Accept Challenges

One of the most refreshing articles I’ve read recently is “Does the Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind?” by Jaron Lanier.

A big reason is that it strikes personally at the heart of what appears to be too common these days in online circles of educators: an unwavering belief that we know all we need to know about teaching and learning, so schools and teachers need to follow the obvious path we are placing in front of them.

  • teachers must use technology
  • this generation of students ______________ <– fill in the blank
  • a PLN (in the online sense) is a must for all educators
  • the brain is _____ so teachers must  ________
  • social media is the savior of education

And it isn’t just online. Education journals, conferences, newspapers, government officials, etc. lament about the world that is upon us and how we must change. But, have we stopped to consider whether the reason we want to change is because we dislike what is currently in place or because the change will truly transform learning and lives of students? As Lanier states, “You could spend all day reading literature about educational technology without being reminded that this frontier of ignorance lies before us. We are tempted by the demons of commercial and professional ambition to pretend we know more than we do.”

No question, I have spoke along similar lines but hopefully more times than not with the word of caution that many are still establishing a sense of what this means. I can hear the arguments right now: what are we suppose to do then, wait?; anything is better than what we have.; my personal experience tells me that….

But Lanier reminds us that we continue to shape much of our decisions based upon hypotheses of what is possible such as the popular push for how this generation’s brain functions: “Some of the top digital designs of the moment, both in school and in the rest of life, embed the underlying message that we understand the brain and its workings. That is false. We don’t know how information is represented in the brain.”

More and More

Lanier’s article wraps around nicely with the growing body of literature that asks for pause and reflection with educational technology, but it seems those that will take pause will be those that were already concerned with this push.

The point is that those of us that believe in the potential of technology should be cautious of our own biases. We should be leery of losing our ability to critical think. We should be cognizant of just how much we don’t know about the things we tend to claim we know a lot.

To be leaders in the field of education, we need to embrace,  consider, and reflect upon such works and challenges in order to create a better world for students. The defensive reactions, flippant attitudes, and all or nothing bravado towards anyone not drinking Kool-Aid are exactly what is not needed.

cc licensed flickr photo by yeowatzup:

Talking Textbooks in Florida

I just finished reading the news report “Woodlawn Elementary thinks outside the book to pull D to a B” and here are but a few thoughts and questions among many that I have regarding textbooks:

  1. Are textbooks the reason for/cause of/obstacle to student achievement or Is the implementation and instructional use of textbooks the problem? a combination?
  2. Are the results produced at Woodlawn replicable in other schools? What conditions positioned this to be a successful move?
  3. Will the Woodlawn teachers return to textbooks at some point? What will be different?
  4. Are textbooks a resource? a critical component to uncovering curriculum? an instructional choice?
  5. How can textbooks be better leveraged in the classroom?

Textbooks routinely take a beating in discussions surrounding teaching and learning. But, what is the real issue we are attempting to confront in these discussions? Stories like the one out of Woodlawn don’t lead me to an anti-textbook campaign but a desire to discuss comments such as this one from the story, “We took the math book out of classroom so teachers won’t follow it page by page,” which speaks to number one above.

Get Deep and You'll Get Bigger Ideas

I tend to experience a gag reflect every time I come across someone referencing revolution with web 2.0. That is why I was a bit surprised that I actually found myself reading and interested in a recent post on Remote Access that questions just how revolutionary the ideas in the edu blogosphere are if  not challenged or threatened.

While I’m not convinced what we are discussing is revolutionary, I’m of the mindset that much of the discussion is not being heard or what is being heard is poorly contextualized. Part of the reason I believe it is not being heard is the tendency to focus on pockets of excellence whereby the use of technology is still primarily a teacher’s choice not something being discussed in terms of systemic change.

What also concerns me are some assumptions that I also see as problematic if a “revolution” <gag> is the goal:

We know a lot of things. We’ve learned plenty about using social tools in the classroom. We know that kids blogging, taking photos and editing podcasts is a Good Thing. We know that kids have to learn to be safe online. We know that the important thing is not the tools (“Gotta learn Blogger”)  or even in the pedagogy behind them, but is in the different type of learning that these things make possible.

First of all, who is the “we” referenced? I’m going to guess that the “we” consists of those that would call themselves educational technologists. However, I would question that “we” have really learned “plenty” about social tools. I would question that we “know” that blogs and podcasts are a good thing — what exactly do we mean by good thing? In many ways, this is focusing on tools which the author says is not the point. Is it a good thing that students blog or a good thing that students are writing in a public space that is their own in which collaboration and communication can occur in a different context than without a digital space?

While I think the pedagogical piece is of critical importance, I do understand and value the point about different learning contexts. However, much of this is not really known and being discussed beyond “the students were so engaged”, which is a bit tiring in its use as a means of support for why to use participatory media.

I guess the question is more about are all these things we know a lot about the things we need to know for change? If so, to whom do we share this information? If not, what things do we need to know and to whom do we communication this information to spark this “revolution”?

The answer is in the post: research.

It was this part that really connected with me in this article. Not only that, it is why I don’t see the change or revolution occurring. There are just assumption after assumption being made especially by people that spend little time in schools outside of consulting gigs and more time reading all the hype in business books in order to push the latest fad or semantic revolution.

But I digress.

The great point in this article and why I find myself writing about it is the need to engage in quantitative and qualitative research to support our opinions, assumptions, and anecdotal evidence. There is a need to form partnerships with universities. There is a need for action research supported and sponsored by leaders in the schools and in conjunction with researchers at universities. This is also a why I don’t think we need to constantly think about something new. I’d like to see us get deep with ideas instead of living up to being a mile wide and an inch deep. This to me is getting on with big ideas — getting deep with what we already have!

Finally, I do think we need stop thinking teachers can’t do this and start engaging these professionals in scholarship — <gulp> dare I say a little Boyer in K-12 might go a long way. However, the key is the need to take what is being discussed amongst the various little networks out there and get universities involved to engage in solid research that helps legitimize what some are seemingly hoping people will just blindly accept.

Raise Your Hands

Cross Posted at Techlearning

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? 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 (e.g. PLC), yet these environments represent the exception not the norm.

Thus, 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”.

As Michael Fullan stated, there has “to be deep engagement with other colleagues and with mentors in exploring, refining, and improving their practice”. 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
There are professional learning opportunities around every corner both locally and virtually. Observing your peers is a great way to learn and technology has made it quite easy. For instance, Ustream and other video technology make it so you can watch your peer teach live without having to be in the room or you can watch later if you are teaching during that time. Another great way to begin learning on a daily basis and one of my favorite ways of honing my professional practice is through exploring, reflecting, and responding to my RSS Reader on a daily basis — something David Jakes often mentions every professional educator should be able to for 15 minutes a day. Thus, your action item is to begin leveraging video technology to observe your peers and establish an RSS Reader to begin reading on a daily basis.

2. Establish a professional learning network
Technology affords us every opportunity to develop a virtual network that lives and breathes 24/7. What use to be limited to traditional face to face, MOOs and list-servs has evolved into expansive networks that offer an abundance of learning opportunities: Nings, Twitter, Ustream, Diigo, and virtual worlds like Second Life. Every single day, events by leading theorists and expert practitioners are taking place and open to anyone around the world. How often are you taking place in these? How often are you grabbing a colleague and helping them join in the learning? Thus, your action item is to begin establishing learning networks like Classroom 2.0.

3. Establish and maintain a virtual professional learning space that fosters shared knowledge and resources
Technology has made it extremely simple to start and maintain a space. No longer does it take HTML knowledge to start a website and begin sharing your resources. A simple wiki allows one to create a powerful learning space allowing for shared knowledge and resources that is easy to update and to promote collaboration. Given the built-in discussion board, it also allows for the opportunity to discuss these resources so that everyone is growing from the collaboration around the ideas. The other piece of technology that makes sharing easy is social bookmarking. Thus, your action item is to create an account on a social bookmarking platform like Delicious or Diigo as well as create a wiki for your professional learning space and begin sharing today.

4. Make professional reflection and scholarly work a priority and make it public.
I am a firm believer that each professional should have a blog where your reflective practices and scholarly work are public. As Barth so clearly articulates in Turning Book Burners into Lifelong learners, “only when [teachers] disclose their learning will they fully foster lifelong learning in others”. By blogging about your practices, you are embracing the concept of growth, openly examining your assumptions and beliefs about teaching and learning, and acknowledging the value in collaboration with a glocal community. Thus, your action item is to create a blog and begin actively using it as to professionally reflect as well as use it to document action research.

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

From Their Perspective

This is the future… students want and need this… education needs to move here… if you aren’t doing this, your failing students… we can’t lose content… this is a fad… I don’t have time…

In some form or fashion, comments like these are becoming common amongst educators discussing technology especially web 2.0. While these discussions are critical, these are usually only occurring amongst adults with assumptions being made about “what students really want and need”.

It isn’t time for assumptions. No longer should we be assuming the perspective of students when it comes to technology. As Marc Prensky (2008) recently noted, it is time to involve students in the process of discussing technology in order “to hear all points of view and establish school policies” (p.43).

The last two weeks, I had the opportunity to begin involving students in these discussions: How do they feel about the infusion of technology into the classroom? What do they know about all of these “emerging technologies”? What should the learning environment look like in the future? Why do they feel, if at all, technology is of value to their own learning? What is the connection between their current use of technology and the technology educational technologist long to see used in the classroom? What are their thoughts about 1:1 computing? What classroom and personal learning value do these various web 2.0 tools that my network felt were important have?

Their thoughts, ideas, and insights offer much to the discussions occurring about educational technology. Will we listen? Will we begin having these discussions in our own school? Are we willing to challenge our own beliefs about technology based upon their beliefs?

Value-Add Focus

Throughout all my discussions with students, the focus always came to the value-add. While students found many concepts and tools exciting, it quickly turned to determining the value technology had on their own learning and growth potential.

For instance, the concept of Google Docs went right to how it allows them to collaborate on their work easier and how it makes collaboration less frustrating and creates equity because the teachers can see what is happening. In other words, they wanted to discuss the value it brought to their world.

As we get excited about this tool and that tool, these students are living breathing proof that it is all about the value-add not the tools. In fact, students were quick to point out that a lot of these tools do the same thing. Thus, they wanted to focus on how it helped them to learn better, manage their time better, and experience the world better. As one student stated, “the possibilities are unlimited” so focus on the possibilities.

Another critical point raised was that value-add was in conjunction with the valuable things already taking place in the classroom. For example, the concept of 1:1 computing didn’t make every student jump for joy. It raised questions and concerns about what that meant for the learning environment, how was it going to raise the quality of teaching and learning, and what it meant for the non-technology related practices that they find extremely important.

Bottom line: They weren’t impressed with technology for technology sake. They use technology when it adds to their life NOT just to use it.

Desire for Two Worlds: Personal and Professional

One point clearly articulated by the students is the need for two different worlds: personal and professional. They didn’t see a need or a value in blending their personal world with their academic studies.

For example, in discussing Ning, the students saw it as very similar to MySpace or Facebook. When prompted about the value of having teachers use MySpace or Facebook since most of the students are using those, they immediately said no. That is their space. Their World. If teachers want to be on there, fine but not to connect with the students.

However, they saw a value in social networking and liked what it could do for connecting and communicating. For example, the students felt that something like a Ning would be ideal academic use and it kept the worlds separate.

Bottom line: They recognize the difference between an academic space and a personal space, and they want to keep the two separate. However, they see social networking as a valuable addition to the classroom so long as it is treated as academic social networking.

Open Minded NOT Familiar

Net Generation, Digital Natives, iGeneration, and on and on. Whatever you want to label this group, the reality is that these students stand-out with technology not because of what they know or are familiar with but what they are open to experiencing.

Throughout our discussions, it was clear almost every web 2.0 tool was NOT something they were familiar with using outside of Skype and the social networking sites MySpace and Facebook. The majority found all the tools shown to them as a new experience including the various Google Apps.

The difference with these students is that they are open-minded about the tools. In fact, those that said they were technology illiterate were open to the the possibilities of technology and wanted to explore those possibilities.

Bottom line: Despite growing up in a digital world, they aren’t as familiar with the tools or use the tools as much as we believe. However, the difference is that they are open-minded compared to some of an older generation.

Glocal Perspective

One of the most enriching discussions across the various groups was the value of Global Learning. Almost all students saw the value and wanted to engage in global learning, but these same students were just as excited and just as interested in using technology to connect with students in their own school and local schools.

For example, the discussion of Twitter began with a conversation about using it to connect and network with peers in our school but led to connecting with our sister school, schools in the area, and schools around the world. In fact, the discussion of a Twitter network with AP students around the country was one such possibility the students found intriguing.

Bottom line: While the concept of connecting and learning globally is very exciting and something they want to do, they also want to connect and learn locally and regionally.

My Content, My Choice

The most powerful sentiment echoed to me by students was that this is their content and should be their choice in what happens to that content: what is published, broadcasted, created, distributed, etc. With all the opportunities to create and publish, the students seemed clear they want to control what is shown and what isn’t.

Also, a discussion that didn’t occur outside of a small group of students raising it was their own learning space. The group of students I did speak with about this all wanted their work to move with them throughout their time in high school. They wanted their own learning space not a space that lived and died with the teacher.

Bottom line: They want control over their content across their academic career and they want to be involved in the choice of publishing that content.

Obviously, this is just one group of students that is by no means representative of your students or your area. However, what would your students say if these discussions took place in your school? What insights would they provide? What assumptions would they challenge? There is only one way to find out and that is begin having these conversations with your students today.

Thank You

I wanted to say thank you to all of those that suggested tools to be discussed with these students and for joining us via a tech troubled Ustream Session. Most importantly, a thank you to all the students that shared and continue to share their insights; your voice is critical!