July 7th, 2014

Schools at the Crossroads

John Hagel, from his “A 21st Century Global Declaration of Independence:”

We find ourselves now at a crossroads in history. The institutions – commercial, educational, political and civic - that we created in an earlier era in an effort to expand our potential have now become increasingly significant barriers to progress. It is not surprising that our trust in these institutions is plummeting around the world. We see so much opportunity and yet the institutions that are supposed to be helping us are increasingly standing in our way.

It’s not schools themselves, obviously, that stand in the way of progress. It’s our nostalgia for what schools are supposed to be. It’s our lack of a modern context for developing a vision for what schools might become.

Saturday, I asked 500 or so school trustees from across Canada this question: “How can you make relevant decisions about curriculum, budget, technology, assessments, staffing, infrastructure, pedagogy, scheduling, support and all the other things you deal with on a daily basis if you yourselves are not powerful, connected learners with technology in a modern context?” I’m not saying that those folks weren’t trying their best to serve the kids in their boards. I’m also not saying that their current decisions are all terrible. But, to paraphrase Gary Stager, you can’t make relevant decisions about 21st Century learners if you haven’t learned in this century.  

As I’ve noted before, the rhetoric coming out of Canada is pretty “enlightened” if you will. The British Columbia Ed Plan says

Our education system is based on a model of learning from a different century. To change that, we need to put students at the centre of their own education.

Ontario’s Vision for Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age states

The new role of education is to ensure all students have the opportunity to use their interests and passions to connect to all areas of knowledge.

And in “Inspiring Education,” the Ministry in Alberta writes

To achieve their full potential as expressed in the vision children must be the centre of all decisions related to learning and the overall education system.

As with anything the devil is in the details. I can’t help wonder, at the end, how much of the rhetoric actually translates into practice. I wonder, for instance, how much students will truly be allowed to organize their own learning and pursue their passions in ways that actually create a new narrative for schooling as opposed to simply tweak our nostalgia.

Reagrdless, the rhetoric of “progress” grows more interesting by the day…

June 30th, 2014

Interest Powered Curriculum

From Howard Rheingold:

The PSII website illustrates for prospective students the differences between traditional and PSII curricula: where traditional schools cover subjects, PSII uncovers them. Curriculum is built on learners’ personal interests in close relationship with teachers who aim to nudge more than assign. Personal learning paths for each student are co-created between learners and teachers; “learning is based in valued human attributes, then competencies, then personal and universal learning goals.” Instead of grouping learners by age/grade levels, they are grouped in whatever configurations make sense — sometimes by similarity, sometimes by difference, sometimes by interest. “Learners are encouraged to develop real projects, based on their own inquiries.” Online networks and forums are employed when appropriate, in addition to face-to-face learning. “Personal health plans” replace traditional PE.
June 10th, 2014

Greater Possibilities

Gary Stager:

Kids are competent. I believe that teachers are competent too. I find it unfortunate that so many educators behave as if teachers are incapable of adapting to modernity.

There is a fundamental difference in stance between assuming that as a teacher I know everything as a fountain of knowledge and that the kids are smarter than me. There may be a “creative bottleneck,” but giving up on teachers or schools is an unacceptable capitulation.

Great things are possible when the teacher gets out of the way, but even greater possibilities exist when the teacher is knowledgeable and has experience they [sic] can call upon to help a kid solve a tough problem, connect with an expert, or toss in a well-timed obstacle that will cause the student encounter a powerful idea at just the right teachable moment.

As usual, Gary is spot on here. Last week during my Australia visit, I was asked on a panel how we prevent kids from being disruptive or off task when every one of them has a device in the classroom. I think the questioner was almost shocked when I started my answer by channelling Gary, saying “I don’t think we give kids enough credit in their ability to stay focused when they’re doing work that matters.”

Every one of the Year 3 kids who I saw at Princes Hill Primary School just outside of Melbourne had their own laptops, yet none of them, zero, were “disengaged” during my visit. And this picture was taken during the 90 minutes of free learning time that every student gets every day at Princes Hill. 


Read that again. 90 minutes of free learning time to write stories, make stop action video, read books…whatever. 

Kids are more than competent when we give them opportunities to pursue the things they care about. Problem is, we don’t do enough of that.

June 8th, 2014

An “Abundance Mindset”

Gayle Allen

In essence, we’re participating in a click-through curriculum, and it’s one we need to teach our students to navigate and encourage them to pursue. There’s no scarcity there, no worries about available rooms or staffing needs. Instead, it’s about self-direction, passion, interests, persistence, critical thinking, curation, and outcomes. There’s a greater focus on what they have done and will do with what you’ve learned, rather than how they learned it.  

With an abundance mindset, we can create click-through spaces in our schools and in our curriculum. We can empower students to direct their own learning and to take full advantage of the unlimited courses and access they already have outside of school. By shifting from a scarcity mindset to one of abundance, we can move from school world to [the] real world.

That “abundance mindset” is key. The question is how do we develop that mindset in the adults when it comes to curriculum? If heads and principals and policy makers had it, I think we’d be on a road to getting rid of over half the required curriculum we currently have. If parents had it, even more.

June 6th, 2014

This is What We’re Up Against

"cyberike" commenting on this Alfie Kohn piece:

These points illustrate the stupidity and short sightedness of allowing immature students to decide what is important, and what is worth focusing their attention on. They don’t get to decide that, and any article that implies that students should have any control over what they decide to learn not only undermines the educational process, it can cost lives.
May 21st, 2014

"It Just Doesn’t Matter"

David Perkins, author of Making Learning Whole:

To me, 90 percent of what we typically teach is a waste of time. 90 percent of what we teach probably constitutes particular skills and particular nuggets of knowledge that those kids will never encounter again in a significant way in their lives. It just doesn’t matter. Well, that is completely bizarre. We simply have to do better than that.
May 17th, 2014

Learning to Box

Yesterday, I took my incredibly spoiled daughter into New York City for her first boxing workout at a basement gym in midtown. It was in a sweat-filled, fairly grungy, Rocky-type place with old fight posters plastered on the walls. And, no lie, the first person I saw when we came off the stairs was Gerry Cooney, a heavyweight boxer who almost killed Ken Norton in a fight I remember watching live on television in 1981. Suffice to say he looked older than his years. 

Anyway, Tess wasn’t there to box as much as she was to work out. Without going into the details, she’s chasing a dream, and part of it revolves around getting really, really fit. We’d learned about a this trainer who worked with girls pursuing the same path, and yesterday was the “tryout.” Here’s a snip of what it was like. (I know, turn the phone sideways next time.) 

An hour of that, and fifteen minutes in, she was drenched in sweat. 

Both of my kids live in their bodies more than their brains. That’s not to say that they’re not smart; they both are. But let’s just say that at this point in their lives, academics and school are not what they are most interested in. They’re not chasing 4.0s; they’re not working to get into Princeton, if you get my drift. My son is focused on the AAU state basketball tournament games he has this weekend, and he’s been putting in hours shooting, dribbling, and working out. Tess is literally by far the healthiest eater I know right now. I’m totally impressed by the dedication both of them have shown to their current passions. 

But here’s the larger point to the story. When Tess finished up yesterday and we got in the car so we could spend the next hour trying to get out of the city at 5 pm on a Friday (doh!), I turned to her and said “So, how do you feel?” Her response was interesting.

“My brain hurts,” she said.

Now before anyone gets the wrong idea, there were no real punches thrown; she didn’t take any jabs to the head or anything. Instead, it was about learning. That was probably about the most in-the-moment hour my daughter has spent in quite some time, primarily because she was learning something new, something that interested her, something that challenged her. “Hard fun" as Seymour Papert might have called it. I’d expected her to say that she was physically exhausted. Instead, she’d been working even harder in her head.

Obviously, there’s a whole lot more tied up in this regarding teaching and persistence and failure and more. And I know that schools weren’t built for “hard fun.” 

But man do I wish that my kids would come home from school much more often with the good “brain hurt” that my daughter got at that gym yesterday. 

May 13th, 2014

What Does Every Person Need to Know?

Peter Greene:

But The List approach is, in fact, List-centered, and I’m well-anchored to an approach to teaching that is student-centered. It is, I have become convinced, the only way to teach. We cannot be rules-centered or standards-centered or test-centered or teacher-centered or list-centered, even though we need to include and consider all of those elements. How to weigh and balance and evaluate all these elements? The answer has been, and continues to be, right in front of us. We balance all the elements of education by centering on the student. As long as we keep our focus on the students’ needs, strengths, weaknesses, stage of development, hopes, dreams, obstacles, aspirations— as long as we stay focused on all that, we’ll be good.

What does every educated person need? Every educated person needs— and deserves— an education that is built around the student. Everything else must be open to discussion.
April 21st, 2014

The Committee of Ten…Corporations

Mary Ann Reilly:

I often wonder how different school might be had the NEA task force, Committee of Ten, (a group of 90 elite men) determined that observation, reasoning, and judgment could be cultivated through multiple methods and studies as opposed to tying each to a discrete subject. I often wonder how different their recommendations might have been had a few women, some newly arrived immigrants, some people of color, some students,  and representatives who hailed from work other than teaching been part of the committee.  How might the recommendations have been different? Replacing 90 elite men who served on the Committee of Ten in the 1890s with corporations in the 2010s who are informing the Common Core really isn’t much of a change…

If you take 90 men, hailing from elite schools (college presidents, headmasters, professors) and ask them to name what an excellent education contains—we should not be surprised that their answers (all were in agreement) will reflect their lives, their truths. Habermas told us that without a metalanguage to challenge the given assumption, power tends to  serve up itself as the model of excellence. Today it is Achieve, Inc., Pearson, McGraw Hill, ETS, state DOE, federal DOE who are the new Committee of Ten.

April 19th, 2014

"Our" Curriculum vs. "Their" Curriculum

Sam Levin:

When people talk about student voice, they’re talking about feedback sessions and letting students be part of hiring committees. When they say, “Let’s give students a voice,” they mean, “let’s give them a seat at school board meetings.”

That’s not what they need. They need a lot more. We need to give them a pen and a microphone and a hammer and a shovel and a chalkboard. We need to give them a classroom and an audience and blank sheet that says “curriculum” at the top. We need to give them a budget and a building.

Kids are disengaged. They aren’t learning, and a lot of what they are learning is no longer relevant to the 21st  Century. Fortunately that’s becoming more kosher to say. It’s no longer radical; people are starting to see the problems. But unfortunately, a lot of the proposed solutions aren’t radical enough. They’re superficial.

People talk about giving students a voice. A seat at the table. If we’re going to solve these problems, we’re going to need more than that. We want kids to be engaged in learning, to be excited to show up and happy about school? Give them real agency in their own education.

We want kids to be learning, to be passionate about their work? Let them learn things that have real meaning to them. Make them the authors of their curriculum.

Read the whole thing.

I’ve been arguing more and more of late that “curriculum” is a major if not the major problem in schools right now. And it’s not just that our current curriculum is in many ways outdated, irrelevant, and bloated. (I was talking to a teacher at an international IB school last week who described in depressed tones that much of his new curriculum could be summed up by one word: “more.”)

The institutional curriculum almost necessarily denies students agency over their own learning. And this is especially damaging when most kids now have the ability to create a personal curriculum around the things they truly care about learning out of the abundance of information, people, and tools they now have access to. Nothing especially new here, but worth saying again.

But creating (not giving) agency for students to build their own curriculum changes the whole game. It requires equity in tools and access. It requires trust. It requires a whole different narrative in terms of what exactly it is that we’re preparing students to be able to do. It requires being ok with not reading Shakespaere, or not speaking French, or not knowing (or caring) what a polynomial is.

And a lot more.

But why wouldn’t we work toward giving kids “a classroom and an audience and a blank sheet that says “curriculum” at the top?” What are we scared of?

April 10th, 2014

Students as People or Profile?

Audrey Watters:

We have to ask more questions about the collection and analysis of student data that is feeding algorithms that promise “personalization.” What do technology companies actually mean by “personalization”? We have to consider if we are reducing students from people to profile — and we must ask these questions, knowing full well that education institutions have never really done a good job recognizing students as people.

How might the marketing promise surrounding “personalization” steer us away from self-direction and into pre-determined, pre-ordained pathways? Can we have “personalization” if it’s built on top of standardized of content?

If, as I said at the beginning of this talk, this is a great time to be a self-directed learner, how might technology be used to dull rather than empower learner agency?

What are the repercussions of competency-based and mastery-based learning? What are the repercussions of choice? What are the repercussions of distance? What are the repercussions of scaling? Who gains? Who gains from “choice” — how do we reconcile the individual’s needs, how the individual benefits — from society’s?

There’s a very powerful strain of American individualism — and California exceptionalism — that permeates technology: personal responsibility, self-management, autonomy. All that sounds great when you frame this — as I have repeatedly in this talk — in terms of self-directed learning. But how do we reconcile that individualism with the social and political and community development that schools are also supposed to support? How do we address these strains of individualism and libertarianism — anti-institutional, anti-governmental, and pro-“free market”? What do we do about the ways in which these ideologies are embedded deeply within many aspects digital technology in society?

I’m sure these questions are being considered in admin team meetings in schools across the country and the world. 


April 2nd, 2014

The Limitations of PISA

Yong Zhao:

Even if PISA had done everything properly and indeed children of factory workers in Shanghai scored better than children of lawyers in the U.K. and the U.S., it does not necessarily mean they are better educated or prepared for the modern society, considering the limitation of PISA test scores as I discussed in Part 3 of this series. It could mean something entirely different: while PISA scores can be achieved with little resources and intense repetition of narrowly defined, uniformly prescribed content and skills, what truly matters—talent diversity, creativity, and entrepreneurialism—cannot. The multiplication table can be learned with a piece of paper, but it would be difficult to force anyone to play the piano without a piano. Everyone can be forced to memorize the Hamlet, but it is unlikely to force anyone to invent the iPhone.

But testing for “narrowly defined, uniformly prescribed content and skills” is just a whole heck of a lot easier.

March 20th, 2014

One Mom’s Struggle With School and Tests

I can always tell when testing season arrives here in New Jersey as I start getting e-mails from parents wanting to know more about my experiences in opting my son Tucker out of the test. It’s not a deluge, mind you, but one or two a week that I try to reply to with more info and links. 

Some are more than about testing, however. Some, like the one I’ve gotten permission to reprint below, get to the heart of the larger tension between schools as they’re currently constructed and learning. I’m not saying this is every person’s experience, but when I read e-mails like this, it gives me pause. I think it should give us all pause. 

I know this mom would love to hear your response in the comments.

Hi Will,

I’m sorry if this email turns out rambling… but I am at my wits end. I came across your website for the first time tonight, and have not had a chance to read your book yet… but let me give you some background on why I’m writing you…

Tonight, I yelled at my 7 year old child because she misspelled one of her spelling words… the word ‘rainbows’. Yes you read that correctly. I yelled at her. She sobbed uncontrollably as I refused to let her erase the mistake. This I know is ludicrous. Why the hell would I do that? Mistakes happen. That’s why pencils have erasers, right? Well its because of what public school is doing to my child and I cannot stand to watch it anymore. Tonight it turned me into a monster. Its been over 6 hours since this incident and I’m still overwhelmingly disgusted with myself as if it had just happened.

My daughter is a wonderful, bright, funny, delightful little 2nd grader. Most adults that meet her marvel at the obvious level of intelligence she has. This is not me trying to brag or call my child a genius - but what it is… is me standing up for her where she is being made to feel insecure and unintelligent. 

For too many nights to count, I have watched my child come apart at the seams trying to make sense of homework that I deem to be complete and utter bullshit and a complete waste of time. I watch her write letters, words and numbers…. only to erase and write again, erase and write again…. because it’s not perfect, it’s not what the teacher said to do, it’s not what will get her perfect scores and make everyone happy. I watch her trying to think of multiple ways to write out a math sentence such as ‘5+4=9’. I mean, how many ways does a 7 year old need to write it? She even gets math equations that look like this: ‘16+12=__’. Ask her what the ones and tens places are and she couldn’t tell you. (I have explained them to her… and she is beginning to understand, but isn’t allowed to use that method at school(WTF?). The math that is being taught isn’t math at all. Its all comprehension. Why is she getting comprehension shoved down her throat before she even has the basic building blocks in the fundamentals of addition and subtract? I know the answer - NJ ASK. I’m sick of erasing, and the tears and wasted nights. I sick of watching this beautiful creature being snuffed out by school work that really isn’t teaching anything.

Every night we do 2 hours of homework. I dread homework. I’m not anti-homework. What I’m against is homework hijacking my night 5 days a week. A typical day she gets home at 4pm. I let her have a snack and unwind for an hour. Then we begin this awful homework regime. She is tired. Why is she doing school work from 9am to 7pm( if I’m lucky)? She isn’t learning at this rate… she is just going through the motions to get it done. 

Tonight as my child sobbed, curled up in my arms, with her little body trembling, she tells me what a bad reader she is and that’s why she tries to read more than what’s required; so she can get better. She’s a bad speller too. She’s afraid she won’t get to go to 3rd grade. Everything feels hard for her. These are the words coming from her mouth.

In my mind, I could not even begin to fully process what she was saying to me at the time. I read with her every night. She reads well. She stumbles on words sometimes, but she is only 7 and I thought that was to be expected. So where are these feelings of inadequacy coming from? I give her only praise at home, so I must believe it stems from something happening at school. I find it disgusting that my child is made to feel that way in an environment that is supposed to be building her up, cheering her on and not making her feel like the class dunce. 

At the same time, I have loved every teacher she has had. I believe the school and the people in it are honestly doing their best to help my child succeed. So I just don’t understand what is happening or where the breakdown is.

I’m confused about my feelings for Common Core… It’s political, it’s a dirty word, it has ‘good intentions’ but its implementation sucks….

My quest isn’t political. I have no hidden agenda. My only goal is for my child to be afforded an education that nurtures real critical thinking, teaches her grammar and arithmetic, teaches her to love learning, to question, explore and so much more. 

I dread NJ ASK when 3rd grade comes. But I don’t want to just ‘opt out’ of the test… because I don’t see how that solves the greater problem. I’ve tried to search for alternative educations solutions but I really don’t know where to even begin.

We live in *******, where the school district claims to be one of the best in the state. I often feel alone in my opinion of the education she is receiving. So many friends and family members have told me to not worry. That the school system is fine. Its not fine. I am not fine and she is not fine. Tonight was horrible. Its not the first night that we have had like this. But I vowed it will be the last.

Do you have any recommendations as a starting place for alternative school options that don’t teach using Common Core standards? I can’t afford a private school. I just really don’t know what to do anymore.
March 13th, 2014

Classrooms as “Shapeless and Unmoored”

Grant McCracken:

Here is my present idea of the corporation, give or take. The corporation is a thing of people, processes, places, and products (give or take). And these 4 Ps are relatively well-defined, organized, boundaried, and anchored (more or less).  

But that’s a problem. This corporation is deeply at odds with the future. Because the future is never defined, organized, boundaried, or anchored. Really, it’s all just hints and whispers. Fragile melody, no refrain.

Hence, the great antagonism between corporations and time. A creature that defines itself out of definition, organization, boundary, and anchoring, must hate a future that is shapeless and unmoored. To the corporations, the future looks like the enemy, a risk that can’t be managed, an idea that can’t be thought.  

The corporation puts a particular boundary between now and the future. And it guards this border ferociously. New ideas are scrutinized with tough mindedness and high indignation. If we can’t see the business model, we’re not interested. If we can’t see how to “monitize this sucker,” we’re not interested. When the future manifests itself merely as a murmur of possibility, we are not interested.  

Too bad. There is really only one way to live in a world of speed, surprise, noise, and responsiveness, and that’s to visit the future frequently. And, if we have the intellectual capital, maybe get a pied-à-terre. Well, and if we’re really committed, we need someone to take up residence full time.  

Most of all, we want a corporation that is porous in ways it was not before. We want it to cantilever out into the future. We want to make pieces of the future to happen inside the corporation. We want pieces of the corporation to happen out there in the future. In sum, we want the corporation and the future, once so completely separated from one another, to have a new reciprocity and transparency.

Now, go back and read that again, replacing the word “corporation” with “classroom.” It’s not a perfect fit, but you get the idea. There’s a lot here that compares.

Most places I go, the future (and to some extent, it’s a future that’s already here,) feels like the enemy. That’s why 98% of our technology use in schools conserves the past. That’s why the bar for innovation is set at “flipped classrooms.” We’re not thinking about “making pieces of the future happen in the [classroom.]” And while we may not always articulate it in the same way, we educators abhor a future that is “shapeless and unmoored.” There’s no curriculum in that.

The tension with “inventing the future” is that it doesn’t happen in isolation. While some may be busy with “invention” in schools, it falls against a larger backdrop of invention all over the place. The contexts for our work to invent the future is constantly changing, and if we’re not constantly relearning and embracing those contexts, we’re simply reinventing the past.

(H/T to Britt Wattwood for the link and for an equally thoughtful post.)

March 7th, 2014

SAT as Scandal

Jennifer Finney Boylan in the New York Times:

All in all, the changes are intended to make SAT scores more accurately mirror the grades a student gets in school.  

The thing is, though, there already is something that accurately mirrors the grades a student gets in school. Namely: the grades a student gets in school. A better way of revising the SAT, from what I can see, would be to do away with it once and for all.  

The SAT is a mind-numbing, stress-inducing ritual of torture. The College Board can change the test all it likes, but no single exam, given on a single day, should determine anyone’s fate. The fact that we have been using this test to perform exactly this function for generations now is a national scandal.

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