Fourth graders stuck with print version of inaccurate history

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Posted on 20th October 2010 by Judy Breck in Findability | Schools we now have

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The Washington Post reports today that:

A textbook distributed to Virginia fourth-graders says that thousands of African Americans fought for the South during the Civil War — a claim rejected by most historians but often made by groups seeking to play down slavery’s role as a cause of the conflict.

The WP article goes on to discuss the controversy the textbook’s questionable “facts” about black soldiers in the Civil War. As is a widespread habit, the report has no hesitancy to assign fault for the error — at least by indirect implication — on the internet, as the reader is told:

The author, Joy Masoff, who is not a trained historian but has written several books, said she found the information about black Confederate soldiers primarily through Internet research, which turned up work by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Two ways online resources would solve and prevent the fourth graders being stuck with inaccurate history in the expensive textbook issued to them by their school.

First, if young Virginians using an online textbook it could be corrected quickly and cheaply.

Second, online resources would present not just the view of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. In this instance, as in most in my view, the Wikipedians have done a far better job than the textbook publisher of setting out the facts:

African Americans in the Confederate Army

“Nearly 40% of the Confederacy’s population were unfree. the work required to sustain the same society during war naturally fell disproportionately on black shoulders as well. By drawing so many white men into the army, indeed, the war multiplied the importance of the black work force.”[20] Even Georgia’s Governor Joseph E. Brown noted that “the country and the army are mainly dependent upon slave labor for support.”[21] Slave labor was used in a wide variety of support roles, from infrastructure and mining, to teamster and medical roles such as hospital attendants and nurses.[22]

The idea of arming slaves for use as soldiers was speculated on from the onset of the war, but not seriously considered by Davis or others in his administration.[23] Though an acrimonious and controversial debate was raised by a letter from Patrick Cleburne[24] urging the Confederacy to raise black soldiers by offering emancipation, it wouldn’t be until Robert E. Lee wrote the Confederate Congress urging them that the idea would take serious traction. On March 13, 1865, the Confederate Congress passed General Order 14, and President Davis signed the order into law. The order was issued March 23, but only a few African American companies were raised. Two companies were armed and drilled in the streets of Richmond, Virginia, shortly before the besieged southern capital fell. Several African American soldiers, free and enslaved, served with the Confederate Army during the war, but the Confederate Government failed to recognize their contributions until this late time.

Now, put the standards in the kids’ hands

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Posted on 12th March 2010 by Judy Breck in Mobiles | Schools we now have

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The Common Core State Standards were “released” this week, but they are bundled inside of pdfs — not readable online. Click the image at the right to start digging to download them to your computer.

The pdfs are but a minor obstacle between what the standards contain and the kids who are supposed to learn the stuff. State boards will debate the content, curriculum and textbook writers will be paid to include them in upcoming publications, printers and truckers will be paid to manufacture and deliver the paper versions, teachers will be trained to teach the content of the standards, kids will sit through lessons in which their age and grade matches what is taught, tests will be given and taken.

In the meantime, the content of the standards should be put openly and unbundled online. The list in the illustration at the top of this post is from the pdf “Appendix B: Illustrative Texts” downloadable from the Core Standards page. That 195-page pdf should be put online in searchable form today. Every work of literature it lists should be immediately made openly free to be read on mobile devices: laptops, smartphones, and cellphones with internet browsers. The costs of compensating copyright holders would be miniscule compared to printing and delivering hardcopies of these works to America’s school children.

The material for all of the Core Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies and Science should also be made openly available for handschooling.

Why not, then, an open race to the top competition? Perhaps Amazon would award free book downloads to students passing quizzes Amazon would provide for kid readers to take to show they had read standards works. Multiple competitions could be held, with trophies and prizes for winning readers. With that sort of incentive, by the time the standard works get assigned to your kids in class, they can tell the teacher: “I read that.”

You may be thinking that we must be sensitive to kids in failing schools who might not go online to read good books or learn math or history. Yet, what real expectation is there that the announced standards will penetrate to their dysfunctional school experience and cause them to read The Odyssey, The Grapes of Wrath, and the other works in the standards. When these works — plus the math, history, and science — are put into the mobile device in their hand, we will see what they do.

What was good for Grandma is obsolete: textbooks

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Posted on 11th March 2010 by Judy Breck in Next | Schools we now have

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Back when my grandmother (front, 2nd from right) was a student in this grammar school (ca. 1890) in Independence, Missouri, the textbooks the children used were precious troves of knowledge. Grandma would have been hard put to learn more than was found in her history textbook about, for example, the Battle at Lexington and Concord, because the opening West where she lived had limited academic and reference sources. Today students can find bountiful superb materials on the subject, like this, and this, and this. Today, the global knowledge commons of the internet is a far superior source for subject matter than the textbook.

The sad fact is that textbook which delivered knowledge to Grandma has become a severe limitation on what a student now can or needs to learn. The student only has to pass a test on what is in the textbook to ace her class. All the teacher has to do is manage it so most of his students pass a test on what is in the textbook. Long tail learning — following interest and curiosity deeply into the events at Lexington and Concord, for example — is not required.

Textbooks — which have in fact become mostly lesson plans and curriculum guides — need to be put openly online where students can link out from their topics into more comprehensive and bias-balancing global knowledge commons. (Today’s New York Times has an update on the battle for bias in textbook-influential Texas.)

Instead of using the online commons, this is what is happening to the textbooks students are assigned, as reported recently by FoxNews:

Dr. Frank Wang, one-time president of Saxon Publishing, says the process of producing a textbook has changed a great deal over the years. Historians and authors are increasingly being replaced by a collage of freelance writers, hoping to quickly churn out a project that will match up with curriculum standards. “The process has evolved from art to engineering,” Wang says. He adds that it’s become more of an “assembly line” system, rather than a carefully crafted “work of art.”

Gilbert T. Sewall, Director of the American Textbook Council, believes textbooks that end up in classrooms around the country have been steadily getting worse. “There’s no doubt that identity politics have contributed to the decline of textbook quality over the last twenty years,” says Sewall. He warns that vocal groups from gender activists to nutritionists have “demanded” their way into curriculum, simply by being the most vocal. Sewall says an editor at a top publishing company told him years ago that the squeaky wheel gets the attention and, “What was true then is even more true today.” In Sewall’s estimation what he calls “the Christian right” has been most persuasive in recent battles in Texas.

Textbook arguments are moot because the online commons delivers superior knowledge

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Posted on 14th February 2010 by Judy Breck in Findability | Schools we now have

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The major article in today’s New York Times Magazine is about how Texas dictates what students study in America’s public schools.

The state’s $22 billion education fund is among the largest educational endowments in the country. Texas uses some of that money to buy or distribute a staggering 48 million textbooks annually — which rather strongly inclines educational publishers to tailor their products to fit the standards dictated by the Lone Star State. California is the largest textbook market, but besides being bankrupt, it tends to be so specific about what kinds of information its students should learn that few other states follow its lead. . . . while technology is changing things, textbooks — printed or online — are still the backbone of education.

The Magazine article is themed around whether or not textbooks should teach that the Founders of the American Republic were Christians. Images of Jesus are Photoshopped into famous paintings. He is placed in the boat as George Washington crosses the Delaware and hovers above the Signers of the Declaration of Independence.

The article pretty much assumes — as most people still do — that what gets printed in textbooks is what our kids will be taught and learn. The question raised here is whether Jesus is in or out of the boat and Independence Hall. But as we move into the second decade of the 21st century, textbook substance has long since lost its rigor. A quick browse of the internet could inform as to what the Founders thought about faith, unaffected by what gets approved in Texas.

There is nothing new about the inadequacy and corruption of textbooks. When I taught World History in El Paso, Texas in 1961, I forbid my students to use the textbook issued to them because it was not history. It was chapters on world social issues not in chronological order. I provided a world timeline and lessons from Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization. The year I taught, a handsome textbook salesman came to town and wined and dined select, influential math teachers (all women) to seek their vote to accept his company’s textbooks for state approval. I heard gossip from ladies in El Paso math circles. Five years later, when I was working in Austin in a political campaign, I got to know a member of the Education Commission. I asked him if textbook approval was done on a “casting couch” and he said, “sure, that plays a big part.”

The section on findability in this website is devoted to describing the emergence of knowledge as it intertwingles in the online commons. There the crowd, not the couch or the zealot, determines quality and truth. The best knowledge is selected by network laws themselves. Mobiles will put this knowledge in the hands of students. As the Times article says, “technology is changing things.” Textbook arguments — and the mishmash of textbook selection history — are now moot because the online commons delivers superior knowledge.

A printed textbook costs A MILLION TIMES MORE than its eBook

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Posted on 2nd February 2010 by Judy Breck in Mobiles

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Publishers of a printed textbook in your student’s backpack are getting A MILLION TIMES MORE MONEY for that book than a digital publisher would for delivering the same content to your student’s mobile. This fact is clear from an analysis of the MacMillan vs. Amazon dust-up this week. Charlie Martin writes: “This weekend kerfuffle is really the death throws of a business model.” He says bet on Amazon. His article includes this big picture analysis of what is happening to print — of which textbook publishers are a major component:


The key is the mainstream publishers’ worry that e-books will cannibalize the sales of physical books. Mainstream book publishers, along with mainstream music publishers and the legacy media newspapers, are actually primarily manufacturers. The costs of the content, in royalties to the authors, are only about 10 percent of the cover price of the book, and less than that for the record. It’s the costs of setting type or mastering, printing the books or pressing the disks, shipping, cataloging, and selling them that dominates the costs of publishing.
Now, along come e-books and readers, like the Kindle and the iPad. Suddenly the whole business of publishing has changed. You can sell a physical book or an e-book — but each copy of the e-book costs literally one one-millionth as much to produce.

Nexus Ninjas unbox handschoolable mobile

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Posted on 22nd January 2010 by Judy Breck in Mobiles

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This awesome ad is actually for a device that can deliver knowledge — the kind of stuff like reading, writing, arithmetic, history, literature, and science that used to reach students through analog devices like libraries and textbooks. Like the most highly skilled Ninjas, mobile wireless connectivity cuts through all the old time obstacles to put what kids want to learn directly into their hands.