The One Thing Teachers Want That No One is Talking About

Ask any teacher what is one thing they wish they had that would make their job better. For most the answer is time. 

The solutions to this problem are complex and in many cases outside the purview of educators but there is one increasingly growing aspect that no one seems to be talking much about. Time spent looking for stuff. 

“Stuff” is more or less content. While many jurisdictions are understanding that content may not be as important as developing skills, content is still important and necessary for learning even if your focus is on skills. 

The most progressive curriculum I know is in British Columbia. Teachers are free to focus on big ideas and core competencies and student agency is the goal. Yet as excited as educators are to embrace this, many I’ve worked with and spoken to are struggling to find content. The curriculum is less concerned with content and yet without something to build upon, analyze, create with, the efforts to develop skills and competencies fail.

School Has a Content Problem. It doesn’t seem to want any. ….But try as we might to think of reading or mathing as a skill, we cannot divorce any of it from specific content in the classroom. These aren’t Subjects that can be studied or mastered in any manner divorced from content, which is infinite in possibility and purpose and audience. ‘Content’ and ‘Skill’ are not equal partners, because skill is universal while content is specific. You cannot learn a skill without the content, but the content requires the skill no matter what it is.

In other jurisdictions where standards are more focused on content, teachers are dissatisfied with textbooks and formulaic approaches. Their print-based world often seems outdated and lacking engagement. They know there is better stuff out there. 

So in both cases, teachers turn to “the google”. I’ve witnessed this first hand as my wife worked endless hours at night exploring possibilitites for her grade 2 classroom. I tried to do my own research to see if this was indeed widespread so I reached out to Twitter and asked a simple question:

While not scientific, my hunch is the results are fairly accurate. I believe this is something new. I recall as a young teacher prior to the Internet that I spend very little time culling for resources. I might spend time at the beginning of a unit at the local library but I exhausted my search relatively fast. The other resource I had was a teacher librarian who would also alleviate some of this work. The majority of my time at home was spent planning what my students would do with the content.  I’d say on average I spent 25% of my time finding and culling content and 75% of my time on what the instruction would be. Today I’d say for most teachers that’s reversed. Today’s educator is both blessed and cursed with infinite access to content. While there are many ways to find content and tips to better curate, it still takes time. A lot of time.  I also think much of this time is wasted.  Like going into a giant mall when all you need is a basic pair of socks, what should be a 5-minute job suddenly becomes hours. Yes, there are times when that’s part of the experience but doing this on a daily basis is costing many hours. Most of us can already admit to wasting more time online that we’d like, we don’t need to be adding to the problem. It seems that teachers and administrators are okay with this or maybe they just haven’t thought about it very much. I have. 

I don’t often mention on my blog that I work for Discovery Education. Over the past 7 years, I’ve been grateful to work with so many forward-thinking districts, leaders and teachers. While we offer a whole lot more, we are best known for our content. When I first began, our team would often highlight the fact that we offered 300,000+ resources from video, text, images, audio, interactives and more. We don’t talk about that much anymore. Instead, we might say that our services offer a handful of multi-modal, quality and vetted resources for nearly every grade, subject and standard. Teachers don’t want/need more stuff, they want/need good stuff and they want/need it easily accessible. When we do our job, we help teachers and leaders see how our products and services save time. We want to shift teachers time to allow them to focus on differentiating instruction, addressing the needs of individual students without having to spend a whole bunch of time finding just the right content. 

The reality is, the internet and youtube provide great content. The trouble is you have to find it. While there are many teachers who are willing to spend the time to find that content, it’s not fair to expect teachers to spend hours each night searching for stuff when they could be spending that time on instruction or better yet, resting. 

I don’t mean for this to sound like a pitch for Discovery but I’m simply surprised by how little anyone is paying attention to this growing problem. With growing stress among teachers, giving them the one thing they really need seems like something we all need to be paying more attention to.

To quote my friend Bill Ferriter, Is any of this making sense? Is this true for you? Do you see this as a problem Anyone you know addressing this? 

Are All Voices Equal?

“Voice and Choice” “Equity” “Student Voice” These are words that dominate the educational change conversation today. They are important ideas but like so many words, they can lose their meaning and specificity as they permeate the lexicon. 

The short answer to the question “Are all voices equal?”  is “No”.

The better answer is “It’s complicated”. 

Without going down too many rabbit holes I’d want to explore a few elements. First the student/ child to teacher/adult relationship and more broadly the idea of expertise.

The Question of Student Voice

We certainly are doing well to provide students with more say, more choice and more power to own their own learning. For too long, they have been relative pawns in education where adults made all the decisions about when what, where and how they learned.  We’ve now entered a more enlightened time where things are beginning to shift. In some places, this shift is well underway and in other places, much work is left to be done but there are few places where this isn’t a conversation. 

But providing increased say and power to students shouldn’t negate the knowledge, wisdom and dare I say, the authority of adults who provide the structure and foundation of education. I believe that adults and those with experience ought to be given greater say and voice when it comes to education and probably most things related to working with children. Education, like parenting, is not a democracy.  Children lack the maturity, experience, and knowledge to make all the decisions in their educational careers.  Children are certainly equal to adults in terms of rights and opportunities. They are not equal in terms of their decision-making skills. 

When it comes to students I’m fine with hearing what students want from their education. However, they don’t know what they don’t know. It’s why I object to a full-on personalized learning experience if that’s being interpreted as students make all the decisions. That’s just a bad idea. Should students voices matter in how their schooling looks? Certainly. Students can provide us with insights we might be missing. We should be asking them for input into decisions that impact themselves and education more broadly. Should their ideas matter the same as the adults? I don’t think so. Again, if you’re struggling with this statement, think of yourself as a parent. If you let your children make all the decisions about their lives, you’d likely have some pretty selfish and poorly adjusted kids. Our role isn’t simply to provide them with whatever they need but also to guide and direct them into what it means to develop into healthy, happy and productive humans. If we truly care for children, we’ll offer them our wisdom and lead them as an act of love. 

Not Every Voice Counts the Same

All voices can be heard but not all voices should be given equal value. Many educators speak of the frustrations when leaders cower to overly vocal parents and media when the comment about things like “discovery math” or lack of homework and other areas that they do not have the knowledge to speak of intelligently. Consider your own development and growth. If you believe you are a lifelong learner and a growth mindset then presumably, 10 years ago, you knew less than you do today and thus others were likely in a better position to make decisions that impacted you.  Acknowledging that some folks do know more than you do is a sign of maturity. 

Expertise matters. I’d much rather have the support of 10 people who know about my topic than 100 people who don’t. But #socialmedia promotes the fiction that all opinions should have equal value. And increasingly that belief system is influencing all our public debates.— Andrew Campbell 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿 (@acampbell99) September 9, 2018

I’m grateful for the advent of the web and social media by providing me with a voice. I’ve been able to publish many ideas over that last 12 years that previously would have only lived in my head. Through that publishing, I’ve been able to think through some things and had the benefit of others to add their thoughts as well. However, as much as this has democratized knowledge, it has also diluted the importance of expertise. The barriers of the previous publishing world lacked the ability to include all voices but it did help identify expertise. As adults and educators, I think we have to work harder to identify the smart people and allow their ideas to be heard over the din of social media.  Expertise is not found in followers but on the quality and evidence of ideas that have proven the test of time. 

I also understand that many marginalized groups have not had their voices heard. This is where the power of the web has helped bring those voices into more conversations. This is a good thing. We need to find the new experts in these groups.

In the end, we need to have more reverence and value for wisdom, experience, and knowledge even as we invite other voices into important conversations. We need to listen to children and the voices of those that haven’t always been heard. But all voices are not equal.

Technology as Distraction

Like many before this post started with a tweet….

Today most inspirational messages, books and challenges to schools are to “prepare them for anything” or “future ready” or “solve big problems” or “change the world”, all good and valid messages. I’ve already shared my concerns over an overemphasis on innovation. I’m not saying these things aren’t important but I think what’s missing is recognizing that student health and well-being needs way more attention, emphasis on “way”. If we look historically at the purpose of school, it moved from a primary mission of knowledge distribution to job preparation. Health was an add-on at best and mental health wasn’t even on the radar until the last few years. Technology has fostered the conversation about a broader definition of jobs and the future.

But the title I use here isn’t even specifically about that kind of a distraction but rather as a distraction among educators and leaders vying for our attention.  Despite some who say schools haven’t changed in the last 100 years, they have. The conversations around everything from personal learning to connected learning to making school more relevant and empowering is by in large what every school is moving towards. These conversations have been driven by technology. While that may not be the focus, that’s the reason the conversations exist. More and more we’re hearing messages and reading books that speak about innovative ways to make learning more relevant and powerful. This is good. But I’m just not seeing enough conversations that address the fundamental question of “How do we help kids to live healthy, happy, productive lives?” 

The smartphone became a dominant technology in 2012. That means students graduating this year have had this device since they were in 5th grade. Moving forward this means all our students will never know a world without it. Without all the stats and stories about the power, potential and ills of this device, my concern is that students don’t have a choice anymore. As one small example, consider the average teen trying to sleep at night. Their choice is a world of information, entertainment and connection versus the back of their eyelids or time thinking quietly. That’s not a fair choice. That’s a choice many people struggle with including myself. Yes, we need parents to intervene, yes this is not specifically a school problem. But this one problem is repeated in various forms all day long. Schools are mostly worried about student focus and bullying. But this is way bigger.  I’m not sure we can ignore it. We should be asking questions and teaching things like:

  • “How to be alone?”

  • “What does it mean to be disconnected?”
  • “How can we better appreciate the simple joys of life?”
  • “How do we develop habits of mind and body when the dopamine effects of these devices are so compelling?”
  • “What does contentment look like?”

Those questions are ones adults should be reflecting on forever. They are hard questions. But if you get them right, chances are you’ll live a rich life. One huge advantage adults today have is we remember a time without smartphones. Not to be overly nostalgic, but there were some habits and experiences we had that need to be revived.

Until recently schools’ exclusive responsibility was academic only. Social, emotional and physical well-being fell into the “nice by not necessary” column. That is changing somewhat but we’re still far from where we need to be. Schools have not traditionally been asked to care for student’s health beyond a mandatory few classes. This isn’t as exciting as helping kids become entrepreneurs, creating an app, getting a scholarship or even just helping them graduate. Talking about the power and potential of the technology is exciting and very palatable. I should know, that I’ve done this and continue to get invited to share messages that promote technology as a powerful tool for learning. I’m not going to stop but I have and will continue to embed hard truths and realities about focusing on what really matters. I don’t want anyone to be distracted by technology. I’m not a mental health expert. My little book on joy is about all I know. And while it’s far from a manual, it at least speaks to the value of living a life of wonder, gratitude and joy. That’s a start. Mental health is complicated, and messy and doesn’t translate well to data or even a story.  But our current level of focus and attention on well-being is pretty abysmal.  I’ve not even mentioned physical health which I believe is far underserved. If it were me, I’d be fine to trade in all the time we spend on Math and use it for health. That’s a simple solution but the bigger concern is what are we going to do about this? Unless policy, curriculum (thankfully BC and Ontario have started this shift but it’s really early in its implementation) and intent change, we’ll do what we always do, acknowledge it’s an issue and keep doing what we’re doing.

Flogging the Dead Horse of RSS

If you’re reading this and don’t know what RSS is you likely also don’t recall the term “Web 2.0“. Really Simple Syndication for me was the poster child technology for the era where the early internet began to shift from a place where only certain folks with technical skill and software could contribute to the web to a place where user-generated content was now dominant and more importantly, anyone could easily interact with that content. RSS allowed you to subscribe to specific content and people.

One of my early blog posts tried to articulate the power of this technology by using the metaphor of a “research team” Other educators curating, thinking and sharing ideas that were useful to me. All I had to do was click a subscribe button and whenever I had a moment could go to my aggregator Bloglines, Google Reader (which was still the best) and currently Feedly and see any updated or added content. While those of you who have never used RSS in this way, I can’t describe how magical and amazing this technology was. Suddenly I was being introduced to really smart folks doing really interesting work and they were just giving it to me. I recall a few years earlier I had been to a conference and the speaker invited folks to sign up for his newsletter and he described it as having the best people in the world finding the most current educational research and having it sent to your inbox once a month. That’s essentially what I was able to do except I chose who was on my team and what topics they were to research. This journey started in 2004.

Fast forward to 2014. I was asked to create a course on sustaining digital literacy.  The course is a few key principles including these:

  • Educational research is changing. While traditional research still matters, we also recognize teachers are researches and can learn much from their experience about what learning can and should be.
  • Emerging ideas can be accessed and explored more quickly. Because of technology, we know about new ideas and practices sooner. We no longer have to wait for a white paper to tell us if they fall under “best practice” we can try them out and research ourselves.
  • We now connected directly with experts.

It’s that last one in particular that this post references. I have included a module on RSS to allow my students to create their own research teams on topics of interest. Because I’m old, I still have my students set up Feedly accounts and plug in the RSS feeds of their classmates and hopefully add other blogs to their feeds as well. And like blogging, I realize only a handful will continue but I want to expose them to the power of sharing their own research/learning via blogging and how to find others who do as well via Feedly.

This term I received this bit of feedback:

 I think that Feedly and the RSS feed seem to be too much and becoming outdated. With current social media, I would most likely receive alerts when people/groups that I am following have updated posts.

And I think it’s true. I don’t use RSS the way I did in 2004. That said, I remember reading that blogging was dead ten years ago. And while it’s maybe not trendy, many educators have seen its value and maintained a presence. Apparently, RSS has some valid uses as well but like most everyone, I tend to use social as a place to find new and emerging ideas. But I also think using Twitter and Facebook to haphazardly find content lacks intention and depth. I also value reading a person’s blog over time to understand better their voice and context. So I’m asking for some advice on how to update my module on finding research. What replaces RSS feeds? What works for you that goes beyond “someone on Twitter/Facebook shared….” to something that is more focused and intentional?

Here’s hoping I have a couple readers left who do this thing where they’re brave enough to leave a comment.

Update: Thanks to Reclaim Hosting for fixing my comment issue when it had nothing to do with them. They are just good people. Seriously the best hosting service around.

Still Amusing Ourselves To Death

As much as I love the ability to connect with current practitioners and other smart folks around innovative and interesting ideas in education, we have a wealth of knowledge that lives in the recent and more distant past that is often overlooked. The bombardment of “new” through current media offerings tends to overshadow the truths that have been shared, considered and proven over decades and centuries.

When it comes to understanding media and communications, there are no better thinkers out there than Neil Postman and Marshall McLuhan. If you’re reading this and have never heard of these men, I would highly encourage you to seek out their writings.

I just finished re-reading Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman’s critique of the impact of television on our world.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.

I suppose some might not be able to see the connection between television and the Internet and while there certainly are differences, I found the parallels to be glaring. Without doing a full review here, I simply wanted to focus on one of his major points. He looks specifically at the way TV news is primarily entertainment and journalism is secondary at best.

No matter where you look today, the pace at which news is delivered, the emphasis on sensationalism and the sheer numbers of outlets, has turned important information and conversations into banal and destructive natterings. Postman might have suggested the same thing with television but the Internet, like it is want to do, has amplified this.

Postman didn’t have a problem with TV being a platform for entertainment. He thought it was well suited to make people laugh and be amused. His argument was that it was not a format designed for serious topics that required depth and time.  Although I didn’t have the context I made a similar argument about social media. That post is almost 10 years old. It’s only magnified in truth today. The places (Twitter mostly) I valued as a place to get to know people has turned into a dumping ground for soundbites and flawed opinions. In general, I don’t think people are smarter or more informed and part of the current polarization and divisions in our world are a direct result of social media. Its benefits for me lie in knowing more folks and finding other spaces to do meaningful work.

As someone who embraced social media early on, I was able to see what it could do to benefit our world. I wasn’t oblivious to the downsides but encouraged its use as a way to connect to smart people. Blogging was a way to provide a voice to anyone with an internet connection. I still see it as a potential space for deeper thought, however, long-form blogging, in particular, is not all that popular. If I was smart enough, I might even be able to determine how many folks clicked on this link and how many have made it this far. <insert joke/fact about how my writing isn’t engaging enough> Today I’m much less enthusiastic about the potential of these spaces and Postman’s writing has unfortunately fostered less hope. We are much more interested in amusement than truth. This is not a conscious decision as Postman argues but rather as a result of the nature of these mediums.

“Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.”  Neil PostmanAmusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Trying to be a truly informed citizen today is almost impossible. As an educator, this is where we have an enormous challenge. My work and presentations have me dabbling at this and yet being frustrated by the cultural tsunami of trite, bias and untruths bites that flood our feeds.

“Television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information – misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information – information that creates the illusion of knowing something, but which in fact leads one away from knowing.”  Neil PostmanAmusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Swap “Television” for “Social Media” and I think it’s still true.

At this point I have a couple of personal responses that I’m trying to deploy:

  • Talk less. I’m not likely to engage in any type of political discussion or even important educational conversations on social media.
  • Question everything. No matter what perspective or bias, assume it’s likely false. Hold your opinions until you’ve taken the time to investigate.
  • Utilize the right spaces for the right purposes. Social media, in my view, has always been best to socialize. This space has always been best to think out loud. Face to face extended times with the right people can be fruitful places for deeper discussions.

I’d encourage you to read something with some historical context because as much as we see the current age as so new, smart folks like Postman saw this coming a long time ago.

“To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple.”  Neil PostmanAmusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business