Checking Out in the Middle Grades

It was fifth grade when my daughter decided that she didn’t like school. It was her first year in an intermediate school. In our community, learners go to the same primary school for grades K-4, and then switch to an intermediate school for 5-6 before moving on to middle school (7-8) and high school (9-12). It’s the intermediate school where things tend to change. We have similar challenges in the school district in which I work, where students attend intermediate school in grades 4-5. Both students and parents tend to experience a sense of disillusionment at this level. 9557767183_fd5cc9fb1b_zIt’s an age where students are becoming increasingly independent. In many schools, they switch classes for the first time. They’re expected to keep track of assignments and due dates more than they did in the past. They have lockers and study hall and more freedom and more accountability. But at the same time, they’re all still in the same classes. Everyone has math and language arts and science and social studies, just like they did in elementary school. But by fifth grade, the gap between the highest performing kids and the lowest performing kids in the same class can be staggering. My daughter, for example, was reading at a tenth grade level in fifth grade. Though these were the days before the third grade reading guarantee, there were certainly students in her class who were two years below their grade level.

That’s an enormous gap. If we have students reading on a third grade level in the same class with students reading on a 10th grade level, how do we teach to that kind of academic diversity? In my daughter’s fifth grade class, they taught at a fifth grade level. Some students struggled, and I’m assuming that there were intervention strategies in place for them. Most of the students were more-or-less with the class. Some students, my daughter among them, were bored.

In grades 5 and 6, all of her teachers were entirely focused on acquisition of content. They were scared to death of the high stakes end-of year tests. They were worried about the new science test. Students were not performing up to expectations on the math test. And language arts is always the highest priority in elementary school. In every class, the entire focus of the curriculum was on making sure the students could answer as many test questions as possible. They even went as far as “borrowing” time from non-tested subjects, like social studies, to spend more time on test prep in the subjects that “counted.”

If getting students to answer multiple choice questions is the entire focus of your educational philosophy, what’s the best way to accomplish that goal? Direct instruction. Practice. Repeat. If you want students to be able to recognize a word by its definition, or add two fractions together, or list the planets in order by size, this is the most efficient way to get the job done. So there were endless worksheets. There was a lot of copying of definitions out of textbooks. There were word searches and crossword puzzles. Every day in math, they were shown a new kind of problem, the process for solving that kind of problem, and 20 practice problems for homework.

What does this do to the student who comes in already having most of the knowledge? I’m not saying my daughter is a genius. But we did spend a LOT of time in science museums and historical sites and zoos and concert halls. We asked a lot more questions than we answered. We taught our children to love books. We encouraged them to ask questions and work hard to understand the world around them. They didn’t just go into Kindergarten knowing that the poster on the wall listing Pluto as a planet was wrong. They knew why it was wrong, and why scientists changed their thinking about it.

This child can do the worksheets. But she doesn’t see any point in doing them. And when her intrinsic love of learning is diminished by a need to proceed in lock step with the class, she learns to play the school game. Do what you have to do to get the grade, and don’t worry so much about learning. School is now about fulfilling requirements. It’s not fun anymore. After two years of treading water, we pulled her out. She attended an online charter for seventh and eighth grades before returning to the traditional public high school. The online charter wasn’t much better academically:  it, too, was focused on test prep. But at least she could work more efficiently, check off the required work, and then spend more time on her passions. She could dive more deeply into topics that interested her, and spend more time where she wanted. She could focus more on visual arts, including several hours of painting every week. For her, learning and school became two separate things. But that worked for her.

My other daughter is taking a different path to the same place. For her, grades 5-8 are being spent in a performing arts middle school. Academically, it’s a very traditional school, with many of the shortcomings I’ve already described. She has certainly learned to play the school game, giving the teachers what they want, without worrying so much about the learning. But she gets to do drama and orchestra in school. So rather than wasting the middle school years, she can focus on the arts. I have no doubt that she will be ready for high school next year when she joins her sister.

High school is a very different animal. The capacity for diversifying academic experiences in high school is much higher than it is in middle school. There are honors and AP classes. There are electives and extracurriculars. There are plenty of opportunities to engage academically, culturally, socially, and athletically. As a Freshman, my daughter took Sophomore English, science, and math. If she runs out of courses to take in a couple years, she’ll enroll in a post-secondary program and earn college credit for high school classes. She’s over the hump now, and she’s much happier about school. But those middle grades were tough.

I can’t help but think that the new academic standards are going to improve the middle grades experience.  Both the Common Core standards and the new Ohio standards for science and social studies have an emphasis on increasing academic rigor. That means that we’re finally moving beyond simply remembering and understanding facts. Students will need to analyze, synthesize, and apply their knowledge to new situations. They will have to combine their knowledge from different domains in new ways to create something new. That kind of thinking requires an entirely different approach to teaching and learning. It’s no longer possible to anticipate every kind of problem students will be asked to solve. We’ll need to teach them to think for themselves.

In the process, hopefully we’ll engage those students who have checked out of middle school.

Photo credit: Steven Depolo on Flickr.

Don’t Waste Their Time

When I was in high school, I joined an Explorers group of future teachers that met monthly to get experience and information about the teaching profession from teachers and university professors. One month, we had a high school English teacher from a neighboring school talk to us. I don’t remember very much about her. But her advice still stays with me, all these years later.

3304801086_c261c6be3f_mShe talked about time. She reminded us that there’s only one person in the classroom who chooses to be there. The learners don’t have much say in the matter. They have to take Sophomore English (or 6th grade math, or 2nd grade science). They are compelled to attend. They have to be there. As a teacher, you are taking forty minutes of their lives away from them every day. That’s forty minutes that they’re never going to get back again. It is morally wrong to squander that time.

That doesn’t mean that every minute of every class is spent in rigorous academic learning tied to measurable content standards. But there are days when you don’t feel like being a teacher. Maybe it was a late night last night. Maybe you have sick kids at home, or the car broke down, or you had an argument with your partner. Maybe you’re not excited about this particular unit. Maybe this is a challenging group of kids. Maybe you’re just trying to hold on until Winter Break. But that doesn’t give you the right to slack off. That doesn’t give you permission to phone it in. You’re the professional. They’re giving you an irreplaceable piece of their lives. Do something meaningful with it.

I spend a lot of my life waiting for other people. I’m generally early for appointments. I try to have relevant agendas for meetings that I lead. When given an opportunity to address a group, I try to make my comments as brief and to-the-point as possible. I don’t send lots of emails to big groups of people. I don’t call when I can email or text, because I rarely presume that the thing I want to talk about is more important than whatever it is that they might be doing at that particular moment. I try not to waste their time.

The other thing that the teacher told us years ago had to do with the teacher’s calendar. “We have 180 school days per year,” she explained. “We also have two teacher report days. That makes 182 days that I have to work per year.” She went on. “That means I have 183 days OFF.” She let it sink in, and then elaborated. If she needs to stay after school, or do some work in the evenings, or attend a meeting or professional development session, she just does it. She tries not to call in sick. She only uses personal leave if it’s a dire emergency. If teachers are indispensable professionals, necessary components of student learning, they have to be in the classroom. And while we work more days now than she did then, the point is still well taken. One of my pet peeves about this time of year is hearing teachers complaining about how short their summers were, and how they’re not ready to be back. I don’t begrudge them the 13 weeks of vacation, but I also don’t really have a lot of patience for the “I don’t have time” argument.

In this profession, we’re choosing to spend our lives in the noble pursuit of learning. Let’s make sure we’re getting everything out of it that we can. Don’t waste their time.

Photo credit: Berc on Flickr

Five Years Later

It was five years ago today that I bid farewell to my family at a hotel in New York and boarded a shuttle to JFK airport to begin the adventure of a lifetime. In the 42 days that followed, I met some of the most amazing people I’ve ever encountered. I participated in a culture that was entirely foreign to me. I saw the real effects of poverty and corruption and oppression. I beheld wonders of the natural world that cannot be captured in photographs and video. And I saw hope and optimism in the most unexpected places.

3849791407_6b77e340be_zI wrote quite a bit during and after my trip, and looking back on those posts, I’m amazed at the things I chose to write about and how poorly I articulated my thoughts while still engaged in the experience. My subsequent presentations (like this one) were better, but even they left out a lot of the details and glossed over some of the real challenges we faced. Re-reading the posts, I get the sense that I was trying too hard to be positive and not enough to be realistic. I wondered in words why we were trying to do technology integration workshops for teachers who didn’t have electricity, and I regularly referenced Mother Theresa’s quote about our efforts being but a drop in the ocean, but without the drop, the ocean would be less. But I never really delved into the circumstances that put us in that position, or the fact that years 2-4 of that particular four-year project never happened.

Ultimately, I think I was so worried about justifying the trip that I ignored the negative aspects of our mission and focused only on the positive impact we must surely have had. Along the way, I threw in a healthy dose of incredulity, because everything we saw was so exhaustingly foreign to our North American sense of what the world is.

Five years on, I cannot claim to have made a real difference in the lives of African learners, teachers, or schools. It’s possible that their work with Education Beyond Borders had a positive impact on them, and it’s theoretically conceivable that my team may have played a small part in that development. But having lost touch with most of the people we worked with, it would be presumptuous and arrogant for me to claim any credit for any kind of lasting effect. As I said at the time, I certainly took more from the experience than I contributed.

Looking back, it’s sometimes difficult to untangle the web of my own professional growth to determine the tangible, lasting effects of a summer in Africa. Perhaps not unlike the South African tradition of ubuntu, I am who I am because of my experiences, and those experiences were what they were because of my involvement. Without my participation, my life would be different, and the team would have functioned differently as well. We are connected: part of the same whole. But there are a few things that have changed in my attitude, and some of this comes from the Africa experience:

The world is a small place.

Teachers everywhere feel overworked and under-appreciated. They want the best for their students. They feel that schools could be doing a better job, but a lack of resources, priority, and understanding of the problems keeps us from doing great things for kids. Educators around the world believe that education is a way out of poverty and that a good education can help (but cannot ensure) the next generation to be better off than their parents.

While we face similar challenges with educators from all over the world, we’re also really good at isolating ourselves. You see this at any kind of professional gathering that attracts teachers from various locales. “Oh, yeah. Of course you can say that. You don’t have 2/3 of your kids on free or reduced price lunches.” “But your kids don’t spend 90 minutes a day on the school bus.” “Well, most of your kids live in two-parent homes.” All of your kids have clean water. All of your kids have real floors in their homes instead of the packed earth that much of the world has in the shacks they call houses. We are One. We get to carry each other.

We must be flexible and receptive to change.

I don’t know how much time we spent planning before the trip. I want to say that it was a couple hours per week starting in April and lasting through June, but I may be over-estimating by quite a lot. Maybe it was 20-25 hours total. Most of that time was spent trying to figure out what the needs were, and how we could best meet them. There were seven of us, and we were planning for 15 full days of workshops. So the number of person-hours spent planning before we left was pretty close to the number of hours of workshops we were planning for.

On the plane to Africa, we spent a few hours working through the first day. We had a pretty good plan for what we wanted to do. But when we arrived in Cape Town, we ended up starting from scratch. There were things we didn’t know about the workshop participants, the physical environment, and the resources available that had to be taken into account. By Tuesday night of the first week, we had a pretty good map (finally!) for how things would proceed for the rest of the week. We were getting to the point where we might not have to spend 4-5 hours every night planning for the next day. Then, on Wednesday at lunch, we asked the participants how things were going from their perspective. They needed a change in direction, with less pedagogy and more technology. Turning on a dime, we scrapped the rest of the week with five minutes’ notice, and dove into a completely new direction.3872264702_4c4291cb90_z

The second week, working with a different group of people, there were political tensions between the two organizations we were working with, and we were caught in the middle. A battle over the content of the workshops took place during lunch on the first day, and we ended up scrapping the rest of the week and starting over. Again, these plans changed with only a few minutes’ notice.

In Kenya a few weeks later, we had a different challenge. Working with 50 teachers and 11 computers is pretty tough when you’re trying to do technology workshops, but we found out on Tuesday that we would likely not have electricity on Thursday or Friday. While it was nice to have more notice this time, it was a bit daunting to try to come up with some worthwhile workshops using technology without having any technology to work with. It was, perhaps, a bit TOO realistic as we emulated the conditions in which our participants actually teach every day.

But this constant re-planning has given me much more of a hakuna matata attitude. There are no worries. There are no problems we cannot overcome. I plan less meticulously now. I have more faith in my ability to improvise and to handle challenges as they arise. These are probably not good qualities to have as an educational tech person. Really, I should be anticipating problems and solving them before they occur. And I do try to do that. But having the attitude that things are going to go wrong, and we’re going to deal with them when they do, and we’re all going to be fine in the end has served me well in the last few years. I think that’s why I don’t freak out when things like PARCC testing and 3,000 new laptops and last-minute staff resignations occur. I’ve been to Africa. I can handle anything you can throw at me.

Technology holds tremendous promise to improve the world.

I am still amazed that people came to the workshops we offered. If I were a teacher in one of the schools we worked with, I probably would not have come. Even in South Africa, which is on a completely different level from Kenya in terms of infrastructure and living conditions, the schools are spartan. They have actual buildings with floors and desks and chalkboards and electricity. But the housing conditions are deplorable by our standards. Resources are scarce. Money is tight. As a teacher, I would probably be focusing on getting books and pencils and paper and things that are cheap and proven.

But the teachers came. Even in Kenya, where we didn’t see a single school with electricity, they came. They can see the digital age better than we can. Think of it this way: have you ever had your car break down on the highway? You pull off onto the shoulder. Maybe you get out and take a look under the hood, or pull out the spare tire, or just call the auto service to come help. Meanwhile, as you’re sitting, you get a MUCH better idea of what the highway is all about. When the cars and trucks are speeding past at 70 miles an hour, you sense the miracle of the highway system more than when you’re actually traveling on it. If you only had a bicycle, or a horse, you would feel that travel is utterly hopeless. You have to find a way to move on that highway, and not be left hopelessly behind. That’s the way Africans feel about the Internet.

Technology is a way out of poverty. It’s a great equalizer. It can make information available to everyone. It can allow everyone to have a voice. The real promise is in the mobile technologies. Cell phones are amazing, and the location-based services that they support can be transformative. Tools like Ushahidi and the dozes of others like it are changing the way the world interacts, and are flattening the social hierarchies that allow us to oppress one another. We just have to get off Facebook long enough to see it.

Technology rarely lives up to expectations.

In America, the constant stream of gadgets has made us jaded. I’ve lamented many times that there are places in my schools where I’ve purchased, configured, installed, maintained, removed, and recycled computers over and over again in the same location without any real change in how learning happens in that space. We buy a lot of stuff because it’s shiny and new, and then try to figure out what to do with it later. When there’s no purpose to the technology, it loses its luster very quickly.

The developing world doesn’t have the resources for this constant trend-surfing. They want technologies that work, technologies that actually have a useful, measurable effect on student learning. They need things that work all the time, in less-than-ideal conditions, with little or no support. They can’t search for and install updates every time they launch a program. They can’t lose data every time the power goes out. They can’t replace a computer just because it’s a few years old. And unless you can prove that the technology really does something useful that we’re trying to do, and that it’s worth the enormous sacrifice needed to adopt it, we’re not interested.

We could do with a lot more skepticism in our own country. We have to stop believing the salespeople and valuing actual evidence from real researchers on the positive impacts of these extremely expensive technology initiatives that we’re pushing. And we have to listen to the recommendations for successful implementations, and actually follow them. It’s time to ignore the shiny stuff in favor of the working stuff.

Professional development must model the learning it advocates.

tablemtn2I can’t say that I’ve ever felt that lecturing at teachers to show they how to make learning more interactive in their classrooms was a good idea. I’ve also questioned the idea that “professional development days” are effective ways of improving anything that happens in classrooms. But since the trip to Africa, I have been much more of a participatory professional development advocate. Most of this came from the team with whom I worked. Concepts like understanding by design and approaches to collaboration like jigsaw activities and think-pair-share are ideas that I had previously seen but not ever used. With this team, it was just a standard way of doing business. There were a few questions right at the beginning about how activities or concepts were defined, and once those were ironed out, the whole team operated from a pedagogical foundation that was on a whole different plane from anything I had ever done in the classroom. Part of this was because I hadn’t actually been in a classroom in a decade.  But a bigger part was that these teachers are rock stars who understand how learning happens, and who can combine elements of educational theory and instructional approaches into practice on the fly. It was amazing to watch, and I struggled to keep up.

Back at home, I followed up the Africa trip with my first attendance at Educon, which ruined all other conferences for me. In the 90-minute sessions at this conference, participation is expected. We build understanding together. A couple years later, I jumped on the EdCamp bandwagon, organizing a conference in Cleveland that brings teachers, administrators, and others together to discuss topics important to them. I followed that up with OETCx, a similar unconference activity that became part of the Ohio Educational Technology Conference. At the same time, I jumped on the MOOC bandwagon, and spent the better part of a year trying to define how we could create a system to validate informal learning, so teachers could participate in Professional Learning Networks and MOOCs and still get LPDC or graduate workshop credit to keep their teaching licenses current.

Learning requires participation. We have to have conversations. We have to discuss and debate. We have to build things together. We have to take disparate ideas and put them together in new ways to meet new challenges. We have to apply new information to our own worlds to deepen our understanding. And we have to reflect on our learning. Those are all things I picked up from my team, and they’re part of the fabric that forms my understanding of what learning is.

The struggle, of course, is to apply this approach to a system that can sometimes find itself paralyzed by tradition. That begins with professional development. We have to model the instructional practices we wish to see.

Would I do it again?

That’s the question everyone asks. Five years on, I don’t talk about Africa nearly as much as I used to. And when I get started, my eyes glaze over and I launch into stories or anecdotes that, by now, are well practiced. The question everyone asks, if we talk about this trip for more than a few minutes, is this: would you do it again?

mbita8That’s actually two questions. If I had it to do over again, knowing what I know now, would I still go? Absolutely. There’s no question. When I look back on the original goals of the trip, I can’t consider it to be anything but an outstanding success. I expanded my horizons. I had experiences with people and places I could not have had in any other way. I have seen things that will stay with me forever. And by participating on the EBB team, I had opportunities that I could not have had if I had simply gone on a vacation. I got to meet and interact with and collaborate with real people well beyond the well-trodden tourist circuit. I have never regretted — not for a single moment — going to Africa.

But the other question is this: would I go back? I haven’t, which probably answers that question most succinctly. The truth is that I never really felt that I belonged there. I’m not a teacher anymore, and that was pretty clear from the beginning. Even in the workshop sessions, I was largely a fish out of water. When I think of all of the people who could do fantastic things on these projects, I think it would be much better to let someone else have my spot. At the same time, the trip was quite a burden, especially on my family. They had to live without the awesomeness of my presence for most of the summer, which was pretty tough on the kids especially. Financially, it was a bit of a stretch as well, but we’re into excuse-making at this point.

Mostly, I would be worried about the team. As I’ve mentioned, the one factor that made this an overwhelmingly positive experience for me was the group of people I had the good fortune to work with. We bonded in a way that’s pretty rare, and we were all very good friends and respected colleagues long before we met face-to-face. I would like to think that all of the teams are like that, but I know better. I’ve seen some of the tension and the competing egos and the in-fighting that can occur. Having already been on the best team I can imagine, there’s no reason for me to settle for second best on a return trip.

I went to Africa with the understanding that this was a one-time adventure. While I won’t say I will never go back, I think it’s best to leave it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, at least for now.



“We don’t learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” — John Dewey

The school year is over. Have you reflected on the year yet?

3052020494_2fca06bcf3_mYou’re a learner, right? We believe in life-long learning. We work in educational institutions, where learning is the mission of the organization. Learning is what we do. And reflection is a key component of learning, right?

We just finished this part of our educational journey we called the 2013-14 school year. So what did you learn? What did you accomplish? What were the biggest challenges? How did you fail, and what did you learn from those mistakes? What are the goals for next year, and how are you going to measure them? What do you still need to learn?

Now is the time to do this. Sure, summer is here. We want to be done with all of this academic work for a while. But now is the time to take stock of where we’ve been and what it means. A week ago, I sat down with a cup of tea and my notebook and reflected on the ending school year.  The process helped me outline some goals for next year, and some strategies for meeting those goals. On Friday, I updated our leadership team on the status of the technology plan (plan here, status here) that forced me to reflect on the accomplishments for the year, the challenges we struggled with, and the path forward.

Take a few minutes — before the year gets away from you — to reflect on what you’ve learned.

Photo credit: Anderson Mancini on Flickr.

5 Reasons We Still Need School Libraries

I’ve had several conversations recently about school libraries. As schools evolve to meet the needs of next generation students, the role of the library is increasingly unclear. If the model of textbooks and teachers as the source of all knowledge is outdated, then the idea that a school media center can contain all of the instructional resources the school could ever need is equally obsolete. The notion that even the best-funded school libraries could ever rival the wealth of resources available instantaneously from the smartphone in a student’s pocket is absurd. Yet schools do not seem to be tearing out their libraries, and with good reason. We still need them around. They’re still relevant. They still play a critical role in the teaching and learning that takes place in our schools.

10425308616_a1d3455806_z_d[1]Foster a Love of Reading
Elementary school is all about reading. We teach arithmetic and science and social studies and a lot of other things, but really, it’s all about reading. Until these learners are literate, it’s going to be difficult to teach them much of anything. In the early elementary grades, the library helps open the doors to the boundless worlds captured in the pages of books. We need our kids to be readers. We need our children to love reading. It’s nice if the books have a positive message or if they teach something useful. But mostly, we need books to convince kids that books are awesome. In my family, it’s often difficult to tear the children away from the books. The love of reading improves their reading level, enhances their vocabulary, and expands their cultural awareness. Along the way, they occasionally learn some content, too.

Teach Information Literacy
Back in the dark ages when I went to school, we learned about the Dewey Decimal System and the card catalog. I could tell that they didn’t have a whole lot to teach us in the library, because they introduced this stuff in third grade, and then went back and reviewed it every time we went to the library until we were writing term papers as seniors. I learned to hate the Dewey system, but I understood it very well. In today’s world, though, we have a whole lot of stuff to teach our children about information. The first, and perhaps least obvious, is how to find it. As it turns out, a simple Google search isn’t always the best option. There are other places to look for different kinds of information. There are search strategies that can save you a lot of time. And with the number of searches we do in a typical day, it’s probably worth investing a little energy to save some time on each search.

After searching, students have the problem of filtering. Two million search results does no one any good. How do we find the best resources — the most relevant pieces — for our needs? In an age of information abundance, this is a huge problem.

Once students find information, they have to evaluate its reliability. We all know that there are things on the Internet that are not true. But this is also the case with content in books and magazines, newspapers, so-called “fair and balanced” TV programs, and just about every other type of information we encounter. Our students have to factor in point of view, author motivation, and bias. They have to be able to determine whether a particular resource is reliable enough for their purposes, and that process is as much art as it is science.

Finally, once the relevant information has been found and vetted, students need help citing and using it. How does copyright affect what we can do with someone else’s work? How do we give others credit and avoid allegations of plagiarism? How do we take the ideas of others and add to them to create something new in a legal and ethical way?

Provide Shared Resources
Libraries have always been all about sharing. We can’t afford to buy every book we’ll ever want to read. And most books don’t do us a lot of good once we’ve read them. It makes much more sense to collect the books in one place and share them. Of course, the publishing companies hate that idea. As we move further down the digital path, they will hopefully learn from the battle wounds of their brethren in the music and motion picture industries, and not try to beat their customers into submission. There seems to be some good progress on that front, though the battle continues. Specifically, we have to find reasonable ways to share electronic resources among people who don’t have a single dedicated device on which they consume that media.

But even beyond books, libraries are spaces for shared resources. In all of the schools I’ve worked in, the libraries had computers and Internet access first. They were also the first ones to have scanners, color printers, digital cameras, and other resources that couldn’t be provided to everyone. Later, they got into the data projector business, and in some cases they sign out laptops to teachers and students. As we move forward, the library will continue to be the place to go for shared resources. Maybe they’ll have 3D printers and CNC routers. Maybe they’ll have video production equipment and facilities. They’ll probably have non-tech resources that teachers and students can use, too. In cases where it makes sense to share, our libraries are the place to be.

Help Us Curate
Do you use bookmarks in your browser? I used to. I kept losing them. Every computer I used had its own set, and I would forget to move them from one computer to another, or a hard drive would crash and I’d lose them, or I would switch browsers and have to deal with a new set of bookmarks. So I eventually switched to Delicious a decade or so. This fantastic service stores my bookmarks in the cloud. That means no matter which computer I’m using, my bookmarks are always just a click away.

Except I never use it. I don’t bookmark things anymore, because I found that I never actually go back and look at my bookmarks. If I need something, I just search for it.

If I were trying to collaborate on a project, this would drive everyone nuts. If I were a fourth grade teacher, and we were trying to work together to pull resources together for science and social studies, my approach of searching for stuff all the time wouldn’t really cut it.

As teachers, if we want to move away from textbooks telling us what and how to teach every day of the school year, we are going to have to curate our own resources. We have to organize links and content in ways that let us easily share them and use them without constantly trying to find things.

Who is the expert, in our schools, at organizing information resources so people can find them? That would be our masters of the Dewey Decimal system. I don’t think we should give a classification number to every web resource we find, but our media specialists can certainly help us put that information into an organized format that everyone can use. And we need their help now more than ever.

Space for Academic Collaboration and Discovery
Sometimes, I go to Starbucks to work. It’s not because I need a place that’s quiet. My office is certainly a lot quieter than a coffee shop. It’s not because I need coffee. I can make better coffee at home than Starbucks can. What I need is a comfortable chair in a place that’s busy but not distracting. I need activity around me, but not activity that’s interesting enough for me to pay attention to. I need an environment away from the interruptions of the office and the distractions of the computer. I need a place to read or think or write. And for me, Starbucks fits the bill.

Recently, CITE has become that space as well. When there aren’t activities scheduled in the training or conference room, I’ll occasionally go in there with a laptop and a cup of tea. It’s not as busy in there, but the environment is similar.

Our students need a place to work. They need a place that’s not so formal and uncomfortable like study hall. They need a place where they can work together if necessary. They need a place where they can relax a little and be productive. Our libraries could become those places. Comfortable chairs. Tables for four. Separate areas with little corners and nooks to allow people to find a spot, isolated yet together, to get things done. It’s a place where noisy is inappropriate, but where silence is equally inappropriate. Maybe there’s some music playing. Hopefully, there are some windows letting the light in. There’s a charger for my phone, and an outlet for my laptop. And I can sit in there and get some work done. I don’t even care about the coffee.

As we move away from printed books, and as we transition to a world where information is no longer scarce, we have to rethink our concept of school libraries.They still play an indispensable role in our schools. We just have to be purposeful about designing their transformation.


Photo credit: Margrit on Flickr.

The Role of Technology in Education

It would be easy for a self-proclaimed educational technologist to claim that technology is an indispensable component of modern education.

It’s not.

What do you really need to teach a child how to read? You need a child. You need a willing teacher. It’s helpful to have a book. Everything else is superfluous. When I visited Remba Island in Lake Victoria five years ago, I found a “school” crudely built with corrugated steel and chicken wire. There were no doors or windows, just open spaces to let people — and light — in. Children sat at wooden benches on the dirt floor. There was no electricity and no running water. But there was learning. Students were learning about the water cycle in one classroom and arithmetic in another. In this place where I couldn’t open my mouth without ingesting insects, learning was happening. And there wasn’t a computer or a mobile phone or even a digital camera anywhere in sight. There were just committed teachers and students who needed an education.

But we’re in the first world, not the third world. The expectations here are a bit different.

8720604364_85c5931a14_z_d[1]Technology gives us the opportunity to differentiate and personalize learning in unprecedented ways. Computer programs can break content standards down into specific learning targets. Software can assess students, identify their weaknesses, and provide instruction to address those challenges. It can adapt along the way to provide remediation or extension where appropriate, and it can vary the pace of instruction to fit the needs of the learner. Because the student is constantly interacting with the content, the very act of learning becomes continual formative assessment. Teachers can access this data and use it to intervene where appropriate, identifying patterns in student achievement gaps and working to fill them. Because their roles are shifting away from direct instruction, teachers can spend more time interacting with individual and small groups of students, providing the personal attention that was never before possible.

But that’s not the exciting part of technology in education. While everything I’ve described is possible, there are few tools that actually deliver on this promise. And they miss one important fact: this approach is perfectly suited to disseminate content to students, but simply acquiring content is far less important than it was a generation ago.

My parents went to school because school was where the knowledge was. The teacher was the content expert, and if there was anything about biology or Shakespeare or trigonometry that she didn’t know, there was a textbook with all of the answers. The role of the teacher was to share this knowledge with the students, and we called this process education.

Today, the students already have all of the content. It’s in the device they’re carrying around in their pockets. They don’t need to learn about the civil war from the bald guy in the shirt and tie at the front of the room. They can pull up countless primary sources, documentaries, and analyses of every event with just a few keystrokes. The teacher’s job, now, is to help the students make sense of the content. They have to filter, analyze, and synthesize it. They need to be able to combine disparate ideas in new ways, creating new insights that can be applied to the complex problems they’ll face in this century. They have to be able to ask relevant and insightful questions. They need to be able to think critically and creatively about the problems they’re trying to solve. They must be able to articulate their new ideas in both traditional and new ways, and they must do all of this collaboratively, because none of us is smart enough to face these challenges alone.

Technology makes all of this possible. Students use both general and specialized search tools to find the relevant information they need. They use online tools to curate, annotate, and document these resources. They use social networking tools to connect to one another, sharing resources, providing context, and engaging in conversations about the content and their learning. They use cloud-based tools to work together on the creation of documents and presentations. They use media tools to easily record audio, create video, remix content, and make new products. Then, publishing this work to a global audience is trivial. They engage with their audience through comment systems to react to one another’s work. Along the way, they build a personal network of peers — both within and outside the school — that becomes a cohort of life-long learners.

The value of technology in education is not in making things more efficient or less expensive or more engaging. It’s in making new things possible.

Photo Credit: Lucélia Ribeiro on Flickr.