What Happens as the Cost of Hating Pigs Approaches Zero? Focus, Literacy and Angry Birds

The Angry Birds app for my iPhone cost me $.99. I just checked my app stats and it appears I’ve won a “medal” for playing the game for more than 15 hours. (Disclosure: I’ve owned the program for about two months.) The next medal comes after 30 hours of play. Thus, my cost of Angry Birds is somewhere between 3 and 6 cents per hour – and dropping. 

Where did I find the 15+ hours to destroy those evil pigs? What’s the opportunity cost of vengeance?

The price of information is rapidly approaching zero. Normally as cost of a commodity drops, we consume more of it. But unlike all the other cheap stuff we buy, and then later discard, cheap information demands our attention. Despite all the claims of multi-tasking, we are stuck with a finite attention span. Thus the ability to selectively filter out unwanted information and stay focussed on a task is emerging as the most significant digital literacy.

And it appears I’m not the only one distracted by green pigs. Peter Verterbacka, of Rovio (makers of Angry Birds) estimates 200 million minutes of play per day across the globe. Expect to see that number grow. Rovio recently surpassed a million downloads a day. 

200 million minutes less to accomplish _________  

…. I can only hope it comes at the expense of lolcats.

Humanities Conference Smackdown! AHA vs MLA Twitter Visualizers

What a weekend for humanist scholars – two big annual conferences under way – the American Historical Association (AHA) Boston and the Modern Language Association (MLA)  LA. I thought it would be interesting to create two visualizers to follow the key words being used in Tweets from both conferences. Watch the memes emerge! The first shows the word frequency of tweets using the hashtag #aha2011 and second follows the hashtag #mla11

(1/13/11 Note) Since these visualizations are time sensitive, I have posted screen shot versions of each. For the next few weeks you can click on link to live versions.

AHA Twitter Visualization
Direct link to a live visualization


MLA Twitter Visualization 
Direct link to live visualization


Hat tip to Twitter StreamGraphs – @JeffClark

The Classroom is a Factory, But What’s the Product?

This morning I read Bob Barsanti's powerful commentary "The Classroom Is Not a Factory" Education Week (12/1/10). 

"Everything I needed to know about modern teaching, I learned in a factory. In the summer of my 18th year, I made plastic drink stirrers on the night shift at Spir-It Inc…. Many of the current reforms in education aim to turn the schoolhouse into that plastic-products factory. .. The machinery heats and molds our children, then stamps, bags, and packages them to a professional uniformity."

Lewis Hine

 So What's the Real Product?

I agree with Barsanti that schools have been turned into factories. But they don't produce students, they just work there. The demands of testing have turned schools into factories that harness the labor of students to toil at a "bubble-test" assembly line producing "achievement" data. 

Schools mask the child labor with noble mission statements that claim they are producing "life-long learners." But that's just a cover. If it were true, you would expect to see schools where students explored their interests and reflected on their progress as learners. 

The actual product of schools is data, and its production is pursued with relentless focus. Distracting subjects that aren't tested,  are cut. No time is wasted on "creative" student projects – they don't produce data. And when there's no test to take, students can always get ready with more "test-prep."

Of course, a test data factory is a not pleasant place to work, absenteeism runs high and every year many students quit. But there's a steady supply of new students to take their place. It should be noted that teachers work at the same factories. Conditions are better for them. They have a union.

Photo Title: One of the small boys in J. S. Farrand Packing Co. 
by Lewis Hine, July 1909
Library of Congress

7 Lessons Students Learn in School

Student-jumping Stop and think about the most significant lessons you’ve learned in life – times when you’ve gained insights or skills of lasting importance. Now reflect for a moment – did this take place in a classroom? were you taught these lessons by a teacher? did the teacher evaluate how well you learned them?

Most likely the answer to all three questions is no. Yet every day our students “learn” to relinquish responsibility for learning to their teachers. By the time they get to high school, their natural curiosity has been trampled into submission – their questioning reduced to the level of “will this be on the test?” or “does spelling count?”  

Recently my Twitter network (thanks @L_Hilt ) pointed me to an insightful observation on the traditional classroom. Next time you lament that students aren’t motivated, think about the distance between what we learn in school and what we learn in life. 

7 Tacit Lessons Schools Teach Children

  1. Knowledge is scarce.
  2. Learning needs a specific place and specific time (lessons in classrooms).
  3. Knowledge is best learned in disconnected little pieces (lessons).
  4. To learn you need the help of an approved expert (a teacher).
  5. To learn you need to follow a path determined by a learning expert (a course of study).
  6. You need an expert to assess your progress (a teacher).
  7. You can attribute a meaningful numerical value to the value of learning (marks, grades, degrees).

~ From Don Ledingham’s blog post “Utopia” – a summary of a talk by Alan McCluskey on the seven tacit lessons which schools teach children. 

If you had trouble reflecting on life’s lessons or are interested in how to foster more reflective schools, see my post “A Taxonomy of Reflection: Critical Thinking For Students, Teachers, and Principals“ 

Image credit Flickr/Peaches&Cream

Still Thinking About Innovative Teaching and Sustainable Farming

I’ve been asked to return as the keynote speaker at the Project Foundry® Un-Conference – a gathering of 75 PBL educators from California to New Jersey. This year it will be held July 29th – Friday July 30th 2010 in Milwaukee, WI. If you’re looking to network with innovative educators who are committed to project-based learning, I urge you check this conference out. Plus they are one fun group!

Last year I keynoted at Project Foundry’s first conference. The experience inspired the blog post (August 4, 2009) that I am reposting below: 

Project Foundry  Innovative Teaching is to Sustainable Farming as Test Prep is to _____?

Recently I spoke at a project-based learning conference in Wisconsin. I had been reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” so I had farming on my mind as I drove from the Milwaukee airport to Janesville WI past vast cornfields punctuated by enormous grain silos.

Pollan observes that high-yield corn is a product of genetically identical plants that can be densely planted without fear of any stalks monopolizing resources. As corn dominated the midwestern landscape, the region became an agricultural monoculture of expansive corporate cornfields – pushing out other crops and more diverse family farms. Cheap corn created the “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation,” where never-ending truckloads of feed are used to fatten cattle in the least time possible. “Big” corn and cattle production are artificially supported by vast, but unsustainable, industrial inputs of fossil fuels, petro-chemicals, and an elaborate transportation system.

And somewhere on the drive to Janesville, I got thinking that Pollan’s indictment of corporate agriculture might be extended to some aspects of education. The testing regime is turning our kids into a high-yield, uniform commodity. Rows and rows of competent, standardized students, that can be delivered according to employers’ specifications for a “skilled workforce.” Children “force fed” in test prep programs in efforts to quickly “fatten” the scores to meet AYP. Like the cornfields and feedlots that are disconnected from local ecosystems, the movement toward national educational standards erodes at local control and innovation.

Fortunately when I got to the conference I saw another side of contemporary education – innovative teachers. It was like walking into a sustainable farmers’ market.

The conference was held at the TAGOS Leadership Academy and hosted by Project-Based Learning Systems, the developer of Project Foundry, a web-based management tool for innovative learning environments. Teachers had come from across the country – Chula Vista CA to Waterville ME. Like sustainable farms, their schools were deeply rooted in their communities, each closely tied to its unique local social ecology. Their programs fostered interdisciplinary learning, like the symbiotic polyculture of a farm based on a rotational interplay of crops and animals.

The PBL approach is based on the notion that rather than simply apply bodies of knowledge to problems, the exploration of problems can generate new bodies of knowledge. Teachers didn’t attend the conference to simply “sit and get,” they were there to share. After my introductory talk and a planning session using my audience response system, the teachers self-organized into a series of peer-teaching sessions that took them through most the rest of the conference. 

The next day I headed home feeling upbeat. I had met many fine teachers and instructional leaders who reminded me of why I went into education. Most of all, I thought about the scores of teachers across the country, working in innovative schools (or perhaps subversively innovating in traditional schools), committed to raising a “crop” that can sustain itself through a life time of learning.

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