Understanding the Digital Divide

I need to be careful. A new job and new learning gives me plenty of excuses not to write. My mind is occupied with all sorts of things that make it challenging to be be reflective sometimes. Writing and blogging has been a critical part of my own growth as an educator and I have no intentions of that changing but I need to force myself to write. This might be one of those occasions. 

Last week I visited two dramatically different conferences. FETC is one of the larger educational conferences you'll ever attend. While numbers have decreased significantly from the first time I attended over 11 years ago, there are still thousands that make their way to the Orange County Convention Center to drink in all things related to technology and learning. My first time there in 2001 I recall attending a pre-conference workshop on streaming video. I believe it was Miami-Dade County sharing how they were able to stream events such as football games and graduations to their community using a truck with TV studio equipment and servers coming out the wazoo. It took me about 15 minutes to realize that someone from Moose Jaw, SK with a handy cam and a lab of 30 computers had no business being in on that session and no hope of ever being able to do anything of that magnitude. I continued to be in awe that week of the emerging hardware and software that offered some new possibilities. I left feeling pretty excited. 

The next few years at this conference were less and less exhilarating and by the 2009 I had pretty much decided there wasn't anything happening there that I would need. My learning space had shifted. What I valued from conferences was about meeting new people whose ideas and sharing I was beginning to understand but wanted some clarification. Call it the flipped conference. Unfortunately FETC wasn't the best place to experience this. Unlike ISTE,  who was not only larger but had begun to acknowledge this need amongst a percentage of its conference attendees, FETC wasn't really embracing this need. 

This year I attended FETC as part of my new role with Discovery. As it turned out, it was a great way for me to spend time with co-workers, ask questions, watch a pre-conference event and connect with many DEN stars. In addition, there were many Canadians in attendance (Florida in January may have something to do with that) and made some important connections that will be helpful as develop community in Canada. But although for me, there was benefit, I couldn't help but noticed that 11 years since my first FETC, there was still a large focus on tools and devices. Very few sessions dealt with the real hard questions of teaching and learning. To be fair, I was largely going by the program and session descriptions but I struggled finding sessions I thought woudl be interesting beyond, "here's a bunch of tools I think are cool". 

The conference ended Thursday night and Friday I left for Philadelphia to attend Educon. Educon and FETC are nothing alike. Educon is small, 500 or fewer. Educon takes place in a school. Educon is in Philadelphia, not Orlando. Educon is designed to be conversational. I led one of these sessions with Alec Couros and shared this diagram from D'arcy Norman as the basic formula for the conference:

This happens because Chris Lehmann attracts smart people. It happens because a high percentage of these people interact with each other regularly online. It's a community  coming together to get at some important issues. It's kind of a flipped conference. It's not a perfect conference but it serves the needs of many who are looking to connect deeply with people and ideas. 

I think FETC meets some of their needs as well. However it's much more of an introductory space for many. A large number of attendees are experiencing shiny new tools and ideas for the first time. I often lose sight of that. At the same time I don't think they're adverse to having the conversations that might take place at an Educon but may not be ready to go there. I think they lack a context for change. 

I'm making a number of assumptions here and I may in fact be wrong. But I did come to realize that just because I find the format and style of Educon more to my liking doesn't mean that an FETC conference doesn't have value. I also realized that my role with Discovery is going to mean that I need to find more ways to reach a more diverse audience. In one month of travels and conversations, I'm seeing first hand the spectrum of technology use and understanding which is greater than I perceived. Working inside a single district, I at least understood the culture. I knew that while not every teacher was using technology to its fullest, I was aware of the circumstances and barriers to a greater degree and was able to provide the more appropriate supports. I've seen some schools and teachers who are dealing with very different challenges than I witnessed. Schools with virtually no technology outside of a single smartboard and a lab of out of date computers. No wireless access. High levels of filtering. Boards with limited vision. While I was aware these problems existed, they weren't really my problems. Now they are. 

So all this to say the digital divide is vast. Somehow I need to prepare myself to address that and It begins with a more sympathetic attitude towards those just beginning to see that things could be different. I think at times I've been harsh and impatient with people. Not openly perhaps but may have dismissed someone's seeming lack of interest as being reluctant. I'm realizing that so many people have not had the opportunities and time I've had. Again, this isn't new but I got a good reminder last week. 

The Educon experience of community and challenging conversations is something I hope to pursue and nurture with my time at Discovery. I've got lots of resources to make that happen but I've also got a big challenge in supporting a country as big as Canada. 

I'll keep sticking with what's gotten me this far; smart people. I know a few. 




Playing with ideas at Educon

I don't go to conferences to get new ideas. I've been down that road. That's not to say that there's nothing for me to learn but as connected as I and many others are, it's rare that something will be shared that is completely new. I attend conferences to play with ideas. That's why Educon is a great conference. It fosters and encourages playing with ideas. 

I was involved in leading 2 conversations and both were learning experiences for me. Darren Kuropatwa and I led a session called "What's Wrong with This Picture?" I learned a lot during our planning stages and since Darren and I have never presented together before, it took some time to get our cadence and feel. We both felt there were some good things we did and also some things we would change if we were to present this again. Educon sessions generally focus around rich conversations using a variety of formats and strategies but the idea is for as many as possible to participate. Darren and I wanted to see if we could get our participants to play and explore with ideas around imagery. We were a little concerned it may not work due to time constraints, equipment and simply because it's not normally the format at the conference. We were both blown away with the quality, imagination and thinking that went into their work. Take a look. Upon return the conversation about critical thinking, media literacy, quantity vs quality emerged. The strong takeaway for me was that a little play can lead to important conversations. While I know that part of the Educon mantra is about moving away from shiny tools and discuss the big questions about school and learning, I think we do both. I'm going to be sure to incorporate that more into my work.

Darren and Shelley

I've had the privilege of working with Alec Couros on many occasions.  In our session about an "Obligation to Share" we really wanted to drill deeper into the terminology, have folks share some of their stories and then discuss cultural shifts and barriers. I've had this on my mind for quite a while so I thought it would be a great opportunity to see if others were having similar conversations in their local situations. The stories that were shared were quite amazing in themselves. The lasting idea that came out of this was in various conversations with Shelley Paul. These conversations were a mix of face to face, blog posts and tweets. As Shelley and I talked it became clear to me that as leaders we need to be storytellers and help others begin sharing and see that sharing is just what we do. I'll blog more about this idea later but it was Shelley who helped flesh out this idea much more clearly than I had before. 

Educon is a great way to spend a few days. Thanks to Chris and crew for once again doing an outstanding job. There's lots of time and opportunity to gather and connect. I'm blessed that so many people are willing to spend time with me and connect personally and professionally. For me it's equal parts learning and party. Which is nice. 

Photo of Darren and Shelley by Kevin Jarrett

Photo of knowledge isn't in our heads by Darren Kuropatwa

Saskatchewan Reform, Superman and the Media

The education world is a buzz with the release of the new movie "Waiting for Superman". The media has embraced the movie and is joining the charge to make schools better. While everyone is in agreement that our system is broken, not everyone is siding with the methods and approach and even the pedagogy described in the movie. Here are three takes you should read before you get on the Oprah bandwagon.

Dear Ms. Winfrey

I'm Not Waiting For Superman

What Randi Weingarten Should Have Said

I also wrote a post a few years ago about Michelle Rhee and her methods.

The issues in the US have some similarities to our issues in Canada and Saskatchewan but we're now battling our own reform issues. Recently the Saskatoon Public School Division, our provinces largest district, implemented some new policies around grading that are in direct alignment with our new curriculum. In a nutshell, we're moving to outcomes based education and need to change some of our practices to stay true to that. The problem is that many of these practices appear to fly in the face of many things that have been mainstays in schools for years. The biggest problem you have when making these changes is in garnering support. In this case all stakeholders are having difficulty understanding these changes. Administrators, teachers, parents and students are questioning the changes. Our own Premier has come out publicly and is questioning these policies. There's nothing wrong with questioning change. Change is difficult and in this case, some of these changes at first glance can appear downright strange.

But this is a combination of poor communication and implementation as well as media who are in the business of creating controversy. Headlines like "Teaching Plagiarism" or "How to Succeed: Cut and Paste" all serve to incite readers and enable them to quickly jump on the bandwagon and find a target in school officials as incompetent idiots. Everyone in education realizes that it's one of the few businesses that everyone feels they are expert in. That makes it very difficult to consider alternatives when many leaders and strong voices were once successful under the current regime of schooling. You'd have to read most of my 500+ posts over the last 5 years to get a small glimpse of understanding of the changes that are occurring that require us to change. This is not about change, for change sake, this is about doing what is ethical and best for kids.

 I'm going to try and address some of the most common misconceptions in this new policy and while our division has fully implemented these ideas, rest assured that in the BEST INTEREST of students, we do hope to move forward.

Students are not penalized for late assignments. False. The major shift in this policy is separating grades from behaviour. If we're going to measure learning, time should not be a factor. The argument many are making is that this is unfair to students who get their work in on time and it isn't teaching them real world skills. Once again, if this is a behaviour issue, schools need to determine how to deal with poor behaviour. Traditionally, many teachers simply made students stay behind or docked them marks. Schools need to set guidelines and ways to deal with lates. There should be deadlines and there should be consequences for late assignments. The obvious consequences is that those finished, don't have it hanging over there head. But there can be other consequences, but losing marks shouldn't be one of them. It's not often a reflection of their learning, it's a behaviour and should be dealt with accordingly. The solution of docking marks was the simplest but I'm not sure it solves the problem and definitely doesn't reflect what a student knows and can do.

Students are not penalized for plagiarism. False. Like lates, they aren't penalized academically but as a behaviour. In this case, the obvious consequence is do it again. The other issue here is one of education and developmental appropriateness. If a 10 year old is caught cheating, I don't think the consequences should be the same as a university student who knows better. If our job is to educate, then we need to start from that premise. Sometimes educating may involve punishment but it needs to be appropriate.

Schools are getting soft on kids. False. These policies are not intending to make it easier for our kids but if implemented well, places more onus and ownership on students. The struggle comes in developing specific protocols as the school level that are fair for teachers as well. A team approach is required which once again, has not been the norm. Typically classroom teachers have had to carry the full load of both late assignments and cheating. I think the consequences for these behaviours should vary according to age and regularity. Giving student a zero for cheating is a pretty soft consequences as opposed to making them redo it and maybe tacking on some community service for example.

I really don't understand those who think behaviour and achievement should be lumped together. One argument is that there is a relationship between the two. Absolutely. But this is another example of our need to simplify. Instead of rich information about a student that pinpoints learning strengths and weaknesses and also reveals work habits and behaviours, we ask for a single number to define the entirety of a student. We say, that's how it is in the real world. That's where I might disagree. Suppose you were hiring an electrician, I might tell you that she's does outstanding work, goes above and beyond but she takes forever. Depending on your situation you may be fine with hiring her. I could also tell you of an electrician that is adequate but can be there tomorrow and will finish the same day. The more information we have, the better decision we can make. That's the entire purpose of this grading change. The problem is we want simple, clean evaluations that can be reduced to a two digit number. How sad and potentially useless. 

I'd encourage you to listen to the 11 minute interview with Ken O'Connor who is a noted expert on grading. You may want to explore the area of his website where people have asked him questions.

The recent discussions in the US is slightly more complicated and controversial because the argument around what schools should be about is at the core of the discussion. Media has encouraged the public to look for simple solutions to complex problems. This approach satisfies our human need to see the world in black and white, good and bad. I'm sorry to say it's not that simple and to say it is borders on arrogance. I work with teachers every day who know the challenges and difficulties of providing great learning for all students. In the case of the new grading policy, we all want simliar things. We want our students to be accountable. The one deeper philosophical debate is whether you believe that schools are about sorting and ranking students into smartest to dumbest, good to bad or if you believe it's about helping all students learn. Those interested in ranking or survival of the fittest may lean towards lumping achievement and behaviour together.

As I said, we know that even our own teachers are struggling with these ideas. They fundamentally shift many long held beliefs. The implementation of the concepts themselves are challenging. They require staffs to sit down and figure out how make this manageable. Again, our old system was very efficient in many ways but not always in the best interest of our students. I'm not yet comfortable with how we've helped teachers become part of these discussions, let alone the parents, Joe Public or even our students. Simplistic approaches and answers won't cut it.

Thanks to the media, they've reduced a very important conversation to a bucket load of stupid, mean spirited comments that will only polarize people instead of uniting them. (by the way, if you want to listen to an intelligent discussion about how to balance the idea of transparency and public commenting, have a listen to this CBC spark clip) I'm hoping our district can do better to inform all stakeholders as to why these changes are important and ultimately serve the best interest of students.

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Overcoming our Metric Obsessed World with Stories

I’ve been yacking about storytelling for a long time on my blog. Partly from a personal passion and love, partly because new technologies have allowed us to tell stories differently and partly because storytelling is at the core of who we are. But beyond all these reasons it’s becoming more and more apparent that we are living in a time where storytelling is now more than ever an essential skill to combat the obsessive world of metric based living.

“In this world in which we are so centered on metrics, those things that are not measured get left off the agenda,” he said. “You need a metric to fight a metric.”Technology brings ever more metrics. The strange thing is that nothing in them prevents us from using other lenses, too. But something in the culture now makes us bow before data and suspend disbelief. Sometimes metrics blind us to what we might with fewer metrics have seen.

I’ve been fortunate to work in an environment where metrics and hard data have only been a small portion of determining value in education. I’ve operated in work places where trust was the core value which gave me and others the ability to make decisions and target efforts that while guided by some structure, curriculum or shared goals recognized our own instincts and judgements. This is changing and while it’s not all bad, in the absence of trust, data becomes the most important part of the decision making. Lack of trust = just show me the numbers.

Chris Lehmann has often said, “Good assessment isn’t cheap”. Triangulation of evidence, combined with story represents better attempts at quality assessment. We’re still pretty bad at triangulation so we opt for single sources of evidence and try to distill judgement inside a narrow rating scale.

Telling Stories to Administrators

Stories can complicate the process. What may have been a clear cut decision to cut staffing purely on numbers, can be seen very differently because a well told story suggests that the numbers might not be enough. Stories focus on emotion and emotion matters. If you’re a parent you know exactly what I mean. Your kids can be described with metrics in any kind of a meaningful way.

What is becoming clear to me is that our jobs as educators and parents must include the ability to tell a story. We need to have a variety of ways of telling that story for different audience and in different context but we simply can’t sit back and allow metrics to take over our decision making.

… something in the culture now makes us bow before data and suspend disbelief. Sometimes metrics blind us to what we might with fewer metrics have seen.

I’m not denying the need for accountability, data and all that jazz. It has its place. But those who can tell stories in powerful, meaningful, succinct ways are going to fair far better than those who will simply allow metrics to tell their story for them. Garr Reynolds on Dan Pink:

“What begins to matter more [than mere data] is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact.” Cognitive scientist Mark Turner calls storytelling “Narrative imagining,” something that is a key instrument of thought. We are wired to tell and to receive stories. “Most of our experiences, our knowledge and our thinking is organized as stories,” Turner says.

I’m wondering if you’re telling these stories, how you’re telling them and where you’re telling them. I’m not suggesting it’s a singular answer to making great decisions but certainly something that needs more emphasis. As classroom teachers, administrators and leaders, find a place where you can share you stories regularly. Practice telling them in different ways, using different mediums.  I think it’s critical.

The Way it Ought to Be

I'm at Educon.
If you're not familiar with Educon, it's a conference/conversation hosted by Chris Lehmann and the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA.

I was fortunate to be able to spend Thursday and Friday hanging around the school. Here's what I saw:

  • Lots of smiles.
  • Loud classrooms
  • A principal's office that looked more like grand central with equal numbers of staff and students talking and working, coming and going
  • Teachers who discussed personal issues with students
  • A brief power outage that didn't paralyze learning despite them being a 1:1 school
  • A lack of emphasis on technology
  • Students occasionally off task
  • Students excited to talk with adults

None of these things are particularly amazing and are all things you could find in many, if not all schools in North America.  I didn't see one thing that couldn't  be done almost anywhere. The teachers are good teachers but they aren't doing anything I haven't seen before. So what's the big deal?

There are many more observations and insights that one would make beyond the few I've listed but I'm not sure that any additions would tell us that "one thing".  It's obvious that leadership plays a significant role and that grows culture over time which is undeniably palpable.   While many will continue to deconstruct and analyze how, and if this type of place is replicable, Good teaching and caring adults can lead to a really wonderful place which Science Leadership Academy truly is. But maybe SLA isn't so unique after all? Maybe there are more schools and classrooms like this but we just aren't telling anyone? The level of connectedness among staff doesn't hurt their image but indeed follows closely with one of their guiding principles: Learning can – and must – be networked.  But behind that networked learning lurks teachers who know how to teach just like many of the teachers you work with or you already are.

I didn't see any one thing that blew me away at SLA . They just seem to embody the things we think schools should be.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by shareski