Monthly Archives: March 2015

Is Gen Z Prepared for the Real World or Not?

This weekend’s Job Market Column, “Make Way for Generation Z,” by Alexandra Levit intrigued me frankly because of the overall optimism of the piece. Given today’s heated educational climate, with all the focus on and anxiety over testing, for example, I was surprised by all the positivity. To be honest, I don’t hear too many of the Gen Zs in my own personal orbit expressing a great deal of optimism.

Levit noted that this group of kids, the Gen Zs (born between 1990 and early 2000s), are overall:

  • Independent
  • Proficient with technology but prefer face-to-face interaction
  • Driven
  • Schooled in emotional intelligence
  • Diverse

The essence of the article appeared to be summed up in the following quote by a Gen Z conference attendee characterizing her fellow Gen Zs: “It’s an upbeat group that’s full of passion.”

I decided to investigate a bit and try to understand just how prepared these kids feel about the future. If we take into account Z’s view on their high school experiences, their attitudes about college and the future, and the perspective from the workplace, we appear to be looking at quite a complex character.

“Unprepared for College and Work”

Not surprisingly, there are some Zs who are expressing dissatisfaction with their current lot and appear to be less optimistic than those Levit met. Released in December 2014, the “Rising to the Challenge: Are High School Graduates Prepared for College and Work?” report was based on an Achieve survey of 1,347 graduates from the high school classes of 2011 through 2014. Many of the student respondents report being unprepared for college and the workplace, specifically citing:

  • At least some gaps in preparation for college work (83%)
  • Large gaps in preparation for college work (49%)
  • A lack of clear expectations of the work required in college and the working world (two-thirds)
  • Not enough encouragement to take the challenging courses that would help them later on (two-thirds)

Admittingly, these students are being asked to comment on their high school experience as pertains to college and the workplace, but the overall sense of the report leaves us assuming these kids are not feeling entirely prepared for their future. How does this mesh with what else we’re hearing about Gen Z?

“Entrepreneurial and Self-Directed”

Another poll making the rounds is the “Meet Generation Z Poll” conducted in October 2014 by Northeastern University for their fourth national innovation survey. This poll queried 1,015 16- to 19- year olds on their views on higher education, civic engagement, public policy technology, financial literacy and person aspirations.

According to the poll, these respondents expressed “a strong desire to work for themselves, learn about entrepreneurship and design their own programs od study in college.” They specifically cited:

  • Strong expectations to work for themselves (42%)
  • The need for colleges to teach entrepreneurship (63%)
  • A desire for colleges to allow students to design their own majors (72%)

In terms of this group of respondents’ attitudes about college itself:

  • 81% said college is very or extremely important to their future career
  • 65% believe college is worthwhile and believe that the benefits outweigh the cost

These kids’ attitudes seem to mesh better with those Levit describes in her article.

Will the Real Gen Z Please Stand Up?

Clearly the two surveys differ in their goals and demographics. Yet, you have to wonder where one group is getting its overall optimism while the other is expressing mostly frustration. Can we assume that if students who answered the first survey were instead asked to answer the second that their responses would have been as positive? Or if we asked the kids in the “Meet Generation Z Poll” to evaluate how well high school prepared them for college, would they come up with the same responses as that cohort did? Obviously we are not looking at a level playing field. What can we do to better prepare all Gen Zs for a better future?

Leveling the Playing Field

The respondents to Achieve’s survey supplied a list of their own recommendations for change:

  1. Provide opportunities for real-world learning (90 percent);
  2. Communicate early in high school the courses needed for college careers (87 percent);
  3. Give opportunities to take challenging courses (86 percent);
  4. Provide more help for those who need extra tutoring (83 percent);
  5. Have an assessment late in high school so students can find out what they need for college (77 percent).

We know that these approaches are being carried out in certain schools but obviously not enough. So, not only in college but also in the workplace, we are seeing a range of preparedness amongst this group.

Observations from the Workplace

Another interesting perspective is provided by those in the workplace who are already working with members of the Gen Z. Bruce Tulgen, a workplace consultant whose observations are summarized in the article “Generation Z: Why HR Must Be Prepared for Its Arrival,” describes a generation that “grew up post 9/11 and came of age in a time of fear and awareness of vulnerability.” Citing “helicopter parenting” as one particular cause, Tulgen notes a lack of problem-solving skills, communication skills and critical-thinking skills. Again, citing their upbringing, Tulgen describes Gen Zs as a group whose “access to information, ideas, images and sounds is completely without precedent. At the same time, they are isolated and scheduled to a degree that children have never been.”

Tulgen is not alone in noting that companies must prepare appropriately to engage with Gen Z in the workplace.

Recommendations for Future Success

We’re all concerned about the workplace being refreshed in the next few years as the last of the boomers retire. As Tulgen says “The grown-ups are leaving, and there will be a new, young workforce to take their place.” Tulgen’s advice includes stricter designs for social media interactions, more detailed job descriptions, and “engaging workers with smaller bits of information,” for example.

Levit recommends that employers reach out “to develop relationships today with teenagers in grades seven through 12. Get into their schools, provide mentorship and education, and put yourself in a position to help shape their career decisions. They are eager to listen.”

I couldn’t agree more. For whoever the real Z is, all of our kids will benefit from more real-world interaction in school and exposure to the word at large before they get there. And a little project-based, hands-on learning to help develop those critical thinking skills wouldn’t be bad, either.

Are you the parent or employer of a Gen Z, or are you a member of this generation yourself? What are your thoughts on preparedness? Are you optimistic about what’s to come? Let us know in the comments below.

Can Two Extra “Vs” Help EdTech Save Education?

Last week I heard Guy Kawasaki talk about his passion for writing, his two latest books: “The Art of the Start-Up 2.0” and “The Art of Social Media,” as well as the updated MVP (Minimally Viable Product) model. During his livestream interview withStartup Grind’s founder Derek Anderson, Kawasaki reiterated his appreciation of the Lean Startup model and provided details on the two additional “Vs” he hoped might strengthen Eric Reis’s model. As Kawasaki says, “The concept is that you have this Minimal Viable Product. You do the prototype, you test, you get the product out there.”

Adding Value and Vision

So why do we need a couple of extra Vs?

According to Kawasaki:

  • The first V is for Viable. It’s foreseeable that you will make a return, that your revenues will exceed your costs.
  • The first extra V is for Valuable: You are changing the world. You are doing something significant. You are not simply making a buck.
  • The second extra V is for validation: You have something that makes a buck, but it validates your vision for the future.

Where Are the Two Vs in EdTech?

The two Vs reminded me of proliferation of EdTech products and companies and how we need to be wary of digital bells and whistles masquerading as the saviors of education. With the endless rollout of iPad apps alone (TechCrunch reported 20,000 education apps developed for iPad in 2012 alone), one has to wonder how much “V” (any V at all, really) has gone into each one.

Lest you label me a Luddite, I should tell you that I’m a huge fan of educational technology, and I spent half my professional career helping corporations train employees using online simulations and schools expand their footprint with online courseware. But I simply have to sometimes wonder how many of today’s solutions are developed with these two Vs in mind. How valuable is the solution in rescuing education from the test-driven, grades obsessed institution it has become? And what vision is the product serving?

EdTech Products in Largest and Smallest Concentrations

Think about where the largest concentration of technology tools in education is focused today. A quick scan on The EdSurge EdTech Index reveals the highest concentration of products in the following five categories:

  1. Math (134)
  2. Language Arts (90)
  3. Games (58)
  4. Assessment (50)
  5. Science (44)

With the exception of Games, these are fairly standard subjects, right? Much of the software in that list is designed to align with and promote success with implementing the CCCS. There’s a theme here.

Where do you think the lowest concentration of tools lies? Looking at student-facing applications in K-12 with 10 or fewer apps in their respective categories, we see:

  1. Digital Storytelling (9)
  2. Arts (9)
  3. Maker and DIY Tools (10)
  4. Social Learning (10)
  5. Video Instruction (16)

To be honest, I think this second set of numbers would be higher if there were more a little extra “V” involved.

Rifting on Value

Guy Kawasaki is as powerful a speaker as he is an effective writer. When he talks, you can’t help but pay attention and enjoy yourself. And most of the time you are wishing you had said whatever he just said. So maybe my rifting on the “two Vs” is my way of showing my respect. That being said, I’ve got to admit that “value” can be interpreted in a lot of different ways.

Using technology to help understand and expand the ways in which people can learn is of tremendous value. The work being done to understand how people think and learn and applying that to blended learning programs, for example, is adding great value to kids previously “stuck” in preconceived notions of how to solve problems and one-size-fits-all curriculum plans. These are real tools that can help teachers support learning in diverse populations. It expands and scales the capability of those who already know how to personalize learning and enables those who may not have been doing so much of that already.

Building a better way to help kids practice for a test?

One of the other topics Kawasaki and Anderson discussed was the concept of “nail it and scale it.” “When do you squeeze the trigger?” as Anderson put it. Kawasaki’s response is to run a qualitative test: “Have you jumped curves and pushed the technology enough?”

I think this is exactly what is happening. Everyone is pushing the technology, and that is a really exciting thing. But without a coherent, game-changing educational mission, an EdTech company on its own may just be pushing the technology. That’s not really enough.

You need a little more “V.”

Lessons in Arts Education from a Rock Star

Last night’s tribute concert to David Byrne was the 11th show in Michael Dorf’s “Music of” series that benefits a number of music education groups in New York City. Each of the concerts in the series has yielded about $100,000. With all proceeds going to the beneficiaries, that’s about $1,000,000 so far. The money is obviously a critical driver for these concerts, and the organizations that benefit from the funding contribute in diverse ways to music education in the city. They do the hard work in the schools and communities, providing instruments, lessons, and encouragement where none may exist otherwise.

Beyond that, though, last night’s performances reminded me of how the involvement of working musicians, master musicians and artists can positively impact young people as they navigate the challenges of pursuing an interest or career in the arts.

Who Benefits from “Music of”

The six groups receiving funds from these concerts provide a range support in the schools and local communities:

The Glittery Line-Up

No concert report would be complete without the line-up. Last night’s concert had so much power packed into it and so much joy, transforming the oftentimes staid Carnegie Hall venue into one big party. As the woman behind me said “Jones Beach at Carnegie Hall.”

The show opened with Little Kids Rock performing “Stay Up Late” and closed with Byrne and Brooklyn United, a community-based marching band, perhaps a precursor to the work he is doing in anticipation of this summer’s Contemporary Color. Those shows will feature the top color guard teams in the United States and Canada. The kids’ performances there will also be accompanied by well-known artists, such as Kellis, St. Vincent, Devonte Haynes and Nelly Furtado. Our exposure to previously unknown artists and less-known art forms is one other reason to celebrate someone like Byrne. The kids’ exposure to audiences at this level of performance is invaluable and not something most schools can provide.

But back to last night. The artists were backed up by house band for the evening, Antibalis, and tributes were offered, in their incredibly eclectic ways by:

  • Cibo Matto
  • Amanda Plummer
  • Alexis Krauss of Sleighbells
  • Forro in the Dark
  • Steve Earle
  • Pete Molinari
  • Billy F Gibbons of ZZ Top
  • A.R.
  • Thievery Corporation
  • Bebel Gilberto
  • The Roots
  • Glenn Hansard
  • Todd Snider
  • Ceelo Green
  • Santigold
  • Sharon Jones
  • David Byrne

The line-up speaks for itself in terms of the caliber and range of musical talent. The education connection was not lost throughout the evening. Alexis Krauss engaged in a little bit of storytelling, letting the audience know about her beginnings as a teacher, and how she used to bring her dad into the school to have students perform for a professional musician as part of their educational experience. She brought him along as a back-up singer last night, a nice tribute to her own mentor.

Again, the bookending of the show with performances involving young artists lent the evening a special significance. The confidence and joy in their performances is testament to the value of these opportunities to showcase their talents alongside the best-in-breed artists in recognition of one man’s work.

The Teachable Moments

Last night’s concert may have had two purposes, but they were seriously and joyfully intertwined. The series of concerts serve to 1) honor selected musicians for their body of work and 2) help fund music programs in the city and encourage young artists to pursue their art. We all know how dedicated David Byrne has been to his art and to experimenting with different styles of music over the years. The performances last night validated that in the range of styles and the manner in which all the songs were performed.

For the students who performed, it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment to see and experience live the outcome of those years of dedication and experimentation of this particular artist. I don’t know assume the kids in the beneficiary organizations know much about how they are able to continue their studies, but I’d like to leave you all with a couple of thoughts from David Byrne that are worth passing along:

Advice to the Young
Often the artists who are very successful don’t have much flexibility. In achieving success, they can lose a lot of their creative freedom. They have to keep making the same thing over and over again.

Music and Technology: When to Resist Technology
“The means of production have been handed to the creators. That means a lot is being created and not all of it is good. The software that allows us to record on laptops tends to encourage us to record in certain ways. It tends to make the songs very regular and repeatable. The tempos are very strict and steady, which at some times in the past was ideal. But absolutely steady tempo is not necessarily the best thing in the world. We have to know when to creatively dismiss that . . .

Sometimes starting without the computer allows me a certain kind of freedom. I’m not restricted to what the computer tries to get me to do.”

Again, the value of working with seasoned professional musicians is essential to successful arts education.

Final Takeaways

Obviously evenings like these have an additional goal: to raise awareness of whatever the cause may be. Clearly, we must continue funding arts education by all means. I’d say an hour of musical instruction is worth more than the thousands of dollars spent on one specific PAARC question. I’d also say that while music within the schools is vital, more opportunities to get the students out of the classroom and playing amongst working musicians (or even rock stars) will strike the right chord for a truly successful educational journey.

What a Mountain Climber Can Teach Us about Education

“He climbed with partners now and then but mostly spent time by himself and free-soloed — first on easy routes and then, as his confidence grew, on steadily more difficult terrain. Honnold lived this way for two years, continuing to study climbing history and the rarefied lineage of great free-soloists past, a grand total of three people over 30 years.” “The Heart-Stopping Climbs of Alex Honnold”

Alex Honnold is at 29 years old the world’s best free-soloist, which means that he climbs alone and without ropes. How many of us could learn to do such a thing?

Reading about Honnold this past weekend got me to thinking about self-directed learners, and how incorporating more of the principles of SDL into our K-12 curriculum could result in more engagement for this group of learners.

The Landscape of Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learning, or autodidactism, is basically when you teach yourself. What do we know about self-directed learners that can help us incorporate this into a school-based environment?

Studies on self-directed learning indicate that:

  • Individual learners can become empowered to take increasingly more responsibility for various decisions associated with the learning endeavor;
  • Self-direction is best viewed as a continuum or characteristic that exists to some degree in every person and learning situation;
  • Self-direction does not necessarily mean all learning will take place in isolation from others;
  • Self-directed learners appear able to transfer learning, in terms of both knowledge and study skill, from one situation to another;
  • Self-directed study can involve various activities and resources, such as self-guided reading, participation in study groups, internships, electronic dialogues, and reflective writing activities;
  • Effective roles for teachers in self-directed learning are possible, such as dialogue with learners, securing resources, evaluating outcomes, and promoting critical thinking;
  • Some educational institutions are finding ways to support self-directed study through open-learning programs, individualized study options, non-traditional course offerings, and other innovative programs.

Implications for the Classroom

Perhaps one way to think about incorporating aspects of self-directed learning into the classroom is to back into it from where we are today. Consider the most test-centered and grades obsessed environment and, applying the most student-centered learning approach possible, enable kids to focus on learning that matters to them. But we all know it’s not as simple as that.

When we talk about project-based learning, for example, we are also expanding the walls of the classroom to include activities that are relevant to students and the direction of which are also decided by students. Students choose tools, technology and practices from the real world to support their learning. The teacher functions more as a guide or facilitator than in traditional learning environments, but still plays a big role in the design and evaluation of learning.

Letting Go and Stepping Back: The Independent Project

We need to go beyond stepping back, as we do with Project-Based Learning, to “getting out of the way,” as the teachers at Monument Mountain High School did when they undertook “The Independent Project.” When a group of eight students were given the opportunity to create a school within a school for a semester, they worked independently and together to finish their own projects and to explore areas of academics that many of them never thought of themselves as doing.

As student project founder Sam Levin noted, the students “learned how to learn, how to teach, and how to work.” By providing an opportunity for kids to be in charge of their own education, they re-engaged with learning again.

Self-Directed Learning and 70:20:10

Allen Tough first wrote about self-directed learning in 1971 in the Adult Learning Project, noting that “About 70% of all learning projects are planned by the learner himself, who seeks help and subject matter from a variety of acquaintances, experts and printed resources.” While the focus of the study was on adult learners in the workplace, Tough also made it clear that they had also interviewed 10-year-olds and 16-year-olds as part of the study, and “Their out-of-schooling learning is extensive, and is similar in some ways to adult learning. Schools and colleges are increasingly recognizing and fostering such learning, thus preparing their students to be competent adult learners.”

Interesting how these kids appeared to be preparing themselves to be better learners as adults.

Later on, in the1980s, the researchers Morgan McCall, Robert Eichinger, and Michael Lombardo at the Center for Creative Leadership delineated the blend of learning that they felt best “blend” for successful managers included 70% of on-the-job experiences (informal), 20% through interactions with people (social), and 10% from courses and books (formal).

Today, the foremost authority and practitioner of 70:20:10, Charles Jennings, reminds us that the blend is not meant to prescriptive, but is rather a reference model for looking at how people best learn and improve in the workplace.

What we can glean from all of this is that there are a range of modalities through which people learn, but the large percentage of that is on your own through the actual doing of something (preferably of your own choice).

Why Today is Such an Opportune Time to Explore Self-Directed Learning

Many educators will talk about how theories come and go, making their appearance if not in necessarily cyclical patterns, but returning to popularity after so many years out of the limelight. Let’s return to our cliffhanger, Alex Honnold, for some thoughts on this.

If Honnold had been born 20 years earlier, before the proliferation of climbing gyms, he probably wouldn’t have found the sport until adulthood, if at all. Instead, he grew up in the 1990s among the first generation of American climbers to have almost unlimited access to good training facilities, a phenomenon that has produced startling leaps in climbing skill. Wolownick first took Honnold to a rock-climbing gym when he was 5, only to have him scale 40 feet when she turned her back. By 10, he was climbing at a gym many times a week, usually with his father . . .

It’s interesting to note that Honnold’s love for climbing was facilitated by the advent of the indoor climbing gym. He had the tools and technology from his earliest years through which to develop his skills.

What do we have today to help foster the development of self-directed learners inside and outside of the classroom?

  • Technology is definitely one tool that continues to evolve and continues to grow opportunities for the autodidact to access quality learning.
  • Neurodiversity’s acceptance has led to more ways for people with different ways of thinking and learning styles to excel as learners, both in traditional learning environments and outside of it.
  • Alternative learning opportunities outside of traditional schooling provide “homes” for self-directed learners, either physically such as the democratic modelled Sudbury Schools, and NorthStar, for example; or online with Blake Boles’ Zero Tuition College program helping self-directed teens with resources and networks to support their independent learning and career building.

How Do We Know We Are Ready to Try Self-Directed Learning?

We know that students are unhappy. The growing Opt Out movement that supports students and families (and teachers and schools) that want to opt out of standardized testing is a huge indicator of how the current approach is not working. We also know that over a million kids a year are still leaving school.

The original eight students who participated in the Monument Mountain High School “Independent Project,” included honor students and students who were on the verge of dropping out. Levin, the project’s founder, noted “There was a breaking point for me. It seemed like everyone around me was unhappy. I realized that my friends were spending six hours a day, a hundred and eighty days a year just being unhappy. That just doesn’t make sense to me.”

It seems like there are many kids out there at the breaking point, and we need a way for them to re-engage and find the joy in learning again. As Sue Engel, a psychology professor and mother of Sam Levin concluded, implementing an alternative school within a school “Doesn’t involve hiring a lot of fancy people and implementing a lot of fancy programs. The potential for this is inside every school.”

I wonder how many schools would be willing to give it a try. After all, it can’t be as dangerous as hanging from El Capitan at 3,000 feet without a rope.

Revising Our Perspective on Change in Education

Do you consider the current changes in education to constitute evolution or revolution?

A few years ago, in a white paper titled “Evolution, Not Revolution” I examined the then current changes in educational technology and the impact on the profession overall, especially on teachers. At that point, I was convinced that while changes may seem startling for some, they were moving us incrementally toward a more refined practice in which teachers could finally do what they do best: support student learning. It is still my belief that by putting part of what is typically transferred in the classroom online, we can free up teachers to work more closely with students on specific challenges.

This past weekend’s New York Times Magazine included a piece titled “You and I Change Our Minds. Politicians ‘Evolve’” that deconstructs the use of the word “evolve” to downplay a politician’s change in position. As Mark Leibovich points out “You and I change our minds all the time, but not so our politician; to avoid being branded as flip floppers, they ‘evolve.’

Am I about to flip flop?

Softening the Blow When People Fear Change

Quite often we hear about people who eschew change in education and question either the introduction of technology or the development of new pedagogical approaches. Those few years ago, when I wrote that white paper, I had as part of my agenda the goal of assuaging concerns among educators that technology, particularly online learning, was not something to fear. So, I titled the paper “Evolution, Not Revolution” in part to ease fears regarding technological change.

When we look at education today, there are many change factors to consider along with technology. When all is said and done, what degree of change can we ascribe to this sector? Let’s take a look at some of the current change factors. How would you evaluate the impact of each?

  1. Common Core Standards
  2. PARCC and Smarter Balanced Testing
  3. Blended learning programs used in the classroom
  4. Redesign of classroom space to account for different groupings of students and different pedagogical approaches
  5. E-learning days in which students study from home
  6. Gaming technology used in STEM and other subjects
  7. Online platform for tracking student work and keeping parents in the loop
  8. BYOD (Bring Your Own Devices)
  9. Rise in the number of Charter Schools across the country
  10. Growth of home-educated student population

Once again, if you look at this list, is your sense of change somewhat incremental? Or is it revolutionary? What is the impact on today’s learners? On the profession? On the practitioners?

Observed Change versus Required Change

Our ultimate goal is to prepare learners to participate more effectively in society, leading more independent and productive lives, keeping the economy strong, etc. The SCANS requirements detailed the set of competencies and skills for that to happen, and many of these are referred to today when we talk about deeper learning:

  • Identify, organize, plan, and allocate resources (Resources)
  • Work with others (Interpersonal)
  • Acquire and evaluate information (Information)
  • Understand complex interrelationships (Systems)
  • Work with a variety of technologies (Technology)

Are we providing our kids with the tools to develop these skills today? Are the changes we see supporting a love of learning and preparing competent participants in the workplace of tomorrow?

Maybe the question we should be asking is not the degree of change we are observing in education, but the degree of change required in education.

What Further Changes Are Required to Increase Engagement?

One of the biggest issues in education today is the lack of engagement. 1.2 million kids leave school each year, many of whom claim they have become disengaged from their learning. 2 million students currently school from home, a population that is growing at the rate of 2-8% per year. In this very self-directed community, engagement is the main driver. How do we get that into the schools?

To re-engage students and properly prepare them for the adult world, we need to design curriculum that:

  • Contextualizes learning in real-life tasks
  • Creates pathways to learning that map to students’ interests
  • Incorporates tools for learning that “get students where they live” (i.e. cell phones, tablets, etc.)
  • Attends to each student’s style of learning
  • Takes students out of the classroom into their community to learn from local business people
  • Adds maker activities to the classroom and fosters entrepreneurism

We see as many as half of all teachers moving or leaving the classroom through disaffection or in order to effect change through new teacherpreneurial ventures that address much of the above. EdTech companies woo teachers as consultants to contribute to product development or help sell their products.

While the role of teacher continues to change, we still need skilled and compassionate teachers who can help nourish and guide learners through today’s redesigned classrooms.

Evolution or Revolution?

I guess I’m going to use the “E” word and say that my own stance on changes in education have evolved. It’s not about technology, although technology is a part of the solution. And we can no longer soft-pedal the need or degree of change required,

But what about you? How far are we from where we need to be? What tools and resources do we need to get there? I’d like you all to weigh in. What degree of change is required?

Is it evolution or revolution?

Today’s Paradigm Shift: Don’t Do All That Homework

Think back to your kid self, and consider the news this week that a Kip’s Bay, New York elementary school has stopped assigning traditional homework. The majority of us, as our kid selves, would probably have rejoiced at this news. Yet, the announcement has infuriated members of the school community and is fueling several different debates, mainly that around the intrinsic value of homework.

What is Good about Homework?

Like many of the arguments we are engaged in today around education, one of the strongest defenses seems to be based on attachment to a paradigm that this is just the way it has always been. Think of how radical the concept of flipped classrooms seemed when that first came out. That being said, the most common arguments for maintaining homework as a standard component of the school experience are that it:

  1. Improves learning. Reviewing the day’s work or prepping for the next day’s in-class activities can reinforce the learning objectives of a particular class.
  2. Improves performance on testing. Practicing test-taking strategies and increased familiarity with the test questions and content can improve test scores.
  3. Teaches discipline, responsibility, and time management. Remember the family pediatrician’s advice to set aside a dedicated work area?
  4. Fosters the relationship between teacher and student. An assignment that gets handed in not only helps the teacher see more closely how the student is doing but can also become an instrument for communication between teacher and student.
  5. Keeps parents informed of what the child is learning and what is happening at school. Setting aside time to review homework with a child provides a birds-eye view of what the child is learning in school. This can also foster the relationship between parents and children.

What are the Arguments against Homework?

Much of the dispute over homework rests in the desire to separate school time from family or home life and to provide more time for free play and activities of a child’s choosing. A thorough article in neaToday last spring highlighted some specific objections.

  1. Homework can be a barrier to social equality. The theory here is that the economic gap between rich and poor translates to fewer resources at home for the latter and therefore diminished ability to complete homework accurately or at all. This was an argument that French President François Hollande made a few years ago as part of his education agenda.
  2. Contrary to the above, some studies show that “the help of parents often mitigated any of the positive effects of the work” meaning parents are either doing too much of the work or not doing it well (or both).
  3. Additionally, the researchers above found that math and science homework did not correlate to better grades but did to better performance on standardized tests. So, for these researchers, it’s not necessarily a matter of homework or no homework, but what type of homework is most valuable to what end.
  4. Others, like Alfie Kohn, child education expert and author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thingargue that “There are simply no compelling data to justify the practice of making kids work what amounts to a second shift when they get home from a full day of school.”
  5. This meshes with arguments by Denise Pope, a researcher at Stanford University, who found that too much homework can increase stress and sleep deprivation. Kids need more time for other activities, including family and friends.

The discussion around more play and less work transcends homework and is relevant to the broader discussion here as well. With kids spending so much time on test prep, instructional time is lost, and in some schools, this translates to decreased or no recess time at all. There’s an oft-quoted piece on this in the Atlantic that lays out some of the issues around “All Work and No Play.”

Should We Eliminate Homework or Not?

Jane Hsu is the principal at P.S. 116, the New York school that has changed its homework policy and wrought the ire of many of the parent body in her school. In an article in DNAinfo, Hsu is quoted as stating that there is “no link between elementary school homework and success in school.” The revised policy replaces traditional homework with “opportunities for students to engage in activities that research has proven to benefit academic and social-emotional success in the elementary grades.” This includes playtime, conversations with relatives and unstructured reading.

There are a couple of lessons here for all of us. It’s important to note that:

  • Hsu is not proposing eliminating homework altogether. Instead she and her school leadership team are proposing an alternative that may start kids on the path to discipline and responsibility but through planned engagement with family members and free reading time.
  • You can spend hours researching studies regarding the correlation between homework, grades and test scores and find varying results. The one thing that people do seem to agree on is if there is any correlation, it is stronger in the upper grades than in elementary school.

At the end of the day, it’s not just about homework. We do need to rethink the homework paradigm, and we need to think about it in the very challenging context of today’s public school system. Are we best serving our students by increasing stressors in school with excessive testing and at home with hours and hours of homework? We need to teach kids to think critically, work independently and together to solve problems, and to sort through the cacophony of information at their disposal.

Let’s make time at school more valuable by decreasing the amount of test-taking, de-emphasizing grades, and enabling kids to spend more time at home with family and friends, playing, learning, and building a repertoire of skills more in line with their personal interests.

How We Can Help Community College Students Graduate

What do Tom Hanks, Chris Rock, Walt Disney, James Dean, George Lucas, Teri Hatcher, Eddie Murphy, and Halle Berry have in common?

They all attended community college but never finished.

The same thing is true for 66 to 80 percent of students who enroll. But clearly, they don’t all end up with careers in the movies. This week’s NY EdTech’s “Community College Spotlight: Edtech at 2-Year Schools” illuminated the challenges for those who attend and operate these schools and presented some potential ways technology can be part of the solution to these huge dropout rates.

Panelists Making a Difference in Community College Today

The panelists represented a broad range of expertise:

Alexandra Meis, Co-founder and Chief Product Officer, Kinvolved

Kinvolved has developed an app to improve PK-12 attendance that records, shares, and analyzes data among families, schools and after-school programs. The company is extending its reach into the college market, and is a Finalist for the Robin Hood Foundation $5M College Success Prize, which recognizes the most promising technology interventions to help community college students continue their studies and attain their associate degree. Alex was recently named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Education and is a 2012 Education Pioneers Fellow.

Gina Sipley, Instructor, Nassau Community College, SUNY

Gina is a tenure track Instructor of Reading and Basic Education at Nassau CC and a PhD student studying Digital Literacies and Gaming at Hofstra University. She writes about EdTech for Al Jazeera America, EdSurge, Mic and is a nationally recognized Teacher of the Future.

Professor David Finegold, Chief Academic Officer, American Honors

David is the founding Chief Academic Officer for American Honors, an organization that expands opportunities and lowers the costs for talented students to obtain a high quality undergraduate education by building honors colleges at leading community colleges, combined with 2 + 2 pathways to the leading public and private US universities.

Melinda Mechur Karp – Assistant Director, Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University

Melinda is a leading expert on smoothing students’ transition into college and supporting them once there. Over the past 15 years at the Community College Research Center, she has led studies examining advising, counseling, and support services; college 101 courses; and dual enrollment programs.

Starting with Basic Truths about Community Colleges

The panelists agreed that, compared with private four-year schools, community colleges are asked to do more for their students with fewer resources. There appeared to be consensus that the $60 billion President Obama wants to spend on tuition relief for community colleges could be better spent on helping students to graduate instead. The main areas highlighted for improvement include:

  • Improving systems and processes to run the schools more efficiently and effectively (registration processes, administrative loads, etc.).
  • Investing in means of helping people graduate, providing them with the tools and resources to navigate (Better designed online resources, improved mobile access, more effective counseling services, etc.)

Who is Today’s Community College Student?

While community college students have typically been older than the students attending four-year schools, we are seeing younger students enrolling these days, with the average age of 27 years old.

Community college students typically:

  • Need to get caught up academically before immersing in a complete academic program.
  • Lack the “social capital” to navigate the college experience. Most are first generation college students and so have little or no resources at home to help enculturate them to the college experience. They have no guidance as to how to navigate course selection, scheduling challenges, etc. like students whose parents have already lived the experience.
  • Work part- or full-time and thus have less time to focus on their studies.
  • Have families and thus require more flexible scheduling or childcare or both.
  • Don’t form cohorts like most students in four-year colleges do.
  • Confront a major information barrier when it comes to policies, processes and procedures.

How Can We Help?

Suggestions for improvement were filtered throughout the evening’s conversation. As a means of shedding further light on what is needed, NY EdTech co-organizer Michelle Devan asked the panelists what they would say if they could speak to President Obama or Governor Cuomo about community colleges. Their responses included:

  • More consistent and reliable broadband.
  • Donors Choose for higher ed. (Like the popular online platform that enables K-12 teachers to ask for donations for specific projects or resources from anywhere in the country, not just from within the school). I need to credit Gina Sipley with bringing this up. It’s an interesting concept, folks!
  • More dual enrollment opportunities.
  • Doing more to prepare students for the college experience before they get there.
  • Putting systems in place for relationship building amongst students.

In terms of EdTech, the panelists had some suggestions for people who want to get involved:

  • Need to focus on process: Design, Develop, and Re-design.
  • Know your audience; for example, provide ways of communicating that get students where they are at. Depending on the age of the student, they may not use traditional email or Facebook. Texting is often a more efficient means of communication. Some systems allow for this already, for example, letting students select which mode of communication they prefer. It’s just one example of making sure you are designing for the target audience.
  • Design with empathy: How can you make these students’ lives just a little easier? The stories shared about people who strive to complete community college reveal tremendous financial and emotional challenges. One story shared told of a student who was raising his siblings after their parents left them. A fellow audience member told me his mother never completed community college because of the language barrier.
  • Consider using students as resources in developing tools and thereby provide them with meaningful work. For example, hire entry level programmers, host local hackathons, use students as beta testers, etc.
  • Get people to the table to discuss necessary change. Include students and administration to ensure all voices are heard.

Building Community for Community College Students

One of the main issues that came up throughout the evening was the isolation that many community college students feel either due to scheduling realities, the information barrier they confront, or the lack of meaningful advisement. The picture that was painted for us in the audience was of a student wandering campus trying to find his advisor and unable to do so.

It would be great to find a way to bring people whose lives are so challenging and so diverse together so that they could better succeed despite those challenges.

Got an app for that?

Thanks again to NY EdTech Meetup co-organizers, Kathy Benemann and Michelle Dervan for arranging such an informative evening. And thanks to the panel, for the work they do and for sharing it with NY EdTech. Explore the links in the article to learn more about what these people and their organizations are doing to help improve community college today. The ongoing research at the Community College Research Center, the programs offered by American Honors, the dedicated teaching by people like Gina Shipley and others, and the meaningful application of technology in this market by Kinvolved are impressive and are efforts many of us can contribute to in order to help drive progress in this sector.

Have some thoughts of your own on the issue? Share them here!

Sheri Handel’s passion for teaching, learning, and technology continues to evolve from a career as a college instructor to a designer and manager of online and classroom learning experiences for corporate, higher education clients, and K-12 learners. To talk about learning strategy and to partner on learning design for social impact in education, visit us at Designs2Learn.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Redux

We’re frequently presented with approaches to teaching and learning as if they are somewhat new. Or there’s a new study defending the efficacy of the approach as if it had never been proved effective before. For example: Social learning. Emotional learning. Democratic learning. All sound, valuable concepts.

But if we look back, we can see some genesis for these methodologies in earlier pedagogical constructs. When I was in grad school, I was introduced to the work of Paolo Freire, the Brazilian-born educator whose work to eliminate illiteracy in Brazil eventually landed him in prison in the 1964 coup d’état. Freire’s work was seminal to the work I was doing at the time and was incorporated into my thesis project. Over the years, I have turned to his book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” to refresh my thinking and to shed some light on issues that we are confronting in educational practice.

A Newly-Defined Relationship between Teacher, Student, and Society

Most importantly, Freire’s work assumed a newly-defined relationship between teacher, student and society which, I believe, we are still striving to achieve. He defined as the antithesis of his approach the “banking” concept of knowledge, in which “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing.” I’m thinking that Paolo Freire would have loved the concept of flipped classrooms!

Steps towards Knowledge Building

As steps toward achieving an open and equal relationship between learners, teachers, and society; and as a means of utilizing literacy as an instrument of freedom, Freire incorporated a number of concepts into his approach that may have impact on how we view and design learning programs today.

  • Dialogue
  • The tool of literacy had as its basic purpose the goal of liberating a class of people with no voice. Dialogue is a process that according to Freire “presupposes equality amongst participants.” This includes mutual respect, care, and commitment. Through dialogue, he wrote, we recognize that thoughts will change and new knowledge will be created.

  • Problem Posing
  • The process of problem posing enables people to become active participants in a dialogue, linking knowledge to action.

  • Praxis
  • Freire believed that action and reflection must both be present for dialogue to be effective. By taking action, you then can critically reflect on reality in order to change it further.

These are a few of the concepts Freire promoted and ones that should play a part in the decisions we make when considering the direction education is taking. You can learn more here.

Democracy, Tolerance, Language, and Standards

Freire eschewed being defined solely as a specialist in literacy. Instead, he preferred that literacy be thought of as one chapter in his critical view of education. He proposed a critical way of thinking, knowing, and working with students. Freire recognized that students needed to learn the “standard” language in order to participate in and change society. At the same time, he urged teachers to recognize the beauty of their students’ natural speech and their right of students to use it.

Today’s test-driven and standards-based curriculum makes it difficult to appreciate the diversity of not only language, but also approaches to thinking, problem solving and creativity. This is one reason I believe neurodiversity is such an important concept to incorporate into education these days. What would Freire think?

Do We Want Things to Stay the Same?

Paolo Freire believed that “We did not come into the world to keep the world as it is. We came to change reality.”

We need to decide if we want things to stay the same in terms of educational practices, or if we want things to change. We should ask ourselves:

  1. When we send our children to school, do we encourage them to find and use their own voices?
  2. Do we provide teachers with the means of engaging in effective dialogue with their students?
  3. Are the activities we offer as part of daily curricula ones that encourage action and reflection?

One of the most obvious tools for change that we have at our disposal today is technology. Technology can help us understand how students problem solve, individualize their learning, and extend access to world class learning programs where none previously existed. This is where we need to put our efforts, not in digitally recreating poor learning methodologies.

The ultimate success of an educational system will be a citizenry of independent problem solvers who feel welcomed by and equipped to participate in a democratic process. That starts with learning. The willingness to learn comes from engagement in the learning process. Social, emotional, and democratic learning can add great value to the educational process. Sometimes we need to look back in order to discuss best steps for moving forward.

Learning How to Do Good

Social entrepreneurism is a goal to which many of us aspire, but how do you even start? The team at Goodnik has made it their business to help promote social entrepreneurism, as their mission statement says “by bringing not-for-profit and private companies together to share resources and ideas about better ways to do business.” They hold workshops, connect new business owners with established partner companies and host these meetups so that people can share their projects, get feedback and network with like-minded self-starters.

Earlier this week, I attended the Goodnik Winter Demo Day, and heard about some amazing projects that leverage technology for social impact. Seen through my lens of educational impact, I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned and perhaps spread some of the inspiration. helps travelers add “immersive local experiences” to your existing travel itinerary. That experience is offered by a local not-for-profit organization, lasts usually half a day, and may include some combination and variation on the following: a presentation of the organization’s work, guided tour to related sites, interaction with community members, workshops, etc.

Tour proceeds go directly to the hosting organization.

User scenario: Say you are planning to travel to Greece with your family and would like to include a social impact experience in your vacation. On the site, you simply:

  1. Select where you want to travel.
  2. Select what issues you care about.

You will be presented with one or more options. In the case of Greece, there are opportunities to

  • Aid in the recovery and rehabilitation of sea turtles
  • Visit classical sites of Athens and engage in social street work, distributing humanitarian kit (sleeping bag, clothing, food)
  • Participate in a wheel chair tour of Athens to experience it through the eyes of mobility impairment
  • Tour the food markets of Athens, visit donor establishments and the recipient groups that distribute them

These tours range in price from $17 to $68 and last anywhere from two hours to half a day. Visit the site and see the options for Peru, Cambodia, Senegal, Costa Rica and many others. was designed to educate people about countless social causes through deeply immersive engagements. Like “Ecotourism” and high school service/adventure programs, these experiences enable someone to experience a culture close-up, but for shorter periods of time and for less money. Their vetting process is well-defined and there is not mismatch of services. Partner organizations really do benefit from the involvement of the tourist participants.

The team at is as diverse and as dispersed as their partner organizations and so can offer a truly world view on social impact opportunities. Most importantly, I admire this group because they make a direct connection between providing economic development opportunities for their partner organizations and educating the public as to the issues at hand.

Amp Your Good

Remember all those food drives you participated in as a kid? Well, we now know that those cans of stringed beans were probably not the best choice of sustenance we could provide on a long-term basis to a family in need. And unfortunately oftentimes goods are delivered beyond their expiration date. Not only that, but apparently 10-60% of goods donated are never used because of mismatched needs. All that hard work, but all that waste! As I said earlier, most people want to do good, but we don’t always know how. That’s where Amp Your Good comes in.

Amp Your Good is a platform that takes a traditionally offline activity, goods-based giving, and boosts its effectiveness online. They help those who are organizing campaigns to establish their presence online and provide fulfillment services to ensure timely delivery of those goods. All this is provided free of service to those organizing the campaign. CEO Patrick O’Neill calls this “crowd feeding.”

User scenario: If you are interested in organizing a campaign, Amp Your Good sets up the page on its site for you and provides tools for helping you get started, including tips for seeding the campaign, templates for press releases, best practices, etc.

As a donor, the user scenario couldn’t be simpler.

  1. Select the campaign you are interested in.
  2. Select the product you would like to donate.
  3. Click to pay.

Because the campaign incorporates a hunger organization’s wish list, you can only donate (i.e. select and pay for) those specific items. And true to Amp You Good’s mission, campaigns can include non-perishable and perishable goods. Because Amp Your Good manages fulfillment, they can ensure all products are fresh and appropriately dated. No more unusable donations!

From a user perspective, the site is intuitive, designed as O’Neill says, “like a mini wedding registry.” The collateral is well-written and invites . . . engagement.

Not only does Amp Your Good provide tools and resources for hunger organizations and charities to meet their goals; they also are educating the public about better practices for giving at the same time they are donating to these causes.

Open Green Map

Learning about Open Green Map (OGM) makes you want to be reborn as a cartographer. But actually, because of OGM, you can participate in helping to chart relevant ecological, cultural and civic resources without being a map maker yourself.

In 1995, Green Maps Systems was a resource that Green Map groups all over the world accessed for building their own maps. The original intent was to create a database of sustainable maps to help “guide citizens toward making better everyday choices.” By 2009, they had launched OGM and Green Map Icons, an award-winning resource that enables map makers and users to contribute to the ongoing development of the project. Combined with Google Map and open source Drupal technology, the OGM links mapmakers in 65 countries who have engaged in over 900 locally led projects, and published more than 550 local Green Maps.

User Scenarios: There are many ways to engage with OGMs, including but not limited to mapmaker, map user, student, educator, researcher, and participant who would like to add a site to an existing map.

Anyone can use the site to locate restaurants and businesses categorized and tagged as sustainable living, nature, or culture and society. On the local map of your choice, you can deselect any of these categories on the Legend tab to make your browsing easier. You can also search for a specific site (establishment) if you want to.

If you are interested in contributing comments, as a registered user you can click on a specific site and add your comments or post a related image. If there is a site that you want to recommend be added to a map, there is fairly straightforward form for doing so.

Open Green Maps is already making incredible strides in terms of connecting like-minded people who want to contribute positively through this vast project. The organization does work with universities and schools, and provides suggested lessons and materials for kids both in school and out. Probably my favorite line from all the Green Maps material I have ingested recently is “Green Maps and the process of making them gives youth a better understanding of current conditions and community resources and a voice in their own future, helping them communicate with their peers, older people and decision-makers.”

Inspired Yet?

Even though at first glance the presenters at the Goodnik Winter Demo event may not have aligned directly with my work in education, it was pretty clear early on in the evening that not only can I learn so much from these organizations’ efforts but so can a lot of other people, too. Each provides further, authentic opportunities for truly experiential learning.

Thanks again, to Goodnik founder and organizer, Nate Heasley; Michal Alter, co-founder of; Patrick O’Neill, CEO of Amp Your Good; and Wendy Brawer, founder of Green Maps. Thanks, too to Brett DiDonato, a rock star of a web architect, and Ron Suarez of IoT4ClimateSolutions, an awesome site for crowdsourcing solutions to climate change, for their presentations as well.

Five Storytelling Tips to Help Save Education

Last night I participated in a Twitter chat about alternatives to formal schooling. The chat was hosted by the Catalyst Learning Network, a group that is working to help parents and kids who are unhappy in school to explore alternatives. We used the #StuVoice hashtag, for the student-led organization, Student Voice, that has spearheaded a global movement for strengthening the input that kids have in the ongoing conversation about educational reform.

Over the past two and a half years, Student Voice has worked to not only help students find their voice, but it has also engaged with educators, politicians, corporations and others in the conversation about how to improve education. The Catalyst Learning Network is in its infancy, but its founders have a history of outreach to students who seek alternatives to traditional schooling but struggle in their efforts to effect that change in their own lives. Hats off to both these organizations for their work to improve the quality of education both within and outside of traditional schooling. Both of these groups started out with kids telling their stories 140 characters at a time.

Reflecting on last night’s chat, I see a short list of tips we can apply to schooling to help families bridge the gap between our perceptions of what schooling is and what our kids actually experience each day.

What Makes a Great Story?

Let’s first take a look at what makes a great story so that we can step back and appreciate the value of storytelling and what we can borrow from it. This list is borrowed from “The Dragonfly Effect.”

  • Stories are about people.
  • Let your characters speak for themselves.
  • Audiences bore easily.
  • Stories stir up emotions.
  • Stories don’t tell: they show.
  • Stories have at least one “moment of truth.”
  • Stories have a clear meaning.

We can see how everyone can benefit from a well-told story. But what does that have to do with saving education?

Why Empower Our Children to Become Storytellers?

In the spirit of flipping things all things educational, let’s flip some ideas around the value of storytelling in education and propose that we put the storytelling skills in the hands of your children. We do know that storytelling is a long-valued tool of learning, and will continue to be so, but we are now focusing on using some of the basic premises of storytelling at home to learn more from our kids.

  1. Let your kids be the storytellers. First and foremost, encourage your kids to tell their stories. Whether this comes in the form of straightforward reportage or embellished tales of heroism or defeat, let them star in their own story of the day. You can learn a lot from listening.
  2. Provide a platform for reflection. Whether it’s on the way home from school, at the dinner table, before bedtime, provide time in the day for your kids to talk about what they are experiencing in school. Create a culture of sharing these stories early on to make it easier to elicit this as school and everyday life gets more complex for your children.
  3. Be open to different media for storytelling. For kids who don’t like to talk or to write down their thoughts on their day, let them tell their stories through a drawing, a poem, a painting, a video, a song, or some other means.
  4. Encourage character development. Who are the people your kids interact with each day? Who influences their sense of self, and in what way? Whether its teachers, classmates, or others at school, get to know more about the players.
  5. Be an active and appreciative listener. Be prepared to ask questions to help flush out the details in your children’s’ stories, but let them drive the experience. Thank them for sharing when they are done.

Will These Stories Save Education?

The more dialogue we can promote between ourselves and this generation of learners, the better our approach to learning will be moving forward. It’s definitely part of the solution. Providing a forum for your child’s voice at home is a great way for you to learn more about the impact of the setting, the characters, and the plot that make up the everyday lives of our learners. It can also help build their own confidence in sharing these stories and in working through some of the challenges.

Thanks again to the Catalyst Learning Network and to Student Voices for the chat last night. I learned a lot from people sharing their stories.