Saturday, March 17, 2012

Discovery Education's "Beyond the Textbook" Forum, 1

A few quahogs destined to end up on my plate tomorrow just got a reprieve from the governor. They will have to wait a bit before they feel the cold steel tines of my rake.

I've been asked to attend a conference unlike any I've attended before--Steve Dembo has asked if I'd join Discovery Education's Beyond the Textbook Forum this Monday. I'm putting away my clam rake long enough to pack up my slate and chalk.

I can be all self-effacing or breast-beating or any number of personae I'm supposed to assume publicly, but I'm in full kid in the candy store mode. I also feel like "Mr. Irrelevant," the last man drafted in the NFL draft. At my level, any recognition at all causes a rush of oxytocin.

Our charge? Develop something beyond the textbook.

I have a confession to make--I love textbooks. I love the pictures, the words, the smell, the heft. I love the incongruous feel of dozens of writers hacked together by a team of editors.

Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I also hate them.

Stodgy, quickly outdated, and often inaccurate, textbooks today take on a life of their own, like some sort of Holy books that carve truth out of ambiguity. Their permanence, their "truthiness," trump the science they purport to teach.

Textbooks are like flies on poop--we've come to accept their presence without even thinking about why they're there.

Here are a few of my ideas so far. I am looking for help. My schtick is science. If you want a child to grasp the concept of soil, you're going to have to put up with some mud.

In the meantime, though, here are some ideas for Mr. Dembo and the Discovery folk:
1) Make them hyperlocal. 
Use the public cameras around town and link them to whatever electronic form of delivery. Use local USGS data available online to connect to the local groundwater stats. Hook up with National Buoy Data System to learn what's happening on the edge of your piece of the sea. Find local businesses already sponsoring local cams.

Develop a package of local, tangible data sets. Most of the work has already been done for you.

2) Build longitudinal data sets for local phenomena.
Every year the children stay the same--and any decent teacher loves being surrounded by the exuberance of youth. It's easy to forget we've been in this game for a few years, that our earlier students are now well into life as adults.

Maintain a database of measurements made by prior classes, something that can be used by children to see the recorded history of the natural world in their town.

(I just came in from staring at Jupiter and Venus kissing each other on a ridiculously warm March evening. How hard would it be to preserve this in a photo taken by a child?)

3) Shared units
Few folks can handle the local like the local folks--set up a mechanism for everyone to share their input.

4) Local concerns
Here in Bloomfield we sacrificed a good chunk of land to help the US develop the atomic bomb. Nagasaki has been rebuilt, our dirty brown field marking where Westinghouse once stood remains a blot on our town.

Here in Bloomfield a local public park served as the staging ground for eliminating radium from a neighboring town, an egregious act that fades into the edges of our memories.

Here in Bloomfield, a local plant was allowed to spew tons of potential carcinogens. The company has long moved, but its legacy remains. Every town has its own stories

A living electronic information  machine could go a long way into rekindling a child's interest in those things that matter.

5) Develop a multiple probe system with a USB plug
OK, I'm well out of my league now--why not develop one (or more) probes that children can use to measure various aspects of their environment.

6) The Dream Machine
Develop a proprietary machine with a camera, an audio recorder, and skin tough enough to be treated like a 14 year old's backpack. Load it with local databases. Make it something useful for a child..
So far, very preliminary ideas for what looks like a bright  future in education.

If you were King of the Universe, what would you develop?

(OK, I know my role. You want a Luddite? You got one!)


Jenny said...

Textbooks aren't a big question at first grade (I guess there are places that use them but we don't so I don't have to think about it). Reading your ideas on what to do instead made me think of the first grade equivalent. Instead of reading about the seasons, our five senses, our community, etc. we should be taking kids outside to explore those things. All of your suggestions sound like high school versions of 'get the kids outside.' Which is, of course, what one would expect from you.

The ideas are also brilliant. I would love to see my daughters in high school classes based around those ideas and tools. I would be completely engaged in helping them with their studies if that were true.

(Just as an aside, this is the post we get from you on St. Patrick's Day?)

Sue VanHattum said...

I don't know science, but I've been working at getting rid of the useless textbook in my math classes. I'm starting to tell my (college) students they must have a textbook for practice problems, but it can be any text. Old ones can be bought for $5-$10.

Of course, we don't need to come up with a whole lot instead. In math, we get to just play with ideas. There's a group for math teachers called Escape from the Textbook ( I don't know if their stuff would give you any good ideas. It sounds like you already have plenty!

doyle said...

Dear Jenny,

Thanks for the warm words--and yeah, getting the kids outside may be my overarching theme.

I'll get to the St. Paddy's stuff before the day ends, I hope. I wanted to toss out the Discovery stuff before I got there tomorrow. I tend to sound like a babbling idiot when ideas excite me, so I'm hoping that a day or two of percolating will make me coherent.

Dear Sue,

I love the idea that "we don't need to come up with a whole lot instead."

It may be enough to toss the textbooks and see what develops. I will confess, though, that I leaned on the textbook heavily my first year teaching.

Thanks for stopping by! I've missed your words.

Jeffrey Michals-Brown said...

Very intriguing. I like the hyperlocal ideas very much, though with one concern. I began in a JrHS in which kids wrote their addresses using the name of the village in place of the city we were in. When I sat in a colleague's social studies class, he brought WWII home to kids by naming familiar names and specific streets the kids knew. I could see the engagement, but I also wondered whether these kids' lives were just TOO small.

The everything probe sounds like devices that already exist. I dislike them at a visceral level: sticking a probe into lemon juice and having the pH pop up by magic on a graph pales beside tasting the sourness of the lemon juice and setting up your own axes on graph paper.

By the way, have you ever heard of a picture post? It's a simple, standardized way of taking photos of an environment to see change over time.

Susan Eckert said...

I like textbooks a whole lot. (Does that make me an uncool science teacher?) I don't like all textbooks, though, but some of my undergraduates textbooks have the most beautiful pictures and diagrams. Some authors string together words so perfectly and it makes me see things in a different way. Angels sing! But the HS textbooks are rather flat, I have to admit. I don't think that they quickly are out of date re: anything that really matters, though, so that argument about why we need to urgently move beyond them doesn't hold much water for me.

I do think it's a good idea to offer students a rich and more varied body of literature in the science classroom. As adults, if they ever read about science, it will be on the Internet and that's where all the juicy, controversial stuff is found. I did something with a SciAm article last year and it went okay, I think. If anything, it probably bolstered their non-science vocab and it was also probably above some students' reading levels.

There is nothing really wrong with book knowledge, but this topic seems to focus more on "real knowledge", the knowledge of doing, which is often absent in the science classroom. I think that's a bad, bad thing. The book knowledge and process knowledge can work in concert, though.

I do love many of your ideas. I'm especially taken with number two. Citizen science projects are perfect for classrooms from K-12 and in addition to contributing to a national dataset that REAL scientists use, you could develop longitudinal data for your school. Oh the graphs students could make! There are tons of citizen science projects for birds (Cornell has some good resources), the Bronx Botanical Garden carries out a forest phenology program that I think could easily be adapted for even urban areas. There are bees to count, invasive species to survey. The list goes on and on.

Isn't it all about just giving meaning to something? Isn't that how we learn, what we remember--the things that have meaning? So going outside and observing and collecting data of the natural world seems like a wonderful idea.

Susan Eckert said...

One more thing! (This glorious weather is doing something to my synaptic landscape.)

Photography is key in going beyond the staid textbook. Some wise teacher once told me to snap pictures of the students while they're "doing science" and it makes them giddy and excited like, uh, little school girls. There is so much you can do with photography in the classroom since many have decent cameras on their phones. You can do some macro, capture the symmetry in nature (Fibonacci sequence) do time-lapse of their plants growing, students could put together amazing multi-media presentations, integrate curriculum with the art dept and on and on.