Back to the future

You get to talk to lots of interesting people on airplanes. A while back, I was sitting next to an older gentleman from Texas. He was a grandfather nearing retirement, working in the banking industry. We exchanged the usual family and job facts, and as usual whenever I mention that I work with schools, he wanted to share some stories. Of course, everyone is an expert at school. They went, they have children — it’s the one institution that we all have in common. People like telling their stories.

This particular Texas gentleman had grandchildren ranging in age from babies to teens, and his daughter was a teacher too. “It’s not like back when I went to school,” he said after a time, and I braced for the rest of the sentence. I fully expected it to be something about getting back to basics, or how today’s kids don’t value education and the parents don’t discipline them.

But then he said something completely different. He said that when he went to school, his teachers encouraged him to think, and that they helped students do their work, not just memorize facts. He said that he’s often in his grandchildren’s classrooms and “the teachers talk all the time” from the front of the class. He wondered how anyone could learn like that. “It wasn’t like that when I was young,” he sighed.

Later on, I sat there questioning all my assumptions. Of course not all “olden days” teachers were drilling students. How could I have had that image in my head? When people think about the past, of course we all recall had different experiences. Talking about how school used to be is meaningless; it’s too dependent on your personal experience. Unfortunately, we hear this kind of language all the time, whether it’s to point at the “bad old days” or the “good old days” Neither of them ever really existed.

People are always searching for the new new thing – it’s human nature to enjoy stimulating new ideas. However, things like 21st century skills, where we try to define what students need to know “now” (as if creative thinking wasn’t ever valued,) is a solution to a problem that may not exist. It may just be a reflection of our vast, yet fundamentally faulty collective memory of things that never were.


Successful, sustainable strategies for technology integration and tech support in a tough economy

This weekend I’ll be in San Diego as an invited speaker at the National School Board Association (NSBA) conference. I’m not sure I realized how relevant it would be when I proposed Successful, Sustainable Strategies for Technology Integration and Tech Support in a Tough Economy as my topic last year.

I’ll be focusing on 5 strategies that create strong local communities of practice around the use of technology. All of these strategies include students as part of the solution. They are:

  • Technology literacy for all – Creating an expectation that modern technology will be used for academics, schoolwork, communication, community outreach, and teaching. A key success factor is teaching students how to support their peers as mentors and leaders.
  • Student tech teams – The 21st century version of the old A/V club, this strategy expands the definition of tech support from fixing broken things to also include just-in-time support of teachers as they use new technology. This digital generation is ready, willing and able to help improve education, we just need to show them how.
  • Professional development 24/7 – The old idea that teachers would go off to one workshop or a conference and immediately start using technology has been proven wrong. Truly integrated technology use requires a bigger change than that, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Teachers require more support in their classrooms that they can count on when they need it. Students can help provide teachers with this constancy and supportive community.
  • Students as stakeholders – Whenever schools initiate new technology programs, there is typically a call for all stakeholders to be included. Parents, teachers, staff, board members, and members of the community are invited to participate — but rarely students. Even though students are 92% of the population at the school, and are 100% of the reason for wanting to improve education, their voice goes unheard. Students can bring passion and point-of-view to the planning and implementation of major technology initiatives. They can be allies and agents of change, rather than passive objects to be changed.
  • Students as resource developers – Students can help develop the resources every teacher and student needs to use technology successfully. These resources can be help guides, posters, instructional videos, school websites, or teacher home pages. Students of all types can use their talents to build customized resources for their own school. Artists, actors, and techies can contribute to this process.

Building a self-sufficient community of technology users means that whenever possible, you build home-grown expertise and local problem-solving capability. This is the high-tech equivalent of a victory garden, only with teachers and students all growing their own capabilities with each other’s help.

In this tough economy, no one can afford to ignore the potential students have to help adults solve the problems of technology integration and support. Students are there, they just need adults to teach them how to help, and then allow them to help.

And after all, aren’t these the 21st century skills everyone talks about? Like solving real problems, learning how to learn, collaboration, and communication? How real is the problem of technology integration, and how foolish of us to overlook students as part of the solution, especially when the reciprocal benefits to the students are so great.


PS – For a look at how these strategies can be applied in laptop schools, download my new whitepaper – Student Support of Laptop Programs. (16 page PDF)

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Lessons Learned: Please teach kids programming, Mr. President

The focus on “21st century skills” while scrupulously avoiding the only real new 21st century skill completely puzzles me. This post nails it… please read…

So all I’m asking, on behalf of the thousands of nerds who could one day change the world for the better, is that we give them access to simple, open, programmable devices; a little time to work on them; and a safe space to work in. They’ll take it from there. They don’t need adult supervision, or a certified curriculum. If we network them together, they’ll answer each others’ questions and collaborate on projects we can hardly imagine.

Eric Ries of Lessons Learned Please teach kids programming, Mr. President


Words are just words

Speculation on Obama’s choice for Secretary of Education is flying fast and furious. Several governors, superintendents of big school districts, an education professor, and a couple of businessmen are rumored to be in the running.

The language being used in the press is interesting to watch. As Alfie Kohn points out, in a new article in The Nation, Beware of School “Reformers”, the word “reform” has been stolen. It seems to have been co-opted by people wanting to bust teacher unions and test kids more.

Several education blogs have expressed their feelings on this Orwellian turn of events. I urge you to read Deborah Meier, Scott McLeod, Tim Stahmer, Gary Stager, Doug Johnson, David Warlick, Mike Petrelli, and I’m sure more I’ve missed.

What occurs to me is that every time we allow simplistic slogans to do our talking for us, we run the risk of having them stolen, misinterpreted, and co-opted.

Now, this is hardly as momentous as whether reform is really mean-spirited test prep factories or happy places for children to learn — but I think that “21st century skills” and “___ 2.0” have essentially become meaningless.

People use empty words for a reason, because it’s easier to use an evocative phrase that has no true meaning. The listener does all the work, adding their own imagination of what the phrase means. Then, voila!, the speaker has just concocted a brilliant metaphor that everyone can agree with because there are no messy details involved.

Marketers call these words, “empty vessels“, because in advertising, you want the consumer to imagine your product is perfect. What better way than to sell them their own imagination.

When I talk about teaching with technology, I intend it to mean giving students access to tools and teaching them to find answers to tough problems that challenge them. I want kids to be able to think and act, construct, compute, solve, share, and more. There are nuances and details that paint the complete picture of what I think teaching and learning should look like in the 21st century. And sure, many of these are simply aspects of what a good education should have provided in any century.

But I often hear people talk about “21st century skills” and invariably someone will immediately say, “Oh yes, we’ve bought active whiteboards for all our classrooms.” When you’ve been in as many classrooms as I have, you know that the vast majority of these whiteboards are being used as a projection screen and most of the rest are pushed awkwardly into a corner with boxes stacked up in front of them. Something didn’t translate. Obviously no one “planned” this, but somewhere between “We’re moving into the future!” and “Where can I roll this stupid thing so it won’t block the bulletin board,” there was a big failure to communicate.

Any idea that involves how human beings learn is complex, and complex ideas don’t make pretty speeches and zippy headlines. I wish I knew how to fix that.

It’s hard to know what Obama really believes about learning and what he believes will work for public schools. His own choice for his children’s school stands in direct contrast to statements he’s made about “accountability”. But soon we’ll see if he believes what’s right for his kids is the same as what’s right for everyone else.

We’ll see.