As I build out the elmcity network, launching calendar hubs in towns and cities around the country, I’ve been gathering examples of excellent web thinking. In Ann Arbor’s public schools are thinking like the web I noted that the schools in that town — and most particularly the Slauson Middle School — are Doing It Right with respect to online calendars. How, I wondered, does that happen? How does a middle school figure out a solution that eludes most universities, theaters, city governments, nightclubs, museums, and other organizations with calendars of interest to the public?
It’s not technology. Slauson Middle School is using the same web services (in this case, Google Calendar) available to everyone.
It’s not budget. The web services required for this solution are free.
It’s a way of thinking. I wrote to Slauson’s principal, Chris Curtis, to congratulate him on the excellent example his school is setting, and to identify the thinker responsible. That thinker turns out to be Chris Curtis himself. And it’s no accident that the implementation pattern on display at Slauson is also evident at Pioneer High. Chris did the same thing there before coming to Slauson.
Now I am not an educator, I only watch from the sidelines. But to me the K-12 “computer skills” curriculum seems uniformed by the kinds of core principles that will make students effective in a web-augmented world. So I asked Chris:
What you’ve done at Pioneer and now Slauson builds on an important conceptual foundation. Do you think that K-12 education could build that foundation?
Here’s what he said:
I agree with the notion that the basic principles of computer science should be generalized more broadly across the curriculum. In many ways, teaching computer and technology skills courses absent a meaningful application of them is ineffective and silly. We wouldn’t teach driver’s education and not let students drive. We don’t teach a “pencil skills class” in which we learn the skills for using this technology tool without an immediate opportunity to apply the skills and then begin to consider and explore the many ways that the pencil and writing change how we organize, perceive, and interact with our world.
This issue gets at the heart of the challenge of technology and education. Often the world seems to divide into separate interest areas: those interested in technology and those interested in education. The result is often to send the technology nerds to a room and make them teach technology and send the other teachers to their rooms and let them teach. In order to be effective at integrating technology into the instructional environment there has to be a merger between a technology interest and and educational interest, within the same person. The awareness of what is possible via technology resources and the desire to perform educational functions can lead to the educator realizing that a task could be done differently, more efficiently, more effectively, with more precision, or in some other manner improved.
Of course the schism that separates technologists from educators also affects practitioners of all kinds. In his most recent essay, Bret Victor meditates on this point:
My piano teacher played the piano. Like, all the time. He had to; it’s not easy to make a living as a musician. Between tours, his band played restaurants, bars, weddings, anywhere they could get a gig. He chose this life because he loved music, and when he taught music, he was teaching what he did. In that way, his teaching was honest.
Back in high school, I was taught differential equations by a working engineer. He spent his days at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, and for whatever reason, chose to spend his evenings at the local community college. Differential equations wasn’t some abstract arcana to him. It was his bread-and-butter, and he apparently found it important enough to share.
My information theory professor would teach me information theory in the morning, and then spend the afternoon furthering the field. Sure, what she taught was somewhat elementary by her standards, but she was well aware that this elementary theory was the foundation on which her life’s research was built. It showed, and it stayed with me.
Real teaching is not about transferring “the material”, as if knowledge were some sort of mass-produced commodity that ships from Amazon. Real teaching is about conveying a way of thinking. How can a teacher convey a way of thinking when he doesn’t genuinely think that way?
I’m preoccupied with a related question. The way of thinking that I most want to convey is web thinking. Which is, by definition, openly available to anyone who wants to learn. Schools everywhere can observe and emulate what Chris Curtis is doing at Slauson. In so doing they can become practitioners in the way that Chris is. Their students might then see them as practitioners and learn from their examples.
I would be delighted if the elmcity project could help bootstrap that virtuous cycle.