthy criticism of this “false” email content along these lines: “Just about any test looks difficult to those who haven’t recently been steeped in the material it covers. . . .” I actually had 2 grandmothers educated in Kansas public schools before 1900, both of whom I knew well. I am certain they could have done the arithmetic in the test, and guess that they would have known most of the other questions’ answers. They were both grammar whizzes with beautiful penmanship. I got my public school education in Texas in the 1940s and 1950s, and recall learning most of the answers to the questions on this “false” list. Even if such tests were not given in Kansas in the 1890s, I know first hand that they were given in Texas in the 1940s.
All of that aside, what I wrote in this post originally stands: Any generation would benefit from having what is known by humankind in their pocket. Today’s kids do, and my Grandmas both would have loved it!

UPDATE #2: After writing the above update, I decided to check my bravado about being able to find things on the internet. Here, from the Salina Journal is a report directly from the Kansas source: 1895 Salilne County exam continues to raise interest.

This is the eighth-grade final exam from 1895 in Salina, KS, USA . It was taken from the original document on file at the Smokey Valley Genealogical Society and Library in Salina, KS , and reprinted by the Salina Journal.

Grammar (Time, one hour)
1. Give nine rules for the use of Capital Letters.
2 . Name the Parts of Speech and define those that have no Modifications.
3. Define Verse, Stanza and Paragraph.
4. What are the Principal Parts of a verb? Give Principal Parts of lie, lay and run
5. Define Case, Illustrate each Case.
6. What is Punctuation? Give rules for principal marks of Punctuation.
7. Write a composition of about 150 words and show therein that you understand the practical use of the rules of grammar.

Arithmetic (Time, 1.25 hours)
1. Name and define the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic.
2. A wagon box is 2 ft deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?
3. If a load of wheat weighs 3942 lbs., what is it worth at 50cts/bushel, deducting 1050lbs. for tare?
4. District No. 33 has a valuation of $35,000. What is the necessary levy to carry on a school seven months at $50 per month, and have $104 for incidentals?
5. Find cost of 6720 lbs. coal at $6.00 per ton.
6. Find the interest of $512.60 for 8 months and 18 days at 7 percent.
7. What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 ft. long at $20 per meter?
8 Find bank discount on $300 for 90 days (no grace) at 10 percent.
9. What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per acre, the distance around which is 640 rods?
10. Write a Bank Check, a Promissory Note, and a Receipt.

U. S. History (Time, 45 minutes)
1. Give the epochs into which U. S. History is divided. (more…)

Visionary minimalism – how education has viewed the Internet

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Posted on 29th August 2008 by Judy Breck in Golden Age of Learning and Schools We Have Now


In discussing the liberal methodology of Barack Obama, Cass Sunstein writes in The New Republic:

When he offers visionary approaches, he does so as a visionary minimalist–that is, as someone who attempts to accommodate, rather than to repudiate, the defining beliefs of most Americans. His reluctance to challenge people’s deepest commitments might turn out to be what makes ambitious plans possible–notwithstanding the hopes of the far left and the cartoons of the far right.

It is revealing to shift the lens of visionary minimalism to education. Since the Internet appeared on education’s radar a decade ago, accommodating the new medium of knowledge and communication to traditional education instead of challenging defining beliefs of educators has been routine.

Removing the minimalism from the vision for education would mean repudiating the laundry list of “fixing the schools” accommodations. The education sector could then define and pursue a new vision of adapting learning to the now dominate knowledge delivery medium, the Internet.

Real education will not be academic

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Posted on 23rd August 2008 by Judy Breck in Carnival of the Mobilists, Connective Expression, Networks and Schools We Have Now

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Reading through the conclusion of Charles Murray’s Real Education sharpens my non-academic vision of the future of learning. (The word academy means school. Academic ability is the ability to learn school subjects.) Murray’s conclusions are about an elite with academic ability, K-12 schools that teach a core liberal education, and less young people attending college. Murray explains this far better than I can. If the Internet had not developed, I would agree wholeheartedly with him. But the Internet is here and conforming learning to this marvelous new ecology of enlightenment is the job at hand for educators.

On pages 90-91, Murray writes: “. . . the Internet is revolutionizing everything.” And: “. . . the technology is still in its early stages of development and the rate of improvement breathtaking. . . .”

Yes, and the notion of academic ability is not exempt from that revolution. Murray’s underlying premise in Real Education is that because students differ in academic ability, their schooling should differ. But schooling itself (academics as we have known them) are obsolete vehicles for packaging and delivering learning resources: that by which we have measured intelligence has broken down. The reason for the break down is that fundamentals of how academies deliver learning are incompatible with networks (the open Internet). The hierarchies of courses, curricula, and school grades cannot be shoehorned into networks. The old school methods unbundle.

Here is an example of unbundling: From page 81 of Real Education — an excerpt from a curriculum for third graders includes for science this goal: “Use a prism to learn about the spectrum.” From the hierarchical core of subjects used in the example, third grade students will be taught to a test about prisms at a level thought to be appropriate for nine-year-olds. The prism at third grade level is embedded in a science curriculum.

This example of academic science as third grade subject organization unbundles when a student of any age begins clicking through webpages about prisms like these: Prism refraction applet, Discover of the nature of light, Reflection grating systems, and Color theory. Including, but hardly limited to, what a third grader can learn, these webpages and their links are a network of ideas in which a learner can travel to whatever level an individual student’s and moment’s curiosity beckon.

The academy (schools as we have known them for delivering knowledge) will be obsolete — to put it in 2008 device terms — as soon as iPhone-grade mobile devices deliver the Internet to most of the world’s children. That will happen within a few years. It could happen very fast if we set it as a high priority.

There may well be a general sort of intelligence that determines how much knowledge about prisms different individual children can ultimately acquire. Patterns of learning seem certain to change when not every kid is not expected to grasp the prism/spectum concepts at age nine. The conceptualizing of intelligence by measuring success at pre-Internet academies (schools) needs to be abandoned. Just as the Internet is impelling the re-conceptualization of literacy, intelligence needs to be measured by network ability, not academics. My guess is that network learning creates not one brainy elite — as an academy does — but elites composed of varying patterns of individuals whose talents emerge at different stages of maturation into different masteries of different subjects.

Real education will be unbundled

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Posted on 21st August 2008 by Judy Breck in Uncategorized

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Going out on a limb, I will comment some here on the book before finishing reading Charles Murray’s Real Education. So far (I am up to page 66), Murray is saying strong, accurate, and needed things about education as it is today and is clearing up false views about altering the “academic ability” of students. But will his analysis hold true when learning shifts fundamentally to the Internet? I don’t think so because the idea of “academic ability” will lose meaning when schools (academies) no longer organize study subjects and patterns by which students learn.

The real education of the future will be unbundled, and schools will no longer regulate and standardize knowledge. Study subjects will be emergent from the open Internet and directly engaged and learned by individual students. That is a compete change for the schools we have now where students are offered knowledge selected by schools and standards writers and delivered in graded hierarchies. On page 61 of Real Education is this sample of many similar sentences: Fourth-graders at the 25th percentile increased their mean score by three points between 2002 and 2007.

When education is unbundled, such a sentence will not make sense. Kids will no longer be bundled by grade and subjects will no longer be shoehorned into hierarchies to mesh with grades.

With the unbundling of education that is now underway, should we have schools? That is the question where we should begin. I’ll bet Murray will have some important insight into this as I keep reading. I’ll let you know in future posts.

Carnival of the Mobilists 117 points to “How to cheat on an exam in 2008.”


Posted on 31st March 2008 by Judy Breck in Carnival of the Mobilists

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The Carnival host Jamie Wells who posts at, does a clever take on the GoldenSwamp “How to cheat” bit. Wells writes: Judy at the GoldenSwamp uses an instructional video to make an interesting case against banning mobiles in schools. File this under “Another Reason Why Carbonated Beverages and Education Don’t Mix.”

‘In class you have to power down’


Posted on 21st June 2007 by Judy Breck in Mobile Learning

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With thanks to All Briggs, whose comment is the first one in the previous post, here is the full quote from the Gardian:

“Whenever I go into class, I have to power down.” . . . “At school, you do all this boring stuff, really basic stuff, PowerPoint and spreadsheets and things. It only gets interesting and exciting when you come home and really use your computer. You’re free, you’re in control, it’s your own world.”

The full article is here. I reference it to illustrate that my description of education’s failure to embrace the digital future is hardly exaggerated.

Mobile, mobile everywhere but schools


Posted on 21st June 2007 by Judy Breck in Mobile Learning

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One by one over the past decade the reasons computers are not the main tool of school students have disappeared. At first the schools were not wired: billions were spent to wire the schools and mostly the connectivity is used to keep records in the school offices. More computers were required: they were acquired but put into “labs” instead of given to individual students as was done for their parents at their jobs (learning is a student’s job, right?). Now the kids mostly have their own computers in their pockets: they are told they will cheat if they use them, and are forbidden. They say the little computers don’t access the Internet anyway; which is not completely true now and about to become wrong.

The real reason and the reason that has been in effect all along that computers are not the main tool of school students is that educators do not make or let that happen. Why not? For crying out loud why not? How much is learned in classrooms will continue to deteriorate at tragic cost to the young generations until we answer that question and educators embrace the virtual connectivity that has replaced analog information.

So am I being negative? I am just mystified. Why don’t educators press the mobile industry for learning features on handsets? Why don’t school systems demand their own wireless networks that interconnect with their students’ mobile phones? Why don’t teachers solicit content packages for the students’ mobiles from scientific laboratories, libraries and museums? Why don’t the kids have ways to drill for tests using their mobile devices so they can study on the bus?

Why isn’t the next killer app mobile learning? Hey, maybe it is. Let’s make that happen!

No more pencils, no print books, no more analog backward looks


Posted on 28th February 2007 by Judy Breck in Mobile Learning

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The time has come for mobile learning. This is the year: 2007. If you are an optimist you can say that the stars are aligned. If you are more the tempest type, you can join Todd Richmond in saying: the educational sector will be dragged into the future kicking and screaming by the next perfect storm.

Genuine engagement of students with the knowledge available online has been put off for a decade. Wired schools usually have firewalls, making what the kids can look at online selective from the central office. Wired schools put computers in labs or just have one or two in a classroom, so that youngsters have their hands off of keyboards for most of the day. Even online classes tend to be repositioned versions of classrooms from the old analog education system of the 20th century. Although there are bountiful good intentions and elaborate efforts that have accomplished these things, learning is still far from a direct engagement of the school age generation with the new location of and new interaction with what is known by humankind online.

Now it is obvious how 21s century students will engage that knowledge: they will study it directly, interacting with it individually they will hold it in their hands and interface it with their minds. They will do that with their mobiles, with the portable computers they already have in their pockets.

These are the aligned stars of 2007the elements of the perfect storm: the kids have the mobiles (cell phones), open education resources online abound, mobile technology is roaring toward broadband with all the bells and whistles of interaction and video and the like, the W3C Mobile Initiative has set a course toward mobile browsing of the internet which will open more and more online knowledge content for learning from mobiles.

The tens of thousands of mobilists gathered last month in Barcelona will have a role in bringing mobile learning forward this year, and if you are one of them I urge you to get to work on mobile learning and be part of the next big thing. Universities, museums, laboratories, individual experts and other keepers of analog knowledge can, should and I believe will open their knowledge increasingly to mobile learning in coming months. Gamers will move into mobiles for learning. Teachers will ask students to take their mobiles out of their pockets for integration into the learning process.

And the kids? The first students born in the 21st century are finishing the first grade of school this spring. Teenagers around the planet already have made the mobile basic to their way of life. As Howard Rheingold has written: The tools for cultural production and distribution are now in the pockets of 14 year olds. If we do not morph learning into the mobile venue, the young generation will do it themselves. They are doing that with their music, their pictures, their friendships and (especially in developing countries) with new businesses and services. The day is upon education for: no more pencils, no print books, no more analog backward looks.

If I could chat with Mayor Bloomberg

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Posted on 21st January 2007 by Judy Breck in Mobile Learning

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Actually, I have longer experience with New York City public school students than the Mayor does. I have worked with them directly off and on since 1982. I have earned the right to an opinion about what would improve learning for our young people who are enrolled in our public schools.

NYC is the biggest school system in the world. How can it be made better? Or better than that, how can we give our students a way to lead the world into the digital, mobile future? Mayor Bloomberg says he is now going to make the schools better. If I could chat with him, this is what I would suggest:

Let our students lead the world in using their mobile phones for learning:

  • Start by lifting the ban on students having their mobile phones with them at school.
  • Instead require them to sign an honor pledge not to use their mobiles in violation of courtesy and school rules. (If you think I am naive about the youngsters here, you don’t know our kids. Most of them are already doing what sensible rules would be (courtesy and keeping the phones in their pockets in class), but the Mayor’s current prohibition of the phones makes them have to be sneaks about it instead of obeying rules openly with honor.)
  • Institute a student honor team at each school to enforce the mobile honor code.
  • Create a NYC schools 3Rs mobile tutorial portfolio that reviews the basic of reading, writing, arithmetic, and other elementary school subjects. The tutorials in the portfolio would be useable on simple cell (mobile) phones as well as smart phones. Distribute the tutorials through the NYC Board of Education website and individual schools and teachers to elementary and middle school students so they can review the basic 3Rs using their mobile phones in and outside of school.
  • Begin a collaboration with universities, laboratories, museums and other places with open content for learning on their websites to make mobile tutorials from this content for sciences, humanities, technologies and other subjects. Distribute these tutorials through the NYC Board of Education website and individual schools and teachers to NYC students.
  • Institute programs at the Board of Education level and in schools and classrooms to share the mobile tutorials with other school districts, classrooms and students across the world. Let our New York City kids be mentors for how to learn in the 21st century. There are already nearly 3 billion mobile phones out there. Let’s make the mobiles into learning tools and really close the digital divide.