Were We Ready?

A few days ago my son posted this short statement on Facebook:

We weren’t ready for the Internet

He got some affirming comments and I just added,

Because of the Internet and other advances in telecommunications and broadcasting, we have become a world of nations divided by ideology instead of nations divided by borders. You can’t “storm the beaches” of the ideas that are contrary to yours.

Being a Digital Detective
Being Literate Means being a Digital Detective

This is actually something that I’ve thought about for quite a few years and the reason I spent the last 15 years trying to convince teachers to redefine literacy.

The fact is that we believe what we read on the Internet, because we were taught to believe what we read.  Our schooling was purposely limited to textbooks, compelling (and not so compelling) lectures and library resources selected by librarians with advanced education.  We try to limit our students’ learning to what is reliably accurate.  As a result, our notion of what it is to be literate is limited.  Can you “read and understand what someone, who you trust, has handed you to read.” ..and can you answer questions about it on a test?

In my efforts, I respelled the 3 Rs with 3 Es.  Instead of teaching children to read, we should be helping them learn to Expose what is true.  To expose what is true, you must learn to read it.  But being able to search for, find and synthesize the information, and select that which is most appropriate to your situation, has become just as critical as being able to read it.

I use to suggest to teachers that they should, at every occasion, ask their students, “How do you know that’s true?”  I added that students should be free to ask their teachers, “How do you know that’s true?”  I suspect that if political candidates were regularly asked, “How do you know that?” and we demanded answers, our leadership might be quite different.

The other Es were:

  1. Learning to Employ information, instead just teaching students to calculate numbers
  2. Learning to Express Ideas Compelling, instead of just teaching students to write a coherent paragraph
  3. There was a 4th E – exposing, employing and expressing information with respect for and devotion to what is true, Ethically using information to answer question, solve problems and accomplish goals.

It Was Good Enough for Me

Our classrooms require a better window on the world than this… ((Han, Churl. “My classroom in Frieze.” Churl’s Photostream. N.p., 29 Jan 2006. Web. 8 Apr 2010. .))

I frequently receive comments and e-mails from readers expressing their agreement with something I’ve written or said. And then they lament the realities. “But, I have only one working computer in my classroom.” “But, interactive white boards are a pipe dream for us.” “But, Internet is too slow and/or too filtered for practical use.” ..or “We’ve been told to stop using technology or any supplemental materials after March and use only materials designed specifically around test prep.

We are not working under these conditions because of our zip code or because of some unavoidably cyclical function of our reality. These constraints do not happen like weather patterns that we simply have to hunker down and wait out. They happen because of decisions that people make due to greed, misinformation, politico-social agendas, or ignorance.

That we continue to try to prepare children for the future under these conditions is not the problem. The problem is that there are some (many) who still believe that these conditions are good enough.

“What was good enough for me is good enough for ‘your’ children.”

My advice?

  1. Dream and decide:
    1. What you want your classroom to become?
    2. What kind of access to information you need, in order to facilitate learning?
    3. What kind of access to information does your classroom need for relevant learning to happen?
    4. What kind of access to information do your learners personally need to drive their own learning?
  2. Answer the questions,
    1. “What will your community’s children be able to learn in this classroom?”
    2. “What kind of relevant and compelling learning experiences might your community’s children enjoy?”
  3. Reject any technologies from item 1 that do not directly contribute to item 2.
  4. Take the answers to item 2 and turn them into a story.
    1. “Here is the classroom that is possible.”
    2. “Here is what your children will learn in this classroom.”
    3. “Here is how they will learn and what they will do with what they learn.”
    4. “Here is the classroom I want, the classroom your children deserve, the classroom that our future requires.”
  5. Tell that story. Set up a page on your web site called “My Dream Classroom.” Update it regularly. Share it with other teachers. Share it with your students, your friends, and the parents of your students.

    Make its upkeep part of your personal professional development.

Four Recommendations from Clayton Christensen

Disrupting Class
Flickr Photo by Justin Benttinen

I started Disrupting Class a few weeks ago, but have not been able to get back to it.  However, I ran across this June 2 CNN article, which partly disrupts my own anticipation of federal spending coming to education  — not to mention pointing in some directions that may be difficult for a non-marketplace industry, such as education, to re-orient itself to.

In Commentary: Don’t prop up failing schools, Christensen and Michael Horn say,

There is great danger in the sudden and massive amount of funding — nearly $100 billion — that the federal government is throwing at the nation’s schools. District by district, the budgetary crises into which all schools were plunging created the impetus for long-needed changes. (( Christensen, Clayton M and Michael B. Horn. “Commentary: Don’t Prop Up Failing Schools.” CNN.com 2 Jun 2009 US. Web.4 Jun 2009. . ))

I recommend that you read the article for all of the insights shared, but I’ll list the authors’ four suggested “criteria” for developing programs and grants for states and district education initiatives.  I’m adding my own comments between the lines.

  1. Don’t fund technology that simply shoves computers and other technologies into existing classrooms.
    Well I wouldn’t turn down a laptop for every student or a ceiling-mounted projector and interactive smart board.  But anyone who believes that technology alone will save education — will save our children — isn’t really interested in solving the problem.
  2. Don’t fund new school buildings that look like the existing ones.
    When speaking at school board conferences, I frequently go to the exhibitor halls and, for sport, ask the architectural firm representatives to describe how school design has changed in the past 20 years.  The only answer that I (rarely) get, beyond, “Nobody ever asked me that before,” is a long spiel about “green” building materials.

    There are some interesting things going on in other countries about learning environment design.  Follow Stephen Heppel’s work.

  3. Don’t fund the institutions that are least likely to change.
    This is complicated and I’d like to hear more of what Christensen has to say about it.  But I suspect that the further up the hierarchy we go, the least likely we are to see change — with some dazzling exceptions (Think “The State of Maine” – and I’m not talking about the bear).  The fact is that the entire industry is designed to resist change — and this is not entirely a bad thing.  ..and I’m still not comfortable with completely ditching education as we know it and replacing it with something completely new — at least not yet.
  4. Direct more funds for research and development to create student-centric learning software.
    According to the authors, just “..1 percent of the $600 billion in K-12 spending from all levels currently goes toward R&D.”  Assuming that these figures are correct, that’s $6 billion.  That’s not an insignificant sum, and I wonder where it all goes. 

    I’m not an expert on budgets, so please share what I’m missing.  But in scanning the President’s FY 2010 Budget Request for the U.S. Department of Education, specifically the Detailed Budget Table by Program (PDF), I found that research, development, and dissemination are appropriated $224,196.  If you factor in statistics, the regional educational laboratories, national assessment, research in special education, statewide data systems, and special education studies and evaluations, you’re up to $689,256.  That’s an increase of only 72.081 dollars over 2009.  Looking at Nintendo’s 2008 Annual Financial Report (PDF), that one company spent $370,000 in R&D that single year.

    But that’s just the amount.  The far more interesting question, I think, is, what should that education R&D look  like?  Do we increase funding to universities and research laboratories.  I think we should.  But I think that we should also fund research at a more local level — in actually classrooms.  I think that teachers (and students) can learn a lot about best practice and we can easily disseminate that knowledge around the globe.  Now we’re talking about the potential for change.

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No More Sweet Spot

Searching Flickr for Adjectives can often reveal interesting photos.
Flickr Photo by Vilhelm Sjostrom

I’m on my way to Burlington, Vermont, leaving the balmy climes of North Carolina, where it is 20  (-7C).  First thing this morning, it was -1 (-18C) in Burlington.  I have my furry Russian hat, which I bought about 10 years ago and have only worn three or four times.

I worked with the same Vermont group last fall, talking about contemporary literacy, and left feeling far less than successful.  Vermont has some fantastic things going on, and has given more freedom than most to educators who are exploring emerging opportunities.  What I remember fondly was the early days of Web 2.0, when there were only a handful of educators who were coming to understand it, and for the rest, it was brand new.  It was a sweet spot, where virtually everyone was learning something brand new from you, and they were all learning the same thing. 

The sweet spot’s gone.  When I worked with that autumn audience in Vermont, a significant number of the participants were already familiar with the concepts and many were already using them.  I added very little that they didn’t already know.  There were more who were just beginning their journey toward rethinking their schools and classrooms.  But I felt really bad about those savvy souls — until I read their back channel discussions.

It amazed me, and deeply impressed me how they had turned the event into an extremely valuable experience.  I know that I learned a lot from their conversation, and was able, I hope, to contribute more through my insertions — after the transcript was converted over to a wiki page.

I was just reminded of a back channeling event I facilitated many months ago, that got hijacked by three teachers who filled the channel with their favorite ’80s wreslers.  Regardless, the conversation continued as some of the more savvy educators skipped out onto Twitter and even Ustream, inviting even more participants into the room.

It all makes me wonder what this might mean to future, more porous classrooms.  As we stop resisting the networks, shielding our classrooms as sealed containers, designed to hold and protect both learners and that which is required to be learned — I wonder how porous classrooms might reshape themselves by the actions of the students.  Might, in such classrooms, active differentiated instruction techniques become practically obsolete.  Might free learners, engaged in a lifestyle of curiosity, inquiry, experimentation, and construction; supported by professional master learners, make education less an ordeal and more a habit.

All that said, tomorrow will see much more challenging ideas from me … and even more opportunities for back channeling. 

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