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.

September 20th, 2014

"Completely Inadequate or Outright Mistaken"

Some Saturday morning musings, 50-year-old musings I might add, from John Holt in How Children Learn:

We like to say that we send children to school to teach them to think. What we do, all too often, is to teach them to think badly, to give up a natural and powerful way of thinking in favor of a method that does not work well for them and that we rarely understand ourselves…

Only a few children in school ever become good at learning in the way we try to make them learn. Most of them get humiliated, frightened, and discouraged. They use their minds not to learn but to get out of doing the things we tell them to do—to make them learn. In the short run, these strategies seem to work. They make it possible for many children to get through their schooling even though they learn very little. But in the long run, these strategies are self-limiting and self-defeating, and destroy both character and intelligence. The children who use such strategies are prevented by them from growing into more than limited versions of the human beings they might have become. This is the real failure that takes place in school; hardly any children escape.

When we better understand the ways, conditions, and spirit in which children do their best learning, and are able to make school into a place where they can use and improve the style of thinking and learning natural to them, we may be able to prevent much of this failure. School may then become a place in which all children grow, not just in size, not even in knowledge, but in curiosity, courage, confidence, independence, resourcefulness, resilience, patience, competence, and understanding. To find how to do this best will take us a long time. We may find, in fifty or a hundred years that all of what we think of as our most up-to-date notions about schools, teaching and learning are either completely inadequate or outright mistaken. But we will make a big step forward if, by understanding children better, we can undo some of the harm we are now doing. [Emphasis mine.]

Here we are, 50 years later, and we may just now be beginning to challenge the fundamental premise of the institution. More smart, passionate educators are acknowledging the uncomfortable realities of teaching and leading in systems that feel increasingly obsolete and irrelevant to the modern world.

So, what if we’ve got it wrong? What if the efficiencies we’ve built in to the current design of schools, the age-groupings, the disciplines, the standardized assessments, the best-guess curriculum…what if all those things are now “inadequate” or “mistaken?”

By the way, none of those efficiencies come up when I ask educators “What are the conditions necessary for children to learn most deeply and powerfully?” Yet the disconnect between the answers we give and the realities of the classroom is acute.

September 17th, 2014

Expansion of Learning vs. Limits of Structures

Randy Bass:

Our understanding of learning has expanded at a rate that has far outpaced our conceptions of teaching. A growing appreciation for the porous boundaries between the classroom and life experience, along with the power of social learning, authentic audiences, and integrative contexts, has created not only promising changes in learning but also disruptive moments in teaching.


Now, fifteen-plus years into that shift, our understanding of learning is expanding in ways that are at least partially incompatible with the structures of higher education institutions. In addition, these developments are occurring at the same time that higher education is being asked to become more accountable for what students are learning. Ironically, these pressures for accountability are making us simultaneously more thoughtful and more limited in what we count as learning. The question that campus leaders need to address is how to reinvent a curriculum that lives in this new space.

Can the same be said for the structures of K-12?

September 10th, 2014

The “Coming Gig Economy” is Already Here

Bryan Alexander reports on a new survey of Harvard Business School alumni and the interesting ramifications for education. You seriously need to read the whole thing, but here are a couple of points that jumped out at me as someone concerned primarily with K-12 education and as the owner of two teenagers.

First, almost half of the firms represented in the survey report that they “prefer to invest in new technology to perform work rather than hire or retain employees.”

And second, almost half say that they “prefer to rely on vendors that can be outsourced rather than hire additional employees.”

Bryan’s somber summary:

Critics and outside observers have noticed this, but it’s something else to see business leaders openly declaring their plans.  As I’ve noted earlier, the American workplace continues to change.  Full-time lifelong careers decline, and the gig economy rises.  Overall employment may well decline.

There’s more in Bryan’s post, but if that in and of itself doesn’t give K-12 educators (and parents) pause, I’m not sure what will.

What new skills, dispositions, and literacies are required to succeed in the “Gig Economy?” How might we need to rethink the culture of schools to acclimate students to a more entrepreneurial, independent world of work? And how do we assess our students’ readiness for a much less predictable world of employment and work?

September 5th, 2014

Schools Don’t Equal an Education

Anya Kamenetz:

Among educators and families, there’s a level of resistance to and understanding that the tests we have are not really serving our kids, but what there isn’t, maybe, is an awareness of the alternatives. It’s Industrial Age thinking to believe our school system is identical to our education system. We have a universe of educational opportunities that did not exist ten years ago and they consist of small pieces loosely joined. At this moment, school-age children spend an equal amount of time with screens as they do in the classroom, if not more. And so the opportunities lie in digital media, in out-of-school learning, in maker spaces, in summer camps, in sports, in community groups—places at the margins where so much of the important work in imagining what schools and learning are going to look like.
September 2nd, 2014

Twitter Struggles

Bonnie Stewart:

Twitter is, as my research continues to show, a path to voice. At the same time, Twitter is also a free soapbox for all kinds of shitty and hateful statements that minimize or reinforce marginalization, as any woman or person of colour who’s dared to speak openly about the raw deal of power relations in society will likely attest. And calls for civility will do nothing except reinforce a respectability politics of victim-blaming within networks. This intractable contradiction is where we are, as a global neoliberal society: Twitter just makes it particularly painfully visible, at times. 

Because there is no way to win. The rot we’re seeing in Twitter is the rot of participatory media devolved into competitive spheres where the collective “we” treats conversational contributions as fixed print-like identity claims. As Emily Gordon notes, musing about contemporary Twitter as a misery vaccuum, the platform brings into collision people who would probably never otherwise end up in the same public space. Ever. And that can be amazing, when there are processes by which people are scaffolded into shared contexts. Or just absolutely exhausting. We don’t know how to deal with collapsed publics, full stop. We don’t know how to talk across our differences. So participatory media becomes a cacophonic sermon of shame and judgement and calling each other out, to the point where no identity is pure enough to escape the smug and pointless carnage of petty collective reproach.

I think, too, that the speed with which these social media tools are born and die makes the creation of norms around their use even more difficult. We knew the limits of paper and pen…but Twitter?

September 1st, 2014

19 Back to School Questions for Leaders

School starts on Wednesday, and here are some questions that I’d love my school’s leaders to answer. None of these were answered in the “Back to School” packets.

  • What is the mission and vision for teaching and learning that guides your work? In other words, what are your stated intents for my kids’ school experience, and what pedagogies, practices, and principles guide you to those outcomes?
  • How were your mission and vision formed?
  • What is the last book you read about learning?
  • Under what conditions do you feel children (or anyone, for that matter) learn most effectively?
  • What conversations are ongoing at a leadership level around how to best create those conditions?
  • What are the biggest challenges you face in educating my children? How are you trying to meet them?
  • What research around children and learning have you read recently that has impacted your thinking about our school?
  • How have you changed as a learner in the last five years?
  • How are you modeling your own personal learning practice for the school community?
  • Currently, who are your most influential teachers? Why?
  • How do you use technology to learn?
  • What was the last artifact of your own learning that you created with technology?
  • What expectations do you have for your teachers’ use of technology in their own learning?
  • What expectations do you have for your teachers’ use of technology in the classroom?
  • What are your thoughts on the relevance of the current system of schooling in the United States?
  • How do we best assess student learning?
  • As a parent, what do I need to know about the current realities of higher education?
  • As a parent, what do I need to know about the future of work?
  • As a parent, how is my kids’ school also my school?

Feel free to make this an even 20 in the comments.

August 21st, 2014

A Great School

Angelo Patri, writing in A Schoolmaster of the Great City in 1917:

The great school is one that preserves its life, dignifies it, holds itself responsible for the neighborhood and compels the neighborhood to rise to its highest level.

Unless a school enters deeply into the lives of the people, that school will not enter deeply into the lives of the children or into the lives of the teachers. Unless the school is the great democratic socializing agency, it is nothing at all.

Gary Stager had referenced this book to me on a number of occasions, saying that Patri solved all the problems of current schooling almost 100 years ago. After reading it on the plane ride home from my trip to Australia, I have to agree. This is a quick, eloquent, relevant read on lots of levels. At it’s heart, it’s about loving kids, about putting their welfare above all else, about really understanding how kids learn and how schools can best help them learn.

If you’re an educator, this would be a great way to start thinking about the new school year.

August 12th, 2014

The Best Time EVER to Begin

What if we said the following to all of our students on opening day of school, and them committed ourselves to helping them invent, innovate, iterate, and make a positive imapact on the world? 

Kevin Kelly:

So, the truth: Right now, today, in 2014 is the best time to start something on the internet. There has never been a better time in the whole history of the world to invent something. There has never been a better time with more opportunities, more openings, lower barriers, higher benefit/risk ratios, better returns, greater upside, than now. Right now, this minute. This is the time that folks in the future will look back at and say, “Oh to have been alive and well back then!”

The last 30 years has created a marvelous starting point, a solid platform to build truly great things. However the coolest stuff has not been invented yet — although this new greatness will not be more of the same-same that exists today. It will not be merely “better,” it will different, beyond, any other. But you knew that.  

What you may not have realized is that today truly is a wide open frontier. It is the best time EVER in human history to begin.

Sure, we educators have to believe this version of the future for ourselves. But can we take a serious look at the amazing innovation of even the last 15 years and not think that it’s only just the start? That the opportunities for kids who are tinkerers and playful, continual learners are unprecendented in our history as a species? 

More and more teachers and classrooms and, in some cases, schools are waking up to this reality. But our collective sense of the Internet filled world and it’s opportunities for learners is still painfully slow to evolve. The vast majority of educators and decision makers are still about “better.” But what’s coming is “different, beyond any other.” 

I believe that. You?

July 22nd, 2014

"Essay Ready Summers"

William Deresiewicz writing about how the Ivies are overrated:

It is true that today’s young people appear to be more socially engaged than kids have been for several decades and that they are more apt to harbor creative or entrepreneurial impulses. But it is also true, at least at the most selective schools, that even if those aspirations make it out of college—a big “if”—they tend to be played out within the same narrow conception of what constitutes a valid life: affluence, credentials, prestige.

Experience itself has been reduced to instrumental function, via the college essay. From learning to commodify your experiences for the application, the next step has been to seek out experiences in order to have them to commodify. The New York Times reports that there is now a thriving sector devoted to producing essay-ready summers, but what strikes one is the superficiality of the activities involved: a month traveling around Italy studying the Renaissance, “a whole day” with a band of renegade artists. A whole day!  

I’ve noticed something similar when it comes to service. Why is it that people feel the need to go to places like Guatemala to do their projects of rescue or documentation, instead of Milwaukee or Arkansas? When students do stay in the States, why is it that so many head for New Orleans? Perhaps it’s no surprise, when kids are trained to think of service as something they are ultimately doing for themselves—that is, for their résumés. “Do well by doing good,” goes the slogan. How about just doing good?  

If there is one idea, above all, through which the concept of social responsibility is communicated at the most prestigious schools, it is “leadership.” “Harvard is for leaders,” goes the Cambridge cliché. To be a high-achieving student is to constantly be urged to think of yourself as a future leader of society. But what these institutions mean by leadership is nothing more than getting to the top. Making partner at a major law firm or becoming a chief executive, climbing the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy you decide to attach yourself to. I don’t think it occurs to the people in charge of elite colleges that the concept of leadership ought to have a higher meaning, or, really, any meaning.

Read the whole thing.

July 17th, 2014

"Until These Things Change…"

Meredith Broussard:

It may be many years until Philadelphia’s education budget matches its curriculum requirements. In the meantime, there are a few things the district—and other flailing school districts in America—can do. Stop giving standardized tests that are inextricably tied to specific sets of books. At the very least, stop using test scores to evaluate teacher performance without providing the items each teacher needs to do his or her job. Most of all, avoid basing an entire education system on materials so costly that big, urban districts can’t afford to buy them. Until these things change, it will be impossible to raise standardized test scores—despite the best efforts of the teachers and students who will return to school this fall and find no new books waiting for them.

Amazing, and depressing read. 

July 10th, 2014

"Learning is What You Do to Yourself"

Joi Ito, head of the MIT Media Lab:

I’m a three-time college dropout, so learning over education is very near and dear to my heart, but to me, education is what people do to you and learning is what you do to yourself.

And it feels like, and I’m biased, it feels like they’re trying to make you memorize the whole encyclopedia before they let you go out and play, and to me, I’ve got Wikipedia on my cell phone, and it feels like they assume you’re going to be on top of some mountain all by yourself with a number 2 pencil trying to figure out what to do when in fact you’re always going to be connected, you’re always going to have friends, and you can pull Wikipedia up whenever you need it, and what you need to learn is how to learn…

…So I think the good news is that even though the world is extremely complex, what you need to do is very simple. I think it’s about stopping this notion that you need to plan everything, you need to stock everything, and you need to be so prepared, and focus on being connected, always learning, fully aware, and super present.

How do we learn to learn what we need to learn when we need to learn it with the people who can best help us learn it? 

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.

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