Should “Education” be so Packaged?

Darren Kurpatwa delivering his WhileWalking episode 73

My friend, Darren Kuropatwa, mentioned me in one of his “WhileWalking” video reflections, referring to one of the conversations we had at Educon last week. I love his new reflections series for many reasons, not the least of which is the delightful sound of Canadian snow crunching as he walks.

In that conversation, on the last day of Educon, he told me about how students were using Google docs in preparing their presentations and how convenient it was that Google built in an image search tool that returns only Creative Commons licensed media and even includes citations for the images that can be pasted into the document.

I was less than thrilled about this and Darren, in his reflection, wonders why.  He’s asking if there is a relationship between my reluctance about Google’s bundled services and why many educators resisted their student use of calculators decades ago. It’s an excellent question, which I guess is why it occurred to Kuropatwa, while tundra-walking.

There is a very real relationship between the emergence of calculators in the early 1970s and the rise of the World Wide Web, dynamic search engines, and smaller useful information tools like Creative Commons licensers and citation generators.  But to understand why I feel Darren’s described scenario is, in ways, counter to the mission of education, I need to briefly define that mission, as I see it.  

A sliderule like the one I used as a high school student

A continuing factor in my own reflections is the fact that from my time as a high school student to the waning years of my career as an educator, the tools for working with information have advanced from sliderules to tablet apps – an astounding revolution in information and communication technologies, from sticks to chips.  Our mission is to prepare our children for jobs, lifestyles, tools, processes, problems and goals that we can hardly imagine.  We’re preparing them for the unimaginable.

I am certain that their lifestyles will be (is) fueled by the daily practice of learning and that the mechanisms of that learning will be constantly and sometimes rapidly evolving.

Many of us were fairly certain that calculators would be a prevailing information processing tool in our students’ future, as we know that our children’s future will continue to afford them a vast and dynamic aggregation of information – that also obliges them to new and interesting ethical responsibilities.

Each of these advances in information and communication technology warranted a role in our children’s formal (and informal) education.

Now, my objection to Darren’s scenario has little to do with Google’s purported desires to dominate the world of information, or even the fact that Google has made research, production, and attribution easier – as was implied in several tweeted responses to Darren’s post.  We should probably be concerned about the dominance of one company in any realm of interest, but there’s nothing wrong with “easier.”

What concerns me is how these tools might be packaged to help children do school work, at the expense of helping them learn to use information to do real work.

If Texas Instruments had created a curriculum-friendly calculator, one designed to help children learn math, as apposed to using math to work numbers, then I might have had the same objections – though I can’t confidently speak for the 22-year-old me.

What I believe today is that our children need to be developing a learning lifestyle, with the skills and habits of utilizing a tumultuously shifting and advancing information environment and the unimagined opportunities that an unwritten future provides.  This is the mission of education.

Darren has invoked the best word for my thinking, that learning should be be “deliberate,” as deliberately authentic as possible. 

Kurpatwa, D. (Performer) (2013, February 7). Whilewalking 73: Should we be deliberate?.WhileWalking. [Video podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?

Reflections on Educon 2.5 – Pre-Conversations

Before Educon’s conversations begin, we get to spend the day at the Science Leadership Academy (SLA), attend an evening panel discussion at The Franklin Institute (see Pulver) and see the opening keynote address – this year it was Philadelphia’s new Superintendent, Dr. William Hite.

..and I’ll say here that among the many regularly scheduled annual educator learning events, Educon’s unconference is probably the richest experience, anywhere, anytime. This is not to say that regular conferences with presenters and keynote speakers are not valuable. They are essential, because they facilitate opportunities for learning that Educon does not. But to listen to smart people and to be able to push and pull on what they are saying, well, it just wrinkles my brain.

One of the greatest features of Educon is the chance to catch up with friends, whom we see almost daily in the networked eduverse, but with whom we rarely get to shake hands, huge, and enjoy extended conversations, unconstrained by 140 characters limits – and that’s not to say that we ever get to finish our conversations at Educon, because there are always new ones that attract our attention.

We also get to visit classes and talk with SLA teachers. I especially enjoyed talking with Matt VanKouwenberg, about his engineering classes. His process reminded me of the vocational education classes I took in high school, how we all learned many of the same lessens by working on distinctly different projects. He told me that each class starts with a few minutes of sharing, where each student or team reports on where they are, barriers they are facing, and what they are learning (think the first five minutes of each episode of LA Law). He said that it often surprises the students to discover the similarities in what they learn, regardless of what they are working on.

I also enjoyed talking with one of my favorite SLA teachers, Meenoo Rami, an English teacher. Rami teaches a class about Storytelling, which appears to be not about fiction writing, but about how we use stories as a device for communication. I think that this is an often overlooked tool for expressing ourselves, even by many of us who are supposed to be master communicators. Too often I hear keynote and featured speakers simply telling us what to believe, rather than helping us discover our own beliefs through plot and surprise.  Never underestimate the power of a good surprise.

Near the end of the Friday night panel discussion, Pulver said that, “The future is unwritten!”

When considering our challenges as educators and the future challenges of our students, we must come to believe that anything is possible. We’re not preparing our children for the 21st century. We’re preparing them for the age of opportunities, when almost any problem can be solved and almost any goal can be accomplished.  This affects so much that is involved in formal education.

[click to enlarge]
While claiming my best seat (its that hearing thing) for one of the first conversations, and reflecting on Friday’s panel and Saturday morning’s keynote, I quickly drew up the diagram on the right. Even though, at the highest levels, we’d all deny it, our job, now, is to prepare our children to take tests. Education has become a competitive endeavor, pitting nation against nation, state against state, district against district… and the point system for that competition is test scores.

This implies a purpose behind education that has little to do with an age of opportunity. Instead students learn to read in order to follow instructions and to learn in order to fit in to someone else’s competitive machine. To be ready for an age of opportunity, children must learn to read so that they can learn to do something that they couldn’t do before and to learn in order to make their own machine.

One of the greatest ah ha! moments of the event, was when Philadelphia Schools Suerpentendent, Dr. William Hite said, “Today, teachers do not need to be content specialists nearly as much as they need to be context specialists.”

Reflections on Educon 2.5 – Jeff Pulver

Educon 2013 is over and I’m on my way home, the Carolinian, Train number 79, on time with a passable WiFi connection.  During this year’s conversations, I tried a new app and technique for taking notes.  The App is GoodNotes, which is like a couple of dozen other stylus-based note-taking apps.  What I like about this particular one is your ability to connect it with the iPad’s camera and integrate pictures into your notes.  

Superintendent of Philadelphia Schools, Dr. William Hite
This, I believe, would be extremely valuable when attending presentations that relied heavily on diagrams and other visual media.  It wasn’t ideal for Educon, who’s conversations were less dependent on slides, but I did include pictures of the presenters as a reminder, when reviewing the notes. (see right)

I typically use a mind-mapping program, so that I can organize ideas in relation to others. But I’ve always missed the freedom of a blank page.  Writing notes with a stylus has all sorts of disadvantages, but I can already see that I am going back to review my notes much more frequently than I have ever scanned my mind maps.

I confessed to a number of people yesterday, that I attend these things, not so much for new knowledge as for new language. I do not manage a school or classroom, so I am not looking for solutions. I need new ways of talking about education in the age of opportunity – which is often counter-intuitive to the my audiences’ vision of classrooms.  New angles, phrases or new stories help to produce shakabuku.  They sneak up on the listener and surprise them with new realizations.

Jeff Pulver

The first thing I think, when seeing a panel for educators made up of non-educators is, “Why do we assume that business inherently does it better?”  I have to confess that after the panel discussion was over and and I was trudging back up to my hotel (why’s going home always up hill?) through the (more slippery than it looked) snow, I asked myself that question – probably out loud.

But rehashing parts of it early the next morning and reviewing my notes, I see lots of ideas that, when unpacked, apply wonderfully to teaching, learning, and classrooms.  Here are some phrases from Jeff Pulver, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist.

  • Teachers should model entrepreneurship! I include this statement only because It comes up frequently during unconference sessions on education and entrepreneurship.  If we want our children to be creative, then we need to practice creativity in front of them.
  • Voice is an application! I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this one, but according to Wikipedia, “an ‘app’ is computer software designed to help the user to perform specific tasks.”  One could say that giving voice to learning helps learners to accomplish something with what they’ve learned.
  • The fuel for disruption is passion! This one makes a lot of sense to me.  Disruptive technologies, techniques and processes change nothing unless someone is passionate enough to audaciously and heroically use them.  Learning is disruptive.  If it wasn’t, what would be the point?  

    Are we fueling our students’ learning?

  • Be willing to break the rules! I keep playing around with the idea that rules, in school, are designed to contain the learning.  However, in the real world, rules are a way of mapping the perceived constraints of reality.  Those who accomplish goals creatively do so by rewriting the rules – reshaping the confines of reality.  Personally, I prefer “changing the rules” or “re-writing the rules” to “breaking the rules.”
  • Find People who don’t know it can’t be done! Is this an overlooked value of new teachers.  I keep thinking that there is great potential to pairing experienced teachers with new teachers, when solving education problems – so long as each is willing to learn from the other.
  • Make exercise fun!  This one hit hard.  It’s one of my regrets, as I approach the end of my career, that I have not thought enough or talked enough about our children’s physical education.  I think that Pulver, from his own recent experiences in losing so many pounds, was spot-on, that “Exercise should be fun.”

    But, for many, it’s not.  I’ve never gotten anything from endorphins, though my wife use to claim an addiction to her afternoon jogs.  Perhaps its an A.D.D. thing, because the only effect I feel from the (prescribed) stimulants I sometimes take is that I can suddenly express myself in a little more linear fashion. But no other physical sensation.

    Some people don’t like sports.  I was good at baseball and football, and played on school teams.  But I never took the whole winning/losing thing very seriously – and never had fun playing with people who did.

    Some people aren’t good at sports.  One of my brothers could run faster than anyone in four blocks.  But he never learned to catch a ball gracefully.

    How do you make exercise fun?  Here are a few thoughts.

    • Sports should not be limited to those who are good at it and only for the good of the school.  Invite everyone to play and celebrate the play.  Playing is fun.  Winning requires losers.
    • 1987 Infinity Recumbent
      Find new ways to ride.  I’ve been a bicycle rider since college, although not like some.  But now, I find riding to be painful to my wrists, hands, knees, and, well, the obvious places.  So I’ve recently purchased a used (1987) recumbent bike, which is fun for me because it’s a new way to ride, and because I’m having fun learning how to ride it (and keep my feet on the peddles)
    • Find new human-powered routes.  Greenways are huge in large cities, and I’m starting so see them in smaller cities.  There are also some instances of walking and biking trails that connect towns, which is something I noticed a lot of in Germany.  I believe that there’s a trail between Richmond, Virginia and the shore.  Go to TrailLink to find trails in your state and community.
    • Find new places to walk to.  Just walking or biking is often not compelling enough.  There need to be reasons to be on those trails, places to go, reasons to be on your feet.  Making your community more bicycle and pedestrian friendly is essential.  But how do you make them desirable or fashionable to use.  Ask students to invest in them by devising solutions.  Take a picture of your downtown and ask students to edit the picture, adding features for the self-propelled.  Ask a Maker class to design and build bicycle racks for your community and work with stores and municipal establishments to install them.  Get creative.  Get going on your own two feed.

The Purpose of Textbooks – Part 2

I do not think that holograms are on the near horizon, but one can wish

So, continuing from my last blog article, if the answers to our questions are changing and they are constantly available to us, and helping our children learn to find, validate and use valuable information/media has become a central defining component of literacy, then of what use are textbooks.  If stripped of the content – the right answers to questions – then what is left and to what purpose.

In my opinion, quite a bit is left.  I took one of those remedial classes in my first year of community college, something like “Improve Your Study Skills.”  I remember the professor telling us what to do upon receiving our textbooks each semester.  We should scan through and register key items and sequence of ideas in the table of contents and also scan the index, looking for names, words and phrases that stand out.  Each of these textbook elements provided anchor points within the content, giving it shape and meaning.

If the teacher or learner is starting without a packaged and provided collection of content, then a locally maintained table of contents (outline) and index (list of essential terms) become something quite different.  Instead of anchor points, they provide idea magnets, serving to help draw together the most contextually relevant and defensible information in a sequence and shape that provides the deepest meaning to the content.  It is, in a sense, a skeleton that gives shape to what might otherwise be an ugly bag of mostly water. (I always wanted to use that phrase – Geurs, Sanchez & Sabarof, 1988)

I had originally written a long technical examination of metadata here, but it would be one of many avenues to this sort of learning tool, and who am I to suggest how this might technically work.  But what comes closest to being my personal and professional textbook today is Flipboard, a magazine-forming social network aggregator for both iOS and Android.  I’ll be attending the upcoming Educon at Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy this week.  In preparation, I’ve configured Flipboard to grab all tweets that are hashtagged with #educon, as well as the resources that are shared by those tweets.  The effect is a new chapter to my textbook, capturing content from others who will also be attending or simply paying attention to the event via the social network.  My textbook (Flipboard) is a carefully arranged, personal and constantly evolving set of information magnets, that attract the content that I need or want to see.

Might the day come, when a subject to be taught, is conveyed as a flexible outline of tags (so to speak).  The job of the teacher would be to locate (or cause to be located) and attach content (both open-source and/or commercial), in any appropriate format, to that arrangement of scope and sequence-forming tags and constantly filter and refine that content based on changing conditions and newly available content?

What might this process look like as an integral part of teacher education?  Might the act of starting their own flexible digital textbooks be a part of learning to teach.  (Is “Flexbook” trademarked?  How about “flexibook?”)

My point is that we have every reason to conclude that learning tools that assume a static, centralized and standard arrangement of content is irrelevant to the needs of today’s learners – and that today’s prevailing information environment provides for us some pretty compelling opportunities.

  • That teachers can easily construct and refine learning tools based on local and universal conditions and individualized to the circumstances of specific learners.
  • That learners can personalize their learning tools based on their self-discovered learning styles and their evolving personal interests.
  • That these learning tools need not be turned in at the end of the course, but carried on, edited, adapted and grown.
  • That learners can graduate with more than a paper diploma – that they might take with them a personalized digital library or network of content that they continue to maintain and evolve based on their continuing needs and interests.
  • That this action of personal curation can become an integral part of formal education, further shifting it from

Something that is done to children

  to

Something that we learn to do for ourselves.

 

 

Geurs, K. (Writer), Sanchez, R. (Writer), & Sabarof, R. (Writer) (1988). Home soil [Television series episode]. In Roddenberry, G. (Executive Producer), Star Trek: The Next Generation. CBS Television Distribution.