What if Curriculum was an Adventure?

Rules, in game play, are traditionally static — printed on the lid of the box. Is this so in real life? How many innovations are rule-changers?

I had the opportunity last week to participate in a conversation that was arranged by ISTE, exploring some of the potentially pivotal emerging issues in the ed tech and broader education domains. I was asked to go first, as I would not be able to stay long — and was consequently put on the spot, to think quickly, and clearly articulate ideas to some really smart people. So I blubbered something about a niche for some new and compellingly relevant digital and networked learning platform that will so effectively, efficiently, and elegantly facilitate all of the education philosophies that we are all so urgently trying to describe that it will change education as we know it.

Peggy Sheehy, being Peggy Sheehy (and rightly so) intercepted my fumbled explanation, campaigning for games as an integral part of that platform. I understood where she was going, said so, and she acknowledged it — because we’ve had the conversation before.  But there is a frustrating problem with Peggy’s mission.  Most people still see games as play and learning as work — and although many of us have become convinced of the learning potentials of video games  and begun to promote their use, the game is still what happens after the teaching.

Periodically, I’m asked to do a presentation called “Video Games as Learning Engines,” which is an introduction to video games (mostly for non-gamers) and an attempt to show how games are actually a form of pedagogy.  Yet, I suspect that what most attendees are actually looking for directories of flash-based educational games designed to help students master their multiplication facts or identify parts of speech. Those games are certainly out there, but they do not interest me.

One of the lingering mysteries that continues to intrigue me, in the waning years of my very long career, is what makes it a game — or more to the point, what makes it fun? ..and can we unfold the elements in such a way that they become handlebars in that learning platform I was trying to describe, from which we can hang more engaging learning experiences for our students.

I guess that a learning platform, integrated with games and play would be characterized by
More Less
  •  Surprise Predictability
  •  Rules that change, can be changed and are inability Static and constraining
  •  Focus on accomplishing personal goals Focus on achieving institutional goals
  •  Frequent, meaningful and empowering rewards Scheduled, symbolic rewards

For instance, one interesting quality of the games our children play is that they do not require you to learn the rules before you play the game. Learning about roles and rules is part of the playing, and they are often a surprise that has to be earned.  They’re a secret. In solving a puzzle or simply exploring, the player finds a magic coin, potion, or relic.  As a result of the find, she is endowed with new powers of flight, invisibility, or speed. The powers are a surprise and they change the rules.

Ewan McIntosh recently described a very simple but explicit illustration of this, concerning a school he is working with in Sydney, Australia.  There is a fairly nondescript and unreferenced book in a classroom that when moved, releases a switch that turns on a light.  Students find it by exploring the environment.  They explore because they expect to find secrets.  It’s an example of what McIntosh calls Secret Spaces, one of Seven Spaces of Technology in School Environments (watch the video).

So what if this learning platform held hidden information switches, such that when a student references a particular document in his work, he is suddenly endowed with new powers, an opportunity to visit previously blocked resource or tool, or an invitation to formally explore a topic of personal interest, or awarded points or admin rights to further configure his profile page with options and colors that were not available before.

What if curriculum was an adventure, and learning was the reward?

The Page is Dead! Long Live Curriculum

After keynoting
the recent SchoolCIO Leadership Summit and then facilitating their “Digital Content” discussion cadre, I was asked to compile some of the highlights of our case studies and conversations into a 100 word scenario for the SchoolCIO Magazine’s followup articles. The word limit made the task feel like a job.  But it is in that sort of efficient deconstruction, reflection, and reconstruction process that we gain new insights — that I learn.

One of the linchpin moments of the recent SchoolCIO Leadership Summit was when one of the attendees, in a rather off-handed remark, said — and I paraphrase:

We should not simply be transitioning from print to digital content.

We should be facilitating a transformation from an old and obsolete way of teaching and learning to a new and more relevant way of preparing our children for their future.

This remark brilliantly packaged a lot of the issues that had been struggling with for quite some time.  It suggests that we take a step or two back and shift our focus away from a new device for content delivery and refocus on something much broader and suggestive of how the game is changing.

A 50 word cloud, generated by Wordle, compiling more than 20 definitions of curriculum from the Internet

The word Curriculum comes to mind as one way of labeling this broader view. Admittedly, the word is fairly slippery, already having different meanings to different people — even among professional educators. Formal definitions range from a zoomed out departmental view, “..the subjects comprising a course of study..” to a closer micro perspective, “..a predefined series of learning events designed to meet a specific goal.” Scan the word cloud to the right.

But as I worked through my notes from the Summit, struggling with the language for my scenario, it occurred to me that a precise and universally accepted definition of curriculum simply has not been very important. Teachers had the textbook; a physical, reasonably durable, easily understood (and operated), dependable, and trustworthy tool that was carefully designed for instruction by experts. We had a practical point of focus that rendered curriculum, as a term, lighter than air, floating to a high and misty place, where its Latin lineage evoked a classical aura to the profession. At least that’s the way I see it.

Today, the textbook, consisting of printed pages glued or sewn together and bound in covers, is obsolete.  I believe that its role as the central, dominant, and trusted tool for instructional delivery is been based on a myth and is equally obsolete.  Our information landscape has morphed into something that is larger, more dynamic and vibrant, highly personal and yet broadly shared — and almost entirely unforeseen.

This new info-environment has radically changed how we learn.

Therefore, it must also radically change the practices of teaching and the institution of education.

This is the last book that I bought in order to learn to do something (2000). Today, the idea of buying a book to learn a new programming language seems ludicrous. If we’re not buying textbooks to learn after school, then why should we force them on our children’s learning?

As the textbook (in the form that I used it in the 20th century) declines, becoming only one optional component of an expanding and shifting array of resources and opportunities, the role of teacher will change.

This notion of  crafting learning experiences by orchestrating webs of content, tools, opportunities and connections implies a broad, partly informed, partly intuitive, and largely personal act of crafting curriculum. It happens as a result of education; experience; professional conversations; research; information resources, tools, and skills; a connection to the community; a genuine caring for children and their self-fulfilling future success; and a professional obligation to be a constant learner and model that practice.

This vision of teachers as curriculum curator is inconsistent with a central and arrogantly authoritative blueprint for everything that learners need to be doing for hours, days, and years of their childhoods and youth.

Curriculum should empower learning, not merely guide and filter teaching.

By relying on teacher currated curriculum over state-adopted textbooks, the transformation we may well see is a shift from classrooms of compliant students to environments of skilled, resourceful, and habitual learners.

…Posted using BlogsyApp from my iPad

Reflections on TEDxLondon: The Education Revolution

As I said in my previous post about TEDxLondon, I spent Saturday listening to and watching sixteen thinkers and doers talk about an education revolution. Their talks were divided into three parts:

  • What’s Wrong?
  • What’s Right?
  • What’s Next?
It was a metaphor for teaching and learning in today’s information landscape.

I’ll say here and first that one of the aspects of this education-oriented TEDx that impressed me was that the presenters were not all educators talking about the same thing’s they’d be talking about at an education conference. Their ideas were mostly sideways tilted, thought-provoking, and brain tickling, and typically lasted for less than ten minutes.

It started with an orienting talk from Sir Ken Robinson, videoconferenced in from his new home — Los Angeles. In that talk he said that the fundamental reasons for education were Economic (grow/sustain economy), Cultural (awareness of one’s own culture and that of others), and Personal (self-knowledge: who am I? What are my talents and aspirations? What is my future?). He said that going back to the basics means a renewed focus on these three fundamentals, not the 3Rs. Supporting this idea, a following speaker shared an African proverb that was new to me.

Unless we continue to initiate our (children) into the village, they will burn it down just to feel the heat.

Another statement that prompted my note taking was Dan Roberts, “Technology is not a new tool for learning. It’s a whole new way of learning.” it’s one of those ideas that’s a no-brainer for many of us, yet not understanding this one very simple concept is proving to be a huge barrier to transforming education. Roberts went on to say (my paraphrasing) that education will be irrelevant unless we pay attention to how kids live and learn outside the classroom and carry that into our more formal learning environment. It’s not a simple task and there is still much that we do not know about their ‘native’ learning experiences.

This was illustrated by Nick Stanhopes’ Historypin (vid).  It is probably my background as a history teacher, but this one sizzled my brain. Stanhopes said, “Every spot on the planet has an amazing column of history running out behind it,” and much of that history is recorded in photographs.

Historypin aligns collected and submitted photographs, with their stories, to a map and to current street views of specific locations. When a learner can see the image of a historic event, or even more subtle local occurrences, overlaying the spot as it is now, then history comes alive, because it gets connected.  It’s about context.

Within context, questions come, and isn’t that where you want learners to be — asking questions.  Ewan McIntosh gave a brilliantly talk about the power of questions and problems.  He said that questions are incredibly important, and that we need to do everything we can to make sure that children keep asking them.

What really wrinkled my brain was an entertaining demonstration of interactive electronic music by Tim Exile.  As he talked, he would capture the audio of various phrases, and then replay them as music with pitch, reverb, and rhythm — twisting, turning, and tapping at a wild array of electronic devices.

Then he introduced an online real time community where members uploaded sound files, and he mixed them in, creating an almost organic stew of “music.”  It was a metaphor for teaching and learning in today’s information landscape.

There was so much more that I could comment on, but the question arises, what is the education revolution?

The education revolution

  1. ..is not about new tools. It’s a new approach to learning and teaching
  2. ..does not separate knowledge, it layers knowledge
  3. The Education Revolution is understanding that learning happens best within a context that is real, has color and flavor, and provokes new questions.
  4. ..is alchemy.  It is resourcefully, inventively, and responsibly mixing information; boiling it into new knowledge, new action, new relationships, and into richer personal identities, cultural understandings, and greater opportunities.

What would you add?

Backchannel Transcript for TEDxLondon

I spent a good part of yesterday with a front row seat at the TEDxLondon event held in the acclaimed Roundhouse. But mostly I was in my office, running the livestream through my MacBook air and Tweeting quotes and reflections to my nearly 14 followers on Twitter.

A while back I tinkered around with the code of my personal backchannel tool, Knitter Chat, so that it could capture colearners tagged Twitter posts as well as the audience members’ Knitter postings. Just before TEDxLondon started, I crawled into the code and reset it to capture anything tagged with #TEDxLondon between 14:00 and 20:35 London time — and it worked, for the most part.

Anyway, I’ve been reworking the code on Knitter to handle the volume and export it into Wikispaces, a much more sophisticated wiki service than the PMWiki server that I run. I concluded this morning that neither Wikispaces nor a couple of other high-end community editing tools could handle files of such size, even when divided into three parts for the three sessions. So I went back to my PMWiki server — the one that I use for the backchannel transcripts for my presentations and keynotes.

So here are links to the three sessions. You can edit and insert text if you are not intimidated by the coding. There is a guide at the bottom of the page, if you choose to click edit and enter the password (teacher).

Very Educational!

  1. Session 1: What’s Wrong?
  2. Session 2: What’s Right?
  3. Session 3: What’s Next?

I also uploaded Wordle word clouds from the three sessions, What’s Wrong?, What’s Right? and What’s Next?

More reflections will likely follow!

The EducationRevolution – What’s the Difference

What are the contributing factors for success? It’s a huge question for any institution that seeks to improve itself. For us, in education, much is said about the critical importance of the teacher – but also for technology, class size, economic advantages, school size, etc. Studies show one thing and then new studies show something else.

The other day I was listening to a New York Times podcast, and the speaker was interviewing Patricia Cohen, the Arts Beat blogger for the newspaper. Cohen was asked about a post she had just written, Angst Before High School, discussing a working paper by Roland G. Fryer of the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard and Will Dobbie, a predoctoral research fellow.

The paper (Exam High Schools and Academic Achievement: Evidence from New York City) examines the academic impact of selective (exams-based) high schools.  They looked at New York’s Brooklyn Technical High School, the Bronx High School of Science, and Stuyvesant High School and specifically the students whose entrance score were close to the cutoff point.  They wanted to compare students whose score were close together, some barely making it into “an environment of high achievers, more advanced coursework and higher expectations,” and some just barely missing out and attending a regular public high school.  These were talented students with similar ability and achievement but, assumedly, attending dramatically different high schools.

Their findings?

..the impact of attending an exam school on college enrollment or graduation is, if anything, negative. There is also little impact of attending an exam school on SAT reading and writing scores, and, at best, a modest positive impact on SAT math scores. ((Dobbie, Will, & Fryer, R. G. (2011). Exam high schools and academic achievement: evidence from new york city. Informally published manuscript, Education Innovation Laboratory, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/MvGql))

There results were consistent across genders, baseline state test scores and type of middle school.

Now there is much that these conclusions do not explain and there are many ways to explain the findings.  But Cohen said something during the interview that struck me and my world view as true.  She said that (and I paraphrase)

The motivated, talented, interested student is going to do well, no matter what school.

The Student who cares.

Sir Ken Robinson, Ewan MacIntosh, and others will be talking later on today at TEDxLondon, The Education Revolution and I plan to watch and Tweet it.  It is my own humble opinion, though, that any revolutionary school must be a place that inspires students to creatively cultivate skills; to resourcefully seek out, gather, and grow knowledge; and to care about it.

You see, I worry for those students of similar talent who, for any of a number of reasons, do not care, may not graduate, will not continue their education, will continue their lives as failures and the cost to them — and to us — of their wasted talents.




We Don’t Trust What We Can’t See…

The other day I featured an infographic on IGad (InfoGrapthic-a-Day) that illustrated the declining or less than satisfactory level of confidence that the American public has in it’s education system. This was probably not an appropriate graphic to share on what was, for many, their first day back to school. But hey, what do we have to be exuberant about in the world of education today, besides the intrinsic joys and rewards of teaching — and having a job teaching. So I posted this GOOD.is graphic because I think it’s conversation needs starting.

At the top of the graphic is a not quite so striking decline in confidence since 1977 — 54% then to 38% today. Of course, we understand that this is merely a symptom of things going on that are much deeper and broader than what’s happening in real classrooms. What I found most interesting with this part of the graphic was that the decline was not steady. I dumped the data into one of my favorite graphing tools, OmniGraphSketcher, and produced the line graph at the right. It would be interesting to correlate the rather dramatic ups and downs of confidence levels with what was going on outside of our classrooms — the stories that were being told by people who had influence to gain by telling those stories.

What I found most interesting about the entire graphic was the portion that compared confidence values for other institutions, ranging from the military, with a confidence rate of 78%, down to, well, need I say, congress, with only 12% expressing confidence. ..and where did they find them?

Looking at the ranking on the right, I see an interesting, though blurry difference between the institutions earning more than 40% confidence, and the ones getting less. The military protects us and we feel it. The threat of terrorism is on our minds. We walk into small businesses everyday and we encounter the police, our churches and doctors every week — or there is a potential of encountering them.

On the other hand, most of us have very little direct weekly experience with the inner workings of our courts, schools, criminal justice system, newspapers, banks and congress. It is worth noting that Americans experience a significantly greater likelihood of being in jail, prison, or on probation or parole than we do of graduating from high school this year. ((“Total Correctional Population.” Bureau of Justice Statistics. U.S. Department of Justice, 7 Sep 2011. Web. 7 Sep 2011.)) ((“Fast Facts.” National Center for Education Statistics. U.S. Education Department, n.d. Web. 7 Sep 2011.))

Admittedly, there is a lot of gray space in this distinction. But my point is this. People will be less confident in something that they do not see regularly, or they can be more easily be dissuaded of their confidence by political spin. We’ve got to do a better job of inviting the public into our schools. We’ve got to sell them on “21st Century Learning” by showing it to them. We’ve got to inspire confidence by making people wish they could go back to high school. We need to ask ourselves the question, “How do we inspire confidence?

Data? ..or Performance?”