worms

Does institutional change in education have to begin with the teacher contract?

I feel like I might be late to the party on this one, and I’ll admit up front that I haven’t done the research yet, but isn’t the way we write and think about teacher contracts a major barrier to any kind of systemic change in education?

Yep, the can of worms. The teacher’s contract.

Here’s what I’m seeing  in the situation we’ve got at present.  The teachers are contracted employees of a school district. They need a contract that will allow them to be the best teachers they can be, and need to be free of abuse regarding wages, time, conditions, and work load. I want to be clear that I absolutely think that teachers need a contract and that it should be of benefit to them. On the other hand, there’s the administrators, and their job is to make sure the work gets done, done well, on time, and for the right cost. This is especially important, because the administrators are the head public servants in a very big public service system.  They have been given the public’s trust and resources, and with that, comes the public accountability. Any school administration’s work is especially difficult right now because the money is tight, the hours required to make change are long, and the public demand for accountability in the form of testing , state mandates, and political rhetoric is at an all time high. And sometimes, the noble goals of both parties clash.

This is where the lawyers come in. In any dispute between the teachers and the administration, the written and signed contract becomes the focal point of all further conversation and action.  The contract is parsed and scrutinized, it is argued and amended, and it almost always becomes divorced from any sense of principle or vision of teaching and learning. In my district, we simply refer to the contract as “the language”, as in, “‘the language’ says we can’t have more than 30 kids in a classroom”.

If a document that is supposed to be built on principles of fairness, excellence, and helping children is instead turned into a semiotic legal nightmare divorced from any sense of a school’s true public mission, isn’t this one of the first things that have to change?

How can we think differently?

This is a pretty fresh thought, but I’m asking myself a few questions. I’d love to hear some comments on this post. I’m interested in some input.

– Could we write a contract that didn’t use classes as a fundamental unit in the contract?  (ex. current model states that teachers must teach 7 class periods a day, etc.)

– What if we didn’t define the start or end of the school day on a whole-staff basis, but instead allowed for individual flexibility based on class times and location (physical+digital)?

– What if contracts included statement of agreed principles rather than infinitely detailed potentialities?

– Am I thinking all of this because I’m naive and neither a lawyer, union leader, nor administrator?

– Are there examples of sensical teacher contracts? Any that could fit on one page? Wouldn’t that be better?

– Wouldn’t everyone have more time to get the job done if we didn’t have to spend so much of our time arguing about “the language”?

Like I said, I’d really like to hear what people think about this one. I’m not picking a fight, for sure.  I’m wondering out loud and asking to learn.

Learning at SoulCraft – A Proposed Learning Cohort in Northeast Ohio

I’d like to get a few educators in Northeast Ohio to join me for an interesting experiment in professional learning.

soulcraft piano

Here’s the idea:

I’d like to get some educators to take a woodworking course at Soulcraft Woodshop, a local makerspace in a fantastically cool building near W.49th St. and Clark Ave. in Cleveland. The course would have participants choose what they’d like to design, and then have group and individualized instruction that will lead to a finished project. (Ex. I want to build a WikiSeat. I sign up for the course and I get the materials and skills that will enable me to not only make this one wikiseat, but also begin a larger exploration of woodworking projects and ideas. )

On top of the woodworking course, I’m excited to think about how we could have a meta-level engagement as educators at the same time.  As we’re working on our projects, I’d like us to to think about and share what we  learn about design process, assessment, feedback, curation, and the host of other classroom applicable concepts we’d run into together. The cohort would be a way of learning about learning by doing. I could see us blogging about it, engaging more in the maker community, and bringing much of what we learn back to our day jobs.

As for cost, I’d want to keep it pretty low. $400 covers time and materials for a once (3hrs) weekly, 6-week course.  My aim would be to get the cost subsidized either through grants, districts, or a local organization. I’m sure we could get CEU credits applied with little problem.  I’d facilitate and participate with the cohort for the fun of it.

This is an idea that Peter Debelak and I dreamt up today while hanging out at Soulcraft.  We’re very interested in the potential, and think it would be a blast to give this a whirl.  If I can get at least five people to give this a go, I can begin working on trying to make it a free class. We’d start in October and we’d have to pick a night that works for everybody. Wednesday or Thursday evenings could be possibilities, as well as a possible Saturday AM group.

Bueller?

Please let me know. I’m looking at you NE Ohio’s #ohedchat gang. Ken Kozar, Julie Rea, Karen, and I all took the class as a group last year and it was a great learning experience for all of us. Both Jim and Peter are excellent people, patient teachers, and skilled artisans. This would be a really neat exploration.

For every 15 year old kid in the world who’s going to struggle with inequality today in school.

James Baldwin

I hope that somewhere a high school American Literature teacher is teaching this right now.

James Baldwin still has something to say to America. While this piece from, The Fire Next Time, was written about the experience of race in 1955, his message is equally applicable to any situation in which inequality and prejudice exists.

I’d like to offer the full text here and dedicate it to every 15 year old kid in the world who’s going to struggle with inequality today in school. Whether that inequality is due to  race, religion, your body, your mind, your gender, or your sexuality, it is important to realize that understanding our experience, having patience with our persecutors, and trying to have love despite the hardness of living, are the keys to making our country, and ourselves, better.

Dear James:

I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times. I keep seeing your face, which is also the face of your father and my brother. I have known both of you all your lives and have carried your daddy in my arms and on my shoulders, kissed him and spanked him and watched him learn to walk. I don’t know if you have known anybody from that far back, if you have loved anybody that long, first as an infant, then as a child, then as a man. You gain a strange perspective on time and human pain and effort.

Other people cannot see what I see whenever I look into your father’s face, for behind your father’s face as it is today are all those other faces which were his. Let him laugh and I see a cellar your father does not remember and a house he does not remember and I hear in his present laughter his laughter as a child. Let him curse and I remember his falling down the cellar steps and howling and I remember with pain his tears which my hand or your grandmother’s hand so easily wiped away, but no one’s hand can wipe away those tears he sheds invisibly today which one hears in his laughter and in his speech and in his songs.

I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be–indeed, one must strive to become–tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of war; remember, I said most of mankind, but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

Now, my dear namesake, these innocent and well meaning people, your countrymen, have caused you to be born under conditions not far removed from those described for us by Charles Dickens in the London of more than a hundred years ago. I hear the chorus of the innocents screaming, “No, this is not true. How bitter you are,” but I am writing this letter to you to try to tell you something about how to handle them, for most of them do not yet really know that you exist. I know the conditions under which you were born for I was there. Your countrymen were not there and haven’t made it yet. Your grandmother was also there and no one has ever accused her of being bitter. I suggest that the innocent check with her. She isn’t hard to find. Your countrymen don’t know that she exists either, though she has been working for them all their lives.

Well, you were born; here you came, something like fifteen years ago, and though your father and mother and grandmother, looking about the streets through which they were carrying you, staring at the walls into which they brought you, had every reason to be heavy-hearted, yet they were not, for here you were, big James, named for me. You were a big baby. I was not. Here you were to be loved. To be loved, baby, hard at once and forever to strengthen you against the loveless world. Remember that. I know how black it looks today for you. It looked black that day too. Yes, we were trembling. We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other, none of us would have survived, and now you must survive because we love you and for the sake of your children and your children’s children.

***

This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that for the heart of the matter is here and the crux of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do and how you could do it, where you could live and whom you could marry.

I know your countrymen do not agree with me here and I hear them. saying, “You exaggerate.” They do not know Harlem and I do. So do you. Take no one’s word for anything, including mine, but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear.

Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words “acceptance” and “integration.” There is no reason for you to try to become like white men and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men.

Many of them indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.

You don’t be afraid. I said it was intended that you should perish, in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go beyond and behind the white man’s definition, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention and by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers, your lost younger brothers, and if the word “integration” means anything, this is what it means, that we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it, for this is your home, my friend. Do not be driven from it. Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become.

It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy peasant stock, men who picked cotton, dammed rivers, built railroads, and in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer, One of them said, “The very time I thought I was lost, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off.”

You know and I know that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too early. We cannot be free until they are free. God bless you, James, and Godspeed.

Your uncle,

JAMES

– full text and credits found here.

Connect/Describe/Encourage

IMG_7992

Education has changed.  It changed because the internet brought us a problem.  How does an education system react to the most significant shift in human communication ever?  How do we keep up when everything changed so fast?  It’s a good problem to think about for sure.  But maybe we’re spending a bit too much time staring at the problem, and the numerous problems that flow from the big one. We might begin to think about spending more of our time and energy on defining exactly what the new job is and how to go about getting better at it. With the start of the school year happening, and while everybody is in the goal setting mood, I’d like to suggest three areas in which we might focus a bit more of our effort.

Connect

It’s time to get off of our islands, out of our boxes, and away from our desks. As Ralph Waldo Emerson, Piaget, Vygotsky, Dewey, and Papert so clearly pointed out, learning is about making connections.  With, literally, the world at  our fingertips, I’d like to see more educators shift from being isolated practitioners to fully connected and transparent master connectors.  Let’s connect ideas across content areas. Let’s connect teachers to one another online. Let’s connect the nodes of our system’s org-chart so as to allow innovative ideas to emerge at all levels regardless of pay grade. Let’s connect students to authentic audiences and valuable networks of mentors. Let’s connect using the open-source and collaborative tools that offer us a new way to get better at preparing our students for their lives.

Describe

Measurement is only a part of any good description. Telling you that I am 6’1″ and that I weigh 215 lbs doesn’t give very much information regarding what I look like, who I am, or what I think. Yet, this is exactly the approach we take as we continue to see points and grades as a somehow summative description of student learning and the stick in the carrot-and-stick game of accountability. The only way out of this problem is for classroom teachers to focus more on providing stakeholders descriptions of student learning less than on measurements of it.  The best accountability is transparency, and rather than talking in the subjective and symbolic system of points, percentages, and grades, we could be using using our state and/or Common Core standards as a way to describe the learning we see in the classroom, as well as share evidence of it with our teacher teams, administrators, parents, and students. We can no better prescribe learning than get the proverbial horse to drink, so it might be time for us to think about creating engaging learning environments and opportunities that allow for student discovery, and to get teachers ready to describe what they see emerging as students grow in knowledge and skill.

Encourage

It’s great to get encouragement from teammates.  Far better than the praise of coaches, family, or fans, the encouragement that comes from those in the thick of the fight with us means the most and spurs us on to be even better.  In the case of the problem that led off this post, the fortunate thing is that the internet happened to everyone on the planet pretty much all at once. This means that we are all on the same team in trying to figure out how to live and learn in such a connected world.  This new experience of learning is immediate, emerging, and shared almost to a person.  We need our educators to be advocates of learning as well as examples of it. We have the opportunity to be lead learners, the astronauts of the connected age, and in so doing, we will join others with whom we can receive encouragement as well as offer it. This is doubly so for our students. It would be nice if we could focus more attention on how we can best encourage students as they work with us to explore the best possibilities of what our schools might become.

Searching and Supermarkets

supermarket 2 meat

Our schools don’t hold classes in candle-making, the fashioning of hunting snares, or how best to farm rice or corn.  We don’t spend much time wishing more of our kids knew how to herd goats, milk cows, or catch fish. Of course there are many among us who wish we would teach these things, that we’d connect more to life’s essentials, but these folks lose out. And why? Supermarkets.

I’ve never had to kill, grow, or catch what I eat.  Most Americans haven’t.  We go to the supermarket and never give a thought to learning how to get food through our own personal toil.  I’m not saying this is a bad thing, I’m fine with it really, but the supermarket has utterly supplanted any innate need I’ve ever inherited to hunt, fish, or gather. It seems everybody else is fine with it too, as we don’t see agricultural education listed as a course path in most of our school districts or reflected in The Common Core national standards.

Imagine how ridiculous it would seem to test students on their ability to hunt, catch, or grow their own food when they’ve come up in a world that always has  had, and always will have, supermarkets. Yet we’re doing the same thing to our students when we design our entire assessment system on skills like factual recall, memorization, and isolated learning in an age of the search engine and social learning networks.

The search engine is the supermarket.  It’s not going anywhere and it has utterly supplanted skills that we had previously held in high esteem.  Just as a thought exercise, look at every single test given in your school over the next year and think what the scores would be if students had access to a search engine.  Then ask yourself if we want to continue to have school systems that so clearly are not preparing our students for the kind of thinking they need in their future and present lives..

It’ll be easy to say that maybe one day the supermarkets won’t be open, or that the internet could crash so we’d better still learn the old way just in case.  But if either of those things happen, we’d probably have bigger things to worry about. Until then,  we should at least begin to openly question why our education systems are failing to provide our students with both the skills and the context that will be most useful to them in the actual world of supermarkets and search engines we live in now.

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

IMG_7998

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

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 amazon.com 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?

Because it's time