Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Carl Sagan on the Magic of Books (TftD #22)

Thought for the Day:

"What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic."

-- Carl Sagan, Cosmos Episode 11: The Persistance of Memory

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Sir Ken Robinson - The Swinging Pendulum of Ed Reform

Recently, in the TAG Workplace Learning Society group on LinkedIn, there was a posting of the famous TED Talk that Sir Ken Robinson gave in mid-2006.  A question was posed about how much in the educational world had (not) changed in the 7 years that have passed, and how people generally felt about the talk, in hindsight (" you think Sir Kenneth Robinson is having an impact other than making smart people laugh?").

I recall viewing Sir Ken's TED Talk shortly after it was originally posted in mid-2006 and hurriedly passing the link on to just about everyone on my contact list.  It was a breath of fresh air and it caught my attention and imagination.  Given that it's been viewed 20.3 million times (on TED's site alone - likely several multiples higher when considering other hosts, like YouTube), I wasn't alone with the excitement I felt and hopes that it might be a tipping point of change.

As with most things, there is always a ying to one's yang, and since Robinson has become an Ed Reform poster child (man?) there have been a few critics that have emerged.  I always like to listen and consider alternative viewpoints so I don't fall into the modern trap of a confirmational echo chamber, so you may find something of interest in one/both of the following randomly selected blog entries:

I share these alternative views to promote healthy conversation and appreciation of the complexity and nuances of the issue at hand.  Educational reform is a politically, logistically, and emotionally charged topic that cannot be 'fixed' with a few tweaks and adjustments.  I still like Robinson's talk very much, but time has mellowed my thinking a bit...

Do I think the overall message Robinson has called attention to is on the mark?  Yes.  I don't think there are many defenders of the status quo in terms of today's educational practices.  Do I think the critics have some interestingly valid points? Again, yes.  But I'm not sure that's a bad thing....

I think that Robinson may be taking the same approach that the Head of my grad school program (The Institute for the Learning Sciences), Dr. Roger Schank, adopted.  That is - say some things that are a bit extreme but have enough truth in them to get people to pause and think.  It's only after you get people's attention with the exaggerated claims ("all schools should be burned down") that critical thought and consideration is evoked, which leads to what (I believe) his real goal is - serious thought about how we can do better in education.  He isn't actually seeking people to line up and agree with him lock/stock/barrel (he openly says even he doesn't agree with some of the things he's said!) - he is a catalyst who makes claims towards the extreme end of the spectrum in order to get people to engage in discussions that are more mainstream.

(You can get a feel for Schank's positions and personality via:
(1) a video intro ( to Engines for Education (, a free "hyperbook" that I help get on the Internet back in the dark ages of the Web, or
(2) his blog, Education Outrage (

I agree that change can feel frustratingly slow in these times of instant everything, but considering how long the current system has been in place and how many supporting structures have been created to prevent change, reform efforts may actually be moving at a faster rate than one might expect.  It's pretty amazing that there are currently several working examples of MOOCs (warts and all) available to the curious masses for free, when MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative was launched barely a decade ago.  Systems of higher education that were centuries in the making are now teetering on the edge of pretty dramatic change, largely because of advances in technology and the ability of the market to accelerate the pace of change with their wallets and feet.

The K-12 world is less 'market-driven' (for better or worse, depending on your viewpoint), so the pace of change lags a bit, but the options available to parents and children for alternative programs that 'foster creativity and independent thought' (as Leigh Anne Lankford said), focus on less common subjects, or allow for a competency-driven instead of age-driven path through curricula is astoundingly greater than just a few years ago.

Educational change is inevitable, but we should not/cannot rest on that undeniable truth.  Work remains.

As Sci-Fi author William Gibson said, "The future is already here - it's just not evenly distributed."