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 Gagn̩ saying on many occasions that our task is to help people learn. The task is not to help ourselves or our careers Рas 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