Application Essay for Teacher Leader
Submitted by Kim Broadie
Teacher, Louis D. Brandeis High School
January 15, 2012
There was a time when I took on a “leadership” role, and it had to do with the use of computers, but I would like to preface my description of that with a few words to explain my thinking on educational matters. What are we, as a society, trying to achieve in education? How do we define progress, or success? Sir Ken Robinson, in a TED talk
A leader in education works toward educating our youngsters for a world that will be profoundly different from today. What thinking person who cares for our future allows accountability in education to be defined primarily as a standardized test score? Is that the summum bonum of education? As Diana Senechal writes in the recent Winter edition of American Educator, “There is something strange about placing so much trust in test scores, without regard for the nature of the subject, the material tested, the quality of the tests, their relation to the curriculum, and much more.” (p.6) In the same article, Ms Senechal cites a prominent member of the Yale admissions committee described the recently admitted students as “great kids who had been trained to be great hoop jumpers.” (p.4) If we want to be a creative society, a humane society, a moral society, a job creating society, even a society capable of surviving, are we going allow ourselves to kneel to the holy grail of banal testing which itself is not questioned? Are we nothing more than hoop jumpers, jumping hoops designed by who, and for what?
I once believed, way back in 1982, that placing computers into the hands of students would revolutionize and democratize education and society. Way back in the early 1980’s I had the chance to work with a start up company that put Apple IIe’s and a curriculum into elementary Catholic schools. In those pre-Internet days, we saw the computer as a knowledge appliance that not only had useful software, but also the study of programming could bring students into the heart of analytical thinking. So, in my pre-NYC teaching days, I was teaching little kids how to command a turtle to move around the screen to make shapes using a language called LOGO, developed by Seymour Papert from MIT. He was a pioneer in artificial intelligence who regarded “turtle graphics” as a way of introducing young kids to geometry using a concrete object such as a turtle. We taught the older kids BASIC, which was basically Boolean logic.
“You opened the session with an introduction to the site “brooklynhistoryteachers.com” …on the front wall of the Virtual Enterprise room…you led teachers through a guided tour of the site that included a look at e-mail accounts, address books, a chat room, newsgroup features and research capability. Several relevant websites for primary source documents and Regents exam items were explored…Following a discussion of the benefits of e-mail communications with colleagues, parents, and teachers, you distributed passwords and led the group through an e-mail exercise…at the conclusion of the segment, you instructed the group to access a document from the Internet (using one of the sites hyperlinks) and provided instructions on how to save the document on a floppy disk.” We also did a PowerPoint lesson that day, thanks to Judy Mckenzie, in which she showed the teachers how to create their own slides. All this has now become second nature and obvious. The main outcome was that we ended up using the site to publish an online version of the school newspaper, in collaboration with Mr. Heim, the English teacher advising the school newspaper, Wingate World.
I no longer regard “technology” as some kind of magic bullet. It is useful, it has its place, but I think a greater danger has arisen with the overwhelming ubiquity of the cloud, the net, and social media. The danger is fascinatingly described by the virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier in his book, YOU ARE NOT A GADGET. He explores the consequences of overestimating the hive intelligence of the cloud, and fragmenting books through the digitization of our culture in projects such as Google Books. We are constantly in danger of lowering our standards of intelligence while elevating the intelligence of the machines. And this includes the algorithms that mimic intelligent decision making. How much of the financial crash can be placed at the feet of the banker’s intelligent algorithms that calculated the risk of their mortgage-backed securities? Have we degraded our intelligence by asking teachers to teach to a standardized test so that a student will look good to an algorithm?
Now we have come full circle. In a time when our IT connected and globalized planet needs more questioning intelligence and inquiry, more creativity, more innovation, and compassion, are we headed instead into a punitive neo-Gradgrind reductionist model that subordinates our humanity to an algorithm? Our union, our leaders and our teachers must stand our ground and research real change, find out what really works, and lead the city and the country toward a humane system that serves the real needs of our people as we navigate into the future. In our current system, what would have happened to someone like Newton, without whom much of modern natural science would not exist? I will end this with a quote from G. Spencer-Brown, in an appendix to his Laws of Form:
To arrive at the simplest truth , as Newton knew and practised, requires years of contemplation. Not activity. Not reasoning. Not calculating. Not busy behaviour of any kind. Not reading. Not talking. Not making an effort. Not thinking. Simply bearing in mind what it is one needs to know. And yet those with the courage to tread this path to real discovery are not only offered practically no guidance on how to do so, they are actively discouraged and have to set about it in secret, pretending meanwhile to be diligently engaged in the frantic diversions and to conform with the deadening personal opinions which are continually being thrust upon them.
G Spencer Brown, Laws of Form, p. 110
Again, in an age of groupthink, how would Newton have fared, being as Wordsworth described him: “A mind forever/ Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone?”