Why I Love/Hate Standards

August 1, 2010 · Posted in Teaching 2.0 · Comment 

Some years ago (2001), in my book “Technology Standards: A Leader’s Manual” (you must remember it–it sold literally dozens of copies) I made this point about academic standards:

But standards are not merely goals and objectives. In fact, real implementation of standards in a school system should turn instructional practice on its end…’Traditional instructional practice  fixes the time that a student has to learn and allows the learning outcome to vary. You take Algebra II for nine months. At the end of that time, the result might be that you get an A, an F, or something in between. Standards-based instruction, on the other hand, fixes the learning outcome and allows the time to vary. Every student will show mastery of the performance standards, but some of them will show mastery earlier or later than others will.’

Read that again. It is a fundamental change in instructional practice that should shake public education to its foundations. In a standards-based system, giving a grade in reading, math, or written language would be almost impossible because what we should be measuring is progress toward mastery of a standard, not performance relative to a fixed time line. Our job as educators is not to grade students on what they remember over time but to make sure that they attain the standards set by the school system or the state, no matter how long it takes.

I still stand by my statement, but I’m increasingly aware that the standards movement of the H.W. Bush era backfired on us. The move toward academic standards should have driven a shakeup in the way we educate K-12 students. Instead, it gave us high-stress, high-stakes testing and new restrictions on creative instruction. I think it’s more than coincidental that our schools have become progressively less engaging for students as a result of the standards movement, when just the opposite should have happened.

That’s why the Common Core Standards movement concerns me. Don’t misunderstand me–I support the concept of clearly defined academic standards and I don’t have any specific quibbles with the content of the Common Core standards. However, I think the focus on standards–e.g., curriculum–detracts from the real issue of what’s wrong with our schools: instruction.

We need to face the fact that, in spite of considerable effort over the past 30 years to establish state and federal academic standards, students in many K-12 classrooms are simply disengaged from the process of learning as a result of instructional methodologies that focus on memorization and test-taking in lieu of problem solving and creative pursuits. If it’s not on the test, it’s not covered. Schools have typically been slow to adopt new technologies, and when they are adopted they are often used to extend traditional instructional models instead of creating new ones.

I would argue that what students learn–call it content, curriculum, standards–is ultimately less important than how and why they learn. Passionate involvement in a topic–any topic–will produce a better-educated student and one that is more prepared for current and emerging careers than will a focus on high-stakes test content.

I applaud the notion behind the Common Core Standards. But I fear that national adoption will create a “feel good” sense of accomplishment that will deflect focus from the real reason that our schools are failing our students. Focusing on standards did not work in the 80s-90s and I have a hunch that, in the absence of a fundamental transformation in the way we instruct K-12 students, it won’t work this time either.

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Will 3G Lead the Revolution?

March 12, 2010 · Posted in iPhone, Teaching 2.0 · Comment 

I just ordered an iPad.

I already have an iPhone. An iPhone on a 3G network is an immensely powerful tool, capable of doing just about anything I need to do on a day-to-day basis anywhere I want to do it unless that thing includes Flash, which I hope will die soon anyway and free up our processors and bandwidth for useful tasks.

The iPhone is a disruptive technology when applied to the context of K-12 schools. Schools can control what happens on their Wi-Fi networks, but they can’t control what happens on a publicly-accessible 3G network. A YouTube video that I can’t watch over my local SD’s network plays just fine on my iPhone from the same location. Schools can restrict searches, block Twitter, and prevent access to certain sites on their own networks but not on my phone’s 3G network. With 3G, I have the same access to the world in school that I have everywhere else.

The typical school reaction to a technology that it can’t control is to ban it. But students and teachers are increasingly walking into classrooms with 3G devices in their pockets intent on using them for productive purposes. They’re engaged with their technology, and that engagement can be (should be) worked into productive time spent on research, collaboration, and real-world experience. Schools can’t control 3G technologies, and they shouldn’t try. It doesn’t impact their bandwidth, their IT expenses, or their capital outlay. If students access inappropriate materials, it’s their problem and not the school’s. Deal with it, as we always have when students do inappropriate things.

But back to the iPad. Schools can somewhat justify banning cell phones because talking on the phone to a friend is not always a productive use of time and can be very distracting to others. Smart phones are still phones (although I very rarely use mine as one) and so somewhat logically fall under the same impulse to banish them from schools. But iPads are horses of an entirely different color. They aren’t phones at all (yet, anyway)–they’re very mobile, highly connected, and easily accessible computers that will work on 3G networks in some configurations. They’ll make field trips into entirely new experiences. Students already have them. Let them–encourage them–to bring them in and use them. Make sure to play your role as an educator wisely and help students understand what’s appropriate and what’s not, and when it’s OK to tweet, watch a video, or find a simulation game.

Join the revolution. It’s happening everywhere but in schools.

UPDATE: A question by way of Twitter asks who will pay for 3G access. If a student walks into your classroom with an iPhone, 3G access is already paid for. They’re bringing their own bandwidth. I can walk into my local AT&T store and buy a $199 3G-capable netbook. Why wouldn’t I bring that to school and use it the same way I use it everywhere else?

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The End of Schooling As We Know It?

February 26, 2009 · Posted in culture, Teaching 2.0 · 1 Comment 

Sometimes I think that post-secondary schools in the US are some of the best examples we have of Newton’s Laws of Motion. The first law is usually referred to as the Law of Inertia: “Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.” Newton’s second law explains that the more mass that object has, the greater the external force that must be applied to it move it from its current trajectory.

Does this sound familiar? Universities are massive by any reckoning; they employ millions of people, consume billions of tax dollars, have huge collective carbon footprints, and have basically been doing business the same way for hundreds of years. They are so ingrained into our social structure that most people can’t imagine a society in which they didn’t exist in their current form. They’re on a trajectory that will take a truly massive application of external force to dislodge them from their course.

And that force may come sooner than we think, at least according to two items that grabbed my attention this past week.

The first was a television commercial for Kaplan University. I should explain that I don’t watch TV very much and this particular commercial may have been around for some time, but last week when I first saw it it hit me like a ton of bricks. Here it is:

I first thought it was a commercial for Apple, Inc., and was surprised to find at the end of the commercial that it was for an online university–essentially a competitor for my brick-and-mortar institution. My initial thought was that the “professor” in the ad got it right–that we need to be paying attention to learners who may not fit the traditional concept of a post-secondary student. They expect to be able to use their favorite media to learn when and where they can, on a schedule that suits their lifestyle, job, or personal preferences.

The second item was an article from eSchool News entitled AASA hears what’s about to disrupt schools.” In the article, Clayton Christensen from Harvard’s Business School predicts that within the next ten years half of all instruction will take place online and that schools risk losing enrollment to the online learning market if they do not adopt the model for their own students. The massive external force that may move schools off of their current path is something that Christensen calls “disruptive innovation”–innovation that is so powerful and so different that it completely changes the marketplace, dislodges old market leaders from their positions of leadership, and gives rise to new ways of doing business. It’s not at all difficult to see examples of disruptive innovation that have happened within most of our memories–VisiCalc (the first spreadsheet), the personal computer, the World Wide Web, the iPod, etc. Each of these innovations changed the way business was done before and allowed new players into the market, typically at the expense of the “old guard.” And it’s personal, too. This morning I spent several hours answering e-mail, editing some documents (including a spreadsheet), evaluating my students’ projects (PowerPoint lessons that they uploaded to Google Docs and embedded into their blogs) and recording their grades and my reflections on their work, and the only application I had open the entire morning was Firefox.

My job is to prepare post-secondary students to teach in K-12 school systems. It may take an even more massive application of external force to change their current vector. What should I be telling my pre-service teachers?

I immediately flashed back to the Kaplan commercial I had seen a few days before. Bob Dylan was right:

The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.

The Day the World Changed

October 28, 2008 · Posted in culture, iPhone · 5 Comments 

I did something the other day that I have never done before in my life.

I put my cell phone in my pocket.

A little background information is in order here. I’m not a phone person. I prefer to communicate by e-mail or messaging. I don’t feel a need to always be in contact. In fact, I like having times during my day when no one can find me. I tried Twitter for a few months and came away thinking “so what?” I have a Facebook page, but I mainly use it to do something called “poking” which I really don’t fully understand. I got my first cell phone when my oldest son started driving. I only turned it on when he was away from the house. Other times it was turned off and either buried in my pack or sitting at home on the kitchen table. Once or twice I ordered pizza with it.

Oh–and one more piece of important information. The cell phone I put in my pocket the other day was an iPhone 3G.

The world changed for me when I was sitting alone at a neighborhood Subway eating a tuna sub and reading the New York Times on my iPhone. I ran across an interesting article on behavioral economics–an interest of my other son’s–and I sent the article to him using my iPhone. It was later that I fully realized what I had done. I was reading the current issue of the Times in a little shop in Fairbanks, Alaska. I sent an e-mail to a student in Wyoming. I didn’t need to look for a network. I didn’t need to fuss with multiple applications on my phone. The icons and text were big enough for me to read and the buttons were big enough for me to touch. It just worked.

Since then I haven’t been able to allow my iPhone to get very far away from me. It has very little to do with the fact that it’s a phone. It has more to do with the fact that I can locate my position using GPS, fly around the world with Google Earth, look up a word that I should really know (the last one was solipsism), check the political polls, read a bit of news, check and send e-mail, look at some photos, play a movie, find out what song is playing on the radio (Shazam!), play a game or two, and even phone my family. And I can do it easily.

The implications for education are enormous. Field trips take on a whole new meaning. Emergency contacts are a tap away. Content residing on my phone can be played on a TV. I think this is the device I have always been waiting for. It didn’t take long for it to change my world.

My iPhone now resides in my pocket, always turned on. Someone might call me…

Does Schooling Still Have Value?

August 16, 2008 · Posted in culture, Teaching 2.0 · 3 Comments 

“I’ve never let my school interfere with my education.” -Mark Twain

I’ve been aware of the concept of “disintermediation” since reading Donald Tapscott’s Growing Up Digital in the mid-90s. Essentially, disintermediation refers to the elimination of the proverbial middle man in a supply chain. As an example, consider what has happened to travel agencies since the advent of digital technologies. Airlines found that they could save considerable money by selling their tickets electronically directly to customers instead of paying travel agents to sell tickets for them. Travel agents became irrelevant to the process of buying tickets, forcing them into one of two choices: close up shop, or figure out what kind of value they could add to travel that customers would be willing to pay for. The mantra for disintermediation is this: “If you don’t add value to a process, then you’re only adding cost.” If you’re only adding cost, you’ll be quickly disintermediated.

Over the years, I’ve given much thought to the idea of disintermediation with regard to K-16 education. I think it makes sense to apply the disintermediation mantra to schools. We should constantly be asking ourselves which processes contribute to the value of K-16 education and which processes only add cost. True introspection might reveal some shocking answers. For example, elementary school teachers bristle at the suggestion that they are babysitters, but in truth one of the values that K-6 education holds for most working parents is child care. If you don’t believe me, try shortening the length of a school day one day per week to provide professional development to teachers. Parents will not allow it.

In education, we do many things because, frankly, it’s what we’ve always done. We make high school students start school at 7:00 am even though research clearly shows that older adolescents are not morning people–a fact that will come as no shock to most parents. We build schools with multiple closed classrooms and few large or flexible spaces because a class has 25 students and one teacher…right? Schools are probably one of the few institutions that look today much like they looked 50 years ago, despite the fact that very few of the social structures, methods of communication, or technology tools that exist today were around even 10 years ago.

My interest in disintermediation was again peaked by a recent article on OpenEducation.net (Higher Education – Dangerously Close to Becoming Irrelevant). While I do not necessarily agree with every point made in the article, I immediately welcomed another opportunity  to look critically at what I do and why I do it and, most importantly, whether or not it is relevant to the effective education of my post-secondary students.

A citation from Dr. David Wliey immediately caught my attention:

Consider Wiley’s description of the typical college classroom experience.

“Students are inside a classroom (tethered to a place), using textbooks and handouts (printed materials), they must pay tuition and register to attend (the experience is closed), talking during class or working with others outside of class is generally discouraged (each student is isolated though surrounded by peers), each student receives exactly the same instruction as each of her classmates (the information presented is generic), and students are students and do not participate in the teaching process (they are consumers).”

My first reaction was that this pretty well summarized my high school experience in the 60s and is largely accurate in that context today. My second reaction was “Haven’t we learned anything yet?” The reality is that digital information tools and ubiquitous access to information and to collaborative learning tools long ago smashed that monolithic model in most businesses and social institutions, but for many (most?) schools the older models of instruction still prevail.

Again quoting Wiley, the unnamed author provides a potentially more relevant contrast to the old instructional model:

“From her dorm room / the student center / a coffee shop / the bus a student connects to the Internet using her laptop (she is mobile), uses Google to find a relevant web page (a digital resource which is open for her to access). While carrying out her search, she chats with one friend on the phone and another using instant messaging to see if they can assist in her search (she is connected to other people), she follows links from one website to another exploring related information (the content is connected to other content), she quickly finds exactly the information she needs, ignoring irrelevant material (she gets what is important to her personally), and she shares her find with her friends by phone and IM (she participates in the teaching process).”

Sadly, this model happens entirely outside of the context of a classroom. What is the potential lesson for us as K-16 educators?

Basically, I think it is absolutely incumbent on educators at every to critically examine what it means to be a student in our classrooms. What is the value of being in my classroom? Are there ways that I could add greater value to the process of educating my students, particularly with regard to the time they spend with me in class? How much time do they really need to spend with me in class? Assume a class period of 60 minutes. If I have a 45 minute lecture and expect a 15 minute discussion, would it be better to podcast that lecture, assign it to students before class, and use the entire 60 minutes together for discussion and extension activities? Apply the disintermediation mantra–are you adding value, or are you only adding cost?

Let’s put ourselves in the place of the travel agents alluded to in the first paragraph. We may realize that our business model is toast and that changes need to be made, or we may hold on to that model until we become completely irrelevant to the process of travel. In the first case, we need to rethink every aspect of our business, figuring out which elements provide value to our customers and which elements are merely costing us money. We then need to develop a model that is relevant to our customers’ needs, and we need to continually reapply the disintermediation mantra to assure that we remain relevant over time.

Or, we can continue to do what we’re doing until the last few customers leave for a travel service that meets their needs.