Some Iowa students weigh in on what classes they need for 21st century jobs

Leslie Pralle Keehn, a Social Studies teacher here in Iowa, had her students read The World Is Flat and then asked what ‘classes’ would help prepare them for 21st century jobs. Here are their responses:


I love how none of these are disciplinary silos (which, I’m guessing, is how her students experience most of their school days). What do you think about her students’ responses?

High school students know that their learning isn’t relevant

Bored teenage girls in class

As was so aptly said just a few days ago:

It is hard to make an argument that there are many desirable post-secondary educational or career scenarios for current high school students that will not require the use of computer technology on a daily basis. The kids have known this for quite some time now. High school students know that they will almost certainly be using computers in any desirable job that they manage to get after high school. They know that a computer is a requirement for success in today’s higher eduction environments. They know that, in the “real world,” college students don’t write papers in longhand on loose-leaf notebook paper; they know that, in the “real world,” people don’t create business presentations with markers and paste on poster board or tri-fold displays; they know that, “in the real world,” people who engage in any type of research may still occasionally use books, but they conduct the majority of their research using online tools. They know that, “in the real world,” bankers do not keep their accounts in paper ledger books, or do their financial forecasting only with the aid of a calculator. Yet high school students are regularly asked to write in longhand on notebook paper, make presentations using kindergarten tools, research mostly using books, and do their calculations on paper. Why should anyone be surprised that they don’t find their high school experiences “relevant?”

Do we have the will to integrate digital technologies into students’ learning in regular, frequent, and meaningful ways? Are we brave enough to cast a critical eye at the learning tasks that we assign students and ask difficult but necessary questions about their relevance in a technology-suffused, globally-interconnected society? Are we willing to look at what passes for ‘learning’ and ‘teaching’ and ‘schooling’ on a day-to-day basis in this country and acknowledge that the vast majority of it is mind-numbingly boring and disengaging? Can we recognize that we’re infantilizing our young adults instead of enabling them to be empowered learners, thinkers, and doers?

Robert Fried noted that:

We have opted not to create schools as places where children’s curiosity, sensory awareness, power, and communication can flourish, but rather to erect temples of knowledge where we sit them down, tell them a lot of stuff we think is important, try to control their restless curiosity, and test them to see how well they’ve listened to us. (pp. 58-59)

He also stated that:

[M]ost of what [our students] experience during school hours passes over them like the shadow of a cloud, or through them like an undigested seed. They may be present in the classroom, but they are not really there. Their pencils may be chugging away on the worksheets or the writing prompts or math problems laid out for them, but their intelligence is running on two cylinders at best. They pay some attention to what their teacher happens to be telling them, but their imagination has moved elsewhere. (p. 1)

We could have learning spaces that emphasize hands-on inquiry, critical thinking, collaboration, and authentic, “real world” problem solving instead of teacher lecture, rote practice, and fact regurgitation. We could have learning spaces that spark students’ imaginations and enable them to be interested, engaged learners instead of dulling them into bored compliance. We could have learning spaces that students would choose rather than classrooms that we force students to attend. Shame on us that we don’t.

[cross-posted at Education Recoded]

How NOT to reform American education

evaluation = bad

Alberta, Canada is widely recognized as having one of the best schooling systems in the world. A recent article in Alberta Views highlighted the differences between its system and America’s, noting that the United States is an ‘anti-model’ for how to do school reform:

By contrast we can also learn what not to do from reform in the US, whose education system is in decline. Its elements, implemented over the past two decades, are largely ideological: “market-based” reforms (the application of “business insights” to the running of schools); an emphasis on standardization and narrowing of curriculum; extensive use of external standardized assessment; fostering choice and competition among schools, often with school vouchers; making judgements based on test data and closing “failing schools”; encouraging the growth of charter schools (which don’t have teacher unions); “merit pay” and other incentives; faith that “technologically mediated instruction” will reduce costs; an overwhelming “top-down” approach which tells everyone what to do and holds them accountable for doing it.

This state of affairs is both depressing and harmful, particularly since it’s pretty clear what we should be doing instead. As a recent book, Surpassing Shanghai, notes, school systems around the world (like Japan, Finland, Singapore, and Shanghai) that consistently outperform the U.S. on international assessments do things very differently:

  1. Funding schools equitably, with additional resources for those serving needy students
  2. Paying teachers competitively and comparably
  3. Investing in high-quality preparation, mentoring and professional development for teachers and leaders, completely at government expense
  4. Providing time in the school schedule for collaborative planning and ongoing professional learning to continually improve instruction
  5. Organizing a curriculum around problem-solving and critical thinking skill
  6. Testing students rarely but carefully — with measures that require analysis, communication, and defense of ideas

Schools in the U.S. are failing miserably to prepare most students for a complex, technology-suffused world and a hyperconnected, hypercompetitive global economy. What will it take for Americans to stand up and fight not just against our schooling systems but also against educational reform efforts that take those systems in wrong directions?

Hat tip: Joe Bower (for both the quote and the post title)

[cross-posted at Education Recoded]

Iowa wants to fail 3rd graders (and other thoughts on the Governor’s Education Blueprint)

Over the past month I’ve been reading and thinking about the new Education Blueprint proposed by the Iowa Governor and the Iowa Department of Education (DE) as well as various reactions to that document. If you haven’t yet read Trace Pickering’s insightful (and also lengthy) response to the Blueprint, be sure to do so. Another important read is school change guru Michael Fullan’s recent paper, Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform.

Here are some additional thoughts of my own. These are not all-encompassing – I have additional questions and concerns – but they do constitute a few important issues that caught my attention. I’m also intentionally not commenting on topics for which I’m fairly ambivalent (e.g., charter schools) or don’t know enough (e.g., teacher salary schedules and compensation tiers) and instead will leave those to others who care or know more than I do.

Failing 3rd graders fails our 3rd graders

I’ll pick the low-hanging fruit first. Failing 3rd graders who can’t pass some reading assessment is a really, really bad idea. It doesn’t matter how many safeguards and second chances there are and I understand why the policy is being proposed (both educationally and politically). The bottom line is that, regardless of the ‘social promotion’ rhetoric and whatever gut intuition parents or policymakers may have, the research evidence is overwhelmingly unidirectional that in-grade retention does far more harm than good. Desired test score increases often never materialize and, even if they do, they usually don’t persist past a few years. One of the stronger and consistent findings in educational research is that, in the long run, in-grade retention is at best a long-term wash score-wise and the resultant negative impact on students’ psyches and their likelihood to graduate is horrific. The Governor and DE don’t get to advocate for research-driven practices in other parts of the Blueprint but ignore that requirement here.


We can visualize a box that represents the day-to-day occurrences within a classroom or other learning environment. That box is the most important aspect of schooling: if what students and teachers do on a daily basis in their learning-teaching interactions doesn’t change substantially, all hope of achieving ‘world class schools’ in Iowa vanishes. WE LEARN WHAT WE DO. There are a variety of inputs (e.g., standards, curricula, teacher quality, funding and resources, school structures, technology infrastructure, laws and policies) that hopefully impact what occurs inside the box. We also look at what comes out of the box (e.g., student knowledge, skills, and dispositions) to see if what we wanted to happen actually did happen. This is a classic Input-Process-Output systems model (that hopefully is accompanied by a recursive feedback loop that informs the system).


There are 85 main bullet points, or action ideas, in the Blueprint. As you can see in my annotated version of the Blueprint, I tried to place each action idea into one of three categories: Input, Process, or Output (coded I, P, & O in the document). You are welcome to disagree with my categorizations (and I admit I struggled with some of them), but the evidence is quite stark that the Blueprint is overwhelmingly focused on inputs and outputs and gives very little attention to the day-to-day learning and teaching processes that occur between students and teachers.


This is unsurprising. This is traditional school reform stuff:

We’ll change some inputs; let’s try better teachers and higher standards. Oh, and we’ll also change some structures around. How about reallocating some monies, reorganizing traditional schools a bit, and allowing for charter and online schools? On the back end, we’ll assess like crazy by changing our tests or using new and/or additional ones.

In the end, we change only a little and, if we’re lucky, we see a little change in results. This is the way most states do it, but it’s neither the only way nor the required way. Where in the Blueprint is the recognition that we need to do something DIFFERENT in our classrooms? Where’s the acknowledgment, for example, that we need to invest heavily in teachers’ ability to facilitate learning environments that foster higher-order thinking skills (an increasing necessity these days)? Where’s extensive language about better facilitating student engagement in their courses? There’s virtually nothing about students’ interest in what they’re supposedly learning. There’s nary a bullet point about student hands-on or applied or problem-based learning or authentic intellectual work (a great program already being piloted by DE, by the way). To the extent that PBL and AIW and similar issues are addressed at all, the Blueprint does so indirectly; all hopes lie with effective implementation of the Iowa/Common Core and the Smarter Balanced assessments. Instead of just holding educators ‘accountable’ on the front and back ends of the process, how about directly investing in them so that they actually can be successful? The overwhelming emphasis of the Blueprint is on accountability rather than capacity-building. Go ahead and do a search in the Blueprint for the terms training or professional development or capacity; you won’t find anything. If DE and the Governor are truly serious about ‘world class schooling’ in Iowa, they should be focusing heavily on the Process box – the day-to-day learning and teaching processes occurring in classrooms all across the state – and right now they’re not.

Low-level testing

Much of the Governor’s education concerns appear to be driven by NAEP scores and proficiency levels, despite the fact that most of the items are predominantly factual recall and low-level procedural knowledge AND despite the fact that the designers of NAEP freely admit that the level designations are arbitrary AND despite the fact that the American Institutes of Research notes that most of the nations to which we are comparing Iowa also wouldn’t score well on NAEP. If we want our students to be gaining higher- rather than lower-order thinking skills, end-of-course assessments appear to offer us nothing better. So there’s a lot of new and/or additional testing in the Blueprint that’s focused on stuff you can easily find using Google – or that can be done cheaper by people elsewhere in the world – instead of on the skills and capacities necessary to really foster a world-class citizenry and workforce. We’re not talking about assessments like the College and Work Readiness Assessment or what they do in Singapore. Again, when it comes to higher-order thinking skills, there’s virtually no proposed investment in the Blueprint for the instructional side and all of our hopes rest on the Smarter Balanced assessments, for which right now we have no idea what they will look like and no idea how they will operate. The Blueprint essentially validates and tweaks and expands current testing schemes, despite significant warnings to the contrary from our very own National Research Council.

Digital, global world. Analog, local schools.

It’s a globally-connected world out there, but the Blueprint primarily focuses on globalization as an economic force to which we must respond, not a societal / learning / citizenship issue to which we should attend for mutual benefit and empowerment. The Blueprint also says that Iowa students and graduates need to be internationally competitive but most of what it proposes is vastly different from what other countries are doing to achieve better results. The Blueprint contains no significant investment in teacher capacity-building, no emphasis on early childhood education, no amelioration of the impacts of family and neighborhood poverty on learning, and no recognition of the importance of strategic foreign language learning (particularly at younger ages), just to name a few.

It’s also a digital world out there, but you wouldn’t know it given the lack of emphasis placed on technology in the Blueprint. For example, only nominal attention is paid to online learning, despite the fact that it’s booming nationwide and despite Iowa’s meager offerings compared to other states. Even though Iowa ranks abysmally low when it comes to Internet speed and access, there’s nothing regarding the importance of universal statewide broadband Internet access for both educational and economic development purposes. Most damning, there’s absolutely no recognition of the power and potential of digital technologies to transform learning, teaching, and schooling, despite the rapid and radical reshaping of every other information-oriented societal sector by digital tools and the Web. In the world of the Blueprint, it’s as if computers and the Internet essentially didn’t exist. Go ahead and do a search in the Blueprint for the terms Internet or digital or technology; the omissions are quite alarming, actually. There’s one meager shout-out to the rapid growth in 1:1 laptop initiatives across the state, but no support for giving every Iowa child a powerful digital learning device, for providing technology integration assistance for educators, for upgrading woeful infrastructures, for rethinking policies, or for anything else of substance when it comes to educational technology. It’s 2011. Personal computers have been around for three decades and the Internet has been around for at least a dozen years for most of us. Digital technologies are transforming how Iowans and the world connect, collaborate, and LEARN; this omission is both sad and shameful.

A lost opportunity

There are a few things that I’m glad the Blueprint included. Although there is only a single bullet point referencing competency-based (rather than age-based) student progression, if done well that one thing alone has the potential to significantly and positively reshape much of how we do education in Iowa. I also like the willingness to invest in district-level innovation and to give districts some flexibility. The proof of most of this, like everything else, will depend on the legislative language and the resources committed.

As I think about the Blueprint as a whole (and we are encouraged by the document to treat it as ‘a set of changes designed to work together’), it feels like a lost opportunity. The Governor and DE had the chance to dream big and swing for the fences. They had the chance to propose impactful, sweeping changes to the current system. They had the chance to create learning and teaching environments that prepare students for the next 50 years rather than the last 50 and to educate the public as to why those changes are necessary. The Blueprint rhetoric is right but the action items fall far short. I don’t know if it’s a lack of knowledge or vision or courage that’s holding them back, and of course there are political considerations with all of this. But the result is a a tweak of the current system, a tinkering at the edges rather than a rethinking of the core. Perhaps it’s foolish of me to wish for more.

I welcome all feedback. Thanks.

Shift Happens v5 – Iowa, Did You Know? [VIDEO]

TrappedThe Did You Know? (Shift Happens) videos have been seen by at least 40 million people online and perhaps that many again during face-to-face conferences, workshops, etc. This week saw the release of the latest version, this one focused on the state of Iowa. Titled Iowa, Did You Know?, the video is aimed at Iowa policymakers, citizens, and educators and is intended to help them feel a greater sense of urgency when it comes to changing our schools. Right now there’s a fair amount of complacency; the average Iowan isn’t coming to his or her school board or politician saying, “Hey, why aren’t you preparing my kids for this digital, global world we now live in?!”

Take a look at the video and see what you think. Even if you don’t live in Iowa, I think you’ll find it quite pertinent to your educational context too. More thoughts and resources after the video…

Additional resources

We are hopeful that the video will be shown to groups all over the state. It comes with a facilitator’s guide to help spark conversation as well as PDF versions of each slide. The idea is that any local group – school, Rotary club, senior citizens’ center, community group, or book club (or even just a small bunch of neighbors) – can convene for 30–60 minutes, show the video, and then start talking and acting. Additional resources and information are available at the Iowa Future web site to help these groups. We need a groundswell of Iowans to start advocating for 21st, not 19th, century schools.

Leadership Day 2011

TrappedIn addition to announcing Iowa, Did You Know?, this post also is going to serve as my Leadership Day 2011 contribution. If our schools are going to ‘shift’ and prepare students for the next (rather than the last) half century, school leaders are going to have to be much more proactive about engaging with parents, community members, and policymakers. Whether it’s pulling snippets from this blog or Mind Dump and mentioning them at every possible gathering, showing videos like this one and inviting discussion and action, or finding ways to regularly and visibly highlight innovative student and teacher uses of higher-order thinking skills and digital technologies, principals and superintendents can’t just focus on what occurs within their school systems. We MUST engage the public and we MUST engage the people who make policy at the state and federal levels. Right now we’re not doing this nearly as much as we should be. For example, we debuted Iowa, Did You Know? at the School Administrators of Iowa conference earlier this week. I heard lots of comments afterward from administrators about how excited they were to show the video to their staffs. But nary a single one said that he or she was excited to use it to help spark needed conversations with parents, citizens, or legislators. If we don’t have these latter conversations too, we’ll continue to run into the external mindset and funding/policy constraints that surround and hinder what we do, regardless of how innovative we are internally.

Does every state need a video like Iowa, Did You Know? Probably. If not a video, then a report or a recorded speech or something that galvanizes citizens to start putting pressure on school boards and lawmakers to do something DIFFERENT when it comes to learning, teaching, and schooling. Right now most of the discussion regarding educational reform is simply tweaking what we’ve always done, trying to make it a bit better or more intense. Given the transformational impacts of digital technologies on learning, communication, the global economy, our jobs, entertainment, and just about every other area of life we can think of, tweaking just doesn’t cut it.

With gratitude

It is with great appreciation that I thank:

  • Troyce Fisher, School Administrators of Iowa, and everyone else involved with the Iowa Future initiative for being so patient with me as I worked to get this done, for insisting that the video have an encouraging ending, and for having the original vision for a visibility initiative to reach Iowa citizens and legislators, not just educators.
  • XPLANE, who now has done the graphics on 3 of the 5 ‘official’ versions of Did You Know? and who came through yet again despite a very tight timeline. I can’t emphasize enough how creative the folks there are and how wonderful they are to work with. I have absolutely no hesitation recommending them for any project, any time. They are truly amazing and gifted.
  • All of the wonderful Iowans, educators or otherwise, who will help spread this video across the state and maximize its impact. I’m thanking you all in advance; it’s up to us to make these conversations happen!
  • Karl Fisch, who started the whole Did You Know? phenomenon and has graciously included me on every step along the way.

Previous videos in the Did You Know? series are available at the Shift Happens wiki. Source files for Iowa, Did You Know? will be available there soon.

Happy viewing!


Reflections on the Iowa Education Summit

TrappedI’ve spent the last two days at the Iowa Education Summit. Now that it’s over, I have a multitude of thoughts and observations swirling around in my head. Here are eight…

1. Politics over substance?

From the anti-Governor Christie flyers distributed at the entrances to the invited guests who appeared to be there for political reasons rather than their possible contributions to Iowa education, there was a great deal of political theater at the Summit. I’ll leave it at that. You can decide for yourself who was invited for what reasons.

On a related note, many participants left the Summit saying that they didn’t learn much that was new and that they wished that there was more discussion about solutions rather than repeated reminders of how much Iowa education sucks. Personally, I enjoyed hearing from the various experts that were invited. There was a lot of brainpower at the Summit and I enjoyed hearing perspectives from other places during our two days together. We’ll need equal brainpower, however, to sift through all of the commentary and determine what to do next in terms of policy and implementation.

2. The ascendance of Twitter

The backchannel on Twitter was phenomenal. I have the very naive wish that Iowa policymakers would spend some time going through the tweets. The backchannel conversation was witty, passionate, insightful, both challenging AND supportive, and, most of all, real. Whatever political points were being attempted on stage were dissected in depth and filtered through the honest reality of learning, teaching, and living in Iowa. The very best barometers of how crowd members were receiving the intended message(s) were the tweets at #iaedsummit.

The Summit was the first event I’ve attended in Iowa where the Twitter backchannel was so robust that I had trouble keeping up. I don’t know how many of the 1,600 attendees actually were on Twitter, but the sheer volume of tweets was astounding. I know several people who signed up for Twitter there at the Summit so that they wouldn’t miss the side discussion.

3. ‘Sit and get’ and clickers do not a conversation make

There was extremely limited opportunity for interaction and dialogue at the Summit. Thank goodness for the Twitter stream. The Summit consisted primarily of smart ‘experts,’ either individually or on panels, talking down at the audience (literally down, from a raised dais). Occasionally we got to answer a multiple choice question using Promethean ‘clickers.’ Occasionally we got to ask a question during a breakout panel. If we were really lucky, perhaps a question we wrote on an index card would be read out loud to solicit a speaker response. This does not constitute a conversation any more than a teacher lecture with a few clicker questions and a brief opportunity for student questions constitutes a classroom discussion.

The stated purpose of the Summit was ‘to build a consensus for how to give all [Iowa] students a world-class education.’ I don’t see how Iowans can build a consensus when we’re not allowed to talk and argue and share and collaborate. We need a different structure if we’re truly going to have a dialogue about the future of Iowa education.

4. What could have been

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gives a good speech (and really shines during Q & A). So do current and/or past Governors Chris Christie, Jim Hunt, and our very own Terry Branstad. But the crowd favorite by far was Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond. In a concise, focused talk replete with research and evidence instead of political talking points, she spelled out what high-achieving nations do (and don’t do) in order to achieve high and equitable levels of student learning. Dr. Darling-Hammond was in the running for U.S. Secretary of Education. After hearing her speak, many in the crowd found themselves wishing that she had been selected.

5. NAEP or nope?

One of the driving statistics for the Summit – which was cited repeatedly – was Iowa’s alarming drop in national rank on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). I confess that I found it humorous when Dr. Darling-Hammond began discussing higher-order versus lower-level thinking skills. To illustrate her point, she showed an example of a shoddy multiple-choice assessment question for high-schoolers, which just so happened(?) to come from NAEP. Given the consistent emphasis throughout the conference by all of the presenters on the need for more students to be proficient in higher-order thinking skills, I know I wasn’t the only one in the audience wondering why we’re so concerned about results on an assessment rife with lower-level items.

Secretary Duncan and other speakers highlighted federal and other initiatives that are aimed at creating assessments that get at higher-level student work. So should we really care about Iowa’s rank on NAEP since most of the assessment doesn’t get at what we really need to get at?

6. Technology was largely absent

Although there were a few quick shout-outs to the power of technology to transform student learning, there weren’t many specifics given. Secretary Duncan, for example, cited the power of technology to better ‘deliver information’ [emphasis added] during his Q & A time (and mentioned technology not a whit during his main speech). For those of us who are used to talking about the power and potential of digital technologies to empower student voice and engagement, facilitate authentic work, and connect learners to the global information commons and its participants (just to name a few affordances), the lack of specificity was dismaying. I suspect that the very basic treatment of technology stemmed from folks’ fairly basic understandings of what is possible these days. An exception was Max Phillips, who serves on the Iowa State Board of Education and who is thinking big. Very big. I wish we had more policymakers in Iowa who were ready to join him.

As I said on Monday, it’s time for us to get serious about school technology in this state (we can start by having wireless Internet access at every public Department of Education function like this one).

7. We’re ready for something different

Iowa is ready for something different. It’s ready for the things that Dr. Darling-Hammond described. If you look at what high-achieving nations actually do to achieve their learning outcomes – the outcomes that Iowa says it also wants to achieve – their efforts are not in the domains of:

  1. greater test-based accountability,
  2. improvement of teacher quality through implementation of alternative certification routes,
  3. charter schools, or
  4. reexamination of teacher compensation structures.

Instead, they are:

  1. creating assessments of higher-order thinking skills,
  2. reducing the frequency of student testing,
  3. empowering and trusting teachers,
  4. providing adequate social supports for children and families,
  5. substantially investing in better initial teacher and administrator preparation,
  6. increasing opportunities for educators to collaborate and share expertise, and
  7. equalizing educational resources across schools. 

The panel members generally were closer to what Dr. Darling-Hammond shared with us. The Summit’s main speakers, however, placed great emphasis on the first four items. Which brings me to my last thought…

8. Genuine dialogue or political cover?

The great unknown is whether Governor Branstad and the Iowa Department of Education truly intended the Summit to initiate a statewide dialogue about what effective learning, teaching, and schooling should look like in the state or whether the Summit was just to give cover for implementation of an already-determined political / educational agenda. Only time will tell. Right now I’m willing to take Iowa Education Director Dr. Jason Glass (whom I like more and more every time I interact with him) at his word when he says that he wants us to build the solution together. He’s not the political boss, however, and there was a lot of cynicism regarding this issue in the crowd. If we see policy proposals that heavily emphasize items 1–4 above and deemphasize items 5–11, for example, those skeptics will feel vindicated.

Despite what may seem like an overly-critical tone for this post, I enjoyed the Summit and am glad I attended and participated. Like many of the other speakers there, I believe that we have an opportunity to do – and already are doing – great things in Iowa education. In some areas, we have promising initiatives (like the Authentic Intellectual Work, 1:1 laptop, VREP, and instructional rounds movements) that just need scaling up. In other areas, we have much more to do.

Let the real work begin.

Image credit: spartannielsen

My opening remarks at the Iowa Education Summit

TrappedI served on a panel, Education in a Digital World, at the Iowa Education Summit today. Here is what I said during my 5 minutes of opening remarks.

Good afternoon,

We have to start with the recognition that digital technologies are transforming EVERYTHING.

Technology is allowing everyone to do more powerful and also more complex work, but that creative power is accompanied by significant disruptive impacts. For example, the same technologies that allow us to have a voice, find each other, and work together also are destroying geographic boundaries. We’re seeing to our dismay that offshoring and outsourcing allow everyone, everywhere to compete with each other and with us. In addition to replacing jobs here with folks overseas, jobs also are being destroyed 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. In short, these new tools are radically transforming every single other information-oriented segment of our economy.

Does the workforce preparation that most Iowa schools do reflect our new hyperconnected, hypercompetitive global economy and the impacts of these new technologies? Nope.

More important than the economic concerns, however, is that digital technologies also allow for dramatic impacts on learning. For example, 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, 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, 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, our students and teachers now have the ability to learn about whatever they want, from whomever they want, whenever and wherever they want, and they also can contribute to this learning environment for the benefit of others.

But most Iowa schools do little if any of this. Instead, as Collins & Halverson have noted,

schools have kept new digital technologies on the periphery of their core academic practices. Schools … do not try to rethink basic practices of teaching and learning. Computers have not penetrated the core of schools, even though they have come to dominate the way people in the outside world read, write, calculate, and think.

If we were REALLY serious about educational technology, we would do things like…

  • put a robust digital learning device into every student’s hands (or let them bring and use their own) instead of pretending that we live in a pencil, notebook paper, and ring binder world;
  • we’d teach students how to properly maintain and manage those computing devices rather than removing user privileges and locking down the ability to change any settings;
  • we’d show students how to edit their privacy settings and use groups in their social networks instead of banning those networks because they’re ‘dangerous’ and/or ‘frivolous’;
  • we’d teach students to understand and contribute to the online information commons rather than ‘just saying no’ to Wikipedia;
  • we’d understand the true risk of students encountering online predators and make policy accordingly instead of succumbing to scare tactics by the media, politicians, law enforcement, computer security vendors, and others;
  • we’d find out the exact percentage of our schools’ families that don’t have broadband Internet access at home rather than treating the amorphous ‘digital divide’ as a reason not to assign any homework that involves use of the Internet;
  • we’d treat seriously and own personally the task of becoming proficient with the digital tools that are transforming everything instead of nonchalantly chuckling about how little we as educators know about computers;
  • we’d recognize the power and potential (and limitations) of online learning rather than blithely assuming that it can’t be as good as face-to-face instruction;
  • we’d tap into and utilize the technological interest and knowledge of students instead of pretending that they have nothing to contribute;
  • we’d integrate digital learning and teaching tools into subject-specific preservice methods courses rather than marginalizing instructional technology as a separate course;
  • we’d better educate and train school administrators rather than continuing to turn out new leaders that know virtually nothing about creating, facilitating, and/or sustaining 21st century learning environments;
  • And so on…

If we were really serious about technology in schools, we’d do these things and more. But we don’t.

Look, we know, simply from projecting current trends forward, that in the future our learning will be even more digital, more mobile, and more multimedia than it is now. Our learning will be more networked and more interconnected and often will occur online, lessening our dependence on local humans. Our learning frequently will be more informal and definitely will be more self-directed, individualized, and personalized. Our learning will be more computer-based and more software-mediated and thus less reliant on live humans. Our learning will be more open and more accessible and may occur in simulation or video game-like environments. And so on. We’re not going to retrench or go backward on any of these paths. 

Here in Iowa we thus need to begin envisioning the implications of these environmental characteristics for learning, teaching, and schooling. We need school leaders who can design and operationalize our learning environments to reflect these new affordances. If we are going to create schools that are relevant to the needs of students, families, and society, we need policymakers who are brave enough to create the new paradigm instead of simply tweaking what we’ve always done.

Here in Iowa we’re currently spending less on school technology than we did a decade ago. Of the 40 states that have some sort of online learning options for students, we are near the very bottom in terms of number of students served. We continue to do the same old, same old and try to sprinkle a little bit of technology on top instead of putting these learning tools at the HEART of everything that we do. We must do better than this.

It’s 2011. It’s time for us to be serious about school technology. And right now as a state we’re anything but.

Thank you.

A technology broadside against school leadership preparation programs

TrappedWell, I finally wrote the article I always wanted to write: a letter to my 3,000+ faculty peers in Educational Leadership preparation programs all across the country about how our collective inattention to technology-related issues is an embarrassing indictment of our lack of relevance:

Regular readers of this blog will recognize some of the language that I used in my broadside against my own profession. Here are a few quotes to whet your appetite:

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 customized, personalized 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 interconnected global 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.


If every other information-oriented societal sector is finding that transformative reinvention is the cost of survival in our current climate, schools and universities shouldn’t expect that they somehow will be immune from the same changes that are radically altering their institutional peers. We shouldn’t pretend that these revolutions aren’t going to affect us too, in compelling and often as yet unknown ways. And, yet, for some reason we do.

As long-existing barriers to learning, communicating, and collaborating disappear – and as what it means to be a productive learner, citizen, and employee shifts dramatically – it’s worth asking how we as educational leadership faculty and programs are responding. Are we doing what we should? To date the evidence is pretty clear that most of us are not.


Can we as educational leadership faculty do better? Given the scale and scope of the transformations occurring around us – and their power and potential for student learning – we MUST do better. It’s embarrassing to consider how little we’ve done to stay relevant. A learning revolution has occurred and – given the attention we’ve paid it – it’s as if many of us didn’t care.


We know, simply from projecting current trends forward, that in the future our learning will be even more digital, more mobile, and more multimedia than it is now. It will be more networked and more interconnected and often will occur online, lessening dependence on local humans. It frequently will be more informal and definitely will be more self-directed, individualized, and personalized. It will be more computer-based and more software-mediated and thus less reliant on live humans. It will be more open and more accessible and may occur in simulation or video game-like environments. And so on. We’re not going to retrench or go backward on any of these paths. We thus need school leaders who can begin envisioning the implications of these environmental characteristics for learning, teaching, and schooling. We need administrators who can design and operationalize our learning environments to reflect these new affordances. We need leaders who are brave enough to create the new paradigm instead of simply tweaking the status quo and who have the knowledge and ability to create schools that are relevant to the needs of students, families, and society.

Like teachers, administrators, and media specialists, educational leadership faculty have a voluntarily-assumed (and paid) responsibility to be relevant to the needs of children and education today and to prepare administrators as best we are able for tomorrow. Our professional priorities must be aimed at preparing our graduates for the world as it is and will be. Otherwise, what are we here for? In other words, who’s going to prepare these school leaders if we don’t?

Please share this widely

Want to help further my cause of fostering technology-savvy school leaders? Share the Summer 2011 issue of the UCEA Review with any Educational Leadership faculty members that you know. I also think the article is good reading for most practicing administrators; in 4 short pages it sums up much of what I think principals and superintendents should be thinking about right now regarding 21st century schooling. Other great reads in the issue include Matt Militello’s article on technology integration challenges (p. 15), Jon Becker’s article on open access (p. 17), and the interview with John Nash (p. 12), one of my CASTLE co-directors.

All thoughts, reactions, and suggestions regarding my article are most welcome. The ironies of publishing my piece in a print / PDF medium are not lost on me, but sometimes you have to put your writing where your intended audience can find it.

Happy reading!


How To Teach For Jobs That Don’t Exist [guest post]

In my short time as an educator, I have already suffered through enough acronyms, initiatives, and memes to give me a dull sense of despondence not unlike some of the more deafeningly quiet scenes from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, I do not want it to be this way.

One of the first “movements” that I was introduced to was the Rigor & Relevance movement. This was followed quickly by an excited mentioning of “21st Century Skills.” I had never heard of such things and wondered how a new teacher of Calculus and Physics was supposed to teach students these skills. I tried to avoid my evolutionary response of squirting black goo from my eyes at the mere mentioning of another edu-trend, and I really tried to cut through the chatter:

TrappedI was told to teach for the jobs that have not even been imagined yet. I was told to teach for the student who will switch professions more times than my pregnant wife changes sleeping positions. As per usual, the question of how to do this was left largely unanswered. There was, however, a very inspirational YouTube video with a lot of appearing and disappearing buzz words.

So, I stand here before you, asking the question to myself and all other practicing teachers: How does the glut-of-information age affect how we run our schools? How do we realize that those students who look bored, might be so simply because they’re learning more outside of school rather than in it? How do you deal with the fact that the ability levels in your classes are going to become even more diverse?

This is really the heart of the “21st Century Skills” movement. After a walk-in-the-woods moment, I came up with these two solutions:

  1. In class, I must make no qualms about my hatred for grades and earning points for anything other than learning. (i.e.: No notebook checks, homework, attendance points, behavior points, or other token economies)
  2. I have to admit that I am no longer the most efficient content delivery system on the block. I am now nothing more than an experienced investigator, trained in the art of guiding younger hikers along the trail.

A. Points and grades are flotsam and nothing more. They are the burning wreckage of an over-used and over-assumed system of Pavlovian control that has created our school system’s stigma. This is a stigma so prevalent that it is often assumed: just imagine the comic portrayal of school in the Simpson’s, or think back to how many negative words are often associated with the start of school each Fall.

As a group of teachers, my building has decided to do something different. We’ve adopted the premise that learning matters. Grades — for now — are forced on us, so we’re going to milk that system for every ounce of learning we can get out of it. We’ve stopped grading practice (i.e. Homework), we’ve stopped using summative assessments as executioner’s axes, and most beautifully, kids have started to ask really fantastic questions. We call it standards-based grading, but the word “standards” is a misnomer: we create the standards, and use them as anchors for free-floating classrooms.

B. I am no longer payed to profess facts. My students do not need me in order to learn the conic sections, or to find the derivative of a composition of functions. My students do not need me in order to derive the equations of motion, nor to espouse the addition of vectors. This is quite possibly the biggest relief I have ever experienced.

I am now free to model for them what a life of learning looks like. I am now free to guide them through the often disastrous process of really getting something. What’s most euphoric, is that I can now take their questions and design instruction that may never happen again simply because I will never have the same students twice.

I’m still not sure how I’m supposed to teach for occupations that don’t exist, but I know this feels like a good start.

Shawn Cornally teaches Physics, Calculus, & Computer Programming in Eastern Iowa. He blogs at Think Thank Thunk. He is petrified of being irrelevant and ineffective in the classroom.