Monday, May 23, 2016

We are all Louis Slotin

 An award--and a few months later, a fatal slip.
"At 3:20 PM on Tuesday, May 21, 1946, Louis Slotin's hand slipped-- a small, practically insignificant blunder, except that Slotin was the chief -bomb builder at Los Alamos, and at that fateful moment he held in his hands a plutonium bomb core named "Rufus".  The slip caused a chain reaction that in turn released a deadly "prompt burst" of radiation.  Slotin and others saw a blue glow and felt a momentary flux of heat on their faces.  Slotin flung the shell to the floor but it was too late. The damage was done.  In the milliseconds it took for the plutonium to spit its deadly neutrons, Louis Slotin became a walking dead man."  -Paul Mullin
Slotin was 35 when he saw that blue flash, the beginning of a long few day as he burned from the inside out.

Hubris, confidence, arrogance, laziness, cleverness, humanness.

We are all Louis Slotin, pushing edges, trusting our senses, our muscles, over the power we coalesced. It is why we are the dominant species, and also why we will not be on this planet much longer than the wink of a stegosaurus's eye.

We name plutonium bomb cores.
We worship dead humans.
We forget who we are.

You are no more (or less) gifted than the earthworm a few yards away from you, churning through the soil, eating, fucking, being.

If you teach science, technology, marksmanship, political science, or anything else that entrusts humans with power, remember Louis Slotin in your prayers, if you still pray.

The earthworm will be here long after we are gone.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Lessons on soil, lessons for the NGSS

What's new is just a reminder of what was once old. The Next Generation Science Standards is two words too long--science standards is sufficient.

Each generation of westernized humans thinks its the  pinnacle of evolution, but we're no more "advanced" than the earthworm's (almost) perfect fit with the soil under our feet. We are a dependent on good dirt as the worm, though a lot less appreciative.

E.J. Russell, a soil chemist,  wrote Lessons on Soil in 1911 based on his work with school children in Wye, England, long before any of us were born.
"The book is intended to help children to study nature; there is no attempt to substitute book study for nature study."
The heart of science starts with observing the natural world; the soul of science is our imagination, putting together what we observe into a coherent framework. Without the heart, you are working with groundless souls, and we have plenty of religions to choose from if that is your aim.
"The necessity for finding local illustrations constitutes one of the most fundamental differences between Nature Study subjects and other subjects of the school curriculum. The textbook in some may be necessary and sufficient; in Nature Study it is at most only subsidiary, serving simply as a guide to the thing that is to be studied; unless the thing itself be before the class it is no better than a guide to a cathedral would be without the cathedral...."
"No description or illustration can take the place of direct observation; the simplest thing in Nature is infinitely more wonderful than our best word pictures can ever paint it." 

Dr. Russell sounds prescient, anticipating the complaints of teachers who feel time pressure. Working with nature requires knowing the local, requires hands on activities.
"Of course, this entails a a good deal of work for the teacher, but the results are worth it. Children enjoy experimental and observation lessons in which they take an active part and are not merely passive learners. The value of such lessons in developing their latent powers and in stimulating them to seek for knowledge in the great book of Nature is a sufficient recompense to the enthusiastic teacher for the extra trouble involved."
 Little of the new pedagogy is truly new, though lots of money changes hands with every announcement of the Next Big Thing©.

The book itself has many brief, easy, thoughtful experiments requiring standard school lab-ware and a patch of ground. No computers, no videos, no worksheets, no DCI arrangements.

We are of the earth and of the air, ultimately put together by light. There's a lesson worth teaching.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Beltaine, again

“It is easy for me to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.” 
Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle

The increasing light, the returning horseshoe crabs, the bay rising, falling, and rising again, remind me what I'll forget again in a moment. If I were not mortal, the forgetting would not be sin.

But I am, and it is.

Belltaine again.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Virtual reality is child abuse

Filed under "rant."

On the windowsills in B361, plants continue to grow using little more than the collective breath of the lambs in my room and a bit of water, knit together using the energy from the afternoon sunlight streaming through.

Grown from a wheat berry by a child.

Not sure putting a seed in a clump of peat moss and vermiculite counts as maker space, but the back corner of the room is dedicated to just that. Seeds, trays, a few light banks, and a container or two of dead honeybees (for pollination) dominate one corner of the room.

Through the lives (and deaths) of their plants, children learn a bit about life, but not a whole lot about the colleges and corporations that, according to l'idée du jour, must be printed on this generation's collective mind, at least those stragglers in public schools who we feed with our myths.

And now we have this:

via Hindustan TImes
School districts are starting to use tools made by humans, for a human world, limited by human imagination, pushed by human profits. Our children can no longer see the stars, and are taught to fear strangers, fear others, fear living.

Authority figures are giving children a tool to "broaden" their experiences, yet keep them tethered to assigned desks in assigned rooms with assigned teachers herding them.

This is not education; this is institutional child abuse. It would be cheaper to let the little ones lick tabs of acid--at least the expanded "world" they experience would be their own, not the limited visions of code monkeys paid to make virtual worlds when they themselves have not yet learned how to live.

We have collectively lost our minds.....

Monday, April 11, 2016

Less than perfect

By S Zillayali, CC BY-SA 3.0 
We've forgotten how to be human--how else explain the maker space fetishism in our schools?

A 3D printer makes a blob of plastic, converting a child's imagination into something tangible, but this has always been possible if one can tolerate less than professional edges.

Folks post pictures of meals they've made on Facebook, as though feeding ourselves is some art form or Herculean feat--"Look at what I did!"

And meanwhile I am expected to "prepare" children for the 21st century, ignoring a biological being that has evolved as part of an intricate web for over 3 billion years, treating the latest turn of the century as some feat of numerology.

The story is the same has it has been for thousands upon thousands of years. We eat, we breathe, we drink, we reproduce, we love, we live, we die.

Grown by one of my lambs, classroom windowsill
We used to do this for ourselves, in the broad sense of community, for each other, with each other.
Most of us still do, despite the constant drumbeat of professionalism, of perfection, of systemic standards so that the pieces of made by me fits the pieces made by a stranger a continent away.

I'm OK with sharing my less than perfect life with my less than perfect neighbors chatting over less than perfect fence about things that have nothing to do with the perfect world we pretend matters.

I cannot imagine being a kid today....

Friday, March 25, 2016

Doubting Thomases all

The earth awakening, again

Today my school district is closed because the symbol of the dominant religion round these parts was crucified on this day.  I am a science teacher in this district, paid to teach young humans a way of thinking that unveils the terrible beauty of patterns in the natural world, so that we can alter the same natural world in beautiful and terrifying ways

Make no mistake--science is a revered discipline not for what it teaches us about our role in the universe. It is revered for the awesome power it unleashes. We have become the gods we pretended to become back when Adam ate the apple.

Madam Marie's, Asbury Park, a place for believers
(credit Leslie Doyle)

I have faith that the outside world exists external to us. I have faith in uniformitarianism, that things behave the way now that they always have, that they behave here as they do there. And that's about as far as my faith goes as a science teacher within the walls of Room B361.

During lunch yesterday I was asked if I was "religious" by a colleague who wondered aloud if any science teachers have faith. I answered yes, and that's as far as that conversation went. I grew up Catholic because I was born of Irish American parents in the mid-20th century in the eastern part of the United States. God's honest truth.

I am a man of faith, maybe too much, but not a man of belief. I maybe could use a little more of that.


The oldest Gospel Mark was written a few generations after the death of Jesus--the original version ends with the women running from the empty tomb.
"When they heard, they fled and went out from the tomb, for shock and trembling had seized them and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."

And that's it. That's it.

Nothing of the power of believers to drive out demons, to handle snakes, to speak in tongues, to drink poisons without harm, to heal with a laying of hands. None of the fun stuff that makes evangelical Christianity so powerfully attractive.

Ol' Doubting Thomas doesn't appear until the Gospel of John, written a few generations after Mark. Thomas needed to see Jesus' wounds to believe he was Jesus, and the Lord invited Thomas to thrust his fingers into the wounds, or so the story goes.

I suppose I should appreciate the story a bit more, given that it gives the stamp of approval for skepticism, allowing us to poke our fingers places we shouldn't poke them. but the skepticism only goes so far.

I have today off because a good portion of folks in this part of the world confound faith and belief.

It's been raining off and on for hours.  I will wander out to a muddy patch of earth, poke my fingers into the ground to remind me that it, too, exists, then drop a few peas into the ground, hopeful that they will grow.

Peas growing in B361

I have faith that they will, even if I do not believe it. And they do.

The heart of science is blowing up beliefs.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Gamifying ed? Just say no.

Joy and pleasure are not the same things.

By Steve Paine, used under CC
Much of what we find pleasurable--winning a round on a computer game, getting a piece of corn out of our teeth, hearing the ping of a new message on our phone--relates to surges of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that alters our behavior. It literally helps our brain send the messages that get us to move our muscles for some purpose that ultimately provides pleasure, or more dopamine release.

Sounds a bit like motivation, eh?

The brain is not stupid--if a child has no hope of success (at least from the child's point of view), there is absolutely no reason to initiate movement. Better to save the energy for something else.

I suspect the next few years we will see a rush of ed research detailing ways to maximize these dopamine rushes, much of which we already know--build on what children know, keep confidence up, make learning goals achievable.

What I worry about, though, is getting too good at this--to make children seek learning the way they build worlds in Minecraft--pushing dopamine on the brain. (It's actually the way Ritalin and Adderall work, and while we're at it, cocaine.....)

And yes, screen time in schools under certain conditions will, in fact, aid learning. But at what price?

The is plenty of evidence out there that playing more than a couple of hours of violent video games is linked to depressive signs. There is also some evidence that for some, video games may help battle depression. Both could be explained in terms of dopamine changes, and I could wile away a day seeking my own dopamine surges chasing these studies.

I used to be on the fence on gamification in education--but I have fallen off on the side of caution. Until we know the long-term effects of years of sustaining motivation through surges of dopamine prompted by screens, I think our pursuit of developing motivation in educational settings by the means of learning (as opposed to the value of what is being learned) is a dangerous game.

If that is your goal, raising pleasure-seeking children who will do anything to learn whatever it is that the state wants learned,
why not just give them cocaine?

Had a go at this with The Innovative Educator a few years ago--see comments.