Category Archives: Engagement

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

An apple connected to an ethernet cable

Technology Will Not Eat Teachers

In this age of digital everything, the concept of Teacher Appreciation Week may seem quaint and perhaps even outmoded. As we explore new and enhanced ways of supporting learning through evolving technology, and as we continue to ask ourselves what people even need to know, it makes sense to examine the ongoing role that teachers will play in our lives. Consider the following framework for evolving the role.

Backward Planning

How do you plan for a future that you can’t define? Postulating a workplace reconfigured by increasingly smart technology, we now know that we won’t have the same jobs to plan for as we did previously. Automation has already and will continue to eliminate certain more manual types of labor, and as machines get smarter, more of those jobs considered “safe” today.

The Role of Design Thinking

Since we can’t accurately forecast exactly what type of work people will be doing in the future, one of the best ways to prepare people for it is to teach them to more effectively approach a set of problems not yet defined. As Jon Kolko, writing in the September 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review, has said “. . . a design-centric culture transcends design as a role, imparting a set of principles to all people who help bring ideas to life.”

While critical thinking plays a role here, the ability to focus on and design a solution around the requirements of those being impacted by whatever problem is essential. So, too, is the acceptance and agility to respond to failure. Again, Kolko: “Design thinking is an essential tool for simplifying and humanizing.”

The Importance of Hacking

Buckminster Fuller explained the accelerating rate at which human knowledge increases in the early 1960s. While the doubling of knowledge decreased from every 1500 years in 1750 to every 150 years by the early 1900s, it is now estimated to double every 13 months. IBM predicts that the Internet of Things will drive human knowledge to double every 12 hours.

All this to say, there is information to be had for those who want it. The most self-directed of learners will seek what they need in order to learn what interests them. Look at UnCollege and Degreed for just a couple of examples of the direction this can go in.

However, the availability of knowledge doesn’t mean that it can always be used effectively. We still need to teach our kids how to more effectively and responsibly access, vet, and use this information.

Curation, Curation, Personalization

Also because of the immense volume of information available, and because we know for sure that not everyone learns in the same way, we need technology to synthesize available resources and effectively assign those materials to particular individuals based on their need. This has become increasingly vital not only in a school-based environment, to improve mastery and increase engagement, but in business as well, to increase both efficiency and quality of performance.

The work that Maya Gat and her team at Branching Minds is one way personalization is having great impact in K-12. And I’m keeping a close eye on how Fuse Universal and Anders Pink have teamed up to provide extremely targeted learning and resources in the corporate learning space.

How We Can Continue to Appreciate Our Teachers

The role of teacher has already evolved a great deal across the continuum of learning, and observing, supporting, and being part of this evolution makes it clear that Teacher Appreciation Week is very much a vital concept.

Corporate Learning

The corporate learning team has played many roles, from stand-up trainer, to instructional designer, and curator. From delivering face-to-face training, to taking on the latest online development tools, to assessing external resources, corporate learning has seen it all. While still in a great state of flux, the agility displayed by such teams demands our admiration.

Higher Education

In the early 2000s, when we first started introducing online learning into higher education, we experienced a lot of pushback on the part of would-be subject matter experts particularly. But much of that was alleviated when instructional designers teamed with university faculty to design and develop those initial courses. I can clearly remember the mutual respect that arose from such interactions. As designers, we got to appreciate not only the subject matter expertise but also the keen awareness of student challenges in understanding, interpreting and utilizing course content. Faculty, in many cases, got a close up view of how course designers were able to break down course material and common student challenges and then parse that content into meaningful online interactions.

The lesson learned there was that the technology did not replace the faculty but instead depended on the teacher to play a different role.

Things must continue to change in higher education, but there is still a role for teachers, albeit no longer for someone only willing to play the sage on stage.

K-12

Teachers typically like to learn, of course, and so the many thousands of classroom teachers who have grasped new technologies, sweated or glided through hours of professional development, and effectively incorporated them into the classroom most certainly deserve our appreciation.

So, too, do those who have evolved their role from classroom teacher to teacherpreneur and channeled their teaching greatness into developing, or supporting the development of new teaching technologies.

Still further, consider those who may never have stepped foot into a classroom but who have driven the development of some of these new teaching tools because of their own passion for learning. They, too, deserve our appreciation.

So, no, technology will not eat teachers, but it will help them do their jobs more effectively and in the process of doing so, demand of them an agility to respond to the changing need of their audiences across the continuum of learning.

Toddler boy in office at laptop holding his hand up as if saying "stop"

How Kindergarten Can Save Corporate Learning

Continuous learning continues its slow yet steady upward trajectory in the ever-changing L&D universe. New research by Bersin by Deloitte stresses the need “to enable employees to respond effectively to change” by creating a culture of leadership and learning. The benefits to organizations that can pull this off, according to the report?

·      Two times more likely to respond effectively and efficiently to change

·      Two times more likely to meet or exceed financial targets

·      Seven times more likely to manage performance problems

·      Ten times more likely to identify and develop leaders

A couple of weeks ago at the Education Summit, John Palmer spoke about the culture of learning at AT&T, and the value of continuous learning as a response to change. At AT&T, employees can opt to take advantage of upskilling development programs or choose to remain (and then leave) with relatively soon-to-sunset programs.

The two questions we should be asking ourselves about preparing for tremendous changes impacting the workforce:

1.      How agile can organizations be in responding to questions they don’t even know they will be asking in five year?

2.      How can we prepare the workers of tomorrow to be respond to change that we cannot define today?

An Infrastructure for Corporate Agility

The infrastructure on which corporate learning stands, and therefore its ability to adapt effectively to change, must include the mindset as well as the toolset to adapt. This means that learning theory needs to get converted to practice much faster than ever before. And in smaller pieces. And when people really need it. Charles Jennings has been telling us this for years. As machines become more capable of taking away many of our jobs, more people seem to be ready to listen.

If technology is threatening to eat us, we need to leverage technology to keep up, and more importantly, to remain relevant. So, now we are ready for a version of 70:20:10 that speaks more than ever to just-in-time learning, and need the tools to provide it. Just as everyone started to understand what an LMS is, we are now demanding platforms that are more flexible and that will provide access to and credit for learning from multiple sources. For a start, look at what the teams at Fuse UniversalEdCast, and Degreed are doing in terms of providing, curating, and aggregating learning.

What about the Culture of Learning?

The change starts in kindergarten with helping to shape a love of learning that goes beyond mimicry and memorization. The type of mind required to answer questions we don’t will be asked and change that we cannot yet define needs less structure and more open-minded problem solving capability.

Should we be teaching kids to code? Sure! Let’s also teach them to work with their hands as well and break down a problem into its component parts.

Here, too, let’s use the technology at hand to provide personalized learning that not only allows students to follow a path of most interest, but that understands how that student thinks and is designed accordingly.

Hop Scotch Board with Colored Chaulk Dollar Signs

For free. For everyone. Forever. For $23,000 a year?

The news that one of my heroes of learning, Sal Khan, opened a brick-and-mortar school in Silicon Valley in 2015 made me push pause. Well, figuratively. What business does the leading advocate of free, on-demand, online learning have opening a full-year, full-day school? Moreover, how does the $23,000 -$26,000 a year price tag synch with what we understand are the hallmarks of the Khan Academy approach: For Free. For Everyone. Forever?

Paradigm shift aside, it makes sense that one of the more creative minds in the business of education today would want to explore alternative models of what we think of as traditional school. But at what cost?

Harnessing innovation in education without strangling it

According to its web site, “The Khan Lab School was founded to develop new, personalized practices that center around the student. With this in mind we hope to develop and test new types of learning experiences and practices that can be shared with the world.”

For those of us dedicated to the task of disrupting conventional educational practices, finding the means by which to test new types of learning is perhaps more of a challenge than designing the experiences themselves. It becomes less a question of equity than one or potential impact. Publically funded lab schools simply cannot push the boundaries of education as we know it as effectively as a Khan Lab School or an Alt School can. Even if we can agree with the general direction that alternative education is taking, more student-directed learning, more technology and data-driven support of personalized learning, can we agree on how to get there?

  • How broad a set of parameters are required to maintain a truly agile learning environment?
  • How do standards fit into an effective model for driving innovation?
  • Given that great potential for innovation, how can we best transfer these evolving best practices to the broader audience of K-12 education?

Are today’s alternatives really experimental?

Having straddled the worlds of Alt Ed and traditional schooling for much of my professional and personal life for many years now, I find myself skeptical about the vision for change portrayed by some of the key players in the world of education today. How far can they push the limits of education as we know it?

I’m watching the Alt School closely to see how their playlist approach to daily learning impacts student engagement and learning. Second to my fondness for their approach to personalized learning is their belief in extending of the classroom to the greater community, leveraging the expertise of local experts and the local environment to provide truly hands-on, real-world experience. Yet, I wonder how agile the overall model is and how much room there is to adapt the model moving forward.

With the Khan Lab School, the spirit of experimentation seems strong and the willingness to adapt almost extreme. As Khan noted in a recent NPR interview, “It’s an engineering mentality,” Khan says. “You start with a solid baseline, but then you’re always willing to observe, measure, and iterate, and through those improvements you come up with something amazing. It worked for the car industry, computers, software. Can we do that with the school?”

While this mentality is more likely to be accepted in Silicon Valley than many other places, it may be a large part of what we need to do in order to evolve into effective alternatives over time. Khan Lab reminds me in some ways of the practice of de-schooling that many families engage in when transitioning from a traditional model of education to a homeschooling or unschooling model. Letting go of paradigms, and accepting rapid change and shifting priorities is not something many providers of education can deal with, or better yet offer as part of their working model.

The Khan Lab School bills itself as an open source model of education, openly sharing their work through the Center for Learning Innovation, created for that specific purpose. But the question remains as to how well these innovations can transfer to K-12 at large.

So, yes, let’s keep an eye on Khan Lab School and see what we can learn about truly experimental models of education. And better yet, let’s work on understanding how to most effectively transfer their learning to the broader landscape of K-12 so that everyone benefits.

Let me know your thoughts on this latest venture and its potential to impact on K-12 beyond Silicon Valley.

Stick figures (like a game play) on a blackboard

How Can We Prepare Our Kids for the Future?

Why should it surprise us that “knowing the human touch and how to complement technology is critical”? How have we even got to a point where “our education system is not set up for that”? Yet, that’s exactly what Michael Horn, quoted in Claire Cain Miller’s recent New York Times article “Why What You Learned in Preschool is Crucial at Work,” tells us. Horn’s comments are almost lost in a piece that focuses for the most part on the need for social skills in the workplace, but for those of us in the business of education, such rhetoric can be a bitter reminder of just how far the pendulum swings at any given moment and at the expense of our children and our future workforce.

The news is flooded with articles on the unbundling of education (of which I am a fan), and specifically the need to evaluate people for what they are able to do rather than a grade on a test in the K-12 years or a specific diploma beyond. Google is applauded for evaluating future employees on skills rather than degree, and conversations around competency-based learning are beginning to trickle down to K-12 with experiments into portfolio-based evaluations and the never-ending quest for an elixir of critical thinking.

But what is troubling is the tendency to take an either-or approach to how we can best prepare our kids for the real world.

College Ready and Career Ready: Where to Start?

We want our kids to be college ready from high school and career ready from college, yet we can’t seem to agree on what they need to get there, or in other potentially more enlightened conversations, how to get there. We need to sort out the vital role that technology should play across the continuum of the educational experience.  While we continue to debate the specific makeup of a K-12 curriculum, there are fundamental approaches to education that can provide a foundation in an otherwise less-than-stable system.

  1. Social skills should be embedded into learning at all levels. Whether in pursuit of teaching to standards (which doesn’t have to be a bad thing), or designing curriculum that is focused on 21st century technology skills, kids still need to learn to work in teams, leverage peer expertise, ad communicate effectively in order to get the job done.
  2. Technology should be leveraged to free up teachers to play more effective roles. Teachers have always done so much more than deliver content, and with teachers more focused on helping students to use knowledge rather than acquiring it, learners can become more engaged in the process as well.
  3. Don’t skimp on the arts. Learning an instrument over a number years, or building a strong visual portfolio throughout one’s school years, provides not only an obvious set of skills and a confidence builder, but also a way of thinking about the world and one’s place in it in ways that core academics can’t.
  4. Take a more integrative approach to health. Physical and mental health issues loom large in today’s generation of schoolkids, with the Centers for Disease Controlreporting that 13-20 percent of children living in the United States (up to 1 out of 5 children) experience a mental disorder in a given year, with an estimated $247 billion spent each year on such disorders. Rather than merely playing triage for the medical profession, schools should be teaching kids about the importance of mind-body connection as early as possible, starting with opportunities for free play and building up to more sophisticated offerings as kids get older.
  5. Help kids to understand that learning is everywhere and is not something to “finish.” By bringing kids out into the community, and bringing outside experts into our classrooms, we can help kids establish strong connections with an expanding set of mentors and start building that sense of lifelong learning.

Focusing on one approach in absence of the others can weaken the entire system. They all need to work together for effective engagement and therefore learning to occur.

Breaking Down Walls for Better Learning and Better Performance

As Daniel Goleman has said, “We need to break down the walls between what we think of as academic intelligence and emotional intelligence.” Goleman, Paolo Freire and others have stressed the importance of seeing the world from each other’s perspectives, both in terms of developing systems thinking skills and in terms of creating the optimal learning environment. In preparing kids for the world of work, Cain Miller’s concludes that “Maybe high schools and colleges should evaluate students the way preschools do—whether they ‘play well with others’”

Providing the optimal learning engagements and learning environment for kids to build social skills while mastering academic content is a good place to start.

The Hunger Our Young People Should Be Feeling for Education

This past weekend’s Global Citizens Festival invigorated a city already on a high from Pope Francis’s whirlwind visit. And as many pundits repeated, the excitement was nearly universal whether or not you are a practicing Catholic or whether or not you agreed with all of his positions. The Pope has captured the hearts and minds of so many of us because there is a selflessness and goodness about him that is undeniable.

Same thing when listening to Malala Yousafzai urge everyone from world leaders at the United Nations to fans of Coldplay, Ed Sheeran, Beyoncé and other mega rock stars—to join the cause to provide 12 years of education to the 62 million girls who currently kept out of school. It’s hard to argue with Malala.

Pan back a few months to Michelle Obama announcing the “Let Girls Learn” initiative in May of this year.  “Let Girls Learn isn’t just about improving girls’ education abroad,” Mrs. Obama told us. “It’s also about reminding our young people of the hunger they should be feeling for their own education here at home.” Should be.

Mrs. Obama, who also appeared at the Global Citizens Festival on Sunday, wants our young people to be aware of how young people all over the world, particularly girls, struggle to attain what is an essential right here, education. “I want our young people to be awed by these girls,” she said. “I want them to be inspired and motivated by these girls.”

Yes, it is impossible to not be awed by the courage and spirit exhibited by someone like Malala, and the girls who stood with her the other night from Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria and all the other girls they represent who are fighting for this basic right.

The work of the Malala Fund, Let Girls Learn, and Global Citizens must continue. So, too must the work of those who are rising to the challenge to make education more meaningful for everyone. I’m speaking of people such as Sir Ken Robinson, John Taylor Gatto, Blake Bolles, Roger Schank, Juliette Lamontagne and the many others who are questioning how our kids are being taught and working to provide alternatives.

The urgency of providing access to 62 million girls is very real, as is the urgency to make education relevant and reengage those with access but with waning or lost interest. High school graduation rates in this country hover around 80%, with the 20% who do not graduate representing over 700,000 kids.

The one thing that really stood out for me when playing back Michelle Obama’s announcement of the Let Girls Learn initiative was her earnest desire to motivate kids in this country by making them aware of the struggle of kids around the world. “I want our kids to be citizens of the world,” she said. No arguing there. But also striking were these comments about staying in school despite the current conditions:

While their own schools may be less than perfect (and Barack is working on this), they still have an obligation to show up every day to that classroom and learn as much as they can. I our kids to understand the transformative power of education.

Education is transformative when it engages learners and is relevant to the needs of the target population. Our own public school system has become for many an onerous obligation rather than a gift or vehicle for change. The global movements for educational access are stirring the emotions of millions of everyday citizens as well as rock stars, corporate leaders and politicians. Let’s hope that they and the young people motivated by these movements become energized to participate in re-engineering our schools to more effectively reach and prepare all kids for the future.

Blackboard with colored chalk

Why Send Your Child to School?

20 years ago, when my first child was about 18 months old, we joined our first “Mommy and Me” class and thus began a couple of decades of enrichment programs and education.  We did not follow a straight path. All did not go as we had planned in terms of the standard trajectory that typically begins with pre-school and ends with graduate school. There were periods of diversion, years when we fought with and left the system, and alternate paths we took to goals that my daughter felt were necessary for her to achieve.

We initially embarked on that typical educational path because that’s what most of us did back then, and that’s still what most people do today. That being said, there’s a lot to questions about today’s educational models. There are also a growing number of alternatives.

The Short List

What are the reasons we send kids to schools and how valid is school-based learning in today’s world? The most common answers are:

  1. To learn the basics
  2. To get socialized
  3. To prepare for college
  4. To prepare for the working world

If we take a look at the short list, we can start a dialog on whether our kids’ needs can be met in a school-based environment.

It’s Not That Basic Anymore

Whether you are a STEM or STEAM advocate, you probably agree that there are at minimum a core set of skills children need to learn in order to function in the adult world. And while we don’t know what all those specific skills will be by the time this year’s kindergarten class graduates high school, there are essential practical and critical thinking abilities that support ongoing learning and different career pursuits that make sense for everyone to be exposed to and master over time.

The question we should be asking is: Does the current environment enable someone to use these skills once he or she leaves school? What methods are designed to encourage applications of these skills while being taught them and thereafter?

Socially Awkward

While we are all aware that socialization occurs in many different environments  (the not-so-secret agents of socialization: family, school, peers, mass media, religion), so many people fall back on the paradigm of school as one of the main means by which kids can be socialized. And while in theory, schools should be helping children learn to work together, to both support each other and respectfully challenge each other’s thinking,  there are many kids who feel marginalized or even victimized within the social circumstances of their particular schools. And while families are still largely responsible for how their children become socialized, today’s media, so readily available by technological means, is becoming a much larger part and a driver of how people socialize.

Does the school-based environment today effectively help young people learn to negotiate relationships, support peer efforts and work as teams?

You May Pass Go on Your Way to College

Advocates of school-as-usual may still believe that you need to have attended a public or private K-12 institution of learning in order to attend college, but that is not really the case. Homeschoolers and unschoolers who choose to go to college have been doing so for years, either starting with community college at young ages and transferring to a four-year institution if so desired, by taking and typically excelling at standardized tests required for direct admission to many four-year schools, or by portfolio and other alternative requirements at other schools.

School-as-usual has been seen by the majority as the means towards college, but many families have sent their kids to college using alternative routes.

We Can Work It Out (or Can We?)

The last few years of high-stakes testing in schools that feel obliged to teach to the test, have lost much in the way of connecting what one learns in school to what one needs to do in the workplace. With so much emphasis on how to take a test, and how to do well on the test, students have lost precious time to engage in extended projects through which they can begin to apply critical thinking and problem solving skills that reflect how things play out in the workplace.

Will your child be able to draw on her K-12 school years to succeed in college and in the workplace?

It Doesn’t Add Up (Yet)

Today’s schools should be designed to prepare students for the adult world and the workplace of tomorrow. If we remove the simple paradigm of school-as-usual, meaning this is the way it has been and should continue to be, we can see many areas and opportunities for improvement in overall design. Technology, design thinking, and project-based learning are three of the ways our kids’ needs can be met. School design is another; it’s shocking to see how many classrooms of today resemble those of the early 20th century.

Look at AltSchool and Intrinsic for examples of how school design in both the physical and the curricular sense can impact heavily on the status quo. Beam Center or Breaker projects provide examples of programs that incorporate the principles of project-based learning and design thinking into their work on alternative learning design. Let’s take a break from school-as-usual and see how things add up then.