Connecting Dots of a New Normal

The unprecedented times of the new normal. Two terms or phrases I could happily do without. I mean, enough already. However, we cannot deny that we face a new normal and many of our institutions will never be the same.

I’m confident that my field of education will never be the same. In many ways it was already operating on borrowed time and was unsustainable. Higher ed has been financially unsustainable for quite a while and K-12 was functionally unstable.

I’m also confident that attempting to isolate and understand and resolve both ecological and societal issues (so essentially all issues) in isolated ways is what makes our efforts unsustainable. So, let’s look at how some things connect: standards-based education, constitutional originalism, and health care and retirement funding. Wait, what?

Thomas Friedman wrote last week in the New York Times that “the most critical role for K-12 educators…will be to equip young people with the curiosity and passion to be lifelong learners who feel ownership over their education.”

How are we doing with that? I’d say, “not so good.” For many teachers, and therefore their students, the education experience is a rushed, frantic grind to complete assignments (without a larger context) that check off standards and prep them for math and reading tests. There is little inquiry into science and social studies (so how humans understand their world) and instead education is merely practice at decoding information (math and reading) but not pursuing the larger purpose of understanding what that information means and why it relevant.

This will not foster lifelong learning and intellectual curiosity and creativity—it will crush it under mind-numbing rote learning and practice. Most teachers know this and fight against it, but work in a system continually limiting curriculum fostering and providing opportunity for developing skills of inquiry which ignites passion for learning for the sake of learning and creating new ideas. In our new era of unprecedented times of the new normal that is exactly the skillset we need among our citizenry.

That brings me to the idea of constitutional originalism. This concept is ludicrous and an indictment of the American education system and academia. The constitution was written by creative visionaries but is often interpreted and enforced by individuals who possess so little vision and creativity that they cannot see the remarkable foundation of the constitution as allowing a society to grow, evolve, and remake itself as the world changes—to form a more perfect union—meaning it must continue to evolve. To do so requires “…people [to have] the curiosity and passion to be lifelong learners who feel ownership over their education.”

Erwin Chermerinsky, dean of the Berkeley law school, writes “under the original public meaning of the constitution, it would be unconstitutional to elect a woman as president or vice president until the constitution is amended. Article 11 refers to them with the pronoun ‘he,’ and there is no doubt that original understanding was that only men could hold these offices.”

A failure of imagination, deep thinking, and individuals possessing intellectual simplicity leads to originalism. These same failures result in stagnant societies and social systems embedded in an always evolving ecosystem, meaning those social systems eventually become ill-equipped to confront a changing world in which they reside. Cases in point, Covid-19 and climate change. How are we doing with those? Not so good, because we simply cannot be bothered with it.

And that brings me to health care and retirement funding. The lack of portability of these two social institutions traps individuals in the box of a specific job or employer, when we might be better served for those individuals to be untethered from that job or organization so they could creatively invent new ways of doing things and innovations in thinking and perception. We lack the political and intellectual creativity and grit to think ourselves out of that box so how much intellectual and creative potential that could benefit us all is stuck in the wrong box?

Therefore, many, many individuals are trapped slogging through “work” when they could be doing work! It’s an old way of thinking that is stuck in a feudal-society paradigm, with a select ruling class requiring the mass to struggle for survival, reliant on barely adequate wages mooring them to their only employment option and live off of the ruling class’s handouts and “generosity.” This creates a highly rigid, unresponsive, and also highly inequitable society, which ultimately will crumble and require remaking when a significant perturbation to the systems occurs, such as the entire year of 2020.

The unprecedented times of the new normal might be our existence for a generation until the systems reach a new equilibrium and stabilize. How many will have the skills of innovation to thrive in such a world? How many will be relegated to hanging on by their fingernails and merely surviving while a few who were fortunate to have an education fostering lifelong learning skills create that new normal? And how many will then benefit from that new normal and how many will simply be subject to it? Nothing is as frightening having no control and autonomy over one’s very existence and survival. When enough experience that new normal violent revolutions happen.

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Within These Woods: White-Tailed Deer

This week’s essay is about the white-tailed deer in which I explore the interconnection between the deer, the white-footed mouse (from last week’s essay), humans, and the wolf (the subject of next week’s essay. If you like this series, consider sharing with others. Thanks

Wandering

She challenged us by asking, “As we enter into this wilderness, what do you carry?” Pastor Rachel McIver Morey, asked this question while preaching about Exodus on September 27, 2020. She was using the story of Exodus to prompt thinking about difficult transitions. When leaving a bad situation, one has to be willing to close the door behind you and then wander a while before finding a better pace. The Israelites wandered in the “wilderness” to escape slavery, bondage, and oppression and they carried with them the bones of Joseph, connecting them back to their mythology of God’s promise.

When Exodus was written, wilderness wasn’t a place to go for respite, as I think of it. It was a place to go for escape; it was a place to escape from the influence or persecution of the ruling political power.

We all share this country with injustice systemically and historically baked in. No one alive today chose to create or be victimized by that injustice, though many cling to it for the sake of maintaining power. But we all experience the trauma of it. Whether one benefits or is harmed, the trauma is real and collective. And therefore we must face it. We’re all in this wilderness, wandering.

When Rachel said “What are you carrying in this season of wilderness and what does it connect you to? What does it remind you of?” I immediately began hearing the song “Oh Soul” by Mary Gauthier in my head. I’m not sure why that song began playing in my head, but that’s the beauty of music and art. It isn’t necessarily logical.

In my head I also heard this additional verse:

When I wander, don’t know where I’ll go
When I wander, don’t know where I’ll go
But, I’ll carry you with me, while I search for my soul
Oh soul, I sold you away

So, here is Oh Soul (with my additional verse–forgive me Mary Gauthier) performed by me and Linnea. This might be the best thing we’ve recorded.

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Within These Woods: Deer Mouse

This is the second post, and first essay from my book Within These Woods. We could use some calmness. So, to add to that calmness I’m going to post a reading of an essay from my book Within These Woods on YouTube. Maybe it will add just a few minutes of respite for you. I’ll add a new one to the playlist each Sunday morning for the next 45 weeks. Each one is anywhere from 5 – 10 minutes long, so not a great time investment on your part. If you enjoy, please subscribe to my blog, email list, and/or my YouTube channel. Also consider sharing this playlist or blog post with friends via email, social media, old fashioned hand bill or whatever. Have a peaceful Sunday.

Can We Do This?

The old man dog in the house decided he needed an early start today. Apparently he had a lot to do today. With a grumble and an expletive I fed him, checked email while he ate, and took for a pre-dawn walk.

It did allow me to see a beautiful early morning sky. Just below Leo in the Southern sky was a very bright Venus. Straight up over my head was a (barely) gibbous waning moon. And to the East was the brightest Mars I’ve ever seen. It was unmistakable as the brightest and reddest object in the sky.

Mars is the closest it will be in for the next 15 years and I think it is the closest we will ever get in my lifetime, and possibly ever. We’re not going to Mars. This saddens me because I’m a fan of the whole idea of space travel, both real and fiction.

It saddens me to conclude, however, there may not be any reason to go to Mars beyond the technological achievement of going to Mars. Of course, with both science and engineering, one doesn’t know what unexpected discovery will come from scientific exploration, nor what unintended invention will result from another technological feat. But, that might be the only reason.

As much as the science fiction aficionado in me wants it to be so, I don’t think we’ll ever live anywhere but on this planet. I’m not sure we can. For short periods I’m sure we can survive off-world, but I don’t know that we can biological thrive. We are inextricably linked to this place. Three and a half billion years of evolution make it so. Every microbe, every plant, every animal, every geochemical cycle belong as a part of our existence. They make us who we are. The intricacy of that system cannot be brought with us beyond our atmosphere.

This is our identity. This is it. This is home.

We can continue to rip ourselves apart over stupid things, like the color of our hats, the wording of slogans, or form of protest simply asking for acknowledgement and equality, the color of our skin, and money, or we can work on what really matters. We get to choose though. We make it work or we perish. If we can send a man to the moon, or a woman to Mars, then we can do this.

Can we do this?

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Within These Woods: A Reading

The woods calm me. The woods comfort me. I like to be in them. I like to write about them. I like to read about them. The world feels crazier and more fraught with anxiety by the day. We could use some calmness. So, to add to that calmness I’m going to post a reading of an essay from my book Within These Woods on YouTube. Maybe it will add just a few minutes of respite for you. I’ll add a new one to the playlist each Sunday morning for the next 45 weeks. Each one is anywhere from 5 – 10 minutes long, so not a great time investment on your part. If you enjoy, please subscribe to my blog, email list, and/or my YouTube channel. Also consider sharing this playlist or blog post with friends via email, social media, old fashioned hand bill or whatever. Have a peaceful Sunday.

Let Me Explain…

“Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.” So, says Inigo in The Princess Bride. Time is running short (pick your issue). But, we knew there were problems a long time ago. Here’s an exchange between Bill Watterson’s Calvin and his mom from 1987.

Calvin: “Hey Mom, what’s this I hear about the greenhouse effect? They say the pollutants we dump in the air are trapping in the sun’s heat and it’s going to melt the polar ice caps. Sure. You’ll be gone when it happens, but I won’t! Nice planet you’re leaving me!”

Mom: “This from the kid who wants to be chauffeured any place more than a block away.”

Calvin: Hey, “nobody told me about the ice caps, all right?”

That was written in a comic strip thirty-three years ago. Are we listening yet?

No matter if you are living in a pleasant little Minnesota town, on the edge of the desert, in the North woods, in an urban brownstone, in a refugee camp, or at the top of a glass encased luxury Manhattan tower, one fact is inescapable. You are in intimately connected to all living and non-living components of your ecosystem—no matter how “man-made” or “natural” you think your ecosystem is. Like concentric circles moving out from a small splash you have an impact on even the most distant of other life.

Try this imagery. One raindrop hitting a smooth lake surface sending ripples out. Then another splash, and soon a down poor of raindrops striking the surface, each sending out their own ripples across the surface. The ripples connect, cancel, or amplify one another. That’s the world, a bubbling chaos of incredible order and unpredictable, yet completely structured mayhem. It all connects, beginning with the interaction of the electrons in your body, resulting in matter that is mostly empty space, yet solid in structure. Huh? It’s complete order and unpredictable interactions at the same time. Your body is constantly recycling matter through your breathing, consuming, and excreting, all of which is fueled by the energy you extract from the molecules you consume.  Other organisms live off what you excrete. How do you think septic systems work?

It all connects, and it all matters. What happens in the natural world, however isolated and disconnected you may feel from that world matters. It begins with biology, chemistry, and physics, but is also then societal, political, and behavioral.

A respiratory illness emerging in Wuhan China affects you even if you don’t get sick.

California smoke and ash from raging fires affect you even if you aren’t personally seeing and smelling it.

Hatred towards a dark-skinned teen, wearing a hoody, affects you even if you look like me.

Corrupt politicians affect you even if you don’t vote or care about politics.

A refugee born in, and living her life in a refugee camp on another continent, affects you.

An immigrant detainee, forced to have a hysterectomy affects you.

Each act of violence towards the earth, the ecosystem, each other, society, is an act of violence against all of us because we are all connected in some way. And in the off chance I’m wrong about that, I’m still not wrong. Their lives matter. Their lives matter as much as mine or yours, even if you or I do not feel directly violated. They are us.

Take a listen to this John Denver song from his Wildlife Concert in 1995.

There is a river that runs from the mountains
That one river is all rivers
All rivers are that one

There is a tree that stands in the forest
That one tree is all forests
All trees are that one

There is a flower that blooms in the desert
That one blossom is all flowers
All flowers are that one

There is a bird that sings in the jungle
That one song is all music
All songs are that one

It is the song of life
It is the flower of faith
It is the tree of temptation
It is the river of no regret

There is a child that cries in the ghetto
That one child is all children
All children are that one

There is a vision that shines in the darkness
That one vision is all of our dreams

It is a vision of heaven
It is a child of promise
It is the song of life
It is the river of no regret

Let this be a voice for the mountains
Let this be a voice for the river
Let this be a voice for the forest
Let this be a voice for the flowers
Let this be a voice for the ocean
Let this be a voice for the desert
Let this be a voice for the children
Let this be a voice for the dreamers
Let this be a voice of no regret

Anniversary of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and Presidential Politics

Wrote this originally 11/25/15. We are 5 years closer to my fear expressed in the last sentence

Tim Goodwin Ed.D

Today is the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. I’m sure somewhere today I will read, see on TV, or hear on the radio (public radio anyway) about this and also about the importance of science education. They will probably use the acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math).

In a previous blog post I asked the question whether our current, standardized-test-based education system could produce another Einstein. Looking at it now with a little distance, I think that is the wrong question. The first Einstein theory was not a product of the education system. Famously, Einstein was not a stellar student. This is a common theme among the kinds of genius such as Einstein.

I think the more importance question is this: Can the current education system produce a generation that can understand and apply Einstein’s Theory of Relativity? And I’m not talking about the next…

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Sorting and Judging and the Accumulation of Power

This past week, while not sleeping in the wee hours, I have been replaying some old Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes. It is a nice idealistic universe to escape to during well, you know…

In an episode from the otherwise regrettable first season, three individuals, cryogenically frozen for the past 300 years, are found and awakened by Lt. Cmdr. Data, an android. It’s not a bad premise; explore the progression of humanity through the eyes of the non-human, non-emotional android. One character, a wealthy entrepreneur/financier stereotype of 1980s greed is frantic to gain access to his accounts anticipating untold wealth from the interest alone. When told by Captain Picard that humanity no longer valued the accumulation of things and wealth, and humans now had their material needs met, the thawing capitalist declared it isn’t about the things and the wealth, it’s about power. “What do humans strive for now?” He asked. To better ourselves, personal growth, knowledge and wisdom, and enlightenment was the captain’s response.

Gene Roddenberry’s utopian future is built on the premise that if we found a way to meet the lower needs on Maslow’s hierarchy, we would then be freed-up to pursue the upper. Maybe so. I don’t know. I couldn’t resist the graphic that added “WiFi” to the base of the pyramid. That’s funny. This set me to thinking about how we educate and indoctrinate our children into, and how to live in, a capitalist democracy, which led to pondering the connection to teaching, assessment, and grading. This is what my current students are thinking about this past week, so I’m thinking about too.

I’m pushing my students to consider what a teacher can do beyond traditional grading that often is simplified to awarding points for right answers, or a simple letter grade, but nothing else. Providing feedback (grade) of that nature is doing a very good job of helping to enact the story that results in the stereotypical competitive, materialistic (potentially morally vapid) capitalist portrayed in that ST: TNG episode. For many teachers, every assignment, no matter how small, is to be scored, graded, recorded, and therefore, the students judged and sorted.

One of my students pondered on a discussion board (she earned 10 points—just kidding), if moving away from using points as a main component of feedback, what do I do with basic skill assignments such as spelling tests or multiplication tables? How do I grade them?

This connects to what I call a crisis of perception in education. Education is often reduced to the accumulation of basic knowledge and skills with the power and wealth (points and standing) awarded to those sorted and judged as best at that. Sound familiar. Accumulation of power. But that isn’t the goal of education, or it shouldn’t be. Those basic skills are supposed to be the foundation upon which we explore personal growth, wisdom and knowledge, and enlightenment as part of living in a moral, capitalist democracy.

We’ve given that up, largely, and have made our focus on just the accumulation of those basic skills much like we’ve given up the purpose of our lives to the accumulation of things and wealth—of power.  

This is our crisis of perception.

So, what to do with the spelling test and multiplication table quiz? Yes, those still need to be taught (and assessed). But, the purpose isn’t to spell correctly and know 9 x 7 as an autonomic response. The purpose is to understand the patterns of language and computation, so that those skills can happen autonomically during the pursuit of more important aims.

Why not use the spelling test to inform the teacher and the student which patterns of spelling are not yet understood. Every elementary teacher right now is saying, but that is what I am doing and why I’m grading it. So they know what they can or can’t do. I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. Even if you think you are identifying and practicing those patterns, the student is experiencing this instead: I failed, the 5/10 is now in the grade book, my parents see the grade. I can’t spell.  

“But I have to grade!” You might say. And you might. Assess everything. Provide feedback on everything. But the feedback must feed forward to increasing application of skills to things that are important to personal growth, knowledge and wisdom, and enlightenment as part of living in a moral, capitalist democratic society.

When we grade and record for all posterity in the grade book the practice of a skill as the end goal of education, really all we are doing is sorting and judging those that require more practice and those that do not as winners and losers at learning. We are beginning the accumulation of power.

Save the grading (if you must) to those things that are most important and are an application of information and skills. The rest is practice. And if failure isn’t risk free in practice, then it isn’t practice. And that just leads to education PTSD.

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