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Stodgy, quickly outdated, and often inaccurate, textbooks today take on a life of their own, like some sort of Holy books that carve truth out of ambiguity.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.So far, very preliminary ideas for what looks like a bright future in education.
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..
If you were King of the Universe, what would you develop?
(OK, I know my role. You want a Luddite? You got one!)