Saturday, March 18, 2017

A story to learn

It was a 1980’s political strategist working for George H.W. Bush that coined the phrase... perception is reality. While Lee Atwater gave this concept packaging in helping to elect the 41st President of the United States, politicians throughout history have utilized its premise to seek advantage. In Ron Chernow’s masterful biography, Washington: A Life, the first President’s instinctive application of this political maxim shines forth.

From his military strategy of diversion and improvisation during the Revolutionary War… or his resignations from power only to be drawn back to it by duty and ambition… to his habit of mounting a white steed to project strength and majesty before entering a town on official business… or his publicly regal lifestyle hiding struggles with cash flow and debt, Washington was a master of messaging. He also thought a great deal about posterity. Compelled by love of country, if not an eye toward reverence, he was meticulous in recording his life and managing his papers. And when it came time to exit the stage, he wanted to leave a lasting impression.

In his new book, Washington’s Farewell: The Founding Father’s Warning to Future Generations, John Avlon adds dimension to the impressions left by the first President through his farewell message and makes the case that Washington still has much to offer to America’s political discourse.

A highly accessible, fast-paced narrative, Washington’s Farewell was an excellent chaser to Chernow’s expansive examination of the President’s life. In unpacking Washington’s 6,000 word treatise on American citizenship, Avlon walks the President’s final message backwards from his time in office, then forward through the 19th and 20th centuries, showing how Washington’s experiences formed his perspectives on self-government and how the farewell has lived on long after its author.

Avlon’s readers also discover that the farewell message should not be disaggregated to support narrow propositions, as has often been the case since its publication. Its various components are not built upon mutually exclusive ideas but derive value through interdependence. It should be interpreted holistically to glean the guiding principles upon which the original work was based.

In calling for a reconsideration of Washington’s farewell, Avlon is arguing for a need to “reflect on first principles” rather than a return to political or social norms of the day. The first President’s final words on the American experiment, he suggests, can still serve as a broad model for discourse and direction. But you have to take its full measure to minimize the gap between perception and reality and apply its wisdom to the current challenges facing the republic.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Cardio for the mind

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions but a finding published in Social Science & Medicine may change my thinking on this tradition for 2017. And it won’t be a new gym membership. Yale University researchers found that reading books prolongs life. This is good news. While I like running and exercise, I love to read!

The findings are less about the act of reading and more about type of reading. Book reading as opposed to more general reading facilitated a “survival advantage” the researchers attributed to enhanced cognitive engagement.

The researchers analyzed the reading habits of 3,635 people aged 50 and older and observed a 20 percent reduction in mortality for those who read books compared to those who did not. They believe the effect was created by the cognitive engagement that comes with the “slow, immersive” process of book reading. Cognitive engagement involves a commitment to exert the effort necessary to comprehend complex ideas. That process leads to a stronger mind, a not-so-trivial component of health and well-being. It also perhaps leads to enhanced emotional intelligence which may contribute to survival.

Importantly, the findings were true despite the participants' level of education, gender, health status, and baseline cognition. Also, the amount of time reading wasn’t a determining factor. Participants spent nearly twice the time reading periodicals as books. The researchers found that “any level of book reading gave a significantly stronger survival advantage than reading periodicals.”

So if you’re thinking about resolutions for the New Year, consider immersing yourself in a good book. You might even think of it as cardio for the mind!

Below are the top cognitively engaging books I read in 2016:

Bloodland: A Family Story of Oil, Greed and Murder on the Osage Reservation | by Dennis McAuliffe, Jr. 
Good books can make you think and re-think. McAuliffe succeeds at this with a sad, yet honest personal story that shows how legacy matters; that choices made long ago have long-term implications. Bloodland tells the story of the Osage Nation and the “Reign of Terror” perpetrated against tribal members in the 1920s. McAuliffe investigates the death of his Osage grandmother, learning and sharing more about himself in the process than I suspect he imagined when he started. It was the personal connection to my own life (the Osages in my family) and a gripping, suspenseful narrative that made this book so engaging. The book also provided some valuable historical and present day context for our visit to the Osage Nation in Oklahoma this fall.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon | by David Grann
So I knew the Amazon was an exotic place. What I didn't know when I started reading The Lost City of Z was that David Grann would manage to bring the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of the Amazon into my living room. The Lost City of Z is the story of Percy Fawcett, one of the World’s great explorers whose dangerous and difficult work brought light to the great shadows of the Amazon. Fawcett’s engagement was his theory of an ancient and advanced civilization lost to the ages somewhere in this great South American jungle. Grann’s deep research and descriptive style combined to make this an accessible, thrilling read. Upcoming in 2017, I am looking forward to Grann’s coverage of the Osage Reign of Terror in his soon to be published Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis | by J.D. Vance
Reading can cause reflection and enhance awareness. Hillbilly Elegy does both for its readers. Vance shines the light on his own life and the issues of poverty, opportunity, and responsibility in Appalachian America. Vance relives a difficult childhood and engages the reader by generating more questions than answers, nudging others to examine the uncomfortable issues affecting a large percentage of Americans and consider solutions to some difficult problems.

The Greatest: My Own Story | by Richard Durham, Muhammad Ali
The news of Muhammad Ali’s passing motivated me to learn a little bit more about one of the most celebrated and controversial athletes of all time. I am not old enough to recall Ali’s work in the ring. My earliest memory of him is a 1980s commercial for bug spray. But for me, as a child of the '70s and '80s, Ali joined Babe Ruth, Jack Nicholas, and Wilt Chamberlain as sort of mythic figures in my immature sports mind. Reading Ali's 1975 memoir was interesting because it was the voice, 40 years later, of a myth from my childhood and a man for whose accomplishments and controversies I now had context. Co-authored by Richard Durham, The Greatest was a well-written, first-person narrative of Ali's life (or least what he wanted us to know), in and out of the ring, from his late childhood in Kentucky through his defeat of George Foreman to regain the heavyweight title in 1974. It definitely did what good biographies do; it humanized Ali. And while the myths around athletes enjoyed by my young-self have long been shattered by maturity, The Greatest was not just a window into Ali’s life but into a time in my own when athletes weren't really real.

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE | by Phil Knight
My favorites list this year is filled with memoirs, and I think it’s the feeling of spending time with the author that makes this genre so engaging. Phil Knight was fun to hang out with in Shoe Dog. Knight takes the reader back to the early days of the company that eventually became NIKE. While the book is not so much about Knight’s personal life (there are references to family involvement but none that are very revealing), his personal feelings about his professional life shed light on the cultural development of NIKE and the persistence it takes to create something world renown. Knight’s experience is textbook engagement. He built is work around his heart and, ultimately, shared it with the world.

Natchez Burning | by Greg Iles
Natchez Burning is my favorite fiction read of the year. The first volume of a trilogy that addresses the racial history of the American south, Natchez Burning’s 800-page marathon seems more like a 400-page sprint. Iles strikes a balance between pace and character development that allows the reader time to generate emotional responses to the characters but keeps the yarn spinning. Books two and three of this trilogy are on my "To Read" list, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m writing about one or both of them at this time next year.

Bavishi, A., Slade, M., & Levy, B. (2016). A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity. Social Science & Medicine, (164), 44-48.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

It is what it is... or is it?

I love the Olympics. Pageantry. Drama. Suspense. Triumph. The spectacle of the whole thing. It's a time to learn about and celebrate the world's diversity. But the Olympics always reminds me more of our similarities than our differences. Sportsmanship. Pride. Joy. Disappointment. Love. Grace. Our common humanity.

Paul Tough and Anders Ericsson write about our common humanity in their recently published books Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why and Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Both writers eloquently interpret the findings of current research. While Tough's work leans toward nurture and Ericsson's toward nature, their ideas intersect in an interesting and not-so-surprising place.


Engagement is a multidimensional construct that includes behavioral, cognitive, and emotional attributes associated with being deeply involved in an activity. Both writers base the success of their assertions on its presence.

In How Children Succeed, Tough writes about the importance of a child's environment on the development of non-cognitive capacities, the "emotional and psychological habits and abilities and mindsets" that enable children to negotiate life effectively. These capacities include things like empathy, perseverance, self-control, and focus. In school, they are reflected in a child's ability to understand and follow directions, maintain focus, communicate effectively with others, persevere, and learn from failure. Tough asserts that non-cognitive capacities are distinct from cognitive skills in that their development is not the result of direct instruction and practice but more the byproduct of a child's environment. Furthermore, stress, the kind associated with poverty or growing up in adverse emotional conditions, inhibits the development of non-cognitive capacities. Tough points to evidence that traditional pedagogies in school perpetuate the consequences of stress because they rely on incentives that don't facilitate the kind of motivation it takes to become deeply involved in academic work.

In Peak, Ericsson writes about cognitive adaptability and the idea that we have been "overestimating the value of innate talent and underestimating the value of such things as opportunity, motivation, and effort." Scientists have realized that the brain is much more adaptable than previously thought. Geniuses, once thought to be born rather than made, are not exceptions to some rule that binds most of us to so-called normalcy. Even the most exceptional among us are not genetic outliers but ordinary humans who, through what Ericsson calls deliberate practice, have worked for whatever it is that separates them from others. Deliberate practice involves the building of mental representations, the encoding of information specific to the domain of learning that allows one to store ever-increasing amounts of information in long-term memory and advance conceptual understanding. It's hard, iterative work. But it's also qualitatively distinct from forms of practice that emphasize volume and repetition. It typically requires facilitation by experts who can assist learners in identifying and focusing on the details of performance. For Ericsson, meaning and purpose, an essential element of behavioral and cognitive engagement, are the ingredients that motivate people to maintain the intense focus and attention to detail that is required to become an expert in something.

Both writers insist learners must be active, not passive. And deep learning is not generally solitary work, but connected to others. Tough advocates interactive pedagogy in schools, discussion, and collaboration among students; project-based learning that takes students through "extensive and repeated revisions based on critiques from teachers and peers." Ericsson writes that one does not "build mental representations by thinking about something; you build them by trying to do something, failing, revising, and trying again, over and over." Passion and perseverance for long-term goals is also necessary. The work of Angela Duckworth regarding the concept of grit makes and appearance in both books. Grit is also, in part, a function of environment. In her work, Duckworth cites the work of Benjamin Bloom regarding the development of world class pianists, neurologists, swimmers, chess players, mathematicians, and sculptors. Bloom observed that in every studied field, high achievers had a strong interest in the particular field in which they excelled. In other words, it was meaningful to them. Intrinsic motivation develops when people, in the pursuit of something, are able to feel competent, connected to others, and in control of their own behaviors and goals. When people experience these three things, they become self-determined and are able to be intrinsically motivated to pursue the things that interest them, that have meaning to them, to persevere in the face of difficulty… to show grit... to become engaged.

Tough's non-cognitive capacities strongly influence the cognitive work of developing expertise that Ericsson writes about. Conversely, Ericsson's revelations about cognitive adaptability should inform discussions about supporting students growing up in less than ideal circumstances with early intervention and focused support. Both How Children Succeed and Peak are profoundly optimistic books. I think they are fundamentally about hope and potential, aspects of our common humanity restricted neither by circumstance nor genetics. Olympians are a great example of this. To become Olympic, they had to hope, care, connect, focus, practice, and persevere. They had to fulfill potential and even expand it. They had to engage.

  • Ericsson, A. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
  • Tough, P. (2016). Helping children succeed: What works and why, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. 

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book review: The Importance of Being Little

Practice makes progress. My 4-year-old is learning this. If you work at it, you’ll get better. It’s an important lesson for kids. But while practice makes progress, it doesn’t make new, according to Wharton professor Adam Grant in a recent New York Times op-ed. In other words, it doesn’t foster creativity. 

Expertise relies on depth of knowledge. People can get really good at something with a lot of practice, but it doesn't necessarily lead to something new. Creativity, Grant points out, relies on both depth and breadth of knowledge. Grant urges parents to back off a bit. He says "creativity may be hard to nurture, but it's easy to thwart." Focus on values rather than rules and respond to the intrinsic motivation of your children. Give them guidance, facilitate practice, but give them the room to discover and explore interests. Let them go into the weeds to see what's there.  

It was Grant's article that I kept coming back to as I read Erika Christakis' book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grown Ups. Christakis reflects on her experiences as an early childhood educator and offers guidance about closing the gap between schooling and learning, two things she laments are often not aligned. Young children have the capacity for tremendous growth, learning, and creativity, but rather than focus on those dimensions of learning most crucial to development, standardization (increasingly even at the preschool level) has led to a focus on "skills and metrics that look nice on paper but don't really tell us much about what individual human beings do." 

Christakis, like Grant, urges us to back off. Only she is talking to all of us: parents, educators, politicians, pundits, and anyone else responsible for schooling but not focused on learning.

To be sure, Christakis doesn't succumb to the either/or dilemma John Dewey lamented in Experience and Education. Namely, that one must choose between traditional or progressive instructional ideas. Like Dewey, she argues for recognition of the intermediate possibilities. 

And that's one of the most valuable lessons of the book. Christakis attempts to articulate what occupying the middle space would look like for the preschool world. While she notes that "getting out of the way is often the best thing we can do for a young child," her book makes the point that child-centered doesn't mean unstructured. Just the opposite. It takes tremendous effort and expertise to design and facilitate learning environments that take into account the intermediate possibilities. 

Christakis argues that among the obstacles we face in changing how we think about early childhood education is changing the way we think about childhood. One unintended consequence of advances in the understanding about individuality is what Christakis calls the "fragmentation" of childhood. Rather than looking at childhood holistically, as a period of life through which all people go and in which variances could be considered normal, our learning has narrowed the focus from childhood as a thing unto itself to childhood as a collection of discrete parts, resulting in labels that she fears may be inhibiting or leading to some of the obstacles put in the way of children. Behaviors, personality traits, learning styles, disorders, and symptoms, while, on the one hand, reveal much about the human experience and have led to appropriate, helpful treatments also lead to labels that perhaps, on the other hand, result in restrictive learning environments and undermine children's confidence or freedom to learn. 

"The human brain appears unwilling to zoom in on both the background and the foreground at the same time," she writes. "So, at every level of observation, we are missing something - the big picture or the small parts - and there is always a cost to observing only one."

What's the cost? 

American scores in creative thinking measures have declined in the last 20 years with the greatest declines occurring among elementary and early secondary aged children. Kyung Hee Kim of the College of William and Mary found that children’s ability to produce ideas has significantly decreased. Children have become less verbally expressive, less imaginative, less perceptive, and less able to connect seemingly irrelevant things. Kim suggests the causes include children’s diminishing freedom to participate in the mental processes required for creativity and their diminishing ability to assess themselves apart from the assessment of others (internal locus of evaluation).

I think this is reflected in what Christakis observed in The Importance of Being Little

While explicit and systematic instruction is effective for "imparting intentional knowledge," young children "learn primarily from their relationships" and benefit from opportunities to be creative. For Christakis, creativity means "a sense of generativity" or a child's desire to be productive. "Creative, generative children feel confident that they can create meaning - whether from an idea or even a relationship - because they see a world of possibility and see themselves as capable of unlocking that promise."

Creative. Confident. Capable. Sounds like a pretty good outcome to me. ★★★★★
  • Christakis, E. (2016). The importance of being little: What preschoolers really need from grownups, New York: Penguin Random House.  
  • Kim, K. H. (2011). The Creativity Crisis: The Decrease in Creative Thinking Scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 23(4), 285–295. doi:10.1080/10400419.2011.627805

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Reconcilable differences

Sir Ken Robinson told a group of Texas educators recently that the problem with standardization in education is that people “don’t come in standard versions.” Simple. Common sense. Square peg, round hole. People are unique. Standard education doesn’t account for that fact.

So what to do?

Since it’s not likely that people will come in standard versions anytime soon, we need to change the educational environment so that it takes “proper account of the different talents of students.” Educational systems should be designed to preserve the intrinsic motivation for learning with which children are born. They should encourage the self-determination that leads to a life of purpose, productivity, and personal responsibility.

There is an opportunity at hand this year for Texas to influence system design for the better in education.

The Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability held its first meeting in January. Created by legislation passed by the 84th Texas Legislature and charged with studying and making recommendations for changes in the state’s testing and accountability system, the commission will meet six times this year before filing a final report in September.

What direction should the commission take?

In his latest book, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming Education 1, Robinson makes the point that a problem with most current assessment systems is that they are too light on description to “convey the complexities of the process” they are meant to summarize. To enhance assessment, we need to expand the elements of description and the evidence upon which learning is evaluated.

Research is providing direction for this kind of work if only we can muster the will to think and act in different ways. A study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology last month, The Narrative Waltz: The Role of Flexibility in Writing Proficiency 2, could inform a discussion about next generation assessments.

Long story, short… the researchers found that context in the evaluation of learning matters.

Short story, longer… having longitudinal data to make decisions about student learning is critical; specifically, in this case, in evaluating writing proficiency. The researchers were trying to understand the extent to which high school students’ linguistic flexibility across a series of essays was associated with writing proficiency. Flexibility refers to students ability to adapt their writing styles and use various linguistic properties according to the specific context of the writing task; properties like cohesion, rhetoric, complex syntax, explicit argument, reported speech, contrasted ideas, and narrativity.

To analyze flexibility, the researchers utilized both natural language processing techniques and dynamic methodologies to capture variability in students’ use of narrative text properties across 16 argumentative, prompt-based essays.

Why narrativity as opposed to another linguistic property?

One, they needed a property to quantify and analyze, and narrativity, as an easier writing style for high school students to use, was likely to be more prevalent across multiple writing assignments. Two, they wanted to address what they believe is a common misunderstanding about the use of narrativity in essay writing. Research has shown that texts with more narrative elements tend to be easier to read and comprehend. Narrativity, therefore, is often assumed to be a sign of essay quality. But this assumption is not supported in the literature. The majority of research on essay quality suggests the opposite; that higher quality writing is associated with decreased levels of text narrativity.

In the current study, the degree of narrativity was assessed using a narrativity component score provided by Coh-Metrix, a computational text analysis tool that analyzes text at the word, sentence, and discourse levels. Coh-Metrix calculates the coherence of texts on many different measures. The Coh-Metrix narrativity Easability Component score, based on the results of a previous, large-scale corpus analysis, served as a measure of text readability based on the degree of story-like elements that were present within an individual text. To quantify students’ narrative writing patterns, the researchers applied random walks and Euclidian distances to create visualizations and classifications of students’ use of narrative properties across the 16 assigned essays.

The researchers found that it was students’ flexible use of text properties rather than the consistent use of a particular set of text properties (in this case, narrativity) that correlated with established measures of essay quality. The situational influence of narrative text elements on writing quality varies. It’s not just about frequency or consistency of use, but the writer’s ability to use appropriate techniques given the context. Flexibility informs writing proficiency.

Bottom line? Writing proficiency measures should account for a student’s sensitivity to multiple linguistic profiles, which can only be determined by evaluating multiple writing samples over a period of time.

The authors argue their findings suggest standardized test developers should “aim to develop more sophisticated assessments that can capture students' writing skills across a number of different contexts." In other words, when designing assessment systems, we need to think in terms of expanding the elements of description and the evidence upon which learning is evaluated.

The square peg and round hole are not irreconcilable. It’s a question of commitment to a process of developing “original ideas that have value.” Or what Robinson calls... creativity.

1 Robinson, K. & Aronica, L. (2015). Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming Education, New York: Penguin Publishing Group.

2 Allen, L. K., Snow, E. L., Mcnamara, D. S., Allen, L. K., Snow, E. L., & Mcnamara, D. S. (2016). Journal of Educational Psychology Proficiency The Narrative Waltz : The Role of Flexibility in Writing Proficiency.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The earlier, the better

The latest National Assessment for Educational Progress scores were released in October, and 4th grade English language learners (ELL) remained more than twice as likely as non-ELL students to score below Basic in reading.

Eighth grade results were similar, but 4th grade represents a critical juncture for ELLs because students who enter kindergarten as ELLs and have not been re-classified by the upper elementary grades become less likely ever to make the transition. This, from a study published recently in Educational Policy that also sheds light on the relevance of primary language in English language acquisition.1 Karen Thompson, an assistant professor at Oregon State University, found that entering kindergarten, proficiency with academic language in the primary language was positively related to the likelihood of reclassification by the end of elementary school.

Of course, experience with academic language in English matters as well. Using nine years of longitudinal data, Thompson found that students with high levels of proficiency in both their primary language and English entering kindergarten were 24% more likely to be reclassified by the end of elementary school as students with low levels in both languages. However, students with similar proficiency in either English or their primary language had "statistically indistinguishable likelihoods of reclassification" by the end of elementary school.

Early academic language proficiency in English facilitated quicker reclassification, but it was having a basic grasp of academic vocabulary itself, not the language, that mattered most in reaching reclassification before the elementary window closes.

This is an important finding because it informs how schools and communities might look at school readiness strategies for families with ELL students. Parents not proficient in English can still be very helpful in preparing their children for the English language acquisition process once school starts.

And the work parents do or don’t do with their children before they enter schools matters a great deal.

Academic language is “school language” and language used in the workplace; the language used in textbooks, essays, assignments, class presentations, and assessments. It's a meta-language that helps learners acquire the 50,000 words they are expected to have internalized by the end of high school. And, it develops with deliberate, diligent, exposure to diverse language experiences…

...early in life... from the very beginning!

While formal education moves this process along, prohibitive gaps among students exist before children ever get to school age. Toddlers living in poverty hear less than a third of the words heard by children from higher-income families. By the age of four, this extrapolates to a 30-million word difference between low and high income children… a prohibitive gap.2

And the economic problem may be getting worse.

By Robert D. Putnam, 2015
In Texas, 60.2% of public school students are economically disadvantaged, 14% higher than 20 years ago. The same is true nationally. In 2007, the south became the first region in which the majority of students were economically disadvantaged and that extended to the nation as a whole by 2015. Furthermore, the achievement gap between children from high and low income families is 30-40% larger among children born in 2001 than 25 years earlier.3  While the achievement gap has been growing within racial groups and actually narrowing somewhat between them, ELL students - a growing percentage of Texas public school students - are more likely to come from low-income homes. Of the 23.7 million people in Texas who are five years of age or older, more than a third speak a language other than English at home. A large majority of those — almost 85 percent — speak Spanish.

Thompson's findings, as she suggests, have implications for the design of instructional interventions for ELL students, how and when ELL students are assessed (including how primary language assessments are used), and the need to expand access to high quality preschool programs (ELL students attend pre-school at a much lower percentage than non-ELLs, nationally).

However, Thompson's study should also be used to look backward from the school starting line.

Parents are the first and most important teachers in a child’s life. They are responsible for virtually all language development before children reach school age. Parent involvement is essential to a successful comprehensive school program, and a comprehensive educational program begins before children reach school age.

Research sheds some light on how to think about this as well. Ultimately, it’s an engagement issue.

Solutions to the challenges facing Hispanic families with potential ELL students lie within the communities themselves, according to researchers who evaluated a comprehensive educational program for Hispanic parents with young children.

A random-assignment study of Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors, implemented by the Los Angeles Unified School District, published last year by Child Trends found statistically significant positive impacts on reading with children, storytelling and discussion, studying letters, and real-world interaction with language; all important in helping children acquire language.4

Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors was launched in 2007 as a parenting program dedicated to getting young children ready for school. Today, it reaches 70,000 families in 35 states. Ten interactive sessions draw from real-life experiences, incorporate data about local schools and communities, and focus on helping parents understand their role in their children’s learning life. Also, the program is available to parents in Spanish; important in light of Thompson's findings about the relevance of a family's primary language in English language acquisition.

Across all socio-economic and racial groups, students with more engaged parents do better in school. They are more engaged, have higher grades and test scores, earn more course credits, participate in more advanced academic programs, and are more likely to graduate high school and pursue college.5

Student engagement begins with parent engagement, family engagement, and community engagement. But the engagement has to begin before school does.

1 Thompson, K. (2015). English learners' time to reclassification: An analysis, Educational Policy, published online Aug. 2015, 1-34.
2 Hart, B. & Risley, T. (Spring 2003). The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap by age 3, American Educator, 4-9.
3 Putnam, R. (2015). Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, New York: Simon & Schuster
4 Moore, K., Caal, S., Rojas, A., Lawner, E., & Walker, K. (2014). Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors Parenting Program: Summary Report of Program Implementation and Impacts, retrieved online.
5 Tarasawa, B. & Waggoner, J. (2015). Increasing parental involvement of English language learner families: What the research says, Journal of Children and Poverty, 21(1), 129-134. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

In a galaxy not so far away

Phil Ostroff | Flickr
Look it up on Wikipedia (Google entry number one) and you learn that a galaxy is a "massive, gravitationally bound system consisting of stars, stellar remnants, an interstellar medium of gas and dust, and dark matter." French computer scientist Owen Cornec has applied this concept to browsing the World's most famous Internet encyclopedia. Cornec's WikiGalaxy visually transforms Wikipedia, mapping every entry to a star in a virtual, searchable galaxy. It also illustrates the breadth of information published on Wikipedia since its launch 14 years ago. There are currently more than 4.6 million articles in the English language Wikipedia alone.

The social practices combined with the technology that make Wikipedia, and other platforms, possible represent new literacies for which understanding is emerging among researchers. Some argue literacy is context dependent, continually changing as new technologies appear while most recognize the social practices that guide work and learning are changing and evolving with technology. If one considers how rapidly technology is developing (see Moore's Law), literacy is becoming quite a fluid concept.

Professors Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear summarize new-literacy research findings in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. They frame the research as focused on "ways in which meaning-making practices are evolving under contemporary conditions" along with, and perhaps due to, the expansion and refinement of digital electronics and communications technologies (read Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations).

Knobel and Lankshear distinguish between new and conventional literacies by what they call a different ethos that is emerging through the more integrated social practices made possible by digitization. New literacy practices are more participatory, collaborative, and distributed. Wikipedia has grown into one of the largest reference sites with hundreds of millions of visitors monthly and tens of thousands of contributors working on more than 31 million articles in 285 languages. It's success depends on aggregating knowledge on a massive scale; on the abilities of people to research, evaluate, synthesize, coordinate, disseminate information, and communicate across diverse communities. Examples of platforms where new literacies are emerging include social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, affinity spaces like the fan fiction site, Kindle Worlds, blogging and micro-blogging platforms, photo curating and sharing sites, mobile applications, digital storytelling and pod-casting media, and online gaming. There are economic implications as well. Peer production platforms are emerging in a variety of sectors, giving rise to new modes of labor, providing new services, and disrupting older services. Online marketplaces like Fiverr and Amazon's Mechanical Turk allow people to hire others to do simple jobs. eBay is a market place for selling almost any type of merchandise. Etsy creates a massive international market for crafts. The computer operating system, Linux, is an open-source software developed by a peer production network, and peer production has also been utilized in producing Open Educational Resources. Knobel and Lankshear say participation in these platforms involves "deep interactivity, openness to feedback, sharing of resources and expertise, and a will to collaborate and provide support that is writ large into myriad contemporary everyday practices."

Young people learn and engage with new literacies in ways that are often not accommodated in schools' instructional methods, according to Knobel and Lankshear. They point to key findings from new-literacy research for educators to consider: Collaboration and peer dialogue are important. Authenticity matters. Learners should be active. Young people value customization. Creativity requires opportunities to make connections across disciplines. Communication, deliberation, and reflection matter. Meta-cognitive awareness, regulation, and experiences are necessary for learning. And exploration is engaging. Student achievement research reflects such findings as well.

However, another line of research might be of equal importance when considering new-literacy practices. As most teachers have experienced, and most of us are intuitively aware, communications technologies can be distracting. Cognitive scientists are studying technology as it relates to executive function, which refers to one's ability to manage and control one's own cognitive processes. While there is no evidence yet to suggest a negative impact on long term executive function, there are studies that show these technologies can have an immediate negative impact on one's cognitive ability to exert self-control and concentrate, both necessary for deep learning. The challenge, then, is to figure out how to leverage the new-literacy platforms for the better. No matter where the research on executive function leads, negative effects on executive function have more to do with how these technologies are used, not simply that we are using them.

What can schools do?

First, don't ignore the problem. Embrace it. Technology isn't exactly rolling back these days. Moore's Law is still playing out. Furthermore, collaboration is the bedrock of innovation. Or so says Walter Isaacson in The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. In a biographical study of individuals working at the intersection of computing and networking, Isaacon makes the case that innovation most often happens collaboratively, when individuals work together to synthesize disparate insights that had not previously been connected. Isaacson has written about many of America's geniuses, people individually credited with extraordinary accomplishments. People like Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs. But all of these people, while perhaps gifted, were collaborators. They were connectors, working across disciplines and invoking the expertise, perspectives, and talents of others to create something that could not have otherwise come about. New literacies and new technologies make this kind of work more possible than ever.

Second, follow the research. In addition to the findings above, Knobel and Lankshear point to something educationists already know: frequent formative assessment and feedback are critical for deep learning. They provide structure and accountability around learning objectives and can also be useful in helping students navigate new platforms for learning and new literacy practices. Video games are well known to integrate frequent assessment and feedback to provide scaffolding for game-players to improve.

Finally, educators themselves must experience and understand what it means to participate in new literacy practices. Only by internalizing the ethos of some of these practices can educators effectively navigate the nuances that distinguish them from conventional literacy practices and facilitate real meaning-making around learning standards, goals, and objectives.

Where to start?

In this post alone I have incorporated Blogger, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, and Google Search. Or how about a Wikipedia entry? Anyone can do it. And... you would have your very own star in the WikiGalaxy!

  • Knobel, M., & Lankshear, C. (2014). Studying New Literacies. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 58(2), 97–101. 
  • Ossola, A. (2014). Why Kids Won't Quit Technology. The Atlantic. Retrieved from