On Hope

Maybe it’s the cold, or this time of year, as they days grow darker and the workload grows heavier.  Maybe it’s the number of plates I have spinning right now, no more than ever, but no fewer than ever, either.  Or maybe it’s the last couple of weeks, some unexpected home repair, appliance trouble, and extended family illness.

Whatever it is, I’m certainly feeing something a little bit not quite right.  A little bit funky.  I’m off my game.

As the 1:1 I’m working on implementing turns from novel to habit for several schools and staff in my school district, I think many of them, and certainly I am, beginning to feel less ecstatic and more resigned to the grind of the day to day.

And certainly some folks have begun to wonder about the bad and possibly risky pieces of our plan to allow for more access to technology and the Internet to students as everyday habits in teaching and learning.  I do hear some people who are certain that things and networks will be used for evil rather than good.  “Let’s lock stuff down,” they say, “because students with too much ability and opportunity are bound to go astray.”

And I hear them. And I don’t want to promote the worst of what could happen.

Surely, when I’m off my game like this, when I’m second and triple guessing pretty much everything that I and others are up to, I could find it easy to be lured into believing that the worst of us is all there is, that we should be locking things up and shutting folks down. That it’d be best for everybody to find a lockstep path of compliance for everyone and always.

Moments like these, I could sure use a pep talk from someone. Might as well be me.

Here goes.

So what of all the talk of what might happen, of mistakes that could be made, of errors and missteps and failures imagined?  It might be, just might be, that when we give folks opportunity to do well, to dream big, to step forward and offer something big, bigger than we knew we could, to dream hard for something better and more beautiful than we knew we could be, well, maybe we can.

We’re all struggling the best we can to do right by children, and the conflict sometimes is not because we don’t all want to succeed, but it’s because we’re afraid we might.  And when we stumble, it’s not because we don’t mean well, but because we get stuck on the way to greatness.  Distracted, even.  Maybe it’s the cold, or this time of year.

But we can do hard things.  Of course we can do hard things.  Look at how far we’ve come.

That’s what I’ll bet on. On hope. The hope that we can be better. Let’s do good. Let’s bet on someone being great.

And let’s let that someone be us.

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Connecting to What, Exactly?

Last week, Educating Modern Learners published a piece I wrote about some of my worries about online communities and students.  The piece is called What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Connectedness.  Here’s an excerpt:

I say often that the Internet isn’t good or bad. It’s a mirror of our best and worst selves. And we can be pretty wonderful sometimes.

Other times, we can be downright terrible.

When do we stand with our students and model how to resist bullies?   And how do we reconcile our desire to connect students to a world that is sometimes sick, twisted, and just plain mean?

How do we encourage educators and students to be brave and compassionate and firm with each other and strangers both online and off, and how do we support each other along the way?

I have no idea. But I have three daughters. And only so much time before they are potential contributors to online discourse.

Or only so much time before they are targets.

You can read the rest over at EML if you create an account.   You should.  They’re up to some good stuff.

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“How Many Minutes Should We Spend on the iPad?”

There are some questions that students and teachers ask that we really need to stop asking.  No, that’s not quite right – we need to start asking them differently.

When I was in the classroom, my students always, in the course of receiving an assignment from me, would ask “How long does this need to be?”  I understood the question, but my response was always “As long as it needs to be.”  We’d then review the criteria of the assignment, and I’d ask the question back: “How long do you think this needs to be?” I’d ask.  And learning would ensue.

As we are rolling along with our iPad 1:1 in the Learning Technology Plan, there’s a new question that I hear from parents and administrators that is worthy of a similar response.  The question’s in the title, but here it is again:

“How many minutes should we spend on the iPad?”

Each stakeholder group tacks a contextual reference on the end of the question.  For teachers, it’s “each day in class?”  For administrators, it’s phrased more like “How many minutes a day should I expect the teachers to use or direct their students to use the iPads?”  For parents, the question morphs into a question about health and wellbeing and general screen time. But whatever way a group is asking, the answer is very similar, I find, to the pushback I gave students who asked about assignment length.

The answer is, of course, a definitive “It depends.  How long do you think they/you should spend on the iPad?”  Sometimes, it’s like this: “Well, that depends on what you’re wanting to actually do.”

If your goal is to replace a physical task with a digital task, then it should be about the same as the old task.  Or faster because, you know, digital.  If your goal is to have students make something awesome, say a movie or a text or an info graphic or a piece of code, well, then the answer is that they should take as long as it takes to make something good.

But the answer should almost never be “thirty minutes three times a week,” or anything like that. We don’t argue for specific amounts of time for pencils or pens or little pocket notebooks. Let’s stop doing so for the machines.

Computers aren’t Bowflexes. And shouldn’t ever be.

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Keyboards? Who Needs Keyboards?

For quite a while now, I’ve been concerned that not enough writing is going on in our classrooms1. It seems as though we really want our students to write, but we never seem to give them time or models of writing.

Now that devices are going into our classrooms, I regularly see concerns raised that without keyboards on those devices, our students will never be able to write either fast enough, or correctly, or in the same way that they’ll be expected to in an assessment. So they never write.

Might it be that we are stuck on the notion that writing happens when keys are touched and that the only way words go into computers is via keyboards?

What did we do before keyboards, and is it possible for the first time we are in a world where we can think about what will do after them?

It might be a little premature to think about a post-keyboard world, but I sure think we’re getting close.2

  1. That’s not just me – the National Commission on Writing wanted time spent on writing in classrooms to double.  I suspect that didn’t happen. []
  2. How, where, and when are you working with dictation and input tools that aren’t keyboards? []
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If You Need a Plan B, Maybe Just Go With That Instead

I dig technology when it’s used well and thoughtfully and purposefully.  Heck, sometimes I just dig shiny things.  But I have to say that what I like and what’s worth spending time on and with in a classroom are two very different circles in the Venn diagram of my life.

I often hear that teachers using technology in their classrooms should have a Plan B or a backup lesson for if (and many would say when) a technology component of a lesson fails. The latest place I saw this was in Andrew’s piece over at Edutopia1:

Beyond ensuring that your students are actively learning or creating to meet certain goals or objectives, the key with technology is making sure that your technology use is organized, and that you’re ready to use it. And, as we all know too well, technology will sometimes present a minor glitch. That’s why it’s always important to have Plan B ready to go, possibly an analog version of your scheduled activity, in order to keep the pace of the class and keep the lesson on task. So that’s one of the first steps in successfully integrating technology into your classroom: have a backup plan ready. Without a plan to seamlessly transition from a digitally-infused lesson to an analog lesson, your class will surely descend into chaos.

I certainly think that teachers should always balance careful planning with the ability to move when the circumstances change.  If students already understand the material you’ve prepared and paced and planned around, you’d certainly change up the instruction.  A fire drill happens, changes get made.  Every once in a while, the rock solid wireless in your school may well stutter2  Occasionally, the website you’re sending folks to will get overloaded, or some other thing will happen.  I get that.

But the idea that I should always have a second plan ready to go if the technology fails says, to me at least, that the technology isn’t ready for my classroom, and probably shouldn’t be in my Plan A.

If Plan B’s plenty good, then why bother with the technology in the first place?  And if the technology isn’t so reliable, then let’s not rely on it.

Focus on the purpose of your activity in Plan A before you worry about anything else, technology included.  If you know the purposeful way you want to spend students’ time, you can make a Plan B, C or any other iteration on the fly without too much trouble.

Said another way – experimenting is fine for plenty of things, but if something just HAS to work, and is likely not to, don’t invest time and effort into giving it a whirl with a class full of students.  Their time, as well as yours, is better spent on other stuff.

 

  1. And I don’t mean to pick on him here.  This is just the latest place I saw the “Plan B” argument.  He’s been writing some really useful stuff lately.  Earlier in the piece quoted below, he gave a great answer for what to do when someone asks you if they should move from a thing that’s working really well to a new thing that everybody’s talking about. []
  2. Like, say, in March, when everyone that has a screen seems to be streaming a college basketball game.  Or today, when a large software company launches a major software update. []
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I’m Not in Love with the Word Empowerment

I’m not.  I cringe when I hear it used lately.  And I say that as someone who used to have it on my resume.  Right up near the top.  

Because for me to empower you, especially when I hear the word used by others, I’ve got to have something that you don’t have, and I have to give it to you.  That thing is, of course, power.1

Power doesn’t work that way, at least, it shouldn’t. Not in the classroom.  Plenty of stuff that I have the ability to allow you to do wasn’t necessarily my thing to keep you from doing it in the first place.  And you came to my classroom knowing things that I don’t know, and won’t know, unless you tell me about them.  But that doesn’t mean that I was necessarily in the place of knowing what was worth knowing, doing, or being.  I didn’t have all the answers.  Still don’t.

Or, said another way, the only reason teachers have power sometimes is because they chose to adopt it.  Asking our students to make that choice isn’t so much empowerment, giving power to someone else, as it is helping them realize they had it already.  Asking our colleagues to realize the same isn’t about us having something they didn’t.  It might’ve been we noticed it first.  

So don’t be in the empowerment business.  Be in the “helping folks realize they can do things they didn’t think they could” business.  Or maybe the “huh, I wonder why we’ve always done it that other way” business.  

Let’s get out of the way more.

  1. Power takes many forms.  But at it’s simplest, it’s always something that has to be given in the context of “empowerment.”  Never discovered, or realized, or co-developed.  Given.  By me to you.  Or them to us. []
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Don’t Talk Restrictions. Let’s Talk About Distraction.

Earlier this week, I was in conversation with an administrator in the district where I work.  She was asking some really good questions around some of the cultural issues she’s been seeing in her middle school which, like all of our middle schools, has just gone 1:1 iPad. At her school, she observed, many of the problems that have emerged as “iPad problems” are ultimately larger issues about behavior.  One stuck with me.

Lunch, it seems, is taking too long at the school.  A parent, too, had complained that their child hadn’t had an opportunity to eat at all one day.  The administrator has been investigating to see what’s going on.

Turns out a couple of things.  For one, some students are grabbing their lunches, taking trays to table, and then pushing food aside to focus on whatever they had on their iPad screen.  She didn’t elaborate, but I guess that sometimes that’s a game, other times a book or piece of reading.  But the iPad’s getting in the way of the meal, in a sense.

Another thing that’s happening is that some folks in the lunch lines are moving slowly, faces down on screens, and perhaps not paying attention to the questions from the staff serving food.  It takes longer to get through the lunch line, so lunch takes longer.1

She asked a colleague and I what she could do about that.  What, she wondered, might the consequences for this be?  How could we fix it?

I pushed a bit.  Because I don’t think distraction is necessarily a middle school problem.  Or an iPad problem.  Distraction, I think, is a culture problem.  Everybody’s distracted lately.  And there’s plenty of shiny, important stuff to be distracted by.  So possibly, instead of needing to develop consequences for behaviors resulting from distraction, her school needs to think about how to collectively discuss what to do about attention and a lack thereof.  She agreed.  I’m looking forward to seeing how she tackles the conversation.

Other middle schools in our system have decided that lunchtime isn’t device time, because the staff there wanted to value the role of face to face talk around a table with friends.  And recess.  Running around is pretty important sometimes, too.  Our district doesn’t have one answer for places like these, because school culture decisions should be made, appropriately, at the school level.

It’s not just middle schoolers who have problems managing their devices and attentions.  I’ve worked with, for, and in meetings with folks who aren’t there with us, but are somewhere else, checking email and other things.  In my home and work, sometimes, I’m present but absent, too.2

Howard Rheingold has been arguing for a while now that attention might be one of our most precious nonrenewable resources.  And he’s developed some good tools for helping folks to think through attention.  Focus will become more important as we continue to have more and more opportunities to learn about/from/through/with more and more things.  Our students, and the rest of us, need to be able to focus on the right stuff at the right time.3

Rather than label behaviors as “bad,” and attempting to correct them through punitive measures, shouldn’t we instead engage the cultures and deeper issues that these behaviors manifest?

I wonder how you’re helping to create conversation and attention to culture building in your schools and classrooms, and how we can all do a better job of managing our attention.

  1. This isn’t just an issue at her school.  I saw this post a little while back and was reminded of it.  Our devices and connections are sometimes getting in the way of, well, pretty much everything else. []
  2. A colleague this morning told me another story about a student who was waiting for class to begin at a different school.  The teacher hadn’t yet arrived and the student took a moment, while waiting in the hallway, to play a game.  A passing teacher, see the violation of the “Don’t use your iPad in the hallway” rule, confiscated the student’s iPad.  I wasn’t impressed with that response.  If that teacher has Candy Crush or Words with Friends on his or her phone, and has ever launched it between 8 and 5, well, I guess that a bit hypocritical. []
  3. And to be able to decide what counts as “the right stuff.” Teachers shouldn’t always be the people deciding what’s right for their students. []
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Investing Meaning, Clarifying Objectives, and Remembering Care

No one has come out openly for the smashing of television receivers, teaching machines, or even computers, but there is an uneasy feeling among some educators that technology is dehumanizing education.  There is conversion that the student is becoming a programmed robot; that decision making in matters of school management, methodology, and even curriculum, is slipping into the hands in impersonalized computer-programmers; and that the ever-widening, ever more rapid flood of electronic, photography, magnetic, automated instructional systems is turning the teacher into a button pusher.  

The business of education is to invest experience with meaning and organize it in a way which will expand the individual’s capacity for further learning.  Developments in educational technology are amplifying and accelerating this process.  

The significant effect has been to force both teachers and learners to clarify their objectives and methods, and assume more, not less, responsibility in the search for leaning in a world of ambiguity, change and stress.  

The sophistication and proliferation of machines, and more carefully designed media programs offer no hope at all to those who believe that someday man’s thinking will be done for him.  

“Machines, Media, and Learning,” Robert W. Wagner, Educational Leadership, March 1966

I came across the above passage while I was searching through some old EL back issues this weekend.  My original quest was to find older articles on writing instruction.  Then I slipped into looking for past articles about technological developments.1 I love the two purposes for education and teachers therein – the business of education being to invest experience with meaning and the idea that teachers and learners should clarify their objectives and methods.

Let’s be intentional.  Good reminder, and one I incorporated into a talk I gave today to my colleagues regarding what we should be focusing on now that we’ve distributed iPads to our middle school students.  The tablets by themselves won’t change a thing about instruction.  But they’ll give us some new opportunities and options.  Let’s be intentional about what we do with them.2

Tonight, as I reviewed Audrey’s keynote on “Ed Tech’s Monsters,” I found a third purpose that seems connected to the first two.  Or I liked it because Audrey and I share a fascination with the revolutions of the past and how similar they are to the revolutions of today, particularly in the “there’s never been anything like this”-ness of them that turns out to be repeated over and over and over.

Her added purpose was, and I’m taking this a bit out of context – you should really read her entire talk:

To be clear, my nod to the Luddites or to Frankenstein isn’t about rejecting technology; but it is about rejecting exploitation. It is about rejecting an uncritical and unexamined belief in progress. The problem isn’t that science gives us monsters, it’s that we have pretended like it is truth and divorced from responsibility, from love, from politics, from care. The problem isn’t that science gives us monsters, it’s that it does not, despite its insistence, give us “the answer.” 

And that is problem with ed-tech’s monsters. That is the problem with teaching machines.

In order to automate education, must we see knowledge in a certain way, as certain: atomistic, programmable, deliverable, hierarchical, fixed, measurable, non-negotiable? In order to automate that knowledge, what happens to care?

I wonder about love and care and their place in teaching and learning.  I wonder about how we make sure to invest experiences with meaning and create capacity for further learning.  I want teachers and students both to think hard – very, very hard – about their objectives and the way they approach them.

As I’m beginning a new school year with plenty of new challenges, one of which is my struggle of late to document and reflect upon my experiences, I feel like these are worthy purposes to ponder a bit right now.

So that’s what I’m doing.

  1. Found some fascinating pieces on the need for audio-visual staff in schools in the 1940s. []
  2. We’ve, of course, been down the “this new thing will change everything” rhetoric before.  And before.  But nothing much changes.  We incorporate the new technology into some old (often bad, but sometimes good) habits.  Then hope for the next thing. Let’s stop hoping and start doing. []
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Learning is Complicated

“Thinking about software as the primary way of solving problems (in any field) forces us to frame problems in terms that software is capable of addressing.”  – Paul Franz at _The Atlantic_.

Software isn’t really meant to take the place of someone who cares about you and wants to work with you to succeed.  Unless we only care enough to pretend that we care.  

You know?

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