Monday, December 20, 2010

Thanks Google

In September I wrote a piece on this blog called, “It’s Scary” about the apprehension we, particularly older people, feel about keeping up with technology.  Can we learn quickly enough to keep pace?  Will we ever be able to learn it all?  The piece also appeared in the Washington Post education blog edited by Valerie Strauss, .  I don’t know if the people at Google read it, but they’ve provided a Christmas present for children to give to their tech-challenged parents, like me.  Now your kids can send you a personalized Tech Support Care Package.  It includes all sorts of tech support videos. If you’re antsy and want something to do on Christmas Eve, go here:  Learn at your own speed and have fun doing it!


In his article, In Pursuit of the Perfect Brainstorm, in The New York Times Magazine, David Segal writes about ways in which Corporate America is seeking help to come up with new ideas.  Successful managers are being defined not by their mastery of data, but by their leadership, creativity and vision.  Companies are seeking ways to nurture those qualities.

Segal writes about Vijay Govindarajan, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business.  Govindarajan “presents companies with what he calls the three-box framework.  In Box 1, he puts everything a company now does to manage and improve performance.  Box 2 is labeled ‘selectively forgetting the past,’ his way of urging clients to avoid fighting competitors and following trends that are no longer relevant.  Box 3 is strategic thinking about the future.  ‘Companies spend all of their time in Box 1, and think they are doing strategy,’ he says.  ‘But strategy is really about Box 2 and 3 – the challenge to create the future that will exist in 2020.’  He recommends to clients what he calls the 30-30 rule: 30 percent of the people who make strategic decisions should be 30 years old or younger.  ‘The executives who’ve been there a long time, they grew up in Box 1’, he says.  ‘You need voices in the room that aren’t vested in the past.’

I suggest that while schools may talk about preparing students for the future (while going about business as usual), they spend very little time thinking and planning for the future.  What significant change has today’s high school, for example, undergone since you were a high school student?  It is pretty much people going about doing the same things in the same predictable way.

The people who run schools are Box 1 types.  They grew up in Box 1.  They may want to spruce the box up a bit, but at the end of the day, Box 1 leaders beget more of Box 1.   

Box 2 school thinking is called, “How does what we do compare with other schools?” “Excellence” gets defined by what everyone else is doing.  The standardized testing consuming schools today is done for the purposes of comparison. Look at the similarity of curriculum in schools across the country.  What gets taught and when. Everyone is watching their neighbor.  The result is school as a place where, as Seth Godin says, “the curious are punished.”

How much time do schools truly devote to Box 3?  Either thinking about the future or focusing on the communication, collaboration, and creativity skills the future will require?  How many schools that do engage in any sort of strategic planning employ anything near the 30-30 rule?  Much less using the 30-30 rule for decision-making. How many schools, or school systems ask current consumers, i.e. students, to participate in strategic planning?

Schools are, by and large, “boxed in”.  Run by people who grew up in Box 1, confer with people in Box 1, and evaluate their success by comparing themselves with other schools.  In one school I worked in those people were most aptly titled, the Senior Staff.  Real change in schools will come about not through the managers, not through senior staffs, but through the people on the shop floor, those teachers brave enough to anticipate the future and willing to create and share new ways of teaching for it.  Some, alas, will end up teaching outside schools as the price of their courage.  That may ultimately be a very good thing.  That may be where real learning can flourish.        


Thursday, December 16, 2010


A month ago, one of our most important thinkers on education in this country, Sam Chaltain, wrote a piece asking, Is public education really facing its own "Blockbuster moment"?   I encourage you to read it.  More recently, Sam has asked for responses to his piece.  Herewith mine:

The Blockbuster/Netflix analogy is a good one.  We are approaching, or perhaps already in, “Netschool”, without realizing it.  With Blockbuster a customer had to go to a particular location. Yes, there were scores of Blockbusters across the landscape, but they were all pretty much alike and they all needed the customer to walk through the door.  Once there, customers were limited to the titles in the store, when they happened to be available in the store.  Blockbuster controlled the titles available, the quantity of titles available, and when or how long a customer got to watch them.  If you kept a title too long you paid a penalty.  Much like school systems controlling what gets taught, how it gets taught, and when in a student’s life it gets taught.  Students who need more time with the “product” are often penalized (either by grades or promotion or being treated as “special needs”).  Students who can't get a product they might enjoy are out of luck.  

Blockbuster is store driven.  They sell what they think will sell.  Netflix is customer driven. They sell what customers ask for.  They do it by offering a broader ranger of titles, easier access to the titles, and do a better job of delivering them when you want them. You keep them until you’re done with them. You can use them in convenient locations.

“Netschool” is also customer driven.  This is the important difference.  Learning heretofore has always been institution based.  The government/church/school has controlled and established what it thinks is important and proper for individuals to learn.  (Not that long ago much knowledge was only offered in Latin – like some old-time VHS/Beta debate. Students spent a long time learning Latin, an increasingly obscure code, before getting around to getting information in Latin, much less useful contemporary information.)  Later, the factory model of schooling limited access to learning to particular places, times of day, and particular periods in an individual’s lifespan.  Like Blockbuster, a learner had to be onsite at the store.  They then had to pick from the store’s available choices.  (Yes, the analogy fails in one way.  Schools tend to stay stocked on reliable, long running classics, without many “new releases”.  Blockbuster tends to rely on the popularity of new releases.)  One’s ability to learn was evaluated on how one fit the institutional time coordinates.  Both your day and your learning career were/are scheduled.  Failure to adhere to the schedule was seen as a problem with the learner, not the schedule, or the content in the store.  Blockbuster runs out of stock from time to time.  So do schools.  Physical education, music, dance, visual arts, drama, among others,  all seem to be off the shelves at the moment.   

“Netschool” frees learners from the restrictions of space and time. It allows the learner to determine what they wish to learn and to learn it in a time frame that is convenient for them.  In “Netschool” the learner does not have to report to a particular location. One can roam to find not only subject matter of interest, but fellow learners and teachers of interest. In fact, rather than having to be quiet in school, so everyone can hear the teacher, “Netschool” allows the possibility of dialogue and networked discussion between teacher(s) and students(s).  The opportunity for discourse around a particular topic multiplies. “Netschool” also allows access to some of the very best curriculum and teachers.  It has the potential to provide the widest variety of learning opportunities, taught by the very best teachers.   

Teachers who are adept and can provide useful services will thrive.  There won’t be a need for unions to help support inept teachers on “Netschool”.  No one will go to them.  Khan Academy  is a good example,  One good teacher reaches many thousands of students daily. 

Where all this goes is hardly clear.  My experience at a recent Edcamp conference leads me to believe that there are already a number of talented, tech-savvy teachers ready to aid their students on a different path. These teachers will spend more time helping their students learn how to learn, on their own, and less time teaching a particular subject.

What will happen to all the real estate Blockbuster occupies/occupied?  What will happen to all the real estate now devoted to schooling?  “Netschool” and time may tell.  We can’t “stay tuned” to find out.  That’s an outmoded broadcast model.  We’d best get online to discover the future.

And yes, PLEASE, let me hear your responses to Sam and to me.  Thanks.        

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Edcamp NYC

I went to a conference yesterday, or rather an unconference. Edcamp NYC.  You can learn more about Edcamp(s) by going here:  I was fortunate enough to discover Edcamp NYC through Twitter.  I registered, and took a quick twelve-block walk from my home to The School at Columbia University where the event was held.  I was lucky to have this event in my back yard.  Aside from meeting and sharing ideas with interesting, talented, dedicated and inspiring educators (There is nothing gratuitous in that statement.), three things about the day stood out for me.

First, though it ought not have surprised me, was the overall level of technical sophistication of the group. I say it ought not have surprised me, because my introduction/invitation to the event came via Twitter.  This group of teachers was self-selected, in part because these are people comfortable with social media, and, it turns out, lots of other technology.   There were almost forty different presentations one could attend.  Many of them were about using technology to help teach, both in the classroom and as a way to extend the classroom.  Laptops abounded and the presenters I saw showed dexterity and sophistication both in the preparation of their offerings and in their moment-to-moment presentation that was stunning.  Schools and teachers that content themselves with their proclaimed excellence and believe they can continue to live on their reputation while shunning the advantages technology can offer are in for a rude awakening.

Second, was the heartening discovery of good things happening in schools.  There has been such a hue and cry about what is wrong with school systems, schools, and teachers – how we’re all going to hell in a hand basket – it was exciting and comforting to witness evidence to the contrary.  The work of  Mike Ritzius, Frank Williams, and Nicolae Borota to implement and execute an exciting program that places so much responsibility for learning in the hands of students at the Camden County Technical School in New Jersey is a sign of a promising future that will not, blessedly, depend upon teaching to a test.  Their work shows so much respect for students.  They are courageous, inventive and leaders to watch.  Check them out on Twitter:   @mritzius, @fronk2000, @nborota.

More good news from New Jersey, this time from Edison.  Chuck Poole and Christine Spiezio teach at the Herbert Hoover Middle School.  Their work teaching English, getting middle schoolers trained in both the etiquette and the nuts and bolts of blogging is most impressive.  The kids respond to the notion that what they write is being read by other people.  They have an authentic audience, not just a teacher. Chuck and Christine have got kids excited about writing.  I can guarantee they’ve also got kids using technology with a facility their parents, or many in their parents’ generation lack.  True, the emphasis on standardized tests is on computation and reading ability.  Nonetheless, the drive their students show to write, to communicate at a more sophisticated level, makes it clear that these kids won’t be left behind.  Find Chuck and Christine on Twitter at:  @cspiezio and @cpoole27.

Or you could check out the work Meenoo Rami has done with her high school students at the Franklin Learning Center in Philadelphia.  What impressed me about Meenoo’s work is her fearlessness and willingness to push ahead, to create something new.  She too, has students creating blogs as part of their work in English, putting their writing out there for the world to see.  And the world does see it.  Find Meenoo on Twitter at:  @mrami2.

And finally, consultants like David Ginsburg - and Miriam Bhimani at Teaching Matters with compassion and wisdom.  People who understand that a teaching career means a career of adapting, learning and continually refining a craft. 

These happen to be a few of the people I encountered.  What strikes me is the quality of the small sample I happened across.  I have no idea how many other terrific people I did not have the opportunity to encounter.  To me, Edcamp is an example of how education in this country will ultimately right itself.  For all their press, for all the bluster, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Cathy Black, Arne Duncan and the like will have little effect on lasting change.  Teaching is artistry.  Good teachers learn through apprenticeship, through connecting with one another.  The craft advances one to one.  Grassroots.  Small steps.  A place like Edcamp sets the stage.  Teachers show up, work, share and learn together, and take what they’ve got back to their classroom and their students.  It reminds me of a song lyric:  “Light one candle, one small flame.  Don’t just stand there cursing the darkness, waiting for the light of dawn.  Light one candle, one small flame, and the darkness will be gone. “   I left Edcamp at the end of the day with renewed hope that teacher to teacher, we will make a difference.  The real leaders in education are hard at work remodeling, reshaping and recreating and extending their classrooms. We may not know their names, but they are out there, and they will make a difference.  At the end of the day call me a happy camper.