Moving Forward


cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Pink Sherbet Photography

I heard the following phrase, “we need to ‘uncover’ the curriculum” at a conference the other day, and started thinking, “what does that even mean?” I asked the question on Twitter and received several variations of an answer but very few examples. That phrase, with many other other educational jargon, drive me nuts because they are nice and catchy, but we rarely show the meaningful examples to get people excited about the possibilities of what this could look like in education.

“21st Century Learning” has also become another one of those phrases.  Many think that phrase has to do with technology, or with a bunch of skills that all coincidentally start with the letter “C”. But if you are standing in a room of educators and everyone has their own separate beliefs on what “21st Century Learning” really means, doesn’t it feels like we are just spinning our wheels.

Then you have the acronyms. Yes, they are easy to remember but I am always surprised that the complex tasks of education can be summarized into five or six letters.

So with all of this confusion, many ask why it is hard for people to accept change.  The problem with this is that people are more comfortable with what they know and have experienced, as opposed to what “could be”.  The other issue here is that if we cannot clearly articulate examples of powerful learning, why would anyone buy “change” in the first place?  Daniel Pink talks about the idea of “selling” in his most recent book, and specifically talks about education and our ability to sell in our profession (having a student understand why spending his time on learning from school as opposed to do something else as an example).  His one quote really stuck out to me from his book and its implications to continuously move forward in schools:

“The ability to move others to exchange what they have for what we have is crucial to our survival and our happiness.”

Are we at that “adapt or die” stage in education?  You are watching it in other industries (Pink talks about the door to door salesman and you can also watch this satire on “Blockbuster Video”) and I am wondering how many are moving from “traditional schools” to other opens.  This video from a college dropout talks about the changing world and how education has not changed alongside.  At the end, he offers an ominous quote:

It is clear to the world that something just isn’t working with institutional education and most people say that we need to CHANGE institutional education. But to the educators of the world, I am here today to say that I disagree. You don’t need to change anything,  you simply need to understand that the world is changing, and if you don’t change with it, the world will decide that it doesn’t need you anymore.

As I have thought about the conversations that seem to go “round and round”, here are a few ideas that have been mulling around in my head.

Ask lots of questions.

One of the key components in education now that is vital to the success of schools is the notion of “critical thinking” which is summarized in the wikipedia article on the topic:

Critical thinking is reflective reasoning about beliefs and actions.[1][2] It is a way of deciding whether a claim is always true, sometimes true, partly true, or false.

Reading this simple definition reminds me of Howard Rheingold’s idea of “crap detection”, which he uses specifically regarding finding good information on the Internet, but this also applies to the information that we have in our everyday conversations as well.  For example, I have seen a Cisco presentation several times where an engaging speaker goes over an expensive video conferencing suite and “oohs and awws” the audience with the possibilities of what could be if you were to have this technology in your school.  In the same presentation, I have asked the same question:  ”Isn’t this just a lecture in video form?” Quickly scrambling to find an answer, ultimately it is shown that it is just lecture.  Now I actually believe that lecture has an important place in our learning as there should still be content AND process, not one or the other.  But why wouldn’t I just use a webcam and a Google Hangout to do the same thing?

My focus in my role in “innovation in teaching and learning” has helped me to focus on the notion of things being “new and better”.  New is nice, but ONLY if it is better.  That is the question that we have to ask from any thing that we are used with students is “is this better?”  If the answer is “yes it is better”, the next question is “then what do we replace?”  Leaders need to continuously articulate why a new initiative has made its way into schools, and should be ready to answer the tough questions. If they can’t, should we invest time and money into anything?

We need to get parents more involved.

If you want schools to move ahead quickly, parents need to be involved in the process.  Using terms that are unfamiliar to them and just doing “new stuff” is not appealing to them, especially when they come from a system that worked for them.  That is totally understandable.  What I know every parents wants is the best education possible for their son or daughter and they are willing to give up tradition if you can not only articulate why it is better, but that they have also had input in the process.

Recently, I had the conversation regarding cursive handwriting in schools, and many still believe that this is an essential skill for our kids to have.  What I had to try to do is show that although it was not something that we need to get rid of, there were other extremely important elements for learning that we also need to focus on.  This goes back to the Daniel Pink quote regarding exchanging what “they have” in exchange for “what we have to offer”.  

I often get the argument about why students need to share online and I ask the same two questions of parents getting relatively the same two answers.

“What do you ask your child when they get home from school?”

“What did you learn today?”

“What do they say?”

“Nothing.”

Then I talk about the possibility of seeing through a blog and now changing the question to, “I saw that you wrote about _____ today. Why don’t you tell me more about it?”  This is a totally different question because of the work that we are doing, that will get a much more meaningful answer.  Parents don’t want to be just involved in schools, but engaged in the process of their child’s learning.  If you can show them how that is possible with real examples, you are more than likely to have them excited about the possibilities and more critically, feeling like a partner in the learning process and sharing their expertise on their child with us.  That is a beautiful thing.

Working together to make action, not just creating plans.

There are so many differing parties in the education conversation and they all seem to have their own “plans” for improving education.  They are all putting plans together of what education can look like, while many times not working with each other.  I was recently invited to the  C21 conference in Toronto to talk about creating a “vision” for education in our country and noticed that there were many parties actually missing from the table (parents, students, teacher unions) and a lot of companies there.  Where will this plan go if it is something that is done to people, not created with groups?

Take a look at the “21st Century Education in New Brunswick” video from almost three years ago. It was being shared all over the Internet yet when a new government took over in the province, it also meant a change in direction.  Although there are schools in the province that are still continuing with the vision shared in the video, is it getting supported from the government?  A lot of planning, but if we change the plan with every new government, how far are we ever going to get?

This might be a utopian hope that I have, but if we really want to push education forward, different groups are really going to have to start coming together and putting plans into action.  This doesn’t make me “anti” anything, but I am definitely “pro-kids”.  That is what this is all about.

Final Thoughts

I look at some amazing “pockets of excellence” around the world doing some amazing things, and I believe that if we are going to move ahead in schools, we are going to really have to highlight their work.  I know that many teachers feel that they are actually looked down upon within their schools or organizations for doing great things and either hide their stuff, or leaving altogether.  That is not good.  The other thing that we have to start focusing on is that our “innovators” aren’t the only ones with great answers. There are a lot of amazing things happening in all classrooms and we have to build upon those strengths as opposed to looking at simply what we think is missing.  One educator might be amazing with technology while the other an expert on traditional literacy.  What if we brought those things together?  Would that not be better for all and recognize what we all bring to the table?

I also think we need to change our thoughts on how to make school better and shift it to focus on how schools can make the world better? Doesn’t that make what we do much more vital?

  • http://twitter.com/ElenaBlume Elena Blume

    Wow!!! What an amazing Article. *FANTASTIC!* I think this is my most favorite blog article that I have ever read. What a phenomenal writing following up such a tremendous week. You are really making a difference. Especially, I like the way that you open up the dialogue amongst all who care about educating our young people for their futures. Will ~Share~.

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  • Steven Nielsen

    Great article George! I couldn’t agree more. To me, I think one of the biggest reasons for the “slow” change is because we are trying to change from the inside out. I preach these things to my staff and then in the next sentence I’m still talking about getting great diploma/achievement results. I know this argument is not new to you and I’ve heard others say that teachers can teach “21st century” and still get great results but I totally disagree. For example, the grade 12 math curriculum: I would wager that well over 80% of it will never be relevant to 90% of the students taking it (ironically unless they become a math teacher). I’m not arguing that some of the math will be needed if a student chooses engineering (or others) but why not wait to teach it until then?
    My favorite question as a math teacher from students was, “When am I ever going to use this”? And I would respond.. “Probably never”.. Added to this irony is that my brother is a chemical engineer and when I asked how much of his “school” education (including university) he uses, he said less than 5%.
    It worked as a filtering system in the past as a test of who could “learn” but we MUST find a new method that makes sense for today… I believe this is the greatest hurdle for needed change.

    I believe in everything in your article and and am a fan/participant of the movement… Just hope we can change “before we are no longer needed”. Thank you for your continued efforts.

  • Marnie Maretic

    I couldn’t agree with you more!!!