Look deep into the crystal ball…

Innovation is an overplayed word. It has been misused, overused and misunderstood. True innovation though is sexy, smart and seductive. I know that it should go without saying, but real innovation is also truly forward looking. It can be frustratingly incremental at times while at other times it seems to leap forward in the blink of an eye. The incremental piece gets overlooked and we forget that great products are often paradoxically “overnight sensations that were years in the making.” When a truly brilliant idea finally comes to fruition as a usable product, it is the result of some carefully placed and forward thinking early bets by the creators.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates both approached an important fork in the tech road; Jobs moved down the path of the “post PC” movement while Gates took the PC path. In the words of Frost (kinda), “(Jobs) took the path less travelled by and that has made all the difference.” Jobs looked into the crystal ball and began to position Apple towards eventual explosive growth. Incremental choices were made  that would ultimately converge into true disruption. Apple’s unveiling of the 5s and the 5c iPhones was an underwhelming event for some. I see it a bit differently. Two things really standout: the Fingerprint Security Ring and the 64Bit chip. The fingerprint security potentially could open up all kinds of integration. Think about the options for purchasing that come from the security of fingerprint level security. The 64bit chip also creates crazy speed and multi-tasking options for the phone. The shift towards mobile moves even faster now. The other key piece to consider is iOS7. It seems to me that the devices are being designed to showcase the operating system. The tech is the peripheral while the operating system takes on even greater importance. These seemingly incremental additions have to potential to eventually to lead to Apple’s next big thing.

Innovation is dependent on an overarching vision that is supported by smaller, integrated and forward thinking bets about the future. It is all about positioning hunches.  The vision of the future might be a bit fuzzy but there is a gut feeling about the correct direction.  At the outset of the creative process, rarely is the final product conceptualized or clearly pictured. Instead there is an understanding of needs, trends and possibilities for change. I have always been a proponent of the coaching adage, “practice makes permanent.” Just like the muscle memory that comes from repeated physical action, there is also institutional memory. This type of memory can be powerful or highly corrosive. In the right environment, the repeated practice creates powerful innovation and productivity. P&G, Apple, Google, Facebook, and numerous other companies are so successful because of the reflective positioning that creates the right institutional memory. Repeatedly bad positioning leads to the type of institutional memory that creates companies like ENRON! Each and every decision that an organization makes adds fuel to a feedback loop (picture the old cartoon image of the snowball rolling down a snowy hill).

In education, we are very much rooted in the now. Decisions are made based on test scores and other accumulated data. Analyzing this data is obviously important BUT it must be used wisely. Test scores are trailing indicators, good glimpses into “what was” that really need to be rethought before trying to use them to project what might be. We need to start being bolder with our interpretations of the data.  We need to use that data to start making important small bets now with an eye towards reaching a grander vision. Just like Steve Jobs aligned Apple with an eye towards the post-PC world, we need to start aligning all decisions towards a post-SCHOOL version of education. Instead of perpetuating and propping up the status quo of bureaucratic education, we have to start positioning our system to handle an “anytime and anyplace” version of education. Decentralization of education is underway and no one has a perfect vision of what the final product will look like. Our goal is to start making the decisions now that allow the learning to bloom. If we don’t, we risk irrelevance and obsolescence.

We have to take a glimpse into the crystal ball and try to make sense of the blurry future staring back at us. Let’s start the positioning of those small bets and hunches in order to create something powerful and self-perpetuating.

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The wicked, wicked problem of 21C

Design theorist Horst Rittel described wicked problems as being large, open ended and requiring a social response. These problems are so wicked because nobody owns the problem entirely nor has a clear idea of a solution. Think about climate change as an example. It affects all of us, we all have contributed to varying degrees, different stakeholders have vastly different opinions, there is no clear solution and change will most definitely have to come from a large scale societal response. There are numerous piecemeal efforts aimed at solving this problem but no overarching or integrated plan has yet been hatched; thus the wickedness of the problem.

The reformation of public education in these early days of 21C is a most wicked problem as well. We know that a change is necessary but we are not quite sure what the change needs to be. We recognize that there is a problem but we aren’t quite sure exactly what the problem is let alone how best to solve it. Solutions are pushed forward daily but they are patchwork at best and often contradictory which leads to headaches and confusion. Abe Simpson poetically captures my own confusion:

TCDSB_Moving_Forward_-_SlideRocket

 

To solve the wicked problem of transitioning effectively to a pedagogy of 21C learning, we MUST adopt a design mentality. Design thinking is a mindset that looks to find elegant solutions to wicked problems. At the root of design thinking is the belief that something may be and working towards reaching out to it. Like science, design thinking requires exploration and experimentation. The difference lies in its focus. While science focus on discovered reality, design thinking is based on invented choice.

Charles Owen spells out the key aspects of design thinking as: inventiveness, human centred focus, adaptive to emerging realities, belief in multifunctionality, systemic vision, ability to tell stories, looking for win-win situations, and self-governing practicality. I want to narrow the focus down to system vision, human centred focus, adaptivity, thinking win-win and story-telling.

Education is by its vary nature subject to a variety of stakeholders. To solve the wicked problem of 21c transition, a social response is required. We must engage all stakeholders from the outset. We must realize that we will be working with competing interests and ideas from the outset. Design thinkers engage stakeholders through Charettes. These are  intensive brainstorming or collaborative sessions brining all stakeholders together. The goal is to share, critique and invent in a manner that accelerates the development of large-scale projects.

According to Jeanne Liedtka, Charettes:

  1. involve everyone from the start who might build, use, sell, approve, or block the project
  2. work concurrently and cross-functionally
  3. work in short feedback loops
  4. work in detail

The most important requirement is that a coherent overall design must emerge. The process starts with the end in mind. Conversations need to start with possibilities and work towards something that can be acted upon. Since so much of the process involves a variety of stakeholders with a heavy focus on what could be, story-telling becomes vital. The ability to paint a picture and persuade is vital for designers. The vision must be articulated with patterns explained and uncovered. We must help others visualize the final product and guide them to acceptance. We must place great value on simplicity and elegance.

There will be constraints and roadblocks along the way but as the found of IKEA, Ingvar Kamprad pointed out “Regard every problem as a possibility.”

Over the next few posts, I will sharing my thoughts for designing a 21C plan. I will be using my board, the Toronto Catholic District School Board as the guinea pig. I highly recommend the book “Rotman on Design”. It is a compilation of design thinking articles from Rotman Magazine and has been HUGELY influential on my thinking.

Rotman-on-Design

 

David Kelley from the masterclass design firm IDEO provides a great synopsis:

 

Got Purpose?

Before this school year, I knew Montessori but not Reggio. As part of an inquiry group, my school team made  visits to Bishop Strachan ( a private girls’ school), The Dr. Eric Jackman U of T Lab School and St. Anthony C.S (part of the TCDSB). Each of these schools had Reggio Emilio inspired early learning programs.  Conversations with the teachers, administrators and early learning educators from these schools revealed a common denominator for success: INTENTIONALITY. Every action, item and routine is done for a specific purpose from the obviously important to the seemingly insignificant. No busy work, no black-line masters, and no dust collectors in any of these learning spaces. The learning from these purposeful environments has been powerful.

This was my first year as an administrator after 13 years in the classroom. No matter what was happening in the school, I made sure that I toured all three floors of our school right after morning announcements and after lunch recess. You LEARN a lot about your space through these informal walkabouts. After doing these tours, visiting classes daily and meeting regularly with staff, some impediments to change really became obvious. People really get caught up in the “flow” of school. Traditions and entrenched cultures can really become an anchor. The established ways of doing things become hard to break for people and we get caught up with maintaining our concepts of “school” rather than on learning. This negative feedback loop is not unique to schools. We see the same dangers in politics, sports and family life. We spend too much time propping up a lot of tired systems and conventions rather than doing what we should be doing. We lose sight of the forest for the trees (pretty sure that’s how that idiom is supposed to be used!). I believe that this happens because we lose sight of purpose and our actions become scattershot rather than intentional.

I LOVE this video. The ultimate case for design thinking. Intentions are not shaped by existing circumstances or settings. Instead, everything becomes built around intention and purpose. This philosophy gets us away from “doing school” and streamlines our processes to a razor sharp focus. Identify core values in order to shape clear mission and then relentlessly pursue implementation. Resource expenditures, classroom design, guest speakers, methods of communication et al must be consistent with mission. Look at the best sports franchises. There is a reason why they are consistently great. They have organizational values and they intentionally put them into action. When they deviate, they evaluate and refocus. The means to operationalize the values will most definitely change as time goes on but the values remain the same.

How many classrooms, schools or boards operate that way?

I am neither naive nor stupid. I recognize that the competing interests of the various stakeholders in the education machine make this focus difficult ( notice that I use the word difficult and not impossible), not to mention the sheer size of some boards. This difficulty becomes more daunting when we view the system from a bird’s eye view. A slumping batter in baseball will most assuredly become stuck deeper if he tries too hard to get it all back at once. The most likely way back to success is through razor sharp focus on each pitch. We can’t reorient a whole system from the top. Impossible in days past and even more so in our ever connected and flattened modern landscape.  School and system leaders have a huge role in uncovering values and mission. They also have the responsibility to create the structures that will allow mission and values to take flight. This is done through empowering rather than imposing.

Sandy Lima is a Grade 1 teacher at my school. She is passionate and completely kid focussed. She was a reluctant participant in our collaborative inquiry project. As we continued to meet as a group and visit schools, she began to radically change her practice. She let go of her traditional view of the role of teacher and opened herself up to a more emerging curriculum stance. This was powerful and people noticed. The more she talked, the more people at our school listened. More teachers began to become intrigued by inquiry to the point where three new teachers joined our group and our Grade 8 team began to adopt Project Based Learning. Her actions impacted our school. Because of her passion, she was asked to be a presenter at our board’s Ministry of Education Review. The culminating exhibition for the Grade 8 PBL work was a Food Symposium at our school. Our Associate Director of Education, Superintendent of 21C, three AICT teachers and a SWS teacher were kind enough to attend and interact with our team. This event was transformative for the kids, the educators and our school. It all came about from a passionate teacher and a system that decided that it was important for a light to be shone upon her.

Every part of this anecdote was kid centred and mission specific. Our school staked out a mission of “Empowering life-long learning and faith-inspired global outlook.” As a school leader, I had a role in shaping this mission but there is NO way that I could put it into action without collaborative support. Belief and buy-in come from successful action. We cut away the nonsense of school and get intensely focussed on the learning. Mistakes were made by all along the way but that’s OK. We learned and we grew, not just in capacity but in numbers supporting the mission.

We must be more intentional in our actions. Sport is a wonderful distraction but it is far from paramount importance. If a sports franchise can effectively deploy purposeful action, we must do the same in education where the stakes are infinitely higher. Our kids deserve our best. No more scattershot approaches to learning. It’s OK to change  course if that’s what the learning and evidence tell us but it is not OK to keep changing course based on whim or bureaucratic dictates. It is not OK to let the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” approach fester. Intentional action is not the same as imposed action. As leaders, we must have a sense of mission and find the people who are doing the best job of putting mission into action.

We need to simplify, we need to perfect and we need to start over again when necessary. We just can’t lose focus on the why of it all.

Kid President

Love this kid and I love the messaging of Soul Pancake overall. Let’s get up and “stop being boring”. No excuses for not making a difference because in the words of Kid President, “you’re gooder than that!” Kid President for president!

Rebels with a cause.

I have always had a fondness for rebellious students. The kids who think differently and constantly push boundaries out of a sense of purpose. I both empathize with their motivations and admire their fortitude. In a small setting, these kids aren’t hard to find. They are your “Me to We” kids leading the cause for justice or they are your kids fighting against perceived injustices within the school. As an administrator, I have come to admire our teachers with similar rebellious inclinations. These are the teachers who love to ask “why?”. They do not accept “because that’s the way we’ve always done it” as an answer. These are the teachers who stir things up and can affect great change if properly connected.

My all-time favourite ad campaign is Apple’s “Think Different” from many moons ago. Thanks to YouTube, it is still around in all its glory:

We have a lot of educators in our system who think differently. These educators are constantly trying new things in order to advance student learning. Some of their plans and programs work while others don’t. Those who don’t like these educators will describe the programs that don’t work as failures while those with a more open attitude call it learning. It is only through guided experimentation that we find ideas of true merit. Clay Shirky puts it this way:

shirky usable

Finding these outliers and boundary pushers must become a system priority. Shining a light on the great work that they are doing will help the whole system to progress. I have a list of TCDSB (my board) educators on Twitter that I visit a few times each day. Quite honestly, I have learned more from these tweets about what’s going on in my board than from anything that comes from central office. This is not a criticism but rather the realities of our rapidly decentralizing world. My goal is not to find some magical solution or golden idea. Very rarely will you find an idea out there that fits perfectly into your particular context and quite frankly, that shouldn’t be your expectation. Guaranteed though that you will find usable pieces, practices to reflect upon, inspiration and possibly a new connection with whom to confer.

Our system leaders have to find these rebels and celebrate the hell out of their accomplishments. Yesterday, a superintendent for whom I have the greatest respect, gave me pause for thought when she told me that real change comes from where the “rubber hits the road” in our schools and not at the central level. I believe that there is a lot of truth to that if we assume that the role of senior and central staff will remain status quo. There are rebels who “think different” there as well. Building the connective framework to join thinkers together in an inviting and action-oriented manner is vital. Those at the system level can offer methods to support and scale the vibrant ideas gleaned from the community.  It is often said that constraints breed creativity. I could not agree more. We have budget constraints, political constraints, distance constraints and resource constraints. So let’s get creative by finding ideas from within rather than from the outside. It’s way cheaper and far more powerful. The power comes from the breadth of ideas and the potential for involvement, participation and engagement.  We have to actively look for our thinkers and doers. This is the embodiment of the collaboration that we strive for and how can we expect it from our kids if aren’t willing to do it ourselves.

The fly in the ointment.

I love books but when I am looking for a break from the denseness of text, I really enjoy slideshare.net as an alternative. I follow a bunch of different people from the fields of design, education and technology. One of my favourites is Norwegian digital designer, Helge Tenno. These are his slides from a TEDx presentation:

I love the sharing aspect of collective technology. The fact that ideas from one end of the world can be shared with the other in a blink of an eye fascinates me. Tenno’s presentation really forces us to remember though that “all that glitters is not gold.” The price to pay for this kind of sharing is the echo chamber. Rather than challenging the status quo, our online world has the potential to reenforce long-held beliefs if we are not careful. “If we only share what we like. What happens to the stuff that we don’t like?”; I invite the brave amoungst us to reflect on that hand grenade. To really move our education system forward, we have to avoid confirmation bias at all costs. Sharing is amazing if we have the ability to take those ideas and reflect upon them. Accepting them at face value can create massive group-think. Opening ourselves up to the cranks who bring up the dreaded “other side of the coin” has real value. Without a healthy respect for contrarian ideas, we will see ourselves degenerating into the MSNBC vs. Fox News dichotomy south of the border.

Tenno’s reference of  Kirby’s Ferguson’s “Everything is a Remix” is an important one. Ferguson points out, in his documentary, that of the top ten grossing films from each of the last ten years, 74% were either sequels or adaptations of books, comic books, other movies or video games. Pinterest, Scoop.it, Paper.li, and others are great curation options. They allow us to catalogue stuff that we like and share it with others. I use them and love them. There are countless other curation sites that our students use regularly. They have value but we have to instill a creator’s mentality into our kids as well. The ideas of others can be inspirational but only if we act upon them rather than letting them sit like a dust-collector on a shelf. This is true for all learners both the big ones and the little ones.

It becomes paramount that we create the right environment for creativity and innovation or we risk creating a generation of curators. David Kelley from IDEO does a great job of addressing this area in his recent TED talk:

The right classroom, school and system environment allows our kids to take the abundance of information available to them and do something with it. In order to reach this place of creative acceptance, we have to listen to those contrarians; those who can really tick us off. It is in those dissenting voices that we might find that missing fragment of an idea to really create something wonderful. I have to admit, I am not very good at this. I put the blinders on from time to time and really get got in the echo chamber.  Curious to know, how do others deal with the echo chamber and the potential of curation over creation?

Planning the improbable

The human brain is wired to interpret events in a narrative fashion. Events unfold and the brain seeks patterns and pieces things together to make meaning. In his book, “The Black Swan”, Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out that this property of the brain leads us to believe that history unfolds linearly. If “a” is a currently the accepted mode of thinking, we will likely go along believing that “a” will continue with its dominance. We see this in sports when a team looks a dynasty in the making and all prognosticators will groupthink and pick that team to win before the season starts.

Taleb’s book contends that life is largely shaped by black swan events rather than by straight lines or consistent timelines.  As Taleb says, “History does not crawl, it jumps.”  A black swan is an event, positive or negative, that is deemed improbable yet causes massive consequences. For example, the Chicago Bulls were a seemingly unstoppable dynasty with no end in sight until out of the blue, Michael Jordan decided to retire (for the first time) in the prime of his career to play baseball in the Chicago White Sox system. In his absence, a mini-dynasty for the Houston Rockets sprung up, only to be curtailed by the return of Jordan almost two seasons later. In both cases, an improbable act radically altered the NBA landscape.

There are countless examples from countless disciplines and aspects of life highlighting the power of black swans. We don’t see these highly improbable events coming because of the manner in which our brain is hardwired. We place way too much emphasis on past events as a predictor of things to come. After the Cold War was officially dead and buried during the Clinton era, Francis Fukuyama famously stated that: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Great line for selling books but the rapid rise of China and 9/11 radically undermined his sweeping statement.

Black swans don’t necessarily have to be improbable or unforeseen. I believe that we can manufacture them (kinda). Predicting the unpredictable is a tautology but we can set the framework and create the circumstances that might create educational black swans. Any successful organization, be it business, sports, technology or any other sort is able to create the conditions for success. These conditions allow for flexibility, rapid iteration, disruptive innovation, systems learning and creative resource management. While Steve Jobs was most definitely an unmatched visionary, he was not a psychic. There was no way that he could have predicted the iPod or the iPad back in the day but he was able to design the conditions that would allow for such a disruptive device to happen.

In education, we need to start doing a better job of creating the conditions that will foster black swans from our students, teachers, administrators and system leaders. Connective technology will help us to extend our reach and aid in greater knowledge creation. Approaching professional and student learning from an inquiry stance creates a mindset that is open to possibilities. We need to start thinking less about definitive outcomes and a lot more about positive structures.

The educational landscape will most definitely not remain status quo in the coming years. Do we know exactly what it will look like in the near or distant future? Not really to the first and no to the second. We need to stop trying to create packaged or canned views of the future and start fostering a love of learning and a desire to be life-long learners. This will allow our students and us as educators to be adaptive and flexible enough to meet whatever conditions we are to face. That’s why I love the quote in the feature image to this post. When we build connections and look to share more regularly, we impact others and the ripples keep growing.

I can, not I’m told.

Change be scary. It can be so scary because of the potential for extremes. A plan could be an extreme failure or an extreme success. Both realities can be equally scary. Education change is scary because it will require many of us to “let go”. This is concerning for some because they worry about students not learning in a non-traditional model while others are concerned because it is SO hard to let go and give up control. I can empathize with both camps and with  those who lie somewhere in between.

We are a “wild west” period right now where change is scattershot and seemingly a moving target. Acceptable one day and repudiated the next. Some ideas seem to be enacted or considered simply for the sake of change rather than for the benefits of student learning; making change all the scarier. Change is worth the trouble if helps the kids. “Help” means many things to many people. I believe that “help” happens when we make changes or enact programs that empower students to take charge of their learning. Figuring out how to do this kind of change can be confounding.

I consider myself to be an “ideas guy” who is learning to get better on the operations side. I am a massive media consumer who pays attention to EVERYTHING which can lead to me paying attention to nothing! I crave frameworks and mental maps to help me coordinate ideas and make meaning. Those serendipitous moments when the right idea hits you at just the right moment are magic. At Connect 2013, I attended Chris Kennedy’s (@chrkennedy) session where he presented the three pillars that the West Vancouver School District is building programming around. Their focus is on 1) Inquiry 2) Self-Regulation  and 3) Digital Access. EXACTLY the simplification  that needed the focus our team at St. John. Empowering students to become life-long learners above all else is an identified priority but how do we operationalize such a broad concept? Thanks to Mr. Kennedy and WVSB, we have that foundation to put ideas into action.

Lightning struck again quickly when I came across Kiran Bir Sethi’s TEDed talk regarding student empowerment. Through the mantra of  “I can”, her Riverside school in India designed a program for students to blur the lines between school and the real world. Students were given the chance to enact real change through a Project Based Learning on steroids kind of program.  The goal was to turn learning over to the students through a three part plan:

1) AWARENESS: see the change  2) ENABLE: be changed and 2) EMPOWER: lead the change. The end goal is to create a student body that is more competent and less scared. As Marianne Williamson  so timelessly and beautifully stated “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond Measure….And as we let our own light shine, We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, Our presences automatically liberate other.” Empowering students to take charge of their learning, one student, one class or one school at a time has that ability to liberate others.

When our students start taking action because “they can” and not because “they are told”, good change has taken root.

TCDSB Project Next

This summer I was part of an amazing team charged with developing a 21st century learning articulation for the Toronto Catholic District School Board. Under the name of Project Next, we set out to create a multimedia document that focused on developing a new mindset for educators.

The TCDSB is aligning resources with priorities in an exciting way. We now have a superintendent of 21st Century Learning who is leading our board forward with the full support of the Director and Associate Director of the board.

I will be sharing information about Project Next on this blog over the upcoming months and I would really appreciate feedback to help shape our board’s direction.

The video in the header is the Project Next perspective on Professional Learning. Enjoy and PLEASE offer suggestions.

It’s time to walk the walk…

The public education system, especially here in Canada, has made tremendous strides in terms of social equity. In Ontario, every school board has now created, adopted and implemented an equity and inclusive education plan. These plans articulate the need for open and accepting educational practices to respect all constituents of the system. The plans faced down opposition to pass certain components but in the end acceptance and openness were deemed to be important educational pillars that had to be supported.

The moral imperative of social equity is obviously foundational to any educational system. Society rightly demands that our system accepts everyone and provides services equitably. It is now time that society demands that same level of openness when it comes to information. Our system is organized in a manner that functionally prevents openness. School districts are largely bureaucratic bodies that exist to support the managerial side of education rather than the learning side. Individual schools have very weak bonds to the community and even weaker bonds with neighbouring schools.  This has to end.

If we demand openness guided by social equity, then we must demand openness in learning as well. 

The students in our system deserve a system that promotes the free flow of ideas throughout a unified system. No good principal would allow one Grade 5 class to go on an important field trip while the other stayed back at the school. All Grade 5 students would be afforded the opportunity to go on the trip. We must apply this same thinking at a systems level as well. Innovative ideas must be shared equitably across the whole system.  Patchwork pockets of innovative practice will not shift the paradigm, we need a unified approach.

The good news is that we do not need to wait for central leadership to craft some hulking policy that will be governance heavy and years in the drafting stage. Educators have the power to change the system themselves (although it would be nice to have support from above!!!). We all know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Technology affords us the opportunity to find that shortest distance more regularly by cutting out the unpleasant intermediary steps. There is no need to wait for some PD session to swap ideas. School leaders and educators can now direct their own connections on their own time.

Anyone who has read this blog or heard me speak before knows that I have been hugely influenced by Don Tapscott. At the most recent TED conference, Tapscott laid out his four principles for an open world (the whole talk can found in the header of this post). These principles include:

  1. Collaboration. The way traditional organizations do business is changing. Organizations cannot survive as closed entities. We must work together to develop the WHOLE system.
  2. Transparency. Open communication to stakeholders is no longer optional, information is out their for people to find it. Organizations of integrity will make decision making open.
  3. Sharing. Giving up intellectual property, put ideas out their for everyone. In education, we must be respectful of student and family privacy but IDEAS should be shared with everyone.
  4. Empowerment. We must distribute leadership and bring more people into the decision making loop. Students, community members and educators must all be empowered.

If we adopt these principles as core values of the public education system and really put them into practice, great things can happen. We can have a system that values social equity and educational openness. Damn, that’s one powerful combination.

It’s time to walk the walk when it comes to equity and integrity.

Forget the “what” and focus on the “why”.

Education Week posted an article today entitled, “It’s Not What Natives Do, It’s Why They Do It” by Ian Quillen. The article focuses on ISTE speaker David Warlick of the Landmark Project. Warlick suggests that educators should be less concerned with the type of media that digital natives use and focus more on why they use it. The “gamification” (I HATE THAT WORD!) of the classroom is a popular buzz phrase recently in the world of student engagement. Warlick rightly points out that simply including more education based games is not a silver bullet. Instead, researchers should be trying to identify the particular aspects of games that the students really enjoy. Warlick contends,

 “If we could identify some of those elements and integrate those … if we could crack the code … and then use that to hack the activities we’re doing in our classrooms, then maybe we could create more learning activities that are relevant to today’s children,” Warlick said.

 In “Stratosphere”, Fullan makes a similar argument. The technology alone does not improve student learning. Technology must be a tool for engagement and making learning easier. Good pedagogy and strong teaching must be coupled with technology for it to be truly effective. Quite frankly, gaming alone in the classroom is a cop-out. If we crack the code and apply the “hook” to different lesson activities, we have the potential to really affect student outcomes.

If we simply push more games we risk two potential problems. First, we began pandering to our students. Games simply for the sake of engagement pacifies but does not necessarily teach. Secondly, we provide a market for the big ed companies to swoop in with prepackaged platforms that do not involve any form of local feedback or input.

Educational leaders must cognizant of Warlick’s suggestions as they formulate  working plans for 21st Century Learning. The tools alone will not do the job. Tech should engage and make learning easier but it cannot substitute for teachers. Games have many lessons to teach and we should look to apply those ideas to our teaching practices. The focus should not just be on what tools they like to use but why they like to use them.


			

Don’t let Cloud Education get Hijacked!

One of my favourite aspects of the NFL is that it can serve as an analogy for almost anything. Seemingly each year, some great coach comes up with an innovative new system or scheme – the West Coast offense, the zone blitz, the Wildcat offense or the new 3-3-5 defense. As soon as a team achieves success with a certain style of play, everyone jumps on board. The NFL is the ultimate “copycat” league. The new trend of adoption of Ed Teach is perfectly analogous to this copycat mentality.

One of my concerns is that the for-profit companies are jumping on board the “Ed Tech Train” with great zeal. The text book companies are starting to offer prepackaged and multi-layered programs online instead of in print. Rather than revolutionizing education, they are simply repacking their programs to a digital format. This will prove successful in the short-term because of the fuzziness of this transition time. Boards will want to give their communities something digital.  The big education companies will copy the success of the upstarts and the true ed revolutionaries. The results will sadly dilute the whole movement.

As educators, we must make use of digital tools and not digital programs. As I write I can hear John Lennon singing, “You say you want a revolution” and that revolution will only happen through connecting communities of educators and learners.  Cloud education is an agent of change if it allows for free movement of ideas. Teachers working in specific communities now have the opportunity to connect with teachers in similar communities. Ideas no longer have to stay within a school, board, city, province or even country. We can tear down traditional barriers and rapidly connect ideas.

Boards do not need to make huge investments in for-profit companies, they need to make investment in their constituents. Build infrastructure, build  a culture of collaboration, invest in capacity build, encourage innovation and invest in digital tools that facilitate connections and home grown lesson creation. Buying a digital textbook series is simply a lateral move. This new age of online learning should be empowering to educators and not simply a method to move the status quo to a new platform.

In the header video, Tiffany Shlain, makes reference to power of the “The Declaration of Interdependence“. This short film is a crowdsourced creation, translation and reading of this declaration. As educators, we should likewise make such a declaration. We are dependent on each other. We can make use of the digital tools out their to share ideas, craft lessons and work collaboratively.

Cloud education should empower communities of learners, not provide a new market for textbook companies.

Digital Literacy: Don’t let them learn it on the streets!

The ubiquity of content is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it has created greater freedom, enhanced transparency and put the focus of education on matters of higher order. It can be a curse because there is just so damn much of it! I often find myself overwhelmed by content, not really sure where to start or how to process.  I came across this great slide from Steve Wheeler that says it all:

If adults are confused when searching for information, how do you think our students feel? 

As tech integration moves full steam ahead in our schools, we have to step back for a moment and prioritize. The access and proliferation of tools are key aspects of building infrastructure but they do not represent 21st century learning alone. The priority in education must be on teaching our students how to handle the deluge of information that they face daily.

Many people of my generation (shout out to the Gen Xers!) learned about the birds and the bees by osmosis. We learned about the mechanics through playground whispers, urban legend, contraband reading material and our older siblings! Only the few progressive schools and parents had “the talk” with their children. I fear that much the same is going on when it comes to digital literacy. Students are being taught about privacy and personal safety on the web but they are being left to fend for themselves when it comes to interpreting and using the vast amounts of information available to them. This is far too big of an undertaking for them to face alone.

Students struggle to determine the credibility of sites and content. How many times have you had an intermediate or high school aged student present you with ironclad proof that 9/11 was an inside job? It happened to me at least a half dozen times. One or two Youtube videos later, the conspiracy minded become experts in covert operations and structural engineering.  Students equate a well-polished site as “the truth”. Sadly, they don’t recognize that a polished turd is still a turd! It is only through a focus on digital literacy leading to digital fluency that they will develop the “crap detection” of which Howard Rheingold speaks.

Take a look at the picture below. What do you think?

I showed this slide to a few of my best and brightest students (a few colleagues as well!). Their immediate reaction was to agree with the quote. I got responses like “Yeah, the internet is full of garbage.” They were so quick to agree with the quote that they did not take a look at the whole slide. They completely ignored the fact that the quotation was attributed to a man who was long dead before the internet was even a dream! Proof positive that digital literacy is still in its infancy. Knowing how to search for information does not equate to knowing how to process or interpret information.

The goal then is to help our students learn how to handle information. We must also recognize the need to support our fellow educators through this process as well. In the slideshow at the bottom of this post, Alex Couros (an outstanding Canadian Ed Tech educator) presents the case for digital fluency. The argument being that we need to go beyond “knowing how” to the deeper stage of understanding “why”. This diagram pulled from his presentation provides a nice overview:

Digital fluency brings students into the realm of “knowledge wisdom”. At this stage, analysis of the information can occur. Students will have a framework to judge information, organize it and categorize it. Steve Wheeler provides us with this excellent summary:

When our kids get to the stage of digital fluency, they become much more self-sufficient. Controlling content allows them to be better at creating, curating, remixing and sharing content. Collaboration becomes more effective and networks that much stronger.

How do we get there? What are your strategies? What works? What doesn’t?

FULL SLIDESHOWS from @timbuckteeth (Steve Wheeler) and @courosa (Alec Couros)

Digital Literacy: Caricatures & Crap Detection

Last week I wrote a post about “the haters who just keep hating”. We all know those teachers and adults who label this generation shallow, stupid and epic wasters of time. One person went so far as to write the regrettably titled book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30)” .  Sadly many educators view our Digital Youth as caricatures:

The new digital divide is not about access, it is about usage. As Christina Cupaiuolo writes in the article, “Connecting the Digital Divide to Digital Literacies”, the new paradigm is one of content creators and content consumers. Our job is not to be dismissive of our students and their online habits, it is to help focus those habits.

Jerry Springer and Maury Povich made careers out of reducing people into neat little stereotypes. There are many teachers doing the same to our students. Anthony Muhammad wrote a great book called “Transforming School Culture”.   Based on his research, he lists four categories of teachers. The most dangerous of these four are “the fundamentalists”. They resist change at all costs. They seize on difficulties to support their opposition and seek to recruit others to the side of “no”.  We all know educators out there who use the “time-wasting” mantra as a shield to slow down tech integration.

Do we call for limits on math education because some students use calculators to take shortcuts? Do we call for limits on teaching English because some students have bad grammar? OF COURSE NOT! Instead, we TEACH them to do better! We must take this same approach to digital literacy. The misuse of online time is a teachable moment, not a reason to slow down. We have to help students use their “cognitive surplus” effectively rather than beating them over the head with our own personal biases.

Howard Rheingold says it best,

If, like many others, you are concerned social media is making people and cultures shallow, I propose we teach more people how to swim and together explore the deeper end of the pool.

The problem with the fundamentalists is that they want to empty the pool! I don’t want to blame the technophobes for everything. We have to develop a culture of support so no one feels isolated or alone. We must shift the focus from the shiny new toys towards a culture of learning. Simply providing access is not enough, we must focus on digital literacy skills. We must  help our students become discerning consumers of content or as Rheingold says, teach them “crap detection”. The video in the header is a brief overview of Rheingold’s five part digital plan.

When it comes to digital literacy @hrheingold and Doug Belshaw @dajbelshaw are the best. They are definitely worth following.

Storify – My Favourite Digital Tool!

As much as I love Ed Tech, I am an English teacher at heart. Bringing the real world into the classroom was always a priority. The richness and complexity of news items really helped to develop core literacy skills. The absolute best tool for bringing the real world to your Language Arts class is Storify. This web based digital tool allows you to use social media to aggregate information about a given topic.

Features and Functions:

  • Storify allows users to search for news items on Twitter, Facebook, Google, Instagram,YouTube and a variety of other sources. Users can customize their choice of sources as well.
  • Drag the text or video onto the Storify board. Users can rearrange the order of the media items by dragging and dropping.
  • Users are able to add their own text as well.
  • Stories can be published with the option of being public or private. Public stories are available for viewing on the Storify site. Stories can also be shared on a variety of platforms.

Below is a an example created by some of my students regarding the recent Toronto ban on plastic bags:

[View the story “A Ban on plastic bags: For better or for worse” on Storify]

Optimism sucks! Be Hopeful.Be Fearless.

“Hope and optimism are different. Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there’s enough evidence out there to believe things are gonna be better, much more rational, deeply secular, whereas hope looks at the evidence and says, “It doesn’t look good at all. Doesn’t look good at all. Gonna go beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever.” That’s hope. I’m a prisoner of hope, though. Gonna die a prisoner of hope.”
― Cornell West

Like Dr. West, I too am a prisoner of hope. I have a really hard time with optimism. It is too shallow and thin of a concept. The hopeful person acknowledges that there are problems in the world and does not hide from them. The hopeful person decides to fight the problems rather than pretending that they are not so bad. I see optimism as an empty smile or an ostrich with its head stuck in the sand. Rather than rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty fixing a problem, the optimist takes a passive approach.

My biggest problem with optimism is that it leads to incrementalism. The change agenda is slow and plodding with a complete lack of bold action. As Dr. West says, hope is based on visions of new possibilities. The incrementalist approach brought on by optimism also leads to low expectations. The hopeful person sets audacious goals and fights hard to achieve them.

So what does this have to do with education?

I really believe that we must have high expectations for our system, our boards, our leaders and ourselves. If we want education to move into the 21st Century, then we have to be bold and fearless. We have to map out a real vision for progress and not just a piecemeal or retread plan packaged as a vision. The best way to craft such a vision is collaboratively. When we are supported, we are more confident. When we are engaged and involved, we are more passionate. If we want big change, we need a larger pool of ideas from which to draw. Take bold action to incorporate collaborative technology into our system.

The video in the header is from the Case Foundation started by Steve and Jean Case (early builders of AOL). The goal of the foundation is to spark innovation and collaboration around the world. The plan that they set out for collaboration and innovation is bold yet attainable. Please take their pledge seriously. Real change comes from a collective and hopeful vision.

Please click on their logo to view the Case Foundation site:

BE BOLD. BE HOPEFUL. BE FEARLESS. Remember, we are all in this together!

Put down your Haterade and stop judging!

Clay Shirky is an author and media expert out of New York University. He specializes in a subject near and dear to my heart, technology as a tool to create and empower networks. I am most intrigued by Shirky’s concept of “cognitive surplus”. Essentially, cognitive surplus is the free time that is afforded to people as a result of our modern society. We don’t have to spend all of our time finding ways to survive like our ancestors.

The 35+ age cohort spent the majority of their youthful free time watching T.V. The net generation has used their free time in a much more creative manner. We (as in adults and educators) are VERY quick to dismiss much of this work as nonsense. Be honest, how many times have you described a student’s time online as a waste of time?

Shirky uses the site lolcats as a cognitive surplus case study. This lovely site is a repository for funny cat pictures that have been digitally annotated or altered as seen here:

As silly as this picture may be, it is still a creative act. It was then shared with a larger audience helping to create community.  Creative acts like this are gateways to more productive and powerful online activities. Wikipedia represents one of those higher forms of collaborative action. Rather than spending countless hours viewing a one way medium like T.V, the digital youth are creating and curating content. They are creating audiences of their own, rather than being a Nielson statistic.

There is a powerful message here for teachers. We have to facilitate purposeful connections for our students and most importantly, we have to stop judging! Am I tempted to call lolcats a waste of time? Sure, but I really believe that any creative act is better than nothing. At least it is a starting point for something more.  The goal is not to criticize but to guide. The more authentic opportunities for collaboration that we provide for our students, the more Wikipedia type ventures we foster. If we don’t provide rich and collaborative digital activites, lolcats and the like will be the extent of our students digitally creative acts. So, repeat after me, “I solemnly swear to bite my tongue and no longer describe my students online time as a waste. I will provide rich collaborative opportunities to guide them towards more productive and powerful creative acts.” 

Remember, we’re all in this together!

As evolutionary ideas become nuanced, there seems to be a move away from Dawkins’ reductionist ideas of the “selfish gene” where humans are simply hosts for gene survival and any form of altruism or desire for the greater good is reduced to kin selection. The new movement focuses much more on the benefits of cooperation and working together for the greater good. Martin Nowak of Harvard university penned the book “Supercooperators” where he argues that cooperation is hardwired into our very genetic make-up and he just happens to be a devote Roman Catholic (another nail in the coffin in the false dichotomy of science vs. religion).

Of particular interest to this post are the ideas of J.Haidt and his work with “Hive Psychology”. Haidt’s work focuses on happiness and its relationship to losing oneself in a greater whole or cause.  An article on Scott Belsky’s the99% highlights two major tenets of Hive Psychology:

(1) “The most effective moral communities – from a well-being perspective – are those that offer occasional experiences in which self-consciousness is greatly reduced and one feels merged with or part of something greater than the self.”

(2) “The self can be an obstacle to happiness (given our inherent limitations as humans!), so people need to lose their selves occasionally by becoming part of an emergent social organism in order to reach the highest level of human flourishing.”

-From “Hive Psychology, Happiness & Public Policy” by J. Haidt, P. Seder & S. Kesebir

The goal of this post is not to debate evolutionary science or explore the relatively new field of evolutionary psychology, instead I want to underline the importance of cooperation and teamwork at school. Student success must ALWAYS be paramount to any initiative undertaken in any school but the well-being of the staff within a school is vitally important as well.

We live in a world of ubiquitous connectivity. As educators and educational leaders, the goal is to ensure that these connections are purposeful. There are times of deep isolation in our profession and I have teachers become completely disconnected as a result. Building a strong community of support based upon professional development, mental health and most importantly student success is just the type of moral engagement that Haidt discusses. Building a true community of learners that advances the lives of parents, students and staff members is a powerful thing. It is the type of thing in which we should seek to lose ourselves.

How often have you found yourself excited by the “ping” on your phone which signifies a new message? We get excited because it is the potential for a connection to another person or group. The haters will tell you that this type of virtual connection is empty and only leads to more empty connections. I think that’s nonsense. When my wife, who is home on maternity leave, sends me a picture of our daughters on my phone, I am not satisfied. It only makes me want to see them in person all the more. The pictures alone are not an end, instead they represent another layer of connection. Let’s harness these virtual connections and use them to make our face to face connections more meaningful, productive and vibrant. Rather than viewing collaborative tech platforms as an empty connection, view them as a tool to expand connectivity. The goal is not to replace face to face contact rather it is to diversify connectivity and deepen bonds.

Technology like Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Google Groups, Chatter, Edmodo and many more, provides us with a chance to share information as well as build community. We can end isolation and build deeper supports so that we do not feel overwhelmed or bogged down my minutiae when we do have opportunities for face to face collaboration at school.

Let’s get lost in education together. The more purpose that we create in education, the happier that everyone will be. Remember, we are all in this together!

School is dead. Long live school.

“There’s no other technology in the world that 87% of the world’s population owns. And yet, despite mobile devices’ ubiquity and connectivity, we are only beginning to realize what’s possible.”

The above quote came from a recent article from Forbes online by Mark Fidelman.  Just like in the business world, education has barely scratched the surface of the possibilities for mobile technology. The growing power and access of mobile technology means that a major shift in both the public and private sector is coming. Fixed locations and workplaces become less relevant because mobile technology allows for quick collaboration and access through the ever-growing cloud. Without adaptations, many organizational models will crumble or risk becoming obsolete.

Adaptations are not always easy though. Fidelman quotes Lisa Bodell, author of Kill the Company,  “The very structures put in place to help businesses grow are now holding us back.” The high walls of protocol, policy, procedure and accountability have their place but they also prove stifling. We all know that this same problem exists in the education system as well.

Fidelman explores how corporate barriers prevented innovation leading to start-ups surpassing corporate giants:

Why didn’t Kodak invent Instagram? Fear of  non-revenue generation in the short while neglecting the potential windfall down the road. That windfall turned out to be $1 000 000 000 from Facebook.

Why didn’t Zagat invent Yelp? 28 year Zagat did not recognize the power of mobile technology. Google offered $100 million for Zagat while 8 year old

Yelp! harnessed mobile tech and has a market value of $1 billion.

Why didn’t the music labels invent iTunes? Rather than embrace mobile technology and start the revolution, the big labels pursued the path of litigation to prop up a dying model.

Are we going to be asking similar questions about the education system? The rise of web based learning platforms like Khan Academy, Udacity, iTunes University, and EdX are growing quickly. The start-up mentality of these companies makes them nimble and current. The education system moves with the pace and agility of a lumbering giant. While Bodell’s concept may be a bit extreme, we must undertake the hard changes before these changes are forced upon us.

A good first step for schools is Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) but tools alone do not solve the problem. We need to attack the larger issue of an engrained culture that resists innovation. In order to keep pushing forward, we must fight to have an educational culture that values growth and development. Without such a mentality our model risks obsolescence.

Video – Tools for the 21st Century Educator

I was playing around with Animoto this morning, making videos of my kids. I thought that I would make one highlighting 21st Century Education resources. PLEASE enjoy and share as often as possible.