I first want to give a shout out to a Richmond, Indiana original: Wilbur Wright. Wilbur attended Richmond schools though he was born in nearby Millville. His family made that fateful move to Dayton during the spring of his senior year and he did not graduate here. So much about the Wright brothers is legend, but one significant fact is rarely mentioned and it bears directly on any discussion of disruptive innovation. The point of this blog is to discuss that factor, a condition that we all share in approaching new educational technology: prior knowledge.
Occam's Razor, sort of . . .
"When you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better." I mention Occam's Razor not because it explains everything. Or anything, for that matter. Sometimes a reasonable philosophy is simply comforting.
I grew up with nosy neighbors on telephone party lines. The vertical hold on our black and white TV seemed to need constant adjustment. My worldview relied on the grainy newsreels and Felix the Cat (the wonderful, wonderful cat) with his magic bag and his odd nemesis, The Master Cylinder. High tech? We believed in UFOs. They had high tech. We owned AM radios and Etch-a-Sketch. My relationship with this technology meant fumbling with brown knobs and beige buttons. Color TV finally arrived in our home and Disney's Wonderful World of Color blossomed in our lives.
The New Frontier would come along any day and bowl us over, but that was off in the 'near future', a prospect that got tangled up with our fears of nuclear war and Big Brother. You kept technology at arms' length because it just might make things worse. It was going to confound you, make a fool of you; it would suck your lungs out or, in the very least, make you a robot or leave you in the dark. Such was the backdrop of my brave attempts to move forward with computers, the internet, smartphones, and social media.
Decades later, I find myself designing modules for blended learning, pushing forward resolutely into that brave new world. But as I work a nervous inner child breathes into a paper bag.
The most recent assignment for our NextGen Cadre proposed that we redesign a lesson module for a group review. The lesson would be explained with a Voicethread. The Voicethread is a benign and friendly technology. Breath in, breath out.
So . . . put the module pages into a slideshow . . . record the voiceover . . . turn the assignment in. Simple, smooth.
Hmmmm. Maybe not so smooth. Something, a gremlin, a ghost in the machine keeps adding dead air to my recording. I try re-recording and it gets no better. Breath in, count 1,2,3,4,5, breath out slowly.
Try again. More dead air. It's the scream in deep space that no one can hear. It makes a fool out of me. I'm certain the problem lies embedded in the hardware, or it plays an obfuscating game in the software. Obfuscating. And my perfect lesson, my beautifully planned, wonderfully overwrought lesson; my monumentally overachieved lesson! It will plod along like a metronome. Worse. It will sound like this: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Where's the voice of reason?
Where is Jiminy Cricket when you need him?
In full panic, I call the experts. They'll know about gremlins.
They ask, Are you using Google Chrome?
Did you, uh, click the save button? *
At this moment I need valium or potent philosophy. I try philosophy. "When you have two competing theories . . . (but I have nothing). . . that make exactly the same predictions . . . (Occam never made a Voicethread!) . . . the simpler one is the better."
Think. No, stop thinking. What if I-- Just turn the thing in flawed! But what if? No, no, no, no Could it be? I'm hyperventilating. What if I record again and try . . . this stupid arrow thingy? Duck and cover! Could it be that simple? Big Brother is watching . . .
No way . . .
It works! It works! It works!
Check it out!
It's not perfect, not perfectly smooth, but it was sooooo simple!
Sometimes the prior knowledge we bring to technology should be abandoned for a satisfying foray into the unknown. If Occam could explain this, he would say that designers of our educational technology are not obscurantist geeks, but simple creatures like us. Their platform is designed to be used. Though it might be wise to keep a paper bag handy for those moments of terror, the best solution to the quandaries of blended learning is plunge in and noodle around until it does just what you want it to do.
(really . . .celebrate - Cue the overture from Fantasia!
* Not wanting to suspend the disbelief in the story, I add this note here. My experts are wonderful educators and incredibly supportive and wise.
As Every Schoolchild Knows,
The Wright brothers failed in their first business, a print shop, but the second enterprise, a bicycle shop, succeeded and supported the brothers through their other interests. Orville became a champion bicycle racer. But another challenge drove the brothers, and they plunged or should I say soared into aviation.
Many efforts were underway to get into the air and get somewhere. The Wright brothers didn’t invent aviation. Da Vinci launching flying machines off the heights of Fiesole toward the Arno River didn’t even do that. And the Wright brothers didn’t invent powered flight either. Dreamers with their heads in the clouds had been strapping engines on their fabric-winged creations for decades, often leading to distressing, if not fatal ends. This was a dangerous business. The Wright brothers, Wilbur, the methodical, older brother, and Orville, the intuitive, younger sibling, did something far more remarkable. They created controlled flight. Their Flyer could takeoff and return to the same spot, or to Detroit if they wanted and everywhere in between.
They brought something to aviation that no one else had connected prior to this. The Wright brothers knew something that you knew as a child and that every child understands.
Before the Wright brothers, inventors tried to steer aircraft by simply turning them left or right. The gauzy birds staggered and stuttered into these turns, and flopped, buckled, and failed. What the Wright brothers knew, the thing every child knows or learns painfully with applications of iodine and hugs, was that you can’t just twist the handlebar on a bike and expect it to turn. A bicycle must be leaned into a turn. It was the great Aha! that solved the problem for the Wright brothers. They designed a flyer that leaned into the turns. In aviation this is called ‘banking’. Problem solved. And prior knowledge allowed the Wright brothers to completely disrupt aviation.
We all bring our prior knowledge to educational technology. We already know what we want it to do. True, the solutions are often more sublime than we envisioned, but each of us brings our own information to the process. Which one of us will create the next great disruption in our classroom?
Lift and Drag
The conundrum for aviation engineers is creating enough lift to get in the air while minimizing the drag this feature (which is to say the wing) carries into flight. Old biplanes were wonderful at getting into the air, especially at a time when lengthy airstrips were not the rule and a lot of lift was needed quickly. But once in the air you had two big features scraping along through the ocean of air, keeping airspeeds for most biplanes well under 200 mph.
I have this great, big biplane of a lesson plan in place for my 6th grade artists: Op Art. I’ve got plenty of lift with this attractive imagery but simply splashing paint around and hoping to cover the topic was really, uh, a drag.
My 6th graders have already painted a Florida Landscape inspired by Florida Highwaymen of the 1950s. This project was completely studio-based with yours truly acting as a surrogate Bob Ross, leading the way step by step. Students were given plenty of choices in the process and the results showed a wide range of solutions. But it was teacher-driven. The students really liked the product, but they deserved more.
To take them and yours truly out of this comfort zone, I challenged them to forge their own vision and design and the Op Art project offered a good vehicle for this process. The plan was simple: take away the ‘wings’ of the project which for the time being meant the paint and brushes, and get them into the rarified air quickly and efficiently. This might require a rocket! And they needed to embrace the basic ideas of Op Art without some pestering influence (Who? Me?) dragging their ideas back to earth. For a veteran discipline-based art educator, this meant that someone other than my students needed to drop the heavy fabric wings and strap on a rocket pack. Yikes!
Canvas provided the launch pad for this game-changer. It allowed students to explore Op Art on their own, googling the topic, learning some of the well-known practitioners of the style, and appreciating the complementary color schemes and the ‘hard-edged’ painting style. They were able to choose what they liked about the style, decide what design ideas captivated them, and explore designs on their own, using online paintboxes. (I like sumopaint for a basic program and youidraw for a more sophisticated platform, but other programs are in play and are being investigated.)
The old aviator liked what he saw. In fact, the process took my breath away. Words like WOW and questions like HOW DID YOU DO THAT? bubbled up in the atmosphere of the computer lab. Clearly, I needed to get online and explore right alongside my students.
The Op Art project is in process. Students are currently translating their online creations to a studio version of Op Art, using real paint and real brushes, though it must be said that in a perfect cyber world the online galleries might justifiably be the final product. The project will include a student reflection through Canvas at its conclusion.
Student enthusiasm prompted me to offer these 6th graders an opportunity to create something special. Op Art Chairs. Prior to this, the chair project, introduced earlier as a fundraiser, was limited to my 7th and 8th graders at Dennis Intermediate. For these 6th graders, being able to decorate their own chairs is like landing on Mars. They voted to do this project over several other options which included a personal painting or a class mural.
Canvas has shown me that blended learning offers incredible growth for student and teacher alike. True, we must often bring our prior knowledge to gain momentum, but once students have gotten aloft, it is time to jettison the baggage.
John Henry Redux: A Parable of Disruption
(stepping away from aviation and education for this final comment . . .)
My brother retired from the MBTA (the 'T') in Boston and began a new career as a railroad consultant. Yes, he could build you a railroad spike by spike and then run it for you, but his specialty was a machine that assured that tracks were set at the proper design. Tracks not properly designed, that is, at the correct elevation and curve with the correct underbalance will inevitably cause derailments. A very serious matter. Dave began his railroad career early and by age 22 had a crew of 90 men working under him. He was a pick and shovel guy who grew in his profession to embrace its ever-changing technology. The production tamping machines he now operates had morphed from diesel, grease, and steel behemoths half the length of a football field into diesel, grease, and steel behemoths half the length of a football field controlled by ever more sensitive and complex technology. Railroads from colossal BNSF to small local systems rely on my brother to work his life-saving magic and train others to do the same with these machines.
He was called in to train machine operators at--let's just say --a major urban transit system. His presence coincided with the roll-out of a new set of high-tech tamping machines to upgrade a challenged existing system. The trainees he met in a classroom the first day turned out to be a surly group, many of them longtime 'gandydancers', suspicious of change and especially suspicious of some outside Bozo come in to tell them their business. Dave understood. He was once one of those guys. But the work needed to be done and he believed in what he was presenting.
The next morning, he arrived to start the machine training only to find that his onboard computer had been sabotaged. It would take a day or more to fix or replace the computer and other damaged components of the big machine. He told the crew of would-be operators, "I'll show you what we do when the machine is out of service." They broke out the picks and shovels and pry bars, headed out on the line, and did a day's work the old-fashioned way. Dave calculated the proper design with pencil and paper.
After this rugged day of railroad work, the machine was not tampered with again.
But don't get the wrong idea.
These folks didn't mind a rugged day of railroad work. It validated them. What troubled them was the horrible thought that this reliable experience might disappear and their very sense of worth might evaporate with it. When my brother took them out and showed that he didn't mind a rugged day of railroad work, the gesture changed everything.
Trust. It's something we all bring with us as prior knowledge. Or not and it must be earned. But there is not a more powerful disruptive force than trust and it must be built into the machine.
Today's thoughts come to us from Mr. Richard Green. Richard currently teaches art at Dennis Intermediate School in Richmond, Indiana. A native of Massachusetts, he taught in the Bay State for a decade before making his move to the Sunshine State. During his tenure in Florida, he spent a year in Nagano, Japan as an exchange teacher. This eye-opening, life-changing experience fired up his teaching with a worldview and the confidence that comes from pushing outside your comfort zone. Now a resident of Indiana for nearly a decade something just as awesome has happened. He found a home and a renewed clarity for teaching art. His passion for teaching, writing, and producing his own brand of art continues to rise.