Archive for September, 2010

What’s Worth Knowing?

I just finished reading the classic Teaching as a Subversive Activity.  Much like my first time meeting Horace, I found myself energized and inspired by the authors’ commentary on the necessity for making significant changes in the way we educate young people in this country (and not a little incredulous that this book came out in 1969 and is still so relevant and applicable today).

In Chapter 5, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner pose the question, “What’s worth knowing?”  The gist is that instead of learning curriculum for curriculum’s sake, schools should focus their learning efforts around certain universal, essential questions.  Some of the sample questions they offer are:

What do you worry about most?
What are the cause of your worries?
Can any of your worries be eliminated?

What bothers you most about adults?
How do you want to be similar to or different from adults you know when you become an adult?

How can you tell ‘good guys’ from ‘bad guys’?
How can ‘good’ be distinguished from ‘evil’?

When you hear or read or observe something, how do you know what it means?
Where does meaning ‘come from’?
What does ‘meaning’ mean?

What’s a ‘good idea’?
Which of man’s ideas would we be better off forgetting?  How do you decide?

What is ‘progress’?

What’s worth knowing?  How do you decide?  What are some ways to go about getting to know what’s worth knowing?

(Postman & Weingartner, 1969, pp. 62-65)

This list is not meant to be conclusive; rather, the authors argue that these are just samples of types of questions we should be asking to promote learning instead of “trivia” questions such as “What year was the Magna Carta signed?” and “What is the average rainfall in the Amazon basin?”  (You’d think it’d be easy to find a Far Side comic to link to here, but no such luck)

Whatever questions you come up with to promote learning in your classroom, Postman & Weingartner suggest the following guiding principles as you develop them:

Will your questions increase the learner’s will as well as his capacity to learn?
Will they help to give him a sense of joy in learning?
Will they help to provide the learner with confidence in his ability to learn?
Does each question allow for alternative answers (which implies alternative modes of inquiry)?
Will the answers help the learner to sense and understand the universals in the human condition and so enhance his ability to draw closer to other people?

(Postman & Weingartner, 1969, p. 66)

With these in mind, what’s worth knowing in your classroom, and how do your students go about learning those worthwhile things?


Postman, N., & Weingartner, C.  (1969).  Teaching as a subversive activity. New York: Delacorte.

Tools of the Trade: Sansa Clip

Disclaimer 1: This post discusses professional applications of audio recording.  Before implementing any of these, please refer to your state’s laws re: recording other parties.

Disclaimer 2: As with all my product review posts, I have no formal connection to the manufacturer.  I have not received a request to write this post, nor have I received any compensation to do so from anyone.  My only connection to SanDisk is as a very satisfied customer and user of this product.

The Sansa Clip is a tiny digital music player that (as you might guess) includes a clip for attaching to belts, clothes, etc.  It’s similar in proportions to the 2nd-gen iPod shuffle, which means it’s comparable in size to a quarter (official measurements are 55 x 34.3 x 16.5mm, from here), and it is currently available in 1GB, 2GB, 4GB, and 8GB capacities.  I originally bought my Clip to listen to music and podcasts as I ran; however, after I became a school psychologist, I found uses for it on the job.

Hard to see, but there's a standard headphone jack on the side.

I compare the Clip to the iPod Shuffle, but to me, the Clip provides superior value for the money (I paid around $30 for my 1GB Clip a few years ago; NewEgg currently has refurbed models for $14.99).  Aside from the price (Clips cost nearly half the price of their same-capacity Apple counterparts), the magic ingredient here is the built-in digital audio recorder.  The Clip can save voice recordings as .wav files, which can then be dragged & dropped from the Clip to your computer once connected via mini-USB cable.

As anyone involved in special education knows, from time to time it becomes necessary to record IEP meetings.  Rather than struggle with your school’s “vintage” audio cassette recorder and having to stop and switch tapes every so often (which interrupts the flow of what is likely an already tense meeting), use a Clip (or similar digital audio recorder) to “set it and forget it” until the end of the meeting.  According to SanDisk’s site (linked above), even the 1GB model can hold several hours of voice recording.  I don’t know how long your meetings last, but that’s plenty for me!

The built-in microphone is surprisingly powerful.  I’ve set my Clip in the middle of a table in a decent-size conference room, and the clarity and quality of voices picked up from all over the room was excellent.

Finally, moving the finished audio file is as simple as attaching the Clip to your computer via the mini-USB cable, letting the computer identify it (Windows computers will recognize the Clip as a removable hard drive), and manually dragging it to its destination through your preferred file exploring program.  If it becomes necessary to share your audio files with other team members or colleagues, it’s as simple as emailing or copying it to a flash drive for them – there’s no fear of losing (or damaging!) the only cassette copy of an important recording.

Besides recording meetings, I’ve also used my Clip to record audio notes to myself (case notes, observations, etc.), which I later archive or transcribe.  I can’t stress enough what a factor the size of this thing is – it’s small enough that it fits in a shirt or pants pocket, so there’s no need to lug around an antiquated cassette player and a handful of tapes.  It’s just this little 2″x1″ chunk of plastic and circuitry that weighs a single ounce and records hours upon hours of audio.

So let’s review the benefits:

  • Low cost
  • High value
  • High recording capacity
  • Powerful microphone
  • Small + light = easily transportable
  • No tapes required
  • Digital = share copies as necessary without fear of permanent loss
  • Archive everything electronically

The last one is huge for me.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve got far more room on my hard drive than I do in my office, so I take every opportunity I have to digitally record or scan for my files.

I also know that a significant portion of my audience is comprised of classroom teachers.  Surely this has applications for students as well: note-taking, lecture recording, and basic recording for podcasting are all possible with the Clip.  Students can also listen to audiobooks on these devices – the Clip plays .mp3, .wav, & .wma audio files, as well as downloads from Audible.  Combine this with the library of free public domain audiobooks available for download at AudioOwl or Librivox and your students can access an entire semester’s worth of novels, plays, and short stories from their front pocket.

Regardless of whether you use this particular tool or not, please consider the advantages and disadvantages of digital audio recording.  I’ve found it to be an invaluable addition to my proverbial toolbox, and I’m interested to hear how you might (or do) use it (or, as always, why you won’t ever use it and think I shouldn’t either). 🙂