Tuesday, December 27, 2011

If School Is Not Relevant

by Shelly Blake-Plock

Had a conversation with a friend a while back; we were talking about how to best evaluate what was working in schools.

After rambling through all the usual arguments about testing and achievement and technology and pd, he said to me, "You know, for all the effort we put into the kids while they are our students, we do really little to gauge how we did once they are out the door. We treat school as though it is the most important thing in the world; and then they get out only to find that most of what they spent all those years doing there wasn't relevant. The only ones who ever really come back to talk to us are the ones who got something relevant out of school -- whether with grades or football or even the class clowns who owned the place while they were here. The kids who got something out of school come back and tell us how great we were. So there we are only getting feedback from the kids for whom the whole thing -- or at least something important in it -- worked. But when's the last time you heard back from any of those kids at the bottom of the rung? The quiet kids? The ones whose names you never could remember right?"

Most of the forms of evaluation and assessment we use have to do with finding out how a kid is doing right now; but "right now" isn't necessarily the best indicator of where we are headed. Even worse, "right now" often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Think about how many kids in reality are graded and assessed in the minds of the teacher before they ever open their mouths; how they are assessed in advance based on the accumulation of all of those "right now" experiences and testing events devoid of the context of a child's life. Unfortunately, for a lot of kids, that becomes the de facto of their school experience.

That's not to knock teachers, it's just reality; as institutions, schools are really good at stereotyping kids and how that plays out at the classroom level in terms of attitudes accorded to students by faculty and peers alike -- well, that's an unfortunate but absolutely real part of the school(ed) experience.

And so we Scantron and five-paragraph essay our kids to death in the interest of getting them to achieve; but what is that elusive achievement? Is it a demonstrable improvement over time? (If so, why do we give grades based on summative assessments?) Is it an accumulation of honors? (If so, does that imply that most kids achieve nothing?) Is it an acceptance to the next level, the next school, the next diploma?

And what of when they leave our tutelage?

Imagine if schools were judged not by how well students achieved while they were in school, but in how well they achieved once they left. If schools saw their worth not in how many kids got accepted to college, but in how many kids went on to live meaningful and engaged lives and who would point back to their school years as the point of relevancy that was the foundation of it all.

If schools gauged themselves not by how many kids passed a test, but in how well it prepared those kids who did not pass the test to see themselves as worthy of respect and ready to take on the challenges of life. In fact, if schools worked to make entrepreneurs and role models of every kid who failed a standardized exam. If failure became a calling card for innovation.

If schools prided themselves on knowing the dreams of the quiet kids. If they prided themselves on helping those kids attain those dreams.

Dreams don't always fit into curricula.

Neither do successful failures.

We need schools that recognize failure as being as much a matter of how well one fits into a prescribed system than how well one understands, well, much of anything really.

And kids know we are blowing smoke when we give lip-service to how everyone should think outside-the-box and then we hand them a box and tell them that everything they've learned should fit back into it. And when they leave things outside-the-box we define them as failures.

We do this at our increased peril.

Because we are all failures of one sort or another. And though we like to focus on what we consider positive, it is more often the case that we live in a world comprised of systems of struggle and unanswerable questions. And we fail on a regular basis. And we need students who understand how to fail.

And we know this, yet we continue to punish students who fail -- as though our invented system of textbooks and number-two pencils were a better predictor of intellectual and creative capacity than life itself.

I wonder if I did a good enough job explaining that to my students. I wonder about the students who slipped through. I wonder about the ones who failed out.

I feel like they are the ones we should be talking to.

They are the ones who understand the impact of schooling. Enough of the smartest kids in the class always getting to answer the questions. I want to hear from the kids for whom school didn't work. I want to hear from the alumni who feel cheated by the system. I want our schools to be judged by how well we respected the humanity of the student who graduated with the lowest GPA and how we celebrated and engaged his or her capacity within society.

Because we are a society, we are connected one and all; and ultimately, if school is not relevant for that kid, school is not relevant for any kid.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

7 Things My Boss Gets Right

by John T. Spencer

Any leader who can get me to wear this is a great leader, indeed.

  1. Have Fun: I'm not referring to simply hosting a potluck. Some of the best leaders go over-the-top either with zany humor or with something extra-classy or with something deeply thoughtful. The bottom line is that these types of events tell a team that the leader is willing to go beyond the expectation. Tomorrow I will sport that outfit above for our department Ugly Sweater party. It is, admittedly, goofy. However, there is power in a shared, memorable, goofy event. 
  2. Be Supportive: I can't count the number of times that he has gone to bat for our department when we were being trampled on by the system or misunderstood by other leaders. 
  3. Be Critical: Chad is the type of leader who isn't afraid to engage in hard conversations when things aren't working. I can trust his words of affirmation, because he is honest enough to be critical at the necessary times.  
  4. Be Humble: I see this in small ways. For example, he sits with us rather than with the directors at meetings. He gives us credit anytime anything goes well and he takes the blame when things fail. He listens. He asks questions. When you work with a humble leader, you give them permission to enter into your world and the concept of submitting to authority doesn't feel like a chore.
  5. Be Innovative: Although creativity and innovation are edu-buzzwords, the reality is that the system often forces people to push compliance above change. I feel the freedom to push innovative ideas and the freedom to fail in the process. It's a powerful motivator. 
  6. Be Present: There is an intentionality to the moments when I am in his office. He is truly present. I've worked with people who are thinking about other things or trying to multi-task and the result is something even colder and less relational than an e-mail. 
  7. Trust: Although this is the last on the list, it's the most important. I trust my boss and because I trust him, I can be honest and vulnerable and he can step in and help when it's necessary. He doesn't micromanage. He doesn't nag. But he's not entirely "hands-off," either. Trust allows for freedom within the confines of safety.  

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Flipped: Why It Has to Be A Conversation

by John T. Spencer

I know that "flipped" is a trendy idea right now. While I am intrigued by the idea of video tutorials to help guide students in learning, it is absurd to suggest that a video can replace a human in creating the ultimate customized learning experience. What this concept misses is the nature of human learning.

Teaching is a relational endeavor.

I'm a proponent of the flipped approach. But if we are pushing for flipped, we need to make sure that remains a conversation. Take the most objective part (an algorithm) of a subject (math) that is perceived to be more objective than the rest.

If it's a multiple choice test, I can hope the answer matches the student's idea (rather than a simple guess). If it's an assignment, I can apply a red checkmark and tell the student that it's wrong. Either way, how does that help clarify a misconception.  A simple glance at the problem suggests a few possibilities:
  1. The student guessed that it was greater than and doesn't understand the concept in the first place
  2. The student doesn't understand numerators and denominators
  3. The student saw the bigger number and jumped to that rather than thinking through it logically
  4. The student knows that one-third is less than one-half, but learned it wrong (a crocodile mouth or something like that) 
  5. The student doesn't care, because greater-than and less-than doesn't feel the least bit relevant to any context within his or her world. 
At this point, a graded paper doesn't make any difference. A new tutorial video is a shot in the dark. What is needed is a conversation where the student can reflect on his or her misconceptions and the teacher can re-teach and clarify.

Teachers can do this with small group pullouts and with student-teacher conferences. I'm a fan of both. However, here is where technology becomes exciting. See, with technology, the communication can be asynchronous. Here are some examples of technology as an interactive dialogue that helps push students toward deeper reflection:
  • Google Docs: I can highlight text, add comments and start a conversation that will last anytime anywhere. It started with the writer's workshops, but eventually morphed into spreadsheets and documents in math. Students kept documents of common mistakes, vocabulary, etc.
  • Blogs:  Students can take a snapshot of their work and describe the process in steps or in a paragraph. This allows me to start a conversation at any time and any place. This is also a great place to keep math vocabulary or engage in conceptual conversations about the math that students are using.
  • Multimedia: Students record videos and podcasts showing their math processes and other students have a chance to comment. This allows students to articulate their process and I have a chance to watch them at another time (prep period, early morning, for example)
  • Twitter: Last year, students used #mathmisconception as a place to post their questions, comments and mistakes in processes.
  • Forms: Though this is less conversational, sometimes it's as simple as crowd-sourcing the conversation with the use of a survey. Similar to an exit slip, students mark a series of questions and I can organize the data to help me figure out how to approach our one-on-one conversations. In the example above, I can use the five options and gauge how the class, in general, is doing with a particular skill set. 
So, when I think about the concept of "flipped," I wonder if the real flipping is allowing students to use the tools to demonstrate what they know, figure out what they don't know and engage in a process where they can fix their misconceptions. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

On a New Edtech Community

Growing up in the Baltimore of the 80s and 90s, my personal heroes were the folks who developed their own way in the DIY community. From music to art to literature, it seemed like these DIY'ers could do what ever they wanted -- and they could. Down in DC, Dischord Records went against everything the "record industry" of the time stood for; they made their own records their own way and instigated the same throughout a DIY culture that found itself sprouting up in every nook and cranny where young people were sick of the corporate status quo. Here in town, art co-ops and radical bookstores challenged the ideas that you needed a commercial gallery to make it as an artist or that you needed a publisher to make it as a writer.

This was all before the Internet, of course. And it had deep roots going back into the 60s, the 50s, and earlier.

The DIY movement of the 80s and 90s flourished at that moment because it had to. Like the Beats in the 50s who found that Big Publisher wasn't going to touch their work and instead they had to do it themselves, the hardcore kids of east and west coast alike realized that they were going to have to do it themselves. Like the avant-garde NYC filmmakers of the mid to late 1960s developing their own community to create, show, and distribute their films beyond the reach of Hollywood, the weirdo Baltimore poets and zine writers of the 80s and 90s developed their own community to print, share, and distribute their chapbooks, comics, and Xeroxed masterpieces. And this sort of thing happened all over the place, from New York to San Francisco to Toledo to Lincoln, Nebraska.

I think we find ourselves in this type of situation once again.

Coming up through the edtech of the 80s and 90s was to come up through the era of hardware. Schools that did tap into the tech current did so by purchasing ridiculously expensive computers and software. In a way, those schools that wanted tech were then beholden to computer companies and the companies who repair computers. That underlying structure is still at the heart of so much that goes on in tech acquisition. There was relatively little room for DIY to flourish in edtech because DIY'ers didn't have the capacity to keep up with the sort of demand everyone thought they needed. Sure, there were always Open Source heads and hackers making cool stuff -- usually for their own schools/use; but there was no major flourishing of local DIY tech communities that could really put a dent into Big Software.

How things have changed.

Back in November, Mike Brenner brought http://educationhackday.org/ to Baltimore.
The mission was simple: listen to problems sourced by teachers from around the world, pick a dozen or so to tackle, and form teams around those problems that would each come up with and execute a creative solution to solve them.
Teams comprised of teachers, developers, and designers then spent two days creating apps specific to classroom needs. The results ranged from a school-specific mobile browser to teacher-customized video software to an image-to-speech app designed for special needs students. And one of the most interesting things to develop out of the event: teachers and technologists starting businesses based around their collaborations.

I see this as indicative of the way forward. Whereas big legacy operations like Pearson may have the money and the capacity, they don't have the feet on the ground -- i.e. the people creating their products aren't the people using their products. In that way, they will always be behind the curve. They will always work with the "input" of teachers rather than "with" teachers. Ed Hack Day showed a different model. A model not unlike those DIY companies that developed and in doing so gave something meaningful back to the local community while creating a global ecosystem of DIY networks.

That's what I see as a viable and sustainable way forward in edtech and entrepreneurship. With the advent of an Internet that revolves around the Cloud and apps that are cost-effective and purchased as-needed (rather than as a big Office-style package), we find ourselves in a situation where local entrepreneurs can be successful in tapping into big need -- and need driven by need rather than by greed.

Alas, there is a catch. (And as we all know, with edtech there is always a catch...)

The catch is that the Ed Hack model only works because a teacher is involved. There are numerous edtech start-ups (they are seeming to pop up every day). They see a fantastic market opportunity created by common core standards, 1:1 mobile, and dis-satisfaction with the state of schools. I recently talked to a guy who has created an entire LMS that he is selling to school districts and he ensured me that his LMS is the future. The only problem I saw with his LMS is that from a teacher-perspective it sucked. The entire time I was demo'ing the software, it felt like I was being forced to think like an engineer as opposed to thinking like an educator. While the basic idea of the program made a lot of sense -- and certainly could be sold to districts -- when it came down to the brass tacks, it felt like something created by someone who had no sense of what it was actually like to be in a classroom.

That is why the teacher perspective is so important. That's why it is so important to have a teacher leading the design. But there is something else going on as well...

Those Ed Hack projects came out not only of the experience of real teachers in real classrooms, but they were intended to be used by those teachers in their classrooms. In other words, the designer had a real stake in the usability of the app. This is at the heart of DIY. And it is at the heart of the developing DIY edtech ecosystem. Teachers making stuff for themselves and for other teachers like them. Designers thinking hyperlocal and through collaboration and community extending opportunities to the global.

I love Baltimore. I grew up here and I have lived here most of my life. I've seen the best the town has to offer and I've quite literally seen the darkest stuff. In my experience, the most rewarding thing about the city is the real sense of community that has developed amongst the seemingly fractious parts of the creative community. In a way, Baltimore is a city of misfits. NYC and Philly dwarf us to the north and D.C. reminds us on a daily basis that we are not "serious" enough. If the east coast were a high school, Baltimore would be the drama club.

But because of this, we've developed interesting collaborations that may not make as much sense in other places. Collaborations between visionary art and antique carsbeatboxing and symphony hallslocal politics and swimwear. And we may be on to something with edtech in the hands of educators and technologists working collaboratively.

I would love to see Baltimore develop into a Silicon Valley of edtech. Not a city of behemoth mindless corporations, but a city where every classroom is a garage. I'd like to see edtech bring opportunity to city kids and their families. I'd like to see high school seniors start businesses based on their ideas and experience using and developing technology in the classroom rather than watch them struggle to stay out of the street economy. I'd like to see non-profits flourish -- advocacy and community training corps who would bring the digital age directly to the communities most people ignore. I'd like to see small and mid-sized businesses flourish and bring pride back to neighborhoods that have all but been given up on. I'd like to see edtech explored in dramatic ways not only as a means of bringing kids up to speed on STEM subjects, but as a way to empower students to create and publish literature, art, movies, music.

I'd like to see an edtech community develop whose goal was local but whose reach could be global. I'd like to see an edtech community develop whose eye wasn't on bringing up the bottom line, but in bringing up those students who have been on the bottom for too long. I'd like to see an edtech community develop that doesn't threaten teachers' jobs, but that rather empowers teachers to go farther with their students than they ever thought possible.

I'd like to see an edtech community that flourishes around the idea that we really are connected. And we really can do it ourselves -- together.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

10 Tech Tools I'd Like to Replace with Old Tools

by John T. Spencer

Sometimes people create innovative solutions that seem logical, but end up being a step in the wrong direction. Either the tool is logical but not intuitive or it provides a solution for something that didn't require a solution or it made things easier while taking away autonomy. Regardless of the process, here are ten such tools:

#1: Digital Clock
I prefer analog, not for nostalgia or for beauty. I want to see the progression of time. I want a visual representation of just how close I am to moving toward the next minute. The digital clock doesn't reflect the human need to feel time progress. It is cold, logical and too far removed from the way we sense time naturally.

#2: Alarm Clock
I don't use an alarm clock for a few reasons. First, I want to trust my body. I want my sleep patterns determined by real sleep cycles. It's more than that, though. I want to wake up to silence. I want to begin my day in solitude. The shrieking sound of an alarm clock makes me irritable and panicky.

#3: Faucet
Okay, I know this sounds crazy, but I like the faucets with two handles. I like to control the exact temperature and water pressure. To me this is the classic case of "improving" something by allowing for less human autonomy.

#4: eReaders
I know. I know. I can highlight and tweet it out. It saves my spot automatically. I can jump from book to book. I can use a search function. I can use it on multiple devices. And yet . . . I like the feel of books. I like the way the weight changes as I progress toward the end. I like the asynchronous dialogue that happens when I let someone borrow and write notes in a book.

#5: Cordless Phones
I don't mind being tethered to the kitchen if it means I can find the phone every time it rings. I have a feeling this will only get worse as the kiddos get older, too.

#6: Automatic Transmissions
I drive an automatic right now and it bothers me. I miss the control of the clutch and the gears. The minute I got an automatic, driving became a very detached experience. And a part of me wonders if detachment is the ideal driving method.

#7: Interactive Whiteboards
I like having a white board. I like being able to shine a projector on the white board and then sketching on top of it. Yes, it's less fancy. However, it's multifunctional and I can write on anything without having to change settings, save pictures to a folder, etc. Yes, but one can save a flip chart! True. However, one can also take a quick snapshot of a whiteboard and post it to a blog.

#8: Complicated Remote Controls
I have never, in the process of channel surfing, decided that it would be great to adjust the color contrast, change the sleep function and set the time. It seems like these options ought to be part of a single menu from a single menu button. It's the classic case of offering too many choices when a set of numbers, a volume changer and an up/down button would suffice.

#9: Digital Speedometers
I once had a car with a digital speedometer and it constantly flickered between two numbers. I'd rather gauge my speed quickly and move on.

#10: Thermostat
When I was a kid (back in the days of the Oregon Trail, Culture Club and Trickle-down Economics) the thermostat was simple. One could turn the nob to the exact place. From a design perspective, I wonder if we've made a mistake in replacing knobs with buttons. The knob is faster and more intuitive.

Okay, that's enough. I promise that I'm not always such a curmudgeon.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Using Technology to Organize Your Lessons and Resources

by David Andrade, http://tinyurl.com/edtechguy

I haven't posted on Teach Paperless for quite a while, but I thought that this article would fit in nicely with the paperless theme and specifically on organizing lesson plans without paper. Like Shelley, I try to have a paperless classroom. Not all my students have smart phones, and I only have 7 student computers, but I've eliminated as much paper as possible. Here's how I organize my lesson plans without paper.

Technology is a wonderful thing. I've been lucky in that my father, a chemist, and my mother, an elementary teacher, both realized that my siblings and I should be exposed to technology early on. I was using a TRS-80 computer in 7th grade (1986-87) and my parents bought us a Radio Shack Color Computer that same year. I took BASIC in high school, using Apple IIe's and then went off to college and majored in Engineering and was an Engineer for 10 years before becoming an educator. I used technology all the time. I started using a PDA in 2000 (Palm IIIxe) and continued on to other PDAs and now smartphones. This early and deep exposure to technology has made it very easy for me to integrate technology into my practice as an educator.

I rarely carry anything home from school because of these tech tools. Administrators ask to see my lesson plans and they are all on the computer. Another teacher asked me how I do this, so after showing them, I thought I'd share it with my readers.

I use a few different tech tools to organize my lessons and resources for school and use a variety of tech tools on a daily basis. Here is the list, with what I use them for. Click the hyperlinks for more information and details on the tool and how to use it.

1. Evernote - Evernote is my main lesson and resource organizational tool. I have notebooks setup for lesson plans and lesson resources, along with notebooks for things to do, things to research, and things to share. My lesson plan notes are set up by unit and have the objectives, links, resources, and attached files (like handouts and lab packets). I also have notes setup by week that I use to keep track of where each class is and to schedule my plans out. I can easily share resources and information with my students or colleagues.

2. Dropbox - I don't have every single file I use for my lessons on Evernote. Some of the materials, including videos and animations, are too big to upload to Evernote. I have all of my files on my home computer backed up to Dropbox, and then I sync the "School" folder to my school computer. This folder has resources, lecture materials, videos, and much more for each unit. I can also put files into a shared folder and share them with my students and colleagues. I also have students submit work to me to a Dropbox folder using Filestork and DropItToMe.

3. Google - Google is my other main organizational tool. I use iGoogle, Google Calendar, Gmail, Google Docs and Blogger to organize my lesson materials and other resources, including my calendar. I use Blogger to create class blogs where I post their lesson schedule, assignments, and due dates, along with resources and links. I can share my calendar with students also. I also have files uploaded to my Google Docs account and use Google Docs to create lesson resources. I can then share or publish these documents, presentations, or spreadsheets for my students or colleagues to use. I also use Google sites for a class site that includes resources, files and links for both the students and myself.

Google for Educators - Resources for using Google in school

4. PowerPoint - I started organizing my lessons with PowerPoints when I used more lecture in my classrooms. I've moved to about 75% student centered learning now with projects, labs, and activities but PowerPoint can be used to organize lessons. Objectives, lecture slides, links to labs and other resources, embedded videos, and much more. I could just mark in my calendar what slide a class was on. That slide may be lecture notes, an assignment, a lab, or a quiz. I don't use this much anymore because I have my lesson plans organized in Evernote.

These are just some ways to organize your lesson plans and resources.

Other tech tools to organize lessons:

Learnboost-online gradebook and lesson planner - announces lesson plan sharing

Related Articles:

Unfettered by Stuff - or "Why I don't lug stuff home every night"

Evernote - Get Organized for Free on All Platforms

What tools do you use to organize your lessons?

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Do Not Believe Me

by Shelly Blake-Plock

To the best of my ability I will paraphrase what was a conversation I had not long ago with a district supervisor who asked me for data demonstrating how 21st century teaching methods produced measurable results.

I asked him what sort of pedagogy he was referring to. He responded, "21st century methods".

I told him that while I could not speak for the whole of 21st century thought on teaching and learning, I'd be happy to explain my findings based on my own experience. He thought this was reasonable.

"So where were your students in terms of testing when you started?"

"I don't know."

"What do you mean you don't know?"

"I mean, I never made that measurement."

"But then, how did you measure the progress your students made?"

"I asked them," I replied.

"What do you mean you asked them?"

"I asked them. We talked about their learning all of the time. And we talked about their background. And what it was like to be a student. And we talked about whether they felt like they could tell when they really learned something or not. Real phenomenological stuff. And we tried different things to help us learn better in light of these conversations. Sometimes I came up with these ideas, sometimes the kids came up with the ideas. Sometimes things seemed to work, sometimes they didn't. Sometimes things we'd thought worked turned out later to not have worked so well. And sometimes things which in the moment we thought were useless turned out being rather helpful."

"But how do you measure whether or not those things work?"

"Well, only by indirect means. In other words, by thinking about the value and relevance of exploration and inquiry to our community of learners rather than try to adhere to any objective of measurement defined by something out there that ostensibly defines an ideal of learning that applies to everyone all at the same time."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that if the sight of a mountain compels you to climb it, it really doesn't matter how many feet tall it is."

We've spoken of education for so long as though it is representative of an objective academic truth that we've missed the fact that for the majority of human history it was a matter of survival. A matter of love. A matter of inspiration and compulsion. As often a matter of the irrational as the rational.

The best advice I can give to anyone who reads this blog is to not believe any of it; rather, if you want to see if social tech and inquiry based education works -- and whether you will get results you can measure in one way or another -- just try some of the things we've talked about and debated over the last nearly three years. Even better, just get into the mindset of the debate -- whether you agree with me or not. Try things out. Maybe they'll work for you, maybe not; hopefully, one way or the other, it will inspire you to consider that there may not be any objectively "best" practices, only your communities' own best findings in any practice. Of course, within the context of social tech, this may mean something much more than what at first it may appear to mean.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Do Not Believe Me

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Fenway Park or the AstroDome?

by John T. Spencer

I'm at a conference, listening to a technophile gush about the latest available tools that schools need to quit blocking.

"What's relevant to kids these days?"

"Facebook," the audience cries out in unison.

"See, you know it. I know it. What's relevant for the students? Let the kids use Facebook. Get them on Twitter. Find the tools that they use in life."

I have serious concerns with Facebook, ranging from privacy to data mining. However, I'm much more concerned with the obsession with relevance and the blind embrace of technology, regardless of context.

* * *
The Astrodome was the most relevant stadium of its time. With the largest JumboTron, the trendiest color choice and a very modern, symmetrical design, it embodied the Space Age. It was the most technologically-driven. It was the anti-Fenway. It was the ball park of the future. It was relevant.

It wasn't developed with the purpose of baseball in mind, though. A simple foul ball nearly blinded the players, so they had to paint the ceiling tiles, which killed the grass, which led to Astro Turf. Astro Turf was relevant. It was Space Age technology. It made sense. Except it looked ugly and it meant a diving catch could end a career.

The stadium, once relevant, became a joke.

So, I think of lesson design. I'm not interested in relevant. I'm not looking for the trendiest tools. I'm not out to find the latest research from a collage artist like Marzano. I'm not peppering my lessons with the latest pop culture references to prove just how insanely hip I am (not that hip if I use hip, unless I'm a hipster using hip ironically).

Remember Carmen San Diego? Remember Lazer Discs? Remember WebQuests? Remember how all of those relevant technologies were going to transform learning?

Fenway gets it right. The stadium was designed to fit the community, which explains the quirky field dimensions and why it continues to be one of the most creative designs in baseball. It was designed to fit the game of baseball, which is why it's so classic.

I want to teach more like Fenway and less like the Astrodome. Or better yet, I want my teaching to be a hybrid ballpark like San Francisco, where there are still new innovations in structure and design (no one's staring at a pole like they do in Fenway), but a clear embrace of the context, the community and the classic ideas. I want to start with meaning and purpose rather than relevance. And the crazy part? When I start with purpose, students often find it relevant to their lives.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

iPads in Schools

Quick question for the crowd:
  • Anyone know a ballpark figure for how many iPads are in schools?
I'm working on a project I'm sure I'll be blogging about before long and need this number for part of it. It is proving more difficult to determine than I originally thought. Whether they are 1:1 or iPad carts doesn't mater.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Black Friday Thoughts

by Shelly Blake-Plock

Sitting around in my in-law's living room after a nice Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends, my wife and I were talking to her brother and his wife. They have two small boys and were telling us about how much the kids loved one of the slapstick skits in the original "Singing in the Rain". They originally came upon it on YouTube after watching the movie and being completely amazed by the skit; they pull it up on the iPhone and laugh and roll and tumble. Toddlers being into slapstick is nothing new. Toddlers (or any of us) being able to tap into the collective memory of film culture at any moment via a handheld device... that's something else (and yet we so take it for granted now).

My brother-in-law commented that one of the most amazing things about technology these days is the ability to find and share whatever is on your mind. And it is not just thanks to the technology, but thanks to folks who have engaged with the technology in all of the weird ways that people engage with things. For instance, we had been playing a game involving a wooden maze and a metal ball. You control the ball by using levers to tilt the base of the maze. It is infuriatingly difficult. My father-in-law, humorously exasperated, said that it was impossible. A quick scan of YouTube via iPhone showed a dozen clips of folks finishing the maze -- one of whom completed the whole thing in about 20 seconds. My brother-in-law's response: "Of course it's on YouTube."

In a sense, YouTube provides evidence for human capacity.

On Thanksgiving morning, my daughter was helping my wife bake bread and my sons were rapt in a Minecraft-induced trance. From out of the dining room, one of the boys called: "How do you make a chair?" My wife didn't follow: "What do you mean?" He replied: "How do you make a chair in Minecraft?" She: "Don't know; maybe try YouTube?" Sure enough, within 30 seconds he found a (very dry, but useful) tutorial on how to build a chair in Minecraft.

My daughter, meanwhile, wanted to know the proper pronunciation of "lingonberry" and she trusted neither my wife nor myself when it came to Scandinavian berries. Where did she turn? Guess.

The point it that we've all got questions. Sometimes they are the big questions. Sometimes they are the "how do you pronounce the name of this berry we picked up at Ikea?" type of question. More than anything else, the net offers us a shared space where we can choose to turn with our inquiry when mom and dad don't do the trick. I myself have found myself over the past week looking up info on everything from questions about finance to questions about gall bladders to questions about Kevin McHale's best season for the Celtics. Answers came in a range of qualities, and many pointed to more questions; but that's the nature of all of this stuff -- and as the web represents people, it represents the way people have always dealt with questions; it's just that now you have access to the questions of everybody all at once -- and everybody else does too. Hello, everybody.

I often hear educators say things like: "Change will not happen overnight, but it will happen." And I know they have the best intentions in expressing such sentiments. But the fact is that change already happened. And most schools missed it. It's not that they are going to eventually change. It's that they missed the boat. It left the port. And they are still standing on the dock.

Why didn't they get on the boat?

Well, one reason has to do with the fact that lots of ed tech in the 80s and 90s sucked. I hate to be so blunt, but as a child of the 80s, I can testify from a kid's point of view as to the suckiness. As a nine year old, I was making my own games that were leagues beyond the games they forced us to play in school. And so, between the exorbitant cost of quickly-obsolete hardware and the pedestrian nature of most of the software of the time marketed to "change education", I totally understand why so many educators are gun-shy of anything tech.

I'd be wary of any veteran teacher who wasn't. We talk about "buy in" and to any savvy veteran, that may be exactly the problem.

Ed tech started out like the Titanic. A big hype was made about it, it cost a bundle, it marketed itself as the future, and it failed big time.

But the commercial cruise industry didn't end because the Titanic went down. The commercial cruise industry learned from the mistakes of the Titanic. Technology progressed and the commercial cruise industry kept up with the progress and the ways ships were built, the ways they were navigated, the safety measures involved -- all that changed as well. And as time went by, cruise ships became mainstreamed and for the most part the worst we had to suffer through when it came to cruise ships was syndication of The Love Boat.

Likewise, the best in ed tech has progressed with the times and now engages the social and the mobile; it's lean and handles both personalization and collaboration. Interestingly, some of the most important tools in education were never intended for primarily an education mindset -- Twitter perhaps being the boldest example. And sure, we still have plenty of ed tech that is on par with The Love Boat, but that's to be expected; there is always going to be a lot of crap out there (nothing against Captain Stubing). It's up to astute and educated educators to be able to distinguish between the quality of one and two.

And so, my family and I know how to say "lingonberry" and we get to share funny clips from old movies and we get to learn how to make stuff with the help (very dry) strangers have offered online for no reason other than that someone might come inquiring about such a thing sometime.

And taken separately, these seem like minor things. But taken together, and understood in the context of the great big connected picture, these are connected instances of inquiry. And if nothing else, our connected technological context has laid down the framework for a golden age of inquiry.

The ship left the dock. Some time ago this might have meant you'd either need someone with a speed-dingy or you were just going to have to get into fishing. Nowadays there is another option -- the network itself. It is extending ropes out to you. If you really need it, it'll send a Coast Guard helicopter to pick you up. Just say you want to take part. Say you've got questions. And rather than dwell on the marketed promises and predicted failures of the past, think about how the context of the present matters to you now... and think about how it matters to your students.

This Black Friday, don't "buy in" -- just engage.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Wikipedia Dilemma

By Noah Geisel

This school year, millions of students will participate in the time-honored tradition of writing research papers. They will formulate a thesis statement and seek out evidence from reliable sources that supports their claims. In recent years, this seemingly straightforward premise has been complicated by the definition of what constitutes reliable sources.

Some of these students will be told by their skeptical instructors that they may not use any information found on the web. I worry about the sustainability of this approach as newspaper, magazine and traditional book publishing are dwindling and some libraries are moving toward closing their stacks altogether.

Many more students will be told that Wikipedia is not a reliable source. For some, this is a no-brainer while for others it is a travesty. The key question in this debate has nothing to do with Wikipedia or any other source. What we need to be asking ourselves is: What is the point of the research paper? Five, fifteen and fifty years from now, do we want students to know the information they learned from their research topics or is the real value in what future graduates will be able to do, namely seek out information, evaluate it for relevance and accuracy and, ultimately, analyze and synthesize it in order to make an informed argument? If you are in the former camp, you can stop reading now and skip down to comments section to tell me how foolish I am.

For those of us in the latter camp, I believe we need to re-think our approach to defining reliable sources. We need to ask ourselves if we are doing students any favors by compartmentalizing for them which sources are authoritative and reliable and which are not. Even if we coach our students to steer clear of Wikipedia, fringe media and news sources they have never heard of, we are not shielding them from seizing on erroneous information. Three examples:

1. Investigative journalism found in such mainstream sources as The New Republic, Harper’s and Rolling Stone may safely be considered reliable. If you are going to tell your students what is and is not reliable however, just make sure they avoid articles written for these magazines by Stephen Glass, who was fired from them all in 1998 when it was found that he had fabricated all or parts of dozens of stories on topics as important as the Clinton White House and the D.A.R.E. program.

2. For a few hours one morning last March, many were duped into believing that Cheif Justice Roberts was resigning from the Supreme Court. Georgetown Law professor Peter Tague, an indisputably authoritative source, assured his class that he had inside information that Roberts would be resigning and within minutes the news had been picked up by a number of “reliable” news organizations, based on the students' tweets and FB updates. Thirty minutes later, Tague revealed to his students that it was a prank intended to show them that even reliable sources could disseminate inaccurate information.

3. While eating at a chain restaurant last summer, my friend at the head of the table had a different tip total everyone needed to chip in than I did. I asked him to double-check his math but he smugly pointed to the tip calculator printed at the bottom of the receipt and boasted that the computer had already done the math for him. Five people then pulled out their cell phones and jaws dropped as we discovered that the tip calculator was not a reliable source. The 18% calculation was actually over 25%.

A teacher’s blanket assertion that Wikipedia and other web-based sources are not reliable is troubling as it falls prey to the very trap we want our students avoid: not thinking for themselves. Clive Thompson has an article in this month’s issue of Wired in which he presents research suggesting that students today are not effective at searching for information. He minces no words in assessing the problem: “...the ability to judge information is almost never taught in school.”

It is essential that as we prepare students for post-secondary success in the 21st Century, we use the research paper as an opportunity to teach critical thinking skills not only in employing sources to support their opinions but in evaluating the sources. In the case of Wikipedia, there are plenty of academic entries that have been compiled by reliable sources and peer reviewed for accuracy. These should be fair game as sources. The answer to the Wikipedia Dilemma is not in telling students where they should and should not look for information but in equipping them with the skills needed to exercise due diligence in assessing the reliability of their sources.

One solution specific to the Wikipedia Dilemma that may make everyone happy could be the introduction of a new protocol for annotated bibliographies. If students choose to cite a Wikipedia entry, they would also be expected to sub-cite the information by seeking the original source of a specific claim in the References at the bottom of the page and stating how they had verified it for reliability.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Shift Happens: From "Wrong" to "Wrong Context"

by John T. Spencer - cross-posted from Education Rethink

binomial nomenclature has its place -- in the right context

My mentor looked at me cautiously and said, "John, you're not going to like hearing this, but No Child Left Behind wasn't evil. It was misguided. It was unwise, but there were some good things that came out of it."

"What do you mean?"

"You can disagree with the methods used. They were horrible. You can disagree with the approach. It needs to be changed. But I remember hearing teachers say things like 'that kid won't make it anyway' or 'you can't expect these kids to read at grade level.' In some schools, it was a wake-up call."

"We're being tested to death."

"I agree with you. But I was in those schools before and after and the results have been mixed. There were some teachers with a really low view of what urban students were capable of accomplishing."

She went on to explain the down side of standardized tests, the arrogance of some of the powerful elite and the failure to understand the context. But she also reminded me that many of the kill-and-drill proponents are misguided and unwise, but not altogether wrong in their motives.

"I've met some of those people and it might be hard to believe, but sometimes it's an issue of good people with good ideas with big blind spots."
*      *      * 

It's unpopular in the polemic world of edublogging to step out and say, "Maybe the enemy isn't so much an enemy as much as a misguided protagonist." But I wonder if maybe the real issue in education reform isn't that people are following wrong ideas as often as they are using good ideas, strategies and methods in the wrong context.

The following is a list of things that I've railed against and labeled as wrong when the truth is they each have a place in the right context:

  • Rewards: Daniel Pink does a great job describing the few situations where a reward works. If it's short-term and the task is very basic and not necessarily intrinsically rewarding. For example, I hate to mow the yard, yet I have an easier time mowing it if I can promise myself a half hour of reading time afterward. 
  • Multiple Choice Tests: The biggest failure in multiple choice is that it's being used in the wrong context. We use the tests to judge rather than inform. Finland uses multiple choice tests as an exit exam to determine larger trends in education. True, the tests are far from perfect, but they are decent at demonstrating reliably the larger trends in what needs to be changed. 
  • District Office Personell: I've ripped the D.O. in the past. I've mentioned why their jobs are useless. What I'm growing to understand is that they are often qualified people with great ideas, but they are placed in a context of compliance rather than leadership. 
  • PLC: I hated the concept when I saw it in action at my first school. (I mocked it for sounding like a drug - alongside PCP or LSD) Last year, however, I experienced a true Professional Learning Community with shared values, transparency and an intentional focus on providing meaningful intervention. It was all about the context. 
  • Politicians: My students had a chance to get to know a few legislators. What we found were people who genuinely believed in what they were doing and wanted to make a difference. The context of a broken system had curtailed their idealism and forced them into a place of either legislative impotence or bargaining against their beliefs. 
  • Lectures: I used to blast lectures. Then I heard a great sermon, I watched some amazing TED and I took the time to sit down and truly listen to the "I Have a Dream" speech. Talks and I realized that lecture had a place. We need stories. We need speeches. The issue is context. How often do we use lecture and where does this strategy belong?
  • Merit Pay: It's not a bad idea if a job is based upon economic norms. However,  in a social context with people who are driven by a desire to educate rather than make shiny objects, it is a colossal failure. The issue isn't the idea. It's the context. 
  • Home-schooling: When I first began blogging, I blasted home-schooling and un-schooling. Then I met people who had created an amazing context where authentic learning was happening. (The same goes for those who are quick to attack public school teachers as thieves, Nazis, slave-drivers or child-abusers) 
  • Edublog Awards: I recently wrote a post that was critical of these awards. The truth is that they do a great job promoting awareness among the blogging community. The problem is the context. It's a bad "place" for me to be when I'm in what feels like a hyper-competitive environment. 
  • Common Assessments: There is a real value in sharing data, planning together and creating assessments that are shared across a grade level. The problem is when they are top-down, hierarchical and based upon a multiple-choice framework. 
I could continue the list, but you get the idea. None of those are wrong. The real issue is the context. However, when I attack ideas rather than the context of implementation, I grow close-minded. I miss the nuance and the paradox. I fail to build bridges with the misguided protagonists. And most of all, I fail to see how often I am the misguided protagonist, bumbling through a Don Quixote world of education.

Friday, November 18, 2011

1:1 in your pocket

So a post on the Android and Me blog about the prototype Cotton Candy, what amounts to an Android flash drive that turns any screen into a computer, intrigued me today. Interesting features is that it works on any screen or device, both Windows and OSX, and works with bluetooth. By the way the price of Cotton Candy is expected to be around $200. But this part moves it beyond cool to perhaps a gamechanger:

"The current device runs Android 2.3, but Borgar also mentions that there’s no limitations to the OS. You could install Ubuntu Linux on this device, as well as the ARM version of Windows 8, once it is available.
The possibilities are endless, and devices like this could turn computing into a whole different universe. You could simply carry this little thing around, and instead of actual computers, schools and businesses could simply set up monitors. The company/organization would save money on PC components, while the user would be able to keep all his information with him, wherever he may be."
 So what if going 1:1 just meant buying some screens? Schools could provide the wifi infrastructure and monitors/screens of different types for students to plug in their customized drive.
 My school has found great results out of these collaboration centers that allow 4 students to hook up to one screen. Students enjoy using them and the groups that do have better projects because they are truly working together instead of each person lost in their own screen.
So what do you think? Does this type of device have the potential to truly bring 1:1 to all schools? Is this legitimate or do you see some drawbacks?

by Mike Kaechele

Thursday, November 17, 2011

What Do We Mean By Twenty-First Century?

John T. Spencer

a video I created to help people see it goes beyond computers

I'm nervous about the term 21st Century Learning. Then again, I cringe at the phrase "flipped classroom" (sounds a bit like watered-down Constructivism to me).

However, in our district, we have a 21st Century Classroom initiative that blends a different style of teaching, access to a variety of devices (iPods, iPads, netbooks, Macbooks), professional development and coaching.

And yet . . .

Shareholders often see 21st Century in terms of access to technology tools rather than access to knowledge, to the world, to new ways of thinking and new ways of expressing one's self. It's about changing contexts in a changing world.  It's not about the latest apps but rather how students are applying those apps to the acquisition of wisdom.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Classrooms and The Web of Things

by Shelly Blake-Plock

There has been talk recently about the "Web of Things" -- cars that communicate problems to the Cloud or refrigerators that keep inventories and schedule replenishments.

What will constitute the "Web of Things" in the classroom of the future? Backpacks that take inventory to make sure students are prepared for school each morning? Surface based tables and desks that differentiate instruction to students?

I'd love to hear your thoughts. And feel free to go way outside the box... this is a
little bit of brainstorming about the impossible.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, November 09, 2011


by Mike Kaechele

Just a quick note about the teacher conferences that I went to for my own children. Last year my son was in a pilot class that got to use iPod touches. This year they get nothing. How does a student go from using technology as a learning tool to not getting access? Not very well.

My son loves science and hands on learning. This year he has done very little of it. They just started science this past week and will not start social studies until second semester. Why? The teacher said it was because the district mandates only math and ELA until after the MEAP (our state standardized test).

I mentioned that ELA in particular could be learned in the context of science and social studies since it is skills based. The teacher didn't seem to like my suggestions and got a bit defensive. (Yeah, I'm that parent).

How do you all advocate for your own children's quality of education effectively?

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Call for Ideas

Is there something you have been wanting and wishing for but haven't been able to find anywhere or the solutions are inadequate?

Next weekend (November 12-13th) nearly 100 programmers and designers will be getting together at Digital Harbor High School in a marathon Education Hack Day. Each team will have programmers, designers, and at least one teacher. This is your chance now to get an idea on the table.

Please SUBMIT ideas by clicking on the link below and sharing a brief description. If your idea is picked up by a team you will be contacted, involved in the process, and rewarded for your contributions!

You can also simply go and vote on ideas that have already been submitted.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Crossing the Digital Divide

Says Blake-Plock, "The question is not whether we can get an iPod into every kid's hand. It's whether communities can leverage the capacity of networks to make learning more authentic and powerful for students."
Spoke with Edutopia not long ago about the evolution taking place in the nature of the digital divide. Click on over to their site and check it out along with a series of articles on inclusion and accessibility.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The Problem Is Older Than the Factory

by John T. Spencer

"Dad, if ants are so strong why can't we just make really big machines that are built like ants and can carry heavy stuff for us?" Joel asks me.

Being a first-grader, I struggle with how to teach the difficulty of scalability.

"Sometimes things that work in small spaces don't work when they get too big," I tell him.

"Show me," he dares.

So we build a small Lego structure that works wonderfully as at four inches tall.  However when we attempt to create a human-size version it collapses.

"That's the problem," I tell him.

I don't get into the formulas involved, but he's able to grasp in a very tangible way that small things when scaled to larger spaces don't always function as well.

*     *     *
I've been re-reading Socrates lately.  I find it interesting that the same man (presumably) who had engaged in critical dialogue within the public realm had concocted a militaristic, standardized, heavy-handed, prescriptive solution for education.  When I re-read The Republic, I am struck by how benign Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind seem.

It would be easy to condemn The Republic as a dystopian fantasy for an ideal society based upon coercion and social conditioning.  However, it seems to me that Socrates crafted his vision for Athens based upon what worked for Sparta. The real issue isn't that it was bad ideology (which, in my pseudo-libertarian worldview, I see as a truth) but that it didn't fit the context of Athens.

As much of a genius as Socrates was, he failed to grasp the reality of context, models and scalability.   He assumed that what worked with one type of person or one local politic would transfer trans-geographically to a new context without any hiccups.

This has me thinking that the real issue might not be factory education and the real solution might not be as simple as applying home-school, unschool, charter school, private school, Waldorf, Montessori, KIPP, PLC, BYOD or LSD across the spectrum.   It's why, as amazing as Finland may be, I don't think the solution will be to copy them, either.  We can rail about industrial education, but culprit has less to do with the factory model as much as the reality that the model was applied top-down to all public schools while ignoring the sense of nuance, paradox and context implicit in every educational experience.

The real issue goes further back than the factory and probably further back than Socrates.  It's the idea of enforcing one idea, one system and one model across the board and assuming that it will work.  It's not so much the problem of one-size-fits-all (in a true one-size-fits-all there is room within the fitting for customization) but a one-fit-sizes-all where the "fit" is used to size up every person, place and institution that doesn't conform to a particular standard.

The real issue is arrogance*.

When I think of where to go with educational reform, I look again at Socrates - though not so much in his grandiose dream of an educational utopia.  Instead, I yearn for the Socrates of the street or of Jesus or of any other rabble-rouser who began with humility, with questions and with the notion that challenging social norms through real dialogue is the only way that sustainable social change will occur.  

*And I've often been the one laying out grand plans for what I think works in education.

Measurable Success

by Mike Kaechele

We had our first parent/teacher conferences at our new school last week (project based learning). I had great discussions with parents regarding standards based grading. No one has any issues when there is opportunity to "fix" any grade that is not up to their standards.

But the thing that stood out to me overall about the conferences was how happy parents and students are with our school. We have a diverse group of  100 students including previously successful students who see our school as a place to stretch their independent wings and go deep into curriculum. On the other hand we have students with labels such as ELL, EI, and ADHD with IEP's who have struggled greatly in the past. We have students receiving professional help for depression and related issues. We have students who have lots of experience with suspensions and even have been expelled previously. We have students that I am confident would end up in "alternative ed" or just drop out if they stayed in a traditional school.

by Leo Reynolds

If you just looked at "grades" you would see that some of these students are "failing" at this time. But when you talk to a parent who has been at their wits' end with their child and they say my daughter/son likes being here and is doing so much better than last year you realize that all of our students are "succeeding."

Every student may not reach grade level reading, pass every class, or receive exemplary scores on the state mandated test. Some one somewhere may label them a "failure." But I know that our students belong to our school family and are growing in ways that matter even if it isn't measured in a grade program or on a test.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

BYOC: Bring Your Own Context

by Shelly Blake-Plock

A lot of discussion recently over the pros and cons of BYOD -- Bring Your Own Device. Some folks have been quite adamantly in favor or against.

For all the hub-bub, I think it's worth thinking about devices not just in relation to what kids do with them in the classroom, but rather how they relate to the connection those devices represent for them in the real world.

Fact is that we are living in a time -- not unlike those previous -- when one device will not do it all. 

Context is the key.

If I am processing audio, I want to be on a Mac. If I am tweeting on the bus, I want to be on a smartphone. If I am reading the news, I want to kick back with a tablet. If I am learning a new language, my iPod will do just fine.

Does this make life more difficult when you are trying to find a "solution" for you school? Yes. Technology is not making life easier.

Again, context is the key.

Personally, I don't think that forcing a "school standard" will change the fact that for a lot of people, the smartphone represents their connection to the Internet.

Nor is giving me a laptop going to change the fact that I personally read better on an iPad. Nor is giving me an iPad going to change the fact that I type better on a laptop.

There is no "one device".

So why do schools pretend they can provide it?

My wife loves Android. I'm waiting for Windows 8. Fortunately, we can make decisions to experience technology in the way that is most conducive to the way each of us work. So, I can't afford a new fancy Mac to do high-end video, but luckily there is a community center in town that offers time on theirs. I take my iPad to the library, but when I want to do some heavy writing, I use the desktop PCs they have there running OpenOffice. In other words, between what we can provide and what the community can provide, we have a range of options for using devices to do what we need to.

Maybe instead of trying to find the "device" or the "solution", we should step back and think about our role in schools to provide a range of computing experiences -- and to allow kids to bring a range of computing experiences with them. This after all is fundamentally what a school is meant to do: provide a range of learning experiences and accept that kids bring a range of experiences with them.

One of the biggest failures of 1:1 computing in education is school's inability to understand that there is a difference between having a machine and having a lifestyle device.

One of the biggest potential failures of BYOD is thinking that kids can provide equity on their own.

My own approach as a decision maker would probably be to strike a balance whereby the school would provide machines capable of handling the task at hand and the students are allowed to bring their own devices to complement the tech infrastructure.

We need to integrate both into a learning experience.

We need a range of devices to handle a range of problems and provide a range of opportunities.

Going hard one way or the other -- for or against BYOD -- is missing the reality of the way most of us actually compute, and missing a chance to leverage the context in the way we and our students actually understand and relate to technology.

In reality, this isn't about BYOD, it's about BYOC -- Bring Your Own Context.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

1000 Posts

Somewhere over the last couple days, we published our 1000th blog post here on TeachPaperless.

I'd just like to say that I have really enjoyed and appreciated the variety of forms both in terms of writing and philosophy that have taken to these pages since the blog became a community-created endeavor back in January of this year. Thank you to all of the writers, contributors, commenters, and readers who have -- in my mind -- made TeachPaperless the special thing that it is.

Looking forward to 1000 more.

- Shelly