Sunday, August 29, 2010

Frame It Right -- commentary

The success or failure of a discourse is usually determined by the way a debate gets framed. Those who favor allowing the Muslims to build a mosque next to ground zero of the 9/11 disaster have tried to frame the debate as a freedom of religion issue, and for reasons he will probably not articulate, President Obama tried to help them out. When his comments created a swift backlash, he of course backed off.

Those who support building the mosque want to frame it as a freedom of religion issue because such freedom is a cherished part of our culture and is guaranteed by the First Amendment of our Constitution. Framing it as such allows them to pull on one of our emotional heart strings, hoping it will be more powerful than the negative emotions evoked by their actions.

Anyone who has ever built a church knows that there is a difference between freedom of worship and the freedom to build a building wherever one wishes, even on private property. Most cities of any size have zoning laws to control what is built where.

I don’t know about here, but I know that in Anchorage, Alaska, where I oversaw the renovation of an existing church, there were no zones for church buildings. That meant every church building project required a zoning exemption. This meant holding a public hearing where all those with objections could voice them. If the church would negatively impact the area or if there were a significant number of people or even a few significant people who opposed the project, the exemption could be denied. I suspect New York City too has zoning laws with which projects can be denied. The most common issue is traffic patterns and how it impacts a neighborhood.

It was never a freedom of religion issue in Anchorage as there were dozens of places in the city where people of all faiths could worship, as is true in New York City. It was a freedom to build issue and apparently the constitution does not guarantee that freedom.

Surely an Ivy League elitist and experienced community organizer like President Obama knows this and yet he tries to frame it, at first, as a freedom of religion issue. Instead of trying to spin it this way, he needs to tell us his real reason for supporting construction of the mosque on this site, unless of course he spoke from ignorance. His best course of action would have been to have stayed out of it. Those who feel passionate about the issue aren’t going to be swayed by the freedom of religion argument and he just runs the risk of antagonizing the voters.

Just to remain bipartisan, let me say that in my memory, the most disastrous example of a president framing a discussion wrongly was George W. Bush’s argument for going to war with Iraq. It was the right decision but the wrong argument. He argued that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (WMD’s) that had to be neutralized.

With that argument, Bush could only win if WMD’s were found when our troops invaded, and they weren’t, so he lost the discussion and his credibility. This wrong argument plagued him the rest of his presidency.

To understand what his argument should have been, we need to go back to his father’s presidency. If you remember, Saddam invaded and occupied Kuwait. The United Nations came to the defense of Kuwait by asking the United States to go in and remove Saddam’s occupational forces, which we did.

Unfortunately, the wimpy UN saved Saddam the embarrassment of a surrender. They agreed to allow him to get by with only a cease fire agreement. They didn’t even make his generals suffer the embarrassment of surrendering their weapons while at the signing of the cease fire agreement.

As is always the case, a cease fire agreement carries with it conditions, and in this case, those conditions included Saddam allowing free and open inspections to assure the world that he did not have and was not developing WMD’s. And of course, Saddam did not live up to these agreements and had no intention of doing so.

With this background, Bush’s argument should have been that a failure to keep the cease fire agreement made it null and void. This means the hostilities resume as the basis on which they were stopped is no longer valid. With this argument, the fact that there were no WMD’s would have just been an interesting detail. The important fact would have been that at last we had our free and open inspections and the truth could now be confirmed.

So, Mr. President, be careful how you help frame an argument. If you do it wrongly, it will always come back to bite you.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

High Tech Classroom -- commentary

I was pretty excited when I was offered a job last school year in a school that had gone high tech: a laptop computer with internet capability for every student and an interactive white board and document camera for every teacher. Since this is the coming trend, the latest savior of American education, I need to share my experience.

I am certainly no techie nerd, but I am fairly adept at using technology and quick to learn new things, so neither am I a Luddite. I could see real possibilities. I took the job with a good bit of excitement. That excitement, however, turned to ambivalence and then to negativity in about two months.

An internet connected computer is a great tool for the serious student. For the rest, which is most, it is the biggest distraction you could possibly provide.

Let me use an analogy we country folk can relate to. Let us say you are a farmer, and when your son comes to breakfast, you tell him you have gassed up the four wheeler, put the post hole digger on it along with the shotgun and a hand full of shells. You tell him there are a dozen fence post holes that need digging in the back pasture. He has to go through the woods to get there, so you tell him to bring home a couple of squirrels for supper. He knows there are no short term consequences for not getting the holes dug. Please answer the following questions: At the end of the day, how much gasoline will be left in the fuel tank? How many shot gun shells will be left? How many post holes will get dug? Now think about the electronic classroom with all its distractions and ask similar questions concerning school work.

Aside from the distractions, there are other real problems. Put yourself in a classroom of 25 seventh graders who have been assigned to go to a particular web site, but the computer can’t make connection. Fifteen minutes later, a third of the class still can’t connect to the site. These students are not going to sit quietly while waiting. A textbook would have been so much easier. Fifteen seconds will get you to any page you want.

Consider the day an assignment is due. The high tech equivalent of the dog ate my homework kicks in. “I had it all done, but it disappeared.” “My battery is dead and I don’t have my charger,” and so on. For those who turned it in, you must check closely for cut and paste jobs, which is so much easier than old fashioned copying from a friend’s work.

All these headaches would be worth it if in fact real learning was being enhanced, but it is not. I read a quote recently and regret I didn’t note the source, only that it was one of our big shot techies, maybe one of the founders of Google. In essence he said if you want real learning to take place, shut off all the screens, the computers, the Ipods, the televisions, the cell phones and open the books.

Technology is the latest fad. It is being pushed by the technology industry. We are being told that kids’ brains have become wired differently in the high tech age and so they learn differently, or that they need the technological experience to be able to compete in the world of work. Nonsense! If kid’s brains are wired differently, it means in some way they got rewired. So, apparently they are malleable. Wire them back. And since technology changes so rapidly, we don’t really know what to prepare them for. They will learn on the job the technological skills needed no matter what we provide for them now.

The technology, unfortunately, is producing a generation of kids who can’t work with a block of text, study it and think about it. They must have lots of graphics with short cut lines or they move on (the perfect mind for the 30 second, political sound bite).

A computer at every desk brings more problems than benefits. Instead focus on the teacher, giving each one an interactive white board, a document camera, a good laptop computer with support software and training. Then, equip the school with quality computer labs, with the ability to monitor every computer from a central place, for those projects truly enhanced by internet access.

If your school is going high tech, it is because the leadership is falling for industry propaganda. Listen politely, but for the rest of the story, for the side not getting told, read “High-Tech Heretic” by Clifford Stoll. For good reasons, Stoll is a techie very skeptical of the claims made by his industry for the classroom.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Real World -- commentary

"We must prepare our kids for the real world," has become the justification for the expenditure of mega bucks on technology in our schools. It sounds good but I think people who say this have in mind employers like Google and Microsoft. But, what is real world employment going to be for most of our kids in Northeast Arkansas?

To begin with, I find educators preparing students for the real world a bit ironic. Most educators went from their public schools to college and back into the public schools, having bypassed the “real” world. When I first set foot on the modern public school campus at age 50, I was struck by the artificial nature of it all. That aside, most of our kids will go to work for entrepreneurs and start-up companies in our communities where most new jobs are being made, and any needed technology will be learned on the job.

Real world work is different for each of us, but I'll share it from my experience, something for which neither school nor technology could have prepared me.

I landed my first real job at age 16 milking cows, $200 a month plus board and room. Not bad for 1958. My first 15 seconds on the job went like this: "Good morning Oggie; what do you want me to do first."

He was highly frustrated by a malfunctioning bottle capper which was missing every third bottle or so. He grabbed a quart, glass bottle of milk and smashed it on the cement floor. "Get out of here, just get out of here," he shouted in his heavy Danish, nearly impossible to understand brogue.

Of course I left, but I returned about 10 minutes later, and we restarted the relationship. He was mostly a good boss, but at times I could hear him shouting at some poor hired hand while I was a quarter of a mile out in the field. He went through hired hands like a philanderer goes through girl friends, but I kept my job and learned to put up with the occasional explosion.

As an 18-year-old Air Force enlistee, I worked for a warrant officer who had as one goal to see me in the stockade before he rotated to his next assignment, as reported to me by my lead sergeant. I frustrated the officer’s attempts to reach that goal, and in the process learned another of life’s many lessons: Life is a cat and mouse game and you are the mouse. Learn to play smart.

In my mid 20's, I worked for an editor who thought it appropriate to scream and swear at employees in front of the entire staff; yes, I was the victim on occasion. He couldn’t understand why I left when a better opportunity came along, one which didn’t have a screamer. In my late 30's, I worked for an insurance manager who thought it appropriate to berate me on an elevator full of strangers because I was selling products my clients needed rather than ones that made the most money for the company.

The best bosses I have had by far have been school administrators: Grover Cooper, James Dunivan, Myra Graham, Keith McDaniels, Karen Curtner, Jim Best, and others. Unfortunately, we can’t all work for the schools.

I will talk about technology in the classroom in my next column; however, I was teaching in Tuckerman when computers first started showing up in the schools. It began with computer labs. I was surprised at how fast the students went from “Do we get to go to the computer lab today,” said with excitement, to “do we have to go to the computer lab today?” The change took place when they discovered computers were there to enhance their work, not for playing games.

Technology will not equip our kids to deal with the bosses I describe, but such bosses are still out there, and bosses, no matter their style, must be kept happy. Our students are not going to fail in the job market for a lack of computer skills. They are going to fail for an over inflated sense of self esteem based on hollow praise instead of actual accomplishment, an unwillingness to respect those in authority, the failure to get to work on time, and the failure to do anything worthy of their pay once they get there. If they can overcome these weaknesses, the technology skills will take care of themselves.

A good work ethic, a sense of responsibility, and respect for authority should be taught in the home, but too often they are not. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know computer skills will not compensate in the real world for lack of these skills.