After 'Avatar':
World in a Web
Spinning Webs of Meaning 
January/February 2010                             
National Scene
The Status Quo Comes Screaming Back
With the universal predictability of Newton's third law (you remember, "To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction")  the forces opposed to change are not only hanging on for all they are worth but also roaring back with the same gusto that fueled that worldwide cry for change we felt so viscerally last year.
While we're worrying about how to fix schools so we can stop drop-outs, we have the surprise of popular politicians dropping out of the U.S. Senate, tellling us that system's broken, too.  Well, we kind of knew that, but the screaming partisanship that has characterized the fight about health care reform does not bode well for the kinds of changes that we thought we might be able to make in federal policy for school reform.
Secy. of Education Arne Duncan must be feeling like a water skier in a shark tank at this point, doing his best to keep his two skis pointed straight ahead but cringing for the moment when that precarious balance is lost.  With the most centrist policy statements we've seen for years, especially in education, the Obama administration is now being beat up by both sides as they try to figure out where that change momentum went.
Hey, guys, it's time to stop fooling around with fixes to the status quo and just go for what we really want, since sitting in the center, and being nice to everyone about it (you know, that diplomacy thing that has kept all of us educators from saying what we really think for the past four decades), is not likely to get us anywhere.
Let's throw in with our favorite pundit from the Washington Post, Jay Mathews, who has said we should kill No Child Left Behind and start over.  As tentative as he sounded in the presentation of his idea, that's probably the most intelligent solution, because we do have new ideas, tons of them, and even in Washington.  But we're not going to live long enough to see them enacted if we have to wait for Congress to sift through every messed up detail of NCLB and, in the end, do nothing more than make cosmetic changes to a complex, overburdened, and completely redundant piece of legislation.
We now "know" there is a huge achievement gap, not that we didn't all know that before, so let's make proactive policy that will close that gap between rich and poor, between black and white, between any other polarity you can think of, by spinning a web of meaning that pulls our national polarities closer together.  Education is the issue that could cause that kind of unified movement to happen, if we can construct national policy that is as "coherent" as the one Race to the Top asked of the states.  While we're at it, a smart national policy can also close that widening gap between the U.S. and all the other developed countries in the world.  None of that will happen by tinkering with the bloated irrelevancy of NCLB. (See the next article, "A Message from India" for an idea of what that  proactive policy direction must become!)
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 A Message from India 
"The future is unknowable and cannot be predicted. A child who joins school today will retire in 2065 and can be expected to live up to the age of 85. The challenge for schools is staring us in the face."  These are the words of Lt. Gen. Arjun Ray, a decorated leader of India's school improvement efforts and now CEO of an independent international school in Bangalore.  An online friend of mine who works on school change in Atlanta sent me the link to this message from India, because it states so eloquently why schools in the developing world are moving ahead and schools in America continue to struggle.
For one thing, life in India, the country that completely jumped over the Industrial Age and took up residence in the Information Age without a backward glance, is not about "test scores."  As Gen. Ray states, "There prevails a lot of confused thinking on what is the fundamental purpose of schools."  Indeed.
Gen. Ray believes schools should have a social objective to play a worthwhile part in the progress of the 21st century, with a "new literacy" that includes competencies in "higher purpose and vision, how to be creative, how to think critically, and how to be lifelong learners."   While U.S. schools may say some of these same things, they are not concepts that are valued by a system that prizes test scores above all else.  As Gen. Ray sees it, "Schools should, therefore, look upon themselves as agents of change and not as repositories of knowledge."
Ah, there's the crux of the argument:  What are schools trying to accomplish?  If we are no longer training factory workers for the discipline of standing at conveyor belts for long boring hours, being silent and focused on their narrow tasks, then why are we still running our schools as if that were their purpose?   If we, too, want our students to be creative, to have a sense of purpose and vision, how must we change things to create that outcome?
The person with the best answer to that question is, once again, Linda Darling-Hammond, the Stanford professor who most educators thought should have been our new Secretary of Education.  She was recently featured in a webinar on, explaining in great detail why the tests our students take now in NO way prepare them for their own futures.
The challenges today, she says require "motivated and self-reliant citizens and risk-taking entrepreneurs" who have a new set of abilities including solving problems, working in teams, creating, innovating and criticizing, reflecting on and improving performance.  These new expectations, in turn, require a major shift in schools, away from the recall and recognition--simple, low-level abilities--that form the basis of our testing programs.
Here's an American test question in science:
  • What two gases make up most of the Earth's atmosphere?
  1. Hydrogen and oxygen
  2. Hydrogen and nitrogen
  3. Oxygen and carbon dioxide
  4. Oxygen and nitrogen
Contrast this simple, easy to machine-score "standardized test" question with the "rich task" from a state exam in Queensland, Australia:
  • Students must identify, explore, and make judgments on a biotechnological process to which there are ethical dimensions. 
  • They must choose and explore an area of biotechnology, identify and use laboratory practices, and research frameworks of ethical principles that apply to their issue.
  • Students provide a written explanation of technological differences in techniques used and present a deep analysis of the ethical issues involved.
  • Further, they must select six real-life people whose views contribute to the issue and plan materials for a conference at which these scientists will speak, based on research of their views.
There's actually more to the task than what I have listed here, but the point is made, I think.   The Australian exam, and others that Dr. Darling-Hammond cites in her presentation, from England, Singapore, and other countries, obviously involves a wide range of skills, assessing student competencies in such areas as research and analysis, understanding of ethical issues and principles, lab practices, organization and communication, understanding of biological and chemical systems, etc.  That's why it's called a "rich task" and why, as an assessment of AUTHENTIC work, it requires an entirely different mode of teaching--also richer, more in-depth, more purposeful.
Darling-Hammond goes on to point out that worldwide school reform makes such assessments part of a "tightly integrated SYSTEM of standards, curriculum, instruction, assessment, and teacher development."  A SYSTEM designed to train teachers as it trains students to think in creative ways.  You can download the Powerpoint yourself  to talk to your own Board of Education or colleagues.  The point is that America's rating in student achievement is dropping like a rock while our education experts debate how we are going to "raise the scores" for tests that are not only irrelevant but damaging--to our kids, our teachers, and America's place in the world. 
Meet the Future
Blue Hi-Tech Hand with Globe 
Do You Know
A Ning?
There's a new utility in town, and it's called a NING, "the newest social platform for the world's  interests and passions online."  A private company founded by a couple of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, the Ning system for creating your own network was founded in late 2004 and now has 1.8 million individual networks populated by 39 million users.
This brilliant idea is made for educators and parents who want to dialogue about issues in education--and not have to hook up with old high school buddies in the process.  Here's a great example, a gathering place for Global Education, a collaborative with videos, blogs, events, classes, and online forums devoted specifically to "Helping Teachers and Students Reach the World."  A current video caught my eye, a keynote presentation for their online conference, entitled "Going Global: Culture Shock, Convergence, and the Future of Education."  Like this one, Nings can be set up by techno-amateurs, and that's the beauty of it.  No web designer needed because the functions are all built in!
Oh, and did I mention that the Ning networks are FREE?  Of course, free means there will be ads along the side of your pages, which appear to be thematically linked to your subject matter.  For a small monthly fee, you can go ad-free.  Just imagine the possibilities, and then decide how you want to spin YOUR web of meaning . . . .
Globe on Outstretched Hand: Changing the Schools Can Change the World!
Patricia Kokinos
                                    Author, Speaker, ChangeMaker
Something big is going on when a movie brings in $2.3 BILLION in its first month of worldwide release, as James Cameron's techno-extravaganza "Avatar" is showing us--a global something that is resonating out there in the ethers.  We know it's not the slam-bang plot, because we've seen "Dances With Wolves," only this time the Indians win (and it's about their turn!).  The special effects are WAY cool, but there are plenty of movies with big FX that blow us away.  We've seen tons of sci-fi and future worlds, disasters and rescues, you name it.  So, what's going on here that everyone from ten-year-old gamers to college professors to grandmothers who never go to movies are telling their friends "You must see this movie"? 
While Cameron himself is calling that common bond the "green" thing and his plea to save the planet from exploitation and destruction, there's a whole lot more operating in this film, a deeper subtext that springs from the author's own subconscious and jumps directly into ours.  "Avatar" brings us echoes from the entire range of mythologies that have motivated world civilization for millennia:  The improbable hero, the princess who tames a dragon, the lush and seductive beauty of nature, the freedom of flight, the discovery of new worlds, the triumph of the exploited, the return to the garden, the mysteries of healing, the power of transformation, the deep desire for transfiguration.  These are the weighty themes that underlie the film's spectacular visuals and technical virtuosity, and connect us to our own deepest drives:  We want to save the world, too, and live in that Eden of our own imaginations.  Only we want that better world to be right here on this planet . . . 
The proof was right behind me in the theater, in the form of two muscular young men in jackboots and tattoos, guys I would have expected to laugh at the sentimental hooking-up of tall blue cat people in defense of their world.  But no, they were stomping and cheering the animated animals, the rapacious revenge of nature, and the triumph of the underdog--because that's all of us. 
"Avatar," from its genesis in the '70s when Cameron first started playing around with these ideas, has arrived, as the quantum operation of universal time would have it, at exactly the moment the world is ready to say "Wow!  We're all in this together, and maybe if we work together . . . "  Combined with the influence of the Worldwide Web, "Avatar," in its design, conception, and technical brilliance, is stimulating our collective consciousness and opening us up to a new way of seeing.  Here is a popular entertainment that brings us, in the guise of an adventure story, a whole range of mind-expanding images, new concepts of interdependence, even a visual expression of synergy.  At this very moment, the undercurrents of this movie are helping us FEEL what it might be like to belong, connect, join forces to do some good for the world--maybe even WIN for a change.  A web of meaning and purpose is what we long for and, just in time, here's a record-breaking movie to show the way . . . .
The Human Brain, Unplugged
Energy Man Emerges Connections, connections, the human brain is all about connections:  Pulling memories out of a storage vault with, what would you say, a zillion gigs of capacity?  Shaping responses to stimuli in a nanosecond.  Putting discrete pieces together into patterns with a glance.  It's already the ultimate quantum computer, and getting more sophisticated by the generation, so it is no wonder that today's kids just aren't going to put up with doing traditional "school work" that is, at best, a conglomeration of isolated knowledge.  Human brains are designed to synthesize a multiplicity of factors and functions and to BUILD webs of meaning.  When are we going to translate that reality into modes of learning that do NOT force children's brains into narrow, linear, carefully circumscribed channels of thought?  The next stage of human development is here, and we're standing flatfooted at the door, arguing about irrelevant details like "test scores" while the world passes us by.  
If you're not already feeling left behind, especially in the too-tight strictures of the education world, then you probably haven't read A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink's racy paean to Big Picture Thinkers and the need to move beyond Knowledge Workers and into "The Conceptual Age."  I know, in schools, we're still trying to figure out the "Information Age," so somehow we're going to have to both immerse ourselves in technology and simultaneously leapfrog into what's going on right now, and Mr. Pink argues a great and compelling case, backed up by research, readings, and resources we can all use.
With the advent of Abundance, Asia, and Automation, Pink says, we're moving into a new era, where RIGHT-brain thinking (he calls it R-directed)--that part of us that schooling tends to pooh-pooh and ignore--is rising into a new prominence.  You know what that's all about, the part of our brain that is simultaneous, metaphorical, aesthetic, contextual, the part that creates a Gestalt of experience and allows us to be "emotionally astute" and "creatively adroit."  Well, how much of that new "success and fulfillment" modality are we stimulating in schools?  That's right, very little to none at all.  Instead we have defined school success as filling in the right bubbles on woefully narrow "standardized tests," an approach that has given us lots of statistics but has held us back from moving to the next stage: A new agreement about the  meaning and purpose of school, a smart policy that articulates a supportive structural WEB around which states, communities, and schools can spin their own designs.
As we work piece by piece to achieve that smartbomb of national leadership, we can also work Pink's concepts into our policy discussions and teaching, subversively fulfilling our students'  real needs--and our own as well.  Here are the Six Essential Attributes that Pink discusses at length as markers of the new Conceptual Age:  Design, not only functional but beautiful and engaging.  Story, not only argument but a compelling narrative.  Symphony, not just focus but synthesis, creating a new whole.  Empathy, not just logic but caring and understanding.  Play, creating a balance of work and play for general well-being.  Meaning, not just money but purpose, transcendence and even spiritual fulfillment.  If you're like me, Pink's articulation of what we have always intuited to be true  is enough to make a frustrated teacher or parent cry.  Finally, someone creative enough to give us a framework for a new way of thinking about how we can connect our children to the REAL "real world."
Others are already doing this work in schools and for schools, and many have been for decades, but it's always the labor of Sisyphus, pushing a boulder up hill against  overwhelming  inertial forces.  The public (and many teachers and, of course, most kids) have a very clear idea of what school can and cannot be, and teachers who push that envelope actively challenge those preconceptions (see next article, "Imaginarium").  I had one girl explain it to me quite explicitly when I asked her in class, "What do you think English is supposed to be anyway?"  "You know," she said, "nouns and verbs and all that crap."  So, you see how far across a very deep chasm our cognitive leap needs to reach . . . 
One current effort at "Whole Mind" thinking is described on one of my favorite websites, Edutopia, the source for progressive thinking in teaching:  Stanford University's Institute of Design has created an educational research program called
the K-12 Lab, where teachers learn to think like designers. 
Their central question is this:  What if teachers deconstructed and rebuilt the learning process the same way designers work with objects and ideas?  To explore that process, the Institute is showing teachers how to "loosen the narrow, rigid process of traditional learning" and how "to tap into students' deep wells of creativity, encouraging them to see nuanced problems from inside the very core of an issue, and make critical thinking essential to solving any problem." 
As one teacher from Palo Alto described her epiphany, "Our kids spend their time trying to figure out what answer the teacher wants to hear rather than on what they want to say. . . . We need to be asking our kids questions that don't have predetermined outcomes."   
The concept of teaching and learning as aspects of design is also part of the Henry Ford Learning Institute in Chicago where the K-12 Lab has created a course called Foundations of Innovation on the campus of Power House High, a public school focused on technology and design for a sustainable environment.  Students regularly participate in projects that connect them to the larger world, using the rudiments of "whole mind" thinking, logic plus creativity, sequence plus overall view, creative solutions to multidimensional real-time problems.
Admittedly, these efforts are only small drops in a huge bucket, in a sea, in fact, of tradition.  However, now is the moment when people are ready to listen to something new. Now is our moment to throw out that skein of creativity and through our own networks, through the internet, through our personal interactions at and for schools, to spin a consensus for new meaning and purpose to our educational endeavors.
IMAGINARIUM: Real Teachers, Real Schools
San Francisco Teacher  San Francisco teacher Danielle Johnson talks to her tenth graders about their portfolio projects at City Arts and Technology High School.  Photo by Brant Ward, San Francisco Chronicle
The process of dropping new memes into the zeigeist and watching them to leap into mass appeal is the way soundbites work as they are spread by TV, the Web, and print media.  A Johns Hopkins education professor experienced that phenomenon three years ago when he called traditional "industrial" high schools "drop-out factories."  Now the President is using the term in his school reform speeches, because everyone understands the complex of ideas that the soundbite represents.  Let's create a new meme of our own: Imaginarium, a think tank of teachers who create imaginative ways to help their students connect and deepen their knowledge and ideas.  Let's say those imaginative ways could be projects where kids discover and manipulate knowledge, or assessments that invite kids to come up with original answers, or new ways of touching, smelling, or seeing abstract concepts.  Let's have an Imaginarium at every school and let's have parents be involved because they have tons of creative ideas. Then let's make sure that  the local media talk all about the creative things their teachers are doing, because those stories go out on national email networks (so yes, a little PR goes a long way!).
This is surely the most obvious and simple-minded of ideas, but one that could help all of us interested in a smart educational system build a VALUE for the kind of imagination that will really change our schools.  Talking about it, doing it, and connecting, connecting, connecting are the ways new concepts are spread and our new soundbites built; then, like the 100th monkey story, critical mass is reached and EVERYONE suddenly knows that IMAGINATIVE teaching and learning are the secrets to a new, humane, collaborative and creative system of public education.  Could it really be just that simple?  
I want to see signs in classrooms that say Imagination at Work, imagination being, of course, one of the highest levels of critical and creative thinking, because it combines (yes, in a "whole mind" way), knowledge and new applications, details that fit into a bigger picture, real life problems with new perspectives.  Imagination is the CONNECTOR that makes those "Aha!" moments click into place. Imagination is the key to the "art" of teaching AND learning, and no mere statistical summary is ever going to come close to measuring that fact.
So here are some ways Real Teachers in Real Classrooms are using their imaginations every day, spending untold extra hours devising new ways of looking at their materials and their kids, pushing that boulder uphill against the stream of statisticians who say, in alarm, "but we can't measure that."  Yes, that moment of learning IS a little spark of mystery and magic, isn't it?
Here's something cool:  In a middle school in Dunlap, Illinois, near Peoria, sixth-graders spent their Saturday being tutored in crime scene investigation by local CSI experts, capturing fingerprints, making dental impressions--and discovering a whole new way that science applies to real life.  The photo below shows one of the students enraptured by the process of lifting a fingerprint from a beaker.  (Photo by Ron Johnson, Peoria Journal Star)
                                                   CSI in Middle School  
Teachers at City Arts and Technology High School, a charter in the Mission District of San Francisco (see photo at top of story), hammer on leadership skills, "creating team projects that push kids to formulate tightly organized arguments," and developing portfolios and presentations around their research and solutions to real-world problems.  Parents come to presentation nights to applaud their students' discoveries, and sometimes the same debates in both English and Spanish. 
At a private school in Midland, Michigan, kindergarten and first grade students collected gallon milk jugs which they built into an igloo that holds 15 students at a time in a snug environment for reading and group work.  The project taught them not only about the Eskimo culture, penguins, and climate, but also about cooperation, writing thank-you notes, counting and math.
In Charleston, West Virginia, a middle school math lab is using lap tops to create spreadsheets and blueprints to renovate the front grounds of the school for its 70th anniversary.   An elementary school in Andover, Massachusetts created an all-school reality experience called "Math Survivor," the brainchild of two parents who worked with the school staff to create Survivor-themed math problems and rewards.  Classes broke up into tribes, designed tribal flags, and opened the day with a schoolwide "tribal council" ceremony.  Besides the fun, students experienced creativity, team building, sportsmanship--and a new appreciation for the wonders of math. 
A teacher in Ventura, California is showing her sixth- and seventh-grade resource students a way into math through the connections between different number systems, an approach call "ethno-mathematics" by the university professor working with the school. Students are learning about the Mayan culture and using Mayan symbols to do math problems, an engaging approach that is giving context and meaning to the abstract world of numbers. 
There are tons of other examples:  The high school physics teachers who have their kids compete for best roller-coaster designs, based on their understanding of laws of motion.  The history teachers who have kids present themselves as their favorite historical characters, complete with research, costumes, and reasons.  The English teachers who have students research and present mock trials based on incidents or characters in their novels, acting out the parts of judge, jury, lawyers, defendants--in period costumes. 
These are all immersion projects that operate at the highest degrees of critical and creative thinking, combining numerous modalities and processes of learning--events that students will be talking about their whole lives because of the impact and range of the learnings.  Kind of makes our ongoing national argument about test scores seem petty and pointless, doesn't it? 
So, ready to create YOUR local IMAGINARIUM this year?  Think of it as teachers and parents collaborating (and having fun) while they discover new ways to bring MEANING to school . . . .
The Emperor Has No Clothes . . .Cover of Angel Park: A Novel
Go ahead, say it out loud, it's okay: "The Emperor has no clothes" and all of the would-be emperors of education go on talking about raising test scores as if that were the solution to something.  That's the point that Connie, the protagonist of Angel Park, finally reaches when she realizes that power politics have sucked the brains right out of our leaders and made cluelessness seem like a natural condition of the national mind.  Even she knows that the whole system has to be reimagined, from our most basic premise about the meaning of school to the way funds are used to the way value is determined.  But right now, as you'll read in Angel Park, it's all politics, all the time, dislocation, isolation, separation--and irony piling up on absurdity every day.  The disconnect that students, teachers, and parents feel is the old system, begging to be torn down and completely reconstructed.  Read the story if you haven't already, tell your friends, and, if you know Spike Lee, send him a copy of the book.  Nothing better than a movie to help us SEE and FEEL how to "do the right thing"!
As you may have gathered, I loved the movie "Avatar."  I am still in awe of the amount of work and creativity and sheer people power it took to produce this epic of animation.  But, most of all, I want one of those cool attack birds so I, too, can zoom unfettered around the floating islands, wind whistling past my ears.  I want to see that same spirit of excitement and imagination in our schools, as well, so all of our kids can fly high in their own imaginations.  No more confining "standardized tests" to knock us out of the sky.  It's a whole new decade in a whole new millennium and way past time to imagine a whole new vision for "school."  Pass it on.
(To make it easy, you can click the link below to Forward this ezine to your friends).   
With best wishes,
Patricia Kokinos : A New Vision for Education