Digital natives, constructivism, etc

I’ve been following for a long time both the impacts of technology on education and on young people generally, as well discussions of constructivist approaches to teaching. Both have become somewhat marginal to my main concerns.

I agree, of course, that students need to be as tech savvy as possible for them to live as well as they might, both in their careers and in their personal lives. I use many different apps somewhat routinely in my teaching, and I find that although many students need very little instruction in order to use such things as blogs, many others have a very superficial grasp of what the apps they use are doing. When I use difficult programs, such as InDesign and Photoshop, I find that not many young people have any great depth in their understanding of digital tools.

Constructivism has both “good” and “bad” meanings for various teachers. It’s true that we can’t simply move knowledge from one mind to another, and that some active construction is always necessary for the learner. The only effective learning strategy, finally, is thinking. However, so many teachers have turned constructivism into an extreme form of deconstruction–arguing that whatever knowledge or understanding kids construct is the only knowledge or understanding that matters, and that there are no “right” answers. Because of this, I avoid using the term.

A moral compass in a political wilderness

Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln

Lincoln’s epic struggle to understand the conflicts between what is good and true on one hand what is political reality on the other constitutes one of American history’s most engrossing case studies of the rule of law.

Thinking about conflicts between principle and pragmatism take one to the heart of our current dilemmas in law and governance. Should we do whatever it takes to get the outcomes that we want at particular times–being realistic about how far short of our ideals the actual world remains? Or should we hold to principles we believe are good and true, even when they seem to take us places we would rather not go?

Reviewing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s new book, Reading Law, Stephen B. Presser summarizes the argument against prinicple–against rule of law:

The task of a judge is to interpret, not to make, law. It is fashionable today to claim that this view is naive, that words have ineluctably elusive meanings, and that therefore judging is a creative activity, offering license to do justice rather than simply mechanically to apply ancient understandings.

Principles as ancient understandings that we apply mechanically–who could favor that?

But is such mechanical action the main trouble we face in sustaining a republic based on principles and dedicated to establishing justice? Our main trouble, I think, is that principle is being abandoned in the pursuit of desired outcomes. We are increasingly governed by stratagems of power without much reflection about principle at all.

Spielberg’s Lincoln is useful for thinking about this issue. Ackerman‘s take on the film is that “Abe Lincoln was a politician, a good one, and proud of it. He understood that, to do great things, you sometimes had to get your hands dirty.” That seems to place the emphasis in slightly the wrong place.

I would rather say that Lincoln teaches that first and foremost we must identify the most important principle, and then to remain relentlessly true to it, sacrificing as necessary to make it true. All men are equal before the law–if we insist that it is so.

*The Lower Flathead River* is a beautiful and useful book

Flathead River, below Dixon

The Flathead River, below Dixon–shot on a return trip from Seattle. Home at last.

I quite like The Lower Flathead River and find it an easier resource to use than some others because it’s less necessary to complicate simple ideas about the past presented more as heritage than as history. The primary sources don’t always point in the same direction. They are more true to the past, in the sense that there were never simple answers to the complexities people faced. The past, like the present, is rich with opportunities and with dangers, with good people and with mischievous people, and it’s often hard to discern what one should think, or where one should head.

People approach the past with many different purposes, and most people will find their purposes supported by some parts of this book–and most will also find their purposes undermined in some ways. I think that’s a good thing. I would like lots of people whose lives intertwine in this place to read this book. I think most of them will find themselves among folk that they recognize.

The book is a bit too real to support any but the most determined ideological thinking. What I mean by “ideological thinking” is simply the act of replacing reality with a simplified theory of reality, which one holds to even when the facts don’t support it. The books to read, on that topic, are Gulag Archipelago and The Roots of American Order. I think ideological thinking is a major problem in contemporary education–since I think to a great extent schools have suffered a sort of ideological capture.

Will CCSS survive its implementation?

Dead teacher

Schools are remarkably resistant to change.

I like the specific content knowledge that the tribes’ Challenge to Survive series makes available. Using such materials fits quite well into my understanding of the sort of teaching that CCSS is encouraging. However, looking ahead I see that the course I’m enrolled in has a bias in favor of “constructivist” teaching, and that led me to look into what assessments are being planned for the new standards. I find that Linda Darling-Hammond is the chief research consultant for the consortium that is creating the tests that will drive accountability for teachers and school in Montana. That’s reassuring, if you mainly agree with Bill Ayers on what schools are for.

Ho-hum. I have been trying to ignore social justice activists such as Darling-Hammond for years, and I worked through and moved on from constructivist pedagogy years ago as well. I have approximately zero interest in revisiting all those arguments at this point. To a great degree, I think the impetus for CCSS was to undo the harm that such ideas have done in K-12 education.

So will the new standards make any difference?

I need to get my assumptions clear before I’m very motivated to work on details.

  1. The CCSS seeks to reorganize k-12 teaching around literacy–reading and writing–and content knowledge.
  2. CCSS consists of standards. It is not a curriculum.
  3. For CCSS to make a difference at a level that students will experience something different in the classroom, both instructional practices and the curriculum would need significant changes. Leaving aside the challenge of changing instructional practices, either a new curriculum would need to adopted, or a new curriculum would need to be written.
  4. So far, the conversation about implementation in Montana has centered on “alignment.” This suggests that existing curriculum needs to be reorganized under new standards. This is easy enough to do if one interprets the new standards into existing mental categories and definitions. This is a familiar routine. It amounts mostly to adopting new jargon to describe old practices. For example, Rudolf Dreikurs argued in the late 1960s that educators should replace the concept of “punishments” with his ideas about natural and logical consequences. His theories were successful, as such theories go. So schools no longer have punishments–they now have consequences. However, the new consequences bear an uncanny resemblance to the old punishments. It’s easier to create new euphemisms than it is to affect practices.
  5. A further complication is that reasonable people will disagree as to what specific standards mean in practice. The interpretations that will ultimately matter–in terms of accountability–will be those made by authors of the Balanced Assessment tests that will drive both teacher and school accountability, beginning in 2014. Some of the test items have been released but to a great extent what and how the tests measure remain unknown.
  6. The drive for new standards is driven by College Board research that suggests that only about 30% of high school graduates read and write at the level needed for success at college and by the idea that workplace demands on literacy are similar to those at college. The new standards call for a curriculum that is rich in content knowledge and for instructional practices that support routines of close reading and analytical and expository writing that uses that knowledge.
  7. To a great extent, these standards work against conventional wisdom in the profession, which leans heavily toward extolling “creativity” and “higher order” thinking. However, the usual result of using consensual and collaborative processes to get work done is that the conventional wisdom gets repeated. One would expect that using collaborative processes to align curriculum to CCSS will result in little or no real change. Real change would require authoritative processes.
  8. If the goal is to make a serious effort to effect the changes that the CCSS call for, what is needed at this stage is teaching. Teachers need readings and presentations that accurately explain what the standards mean–both what research has called them into being and what teaching practices are actually coherent with the standards.