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Sunday, July 31, 2005

Reflections on Raw Materials for the Mind

In order of their appearance in the book... here are some of my reflections on Raw Materials for the Mind: A Teacher's Guide to Digital Literacy...

  • I am also reading Malcom Gladwell's Blink right now and sympathize with Warlick's suggestion that "research means nothing to preparing our children for their future, compared to what a skilled, experienced, innovative, and inventive teacher can accomplish" (p. 7).

  • Warlick recounts how "enormous volunteer time" (p. 11) has been necessary to get school networks off the ground. I've always resented that this was necessary... but in light of the discussions about positive social change and contributing to the common good at the Walden University residency this summer, I now feel that perhaps this is not an entirely bad thing. It is powerful that communities (and so many individuals... many of them teachers and Ed Tech coordinators) have found this worth their time.

  • I'm sure I will need to work on my articulation of this... but, I don't think I agree with Warlick's suggestions that "if the student's work can easily be done with pencil and paper, then it should be done with pencil and paper" and that "if the information is available in an encyclopedia or other reference book then use a book" (p. 19). I think he is missing something here in terms of preparing students for the future, opening additional doors for the assignment at hand... and how these methods are almost certainly outdated even if they seem "easy" and "available." However, I agree with his overall point that we should not use computers to do what we could have done on paper. I just don't think it follows that we should do these things on paper... we just shouldn't do them anymore. As he argues later, students should not be writing papers about something in a way that allows them to complete the assignment by visiting an encyclopedia... even if it is online.

  • There is no question in my mind that the main barrier to teachers implementing new technologies in their practice is indeed time (p. 21). At both the OCDE and N-MUSD we have seen classes canceled due to low enrollment. However, I find it interesting that at the residency I was shown a very recent delphi study (2004, sorry can't link to it right now, or even properly cite it) in which when ed tech administrators came to consensus and suggested that the greatest need in ed tech right now is research to connect what we are doing with new technologies to higher test scores. Rubish. I agree with Warlick in thinking that many of our current tests are inadequate measurements of our students' mastery of 21st century skills... and that we shouldn't even be shooting for higher test scores as a goal. This is a tad bit radical, I know. Thing is... I don't know a single teacher that doesn't feel this way... or administrator for that matter... so who is making these rules? I don't think representative government is working in this respect... either the representatives are not advocating the position of their constituents... or else they are, but they are not expert enough (where educators are) to make the right decisions. Representation requires a fine balance between advocacy for the people, and expert/informed decision making. Hmm... this is another topic altogether.

  • I whole heartedly support Warlick's call (p. 24) for an 8 hour teacher workday (rather than 6 billable hours and a twelve hour day!)... and for a full hour lunch... but, WTF! He wants to expect teachers to meet during this lunch. This should not be expected any more than it is for a salesman... or me at the county. And I can't imagine what school would be like if we could come to work prepared... and with a full night's sleep! (p. 25)

  • "Our reliance on testing is an idustrial age solution to an information age problem" (p. 27). Right on, brother.

  • "We can virtually take students to each continent, to the planets, among the atoms of a water molecule, into interaction with other people..." (p. 28) Sounds a lot like Papert's (1993) Knowledge Machine. :)

  • This is powerful:

    "The last few decades for much of the developed workld has had the appearance of an unraveling of social fabric. Yet, it is with the very circumstances that initiated the turmoil of our society that our best hope resides. Computer technology, and the opportunities it offers, can become the thread with which we stitch our fabric back together."

    Of course, I think we also need to keep in mind that one aspect of our society will necessarily become a capacity to unstitch and restitch itself continuously. I recall the fates at their loom... but see three more working as quickly to undo what is done.

    Also, I wonder how we can get this book... or these ideas... into the hands of our congressmen and women. Now that might be a worthy social change project. :)

  • I am of course happy about what Warlick says about the power of IM and Games (and the skill involved) on page 35.

The bulk of the book is then how to use the tools... but there are a few more gems...

  • Oh, I think Warlick's conservative stance on the blogosphere being potentially inappropriate for students (p. 53) is short sighted. They must learn to confront and deal with the wide variety of information quality and make choices with consequences they will like... we need to teach them to deal with this, not shelter them from it. Now, this may happen in stages, with some sheltering as scaffolding, but I prefer to see that be explicit because so many people are still living in a black and white world where they think protection works... but it doesn't.

  • Yahoo groups (p. 58) is cool. Check out the Walden Ed Tech group we started at the residency this summer. :)

  • "Using collaboration to create content" is an important sentiment (p. 89).

  • As is the idea of classrooms with "more porous walls" (p. 91).

  • There is a great perspective on the greyness of truth in information on p. 154, and a few powerful examples of when less than reliable information might be ok to use in the classroom.

  • Warlick says "never send students to do internet research (or library research) on a topic unless the students already have a foundation of knowledge about the subject" (p. 159). Though I see where he is coming from here, I think this is foolish. First of all, never say never... when students were completing a Senior Project at Estancia this happened (with positive results) all the time. Also, never (sic) underestimate the intelligence of your students... I have been more often amazed at what kids are able to sort out on their own than vice versa.

  • Oh, and why on earth does David Warlick use Internet Explorer on OS X!!!???

The section on contributive expression gets interesting again, and is well worth reading, particularly the bits on blogging...

  • I say "hallelujah!" to the suggestion that "we have a new record today of human experience that is floating in the cybersphere and available for use" (p. 247). I suspect that a student would probably be able not only to find websites related to just about any topic of interest, but probably a blog related to the topic as well! Seriously... search any topic and add the word blog to your search and see what you find! Talk about connecting with experts... or eye witnesses.

  • "Do not tolerate information inequities in your community." (p. 261) 'Nuff said.

  • He concludes that the reader ought to (1) form a community, (2) set goals, (3) continue to learn, and (4) share (p. 289). These principles could be the foundation for the 21st Century Skills Institute at the N-MUSD this summer.

  • However, I disagree with his conclusion that teachers ought to get a copy of the district technology plan and read it (p. 289). In my experience these documents are worthless. It is far more important for teachers to meet the district Ed Tech and IT staff and learn from them what is really going on.

  • I love the idea of seeing myself as a learning consultant (p. 291). :D

Natrually, even this lengthy list of reflections does not do the book justice. I highly recommend it, but with the suggestion that you feel free to skim large chunks of it and to slow down only when necessary... but read the beginning and end closely. ;)

Thanks for reading this.



At 4:10 AM, Blogger David Warlick said...


One thing to understand about Raw Materials for the Mind, is that it has been revised four times. It was originally written in 1998, and has been revised approximately every two years. The most recent (2005) was the most dramatic with regard to philosophy. I was shocked at how much had to be changed because of the ways that the teaching environment has changed under NCLB (a commendable law that has been disastrously implemented).

I must say that I agree with most of your objections. It is a complex and rich world that we live in and preparing our children for this rapidly changing world requires teachers who can drive the full spectrum of issues and techniques. There is no textbook. There are no hard answers that will work with every child. The linchpin is a creative and dedicated teacher. We need a system that is set up for teachers to be successful in ways that they can identify with.

One last thing. I don't expect teachers to use every lunch hour for meetings. My model was the office work world were most lunch are taken as a break. But taking lunch with a colleague for collaboration or with someone outside the office to seek avenues for potential collaboration is how much business takes place. Teachers, using lunch hour, to make connections in the community seems like a worth while endeavor on several different levels.

Finally, here's the low down on "Warlick's" teacher work day.

8 hours on the job, just like the rest of us ;-)
1 hour lunch (teacher can leave the campus and take lunch with people outside the teaching environment, and some can be professional)
4 hours of instructional supervision
4 hours of professional planning (collaboration, research, materials collection and assembly, assessment, reflection, professional development, etc.)

That last part is the most important. Just imagine what could be happening in our classrooms if teachers had four hours of supported planning time every day.

Thanks for the thorough review.

At 9:47 AM, Blogger Mark Wagner said...

Thank you for the response, David. I am still surprised at the power of blogging to connect me with the authors I am reading! The upside of this surprise is finding comments like yours in my morning inbox. The downside is that I still don't think of the author reading my post when I'm writing it... I'm glad to see you haven't taken offense to my tone, which in retrospect was more harsh in places that I would like. ;)

I can tell that some parts of the book that made me uneasy were probably on account of your need to write for teachers under NCLB. (And I agree with you that the law itself - even it's website - reads like a great idea, but that the implementation has had some... unintended consequences.)

Also, the Warlick work day sounds like it would facilitate education as it should be, a much more human education... it also just sounds like common sense... but the common argument of "but have you ever seen how a staff reacts when an administrator tries to add 3 minutes to nutrition break and thus the school day" (which I have seen first hand) comes into play. Of course, we do wind up having to do most of what legislatures demand. It's scary on some level that I keep coming back to politics as an answer.

I mentioned this in my post, but not explicitly... Raw Materials for the Mind is recommended summer reading for 12 Newport-Mesa USD site tech coordinators (each is also a teacher) who will be attending the 21st Century Skills Summer Institute August 22-26. The district tech coordinators in charge of the event hand delivered a copy of the book to each attendee before school let out in June. They have also created a blog to support the event (http://engauge.blogspot.com/). The names of the blog and the event come from NCREL and Metiri's 21st Century Skills (http://www.ncrel.org/engauge/skills/skills.htm) published in 2003. At any rate, the Orange County Department of Education is providing some of the professional development sessions during this week, so I am lucky enough to be involved as well. Having also been an English teacher before this adventure in Ed Tech, I am very much looking forward to facilitating some discussion based on the book. I thought you might appreciate knowing this, but also, if there is anything you would like to see come out of this - or any suggestions you have for us going into it - I'd certainly love to hear those as well.

Thanks again for taking the time to comment. :)



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