Feb 20

Inquiring Minds Really Do Want to Know

Turns out, the two-year olds have it right.

When they ask“Why?” it is a pretty important question. They are trying to make sense of their world, and while most parents can quickly tire of the question, those two-year olds are on the right path. We want our students, years later in school, to still want to figure out their worlds.

So what happens in the intervening years? How do we go from the natural curiosity of the two-year old to the practiced detachment of the stereotypical teenager? What is it about school that teaches kids to not care about their work — and by extension, their world?

The ultimate stereotype of the American classroom is still Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where Ben Stein is profoundly unlucky in getting any student in the classroom to care about the Smoot-Hawley tax. And maybe the Smoot-Hawley tax is irredeemable, we don’t know.  But those kids in that class will never know because the teacher was asking questions he knew the answer to, and the students had one job – to parrot back those answers.

That pedagogical approach is long since past its prime – if it ever had one in the first place.

An inquiry-driven pedagogy is – at heart – about asking questions we do not know the answer to. In Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig writes:

“A man conducting a gee-whiz science show with fifty thousand dollars’ worth of Frankenstein equipment is not doing anything scientific if he knows beforehand what the results of his efforts are going to be. A motorcycle mechanic, on the other hand, who honks the horn to see if the battery works is informally conducting a true scientific experiment. He is testing a hypothesis by putting the question to nature.” (http://design.caltech.edu/Misc/pirsig.html)

And while the overwhelming majority of teachers are very good at the “facts” of their discipline, we have to get better at using those facts to help students build meaning by asking powerful questions that ask them to apply knowledge, attack problems of their own design, and come up with their own ‘small-a’ answers.

Inquiry really requires people — students and teachers — to live in the uncomfortable places, and that’s hard. Inquiry requires that we all develop a nimbleness of mind so that we do not give in to the orthodoxy of our own ideas. That’s important for students and teachers (and principals) so that we can start to really hone our skill of deep thinking.

And an inquiry-driven education does not preclude content – in fact, to the opposite, it makes content all the more important. For kids to tackle a problem they see in their community requires them to have a complex understanding of the problem before coming up with a worthwhile solution. For kids to engage in deep inquiry and make real decisions about what they think and understand about complex issues requires them to have synthesized a great deal of information.

It is the difference between simply having kids learn the facts and figures of the Smoot-Hawley tax – to return to Ferris – and having students question the relationship between commerce and government, study the historical evolution of that relationship and then decide for themselves what they believe the role of government in influencing the market.

And if we want our students to really be thoughtful scholars and citizens, don’t we owe it to them to teach them how to think for themselves?

Feb 14

Humanity, Community and Technology in School

Technology is not a neutral tool.  It is rewriting the way we think about everything in our society from communication to security to commerce to privacy to, of course, learning. The potential for that to be a force for good is near limitless, but we should be thoughtfully skeptical when we think about the uses of educational technology especially when it comes to the larger issue of school reform and the continued rise of edu-business.

In the spring of 2012, at the opening keynote of Education Innovation Summit,  Michael Moe told a room full of education entrepreneurs that over 90%  of the many billions of dollars spent on education in the United States was spent on personnel, and the only way to further monetize the education sector, as he called it, was to reduce personnel costs. To the few teachers in the room his point was clear–if you want to use technology to make money and education you have to find a way to reduce the number of teachers. And there are many powerful people who seem to agree with Mr. Moe’s statements.

So let us be clear – technology should not be used to supplant teachers. When we use the tools we love as an excuse to reduce the number of caring adults who interact with children, we run the risk of doing irreparable harm. In fact we almost guarantee it.

School is about much more than Newton’s Laws of Motion or the difference between the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution – though both those things are important. When done well, schools help children learn how to live lives of meaning. When done right, schools help children become profoundly and active citizens. When done with care, schools help children learn how to care for one another. Technology alone cannot do those things. The purpose of school is not to train children but to teach them, and that requires the human element. If anything, we need more adults in schools not fewer.

Technology is and must be a transformative element in our schools. Fundamentally, it changes the equation of why we come to school. Whereas before we came to school because the teacher was there, now we come to school because we are all there together. Technology can allow us to embrace a more finely honed sense of community in our schools.

The mistake is thinking that we no longer need this thing called school because we have all of these new technologies.  And the greater mistake is thinking that all we need to do is develop the right app or the right product and we can buy and sell our way to a technological future of learning that no longer needs the people.  The logical end of that path is a level of solipsism that our society cannot and should not abide.

It is not that technology should supplant school, rather it should transform it. The promise of educational technology is that we can reinvent and re-imagine schools as the center of a community of learning. It is true that we no longer have to define school as four walls and floor, but let us not use that to throw away all that we have learned over the past hundred years of public school experiment. Let us instead mind the rich vein of educational history to find those moments of empowerment, those moments of connection, those moments of authenticity, those moments of care. Let us realize that those moments – more often than not – came at the intersection of a caring teacher and the students who trusted her. And then let us ask ourselves how can the technology enhance, magnify, multiply and transform those moments so that more children can feel that their learning matters and that there school matters every day.

And that is the promise of these tools we love so much. Anything short of a vision of educational technology use that allows students and teachers to inquire more deeply, research more broadly, connect more intensely, share more widely and create more powerfully, sells short the power of these tools — and more importantly, sells short the promise of learning and of school for our students.

And that we cannot and should not abide.

Jan 14

“What’s Good” is Better than “What’s New?”

We live in amazing times.

This time is a time of faster technological change than anything ever seen before in human history. And with that technological change has come incredible changes in the way we live our lives.

And while schools are historically slow to change, we are now seeing rapid changes in the way schools operate. More students are taking courses online. Teachers are bringing new technologies into the classroom every day. And the digitization of student performance has led to a new focus on analysis of data in a way that has never been seen before.

And while we should be sure to evolve our schools and work to incorporate new ideas into our schools, we should also remember that very smart people were teaching before us. And in our haste to rush to the new – the shiny – we must not forget the lessons we have learned in the past.

To that end, we must be scholars of our own profession. We must work to understand the reasons that schools have become the institutions they are, and we must understand how innovation has — and has not — happened before. When we do this, we will be more equipped to innovate and evolve.

What we cannot do is just blindly follow whatever trend is hot this week, changing when the trend fades and leaving schools always playing catch up with a set of core values to serve as anchors.

The best ideas we can create are when we take the best ideas of the past and marry them to the world we live in today. We can create something new, grounded in the best of what we have been, but with an eye toward what our kids need to become today. To that end, when we look to innovate, we must ask ourselves “What’s good?” more than we ask ourselves “What’s new?” New fades. Good endures. That is a goal worth chasing.

Jan 07

The Worst Consequence of Your Best Ideas

[I’ve talked about this idea a lot, but I wanted to actually put down both the reasons and some of the pathways to do this down in writing. Hope you find it useful. — Chris]

You have to wonder why desks in rows and textbooks on the desks have survived as long as they have as the dominant instructional model when so few people think that it’s actually a good way to teach and learn.

And then you realize that while it never goes all that right, it rarely goes all that wrong either. Teachers don’t usually get in trouble when administrators walk into their classroom and see kids with books open, doing work, even if the work isn’t worth doing.

And all those other ideas that we love so much – inquiry, project-based learning, technology, real world application of student work – they get so… messy. And something always seems to go wrong. And we have to face that education is a somewhat reactionary field to work in. The death of so many good ideas is when something goes wrong and someone decides that we should never do that again.

And the desks get put back in rows and the textbooks land on the desks again.

But there’s a way around that, and it involves thoughtful planning. It doesn’t involve coming up with the perfect idea, because let’s be clear – there is no perfect idea.

Again – there is no perfect idea.

Everything has a downside. Everything.

At SLA, the best thing about our school is the incredible empowerment of our students. And the worst side of that is those same kids who are so incredibly empowered occasionally become really entitled, and then we have to deal with that.

But we realized that would happen before we started. And every time it does happen, we remind ourselves that it is a natural consequence of what we love, so our reaction has to be tempered so we don’t lose the soul of our school.

And so, whenever you have a new idea, ask yourself and your colleagues:

What is the worst consequence of my best idea? What is the thing that, even if we do this really well, will frustrate me, frustrate kids, frustrate parents?

And then follow-up with these questions: How will we, as a community, mitigate that consequence? What are we willing to live with, if it means we get something incredible out of it as well? What are the risks we are willing to take? How will we front load the negative possibilities of this idea to our stakeholders so they are prepared for it as well?

Don’t just do this alone. Do this as a community, because the author of an idea is often the last person to see the scary side of the idea. Do this not so you can just dismiss fear, but so you can acknowledge it and lessen the factors that cause it.

An easy, concrete example for us was thinking through the policies around being a 1:1 laptop school. We made a decision not to lock down the machines, because we wanted the kids to really feel like they could use the laptops to their fullest potential. That meant that the kids went home with a fully unlocked laptop to unfiltered home networks. We had to talk to students and parents beforehand about issues of internet porn, around good digital citizenship, around being safe and smart with your digital footprint.

And then we had to expect that no matter how much we did that, kids would make mistakes. And because we agreed, as a community, that the benefits of all the kids being able to access the full power of the laptop outweighed the negatives of some of the kids using the laptops inappropriately, the laptops are still open seven years later. And we’re better for it.

And most of the time, there is still the thing you didn’t think of. But the very act of going through the iterative process of trying to solve problems before they show up has made us more willing to acknowledge that our ideas aren’t perfect and that problem-solving will always be necessary. The goal isn’t perfection — it’s pragmatism.

Whether it is a new technology, a new pedagogy, a new program in the school, we have to be thoughtful in the way we evolve as schools. We have to acknowledge the good and bad in the changes we make if we are to do right by the kids in our charge. And we have to own the limits of our ideas, so that we can hold onto those ideas and not regress to a vision of school that, while easily recognized, is loved by no one. Owning our flaws and learning what we can mitigate and what we have to live with is a way to power past fear once and for all.