the murder of roger ackroyd

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Agatha Christie is the master of the mystery novel. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd she delivers another brilliantly clever plot told in subtle, succinct prose that leads you down every garden path on the way to the surprising resolution. I read this one because it made #1 on the Guardian list of the best Christie novels. It lived up to the billing.

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disrupting class: how disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns

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Only one of the authors of this book come from an education background. The other two study and write primarily about business. Their idea is to take the insights they have about the way businesses change and apply them to education.

To me, their most useful insight is that big breakthroughs in innovation first develop in a markets that were not previously being served or were being served poorly. In an example they use a few times in the book, the first makers of the minicomputer didn’t try to market their product to the government or businesses that were already invested in mainframe computers. Instead, they marketed to smaller businesses and individuals who could not afford and didn’t have the space for mainframes. Trying to compete with the mainframes directly would have been a losing cause, since the companies that made the mainframes were already good at it and already had large market shares. In addition, even though the first minicomputers didn’t have all the power and functionality of the mainframes of that day, the early minicomputer users were happy with the product because without it they didn’t have access to computers at all. That is, people in new markets are willing to accept some less than ideal circumstances, because they had no service before. As time goes on, and people become accustomed to the new product, they expect higher and higher levels of service — note that minicomputers got increasingly powerful to match those expectations.

The same is true for educational reform. Educational innovators are going to have a very difficult time being successful while fighting against a well-entrenched system. Unless you serve a new market, your innovation is almost certain to function mostly at the edges and to last only as long as you have “extra” money to pay for it. You aren’t going to truly “disrupt” the system.

The book’s authors believe that educational technology can serve previously unserved or underserved markets and eventually change education as we have known it and they believe that the unserved markets are in places like: small schools that cannot afford to offer “enrichment” courses; credit recovery for students who have to take regular classes, too; providing individualized instruction for students who do not learn well in traditional classes.

The authors think the last example is especially important and suggest that, as the software improves, much of school can be transformed into an individualized environment for students, with teachers guiding and assisting as needed — improving education for all students because they are being taught in the style in which they best learn, rather than in the relatively monolithic, one-size-fits-all methods that most schools employ. Based on their observation of disruptive innovation in other areas, they predicted (when they published the book in 2008) that “by 2019, about 50 percent of high school courses will be delivered online.” Whether or not this is accurate remains to be seen, but the vision they provide is of a student-centric learning environment that is enabled by technology, while remaining very much human and humane.

Disrupting Class is at it’s best when talking about the potential for change and how that change could happen. It’s much less compelling when talking about educational research and policy. I appreciate the authors’ vision, if not always their specific recommendations for moving toward it.

the little sister

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The Little Sister is all atmosphere and attitude. Chandler’s protagonist, Phillip Marlowe, more observes the action than drives it forward. He is pessimistic and tired, even as he cracks wise at any opportunity. Women throw themselves at him, but he can’t seem to marshal the energy to do more than kiss them once or twice and keep up the banter. He’s a step behind every murder, and the loosely knit plot keeps the reader feeling even further behind. (I repeatedly found myself looking back in the book to see what I’d missed, only to realize that I didn’t miss anything; the details weren’t there to notice.)

At the same time, having just read The Maltese Falcon, it was hard for me not to notice that many of the plot devices were similar. If, as some commentators suggest, Little Sister is partly a response to Chandler’s experience in the movie business, I think it’s also paying homage to Hammett’s classic.

video games and learning: teaching and participatory culture in the digital age

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As Kurt Squire notes in the forward to Video Games and Learning, educators and gamers don’t often talk to each other — “game people think educators are lame, and educators think that game people are hyperviolent misogynists destroying all that is good in the world.” Squire and other educator-gamers (see, for example, Keith Devlin) are trying to change that, because they believe that gaming not only has something to teach educators, but that gaming may be a significant part of the future of education. Squire asks not, “Can you learn from games?” but “How do we make good learning games?” and “Can games help transform education?”

Squire is pretty critical of the current educational culture in our country. He argues that it is based in “passive knowledge reception,” with a structure that isolates “students by age ability, filters all information through the teacher, and features few opportunities to interact with experts, much less to become one.” He sees school as all too often full of failure that reinforces the idea that students know little or nothing – stand back and let “the experts” tell you how it is.

By contrast, gaming communities “don’t survive by selling players the fantasy of being incompetent, powerless, forced to follow arbitrary rules, and impotent in the world.” Instead games give the opportunity to “become leaders, teachers, or authors in the domains they are studying.” Games clearly communicate “what players must do to become experts” and regularly give the opportunity to interact with people who are more advanced. They are engaging and motivate learning in a wide range of fields for the purpose of doing something (albeit, usually scoring more points in the game), not just learning because your teacher told you to. Games, Squires believes, can be a meaningful part of, and can influence, a curriculum that also includes, people, books, homework, and all the other things we’ve come to associate with education.

This all might sound pie in the sky. Squire acknowledges that “such a change would require revolutionizing across the entire education system – from the professional development of teachers (who themselves are treated as recipients, not producers of knowledge) to the assessment system.” But he’s not just theorizing; he’s gone out and worked in “low-performing” schools, introducing a gaming curriculum in collaboration with teachers on the ground. Together they have learned what can work and what can’t, adjusting their approach on the fly. The stories of these experiments are some of the most compelling parts of the book.

Squire does not pretend to have all the answers. While he is a reformer, he is not concerned with scaling the interventions he’s helped pilot. He sees education reform as a process, not a product. He wants to spread “reflective teaching practices that engage kids in advanced design thinking about themselves and their communities.” In this he has succeeded.

#iStandWithRochelleGutierrez

Research in math rarely generates much controversy, but the recent back and forth over the work of Rochelle Gutierrez and others is something of an exception. That work discusses the cultural roots of math, specifically the way it operates as a gendered space that perpetuates male and white privilege. Even though many professional organizations in math have supported Gutierrez and her work, people continue to demonize her.

Suffice it to say that I stand with Gutierrez. See here for more information.

(For an added bonus, check out The Liberated Mathematician.)

the maltese falcon

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Dashiell Hammett tells this classic story in terse, punchy sentences that take the reader around San Francisco and through a twisty plot with Sam Spade, private eye. Spade is worldly, jaded, at times childish, and always chauvinistic. Despite his shortcomings, his ability to assess people and their motivations is remarkable, his insights and intuitions not perfect, but close enough to do the job. In the end we see that, for Hammett, Spade’s flaws are reflections of the world in which he lives.

have his carcase

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It took me a long time to read Have His Carcase. Sayers’ detailed style is, perhaps, a little slow for the contemporary ear. On the other hand, it speaks to the real pace of most police work. They laboriously check every lead, slowly eliminating possibilities till they narrow it down to the real killer. It’s not exciting, but it is satisfying because it works.

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