Jobs vs. Work

dangerdust procrastinateI would much rather prepare my students for work than for a job.  It’s all too easy to mix these two words up, to use them interchangeably when they aren’t, and the distinction between these two words has a major effect on how we approach the task of preparing children for their adult lives.

As I encounter a different cultural mindset here in Singapore, I’m reminded of the advanced classes I taught a few years back. For many parents, both here in Singapore and back home, primary and secondary schools are a stepping stone to entry into a prestigious university and an even more prestigious job.  There’s nothing wrong with this. Parents want the best opportunities for their children, and one way to go about opening doors of opportunity is to constantly be searching for the keys to the  right doors.

However, I also think that it would be wise of us to consider preparing our students for their work, the work that will fill their minds and hands regardless of what job they have.  In a recent discussion about the international Maker movement I had the privilege of participating in yesterday, technology evangelist for Team Fun, Masakazu Takasu, noted that many of us do our best and most fulfilling work after we clock out for the day from our jobs.  This is the work that drive us, that makes us feel most closely connected to who we are and what we want to create in our lives.  We should be thinking about how we as educators can also prepare our students for this kind of work. To do this, we need to focus less on the what of learning and more on the how. We need to find ways to foster tenacity, curiosity, and the drive that will allow our students to feel fulfilled.

Of course, as many teachers know for sure, it’s best when our work and our jobs align.  The trick in this is for us to constantly preach the message that it is not only in the results or gains that we might one day achieve, but in the love of the process, revision, and struggle that comes with being both enkindled learners and inspired creators that we will be able to live happy, healthy, and productive lives.  Learning and making, after all, are natural instincts that help us achieve our best selves in life.

Waking Up to the Global Maker Movement


After three days of cancelled flights,  on only three hours sleep and having missed out on June 26th, 2014 entirely while on a plane to the other side of the earth, I woke up this morning in Singapore at the dawn of another new day in the global maker movement.  William Hoi, organizer of Singapore’s first ground-up Maker conference, has graciously invited me to join in his revolution, and in my first few hours here I realize that no matter where we go on this planet these days, there is ample evidence that the world we had isn’t the one we’ve got now. Fueled by our new connectivity, lowering of production costs, and the abundance of digital resources for sharing and collaboration, it is now obvious to me that the dawn of a new age of learning, problem solving, and creativity is taking root all over the world.  Here are three key observations that have arisen in my time here already.

1. Makers are a Tribe

We have similar customs, approaches and struggles.  It is inspiring to know that so many of us have harnessed the new tools in ways that inspire us and those who we meet.  The notion that we can create more than we consume is fundamental to our culture, and it is so much fun to be with so many people who find joy in making something out of whatever we have around us.

2. Same Problems

It was remarkable to find out that many of us have the same barriers.  These barriers have largely to do with traditional hierarchical structures vs. our view of each other as part of a network.  So many of the Makers I’m meeting in Singapore have left some previous pursuit that we were told to follow and have struck out to follow our passions and join in an emerging conversation.  It is also interesting to see another group of Makers struggle with how to explain the movement we are creating.  Is it crafts? Is it DIY? Do we sell it, package it, or give it away?  Of course, by having similar problems we can work together to find various solutions.

3. The Kids Get it Intuitively.

Making, like learning, is a human instinct.  When we foster creativity, instead of trying to somehow artificially create it, powerful things happen.  I was able to lead a session on sticker circuitry with about 40 elementary and middle school aged children.  Without fear, without hesitation, the children jumped right in and within just a few minutes had begun not only doing what they were asked, but also started “hacking” the experience and taking the tools to where the children’s vivid imaginations dreamed they could go.  If we are going to move beyond a hip new fad, it will be through our recognition that we always need to stay connected to wonder, curiosity, and the fearless spirit of trying something without worrying too much about measuring the results.

This is an exciting time to be alive, and here at Maker’s Block in Singapore, it is also clear that we are learning valuable things about our new capabilities in a truly global community.  More to come, but first… some sleep.

mustang horsepower


“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses.” – Henry Ford

Merely meeting expectations is the death of innovation, yet it is the entire focus of all-too-many public school districts. The rabid desire for accountability in public education, driven by everyone from politicians to parents, creates a culture in which everyone is trying to make the horse go faster instead of inventing something better that replaces the need for a horse at all.  While the whole world has exploded with possibility , educators are as of yet largely untrained in, and unaware of, the potential that our new tools afford us. As Henry Ford was able to prove, massive shifts can happen, but they only happen when we are moving forward doing the best our imagination can muster and not busying ourselves collecting data that serves the demand for accountability and maintaining the status quo.

But perhaps the most significant lesson we can learn from Henry Ford is a lesson that he learned from James Watt.  Watt was a Scottish engineer who improved upon the vertically aligned steam-powered pump engine and eventually developed a steam engine that could turn a wheel on the horizontal plane.  This development, Watt saw, had the potential to replace the horses that turned the enormous grain grinders at work in London’s brewery district. But James Watt ran into a very human problem.  Despite his arguments to the brewery owners that his machine could increase productivity at a cost savings to the beer manufacturers, they still couldn’t see  why they’d replace the horses they already had and that seemed to be doing the needed work just fine.  Watt realized that the brewery owners weren’t buying his new machine because they lacked a framework by which they could understand the correlation between the work of the steam engine and the work of the horses.  Like Ford, Watt was stuck in a world that was asking for better horses, and was unable to see a solution outside of this horse-driven framework for factory work.

So James Watt invented a way for people to translate what they understood about the old world into something they could use to understand his device that brought about the new one. He developed a metaphor disguised as a measurement: horsepower.  Horsepower, as Watt invented it, claims to measure the force required to move 150 lbs. out of a hole that was 220 ft deep. Watt estimated that this would require 33,000 ft/lbs per minute and dubbed this new unit to equal 1 horsepower. The measurement that Watts dreamed up was made without much knowledge about horses, and an even greater disinterest in accuracy (Watts rounded his figures, extrapolated from shaky evidence of how much a horse can work over time, etc.). The key for Watt wasn’t in the accuracy of the measurement, but in the way that the name of the measurement provided business owners with a metaphor by which they could understand and seemingly measure the new against the old.

Taking a page from Watt, Henry Ford announced that his Model T had an engine that could produce 20 horsepower, and this helped provide those asking for faster horses with a way to conceive the immense new power of the automobile. Of course, measuring the significant shifts in culture, mobility, and freedom that the automobile produced in modern life cannot be captured in only this one measurement, but it helped to ease the transition from carriages to cars.  The 2014 Ford Mustang engine can produce up to 420 horsepower, which seems to be pretty powerful, but is in no way an accurate measurement of the car’s performance or significance.

To take all of this back to education, I’m wondering what can be learned from all of this.  One thing I take away from it is that we can use an old framework to help people understand a new thing.  In the past five years I’ve worked with a team of teachers dedicated to shifting student learning to match the potential of our new age.  Despite any success we’ve had, and we’ve had a bunch, we’ve found that people really listen when we tell them about our students’ standardized test score increases.  We know that these tests are faulty measurements, that they lack real world application, but they’ve also proven to be a metaphor for people to understand our students’ growth.  A 10% increase in test scores seems to say way more to stakeholders than does any testimony from students about deep learning and a lifetime appreciation for connected problem solving.  I’m not sure if this is good or bad.  It feels bad from my end, but seems to do the trick for parents and politicians alike.

I’ll end with something a public school superintendent recently asked me in a discussion about having digitally connected students working on authentic problems for authentic audiences. I was explaining that the assessment of these projects would be self-evident because the learning, and evidence of learning, are all happening transparently online. I made the mistake of saying we don’t need grades anymore, as they aren’t a specific-enough measurement of the skills and standards learned by students in authentic contexts.  His reply is what started this post in my head, and I fear that it is as large an obstacle for modern educators as it was for Watt and Ford.

“Why should we ask parents to learn a whole new way of engaging in and measuring their child’s growth when they already understand grades, points, lectures, and tests?”

Hearing Every Student

There are really three main ways that information gets transmitted in a traditional classroom.

#1 – Raising Hands

The most often used method is through a teacher-led discourse in which students raise their hands to be called on.  The teacher uses various methods to choose who gets to speak, but rarely does everyone get called on, and there’s always a social urge to not go back and call on the same student more than once.

The problem with this is that there are kids who don’t raise their hands, or choose not to participate in some manner.  That, or time simply doesn’t allow for all of our students to contribute to the conversation.  A good deal of untapped thinking walks out our doors when that 40 minute bell rings.

#2 – Group Work

When students work in groups, really good things can happen.  Students have an opportunity for peer-to-peer learning.  The teaching and learning naturally become more problem or discussion based.  And students gain a sense of how to work with one another collaboratively.  The teacher moves about the room, participating and prompting where needed, catching bits and pieces of entire conversations.

 But what if one group is firing all cylinders while another group struggles because of the social dynamics or preparedness, or a host of other possibilities?  Why should some students, by sheer luck of the draw, get stuck in groups that they can’t get out of?  To look at it another way, why should my child not learn as much today as someone in a different group?  What did my child do to get cheated like that?  The other issue is that the teacher can’t be everywhere, so again, information goes unnoticed all over the place.  Maybe someone contributed something in one of the groups that was brilliant, but the teacher missed the chance to work with that idea because they were busy coaxing a classmate to get off the cell phone.

#3 – Write It Down, Turn It In.
Sometimes teachers do need to hear from every student to assess individual learning.  This is traditionally done in the format of homework, exit tickets, quizzes, tests, etc.  The whole group receives some prompt or task and they write their response on paper and turn it in.  The teacher grades it or provides feedback.  Students get their papers back, put them in the backpack, lost forever to time.

Only one person winds up benefitting from what everyone knows in the classroom, and that person is the one in the room who probably needs to learn from that information the least.  The teacher gets to know what everyone else knows but the students get no benefit from the responses of their peers.  Perhaps having that information would help kids who were still formulating their ideas or learning the concepts being taught.

CC licensed by Hyperakt

None of the above is anybody’s fault really.  We’ve been doing the best with what we have, and I believe strongly that our teachers have been doing great work.  This isn’t about who is to blame, it’s about whether or not we want all of the information we’re losing by doing what we’ve done for so long.  The three systems we have are the three systems that have had to exist because it’s been impossible to do otherwise.

When my students interact in our online space, I get all of the information.  And so does everybody else.  Every group that works together online, is visible and open to input from each other group. If a student is stuck in a bad group, they don’t have to be.  If a student wants to join the conversations of the other groups at some other time, they still can.  No information is lost to that student.  The teacher can see the work of the whole group, each one of them, and can also assess each contribution by each student.  If a student revises their thinking, they are not bound eternally to it because they spoke it out loud in class and never got called on to voice their change of thinking or deeper reflection.  My students aren’t limited to formulating complex thought right away either.  They can really take the time to formulate their thoughts before they type, and kids who need a bit more process have the time because there are no bells in our online classroom.

And the kids that don’t get called on or never participate in class get a voice.  The student too embarrassed to talk in class can directly instant message me with thoughts, the kid that needs more help or clarification can ask for that help without the stigma of “slowing the class down”.  Every one of my students can work with me individually as needed all the time.

I have to admit that dealing with all of that information can be overwhelming.  Providing feedback at that level takes time.  Getting the whole online thing up and running takes patience and persistence. But if we can capture the learning of every one of our students, don’t we want that information?

Photo By Mike Baird

What Happened to the Scribes.

"A Hard Day at Work" CC attribution to flickr user /ididmyself
“A Hard Day at Work” CC attribution to flickr user /ididmyself

Public education will not be ready to meet the needs of our citizens until it comes to accept that learning is best done in a network, and not a hierarchy.  The hierarchical model, while perfectly appropriate in numerous instances in various fields and endeavors, in education now serves as a limit on, not an enabler of, progress in these rapidly changing times.  The inability of public education to realize, harness, and explore networked communication and learning is a crucial factor in the mess that has become our current public school model.

If we are to improve public education, we need to think more broadly about accountability, professional autonomy, and innovation.  How do we transition from the industrial model to a networked one? Do we have the luxury of a transition, or has this been thrust upon us like was to malls? These are the questions, the urgent questions, that should be at the forefront of the education debate, a spot currently being held by arguments about how kids do on a test that is wholly predicated on someone’s inability to access online search, which will never happen in our students’ lives.  We are ignoring a new world so that we can improve upon the old one. We are losing our relevancy, and in our hearts we know we’re going about teaching and learning entirely the wrong way anymore.  Educators are leaving the system in droves right now, good educators, who should have been supported in reaching their potential but now must go seek it elsewhere.  The whole educational hierarchy is about measurement right now, but measurement of what and how, somehow got lost.

Our historical moment presents us with an opportunity to leave who we were and build what we can be. As with the invention of the printing press, the emergence of the internet has caused cataclysmic shifts in the way we live our lives.  Most significantly for educators, we need to consider what happened to the scribes.  What did they become when their fundamental purpose was swept out from under them? We know what happened next.  The former scribes turned into novelists, journalists, and poets. They didn’t go away, they shifted into wholly new forms and set the groundwork in each of these new fields. We needn’t see peril in what happened to the scribes, we should be encouraged that they were able to invent their way out of obsolescence.  The question before public school educators today is simple: Will we be able to innovate our way out of the problems that we are encountering before the traditional hierarchical structures begin to crumble in the age of networks?

in the box fish

What’s in the Box?

Please don’t describe anything we do as “out of the box”.  It isn’t, and we’re not. In fact, we’re students of the box because we work in the box. We know who built the box, why they did it, and what it’s left us as far as a suitable framework for containing all that we are and do in education. We might not like the box we’re in these days, but that doesn’t mean we need to look much beyond what is already considered “in the box” to see that what we need to see and do what we need to do.

Is there anyone in the public education system, that if you walked up to them cold and asked whether or not they accept the ideas of John Dewey, wouldn’t be quick to show almost unthinking support of his work?  John Dewey’s belief in a pragmatic and democratic education is the cornerstone of almost every mission statement in almost every school district in The United States.  John Dewey isn’t out of the box, yet when modern educators suggest that students might learn best by doing, or that we need to use technology to help students engage in a wide community of fellow learners and mentors they are seen as radicals, revolutionaries, and out-of-the-box thinkers. Why?

Our schools haven’t caught up to what Seymour Papert was on about at all. If Papert is still out of the box despite how obviously correct he was, isn’t it time we get a bigger box? Papert was no slouch. He wasn’t ignored. He was widely read and engaged at the highest level of the education conversation, and now, when his ideas are more relevant than ever, we see barely a scrap of what he had hoped for us. Papert is still considered out-of-the-box, but he was just describing what happens when the whole ground shifts beneath the box we thought we’d so cleverly constructed, which is happening to us still, even right now.

If Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, “The American Scholar”, isn’t in-the-box when it comes to American education, then what is?  Emerson’s 1841 speech at Harvard has been called American education’s Declaration of Independence.  It is both a sweeping indictment of the education system as it existed then, as well as today, and a framework by which we may best “set the hearts of the youth aflame.”

We’re not out of the box. We’re just very aware of what is actually “in the box” or at least what used to be.  So what happened?  We’ve just noticed that the box got filled with a whole bunch of cool new tools that help us do all of the above and we want to use them to do very “in the box” kinds of things like helping kids learn, and making school better, and connecting communities around learning.  So please, quit viewing us as radicals and start thinking of us as students of the game.  We’re right in the box with you, and hoping you’ll help us to build a better one.

streetlight sky

TeachingHumans is Go

TeachingHumans has entered a new phase, and we are excited to share our vision and mission as we move forward over the next year or so.

We hope to be a catalyst for education. We are committed to the notion that learning is done in a community, and that by openly sharing our conversations, questions, and ideas we can explore how best to serve learners and learning.  In the coming year, TeachingHumans wants to ask big questions in a variety of formats and forums.  Here’s what we’re thinking about now, and what we’d like to think about together with you.

Transparency is Accountability

What if we could satisfy the need for accountability in education by making teaching and learning more transparent?  The internet offers numerous opportunities for us to safely share student learning with stakeholders.  Why use standardized tests as a measurement tool, which shows a secondary level of learning at best, when we could curate and share not only the results of student learning, but the entire process as well.

Audience Matters.

Why do we still insist on a learning model that has at its end only one audience member? The days of turning in work to only the teacher need to be over as quickly as possible.  The teacher should be the first audience, and the conduit to wider audiences beyond the four walls of the classroom. Our students can easily publish to a wide variety of authentic audiences, and we want to explore the value of doing so.

Networks v. Hierarchy

The emergence of the internet is having a seismic effect on human engagement. As Clay Shirky points out so well, the institutions which once served us well have now been thrown into a very challenging time as they are confronted with new forms of collaboration and networked organization. Education must reckon with this issue, and thus far, it hasn’t.  We’d like to move this conversation forward.

Learning by Making and Doing

It is in the use of learning, not in the acquisition of learning, that we can best assess the value of what we teach.  Public education has shifted so far to a consumption model of learning that there is little room for a model based upon creation and production.  Our students, if they are to succeed at any goal we might wish them to achieve, must at least be as equipped to shape solutions as they are to spit out test answers. The global maker movement is showing promise in this field of networked doing, and by participating in its early development, TeachingHumans hopes to contribute to this growing conversation.

Content vs. Community

Take it away Seymour…

“There’s education as putting out information; teacher lecturing, reading the book. There’s learning by doing, which is the constructional side versus the informational side. And, unfortunately, in our schools the informational side is the one that gets the emphasis, and so there’s this line-up between one-sided emphasis in the thinking about school, and the one-sided emphasis in thinking about the technology. Both of them emphasizing the informational side, and they reinforce one another. So in many ways, through this, the wrong image we have of what digital technology is about reinforces instead of undermining some of the weaknesses and narrowness of traditional education.” – Seymour Papert, Ghosts in the Machine, 1999

In adopting, and worse yet, purchasing, canned content systems on computers, we are failing to empower students by giving them access to learning communities, communities which will be vital to their success in life. Let’s cease to stare at hammers and focus, instead, on building things with them.

Distributed Classrooms

Learning is not location bound. It never has been. We’ve just never been able to capture, document, and curate it before. Now we can, and we aren’t.  Why?

Innovation Culture

The culture of institutional education can be called many things, but “supportive of innovation” usually isn’t one of them. What can we do to support educators at all levels in designing the solutions that we need?

Authentic Assessment

The broken chassis of our education system is assessment.  It’s the toughest nut to crack, and it needs a total overhaul if we are to hope to move forward with any of this.

In and Out of The Box

None of this is “out-of-the-box thinking”.  It is firmly rooted in ideas that, up until recently, we thought were firmly “in-the-box” of our institutional approach.  If the ideas of John Dewey and Ralph Waldo Emerson are now considered to be “out-of-the-box” thinking in American public education, haven’t we lost our way?

Please contact us if you are interested in participating.  We’d love to have more educators post on this blog, we encourage you to comment, and we are also hoping to host conversations in a Google Live Hangout.


First, a thank you.


Today begins my 15 month sabbatical from teaching and before the train gets too much further down the track, and it being the end of the school year and all, I need to stop and say a few thanks.

To my students:

If you know me, you know this isn’t easy to write. I can never have the words to express what witnessing you become who you are has done for my soul.  I teach because I love to learn, and there has never been a more valuable learning experience then to be a part of your life.  Hopefully I helped you realize something about life.  Hopefully I modeled what it means to be full of wonder, curiosity, and passion.  I also know that for some of you, I didn’t do my best, or I got too caught up, or I treated you unkindly.  For that I apologize and want to thank you especially. If not for my failings with you, and your patience with me, I wouldn’t have learned from those mistakes. You know what I want for you, you know that you can do it, and you know that I’ll never stop helping you in any way I can.

To my colleagues:

Thank you for being on the lines with our kids. Thank you for every thankless thing you’ve ever done. Thank you for inspiring me, challenging me, and most of all, thank you for teaching me. Nobody gets into this without wanting to help. That might be the one thing that we can all agree on.

I have been incredibly fortunate to connect with educators personally and digitally. This network of peers has helped me grow, has challenged me to always do better, and has allowed me to share the frustrations and successes that a calling like ours inevitably runs up against. We’re in a new age of learning, and it is very exciting to be joined by so many fellow explorers.  Thank you for sharing your journeys and for encouraging mine, and I look forward to spending the next year having more opportunities to hear and learn from you.

To my team: 

This is crazy, right? Thanks for being crazy with me.  I’ve never known or worked with more dedicated people to the concept that our students matter most.

To my family and close friends:

You are more than I deserve, and all that I value most.  Thank you for taking the risks with me, and for being with me on this adventure. I would have never guessed that I’d be taking any steps away from the classroom that I worked so hard to get into in the first place, and it is only with your love and friendship that I have the strength and curiosity to seek where I can have the most impact in this life.  I am proud to be your son, husband, brother, father, and friend, and can only hope that I can make you equally proud of me.

- Sean Wheeler

MakerSpace at Lakewood City Schools: Showing Our Work

makerspace screen shot purple logo 2

For the past year, our teaching team has been putting together a vision for what a public school might look like if it was reimagined as an active and connected community centered on learning by making and doing.  We hope to open MakerSpace@LCS for the 2015/2016 school year. One aspect of our approach is based on the notion that we learn most when we share our work openly with an audience of interested fellow learners.  To this end, we would like to share our Next Generation Learning Challenges: Breakthrough School Models (Wave IV) Launch Grant application.  We have been identified as finalists for this launch grant, and anticipate getting final word on the grant applications’ success or failure within the next few weeks.  Either way, we hope that by sharing our ideas we can help contribute to the very important conversations taking place around our school models, our new tools, and the innovation that can occur from the ground up in a networked environment of people who care.

For more information on the Next Generation Learning Challenges: K-12 Breakthrough School Models grant, please visit here.

PARCCed in the Driveway With the Radio On

CC Some rights reserved by flickr user Sonny W.
CC Some rights reserved by flickr user Sonny W.

“PARCC’s next-generation assessment system will provide students, educators, policymakers and the public with the tools needed to identify whether students — from grade 3 through high school — are on track for postsecondary success and, critically, where gaps may exist and how they can be addressed well before students enter college or the workforce.” –

Really?  We need to start asking how “next-generation” this “online” test is, and how such a test identifies future success of students who will exist in a world that will never NOT have web browsers. The test is asking for the wrong thing, the old way, and claiming to be what it isn’t.

If a kid can’t use a web browser on the PARCC test, what’s the purpose of having an “online” test? That’s like getting a brand new car and only ever using it to sit in the driveway listening to the radio. If we need to test whether or not our children are “on track for post-secondary success”, shouldn’t we be measuring them against a standard that actually exists in the real world?  How many times will our students find themselves using a computer that isn’t hooked up to a searchable internet in “college or the workforce”?

The #PARCC test is still too tied to a pre-internet paradigm of learning. Yes, it does a better job than the last testing regime did. Yes, kids will be physically touching a computer during the test. But to call anything about the #PARCC test, “next-generation”, is to miss the promise of what the next generation of learning truly could be.


Because it's time