Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Making America Great Again

I have been thinking a lot about this topic for almost a year already, and I remain about as confused as I was when I first started thinking about it. My habit when trying to understand a puzzling statement or remark is to first look at the form of the statement. The original statement was in the form of an imperative: “Make America great again.” An imperative implies that there is something that one can do and probably should do or not do, as the case may be. Common examples include (a) “Say something nice to her”, or (d) Don’t touch the stove – it’s hot.” Imperatives are common and often easily understood. They often bring about a desired outcome. With regard to the subject imperative, I am wondering what I should do and what the desired outcome would be – and also how the extent to which the desired outcome is achieved should be determined. I believe that at one point, the subject imperative could be interpreted as simply “Vote for me,” in which case I did not comply (the second time I have voted for the person who got the most votes but was not elected). I supposed at that time, the desired outcome was being elected, which did happen. However, if the desired outcome was gaining the most votes, then the outcome was not achieved.

In any case, the subject imperative can no longer be interpreted so simply as a request to vote in a particular way. Perhaps that was not the original intent. I am not good at reading minds, especially those that are filled with inconsistencies and invectives. Hush my mouth … or smash my fingers, as I am only using a keyboard at present. Still, I wonder about the form of the imperative since it implies there is something I can or should do in response to some situation. It just is not at all clear to me what I can or should be doing, other than writing this note to try and figure that out.

Then I focus on the word added at the end of the subject imperative – namely ‘again’. That might give me some direction in resolving my wonder. When was America great? During or after the revolutionary war? During or after the civil war? World War I? World War II? Oops. Perhaps the history of things should not be couched in terms of wars, although wars seem to permeate the history of nearly every country or region of the world. When was America great? Perhaps during the industrial revolution in the 1800s and early 1900s when so many inventions changed society and resulted in one of the wealthiest nations in the world. See the Smithsonian Institution Museum of American History for more on that interpretation - http://americanhistory.si.edu/. Other events might also be cited, such as landing on the moon (see https://www.nasa.gov/content/nasas-45th-anniversary-celebration-of-the-apollo-11-moon-landing) or the Marshall Plan after WW II (see http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/marshall-plan) or the civil rights act of 1964 (see https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/civil-rights-act) or other such things that the reader can add to a list of events and periods and activities in American history about which one might take pride. I suggest focusing on small and local events as well as larger ones to keep a dialogue on this subject active and meaningful.

Well, I took a side trip down history lane … my brother, the historian, would be proud, perhaps. Now I turn to memory lane. When do I, in my own life of 72 years, believe that America was great? Challenging oneself is another habit I developed late in life after having made too many arrogant missteps. Being older than dirt with a poor memory has left me with just a few things I can cite. One was attending the swearing-in ceremony of an ex-wife upon her becoming a naturalized American citizen. That was a moving occasion with so many people from so many places becoming American citizens. That was an inspiring ceremony and made me feel proud to be an American welcoming so many others to this country. I recall the words of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” The more than 100 people welcomed as US citizens that day in Atlanta were not tired or poor … they were hard working people who wanted to enjoy life and contribute in their own ways to American society. I listened to their conversations with their families while there – perhaps that was the time I felt most proud to be an American.

One other instance of when I thought America was great involved a letter I received from Albert Gore Senior when he was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in reply to one that I wrote to him indicating my negative feelings about the Vietnam conflict and American leadership in the world in general. He replied that I should be patient and not judge the country by one issue or incident and that there were and will continue to be many things about America in which I could take pride. That voice of optimism was also inspiring to me and perhaps gave me the strength to work for the Department of Defense in later years after what I regarded as a disastrous experience as an intelligence officer in earlier years.

Yes, there have been times when I thought America was great. I am guessing that most Americans can cite such times, and probably many non-Americans can as well, with the exception of folks such as the leaders of Iran, North Korea, the Philippines, Russia or Turkey, among others. There have been good times in America and there have been bad times. One could probably say that about any country. We ought not overlook some of the truly bad things that have happened, and we should perhaps believe that many good things will happen in the future. Undoubtedly some bad things will also continue to happen. That seems all too deeply embedded in human nature and the history of civilizations.

So, what can or should I do to help bring about those good things? In my professional life as an educational technology researcher I might contribute to the development of tools, technologies and techniques to help adolescents develop habits of inquiry and critical reasoning that will serve them well as adults. In my personal life, I hope to offer my family and friends support and comfort as they strive to live fulfilled lives. As a responsible citizen, there may be little I can do to effect positive change although there is much I would like to see happen. For example, in a democracy, there should be at least one national election in which the basic principle of one-person/one-vote is implemented, and that should be the election of the national leader. I do believe in democracy but worry that we are drifting away from basic democratic principles found in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” While I have some concerns about the use of ‘men’ and ‘creator’ (I think the statement applies to all persons regardless of any religious belief or orientation), I do not think it applies only to members of a political party  or racial group or nationality. It says ‘all’ – not limited to those with whom one agrees or whom one likes. ‘All’ is inclusive, as it should be. The spirit of America is not about favoring a few or accumulating wealth or putting one’s personal beliefs above all else. The spirit of America is not about bullying others or taking whatever advantages one can for one’s own benefit.

What I feel that I can and should do is promote a spirit of belonging to a society that embraces diversity, that respects and values differences, that is open and fair to all. My father once said that our responsibility is to bring out the best in others. That is what I can and should be doing. I would hope that people who occupy high offices in this country and in others mentioned in this note would make that a top priority as well.

A note for Prof. Gu's doctoral students

I was asked to post this note to Prof. Gu's doctoral students:

Prof. Gu,

I felt like I did not do a very good job last night with your class. Perhaps these remarks may help (you can share if you think so):

This is an account of how research develops and may undergo maturation along the way. About 10 years ago, I was working on a project in Indonesia called Distributed Basic Education that was funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The effort was motivated by a law passed in 2005 that required all Indonesian school teachers to have a four-year baccalaureate degree by 2015. At that time, only about 10% of teachers had a baccalaureate and were certified teachers. The law meant that millions of teachers would need to have the degree in just a few short years. It was a very ambitious project – not a research project but perhaps a development project of the 6.3 (demonstration) or 6.4 (large-scale implementation)  kind mentioned in class. I was working with the open university of Indonesia – Universitas Terbuka (UT) – as that was the only place that had the potential capacity to support large numbers of students required for success. The enrollment at UT went from 350,000 to 650,000 in the first year of our effort. I was responsible for developing methods, procedures, examples, and standards for offering online courses and online support, about which I had some experience. Unfortunately, the Internet failed to gain widespread use in the five years I worked on the project so many of my efforts were not realized in practice.

Meanwhile, I made many friends at UT and around Indonesia and was asked to help them develop guidance for teachers working in rural, multi-grade schools – something about which I knew almost nothing. Still, I was willing to help and suggested starting with a visit to a representative rural, multi-grade school – starting with an observation and descriptive work to gain insights. Such a visit was arranged to a multigrade elementary school in the mountainous region of Bogor. We left Jakarta in a couple of vans at 5:00 am – two American researchers and four Indonesian teachers and an adminisrator from UT. We drove for 2 hours until reaching an unpaved and barely navigable road and then drove for a half hour to a village, where we disembarked. We then walked for 2 miles to a second village where the three-room school was located. There was electricity (wired outside buildings) but no Internet at all. The headmaster greeted us and served us tea and three different kinds of bananas. He described the school, students and teachers with one of our UT colleagues serving as a translator. He also asked us about the bananas which were grown locally. I could not distinguish much difference, but then he told us how very different they were and how each one was best used in food preparation.

We then split ourselves into three groups – two for each of the three classrooms. I was with an Indonesian UT colleague observing the 5th 6th grade classroom. There were about 50 students in the room – about 25 in each grade split into two sides of the room, with 3 students per desk that had one note pad, one pencil and one straight edge. The instructor used a blackboard for notes; when addressing the 6th graders he faced that side of the room while the 5th graders worked on a pre-assigned problem. The 6th grade students were studying science – biology and more specifically plants – that day. The 5th grade students were studying math – more specifically geometry that day.

I understood almost nothing of what he said to the 6th graders. When he turned and spoke to the 5th graders, things became slightly more understandable as he worked example geometry problems on the blackboard which I could easily follow. Meanwhile, the 6th graders were working quietly on their pre-assigned problems. The 5th grade students were learning how to determine the perimeter of a polygon formed by adding a right triangle to a rectangle. Solving the problem required knowing the Pythagorean theorem – the square of the hypoteneuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides. This is not taught in the USA until the 8th grade so I was a little surprised and somewhat doubtful that those students could solve such problems. After working several examples, the instructor turned and said something to the 6th graders who got up and went outside. Then the 5th graders started working on problems to determine the perimeter of a problem presented on the blackboard. I went behind each group of 3 5th grade students and saw them working in collaboration and with success solving the problem – much to my amazement.

When I was satisfied that the 5th graders had mastered the task, I became curious about the 6th graders. My Indonesian colleague explained to me that their task was to find plants outside that could regenerate by grafting. I went outside to observe what they were doing. They were working in small groups (3 or 4 to a group) with one knife, finding and grafting plants. They were unsupervised. They were sharing and collaborating and not fighting over the knife. Again I was amazed. This would never be allowed in the USA.

At the end of the school day (around 3:00 pm or so), many of the parents came up from the fields and joined us in the school yard along with the students and teachers. They asked us what we would recommend by way of improving the school and the teaching. We had nothing to offer  other than praise for how well they were doing with so few resources. We then asked them about their goals for the school. The parents said they wanted their kids to go on to middle and high school – that meant a long bus ride to the city of Bogor and not coming home except on holidays. I then asked how many go to further education now – about 10% was the answer. How many of those 10% return to the village – almost none was the response. What was their goal, I then asked. I was told by several that they wanted at least 75% to continue their education. I was surprised as that seemed ambitious but not unrealistic. I asked what would happen to the three villages served by the school if they achieved their goal. The parents simply shrugged in response – I pressed again asking if the villages would survive if so many left and did not return. The answer was  a repetition of their desire to have their kids receive a good and comprehensive education.

After we left and returned to Jakarta, we talked at length about our experience. We decided to find out if it was an anomaly. We visited two more multi-grade schools not so far away for shorter visits (extending the descriptive and observational nature of that early research). We found similar situations and then decided to recruit an American doctoral student to do her dissertation studying a dozen rural, multi-grade elementary schools around Indonesia. This was a kind of multi-case qualitative study aimed at determining attitudes, quality of instruction, student learning outcomes, and related matters. Along the way, it was learned that some multi-grade schools were being discontinued but not all as many were in quite remote and undeveloped areas of Indonesia. The research then took on a more interventionist nature (in our recommendations) – how to train and support multi-grade teachers. The project ended so we were not able to follow the effort as it matured, although the student's dissertation was successfully defended.

The point of this story is that research undergoes maturation and having or being associated with a research stream can be rewarding and may even yield positive outcomes and have an impact.

I remember Bob Gagné saying on many occasions that our task is to help people learn. The task is not to help ourselves or our careers – as educational technologists, the goal is to make effective use of technologies and techniques to improve learning and instruction.

That is my story of the day. which I should have used with the class.



J. Michael Spector, PhD
Prof. of Learning Technologies, College of Information
University of North Texas
3940 N. Elm Street, G182, Denton, TX 76207

Thursday, September 14, 2017

An Organic Learning System

I am at the Smart Learning Institute at Beijing Normal University and visited NetDragon in Fuzhou while here. In various discussions, I have arrived at the thought that learning systems of the future might become organic as opposed to merely being adaptive to different learners. An organic learning system would have two important characteristics, both of which involve a developmental aspect.
First, an organic learning system would have the ability to learn. This could occur through a process of examining large sets of data about learners or subject matter and noticing patterns among the data; when a pattern is identified, it could become a new rule in a relevant database and used to guide and support subsequent learners and learning activities. An organic learning system might then be said to mature and grow more intelligent over time and with experience.

Second, an organic learning system would view learners as developing individuals. What the system knows about learner X1 at time T1 might not apply to that learner at a later time. The learner might have developed new interests or changed majors and become engaged in different outside activities, all of which could be used to customize learning activities for that learner. An organic learning system, then, recognizes that the primary users of the system are organisms that change over time. In recognition of that fact, an organic learning system would support learner choice and control with regard to what to learn, when, in what order to proceed, at what pace, and with which learning activities.

Well, it’s just a thought … I must add that I was totally impressed by how Dejian Liu has created and organized an amazing work environment at NetDragon (see, for example, http://netdragon.com/about/picture1.shtml). 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Thinking Beyond Oneself

Thinking Beyond Oneself – Additional Thoughts

For a number of reasons, I have been thinking more about the notion that it is important to think beyond oneself. It is important not only for the sake of creativity and critical thinking. It is important for the sake of developing a humanistic (other-oriented) perspective to guide what one does.
When I reflect on my personal life and think about things I regret doing, what comes to mind are instances when my actions and decisions were guided by thinking about myself first. To avoid self-abasement, I shall not offer examples as nearly all of them involve my children. Had I been a better parent, I would have been putting my children first and foremost all of the time.

When I reflect on my professional life and think about things I regret doing, what comes to mind are instances when I was thinking about my own welfare and values rather than those of others. Again, there are many examples but those cases would be less flattering than I care to reveal in a public blog. I imagine that every person could find both personal and professional cases of thinking primarily about oneself first and not trying to think beyond oneself. I also imagine that many of those cases might have resulted in things that person regrets.

On the other hand, when I think about a very few cases when I made an overt effort to think beyond myself, I find things in which I take some pride. For example, I think about a comprehensive school reform quality initiative project that I led with poorly performing rural K-8 schools in the southeast. Normally, a project has a beginning and an ending, and that was the case with the U.S. Department of Education project. However, a typical educational project also involves service and support. The problem with so many educational projects is that the service and support ends with the project. This did not happen with one of the 8 schools involved in that effort. After the project ended, I managed to invite a school representative to participate in a smart education conference in Beijing, China. A year or so later, I gave the school a 3D printer knowing that the innovative teachers there and the very supportive principal would make good use of it. I am about to donate another technology involving geography education some 6 years or so after the end of that project.

Another example that comes to mind is the USAID Distributed Basic Education project in Indonesia in which I participated for 5 years. That project ended about 7 or 8 years ago. I have maintained contact with a number of Indonesian educators ever since. I helped initiate the AECT Asia summer research meetings based on the interest of Indonesians and participated in the Educational Technology World Conference in Bali in 2016 co-sponsored by Indonesians and AECT.

Those two examples are cases in which I managed to think beyond myself and think about service to and support of others over and above my own personal interests as an academic interested in publications or as a principal investigator or co-investigator interested in funding. Things that may begin as projects often involve service to and support of others. It is important to remember that fact and make an attempt to ensure ongoing service and support.

I often say that it is not about the technology  - it is about the learning. Likewise, it is not about the publications and funding – it is about service to and support of others. Or, as Bob Gagné said on many occasions, our job is to help others. Or, as my father demonstrated on so many occasions, the task is to listen, reflect, encourage, guide and not turn away. Or, as Rabbi Hillel said, “if not now … when?” (see https://www.voices-visions.org/content/poster/collection-poster-rabbi-hillel-pirke-avot-114-daniel-bennett-schwartz).

First Thoughts
I have recently noticed a tendency of many, including my students, to respond to complex situations and issues based on their own rather narrow personal experience. This seems completely natural as we come to have beliefs, habits, and predispositions based on our experience. However, the nature of many complex situations and issues exceed things we have personally experienced yet many still base their beliefs about those situations and issues on personal experience that is somewhat removed from the problem or situation being judged.

For example, with regard to online learning, someone who has taken an online learning course might have experienced feeling that the instructor was distant and perhaps aloof and not very involved in their progress. Is that sufficient reason to conclude that many or most online courses have instructors who appear distant, aloof and uninvolved to their students? Perhaps not.

I have on occasion argued that the primary job of being a teacher is to get students to have questions, which involves (a) admitting that one does not know, (b) committing time and effort in searching for a suitable resolution, (c) being open to alternative explanations, (d) being willing to question one’s own assumptions, and (e) perhaps revisiting the problem and explanation more than once.

I am now thinking that such an inquiry process is basically learning to think beyond oneself – beyond one’s personal and direct experience. I recall in high school when I was on the debate team that part of the preparation was to argue both sides of an issue. That seemed reasonable at the time. I remember learning in a college literature course that there was a dramatic turn toward the self and writing in the first person several hundred years ago, and that turn to the self impacted how stories were told and what was told. At the time, I related that to Descartes’s cogito ergo sum or je pense, donc je suis – I think, therefore I am (or I exist). We are after all thinking beings. Is it not remarkable that consciousness and self-consciousness exist at all?

However, over-reliance on one’s beliefs and prior experience can lead one to make many errors of judgment. I have made my fair share, and now when I consider the ones that come to mind first, I notice that my errors were due to an overconfidence in my own beliefs. I had a wrong-headed confidence in the absolute truth of what I believed to be true, and many of those so-called truths turned out not to be true.

Rather than further embarrass myself with true confessions, I only wanted to point out that I have often believed more than I could possibly have known. At an advanced age, I am just learning to think beyond myself.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Love and Hate

Like many others, I am very disturbed by the divisiveness that now pervades American politics and characterizes America for many around the world. Sharp divisions also exist in academia where many artificial barriers have evolved that prevent academics from collaborating and learning from each other; even worse, these barriers result in superficial thinking about those not in one’s particular academic clique. Peter Goodyear has written about such barriers calling those barriers false dichotomies. 

I have wondered why they exist and persist in spite of evidence that suggests such arbitrary divisions are misleading or unjustified. My current thinking is that people have a natural tendency to simplify. There is probably some survival value in simplifying (as in, “Was that sound I heard in the bushes a bear or just the wind?” followed by a hasty retreat away from the bushes … just in case). Simplifying is a natural tendency because simplifying is linked to the notion of mental models and creating internal representations in order to understand new or unusual phenomena (such a noise coming from the bushes). A model – mental or otherwise – is necessarily a simplification of that which is modeled. A model – mental or otherwise – is not an exact replica. From the perspective of instruction, a model can help the person viewing the model focus on that which is most relevant to a particular task. From a learning perspective, a model also can be used to help a learner focus and interact with that which is most relevant to a learning task. As I have often said, Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that we “picture facts to ourselves” (others call these mental models; see http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5740?msg=welcome_stranger). While Wittgenstein argued for a correspondence theory of truth in that book (aligning statements with observable facts), he failed to note that we also picture things that are not acts to ourselves. This latter tendency seems to be increasing and becoming more pervasive. 

A description of something is a kind of text-based model and is clearly not the same as that which is described. Wittgenstein’s later work (e.g., Philosophical Investigations) went beyond the strict confines of the Tractatus in part because he realized that people have another remarkable ability. In addition to being naturally able to create internal representations of things experienced, people have a natural tendency to talk about some of those internal representations. We engage in what Wittgenstein called language games (see https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/wittgenstein/). Language games are rule-based and proceed based on the assumptions that those involved know and generally follow the rules and conventions associated with the language in that context, which is why Wittgenstein argued that it is the use of language in a context that provides the meaning. Then meaningful discourse can extend beyond the more narrow scientific structure presented in the Tractatus. The following remarks about love and hate fall into that extended territory opened up in Philosophical Investigations.

One of my philosophy professors at UT-Austin became an advisor and later a friend and colleague. We had  many discussions about all kinds of things ranging from Bob Dylan to lacrosse to religion. He was Presbyterian and knew I was Jewish. He knew my father was a Rabbi and often inquired about my religious views. On one occasion, he characterized the fundamental difference between Christians and Jews in the form of a single commandment. For Christians, the fundamental commandment was “thou shalt love” – no restrictions – everyone, at all times. He went on to argue that for Jews, the fundamental commandments was “thou shalt obey” – based on his having read that there were some 613 commandments in the Torah, which basically say that one should do that which God had prescribed in those 613 mitzvot (which refers to actions decreed by God but is used more commonly to simply refer to good deeds). 

While I recall the professor making that distinction, I do not recall all of the details of the subsequent discussion. I did take exception as I thought it was a misleading simplification for several reasons. First, I do not know anyone who loves all others at all times. I only learned what the emotion of hate was until years after that conversation, but I did know at the time that there were people whom I did not love and that there had been people whom I could not imagine loving. I also pointed out that one of those 613 commandments was essentially what Christians call the Golden Rule – it can be found in Leviticus (Vah-yik-rah)  19:18 – “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Rabbi Hillel’s version of that passage and related passages in Leviticus is simple – that which is hateful to you, do not do to others.
Then there is a question if a single statement or commandment can characterize an entire religious perspective. I learned both the power and the limitations of such a simplification. My professor said and believed that anyone who was not acting on any occasion or in any circumstance on the basis of love was not being Christian. He admitted that it was a goal (loving everyone at all times in any circumstance) that no human could attain while arguing that it was a worthwhile goal. I am not sure but I believe I argued that understanding what that meant required many examples and elaboration of cases, which is perhaps why there are 613 mitzvot. 

So much for George Miller’s 7 +/- 2 rule about the limits of short term memory. Even the basic 10 commandments exceed the memory capacity of most persons according to Miller’s memory research. Can you recall all 10? 

I recall one because the differences in translation are fascinating. It is the sixth commandment (Low Tirzach) – which in ancient Hebrew meant not to murder rather than not to kill, according to the modern English translation of that commandment. I used that distinction as my final rebuttal to my professor’s claim that loving vs. obeying was what differentiated Christians and Jews. I argued that for Christians, the challenge was never to kill anyone or anything at any time in any circumstance. However, for Jews the challenge was never to murder another person. He seemed to accept that differentiation, which is still an oversimplification. 

What brought back that conversation from more than 40 years ago was the divisiveness that is so deep and so persistent in America and other places. I recently had to admit to my kids – who are all adults now with graduate degrees – that I think things are more deeply divided now than they were when I, as an intelligence officer during the Vietnam conflict, refused to carry a gun when sent to an air base in Thailand. I recall battling bumper stickers from those days saying such things as “America: Love it or Leave” or “America: Change it or Lose it.” 

When one is overcome with hate, one loses oneself. My father taught me that. When a country is overcome with divisiveness, it loses itself. That is my worry in these troubling times.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Optimism vs. Realism with regard to Educational Technologies

It is fine to be optimistic about the potential to use technology to improve learning and instruction. I am optimistic – otherwise I would not be in this profession. However, I do maintain that there is very little evidence of large-scale (e.g., nationwide) sustained improvement in learning and instruction due to the various uses of technologies in recent and not so recent years in the USA. I have found two funded educational projects that managed to have large-scale and sustained impact over the years (perhaps there are others): Sesame Street (see http://www.sesamestreet.org/) and Headstart (see https://www.acf.hhs.gov/ohs/about/history-of-head-start). 

I argued years ago in a paper that the success of an educational technology project should be based on whether or not there were subsequent projects building on the findings of earlier works. In that sense, Jasper Woodbury (see https://jasper.vueinnovations.com/) was somewhat successful as it eventually led to such efforts as Marcia Linn’s WISE (see https://wise.berkeley.edu/). One could argue likewise for some success of Seymour Papert’s Logo (see http://el.media.mit.edu/logo-foundation/what_is_logo/history.html) which eventually led to Scratch and Co-Lab (see https://www.media.mit.edu/people/mres/projects/). However, none of those efforts resulted in large-scale, sustained adoption in American classrooms although they demonstrated positive outcomes, as have other works. 

The point I have been making in recent years concerns a failure to connect theory and research with practice, policy and the management of educational systems – that is the purpose of the major online reference work entitled “Learning, Design and Technology: An International Compendium of Theory, Research, Practice and Policy” (see http://link.springer.com/referencework/10.1007%2F978-3-319-17727-4). I am not optimistic that my efforts with that work will have the intended impact.

I stand by my comments to the Beijing National Day School (BNDS) visitors and think it is time for those in our profession to stop over-promising and to realize the challenges in turning good research into practice that lives well beyond specific studies and experiments. My guiding mantras are these:

  • It is not about the technology – it is about the learning.
  • It is not about the technology – it is about the use of the technology.
  • It is not what one says that matters – what matters is what one does (Gagné said that our job is to help people learn – he said that to researchers at AERA who were asking about publishing their research results).
  • What matters is the will of a society to value and support education – this is what I regard as the most fundamental challenge in the USA.

 There are no doubt successful research projects in the sense that they demonstrate some of their intended outcomes. What I have not seen are the translation of those outcomes into sustained practice on a large scale in this country. I do believe the UVA-Smithsonian STEAM effort (see https://news.virginia.edu/content/smithsonian-curry-give-students-chance-reinvent-famous-creations) will have a positive impact. It is not clear that school districts will change curricula or invest in innovation in the way that those at BNDS have been doing since 1952.

And then I think about my experience in Indonesia with multi-grade rural schools – it led to a dissertation studying 12 such schools. I visited a rural school in the Bogor District that took two hours by car to reach a village and then walking for two miles to reach the school that served three somewhat remote mountain villages. It was a three-room schoolhouse, no computers, electricity wired outside buildings, one blackboard and chalk in each room – one room for 1st and 2nd grade, one for 3rd and 4th grade, and one for 5th and 6th grade students. There were about 50 kids in each of those rooms, three to a desk sharing one pencil, one pad of paper and a straight edge. I observed the 5th and 6th grade classroom. The teacher only had a two year degree but was also going full-time to get his baccalaureate as had been mandated by an Indonesian law. He was amazing. The 5th grade students were studying math – geometry. The 6th grade students were studying science – botany. When he looked at the left side of the room (5th graders), the others worked quietly on a problem. When he shifted to look at the other side, the 5th graders worked quietly. After an hour or so, the 6th graders all got up and left the classroom. He then showed the 5th grade students how to calculate the perimeter of a polygon, constructed with a right triangle on top of a rectangle. To solve the problem, they had to  know the Pythagorean theorem – 5th grade students in a rural, multi-grade school in Indonesia. I was riveted. After working two examples on the board, the teacher set them to working a problem on their own in the groups of three to a table. I watched each group work together to solve the problem -  no fighting over the one pencil or straight edge and they understood the Pythagorean theorem and used it to correctly solve the problem.

Then I began to wonder what happened to the 6th grade students. My Indonesian colleague told me that they had been sent outside to find plants that could reproduce without seeding – e.g., by plant cloning. I went outside to observe. What I saw were small groups of students (3 to 5), sharing one knife finding plants and cloning them – all without adult supervision. I was again amazed. 

At the end of the day, the parents came up from the fields to greet us and exchange ideas. They wanted to know how to improve the school and the teaching – we had  nothing to offer. Nothing. We then asked them what their goals were. Through a translator, we were told they wanted their kids to get a high school education – that meant the kids would have to leave the village and spend the week or year in Bogor (two hours away by bus). How many now go on to high school? we asked. About 10%. What happens to them? They find jobs in the city. What is your goal for these kids? For 75% to go on to high school. What happens to the village if they do not return? We only got shrugs in reply. They valued the education of their kids more than the survival of their villages. Given that amazing experience, we wanted to see if it held up in other situations, so we had an FSU doctoral student visit and study 12 other schools (I visited several of them with her and saw the same kind of commitment to education in other rural multi-grade schools in Indonesia). 

The challenges education faces in Indonesia are arguably more formidable than those we face in the USA, but I am inclined to believe the will of the people to educate their children will play a greater role than almost anything else – technology or otherwise. That is why I am optimistic. And realistic at the same time.