Category Archives: K-12 Education

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.

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.

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.
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.