Let’s Hack School: A Recent Talk at CSU

Earlier this week, I had the honor of giving a talk in the CSU Literacies of Contemporary Civic Life speaker series. With my time, shared below, I talked about some of our work around professional learning and agency, as well as some of my thinking on the essential actions/literacies/habits that should be in our schools. I probably tried to cram too much into a fast talk, but I think it got some thinking going, which was my goal in the first place1. Below is a Google Hangout video of the talk, and below that is the slide deck from the talk, which is rather hard to see in the video.

I’d love to hear your response to these ideas and where and when you’re fitting in make/hack/play in your teaching and learning.

Thanks so much to Antero and Cindy and the CSU Writing Project for having me out as a part of a really great series.2

The talk starts at nine minutes into the recording.


  1. I’m certain there’s a workshop or two in this talk, specifically around helping folks design learning spaces with certain attributes in mind. I’m tinkering now with building a thinking tool to embody the slider stuff I get into near the end. Get in touch if this is something you’d like to know more about. []
  2. PS – Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, the Executive Director of the National Writing Project, is speaking on April 7th as a part of the same series. You should go if you can. More info on the CSUWP’s website. []
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If Public Isn’t an Option, Then It Isn’t a Choice

The title of this post will likely bug some folks because it’s a fairly obvious statement. Except I see plenty of teachers, well-meaning and kind-hearted every one, requiring students to post work they do in class online. Without exception or choice in the matter. 

They require this work to be posted publicly for a number of reasons, but they all seem to involve the power of authentic audience, and the sense that students putting their words in public will magically create citizens who get the power of civic discourse. 

The thing is, there’s nothing authentic about being forced to speak in public. 

No one attending a city council meeting is forced to speak during the meeting. Folks reading newspapers never find themselves compelled to write letters to the editor.  

The power of public is in the choosing of it. There’s no agency in required speech. 

Writing in public is hard. Really, really hard. And it requires a mix of bravery and determination and gumption and a sense that the words one is about to share are IMPORTANT.  It also requires the ability to walk away and abandon the words at any moment. 

You don’t just shout to the world because your teacher says you have to. Or you shouldn’t find yourself in that position, anyway. 

If you’re in the business of helping children develop their public voices, then I sure hope you’re giving them choices about when and how and what (and IF) to publish. And sometimes, “I choose not to post today,” is the most important choice you can offer. 

Otherwise, I’m thinking you’re doing it wrong. 

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Building (Better) Organizational Habits

I become more and more convinced each passing day that learning and culture are habit-based skills1. We either have healthy learning habits, or healthy cultures, or we don’t.

Any organization can improve its habits. But habit formation and cessation aren’t events. You don’t change habits in one-day workshops, or a summer conference. You change habits through long term, intentional planning and execution of the behaviors, choices and experiences that lead to better behaviors, choices and experiences. That lead to better habits.

Why do schools and organizations spend so much time on Band-Aids – one time shots at change – and/or the justification of the ability to not improve/change/grow?2

Denial? Doubt? Disbelief?

When does compliance and the convenience of comfort get in the way of changing the rules that perpetuate old, and maybe ineffective, behaviors and habits?

What are the long term structures, routines and expectations that you’re using to change the learning and culture habits in your spaces?

  1. Maybe skills isn’t the right word. But perhaps you know what I mean. []
  2. Why do people do that, I guess, is the same question. []
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Suppose We Just Left Them Alone?

One thing that never seems to be in short supply in the learning organizations I work with is a steady stream of new priorities, initiatives, and programming.  There’s always an agenda, pet project, new idea, or something fresh, exciting, and game changing that’ll make all the difference for everybody in the organization.

I get it.  I do.  And I’ve created my fair share of acronyms and new work, work that didn’t start necessarily at the end of the old, but work that had to be squeezed into the mix of already happening stuff.

The thing is, there’s an awful lot of priorities established way high up that find their way down to classrooms, schools, and districts.  And each new one requires a change of some kind, a new emphasis on the one more thing that must get done.

But very, very rarely does the new push come with the requirement of stopping to do the things from the last great idea or priority that was really going to fix things.  So it’s not just that a school has to get better at something new, but it has to keep doing all the other stuff it was doing before.

So here’s my idea for the new initiative of 2015.1 How about we take a look at the 37 odd 1st priorities that have been established for our classrooms, schools, and districts, and just go ahead and cut at least a third of them.  33% of the stuff we used to do? Let’s not do it anymore.  If you must add something new to the plate after that, that’s fine – but you must cut a third of the old stuff first.

We can’t get better at new things, or the old things we’ve gotten crummy at while we’re working on the new things, if we don’t stop doing at least a few of the other things.  And deciding what we’re not going to do is a big ol’ step towards getting better at what we’re going to do instead.

So let’s get right on that.  What will you stop doing this year?

  1. Superintendents, you’re welcome to this one. []
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Trusting People, Who “Will Do Dumb Things,” to Make Their Own Decisions

I haven’t read A Place Called School.  Yet.  But it’s one of those books that comes up when I talk to and listen to and read folks who talk, listen and write about what schools are and what they might yet be.  And this piece on its author, John Goodlad, who died earlier this month, helped me remember that I need to get that book on my reading list.  Here’s the choice bit:

 The project convinced Mr. Goodlad that education reformers cannot simply take a successful education innovation and ‘install’ it in a new school, he told Education Week shortly after A Place Called School was published. ‘Several years ago,’ he said, ‘I gave a talk in Beverly Hills to a very sophisticated, bright audience. It was on the dynamics of educational change and the change processes. After it was all finished, the first question was, ‘All right, can you tell us what it is you’re supposed to do to bring about change?’ ‘And I’d just finished,’ he continued. ‘This woman didn’t even begin to grasp the notion of what it’s like for people to empower others to make their own decisions, how that requires trust, and that people will do dumb things. What she was looking for was: Tell me, one-two-three, how to do it. And there are no one-two-threes.’ 

“There are no one-two-threes.”  A hard, but humbling, reminder from someone who paid close attention to schools and education for most of a century.  Better still was the list of criteria for meaningful change:

  • empowering others to make their own decisions
  • building trust
  • allowing people to make mistakes and, from time to time, “do dumb things”

I’m so cool with that list.  Wish I saw more efforts focused on those things.  On my mind of late: How do we help to build good structures for people who need structures to help them learn how not to need other people’s structures1?  How do we build schools and classrooms and learning experiences like that? I wonder if some of that answers are in that book I need to read.   

  1. Okay, this has been on my mind for most of my career. []
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The Danger of “Good Enough”

Reply All is a new podcast I’ve been enjoying lately.  It’s a “show about the Internet.”  Their third episode featured Ethan Zuckerman, an Internet pioneer, apologizing for a very bad thing he did twenty years ago, a thing that really helped to shape the world we live in today. (9Or, at least, the Internet we live with today.))

You should listen to the whole episode – it’s not very long, and it’s embedded below.  And it’s good to know our collective Internet history.

Near the end of the episode, at about the 16 minute mark1, Ethan sums up something he’s learned from the story he’s just told.  Here’s what he says:

One of the things that I think I’ve learned in all of this is that “good enough” is a really serious problem. So, if you just flat out fail, right, if you do something and it just doesn’t work at all, you can look at it and say that was a fiasco, let’s do something really different.’ If you do something, and it kind of works – it works well enough to support what you were doing, it generates enough revenue to keep the lights on – you tend to get really attached to it, even if it was a pretty lousy solution.

“Good enough” hit me as a concept that gets in the way of, well, plenty of the work I’m doing lately.  Schools are, in many ways, “good enough.”  They’re limping along.  My family relationships?  “Good enough.”  The training I’m doing for my next race?  Heck, even my Angry Birds scores of late2 are “good enough.”

And I wonder what it is that pushes you, me, or anyone to move beyond good enough.  What are the factors and forces, aside from sheer will and determination and downright stubbornness, that will move a person or a group past “good enough” and towards “better than ever” or “continuous improvement” or “let’s nuke this whole thing and start over?”  How do we move organizations, and ourselves, beyond “good enough” in the places and situations where that matters most?

I’m cool if stubbornness is the right approach.  I just wonder if there’re better ways.

  1. 16:10 if you’re in a big hurry and don’t trust my transcription below. []
  2. Angry Birds Transformers?  Makes no sense – but such a fine way to remember my childhood fascination with robots that were cars.  AND robots. []
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Allowing (And Accepting) Students' Choices Is Hard

One of the really difficult things about giving students meaningful choices is that they will sometimes make horrible ones.  This isn’t a school problem, so much, as it is a democracy problem.  And I’ve met plenty of people who don’t feel that all adults are able to make good choices, either.

People don’t always make the choices that we want them to.  But honoring freedom and liberty means that we allow them to make bad choices.  And we don’t stop folks from making choices just because we wish they would’ve made different ones.

I was reminded of this today as I was listening to a teacher lamenting the fact that some of his students sometimes don’t complete their schoolwork.

 In class or at home.  They just choose not to do the work.  It’s a struggle to figure out sometimes when to acknowledge and when to struggle with doing something about that.

There’s a school of thought in education that suggests we cannot allow a student to make the choice to not do things, to choose to fail.  This gets expressed in plenty of ways, but one of my least favorite of those is the ways that lock students into situations (lessons, projects, readings, or even devices) over which they have no meaningful control.

I don’t find myself aligned with that school of thought so much.  Real choices mean real consequences – but also they mean that we can’t undo the deal of every bad choice a student <ahem> chooses to make.

I noticed tonight that an Alfie Kohn essay I fawned over when I read it in English Journal four years ago was recently re-posted on the Answer Sheet.  The whole thing is worth your time (and related to the above), but here’s a choice bit:

The sad irony is that as children grow older and become more capable of making decisions, they’re given less opportunity to do so in schools.  In some respects, teenagers actually have less to say about their learning – and about the particulars of how they’ll spend their time in school each day — than do kindergarteners.  Thus, the average American high school is excellent preparation for adult life. . . assuming that one lives in a totalitarian society.

When parents ask, “What did you do in school today?”, kids often respond, “Nothing.”  Howard Gardner pointed out that they’re probably right, because “typically school is done to students.”[]  This sort of enforced passivity is particularly characteristic of classrooms where students are excluded from any role in shaping the curriculum, where they’re on the receiving end of lectures and questions, assignments and assessments.  One result is a conspicuous absence of critical, creative thinking – something that (irony alert!) the most controlling teachers are likely to blame on the students themselves, who are said to be irresponsible, unmotivated, apathetic, immature, and so on.  But the fact is that kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.

Conversely, students who have almost nothing to say about what happens in class are more likely to act out, tune out, burn out, or simply drop out.  Again, it takes some courage to face the fact that these responses are related to what we’re doing, or not doing.  And the same is true of my larger point in this essay:  A lack of opportunity to make decisions may well manifest itself in a lack of interest in reading and writing.  Were that our goal, our single best strategy might be to run a traditional teacher-centered, teacher–directed classroom.

If you only let1 students make choices where the stakes are irrelevant and the options are, too, then you’re not really in the choice business, are you?

  1. This notion of permission is tricky, too, isn’t it? Are we really the folks who control whether or not choice can occur in our classrooms?  I’m not so sure about that. []
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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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“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 .  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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