Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Universal Basic Income and Its Potential in the World of Education

Today's adventure begins with a foray into the world of economics, with short stops along the way into politics and humanitarianism. We'll get back to education before the end, I promise, so bear with me, even if you can't see where I'm going with all of this. It will make sense in the end.

Five Thirty Eight, a data-driven news blog, recently posted an article on Universal Basic Income, an idea than every citizen be given a no-strings-attached living stipend. It's a philosophy that I've heard in passing before and agreed with, despite my lack of knowledge on the subject. The article is a little lengthy, but well worth the read. For the purposes of THIS article, I'm going to assume you've read the Five Thirty Eight one, so go ahead. I'll be here when you get back.

Interesting stuff, right? To learn more, check out the thorough Wikipedia articleBasic Income Earth Network's website, including their YouTube video playlist, and Techdirt's podcast episode with Albert Wegman.

The proposal has been touted as something that everyone can get behind, from socialists to libertarians, Martin Luther King Jr. to Milton Friedman. It supposes that once everyone has their basic needs met, they can participate more fully in society, and that if they aren't struggling to survive, they can focus on more important things. That is, if one isn't forced to work a meaningless job because "it pays the bills," they can, instead, focus on making their lives better, a la, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

I can hear the collective gasp in response as I type this. There are a number of reasons why today's American society, if not the entire world, would balk at the suggestion. The one that I've heard most frequently when I've brought it up in the past (and one I'll discuss to day, as the others have well articulated responses in the links listed above) goes, "If no one had to work, they wouldn't. They would just sit at home, and nothing would get done! Productivity would go out the window!" I'm here to posit that that just isn't true. 

As Rutger Bregman puts it in his TEDx Talk, "If I asked each one of you in this room, 'Would you stop working? And I'll give you, you know, about 1,000 euros a month,' about 99% of you would say, 'Of course not. I've got dreams. I've got ambitions. I'm not going to sit on the couch, no.'"

Andrew Flowers of Five Thirty Eight backs this theory up, as well. He writes, of the Negative Tax Income pilots in the US, 
"Unsurprisingly, work effort did decline. Some NIT recipients cut back their hours, but the declines were modest: no more than 5 to 7 percent among primary earners, and a bit more for secondary earners.
But participants quitting altogether didn’t happen ... 'Some of the experimenters said that they were unable to find even a single instance of labor-market withdrawal,' wrote Widerquist in his 2005 paper summarizing the studies."
And I concur. Perhaps it comes from my belief in humanity. Yes, perhaps some individuals, Bregman's 1% of the audience, might choose to stay at home and relax unproductively with their stipend, but I choose to believe that the majority of humanity would do something with their lives, even if they didn't "have to." I believe that the natural curiosity and instincts inside each of us would push us to pursue our passions. I know I would still be working in education, regardless of pay, and my husband has said that he would still be in software development. Humans want to do things and feel productive. They want to feel like they're making a difference.

(I might also remind the reader that we don't know the stories of those individuals that would choose not to work. Maybe they've been working harder than the rest of us and actually "deserve" the respite. Maybe they're suffering from an unseen mental illness and would use that time as healing. Their lives are not ours to judge.)

Flowers conveys an idea of venture capitalist and author Albert Wegner's, "[He] wants less time spent on tasks that could be automated and more time spent on issues he thinks are insufficiently addressed: fighting climate change, exploring space, preventing the next global pandemic." Or, you know, bringing about the cessation of war. These are the real issues of our age, the serious problems that need to be settled, the ones we currently don't have time or funding for. I believe that humanity can solve these issues, and moreover, that we want to, we have a drive to. I believe that, given the opportunity, there would be an insurgence of people rushing to solve the world's most pressing issues. Right now, without the agency to do so, we've just become apathetic.

One concern of mine is that, as we have seen in the past, further half-hearted studies will ruin the name of Universal Basic Income. The most likely, in my opinion, is that a short-term study will determine that this proposal doesn't work--that the majority of people don't pursue their dreams, that they do buy alcohol and junk food and "waste" their time at home on the couch. The short-term studies will "prove" what everyone has been thinking all along.

Only a serious, long-term study will demonstrate the true strengths of humanity, their resilience and curiosity and passion, because here's another belief of mine: Humanity has a certain structure at this time. We have a schedule and a time table and someone telling us menacingly, "Do this or else." Without those things, we WILL take some time to explore our new-found freedoms. We WILL excitedly go to the store to pick up some "free" junk food and go home to relax on the couch and watch some shows. So if that's all the time the study allows for, yes, that's what it will find. However, if the studies give us more time and patiently sit back to watch what happens, after a while we will sit up and say, "I'm bored. I don't want to watch TV anymore. I want to do something fun!" And THAT'S when the good part will begin. THAT'S when we'll start to explore what we can REALLY do with ourselves.

We just have to be given the chance. And, as Flowers demonstrated in his article, there aren't any sufficient studies to yet prove one way or the other.

Alright, still with me? Now it's time to turn this train around and head back to the world of education. This is where it gets difficult for me because I'm about to discuss an issue that I am entirely too attached to. I feel vulnerable letting people see it because I don't want anyone to hurt it. But my opinion is a fortress, and I know that letting it out will either strengthen it or knock it down, and what do I want with a fortress that's too weak to withstand a little criticism, anyway? Thus, I welcome the criticism because I want the best ideas for my students. If this is not one, so be it. If it is, let's strengthen it and make it the best that it can be.

While I was exploring the world of Montessori, the philosophy that stood out stronger than the rest was, "Follow the child." Perhaps we might all have different takes on what precisely this means, but to me, it means, "The child is best suited to learn whatever he is most curious about," and, "The natural curiosity of a child is his key to education." Dictating what a child must learn and when will only serve to frustrate him, make him rebellious, and turn him against the idea of learning all together.

And I've taken this idea almost to an extreme, it seems to some people I know. When I explain this to others, the most common response I hear is, "But children will never learn if we don't make them."

Aha. Sound familiar? Thus, I return to my previous point: Yes, they will. 99% of the children in the room, if given enough time and started at the right age, have the natural curiosity and instinct to pursue their passions and make something with their time. And that means learning along the way, REAL learning. Not memorizing multiplication tables or the order of the presidents, because that information can be "automated," or in this instance, easily referenced. What learning would they do instead? I'm guessing the same learning that adults would be doing: "fighting climate change, exploring space, preventing the next global pandemic." Or, you know, bringing about the cessation of war.

But again, we can't expect this to happen in one or two years, especially, as I'm learning currently and will discuss in a later post, not starting with high schoolers. If I were to tell my high school students, "You don't have to go to school. Go learn anything you want on your own," the majority of them would excitedly go to the store, buy some junk food, and then go home to sit on the couch and watch TV. Only after they've had their fill of that would they say, "I'm bored. Eh, okay, let's see what else there is to do." But I'm assuming that many of them would be too far down the wrong path and struggle to get back to the right one. I think that's because they've been shoved into the current model so long, it's the only thing they know. 

But if we started with four- and five-year-olds, it would be a different story. If we asked them, "What do you want to learn about?" each would be bursting with their own answer. If we begin with the excitement of the young child, allow them to pursue their passion, patiently sitting back to watch what happens, I believe he will retain that passion throughout his life and eventually turn it into the solutions to humanity's real issues.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Creating a Test and the Question Formation Technique

As a final project for their Beowulf unit recently, I had my Juniors design their own test. This was the first time they had thought about the questions on tests as well as my first time assigning students to do so. Thus, it was my favorite kind of activity--a learning experience for everyone involved!

We started off with a discussion about what this assignment was for: a glance at the Bloom's Taxonomy poster quickly let the students know that creating a test required more brain power than merely remembering answers. With a little more investigation, they discovered that they would also need to be analyzing--both questions on other tests to figure out how to ask a good "test question" as well as their own questions in order to word them appropriately. (Okay, I guided them quite a bit to get to this point, but it seems like they understood where we were going with it.)

We didn't do much with analyzing questions from previous tests. As 11th graders, they've taken their fair share of tests and figured they knew by intuition what made a good question. I didn't push much on this as I would have with younger students.

Instead, I just set them out to start the process with question writing. I assigned each student to develop 10 questions for the final. They recognized immediately that they needed to have a good grasp of the material in order to ask a question about it--they had to analyze what points were significant enough to the story to elicit questions PLUS have enough information to know the answer to the question themselves.

When everyone had 10 questions, we broke into partners and shuffled papers. Each team had twenty questions between them, and, armed with different colored highlighters, read through to determine which ones made the best questions and which should be worded differently. They discussed in partners, first, then as a class, offering rationales for why some questions were better than others.

Finally, a volunteer typed up the 10 best questions on a computer connected to the SmartBoard so everyone could follow along, and the whole list was analyzed again. It wasn't until then that they realized they had selected some questions that asked for the same information and had to determine which of THOSE were better!

I did have the students take the test, mostly at their own urging, but I had seen everything I needed for assessment purposes through the creation process. Considering that this was their first time with such an activity, I was thrilled with the results. I noticed them getting a little bored towards the end of the process, but almost everyone was actively involved and participating cooperatively. I called it a success.

After completing this activity (which we spent about a week on), I did a little more research. This was a good first step, and now it's time to bump it up.

The Right Question Institute has a six-step strategy for developing questions they call the Question Formation Technique. Their website is packed full of amazing resources, and I recommend digging through it. To begin with, here is a guide on facilitating the QFT formatted in such a way that I would put it up on the SmartBoard for students to follow along with each step, and here is a list of tips for teachers to follow while conducting it. There are videos of other classes using the method (which I showed to my students, as well), and a TON of other things.

I'm just starting out with the QFT, but it seems to work well because it encourages students/people to KEEP ASKING. We tend to ask a couple of questions and consider ourselves finished with the activity, but this follows a concept I've been running through my mind recently, which is this: The good stuff comes at the end. At the beginning of any activity--writing, drawing, exercise, discussion, etc.--it is almost NECESSARY to cover the basics first before digging deeper and getting to the all-important details. It's as though we need to ascertain that everyone's on the same page first and foremost. We have to sketch the outline of the picture before we can focus on the fine details. We have to stretch our legs before we can actually push them to their limit. In the same way, we HAVE to ask the basic, mundane questions about a topic before the life-shattering, world-breaking questions come up. The QFT allows that to happen.

Plus there's the discussion about the pros and cons of asking open- versus close-ended questions. It's easy (for teachers as well as students) to assume that open-ended questions are "better" than close-ended, but that's not necessarily true. Both are useful in their own ways and serve different functions. The discussion makes students (and teachers) more aware of what they're doing when they ask one or the other. And being able to ask the same question in different words is awesome.

I did a couple of practice QFTs with my juniors and seniors, and they went well, again, for first-time activities. With more experience, they will be master questioners! I'm excited to do more work with this. According to this blog, it ties well into ownership of learning, unsurprisingly, and here's an article from Mind/Shift that speaks highly of it, as well. The creators at RQI have a book I'd really like to pick up at some point. I have a lot of work to do!

Saturday, April 2, 2016

A Lesson from 15-16 and a List of Topics to Reflect Over

As the 2015-16 school year draws to a close, it's time to start looking back in reflection. My goal was to make at least one blog post a month, but that didn't happen. My OCD gets super frustrated when I try to start writing about something that I feel is still in progress, so if I don't have all of the data about an issue I want to think about, my brain rejects it, tells me, "Eh, we should wait until we have more information." That's something I want to try to work on next year because it's still helpful to work on an ongoing issue. I don't have to wait until the end to make conclusions. Wait.. poor word choice. :)

Here is a list of topics I want to try and cover:
-Student-designed calendars
-More Shakespeare stuff
-QFT (and student-created Beowulf tests)
-My month of PBL and log-books (with quarter-size notebook problem solving)
-Flexible seating classroom environment
-"I wish my teacher knew..." activity
-Weekly goals
-10 minute writing and writer's notebooks
-MCHS visit

Based on previous experience, I probably won't get to each topic, though that's the goal I'm shooting for. Every time I make a list like this, I inevitably feel like I don't have enough information to write about something or just put off writing until it doesn't seem relevant or pertinent anymore. Regardless, my main goal to focus on from now until the end of school is going to be focusing on these ideas and articulating my thoughts about them. Wish me luck!

What I can say already, though, is what I feel is the biggest lesson learned the hard way this year: To make any real change, I need to make sure to get everyone on board--coworkers, administration, parents, students themselves. I have the capacity to create change, but I CAN'T do it alone, no matter how hard I push. I can't push down this brick wall by myself, but the more people I get to help me, the easier it falls. Get people on board. Stop waiting for "leadership" that doesn't yet exist. BE the leadership. If I want to make something happen, start the process and get others to help.