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.


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 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 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…