Digging Out My Sash

I took a quick peek at the Mozilla Open Badges project a little while back, and liked what I saw.

It’s an attempt to create an open infrastructure for badges around the Web. I like the technical pieces that allow anyone to offer any badge to anyone else in a consistent way. It makes sense to build tools that work for everybody, and that are open. I like that.

And I thought I was something I’d want to explore later, as I’m always looking for ways to help make the professional development I’m doing to make sense to other people. Maybe, I thought, a badge could help1. I put that idea on a side burner.

Then yesterday happened, and I’m going to have to pay a great deal of attention to the project. In a hurry.

That’s because this year’s Digital Media & Learning Competition is all about the badges.

It was fascinating to listen to the announcement2 and to follow along as the tweets came rolling in. It was, and is, also fascinating to consider the possibilities opened up through the use of badges to build portfolios of experiences and skillsets, to show the world what students, of all ages, can learn and do.

Except. Hang on a second.

I’m writing this post when I should be working on my thesis. The thesis is the last thing I’ve got to do in order to earn my badge Master’s degree in English Education. But it seems like there’s an awful lot of important questions wrapped inside assumptions in DML’s competition announcement. Felt right to at least try to get them down.

The Twitter stream of commentary, a piece of which was captured earlier by Audrey, was chock full o’ questions and concerns. Alex and plenty of other folks have all written thoughtfully about the announcement. It was clear to me, as I watched the announcement follow up panel, that the group, as a whole, didn’t have a consistent idea about what badges were/are/for/might do. I heard each of these possibilities:

Badges as credentialing

Badges, I heard, might be used as a way of denoting that someone has a particular skillset in a field in which there might not be a current credentialling method. Makes sense, and is the most straight forward use of a badge. Think Boy Scouts. Girl Scouts. Medal of Honor.

Badges as awarding credit

This one seems mostly similar to the previous function of credentialling, but it’s not. Quite. Earning a badge that counts as credit would require that a credit-granting institution3 would accept the badge in lieu of another requirement. Put enough badges together, and you get a really advanced badge. Or a diploma. Or a degree. So, not only can you do something in the eyes of an institution, but will another institution believe them and let you take a pass on their test of competency?

Badges as a way of honoring non-school learning

I’ve written before about how I find some of the most interesting learning taking place on the edge of school and home, in semi-school spaces. After school clubs. Fringe projects. And I want that learning to “count,” in the sense that I don’t think that teachers should have to fight so hard for those types of learning experiences. But I wonder if the best way to honor that learning is to make sure it stays out of school. If, as I heard a panelist say during the announcement, school is so ineffective and terrible at learning, then shouldn’t we try to fix school? Might we want to move some of the good semi-school learning into the classroom?4

If badges are an attempt to rebuild school, well, that might be a fascinating idea. Or a terrible one.

Badges as motivation

Students will be more inclined to go after a particular type of learning, I heard, if there were a motivator to push or pull the student along.5 That’s a dangerous reason to even consider a badge, I think, as I know enough about motivation to know that, as soon as the badges go away, the learning stops. Not good. Uh uh. Don’t pursue this one.

Badges as assessment

Actually, the badges wouldn’t be the assessments – just proof of their successful completion. And that’s where this starts to get tricky for me. For one thing, I don’t think enough folks understand that a badge involves assessment of one sort or another. And it’s the assessments and experiences that we want to fiddle with in school.

Badges as curriculum design

If badges can count as far as credit in traditional schools and universities, then badge program designers are now curriculum designers. What I didn’t hear at the announcement, but hope to hear about soon, is how folks might think about the Common Core SS, the current consortia developing the next generation of school assessments, and their thinking about badges.

Those were the purposes I heard in the time I was listening. And that’s complex stuff.

Other folks, I’m sure, who are smarter and more articulate than I am, will soon start talking about this work and what it means for power relationships between traditional schooling and other institutions.6 But what I’m not hearing people talk about, or suggest that they understand, is what it is that it means to “count.” I mean count in two senses of the word – both the mathematical meaning of seeing how many of something that you have, but also the way a student asks when they’re handed an assignment – will this count? Does it matter?

And, at school, we’ve done a bad thing by tying “counting” or “mattering” to “grading.”

If all badges do is fiddle with the object that students are taught to worship, rather than working to eliminate idol worship altogether, then there’s not much sense in exploring them.

If badges transform all grades that matter into “pass/fail” situations, well, that might be something. To match what students can do with their academic credentials as measured by actual performance tasks would be a good thing7.

But, if the DML competition encourages thinking and writing and exploration and action around ideas like the idea that any accountability system, or accreditation system, is ultimately a subjective system, made by people, however we design it, then I say, let’s rock. But let’s do so carefully.

Badges are not magical. They do not cure cancer. They are unable to stop large (or small) scale forest fires. Badges, particularly digital ones, cannot be eaten. The digital kind can’t even be burned for fuel. Badges do not make children smarter, or hard work less difficult.

But they’re certainly worth talking about, if they might lead to productive change. And, if they’re going to make a grand entrance in teaching and learning, at school and in the community, then I hope to goodness that teachers are paying attention.

  1. Give us a way to show scope and sequence, or perhaps a “brand” for our teachers in a way that would be postiive. I wasn’t sure, and still am not. []
  2. I only caught the second half, but I think that was the really fascinating bit. []
  3. school, university, etc. []
  4. Or, can that learning only happen on the fringes? If that’s the case, then I want more fringe. []
  5. Cathy explains that idea further , in point four of a definition of badges. []
  6. As I was about to post this, I ran across this post from Alex. And while I don’t have a place to stick this quotation properly in the text, I wanted to save it and share it with you, so here it is: What I believe we must resist is mistaking real motivation and meaningful learning for increasing our value as a human commodity in the marketplace. I’m fairly sure that education doesn’t make us “better” humans. I don’t even think learning can make us “more” human (whatever that might be), though it could expand our experience in interesting ways. The one thing we have to prevent is schooling making us feelless human. []
  7. Parents and plenty of other people would have trouble, for a time, as ranking their children to other people’s children might be more difficult, but that would pass. []

What Counts

On Thursday night, I was helping to introduce the concept of teacher research to a group of teachers in my school district.  And it happened.  The thing that often happens when you introduce qualitative methodology.

We read a sample teacher research study that Michelle and I are fond of.  I like the study, a short piece on a teacher wondering about the value of a pullout literacy program in her school, because it emphasizes three things I think are essential to consider, and often re-consider, when ot comes to teacher inquiry specifically and qualitative research generally:

  1. Teacher research is an opportunity to dig into the “I wonders” and the “what ifs” that come up from time to time in your classroom.  But it’s not the same as “what good teachers do every day.”  It’s more intentional and purposeful than that.  And that’s a good thing.
  2. Teacher research is contextual.  It comes from you, the researcher.  The classroom you teach in, the students you know, the wonderings you have.  That works two ways – both the questions and your answers to them are contextual.
  3. Teacher research involves “data” that doesn’t show up in a quantitive study.  Stuff that doesn’t count because it can’t be counted.  Or, at least, not as easily.  And what matters, or at least what should, when it comes to measurement and paying attention is not either/or but yes and.  Qualitative and quantitative measures are friends.  Honest1 .

And it’s the third point that usually involves controversy.  Things get heated.  And that troubles me.

Folks make statements, when we start to fiddle with traditional notions of “data,”2 about their stats professors, or n values, or other things that suggest that Math Is THE Way of Knowing The Universe.

While I find lots to like in science and math, it’s not the only way to go after what’s right and good and true in the world.

Teachers, of all people, should have a good and always developing sense of this: they should know and understand what it means to measure, and how measurement affects the thing you’re measuring, and how there are ways other than percentages and standard deviations to explore vital areas of life and living and learning.

If you think that’s wrong, and that cold, hard numbers are the only way to Know Something, well, consider this –

How do you know you love your spouse?  Your best friend?  Your children?  Your parents?

Prove it.

But you only get numbers.  I’ll wait here.  Take your time.

  1. As I write this, I’m in the middle of a mixed-methods study.  The two go nicely together. []
  2. And the air quotes make appearances usually at this point in the conversation. []

A Year of Learning

Tonight, we kicked off the first team leader meeting of the year for the new cohort of the Digital Learning Collaborative.

The DLC, if you didn’t know, is a two-year professional development program we’re in our third year of developing.  Year one is a year for personal and professional learning.  Year two, which we’ll kickoff later this month for a different cohort, is a year of teacher inquiry into what happens for students when we use technology in the classroom.

Last night, we attempted, with our teacher team leaders, to set the culture for what it means to learn as teachers in community.  We reviewed some of our habits – making sure we have a plan for all of our monthly team meetings, how we use Google Docs to share those plans and to share notes we take when and as we meet, and making sure that we’re separating time for learning1 from time for collaboration and sharing.   And, yes, that’s messy.  Messy is okay.

But we spent the bulk of our time last night reading and thinking and talking to each other about a couple of pieces, written by Will Richardson, that explore connected and passion-based learning not just for students, but for teachers, too.

That led to some good conversation.  I heard Kelly, a first grade teacher, when she asked about how we help connect students to passions that they might not realize they have, and how we can encourage students to explore areas of themselves and the world when they might not have any knowledge about, well, much of anything.  I heard Rebekah, a high school math teacher, when she said that somewhere, students have learned that it’s cool to not like math.

I hope that folks heard me when I invoked Mr. Rogers, and his definition of teaching, the idea that what teachers do is that they love something, and they love it in front of their students.  Passion, indeed.

I heard Mollie when she said that it was important for teachers and students to follow their passions, and that, in a time of scripts and pacing, we’d do well to make sure that we’re injecting student interests and differences into our work.

I heard others, too.  It was a fine culture setting conversation.

We also talked about the power of reflective writing, and took some time to write together, as we will do during all of our meetings.  While I cannot share their writing with you just now, know that we’ll be hearing more from these teacher leaders and their teams as they begin to dig into their learning this year.

It was a fine start.

  1. Sometimes, this is training.  Other times, it’s time for reading and conversation.  There are other things this learning might look like, too.  Learning is complicated. []

I Can’t Give That to You. No One Can.

This post lived in the depths of my drafts folder. I brought it out tonight because it seemed the right time.

Too often lately, I’ve read statements from teachers that sound something like this: “We have to give students voice” or “We have to give our students control over their learning.”

Sure. Students should have voice. And control. And agency. And plenty of things.

But, well, a student’s voice just isn’t mine to give.

By that, I mean that there’s a big problem with “giving somebody” their voice. As a teacher, I can’t give you much of anything that you don’t already have. Nourish it? Cultivate it? Help develop or refine it? Sure.

But give? No. Because that would mean that someone took it away in the first place. And that’s not okay. Further – that would assume that such a thing was mine to take.

And any time we assume that we must give our students those things, or that teachers, too, must be given those things, we make it that much more difficult for the exchange to happen. We get the entire power dynamic backwards when we are handing out voices. Or power. Or control. Human beings have those things, anyway. With or without our permission. We would do well to remember that in the classroom. And plenty of other places.

Teachers, and students, have voices. And agency. It’s up to them, to all of us, to use those things in the service of what’s important1.

Don’t work to “give” students voices. Help them find the ones they already have.

  1. And, yeah. You’ve got to decide what counts as “important,” too. No free lunches here. []

Safe Places & What Is Yet To Come

I had the opportunity earlier this week to sit in on a conversation with teacher librarians and other media staff during a kickoff event to start the school year. We were sharing some lunch and talking about our hopes for the year – specifically, we were discussing how we will be working to build libraries that are places of community.

That’s a fine thing to be discussing.

One media staffer said that it was important to her that her library be a safe place, a place where students could expect to be sheltered from, well, the stuff that can be unsafe about a school.

And that was a good hope. Lots of head nodding. Lots of talk of sitting in circles and making things and libraries as spaces where crafts were made, and stories were read and books were explored and questions were asked. And often answered.

And I thought that was good. They spoke of love without using the word. What could be wrong with that?

And, at the same time, I started to get angry.

See, many of these library folk that I visited with the other day were facing new challenges as library folk. Some were in the library alone, whereas before they were a part of a team. Others were entering into roles as clerks in the absence of a full teacher librarian1. As we seek ways to save money in our school district, we have had to make hard choices about whether to staff classrooms or libraries. These are not easy choices.

But when such kind and thoughtful people advocate for such important spaces as school libraries, well, I feel like maybe they shouldn’t have to fight so hard.

A project I’ve been loosely following is asking folks right now to think of libraries as enchanted spaces, and of libraries as verbs. And I will think this year of this round table of library folk, dreaming of spaces where children find love and security and story and words and literacy. Spaces and places where the skeletons of dreams receive flesh and animation from books and pictures and websites and exploring and wondering and discovery. And I am enchanted.

And I am enraged.

This week, our state courts are hearing the case of a large coalition of school districts arguing that the state of Colorado is not meeting its constitutional mandate to provide a proper education for the children of the state. And our Governor, while supportive of the intent of the lawsuit, is concerned that it might succeed, because of what that might do to the state budget.

What might not investing in enchanting spaces and people do to the state? That we have to have this argument in court suggests we’ve all lost.

On the same day that I got to have lunch with our library types, our school board president addressed the library group and talked about some of the research that he conducts in his day job. He studies institutions and public policy and, well, people. It’s fascinating work.

He mentioned during his talk that while it makes sense to consider the points and arguments that would lead to rational loyalty towards institutions one would value, folks don’t fight for rational loyalty. They fight for, and will work to save, protect and defend, the places and institutions with which they have emotional attachments. And I want our schools to be places of emotional attachment in the best possible way. Places of pride and hope and joy and love and respect and kindness and the best of what we might could be.

We are, after all, beings of emotion and then ration, rather than the other way ’round. No matter how hard we might wish otherwise.2

And I wonder how to go after the emotional jugulars rather than the heels of rationality. As one who pretends rationality, I wonder about the best way to do this. And I remember the teacher who called across the parking lot to me the other day to tell me that she might have lost her way, that she might not know what’s worth talking about or spending time on lately.

And I know what she means sometimes.

And I write tonight because I don’t know if I’ve lost my way or not, either. But I seek enchantment. And safety. And hope. And think they’re within reach.

And I remember a kid with glasses too big on a face too small in pants too tight with friends too far between who needed a quiet place to read where no names were called and the books and the stories could keep coming. And I remember the library folk who made sure that I could focus on the dreams in the books rather than the whispered pokes from the jerks.

And I am enchanted anew.

And so I’ll keep reaching, and seeking. And I am eager to begin a new school year, to reach again with smart folks to try to be the best that we can be.

You come, too.

  1. It’s cheaper, you know, to staff a library with a clerk rather than a licensed teacher. But what, I wonder, does that savings really cost? []
  2. It’s true. Rationalize your love for the child that left a soggy mess in one of your shoes the other morning. The little girl who made you dance on the sidewalk with her. In front of all the neighbors. Simply because she could. You can’t rationalize that. You love her anyway. []

“Interactions with Technology Should Be Playful.” (Yep.)

So I’m giving a short “setting the mood” talk today to a school that is up to some interesting work.  They’ll be spending the next couple of days working through some play and exploration around many of the tools available to them to help them in the work of teaching and learning.

And I’m supposed to say something clever and upbeat to get them started.  Which is a bit of a challenge.

Or, it was going to be, until I stumbled across a draft of a position paper by the National Association for the Education of Young Children on the role that technology can and should play in the learning and development of young children. I was prepared to be frustrated by their work, and I was so tickled to be wrong.

It’s a delightful read, painting a picture of what I believe learning can and should look like.  That it’s a technology document is almost of secondary importance.  I’d encourage you to give it a read.  But I can give you the gist of the document in these three statements taken from the text1:

We can learn lots from the situations of discovery and exploration that are the best of our early learning spaces.  Preschool.  Kindergarten.  A good library, theater, or museum.  The joy of discovery and wonder and budding curiosity.  The technologies that we use with children for learning should help us to amplify the best of us and to help us become better and wiser people.  It matters less what technologies we employ than it does that we are working thoughtfully and purposefully to create spaces for good learning.

And I hope I can convey that to the folks I’m speaking with today.


UPDATE:  Here are the slides from the talk.

  1. The text is from the position paper.  The pictures were taken by me of my children in two recent trips to the Denver Art Museum. I’m preparing to do some work with them and I’m excited by the learning spaces I’ve seen there on our recent visits. []

Determining Failure

I’m off again on a short vacation, but I couldn’t let this paragraph escape at least a word or two.  Over the weekend, Bill Gates was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal.  From the piece:

One of the foundation’s main initial interests was schools with fewer students. In 2004 it announced that it would spend $100 million to open 20 small high schools in San Diego, Denver, New York City and elsewhere. Such schools, says Mr. Gates, were designed to—and did—promote less acting up in the classroom, better attendance and closer interaction with adults.


“But the overall impact of the intervention, particularly the measure we care most about—whether you go to college—it didn’t move the needle much,” he says. “Maybe 10% more kids, but it wasn’t dramatic. . . . We didn’t see a path to having a big impact, so we did a mea culpa on that.” Still, he adds, “we think small schools were a better deal for the kids who went to them.”

Now, there’s lots to say about the “success” or “failure” of the small schools work done by Gates and others.  And I know that Bill Gates has said that small schools offer more than just college readiness.  But I suppose what I’d like to contribute here, or at least to push back with, is something like this:

Perhaps the metrics used to evaluate the effort were the wrong metrics.  College attendance may not be the right way to measure whether or not small schools are good places for our children.  We might want to investigate some other metrics and see how they tell us about the experience of students in smaller schools.  I’d wonder about things like safety.  Or the knowledge that students in a small school are members of a cohesive and human community.  Were these students well looked after and mentored by grown ups who genuinely cared for them?  Were they engaged in work that was meaningful and purposeful?  Did what they did each day matter?

You can say those schools failed – but let’s make sure we know what your criteria are. The more someone1  is pushing to tell me what counts as a “good school,” the more I’m finding I’m willing to say –

Hang on.  Wait.  What do we want our schools to be?

And just what do you mean by failure?

I think those’re some of the kinds of questions that the folks who are organizing the Save Our Schools March are asking.

If I could be, I’d be there in Washington DC as they congregate to push for change. Perhaps you will be.  Take good notes.

  1. “Like Bill Gates,” I want to say, but it’s not about him.  Like anyone who wants to tell you what’s working or what’s not.  Dig deeper.  Ask more. []

I Believe. You?

Cross-posted from Voices from the Learning Revolution, where I write sometimes.

Recently, Justin Hamilton, @EdPressSec on Twitter, asked folks to state what they believe regarding education policy.  No, that’s not quite right – what he actually said was this:

Specifically, he, after being a little bit mistreated by some folks who don’t understand civil dialogue, asked folks to share what they’re for, education policy-wise, as they were also sharing what they were against. That seemed like a reasonable request.  Here’s my list.

I believe that reading and writing are the foundations of education.  I believe that they are complex tasks, best taught through the actual doing of them.  I believe that too many teachers don’t spend time in their courses on reading and writing, because they believe those foundational concepts to be “someone else’s job.”

I believe in the power of breakfast, and that a child should never have to wonder where his or her next one is coming from.  I believe that we could solve the problem of breakfast, if only we wanted to, and that’d take us a long way towards improving learning in our schools.

I believe that children are capable of handling complex tasks and content. I believe that we, too often, underestimate their intelligence.  I also believe that we do so too often to protect ourselves from discomfort or messiness.  I believe that’s harmful both to the children and to all of the rest of us.

I believe learning is, indeed, messy.  And that we should leave no child behind.  I believe we think too much about the lowest common denominator in thinking about the success of our programs.  I believe people rise to the level of the expectations set for them.  I believe we continually lower ourselves to meet the expectations of our politicians.

I believe that needs to change.

I believe that educators should be the best and brightest of our generation.  I believe that the best and brightest of our generation too often see a way to escape the classroom, and that, to them, leaving seems better than staying.  And they leave.

I believe in thoughtful professional learning opportunities for teachers, administrators, and anyone who works within a learning organization.  I believe we should model with our professional development the best of what we want to see in our classrooms.  I believe teachers, too, should read, read, read and write, write, write.I believe we pretend to do this more often than we do.

I believe that reading is its own reward, and that programs that focus on bribes and trinkets are not good for children or for learning.  I believe that tricking children to read by bribing them with tickets or toys or food cheapens the value of the reading and ultimately hurts more than it helps.

I believe that kindness and compassion always deserve a place in working with other human beings.  This is true in our legislatures and our classrooms.  Our social media spaces and our press conferences.  The rhetoric of “stupid” and “hate” and anger and four letter words just isn’t helping.

I believe that people who have “the answer” to any large problem don’t actually understand the problem.  Human problems are complex and require multiple avenues of solution.  I believe that differentiation should exist both inside and outside the classroom.

I believe the classroom should be a place that is sometimes in the world and sometimes removed from it.

I believe we have too many missiles and not enough books for children.  Or enough thoughtful adults to spend time with them.

I believe the environment for learning is far more important than the script for what takes place while children and grownups are together in that environment.  I believe that learning is a set of habits and practices thoughtfully applied and not a collection of behaviors to be enforced.  I believe that inputs are more essential than outputs, and that changing our emphasis from measuring outputs to measuring inputs would make a difference for children and schools.

I believe that our children are indeed our most precious national resource. They deserve a better model of how to behave and to conduct themselves than we provide for them in the world on most days.

I believe anything worth doing is probably very difficult and that we will fail more often than we succeed. I believe one reason why we see so many simplistic and not terribly useful ideas in education is that sometimes it feels better to have a small and empty victory than it does to risk losing at something that’s actually worth winning.

So that’s what I believe in and am willing to fight for at present.  Perhaps you’ll share your beliefs, too. What’s worth fighting for in education policy today?  I suspect @edpresssec would be interested in your answer.

Comments are off on this version of the post – head over to the VFLR blog to share your beliefs.  I’m looking forward to reading them.


Patri: What we needed as children, children still need.

Rediscovered these lines from Angelo Patri while in a conversation today.  Good to see them again:

What we needed as children was someone to show the way.  Someone who knew us and valued us.  Someone who would live with us and for us.

What we needed as children, children still need.

The teachers and I, conscious of the dangers that come to an active child from a random seeking to satisfy his desires, tried to make the people whose children were about us realize their responsibility while we ourselves did our share.  We knew the children needed the older folk. We knew that we had only limited means of gathering and holding these young people together.  All we had was the school and we were fast losing that except as a drill machine running eight hours a day during which time two schools1 in turn tried to master the prescribed book facts.

Slightly later in that section:

The school, after all, narrowing down to routine, was such a faraway place, far away from the actual lives of people.  How could we get close, so close to each other that we would be part of the people and they a part of us, and be “folksy” together?2

Our schools are communities.  Or should be.  Rich and vibrant and healthy ones.  It’s a really good and useful book, as I’ve noted before.  Might be time for a reread.

  1. Patri’s school at the time shared its facility with another. []
  2. Both quotes from pages 80-81. []