My Man “Kid President”

More words of hope and wisdom from my pint sized hero, Kid President. “Things that we should say more often” is a powerful message. What are some of the things that we should say more of at school?

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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.

A case for irreverence…

Really good comedians and social commentators know how to make people squirm (hello Borat!). They cut right to the heart of the matter with a well chosen and caustic barb. Ricky Gervais probably won’t be invited back to the Golden Globes any time soon but damn, wasn’t he amazing? The MTV Music Video Awards show is also famous for its legendary cringe-worthy moments as hosts push the truth to uncomfortable limits. Uncomfortable, biting, sarcastic, caustic, acid-tongued, and irreverent but also iconoclastic, envelope pushing, genre bending and culture changing.

The 21C Learning Movement in its most undiluted form can hold its own with the Chris Rocks, Sacha Baren Cohens and Ricky Gervais of the entertainment world. It is a take no prisoners movement that challenges established norms and conventions. It does not accept “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” It questions, pokes, prods and sometimes attacks traditional academic culture. I love to quote two of my favourite 21C iconoclasts when I want to stir up an audience. Quoting Ian Jukes when he describes a system producing, “highly educated, useless people” or Sugata Mitra stating that you don’t really need to know anything anymore, always leads to a few red faces and gaping jaws.

We need more of this irreverence in the education system. We have to stomach the possibility of losing a couple friends along the way to real change. The tyranny of niceness, bureaucracy and acquiescence is being stripped away in many areas of our society much to the betterment of said society. The potential of looking foolish on Colbert or The Daily Show plays heavy in the minds of many a politician. We need to bring a similar attitudinal sledgehammer to the ranks of academia. For every time that we chose to move slowly in implementation, we lose ground. (Remember moving quicker is not the same thing as being reckless!) Challenging for challenging’s sake is nonsense but there are some fights worth fighting. There are times when we need to cry foul and rock the boat. I have gotten myself in trouble for doing just that but I feel that it is worth it under the right circumstances. The world is changing fast and education is reacting slowly. We need to start asking, “why”.

I know that this is going to sound silly but I think that the biggest reason that we are moving so slowly is because we are focusing too much on education. Huh? you say! Let me break it down. We need to be “responsive and precise” with our teaching methods without doubt. Placing too heavy an emphasis on PD that is education only makes us blunt instruments rather than precise ones.  We get caught in the echo chamber of education thinking. Learning Goals, Success Criteria and Descriptive Feedback plus a whole host of other education tools have value. They are useless though if we do not stay current with trends from the rest of the world. A teacher has responsibility first and foremost to his or her students, system leaders though have to think bigger. As system leaders, we have to push the education stuff to the side just a bit from time to time and start learning more about how to scale, connect and grow ideas. I have learned more about being an educational leader from reading Clay Shirky, Clive Thompson, Alexis Ohanian, Howard Schultz, and Scott Belsky than I have from reading Fullan, Leithwood or Hattie.

There is a difference between being a smartass and being irreverent. A smartass pours gas on a fire just to watch it burn while the irreverent is dickish with a purpose. In the majority of cases that purpose is to accelerate change. I really feel like we need to embrace and amplify the irreverence of 21C. Change is a difficult process, we can either pull the bandaid off slowly under the guise of protection from harm or we can pull it off fast.

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.

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!

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.

Lessons from Abroad – Singapore

Edutopia in conjunction with the OECD created a series of videos highlighting the education reform movements of several countries. I will post each of the videos along with a brief summary. I found these videos to be EXTREMELY helpful. Finland has been getting most of the accolades when it comes progressive systems but Singapore deserves some love as well.

This snapshot of education in Singapore was enlightening on many levels but three things really stood out for me:

1) The focus on Student Engagement. The school leaders explicitly stated that “fun” was a priority.


2) There was an acknowledgement that technology was core to the being of the students. Rather than view it as a distraction, the teachers and administrators found ways to integrate into the curriculum.


3) Professional Development as a networked activity was HEAVILY emphasized. Technology allowed these teachers to create learning communities that extended FAR beyond the walls of the school.

NEXT UP…FINLAND