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Sustaining an Innovation-Friendly School – Reflection 1 from Educon 2.4

Some might wonder about the sanity of taking a late afternoon flight out of Fort Worth, later arrival at the hotel, an almost descent night’s sleep, all to attend only the last day of Educon 2.4.  What I wonder about is the potential malign effects of three whole days of deep and enthrawling conversations, nearly every one pushing my thinking in subtile or dramatically new directions.

I reminded Chris Lehmann, at the end of the last session, that I talk about this stuff just about every day.  Then I confessed that there was a moment during the afternoon that I realized that every contribution I had made the entire day had come from something else I’d heard at the conference.  Educon is a cauldron where our ideas about education get stirred up and mixed with those of others.  Our concepts get disassembled and recombined through  forces of attraction and repulsion that dazzle me, and every time it happened, it left me a little stunned for a moment.

The one complaint that I have about the Educon experience is the inability to spend at least 15 minutes reflecting after every conversation.  I am not referring to the larger conversation sessions, but every single conversation with every single person I encountered, in the sessions, in the hall, fixing coffee, checking my coat ….

This is what I hope to be the first of my Educon reflections about what I learned, unlearned, and relearned. ((“The illiterate of the future are not those that cannot read or write. They are those that cannot learn, unlearn, relearn.” – Alvin Toffler))

Chris Emdin compellingly making his point

The first formal part of the Sunday installment of Educon was the large group panel discussion, entitled, “How do Schools Sustain Innovation?”  I found myself feeling a bit sorry for the moderator, Kevin Hogan, because the panelists pretty much took off from the start and didn’t land again until Chris Lehmann had to fairly frantically call for an end.

It struck me during the discussion, that innovation – a means of finding or inventing a new and better way of accomplishing a goal (my definition) – has become “a goal.”  This is understandable within the education arena, because being an inventive, resourceful, free-thinking goal-achiever is part of the skill-set that we are coming to consider basic.  But innovation for innovation’s sake risks going down the same confusing road of technology for technology’s sake.  It gets taken apart, sequenced, classified, curriculumized — and it simply stops making sense.  Chris Emdin pointed this out when he suggested that innovations can get cooped, branded, and become dogma.  One of the many threads that I rode throughout the day was that there is no one-size-fits-all “vision” for schooling.

To me, the question at hand is, “How do we sustain an innvoation-friendly school?” and even though the general discussion was riveting, I did not get any clear message on how this is done.  So at some point, I started a branch on the concept map I was using to take notes where I added and eventually sorted a list of principles or process for sustaining an innovation-friendly environment.

At the heart is permission and facility.  An educational community that adapts to changing conditions grants its members permission to innovate and facilities or procedures for pursuing a better way.  It is part of the school’s culture.

Here is the list that I ended with.  Even though it is numbered, I now see that other arrangements are at least as appropriate as this.

  1. Permission to Identify and Describe a Problem
  2. I added permission here because several times during the day people described environments that were unwilling to admit problems or listen to those who suggested any course other than “business as usual.”

  3. Permission to Solve the Problem
  4. This one might actually be tougher to allow than it seems.  Having worked in state government, I know how risky it is to do anything that jeopardizes your reputation – or that of your boss.  In some environments, it is your job to make your boss look good.

    This one might better be labeled, “Permission to take a Chance.”

  5. Willingness to Let Go
  6. I suspect that many worthwhile innovations fail, because they are simply mounted on top of existing practices, rather than transforming existing practices.  This is illustrated by the three challenges, made by American education reformers, to the Finnish education model (see Finnish Miracles and American Myths).  The U.S. education reform movement seems unwilling to consider letting go of government testing, school competition, and accountability.

  7. Awareness of Other Boxes
  8. This is a bit of a twist from my usual reference to “outside the box” thinking.  It was actually sparked by a previous conversation with the Director of Applications Development at a large school district I recently worked in.  He told me that what he looks for in prospective hires for his programming staff is “creativity.”  He went on to say that the best part of his education was all of the history, literature, science, etc. that he took.

    I think that innovation does not necessarily come from outside the box, but from having access to other boxes that rearrange our perspectives and enable us to come at a problem from a different angle.

  9. Engineer a New Way
  10. This, I guess, is where the innovation happens, and much has been written about this by smarter people than me. I will humbly suggest that it requires research, design, collaboration, negotiation, and flexibility, to mention only a few of the skills.

  11. Permission to fail and re-engineer
  12. This may well be the toughest part to accomplish.  Innovation in business and industry are easy.  Failure in the public sector is fuel to those with political agendas.  In the private sector, R & D are considered a legitimate and necessary cost of doing business.  For schools, it is a waste of tax-payer money.  You can tell that I speak from some experience here.

Should they Know it in 20 Years?

A couple of weeks ago, I started a blog post recalling a course that I once took as part of my Masters degree. The 1992 course was about developing applications using dBase (look it up). The buzz in tech circles at the time was about Gopher, Veronica, FTP, and something brand new called the World Wide Web. The course was mostly programming – and I loved it. I suspect that many of my classmates (mostly educators in the same degree program) were not so thrilled nor the least bit interested in programming.

The gist of this story concerns the final exam.  A couple of weeks before the end of the semester, I sent an email to the professor suggesting that real programmers, as they worked, almost certainly did not rely on memory alone. They had reference books open on their desks so that they could look up various obscure coding options and syntax that might help them solve problems peculiar to the task at hand.

“Shouldn’t we be tested the same way, with the book open on our desks?”

He bought it, announcing at our next class meeting that, “Thanks to Mr. Warlick’s suggestion,” the exam would be open book. “Cheers!” He added that he was changing the exam appropriately. “Silence.” I suspect that some of my classmates felt more confidence with the memory of the solutions to problems they had studied.

I got my “A.”  But it occurs to me now that the difference between the exam given and the one intended, was that we ended out not being tested on what we knew – that is to say, just what we’d been taught.  Instead, it tested us on what we could do with what we’d learned.

I initially intended for this story to promote open book or open content learning. But I want to come at this from a different angle, owing partly to several pre-Educon blog articles I’ve recently read.  You see, if I were to take the originally planned dBase test today, under the originally intended conditions (memory only test), then I would fail it miserably — and I would probably be none-the-worse for the knowledge I’d lost.

However, if I were to sit down and take the test the professor actually administered, with appropriate reference materials available to me, I would probably do respectably well — even 20 years later.

My point is this. What should we, as educators, really care about? Is it just what students can recall at the end of the year or the course? or is it what they can do and whom they will be 20 years later?

If it’s the long haul that we are about, then I wonder, as we write our final exams for the students in our class – or end-of-year state tests, shouldn’t we be willing to ask ourselves, “Can I reasonably expect these children to be able to pass this test 20 years from now?”

If the honest answer is, “No!” then we’re just playing a game.

 

…Posted using BlogsyApp from my iPad

Finnish Miracles & American Myths

skitched-20120123-072951.jpg

My work to move Citation Machine, Class Blogmeister, 2¢ Worth, et al, over to my new “uber” server is winding down. I’ve learned so many truly geeky skills – most of which I’ll probably never use again.  It’s okay.  It makes me feel young.

One advantage of this kind of work is that I can run videos on my iPad, which stands just left of my work screens – and I believe that I’ve already mentioned the thrilling tidbits I’ve been learning about prominant actors (via Inside the Actor’s Studio).

One of the most interesting videos I watched, however, was a talk by Pasi Sahlberg formerly of Finland’s Ministry of Education (notes here).  He’s just published a book called “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?” that apparently explains a lot about the “Finnish Miracle” in education.  Here are just a few items that resonated with me.

  • Education has long been important in Finland.  For hundreds of years, according to Sahlberg, literacy has been a requirement for matrimony.  You can’t get married without proving that you’re literate.
  • Education in Finland is free – everywhere for everybody.
  • Students track down two branches, starting around year 10, with about 55% of students going to upper secondary school and on to university or polytechnic and 40% going to vocational schools and apprentice training.
  • Contrary to the “more is more” approach being promoted here in the U.S., Sahlberg said that Finland has followed a less is more strategy, with
    • Less per-pupil spending,
    • Teachers spending less time in instructional supervision and
    • Students spending less time being taught than in the United States and other industrial countries.
  • Also less attention is paid to grades (it is apparently illegal to apply any grade to students before 5th grade) and NO reliance on standardized tests. (Sahlberg, 2011)

Anu Partanen, a Finnish journalist based in New York, wrote a piece for the Atlantic, where she confirmed some of my own observations about conflicts between Finnish education and the American institution. According to Partanen, in What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success, Sahlberg told her that “..there are certain things nobody in America really wants to talk about.”

Our particular tinted glasses seem to be canceling out what is one of the most central elements of the Finnish solution – the most important of the top two, according to Sahlberg – equity.  There are almost no private schools in Finland and the few that do exist are financed by their government.  No one pays tuition, ever.  Even though equality is part of the American story, I sometimes wonder if we really believe in it?

Recently a presidential primary candidate defended his privileges in a victory speech, saying that this country (U.S.A.) is being divided by “the bitter politics of envy.”  Deciding not to include the long passionate political commentary I’d originally written here, I will simply say that we seem to believe that some people deserve a better education than others. The Finnish ideal and investment in equitable education is so foreign to our national story, that it simply does not register. This may be one of our greatest barriers.

Sahlberg says, according to the Atlantic story, that Americans consistently “obsess” over three questions.

  1. How can you keep track of students’ performance if you don’t test them constantly?
  2. How do you foster competition and engage the private sector? How do you provide school choice?”
  3. How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad teachers or merit pay for good teachers? (Partanen, 2011)

The first of these questions puzzles me.  I left classroom teaching more than 20 years ago, but we tracked student performance the same way that teachers had for decades.  Teachers evaluated student understanding and mastery as part of the learning/teaching process.  Are our teachers no longer being prepared to evaluate the progress of their students?  Have we completely turned this over to the “testing industrial complex?”

Which brings us to question two.  I know that marketplace competition is part of the American narrative.  It works for apples, oil, shovels and automobiles to compete in a fair market.  But is this where I children belong?  I believe that we are forcing our schools to compete because it’s cheaper than taking the responsibility of providing the best education we can imagine for all citizens.

And this segues into question three.   Sahlberg says that ”There’s no word for accountability in Finnish.”  He later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University that,

“Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”

Aren’t teachers responsible for quality education in sufficiently supported schools? Isn’t that why they chose the profession? A while back I was having dinner with a group of education administrators (all from union states).   They had been or were at that time school principals.  After sharing some stories about teacher’s they’d known, they all agreed that,

“Getting rid of bad teachers is easy.”

“What’s hard, is keeping the good ones.”

Can we benefit from the Finnish model.  I believe that we can.  But we will not do so by trying to fit their miracle on top of our current institution.  We must first disassemble some of our fundamental beliefs and practices, construct a new American ideal of equity and quality, and then look to the miracle in Finland.

 

Sahlberg, P. (Writer & Performer) (2011). Finnish lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland?[Web]. Retrieved from http://news.vanderbilt.edu/2011/12/finnish-lessons/

Partanen, A. (2011, December 29). What americans keep ignoring about finland’s school success. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/what-americans-keep-ignoring-about-finlands-school-success/250564/

 

 

Rolling Along…

I’m writing today, simply as a way of keeping a certain amount of momentum going here. I just got back to my office from an afternoon cholesterol walk, two miles, with my camera, but nothing worth removing the lens cap.

At this point, I am fairly isolated from much thought about education, beyond passing one or two things via Twitter and/or Google+. I have several long posts in draft box, but probably will not get back to them soon.

It became clear during the final months of 2011, that my two web servers were not  adequately handling the load of Citation Machine and Class Blogmeister, and certainly not the millions of readers of this blog. So I have a new “Uber” server and only two weeks to move all of my sites over. Trouble is that I have no idea how this move is going to go, how many of my sites it’s going to break, and how much debugging I’ll have to do to fix them. So my head’s going to be pretty deep in code and Linux shell commands.

EduCon 2.4
January 27-29 in Philadelphia

The good part… it’s the sort of work that allows me to have some video going in the back ground, and I’ve discovered a channel on YouTube that carries old episodes of Inside the Actor’s Studio. Great fun and interesting to learn which actors are actually as gregarious as the parts they play.

Chances are that I’ll not surface again until EduCon, which I’ll attend only for the Sunday portion. I anticipate much frustration deciding which conversations I’ll attend.


Photo taken by Ewan McIntosh in a Taxi in Shanghai

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