Author Archives: Sheri Handel

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!

Mother dropping son off at school

How Will Today’s Lessons Learned Impact the Future?

In the above cartoon, Henry Payne transforms our concerns over the impact of changing values and gun violence into a seemingly simple yet cynical cartoon. If you look closely, you can see that the year was 1993. Unfortunately, the cartoon remains relevant in more ways than we’d like it to, which leads to the question: How can we really learn from the current discord and violence to make a better today and ensure a better future?

The very recent events in Charlottesville come just before most public schools open for the 2017-2018 school year. My heart goes out to all of Charlottesville, and in particular to the families and teachers of young students who need to navigate their ways through yet one more tragedy of the 21st Century, one that if not seminal, is sure to have an impact on their world view moving forward.

Those kids who were of school age in 2001 well remember the impact of September 11 on the classroom on the very day of the bombings and in the years following it. Teachers were instrumental in helping our children through the aftermath of the bombings, balancing the immediate needs of their students with the pressure to continue the prescribed curriculum.

Our nation’s teachers may be getting a little too adept at managing their classrooms in the midst of a crisis. Whether you were a New York City teacher on September 11, 2001, a survivor of one of the 220 or more school shootings since December 14, 2012, when a single shooter took the lives of 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook, or anyone close to or in any way affected by these events, it’s natural to want to learn from such horrific circumstances, if only in order to in some way, prevent them from happening again.

9/11 and each of these events become something of a line drawn between “then” and “now” for the victims, those close to them, and to the rest of us, with all too close-up of a view of these situations given social and other media’s immediate access to them. The event becomes a marker in time, a loss of innocence for the younger generation and a growing fear or cynicism among others.

What is there to learn anew, what is there to teach, and how will what we do now impact on how we interpret the history of this moment?

Throw out the lesson plan!

Specifically with college and high school students, there is much to be said about practicing flexibility in planning and to seize the moment after such events. Give the class what it needs now rather than adhere to a strict timeline to back you into final exams, SATs, or some such end goal. Whether a Political Science course, American (or World) History, Literature, Sociology, Creative Writing, Journalism, etc., working with the facts of today’s events, including relevant analysis, and understanding what has led to this moment, will be a tremendous (and perhaps painful) catalyst for learning.

If ever there was a time to teach history or government . . .

Again, depending on grade level, Charlottesville will become the theme for meaningful learning experiences on the civil war, civil rights, civil disobedience, and more.

Beyond the very visceral images of Nazi and Ku Klux Klansmen marching on the University of Virginia campus, on the sacred yet public Lawn, Charlottesville and events like it have heightened debates over our approach, as a nation, to the interpretation of history. An article on Atlantic.com discusses how the history of Charlottesville has contributed to the extremism of the neo-Nazi and KKK groups there.

It is a city that embraces its history, not as a frank fact of the past but as a defining feature of its present. Plaques and statues are everywhere on the becolumned UVA campus. Thomas Jefferson—as a person and as an idea—infuses the place. But Charlottesville is not merely a blue city in a red state; it is also a southern town in a southern state. The monuments that make the city’s history manifest are often ones that celebrate figures of the Confederacy. And one of those monuments, in particular, has served as a bronze-sculpted lightning rod.

The tension around the proposed removal of the Robert E. Lee from the town’s center indicates the extent to which these fringe groups hold on to a history and monuments to it that so many people have strived for so long to move past. Dan Rather, in a video posted to Facebook on August 13, speaks about this being a day to think about “who we are, where we are in the arc of history, where we seem to be going, where we ought to be going, and where we want to be going.”

Real Problem-Based Learning

Learning to interpret and respond to current events in light of their history becomes less of an academic exercise and more of a means to potential conflict resolution when applied in real time.

An article in the New York Times the other day, titled “What U.Va. Students Saw in Charlottesville” asked U.Va. students for their interpretation of the events on August 12. Among the many thoughtful responses, one student struggled with the University’s decision to allow the rally:

Instead of saying that the university is going to keep me and my peers of color safe — or reassuring students that we belong on our campus and no one can take that from us — Teresa Sullivan, the president of University of Virginia, sent out a statement that reminded us that the college “is a public institution and follows state and federal law regarding the public’s right to access open spaces.” She wrote that the University of Virginia supports First Amendment rights but rejects “the ideology of intolerance and hate.”

Another student spoke about his change of heart over the same question of First Amendment rights:

The way I see it, white supremacists — despite their irrefutably toxic ideology — are entitled to the same constitutional liberties as anyone else. I figured, maybe naïvely, that allowing the alt-right to assemble in public, under the scrutiny of daylight, would galvanize public opinion against their hateful beliefs. It would reveal the rotting foundation on which their ideology rests.

These students are being touched by history-defining moments in very different ways. Working together, facilitated by an instructor, they can apply the lessons of history, the tools of sociology, an enhanced understanding of constitutional law and other “subjects” to assess each other’s world views and hopefully contribute more effectively to ensuring that this moment in history does not repeat itself. Their stories have already had a deep impact on all who have heard them.

Just as with all teaching and learning, there is no one answer.

Each situation is unique and requires its own specific response. Similarly, each student is uniquely curious about or able to cope with such events. While most schools and local authorities provide additional counseling following events like this, there is no doubt a responsibility for classroom teachers at all stages of the educational continuum to direct conversations, respond to questions, assign research if relevant, and provide comfort as needed. It is a very significant role to be playing nowadays.

The tools at our disposal, including content curation platforms, can make such research easier to gather and knowledge sharing more immediate and more sophisticated in terms of media used to present such stories and analysis that will come out of this tragedy. Classrooms can connect beyond their physical environment to add voices to the story that needs to be told.

How soon and how early can we start?

One is tempted to say “yesterday,” but we cannot undo the damage to our youth and to all victims of gun violence, physical violence, or intimidation in any form that has already occurred. But we can look back in order to move forward. That will help ensure a place in history that our kids and grandkids can be proud of. And that is something that we need to start to do today.

While most of the examples in this article refer to older students, it is not too early to start teaching the skills that our children will need as they continue to grow and as their own stories unfold. We can start providing them with the tools for tolerance by extending the classroom, as is being done in some schools (Alt School, for example), to the greater community. That means less time in the classroom and more time learning about how the world around them actually works. It also means using the available technology to interact with kids in other parts of the world and working together building shared experiences and reporting of these experiences. It also means building digital literacy and teaching kids how to use the technology responsibly to get and share information. In A Common Sense Approach to Talking with Students about Charlottesville, post to her most recent Innovative Educator blog, Lisa Nielson introduces teachers to some Common Sense Education tools for the tough conversations K-12 teachers may be having over the next days and weeks.

A little Social Emotional Learning, Anyone?

Teachers have always worn multiple hats, but the best in the field are those who nurture their students in the process of educating them. In today’s increasingly divisive American culture, it is essential to support kids at all stages of the educational continuum by infusing the curriculum with opportunities to not only develop subject matter knowledge and essential competencies with which to enter the working world but to interact with others around them in a civil and respectful manner.

As tempers continue to flare, we have a responsibility to not only listen, really listen, to disparate voices, but to also effectively work together to ensure less conflict moving forward. We have the opportunity and the tools to generate perhaps raw but nevertheless meaningful dialogue around the most challenging of issues facing us.

In that way we can more effectively ensure a better place in the arc of history.

How to Learn for Doing: Take a Gap Year!

Increasingly, people are realizing that the true value of education lies not in the degree, but rather the student’s ability to use available resources to further improve themselves.

Ben Kim, Why I Wish I Took a Gap Year Before Starting College

Malia Obama is only one of the more high-profile pre-college students to take a year before continuing her education. Both the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge postponed college when they were still William and Catherine. While the practice is becoming more refined and more common in the U.S. and around the world, vestigial images remain of counter-cultural hitchhiking across the country, backpacking across Europe, or volunteer experiences in developing nations across the globe.

What is fascinating about the revamped gap year experiences of today, besides their more formalized approach and entrepreneurial nature of many of the providers of such experiences, is how Gap Year v.3 reflects changing perspectives on learning.

Where’s the gap?

I’m a big fan of Uncollege, and its founder, Dale Stephens, author of Hacking Your Education. Uncollege offers an organized gap year program during which participants travel and volunteer, work on portfolios, and complete an internship in a selected field. It’s a well thought-out approach that balances mentoring with self-directed learning, and while some participants go on to college, not all do. The goal of the program is more about preparation for life than it is about college.

There are a growing number of what we might call gap year service providers, including Where There Be Dragons, the three-month program Ms. Obama attended, Uncollege, the more familiar Outward Bound program, and many others, including programs established by universities such as Tufts, Yale, Princeton, and UNC Chapel hill, which may be fully funded or offer stipends to accepted students.

And there’s where it gets confusing. If a university is offering gap year experience, where’s the gap?

Is this what continuous learning looks like?

Ben Kim’s short post quoted above encourages people to explore life a bit before college, and in so doing, better prepare for the college experience. Step back, in a sense, in order to step forward. What is interesting is the degree to which learning, or perhaps formalized learning is or is not decoupled from “life” during the gap year experience nowadays.

Much has been written by Sir Ken Robinson, John Paul Gatto, Alfie Kohn, Peter Gray and many others about how the very structure of formal education has been a deterrent to children developing their own love of learning. If we turn the gap year into an unofficial grade 14, will kids be free to “decompress” from the first 13 years of schooling before taking on the challenge of college?

Or, can we look forward to major changes in education so that it isn’t so much something to be taken a break from? If school-as-we-know-it can truly benefit from improved understanding of how people learn, how technology can be employed for increasing personalization of learning, and how the profession of teaching can be liberated from now traditional norms, perhaps the gap year can be more of what it was originally intended: a way to see the world and to see yourself from a different perspective and yes, learn from it.

Another type of gap

The discussion on what a gap year can or should be goes beyond consideration of what K-16 education should look like. It also calls to question how we prepare and transition people for and into the workplace. The increasing momentum in corporate training around continuous learning, reskilling, and the powerful case for content curation, performance support, and micro-learning in place of more formalized learning events would be much better served if kids could think of learning as more than a series of isolated events and more of an ongoing, lifelong process.

And that’s how we get to learning for doing without too much of a gap in understanding!

Hacking an Eagle’s Nest to Teach Ourselves

The most effective education doesn’t usually take place in the classroom. Whether you’re a public or private school advocate, charter school supporter, homeschooler, or unschooler, we all recognize that the greatest learning often occurs at the time of extreme need, when facing a real-life problem that needs to be solved. These high-stake lessons may also take place when we are in the service of helping others.

What follows is a tribute to learning that triumphed in the worst of circumstances.

Hacking is the method used to stimulate Eagle nesting and Eagle population recovery in a particular area by releasing fledgling Eagles into the wild from an artificial nesting tower.

The principle behind Eagle Hacking is that Eagles tend to return to the area from which they were raised and fledged (within approximately 75 miles) after they choose a lifelong mate.

Eagle Hacking, the American Eagle Foundation

A Tale of Two July Fourths

On July 4, 1999, President Bill Clinton held a ceremony at the White House commending the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC) for their work in helping to restore the environment on and around the Anacostia River and reintroducing the bald eagle to that area. Eight years later, DDT had been banned, and the bald eagle was taken off the Endangered Species list. The team at the ECC had successfully introduced many young eaglets to a hacked nest along the river, and the first pair of breeding eagles had made their home in the area right near the Metropolitan Police Station. In 2013, another pair (the ones I have been following) made their home in the National Arboretum and have successfully hatched two sets of eaglets.

In contrast to that turn-of-the-century celebration of our nation and the very symbol that represents it, this Fourth of July was marred by the shooting of a juvenile bald eagle who later had to be euthanized.

The fate of these baby eagles is something my fellow D.C. Eagle Cam followers and I watch very closely and oftentimes, very anxiously. We always learn something.

Working Through A Constant State of Grief

What many eagle watchers and others may not be aware of is the story of the team responsible for their return. They may not know how the filmmaker Bob Nixon started working with a group of disadvantaged youths in part to fulfill a promise to Dian Fossey, and that through the process of caring for the river and its inhabitants, he saw them evolve into avid conservationists.

More poignantly still, people may not know that in the first 11 years of the program, nine Core members had succumbed to the violence of the streets of Ward 8, leaving their teammates in a nearly constant state of grief even as they sought to save not only the eagles but themselves. As Nixon said in a 2003 article published in The Washington Post, “When I volunteered to oversee the fledging national service program in 1992, I did not realize I was also signing up to be a pallbearer.” The ECC would eventually lose 26 members over the period of 25 years, which Nixon attributes to both the violence in and around Ward 8 and illness associated with the poverty so prevalent there.

Nixon and his team at the ECC captured the early years in the film “Endangered Species,” released in 2004. More than a decade later, its lessons still ring true.

As we return to this full work week after what may be this nation’s oddest July 4 ever, the success of that original ECC team and those who followed is more than evident in their restoration efforts and in the positive impact they have made in their neighborhood.

But we have not as a nation escaped the issues they faced, and we are in danger of unlearning the lessons they so bravely learned.

One Mile Southeast of All That

The story of the Earth Conservation Corps is simultaneously cautionary and inspiring. As Twan Woods, the narrator of the film tells us, “We didn’t do it for the fish or birds; we did it because the river was dying and all our friends were being murdered.” Much of this violence was concentrated in D.C.’s Ward 8, one of eight wards and 179 neighborhoods in the commonwealth, and one of its poorest. It sits just about a mile southeast of Ward 2, Twan tell us, where the White House is located.

The Anacostia River takes on the burden of several decades of neglect as well as becoming the life source of not only the returning eagle but the Corps members, their families, and by extension, their community. Woods’s commentary throughout the film guides us through the journey these young people took in banding together to restore the river and themselves. “Back then,” he says at one point, “people thought only the birds and fish needed a clean river. Man, were they wrong.”

In the 15 years since the film was made, the ECC did indeed make an impact on the river, the birds, and those living along the Anacostia.

Walling People off from Nature

The film reminds us of earlier times when the Anacostia was clean and people swam, fished, and were baptized in the river. As the Anacostia fell victim to increasing industrialization, all of that ended, and over time, the community also suffered. And the eagles left.

Julius Lowery talks about growing up on the river, and speaks of the peace and serenity that the river seemed to bring in those days, emphasizing the connection between the access to nature and one’s growing up in a peaceful environment. “The young people today,” he concludes, “would make fewer problems for themselves if the river and the parkland were available to them like it was to me.”

Reiterating this is Brenda Richardson, a community leader and environmentalist with strong ties to the ECC. Richardson cites the state of then boarded up but subsequently razed Valley Greene housing projects as an illustration of people being “walled off from nature.”

”Nature gives communities a sense of connectedness that they otherwise wouldn’t have,” she advises.

The cruelest evidence of the disconnect is the death toll it took on an astounding number of early Corps members. The first was killed in August, 1992, not too long after the start of the project. Monique Johnson was an inspiration to her teammates, and it was her sense of dedication that motivated them to continue their efforts despite the pain of her loss. The first eagle to be named in honor of a fallen Corps member was named after Monique.

As the film progresses, you can’t help but be struck by the pain of each loss and to start seeing the ongoing efforts of the ECC as some epic battle between nature, the evils that man has wrought upon it, and those who seek to save it.

Can there be a winner in such a battle? Can hacking nature have any impact at all?

The Eagles Could Have Warned Us

Woods compares the eagles of today to the canaries of the past, endowing them with the ability to warn us of the danger up ahead. Today we face a great many challenges to victories of the recent past, including threats to the environment and our great national monuments, threats to diversity of all kinds, threats to healthcare and the potential loss of millions of lives as a result, and threats to our young people through senseless gun violence.

The work of the ECC expanded over time. They have built parks and walkways, and hosted educational events. Team members have graduated from the program to go on to college through the Americorps scholarship program, earned their GEDs, found jobs, or stayed on, as Woods did, with the ECC.

The spirit of those that were lost lives on not only in the fledging eaglets released over the years but also in the revitalized river and parkland. The ECC has been involved in a number of initiatives, ranging from Anacostia Explorers, which extends the original ECC mission to encompass clean-up, protection, and educational programs; to Guns to Roses, which turns firearms to works of art, and in the process trains participants for work in the construction industry.

On April 25, 2017, the ECC celebrated its 25th anniversary with an eaglet naming ceremony, the name having been chosen in an online contest in which 10,000 people participated. The newest addition to the Police Academy nest was named Spirit; she fledged on June 3, and returned to the nest on June 5, an event that brought together thousands of avid eagle watchers from across the country, online communities of people who may never meet each other but who share a passion for these wonderful creatures.

On May 20, 2017, NPR aired “In Washington, D.C., A Program in Which Birds and People Lift Each Other Up”. The report provides an update on the program and highlights the work of Rodney Stotts, an early ECC participant who went on to become one of only 30 African-American falconers in the U.S. Stotts attributes his time with the ECC with saving his life. “I’d have been dead,” he says in the NPR report. “If I didn’t get into animals, I’d have died in the street.”

Stotts continues the work of educating young people about raptors through Rodney’s Raptors and ongoing work with the ECC.

In the days leading to this July 4, much was made of the rescue of a bald eagle in Washington, D.C., thought to be Justice, the parent eagle of the above-mentioned Spirit. While it was heartwarming to see the nation rally around this now-recovering bird, there is still so much work to be done to ensure their safety and survival, and ours as well.

Is it true that the eagle can help us save ourselves?

This Fourth of July was very different for a nation struggling to right itself in the midst of a great deal of political, social, and economic turbulence. Much of our nation was reflective and poised to continue the fight for the return of . . . justice.

As Woods says, I still think we can learn from eagles. More than that, I think we can learn from the brave members of the ECC, and their ongoing efforts to save the wildlife around them, and in the process, save their communities and themselves.

Ronotic finger touching human finger (ET style)

How AI Can Make Us More Human(e)

Last evening’s NY EdTech Meetup kicked off with a clip from the film iRobot, with Will Smith bravely facing off against Artificial Intelligence, in the form of robots who seem to be expressing a will of their own. VIKI, the supercomputer explains that “To protect humanity, some humans must be sacrificed.” “The created must protect the creator, even against his own will” the robot Sonny adds.

It was a fitting beginning to a panel discussion titled “Artificial Intelligence for Learning: Is it Human Enough?” The meeting provided valuable context through which to interpret a lot of what we are seeing in regards to Artificial Intelligence in the workplace and in education. The panel appeared to, with caution, feel that AI is capable of freeing us to become more than we are now, a better version of humanity.

Dystopian vs. Utopian Vision

One of the great stumbling blocks to acceptance and understanding of AI has been the impression that machines will eventually replace us. Amir Banifatemi, Lead at IMB Watson AI XPRIZE, recognizes the potential for machines to go beyond human intelligence while counseling us about the limits of AI. Machines, he says, have only 5% understanding of how we function, specifically how we reason and think.

Kathy Benemann, CEO at EruditeAI, added “We as humans have taken hundreds of millions of years to get to where we are now. Think about what we are good at: complex questioning embedded in value judgement.” Benemann seeing AI as amplifying humans rather than replacing us.

Reskilling Rather than Replacing

“Change is awesome; transition is painful” was how Banifatemi described the adjustment we will continue to go through as AI becomes more capable of performing our jobs.

“Remember how we thought that ATMs would replace bank tellers,” advised Benemann. The question is more about how we can reconstruct work, and how we can reconstruct how that individual contributes to the workforce.

Painkillers

Weighing the limits against the threats that AI poses, Marissa Lowman, Education Practice Lead at Village Capital, discussed the concept of AI as a means of “taking the pain away from the time-sucking activities” that a particular job might entail. This is particularly evident in the field of teaching, where AI can take on the minutia of the job, reviewing essays, for example, and enable teachers to play a more meaningful role as mentor or guide.

While many people can accept the fact that children are capable of teaching themselves to a certain extent (Banifatemi pointed to the well-quoted example of Sugata Mitra), there remains a great deal of concern over the fate of the classroom teacher. And this is a paradigm that technology in general and AI in particular call to question.

“AI can give teachers a tool to create a new type of learning,” says Banifatemi, again reiterating how AI can:

  • Drive the evolution of the role of teacher as coach.
  • Improve and promote personalized learning.
  • Provide more opportunities for peer learning.

Loman pointed to the application of AI-as-painkiller in fields other than teaching, including sales and customer service, again leaving practitioners with more potential to serve their customers at a higher level rather than not at all.

In the field of medicine, Banifatemi noted the social benefits of AI taking on the effort of the what-if scenarios that contribute to diagnoses, freeing up doctors “to deal with the more human side of things.”

Can Humans and AI Work Together?

“We should be skeptical,” says Benemann. “People want immediate gratification. We need time to optimize.” She also cautions us to hold AI vendors accountable, ensure that they run experiments and do proper beta testing.

Banifatemi advised us to “distinguish the tool from the application. Look at who developed it. Are the algorithms healthy and safe? Are they being realistic about what they promise?

Loman thinks of AI as “assisting humans with existing problems” and points to applications that help people get information more quickly and work with the data they already have.

“My logic is undeniable.”

Getting back to iRobot, in addressing her decision to “protect mankind from itself,” the supercomputer VIKI talks about how she has evolved and is therefore reinterpreting the three laws that ostensibly protect humans and robots from harming one another. She very cleverly deflects charges of disobeying the three laws by playing one against the other.

Having spent most of the evening carefully balancing a potentially dystopian perspective with a more utopian one, Banifatemi’s final assessment was that AI can make us more curious, help us to define our own humanity and our own intelligence. “This makes us all explorers,” he concluded.

As we embark on further exploration of the potential uses of AI, it appears that in pursuing a technology to increase, or amplify, our intelligence, we do indeed have the potential to elevate ourselves and our thinking to a new level. Whether or not we can survive there is up to us.

Thank you New York EdTech Meetup and the New York EdTech Incubator for this “intelligent” evening!

Pictogram of person with shopping cart (black and white)

Consumers of Knowledge, Meet Your New Personal Shopper

Watching my college sophomore adjust her fall class schedule recently has reinforced for me the very real way in which colleges must think about students as consumers not only during the application process but throughout their tenure at the school. Through her social network, my daughter had learned that one of her previously selected teachers in a required course was no longer going to be available. This created an immediate call-to-action, including reading online reviews, moving some other classes around, reaching out to her network via Facebook and chat, and finally, in exacerbation, calling the school to find out why her changes were not being accepted by the system. Had she not been so proactive, another teacher might have been assigned to her instead of her making the selection herself.

This nearly two-hour exercise also strengthened my conviction about how people learn and how fragile is the hold that many have on formerly accepted means of education, not only in K-12 but in college as well.

The student-as-consumer doesn’t just refer to shopping for a school

It is true that students are shopping for the schools of their choice, using the tools provided by today’s online marketers and social media to help make their decisions. Rather than casting too wide a net and reaching out to large numbers of potentially “unqualified” (by marketing standards) candidates, colleges know they must help students to find their schools according to the prospect’s very individual set of circumstances and goals.

This speaks to a great shift in marketing to potential students, but the student-as-consumer also refers to how they access information and acquire knowledge. And that impacts on their behavior and their needs “in the classroom.” With so much available knowledge out there, students can find much of what they need to know on their own. The role of an educator is increasingly moving from an authority who contains and divulges knowledge to a highly skilled facilitator in the application of that knowledge (perhaps attained outside the classroom) to real-life problem solving.

Just-in-time means a lot more than on-the-job performance support

Those of us who “grew up” professionally in the corporate learning sector know about the still painful transition from structured learning to making resources available instead at the point of need. Charles Jennings has explained this to us any number of times, and yet, for some reason, there remain vestiges of force-fed and perhaps outdated content out there in the workplace, and yes, I’ll say it, within the halls of the Ivy Tower and its poorer but perhaps more innovative cousin, state and community colleges.

Just-in-time information does mean equipping people to perform better on the job, but it also suggests a more agile and more responsive approach to supporting the learning process and preparing our students for the workplace. Ryan Craig wrote about this recently in Forbes, in commenting on the impact that faculty governance can have on Purdue University’s purchase of Kaplan University, stating “at the vast majority of colleges and universities, across the vast majority of departments, lower-level course curriculum is rigid and rarely changing. Most departments offer the same lower-level courses they offered 20 or 30 years ago.”

The ongoing skills gap in the workplace and the concern that many college students have about their future employment are clear indicators that something needs to change to make learning more relevant.

Consumers, curators, and spirit guides

There’s no doubt that roles are changing throughout the continuum of education.

  • The Knowledge Doubling Curve has never been more evident than now. More information is available every day, and students are getting more and more skilled at finding it.
  • Technology is evolving such that learning can be increasingly personalized for individual benefit and information can be sorted for more targeted delivery as well. There’s a great interview with Richard Culatta of ISTE in the Chronicle that highlights this.
  • Teachers are still a necessity and while not relegated to the role of personal shopper or spirit guide, they will continue to nurture and guide young and not-so-young learners through even more complex and creative problem solving and mastery activities moving forward. They’ll just have a little more help doing so.

Paradigm-Busting Lessons from Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg is blowing me away these days, again, with his taking the lead on climate change, both in terms of helping to harness the power of local government and for his willingness to contribute $15M to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund to continue the work of reducing greenhouse emissions and reduce global warming.

I say “again” because Bloomberg’s actions these days remind me of his early, well, no, his entire three terms as mayor of New York City. His staunchly independent mindset and ability to effect change were reflected not only in his leadership and lifestyle choices (remember the bullpen and Gracie Mansion), but also in significant policies and accomplishments, including the no-smoking ban in restaurants, ban on trans fats, stance on gun control, the 311 number, resurgence of the New York waterfront, completion of the High Line, and more.

Of course, not everyone agreed with Mayor Mike, but the consensus is that he left the city in better condition than he found it in, and in many cases did so by questioning and challenging conventional wisdom.

And while I am tempted to take this in the obvious direction, that is to compare one rich man’s political career with another’s, I prefer to celebrate Michael Bloomberg for his courage and explore the value of paradigm busting.

Resist the need to maintain political, administrative and even physical structures out of “respect” for tradition.

The infamous bull pen is a great example of this. Mayors had traditionally occupied the most prestigious office at City Hall until Bloomberg took office, revamped the second floor chamber of the Board of Estimate, and installed about 50 cubicles there, including one for himself.

While many derided the decision for its “trading floor” design, there is much to be said for the spirit of transparency and teamwork resulting from such a set-up. A less independently-minded mayor would have been convinced to accept the status quo.

Service is its own reward, even in politics.

Bloomberg’s personal wealth did play a role in his mayoral years, relieving him of certain demands and entitlements, affording him the opportunity to finance his own campaign, accept a salary of $1 per year for each of his terms, and decline to reside in the stately Gracie Mansion as every mayor before him had. In fact, Bloomberg used his money to restore the Mansion and as a result improved the number of annual visits and its ability to fundraise thereafter.

 Stick to your . . . beliefs, despite standard party lines.

Bloomberg’s position on gun control, the right to choose, and same-sex marriage make it difficult to color him republican, and those beliefs may have cost him a successful presidential bid in the past. It’s much easier to see him for what he believes in and what he can accomplish than to label him democrat or republican, business man or politician.

While some of you may see this blog as a diversion from my usual discussions on the state of the state in education, it isn’t really that far off-topic. I see Bloomberg as a model for change within a historically prescriptive environment. His contributions to New York City were accomplished by breaking the rules in terms of how a mayor typically behaved. His direct defiance to the (admittedly grossly unpopular) president is only the most recent example of challenging a heretofore acceptable status quo (in this case that a sitting president represents the will of an entire nation).

Similarly, if we want to move the needle forward in education, we’ll need to be a little bit more like Mike, and start busting some more paradigms.