Category Archives: Learning Design

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.

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!

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.

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.

 

3 Ways to Avoid School-as-Usual

50.1 million children will attend school in grades PK-12 this fall, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Of those, approximately 1.3 million will be entering prekindergarten.

Expectations and tensions run high in many families as their only or youngest child enters the public or private school system. Whether or not their child has attended pre-school prior to this, it is still a major transition, and most kids struggle with the change, as do their parents.

What’s different this year is the degree to which the basic premise of our educational system is being questioned and the number of alternatives being offered, explored or in the process of development.

Why question something so basic?

That we offer and avail ourselves of free, compulsory education in this country is something that most of us take for granted. But what we’ve also taken for granted for too long is the model itself: an essentially one-size-fits-all helping of test-driven “pedagogy” that is failing so many of the kids it is supposed to be serving. One indication of resistance to school-as-usual is the 20% of kids (roughly 200,000 of an eligible 1.1 million, or one in five) kids who opted out of the spring 2015 New York State standardized tests.

Is it all gloom and doom?

In addition to the vast amount of financial resources and brainpower being devoted to technology in the name of school improvement ($1.61B in funding for educational technology so far this year alone), there is a huge range of alternatives in the types of schooling choices that people are making these days.

1. High-Priced, Well-Designed Alternatives

One of the schools I’m rooting for is the AltSchool, which promises its attendees “personalized learning plans, real world application, community connection, and whole child development based on Social Emotional Learning.” I appreciate that this school believes in the power of technology to transform education, using digital tools to create Personalized Learning Plans; support collaboration between teachers, parents, and students; and to support student learning activities. But with an annual tuition of over $21,000 at its San Francisco location, for example, it’s accessible to everyone who might like to try it (tuition assistance is available).

But we should keep our eye on AltSchools. They will be having a big impact moving forward.

2. At-Home Remedies

Another alternative to schools-that-ail-us are the growing homeschooling and unschooling movements. According to the NCES, the number of homeschooled students has been increasing, with 1,770,000 students (or 3.4% of the school-age population for that year) reported homeschooling for 2013. This is a substantial increase over the 1.5 million reported for 2007, 1.1M in 2003, and 850,000 in 1999.

Homeschooling efforts are growing both nationally and internationally, supported by both online and local resources, groups, schools and communities. Some groups are fairly traditional in their approach to learning while others are contributing to increased support for learner-centric and self-directed learning.  

Concerns over transitions from a home- or unschooled environment to higher education or the workplace are dispelled by a lot of the research.Peter Gray’s study, for example, on families who unschooled their kids revealed that in 83% of families surveyed, their kids went on to college. Other studies show that kids who are educated at home tend to score higher on college placement tests and are more apt to complete college than other students.

3. Is there any middle ground?

I wouldn’t compromise too much when a child’s future learning is at stake, but it is fair to ask what you can do if you can’t afford an AltSchool or are not disposed to or able to homeschool, or unschool. Here’s a few ideas:

  • Charter schools: Intrinsic is another example of an interesting alternative, in this case in the form of a charter school, that is really pushing to make a difference. Located in Chicago, Intrinsic leverages technology and architectural design to support personalized learning. The overall design of the learning environment, called “The Pod,” includes the Coastline for independent work, the Shade for collaboration and project-based learning and the Big Board, for direct instruction and discussion. EdSurge has a great write-up on the story of how Intrinsic got built.
  • Schools with smart partners: If you don’t want your child to attend school-as-usual, look for schools that utilize technology to support personalized and blended learning, or who partner with great programs such as Tools at Schools, Beam Center or Breaker projects, to name a few.
  • Online alternatives: There are fee-based and public online alternatives. One well thought-out private, somewhat traditional online program is the Laurel Springs School. org offers classes (called “Camps”) that can be used to supplement at-school or home-based learning experiences.

Consider the alternatives if you are hesitant about the school your child is entering or already attending.  There are reasons to be concerned and there are options.

 

What If You Built an EdTech Company and Not Enough People Came?

In January, Ambient Insight reported that global investments in learning technology reached $2.34 billion worldwide. In the U.S. market, with the industry reporting as much as $1.61 billion in funding halfway through this year, many would think we don’t need to worry too much about the future of edtech. After all, this already surpasses 2014 totals of $1.36B. The EdSurge Edtech Index lists nearly 1,600 different products in categories that include curriculum products, teacher needs, school operations, post-secondary and the all-purpose, everything else. There’s a lot of activity, right?

But if you look closely, as Frank Catalano did earlier this year in Geek Wire, although the numbers are rising yearly in terms of seed money, the percentages of investments decline significantly after that, with very little capital being invested for edtech in later stages. The bigger dollars go to more established companies, says Catalano, like the $186 M that went to Lynda.com before its purchase by LinkedIn. Most others fall far behind, with only 25 buyers spending more than $100M on U.S. edtech companies, reports EdSurge.

So, with all that activity out there, why is less money spent in this sector and less risk being taken on in later stages? Are there any lessons out there for edtech companies to learn from?

Try Not to Blame Your Target Market

News Corp’s $371M writedown of Amplify, the educational software and tablet company, gives us . . . ample reason to pause. Amplify is discontinuing its tablet-making business while it sorts through alternatives for the curriculum and assessment side of the business. According to a letter written by CEO Joel Klein to Amplify’s staff, the company will continue to support existing tablet customers but will not be taking on any new ones.

Not surprisingly, Klein’s letter, published in full on BuzzFeed, emanated pride of company. “Amplify designed a compelling tablet for classroom education . . . No one put as much thought and know-how into how teachers can work in a one-to-one classroom . . . In my view, Amplify’s work has been so innovative and transformative that we’ve been ahead of the market . . . However, sales haven’t moved as fast as we initially hoped. Too many districts across the country struggle with basic issues like sufficient internet connectivity. And change management in many places has been more difficult than many had anticipated.”

Klein goes on to applaud News Corp and Rupert Murdoch for their boldness of vision and commitment to education, admitting “As positive as this relationship has been, Amplify and News Corp both believe it is time to explore new and exciting strategic opportunities, working with partners who share a deep understanding of what it takes to be successful in education.”

And that there is the kicker. What does it take to be successful in education?

Is It Really Possible That People Just Aren’t Ready?

Is it fair for someone in Klein’s position to say we just weren’t ready for the product’s greatness?

While Klein’s comments come off as oddly congratulatory considering the circumstance, it’s neither out of character for him nor that outrageous in the world of high tech, where many of you reading this today have experienced, as have I, being on one end or another of an M&A deal.

This is not to say I have no sympathy for the people at Amplify who have most probably put heart and soul into efforts to develop a superior product. What struck me, however, were Klein’s comments regarding the readiness of the market.

His comments that seem to echo, for one, Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends 2015report for KPCB, in which she notes that “The Internet has been extraordinary . . . But in many ways, it’s just beginning.” The report indicated that education has had one quarter of the total impact (estimated degree to which Internet has changed behavior or outcomes in selected sectors of the economy/society) that a sector such as consumer has, for example.

Catalano also points out that edtech “at least in terms of investment, is a little weird. But in that charming, awkward kindergartener kind of way, like someone who — with or without epic funding numbers — may still grow up to be a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.”

What Does It Take to Be Successful in EdTech?

If Klein appears to have exhibited impatience with the people whose problems he was trying to solve, it wasn’t the first time for him. As Chancellor of New York’s vast public school system, he battled the long-entrenched unions as well as parents who opposed his many policies of change, which included establishing the Empowerment Zone, iZone, high stakes testing, merit pay, closing schools and opening charter schools, and more.

In his memoir “Lessons of Hope, Klein notes “We would inevitably try some things that wouldn’t work.” Alexander Nazaryan writing in Newsweek upon publication of the memoir, reflected “And yet failure was still preferable to inertia.”

When Klein says “. . . the forward-thinking districts that have implemented our curriculum in the classroom are proof positive that we are fundamentally changing the way teachers teach and students learn” you are left wondering about the nature of change and the means by which it can be obtained.

Amplify ran out of time. While revenues increased $21M over the previous year (earning $24M in revenues from April to June 2015 alone), it was too little too late. CFO Bedi Singh stated that the market for the digital curriculum was “disappointing and much slower to develop than we expected.”

Many of us are impatient and seek quicker solutions to what ails education. With the speed of software development may come false assumptions about the speed of adoption and acceptance to change. A tablet is not going to change K-12 education any more than an LMS will. Real disruption needs to come from a systemic change in how people perceive of learning overall and adopt curricular changes that reflect true 21st learning needs and goals.

Can We Teach Someone to Be More Self-Directed?

If you are familiar with the story of Timothy Doner, the kid who taught himself 20 languages, you are probably not only impressed by his linguistic prowess but also by his belief that language opens you to a new world view.

Doner tells us that his language learning journey began after years of instruction at school, instruction that started with French class in third grade and continued with Latin in seventh grade. He was unable to converse in French, and in learning Latin, he was really learning some systems for analyzing language but not really a means for communicating through it.

So how did he transition from old school to a new way of learning language that enabled him to learn 20 languages over a period of a few years? On his own?

The Power of Self-Directed Learning

Listening to how Doner talks about his language learning journey, I was struck by how his story is a testament to the power of self-directed learning, even if his own narrative is focused on the relationship between language and culture.

Wanting to learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Doner started to teach himself Hebrew by listening to the lyrics of popular Israeli rap music. He eventually started visiting Israeli cafes in New York neighborhoods, perfecting his accent, vocabulary and listening skills along the way. From there he went on to Arabic, practicing at first with street vendors, and moved on to Persian, Russian, Mandarin, Swahili, and others.

Like most self-directed learners, Doner was compelled to teach himself something and found the means to do so outside of school-as-usual.

The Traits of a Self-Directed Learner

Self-directed learners are by nature independently minded and driven in their pursuit of knowledge. In addition to this, studies on self-directed learning tell us that:

  • Self-directed learners take more responsibility for decisions associated with their pursuit of learning.
  • Not all self-directed learning takes place in isolation.
  • Self-directed learners can transfer learning from one situation to another.
  • Activities associated with self-directed learning include: self-guided reading, participation in study groups, internships, electronic dialogues, etc.

 

Doner’s initial forays into language learning did not yield very positive results. Learning a language in absence of a cultural context and need makes it difficult for most of us. Once he found his motivation (a need for first-hand knowledge), he began to develop a means to teach himself (Israeli rap music). Having laid that foundation, he started to expand not only his repertoire but his toolset as well.

An Evolving Toolset for Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learners are resourceful. In today’s digital world, there’s no shortage of good sources for learning almost anything, especially language learning, including traditional text-based materials, online lessons, discussion groups, etc. Doner doesn’t mention much of that and instead began with rap music as his textbook and neighborhood cafes as his classroom.

As he started to build his repertoire, he expanded his classroom to include outdoor vendors, bookstore owners and practically anyone who would talk with him in whatever language he had undertaken. When that became limiting, he posted videos of himself on YouTube and grew his classroom even further.

Talk about the power of social media! Doner notes that he had teachers and conversation partners for any language he wanted to study.

 What We Can Learn about Failure from Self-Directed Learners

When I think of Doner out there, I see him as an intrepid explorer of new worlds, new ways of thinking and refusing to fear failure. He created his own community of learners, as he has pointed out, by “visiting the outer boroughs and embarrassing himself.” As he worked to improve his language skills, he oftentimes struggled in those conversations with native speakers. “Maybe you have to use a lot of English. Maybe you aren’t that articulate or interesting when you talk.” He illustrates how through one awkward exchange, he learned a word that he will never forget. He appears to be a fearless learner.

Does Self-Directed Learning Have a Place in Institutional Learning?

We’re divided in our perspective of education. Depending on where you live, how much money you have, and how much impact you want to have on your child’s learning, there may or may not be very obvious options for how they do so. Doner’s story is admittedly extreme, but it should serve to excite us about the possibilities that exist when kids can find and fuel a passion for learning.

How does that translate into the public or private education systems today?

There’s a few things we can do to provide opportunities for engagement where currently there is not enough room for generating interest on a student-by-student basis. And it needs to happen on a curricular level so that teachers are left with the room and capacity to spark individual flames of interest.

If we look back at the list of traits of self-directed learners, we know we need to make room for:

  1. Project-based learning activities that provide the time and leeway for kids to take on more responsibility and to discover, albeit in a more structured format than outside of school, areas of interest that may grow over time.
  2. With project-based learning and other more extended engagementscomes an opportunity to fail, change course, and maintain a sense of confidence that can engage kids more significantly than when asked to complete short-term exercises that demand right or wrong answers without much opportunity for exploration. An interesting take on this was presented in an article this month on math education in KQED’s Mind/Shift column.
  3. Design thinking and maker curriculum opportunities can provide the tools and processes for young learners to start exploring on their own. Provided with the experience of working together on shared and guided projects, kids might build on such opportunities to engage in projects of their own.
  4. Modeling mentorships within the school system can help kids gain the confidence to work with the support of an adult or peer mentor on projects of their own interest.

At the end of the day, it’s not necessarily about teaching people to be more self-directed, it’s really about providing opportunities where kids can become independent thinkers and problem solvers and feel confident about exploring their own passions. In the workplace, we are seeing how expanding the opportunities for informal learning is positively impacting workplace performance. We’re also seeing how corporate training is evolving into more of a curatorial role in order to make learning available to meet the needs of different learners in different situations. A one-size-fits-all approach to learning doesn’t work anywhere along the continuum of the learning experience.

The bottom line is that we need to start early on to help kids find the spark that will develop into a lifetime passion for learning and doing.

For more on Timothy Doner, see this article on Ideas.Ted.Com as well as his very entertaining TEDxTeen Talk from 2014.

Can We Back Into a Plan for More Relevant Learning Design?

If we look ahead to tomorrow’s workplace, we know that employees need to be increasingly:

  • Agile thinkers and problem solvers
  • Technically savvy
  • Capable of managing and sorting through massive amounts of information

If we look at today’s college graduates, what do we see? In one New York Times report, Steven Ratner describes millennials as “the best educated generation.” Yet, despite his characterization of them as “engaged, upbeat and open to change,” he also notes that “They are faced with a slow economy, high employment, stagnant wages and student loans that will constrict their ability both to maintain a reasonable lifestyle and to save for the future.”

While it’s reasonable to look to the state of the economy to understand what landed many of this generation of 18-34-year-olds into their current plight, we must also examine the means by which we prepare young people for the workplace in any given time period and in the face of ever changing economic forces.

Education vs. Training Redux

Despite reports of a lagging economy and its impact on the unemployment rate, we still see many jobs being left unfilled every year. While our universities continue to preach the value of a liberal arts education, we are also seeing the growth of “academies” of learning directed at training today’s unemployed graduates and career changers for those open positions. Think Code Academy,Hacker Academy, General Assembly, Galvanize, etc.

In addition to this, we’ve seen organizations such as the Thiel Fellowshipawarding hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time to individuals to circumvent the traditional college education and work on what is now estimated to be over a half a billion dollars of aggregate worth in the past few years.

What we see in common of course is the common denominator of technology associated with all of these efforts. Additionally, we know these groups focus on:

  • Hands-on learning activities
  • Real-life business engagements
  • Mentor-driven learning experiences

Still, we hear about the value of the four-year college experience, and particularly the liberal arts degree. We are still considering the value of that experience toward the development of a more fully-rounded individual, one who has learned from history and who is capable of engaging in the highly analytical thought process that may contribute to the vast amount of problem solving and decision making activities required in today’s and tomorrow’s workplace.

Aren’t we?

Backward Plan, But Start from the Beginning

We shouldn’t have to wait until college to learn how to think. Or how to think deeply. More project-based learning, more maker-based learning activities and the establishment of mentorship programs at earlier ages can help prepare the students of today for a more complex workplace of tomorrow.

While not everyone will be coding for a living, the students of tomorrow (as do many of today) will understand the principles behind the most relevant of programming languages. Design thinking and systems thinking will play increasing roles in how curriculum is developed and the result will be a stronger candidate for the workplace of tomorrow.

Universities are thinking about this already and considering their place in the world. The same should be true of K-12. How we learn is no longer a part of a single paradigm. Where we do so shouldn’t be, either.

 

What Did You Do This Summer?

When people ask “How’s your summer going?” it reflects a paradigm built around a traditional school year calendar but which applies to a subset of the population who can really take advantage of that model. Of course, I remember the beach-filled days of my childhood with great fondness. My parents provided wonderful summers of abandonment that sharply contrasted with the “regular” part of the year when I was in school. So now, when people ask me the question, I simply say, “It’s just like any other time of the year,” which may be true for many working adults. But recently, upon being asked the question, by a smiling mom accompanying two sun-drenched, towel-clad kids into our building’s elevator, it got me to thinking about the dichotomy that is our children’s lives.

Real Life and the Classroom

For ten months a year, and five days a week, most kids spend 7 hours or more inside of the school building, and for many of our youngest learners, in a single classroom led by a single teacher. This is the reality of their days. Sitting in neatly aligned rows for most of the day, they move according to plan through a series of carefully planned, monitored and evaluated activities.

Contrast that to the annual summer vacation and the shift in routine, the change in pace and often location, as well as the expansion of freedoms. Which of these feels “real” to the average kid?

Bringing More Reality to the Routine

The well-sought-after and usually hard-to-get summer internship opportunity presents itself as perhaps the antithesis to those halcyon days that typically define the summer vacation. Placing your high school or college students into the rigors of a fast-paced and often chaotic workplace environment will definitely boost employability upon graduation. But will it seem like you are taking something away, denying them the pleasures of abandonment?

Internships immerse young people in situations that are unlike anything they can experience in most school environments. This summer, LinkedIn is publishing student stories of internships, and there are some fantastic revelations of what they are encountering. This one, by Brian Higgins, is particularly illustrative of the challenges and rewards. Brian compares his engineering internship at Pixlee to playing baseball at the college level for the first time, discussing the need to up his play in both arenas as well as the realities of encountering failure as part of the process of engaging in both these environments. That Brian has grown from both experiences is clear as is the fact that he could not have experienced or learned any of that inside of a classroom.

There’s the dichotomy. And that’s what those questions about summer and summer vacations make me think about.

So, what if we were to incorporate more of the internship experience insider of the classroom? What if we were to engage students on all levels to the challenges of real-life tasks throughout the school year? At the very least, there are a few actions we can take to ensure that once students leave school, they won’t experience the type of culture shock so many kids often do. We can do more to prepare them than we do now in programs entrenched in the high-stakes testing mode. These alternatives include:

  • Project-Based Learning introduced into curricula at all levels
  • Internships incorporated into senior year curricula at the least (as much of the school year is wasted once students apply for college)
  • Mentorship programs using outside experts to introduce students to the diverse opportunities that await them outside the classroom
  • Peer mentorship programs that help students to apply critical thinking and decision making skills to supporting their own community of learners

What Did You Do This Summer?

I’m not looking to deny your kids their days in the sun. We all need a break from the rigors of any regular routine, whether that’s school, work, childcare or elder care, for example. So why not bring more reality into the routine that is still school-as-usual and at least better prepare our kids for the ever-changing workplace of their future? Then our kids can have their cake, and their ice-cream, too.