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Being Green - The Future of Education

Hi Folks:

Saturday once again, and time for this week’s ‘Being Green‘ post.  It’s usually posted on Fridays, but not always… 😉

Anyway, while my blog posts are, by definition, my thoughts and ideas, this week I’m going to dust off the old soap box on a topic that I think is very important: education.  In this society we have a somewhat limited and very rigid view of what ‘education’ means; if you ask them, I believe most people would likely give an answer related to schools, classrooms and the like.  Personally, I invested some 18 years of my life in various classrooms… and then they had the nerve to tell me I had to go to high school!  I told them to forget it. 

Seriously, though, I invested a lot of time in schools of one sort or another, and went on to add certificates and other training after graduation.  I also served for fourteen years on a program advisory committee of the college I attended, seven of those years as Chair, and I’ve volunteered to run talks and workshops at various levels of schools over the years.  While I’ve never been a ‘teacher’ in the traditional sense, I’ve done a lot of teaching.  And learning.  In the end, we are all teachers for each other.  We start learning about our world the moment we’re born, and we keep on learning until the day we leave.  Done properly, education engages us and enriches us.  It makes us more connected, more alive and more healthy – both physically and mentally.  One of my photographic ‘mentors’, John Paul Caponigro did a wonderful talk on creativity at TEDx Dirigo: “YOU’RE A LOT MORE CREATIVE THAN YOU THINK YOU ARE“.  I highly recommend it.  On the other hand, education done poorly can inhibit instead of expand, it can close doors rather than open them.  One of my favourite songwriters, Harry Chapin, once did a song called “Flowers Are Red” that speaks to this.

The reason I mention this today is because of a recent talk posted from the TED 2011 Conference.  The talk was by Salman Khan, the founder of the Khan Academy, and titled, “Let’s Use Video to Reinvent Education“.  Marcia and I are big fans of TED, and while we haven’t (yet) been to a TED Conference, we’ve downloaded and enjoyed many wonderful presentations on a variety of topics.  Having said that, I must say that this is the most amazing idea for education I’ve ever seen.  You should watch it now; I’ll wait.

Welcome back.

Mr. Khan’s idea incorporates a number of different components, and taken individually, some of them aren’t new.  I remember hearing about a proposal about thirty years ago whereby a company was willing to donate large numbers of televisions, VCRs and other A/V equipment to schools so that the kids could watch 1/2 hour of educational television at lunchtime.  The catch was that they would also watch several minutes of commercials.  This was before the internet as we know it, before banner ads, and times were different then.  I would say that now people have become so inundated by commercials online that many (like me), simply tune them out completely.

Another component that’s been tried (with success) is called the ‘Hole in the Wall‘ project in India.  One day in 1999 Dr. Sugata Mitra decided to set up a computer with unlimited internet access outside his office in New Delhi. In the beginning none of the kids (mostly illiterate, almost all living in slums) had any idea what a computer was. Very quickly, however, they learned how to point and click, how to navigate, and how to expand their world in ways they’d never considered possible.  They began to share what they learned with their peers.  Dr. Mitra and his associates have gone on to install over a hundred such kiosks in poor areas around India and beyond.  I still remember, early on in my days on the advisory committee at the college, suggesting that each new student get a laptop computer along with his/her textbooks, compass, hard hat and other equipment.  The idea never caught on, but those were different times.

I used to be loosely involved with a high school near Toronto, ON that offered a separate curriculum to a select group of Grade 10 students; Grade 12 students were able to redo the program on a co-op basis.  I’ll take none of the credit that so rightly belongs to the program’s two founders; I merely showed up on occasion to share some of my knowledge on a few different subjects.  The students in this group took four courses each semester, but their learning was quite different in many respects from that of their schoolmates.  In addition to ‘textbook’ learning, they also went hiking, canoeing, built a boardwalk through a marsh, wore hip waders, collected insects and plants and other life forms, learned how to camp and how to make fire, how to walk, how to see, how to hear.  They developed a bond with each other and a respect for the earth they couldn’t have learned any other way.

Back to the Khan Academy.  If you haven’t yet watched the video (and you really should), the project grew out of Mr. Khan’s desire to tutor his cousins in math by creating a few YouTube videos for them to watch.  He soon discovered two things.  One was that his cousins preferred learning by video.  The second was that they were not alone in this.  As Mr. Khan said in his talk, with a video one can pause, rewind, watch on one’s own time and in a place and space that is conducive to learning.  One also does not have someone else asking, “Do you understand?”  I think it goes beyond that; our children today are growing up with technology in ways that we (old folks) couldn’t have imagined when we were younger.  I’ll admit it; I still have a slide rule.  I keep it for posterity.  I remember when pocket calculators came out, and I remember being allowed to use them in class but not on tests (because not everyone had one).  Now, Marcia and I both have computers, and we both have smart phones.  We text message each other.  But I heard recently about a young woman who sends an average of one text message/ minute, every minute she’s awake.  That’s an entirely different level of engagement.  Our younger son Nick works in the IT industry (this blog site was his idea) and much of what he does is beyond me.

In the years I was in school the curriculum was set and everyone went along at the same pace – like it or not.  Every day the teacher provided lectures and/or exercises during class time, and every evening the students completed homework to bring in the next day.  Periodically there would be quizzes, tests, midterms and finals and everyone would either pass or fail.  No matter what, everyone moved forward to the next section.  In some of my college courses, the standards were set pretty high.  In Dendrology for example, students had to achieve 90% to pass, except for the last test of the year.  For that one, 23/24 was a pass.  Is that a bar set too high?  Some people would say so.  Should it be 75%, 60% or 50%?  Can we live with our students not understanding half of what they’re ‘learning’?  Or is that bar set too low?  How about 100% for everyone?  Not possible?  Why not?  That’s one of the features of the Khan Academy’s program.  Every student works at his or her own pace, and no student can continue to the next module until s/he answers ten consecutive questions correctly.  The school day is also almost completely inverted.  Rather than coming to class every morning to sit through lectures and going home to complete assignments and homework, at the end of school every day the students are assigned lectures to watch and all ‘homework’ takes place in the classroom.  The advantages of this are many.

Michael Wesch is an ‘Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology’ at Kansas State University, and in 2007 he and his students created a YouTube video called “A Vision of Students Today“. (EDIT, March 13, 2011 – fixed the link).  It’s also well worth watching, and talks about the disconnects students today feel with the ‘traditional’ classroom environment.  The Digital Ethnography students and more videos can be found at

So, instead of having students pile into assigned classrooms and sit in assigned seats and copy text verbatim from the blackboard into their notebooks and then go home and struggle through trying to understand the concepts they learned that day while doing their homework, imagine a day where the students watched informational videos the night before (as often as they needed to/ were allowed or had access to), and in the mornings they come into the classroom and do their homework assignments.  The teacher is freed from having to explain the same concept to 30 or 40 students all at the same time, and is free to go and work one on one with those students who are having difficulty.  In addition, the teacher can also designate students who have already grasped the concept to act as peer to peer mentors, helping out their classmates who are having difficulties or challenges.  I still remember my Grade 13 Algebra class because for the entire semester I paid almost no attention to the teacher at all.  I would read through the chapter in the textbook, do all of the assignments at the end of the chapter and go on to the next one.  At any given time I was several days ahead of the rest of the class, and every once in a while the teacher would shove a test paper at me.  We got along really well, he and I.

Now imagine that because these videos are all online, a child at one of those kiosks in India can watch and learn concepts like math, physics, economics, computer programming, etc.  In the movie ‘The Reader‘, Kate Winslett played an illiterate woman who went to prison for something she was not responsible for, rather than admit she couldn’t read.  A friend of hers read books onto tape for her, and she taught herself how to read by comparing the ‘words’ on the tape with the words in the books she took out of the prison library.  It’s estimated that over 40% of Canadians today are functionally illiterate.  Further, imagine that the kid at the kiosk in India can receive help with a concept from a kid in Oklahoma, or imagine that a student in Israel can help to tutor a student in Iran.  Might they discover they are more alike than different?  Imagine a factory worker coming home at the end of a shift and helping him or herself complete a high school or college diploma because s/he can both learn on his/her own schedule and be coached by someone with the time and knowledge.  The possibilities are endless.

It goes without saying that these video courses can’t teach ‘everything’.  Some skills can only be learned by doing.  The college I attended has replaced the specimen collections it once had with photographs and videos, and while a digital image may offer a better view than a specimen kept in formalin for years, it can’t give you the experience that yellow birch twigs taste like mint or that bullhead spines are very sharp and must be handled with care.  I don’t think anyone is advocating one or the other, however.  The tools that work best are those suited to that purpose.

The Khan Academy offers teachers ways to track each student’s progress, ways to identify what s/he is watching and for how long, and a variety of useful markers for aiding their development.  A school district in California is currently incorporating this learning method into several of their classrooms; personally I think it should be adopted by everyone.

I could go on… I remember a friend (who had homeschooled her daughter) deciding to register her for school in order for the girl to have more involvement with those her own age.  The school wasn’t sure at what level to place her so a number of tests were run; one thing the tester said was that the daughter was really good at fractions.  My friend was confused because they’d never covered fractions… but they did a lot of baking together.  “Okay, take 2½ cups of flour, and add ¼ tsp of baking powder…”  Learning is something we do every day.  I remember another story (author unknown) about a man who went into a kindergarten classroom, walked up to the blackboard and put a dot in the middle of the board.  He stood back and asked the students what it was.  He got about a hundred answers… “It’s a bird… it’s a cloud… it’s a star… it’s a snowflake, etc.”  The same man walked into a 2nd year university physics class, went up and put a dot in the middle of the board.  He stood back and asked the students what it was.  There was dead silence for several minutes.  Finally, one of the students ventured, “It’s equidistant from the four corners.”  and the rest of the class was immediately relieved that the answer had been found.

I’m going to end this bit with something taken (loosely) from one of Leo Buscaglia‘s books.  It might have been ‘Living, Loving and Learning’, but I’m not sure.  It’s been a long time time since I read it.  Any errors in the story here are wholly my own, but I think I’ll get enough of it right.  The story concerns a young woman who was assigned a job as a kindergarten teacher.  One of the first  assignments in the curriculum was ‘The Store’.  So, she began with good intent but the students lost interest pretty quickly.  These kids know all about stores; they’ve been carried around stores and through malls since they were infants.  So, finally she gathered the students together and asked them what they thought of this module and collectively the kids said, “Boring!”  Little kids have that degree of honesty.  So then she asked them what they’d like to do instead, and one of them mentioned that his uncle worked at NASA.  They brought him in and he talked about planets and about stars and about rocket ships and all kinds of cool stuff.  This was great until one day the supervisor stopped by the classroom and asked what they were doing.  The teacher tried to explain, but the supervisor’s response was, “We’re supposed to do ‘The Store’ and we are going to do ‘The Store’, aren’t we?”  After the supervisor left the teacher gathered the students together and asked them if they liked having her for a teacher.  They all said yes, and when she asked if they’d like her to be there next year they all said yes again, so she told them that they were going to have to do ‘The Store’.  They all said, “Okay, but let’s do it very fast.”  So they did the entire module very quickly, and when the supervisor came by the classroom they had their cardboard storefronts and their clay bananas and such and when the supervisor left they brought out the rockets and flew to the moon!

So what does that have to do with being ‘green’?  Two things. For one, almost everything I’ve learned about ‘green building’ , standards, certifications and systems has come from the ‘net – either from reading articles and blogs or from taking courses and webinars. Almost everything I know about digital photography was learned in the same way. For the second, while I have a deep respect for those who involve themselves with peaceful protests over specific actions, I believe the only way to bring long-lasting change in our society is through legal and political change, and the only way to effect legal and political change is through education.  The average person, sitting in front of his or her television and watching the 6:00 News is really asking, “Why is this issue of importance to me?  How will this affect my life, or the lives of those I care about?”  Education is for everyone, young and old and in between.  The more we learn about ourselves, each other and this planet we all share, the more inclined we are to preserve it.  When I was a kid I thought that cities were great for other people because it kept them out of ‘my’ woods, but as I got older I realized that if people don’t know about something they don’t care about it, and if they don’t care about it, it’s okay to get rid of it.  That was the day I truly became a ‘teacher’.

Okay, the links for this week include:

That’s it for now… Have a great week!


P.S. Two things to leave you with this week. The first is a Youtube video from about a Bottle Bank Arcade for returnable bottles that increased user interaction, provided some fun and greatly increased use. The second is a site called “Photolanthrophy: Bringing about social change through photography & social media

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