[I’ve been fairly quiet here during the pandemic. However, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been busy. I thought that I would share a little of what I’ve been doing for the past year…]
Last March about this time, Yong Zhao, Chris Dede, Punya Mishra, Curtis Bonk, Shuangye Chen, and I launched Silver Lining for Learning. The initiative was meant to highlight interesting technology-enabled learning around the world and to spark some discussions about schooling possibilities during the pandemic and afterward. Although I bowed out after Episode 32 due to other commitments, my colleagues have done an absolutely fantastic job of keeping the dialogues going.
Below is a list of the first year’s worth of episodes. You will see that Silver Lining for Learning has addressed a wide range of topics. One of the strengths of the project is its incredible global emphasis and reach. If you want to learn from and interact with other educational innovators around the world – and hear about some really interesting learning and teaching happening elsewhere – Silver Lining is a wonderful place to start. I love that numerous guest bloggers have been willing to share their experiences as well.
The site just got a new look for Year 2, and Yong, Chris, Punya, Curt, and Shuangye do an excellent job of sparking rich conversation with their inspiring guests. I am honored to have helped launch this initiative and hope that you will subscribe to the blog and join the hosts for their weekly discussions (which also are archived for later viewing).
Amidst the chaos of 2020 we lost a true leader in education in late August just as schools were trying to reopen. In the event that you might have missed it, I wanted to circle back and offer a brief tribute.
Like most of you that knew Sir Ken Robinson’s impact on education, I first learned about him through his wildly popular TED Talk in 2006. It was, of course, not the first impactful thing he said, nor the last. He was by then already declared a Knight by the Queen, so I assume the story before the TED talk was robust as a professor and leader of the arts. But, anytime something is viewed around 100 million times, it tends to define the person. So, of course, the relationship between schools and creativity, and the embedded story of a young dancer, is perhaps Sir Ken’s most defining message. If you have not watched it yet, as it is the starting place for so many others, I do of course recommend viewing.
A different message of his, less well known, has always resonated most deeply with me though. It is a metaphor he liked to use about a garden and it shows up in a few different videos that do not have a million views. Articulated more fully in his book Creative Schools (chapter 2), this is a short clip of the essence of it (start at 1:30 where he speaks of changing metaphors … at around 6:00 he begins on the distinction with industrial agriculture):
Contained in this message is something that strikes at the essence of our outdated approach to learning systems. As America, Britain, and others grew and industrialized, we adopted elements of that mentality for our schools as well. While the factory model of school narrative is certainly overused and a bit misplaced (particularly by reformers and salesmen) the transition to large-scale institutions of learning certainly shared notions of efficiency tied up with our conception of mechanization, standardization, and competition. As Sir Ken says in the video above, perhaps the better comparison is not the factory as much as it is the monoculture-based industrial farm.
I would have loved to see Sir Ken continue to explore and develop this idea further for it is something that our generation must confront. It is remarkable what was achieved by industrialization and, specifically, industrial farming. I grew up working on an industrial farm and was convinced of its efficacy. Billions have been lifted out of subsistence poverty and the American grocery store became the envy of the world. But, these industrial achievements came at a heavy cost. We burned oil and coal to power our machines and changed our climate. We cleared the forests endangering countless species. Our topsoil has suffered and now must be supplemented by lab-created chemicals. With pesticides and herbicides we poisoned our waters. We medicated our domestic animals and produced lower cost, but lower quality, meats that have been shown to have adverse health effects on the humans that consume them. I’ve personally been recently diagnosed with colorectal cancer and I can’t help but wonder what might have contributed. Sir Ken died of cancer as well. I wonder whether he might have asked similar questions.
In a comparable way, in America, our industrial schools have achieved much but at a high price. We have achieved near-universal basic literacy. Nearly nine out of ten students graduate high school. Yet, according to Gallup polling of students, more high school students are actively disengaged in school than are engaged. Our schools have shown a nearly complete inability to close achievement gaps or serve as a tool of desegregation. And, research has shown economic mobility, achieving higher standards of living than your parents, has declined as inequality in America continues to grow. This year, 2020, has shown with stark clarity the implications of these failures. Our society is dangerously scientifically illiterate. Racism continues to bring out America’s worst inclinations. A majority of us are economically vulnerable. And, perhaps most concerningly, we seem unable to share a common social purpose or work across differences to make any substantial progress. Like our farms, the dominant ideologies of our schools are good at many things but increasingly feel antiquated and ill-equipped to help us solve our modern challenges.
In this way, Sir Ken Robinson was a critical voice that, in his humorous but insightful way, brought forward the loss of the full complexity of humanity we have sacrificed for standardization. He considered our approach to be Out of our Minds, in that we only sought to develop some of the potential each mind has to offer. His passion and stories around dance and the arts were just one of those sacrifices that, upon reflection, a listener can’t help but regret. With a chuckle, Sir Ken was able to cut through the dominant narratives of education and insert a new notion that we might be capable of schools in which all children can flourish. Schools in which each child can find their Element.
He offered a different mental model through a new metaphor. “Human flourishing is not a mechanical process, it is an organic process.” A teacher’s role then is to prepare the soil, nurture it, and then let natural processes innate in each learner grow. In well prepared soil with the right conditions life of all forms flourishes. Our attempts to craft the standard educational system has worked very well for a few, but left many others for whom “the standard” was not a good fit to wither. In this sense our schools, our farms, and our society must be more organic.
For me, and I think a great many others, Sir Ken pollinated a shift in paradigm. For the millions who watched his videos, read his books, or listened to speeches, he prepared the soil and created the conditions for us to grow our own new notions of how we might help learning flourish. The task of growing the complex, organic ecosystems in which all children might flourish then is left to us. Happily, Sir Ken, and many others, have helped to pollinate these ideas so widely that a global effort to grow these more organic models of school has inspired models of Creative Schools to bloom all across the planet.
Sir Ken Robinson had a unique and irreplaceable ability to reach an audience and to open minds. His legacy is a challenge for us to be creative ourselves to empower students to engage the full range of their natural instincts to learn.
Thank you, Sir Ken, for opening my mind and engaging my own natural instinct to learn, grow, and find a better way. We have lost many precious things in 2020 and we will dearly miss your presence, wit, and insights. But, you have left us a powerful metaphor from which to find our way to a better place.
As coronavirus cases continue to increase across the country, numerous school districts are reluctantly announcing that they will be doing ‘remote learning’ again this fall. Although we had the summer to prepare for this eventuality, unfortunately we have instead seen a lot of magical thinking from educational leaders and policy makers.
We are seeing a wide variety of school schedules being proposed for the fall, even in locations that are leading the world in infection rates. Many of them center learning in person at school as the main modality, with accommodations perhaps being made for students, families, and educators who are rightfully concerned about becoming infected with a deadly virus.
Many of the schools that are still planning to be face-to-face this fall will have to switch over in the next couple of weeks. It’s also likely that a surge of cases in their area will shut them back down again soon after opening. Even those that are planning to start in person – either entirely or with a staggered schedule – realize that many families are going to keep their children at home. And schools may have to dip in and out of in person, online, and hybrid modalities throughout the year, depending on what happens with the coronavirus.
This is what I have been recommending to the schools and educators that I am working with this summer:
Design for online this fall. Even if you’re lucky enough to have students in person in your classrooms at some point, use that precious time to work on technology skills, social-emotional resilience, building students’ capacity to be self-directed learners, creating classroom community, etc. Given that you have some of your students learning remotely anyway, design for online instead of asking teachers to do double work for both in school and at home. Even the kids that are sitting in front of you in class should do their learning work online – the same learning work that the kids at home are doing. It’s incredibly likely that you’re going to have to be wholly remote at some point this school year anyway. Designing for online as your primary modality allows you maximum flexibility and a more seamless transition when you almost inevitably have to shift over to remote instruction. It also protects your staff from burnout, and most communities will support you.
I don’t see any other reasonable way to do school this fall. Anything else seems like magical thinking. Magical thinking that our schools and communities will be free of the virus despite inadequate safety protections. Magical thinking that students and parents will engage in appropriate mask wearing, hand washing, and social distancing precautions. Magical thinking that teachers can operate simultaneously in face-to-face, online, hybrid, and/or hyflex modalities all year, even with scant training on how to do so. Magical thinking that the decisions that we make this summer about in-person instruction are going to somehow hold for an entire school year. And so on…
Students and families are going to pay the price if they are in school systems that haven’t invested heavily this summer in professional learning for teachers to teach effectively online. Students and families are going to pay the price if they are in school systems that haven’t figured out how to remedy device and Internet bandwidth inequities. Students and families are going to pay the price if they are in school systems that continue to prepare primarily for in person learning and have neglected online learning.
I also think it’s worth considering what we are fighting for this fall. Are we fighting for compelling visions of learning and teaching in person, or just child care so that people can get back to work?
Our families gave us grace in the spring when we did remote learning because it was an ‘emergency.’ If we squandered the summer by engaging in magical thinking about returning in person this fall instead of making the organizational investments that we needed to make, they’re not going to give us the same grace again. And they’ll be right. We had our chance this summer to get better at online learning. And many school systems didn’t do nearly enough.
Is your school system ready to ‘design for online’ this fall and do it well?
Since it’s now 2020, I thought it would be fun to revisit Karl Fisch’s video from 2006, titled 2020 Vision. In that video, Karl imagines he is the commencement speaker for the Arapahoe High School (AHS) Class of 2020, reflecting back on the past 13 years of schooling for that cohort.
AHS launches a 21st century learning initiative that is focused on preparing learners, workers, and successful contributors to the global community.
Google buys Logitech and a whole host of media companies and university lectures. AHS eventually buys a ceiling-mounted ‘GCam’ for every classroom, which captures video, sound (through an area microphone), and screen capture into unified ‘GCasts’ that can be uploaded to the AHS Learning Management System, which also contains RSS feeds, blogs, and Google Docs-like environments for every course.
AHS launches its ‘Warrior Portal,’ which eliminates grades and transcripts, allows for more-personalized learning pathways, and creates academic/work portfolios for every student.
AHS students each have their own laptop and routinely engage in tele-learning with 10 sister schools all around the world.
Google buys Ford, Apple, and AMD, allowing it to make breakthroughs in solar energy, battery technology, and quantum computing. ‘Google Panels’ replace 2/3 of worldwide energy production. ‘GCars’ travel 1,200 miles on a single charge and are essentially free transportation for homes with Google shingles or roof panels. The GCars also are WiFi access points, creating massive nationwide mesh networks. Google makes the first quantum laptops available for an inexpensive subscription to ‘Google Premium,’ which allows free learning (and shopping) for every laptop owner.
AHS and Arapahoe Community College merge to become Arapahoe Community School (ACS), a partnership that results in every student graduating with a minimum of 2 years of college credit.
‘Google U’ launches, incorporating elements of Google Premium, GCasts, university/library materials, Internet resources, and classroom tools, allowing ACS to dump its own courses and create true individualized pathways for students that allow them to both master essential learnings (competency-based education) and engage in passion-based learning projects.
By 2020, Google has created an eyeMAGINE computer that projects a 56-inch screen onto users’ retinas, global energy consumption has actually decreased, and ACS has grown to over 20,000 students, all of whom are empowered to “Change the World” (which has been the AHS / ACS motto throughout).
It was fascinating to see some of Karl’s projections from 2006. Today we see a number of dual enrollment programs, for example, and secondary students in P-Tech programs, the Bard Early Colleges, and other initiatives are graduating with college credits. We also have seen some progress related to retinal projection systems, electric cars, solar energy, battery technologies, quantum computing, and other fronts. Many states and school systems are implementing competency-based education (CBE) frameworks and project- / inquiry-based learning initiatives, and 1:1 computing is increasingly prevalent in our elementary and secondary schools.
on Wednesday, the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, a prominent lab in Seattle, unveiled a new system that passed the test with room to spare. It correctly answered more than 90 percent of the questions on an eighth-grade science test and more than 80 percent on a 12th-grade exam.
Not only could the software answer recall questions, it also could solve basic logic and inference problems.
Do students still need to know some stuff? Absolutely. Do students need to know the vast amounts of easily-findable minutiae and trivia that we pretend is important and try to shove into them each school year? No way.
The machines are getting better at mental tasks we previously thought could only be done by humans. When will we start asking better questions? When and how will we adapt our teaching and schooling?
What takes this little game from merely silly to obnoxious is the following rule: You must attribute unflattering adjectives to cohorts younger than your own – even though yours was on the receiving end of similar disparagements not so long ago. Thus, those who came of age in the sixties were written off as longhaired, unamerican, potsmoking relativists with a deficient work ethic. At some point, though, they took the advice of disapproving passersby (“Get a job!”) and eventually decided that those younger than they – Generation X – were all slackers, unwilling to commit and unable to plan for the future.
Now those two groups finally have made common cause . . . to denigrate Millennials. Essentially everyone over the age of about forty has decided that today’s adolescents and young adults have been coddled and indulged by their parents with the result that they – how shall we put it? – have a deficient work ethic and are unable to commit or plan for the future. These entitled little pissants were overcelebrated as children, given easy As and trophies “just for showing up,” and are now unable to hack it in the Real World.
The absence of historical perspective here is frankly astonishing. Rarely do older folks pause and say, “Wait a second. If these snide truisms about young people that I’m confidently repeating aren’t all that different from what our elders said about us, might that be reason to question their validity?”
Are young adults in the workplace more fragile and demanding than new hires of yesteryear? Here’s Google’s director of human resources:
Every single generation enters the work force and feels like they’re a unique generation, and the generation that’s one or two ahead of them looks back and says, ‘Who are these weird, strange kids coming into the work force with their attitudes of entitlement and not wanting to fit in?’ It’s a cycle that’s been repeated every 10 to 15 years for the last 50 years…. If you look at what their underlying needs and aspirations are, there’s no difference at all between this new generation of workers and my generation and my father’s generation…. We [all] want to be treated with respect, we want to have a sense of meaning and agency and impact, and we want our boss to just leave us alone so we can get our work done.