Saturday, March 17, 2012

Discovery Education's "Beyond the Textbook" Forum, Part 2

While some schools have fancy Madagascar hissing cockroaches, we made do with an American cockroach, the huge one found in norther Jersey.

A child volunteered that she her dad had caught one at work, and wondered if she might bring it in. I loved the idea, most of the class groaned, and the next day she waltzed in with a margarine tub poked with holes.

(This says a lot about the child who was curious, about her father who saved a "pest" for his curious child, about our town where kids can freely talk of cockroaches without being ostracized, and about our school where kids believe that bringing in cockroaches is an option. Think what you will, I love Bloomfield!)

Once the class settled down a bit--a 1 1/2"  live cockroach in a classroom beats the Krebs cycle any day--a few kids started paying attention to this critter, one they knew they were supposed to hate.

Cockroaches like to groom themselves--and our particular cockroach, when trapped in a Petri dish groomed her antennae incessantly like a nervous tic.

This is what a scientist sees:
Antennal grooming behavior consists of the following sequence of events: 1) medial rotation of the head coincides with the raising and extending of the foreleg opposite (contralateral) the antenna to be groomed; 2) the flagellum in the region of annuli 15-20 is contacted by the fore tibia and adduction of the foreleg bends the flagellum to the mouth parts; 3) the foreleg returns to the substrate; 4) rapid lateral movement of the maxilla and labium on the flagellum as it moves through the mouth parts; and 5) the flagellum returns to the original, extended position, and the maxilla and labium continue to move for a short time. This sequence of five events comprises one episode of antennal grooming.

A child sees a creature "cleaning" herself, taking care of herself, getting nervous--a child sees herself in the movements of a creature she was taught to hate, and an odd thing happens.

The child becomes interested in a cockroach, a once reviled critter. She looks some more. She falls in love. She becomes an entomologist.

You cannot love (or know) the idea of things unless you love (or know) at least one thing that represents that idea. A child who loves bugs loves them because she knows something about particular bugs.

You can go through life loving abstract ideas more than living, and many of us do. (Those who chase the abstract seem happy enough, and they're are plenty of days I do the same--Go, Giants! Our economy depends on this.)

 If you want to create children interested in science, though, the abstract must emanate from the real. You need to let them play with cockroaches and magnets and balls. You need to let them fall into puddles, to fall out of trees, to scrape knees as they master something they can truly know, not mere ideas pushed on them by a culture that honors magical thinking.

And what does any of this have to do with textbooks?

Any educational tool that honors the abstract above the real helps foster magical thinking. Magicians make lousy scientists, have no need for math, and design crummy bridges.

Traditional textbooks exist to be sold. The larger the market, the less attached to the real, to the local, they must become, unless "the local" means a market as large as Texas, whose laws affect the content of science textbooks.

Pearson started as a construction company, nothing wrong with that, and now aims to take control of the education business, whatever that means. It is a publicly owned company, PSO on the New York Stock Exchange, nothing wrong with that either, as long as it's understood that their primary obligation is to earn money for its stakeholders.

Pearson's latest financial data from Google

Our school bought a wonderful set of textbook's from Pearson last year--Campbell Biology, a wonderful and hefty book that I love to read. But I already love biology.

My students (in, ironically, the abstract sense) are not reading the book. They do not care how beautiful the photos are, how accurate the words, how much money their town spent on them. They do not dive into the website set up for them, they do use the CD that comes with the book.

But I bet if it had a photo of something we did in class last week they'd all take a peek at that page.

Discovery Communications, inc., is also publicly owned, you can follow them on NASDAQ. Discovery Education holds a huge influence in our classrooms, providing free digital and media (redundant?) through the internet. Pearson, of course, does the same, but the two are coming from different angles.

Discovery Education has bought a piece of my time--I've learned more about them in the past few days than the past decade. I'm not immune to influence, and I'm a sucker for anything that allows me to hang out with folks wiser than me.

They think I might have some ideas on how to reach kids through the next-generation tool--I'd love to drop the word textbook, it's too limiting--we'll find in our classrooms.

So why am I doing this?
It looks like fun.
1) We have been assured that this is not meant to be a direct promotional bid by Discovery--anyone who's been kidnapped by time-share schemes knows the dangers of committing oneself to a confined space.

It looks like fun
2) Steve Dembo wants us to spread our ideas publicly before we even meet. Not sure his bosses are keen on this, but his emphasis on sharing ideas openly makes this more than a junket. (/me waves to the Pearson folks....)

It looks like fun
3) I'm older than most folks bleating the tech story, and age has tempered my enthusiasm. A conference like this needs an old goat, a Luddite, a keeper of tradition, if nothing else than for amusement. If I had a choice, I'd take a slate board over a SmartBoard, for several valid reasons. (To be fair, though, my typewriter's collecting dust as I write this.)

It looks like fun
4) It's free and I'm cheap.

It looks like fun
5) I love train rides. Trains are older than planes, buses, cars, and rocket ships. You could look that up.

 It looks like fun
6) At the risk of being influenced, and there's no pretending that I am not, I get to have some input into an extraordinarily important process. Last time I got to do anything like this was back in 1993 when I served on a sub-subcommittee for the Clinton Task Force on National Health Care Reform chaired by his wife. Not sure I accomplished much, if anything, but I got a nice train ride and a few free meals (see 4 and 5 above).

 It looks like fun
7) I get to grovel and apologize (and apologise) to varied folks who have tried to drag me into the 21st century. (Lessee, I already apologized to Eric, there's Alex, Dean, Tom, good Lord, Jon, David--is there anyone online I haven't tangled with?)

It looks like fun
8) I have my Principal's blessing, Chris Jennings, who just won a NASSP Breakthrough School award last week in Tampa. We're good. We want to get better. Mixing with folks from around the continent can only help.

Next up?
My dream school toolkit....

Downside? I hate missing classes. We got a lot of stuff going on in Room B362, and never enough time.
Cockroach photo from Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University, used with implicit permission.


Jeffrey Michals-Brown said...

That's a truth worth frequent revisiting: that interest may be general, but love is very specific and local. I loved the Campbell Bio book I got to use when I subbed in AP Bio. I don't know if it did anything for the kids, but it was candy to me. Wished I could have "borrowed" a copy permanently.

doyle said...

Dear Jeffrey,

If I have a theme (though I still cringe from that word after years of abuse by English teachers who told me I never got it right), it is this: you cannot love what you do not know.

If you think you're in love with some abstract idea of, say, "penguin", but fail to hear the noisy chatter of a starling just a few feet away, well, you're missing out on a lovely world.