Wednesday, May 8, 2013

TED Talks Education: A Program of Mixed Messages--Post-Viewing Response

Post Viewing Thoughts (previewing comments here)

Over on Twitter, an individual viewing the PBS program "TED Talks Ed" commented that the talks sound "like bumper stickers." Indeed, there was a rapid, sound-bite quality to the show, one much in contrast to many of the ideas worth talking about in some of the talks. In a short sixty-minutes, the program highlighted twelve presentations, and this doesn't account for the commentary and introductions from host John Legend.

The good news about "TED Talks Ed" is that many of the presentations challenged the NCLB paradigm both students and teachers have endured these past twelve years.

Veteran teacher Rita Pierson spoke about the need to accept students where they are in their learning and help them advance. This philosophy is not conducive to the system in which we currently operate, as my states marathon standardized testing illustrates. The Idaho State Achievement Tests pin labels on students: Below Basic; Basic; Proficient; and Advanced.

In Pierson's teaching world, putting a smiley face on an F paper is one way to make students feel a teacher's love. I prefer not putting any grade on papers I return, but I rarely give tests and generally allow students to use notes when I do.

Chemistry teacher Randy Musallum took a chance in challenging "flipping" as an old dog newly clothed and borrowed from the world of English teachers in his use of metaphor and alliteration as he challenged teachers to be "cultivators of curiosity and imagination", just like his toddler is naturally curious.

Although inclusion of these gifted teachers warms my heart, their presence in the lineup makes them seem somewhat anomalous in the world of teaching. Viewers are led to believe that they're the exception and not the rule, that they are somehow unique, even as others toss verbage such as "there are many excellent teachers out there" into the wind. My sense is that most miss the abstract idea and cling to the concrete analogous examples.

The best part of the program came at the end when Sir Ken Robinson spoke. As Sir Ken notes, "There's wonderful work happening despite the dominant culture rather than because of it. Alternative Education works. If we all did that, there'd be no need for the alternative."

Indeed, under NCLB, we have spent too much time testing the alternative: A one-size fits all standardized approach to teaching and testing. Identifying three principles of human nature, Sir Ken reminded the audience that " Education under NCLB is based on conformity. One effect of NCLB has been to narrow the curriculum." The standardization movement fails to acknowledge the "naturally different and diverse" character of each student. "The dominate culture is to focus on testing. Standardized testing should be diagnostic. It should support learning" rather than replace it with test prep.

I particularly liked Sir Ken's Death Valley metaphor to illustrate how changing the learning climate will change the educational landscape. With it he described a deluge in Death Valley that resulted in a desert carpeted with color the following spring. "Human life is inherently creative. We create our own lives by imagining. Instead we have a culture of standardization. The real role of leadership in education should not be command and control but climate control."

In my own district, I see more and more standardization with teachers being directed to teach units designed by others, regardless of whether or not those units are pedagogically sound. All of this is in preparation of CCSS implementation, which none of the speakers mentioned. We can have no paradigm shift unless we at least verbally acknowledge the continued standardization of curriculum and testing. At least under NCLB, I wasn't told to teach curriculum designed by someone else.

The bad news about "TED Talks Ed" is its reliance on charter and private schools as the model for public education. The program featured Geoffrey Canada, founder of The Harlem Children's Zone, which spends roughly $16,000.00 per student each year, a statistic mentioned in a 2010 New York Times article. With that kind of money and private trips to exotic locals like the Galapagos Islands, HCZ should be producing prodigies. In 2010 the HCZ had an operating budget of 84 million dollars. In 2004 the governing board expelled all one class for under performing, something that my district and most others would never consider doing. Additionally, the HCZ has fired teachers because of low test scores among students. The HCZ has a "It Takes a Village" approach to educating poor students from cradle to graduation, and that takes lots of money.

In his "TED Talks Ed" segment, Canada challenged the status quo to loosen its grip on "a business plan that doesn't work and doesn't make sense" and compared today's schools to those from 56 years ago. "Nothing has changed. It's the same one size fits all approach." Citing a 1975 study showing that kids lose academic ground during the summer, Canada criticized our failure to do nothing in the face of this reality. "America cannot wait another 50 years...We are walking along an educational cliff. The real safety of our nation is preparing the next generation to be world leaders."

Pearl Arredondo, who describes having built a new school after returning to the middle school she attended, challenged teachers to share their personal stories with students. The daughter of a gang leader whose mother shipped her an hour and a half away from home each day to attend school in a better neighborhood, Arredondo's personal narrative both inspires and challenges students in similar situations to rise above their circumstances just as she has.

I get where Arredondo is coming from, but as I have aged and as I have continued to share my personal story with students, I realize that many students struggle to harmonize a teacher's personal narrative with their current reality. It's true, as Arredondo says, that students need teachers who will say, "You can move beyond that."

Unfortunately, many students simply don't hear this message most teachers deliver. I have spoken to students often about my own life living in a two-room shack with no bathroom, about my father's blindness and my role as his primary caregiver prior to his death, and about my half-brother's conviction of second-degree murder when he was just seventeen. Generally, I speak about the latter privately to a few students whose lives have veered off course and who find themselves in difficult legal quandaries. Getting them back on course takes more that a story.

To her credit, Arredondo realizes this, I think, and that's why she helped create the San Fernando Institute for Applied Media. She spoke about needing "freedom to create curriculum" but remaining attached to her district for funding. Well, that's what all teachers, students, and schools need. We need such academic freedom and funding. Yet unlike her charter school, most don't have that option.

Interestingly, Angela Lee Duckworth, who left management consultant, which she described as "less challenging than teaching," left teaching to study why some kids, often the most intellectual, fail while others succeed. Duckworth seemingly takes a page from Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking when she identifies "grit" as the character trait most prevalent among successful students. Call it tenacity, perseverance, determination, or whatever, but teachers have long known that those who persevere will prevail, regardless of intellect. I am a living, breathing example of such tenacity.

According to Duckworth, "What we need in education is a better understanding of students and learning from a motivational perspective." Well, no, that's not what we need. We already know that those who set long-term goals, who stick to their passions, and who "live life as a marathon and not a sprint" succeed. We already know that "grittier kids are more likely to graduate" and that "grit matters in school." True, we don't know how to build grit," but I suspect it has something to do with the first five years of life, genetics, and a culture that emphasizes entertainment and sports as well as immediate gratification rather than a long-term view of life.

Those who want to know more about motivation need only read Danial Pink's exceptional book Drive: The Truth about What Motivates Us. Duckworth admits: "I don't know" how to build grit, but she still expects teachers to do it: "We need to be grittier about making kids gritty." I can't help but think about her inability to grit it out for the long haul and wander how long she lasted as a math teacher. In answer to her question, "Which teachers are still going to be here by the end of the school year?" I can think of a response as I near the end of my thirty-second year teaching.

The worst part of "TED Talks Ed" was listening to Bill Gates pontificate as he delivered his MET (Measures of Effective Teaching) sales pitch, a proposal with a five billion dollar price tag. Gates wants to spend lots of cash equipping classrooms with video equipment so that teachers can be taped and evaluated. It's hard to argue with Gates' claim that "We all need people who will give us feedback. That's how we improve." I agree, and wrote about this in my pre-viewing commentary. 

However, there is no need to donate five billion dollars to Bill Gates' collection plate if one has a smart phone or a camera. Recording one's teaching is pretty easy and something I have done a number of times.

Gates wants American schools to be like those in Shanghai, China. He says so and offers charts to support his claim. I bet those students sitting in neat rows don't offer many critical comments on the Chinese system of government. Gates advocates "weekly study groups for teachers," which Shanghai teachers have. I propose an alternative: Support National Board Certification; pay teachers with subject-area MAs more. In our world of social networking, teachers meet both formally and informally in "study groups" via #engchat, #edchat, #titletalk, etc. I imagine this isn't happening in the tightly controlled internet of China.

Teachers don't need Coach Bill Gates. We have and are continuing to innovate our PD. Gates is far behind the curve when it comes to advancing PD, and we don't have to spend five billion dollars to develop PD. Many of us do this voluntarily already. I'd rather see that money used to support student learning, upgrade buildings, support arts education and libraries, and pay teachers a wage comparable to the one Microsoft employees earn. When I'm in the market for coaching, I won't seek advice from Bill Gates.

If you didn't see the program, check it out on the PBS website. I'm intentionally omitting commentary about the student profiles, which I found enlightening, and Chicago poet Malcolm London's fabulous spoken-word poem about schools as training grounds. I hope that lands on TED's website. John Legend did a superb job hosting, as well.

While the program entertained viewers, many topics were treated as taboo, including Race to the Top, CCSS, the poverty gap, and school funding. Failure to include these as part of the discussion is inexcusable. It's not enough to look back at the failed polices of George Bush, we must look at the present administration policies and put Arne Duncan in his proper place alongside George Bush.

To do otherwise simply makes our talk the fodder of sound-bites and bumper stickers. We need more that 140 characters and a hash-tag to engage in meaningful dialogue about education. One can only hope PBS and TED have started a larger conversation.

Watch TED Talks Education on PBS. See more from TED Talks Education.


  1. Well said, Glenda. Thank you for the thorough reflection and honest commentary. Brave amd courageous writing. I appreciate it.

    1. Thank you, Lee. Writing these thoughts is so cathartic. I'm so weary of the rhetoric, and I guess more than three decades in the classroom being the whipping profession for all social woes has made me a bit cranky.

  2. He challenged teachers to be "cultivators of curiosity and imagination",this site just like his toddler is naturally curious.