Category: Education

I was very excited when I heard that Angela Calabrese Barton was going to be one of the featured speakers at this year’s colloquy.  I was familiar with some of her work with youth in homeless shelters as well at the Urban Heat Islands project that was conducted as part of the GET City project.  Her talk focused on the Green Roof project that is also part of GET City.  The thing that is striking to me about both the Urban Heat Islands and the Green Roof project is that although they are scientifically based projects they are great examples of interdisciplinary learning.

As I was listening to Dr. Calabrese Barton the Green Roof project that was conducted at the Boys and Girls Club, I was struck by the voice this project gives to the youth she works with.  This is not a symbolic voice, but rather an authentic and powerful voice.  The GET Citians have met with civic leaders and presented their work in classrooms and the community.  Their voices were also incorporated into Dr. Calabrese Barton’s presentation, so that we could hear from them the power of the GET City project.

As part of the new roof for the club, new skylights were going to be included and a decision had to be made about where they were to be installed.  The director of the club asked the GET Citians to help decide where these should be installed.  The youth took on the responsibility, developing a evaluation system for which rooms would be most benefitted from having the skylights and carrying out the investigation to make this determination.  While, this was a productive learning experience for the youth, I think the real power of this experience was that their decision about where to put the skylights was enacted by the adults in charge of the club.

Through my lens as a classroom teacher and now an educator of preservice teachers, my first thought was about how a program like this could be adapted and brought into a formal education setting.  I reflected on projects that I had done with my classes in the past where they were asked to research an issue (usually environmental in nature) and then make “recommendations” about what should be done to address this issue.  Of course, unlike the GET Citians, their recommendations didn’t have any actual power.

However, as I have thought more about how a project like GET City could be adapted for formal classrooms I have decided that it doesn’t need adapting, rather we need to adapt our classrooms.  Shouldn’t schools be places where interdisciplinary learning takes place and students are given a voice to impact their world?  In my view education is about preparing the next generation of citizens who will be able to thoughtfully address the issues they are confronted with and work together to solve them.  This is exactly what these sorts of projects prepare students to do.

This approach to learning is not easily measured through standardized testing, which makes adopting it a challenge in the current climate of accountability in schools.  This issue was alluded to during the discussion about funding these sorts of projects that occurred during lunch with Dr. Calabrese Barton and Dr. Shirley Brice Heath.  They both talked about the challenge of getting projects funded by NSF when the projects don’t include “measurable results” that fit into the narrow definition of measuring that has become prevalent.

It seems to me that it might be possible for science to serve as starting point for these sorts of projects since in some places it still falls outside of the jurisdiction of standardized testing.  Since science teachers don’t have a test hanging over their heads in most grades, they potentially have a little more flexibility in their curriculum.  We should encourage them to leverage this flexibility to incorporate GET City style projects into their classes.

As a final thought, wouldn’t it be an interesting world if teachers were held accountable not for test scores, but for the impact that their students have in their community?

Recently, I served as a judge in the regional round of a contest, for kindergarten through twelfth grade students, that asks students to imagine a technology that is twenty years in the future.  As with any contest of this sort, there are wonderfully creative projects as well as those which don’t meet the requirements of the competition.  The perspective that I am offering here has little to do with the quality of the projects.  Rather, I wish to focus on one idea that illustrates what I believe is one of the critical crises facing science education today.  The invention proposed by these students was a device that would be implanted in the brain and allow everything you needed to learn to be downloaded directly into your brain. I was struck by the realization that this was what students thought learning was. Everything you need to know could be downloaded into your brain and then you could regurgitate these facts at whatever point in the future you might need to produce them for someone, say on a standardized test for example.

In conversations with other educators who have served as judges for these sorts of contests we have often lamented the quality of some of the entries.  Some of my colleagues were worried about the prevalence of inventions that basically made life one which you would spend mostly in a chair outfitted with all the amenities.  While these things also concerned me, nothing disturbed me quite as much as the idea that learning involved having a download port for your brain. I am not bothered by the kids who want to invent a machine to do your homework for you. I can relate to homework being seen as a chore that it would be nice to be relieved of.  But to think of the actual process of learning as a chore that it would be nice to be rid of isn’t something I can understand.  Learning in and of itself should be a pleasurable experience, and if it is not we are robbing our children of one of life’s great wonders.

This is the slidecast of a brown bag presentation I did at NSF to provide scientists with advice on how to approach K-12 classrooms.

We are teaching kids for yesterday or today, when we really need to be teaching them for tomorrow.  What will tomorrow bring?  I don’t know for sure, but I do know that in order to be prepared for it you need to be a creative, flexible thinker.  Unfortunately, many schools are teaching kids skills of today which will be obsolete by the time they need skills to be successful members of society.

Many of the technologies we use today, were things of wild imaginings 50 years ago, perhaps even as recently as 20 years ago.  What will these things look like 10, 20, or 30 years from now?  There will undoubtably be technologies that sound like something from a science fiction writer’s imagination.  However, today’s first graders will be entering the prime of their careers 30 years from now and it is our responsibility, as educators, to help prepare them for this world.  While we cannot teach them how to use these tools that are not created, we can teach them to be adaptable and flexible thinkers.  It is the flexible thinkers who will suceed in the future.

To that end, we as educators need to be adaptable and flexible thinkers ourselves.  I have found the two videos below to be great sparks for discussions about the future of education.

I decided to start the new year and a new blog with my contribution to the Teachers’ Letters to President Obama Project.

Dear President Obama,

I have been a teacher for twelve years.  My primary responsibilities have been teaching science and technology to students in grades three through eight, but since I was at a small, private school I also occasionally taught a math class and for a few years taught a humanities course.  This year I am an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow working at the National Science Foundation.

During your campaign, which I was inspired by and volunteered for, your primary message was one of hope.  In fact I consider one of the most poignant statements made during your campaign to be, “We’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.”  From talking to teachers and reading some of the other letters written as part of this project, I believe that the greatest problem facing teachers in America today is a loss of hope.  However, not all teachers have lost their hope and I believe that those who are feeling beaten down and hopeless can have their hope restored.  Teachers are people who are in the business of the future and that should be a business filled with hope.  Therefore, I believe what you need to do is restore hope for this nation’s teachers.  I have some suggestions, which I will outline below, but above all please keep hope in mind as you and your staff consider education reform.

One of the things which has been most powerful about my Fellowship experience so far is the time it has given me to reflect on what I am learning and experiencing.  This is something that is critically lacking for teachers.  If a teacher is lucky enough to be able to attend professional development seminars and conferences, they almost certainly have no time to digest what they learned once they return to their classroom.  The notes and materials will most likely languish in a bag or filing cabinet for days or weeks until the teacher has a bit of spare time to think about incorporating the new ideas.  Schools should give teachers time immediately after they return to process and discuss what they learned during their professional development experience.

Today’s technologies provide a wealth of opportunities to reshape education however issues related to access and use are hampering their inclusion in many schools.  The digital divide needs to be closed as soon as possible and schools should be equipped with up to date, functional technology.  However, simply putting technology into the schools is not enough.  Teachers must be trained in the use of the new technologies and their applications to education.  A school full of shiny, new computers and gadgets looks great on the news, but is completely useless unless teachers know how to use it to enhance their curricula.  This can be achieved by supporting instructional technology specialists within schools.  These would be tech-savvy teachers whose job it is to help teachers infuse technology into their classrooms.  Technology shouldn’t be something that is an extra, it should be just another learning tool.

Additionally, many schools block access to some of the most powerful Web 2.0 tools available.  This must end.  We need schools where students are taught to safely and effectively leverage the Internet for their own learning.  Yes, there are dangers on the Internet, but we are not doing students any favors by pretending these sites don’t exist.  Rather, we are robbing them of powerful learning tools.  Along these same lines, we have to stop banning cell phones, iPods, etc. in school buildings.  Many students have these electronics and instead of prohibiting them we should be leveraging them as learning tools.  Will there be cases of students using them for nonacademic activities?  Of course there will be. Students use pencils and paper to pass notes and doodle, should we ban them as well?

Finally, the perception of teachers in our society needs to be changed.  Everyone who has been to school, so essentially everyone, thinks they know how to evaluate and “fix” the educational system.  To be blunt, many of them have no idea what they are talking about.  There are people in our society who have little respect for teachers and this needs to be attacked directly.  Comments about someone being “too smart to be a teacher” , which I heard from a scientist at a conference bemoaning the fact that many quality, minority students had turned to teaching, must not be tolerated at any level.  Furthermore, to raise the level of public respect we must get rid of bad teachers.  There are bad teachers in many schools, which is demoralizing to the good teachers and reflects poorly on our profession.

There are most assuredly thousands of ideas out there about what we need to do to reform education in this country.  These three are merely the ones that I am passionate about.  Most of all, I sincerely believe that education needs reform and teachers need to have their hope restored.


Marti Canipe