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.

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.

Being a tourist in your own Education System

Last summer my wife’s aunt and uncle visited us from Cape Town, South Africa. Her uncle wanted to visit all of the major Toronto landmarks. We took the red double-decker sightseeing bus all around the city. I saw parts of my own city that I had never really paid attention to before. Being a tourist in your own city can be  a very enlightening experience.

Taking that tourist approach to your own education system can be equally enlightening. I found this video on Edutopia from the OECD Education Everywhere series about education in Ontario. The video focused on Unionville High School (part of the northern Toronto suburb of Markham ).  Markham is an extremely diverse city with a very large Chinese and south Asian population.

The video paid specific attention to the role of the “Student Success” teacher and the larger Student Success team. The team meets weekly and focuses on coordinating supports for the transition of new Canadian students. The goal is to provide supports for the whole child and not only the academic side.

Additional information and perspectives can be found in this OECD document:

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.” 

Developing the Net Generation through Coaching

I have several daily must-reads.  Fast Company is my favourite from  that list. For those unfamiliar with the magazine and its website, this excerpt from their “about us” section encapsulates its purpose well,

Fast Company is the world’s leading progressive business media brand, with a unique editorial focus on innovation in technology, ethonomics (ethical economics), leadership, and design. Written for, by, and about the most progressive business leaders, Fast Company and inspire readers and users to think beyond traditional boundaries, lead conversations, and create the future of business.

While pulling the early shift with my 9 month old, I found an article on entitled, “To Bring Out the Best in Millennials, Put on Your Coaching Hat”.  The article was written by Tony Wagner , the first Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard. While the article may be aimed at corporations, the ideas presented prove helpful for schools as well. Wagner points out that this generation has a passion for creation like no other generation but this passion is sometimes misunderstood or under-appreciated. The gap between millennials and older generations lies in their approach to work, tradition and definitions of success.

Millennial Observations:

  • more interested in making a contribution than making money
  • they see work as an adult form of play
  • they seek experiences that are engaging in the moment, that excite them both intellectually and emotionally
  • they are looking for opportunities to give back and seek change
  • feel stifled by the 9 to 5 routine – want to be held accountable for more than following simple protocol
  • engaged in passion, play and purpose

I am quite sure that this list of observations would neatly overlap with those of any teacher in any classroom from  grade 7  to 12. Rather than being excited about the possibilities of the millennial mindset, many educators and corporate managers have their reservations. Instead of castigating them for a different mindset, we should recognize that it has the power to fuel innovation and generate social equity. One of the chief complaints that I hear regularly is that this generation lacks respect for authority. I agree with that perspective to a point. Students have lost respect for the traditional authority based on position and hierarchy. I suppose that every generation says the same about the next.

Wagner argues that the authority that matters is that of expertise, modelling of good values, the enabling of innovation, and authority that enables teams to come up with better solutions. In other words, authority is an earned construct rather a simple function of position on the pyramid.

Wagner suggests that the best way to develop this generation is with a coaching mindset. Manager, teacher, principal, or any other position needs to focus on developing strengths and guiding students rather than constraining them. In an era where access to information is ubiquitous, content knowledge is no longer king. We must develop the skills in our students that will allow them to be innovators and to create social change. Innovation flows from an open environment.

Below is one of Wagner’s presentations about developing an innovators mindset:

Parenting (and Educating) in the Digital Age

Too often, we condemn or criticize our colleagues who are slower to adopt Ed Tech into daily practice. I have always adhered to the wisdom of “Field of Dreams” namely “If you build they will come!”. Our first thought should be development rather than criticism.Those who are comfortable with new forms of practice must support the development of those who are not. We must apply that mode of thinking to dealing with parents as well. As Bring Your Own Device moves ever closer to mass adoption, parents uncomfortable with technology will need development as well.

I came across this wonderful presentation by David Truss through People for Education. It is intended to help parents with their digital youth but it is also applicable for teachers who perceive themselves to be “Digital Immigrants”. This presentation would be ideal for a school administrator to share with a staff or at a parent night or simply for your own development.

Mathalicious: Don’t just learn math, use math.

Mathalicious is a web based digital math tool. Math topics are presented to students in an engaging and contextualized manner. For example, expressions and equations are explained through an examination of calorie burning after eating McDonald’s. Problem solving and critical thinking are at the heart of every activity. The creators stress that Mathalicious is not just about learning math, it is about using math. The activities are aligned with American common core standards but they overlap nicely with the Ontario Curriculum Expectations.

The information for each problem is presented via an embedded Slide Rocket presentation that can be shared with the students. Detailed lesson guides and student worksheets are available in PDF.

Remember a few years back when Radiohead released an album on their web page and invited users to pay whatever they wished for the download? Mathalicious is using a similar price hook. The suggested payment is $20/month but you can subscribe for as little as $5/month. The developers do not want to let price be an object to learning.

I REALLY like this site. It is well worth checking out. The integration of collaboration, content, critical thinking and context is outstanding.

The Evolution of Education Tools

Interesting infographic found on Pinterest displaying the growth of education tools over the years.

What is crowdsourcing?

Crowdsourcing is nothing new in the private sector but its applications are still mostly unrealized in education. What are its applications in education? What are its limitations? How can it be used to better serve the student community?

Share your thoughts and experiences about the potential of crowdsourcing for disruptive educational change.

This post is the first part of a look at the potential for mass collaboration to change education. I look forward to everyone’s participation.


Socrative is a free digital tool that allows you to interact with your students in a variety of ways. It can be used to test students, to poll an audience, the carry on back-channel conversations as well as an effective way for students to provide exit cards after a class. The app is completely free and works on any device with an internet connection.

As we move towards B.Y.O.D (Bring Your Own Device), tools of this type will become even more valuable. The potential for organizing data and promoting a paperless environment is intriguing. I have played around with Socrative and I have found it really intuitive and easy to use. You can find a full review on Edshelf.

Socrative introduction video (new) from Socrative Inc. on Vimeo.

Crafting Social Media Guidelines for your School

Social media represents the best and the worst of this digital generation. It can create strong collaborative cultures that serve to flatten traditionally hierarchies or it can become a marketing tool for businesses to shill their products.

In her book, “Get Bold”, Sandy Carter (IBM Vice President of Social Business) brings us the concept of a social business. Social business differs from social media in terms of the level of integration into the heart of the business. Social business should be a way of life that promotes openness within an organization and with its customers. We can adapt her concept of a social business to that of social organization in an educational concept. All schools must make use of the best aspects of social media to create an open environment that connects all stakeholders together to promote student success.

The darkside of social media means that schools must have a carefully crafted policy for social media integration. Steven Anderson, prolific blogger from “Blogging about the Web 2.0 Classroom” put together a comprehensive set of guidelines complete with resources to help both schools and boards create guidelines of their own. I have embedded this document into the image below:

eBook Usage Infographic

Our friends from Online Universities Blog have brought us another amazing infographic. There are several interesting statistics to be found but the most striking one is that 88% of ebook users still read printed books. Hopefully this will quiet the “chicken-littles” who bemoan the death of the printed word. The relationship be ebooks and printed books is not a zero sum game…BOTH CAN SURVIVE and THRIVE!

E-book Nation
Brought to you by:

Sparking Global Student Collaboration

The Oracle ThinkQuest design challenge offers students 9 – 19 the chance to create a website based on their particular educational interest. The competition is unique because once the students form teams, they seek out their own coach to support their development. This is a real testament to the power of flattening the educational hierarchy. Coaches are there in a support and guidance role rather than to direct the process. Teams are made up of 3 to 6 students with NO restrictions on location. The team highlighted in the video was comprised of students from several continents.

You can visit the ThinkQuest page by clicking on the picture:

Imagine local school boards adopting a similar competition or attitude towards collaboration. Taking advantage of the collaborative technology available to our schools could easily make this possible. Using project-based learning in a networked context would have tremendous upside for both staff and students. Embedding 21st century fluencies into daily practice does not have to be directed from up above. Facilitating opportunities for mass collaboration is much more effective and sustainable because it is student directed.

Sandra Mustacato and Mike Papadimitriou from the TCDSB AICT team delivered a powerful  Prezi at the Area 1 Innovator’s Day at Msgr. Percy Johnson (organized by VP Marcello Mancuso and Area 1 S.O Loretta Notten) where they displayed the power of Skype to facilitate such collaborative student learning possibilities. Follow this link to view this fantastic Prezi:

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There was a lot of interest in the “Icon Archive” post from yesterday. I found another image and icon site that might have even more potential for educators. Icon Bug provides free images for download in a variety of formats. All images are licensed and like Icon Archive, the type of license is given for each image. The big advantage for Icon Bug is the ability to download single images. On Icon Archive, you end up downloading collections. The site design is also much cleaner without the shady looking advertising.

Click on the logo to have a look:

Lessons from Abroad – Finland

Finland has been getting tremendous amounts of positive publicity for the success of their education system. They have catapulted up the PISA rankings and based on aggregate scores, Finland is now ranked as the #1 education system in the world. At the TCDSB Student Success Conference, renowned education expert Andy Hargreaves compared the Finnish system to a Ferrari because it the nexus point of innovation and performance. Hargreaves compared Canada to a thoroughbred racehorse because of the tremendous focus on improvement at the expense of innovation.

What makes the Finnish system so great? The first video from the American Teachers Federation focuses on the following success indicators:

1) Teaching is a highly respected profession where all teachers are required to hold a Master’s degree. The opinions of teachers are taken into account when important decisions are made. Job embedded professional development and teacher collaboration are core to the development of all educators.

2) The relationship between teachers and administration is extremely close. There is a synergy between these two important roles.

3) The focus on the individual student in a priority. Differentiation is organic to the process.

The second video from the OECD via Edutopia takes a closer look at the focus on the individual child. Key points from this video include:

1) Early identification of students who are struggling. The goal is to deal with learning gaps early so that struggles do not compound. The special education resource teacher is engaged early in the process to observe students who are struggling.

2) There is not a stigma attached to special education support in Finland. Upwards of 90% of kids in the system have received support in some manner.

3) Every school in the system has a student welfare committee made up of school personnel who meet twice monthly. The goal is to regularly discuss the development of all children but especially those who have been flagged. Individual problems are dealt with on a case by case basis. These issues range from the emotional to academic level.

The Finnish system places a huge emphasis on people and not bureaucracy. Policy is of secondary concern to the welfare of students and educators. Surprise, surprise..putting people first actually works!

Social Media: Strengthening Home-School Communication

I devour any communication that comes from my son’s school. He is in Senior Kindergarten, so school is still new and exciting for us all. Admittedly, I also read the communications to fulfill the voyeuristic urge to see what goes on in other schools. My son’s principal follows the school-home communications playbook to the letter. The newsletter has clipart, important dates,thank-you’s and permission forms. He tries to use Twitter  and the school website is updated regularly. The only problem with this script, that he and MANY other principals follow, is that all of the communication is one way. Parents are informed but rarely consulted.

Traditionalists would argue that parent councils provide a forum for such consultation. I argue that this model is broken and highly undemocratic.How many parents actually attend these meetings?What percentage of the parent population is actually responsible for policy? 5 %? less maybe? Large segments of the school community become marginalized and the disconnect between home and school grows wider. If we want parental engagement then we have to engage the parents. Social media provides the perfect platform to involve a larger percentage of the parent community in school events.

Rather than present events to parents as a done deal, principals can use social media to consult with parents during the development phase. Crowdsource ideas with your community. Float ideas out on Twitter and solicit feedback. Create networked brain-storming sessions. This concept is nothing new in the private sector and it has helped energize many brands as well as broadening their base of support. I really believe that this approach can have an even more powerful impact on schools.

This video from Digital U shows some of the ways the private sector uses crowdsourcing. The translation to the education system would not be a difficult one.

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.


From the mouthes of babes…

As educators, we spend a lot of time dissecting the gigantic topic of “Student Engagement”. I wonder how often, we truly entertain student perspectives when we unpack this hugely important topic. has been exploring Student Engagement from a variety of angles. The most powerful article came from Heather Wolpert-Gawron of She surveyed 220 students regarding what motivates them to learn and stay engaged at school. She turned the student responses into a top ten list for teachers.  Not surprisingly, the top two responses were 1) working with peers and 2) working with technology. These responses underline the fact that we must adapt traditional schooling practices or risk being perceived as irrelevant in the eyes of our students.

Click the Edutopia logo to read the full article: