[original version, 11 Ways..., originally published at Connected Principals, 1.24.11]

[Numbers 11-14 have been added since the previous publication.]


Technology and innovation are accelerating rapidly outside education, but not rapidly enough inside education.  To quote NAIS President Pat Basset, Schools which are not schools of the future will not be schools in the future.

Like others, I am fascinated by pieces  forecasting the coming changes in schooling, and I am inspired by their example to offer my own.

Two that have been particularly intellectually intriguing and influential to me are  Tom Vander Ark’s Ed Reformer post,  The Pivot to Digital Learning: 40 Predictions, and Shelly Blake-Pollock’s post, 21 Things That Will Become Obsolete in Education by 2020.

I should add too that my thinking is greatly informed by the Christensen and Horn’s Disrupting Class,  US DOE’s Karen Cator’s NETP: National Education Technology Plan, the writings of Michael B. Horn, and the Digital Learning Now initiatives.

This particular list is intended to present fifteen ways schools can continue to be  relevant, compelling, attractive, and effective to both students and parents in the coming years.  

This post, more than most, is an ongoing work in progress, a post I might be choosing to update annually as my understanding and thinking evolves, and as the rate of educational change accelerates.

If bricks and mortars schools want to stay vital and viable, we need to recognize the choices kids and families have, and move to transform our learning environments to meet and beat the alternatives.

Teenagers themselves seem to be ever-more in the decision-making drivers’s seat; if we wish to enroll students into our schools, we need to recognize this and design around this (whether or not we think this is altogether wise).

As we know each day ever more clearly, technology’s influence is only going to accelerate, and kids are only going to have more and more choices– most particularly, high school kids are going to have widely available and swiftly increasingly quality options in on-line, “virtual” academies. Ten, twenty, or thirty percent or more will defect from conventional schools in the next few years, and to avoid becoming ghost-schools, today’s brick and mortar schoolhouses must evolve to meet the new competitive pressure.

With more and more options, parents are going to be choosier as consumers, and students are going to have a increasing power to vote with their feet.

How should we continue to be relevant and effective in the changing environment?

1. Become more accountable by using the right kind of data:  Scrutiny by our parent “consumers” is not going to decline in the coming years, and educators who might wish that parents not approach school choices as consumers are only going to be disappointed.  We live in an age of information availability and data-driven decision-making.

I believe that our role and responsibility as educational leaders, to remain relevant in the coming educational transformation, is not to refuse data/accountability, but to choose and use the right and best data for the right and best accountability.   Standardized testing will have to be a part of it, but we can use better testing than what is mostly used today, like the MAP and CWRA.

We can also use school climate/student engagement surveys and alumni tracking to provide data broader than testing, and we can and should publish our student work in dynamic and attractive digital portfolios (such as these at High Tech High) for the most authentic and best kind of  accountability: our student work.

And perhaps it goes without saying, but let’s say it: none of the following techniques will offer value if we are not succeeding in our goal of excellent academic accomplishment in the ways we carefully choose to measure, share, and demonstrate them.

2. Ensure safe, welcoming, connected and caring school communities.    Schools could be warehouses and factories for children who could become lost in a crowd only when they were monopolies in their communities, but tomorrow, students who don’t feel safe at their schools or connected to their school community won’t come– they will choose another option or they will stay home and connect on-line.  I like Vander Ark’s recognition, borrowing from Dan Pink (what he called in A Whole New Mind the significance of “high concept/high touch”) that successful schools in the coming years will be “Blended high-tech/high-touchschool models.”   A learning community is a place that values and affirms every student, ensures they have voice, and treats them with dignity and honesty.

As David Brooks wrote recently, One of [a successful student's] key skills in school is his ability to bond with teachers. We’ve spent a generation trying to reorganize schools to make them better, but the truth is that people learn from the people they love.

3. Engage meaningfully.  Students who don’t see the point of learning at school today won’t choose to learn at school tomorrow.  They can learn elsewhere in ways that offer them far more choice.    If Ferris Bueller wanted to learn history, his options were Ben Stein’s history lecture or reading an encyclopedia or textbook; today and even more so tomorrow, he can go online and learn through interactive gaming, youtube, and the like.    I think that upper middle class schools have a lot to learn from the inner city schools which work to combat drop-outs; schools like New Tech Network and the excellent CART: Center for Advanced Research & Technology in Fresno have built engaging project based learning which have reduced drop-out rates from 50% to 5%.

Schools which haven’t had drop-out problems before will see them soon, as students “drop-out” by transferring to other learning options (be they charter or virtual), and we can correct our drop-out problem by learning from the anti-dropout experts at those schools: give students something meaningful to do, make, create, fix, solve each and every day, and they will come back for more.

As Vander Ark http://edreformer.com/2010/11/the-pivot-to-digital-learning-40-predictions/, in the coming years “Science will confirm the obvious about how many boys learn, and a couple of school developers will produce active learning models with playlists, projects, and expeditions.

The results of such engagement learning must be outstanding: there is no cop-out here.   New Tech Network employs only PBL because of its active learning, but they use standardized tests and the CWRA to ensure their students are really, really learning.

4.  Affirm Socializing:   We all know why kids say they come to school above  all else: to see their friends.   That is what they “hire” school for, as Michael Horn writes; chatting and laughing with friends is what students love to do.   Schools should actively welcome and affirm this in their buildings and on their campuses.   Class-time can be, in a more open, active, collaborative ,project-based environment, far more social than it often has been before.  Schools can also affirm students socializing in the length of breaks they provide during lunch and between periods, and in the cultures they affirm via architecture and norms.

We might think that student time is best spent in class, focussing exclusively on school-work, but if we don’t honor their deep and innately human need for social experiences, we will only drive them out of our schools to other options.   I hate to say it, but if facebook and other social media is an integral part of their social lives, forbidding it from their lives for six to ten hours a day only increases a student’s motivation to redirect their education to venues which tolerates their social desires.

5.  Welcome digital tools. Students see the world all around them, and they see it is a world where every professional employs digital tools such as laptops and mobile devices in their everyday work.   Surely it must be frustrating to students to come to preparatory school, schools intending to prepare them for entry into the professional world, and be disallowed these very same tools.  When workplace tools were pencils, pens, typewriters and paper, so too were the tools of school; computers should be as much a part of students learning today and tomorrow as pencils and papers were yesterday.   Students should use digital tools on tests and on projects in the school setting as much as they will be required to do so in their work setting, if we are to prepare them effectively. As I’ve written elsewhere, in schools of the future, students learn by doing, vigorously, digitally.

As Blake-Pollock writes, “Because computing is going mobile and over the next decade we’re going to see the full fury of individualized computing via handhelds come to the fore.

6. Open the networks. Nothing is more important for the future of our society, Tom Friedman and President Obama agree, than that our youth become innovators, able to problem solve the way out of our societal challenges with creativity and ingenuity.   But how do we educate innovators?   Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, and Chris Anderson, curator of TED, agree and argue compellingly for the absolutely essential social aspects of innovative culture, and so we can see that the innovative mindsets will best be cultivated by ensuring our students can be digitally networked.  Networked, we stimulate each other, inform each other, motivate each other; we discover what’s new and we add to it, challenging someone else to do the same.

Watching youtube and posting video to facebook so that our peers can be informed and inspired and challenged to keep up and advance the creative instinct is what will empower our youth today to be tomorrow’s innovators.  Stifling and squashing the primary way information is exchanged among people under forty is not the way to keep education relevant and effective: open the networks.

7. Employ video: Chris Anderson, of TED, says that watching video takes us back to storytelling around the campfire, where the storyteller is backlit with a flickering flame.   It is ingrained in our genes to appreciate it.   By video, our students can learn from the very best minds of the entire world, whether via TED, MIT’s network, Khan Academy, or the very swiftly increasing number of other such sites.

By watching video students can learn far more at home during homework than they every could by reading a textbook, and indeed, if they can watch their teacher’s lectures on video at home they can come to school ready to confront and tackle difficult challenges.

But it isn’t just watching video that will make learning relevant and effective; it is by making video.  Our students must still learn to write and speak, but for learning to be effective in preparing for their future, they must learn to craft video.  Digital video communication must join writing and speaking as the trinity of communication essentials.  The concept of video communication can be expanded just a bit to include additional visual communication: data visualization is going to be a hugely important communication tool (as in this video, 200 countries, 200 years, 4 minutes), and our students should be learning it in school.

8.  Include Gaming. We know students, many of them, love video games; we know that the US military, some medical practices, and many corporations are using gaming to learn.    If students love it and it is good enough for adults, why can’t digital gaming have a role in our schools?  I don’t like gaming, and I am not suggesting we impose it on all, but as James Paul Gee, Marc Prensky,  Jane McGonigal,  Jesse Schell and the fine scholars at Epistemic Games are effectively demonstrating, gaming can contribute to intellectual development.  The schools which best determine how to use gaming effectively will have a significant leg up in the coming competition for students– both because their learning environments will be more learning, and I believe, more effective.

As Vander Ark writes,

The instant feedback from content-embedded assessment, especially learning games, simulations, virtual environments, and MMOs (massively multiplayer online games), will be widely used in formal and informal learning and will build persistence and time on task.

Learning games, both individual and massively multiplayer online (MMO), will become part of every student’s extended day learning.

9.  Provide Digitally Adaptive Skill Development. I don’t want computers to replace teachers; I swear I don’t.   See number 2 above: our teachers must become more important rather than less in the way they connect with and care for students.   My argument is here is that if we are to compete with on-line academies that will lure our students away from us, we ought to integrate into our teachers’ classrooms the best tools available for student learning.    Basic skill development is essential, and we can use digital tools to enhance their learning while a teacher serves as inspiration, coach, mentor, motivator and counselor at every step.   We can use computer adaptive testing to get much more immediate and much more detailed assessment of students’ learning needs and differentiate accordingly; as Vander Ark writes, “Adaptive content will result in more time on task (in some cases, two times the productive learning time over the course of a year), and better targeted learning experiences will boost achievement.”

Note that while what we are familiar with in this way has been very much restricted to multiple choice and fill in the blank type tools, the new tools will allow far more authentic assessment, whereby students can received valuable feedback on constructed response tasks responding to real-world situated performance tasks  that feel meaningful and significant to students.

As Blake-Pollock writes, “In ten years, the teacher who hasn’t yet figured out how to use tech to personalize learning will be the teacher out of a job.”

10. Use On-Line, Open Source Textbooks.   Static, dead-tree textbooks are increasingly archaic already, and if we want student to learn in the form in which they will need to continue to learn throughout their lives, we should use the kind of on-line learning compendia that the new “textbooks” will offer.  The OER, Open Educational Resources, Commons is coming and coming fast, and it cannot come too soon (I love their motto: Learning is Sharing).  What a resource for our educators to “curate” textbooks to suit their curricula, teaching styles, and students’ learning requirements, and what a way for our educators to take back the creative autonomy to design curriculum as professional rather than to defer the curriculum design to nameless faceless textbook “writers.”  Vander Ark is enthusiastic: “[Soon] a state and a handful of urban districts will stop buying print textbooks in 2011 and will shift to customizable digital texts and open education resources. ” Blake-Pollock writes

Books were nice. In ten years’ time, all reading will be via digital means. And yes, I know, you like the ‘feel’ of paper. Well, in ten years’ time you’ll hardly tell the difference as ‘paper’ itself becomes digitized.

11.  Insist our Students Conduct Ethical Inquiry and Reflection.  The world is only becoming more complicated and more nuanced all the time; for just one small matter, we are entering an age of complicated matters of intellectual property:  sharing and collaboration vs. plagiarism and cheating.  I have written about proper mindfulness requiring us to be “against actually,” and I am so taken with David Brooks argument for an education of uncertainty.

The concept of character education only serves us well if we accept it as an expression of ethical inquiry, reflection, and analysis: we have to problematize very question and think deeper to understand the multiple perspectives and chart our course of right and respectful action.  The more we can expose our students to look beyond the surface and explore multiple and unintended consequences, the more they will be prepared to be ethical citizens.  This can’t happen in a values or character class alone; these kind of questions and inquiries must occur across the curriculum and in every subject area.

12. Build the Digital Footprint. This is both a warning and an opportunity; we must warn our students to guard their digital footprints actively, not letting their names be tied to ill-considered actions or expressions.  But more than that, we should assist them in securing personal urls and in establishing blogs and portolios by which they can build up a digital footrprint that will wow colleges and impress employers.  Students who don’t learn to do this at school, and who aren’t provided the opportunity, will both be considerably set back compared to peers who do, and will seek schooling settings, perhaps virtual ones, where they can.

13. Employ Design Thinking.  I write often about problem-solving, but  frequently overlooked is the importance of problem identifying, and I don’t delve deeply enough into the problem-solving process.  How handy then that I have been trained just this past weekend in design thinking, the process associated with Stanford Design School and IDEO.  Discovery >Define > Brainstorm> Prototype >Test. Many schools are working hard to instill this mental discipline in our students, such as Mt. Vernon Presbyterian School (GA), which has built and staffed an entire Center for Design Thinking for its students.  Design thinking better prepares students, and it engages them in rewarding active problem-solving.

14. Enable Student Service and Social Entrepreneurship. Students care about the world and their community, they always have, but too often our school cultures inhibit them from connections and service.  Community service requirements are good, but not nearly enough; many great schools have long recognized that students need to be facilitated and enabled to do service that matters in ways other than requiring it.  Exeter has an amazing program of students traveling to India to do service; they spend the first week there studying social issues and identifying social problems to address before going to work to make a difference.   Schools were students believe they are making a difference are schools to which students will keep coming back.

15. Support our Educators in Becoming Growth-Mindset, Networked, Online Learners and Creators. This last should be first: For our educators to be teachers in the digital age they should be learners in the digital age. The power of the online PLN, professional learning networks, for our teachers to network, collaborate, share and learn is infinite.   The notion of a teacher alone in a classroom of students, door close, left to his or her on devices, is a 20th century dinosaur; today’s teachers to teach the digital generation can and should seize the opportunity that educational nings, wikie, twitter groups, blogs, and all the other powerful collaborative tools of the Web 2.0 to be informed and inspired in their teaching journey.  As Blake-Pollock writes:  ”With the power of a PLN in their backpockets, teachers will rise up to replace peripatetic professional development gurus as the source of schoolwide prof dev programs.”

Some, or perhaps many, schools will choose not to pursue these initiatives, and the good news for them is that in the breadth of diversity that the new age of education is permitting, some of those that choose to refuse will indeed survive, even flourish.   As the transformation occurs, their will be opportunities for schools to position themselves as the anti-NewSchool, and, in pockets, some anti-NewSchools might appeal to a significant enough minority of the population to sustain themselves.

For the majority of schools, however, choosing to refuse this agenda is choosing to become obsolete: neither relevant to the educational options selectors (both parents and students) will select,  nor effective in preparing students for success in our transformational era.