Ensuring Learning, Meeting Needs

Cross-posted from the ZIS “COETAIL” group blog.

When it comes to tagging blog posts, I am a burgeoning maestro. For this post, I have selected “21st Century Skills,” which is a term approaching Pee Wee’s Playhouse-style Secret Word madness with me. So, you see, that’s it! That’s an answer to the question. How do we ensure that students are learning what they need when it comes to Technology and Information Literacy? Teach 21st Century Skills, that’s how!

Ok, so that’s clearly not an answer. Here’s how: give the kids something to do and let them work out how to do it. I truly don’t believe that it matters if the solution involves picking a dodgeball side or working to protect the rainforest via a vast global network of like-minded youth, because I believe both are essential skills for this here century of ours, at once here and futuristic. It is not for me to decide what each kid needs, and need is essential to the question at hand. As we have been told by Sir Ken and his contemporaries, many of the jobs of the future don’t yet exist, so we can’t tell what kids need. Of course, the family of the future, the community of the future, and the future of the future do exist now, so we should keep teaching 20th, 19th, and 18th century skills, too. The world of work isn’t the whole world, after all.

Of course, I am more excited about authentic curriculum than I am about dodgeball (mostly). If we know what we would like students to know and to do, then I think we are best suited to help them if we couch their learning in authentic learning opportunities or projects. Of course, these should include the authentic use of technology, not to reach out to pretend audiences or to solve pretend problems, like writing a letter to the editor about dinosaur extinction, but to connect with anyone, anywhere, to talk to strangers, to take the ideas of others, ethically, and use them, advance them, in the pursuit of a solution for something. What won’t help students is using lasers to answer chapter review questions or the gamification of spelling tests. Learning a mix of skills for human interaction in the physical realm and the virtual realm is the best bet for securing a future for ourselves and our students that meets our individual and collective needs in this 21st century.

Reflections on Microsoft “Partners in Learning” European Conference

I had the good fortune to attend the Microsoft “Partners in Learning” European Conference. I submitted our Digital Journalism course’s podcasting project to a contest for teachers in Switzerland and came in first place, earning me a trip to Lisbon, Portugal, for the week of March 19. I spent the week with some Microsoft employees, including a very skilled, very organized intern (and ZIS alum) who will begin her teaching career in Switzerland next school year, and many excellent educators.

The week included some sightseeing and a few brilliant moments of exploration, which I live for. We ate amazing food. We soaked in as much sunlight as possible. I was part of a Swiss team including an outstanding Spanish teacher from near Lucerne who organizes incredible projects between students in her town and students in Spain, culminating in an exchange of groups for a week in Spain and a week in her town. Incredible! For anyone who thinks gaming is interactive, I challenge them to virtually outdo the interactivity of a trip to live with a family in Spain.

The setup for the conference was another competition. We all set up booths, including, help me, posters. Mine was minimalist, linked to a series of examples via a hashtag and a QR code, which is so obscure, even to geeks, that it makes me positive that these will never catch on in their current form. Many other people incorporated a number of screens and projectors, beautifully produce glossy posters, gifts, candies (I took Swiss chocolates, for they are delicious), brochures, handouts, and even a flip animation book crafted for every project except mine – honest mistake, truly. Not so, me. I had a computer and headphones, though, which were useful.

I presented my project to three judges, interesting educators all, and greatly enjoyed these conversations. At the end of the week, I realized how useful the opportunity to reflect at length about my curriculum proved, and the resulting ideas will change both this curriculum specifically and my teaching in general. My project was entitled “Digital Journalism: Podcasting,” and that was the way I pitched it; curriculum rose up first, and was followed by the forms of assessment. I guess it worked, because our project came in first last place or “Third Runner Up” in the “Collaboration” category. This surprised me.

I was curious to see if the glitzy projects employing wild gaming tactics built on video game hardware would win out. My perception is that some teachers are stretching hard to do chapter or spelling tests with a panoply of gadgets, doing old things in new ways. Uniformly, these projects were not recognized.

A number of teachers created projects in which students created educational materials, not so much in the classic sense of teachers turning students into wee lecturers, but more in lines of creating progressive teachers with some level of cooperation with (usually) younger peers. Uniformly, these projects were rewarded.

As I take anything away from this conference beyond memories of a beautiful, if currently traumatized city, I leave dedicated more than ever to creating authentic opportunities for students to learn essential language skills and to explore texts and media in personally authentic, meaningful ways. I believe we owe it to students to move beyond the strictures of external curriculum and standards in order to teach in ways that we know are the best; Kristen Weatherby of the OECD made this clear when she posited that most teachers they interview know best practices but ignore them due to the contorting effects of standardized testing. I believe we must allow for connected, cooperative learning to take place in non-linear ways, for kids to learn how to “talk to strangers” as Bruce Dixon (quoting Will Richardson) stated, and for kids to take actual risks, venturing into what Liv Arneson called the “Uuhh-ooohhhh” zone in ways that they value, risking what that value, in order to make huge gains later.

For me, this means integrating service learning possibilities into the Digital Journalism curriculum when students are interested, making connections between students worldwide to allow for communities of interest to coalesce, and facilitating students in connecting with the world beyond the classroom. I am planning on creating a choice menu for the Digital Journalism final exam in which they get points in the creation of a reflective media piece on their growth as journalists by contacting and communicating with peers, peer experts, adult experts, networks, and so forth, practicing digital communication skills in the midst of proving their fluency in them. This is in the rough draft stages, but it’s a working concept.

Additionally, I recognize that, by gaining an invitation to the global Microsoft “Partners in Learning” conference in Athens in November, I have an opportunity that many of my colleagues worked hard to achieve. As such, I am hoping to revise my display and communication plan into something clearer and more powerful, giving the work of my students its due and honoring the challenge. As I do so, I want to expose my thinking and my process to students, modeling the writing or creative process as I go.

The Partners in Learning conference was a great chance to meet like-minded, powerful educators who are doing incredible work with youth. While I have serious doubts about the efficacy of competition between educators as a means of stimulating cooperation, I have freely entered this process and intend to honor it with my best work in Athens.

Thoughts on The Future of Schooling

At Zurich International School, we’ve got a weekend “InnovateZIS” think tank approaching in which the topic is “Schools Out: Learning 2030. Will schools as we know them be needed in 2030?” A series of essential questions have been posited, including:

  • What is the role of creativity in school?
  • What core elements should the curriculum of the future contain?
  • How will Learning 2030 affect social relationships in schools?
  • Should schools prepare students for the world of work?

Two other questions deal with learning spaces, which is an important and fascinating topic that I have been thinking about regularly since a recent visit to Microsoft Switzerland’s headquarters. But beyond physical environments, what is the future of curriculum, creativity, and relationships in school, particularly in terms of what students should know after they leave school?

Thinking about the future of school is tricky. As Dr. Seymour Papert pointed out, “It is impossible to predict what the school of the future will be. History always outsmarts the futurists.” A large disconnect already exists between what the world of today is and how schools operate. Schools are inherently conservative institutions, where change comes slowly. As such, we continue to sort by age ( rather than interest area or fluency level, for example. As such, kids are robbed of a diverse community of learners, one more socially traditional than the hierarchical age model. Learning 2030 should be about social relationships predicated on a shared journey of discovery across age groups, including a student-teacher relationship of cooperative learning. As a teacher, I’d rather be a learner than an authority – a guide with experience in my areas of interest who creates opportunities for students to learn and build meaning individually and socially. As Papert goes on to say, “But it is easy to predict what it will NOT look like. I am sure that the practice of segregating children by age into “grades” will be seen as an old-fashioned, and inhumane, method of the “assembly line” epoch. I am sure that the content of what they learn will have very little in common with the present day curriculum.”

I hope Dr. Papert is right. A responsive curriculum is no curriculum at all. Curriculum tends to focus on facts that need to be learned or a banal, arbitrary “spiral” of skills; learn persuasion in 10th grade English as you read Julius Caesar, learn comparison in 11th grade English as you read Othello. Dr. Papert also described an “intellectual diet” of content for children and a broader curriculum predicated on fluencies in various skills like accessing information with “knowledge technologies.”  Teachers engaged in a mutually engaging, constructivist process of learning with students can craft this diet to help kids explore their passions by doing things. Doing is creating, permanently, temporarily, or ephemerally. The role of creativity in school is central, or should be. Standards and curriculum can’t really address that without being extremely broad.

At the end of the day, I don’t know any happy people who make a living doing something they hate. As such, preparing students for the world of work means helping them build positive working relationships, understand their areas of interest, build fluencies in skills essential for life in the 21st century (most of which were essential in the 19th century), and create habits of mind and habits of work for success, happiness, and ethical engagement in society.

The NETS and Teaching

As a part of my COETAIL course at ZIS, I am required to answer the question “Whose job is it to teach the NETS (and other) standards to students?” NETS stands for the National Educational Technology Standards and is a set of standards for various groups in schools, like students, teachers, administrators, coaches, and so on. Like most standards, these statements aren’t analytic, but big, broad statements such as “Students understand human, cultural, and societal issues related to technology and practice legal and ethical behavior.” Then, each statement is parsed into 4-5 areas of application, also broad. So, who teaches creativity, collaboration, communication, information literacy, technological fluency, critical thinking, citizenship, innovation, research skills, and media literacy? You. Wait – didn’t you get the memo?

The problem with such standards – probably all standards – is that they at once seek to define all that must be known and done by everyone, everywhere. Standards have value and I find the NETS sensible and useful, but of course I understand the NETS through the lens of my subject area and age group. Most other teachers will do the same. As such, the NETS become a sort of planning and reflection checklist for the teacher – how am I hitting or ignoring certain parts of these, and how can I do better? That’s useful.

But, as long as we teach from pages 134 to 141 tomorrow, and as long as we shoot for standards like the Common Core, for example, there is little hope of generating the sort of student-centered, exploratory environment that would furnish the most powerful, transformational answer to this question: Together we learn the NETS through exploration in a supportive environment. I recently read something marginally snarky on Twitter that the tech-savvy person hits a problem and asks “How can I solve this problem?” and the tech-o-phobe asks “Who can solve this problem for me?” If that’s true, then the failure for the tech-o-phobe is in the environment in which they are working; perhaps a better question in a more supportive environment would be “Who can help me learn to solve this problem?” That is the sort of question I want students and teachers asking together.

If a school environment supported messy, time-intensive “project based-learning” or exploratory approaches, they need to cultivate the risk-taking (maybe low-risk taking is a good term), “play” mindset. Teaching media literacy, for example, gets sticky fast. As soon as we start drilling down past the surface, individual interests lead kids off in fascinating directions. Once they start producing media that “talks back” to mainstream media messages and values, it’s hard to have everything due on Tuesday. Instead, some time frames expand while others contract. Some students make a chunky poster, others geek out in Photoshop, and others still build elaborate sandbox sets for the destruction of a Matchbox car in explosion and flames. Each student may not even hit the same standards at the same time, but allowing open-ended exploration and choice helps students learn the NETS themselves in cooperation with each other and with the teacher or teachers. And that is the right answer.

Digital Storytelling in 90 Seconds

I have been working on a variety of digital storytelling rubrics focused on specific types of journalistic reports lately, cooperating with students to reflect what they see as valuable or important in feature writing versus opinion writing versus news reporting, and so forth. My next project is video, breaking down what works in video in these various types of reports and adding investigative reports to the mix. It’s a work in progress.

But, I have also created a very, very brief digital story of my own this week: a “Virtual Classroom Tour” that may be found below. This project is part of the presentation on podcasting in my Digital Journalism course that I will make at the Microsoft “Partners in Learning” Conference in Lisbon, Portugal, in a few weeks. The time limit of 90 seconds was set by the good folks at Microsoft, and, as I so often say to students, I learned from having my communication forced inside an imposed structure. I wouldn’t only want to tell a story this way, but it’s a good opportunity to boil the podcasting project down to its essentials. Therein lies the strength of an imposed structure, similar to the AP exam’s time limit or a prescribed “elevator pitch” layout like a Pecha Kucha.

So, please check out this very brief digital story produced in Camtasia Studio and offer any and all feedback. I took the video of students with the iPad 2, which lacks a good microphone. I tried to compensate for that, but it only worked to mediocre effect. I also had to convert the video from the iPad to use it in Camtasia, which created very small final products. Part of my thinks the little “window into the student” effect of the almost embedded interview video is interesting, while another part recognizes it’s kind of crap. Still, it helped me conceptualize the curriculum a bit to push it out in 90 seconds. I can see the value of asking for super-brief videos asking for illustrations of key concepts as a method of formative assessment a as result of this experience.