Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Want To Join Me?

I may not know much about the educational system, but I do know something innovative when I read it. Author NIck Wingfield with some merriment outlined a new program in Seattle that brings babies and moms into the elementary school classroom as "teachers" for a whole school year. Why pray tell do that? Seems it would be disruptive.

As it turns out, the Canadian non-profit group Roots of Empathy has shown that rather than being disruptive, babies in the classroom actually result in reduced bullying by exposing students to these "empathy babies." Plus, young students gain valuable insight into raising children in a loving and nurturing manner, something many of them do not experience at home. The program, which spans Canada, New Zealand, Australia and now America, has enlisted 2,000 baby and mom partners this year to show their stuff, including burping, feeding, spitting up, pooping and, of course, sleeping.

The students apparently take their new roles very seriously. Many have become parenting experts in the process and have been quick to give empathetic advice to their own parents:
"During a recent rough patch, Cari Giles, a mother of four in Paris, Ontario, got some surprising counseling from her son, Thomas, a third grader who attends an empathy class at his school. Ms. Giles was standing in her kitchen, flustered by the persistent crying of her 9-month-old son, Isaac, who is an empathy baby in Thomas's class. Thomas rubbed his mother's back gently and told her not to fret. 'It's OK, it doesn't mean you're a bad mom. Babies cry' " (WSJ, 2-5-08, A9.)
When interviewed, Thomas said that the class had given him a way to understand how both his brother and mother were feeling--of course, he said this like a typical third grader. Other students have approached pregnant moms to ask them not to drink at parties while some have admonished mother's with crying babies in public places not to shake the little tots. The number of students exposed in the participating countries to this new empathy curriculum was impressive: 150,000 students and 6,200 empathy babies. In the U.S. it will expand to 40 Seattle classrooms in 2009, and other U.S. school districts have expressed an interest.

The ones who have shown little interest were the empathy babies themselves. When interviewed, they have said little, except "Coo, coo." One mother remarked: "As long as he's eaten and is dry, he could care less." It would be interesting to follow this program over the lifetime of the students exposed to this enlightened educational technique. Hopefully, the Roots of Empathy organization will do just that. Some predict that in the future, children's exposure to empathy will be part of a core curriculum. With this program, it sounds like a few folks are already on to that innovative idea.

Another idea, although a little farther out on the spectrum of educational innovation, was the unveiling of another baby who coos, barks, shakes, cries and plays tug-of-war in response to outside stimuli. In this case, a robotic dinosaur named Pleo steals the heart of anyone unwary enough to buy him. OK, I can hear you say, so what's so special about a robotic dinosaur? He doesn't even fetch the paper. Well, even more amazingly, Pleo appears to evolve according to how he is treated. Listen to this description of the his gadgetry by his enamored owner:
"This baby dinosaur has reptile-like, rubbery skin enhanced by multiple sensors. Its back is decorated with green patterns, and its large eyes are a beautiful blue. Pleo's guts include 14 motors, 38 sensors and a microprocessor. Infrared detectors in Pleo's nose and mouth, and a color camera detects light, motion and objects to help it navigate" (WSJ, 2-6-08.)
But how does Pleo evolve? Leave that to the internal wizardry, which "learns" who is its owner, much like your computer "learns" who you are. But to all outside appearance, little Pleo grows through three phases: hatchling, infant and juvenile:
"As a hatchling, Pleo sniffed around a lot, unsure of its surroundings or how to use its legs and tail, before giving up and napping again. (Yes, Pleo snores.) The more I talked to and touched Pleo, the faster he adjusted out of the hatching phase, which is expected according to UGOBE [the manufacturer.]"
The techy owner went on to say that people wanted to play with the little dinosaur just for the fun of it, but were soon amazed when they realized it was responding to them. The proud "Mom" grew very fond of her frisky robot:
"I spoiled my Pleo with attention, which seemed to make him more social and friendly, But also a little bratty when he didn't get attention (he showed his frustration with loud moans.)"
Stroking Pleo made him purr softly; tickling him made him erupt in laughter; rubbing his chest while holding him made him fall asleep--indicated by heavy breathing. And all this for only $350! I predict this toy could be the next rage come Christmas. What's more, Pleo might emerge as a boon in the classroom if a school district spurns the empathy baby movement. Innovative teachers could purchase a Pleo and use it in much the same way. A couple of downsides still remain, but the manufacturer is quickly righting each one so that Pleo's and other responsive robotics start filling needs we didn't even know we had.

If an enlightened innovator had a really good educational idea like that, they could take it to a philanthropic organizations for funding, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has been highlighted in this blog. Other philanthropics provide funding for education, including one started by the CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings. In an interview with him in the WSJ February 8/9, 2008 issue, Jason Riley covered the usual palaver about corporate structure, etc. But I was surprised to find that Mr. Hastings had once been a Peace Corp math teacher in Africa and had a special place in his entrepreneurial heart for innovations in education, particularly the founding of charter schools. He is quoted as saying:
"K - 12 is the last big government monopoly in America and charter schools are about breaking up the public monopoly, with all its rules and bureaucracy. Charter schools give teachers a way to form their own public schools, more freedom to express their craft, and more schools voluntary for students. No one is assigned. This sets up a very healthy model that provides for innovation because the innovators, the innovative teachers, are drawn to these schools."
Besides funding the charter schools themselves, Mr. Hastings' vision encompasses the larger political picture. Thus, for example, his non-profit has funded ballot initiatives designed to increase school choice. The author went on to say that many philanthropists have funded such initiatives, including the Walmart and Gap families. But a disproportionate share hale from the tech community, which is not surprising in light of the fact that this sector needs a steady stream of highly educated workers.

And finally, since we are talking about philanthropists and their discretionary wealth, I would like to throw into the mix's latest efforts in that regard. On January 18, 2008, WSJ announced:
"In one of the most widely watched efforts in corporate giving in years, Google unveiled yesterday nearly $30 million in new grants and investments, outlining how it will focus a massive philanthropic endeavor that erases the usual boundaries between the for-profit and nonprofit worlds" [my italics.]
What followed was a listing of pursuits including "creative systems to help predict and prevent disease pandemics, to empower the poor with information about public services and to create jobs by investing in small and mid-size businesses in the developing world. They join previously announced initiatives to accelerate the commercialization of plug-in cars and make renewable energy cheaper than coal." is apparently the largest corporate philanthropy valued at $2 billion as opposed to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which has more assets, but is private. (The next largest corporate fund was Wells Fargo at $552 million.) It was heart-warming to discover that a mega-corporation like funds such enterprises with wads of cash as well as capitalistic expertise. I imagine because of that, the corporate foundation is run on a business model where plans are required of prospective recipients and outcomes are measured.

Speaking of Bill Gates, he was taken to task by William Easterly, a professor of economics at New York University,
on WSJ's editorial page following Gates' enlightened speech on creative capitalism at the World Economic Forum in Davos. At first, Professor Easterly expressed a good attitude about Mr. Gates: "This newspaper reported recently that Bill Gates hates my ideas. I have no hurt feelings, at least nothing that months of intensive psychotherapy can't cure." But, he went on to say that Bill has aligned himself with the foreign aid camp, that believes sending foreign aid money can relieve poverty. By now, I bet you've guessed that Mr. Easterly disagrees vehemently with that premise. He retorted:
"The number of poor people who can't afford food for their children is a lot smaller than it used to be--thanks to capitalism. Capitalism didn't create malnutrition, it reduced it. The globalization of capitalism from 1950 to the present has increased the average income in the word to $7,000 from $2,000. Contrary to popular legend, poor countries grew at about the same rate as the rich ones. This growth gave us the greatest mass exit of poverty in world history. The parts of the world that are still poor are suffering from too little capitalism. . ."
We cannot forget the ancient Buddhist truism that it is better to teach a man to fish, than to provide the fish itself. Yes, we've all heard that, but what if a man is starving and cannot fish? He'd better get something to fill his belly before embarking on a fishing adventure, don't you think?
Thus, could it be that Bill and William are both correct? That's approach--of melding the innovations of capitalism with money-aid--is actually the most enlightened?

It would appear so. President Bush's African trip this week highlighted best practices in America's foreign aid programs. One of the televised sequences highlighted
infrastructure construction such as schools to educate the children and clinics to ensure health care to a population scourged by AIDS, TB and malaria. While another showed a more capitalistic model of an African factory funded with U.S. aid and staffed by local workers that produced mosquito nets to reduce malaria in the country. The anti-poverty guru, Bono, advocates for both poverty reduction models and works purposefully to keep his head above the political fray. That's probably the best place to be, and I think I'll follow him there. Want to join me?

No comments: