Thursday, May 31, 2012

It's the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)

Here in our little corner of Maine, I have found an area of conflict with respect to education that is difficult to bridge.

Many of the people who agree with the principles of education that I support differ in the area of computer and Internet use. The conviction that excessive computer use in school and at home is detrimental to student learning is strong in many of my friends.

I understand the view, and a very strong part of me agrees, absolutely. But I’m trying to get a handle on the issue, even to the point where I take myself out of my own comfort zone.

If we are going to move forward, advocate for student-directed, passionate education, against the juggernaut of testing and standards and attacks on public education from corporate reformers, we need to be united.  

I am convinced that far from being a detriment, the technology -- Internet use, cell phones, and complex video games -- can give our kids the power of exploration, learning, experience, connection.

A friend who has been an elementary school teacher and is the mother of two small children writes: “Childhood is short, I want my children to climb trees, interact with the earth and the animals and people around them.”

I'm not sure those values are in conflict with kids' use of technology for learning. But there's no question that many adults see computers as something that interferes with kids' healthy development.

It is felt that kids whose lives include an excessive amount of screen time don’t develop necessary real-world skills, a lively imagination, or develop an appreciation of the natural world.

This view is reflected in my own parenting practice. I have always said I would never allow a gaming system into my house. Why? Because I didn’t want to raise kids who were addicted to video games, that’s why! So video games are my own personal bugaboo, the part of the picture that most rubs against my grain. I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to figure out how that fits into the tech-in-ed picture.

I have seen these systems move into a house and take it over; nice kids became obsessed, and family friction increased exponentially. I wanted to avoid that at all costs.

As it turns out, my kids don’t really miss it. When they want games, they play Internet games.

Of course, that means I’ve stopped them from having experiences with the kinds of complex games that Mark Prensky writes about, games that require constant learning. I’ve relegated their gaming to the kind of super-simple Bejeweled-type games that I’m addicted to myself. But for better or worse, that was our decision. Other parents -- some of my best friends, in fact -- brought video game systems into their house, and their kids are neither robots nor shallow and disconnected.  

So what’s the difference between the household that manages to keep the peace in spite of complex video games? If I had hidden cameras, I could tell you...but I don’t, so my best guess is that conflict is avoided through lots of talking, lots of respectful listening, agreement reached on mutual priorities, and in the best-case scenario, self-imposed limits on game play.

There is a pattern that I see in a lot of arenas where computer use causes friction, including school systems: the tools are blamed for what is, in fact, a liveware problem.

There’s a lots of material supporting the idea that complex video games are an engaging and beneficial form of learning.  Parents need to weigh this against the oppositional material that claims that video games “rewire” the brain. Actually, the idea of “rewiring” the brain is misleading, according to Marc Prensky in his article, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Part 2: Do they really think differently?

“The brain is, to an extent not at all understood or believed to be when Baby Boomers were growing up, massively plastic. It can be, and is, constantly reorganized. (Although the popular term rewired is somewhat misleading, the overall idea is right—the brain changes and organizes itself differently based on the inputs it receives.) The old idea that we have a fixed number of brain cells that die off one by one has been replaced by research showing that our supply of brain cells is replenished constantly. The brain constantly reorganizes itself all our child and adult lives, a phenomenon technically known as neuroplasticity.”

The idea that video gaming and excessive computer use changes the brain in ways that are permanent and detrimental to learning may seem right to us (50-something quasi-boomers), but it simply may not be true. We do compartmentalize learning, don’t we? This kind is good, this kind is bad. The Waldorf philosophy of education is so certain that technology has a negative impact on children that they eschew any exposure to computers in their schools. I admire that kind of certainty. I don’t have it.

I’ve read a lot of the materials that claim that serious computer gaming is far from unhealthy. Keep in mind, however, that I  am aware of my position as a someone who believes that anything invented in the last 15 years is against the natural order of things. In other words, I know that because of generational positioning, I am hard-wired to mistrust the role of technology (in my case, video games) in the lives of children.

If kids are learning how to evaluate quickly changing situations and perform rapid decision-making through gaming instead of an analog venue, is it still valid learning? To discover that failure is only an iteration and not an end, is that “bad learning?”  To see success followed by new and different challenges, to understand that success is more likely when you collaborate, are these useless skills?

You know what, according to Prensky, really rewired the brain? Reading. The advent of books. Words on a page. That required a much more dramatic rewiring, and I can imagine folks -- probably over 50 or the equivalent -- lamenting the coming loss of the art of storytelling with this newfangled “written word” fad!  

A bit facetious maybe, but here’s the thing...brains get rewired all the time. We have to try to stop thinking of it as losing something. It’s simply a matter of changing. But by refusing to take an objective look at what’s really happening, we make the situation worse.

And here’s another thing, which I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts: this thing that is “rewiring” our kids’ brains? We made it. Us, the “digital immigrants.” Maybe not you or me personally, but if you’re seeing a kid on a computer, it’s because no matter how much we hate it now, we failed to suppress it in time; hence, it exists, and our kids are using it.

Our own brains were rewired by television, invented by our parents, and we returned the favor by inventing the intense interactivity of video games and the Web (we had by far the worst of the deal). In other words, we designed the world that they live in; we can’t, then, insist that kids who have Digital Native minds live bored to death because we don’t approve of the learning they prefer.

We try to steer our kids to be the people we want them to be, in ways we can’t even realize. For better or worse, who we are and what we value is reflected in our parenting and seen in our kids. My friend valued outside play for children, and her children value it as well.

But it doesn’t always work that way. We often see the values we try to instill reflected back in opposition to us, rather than in accord. In other words, they may love something just because we hate it. It doesn’t hurt to look more closely into what kids are doing; to investigate what it means to them and why, and what they are learning. The conflict here wasn’t born the day the first kid got the first Playstation. In this situation, as with cell phones, texting and social media, tools are only tools, and behavior is behavior.

Life at our house has always been pretty loosely constructed; our kids are free-range. If they want TV, they can watch it. Internet use is open. We have 4 laptops (everyone in the family has one but me, but that’s a different issue) and our dinner table and living room are the main family hang-outs -- nobody has complete privacy when they surf. Both kids have gone through Runescape phases, and we even ponied up the $5/month for membership for awhile.

And my kids are exposed to a diversity of experiences. Eli is 15 and he can no more live without his outside time than he can stop programming games and physics simulations in Action Script, the game language of Flash.  Francie is very much attached to YouTube but she also spends a healthy amount of time in face-to-face contact with friends and with the outdoors.

“Using computers,” it turns out, is a vague catch-all phrase that is so broad and general that it means nothing. Do they learn by writing in collaboration with others? Do they use Google Hangout to have a meeting with other kids who are learning the same stuff, but in different countries? Do they share videos, process their photographs in Photoshop for publication on their blogs? Compose music and lyrics? Discuss a problem in Facebook groups? Do they follow issues using Twitter? Teach basic guitar chords via Skype? Organize an online school newsletter using a Wiki, which they share with a sister school in a different country? Fundraise using online auctions to support a local family who lost their home due to a fire?

What looks like a face in a screen could be one of hundreds of activities.

At the point at which we adults feel that kids’ screen time is becoming a problem, a couple of things are needed from us as the adults in the situation: a serious reflection on our judgment; and serious, respectful, ongoing talks with our kids.

The idea that cell phones have a use in a classroom has raised more pairs of eyebrows than I can count, but start digging into the possibilities and realize that they are nearly endless. The point is, are we willing? Are we able, from our perch as the folks in charge of kids, to observe them objectively and figure out how to meet them where they are? We look with disdain and discouragement at a kid who is in a crowd of people, glued to her phone, oblivious of what’s in front of her, thumbs a blur. It’s nothing new. Again, it’s technology taking the fall for a condition of life that predates its invention.

I try to transcend the skepticism, and remember how rock’n’roll ruined my own generation.... not. The new is not necessarily the bad, even though you might have to perform surgery on your deeply-held notions of what is healthy and what is not in order to gain that perspective. (“When you take a cat apart to see how it works, what you will have is a non-working cat.” --Douglas Adams. It’s risky to dissect a foundational belief.)

(Many artists were scandalized by the advent of pre-made paint, made possible by the invention of the metal tube in 1841. While this development opened new doors, such as the ability to spontaneously paint scenes out-of-doors, it was also felt that the lost art of making one’s own paint would mean the decline of civilization - or, at least, the art of painting. I have to mention that when I first encountered the electronic tuner, I thought that we were only a generation away from becoming unable to tune a violin using our ears alone. I called those tuners the Antichrist. We all have our little peccadilloes.)

We need to re-examine our inherent mistrust of the medium and the perceived loss of what we, as adults, value. Banning or even seriously limiting Internet use prevents your child from connecting to the world; to explorations and discovery. It is as real as your backyard ecosystem; as essential as discovery of a tide pool or vegetable garden. In fact, it’s a connection to the tide pools of China and the vegetables of Uganda -- and the people who grow them, and study them.

Passionate kids are using the Internet to find others who share their passions, whether it is for World of Warcraft, new music or a rare breed of dog. It doesn’t detract from your child’s experience; it enriches it.

What I want is for kids to learn in a way of their own choosing. And I do mean their own choosing...not mine, and you know what? If they play in tune by using an electronic tuner, why do I care? Have we continued to produce brilliant artists who contributed to the development of our culture despite the fact that they can go buy their own paint?

By following passions from early in their education it is more than likely that their learning will be diverse. What I've learned is that the (literally) old-school top-down education ("we know better than you do what you need to learn") is irrelevant to our kids; boring.  To accept technology as a critical part of education is to support true student-directed, passion-driven learning.

How connected kids learn is different from how we or any preceding generation learned. But by increasing our understanding through good information, and respectful communication with our connected kids, it isn’t the end of the world as we know it, but the beginning of a better one.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Simple Ed Reform Solution - Connect School Life to Real Life

(Lisa Nielsen recently traveled from NYC to Providence to spend a day touring and hearing about The Met high school there.  She returned full of excitement about the possibilities that public education can have -- with the courage to do things differently.)
"Dennis Littky provides a setting where young people and adults can explore the world together, discover their passions and apply themselves to solving their own and the world's problems!"
- Deborah Meier

Many high school students complain they don’t like school for some very good reasons. They report it is boring, irrelevant, and disconnected from real life. They have a passion for life, but not for school. But it doesn’t have to be this way and there’s a place where it isn’t. It's called The MET and it is one of dozens of schools around the world that make up the Big Picture Company.

These schools are havens for public school students who have struggled in conventional classrooms. There is a waiting list to get in and once they do, not only do they have one of the highest attendance rates, but there is also a 98% college acceptance rate. What’s more, unlike many graduates of traditional schools, Big Picture graduates say they feel prepared for college and career success.

What’s their secret?
Connect school life to real life by doing things differently.

Here’s how

  1. Instead of teachersThere are advisers who work with students making a multi-year commitment to serve as their coach, mentor, teacher, and friend who guide and supports them in managing their personalized learning plan and Learning Through Internship/Interest placement. Home visits are not only encouraged, they’re a part of the relationship.
  2. Instead of gradesThere are authentic assessments such as public exhibitions of work, check ins, reflective journals, portfolios, and feedback from their real world mentors at work.
  3. Instead of desks in rows in classrooms where the focus is the teacher… There are chairs around a table in what resembles a conference room where the focus is each other.
  4. Instead of bells and classes… There are meetings and appointments.
  5. Instead of relegating all learning to be locked inside the school building... Students spend two days a week pursuing their interests and/or passions with mentors where they are learning through internships(LTIs)  that they seek out in the real world. Additionally, all learning that happens outside of the school day and year is captured and documented for in school credit.  
  6. Instead of banning and blocking… Students are empowered to learn with the tools they own and choose. This means they can borrow or bring their own laptops, cell phones, etc.
  7. Instead of administrative school policies that are handed down… Students are encouraged to take a leadership role in the school and student voice is valued in decision making processes.
  8. Instead of starting the day in class... Students get: an early morning Pick-Me-Up. Blogger Ewan McIntosh explains it this way: Someone shares a story, what they've been doing: a student, a teacher, the Principal, an 'outsider'. They effectively give a face-to-face blog, where the comments come thick and fast and a dialogue begins.
  9. Instead of only focusing on being prepared to work for someone else… Students can participate in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship program where they learn to run businesses, and the best are supported and funded. These students are provided with real offices in which to do run their real businesses.
  10. Instead of standardizing to the system… Learning is customized to each student via their individual learning plans which look like this and this that are developed based on the student’s individual interests, talents, and needs. These are created and updated with the learning team which includes, but is not limited to, the student, parent(s), advisor, and internship mentor. Students share and celebrate their work via exhibitions.
  11. Instead of grades and test scores as the primary measure of student success… The main goals of assessment are to help the student reflect on his or her work, create strategies to improve, and develop his or her own internal standards.  Evaluation processes should be learning experiences within themselves, strengthening the quality of students’ work and their understanding of themselves as learners.  The use of multiple assessment tools is vital to determine a student’s progress and finding creative solutions to help students build on strengths and address gaps.  The whole student must be addressed, looking at each project and activity in light of the student’s personal learning plan. MET students learn to reflect on their work with the question, “Is it good enough?” the work is measured against standards of the real world held by the mentor and internship worksite as well as the exhibition panel.  Everyone involved in the student’s life and learning – including their family, peers and mentors – is asked to participate in the evaluation process.  The MET’s key elements for student assessment include: exhibitions; digital portfolios; narratives; and, transcripts.
  12. Instead of test scores as the primary measure of teacher and school accountability… The schools is held accountable to the students and parents via School Accountability for Learning and Teaching Surveys, which are the culmination of intensive surveys of parents, students, and teachers. When it comes to students, of utmost importance to school leaders are things like, that students feel respected, cared about, and inspired by their teachers, they feel comfortable talking to school staff, that staff keeps them interested and will work with students until they understand the area of study. When it comes to parents, school leaders want them to know that staff cares about their children, that the child is learning to their potential, and that they are safe.  At The MET school they had high parent engagement and the school scored highest in the state in most every category.

There is a method to their magic.  Here are some of the components that drive the work at The MET. Many of these practices are incorporated at varying levels at all Big Picture Schools.

Learning goals*
There are five learning goals for students which are guided by four arenas explained below. Learning goals are a framework for looking at real-world concepts and abilities necessary to being a successful, well-rounded person. The learning goals are not content-oriented curricula, nor are they completely distinct categories. Good project work incorporates many overlapping elements of the learning goals.
  1. Empirical reasoning - How do I prove it?
    This goal is to think like a scientist: to use empirical evidence and a logical process to make decisions and to evaluate hypotheses. It does not reflect specific science content material, but instead can incorporate ideas from physics to sociology to art theory.
  2. Personal qualities - What do I bring to this process?
    This goal is to be the best you can be: to demonstrate respect, responsibility, organization, leadership, and to reflect on your abilities and strive for improvement.
  3. Quantitative reasoning - How do I measure, compare or represent it?
    This goal is to think like a mathematician: to understand numbers, to analyze uncertainty, to comprehend the properties of shapes, and to study how things change over time.
  4. Social reasoning - What are other people’s perspectives on this?
    This goal is to think like an historian or anthropologist: to see diverse perspectives, to understand social issues, to explore ethics, and to look at issues historically.
  5. Communication - How do I take in and express ideas?
    This goal is to be a great communicator: to understand your audience, to write, read, speak and listen well, to use technology and artistic expression to communicate, and to be exposed to another language.

Here is what student learning looks like in these four arenas.

1) Real World Learning*
These are the core elements that make real-world learning work at Big Picture schools.
  • Learning plans for EVERY student - There are neither formal courses nor a standard curricular sequence. Instead, with an advisor, mentor, and family, each student charts quarterly planned activities against the school’s five learning goals and a series of questions.
  • Interest exploration -
    In a school that views students’ passions as the spark to deep learning, an early task facing Met students is to uncover their own interests.
  • Learning through internships (LTI) - The primary vehicle for learning at The Met, LTIs push students to gain knowledge and skills in the context of authentic work and to develop one-on-one relationships with an adult professional—real world learning in name and practice.
  • Making academics come alive - Advisors and LTI mentors work in concert to provide students with the academic content needed to complete project-based work, with advisors and other staff typically providing whatever tutoring or assistance is necessary back at school.
  • Summer learning -
    Pursuing activities like travel, adventure programs, apprenticeships, or college classes is a requirement for every student. These summer experiences should push students into unfamiliar territory—teaching special needs kids in a camp or building a school in the Dominican Republic. Advisors help students find such opportunities as well as the financial aid or funding they may require.

2) Reflection and Accountability*
These are the key structures through which students demonstrate accountability for their learning.
  • Narrative assessment - Narrative assessments take the place of grades and report cards. They document a student’s academic and personal progress, noting specific areas of growth and areas needing attention, and suggest revisions to the subsequent Learning Plan. At the end of each year, students use their narratives to prepare, with help from their advisor, a one-page transcript, an official and public document that records the year’s work and learning.
  • Exhibitions -
    Each quarter students give a roughly 45- minute exhibition presentation of work to a panel comprising the advisor, mentor, family, peers, and other staff. Students present evidence of progress in all aspects of their Learning Plan and respond to questions and critique from panelists.
  • Senior Institute Gateways - Tenth graders apply to the senior institute (11th/12th grade). In addition to a portfolio, they present letters of recommendation (from the advisor, mentor, family, and a peer), plus a written defense that shows they are ready to take increasing responsibility for their own learning and to play an active leadership role in school.
  • Internalizing high standards - Students report that they work harder and learn more than they ever have before. The processes of giving and receiving feedback, collecting a portfolio of work, and making regular public presentations contribute greatly to a school culture that embraces high standards.

3) Voice and agency*
Students are encouraged to speak up, to find and tap their voice, to identify their strengths and pursue their passions.
  • Journals - Journals help students express ideas and concerns that are still rough or not meant to be broadly shared. Students practice putting down on paper what they think, supported by an adult committed to listening.
  • College portfolios - Students apply to college, even if they do not go—right away or ever. (Over three-quarters head straight to college.) The school embraces the college application process as a tool for helping students dream big, set high standards for their work, and hone their presentation of self.
  • Public speaking and writing - Speaking and writing for public audiences are a constant.  Morning “Pick-Me-Ups” (the school-wide gathering that starts each day) provide a ready stage, as do “town meetings” and other school events. Internships offer another forum, as students make presentations to their adult work colleagues. Students are also encouraged to raise their voices as citizens.
  • Success stories - The book-length autobiographies written in junior and senior year stand alongside the unwritten personal stories they weave, day in and out. As seniors receive their diploma, advisors deliver the “short version” of these success stories, an oral tribute to the graduate for all to hear.

4) Sustained relationships*
Relationships under gird all learning. Keeping adults and other students at bay is not an option. Students build close relationships with an advisor, community mentors, and other faculty, if they are to fulfill their personal learning plans. They must also commit to an advisory group made up of peers, plus substantial give-and-take with the larger school community and  students accept their parents as learning partners.
  • Advisors - Teachers are known as advisors and facilitate the learning of the students in their advisory group. They help students create learning plans, identify interests, find internships, develop projects, and manage their time. They also work closely with their advisees’ mentors. Advisors stay with the same students until they graduate resulting advisor-student bond runs deep.
  • Mentors - Mentors guide and coach students in their Learning Through internships (LTI) work. As part of the student’s learning team, the mentor helps students develop projects that have real consequence and value—to the student, mentor, and workplace. Mentors stand as living examples of career possibilities and as role models of contributing community members.
  • Advisories - Advisors and their students—are home base, the close-knit unit where students and faculty gather for an hour each morning to launch their day and where they return every afternoon for a half-hour before the day ends. Advisories give students a place to practice new skills and develop their identities with a safety net.
  • Parents - Families, not just students are enrolled in the school. This means parents are essential “learning partners” who sign a contract agreeing to attend quarterly learning plan meetings and exhibitions.. Parents, teachers, students, and siblings frequently gather on campus for shared activities.
  • The School as Family - Small size, intimate advisory system, and insistence on parent participation go far towards making the school feel like a family and several features extend these connections and family feel even after graduation.  

Thanks to the innovative leadership of Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, Big Picture Schools are one of the few learning models that manages to get public funding despite the fact that they are devoid of the cornerstones that make up most schools such as classes, teachers, incessant testing, or grades.  They’ve been doing this for 17 years by helping student to capture real-world/real-life learning and translate it as necessary into the buckets required by the traditional public school system or transcripts required by some colleges…though in many cases colleges find the authentic and insightful portfolios and learning plans more useful than transcripts.

Unfortunately, due to the accountability movement as of late, the school has been forced to cut important services and programs, such as social workers, to increase spending on standardized test success. Despite this setback that limits choices and freedom, Dennis Littky advises that “We must determine that for which we will fight and never compromise those values.” In the case of Big Picture Schools that means they can still remain true to the core values that lead to real, relevant, and meaningful learning.

Big Picture Education - Interest based learning by scratchie on GoAnimate

Animation Maker - Powered by GoAnimate.

 *Information excerpted from preceding links at the MET school site.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


It is possible for a community of people concerned with their local system of education to undergo a months-long process of examining that system and its future without ever stripping it down to its bare bones, and truly questioning what we have grown to accept.

What looks like a mountain may not be a mountain, it may be a valley, it may even be the open ocean, but you can’t see it because your mind put a mountain there. Move the mountain, dammit!

You can believe that what’s wrong with education is the top-down nature of the transfer of information, and you can say that the cure is to form a system based on mastery of standards. You can say that this is better because you can make expectations of students clearer, you can involve them in how they learn and at what pace. You can let them decide how to demonstrate mastery. You can open up the possibilities of how to learn things, so that kids can learn what they are told they need to know in a way that is as enjoyable and engaging as possible.

You can do all this without really grappling with the purpose of education; without considering that the purpose needs to be very different from what most adults believe and expect.

What we as adults believe kids need to learn is absolutely superfluous.  Insignificant. Inconsequential. Chaff. Unnecessary. Unproductive. Gratuitous. Painfully unimportant.

We’re probably right, every one of us who was ever asked to list what kids need to learn, what they need to know when they leave school, what they should be able to do.  But why can’t we learn to keep it to ourselves? Because we have an overly exalted view of our own importance to the learning process of children. 

Here’s where I lose people, who jump ahead to a Lord of the Flies vision, Piggy grasping the conch, demanding to speak, chaos all around him. Adults are critical to kids’ learning process, but not in the way we think.

Schools must be places where the first job of adults is to discover who these kids are, and provide support, time and resources to help them become the people they want to be.

You can’t teach children anything if you don’t know who they are. And you can’t find out until you ask. 

Seth Godin from his book, Stop Stealing Dreams

We don’t ask students to decide to participate. We assume the contract of adhesion, and relentlessly put information in front of them, with homework to do and tests to take.
Entirely skipped: commitment. Do you want to learn this? Will you decide to become good at this?
The universal truth is beyond question—the only people who excel are those who have decided to do so. Great doctors or speakers or skiers or writers or musicians are great because somewhere along the way, they made the choice. 

Why have we completely denied the importance of this choice?

What is absolutely necessary in order for our public education system to gain true relevance in the lives of children is to figure out how to organize our schools around them. It is hard to picture. You have to do away with all notions of curriculum and classroom management. You have to start at a point where we, as adults, feel intensely uncomfortable: give over leadership of learning.

If you dictate what kids have to learn, it doesn’t matter if you are letting them choose how to learn it. You have taken away their ability to pursue the learning that means most to them. You have given them the biggest roadblock to their success.

I’m not going to get into the stuff that makes this blog about the minds of kids. If you want to know why discovering the identity of kids and having kids discover their own passions is critically important, there’s lots of verbiage on this blog devoted to it.

A visioning process that begins with the end in mind is self-defeating. It’s like guiding a group of people through the wilderness, pretending they are following clues to an unknown destination, when all the while the leaders knew exactly where they were going.  The purpose of the visioning process in RSU 3 has been to bring us to the inevitable necessity of the proficiency-based system.

Kids, whether they are five or seventeen, need to learn what is dictated from inside them. That’s my message. And if a “visioning” process does not place that as the first priority of discussion and investigation, then it isn’t really questioning the purpose and the function of education.