Smoking, steroids, illegal drugs, and 3rd grade retention?

Imagine that someone offered you something and said, “This might give you a short-term performance boost. If it does, we’re not sure how long the effect will last but we know it will diminish over time. The boost might be just a year or two and it’s all but certain that it won’t last more than three or four years. Moreover, it’s extremely probable that after that you will suffer significant negative consequences FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. Do you want it?”

You might take that gamble if you were a professional athlete (see, e.g., steroids), but most of us would not. In the case of smoking, illegal drugs, alcohol, and (sometimes) fatty foods, the government actively discourages us from making that choice. But when it comes to 3rd grade retention, some state governments not only are allowing the choice but requiring it.

I know you’re 8. Take a puff!

[cross-posted at Education Recoded]

The primary motivation of education policymaking

We are literally living in a world where the primary motivation behind the proposals that determine what schools look like ISNT designing the kinds of learning environments that our kids deserve. Instead, the primary motivation behind the proposals that determine what schools look like is designing the kinds of learning environments that might get a legislator reelected.

Bill Ferriter via

#MobilityShifts – Day 5: Emerging Learning Environments, Peer to Peer Grading and an Interview with Cathy Davidson [guest post]

Session at #MobilityShifts

Starbucks on the corner of 29th and Park in NYC has to be the friendliest coffee shop I’ve ever been in. I’m writing this post in its cosy confines after telling my excited four year-old son via Skype that he’ll see Daddy again tomorrow morning. I’ve one more post in me after this one, but this will be the last one I write whilst in New York.

I know I say this every day, but Mobility Shifts is such a good conference. Yesterday I saw Michael Wesch speak, interviewed Cathy Davidson, and then saw her speak along with Geert Lovink and Manu Kapur. I also had some great conversations with Margaret Fiore and Sean Justice at the New School (and bumped into Matthew K. Gold again). 🙂

The three things I did yesterday, then, were:

  • Emerging Learning Environments
  • Interview with Cathy Davidson
  • The Future of Learning: Academic Publishing, Peer to Peer Grading and Text Books

I go to quite a few conferences and see a lot of people present. Can I ask you a favour if you present at conferences? Put your contact details (especially your Twitter name) on your first slide and provide links on your slides (using or similar, if necessary) to the things you mention. If you can get them up on Slideshare before you start talking, even better.

Emerging Learning Environments (Michael Wesch)

Just before this session I got talking to Sean Justice who is involved in Art Education at the New School and whom I’d met in a previous session earlier in the week. We both got talking to Margaret Fiore, who teaches writing and then Karen DeMoss (one of the conference organisers) got involved. I mentioned how I was at the conference courtesy of Scott McLeod (Karen says hi, Scott!) and they’re going to write up my story for the New School newspaper. I also got talking briefly to Michael Wesch in the elevator after the session and he said he knew my work. You could have knocked me over with a feather. Unbelievable.

Mike Wesch is well known for his work on changing learning environments and focusing on New Media Literacies. He said that we need to stop focusing on students knowing ‘answers’ all of the time and inspire them to ask really big questions. Knowledge and meaning, after all, isn’t just ‘out there’ in the world but has to be created. The sad thing, Mike said, is that the questions students ask put limits on their learning, like “how many points is this worth”. He juxtaposed an image of his 400-capacity lecture theatre with the audience for American Idol saying that the problem isn’t generational but (to use a term that Mike didn’t actually use) attentional. This is very much a dominant theme of the conference, and point also made by Cathy Davidson (below).

“There’s something in the air” said Mike. “And that something is… wifi”. He got a chuckle from the audience, but he was deadly serious. Students can share and collaborate in ways never before available yet we give them a standardised test. That’s why we need to move away from hierarchies and groups towards networks; we need to get students using productively technologies that are currently viewed as ‘distractions’.

Our learning environments shape what goes on within them. What do our classrooms say about learning, wondered Mike?

  • To learn is to acquire information
  • Information is scarce
  • Trust authority for good information
  • Authorized information is beyond discussion
  • Obey the authority
  • Follow along

I can’t possibly cover everything that Mike said, but if you haven’t seen his stuff, just try typing ‘michael wesch’ into YouTube. The big take-away for me was that we should be empowering students to make a positive difference in their communities and the world. We have the tools to help them do so.

Interview with Cathy Davidson

Prof. Cathy Davidson

Over the last few months I’ve had my horizons expanded by coming into contact with people around Mozilla, HASTAC and DML Central. One of these is Cathy Davidson, a Professor at Duke University and author of the New York Times bestseller ‘Now You See It’. I recommend that everyone go and read it right now! Rarely have such important points about education, attention and the workplace been so cogently and persuasively argued.

You can find this interview (which was carried out with the assistance of Pete Woodbridge) below, or at


The Future of Learning: Academic Publishing, Peer to Peer Grading and Text Books

Cathy Davidson was at the New School to speak about her book and peer-to-peer grading. She was one of three speakers at the final session I attended yesterday, with the other two being Geert Lovink and Manu Kapur. The former talked about digital publishing experiments at the Institute of Network Cultures whilst the latter focused on digital media and learning within the Singapore school system. Whilst Manu’s presentation about Singapore sounds like something that school administrators would be interested in (given their PISA scores) I’m sceptical. Having researched the Singaporean school system for my thesis I’m all too aware that a little bit of experimentation counts for very little when you’ve got one of the highest-stakes testing regimes in the world. This, after all, is a country where painkillers are routinely sold alongside study guides.

Geert Lovink, on the other hand, was interesting in the way that he pointed towards the future of the book (another emerging theme of the conference). The Institute he works for is now producing only digital books becuase of the rise of self-publishing services such as and print-on-demand machines such as Espresso. In conjunction with the Baker HTML5 ebook framework and Google’s Sigil (WYSIWYG ebook editor) the future of publishing is democratic.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Geert’s talk was his statement that the peer review system is “corrupt to its core”. He believes, obviously very passionately, that the current peer review system is destructive of self-esteem and make private and anonymous something that should be out in the open. The dialogue before an article or book is published should be as available as the work itself. Although he didn’t use it, the analogy that sprang to my mind was the ‘Talk’ page attached to every Wikipedia article.

Finally, it was Cathy Davidson turn to talk. Much of what she mentioned is in the interview above, but I’ll cover just a few of the things she said. Cathy made the point that there’s not a person – students, teachers, administrators – who believes the current education system is working. That, explained Cathy, is because we’re focusing our attention on the wrong things. If you haven’t seen this selective attention test video, it provides the context for Now You See It.

We’re privileging the wrong things because our education system is stuck in a previous information age. “Since when”, asked Cathy, “has ‘high standards’ meant ‘standardization’?” Like Mike Wesch, she used humour to make an important point. Grading, as in A, B, C, D, was introduced before the First World War in one college. The next people to take it up? The American Meatpackers Association. But they rejected it because it wasn’t a workable system. Cathy very persuasively argued (and again, I’d encourage you to look at her book) that the multiple choice test, the grading system and the IQ test were all historical accidents, not well-thought-through policies.

I think the most powerful thing that Cathy Davidson said came in the Q&A session after her talk. She looked at the room, which comprised progressive educators, and pointed out that almost every one of us would have been labelled as ‘learning disabled’ if we were at school today. Why? Long hours, narrow subjects, poor diets, to name but a few reasons. What are we doing to our children?

I’ve mentioned Mozilla’s Open Badges framework several times in these posts. Like me, Cathy’s a big believer in the power of alternative accreditation systems and technology. However, she gave an extremely important warning: you cannot simply drop a new form of assessment or technology into a classroom setting and expect everything to be made better. We’ve made that mistake with interactive whiteboards (for one). Rigour, Relevance and Relationships are Cathy’s new 3R’s.


Unlike in the UK where conferences, conversation and debate are siloed between schools, further and higher education, this conference is refreshing in looking at the bigger picture. Those children in nurseries and kindergartens will become teenagers, and then will go (hopefully?) to university. We need to think of the long view. What will the world be like in five, ten, twenty years’ time? Are we preparing them for it? What kind of world do we want to see? Gandhi’s famous exhortation to “Be the change you want to see in the world” is buzzing around my head this morning.

The most random thing I’ve seen in New York

Just before I started writing this, whilst on a (video) Skype call with my wife and children, what looked like a homeless guy came into Starbucks. He verbally abused staff, telling them off for touching his bag. Then he left. My wife now thinks that kind of thing goes on in New York all of the time when, given my (albeit limited) experience, nothing could be farther from the truth. I’ve found NYC to be friendly, welcoming and quite possibly the most civilised place I’ve ever been. 🙂

Encouraging clearer thinking in education, technology and productivity, Doug Belshaw is an educator and activist. He lives in the north of England with his wife and two young children. Doug is currently Researcher/Analyst at JISC infoNet (hosted by Northumbria University) after spending seven years as a teacher and senior leader in various UK schools. He has just submitted his doctoral thesis on the subject of ‘digital literacies’.

Blog: Twitter: @dajbelshaw / @dajbconf

#MobilityShifts – Day 4: Open Access, Mobile Devices, and Connected Learning [guest post]

Mimi Ito speaking at #MobilityShifts

This conference gets better and better. Given the quality and pace of thought coming from some of the speakers, I’ve been severely challenged (even at my reasonably rapid touch-typing speed) getting down some of the ideas to share here!

I attended three sessions today:

  1. Does What We Know Belong to All? The Intellectual Property Principles (John Willinsky)
  2. Mobile phones in learning (Various)
  3. Learning with Social and Mobile Media (Mimi Ito)

Does What We Know Belong to All? The Intellectual Property Principles

I hadn’t come across John Willinsky’s work before today, but having heard him speak I’m now a big fan. I think he and Mimi Ito are perhaps two of the best speakers I’ve ever heard – and I saw them both in the same day! John teaches at Stanford and is both engaging and persuasive.

His argument is a straightforward one: academic research should available to all. John began by highlighting something that’s a huge problem for professional people all over the world, something that he highlighted with a very graphic example. In the graduation ceremony for trainee teachers at his previous institution they used big scissors to cut up the (now ex-student’s) library card. What kind of message is this he asked? We need to give teachers access to the latest research, not tell them that they no longer need to engage in such activities.

I attempted in the Q&A session and the workshop that followed John’s talk to provoke him into saying that we don’t actually need academic journals. He was very careful, with a twinkle in his eye, to say that is not his aim. What he’s trying to do is make journal articles open access or, in other words, make sure that a Google Scholar search gives those outside the walls of the university access to full-text PDFs.

Delving into the philosophical and legal past, John showed how treating research differently from commercial interests has a long history. I won’t go into that here (it was mainly around Locke’s ‘On Property’) but suffice to say it’s difficult to argue against his contention that the wider our work circulates, the more it increases in value. Although I have slight reservations about trusting Google to serve up the world’s academic articles, I do use Google Scholar extensively and it’s a potential stepping-stone to a Wikipedia-like non-profit aggregation platform.

I’ve already demonstrated my commitment to open access publishing by not only sharing my thesis online as I wrote it but, now that it’s submitted, donating the text to the public domain under a CC0 license. Many other academics have released their work under other Creative Commons licenses. Ideas want to be free!

Mobile Phones in Learning

I ended up walking out early of the second session, unfortunately. The first of the three speakers, Bob Klein was excellent, clearly articulating his attempts to bring the book ‘up to date’ and make rich, multimedia publishing tools available to all. Bob is well known for his work on The Future of the Book and technologies such as CommentPress (now that allow readers to comment on individual sections of a work such as paragraphs.

Bob’s latest project is SocialBook, the private beta for which is due in November. I’ll certainly look out for that as I really liked the way in which Bob talked about how the book is a place’ where readers, and sometimes authors, gather in the margins. Changing the nature of the book, however, means rethinking the whole ecosystem. Just as with Amazon’s Kindle, you can highlight and comment on sections of the book, but SocialBook is entirely browser-based and based on the ePub3 specficiation. I think its got real potential in education.

Bob closed with a clip of Marshall McLuhan talking, over 40 years ago, about the ways in which we try and fit old ideas into new forms of expression. Instead of doing that, argued McLuhan, we should be thinking about the affordances of those new forms of expression. I think this applies partcularly to mobile learning.

Unfortunately, the second two speakers weren’t great. Giselle Beiguelman subjected us to about four minutes of video which was accompanied with a cell-phone generated ‘music’ soundtrack that eventually made me stick my fingers in my ears. Note to presenters: you only have to play clips of videos to make your point! I walked out shortly after Tomi T. Ahonen started. I couldn’t stand the self-promotion, generic presentation, lazy statistics and technological determinism. I wasnt the only one to leave.

Learning with Social and Mobile Media

Mimi Ito has two PhDs and is possibly the most eloquent speaker on the planet. She started with a conversation she had with her 13 year-old daughter in the car recently. “I wonder what it’s like to be a typical teenager” said her daughter, meaning those teens who are always on Facebook and texting. Mimi pointed out that conceiving of a ‘digital generation’ has a flattening effect with common-sense telling us that young people’s media use is as stratified as ours. It’s a technically determinist frame that ignores the diversity of young people’s experience of new media.

What’s more interesting than focusing on the outcomes of engagement, argued Mimi, is focusing on who gets to have those experiences. In other words, we need to close the equity gap. Mimi is well known for a book to which she heavily contributed, ‘Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media’. This shared the findings of MacArthur-funded fieldwork between 2005 and 2008, that found:

  1. There is a profound and resilient gap between young and older people’s attitudes toward online media.
  2. There are a variety of learning outcomes, such as baseline literacies/competencies, and technical skills, that result from immersion in new media.
  3. A minority of young people are doing truly extraordinary things with new media.

Mimi is particularly interested in this last group in the follow-up work she has started. Why, if anyone has the ability to broadcast to the world through YouTube, do more teenagers not have videos with 1 million+ hits? The answer, Mimi suggested, is the difference between friendship-driven and interest-driven participation. The former is the digital equivalent of hanging out and flirting, whereas the latter involves participation in ‘affinity spaces’. I should have taken a picture of Mimi’s venn diagram, which consisted of the following circles:

  • Interests, Affinity
  • Friendships, Community
  • Reputation, Achievement

The centre of all this is ‘Connected Learning’, something that YouMedia, the Quest to Learn schools and Mozilla’s Open Badges are trying to help facilitate. Mimi’s work now is looking at what it takes to take the learning from online communities and make it consequential in the offline world. Her research found that, for most people, becoming a really good gamer or fan fiction writer has little impact in other areas of power. Mimi wants to find a way to make this experience “relevant, visible and connected.” We need to find opportunities for young people to exploit what it takes to advocate for their own interests and passions in adult life.

Interestingly, in the Q&A session, Mimi indicated that her hunch for what it is that helps bridge the gap from the ‘Interests, Affinity’ bubble to the ‘Reputation, Achievement’ bubble is a caring adult who helps mediate between the two worlds. We need to focus on the quality of the social relationships. I wonder if she’s seen Sugata Mitra’s ‘Granny Cloud’?


I was inspired by the passion and enthusiasm of John Willinsky, Bob Stein and Mimi Ito today. All three are doing fantastic work in making this world a better place through opening up research, making books more social, and finding how to build on young people’s interests and talents. It would be a tragedy if their ideas are ignored, neglected or overlooked because of convenient excuses such as the financial crisis. I look forward to following their work more closely in future!

Three random things I saw in New York today

  1. Someone (seemingly asleep) in a shopping trolley
  2. A taxi driver jump out of his car and punch someone for jaywalking
  3. A coat hook that someone had turned into an octopus (see below!)

Coat hook Octopus

Encouraging clearer thinking in education, technology and productivity, Doug Belshaw is an educator and activist. He lives in the north of England with his wife and two young children. Doug is currently Researcher/Analyst at JISC infoNet (hosted by Northumbria University) after spending seven years as a teacher and senior leader in various UK schools. He has just submitted his doctoral thesis on the subject of ‘digital literacies’.

Twitter: @dajbelshaw / @dajbconf