by J. A. Ginsburg
On rethinking school, digitally transcending (crumbling) walls and preparing 21st century students for a collaborative, networked world
The official theme of TEDxNYED 2011 was “Empowering Innovation in Education,” but it just as easily could have been the “The Best of Times / The Worst of Times.” On the 40th floor, in the gleaming glass aerie of the New York Academy of Sciences, a group of passionate, endlessly creative and deeply concerned educators gathered to talk about tech revolutions and tight budgets, boundary-blind collaborations and soaring drop-out rates, of potential and potential throttled.
Clocking in at 17 speakers, one folksinger, a few hundred attendees and over 5,000 watching via livestream (last year, that was me, a whole Saturday spent unexpectedly tethered to a laptop after serendipitously catching an early morning tweet tip…), the day-long event was packed and intense. Perhaps a bit too packed. There’s comes a point—somewhere near 3 in the afternoon, when brains top-off for the day, the bell should ring and golly, isn’t it time for recess? What starts out as a bright-eyed idea-fest morphs into a marathon of determined paying attention. But by that time, you’re hooked, addicted, need—really need—to know what the next speaker has to say because, well, it could be great…
This morning—the morning after—my brain having now diced and sliced its dreamy way to synthesized thought, and armed with a stack of just-shy of indecipherable scribbled notes, it is striking how many of the speakers delivered theme and variation on tha same core message:
- To succeed, indeed survive, in the 21st century, students must learn how to collaborate and network, and to sift through, sort and connect-the-dots from gushers of information.
- It is no longer about teaching children how to be taught, but teaching them how to be learners
- Technology is not a gee-whiz add-on—digital frosting to the analog cake of basic learning—but part and parcel of daily life for nearly all 7 billion people on the planet, rich and poor, urban and rural. It is how we function, almost as basic as breathing.
BETTER / DIFFERENT
Curriculum designer Heidi Hayes Jacobs wryly notes most schools are preparing kids for 1991, perhaps because “we were happier then.” But tech as a stand alone isn’t the answer. “We can do dumb things with a smartboard.” Rather than school reform, which only tweaks things, Jacobs proposes a new form of school, a complete rethink not only of what is being taught and how, but also how it is assessed. “Students should be futurists, now.”
Jacobs is a veritable volcano of assignment ideas that sound like so much fun, I’d like to give them a try myself:
- Put “geo” in front of everything you teach: geo-history, geo-science, geo-literature. Now tag, map and go!
- Ask “What does a quality fill-in-the-blank look like? (a quality blog? a quality podcast?) Create one.
- Pretend you’re Ben Franklin and it’s the night before the start of the Revolutionary War. What would you tweet? (h’mmmm, isn’t that Wael Ghonim?)
- Create a Facebook page for Julius Caesar complete with status updates and wall posts (“Get out of town in March…”)
- Build an app
In short, enough with oral reports and pen-to-paper multiple choice tests. Use digital media for all the new ways it allows us to learn, understand, communicate and share.
As education consultant Alan November points out, children are going off the curricular script on their own already, in all kinds of impressively imaginative ways. He tells the story of a gifted, prolific young fan-fiction author writing Harry Potter riffs in the style of J.K Rowling, only eeking by in school. When he asks her about the disconnect, she responds with a mix of practicality and mission: She can either write for her teacher or publish for the world. Smart girl. No doubt her impressive digital portfolio of well-written stories and impressive social network will take her further than an good grade in a soon-forgotten class. She didn’t fail school. She “failed” her school for failing her.
Citing Daniel Pink’s book Drive, November notes, “Purpose is everything.” When children—and adults for that matter—feel they are creating content that adds value, they work harder, longer and produce better work.
So basic is this need, it is hard to believe it needs to be stated. Yet it has become an epiphanous meme of modern educational research. Kids—no surprise—can smell a boring there’s-45-minutes-I’m-never-getting-back lesson from miles away, seizing the opportunity to master the fine art of zoning out. Give them a challenge that plays to their interests and brilliance almost predictably ensues. The projects become catalysts to learning: All roads leads to math…and science, reading, history, literature and art.
Consultant Gary Stager tells of a juvenile detention center in Maine where a collection of boys considered to be hopeless cases, many with learning disabilities, thrive in a constructivist learning setting. One boy wants to build a guitar. Five-hundred hours and considerable collaboration later, the hand-crafted, meticulously engineered guitars are used to create music. Another child, declared a non-reader ADHD-package-of-trouble by age 7, finds his way through a combination of the internet, NASA and tinkering with electronics, and writes a 13,000 word autobiography.
Discipline problems, a once-daily occurrence, dropped to near-zero. The boys had context, purpose, focus. They were simply too engaged to cause trouble. The take-away, says Stager, is that education needs to be “less us, more them.”
IN THE CLASSROOM
Following and nurturing a child’s interests is, of course, music to the ears of Dennis Littky, who has made it his life’s work, founding schools designed to do just that (Big Picture Learning, The Met School and College Unbound). Littky starts his 15-minutes in the TEDx spotlight flinging little pieces of green paper from a bag onto the stage. Each piece represents a student who has given up and dropped out. As an aggregate, the the confetti on the floor represents the number of kids who had dropped out just that morning: one every 13 seconds for a total of 800 (and counting…). Each a private tragedy. Collectively, a public catastrophe.
While Littky starts by asking kids about their interests, Steve Bergen, a veteran math teacher-turned-edu-activist, CIO (Chief Information Officer) and computer teacher at The Children’s Storefront, an independent Pre-K – 8 school in Harlem, focuses on the mix of hardware, software and “humanware.” Skills are key, including such hands-on practical skills learned through reconditioning old computers (also see Tech Saturdays and the Summercore program). His is really another door to the same house: learning by doing. Bergen also wants children to develop “Plan B” skills,” so they know what do when they get stuck.”
Given the incredible ever-shrinking school district budget, we could all use some “Plan B” skills. Brian Crosby, a grade school teacher from the small city of Sparks, Nevada, near Reno, has plenty, and is happy to share. Technology, notes Crosby, can make all sorts of things possible, but it is the pedagogy that provides substance. No longer must students passively sit at their desks, watching the teacher. They are active learners, using the web for research, skyping with classrooms all over the world, collaborating on projects via Google docs, documenting progress via video and blogging, blogging, blogging. They are reading and writing more, networking and collaborating more effectively and globally, thinking more deeply and “learning how to be learners.”
“What if school was the best seven hours of a kid’s day?” asks Stager. In Crosby’s classroom, they just may be.
At this point, making sure kids have web access is “almost a moral imperative,” says consultant and author Will Richardson. “In this moment, kids can learn what they want, pretty much whenever they want to.” Richardson’s daughter downloads a video to a rock song to help her learn how to play it on the piano. A teenager in Toronto learns about video editing via the web, his videos develop a following and a promising career begins.”Kids are not waiting for curriculum. …There are billion potential teachers out there.”
Yet assessments still rule when it comes to the nuts and bolts of American public education. Funding, and sometimes teachers’ salaries, rise and fall based on test scores. The eternal quest for standards, says Richardson, is fast turning teaching into test prep.
It is time to stop trying to do schools “better” and do schools “different.” …None of this is the stuff of test prep. It is the stuff of life prep.”
Luyen Chou, a former private school teacher and administrator now focused on working with public schools, thinks the problem isn’t so much assessments per se, but rather what is being assessed. He envisions project-based assessments (a la Heidi Hayes Jacobs), coupled with Google-style analytics. In fact, he says, assessments could help the cause, showing how a constructivist approach to teaching leads to students with better critical thinking skills and better test scores.
Don’t see assessment as the enemy. Embrace it. If you do it right, we’re in a position to tell a story no one has. Viva la Revolucion!
ON A THRESHOLD
With those stirring words, my thoughts drifted to Wisconsin, where exactly one week earlier I had been in Madison at a massive rally of teachers and other state employees protesting legislation threatening their rights to collective bargaining. Yet even if they win what has shaped up to be long and bruising battle, municipalities—and their school districts—throughout the state face draconian budget cuts: an estimated 20% in Madison itself. Whether such severe cuts are the start of a nationwide trend remains to be seen, but it is doubtful that there are very many places where school budgets are increasing.
Beyond all the finger-pointing (Bill Gates’ TED talk last week, which singled out states’ wacky accounting practices and ballooning pension and health insurance obligations, received a notably mixed-to-sharply-negative reviews from the TEDxNYED crowd), the economic reality for teachers is stark: Lower or stagnant salaries. Higher expenses. Often working in buildings in need of repair or upgrading. In some states, no right to strike and limited input. College debt. The teacher “churn” rate is currently 25% at three years, which means that 1 out of every 4 teachers drops out of the profession just as they are starting to get the hang of it. At the other end of the career arc, experienced Baby Boom-generation teachers are retiring. And caught in between are mid-career teachers, now faced with the specter of annual lay-offs.
So we are poised between two trends. The first, tech-driven, brimming with innovation, imagination and possibility. The second, a crumbling bricks-and-mortar analog infrastructure. How these two weave together, perhaps creating a better third answer, remains to be seen.
But the times, most definitely, are a’changing.
TEDxNYED 2011 Videos: Direct Links to Speakers Referenced in this Post:
RELATED ARTICLES / RESOURCES
- A Schoolmaster of the Great City: A Progressive Education Pioneer’s Vision for Urban Schools by Angelo Patri (published in 1917, recommended by Gary Stager)
- The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris van Allsburg (recommended by by Brian Crosby)
- Reno Bike Project (recommended by Brian Crosby / website)
- David Langford / Langford International (recommended by Heidi Hayes Jacobs)
- Morley (website)
- Patrick Carman books (website)
- A New Culture of Learning by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown / Review by Maria Popova, Brain Pickings