Saturday, March 30, 2013


This is the first post in a series that will focus on educational innovation.  Following this introduction, I'll suggest some solutions ad I learn how to be a more effective teacher.  Some of my improvements are my own ideas, but most come from other teachers, blogs, articles, and research papers.  I find the current fixation on standards and teacher evaluation to be misplaced.  Every school has teachers and/or administrators that know WHAT effective education looks like and HOW schools should be organized.  Even if you don't work in a school, there are literally hundreds of thousands of research papers on how the brain works and how people learn best. We spend the most money of any country in the world, so resources are not the problem.  It is a combination of limited educational innovation and structural inhibitors.  Public schools exist within the context of an aging bureaucracy and "independent" schools are hamstrung by parents who are not educators.  In fact, most private school parents resist change if it might imperil the school's college acceptances. There is a common joke that technology has only failed to improve two industries - prostitution and education.  Technology has a prominent place in educations, we must reorganize and modernize our schools to be more adaptable to change and improvement.

If we are to prepare students to have flexibility of the mind and adaptability, then we need to modernize the learning environment.  Schools should create a Chief Learning Officer or Chief Innovation Officer to make sure that the content-experts (e.g., teachers) get assistance developing engaging projects.  Teachers should also understand that domain expertise (e.g., advanced degrees) does not guarantee expert teaching skills.  Over time, teaching skills are acquired by observing other teachers, reading research, and trying new ideas.  Teaching is done by LEARNING.  One of the impediments to teachers improving their craft is that they are often ill-equipped to create rich lessons and projects (with or without technology).  Without curriculum development and instructional design skills, it is easy to see why teachers prefer textbooks.  Administrations need to hire these missing resources and course towards the critical skills.  Stop listening to the educational "gurus" and companies selling technical gizmos as "the" solution. Determine the skills students need and make sure each teacher includes them in their curriculum.  The Chief Innovation or Chief Learning Officer should partner with universities on teaching practice and partner with businesses to identify multidisciplinary problems for students to solve.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

"School is not working"

How well does your school engage students and get them excited about learning? I recall a speaker at TEDxNY asking a similar question - what if school was the best six hours of a student's day? ASCD's Breaking Free is an interesting book that crystallized many of the thoughts in the back of my mind. Nobody in education seems to be having a good time. Caring teachers work very hard. Students are less and less engaged. Administrators seem to be able to affect only limited change. The introduction from Breaking Free is blunt, "School is not working." School are not "true learning organizations." Students learn the what school expects of them at an early age ("the game of school"). Instruction is generally "teacher-directed and highly routinized." 21st Century skills cannot be taught using the traditional content dispensing machine model. Breaking Free starts with a series of excellent question about what our "customers" are thinking:
  1. What do students think about during the school day because of how we design learning?
  2. How do those thoughts help students grow? How do they limit students?
  3. How much has the work in your school changed in the past two decades? Have those changes led to increased engagement?
  4. What is the most innovative idea that has improved the thinking (and resulting work) of staff? Of students?
  5. What current practices are off limits in re-imagining the work of the school?
Questions to ponder if you were thinking of designing a new school. The questions are also relevant for thinking about improvements to existing schools:
  1. What would the main office look like?
  2. What kind of furniture would be in the classroom?
  3. What instructional tools would be at students' disposal?
  4. What instructional strategies would be used?
  5. What would the schedule look like?
  6. What sounds would we hear?
  7. What would conversations among students look like?
  8. What would parent-teacher conferences look like?
  9. What would report cards look like?
  10. What would the report card communicate?
  11. What would be the hallmark of student's education?
  12. What would the diploma indicate?

The ASCD also has a guide to accompany Breaking Free with more important questions.

Creativity as an educational strategy

I enjoy watching TED videos and the video on creativity by Sir Ken Robinson has stayed with me more so than others. I am reading Wisdom, Intelligence, and Creativity Synthesized by Robert Sternberg. Although the book was focused on creativity, it struck me that his ideas may be a good guide for educational reform. He suggests 21 ways to foster creativity as a decision:
1. redefine problem
2. question and analyze assumptions
3. do not assume that creative ideas sell themselves
4. Encourage idea generation
5. recognize that knowledge is a double-edged sword and act accordingly
6. encourage children to identify and surmount obstacles
7. encourage sensible risk-taking
8. encourage tolerance of ambiguity
9. help children build self-efficacy (belief n ability to succeed)
10. help children find what they love do to
11. teach children the importance of delaying gratification
12. role-model creativity
13. cross-fertilize ideas
14. allow time for creative thinking
15. instruct access for creativity
16. reward creativity
17. allow mistakes
18. take responsibility for both successes and failures
19. encourage creative collaboration
20. imagine things from others’ points of view
21. maximize person-environment fit

Huff Post

I have found myself reading the Huffington Post more and more.  They have done a very good job hiring thought-provoking writers in education.  It is a clear example of why crowdsourcing authors on an electronic platform will kill newspapers.  I read a post recently by Chris Lehmann, of the Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in Philadelphia.  I enjoy catching up with him electronically and making an annual pilgrimage to his Educon unconference.  When I commented on his post, I ran into a 250 word limit, so here is the entire post: 

I always enjoy your insightful and innovative viewpoints.  I am fighting the urge to write a lengthy response, so I'll just provide feedback on a few of your excellent points:

1. "stakeholders to care about the work that they do every day".  The vast majority of teachers are passionate and care about their students.  Teaching has been reduced to effort-based triage and teachers lost the time (or know how) to be introspective about their craft.  In short, schools should be learning organizations and a model for other organizations.  Instead, they are bureaucratic models with outdated processes.  It may be unions that thwart progress, but parents at independent schools can have the same effect.  I don't know when and why schools stopped doing their own educational research, but it is sad.  Schools should be able to create their own report card and not solely rely on college matriculation lists and standardized test scores.  I was in finance for fifteen years (prior to teaching) and the large corporations (where I worked) did more to evolve and train workers than many, many schools.  

2. "Care. Care. Care."  Teachers do care, but their influence is restricted to individual stages of the educational conveyer belt.  Schools need a student adviser/advocate with has a more holistic (K-12 or K-20) perspective of each student. Then, we can possibly talk about individualized learning.

3.  "I believe our students can see the "why" we learn and apply their answers to the world at large."  I could not agree more!  For students to clearly see the "why" behind what they learn in K-12, there needs to be a real push to integrate subjects into more multidisciplinary projects.  There is lots of talk about teaching "global education", "critical thinking", "multidisciplinary education" and "21st century skills", but not much real, broad-based progress.  It is mostly marketing on school websites.  To my point about about school losing their ability to learn - schools find it difficult to scratch the surface on these topics to design and implement effective curricula.  Schools need to engage businesses to learn about the skills of their workers, ways their business is evolving, and their business problems.   

4. "No classes over 20 in K-8. No classes over 25 in 9-12. No schools over 600."  I attended public schools growing up and teach at an independent school and I teach at an independent school.  Smaller classes and school work better logistically and as communities.  I respectfully disagree a bit with your focus on numbers.  By doing so, you still assume that schools are the best place to learn.  We should be creating flexible learning environment and re-think traditional constraints like schedule, class size, yearly units of curriculum, etc.  The vast majority of innovation and thinking happens outside of most schools.  How about have a school where students physically attend only every other day (i.e. only half of the enrollment attends on any one day)?   When students are not "in school", they would have online assignments and/or some sort of  field trip, or internship.

Sorry I missed Educon, but we will have lots to chat about next year.  Schools have lost their ability to learn and move forward.  On top of that, most teachers are passionate, independent contractors.  Like building a house, it is challenging to get everyone moving in the same direction.  Without forward movement, teachers will look to solidify their positions.