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.)

February 20th, 2014

A World Upended…”Get Ready”

From the “I Really Don’t Mean to Be Debbie Downer Department” comes this analysis from a fascinating and scary newish blog from John Robb:

Technological change is rapidly killing entire industries and job categories without replacing them.   Across the board, incremental productivity improvements are making it possible for employers to get by without hiring new people (even the head of the biggest employer in the World has plans to replace most of his workers with robots).  However, that won’t be where we see the greatest losses.   Those losses will occur in the industries that are completely gutted from the arrival of products and services that make them obsolete.

As this trend strengthens, we may see results similar to what we saw with the agrarian economy.   If that occurs, the extreme endpoint of this decline may be a world where most of the commercial activity in goods and services we see today — from education to health care to manufacturing to transportation to retail to legal services — is accomplished by less than 1% of the people it used to require.  

That means only 1 of the hundred jobs being done currently will be left.  More strikingly, it’s very likely this won’t take the 200 years it took agriculture to go from 95% of the population to less than 1%.  It’s going to be much, much faster this time due to the speed at which improvements can be distributed (software/data).  Given this catalyst, we may find ourselves more than half of the way there within twenty years.

Not quite the world we’re educating our kids for, huh?

November 30th, 2012

Tornado of Change in Education

The Economist:

Moreover, the promise that an expensive degree at a traditional university will pay off rests on some questionable assumptions; for example, that no cheaper way of attaining this educational premium will emerge. Yet there is a tornado of change in education that might challenge this, either through technology or through attempts to improve the two-year community college degree and render it more economically valuable. Another assumption, which is proved wrong in the case of 40% of students, is that they will graduate at all. Indeed, nearly 30% of college students who took out loans eventually dropped out (up from 25% a decade ago). These students are saddled with a debt they have no realistic means of paying off.

I don’t think MOOCs or free courses or badges are necessarily the answer to the “problems” of higher ed and the huge investment required for an education. But I do think they represent important early innovations that if I were the parent of an elementary school kid right now I’d be pretty tuned in to. The traditional “college is the primary path to success” narrative is changing, and the options will no doubt increase.  

November 27th, 2012

The Data of Work

Michael Schrage in the Harvard Business Review blog:

Where ambitious project managers, team leaders and business unit heads once visited their alma maters to interview top talent, they’ll increasingly be going back to check out their school’s attitude/aptitude/high-performance assessment algorithms. Where organizations once demanded student transcripts, they’ll now demand access to schools’ “advisory engine” software. Ironically, the biggest impact America’s higher education system may have on business is less about the students they educate than the tools and technologies they use to manage them.

What’s happening in higher education assessment today will increasingly define the job and performance reviews of tomorrow. It barely took five years for the iPhone to displace the Blackberry as the corporate mobile device of executive choice. How long do you think it will be before the software used to assess college students will be entrepreneurially transformed into Amazonesque and Netflixed-like services “recommending” whether you deserve a raise or a promotion? Whether the economy improves quickly or sluggishly, the technologies of assessment are going to reshape both your compensation and your opportunities.

November 19th, 2012

A “Behaviorally Different Species” of Learner

Ben Williamson

In the traditional conception of school, the learner was invoked as a docile individual who turned up to school to be instructed in a core canon of curricular content and codes of behavioral conduct. Now, in our digital times, the learner is being reimagined as a more active, interactive, connected and collaborative individual—a behaviorally different species to the normalized learner of mass schooling. The contemporary connected learner travels continually between formal and informal sites of learning, building networks of knowledge through the use of sophisticated software and the real-world application of soft skills, positive attitudinal dispositions, and behavioral competencies. For such a learner, the behavioral competencies of communication, perseverance, interaction, thinking skills, emotional literacy, empathy, problem-solving, and other personal attributes are now increasingly desirable in a world where more jobs will be recruited on soft performance criteria such as relationship management and customer satisfaction.

I’ve been thinking even more about this shift away from formal (traditional) learning to more informal learning within the classroom. Could we at some point give credit (real credit) to a student for the development of those “soft skills” as they manifest themselves within her work to learn something she chooses, not something that we have assigned her to learn? 

Echoes of not valuing the immeasurable…

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.)


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. 


"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. 


June 25th, 2011

Are We Irrelevant?

Today is turning out to be Scott McLeod day here on my Tumblr page. It’s hard to argue with this:

We know, simply from projecting current trends forward, that in the future our learning will be even more digital, more mobile, and more multimedia than it is now. It will be more networked and more interconnected and often will occur online, lessening dependence on local humans. It frequently will be more informal and definitely will be more self-directed, individualized, and personalized. It will be more computer-based and more software-mediated and thus less reliant on live humans. It will be more open and more accessible and may occur in simulation or video game-like environments. And so on. We’re not going to retrench or go backward on any of these paths. We thus need school leaders who can begin envisioning the implications of these environmental characteristics for learning, teaching, and schooling. We need administrators who can design and operationalize our learning environments to reflect these new affordances. We need leaders who are brave enough to create the new paradigm instead of simply tweaking the status quo and who have the knowledge and ability to create schools that are relevant to the needs of students, families, and society…

None of us are exempt. We can’t firmly believe in ‘life-long learning’ and simultaneously not be clued in to the largest transformation in learning that ever has occurred in human history. Those two don’t co-exist. Being a ‘life-long learner’ is not ignoring what’s going on around us; we don’t get to claim the title of ‘effective educator’ or ‘excellent professor’ if we do this. We must change inertia into momentum. That’s what we owe our children and grandchildren.

Read the full essay to get what I think is a pretty compelling case for change. Then forward it to your administrators, school board members, and community leaders. Ask them what they think.


June 21st, 2011

What is the Purpose of Schooling?

Must read piece by Zoe Weil, who is more and more becoming a big influence in my thinking. It’s not that I haven’t had these same concerns, but she is articulating them in a way that I find really compelling. We must begin thinking about schools and schooling differently because, as she suggests here, verbal, mathematical and scientific literacy to compete in the economy is no longer enough.

Given the world we live in today – which is approaching 7 billion people (1 billion of whom are undernourished and lacking ready access to clean water); where species are becoming extinct at alarming rates dramatically reducing biodiversity; where over 25 million live enslaved; in which looming peak oil threatens to make the current recession seem like boom times; where climate change is leading to rising seas, desertification, flooding, environmental refugees, crop failures, and more; where nuclear weapons still proliferate; and where a trillion animals are brutalized every year for food in unsustainable and inhumane ways – it’s critical to seriously and carefully consider what knowledge and skills youth most need to acquire for their, and all our futures. In the face of the challenges listed above (and many others left out of this list), is literacy and the capacity to compete in the global economy a big enough goal for schooling?

At the Institute for Humane Education (IHE), we don’t think so, and the first question that we address in our teacher training programs is, “What is schooling for?” This is where we must begin before developing any reforms, curricula, schools, lesson plans, initiatives, teaching strategies, or policies. At IHE we believe that we need to graduate a generation with the knowledge, tools, and motivation to become conscientious choicemakers and engaged changemakers for a healthy, just, and peaceful world for all, but whether one adopts our goal or another, this core question is essential, yet it rarely comes up in discussions about school reform. By largely accepting without debate the assumption that the goal of schooling is verbal, mathematical and scientific literacy to compete in the global economy, we have failed in the primary task for addressing any reform: to determine the most pressing, appropriate, and meaningful goal.


June 10th, 2011
But authors Morley Winograd and Michael Hais, who have previously written about the younger generation, warn in their new book, “Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America,” that private sector leaders that they too will have a responsibility: “(T)heir leadership paradigm will have to change just as radically as conventionally accepted notions of what drives economic growth. A new type of organizational leadership that matches the values and beliefs of Millennials will be required in order to engage those fortunate enough to have a job in the process of innovation and creativity….”
In other words, watch out. If the economy doesn’t make room for these young people, there’s a very good chance they will find ways to change the economy to make room for themselves.

New Grads Adapt to Job Market Realities | PBS NewsHour | June 8, 2011 | PBS

Another reason we should be giving kids more opportunities for self-direction in K-12…they’re going to need that disposition more than ever.

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