What a crock of….

Remember Lyle Lanley? No?

Maybe this will jog your memory:

Mr. Lanley’s notebook revealed more of his dastardly plans:

images1CGRU9OO9f10_10_lyle_lanley_skizze_suckers

There are plenty of Lyle Lanleys blighting the education landscape. 21st century learning is a nebulous term. It has fuzzy edges along with many competing definitions. This leaves it ripe for hucksters like Lyle Lanley to sweep in with overly simple answers to increasingly complex situations. These reductionists pitch products and/or programs based on shoddy research or sadly in some cases, no research at all.

Neuroscience has largely been a progressive venture but it has also been hijacked by those looking to make a buck off of education. Reductionists seek to deconstruct complex systems in order to prove that they are no greater than the sum of their parts. There are three pervasive education/neuroscience myths that the Lanleys like to exploit: 1) Right Brain vs. Left Brain leanings 2) Learning Styles and 3) ultimately Brain-based Learning as a whole. It is time to pull back the curtain on each of these myths and expose them for what they are and their pushers for whom they are.

1) RIGHT BRAIN vs. LEFT BRAIN:

This myth has led to many students being labeled as “right brained” or “left brained” depending upon a perceived level of creativity. This damaging myth has been exploited by publishers and education entrepreneurs for decades. This poorly conceived notion can lead to a fixed mindset whereby students can be led to believe that their levels of creativity are static.

This myth has its roots in the the work of Gereon Fink, at the time from the University of Düsseldorf in Germany, and John Marshall from the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. They used brain scans to support the idea of hemispheric dominance. This led to a movement where people began to speculate that the creative abilities were based in the right hemisphere, and logical faculties in the left. This myth infiltrated education for many years (and still lives on in some places)  with students taking left/right brain questionnaires so that their learning could be tailored. Countless research studies have led to contradictory results. Neuroscience and true research definitively discounts the idea of hemispheric dominance. So to the idea of Right Brain vs. Left Brain,  I call….”BULLSHIT!”

Thankfully, there is a movement afoot to debunk this damaging myth and to recognize the complexity of the human brain. The “No Right Brain, Left Brain” advocacy group is backed by Deepak Chopra and Sir Ken Robinson but sadly many resources based on hemispheric dominance are still being published.

2) LEARNING STYLES:

This damaging myth has been heavily exploited by profiteers both past and present. The supporters of this movement purport that an individual learns best when information is taught in a manner consistent with his or her “learning style”. Researchers investigating the validity of this myth have uncovered as many as 71 supposed learning styles. The concept sounds great, but has no credible research support.

The idea of learning styles is rooted in the theory of multiple of intelligences, developed in the early 1980s by psychologist Howard Gardner of Harvard University. Gardner claimed to have identified 7 distinct types of intelligences (visuo-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic and logical-mathematical), and that this “challenge[s] an educational system that assumes that everyone can learn from the same materials in the same way”.  It’s a myth though. There is no scientific evidence that children learn any better or differently when presented to them in their “preferred learning style.” Research actually points out quite the opposite. According to Paul Howard-Jones of the University of Bristol,  while speaking at a workshop about the impact of neuroscience on society at the BNA Festival of Neuroscience ,some research actually suggests that children learn better when presented with information that pushes them out of their “comfort zone.” So to the concept of “Learning Styles”, I call “BULLSHIT!”

This infographic does a wonderful job of debunking “learning styles”:

The Myth of Learning Styles Infographic
Find more education infographics on e-Learning Infographics

Many 21C or Ed Tech entrepreneurs and publishers are looking to make a buck from the excitement and ambiguity of “EDUCATION 2.0”. Many of these products are based on neuromyths. The OECD states, “A neuromyth usually starts out with a misunderstanding, a misreading and, in some cases, a deliberate warping of the scientifically established facts to make a relevant case for education or for other purposes.”  These myths are dangerous and duplicitous. The OECD continues, “Parents, teachers and educational specialists are naturally eager to put into practice what they have read or heard in the popular media. There is a danger that they might be tempted to too readily adopt so-called “brain-based” teaching or rearing strategies that are in fact not based on any evidence at all.” People are always looking for answers and the Lyle Lanleys of the world are looking to sell them. Just like the human brain, education is a complex system. When we try to reduce it to its base parts, we strip it of its beauty.

Don’t just take my word at face value, do some follow-up on your own as well. The following links are both source material for this piece and further research:

OECD Neuromyths

Think Neuroscience – The Myth of Learning Styles

Separating Neuromyths from Science in Education

Edutopia – Education Neuromyths

CEA -Neuromyths are a Barrier to Changing Education

There are countless research based ideas to support the integration of 21st century learning fluencies. We just have to be patient and judicious as we seek to discern fact from fiction.

A Healthy Disregard for the Impossible

Wired UK editor delivers this powerful talk at INK 2012 which highlights the power of disregarding “impossible”. Examples include Elon Musk and his private enterprise SPACEX; the traditional locus of control is rapidly disappearing. People now have the opportunity to push a change agenda by leveraging connective tech. Public educators are you listening???

An “Army of Davids”

I love educators. I am the product of two educators. I married an educator. Most of my closest friends are educators. I don’t like formal education though. It’s really complicated and I really like simplicity. Please allow me to explain. Picture it, a homeowner needs to move a piano from a main floor living room to his newly redecorated second floor study. The piano has wheels so it is easily slid over to the staircase by our eager participant. After this early success, the homeowner is full of eagerness and begins to problem solve when faced with the staircase. Undaunted by the gravity of trying to move a piano up the staircase by himself, the homeowner measures, sketches and plots out ideas. On paper, these plans seem like they might work but in practice they all fail.  The homeowner tries out dozens of methods to get that piano up the stairs and is frustrated by the lack of success. Eventually, the homeowner gives up and decides to leave the piano in the living room. He tries to justify his decision and eventually convinces himself that it probably belonged in the living room in the first place. Hopefully at this point, you are asking the same questions that I have. Why didn’t he just ask for help? Wouldn’t a team of people have had a greater chance of success? Well, duh?!? Of course they would.

Not the most subtle of metaphors, I recognize, but you get the gist. Formal education too often acts like our hapless homeowner. Individuals or very small teams seek to tackle system level problems without engaging the wider community of educators within their respective system. System leaders are often left frustrated when PD plans do not take root or when a new program quickly stalls. In their book “Decisive”, Chip and Dan Heath describe major enemies to good decision making. Chief amoung these enemies is what they call “Narrow-Framing” which is limiting the number of possibilities when making a decision. Our homeowner is guilty of narrow-framing because he never considered the possibility of involving others in his efforts to move the piano. Education leaders are WONDERFUL people who care deeply about kids BUT they are notorious narrow-framers. Decisions are made a by small group of people and the status quo (with a few minor tweaks) rules the day. We want co-construction at the classroom level but it often doesn’t transfer to a system level. Rather than giving up in frustration like our homeowner who chose to go it alone, education leaders must make greater use of the genius in the system to create meaningful change.

In his book, “Citizenville” Gavin Newson (current Lt. Governor of California) equates government to a vending machine. Taxpayers put money into the machine and the machine dishes out services. The relationship is one of transaction and not participation. He argues that government should serve as platform for participation in order to progress. He uses examples from his previous administration as Mayor of San Francisco and that of Michael Bloomberg in New York as examples. These two mayors allowed for the creation open API’s for developers to use city data to create web apps to  support citizen needs. Recognizing the inherent deficits of knowledge within their own teams, they created a platform for others to supply the necessary ideas and know-how. This is a winning proposition for everyone. The civic leaders get the services that they need, citizens get an opportunity to participate and shine a light on their particular skills and the larger population benefits from faster and more efficient innovative practice. Newsom describes it in the video below:

This kind of stakeholder participation is happening in the private sector as well. “My Starbucks Idea” is site where Starbucks customers are able to suggest product or service ideas for system wide adoption. Once an idea reaches a certain threshold of user support, it gets considered for adoption by Starbucks. The infographic below highlights the success of this platform:

static-starbucks-final-withstar

If organizations as large as Starbucks, San Francisco and New York (to name just three from a long list) can find create participatory platforms, why couldn’t a school board? The actual teaching and learning side of our education system can most certainly be turned into a participatory platform as well. Why not open up wicked education problems to crowdsourced solutions? Ask design or inquiry questions and allow the field to suggest solutions ala OPENIdeo.  We can’t keep trying to push that piano up the stairs by ourselves, its exhausting, wasteful and quite silly. Even if only a handful of people participate in the early rounds of this open system, that’s still more than we would have had. My Starbucks idea has seen the amount of adopted ideas rise from 25 to 75 in five years. This success is not just limited to the actual ideas, it also extends to those who voted to support them. Over 2 million people have voted on the site since it was created. These voters might not offer ideas BUT they are engaged in a platform that genuinely values their input. Regardless of the number of workable ideas that we might get from the education equivalent, we begin to interact with our system in new ways. It moves from a expert to novice or transactional relationship to one of co-learning and co-construction. Newsom calls this an “Army of Davids”. Engaging many people in solving problems can create avenues that were previously never considered or even conceived.  It operationalizes the adage, “many hands make light work”. Rather than acting the hapless homeowner, we need to follow the lead of our young leader in this “Lead India” video:

In a connected world, there is no excuse for the lack of wider participation in decision-making. There are countless FREE tools that we can use to foster this participatory platform. We have expertise in the field that we haven’t even come close to utilizing. It is the ultimate win-win. New ideas are generated and people feel valued. We create powerful and virtuous feedback loops. It’s not about thinking outside of the box, its really about creating new ones. We can plan and plot all we want about moving a piano up the stairs on our own but it will only move once we approach it from a brand new perspective.

 

Shut-up and listen!

It’s time that all education “experts” just shut-up and listen.  Too much talk, too much hubris, too many ideas and not nearly enough listening plague progress in education. New ideas from researchers and thinkers are valuable. The problem is not with the creators or interpreters of knowledge but rather with those in public education who are responsible for putting ideas into action.

@SEFleadTCDSB pointed me in the direction of this TEDx talk from Ernesto Sirolli; more than 15 minutes long but WELL worth the time commitment.

If we want change, we have to listen. We have to think like designers and less like consultants. Designers ooze empathy. They first seek to authentically understand the user’s particular problem. Solutions are grown and adapted according to circumstance. They are not forced solutions based on “best practice”. Consultants push canned solutions to nebulous and generalized circumstance. Their type of ABC’s is more akin to the sales version of “Always Be Closing”. Selling ideas trumps growing a meaningful program.

Sirolli’s talk teaches us the power of listening. Assuming the role of expert, precludes one from immersing in context and situation. There are certain universal truths in education but they only work if we are sensitive to time, need and context. Force feeding an idea doesn’t just get you nowhere, it sets the process further back.

Toyota has a good saying, if you want understand problems of practice, “Go to the Gemba” or the factory floor – the source. If we want to affect meaningful change, it’s time to shut-up and listen.

Coding: The 5th C?

Code.org is a movement aimed at bringing coding to everyone. Demystifying coding is key to enticing a new cohort of coders. Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Creativity, Communication and now a 5th C of coding? Coding presents the ultimate real world problem solving format whereby students get timely and regular feedback. Stay tuned as #tcdsb21c continues to investigate methods for integration.

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.

Are you up to the challenge?

As we approach the start of the new school year, I would like to issue a few challenges. These requests are targeted at the key stakeholders in our public education system: board officials, administrators, teaching staff, parents and students.  These are some “double dog dare you” type of challenges, so make sure that you properly warm-up before starting!

To senior and central staff:

I challenge you to start thinking like designers. Work to  break down the compartmentalization of education and start designing an empowering and integrated vision. Follow a human-centred design model based on HCD (HEAR – CREATE-DELIVER). The deliver part you have down, the hear and create, not so much! Hear those in the field, don’t narrow frame the idea gathering by staying in the central echo chamber. Social media tools can aggregate ideas fast enough that the sample size of” brainstormers” can be radically bigger than in days past.

To the adminstrators:

I challenge you embrace inquiry. Open yourselves up to learning in new ways; empower your staff and students to direct the learning and school direction in new ways. Be strong enough to support the process even during potential rough patches. Provide your teachers with a shield that will allow them to experiment with emerging curriculum from the primary grades right up to senior. Be the vanguard of new ideas and not necessarily the CREATOR of them. Commit to a mission and vision that are based on collaborative inquiry and then get busy funding initiatives that support that mission. Don’t get lost in the sea of disjointed crap that gets thrown at you daily. Remain focused on the power of developing life-long learners.

To the teachers:

I challenge you to let go. We became teachers because we want to see kids succeed. It hurts us at our core when they don’t. We want to control the learning process (although we call it guiding) because we don’t want the them to fail. The by-product of this helicoptering is that it interferes with them becoming life-long learners. Learn right along with the kids and don’t be afraid to ask them for help. They need us to model learning skills just as much as they need us to model paragraph building or addition and subtraction.

To the parents:

I challenge you to let teachers teach. Research shows that parents can help their kids succeed in school best by:

  • Having high expectations
  • Talking to your kids about school
  • Building good attitudes and work habits
  • Reading to your children in any language

To read the full report, visit People for Education. Get involved in the learning by supporting the school. This doesn’t mean blind support. It means questioning critically when necessary but ALWAYS assume positive intent from the outset. Attempting to empathize with the school can go a long way towards resolution.

To the students:

Take control of your learning. Do not just “do school”, embrace learning. You do not have to be perfect but you do have to persevere. Be tough-minded and fight through the difficult times during the school year. Don’t shutdown because of bad experiences; fight through them. You cannot leave your future in the hands of others. Learn from anyone and everyone. You won’t always like what someone says or does but there is always something that you can learn. Remember sometimes, you learn more by seeing what NOT to do. You can do it; if you can breath, then you can learn. TAKE CHARGE!!!

I leave you with the following pep talk from our friends at NIKE. Now get to work dammit!

What is design thinking?

Many of my recent posts have been about Design Thinking. Stanford d School is the best in the business in educating design thinkers. This video gives a good overview of design thinking and its disruptive possibilities.

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.

So what am I good for?

I have encountered a few teachers and some administrators who have come to question their role in this ever-evolving “thing” known as 21st Century Learning. Questioning long held notions of role can be simultaneously liberating and bone chillingly scary. Liberating if open to new possibilities and jarring if attached to traditional roles either through ideological bent or trepidation about lacking the know-how to adapt.

We all have to realize that the days of being the content expert in the room have been squashed by Google. The new possibilities though are pretty damn exciting if one is ready for it. First let me put any pessimists to rest, technology will NEVER replace a teacher. Khan might be able to accelerate content acquisition or support differentiation but the really cool elements of being a teacher are irreplaceable. The need to inspire, design and provide meaty feedback are the roles that teachers and administrators need to embrace. These three core elements of inspiration, design and feedback have always been my favourite part of the job anyways. It is empowering to know that 21C learning requires me to do more of what I like and a lot less of what I don’t.

Inspiration and real honest-to-goodness feedback are important topics but I will leave them for another post. Of the big three identified in this post, design is apple of my eye right now. Think about your best vacation, the one that was seamless from beginning to end. Flight, accommodations, sites and experience flowing perfectly from element to next; creating the ultimate positive feedback loop. The experience was most likely the product of thoughtful design. The kind of design that makes a building remarkable or an experience memorable. The best stores strive for this kind of design experience as well with Apple as a stand-out. Tim Brown from IDEO is one of the foremost design thinkers in the world. Take a look at this clip from his 60 Minutes interview with Charlie Rose:

Now its time for some critical reflection. Do our schools or even our classrooms offer the same kind of integrated design? In pockets of a school maybe but definitely not widespread. Quest to Learn Public School in NYC offers its students a school designed around gaming principles. The goal is not stuff content into video games and place game consoles in the classrooms. The goal is to take the design principles of games and apply them to an educational context.

The result is a school designed around the principles of:

  • Student engagement and student immersion in their learning through authentic and challenging problems.
  • The creation of a “need to know” learning model where knowledge creation becomes crucial and all of the knowledge to solve a problem might not be available or evident at the outset.
  • A “just in time” or emerging curriculum based around challenges and student inquiry.

These design principles have created a context that creates:

  • A need for students to share new understandings and knowledge.
  • Opportunities to share knowledge with a larger audience.
  • Export their expertise to an context outside of school.

This is hugely empowering for teachers, administrators and students. Designing an environment that maximizes authentic learning is far more at the core of the teaching vocation than delivering content. Give yourself permission to let go of the baggage holding you back. You have value beyond knowledge of the Great Lakes and Capital Cities of Canada. Embrace the tools and ideas that make the mundane move faster so that you can get on with being an educator that changes lives.

 

Bring on the boring…

“Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.”
― Clay ShirkyHere Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organization

Profound statement from a terrific thinker. Two of my favourite brands, Apple and Nike, have infused this philosophy into their product ethos. The everyday usage of the product trumps the celebrity endorsement or the specs.  The products themselves are elegant but the messaging targets the practical- to enhance the quality of one’s life.

Take a look at how Apple totally de-emphasizes the product while  instead featuring the utility:

There are no product close-ups with no mention of product features. The entire APPLE universe is built upon connectivity and integration. Each product works  neatly together in unison with the others.

Nike takes a similar tact by avoiding the shoe all together. Eschewing the star-studded campaigns of the best, the “Find Your Greatness” movement focuses on use and empowerment:

Nike has embraced social media as a core method of product promotion in a more holistic manner than most companies. Connecting with customers is not a tacky add-on but rather a core value. The Nike Fuel Band is another example of leading edge technology being integrated seamlessly into a product line with a focus of connection and empowerment.

Nike and Apple provide a wonderful model for technology use in education. We need to: 1) focus on the wide open outcomes potentially created by the tool  2) create an integrated experience that ties technology intimately into every facet of the school ecosystem in an authentic manner 3)  focus on the ability of tech to connect people in more diverse ways and 4) emphasize the ability that technology has to improve the quality of the experience by all in the system. I believe that the fastest way to engage the believers and encourage the nervous is through a consistent focus on the experience and problem-solving nature rather than the specs, apps or platform.

Let’s make the tech boring and the experience vibrant.

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.

Accelerating Global Change with Social Media

The downside of social media and the digital era has been discussed ad nauseam. The medium itself has never been a problem, rather it often serves as an accelerator or multiplier of existing predilections. For every elitist who slags the digital youth or inaneness of social media, along comes a signpost with the power of social media in full display.

I came across one such signpost this morning while skimming through Mashable. To celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 94th birthday, PrezenceDigital created a four minute video that shows how Mandela hypothetically would have used Facebook, Pinterest, Foursquare and Instagram to fight Apartheid. We are only left to wonder how things would have played out if Mandela really had such tools at his disposal.

SOOOOOO next time we slag one of our students for wasting time online, remember that for every goofy online venture there is a powerful and life-changing activity taking place. Our job is to guide our students towards positive online activity rather than mock them for how they use it!

People are asked to commit to 67 minutes of service and share their story at www.mandelastory.com. The goal is to create another Mandela each day. Talk about tech becoming an accelerator of change!

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.


			

Stratosphere – Michael Fullan

Michael Fullan’s new book “Stratosphere” takes a critical look at 21st Century Learning. Specific attention is paid to the relationship between technology and pedagogy. The book title “Stratosphere” refers to the relationship of technology, pedagogy and change knowledge. This book provides and very nuanced perspective of 21st Century Learning. Far from advocating the independent learning power of platforms like Khan Academy as a panacea for education, Fullan presents the dangers that students face without the guiding hand of a teacher.

I really appreciate Fullan’s framework for effective ed tech. If schools are going to reap the benefit of what technology has to offer, the tech needs to be:

  1. Irresistibly engaging for students and teachers.
  2. Elegantly efficient and easy to use.
  3. Technologically ubiquitous 24/7/
  4. Steeped in real-life problem solving.

The goal is to move away from marvelling at tech specifications towards reliable and real integration of technology. Tech with a focus and not simply tech for tech’s sake. It must help students to link curriculum to real life problem solving situations.

Most importantly, Fullan deals with the new role of teachers in the 21st Century. Rather than being pushers of content, teachers must form partnerships with students. Teachers have a huge role to play in this new era of education as change agents. Technology and independent learning alone cannot provide these change conditions. Fullan quotes John Hattie when discussing the fundamental role of teachers, “to evaluate the effect of their teaching on students’ learning and achievement.” A partnership rather than the sage on the stage.

This is a powerful book that anyone involved in education must read. It comes in at roughly 80 pages. I purchased my copy from Pearson online. It is a critical, nuanced and valuable perspective on this new era of learning.

Storybird – Collaborative Digital Storytelling

For me to get excited about any digital learning tool, there must be a collaborative element to it. Storybird is a digital storytelling tool that allows students to create and publish extremely smooth picture books. Users are provided with numerous illustration styles that can easily be dragged into place on a blank page. Students can add their own text at the side or on the bottom of a page.

The Storybird desktop is very user friendly:

Collaboration is integrated into Storybird  in an authentic manner. Creators can invite others to contribute or “take a turn” on a story through an email invitation. Stories can be set-up as collaborative from the outset as well. The Storybird community is invited to leave comments and share stories. Students can benefit from simply reading the stories of other community members.

Storybird is teacher friendly as well by allowing for the creation of classes. Storybird is a “freemium” site. The free version is all that is needed to create stories. The premium features include tools for teachers such as an assessment and descriptive feedback function. The free version allows for one PDF download per student with the premium plans allowing for 150 – 300 per student. All plans allow for unlimited online creations.

Teachers are also able to assign stories online through the created class lists. The assignment screen is simple for the user and the teacher:

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.