Ignite Learning And Fail The Future

Neil Bush’s new work was featured – fairly critically – in a NYT article the other day (5-30-07). A highlight of the article was that one of the Bush boys was actually diagnosed as dyslexic when he was in school!

Neil is head of a company which produces educational videos – and sells them to every school they can. The article is quite critical of this endeavor. For me it raises lots of questions about the times we’re in, as well. Maybe especially in education: and, or, but…

“The (advertising)clips emanate from a purple plastic box, known as a COW, for Curriculum on Wheels. They are the brainchild of Neil Bush, brother of the president, who is president of Ignite! Learning. The company has sold its science and social studies curriculums, aimed mostly at middle school grades, to 2,300 of the nation’s 85,000 public schools, and is seeking to expand its business to China, Japan, South Korea and the Middle East.”

The article wonders if these videos play to the No Child Left Behind federal attempt to control curriculum and learning – special favors for the Bushies. And it questions whether these videos are an active assault on textbooks – videos are more “exciting,” get and hold the kids’ attention, and also on teaching and the teachers’ place in the world of education.

I’m very sympathetic with this particular critique – about which families are in power, and how that plays into control and money over practically everything. But I have some wonderments about where we are in the world, including PowerPoint which has taken over much of higher education “teaching”, and the current directions of and for education.

It’s been just two days since I got a book from the central library at the U. of Minnesota where I teach. It’s between teaching times, so there aren’t all that many students around, but – beyond the computer lab on the main floor which was full of students, the place was essentially empty except for me and some staff. This was also pretty much the case during the semester, but it re-called my attention to the fact that the world – including, perhaps particularly education, has been shifting rapidly, and a great deal.

James Gladman, Instructional Device, 1998, Fiberglass lit from within, 6 ft tall

My first wonder is if there are any “people” in classrooms, or in the worlds of learners. Most of the students, these days ( I think – at all levels) are being geared toward performance, toward getting through, toward getting credentials – and getting out into the real world where they can “succeed” and earn more/lots-of money than if they dropped-out (and the ethnicity of the drop-outs remains a screaming scam!). Education: interesting, fun, toward…?

Entertainment, show-biz: most “live persons” (call them “teachers”) are not all that attractive in current kids’ esthetics, at least much of the time. Much of teaching is about classroom and behavioral “politics” – and this seems to be much of the “training” of persons who teach, these days (at all levels?). What appeals to kids? As Neil Bush – if his videos “sell” – they at least explore what appeals to those who buy them, and likely to kids. Marketing is…all…there is?

“Fifth-grade teacher, Merilee Grubb, had a handful of students who seemed distracted, chatting with friends and ignoring her. But when Ms. Grubb clicked on the videos, the children quieted down and watched almost automatically, with some singing along.”

Here is the curriculum – the syllabus – get to class, everyday, on time, do what you’re told…and you’ll succeed: at least not get left too far behind.

My second wonder is about reading: I asked all of my students this year (100+ in various classes): who reads a newspaper? Only two responded with a “yes.” How many, how often ? – I didn’t think to ask. How many get news from the internet – sometimes, frequently? I’ll ask next Fall.

On My Space: practically all students. Plugged-in with IPods: practically all students. Cell Phones: most are in conversation with friends, with families – the din after each class is almost breathtaking. College students no longer actually “leave” home, except in a geographic sense. Almost every person I work-out near, on stationary machines in the gym, is plugged-in: it “fills-in” the time, without which they mostly don’t work out. Where are our “heads?” Why do we need so much “diversion?”

Third wonder: about the rising height of sensory stimulation in school – but also in the world. At any movie (some of us still go, occasionally), the noise levels have risen a great deal, especially during the previews, but also generally. The colors are “stronger,” the speed of the action is “stronger,” perhaps more extreme is pretty accurate. The speed of the actors’ moves (for older me, anyway) is almost breathtaking.

Bush’s company: “Ignite! Learning” – no mere metaphor.

Last, for now, the “characters” portrayed in videos are mostly “robots” – made-up or created figures: “a roly-poly disc jockey…” – To repeat and underscore the metaphor: “fifth-grade teacher, Merilee Grubb, had a handful of students who seemed distracted, chatting with friends and ignoring her. But when Ms. Grubb clicked on the videos, the children quieted down and watched almost automatically, with some singing along.” Real people: the teachers? Where are the students’…heads, in their own lives?

Fourth wonder: celebrity.

The rich, the famous, the celebrated, the noisy, the beautiful, glamorous: that’s who we love to see. But who do we love to “be?” I think, mostly following Kierkegaard’s “The Present Age,” that our minds and being have become “bureaucratized.” We seem to think, somehow, that the way the world seems to be – in our experience – is the way the world “is and ought to be.”

Our own involvement – kids, and most all of us – in the world, is somewhat remote. Get past the “Gilded Age” we’re in (we did a century ago)? – not going to happen, I’ve been told lots of times. The war? – what war? Or, who really cares? Money: as long as my investments are doing O.K.! Poverty, immigration? The bad guys are the terrorists? Interrogation, torture, get rid of them, and everything’ll be…O.K. The major problem of the practical world is the lack of good television programs!

Solutions: frame the issues prop’aly! Democracy? The commons or the common good? Bah! Liberty is where I’m at. Democracy? – we’re the greatest country in the world: everyone wants to come here. (Ironically, I think there is some irony left in the world: yesterday’s announcement that almost all our vitamins are made in China, has attacked my calamity and personalized the world beyond any-think I had imagined! – whew!)

So: “Ignite! Learning.” Neil Bush seems to have figured out how much of the world works, and seems to be selling pretty well. What better proof of his wisdom, cleverness, understanding of the world as it is, could there be? Should there be?

Bad politics? Inside connections? That’s how the world works! After all…above all.

Education, the future? As a teacher, I try to remind myself most days, that I have the potential power to “inspire” the future – of my students. My wonders are mostly about whether “Ignite! Learning” even includes the active possibility of a future. Or whether these technologies are mostly “fill.” And we remain pretty “distant” from ourselves, today, and all our tomorrows…even as we live longer and longer.