Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Teens Perceive Job Losses as Way of Life?

I was speaking with one of our high school teachers this morning and she pointed out how our kids are growing up during a period of time where all they've seen are people losing their jobs.  It's depressing but it also is becoming simply a perception of how life will be for many of them.  Some of us witnessed this same thing in the 70's and early 80's, and clearly remember the long lines at the unemployment office on South Division in Grand Rapids (before you could use computers to file claims).  Back then people were leaving Michigan in droves for the expanding oil fields in Texas and Oklahoma (remember "last one out of Michigan, please turn out the lights?").

Perhaps we can help combat the perception in our students that this is how their life is always going to be by focusing more on the future.  An article in this week's Time magazine has some information that could be helpful as you engage in discussions with your students.  It also has a link to photos from the recession of 1958 which was interesting.

The Workforce: Where Will the New Jobs Come From?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Grease is Really About Change

Lee High School is presenting the stage production of Grease the Musical this week, and when Danny Zuko belts out the lyrics, "I got chills, they're multiplying, and I'm losing control!" its in recognition that he finally wakes up to the fact he must decide between his boys or Sandy Olsson.  Like any red-blooded American teen story, the girl wins out.  If you left it at that, Grease would be nothing more than another teenage tale with a rock-and-roll twist (pun intended).  But the story of Danny and Sandy goes much deeper than that; it's actually a ballad depicting real-life struggle, regardless of whether that life is in the 1950's or the 2010's.

If you've never seen the stage production or movie version of Grease, this may not make sense right away so please bear with me.  Throughout most of the story, Sandy is torn between innocence and achieving something she desperately wants.  That something is Danny, an immature teenage boy, so-called gang-banger of the late 50's, who can't decide if he should continue living for the moment or pursue his dream.  That dream involves Australian-born Sandy so the two become embroiled in a classic coming-of age romantic battle.  In the end, there's a compromise that might be lost to the casual observer in that both wind up having to shed some - but not necessarily all - of their past, because only then are they able to realize their dreams can come true. This metamorphosis happens to be timed in the story with high school graduation, a tradition that anyone can certainly identify with.

Grease was an instant hit when it reached the big screen in 1978 and its popularity defied even the most staunchest critics. It's now considered a cult classic but one can only wonder if it would have been as popular had Sandy and Danny clung to their first impulses.  Not likely.  I can see the alternate ending now: Sandy headed back to Australia after a year as an exchange student, still wearing her pink dress and saddle shoes, wondering if she'll ever meet anyone nice. She winds up an old spinster.  Danny in the meantime ends up leading his T-birds into a life of crime and possibly even prison.  Who knows how their lives would actually end up, but this much we know for sure: they'd spend the rest of their days wondering what it could have been.

If you think I'm some sort of romantic philosopher, you're likely going to miss my point: As I said, Grease is a parallel for real life and so we could just as easily proclaim "Education IS the word."  You see, like Sandy and Danny, we we are finding ourselves at a similar crossroad, where we have to decide whether to continue clinging to a familiar past, or move forward to a new and exciting vision of the future. As in Grease, the past contains that irresistible feeling of innocence along with the comfort of others surrounding us who think and act the same way we do.  The future, on the other hand, is uncertain and unfamiliar, a feeling of discomfort that often accompanies fear of the unknown even when in our heart we know it's right. To move forward unabashedly requires a keen sense of adventure along with a healthy dose of courage.  It certainly was a struggle for Danny and Sandy, and isn't any easier for us.

I like to think that we've already taken a significant step forward. As a district, we've acknowledged that to cling sentimentally to a vision of K-12 education not recognizable by our students is akin to malpractice, and together we've begun to accept that change is inevitable. Many of you are trying out different approaches in the classroom or the lab to integrating the use of digital technology in your lessons.  A number are making your classrooms into more flexible learning spaces where furniture is used as part of the engagement process, not simply for control.  And still even more are attempting to give your students choices in how they learn and how they demonstrate what they learned, maintaining a rigorous expectation of mastery while providing a more supporting environment for your students.  And while our focus is on our students, many of us have come to recognize that social networking can take us beyond our classroom and district borders to engage with other professionals and develop our own personal learning networks.

This is not Rydell High School, and it isn't 1959.  But as we've seen before, life is an endless cycle of conflict resolution and problem solving, both of which involve making choices. A tired old cliche' claims that it's impossible to both have your cake and eat it too, a point that clearly illustrates that hanging on to the old makes it impossible to gain anything new.

In the end, Danny and Sandy each make their choice and together ride off into the future aboard their trusty steed, Greased Lightning. Each gave up an important part of their young lives to date in order to move ahead, together.  Now, isn't that really what continuous improvement is all about?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Automating vs. Informating

I'm reading Alan November's new edition of Empowering Students with Technology and the first things that jump out at me are his comments about two very different approaches to the use of technology. These were observed during research by Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard Business School professor, as far back as 1988, and November claims that they may offer a " possible explanation for why technology has not transformed education ."

The term automating refers to the more common use of technology as an add-on to existing processes and procedures without changing any of the work, locus of control, calendars and schedules, and relationships. In other words, November asserts that, "The same processes solve the same problems." While this may lead to some noticeable improvements, the quality of the work over time can actually decline. November points to General Motors as an example of the latter.

Informating , while harder to implement leads to higher levels of improvement. It uses the same technology but shifts control and empowers people with information and the responsibility to use it to solve problems. Timely access to information through technology is key to informating . November illustrates this through parent and student access to grades every day, student access to content information whenever and wherever they choose, and teacher access to research and technologies outside of scheduled professional development and conferences. This timely access leads to a shift in responsibility for self-learning and engagement. Informatingcomes with a downside: it's less organized and can be messy. But the transformation to a higher level of quality and new services far outweighs any traditional loss of control.

Improving education with technology requires a transformation from automating to informating that only comes, according to November , with a powerful vision and "thoughtful and creative teachers challenging students to go beyond traditional expectations of achievement." Simply bolting an expensive computing device to the top of a desk to serve as a "$1,000 pencil" will not achieve this vision.

Here's four questions posed by November that must drive every curriculum and instruction decision we make to ensure we move forward towards informating learning :

  • What information do you need to improve your work?
  • What new relationships can improve learning?
  • What authentic relationships can you imagine for your students and educators?
  • What technology do you want to help accomplish all of this?

We have spent a great deal of time automating ever since the first Apple computers graced our classrooms and labs. To take our schools and our students into the 21 st century, it's time to start informating in all processes, but especially in teaching and learning.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

National Educational Technology Plan 2010

The Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology has released its national plan for transforming educational technology, claiming that it is:

"a model of 21st century learning powered by technology, with goals and recommendations in five essential areas: learning, assessment, teaching, infrastructure, and productivity. The plan also identifies far-reaching “grand challenge problems” that should be funded and coordinated at a national level."

Here's a capsule of the five essential areas lifted directly from the executive summary:


The model of 21st century learning described in this plan calls for engaging and empowering learning experiences for all learners. The model asks that we focus what and how we teach to match what people need to know, how they learn, where and when they will learn, and who needs to learn. It brings state-of-the art technology into learning to enable, motivate, and inspire all students, regardless of background, languages, or disabilities, to achieve. It leverages the power of technology to provide personalized learning instead of a one-size-fits-all curriculum, pace of teaching, and instructional practices.


The model of 21st century learning requires new and better ways to measure what matters, diagnose strengths and weaknesses in the course of learning when there is still time to improve student performance, and involve multiple stakeholders in the process of designing, conducting, and using assessment. In all these activities, technology-based assessments can provide data to drive decisions on the basis of what is best for each and every student and that in aggregate will lead to continuous improvement across our entire education system.


Just as leveraging technology can help us improve learning and assessment, the model of 21st century learning calls for using technology to help build the capacity of educators by enabling a shift to a model of connected teaching. In such a teaching model, teams of connected educators replace solo practitioners and classrooms are fully connected to provide educators with 24/7 access to data and analytic tools as well as to resources that help them act on the insights the data provide.


An essential component of the 21st century learning model is a comprehensive infrastructure for learning that provides every student, educator, and level of our education system with the resources they need when and where they are needed. The underlying principle is that infrastructure includes people, processes, learning resources, policies, and sustainable models for continuous improvement in addition to broadband connectivity, servers, software, management systems, and administration tools. Building this infrastructure is a far-reaching project that will demand concerted and coordinated effort.


To achieve our goal of transforming American education, we must rethink basic assumptions and redesign our education system. We must apply technology to implement personalized learning and ensure that students are making appropriate progress through our K-16 system so they graduate. These and other initiatives require investment, but tight economic times and basic fiscal responsibility demand that we get more out of each dollar we spend. We must leverage technology to plan, manage, monitor, and report spending to provide decisionmakers with a reliable, accurate, and complete view of the financial performance of our education system at all levels. Such visibility is essential to meeting our goals for educational attainment within the budgets we can afford.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Learning Technology is No Worse than Sticking Your Finger in an Electric Outlet

Why is it that Boomers and older Gen-Xers associate so much fear with the simple use of modern digital technology?  After all, we are the generations that:

1.  Grew up without plastic covers to protect us from electric outlets.

2.  Spent our entire weekends and summer days exploring neighboring woods and underground storm sewer systems.

3. Learned to ride a two-wheeled bike without training wheels (and without helmets).

4.  Built our own skateboards that tended to fall apart about the time we were racing down a steep hill (again without helmets or other padding).

5.  Went sledding on hills that didn't include safety fencing to prevent us from streaking out into the adjoining roadway (we learned to stop on our own - most of the time).

6.  Rode city buses on our own as elementary-age kids so we could spend a quarter at the downtown soda fountain.

7.  Walked along the busy tracks of the local C & O railroad depot for hours hunting for road flares.

8.  Chewed on lead paint (it was everywhere, including our cribs) and played in asbestos.

9.  Took showers together after gym classes and sports contests without thinking the kid next to us was a pervert or something.

10.  Walked and road our bikes places without asking mom or dad for a ride all the time, because we relished our simple freedoms and loved striking out on our own to solve the days problems and accomplish new objectives.  And we did it without telephoning our parents every hour or constantly texting our friends.

With this legacy, overcoming the obstacles presented by new and unfamiliar technology should be a cinch!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Just Couldn't Resist

Here's a question for any classroom teacher.

In the magazine cover depicted here, the young lad apparently is reading a baseball magazine he has smuggled into class.  He's using his textbook in a vain attempt to hide it.  From the looks on the face of his teacher, he's about to learn a new lesson in life.

My question is what should be an appropriate consequence?  Should it be:

  1. Take away his textbook so he can't hide magazines anymore (and certainly won't be able to complete his assignment either, but that's his problem isn't it?).
  2. Put him in the corner so he sets an example for others that learning new knowledge on your own is strictly verboten and that only the teacher knows what you should be learning.
  3. Invite him to continue if he wishes but be prepared to report on the article to his classmates.  Oh, and don't worry about the assignment, he'll have plenty of time to catch up by staying after school today.
  4. Assign after-school detention but have the student write lines that have little to do with the course content, but is sure to impress upon him that the teacher is boss.
  5. Ignore it.

Which of these consequences allows learning to continue and which do not?

Fast forward to the year 2010 and imagine a student with a mobile digital device accessing a web page not related to what the class is studying, or may in fact even violate the school's AUP.

Now, which consequence would you choose?  If you chose differently, why?

Teaching Compliance vs. Initiative

Seth Godin recently hit the issue of teaching compliance vs. initiative right on the head of the nail:

It's easier to teach compliance than initiative

Compliance is simple to measure, simple to test for and simple to teach. Punish non-compliance, reward obedience and repeat.
Initiative is very difficult to teach to 28 students in a quiet classroom. It's difficult to brag about in a school board meeting. And it's a huge pain in the neck to do reliably.
Schools like teaching compliance. They're pretty good at it.
To top it off, until recently the customers of a school or training program (the companies that hire workers) were buying compliance by the bushel. Initiative was a red flag, not an asset.
Of course, now that's all changed. The economy has rewritten the rules, and smart organizations seek out intelligent problem solvers. Everything is different now. Except the part about how much easier it is to teach compliance.