Nov 21, 2009
I'm a tech guy, as you have probably noticed, and as a tech guy I often find myself spending a lot of time talking about all sorts of great technologies, like social media and Web 2.0 tools, the latest hardware and gadgets, and how to use them to build online communities and develop collaborative practices in the education space. I attend and participate in a number of conferences and webinars on a regular basis, both as a presenter and attendee, and serve on a number of panels and implementation teams, all of which I believe to be valuable. But lately I have been struck by the fact that, even though everyone is gathering together to talk about education, we really aren't talking much about education. We're talking mostly about tools. Think about the last conference or webinar you attended - how much of the conversation revolved around tools and how to use them? I would bet the vast majority. While the geek in me really enjoys learning about what the hot new tool is and how I might make it work, I think as a whole we've jumped the shark on ed tech. Because when we think about ourselves as educators, what we do is not really about tools, is it? It's about kids. It's about helping kids to learn and grow, and to prepare them for the world they are about to enter.

Yet many of us seem to believe that if we can just get the right set of tools into the classroom we can solve all of education's problems. So we take out our whiteboards and replace them with super-whiteboards, and we swap out our overhead projectors for document cameras, and we sprinkle in some classroom responders, just for good measure. We do all this because we genuinely believe that it will make all the difference in the world, mostly because somebody told us that the reason kids aren't learning in the 21st century is because we aren't interesting enough. And I think that's wrong. I don't think that's right at all.

I think the problem that we're having is not that we haven't figured out the right set of tools, I think it's that we're not focusing on the right things. We're not taking a look at technology and it's role in the future of education and asking the right questions.

I was following along with a discussion panel this year at NECC (now ISTE) on social networking in education (which is a topic I often speak about) and panelist David Jakes posited what I believe is the right question. And it didn't have anything to do with social networking or web 2.0 or tools or technology. It was simply this: "What does it mean to be well educated in the 21st century?" I think that is the question we really need to start asking.

To answer that question, I believe we need to take a step back and look at how the world has changed all around us - step back and look at the world our kids are entering and consider what they will face when they get there. We need to look again at their needs, their motivations, and their influences and discover what drives them to learn and grow. Only when we do that, can we rightly challenge the assumptions we have used to build our education systems and consider what school in the 21st century should look like.

More to follow in subsequent posts...


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  1. Picture a brokerage firm on Wall Street (think Gordon Gecko here). It's a hustling, bustling place. Why? Because people are trying to figure out what the future holds for their monetary interests. They need to stay on top of current news. They need to look at trends. They need to act fast because hesitation might cost them their clients' precious assets. But not their clients' MOST precious assets. If our most precious assets are our kids, why is there such relative apathy among the brokers of education? Where's the hustle to try to hit that moving mark of what kids will need in ten or fifteen years with our educational goals today? Instead, we're trying to hit a mark we've already driven past, a mark that was set in the past, not the future. While the philosophers of education (not just those with a piece of paper saying PhD) talk about what education should probably look like in the 21st century, the teachers scoff and continue using mostly traditional curricula guides. This isn't necessarily because of inertia, it's because trying something radically different is risky. And the state might WILL punish us if our gamble fails. So instead of acting on what are probably good ideas, we're utilizing a mutual fund strategy of teaching with a hodgepodge of strategies that we've had traction with before, but with very little innovation added each year. We toss the things we did that didn't quite work well, and do more of what was more productive. This does, I think, produce a stead climb, but the hill steepens in front of us, outstripping our dependable (if not exciting) methods. What we're seeing (to be cliche) is evolution, not revolution. And primarily this state exists because in a heavy handed, punitive environment, creativity and risk-taking are stifled. Any teacher can tell you that. We've all walked into a classroom before that has a stale, quiet, orderly environment. My favorite movie scene inspired by this visual is in the movie Teachers where "Ditto" (a teacher aptly nicknamed by his students) dies at his desk and nobody notices for four subsequent periods of the day (high school) because his class consists of nothing but students doing worksheets while he sleeps at his desk. The point is, we can talk talk talk about all the changes that should be made, but the current environment in most public, elementary schools (mainly resulting from fear of government reprisal) is not conducive for creating creative solutions. American inventors, for example, have proven time and time again, that freedom inspires more creativity and productivity than, say, measures that Benito Mussolini might endorse. Maybe our schools need more freedom to try something new. Should we blame the teachers for lack of innovation? That would be like Mussolini blaming his scientists for not keeping up with his demands for innovation. Maybe people don't work too well with a proverbial gun held to their head?

  2. It's more an amalgam of reltead stories, but school bullying, and particularly cyber-bullying, has been a huge media obsession this year. Also, the release of individual teacher value-added data in New York and California, though very recent, might rank up there, perhaps as part of the idea that accountability rhetoric is surging again (along with the familiar policy proposals for quick fixes and scapegoating of teachers).

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