An apple connected to an ethernet cable

Technology Will Not Eat Teachers

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

Backward Planning

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

The Role of Design Thinking

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

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

The Importance of Hacking

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

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

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

Curation, Curation, Personalization

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

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

How We Can Continue to Appreciate Our Teachers

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

Corporate Learning

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

Higher Education

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

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

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

K-12

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

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

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

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

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

How Kindergarten Can Save Corporate Learning

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

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

·      Two times more likely to meet or exceed financial targets

·      Seven times more likely to manage performance problems

·      Ten times more likely to identify and develop leaders

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

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

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

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

An Infrastructure for Corporate Agility

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

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

What about the Culture of Learning?

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

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

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

Envelop with Special Offer stamped on it

Is College-As-We-Know-It a Bargain? Even “for Free”?

As Andrew Cuomo takes a deserved victory lap for making New York the first tuition-free state for students of certain income, I’m taking pause.

This is a major accomplishment. Affordability has long been a major barrier to a college degree, and New York’s adoption of a tuition free model will alleviate the tuition burden for many students.

That being said, there are gaps in the model, specifically:

  • The additional costs associated with attending school on a full-time basis
  • The full-time requirement itself (Students must take a minimum of 30 credits per year to qualify for the “scholarship” reward.)
  • The residency stipulation requiring reward recipients to live and work in New York State for the same number of years they received the scholarship (If graduates move, the scholarship will convert to a loan.)

Aside from these challenges to the model itself, there is an even larger question around the value of a college degree.

Just Like High School?

In touting the new legislation, Cuomo has said “Today, college is what high school was — it should always be an option even if you can’t afford it.” Unfortunately, high school as-we-know-it is not an option, but an obligation that has been posing as a benefit for way too long.

It is still true that job opportunities and salaries are greater for high school and college graduates than for those who do not complete either. But in our rush to race to the top, we have left behind many students whose innate love for learning has been squashed by excessive testing, overly prescriptive curricula, and a lack of experiential learning opportunities.

As we have struggled to address the stranglehold of Common Core standardization in K-12, we are also continuing (and in some cases just starting) to struggle to address models of delivery and design within college curricula to not only ensure a higher level of engagement and retention, but to also ensure that we are graduating students with marketable credentials for today’s workplace.

Redefining the Market

While New York’s tuition-free free model does address one major barrier to a college degree, it does not necessarily ensure the value of that degree in today’s or tomorrow’s workplace.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 5.7 million job openings as of the last day of February of this year, compared with 5.4 million reported at the same time last year. This year, we will see approximately 1,882,000 students graduating with a bachelor’s degree. If previous years are any indication, many of those graduates will either not find a job, will find a job unrelated to the degree or major they studied in school, possibly resulting in “underemployment,” being hired for a job that a less skilled candidate could have filled.

What we need are more educational models that can respond to the changing employment market and reduce the gap.

Few models stand out more than the collaboration between Georgia Tech, Udacity, and AT&T to offer a $7,000 Master’s Degree in Computer Science. In addition to $2M in funding and providing technology support, AT&T also included internships and corporate projects for credit as part of their support for this project.

Accessibility, Affordability, and Relevancy

John Palmer, Senior Vice President and Chief Learning Officer at AT&T, noted at yesterday’s Education Summit that accessibility, affordability, and relevancy are three vital components for education. Palmer advocates for more partnership between business and education in order to keep learning relevant. He also encourages workers to engage in continuous learning to keep up with the constant state of change in order to remain relevant.

While I respect the intent to address affordability, I take pause as I reflect on Governor Cuomo’s tuition-free college plan. Until we address the issue of relevance at every stage of learning, a free education may not be such a bargain after all.

Office space with sign that says "ASK MORE QUESTIONS"

Can We Market What We Can’t Define?

From whether or not to market to how to market

“Marketing” hasn’t always been part of the higher education lexicon, and the concept of having to sell your school to a prospective student may still cause discomfort in some hallowed halls. But schools did start to market themselves more actively in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly in response to declining enrollments and competition born out of the then-newly minted U.S. News College Rankings.

Traditional marketing and advertising made up for most of any available budget and consisted of billboards, posters, mailers, radio, perhaps television, and events.

As prospective students became increasingly savvy consumers, the more adventurous schools, especially those focused on online, continuing, and professional education, engaged in more sophisticated digital marketing programs that provide a more personalized experience for consumers of education.

But what is it we are trying to sell . . .

Today’s higher education market is experiencing what could be its greatest identity crisis yet. Debate continues to rage between the need for more workplace-focused education and the lack of soft- and critical-thinking skills amongst today’s job candidates.

Coding academies, once considered the enemy of traditional and continuing higher education, continue to grow in strength, in number, and apparently in their presence on the college campus.

Watson is tutoring our students and performing job interviews.

What’s a provost to do?

The world has changed, and how we prepare and reskill people to thrive in it has to change as well. So does the manner in which we reach out to and engage them.

. . . and to whom?

Student populations are shifting drastically. As universities start to see overall enrollments decrease, they have also begun to recognize the value of the “new traditional” learner, those 25 and older, and to consider their needs as well as those of their younger counterparts. And that population is changing as well.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, in “The Future of Enrollment,” reports not only a decrease in the overall number of students graduating high school between now and 2023, but also in where they are coming from.

“The largest groups of students coming out of high school in the coming decade,” reports the Chronicle, “ will be Hispanics, low-income, and those who are the first in their family to go to college—all segments of the population who historically have been unable or unwilling to travel far distances for college, if they went at all.”

As the demographics change, and as the needs of the workplace evolve due to increasing dependency on technology, schools need to consider what they are offering, how they are delivering it, and to whom they are providing it.

An Ongoing Challenge

Change is the one sure thing here. As corporate learning providers continue to move ever closer to a model of just-in-time learning, so too does the university need to determine how to provide the right learning, in the right doses, at the right time.

At the same time, we need to understand today’s audience better and reach them where they are at:

  • Let the data do the talking.
  • Optimize your website to provide a more seamless experience for potential students, and to collect the data you need to understand them better.
  • Use marketing automation to send the right information to the right person at the time of need rather than overloading prospects with endless emails.
  • If something is not working, change it.
  • Get the right people into your funnel. Quality does matter.
  • Manage and track your leads with a CMS that will talk to your other technology platforms.

You can market to a moving target if you listen closely enough.

Hop Scotch Board with Colored Chaulk Dollar Signs

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

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

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

Harnessing innovation in education without strangling it

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

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

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

Are today’s alternatives really experimental?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stick figures (like a game play) on a blackboard

How Can We Prepare Our Kids for the Future?

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

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

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

College Ready and Career Ready: Where to Start?

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

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

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

Breaking Down Walls for Better Learning and Better Performance

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

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

The Hunger Our Young People Should Be Feeling for Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blackboard with colored chalk

Why Send Your Child to School?

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

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

The Short List

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

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

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

It’s Not That Basic Anymore

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

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

Socially Awkward

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

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

You May Pass Go on Your Way to College

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

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

We Can Work It Out (or Can We?)

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

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

It Doesn’t Add Up (Yet)

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

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

 

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.

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.