Monthly Archives: September 2017

The word "priority" in a red speech bubble

Setting Our Priorities in the Apocalypse

It’s hard not to feel post-apocalyptic in the face of so much tumult. Harvey, Irma, and Maria have proven that Bill Nye is not the only guy who believes in climate change. Stevie Wonder has been flying up and down the east coast playing at global and national unity concerts. Betsy DeVos has turned back the clock on progress made against sexual harassment on college campuses during the Obama years. And 45 spent a weekend on Twitter rather than dealing with the crisis in Puerto Rico.

We are a society living in the middle of one long silent scream that started in the late evening on November 8, 2016.

We know that there is potential for it all to fall apart, and yet, we continue to whittle away at the less incendiary of our problems.

We quite civilly argue for technology in the schools, for STEM, or STEAM, for SEL, for experiential learning, for less testing. We advocate for a new approach to higher education, one that better prepares our young people for a workplace we can’t yet describe. We openly air our concerns about AI, but in an academic, intellectual way.

We seem to be maintaining, even preparing, but can we really move forward under such confounding circumstances? Will progress make any difference when even this civility fades?

Having narrowly escaped being MOOC’d out of existence . . .

“Tomorrow” can be such a relative term when it comes to education.

In the early 2000s, the forecast was momentarily bleak when higher education saw its life pass before its eyes with the advent of Coursera and the MOOC. Coursera was swiftly followed by edX, Udacity, and others. In November, 2012, Laura Pappano provided an early, albeit cynical history in “The Year of the MOOC”. Still, while she and others argued the meaning of success in a course with videotaped lectures, electronically-graded quizzes, and relatively low completion rates, millions of people were signing up, and other Ivy’s and the rest soon followed.

If anything, the MOOC was a wake-up call for higher ed, proving that people were indeed hungry to learn, that they did not necessarily need or want to come in to the classroom to do so, and were not always asking for traditional credit, either.

In many ways, higher ed is still figuring out how to maintain the relevance of a four-year, campus-based degree. Of course, it is more than online learning that challenges higher education these days. It’s the manner in which learning needs to mutate and adapt to the world around us. As the workplace continues to evolve, so must the way we prepare our young people to enter it. With such rapid change, the whole construct, the whole model of education is being questioned.

Education, having gone too long without significant change, is trying to work things out. Teachers are incorporating more technology into their daily practice. Classroom space is being reconfigured. But the very premise on which our children’s day is based, is not necessarily changing. There is very little self-directed learning and very little choice. We treat our kids a certain way for 16 years, and turn them over to college expecting them to emerge in four more years as semi-independent members of society prepared to fend for themselves.

It’s not working.

Meanwhile, back at the “45” yard line . . .

This is a very big problem to be working on while trying to keep our president from getting us all blown away by either seemingly natural or more conspicuous political disasters. And yet, we do continue to refine our models, gather our experts, test our theories, all in the interest of creating a new paradigm for the new world in which we keep finding ourselves.

For example, on November 8, 2016, I was at a higher ed conference on marketing. On the evening of the 8th, I fell asleep thinking Hillary Clinton would be our next president. We all woke up to a very different reality. That day, despite this, and except for a few incredibly discreet comments, we carried on with the business at hand, with sessions on Marking and RecruitingOptimizing Video for Marketing,Personalizing Education’s ROI, etc. As professionals, this is what we are meant to do. Carry on. Ten months later, the vitriol from the White House thickens, battles within Congress escalate, protests mount, and those academic conferences . . . continue.

Are we stuck or are we recycling new naterial?

For the past couple of years, I had the pleasure of attending the annual New York Times “Schools for Tomorrow” conferences. What always struck me about these gatherings, despite the star-studded panels we heard from, were how steeped in the past much of it seemed to be.

For example, among the people we got to hear were Anant Agarwal, Michael Crow, Rahm Emanuel, Daphne Koller, and Nancy Zimpher each one talking about the latest technology, partnerships, and management over vast systems of higher learning. Not too shabby.

In addition, each year there were the requisite panels on diversity, college sports, and sexual assault. At least, they seemed requisite.

What’s old is new again, or is It?

So, each year, as I sit at one academic conference or another and listen to the deans, presidents, and provosts of the most distinguished schools of this nation walk through their approach to diversity, for example, I’ve been thinking, aren’t we passed this? What about the educational stuff? When are we going to get to the discussion on sleek new learning design?

I’ll admit to similar feelings during sessions on sexual assault. Grateful for the added clarity and protections granted under the “Dear Colleague Letter,” I wondered why we were covering this in such detail during a conference on the future of education. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that we have been tripping over the complexities of Title IX for some time now, and I believe that the Obama administration had made quite a lot of headway in providing further protections under its letter of guidance.

Now that Betsy is rescinding the 2011 and 2014 guidelines, what should be old is new again.

Now that 45 is fighting with football players protesting for civil rights, what’s old is new again.

And while we should be past all of this, and we should really be focusing on how to improve education, right?

The truth is, we’ve been consistently moving toward this moment for a long time. That long, silent scream that started on November 8, 2016 is just the latest incarnation of it.

It’s a real-life sim, and we need to buck up.

Perhaps one of the best lessons I learned during my early learning design days with Roger Schank and the team at Cognitive Arts, was the concept of “confounding factors”. Working through a needs analysis with a client, you collect examples of what can go wrong in any typical execution of whatever task it is you are simulating. You then take those and through the efforts of some very talented writing and design staff, weave them into the simulation that learners will immerse themselves in before executing the task for real.

It’s not always that easy for people who are familiar with, or even expert at, completing a regular task to deconstruct it and communicate that to someone else. They seemingly do that by rote.

I sometimes wonder if we became too well adjusted to how we have been living and did not notice the flaws all around us. But the truth is that under confounding societal circumstances, we cannot wait to fix anything.

Backward Planning to a Love of Learning

Clearly, learning and development at a corporate level is moving forward. Continuous learning is making huge inroads with CLOs such as John Palmer leading reskilling efforts at AT&T and providing employees with much more input into the future of their own careers. In the UK, companies such as Fuse Universal are re-envisioning learning with a platform that combines access to expert advice, curated content, offline learning content, peer-provided expertise and more. Content curation is another area where huge inroads are being made in terms of how we access and personalize information. Look at Anders Pink for a great example of that.

It’s K-16 that concerns me the most. I see no sense in arguing between STEM and SEL, for example. Kids need skills and the means by which to continually adjust and build on those skills as the workplace continues to evolve. They need to develop and maintain a passion for learning.

To sum up what may appear at first to seem like a bleak September forecast:

  • We have taken an unfortunate step backward in terms of racial discrimination, and we will need to regain and build on any progress made since the 1960s.
  • Rescinding stricter interpretations of Title IX protections is a bad idea. We need to do better with protections against gender bias and sexual assault. So, yes, the conversation will need to continue.
  • Education does not exist in a vacuum. As society falters, we need to carry on with improving teaching and learning to ensure that the next generation does better than we have.
Pre-schoolers walking together attached by rope

Questions We Should Be Asking When We See Kids-on-a-Rope

September has many faces. For many, it’s the start of the school year, which is greeted by either joy or despair depending on whether you are the kid, the parent, or the teacher; where you are along the continuum; and how you’ve taken to the whole enterprise by now.

As a child, I had the most carefree of summers spent exploring the shores of the Atlantic from the safety of the Silverpoint Beach Club. Still, I looked forward to the start of school. New beginnings, new clothes, new books, reuniting with old friends. Things changed over time for me, especially as the challenges of social interactions became more complex and learning became more of a task than a natural part of everyday life.

So, I guess I’m something of a September cynic, and the timing of those kids-on-a-rope could not have been better . . . or worse.

What does it mean to be a kid-on-a rope?

For some, a kid-on-a-rope is simply a toddler, preschooler, or kindergartner traveling from Point A to Point B in as safe a manner as possible. Teacher at the front, aide at the back, and a tribe of small people held together by the wrist with about a foot and a half of rope between them.

Okay. Safety first and all that. I do understand that it’s not easy to take a dozen kids to the park without some means of corralling them.

But a kid-on-a-rope means so much more. The simple visual is a valuable means by which to examine the paradigm that has been school for so long. It gives us the means by which to question what we have taken for granted for way too long.

Five questions to consider

These are very basic questions, but they provide a starting point. Consider that even as we build great technology for teaching, and we train teachers to play a more meaningful role given the more robust tools, there’s an inherent model that needs further disruption.

These are the questions that everyone should be asking, not just educational professionals. If you are a parent, think about your own children and their attitudes towards school.

1.      Are all kids ready to start school or learn to read at the same age?

2.      Do you need to be in a classroom for five days a week for 7 or 8 hours each day?

3.      Aren’t we smart enough to help nurture kids who know what they want to learn?

4.      Is a college-prep curriculum the right way to go for an entire nation?

5.      Are we effectively educating our kids to perform in today’s (and tomorrow’s) workplace?

Where does it end?

The kids-on-a-rope metaphor doesn’t really end at kindergarten. We’ve been stringing our kids along for so many years with a very traditional approach that we’ve become used to it. Instead of actual rope, it might be ELA and math assessments that start in elementary school, PSATs, SHSATS, ACTs, SATs that shackle our kids to a model of schooling still rewards performance on exams over performance in real life. While many colleges have become test optional, the pressure to perform well on these exams still occupies the majority of students (and their parents) in their high school years. Test flexible universities differ from the traditional application process only in that they are flexible in what type of test they might accept: SAT, AP, etc.

For an interesting read on one direction away from traditional educational methodology, see Competency Works report What is Competency Education? Differentiated instruction is playing a bigger role in K-12 education, in part because of new technologies. Bringing maker-based activities into the classroom, or taking kids out of the classroom for such projects is increasing as well. Change is coming. Technology is fast, but overall systemic change is not.

I suppose that unless you are willing to stand out from the crowd, you could be a kid-on-a-rope your entire life.

Men in kilts preparing to play bagpipes

Honoring the Past and Engaging a New Generation of Activists

Each September 11, members of the NYPD and the NYFD and their families gather at the Firefighters Memorial right outside the front door to my apartment building. Preparations begin early, with the sounds of bagpipes entering each apartment here, letting us know it is this day again, this time to remember.

As I left my apartment yesterday morning, I took a moment to stand among those gathered pre-ceremony, and noticed how, on the face of it, the demeanor of the entire scene had changed over the years. This is how grieving becomes public ritual, I thought. An action repeated over time seems less of the response to the immediate event and more of a prescribed process. Fair enough for an observer but not so much for those who continue the real work of grieving. So, while we come together as a community to honor those lost, we remain somewhat separate in how we experience our grief over that day of loss.

We came together after that, for quite a while, and we come together when things happen as they have in Boston and Orlando, for example. As a nation, we face continuing, unfathomable threats in our schools and our neighborhoods due to gun violence. Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Charlottesville, and too many others.

We come together. And yet, we come apart.

And today we are seeing a threat from within our own executive branch and in response to that a resurgence of social protest such as has not been seen since, well, the last century. The vehemence and the cruel intent with which the current administration seeks to destroy the legacy of the Obama years, to close our borders, to expel this nation’s immigrants, to strip us of our right to healthcare and to choose, to a safe and clean environment; all of this certainly does feel like an attack from within.

We started living in a new world on September 12, 2001. It was a world of fear and new vocabulary in the form of orange alerts, first responders, TSA, and Homeland Security. Sixteen years later, I don’t think that any of the fallen would recognize our current world. And not only because of added airport security or new technology.

We’ve made so much progress. And yet, we have regressed to a place I no longer recognize.

As is the case with any passing from one generation to the next, my kids grew up in a different world than I did, and in many ways, better.  My kids, cognizant of their own mixed race, grew up in a world with diminishing racial bias and with increasing acceptance around gender identity and fluidity. There had been fewer lines drawn in their world.  Until 45.

So, the bagpipes do bring me back, and they do trigger reflection. After so many years of effort to heal this nation, to move past the hatred and extremism of the early 2000s, we find ourselves struggling against not only rebooted rhetoric but an invasion of what should be ancient and outdated political theory and action. A new wall and new Nazis. We did not envision these things in 2001; we did not anticipate them in 2008, either.

The current administration has the potential to cause harm for years to come, and the threat of this has engaged the spirit and intellect of our young people like nothing before it. Despite experiencing the catastrophe of 9/11 as schoolkids, many did not suffer any personal loss. It was part of their world but once removed. Not so with 45.

My respect to the families of 9/11. As a nation, we will continue to honor those who were lost in the attacks and their aftermath. And as we work to protect our immigrants, our right to choose, to love, to drink clean water, to preserve our national monuments, to safely attend our local schools, our right to health care, and the basic tenets of living in a civil society, we’ll be aspiring to a way of life that our kids should feel proud to defend.

 

 

 

 

Chalkboard with alarm with the words back to school

How Significant Will September Be in the Future?

If April is the cruelest month, September may be one of the more complex ones. With the latter part of the month signals the beginning of “meteorological” Fall, the beginning of September represents a paradigm that many people still accept as true but which no longer makes much sense: the beginning of the school year. September is a firm dividing line between summer fun and the months of hard work ahead. Summer, for many kids, means much less structured time, more time outside, more time pursuing personal interests, whether that means reading whatever you like, perfecting a favorite sport, or spending a few weeks in rock and roll camp. Sounds like an ideal setup for self-directed learning!

Think about the way our kids access information these days. Consider the availability and promise of personalized learning. There are so ways kids can learn when they have to or want to. “September” may be losing some of its previously assigned cultural significance.

Questions Raised by the Beginning of the New School Year

As the Fall engines rev up, here are some simple questions to ask yourself about the very paradigm of “September,”

  1. Has your child been looking forward to the start of the school year?
  2. Did your child learn anything new this summer? If so, how? In what setting?
  3. How does your child spend his or her time outside of school?
  4. How does your child enjoy spending his or her time?
  5. Does your child talk to you about school? What is a typical conversation like?
  6. How much homework does your child have every day? To what end?
  7. Do you help your child with homework? Is it easy to get your child to do homework? Can you do the work?
  8. How much art or music is included in your school curriculum? If it isn’t a lot, or none at all, do you supplement?
  9. Does your child play a team sport in school or participate in sports outside of school?
  10. If your child did not start school each September, what would he or she be doing?

It’s important to ask these questions of ourselves as parents, and vital to reflect honestly on the answers, and not take for granted that the current way that your child is being educated is the only way.

Alternatives to the September Paradigm

The September Paradigm is really just another way of referring to School as Usual. These are very tough times during which our kids are returning to school, and we certainly can’t underestimate the multi-faceted workload that teachers face now and every year. Teachers are working harder than ever to make school a meaningful experience. Even though there has been much progress in terms of integrating technology into the schools and with that some personalized learning tools and methodologies, the construct of school remains antithetical to “real life.”

I’m all for kids (and their accompanying adults) getting a break, but I’d like to see less of a line drawn between learning and whatever else we do every day. This is what is happening in the corporate world, with more support for continuous learning and hopefully what will start happening at the college level. In other words, learning will be designed so that graduates can more easily find their place in an increasingly complex world. Do we need to start in Kindergarten, you ask?

Well, yeah. K-12 needs to let more of the real world in as well. We have traditionally referred to or identified specific schools within districts as “buildings,” reflecting the institutional nature of our educational system. Even taking the safety of our children into account, these “buildings” can be extremely closed off, again forming that barrier between child and family, school and the outside world, learning and summer vacation, etc.

It’s great to hear that projects such as the Beam Center in New York City, for example, are coming into the classroom, or bring teachers and students to their location in Red Hook, Brooklyn for maker workshops. Longer terms projects instill a greater sense of community and connectivity while introducing great skills across curricula.

Tools at Schools is another real world, project-based group that partners with corporations to bring design thinking into the schools. Six-month projects result in products designed to solve real problems, including the sneaker of the future with Puma, and furniture for the classroom produced by Bernhardt Design, whose manufacturing facility the students visited as part of the project.

Less Could Mean More

Less time in the actual . . . buildings could mean that kids are synthesizing what they are learning into activities that take place in the “outside world” every day. In addition to experiential, project-based learning partnerships such as the examples given above (and many others), including online learning either in the classroom or out, and for older (high school) students, more apprenticeships earlier on and independent, community-based learning activities could alleviate so much of the “school fatigue” we see in our children.

We could even play around with the calendar! There really is no season for learning. So there, September!