Tuesday, December 30, 2008

21st Century Skill: Embracing Being Wrong

Sir Ken Robinson makes three important points in his 2006 TED talk, worth a look:

1) Creativity is as important as literacy in terms of educational priorities.
2) An essential pre-requisite for creativity is that students are not afraid to be wrong, to fail, to risk.
3) Our educational system programs students to avoid risk.

If you extend the thinking, the students who are the most successful are the ones who take the least risks, the ones who answer safely and challenge the conventional thought the least. The students who do take risks, ask tangential questions, finish assignments in different ways than the teacher required, and speak out in class are often the ones who are marked as troublemakers. The irony is that many of those students are more successful in the world than they are in school, because the world is filled with unpredictable problems. The risk-takers are the ones that will learn from their mistakes faster

"Embracing being wrong" will not appear on the Iowa Core Curriculum, but it should. To be so would take the great reformative change that Judy Jeffrey mentions is necessary.

Think about the teachers in your district. If you were to ask yourself which students look forward to students being wrong, the ones you are most likely to come up with aren't your top teachers... they are probably slightly sadistic and take pleasure in failing students. How does a teacher promote learning situations where students fail in safe ways? And more importantly, how does a teacher encourage and reward students for being wrong? Making them into learning opportunities?

This is something I have not seen done well in any observation I have conducted. Wrong answers almost always accompany a change in vocal tones and facial gestures. The "rewards" I've witnessed--statements such as "that's a good try"--come across as ingenuine and not anything a student will be going out of their way to try to earn in the future.

And that's just answering questions, where students are inhibited by peer pressure to begin with. Where is "embracing being wrong" encouraged when actually completing assignments, or even more so, when answering test questions? When points are at stake and are assigned solely on being right (or more correctly, meeting the teacher's definition of being right), there is no opportunity for a student to take a risk.

This is a skill that, if developed, will change the way classrooms look and function.

Monday, December 29, 2008

21st Century Skills vs. 21st Century Learning

Am I splitting hairs? Or is there, like I'm postulating, a crucial difference between the two?

If you buy in to my subsequent argument, that there is a difference, then perhaps you'll agree that we might not be focusing on the right area with educational reform in Iowa.

The conception of 21st century skills is that there are skills out there that are essential to having a job in today's marketplace. Be it critical thinking, creativity, or technological ability, you will need these skills to be successful. In this essence, our work on the Iowa Core is hitting the target, since it outlines those very skills.

But, that isn't the same as saying that students actually learn in a different way in the 21st century.

Pose the question this way: Like all trendy models of educational reform, I can identify the skill of "problem solving" as a top one of my Iowa Core-infused curriculum. To reach this objective, I put in a plethora of problems that students need to solve. We put in some complex math problems, scientific questions, document-based questions in social studies, the whole gamut. But while the skill has changed, has the way students are being asked to learn changed? They will still be using a cognitive learning theory approach, as they had before, but with perhaps more rigor involved (and a focus on "problem solving" as opposed to "comprehension").

It is the difference between content and instruction. Or in other words, the "what" students learn versus the "how" they learn it. And, students will struggle to "learn" problem solving much as they have done to learn comprehension.

In this period of time, students learn through the building of connections and the formation of networks. Learning is ongoing, process-oriented. It does not finish with an end product (as in constructivism) an end skill (as in behaviorism) or an end conceptual piece of knowledge (as in cognitivism). The learning is connectivist in nature. It is critical to aid this process through the inclusion of web 2.0 technologies.

Don't get me wrong; a focus on 21st century skills is a good thing! But it misses a substantial part of the issue we are facing. We must put a majority of our reformational energies into moving us to 21st century teaching and learning, not just 21st century content. This discussion with districts and teachers must include how does connectivism look and work in a classroom.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

One Year of Webkinz

Today marks the 1 year anniversary of Webkinz in our household.... Santa brought Zach and Hailey a Webkin last year. For those who are not sure what a Webkin is, you obviously are not related to a 6-year-old. In a nutshell, you purchase a stuffed animal (around $15) and it gives you a one-year subscription to an online virtual world, where you can build your pet a house with an infinite number of rooms, give the pet a job, tend a garden, interact with other pets and their owners, and play many different games.

What amazes me the most about Webkinz is that it serves as a great model for future educational simulation development. Kids love it... they are willing to save their money for months in order to earn the privilege to play. Once they are on, there is no central objective. Kids are allowed to explore whichever way moves them... and there are lots of places to explore! There is that interactive component where you can meet new friends (or meet virtually with your current, real-world friends). In these ways, it is like a younger version of Second Life.

But unlike Second Life, there is much more structure to it. The activities are planned, and you build up your inventory of items collected. You don't have to spend a lot of time searching before you are engaged in the content, and it isn't limitless, unlike Second Life.

Some might scoff at the notion of Webkinz being educational, and I wouldn't disagree. But that's not their purpose. And yet, just by creating an environment that is open to manipulation and experimentation, kids are learning all the same. My oldest daughter has given me mini tutorials on the best ways to acquire money, build a unique room, and master different activities.

Obviously, our options for simulations are not adequate, and right now, we as a state do not have the resources to develop the ones we need to supplement the content of the Iowa Core. But, that's not to say that Webkinz can't support the Core... it can. Supplementing the classroom curriculum with outside activity gives younger students an avenue to develop many of the 21st century problem-solving skills. And in the future, we can use Webkinz as a model for building those simulations that do align with our core content.

Monday, December 22, 2008

21st Century Skill: Unlearning

When you work with someone else's product too long, you start to think how you could do it better. That is true of the Iowa Core as well.

The core has built its 21st century skill curriculum around the work of the Partnership for the 21st Century, and no one would argue with the skills it identifies. And while the skills aren't quite math or reading, they still are quite quantifiable.

But, that gets me thinking... much of what we want students to be able to do is not quantifiable, and doesn't fit neatly into curriculum guides. These skills could cause quite a bit of healthy debate in educational circles. Are the essential? How does a school teach these effectively?

The first that comes to mind is the ability to unlearn, which of course was not coined by great educational thinkers like Dewey or Renzulli, but rather from Yoda. (Well, since I was a toddler when Star Wars came out, I might be falsely attributing that term to him, but he was the first master teacher I came across growing up...)

Fictional green guys aside, there is power in this skill. It means the ability to unlearn false misconceptions or bad teaching that one has acquired in the past so that one is ready to take on new learning.

It is powerful precisely because we have so many bad teachers in our world. If our concept of justice comes from Hollywood endings, we have this skewed perception that good will always win in the end. Conversely, if our concept of social status and race relations come from our past relatives, it makes it difficult to progress as a society.

Bad learning can be more than value-based, though. Students who have gone through poor pre-literacy programs or have a learning disability like dyslexia could be stuck in teaching that isn't geared for their mental schema. It can be skill-based as well, as those who lived too long in the hunt-and-peck keyboarding phase can attest. A self-disclosure: I was taught the wrong way to throw a curve ball and play a guitar, and I'm still suffering.

There are quite a bit of things inherent in this umbrella called "unlearning". There is the ability to question, the ability to doubt, the ability to believe that you don't have all the answers, and the willingness to embrace uncertainty when you once had certainty.

Want bold? I posit that true autonomous learning cannot be developed without this essential 21st century skill. In order to progress and achieve your fullest, you have to unlearn all the bad teachings, be them from peers, family, teachers, media, complete strangers, or yourself, all in order to then learn the correct and fulfilling learnings. Therefore, a curriculum without this skill is incomplete.

Which, begs a lot of questions. How do we do this in the 21st century classroom, especially when it doesn't fit nicely into the curriculum (I can't imagine Riverside trying to prepare items on their criterion-referenced assessments for the core on "unlearning")? How can teachers set it up so that the textbook, the internet, even the teacher themselves, are not the "ultimate authority"? How can we model this? How can we assess this?

This is where teaching is an art, where classrooms have dynamics that make students into adults unlike the cookie-cutter approaches to ensure specific skills. The art that is impossible to assess on a standardized test, yet vital to a child's development.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Richard Baraniuk on a textbook-free classroom

Rice University professor Richard Baraniuk, founder of Connexions, an open-source curriculum center, talks at TED in 2006 about the process of building it.

Baraniuk visits the concept of "on-demand" publishing, where publishing a book without the middle man of the publisher saves the end-consumer (he has an example of an engineering textbook that costs $22, whereas a published version of it would cost over $122). So in other words, a teacher could generate their own content (or take some from Connexions or another open-source repository) and find their own publisher, and in the process, save money.

He also discussed the obvious concern that comes up in a Wikipedia-world -- that of reliability. Connexion has built in certain oversights that ensure quality. Easy for him to claim, not as easy to verify, but the fact it is a conscious issue for him is reassuring.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Mac netbook in the works?

Rumors are swirling about a Mac netbook being available. Netbooks, slimmed down laptops ideal for 1:1 projects that emphasize web 2.0 technology and cloud computing, can cost about half the price of regular laptops. At this point, it is all speculation, but some are suggesting a Mac netbook could hit the market for $599.

For districts who are married to Apple products, you should proceed cautiously. The $600 price tag might be tempting. However, these won't be full-featured Macs running iLife like we are used to. In fact, they might not be any different than the serviceable netbooks that are already out there from Dell and other brands that can cost around $400.

On the other hand, Apple is innovative with everything it does... look at what it did with cell phones. There's no telling what other features could come with it.

If Apple indeed is introducing a netbook (and I'm highly skeptical), one prediction I have is it will suddenly draw the interest of many school districts into 1:1 initiatives. The timing would be ideal for Iowa to look at a comprehensive movement to help districts teach effectively in that environment.

Friday, December 19, 2008


I fondly remember the perpetual math teachers' mantra: show your work. To truly assess a student, it is important to see how they arrived to their answer. You have to look at all the steps. And that goes for all subject areas.

In a digital classroom setting, one powerful tool is screencasting. In a nutshell, screencasting captures a video of your computer screen as you navigate, and simultaneously captures your narration. The resulting video can be shared, posted, edited in a movie-editing program, or spliced into a podcast producer.

In working with teachers, I've realized this takes some different instructional thinking. Here are some ideas:
  • Narrated presentations in power point.
  • Narrated demonstrations of how to use a program
  • Documentation of a student of whom you want to assess his "time on task"
  • Multimedia presentations including several open windows at once
  • Multimedia presentations involving a webcam of a student speaking
  • Recorded analysis (for example, give students a diagram and some highlighting tools and have them record their analysis of what the diagram means)
  • Teacher instructions/help files for students to review
  • Teacher-made supplementary materials or instructions on projects for ELL students or those with special needs

Two of my favorite uses have nothing to do with instruction. Many districts in the Des Moines area have teachers make a screencast when there is something wrong on their computer, and then send the file to the technician to look at (sure beats an attempt to describe the issue through email). And one teacher I know has been leaving screencasted lesson plans for substitutes for over 5 years now.

There are several programs out there that do screencasting. Snapz Pro is one of the most widely-used screencasting tools, and it comes with a bevy of features. I currently use a slightly less expensive alternative called iShowU, which integrates well with my Mac-based programs. But for student use, at school or at home (and cross-platform), one handy option is the free Jing. Depending on your needs, there is an excellent product out there.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Call for Action: Ditching Textbooks

We can't go 1:1, computers are expensive.
So are textbooks; you prioritize.

Where is your focus on learning? Is it in a canonized content or is it outside of that, in collaboration and engagement of ideas? Is learning timeless or does it change often? Is curriculum driven by the materials, or the other way around?

I don't want to set up a false dichotomy; it isn't computers or textbooks. But in an era where finances are slim, we need to second-guess the afore-perceived "must" of having textbooks.

Nope, I'm wrong. We need to second-guess it, even when finances aren't slim.

Our over-reliance on textbooks and bought curriculum sequences is not pedagogically sound. For starters, textbooks are needlessly thick, a grab-all of every initiative and topic out there. Second, they are linear, meaning you have a start and an end and checkpoints on the way. Learning in the 21st century is not linear... it is hyperlinked. It is multi-tasking. It is working on many objectives at once, not one at a time.

Third, poor teachers (and some not-so-poor ones) take the textbook as the lesson plan master, unable to work around it, differentiate within it, adjust instruction for learning moments that pop up. What comes after unit 2? Unit 3, of course! And I must be done with the last unit at the end of the course! The textbook becomes a crutch for a teacher, who should be using their training and talents to synthesize together a system of resources.

Fourth, they are static. They do not change, (until you purchase the next ones). Say what you want about Wikipedia, but it stays up to date. And fifth, textbooks are not authentic; outside of school people do not use textbooks, with maybe the exception of the "For Dummies" series (and I haven't seen too many districts use that as their curriculum). They are to find their own resources, which might include newspapers or online files or print books, and from those, synthesize answers to problems. Their learning is not laid out for them.

Don't get me wrong, if textbooks were used just as a resource (as the internet is), they would have excellent value, as many of the best written-ones have excellent rich content. When they are used as curriculum, though, there are a host of problems as you can see.

Some anti-textbook people will raise the rhetoric to say teachers are centering on themselves instead of students when using textbooks. For example, the standard answer from many teachers is that the textbook makes their job easier (actually, the word they'd use is "manageable"). Admittedly, I've never used a textbook in my teaching, although I should say as an English teacher, I had some advantages. Perhaps it would have been easier to use it. But, I had a selfish reason for not using it... it made me feel like I was more valuable as a teacher when I was synthesizing the material. I felt like, if I was hit by a meteor and wasn't able to finish out the term, that the class would actually miss me instructionally. Yes, selfish, but then again, we want to think of ourselves as professionals.

Would you like more? Harvey Daniels and Steven Zemelman have many more reasons:
• Textbooks often do not match up with the curriculum (or in our case, the Iowa Core)
• They are hard to read (they are reference, not fiction or non-fiction)
• They are badly designed
• They are authoritarian, giving the illusion that there is only one correct way of looking at things
• They are not written for students; they are written for curriculum directors

Throw in the costs and the amount of paper wasted, and plunking curriculum dollars into technology, a tool to a vast source of free content begins to make a lot of sense.

Here is a look at movements to make more free content, which although improving, still has a long way to go. And this is an excellent place to start to find out how to teach in a textbook-free environment.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Why the "Digital" Curriculum?

What are we talking about when we say the digital curriculum? Is that a metonymic word for computers?

Actually, I picked the term Digital Curriculum intentionally. It serves as both a high-powered metaphor as well as a literal description of what we are seeking.

When the world transferred from VHS to DVD, or from cassettes to CDs, it was a process of moving from analog to digital. Analog movies and music are static; they are hard to mix, manipulate, or transfer (as any teacher who had to spend 15 minutes of class cueing the tape to the right spot can attest). When they became digital, suddenly movies and music were dynamic. They were instantly accessible at all parts, and they could be transferred to different places for different purposes.

On a literal level, the digital curriculum requires that analog to digital conversion. Every piece of our curriculum will run through the digital media. Static textbooks will be shelved in favor of up-to-date RSS. Paper and pencil data collection will be removed in favor of digital data collection. Student productions and collaborations will have a digital interface to them, running through computers.

But on a deeper level, it isn't just the physical conversion... it is the pedagogical conversion. Gone are the days where knowledge is static in a textbook, where information cannot be improved upon or used, just regurgitated. In its place is the digital frame of thinking, where content and information is relevant to each student, where they have the power to manipulate it and transfer it into their own meaning, improving upon that meaning, and then sharing it with the world.

Thus... the digital curriculum...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow, Today

For being a computer company, Apple has for long had insight into successful educational practices. Their highly-successful Apple Learning Interchange is a community of teachers using 21st century skills embedded with technology. And the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow, Today movement lays out a structure of what those classrooms would look like.

This has led to the Challenge Based Learning project, which has been newly released. Apple Distinguished Educators have collaborated to provide scaffolding for this 21st century learning. An interactive unit includes (from their handout):
  • The Big Idea: The big idea is a broad concept that can be explored in multiple ways, is engaging, and has importance to high school students and the larger society. Examples of big ideas are Identity, Sustainability, Creativity, Violence, Peace, and Power.
  • Essential Question: By design, the big idea allows for the generation of a wide variety of essential questions that should reflect the interests of the students and the needs of their community. Essential questions identify what is important to know about the big idea and refine and contextualize that idea.
  • The Challenge: From each essential question a challenge is articulated that asks students to create a specific answer or solution that can result in concrete, meaningful action.
  • Guiding Questions: Generated by the students, these questions represent the knowledge students need to discover to successfully meet the challenge.
  • Guiding Activities: These lessons, simulations, games, and other types of activities help students answer the guiding questions and set the foundation for them to develop innovative, insightful, and realistic solutions.
  • Guiding Resources: This focused set of resources can include podcasts, websites, videos, databases, experts, and so on that support the activities and assist students with developing a solution.
  • Solutions: Each challenge is stated broadly enough to allow for a variety of solutions. Each solution should be thoughtful, concrete, actionable, clearly articulated, and presented in a publishable multimedia format such as an enhanced podcast or short video.
  • Assessment: The solution can be assessed for its connection to the challenge, accuracy of the content, clarity of communication, applicability for implementation, and efficacy of the idea, among other things. In addition to the solution, the process that the individuals as well as teams went through in getting to a solution can also be assessed, capturing the development of key 21st century skills.
  • Publishing: The challenge process allows for multiple opportunities to document the experience and publish to a larger audience. Students are encouraged to publish their results online, soliciting feedback. The idea is to broaden the learning community and foster discussion about solutions to the challenges important to students.
Apple provides some sample projects in all the core areas, which detail each of the steps above. This is an excellent example of integrating 21st century skills and technology into the classroom, in alignment with the Iowa Core Curriculum

Friday, December 12, 2008

Validity of the TIMSS?

Gerald Bracey, the outspoken author who has derided politicians for decades of trying to run education like a business, has some interesting, counter-intuitive thoughts about the U.S.'s Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) performance. The TIMSS is the assessment that is quoted when critics like to point out the U.S.'s abysmal rank in comparison with the world. It is usually anonymously associated with something like "This year, the U.S. finished behind Uzbekistan."

Bracey's first claim is that it is often forgotten how many U.S. students score at the highest level. Even if the proportion is less (the U.S. had 1.5% of its students at the highest level compared to New Zealand's 4.0%), it still works out to way more students total. As in, 70,000 students total.

Bracey has a point: it only takes one student to find the cure for cancer, one student to start the next Google. Percentage is irrelevant... sheer quantity is all that matters. And the U.S. has twice as many students as the next country in this category. The U.S. will be retaining its title of world leader because of the quantity advantage.

More counter-intuitive is his claim that flies in the face of Flat-World thinking. He argues that India and China are creating more engineers, not because they are better educated, but because the jobs are too lousy for American students. Willard Daggett is having a coronary somewhere from this (and Bracey is no fan of the champion of the Rigor/Relevance framework). According to Bracey:

Low pay, lousy working conditions, little chance for advancement. American schools of engineering are dominated by foreigners because only people from third world nations can view our jobs as attractive.

Perhaps we should re-evaluate the fear-mongering of saying "Asian countries are going to take all of our jobs!"

Claim #3 is worth a closer look, however. He says:

The two Swiss-based organizations that rank nations on global competitiveness, the Institute for Management Development and the World Economic Forum, both rank the U. S. #1 and have for a number of years. The WEF examines 12 "pillars of competitiveness," only one of which is education. We do OK there, but we shine on innovation. Innovation is the only quality of competitiveness that does not show at some point diminishing returns.

How are our schools at promoting innovation? At first blush, I'd say awful. But then, the U.S. is maintaining being #1 in spite of its educational system? I don't think so. The U.S. has a long way to go, but the educational systems of other countries which produce a high level of specific content-level knowledge does not produce the innovation and creativity to which the world is an endless market. The irony here is that we are in a mad dash to make our educational system more like other country's ineffective models, not less. TIMSS scores might go up, but will that hurt us in the long run?

I was surprised with Bracey's article until the very end. His first claim that we are okay because of our high number of high achievers was very out of character for someone who focuses on how our educational system is a democratic system, not a market system. He seemed to be forgetting that America's educational system's value is in how it is equitable for all. Need not fear, he reaches that point by saying how disturbing it is that low income students continue to lag behind.

As usual in these comparisons, Americans in low-poverty schools look very good, even in mathematics. They would be ranked third in the 4th grade (among 36 nations) 6th in the 8th grade (among 47 nations). This is important because while other developed nations have poor children, the U. S. has a much higher proportion and a much weaker safety net. When UNICEF studied poverty in 22 wealthy nations, the U. S. ranked 21st.

This is the claim that I find most important; poverty remains the elephant in the room with all the talk of reform. Bracey's opinionated, yes. But he does give many poignant talking points to make a discussion out of the constant barrage of America's test scores.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Improving the Summit

Because I get obsessed easily, I've ruminated about some things to consider for future years:

1. Show during Judy's keynote the data from DE visits through the year. Something along the lines of "This percentage of districts mentioned they are implementing X, this many are actually implementing it with fidelity, and this many had their test scores go up". Then show how this data helped develop the agenda (IPDM-style).

2. Have leadership team work sessions, where they can meet one-on-one with a content-area expert consultant from either the DE or an AEA. Imagine the work that can be accomplished if a leadership team knew they had carte blanche to ask any question of an Iowa Core specialist or an Authentic Intellectual Work specialist or a technology integration specialist, etc.

3. Possibly put the conference online, especially if weather is such an issue.

4. Have feedback sheets collected after each session and keynote.

5. Encourage more student showcases of great projects. We pay lip service to providing authentic audiences for students and developing pride in their work. Here is an excellent opportunity for them to do so in a meaningful way.

6. Have true roundtable discussions. A session like "A roundtable of principals discuss how to keep their small districts competitive" or "A roundtable of administrators on how to balance budgets in hard economic times" to promote the sharing of ideas.

7. Or better yet, have districts sign up to do a sharing with two other districts, and allow the teachers and administrators to develop the "so how do you do this" questions.

8. Of course, provide sessions for technology integration demonstration and sharing. Especially if Judy is going to emphasize how critical it is in her keynote.

Just some thoughts from a guy who can't sleep...

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

High School Summit - Part 3

Other tidbits from the High School Summit:

I attended the instruction session for Authentic Intellectual Work (AIW) with Dr. Dana Carmichael with the hopes of learning a) what it was, and b) how it was different than performance-based learning built on the works of Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, and pushed locally by Nancy Lockett. After getting the literature and hearing the presentation, the verdict is... it isn't different. Just new terminology built on the same principles, which happens to be a DE initiative.

Now, don't get me wrong, I strongly advocate using authentic work, and AIW has a sound research base put out by UW-Madison and the U of Minnesota. But, given the work that Nancy Lockett and AEA 267 has done with performance-based learning and all the ready made materials that are available, I think we've reinvented the wheel here. I see this as an example where we haven't collaborated very well as a state.

Margaret Heritage of UCLA gave an overview of her research on the formative assessment cycle. Her work draws heavily on the work of Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development as well as Stiggins' Assessment for Learning. I didn't think there was anything here that was new information for me.

However, in talking with teachers and administrators from various schools, this apparently is new information for many. As one of the 5 key components (see below), some statewide support and scaffolding for teacher professional development is a top priority.

In addition to formative assessment, there were sessions on the other DE-identified components of quality instruction, those being teaching for understanding, student-centered classrooms (think differentiated instruction, inquiry learning, and performance-based learning), the rigor/relevance quadrant, and teaching for learner differences.

With the similarities in each of these components, it would be beneficial for the state to identify the list of core attributes. Such as: Effective 21st century learning is 1) collaborative, 2) performance-based, 3) inquiry-based, 4) rigorous, etc.

At one breakout session, representatives gave an overview of IDM, Every Student Counts, Every Child Reads, Every Learner Inquires, and Learner Supports. Nothing new here.

The best thing I heard the entire two days was a question posed by an audience member at this session. He said "We heard in the opening speech by Judy Jeffrey and Kameron Dodge (the student representative on the state board of education)" about the importance of technology. Then there hasn't been anything about technology in any of these sessions. Is there anything that we are doing statewide to support teachers with technology"?

There was some equivocating, but the answer is, no. There is nothing.

There was nothing at these two days other than the overview session on 21st century skills. There is no Every Kid Computes initiative.

That's not to say nothing is being done. School Administrators of Iowa is putting together sessions on administrative leadership in technology, AEAs do local professional development on web 2.0 tools and digital citizenship, LEAs do some of their own initiatives.

But there is nothing cohesively done statewide.

Let me be the first to say I think the days of the High School Summit are numbered, which is too bad. Its initial draw--the state's infatuation with Willard Daggett--brought in a lot of schools and created a lot of buzz about change. The Daggett summits were good.

This, however, was the second straight year marred by weather, and there was a scant 20 people in my last session on Iowa Core leadership (which would have been good for every teacher in the state to attend). Even with the mandate of the Iowa Core, there is no draw for schools. I didn't attend any sessions that featured schools sharing their successes this year... and I'm regretting it. The sessions I did attend were, by and large, abstract and uninformative for an administrator/teacher looking to make immediate change in their school.

There is huge need for high school leadership teams to meet and share ideas, as Judy Jeffrey's trajectory charts indicated. But, unfortunately, there was no participant evaluation form to assess the effectiveness of the sessions. That would be very useful data to make this conference useful again.

I thought it interesting the grousing of one educator at the conference, "You know, for people who obsessed with data-driven decision-making, someone is not practicing what they preach."

Monday, December 8, 2008

High School Summit - Part 2

A good session on 21st century skills. Led by Dr. Nadene Davidson (UNI) and Dr. Jody Stone (Price lab Schools). This session gave an overview of the skills in the 4 areas (employability, financial, health, and technology).

Some of the high points:
• Highlighted the foundation of the work... Partnership for 21st century skills, NCREL's enGauge, and SCANS "What Work Requires of Schools" report
• Identified 5 key pieces for implementation in your Iowa Core plan... professional development in instruction/assessment, collaboration with other faculty and community, high expectations, changing the school environment (be it project-based learning, time allocation, or student ownership), and technology breadth.
• Used clips from New Tech schools in California to highlight 21st century teaching and learning, much like Judy.
• Presented a 21st century skills inventory (created by Stone) which schools can use as an alignment tool
• And, put forth some key questions for planning implementation.

Those questions for planning include:
1. Where are the 21st century skills addressed?
2. At what level are they addressed?
3. Which skills are not being addressed?
4. How can we restructure programs and the classroom to ensure they are fully implemented?
5. And in the classroom, how do I know students are getting it?

Handouts from the Iowa High School Summit can be found here.

Judy Jeffrey from the High School Summit

Blogging from the 5th Iowa High School Summit.

Judy Jeffrey led off in a very somber mood. It soon became obvious why.

Jeffrey brought up two studies, the 1996 Carnegie/NASSP report (which she said "unleashed a powerful tool of reform) and the 2002 Foundation for Change's "Focusing on Iowa high schools. She bulleted the suggestions detailed in the reports and gave her interpretations on how we were doing. It was clear she thought we were on the right track, be in the mandatory core curriculum (check), each student having an individualized education plan (8th grade transition -- check), the emphasis on continuous improvement (check), the clear educational agenda (check again), and so on.

Then she showed the trajectories. High schools remained stagnant again in reading and math, while 4th and 8th grade continue to climb. And while some progress has been made in the achievement gap, the progress is not as fast as it needs to be.

Something is not computing.

Iowa has taken a far more aggressive pitch with high school reform than middle school or elementary. We've invested time and resources heavily there. And, you could hear the disbelief in Jeffrey's voice. There was a point in her keynote when she said "If anyone has any ideas, I'll be around these two days... come and talk to me."

There is something truly difficult here. It isn't that the test scores are stagnant, though (that can be fixed). It is the perception that high schools are making the changes outlined in the Iowa Core Curriculum.

This is a wide stroke to paint, but in general, you ask any teacher, principal, or superintendent, they would say "We are in good shape". There is this belief that they are ahead of the curve of the Iowa Core. It is Lake Woebegon... no one feels they are behind the curve.

When there is no perception that anything instructionally is wrong, there is no chance for change.

Jeffrey mentioned her visit to a New Tech school in Austin, Texas, which the DE is using as a model of where they would like to go with Iowa high schools. In her visit, there were several things that stood out:

  1. Administrators and teacher were completely facilitators... there wasn't a single lecture-type lesson in Jeffrey's visit in any classroom.
  2. Students were responsible for their own learning. She mentioned the collaborative work groups, and the fact that team members could "fire" a team member if they weren't pulling their weight, and those members would be responsible for doing everything themselves. She also said that this rarely happened as students understood the responsibility involved.
  3. Along with #2, students were responsible for determining what they didn't know, and then asking for a "workshop" to teach them. In this respect, if a student knew how to do citations, let's say, that student wouldn't have to sit through an informational lecture on how to do them.
  4. The school had voluntary Saturday school, where both teachers and students came and worked, without financial incentive or being forced to. The culture of the school was one where they were eager to spend their free time there.
  5. And, the school required rigorous work, including 2 years of engineering, 12 hours of college credit, 50 hours of community service, and a senior internship to graduate.

I haven't seen New Tech high schools. It appears they are magnet schools, and much like UNI's Price Lab school, they have opportunities for innovation that might not be truly the same as the circumstances of Iowa's schools. But I do know this: Iowa's schools don't do these things. Or as I'd imagine the conversation going, "Well... we aren't in that good of shape."

This is exactly what Jeffrey must do. She must get schools beyond the generic buzzwords that schools can latch on to. "Yes, we have a rigorous curriculum." "Yes, we have engaging classrooms." "Yes, we conduct formative assessment and use sound teaching for understanding principles".

No, we aren't in that good of shape.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Tech coordinator on your Iowa Core Leadership team?

Does your district have its technology coordinator on your Iowa Core Leadership team? Shouldn't it?

Considering the power the coordinators have, it would be a good idea to make sure they are a proponent of the best interests of the student.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Depth of Technology Integration

Technology integration is not monolithic; that is to say, just using computers does not mean you are fully integrating. There are degrees to the definition.

Those that do talk about the degree of integration often talk about the frequency, not necessarily the purpose. But both are components.

I've tried to represent this visually:
What are the levels of integration?

Sporadic - Very occasional use of technology, perhaps a free day in the lab or one-time "research" looking up websites.
Limited - Integration is influenced by factors. Students have to work on assignments at home because computers are not available. Or activities are modified for the one-computer classroom.
Scheduled - Integration happens once a cycle, during scheduled time.
Intensive Unit - Students are not working with technology regularly, but do so intensively during a particular unit (such as three weeks spent making an iMovie).
Daily - Not only intensive, but there is a daily integration to technology. Can be ongoing projects or things as simple as daily student blogging or checking the message board.
1:1 - Daily integration to the nth degree. Now students are in possession of the computerized device, extending learning beyond the classroom time slots and walls. Also, integration becomes school-wide instead of classroom-wide.

Compliance - Integrating only because you are forced to as a teacher. This isn't much deeper than no integration at all.
Convenience - Integration only where it is easier to do the lesson than in the absence of technology. Showing streaming video in the same way you would show analog video is convenient integration. So is using Microsoft Word for word processing. In some districts, Power Point is reaching convenient integration, where the technology is not a tool for learning but rather an easier method to the desired product.
Unstructured - Free "play time" with technology. Can lead to student learning through their own inquisitiveness, or to a waste of time.
Unconnected - Integration that isn't tied to the curriculum. Actually, this could be used as a descriptor for convenience, unstructured, or procedural integration than its own category. While the learning could be deep or shallow, the main feature of this is that it is teaching a tool/doing a project for the sake of experiencing the technology, not for the sake of learning the curriculum.
Procedural - Training integration, where students receive explicit instruction on how to use technology (this can be a pre-cursor to other types of integration, or in the case of computer applications courses, it could be the only model).
Constructivist - Integration is used by students to create products, artifacts, or authentic work, which allows students to construct their own meaning.
Connectivist - Integration is used to connect students to a variety of resources and people, building their "knowledge net" and their exposure to the infinite number of learning items in the world.

A note: while there is general correlation between the two sides, there is by no means a requirement to be at the same level. For example, in a 1:1 school, you will probably have quite a few teachers at the constructivist level and also a few at the compliance level. And some creative teachers in a limited setting can find ways to develop constructivist learning.

If we made this chart into a chart of frequency used in schools, there would be several "hotspots". A lot of "integration" is Scheduled-Convenience. There also is a large portion of (what I would consider) quality integration that is Intensive Unit-Constructivist. Just as often, there is Intensive Unit-Unconnected (as my principal mode would say, tell me again why you are having the kids do this?). There are "dead-spots" as well, obviously with 1:1 and Daily, as well as Connectivist integration.

It is my premise that The Deeper, The Better. We should aspire to the Digital Curriculum at the bottom. This is where technology is not a conscious effort, or even worse, a foreign experience. It is where technology use in the classroom has become so native that is invisible, just like using a pencil.

To get there, though, we have to correctly identify where we currently are. We are not there just because we had students look up sites on the Holocaust last Thursday. We are not there even if we have that one cool unit where they make a podcast. If they are isolated events in the curriculum, technology use remains foreign for students. This was okay when people did not work and live with computers, but it is not okay now. Just like the work world and the private world, our technology use must be native.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Connectivism - Common Craft style

This is from Wendy Drexler, who working with her son, have put together a synopsis of what a connectivist student's day would look like. Note the similarity to the digital curriculum.

What worries me is that connectivism has not been mentioned with the Iowa Core. The "new way of teaching" pushed by the core, be it authentic intellectual work or project-based learning, is really constructivism. Not a bad thing, mind you (better than the behaviorism model of learning that permeates quite a few of our classrooms). But again, behind the times.

My worries notwithstanding, a nice video:

Monday, December 1, 2008

What are 21st century skills -- part 2

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills released their framework for English classes, which joins social studies as subjects completed by the partnership. The framework map gives educators outcomes and examples for the various 21st century skills identified by the overall framework.

The skills that the partnership identify are:
1. Core Subjects and 21st Century Themes - including global awareness, civic literacy, financial literacy, and health literacy

2. Learning and Innovation Skills

  • Creativity and Innovation Skills
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Skills
  • Communication and Collaboration Skills

3. Information, Media and Technology Skills

  • Information Literacy
  • Media Literacy
  • ICT Literacy

4. Life and Career Skills

  • Flexibility & Adaptability
  • Initiative & Self-Direction
  • Social & Cross-Cultural Skills
  • Productivity & Accountability
  • Leadership & Responsibility
By the way, Iowa is one of 10 states to be a part of the partnership.

Tools for the Elementary Visual Arts Classroom

At my son and daughter's conferences, I had a good visit with their elementary art teacher. Both of my kids love art class, and they both love computers. The discussion turned to Comic Life, the Plasq program that allows you to take your photos and quickly create a comic strip from them. Thus, it's not only an art tool, but also a digital storytelling tool.

In addition to Comic Life, there are several other programs that my kids have found accessible and interesting:

SketchCast - Best used with a sketchpad, this tool will record an animation of the user sketching the drawing. Can also record voice as well.

GoAnimate - For upper elementary students, this tool introduces animation and cartoon creation. It comes with templates and stock images to help the learning process

Warholizer - Easy-to-use tool turns your photo into the Marilyn-esque pop art reproduction of Andy Warhol.

Gliffy - An online diagramming tool for all grade levels, whether it be flow charts, organizational charts, or floor plans.

Gifup - One of many quick online tools allowing you to upload a photo and then try out basic effects.

Bubblesnaps - A free, online version of Comic Life.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

What are 21st century skills?

We've looked at what the Iowa Core says, but Stephen Downes puts this discussion in better perspective. Here is what he says are the 10 most important skills to learn today:

1. How to predict consequences
2. How to read
3. How to distinguish truth from fiction
4. How to empathize
5. How to be creative
6. How to communicate clearly
7. How to learn
8. How to stay healthy
9. How to value yourself
10. How to live meaningfully

Succinctly, I like this list. For starters, I can't argue with anyone of the items. When a student responds to a lesson on anti-derivatives or the downfall of the Ottoman Empire with the words "when are we going to need to know this", they might have a point. Not so with these skills. Every student needs to know these 10, be them college bound or not.

But there are two other reasons I like this list. One, it identifies true skills that can be integrated across the curriculum. As a principal, I can realistically expect my physical education teacher to teach these 10, just like I can expect my math teacher to. Can't say the same about financial literacy.

And two, the skills are easy to understand. They are not written in the vagueries of standards and benchmarks. And Downes breaks down each skill to show what it is, how we learn it today, what to watch for in the classroom, and how new technology supports it.

Our biggest challenge with the Iowa Core is to help teachers understand how to teach 21st century skills. This should be the start of our discussion.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Online boom in economic crunch?

Blogger Judy Breck postulates that online learning will be the economic alternative in our impending recession.

Perhaps this is something that should be in our minds as Governor Culver looks to make cuts and "scoops" out of the budget. Unfortunately, we don't have the infrastructure (the networked platform, the online teacher workforce, the curriculum) to serve the need.

We should have worked on this two years ago. We need to work on this now.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Call For Action: Technology Leadership Academy

There is no disputing the role of leadership on student achievement. Strong leadership always improves it while poor leadership (or no leadership) lowers it. Those in charge of the Iowa Core are starting with district leadership teams first, recognizing that the leadership teams will effect change the most. Thus, the first Iowa Core meetings are solely focused on leadership development.

This is where we are missing the boat, though. To implement the digital curriculum, a district will have to have strong leadership. Leadership is needed to:
  • Craft a vision
  • Streamline and make viable a curriculum
  • Put in place hardware, software and infrastructure
  • Train teachers
  • Provide support
  • Assure accountability
  • Communicate and partner with the greater community
And in a large portion of our districts, leadership is not strong in the field of technology integration. It becomes a hot potato... the onus of responsibility falls in between the IT staff and the administrators. Project CASTLE is focusing on building administrative leadership with the digital curriculum. We need to do the same with technology coordinators.

The first thing to make clear is that, by and large, technology coordinators are doing a good job. From first-hand experience, I can vouch for the never-stop responsibilities of maintaining a district's technology. A colleague of mine said "You can throw many changes at teachers on a continual basis, but if you truly want to bring the system to its knees, take down the email server." Or as another one mentioned, "When hard drives crash, I truly get to see people at their worst."

There also are teachers doing a great job in the classroom, many taking it upon themselves to research the technology and experiment with ways to better use it to enhance learning. Some take it upon themselves to write grants for their classroom to add technology.

Neither of these are leadership. And, this is where most districts get stuck. This is isolated pockets of excellence, but without a central vision and leader to ensure the whole group is moving forward, these pockets won't go anywhere.

There are often two different technology coordinators that you will see in districts. When technology first emerged, there was one teacher who worked a little bit more with technology than others. As the district grew, the technology demands required time spent outside of the classroom to manage it, and the district often grabbed the one who dabbled the most with it. In many of our smaller and more rural districts, the technology coordinator is in this mode, a former teacher who has morphed into the manager of hardware and software. In addition, some larger districts have had the resources to fund a different type of position, an integration specialist. Once again, the premier technology-integrating teachers gravitated into those positions.

But larger districts reached a threshold when networking and database management became significant. It required specialization. And much like other companies, districts have been hiring network specialists to manage this sophistication.

Neither of these two groups, despite their talents, have been trained in leadership. And when there are some rare cases where technology management is naturally talented in leadership (Pella or Jefferson-Scranton, for example), those districts become leaders in the state.

Another way to look at it: when I went through my administrative graduate program through Viterbo, I was the only technology coordinator in the state doing so. My instructors were, for good reason, quite surprised to see someone like me, as were districts looking to hire an administrator.

A dynamic that is present in education is the one of control vs. influence. Take away for a second the negative connotations of the word "control". As people move out of the classroom into the realm of administration, they notice the control they had of managing every item that took place in their classroom was now sacrificed. Principals don't have a corresponding level of control in every corner of their building. They do, on the other hand, have influence. It becomes even more pronounced as one moves to superintendent. Good administrators understand this dynamic. They understand they have to sacrifice the control they once enjoyed to greater influence the learning community.

Both network specialists and integration specialists have great influence. Unfortunately, most see their job as one of great control. They don't have the skills to build consensus and human capacity the way an influential leader does.

The Iowa Core recommends that technology staff are part of the leadership teams planning the district's deployment of the core. I can say, both as someone who is working with Core leadership and technology staff, this isn't happening. With the Iowa Core, we have the capacity to bring about an avenue for digital curriculum adoption. But, imagine the roadblock when the leadership team determines it would like to go there without the technology coordinator at the table.

If a district is going to get to the digital curriculum, it would be truly beneficial to require administrative certification of its technology coordinator. This means we need a leadership academy to get them there. Even if it doesn't mean administrative certification, a CASTLE-type program for technology coordinators, possibly building off of the programs at UNI and Iowa State, but more geared for the district-level rather than the PhD.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Podcast Producer

At Heartland's technology coordinator meeting yesterday, we had Brent Hayward from Apple set up the different features on the Mac OS X.5 server, including the wiki and blog server, ichat server, and shared calendars. The item that drew my interest was the podcast producer.

In a nutshell, podcast producer takes a lot of the work on the front end and moves it to the back end, making it extremely easy to produce podcast content in the classroom. The toughest part for the end user is to make sure the camera is connected and on. If they have that down, the next bit is pushing a button to stop and start. The back end workflow does the rest.

The end user has four options: creating a video, audio or screencast recording, or uploading a file (as you can see from the picture). And all are literally as easy as pushing the button.

The back end does require set up. You can create workflows that automatically post podcast content to your website running on the server. But, you can also have a workflow that posts to iTunes U, that creates iPod-friendly H.264, and one that encodes for mobile technology, like iPhones.

Even better, there are built-in features to add to the workflow, such as automatically adding a copyright or a title. You can even add a watermark over the content. If you are very comfortable with XML, there's a lot more you could do, but as Brent pointed out, you might be interested in contracting with Apple's Professional Services to ensure you get exactly what you want.

The biggest downside to this is the server power necessary. If you start off slow, or just are focusing on audio, one server might be capable of handling it. But, if you envision every classroom churning out content, you will need to array the process with multiple servers and an XGrid setup.

My experience with podcasting has been that its dominated by the teachers who are movers and shakers, looking for ways to enrich their classroom (such as Bob Sprankle). This tool brings podcasting to those teachers that aren't movers and shakers. It might very well be the foot in the door many integration specialists need to get the recalcitrant teachers interested. The very least can be said that it takes no change in teaching to make it work, and no technical skills.

Of course, the hope is that it does lead to a change in teaching, that it just doesn't become a way to broadcast the lecture that one traditionally does every class period, but rather to find new uses. Broadcast student productions. Better yet, have the students produce their own productions. Better yet, make it a regular feature, like talk radio or in the field journalism. As with other web 2.0 tools, podcasting takes learning beyond the walls of the classroom out into the real world, open for sharing, discussion and collaboration. Podcast producer is a tool that helps make that easy.

Monday, November 17, 2008

21st Century Skills - An Overview

This is the "mystery meat" of the Iowa Core.

According to the DE's document, 21st century skills are the skills that are necessary for "upward mobility in the new economy". Or, as Ray McNulty has mentioned:

“The primary aim of education is not to enable students to do well in school, but to help them do well in the lives they lead outside of the school.”

Implicit in this are many of the themes of quality education, be it authentic learning, relevance to the real-world, or performance assessment. The list of skills draw from four fields:
  • Employability skills
  • Financial literacy
  • Health literacy
  • Technological literacy
It can be argued that this list is both do-able for schools, and also short-sighted for what is needed to be successful. There are indeed several other areas that the state could identify and prioritize. Regardless, what is perhaps the best written paragraph in the statement is as follows:

The reality of building capacity for the 21st century is that we do not know what the work of the future will be like or how technology will influence health and financial issues. The challenge is to prepare students to think critically, to engage in mental activity, or habits of mind, that “…use facts to plan, order, and work toward an end; seek meaning or explanations; are self-reflective; and use reason to question claims and make judgments…”. It may be that our task is not only to prepare students to “fit into the future” but to shape it. “…If the complex questions of the future are to be determined… by human beings…making one choice rather than another, we should educate youths - all of them - to join in the conversation about those choices and to influence that future…”

You can see what I like about it. It puts aside the ridiculous notion that we know what the future will be like, but rather emphasizes the importance of our students shaping the future themselves. We need to teach students to be aware of how our society changes, and then give them the skills to be leaders in this new world.

That's why I see the crux of this is not the technology skills, but rather the employability skills. They call for "leadership skills", "adapting to various roles", "initiative", "social responsibility", and "incorporating diverse perspectives".

No one will dispute the importance of these skills, but the question is whether we will be able to implement these well. The Core calls for these skills to be integrated into all subject areas, not to create a special 21st century class to address them. Therein lies the problem.

• What will this look like in a math classroom? A social studies classroom? A music classroom? (How do you implement health literacy in music without it being a forced fit that detracts from the curriculum?)

• How will these skills be assessed in the classroom?

• What will accountability look like for the teaching of these skills?

• How do we train teachers to teach in this way? How do we explain how this is different?

Right now, this collection of skills is very abstract. In the time ahead, we will need to make it more concrete, not an easy task, but one that will separate moving forward from staying put.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

2020 Vision

We have 12 short years to the year 2020, a year that serves as more than a play on words with a future vision. In 2020, our current first graders, including my son, will be we graduating. We will be starting to see a new generation to enter our schools (post-"Net Generation"). We will be far enough removed from the end of NCLB to look back and fully assess its worth. And given the rate at which information and technology is expanding, a personal computer will begin to have the knowledge capacity of a human brain.

There are some things we can safely predict about the year 2020 in Iowa. Higher percentages of our students will be living in the Urban 8, meaning we'll likely have fewer total districts, requiring more distance learning opportunities. Quite a few of the top jobs in demand in that year don't exist today. And, those jobs will rely on the blending of technological advances with the advances in other seemingly limitless fields, like genetics or nuclear physics.

It goes without saying that the needs of students are changing; contrary to what you see in your local classroom, we aren't preparing students for the industrial age anymore. There are no longer set answers, set skills to master in order to be employable, like there was in work places of the past. Set patterns, answers, and skills can be learned by computers who can perform more and more of those tasks. Replacing it are those things that are not set, the solving of unclear problems and the mastery of soft skills, of consensus-building and relationship forming, and most importantly of teamwork and leadership. These are the mysterious "21st century skills" that the Iowa Core is emphasizing, in addition to math, reading, science, and social studies.


There is still much work to be done on the state's vision of what those 21st century skills look like, how they are best implemented in the classroom. The Iowa Core is, after all, a curriculum, a system of standards, benchmarks, and indicators to be achieved. It is not a pedagogy of instruction, and although Iowa Core training for district leadership teams right now are emphasizing work such as Balanced Leadership and Instructional Decision Making, there is still a lot left open to individual districts, which is both good and bad.

I am very encouraged by the work on the Iowa Core and its call to ramp up the instruction, but a new set of standards and more push for the bevy of instructional initiatives alone won't get us there. In spite of where we are heading right now, we need more. We need more if we are going to meet our vision of providing a world-class education to all of our students so they can compete in the global economy.


Enter Scott McLeod's plan for the 21st century learning system. I've included the graphic below:
Scott identifies 6 categories in order to create an educational world that mimics the world students will be competing in, not in the industrial age, but in the network age.

Curriculum that supports 21st century skills- Which, is the attempt of the Iowa Core. Iowa is in a unique situation. Great change will be coming through state legislative mandate, and it will have an effect, just as NCLB did. Hopefully, the effect will be a positive one on instruction. But, I will judge the value of the Iowa Core Curriculum by its ability to bring about the Digital Curriculum.

P-20 coordination and articulation- Because while the world has shifted to make college a necessity to compete, the educational system hasn't shifted nearly as much. There is still a communication divide between K-12 and 13-20.

A computerized device in every student's hand- You know how I feel about this.

Robust statewide online learning infrastructure- Ditto

Broadband access for all those computers- Or else, the computerized device is a glorified graphing calculator.

Preservice and inservice training for teachers- And ultimately, this is where we will succeed or fail, how tangible and meaningful can we make our training on 21st century skills be for teachers?

We have to get there. This is the "more" that we need. Having these things in place, there will be no mistake about it; we are not just setting ourselves up for another initiative that will go away, another binder that will soon collect dust on the shelf. We will have given students and teachers the actual tools (both technology and training). All will take notice.


Scott identifies three important supports to get there: Legislative policy and funding, ongoing monitoring and evaluation, and a mindset shift. And, there is both hope and despair here. Legislative policy in Iowa hasn't moved at all here (which can best be shown by what NACOL had to say about Iowa's online developments), and this is a bleak time to look for funding. But in this bleakness, our businesses have an opportunity to build the shining star educational system in this post-Lehman Brothers economy, where an opportunity exists for new players (read: Iowa companies) in the national scene. Despite what the closed secrecy of the Iowa Core's development would suggest, those businesses need a place at the planning table, as well as a piece of the financial responsibility to bring about this plan.

Monitoring and evaluation might seem the most formidable to seasoned veterans, but this is one area where Iowa has truly made progress in recent years. Administrators and district leadership teams alike regularly use data in their decision-making process now; developing a quality monitoring and evaluation process for this vision is not nearly as formidable as it was 10 years ago.

It is perhaps the mindset shift that is the most daunting to me. We need more than lip service to the reality that we need to change to meet the changing times. We need the sense of urgency with the hope of possibility. We can do this and we must. How do we make believers out of educators, lawmakers, and community members? This is our task.


And so, I get to my role in bringing about the vision. I know my limitations; I don't have the levers to move lawmakers for legislation or for funding from businesses. But I'm not helpless, either. It is my goal to do the following:

Lead a statewide partnership of agencies and school districts to create quality online education for students. This is the heart and soul of what my job is. I'm heading up several groups in the state to bring about that very task.

Help shape the Iowa Core Curriculum to make sure 21st century skills represent the Digital Curriculum. My role in statewide Iowa Core development committees will hopefully drive that.

Train educational leaders in the 21st century skills- The opportunities I have now to work with districts is just a start.

Provide a working example of the Digital Curriculum- My top task is to work with some districts who, at a local level, can provide the items above in Scott's plan. I can provide the training and support, as well as the vision on the curriculum to make it happen.

What is your role?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Google Docs 11: Features with an Impact

We've been looking at Google Docs in the Heartland Area Curriculum Network meetings recently. For those that missed my presentations, a synopsis of them (how Google Docs works, its advantages and disadvantages, and how you can use it in the classroom) can be found on our 21st century learning skills page.

Here are 11 ways I see Google Docs having an immediate impact in your district, along with the features that make them possible:
  1. Since they are collaborative (you can share them, more than one person can work at a time), group projects no longer become 4 people fooling around while one types in all the content.
  2. The commenting feature allows students to peer review a fellow student's work, highlighting the text they want to comment on, and then providing a space to write the comment. Writing teachers will wonder how they taught without it.
  3. The revision history lets a teacher look at who has made revisions and changes, making it easier to assess participation and allowing for a teacher to formatively pinpoint how to best help the group in their task.
  4. Since they are web-based, students can work on them at home without worrying about compatibility and dragging around a USB stick.
  5. No web access at home? The quick import-export feature lets you save it at school as a .doc, .xls, or .ppt and take it home manually. Plus, it allows for generic formats if a student doesn't have Microsoft applications.
  6. Students in elementary classes need an easy-to-use tool that lets them a) see how a spreadsheet works, b) see the relationship between chart data and graph data, and c) be able to manipulate the data and apply it to their own studies. Google Docs Spreadsheet is just that tool, free and available.
  7. The presentation tool gives the tired classroom activity of students making a powerpoint a new spin: Being online, their presentation is easily accessible to those outside the classroom. The potential for authentic work just became easier... you can create a gallery of presentations on a website to share your learning with the world.
  8. Better yet, the collaborative nature of Google Docs means more than just sharing. You can work jointly on a presentation with someone in a different state or country.
  9. The easy-to-use form builder allows students to create their own forms, generate data from participants, and show the data graphically. Conducting social science experiments becomes a cinch. Hey, what are the favorite TV shows of students nowadays, anyways?
  10. Faculty can benefit too. I'm envisioning jointly crafted interdisciplinary lesson plans, budgets maintained by multiple activity sponsors, prior-knowledge pre-assessment via forms by professional development coordinators, just to name a few things.
  11. And... you'll save a mint on paper with all this online collaboration.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

4 Challenges of going paperless

Asked recently by a teacher on what were some of the toughest challenges to going paperless:

1. First problem I had was that short worksheets were out. You know, worksheets where you would circle the verb, or do a quick matching exercise. I could create them on the computer, but the time it took to create those, then the time to get on the computers (even in a digital classroom), then the extra time to do the exercise electronically (it is much quicker circling with a pencil)... it made it not worth it. Which meant...

2. Having to develop deeper, more rigorous work. Yes, it is where we need to go in education, but that doesn't make it easy. Making the identification of verbs a rigorous, authentic, quadrant D activity wracks your creative brain. But perhaps the biggest change for me...

3. A big change in the way you give student feedback. Admittedly, some teachers teachers don't use written feedback on student work, but for those that do, it becomes a lot harder in a paperless environment. Circling and arrows are tough to do in a Microsoft Word file (time to break out your drawing tools). Google Docs made this easier for me, but it was still different. Feedback isn't the only difference...

4. Tests don't work. Well, there are online quizmakers you can use, and they worked okay. But, for most educators, the way they create tests are not the way you should create tests online. Tests online have the advantage of built in feedback or dynamic functionality (a different question based on which answer you gave previously). This was hard for me to shift my thinking, as it is for many educators making the jump.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Letter to the President-Elect

For Scott McLeod's "edublogger letters for the next president" invitation...

Dear President-Elect Obama-

I would like to congratulate you on newly being elected this fine country's 44th president. I'd like to think that my state of Iowa, and in turn myself, had a great hand in this. And thus, had a great hand in changing history. It was, after all, our state that served as a springboard for your historic campaign. You survived the scrutiny of our caucus system, including criss-crossing the state, shaking hands with over half of our residents, and learning about all the intricacies of our state, be it ethanol, or butter cow sculptures.

The one intricacy of Iowa that you undoubtedly had the most exposure to was our schools, the veritable bedrock of what we consider important in our state, symbolically taking its place on the back of our quarter. You undoubtedly heard the accomplishments of our students, saw the insides of our gymnasiums during your speeches, and gathered a sense in both the pride that we have and the difficulties we encounter.

I write to you not to offer advice on education. Neither to ask for your attention to our schools. I feel confident you will surround yourself with many minds that will help you guide our country, and in turn, my state, to better educational policy. I need only look to those like Colin Powell, who have a profound wisdom, to feel good about our future. And as wisdom goes, your two daughters will provide you with much more wisdom about our country's educational needs than many of our nation's past advisors.

I write to you, rather, to echo what many others have said about your candidacy, and now your presidency. Just like Iowa's schools, you are a powerful symbol. An historic symbol. A symbol for our students everywhere, regardless of their humble beginnings or color of their skin, that they can achieve whatever they put their mind to. The votes cast for you were much more than votes cast for your ideology or votes cast against the previous president; they were votes cast for the very democratic principles that make this country truly strong. And while American schools occasionally take their lumps when compared to other nations--who are selective in who they educate, separating their students into tracks early on and focusing intensely on that elite track, and thus passing us by on test scores--this is where America shines. Because, America is the example of the democratic society where all can come and achieve. This democratic ideal is worth more than all the test scores the world can muster, and worth more than any educational policy plea I would make.

You certainly do not need me to tell you the weight of your accomplishment. But, perhaps, none say it better than this person.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Will Richardson

If you are excited about the new world of technology in education, and you are unfamiliar with the work of Will Richardson, I apologize for not posting this sooner. I've mentioned before that Will Richardson is one of my favorite authors and bloggers, one whose thoughts on the read/write web have had a profound effect on my own classroom.

In the discussion about the concept of literacy, Richardson is one of many to point out that we are facing new literacies in our world. He identifies huge shifts the read/write web is bringing about:

1. Content moving from teacher-controlled to student-controlled
2. Classes moving from 1 teacher and time-slot to many teachers available 24/7.
3. Class structures moving from individual work to collaborative work, even outside of the building walls.
4. Teaching moving from lecture to conversation
5. Skills moving from "know what is important" to "know where to find it"
6. Students moving from readers to contributors
7. The medium for student work moving from paper to electronic forms
8. The format for student work moving from text only to multimedia
9. Mastery moving from the test to the product
10. The goal moving from completion to contribution

When I work with educators or teach graduate courses on technology, one of the crucial things for me is the level of acceptance in the truth of these shifts. I have struggled as a professional development trainer in that I can easily provide teachers the "wow" of technology integration. In fact, I rarely fail, and that doesn't say anything about me... it says everything about the natural draw to human interest that is technology. But, I haven't as easily made this connection, that the world of teaching and learning is fundamentally changing, and we as educators have to change with it. Rare is it that I find a teacher willing to admit that the way they currently teach--which admittedly might be very good--will be completely outmoded in a matter of years.

As sincere as I can be, I say to you that these shifts are real, and I see no way a school without a quality digital curriculum meeting the needs of our students much longer, despite the quality of teacher in the classroom. I have to make my move from "trainer in technology" to "trainer in pedagogy". Or, I too will be outmoded as an educational technology specialist.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Connectivism: A Primer

George Siemens is an educational theorist working at the University of Manitoba, who noticed a major gap in the learning theories present. Neither Behaviorism, Cognitivism, nor Constructivism were able to take into account the changing world, especially the technological advances, according to Siemens. Rejecting those theories, he has developed the theory of connectivism.

In brief, the theory of connectivism uses the model of a network, such as a neural network. The individual in the center of the network is surrounded by nodes in the world, nodes such as a skill, an experience, or a concept. The key is for the individual to make connections to these nodes, just like the neural network has axons and dendrites to connect to the next nerve. Learning takes place when either a) more connections are made to new nodes, or b) the connection is reinforced in different, unique ways to become stronger. Siemens argues that the key is not what flows through the pipes of the connections, but rather the pipes themselves, how big they are.

Thus, to enhance learning, the educator needs to introduce an environment rich in stimuli to promote more connections. This would mean exposure to a variety of different ideas, thoughts, people and perspectives. The more connections a person has, the overall health of the network, the stronger it becomes to new challenges (much like the strength of a web being built with more strands of fiber).

But there is more. Controversially, Siemens suggests that learning can exist within the network that we have, that it is an entity that can exist outside of our minds. In essence, there is an element of potential here, just like "potential" energy being a different form than "kinetic" energy. When I'm faced with a new task in my life, my potential learning that exists in a solid support network of my delicious account, my twitter associates, and my email address book is what counts. In this respect, knowledge of the specific content is secondary to the knowledge that exists in strong searching skills or the presence of good connections that will provide me the answer.

It should be noted that Siemens doesn't feel every node is a person... that is just one example. What I personally like about Siemens model is that it is organic; its image of learning is one that grows, that ebbs and flows in different direction. Nodes are introduced into our experience all the time, and our connections are shaded on the basis of circumstances. For someone who learned all the state capitals under forced coercion by their elementary teacher, the connection to the node of "state capitals" is shaded by the connection of the "bad experience". This could hinder the connection and make the learning weaker, or it could strengthen the connection for those that associate with pain strongly.

What's key for me here is that we finally have a theory which can conceptualize forgetting. In behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism, once you learn the concept, you really should remember it forever. But in connectivism, it is easy to conceptualize what is happening. The node (we'll say it is the thought "bugs are icky") exists in the network. But over time, many connections are made to other "icky" things (death, cheesy movies, taxes). If there isn't a connection between the "icky-ness" of these new items and the old, suddenly the connection to the old (bugs) becomes overwhelmed by the connections to the new, stronger ones. It is forgotten.

To avoid forgetting, one has to have more connections. In our example, one has to experience that "bugs are icky" in several different ways in order to strengthen the connection. Or, strengthen the connection that "bugs are like death", and "death is icky". For an educator, the key is not to drill the concepts over and over into the student, because while it makes a temporary connection, it will ultimately be replaced if not supported by diverse connections. The key is to provide the diverse connections. Teach that concept in as many different ways possible.

This, for good or for bad, has big implications to our schools. Marzano has advocated for the systematic "guaranteed and viable curriculum", but that isn't a very organic system. The introduction of a lot of nodes, even some of them conflicting, is required to build a strong network. If you stop and ensure mastery after each node is introduced, and introduce one node at a time, you aren't going to get very far. You have to be willing for students to not master all the nodes, that they will assimilate the ones into their network which they can. This is a huge leap of faith for educators, who insist that a student must learn "x, y and z". Indeed, the Iowa Core is somewhere in the middle... it is a pared down set of essentials that Marzano would idealize as the guaranteed and viable, but those essentials are conceptual skills that require a strong set of diverse nodes to support. It isn't just the simple node of learning the state capitals.

Once again, we are back to the point that Alan November made, the point of the digital curriculum, the point where we as educators need to connect our students more to that outside world and let them form their learning being in relationship with those perspectives out there. That is how we can assess our effectiveness.