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.

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?

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. 

January 14th, 2014

Making Ourselves Vulnerable

George Siemens:

Learning is vulnerability. When we learn, we make ourselves vulnerable. When we engage in learning, we communicate that we want to grow, to become better, to improve ourselves. When I first started blogging, I had a sense of fear with every post (“did that sound stupid?”), loss of sleep soul-searching when a critical comment was posted, and envy when peers posted something brilliant (“wow, why didn’t I think of that?”). When a student posts an opinion in a discussion forum or when someone offers a controversial opinion – these are vulnerability-inducing expressions. On a smaller scale, posting a tweet, sharing an image, or speaking into the void can be intimidating for a new user. (I’m less clear about how being vulnerable becomes craving attention for some people as they get immersed in media!). While the learning process can’t be short-circuited, and the ambiguity and messiness can’t be eliminated, it is helpful for educators to recognize the social, identity, and emotional factors that influence learners. Often, these factors matter more than content/knowledge elements in contributing to learner success.

Walk down the vendor floor of any big edu-conference and you’ll see our obsession with making learning less messy and less “vulnerable.” Struggle, patience, courage, persistence, failure, passion…none of these are quantifiable to the degree that reformers or most edupreneurs need them to be to “count.” Yet schools will spend time and money (lots of it) on stuff that organizes, compartmentalizes, personalizes, standardizes, and captures “learning” in order to be compared “successfully” to other districts down the road.

If we fail to recognize the inherent risk that goes with learning something new, we fail our kids. Yet we try to mitigate that risk in almost every decision we make. 

March 4th, 2013

The Questions

Audrey Watters, in her most excellent post deconstructing Sugata Mitra’s $1 million TED prize award from last week:

I have questions about this history of schooling as Mitra (and others) tell it, about colonialism and neo-colonialism. I have questions about the funding of the initial “Hole in the Wall” project (it came from NIIT, an India-based “enterprise learning solution” company that offers 2- and 4-year IT diplomas). I have questions about these commercial interests in “child-driven education” (As Ellen Seitler asks, “can the customer base be expanded to reach people without a computer, without literacy, and without any formal teaching whatsoever?”). I have questions about the research from the “Hole in the Wall” project — the research, not the 15 minute TED spiel about it. I have questions about girls’ lack of participation in the kiosks. I have questions about project’s usage of retired British schoolteachers — “grannies” — to interact with Indian children via Skype.

I have questions about community support. I have questions about what happens when we dismantle public institutions like schools — questions about social justice, questions about community, questions about care. I have questions about the promise of a liberation via a “child-driven education,” questions about this particular brand of neo-liberalism, techno-humanitarianism, and techno-individualism.

Here’s my question: What happens to these questions (and others) that we need to be asking about schools and classrooms and learning in general? How do we answer them? How do they enter the larger debate which, by and large, has and is ignoring them?

Whether you agree/believe/get tingly about Mitra’s work or not, and regardless how you feel about the whole TED approach, this award does, I think, serve a positive purpose in our little corner of the student-centered reform world here. There are now whole bunches of more people considering the role of schools, the value of technology in learning, and the new paths that are opening up to learning. In many cases, his vision is going to pull this conversation to a different place. There are lots more questions being asked. I think, on balance, that can be a good thing.

But only if we’re engaging in those conversations critically. Only if, like Audrey, we’re willing to read further, to engage in the debate, to articulate our own thinking around it not just to those we know in our local communities but in our online communities as well. Only if we’re brave enough to take the learner’s stance and say “I’ve got an opinion, but I want to know more.”

This is hard, especially in the online space. And it’s not just the idea that online spaces can bend toward an uncivil, almost bullying tone. It takes a confidence and boldness to engage. This is not easy even for someone like me who has been doing it for a dozen years or so. My brain explodes when I think of all the people (many of whom I know) who are just much smarter than I who might read this and might chuckle at my ignorance.

Yet I’ll read and I’ll write because I want to know more, and I want those who might read this to help me clarify my thinking, and I trust them to do so with civility and not disdain. But I also know full well that the vast majority of people who read this won’t engage either here or elsewhere. 

Which, as almost always, brings me back to my kids. How do I/we help them help them want to learn more, help them understand the value of engagement, and help them become able to navigate the rough spots in all of this? I’m not sure Mitra’s vision is the definitive answer, and as Audrey suggests, there is much more a potential public good in community schools that can be replaced by grannies in the cloud.

But it does beg that ongoing question that we still need to push: are our schools and systems helping our kids develop into the types of modern learners that will flourish in this  modern world? And if not, what do we do about that?

February 11th, 2013

Good Luck With That

Alex Reid on the National Council Teachers of English updated release of their literacy framework:

What NCTE recognizes is that English should be the means by which such literacy is acquired (at least in the US, which is the nation in “National Council”). To that I say, “good luck.” Good luck providing this professional development for existing teachers, who are not prepared to do this. Good luck finding university English departments with faculty to provide this literacy to the general population of college students, let alone educate preservice K-12 teachers or graduate students who will become university faculty. Good luck finding English departments who even remotely view digital literacy as a subject that even marginally concerns them, let alone one that would be central to their curriculum in the way that print literacy is now. As I suggested above, I think you’d have better luck selling the average college English department on becoming grammar-centric than you would on becoming digital-centric.

…The truth is that if this was 2003 and a department recognized that digital literacy was going to become the issue that might make or break their disciplinary future, then by now they might have four or five digital scholars hired and a couple tenured. Maybe they’d be in a position to deliver this content today. But few departments did that. This means the transition is likely to be rocky.

Rocky, indeed.

February 7th, 2013

As Goes Journalism…?

Ryan McCarthy:

The dirty secret about the web media business is that there’s a massive oversupply problem. Everyday, content creators are producing more journalism, more think-pieces, more interactive graphics, more photo galleries, more tweets, more slideshows, more videos, more GIFs, and more deviously socially-optimized Corgi listicles. All of that is being distributed via more channels on more devices. This creates more supply for display ads, web media’s favorite and still growing revenue generator. All that supply, however, drags down ad prices…

…a wide swath of media — journalism included — is becoming less and less valuable as the Internet gets bigger.

I’ve been saying for quite some time that if you want to get a sense of what’s in store for education, look at what’s happening to journalism. Reporters and writers are now everywhere. Content and news is everywhere. It’s changing the very nature of the business. 

Same for education, just that now it’s content and teachers that are increasingly everywhere you turn. The economics are the hard part…what happens when you need scale to make a living? What happens when teachers find themselves competing with other teachers for students? What happens when school is something your organize for yourself?

Pretty sure we’re about to find out…

February 6th, 2013

The Birth of a Middle School

Just a quick update on the Triangle Learning Community Middle School that I’ve blogged about here before. Founder Steve Goldberg reports that he’s just signed a lease, and that there will soon be some serious inquiry-based, student-directed learning going on in North Carolina this fall.

From the outset, Steve’s been building on fundamental ideas for progressive schooling enriched and immersed in connective technologies. Just a snip from his website:

It’s not time to reform existing schools (created in an industrial age where it sort of made sense to go from French to Biology to English every 50 minutes) — it’s time to re-think what’s possible for 21st century learners.

 TLC students will pursue real-world project-based learning. Unlike most middle schools, where students move from teacher to teacher and switch subjects every 45 minutes, we will build a strong sense of community with a team of two learning facilitators working in concert to create the best possible learning environment for the twenty students who will be a tight-knit learning community for three years. Students at TLC will spend their days together in thoughtful blocks of time.

It’s interesting to see how educators like Steve are forging their own path and finding ways to innovate around the idea of “school.” He’s articulating a valuable vision for what school might become.

I really urge you to check out what he’s been up to and to continue to think about ways to “rethink” our own systems and practices to move in the same direction. 

January 22nd, 2013

We’re Getting Rolled

Tom Hoffman:

Ten years ago, “school reform” at least equally applied to Deborah Meier and Ted Sizer as it did to, say, Joel Klein.

In the intervening decade, I’ve become a social software curmudgeon — you’ll pull Blogger from my cold, dead hands — and yielded the “ed reformer” tag to people and practices I hate.

Basically, in both cases, the money men started to roll in and roll over the geeks and the teachers who were building tools and schools with an eye to something other than the market, or market-based logic. We’re only just now hitting the point where it is clear the grifters are rolling into schools like Visigoths, but even when the point hasn’t been to make money directly, it has been to apply the methods of business to education.

It has taken a while to sort out, but at this point many of the leading figures in screwing up the internet are also leaders in screwing up education (reform): Gates, Zuckerberg, Jobs (RIP), etc. It isn’t hard to tease out the common thread. The earnest geeks who do things, understand how things work, and care about actual people get rolled by the big money guys. That’s it.

And, the other folks who are screwing up education are those who stand silent and watch it happen…

January 16th, 2013

The Anti-Education Era

James Paul Gee from the introduction of The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Through Digital Learning:

This book is about what it means to be smart and to be a fully awake participant in our high-risk global world in the twenty-first century. It is about what parents ought to do to forestall their children becoming victims in that high-risk world. The book is about how to think about the future before we humans don’t have one. We need to save our children and ourselves from the sorts of human stupidity to which we are all prone, but that are now way too dangerous to indulge in. To have a future we need to start exercising our smart side more, a side that today’s schools, colleges, and media have too often put to sleep.


January 14th, 2013

Results That Matter

Nicholas Carr in MIT’s Technology Review:

Looking toward the future, Kuntz says that computers will ultimately be able to tailor an entire “learning environment” to fit each student. Elements of the program’s interface, for example, will change as the computer senses the student’s optimum style of learning.

The advances in tutoring programs promise to help many college, high-school, and even elementary students master basic concepts. One-on-one instruction has long been known to provide substantial educational benefits, but its high cost has constrained its use, particularly in public schools. It’s likely that if computers are used in place of teachers, many more students will be able to enjoy the benefits of tutoring. According to one recent study of undergraduates taking statistics courses at public universities, the latest of the online tutoring systems seem to produce roughly the same results as face-to-
face instruction.

Adds to my post from yesterday, but don’t miss the point. The most important word to parse in this snip is “results.” And this is what drives me crazy when we talk about this stuff. We all know that Carr is talking about performance results as measured by competencies or tests or grades, but are those the only results that matter in face-to-face instruction?

Apparently so.

Let me be really, really clear. The teaching profession is absolutely important and worth fighting for. But I’m convinced, in the current climate especially here in the US, that simply pushing back against these types of innovations by attacking their lack of humanity will not work. At the end of the day, if technology continues to bring better scores and better economics to the equation, I’m not sure the separation between “tutoring” and “teaching” will be deemed worth saving.

I appreciate the stories of learning that many are telling now, stories of inquiry and creation and authentic work using technology to deepen and scale the experience.  Somehow, we’re going to have to make those stories scale.

January 9th, 2013

Deep Learning for Students

Ron Berger in Edutopia:

In all of my years sitting in classrooms as a student, in public schools that were highly regarded, I never once produced anything that resembled authentic work or had value beyond addressing a class requirement. My time was spent on an academic treadmill of turning in short assignments completed individually as final drafts — worksheets, papers, math problem sets, lab reports — none of which meant much to anyone and none of which resembled the work I have done in the real world. Although I received good grades, I have no work saved from my days in school, because nothing I created was particularly original, important or beautiful.

Yet when we finish school and enter the world of work, we are asked to create work of value — scientific reports, business plans, websites, books, architectural blueprints, graphic artwork, investment proposals, medical devices and software applications. This work is created over weeks or months with team consultation, collaboration and critique, and it goes through multiple revisions. The research, analysis, and production involve multiple disciplines, such as reading, writing, mathematics, science, engineering and design.

When will students develop the skills to do this kind of work if not in school? It’s not just the reading and math skills; it’s also the planning, problem solving and working collaboratively. When do we believe students will develop the dispositions to persevere over time with a challenging project and hold themselves to high standards of quality? These skills and mindsets — collectively known as Deeper Learning — can only be built through long-term practice in classrooms where students work together on significant projects.

The very few artifacts I have of my own learning in school are artifacts of “deep learning.”

I totally agree that if we’re not giving kids opportunities to go deep into subjects and ideas that they find interesting, we’re not giving them the experiences they need to flourish in an abundant world. 

January 9th, 2013

Utter Lack of Intellectual Bravery

Jesse Stommel:

Those of us responsible for education (both its formation and care) are hugging too tightly to what we’ve helped build, its pillars, policies, economies, and institutions. None of these, though, map promisingly into digital space. If we continue to tread our current path, we’ll be left with a Frankenstein’s monster of what we now know of education. This is the imminent destruction of our educational system of which so many speak: taking an institution inspired by the efficiency of post-industrial machines and redrawing it inside the machines of the digital age. Education rendered into a dull 2-dimensional carbon copy, scanned, faxed, encoded and then made human-readable, an utter lack of intellectual bravery.

That last is precisely how I think of current education reformers who are tied to efficiencies over real opportunities to think about education and learning differently.

The list of things we need to “break” is daunting and almost all-encompassing. But the justifications are spot on. 

Read the whole thing.

January 7th, 2013

Here Come the Parents

From the WSJ:

But McGraw-Hill executives say that the new adaptive e-books will offer better learning methods for a cheaper price than traditional textbooks. Mr. Kibby and Mr. Christensen said that they have seen a lot of demand for their learning products coming from individual students and parents rather than just educators and school officials. [Emphasis mine.]

So, um, anyone surprised? We can’t really call it “opting out” quite yet, but if an education is defined by passing a test…

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