Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Calling out of Gmail and Google Voice

I've been futzing with the new calling service that Google is offering and will report some of the things I've experienced.

On Google Voice -
1. I got a phone number for them. I searched on my area code, 217, and my zip code. Neither of those gave numbers. (Champaign-Urbana is not a big SMSA.) I eventually searched on my first name. That provided several numbers. I chose one with a 312 (Chicago) area code.
2. I have it set to ring to my cell phone. That works quite well.
3. If calling from the Google Voice application, I can have it use the cell phone and that works fine. My other alternative is to have it use Google Talk. That doesn't work. I'm not sure why.
4. I haven't tested enough on the transcription application to see how reliability it is, but the way the text and audio are displayed is very good in my view. Somebody who used this application repeatedly would become sensitized to the need to caption video for universal access.

On calling from Gmail.
1. I have many Gmail accounts and have tried this on a couple. On one without a Google Voice account, it seems to call from a phone number that exists just for that call. If from the number that was called I try to return the call, I can't. So to me, since so often you get voicemail instead of getting the person, it doesn't make a lot of sense to use the service without having a Google Voice account.
2. When you have a Google Voice account Gmail knows this and uses that number.

On them together.
The interface is a little weird at present, since it is another browser window (or tab) rather than seeing it all from a unified view (like an inbox and a sent items box in email).

At present, none of this is available on my iPad. For browsers others than Chrome one has to download an extension to enable the calling functionality. But otherwise, this is pretty interesting and I think I may use it for real in the near future.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Excise The Textbook

There are some old things that we need to preserve and cherish. Last night on the TCM channel they were showing To Have and Have Not. The movie is probably best remembered as Lauren Bacall's debut - "You know how to whistle." Hers is a total presence in this film, quick on the uptake, poise beyond her years, a pro as a hustler yet still a kid. The movie, however, is not just Lauren Bacall. There are other characters in the background who do wonderful things, notably Hoagy Carmichael as the piano player, Cricket. You get from him a sense of how his songs were composed and how his need as a songwriter is driven by capturing the imagination of the audience. And Walter Brennan is excellent too, the lush who is a flake but also a person of substance. Of course there's Bogie, the antihero par excellence, out for himself while serving the cause of Free France. The movie was made during World War II. It seems a blend of film noir and patriotic themes. There are definitely good guys and bad guys. But the message holds up because the characters have been around the block and are believable. It's a film I can enjoy viewing periodically for the rest of my life.

There are other old things that need to be ditched. They embrace practices that no longer fit. They block newer ideas that need to emerge. This piece is about one of those things - the textbook. At the college level, we should be getting rid of it. I'll explain why.

The best of textbooks provide "end point thinking" and that is what these books present to the students. End point thinking is the received wisdom of experts in the discipline, suitably translated for the novice mind. Students are somehow expected to "suck in" the end point thinking and internalize it. Through that process they will come to know the subject matter. However, the process of going from ignorance of the subject to mastery of the end point remains totally opaque. My surmisal of the actual situation is that in many cases the process doesn't lead to fruition. Ignorance or prior held view is retained, even for many students who do well on the tests in the course.

In the last five to seven years, clickers (automatic response units for polling students in the live classroom) have become popular. Their benefit is that they can readily show dissonance among the students to queries the instructor poses. Having demonstrated such dissonance, there is a need to resolve it. One good path to resolution is that a student and her neighbor(s) discuss their views of the situation and then argue their way to to a common understanding, after which another iteration with the clickers can show if the class now seems to better see the right way to think about the problem. The dissonance serves as a motivation for the discussions among the students. In the main, however, the content of these discussions does not find its way to a more broad airing.

An alternative is to have the students do a "preflight quiz" online in advance of the class session. In addition to answering the the closed ended quiz question, the student is asked to provide her reasoning and justification for the answer they selected. The instructor can cull through these responses and select representatives or particularly interesting comments. Part of the live class session then becomes a response to those or the session launches in an entirely new direction triggered by those responses. This is the essence of Just In Time Teaching. It conveys the idea that student formative thinking should have influence on what goes on in the classroom.

However, the situation thus described pertains to only to a highly insular world where the subject matter is for the most part pre-determined. Perhaps that makes sense in introductory Physics. I'm not sure about that. It certainly doesn't make sense in undergraduate microeconomics, courses I teach. A significant chunk of such courses should be taken up with how the subject matter relates to what is going on in the "real world," say as depicted by pieces in NPR, articles in the New York Times, or elsewhere in the popular media.

Textbooks are not helpful in either of these dimensions. By emphasizing the end point thinking these books mask the student formative thinking. By offering a complete program to the instructor, they seem to provide the option to exclude real world current events as legitimate objects of study in the class. Such exclusion means the students never learn how to translate what they are being taught to apply to issues that should be of interest and concern. The courses will seem irrelevant in this case.

There is the further issue of the changing demographics in General Education instruction. When I started teaching, 30 years ago, almost all large introductory classes at Illinois were taught by regular faculty, mainly tenured professors who had a flair for the subject and for presenting to a large audience. Nowadays, many if not most of the instructors are non-tenure track. These instructors are more risk-averse in their approach and thus more inclined to offer a cookbook view of the subject matter, especially if that "satisfies" the students, as measured by the course evaluations and any other assessment instrument that might be introduced to measure effectiveness of instruction. By overt indicators, things may appear to be going swimmingly. But deep learning is unlikely to happen in this setting.

There is a need to introduce ongoing experimentation in the approach to teaching and learning in these classes and to expect instructors who do this to themselves learn about how to effectively teach the subject in a way that has a chance to open the students' eyes and change their world view. Surely this will imply a greater focus on student intrinsic motivation, about exposing student formative thinking, and a push to tie the subject matter to the real world. The textbook is a force for the old way of instruction. There needs to be a counter force for the new.

If such a counter force were present and viable, would the textbook have to be eliminated entirely or might it be retained as one piece of the instructional materials for the course? I don't know the answer to that question. There are too many other unknowns that would help determine the answer. What will replace the textbook? My hope is that it would be the creations of the students themselves. What students create in one offering of the course could be repurposed in future offerings of the class and utilized by other students. Idealistic as I am about that prospect, there is another side of me that is a realist. We're not ready to flick that switch and make the change. Other intermediate steps need to happen first.

What I'd like to see is a rather massive undertaking of having students produce multimedia content in doing their outside of the classroom work. What I have in mind is an online version of show and tell, a pedagogy that was prominent when I was in grade school. Show and tell is a pedagogy that should be preserved. Students can do show and tell via screencasts or analogous modes of online presentation. I made an argument for doing this a couple of years ago, when there was still a fair amount of production value needed to produce something decent. Nowadays, a student can use the free version of Jing and post the resulting movie in swf format as an email attachment to Posterous, where it appears embedded in a blog post. Or they can use the Pro version of Jing ($15/year) and upload to YouTube. So far I've not seen others using screencasts in this way for regular homework. If this were to happen and the student body as a whole developed the relevant sort of experience for making these, it could serve as the basis for the type of change I'm talking about.

An alternative is to use the screencasts for online presentations that are course projects and may be done in lieu of having the students make in class presentations. Because the projects are larger than a simple homework assignment, students might get more into the multimedia production. Here are some ideas on making such projects, aimed at students learning a different sort of communication style concomitant to learning the subject matter. I embraced the approach in the seminar class I taught in fall 2009 and the students who made these did some interesting work.

The profession doesn't seem to have taken up this idea of student multimedia presentation as the path to the future. Instead, there has been a recent very heavy focus on eTexts. I'm seeing it on the listservs I participate in. I'm having discussions about it with friends and colleagues, mostly because textbook pricing is a prominent issue. And the popular press has embraced the story, for example, see this online debate at the New York Times Web site. I believe that because of budget problems in most of Higher Ed, the cost issues are getting the attention and causing the profession to lose track of the learning issues, which undoubtedly are larger and more important long term. And on the learning issues, courses that are entirely steeped in the textbook are taking a 19th century teaching approach and not well instructing the students on the learning to learn skills that should be the essence of a well prepared 21st century mind.

If the students were learning deeply, the cost of readings issue would fade into the background. Absent any deep learning, the entire education becomes expensive indeed and the cost of materials appears to be rubbing salt into the wound. We may very well be in crisis now. The solution, however, doesn't lie in electronic versions of the traditional approach. It requires a different approach entirely.

Friday, August 06, 2010

The Geometry of Innocence

When idealism meets reality, what happens? My experience is that history repeats, but in a different, parallel universe.

There has been a tension in learning technology as long as I can remember, between the individual and the computer on the one hand and social interactions between individuals that the technology facilitates on the other. I first encountered the "thinking of the discipline" on this tension when I and my co-authors wrote the paper on the SCALE Efficiency Projects, back in 1998. SCALE was funded by the Sloan grant program for online learning and our philosophy came very much from them, as interpreted by Burks Oakley. But there was no prior Sloan writing on using technology to achieve efficiency. I discovered examples of such writing via NLII, which if I recall correctly (my memory is weak here) had a library of white papers housed on the Educom Web site.

Many years later, with the Sloan grant so far in the background that it no longer appeared in the rear-view mirror, the universes collided again. The occasion was the appearance of a paper by Massy and Zemsky called Thwarted Innovation, which many took issue with, including several members of the Sloan-C listserv. (I participated in that list and am still a member.) Somebody decided it would be useful and interesting to invite Bill Massy onto the list to discuss and debate the issues. He agreed. For a while there was an interesting discussion though some of it seemed to me like two ships passing in the night. Then there was a blowup, as comments got personal, which seemed to conclude the discussion. On the substance, however, I thought we weren't done. So I wrote this post to the Sloan-C listserv back in fall 2004, to resuscitate the conversation. I received a handful of emails from well regarded people on the list thanking me for this post, as it did provide some synthesis. But no further discussion of the topic ensued as a consequence. (This bothered me and was one of the reasons I started blogging the following winter. If my posting wasn't going to generate discussion, why restrict the eyeballs that might read what I had to say to just the Sloan list?)

Now these themes seem to be emerging again, with locus the Educause Review issue that has recently appeared and its theme on Openness. My attention turned immediately to the piece by Brian Lamb and Jim Groom, Never Mind the Edupunks; or The Great Web 2.0 Swindle. Lamb and Groom are two of the brighter lights in the Ed Tech constellation. They tell a cautionary tale, alerting us to the risks of proprietary but open software. As an alternative they propose creating a safe zone: online, open, and for education only, no commercial interests represented and therefore a self-sustaining space entirely funded by education. Implicit in this view of Ed Tech is a playground designer's mentality to design. It is sufficient to put in a jungle gym, swings, a seesaw, and lots of space for the kids to run around. Let's leave the games the kids are to play to the children themselves. They can invent that on their own. Our job is to ensure they have good facilities to play in.

There are too many heroes in this domain to list here, but we offer a shout-out to the jaw-dropping CUNY Academic Commons (http://commons.gc.cuny.edu/), which seamlessly integrates the open-source WordPress, MediaWiki, and BuddyPress platforms into an appealing and highly sustainable environment. The power placed into the hands of the users reflects the stated intent of Luke Waltzer, administrator of the CUNY platform Blogs@Baruch, "to gradually integrate into the school's general education curriculum the deep, critical examination of how digital tools are changing the way we think and live."19

I don't think the playground designer way, I suppose because I'm an economist. I think of the technology environment in much the same way that I conceive of an incentive scheme, something aimed to influence behavior in a certain way. I'm currently reading Nudge, a book I might use in a course I hope to teach next spring. A good part of the reason why that book was written was to develop an acceptable paternalism, one that leaves free choice with the individual but nonetheless encourages a certain types of behavior. Surely we in Ed Tech are paternalistic. There are behaviors that we'd like to see in the teachers and students we support and other behaviors we'd prefer to proscribe. Just as surely it is safer for us to zero in on the technology and take the playground designer approach. But being safer doesn't mean it's right. Overt paternalism might open us up to criticism. But it would make it clearer what we're really after and whether we've achieved our goals.

There is another serious reason to focus on the behavior specifically. There may be multiple ways to achieve a nudge (e.g., social interactions need not be technology mediated), hence good nudges (least intrusive, lowest cost) and bad nudges (heavy handed, very costly). It may also be the case that if one hasn't worked through the full chain of causality, then the outcome one gets might be quite different from the one that was intended (e.g., using the LMS to push PowerPoints at students instead of to extend in-class discussion online). Does the Open Education safe haven make for a good nudge? How can we know that?

And then I've got my own personal reason for wanting to take an other than playground design approach. I'm turning into my dad. He came of age during the Great Depression and though while I was growing up our family was comfortable financially, he remained a cheapskate on certain things - for example he'd buy the store brand paper towels, the kind that would melt in your hands while you were using them rather than one of the name brands. In his view, store brand was good enough. Save the cash for something else more important, for example giving a bequest so the grandchildren would have their college education paid for. My sense is to be a cheapskate with the technology. It needs to work, no doubt. It doesn't need to be perfect. This is a view I got exposed to as a Sloan grantee. I still believe it.

In my EQ column about the LMS, I made the point that ROI is linked to the behavioral issues. So CIO types, if not Ed Techers, should have some interest in the resulting behavior as they attempt to see what type of ROI they are getting from whatever online learning environments they do support. My guess, however, is that many CIOs, especially those with a heavy IT background, don't have a clue as to what type of behavior they'd like to see. Who will help to educate them on this?

Inspired by Atul Gawande's The Bell Curve, what I'd like to see is an ongoing and institutional-level embrace of teaching and learning as experiment - there is something new to try each time a class is offered. The experiment need not be radical, but it must follow in a sensible way by what has come before, borrowing from the experience of others and one's own prior experience, and there needs to be a new experiment the next time around. We have had something like a pure behavioral approach to this goal in the form of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL), which has captured the minds of a few early adopters but has not diffused broadly at all. SOTL places a rather high bar for the instructor to leap over. And SOTL seems such a solitary activity; other instructors interested in it likely share no disciplinary affinity. So to see broad-based experimentation with teaching and learning we need something more do-able. And we need a nudge, quite possibly several nudges.

I can't really say whether the online, open, for education only safe zone would be an ideal nudge, the irresistible force, if you will. I do have considerable experience, however, with that immovable object, faculty inertia. Truthfully, it's not completely immovable. Encouraging a regime of modest experiments is possible, at least for some faculty. Is that the best we can hope for with the best possible interventions? I don't know. I wish it were more. And I wish we'd agree that is the goal.

Ed Techers, many of whom are apt to be innovators or early adopters themselves, certainly Lamb and Groom are in that category, aspire for a technology environment that appeals to their own aesthetic demands, driven by their own learning needs. They can be playground designers because surely they'd have a grand time in a playground of their own making.

But there are pessimists in the crowd and they'd be miserable no matter what the environment and there are optimists too who, as we know, only need the possibility of a pony.

* * * * *

Post to Sloan-C listserv, fall 2004

We are just starting the fall semester here and it has been more than a week since there has been a post on this thread. Perhaps it is time to resume. I am in the middle of reading Bill's book, "Honoring the Trust.....," having just finished the chapter on Technology's misunderstood potential. For those who don't know me, we had a big Sloan grant for "On Campus ALN" called the SCALE project. It ran from 1995 - 2000. My goal is to contrast the Massy view, as I understand it, with the Sloan approach. I will then conclude with the question: do these distinctions matter and should we emphasize them or should we live happily together under the umbrella e-Learning?

Here are my organizing questions:
1. What is the innovation?
2. What are main sources of productivity enhancement?
3. What is the "correct" way to diffuse the approach?

I hope I don't offend here. It is not my goal. So please do correct/modify the responses to make this more accurate. With that disclaimer, I will write "Bill's view" and "Frank's view" to describe my understanding of the two positions.

1. What is the innovation?

Bill's View: The technology, of course. Most broadly, this is the Internet. It is also email, Course management systems, streaming media, java applets - any Web based or computer based application that can be used for teaching and learning.

Frank's View: The technology is secondary. Off the shelf software will do. (When we tried to get Frank to fund software development projects, and we did try, the answer was invariably, no. This is not Sloan's way. Contrast this with what Mellon is doing. They are putting lots of $$$ into open source software.) More important is to focus on the social organization of the class. I recall reading something by Frank early on where each student was viewed as a node on a network and all nodes were important. Students were contributors of knowledge as well as receivers of information. The technology enabled this type of social organization to communicate "asynchronously" and thereby accommodate work and lifestyle patterns of the students. To the extent that technology enabled the social organization and the asynchronous communication, it was obviously critical. But the improvements beyond that were really secondary.

Comments: On the teaching and learning per se, I believe these views are opposed. Frank has made a point that there is insufficient infrastructure on advising, pointing students to appropriate offerings, etc., and on this dimension there may be more agreement.

2. What are the primary sources of productivity enhancement? (On this one I think the two views are most compatible and this is more a matter of perspective.)

Bill's view: Let the technology do what it does well - this is pure capital for labor substitution - and in particular get students introduced to the subject via technology based presentations and assessments. Assign the instructional labor, research oriented faculty in Honoring the Trust... to more in depth interactions with students after the students having gotten through the introduction to the material and proven their mastery of the introductory content. There is substantial waste in the current lecture mode approach in that instructors spend a lot of time presenting introductory material and students are not well incented to be prepared for class.

Frank's view: The issue is primarily pedagogy, which given the answer to the first question means taking approaches to make the communication within the social network effective and meaningful. An example might help here. Burks Oakley was a featured speaker at a faculty summer institute I ran in May and he was very highly evaluated by those in attendance. Burks spent some time talking about how students in an ALN course come in expecting to behave passively (hit reply and then type "ditto" in a discussion thread) and that they have to be coached into becoming active contributors in the course. (Burks suggested requiring the students to enter a descriptive phrase into the Subject line even when they were responding and requiring them to make a novel contribution in the body of the message and to let them know they'd be evaluated as doing such.)

Comments: The LON-CAPA approach at Michigan State has received funding from Frank but is pretty squarely in the capital-for-labor approach to instruction. Likewise for Mallard here. Bill certainly talks about "active learning" so he might very well say "of course" to Burks' approach, but Bill emphasizes faculty-student interaction occurring when the student has gone further down the learning curve and is more ready to appreciate the faculty member's expertise while Burks' approach emphasizes early faculty intervention with the students because getting their full participation is critical.

3. What is the correct way to diffuse the approach?

Bill's view: Learning Objects are extremely important (they are needed for the capital-for-labor substitution that is critical for the productivity enhancement) and hence there must be a large up front investment to get things to work so that there is an ample stock of learning objects from which to proceed.

Frank's view: Up front development should be modest. (I believe we used to quote figures of around $15K - $20K per course.) There is much more benefit in following the old Nike approach, "Just Do It" and improve the course through repeated teaching than to do massive development up front.

Comments: Bill's view seems more in tune with Carol Twigg's Pew program in course redesign in that the focus seems first and foremost on the high enrollment introductory courses. We have 20 - 30 such courses on our campus that are "super large" (enrollments in excess of 800 per semester) and about 1600 other undergraduate courses. Frank's view seems to focus on the other 1600. At a conference earlier this month at Parkland college I heard a representative of the Sakai project take the Bill view in reference to the British Open University approach and that there is much efficiency to be had to have a "master course" that is very well designed and that all instructors teach out of and by extension of this logic there is benefit to share learning objects across campuses when there is a common curriculum. Perhaps true, but does that mean that we are going to go through a deliberate consolidation of those other 1600 courses so they are suitable for the Bill approach? If not, then Frank's approach seems more realistic and learning object sharing of ephemeral value.

Conclusion: I've drawn these distinctions to try to explain why it seems we have been talking past each other in this thread. There are differences. I don't think the question of whether e-Learning succeeded is the right one to ask. Better, I believe, is to address the question at the beginning: should we make a point of highlighting these differences in discussions with outsiders: The Chronicle, our Provosts and CIOs, our faculty and students, taxpayers, etc.? Or should we be one all inclusive tent of e-Learning?

Lanny Arvan
Assistant CIO for Educational Technology University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Tired Again


Today marks the first day of my retirement, both the end of a long previous working life and a new beginning.  Over the weekend I had a couple of related turning points that marked the change. 

I finished Diane Ravitch's book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, ultimately a book about woodenness of mindset, the March of Folly to use Barbara Tuchman's expression.  In this case folly with regard to a persistent belief that market based reforms can cure what ails American public schools.  These beliefs resulted in a drastic narrowing of the curriculum, a movement away from a broad based curriculum to one that emphasized math and reading at the expense of other subject matter, an over reliance on testing to demonstrate where school performance has gone afoul, and a move to charter schools which unlike public schools could exclude the under performers. 

It was hard to read this book.  I felt like I was being bludgeoned with one bad reform after another, each eventually going awry, a horrible amount of self-induced destruction.  Instead of learning from the mistakes many in positions of authority attempted to conceal them.  Midway through I wondered if the real cure might be a broad airing of The Oxbow Incident.  America has become Fascist and exhibits its authoritarian nature vis-à-vis school reform, how ironic. 

Ravitch's history seems fairly complete and, the bludgeoning notwithstanding, is well told.  She is quite even handed in her presentation and mainly non-judgmental.  At the end she does provide her pronouncements and there is no doubt about what they will be.  But during the rest of the book she provides arguments for the reforms, arguments she once believe in herself, but no longer subscribes to.  I did puzzle over some things and have some quibbles with what Ravitch advocates.  I detail those below.

Reading and performance on the reading portions of standardized test seems incredibly important to the reformers.  Yet I saw no mention whatsoever in Ravitch's book about any attempts to measure how much the kids were reading outside of school and what it was that they were reading that wasn't assigned to them as homework.  This seems rather strange to me since it is something that can be tracked and evaluated, even if much of the data are self-reported.  I really don't get why this sort of data collection is not being done on a widespread basis.  Ravitch argues that the tests are indicators at best.  The reformers overstate the value of the tests and regard them as sufficient.  Ravitch argues that the reformers only want to look at quantifiable information and that is a mistake.  I agree, but I'd also point out that it is fairly easy to represent outside of school reading in quantifiable form (measure volume and grade level of what is being read).  Ravitch does point out that in the high stakes environment we find ourselves in many people go out of their way to manipulate the measurements, ergo my previous post on Campbell's Law.  The same would likely be true for out of school reading.  But that doesn't explain why such data are not collected and discussed. 

Ravitch came of age as a Historian of Education studying the New York City Schools in the late 1960s, in particular the tensions that arose in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district in Brooklyn that precipitated the Teachers' Strike of 1968.  I was a ninth grader then, starting the school year at Bayside High School, where I had to take a bus, and then after being miserable there transferring to Cardozo High School, which was walking distance from home.  In the interim there was the strike, during which I had my wisdom teeth out (mine were impacted and I was pretty sick afterward).  Then I attended a scab school held at Francis Lewis High School, but ultimately my mother became a member of the teacher's union and I stopped attending the scab school and/or the strike came to an end about that time.  (My memory is a little fuzzy on this detail.)  In any event, my recollections of this period suggest that Ravitch perhaps painted too glorious a picture of the past before the current reform era. 

The schools had busing to achieve integration but the integration was really only partial.  Gym, art and music were integrated but most of the academic classes were not.  We had a tracking system for the academic classes.  Tracking was achieved via the diploma - academic, commercial, or general (which I believe was found discriminatory right around the time I graduated in 1972) and within academic by a system that featured Honors classes for so-called bright students.  In math, we even had extra honors classes.  The sole academic class I had that was not tracked was economics.  It was a terrible course that taught us very little.   I wouldn't, however, attribute the outcome to lack of tracking but rather to the school not knowing what should be taught to high school students about economics, yet it being required within the curriculum. 

My point here is that the sorting out of the students far precedes the reforms of the last 15 - 20 years.  Housing patterns will create such sorting.  Beyond that, the schools themselves will do it.  Charter schools may push the idea that much further.  But the idea was already present quite a long time ago. I wonder if such sorting existed in the Houston public schools of the 1950s, schools that Ravitch extols as exemplar of good local public schools.  The sorting certainly was a feature of the schools I attended in Queens during the 1960s and early 1970s. 

Here is one further thing.  Since the reformers are so vilified in Ravitch's book (Kozol in The Shame of the Nation makes essentially the same points as Ravitch does, though Kozol is more explicit about the role race plays in the equation) there is not much room in the book to ask whether there are alternatives to what Ravitch argues for the antidote - have a sound and thorough curriculum.  The curricular approach can be critiqued for imbuing much disembodied knowledge that never gets connected to anything else.  For example, on that list of Hirsch's I cited in an earlier post, we were all taught that in 1066 William the Conqueror led the Normans to victory in the Battle of Hastings.  (Indeed, my dad in some one-upmanship taught us that in 1166 there was the Assize of Clarendon.)  So I know the factoid.  But I can't connect it to other English History or to American History in a meaningful way.  It is just an isolated and therefore meaningless event, as it exists in my mind.  Clearly Ravitch doesn't want to fill the heads of students with isolated factoids.  But apart from her bit on her own favorite teacher from high school, Mrs. Ratliff, there is no argument put forward in her book that a rigorous curriculum will provide the right intellectual fodder so that students so taught can weave the facts into interesting and coherent narratives.   I would argue that desired outcome requires more than curriculum.  Ravitch does say the pedagogy is important, but she also indicates it can be quite idiosyncratic and nonetheless be good, though she doesn't make me confident in that proposition.  I do not quite understand why she didn't argue for some kind of curriculum-pedagogy nexus, whether she thought it really was unnecessary or rather that it would open up its own can of worms.  Regardless, that is not in the book. 

Later Saturday afternoon I decided to get some exercise on the stationary bike.  (My blood pressure meds say to avoid excessive sunlight though the nurse this morning said with sunscreen and a hat I'd be fine being outside.)  For some reason I couldn't get the DVD player to work so I looked for something on the satellite to keep me amused.  Ultimately I found Compulsion and I watched the second half of the movie.  This is the fictionalized version of the famous Leopold and Loeb case.  (Afterward I asked my kids if they had heard of it.  They hadn't.  But they knew who Clarence Darrow was from Inherit The Wind.)   As a kid I was both frightened yet fascinated by the story.   I read the book and saw the movie.  (One of my high school classmates was fascinated with the TV show Adam 12 so it was interesting to see Martin Milner in such a different sort of role.)   The idea was to commit the perfect crime and get away with it, to murder an innocent kid, a way to demonstrate the inherent superiority of certain people.  The plan was impeccable and the execution of it near flawless.  It unraveled nonetheless.  One of the perpetrators dropped a pair of glasses at the scene of the crime.  The glasses had a unique design.  This provided the telltale evidence the District Attorney needed to make his case.

Orson Welles, appearing worn but still with some spit in him, makes an interesting Clarence Darrow (Jonathan Wilk in the fictionalized version).  After the six days of impaneling the jury he switches the plea from innocent to guilty, thereby eliminating the jury from the decision about punishment.  His closing speech, intended mainly for the judge but which all in the courtroom heard, is all about compassion. A hanging would be pure vindictiveness and provide no deterrent.  It is stirring oratory, influencing the aforementioned Milner (Sid Brooks in the movie) to change his mind about what the defendants deserved, where earlier he was completely unsympathetic to them owing to their barbarous act, after Wilk's speech he could see there was still some humanity in the defendants and that they deserved to be treated with decency. 


I wonder if in the near future we will come to regard the current school reformers, Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein to name two of the more prominent figures, as tragic figures a la Leopold and Loeb, so convinced that what they are doing is right that they remain oblivious to the vast destruction of human potential they are responsible for. Ravitch would rather us preserve our compassion for the children who are now being poorly educated. But if Ravitch changed her mind on these things, why couldn't the reformers do likewise? And what would more likely succeed in bringing them to a different point of view, a compassionate argument or another bludgeoning? How would a modern day Clarence Darrow go about convincing them that they should change their approach? 

I don't know. It seems in many respects that we in America are on the path to destroy ourselves.