Sometimes we are so close to problems that we fail to even recognize them as such. When others point out the problem to us, we might even accuse them of over reacting, being unrealistic, extreme, or “rocking the boat.” If we look into history, we can see incredibly troubling examples of this, even when entire people groups accept immoral behaviors as normal. Of course, those exist in our communities and societies around the world today as well, what some have called moral blind spots.
I’m not quite ready to frame all the topics that I explore on this blog as moral issues, although I confess to thinking in such terms at times. Yet, there are common practices in much of education today that work very much like these moral blind spots. We grew up with the practices. Then, for those of us who entered the field of education, we adopted them. Students are acclimated to them. Parents are acclimated to them, even preferring them and demanding a return to them when people try something else. Even the larger society is comfortable with them.
While this is a topic that I’ve discussed before, it was highlighted for me recently when walking through a school hallway. I overheard a student talking about how much she liked a teacher because, when he lectured, he took the time to highlight what students needed to know for the test. “That makes it so much easier for me to focus upon what is important and not get distracted by all the other stuff,” I overheard the student.
In that moment, I experienced what felt like a combination of embarrassment and sadness. Is that really where we are in education today? We think school is mostly about getting ready for the test? The nuances, the wonder, the intriguing problems and questions, the provocative discussions, the struggle of trying to develop a new habit of thinking…these just fit into the category of “other stuff”, disregarded unless they are going to be tested? Is this really the education system that we want for students…for ourselves? Is this what we believe is going to best equip people for a rich, full, rewarding, meaningful life?
Fortunately, my brief eavesdropping is only one experience, yet this mindset is evident in policy-making, school design, teaching style, learning style, and more. I’m sure that I conform to it without evening recognizing it at times, and it is not okay.
Yet, there are wonderfully encouraging exceptions. I find hope in these exceptions. When you choose to be the exception, people might call you a dreamer, unrealistic, extreme, or even a troublemaker. Own it. Be the exception and stick with it long enough that a crowd of exceptions help create a new normal in our education ecosystem. Believing that education and schooling can and should be about things like wonder, curiosity, true personal growth and transformation, and deep learning is not the position of pie-in-the-sky dreamers. That is achievable and desirable, if only we regain 20-20 vision from the exceptions around us, and join in helping them to spread.
As some might recall, I choose three words to guide my work and thinking each year. For 2018, my three words are experiments, prototypes, and competitions. Related to the first two of these words, and amid my new role as Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, today I launched the first of what I hope to be a series of multi-disciplinary Academic Innovation Teams. Over the next six months this group will deepen our understanding of and experience with augmented and virtual reality. From there we will begin to create small tests, experiments, or prototypes that help us explore the benefits and limitations of these technologies.
It is a pretty simple structure. In the first session, we introduced ourselves, shared a bit about our roles at the University, and each explained what we hope to get out of the group. Then we established some shared goals and a bit of a timeline. As such, we will be spending the first two months familiarizing ourselves with more of the scholarly literature about AR and VR in higher education while also getting some hands on experience with current hardware and software, thanks to the leadership of two team members who are also faculty in our computer science department.
We had a good chat about how we want to deepen our knowledge together. As such, we agreed that our learning will take on the form of reviewing and discussing scholarly literature, getting hands on experience with the software and hardware, examining current and emerging applications beyond education (and considering potential educational applications), taking time to consider the important ethical and philosophical aspects of AR & VR, inviting in guest scholars/designers/practitioners who are already doing great work with AR & VR in higher education, and then quickly working toward learning by doing/designing/creating.
As we deepen our understanding in the first two months, this will also give individual team members a chance to clarify their goals and interests for the next phase, the part where we establish individual and/or shared design and development projects related to AR and/or VR in a higher education classroom context. Some of these will be more applied projects in a specific classroom or context, while others might be more formal research projects. Either way, it is my hope to see some good presentations and papers emerge from this group over the next year.
This should make for a rich, rewarding, and productive community. We have faculty from curriculum and instruction, business, computer science, physiology, anatomy, pharmacy, sociology, adult education, instructional technology, English/writing, and nursing. We also have staff on the team who represent student life, IT, and instructional design. Experience ranges from people who have never experienced virtual reality to others who have designed some pretty advanced educational applications. Together we will explore the possibilities, deepen our individual and shared understanding, and (most exciting to me) glean actionable teaching and learning insights through experiments and classroom/context prototypes across disciplines.
The idea of this team itself is an experiment, and I’m excited to co-learn and co-create with this wonderful group over the upcoming months! I’ll do my best to keep you posted of the progress and lessons learned along the way.
In early February, I was honored to give the Bob Heterick Memorial Lecture at the Educause Learning Initiative Annual Meeting. In this keynote, I presented on “Experiments, Entrepreneurs, and Innovations That are Shaping the Future of Higher Education. Afterward, I met up with Jeff Young, a senior editor at EdSurge, where we explored these topics a bit further. You can review Jeff’s summary of that conversation here or listen to the entire podcast below.
When I talk to people about school models, I get mixed reactions. Some are inspired by the stories that I tell about learning communities that are rich with curiosity and compassion. Others listen, but are skeptical. Still others are quick to dismiss what I share as rare and unrealistic for their particular context. Yet, I’m at a stage in my research that I am confident in my stance. It is entirely possible to create a school of compassion, curiosity, and growing character in pretty much any context in the world. It takes time. It will not be a utopia. It will be a work-in-progress. Nonetheless, progress in this direction is indeed possible, and there are countless inspiring examples of schools that have gone incredibly far in this direction. I’ve seen, studied, and learned about enough examples that I cannot deny this wonderful and very real possibility. Yet, our school communities too often remain content with what they are doing, emotionally tied to the things as they are, uninspired or unconvinced about what is possible, or inhibited by doubts or uncertainly about how to make it happen.
Even amid well over a decade of focused study, I cannot guarantee that a community will be rich with compassion, curiosity, and positive character formation. Or rather, there seem to be many ways to achieve this, and ample challenges on such a grand but noble quest. Yet, in every school that seems to be making progress in this regard, I find people who are asking tough questions about what they what to be, why, and how to get there. There is hope and vision, there is persistence through the challenges, and there is a constant self-assessment that informs what they are doing.
With that in mind, I put together the following questions. These can be used by parents and students seeking out a new school. They can be used by administrators and teachers who are open to some serious school soul-searching. They can also be used for almost anyone who wants to gauge the type of culture that dominates a given school. These questions reflect some of my personal values and priorities, but most of them simply help us reflect upon traits that consistently indicate a school that is embarking on the quest to create a more hopeful, compassionate, and curious community; one where each student is also on a journey of learning, growth, and character formation.
- Do administrators, teachers, and students in your school know the difference between having a high grade point average or high test scores and having genuine intellectual curiosity? How do they describe this difference?
- If you ask students what it means for a student to be smart, how many answers start with statements about grades and test scores?
- How many teachers and administrators in your school believe that the only “realistic” way to get students motivated to learn is through academic carrots and sticks like quizzes, tests, and grades?
- How common is it to overhear student lunchtime conversations about great ideas, good books, projects, learning challenges, or significant issues in society…and not just in preparation for an upcoming exam?
- How does the trophy case for intellectual and social accomplishments compare to the trophy case for athletic accomplishments at your school?
- Compare these two statistics in your school: 1) the percentage of students on an athletic team, 2) the percentage of students who read at least a book a month for personal interest (as an extracurricular).
- How much of a priority does your school place upon care and kindness? If you had to prove that level of priority in a court of law, what evidence would you provide?
- How much time do students have for life beyond school, homework, and school-sponsored events? What does the school do to honor and support family and life beyond school? Look for specific examples, preferably things that point to policies or persistent practices, not simple anecdotes and one-time efforts.
- Look at the “decorations” in 3-5 random rooms in the school and at least 2 hallways. If what you see on the walls is the only indication of the culture and top priorities in the school, what would that tell you about the school?
- How much of the school culture revolves around athletics? How does that compare with a celebration of music, the arts, service, and intellectual pursuits? Look for evidence that goes beyond a few anecdotes.
- How often do students work on focused projects / challenges (other than traditional research papers) that require them to engage in independent, persistent work for an extended period (6+ weeks for middle school, 8-12+ weeks for high school)?
- Ask students to describe how much of their time is focused upon study and preparation for quizzes and tests compared to solving problems, exploring questions, cultivating new skills, or achieving goals. What does this tell you?
- Ask 5-10 random students to describe 3-5 people in the school community who inspire, challenge, or encourage them to be better people in one way or another.
- Ask a class of students to write down the number of students in the school they know who do not have any friends. How many are there?
- Does the school seek and use frequent feedback from students and parents? How? What is the best evidence that this is important to leadership and teachers at the school?
- Spent a morning at the school and look for the number of one-on-one interactions between students and teachers compared to one teacher to a whole class interactions. How much coaching, mentoring, and personalized teaching can you observe?
- Observe 3-5 random classrooms for 5-10 minutes each. How much of the time is dominated by the teacher talking versus the students discussing, doing, debating, creating, and learning?
- Ask 5-10 people at the school to define “academic success.” What does this tell you about the goals, values, and priorities in the school?
- Ask the school leaders to list the top two current problems or challenges in the school community. Then ask what they have done and are doing to address these two challenges. How much of a priority are these issues?
- If you shared this list with administrators and teachers at your school, how many of them would mock or laugh at the list as unrealistic?
There are plenty of other great questions, but I offer these as a good starting point. Join me in imagining an education ecosystem shaped by this sort of soul-searching. What would be different in education if we valued and asked such questions more often? How would our schools be different? How would the lives of learners be different? Over time, how would our communities be different?