Where are we? Is it too late for schools to change?

I had the opportunity to see Bran Ferren speak at an event (Infosys Crossroads) recently. He’s an “American technologist, artist, architectural designer, vehicle designer, engineer, lighting and sound designer, visual effects artist, scientist, lecturer, photographer, entrepreneur, and inventor.” (Wikipedia)

During his fascinating talk, he drew a quick sketch that looked like this:

uh oh curve.001.jpeg.001

And he described how change always happens – by some “new way” sneaking up and overtaking the “old way” of doing it. And by “it” he meant nearly everything – technology, business practices, fashion, customs, politics, art… the list is endless.

Then he added a few lines. The problem, he said, is that we never know where we really are on this curve. Ahead of the change? In the midst? Or it’s long past and perhaps we don’t even realize it.

uh oh curve 2.png.001

It made me think about school. The number of students who believe that school is relevant to their lives is going down exactly as the opportunities for people to learn through informal, global networks are exploding exponentially.

uh oh curve3.png.001

Where are we on this curve? Can we change “school” – meaning formal education systems and organizations before it’s too late? Are we bold enough, are we brave enough to make the big decisions and perhaps painful changes that are necessary?

Questions, questions…

Why math education is like the Titanic

Math education is failing too many students.

We are owners and participants in an entrenched school system that is tough to change, and we could all list the thousands of reasons why. Big systems have a lot of inertia, like the Titanic heading towards its icy fate.

But proving that the system is working by showcasing the few students who make it through is like saying that the Titanic was a success because some of the passengers made it to New York.


Big problems require small solutions

While co-hosting the TEDxNYED event last week, I found myself wondering how the amazing solutions I was hearing could spread. How could we get more students connecting globally like Brian Crosby’s kids; how could more at-risk students be freed from the assessment and curriculum that failed them so they could excel like the students Gary Stager worked with in the Maine prison; how could every urban school be part of an urban garden network teaching youth and the community about low cost, healthy food… the list was endless.

It struck me that day – some problems are so big they need small solutions.

I heard several people say after these talks – “Yes, sure, that was great, BUT IS IT SCALABLE?”

I’d always considered that a reasonable question. But now, I think it’s a rhetorical trick that really means. “CAN IT FIT INTO THE CURRENT SYSTEM?”

Scalable should mean replication. Can you do “it” – whatever “it” is, over and over again. And the answer is yes, you can have urban gardens, do away with 19th century curriculum, and have globally connected classrooms IF you let the conditions flourish on the ground level. IF you let the teachers teach and the students learn. IF you let the solution be a small solution, carried out at a human scale. IF it remains a local, adaptable solution that meets the needs of the participants, not the system. The proof of that was given by Dennis Littky of the Big Picture Schools, who has started over 60 schools that value each and every student. That’s scalability.

But it doesn’t mean you impose a solution from above, put layers of bureaucracy and administration on it, and add untold costs in demanding that everyone do the same thing. We are just used to doing things that way in American education and we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s cheaper, more efficient, and the American Way. It’s not. Every problem is not a moonshot or the same as building interstate highways. Learning is certainly not.

Big problems require small solutions. And they demand we trust in the human beings implementing those solutions. My thought for the day.


PS – The videos from TEDxNYED are not up on the site yet – when they are, I’ll link them up to the examples in this post.

Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions

“Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions” – a quick Google search didn’t turn up the source for this quote, but I’ve heard it for years. It’s one of those simple yet profound statements that sums up interconnectedness, yet vast difference between teaching and learning. “Managing” these conditions on either side without the core involvement of the teacher or the student is just impossible.

In this new report, Transforming School Conditions, 14 accomplished teachers from urban districts around the country merge their own experience in high-needs schools with the best current education research, to discuss conditions that are are needed for teachers to teach all students effectively. Their recommendations for school policy and practice offer a guide to developing systems of support for meaningful and sustainable school reform.

Their recommendations highlight the need for any reforms in teaching to come with a high degree of involvement of the affected teachers — not to be delivered from the top down, outside in, or by an imaginary superhero. The changes have to come from those “at the coalface,” as they say in Australia, meaning those who are in the trenches doing the real work.


Bill Ferriter provides a summary and perspective on this report if you don’t have time to read the whole thing (but you should!)

Elevating the Education Reform Conversation – Live Monday 5PM EST

Don’t miss this!

FutureofEducation.com and Edutopia are sponsoring Elevating The Education Reform Debate from 5 pm EST to 7 pm EST. The all-star panel of educators will tackle some of current controversy around education “reform” stirred up by the movie Waiting for Superman, and MSNBCs week-long EducationNation. Set to appear: Julie Evans, Alfie Kohn, Chris Lehmann, Deb Meier, Diane Ravitch, Will Richardson, Sir Ken Robinson, Gary Stager moderated by Steve Hargadon.

Date: Monday, October 4, 2010
Time: 2pm Pacific / 5pm Eastern / 9pm GMT (international times here)
Duration: 2 hours
Location: In Elluminate. Log in at http://tr.im/futureofed. The Elluminate room will be open up to 30 minutes before the event if you want to come in early. To make sure that your computer is configured for Elluminate, please visit http://www.elluminate.com/support. Recordings of the session will be posted within a day of the event at the event page.
Event and Recording Page:  http://www.learncentral.org/event/106358
Hashtag: #elev8ed
Seriously – tune in.

Connecting ed-tech to ed-reform

The design of American education is obsolete, not meeting the needs of our students and our society, and ignores most of what we have learned about education and learning in the past century. This panel will explore a new paradigm, including some specific examples, of how education in America can be reshaped in more productive and democratic fashions. YEARLYKOS: Education Uprising / Educating for Democracy

Education is broken – it needs reform. Sound familiar? That was 2007. It is any better? Worse perhaps?

But what does this have to do with technology?
As educators find themselves re-imagining learning based on their own tech-based awakening, the sense comes quickly that this is not about new technology, access to information, 21st century skills, or even 2.0-goodness, but broader-based education reform. But just as quickly, it starts to feel like there is no hope of changing a lumbering, entrenched educational system with a tiny lever called technology.

However, we are not alone, and it would be a win-win for both tech-loving educators and education reformers to join forces. The technology and online collaboration tools being invented today could tip the balance in the effort to reshape education “in more productive and democratic fashions.” The virtual voices of students and teachers alike could finally be heard in force.

But what is school reform? What does that word mean? To me, it has nothing to do with test scores. “Progressive” is probably the label I most identify with. In my years of working with teachers and schools, my vision of reform means a continuing effort to make schools more democratic, human institution that elevate the potential of every person involved. But even those words are really meaningless; I’d probably agree with a hundred other conceptualizations of what reform is.

It’s a bit of a cop out to say that if you read this blog, or know me, you already have a notion of what i’m talking about. Sorry about that. But I’m going to ask your indulgence to skip over the definitions and go straight to the goodies.

I’d like to share some of the resources I find inspiring on this topic, things that resonate with me. Yes, it’s completely personal, so perhaps you’ll just have to try it out and see if these resources meet your needs. Here are some of my pins in my roadmap to educational reform.

Seymour Papert is called the father of educational technology, and the only one on this list who is tied to technology. But for me, his work is the tangible bridge between technology use in schools and education reform. I find his writing inspiring and a constant source of big ideas.

Alfie Kohn is a researcher, speaker and author who as Time magazine said is, “…perhaps the country’s most outspoken critic of education’s fixation on grades [and] test scores.”

Coalition of Essential Schools are based on the work of Ted Sizer, a giant of progressive education. CES schools pledge to create and sustain personalized, equitable, and intellectually challenging schools. To me, The CES Common Principals are a great place to start when thinking about “what a school could be.”

Forum for Education and Democracy, founded by a group of prominent thinkers in education, including Deborah Meier, Angela Valenzuela, Pedro Noguera, Linda Darling-Hammond, Ted and Nancy Sizer, and others.

Susan Ohanian speaks and writes about making schools better places for students and teachers. She tracks “outrages” on her website – stupid test questions, ridiculous policies and laws, lies, contradictions and half-truths.

The Education Policy Bloga group blog “…about the ways that educational foundations can inform educational policy and practice! The blog is written by a group of people who are interested in the state of education today, and who bring to this interest a set of perspectives and tools developed in the disciplines known as the “foundations” of education: philosophy, history, curriculum theory, sociology, economics, and psychology.”

Bridging Differences blog is a running conversation between two education grande dames, Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch. They have large areas of disagreement, but the blog is a great example of a dialog that is polite, respectful and constructive. This is a a MUST READ for any educator.

A longer list of my “go to” thinkers who feed my brain on education reform will have to wait… but I have one more –

Call to action – from the same 2007 conference on education reform where the opening quote of this blog came from.

Teachers and Teaching: Prospects for High Leverage Reform
Peter Henry (aka Mi Corazon)

Wedged between two Byzantine bureaucracies—unions and school districts, constrained by unreasonable public expectations, hammered by ideologues, criticized by the media, saddled with policies shaped by non-educators, America’s teachers have almost no room to maneuver. Their training, workplace, schedule, and assignment are mostly determined by others, and their curriculum arrives “canned” in the form of textbooks from large, well-connected corporations. In some schools, extreme instructional strategies tell them what words to say, when, and how, as if teaching can be reduced to a standard script.

There is, however, reason for hope: If teachers are liberated from these structural limitations, they have tremendous potential as “high leverage” reform agents. As Peter Senge maintains in his thoughtful classic, The Fifth Discipline, small, subtle modifications of a key organizational element can have a major systemic impact.

It goes on to call for two fundamental reforms:

  1. Giving teachers autonomy, power, control and authority
  2. Ending teacher isolation

And ends on this uplifting note:

A great and resilient society, capable of successful adaptation and change, cannot thrive with an educational system built in the 19th century—managed by top-down hierarchies, one-size-fits-all models and ruled by the cudgel of fear. Excellence is achieved through individual mastery, a collegial network awash with inquiry and creativity, undergirded by trust and tangible support from the larger community. If we want teaching excellence and the resultant development of full student potential, teachers must be lifted up, given the responsibility, authority and training which enhance their natural human abilities, and then respected for taking on this most crucial and challenging work.

Good stuff, eh? See why I don’t bother trying to come up with a definition of reform all by myself? Why not stand on the shoulders of giants.

Educators inspired by technology will see parallels in these resources with many of the thoughts expressed daily in the ed-tech segment of the edublogosphere. There is much to learn, many connections to make, and much to do.

But finally, at this time in history, we have to tools to actually make this happen. Ed-tech reformers have an important part to play… and we are not alone.


Jerry Bracey, Rest in Peace

from EPIC. Education and the Public Interest Center, School of Education, University of Colorado at Boulder. posted with permission.

October 22, 2009

Jerry Bracey, Rest in Peace
Brilliant. Blunt. Independent. Truth. Integrity. Iconoclast. Irascible. Uncompromising.

After our colleague and friend Jerry Bracey passed away in his sleep during the night of October 20th at the age of 69, the memories and tributes hit our in-boxes, and it started to sink in that Jerry’s dominant presence as an eloquent and reliable truth-teller would no longer grace the educational landscape.

The evening before he died, Jerry was working on a new “Bracey Report” for us. It’s pure Bracey – forthright, clear, compelling, and grounded in evidence. We will finish that work and publish it at epicpolicy.org.

Just a few months back, Jerry put out a new book, Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality, which joins a shelf full of earlier works, including many published with EPIC/EPRU.

Some online tributes to Jerry are already up and can be read read here (Sherman Dorn), here (EdWeek, Debra Viadero), here (EdNotesOnline), here (WashPost, Jay Mathews), here (DairyStateDad), here (EducationExaminer, Caroline Grannan), here (Schools Matter, Jim Horn), here (Thomas Mertz), and here (SubstanceNews, George Schmidt). If there are others you feel should be added and posted at the EPIC website please email atepic@colorado.edu.

We have also responded to calls from many of the people who have been touched by Jerry and his work to create a memorial fund or project that we could donate to in his memory. We have now created one, attached to this policy center which has recently been Jerry’s academic home.

Working with the CU Foundation, we are building a memorial fund that would, if fully funded, provide a doctoral fellowship in Jerry’s name. We’re thinking of it as the Bracey Memorial Fellowship, given to a doctoral student with a research-based, hard-nosed commitment to further truth, equity, and social justice.

Pleased visit the memorial fund website to make a donation Don’t click the “in memorial of” option since you probably don’t have the info requested about his next of kin (his wife, Iris). Instead, just write “In memorial of Jerry Bracey” in the box. You may also mail checks, made out to “CU Foundation” with “EPIC – Jerry Bracey” in the memo line, directly to the School’s Development Officer, Margot Neufeld, at:

University of Colorado at Boulder
School of Education
Margot Neufeld
249 UCB, room 116
Boulder, CO 80309

The Foundation has no fees for memorial gifts — all the money goes to the gift purpose (student support in Jerry’s name).

If we reach the $25,000 level for all donations in Jerry’s name, we can create an ongoing scholarship/fellowship. Even if we do not reach that threshold, we would still use the money for student support in Jerry’s name.

©2009 EPIC. Education and the Public Interest Center, School of Education

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.

Time to share your big ideas for education

From David Warlick: Big Ideas — Bring Education Back into Focus

Big Ideas logoDavid has launched a project to quickly collect some ideas for education that will be presented to the new administration in Washington. The project features four phases (these are copied from David’s introductory blog post).

  • Phase 1 -Spend about two-and-a-half days composing and posting clear and succinct (140 character limit) priority actions for a U.S. Ed Department aimed at promoting and empowering a system that better prepares today’s children for their future.
  • Phase 2 -The Big Ideas web site will change, consisting of a list of the items that were posted. We, will collectively match up similar items into the basic foundation topics. Nothing will be deleted, only linked.
  • Phase 3 -The basic topics that emerge will be listed, with associated items linked in, with a request that education bloggers and micro-bloggers post their insights about specific topics of interest.
  • Phase 4 – Finally, the main topics will be listed, with links to an aggregation of associated blogs and micro-blogs. Educators will then be asked to visit the list and prioritize the list by order of importance and logical sequence.

Click here to launch the Big Ideas site.

OK – this means you
Two and a half days means that you have until Tuesday, November 11 or so. So get busy! It’s only a sentence or two, so you have to get the bottom line really quickly. C’mon you GenYES and TechYES teachers, let’s talk about authentic student work and trusting students and teachers. Have your students input their thoughts. You may be thinking that no one will listen to you, but you know what the last 8 years has done, and people need to hear the real voices of educators and students as we move forward.

If you don’t speak up, someone else will.


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