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.