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. 

image

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.

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