October 2011


NOTE:  For 2011-2012 the goals deadline is November 1.

Last winter we began a conversation in our Academic Committee about revising the long-standing process of faculty evaluation at St. Gregory.   There was strong interest in this revision coming from our teachers and our department chairs, and in April we made a commitment as a Committee to revamp our process.

A subgroup of the Academic Committee met in May, including department chairs, administrators, and myself, and identified some of our key concerns about the then-current process, and goals for the revision.   It was an odd time of year to start the conversation, as school was concluding for the year and summer broke thereafter, but it did work to stimulate valuable mulling for all of us over the course of those several hot months.

Our shared perception about the then-in-place process was that it was too infrequent (only every four years) for feedback, support, growth or accountability, and that it was too bureaucratic, too paper-intensive, too much a matter of jumping through hoops or checking off a checklis of required syllabi, assignments, papers graded, etc.

Our goals then, as they emerged through our discussion, became increasingly clear: a more frequent and timely process that emphasized goal-setting and growth but still ensured accountability for teaching and learning effectiveness and desired outcomes, and which minimized paperwork and other bureaucratic elements while promoting greater connectedness, communication, and transparency. (more…)

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Last week I spent a few days visiting a very wonderful, creative, and lovely school, Seacrest Country Day in Naples, Florida.  While there, in conversation with a pair of terrific high school Science teachers, I was turned on to The Big History Project, a Gates foundation funded initiative to bring this interdisciplinary curriculum to high schools, based in large part on the vision and wisdom of historian David Christian, whose TED talk, which we showed today at St. Gregory, is above.

The TED talk is terrific: Christian uses terrific visuals, short videos, and a well-designed timeline to articulate the “threshold” moments in the universe’s history, and identifies what makes possible the development of greater complexity in a universe governed by the 2nd law of thermodynamics.    Most interesting, of course, is the role of collective learning: that only by learning with and from each other, and sharing that to pass it forward, can we sustain and advance our greater complexity.   As Christian concludes, however, with greater complexity comes greater fragility: we have an awesome responsibility as humans, we who alone have crossed the most recent threshold, to sustain our accomplishments and our creativity.

At the very end of the TED talk, the Big History project is mentioned, and it is explained more thoroughly in the video after the jump (more). (more…)

In recent posts I have made the point that we can better promote the learning we want for our students via “backward design,” assessing what we aim for and then working backwards to promote learning that will ensure success on our assessments, and the point that “digital natives” may be digitally comfortable, but that does not mean they are digitally sophisticated (or digitally fluent).

So it is in keeping with both previous that I write to share my interest in, and at least preliminary enthusiasm for, a recently retooled and now more broadly available testing assessment from ETS, the “iSkills.” The test aims to provide schools a fascinating way to assess (and, as a result, stimulate and motivate) the teaching and learning of more sophisticated “digital fluency” in our schools.

One important quick note: when you look at the online site for iSkills, it gives the distinct appearance of being available only to higher ed, but I have been assured and guaranteed that secondary schools of all kinds are welcome to participate and they think it suitable for students tenth grade and higher.

I had the good fortune to participate recently in an ETS iSkills webinar, and I am fascinated by the tool. (The 70 slides displayed above were the program of the webinar, and are extremely informative for interested parties.)

Much of the session was dedicated to defining the importance and nature of digital fluency; it occupies a spot among critical thinking, 21st century skills, information literacy and ICT: Information and Communication technology proficiency.

“Digital Fluency” as a term aims to capture critical thinking and communication in an online environment.  Surely most of us recognize that the world is going to continue to increasingly require of our students (and ourselves) powerful online and digital savvy in critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration skills, and we should be looking for more terms and concepts to capture this emerging and essential skill.  (more…)

In recent weeks I’ve observed a growing conversation about how best to advance both character education and the learning of 21st century skills.

What is increasingly widely recognized is the idea of backward design: that we can promote learning of our intended outcomes if we put greater emphasis on our assessment of these intentions.  Students know what to strive for, and teachers over time find themselves giving greater attention teaching and having students demonstrate the things upon which teachers know they’ll have to assess and report.

The recent New York Times Magazine cover story, What if the Secret of Success is Failure?, tells the story of two schools in New York City working to develop a clear set of intended character outcomes for their students.  At one school, KIPP, they embedded these outcomes in a formal report card element, highly quantified and if I understand correctly, a part of the permanent record.

[KIPP] started working to turn it into a specific, concise assessment that he could hand out to students and parents at KIPP’s New York City schools twice a year: the first-ever character report card.

At the other school, Riverdale Country School, the school was avoiding formalizing the character goals into a formal report card, in part because of concerns that students would “game the system” if it became high stakes, and so instead they were working to find ways to bring these character goals into the culture of the school.

“I have a philosophical issue with quantifying character,” [Riverdale Head of School Dominic Randolph] explained to me one afternoon. “With my school’s specific population, at least, as soon as you set up something like a report card, you’re going to have a bunch of people doing test prep for it. I don’t want to come up with a metric around character that could then be gamed. I would hate it if that’s where we ended up.”

We here at St. Gregory believe we are seeking and finding a middle ground between Riverdale and KIPP in our approach to a character and also 21st century skills report card supplement.    This has been a central thrust of our efforts in the past three years to elevate the importance of and the development of these skills in our program, and to better fulfill our mission to promote and cultivate in our students Character, Scholarship, Leadership and Innovation.    Our approach has been to develop a KIPP like report card for these qualities, but use it as a formative guide for students to self-assess, collect feedback from their teachers, and set goals with their advisers, rather than as a high stakes summative assessment which would then be “gamed.” (more…)

I greatly admire author Cathy Davidson, and I very much wanted to love this book, but sadly I don’t.

Now You See It comes from an exciting intellect, a scholar and an academic, a sparkling enthusiast and vigorous advocate for the “new learning” modes that my blog here promotes and celebrates.   Davidson’s focus is the university, and as a Vice Provost at Duke she led that university forward in meaningful and important ways; now at HASTAC she is clearly one of the nation’s most important educational thinkers and innovators in her work seeking to transform learning to modes that are contemporary, relevant, engaging, and preparatory for students.

So why I am so disappointed in the book?  As I’ve reflected about it, I think my main sadness is that in her advocacy for students being online and networked, and in her defense against what we all can recognize has been at times a loud and emphatic backlash against the problems of multi-tasking and digital distraction, she seems to work so hard to defend her turf that she allows for no compromise, no middle path, no synthesis, and the extremism of her position and/or rhetoric undermine her very argument and what are our shared goals.

There are terrific elements in the book.   She relates exciting educational innovations that she helped to pioneer at Duke; I am very inspired by the way she implemented the iPod experiment with undergrads at Duke, a “calculated exercise in disruption, distraction, and difference,” and the great advances in creativity, collaboration, and communication that unfolded as a result. (more…)

Some may be surprised to learn that I have a fondness for and mixed appreciation of Waldorf education, and that I am a Waldorf parent.

I appreciate much about the Waldorf approach, including its attention to developmentally appropriate learning, its emphasis on storytelling and mythology, its peaceful, calming, and focusing rituals, its embrace truly and deeply of whole child education, its naturalism, its “handwork” instruction and emphasis on craftsmanship and “making stuff,” and, in part, though I am conflicted about this, its affirmation of and mixed contributions to the cultivation of the imagination and creativity.   The students write and create their own books throughout the grades, which I think is terrific, for example.

Its philosophy about the exclusion of technology in the lower grades I can accept, up to a point; I think there are perfectly good and logical reasons to reduce or minimize technology in the early years of learning, though I draw the line in a different place than does Waldorf (a difference of degree) and I don’t draw it quite so absolutely in my own educational vision.

The concentration upon handwriting which seems to me to take up an awful lot of classroom time is a bit misplaced in the 21st century, but this is hardly a central issue when considering broadly Waldorf educational practice.   I’m given much greater pause by what is to my observation an inordinate amount of K-12 class-time used having all students doing exactly the same thing in unison.  It rubs me the wrong way, watching entire classes using an hour to draw exactly the same picture  or write exactly the same words or recite exactly the same math facts following the teacher’s modelling and always commanding direction.   I value diversity of educational philosophy across the breadth of our planet’s many schools, and I certainly respect Waldorf education’s right to use this approach, but this particular widespread practice is not to my preference.

So it is with particular interest that I read today’s New York Times front page article on the Waldorf school in Silicon Valley: A Silicon Valley School that Doesn’t Compute. 

Let me make my position clear: this is not journalism that belongs on the front page of the Sunday New York Times.    I think it is a very disappointing bit of snarky journalism that informs readers, a little bit, about Waldorf practices, condescendingly, but has as its primary purpose a not-so covert agenda to advance the paper’s ongoing attack on the use of computers in learning in its problematic series, Grading the Digital School.   The Waldorf school in this piece then, and Waldorf education in general, is only a pawn for the reporter Matt Richtel’s antagonistic crusade, and I want to caution Waldorf supporters from happily accepting their work being exploited this way.

What do we learn in this article that is being showcased on the single largest journalistic stage in any seven day cycle, the front page of the Sunday New York Times?   That some digital company executives  send their children to an expensive private school in their region, which they are among the few in the region to be able to afford, which doesn’t use technology for teaching young children.   (what percentage of the digital company executives? The article doesn’t say, but surely it is very small)

This is an anecdotal and almost entirely meaningless report: after all, every industry has among its many employees a wide diversity of educational philosophy.

(more…)

Rest assured: anonymity and confidentiality will be preserved here.   No mention of the school, fine as it was, or my fellow visiting committee members, excellent as they are, will be uttered here.

I write often about the value contemporary digital tools can offer our students and ourselves in learning to be better collaborators, and I want to share the very successful experience I had this week using google docs for such collaboration with an accreditation visiting team of 13 as we worked together for four days preparing our substantial report.

We took the bold step (not that bold) of being the first team in our accrediting association to forgo flashdrives in preparing the report and instead using, nearly exclusively, shared google word docs for our collaborative report writing.

Traditionally in my experience of about eight visits, individual team members each write their own report sections on their own laptops.   Then, commonly, they print them out, and share their printed copies with colleague/team members, asking for notes and mark-ups on their drafts.   To do so they have to go through the motions of printing, getting the papers to their colleague and back (as everyone is moving around), and then deciphering the comments/markings on the paper, and entering the changes manually back into the draft document.  Sometimes versions are emailed back and forth with changes made, which can be more efficient, but I always end up with multiple versions of the same document, and have made changes in one version while someone is editing an alternate version, and then have to reconcile what have become two divergent versions– and I have to keep track of which document is now the current and updated version.    Then everyone has to ensure getting the right version to the chair, by flash drive hand-off or email.    When the group works together as one on drafting the major commendations and recommendations, things are written up on a whiteboard and then have to be transcribed later into a document which can be emailed out to all but doesn’t allow for shared editing.

Instead– consider the value of working together on shared docs as we did.   The joy of there always being only one version of a document, never multiples that must be reconciled and identified as the most current or accurate.   The delight of having multiple editors working simultaneously, with no passing back and forth, whenever they wish and from wherever they are.   The chair having always, at any moment, access to check in and observe how each and every report is proceeding, able to identify emerging themes in the write-ups of a dozen different team members, and then upon completion having at the ready every document in one place.   (more…)

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