Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Dr. Rudy Crew's
"Only Connect: The Way to Save Our Schools"

Back in the Day with Rudy!

Changing Our Schools to Produce Kids Who Can Compete in the Global Economy


It is especially interesting to read this type of book when the author is someone you’ve worked with. Back in the day, when Dr. Rudy Crew was in charge of the New York City public schools and I was part of the district's central office staff, I observed him up close and rubbed elbows with him on occasion.

Dr. Crew is the genuine article, a dyed in the wool educator. He worked his way up through the ranks of the world of public schools, eventually becoming Superintendent of several of our nations largest and most challenged districts. He has left a trail of successes behind him and is an especially important role model for educational leaders at this point in time when more and more often non-educators, generally lawyers or managers from the world of corporate business, are entrusted with the futures of our young people.

Dilettantes beware! This book speaks with a level of authority that only this type of experience and commitment affords. Rudy is currently in charge of the Miami Dade school district (Florida), a lofty perch from which to reflect on the accumulated observations of a lifetime of deep involvement with the institution of Education.

In a sense, Only Connect represents Dr. Crew’s throwing down a number of crucial gauntlets. For those directly involved in, or deeply concerned with, the future of education these will resonate as defining challenges. Repeated throughout the book is the idea that what’s missing in our schools are the connections between what they offer students and what is actually worth doing in life. This is an idea that is easy to accept. After all, it is not much of a stretch to say that the trend we’ve been seeing in our schools for a good number of years now is to DISconnect everyone and everything from the real world as we get students to produce satisfactory test scores. We’ve come to pursue these symbolic results, which are disconnected from the actual processes of living and authentic learning, keeping subject areas disconnected from one another and from people, activities, aspirations and dreams that students can relate to.

The reader of Only Connect is presented with an astute mapping of those connections that must be established. As Dr. Crew frames it, if education is to be gotten right; students will have to connect to the human qualities that make for a “mature and conscious contributor to society”: Personal Integrity, Workplace Literacy, Civic Awareness, and Academic Proficiency – our classrooms to the qualities of: Caring, High Expectations, and Diverse approaches to learning – and our schools to 14 categories of stake holders without whom they can’t succeed; these include every type of organization from the Federal Government to the Service Community as well individuals of every stripe from parents and students to teachers and principals.

The map laid out is dotted with crucial stops along the way in establishing or repairing and strengthening these connections. These involve improved: physical school plants, instructional standards and frameworks, and funding. What Mr. Crew doesn’t seem to have identified yet is a vehicle by which the actual ground referred to by that map can be traveled by real boots on the ground filled by students and teachers.

The vehicle which will enable this, although he doesn’t see it yet, really has technology at the core of its engine. While the book does discuss technology a bit, the message is somewhat contradictory. It becomes clear that Dr. Crew uses technology personally to ‘connect’ to the world of information and things he cares passionately about when he makes statements like:

“Turn on your computer, log on to the Internet, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Here in the first decade of a new century with an economy based on information, in the flat world Thomas L. Friedman talks about, it’s become apparent that the old laws of supply and demand don’t apply to knowledge in the same way they do to oil or air conditions in the summer. Knowledge is not a finite resource, and scarcity economics don’t apply to it…”

Yet, in the same introductory chapter he also states

'Here’s what “connection” and “global” do not mean: They do not mean the Internet in every classroom. They do not mean laptops for every child.'

And he certainly is on the right track when he asserts

“In many communities the idea of the global classroom is a reflection of how much hardware and software your district has, when the real question is whether or not your kids experience contact with skill sets that will be demanded of them when they go out into the world. Focusing on computers alone is like spending all your time and money on buying shovels when your job is to build a skyscraper.”

But connecting schools and students to what is real will involve more than simple focus and purposefulness in the acquisition and use of classroom-based technology. It is not TECHNOLOGY, but the new set of thinking, learning, and communicating practices brought about by technology that will. And of course while these aren’t technology per se, they are inextricably intertwined with it in many ways. The new paradigm of education that will help create the curative connections Dr. Crew prescribes is simultaneously grounded in the ways technology is changing human intellectual activity AND in the ways human intellectual growth evolved so that it would need to and could develop those technologies.

Until a catchy new name comes along for this multi-dimensional new ground of being and learning, something like ‘SMART 2.0’or ‘Cogno Sapia’, we’ll simply acknowledge its existence and identify it as a new paradigm in which learning is as integrated a dimension of human existence as breathing and being. We see its emergence for instance in the way the new social networking resources connect learners in the act of identifying and accessing materials to be studied while those processes are in progress, in the way our young are connected to information bearing technologies during all waking hours, and in how the technology industry has learned to direct its developmental energies towards satisfying these emergent human ‘needs’ and encouraging their growth – Learning, Knowing, Living are not technology, but they are also no longer states of being that can happen without it. We have entered a period in which one can only connect when one is connected and that happens digitally!

Mark Gura