[BFTP] The one question I’m asking at ISTE 2013

[ISTELive 2024 starts this week so I am resurrecting three blog posts from previous years. Below is Blast From the Past (BFTP) #3 from 2013!]

Here’s my guiding question for the ISTE conference this year (for both presenters and vendors). If you’re at ISTE right now, I encourage you to ask this question too!


Image credit: Because I’ve never told him he can’t fly, Lotus Carroll

BREAKING NEWS: Students are still bored

BREAKING NEWS: Students are still bored

Breaking news! A nationally-representative poll of more than 1,000 teenagers finds that… students are still bored. Here are some key findings:

  • 64% of teenagers think that school is boring
  • 70% of teenagers say that all or most of their classmates are bored in class
  • Only 41% of teenagers like going to school
  • Only 40% of teenagers think that their homework helps them learn
  • 30% of teenagers say that school is a waste of time
  • Only 19% of teenagers say that most of their classmates want to be in school

64% of teens think school is boring


These results just confirm earlier findings. This is a system that is fundamentally BROKEN. Everyone is expressing concern about students’ chronic absenteeism. But we’re just offering them the same old boring stuff. That’s not a successful sales pitch for a student who doesn’t want to come to school, is it?

What will we do about these recent findings? Probably the same thing that we’ve done in the past: nothing. As I said in an earlier post:

The biggest indictment of our schools is not their failure to raise test scores above some politically-determined line of ‘proficiency.’ It’s that – day in and day out – they routinely ignore the fact that our children are bored, disengaged, and disempowered. We’ve known this forever, but we have yet to really care about it in a way that would drive substantive changes in practice. The disenfranchisement of our youth continues to happen in the very institutions that are allegedly preparing them to be ‘life long learners.’

Shame on us.

Schools can feel totalitarian to many students

Schools can feel totalitarian to many students

I participated in a Twitter conversation yesterday that bounced around a bit. I believe that most of the folks I conversed with were from the United Kingdom. I also believe that many of them were in favor of what we might call ‘strict discipline’ in schools. One of the advantages of having a blog is that I am able to write about topics in ways that may be less possible over on Twitter. So with a thank you to my conversation partners in yesterday’s discussion, I’m going to dive right in…

I made two claims yesterday that I thought were uncontroversial but apparently were. The first was that:

1. There are lots of schools and classrooms in which children and families feel ignored, marginalized, controlled, and … perhaps … oppressed. Schools are not all wonderful caring places for every child.

Anyone who is involved with schools and children should know that some students thrive at schools and some feel marginalized. Some children feel empowered and validated by their school … and some don’t. Some children might even be actively harmed by schools. Schools are not the idyllic spaces for many children that we hope they might be. There are a variety of examples that we might come up with. Here are a few:

I don’t think that recognizing that schools often are marginalizing spaces for children is “inaccurate or grossly offensive,”nor is it a “slur against teachers,” nor does it obviate the fact that “the vast majority of teachers and school leaders are overworked, underpaid, and care deeply about the students.” We can have good-hearted, hard-working educators and school systems who care deeply about children AND students can still can feel ignored, marginalized, controlled, or oppressed within those systems. Both can be true.

Researchers study students’ negative experiences in school and… guess what?

2. We have plenty of research to back up the idea that children and families often feel ignored, marginalized, controlled, or oppressed at school.

Equity scholars and other researchers have studied student and family perceptions of schools for decades. These studies are pretty easy to find. Here are some example searches designed to pull forth negative perceptions:

Many of the stories and studies that appear in these searches explicitly discuss school behavior systems and policies. We also could add the words ‘discipline’ or ‘behavior policies’ to the search terms above to find more specific narratives or research related to school control of student behaviors.

I don’t know why my second claim seemed so fantastical to some of my conversation partners. Some believed that this research didn’t exist, or that it would be ‘flimsier than a soaking wet paper towel.’ But a lot of research has been published in peer-reviewed academic journals noting many students’ negative perceptions of schools generally and/or their discipline policies specifically. Education and equity scholars study a wide variety of topics related to traditionally-marginalized groups. For any demographic subgroup, there’s probably a decent body of research cataloging their perceptions of school, and often those perceptions of school are negative. Despite our best efforts, schools often mirror the marginalization of students and families that occurs outside their walls. At scale, this is a lot of children and families.

Many of my conversation partners kept asking me to provide evidence for one or both of these claims. I kept replying that they could easily find it but they didn’t believe me. I realized later that these two claims were so ‘extraordinary’ to them that they were lumping me with flat earthers.

Here are some other topics that we discussed yesterday…

3. Are schools and classrooms actually oppressive or is that just the perception of some students and families?

Does it matter? Perceptions shape reality. Since ‘oppression’ and ‘marginalization’ are subjective rather than objective terms, we’ll never be able to answer this question, and I’m not sure that’s the relevant issue anyway. I think that the relevant concern is “Do we care that some students and families feel that our schools and classrooms are marginalizing and oppressive and, if so, what do we do about it?” 

If you have read through some of the links above and still think that schools never emphasize control and compliance instead of care for children and respect for fundamental human dignity – or if you think that you get to determine whether others’ subjective thoughts are correct or true – or if you don’t care about that question I just asked in the previous paragraph – I’m not sure what else to say.

4. Should we use the word ‘totalitarian’ to describe certain schools and classrooms?

Some people really didn’t like the use of the word ‘totalitarian’ to describe strict behavior policies in schools. Indeed, that was the tweet that started the whole conversation. Oxford Languages defines totalitarian as “relating to a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete subservience to the state.” If you are required to attend school, if you’re told what to do almost every minute of every day, if you’re told what to say and when (and when not), if you’re told when and how to move (and when not), if you march from class to class in a proscribed fashion on someone else’s schedule, if you have little control of your time during the day, if you have little say regarding what you get to learn about, and if you’re punished, either academically or behaviorally, every time you don’t do those things, it doesn’t seem a far stretch for you to maybe feel that school is a totalitarian or oppressive space, particularly if your school also is invalidating or marginalizing key aspects of your identity. Peter Gray famously said that ’school is prison.’ We can see how many students might feel that way.

Some folks wished that critics of certain (strict) behavior policies used a different word. One complained that “teachers in favour of strong school behaviour systems are demonised and stereotyped (on Twitter) as child-hating; power-crazy monsters.” Some synonyms for totalitarian include authoritarian, autocratic, oppressive, and tyrannical. Other words we might use include strict, firm, structured, or restrictive. I postulate that if a student already feels that their school is ‘totalitarian’ or ‘oppressive,’ word policing them to use some term that is more palatable to authorities might feel even more… totalitarian or oppressive.

5. Should we expect others to engage in unpaid labor on our behalf?

I don’t think so. My unwillingness to gather some example research on a Sunday morning didn’t mean that I was prevaricating or evasive. It simply meant that I had other things to do on Sunday and didn’t feel like gathering resources for other folks for free that I thought were easily findable. Today I did feel like it, so here’s my post. 🙂 

I think that this blog post addresses most of the major points that we discussed yesterday. I don’t know if this post is ‘professor’-ish for some of my conversation partners, but this is what I’ve got on this Monday. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. Have at me in the comments (or on the online platform of your choice). 😉 

How about a Social Impact elective? (part 2)

How about a Social Impact elective? (part 2)

Back in August I proposed the idea of a Social Impact elective course, a student-driven learning experience that leaned heavily into the Contribution item in Section B of the 4 Shifts Protocol. Since then I’ve heard from a couple of schools that are doing this…

Junipero Serra High School

Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, California has a Creative Solutions for the Global Good class. Students become acquainted with a variety of creative solutions to global issues and then engage in their own self-designed projects to make an impact in their community. In the first video below, Rushton Hurley explains why the class was created and what happens in the class, including its emphasis on the design thinking process. The second video also describes the partnership between Junipero Serra and Parklands College, a PK-12th grade school in Cape Town, South Africa, and includes project examples from both schools.

Hillbrook School

Hillbrook School has two campuses in Los Gatos and San Jose, California. I had a phenomenal chat with Bill Selak, the Director of Technology there. Hillbrook launched its Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship in 2017. Students engage in a variety of social entrepreneurship activities in grades K through 8, with culminating student-driven projects in 8th grade. You can visit the Social Impact + Leadership website to see example student projects, and below is a video from the Class of 2027’s Social Impact and Leadership Summit. Hillbrook is adding a high school campus and is beginning to engage in this work with the new 9th graders this year.

Students in both of these independent schools are doing amazing and impactful work! It feels like there is an easy but powerful opportunity here for others too, including public schools. Is anyone ready to try this?

How about a Social Impact elective?

How about a Social Impact elective?

One class that I always thought would be meaningful, impactful, and highly visible to the community would be a Social Impact elective course. This would basically be a student-driven genius hour but focused heavily on the Contribution item in Section B of the 4 Shifts Protocol to include a community impact focus.

We could integrate some design thinking concepts at the beginning such as identifying a problem or challenge in the community, conducting empathy interviews, and beginning to prototype solutions. We probably would require a partnership with an external expert or organization. And there should be a highly-publicized exhibition at the end of the semester. I think that schools would see students do some PHENOMENAL work as they lean into areas of interest or concern in their local community as positive change-makers.

Such a course could occur at any grade level, but might be particularly valuable in middle or high school as students begin to search for more relevance in their school experience. I know a number of deeper learning schools that are doing similar work through teacher-created projects. These projects would be more student-initiated and -driven, and the elective course format might be a relatively easy on ramp for more traditional schools that aren’t well-versed in deeper learning but would like to start creating some different opportunities for students. In addition to building students’ efficacy as real world difference-makers, these experiences also would be fantastic additions to students’ job or college applications.

Your thoughts? Know anyone currently doing this?

Image credit: RTCA NPS, CASP Urban Trails workshop

Slide – Organize around the opportunity to contribute

2021 Difference Making 01 REVISED

“It’s ironic that a shift away from a focus on preparation (take Algebra 1 because you need it for Algebra 2, which you might need to go to college which you might need to get a job) to a focus on difference making is the best possible form of preparation for the innovation economy. A portfolio of work that demonstrates expanding contribution to causes that matter — to a young person and their community — is far more valuable to most colleges and employers than a list of courses passed.

What if, instead of a list of required courses, high school was organized around the opportunity to contribute?”

Vander Ark & Liebtag, Difference Making at the Heart of Learning, 2021 (p. 80)


Download this file. See also my other slides.

2 hours, up to 200 people, 1 low price

2 hours... up to 200 people... 1 low price. #4Shifts Protocol PD.[Trying something new here…]

The 4 Shifts Protocol is taking off in schools around the world. We’ve got tens of thousands of educators already using it for instructional redesign. Schools who are trying to focus on deeper learning, greater student agency, more authentic work, and rich technology infusion are finding the protocol to be helpful in their efforts. Our book, Harnessing Technology for Deeper Learning, introduces the protocol, has some lesson redesign examples, and includes some tips and strategies. However, some schools and educators are looking for more interactive professional development.

As we attempt to innovate out of the pandemic and create some new opportunities for students, let’s see if this will be of help:

     2 hours… up to 200 people… for $1,200 (USD).

Online synchronous only. U.S. schools only (for now). Between the hours of 8:00am and 5:00pm Mountain time (currently GMT-6). No pricing per person and no travel costs! I will provide a quick overview of the protocol, we will redesign two or three lessons together in small groups, I will field questions and concerns, and we will conclude with some suggestions and strategies for usage in your local setting.

Interested? . We’ll find a date and time and I’ll send you the Zoom link. It’s that easy.

And of course we can customize this. For instance, we could do:

  • 1 introductory session for teachers (got a group of innovators?)
  • 1 introductory session for administrators
  • 1 or 2 follow-up sessions to go deeper (e.g., with your own lessons and/or around instructional coaching)

Or we could do:

  • 1 introductory session for elementary school(s)
  • 1 introductory session for middle school(s)
  • 1 introductory session for high school(s)
  • 1 introductory session for instructional / technology coaches and principals
  • 1 or 2 follow-up sessions to go deeper (e.g., with your own lessons and/or around instructional coaching)

Or we could do:

  • 1 session on Section A, Deeper Thinking and Learning
  • 1 session on Section B, Authentic Work
  • 1 session on Section C, Student Agency and Personalization
  • 1 session on Section D, Technology Infusion
  • 1 session with examples of what this looks like in other schools
  • 1 or 2 follow-up sessions to go deeper (e.g., with your own lessons and/or around instructional coaching)

Or whatever else makes sense for you…

. Satisfaction guaranteed. Hope this helps!

Taking students seriously disrupts our comfort and threatens our sense of authority

Nicole Williams Beechum said:

We know from research that students can have more robust learning experiences when what happens in school is relevant to their lives, helps them connect to a larger purpose, and is grounded in a sense of belonging. This means that the system must be responsive to their goals, interests, and sense of self and community. If young people are not at the center of conversations about what constitutes success, we will not get school right.

We often show students that we don’t see them as experts about their own lives and astute observers of their surroundings. This is especially true when the conversation shifts to groups of students who have been marginalized by race, culture, language, family income, or disability. Insidious cultural beliefs seep in, and the “real experts” take over to tell students what is possible for their futures and then design policies, curricula, and professional development without their input.

I have had the humbling opportunity of deeply listening to students. What stands out is that when young people are able to take agency, feel affirmed (their lived experiences, families, histories, cultures, communities), and share power with adults, they thrive. My biggest fear is that we adults don’t actually want to hear what young people have to say. Taking them seriously disrupts our comfort and expertise – and threatens our sense of authority.


Coronavirus Chronicles 043 – Bunche Middle School

I am talking with schools to see how they’re responding in the wake of this global pandemic. I invite you to join me for the Coronavirus Chronicles, a series of check-ins with educators all over.

Episode 043 is below. Thank you, Jose Gonzalez and Darleen Perez, for sharing how Bunche Middle School in Compton, California is adapting to our new challenges and opportunities. It was SO MUCH FUN hearing about your remote learning project with your students!

See the complete list of episodes, which also are available as a podcast channel on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. If you and your school(s) would like to be featured in the Coronavirus Chronicles series, please get in touch. 

Other conversation series that may be of interest are below. Check them out!

Conversation series with educators during the pandemic

A conversation with Katie Martin

As always, Katie Martin has been doing a lot of wonderful work this summer around deeper learning and student engagement. I thought it might be fun for the two of us to just get together and chat. I tweeted an invitation to her and she kindly took me up on the offer.

Katie Martin Twitter exchange

Two days later we made that conversation happen and the result is below. As you can imagine, our discussion was wide-ranging and SUPER fun. I am sharing it here in case you’d like to join us. Hope it’s useful to you.

Happy viewing!