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Once upon a time, actually last month, I was asked to speak to a group of university students from the University of the Philippines, Manila, on the topic of Digital Storytelling. The whole talk took place from my home in Southern California via the Net. Digital Storytelling is really no different than any other storytelling except you are using digital tools to compose and create the story. But, storytelling in itself, is a powerful tool that most teachers don’t take advantage of.
It is basically assumed that storytelling is for small children, or for entertainment like movies or plays. It doesn’t belong in an academic classroom. But I argue it does. Back in the 1980’s, Barron Publishing printed a series of math story books. The first was called, “Algebra The Easy Way.” Before “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings”, the land of Carmorra existed with its carefree and happy inhabitants. But like any good story, an evil presence appeared to challenge the King and his wizard on solving a problem or losing the kingdom. Of course, math was the answer, and the story moves through a normal series of modern math chapters explaining in a story format how they could answer the Gremlin with math. In the end–the Gremlin lost. However, he returns in the book of Geometry, Trigonometry, and Calculus. The key was students were completing a journey, an adventure, and learning math along the way. What could be more fun!
I was introduced into math storytelling back in the mid-1970’s at Aviation High School in Manhattan Beach, California. Originally hired as a math tutor, I was introduced to one of the math teachers whose subject was, “Alice in Wonderland.” I was given a copy of the book to read and study. On one page was the story of Alice, and on the opposite page detailed the mathematics that were hidden in the story. I was so intrigued in how Lewis Carroll, a mathematician himself, created a visual representation of what was really quite a set of complicated mathematics concepts.
You have to understand that the mathematics in the late 19th century was quite turbulent. The discoveries of non-Euclidean geometries, development of abstract symbolic algebra, and imaginary numbers were all the rage in those cigar and pipe smoked filled rooms as mathematicians continued to argue for some of kind of normalcy away from the madness at hand. Okay, you’re getting ahead of me.
The “Advice from a caterpillar” to Alice creates some interesting results as she tries to figure the correct proportions and positions of the mushroom, where the caterpillar sits on, which will bring her growth and proportions back to normal. In fact, even the “Hooka” that the caterpillar smokes is a symbol of Arabic origin, like “algebra,” which meant al jeer e al makable, or “restoration and reduction.” Al-jrbr in itself a medical Arabic term meaning may “Allah guide me through the unknown,” a medical technique used to restore broken bones. Of course, I am quite aware that during a test students will often pray to be guided through their unknown problems too!
Harry Potter was told to board his train at track 9 3/4. Alice deals with the Mad Hatter’s hat size of 10/6. Actually, 10/6 was not the hat size but the cost for the hat. It stood for ten shillings and sixpence, which interesting enough in late 19th Century England was equal to £300.96 pounds. You would have to be quite mad to pay that amount for a hat. The symbols and math continue to move along throughout the whole story.
Could physics problems be explained easier with a story? How about calculus? I believe, if you really know your subject well, you can tell it in a visual story. Consider it the next time you have a student to tutor, or a difficult concept you must present the class. If you have told a story would you consider sharing it with me?
This past Sunday, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune’s front page focused on the New and Improved Core Curriculum story titled, “Raising the bar for education.” The article centers on the release of some sketchy details to the new Core Curriculum. I say some sketchy details because they are all still being worked out as we speak. This is equivalent to preparing a full four course dinner, setting the table, and then sending out the guest invitations. A year from now 44 other states are also planning to launch the Core Curriculum. The goal, the article continues, “is to create new benchmarks for mathematics and sciences”, and in the end, they say, “to better prepare students for college and careers.” Of course, the real underlining objective is to increase low achieving test scores and public opinion.
The story continues that in the new program educators will no longer be at the front of the room lecturing, but interacting with their students. So, how is this to be done you ask? By providing the top schools, students and teachers with iPad technology (600,000 iPads). I guess walking around the classroom hasn’t been thought of yet. The article reports that “The project (that is the iPad purchase) penciled out around $450 million dollars.” Good idea to use low tech to explain high tech pricing. Okay, so we know what the better schools are getting, but what about the poorer schools. Thanks to a $1.25 billion dollar infusion from the State of California, these schools will be able to order tablets, desktops, and other technology.
This whole scenario is being played out across the board in both public and private schools throughout the State of California. I recently interviewed for a position at a private school in Los Angeles where the position was to train both teachers and students on their new iPads and Mac Pro laptops. Buying the technology first and then figuring out how it will be used has been going on for a long time. I admire Apple’s move into the educational world back in the 1980’s. It was a shrewd and intelligent undertaking to line up their product into education. But, lest we forget, the Apple Corporation is not in business to educate, they are in business to make one thing, — larger profits.
For the past twenty years, the United States has invested billions of dollars to upgrade technology infrastructures, hardware, and software programs in its school systems. All of this with the promise that the updated technology would motivate, stimulate student interest, increase learning, and in the end improve student test scores. During this same twenty year period, the Programme for Student Assessment (PISA) has been monitoring 52 countries and their educational programs especially in reading, mathematics, and science. From 2001 to 2012 the United States has consecutively placed AVERAGE in reading, and BELOW AVERAGE in the maths and sciences. So, if technology hasn’t increased motivation, stimulation, and increased test scores in the past 20 years, why do the politicians and educators think putting more money into technology will do the job?
But soon I’m interrupted. The article reports, “The technology will help students on the new California state standardized tests, which will be administered online and will reply on in-depth rather than multiple questions.” So, students will learn how to take state tests by taking similar tests in the classroom. “Another brick in the wall.” That means teachers, who will now be called “facilitators” will be guiding students on how to do the test online. Still teaching to the test! The article ends with “the promise that the funds given by the state will cover the cost for Apple to train teachers on their new technologies.” Well, after all, Apple wants their share of the financial pie.
What will the future report? In the end, the politicians will get their votes, the technology companies will report high earnings for their stockholders, and the educational report will remain mediocre. The technology panacea has already had 20 years to prove itself, it’s time that we put the teacher back in the classroom to fix what the politicians and computer companies have screwed up. It’s time that technology take its proper position as a supporting actor, and develop the real core of our future–our students, who should be the apples of our eyes.
Reference: San Gabriel Valley Tribune. (2013). retrieved from SGVTribune.com