How do you REALLY know?

I really like to read. I don’t really read for pleasure; I read more for purpose. I need to know things. I can’t remember the last piece of fiction that I read. Reading is all about supplying me with the knowledge needed to put my ideas in action. Lately I have been reading more from the business world than from the educational world. This has really help to create a more nuanced framework for my educational beliefs.

One of the more influential books (currently in my rotation of 10 books or so) that I’m reading is “The Lean Start-up” by Eric Ries. The premise of the book is that traditional business plans make a lot of assumptions without evidence to validate them. Ries argues that start-ups need to adopt the scientific method and gain evidence about the viability of  a product rather making elaborate plans that are not field tested. Start-ups need to get an MVP, “Minimal Viable Product” to market for testing rather than waiting for “perfection”. Once the MVP is put to market the testing will yield data that lets the makers to know whether they should pivot (move in a new direction) or persevere (continue down the current path). The idea is to build, measure and learn. Ries contends that both large and small companies can benefit from a model such as this.

the-lean-startup_50291668aa9bb

The education correlation you ask? Right now we are in the “Wild West” period of 21C learning. It is a given that our education system needs to move in a direction to support a new modes of learning but no one is quite sure which path to follow or where this whole thing is going. As Eric Schmidt of Google has pointed out, on a daily basis we pump out as much content as accumulated from the beginning of time up to 2003. Within a year, it is estimated that we will be pushing out that much content EVERY 10 MINUTES. Acknowledging the need for new modes of learning is fundamental but we also need an idea of best practice as well.

When the dot.com bubble burst early in this millenium, it was largely because the companies were built on speculation and projections similar to a housing bubble. While today, we are seeing a new breed of digital companies rising. Facebook was able to get massive amounts of venture capital funding early on because of the rapid rate that users were flocking to their platform. It was based on numbers and an actual testable product rather than a plan on paper. While the Facebook of that time lacked many of the current features, there was enough there to test and develop. Many of the learning strategies that are being put forward as 21C solutions are much like the speculative companies of the dot.com days than field tested variety.

I worry that many school boards are rushing down the speculation path. Grand plans are great but without the validation of field testing, they can prove disastrous.  “Rolling out” a packaged solution looks great, sounds great and brings attention but is it effective? All visionaries view the world through their own particular lens. They start with unique perspectives and assumptions aimed at solving problems. The next step though is to get validation for those assumptions. As Ries points out, once the testing results start coming in, they either pivot or persevere.

Our school leaders must be responsible for gathering the ideas, the resources and the support structures necessary to get an MVP ready for testing. Perfection is not required. Launching a prepackaged concept of 21C learning on our teachers is an ideological anachronism. Rather than it being a new approach to learning, it becomes the same bureaucratic process with nicer packaging. We want our leaders to have unique perspectives but we need those closest to the students to do the testing. Without the requisite classroom testing, we are doomed to repeat the cycle of assembly line education.

Rereading my posts has led me to the conclusion that I do a kind of “observational comedy” schtick. I point out a lot without offering solutions. Allow me to step-out on a limb and offer a few solutions:

  • Expand the “Student Work Study Teacher ” (SWST) program. Ministry funds allow boards to assign a few teachers to work in host classrooms and observe student learning. Position papers are then written and submitted to the ministry. Cool premise but slow to make observations actionable. Rather than having Academic Information and Communication Technology teachers delivering workshops (that could easily be replaced by video modules) we need to make use of their skills and expertise by putting them in schools like SWST working with teachers and principals to test theories of 21C learning which can serve as the foundation for a board plan based on a board vision.
  • As controversial as the TDSB Afri-centric Schools may have been at first, I greatly admire the board for taking a chance and testing out a premise. Far from fading, these schools are expanding. Creating a test school is scary in an era of heightened public sector resource accountability but I believe that the potential rewards are well worth it. As part of an inquiry group, I was able to visit the Dr. Eric Jackman University of Toronto Lab School. New ideas are tested and observed by researchers. There is a consistent vision of education that binds ideas together in the school but there is a culture of innovation and improvement that research drives. I strongly believe that public education would greatly benefit from intra-board research schools. As a proud member of the TCDSB, I think that we would GREATLY benefit from a lab school mentality under the inquiry umbrella. Programs related inquiry, 21C and inclusion could be tested in a board specific context and reported to constituents as evidence and not ideas.
  • The Toronto Catholic District School Board 21C department has identified 8 teachers who have implemented 21C fluencies into regular practice. These teachers are being trained to help deliver 21C learning and serve as exemplars. This is a good start but the next step needs to be taken when real field testing is done and student progress is thoroughly evaluated.
  • Most importantly (and I believe easiest), our leaders need to increase transparency, openness and reach when communicating with constituents. Blogging regular about vision, successes and failures is highly engaging. I HATE reading canned statements on sites that are all edubabble and lacking substance (we are seeing some positive change in this area though – see TEACHINGNEXT as an example of what I am hoping to see more of). We need to start being radically open about what we are doing. Engaging stakeholders in the growth process is powerful.  I believe that this does not currently occur because many leaders wait to unveil the final product rather than create a participatory lead-up. Don’t wait to inform and engage stakeholders when you have a final product, get them on board early in the process. Humanize the whole thing.

As former US House Speaker Tip O’Neill remarked, “All politics is local.” I think that we need to apply this to 21C learning and bring the ideas for testing right down the people closest to the students, our teachers!

Cue inspirational music…

3 thoughts on “How do you REALLY know?

  1. Fred Galang says:

    I agree with your sentiments on the eduBABBLE that’s out there. Practice (and data) is more important than untested ideas as far as 21C is concerned. The courses I teach and the site I use to administer my lessons (nomadcreatives.com) was borne out of a culture of innovation and constant change (and tested concepts). I actually attribute that to my years as a Mary Ward student (during Direction 2000) and teaching at the same school from 98 – 06. I’ve always believed in the methodologies of 21C but without my experience in a school like that, it probably would’ve taken longer for me to practice what I do now.

    The point I’m making is that Mary Ward as a school was a bold initiative that made room for innovative practice (at least for me). I was actually sent to Frances Kelsey High School to see how they implement their SDL model and saw first-hand how innovative practices evolve. It is also not an accident that a handful of your AICT team were former colleagues of mine at Ward (Wetzel, Mustacato and Aguiar).

    Implementing 21C initiatives in existing schools is possible but difficult. This is where I think my current board has missed an opportunity. They opened 2 brand new high schools in York Region and a whack load of Elementary schools. Personally, they should’ve opened several elementary schools with 21C models in mind and one of the two high schools with the same concept. Staffing would be controlled (to an extent) as the incoming staff would either have interest in the model or are currently in practice. I believe that without it, many boards such as the one I’m in will run the risk of putting the carriage before the horse.

    Afrocentric and late-start school models are there for a reason. They themselves are ed “start-ups” and you’re right, we need to adopt the scientific methods before we dive in.

  2. Kevin,
    Your focus on evidence vs ideas is a refreshing one – actually field testing in school contexts would be such an easy thing to do really. It connects with your suggestion that people skilled in 21c fluencies should be working in the schools as SWST’s as opposed to doing presentations about them.
    Mike

  3. Kevin,
    I think your suggestion about using the people skilled in 21C fluencies as SWST’s as opposed to presenters would be a good way to move toward creating the conditions for robust, evidence-based learning and teaching.
    Mike

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