Thursday, August 13, 2009

Power to the Learners - part one

I recently completed a graduate course on educational reform with a focus on technology integration. It was eye-opening because several studies show a very low success rate for projects. This does not bode well for students because the twenty-first century requires different skills to be successful in a rapidly globalizing economy that is increasingly information-based. The economic model is even different; scarcity as a driver of value gives way to knowledge creation and collaboration as information is abundant and nearly free. During this class, a highly relevant discussion took place over the Internet. On July 12th, educators from around the world blogged about technology leadership and how to prepare students for the 21st century. The virtual event was called Leadership Day (#LeadershipDay09). This was the third year and it is the brainchild of Scott McLeod, an Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Educational Administration program at Iowa State University. This is the first of a three-part blog post about reform. This blog highlights important posts from #LeadershipDay09. The second posting will be discussions from my grad class and an important book by Michael Fullan (link). The third post will be a survey that I have been conducting over the past few months about how to improve education (link).
  • Barbara McCormick (link) identified that the current wave of technology is fostering a fundamental shift in education. “Educators have to be willing to grow, take risks and think outside the box if they are going to embrace the tools of the future. I believe Alan November said it well in Empowering Students with Technology when he wrote, "the real revolution is a transformational shift of control from the school system to the learner" (2001). Technology is not an add-on but an integral part of the curriculum creating a change in the teacher to student relationships in today's classrooms.”
  • We have a choice to change at a comfortable pace, or have change thrust upon us. Carl Gaines (link), a teacher and technology coordinator points to a recent report by the U.S Department of Education. The study (link) found that students who performed some or all of their class online performed better than those students who took the same course face-to-face. And, students who did a blend of online and face-to-face instruction, did best of all.
  • Dennis Richards (link), a retired superintendent, sees an alarming trend. "When it comes to learning beyond school, students have choices. In many cases, students are beginning to see school as less and less relevant to their learning. Many students are using or learning to use the technology tools I mentioned above to learn without us. If this trend continues, combined with classroom activities that for too many students are unengaging, unmotivating, and unchallenging, some predict that as students develop personal learning environments less connected to what schools currently offer them, schooling as we know it will become less and less relevant."
  • Teacher Joseph J. Bires (link) summed it up well by quoting an unnamed wise man, “school shouldn’t be preparation for life, it should be life”. If school is going to be life and life is full of problems, then so will education.
  • Rob Jacobs (link) also advocates change and highlighted proof via Howard Rheingold’s book, “Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution” and his prediction that the next major “killer app” would not be hardware devices or software programs, but social practices. Students are using technology to change the way they interact with their peers (e.g., instant message, video chat, text messaging, Facebook, Myspace, etc.). As educators, we need to embrace this so that we can help convert it from a purely social network to more of a learning network. The longer we wait, then the larger the barrier will grow between the teacher generation and the student generation."
  • Michael Kaechele (link) describes a classroom that has been specifically created for the 21st century. “The ideal classroom would be 1:1 laptops with no textbooks. The internet and world would be the "text" along with conversations with students and adults from around the world. Teachers would not use textbooks as easy lesson plans, but would continually be exploring the web themselves finding the latest resources to engage their students. Students and teachers would learn together and document their learning on blogs, wikis, and digital portfolios. The portfolio would continue with the student throughout their school career showing their learning progress. Students would use Skype and other social media to collaborate with schools around the world in real life projects that integrate multiple content areas. "Homework" would be students continuing these conversations on the internet outside of school and researching more about them. "Classwork" would be students sharing and teaching each other what they discovered at home.” Further, he believes that the next generation classroom is very different and teachers and administrators will need to feel extremely comfortable if they are to embrace them. “These kind of changes can not be implemented by individual teachers in isolation, but require leadership from the top that is willing to take risks and encouraging risk-taking by its teachers and students. Teacher training is imperative to successful implementation.”
  • Josh Allen (link) places the failure of reform on human ego. “There is another, sometimes more influential, issue that effects the process: ego. It's also the one people are least likely to admit they need to fix. Technology isn't used in a lot of districts because administrators don't understand it, which means they don't have experience with it, which means they won't encourage or recommend that it gets used in the district. Too many are afraid to look ignorant in front of their staff, so they pass technology off as something "costly" and "extra." It's the exact same reason that teachers don't use it, only they don't want to look ignorant in front of their students.
  • Teacher Kelly Tenkely (link) finds the “biggest hindrance to effective school technology is not a lack of funding, resources, or technology. The biggest hindrance has been teachers who are unwilling to learn something new. Excellent teachers need to be constantly learning, and modeling that learning process to the students they teach. They must be willing to adapt their lessons and teaching as the world changes to properly prepare the students they teach.”
  • Damian Bariexca, (link) a psychologist and teacher, found that his principal was able to lead despite not having much technical ability. The principal made time for him to discuss projects. More importantly, the principal asked how and why it would be beneficial to learning.” He was thorough and too time out of his busy schedule to "spend many sessions with me, not only learning about whatever project I initially proposed, but also to follow up with me, observe my classes, and speak to my students. He was also available to me as a sounding board; quite a few times."
  • Teacher Joseph Bires (link) has several excellent ideas. "There are no one shot deals. Educational change takes time and it takes a sustained investment in long term innovation. Schools took this long to get to their current state, they wouldn’t change overnight. There are no quick fixes. Doing a lot today will overwhelm your already overwhelmed staff, create a long term plan to change your school through sustained innovation." Technology Coordinators need to "practice what you preach. If you don’t blog, twitter, use a wiki, share, or collaborate, why should your teachers? When students have a problem, do you want them to have to make an appointment to see their teacher? Be the change you want to see in the world, don’t just talk about the change you want to see in the world." Prepare the staff for failure and don;t let them use it as an excuse to discredit the technology integration. "Did you know that most major software projects fail? Do you know how many projects at Microsoft, Apple, and Google never went anywhere? Last time I checked those companies were still very successfully and they were successful because they they are safe places were employees don’t feel afraid to fail, moreover many innovations we have today are the result of failed projects. For example, the idea of the iPhone is build on an earlier idea that Apple failed with called the Newton. Everyone remembers the Apple II, but if there were no Apple I then there would have been no Apple II. Success is a long winding (and windy) road." He believes that "professional Development is a micro NOT a macro process. Each teacher is responsible for his/her own growth because they are a professional. Each school needs to grow into a “community of practice”.
  • Principal Adam Dewitt (link) thinks that being an administrator reminds him about teaching his son how to ride a two-wheeled bike. Principals need to be close so that teachers can overcome apprehension and be reassured when they look over their shoulder. Principals help teachers regain their balance as necessary. Once teachers start to get the hang of riding without assistance, the principal should “give them time to practice and develop benchmarks to check their own progress.”
  • Teacher Errin Gregory (link) has insights about leadership. “Leadership is…about energizing other people to make good decisions and do other things. In other words, it is about helping release the positive energy that exists naturally within people. Effective leadership inspires more than empowers; it connects more than it controls; it demonstrates more than it decides. It does all this by engaging - itself above all and consequently others.” Further, she discusses that there is a leadership model for everyone: leading from in front, leading from beside, and leading from behind.
  • Paul Bogush (link) reminds us that technology is not a silver bullet. It will likely accentuate both good and bad teaching pedagogy. "I don’t like being known as the teacher who uses technology to motivate their students. I don’t like people looking at the products my kids produce and only focus on the technology we used. I don’t like it when someone suggests that kids like my class because of the technology, or that we are a computer class first, a social studies class second. I have never inserted any piece of technology into a unit to make my class more interesting, engaging, or fun. I did not start using technology and web 2.0 tools to help my units become stronger, more conceptual, or more authentic. I did not start using technology to put the STORY into our hiSTORY class. I did not start using technology to increase my kids desire to learn, grow, and become more independent. That was all happening before we started using technology."
  • Principal Chris Lehman (link) runs a very successful project-oriented, technology high school. His words of wisdom are:
    • Know why you are changing... and know what you are giving up by making this change. Every change creates winners and losers, so be sure to think through what you gain and what you lose (thanks to Neil Postman for that framework.) which leads to...
    • Always ask "What is the worst consequence of your best idea?" Do it for two reasons - one, because if you can't live with that consequence, don't do what you planned, but two, because the process of thinking this through will help you (and your team) mitigate the problems and you won't be as surprised when the thing you didn't think of comes up.
    • Research like crazy. Who has tried what you are doing? Who has tried something close to what you're doing? Who is talking about it? Who is writing about it? Who says the idea is already crazy? There aren't many truly new ideas in education, so figure out the history of your idea and learn from who has come before you.
    • Get lots of opinions - Come up with a smart, sensible, honest way to explain your idea and then listen. Listen a lot. Listen to the folks who don't like the idea, and ask them why.
    • Be honest - Don't oversell, don't overpromise, and don't pretend that the idea is perfect.
    • Build consensus - If only a few people are on-board with the idea, it won't work. But consensus doesn't mean taking something from everyone and sticking it onto the original idea until what you have is the worst of committee-based decisions. It means listening for the truths in what other people are telling you and being willing to make substantive change when it makes sense.
    • Know when to move forward. Don't let ideas die in committee because the team gets hung up on the final 5% of an idea.
    • Set realistic expectations for initial success, and then set up a plan to get there. If it's a tech idea -- get the tech right. (Nothing worse than getting everyone excited about a new innovation and then getting everything but the tech side of it right. It took us a year to get our website even close to where we wanted it at SLA, fortunately, we got enough right that folks kept at it.)
    • Finally, keep communicating throughout the process.
  • Principal Bryan Painter (link) believes that teachers need to accept different levels of expertise. This will be a critical philosophy for teachers to reconcile their advanced subject skills with nascent technical skills.
    • In the last several years I’ve come to believe in what I call a “continuum of understanding.” Nothing empirical or scientific about this – simply a belief that we all have varied levels of understandings and abilities on given skills and concepts. In working with my staff we use four levels: Exposure, Awareness, Understanding, and Expertise. Teachers and administrators – at least most I know, feel immense desire and even pressure to live in understanding and expertise. Put it in front of us, make it at least semi-job-related, and most of us will strive to squeeze it into our ever-growing toolbox that is the teaching profession. Incredibly admirable, yes – but also crazy and unrealistic. Trying to be good-to-great at everything only leads to high stress, a lack of balance, and possible burnout.
    • In many ways our schools are antiquated and built upon on a century old (at least) model of education. Yet in other ways we’re on the verge of something very different, very exciting. The future of schools – even the here-and-now of schools, will offer new definitions of connection and collaboration, new types of relationships, and new expectations of our students and teachers. Administrators must lead this charge – I firmly believe this, but they cannot lead it alone. We must develop teacher leaders in our schools and districts, building capacity and learning networks through a commitment to professional development time and resources. We must recognize the steep slope of “what is known” and fight with all our might to keep up – knowing full well that our teachers and principals will not survive if we expect them to attain understanding or expertise with each and every new concept and skill.
    • How do we push ourselves and others to new heights without driving them out of education? I think we have a responsibility to understand context – where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we’re going, AND we must be mindful of the understandings we require of teachers at a given time. Expectations must be realistic – often at a personal level, and when possible they should be stated with a desired time frame in mind. We must name our exposure experiences, labeling them as such so teachers don’t reject new learnings or burn out trying to master them all in a short amount of time. Permission must be granted for teachers to reside in exploration, with time to learn and “be messy” while blurring the gap between what we know and what we do. There will be some skills and understandings that we’ll expect of all teachers, possibly learned over time. Other skills may not require universal expertise or even understanding – just some experts who can fill roles or support others when needed. Even as a building leader I don’t need to know how to do everything, but I should have an awareness of what is out there – and perhaps more importantly, an awareness of who has the expertise if I want to learn more.
  • Teacher Donelle O’Brien (link) wants frank round-table discussions about the “elephants in the room.” Her idea of round-table discussions involves honest discussions about both problems and solutions. She advocates a shared commitment for technology proficiency and innovative learning:
    • When all stakeholders take ownership in the school’s mission, passion becomes infectious.
    • We practice good leadership when we become transparent, exposing thoughts and positions on issues with an open-door policy.
    • We can increase student engagement and academic success when we personalize learning for students, provide time for reflection, and facilitate learning opportunities with relevance and meaning.
  • Principal Jeanette Johnson (link) views her PLC not as her own source of change. “I know I will always come back to it, because I experience first-hand the power of technology to transform learning. Like our students, I am a student, enrolled in an official program, pursuing an official degree.... and I am learning a good bit from some of my courses. However, I seem to learn just as much, if not more, from my own network - especially the sites in my RSS reader, and those great educators and thinkers who I follow on Twitter. Indeed, one of my goals as a leader for this year is to work to engage more of our staff in developing their own digital PLNs - because seeing the value this can bring to them as learners is, I think, the single most important thing that can lead to their understanding of how digital technologies can help the learners they work with in their classes every single day. "
  • Theresa Reagan (link) believes that PLNs and Web2.0 tools are beneficial to teachers. "Before last summer I would have said that I was an avid learner. I read many professional development books, went to many conferences, and participated in face-to-face book clubs. I would converse with others about what I was learning, but I rarely wrote anything about it (unless it was for a class/credit). Last summer I discovered blogging, wikis and even twitter. The collaborative nature of these web 2.0 tools facilitated the need to express my ideas/reflections about what I was learning in writing. I now feel like I understand what I have been learning much more deeply. I am more confident and capable of teaching the things I have learned, and feel much more committed and capable of facilitating and advocating for change in those areas. I have always been rather tech savvy, but for some reason the whole web 2.0 evolution caught me sleeping. The web 2.0 tools helped me to become a more active learner in two ways:
    • Writing - I knew what the research said about the benefits of nonfiction writing or “writing across the curriculum”. Now that I have experienced the benefits I understand that it is not about benefiting writing (a misconception on my part). It is about the increased understanding of the subject you are writing about. The benefit to writing is a by-product. I prefer to call “writing across the curriculum” “documented thinking across the curriculum” because of this misconception.
    • Collaboration – I could have done the writing about my learning without web 2.0 tools in a diary or something similar. However, the web 2.0 tools offer an added dimension – an audience. When I write for an audience I think more deeply about my ideas and what I have learned, and I spend time organizing that thinking so that I can articulate it in such a way that it can be understood by others. The audience itself provides additional opportunities to learn. They may agree, disagree, pose questions, or take your ideas in directions you would not have thought to take them. It is quite exhilarating to have someone from across the world comment on one of your posts or have the author of a book you are reflecting about comment on your reflection.
This is the first part of a three part blog. The second posting will be notes from a technology change grad class and influential book by Michael Fullan.

Image used under Creative Commons license (link)