What Do You Know?

When my kids were learning to talk, they would often make up words to overcome shortcomings in their vocabularies. They knew, for example, that baby dogs were called “puppies.” But since they didn’t yet know “foal,” a baby horse was called a “horse puppy.” Similarly, when my wife needed an oil change, she would go to the “car doctor.” It didn’t bother them that no one else used these terms. They described the places and things that they needed to using the words they had. Looking back on it, it reminds me of Randall Munroe’s  Up Goer Five, in which the XKCD author explains how the Saturn V rocket worked, using only the 1000 most-used words in the English language.

Cognitively, the children were taking new ideas (there’s a place where we go to get the car fixed) and attaching it to what they already know (when I get sick, I go to the doctor). Later, they refined their understanding. Doctors are only for things that are alive. Cars are not alive. A car doctor is called a mechanic. Each of these pieces of information allowed them to augment their understanding. The result was learning.

In order to develop understanding, we have to find ways to connect new information to things we already know. For example, let’s say that I know that high blood pressure can increase my risk of developing diabetes. My doctor tells me that sodium intake affects blood pressure. So I can reasonably conclude that reducing my salt intake can lower my risk of developing diabetes. Maybe I reduce the amount of salt in my diet, and my blood pressure does go down. So I’ve instilled a belief now. I’m healthier because I’ve made that one dietary change, and I’m less likely to develop diabetes.

But now what happens when I encounter contrary evidence? Maybe someone tweets a link to a news story saying that the benefits of reducing salt are overstated. Or maybe there’s a doctor who writes an article about how reducing sodium tends to increase fat and sugar, which cause more harm than the sodium. Or I see a Facebook post about the restorative power of sea salt.

If my belief in the link between sodium and diabetes is strong enough, I will just reject this new information. There’s no way to fit it into my existing understanding. These people must be crazy. I start questioning their credibility. I look for ulterior motives. I start trying to find flaws in their research or reasoning.

If I’m already convinced that sodium and diabetes are linked, then I embrace evidence that supports that belief, and reject evidence the contradicts that belief. In order to change my mind, you have to find a way to attach new information to my existing understanding that doesn’t contradict everything I already know. Maybe you could point out that most people who have diabetes also have high blood pressure, but that millions of people with high blood pressure don’t develop diabetes. As it turns out, diabetes may be a contributing factor to high blood pressure, not the other way around. Or maybe you can find other examples where correlation does not imply causation, and plant a seed to restructure my understanding of diabetes and blood pressure.

But ultimately, you’re not going to be able to convince me that everything I know is wrong. That would require me to admit that I’m a fool, and I’m not willing to do that. But on the other side of the coin, I have to be aware that the lens through which I see the world is shaped by my experiences, my beliefs, and the understanding that I have built. And because my lens is different from your lens, our views of truth and belief and reality will necessarily be different.

Just knowing that, though, gives us hope. Recognizing that we have different perspectives, and that I might only be right 90% of the time instead of 100% of the time, means that there’s now room in my lens for contrary ideas.

When I was a boy, world was better spot
What was so was so, what was not was not
Now, I am a man, world have changed a lot
Some things nearly so, others nearly not

There are times I almost think
I am not sure of what I absolutely know
Very often find confusion
In conclusion, I concluded long ago

In my head are many facts
That, as a student, I have studied to procure
In my head are many facts
Of which I wish I was more certain, I was sure
Is a puzzlement


Image Credit: Knowledge Sharing by Ansonlobo on Wikimedia Commons
Lyrics Credit: A Puzzlement, by Oscar Hammerstein II

I should point out, by the way, that as far as I know, high blood pressure does not cause diabetes. Also, in my own experience, reducing sodium does not cause a decrease in blood pressure. Your mileage may vary.

College Ready

As the father of a high school senior, I’ve spent some time on college campuses over the last several months. We’ve visited elite private schools, small liberal arts colleges, and large state institutions. We’ve talked to admissions counselors, students, professors, and department heads. We have toured campuses, attended classes, listened to the promotional talks, and asked a lot of questions.

The goal of this, of course, is to find the right fit for my daughter. But along the way, the educational technologist in me has noticed some things.

dok_chartOver the last ten years, we have changed the way teaching and learning happens at the K-12 level. We work hard to get beyond the knowledge level. Education used to be about imparting knowledge. Teachers and textbooks provide content to students. They take tests to show that they have “learned” that content. We called that education. Now, we spend more time on strategic and extended thinking. Having the facts is important, but it’s not enough. We’re asking students to analyze and synthesize the knowledge. We want them to apply their learning to new challenges.

Technology plays an important role in all of this. Of course it’s an information resource. We do spend a lot of time teaching students how to find, filter, assess, and cite online resources. But technology also allows students to collaborate and communicate in unprecedented ways. It allows teachers to differentiate, tailoring instruction to meet the individual needs of each student. And technology is also a platform of creation, where students can make something new that demonstrates their learning.

These are the things we’re doing with middle school students. But at the undergrad level, most of what we’re seeing is a reversion to knowledge dissemination. Classes may be lecture halls of 300, but honestly, in most of the schools we’re looking at, those mega-courses are rare. Still, the classes are set up to have an expert standing at the front of the room talking for an hour while everyone else writes down what she says. Students will do some reading, and they’ll write some essays. They’ll sit for a few exams that will act as summative measures of what has been learned. Maybe there will be a project, and in some rare cases that project might have some real world relevance. But the bottom line is that we’re going to spend $100 an hour for my daughter to sit in a room and listen to a professor talk.

28488183456_f55c47232f_zThe role of technology in these schools is tangential at best. Granted, we have not visited a lot of them, and we have not seen every program. But we have been to 8-10 colleges and universities this year. At those schools, students use computers to take notes and write papers. They probably use the Internet to do some research. That’s about it. No one talks about blended learning. While many of these schools have online courses, they treat them like they’re a separate branch campus. They’re not using the online tools to help with the face to face courses. No one considers technology to be an indispensable part of learning. They still have computer labs. While many students have laptops, it’s not a requirement or even an expectation that students will bring their technology. Unless specifically asked about it, no one at any of the schools even mentioned technology or how it’s used for classes.

The question, then, is what do we do about high school? Our teachers make the very valid point that their job is to prepare students for college. In the school where I work, almost all of the students choose to continue their education at the university level, and we should do everything we can to prepare them to be successful in that environment.

28520201495_a99a7d0599_zAs these middle schoolers grow up, are they going to lose the sense of inquiry that we’re trying to foster? Will high school become a time when they unlearn how to ask questions and simply give the teacher what he wants to get the grade and be a “successful” student? Or, if we advocate for increased rigor at the high school level, do we endanger our students’ success at the college level, where they’re expected to be very good at digesting and recalling information?

If we teach the students to adapt, they’ll be fine. If we focus on problem solving and innovation and application, they’re not going to have any trouble with defining and categorizing and recalling. They may be frustrated with college being too easy, but that’s a great problem to have.

On the other hand, if the goal is “college and career ready,” and almost all of our students are going to college, we may be making K-12 education a lot more complicated than it needs to be.

Image sources:
DOK Chart: Jason Singer, Curriculet
Rows sign and Miami Seal: me

Planning Futility

I recently attended a talk given by a young lady from our church who hiked the Appalachian Trail last summer. She started in Georgia in March, walked 2100 miles northeast, and finished in Maine 180 days later. She spent months planning the trip. She had to carry everything she would need for half a year. She wanted to know where she was going to stay for the first week, how far she’d walk each day, how and where she would eat, and what she would do in case of emergency.

On the first day of her trip, she didn’t get as far as she expected. The second day, she lost more ground. By the third day, she threw away the itinerary entirely and decided to take it day by day. She finished the trip about a week later than she expected, but still in plenty of time to safely complete the journey before winter.


393515828_4685124984_zOn the flight to Africa in 2009, we had a team meeting. Our task was to plan the first day of our Education Beyond Borders workshop at Liwa Primary School. We had spent the last four months planning for the trip, but now that we were actually underway, we had to put our sketches of ideas into concrete plans. By the time we landed in Cape Town, we had a very good idea of how the first day was going to go. The next day, we scrapped those plans and started over, planning for the Monday and Tuesday session. After Monday’s workshops, we scrapped Tuesday. On Wednesday, we switched gears quickly, entirely changing the focus of the rest of the week. It was a common theme to our African workshops, and we would repeat that process several more times that summer.


Chris Hadfield is the author of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. In that book, he talks about being prepared. Astronauts have to make split decisions in life-or-death situations that often determine the success — or disastrous failure — of their missions. The best way to survive is to always be thinking, “what’s the next thing that can kill me?” Figure that out, and decide how you will deal with it if it happens. NASA has manuals and checklists and procedures for every possible contingency. Astronauts spend years training for every task that may be required of them. And yet, even with all that planning, the unexpected happens on a fairly regular basis. Chris tells the story of his first spacewalk, when he suddenly found that something was in his eye and he couldn’t see. There was no checklist for that. Mission control had to think on their feet, and came up with a solution that solved the problem and still managed to accomplish the goals of the spacewalk.


How often have we carefully planned for something, only to cast that planning aside in the end in favor of “winging it”? As a teacher, I found myself doing this all the time. I would plan some fantastic lesson, only to scrap it mid-class because it didn’t work the way I had intended. As a technology coordinator, I’ve planned all kinds of initiatives. A few of them went off without a hitch. Most evolved, morphing into something better. Some were scrapped entirely.

After a few examples, it’s hard to resist the urge to forgo the planning entirely. If we’re just going to end up ignoring the plan, why go through the effort at all? Yet, when I go into something cold, completely unprepared, the outcome is always much worse than it would be if it were planned.

I know. “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” You were expecting to read that in here somewhere. Or, if you’re in the other camp, “the best laid-schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” I try not to disappoint. You’re welcome.

But I find that my best work comes when I have a lot of time to plan. I think through things, jot down some notes, and put it away for a while. A few weeks later,I dive back in, revise the ideas, take a few more notes. Then put it on the shelf. If I have a few months or a year or a couple years, the iterations continue. What should professional development look like? Do you really think the wireless network is going to be sufficient to meet our needs in five years? What happens when a student accidentally (or intentionally) breaks a laptop? How are the teachers going to reflect on and apply the learning that’s coming from this initiative?

I have checklists. I think through the contingencies. I get second opinions. And third opinions. And then, when the time comes, I scrap the whole thing and make it up as I go along. It’s not the result of planning that’s important. It’s the process. It’s identifying potential problems and anticipating what can go wrong. It’s the development of those critical thinking skills that force me to take an analytic look at the topic. Having planned, I have the confidence to be flexible. I can adapt to changing needs because I’ve thought through things. And even if I get the details wrong, I’ve developed the toolkit to allow me to think on my feet. As it turns out, that’s better than any checklist could ever be.

Photo credit: Stefan Insam on Flickr.