Tag: change (page 1 of 3)

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

No, It Won’t

There is a new video about educational technology and reform that is all over social media this week (see below). It’s a well-produced, nicely narrated, and basically says nothing that hasn’t been said for decades. It asserts that, essentially, ed tech’s potential to reform is limited to a small degree by the type of media and to a much bigger one by the way the teacher creates the learning environment. As Will Richardson points out in a comment after the video, this is Dewey, Papert, Montessori, etc. There are heavy influences of Mayer’s theories on multimedia and learning. All of which is fine, but the video’s creator stops there, and really offers nothing new or nearly radical enough to truly “revolutionize education,” as the title promises.

Same chapter, different verse. Reform will not come through social learning experiences, focused, concerted attention on curriculum, rigor, standards, data analysis, letting kids sit on yoga balls, etc. We’ve been doing that. It isn’t working, yet we keep trying harder.  The word “change” means “to make or become different.” This isn’t different–it’s re-labelled, louder. Will nails it when he asserts that different in education is for us to do something very uncomfortable and radical– to unclench our grips on the profession and our students. He comments, “The bigger issue I have here is that it says nothing about transferring the agency of learning to the learner.” This means handing control over, actually letting kids determine the course and style of their learning. Will rightly contends that meaningful, sticky learning occurs when students are actually self-driven learners, exploring things that interest and mean something to them. In his latest blog post, he shares a passage from Seymour Papert in which Dr. Papert describes education as it exists today as being unnatural and structured in a way that is nothing like native learning. He explains that teachers are constantly pulled between the rigid, technical structures imposed by the system of education and their desire to make learning meaningful and learner-centered, even natural. I often jokingly describe my job as “Director of Non-Compliance”, and I really do see a big part of my job as being to help teachers struggle against the limitations of the system. Back in 1994, when he wrote The Children’s Machine, Papert had the foresight to know that the technology tools I share had the potential to either complete the entrapment of our students in our expectations and structures or liberate them to take control of their own destinies. He was spot-on, and all one has to do is visit multiple campuses, classrooms, labs, etc. to see this played out to either extreme. The astounding intelligence and capacities of our technologies has the potential to free our students from our out-dated and limiting expectations. If we come to grips with the idea that there is no ideal curriculum, no checklist of state standards that will satisfactorily prepare our kids for their tomorrows, technology, books, the classroom, other learners–all can become tools for exploring, connecting, creating, inventing, imagining, and learning. This, by the way, has to become the school model, not just an activity tucked in an hour here or a day there. It begins with an examination of what we want from our schools and our kids’ learning. If, as many would assert, we want “21st Century Skills”, life skills, discipline skills, or whatever label we choose here in 2014, our kids need daily chances to actually DO them.

Here is a challenging but worthwhile exercise. Imagine your own ideal classroom, with no limits but your imagination. Try to envision something beyond the system you and I came up through. What does it look like? What are the kids doing and who decided what they would be doing? Where are you, and what role are you playing? What is technology used for in your class? If it’s hard for us as educators to go to a truly new place, it’s no small stretch to say it’s darned near impossible for educational policymakers to do so. If, however, we really want things to change for the better, this is what reform must become–education must “become different”.

One more thing occurred to me even as I wrote this. This applies to the hottest thing out there, the flipped classroom, in a big way. Flipped classrooms still most often dictate the what of learning, the when, and the how. While it may be a good strategy to maximize our instructional time, it is nowhere near the type of reform I’m talking about here and it is far from being about giving students power.

Change the Subject(s)

Warning: Can of worms ahead. Proceed with caution.

3438757479_73d0de635f_zWe in education give a lot of attention to the latest ideas and shiny reform efforts, but we are fundamentally slogging around in wet cement when it comes to some of the most basic concepts, concepts such as school hierarchies, grade levels, age-based grades,  or even subject areas. These sacred cows are virtually unchallenged. Why? Tough question. Certainly, it’s easier on us to do what has always been done. It’s also almost certainly influenced by educators’ increasingly diminished power to control what they teach and how it is taught. Pressure to pass tests plays a part, as it seems to sap the creative, innovative spirit from even the best of teachers. It begins, though, with a lack of questioning. We’re a very passive bunch, we teachers. We’re also too busy, too uninformed about alternative ideas, and too darned nice. So, we just train our eyes ahead and march as we’ve always done.

The antiquated idea of teaching students subject-area knowledge in isolation is groundless (unless one considers a couple of centuries of tradition to be “grounded”). While some would argue that it once applied well to preparation for a different economy and simpler society, I would argue that it never did, and that the only place we go to learn something in isolated, sequential chunks is school. The rest of learning in life is situated in dealing with real problems with real people in real settings, and there is abundant, sloppy overlap. Quickly and without using a search engine answer the following:

  • Who was the 21st president of the United States?
  • Why did the US and the United Kingdom fight the War of 1812?
  • What is an isomer?
  • What do mitochondria do?
  • What is the slope-intercept equation of a line?
  • What is the formula for converting degrees to radians?
  • What is the difference between a gothic arch and a Roman arch?

How’d you do? I must admit, I wrote the questions, and I can only answer 3 correctly (I think.). I know for certain, though, that I learned every one of these things once upon a time. Some teacher believe he or she was imparting something very valuable to me. They may have been correct, but I can’t really judge, since I can’t remember. Maybe the girl sitting in the next row was distracting me that day.

I have 2 children, one starting the 5th grade this week, the other in the 8th. Both are bright, enthusiastic, high-achieving kids who kick STAAR (Texas’s state assessment) butt. They are great at the school “game.” While this certainly does not displease me, it is not what I stress with my kids. I don’t ask them to balance chemical equations or identify the main character and setting in Where the Red Fern Grows when they get home from school, because I frankly don’t care. I also suspect that their future employers, employees, customers, spouses, families, friends, etc. won’t care. They won’t care because these things just don’t matter, unless you’re in a tiny, specialized segment of society (Anyone have a lot of historian friends? No offense to historians–I’m sure you are very nice.). I taught 6th grade science, and I’d like to confess something to my former students: Your brilliant mastery of biomes? Completely useless. My apologies.

I know the defenders of the faith will rise up against such blasphemy. To them, I say I’m sorry. However, I’m not sure I can stand one more justification phrased as “Knowing this makes a person more well-rounded,” “Those who don’t learn from the past…” or “You need to know this to be a good citizen.” My highest priority for my children is not to be a well-rounded voter. Those are dandy, mind you, but just not good enough. What I want for my children are the traits and skills that have led to the successes of the most important, impactful people and the perfectly happy ordinary Joes alike. Among them…

  • Great communication skills. Our kids have to know how to read, write, and listen, and speak (Requires less shhhh-ing on the part of the teacher.).
  • Functional math. This means the minimum math needed for whatever direction they choose. Don’t force algebra on everyone. It really isn’t helpful. No, it isn’t.
  • Critical thinking. Don’t take everything at face value–a lot of ideas are wrong (even on the Internet). Know how to tell the good from the bad.
  • Problem solving. Failure and challenges are everywhere. Be prepared to take an alternate route, and another, until you find the right one. Innovation and creativity are closely related ideas. So is being able to figure out why your car won’t start.
  • Physical well-being. I want our kids to make choices that make them healthy (diet, exercise, etc.). I have a certain lifestyle I expect my kids to support in my old age.
  • Relationship skills. Not talking dating here–talking about being able to work with the person next to you or the person on the other end of that email. 2 is greater than 1 (That’s functional math right there.).
  • Technology literacy. Doesn’t mean every kid is a Mark Zuckerberg. It means every kid can safely, responsibly, and effectively leverage what they need when they need it.

Image source: https://flic.kr/p/4avhK1

I’m sure there are  more (Educator/author/reformer Roger Schank has a very thorough list here.). The point is, these are universally useful abilities and traits that span the traditional subjects. Couldn’t the old, establishment knowledge and skills (that still have relevance) be addressed in the context of mastering these new ones?  Couldn’t all of these be addressed in the process of inquiry- or project-based learning? If you REALLY want to get crazy, you totally abandon the neat, orderly idea of subjects entirely and put these life skills into whatever meaningful context they most naturally fit–maybe even in finding answers to kids‘ own questions.

I know this is real pie-in-the-sky stuff, but I’m an optimist. I know it can seem like we’re hopelessly oppressed under test and governmental agency and regulations. These kinds of changes would likely take too long to get started for my kids to benefit in any way. It’s good to have a dream, though, and this is mine, based upon 23 years as an educator and almost 14 as a dad. It’s also important to never settle. We can do better, but we have to be willing to question even the most fundamental ideas first, and this may be the most fundamental of all.

No Place in School?

Braeden

Braeden and Fancy the Flamingo

I spent the day today in White Oak, Texas, speaking and learning at the TCEA Region 7 conference. I’ve come to this one for years now, and it is one of my favorites. The people and events are always fantastic, and they feed me very, very well. This year was extra special, though, because I got to meet and learn from an amazing 9-year old, Braeden. Braeden is the nephew of a talented educator friend of mine, Rafranz Davis. Through Rafranz’s Facebook page, I’ve become familiar with this amazing boy over the past several months. Braeden’s unique gifts lie in designing, creating, and using puppets. We’re not talking the paper sack puppets that were the limit of my abilities as a child, either. No, Braeden is a true artist and master craftsman. His puppets resemble something from Sesame Street or the Muppet Show. In fact, he even now corresponds about his creations with Jim Henson Studios.

The striking thing to me is that Braeden has been tested for gifted and talented programs at his school 3 times. 3 times, he has been deemed not qualified. Let that soak in for a minute. I can’t explain it. I know it is an archaic system at work in most schools, one based upon IQ tests most of all–IQ tests that measure a tiny fraction of human ability and are of extremely dubious validity. But I cannot comprehend it’s inadequacy (complete worthlessness) or justify it in the face of such an amazing talent.

Braeden

Braeden’s talents have attracted the attention of Jim Henson Studios.

The thing that hit me squarely in the gut, though, was the thought that Braeden is not alone. In fact, I’d guess he’s in the majority in our classrooms. We force sterilized, standardized, irrelevant, outdated curriculum on our students and ignore their passions and gifts. We spend our time and energy to prep them for annual tests or the misguided goal that all students should be bound for MBAs. Meanwhile, students like Braeden get to have their gifts nurtured only if they have families who gives them  their support and encouragement. Obviously, many of our kids aren’t this fortunate in their homes. We can’t always influence that, but we can change our schools, and it will require that we get past the archaic idea that education and its goals are one-size-fits-all. No discussion of educational “reforms” will ever lead to meaningful change if we don’t question the big ideas and institutions that we cling to with such fervor: rigid curriculum, grade levels, accountability systems based primarily upon tests, college-or-bust mentalities, etc. There are isolated examples where this is happening, but, frankly, we are mostly stagnant and too silent, allowing policy to be dictated in spite of its inadequacy. The power of learning is in the empowerment of the individual to achieve his/her potential, and that potential is unique to every child. When we get to a point where every Braeden is nurtured as the amazingly unique person he is, we’ll change lives, and that will in turn change the world.

Invitation to Question

#edwhyAs I continue to work my way through A More Beautiful Question, I had an inspiration. I’d like to start a regular Twitter chat that focuses on two questions: “Why?” and “What if?” The why question will focus on questioning anything and everything about the way that schools operate today. The what if question will focus on plotting change. We pick an issue or two each week, ask questions, try to find answers, then explore alternatives. The hashtags will be #edwhy and #edwhatif. The first chat will take place Monday night, May 26th, at 8:00 PM CST. I’ve created a Google Doc for you to submit ideas for #edwhy questions to discuss. Please take a few minutes and help get this started by submitting your ideas.

Innovativeness and Creativity Inspired by Cardboard?

cardboard challenge 1I’ve often stolen a page from Sir Ken Robinson by asking a group of educators whether or not they considered themselves to be creative people. The responses have always been overwhelmingly negative. I’ve then asked them to answer the same question, but to do so while imagining that they were there kindergarten selves. This always elicits a laugh and an vast majority who responds in the positive. Somewhere along the line, we stop seeing ourselves as creative beings. There are probably numerous reasons for this, but the way we school our students is without a doubt a key contributor. Somewhere in the sea of the school routine, the drills, the worksheets, the test-focused, inane curriculum, we forget how to imagine, to create, and to invent.

cardboard challenge 2Yesterday, I had the pleasure of leading a group of teachers in a “maker” workshop at TCEA’s annual convention. The workshop only had time for a couple of activities, unfortunately. Participating educators used cardboard to create chairs and MakeyMakeys to create video game controllers. This was the first time I’ve done a cardboard challenge with a group of teachers. They worked in groups with the instruction to build a chair, which would be judged based upon aesthetics (art/design), strength (physics/engineering), and comfort (engineering/design).

cardboard challenge 5As I circulated among groups, observing their interactions and work, I felt a sense of pride and excitement that no other presentation or professional development I had previously designed had ever given me. It was truly as if that creative, innovative kindergartener was reborn. Groups created chair designs completely unique to one another. They planned, built, tested, analyzed, and revised. They engaged in genuine critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving. All of this through the use of cardboard, tape, and a few other, low-tech tools (such as MakeDo, a set of really cool tools for building with cardboard).

cardboard challenge 3In the educational technology world, it is very easy to become enamored with flash and style. As a certified gadget junky, I know this all too well. It is commonplace to become infatuated with the newest tools and to want our classrooms to be outfitted with a magnificent array of interactive whiteboards, tablets, laptops, student response systems, digital projectors, document cameras, and on and on. However, these are all nothing more than tools, and like any tools, they are only as useful as the skills brought to their application. If we have only learned how to use a hammer and apply that to a screwdriver, the screwdriver is useless.

imageIn education, if we are going to continue to use our tools in the same ways we used the tools that came before, they become a colossal waste of time, resources, and money. We have to learn new ways of teaching, not just the latest, shiny things. When we create opportunities for students to build, create, innovate, and invent, we open up incredible possibilities for our technology resources to foster the 21st century skills we give so much lip service to. In fact, as the cardboard chairs demonstrate, we can even do this without the latest gadgets. Technologies simply up the possibilities of our students imagining and creating the truly revolutionary.

So, how do we do this in the classroom? Here are a few steps I would suggest:

  1. Begin with a great (open-ended) question. Even better, begin with a great question that comes from our students. Great questions as things like: How? What if? Is it possible? It is perfectly appropriate and okay to use the curriculum to inspire your questions–objective statements can be great question starters. 
  2. Since our system expects grades, assess students based upon clear, simple criteria. Whenever possible, let students establish the criteria and participate in the assessment.
  3. Turn off the traditional teacher mode and try to get into the role of advisor and mentor. Focus on the process students are going through and ensuring that they have what they need to answer the question or design the solution. This is one place technologies can play a big role.
  4. Teach students how to respond to failure and mistakes. Students need to know how to analyze their efforts, regroup, change plans, and try again. Don’t accept failure, but expect and embrace productive failure.
  5. Don’t look for standardized responses. Imagination, creativity, and innovation lead to endless possible solutions. Be prepared and embrace this, and expect the unexpected.

Finally, we need to be patient (but not too patient) with ourselves. Chances are that you, as did I, grew up in a school world that focused upon the passing of knowledge from the teacher or textbook to students’ minds. As a result, this is what we know, and this is what we do. Changing our habits will take practice, skill, and time. It’s a change that must be made, however, even in the face of an incessant, seemingly overwhelming call for standardization of everything. Our kids are not “standardized”. We as educators have spent too much time and effort on completely impotent “reforms” and initiatives that are, at their core, just doing the same, ineffective things more frequently, more loudly, with new buzzwords, and with more conviction. This isn’t change or reform or anything worthwhile. Anyone who honestly and critically looks at the results of the past decade and a half of school reform mandates and efforts can come to no other conclusion. Quite the opposite, the results have demonstrated that a complete re-imagining of what we are doing is going to be the only way to truly revolutionize education. Look for opportunities for students to ask questions, solve problems, create, invent, collaborate. Create learning spaces that are filled with tools and resources that encourage inquiry, experimentation, and exploration. Start small, if needed, but dream big. Just like I experienced yesterday, I believe it will leave you and your students feeling amazed and inspired at what can transpire.

 

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