Archive for the “Education” Category

The school district I work for has two campuses-a North and a South Campus. North was the original high school in the district and dates back to 1928. If you do the math, it is 80 years old. A lot of kids have gone through that building, and so have many teachers and administrators. When you drive down Main Street, you see the school. Anyone will recognize it as a school, even though much has changed about the world we live in. It’s been there a long time.

And it’s not going anywhere.

When I retire in 13 years, it will still be there. Forty years from now, there will be a good chance that it still will be there, still opening its doors to kids. The physical spaces may change slightly, the rooms will be equipped perhaps differently, and hopefully what takes place in those rooms will change in some ways as well.

But I’m hoping that some things stay the same. There are still a lot of good things that happen in schools.

The blogosphere is filled with posts about the need for school change and reform. I’ve done them too, so I’m guilty. And there is no doubt that schools have to improve-we all know that. We all know that there are bad schools; we know that there are bad teachers, bad administrators, and even bad students. Sometimes there is bad curriculum and bad instruction, with not much learning taking place. You get the picture.

There is a continual undercurrent in the blogosphere that characterizes schools as places that are out of touch, as places that no longer connect, and that no longer serve a purpose. That’s my general perception and not reflective of any single individual or post, just a feeling I get after several years of reading.

I struggle with that characterization. I understand the blogosphere is a sounding board-throw an idea out there, see what sticks, and let people mash it up in “conversation.” But conversation is easy-and in this era of type and submit content creation-it’s also convenient. In some cases, some of the conversation about schools gets heated, and can be downright caustic. Sometimes the discussion steps beyond the bounds of professional conversation-and unfortunately, seems to become personal. Sometimes I think all of this “conversation” disrespects the enormous amount of good work that teachers and schools do.

Sometimes I think the conversation misses the target. Why? The conversation forgets:

1. That schools, like the one on Main Street in Downers Grove, and the schools that are in your community, can indeed be successful. There are numerous examples. It takes a shared collective vision, leadership, and educational professionals that are relentless in their pursuit of excellence. The kids will respond. You don’t necessarily have to do it online, you don’t have to do it in a multiplayer blog outside of a school, and you don’t need some blogospheric magic bullet that creates some new type of school. That big building that looks like a school, is a school, can be a successful institution where much important learning takes place.

2. That school change, school reform, whatever you want to call it, can emerge from within schools themselves. Talk about school reform in the blogosphere all you want, legislate it all you want, but in my opinion, change will result by people in the system rolling up their sleeves and getting it done, and basing that reform on sound educational theory, meaningful information about students and student progress, dedicated professional educators, and again, all supported by that shared, collective vision. Leave the profession if you want, seek to educate kids in different ways if you want, but I’m sticking around, because there are 5500 kids in my school district that need an education.

3. That we know how to educate kids.
Face it, is it really that difficult? Is a designing a quality lesson really that hard? Don’t we know what’s required already? Need a reminder? See Tom Hoffman’s outline of his presentation for Educon or this report about quality teaching, via Artichoke. We just don’t do it all the time, see #1 above.

4. That students still need to be placed in rigorous, challenging learning environments where they learn things like writing, math, civics, and science. And you know what-perhaps it’s also appropriate for kids to have an opportunity to sing, or create a painting, or maybe learn how to change a muffler, prepare a meal, and kick around a soccer ball. Perhaps that also needs to take place with adult guidance. And yes, on an individual basis, much of that can be done out of school. But how do you see that happening for the 5500 kids that I serve? I’d like you to answer that. There is more to life, more to education, than blogs and wikis…

5. That not all kids are tech-savvy, self-directed, highly-motivated independent learners that create dynamic and collaborative authentic content in multiple formats for distribution through social networks (full disclosure: every buzzword was used in the last sentence). But do you need someone to teach you how to text message? I’ve got 5500 teachers for that. They’ve got the interest, the capability, but they don’t know everything. Utilize it, direct it, leverage it, but don’t assume that all students know everything about technology, and how it can be used to drive their learning.

The reality is that the conversation is important. It’s challenging, it’s fun, and it’s frustrating, all at the same time. But sometimes the conversation forgets the reality of what needs to be accomplished, and what mainstream educators, educators who don’t blog, but grade papers, call parents, coach freshman basketball, tutor kids during their lunch period, and serve on two committees, face every day.

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Remember HyperCard? Hypercard was that cool program Macs had that enabled you to build “stacks” of cards that contained content. Did you ever take a class in HyperCard, with the intention of building stacks for your students?

How well did that work out for you?

Teacher Web pages are the HyperCard stacks of 2008.

Rewind to 1992 or somewhere close, I can’t remember exactly. I taught a class, as did many schools, on how to program in Hypertalk, which was the programming language of HyperCard. That wasn’t too hard to do, and teachers could make simple stacks easily enough. Some tried, but it quickly fizzled. It didn’t stick at all.

Why? Teachers aren’t programmers. They never have been and they never will be. So the lessons of the early 1990’s were forgotten when the Web rolled around, and when schools decided that teachers should learn HTML, Web page design, and Web page editing software. How well is that working?

Simply stated, schools that expect teachers to build Web pages are making a mistake, and wasting hours of time and money on “training” teachers.

Does this picture fit your school? You have some professional development day (or perhaps even days), a teacher geek shows you to use some Web page editing software, how to insert a hyperlink, a graphic, and maybe even a table. You learn how to FTP that to a district server, and now you have thirty people that have Web pages that have different layouts, different colors, and some really simple content like a phone number, class schedule, and perhaps a calendar?

Fast forward six months. Not much has been updated, has it? Probably most haven’t done anything. But they’ve got a Web page!

The idea that teachers should build Web pages doesn’t work, and it’s a classic and representative example of why technology has not delivered on its potential in schools. Here are my top five reasons for this failure, and the failure of technology to alter the learning landscape…

Reason 1: Using technology to create and support learning opportunities in most schools is not considered mission-critical. Technology is seen as integrative and not integral. It’s nice, schools have to have some, and if something good gets done with it, well, that’s good. How many schools require teachers to have a Web presence? Or is it optional? And what does optional mean to a busy teacher?

Reason 2: Most administrators have failed to understand technology and how it applies to the learning process on the most fundamental level. How many could accurately and effectively assess the inclusion of technology within a teacher’s lesson so that they could comment intelligently on the added value that the technology brings to the learning process, or doesn’t bring? How many have a true and honest expectation that technology will be used properly by teachers and students, follow up on that, and ask teachers to demonstrate it? How many have worked to provide the proper climate for experimentation and innovation? But what happens when administrators do have a grasp of technology? Ask yourself this question: “When there is robust administrative support for technology, coupled with the expectation of use within the context of learning, what happens to technology use in that school?”

Reason 3: Schools have not provided teachers with the proper tool(s), infrastructure, or support to get the job done. This ranges from not supplying the right tool, or preventing the right ones from being used. Additionally, one staff development day a year doesn’t cut it with a complex tool and process like building Web pages.

Reason 4: Teachers are too comfortable. Why build Web pages? And with Reasons 1-3, they might just have an argument. But in 2008, a class that does not have an online presence to support the learning that takes place there is missing a critical component. It’s a class that could be much better. Too many are too comfortable with doing what they’ve always done.

Reason 5: Teachers have not seen the benefit. Teachers will use technology-I know this firsthand and so do you. But to take that step into technology use, most teachers have to see a return on their investment; they have to see an impact on learning, and this is a healthy expectation. Now consider building a Web page-what exactly could they put on a Web page that they couldn’t put on a handout? Asking them to build a Web page that only addresses productivity issues (contact information, class schedule, homework, etc.) and perhaps links to other Web sites is not enough. But unfortunately, that’s what most will be only capable of. A course presence must be much larger in scope, and include elements that focus not just on information and productivity, but on supporting learning. And please don’t suggest that teachers can link to things like blogging, wiki, and social bookmarking sites to add that component. By doing something like that-joining a collection of independent tools together-the skills and understanding and support required to make that a realistic component to learning is probably beyond most. Sure, some can do it, but I’m interested in doing it system-wide.

So, what to do? Get an approachable and usable tool. Get one that has productivity and learning applications built in. Get one that has type and submit content capability. Get some best practice examples that teachers can emulate. Get a vision, and get an expectation that having a digital component to student learning is absolutely necessary. Make it part of your culture, and support it relentlessly. Extend the learning beyond the hours of the classroom, and begin to extend the learning beyond the four walls of the classroom.

Give yourself a chance…

That’s enough of my rant. Time to fire up my old Mac Classic and do a little programming.

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