Mike Crowley said:
There can be no question but that technology can provide the potential for isolation, for synthetic relationships, for a sedentary lifestyle, an anxiety-ridden social existence, a failure to focus, concentrate, and engage. But surely this is a worst-case scenario conception of technology without balance, without thoughtful schools, informed, engaged parents? An education system that emphasises the need to be cultured as well as educated, well-read as well as literate, articulate as well as able to skim, physically healthy as well as mentally engaged … surely an individual in this context will only benefit from the interactive tools of contemporary technology to allow them to create, design, persuade and engage? Yes, perhaps our brains will be rewired in the process, but isn’t that what the brain has always done throughout history?
Seth Godin said:
The opportunity is freedom.
The freedom to connect, to reach out to just about anyone in the world.
The freedom to create, to sing and write and invent and share widely.
The freedom to lead, to stand up and say, “follow me.”
The freedom to learn, to take almost any course on any topic and to put that learning to work.
The freedom to choose your next project, the information you consume, and the people you associate with.
Now, more than ever, more of us have the freedom to care, the freedom to connect, the freedom to choose, the freedom to initiate, the freedom to do what matters.
If we choose.
Is your school helping students learn how to exercise these freedoms?
When it comes to employment, I think that organizations fall into 3 general categories: supportive, apathetic, or obstructive.
Supportive organizations have structures in place that work. They are intentionally designed to empower employees to be successful. They often go out of their way to find mechanisms that make employees’ lives easier and better. There are constant internal messages of encouragement, risk-taking, and celebration. They invest heavily in employee efficacy and talent development, recruitment and retention.
Apathetic organizations kind of stumble along. They get some stuff done but they’re not exciting or invigorating places to work. They don’t invest much in employee success mechanisms (although they might say they do because they have similar positions or structures as peer institutions). If you do good work, great; they will kind of leave you alone to do your thing. If you’re not doing good work, it will take them a long time to find out and they may or may not do anything about it. They are thankful if poor workers leave but if good workers leave they don’t do much to try to keep them because ‘others will just come along to replace them.’ It feels like everyone is just kind of going through the motions. There’s no spark of energy or enthusiasm.
Obstructive organizations get in your way. They have layers of bureaucracy and policy in place that actively work against employee success. There often are multiple layers of ‘no’ that you have to navigate for even simple requests. No one is minding the ship so individual bosses have the ability to be as terrible as they wish. Vision and mission statements are meaningless because implementation is shoddy or nonexistent. Employee dissatisfaction and turnover are high, as is internal dysfunction.
I’ve worked in all three types. Supportive organizations are wonderful places to be. If you’re lucky enough to work in one of those, think hard before moving. Apathetic organizations are okay. They don’t actively support you but neither do they actively block you. The only psychic benefits that you’ll get from being there are the ones that you create yourself but you usually can carve out a space for your work. Obstructive organizations are truly awful, soul-sucking places. If you find that you’re in one of those, immediately begin making a plan for departure. They’re not worth the psychic costs of stress and loss of quality of life.
Climates and cultures are incredibly important to organizational productivity and success. As leaders, would your employees describe your organization as supportive, apathetic, or obstructive? Maybe you have elements of each? How could you find out?
What do student projects look like in your school? In most classrooms, so-called student ‘projects’ look like sugar cube pyramids, styrofoam ball solar systems, coat hanger mobiles, and dioramas. Or maybe posters, brochures, or PowerPoint presentations. Or 3-dimensional structures made out of construction paper, cardboard, paper mâché, and other materials. The common factor across these ‘projects’ typically is the presentation of low-level facts found from a textbook or the Internet. But none of these rise to the level of ‘gold standard’ project-based learning (PBL), opportunities for students in which they are doing deep, complex thinking work over many days or weeks, usually in collaboration with others and enhanced by relevant, meaningful uses of digital technologies.
As leaders, why should we care about project-based learning? Because if we want graduates who are critical thinkers and problem solvers, we have to create learning environments in which students get to practice those skills in meaningful, authentic ways. Higher-level thinkers don’t just magically emerge from low-level thinking spaces. And that means we have to expect more from what we have traditionally called a learning ‘project.’
The Buck Institute for Education has outlined 8 essential elements of PBL, including significant content, a driving question, opportunities for inquiry and innovation, and high levels of student voice and choice. Typical classroom ‘projects’ lack these essential elements and thus are mostly busy work. The content isn’t significant because it’s just recall and regurgitation. There is no big question driving students’ efforts. And every student work product looks the same, which, as Chris Lehmann notes, means that it isn’t a project, it’s a recipe (e.g., 20 identical student posters of a cow’s digestive system!). We can do better…
There are many different models for creating high-quality PBL experiences for students. For example, here in Iowa the Iowa BIG School in Cedar Rapids has organized its entire school day around rich inquiry and problem solving. The Spirit Lake, Okoboji, Newell-Fonda, and North Union school districts all have two-week PBL sessions in January or May in which students spend 50 or more hours immersed in deeper projects. Some Iowa teachers are experimenting with genius hour, 20% time, and other structures to facilitate student passion projects. And across the country and planet a bevy of other models are emerging as well.
John Dewey famously reminded us that we learn what we do. If students spend 90% of their time making a poster / mobile / shoe box float and 10% of their time writing down facts that they quickly look up and rarely retain, we can’t really say that significant learning is occurring. The products look nice but there’s little substance behind them. As leaders, I encourage you to walk around your schools and look at the ‘projects’ that your students are doing. Ask yourself if the creation of those student work products requires deep, complex thinking and problem solving. And, if not, get some conversations started about how to make student projects richer and better…
What do student projects look like in your school?
Image credit: Russ M
Ken Royal said:
when you do discover those talented enough to teach with technology seamlessly, they may be the most misunderstood educators in a school, and the coolest with students and parents, but many times the least appreciated by their administrators
It’s a new year. And it takes 5 minutes to set up a blog, Twitter account, Facebook page, or Google+ community…
How brave will we be this year?
Will we speak out against injustices? Will we champion reciprocal accountability from leaders and policymakers? Will we rally the voices of others to advocate for necessary supports? Will we facilitate the actions of others to make necessary changes? Will we highlight exemplary, forward-thinking practices while simultaneously calling out those that need to be different? Will we speak up for those who are underrepresented and underserved?
Probably not. Despite living in a time of unprecedented communication opportunities, we’ll probably do nothing and hope that others say the things that need to be said. Because we’re scared. Or apathetic. Or don’t think we have value to add to the conversation.
We live in an era in which EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US can have a voice and can reach others around the globe at the speed of light. Will we just post family pictures and cat videos or will we leverage our new powers to make a dent in the universe? Will we share – transparently and openly – our hopes and dreams, needs and desires, expertise and experiences so that we may inspire others? Will we model for our children what it means to be participatory citizens? Will we create opportunities for students to actually be participatory citizens? Will we use our voices to make a difference in the world?
Probably not. But we could.
How brave will we be this year?
As Clay Shirky has noted, we currently are living through ‘the largest expansion in expressive capability in human history.’ We no longer live in a world where we passively receive information that is broadcast out to us by large, centralized entities. Instead, we now live within multidirectional conversation spaces in which 12-year-olds can reach audiences at scales that previously were reserved for major media companies, large corporations, and governments. We all now can have a voice. We all now can be publishers. We all now can find each other’s thoughts and ideas and can share, cooperate, collaborate, and take collective action. Time and geography are no longer barriers to communicating and working together.
In this new information landscape, formerly-dominant institutions are being forced to rethink all previously-held assumptions. For example, music companies are struggling to survive in a market where the model of wholesale album purchases and top-down advertising and dissemination is replaced by a granular system of individual song sales and peer-to-peer marketing and distribution. Similarly, the emergence of digital, multimedia, hyperlinked texts – and accompanying e-readers, tablet computers, and smartphones – is challenging our very definition of what constitutes ‘a book’ and is destroying traditional publishers’ and distributors’ revenue streams. Television, radio, magazine, newspaper, and movie/video companies are seeing their market share erode year after year as we increasingly turn to online – and often user-generated – information channels to learn and be entertained. Our entire information landscape – which is what schools are purportedly teaching students to master – has been changed irrevocably.
We also are witnessing the early adolescence of a vastly different global economy. For instance, the rapid growth of the Internet and other communication technologies has accelerated the offshoring of jobs from the developed world. Complex corporate global supply chains locate manufacturing work wherever costs are lowest, expertise is highest, or necessary talent resides. Geographic or product niche monopolies disappear in the face of Internet search engines. Micro-, small-batch, and on-demand manufacturing techniques facilitate personalized and custom-order production. Whatever manufacturing work remains in developed countries is high skill, is high tech, and, more often than not, requires greater education than a secondary diploma. The low-skill industrial system that was the backbone of the developed world’s economies in the previous century is increasingly a bygone memory.
Like manual work that is non-location-dependent, knowledge work also is frequently done cheaper elsewhere. Service jobs are increasingly fungible, able to be located anywhere in the world that has an Internet connection. Ongoing workflow and final products are exchanged at the speed of light via e-mail, instant messaging, and other corporate networking tools. The same technologies that facilitate our personal social conversations also facilitate interconnected global commerce. As was done in previous decades for manufacturing work, the next two decades will see many complex service jobs broken up into component parts. Once these tasks are disaggregated, they will be done by lower-skilled workers who can do these discrete components of the overall work, facilitated by software. In other words, many high-paying service jobs will turn into globalized piece work. Since the service professions represent over three-fifths of America’s economy, the impacts of this are going to be quite significant.
We’re also realizing that work that previously required humans now regularly can be done by software. If the Industrial Revolution was about replacing humans’ physical labor with machines, the Information Revolution often is about replacing humans’ cognitive labor with computers. A large number of workers are discovering that their work, their skills, and their jobs are not as indispensable as they thought in a technological, hyperconnected, hypercompetitive global economy. Radical transformations are everywhere we turn.
Of course these changes also have resulted in dramatic impacts on learning. Students and educators now have access to all of the information in their textbooks – and an incredible wealth of primary documents – for free. They have access to robust, low cost or no-cost, and often multimedia and interactive learning resources (texts, images, audio, video, games, simulations) that can supplement, extend, or even replace what is being taught in their classrooms. Via collaborative Internet-based tools such as blogs, wikis, videoconferencing, and social networks, they can learn from and with students and teachers in other states or countries. They also can quickly and easily connect with authors, artists, business professionals, entrepreneurs, physicians, craftsmen, professors, and other experts.
Students and teachers now can more authentically replicate (and actually do) real-world work through the use of the same tools and resources used by engineers, designers, scientists, accountants, and a multitude of other professionals and artisans. They can share their own knowledge, skills, and expertise with people all over the world. They can find or form communities of interest around topics for which they are passionate and they can be active (and valued) contributors to the world’s information commons, both individually and collaboratively with others.
Essentially, we now have the ability to learn about whatever we want, from whomever we want, whenever and wherever we want, and we also can contribute to this learning environment for the benefit of others. The possibilities for learning and teaching in this information space are both amazing and nearly limitless, but right now this learning often is disconnected from our formal education institutions.
If it is difficult to overstate the technological disruptions that are occurring around us, it is equally difficult to understate the lack of progress that most schools have made in response to these overarching societal transformations. The reluctance of school systems to significantly alter existing pedagogical and organizational practices has long been catalogued. Unfortunately, these trends continue today. For instance, while students increasingly are self-directed learners and active technology users outside of school, their learning work inside of school – particularly for independent, technology-suffused, higher-level cognitive activities – has not changed much. As the Consortium for School Networking has noted, “educational mindsets and school cultures do not yet align learning to the realities of the 21st century.”
This is true even in our numerous 1:1 computing environments that now exist. Although we have pockets of success here and there, for the most part we still are implementing a 20th (and sometimes 19th) century model of education despite the demands of our 21st century society. If you look at the basic learning and teaching work that occurs in most of our classrooms, it is still primarily transmissive: students passively receive information from the teacher or textbook or Internet or software and then regurgitate it back to show that they have ‘learned’ (and the teacher has ‘covered’) the required low-level facts or procedures. While this may have been fine for an industrial society, this model of schooling is woefully inadequate to prepare graduates for the more complex demands of our new information and economic landscapes. If every other societal sector is finding that transformative reinvention is necessary in our current climate, schools shouldn’t expect that they somehow will be immune from these changes. We shouldn’t pretend that these revolutions aren’t going to affect us too, in compelling and often as yet unknown ways. And, yet, if you look at what is happening in most classrooms on most days, the learning and teaching work that is occurring looks incredibly similar to that done many decades ago.
All of this has been a long run up to basically say that – if we truly care about preparing kids for life and work success – we need schools to be different. If economic success increasingly means moving away from routine cognitive work, schools need to also move in that direction. If our analog, ink-on-paper information landscapes outside of school have been superseded by environments that are digital and online and hyperconnected and mobile, our information landscapes inside of school also should reflect those shifts. If our students’ extracurricular learning opportunities often are richer and deeper than what they experience in their formal educational settings, it is time for us to catch up. In other words, schools’ knowledge work and workforce preparation should match the needs and demands of our time.
As you can imagine, these changes are incredibly complex and the challenges that face us today as school leaders are tremendous. Somehow we have to reinvent learning and teaching and schooling, often in direct opposition to parent and community mindsets about what school should look like (hint: like it did when they were kids). Somehow we have to shift our schools’ overwhelming emphasis on low-level knowledge work into something that better meets our graduates’ needs to navigate vastly different information and economic spaces. Somehow we have to balance creating schools of the future with policymakers’ attempts to further reify schools of the past. And the toughest part of all of this is that we don’t even know what many of the answers should be. But we at least should be having the right conversations and asking the right questions.
There are a lot of different things going on in schools and they’re all important. But remedying the relevance disconnect between school and society is the most important educational and equity work of all. We have a moral imperative as school leaders and policymakers to face these challenges head-on and try and create new futures and possibilities for the children and adolescents that we serve.
The oft-quoted line from the Spider-Man movie is, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
But maybe instead it should be, “With great power comes great opportunity.”
Now that mobile computing devices connected to the Internet are becoming ubiquitous, we have unprecedented power at our educator fingertips. How many of us have stepped up to the opportunity?