The Fallacy of Constant Improvement

I’m getting frustrated with some of the terms that educators throw around.



Annual Yearly Progress.

I’m sure there are lots others, but it’s early, and listing all the terms that bother me isn’t the point of the post.

Why do we not understand that there is a practical limit to the advances students can make? That we cannot expect a 14 year old student to be able to improve without end. That next year’s 14 year olds cannot always be an improvement on the year before?

There are clear, measured, factual limits to the abilities of 14 year old students. Their brains are still developing. Their hormones are still awash at levels that seem obscene. They are 14. This isn’t a complaint about the age group- this is a complaint against the people who think that this year’s 14 year olds can always be higher-performing than last year’s. It just can’t happen. There’s an end-stop to that.

It’s the same as a business thinking that it can maintain 10% yearly growth indefinitely. You can’t. At some point, you saturate the market. You have no lands left to conquer. You approach the absolute limit of performance. This is also, by the way, one of my major criticism of Ray Kurzweil’s theory of exponential growth is computing power. That’s another post, though.

It’s not a sustainable model. Everything has a limit.

We judge schools and student based on the progress they make, with no regard to the limits of their capabilities. What happens with a student approaches the limits of their development? When they approach the limits of the device you’re measuring with? From the outside, it appears the student or school is failing to make progress, but the reality may be that there’s simply nowhere left to improve to.

I’m not saying we’ve reached this point, mind you. There are clearly improvements that can be made to the educational model we employ. But to continue on without even recognizing that these limits do exist sets us (and our students) up for failure.



We all know about the abundance of information no more than a mouse click away. And the revolution that brought that change has solved many of the problems with answering simple factual queries.
For mining more deeply into the mountain of facts, we have given ourselves over to the massive power of big data and search. First with yahoo, then with alta vista, and now with google. The powerful algorithms these companies employ has allowed us to find out needles in a haystack as often and as quickly as we’d like. But they are imperfect machines. Thrilled as I am about the vast power of google to find even the most distant and dark corner of the Internet, it is fundamentally missing the ability to use human cognition. As I’ve written about before, humans are both gifted and cursed with powerful pattern recognition abilities. It makes us prone to Apophenia, but it allows us to see and recognize connections between what might appear at first to be disparate and disconnected data.
It is because of this ability that I look to other humans when it comes to the deep and profound searching. Yes, when I need to know the population of Norway I get to google. But when I need to see the connection and meaning behind the prevalence of ADD as it relates to geographic location in the US and hr implications to the educational system, google isn’t going to help. Sir Ken Richards is.
I subscribe to a large number of people online- their blogs, tumblrs, twitter feeds and RSS. I follow them on Pinterest, Instagram, and Flickr. I curate this list often, and I focus on people who seem to represent nodal points. I don’t let this list get too big. I try to follow a one-in-one-out policy, but I’m not overly rigid in this. These people are not the re-tweeters or re-posters. This list is based on the finding of new and interesting ideas and connections. The people are the beginning of the line for new ideas. They find the new, interpret the new, and share the new. They function as my personal, crafted deep connection specific google.
I’m not sharing this list. I’m not sorry I’m not sharing this list. The act of making and curating your own list is vital to the list being important and relevant for you. My list, frankly, won’t do you much good. You’ll have to put in the hard work to both build and maintain your list. It’s a lot of work- and it will continue to be a lot of work. But the rich, detailed, and human wealth of information should make it worth your time.

English class isn’t about English.

I’m sorry- it just isn’t.

The way we teach English class (at the High School level, mind you. Because that’s what I know about) isn’t about the language- it’s about thought. Let me explain.

Human thought isn’t linear. It’s web-shaped. We see connections through our formidable pattern recognition abilities, and those connections help us understand the relationships between ideas. Simple. Except there’s no way to transmit those complicated web-shaped blobs of information to other humans. No device exists. The solution that we’ve come up with is written text- but written text is an entirely linear device. It’s unable to capture and transmit our webs of thought, so we are forced to translate our web-shaped thoughts into a single, cogent, clear linear form.

And that, there, is the essence of a High School English class. What we really teach, to a large degree, is the skill set needed to translate from web-shaped to linear. We try to push the bounds of students’ abilities with pattern recognition, but we are limited there buy the cognitive abilities of our students. That’s not an insult, by the way. Far from it- it’s time we recognize the limitations of our students are sometimes simply the result of them being young. The relative lack of life experiences and experience in general combined with their still-developing brains means there are some hard limits to what they can achieve. More on that later.

The books we English teachers are so attached to are to a large extent unnecessary to the teaching. This cannon of literature functions only as a tool. While many English teachers view these books as direly important, the reality is that they are fertile and convenient sources of established patterns for students to work with. They are cultural touchstones. But they are in no way strictly necessary. Let me be clear here: I love Shakespeare, but I recognize that my literature-dorkiness is the cause of that. I love teaching Shakespeare, but I recognize I could explore similar ideas and teach the same skills via many other texts. Heck- there’s a good case to be made that we don’t even have to be limiting ourselves to written literature. Film and Graphic Novels are ripe sources for teaching. Again, more on that later.

I’m thinking that we ought to be at least thinking about re-conceptualizing the very nature of what we now call English classes. Even the name is so wildly outdated as to have next-to-nothing to do with what we actually teach in such a class. The basic description of what we try to accomplish hasn’t changed in many, many years. But that’s (wait for it) for a later post.



Who (& What) I’m reading.

I get asked on a regular basis what I’m reading and where I “find” things. On the internet, you know.

This is by no means a complete guide to every thing I check on a regular basis. Just a few things you might want to look at too. I should mention that none of these, practically speaking, are education specific. I try to avoid reading education blogs- the signal to noise is just too high for me. I count on good aggregation for help with that. More on that later.

So here goes:

BoingBoing is a group-run blog that deals with an intersection of cyberpunk/nerd/social justice. The company that runs it is called Happy Mutant. That should clue you in. Lots of posts here, lots of good topics, and I routinely find things here related to education. For me, anyway.

Patrick Rhone is a full-time freelance writer. He’s the king (as far as I’m concerned) of minimalism leading to productivity, and I’ve been following most (if not all) of his blogs closely for a few years now. Not an education based thing at all, but if like me you seem to have too many pots on the stove and not enough burners, Patrick often has ideas or techniques that can help. Strangely, an invaluable source of excellent iOS apps.

CoolTools is a subset of Kevin Kelly’s webpage. He doesn’t write for it per-se, but that it’s his creation and that he continues to be affiliated with it should give you a clue. An endless source of tool advice for those projects that (gasp!) aren’t digital.

Open Culture focuses on open sources of information. Sometimes that means courses, sometimes it’s videos released into the public domain, sometimes it’s other weirdness. Any way you cut it, it’s an endless flow of amazing resources that can (often) be adapted to the classroom.

I’m not going to give you everything I look at- a man should have some secrets. Also, I don’t have the time or energy to list all of the several hundred webpages I subscribe to. No, really. Several hundred and climbing almost daily.

Also: I’ve turned on comments again with a captcha plugin to ward off the spam. I just spent far too long deleting (and I’m not joking) 5000 spam comments from the last couple of days I left it open. We’ll see how it works this time.

iCon 2013

It’s that time of year again.

The organizing team that brought you the New England 1:1 Summit, the nation’s first large scale 1:1 conference, is excited to announce iCon 2013. iCon 2013 is a conference that focuses on conversations around how new and current technologies are affecting learning opportunities for our students, not just one device. This is not an iPad conference or a Chromebook conference, but a collection of educators coming together to share their ideas and thoughts on designing and creating innovative learning spaces.

The conference is free for all attendees and we welcome anyone involved in the education world as well as students. The BHS student help desk team will be on hand to answer any technical questions and present their experiences working and learning in Burlington Public Schools.

This year we changed our format to accommodate for school visits at Burlington High School and Marshall Simonds Middle School. Both schools boast 1:1 iPad environments and will open their doors for attendees to observe the iPad in action. This will take place on Friday, March 22 from 9am – 1pm. Saturday, March 23 will be a full day conference at the newly renovated Marshall Simonds Middle School in Burlington, MA followed by a networking social.

Registration for iCon will launch later this week, but we are opening the call for session proposals. You can fill out the form below.

Please stay tuned to this website for more information on the event. Or follow us on twitter@i_Con2013

Teaching as Performance

I understand that some people with disagree with this, but I feel pretty strongly that teaching is clearly an act of performance. We assume a persona that is not our own, and use this constructed personality as a tool to connect with students. It’s a matter of constructing (or, if you’d rather think of it as assembling, I’d be ok with that too) a series of traits that best allow you the ability to manage and captivate the audience in front of you.

It is artificial. It is not you.

Or, rather, it shouldn’t be. Our own personas are too rational. They are usually not near enough the fringes to allow the sort of radical shifts in perception that good teaching requires. As a well-adjusted adult, trained to avoid conflict and meet people on common ground, we are naturally exactly the least useful manifestation of a teacher. By pulling on the robe of disguise of teacher, we have the freedom to change into whatever the situation requires.

By ex-students, graduated and adult (and finally allowed to stop calling me “Mr. Calvin” and begin calling me Tim) a usually taken back by how normal I am in most of my thought process. How rational, how even keeled, how human I actually am. It’s jarring to them.

Mr. Calvin is a tool I have created to further allow me the flexibility required to adapt to any situation I encounter in the classroom.

It isn’t me.

What was that?

Where did this webpage go and what was that error message?

Well, apparently some aspect of the database for this blog exploded. It took some time to fix it, but we’re back in action.

Hopefully you didn’t feel the loss too deeply.




Updates on my studio.

I got asked the other day what I meant by my studio. My studio’s kind of a hybrid workspace: I use it for music work, for idea development, and for varois hobbies I have. I put some pictures of it here, but they’re already posted over on my Flickr account. It’s a space that is moved with me through several iterations. I had one of my previous residence, and I’ve had two different ones at this house.

I think it’s important to have a working space in your house. I think it needs to be separate from your day to day life space, and needs to be designed specifically to foster creativity. I written before about the idea of the Vegas cube. In as many ways as is practical, I like to use some of those ideas in my studio spaces. That means I don’t keep a clock there. I don’t allow in natural lighting. It is, in as many ways as I can, isolated from the outside world. While that I solution isn’t always practical, it does help with the creative process. Nowadays with my kids, I have to be careful with how isolated I let myself get.

I’m in the midst of contemplating some larger changes to the studio. As those get made, I’ll try to keep this site updated in my Setup section. I’m spending less time on my music, and more time working on idea creation for education. This change of priorities has to be recognizing the physical layout of my studio.

Strangely, one of things that I’m walking in my studio is wall space. I’m looking at some options that allow me to have movable wall space. I’m still unsure about the budget I want to commit, and materials that I want to use for such an application.

What’ve I been up to?

Heavens, my. Lots.

I’ve been working on my health. With two young kids, it’s easy to overlook upkeep on yourself- and I’ve been guilty of that. My diet, sleep, and most other aspects of my life have been, to some degree or another, compromised in sacrifice to my kids. I regret none of it. That said, it’s not sustainable, and it’s not in the kids’ best interests long-term. My interest in improving my health started this summer, when I had my tonsils removed. I’d been getting sick as a result of them for a while, and I was sick of loosing time to something I could have dealt with. Out they came. It wasn’t the most painful thing I’ve every done/had done to me- but given the physical traumas I’ve had, that may be a viewpoint shared by few. It was 10 days of not-fun. Turns out it’s been totally worth it.

So here’s what else I’m doing:

1. Diet. I’m eating better. Breakfast every morning, Almond milk instead of dairy. Solid, healthy lunches. Cooking more (and ordering out less). Cooking with better quality products. I’ve cut out soda (except as a very occasional treat). I’ve cut out juice. I drink water and tea- and I’ve cut way back on the sugar in my tea. And I’ve cut down my tea consumption- and never after 3pm.

2. Sleep. For a number of reasons, my sleep patterns have been a mess. I’ve always dealt with some level of insomnia- when it’s really bad, I can’t fall asleep. Most of the time, I fall asleep just fine, but can’t stay asleep very well. Over the summer I was finding it very difficult to sleep past 3am or so. As a result, I’ve cut way back on caffeine. None after 3pm or so, and less during the day than before. I’m down to two good-sized cups of tea most days. I’m also using an app called “Tonic” to help track my sleep. It doesn’t track my sleep cycles, but I use it to plot sleep/wake times. Then I can track the hours of my sleep.

3. Exercise. I’ve been really bad with this. I haven’t been in the gym for a very long time, and it’s showing. It’s hard with the kids to get time, and my schedule is only getting more complicated. But I’m determined to do what can be done. I’ve been using a standing desk for two years now, but my current rooms don’t have them installed- just in my office, which I’m rarely in anymore. I’ll have to fix that. Also, I’m going to workout. Somehow. Maybe early-morning. Maybe mid-day. I’m not sure yet, but I’m going to.

4. Tracking. I’ve been interested in the Quantified Self movement since I first read about it several years ago- and before that, the life-logging movement was pretty interesting too. I’m not in a position to life-log these days, but I’ve been investing more time and effort in the quantified self aspect of things. So far, this mostly includes using Tonic to track several aspects of my days- and allowing my to export and analyze that data for trends. It’s an incredibly flexible app, and if you’re looking for something to help track any aspect of your life, it’s worth a look. I’ve also been looking into using an activity monitor to do more detailed tracking. I’d been excited about Nike’s Fuelband, but $150 is pretty stiff, and it’s got limited uses. The Jawbone UP is pretty neat- it’ll track more than the Nike, but it has no display to show you how you’re doing mid-day, and to do anything with it, you have to plug it into your phone. Also: $130. The new FitBit gets really good marks- wireless sync, sleep tracking, calibration… but I have an iPhone 4, and it needs at least an iPhone 4S to wirelessly sync. Really? That’s lame. As of just this morning, I’ve backed the indiegogo startup of the Misfit Shine. It’s tiny, waterproof, adaptable, has a very, very long battery life, and will wirelessly (and interestingly) sync with my phone. I’ve pledged $79 for a Shine with a clasp and sport bracelet. It’s supposed to ship in March. I’m really, really doubtful of that ship date, but I’m also really, really excited for it to come.

I’ve also been working on other stuff- a new presentation, some new video work, some new writing, some work on my much-neglected studio, and a new revived interest in minimalism. The kit I carry around has shrunk considerably. The gear I use has changed a bit. It’s the nature of the passage of time- the more I learn, the more things change. I’ll be posting about these things, soon.

Here’s to a new year full of fun, research, thinking, doing, and adventure.