Category Archives: Personalized Learning

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.

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.

Lego children surrounding a Lego heart

Now that Mindcraft Is So Popular with the Schools, Will Kids Still Love Learning from It?

This is the game that, among other distinguished awards, has won:

  • Most Popular Game Beta: Over 10 million players between December 20, 2009 and November 18, 2011.
  • First Country Modeled at Full Scale in a Video Game: All 16,602 square miles of Denmark
  • Most Concurrent Players in one [game-created] world: 2,622
  • Most-Played Xbox Live Game: 1.75 billion hours (or 199,722 years as of May 2014)

According to the ticker on the game’s website, over 20,691,246 people have bought the game so far . . . wait, no, 20,691,252 . . . oh wait . . . ; well, you get the point.

Common Sense Media gives the game 4 out of five stars, rating it highly for learning math, science and hobbies; promoting thinking and reasoning, creativity and collaboration; and using design thinking and problem solving as part of its design approach.  Scholastic says the game helps kids learn:

  • Science
  • Math
  • English
  • History
  • Art and Architecture
  • Economics
  • Language
  • Social Skills
  • Geography
  • Technology

So, when school-as-usual shows increasing interest in how to apply Minecraft in the classroom, you think this is probably a good thing, right? I’m torn.

What happens when creativity is institutionalized?

As Education Weekly points out, “While the game’s power to engage children has made it a compelling draw inside schools, there have been hurdles to its growth.” The main hurdle reported, and this is echoed on Common Sense Media and elsewhere, is the open-ended nature of the game and how to incorporate it into instruction.

Therein lies the rub.

Minecraft can be played in two different ways, Survival Mode and Creative Mode. In the first, your main goal is to survive by building shelters and protective armor with the resources you gather and construct. In the second, you build virtual communities and worlds by building blocks, and as indicated above, that can get pretty sophisticated and can require a large range of skills and knowledge in addition to creativity. The game can be played in single player mode or with multiple players, allowing you to enter and explore worlds created by others.

While some people despair of the lack of instructions on setting out on the initial journey, resources have been developed over time to help people get started, ranging from the Official Minecraft Wiki, a compilation of open-source resources to MinecraftEdu, TeacherGaming LLC, the customized classroom version of the game.There are hundreds of Minecraft communities offering help and advice as well as over a million YouTube tutorials for all levels of play from other players.

Playing at home, a child will turn to family members, friends or online resources to get the help they need. It’s a learn-by-doing experience that is driven by the players’ need to know as the game progresses.

This can change when the game is introduced in a classroom environment and becomes a tool for driving standards.

How open can play be in the classroom setting?

Minecraft evolved from the basic survival mode to the creative and users began building more and more sophisticated shelters to protect themselves. Online communities started forming for exchanging ideas around the game and for helping each other.

All of the literature stresses the open-ended nature of the game, with the site’s teaser video telling us “With no rules to follow, this adventure is up to you.” And it is just this notion of openness that makes me question the potential to leverage this game in today’s grades-obsessed and standards-driven classrooms.

Take for example, the following comments from a video testimonial provided on the MinecraftEdu site.

“At home, computers, TV, it’s purely entertainment. In my classroom, it’s the very first time these kids have ever come up against boundaries on a computer. I definitely do teach the kids how to play before we really do any sort of meaningful educational content with it. If I just bring the kids into the room and say sit down and play, it’s not going to have the desired results.”

There are no desired results built into Minecraft. But there are many learning outcomes.

When informal learning is transitioned to a formal learning environment

Are the results of a structured learning experience better than when learners struggle to master it and muster the resources to help increase their level of play?

While there is definitely much to be gained by adding Minecraft to a school-based curriculum, there may be much lost in terms of the true value of the game played outside of a traditional school setting.

Home/Unschooling families have had similar debates over the years as Minecraft communities grow and users introduce more structured learning materials. Many kids who learn at home have access to Minecraft, with different structure around the experience. Groups such as Minecraft Homeschool, rebranded this summer as GameEd Academy’s Minecraft School, started out providing support and instructional materials for circles of friends playing together. Now their business has expanded to offer formal instruction for a fee. Another variation, called HomeSchool with Minecraft, promises secure servers, projects, instructor time, graded quizzes upon parental request, video links, etc., with “all information laid out textbook style.”

One of the most interesting discussions I’ve read between parents regarding formal versus informal Minecraft learning is on Amy Milstein’s UnschoolingNYC blog “Why we don’t do Minecraft homeschool” where she shares her rationale for Minecraft free play while her readers debate the pros and cons of more structured play.

At the end of the day, there is a tension that comes from trying to harness the power of an open-ended experience that has resulted in story after story of kids learning how to read, jumping into coding to set up their own Minecraft servers and mods, teaching parents to play, and expanding their own knowledge set in order to complete their own projects.

With Microsoft’s 2014 purchase of Minecraft for $2.5 billion, there will be diversification of the game and it will be interesting to see how the school’s use of the game impacts on its native ability to help kids learn.

Backing Into School Design from the Workplace of Tomorrow

I originally posted portions of this in a blog titled “This is a School That Johnny Wants to Attend.” A couple of readers thought the fictional “Johnny” suffered from ADD, but he wasn’t meant to be. The content here is significanty updated in order to explore the issue further.

Who is Johnny and Why Is He Suffering?

Johnny is only one of thousands of kids who are either already slipping though the cracks or who are on the verge of doing so. Kids as early as kindergarten complain about being bored in school and suffer from a lack of engagement in the learning process. Daniel Goleman recently noted in an article here that “Anyone who looks at the brain and how it works knows that your emotional state directly affects how you can use your academic skills. If you’re upset, it shrinks your working memory. You can’t pay attention to what the teacher’s saying. You can’t learn.”

So, I invented Johnny as a means of exploring how we might make school more effective for him and others in similar circumstances, taking into account what all kids need in order to prepare more effectively for the workplace of tomorrow.

Johnny is ten years old and has had his share of difficulties in school. He has a hard time sitting still for all of his lessons, and he can’t seem to focus on what the teacher is saying. He sits and stares at his worksheets in class and cries when his parents tell him to do his homework. He’s happier building model airplanes and playing video games. He appears to be disinterested in school, and everyone around him is frustrated and concerned.

I worry about Johnny, so I decided to design an optimal school for him. This school has:

  • More material that is introduced at home for homework. He accesses these lessons on his computer, working through interactive learning modules and videos, responding to online quizzes, all in preparation for a deeper dive in school the following day.
  • Less time in class listening to the teacher talking about a new topic, and more time asking questions of his peers and his teachers about what he reviewed at home.
  • Fewer days spent inside the classroom.
  • Some days at home or at a friend’s house on a designated “e-learning” day completing assignments online doing some individual assignments, and other assignments with a friend or two via Skype.
  • Physical Education programs that incorporate local sports clubs and self-guided activities geared to build confidence and individual accountability for one’s health.
  • Some days at a local business learning how paper is manufactured, cows are raised, food is prepared, architects build models, etc. In each grade, he is introduced to different industries and returns to some from previous years, building a more sophisticated base of knowledge throughout the years.
  • Museum days where he works in small groups on a long-term project lasting several weeks to several months.
  • Days at school, working in groups as his teacher walks around the room providing feedback; or working alone and getting one-on-one time with his teacher.
  • Days at school where different experts come into the classroom and work on coding projects, design projects, building projects, etc.
  • Service days where he volunteers with organizations in the community in activities that match or expand his own skills.

Extending the Community of Teaching

In Johnny’s new school, the responsibility for teaching is extended to a broader community of practicing experts, is enhanced by technology, and is individualized to further support his learning. His classroom teacher plays an ever important role guiding him through these experiences and providing feedback and support to reinforce learning from this wider range of resources. Teaching is as vital a role as ever in this scenario, but responsibility is shared with a wider circle of expert resources providing more input into the experience than has been true in the past.

Reconfiguring the Physical Classroom

An additional consideration for extending learning opportunties is to change the physical environment of the classroom. One great case for this is the work being done by Intrinsic Schools , where learning environments, called “pods” differentiate the type of activity students are engaged in: The Ocean, for small group engagement; The Shade, for students working on group work and projects; and The Coastline, where students engage in independent work. A recent article in EdSurgeprovides more details on this innovative model.

There’s great work being done in higher ed and the corporate space as well that can help us learn about making space more adaptable, more appropriate for specific types of activities, more conducive (or “ambient”) for creative thinking, more “democratic” in terms of how information is displayed and shared, etc. For some more details on this, see an earlier blog, “Design Help for Those Who Can’t Sit Still”.

Some Existing Models

Some aspects of this new school are currently being integrated into curriculum across the country as teachers flip their classrooms and blended learning technology assists in the individualization of the learning experience. As partnerships expand with technology providers and practicing experts in a wider range of industries, curriculum design extends into a curatorial role within the PK-12 just as it has with learning and development teams in the corporate sphere.

Like Intrinsic, AltSchools is an example of an innovative school model that is pushing the envelop in terms, but in a way that goes beyond the redesigned school buildng and associated curricular changes. AltSchool differs in terms of creating communities of students of mixed grade levels, personalizing learning by assigning students indovidualized “playlists” to work through, and immersing students in project-based learning that take students out of the classroom more frequently. You can learn more about AltSchools on their site and here.

Backing into Learning Models from the Workplace of Tomorrow

We back into the learning experience starting from the working world, providing over the PK-12 experience what learners need to know sooner and over a broader range of time. Yes, what people need to know changes all the time, but by extending the learning network to the community that includes the current workforce, the curriculum is more likely to refresh as needed over time. There’s less of chance of culture shock when people move on from PK to college and on to work. It’s 70:20:10 for the younger set.

I think Johnny has a better chance of being happier in this model as the lines between “school” and “life” become further blurred. He was never disinterested in learning, as he was teaching himself all the time. He has more opportunities to participate in and drive his overall learning experience, and more of a chance of making an impact on the world one step at a time.

Why Engagement is So Important

Last year, the Hay Group reported that “Organizations on the top quartile on engagement demonstrate revenue growth 2.5 times that of those in the bottom quartile.” They went on to report that companies in the top quartile on both engagement and enablement achieve revenue growth 4.5 times greater.” For a company with annual revenues of $5 billion, this could mean an increase of $1.8 billion if both engagement and enablement are in the top quartile. With high levels of engagement and enablement, employee turnover rates can be 40% lower.

It seems like such an obvious thing. If people feel more invested in the task(s) at hand, and if people have more of a stake in the success of the venture they are involved with, won’t they do better at it?

You may assume I am still talking about corporate success. But with 1.2 million kids still dropping out of school each year, many of whom claim a lack of engagement, we need to understand why kids are not engaged in their learning and help them re-engage. In other words, we need our schools to be successful.

Why are kids disengaged?

The fact is that the focus of so many is on the end state that the experience of education itself has been altered in a most unfortunate way. Common Core and its attendant PARCC testing have created an atmosphere of dissent amongst educators, parents and kids. Teachers have always worked so hard to engage their students. As do curriculum designers. So do all the EdTech companies pouring those millions and more of dollars into the next best educational app. But the engagement now is directed toward developmentally skewed goals and if anything is a distraction to learning rather than a worthy goal. It’s not easy to experience joy in learning when constantly in test prep mode.

Additionally, our kids have grown up in vastly different circumstances to those under which our “modern” concepts of schooling were developed. Spending eight hours a day, most of it at a desk and separated from the tools and means by which they are already learning outside the classroom may not be the best recipe for success.

What are we preparing our kids for?

I’m a big fan of backward planning, and so I consider the overall purpose of a P-12 education in terms of how well we are preparing our kids for their active participation in society and the workplace. At the end of the day, what are our kids going to be able to do once they leave the nest?

As identified by the 2000 SCANS report, schools should be preparing kids for their effective participation in the workplace by teaching a basic set of competencies that cross specific job types:

  1. Identify, organize, plan, and allocate resources (Resources)
  2. Work with others (Interpersonal)
  3. Acquire and evaluate information (Information)
  4. Understand complex interrelationships (Systems)
  5. Work with a variety of technologies (Technology)

How can we re-engage kids in their learning?

Just as with adults, learning needs to be relevant and it needs to be delivered in a way that attends to the individual’s personal learning style. The challenges of achieving these goals should be the real work of today’s edu/teacherpreneurs and learning designers.

  • Contextualize learning in real-life tasks that make sense at all ages of development. If we can enable and support tasks that necessitate acquisition of knowledge, learners will be much more immersed in these experiences than the abstract drill and practice that still pervades the classroom today.
  • Create pathways to learning that map to children’s interests. I can learn about physics through soccer-related exercises or through architectural planning, for example. There are plenty of computer programs that can access my interests and direct my learning accordingly.
  • Incorporate the tools for learning students already take for granted. The BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) movement acknowledges that we need to “get students where they are at.” Smartphones in particular are great ways to engage kids inside and outside of the classroom in ways that they are comfortable and excel at.
  • Attend to each child’s style of learning so that she can pursue her studies appropriately. Neurodiversity is making a huge difference in how we understand thinking processes and deliver learning these days. There’s more work to be done to get this out to everyone.
  • Get kids out of the classroom. Not only do kids need to play and move around, but there are a wealth of resources available in your communities for extending mentorship to local businesses. Learning from actual practitioners can be a huge boost to engagement.
  • Add maker activities to your curriculum and maker space to your classroom if possible. The maker mindset is one that incorporates DIY (Do-It-Yourself) interactions with teamwork and an entrepreneurial spirit that speaks volumes about how things work in the real world. In fact, the maker movement is not limited to kids and has sparked a whole new economy unto itself.

If your child cannot engage in a traditional classroom, consider the alternatives.

This week’s previous blog covered this topic in more detail, but as part of today’s conversation around engagement, it should be noted that there are options for kids who despite whatever the circumstances, cannot engage in learning in a formal school environment. Online schools, alternative schools, transfer schools, homeschooling and unschooling are all ways to enable learning for kids cannot attend a traditional school. Learning does not stop once a kid leaves the building. We don’t think that about kids who attend traditional school; we should not think that about those who seek an alternative.

Curating Learning in the Workplace and as Part of Preparing for It

The 70:20:10 model for workplace learning has shown us that learning comes from many different sources. There is on-the-job (or experiential) learning, social learning, and formal learning. And as Charles Jennings has taught us, while the exact ratio of 70:20:10 is “a relic,” the mixture of these different sources of learning, with a large proportion of it learning by doing, is going to help people be most successful in the workplace. The same is true for our younger learners.

Just as many workplaces are looking to the role of “curator” to help workers engage more in their own success through more targeted learning experiences, so do we need to curate and design opportunities for learning that more effectively map to the mind of the P-12 learner.

“School” is by definition a formal place of learning, but we need to consider a different model to re-engage our younger generation.

If We Want to Change Education, We Need to Disrupt It

What do you think our greatest improvements have been in the educational sector in the past couple of years?

  • Has it been the number of students graduating high school?
  • Has it been the technology introduced to support teachers in the classroom?
  • Is it the growth of online learning expanding the footprint of higher education beyond the ivory tower?
  • Could it be the evolving business model under which we operate?

To really address the issue of improvements, I’d propose that we ask ourselves first whether our educational system is adequately preparing today’s student for the workplace of tomorrow. Are we?

Is Anything Really New?

A while back, I attended a Google + Hangout hosted by the American Enterprise Institute called “Can you be for profit and for students? Rethinking private enterprise in public education.” It brought together John Bailey from Digital Learning Now, Frederick M. Hess and Andrew P. Kelly of the AEI, and Michael B. Horn of the Clayton Christensen Institute. My interest, at the time, was in the debate over private dollars in public education. I’d seen resistance to this for so long and was thrilled that progress was being made to frankly get support from the private sector.

At that time, the discussion yielded a few key takeaways:

  1. A lot of the argument against for-profits was in a simplification of the role for-profits could play.

Andrew Kelly raised an interesting point in noting that 70% of Americans were comfortable with private dollars going to food, transportation, and supplies but not whole school management.

If you look at the different roles for-profits can play, this may reveal a misconception over the intent that many for-profits have and the role they can play in improving educational access and quality.

  1. We can learn from how federal policy deals with private sector contributions to other sectors.

A lot was said in this discussion around the role that policy can play in incentivizing the private sector to support positive results in education. As John Bailey point out, in almost every other sector (health care, clean energy, space program), the consideration has not been whether or not to engage with the private sector, but how to bring them in to tackle the challenge. Education, Bailey noted, is very unique in that incentives have not been provided to make such a collaboration work. And therefore, for-profits have largely had to work outside of the system to get things done. Michael Horn added to this argument that with i3 came out “the engine of innovation was cut out of the game.”

  1. There’s enough to be done so that we can all play a part.

As an extension of the first two points, John Bailey highlighted the role of collaboration, stating that “a blended solution” wherein “the suite of tools, services, and resources that the private sector will develop” can be used inside of the institutions. These benefits of innovation funded by the private sector could be used to support the existing institutions rather than breaking into institutional management. Likewise, expertise in instructional design, program design, and business modeling shared from the private sector can lend great support to the improvement of our schools, from K-12 through higher education.

At the time, my own conclusion was that a balanced, collaborative approach would yield the best result, that based on the need to produce revenue, for-profit educational providers would be watching the bottom line and that this could be a good thing when the pursuit of quality is as important. Additionally, I felt that with technology driving innovation, collaborating with those with the greatest access to capital to drive innovation, could be a smart move.

Now I’m not entirely sure.

What is needed to truly innovate in education

That technology is being used to great effect is not the issue here. It is being used to great effect. In these following areas, the use of private dollars to help drive innovation has resulted in improvements in:

  • Blended learning models and programs
  • Gamification
  • Professional development

But remember that millions of dollars are also being spent to support the Common Core and its associated testing, which in turn is really an extension of an existing model of education that remains stale and disengaging for a large number of constituents. Amy Scott reported on Marketplace yesterday that a single multiple-choice question costs $1,000 with costs ranging between $3,000 to $5,000 per question for more open-ended questions.

To truly innovate would be to take a look at this constituency and really understand how they can best thrive both during the school years and into the workplace. So take at least some of that money spent to make our kids better test takers, and instead provide them with more experiences and skills that prepare them for an adult world:

  • Experiential, hands-on learning
  • Expanded mentorship programs
  • Community-based internships

Question the Model

Yesterday the Chronicle of Higher Ed came out with an article on the Thiel Fellowship, titled “The Rich Man’s Dropout Club.” If there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know about Peter Thiel, he is the PayPal co-founder, Facebook board member and investor who decided in 2010 to pay selected teenagers $100,000 each to “stop out” of college and work on their own start-ups. While there are those who question Thiel’s methods, I’m a huge fan because he addresses the heart of the issue, which is the model itself. The article points out that Thiel initially considered building a better university through his foundation, but instead decided “The opposite of putting faith in the system is putting faith in the young people.”

Granted, the model isn’t expandable, but like other emerging like-minded organizations, it is calling into question the accepted standard for success that has been in operation for so long. UnCollege and Enstitute are others that I have mentioned here before, providing alternate pathways to the working world.

So, while we have made progress with dropout rates, there are still 1.2 million kids a year who leave school. The system still appears to be broken. And that is where we have to begin, questioning the model itself.

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Who Is the Teacher of Tomorrow?

In my last post, I asked people to “Imagine a School without Teachers” in order to examine some of the current challenges to the profession. Some interesting conversation came out of that post, with people actually speculating a school without teachers, or some variation of that theme. It’s safe to say that with the ever evolving technology, there are great opportunities for technology-assisted learning to support both classroom instruction and personalized learning in any environment (traditional school, home school, etc.). But removing teachers from the equation is not the answer. Evolving the role is a large part of the answer, as is ensuring the curriculum addresses the real needs of today’s students.

Early Voices of Discontent in Higher Ed

Since I left the classroom over a decade ago to participate in the development of some of the first online learning programs in higher ed, I’ve been keenly aware as to how the teaching profession is evolving. I saw the great potential for those whose passion is teaching and learning.

Throughout those years, I also saw how many people felt threatened by the changes that were occurring, first with the introduction of new technology and then with the introduction of new business models, particularly within the realm of higher ed. The first step was simply posting course materials online, starting online discussions, and allowing homework submissions online: in essence, using online platforms as an extension of the classroom learning environment.

As universities started to extend their footprint via the world of online learning, many faculty began to feel they would be replaced by either the technology itself or by those more willing than themselves to engage with it in this newer form of teaching. Sure, there were those that embraced and even spearheaded the changes, but that there was discontent is no great secret.

MOOCs shook things up entirely and to a great extent ensured that online learning would never be ignored again. Higher ed is still learning how to incorporate online options into their overall business model, but it will be a while before we see massive closings of brick and mortar institutions of higher learning.

Embracing Technology within PK-12

Today, as I continue to explore the ongoing changes in PK-12, I see an overwhelming amount of effort being exerted by teachers, schools, districts, and private entities to bring technology into the classroom. According to PBS Learning Media, 74% of teachers say technology enables them to reinforce and expand on content, to motivate students to learn, and to respond to a variety of learning styles (73%). Seven in ten teachers surveyed said educational technology allows them to “do much more than ever before” for their students.” And more than two-thirds expressed a desire for more technology in the classroom.

So, what type of support is there? Let’s look at a couple of examples that differ in their offerings.

Edmodo, the online community for teachers and learners (or “the social network for schools” as it is referred to) has over 47 million users. Teachers share lesson plans and support each other through online forums. Students keep track of their learning and become content creators through blogging features. Parents keep track of learning (including homework, quizzes, grades, projects, etc.) through the platform’s notifications, calendar, and tracking tools.

ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education, has a membership of 100,000 users worldwide who collaborate to implement technology into the classroom. ISTE has online resources and Professional Learning Communities, hosts an annual conference on educational technology, has an advocacy network to share information on federal and state policies, and provides a framework (the ISTE Standards) for implementing technology in the classroom.

Teachers’ Perspectives on their Role

Teachers will continue to play a vital role in the educational process even as, and especially as that process evolves. But we have to ask if we are providing enough support to enable the change in the role.

According to a 2013 Scholastic poll, 82% of teachers felt that constantly changing demands on teachers and students was the most significant challenge to their profession. The second most significant challenge was not having enough time to collaborate with colleagues. Additionally, all teachers reported having two or more populations within their one classroom, with 23% having seven different populations (including special education, gifted, and those working below grade level).

So, from an academic perspective, providing the time, resources and classroom conditions becomes ever more vital as we seek to retain the quality of teaching we seek for our children. From a broader perspective, it is important to note that 99% of teachers surveyed agree that “teaching is about more than academics, it is about reinforcing good citizenship, resilience and social skills, and they believe great teaching demands a mastery of many skills.”

The Ongoing Role of Teacher

What will be the role of the teacher as we incorporate more technology into the classroom, and as more and more information becomes accessible outside of a traditional classroom environment?

  1. Many teachers in the PK-12 environment have already started the process of evolving as they:
  • Bring more technology into their lesson plans, having students research topics further and complete in-class assignments using desktop computers, laptops, tablets and, yes, cellphones.
  • Use blended learning strategies to differentiate and personalize instruction.
  • Flip their classrooms to make classroom time more valuable.
  • Communicate with students and parents outside the classroom via online platforms accessed on a variety of devices.
  1. As access to information expands, the concept of the flipped classroom may also expand, and the role of teachers will evolve further into those who support learning rather than deliver it directly, as:
  • Curators who help students navigate and select from the vast array of available learning material.
  • Facilitators who provide feedback and guidance within specific learning programs.
  • Mentors who offer practical guidance on real-world tasks associated with more project-based learning programs throughout their educational journey.

More change? Yes, it’s inevitable. I can see some eye-rolling right now. As the Scholastic report noted:

In conversation, teachers identify various issues within “constantly changing demands,” including changes in leadership, policies, curriculum, administrative systems and more. Many note that a large part of the challenge is the pressure these changes place on existing time and resources. As one teacher said, “Too many changes at one time waters down everything and doesn’t give teachers the time to effectively implement all of the changes.”

We need to manage change effectively, give teachers time, and broaden the support system. In an earlier piece, I wrote about Meet Johnny’s Teachers, a community of experts, inside and outside of the school who all contributed to a child’s learning. This proposed network depends to a certain extent on a more experiential curriculum. I agree with those teachers who said that a large part of teaching “is not about academics,” and I do believe the classroom teacher does not need to do it all on his or her own.

The role of teacher is changing greatly, but I don’t see it disappearing any time soon.

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Imagine a School without Teachers: Would that Work?

This weekend, the drive along the New York State Thruway was full of wind, ice and snow. It was challenging to keep the windows clear, and the road was so bumpy that I thought maybe I had blown a tire. Or two. I was escorting my high school senior to another college audition, and we had already laughed about how this was the perfect time to see the school, in the worst weather conditions possible. We arrived safely, and the next morning made it to campus and a welcoming reception and series of presentations while the kids all took their music theory tests and headed to their individual auditions. What stood out for me were two conversations I had in which Governor Cuomo’s name surfaced in relationship to careers in education and the increasing degree of jeopardy in which teaching jobs have been placed most recently.

Where will we be without the music?

Because we were at a college of music, the focus of these conversations centered on arts education and the migration of prospective music education applicants to other areas of study because of ongoing cuts to music and art. This is a shame. The curriculum for a degree in music education is rigorous, including both performance and pedagogical requirements. These programs prepare students for a broad range of teaching responsibilities. To see these programs declining is to portend the decline of one of the most significant components of a K-12 education.

How are we approaching evaluation and professional development?

But of course conversations about the Cuomo plan do not end at shortfalls in funding to arts education. Much of the controversy today comes out of the challenge to teaching and teachers in general. “The 2015 Opportunity Agenda” includes proposals to evaluate teachers based on essentially two criteria.

  • 50% of evaluations will be based on student performance on state exams (Proposal #37)
  • 50% of evaluations should be limited to independent classroom evaluations (Proposal #38)

On the surface, it is easy to say that if your class is not performing well on the test, you as a teacher are not performing well at your job. But it is more complex than that. As we know, the advent of Common Core has introduced serious challenges to those schools who have adopted these standards. Test scores have dropped recently as both teachers and students venture into unchartered territory.

As I have previously written, bravo to those pioneers in edtech and teacher development who have provided a range of tools to help prepare teachers and to support students who have been immersed in the CCSS curriculum. But if the issue is with the curriculum itself, will any amount of professional development improve overall outcomes? We are painting our teachers into a corner. Where does that leave our students?

Are we abandoning public schools? And by extension, are we abandoning our teachers?

Charter schools are a political hot button and under as much fire now as ever as people question Governor Cuomo’s request for additional funding for and a raise in the cap on charter schools. That these schools play a vital role in both the populations they serve and in innovating teaching practices should not be questioned. This should not be an either/or argument. All public schools can benefit from best practices in teaching and curriculum design from the nation’s charter schools. But at what cost to the overall budget? Should young people have to “go where the money is” rather than choose an honorable profession because of an allocation of dollars? What we really need here is some creative business modeling to further leverage the private dollars going into education these days.

What is the forecast moving forward?

My high school senior and I were lucky enough to arrive at our weekend destination safely despite the difficulty of the journey. The road upon which our kids are undertaking their educational journey is well-worn and bumpy, and the conditions under which they are traveling are quite stormy. As an educator, as an optimist, as a lifelong learner, I want to envision our kids all arriving safely at their destination. I can’t see them doing that without well-trained and motivated teachers there to help them along the way. Right now, the conditions are a tad hazardous.

How can we ease the way?

A well balanced and well-designed curriculum that both requires and lets teachers do what they do best will provide some enticement for people to continue entering the profession. Most teachers I know want their students to succeed in life. In most cases, that means providing the skills to make better decisions and to sort through masses of data to effectively problem-solve in a wide range of situations and in confounding circumstances.

As long as we have a curriculum based on achieving well on tests rather than understanding how to effectively gather and use information for problems solving, we won’t be best serving our students interests. And if we decide to judge a teacher’s ability to teach based on the results of and prepping for that exam, we won’t be serving anyone’s interest. And we’ll probably be losing some valuable teaching candidates moving forward.

Let’s get back to the drawing board on this one, folks!

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E-Learning Days Pave the Way to More Flexible Educational Models

With winter starting to dig in its heels, I’m thinking again of the concept of e-learning days, as many schools and school districts have labeled them, days when kids do their work from home rather than attend school. E-learning days were first devised as a means of providing instruction on “snow days,” when students could not make it to school. Now some schools have added e-learning days to their school calendars in order to regularize virtual learning days as part of their regular curriculum.

As more schools implement e-learning days, or “cyber learning days” as some refer to it, the concept is evolving in terms of the range of tools being used to implement it and the degree to which it gets integrated into the culture of the schools and the means of instruction. Is the growth of e-learning days any indication that schools may be headed toward a more flexible model of instruction? Will students be spending more time out of the buildings learning on their own, or in the company of peers, and under the tutelage of community-based “mentors?”

As I’ve written before, most students would benefit from less time in the classroom participating in more practical pursuits of learning, especially as they get older and closer to participating in the workplace. The growing acceptance of e-learning days is a step in the right direction.

For the short term, incorporating e-learning days into the curriculum has a number of benefits both administrative and pedagogical.

Administrative Benefits

  • When e-learning days are used to provide instruction that would be lost due to inclement weather, e.g. snow days, they can minimize or eliminate the need to add extra days at the end of the year.
  • Eliminating extra days at the end of the year saves money as well in terms of getting kids to school, keeping the buildings open, etc.
  • Opportunities for professional development. Some schools are incorporating professional development activities into planned e-learning days, when teachers may work part of the day responding to student questions and part of the day working together (virtually) on professional development.

Pedagogical Benefits

  1. Building students’ (and teachers’) digital literacy.
  2. Increased opportunity for teamwork and problem-solving activities. Working at home, students can practice those skills which they will later on be applying in the workplace while at the same time receiving the support of fellow students and their teachers and perhaps parents as well.
  3. More consistent instruction than may occur on days when schools remain open on inclement days but attendance is irregular. By planning for a number of such days per year, we may avoid these gaps that occur when some students can make it to school but others can’t.
  4. More personalized learning and increased participation. For students for whom the classroom experience is overwhelming, there may be an opportunity to shine in online discussions assigned for e-learning days. Students can also focus more or less on specific areas of an assignment when working from home.

Addressing Concerns

Even as more schools begin to adopt this approach, there remain some consistent concerns around e-learning days:

What about kids with no access to computers?

While most schools who have implemented e-learning days are also able to ensure that students have access to computers at home, they do have a number of contingencies should internet access be a problem:

  • In some schools, the e-learning day material is downloaded onto student computers or iPads in advance.
  • Other schools permit work assigned for e-learning days may be handed in 2 days to two weeks later to account for technical or scheduling issues that arise.
  • Schools also recommend students with no internet access use available community resources such as libraries and local businesses with free Wi-Fi.

What if students have trouble with the material?

Each school or district is adopting its own policy, but in general, teachers can support students on these e-learning days by:

  • Holding “electronic office hours”, that is being available during certain hours of the day via text, skype, or other means.
  • Responding to student email questions.
  • Providing videotaped lectures or notes to accompany their lessons for the day.

At the end of the day, as schools begin to adopt more technology to support learning, building e-learning days into the curriculum becomes increasingly easier. For schools already using content or learning management systems, students can upload their assignments for instructor or peer review that same day. Teachers can easily access the material for grading. Communications via cell phone or personal computer make feedback and team work an extension of social interaction students are already familiar with. Having students watch a teacher’s lecture at home as part of an e-learning day rather than in class is just another example of the flipped classroom we see gaining in acceptance as more teachers use class time to address more specific questions.

E-learning days are not meant to replace classroom instruction but can be part of a fantastic movement toward a more blended, more flexible curriculum model that uses technology to its best advantage.

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