October 18th, 2014

We Need Discoverers

David Edwards from American Schools are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist:

Over the next twenty years the earth is predicted to add another two billion people. Having nearly exhausted nature’s ability to feed the planet, we now need to discover a new food system. The global climate will continue to change. To save our coastlines, and maintain acceptable living conditions for more than a billion people, we need to discover new science, engineering, design, and architectural methods, and pioneer economic models that sustain their implementation and maintenance. Microbiological threats will increase as our traditional techniques of anti-microbial defense lead to greater and greater resistances, and to thwart these we must discover new approaches to medical treatment, which we can afford, and implement in ways that incite compliance and good health. The many rich and varied human cultures of the earth will continue to mix, more rapidly than they ever have, through mass population movements and unprecedented information exchange, and to preserve social harmony we need to discover new cultural referents, practices, and environments of cultural exchange. In such conditions the futures of law, medicine, philosophy, engineering, and agriculture – with just about every other field – are to be rediscovered. 

Americans need to learn how to discover. 

Being dumb in the existing educational system is bad enough. Failing to create a new way of learning adapted to contemporary circumstances might be a national disaster. The good news is, some people are working on it.

The essay goes on to talk about the growth of the maker movement and an increasing urgency to explore new ways of thinking about education for the new challenges we face. Some in the comments disagree.

I don’t.

According to the group of teachers I spent the day with yesterday in Southern NJ, despite some movement toward more discovery learning outside of school, inside of school is getting worse. More testing. Pre-K Common Core curriculum. Fewer and fewer opportunities to stretch outside the classroom and the traditional pedagogies that everyone seems to expect in the new evaluation regimes.

Why are we doing this?

If nothing else, essays with titles like this one in major magazines and websites can at least push the conversation in a new direction. But until the educators themselves are willing to seriously take up the call for re-envisioning schools, not much will happen.

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.)

January 21st, 2014

Announcing: Educating Modern Learners

Today, I’m happy to announce that my friend and colleague Bruce Dixon and I are starting a new membership website, Educating Modern Learners (EML). It’s a site and an accompanying newsletter that’s aimed specifically at helping school leaders and policy makers from around the globe be better informed about the huge technological changes that are impacting education, and to help them make better, more pertinent decisions for the students they serve. And I’m equally excited to announce that we’ve hired one of the best education bloggers / thinkers we know, Audrey Watters, to be the editorial director / lead writer for the site. Our official launch is scheduled for mid-February.

Our hope is that EML will offer a reader-supported, independent voice to help articulate what is as yet a struggling but growing new narrative in the school reform discussion, one that provokes serious conversation at the leadership level around a more learner-centered, inquiry-based, technology and access-rich school experience that more powerfully and relevantly serves children in this fast-changing modern world. We’ll be commissioning some of the best writers and thought-leaders in the world to produce analysis and commentary on all aspects of modern learning, from local, state and ministry level policy issues, new literacies and pedagogies for 21st Century learners, effective change-centered leadership, new technologies, and best school practices, among others. Also in the mix are regular whitepapers, live events, podcasts, and more. More details to come.

Here’s some of where we’re starting from in our thinking about this:

  • We believe that we live and learn at a moment of rapid and radical change across institutions and cultures, and that technologies are in large part driving those changes.
  • We believe that today’s students will be immersed in creative and connected technologies throughout their adult learning lives, and that they require new skills, literacies, and dispositions to succeed in the modern world.
  • We believe that the web and other technologies can be a powerful source for good in the world.
  • We believe that schools must move away from “delivering” an education to, instead, empowering students to organize their own education.
  • We believe technology implemented with vision can be a powerful part of effective teaching and learning in schools.
  • We believe that relevant reforms are occurring too slowly because not enough of our efforts are aimed at those who make decisions regarding technology’s role in learning in schools.
  • We believe that top level decision makers often act without a relevant, global, modern lens for how technologies can best serve progressive teaching and learning. This is through no fault of their own as much as it is the consequence of leading at a moment of rapid and radical change.
  • We believe there is a real need for a diverse set of expert voices to use a global lens to intelligently curate and contextualize the changes, new technologies, future trends, best practices and more on a regular basis.
  • We believe this is a time of unprecedented opportunity. A time for boldness, and a time for well-informed leadership to shape new thinking around what schools could and should be; about where, when, and how learning takes place.  A time for us to truly rethink the possibilities that technology offers education, and a time for creative and courageous leadership to show the way.


EML is hopefully just the first step in what we hope will be a collection of resources and events that will help expand the contexts for learning and leading in the education leadership space. If you’d like to be notified when we officially launch, just sign up on our "Coming Soon!" page

November 28th, 2012

What I Know Now

In her overview of Learning to Code as one of the top ed-tech trends of 2012, Audrey Watters also shares her favorite ed-tech quote of the year, a pithy suggestion from designer/programmer Bret Victor:

"For fuck’s sake, read Mindstorms.”

It wasn’t the first time that I’d seen that quote, but it reminded me that it was in fact that quote, nearly 30 years into my life as an educator, that finally led me to read that seminal work on learning by Seymour Papert.

About time, don’t you think?

The irony is that the first edition of Midstorms was released in 1980, just a year before I decided to go back to school to get my Masters and become a teacher. And I can’t help but wonder what a different type of educator I would have been had someone, anyone in my program understood its importance and led me to it. Just this one snippet early on in the book might have changed much about my teaching:

For people in the teaching professions, the word “education” tends to evoke “teaching,” particularly classroom teaching. The goal of education research tends therefore to be focused on how to improve classroom teaching. But if, as I have stressed here, the model of successful learning is the way a child learns to talk, a process that takes place without deliberate and organized teaching, the goal set is very different. I see the classroom as an artificial and inefficient learning environment that society has been forced to invent because its informal environments fail in certain essential learning domains, such as writing or grammar or school math. I believe that the computer presence will enable us to so modify the learning environment outside the classrooms that much if not all the knowledge schools presently try to teach with such pain and expense and such limited success will be learned, as the child learns to talk, painlessly, successfully, and without organized instruction. This obviously implies that schools as we know them today will have no place in the future. But it is an open question whether they will adapt by transforming themselves into something new or wither away and be replaced (9).

Now, 32 years later, I’m just coming to know Papert and Mindstorms and much more about learning and education that I never knew or understood before. And I think about that often. My contextual knowledge of how kids learn, the history of progressive education, the workings of technology has only been developed over the last decade, moreso even in the last five years as my important new teachers like Gary Stager and Chris Lehmann and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Ira Socol and Sylvia Martinez and Tom Hoffman and many others have led me to the ideas and authors and thinkers who have framed education for me in a totally different light. I’ve envied (and still do envy) their brilliance, and the lens that they’ve brought to this conversation for far longer than I. And, importantly, I’m thankful for their willingness to share those lenses with me on an ongoing basis as I find new questions that need answering. Better late than never, right? 

But aside from giving me the chance to frame my thinking about schools and kids and learning in a much different and, I think, more relevant way, it’s made me wonder the extent to which most educators carry these lenses with them as well. How many have read Mindstorms? How many are really familiar with Piaget’s learning theories, with Dewey’s progressive vision for education, with Sarason’s thinking on learning? How many of them truly understand why we have the schools we have today? How many have a context for teaching that’s based on learning? How many know what they don’t know? 

I didn’t. Looking back, my preparation to be a teacher was abysmal. And I still have a lot to learn.

It all speaks, once again, for the need for us to see ourselves as learners, more than teachers, especially now that technology and the Web have “enable[d] us to so modify the learning environment outside the classroom” in ways that allow us to meet great teachers and debate important ideas with others far removed from our schools or programs, ways that allow us to learn the things we should have been learning in school. If we’re going to adapt, as Papert suggests, it’s going to be because we as a profession see our role much differently now, as something new, something different, not just something better. 

And so it’s been with a lot of frustration that I’ve been watching the proceedings at Jeb Bush’s Excellence In Action National Summit on Education Reform in Washington DC these past two days. I won’t go deeply into the details, but suffice to say that as I watch Bush, Joel Klein, Condoleeza Rice and others talk about their views on “reforming” education, of using technology to deliver curriculum in new ways, of “raising student achievement” via the Common Core Standards, of competing against the world and making America strong again, I find myself wanting to scream one thing at them all:

"For fuck’s sake, read Mindstorms!"

Please.

Papert writes:

My own philosophy is revolutionary rather than reformist in its concept of change. But the revolution I envision is of ideas, not of technology. It consists of new understandings of specific subject domains and in new understandings of the process of learning itself. It consists of a new and much more ambitious setting of the sights of educational aspiration (186).

Schools and teachers and classrooms still have an important role in our communities, and as I’ve said before, I don’t want them to go away. But, as Papert and many others suggest, they must change. They can’t be about courses or credits or grades or curriculum or teaching first and foremost. They have to be about learning. But the way we understand that word must be grounded in something much deeper than test scores and competition. We as educators have to own that word in its purest sense if we’re to move schools in ways that best support and nurture our kids. And we don’t have much time to waste. 

So if you haven’t already, for goodness sake, read Mindstorms.

Please.

September 20th, 2012

Schools vs. Abundance

I ran across this graphic in a Chris Anderson Wired article from a few years ago, and with a bit of editing, I think it speaks to the dissonance between school (scarcity) and not school (abundance) that I tried to capture in Why School? 

At the district, school, classroom, teacher, and student level, this is a hugely complex shift to navigate. 

Wondering which of those categories to the left you’re finding most difficult to come to terms with and what strategies you have for dealing with them.

May 28th, 2012

I Ate a Burger Last Night

On a non-education note:

For those who have known me long enough to tease me endlessly about my tofu burgers and kale shakes and other assorted delicacies that go along with my 12-year stint as a vegetarian, I have some shocking news. Last night, we grilled out and ate some 100% all beef hamburgers.

And they were oh-so tasty.

Now before anyone thinks that I’ll be showing up at the next Fogo de Chao Fest at ISTE or some other national convention where the usual meat-eating suspects gather, let me be clear: I’m still a vegetarian…when I’m on the road at least. Our decision wasn’t because we just up and decided that our 12 years of meatless protest against the real environmental disaster that is most beef and chicken production (and the treatment of the animals in the process) didn’t matter any longer. Instead, it was because of the story of a local farmer (just two miles down the road) who, with her daughter, have created one of the most sustainable, ethical, and environmentally sound cattle farms we’ve seen, and who convinced us, after a long conversation, that we could bring her burgers and steaks to our table with a clear conscience. 

Did I mention they were really tasty?

I report this only to note what was a pretty big event, all things considering, and to bow once again to the ever changing thinking and practice that goes with living this complex life.

#thatisall

January 11th, 2012

What Qualities do “Bold Schools” Share?

First, let me thank everyone who commented and Tweeted examples of “bold schools” over the last few days. Very much appreciated, and over the next few weeks I’m planning to dig into the list and make some connections and inquiries around the learning that’s going on in those places. Meantime, if you have any other ideas for schools that might be worth checking out, I’d invite you to add them to the doc

Over the past month or so, I’ve been trying to come up with some “qualities” that might help separate a “bold” school from an “old” school. Actually, much of this whole effort stems from a similar search a couple of months ago by Sam Chaltain to find “the world’s most transformative learning environments.” (His list is a great starting point as well.) Sam decided to use the QED Transformational Change Model to use as a benchmark, and while I like the general tenor of the qualities listed there, I’m hoping to focus it down to a more manageable list.

So, I’m going to offer out the following with hopes that you’ll chime in with reactions, feedback, push back, and ideas toward creating a clearer picture of how to describe schools that really are trying to move toward a technology-rich, student-centered, inquiry-based learning practice that effectively prepares kids for the required skills and dispositions and realities of the world today and yet also prepares them to pass the test and satisfy the current expectations of parents and policy makers. Places, importantly, where those two things are not mutually exclusive ideas. 

So, with a minimum of description, I’m thinking "bold" schools are:

1. Learning Centered - Everyone (adults, children) is a learner; learners have agency; emphasis on becoming a learner over becoming learned.

2. Questioning - Inquiry based; questions over answers

3. Authentic - School is real life; students and teachers do real work for real purposes.

4. Digital - Every learner (teacher and student) has a computer; technology is seamlessly integrated into the learning process; paperless

5. Connected - Learning is networked (as are learners) with the larger world; classrooms have “thin walls;” learning is anytime, anywhere, anyone.

6. Literate - Everyone meets the expectations of NCTE’s “21st Century Literacies

7. Transparent - Learning and experiences around learning are shared with global audiences

8. Innovative - Teachers and students “poke the box;” Risk-taking is encouraged.

9. Provocative - Leaders educate and advocate for change in local, state and national venues.

I want to delve into each one of these in more detail, and my hope is that as I visit schools this year I’ll be able to connect these ideas to stories and practice that make them come to life. 

But for now, what do you think? What am I missing? How else might you describe a “bold school” as I’ve defined it above?

January 7th, 2012

It’s 2012: Help Me Find Some “Bold Schools”

For lots of reasons, some of which I articulate here, 2012 feels like it’s shaping up to be a critical year in the conversation about schools. Politics and money are no doubt driving the mainstream conversation, but I sense an Occupy Wall Street-ish push back coming from a lot of parents and educators that seems to be finding some traction as well. In fact I’ve had some interesting conversations of late with some very “successful” public schools who have hit their testing boiling point and are starting to resist the status quo. As this year starts, I’m actually feeling a bit optimistic for the first time in a long time. Not optimistic that change will come any time soon. Not optimistic that we’ll adequately deal with the poverty problem that is a the root of so much about what is wrong with this country and its education system. But instead, optimistic that we might at least be on the verge of gaining a voice in the larger conversation around real equality in education, equality that in some part stands on regular, dependable access to technology and the Web.

Given that window, we need schools that are bold in their practice right now. And by “bold” I mean schools that make sure their kids pass the test and get “college ready” because, unfortunately, that’s about the only definition of “success” that people want to talk about right now, but also schools that prepare their kids for a world that the tests and the definitions of “readiness” or “achievement” haven’t caught up to yet. A world that I think is so wonderfully articulated by the National Council Teachers of English 21st Century literacies that I keep trotting out wherever I go. In other words, bold schools are the ones that do both, because to do anything less at the moment would not serve our students in the ways they need to be served. Equally important, bold schools are the ones that know that those two outcomes are not mutually exclusive. You look at SLA or High Tech High and you see that creating student-centered, inquiry-based, technology-rich learning opportunities in our classrooms can help kids navigate the world they live in AND pass the test. 

What a concept.

To that end, I’ve decided to dust off my journalism degree this year and do some “real” reporting and writing about those schools that are being “bold” in that context. As much as my travels will allow for side trips and site visits and interviews of teachers and students and leaders in those spaces, I want to really wrap my brain around what’s special and replicable about those schools and share them back out. Who knows, there may be a book in it as well.

Along the way, I’d like your help, if you’re so inclined. And my first request is to help me identify some schools that I might visit. But one caveat: I want these to be entire schools where that type of boldness is being displayed, not isolated classrooms or teachers. I’m looking for places where there has been a commitment as a school community to the best of what a progressive education can offer along with an immersion in technology and connectedness to the world. Schools whose teachers and whose graduates are literate by NCTE standards. And schools that are advocating in their communities for this different path. These schools can be public or private and anywhere in the world.

Any come to mind? If so, please note them in the comments.

At some point in the next couple of weeks, I’ll be asking you to help me flesh out in more detail the characteristics of bold schools. I’m hoping to have lots of these conversations at SLA during Educon in a few weeks. I’m sure I’ll be picking a lot of people’s brains while there. 

Regardless, my sincerest wish for you to set a powerful path for your work and learning this year. As someone who may or may not be Goethe once said:

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

Let’s be bold this year. 

November 12th, 2011

"My Teacher is an App"

(This is a long one.)

So I hope no one minds if I continue to try to document the ways in which “education” is being reframed in this country at the peril, I think, of losing everything that is best about schools and teachers and classrooms.

If you’re not up to speed with these reframing efforts, the above titled article in the Wall Street Journal this morning should do the trick. The canary is singing in full throat. And let’s not make any bones about it: the Journal has a vested interest in making the type of online learning it describes successful as it owns a large stake in many of the vendors trying to occupy the space.

The author would like us to believe that education is being “radically rethought” by the online and “blended” options that are available to students. But let’s be clear; the only things being rethought here are the delivery models of a traditional education and, most importantly, the financial models to sustain it and make lots of money for outside businesses who see technology and access as a way to not only line their pockets with taxpayer money but also bust the unions that stand in their way. 

It’s a disheartening and disturbing vision of what an education might become:

Tipping back his chair, he studied a computer screen listing the lessons he was supposed to complete that week for his public high school—a high school conducted entirely online. Noah clicked on his global-studies course. A lengthy article on resource shortages popped up. He gave it a quick scan and clicked ahead to the quiz, flipping between the article and multiple-choice questions until he got restless and wandered into the kitchen for a snack.

And this vision is exploding:

In just the past few months, Virginia has authorized 13 new online schools. Florida began requiring all public-high-school students to take at least one class online, partly to prepare them for college cybercourses. Idaho soon will require two. In Georgia, a new app lets high-school students take full course loads on their iPhones and BlackBerrys. Thirty states now let students take all of their courses online.

It means the elimination of schools and teachers:

Although some states and local districts run their own online schools, many hire for-profit corporations such as K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., and Connections Academy in Baltimore, a unit of education services and technology company Pearson PLC. The companies hire teachers, provide curriculum, monitor student performance—and lobby to expand online public education.

And the selling point is not just cost but personalization, which I’ve written about here before.

Advocates say that online schooling can save states money, offer curricula customized to each student and give parents more choice in education.

But this isn’t different. Notice the ways in which the “success” of online schools is being judged.

In California, Rocketship Education, a chain of charter hybrid schools that serves mostly poor and minority kids, has produced state test scores on par with some of the state’s wealthiest schools. Rocketship students spend up to half of each school day in computer labs playing math and literacy games that adjust to their ability level.
At Southwest Learning Centers, a small chain of charter schools in Albuquerque, N.M., standardized test scores routinely outpace state and local averages, according to data provided by the schools. Students complete most lessons online but come into class for teacher support and hands-on challenges, such as collaborating to design and build a weight-bearing bridge. The high school recently received a statewide award for its students’ strong scores on the ACT college admissions test.

And don’t miss the point. It’s all about how we define learning. Listen to this one parent quoted in the article.

"I don’t think learning has to happen at school, in a classroom with 30 other kids and a teacher…corralling all children into learning the same thing at the same pace," she says. "We should rethink the environment we set up for education."

It’s an easy way for us to minimize the role of the teacher in a child’s education:

The amount of teacher interaction varies. At online-only schools, instructors answer questions by email, phone or the occasional video conference; students will often meet classmates and teachers on optional field trips and during state exams. Southwest Learning Centers requires just 14 hours a week of classroom time and lets students set their own schedules, deciding when—or whether—to come in on any given day. And in Miami, students at iPrep Academy work in free-flowing “classrooms” with no doors or dividing walls but plenty of beanbag chairs and couches. Teachers give short lectures and offer one-on-one help, but most learning is self-directed and online.
"If it seems strange, that’s because it is strange," says Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of the Miami schools. But he sees no point in forcing the iPod generation to adapt to a classroom model that has changed little in 300 years.

Cut teachers, save money.

The growth of cybereducation is likely to affect school staffing, which accounts for about 80% of school budgets. A teacher in a traditional high school might handle 150 students. An online teacher can supervise more than 250, since he or she doesn’t have to write lesson plans and most grading is done by computer.

In Idaho, Alan Dunn, superintendent of the Sugar-Salem School District, says that he may cut entire departments and outsource their courses to online providers. “It’s not ideal,” he says. “But Idaho is in a budget crisis, and this is a creative solution.”

Other states see potential savings as well. In Georgia, state and local taxpayers spend $7,650 a year to educate the average student in a traditional public school. They spend nearly 60% less—$3,200 a year—to educate a student in the statewide online Georgia Cyber Academy, saving state and local tax dollars. Florida saves $1,500 a year on every student enrolled online full time.

Make war with the unions.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who co-founded the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which promotes online schools nationwide, says learning will be “digitized” with or without cooperation from the unions. “I’m happy to go to war over this,” he says.

And make, potentially, lots of money.

Last year News Corp. bought a 90% stake in Wireless Generation, an education-technology company that sells hand-held computers to teachers to help monitor student performance.

And there, in a nutshell, is the future. (And to be really scared, read the comments on the article.)

<rant>

Look, not for nothing, but if we don’t start writing and advocating for a very different vision of learning in real classrooms, one that is focused not just on doing the things we’ve been doing better but in ways that are truly reinvented, one that prepares kids to be innovators and designers and entrepreneurs and, most importantly, learners, we will quickly find ourselves competing at scale with cheaper, easier alternatives that won’t serve our kids as well.

No doubt this will be hard. And I wonder if we can pull it off. But here’s the other thing. It’s not so much about tools and technologies as it is about that learning thing. To be honest, I think we’ve all got to stop cranking out blog posts and Tweets that tout new tools and the “10 Best Ways…” and instead begin to make the case in our blogs and in person that technology or not, this is about what is best for our kids. That in this moment, 20th Century rules will not work for 21st Century schools. That direct instruction and standardization will make us less competitive, not more. That those strategies will make our kids less able to create a living for themselves in the worlds they will live in. That as difficult as it may be for some to come to terms with, this moment requires a whole scale “radical rethink” in much different terms from the one Jeb Bush wants, the same type of rethink that newspapers and media and businesses and others are undergoing.

And it’s time to raise our game, write comments and op-ed pieces and journal articles and books, have conversations with parents (or at least give them some reading to do), speak up at conferences and board meetings and elsewhere, not about the wonders of technology but about the changed landscape of literacies and skills and dispositions that the current system, online or off, is not able to provide to our kids in its current iteration. That schools can be places of wonder and exploration and inquiry and creation, not just force fed curriculum 75% of which our kids will forget within months of consuming it. That learning and reform as they are currently being defined are both nothing of the sort. 

</rant>

"My Teacher is an App." Really? If that’s fine with you, stay silent. If not, I don’t think it’s ever been clearer where the lines are being drawn.

You are the lead learner in your community. Not Jeb Bush. Not Rupert Murdoch. Not Pearson. You. 

Lead.

November 3rd, 2011

Redefining Our Value

Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking more and more that the biggest challenge we face as educators is redefining our value as schools and classrooms and teachers, not just to the taxpaying public but to ourselves as well. It’s becoming more and more apparent to me that unless we are able to articulate and manifest that shift, we really do risk losing much of what is meaningful and important about the school experience for our kids. 

And there is an urgency to this now that I’m not sure many are feeling. Recently, I heard a well respected author say during a presentation “We all know that kids don’t learn anything that we don’t teach them.” And I heard another wildly successful author about school practice comment that what we need to do to improve schools is to focus more on the techniques of direct instruction, using technology sparingly and on the edges. 

Here’s the point: if we see direct instruction as our value, if what we care about is “higher student achievement” in the context of passing the test, we are, in a word, screwed.

The reality? Technology will soon provide a better “learning” experience to kids needing to pass the test than a classroom teacher with 30 (or 50) kids. Self-paced, formatively assessed, personalized to each student’s needs. I wrote about Knewton a couple of weeks ago, and just a couple of days ago came news that they’ve joined forces with Pearson to create an individualized data-driven learning platform that will no doubt spawn a host of other startups in the education space. Read it, and most likely, weep:

Students in these courses use the computer during class time to work through material at their own speed. Through diagnostics taken along the way, the program creates a “personalized learning path” that targets exactly what lessons they need to work on and then delivers the appropriate material. Points, badges and other game mechanics theoretically keep students chugging through courses with more motivation. In the meantime, teachers learn which students are struggling with exactly which concepts.

If this is what we value, teachers will be reduced to folks who fill in the blanks that the software can’t…yet. Or to put it another way (again), if this is what we value, we don’t need teachers any more, nor do we need schools. And to be honest, it’s not hard to see a whole bunch of policy makers and businessmen who are just salivating at that prospect. I know that schools aren’t going away any time soon, (what would we do with our kids?) but our current concept of schools (or at least our greatest wish for schools) as places of inspiration and inquiry and joy in learning will die a quick death. 

I think Peggy Orenstein captures this pretty well in her column in the Times this week which described the tension between test scores and learning at a New Hampshire middle school that was featured in the paper earlier:

In the end, I guess, I believe in the quality, competence and creativity of her teachers. And perhaps that’s a type of faith worth having, one that in public education is being permanently (and sometimes understandably) eroded. Linda Rief, one of the Oyster River teachers, told Mr. Winerip that she feared “public schools where teachers are trusted to make learning fun are on the way out.”

“Ms. Rief understands that packaged curriculums and standardized assessments offer schools an economy of scale that she and her kind cannot compete with,” Mr. Winerip writes.

There is an urgency now to redefine our value. We cannot be about passing the test. We cannot be about content to the extent we are today because content is everywhere. We cannot be about a curriculum that’s a mile wide and an inch deep. Something else can do that now, and in some ways, that’s a good thing. We have to be about the thing that technology cannot and will not be able to do, and that’s care deeply for our kids as humans, help them develop passions to learn, solve problems that are uniquely important to them, understand beauty and meaning in the world, help them play and create and apply knowledge in ways that add to the richness of life, and develop empathy and deep contextual understanding of the world. And more. 

To me, at least, our profession is in trouble not because of the technology, but because of the current expectations we have of schools. We need to start these conversations around redefinition today, shift this thinking now, not tomorrow. We need to make the case to parents and board members and policy makers and each other that while technology may now serve as a better option for kids needing to learn discrete skills or facts to pass the test, our great value is to cultivate and help develop those uniquely human dispositions and abilities that in the end will allow our kids to use what they know in ways that can make this world a better place and hopefully, save us from ourselves. And that that is an opportunity for change that we cannot waste.

There is an urgency now, for if what we as a society continue to value is the test, we’re lost.

October 24th, 2011

The Correct Question

Seth Godin nails it:

"The question that gets asked about technology, the one that is almost always precisely the wrong question is, "How does this advance help our business [read: education system]?”

The correct question is, “how does this advance undermine our business [read: education] model and require us/enable us to build a new one?”

Yep. That’s the question alright.

October 12th, 2011

The Talent Divide

Thomas Friedman quotes John Hagel III in his column today, talking about the “Big Shift” that he wrote about with John Seely Brown in their book The Power of Pull. What resonates here is the idea that to be successful in the “flow of ideas” that we are now a part of, we need to be constantly growing our talents. (Read: Our kids need to be constantly growing their talents.) Here is the snip:

In their recent book, “The Power of Pull,” they suggest that we’re in the early stages of a “Big Shift,” precipitated by the merging of globalization and the Information Technology Revolution. In the early stages, we experience this Big Shift as mounting pressure, deteriorating performance and growing stress because we continue to operate with institutions and practices that are increasingly dysfunctional — so the eruption of protest movements is no surprise.

Yet, the Big Shift also unleashes a huge global flow of ideas, innovations, new collaborative possibilities and new market opportunities. This flow is constantly getting richer and faster. Today, they argue, tapping the global flow becomes the key to productivity, growth and prosperity. But to tap this flow effectively, every country, company and individual needs to be constantly growing their talents.

“We are living in a world where flow will prevail and topple any obstacles in its way,” says Hagel. “As flow gains momentum, it undermines the precious knowledge stocks that in the past gave us security and wealth. It calls on us to learn faster by working together and to pull out of ourselves more of our true potential, both individually and collectively. It excites us with the possibilities that can only be realized by participating in a broader range of flows. That is the essence of the Big Shift.”

How long it will take for the larger population to recognize the dysfunction of the institution of schooling remains to be seen. But this idea of constant upgrading resonates and begs the question (once again) how are we preparing our kids for this? How are we helping them learn faster and work with others to pull out their true potential? How are we acclimating them to a world where skills and dispositions are more important that carrying around “knowledge stocks” in their heads?

Unfortunately, right now the answer appears to be “not much.” 

In all of this, I can’t help but think of Steve Jobs, who by any stretch was a visionary and in many ways an outlier. But he’s also a model for what Hagel and Brown are talking about. 

October 6th, 2011

The Start of a Revolution?

So, I’m kinda fascinated by the whole #occupyWallStreet protest on a couple of levels. First, it’s about time we started organizing against the monied interests that have literally taken over this country for their own purposes. But second, I keep trying to find a crossover to education. Here’s a snip from a great piece in Salon that got me thinking about this again:

The idea is that if you have a very powerful meme — a very powerful idea — and the moment is ripe, then that is enough to ignite a revolution…We’re in an economic crisis, an ecological crisis, [an educational crisis, too] living in a sort of apocalyptic world, and the young people realize they don’t really have a viable future to look forward to. This movement that’s beginning now could well be the second global revolution that we’ve been dreaming about for the last half a century.

Hyperbole? Maybe. But I’m persuaded by those that see something bigger evolving here. And it leads me to lots more questions.

  • What’s the “very powerful meme” building in education that can create a bloodless, progressive revolution in schools?
  • How are we talking in our schools and classrooms with our students about dissent and protest?
  • How are we preparing our students to participate in these new ways a la hashtags and online petitions and publishing and working in both virtual and meatspace to change the world?
  • How are we helping students follow this story and others like it, “managing, analyzing and synthesizing” it (NCTE) to understand it more deeply?

It’s going to be interesting to see how all of this plays out; there are some big events being planned around the #ows meme in the next month. But shouldn’t we already be talking about this stuff with our kids? In my case, I want my own children to be participants, not just spectators, to do what they can do and use the tools they have available to them to roll up their sleeves and work for the change they decide is valuable to work for. Am I an outlier?

We’ve got a case study right in front of us. Are we using it?

October 4th, 2011

No Quick Fix

It’s always interesting to me how many people in education, once they start waking up to the big shifts that are afoot, immediately jump to the “ok, so how do we change our schools?” question without addressing the “How do we change ourselves?” question first. It’s as if they’re looking to buy the off-the-shelf “EduChange” software program and install it on top of their current school operating system. They don’t like to be told that there is no program to buy, no system upgrade to run, and that the only way they’re going to start doing anything really differently is if they decide to reflect on their own learning first.

That’s too hard.

Meaningful change ain’t gonna happen for our kids if we’re not willing to invest in it for ourselves first. At the heart, it’s not about schools…it’s about us.

September 30th, 2011

What if we Did School for Kids, Not Adults?

(UPDATE: After a post-posting Twitter exchange with Chris Lehmann, I’m thinking a better title might be “…for Kids AND Adults.”) 

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the education issue here in the states, lots of mostly white middle-aged “experts” meeting and pontificating about change at venues like NBC’s “Education Nation" and the New York Times "Schools for Tomorrow" conference. At the latter, they actually had two panels about students without inviting…wait for it…any students to participate. And Ed Nation felt more like a roll call for the biggest spenders and businesses with a financial stake in education moving forward.

You can’t help but walk away thinking that we’re going to be hellbent on keeping the system manageable for the adults regardless of what my be best for the kids. I know I’ve offered up this Clay Shirky quote before, but let’s not forget that “Institutions will always try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution,” and that is certainly the case right now in education. John Merrow wrote a summary piece about Ed Nation that can’t escape that “let’s do what we’ve been doing better” lens, but one of his commentors, Ken Bernstein, gets it right:

Our schools are now, and have for more than a century, largely been structured for the convenience of the adults involved with them than for the real benefit and learning of the students whom somehow we seem to want to treat as interchangeable parts.

Amen. It’s offensive the way we talk about kids as if they are numbers to be managed and improved, that success has less to do with the types of human beings they become than the scores they “achieve,” and that their desire and ability to continue to learn really doesn’t factor that much into the equation. The current conversation is steeped in tweaking the system, not fundamentally changing it, even though fundamentally changing it would serve our children and, frankly, our nation. I totally understand the magnitude of the articulated “problem” which is to provide every child with an adequate education. But the real problem is that the system is not working for our kids or for us.

Let’s be honest…we are not the most intellectually curious society these days. We routinely ignore science, we’re addicted to Jersey Shore and American Idol, and we disregard our own health to a frightening degree. We don’t know much about the way the world works, and worse, we have no real curiosity about it anyway. We lack energy and inspiration. We act is if we are helpless to do anything to solve our problems or change our world, and our leaders show us no different.

Is it a stretch to suggest that much of what we’re struggling with right now is because of the education system we’ve built and the emphasis we’ve placed on the test? We’ve been taught to hate ambiguity, that only one answer exists, that if we have enough money, we can game the test. We’ve been taught that learning ends once the test is mastered, that our passions don’t matter, and that numbers rather than goods tell our educational story. 

Yet, this is what we perpetuate because for the adults, it’s the easiest path. It’s easier to define success in numbers, easier to manage kids as groups, and easier to tweak than to reimagine, none of which serves our students as well as they deserve.

Kids are not interchangeable parts. If we sincerely valued what was best for them, we’d start talking about change in meaningful ways, not just in ways that support the status quo. 

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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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