Alexandria Online

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Coding in the Classical Liberal Arts Education

Singular Plural
1st amo amamus
2nd amas amatis
3rd amat amant

I did it! I conjugated a Latin verb from memory! That's not surprising because I taught Latin for ten years before moving into technology. But I still get a little tingle in my brain when I do it because I am composing it anew.

What was more challenging was making the table you see above in HTML. I composed it all out of my memory without the use of a web editing tool using plain HTML, which lies jumbled in with SQL, Basic, ASP, Scratch and PHP. Just like my Latin, it fades but never goes away. Here's what I really wrote:

Classic HTML, readable in any browser including Netscape 1. See how different it looks from the finished product? Many coders consider HTML a "mark-up" language, not a true computer language. Even so, the mind must twist itself into knots to compose HTML in the beginning, then later it becomes second nature. Just like Latin.

When I began teaching at The Episcopal Academy in 1990, 7th and 8th graders were scheduled into beginning coding classes where they learned LOGO on Apple IIe's. BASIC was offered as an elective in high school, and a few students continued on to AP Computer Science. Latin was required in 7th and 8th grades.

In the mid to late 1990's, until the tech bubble burst around 2000, students were storming the gates to learn code. It was largely a vocational choice. That's where the money was. Many got burned; the tech sector got a bad reputation and fell out of favor. And Latin was required in 7th and 8th grades.

In 2014, our students are coding around the edges of the curriculum in grades K-12. We have a high school robotics team and a middle school robotics club. A handful of kids take the programming course, now offered in Java, and some go on to AP Computer Science. Very few of our students become professional programmers. Latin is still required in 7th and 8th grades.

The classical liberal arts education claims to transcend vocational trends and to develop minds with timeless skills, flexibility and resilience. Learn how to learn and the world is your oyster. Is this notion a vestige of Western imperialist culture? a form of management training? deeply held cultural heritage? magical thinking, or just the only thing we can come up with to teach to kids?

Hard to say. But that's the way we keep doing it. Along the way we tip our hats to vocational trends. Schools have added Mandarin in the past few years, replacing Russian, which was very much in vogue in the '70s and '80s until the Berlin wall fell. Japanese language and business practices enjoyed a spike in popularity and then sank into obscurity along with Japanese business prospects. When the Chinese economy crashes, we will move on to the next power language. (It's looking like Russian again.)

Ironically, when schools try to follow the latest trend in order to make their students more prepared for work, they inevitably prepare them for today's job market, which we know will not exist when they graduate from college. I have a job that didn't exist when I was in school, and I expect my sons to have careers that would be unrecognizable to me now. 

The best preparation for the next economy, now more than ever, will be a classical liberal arts education. In attempting to future-proof the curriculum, schools may be imparting skills that will be obsolete soon. Even coding skills are not immune to the vagaries of the job market.

But now it is time to add code to the classical liberal arts education. People have learned geometry and algebra for thousands of years; calculus joined the math group recently. While code is a relative newcomer, logic, the matrix that spawns programming languages, permeates all aspects of the curriculum while it also differentiates itself from them in this uniquely pure and intellectually demanding form.

More than the classical disciplines, code is everywhere to be learned. You can learn it from a fat book ordered from Amazon; you can pay for an account on; for free you can go to,,, or Every coding curriculum you could possibly imagine for a k-12 education already exists and is in use somewhere. If we could measure the amount of computer science that is being studied in the world, it would probably dwarf efforts spent in any other discipline in schools. The world of K-12 education is ignoring a sleeping giant.

As someone who has spent years reading and teaching Latin and Greek, I am skeptical bordering on contemptuous of introducing utilitarian subjects into the curriculum. The sudden adoption of Mandarin, a very interesting language and culture in its own right, is purely mercenary in the current economic context, but it won't harm anyone to learn it.

Computer science is different. It has ridden several waves of approval and rejection in the culture. The study of English Literature kept pounding at the ivory doors of the academy for generations until, relatively recently, it took its place alongside Classics. Educational pundits have cried out that no child be left behind by the computer science juggernaut, but many people continue to become cultured, richly educated citizens without much digital literacy.

I am a self-taught programmer. There was a need in the school where I worked and I filled it. I built a small database application and it grew and grew. I learned whatever I needed to learn. I copied other people's work. I googled solutions. In the haze of raising a young family, I lulled myself to sleep thinking in code. At first it was a utilitarian decision, but then the stark beauty of algorithmic thinking began to vie with the beauty of Ancient Greek poetry in my heart. The minds of the past - the recent past - those who invented SQL and the other tools I used - they joined the company of authors, musicians, mathematicians, scientists, writers, actors and philosophers who were dear to me.

Computer science isn't the next big thing. It isn't a necessary thing. It might prepare you for the workforce or it might not. It isn't a fad. It has taken its place in the pantheon of the arts and sciences. It is a discipline. It is a classic. It can be tedious, boring and frustrating to learn. It can also be exhilarating to see a piece of code execute perfectly after you have banged your head against a problem for hours.

Kindergartners should write code as they are learning to read English, and teenagers should be griping about their code homework. And all our students should secretly love it, even when its boring or frustrating, because it gives them that tingly feeling.

When I entered college in 1978, Computer Science sat side by side with Classics in the table of contents of Harvard's notoriously ponderous course guide and it continues to thrive in colleges and universities. It is time to see it throughout the curriculum along with language arts and mathematics.

If you have never coded before and you are reading this on a computer, type the HTML above into a simple text editor (Notepad for Windows, textedit for Mac) and save it as "test.html". Then double-click it. You should see the table that you see above. If you don't, you may feel the urge to debug the problem. For this we now have google, the god of answers.

Whether your code works or not, you will feel it: that tingle in your brain as you compose. Frustrated because it didn't work? That's good for your brain too. Failure is a mighty teacher. Keep at it. Don't stop. Give in to the feeling. It is what your brain needs and craves. You are composing code, joining the minds of millions of coders in a rich cultural heritage.

Note: a shorter version of this piece appears in the Winter 2014 edition of Independent School Magazine, the official publication of the National Association of Independent Schools.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Teaching My Mother to Use an iPhone

I'm teaching my 86 year old mom how to use an iPhone for Christmas. It's her present - not the phone, but the "training and on site support" for the phone. After all, I am in that business. In such a situation, it is reasonable to ask the question my mom asks in the video: "how did I get to this place?"

Anyone can hand their mom a phone and wish her well, but it's a little like giving her a new home theater system and then walking away with the junk all still in the boxes. You just gave your ma junk for Christmas.

This week's curriculum was a double-header: making a call and answering a call. I spent last Sunday afternoon setting her up and showing her how to do it. And every day this week I have called her on her iPhone and she has answered; and every day she successfully calls me. She was also able to retrieve, listen to and delete voicemails. We are off to a blazing start.

The first thing I did when I got the phone running was to hide as many of the icons as I could. The idea was simply this: get her to use the device as a portable phone. Her previous cell phone was a clam shell model. She became increasingly frustrated with it. It didn't ring when a call came in; she couldn't get voicemails; she got confused making calls; many many mysterious problems.

So why opt for the iPhone when my mom can barely handle a basic cell phone? Consumer culture. There are many more smart phones sold in the world now than basic models. People just like them more - all sorts of people. So I placed my bet on something a little more complicated but a little more in tune with, and intuitive to the customer.

The problem was that this particular customer grew up and grew old in a non-digital world. She was in her sixties when the internet became available to everybody, and in her fifties when the micro computer landed on people's desks at work. In addition, she never worked. She didn't own a computer until about ten years ago, when she was in her seventies. She had no use for it at home; she had no office where she had to use it.

Pick up your smart phone sometime and watch your fingers as you navigate it, tapping, pinching and swiping. You will begin to feel ridiculous pretty quickly. Ask yourself why you hit this arrow, or swipe up from the bottom to see the dashboard, or tap a triangle to play voicemail.

Try to explain how an iPhone works to yourself. The intuitiveness, the ordinariness, the ease with which we use it every day and every hour, crumbles away beneath you and you find yourself falling down a rabbit hole of lame explanations and bizarre rationalizations. There is a reason it does not come with a manual. Words can't explain.

You have to feel your way through it, close your eyes and "use The Force." You are a rat in a maze, trying avenues, arriving at dead ends, getting rewards for right thinking. Apple and Google are training you to think the way they want you to think. It has become part of our culture.

Culture is viral. People just pick it up like language. You could describe the functions of an iPhone as a language, a visual language, with its own syntax and vocabulary. Like language, a domain of simple elements, like an alphabet, produces infinite semantic possibilities because you can combine them in so many ways.

The language of the iPhone evolved from the language of "tree menus" that we all used to use, or still use, with Blackberries, land lines, thermostats, printers and other devices that have limited graphical interfaces. The tree menus are much more like rat mazes and much more limited than the iPhone interface; nonetheless, hundreds of functions are possible depending on which choices you make on your way down the branches of the tree.

At 86, my mother wants to learn. She wants to participate, be part of the culture. And I admire her for that. She can't climb mountains any more; she doesn't want to take film courses or join a book group; she still reads the entire newspaper every day. She takes very seriously her relationships with her friends and her family and puts a lot of effort into maintaining those relationships. She sees the iPhone as a way to stay connected - and safe - through communication.

And now she is impatient. She is done with simple telephone calls. She wants to text her sons, see pictures of grandchildren, read email from friends, ask Siri how to get to the new restaurant she is taking us to. She will learn what she needs to learn in ways completely different from the way a child learns in school. There is no course for this, no MOOC, no manual.

As someone who has worked in education for 30 years, it is an amazing gift to witness someone who was born in 1928 adopt a technology that was born in 2007. New pathways are opening in her brain as she collides with the new digital language, hieroglyphs that jump, wiggle, slide or open into new sets of hieroglyphs. Sure she gets frustrated, but she works her way over and around obstacles. She reads the glyphs, she swipes, taps, taps again, and talks to the voices on the other end of the signal.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Can't be Satisfied: Adding More Bandwidth to a School

Getting ready to lay new fiber optic cable is an exciting moment for a director of technology.

We already had a 200 Mbps pipe from our main provider, Chesconet. The fiber runs down from Route 252 several hundred yards, through three separate man holes and into our demarcation closet.

The cable itself belongs to Sunesys, which is a major provider of what is known as "dark" fiber, unassigned at first to any particular internet provider. Sunesys then leases the dark fiber to a provider who connects clients to the internet, literally "lighting up" the dark fiber. Here's a picture of Sunesys' cable coming into our building:

That's a tag that warms the heart of technophiles everywhere.

But we have found that one internet connection isn't enough. We want some redundancy. And we chose Digital Speed, another internet service provider, to be our backup.

When we built Episcopal's new Campus in Newtown Square in 2008, Digital Speed got the contract to provide us with our voice communications. Digital Speed ordered Verizon to run copper pairs from Route 252 to our demarc room. Since then the copper cable has degraded and we have had to "switch pairs" which means that the telephone repairman keeps trying different strands of copper inside the big, braided cable until he gets two that are working. Very primitive.

With new technology that is available today, we will retire that corroding, copper cable and run all of our voice transmissions through fiber. And there will still be some room for as much data transmission as we are willing to buy.

If Chesconet has problems with its switching equipment, we will be able to get to the internet through Digital Speed. Our internet routers will have "BGP", "Border Gateway Protocol" enabled so that they can find all the routes they need to get anywhere in the world regardless of which cable they go through.

We will also have redundancy through whatever differences exist in the topography of the two networks. The two fiber cables take the same path to Route 252, but from there they take different paths to the internet. Here is Chesconet's path:

The first step is to pull the sleeve, through which the fiber optic cable will subsequently run. Verizon subcontracts with another group to pull the sleeve, a group that knows nothing about fiber, the internet, or phone service. Pull sleeve and leave.

A couple of big trucks and a van pulled up onto the green, set up safety fences and cones, and started pulling through our underground aquifer (all three manholes are filled with water.)

Final man hole before the cable enters the building

We got the white stuff: "Maxcell". It's a sleeve, not a tube like the orange stuff. Very slippery.

A little persuasion was needed at this hole. He's running a snake.

Sleeve comes out through the conduit here in the demarc room. Other conduits lead to other buildings.

In an age when many of us have fast internet at home, this may seem like a lot of fuss. But consumer bandwidth is nothing like what you get at a school, a university or a big business. Our providers define a minimum speed for 99% of our usage in what is called a "Service Level Agreement." If you read the advertisements for home internet through Verizon, Comcast or others, the wording usually reads "speeds up to..." but there is no mention of what you might actually get from day to day. Nobody really cares as long as they have access and they don't have to wait to stream movies. But when you have 1,500 people on your network using that pipe to the internet, you're going to need a completely different kind of connection.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Devil Needs a Database

In this sentence from Annie Proulx's short story, "I've Always Loved This Place," the devil complains because he has no idea whether the famous painter Signorelli, who did such a lovely job painting The Last Judgment, resides in Hell or not:

"They had to start compiling a database of the damned and their particular niches; it was impossible to find anyone in Hell."

Even the devil, whose very mojo is chaos, needs a database.

But I think the devil, or perhaps Proulx, has it wrong. What the devil really needs is a couple of good Cisco certified internet engineers who can give him the kind of bandwidth and rock-solid wifi that the blessed would enjoy in heaven. That way he can google Signorelli and anyone else he's trying to find in hell.

But good luck finding a top notch network guy in hell. All the ones I've worked with are obviously going to heaven for all their good deeds.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

What Happens When the Network Goes Down?

Short answer: no internet, no email, no phones, no printing, no clocks, no bells, no public announcement system at pickup time, can't adjust the heating/cooling system, can't change the door lock schedule, can't operate the outdoor sprinkler system on the fields. The water still runs and the lights stay on, but everything else is a yard sale.

We learned a bit later that one of our two, core Cisco 6500 switches had experienced a tiny power failure that partially scrambled its instructions without bringing it to its knees. The two switches are redundant, meaning that if one goes down, the other takes over. The problem is that the one did not completely go down, so the backup did not take over.

The Cisco 6500 is one of the great workhorses of the world. It has been around in some form since 1999, at the core of campus networks all over the world, running day and night directing traffic.

This happened yesterday at Episcopal between 12:30 and 5:00 on a beautiful, mild, Friday afternoon in early Fall. As Director of Technology, I was very stressed out. But I was surprised by how relaxed my colleagues were. In fact, there was a bit of a holiday spirit around school.

When I was sure about what had happened, I scurried over to the head of school's office with my heart pounding. He smiled when he saw me. I said, "the network is down." (I didn't say "sir" but I wanted to.) He said "yes, I know" and laughed. He said, "you probably don't know how long it will take to fix. Good luck."

Later in the day EA's assistant head of school stopped by. She too was in a fine mood. A former network administrator herself, she and I had an in-depth discussion of what we thought had happened and what sort of follow up we would need after the system was repaired. She understood my position better than anyone else on campus and shares my passion for getting things fixed and solving problems. To some extent, this is what we live for: putting out fires.

Many other colleagues smiled at me in the halls and expressed support and sympathy. EA is known for its competitive athletics, and I felt like our network disaster and the ensuing effort to restore service was just another contest, another opportunity for everyone to root for the home team.

I am grateful to the good people I work with for their support and understanding.

Maybe someday the students who attended school yesterday, who couldn't go to their writing lab, watch the video, research their projects, get the handouts, will say to their children, "back when I was in school we lost the internet for a whole day once."

Maybe their children will reply, "what was the internet?"

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Network of Networks

"The Fundamental challenge these network pioneers faced— and the one that remains at the heart of the Internet’s DNA— was designing not just a network but a network of networks."

Blum, Andrew (2012-05-29). Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet (p. 42). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The network of networks that Blum is describing in this excerpt is the fiber infrastructure, switches, routers, and programming that comprised the nascent internet. But Blum goes on to emphasize again and again that it was also a network of people, engineers, deal-makers, content providers and carriers. The best network engineers worked with the best social engineers to negotiate, bargain and fight over the future of the internet.

The internet is not just an engineering marvel; it is a social marvel. It is a place we wander through, where we meet, where we dwell - as humans with a curiosity to feed. It does not come to us; we go there.

In the early days of connectivity, when schools first installed dial-up connections, and then ISDN lines and finally T-1's, you could read the phrase, "teacher as bottle-neck" in various publications. The assumption was that the knowledge would flow into the students through the internet once the teacher got out of the way. It didn't happen that way. We needed teachers more than ever to guide students down rivers of information.

At the board meetings I attend for a local consortium that provides broadband to educational institutions, the post-meeting conversations turn toward establishing new, shorter routes or redundant routes, or routes without signal regeneration stations. Some of the members are school administrators filling in as technology directors. They meet and greet and provide governance. But some members are hard-core engineers. I like to listen to the engineers talking about routing issues, squirrel problems, ice damage and line fires. I like to talk with the civilians about their institutional challenges and opportunities. The network engineers talk with the social engineers.

During our Fall semester, our internet service provider had difficulty meeting the expanding needs of its customers. We experienced severe slowness and sometimes failed connections during the school day. It was the first time in many years that the faculty have not been able to connect to the resources they need for their classes and it made them madder than a half-swatted hornet.

Poor bandwidth is no longer tolerable in a school. Campus is the place that students go to meet their guides, who take them out through the portal of education. Often that portal depends on signals transmitted over fiber optic cable.

Education is a fundamentally social enterprise. As humans we hunger to create and share knowledge. Learning thrives where there are powerful networks and inter-networks, and it withers when the bandwidth is choked off.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

I can hear you learning

My 14 year old son is learning a Beethoven piece that is actually too difficult for him right now: sonata 8, Pathetique. He misses notes and feels his way back to the right key. He plays too fast and goes off the rails, then he goes back and traces his steps one chord at a time. He plays and he listens, plays and listens, plays and listens, trying for different tones and dynamics. When he's ready he makes the instrument thunder for a few measures.

I cannot see him learn when he is reading or listening. I suppose I could smell him learning if he was learning to cook. But when he is playing the piano I can hear him learning distinctly and clearly.

Much of what a teacher does is to serve as a witness to the lives of children. This passive activity is powerful. When we watch over children, they feel the pull of our expectations. How often have we used the term "the look": I gave him my "look" and he got back to work right away. We are looking and listening.

We distributed iPad minis to some of our varsity coaches. The have very high quality cameras, stability control to improve the shakiness of handheld video, they are light and sturdy and their screen is just big enough for two people to look at comfortable. Now, when a kid says, "coach, I did it just the way you showed me," the coach can play back the action and show the athlete what the problem is. Now the student can see herself learning.

Providing students with information is one part of education. But there has to be a two-way signal. Students transmit as well as receive. It is very important that their transmissions be received by peers and teachers. Solitary learners are rare, and even solitary learners are motivated by an essentially social impulse to engage with other minds.

Your students are sending you all kinds of signals. Tune in and reply.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Bandwidth's Best Friend: Electricity

The guy on the right is me standing next to my best friend, a big Detroit Diesel emergency generator. Today we had serious electrical problems on campus, but our data and voice network never went down. All of our teledata equipment is plugged into emergency circuits that are fed by our on campus generators.

All day the generators have been roaring away, as demonstrated by the open flap on top of my friend's exhaust pipe. Anybody with a fully charged laptop, desk phone or iphone has had uninterrupted internet and voice access. Anyone with a desktop was out of luck.

I saw laptop carts with fully charged batteries rolling out to their destinations, kids in common areas working away on their own laptops, and our 5th and 6th grade one-to-one students didn't miss a beat.

That's what I like to see: all 'net all the time, even when the power goes out. Backup power sources are a keystone in the foundations of the internet. Without generators and batteries, it would be a different internet - an interrupted internet. The world doesn't want an interrupted internet. We want it on all the time.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Check Signal Strength

My son is spending his junior semester abroad in Khatmandu, Nepal, studying the economics of developing countries. He is just beginning an independent project to study the hidden economy of the city, where few pay taxes and everyone dickers for everything. It is estimated that the hidden economy of Nepal may account for 30% of gross domestic product. When I was in college, this is not what people did when they studied economics.

The lad is also a planner. When we bought a new dinner table last year, he asked us to keep the old one in the basement for his first apartment. When he reads about the cities in this country and all over the world in the media, he thinks about what it might be like to live there, for a while, for ever, alone, with a family.

He and I often talk now about raising a family, finding community, building a career. I am happy to give him advice on these subjects, but I am profoundly skeptical of any actual value I might provide in my advice. I am, after all, just another old guy.

But I surprised myself; I came up with a great one-liner: "prepare for a career that does not exist right now." I was so happy because when it came out of my mouth I realized that I agreed with myself whole-heartedly. It wasn't just baloney.

I am a Director of Technology, or a Chief Information Officer, or a Head of Information Services, or whatever you want to call me. We all know what it means. But when I began my career in education, the job I currently do did not exist and the department I manage had not been created. So the advice that I'm giving my son is based on my own experience. The pattern is that there is no pattern.

What my son needs as he navigates his intellectual and professional life is good information. He needs a strong signal. With so much information available in so many forms, he needs to stay tuned. I need to stay tuned - finely tuned - just to keep my job.

This year we had not an internet outage but an internet slowdown. First time that's happened. It lasted a few days and my job approval rating plummeted even though there was nothing I could do about it. The incident underscored an important new reality. We can't teach without a network anymore. More specifically, we really need the internet. So my advice to schools is this: check your signal strength.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

In the Beginning, there was a Signal

ἐν τῇ ἄρχῃ  ἦν ὁ λόγος -- John 1.1
This well known piece of scripture is commonly translated, "in the beginning, there was the word." However, it's easy to play fast and loose with one of our favorite Greek words, λόγος: word, argument, reasoning, or thought. So I'll go a step further and translate it as "signal." In the beginning, there was the signal.

This week, we seem to have received that signal ( when astronomer John M. Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics made public his research on gravitational waves received by super sensitive telescopes in Antarctica.

In layperson's terms, this odd, subtle, ubiquitous radiation is the signature ripple in space created by the big bang in the very Beginning of beginnings. Cosmologist, Marc Kamionkowski of Johns Hopkins University, described it this way: "This is a signal from the very earliest universe, sending a telegram encoded in gravitational waves." Signal Number One.

The news has hit the scientific community like a thunderclap. But pause and marvel too at this: that we are here to receive the signal. Signals are only signals when there is both transmission and reception.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Innovation and Renaissance

The idea of a universe made of atoms governed by the laws of physics is as old as writing; however, at least in the Western tradition, it took a little detour during the dark ages. Interest declined, books disappeared or were destroyed, people forgot.

A few manuscripts of Lucretius' Dē Rērum Naturā were found, studied and copied and the Renaissance began, according to Stephen Greenblatt in his book, The Swerve. It was a rebirth of something old in a new context.

Karen Ann Tomlinson points out that her description of differentiated instruction, an idea that has burgeoned in the educational field recently, closely resembles some of the practices that could be observed in one room schoolhouses in rural parts of America in the early part of the 20th Century.

If the world were covered with ash and after hundreds of years my little library of Greek and Latin classics were discovered, someone would need desperately to know what was in those books. And when others started reading them and talking about them they would have new ideas.

Fab labs and maker spaces have their roots in timeless classroom practices. Kindergarten classrooms have been maker spaces for generations. My child's kindergarten classroom was carved out of a comfy old house, and every nook and cranny was filled with building supplies, works in progress, masks, costumes, props and sets for the play. It was sacred space. At the end of the year, the children built an 8 foot tall Native American chief from cardboard boxes and left him in the middle of the room, lights out, chairs on tables, as the guardian spirit of the space.

Science labs, computer labs and art rooms have also served this function for years. They are sanctuaries, where young tinkerers, artists, scientists, and just kids with ideas have spent time in their days letting their imaginations flower. Or at least they offer that potential.

If the maker movement is going to be more than just another educational fad, we need to connect it to its historical roots in the school room. Look back at your own education and try to remember those spaces: the musty old art room in the basement, the biology lab with the weird stuff growing under glass and the bunsen burners, the 6th grade teacher who grew banana trees and dedicated one corner of his room to our extensive leaf collections, the 2nd grade teacher with the piano and the puppet theater.

When, from time to time, this Director of Technology grows weary of budgets, vendors, putting out fires and surviving in the shark pool of management, he goes to visit his friend's visual arts studio. Everyone is making something new in the space that he has created. It's a physical space and it's a space in the minds of the people who come there. I have never seen a kid off task in that room -- even when David isn't there. The maker space is in the mind; it is a way more than a place.

Look around your school. You have had maker spaces all along. But do you have maker mind?

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Innovation and Tradition

In a school like The Episcopal Academy, we must maintain a careful balance between innovation and tradition. We are handing down an old and sacred cultural heritage, whether we teach the tradition of story time with kindergartners or the method of solving integrals.

"Innovation is flexibility" said David Sigel, a colleague who teaches visual art. I put down the grapefruit I was carrying on his work table. There was more to this.

"Is rigidity bad?" I asked.

"No," David refined his point, "but innovation is flexibility within limits. If we are completely rigid, we can't move forward."

"Is forward always the direction we want to go? What about tradition?"

"It's about mentorship, apprenticeship. Each generation innovates on the traditions that were handed down to them."

"So tradition is where we are coming from, but not where we are going. It is what we have to work with, but we must make something new out of it."

"Yes. Imitation. Artists learn from their predecessors; they imitate them."

And then they create.

David showed me this video about kindergartners teaching each other to draw through critique.

The presenter is Ron Berger, author of Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools Through Student-Engaged Assessment

At first it seemed only loosely related to our discussion: a typical scene of a great teacher who has coached his students to improve their drawing by critiquing each other. On another level, it is a good example of flexibility within limits. It describes what kindergarten classes all over this country do all the time: learn to draw with markers or crayons on a 8.5 X 11 sheet of paper at a table with about 15-20 other 5 year olds and one or two trained adults supervising them. Those are the limits: the norms, expectations and traditions of the culture.

Given those limits, the teacher used a method that suited these kids, in this school, in this country, in the early 21st Century in ways that were brilliantly effective. Most probably, when this teacher was in kindergarten, the instruction he received bore no resemblance to the method he practices now.

I picked up my grapefruit and told David I would be back to continue this discussion.