January 2011

As I’ve written before, Michael Wesch is among my very most important intellectual influences, and this new video is yet another important contribution to our thinking about how our intellectual world is changing and how education must be rethought.

Some of the key ideas come toward the end of the video:

the critical thing that is happening is that the public is exisiting now, is living and breathing, within a much larger sphere of information and knowledge.

we are missing the boat.

a critical open-ness to knowledge is something our work had better address or we are ill-serving our students.

I have written often here about the tranformative power of the web 2.0, and if we want our students to be active, engaged, critical and creative contributors, their learning environments should be ones of connection and communication with the wider world of intellectual discourse that the web provides.    But writing these ideas, as Wesch continually demonstrates, is only one of many vehicles for demonstrating the significance of this intellectual transformation; videos like he produces are eye-opening also.

The Annual Conference of the National Association of Independent Schools is just one month away, next February 23-25 in Washington DC’s National Harbor Convention Center.

This will be my  eleventh attendance at an annual conference.   Two years ago, in Chicago,  I was thrilled to be an “official blogger” for the AC; last year I contributed many posts to Chris Bigenho’s AC online community, which is a terrific resource and highly recommended.

However, I have never before presented at NAIS AC; somewhat to my surprise I find myself preparing for presentations in four sessions, sessions I very much hope 21k12 readers will consider attending: please know you are warmly invited and I will be delighted to see you in the audience (be sure to say hello!).   Consider too sharing these sessions with your friends and colleagues outside our “blogosphere.”

A Preview of Four Sessions in which I am participating:

1. Thursday Workshop, Block2, 12:00-1:00: 21st century learning at NAIS Schools: Leading and Networking for Progress. I have been referring this loosely as Leading in 21st century learning.

This will be a panel discussion led by my fellow Tucson educational leader, Ken Kay, the founder and former, long term President of the national Partnership for 21st century Skills. (more…)

It was lovely to host more than a hundred visitors today to our campus, and I spent the afternoon with the group visiting our middle school.  One way to take a peek into what is happening at our school is just to listen in to what some of our students and teachers are saying at Open House.

Students, answering the question What do you like most about the Middle School?

  • The sports program:  Everyone gets to play.
  • The relationships between the teachers and students, and you get to be friends with your teachers.
  • The welcoming environment: so great to wake up every morning and be excited to go to school.
  • The 1:1 Wings laptop program: computers help you expand your knowledge and you can learn more things and more deeply and you can go and research what you are really interested in– you can even learn with your teachers as you investigate a subject together.
  • The block schedule: you can focus on only 4 subjects each day, instead of all 8: it allows you to be more organized and concentrate better on what you are learning.
  • Here all the teachers know you by your name, and they help you with their homework.
  • This is the best school you can find: you couldn’t pay me to go anywhere else.

Teachers, during presentations:

  • We are happy to be offering math students the use of ALEXS , by which we can see better their strengths and areas of growth, and I can shape the math curriculum to suit the actual needs of our students.  (more…)

Sometimes I think I can be so bizarre in my educational views, or maybe it is just that I am unable to make choices– I love so many things about school.

I can have a hard time making tough choices when people present to me what they believe must be ideological or philosophical or pedagogical either/or options; instead I seek the both/and.

So here I go again.  Regular readers here know of my passion for PBL, project based learning, and I am so impressed and energized by what I see in PBL  in schools like High Tech High and New Tech Networks.   I think PBL is a dynamite way, essential even, for students to develop mastery in the 21st century skills which they so greatly need for their future success; I think PBL is the best way to incorporate technology into learning; I think PBL is the best way to engage students in meaningful, stimulating ways.

But I also love tests, which many of my fine colleagues find surprising.  I think a great test is a great mental event–  not just because a good test assesses students in order that we adults know better whether our students have learned what they need to or so that we have the data we need to improve learning.    I also love tests (good tests, not bad tests), because I think they can be extraordinary learning experiences for our students– that in the very course of preparing for and taking tests students learn enormously.

My own memories of school, beginning in middle school at Milton Academy when I first took “exams,” are of how my mind seemed to accelerate into an entirely higher level of mental activity and stimulation during a good test.  It was almost as if I had greater powers of perception and insight, making sense of things and making connections among ideas that had remained un-recognized until exam day.

The catch, of course, is that the test has to be a good test.

So today’s New York Times offers fascinating corroboration, in a piece called To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test.

Taking a test is not just a passive mechanism for assessing how much people know, according to new research. It actually helps people learn, and it works better than a number of other studying techniques. (more…)

Dear members of the St. Gregory community:

Recognizing our students for their unique talents as outstanding individuals, creative and compassionate community contributors, and extraordinary intellects is something important to us all.

Important also is that we make choices which strengthen and enhance the quality of our supportive and collaborative learning community.  We know that students thrive most and learn most when they believe that the growth and the contributions of each of them are valued deeply, greatly, and equitably by their teachers.

As each school year ends, it is especially important that we take strong strides to value every learner and enhance our learning community.   Traditionally, in the middle school, each and every 8th grade student is individually recognized, appreciated, and honored by a teacher at the lovely promotional ceremony.

In the past, our high school graduation ceremonies have only included the naming of each graduate as he or she is welcomed to the stage and awarded a diploma.   This year, for the first time, we will initiate a new tradition at graduation in which each and every graduate is personally introduced by a faculty member with thoughtful remarks valuing the graduate’s qualities and contributions. (more…)

Here’s news that seems to be surprising some people: what students think about their teachers’ teaching is accurate and relevant.

Any and all efforts to improve schooling for our fast-changing era must, I believe, respect, honor and care about what students tell us.    Let’s use the evidence of our students’ perceptions alongside of test scores and alongside of student publications, website production, exhibitions and presentations, to evaluate more fully and more effectively the success of learning in our schools.

The New York Times reports on the Gates Foundation research:

Teachers whose students described them as skillful at maintaining classroom order, at focusing their instruction and at helping their charges learn from their mistakes are often the same teachers whose students learn the most in the course of a year, as measured by gains on standardized test scores, according to a progress report on the research..   After comparing the students’ ratings with teachers’ value-added scores, researchers have concluded that there is quite a bit of agreement.

Classrooms where a majority of students said they agreed with the statement, “Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time,” tended to be led by teachers with high value-added scores, the report said.   The same was true for teachers whose students agreed with the statements, “In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes,” and, “My teacher has several good ways to explain each topic that we cover in this class.”

The best news for those of us who care deeply about learning that is deeper and richer than memorizing, drilling, and test prep comes in this part of the report (more…)

Perhaps my greatest professional passion these days is promoting innovative schools cultures, and particularly ones which facilitate our students in becoming innovators.   So I am especially taken with a new article in Wired Magazine (January 2011), by TED founder Chris Anderson, on “How Crowd Accelerated Innovation Can Change the World.”

As Anderson says: “This is big.” I think it may not be saying too much that the ideas contained within are genuinely transformative to how we think about innovation at present and  in the coming years.

In the piece, which is terrific and highly recommended, Anderson focusses especially on the value of on-line video in promoting this powerful new phenomenon, Crowd Accelerated Innovation (CAI henceforward), but CAI is facilitated by Web 2.0 technologies generally, and video particularly and especially.  Below I discuss CAI and reflect upon its implications for education. (more…)

David Brooks is an old faithful for me, an inspiration for his ability to bring wisdom and broader understanding to the daily events of our time, and to draw from our society trends of larger sociological or even philosophical significance.  I don’t always agree with him, often I don’t, but I am nearly always intrigued by what he has to say. If you haven’t read his recent piece in the New Yorker,   Social Animal, How the New Science of Human Nature Can Help Make Sense of a Life, stop reading this post and go read it now!

In the piece, there is a small subsection of particular interest to educators; Brooks draws upon his wide reading of recently published research in social psychology, happiness pyschology, and human development to articulate a vision of effective secondary education, and in doing so, he offers two strong assertions about excellence in education.

1. Connections matter:  Students need to feel a deep and strong connection with their teachers.

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. (more…)

This TED video is inviting and intriguing, even if it is not easy to tell how far in her cheek is her tongue.    Part of McGonigal’s point: if kids are more engaged in videogaming than in any other activity, and if deep, compelling engagement is the sine qua non of excellence in learning, then we have to ask: shouldn’t gaming have a place in K-12 learning?   (more…)

[ Remarks delivered Wednesday, January 12, 2011, after a moment of silence)

On Saturday, our hometown Tucson was struck hard by an individual acting without conscience, without reason, and possibly without sanity.   This terrible strike hit us at our community’s most sensitive place: not only did it harm and kill many fine, fine people, it hit us in the heart of our body politic.

Since the ancient Athenians conceived of and built the polis, a democratic state composed of citizens governing themselves in the open air by way of free and spirited discourse and debate, this idea of the body politic has been our civilization’s ideal, our shining city on a hill.

Saturday morning, in front of a Tucson Safeway at which many of us shop regularly, an elected official and her staff came to talk in the open air with Tucson citizens, acting out our nation’s and our civilization’s ideals.   In a scene that ancient Athenians would have immediately recognized, a diverse set of Tucsonans came together to discuss their views, argue their opinions, and express their hopes for our nation– in other words, to talk politics.  Senior citizens came to discuss their social security, a federal judge to discuss the future of the judiciary in Arizona, and a young child who had recently been elected to her student council to meet her role model, preparing herself to join the body politic as an adult.

When this terrible attack came, it came at a moment when they were, all of them, together, acting out our nation’s highest political ideals: to discuss and debate ideas about our society respectfully—and this is why the strike, was so especially devastating even also to those of us who were not immediately present and did not necessarily know anyone hurt.

This was not only a group of people attacked– and let’s be clear, it was a very fine group of people attacked, truly wonderful people– it was also our ideal of the polis, the acting out and practice of true democracy—politicians, judges, and citizens, adults and children, gathered together in a public square, in an event called Congress on Your Corner– which was attacked.

Because of that, I think that we all have, as citizens and as people concerned and committed to that ideal, a special responsibility to respond with a renewed commitment to live and fulfill that ideal. (more…)

On my recent post about the disappointing PBL-Explained video, I got a great comment today from Jill Gough, a fine independent school educator and blogger (Experiments in Learning By Doing); she argues that the PBL video explained, while not perfect, is a fine introductory PBL video.   Jill writes

HTH is one of a very few examples shown to me as a classroom teacher…over and over and over again. My colleagues’ reaction: “If it is so easy, why aren’t there more examples? How many times are we going to watch that video of the Blood Project?”

Here, for your viewing pleasure and information, are more exemplary videos articulating the value of PBL in forms more substantial and sophisticated than the disappointing PBL explained video.  In each case, there is a demonstration of excellence in the completed student products that testify to the serious academic rigor PBL can accomplish, a rigor about which, I  believe, PBL skeptics are often skeptical.  Three school networks are represented in the following videos, New Tech Network, High Tech High, and Envision/Metro Schools, and I am pleased to say I have spent entire school days shadowing students at schools in each of these three networks.


In my own effort to lead a 21st century school, I am finding no issue more difficult than determining the proper role of the AP exam and AP exam preparation curriculum.

On the one hand, it cannot be ignored that the AP is an important symbol and signifier to many families of a high caliber academic college prep secondary curriculum.   Over a period of several decades, the College Board’s AP curriculum did indeed assist valuably in raising the rigor and academic standards of many academically mediocre high schools across the nation.

The AP provides a tremendous challenge to many high school students, and I use that term, challenge, in praise: the AP can be an Everest, looming high on the horizon and calling out to many an ambitious 15 year old to work harder and to make the commitment to climb and conquer it.    Looking back on my experience as an AP US History student, I know the course demanded much of me and I know I was thrilled to respond to it, and I enormously enjoyed taking the AP US History exam.

The AP may also still loom too large in the minds of too many college admissions officers.  It is becoming clear that increasingly many of the most important, most selective, most analytical, most thoughtful colleges and universities have recognized the sharp limitations and deep flaws of the AP curriculum, and so hold harmless a student’s AP-free transcript.  But it is not apparent whether this understanding has percolated yet as widely and thoroughly as it needs to across the great breadth of selective colleges and universities.

But, good golly: The AP, particularly in the History and Science subject areas, has become the antithesis of 21st century learning. It privileges breadth over depth and memorization/regurgitation over critical thinking and applied problem-solving.  (More on this just below) (The DBQ section of the AP History exams is an exception.)  For a terrific conversation about the significance and value of a less is more educational approach, see David Truss’ post here.

In my own current leadership, 18 months into it, I know that I have deferred too long confronting this quandry.  I have asked for, encouraged, supported, and celebrated each and every initiative which promotes depth, critical thinking, and rigorous project-based learning.   But in doing so, it only makes the AP course curriculum less well aligned with our school’s educational philosophy and approach.

So today’s New York Times Education Life cover story, ReThinking Advanced Placement comes not a moment too soon, offering both strong articulation of the AP’s failings, and yet also optimism for a successful revamp.   It acknowledges powerfully the problem, praises the course taken by many schools away from the AP, and also offers hope for a coming resolution between the kind of learning that is most important today and the kind of learning the AP assesses. (more…)

St. Gregory sophomore Rebecca Rogers produced this video as her entry into the NAIS Viral Video Contest.

It is increasingly apparent that video is swiftly emerging as the communications vehicle of our new era, a development about which I am conflicted.    I adore the written word, and love to write myself; I can’t ignore however my own growing proclivity to look for and choose to view video as I seek to learn more on-line about a particular topic.

For a terrific article on the boom in video as a communications and innovation medium, check out this great article in Wired by TED founder Chris Anderson.

Video is the killer app. Don’t write me. Tell me. Show me.

My thanks to Becca, and my best wishes to her for success in the NAIS competition.

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