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.

Advertisements

How do you REALLY know?

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

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

the-lean-startup_50291668aa9bb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cue inspirational music…

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.


			

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)