The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read or write,
but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. Alvin Toffler

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Is This Horse About Dead?

As events in Wisconsin unfold, as I exchange emails with my congressmen pleading for additional funding for preschool and allowable growth . . . . the thought suddenly occurs to me. Is this horse about dead? Are we beating this educational sytem as it sinks ever closer to oblivion, looking to feed it the last dollars we can eke out of an economy that can no longer afford it? Some of the wisest words spoken in recent months regarding the plight of pk-12 education were by Senator Jack Kibbie of Emmetsburg, who stated to educators, "You need to re-invent yourselves. You had to do it during the farm crisis of the 80s and again during the recession of the 90s. There are 3 more years of this downturn and we will not raise taxes to pay for it. You need to re-invent yourselves again."

Jack is right. It may not get done in 3 years, but it is time to accelerate the process of re-inventing how we do things. Schools are bloated, personnel-heavy, behemoths in an age where lightning fast efficiency is the name of the game. As much as we may love the time-worn concept of herding our same-age students from room to room in order for us to teach at them or even learn with them, the inefficiencies and clumsiness of such a system demand that it be left behind.

Digital technologies make information instantly accessible to whomever and wherever we desire. Computerized management systems allow us to manage student records with little human intervention needed. Yes, facilitation is needed, but even in the isolated case of our school's flipped calculus class, we are seeing students working in a totally different environment than the traditional enclosed classroom.

When we loosen the strictures of time and place(classroom walls) newly found efficiencies suddenly emerge. How many calculus students can our calc teacher actually facilitate if 75% of his students only actually need to see him 10 minutes a day instead of the 60 minutes they've been coming in to hear him present the lesson? And, obviously, those students can be in his building, or in a building miles away, or in their own home.

So, today I'm thinking Jack is right. The old horse is about dead. We will never again be able to afford school as we have known it. Now we have to invent school that we can afford, using the technologies of the 21st century that will make it affordable. Thankfully, it will also be more appropriate and more in accordance with the way kids today prefer to learn.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

School Can Be Beautiful

After weeks away from my blog, I have once again found inspiration through twitters and blogs that have recently passed my way. Of particular interest were two youtube presentations, the first by Jesse Schell entitled “The Future is Beautiful.” Everything, Jesse proclaimed, has become beautiful, from shampoo bottles to our cell phones, built with color, style and grace. Everything has become beautiful; everything, that is, besides schools.

Schools are not beautiful; they are ugly. With their drab brown/gray furniture and boxy linear classrooms, there is nothing aesthetically pleasing about school. Schools are not just ugly. As the outer world asks for “more real”—better clothes, better food, better movies—schools are fake. Teachers pretend to be the experts while students pretend (sometimes) to be interested. The human experience everywhere else is becoming more social, more shared; school is isolating and confining. School is more often than not boring, and sometimes sad.

So, what are we waiting for? When are we going to start making every minute of every day that our students spend in school relevant to their lives and to their futures? Jeffrey Piontek entitles his presentation “Teaching Jetson Children in Flintstone Schools.” He cites the television as a tool that took 40 years getting into schools and not very effectively at that. So, are we still 10 years away from integrating computer technology into the mainstream? Jeffrey finally left the public school arena to start his own charter school citing too much bureaucracy and regulation. Is that what holds us back at MNW? I don’t think so.

The answer is to stop talking at our students and instead to have them DOING and CREATING collaboratively in order to learn. Don’t tell them about a business, have them start one, real or simulated. Don’t memorize formulas, apply them to real problems and simulations. Don’t memorize historical dates and characters, find parallels with what happened then and what’s happening now and why they should care. Don’t lecture science; have them be scientists working on scientific problems.

There is no longer any excuse to conduct school as we have always done school. To borrow from Superintendent Bob Miller (Okoboji) there is no business in the world that needs people who sit in straight rows, performing repetitive tasks under close supervision. If we are not creating a collaborative, project-based work space in our classrooms, then we are out of touch with the needs of 21st century students.

We need no longer pretend that lists of facts, grammar rules, logarithms, classes of insects, kings of the 3rd century B.C, or anything else unrelated to the lives and purposes of our students is going to be remembered 2 steps beyond our classroom doors. Make it relevant, make it shared, make it part of their passion or at least of their interest so that they can construct their own knowledge rather than memorize bits of ours. And possibly, just possibly, it will be beautiful, it will be happy, it will be fun, for students and teachers alike.

The Future is Beautiful

Raising Jetson Kids in Flintstone Schools

Thursday, October 21, 2010


In my last post, I discussed the need for flexibility as we adjust to rapid change. In this submission, I will utilize a post by Scott McLeod on his blog at entitled “Should We Let Educators Off the Hook?” McLeod poses the question, “Given the realities of our modern age and the demands of our children’s future, is it really okay to allow teachers to choose whether or not they incorporate digital technologies into their instruction?” McLeod’s answer is an emphatic “NO, WE CAN’T LET EDUCATORS OFF THE HOOK.” He goes on to say that educators have a paid responsibility to be relevant, to prepare students for tomorrow, for the world as it is and will be.

No Excuse Is a Good Excuse. I agree with McLeod that no excuse flies in this situation. Whether it is fear or intransigence, no reason is good enough not to engage in “the largest transformation in learning that ever has occurred in human history.” Difficult? Some are unable? McLeod responds that technology and web 2.0 tools have become easier, many times easier, than the old days of MS DOS code and an internet that was largely text.

It’s Not About Us. In the end, Scott makes a most important point. It’s not about us. It’s not about what I want to do, what I prefer not to do, how I want to conduct my classroom regardless. It’s not about me and my world; it’s about the students and their world. The covers are off the text books, the walls of our classrooms have been blown away. There is no choice but to adapt. Educators can no longer go inside and close the classroom door on the greater world. We cannot bury our students within the confining boundaries of a text book or pretend that being provincial is ok in today’s world.

What If I Don’t? So what about that person who can’t/won’t change? McLeod asserts that life-long learners must take responsibility for keeping pace with change rather than blaming others for their inactivity or denying what is taking place around them. Scott asks, “If you’re a teacher/administrator/librarian/education professor that somehow doesn’t even realize (yet) that there’s a decision to be made, should you even be working in a school or university? Don’t our children deserve someone who is in a different place than you are? It’s one thing to be a learner (with this technology stuff) . . . . It’s another to opt out or not even recognize the choice. If we look at what our kids need, shouldn’t we replace you with someone else?”

Looking With “New” Eyes. Let me offer yet another way of looking at the situation. Remember when you were a new teacher, faced with a first year of new course preparations and having little idea about what it took to be an effective teacher? Did you not respond to that challenge with extra resolve, increased energy and a great investment of time in order to be the best that you could be? I recall being faced with the task of teaching Appleworks with no home computer and little computer experience. I was at the school for hours that summer readying myself for this new teaching responsibility, and I’m sure most educators can relate a similar story.

In a sense, we are all new teachers again, uncertain where to begin and how to proceed. But begin we must, and proceed we will. Extra demands may fall upon us relative to time and energy as we bring ourselves up to speed in accordance with the technology requirements of our curriculum. We must respond to this challenge as professionals responsible for our own preparation and professional development, whether by doing those little things each day to enhance our abilities or seeking out opportunities for more intense training.

Mandates Leave No Choice. The MNW Board will soon consider the approval of a 21st Century District Philosophy. It will include the use of appropriate technologies in the classroom; incorporating the 4 C’s of 21st Century Skills, as well as utilizing technology to make global connections for our students. Additionally the Iowa Core’s Information Literacy Curriculum is specific in its benchmarks for student use of technology at every grade level. These District and State requirements make it clear that one cannot distance oneself from the infusion of technology and 21st Century Skills into our classrooms. From this perspective there is no choice in the matter, no question about “getting off the hook.” Progress will surely take place at different rates from one educator to another; however, progress must be evident in every case. Our students deserve nothing less.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Flexibility in Times of Change

Last week’s post referred readers to the blog of Scott Jantzen and his suggestion that we become increasingly creative in our attempts to interest and engage our students in what we are trying to have them learn. This week, I again turn to another educator, this time Sarah Edson from a school in Connecticut who writes about the power of flexibility in this time of rapid change.

Sarah first remarks as to the awesome power of digital communications. “With more of these lightning-fast connections at our doorstep, we find ourselves within reach of some of the most powerful learning resources that have ever existed on Earth. Simulations, animations, readings, publishing platforms, images, audio, video, discussion fora, and networks of experts and passionate learners abound. The quantity of choices intimidates many. However, the beauty of having so many choices, the beauty of digital media itself is its inherent flexibility and potential to serve all learners.”

Notice her mention that, along with the ability to serve, this myriad of options has the ability to intimidate, and I will add, frustrate the prospective user. How do we choose, how do we know, where do we turn? As Ms. Edson asks, “What more can we do to ensure that schools' technology infrastructure and resources are not disproportionately more flexible and therefore powerful than their people?” Indeed, how do we avoid having this powerful learning resource remain untapped because the people, that’s us, are unable and unwilling to utilize it?

The answer lies in the power of flexibility, the willingness to stretch, to bend, to reach beyond where tradition and precedence finds us. As athletes and dancers stretch to improve their performance, so we as educators can increase our flexibility and thus our abilities within the digital landscape. So how do I stretch? In the words of Ms. Edson, “My stretching is my ongoing professional development. I do a little each day on Twitter, Google, and Skype. Whenever I can, I seek out chances for more extensive, intensive PD. At each turn, my ideas multiply, my reach expands, and my willingness to lean into the momentum of these changing times fortifies my capacity to lead students in powerful learning and growth.”

The key word is “willingness,” knowing that the world has changed and is ever changing and that I must change with it, agreeing to try, willing to do that little bit each day, seeking opportunities for growth that will ultimately make all the difference for me and my students.

So, on the margin of a flooded river, trees bending to the torrent remain unbroken, while those that strain against it are snapped off. Haemon in Sophocles’ Antigone

(for posts by Sarah Edson go to