The Opportunity of Crisis

What an unsettling time.

In a couple weeks, our world has dramatically shifted. It’s like 9/11. It’s like JFK. It’s not, really. Those were sudden national tragedies when the world changed in an instant. This is slower. Our world changed over the course of a week, not in minutes. And, at least for now, it’s temporary.

2809961438_56d48f9969_wBut it’s like those other events in the sense that the world as we know it has come to a sudden arboreal stop. Life isn’t normal anymore. It’s unsettling. It’s troubling. It’s disconcerting. It’s exciting.

We don’t know what the effects of this are going to be over the long term. But we know what the next month is going to look like. And we have a pretty good idea that things aren’t going to be back to normal in the next few months. After that, we have to wait and see.

In the nineties, the Internet was a place that brought people together. Before the web and all the “information superhighway” hype, it was fundamentally a way for people to communicate, to find their tribes, and to be parts of communities that were geographically disparate. From my earliest days as a teacher, I thought it would revolutionize learning by bringing people together. In some ways, I’ve spent most of my career trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to help make that happen.

Three weeks ago, Nancy Messonnier, a director at the Centers for Disease Control, warned that school closings would be coming. She told the public to “Ask about plans for teleschool.” A few hours later, all of my online communities were converging on this topic. The email listservs and the Subreddits and the Twitter stream and the Facebook friends all landed on it at the same time. We’re not ready for this. What do we do now?

The transformation never happened. We built the infrastructure. We put all the tools in place. We built wireless networks and put devices in the hands of every student. We did tons of professional development, and focused on next generation pedagogy and things like formative assessments, differentiation, project based learning, portfolios, and authentic assessment. We adopted learning resources that are primarily digital resources and stopped relying so much on textbooks. But we weren’t really changing much. We were nibbling around the edges. For the most part, school was the same as it was when our teachers were students.

But this week, somehow, when faced with no alternatives, everyone stepped up. I keep thinking of that scene in Apollo 13 where they have to fix the CO2 problem.

“We got to find a way to make this fit into the hole for this using nothing but that.”
“Let’s get it organized.”
“Okay, let’s build a filter.”

Nobody signed up for this, but it’s the task in front of us. What do our students have at home? How can we use that to teach them as well as we can? Our teachers sorted through the pile of stuff on the table and they started putting pieces together. Our instructional coaches gave up sleeping and spent a lot of time filling in the gaps. Our curriculum director and our principals started triaging the problem and setting priorities. Nobody complained about a change in working conditions. Nobody refused to step up. We’re going to do whatever we need to do.

This isn’t a matter of life and death. The world isn’t going to end if our kids miss a month of school. As I’ve been saying, there aren’t any expectations. Anything we do is better than doing nothing. That’s a very liberating place to be. We can try things that might not work. We can roll the dice on long odds. We can try things that we weren’t willing to try a month ago. We have a get out of jail free card. There’s nothing to lose.

I’m excited about this. I’m hoping that we’re going to learn some things about us, and about our students, and about how learning can be. I’m hoping that we’re going to pick up some practices or ideas or some out-of-the-box methods that we never tried before because we never had to. In the end, eventually, we’re going to go back to school. But hopefully, we’re going to take some of these lessons back into the classrooms with us. And our kids will be better for it.

Photo credit: Max Klingensmith, Flickr.

Beliefs

When I was 25, I believed that the anonymity of online discussions would allow the exchange of ideas without prejudice, and raise the level of human discourse. I’d been communicating online for five or six years. The web was brand new. Most of the forums were text based. There was lots of Usenet and mailing lists. And it didn’t matter who you were or where you were from. We didn’t judge people based on skin color or physical attributes or handicaps. We couldn’t see those things. Your ideas stood on their own merits.

snakeoilI remember teaching middle school kids about this wonderful world where stereotypes and pre-judgement were relics from a more primitive time. I even did some original research around anonymity in online discussion forums. The hypothe

sis was that students were more likely to engage in deeper conversations online if their real identities were unknown to the other participants (but known to the moderator). The result was that there was no significant difference.

And the civil discourse didn’t really happen either. There were flame wars before there were trolls. Sometimes it’s fun to push someone’s buttons. It’s fun to wind up the toy and let it go. As it turns out, the lack of accountability that goes along with anonymity can bring out the worst in people. And it doesn’t take many of those people to destroy reasoned, civil discourse.


 

When I was 35, I believed that the democratization of the means of dissemination would give voice to the voiceless, and allow more perspectives to be heard. Those are big words. Let me put it more simply: everyone is a publisher. Even the relatively simple process of setting up a web site and having access to a global audience had become MUCH easier with the advent of weblogs and wikis. It really did become easy for anyone to publish anything and reach an enormous audience.

We were no longer shackled by the editors and publishers and news outlets that controlled the means of publication. I can say whatever I want (and I did). I set up news feeds and RSS links and all kinds of stuff to tune in to these alternative sources of information. Chris Anderson came up with his Long Tail idea. There’s room for everyone’s ideas on the Internet. You don’t have to figure out whether it’s worth the investment to publish something, because publishing is basically free.

But the movement away from a few broadcasters has led to misinformation, fake news, and the breakdown of such fundamental concepts as “truth” and “fact”. For every opinion, there is an equal and opposite opinion, and in the interest of fairness and equal time, we give voice to the crazy. Now, we have people who are intentionally destroying their own credibility, because they can’t be held accountable for their words if it can easily be proven that they’re lying most of the time. So we use words like “alternative fact” and “believe” a lot more than we used to, and we’ve lost touch with ideas like trustworthy and authoritative.


 

When I was 45, I believed that technology could save public education. Technology would allow differentiation and authentic assessment in ways that previous generations could only dream of. Every student would have an individualized plan, and the learning activities would be tailored by a caring, intelligent, and perspicacious teacher. Students would have some flexibility to explore topics and ideas that interest them, and they would complete projects, conduct original research, and produce deliverables that demonstrated their learning in novel ways. Along the way, they would learn to collaborate, express their creativity, and communicate effectively in a variety of media. They would apply innovative thinking strategies to take ideas and concepts from different disciplines and combine them in new ways to solve challenging real-world problems. And all of this would happen in public schools using best practices, innovative teaching strategies, and cutting edge resources that would be unmatched by the private/online/charter/alternative schools.

So we worked through all of the challenges. We put devices into all students’ hands. We built the infrastructure to make the technology work reliably and efficiently. We spent years on professional development. We talked a lot about assessment and homework and learning activities. We focused on the importance of portfolios and depth of knowledge and learning standards. And then we bought document cameras so teachers could help students complete worksheets as a class.


 

I wonder what I’ll believe when I’m 55.

 

Photo credit: Wikimedia commons.

Focused Presence

About a week ago, we were having a discussion on Slack about the upcoming state educational technology conference. I’m sitting this year out. A couple members of my personal learning network weren’t happy. The conference isn’t necessarily about learning. It’s more about bringing technology to education than focusing on student-centered learning enhanced and supported by technology. Jeremy said that’s not the point. The conference is about networking. It’s about connecting to your colleagues from around the state, hearing about the success and challenges we’re having, and working together to identify innovative strategies and best practices moving forward. He didn’t exactly put it like that, but I think that’s what he meant.

“Why do we have to be in the same place to network?” I asked. The conversation turned to technology. “Nobody has come close to a digital equivalent of being in the same room,” Jeremy offered. Ryan suggested that the Cisco digital presence technology might be close. I disagreed.

20170127_0902441-1Technology isn’t the problem. You can attend conferences remotely. You can watch webinars all day, and there are more than enough Powerpoint slides on the Internet to put everyone to sleep. We can connect in video conferences for face to face conversations. We can use online tools of various kinds to engage in both public and private conversations, both in real time and asynchronously. We have formal spaces where everyone acts like a professional, and less formal ones where we’re a bit more relaxed. There aren’t many gaps in technology’s ability to replicate all of the kinds of interactions we have at a professional conference.

And yet, here I am at Educon. I missed work for two days and drove 500 miles to get here. I brought five people from my district because I think it’s important for them to engage in these conversations. It’s expensive and time consuming and totally worth it.

We could do this online. All of the sessions are streamed live, and this crowd is more than casually connected. I could stay home and still interact with the people in the room in real time. The technology is there to make it happen.

But the last two years, when I didn’t attend Educon, I didn’t participate at all. I didn’t watch the streams. I didn’t follow the Twitter hash tag. I didn’t read the blog post reflections. I checked out.

Sitting in my office, or on my couch, there are a thousand other things to pull me away from the experience. We’re having a network problem. A student’s account got hacked. Someone is impersonating a board member online. There’s always a “drop everything and take care of this” moment. I’m really bad at turning off the world and focusing on one thing, and it’s even more difficult when the one thing really does require your full attention. We don’t respect focused time. I can’t close the door and say, “I’m at a conference now.” The phone will keep ringing. People will keep knocking. They still need important things.

So we’re here. We’re engaged. I’m immersed in the experience, and can hopefully focus my attention on it for the next two days. We will discuss and explore and debate. We’ll talk to people from many different types of schools with many different perspectives. We’ll try to help others by sharing what we’ve learned over the past few years, and we’ll learn much more from others’ experiences. We’ll leave with a sense of hope and optimism that we are on the right track, and we’ll have a better idea of the next steps and how to reach them.

The emergencies have to wait. I have some learning to do.

Photo credit: Scott Detray.