January 2009

Book Cover

This is a funny book by the late, great Postman.  Read the first few chapters, and you might find it hard to believe that an ardent proponent of 21st century education like myself would find any points of contact with the cantankerous Postman.  But read on, don’t let his diatribes against the internet and email fool you.   In the chapter on education, there are some very significant points of value for those of us trying to shape a new, contemporary education for our students.

First though I want to draw in a short quote from a chapter on information; in it Postman offers very helpful distinctions between information, knowledge, and wisdom, and I think they really speak to those of us trying to move the learning experience away from an accumulation of facts (information) to a greater sophistication of thinking and a deeper understanding of concepts.   What is great is that he also links his ideas about wisdom to one of this blogger’s central points: at the center of 21st century learning is problem solving:

Knowledge is only organized information.  It is self-contained, confined to a single system of information about the world. One can have a great deal of knowledge about the world but entirely lack wisdom…. I mean by wisdom the capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to the solution of significant problems. [italics added] (more…)

https://i0.wp.com/4.bp.blogspot.com/___hMvuVxZ1g/SM6vNE0HEvI/AAAAAAAAEG8/ORtGa5PjQT4/s320/2008-09-15_205023.bmpA bit bland, but nonetheless valuable contribution this week from the Partnership (P-21), on learning environments which support 21st century learning.   P-21 is offering a valuable approach, this blogger believes, in articulating that it is by progressive educational vehicles we will best prepare our students for the changing world.  In this new white paper, the topic is not what skills students need to learn but rather what systems will support them, and it is a healthy list: flexible and sustainable learning spaces, credits for learning accomplishments rather than seat time, technology to support learning goals, a commitment to professional learning communities (and planning time!) for teachers.

[A] 21st century learning environment [is] an aligned and synergistic system of systems that:
 Creates learning practices, human support and physical
environments that will support the teaching and learning of 21st
century skill outcomes
 Supports professional learning communities that enable
educators to collaborate, share best practices, and integrate 21st
century skills into classroom practice
 Enables students to learn in relevant, real world 21st century
contexts (e.g., through project-based or other applied work) (more…)

Cover Image

I love this book (published 2003);  I think it conveys better than any other I know an essential message for schooling today: that quality student work matters, that we can teach for it and expect it and recognize it, and that as much as process matters, product matters equally.    So much energy is being expended on measuring student achievement quantitatively, and this blogger is on record endorsing quantitative measurements (but the right ones!), but we also need to embrace the qualitative too.

In the past year I have read nearly 50 books on contemporary schooling, and this is one of the very best in that set.   Berger teaches 5th grade, and so I fear that some might dismiss his counsel as being only suited for elementary schools, but that would be a big mistake.    Secondary schooling needs to make a much bigger commitment to challenging and supporting students to do truly excellent, finished work, and to display and publish it widely.  Sizer has taught us that exhibitions matter, that students should be being prepared to present some final demonstration of their learning for secondary graduation, but I think the method must be broader than just a summation: throughout our students’ schooling they should be presenting and publishing polished work. (more…)

High commendations from 21k12 to Peter Gow and his blog, The New Progressivism.     Gow, who has contributed brilliantly to the ISED list serve for years, and much to the illumination of this blogger, is now broadening his mission to use a blog platform to advance a “new progressive” educational agenda, an agenda that 21k12 is hard pressed to find any difference of significance from the agenda of this blog.

Any difference that may exist between us lies largely in the semantics.   For what Gow calls the “New” Progressivism, I prefer using the 21st century educational concept, believing it less ideologically loaded than the “progressive” term.   Schooling today cannot separate itself from the agenda of reformers who want to ensure education is preparing a highly skilled 21st century workforce, and I want to embrace and collaborate with that movement– co-opt it if you will– by using language that we can all rally around– and I think the 21st c. term does that.



Below is a short article (not written by me) which appeared in the Summer, 2008 Sidwell Friends Alumni Bulletin, and below it is my response, published in the following issue as a letter to the editor. 

“One-on-One Learning: Next fall, every sixth grade student at SFS will receive a tablet laptop computer as part of an exploratory pilot program. The decision was made after a committee spent last year researching one-to-one student laptop programs, visiting peer schools that have such programs, and debating their findings. The committee recommended the pilot program, in which every student has his or her own tablet PC. Since the committee also found that one-to-one programs are most effective when tablet use is determined directly by the classroom teacher, the sixth grade teachers will decide whether, when, where, why and how their students will use the laptops. ” [italics added]

Fall 2008 Magazine

And my letter to the editor, published in the Fall, 2008 issue: 

Dear Editor, 

As a K-8 school-head myself, I applaud Sidwell’s initiative to bring tablet computers, 1:1, to its sixth graders. Doing so will greatly empower those students to be more effective learners, better able to construct their own knowledge, collaborate with others both near and far, and produce their own creative content in authentic and meaningful ways. Certainly, their teachers will be and should be setting goals for their students, and carefully guiding them in their use of these tools.   But, I feel confident that Sidwell teachers will not and should not entirely “decide whether, when, when, where, why, and how their students will use their laptops.” (more…)

DetailsRecently read this book by Ariely– and found the following discussion highly relevant to my thinking here on 21st century education: 

As we learned in our experiments, cash will take you only so far— social norms are the forces that can make a difference in the long fun.  Instead of focusing the attention of the teachers, parents, and kids on test scores, salaries, and competition, it might be better to instill in all of us a sense of purpose, mission, and pride in education.  To do this we certainly can’t take the path of market norms.  The Beatles proclaimed some time ago that you “Can’t Buy Me Love” and this also applies to the love of learning– you can’t buy it, and if you try, you might chase it away.  

So how can improve the educational system? We should probably first rethink school curricula, and link them in more obvious ways to social goals (elimination of poverty and crime, elevation of human rights, etc.), technological goals (boosting energy conservation, space exploration, nanotechnology, etc.) and medical goals (cures for cancer, diabetes, obesity, etc.) that we care about as a society.  This way the students, teachers, and parents might see the larger point in education, and become more enthusiastic and motivated about it. 

Class Struggle by Jay Mathews, Education Columnist  Jay Matthews is at it again, this month, in his Washington Post column, calumniating against any teaching for 21st century skills.  He did so in November, and I responded to it then, and here goes again, arguing that teaching 21st century skills is nothing but a fad: “a pipe dream that should be tossed in the trash.” 

As before, he himself acknowledges he is being “cranky” on this topic.   The main new thrust here, and there is little that is new, is an attack on the Partnership for 21st century skills (P21) for advocating that our education system  must be “aligned” in order to best prepare students for the fast changing world.    Now I would agree that the word “must” is a bit excessive (I’d have offered “should seek to be”) but to go from this statement to the conclusion that P21 is demanding an “all-at-once” transformation of our system is much more excessive, and a really unfair attack on the partnership’s program.  (Read P21’s response to Matthews).   


St. Gregory school

Originally uploaded by JonathanEMartin

An iPhone image of the school’s Mirador Gymnasium, home of the current Arizona State Men’s Basketball Champs the Hawks.


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Enjoyed a terrifically succinct report on what we have to learn about learning from video games, last week, by an excellent independent school administrator, Phil Woodall, with whom I will have the pleasure of collaborating in the coming year.   I am a fan of the topic, and have been since experiencing something of a conversion in 2006, upon hearing a speech by Marc Prensky and reading a book by Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You

Video games, he said, and I think he was alluding to the work of James  Paul Gee,  ensure learning by being challenging; by being fun; and by providing immediate feedback.    There it is– the elixir for good schooling, in 11 words, and we learned it from video games.


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Perhaps a silly observation, but I think it is great news that President Obama is keeping his blackberry with him as President.  It models a 21st century leadership, digitally proficient and digitally connected.  Blackberries, iPhones, and other smartphones are the central digital tool of our age, and they belong, this blogger believes, in the Oval Office and in the classroom.   Yesterday I was interviewed for a high school newspaper by an 11th grade student who emailed me– mid-day– from his iPhone to arrange the interview, and then called me to conduct the interview from his iPhone.  This is good schooling and good learning.


Excellent piece in the New York Times last week, explaining MIT’s decision to shift its introductory physics class from an all-lecture format to small groups collaboration and problem-solving.    MIT calls the new approach TEAL: Technology Enhanced Active Learning.  


At M.I.T., two introductory courses are still required — classical mechanics and electromagnetism — but today they meet in high-tech classrooms, where about 80 students sit at 13 round tables equipped with networked computers.

Instead of blackboards, the walls are covered with white boards and huge display screens. Circulating with a team of teaching assistants, the professor makes brief presentations of general principles and engages the students as they work out related concepts in small groups.

Teachers and students conduct experiments together. The room buzzes. Conferring with tablemates, calling out questions and jumping up to write formulas on the white boards are all encouraged.


Why is this good news for high school students?