The Technology Ecology

Today I’m heading to Denver for the T+L conference. T+L is the Technology + Learning conference of the National School Board Association. This year it’s in Denver, Colorado, October 27-29.

I’ll be doing a new session on Wednesday, Oct 28th at 3:30 PM called, “Engage Them! Project-based 21st Century Technology Literacy Curriculum”. It’s about several ideas:

  • How to develop an engaging technology literacy curriculum for the 21st century, with students in mind and with students involved
  • The difference between technology literacy and fluency
  • Developing a “Technology Ecology”
  • Why projects and technology go together
  • Showing videos of students who are doing these things in their own schools

I’m not sure I’m the first one to use the term “Technology Ecology”, but I’m starting to really like it. The big idea of this talk is that technology isn’t a subject as much as an ecology – an overarching web of opportunities that can support all kinds of subjects and areas of personal interest. So when we talk about technology curriculum, we need to stretch our minds a bit and imagine new possibilities and connections.

I think a school with a technology ecology is one that is constantly asking the participants to do more with technology, challenging the status quo, and always trying new things. A curriculum that embraces this mindset would reach outside class walls to ask students not to just learn to use a word processor, but to to create word processed documents that were meaningful and useful to the student, or perhaps to the school. Why make just movies in technology class when you could make movies that satisfy a history assignment, or help younger kids learn math, or introduce new students to your school. An ecology that looks for authentic projects and embraces the potential of youth to do important things and make important contributions, using the digital tools that they know and love.

After this session, I’ll post more about it here.

Generation YES is a co-sponsor of the T+L conference, and we’ll be down in the co-sponsor booth area, number 118. So if you miss the session, come by and say hi!

Hopefully there will be a T+L Tweetup too – if you’d like to connect, please follow me at smartinez


Why Creativity Now?

via ASCD Inservice: Why Creativity Now?

In “Why Creativity Now?” creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson dispels the myth that giving precedence to creativity in education will result in unstructured curriculum or initiatives targeted to a select content or students.

I like how the article emphasizes that creativity is about DOING, not just thinking.


Research supporting service-learning

Yesterday I blogged about a crisis (or opportunity) for service-learning in schools.

This is based on a new report Community Service and Service-Learning in America’s Schools by the Corporation for National & Community Service.

In a nutshell, the report confirms a decade long decline in more formal, curriculum based service-learning. However, it also shows a recent slight upward trend in school support for youth doing community service work.

But here’s why the decline in service-learning is worrisome. From the report’s summary:

Research confirms that service-learning is a strong vehicle for enhancing and deepening the learning experience to improve both civic and academic behaviors. Service-learning can also diminish “risky behavior” and behavioral problems at school and help students develop social confidence and skills. While community service also has positive impacts on students, service-learning offers a much more substantial service experience through structured activities that give youth leadership roles and connect the activities to reflection and learning.

“Schools across America have rallied around community service and they are to be applauded,” said Dr. Robert Grimm, the Corporation’s Director of Research and Policy. “But research shows that service-learning offers more meaningful service opportunities for students and has numerous impacts on both students’ civic and academic success. Service helps learning come alive. It is time to put learning back into service.”

Other key findings of the study include:

  • The majority of school districts do not provide service-learning policies, according to school principals. Only 19 percent of school principals report that their districts have a policy that promotes service-learning, and 28 percent of principals do not know whether their district has such a policy.
  • Elementary schools are the least likely to offer service-learning activities. 20 percent of elementary schools have service-learning programs, compared to a quarter of middle schools and over a third (35%) of high schools. Furthermore, over half (51%) of elementary school principals believe their students are too young to engage in service-learning.
  • The class gap in service learning is decreasing but still exists. Schools in low-income areas are significantly less likely to have service-learning activities than other schools. In 1999, schools in low-income areas were 36 percent less likely to have service-learning activities; in 2008 they were only 26 percent less likely to offer service-learning. Still, only 20 percent of schools in low-income areas currently offer service-learning activities compared to 27 percent of schools that are not in low-income areas.

More research from Learn & Serve America on the Impact of Service-Learning:
Research studies of service-learning, an educational method that intentionally connects community service to classroom learning, demonstrate that service-learning programs can have positive impacts on youth in three general areas: academic engagement and achievement; civic attitudes and behaviors; and social and personal skills. The studies also demonstrate that students gain the maximum benefit when their service-learning experience includes a direct tie to the curriculum, planning and design of service projects by students, structured reflection on the service experience in the classroom, and continuity of service for at least one semester. This issue brief offers some of the most compelling evidence to date on how service-learning positively affects youth. Issue Brief on “The Impact of Service-Learning: A Review of Current Research” (PDF)


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Why open curriculum wikis won’t work

Magical thinkingWe’ve all heard calls for various kinds of open curriculum wikis. Districts, states and foundations are designing portals, wikis and other online databases so that educators can upload their lesson plans and activities, learning modules, or other bits and pieces of what they do in their classrooms. The idea is that as more educators upload content, the collection becomes a free, shareable curriculum.

Sounds good, right? The problem is that this reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of curriculum.

Curriculum is a statement of opinion – it reflects the author’s beliefs about the nature of teaching and learning. Curriculum is pedagogy in action, the day-to-day plan for how to teach a subject, based on what we think students should learn and how we believe students learn best.

Curriculum is not just a collection of content. It is more than disconnected lesson plans attached to a list of standards. It reflects a person’s or group’s belief about what order to approach topics and what kinds of activities work best for most students. The pacing, depth, and order are all based on these beliefs, which can differ widely between authors. Curriculum authors have to think long and hard about their philosophy regarding the subject area and presentation of the material. Directions for the teacher reflect a belief of how much scripting a teacher needs to deliver the lesson as envisioned. They have to create consistent assessment plans that support and complement the lessons and activities. The pieces — lesson plans, activities, and assessment– hang on this superstructure. Without the structure of a consistent philosophy, these pieces are useless.

Unfortunately, beliefs and philosophy don’t make good subjects for open wikis, at least not the cast-of-thousands Wikipedia kind of success we all imagine. That’s why the calls for open curriculum wikis, free portals, and lesson plan collections that depend on large numbers of independent educators producing bits of curriculum are doomed to failure.

Without a guiding hand and point of view, anything added to a curriculum wiki will have no anchor in a common belief about the nature of teaching and learning. Even hiring editors doesn’t solve the problem. Sure, editors might be able to clean up things like grammar or level of detail. But how will editors collaboratively decide whether to favor student-centered teaching or direct instruction? It will be useless to a teacher who finds that one lesson calls for student collaboration on a long-term project and the next is a 30 minute lecture with downloadable worksheets for students to silently complete.

I’m all for breaking down the monopoly that textbook publishers have on schools worldwide. I’m completely in favor of people using the collaborative power of wikis to build reference and teaching materials that reflect their views about learning and teaching. I have nothing but praise for people who decide to freely share the results of their hard work in public, like the MIT Open Courseware.

But hoping random lesson plans can knit themselves into a coherent curriculum is just magical thinking. At best, teachers may find a few nuggets they can adapt for their own classrooms. At worst, these pipe dreams soak up time, energy and money.