The Magic of Literacy

[OK, so I wrote this one at the end of a very long day. It was fun to write and I'm including it here.]

Here’s another example of blogging as conversation. Terry Freedman wrote an enlightening blog yesterday morning for Technology & Learning about the state of education and ICT in the U.K. It was enlightening and grounding for me, because I frequently go on about how much more England is investing in ed tech than we here in the U.S. Freedman points out, very effectively, that it isn’t just the technology.

I responded to Terry’s post by quoting several elements of his argument and commenting on them in a 2¢ Worth blog later in the morning. Soon afterward, I discovered a comment from Ewan McIntosh — of Scotland — drawing into focus the need for staff development.

What is this? Where are we going with this conversation, or more to the point, this ability to converse regardless of geography. What are the basic skills of the great global discussion?

McIntosh points out the need for staff development as he says…

It’s not that we need to spend less in the UK on technology in education (here, inferring hardware and software) we need to spend more on training for teachers. This means training in how to turn things on and vitally training in HOW to TEACH with this technology. I always bang on about “It’s not about the tech, it’s about the teach”. Where people have the technology already they complain about not knowing how it works technically, and where people could probably envisage teaching with the tech they do not own it in their classrooms. So, more spending but on the right things. 30% hardware, 30% software, 30% training and 10% contingency.

I agree that it’s with the teacher, and the teacher has to be trained. But when I see the truly inspired applications of technology in the classroom, those unique twists of a tool that spark learning out of a void, I believe that it happens less from training and more from the wizardry of a creative and charismatic teacher. There are spells that can be cast with technology to create powerful learning experiences for students, but a teacher can’t be trained to be a wizard. You must want to become a wizard in order to learn how, and most teachers don’t even believe in them.

You’re probably wondering where I’m going with this. I got kinda carried away with the wizarding thing. My point is that the magic is not our avenue into every classroom. It’s the basics. But I’m not talking about, how you turn it on or how you sort a spreadsheet column. I’m talking about the basics of literacy. How do you access (read), process (arithmetic), and communicate (write) in a world where information is increasingly networked, digital, and overwhelming.

Now, I’ve talked all of this before. But imagine a teacher who has become a skilled researcher of the global electronic library, and has embraced the idea that information must be investigated and judged as a part of reading it. Imagine a teacher who can take page after page of tabular data from a scientific web site and turn that incomprehensible arrangement of numbers into a map that tells a story about the behavior of our planet. Imagine a teacher who begins to collect a library of content — text, images, video clips, audio files — and starts to assemble them into multimedia presentations that compellingly teach complex concepts. Imagine teachers who become literate within today’s information environment and uses these compelling new skills to craft engaging new learning experiences. What and how might students start to learn in that kind of classroom.

It’s about literacy. Magic come from new ways of thinking.

I’ve Had Better Days

Yesterday was not the best of days. It started when Brenda’s old G3 iBook finally hiccuped into a blaze of colors on the display, and completely refused to recognize her mouse. A nice thing about living in Raleigh, is being less than a half-hour from an Apple Store. Even to ask for what I know is going to be an expensive repair, spending time in an Apple Store is a treat. For one thing, all of the sales staff know all of their products. Isn’t that refreshing for a technology store?

But it’s not always rosy, when I come to the realization that I am not receiving the repair service that I had expected after forking over a hundred dollars for Apple’s elite Pro Care service. I was not really that sore about having to wait, although the store should simply make their Genius Bar look a little more like a doctor’s waiting room, and spread some magazines out.

The manager finally came out to appease my rising indignation, which he effectively did, explaining the circumstances. But in the conversation (and this is the point of this story), I said, “I’ve been a loyal Apple customer for most of the last 25 years. Are you even that old?”

He smiled and replied, “Well, I’m a couple of years older than that.”

Ok, this important store (could as easily be a Dell store or the Bose store next door) was being managed by a young man who has always known digital information technology — computers.

The second half of this story is returning home and taking a minute to scan through my aggregator and discovering the story, New Jersey Grade School Institutes Iris Scanning. An elementary school of the Freehold Borough School District is guarding its halls of learning using state of the art biometric security technology. The $369,000 project is being funded by a research branch of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The district’s superintendent said that, “The idea is to improve school safety for the children,” continuing to explain that the schools swipe-card system was obsolete.

Now I don’t know the Freehold Borough School District and I don’t know the community that it serves, and there may be very good reasons why it should be scanning the irises of people who enter this elementary school. Honestly, I can imagine situations where I’d want this technology in my own children’s school, though I’d probably be moving from such an environment if I could.

My point is, what else is obsolete in that school, and nearly every other school in my country. What scares me is a country that finds $369,000 for bio-metric security for one elementary school in New Jersey, but can find no more than $3,000 (three laptops) for every other school or five bucks and some change for every student, to replace centuries-old technologies (the book) with modern information tool. That’s what frightens me.

Showing my Math

2006 EETT Funding / Number of Schools/Students

275,000,000 / 92,816 = $2962.85

275,000,000 / 48,540,725 = $5.66

AzTEA Conference

A blind teacher taking notesI’d said earlier that I’m home all week, but now that I actually look at my calendar (not an everyday concern for me), I see that I’ll be flying down to Tucson on Friday for Arizona’s second installment of their annual educational technology conference series. Organized by their ISTE affiliate, AzTEA, Arizona holds three state conferences each year. The first was held in November, in the beautiful mountain town of Flagstaff. Saturday’s event will be in Tucson, and the final conference will be in Glendale, a suburb of Phenix (ever seen a sequoia cactus? Monstrous).

One thing that is interesting, and that I like a lot, is that they hire one keynote speaker for all three events. The challenge is that I have to deliver three addresses. In november, the address was about millennial students and the learning skills they walk into our classrooms with. Saturday, I’ll deliver my 21st century literacy presentation. The last one will be about the future. Fun!

Anyway, if you are an educator in Arizona, or surrounding states, I strongly recommend this conference. The presentations are top notch, the people are wonderful, and the hospitality can’t be matched.

Pueblo High Magnet School
Tucson, Arizona
January 28, 2006

Truisms Across the Pond

Terry Freedman, ed tech consultant in London, and former government worker, wrote an interesting blog post today for Technology & Learning’s new blog feature (The Blogeroti). With as many years in education as I have experienced, Freedman has much to reflect on regarding his country’s investments in classroom ICT. …and about investment, no one can deny that tech dollars have been pouring into British schools while the pathetic federal funding of education technology in the U.S. has brought development and innovation to a virtual stand-still, and in many cases taken our classrooms decades backward, because many districts rely solely on federal funding.

Comparison’s aside, Freedman suggests several truisms from his perspective and experience, regardless of how much or how little we pay for contemporary classrooms.

  1. Investment in any technology ultimately works or doesn’t work because of the teacher. You can give some teachers a block of wood and a piece of string, and their students’ results will suddenly go into the stratosphere.

This could not be more true, and yet, remain a mystery to so many education leaders. But Terry suggests that perhaps we need a slower pace of investment in technology. I would disagree. I’m convinced that the best staff development experience we could give every teachers is to equip their classrooms with appropriate digital technologies, remove all of the paper, and then say, “Now teach!”. Let the teachers devise, organize, and implement their own professional development strategies to become proficient in the art of teaching in 21st century classrooms. Just a thought!

  1. Much is made of reducing the digital divide, and making 24/7 access a reality for all students. But the best students are those who know how to ask questions and evaluate sources of information.

This is fundamental to our efforts to modernize our classrooms. It isn’t just the technology — what we teach with. It’s also what we teach. What are the basic literacy skills for prospering in an information-drive, technology-rich, and rapidly changing world. Like the U.S., education in the U.K. continues to be, “…underpinned by a knowledge philosophy, and debate often centers on what skills school-leavers need when they enter the world of work?” I think that the answer to that last question depends on whether you are considering 20th century work, or 21st century work.

  1. There are too many (government) strategies…

This has been an ongoing problem here in the U.S. until No Child Left Behind. We’re all headed in the same direction now. Whether it is the right direction continues to be a point of debate?

  1. The intervention of the government has, there can be no doubt, distorted the free market, as I wrote here last week under “Market Distortions”.

Terry Freedman started his teaching career as an economics teacher, so I’ll leave this one to him.

  1. The creation of materials and provision of support for national strategies has led to a situation in which only one philosophical approach prevails when it comes to the teaching of ICT.

The magic word today, in my opinion, up and down the spectrum of society, is innovate. The more that government and culture say, “do it this way,” the more behind we all look — to our children.

  1. There is too much emphasis on leadership — and charismatic leadership — at the expense of management. I have written about this before…

I paused to consider this when Terry wrote about it last week, at Technology & Learning, and didn’t speak out. Today I’ll just say that I agree that school needs management. What that looks like, I can’t say, because I’ve never been a principal and have never been involved in any principal training.

I do believe, however, that the secret to facilitating change in our classrooms that address the needs of today’s children and tomorrows citizens will happen because of the culture of the school, and culture is changed through charisma. Again, I’m not disagreeing with Terry. I suspect that he would agree, that we need a healthy mix of the two — management and leadership style.

Please read Terry’s entire blog at Technology & Learning and visit his web site, Information & Communication Technology in Education.

A Letter from the Principal

Dear Parent,

I want to take this opportunity to thank you for all that you have done to support our school in it’s endeavors to accomplish our mission…

As the principal of your child’s school and the administrative representative of your school district, state, and national education system, I also want to offer my sincerest apologies. We are failing to achieve our mission, and your child’s future is in jeopardy.

Read the rest from today’s Blogerati at Technology & Learning Magazine

Shallow Standards / Deep Learning

A few months ago, the folks at WorldBridges hosted a discussion with me and Terry Freedman, from the U.K. The discussion got casual, and I casually used the term Shallow Standards. Its a term that I’ve used before, and especially in my “Redefining Literacy…” book. The problem is that the term requires a lot more context than I gave in that conversation, and now several bloggers have picked up the term. I’d like to spend this space with a bit of a discussion, to build some context.

First of all, some assumptions:

  1. Standards are the bits and bodies of knowledge and skills we expect to be taught and that we expect all students to learn.
  2. Shallow is “Measuring little from bottom to top or surface; lacking physical depth.”*
  3. Competition is an act of “measuring oneself against others”*, given similar conditions, resources, and goals.
  4. Cooperate is to “work or act together toward a common end or purpose”*, each contributing unique resources, skills, and perspectives to the task.
  5. That it is not appropriate and even counter-productive to say that we are educating our children so that we can compete in a global economy. It is more productive to say that we are preparing our children to cooperate in a global economy.
  6. For a future of rapid change, it is critical that we teach our students to teach themselves. Life-long learning skills should be an explicit part of what our students do in our classrooms.

* Dictionary.Com

In a pre-life-long Learning environment, the task of education was to teach all of us the knowledge and skills that we would need to know and to know how to do to become employed. After our schooling, we got a job, and kept that job for 35 years. We did some learning “on the job”, but not for the sake of a changing environment. It was for the sake of our job. It was considered part of the job.

In a world that demands life-long learning skills, it is a mistake, and even arrogant, to believe that defining a robust body of knowledge and pressuring teachers to teach that body of knowledge to all students will lead to a successful future. Instead, success in a rapidly changing (flat) world happens to people who are, according to Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat:

  • Special
  • Specialized
  • Highly Adaptable
  • Anchored

There are only a few special people. I don’t know any. Michael Jordan is special. Anchored people draw income by touching us or something that we own. These are barbers and chefs. But both of these categories of workers will live off of the economy that is generated by those who are specialized (can do things or know things that no one else does) and the highly adaptable (can learning things, unlearn, and relearn very easily).

It’s the middle two that we must focus on as educators. Our students must leave school able to make themselves experts and able to teach themselves, becoming learners and relearners. Our current model does not do this. Currently, our process is the have a blueprint (the standards), and
 to usher our children through assembly lines,
  installing the elements of the blueprint,
   and then applying quality control at the end,
    making sure that every child knows the same things,
     thinks the same way, and
      solves problems in the same way.

In their future,
 it won’t be what they know that’s the same
  that will bring success to their endeavors.
   It will be what they know that’s different,
    how they think that different,
     how they solve problems that’s different.

Where geography & culture
When history
What physical environment
How economy & society
Why everything else

This is why I believe that our standards should be made much more shallow. Schooling should be responsible for assure that every student knows only that knowledge and those skills that create a productive context for the lives of all students. As a society, we must have a common sense of where, when, what, how, and why we live; and how our environment affects us and how we affect our environment. Schooling should also assure that each student has the basic literacy skills appropriate to the contemporary information environment.

Students should spend a predominant amount of their time making themselves experts in areas of knowledge and experience that are especially interesting to them, and then sharing their gained knowledge and experience with other students. We go from a curriculum model that looks like a hall way that students move down, being saturated by a robust set of knowledge array of disciplines, with little integration of subject areas: a curriculum model that that looks more like a sphere with the student in the middle. The smaller version of the sphere represents the knowledge and skills that are essential to building a context for the students, and the larger sphere represents everything else that is available to learn:

A predominant part of the students schooling involves identifying an area of interest and learning all that they can, leading to a valuable product, and a learning experience for the rest of the class (I use the term class loosely). The teacher crafts the students self-teaching experiences to assure involvement in all areas of context (geography, culture, history, science, economy, society, and contemporary literacy). The result is a presentation of some sort that provides a rich exposure to the area of interest to the rest of the class.

Collaboration occurs when more than one student (in the same class or at a distance) has the same interest and works together on their learning. Of course, collaboration takes on many other forms as well.

This is fairly out there, and totally counter to the current instructional model that is being imposed on us.

Please feel free to tear it apart and share your own model.

But what we’re doing now is wrong, dangerous, and not in our (U.S.) national interests. Of that, I am sure.

Figures come from
(Warlick, David. Redefining Literacy for the 21st Century. Columbus: Linworth, 2004.)

A Unique Meeting of Minds — and Me…

Evening in PhiladelphiaMy friend, Chris Lehmann, asked me to come up to Philadelphia today and meet with him and several other people he was bringing together to talk about his new high school, the Science Leadership Academy, to open in September. I’ve known Chris for a number of years through the WWWEDU mailing list, and my several visits to his former employer, The Beacon School, in New York City.

I can think of no better person to head up a brand new and explicitly innovative school — aside from the fact that he looks more like a college Junior than an experienced and notable educator. Chris was the guiding force behind the unique technology program at Beacon, and left as their assistant principal.

Initially, what impressed me about The Beacon School was their multimedia program. I show a couple of their student-produced videos regularly as examples of what students can produce within the context of a creative curriculum-based assignment.

But their formula is simply. All assignments must be turned in digitally — no paper. We struggle with what it looks like to integrate technology into the curriculum, but this is it. It’s simple. Do it digitally. You tell students to do it. You make it the assignment, and you base part of the assessment on the quality of the student’s communication.

It helps that, being Manhattan, it is reasonable to expect all students to have access to computers and the Internet at home. The school itself was not especially tech-rich. The computers I saw were not brand new and they were not plentiful. But agreement was that in the 21st century, students’ work should be digital.

I’ve been looking forward to the meeting today. I know that Will Richardson will be there for the morning, which indicates forward reaching ideas grounded in curriculum. I’ll probably report on other attendees and what I learn later.

2¢ Cents in Escrow.

Mac in a Truck

I’m getting ready to do a presentation about Web 2.0 for a bunch of directors of technology in Southeastern North Carolina. I just talked to a guy who has installed a Mac Mini in his truck. It does music, GPS, movies, and he can troubleshoot networking problems in his schools from the parking lot. Very Very Cool!

I talked to the rural district technology director again after my talk, asking how he synced his truck-mounted Mac Mini with his newly bought music. He said he just ad to drive his truck up close to his house, and then download any new music through his house wireless network. Dah!

My New Heros: Elementary School Teachers

I had a singular experience yesterday. Actually, it was the freezing sensation of an ice pick of terror plunging into my spine. I arrived at the tech-rich elementary school in rural eastern North Carolina around 8:00, after getting up early and working through some technical issues with Class Blogmeister.

The tech facilitator sat down with me and my schedule of the day, pointing out that I would work with kindergarden teachers in learning to use digital video cameras at 8:20, and then first grade teachers at 9:00. Then at 9:30, I would work with a group of 1st graders, and at 9:50 a group of 2nd graders, and at 10:15 another group of 2nd graders, and then…

“Wait a minute!” I said both with my voice and what I’m sure was a threatening gesture with my hands. “Second graders? Not teachers?”

“Yes, students!” He replied with all of the ease and nonchalance I could possibly have handled, at this pure moment between a world of certainty and a potential experience so wrought with horror that I dare not venture further with my mind.

“..and their teachers!” I demanded.

“Nope, just the students. Don’t worry, we’ll be around.”

I actually felt the ground shutter under my feet. “Seven year olds.”

“Mostly”, the tech facilitator said, obviously beginning to enjoy this exchange.

“I don’t like seven year olds. They’re small. I could step on them. They wrap themselves around your knees, and they carry germs.”

“You’ll do fine,” he said as he got up and walked away.

I worked through the Kindergarten teachers, which mostly went fine, except for the two who came in 15 minutes late. Then the first grade teachers. Same experience.

Then a teachers assistant walked in with a group of second graders, sat them in their seats, and then quickly walked out and closed the door behind her. …and there they were, tiny human beings. Germs buzzing around their faces.

I handed the cameras out and found myself at a loss at how to start. They began to ably turn the machines over and over examining and trying the various buttons and switches, opening the LCD display, and I realized that I’d better get started before they figured it out for themselves.

I walked them through turning the cameras on, finding that in some cases I had to have their thumb follow my thumb through the process. After practicing that, I helped them to use the display, asked them to describe why it might be better to use the LCD display than the view finder. Showed them the affect of zooming, and asked them to figure out how to make their cameras zoom. Then I showed them how to start recording, and walked them out in to the media center where a group of teachers from thirty miles to the north were getting ready for a tour of this technology-rich school. The students walked in videoing the teachers as they received their introductory presentation from the principal.

When we got back into the computer lab, we were out of time, so I decided to take each of their cameras, and set them up into VCR mode so that they could watch their videos. One little boy walked over beside of me while I was setting up his camera, laid his head on my shoulder and watched. At that moment, I realized why elementary teachers do what they do. Before that moment, I didn’t know, could not fathom. But I understand now.

Elementary school teachers sit there, by their children, with small heads on their shoulders looking into a future where anything is possible. At seven, anything is possible. This child can do anything with his life, go anywhere, accomplish any goal. And to see the world along side that child is a singular experience.

Technology is a tool. It’s a lens through which we can show that world of infinite possibilities to our children — through which they can examine, explore, and affect their world. If we continue to look at technology as a machine and education as a process that we can plug our children into in order to improve reading and math test scores, then whose shoulder are they going to rest their heads on? Whose hand are they going to hold as the walk into their future?

2¢ Worth.

Why I Do It

A number of edubloggers have been talking about what drives them in exploring alternatives to traditional teaching and learning. For most, it has been their young children who still have many years of formal schooling ahead of them. I can certainly sympathize with this. I’ll have to say, though, that as I get older, and my children are moving out, it is myself and my wife who are at stake. I won’t spout on about the Flat World, because it isn’t flat. But the ridges and valleys that make up the economic landscape are shifting dramatically, and my future is not nearly so certain as that of my father and mother.

My future depends on the continued economic value of where I live, and it concerns me that we insist on continuing to prepare our children for a world that is becoming a memory, and not preparing them for the astounding opportunities of a rapidly changing future. The children in our classrooms will be generating the wealth that will support me, when I finally retire (or at least slow down). My wife, a business major and financial genius, is planning for our future. But even at that, our well-being will rest on the shifting economic landscape of the place where we live. Well we be able to settle in the mountains of North Carolina (our dream), or will we have to consider another country, where the economy is strong enough to support the security that we crave?

As we fiddle and sigh, and continue to procrastinate the important questions that face us now, the security of our own future slips away.

2¢ Worth.