Order in Chaos

My dad was a man who appreciated hobbies. He wasn???t the kind to collect stuff, but rather he was a man of construction. He knew what he could do with his hands. It seems that you never appreciate things until after it???s gone, and this knack that dad had I am only beginning to understand in the years since his passing.
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Dad grew up as a logger. Timber was his trade, but in his late twenties, he took a job in the booming mining industry in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He would work at the Empire Mine excavating iron ore from what would become the world???s largest open iron ore pit. By the end of his career, he became the General Foreman of Pit Operations, overseeing everything that would come in and go out of this hole in the ground that measured two miles long, a mile wide, and a mile deep (a roughly 7.7 billion cubic meter hole – See it here).??
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Of the many things he was good at, I???ve come to recognize that masonry may have been his favorite craft. I believe that he recognized that masonry was more than a trade but rather an art. Our home began as a rather modest pre-manufactured log home, but grew with the family (my parents would have 8 children). At the front of the house, dad built a four-foot stone facade that served simply for aesthetics. This low wall was comprised of huge flat stones carefully selected to fit like puzzle pieces and held together with only enough mortar to keep them in place. For me, it was largely under-appreciated and taken for granted. His masonry work can be seen all over the small rural community in which I grew up; the most recent of which is the stone chimney in my brother’s house.
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In 1963, Bernard K. Forscher had a letter published in Science, titled ???Chaos in the Brickyard???. In this letter, Forscher told a story about the relationship between builders and brickmaking and the consequences of building bricks without concern for the edifice. His story describes how ???once upon a time??? builders would design and build edifices using bricks they themselves made in order to specifically meet the needs of the edifice. In this story the builders were analogous to scientists, the bricks facts, and the edifices laws or explanations. The story falls apart when Forscher describes how, in the interest of efficiency and cost-effectiveness, the making of bricks was a task assigned to someone who could specialize in that area (junior scientists). Serving their own interests, the brickmakers created such a plethora of bricks of every different shape, size, color, and purpose, that the builders would have the flexibility to pick and choose from the multitude, rather than special-order kinds of brick.
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As a result, the story concludes:
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???Unfortunately, the builders were almost destroyed. It became difficult to find the proper bricks for a task because one had to hunt among so many. It became difficult to find a suitable plot for construction of an edifice because the ground was covered with loose bricks. It became difficult to complete a useful edifice because, as soon as the foundations were discernible, they were buried under an avalanche of random bricks. And, saddest of all, sometimes no effort was made even to maintain the distinction between a pile of bricks and a true edifice.???
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It is understandable how this applies to science — medical research in particular — and the pitfalls of losing sight of what is important in the work of constructing ???edifices???. However, I see a very contemporary relevance to a rather unrelated aspect of our society and culture.??
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Education in the 21st century is plagued with a barrage of challenges, each with it???s own army of activists working to affect change. ??When we consider the social, cultural, and ethical implications of an excessively dynamic technological surge, we must begin to see the need to carefully and intentionally include proper technology tools in our instruction.??
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A problem that hampers the push to more effectively integrate the right technology tools is that there seems to be a large contingency of educators interested in the tools. Conferences and conventions are bringing unneeded attention to the multitude of technologies that may or may have no or limited affordances on student learning and cognition. Topics and sessions like ???Cool Tools for School!??? and the ???Top 20 Web 2.0 Tools for the Classroom??? are all about the glamour of 21st century education.??
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With the field of educational technologies (and tools not intended for technology working their way into the field) doubling at such an alarming rate, teachers in the classroom are incapacitated by an inability to integrate technologies already out-of-date. Similarly, schools are trying to meet the social demands of student technology use by employing some technologies and outright banning some. This uninformed policy-making is costly in both budget and in time lost, meaning that when student technology use has been limited so has the education that accompanies it – forever. It is no wonder why a large percentage of teachers in our schools are resistant to technology integration.
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It seems like the rush to create – and the fool-hardy consumption of – technologies intended for education has trained us to respond too quickly to what is best for education. It pays to tread carefully and to intentionally explore what works best, not for someone over there, but for you and your students.
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Let???s bring these analogies full-circle. I remember when I was young, my dad and I went for a ride out to a portion of our property where he had excavated a portion of a field to expose the bedrock below the surface. In my dad???s craft of stone-masonry, he never simply put stones into a wall. Stones were laid a few at a time, having been carefully selected for that spot in the wall. The stone itself had properties, however, when taken into the context of the wall was part of a greater whole, and dad was sensitive to this perspective an artist knows the whole mural even as she works on a small area. In that particular visit to the ???quarry???, he would select only two.
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I see the value in that contemplation; the deliberate nature of his efforts, and the design of the whole from individual pieces. I see a very practical application of this methodical process in our integration of technologies into education. I also see the contagion of ???cool??? tools crippling this at every turn. So what???s the answer?
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Chris Lehmann, principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philidelphia, PA, wrote what he felt made a ???great teacher???. Written in 2003, this blog post still strikes me as stunningly grounded on what???s important in any age. Among the twelve elements he thought were critical (see them all here), I identified two that are increasingly needed, but increasingly left out of training and professional development:
#5 – A willingness to change
#7 – A willingness to reflect
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When taken in combination as a cycle, these are powerful elements that allow us as teachers to never be caught up in the hype of new tools, but to rather be mindful that there are things that can make instruction better, and after the employment of any aspect of a lesson/unit/or year, to reflect on how that could have been better and to seek that which may have been missing striving to make instruction better. Dan Maas recently tweeted (6/29/10) ???The killer app for 21st century learning is a good teacher???. Prescient.
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Take pride in being a ???builder???.
Posted in Blog, Uncategorized
One comment on “Order in Chaos
  1. Anne Bruce says:

    This post made me cry, and not just the part about dad, but the end as well; the pursuit of knowledge is never ending, and the ability to spread it effectively is unique and irreplaceable.

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