Apr 27, 2011

The Finland Phenomenon

Near the Arctic Circle, Finland is ice cold. In educational circles, though, Finland is smoking hot, recently lauded by pundits as a model for reform in the United States. How did it get that way?

Harvard's Tony Wagner attempts to answer the question in an hourlong documentary titled The Finland Phenomenon. Weaving together interviews, classroom observations, and provocative factoids, Wagner tries to tease out the complex strands of cultural values, teacher training, and governmental initiatives that have made Finland a global educational vanguard.

In my favorite moments, Wagner sits down with with Finnish students, who are just as gangly, bright-eyed, and emo as their American counterparts, and listens as they share their hopes for the future.  He sits in on lectures by accomplished and rookie teachers, and holds court with educational leaders who sound like a lot of people I've been working with lately: realistic and optimistic, theoretically solid and practically focused.

It so happened that I watched the documentary after a day of leading Powerful Teaching and Learning observations in a local school, and I was struck by the similar approaches, both philosophically and pedagogically, between PTL and the Finnish system of teacher preparation. Roughly 10% of the Finnish university students who apply for training programs will make the cut; once they're in, they're entrusted with tenure in a relatively rapid timeframe, and given a large measure of control over their classrooms.

And that's where I think the strength of the Finnish system lies. It's culturally established that teachers are professionals ("knowledge workers," in trendy/clunky edu-jargon) who are academic leaders committed to continuous improvement. The best American reform initiatives-- among which I'd include the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the Common Core Standards movement, Powerful Teaching and Learning, Professional Learning Communities, and Teach for America--share that reflective, collaborative focus. They bring teachers together, but their impact is fragmented, at least for now, because none is comprehensive in its adoption or reach.

And none is a cure-all.  Any successful educational reform has to change the culture of schools, which, in turn, changes the wider culture of the community. Our policymakers seem addicted to quick fixes and instant results, but in Finland, Wagner reports, the process has taken 25 years.

As Wagner points out, some of Finland's success may be due to its smaller schools and classes, its emphasis on vocational education (and concomitantly low dropout rate), and its curricular flexibility. There's at least one strand missing from Wagner's analysis, though: Finland's income equality. Socioeconomic status is a strong predictor of educational attainment, so, in my estimation, general equality in SES would not only reflect and influence a wider cultural consensus that education is valuable, but its opposite would reflect and influence a divergent value structure in which outcomes are similarly divergent.

For instance, Wagner compares Minnesota to Finland because of its similar population and demographics, noting that the Land of a Thousand Lakes, 17th globally in math, ranks well below Finland in achievement--but without mentioning the vast difference in, say, their Gini coefficients (mid-40s for Minnesota; mid-to-high 20s for Finland). The relationship between income inequality and educational attainment may be a mere correlation, but it's worth investigating.

My complaints about the film's production values are few and minor. A couple shots (especially of Wagner's "talking head" moments) look cheaply lit, while some action shots have annoying digital artifacts. However, for the most part, the film is well-paced, smoothly edited, and deftly scored.

The Finland Phenomenon premiered in D.C. back in April. At a time when education reform is both critical and in critical condition, its thought-provoking observations deserve wide viewing.

Full disclosure: Dittoe Public Relations sent me a free copy of the film for review. If you're interested in something similar, just send me an email.

Apr 25, 2011

trauma and nostalgia at the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

When my sister told me that she had three free tickets for the SecondStory Repertory's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, (through April 30th; see it!) I was cautiously pessimistic. I was a little worried that the trauma of past failures would keep me from fully enjoying the show's irreverent sendup of the nerdiest of nerd pastimes.

When she said that she wanted to volunteer me to take part in the Bee, though, my whole attitude changed. All of a sudden it became yet another nerdy adventure--I've recently had a few--and a chance to re-experience the trauma firsthand.

So of course I said yes.

Upon signing up to be one of four non-actor contestants, I was given three simple instructions:

1. Always ask for a definition.
2. Always ask for the word to be used in a sentence.
3. Don't act.

The first two were essential to set up jokes. The third instruction was to ensure the right contrast between the actors and the amateurs. If I had attempted to ham it up--and believe me, the temptation was real--I might've spoiled the show. So I didn't act.

I just spelled.

The first word was easy: "xanadu." My only concern was that I'd make a silly mistake and screw up--my pulse raced, my voice broke a little at the end, but I nailed it. I didn't expect real nerves for a fake bee, but there they were.

The second was easier: "putsch." Also easy. I had encountered it in a real bee back in the late 80s, and I believe I misspelled it then. No way I would fail this time.

I forget the third word, which I spelled right, either because it wasn't a real word, or I was darned lucky. (It was an Irish something, starts with a K, and I can't find it in my unabridged Webster's.)

I figured it was my time to exit the show when I was called up immediately afterward. Lo and behold, I went out on "pheochromocytoma," which I heard wrong, starting with a T, so they sounded the fateful bell, leading to the hug and serenade and juice box from Mitch.

At least I was the last non-actor standing. Ignominious defeat never felt so good.

Apr 21, 2011

Everyman at Saint Martin's, or A Morbid Campus Tour

Everyman is about to die, and Death wants a reckoning. Not wanting to go it alone, Everyman asks friends, relations, and others to assist in accounting for his life as he takes an allegorical journey to the grave. Who'll come along?

You should.

Saint Martin's University is currently showing a unique version of the classic medieval morality play, making the campus the stage, incorporating walkways, buildings, roads, and more. Everyman starts in a courtyard near the O'Grady Library, and ends, fittingly, in the cemetery at sunset.

The acting is solid, with the title character (played by sophomore Olivia Baumgartner), Death (Zoe Ford), Good Deeds (senior Ninalynn Benitez), and God (Olympia veteran Josh Anderson, no relation) standing out. The marching band accompanying the trek does fine work, adding levity and solemnity and irony to the proceedings. The finale is poignant and unnerving, as Everyman departs with Death amid very real graves.

It runs April 20-23 and April 27-30, it's only $5, and you need to brush up on your 15th-century theater. Go see it.

It'll be the strangest, most morbid campus tour you'll ever take.

Added: Christian Carvajal of The Weekly Volcano also gives the play a thumbs-up.

Apr 18, 2011

Ondrej Smeykal, didgeridoo genius

This weekend, I was fortunate to hear--experience--the mastery of a twenty-year veteran of the didgeridoo, Ondrej Smeykal, at the Matrix Coffeehouse in Chehalis. Smeykal's music is impressionistic and multitextured, surging in volume and tempo. It echoes the sounds of crashing surf, passing trains, pulsing synthesizers. It washes over you in waves. It fills your heart and your belly with gladness.

It makes hippies dance.

It makes hippies gambol and whirligig and gyrate with abandon.

The video above is the briefest possible sampling of Smeykal's lyrical and rhythmic ingenuity, a pale shadow of his live performance. Smeykal is returning to the Northwest in August, so if you're in the area, seek him out.

And bring your hippie friends.

Apr 16, 2011

Emily Lockhart comes to CHS

Northwest author Emily Lockhart came to Capital Friday afternoon, sharing her experiences with six English classes. In a presentation that was relatable, self-deprecating, and honest, Lockhart spoke about her life as a student and as a writer--and explained how the two were intertwined. She grew up in Seattle, and first attended a "granola" and "bohemian" prep school; as she put it, "We all had to promise to never buy a car."

A loner, the sort of person others avoid in the cafeteria, Lockhart decided to transfer to Lakeside School, where she was able to reinvent herself in a surprising fashion:
I didn't change anything about myself--how I looked, how I acted. I just showed up to see what happened. What happened was, I made friends.... I had a totally different life. I saw high school life from somewhere near the top, and somewhere near the bottom.... that's why I keep writing about it.
As Lockhart explained, unlike many places in the adult world, high school throws together people of every conceivable disposition and circumstance, with no real option for escape. The conflict that results is what interests her, and her young adult books are full of italicized, capital-D Drama.

Like a lot of fiction writers, Lockhart took time to get noticed. Her first attempt at publish non-fiction was rejected 70 times; her first success, a children's book, was rejected 30 times--and then, when published, "it was a lovely experience, but nobody read it." She wrote five unnoticed novels before The Boyfriend List finally caught readers' attention. Now, she's published a book a year for the last eight years. In her words, "It's not an easy way to get rich, but you can make a living."

You could sense Lockhart's palpable enthusiasm for her craft when she talked about the way she develops narrative.
You become a little bit fond of the character. I gave Ruby traits that I like--some of them are mine. I liked Ruby. Once you create a character that you like, as a fiction writer, what you have to do is torture them. If you have a story about a happy person with a good life, and they continue to be a happy person with a good life, you don't have a story, you have a description. Your job as a writer is to ask, "What's the worst thing that could happen?"
Some of Lockhart's best advice concerns her writerly motivation.
I don't feel like writing a lot of the time. I make myself do it. I write junk... I set a goal. I'm going to write 500 words, and then I can have a chocolate chip cookie.... Some day it's really fun and the best job ever. My writing teacher [in her university program] thought I sucked. But I'm the only one from the class who became a published writer. Why? Because my books are finished.
Lockhart's down-to-earth persona and frank advice seemed to resonate with the students in her audience. Even though YA Teen Drama isn't really my thing, I'm going to check out a couple of her books, and recommend her work to my students.

And one last thing: Lockhart pointed out, "I'm on Twitter, you can come follow me." (She's @elockhart.)

Apr 15, 2011

no mercy on an empty stomach

Is a hungry judge a merciless judge?
Jonathan Levav of Columbia Business School in New York and his colleagues analyzed 1,112 parole hearings for inmates of four Israeli prisons, made by eight judges over a ten-month period.

Judges' days were divided into three sessions broken by two meal breaks -- a morning snack and lunch. Judges decided when to break, but had no control over the ordering of cases, which was determined by when a prisoner's attorney arrived.

At the beginning of a session, a prisoner had a 65% chance of being paroled, the authors found. This declined to almost zero by the end of a session, and leaped back to 65% after a break.

The severity of the crime, the time served in prison, any previous incarcerations, and the availability of rehabilitation programs were not enough to explain the effect on the probability of parole, and the nationality or sex of a prisoner made no difference. The findings are published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The article, as all scientific articles do, includes the appropriate dose of skepticism. And it's obviously wrong to presume that the judges are too harsh when they're hungry; after all, they might be too lenient when full.

Still, it makes one wonder what would happen if courts instituted mandatory snack breaks.

Apr 13, 2011

Resolved: The United States has a moral obligation to promote just governance in developing nations

With North Africa and the Middle East exploding in conflict, now's a perfect time for the NCFL's LD resolution for the May championship.
Resolved: The United States has a moral obligation to promote just governance in developing nations.
At a reader's prompting, here are some initial thoughts.

First, generally, why might just governance in developing nations be important? Lots of potential reasons, each of which would require some research for warranting:

* It's just / the right thing to do, which is reason enough
* Improves lives / protects rights of citizens of those developing nations
* Reduces conflict / promotes international stability
* Economic security for nations and their trading partners
* Just governance probably better protects the environment
* Reduces the growing pains of globalization

Still, we're not yet to the level of a moral obligation; not all good things are obligatory. We have some hurdles to clear:

1. The Affirmative has to warrant the notion that nations have moral obligations.
Such obligations could arise from several places: the social contract, universal moral schemes (utilitarianism, Kantianism), or legal frameworks (the Constitution, treaties, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international law). They may be corporate (the U.S. as a government has the obligation) or aggregate (the U.S.'s government agents as a collection of independent moral actors have the obligation).

The choice of moral framework will be critical to establishing the level of the obligation as well. Even from a purely pragmatic or instrumental perspective--that the U.S.'s only moral obligation is to its own needs--if, empirically, promoting just governance is critical to the U.S.'s own security, then we vote Aff.

2. "Just governance" has to be clearly, compellingly defined
Here's where a broader contractarian perspective offers a coherent framework without demanding particulars (What kind of governmental structures? What sort of democratic institutions, if any? What kinds of civil rights?). Delving into specifics potentially makes the Aff an uphill battle. However, it's not impossible to narrow the focus to something like international legal norms, which offer a widely agreed-upon set of "best practices" for just governance.

3. What does it mean to "promote" just governance? Does mere cheerleading suffice?
On the Neg, I'd use a "fork" strategy:
a. If the obligation is mere cheerleading, it's not morally significant, and therefore no obligation.
b. If the obligation requires economic or military action, it's too costly, and therefore no obligation.
c. If the obligation is something else--diplomatic efforts? winning a war of ideas?--it's ineffectual and pointless and wasteful, and therefore no obligation.

4. Is it ever to the U.S.'s advantage to allow--or even promote--unjust governance in developing nations?
It sounds like a question a terrible person would ask, but then, political philosophers are terrible people. We can't presume that just governance provides automatic benefits for surrounding or affiliated nations, never mind the citizens of the developing nation, unless we construe "just" so broadly as to include beneficial outcomes by definition.

In fact, for the U.S. to maintain economic and military hegemony, perhaps it's best to let developing nations remain mired in dictatorships or muddle their own way through. As the Egyptian non-intervention and the Libyan intervention shows, getting involved isn't automatically the best option. More cynically, if developing nations gain power through just governance, they may threaten the long-term interests of the United States.

At any rate, there are no easy, knock-down arguments for either side, although it seems that the Negative, by sheer number of hurdles, has the advantage in this debate.

If you have any questions or would like any further analysis, let me know in the comments. I don't usually cover the NCFL, so I won't blog extensively on this resolution without your prompting.

"I (heart) boobies:" will SCOTUS take the case?

Is it sad or awesome that it took a federal ruling to uphold a high school student's right to wear an awareness-generating bracelet that uses the word "boobies?"
Breast cancer fundraising bracelets that proclaim "I (heart) boobies!" are not lewd or vulgar and can't be banned by public school officials who find them offensive, a federal judge in Pennsylvania said Tuesday in a preliminary ruling.

The ruling is a victory for two Easton girls suspended for defying a ban on their middle school's Breast Cancer Awareness Day.

"The bracelets ... can reasonably be viewed as speech designed to raise awareness of breast cancer and to reduce stigma associated with openly discussing breast health," U.S. Judge Mary McLaughlin wrote in a 40-page ruling issued Tuesday. She added that the school district had not shown the bracelets would be disruptive in school.
Since it's just an appellate decision, and students' free speech rights have been curtailed in other jurisdictions, one wonders how long it takes "I heart boobies" to become the "Bong hits 4 Jesus" of the 2010s.

Take the case, SCOTUS. This time, though, get the right result.

Update: The district that lost will appeal, making SCOTUS involvement a live, if distant, possibility.

Apr 11, 2011

do vegan androids dream of electric tomatoes?

Science brings us the sunless hyperfarm:
In their research station, strawberries, yellow peppers, basil and banana plants take on an eerie pink glow under red and blue bulbs of Light-Emitting Diodes, or LEDs. Water trickles into the pans when needed and all excess is recycled, and the temperature is kept constant. Lights go on and off, simulating day and night, but according to the rhythm of the plant - which may be better at shorter cycles than 24 hours - rather than the rotation of the Earth.

In a larger "climate chamber" a few miles away, a nursery is nurturing cuttings of fittonia, a colorful house plant, in two layers of 70 square meters (750 sq. feet) each. Blasts of mist keep the room humid, and the temperature is similar to the plants' native South America. After the cuttings take root - the most sensitive stage in the growing process - they are wheeled into a greenhouse and the chamber is again used for rooting. The process cuts the required time to grow a mature plant to six weeks from 12 or more....

Meeuws says a building of 100 sq meters (1,075 sq. feet) and 14 layers of plants could provide a daily diet of 200 grams (7 ounces) of fresh fruit and vegetables to the entire population of Den Bosch, about 140,000 people. Their idea is not to grow foods that require much space, like corn or potatoes. "We are looking at the top of the pyramid where we have high value and low volume," he said.
At this point, why stop with "natural" plants? Using them as a template, throw together some genetic engineering and 3D printing, and you can create more efficient vascular and metabolic systems to grow foodstuffs in a sci-fi agricultural dreamscape.

Also, I'm hungry. Vic's Pizza, anyone?

Apr 9, 2011

handsome in pink

Everybody knows that baby boys wear pink and baby girls wear blue.


[via Maggie Koerth-Baker]

the irrational creepiness of a private military firm

The other day, while attempting to answer a reader's debate question about the use of PMFs in South Korea, I came across the website of Xeros Services.

Xeros supplies men and materiel for war-making, and offers "cross-structural value," "risk mitigation," and "a nuanced approach." Take away the images of surface-to-air missiles and armored personnel carriers, and you might think you're being sold a 401K.  (Take away the website, and you can't even be sure the company is real: they're barely mentioned on the Web, outside of some duplicated Wikipedia entries.)

PMFs are criticized for making conflict too convenient, and it's hard to argue when faced with a sales pitch like this:
"Our 24-7-365 guarantee means we can help you react quickly and decisively to any unexpected developments, no matter the scale. For a small premium you can have complete peace of mind - and we'll handle the paperwork."
Do you want an army at your disposal? Log in with your password, charge your corporate credit card, and a platoon will be delivered to your door.

It's conflict outsourcing, and it's more than a little creepy.

Apr 6, 2011

a real American at 95

Wonder if I could ever find myself in this situation:
For all his life, 95-year-old Leland Davidson had been what you might call an undocumented American.

Until now.

Born in Canada to American parents who moved him to the United States when he was 5, Davidson grew up and lived his life like any other American. He started voting as soon as he could, obtained a Social Security number when he was 21 and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

Yet his U.S. citizenship, automatically derived from his parents, came into question last summer — as it has been for a growing number of Canadian-born Americans — when he was planning a trip to British Columbia and applied for an enhanced Washington driver's license.

The licenses are for U.S. citizens only — allowing re-entry into the United States from Canada. Davidson was shocked when Department of Licensing staff told him: "You're still a Canadian."

After months untangling his status, the Centralia man Tuesday received a long-overdue recognition of his U.S. citizenship, when he and 51 others — most of them children — were granted certificates of citizenship.
Born in Canada, of an American father and a Canadian mother, I'm an American citizen. I have a "Certificate of Birth Abroad" and a current passport, but if I were to, say, vacation in British Columbia and lose my passport--stranger things have happened--how would I prove that my citizenship is legit? (It doesn't help that "Jim Anderson" is a terribly common name.)

Oh, I remember: just sing all the words to The National Anthem.

Apr 5, 2011

pick a sovereign, any sovereign

Don't like democracy's tyranny-of-the-majority, but can't think of an acceptable alternative? How about "choice democracy?"
It could work like this: before an election, each political party would lay out its governing principles - what services it will provide, how its taxes will be structured, what social policies it will pursue, and so forth. After the election, each voter pays taxes to the party they voted for, and receives that set of services - cultural and educational subsidies, for example, or unemployment benefits - until the next election. This would require doing away with secret ballots. On some things, parties may choose to band together to govern specific services - military defence, for example, or monetary systems - where economies of scale are important.
It's federalism without the geographic constraints, possible only either in tiny or technologically-saturated nations. It would turn voting into a sort of game--play with the same cards, but different rules when you switch election cycles. In one sense, it's the most legitimate form of government possible. (Somewhere, a 21st-century Thomas Hobbes is having a heart attack, while his Rousseauian counterpart furiously scribbles on a napkin.)

There'd have to be a way to cap the number of political parties for practicality's sake, lest the solipsists and anarchists gum up the works. I'd imagine it'd also raise the stakes for voter fraud, with people appearing in multiple virtual jurisdictions. For instance, someone would claim allegiance to the Flat Tax party while signing up for free flu shots from the Universal Health Care party. And then there's the prospect of a society completely fragmented on partisan lines, with its desires, needs, and values more ephemeral than ever.

Still, it's an intriguing combination of democratic legitimacy and market efficiency, and a few years hence, when we're all avatars in a digital lifescape, it just might work.

Apr 4, 2011

today's flim-flam links

1. Was Steinbeck's Travels with Charley a whole lotta hooey? And, if so, why don't more scholars care? [via Jesse Walker]

2. Does every continent have its own James Randi?

3. Gandhi demythologized. [via ALDaily, although Orwell got there decades earlier.]

4. In which a con artist gets 20 to life.

5. Jackie Chan is alive and kicking.