Friday, December 10, 2010

From the Filing Cabinet: FarmVille, Homework, China, and More

I'm not normally a follower of Thomas Friedman's work, but I loved his recent column, written as if it were a Wikileaked Chinese analysis of America's (and Americans') weaknesses. Favorite paragraph:

But the Americans are oblivious [to the fact that they're technologically outmoded]. They travel abroad so rarely that they don’t see how far they are falling behind. Which is why we at the embassy find it funny that Americans are now fighting over how “exceptional” they are. Once again, we are not making this up. On the front page of the Washington Post on Monday there was an article noting that Republicans Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee are denouncing Obama for denying “American exceptionalism.” The Americans have replaced working to be exceptional with talking about how exceptional they still are. They don’t seem to understand that you can’t declare yourself “exceptional,” only others can bestow that adjective upon you.

Screen snapshot from FarmVille
Boing Boing excerpted an interview with game designer Jonathan Blow (never heard of him myself, but bear with me), in which Blow deftly criticizes games like the FaceBook app FarmVille:
It's only about exploiting the players and yes, people report having fun with that kind of game.... But then when you look at the design process in that game, it's not about designing a fun game. It's not about designing something that's going to be interesting or a positive experience in any way -- it's actually about designing something that's a negative experience.

It's about "How do we make something that looks cute and that projects positivity" -- but it actually makes people worry about it when they're away from the computer and drains attention from their everyday life and brings them back into the game.... And it's about, "How do we get players to exploit their friends in a mechanical way in order to progress?" And in that or exploiting their friends, they kind of turn them in to us and then we can monetize their relationships. And that's all those games are, basically.

Hopkins, Minn., junior high teacher Vianne Hubbell had an excellent op-ed in the Star Tribune around Thanksgiving, pointing out that piles of homework don't make for better school outcomes:
So often, what comes home seems either mind-numbingly excessive (25 long division problems, anyone?) or beyond the scope of what is reasonable (three-page book reports, typed please, and make a diorama to go with it). My experience as a mother of four and as a teacher with 18 years' experience has led me to the realization that practicing something, or being asked to produce something for which one lacks the skill, does not breed perfection, or even learning. It breeds frustration.

What comes of all this frustration? Typed paragraphs hang proudly in the halls of our neighborhood school. Beautiful dioramas ring the rooms. Take this from the eye of someone who has been evaluating student work for 18 years: A vast majority of them do not appear to be the independent work of children.
Time magazine cover of blond boy with books and headline Too Much Homework?Hubbell's words come at the same time as the new documentary, Race to Nowhere, which analyzes the problem of over-assigning homework. I haven't seen the film, but I'd like to. At the same time, we are confronted with constant stories of U.S. students falling behind their counterparts around the globe. Somehow I don't think the answer is more reliance on the idea that children are empty pitchers waiting to be filled.

An education researcher I heard speak last year said that learning happens best when there is a balance between challenge and skill: Too much challenge and too little skill, and the learner fails and is frustrated. Too much skill and too little challenge, and the learner is bored. Homework seems to fall into one of these two categories, almost never hitting the sweet spot. Active learning (usually project-based) is one key way to try to reach this balance. This is in line with the thoughts of Ken Robinson, about which I posted a few weeks ago.


I both enjoyed and was disturbed by NPR's excellent series this week about whether it should be a right for severely disabled people to live in their own homes or other independent living situations, rather than nursing homes. And if so, who should pay for it?

It reminded me once again of the incredible privilege that adheres to those of us who are healthy and who have healthy children.


John Abraham teaching a classFinally, my newest hero is St. Thomas University professor John Abraham, who has decided that scientists like him need to step up to make the case proving climate change is human-caused. Although I meant to write about him back in the summer when I first read about him on MinnPost, it took a recent Star Tribune story to prompt this post.

After hearing climate change denier Lord Christopher Monckton speak at a nearby campus in fall 2009, Abraham put in the hours to make a fact-based rebuttal presentation that drew international attention. Monckton responded with an ad hominem attack about Abraham's rinky-dink school and his personal appearance, of all things.

Abraham has since been appearing on radio shows to civilly discuss the issue with hosts who are in denial. And he recently launched what he calls a "ready response team" website to connect 50 experts with the news media when writers are on deadline. (The American Geophysical Union has set up a similar "bank" of experts.)

Why is there so much resistance to believing what the science shows? The Star Tribune quotes Abraham as saying, "People are enamored of unlimited free will and free markets. If they accept the science, then they have to accept change."


Blissed-Out Grandma said...

Big Business doesn't want to pay the costs of protecting the environment. Instead of saying so, they set up a propaganda machine. And a lot of gullible people choose to believe the lies because they don't want to be inconvenienced. Sigh.

Logan said...

Lord Monckton is not a climate change denier. To the contrary, all agree that the climate changes -- it always has and always will.

The question is reduced to 'what is man's role'? And in this respect, every day Monckton is backed up by the newer studies showing 'virtually none at all.'

Professor John Abraham did indeed spend months creating a response to Monckton. Unfortunately, he misrepresented Monckton materials, got the figures wrong, and didn't bother to contact Monckton for clarification prior to his drive-by.

Monckton responded with a multi-segment video on YouTube where he patiently (as only a disappointed teacher but loving teacher would to a dense student) explained point by point where Abraham went awry.