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Microsoft-designed school opens in PA

Ohanian Comment: Philadelphia taxpayers paid $63 million for a school designed by Bill Gates & Company, a school where kids don't have books and the school itself has no library. $63 million and no library. And what DO Egyptian Burial Practices have to do with language arts standards? Read on. And just watch media folk fall all over themselves in fawning adoration. What they're adoring, clearly, is big money and corporate power. They couldn't possibly be admiring curriculum innovation. Well, come to think of it, the curriculum is nutty, and I suppose innovation is all in the eye of the beholder.

Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer at Microsoft says this school is designed to train students to "compete globally."

Muncie also says that "mental acuity is especially critical to Microsoft." Indeed. Visit Microsoft's first School of the Future in Philadelphia and you will be directed to Microsoft Lesson plans.

You will also be directed to Tools for Teachers, which contains "How To Articles." Enter the criteria of children ages 5-11 and Language Arts and you will get:

Create Crawling Credits in PowerPoint
Summary: Make a time line, a list of credits, or other lists come to life in a PowerPoint presentation by having them crawl or scroll from the bottom of the screen off the top of the slide.

Here's a geography lesson: Globalization Comes to the Table
Required Software: Microsoft Internet Explorer 5/5.5; Microsoft Encarta� Online Encyclopedia; Microsoft Word version 2002; Microsoft PowerPoint� version 2002, the Office XP presentation solution; Microsoft FrontPage� version 2002, the Microsoft Office Web site creation and management solution

  • To develop a more nuanced understanding of global economic trends

  • To strengthen research and analysis skills

  • To debate controversial topics with the goal of reaching common ground

  • To use technology to explore complex issues

  • Prerequisite Skills:
  • Familiarity with Microsoft Word and Microsoft PowerPoint

  • Introduction to Microsoft FrontPage

  • Ability to conduct Internet research using Internet Explorer

  • Ah, the wonders of technology. Anyone who thinks teaching students to use PowerPoint is an appropriate use of instructional time should read Edward R. Tufte's essay The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within. Tufte is a one-man crusade against PowerPoint and has created wonderful, thought-provoking materials.

    Slideware helps speakers to outline their talks, to retrieve and show diverse visual materials, and to communicate slides in talks, printed reports, and on the Internet. And also to replace serious analysis with chartjunk, overproduced layouts, cheerleader logotypes and branding, and corny clipart. That is, PowerPointPhluff.

    When this is translated to training kids to use PowerPoint in school work, students worry more about finding pictures for their slides than about what they're saying. Tufte calls this "Conspicuous decoration and Phluff."

    Even more disturbing, PowerPoint "teaches a deeply hierarchical single-path structure as the model for organizing every type of content"; it requires breaking up narrative into minimal fragments. It trains the user to focus on format not content.

    Sounds like the mind set for test prep.

    Tufte adds that PowerPoint promotes "an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch."

    Tufte also cites PowerPoint guidelines issued by the Harvard School of Public Health, referring to the organization's "6 lines of 6 words" rule, saying, "This must be the Haiku Rule for formatting scientific lectures."

    What should be of special concern to teachers is the that the popular PowerPoint templates weaken verbal and spatial reasoning. Children don't learn to struggle through the process of organizing their thoughts: it's all done for them in a format suitable to the corporate culture.

    For your amusement and horror, Peter Norvig has prepared a PowerPoint presentation of The Gettsyburg Address.

    I can't even start to cope right now with the Gates notion that a school needs no library, no books. Ah well, with Encarta and the Internet who needs research materials? And Bill Gates is probably not the kind of guy who worries about a place with plenty of books for sustained silent reading. Such a stunted vision of education shows us that once again poor urban kids are being shafted by corporate America.

    Ah, never mind, students have digital lockers and teachers have smart boards. All's well with the world.

    Oh, by the way, Smart Board also provides lesson plans. Since the School of the Future is now housing 9th graders, I chose Language Arts lessons for Grade 9. Three came up:
  • Ancient Egyptian Burials: Students identify the correct definitions and spellings for words associated with ancient Egypt and review an interactive website that teaches how to pronounce ancient Egyptian words.

  • Ancient Egyptian Vocabulary: Students identify the correct definitions and spellings for words associated with ancient Egypt and review an interactive website that teaches how to pronounce ancient Egyptian words.

  • Concrete or Abstract Nouns: Review the definition for abstract and concrete nouns, and sort them.

  • This Smart Board lesson site has a nifty interactive device wherein the viewer can select the state standard that applies to the lesson. Curious as to what standard the state of Alabama had set with relation to Ancient Egyptian Burials, I looked. Here's what comes up:

    Grade 9 - Language Arts
    STANDARD AL.1. Ninth-graders are moving from an environment that is exploratory in nature to one that requires them to approximate more closely adult behaviors and perspectives. They require assistance in making this adjustment that includes developing a more precise vocabulary for effective speaking and writing.
    OBJECTIVE 1.32.c. Students will demonstrate understanding of language terms and ability to apply the concepts to writing: Grammar, usage, and spelling (Singular, plural, and possessive noun forms, Singular and plural verb forms, Subject-verb agreement, Pronoun-antecedent agreement, Avoidance of double negatives, fragments, run-ons, on-and-ons, comma splices, and homonym confusion, Appropriate subordination, Placement of modifiers, Pronoun case, number, and gender, Tense, Parallel structure).

    OK, moving right along: Concrete and Abstract nouns. If I described what comes up at the Smart Board site, I don't think you'd believe me. So take a look.

    This is recommended for the 9th grade curriculum at the School of the Future. By the way, Smart Board also offers International Activites to go along with their goofy lesson topics.

    By Deborah Yao

    PHILADELPHIA --Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has famously called high schools "obsolete" and warned about their effect on U.S. competitiveness. Now, his company has a chance to prove that it can help fix the woes of public education.

    After three years of planning, the Microsoft Corp.-designed "School of the Future" opened its doors Thursday, a gleaming white modern facility looking out of place amid rows of ramshackle homes in a working-class West Philadelphia neighborhood.

    The school is being touted as unlike any in the world, with not only a high-tech building -- students have digital lockers and teachers use interactive "smart boards" -- but also a learning process modeled on Microsoft's management techniques.

    "Philadelphia came to us ... and asked us to design a school," said Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer of Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft. "We're going to take our best shot."

    The company didn't pay the $63 million cost -- that was borne by the Philadelphia School District -- but shared its personnel and management skills. About 170 teens, nearly all black and mainly low-income, were chosen by lottery to make up the freshman class. The school eventually plans to enroll up to 750 students.

    Sabria Johnson, a 14-year-old from West Philadelphia, said she is excited to be attending the school.

    "We're getting a chance to do something new," said the freshman, who hopes one day to go to Harvard or to the London College of Fashion. "We don't get a lot of opportunities like the suburban kids."

    Mundie said companies have long been concerned that schools aren't churning out graduates with the skills and know-how that businesses require in employees to compete globally -- and mental acuity is especially critical to Microsoft.

    "Our raw material is smart people," he said.

    School district CEO Paul Vallas said he was impressed by more than just the company's technology.

    "I was also taken by their culture," Vallas said. "They created a culture within which ideas can be generated and acted upon."

    At the 162,000-square-foot high school, which sits on nearly eight acres, the day starts at 9:15 a.m. and ends at 4:19 p.m., simulating the typical work day. Officials said studies show students do better when they start later in the day.

    Students -- who are called "learners" -- use smart cards to register attendance, open their digital lockers and track calories they consume. They carry laptops, not books, and the entire campus has wireless Internet access.

    Teachers, or "educators," rather than using blackboards, have interactive "smart boards" that allow teachers to zoom in and out, write or draw, and even link to the Internet.

    There's no library, but an "interactive learning center" where information is all digital and a "multimedia specialist" will help out students.

    Instead of a cafeteria, there's a food court with restaurant-style seating. The performance center -- where two sections rotate close to create a smaller space -- replaces the typical auditorium.

    "This is completely different from any Philadelphia school I've ever seen," said Tramelle Hicks, 39, of West Philadelphia, whose 15-year-old daughter Kierra is going to the school. She said she believes her daughter would benefit from learning strategic and organizational skills from Microsoft.

    The high school will use an education competency wheel, patterned after a set of desirable traits Microsoft encourages among its employees. Officials, teachers and students are to be trained in dozens of skills, including organizing and planning, negotiating, dealing with ambiguity and managing relationships.

    Students have scheduled appointments with teachers, typed into their online calendars, instead of being limited to structured times for classes. Their laptops carry software that assesses how quickly they're learning the lesson. If they get it, they'll dive deeper into the subject. If not, they get remedial help.

    Lessons will have more incorporation of current events to teach subjects. For instance, a question of whether Philadelphia is safe from the avian flu will teach students about geography, science and history.

    "Learning is not just going to school," said Shirley Grover, the school's energetic principal who came from the American School in Milan, Italy. "Learning is equal to life."

    In addition, students at the school must apply to college to get a diploma.

    This new approach to education has sparked the interest of Doug Lynch, vice dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

    "Two things are quite intriguing -- the willingness of the district and Microsoft to try something different," Lynch said. He cautioned, however, that while trying new methods may be valuable "we have to be careful because you're messing with kids' lives."

    — Deborah Yao, Associated Press
    Boston Globe




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