torsdag den 1. december 2016

Springsteen and the election

On November 8 the Democrats lost the White House because they lost the battle for the working class to a billionaire. This humiliating defeat could have been avoided if they had listened to a completely different billionaire: Bruce Springsteen. Through four decades, Springsteen has - more or less directly - supported the Democrats, but the two politicians who have had understanding for and benefitted from the insight that – among other places – can be found in Springsteen, have both been Republicans: Reagan in 1984 and Trump in 2016.
It has been argued that the Democrats lost the battle for the White House because Hillary Clinton was everything that the voters could not stand. It seems to be an unfortunate analysis. Hillary actually got far more votes than Trump. The figure is approaching a plus for Hillary of 2 million. Trump is The Minority President. It seems closer to the truth to argue that Hillary Clinton simply missed a segment of the American population in her campaign. If Hillary had won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, she would have won the election. Pennsylvania was lost by about 70,000 votes out of 6 million. Wisconsin was lost by only 30,000 votes out of about 3 million. Had she also taken Ohio, victory would have been compelling. Pew Research has made a thorough analysis of the figures behind the choice:

"In the 2016 election, a wide gap in presidential preferences emerged between those with and without a college degree. College graduates backed Clinton by a 9-point margin (52%-43%), while those without a college degree backed Trump 52%-44%. This is by far the widest gap in support among college graduates and non-college graduates in exit polls dating back to 1980. […] Among whites, Trump won an overwhelming share of those without a college degree [...] " (my italics)
(Pew Research, 2016)

The conclusion is crystal clear: If Hillary had had just a little more insight and interest in rust-and coalbelt white voters with low level of education and low job security, she had today been The President Elect. And that's exactly the segment that Springsteen has analyzed and strewn through his music and poetry.

Springsteen's analysis can be traced far back in the production. At least back to the album The River from 1980. On “Independence Day”, we are witnessing a scene in a kitchen in a working class family in New Jersey. It is, ironically, Independence day, the United States ' major national holiday, but also a day where his son here in the kitchen declares himself independent of his parents’ lifestyle and at the same time seeking to make his father independent of his illusions: "it's just different people coming down here now/and they see things in different ways/And soon everything we've known will just be swept away/So , say goodbye, it's Independence Day ". The son is probably right, but what he doesn’t see is that it is an independence and a change his father basically doesn't want, but rather fears with an intensity reminiscent of the one experienced in Europe when refugees from Syria suddenly were wandering on the highways. What is happening to the world? What is happening to my world? One wonders if Hillary Clinton and other established politicians in the Western world truly understand the fear. Springsteen did. Trump does.

On The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) the tone is far more raw, and the irony is given notable emphasis on the title track:

Men walking ' long the railroad tracks
Going someplace, there's no going back
Highway patrol choppers coming up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretching ' round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleeping in the cars in the southwest
No home, no job, no peace, no rest

"The New World Order" is precisely what the father from the kitchen in New Jersey does not want, and at the same time, it was in 1995 what everyone from the elite — including former President Bill Clinton – talked about and wanted it. We spoke with Fukuyama of the end of history and a development towards peace, stability, and liberal democracy throughout the world. But here Springsteen rhymes "world order" with "shelter line stretching round the corner". No one knows where you are going. Just "someplace". On the other hand, they are fully aware that "there's no going back". And finally the hopelessness is summed up in the asyndetic anaphora: "No home, no job, no peace, no rest." For how long can the sentiment thrive side-by-side with confidence in Washington and established politicians?

On the same album we find the song "Youngstown", and here we are in the middle of the rust belt where Hillary lost the election campaign:

Here in north east Ohio
Back in eighteen-o-three
James and Dan Heaton
Found the ore that was linin' yellow creek
They built a blast furnace
Here along the shore
And they made the cannon balls
That helped the union win the war
Here in Youngstown

The historical consciousness and pride are palpable. We are in 1803 way back in time, immediately after the war of independence and the establishment of the new Constitution. "Here" is repeated three times as an insistence on place and local identity being important, and this importance is merged directly with national history and identity when it is stated that "they made the cannon balls/That helped the union win the war/Here in Youngstown". A distinctive feature of the political elite's new world order has been to insist that places and their history have no meaning in themselves.
Awareness of and pride in history are coupled with frustration when the song's narrator remembers his father:

Well my daddy come on the 0hio works
When he come home from world war two
Now the yard's just scrap and rubble
He said, "Them big boys did what Hitler couldn't do"

In the current political situation, the anger is alsodirected at "them big boys”. Paradoxical, perhaps, but who can really with hand on heart say that Trump more closely represents "Them big boys" than Hillary Clinton does? Voters in the rust belt have seen her as the elite representative and thus as a representative of the destruction of values and communities like "Youngstown". The song's ending gives us an interesting image:

When I die I don't want no part of heaven
In would not do heaven's work well
In pray the devil comes and takes me
Two stand in the fiery furnaces of hell

can't ignore  the notion that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats generally have offered precisely "part of heaven." With Clinton, we find the value-based, minority-oriented, liberal policy that resonates so well along America's coasts and among the well-educated (and among very many Europeans). If one realizes that Trump offered a job at "the fiery furnaces of hell", one sees an important part of his success. Trump Digs Coal, as it was boldly punned in the coal and rust belt. And coal was, indeed, black gold for the man from Trump Tower. When the labour movement arose in Europe and shaped a society where there was respect and security for the working people, they offered part of heaven, but there was an energy and determination which can be found at hell's Fiery Furnaces. From this energy, the earth  shall rise on new foundations. Through this determination nought can be made all. But is it visible through misty hipster glasses across the rim of a Cafe Latte?

After the financial crisis, which was the final nail in the coffin for many American communities, Springsteen released the album Wrecking Ball. In the song "Jack of All Trades" we meet the irrepressible and competent worker who seeks to encourage his wife:

I'll hammer the nails, and I'll set the stone
I'll harvest your crops when they're ripe and grown
I'll pull that engine apart and patch here up 'til she's running right
I'm a Jack of all trades, we'll be alright

Through the whole song one feels the fragile surface of optimism, and occasionally it is pierced by realism:
The banker man grows fat, the working man grows thin
It's all happened before and it'll happen again
It'll happen again, they'll bet your life

The realism is thrillingly cynical when we rather than the expected "you can bet your life" get "they'll bet your life". A wife's life is in the hands of the elite, and they gamble it on Wall Street and in Washington. Eventually the desperation breaks through:

So you use what you've got, and you learn to make do
You take the old, you make it new
If I had me a gun, I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight
I'm a Jack of all trades, we'll be alright

The words "bastards" and "shoot'em on sight" come unexpectedly and shockingly from this grounded and fundamentally decent narrator. Here we see the anger, and we hear it in Toni Morello’s heartbreaking guitar solo.
On the title track, we meet a man raised with and by the steel industry: "I was raised out of steel here in the swamps of Jersey, some misty years ago." With the demolition of Giants Stadium as real and symbolic backdrop, the song shows a strong and completely hopeless defiance. All is lost, and only in the hopeless spite does the narrator find a dignity which gives a small spark to life:

Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away two rust
And all our youth and beauty, has been given to the dust
[…] Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you've got
Bring on your wrecking ball

One loses to a wrecking ball. But maybe one can send a wrecking ball back toward Washington?

Populism haunts Europe and the United States like a modern specter, and the traditional right wing seems to have attached itself to it in a common interest in kicking down in society. At the same time a leftist populism exists where the left gather to kick upwards in society; up against the elite. Interestingly, the Centre or centre-left do not succeed in exploiting or correcting populism. Perhaps they should try to listen to songwriters and authors like Springsteen. Perhaps we should try to find and exploit the energy obtained at "the fiery furnaces of hell".

mandag den 28. december 2015

Empowerment of Curiosity

Would it be an exaggeration to say that education traditionally has focused on one question: Does the student meet our standards?

The second person plural of course referring to the educated, the establishment, the tradition. Follow that question from kindergarten through school, high school, college to job application and interview, and you see the contours of a society thoroughly complacent about the status quo and tradition. “If she can demonstrate that she meets our standards, we might consider letting her into our circle!”
On such a view of education and - indeed - the world, the role of education and assessment has been to ensure that the student leaves the school with the ability to meet established standards, and the grade has signified to which degree that is the case. An A simply means: we consider it more than likely that this individual will live up to the standards that you (as an employer or educational institution) has every right to expect.
Can we afford such conservative complacency in a world where the cost of data-processing decreases exponentially? Will companies in the future be able to survive by hiring people who are certified standard meeters?

"In the future an A should mean: This student is likely to challenge your standards in an interesting and qualified way."

Let’s redefine the A-grade. In the future an A should mean: This student is likely to challenge your standards in an interesting and qualified way.
On this view, the role of education can be formulated as Empowerment of Curiosity.
Why curiosity?
Curiosity is:
  • fascination, interest, joy
  • alternatives, criticism, challenges
  • an open mind and a big “What if…”
Why empowerment?
Empowerment is:
  • knowledge of foundation and tradition
  • self-efficacy and independence
  • method, procedure, cooperation

For the future of democracy, of science and of industry we need individuals with an empowered curiosity. Let’s change our schools to meet that standard.

lørdag den 7. november 2015

Leaders of Professional Development

When schools find it difficult to learn

Unfortunately, I think the story is only too familiar. A school decides to improve student learning by way of a particular pedagogical tools, e.g. clear learning goals and high-quality feedback. A number of professional learning networks (PLNs) are established. The school year starts. Some PLNs do some work, others way too little.

"the only thing that is truly learned is that the organisation finds it very difficult to learn"

And at the status meeting with the school leader all the hurdles and difficulties and impracticalities and examples of bad student behaviour and the lack of time and objections to pedagogical theory are pointed out, and we spend almost all our time discussing whether all these factors are real or imagined and how to work around them. And, sadly, the only thing that is truly learned is that the organisation finds it very difficult to learn.  Status quo comes up trumps once again, and five years down the road someone will say: "Oh, we tried that once. Failed miserably."
What goes wrong? I am in the process of learning that three factors are crucial:

1) Time and competing priorities.
2) Lack of vision
3) Lack of didactic reflection in the context of PD

ad 1) We often talk of a lack of time when it comes to PD. All school leaders must have learned the lesson by now: allocate time for PD! But even if the advice is heeded, PLNs will still point to a lack of time as the main obstacle. Why? Because %-time and now-time are two different things. There is the kind of time that involves year planning. The kind of time where leadership will tell the teacher that 7% of her time has been allocated to PD and work in her PLN. Leadership is happy. We've done what the books tell us to do.

"With %-time, the project becomes a slave to the calendar, with now-time the calendar becomes the servant of the PLN"

The teacher is, at first, happy. They've appreciated my need for time. But it won't do the trick. Because the first kind of time, the % kind of time, is very different from the feeling of now-time. Now-time, as the name suggests, gives the teacher a feeling of when there is actually time for the needed activity. And it makes sure that the other teachers in the PLN are available at the same now-time. With %-time, the PLN becomes a slave to the calendar, with now-time the calendar becomes the servant of the PLN. This is crucial. PD deserves and needs now-time - and it is a leadership responsibility.

"We all learn from experience, but we also learn from our dreams and visions"

ad 2) In broad terms we might know what we want, but do we really have a clear vision of where we're headed? In the context of student learning and feedback, we now know that it is extremely important for the student to know where she or he is going. Students must be familiar with model examples of their work. We all learn from experience, but we also learn from our dreams and visions, because they serve as feedback in relation to where we are at any given stage. I want to go there, but am I there yet? So, do we always present a clear vision that PD can learn from? Far from it. We might in general terms express a wish for clearer learning goals and better feedback, but what does that look like? What does the school look like if we get there? What would student or teacher life be like if we get there? And, basically and perhaps most importantly, what would the outstanding course and lessons look like? We as school leaders really do not deserve results if we can't answer these questions.

"If we disrespect pedagogy and didactics in the context of PD, how can we respect it in the context of student learning?"

ad 3) We expect all teachers to make pedagogical and didactic decisions when it comes to teaching and student learning. We are all well aware of the fact that different learning goals require different pedagogical tools, variations in lesson design etc. Yet, when it comes to PD, we rarely take the time to reflect on didactics and pedagogy. Granted, there will be PLNs that have reached a stage of meta-learning where they will, in fact, make conscious decisions concerning didactic approach, but it seems reckless to generalize from these outstanding few. For PD to have broad effect, we need all PLNs to work - also when they are only just coming to grips with the form itself. So, we need to teach PLNs how to create learning experiences, and we need a broad range of techniques, because different goals and priorities will simply require different techniques. It seems unlikely, for instance, that a PLN will be able to rely on the technique they used to improve their leadership of class discussion in a situation where they want to improve their course design. And using the wrong technique leads to a high degree of frustration because there will be a feeling of having done all the right things and achieving very little. Some school leaders, myself included, might not feel completely comfortable with this task, but then we (indeed: I) will have to learn or seek help. If we disrespect pedagogy and didactics in the context of PD, how can we respect it in the context of student learning?

There's so much we can do to improve schools, so much we can do to make the lives of students and teachers more fulfilling. But without tackling the three factors discussed above, we are not going to get very far. So, let's get to work!

onsdag den 30. september 2015

Growth mindset in kitchens and schools

I have always been impressed by great chefs. Why? Simply because they always strive for improvement. When they've done their best, they always seem to ask: how can I make my best better? A very clear example of this was seen when René Redzepi, headchef at Noma, commented on the decision to close down Noma and open a brand new restaurant:
"We have spent the last twelve years trying to figure out what it means to be a chef in the Nordic region, and now we are ready to start that restaurant we have been practicing for."
Wow. And I mean: wow! They have been "practicing", and at the same time maintained a position as best or near-best restaurant in the world.

"Never mind the measurement. How do we feel about our potential? That is the real question."
When I say "best or near-best", I am obviously referring to a measurement of quality, and that measurement can always be challenged. Were they really the best? What does it mean to be the best? Etc. But what is exceptional about this case is that the measurement doesn't seem to have been the goal. The goal was improvement. The goal was - actually - never reaching the goal. Never mind the measurement. How do we feel about our potential? That is the real question.
We have recently seen a very high-profile case that provides the counter example to Noma: VW.
The multinational, multi-billion dollar company that used to be the beacon of quality and reliability has in fact been teaching to the test - and rigged the results at that. Apparently, all that has mattered to VW has been the measurement. What happens on a daily basis during driving and to nature has apparently not been a great priority. Neither has real improvement. As long as they could make the measurements look good, they were happy.

"the VW approach: make the measurements look good and never mind reality"

All this has profound relevance for education. There is - and so there should be - a tide of debate on quality and the measurement of quality. We are measured by Key Performance Indicators, and pedagogical development is supposed to be based on evidence. In this tide, we are all at risk of being sucked down by the VW approach: make the measurements look good and never mind reality - which in our world translates into: never mind the learning! A danger that is all the stronger because there is a strong headwind in the discourse for anything that is quantified and measured. We are always fragile when given the chance to look good and look right.
"Not improvement for the measurement, but measurement of the improvement"
Let's consider Noma. They did focus on reality, on the real product, on nature, on learning. And what is extremely interesting is that they didn't sacrifice the measurements in the process. They actually practiced while the measurements were strongly in their favour. And this is the course we must follow in education. Focus on the real learning, on creativity, on critical thinking, on training real persons for real democracy - but at the same time produce results with positive consequences in the measurements. Not improvement for the measurement, but measurement of the improvement.

søndag den 2. august 2015

Data, Assessment and Learning

In a recent blog, I argued that each and every student must create data as an integrated and organic part of school work and that all grading must be based on said data. This raises several interesting questions, which I'll deal with in this blog:

  • How does the production of data interact with learning and the learning goals?
  • What kind of data?
  • How does one integrate the production of data in school work?
  • Why "grading"?

 And let's begin with the last. Some of us have to grade. Quite simply. We shouldn't grade more than we are legally or institutionally required to, but when we we are obligated to grade, we should always do so based on data. And it is our responsibility as teachers to offer every student a fair opportunity to create that data.

" is our responsibility as teachers to offer every student a fair opportunity to create that data."

In this context, it is important to state that data doesn't have to be numbers, it doesn't have to be quantifiable. Prose writing is data, a well-curated Padlet is data, a film shot and edited on an iPhone is data. Sure, the bubble test has its advantages. It self-corrects, it churns out numbers, it can be re-used, but what does it actually measure?! We should remember, I think, that grades mean a lot to the students. I have, actually, often been surprised at how much it means to them. Conversations with a large number of students have, for example, taught me that it is quite the norm to prioritize courses where they are close to the decisive grade, whereas courses where the decisive grade is one or more semesters away are put on hold or only given lip service. Grades in that way can be likened to the means of production, the base, in industrialized society. Or to be blunt: Grades run the game!

"Grades run the game!"

This doesn't mean that we should simply bow to the totemic powers of grades. What it does mean, on the other hand, is that we should make grades work for us! I am not necessarily particularly fond of the somewhat primitive behaviorism lurking behind all this, but given that grades do have such a strong hold on our students, turning the blind eye quite frankly seems irresponsible. We need to align three questions: What are the learning goals? What is the task? What kind of data do I need as teacher? And, really, these questions are complimentary questions of course design. The course can be all three things: learning goals, task, data. But it should function as complimentary aspects of the course, not as separate elements that are glued together.

If we keep these three questions in mind when designing courses, I believe we have a great opportunity to make grading work for us in the process of having our students work towards the 6 Cs of 21st century learning: Character building, creativity, communication, collaboration, critical thinking and citizenship. And you just try fitting that into a bubble test!

onsdag den 29. juli 2015

The Assessment Crisis - a Danish Perspective

Having followed the American debate about assessment and learning for some time, I think the time has come to contribute to the debate with a perspective from the Danish assessment debate. The following is based on the dilemmas that I am facing as a vice-principal in the Danish equivalent of high school, i. e. the “gymnasium”, and I write from a context of challenges, dilemmas, new creative thoughts, ingrown practices and a strong sense of a need for change.

From what I have read of the American debate, the challenge felt in the US is that rigid tests with a very narrow taxonomy, little room for creativity and independence and strong emphasis on rote learning are forcing teachers to narrow the scope of their teaching and teach to the test. Teaching in this context has become powerless to do what most teachers would like to do and know to be important: focus on deep learning, on creativity, on analysis, on critical thinking etc.

"Teaching in this context has become powerless to do what most teachers would like to do and know to be important: focus on deep learning, on creativity, on analysis, on critical thinking"

In Denmark we have a challenge with assessment. This challenge creates some of the same tensions, challenges and debates that we find in the US, but the starting point is completely different. Firstly, one needs to realise that grades are extremely important to most high school-students in Denmark, as the average grade determines which higher education the student can be accepted into. Consequently, students are very interested in and controlled by grades. Nothing new or - presumably - different here. What is different, however, is the fact that most of the grade average is dependent on what we call “oral grades”. That is, grades given on the basis of oral participation during lessons. Twice during the school year the student is given a grade, and the grade given at the end of the year - or at the end of the course should the course be longer than one year - is the one that counts.
There is great potential in this model, but there are also severe risks and drawback, and I will focus on the latter first, covering three drawbacks: the resource drawback, the data drawback and the arbitrarity drawback

"There is great potential in this model, but there are also severe risks and drawback, and I will focus on the latter first, covering three drawbacks: the resource drawback, the data drawback and the arbitrarity drawback"

The resource drawback is all about the problem of time and access. A lesson is typically 90 minutes long. It is fair to assume that 50% of this is taken up by administrative issues, disciplinary issues and the teacher talking. So, there might be 45 minutes left for the students. With as many as 32 students in class, it seems obvious that access to time and teacher attention becomes a scarce resource. Extroverted students with strong social backgrounds and with the need for a high grade are bound to horde that resource in these circumstances - leaving the introverts, the less ambitious and the socially disadvantaged on the side lines.
This brings us the second drawback: The lack of data. Not only will some students be sidelined in the race for time and teacher attention, thus not producing data for assessment, but even the winners in the race will be producing data that disappears as the lesson ends. Short of recording every lesson, there is little one can do to “save” a lesson for later evaluation. Consequently, we are beginning to see situations where students complain about a grade and the teacher being completely unable to support the grade with data. It becomes a case of take-my-word-for-it, and whose word does one then trust? The teacher’s or the student’s?

"How will a teacher, for example, assess a student who has been a continual loser in the race for time and attention? "

The risk of arbitrarity, then, becomes the third drawback. How will a teacher, for example, assess a student who has been a continual loser in the race for time and attention? Teachers are tempted from time to time to argue that since it is an oral grade, it requires oral participation, and since the student hasn’t participated, a pass grade must be out of the question. This, possibly, of a student from whom the teacher has no data for assessment. And what about moral or disciplinary grading? Since there is a serious lack of data on which to base an objective discussion of the grade, there is very little that can stop a teacher from grading on the basis of sym- or antipathy. It is not my experience that this happens often, but is definitely also my experience that it does happen. A strong component in this arbitrarity drawback is that many teachers still have fixed mindsets - as opposed to growth mindsets. A lot of teachers actually think that they can determine which grade a student “is”. And once the student experiences that “the teacher knows which grade I am”, it is very difficult indeed for that student to focus on becoming rather than being - thus making the teacher’s assumption a self fulfilling prophecy.
Having covered the drawbacks, we must now focus on the potential that I mentioned above. The potential comes from one basic fact: The teacher can do what he or she wants! There is freedom here, and as always freedom comes with risks, with complication and with frustration, but freedom also means potential. The first thing to do is to overcome the drawbacks. All students must have access, all students must produce data for feedback and assessment and all grades must be based on an objective assessment of this data and presented in the language of a growth mindset. Time is still a challenge, but all students in Danish high schools always bring their own device - in most cases devices. Films can be shot, audio recorded, Prezis made, blogs written etc. All students can now get access and produce data. No problem. And once that is in place, the teachers can start doing what they know to be important - and great fun: teaching creativity, teaching analysis, teaching critical thinking. Teaching for life rather than for the test!
My input for the American debate? If - I should say: when - you get rid of the manacles of teaching to the test, relish your freedom by all means, but be wary of the risks that come with a freer system. Tackle the three drawbacks and the road is clear to the teaching and learning that the students deserve. We are not there yet in Denmark, or at my school or - even - in my classroom. But one fine morning…………….!