learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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Learning.now is a weblog that explores how new technology and Internet culture affect how educators teach and children learn. It will offer a continuing look at how new technology such as wikis, blogs, vlogs, RSS, podcasts, social networking sites, and the always-on culture of the Internet are impacting teacher and students' lives both inside and out of the classroom.
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Education Reform and the Freedom to Mod

Last month, I asked readers to give me their thoughts on what school reform truly looks like, so I could begin a conversation on the topic that was to take place at the Educon 2.1 conference in Philadelphia. Both online and in person, I heard a range of thoughtful perspectives - and students were always at the center of it.

This was my first Educon conference, and right off the bat I could tell it would not be my last. The event, hosted by Chris Lehmann and his students at the Science Leadership Academy, attracted several hundred educators from around the country. It was a rather geeky crowd - lots of tweeting, iPhones and people tagging flickr photos - but the conversations were only geeky in a pedagogical sense rather than a technological one.

I’d come to Educon to moderate a panel on school reform, which turned out to be in front of a standing-room-only audience. I began by asking the panelists to talk about their own vision of reform. Mike Wang of Teach for America Philadelphia cited several themes he considered were “non-negotiable.” First, schools needed the right human capital - bringing the right people in to do the right job. Second, a commitment to using data so we can measure what students are learning, when they’re learning it and how. Lastly, he pointed to the need for “unyielding expectations” when it comes to holding teachers and administrators accountable for their students’ successes and failures. He also expressed hope in President Obama’s selection of Arne Duncan as education secretary, calling him “a great first step.”

Gary Stager, however, would have none of it. “I dream of an America where the person put in charge of education is qualified,” he said bluntly, adding that he seriously doubted that Duncan or other politicians could answer the simple question of what is their favorite book about learning. He also challenged the notion of data-driven education reform. “We don’t need better data about students. We need teachers to actually know their students…. External assessment is always disruptive, and interferes with learning.”

As the panel cited various examples of schools using progressive pedagogical models, I noted that all of the examples were small - charter and magnet schools with very limited enrollments. How might you scale inquiry-based learning when crowded classrooms and large school districts are commonplace? Conference host Chris Lehmann acknowledged that this was difficult. “The things that are replicable are processes,” he said. “We can’t scale curriculum… we can’t regulate goodness.”

Circling back to testing and No Child Left Behind (NCLB), I asked what policy alternatives they saw to that legislation. Does it need to be retooled, replaced or scrapped all together? Stager, for one, was glad that NCLB was never fully funded. “Right now we’re beating kids over their heads with rifles just because we can’t afford bullets…. We need to begin on the assumption that parents will make good choices for their children.”

Lehmann then noted that his own son may require an individualized learning program. “I never want teachers to look at him and say, ‘Can we get him to be proficient on the test?’ I want them to care for him…. NCLB is choking our schools by changing the way that teachers look at students.” Wang, however, pushed back. “It’s not the policy that is bad - it’s the implementation of that policy.” He also pointed out that higher education is based around standardized tests, and as long as that was the case, students at the K-12 level needed to prepare for that type of learning.

Bette Manchester, who ran Maine’s trailblazing student laptop program, also chimed in on NCLB and testing. “If someone at a school says reform is about getting test scores up, I wouldn’t want my kids in that school…. Transforming schools isn’t a mystery. it just takes the moral courage to make change happen.”

Despite Manchester’s involvement in a major technology initiative, she almost never mentioned technology per se as a major element of school reform. None of the other panelists really did, either. This wasn’t to say that the panelists were hostile to technology. Far from it - most of them, and almost everyone else in the room, were proponents of using digital tools creatively in the classroom. Perhaps Mike Wang captured the sentiment best when he said, “It’s better to have a good teacher teaching by candlelight than a mediocre teacher surrounded by technology.” Digital tools can enhance learning an myriad ways, but if the underlying pedagogy isn’t creative or inspiring, all the technology in the world won’t do you much good.

Meanwhile, the conversation continued online - here on the blog, on Twitter and elsewhere. When offering his vision of school reform, Tom Kennedy cited the “seven survival skills” from Tony Wagner’s book on the global achievement gap:

1. Critical thinking and problem-solving

2. Collaboration across networks and leadership by influence

3. Adaptability and agility

4. Initiative and entrepreneurialship

5. Effective oral and written communication skills

6. Accessing and analyzing information

7. Curiosity and imagination

“How central a role does technology play in reform, and how do we avoid it from being a distraction to our ultimate goals?” he asked, echoing some of the panelists. “Technology should play a central role given that it makes information readily available, allows collaboration in ways otherwise not possible, such as global projects. It be used only when it makes sense…. We will have to give up on the idea that its possible to measure student achievement with a once-a-year standardized test. This should be replace with ongoing formative assessments and other so called ‘authentic’ forms of assessment depending on the nature of the learning and its context.”

“I think that school reform shouldn’t look like anything new,” offered Canadian teacher Neil Stephenson. “Good teaching has always been good teaching - projects that are engaging, meaningful, authentic, with thoughtful assessment woven throughout. The only caveat for the present is the inclusion of digital technology - but the pedagogy is the same. Whenever students are asked to use a tool, it should be in the service of thinking or communicating differently.” Neil also cited a project of his own as an example - the Calgary Science School Virtual Museum.

“School reform should look like students are independently learning,” said Gaylynn Mills. “The teacher should be guiding the students, not lecturing. Don’t most students learn more without being lectured. Students should be given the opportunity to explore, make mistakes and think for themselves.I believe most important, is students are allowed to be themselves and not a standarized test.”

Gaylynn’s notions of independent learning and exploration were plain for all at EduCon to see in person that weekend. Every session I attended, students were participating. They were in the hallways interacting with attendees. They were shadowing presenters and pummeling them (including me) with tough, smart questions. And yet it seemed totally normal. There was nothing unusual about the students engaging with a bunch of teachers who themselves were there to learn. In some ways, everyone was on an equal playing field. It was so natural for the students at the Science Leadership Academy to engage that way, I couldn’t imagine getting them to sit in a bunch of rows waiting to ask a handful of questions in response to a lecture developed solely for test prep. Instead, they fully expected that they would be directly involved in the learning process.

At one point, attendee Chris Champion asked a student, “How are teachers here better than good teachers elsewhere?” The student replied: “Freedom to modify the lesson.”

Perhaps that’s what school reform looks like. Freedom to mod. -andy

Filed under : Events, Policy


That is right…FLEXIBILITY! Freedom to mod.

I have recently been doing staff development in 21st Century Learning and it amazes me how we don’t know how to modify on the spot- what does it look like? How do we turn our plans toward our students and make sure it relates to what they are currently thinking and wondering about. So many schools today are scripted! It’s really shocking… thereby the ART of teaching is lost. Freedom to mod brings us back to our origins in teaching as an ART form, connecting to and engaging our students deeply in subject matter. Thanks for the post. Wished I could’ve been there in Philly, maybe next year.

I just listened to a keynote address by Lucy Calkins. She said teachers and administrators need to be “public learners”—broadcast the fact that we are learning. When I admit to my students that I am learning—that what I am doing in my class is an experiment because I am learning a new strategy, the tension is immediately lifted from the classroom and suddenly I have 25 or 30 students who are on my side, which seems opposite of what I would expect. But I get more cooperation, more empathy, when I do that. In response to Gaylynn Mills, GUIDING is exactly what works for student teachers, too—so why shouldn’t it work with our students as well?

I just listened to a keynote address by Lucy Calkins. She said teachers and administrators need to be “public learners”—broadcast the fact that we are learning. When I admit to my students that I am learning—that what I am doing in my class is an experiment because I am learning a new strategy, the tension is immediately lifted from the classroom and suddenly I have 25 or 30 students who are on my side, which seems opposite of what I would expect. But I get more cooperation, more empathy, when I do that. In response to Gaylynn Mills, GUIDING is exactly what works for student teachers, too—so why shouldn’t it work with our students as well?


I think you took away from EduCon 2.1 the same thing that I did. Any “system,” no matter how well-meaning, that is implemented from the top down potentially removes the local freedom that seems so evidently important to good education. I think that’s a big part of why the great examples have this thread of independent passion that you can’t “bottle.” So much of what I hear about about education reform is really just wanting a different agenda to be mandated, but still mandated from the top down. That’s not “system reform”—in fact, I wonder if you can even have “system reform.” If a system is the perpetuation of practices that you think have led to good outcome, 1) you must believe first that you know or agree on what good outcome is and the steps to get there, and 2) the act of systematizing often defeats the creative independence that allows the creation and flourishing of good practices.

It occurs to me that our current education system is a set of “laws” when what we really need is a “constitution.” I don’t think it helps to structure the practices, but somehow we need to demonstrate out cultural commitment to education in a way that supports and strengthens the methods for generating local initiative and success.

As I’ve played with this idea out loud over the last few weeks since EduCon 2.1, the response I often get back is that such a system wouldn’t be equitable or fair. As the parents of four children, my wife and I long ago lost my confidence in believing that I know what “fair” is. Each of our four children is different, and superficial fairness, in fact, is often not really fair at all, since their needs and talents are very different. I would ask: is our current “system” fair? Is it successful (macro level)? If attempts to mandate fair and equitable from the top down don’t actually work, might we not consider re-framing the debate?

In some ways, I see this as very similar to the arguments for democracy versus communism. Democracy emanates from an believe in the inherent rights and value of the individual, and a belief that imperfect as we are, we have a right to define our own destiny. That in the messy (and sometimes unfair) process of democracy, there is a greater potential for good that is achieved by belief and support of the individual than when the individual is seen as serving the state, and when fairness and equity are mandated from above.

I know we’re diving deep with this discussion, but I think it’s a national discussion that I’d like to see us have—and not the discussion of whose particular agenda we are going to see mandated from above. It’s also the kind of discussion I am hoping we’ll be able to have at http://www.FutureofEducation.com if I can make a plug for my interview series there. :)

Thans for another good post, Andy.

Nicely done, Andy. It was good to see you albeit too briefly.

Please tell NPR producers that I’m available anytime they want a good sound bite :-)

We see more taking remedial courses in college. We see more getting GED’s as they do not fit the system of education we use - that goes back to the 1900’s. We are not an agrarian society. We are not one culture. We are not all intact family homes with one bread winner. We are not an industrialized society. With all these changes why has not the format of school education changed? We need to look to Europe and we have one thing better - the CC system.

I find it interesting that the entire article on education reform, and all the responses so far, have equated education with schooling. Over the pasts decade or two, technology has reformed education—real learning by the populace—dramatically, for better and/or for worse. It’s schools that haven’t been reformed much, no matter how many computers with web access we’ve poured into them. Inquiry-based learning takes place millions of times per day, as people faced with a question (arising out of a real-life problem or curiosity) consult with a world of advisors, think critically to filter out the junk, and test the remaining ideas as answers to their question.

Enjoyed the post. Loved the candlelight quote.

Thanks for bringing these valuable discussions to a broader audience.

The student had it right. Teachers that find themselves in the rut of education do not effectively reach their students. Unfortunately there are many constraints on educators. There are time pressures, technological issues, funding problems, etc. What needs to happen is to allow teachers to simply teach. Give administrators the respect to hire the most qualified teachers. Give them the tools to purge the teachers that may not be meetings expectations. The larger issue is that the people making policies that effect all schools are not experts in the field. They tend to be politicians that have desires and urges that do not have children at the heart. It seems like these politicians have forgotten that education was initially intended to be a local concern and not a federal concern.

The current accountability standards implemented with NCLB have dehumanized teaching. High stakes testing is disruptive to the teaching environment and forces educators to “teach to the test” and not to the student. Educators should be held accountable for their student’ successes and failures (too often it is just the failures that we are credited with) but one does need to remember that there is much that is out of our control; we cannot turn the television off at home, we cannot provide a supportive home environment, we cannot cook dinner or enforce bedtime (although at my school we do send food home to needy students). The education of our children needs to become a collaborative effort with everyone taking responsibility and doing their part to ensure success. We are wasting too much time blaming and pointing fingers when w could trust that everyone wants what is best for our children and their future and focus our energies in that direction.

Hello, I am very excited about the comments made. I am and older teacher I am going to be 70. I am not giving up my quest for a better education system. I sub so I am basically out of the system, however I do not have the contact. In my experience it was a challenge to discover the real meaning of being a teacher and being able to applly it. We are fortunate now to have the information that I read today available. In my view planning, action and leadership is very important by the classroom teacher. Motivation of yourself and the student is important along with getting to know your students personality and guide them into learning that will benifit them in the now and the future. All of the technology, tools and information aren’t worth much if there isn’t a plan in place to make them work for you and the learner. I have been in many schools and most of the tools are not used, not even books, or the correct use of the pen and the pencil. Most students are not challenged and most teachers work harder doing the things they learned in high school, college and there fellow teachers. They say in the world of business “Work smarter not Harder”. I sometimes think that teachers need to be aware of concepts and ideals and given the view that these really can work. Well I have put down some of my thoughts Let me know how you think. I am a student always/

The important thing is that students would learn on whatever method they prefer.

I just moved to California, and I am amazed at how much the community is working toward attemtping to full fill teaching requierments for parents and young students.
However, the problem that seems to arise in the community where I live in is that there should be more elementary and middle schools around. In a twenty block radious I can only count about two schools and one promminent afterschool.

There are a lot of constraints on teacher today. The programs are being changed drastically. I participated in a kindergarten program last week, and these 5 year olds are already reading and doing math. They even have end of year assessments. I just feel this is too young of an age to beging these things. Children are not mentally ready.

While it is easy for educators to bad mouth standardized tests, I think it is important for us to remember the driving purpose behind them. We should be held accountable for students learning the information they need to know to be successful. I’m not saying there aren’t a myriad of problems and other issues related to student achievement, but when schools are able to make excuses for some students, then some students won’t learn.

That being said, I think the idea of having alternative assessments to show student achievement is a great idea. The trick will be to make those assessments “standard” so that every child’s results will have meaning. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have those assessments be part of the learning process?

I truely enjoyed reading your post along with all the responses. I agree that the current accountablilty standards implemented with the NCLB has forced some teachers to focus strictly on that and not the needs of our students. I don’t agree that stuents should be evaluated based off of standardized tests when the learning levels of each student is so different. I also agree that teachers tend to teach to the test and courses have such a time restriction on what needs to be covered that teachers are not allowing time to make the important connections with students needed in order for them to be successful in their learning. Students that are connected with their teachers are more engaged and learn better.

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I enjoyed reading your blog post concerning reforming education. Our educational system is at a crossroads right now. In one direction we have standardized testing and NCLB. In the other direction we have authentic learning. Unfortunately the powers that be are struggling to get us to take the standardized testing route. I believe that students need to be accountable for the standards and learning. However, we cannot continue to teach in a vacuum. Information is readily available on the Internet, so is there a true purpose that students have to continue learning rote information?

You stated that Tom Kennedy said, “How central a role does technology play in reform, and how do we avoid it from being a distraction to our ultimate goals?” I think that this is an essential question that we must consider in our quest to reform education. We cannot include technology to simply add bells and whistles to our students’ education. Our inclusion of technology must be purposeful. It must extend the lesson and foster student learning. We must work with the end in mind – the standards, the content, the knowledge that we want our students to leave our classes having. Technology is the tool that brings education to our students’ world (which is very different than many teachers’ own experiences). Our students are growing up in a very different world than we grew up in. We must prepare them for their future – which includes collaboration, communication, and technology.

So how does reform truly take place? I don’t think that this is one that can happen unless all stakeholders come together and voice their opinion and work towards change. We must have policy makers meet with teachers. Business leaders and community members must be a part of this process. Until we come together and truly define what education looks like (and what true learning looks like) we will continue to go through the motions and continue the same old methods that have been around for countless years. (We must also realize that with how quickly the world is changing this is something we will need to revisit on a very regular basis).

We must also provide our teachers with meaningful professional development opportunities that will assist them to formulate their ideas and plan to constructively use technology. I have participated in three on-line professional development courses this summer (all through PBS Teacherline). The one area that has helped me to grow the most as and educator (and as a learner) is the discussion posts. I am able to formulate my ideas while gaining insight from other educators. I am also able to go back and examine my own beliefs after others have brought up other points of view. Two of the central ideas that have appeared throughout the posts are the importance of meeting the students’ needs and crafting lessons that are purposeful. We cannot proceed as a nation of educators without the inclusion of idea sharing.

Approximately 70% of US public schools are doing an excellent job. They compete favorably with foreign schools anywhere. And, we educate ALL of our students, not just the cream as is done elsewhere. The 30% of schools that are dysfunctional are in dysfunctional communities where the best teachers and programs don’t matter much. The schools there will be successful when they take the place of the broken society around them. But that is not an education problem, it is a social or economic and political problem.

Hey Andy,

I liked your insightful article. Technology advancements have been amazing and rapid. School districts struggle to keep up with the pace. But at what cost? Most children today are tech savvy without formalized classroom instructions about how to use a computer, etc., etc. The growth of MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and so on give testimony to the growing trend of youth competency with technology, especially in using social networking, among other gadgets and applications. But I fear much has been lost and our children are less and less educated. By education, I mean that which leads one more deeply into the truth, the good, the beautiful. No amount of gadget/tool learning can replace time tested methods of instruction that teach the 3rs with paper and pencil..Just my 2 cents.

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I like the teaching method used by Private Schools Palm Beach teachers. I really learn a lot.

I’ve never found such this forum discussing the education reform in my country, Indonesia. All the regulation and decision were made by government absolutely. Even the education tend to ignore parliamentary suggestion. National final examination, for example, is a severe controversy amongst National Education Department and society until now.

Very nice and interesting topic

Dear Friends:
I believe the disruptive innovation in the Educational industry will occur when we start implementing a Quality Assurance System.
Education, as any other continuous process industry, needs to implement a quality control system; a Total Quality Assurance. There is a big difference between having a QC system, and measuring the quality of a given education. While the second choice provides metrics after the process has been completed, the first choice offers the managers (the teachers) the possibility to act according to the responses and make the necessary changes to achieve the desired quality. A QC system requires metrics in real time; a continuous evaluation.
The other thing that the Education industry needs is a “measurement” system. Not a set of standardized tests. A QC system uses standard units to measure the different steps of a process. The concept of Learning Objects, used in the e-learning industry as standard of content, can easily be adopted by the Educational industry to measure the courses. Instead of using “credits” or “units”, LOs could be used to quantitatively and qualitatively measure the syllabus contained in a curriculum. Correlating content between institutions would be just a matter of matching the LOs of the desired curriculum. LOs also could be used for internationalization of career titles or certificates.
This Virtual platform will potentiate teachers’ capacities to become “teaching managers”. I would like to paraphrase Deming: Teachers who will work ON the system, monitoring study performance data of individuals, and correcting their weaknesses on-time, will achieve the desired knowledge (quality).

Douglas Rushkoff’s Life Inc. has an interesting chapter on how the corporate plan for making employees compete (similar to educational reform plans to reward only “successful” teachers) acts to destroy workplace morale and cooperation.

A side problem for teachers is the lack of engaging history texts. An alternative is websites like mine that offer free resources to help put a human face on history.

The real story of American history is fascinating, and students should be allowed to experience that.

I frequently find myself having to translate things from Spanish to English. This can be quite time consuming for me since although I speak some Spanish I am not fluent. I am wondering whether or not there is a good Spanish to English translation website that I can use to do this a bit more quickly and easily. I would love to have more time to do other things. The translations don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be good enough that I can get the gist of what the document is saying and make an answer to any questions posed to me.

Andy Carvin,its really great to read on some practical topics.

I enjoyed reading your blog concerning our educational system. I happened to stumble on this blog while doing research for my paper about this issue. It was pretty funny to see that I could have gone to the convention because it happened to be that I was traveling in Philadelphia during the convention.

Anyway, my paper is about reforming our educational system and other ways to help it improve. I did some reading online, in books, etc. and a common topic that always comes up is capable leadership in the system. Many schools (like the charter schools run by the company Mastery) seem more than willing to get rid of the old staff and hire new ones.

It seems like a wonderful idea that schools are firing the incompetent teachers and hiring new ones but are the new teachers brought into these schools better then the old ones? In the city of Philadelphia the new teachers that are being given jobs to replace the “old” teachers are typically young, white females that just graduated college and are working in the city because their TEACH grant is forcing them. It was apparent that many of these teachers only wanted to serve the five years in the low-income district and move out to the suburbs.

I feel like a better option should be taken to get better teachers into our educational system. One option is to educate people in the community to take jobs in their community. We should take more people that come from low income families and agree to help put them through colleges if they are going to teach in their community.

Is not all learning based on language skill? In any education reform agenda I have read, I read nothing from educators, administrators, or politicians that addresses the depth that learners must acquire that will lead them to communicate their ideas competently and creatively, no matter what their social and economic background is. In order to achieve that mastery, curriculum standards need to be challenged. As a reading interventionist and linguist, I question the levels that K-5 students’ reading and writing competence is expected to reach when educators hardly have the tools, the support (in the form of low class sizes in order to provide the direct instruction and constructive feedback), and administrative assistance.

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