Jun 26

Technology Transforms Pedagogy: ISTE Session

My ISTE session this year was Technology Transforms Pedagogy: Combining the Tools and the Vision. I didn’t want it to be the same as many of the workshops I have given in the past, but at the same time, I still believe what I believe, and so finding a new way to take people through some of these ideas was a challenge.

I’ve found, especially when I’m at a conference in a big hall, getting people to tackle prompts is a challenge. People don’t necessarily know each other, and the big hall isn’t really set up for conversations. But I also didn’t want to just talk at people for an hour.

I also have found that open-ended prompts can sometimes lead people into the weeds quickly. So I decided to try to put some constraints on how people were going to answer and leverage social media to  move the conversation. The prompts we used were all meant to be a series of ten-word answers that would / could serve to help people drill down to a simple statement of purpose while also given them the building blocks for larger answers later. For the folks who had Twitter, I asked them to tweet their answers to the #istetransforms hashtag.

From the feedback I received, people found it to be a powerful way to attack these ideas. The prompts we used were as follows:

  • Schools should help students become…
  • Technology helps me realize my vision by…
  • Technology means that I have to let go of…
  • [A system I employ] can now change in this way…
  • In 2013-14, learning can be…

And as a presenter, what I loved about it, is that it forced me to re-examine how I think about framing these issues, and the incredible stream of ideas that we were able to share and think through will provide me with plenty of things to think about as well.

The issues we face are, without a doubt, far too complex for ten words, but sometimes, working to simply delineate what we think and what we believe will help us figure out what the ideas, policies and systems that follow must be. Thanks to ISTE for a wonderful conference and for the ability to think through and deepen my understanding of what I believe.


 

Mar 31

Teach Wisdom

[In my attempt to push my own thinking, I'm continuing to unpack in writing some of the things that I say a lot. I always say that I want SLA kids to be "thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind" -- and I do -- so I thought it was a good idea to take those words apart a bit. This is part two. Thoughtfulness was Part One.]

If you google “Definition of wisdom,” you get the following definition:

Wisdom: Noun

1. The quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise.

2. The soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of such experience, knowledge, and good judgment. (https://www.google.com/search?q=Definition+of+wisdom)

We think of wisdom as something that only comes with time. Traditionally, the young person is head-strong, the elder is wise. Societally, we think of wisdom hard-earned — and interestingly, it is often gained by those who are not considered “good at school” — it is the stereotype of the elder who learned at “the school of hard knocks.” It is not something that we traditionally think of when we think of high school students to the point where when a young person actually displays these traits, we say they are “wise beyond their years.”

And yet, if we are to help students to become fully realized citizens during their time with us, helping them to develop “soundness of action” and “good judgement” — in other words, wisdom — during their time with us is essential. Because intellect and knowledge without the wisdom to apply those ideas thoughtfully can be profoundly dangerous.

So then, wisdom becomes about decision-making and action-taking, but the accumulation of wisdom is about reflection. Wisdom is about understanding that “doing” is not the end of the learning process, reflecting on what we have done is. Wisdom is about learning from your mistakes, but then — importantly — being able to apply those lessons not only so that you do not make the same mistakes again, but that you can imagine and foresee mistakes before they happen.

Wisdom means not falling so in love with your own ideas that you cannot see the unintended harm those ideas could do.

So how we do help our students to become more wise?

Do Real Stuff: We have to dare kids, help kids, support kids to attempt great things, struggle, reflect, learn and try again. That is the cycle through which wisdom is gained. But we rarely reflect on the things we do not care about. When kids are engaged in work that matters to them, work that is authentic and has real meaning, we create the conditions for students to reflect and gain wisdom. The coach who has students watch game footage and critique their own performances, both individually and as a team, is doing more to help her students become more wise than the teacher who covers the content of a World History class at blistering pace.

Be Scholar-Activists: It isn’t enough to do real work that matters. We have to help students see that work in the context of the work that has gone on before us. That is why it is important not just to study history but to develop the tools of the historian. When our students see themselves as scholar-activists, they place their actions in the stream of human history and they can learn from the mistakes of the past while they endeavor to take action in the present.

Be Willing to Live in the Soup: Life is messy and there are few absolutes. When we own that publicly with our students, encouraging them to come with us on our own journeys of figuring all of this out. In a conversation on Twitter, Bill Ferriter wrote, “Learning only happens when there is tension between what kids think they know and what they see in the world around them.” (https://twitter.com/plugusin/status/318394936233951232) And he is right, it is in that moment of conflict between what we think we know and what we experience that meaning happens. We need to help our students understand that we — all of us — are forever engaged in what Alvin Toffler said was the process of learning, unlearning and re-learning. (http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Alvin_Toffler/) And our students will be far more willing to listen to that message if we model ourselves.

In the end, our willingness to engage in reflective practice with our students, our dexterity in creating the conditions for students to engage in real work that matters, and our ability to help them see themselves and that work in the context of the never-ending stream of human history — in short, our ability to help our students to become more wise, is the most important thing we can do. If our students can learn from their experiences with us, when they still have a safety net, we will have enabled them to make better decisions about their own lives when they leave our walls. And if we have helped them to be more thoughtful about wise about their world around them, then we have helped them become better citizens for the world at large.

Mar 28

Stop Deficit-Model Thinking

A few years ago, a vendor for one of the many online tutorial companies was giving a presentation at a principals’ meeting. The vendor was talking about how students could work independently and teachers could get an instant report of all of their deficits.

I raised my hand.

“Does your software have a joy report?”

“Excuse me?”

“How about a passion report? Is there anything in your software that tells me what my students enjoy or are passionate about or are even really good at?”

The conversation didn’t go well from there.

Whether we are talking about students or schools, too much of the conversation about education deals with fixing what is broken. There is article after article about all the weaknesses our students have, where we fall on the international tests, or what schools did not make AYP, or at perhaps the most cruel – which teacher ranked lowest in Los Angeles — an article that may have resulted in a teacher’s suicide. (http://articles.latimes.com/2010/sep/28/local/la-me-south-gate-teacher-20100928)

And in schools all over America, students are forced to “learn” in a way that befits deficit model thinking. We make sure that students are doubled and tripled up in the subjects they are worst at. Schools are reducing the amount of time students have music and phys-ed and even science so that kids have more time to raise their test scores. It is as if the sole purpose of schooling for many kids is just to make sure that they are slightly less bad at the things they are worst at.

We have created a schooling environment where the sole purpose seems to be to ameliorate the worst of abilities our students have, rather than nurture the best of who they are. We have created a public environment where “reforms” label schools as failing without ever stepping foot in them on the basis of one metric.

This has to stop.

And it has to stop, not because we should accept the current educational landscapes as the best we can hope for, but because the “fix what is broken” model is getting in the way of the evolution we need.

If we want kids to care about their education, we are going to have to encourage their passions.

If we want kids to believe in themselves, we will have to help them build on their strengths, not just mitigate their weaknesses.

If we want parents to believe that we see the best in their children, we have to remember to reach out, not just when something bad happens, but when something good happens too.

And if we are to ask students and teachers and communities to dream big about what they want the future of school to be, we have to ask them to take risks. We have to ask them to see beyond their current structures to envision the possible.

Deficit-model thinking will never get us there.

Yes, we need to make sure that we help kids to mitigate their weaknesses. Yes, we need to make sure that schools are doing right by the kids they teach. But we must do that without creating an environment – in schools and about schools – that makes all of us in school think the worst of ourselves.

Mar 26

We Really Don’t Know What To Teach

The Common Core will finally tell us all that needs to get taught in school.

Really.

Stop laughing.

I mean it.

Perhaps, it is time for us to admit something.

Beyond the old 3Rs of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic – which interestingly are where Common Core has focused, we have no idea what every kid really needs to know by the time they graduate high school.

At the high school level, most teachers end up teaching the subject they love the most, and the actual content ends up being some mix of what they are told to teach and what they most love within the subject. And of course, over the last decade, the content of the tested subjects have been defined by whatever is on the test.

And the arguments over what gets taught seem never-ending. When someone suggests something is unnecessary to be taught… or even unnecessary to be tested, there’s almost a guarantee that someone will make the counter-argument for all the reasons why it is necessary.

I think we’re going about that argument the wrong way.

The problem isn’t that what we teach doesn’t have power and relevance in real life. There are strong arguments to be made about why everything taught in a typical American high school curriculum is important for people to know. But there are at least three problems that I can see with that argument.

  1. Evidence suggests that most people don’t remember much of the content they learn in high school as it is. (And high-stakes testing doesn’t seem to be making that any better.)
  2. There’s a ton of content we aren’t teaching in high school that is probably every bit as important.
  3. There is nowhere near enough time to teach all the content we could argue is important in high school… or all of K-12, really.

As an English teacher, this became obvious to me when I realized that all the lists of “Books Everyone Must Read” that I would come across were a) woefully incomplete, b) deeply subjective and c) more than I could ever cram into a four-year high school curriculum anyway. And worse, people keep writing really amazing books every year, but no one was making high school any longer.

I came to realize that my goals for my class were reasonably simple – I wanted students to realize that stories were lenses not only on other worlds, but on our own as well. I wanted students to learn how to take apart language and create meaning from text. I wanted students to develop their voice and their ability to make an argument, both verbally and in print. And I wanted kids to want to keep reading after they left my class.

For a long time, I thought that was the luck of being an English teacher — the skills we wanted to teach were applicable to so much good content (books) that it didn’t matter what content we taught, really, as long as it was a good book — and I was just arrogant enough to think that I knew what that meant. But the more I really think about this idea, the more I realize just how much “good content” is out there. And much like the list of good books, that content keeps on growing.

So where does that leave us?

More than anything else, we need to recognize that too often school fails at the one thing we should endeavor to do more than anything else — instill a love of learning. Given all there is to know in the world, that probably is the most important thing we could do for our students, and yet, it seems to be a thing that school does really poorly for a great many students. That failure is ours, and it is one we must redress, no matter how hard that is.

Given all there is to know, it makes even more important that we do take the time to make relevant and meaningful the skills and content we do teach, because the immediacy of the world we live in can feel (and perhaps is) more important in the moment to our students than much of the content we are trying to teach. Therefore, the onus is on us to always be willing to answer that question of “Why do I have to learn this” with an answer that is more compelling than a grade on a test if we are to hope to earn our students attention.

And then we should remain humbled before the vast enormity of human knowledge. When we, as teachers, are truly awed by all there is to learn, when we are humble about our own learning and knowledge, we might start from a better place with our students. We might be more willing to accept the things they know as vital as well. And we may be more willing to find common ground upon which we can all build knowledge and wisdom.

The idea that we could cram all we hope our students could learn and know into a “common core” set of skills would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that we’re trying to do it.

In the end, the problem with the Common Core isn’t that it is too broad, it is that it is too narrow. It makes no attempt to teach kids the most important thing there is to understand:

There is always more we can learn.

 

Mar 24

Organize

So the question before us is how do we affect change?

For folks who are arguing for a more humane, more inquiry-driven, more citizenship-minded, more modern education, it seems daunting. The forces that seem to be working against this kind of education are many. We are out-spent by those who would argue that workforce-driven, test-measured education is what we really need in this country. Worse, the very language of our best ideas often seem co-opted by those who, in the end, seem to be creating a very different kind of schooling than what our best ideas are really about.

And the traditional advocates for public schooling – teachers unions – are caught in a fight that, while linked to the kind of issues that affect modern schooling, are not the same. While issues of workers’ rights, collective bargaining, teacher evaluation or any of the other issues facing teachers are incredibly important, historically, unions have not been the drivers of pedagogical change.

What we need now is a new kind of organization – one that unites teachers and student and parents and admins who all believe that school can be more powerful than it is now. Maybe this isn’t a national organization at first. Maybe this is district by district, school by school. Maybe the time has come for fewer “Education Nation” moments, and more town halls.

We are living in a time when there is a national movement with incredible wealth that is arguing for a vision of education that seems to ring false for many of the people who are walking the walk in schools now – teachers, students, parents and admins. Perhaps the answer is to win the argument on a different stage – the hyper-local stage. And with social media and the speed of communication, is there any doubt that those arguments could spread?

What if – in cities and towns all over the country – we saw parents and educators (who are often the same people, it should be noted) and students and community members come together to discuss their best vision of what they hope school to be? What if, rather than the rhetoric of “fixing broken schools” that we hear so often from the edu-corporate reform movement, we had a grass-roots movement articulating our best ideas for what we hope a modern education could be? And what if we actually all worked together to make those dreams real – parents, students, teachers and admins all working toward a common vision and a common plan? Think we can do better than what we have now?

Maybe that’s what we need – hyper-local, globally-networked organized groups of citizens who believe that inquiry-driven, project-based modern schools are better than what we have today.

 

Mar 23

Ask Better Questions

This week, the Providence Student Union (http://www.providencestudentunion.org/about-psu/) published the results of an experiment they conducted. They gave fifty successful adults a math test that was based on the sample New England Common Assessment Program. Rhode Island uses the NECAP as a high-stakes test where students must achieve at least “Partially Proficient” to graduate high school.

Who can argue with making sure that students are at least “Partially Proficient” in math?

Except, apparently you don’t need to be considered partially proficient to be successful, as the results show:

The results were: Four of the 50 adults got a score that would have been “proficient with distinction,”  seven would have scored “proficient,” nine would have scored “partially proficient,” and 30 – or 60 percent – would have scored “substantially below proficient.” Students scoring in the last category are at risk of not graduating from high school. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/03/19/sixty-percent-of-adults-who-took-standardized-test-bombed/)

Now, some folks will say that the adults didn’t have the time to study for the test, but that isn’t the point. The point is that these successful adults were no longer proficient in the math skills on the test because they did not use them in their day-to-day lives. And yet, Rhode Island is going mandate “Partially Proficient” as a graduation requirement for students starting next year.

Why?

If we are to have mandatory graduation exams, let’s base them on the skills that adults need in their world. What would happen if we asked successful adults what the math they used day-to-day was? Do most people use the quadratic equation or do they need more math skills that allow them to create budgets for their business, calculate interest rates on their mortgages, understand polling data in the New York Times?

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach skills beyond what may show up on a graduation exam. What it means is that we have to start asking better questions about what skills are necessary for a high school diploma. And we need to start asking better questions to our students too.

Mar 14

Disrupt Disruption

With the publication of Disrupting Class in 2008, Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn introduced the idea of “disruption” to the education world, and the effects have been… well… disrupting.

The people driving school policy, from the Race to the Top architects at the US Department of Education to the Gates Foundation to the venture capitalists at GSV Advisors are now rushing to disrupt schools, pushing a faster rate of change and an increasingly corporatization of “the education sector.” And in states and districts all over America, the disruption has occurred as funding has dried up, leading to layoffs, school closures, and profound instability in what has been for nearly 100 years, one of the more stable institutions in American culture – the school.

But why were we – the tech-savvy educators – so quick to fall in love with the idea of disruption as Christensen presented it? Behind the idea that technology was going to change our schools – it can, it should, it is – was a market-driven vision of school that opened the door to “disruption” as a positive force in education.

When was the last time any teacher thought that “disruption” was a positive force in a child’s life?

The time has come for us to retake the language of school reform. Words like “Disruption” and “Revolution” create a mind-set among reformers that make it o.k. to cut budgets, lay-off teachers, close schools, and – at root – implement high-speed, high-stakes changes without fully examining the worst consequences of their own ideas. After all, there’s usually a body count in revolutions, and “disruption” always makes people uncomfortable for a little while. And we have to stop thinking that’s o.k.

Moreover, revolutionaries and disrupters have little use for history and context, after all, what they are creating will be totally new, right? Why would a disrupter have to immerse themselves in the history of education when what they are creating is so techno-saavy and new that will be unlike anything we’ve seen before?

The point is this: Those who think that they can come in from the outside of educational systems and “disrupt” schools are engaging in a profound act of hubris, only rarely are the reformers the ones who fall when the reforms prove less than successful.

The kids do. The reformers go back to the world of business or onto their next cause. And they get to throw up their hands and say, “If *we* couldn’t fix our broken schools, it’s not our fault. It just means no one can save them.” And that, of course, only serves to reinforce the notion that we should just blow the whole thing up and start over anyway.

We can aspire to more than that.

What we want in our schools is not disruption, but evolution. Our schools cannot stay static, on this we can agree, but disruption and revolution are the wrong models. We want our schools to evolve. We need to grow, we need to take the best of what we have been and marry those ideas to the new world in which we live. The patterns of the growth of our educational systems should make sense along a logical path with as few “disruptions” as we can manage.

We owe it to all of the people – students, teachers, parents – who bring the best of themselves to the flawed system of school every day to make our systems of school better tomorrow than they are today. But we also owe it to those people to make that evolution as painless as possible so that the upheaval and “disruption” does not mean the loss of dignity and learning and care for the people who inhabit our schools.

Dec 10

NY Times Room for Debate: Federal Standards and Federal Funding

The New York Times Room For Debate asked me if I would weigh in on the following question:

The Common Core State Standards, adopted by 48 states and supported by the Obama administration, have worried liberals who question their quality and conservatives who fear they erode states’ traditional responsibility for education. At the same time, the budget pressure of the impending “fiscal cliff” could reduce federal support for education, which would add to the state and local responsibility.

As these trends collide, Americans can take a step back and ask: Should education standards and funding vary by state?

This gave me the opportunity to talk about an issue that too often goes un-talked about in the current education debate – inequitable education funding. Little did I know I would be debating the question online with folks like Pedro Noguero, Jeb Bush and Rick Hess. Here was the start of my response:

The Common Core standards are the latest federal educational initiative, making the argument that creating national standards will somehow raise achievement nationwide while ignoring what is a far more important state-to-state and district-to-district variability: funding.

Disparate funding levels in the United States are the single most anti-democratic policy in our society. Where children live should not have bearing on how much money is spent on their education. And the variability in funding levels is deep and profound.

The rest is over at The New York Times, please go give it a read. (And wow… the New York Times. I’m kind of really excited. Really, really excited.)

Nov 25

They Don’t Hate Our Kids

Recently, I was at a edu-labor event, listening to some folks who I genuinely respect talk about the battle right now in public education. At the event, one of the speakers was talking about the corporate ed-reform  movement and said, “They don’t care about our kids.”

I get it. It is easy to think that the folks who are in the process of demonizing public education and the educators who have worked hard for the kids in those schools don’t care about kids. So much of the rhetoric they espouse is so counter to the way educators think.

But the thing is – whether it is Michelle Rhee or Rahm Emmanuel or <Insert Corporate Ed-Reformer Here>, they don’t hate the kids. There is, fundamentally, a battle between competing visions of the world. And that’s really important for those of us who are on the other side of the equation to understand.

Those folks who believe it is o.k. to pay education CEOs $500,000 / year or who believe that it is o.k. to create for-profit companies that can be contracted to run schools believe in the power of the market to create solutions that are better than public schools. It is not that they don’t care about kids, it is that they believe the market can better provide for kids and create wealth for investors. And, perhaps frighteningly to me, for most of those folks, this is not a cynical thought, but a deeply held belief.

I’ve detailed why I think the idea of for-profit schooling is fundamentally flawed, so where I stand on this argument is clear, but I also don’t think it helps to demonize or strawman the other side of the argument. We have to understand, what is going on in educational policy today isn’t about who loves the kids more. It is actually far, far more scary an argument than that.

What we are engaged in is no less than a debate over the intersection of the two dominant schools of thought in American society – are our children best served when the dominant ethos of schooling is based on the communitarian ideals of a democratic government or on the competitive ethos of a market system?

This is a real debate. This is the debate we need to have.

And no one wins when either side accuses the other of not loving the kids.

Nov 23

The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

In today’s Philly Inquirer, there was the following editorial: Inquirer Editorial: School days are too short.

The editorial is framed around how Cherry Hill, New Jersey teachers agreed to extend their days by 30 minutes, and how, if you do the math, that adds up to 14 extra days of instructional time over the course of a year, etc… How could anyone be against that, right?

Here’s the thing: Too many kids already hate school. Why do we want to make them do more of it?

More of something that is already flawed and broken isn’t a good thing.

And moreover, when are we going to realize that kids lead pretty busy lives?

According to a 2011 National Federation of State High School Assocations study, 55% of high school students participate in athletics. And while I couldn’t find a recent study on total participation in after-school activities, it seems that number tips somewhere around the 70% – 80% mark. And the Child Trends DataBank study of youth employment in 2010-2011 shows that 17% of high school students have after-school jobs. That probably doesn’t take into account all the kids who have to help with after-school care of younger siblings, etc…

Just saying, “More school for kids,” while appealing to policy-makers for any number of reasons and appealing to the “teachers don’t work hard enough” tropesters out there, is a bad idea. The problem is that contracts and legislation are the policy tools that boards of education and legislators have, and they are more often than not bad tools.

Just making the day longer solves little to nothing, and it creates as many problems – if not more – than it solves.

I’m not against having kids and teachers in schools longer – SLA is proof of that, as teachers and students tends to spend a ridiculous number of hours there. But let’s figure out how to use the policy tools at our disposal to make the time more meaningful, if we are going to do it.

Want kids in school longer? O.k. – figure out how to create study teams of teachers and kids so that we don’t send them home to do more homework in less time without support. Or figure out how to create 80% / 20% time so that every kid has time every day to pursue their best ideas.

Better yet – before we think that just making kids be in our buildings longer, let’s take a hard look at the time we already spend there, and figure out how to make 8:00 – 3:00 more empowering, more authentic and more useful to everyone.