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Have We Made a Mistake? (Part 2)

Thursday, 19. November 2015 17:42

About a month ago I wrote about the confusion caused by the many names of STEM. The addition of other subjects (STEAM, STREAM), often for reasons unrelated to the purpose of STEM, has made it more difficult to explain to parents, outsiders, and ourselves what we are doing, or why we are doing this. As promised, now I'd like to blow the doors off the whole mess and wonder what the STEM we've gotten into.

There are two parts of all STEM initiatives that I wholeheartedly endorse. It is clear that there is an ongoing and growing need for students with better skills in science, technology, engineering, and math to meet the demands of the current and future labor market. Dire predictions abound of thousands of I filled positions and jobs fleeing the country to Asia which has a larger (and far less expensive) trained work force. Though I balk at the suggestion that all (or even a majority) of jobs in the second half of the 21st Century will require STEM skills, our current method of instruction for these subjects seems to be lagging in results. The other aspect that appeals to me is breaking down silos of discrete instruction between subjects. The organization of the school schedule often places related fields far apart, and few students ever see connections or draw upon multiple branches of learning simultaneously for solutions. Too often students learn self-contained subjects rather than knowledge and skills.

That being said, I'm still wondering whether STEM initiatives truly serve the best interests of our mission. This nagging discomfort also falls into two categories. The first concern is about the relationship of the STEM subjects to the other areas of learning. STEM advocates are quick to point out that in emphasizing these areas we are not deemphasizing other areas, but I don't know what this means. Clearly money and resources will flow toward this area which can only result in less for others. This uncomfortable I'll-defined relationship between the STEM subjects and the others has led to the “letter creep” of additional subjects. To be on the gravey train, a discipline has to have a letter on board. I see a number of schools defining themselves as STEM schools, what does that say about the other skills at these schools? And what about the majority of students who will not go into a STEM field? For the unspoken reality is that a lack of people to fill these jobs currently does not mean that there are enough jobs in these areas to employ the entire population.

The other challenge I see is with the broader scope of education reform. Beside STEM there are other initiatives to improve learning such as differentiated instruction and blended learning. Though not essentially antithetical to one another, the limited capacity of schools too often forces a choice. School reform tools become almost like religious denominations, with schools worshiping at the altar of STEM or blended learning, or flipped classroom, or something else. While I appreciate all of these efforts, and I think students benefit almost any time that a school works to reform instruction (see my comments on disruptive innovation), it still seems wrong that too many schools are picking a brand to the exclusion of others.

This being said, I suppose I'm ultimately coming down on the side of developing a hybrid of all these valuable initiatives. How can we create environments where students cross the borders of subjects while working at levels that meet their needs and taking advantages of technological tools in instruction? I call this Highly Effective Instruction (HEI). Perhaps this should be the next frontier of education reform.

On the other hand, I could be completely wrong.

As always, I welcome your comments.



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Great Expectations

Friday, 6. November 2015 20:45

I'm giving a talk for Catholic school teachers and principals today related to students use of Internet and social media.

This is one of my opening slides

It's very discouraging to me that for too many people, and too many educators in particular, this is the prevailing opinion. Digital devices and connectivity are inevitable, and they will make certain things easier, but they won't make us better people. They are convenient, but it is a convenience that requires a trade off in our culture, civility and humanity.

I'm certain that this isn't the first time that a cultural change has been greeted with moral scepticism. Widespread distribution of printed texts was probably criticized by some as the end of memory and Pandora's box filled with evil things that could be written and printed. Similar criticism probably followed the introduction of radio and television, each destroying everything that came before. However, I can find no record of the unified voice of resigned despair that seems to accompany the digital revolution. It reminds me of the quote from Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it.” Not only are we going to Hell with a hand-held, there is no reverse to the engine, so we might as well be miserable during the ride.

I think as educators we need to radically oppose this perception and this determinism. The act of education is an essentially, hopeful one, investing effort today to make a better tomorrow. If we do not believe that our digital future can be better, we relieve ourselves of all responsibility to figure out how to make it better.

And hey, those book things turned out to be pretty good.

As always, I welcome your comments.


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Personal Housekeeping

Thursday, 22. October 2015 20:03

I'm away this week, attending a yearly conference of Catholic Superintendents in Atlanta and speaking in Dallas on my way back, so I've been living in hotel rooms more extensively than usual. While I generally like hotel living (call me Eloise), I found myself confronted by a moral dilemma this time that demonstrates one of the many complexities of modern life.

It was a small card on the bed with a seemingly generous offer. The hotel would give me points for each day I did without maid service. The card pointed out the many environmental and energy saving benefits of this choice. As someone who has always folded and reused towels in a hotel room to save water, this seemed like a natural extension. I certainly can keep neat enough on my own. In fact, it sounds pretty selfish and indulgent to have someone make my bed and straighten up my room daily. If I get hotel points in the deal, well, then I'm just doing well by doing good. It seemed a simple choice.

But life (and the voice in my head) is complicated. As I went outside the door to put out the card to turn down service, I saw the woman pushing the cleaning cart down the hallway, and the entire issue took on a new face and a new dimension. For the hotel is not primarily interested in cutting water or chemicals, it is interested in cutting its most expensive cost, human beings. How many generations, from how many cultures have used entry-level jobs like these to make their way and feed their children? Am I, under the guise of concern for the earth, forgetting my co-inhabitants?

What's more, the offering of hotel points for this “harmless” inconvenience has all the smell of the camel's nose under the tent. People are acclimated to a new reality by giving them (essentially meaningless) trinkets, and soon the card changes to read, “Out of concern for the environment, we will only offer daily room cleaning to elite members, or those willing to pay a nominal extra charge.” Taken to its fullest extension, this program will reduce maid service to only on leaving days, which will have a job cost that I can't calculate.

Still, I don't want to poison the earth any more than I already am for an indulgent service that I don't really need.

Still, I don't need the points or the self-righteous feeling more than that woman needs her job.

If the hotel were to say in such a way that I believed them, “We will permanently maintain all staffing levels, and will use these employees in Eco-friendly roles,” the choice would be easier. But I don't think they would say that, because I don't think it is their intention.

So I ripped up the card, apologized to the woman with the cart, and went back in my room to hide my head under the covers. The modern world is really confusing (and don't get me started about the chocolate on the pillow!)

As always, I welcome your comments.


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Have We Made a Mistake? (Part 1)

Wednesday, 23. September 2015 15:11

Here below, to live is to change

And to be perfect

Is to have changed often

(Cardinal John Henry Newman)


The easiest thing in the world is to criticize an educational initiative. Anyone who has been in education for any length of time can look with a jaundiced eye at passing trends and the cycle of excitement, disillusionment, and abandonment. Seasoned veterans in their cups share battle scars of the initiatives that they have endured (and buried). The danger of this is that many educators come to believe that all initiatives are without merit. This is the quickest path to fossilizing good people.

To be honest, I've been on the serving side as much as the receiving side of new ideas. Perhaps it is my fundamental tendency toward boredom, but I'm always interested in how the world is changing and how classrooms have to change as well. I bristle at accusations of jargon and gimmickry, though I understand the mechanism that causes this. However, sometimes the way a new initiative is packaged can reduce its effectiveness and sow the seeds of its own demise despite its merits.

I think we may have done this with our attempts to redefine and rebrand STEM. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) was a relatively clear initiative (though in part 2 I need to look more deeply at this). It was “designed” around a clear need for greater emphasis on these skills that was understandable to most, and there were some fairly clear classroom applications. Whether STEM was a good idea or not, it was a concept that most parents, teachers, and students understood.

Until it got messy. In a chorus of “where's my parade?” other non-STEM subject teachers saw this initiative as a threat to their own areas, that emphasis on one must mean deemphasis of other. Doing a better job with math, science, engineering, and technology had to mean doing a worse job on the humanities. Though this was never the intent, the immediate remedy was not to answer this misperception but to add an A for Arts on the STEM (now STEAM) train. So along with working out the mathematical, technological, scientific, and engineering aspects of a problem, students would also draw a picture.

It got worse. Literature advocates, unwilling to be subsumed under the single banner of Arts, added an R for Reading, and now we were swimming in a STREAM. To complicate things further, well meaning (I say well meaning because I was one of them…if I had not been, I would have said misguided) leaders in Catholic education felt that the entire process needed to be baptized in Catholic identity, so an alternate R for Religion split the STREAM into to branches.

But I think we have made a mistake on two grounds one pedagogical and one branding. From a pedagogical perspective, the AR layover were not fundamental to the original STEM methodology, and they were not primarily added because they were missing. Rather, they were primarily added to address the perceptions and feelings of teachers (many social studies teachers continue to press for STREAMS (or STREAMSS). This Frankencurriculum does not best serve the original need of the initiative. I have seen numerous STREAM lessons and there is always a tagged on feeling to these added elements. Teachers have a significantly harder time mastering this methodology, so many don't try.

From a branding perspective (and I know we bristle at words like branding when it comes to the world of education, but to some extent I'm simply talking about clear communication) we have created an alphabet soup of terms that have lost all clear meaning to most. Whether they really understood it or not, parents, teachers, and students had a pretty clear idea what STEM is. However, when I say STEAM or STREAM, I have to spend the next five minutes explaining what I mean, and my explanation always starts, “Its like STEM, but….” Some Catholic schools still claim to do STEM, others STEAM, others STREAM, and parents ask how they are different and I have to admit, I don't know.

If we are going to pursue STEM (more to follow) let's let it be STEM, let's call it STEM, and let's let the other letters wash down the stream of experience.

As always, I welcome your comments.



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Every Day in Every Way…

Friday, 21. August 2015 22:00

Today’s reflection is not news or really new, but capturing some thoughts I’ve had over recent weeks that were jarred to the front of my brain by my visit to Starbucks this morning. Anyone who is a regular has noticed for a few months the ring chargers for mobile devices. These rings with various plugs are made available to patrons, and once the ring is inserted, laying the ring on special plates on tables throughout the shop will charge the device.

Now, it’s not super fast, and it can be difficult to use the device while set on the charger, but am I the only one who thinks this is bloody amazing? For years I have joked that one thing holding back the digital revolution was our continued tether to plugs. When I give a talk now, the prime seats are not the front (or even the back) but the side seats near plugs where members of the audience sit tethered to the wall. Others will simply leave their device sitting there, tied to the wall through the unbreakable lock of flowing electricity. A day of travel or a day at a workshop is a strategic battle to conserve power and to reach charging oases. Airports I visit are judged by the number and availability of outlets (Chicago O’Hare is horrible, as the entire terminal huddles around a single bank of plugs. One the other hand Boston Logan has a plug beneath almost every seat). What we need, I have joked for years, is wireless power. This is sort of what we have at most Starbucks coffee shops today.

I can hear the chorus of “Yes, but…” people out there. It isn’t truly wireless, because the tables are plugged in. It isn’t truly wireless because it is metal contacting metal. It isn’t truly wireless because the device is still tethered, maybe even more closely than before. I recognize and acknowledge all of these buts, but I return a but of my own, the shop has made charging available to a wide variety of devices and eliminated nests of charging cables, bringing the electricity right to each seat.

Does this have long term or broader applications to address some of the earlier problems? Maybe not. In order to make this available at every seat there would have to be a plug and wiring system electrifying all of the chairs (perhaps not the best thing). It probably wouldn’t be much more simple and inexpensive than installing a plug at every chair. But does that make this development trivial or worthless? Absolutely not. The architects of the Starbucks charging pads thought differently about power and wires,and they created a solution that would have been unheard of just a couple of years ago, a solution that clearly is inexpensive enough that in a very short period of time was spread to the majority of shops.  I saw this and commented about how amazing it was the first time I saw it, but within weeks, it was everywhere.

Though we have seen immense changes in a short period of time, the changes have not stopped happening, and they are happening right in front of us, sitting under our coffee cups.

As always, I welcome your comments.




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A Foolish Consistency

Tuesday, 21. July 2015 17:54

Idols shouldn’t be touched, the gilt comes off on your hands. Flaubert

Perhaps it has always been the case, but (as in so many other things) the constant information buzz of the Internet exacerbates it. However, there is no disguising the fact that there is an open season on heroes. Through revelation, changing perceptions, or new actions, the men and women who indirectly formed us are seen to be fallible, reckless, and in some cases covertly monstrous. The landscape of the statuary is cluttered with fallen marbles.

This is not to defend fallen heroes, or even the concept of heroism. I have joined in the collective disgust over revelations about the peccadilloes and crimes of role models, and I have gloated over the exposure of self-appointed moral arbiters. Schadenfreude is the life-blood of the Internet. Likewise, I have wondered about the human need to lift some above the others, leaving us open for disillusionment when humanity (or worse) shows through.

However, I will defend a cultural role model who is currently suffering from public reevaluation based on new revelations. This universally popular figure was respected and admired for generations and gave us all an icon of manhood, of fatherhood, to which we all could aspire. However, newly discovered information threatens to tar him and knock him from the pantheon of great fathers.

This man is Atticus Finch.

With the release of Harper Lee’s “new” novel Go Set a Watchman, the literary world and much of popular culture were set aflame. The novel addresses the character of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird, in her adult years, long after the childhood events of the first book. Among the major revelations of this new chapter are (Spoiler Alert) the death of her brother Jem in early adulthood and most challenging of all, the “true” character of Atticus as a bitter segregationalist, fighting against the principles he espoused in Mockingbird and even attending a Klan rally.

The pain that screamed across social media at this was deafening. Adults who grew up with Atticus, whether on the page or so perfectly captured by Gregory Peck, expressed anger, outrage, and most profoundly sadness, a reaction compounded by recent debates over vestiges of the Old South. There are laments about the loss of a hero and the father we wish we had. Some have taken the opportunity to express that Atticus never was the role model of racial progressiveness that he seemed, demonstrating paternalism over true empathy. I’ve even seen the comment that To Kill a Mockingbird should be dropped from school curriculum based on these newly-revealed “truths.”

While understandable, this reaction ignores several essential differences between a character in a novel and a flesh and blood human being (even a celebrity). There is no evidence that Go Set an Watchman was ever intended as a sequel to TKAM. The book was written before, and for all intents abandoned to tell the new story (whether Lee or Capote wrote the final story is debatable). Therefore there is no call for this to be a consistent universe or that these characters have anything more than a shadow relationship to their final selves. Given the history of the two books, there is no indication of Lee’s intention to use Watchman to tell the truth behind the book she wrote second. Atticus is not Katniss Everdeen, or Jon Snow. He is a character created one way in one book and another way in another book. Atticus’ views in the second novel reflect no more on his actions in the first than Jem’s death of a heart attack reflects on the calorie rich meals he ate as a child.

So I will remain devoted to Atticus, the man taking a principled stance knowing he would not win, the caring and understanding father, the point of light in a blind community. Though simplistically drawn (a friend always refers to TKAM as YA lit), he is a great existential hero. His actions and words show his character, and even if Harper Lee thought he would turn out differently, there is no reason why I, or anyone, have to believe her. It is clear to me that Lee never intended to put out Watchman, the details of its eventual publication are controversial, so this is not a story she thought it important to tell. The beauty of a literary figure is that our admiration does not have to be affected by anything outside of the work itself. There is no TMZ for our literary heroes.

As always, I welcome your comments.



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What Does it Look Like?

Thursday, 18. June 2015 18:28

Today I did a keynote session for a leadership conference in Ft Lauderdale. It was a great group and they were very responsive. The topic was evaluating current Ed-tech programs while effectively planning for the future.

One of the openers I do with the group is to have them visualize and discuss what they would like to see in their classroom or school if they could simply wave a wand and make it happen. Taking away financial, connectivity, and software issues, what is the perfect learning environment.

This group talked quite a bit, and I assumed that once I called for ideas that we would have some truly revolutionary ideas. I was surprised, therefore, to hear that most of the ideas expressed were about having more devices, more dependable wifi, or better electronic texts. Actually, I shouldn't have been surprised, because these responses were similar to those I received every time I asked this question.

I attribute this to two key factors. The first is a fear that we all feel of letting go of the known for the completely unknown. Our experience of learning is so ingrained that it is hard to picture learning another way (this is exacerbated by the fact that most teachers learned very well in traditional environments). So many of our ideas are older models hidden in tech clothing (a lecture taking the form of a worksheet, students presenting dull information instead of the teacher). We worry (perhaps rightly) that any change might not bring the outcomes we anticipate, so we cling desperately to the shores of the known.

The second factor might be even more fundamental. It is extremely hard to anticipate something that does not yet exist. The number of times when a non-derivative product or process has emerged in our lifetime is very small. Not everyone could have envisioned the iPhone or the iPad, which each in its own way was derivative, but created a new class of devices. It is not simply a matter of letting go of the past, many (I would say most) cannot effectively picture a different future. The most honest answer for any of us to the question of what a future learning environment might look like, is “I don't know.”

This is not to criticize those who don't know and can't envision what is coming next. This is most of us most of the time and all of us some of the time. I simply point out that a future that is not simply a redressing of the past is hard to see (and even harder to explain).

As always, I welcome your comments.



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11 Days to Maximum Decentralization. Day 2

Monday, 15. June 2015 18:50

A few thoughts about time.

I have always appreciated the adage: “Time was invented by humans to keep everything from happening at once.” Given that we can only experience now, time is our way of organizing our many concepts of “nows” into a useable sequence (and if that isn't enough to give anyone a brain knot, particularly first thing in a morning, I don't know what is).

I introduce this not to cause widespread existential terror, but rather to challenge some of our assumptions when it comes to time and learning. Does more time automatically translate to better learning? I'm certain that everyone reading this can quickly bring out the stack of digital articles showing that both longer and shorter school time is the key to student success. I take from this not that there is a universal truth, but that people make many things work.

I do think that if we are going to be looking at significant structural school change that there is a need to become more flexible with time. Many of the activities we will discuss take time, and if they are worthwhile, we will need to find ways to create that time. However, I don't want to start with the assumption that longer blocks of time create better learning.

I'm going to stop and publish this one here for two reasons. First, because I'm already behind and need to write three more to catch up. Second because I think I don't have a grasp on this topic yet. Clearly this is something we need to talk about?

As always, I invite your comments.




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Twelve Days to Maximum Decentralization! Day 1

Thursday, 11. June 2015 21:26

I'm trying something different this summer. On Tuesday, June 23, I am going to be leading a full day of four sessions at the Blended Learning Symposium in Santa Clara, CA. Unlike my usual workshop presentations, I will be working with the same group for multiple sessions (we limited it to 30 participants who had to pre-register for these four), and in the spirit of the conference, we will be working on constructing knowledge together. While I like giving and hearing talks, and I see real value in hearing an inspiring speaker (it is even pretty good to hear me), it seemed highly incongruous to me that a blended learning workshop would be built around traditional workshops alone. So God punished me by answering my prayers, and the countdown is on.

In preparation for the day and to start the conversation (and, let's face it, my post count is really down this year), I'm going to write a short post each day between now and the workshop. I'll post the links in the conference Dropbox folder so the 30 participants will have an opportunity to read and respond. Some of these will be directly about blended learning topics. Others will be about other aspects of education, technology, or frankly anything that interests me. I invite you participants (or any of the other regular readers, who range into the high single digits) to suggest topics that you might find of interest.

I HATE the term blended learning…there, isn't that a great way to start the discussion? I have three key objections (outside of essential contrariness). First, I can't hear the term without thinking of a blender, and (aside from making smoothies) I don't see what a blender has to do with a classroom. Second, it is never clear to me (and to many who use the term) what exactly is being blended or mixed together. Is it subject matter? techniques? the students themselves? Finally, for this and other reasons, it is a squishy, jargony term that can be used to describe almost anything that goes on in a classroom. What is the focus of a blend? I do think I know pretty well what is being described by the term, but blending ain't it.

The term I prefer, and the one I've used for this workshop, is decentralized learning. If we work from the assumption that traditional education was built on two principles; 1) the centrality of the teacher and textbook as the source of student information and animus of student activity. 2) the centrality of the classroom as the place and the class period as the time where and when learning takes place. Now if we decentralize these two, the focus becomes clearer. We need to design (or rediscover) teaching strategies that increase student learning from other sources than the teacher and the textbook, and we need to design a learning plan that increases the emphasis on learning as something that can happen in any place or time.

In the days ahead I'll talk in more detail about both of these and other characteristics I see in this decentralization of education (or to put it in a more positive tone, a centralizing on students). For those of you attending the session on the 23rd, I hope this will whet your appetite for the sharing and work together that we will be doing, and (as always) I welcome your comments.




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Friday, 5. June 2015 21:48

This is part of a series of posts dedicated to moments of new awareness, ideas that hit me for the first time (even if they have been clear to others for years).

I’m preparing for a full-day workshop I will be presenting to a school next week. The school is moving to a block schedule and my job is to start the reorientation of teachers to work in this new model. I’m also preparing for a workshop I will be doing later in the month. For both of these I’m reading about teacher successes and failures in trying to transform their classrooms.

Among the articles I read was a reprinting of a blog where a teacher logged her observations after shadowing a student for two days (the article can be found here ). She sat in all of the classes and participated in all of the activities, not evaluating the teacher, but having the student experience. Needless to say, she hated it, and she listed many specific concerns. One of them was that students spend about 90% of their day listening, whether it is to a teacher lecture or a presentation by another student.

Wait…Presentation by Another Student??




I know that I (and probably many of my colleagues) see student presentations (whether as individuals or as groups) as a key strategy of participatory learning. Students are forced to master material to a level where they can teach it to others. Sometimes they need to work cooperatively in teams, and they ALWAYS have to have a PowerPoint. What could be a better teaching technique? How better to be a “guide on the side” than by letting students become “sages on stages”?

And maybe to some extent this is true. A person does have to master material at a higher level to present it to others. Creating a PowerPoint outline requires skills of analysis and expression. Probably many of these students know their subject at least as well or a little better than if it were presented by the teacher.

But I wonder if what we are teaching them as well is ineffective instruction technique. A teacher who would scoff at coworkers who lecture on a daily basis has little trouble subjecting students to the same thing, only given by sometimes less competent presenters. Do other students in a class learn from presentations by their classmates? Or are they so busy being stressed about perhaps being the next up, or so busy enjoying seeing their friends sweat that their attention and comprehension are minimal? Are we asking students to do exactly what we ask ourselves to stop doing?

As always, I welcome you comments



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