Practical Theory - The Origin
The Scholars in CyberEnglish
ToDaY's MeNu - Ted

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Tinkerers

I’m a tinkerer and when I saw The Tinkerers, The Amateurs, DIYers, and Inventors who make America Great by Alec Foege on the library new bookshelf, I grabbed it. My tinkering gained the wrath of my dad when I was young. He wasn’t a tinkerer, but his dad was. His dad worked with Edison. My mom’s dad was also a tinkerer; he was a 1914 civil engineering graduate of MIT. It is in my blood, not me dads and he hated me sometimes for that. I tinkered with my bikes and broken things. Tinkering with bikes has served me well especially today when I’m biking. I know how to fix bikes and what tools to carry without compromising weight on those long rides. Rather than throw something away, I want to fix it, even make it better. When I was younger I was forever dumping or rescuing things from the streets of NYC, to bring home to fix or cannibalize for parts. Now in my retirement, I am a tinkering fool.
Foege’s book seems to pick up from a similar book I read back in the early 80’s that involved the early computer hackers, a couple I knew when I used their services as a teacher in NYC. I was an early hacker. I hacked software for educational use. Heck CyberEnglish was built on the hack. I needed to build webpages and since know tools except HTML existed; I used that and taught my scholars HTML. Educational software is very droll and I’d hack it to put in my own material that I taught in my classes. In the early days of the web, I hacked webpages and then put them on my own servers to be sure I always had them for my scholars. Eventually they caught up with me and were reliable so I could step back. I’ll never forget the telephone conversation I had with Arthur O Sulzberger, Jr. in mid 90’s after one of his reporters told him about my cache of NYTimes articles on my server. He was sitting with four lawyers. After a pleasant conversation of what I was doing and what the NYTimes wasn’t doing in regards to archiving we agreed to terms. Once the NYTimes figured out an archiving system, I would delete my cache and link to his archive. My cache was necessary for my scholars who made links to those articles in the essays they wrote online. I had to be sure those links worked so that readers could access the scholar’s essays, with those references to NYTimes articles. He appreciated what I was doing, though his lawyers were not impressed. Once I started using computers in my classroom in 1983, I was constantly tinkering; I had to no one had answers to my questions and needs. Even putting my classroom of 34 computers on the Internet in 1993 had representatives from the NYC BOE first telling be what I was doing was impossible and then refusing to accept it was working. It took them another decade to catch up. I loved those days; I was autonomous, independent, and tinkering my brains out. The result was CyberEnglish. It was a huge risk, but then that is what tinkering is all about risk taking and loss management, but with an intellectual plan.
 click image to see video of Swiss Army Tinker
Foege is so correct when he says, ‘Tinkering is a state of mind.’ I’m always tinkering even when I shouldn’t. It’s my nature. As he begins his journey, he has to begin with Franklin and the other Founding Fathers. All of them had tinkerer’s blood in them in one way or another. This is of course most evident in the way they cobbled together a new nation with their tinkering. Foege provides some interesting facts about the Founding Fathers. Moving through history, Foege gets us into the 20th Century and spends lots of time with the man responsible for our interstate highway system, Thomas Harris MacDonald.
Foege introduces us to Dean Kamen and explains in great detail this man’s innovative accomplishments right up to his great folly and then beyond. When Foege and Kamen speak about today’s youth and their capability, they bemoan their lack of creativity and competitive nature as compared to the rest of the world. It gets down to education and here is where both fall flat on their faces. America could be a leader technologically speaking BUT we got hamstrung with these stupid tests. ‘A Nation at Risk’ may have been reveille, NCLB was the death knell for American education, and ‘Race to the Top’ is just kicking it while it’s down. Kamen knows this quite well since he dropped out of WPI and wasn’t concerned with the degree. Why? Because the work he did in formal school wasn’t relevant, just as the work millions of students do in their classrooms isn’t relevant. What makes it relevant? Tinkering does, duh. Consider that the web is a perfect place for students to develop their own webpages and share their work with their peers and the world. But no, we have to prepare for multiple-choice tests. Webfolios or portfolios are what we need to see the genius from our scholars. They publish their work; engage in peer review and bang, all of a sudden education is relevant. I had my scholars making their webpages with HTML coding so not only were they tinkering with their webpages but also tinkering with their essays using both halves of their brain. In the process of developing their pages they dabbled with Flash and other coding devices to enhance their essays. Once NCLB kicked in, CyberEnglish was no longer relevant in schools. At one point schools were very interested in CyberEnglish and then when tests became the norm in schools we had to forgo learning, tinkering, and relevancy to prepare for MC tests. So gentlemen, NCLB and Obama’s continuance of bad educational policy are why America has fewer tinkerers. I agree about the newer technology being tinkerer proof. I had a 60 VW, 36 HP engine. By removing four bolts, I could lift the engine from the car and repair it quickly and easily. That soon became impossible with the newer cars. I built computers; I did my own repair of computers in school. Then they got too complicated. Radio Shack isn’t what it used to be. We are creating a service nation, not a manufacturing one or even a tinkering one. We are not educating our students correctly about technology; just look how badly they are using technology now.
Foege next explores the success and failure of Edison. This tinkerer lacked business sense that made his life difficult. Edison was a maverick and cherished his independence as all good tinkerers do. Yes, he was successful, but he missed too many opportunities as Foege points out. What Edison did create that lived on was the workplace as a brain trust. Bell Labs comes to mind, but Foege concentrates on RAND as the ultimate brain trust. But in the end RAND has its limitations has evidenced from the Manhattan Project, to Vietnam, to Iraq. Just as Rand has failed us, an educational commission created by Bell under Reagan, The Nation at Risk Report also failed us. Think tanks aren’t conducive to tinkerers and tinkerers are what we need to make America great. Our Founding Fathers knew this and were tinkerers. Think Tanks seem to me migrating to corporate campuses like those we are seeing sprouting in Silicon Valley.
Nathan Myhrvold created Intellectual Ventures. Intellectual Ventures is a place that fosters ideas rather than a place that ideas are brought to. He hires and gathers tinkers to come up with idea and then cobble them into products to be sold. This kind of collaboration fosters tinkering and perhaps could be a better model for how a school should function. I had an idea about a new school that centered around themes rather than on subjects. Instead of the student going from math to English to History to music etc the student would go to hir desk and work on a project, for instance about the bicycle. Teachers would move around the school, not the scholars. Too much time lost in class changes. For lunch, labs, and gym of course the scholars would travel, but for the academic pursuits they would work in groups in classrooms. In doing so, s/he would need a physics teacher, a math teacher, a business teacher, a social studies teacher, an English teacher, a music teacher, a physical educational teacher to examine all the aspects of the bicycle to get the whole picture of the bicycle. This is how schools should be run. We shouldn’t be teaching in little time segments we should be dealing with the whole. This is tinkering in the educational environment. Schools do not prepare our scholars for the real world or anything except failing tests. Oh and they serve as perfect babysitters. Do parents scramble for teachers to take care of their children when school is closed?
‘That meant devising a new financial instrument that virtually no one could understand but that everyone wanted.’ I had to pause when I read that sentence on page 113. It referred to the scheme hatched by derivatives manager, Peter Hancock, at J. P. Morgan. Financial tinkerers can be dangerous and Foege is outlining just how dangerous they were in the economic fiasco we have recently experienced and are still experiencing. I paused when I read that sentence because it was so appropriate to our educational dilemma. The government spawned the creation of educational assessment tools no one can understand but everyone wants. The obvious problem when tinkering goes off course without checks and balances as in the financial world and in the educational world, is that we are looking at years to repair the damage. Checks and balances were key elements to CyberEnglish. First the scholar makes hir work public, then s/he engages in peer review, and finally s/he passes it on. It is all transparent and open source. I loved the quote from Matt Ridley that opened this chapter, ‘for culture to turn cumulative, ideas need to meet and mate.’ Make love not war. Unfortunately our financial and educational leaders with too much of the warrior gene in them and too many readings of Sun Tzu have led us astray with their evil tinkering. CyberEnglish is more of the ‘make love not war’ philosophy. As we have seen when action is private and closed we run amok as we have in our financial and in educational worlds. In the end with all the layoffs in the financial world, Foege points out that many of those went back to tinkering in their garages. Similarly in Iceland, the fisherman who became financial wizards returned to the sea when their financial world melted. What will become of our schools? We are still being led down the wrong rabbit hole with these tests. We need something that is open and transparent like CyberEnglish. The greed of the financial wizards and the search for an easy assessment tool by educational leaders are the problem. There are no get rich quick schemes just as there aren’t good assessment tools. It both cases it requires rolling up our sleeves and doing some good manual labor, some intensive work, and actually working with real material with which to tinker, not imaginary money or abstract MC tests.
Griffith’s story reminded me of two things about CyberEnglish. First, CE has to be replicated by others just like in science. If a scientist in one lab can perform an experiment a scientist in another lab must be able to perform that same experiment to make the original viable. That was important for CE to continue and prosper. Principals often said, ‘If I had a Ted Nellen, I’d do CyberEnglish in my school.’ I reminded them that they did, if only they would look around, take a risk, and trust. The result with a little collaboration CE teachers appeared in lots of schools. Second, I had a very competitive group of ninth graders in a new school in 2003. To take that pressure off me and them, I guaranteed all the scholars, in my three classes,  a 90 for the Spring Semester. If any scholar believed s/he deserved more than a 90, we would have a conversation at the end of the semester. Only one scholar in ninety failed to produce work better than done in the Fall semester. The eighty-nine worked hard, collaborated, and created. They shared more, they helped each other, they had lots more fun because they were not competing, and they were collaborating. By eliminating the grade pressure, it opened up so much more tinkering and creativity. Media Lab certainly did this for Griffith. I was fortunate to visit Media Lab a couple of times in the mid 90’s. The brother of a colleague was working there and invited me up to share with him and his group what I was doing with HTML in my English classroom. It intrigued them. They were envious of my scholars and wished their English class had used computers and made webpages with HTML coding. The success of that year, 2003,  prompted the district leaders to spread CE to twenty-two high schools. It eventually failed because the leaders at the district became greedy and overextended the project without considering the proper method of development. They did not communicate well with the technicians on this project. The conversations weren’t horizontal, instead they were vertical, poorly thought out, and even more badly implemented. By January of the next year, I was a very sad and disillusioned teacher. I moved on.
For two years, 1999 and 2000, I was a Carnegie scholar. During summers and long weekends in the school year, I would work with a dozen other K-12 teachers at the PARC campus. It was heaven. The work produced was awesome, recorded, archived, shared, and passed on. Much of the fine-tuning of CE happened there with a lot of help from my friends. What baffles me is that we have places like Media Lab, PARC and yet our leaders seem to neglect the reasons for their existence in their decision-making. One of my greatest disappointments with Obama was his choice of Sec of ED. During his campaign he had Linda Darling-Hammond serve as his educational mouthpiece. Oh was I excited. She had been one of my professors at TC and consultant at Carnegie. I had the greatest respect for her as an educational leader, because she was an educator and a leader, unlike the two choices Obama eventually considered for Sec of ED; Joel Klein, the evil leader of my NYC schools, and Arnie Duncan the educational offish leader of Chicago schools. Both are Harvard grads and Obama chose the basketball player to our great frustration and disgust. We are supposed to learn from our mistakes, but Obama didn’t get the memo. I have been fortunate to have been in the hallowed halls of both the Media Lab and PARC. Too bad the CE team couldn’t ever compete with the MC testing teams. Maybe in a decade or so, CE will rise from the ashes of our educational collapse.
Since Foege won’t discuss prescriptions for educational reform, I will. It is an important topic, Alec, probably the most important one for a book like this. There are so many apt educational quotes that tell us ‘We Learn by Doing.’ From Edison to Tulley, Foege has presented us with examples of these mavericks and pioneers who tinkered their way to the top of their ladder. The bottom line for me with this tome is that we need to transfer this thinking of tinkering into our schools NOW! In all cases of success in these characters was that they all tinkered and got their hands dirty. They ‘did’ rather than simply sit and absorb. Our scholars are doers, not sponges to be wrung out when standardized tests are given. During my last twenty years of teaching I had fun with CyberEnglish while I watched my scholars solve problems, create their own webpages, and walk away satisfied and hungry for more. They were tinkering and they loved it. Oh and they learned too.

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