PBL = most people’s jobs

Pop quiz, hot shot.  Who wrote this?

…my primary responsibility was to develop the project plan, maintain communication between the client and the project team, and provide intellectual leadership to the various modules making up the project.

Long story short, I was wandering the website of a consulting firm looking for biographical information on a volunteer that was due to write for the edu180atl project, for which I work as co-editor.  When I came across this little tidbit, it occurred to me that this consultant does on a regular basis what I aspire to do in my classroom: Project-based Learning.  He probably doesn’t call it PBL.  He calls it “his job.”  Many of our students will endeavor to “develop project plans,” “maintain communication,” and “provide leadership” in their future careers.  Worksheets help them build a skills base, but engaging in formative and summative PBL helps them put those skills to work.

The phrase that struck me, the one that pushed me to open a new tab on my browser and begin fleshing out these thoughts, was provide intellectual leadership.

Can I do that for a living?

I love teaching Spanish.  More importantly, I love teaching children.  But truth be told, I’d rather spend my time and my passion providing intellectual leadership and inspiring my students to do so in kind.

Perhaps those that fear that content will be subjugated to the so-called “soft skills” often associated with project-based learning” might take comfort in the notion that the degree to which content is stressed in PBL, such intellectual leadership may be provided, either by the teacher/facilitator or by the students themselves.

“The world they live in”

As I read Don Tapscotts’s piece on Huffington Post (“New York Times Cover Story on “Growing Up Digital” Misses the Mark,” November 23, 2010), a loud gong sounded behind my ears, in particular after this passage:

Kids who have grown up digital expect to be able to respond, to have a conversation. They want a choice in their education, in terms of what they learn, when they learn it, where, and how. They want their education to be relevant to the real world, the one they live in.

The world they live in.  Tapscott and Richel can debate neuroscience all they want–I can’t contribute to that conversation.  However, in all the talk of the past several years about how kids  learn, what makes “them” different from “us,” Tapscott’s few words strike an unfathomably loud chord.

The kids that I teach and coach, 11 to 14 year-olds, live in today’s world.  The immediate, infinitely interconnected, interactive and always accessible world has awoken with them every day of their lives.

When I was a kid, the “world” in which I lived was confined to my neighborhood in Mountainside, NJ, Echo Lake Park which covers a few hundred acres, and the general path that could be traveled on bicycle between my home and Deerfield Middle School.

When I was at home, my world accessible through technology consisted of situational comedy, Masterpiece Theater (which I tried my best to ignore), and the nightly news.  I can recall perhaps a handful of times in the 70’s and 80’s as a teen sitting down to ask my parents about a story being reported through the filter of Ted Koppel or Jim Lehrer.

Almost every advertisement I saw on television made me salivate with envy, whether it was Stretch Armstrong or a Huffy bicycle with mag wheels.  30-minute programs contained a handful of such adds.  I oohed at the weekly JCPenney circular toy section, and I practically went ballistic when the Best Products catalogue, hundreds of pages thick, arrived at our house a few months before Christmas.

In short, if I wanted to encounter the world, I had to go looking for it.

How, then, am I to interpret a typical 14 year-old’s daily journey through their world?  Local and global events stream through the home page of their email account (when they bother to check email), even the briefest of internet use is laden with innumerable pieces of data, and the 24-hour news cycle insists that all news is breaking news, lest viewers tune out.

I read recently that we are confronted by 250 pieces of advertising in a typical day (seemed small to me).  At the end of that typical day, I probably wouldn’t be able to recall more than three of them.

In just the last few years, students have been exposed to the latent socioeconomic and racial divides amplified by Katrina, natural disasters that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, multiple wars being endlessly debated on TV and on the web, and a baseline level of sexuality in pop culture once thought unimaginable.

Add to this the fact that we are learning that the human brain needs to develop into it’s mid-20’s before becoming truly capable of processing some to the things that our kids are being asked to process, either because we’ve worked it into the curriculum or because they can’t avoid not seeing it on their TV/computer/mobile device/web-enabled nav screen in their car/TV-enabled touchscreen in their refrigerator door, etc.

And then they come to school.  A teacher hands them a textbook and, in well-manicured language, tells them that course content will not necessarily extend beyond its outer covers.  A world that they have been habituated to interacting in is traded for a 7 year-old book heavier than their iPad…so heavy in fact, that it acts like an anchor, keeping them from within reach of learning in the world they live in.

If I wanted to interact with “the world,” I had to go in search of it. The kids I teach have “the world” broadcast to them every time they pick up an electronic device (thanks for scaring the crap out of me, Nicholas Carr).  I have a few questions:

Can I make an elementary/intermediate Spanish class as relevant as the world they interact with every day?  Is that my responsibility of an educator in the 21st century?  If so, will you help me?

Am I doing a disservice to students by trying to make my classroom mimic the real world?  The real world, after all, can be a pretty depressing place.  Is there value in making the classroom an idyllic place, sterilized from the “realness” of human events?

I’ll close with two hypothetical assignments to illustrate these questions.  Which would you rather engage in?:

This one?

Your connection to Lima has been delayed, leaving you with a few hours to kill in the Mexico, D.F. airport.  Engage your partner in conversation.  Talk about where you’re from, where you’re going, how often you travel, and what you like and dislike about travel.  Remember to use expressions of formality with strangers!

or this one…

An ambitious Political & Criminal Science student, you’ve earned a grant to explore the fútbol stadium in Santiago, Chile where in the 70’s Augusto Pinochet’s regimen detained, tortured, and murdered thousands of citizens who stood in opposition to his policies of privatization, deregulation, and market manipulation. Today is your first day and you want to make a good impression.  Introduce yourself to your new colleagues, describe yourself personally and professionally, and ask them about their interests.  Remember to use expressions of formality with strangers!

No one’s immune from the effects of deep practice

I love this video. Thanks John Burk for sending it my way. In this tutorial the programming mavens at Google wish to introduce us to a new feature that will boost their cred as the world’s “data brokers.” This will increase revenue by bringing in more advertising business, which will further fund Eric Schmidt’s mission of “collecting all the world’s data and making it accessible to everyone.” Watch.

Job well done, Google. But in this video, you’ve done much more than tout your own products.  You’ve made universal the notion of deep practice.

In the video the narrator explains that, contrary to common suspicion, Google does not have a workforce of elves translating our documents from a cubicle-lined warehouse somewhere in Mountain View, CA.

Instead, Google uses a process called “statistical machine translation,” which he describes as a process in which machines “generate translations based on large amounts of text.”

Rather than learning language by applying vocabulary to a set of rules, Google’s computers analyze millions upon millions of documents that have already been translated.  They look for “statistically significant patterns.”  Once it detects a pattern, it attempts to use that pattern in the future.  When a user rejects the translation, the computer learns that this pattern is not as consistent as it once thought.  It makes adjustments, seeks for “sub-patterns” (my word), and engages in continued analysis.

Over an over again, Google’s computers are testing patterns, detecting new patterns, and finding new documents to analyze, further increasing the possible combinations of patterns. As he says, “when you have billions of documents, you have billions of patterns.”

Question: Are Google’s computers engaging in “deep practice?”

What Disney’s recent move is telling us about education

On my ride home from work today I heard this piece on NPR.  It turns out that Walt Disney Company is attempting to re-brand Mickey Mouse to the next generation–by making him the protagonist of a video game.

No news here.

Mickey Mouse and his nemesis, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit?

In “Epic Mickey,” Disney’s flagship cartoon character is sent to  “Wasteland,” the purgatory for all Disney characters that are destined for the cutting room floor–an “Island of Misfit Toys” for Disney graphic designers’ wayward whims, if you will.

In creating “Epic Mickey,” not only is Disney attempting to reintroduce Mickey to a market that long since stopped caring about him; they are taking the bold, hilarious and downright mischievous step of digging up every character, idea and design that did not “make the cut” and inserting it into the plotline of the video game.

Enter: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.  Disney aficionados apparently are aware that in the mid 20’s Walt Disney created his first character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.  A short time after creating this character, Disney lost the rights to Oswald during a contract dispute, opening the door for the accidental cartoon sensation of the 20th century…Mickey Mouse.

Fast forward 90 years…in 2007 Disney reacquired the rights to Oswald.  Subsequently, Oswald plays the part of Mickey’s foil in the new video game “Epic Mickey.”

Why do I care about this?

The question “How should we roll this out?” is, I’m sure, an intensely scrutinized question in any marketing process, whether it be a new flavor of Gatorade or a new face in Disney’s panoply of characters.

What does it tell us that Disney is using the video game industry to rebrand Mickey, resurrect Oswald, and bring to light dozens (if not hundreds) of shadowy cartoon characters?

Rebrand Mickey?  Sounds reasonable.  After all, kids today go to Disneyworld.  However, who on Earth but Disney devotees and people well into their 90’s (remember, the last time Oswald was heard from was 1928.  Anyone capable of remembering such a character had to be of at least Junior High age) has even heard of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit?  And when was the last time one of them picked up a Wii?

The first time a recording artist premiered her album on iTunes rather than with a CD release party, she unwittingly signaled the death knell for hard copy music sales.  CD’s are still walking around post-mortem, but it’s only because Luddites like myself don’t like the fact that mp3’s don’t come with jewel cases that shatter if you look at them crossly.

I engaged in active denial until now, but I resign myself to the suspicion that much like mp3’s, video games will become the one of the central vehicles for pop culture, and since education often tries to imitate pop culture, we will soon be teaching using video games.  It makes perfect sense.  They’re engaging, interactive, require investment of time and money.  Just the things marketers and educators look for in an audience.  Of course, I’m not the first person to suggest this.

One problem.

Activision presents….High School Chemistry: Black Ops?

What company in its right mind would plunk the millions of R&D dollars into educational video games.  As McGraw Hill discovered, textbooks don’t pay nearly as well as pay-to-play bond rating publications (sorry Moody’s, but you drew first blood).

However, like Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, “life finds a way.”  I think “life” will find a way to bring educational video gaming to the marketplace, and I think I know what it will look like.

Introducing the “Wiktari 2600”

No one born after 1978 will have any idea what that reference means.  No bother.  I anticipate (nay drool with anticipation for) the first simplified markup language platform in which students and teachers may collaboratively build the universe, storyboards, characters, objectives, and conclusions, all tailored to student learning goals.  Rather than becoming quasi-literate in programming code, users will use “wikitext” to create worlds in which creation is the product of learning, and vice versa.

If such a thing already exists, I’m going to be embarrassed.  Please contact me so that I can rescind this post.  Then send me the link to this wiki-game-editing device.  I want to get in on the ground floor of “Pong, Spanish Edition.”