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.

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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.

Transparency is not a dirty word.

At its best, Twitter is  a sanitized form of voyeurism – an intimate view into the world of others minus the creepy “peeping Tom” stuff. There are some schools in my board I know lots about and others, ZIP! It is not through my board’s central communications that I learn about these schools but rather through the Tweets of those dwelling within the walls of those schools. My Personal Learning Network relies more on Twitter than any other source. Technology is transforming our society into an “on demand culture”. Information must be accessible instantly or we move on to another source. I don’t believe in going all “grumpy old man” and criticizing this new-fangled thinking, rather I believe in leveraging it. My favourite old Irish story is about the town gossip who goes to confession because of all the rumours that she’s spread throughout the town. The old priest listens carefully and the gossip waits in baited breath for the penance. The priest tells her to go home and take a pillow and a knife to the roof of her house. The priest then tells her to  cut open the pillow, shake the feathers out of it, wait ten minutes and then go retrieve each and every feather. The gossip gasps and tells the priest that her given penance is impossible to carry out, “How can I possibly put the feathers back after they have spread out in so many directions?” The old priest points out that the feathers in the wind were irretrievable just like the rumours she spread. Just like the feathers in the wind, there’s no going back when it comes to demanding more transparency and access to information. As much as I hate this expression, “it is what it is.” I believe also “that it is because it needs to be.”

Schools have an obligation to protect the privacy of all members of the school community. No one has a right to know personal details but there is nothing stopping schools from sharing the learning in the school. We need to embrace the idea of the glass schoolhouse whereby community members know what’s going on within the school. We can talk all that we want about engagement but no measure or program will be successful if the community does not feel truly in the loop. I’m not talking about bake sales, BBQ’s or extra-curriculars. I’m talking about the teaching and learning. I have two kids in school, one in Grade 2 and the other in SK. The only thing that I know about the teaching and learning comes from the kids. Good luck getting a clear picture from a  seven and a four year old (she’s a December baby). This has to change. I’m not looking for specifics about individual kids, I want to know about the programs and the respective progress of those programs. I drive by a school on my way to work each day that still has information from May of last year on the sign in front of the school. There’s 10 grand well spent! We can’t ask for engagement without information. The disconnect between school and “the real world” continues to grow. Countless companies and organizations are embracing connective technology to draw the user into the product ecosystem while education continues to keep stakeholders at arm’s reach.

In my opinion, ALL education leaders MUST have an active digital presence. This presence humanizes our leaders and adds new depth to school community. My target is the educational leader, not the classroom teacher. Our leaders must model this practice and set the tone for transparent but respectful information sharing. If you are an educational leader without a digital presence, why? If it’s because of a lack of technological knowledge, get over yourself and go ask for help. If it’s because of an attitudinal disposition, get over yourself EVEN MORE. It is incumbent upon you to grow community to support student success. The more that we share, the more the knowledge base grows. Our job is to the serve the best interest of our students, point blank. Sharing is a major creative and developmental force throughout most areas of the economic and social world. Sadly, this is not the case in education.

Twitter ain’t rocket science people and neither is sharing!

Did you put the new coversheet on your TPS Report?

Picture it, a small room filled with a team of educators. Its late September or early October. EQAO IIR’s, CAT/4 scores and other forms of student achievement data are strewn across a table. Highlighters, pencils and possibly a few laptops are being furiously engaged to find the “magic bullet”.  The room is filled with equal parts apathy, cynicism, excitement, hope and a bit of fear.   The educators around this table are an interesting cross-section of the staff. There are the keeners who love to be involved, the vets who know where all the bodies are buried, the career minded and the true believers. You guessed it folks, it’s School Improvement Planning time! It’s time to make use of trailing indicators of student achievement to plot out the future of the school! It’s a quant’s happiest time of the year.

I am an education geek, which should come as no surprise. I have always loved the idea of school planning and its potential. I have great difficulties with what the process has become rather than with the process itself. We have some very talented and well-intentioned board leaders who see the best in the process. They work tirelessly to try and breath life into this dead horse. They see the potential for change in the process but sadly in schools, it has become an accountability piece to be completed for sign-off by a supervisory officer and then put out to pasture. As Pasi Sahlberg says, “Accountability is what’s left when responsibility has been subtracted.” While there are always exceptions, most schools cling to narrowly defined goals that sound good but have little potential for change. The goals are framed in the lens of a system that has long valued improvement FAR more than innovation.

Ontario’s school planning process is old school business. It places emphasis on the analyzing and less on the doing. As the private sector moves away from static business plans and models to a lean mentality, education must follow suit. If we don’t, then we are simply doing school rather than making improvements. I think that SMART goals by nature are nonsense and become even sillier when put into practice. It rings of acrostic poetry at its finest! As a wise man has consistently reminded me, education is a messy business. The speed of innovation in this era makes things even messier. In 2009 Clay Shirky put it best:

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It is time to stop planning and to start designing.  IKEA is a perfectly designed ecosystem from its entrance to its exit. It provides an experience that engages more than it infuriates. It is designed around a set of core values that  inform all planning. The general design shapes any strategic planning. Education runs directly opposite to this premise. This is why education fails prey to fad programs. Ad hoc or shifting plans that are not grounded in a deeper design or philosophy are like a house built on a sand.

I love Duke basketball (which gives some reason to hate me!!!). Coach K is a genius at creating culture and established values. Year in and year out Duke wins. They don’t always win the whole thing but they are always in the reckoning. Improvement planning for Duke might include a goal like a 3% increase in FG% a la SMART BUT it would be part of a larger design structure rather than an isolated and inconsequential goal. Winning programs win because of culture and design. They have a program that weathers storms. Alex Ferguson thrived for 26 years at Manchester United because of a designed structure and culture. He did not bend to fads or silly trends. Core values ruled the day. He changed with the times but he did not bend to them.

School Improvement Planning in its current construction is simply another example of “doing school”. I am so amazed by the number of things that we just because we have to do them. This is dangerous business since we risk alienated staff, students and parents while wasting HUGE amounts of money. We risk “TPS Form” madness:

I have seem incremental improvements in this area but by and large public education still has its feet stuck in the mud. I strongly believe that the best way to improve planning is to craft REAL and ACTIONABLE mission, vision and value statements. Mission statements are the “me” statements. They are about what the school or the system stand for while the vision is about “them”. Vision is about what we will do to support our stakeholders. Mission and vision must be supported by strong values. Once these have been established, we can get busy creating a culture and designing the necessary functions for success.

Design incorporates context, relevancy and authenticity. Planning alone is pure accountability for accountability’s sake. Design and strategy will lead to success. Planning alone will leave us wandering in the desert looking for the promised land.

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.

Just because it is, doesn’t mean it should be.

I am really loving the new Apple campaign. “Designed by Apple” continues with the experience over product theme. For those unfamiliar, take a look:

The video is beautiful. I love the overall feel but a couple of parts really standout. The narrator asks three probing questions, 1) “Who will this help?” 2) “Will it make a difference?” and 3) “Does this deserve to exist?”. These are fundamentally human-centred questions. The goal of these questions is to find answers that make life better for the user. At the heart of any human-centred venture lies empathy.  An empathetic experience revolves around the users’ needs and not around tools of the trade. I have been in education for 14 years now and I have experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of education. The good has been the kid centred, the bad has largely been programs before people experiences and the ugly has been coping with thoughtless process.

Public education naturally and rightfully brings with it a high level of accountability. This accountability also presents constraints. Austerity measures sound good but rarely work. Rather than embracing the austere, we should embrace purposeful program design. It’s not about cutting, it’s about purposeful usage. Constraints can breed creativity for the hopeful and austerity for the fearful. Canadian baseball writer Jonah Keri wrote a terrific book about the Tampa Rays called “The Extra 2%”. The Rays are saddled with the worst home field in MLB, poor attendance and limited revenue. By embracing these constraints and by charting out a holistic organizational design, the Rays win each and every year. They draft, sign and develop players to fit the model. They also leverage every possible angle within their control to move the team forward. In the face of constraints, they win.

As educators in a public system, we have to similarly embrace the constraints of our system. We must DESIGN programs, processes, PD sessions and classroom experiences. There are too many things in the system that “just are” but probably shouldn’t be. EVERYTHING in our system should be purposefully designed and be subject  to Apple’s three core questions: Who will this help? Will it make life better? Does this deserve to exist?

Stop and think for a moment about all of the board or ministry initiatives that you have seen come and go as an educator. What did they have in common? Now think about those that have lasted, endured and evolved. What do they have in common? The ones that have lasted are the ones that empathized with the intended users. They were designed with people in mind. The failures were those that put the product ahead of the people. To get a better idea, try to picture a Sony Store and an Apple Store. The Sony Store places HEAVY emphasis on the product. It is a really static environment that focuses on the specs rather than the usages. The Apple Store is buzzing with life and activity. People are using the products, having fun and becoming devotees. Apple wins on two fronts: they build elegant products AND experiences.

My point is:  EDUCATION = SONY STORE.

A strength of our profession is the ability to empathize with kids. This is clear to anyone who might walk into our best classrooms. As a system though, we do a pretty lousy job of empathizing with our larger community. This is not done with mal intent but rather out of a sense of being stuck. Structures, traditions, conventions and   the general status quo are powerful institutional forces. We put centrally created products and programs first and people second. This is evident from start to finish in program creation:programs largely lack consultation (even though the connective technology exists to remedy this), they are vetted centrally and DELIVERED in an expert to novice learning model. This simply cannot continue. Older teachers are burnt out from living this cycle year after year and for the younger teachers, this model is simply incongruent with the rest of their life. Growing up in a connected era has created ingrained expectations and habits. Sharing, curation and co-creation are a natural ways of life. We will be wasting ridiculous amounts of tax payer dollars if we continue with our program creation and delivery model because these teachers will ignore it all and do what comes naturally; share and create with peers both in person and via social media.

Change has to come for both reasons of utility and principle. For sheer utilitarian purposes, we must make better use of constrained funding and on the principles side, it is simply the right thing to do. We must empathize and design for our kids and teachers to reach their fullest potential.

Don’t patronize me!

Raising the level of teacher and/or student engagement is an ever popular topic. Many question how best to raise the level of engagement. I wonder though, should we even be asking that question? or more practically, maybe the question itself IS the problem.

Engagement can be a pretty one-sided venture. Depending on how you approach it, engagement could be viewed as a static activity whereby an individual is investing emotional energy into a fully formulated or prepackaged vision. When a canned board or ministry program is released to the education community, the goal is to engage the teachers and the learners. Success in this case is measured by how willing the participants are to get with the program and put it to work. Is this what we really want? Sounds kind of patronizing to me. Not to be trite or hyperbolic but doesn’t the “no taxation without representation” refrain of the pre-American Revolution times come to mind? You want my engagement but not my involvement in constructing the program or its implementation. Gee, thanks!

Rather than addressing the level of engagement, I think that we need to reflect on the level of participation. Many parts of our lived experience are so entrenched because there were no other options at the time of their creation. Educational programming has been top down in delivery and creation for so long because that made it easier to get the product to market. Connecting large numbers of people to contribute to an idea was either cost and/or location prohibitive. We see this model being chipped away daily thanks to the  rise of connective technology. Rolling out a program without larger participation is no longer done out necessity, now it is a matter of choice. I am by no means suggesting that we run education referendum style where every decision or idea requires the consent or contribution of the entire education community. I do believe though that creation of policy and programs must become much more participatory in nature.

As an administrator, I believe it to be a fool’s mission to drop an idea on a staff without some form of participatory decision making. It doesn’t have to be the whole staff but using your School Improvement Team as key partners in the creation of policy is hugely important. It lifts moral since it doesn’t feel imposed but it also becomes a “smarter” venture because more ideas and viewpoints were added to the puzzle. This is not a difficult proposition because it is done within a single school. The challenge comes when you try to scale this type of participation to a system level. Connective technology makes this type of large scale participation possible. The doubters will claim that the level of participation will likely be low. SO WHAT? I am an administrator in the Toronto Catholic District School Board. We have approximately 9000 staff directly involved in learning (teachers, support staff and P/VP’s). Even if an open challenge initiative was to receive response from 1% of that population, that’s 90 people. Ninety new views, ideas or even idea fragments added to the pool of innovation. A slick campaign that combines substantive issues, good presentation design and heavy celebration of success is bound to attract more users with each iterative attempt.

21C is about opening up traditionally closed structures. It is about approaching problems from new and broad-based perspectives. It would be hypocritical to preach collaboration as a new world virtue to our students without doing it ourselves. This small example of a Twitter conversation has HUGE potential for student learning. An enlightened and open educator, Ms. Heidi Siwak puts out this amazing invitation and another amazing teacher Stepan Pruchnicky directs it to myself and the TCDSB SEF Lead Jan Murphy based on his knowledge of a collaborative inquiry of which we are a part. Sandra Mustacato from AICT joins and hopefully carries this on to her circle.

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OpenIDEO scales this idea to a worldwide reach. IDEO partners with various NGOs, companies and non-profits to open large scale social problems to proposed solutions from the global community. The process is an intricate but accessible one, far beyond just throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks. Ideas are put through a rigorous design process to reach a workable solution based on communal decision making.

E-waste is a global problem that should be open to a global response. The goal is not have people engage with a ready made solution rather the goal is for large scale participation. Education has always been a complex entity. We must start to harness the collective energy and ideas of our learning community. I truly believe that if we want 21C fluencies to take root and eventually bloom, we must cultivate a participatory culture. It is time to move way beyond engagement and think participation.

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.

 

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.

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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…

Open-sourcing Education

 

IDEO is a leading design firm that has entered into the field of social innovation. They are using design principles to solve MAJOR global issues, for example How might we restore vibrancy in cities and regions facing economic decline? The site aggregates ideas from participants and follows a process leading to action. This open-source approach uses technology as a vehicle to CONNECT. Check out the video below for a quick overview:

We need a forum to connect these ideas. Its time to value the knowledge within the system and use technology to connect educators in a revolutionary and solutions based manner. What would the educational version look like?

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.

Managing Data Overload!

I was on Mashable the other day and I found this crazy infographic from DOMO:

dataneversleeps
Source

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Technology is on a supercharged feedback loop where quicker tech begets even quicker tech. Imagine what this means for our students. They are bombarded with benign, malignant and data that lies somewhere in between on a daily basis. The entry age for kids is lowering rapidly as well with children under 8 familiar with the workings of the online world. This is akin to dropping a 16 year old off at bar with good fake I.D and $500. Sounds fun for the kid but the ramifications are potentially catastrophic.

Digital literacy skills MUST begin the primary grades. We have to work with our kids and teach them how to interpret the information that is at their fingertips. I have dealt with some teachers who feel that the answer is to go digital cold turkey with them. To extend my metaphor a touch further, this is now like dropping off a 16 year old Mennonite at the club. Money, excitement, wide eyes but no experience at all…..trouble awaits our young friend! Critical thinking skills must be a core focus in the digital literacy development of our students. Teaching our students how to think and how to discern the useless from the valuable and more importantly the safe from the dangerous.

Taking kids to the computer lab to play literacy or numeracy games has limited value but sadly a disproportionately large part of the primary digital experience. The kids already know HOW to work the equipment, they need to be taught to THINK about what they are accessing.

The world is changing fast. As a prisoner of hope, I believe this change is for the better. As educators, we also have to remember that only the adults perceive the change, for the kids the digital world is their present reality. There is no change, this is just the way it is. We just need to make sure that our kids are equipped with the skills to navigate these quick waters. Watch the SHIFT HAPPENS video in the header to get a nice visual on these quick waters.

Let’s support each other in our digital development. We need to help each other before we can help the kids!

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.


			

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.

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)

Video: A History of Technology in Education

Fun video from SMART, it’s a little  commercial but still effective. I think that its really interesting how the technology at each stage served as an extension of the teacher until the current period. This was most apparent in the “computer age” animation.  The screens were simply reproducing what was going on at the front of the room. The teacher was still the centrepiece and the technology was simply a tool to provide passive content.

It is only in the final “interactive age” that things become more decentralized. The students are using the technology in a much more self-directed manner. The goal is interaction and not content delivery.

Storify – My Favourite Digital Tool!

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

Features and Functions:

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

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

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

Flattening Educational Hierarchies: 5 Pillars for the New World

In this RSA Animates -ish video, Don Tapscott stakes out his case for the macro level changes occurring around the world as a result of collaborative technology.

Tapscott, besides being a good Canadian, is always full of really thought-provoking ideas. He is exactly the type of hopeful person that I wrote about yesterday. He is a person of game-changing vision.

Tom Friedman of the NY Times wrote about the flattening of hierarchies in his book, “The World is Flat”. It is only recently though that we are really starting to see this idea being put into action. From Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement to the Quebec Student protests, we are seeing people “self-organize”. Social media and collaborative technology have aided movements to turn ideas into action.

Tapscott highlights five key pillars of that are being ushered in by the information age:

  • collaboration
  • openness
  • sharing
  • interdependence
  • integrity
These pillars will have profound impact on education as well.I really believe that the education system in Ontario has the integrity part covered but we need massive development in the other four pillars.

We are infected by a silo mentality on the institutionalized side of education. There may be some sharing within a school but very rarely (if ever) does inter-school sharing of ideas occur.   The openness and interdependence pillars are the most lacking. Ideas are too often hidden or hoarded within schools or even within individual classrooms. As Steven Johnson points out, ideas usually begin as half formed hunches that only really come to fruition when connected to another idea. In other words, great ideas can only occur by sharing. It is only through openness and collaboration fostered by interdependence that we will see growth in system level sharing.
In education right now, we are seeing the “self-organization” movement occurring in full effect. There are SO many education blogs, lesson sites, wikis and organizations that are working to connect educators and spread ideas. Sadly, the various boards are lagging FAR behind. This self-organization of educators is to be commended. Technology is binding educators and ideas together. Most of these educators are doing this on their own and not for profit. This allows educators to do their own  relevant professional development. If the boards don’t step up their game, they will be largely reduced to governance and infrastructure. Real learning for teachers will occur completely outside of the system.
We have to take a culture before tools perspective before real change can occur. The boards are doing a good job of bringing tech into the schools but that alone will not solve the problem. A sustained focus on collaborative ideals must occur first. We must build interdependence and put a premium on collaboration. As a school leader, this will be one of my top priorities. There is no magic in the social media platform or the technological tool. The magic is in the ideas and the people. Remember, we’re all in this together!