Category: 1 It Needs Something

Black Elk Speaks: Visual Storytelling

Black Elk Speaks is one of my favorite books. I am particularly fond of its opening paragraphs. When the Web was new in the 1990’s I was exploring images and storytelling. I saw these wonderful pictures on the Eastman Kodak website and married them to Black Elk’s beautiful language. The result is one of the best usings of visual storytelling slideshows that I have ever done. I hope you feel the same way, and that it gives you ideas for your visual storytelling.


The Great American Probability Machine

Great American Probability MachineThis program started my career in digital learning. I bought my first computer, an Apple II in February 1978 on their first anniversary. I talked my wife into letting me play with a computer for doing my checkbook and turning our houselights on and off. Though I was an educator who had worked with film technology, I never imagined that this machine would send my life rocketing in a new direction. That force hit the following summer at one of New England Apple Tree monthly club meetings where we came to see the wonderful new things people were dreaming up and take them home on cassette tapes. The buzz this meeting was about the latest West Coast phenomenon. Written by a guy we never heard of, Bruce Tognazzini, it was the first program to integrate text, animation (in Apple Lores graphics), and sound to tell an interactive story. It made use of the joysticks that came with the Apple II, and the first to tell a story. I fell in love. It made me see the personal computer as a tool I could use to express my vision of curriculum, and led me to start the first of my companies to express this vision.

I met Tog a few months later and we became good friends. He was by then working at Apple as an interface designer having a major impact on Apple and Mac screen designs. He continues to help companies improve user design today. Though Tog was not an educator, indeed, when he wrote the program he was the owner of a San Francisco Sony television store who bought his first Apple II about when I did as a toy to play with on his Sony Trinitron. The Probability Machine was the first program he wrote. Did this program turn him into a brilliant designer or was he already a great designer looking for a medium? I don’t know. But he was among the first to understand how to make screens both interactive, engaging, and wonderfully simple at the same time. For example, he introduced the graphic element through a story about the building of a great machine, a massive public works project in the late 19th century, to build the understanding of probability. He tells us that the small rectangle on the bottom right of the machine is a door to let people access the machine. He took a common concept seen in many museums and made it a powerful tool that could go into the hands of students. I saw his vision as education’s vision.

As I designed educational software over the years since the Probability Machine appeared, I have often thought of Tog and his amazing 1500 lines of Woz’s Integer BASIC code, saved on and loaded from cassette tapes, and edited without a printer or any of the tools coders rely on today. I think of it now as I play with our spreadsheet version of Pascal’s Triangle that enables students to tell new stories and perhaps, just perhaps, be directed by this Spreadsheet Lab in a new life direction. There is great power in this tool when we let students use it to experiment and explore. Thank you Tog.


The Challenge of New

One hundred years ago my father at age 9 entered America. He had traveled from his birthplace in a town in what is now Ukraine across the vast expanse of Siberia on the Trans-Siberian railroad to its eastern extreme at Vladivostok, from there by ship to Kyoto, Japan and then 6 weeks on a tramp steamer across the whole of the Pacific Ocean to Seattle to meet the father he had not known, who brought him and his mother to Chicago to settle in a new land. This immense voyage in space and in time must have been, disorienting, yet that is far too weak a word for the changes he had to confront. He left a town shattered by war, likely without electricity, telephones, or motor driven transport, an agrarian country where farming, as it had been done for centuries, was the main industry and where industrialization had virtually no impact. Transported into a new world by steam railroad and ship to an industrialized world with electric lights, indoor plumbing, central heating, electric streetcars, telephones, and an abundance of food; he would soon see know air travel, radio, refrigeration, skyscrapers, and of course automobiles. During his all too short lifetime of 45 more years, he would travel on a jet plane, use the modern air powered tools of dentistry to save people from the pain of tooth decay, watch television, buy a house in the suburbs, and travel comfortably throughout much of the United States.

To my lasting regret, I never thought to ask him how he navigated such profound changes, changes in technology, in community, in governance, and in economics. He was just 20 years-old when the Great Depression started. He was 33 years-old when, as a brand-new father, he went into the army. And he was 43 years-old when he left the dirty crowded big city to join the suburban green migration. I often think about the profound and yes unprecedented changes he lived through as I consider what we are going through today. Like him, I am, and actually all of us are, experiencing changes we could never have even imagined in our best science fiction, changes in the nature of work, in the technology we use and the capabilities and comforts it brings, in our political systems, our communications, our personal interactions, in who we marry and what we spend our time on. I wonder often how he felt about those last generation changes, how disorienting they were to him and to others, and how that concerned him. I wonder, as I talk with family, friends, and associates, how our disorienting profound and unprecedented changes compare to his. I wonder if the first Americans, who invaded virgin land, faced with unseen animals, unfamiliar plants, and unknown geological challenges. I wonder if we are, after all, so very different, and if as humans we are most fortunate to have the gift of a flexible mind to enable us to change, to meet the challenges of the new.

My father was by most standards an incredibly successful human being. He was happily married, had three boys who have all had their own families and made useful contributions to their communities. Despite coming here with no English and likely little formal educational experience he learned, becoming a dentist, a community leader and in his later years started a second career as a teacher building a revolutionary new program to educate dental assistants. He not only served his new country and his various communities, he played a key role in their growth and transformations. I can only hope his grandchildren and great grandchildren should be so successful.

He managed to do all of this during a time of change in every area of his life. I have, therefore, hope that in our time of amazing change, when our world, our jobs, our technologies, our communities are so profoundly transforming, we take comfort that our generation is not alone. Our forefathers too have, from time to time, succeeded in navigating such amazing periods. For, I am sure my father would agree, these times of tumult are also times of great energy, these times that look so scary are also times of promise, these times when we cannot see the future are ones we can instinctually navigate. I picture my dad riding on a wobbly rail car across the great stretches of Russia comforting his very frightened mother and believing in a better future. This was his gift to me, and it is the gift I pass on to my children, grandchildren, and all my students. It is why I am so deeply sure that technology not only shakes up our world, it gives us the power to reinvent it. It will give us the power to reimagine education and enable all our children to thrive in their new world.

Rows and Columns

This picture from a recent blog post sends shivers down my spine. It is our picture of a “modern” classroom with the desks lined up as they have been for 200 years in rows and columns, students looking at the backs of the heads of other students and the back of the head of the teacher talking and writing on the board. Principals should ban this arrangement, ban rows and columns classrooms.

How is it student centered? How does it enable students to work together on projects or problems? How can it make our modern schools interesting places where students want to be? It looks like the world of business did in the 1920’s, not today. It is a constant reminder that schools are places where you sit at attention and focus on the quietly listening, not active, not collaborating, not communicating with other students. It is a static place not a dynamic place, a place where the teacher is the focus and not the student, a place you cannot wait to leave and not do not want to go. The moment you walk into such a classroom you know you are in the past and not preparing for the future, you feel you are in a problem-making room and not a problem-solving one; a room where students are not valued and where creative thinking out-of-the-box is not encouraged.

It is a room I do not want to be in, why would I want our kids to be in either.


Personalizing Learning

The Bill & Melinda Gates (Gates) Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) have recently initiated a joint effort to envision breakthroughs in education. While their dream is laudable and no doubt exciting, their Request for Information, it seems to me, looks backward rather than forward. Fortunately, it gives us another opportunity to talk about defining a new vision for problem solving in the digital age.

The RFI focuses on personalized learning and imagines:

There are promising field-developed approaches emerging that help teachers to address individual student needs by mirroring the same personalized approaches used by the best 1:1 tutors—especially when combined with expert, well-supported teachers in an active learning environment. Highly personalized learning experiences and tools have the potential to analyze student responses to understand barriers to student learning, provide immediate feedback, and apply immediate and effective remediation to students when needed.

Though they call for “active learning environment(s)” their view of technology and personalized learning looks to me more like an automated factory than a school of the future. An intelligent machine like an intelligent tutor, “analyze(s) student responses” then provides “effective feedback” and finally applies “remediation”. This description sounds as if we are to think of the student as a passive recipient of the machine’s intelligence, the machine learns and passes this learning onto the student. It is an all too common vision of the future of education, an automated version of 19th century educational perfection, Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and the student on the other. How does it help students become 21st century problem solvers? How does it enable them to think critically and creatively? How does it cause students to be active engaged learners who work in collaboration with other students on projects and problems in which they and not their machines determine whether they have made and learned something of value? How does it give students choice, the real power of personalization?

Technology, in every other walk of our lives, enables us to do old things more easily and competently; relieves the burden of tasks we no longer need perform; and makes possible things we have not before imagined. Technology, if it is to transform education, must enable students to more easily do old things like multiplying 3-digit numbers or solving equations. It should get rid of unneeded things like all the paper-based algorithms and practice students will never find useful. And it should enable students to work with the most powerful math concepts to find patterns and solve real world problems we never dreamed they could tackle before.

Envisioning technology that reinvents our schools not automates them should, I believe, be our goal and our dream for personalizing learning.


Is the Textbook Dead?

It caught my eye, this headline/story posted on EdWeek recently. Seems there was a panel at a conference that was supposed to debate what they obviously thought would be an attention grabbing, contentious, and controversial topic. Their conclusion: NO!

All I can say is: “You have got to be kidding!”

Now, I know that textbooks continue to play a central role in most of our schools across the grade levels. I know they have done so for centuries, I collect antique math textbooks. And I know that both the textbook publishing community as well as the school community believes that paper textbooks will slowly morph into online interactive versions. Textbooks are so ubiquitous, so standardized, so traditional that most of us cannot imagine school without them. So is it any wonder the panel came to its conclusion: the textbook, designed for print on paper (text is derived from the Latin for tissue) will always be with us. And while many expect paper to morph into tablets, few imagine fundamental change in form. So, I continue to ask: “You have got to be kidding!”

In 1962 by Thomas Kuhn published a revolutionary work called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions introducing the term paradigm into our lexicon. Kuhn argued that science changes for the most part continuously “normal science”, but the history of science is punctuated (to use Stephen Jay Gould’s term) with “revolutionary science.” We need only note the Copernican Revolution, the Newtonian Revolution, Maxwell’s Field Theory, Einstein’s Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics in the world of physics. These scientific revolutions introduce new paradigms, fundamentally new ways of thinking that change the focus and direction of a scientific field.

I would argue that technology, like science, grows in the same way. Most of the time it normally grows by small incremental changes, improvements, but every once-in-a-while its history is punctuated by revolutionary changes. The iPhone was not a mere smaller version of a corded or a better cord-free phone. It was a fundamentally new experience, a transformative experience that changed the ways we communicate. The integrated circuit changed the way we work. The Web revolutionized the way we learn.

So, the textbook, as we know it, an invention enabled by cheap printing in the middle of the 19th century, provided a way for large numbers of students to “take a teacher home.” Its lack of interactivity meant it did not replace a teacher, but for perhaps half of the student population it provided an effective supplement of class time with additional practice and information. It was not so much a tool for learning as a tool for practicing what you hopefully learned in class.

Digital technology with its amazing interactivity, its dynamic communication capacity, and its opportunities for collaboration, gives students powerful tools for learning. What if… we could use digital age technology to enable students to learn on their own without the direct instruction of a live teacher? What if… the new paradigm for the student’s learning tools was not dependent on text or repetitive mind-numbing practice? What if… we placed, into every student’s hands, the interactive power of the Web to imagine all learning as a science experiment.

At What if Math, over the past several years, we have been reimagining a math education, indeed a STEM education, designed for the digital age. Over the past several months we have made substantial changes to our content and our website as we have come to understand learning in the digital age. Over the next several weeks we will be rolling out the last of these changes.

This is not a new textbook for the digital age. The textbook is dead. This is a new way for students to learn. It is the way we believe, someday in the not too distant future, all students will learn. We look forward to your thoughts.


A Book or a Course

I have long loved Maxwell’s Equations as the epitome of beauty in physics and as the source of inspiration for my teaching. But though the equations are beautiful and even familiar, very few people understand them. So, when I came across this paper by the great physicist Freeman Dyson called “<a href=”” rel=”noopener” target=”_blank”>Why is Maxwell’s Theory too hard to understand</a>?” I could not resist reading it. His telling of the Maxwell Equations’ story led me in a new direction not just in thinking not about physics but about education in the digital age. It led me to ask: “What’s the difference between a book and a course today?” and to further ask, “What will they look like in the future?” Before you help me tackle those questions, I suggest you look at the story Dyson tells about Maxwell’s great work.
<p style=”padding-left: 30px;”><span style=”font-size: 14px;”><em>In the year 1865, James Clerk Maxwell published his paper “A dynamical theory of the electromagnetic field” in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. He was then thirty-four years old. We, with the advantage of hindsight, can see clearly that Maxwell’s paper was the most important event of the nineteenth century in the history of the physical sciences. If we include the biological sciences as well as the physical sciences, Maxwell’s paper was second only to Darwin’s “Origin of Species”. But the importance of Maxwell’s work was not obvious to his contemporaries. For more than twenty years, his theory of electromagnetism was largely ignored. Physicists found it hard to understand because the equations were complicated. Mathematicians found it hard to understand because Maxwell used physical language to explain it. It was regarded as an obscure speculation without much experimental evidence to support it. The physicist Michael Pupin in his autobiography “From Immigrant to Inventor” describes how he travelled from America to Europe in 1883 in search of somebody who understood Maxwell. He set out to learn the Maxwell theory like a knight in quest of the Holy Grail.</em></span></p>
Maxwell’s Equations in the elegant form found on college student tee shirts and physics classroom posters were not the the way Maxwell wrote them down in 1865. He did not have the benefit of the power or the simplicity of vector calculus. And the idea of fields as environments was then brand new and hard to grasp. But of greater interest to me, beyond the significance and power of symbol systems which have been well known, was Dyson’s recognition that for many, maybe most new ideas, just the process of writing them down for someone to read in paper or book form is not enough. We have to be taught. We have to learn them. Dyson continues.
<p style=”padding-left: 30px;”><span style=”font-size: 14px;”><em>Pupin went first to Cambridge and enrolled as a student, hoping to learn the theory from Maxwell himself. He did not know that Maxwell had died four years earlier. After learning that Maxwell was dead, he stayed on in Cambridge and was assigned to a college tutor. But his tutor knew less about the Maxwell theory than he did, and was only interested in training him to solve mathematical tripos problems. He was amazed to discover, as he says, “how few were the physicists who had caught the meaning of the theory, even twenty years after it was stated by Maxwell in 1865”. Finally he escaped from Cambridge to Berlin and enrolled as a student with Hermann von Helmholtz. Helmholtz understood the theory and taught Pupin what he knew. Pupin returned to New York, became a professor at Columbia University, and taught the successive generations of students who subsequently spread the gospel of Maxwell all over America.</em></span></p>

I highly recommend you read the rest of Dyson’s paper, but for now, I want to consider the question it has prompted. As books have become more interactive, as textbooks become linked to fancy interactive websites, as courses become MOOCs wrested from the tyranny of a 15 week calendar the physical classroom and the format of live teacher; we now see both methods of education in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. So, today, “What is the difference?” “Are we trying to write and publish (perhaps self-publish) a book, or are we trying to teach an online course?”

For me, these questions are not philosophical; they are real. I am in the process of putting together a book/course on the future of education. Since it is about education in this new digital age, the form and format are just as important as the ideas. So I ask your help.

As we learn from the Maxwell’s Equations story, courses help people digest and learn new ideas that simply reading them in a traditional paper or book form does not. The ideas in my vision of the future of education are radical and no doubt in need of something that looks more like a course, but certainly not a 20th century course and even less like a 19th century book. “So what does it look like, I wonder?” “What does the merger of books and courses make?”