Thursday, January 06, 2011

Farewell, My Friends

This will be the final post here; I am working toward moving my evolving spiel to a new venue, "Not Your Father's School." My hope is to unify some of my thinking, which has been split between this blog and "Admirable Faculties."

Part of my desire is to lose the specific focus on teaching and professional culture here and what I am feeling are my overly restrictive ties to what I have been calling the New Progressivism over there. There is something new going on in independent schools, and it has progressive roots, and it's very much tied to the way we organize and manage schools and their curricula, but I'd like a fresh start. (And where it is not going on, I believe pretty deeply that it should be, unless there is something equally serious and forward-thinking and thorough being offered as an alternative.)

I'm still very pleased by the idea of the New Progressivism, but I've had occasion over the last year and a half to see the many ways in which the P word preconditions and distorts many people's understanding of the kind of education--the schools, their culture, the teaching--that the New Progressivism represents. It is not groovy and go-with-the-flow, it is not education conducted toward the establishment of moral relativism, and it is not "free" or "alternative." Being student-centered these days requires a pretty sophisticated understanding of social, physical, and cognitive development, not just a desire to be kids' best friend or to let them follow their bliss. Creating New Progressive curriculum requires a wealth of detailed and specific knowledge of the criteria by which effective and engaging learning experiences are designed and of the ways that student learning can be assessed. It requires standards and a deeply held set of core values and core aims. It is intentional, and it is very, very hard work; it can even require students to engage in very, very hard--but worthy--work.

So I'm shedding the P word and taking a deep breath. I'm hoping to find the concepts and words to combine the threads of my thinking about education in the direction of helping independent school folks of all stripes consider what the next generation of schools--those schools that are not our father's schools--ought to look like and how they ought to go about the business of educating.

73, friends

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

MIT presents "Blended Learning Revisited"--BEST THING EVER

This too long to summarize and too excellent not to offer in full. Professors John Seely Brown, Dava Newman, and John Belcher (all currently working at MIT) on the development of teaching methods that foster creativity, innovative thinking, productive collaboration, rigorous self- and peer-assessment, intellectual curiosity and risk-taking, and playfulness--everything that we talk about as being essential to "21st-century learning."

It's 97 minutes, but you can watch it in segments--don't miss the Q&A at the end:

UPDATE, June 2012: The video is no longer available for embed--but here's the link.

No continuation of this post--what you see here is what you get.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Warmth by wire?

Our professional day last week was built around a great conference sponsored by EdSocialMedia, with lots of good stuff for school communications/marketing folks as well as for classroom teachers. So many things to think about...

I was fortunate to be part of a panel on "The Future of Teaching," led by Antonio Viva and featuring my colleague Kelley Connolly as well as Bill Stites of Montclair Kimberly Academy, Dave Bill of the Dwight School, and Hans Mundahl of New Hampton School. After it was over I kept having people tell me that I made sense, which worried me.

What seemed to make sense to some folks--most of them, like myself, educators of a certain age--was my insistence that teachers of the future will still need to be compassionate and empathetic people who believe in kids and want to see them succeed--nothing that I haven't said in my books or anywhere else.

Clearly these teachers, who aren't all slouches in the adoption of technology and a host of other "21st-century teaching techniques, are worried that in a more technology-driven, and specifically Web 2.0-infused educational world, the human connection that is so powerful in teaching might be lost.

It's ironic that some people in independent schools, where strong, warm teacher-student relationships are not just the coin of the realm but arguably the raison d'etre, are so enthusiastic about creating virtual and online environments in which to do their work. What occurred to me the other day is that maybe what we need to be thinking about, if we are truly going to blend face-to-face with online learning, is how to recreate the kind of warmth and connection virtually that we so naturally feel when we are sharing physical space with other human beings.

So far, all the educational social media in the world, all the digital communications media, and all the virtual worlds in the universe haven't quite been able to recreate the feeling of being with real people, watching faces and body language and hearing nuances of expression that we can't generate digitally.

What we need is "warmth by wire"--all the qualities of humanity delivered electronically.

This could be a tall order. How do we create for ourselves and our students the kinds of environments in which our meatspace selves go through our lives? Human interaction, whether in classrooms or livingrooms or bedrooms, is a sensory festival, and the deeper souls among us tell us that most of us miss quite a lot of what is going on even when we're all in the same room.

I'm willing to give technology a chance here, but I think it's going to be a while before they get it fully right. Virtual reality and augmented reality don't exactly look as though they are going to lose their clunkiness anytime soon, and the fact that in 2010 we still have to put on silly glasses to watch a movie in 3-D means that we're a ways from creating true immersive virtuality. Multisensory experiences are even clunkier; the writers of Star Trek were probably onto something when the made holodecks a feature of the distant future.

Until we have holodecks (and probably long afterward), I guess, some of us are probably going to want to hold onto the idea of the classroom, some kind of physical space in which the warmth, energy, and weirdness of kids is infused with the complementary warmth, energy, and weirdness of human teachers. This doesn't mean that all education has to be F2F or that technology should not be added to the mixture in large gobbets. It doesn't mean that we ought to be halting the retreat of the human teacher from center stage to "guide of the side."

This seems pretty much like common sense to me, but then I guess I'm of a certain age, myself. I think we still believe that little human beings are best brought up by human beings, Singularity or no, and school/education/learning is still fundamentally about bringing children up--helping them develop their character and interests in a social and interactive milieu--and not just teaching them skills and content.

What I don't like is that so many people see technology and social media in the future of teaching as an either/or issue: You're either for the absolute precedence of technology in the classroom or you're an unreconstructed and probably dangerous Luddite, wallowing in outmoded Romantic ideas of what students must be offered. This false dichotomy is as shortsighted as it is arrogant.

We need to see the need for balance--for warmth by wire and warmth in person--and we need to work at achieving it if we are to realize both the human potential of our students and the technical potential of the media in which we work.


Friday, February 12, 2010

When did it become all about leadership?

Every time I turn around these days I find myself faced with either a new opportunity that will develop students' leadership capacities or someone looking for such an opportunity.

I know that kids applying to college or filling out scholarship applications love being able to list the leadership positions they have had, and by the way the questions on some of these documents are phrased, it is clear that the universities of the world cannot have enough new students with gobs of demonstrated leadership ability.

No wonder teams have tri- and quad-captains and every club or student organization has at least two co-presidents. Collaborative classwork is touted for the chances it gives students to develop and practice leadership skills, and for families with a few extra bucks, those fancy leadership programs (critiqued in the New York Times a year or so back) are just the ticket for turning an average kid into a--leader! Half of the nation's charter schools seem to be "leadership academies," and half the nation's independent schools seem to be proud of the various leadership-development activities that they offer.

Hey, leadership is great, and no one in our society could argue that we're seeing too much of it these days. But I have to wonder: Is all this emphasis on developing leadership skills--which seems often enough to mean simply developing the skills to look carefully and thoughtfully around, help out, and occasionally advocate around an issue or a community--really getting us anywhere, or are we simply devaluing a term that has a fairly august and specific and sometimes appalling historical meaning?

From the birth of the republic through the age of John Dewey and up until not so many years ago, educators were focused on the idea, and the meaning, of educating young people to be participants in a democracy. The skills for doing this involved being alert and informed (looking carefully and thoughtfully around), stepping up to serve and participate where needed (helping out), and actively supporting one's beliefs, sometimes through voting and sometimes through advocacy.

I'm not sure how many of the students being offered leadership training in classrooms, summer programs, and extracurricular activities, could tell you exactly what leadership means, or what its varieties might be. Was Hitler a leader, or Pol Pot? Is Barack Obama, or Sarah Palin? Is Oprah, or Lance Armstrong? We hear that the "teabaggers" don't have or necessarily want to have leaders--but someone has to organize the convention or be the talk radio spokesperson; are those people leaders, or commentators, or managers? There's also the question of whether the opposite of leader must be follower--and who is which.

Certainly the best leadership programs explore these issues in real depth, as schools should have been doing all along if they are to prepare a knowledgeable and informed citizenry. I guess I am just a little puzzled, and kind of amused, that every child today must be a leader of tomorrow. I think we're overselling an idea that serves the ego (and polishes the resume: "I am your president/captain/leader!") at the expense of a broader, more historically relevant and socially and politically crucial concept, the simple and venerable idea that participants in a society need to think for themselves and act when they must based on principle and reason.

I think that teaching students how to lead is quite important and quite progressive (old and New), but I think that it is even more important that we refocus some of the attention we give to attaining positions and titles of leadership on the more fundamental question of what it means to be an informed and effective member of a community.

Leadership is neither about holding a title nor about having taken a multi-thousand dollar trip to Washington, D.C., and receiving a certificate. Leadership is about knowing when and how to step up and when and how to support--and sometimes oppose--others in the service of making the world a better place.


Sunday, February 07, 2010

Books, must read: CURRICULUM 21, edited by Heidi Hayes Jacobs

Most of us are buried under piles of must-read books on educational topics, but I'm afraid I generally prefer books whose prefaces and cover blurbs don't tell the whole story--a common failing of education books. Thus, when Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World (ASCD, 2010) arrived as a premium with my ASCD membership, I read the back and started the Introduction without expecting much.

Don't get me wrong. I've been a fan of Heidi Hayes Jacobs, who edited the book and wrote the key early chapters, ever since spending the better part of a week in a workshop with her and Grant Wiggins in 1994; I'm a long-time believe in curriculum mapping, and every time I've heard Dr. Jacobs since then I've come away with lots of good ideas and inspiration. Nonetheless, I tend to put my ASCD member books in pile to be skimmed at some future point and then read carefully only if the skim captivates me. Well, it's the truth; there are are other things I like to read more.

Jacobs' introduction to Curriculum 21 starts perilously close to edu-porn, about which I've written earlier, starting with the usual 21st-century indictments of the work writers seem to enjoy accusing many schools of continuing to do: "What year are you preparing your students for? 1973? 1995?"

But quickly enough the justification and the overview give way to Chapter One, "A New Essential Curriculum for a New Time," that lays out an excellent case for change. In the following chapters Jacobs even suggests an entirely practical process for initiating and working through this change.

For the rest of Curriculum 21, Jacobs and the books other contributors--including Steven Wilmarth, Vivian Stewart, Tim Tyson, Frank W. Baker, David Niguidula, Jaimie P. Cloud, Alan November, Bill Sheskey, Arthur L. Costa, and Bena Kallick--make not only the case for incorporating the full menu of 21st-century skills--including 21st-century habits of mind, from Costa and Kallick--but also some plausible, do-able ideas for doing the work.

It's pretty extraordinary: powerful case statements by the educational leaders most associated with the program elements generally regarded as the foundation stones of 21st-century curriculum, written in a style that is neither shrill nor hectoring. Curriculum 21 offers a rare thing, which is a mature, measured perspective on the best practices that will inform the work of schools in the decades to come.

What I like best is that the authors, Jacobs and all the rest, write in a way that feels grounded in the educational history that has come before, incorporating the new understandings of cognition, child development, and curriculum and assessment design that educators have gained in the last half-century or so. They even suggest that students and teachers are human beings with a range of responses to change--and that the process of change needs to acknowledge this. Yes, it's progressive, even New Progressive.

So, to haul out a cliche that seems especially apt, if you read only one book on 21st-century education this year--and there are plenty of choices around--check out Curriculum 21. You will actually want to read, and learn from, this one.


Wednesday, February 03, 2010


A smart blogger at Toxic Culture correctly identified as "edu-porn" those feel-good articles and films that show a well-meaning rebel thinking outside the box and transforming schools and classrooms, one caring little environment at a time. Ever since Mr. Daddy-O decided to come back for another round of teaching would-be juvenile delinquents in the 1956 film Blackboard Jungle, audiences and voters have been comforted to know that one person can make a difference in schools, at least until they leave (as Evan Hunter, author of The Blackboard Jungle, the novel on which the film was based, did after 17 days as a teacher).

But there is another kind of edu-porn, the sadomasochist side of the genre, that gets an awful lot of airplay these days and that must offer the same frisson of pleasure to its purveyors that those teacher-savior stories provide. I am talking about the mountains of statistics--seldom represented by the same numbers twice, so it seems--that "prove" that American children are falling ever farther behind their peers in other nations, particularly those with growing economies in Asia. These numbers are regularly hauled out by commentators on the right and increasingly the left as evidence that our schools are failing, our children are doomed, and our society and nation are plummeting into irrelevancy.

I don't even care whether these numbers, based on all kinds of comparative test data, are right or wrong; in the aggregate I know that they are real and alarming. What concerns me is that I have long sensed a kind of weird, cruel "I-told-you-so" pleasure among some of those who are most eager to tell us that the children of China, India, Singapore, Japan, and even Finland (Finland!) are soon going to be our superiors in the global economic and political order; better start learning Mandarin so that we'll have a few interlocutors who will be able to speak with our new masters!

Often enough the blame for this trend, which goes back to the post-Sputnik era in its most statistical and malevolent form, seems directed at whatever version of "progressive education" the blamer has created in his or her own mind and doesn't like.

Mathematics instruction--which is clearly in need of improvement in the U.S., with Singapore and Japanese models offering tremendous promise--usually tops the list of curricular and pedagogical culprits, but "multiculturalism," project-based instruction, school schedules and calendars, and of course anything associated with the word "self-esteem" are among the usual suspects. I think that I occasionally catch a whiff of regret among the most vitriolic of education critics that the American education system has invited girls, and then students of color, into the classrooms where white boys once reigned, and of course there is the strange and apparently countervailing abhorrence of "elites" and elitism that lets the harshest critics have it both ways--hating both the education system and those who have succeeded at a high level within it.

Clearly those who have expressed hope that the Obama presidency will fail--regardless of all the human suffering that would accompany the kind of failure for which they most hope--are a model for a kind of political schadenfreude that is equally turned on by the idea that American schools are failing and that American children are victims of this failure. This stance lets those who are just plain cynical claim at least equal air time with those who propose legitimate or at least well-meaning solutions, from charter schools to vouchers to serious reform. In the avalanche of dreadful numbers, it's hard to see who is offering real hope and who are just gratified by watching educators and the initiatives of the past three or five or twenty decades twist in the wind.

Of late I have noted from the more progressive side of the field some of the same. In particular, some of the strongest (and in some cases most accurate) advocates around technology in education and "21st-century skills" can sometimes be heard pronouncing the same kind of doom on education and educators, suggesting that the "failure" to move forward quickly enough toward a more tech-informed, more New Progressive approach to teaching and learning is a kind of crime being practiced on children. Like angry educational conservatives who believe they know it all and take pleasure in pointing out the failings of education as it is currently practiced, the more shrill voices on the other end of the spectrum risk turning their critiques into the kind of splenetic, empty rhetoric that makes them feel good and impedes real progress.

Sadomasochistic edu-porn is not, apparently, the province of the right only, but I hope that those who are most sincere and thoughtful in their efforts to reform the system can restrain their delight in pointing out what's wrong and focus rather on moving the American educational system toward what is effective and what best meets the real needs of children.


Friday, November 06, 2009

The Intentional Teacher, at last

I'm pleased to mention here that The Intentional Teacher: Forging a Great Career in the Independent School Classroom is at last available. Although the book can be ordered by phone directly from the publisher, Avocus Publishing (800-345-6665; their website is undergoing renovation), the best way to purchase at this point is from Amazon.

The book is intended for aspiring and working teachers as well as for administrators, mentors, and others who hire and support teachers in their schools. There are chapters on
* what it takes to be a teacher
* finding a job
* getting to know students
* classroom management
* planning
* setting standards
* feedback
* working with families
* diversity and equity
* advising and supervising outside the classroom
* coaching
* child and adolescent development
* curriculum and pedagogy
* professional behavior
* the teacher's role in the school
* career paths

There is a resource section for each chapter and a few useful templates--unit design, project planning, daily planning--that should be useful to schools.

The educational philosophy underlying the book is New Progressive in every way; it's about building relationships with students and creating learning experiences that are purposeful, engaging, exciting, and challenging. The independent school focus is really about making the most of one's personal and professional capacities in an environment that often calls upon teachers to play many roles in students' lives.

The sticker price is $26.95. Avocus has produced a number of books on independent school issues, and I have to say they have put this one together very nicely.

Click below to participate in the PROGRESSIVE SCHOOLS wiki