Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Note to Educators: Keep Moving Forward


Part 3 of a 3-part series from the Blog of Hope Katz Gibbs

During a recent conversation with author Dan Pink (pictured here), Peter Noonan, the Assistant Superintendent for Instruction in the Fairfax County Public Schools, talked about the future of public education. In Part 1 of their conversation (posted April 9), they talked about Pink's new manga graphic novel, "The Adventures of Johnny Bunko." In Part 2 (posted April 16), they talk about what life — and school — might be like when their own young children graduate from high school in the year 2020. In this final segment, Pink and Noonan discuss what it will take to get all educators to focus on the future ...

Peter Noonan: Increasingly, it is becoming clear that there are two things that really impact how well a child will do in school—and probably in life: the parent’s income level and the parent’s education level.

Since we can’t control either of those, what keeps us going is the ability to see the future and think about what is important. In Fairfax, more than a third of our students are either English as second language learners, in the special education program, and / or in poverty. We’re working hard with that group to try to bring them up.

Dan Pink: As a self-proclaimed non-educator, speaking to an experienced educator, I’d ask you this: how would you do that in the current system?

Peter Noonan: Excellent question, and one we are really wrestling with for we are traveling down the road of creating a whole team initiative — that means we’re teaching science, technology, engineering and math by means of career and technical education. Options for kids include classes in auto tech, beautician school, and engineering and physics, as well.

We’re also looking to do something similar on the humanities side by incorporating English and Social Studies classes into the program. In time, there will be other subjects and professions that we target, but this is our initial foray into this completely interdisciplinary approach and its very new. And for some educators, it is scary because it is so new.

Dan Pink: I think that approach makes good sense because again, in the so-called real world, problems come at you not as a math problem or a science problem but as just a problem. Yet, there’s this kind of cabining of these disciplines and in fact everything’s connected.

You see this interestingly at the college level. There has been in the last 25 years something like a four fold increase in interdisciplinary majors in college level because college students are looking at the world and saying “Wow, these academic courses don’t match this world.”

If they want to go into biology, for instance, there are so many ethical issues to deal with that you need a background in philosophy or ethics, or you’re going to have a very difficult time untangling some of the knots.

So you have this kid saying I want to be a biologist but I need to major in biology and in philosophy because all of these things are ethical issues and I’m finding philosophy makes me a better biologist. So I think we’ll continue to see more customization at the college level.

Peter Noonan: I think that’s exactly where we’ll begin to see customize in education take hold, and we’ll try to pick up as much as we possibly can within our system—probably first at the high school level.

Dan Pink: I wonder if this current generation will demand that things change. Or maybe, but on the other hand, they might take a very segmented view of things and say, listen, while I’m in school, here’s the school rules, I’m just going to go through the motions, do what I need to do to get by, and then I’m going to go off and do what I really want to do like go on FaceBook, play computer games, do my blog—all these things that I really want to do that school doesn’t allow me to do. I’m not really going to rebel in any dramatic way, I’m just going to play by the rules here and then go to a different spear and play by my own set of rules.

Peter Noonan: That’s very creative thinking.

Dan Pink: Or it's schizophrenic, depending on your point of view. But it’s what we do already as a society. I do my religion here, my work there, school here. Its just further compartmentalization, and I think that’s the whole reason why we have to think about how to create that interdisciplinary approach and show kids the interconnectedness of the world and of school and of what they are doing in creating that relevance. And thought: How much writing across the curriculum are you doing? That might help.

Peter Noonan: We’re doing a lot of non-fiction writing now, which is sort of a new world for us. In the last five years it has taken hold, and I think it is promising because its providing opportunity for kids to write technically and to look at things from a historical perspective. They might be writing manuals, and the like.

Dan Pink: It’s also a good test of the mastery of the material to be able to write about a certain topic. I think about my chemistry class in high school and I got As for one reason only: I figured out that basically if you get more or less the right answer on your lab report, and you do it neatly, you’re going to be okay.

If the teacher had ever said “Alright Pink, what I need you to do is sort of write a paragraph of what an ion is,” or “I need you to write a paragraph about how I came up with…” it would have been over. There’s no way I had no mastery of the material. It was just always very good at delivering to authority figures what they wanted, in the form that they want it. And I’m reasonably good at math so the arithmetic part of it I could figure out pretty well, and that’s all you needed.

Peter Noonan: We’re starting to see more of that, I fear, and so we’ve been trying to counter it. We use a tool called interactive notebooks, where kids are actually journaling about the experiences they are having as they learn the material. It makes them look at things at from different perspectives. So they’re writing about math, social studies, and science. I think that’s all positive, and if it’s successful it will help us come up with more creative solutions in the future.

We’re also taking a first stab at building a customized learning plan for each kid so we can see where they are academically at different passage points: 3rd grade, 6th grade, 8th grade and 12th grade. So as a parent, you’ll know how your child is progressing.

Dan Pink: I think it’s important to look at education from the perspective of a parent. I mean, does the average parent really care about the school or school system? In some abstract sense surely you care about whether your school is testing well. It’s a marker telling you the teachers and principal and administrators are doing the right things. It’s also a marker for your property values.

But as a parent I definitely want to know how is my kid is progressing. And I would want to know more than every three years. And, I would want to be part of the decision making process if the child isn’t doing well.

Peter Noonan: Some of what we’d look at would be measured based on a national norm or national average, and some of it would be based on and how well the child did this year as compared to last year. That’s the most important thing to the parents, I believe.

Dan Pink: And if you were brought into that conversation as a parent and say “alright, we’re going to meet at the beginning of this year, we’re going to establish some goals for Eliza. What are your thoughts, here are my thoughts as a teacher, and Eliza what do you think?” Then you’ll put it into a learning plan and at the end of the year we’re going to look at it to see did Eliza meet her goals?

Peter Noonan: Right, and as long as Eliza is brought into the process and has a part of setting goals and how to reach them—then the parents largely butt out, not entirely but largely, and the teacher ends up creating a very customized way to help the student meet her goals. It’s a demanding task for the teacher, especially in a class of 30-35 students. The next trick for us cause we’ve to refocus on what’s most important and figure out ways to engage kids more personally.

Dan Pink: Yeah, I can see that. I do think there is a class bias where that kind of customization won’t work for the less well off kids and I think that’s garbage. I think in many ways it’s more urgent.

Peter Noonan: I would agree. The kids that don’t have parents to act as strong advocates for them need that kind of personalized approach.

Dan Pink: That is a very good way to put it. I never thought of it that way, but it’s also the case when it comes to the healthcare system. My wife had some serious problems with pre-term labor, and when you’re afraid you might have a baby at 21 weeks and your doped up on all kinds of drugs—you’re not making clear decisions. You have to have your pain-in-the-ass husband there asking questions.

I think a lesson for all families is that when one person has a serious medical issue you need another person there to operate as an advocate. Now, again, there’s a class bias there because A: its about time, and B: it’s some measure of education.

So, if I had a medical problem I’m going to be very fine having my Yale trained lawyer wife advocate for me. But someone whose wife has to work the late shift or someone whose wife is working 14 hours a day or doesn’t have a college education—that guy is going to have difficulties.

The same thing is true with education. These kids don’t have an advocate. And they need one.

Peter Noonan: Thank you very much for your time, Dan. It has been very interesting to hear your take on education. I’ll look forward to reading your manga book, and to trying to get our students to write one, too.

Dan Pink: It was my pleasure. Good luck to you!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Seeing the world with 20 / 20 vision


Part 2 of a 3-part series from the Blog of Hope Katz Gibbs

During a recent conversation with author Dan Pink, educator Peter Noonan (the Assistant Superintendent for Instruction in the Fairfax County Public Schools, pictured here), talked about the future of public education. In part 1 of their conversation (posted April 9), they talked about Pink's new manga graphic novel, "The Adventures of Johnny Bunko." In this excerpt, they talk about what life — and school — might be like when their own children graduate from high school in the year 2020 ...

Peter Noonan: You spoke at our leadership conference in August 2007, and probably remember the event was called 20/20 Vision. I am the father of a 4-year-old son (and an eight year old daughter), but the idea of the conference was that kids my boy’s age will be graduating from high school in the year 2020. My question to you is what do you think the world is going to look like in 12 years?

Dan Pink: Well, my honest answer is that I don’t have a clue. But I can tell you some of the things I’m seeing now, and how they might play out.

What we consider public education is increasingly less cabined away from other aspects of society. That is, we had this notion of education being something that happens at a certain moment in your life, then you finish it and are put into the real world. On some level, it never really worked that way. But today the school isn’t the only spot where leaning takes place. Kids are learning by playing video games, so is that education, right? And learning doesn’t end after you stop going to school. It becomes part of your every aspect of your life. Learning is not an activity that is reserved for a finite part of time in a discreet place.

I think the real question we need to be asking kids isn’t “what do you want to be when you grow up,” but rather, “what’s your passion?” It would be great if educators can find out what turns a kid on.

Peter Noonan: Did you know what you wanted to be when you were 12? I didn’t. And I can see the value in helping them test the waters, which is what we are constantly trying to do. But from your perspective, how do you see it playing out?

Dan Pink: Quite honestly, if you ask me what your passion is I’m like wait a second, hold on. I gotta get this one right. Today I’m interested in Manga. Tomorrow it may be something else.

But how about this scenario: Say a kid comes to school and the teacher says, “what are you interested in” and he says martial arts. So the teacher helps him build a curriculum completely around martial arts. Now that’s the kind of thing that’s going to make some parents completely roll their eyes and say “what the hell kind of education is this?”

Well, what happens is the kid works a couple of days in the studio, the martial arts studio, he’s learning math, they teach math in parts. He learns math in terms of force and angles and all that sort of stuff because there’s plenty of math and physics in martial arts. He knows more about Japanese history than any non-academic because he’s really into martial arts and wants to know how it got started. And then he starts writing brochures for the martial arts studio. He wants to make sure he gets it right, so he works hard to use language effectively.

Now, if you had this kid—or me even—read four paragraphs about bees and write a summary paragraph about it, I’m going to be bored out of my mind. But if you teach me all kinds of things around a topic I’m interested in, then that’s different.

So that idea of context I think is important. I see it in my own life; I’ll learn something from this conversation. Now is this education? I don’t know. Yeah. Kind of. Sort of. So I think it’s that idea that is in many ways missing.

Now, the challenging part of that idea is that education is like breathing. Education is an on going process than falls into question perhaps whether we need these institutions called schools to be places to deposit people for a certain amount of time

Peter Noonan: My colleagues and I have actually spent a lot of time talking about just that. Our goal is to be able to articulate what the purpose is beyond the years someone spends in school. In fact, I was recently interviewed for an article that ran in The Washington Post, and the reporter wanted to know what is the purpose of dropping a kid off from eight o’clock in the morning and having him stay there until three thirty in the afternoon? Into the future, she wanted to know, are there other opportunities and solutions for kids in terms of how—and when and where—we educate them.

So short of changing the way we operate our school days, we might incorporate other changes into our strategy, like creating opportunities for kids to be able to find something that they have an interest in—or using something like manga where they write a 10-page story about what it’s like to be an immigrant.

Dan Pink: Yes. Get them to learn English by writing a manga story about how their family came over here and what was great, and what was scary, and what do they wish they could change. Then distribute it to the whole school because everyone will be interested in knowing that story. It would be powerful, and I think most kids in that situation step up.

Peter Noonan: Absolutely. And they learn narrative skills, writing skills, and they learn that what they have experienced and think is important. It ceases to be a factory model of education. One of our goals is not to simply be “stamping out” kids.

Certainly, it seems like so many industries today are focused on customization. We’re sitting here talking at a Starbucks, and there are seemingly a zillion ways to have your cup of coffee prepared. To be more in-sync with the times, educators do realize we need to make changes.

But one of the big reasons we aren’t quite to change is, frankly, we’re afraid we’re going to screw up. So then do we become paralyze and think it’s not worth messing a generation up because it has worked okay since the beginning of time—and it’ll probably work okay for the next 50 years.

But at what point do you say enough is enough? And after that, how do you decide what to keep, what to throw out, and what to bring in that is different?

Dan Pink: I think your analysis is brilliant. I mean, I think it’s the fear of messing up that is holding education back. And as you say, there will come a point when the endless bountiful service of mediocrity becomes more dangerous than the risk of slipping up.

Peter Noonan: Right, right. And it seems like we’re there.

Dan Pink: I realize this isn’t easy because this is complicated stuff. I’m always amazed about how many social problems—ones no one else wants to deal with—are dumped on schools. So they’re assigned to do nutrition. They are assigned to do sex ed. To me, these are parental responsibilities, but schools are forced to take them on, as if the schools’ job of teaching every kid who passes through the door wasn’t hard enough.

The other thing I have noticed is that professionals in the education system probably have less autonomy than any other professional in any other segment in American society. That’s part of your challenge right there. Teachers have to listen to principals, and principals take orders from superintendents. And human nature is such that when autonomy starts to be crimped people go and do something else. Then if you look at the system from the kids’ perspective, they have almost no autonomy.

Peter Noonan: So how do you create autonomy in a large school division?

Dan Pink: I think that it’s extremely difficult to do on a large level. So ultimately the problem is that all the rules and regulations, like No Child Left Behind and standardized tests, are a function of external accountability factors that have nothing to do, in my mind, with education at all.

Peter Noonan: Right. And if you ask a parent what do you care more about, the school or your kid? What are they going to say? And so, even the unit of analysis is very beauracratic and not at all customized. Because we are a government entity, schools are forced to meet the standards and adhere to NCLB, so we are not thinking as much about what is the experience of this or that particular kid. We are not thinking about it the way a parent does. These kids, these individuals, are just aggregations of data.

But we are educators first, and truly we want to fix the system. Our catch phrase now is to say we’ll do it “child by child.” Ultimately, that’s how I think we’ll be able to improve the system.

Dan Pink: I think that’s a good aspiration.

Peter Noonan: I do too.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

How Manga Can Help Kids Learn?


Part 1 of a 3-part series from Hope Katz Gibbs

At a Starbucks coffee shop in suburban Washington, DC educator Peter Noonan — Assistant Superintendent for Instruction in the Fairfax County Public Schools — recently sat down with world-renown author Dan Pink to talk about the future of public education. Although Pink quickly admits he is not an educator, his previous books, “A Whole New Mind,” and “Free Agent Nation,” have struck a chord with the education community.

“As educators, we are interested in learning what Dan has to say because he seems to have a good understanding about what makes people tick,” Noonan explains. “Since our sole mission as educators is to help children realize their potential, his insight is very appealing.”

Noonan said he was particularly interested in Pink’s latest book, a graphic novel written in a popular Japanese graphic novel style manga, entitled “The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: the Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need.” Their conversation started with that topic.

Peter Noonan: For those who aren’t familiar with manga graphic novels, can you tell us what that is, why you wrote it, and what do you think of the future of manga?

Dan Pink: Manga is an increasingly popular genre in the United States. You can go to any Borders bookstore and the manga / graphic novel section is larger than any other section in the shop. But most of it is fiction, and it’s for teens and kids. What we don’t have a lot of here is a non-fiction manga for adults—and I thought that was a missed opportunity.

I also think the career book genre is thread bear. The reigning champion is What color is you Parachute, and bless it’s heart, when you open up the pages you can smell the must coming out of it. I saw a real opportunity to give readers something new and interesting that marries those two genres—especially young readers who are going online for their news and data. I wanted to give them strategic information in a smart compelling new format that goes down easy and provides a lot of value.

So my book is a 160-page illustrated Japanese-style manga graphic novel that is similar to a comic book. It tells a good story in a limited number of pages, and mostly with illustrations, which mean it, can be read and absorbed quickly. The project was really fun to do. I am definitely using muscles I haven’t used before.

[FYI: Riverhead Trade is the publisher that did my other books [A Whole New Mind, and Free Agent Nation]. The illustrator is Rob Ten Pas, a winner of the Tokyopop Rising Stars of Manga competition—which is like American idol for American Manga artists.]

Peter Noonan: Can you see any applications for manga to be used in education?

Dan Pink: Manga can be used in a whole array of ways, but for education specifically you already are seeing companies like Kaplan Inc. come out with a series of books. Titles like “Warcraft: Dragon Hunt,” use words like sanctimonious and exculpate to help kids ramp up for the verbal parts of the STAS and other standardized tests.

There are also manga books of Shakespeare’s plays that use Japanese illustrations and actual Shakespeare language. These are not the dumbed-down Cliff Notes, but are more like a theatrical production. A British publisher is coming out with Romeo and Juliet in manga form to retell the story if two rival families in Tokyo. Also, the World Bank is using manga-style publications for some of its instruction manuals.

But what was interesting to me was that very few people over 30 have any idea what is going on with this. Yet among people under 30, manga is huge. So it might be very valuable for a school district like yours, because it is easy for the reader to relate to. The characters are written specifically so they have a universal appeal. For instance, the main character in my book is Johnny Bunko—which is a play on a Japanese term of art for small comic books called bunko bon.

Johnny’s sidekicks are named Carlos and Yuko, and I chose those names because they could come from just about anywhere. There are also some characters that are black skinned—but I never make it clear if they are African American or not. They could be Asian. That’s part of the power of manga, and that would appeal to students in a school district like Fairfax County that has so many different cultures.

In my opinion, all you need to do is unleash the graphic novels for them to read as an example. Then give the kids a program like Manga Life (a computer design program), and have them create their own stories. I bet they’ll come up incredible things.

Peter Noonan: That brings up an interesting point, for at FCPS we are looking into the best ways to teach our students a foreign language, and to expose them to foreign cultures.

It isn’t always easy to figure out what is best, and I’ll give you an example of a situation that happened a few months ago. I had a meeting with the Administer of Education from Taiwan who was encouraging us to not teach the new popular Chinese characters used in business, but to teach our American students the traditional versions of the Chinese characters.

His reason was that the old, highly complex version tells a story, has a deeper cultural meaning and cultural significance than the newer characters that are used in sort “corporate” China. His concern is that this newfangled version of the language is eroding the historic culture of China.

In fact, we’re teaching the business version / simplified Chinese to be more in line with what is going on in the business world of China. I’m wondering if the older Japanese community is looking at manga and saying these popular books are eroding the beautiful traditional written culture.

Dan Pink: Not really, because manga is a young medium. It came about in the aftermath of World War II when most of Japan was very devastated. I lived in Japan for a while, and didn’t realize it until I spent some time talking to the Japanese who lived through the war just how bad off the country was in 1946 and 1947. The people literally had nothing. Many of the cities were reduced to rubble. There was no TV, and most people were dirt poor. So manga became the perfect medium for people who don’t have any money, because all it takes to create an entertaining story is a piece of paper and pencil.

Manga has its roots in wood block printing—an ancient form of Japanese art. A few people in Tokyo who lived this one particular apartment building started drawing stuff in what is now manga style, and their new art form ended up becoming the epicenter of the entire pop culture industry in Japan. In the last 50 years, an entire industry has grown out of it, including anime, television programs, and games.

The reason it is catching on internationally is that cultures, in general, are becoming visual. Thanks to the Internet, everything we experience is constantly streaming, fast paced, and accessible. And although no one has ever verified it, it seems to me that the length of these graphic novels was devised so that people could read them between stops on Tokyo subway. In fact, when you go to a subway you see that all the newsstands are piled with manga novels.

Peter Noonan: One thing we talk about all the time in education is how best to meet the needs of kids who are having the hardest time learning. We focus on how to differentiate instruction from classroom to classroom, and it sounds to me that incorporating manga into the curriculum might be a great way to begin; it’s like the ultimate differentiating of instruction whether it’s for adults or for kids. So, if we were to take this idea or this notion of manga and look at it through the lens of public education, how do you convince strata of adults that this is a good approach?

Dan Pink: Yeah, I can definitely see how that would be a hard sell because critics would probably start using the phrase “dumbing it down,” and worry that the language in it isn’t rich enough. And there’s some truth to that. So you have to show that its being done elsewhere, like at the World Bank, with Shakespeare’s plays and to help teach kids SAT words.

Although I’m not an educator, I think that one of the interesting aspects of using this art form would be unleashing kids to write their own manga novels, rather than saying “hey, we’re all going to read manga.” The thing is that foremost it has to be a good story or it’ll loses the reader’s attention—so they have to do it well.

There’s one very popular series in Japan is the history of Buddha told in a graphic novel. It’s fantastic, a masterwork. But it’s a narrative. Now there are other kinds of stuff that’s instructional manga, such as a popular guide to time management. And I think school-age kids would do some extraordinary things because they are thinking visually about the world. Using manga as a teaching tool also levels the playing field in some ways. Those who don’t have great verbal skills, but have something to say, now have a new way to get their thoughts across.

Check back soon for Part 2 of their conversation: “Seeing the world through 20 / 20 Vision.”