Category: leadership (page 1 of 5)

Technology Doesn’t Matter (Unless…)

Last week, I was reading a blog post written last fall by Tom Murray that popped up in my Twitter feed, “No. Your 3D Printer Does Not Make You Innovative.” I enjoyed the way Tom categorized the roles these exciting tools are playing in classrooms, ranging from “bandwagon” devices (which get purchased with great fanfare and excitement, only to go on to live sad, lonely lives gathering dust in a closet .somewhere) to “MVP” devices that powerfully transform learning.  I have personally witnessed the full range of these types of implementation over the past few years. Tom’s big point was that exciting technologies such as 3D printers aren’t worth the investment if schools do not evaluate what they are doing in the classroom to ensure they are leveraging the full potential of the devices. As he states in the post, “Innovation is not about tools. It’s about people, processes, and pedagogy.” 

Taking this idea one step further, let me say that the same principle applies to all educational technology resource we decide to invest in for our classrooms. Technology resources are significant investments for schools, and they are at times purchased with inadequate focus and vision for what they will be used to accomplish. This goes for 3D printers, laptops, Chromebooks, iPads, VR/AR systems, interactive white boards, desktop computers, robot systems, document cameras, LED projectors, software tools, etc. These technologies may well have the potential to transform learning by increasing student engagement, involving students in real problem-solving, facilitating innovation and invention, building curiosity and creativity, etc. However, this is much more likely when implementation follows planning to evolve instruction and create new, powerful kinds of learning experiences. On the other hand, each has the very real possibility to go down in flames as huge wastes of precious school dollars.

How do we ensure, then, that we are getting the most from our exciting, new investments?  Here are a few questions that might be helpful for schools to consider before investing in the latest, hottest technologies:

  1. What student need or learning outcomes will be met by this technology?  Does it fit our overarching “why?”
  2. Are there existing resources or less  costly alternatives that meet the same goals as effectively?
  3. Are current classroom structures well suited to make the most of this tool–furnishings, arrangement, schedule, grouping, management, etc.?
  4. What training will teachers and students need to effectively and powerfully  use this technology?
  5. How should instructional time look when this technology is in use by students?
  6. Could students adapt the tool to new applications that go beyond the curriculum? Beyond the classroom?
  7. How will success be measured?

In summation, for me it goes back to something I heard more than a decade ago in a workshop led by Dr. Bernajean Porter. Dr. Porter proposed that the highest use of technology was “transformative”, allowing students to do and experience things otherwise not possible. If an education technology is truly an advancement in student learning, this should be obvious in what is happening in the classroom. Even the most amazing and powerful tools, however, can be significantly handicapped by a lack of planning, training, or vision. The priority for successful and impactful implementation should be planning to ensure opportunities for students to successfully use the technologies they are provided to solve problems, create, invent, design, connect, communicate, and engage in ways they could not imagine doing without them.

More Reflections on Why

Another impact of the Simon Sinek book Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action is that I have been giving thought to how I could put my why into one concise, easily understood statement. While not ready to declare it as final, the following is the current incarnation:

To facilitate meaningful and engaging learning experiences that equip students to reach their dreams.

Here are a few key elements:

  1. Facilitate–my role is to provide tools, training, resources needed for learning.
  2. Meaningful–meaning is a highly personal thing, and we should look for and offer diverse learning opportunities and technologies reflective of the outside world
  3. Engaging–while digital learning tools are exciting to a large percentage of kids, they do not equal engagement by default. The focus still needs to be on powerful classroom practice that pulls learners in.
  4. Experiences–with a nod to John Dewey, learning is most effective within the context of powerful experiences. Do the technologies and strategies I promote create these?
  5. Equip…their dreams–we as educators are beholden to standards. Goals for our students are dictated from ivory towers and governments. Ultimately, however, I think most of us could see no higher level of success than if our students returned to us to tell us of big dreams we inspired and how they achieved those dreams.

Finally, another thought hit me yesterday: What would it look like if we taught our kids to articulate their whys? How might making these concrete affect how our students approach learning? Would our schools even fit their whys at all?

5 Things Schools Never Question But Should

Presented in no particular order, here are 5 deeply engrained ideas or practices in education that we follow, zombie-like, without asking if they are the best ways to promote student learning:

  • Number grades
  • Subject areas (science, English, reading, math, history, etc.)
  • Daily (and yearly) schedules
  • Report cards
  • Age-based grade levels

I think we could have some REALLY interesting faculty meetings just based on these pillars of education. What else should we question more? Could we do better, or are our current conceptions and applications of these things sound?

Does Educational Technology Matter?

Over the Thanksgiving break, multiple family road trips served as good opportunities to catch up on some audio books that I’ve been carrying around in my phone for the past year or so (My family might question this, but I’m driving, and they have their own headsets, so…). Once book I’ve been listening to is Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek. It is an interesting read/listen, if a bit repetitive at times. I have long believed that  vision was the best motivator of people, and Sinek shares many examples of groups where shared vision nurtured great accomplishment and sustained success. While primarily focused on business, the importance of understanding our why might be even more important in education. Our best schools and best educators are certainly not motivated by money or fame, after all. There is something more intrinsic and powerful that makes great teachers get to school early, stay late, create colorful and engaging learning environments, lend an ear to a student in crisis, continue to learn and grow professionally, put up with the tests and budget cuts, etc.

The book prompted me to do some reflecting on why I work as an educator and digital learning leader. Educational technology has been a source of some debate for many years. Research has, frankly, painted widely varying views of the educational impact and value of investing in computers, iPads, software, peripherals, etc. Entire schools have been set up as computer-free zones. Classroom technology and infrastructure funding are annually sources of debate and always on the chopping block. Still, technology integration remains something that some of us passionately promote at staff meetings, conferences, professional learning sessions, in social media, and even over family dinners. Here are my whys, which happily made a convenient acronym, CORE, and everyone loves acronyms!

  • Creativity — technologies offer countless opportunities for students to create.  Creativity is demonstrated and strengthened through producing an imaginative multimedia presentation or video, writing an original program, constructing a robot, or designing a 3D prototype. The most powerful moments I have witnessed involving educational technologies are those where original ideas became concrete products. Importantly, creative thinking transfers to almost all areas of life, whether solving a problem at work, fixing a car, raising a child, etc.  The creative processes of imagining something, making it, evaluating its quality, troubleshooting, and making needed improvements  are vital to our students’ future success, and technology is a valuable partner in their development.
  • Opportunity.  Whether a geek or a caveman, it is impossible to deny with sincerity or credibility the importance of some level of technological proficiency in the home, workspace, etc. Students who graduate without being able to use multiple tools and platforms are immediately at a disadvantage to more experienced peers, whether in the college classroom or the workplace. It is my goal for our Matador students to be exposed to a wide range of technology tools and, when possible, to master them. The opportunity to use these tools also opens students’ eyes and minds to future learning and working opportunities that they might have never considered or imagined. In short, I don’t want any of my Matadors to be limited in life by a lack of experiences while a student here.
  • Relevance. Used well and appropriately, educational technologies make learning immediately more relevant to students and the way they live. For example, a teacher could take students to the library or refer them to the class encyclopedia or dictionary to conduct research. I have heard teachers express that students need to know “how to do it the old fashioned way.” I have never churned butter, and it hasn’t once kept me from putting too much on my pancakes. I won’t argue against library research skills, but for most of us, research happens in the palm of our hands or sitting in front of a monitor. Name an elementary or middle school research topic, and a student can find an informative and suitable Youtube video in seconds (something they usually didn’t need a teacher to learn). Ed tech is comfortable and familiar to students, and the actions and products created reflect what they are doing and making outside of school. T
  • Engagement. My 3rd grade teacher’s biases aside, I have always found that happy students are more effective learners. Students faced with interesting, relevant, and challenging learning tasks  engage deeply and, therefore, learn better. Technology alone does not guarantee engaged kids. However, when technology is a part of a powerful, creative learning experience, and when it is a tool for creatively sharing ideas or projects, engagement soars. While “fun” should not be confused with engagement, students’ affinities for technologies make learning tasks less tedious, resulting in greater effort and stamina. The engagement effects can be especially significant for populations most at risk.

It should be mentioned that I don’t spend a lot of time promoting or supporting prescriptive technologies or software. I do recognize the value or place for some of these. However, specialized math tutorials, reading programs, commercial assessments, and similar technologies are simply too narrow in focus to fit the CORE reasoning behind what I do, and subject area specialists are often best suited to make those choices. For them, an important why might involve a student mastering multiplication facts or understanding context clues. My work necessitates that I focus on tools and strategies that have broader, more open-ended impact, and my whys reflect this.

It is also significant that I do not see high test scores as a worthy why or goal for using educational technologies. In my experience, effective, engaging learning experiences produce students more than capable of handling the tests. I wanted my students to truly lose themselves in the learning, and that is impossible if our why is just a  test. Tests are not a why that kids will share, and learning will suffer.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts. What are your whys? Leave your comments below. 🙂

Local Leaders Get Hands-on With Coding

Elementary campuses in Seguin this week have had several visitors attend technology classes to participate in Hour of Code activities. We have been privileged and excited to host current  and former school board members, a city councilperson, the president of our local chamber of commerce, the mayor of Seguin, and our county judge. Our guests tried their hands at a variety of coding tools, including Code.org, CodeMonkey, Lightbot, and CodeCombat, were introduced to the campuses’ 3D printing and design programs, and got a first-hand look at some of the ways the district is trying to give students a wide range of computer science experiences.

Block coding tools like Code.org have been used to intruduce basic concepts.

Block coding tools like Code.org have been used to intruduce basic concepts.

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City Councilwoman Fonda Mathis joined Jenifer Wells’ students at Rodriguez Elementary.

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Trusty Cindy Thomas-Jimenez received pointers from a Rodriguez Elementary coding pro.

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Trustee Ben Amador observes student coders using CodeMonkey at Patlan Elementary.

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20 levels of CodeMonkey have been added to Learning.com resources this school year.

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Code.org resources include educational videos, such as this one featuring one of the founders of the videogame Minecraft.

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Seguin mayor Don Keil joined students at Patlan Elementary for his second Hour of Code.

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Patlan Elementary students are excited about learning about coding!

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Mayor Keil and team work through a particularly challenging task.

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Seguin Councilwoman Fonda Mathis brought her computer science background to Rodriguez Elementary.

Trustee Amador also paid a visit to Mrs. Casiano's lab at Koennecke Elementary, where students were learning Python code using CodeCombat.

Trustee Amador also paid a visit to Mrs. Casiano’s lab at Koennecke Elementary, where students were learning Python code using CodeCombat.

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Trustee Cinde Thomas-Jimenez joined Rodriguez Elementary students in an Hour of Code.

Don’t Look Back

Doing a little scattershooting about what I believe will have to happen to get education to a better place…educationalchange

  1. Scrap the existing accountability system. Bankrupt the testing companies while you’re at it, right up to those AP and college entrance exams. Accountability if okay, especially if taxpayers are footing the bills, but tests were not invented to drive the bus. Create a new system based upon a variety of standards, not just bloated tests of obsolete or low-level performance. New criteria might include such things as randomized evaluations of the curriculum by student portfolio/performance assessment, student/teacher evaluations, community evaluations, or post-graduation student outcomes (jobs, trade school, college, etc.). Allow local districts/schools and communities to create their own systems.
  2. Scale the curricula back. Way back. As the standards exist today in our state, teachers hit the classroom running and keep running until they collapse from exhaustion at the end of testing season. Meanwhile, students have been exposed to far too many facts, figures, and formulas to explore in depth or practically apply, meaning long-term retention is highly unlikely. Focus on broader, disciplinary skills and give teachers and students more freedom to set the contexts of those skills based upon interests, current events, etc.
  3. Re-train our teachers, and re-design pre-service teacher programs. The role of the teacher as a brilliant dispenser of knowledge and wisdom, well-versed in everything from phonics to plate tectonics, needs to be laid to rest. Our kids have more knowledge in the devices in their pockets and purses than we could ever hope to achieve. Create a new generation of educators who set the stage for learning and doing and make brilliant adjustments, redirections, and clarifications on demand.
  4. Rethink the fundamentals. Grade levels were designed to ensure every student followed the same curriculum at the same age and at the same pace, as we prepared robots for factory work. Does anyone who has ever studied human development think all kids develop cognitively or emotionally at the same time and pace? While we’re shaking it up, why have separate subjects and class periods at all? If school learning is ever going to reflect real, human learning, it will have to be much more integrated and messy. And let’s abandon those letter and number grades, which are as useful for learning as gasoline is for putting out fires.
  5. Ensure all students have access to specific, fundamental technology resources, especially high-bandwidth internet. The form can vary, but students without fast speeds and capable devices are at a disadvantage, as more learning moves online, and video and video streaming resolution continues to increase. A student’s access to the knowledge and resources available online should not be determined by their zip code.

I really am confident that the future of education will be exciting and drastically different than it is now–it drives me to get to work every day. Maybe I am overly optimistic, but I anticipate a period of rapid change, probably within the next decade, as policy makers and educators finally recognize the futility of doing the same thing, just a little bit more intently, and expecting better results.

There are more I’m sorting out, but I wanted to get these out and perhaps stimulate some responses/discussion. What other catalyst events/changes must we see to get where we want to go?

Rapid Reaction: Most Likely to Succeed

The latest education-themed book I have finished is Most Likely to Succeed, by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith. It is a compelling, challenging book that questions a vast list of things that we take for granted as being fundamental in education: subject areas, daily schedules, grades, traditional assessment, standardized assessment, college entrance exams, college in general, and much more. It should generate powerful, change-inducing discussions if selected for a school or organizational book study. It is a fascinating and entertaining read, as well, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

I had the opportunity last night to view the related documentary, Most Likely to Succeed, at a screening in Austin. The film is much narrower in scope than the book, as is almost always the case. Rather than visiting a wide range of schools and taking on all of the issues of the book, the film focuses on 2 classes and, primarily, 2 students in the very non-traditional setting of San Diego’s High Tech High School. There is just enough historical background and future predicting to give context and purpose to the narrative of the students, then we are presented with a brief view into the day-to-day lives of the principle subjects. It is an entertaining documentary and has you rooting for the students to succeed. As a father and educator, it struck several chords with me and, honestly, made me a bit emotional at times. The following are a few takeaways from the film for me.

  • Traditional school curriculum is soul-crushing. We rely on perky or entertaining teachers to make our students’ days bearable and, occasionally, enjoyable. Make no mistake, though, most kids are riding it out, disinterestedly waiting for the bell day after pointless day.
  • The entire purpose of school as we have created it is to pass tests. Unit tests, benchmark tests, practice tests, state tests, college entrance tests, on and on. We don’t admit it, but that is our purpose as educators–not to help them succeed in life, but to help the kids pass tests.
  • committeeof10We are at the mercy of a bunch of rich, powerful men who died a century ago. The power and sway that a group of elite, white academics and industrialists still holds over education in the United States is baffling. Not that their intentions were bad–their world was simply an entirely alien place that bears no resemblance to ours, yet we still run our schools as if we arrived at work in our Model T’s.
  • Parents have a really hard time letting go of the past, Strangely, most adults do not recall how boring and meaningless much of our educational experience was growing up. Our lack of accurate reflection makes it extremely hard to imagine our kids surviving and thriving in a world without bells, subjects, and textbooks.
  • Students, especially high achieving ones, have the same hard time as parents. Top ranked kids know the routine, know what’s expected of them, and often don’t want their attention to be diverted to anything but gaming the system, getting a high SAT score, and getting into the Ivy League. New paradigms and routines can be very hard for these kids.
  • Is “college for all” really in kids’ best interest? This is especially thorny when kids experience a school like High Tech High or other bastions of creativity and imagination, then get to head off to the land of talking heads and academic loftiness (where they get to drop a couple hundred grand for the privilege).
  • Students engaged in meaningful, challenging work will exceed our expectations. It truly was staggering to see the quality of work of everyday, ordinary kids in the film. Likewise, the grit, leadership, and self-motivation they displayed was a beautiful thing to imagine.
  • hopeThere is hope! I see more evidence all the time of a trickle of  radical, powerful, completely new models emerging. They are models that put kids first, not tests, not rankings, not college acceptance. Strangely, their kids seem to do quite well on “the tests” and at the next level, probably because the challenges they have undertaken already are of greater complexity, difficulty, and meaningfulness than what they face in the established system. It is not an easy thing to achieve. It involves critical self-examination, humiity, open-mindedness, creativity, extreme working hours, new goals, communities with vision, and more. But it is occurring, and that gives me hope and faith in the profession I’m called to.

Image source, Committee of Ten

Image source: Hope

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