Once a “Cheater”, Always a “Cheater”

In the wee morning hours, you’ll find them sitting there huddled around a table or crouched around a tight spot on the floor. There they sit “sharing” their homework.

Yep, some call it sharing. Some call it comparing. Others call it helping. Many call it studying. Most educators would call it cheating.

This scene repeats itself at lunch and in the hallways during passing periods where it is often the sharing of what took place in earlier classes, what was on the quiz or test, and what was or wasn’t collected.

Maybe we should ban their ability to connect? Maybe we should ban their ability to socialize? Maybe we should ban their ability to talk? Maybe we should ban notebooks, paper assignments, and brains that store this information that can easily be transferred to other students?

Why do we barely bat an eye at this, yet we quickly jump to all the “cheating” that will take place if we allow mobile learning devices? Why do we support the banning of mobile learning devices to protect the sanctity of “your” classroom, yet the realities of what could take place with these devices is already happening in analog means?

Maybe we should ban bad assignments and poor assessments, and reallocate class time for collaboration, inquiry, project-based learning, and innovation. Maybe we should ban learning in isolation and keep in mind that today’s cheating is tomorrow’s collaboration.

Technology hasn’t created these problems. It has simply brought to light things that have always been there. It has simply brought these discussions back to the forefront of our thinking. Stop thinking it is a technology problem, get to the root of the problem, and utilize the knowledge we have about what it means to be a good educator.


cc licensed flickr photo by Brunel University: http://flickr.com/photos/bruneluniversity/3720174796/

Habits and Habitats: Rethinking Learning Spaces for the 21st Century

The moment students enter the classroom, the space informs them more than we can imagine about the type of learning the environment will foster and the clear direction the lead learner in the classroom wishes to go.

In many classrooms, the picture is all too familiar: desks in rows, a clear front of the classroom, podium off-center in the front, etc.. Does this image speak to the beliefs we state about 21st Century Learning? Are these spaces best capable of fostering the development of our vision for a well-educated global citizen? Have the spaces been intentionally designed in a way that supports learning and teaching?

Sadly, space design seems to have fallen into “do what we’ve always done” not what will best serve learning. But today, it is not enough to consider the habits we want and the teaching that will get us there. We must begin to provide the habitats that will support the creation and development of the desired habits.

Getting Started with Retinking Your Spaces

Developing the habitats that will foster the desired habits starts with an honest view of your current learning spaces against your vision of learning. In other words, what does it mean to be well-educated and how do our spaces support this vision?

To begin rethinking your spaces, consider going on a walk-about with three administrative team members, three students, and three teachers.

Your Tool Bag

  • Three Groups each consisting of one administrator, one teacher, and one student
  • Common Meeting Space for everyone
  • Mobile Learning Device (at least one per group): access to Google Doc Observation Form (shared amongst all on the walk-about) and ability to capture notes, video, photos, and audio into Evernote (or other software)
  • Physical Notebook for Each Group Member: sketches, hand-written notes, questions, opportunities/concerns, and positives


  1. Distribute reading materials on learning spaces. Recommendation: Learning Space Design, Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out, Third Teacher, and Apple Store Learning Environment
  2. As a group, review your learning (and teaching) vision, and what a graduate looks like upon leaving the learning community. Consider the following questions: what does it mean to be well-educated in today’s society (SHED: Skills, Habits, Experiences, and Dispositions), how does this inform teaching and learning, and what types of spaces will promote this desired teaching and learning?
  3. Classroom Space: Each group randomly visits ten classrooms to review and document the physical space: furniture, use of surfaces, door ways, technology, etc.. Utilize a Google Form with observations questions to quickly document findings and Evernote to highlight keys points in each room. Utilize the notebook to document personal reflections.
  4. Informal and Student Spaces: Each group visits a different portion of your school and reviews the learning potential in the hallways, on surfaces, and within various nooks and crannies.Utilize the Google Form to quickly document findings and Evernote to highlight key findings. Each person utilizes their notebook to identify at least one area that  could be repurposes as a learning space, either formal or informal.
  5. Knowledge/Learning Commons: Visit common areas to determine how these spaces are configured and used to support the vision for learning. Discuss with learners in these spaces could better be used to support how they learn, how they study, how they socialize, and how they hang out, mess around, and geek out? Document findings via Evernote and Google Form
  6. Outside Learning Spaces: As a group, visit a local coffeehouse, an Apple store, and other innovative spaces. Spend time observing how these spaces are used, discuss with workers how they use the space and see others using it, and discuss with visitors their ideas on the space. Document findings in your notebook unless permission is received to use digital documentation.
  7. Debrief: As a group, review your walk-about findings. Discuss these questions after review: What do your spaces imply about where learning occurs? What do your spaces say about how people learn and how learners are motivated?  How are digital spaces and technologies being used to support and amplify physical learning spaces? How do your spaces address this generation’s characteristics? Are there spaces for all learners to learn? What do your spaces say about who drives learning? What do your spaces say about your beliefs and vision of learning? How aligned are your beliefs about learning and teaching with your learning spaces?
  8. Report and Plan(?): Develop a visual report that provides a learning space review based upon your findings. Share this with faculty and discuss whether there is a need to rethink learning spaces to align your learning spaces with the desired pedagogical practices.

Habits and Habitats

Of late, the focus of many educational discussions center on pedagogy, technology, and “21st Century Skills”. However, rethinking the spaces that our learners inhabit eight hours a day, five days a week, and over 180 days a year is just as critical. As Sir Ken Robinson stated, “If we are looking for new pedagogical practices, we have to have facilities that will enable those to happen.”

Thus, it is time to provide the 21st Century Habitats that will foster the desired 21st Century Habits. The question is how will you change the school from a collection of classrooms to a robust multidimensional learning space capable of fostering well-educated, 21st Century citizens?

“Learning spaces encompass the full range of places in which learning occurs, from real to virtual, from classroom to chatroom.” Malcom Brown

“Until people can make their ‘work space’ a learning space, learning will always be a ‘nice idea’— peripheral, not central.” Peter Senge

This post was cross posted at Ed Week’s Leader Talk.


cc licensed flickr photo by pixel pro photography south africa: http://flickr.com/photos/albertbredenhann/2451909582/

cc licensed flickr photo by cdsessums: http://flickr.com/photos/csessums/4389889668/

My Children and “their” Digital Footprints

I read with great interest the CNN article, “Study: 82% of kids under 2 have an online presence” because of our two youngest children.

The article stated “Children can’t change their DNA, and now it seems they’re inheriting another permanent feature from their families — an online presence”, and we are clearly guilty of this as parents.

Fae and Finn, and McKenzie have already started developing their digital footprint with photos on Flickr and Facebook taken by us, family members, and even friends of the family. Are we compromising their future and their identity as the article suggested? Should we make all their photos private? What about Finn’s current reality?

For Finn, he began stamping his own footprints around his 2nd birthdate and the arrival of the iPad. It was with this device that he learned how to navigate and interact on a screen.

Today, he asks nightly for time on the Macbook so he can explore various digital worlds where he is leaving behind a footprint of interactions, creations, and experiences. Perhaps I shouldn’t be in awe with this but I am – so much so that I have to wonder about Fae and when she will begin to take more and more ownership of her footprint.

And like many things, I am back thinking about teenagers: McKenzie and our high school students. They have taken more and more ownership of their digital footprint but they have also lost considerable control of it to their known and unknown friends, peers, classmates, and unfriendly people.

The question, perhaps problem, is why do we continue to have students using pseudonyms and ID#s with their school-based learning? Why are we taking away part of their footprint, a positive and healthy part of their footprint? How are we considering the reality of their existing footprint when creating guidelines for academic work in digital spaces?

I Stayed

There are moments in your life that you know are once in a lifetime. The path you choose during this moment no doubt defines you in ways both known and unknown. Two months ago, an unsolicited phone call while driving down the expressway presented one of those moments.

As I’ve said before, I never wanted to be an educator but I became one with the hopes of changing lives and the educational system. The last ten years I’m not sure I’ve lived up to what I envisioned – I’m tired, frustrated, failing, and falling further behind. It is why this phone call was so enticing. It allowed me to say good-bye to public education and enter the for-profit arena with opportunities for a national impact on school districts.

My wife said go. My family said go. My friends said go. I even said go and wrote the letter announcing just that.

As I crept down the hall to turn in the letter, I heard two students shout “Mr. Bretag… Mr. Bretag… check this out.” Stopping in my track, the students engaged me in their excitement about a project, explained how they wanted to use the “thought lounge” in the IDEA for planning, and challenged me with questions and ideas.

As we departed ways, I walked right by the principal’s office and headed back to my office with memories of my time with students throughout my career whizzing by and the words of the one person that told me not to go ringing in my ears: “you are in this for students, for education, not your ego – choose the right path, the only path”.

It was that moment that I shredded the letter, chose that path, and stayed.

I stayed because my heart is tied to the faces of learners, to the possibilities of public education, and to the changes we’ve yet to make. I couldn’t envision not being in a school on a daily basis. I couldn’t envision working from the outside.

And, to be honest, I stayed because something became really clear… I want to lead a school community – something I was vehemently against in much the same way I was with becoming an educator in the first place.

I surely don’t know what this decision means on many levels, but I know I’ll continue to have the chance to change lives and education from within… exactly where my heart and soul lies.

Thank you to all that gave me advice during this time, but thank you most to those that mentored me through this process especially you, Brian, and, you, Paul.

cc licensed flickr photo by slack12: http://flickr.com/photos/slack12/292635323/

Raise Your Hand…

Raise your hand if you spent time exploring, challenging, refining, and enhancing your professional practice today? Now, raise your other hand if that professional learning took place in a collaborative context with other professionals?

Is your hand raised high or “tied” behind your back?

I’m not a reform expert, but if all educators are not raising their hands almost each and every day when asked, the talk about school change and 21st Century learning environments is lost to the reality that the professionals that make up educations are not professional learners and practitioners. They are simply rooted managers and defenders of their out dated environments.

In other words, these educators are on the verge of committing malpractice.

As we continue to discuss the importance of reforming school for the 21st Century, we must examine the need to reform the educational profession. There simply isn’t a more important time than now to recreate our profession into a teaching AND learning profession.

I’m talking about a collaborative learning culture where professionals are working towards continuous growth by engaging in daily learning: discussing and evaluating practices, challenging assumptions, engaging in new learning opportunities, embracing stretch moments, observing peers, etc. The research on the need for schools to embrace a collaborative learning culture is immense both in breadth and depth, yet these environments represent the exception not the norm or worse are happening in terminology only (i.e. we are a PLC).

This article isn’t another push for organizations to embrace a collaborative learning culture. It is a push for teachers to stop waiting for the organization and become a collaborative professional learner by changing fundamental behaviors inhibiting this and embracing action items that will allow it to happen.

As Michael Fullan states in The New Meaning of Educational Change, “the starting point for working towards a solution is the sobering realization that it cannot be done unless each and every teacher is learning every day” and Alan November adds, “The best thing to invest in right now is collegiality. The number one skill that teachers will need is to be team-based, collegial, sharing their knowledge and wisdom.”

Behavior to Break: Talking Time

Everyone can point to the myriad of daily “Must Dos” that prevent us from having the time to learn. However, using that as a crutch for not learning is inexcusable. If it really matters and has value, a person will make time as working and learning become interwoven.

How would we react to students if they told us they didn’t have time to learn? they didn’t have time to improve upon their skill set? they didn’t need to know that? they didn’t need to try anything new, challenge their current ideas, or push beyond the norm? Would terms like prioritize, organize, time management, etc. be part of our discussion? Many students have so many demands outside of the school day that if we as educators are demanding their learning be 24/7, shouldn’t we be practicing what we preach?

Behavior to Break: Acting Alone

Educators sharing best practices, knowledge and resources should be a no-brainer, but there are many educators still holding onto these things with their lives. Why? Is there a longing to horde these practices so you are look upon as the best teacher? Do we see collegiality as not showing teachers what should be happening in the classroom? It pains me to know end to have teachers refusing to share their knowledge, practices, and resources.

As Marc Prensky articulated in If We Share, We’re Halfway There, “In our ongoing struggle to engage our kids in learning, I believe we are neglecting (or, even worse, deliberately preventing) one of our easiest and best opportunities. If our goal is to bring our schools and classrooms into the 21st century before that century ends, we need to take advantage of the large amount of innovation that is already going on in many of our classrooms by allowing our teachers to share it. And not just with others in their own schools and districts, but with teachers around the world!” When teachers fail to share the great things happening in their classrooms, they are failing their profession and they are failing students”.

There has “to be deep engagement with other colleagues and with mentors in exploring, refining, and improving their practice”, stated Fullan. When teachers are not sharing their practices, knowledge, and resources as professional learners in a collaborative learning culture, it doesn’t matter how much learning is happening in the classroom or how great students see these teachers. To me, they are not professionals and are just as guilty of malpractice as the teacher down the hall refusing to change their outdated practices.

Behavior to Break: Closing the Door

Rick Dufour told a story in a presentation years ago about his sister going through a painful and dangerous eye surgery that would take nearly a year to fix. A few years later, he went to have the same surgery but the surgery had changed drastically. Through Lasik Surgery, he has 20/20 vision within a few days. If that doctor hadn’t changed his practice, Dufour continued, he probably could have sued for malpractice since eye surgery best practices had evolved along with the technology and skills. Dufour compared this to the current reality of the classroom where teachers are metaphorically closing the door to learning and physically closing the door in order to do whatever they want in the classroom. These teachers are in essence committing malpractice when they choose not to be professional learners and choose not to use research-based best practices.

Professional base everything on the latest best practices and constantly are evolving their practices. When a behavior is to the contrary, it is an intolerable behavior and one that needs to be remediated immediately. When a collaborative learning culture is in place, the behavior of closing the door and doing as one pleased is exposed. This exposure shows one of two things: 1. the teacher’s practices are truly best practices and the teacher needs to open the door as a professional learner so that others can learn and grow 2. the teacher’s practices are not at a high level and the teacher needs to open the door as a professional learner so that s/he can learn and grow from others.

Action Items

1. Dedicate a portion of your day to honing your professional practice both locally and digitally

2. Establish a professional learning network

3. Establish and maintain a virtual professional learning space that fosters shared knowledge and resources

4. Make professional reflection, scholarly work, and learning a priority and make it public.

5. Model professional learning for colleagues, students, and parents

6. Take a risk, rethink your norm, challenge your assumptions, and embrace the idea of being disturbed.

Be proud of your explorations. Let it be known what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how others could join in with you. Talk about what you are learning! Being open doesn’t mean being vulnerable! Share your blog and wiki with pride! Focus on collaboration and networking with all you do and bring your colleagues along kicking and screaming if need be. Thus, your action item is to share your blog, wiki, social bookmarks, and learning experiences with as many people as possible in order to promote local collaboration and networking.

These behaviors and action items are points to move on right now. What will you do with this? Will you close the Knowing-Doing Gap that dominates many schools today. As Schmoker says “we can close the gap – right now – between what we know and what we do with learning communities. The benefits for students and for education professionals will be incalculable. So let’s get on with it”. In the end, we need to stop talking about why we can’t and start talking about how we can, so I leave you with three quotes that I hope you’ll ponder in a collaborative learning culture as a professional learner:

“We effect change by engaging in robust conversations with ourselves, our colleagues, our customers, our family, the world…. Your time of holding back, of guarding your private thoughts, is over. Your function in life is to make a declarative statement” – Susan Scott

“Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children” – Sitting Bull

“I would like to suggest that a most fundamental best practice in a professional learning community is to promote the qualities and dispositions of insatiable, lifelong learning in ever member of the school community – young people and adults alike – so that when the school experience concludes, learning will not” – Roland Barth


cc licensed flickr photo by [ d i e g o ]: http://flickr.com/photos/hondapanda/2879098768/