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Have We Made a Mistake? (Part 1)

Wednesday, 23. September 2015 15:11

Here below, to live is to change

And to be perfect

Is to have changed often

(Cardinal John Henry Newman)


The easiest thing in the world is to criticize an educational initiative. Anyone who has been in education for any length of time can look with a jaundiced eye at passing trends and the cycle of excitement, disillusionment, and abandonment. Seasoned veterans in their cups share battle scars of the initiatives that they have endured (and buried). The danger of this is that many educators come to believe that all initiatives are without merit. This is the quickest path to fossilizing good people.

To be honest, I've been on the serving side as much as the receiving side of new ideas. Perhaps it is my fundamental tendency toward boredom, but I'm always interested in how the world is changing and how classrooms have to change as well. I bristle at accusations of jargon and gimmickry, though I understand the mechanism that causes this. However, sometimes the way a new initiative is packaged can reduce its effectiveness and sow the seeds of its own demise despite its merits.

I think we may have done this with our attempts to redefine and rebrand STEM. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) was a relatively clear initiative (though in part 2 I need to look more deeply at this). It was “designed” around a clear need for greater emphasis on these skills that was understandable to most, and there were some fairly clear classroom applications. Whether STEM was a good idea or not, it was a concept that most parents, teachers, and students understood.

Until it got messy. In a chorus of “where's my parade?” other non-STEM subject teachers saw this initiative as a threat to their own areas, that emphasis on one must mean deemphasis of other. Doing a better job with math, science, engineering, and technology had to mean doing a worse job on the humanities. Though this was never the intent, the immediate remedy was not to answer this misperception but to add an A for Arts on the STEM (now STEAM) train. So along with working out the mathematical, technological, scientific, and engineering aspects of a problem, students would also draw a picture.

It got worse. Literature advocates, unwilling to be subsumed under the single banner of Arts, added an R for Reading, and now we were swimming in a STREAM. To complicate things further, well meaning (I say well meaning because I was one of them…if I had not been, I would have said misguided) leaders in Catholic education felt that the entire process needed to be baptized in Catholic identity, so an alternate R for Religion split the STREAM into to branches.

But I think we have made a mistake on two grounds one pedagogical and one branding. From a pedagogical perspective, the AR layover were not fundamental to the original STEM methodology, and they were not primarily added because they were missing. Rather, they were primarily added to address the perceptions and feelings of teachers (many social studies teachers continue to press for STREAMS (or STREAMSS). This Frankencurriculum does not best serve the original need of the initiative. I have seen numerous STREAM lessons and there is always a tagged on feeling to these added elements. Teachers have a significantly harder time mastering this methodology, so many don't try.

From a branding perspective (and I know we bristle at words like branding when it comes to the world of education, but to some extent I'm simply talking about clear communication) we have created an alphabet soup of terms that have lost all clear meaning to most. Whether they really understood it or not, parents, teachers, and students had a pretty clear idea what STEM is. However, when I say STEAM or STREAM, I have to spend the next five minutes explaining what I mean, and my explanation always starts, “Its like STEM, but….” Some Catholic schools still claim to do STEM, others STEAM, others STREAM, and parents ask how they are different and I have to admit, I don't know.

If we are going to pursue STEM (more to follow) let's let it be STEM, let's call it STEM, and let's let the other letters wash down the stream of experience.

As always, I welcome your comments.



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Every Day in Every Way…

Friday, 21. August 2015 22:00

Today’s reflection is not news or really new, but capturing some thoughts I’ve had over recent weeks that were jarred to the front of my brain by my visit to Starbucks this morning. Anyone who is a regular has noticed for a few months the ring chargers for mobile devices. These rings with various plugs are made available to patrons, and once the ring is inserted, laying the ring on special plates on tables throughout the shop will charge the device.

Now, it’s not super fast, and it can be difficult to use the device while set on the charger, but am I the only one who thinks this is bloody amazing? For years I have joked that one thing holding back the digital revolution was our continued tether to plugs. When I give a talk now, the prime seats are not the front (or even the back) but the side seats near plugs where members of the audience sit tethered to the wall. Others will simply leave their device sitting there, tied to the wall through the unbreakable lock of flowing electricity. A day of travel or a day at a workshop is a strategic battle to conserve power and to reach charging oases. Airports I visit are judged by the number and availability of outlets (Chicago O’Hare is horrible, as the entire terminal huddles around a single bank of plugs. One the other hand Boston Logan has a plug beneath almost every seat). What we need, I have joked for years, is wireless power. This is sort of what we have at most Starbucks coffee shops today.

I can hear the chorus of “Yes, but…” people out there. It isn’t truly wireless, because the tables are plugged in. It isn’t truly wireless because it is metal contacting metal. It isn’t truly wireless because the device is still tethered, maybe even more closely than before. I recognize and acknowledge all of these buts, but I return a but of my own, the shop has made charging available to a wide variety of devices and eliminated nests of charging cables, bringing the electricity right to each seat.

Does this have long term or broader applications to address some of the earlier problems? Maybe not. In order to make this available at every seat there would have to be a plug and wiring system electrifying all of the chairs (perhaps not the best thing). It probably wouldn’t be much more simple and inexpensive than installing a plug at every chair. But does that make this development trivial or worthless? Absolutely not. The architects of the Starbucks charging pads thought differently about power and wires,and they created a solution that would have been unheard of just a couple of years ago, a solution that clearly is inexpensive enough that in a very short period of time was spread to the majority of shops.  I saw this and commented about how amazing it was the first time I saw it, but within weeks, it was everywhere.

Though we have seen immense changes in a short period of time, the changes have not stopped happening, and they are happening right in front of us, sitting under our coffee cups.

As always, I welcome your comments.




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A Foolish Consistency

Tuesday, 21. July 2015 17:54

Idols shouldn’t be touched, the gilt comes off on your hands. Flaubert

Perhaps it has always been the case, but (as in so many other things) the constant information buzz of the Internet exacerbates it. However, there is no disguising the fact that there is an open season on heroes. Through revelation, changing perceptions, or new actions, the men and women who indirectly formed us are seen to be fallible, reckless, and in some cases covertly monstrous. The landscape of the statuary is cluttered with fallen marbles.

This is not to defend fallen heroes, or even the concept of heroism. I have joined in the collective disgust over revelations about the peccadilloes and crimes of role models, and I have gloated over the exposure of self-appointed moral arbiters. Schadenfreude is the life-blood of the Internet. Likewise, I have wondered about the human need to lift some above the others, leaving us open for disillusionment when humanity (or worse) shows through.

However, I will defend a cultural role model who is currently suffering from public reevaluation based on new revelations. This universally popular figure was respected and admired for generations and gave us all an icon of manhood, of fatherhood, to which we all could aspire. However, newly discovered information threatens to tar him and knock him from the pantheon of great fathers.

This man is Atticus Finch.

With the release of Harper Lee’s “new” novel Go Set a Watchman, the literary world and much of popular culture were set aflame. The novel addresses the character of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird, in her adult years, long after the childhood events of the first book. Among the major revelations of this new chapter are (Spoiler Alert) the death of her brother Jem in early adulthood and most challenging of all, the “true” character of Atticus as a bitter segregationalist, fighting against the principles he espoused in Mockingbird and even attending a Klan rally.

The pain that screamed across social media at this was deafening. Adults who grew up with Atticus, whether on the page or so perfectly captured by Gregory Peck, expressed anger, outrage, and most profoundly sadness, a reaction compounded by recent debates over vestiges of the Old South. There are laments about the loss of a hero and the father we wish we had. Some have taken the opportunity to express that Atticus never was the role model of racial progressiveness that he seemed, demonstrating paternalism over true empathy. I’ve even seen the comment that To Kill a Mockingbird should be dropped from school curriculum based on these newly-revealed “truths.”

While understandable, this reaction ignores several essential differences between a character in a novel and a flesh and blood human being (even a celebrity). There is no evidence that Go Set an Watchman was ever intended as a sequel to TKAM. The book was written before, and for all intents abandoned to tell the new story (whether Lee or Capote wrote the final story is debatable). Therefore there is no call for this to be a consistent universe or that these characters have anything more than a shadow relationship to their final selves. Given the history of the two books, there is no indication of Lee’s intention to use Watchman to tell the truth behind the book she wrote second. Atticus is not Katniss Everdeen, or Jon Snow. He is a character created one way in one book and another way in another book. Atticus’ views in the second novel reflect no more on his actions in the first than Jem’s death of a heart attack reflects on the calorie rich meals he ate as a child.

So I will remain devoted to Atticus, the man taking a principled stance knowing he would not win, the caring and understanding father, the point of light in a blind community. Though simplistically drawn (a friend always refers to TKAM as YA lit), he is a great existential hero. His actions and words show his character, and even if Harper Lee thought he would turn out differently, there is no reason why I, or anyone, have to believe her. It is clear to me that Lee never intended to put out Watchman, the details of its eventual publication are controversial, so this is not a story she thought it important to tell. The beauty of a literary figure is that our admiration does not have to be affected by anything outside of the work itself. There is no TMZ for our literary heroes.

As always, I welcome your comments.



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What Does it Look Like?

Thursday, 18. June 2015 18:28

Today I did a keynote session for a leadership conference in Ft Lauderdale. It was a great group and they were very responsive. The topic was evaluating current Ed-tech programs while effectively planning for the future.

One of the openers I do with the group is to have them visualize and discuss what they would like to see in their classroom or school if they could simply wave a wand and make it happen. Taking away financial, connectivity, and software issues, what is the perfect learning environment.

This group talked quite a bit, and I assumed that once I called for ideas that we would have some truly revolutionary ideas. I was surprised, therefore, to hear that most of the ideas expressed were about having more devices, more dependable wifi, or better electronic texts. Actually, I shouldn't have been surprised, because these responses were similar to those I received every time I asked this question.

I attribute this to two key factors. The first is a fear that we all feel of letting go of the known for the completely unknown. Our experience of learning is so ingrained that it is hard to picture learning another way (this is exacerbated by the fact that most teachers learned very well in traditional environments). So many of our ideas are older models hidden in tech clothing (a lecture taking the form of a worksheet, students presenting dull information instead of the teacher). We worry (perhaps rightly) that any change might not bring the outcomes we anticipate, so we cling desperately to the shores of the known.

The second factor might be even more fundamental. It is extremely hard to anticipate something that does not yet exist. The number of times when a non-derivative product or process has emerged in our lifetime is very small. Not everyone could have envisioned the iPhone or the iPad, which each in its own way was derivative, but created a new class of devices. It is not simply a matter of letting go of the past, many (I would say most) cannot effectively picture a different future. The most honest answer for any of us to the question of what a future learning environment might look like, is “I don't know.”

This is not to criticize those who don't know and can't envision what is coming next. This is most of us most of the time and all of us some of the time. I simply point out that a future that is not simply a redressing of the past is hard to see (and even harder to explain).

As always, I welcome your comments.



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11 Days to Maximum Decentralization. Day 2

Monday, 15. June 2015 18:50

A few thoughts about time.

I have always appreciated the adage: “Time was invented by humans to keep everything from happening at once.” Given that we can only experience now, time is our way of organizing our many concepts of “nows” into a useable sequence (and if that isn't enough to give anyone a brain knot, particularly first thing in a morning, I don't know what is).

I introduce this not to cause widespread existential terror, but rather to challenge some of our assumptions when it comes to time and learning. Does more time automatically translate to better learning? I'm certain that everyone reading this can quickly bring out the stack of digital articles showing that both longer and shorter school time is the key to student success. I take from this not that there is a universal truth, but that people make many things work.

I do think that if we are going to be looking at significant structural school change that there is a need to become more flexible with time. Many of the activities we will discuss take time, and if they are worthwhile, we will need to find ways to create that time. However, I don't want to start with the assumption that longer blocks of time create better learning.

I'm going to stop and publish this one here for two reasons. First, because I'm already behind and need to write three more to catch up. Second because I think I don't have a grasp on this topic yet. Clearly this is something we need to talk about?

As always, I invite your comments.




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Twelve Days to Maximum Decentralization! Day 1

Thursday, 11. June 2015 21:26

I'm trying something different this summer. On Tuesday, June 23, I am going to be leading a full day of four sessions at the Blended Learning Symposium in Santa Clara, CA. Unlike my usual workshop presentations, I will be working with the same group for multiple sessions (we limited it to 30 participants who had to pre-register for these four), and in the spirit of the conference, we will be working on constructing knowledge together. While I like giving and hearing talks, and I see real value in hearing an inspiring speaker (it is even pretty good to hear me), it seemed highly incongruous to me that a blended learning workshop would be built around traditional workshops alone. So God punished me by answering my prayers, and the countdown is on.

In preparation for the day and to start the conversation (and, let's face it, my post count is really down this year), I'm going to write a short post each day between now and the workshop. I'll post the links in the conference Dropbox folder so the 30 participants will have an opportunity to read and respond. Some of these will be directly about blended learning topics. Others will be about other aspects of education, technology, or frankly anything that interests me. I invite you participants (or any of the other regular readers, who range into the high single digits) to suggest topics that you might find of interest.

I HATE the term blended learning…there, isn't that a great way to start the discussion? I have three key objections (outside of essential contrariness). First, I can't hear the term without thinking of a blender, and (aside from making smoothies) I don't see what a blender has to do with a classroom. Second, it is never clear to me (and to many who use the term) what exactly is being blended or mixed together. Is it subject matter? techniques? the students themselves? Finally, for this and other reasons, it is a squishy, jargony term that can be used to describe almost anything that goes on in a classroom. What is the focus of a blend? I do think I know pretty well what is being described by the term, but blending ain't it.

The term I prefer, and the one I've used for this workshop, is decentralized learning. If we work from the assumption that traditional education was built on two principles; 1) the centrality of the teacher and textbook as the source of student information and animus of student activity. 2) the centrality of the classroom as the place and the class period as the time where and when learning takes place. Now if we decentralize these two, the focus becomes clearer. We need to design (or rediscover) teaching strategies that increase student learning from other sources than the teacher and the textbook, and we need to design a learning plan that increases the emphasis on learning as something that can happen in any place or time.

In the days ahead I'll talk in more detail about both of these and other characteristics I see in this decentralization of education (or to put it in a more positive tone, a centralizing on students). For those of you attending the session on the 23rd, I hope this will whet your appetite for the sharing and work together that we will be doing, and (as always) I welcome your comments.




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Friday, 5. June 2015 21:48

This is part of a series of posts dedicated to moments of new awareness, ideas that hit me for the first time (even if they have been clear to others for years).

I’m preparing for a full-day workshop I will be presenting to a school next week. The school is moving to a block schedule and my job is to start the reorientation of teachers to work in this new model. I’m also preparing for a workshop I will be doing later in the month. For both of these I’m reading about teacher successes and failures in trying to transform their classrooms.

Among the articles I read was a reprinting of a blog where a teacher logged her observations after shadowing a student for two days (the article can be found here ). She sat in all of the classes and participated in all of the activities, not evaluating the teacher, but having the student experience. Needless to say, she hated it, and she listed many specific concerns. One of them was that students spend about 90% of their day listening, whether it is to a teacher lecture or a presentation by another student.

Wait…Presentation by Another Student??




I know that I (and probably many of my colleagues) see student presentations (whether as individuals or as groups) as a key strategy of participatory learning. Students are forced to master material to a level where they can teach it to others. Sometimes they need to work cooperatively in teams, and they ALWAYS have to have a PowerPoint. What could be a better teaching technique? How better to be a “guide on the side” than by letting students become “sages on stages”?

And maybe to some extent this is true. A person does have to master material at a higher level to present it to others. Creating a PowerPoint outline requires skills of analysis and expression. Probably many of these students know their subject at least as well or a little better than if it were presented by the teacher.

But I wonder if what we are teaching them as well is ineffective instruction technique. A teacher who would scoff at coworkers who lecture on a daily basis has little trouble subjecting students to the same thing, only given by sometimes less competent presenters. Do other students in a class learn from presentations by their classmates? Or are they so busy being stressed about perhaps being the next up, or so busy enjoying seeing their friends sweat that their attention and comprehension are minimal? Are we asking students to do exactly what we ask ourselves to stop doing?

As always, I welcome you comments



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Building Electronic Bridges

Monday, 6. April 2015 20:37


Last Friday I had the opportunity to attend a breakfast event featuring speakers from an organization that brings together high school aged Jewish and Arab young people in Israel for dialogue and activities. While the program and the talks were nice and went much as expected, it was a tiny interchange at the end of the morning that really struck me as transformational.

A girl, I assume of roughly high school age, ran up to the Jewish girl who was speaker. They spoke for a few moments, and then the local girl handed the other her cell phone. The young Israeli girl typed in her number, handed it back and the two hugged.

I'm not the one to be emotionally overwhelmed, but I actually felt a shiver go up my spine. I saw more about connectedness and communication between young people in that gesture than in everything else said that morning. We are quick to mock the use of digital devices by the coming generation, but in reality they have more ability to connect and maintain friendships over physical and cultural differences than any previous generation. It is possible that these two girls will communicate with each other, learn from each other, and help each other in ways that I never did with persons sitting next to me. Maybe both of them will enlarge their perspectives through electronic communication.

Now, I can quickly jump back into the old man stance, recognizing that these same tools are often used for evil purposes, or even more disturbing, trivial purposes. But that morning I saw a moment of hope that would not have been possible in a pre-digital age. An exchange of addresses would very seldom result in follow through, and frankly they didn't have the time to do this. It was just a moment, a bridging moment.

As always, I welcome your comments




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Give Me Strength!

Thursday, 2. April 2015 21:39

I enjoy it when there is a convergence of thought between myself and something that I read or hear. It helps me to feel like I am on to something.

I was reading the book StrengthFinders by Tom Rath as preparation for a departmental retreat. Connected to the book is a personality inventory designed, much the same as Myers Briggs or other such tools to identify one’s five main strengths. Loath as I am to take these types of assessments (though for some reason I have no problem determining which Disney Princess I am on a Facebook quiz), I completed the inventory and received five strengths. Whether these are my actual strengths or not, they certainly correspond to my perception of my strengths.

  1. Ideation
  2. Intellection
  3. Strategic
  4. Futuristic
  5. Input

As offensive as I find the lack of parallelism in form of the categories, I think that they nailed me pretty well (of course many years ago I took The Color Test and found the results equally compelling). Likewise there was a disconcerting horoscope-like feel to the description of each of the terms (when I worked at the bookstore so many years ago, I walked by a young woman looking at an astrology book and remarking to her friend, “Oh, I am SO Libra!”). But again, it was generally on track, I knew, for example, that writing regularly in my blog would not turn up as a strength.

But it wasn’t the strength descriptions that struck me, but the introductory chapter. The author remarked that the general American reaction to any assessment is to note weaknesses and work to “get better” in these areas. This assessment takes the opposite approach, suggesting instead that working extensively on weaknesses is not as productive as developing strengths. Rather, one should focus on areas of strength and pursue paths that work well within these. Within our lives and careers (hmmm, interesting distinction there) we should also build complementary relationships with those who have strengths that fit well with our own.

I remember presenting this six years ago during my first major workshop for teachers. I talked about the different personalities within a successful technology infrastructure, that to be successful a plan needs visionaries, planners, technicians, maintainers, and teachers. Few (if any) educators possess all of these areas of strength, and without complementary relationships, a program will fall in the the area of weakness.

In looking at myself, I am clearly a visionary (without any of the overly positive connotations). I am a pretty good planner, and I am a good teacher. However, I have severe limitations in the area of technical planning (I know how I want things to work, not how they work), and I am a terrible maintainer. I lose interest in projects almost as soon as they roll out, and I’ve moved to something else.

The traditional approach would be for me to focus on getting better at the two weak areas, but the reality is that I likely will never get very good at either, and the effort used there could have better results if directed toward areas of strength. Rath puts it nicely that results are ability x effort. High effort in areas of low ability improve the score but do not make as much impact as high effort in areas of high ability. I need to find people to join me who have strengths in the areas I lack or build systems that take care of these parts themselves.

This is not to say that people cannot improve (nor am I saying, Toni, that I can’t get better at keeping the house clean, just because it doesn’t come naturally to me!), but it does point out the primary importance of developing strengths, even over improving weaknesses.

As always, I welcome your comments.




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Try to Remember

Friday, 9. January 2015 5:12

When discussing the changing face of education, I often start with the given that instruction will be based much less on the rote memorization that most of us associate with school. The ubiquity of Internet attached devices provides a portable “extra brain” where we can easily and quickly access most facts. Instead the focus on education should be accessing this information and more importantly using it in effective and creative ways. I agree with this change completely , and I'm not particularly sympathetic with those who extol the past “skills” of reciting long chains of facts learned in childhood which are never used except as a parlor trick, not significantly different from an educated horse that always picks the right number.

Dropping the sneer for a moment, however, leads to a more fundamental question, and one which those involved in the Ed-tech revolution should be aggressively addressing. Given that students don't need to memorize endless strings of mostly useless data, is there anything they do need to memorize? As we develop new standards and curricula, we need to know this and make sure that it is integrated at appropriate age levels. We don't want to make a clean sweep of memorization only to discover that students are functionally handicapped as they move into adult life. I do think there are some things that should be memorized by every educated person, not for the sake of memorization, but to be the most effective human possible.

Let's start with some things that don't have to be memorized. Unfortuntely, too much memorization is based not on need, but on testing (an artificial need). Educators have students memorize and regurgitate facts because these are the easiest type of test question to create and to grade. In this age of hyper-scrutiny by parents, it is also the least susceptible to criticism, for evaluation is black and white. One cannot argue that the golden poppy isn't the state flower of California (and even though one could argue that one doesn't really need to know this, virtually no one ever does). I put several lists into this category. Does anyone need to have the capitals of all the states memorized when this information is used very seldom (if at all) in life and is readily available on maps? There is a lovely pneumonic to learn the table of elements, but that's why we have a table. I'm sure reflection on subject curriculum will uncover many of these sacred cows that very much need to be slaughtered. I once heard of a teacher who had her elementary students memorize the state mineral of the 50 states. Enough said.

So how do we define a “needed” memorized bit of information? The key goes back to a term used in paragraph 1, function. Children need to memorize facts that help them to operate and function in work and in life. The best example of this is the times tables. Rote memorization of these building blocks allows free operation in many areas, and to do basic multiplication on a calculator all the time would be a needless inconvenience. Likewise there are many spelling cases that must be memorized because without them, communication suffers (but not learning rules like “I before e,” a chestnut that actually has almost as many exceptions as examples). With the list of sacred cows, there is memorized prime beef.

Using this rule, it is possible that many people might add additional memorizations based on life specializations. A scientist might function far faster with the periodic table memorized; a statistician might improve with stare capitals memorized; memorization of state minerals might benefit…well, that doesn't really benefit anyone.

A tougher case for me is the memorization of texts from literature and vital civic documents. While this usually doesn't fit into my rule of functionality, it does serve as ornament. I still can recite from memory:

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would

Though I've never been called in my job to recite Edna St. Vincent Millay, I have impressed a few people with spontaneous recitation, and I am very happy to have this and others in my arsenal. Where this type of thing (show off memorization) fits in, I don't know. Perhaps someone can help in comments.

Likewise I'm not sure how to respond to the argument that memory has to be developed, and these exercises are not about useful information but memory development. I don't know if this works (and I don't know that it does), it should be labeled as such and memorization for practice should be separated from memorization for function. There are many of the older generation who disparage younger people for lack of memory skills, but at one point in history, Homer could recite the entire Odyssey and Iliad from memory. I don't see a push to remaster this once vital skill that was made unnecessary by the technology of the written word.

So, as progressive educators, we cannot look only to how technology can assist and supplant older skills. We need also to consider what “traditional” skills and knowledge are as vital as ever. Just as we cannot do what we do just because we have always done it, we cannot not do something for the same reason.

As always, I welcome your comments.




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