September 4th, 2013

My Summer of Confusion


As of today, I’ve officially got two kids in high school. Pretty amazing how quickly time passes. As is usual on the first day of school, I’m excited for them but equally pensive about the experience they’ll have this year. Without going into the details, I’m less and less confident that the emphasis of their time in school will be dedicated to inquiry, to exploring their passions, to helping them create real, meaningful work that lives in the world and just maybe changes it for the better. As much as their teachers might want that, the reality is as a system, we’ve hunkered down against any real innovation, cut budget and vision regarding technology, and decided to pursue the more traditional paths for “excellence” as in number of AP tests taken, high state test scores, SAT scores…whatever it takes to get us a high ranking in a state magazine’s annual list. It’s depressing. 

But I get it…I’m the outlier. Most parents around these parts check those lists. They want to know why we’re not doing better, why the “looks just like us” high school up the road beats us by 20 places every year, and why so many other schools in the state seem to be really excellent. And whenever I say that some of the most important learning that our kids can do in school is almost impossible to quantify and fold into a list, there’s little response. The subject gets changed.

This all comes after a fascinating yet fatiguing summer presenting to and working with, by my best guess, about 12,000 educators from across the country and Canada. Near the beginning of my travels, I came across a great quote from the author Margaret Wheatley that I started using to introduce my sessions:

"We can’t be creative if we refuse to be confused. Change always starts with confusion."

At some point, I started labeling my travels my “Summer of Confusion Tour, 2013.” I tried my damnedest to confuse as many people as I could, asking “Why School?” and challenging old beliefs about what learning looks like, the new roles of teachers and schools, the value of a college degree, and how to best prepare our kids for a radically different world. On some level, I’ll admit to taking some pleasure in trying to make everyone more than a bit uncomfortable about maintaining (or trying to improve) the status quo. As always, the urgency to start these conversations is growing.

But here’s the thing: now that I’ve had a week to reflect on the summer, I find myself more confused than when I started. While what follows may read like I’m just throwing teachers and leaders under the bus left or right, I’m sincerely not. I can’t remember one person I met this summer that didn’t express real care for students, that didn’t want to make his or her classrooms fun, safe, engaging places to be. But the reality is that, once again,  far too few really had much of a sense of what’s happening right now. We’re educating at what might well be the most change-filled, disruptive moment in education history, and at the very least, the moment demands a context for thinking differently about education, not simply trying to do it better. My sense, one that hasn’t really changed much over the years, is we’ve still got a boatload of heavy lifting to do if we’re going to figure out what comes next and what best serves our kids. 

Here’s a bit of what I’m wondering:

Why is it so few of the educators I spoke with could articulate a clear, communal vision of what teaching and learning looks like in classrooms, much less such a vision in a classroom filled with technology? When I asked one administrator what will change now that every student in the high school was going to get an iPad, he said, “Well, now we can offer more AP classes.” Really? More often than not, the individuals to whom I asked that question seemed to be making up the answer as they went. (Unlike the folks at this school. Or this one. Or this one.) Which leads me to wonder:

What is the minimum personal understanding and practice in terms of a) the use of computers to create meaningful work and solve problems and b) the learning networks and communities that are now possible via the Web? We talk a lot about the 4Cs, which, at the end of the day, aren’t really new. But computing and connections online are new, and they are evolving and becoming both easier and more complex every day. Can we make relevant decisions about technology, curriculum, pedagogy…almost anything related to learning without some fairly deep personal practice around those 2Cs? I mean, does anyone look forward and not see those as required literacies for our kids? When I asked decision makers to write down (anonymously) the most complex thing they had created with a computer, most of what they reported out was along the lines of slideshows and iMovies with some spreadsheets thrown in. A very small percentage listed anything related to programing or really building something new and unique with a computer. Likewise, few had any extensive learning networks beyond their face to face interactions. This is no longer an option, is it?

I’m also wondering to what extent is it a professional educator’s responsibility to keep abreast of the latest research, technologies, and news that impact learning? At one presentation to about 800 people, only about 25 raised their hands when I asked if they’d visited Khan Academy. In general, throughout the summer, I’d estimate less than 10% had heard of MOOCs, the Maker Movement, or 3-D printing. On many occasions, I wondered aloud if we would accept a similar lack of currency for our physicians or our accountants. Bottom line: as a profession, we’re not keeping up with the changes that are occurring.

And I’m confused because as much as the pushback against corporate reform seems to have gained a foothold, my sense is that they’re really just fighting to improve the traditional system, to keep organizing education for kids only to do it better. As I wrote on Diane Ravitch’s blog last month, (whose tagline, btw, is “A site to discuss better education for all.” [Emphasis mine]):

I find it frustrating the extent to which the conversations here and elsewhere fail to acknowledge the enormous changes that are occurring in the world and the undeniably significant impact that technology is having on every aspect of learning, education and work. We do well to push back against the Jeb Bushes and Michelle Rhees of the world, but we must also be willing to push back on the institutionally organized structures, practices, pedagogies, assessments, and general systems that currently operate on a context for learning that is inadequate at best and irrelevant at worst. If, as this post suggests, the corporate reform movement is heading south, are we really just saying we’re going to go back and try to do the old school concept “better?” Do we not have an obligation to start talking about how to unlearn and relearn the whole enterprise in the light of the increasing abundance of knowledge, information, teachers and learning opportunities we now have access to?

There’s more, but I’ll save that for another day. Maybe.

I know, I know…there are lots of teachers, lots of classrooms that have gotten on this train. More and more people came up to me this summer to share the great ways in which they are trying to be really different in their approach. Some are supported and celebrated. Others are flying below the radar. And if you swim in the Twitterverse long enough you can’t help but think that things are changing. There must be hundreds of thousands of educators on Twitter now, in “the network.” All good, but let’s remember that there are 3.5 (or so) million teachers just in this country. And let’s also take a hard look at the conversations that we’re engaging in online. How many are of the “Seven Great Apps…” variety which do little to elevate the larger conversation around how we fundamentally need to change schools?

So, maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just tired and grumpy (again.) Or maybe we really aren’t confused enough to address the big questions that now face us. Maybe we should make “Connected Educator Month" in October all about the BIG questions. Like what do all kids need to know to flourish in a world where access to an education is expanding by the day? How do we have to rethink literacy in an age of abundant access to information, technologies, and teachers? And how can we best help our kids develop as self-organized, self-directed learners who can take advantage of the many paths to an education that are now available to them?

That type of inquiry might lead to more confusion, initially. But it might also get us debating more of the things that really matter for my kids, and yours.

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    I heard Will speak at a gathering of education based IT people and what he talked about really stuck with me. He asks...
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Welcome! I'm Will Richardson, parent, educator, speaker, author, 12-year blogger at Weblogg-ed and now here. I'm trying to answer the question "What happens to schools and classrooms and learning in a 2.0 world?" Best selling new book: Why School?s...order now!!

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