July 2009

When we speak about 21st century K-12 education and the integration of technology, we need to take care not to create the misimpression we mean the use of passive technology.    We do not  need digital projectors in order to better  projecting powerpoints onto screens (whether or not they are smart or dumb screens).  It is about using techology for active learning, not passive learning; about putting digital tools in the hands of our students to empower them to collect, analyze, and communicate information.

I am sparked here by an article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. which seems to be bouncing around the educational blogosphere.  In it, a Dean at SMU announces his plan to require teachers to “teach naked” by banning computers from his classroom.  (The video above is an interview with Dean Bowen. )  Research cited here includes this nuggett: “59 percent of students in a new survey reported that at least half of their lectures were boring, and that PowerPoint was one of the dullest methods they saw.”  No argument here.  Bowen is admirably passionate that classtime be used for more active student learning: questioning, discussing, debating ideas with their professors. (more…)

Above is an excellent video, akin to the contemporary classic “A Vision of Students Today,” where students themselves, college students here, speak directly into the camera about their understanding of the education they need to succeed.    It is powerful and compelling: in six minutes they lay out from personal experience and conviction their belief that lectures will not engage and will not prepare, that they have the right to learn material that is relevant and pertinent, that they need to learn to be innovators and creators, that technology has to be integrated into their learning experience.   When asked what advice they’d give teachers, they explain: “Give me a choice to express myself, ask me what is relevant to my life, ask me to really think, not regurgitate. ”

[My thanks for the referral to a post today at the blog, Life in the Rennaissance, by Chris Bigenho at Greenhill School.   At that same post is a link to a series of other fine, short, youtube videos on this topic, which I will be returning to!]

When I work to distill my view of 21st c. education into a word, I most often find myself zeroing in on “problem-solving:” real-world, complex, problem solving.  I’d like to see every syllabus open with a list of the problems we seek to solve with the learning we will acquire in the course, and every class open with a problem to confront and tackle.   (Essential questions works well too, and is not, as I see it, very different from my notion of genuine, real world problems).   Problem-solving is, paired with critical thinking, the first of Tony Wagner’s Seven Survival Skills for Teens Today in his incredibly important Global Achievement Gap.

But increasingly I am finding that another single word is competing for top honors: innovation.   Let’s develop our schools to teach ever more for innovation in our students, for their ability to critically assess problems, and then envision and yes imagine solutions for them which are original and creative.   Wagner doesn’t list innovation itself among his seven, but he does pair Curiosity and Imagination as the last of his seven., and together they capture most of what I see in the word innovation. (more…)

There is not a whole lot to be said on this topic other than it has to stop.   It is terrifying to me, and the statistics are astounding:  the NYTimes reports today that the risk of collision is 23 times higher when texting than when not.   It is a problem for all of us to confront and resolve, but there is every reason it is especially common among our high school students, and we are going to have to consider carefully how we can lead them to recognize the risks and reform their practices.   I know I risk being directive and bossy here, but this is a very frightening problem.  This blog advocates regularly that we welcome our students to use their powerful digital tools to enhance their learning.  When we ban students from this usage, we are looking backwards and missing great opportunities.   I think I am taking a bit of an alternative view when I say that if texting belongs in the office (and it does) it belongs in the classroom.    But it does not belong behind the wheel– and we must fight this.

I am curious to learn what other schools will be doing to confront this problem.  One thought I have is to, in assembly, to project on the screen and myself take the interactive test the Times provides.    Let’s work together on this.

It is not just traditional academic subjects which must be revisited as we rethink learning in our new era, it is everything we do and everything we teach, ethics and character among them.  Here at St. Gregory, Character is one of the three elements of our core trinity– Character, Scholarship, and Leadership.

Recently in EdWeek, (and republished here on NAIS), three educational leaders reported on findings from a multi-year study looking at schools viewed as especially successful at ethical education, and their findings can stand as guiding precepts for thinking about ethical learning in the 21st century.    As an overview, they emphasize that ‘the word “trust” reverberated throughout our interviews and site visits.’  It cannot be said enough– trust is at teh core of any successful and effective learning environment– and we must extend that trust to the students in our community.   Although all ten findings are useful (and you can find them after the jump), I want to highlight the last two:

• Authentic student input. Teachers and other adults naturally welcome serious student input in a variety of aspects of these school communities.

• Growth, not punishment. Since schools of integrity constantly search for “the teachable moment,” student disciplinary bodies are empowered to provide consequences that educate, rather than simply punish, student rule-breakers.

These both capture a worldview of working with students which I have been emphasizing here: that we must respect our students for their strengths and all that they have to contribute.   There is a great deal of research which demonstrates that young people (and all people) will live up to, or down to, our expectations for them.  If we treat them, or view them, as immature and juvenile, that is exactly what they will be.  But if we reframe our vision of our students, and see them (as I have written elsewhere) as young professionals, as interns or apprentices, they will learn more.    As in these findings, we must trust our students, we must welcome serious student input, we must educate rulebreakers rather than simply punish them.  In doing so, we build schools where they learn more, and they grow ethically more successfully.

Click on the more button for the other 8, also valuable, findings: (more…)

Patrick Bassett, left, chats with Andrew Odenyo during the Episcopal High School Leadership Institute, a five-day program in Alexandria, Va. Bassett says schools need to teach kids how to be creative, risk-taking and entrepreneurial.Great to see the educational new wave being celebrated in  a publication with the reach of USA Today– and to see the National Association of Independent Schools being associated with this new wave.  What Pat Basset is doing is important, highlighting and showcasing the ways in which independent schools are at the forefront of this essential new schooling.   Too often, our schools and our movement, one of which I am enormously proud of my nearly life-long association, have been far too backwards looking.   Before Bassett, his predecessor,  even in his very name (I am sorry to say), seemed too often to convey that our excellence lies in our tradition, our heritage, our legacy.  Because we were so great, (and we were), we will always be relevant and valuable, was what the message sounded like.  On a closet shelf in my Head’s office at my new school there is a a VHS videocassette distributed by NAIS in the 90’s, with a title like “Promoting independent schools: Preserving a Tradition,” which makes the project sound like embalming a cadaver– exactly the wrong message for a fast changing time.

Bassett, to the contrary, points forward, and his name conveys this doggedness in sniffing out the future.   From the article:

“It worries me that we’re not thinking big enough, that we’re not preparing our kids for a world that will be terribly different from the one we grew up in,” says Patrick Bassett. “It worries me that we’re not thinking big enough, that we’re not preparing our kids for a world that will be terribly different from the one we grew up in,” says Patrick Bassett. “We need kids to be more risk-taking, more entrepreneurial,” he says. “More than ever, we need the right brain to mix with the left.”


The current Atlantic offer a thoughtprovoking list of “ideas to save the world.”  Leaping out at this blogger is the one entitled Tell the Truth About Colleges. Thomas Toch directs a think-tank called Education Sector, and here he argues that

influential college rankings like the one published by U.S. News & World Report measure mostly wealth and status (alumni giving rates, school reputation, incoming students’ SAT scores); they reveal next to nothing about what students learn. We need to shed more light on how well colleges are educating their students—to help prospective students make better decisions, and to exert pressure on the whole system to provide better value for money.

I agree;  more to the point is my enthusiasm for the tools Toch recommends to do this, to “shed more light on how well colleges are educating:” the National Survey of Student Engagement and the College Learning Assessment.   Like Toch, I think these two tools, when used in combination, can reveal a great deal about how well schools are engaging and preparing their students– and regular readers of this blog know both that I have previously enthusiastically endorsed the secondary school analogues of each of these, the HSSSE and the CWRA, and that we are implementing both at St. Gregory College Prep.   It is great to see these vehicles for promoting school excellence advocated for in a national magazine; indeed, to see them labeled as ideas to save the world!   Surveying and testing kids– we are saving the world!

disconnectedShelly Black-Plock has his own blog, but his writing here at Ed. Change is excellent: I love the way he connects the dots of  student empowerment, classroom technology, and 21c. preparation.    In a piece called Disconnected, he discusses how wired our students are already, how natural it is for them to use digital tools, and how skillfully they can employ them for learning and actively doing in our classrooms:

I’ve watched students engage with their world in ways most of us teachers could never have imagined based upon our own experience as students. And whether it’s using Twitter hashtags to create shared cross-curricular reference bibliographies; or lobbying Web 2.0 developers to redesign parts of their apps to work better in the classroom; or using Skype, YouTube, and social bookmarking as a way to engage parents, mentors, and professionals to take part in the students’ learning, the kids these days demonstrate a day-to-day ease of use with and expectation of use of the immediate global connections the 21st century Web has to offer. (more…)

Below is my first open letter to the St. Gregory community, a summer letter sharing the initiatives I have been working upon since arriving on the job a few weeks ago; the letter also includes  my recommended summer reading.

Dear St. Gregory Community:

Greetings– I hope this letter finds you in good spirits and happy times this summer.    I have now been on the job here at St. Gregory for about two weeks, and I fear I am overdue in communicating with you.   It feels very good to be here– this school is clearly a place of action, moving forward, and it is a wonderful thing to work with these good and dedicated school people.  I owe a great thanks to Bill Creeden, with whom I worked side by side for a week, and who has done me a great service in passing over such a much-strengthened school.

Let me share with you some of the new initiatives that we here at school are already working vigorously, all endeavors representative of the new era taking shape at St. Gregory College Prep.   They can best be grouped into the following categories: Preparing Students for their Future; Promoting Faculty Excellence and Development; and Upgrading Technology and Communications.

Preparing Students for their Future

Above and beyond all else, it is essential we focus on our school’s mission: to educate students for excellence in scholarship, character, and leadership.   I chose to join St. Gregory because it is a school which stands for excellence and is well poised as a leader in our region in its academic excellence.  But what are we doing, now, to further develop this commitment?

  • I am asking all STG faculty members this summer to read an important recent book (August, 2008), by Harvard Professor of Education Tony Wagner entitled: The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need, and What we Can do About it. (more…)

I followed the blog at Education Futures to a site called The Edge and this article there by Don Tapscott, author of Grown up Digital.   Tapscott draws in the recent NY Times article by  Mark Taylor, which I discussed recently (scroll below).     But whereas Taylor puts his focus on how universities must change due to the economic realities, Tapscott wisely focuses on how schooling must change because our students are different, and he is right: we must think for every lesson plan how we are serving best the young minds we are seeking to educate:

Yet the students, who have grown up in an interactive digital world, learn differently. Schooled on Google and Wikipedia, they want to inquire, not rely on the professor for a detailed roadmap. They want an animated conversation, not a lecture. They want an interactive education, not a broadcast one that might have been perfectly fine for the Industrial Age, or even for boomers….Growing up digital has changed the way their minds work in a manner that will help them handle the challenges of the digital age. They’re used to multi-tasking, and have learned to handle the information overload. They expect a two-way conversation. What’s more, growing up digital has encouraged this generation to be active and demanding enquirers. Rather than waiting for a trusted professor to tell them what’s going on, they find out on their own on everything from Google to Wikipedia.


In our fast changing era, we have to keep thinking hard about how schooling must change too.   This video lecture, from TED, is by Internet evangelist Clay Shirky, and articulates how we are observing “the largest increase in expressive ability in history.”  No longer are audience members only consumers, they are also producers: it is “as if you bought a book and they gave you a printing press to go with it.”

Our schools can harness the energies this revolution is unleashing: our students no longer want to be solely consumers, no longer are they isolated within the four walls of our classrooms, but they are already, and want to be, and can be, ever more, producers, contributors, participants in the wider world.   Students can research real-world issues, and then blog them and twitter them, in ways making their learning more meaningful.

This was published in April, and I am a bit out of date, I realize, but I was traveling and am only now catching up.     Mark Taylor, from Columbia University, published this piece in the opinion pages of the Times, and it is a very thought-provoking piece about how to reinvent education for contemporary times.  Education must change or become as much a dinosaur as Detroit, he writes; it must become “more agile, adaptive and imaginative.”   Yes.

He is writing to address a crisis in graduate education, but nonetheless some of his recommendations for universities are highly pertinent to K-12 schooling.   I like most his call to

Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.


Hello Everyone!  Not to suggest that many of you have been missing me, but I am back on the blog, after a four month absence, during which my family and I took a “once in a lifetime” trip to Southern Europe and the Mediterranean.   As of today, I am officially back at work, as the Head of School here at St. Gregory College Preparatory School in Tucson, Arizona.

Among the mail awaiting me on my return is the new “Unboxed: The Journal of Adult Learning in Schools” from a favorite source,  San Diego’s High Tech High (and its graduate school of education).   Like Tony Wagner, I have written about HTH being among the very most interesting high schools in the US, and its synthesis of intellectualized teaching and true, project based learning make it an outstanding role model for 21st century schooling aspirants everywhere.

Perhaps the best piece in this edition of Unboxed is an article entitled “Keeping it Real,” which describes a teacher’s program linking her classroom to that of an organization in Guatamala.   In the article, Heather Riley cites guidelines from a book I don’t know (and can’t find on Amazon), Real Learning, Real Work. One of my consistent themes on this blog is to strive to make learning real, where students find genuine purpose in the work they do to master a subject, so I find highly valuable these these guidelines for helping teachers check the authenticity of their projects.

  1. The Work has Personal and/or Social Value, Beyond the School Setting.
  2. The Work is Taken Seriously by Adults Engaged in Similar Issues or Work.
  3. Students have Access to Appropriate Technology, Tools, and Materials.
  4. Students See a Reason for What they are Doing Beyond Getting a Grade
  5. The Work is Structured to Emulate High Performance Work Environments

This is a great short article, one which really resonates.  Riley’s discussion of number three, above, explains that “what seems to strike students right away about the project is that the book is really published.”  (A sentiment closely aligned with my own enthusiasm for publishing).   Her discussion of the fifth item also closely parallels my call for greater professionalism in the classroom.