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How To Make Schools Matter To Students

4 Jul

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” John Dewey

Schools are supposed to be about learning. They are supposed to be about inspiring students and supporting them so they can develop the skills and knowledge they need to live their best life.

But the world has changed, quickly, and schools and teachers are struggling to keep up. Learning, like many aspects of our lives, is becoming democratized and decentralized. Students are increasingly finding schools irrelevant when it comes to learning and are using cheap and easy technology to take matters into their own hands.

Here’s three stories to illustrate:

  1. marthaPayne858_2249344bMartha Payne: On April 30th, 2012, Martha Payne was a nine-year old school girl in Lochgilphead, Scotland. She thought the food provided to students at her school wasn’t very good so she decided to blog about it. Her first entry on May 8th, 2012 included a picture of her pizza lunch with the comment “The good thing about this blog is Dad understands why I am hungry when I get home”.  The blog quickly got local and national headlines, a comment from food advocate Jamie Oliver, and by June 15th Martha had three million hits. The story developed a few twists and turns along the way (the school board tried to shut her down) but as a result of Martha’s blog the quality and quantity of food at her school (and others) has improved, and along the way she’s raised over $150,000 to improve the quality of food at schools in Africa.
  2. o-ANN-MAKOSINSKIAnn Makosinski: Since grade 6 Ann Makosinski, of Victoria, British Columbia, has had an interest in harvesting surplus energy. She started exploring this interest in independent science projects in grade 7 and continued to refine her ideas. In 2013 (she’s now in grade 10) Makosinski produced a flashlight that can be powered by the heat from the user’s hand. Her $26 prototype uses Peltier tiles (which she bought on Ebay) to turn heat into electricity. Makosinski is one of fifteen students in the world, and the only Canadian, presenting at the 2013 Google Science Fair in California. Makinowski did this, not in class, but independently, on her own time, between her part-time job and rehearsing for the school play.
  3. Ebony Oshunrinde (aka WondaGurl): When Ebony Oshunrinde was nine years old she saw a video of rap artist Jay-Z wondagurl_2and producer Timbaland working in the studio together. She decided it looked cool and she wanted to learn how to do it, so she downloaded music software and taught herself how to use it by watching YouTube videos. Oshunrinde is now a grade 11 student in Brampton, Ontario and made a piece of music she liked. She sent it off to a producer she’d recently met for some feedback. Her ‘beat’ was so good he shared it with Jay-Z and they decided to use it on the song “Crown” which is on Jay-Z’s just released album Magna Carta Holy Grail. Oshunrinde worked on the beat after she finished her homework.

These are just three of thousands of stories of students that are increasingly taking learning into their own hands. They’re not getting what they need in school and so are using technology to ‘go around’ school.

Schools need to facilitate and support more of this kind of independent learning, to provide a space for students to follow their passions. If we don’t, formal schooling will become increasingly irrelevant to students. Instead of a place of learning and inspiration ‘school learning’ will be another chore that students HAVE to do. Another thing on the to-do list before they live their real life.


Why Teaching Digital Citizenship Doesn’t Work

8 Feb

Spend time with children and you learn that lists of rules don’t work well. Kids are too smart and love to find loopholes. No matter how long you spend crafting a list that covers all scenarios a 5-year-old will bite someone and point out that you didn’t say he couldn’t.

A better approach is positive general principles. Tell students what you want them to do. My favorite model is the four Tribes agreements that are displayed prominently in my class and discussed and practiced every day:

  1. Attentive Listening– Pay close attention to what others are saying. Check for understanding
  2. Appreciation Only– Treat each other kindly, don’t use put-downs.
  3. Right to Pass– Choose when and how much you participate. It’s acceptable to simply observe.
  4. Mutual Respect– Affirm the value and uniqueness of everyone.

These agreements cover most situations, describe behavior in positive terms and support the development of critical thinking skills.

This approach works better than long lists of rules, and so I’m confused by the common approach to encouraging good Digital Citizenship. Further, the concept of separate rules for digital behavior is quite flawed.

Digital Citizenship is often promoted by listing the many things students cannot or should not do. Schools require students to sign ‘Acceptable User Agreements’ with long lists of rules such as:

Students may not

  • Use illegal downloads
  • Post name, address, telephone number, etc. without permission
  • Contact strangers on the Internet
  • By-pass digital security systems
  • Access unapproved websites
  • Post inaccurate or harmful information
  • Use digital technologies in an unhealthy manner (e.g. game addiction, loud music, etc.,)
  • And so on…

Such lists are too narrow, quickly become outdated and don’t allow students to think critically.

More importantly the whole concept of digital citizenship is backwards. Students who behave inappropriately in digital spaces misinterpret the digital space as private, when it is, of course, public. This misunderstanding leads students to believe that the regular rules of public behavior don’t apply in digital space, and so they behave in ways online that they never would in public. The fundamental error is in thinking that digital spaces are different, with different rules from the real world. They aren’t.

Lists of ‘rules’ for online behavior reinforce the misconception that online and real life is different.  We must help students understand that social media, texting, etc. are public spaces and the same rules that apply in other public spaces also apply there.

The Brampton 9 students wouldn’t insult their teachers over the PA system at school. Students wouldn’t engage in many of the negative online behaviors that they do if they understood that they are sharing with the whole world, not just their friends. They don’t need a new set of rules, just to apply the rules they already know to their digital behavior.

We need to stop teaching Digital Citizenship with long lists of rules and instead reinforce basic Citizenship. Provide students with a set of positively framed principles to apply to all situations, digital and analog. Students don’t need more rules; they just need to apply the ones they’ve already got. The same ones they learned in kindergarten.

Digital Citizenship, Free Speech and “The Brampton 9”

24 Nov


On Wednesday Ontario education was dragged in the shifting debate over students, privacy, free speech and the internet.

Nine students in Brampton, Ontario were told to stay home after The Dufferin-Peel District Catholic School Board found out they’d “used Twitter to make inappropriate comments about teachers” the previous weekend.

This is just the latest incident in a growing trend, as educators try to navigate the minefield that students and social media has become.

Some examples:

There are lots of new issues to consider. Here are three key ones:

1) Digital Citizenship: What responsibility do schools have to educate and prepare students for the “digital future” and how best do we do that?

Many students, used to texting, are missing the shift required when using social media. It’s easy to think that messages on twitter are part of a private conversation, when they aren’t. We need to help students understand that online communication is public and that means a different set of standards and expectations from private.

The consequences of not understanding this are significantly more than a few days suspension. People are increasingly judged personally and professionally by their digital footprint, losing jobs due to “inappropriate use of social media“, prevented from getting jobs because of past ‘digital mistakes’, or losing relationships. We need to help students understand this.

2) Free Speech: Can schools really restrict student’s free expression outside school? Should they?

In the Brampton case the comments and threats were seen as cyberbullying and so fit under the school’s responsibility to prevent such behaviour. But does it stop there? What about when a student makes statements that oppose the school or are controversial? What if students at a Catholic school tweet in support of abortion or anti-religious views? What then? What if a student’s online behaviour reflects badly on the school, but doesn’t involve the school in any way? If a student appropriately expresses support for an unpopular position does the school need to respond?

3) Deeper Causes: What does this all mean in the bigger picture?

Dana Boyd has pointed out that none of this behaviour is new. Students have “trashed” teachers and fantasized about blowing up the school for generations. The difference is that their conversations are now happening in social media, where it is recorded and displayed.

We have a window into students’ thoughts, attitudes and emotions about teachers and schools. What do we do with that? Do we ‘shoot the messenger’ and try to suppress those views? Or do we take advantage of it and ask the harder questions?

Why were these students so angry with/about their teachers? What does that mean? Will we listen when students have things to say that we don’t agree with or want to ask difficult questions? Will we honor their right to express their views while recognizing that they aren’t adults and will make many mistakes?

It’ll be interesting to see how this develops.

Why Khan Academy Is The Wrong Answer

21 Nov

“The problem with television lies not in the quality of resolution but the quality of programming”

Nicholas Negroponte “Being Digital”

Nicholas Negroponte is a genius and one of my heroes. He played a major role in creating the MIT Media Lab, Wired Magazine and the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program. His book “Being Digital” was transformative . Every time I turned a page I read something that blew my mind.

One revelation was Negroponte’s thoughts on the future of TV. In 1995 HDTV was on the horizon and millions of dollars were poured into increasing screen resolution. Negroponte pointed out that what stopped people from watching more TV wasn’t screen resolution, but lousy programming. They were innovating on the wrong problem.

Before we solve a problem it’s important to make sure we’re working on the right problem. We need to do the same when improving education.

Popular efforts to improve education are focusing on the wrong problem. Millions of dollars and hours of innovation are being spent on improving how we deliver content in an era when content matters less and how we interact with it matters more.


What do all these all have in common? They are one-way content delivery systems and large corporations stand to make a lot of money from them.

However, the weak link in our current learning paradigm isn’t content delivery. Traditional textbooks deliver content efficiently and effectively, and access to content is cheaper and easier than at any other time in history thanks to the internet. It’s only with the guidance of a skilled teacher and interaction with other learners that content becomes relevant and engaging. That’s what makes  good teaching important. Future education is better served by  investing in and developing tools that support discussion and interaction, not improving content delivery.

New uses of the internet (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) are social. Web 2.0 is about users interacting and collaborating. The power of YouTube is that users create, share and discuss their own videos. That’s what makes it unique. Using it to show lectures so students can watch their homework while playing World of Warcraft turns it into a TV channel, nothing more.

Promoting interaction and discussion is the most effective way to use technology to support learning. Social media promotes and extends discussion, which is far more effective and transformative than putting lectures on YouTube or textbooks on tablets will ever be.

Some Examples:

  • Google Hangouts facilitates face-to-face discussions when students can’t be in the same space. Use it for after school study groups or to connect remote learners working on the same topic.
  • Twitter allow students to discuss learning and share insights over mobile devices or asynchronously.
  • Skype can effectively and easily connect learners to experts in the field they are studying so they can ask questions and delve deeply into topics.

We need to focus on using and developing technological tools that make learning more interactive and collaborative. It’s is a more effective and innovative way of improving learning than simply finding new ways to deliver content.

The Future of Digital Textbooks

10 Nov

Initially, new media replicates the media it’s replacing. Early film and TV recorded theatrical performances for broadcast and early printed books mimicked handwritten manuscripts. This persists, but over time the producers of new media begin to understand it and see new possibilities. They see it as a unique medium that can be used in innovative ways.

We’re following this same progression with the transition to digital textbooks. Early digital texts are transcriptions of traditional textbooks moved to a new medium. It’s as if someone took a textbook, scanned it and put it on a tablet. The pages flip, they have leather bound graphics and other types of Skeumorphism (my favorite new word).

However, we’re now starting to see new possibilities for the digital textbook and new ways that textbooks can used.

We need to begin discussing what a digital textbook should be. What features would be useful? How can we better leverage the capabilities of devices and connectivity to make a more useful resource?

Here are some ideas:

  1. Reliable Interconnected Devices: Digital textbooks have to be accessed on reliable, dependable, easy to use devices. Traditional textbooks are limited but they are 100% reliable, and if the majority of educators are going to smoothly switch to digital they have to be able to count on them. The devices need fast wireless connections to resources and should be charged wirelessly to avoid battery problems. They’re going to be handled by students so they need to be light and sturdy and should be replaced every 3 years .
  2. Customizable Content: The content of digital textbooks should be open so that instructors can update and rewrite portions according to the changing needs of students. If students are studying the earth’s crust and an earthquake happens, instructors can add to existing content to give it increased relevance. In some situations students add content. Rather than being a definitive resource the digital textbook is a skeleton, a framework, with starting points that learning communities fill in as they learn. There’s a master control panel that allows teachers to adjust the reading level or content.
  3. Personalized Interface: Our digital media experiences are personalized. No one’s Facebook page or Twitter feed is the same. So it will be for digital textbooks. When students login to their textbook the content is seamlessly adjusted to individual learning profiles.  Content is presented in ways that maximize a student’s learning strengths. Students with visual learning strengths get more pictures. Vocabulary is adjusted, content is “chunked” appropriately and assistive technology (e.g. text to speech) is automatically incorporated.
  4. Interactive: Students comment on content and share opinions and insights on what they’ve learned. They add to and build on other’s comments, bringing in resources from other sources and posting them for others to use. Comments take multiple forms (text, podcasts, images, videos and other multimedia) and can be added remotely through mobile devices whenever or wherever students are inspired. Students “like” comments, so the best thoughts and opinions rise to the top. The most useful comments are shared with other learning communities to help their learning. Students see the best ideas from other locations and reflect and respond to them.
  5. Facilitate Personal Connections: Digital textbooks facilitate connections to resources outside the device. In addition to basic internet resources textbook “publishers” provide experts that students can schedule a conference with. Students ask questions to advance their understanding or “dig deeper” into a topic quickly and easily over voice or video. A recording of the conference is instantly available to review, edit and share with others. Students easily share what they’ve learned and get feedback from other learners.
  6. Integrated Assessment: Assessment is integrated into content and content adjusts based on feedback from assessment. Assessment takes many forms and is differentiated. If needed, remediation and review is automatically provided. Teachers check student progress in real-time, add observations and feedback to the student’s portfolio, and intervene and guide when needed.

That should be enough to get started with. Okay developers, let’s see some prototypes 🙂

The 5 Most Overhyped Trends in Education

4 Nov

For your perusal, a completely subjective list of five things happening right now in education that are getting lots of notice, energy and resources but don’t deserve it, and why I think we need to reconsider our collective love affair with them:


1. Flipping The Class:

What is it? “…a form of blended Learning which encompasses any use of Internet technology to leverage the learning in a classroom, so a teacher can spend more time interacting with students instead of lecturing. This is most commonly being done using teacher created videos that students view outside of class time. It is also known as backwards classroom, reverse instruction, flipping the classroom, and reverse teaching”

What’s The Problem?

The problems with flipping are well explained in “The Flip: End of a Love Affair“.

The short form is:

  • It entrenches homework
  • It depends on lecturing, a one way transfer of information to the student from the teacher, rather than allowing the student to construct their own understandings and meaning by interacting with the information.
  • It doesn’t account for students that don’t have the resources to learn at home (e.g. technology, family support, etc.)

2. BYOD:

What is it? “…stands for “bring your own device”, and refers to students bringing their own technology like smartphones, tablets, and laptops to school for educational use.  This has been traditionally done by college students, but has now spread into K-12 education.”

What’s the problem?

I’ve written before about the problems with BYOD. I also recommend Gary Stager’s “BYOD-Worst Idea of the 21st Century

The short form is:

  • It’s inequitable. It relies on families, who don’t have equal resources, to provide devices.
  • The learning possible is restricted by capabilities of the devices brought.  If one class or student has the latest devices while other students/classes have lesser devices their is a difference in what can be taught and how.
  • Continues the transfer of responsibility for funding education from public to private.

3. EdTech:

What is it? “…an array of tools that might prove helpful in advancing student learning…” What I am specifically referring to here is the onslaught of electronic devices being brought into education.

What’s the problem?

The consistent message at ECOO12, from top thinkers and all corners, is that when considering using devices in education, pedagogy must come first. Too often we’re putting devices into classrooms and teachers have no idea what they are doing with them or how best to use them. We need to first ask the question “what are we trying to accomplish?”. Then select the tools that will help us and properly train teachers how to effectively use them in education. At a time when resources are precious let’s not waste them on poorly designed EdTech projects just because we feel we need to keep up with Jones Public School.

4) 1 to 1:

What is it? In “1 to 1” classrooms each student has their own machine or device to work on. Devices are not shared between students.

What’s the problem?

The “Maine Learning Technology Initiative” has raised the stakes considerably. In this program the whole state has gone 1 to 1. There are small individual pockets of 1 to 1 outside Maine but the general impression is that 1 to 1 is the current common practice and if you’re not 1 to 1 you’re falling behind. Due to declining education budgets 1 to 1 in the classroom will take a long time to become a fixture. Maine is a small and isolated example and no one has been able to come up with an effective scalable model that will allow 1 to 1 to be a reality in most classrooms. It’s the future, but it’s still a ways off.

5) Parent Engagement:

What is it? “…Study after study has shown us that student achievement improves when parents play an active role in their children’s education, and that good schools become even better schools when parents are involved. It is recognized that parent engagement is a key factor in the enhancement of student achievement and well-being.”

What’s the Problem?

It’s important, in a general sense, that parents be as involved in education as possible, but things have swung too far. If you want to get money for something in education simply justify it as something that will increase parent engagement and the world will beat a path to your door. As a result parent engagement has become very poorly defined. What is “Parent Engagement”? In some cases it’s just helping your child to do their homework. Do we really need workshops and parent groups for that? Not all parents have the resources or opportunity to become fully ‘engaged’ in their child’s education and lots of students excel in spite of low or no parent engagement. We must be careful that in pushing the doctrine of engagement we don’t end up excluding large groups of parents.

What Teachers and Parents Can Learn From Korean Hip Hop

4 Oct

There’s no hotter cultural phenomenon that Psy’s Gangnam Style right now. We’re in the centre of the passing cultural storm as everyone (yes, even edubloggers) try to catch a little of the reflected glory from everyone’s favourite hit song.

The video for Gangnam Style is now the most “liked’ video on the history of Youtube  (359,713,166 likes as I’m writing this). The performer Psy has appeared on Jimmy Kimmel (singing/rapping in Korean no less) and has the number 1 pop single around the world. And of course we’re in the midst of that now familiar cultural marker, the endless string of parody videos. Yesterday, in the staff room, I watched teachers listening to the song on their phones 🙂

The bigger question for educators and parents is what are we to make of all this. If you can find someone who predicted we’d be swooning over Korean Hip Hop this fall I’d like to pick their brains about the stock market.

Here are a few ‘takeaways’ from The Gangnam Style Phenomenon for parents and educators:

  1. Popular Culture is Still Youth Culture: For the last 60 years it’s been teens and those in their early 20’s that drive popular culture and that’s still true. My teen sons knew about Gangnam Style’s appeal long before I did. I saw the video first, but didn’t really know what it was or what it would become. They knew when they saw it and were talking about it with their friends (and by talking I mean skyping & texting of course).
  2. Youth Culture is Global: Teens are less concerned with where someone is from and more interested in how appealing their ideas are. If the ideas are good they want them, no matter the source. Technology allows this to easily happen. Anyone can instantly connect to any part of the world, any subculture or any generation. It’s a meritocracy of ideas facilitated by the internet.
  3. Unique is Good: In digital culture anyone can easily copy anything. Making or liking something unique and different is valued. Creativity is king. Teens would rather see something unique than a really good copy of something ‘old’.
  4. The Power of the Remix: Technology allows content from any source to be personalized. Your Facebook timeline doesn’t look anything like mine. People increasingly using this power to take existing content and remix it to make it relevant and personal and then share it. Why sit and watch Gangnam Style when you can remake it with you and friends as the stars?
  5. Sharing Matters: YouTube “likes” have driven the popularity of Gangnam Style and other viral YouTube hits before them (“Call Me Maybe” anyone?). Participation in online communities and expressing your opinion is increasingly the way we determine what matters. The Olympics and The US Presidential debate tout the amount of twitter traffic their events generate. Our students and children need to be able to successfully navigate this to make sure their opinions and thoughts are heard. If they are not participating on-line they don’t exist.
  • Note: I wonder what happens to our democratic “liking” model of determining worth when billions of rural Indians and Chinese come on-line and start expressing their “likes”‘. Will Bollywood movies be winning all the Academy Awards? Will our teens listen to pop songs in Mandarin & Cantonese on their iPods? Or will we find another system?