Saturday, March 17, 2012

Discovery Education's "Beyond the Textbook" Forum, Part 3

OK, last one for now, folks. We'll resume our regularly scheduled programming.
Spring is breaking out all over and I'm missing it playing with abstract ideas.

And finally, my dream "textbook."

Science starts, and ends, with the natural world, the one we can consistently sense, the big mystery of whateverness, this ether, that we swim in.

Everything in a science class should get back to stuff and energy. If it's not grounded in the stuff of the world, it's not science.

The only stuff a child can truly know through her senses is the stuff she walks on, the stuff she breathes, the warm blush of sunshine on her face, the whiff of cherry blossoms blooming too early.

Textbooks can't do this.

Textbooks do what they're designed to do, provide a high density of information, 300 words per gram, millions of pixels per dram. They get sold, they get used, they get torn, they get tossed.

I have gotten some decent science out of some old textbooks--every year I drop an ancient, thick science book at the same time I drop a dime. And every time, the dime and the book pretty much hit the floor at the same time.

Let's forget about the physical context. Let's forget about the word "book." Let's forget about the way high schools traditionally approach science and focus on what we need.

We need a place for children to see their place in the natural world, a place where children fall in love with the critter beside them, a place that is as much theirs as it is of those imposing adult figures around them.

I am going to use North Cape May as my example--Leslie and  I spend most of our free time here, it's where we hope to live once I find a way to earn a living here, and most important, it's where our hearts sing. It's where I show children how to hold a live horseshoe crab, where I rake up quahogs that fill up my belly, where the tide rises and falls and rises again, as it has, as it will.

No book written for a national audience, or for a state audience, or perhaps even a county-wide audience can do justice to our patch of earth here perched on the Delaware Bay. Pretty much anyone who knows and loves the town they're in could say the same thing.

Every tool for science class needs to enhance a child's ability to observe and understand the patterns spinning in the figurative ether that surrounds us.

Every tool for science class needs to minimize abstraction. The abstract concepts need to build up from real interaction. A second grader can live with the Democritus view of an atom--split up something again and again until it is too small to be split again. That is a huge concept.

Make the world in the classroom synchronize with the real world of the child.

Teachers are flooded with tech toys tools--many are wonderful, but each is presented as a tool unto itself, each has a learning curve, and each will be replaced with something shinier, faster, slicker within a year or two.

Here in Cape May, like many towns, we are busy recording and observing the environment without much thought.
I can see what the sea level is down the road at this moment without taking a walk. I can see what it was a few days ago, and I can see where we expect it to be in a few days.
I can follow the weather.
I can follow the local groundwater levels, using USGS real-time data that goes back a decade. (I'm one of the few knuckleheads in town that thinks having a basement is a good idea. These charts matter to me)
I can peek at the harbor through webcams.
I can read the hyper-local news about people I know in town
I can see what fish were caught where in local waters.
I can walk down local streets on GoogleMaps.

I know about these things because I use them for things I like to do. I am sure hundreds of similar tools are available as well. It took me time to find them, to bookmark them, to develop my habit of scanning them.

I clam a lot. I need to know how much it rained during that last storm, I need to know the tides and the wind, I need to know what front is brewing. Had I no need, I'd never have found half of what I've found.

We already have something that does all this--it's called Facebook. Aside from privacy concerns (and they are not trifling), Mark Zuckerberg could corner the education market were he so inclined. (His early forays into Newark show his heart is in the right place, but he needs some better guidance.)
We don't need new sources of information--they will continue to pop up like toadstools in a spring cemetery. We need curators.

We don't to spend a whole lot of time developing the hardware--the kids already have it. They can take pics, record sounds, look up just about anything, and they have access to pretty much anything that can be reduced to binary language. We need curators.

Information is cheap. Wisdom is not.
We need curators.

So here's my grand idea for Discovery Education, or for Pearson, or Mark Zuckerberg, of for anyone else willing to try it.

Your sales force needs some work to do--textbook reps are going to go the way of telephone repair folks, who followed the milk deliverers' demise. Don't fire them just yet.

Good sales folk like people, tend to be a bit passionate about things, and enjoy traveling. They're well organized, and they can solve problems. I have a job (OK, a mission) for them.

Travel from town to town, get to know the locals, get to know their towns, get to know what tools are available--heck, even the cameras on traffic lights could prove useful. Which towns have Weather Bug stations? Which ones have the eccentric with a DaffodilCam? Which have beer league sports teams to follow?

Put together a town-wide package, get together the permissions needed to use the tools provided by the package, and serve as the town's technology curator. For free. Gratis. CHEEP!!! What mayor or superintendent or local wackadoodle could resist a chance to be part of something like that? (Think

The tools are free anyway, but few towns have the energy or the creativity or the political will to assemble everything together. Or the money. Setting this up will cost money. The traveling curator needs to be fed and watered, no?

So what's in it for Discovery Ed et al? Good will first.

Now back in Silver Springs, these traveling curators have among the best tech folks money can buy. They can put together individualized packages that sit in the cloud (or more specifically, is some warehouse of servers in Maryland). If a teacher has access to local tools that requires no new hardware nor new skills, he will use it. Even for a fee.

But even this only touches upon the possibilities.

The kids are creating their own worlds today anyway, worlds that are dangerously magical. I'm a science teacher holding out against a culture of magical thinking, teaching too many kids who took Dorothy's ruby slipper world vision to heart. 

The kids record everything anyway--have them record the natural world around them. If a child takes a photo a day of a tree along their walk to school, Discovery can make it become a living documentary, showing the tree's annual events in time-lapse photography. In ten years, Discovery has the 10 year story of a local tree.

When classes run experiments, they can record their data through Discovery Education--and their experimental data can be stored and used by future classes.

When an unusual event hits town, like Irene's unwelcome visit last August, the children can record its effects, narrate how it affects them, take charge of the story.

What makes this so compelling for science is that the heart of science relies on a matter of faith: what happens here, in this spot, at this moment, would happen anywhere else if (and it's the if that makes science science) the same conditions hold.

If  child starts paying attention to the local natural stuff--and trust me, they're paying attention to all kinds of things most adults do not see--we have a chance to get our kids fascinated by science again.

Heck, if you need any pioneer curators, consider a few science teachers.


Kelsey T said...

This is magical. So thankful you are in the classroom and our world in general.

doyle said...

Dear Kelsey,

Thanks or the warm words--now if we can just get Discovery Ed to make this a pilot program somewhere.

Bloomfield would be a good place to start! =)