November 2011


Providing students laptops in learning is intended, in my view,  to empower them to be more effective creators, communicators, researchers, and collaborators; technology integration isn’t intended, in my view, to enhance students ability to watch, but to do.   In previous posts I have referred to laptops as “more powerful pencils,” not more powerful televisions or film projectors.  I am also especially enthused by the way we all, students and educators, are better able to pursue our passions to far greater depths by having tools by which we can access rich mines of information about our passion and build powerful networks with others who share our passions.

When the first iPad was released, I was, and to some extent still am, a critic and a cynic.  My concern has been that it is designed far more for the consumption of information than the creation of it.   It is a shiny, gleaming screen through which we can surf, scan, and survey, and by which we can be endlessly entertained.   It reminds me a little of the fancy screens the human characters in the Pixar film WALL-E watch, endlessly, as they consume media and calories but don’t construct or create anything at all.

Now consumption is fine, some of the time, and if you are in a household with multiple devices, like my household, an iPad may well have a great role to play. But as a singular tool for students, I didn’t think it is the right way to go for schools which seek to promote learning by doing, technology enhanced PBL, and 21st century skills (and with the iPad 2, I still don’t entirely, but my concern has diminished), .

In reading the recent biography of Steve Jobs, then, I was struck to recognize that Steve agreed with the criticism.

[Quoting Lev Grossman of Time] His main reservation, a substantive one, was that ‘while it is a lovely device for consuming, it doesn’t do much to facilitate creation.  Computers, especially the Macintosh, had become tool that allowed people to make music, videos, websites, and blogs, which could be posted for the world to see.  ‘The iPad shifts the emphasis from creating content to merely absorbing it and manipulating it.  It mutes you, turns you back into a passive consumer of other people’s masterpieces.’

It was a criticism Jobs took to heart.  He set about making sure that the next version of the iPad would emphasize ways to facilitate artistic creation by the user.

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I don’t write often enough about the importance of architecture and the design of physical spaces for effective contemporary learning, but it is something I want to spend more time learning about and examining.   Ira Socol is one resource; I find his thinking about elevating the importance of spatial design inspiring; another fine resource is the work  being done at Stanford Design School about innovative learning spaces by Scott Witthoft, a D School scholar and, I am proud to say, a St. Gregory alumnus.

In the same spirit, there are exciting things in development around classroom furniture, ideas and inspiration I want to learn more about and share here in future posts.

The video above is primarily just an architectural firm’s self-promotion, and I don’t want to over-sell it here:  In some ways it is old hat. “Open learning” environments were a signature element of many progressive schools in the ’70s.

Nonetheless, as I watch it a  few fine elements stand out:

1.  The respect the architect and the school administrators show for teacher voices, and the way they sought to include the faculty into planning these reinvented learning spaces, are excellent and admirable.

2.  The balance of open space, much more open space than in any conventional classroom, with nooks, corners, and round tables for individual work and collaborative study, is great.   There are a few chairs, but it seems that this environment allows for great mobility and activity, and honors students as doers.

3.  My favorite element is the transparency: walls are replaced throughout with windows, and learning becomes open, public, visible.  Classrooms become theaters for all to observe learning and indeed to learn from learning.   Teachers become inevitably collaborators and co-creators because of their much enhanced understanding and appreciation of the work of their colleagues.   Lovely.

Some of my favorite elements of excellent learning are:

  • engaging students in making connections from their learning to “real world” issues and concerns;
  • motivating and rewarding students by asking them to do work that matters to them personally and which they can invest themselves into, developing as they do a stronger sense of their own identity and their own unique worldview;
  • asking students to use, develop, and demonstrate outstanding 21st century skills and digital proficiencies, and in particular using effective digital communication tools such as websites and digital videos;
  • and asking, expecting, and even insisting that students prepare and present high quality, finished, polished “products” as culminations of their learning experiences, and use these finished products as goals and ends toward which their learning journeys are progressing.

In a recent extended assignment for our excellent History and Social Studies teacher and department Chair, Michelle Berry, Ph.D., students were asked to prepare 2016 Presidential campaigns, including campaign ads on digital video and full blown websites.

Here I am sharing three video advertisement examples, and two websites.   The first comes from student Jackson R., who prepared a Green Party Presidential campaign with himself playing the part of Robert Forrest.   Be sure to click on the image above to visit his extraordinarily comprehensive and near-professionally produced campaign website, and enjoy his campaign ad video.  (more…)

The recent Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson is, I found, un-put-downable and compelling: a sweeping, stimulating, poignant narrative of one of the most fascinating persons of our era.

Jobs is not an exact contemporary, being about 12 years older than I am, but he is near enough to make the book that much more connected to my own experience.  I found the book vastly more fascinating when its narrative timeline intersected with my own personal experiences with Jobs’s products: experimenting with an Apple II in the early ‘80s, excitedly acquiring my own Macintosh in 1984, thrilling to my iPhone in 2008.

Isaacson doesn’t hold back on the negatives: this is not a hagiography.   As fascinating as the book is, it does not lead you to like Jobs as a person, and it leads you only to a very qualified degree of admiration for him as a leader, even as you are (or I was) astounded by his accomplishment.

Of course I was taken aback, even appalled, by his ferocious cruelty toward nearly everyone around him.    Isaascson similarly is repelled, and makes clear in his conclusion that it was unnecessary and at times detrimental to his success.    But—is it possible there is something to learn from here? Is it possible that we could all benefit from being a little bit less determined to spare people’s feelings? Isaacson:

The nasty edge of his personality was not necessary.  It hindered him more than it helped him.  But it did, at times, serve a purpose.  Polite and velvety leaders, who take care to avoid bruising others, are generally not as effective at forcing change.  Dozens of the colleagues whom Jobs most abused ended their litany of horror stories by saying that he got them to do things they never dreamed possible.

I think of some of the cooking competition TV shows I like so much, such as Next Food Network Star and Top Chef,  and one of the things I appreciate most about these shows is the skillfulness by which they give strong, direct, frank, honest, cutting, criticism, and, even more, the way most contestants take that criticism and use it to make themselves stronger.  (more…)


I rarely feature guest posts from those outside my own school, but when I read my  NAIS & edleader21 colleague Chris Thinnes’ piece about Race to Nowhere and the vexing issue of homework, which I have written about here before, I offered to post it.  Chris articulates very particularly and effectively my similar thoughts about this topic, and I am pleased to be able to share it here. 

Race to Nowhere Has Some Homework to Do

Chris Thinnes is a parent and an educator who lives in Los Angeles. He is the Head of the Upper Elementary School & Academic Dean atCurtis School, a member of the Advisory Group of EdLeader21, and the director of the Center for the Future of Elementary Education at Curtis School (CFEE), which recently brought together educators from 103 schools and districts for “Transforming Elementary Education: An Evening with Sir Ken Robinson.”

In its latest emailed, tweeted, and web-based blitz encouraging schools to ban weekend and holiday homework, an impassioned group of self-styled activists has once again leveraged 21st century tools to provide a 20th century ‘solution’ to a 19th century problem: the overloaded assignment of dull, mechanical, and ineffectively designed homework exercises to millions of our nation’s youth. However, the similarly dull reasoning of their examination, diagnosis, and prescription (a ban, very simply, on weekend and holiday homework) will inevitably provoke irrelevant, unjustified, and blanket contempt for schools’ practices the rest of the year as well.

Race to Nowhere‘s activist arm, EndTheRace.org, swipes any reasonable analysis off the table with its burly forearm, before any of us — educators, parents, and students — have the chance to sit down to talk. In short, this campaign overlooks important dimensions of a complex discussion about the purposes of education and the needs of children, ignores forward-looking strategies about the appropriate design of learning opportunities at school and at home, insinuates a lack of professionalism and responsibility on the part of educators, and threatens further to divide, rather than to unify, educators and parents of children in our nation’s schools.

“The research on homework is clear and unanimous. Most homework does not increase learning, raise scores, or prepare students for the future.” -EndTheRace.org

If this were an accurate assessment of research ‘on homework,’ it would be compelling. However, this statement misrepresents the fact that only research on the overload of homework is ‘clear and unanimous’ in its findings: namely, that homework should be limited to developmentally appropriate workloads of 10 minutes per grade level per day. [http://today.duke.edu/2006/03/homework.html] (more…)

It is nomination season for the Edublogger Awards (deadline is Friday, December 2), and, like so many of my colleagues, I am participating again with mixed feelings.   As many readers know, I have expressed my hesitations with school awards ceremonies, and hate the idea that we might divide a learning community by singling out some for internal awards.    But at the same time, I am entirely supportive of our students and teachers pursuing and being honored with external recognition.

Before preparing my nominations, I took some time to update my “Blogroll,” and I want to emphasize its importance, much greater than this post: Find it on the right hand column bar.   The 78+  names on that list, and as I am continuing to work on it, what will soon be more than 100, are incredibly important parts of my intellectual universe and learning network, and I am deeply indebted to them.  Please be assured, it is an evolving list, and I will be adding to it regularly.

The Edublogger award nomination page doesn’t make clear, to my eyeballs, whether you can nominate only one, or more than one,  in each category.  For most of the categories I am writing about I will offer several suggestions, but the last in each section, in bold, will be my particular singular  nomination.

Best Individual Blog:

Lisa Nielsen’s Innovative Educator: Sharing Ideas about Learning Innovatively provides an informative, prolific, and passionate advocacy for her view of educational progress and innovation, much, though not all of which I share.   She’s got so much energy, enthusiasm, and idealism for digital empowerment of students and for a whole world-view of networked, tech-savvy, open-minded, educational advancement that it makes you want to jump up from your chair and join a march for her cause.  Among her great strengths is her continuing concern for youth voice.

Kids love having the opportunity to learn online but it’s not merely the medium or the technology that students enjoy. At the recent iNacol Virtual Schools Symposium I listened to high school students who have experience learning this way as well as teachers who have experience with these students, share some advice for making this type of learning even better.

Rick Ackerly also speaks for kids, but does so not by sharing their voice as by honoring, treasuring even,  their experience and point of view.   His blog’s title, The Genius in Children, captures it effectively.

Notice, delight, respond, conflict, challenge, inquire, define, love, and watch how the child’s unique character reveals itself to you. Notice how that character is driven by some ineffable inner voice, her own unique genius. .

Bill Ferriter’s The Tempered Radical speaks for teachers, especially; it is remarkable to me that a full time teacher can maintain such a frequent and outstanding stream.   But he also speaks for all of us who share this vision of the importance of innovation and educating our our students to be innovative; of the exciting synergy of Web 2.0 and 21st century skills; or professional learning communities and networked learning.

“Constructing a TED in their heads” is a cool phrase, isn’t it?   It is an approachable reminder that when we are building our own learning networks using social tools like blogs, Twitter and Facebook, we need to intentionally reach beyond the thinking of leading educators.

Best Group Blog:

Connected Principals has become a second home for me online, and one I am extremely pleased to learn from weekly and contribute to monthly.    (more…)

One of our initiatives underway this year is a pilot of Schoology, an online social network for schools in by which teachers and students can communicate and collaborate, and manage their courses.    About five of our teachers are using it, and, particularly in the middle school, we are finding good success with it.

One of our teachers working with it, Corinne Bancroft, who teaches 6th and 8th grade English, offered a session recently with her colleagues to showcase her usage and encourage others to come aboard.    The slides above are from that talk, and she provided the comments below.

I do think Schoology is the best free solution to get our students’ homework all in the same free place, consistently organized. … I believe that Schoology is more appropriate for middle school.  My students’ parents value the privacy and safety of Schoology.  My students find it easy to use, and the sixth graders think it is cool because it is like facebook (which they for the most part are too young to have).

Schoology does not have the more complicated functions that [high school teachers may wish to ]use (but that’s fine for middle school).  One has used moodle successfully for a few years, which is also free; Moodle worked better for her, but she thinks it is not as intuitive and would not be so easy to figure out for younger students.  Finally, the other cool thing about schoology is they recently added a parent membership.  (more…)

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