Thursday, August 20, 2009

5/30/2009: The ZOCS Manifesto, or, "Something good had to come out of my creepy vision of the future of education"

Welcome to Mr. Hansen’s new blog. Actually, this is my first published blog. The old blog was never released, because I feared that some of my dystopian comments about education were too politically insensitive and would draw attention upon me and/or the school.

If you want to see the old blog, you’ll have to ask nicely, because I’m not sure I can even locate it anymore. Here is the summary: The school of the future exists almost exclusively in cyberspace, except for a physical presence that resembles a warehouse. The crushing costs of live face-to-face education have forced this situation, and there is no other option except for the hyperrich. Students wear VR (virtual reality) helmets most of the day, and compulsory attendance is enforced by paraprofessionals who guard the exits. The school day is extended to accommodate the needs of adults, who can for an additional fee arrange for their children to be guarded up to 10 hours a day all year round. Teachers work from home. Cell phones (“cells”) are no longer banned during the school day; in fact, they are required equipment. Cells are much more than phones: They now contain a student’s entire educational and medical history, in addition to functioning as signaling devices, GPS navigation/tracking devices, cloud computing access devices, audio/video production and playback stations, gaming devices, and cybercash storage devices. Some parents have started embedding cells in their children in order to discourage loss or theft, but there are disturbing reports of children being maimed so that their cells can be held for ransom. (Thieves cannot usually access the data, because of biometric access controls, and the hardware is so cheap as to be essentially throwaway, but thieves count on disorganized parents who have not recently backed up their children’s cells and who are willing to pay the ransom.) Cells are much more powerful than what we used to call “computers,” and the desktop PCs of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are long forgotten. Other relics found only in museums are spine-crushing backpacks, printed textbooks, pencils, and shoelaces. Shoes, in fact, are prohibited at most schools, since it is much safer for the students in their VR worlds to blunder around barefoot or wearing cheap flip-flops. The psychomotor skill formerly known as “writing” has all but disappeared, and although some people are exceptionally dexterous with their thumbs, nobody other than artists or musicians retains any fine motor control in the remaining fingers. Although school administrators are now mostly superfluous, their profession lives on, financed by the savings brought about by repurposing millions of educated teachers to do piecework that is now about as prestigious as staffing a customer-support call center. A few teachers, whose video curricula have become hits, are exceptionally wealthy and qualify as true celebrities—they are famous to the youth culture, after all. The large mass of teachers, however, interact for a few minutes at a time, speaking with hundreds of students from all over the world during a single shift. The hourly pay is low, since American teachers are now in direct competition with teachers from all over the world. Everyone knows that the teachers from India and China are better, even if their English takes a little getting used to.

Okay, that was my old blog. The purpose of the new blog is to describe the concepts of ZOCS and how they can organize and improve this business that we call education.

What is a ZOC? Well, let’s see if you can figure it out. For a long time now, certainly as long as I can remember, education has focused almost exclusively on what is missing. In other words, what does the student lack in order to become a useful, productive member of society? Well, we, the education professionals, will figure out what that is, yes sirree, and we’ll devise a factory-style curriculum to address the issue, and we’ll deliver it skillfully (no, I will not use the word “cram”) to the young. Actually, in the era of NCLB, we no longer care about the useful, productive member of society stuff; all we care about is a bottom-line focus on “results” as measured by standardized tests. The best of these tests are pretty good, and can measure higher-order critical thinking skills, but the worst are little more than trivia tests. They have reduced the business of education, preparing young minds, blah blah blah, to something with about as much higher purpose as investment banking (except without the money). Thank heaven that independent schools are beyond the reach of NCLB and, at least for the time being, beyond the mindset that spawned it.

But when I think back on the teachers who had a positive influence on me, the teachers who helped me to learn and actually (here I flatter myself) become a useful, productive member of society, not one of them had a bottom-line focus. Not one of them was trying to cram KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities) into me in order to earn a higher bonus. In other words, not a single one of them bought into the prevailing model of education. What they all had in common was a ZOC model, a model based on forward chaining.

Forward chaining is a general problem-solving strategy that relies upon observing and understanding the current state, then generating useful possibilities and pursuing the most promising ones. In music, forward chaining is what occurs at a master class. A student prepares a piece, and in fact may have already performed the piece in public, but agrees to perform it in a non-concert setting for a master teacher and other student onlookers. After hearing the performance, the master teacher understands that the goal is to take the student from wherever he or she might be and provide something useful to move the student forward in musical understanding. What the master teacher says may in some cases contradict what the student’s regular teacher believes, but everything is offered in a helpful, non-confrontational spirit. The student is not coddled, to be sure, and the student is forced to get a little outside his or her comfort zone, but the master teacher is intimately aware of exactly where that comfort zone is and can negotiate a slight enlargement of that zone—what I would call learning.

The prevailing educational model—focusing on what the student lacks and trying somehow to improve that dire situation—is an example of backward chaining. In other words, given a desired end state, we seek a set of pre-goals (and then, recursively, pre-pre-goals, pre-pre-pre-goals, etc.) to provide a solution path (curriculum) that gets us from the current state to the desired end state.

Both forward chaining and backward chaining are valid strategies. My field is math, and the large majority of problems that my students and I work on require some combination of both forward and backward chaining. However, as a model for the educational process itself, the prevailing backward-chaining model is antithetical to real learning.

Backward chaining is ideally suited for
—factory production
—packing for a trip
—solving certain types of “cookbook-y” math problems
—preparing a conventional meal.

Forward chaining is better suited for
—entrepreneurial development
—creation of new industries
—exploration of new life possibilities
—solving the types of math problems that are really interesting
—preparing a memorable meal

and, I would claim, providing students with an opportunity to obtain a real education. If we focus too much on backward chaining, we have reduced the worthy concept of education to the more mundane notion of training. Perhaps there was an era when teachers could add value by training the young, but that time has passed. The young are trained by TV, by Facebook, by YouTube, and they can and should be trained by streaming video and DVD-ROM curricula. We as teachers need to do more—much more—if we are to justify our existence and avoid the dismal future that was the subject of my first (unpublished) blog.

I am not saying that backward chaining has no purpose in education. I am simply saying that it should not be the primary focus, the be-all and end-all.

What is it, then, that all of my good teachers had in common, other than being primarily forward-chainers?

As with a teacher in a master class, all the teachers who “clicked” with me were intimately aware of my zone of comfort. They quickly developed a personal rapport with me so that they could see what I was ready to do and what was still well beyond what I could do. They did force me to get outside my zone of comfort, but not by too much. They did not bombard me with topics from graduate school to convince me how brilliant they were, nor did they persist beyond a certain point if they sensed that the time was wrong. Their classes had an internal logic but were difficult to outline, because they had an organic feel to them. What they were saying to me, in effect, was, “Knowledge is not purely hierarchical, and neither is this class. Knowledge is interesting and sometimes takes us in strange and unpredictable directions. I am less concerned with your achieving a certain set of KSAs on your checklist than I am in providing a really interesting addition to your life, and above all, I would like you to think and be engaged.”

Have you figured it out yet? ZOC stands for zone of comfort. All good teachers have an intimate awareness of their students’ zoc, and over time, they work to enlarge the zoc and add new zocs to the collection. Zoc also stands for
—zone of competence
—zone of creativity
—zone of concern
—zone of caring.

Why is school so stressful for students? One reason is that they are often treated like patients in a hospital, except without much TLC: We want to make you smarter, darn it! Why can’t you sit up straight and pay attention? Learn, for crying out loud! Get better! Heal! Heal! Heal!

Now, I am not saying that school should be a “spa,” a place where students go to receive love, care, and attention lavished upon them by the self-sacrificing minions that the educational establishment has served up for their personal amusement and entertainment. What I am saying is that students need to be brought along. We need to meet them where they are, acknowledge their needs, make a catalogue of their zocs, and gradually enlarge the set.

What, after all, is the most fundamental human need (after survival needs such as oxygen and shelter, that is)? Some people would say love, others companionship. Perhaps you have your own candidate. That is fine. I claim that the most fundamental human need is the need to understand cause and effect, in other words to make sense of the patterns that we call our environment. If we exist in a chronic state of bafflement and confusion—far outside our zoc, that is—we will do almost anything to restore some sense of control. We will join a gang if that provides an intelligible environment. We will cut class, ditch homework, sleep during class, exhibit boredom (thus restoring a sense of being superior), act out, engage in unsafe behaviors, spend absurd numbers of hours on Facebook or playing World of Warcraft, and do whatever our friends think is cool, because we understand our friends, and above all, we want to work with people and things that we understand.

We have to feel competent. We can tolerate being ignored (up to a point), we can tolerate doing chores and homework, we can tolerate boredom, and we can even tolerate getting up to go to school. What we cannot tolerate is engaging in a classroom setting where we do not feel competent. It is much more comforting to wait it out, to underperform, to pass to the next class, and ultimately to graduate without ever having acquired much of an education.

Clearly, the 13,000 or so hours that each child spends in K-12 schooling could be better utilized if more of it involved real engagement, real education. How to do this? The federal government is offering up billions of dollars in stimulus money to help school districts (states, actually) to figure this out. They are looking for quick fixes, scalable solutions, and solutions that respect the teachers’ unions, the bus drivers, the coaches, the schools’ contractors, and the bloated administrative staffs. They are looking, above all, for bottom-line solutions and solutions that are easily measurable.

Well, as we used to say when I worked in the Pentagon, if you want it bad, you’ll get it bad. What I propose is not a quick fix, it is only moderately scalable (since it requires teachers to have actual relationships with students, thus limiting the span of influence for any one teacher), and it will not respect any of the constituencies that schools care about except for the students themselves. It is not a bottom-line solution, and it is not easily measurable. Obviously, then, I am not expecting any stimulus cash for the zoc organization concept.

Geometry is where I intend to start, since geometry lends itself well to the idea of modules that become building blocks for higher-order skills later on in the course. For example, knowing the midpoint formula, the point-slope formula, and techniques for solving simultaneous linear systems should theoretically allow the student to find the coordinates of the centroid of any triangle. In practice, this is difficult, because although most students can learn the three required skills in isolation, it is a rare ninth-grader who can see how to combine them, and not many can execute the steps reliably even if they are told how to combine them. Their zocs, in other words, do not include the three skills, and the zocs certainly do not include the metacognition of seeing how to find a useful application for skills that were not all introduced in the same textbook chapter.

I will begin, therefore, by cataloguing the zocs (somewhere between 80 and 100, I estimate) that characterize the standard geometry curriculum at our school. Instead of taking a “backward chaining” approach of scheduling mastery testing for each zoc, I intend to tell the students that I have made a list of zocs (which I will not normally share with them), and I will work with each of them to try to help them through as many of the zocs as time and their level of interest will permit. Here is the key, though: We will spend most of our time embracing the existing zocs, defending them against erosion, cross-training other students, and feeling competent. Anything that ceases to be a zoc will be revived and renewed. A certificate could be issued for each zoc, and a significant component of each student’s course grade will be based on the quality of his zocs and the relative growth that has occurred over the year. Students, especially the less skilled ones, should focus on quality rather than quantity.

Note that ZOCS is not a synonym for mastery learning. One of the things that students need to experience is the skill of clawing forward while still having an imperfect grasp of the fundamentals, knowing (and trusting) that their teacher will help to backstop them so that they can do a better job on the second or third try.

The holy grail of the zoc world, the zoc of all zocs, so to speak, would be a comfort zone including the learning process itself. Students who have this zoc are self-igniting and unstoppable. We are currently happy to have one or two such students in each section, but surely this represents a huge waste of time and talent. When most of my students have the “learning process” zoc, I will know that I have succeeded as a teacher!

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