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 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 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.

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 10th, 2014

Students as People or Profile?

Audrey Watters:

We have to ask more questions about the collection and analysis of student data that is feeding algorithms that promise “personalization.” What do technology companies actually mean by “personalization”? We have to consider if we are reducing students from people to profile — and we must ask these questions, knowing full well that education institutions have never really done a good job recognizing students as people.

How might the marketing promise surrounding “personalization” steer us away from self-direction and into pre-determined, pre-ordained pathways? Can we have “personalization” if it’s built on top of standardized of content?

If, as I said at the beginning of this talk, this is a great time to be a self-directed learner, how might technology be used to dull rather than empower learner agency?

What are the repercussions of competency-based and mastery-based learning? What are the repercussions of choice? What are the repercussions of distance? What are the repercussions of scaling? Who gains? Who gains from “choice” — how do we reconcile the individual’s needs, how the individual benefits — from society’s?

There’s a very powerful strain of American individualism — and California exceptionalism — that permeates technology: personal responsibility, self-management, autonomy. All that sounds great when you frame this — as I have repeatedly in this talk — in terms of self-directed learning. But how do we reconcile that individualism with the social and political and community development that schools are also supposed to support? How do we address these strains of individualism and libertarianism — anti-institutional, anti-governmental, and pro-“free market”? What do we do about the ways in which these ideologies are embedded deeply within many aspects digital technology in society?

I’m sure these questions are being considered in admin team meetings in schools across the country and the world. 


January 29th, 2014

It’s the Delivery, Silly

Winter weather may have kept Bishop Donahue High School students home from school Monday, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have to go class.

So starts a story in a West Virginia paper yesterday titled “Snow Days Become ‘Cyber Days’ at BDHS.” It’s as if school is now taking on the postal service’s famous creed: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these teachers from the swift completion of their appointed deliveries of education…thanks to the internet.”


Words matter here, right? So, it’s interesting that the “cyber day” has nothing to do with learning. (The word itself is mentioned just once when talking about “distance learning”being offered by colleges.) Instead, it’s “the school’s answer to lost instruction time.” Because all that instruction time is just way more important than playing in the snow or reading a good book or going on Minecraft or watching a few hours of tv and just chillin’.

Words matter:

The principal says “This way, we can keep students engaged and continue with lessons with school is canceled.” Really? This is engagement?

"Teachers sent online assignments in the morning through email and students were expected to get the work done by early evening. Students could ask questions by email in the early afternoon and the assignments were graded at the end of the day."

And why can they do this? Because every student has an…wait for it…iPad “they can take with them to complete schoolwork.”


And here is the absolute worst part.

"It’s a benefit if a child is sick or hospitalized or if they are on vacation, they still have access to school. It’s a real benefit. You’ll never replace a teacher in a classroom, but this is an awful good way to still have education continue on days that would have been lost."

Now, read that again.

It still shocks me, the extent to which we continue to dumb down the affordances of the Web and technology for authentic learning in the service of keeping the system grinding no matter what the obstacle. It still shocks me that even before we get to the tech discussion, we can’t seem to even get to the learning discussion. It’s all about schooling. This is the narrative we need to push back hard against.

I’m sure most read this article and think “Progress!” Instead, we should be thinking “Why?”

(See also.)

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