An Alternative to New Year’s Resolutions in #2014: Fearless, Awaken, Mr. Rogers & Epic Wins

Last year I came across a blog post from Chris Brogan called, My 3 Words for 2013. For each year, Chris selects three words that serve as a focus, regardless of his more specific goals. You can read his 2013 post here, although I expect that he will soon have a 2014 version. I have hundreds of goals that I refine each year, but I appreciate the simplicity and focus that comes with his idea of choosing three guiding words.

2013 was my first year trying it out. I chose flourish, bless and befriend as my three words.  Flourish became a code word for some of the ideas shared in Martin Seligman’s book with that title.  I read and reread the book, and many of the ideas became a natural part of my daily thought and life in 2013.  For bless and befriend, those were both about taking my eyes off myself and looking to help and serve the people around me, while also making new connections, meeting and learning from others. This made for one of the more rewarding years of my life.  I wrote and shared more online than ever before, and that sharing provided me with opportunities to connect with fascinating people around the world. I took informal connections as a chance to volunteer and help out in small ways. As this blog went from dozens of visits a month to thousands, it become a tool for meeting new people with shared passions, and offering ideas and perspectives that might be of interest and benefit to others.

What about 2014? Already six months ago I found myself thinking ahead to potential words, listing dozens of prospects.  It was not easy to refine my priorities to three, but in the last couple of days, I finally got it down to four. I know that breaks Brogan’s rule of three, but we have to take our own paths in life.  With that in mind, my four words for 2014 are:

Fearless

This is a reminder to let convictions, mission, vision, values and goals direct my thoughts and actions; not fears and uncertainties. Fearfulness is a place that leads us to look at and live in the world from a particular perspective. There is another place dominated by trust, faith, conviction, confidence, peace, and security. It is a place from which we can think and act according to our fundamental beliefs and values.  The other buries those beliefs and values under a pile of doubts, anxieties, and unhelpful speculations about potential negative outcomes.  This year will be about spending more time in that second place.

Awaken

Robert Frost is quoted as saying, “I am not a teacher but an awakener.” This is a word that is about coming to life, stirring up one’s interest (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/awake), becoming alert, bringing things into conscious awareness, becoming active, rousing a feeling (OED), to realize or recognize that which was otherwise hidden from us (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/awake). 2014 will be a year of personal awakening and helping others experience awakenings. As an aside, I am also using this word as a challenge to spend a year learning about and from the writings of Robert Frost.

Rogers

Mr. Rogers was a social entrepreneur. He demonstrated genuine interest in others and designed his entire work around the concept of loving and caring for one’s “neighbor.” He enjoyed the arts, learning and discovering new things (and invited others to join him). He was principled and engaged with the very aspects of contemporary life that most concerned him (namely television and well-being of children). He was a creator, teacher and author. He was widely known, but wore his recognition with humility and to further his cause. He reached out to new people, learned from them, honored them and their work, and shared it with others. Not that I want to model my life exactly after Mr. Rogers, but as a person who is interested in social entrepreneurship and living out of the principle of loving one’s neighbor, I suspect that his life and writings have many valuable insights for me in 2014.

Epic Win

At 2013 ISTE conference, Jane McGonigal helped a few more educators add this phrase to their vocabulary. For gamers, it is a well-known phrase.  It can be about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.  It can be about an amazing and unexpected accomplishment or outcome. It can also be an accomplishment or win with a wow factor.  In 2014, I am striving for epic wins.

Why Universities Should Make it a Top Priority to Cultivate Expert Learners

Thriving in the 21st century landscape depends upon high competence as a learner. Can Universities help prepare people for such a reality? As we look at the possible disruptions, innovations and experiments in higher education; there are growing numbers of critics who speculate about the future of these institutions. Some describe what they expect to be the extinction of higher education institutions that cling to certain practices and traditions. Others see a future for higher education institutions, but one that looks quite different from what we see in many places today (embracing blended, online and competency-based models, for example).  Still others picture a future where the majority of students in higher education learn in increasingly scalable online and low residency learning environments, with the exception of a few highly gifted or wealthy élite that gather for a residential experience (like élite boarding schools versus community public schools on the high school level). I’m not sure about any of these predictions, but I will make a seemingly contradictory claim about what we need in higher education institutions, namely that their futures depend upon striving to become unnecessary for the people whom they serve. By this, I mean that Universities must major in preparing students who are amazing learners. To explain what I mean by this, I return to an article that I wrote in the first quarter of 2013.

One of the most read and controversial articles that I wrote in 2013 was entitled, “Good Teachers Become Less Important.” Much of the controversy came from the title and not the content of the article.  The title can be understood in more than one way.  It could be read as a “news flash” that somehow good teachers are becoming less valuable than in the past. That was not the intended meaning.  Rather, I wrote it as a claim about what good teachers do.  They equip students so well that the students eventually no longer need a teacher.  We all know the role of a good teacher is not to cultivate people who depend upon them.  The goal is eventual self-sufficiency.

This is intuitive and starts with some of the earliest learning experiences of infants. At first, people carry infants around, but over time there is rejoicing when the little ones learn to roll over, crawl and walk.  The same it true for personal hygiene, reading, writing, speaking, driving, building and maintaining positive relationships, and eventually living out various vocation and avocations. As the young people grow and develop, they need less help. Self-direction, self-regulation, and human agency increase. This is how “learning in the wild” works. Learners get just enough assistance until they can do it on their own.

Is it how educational institutions work?  Depending upon how we look at it, we can answer yes or no to that question.  There is little doubt that learners in educational institutions develop knowledge, skills and abilities that allow them to be more self-directed.  Most of us do not need to turn to our early teachers or to a school if we want to read a book, develop a new hobby, or master new knowledge or skills. Somehow we manage to develop competencies along the way that empower us to do these things.  People are capable of developing these ability through formal schooling, despite it or even without it. At the same time, educational institutions have a way of building dependency upon the formal schooling system. One level of school prepares for the next.  We spend an immense amount of time teaching people how to function in school contexts and not enough in the contexts outside of school.  An authority figure determines the goals, how to meet the goals and how to assess the learners.

This is where I see a growing number of critiques of higher education. There remain plenty of career paths that have strict regulations requiring one to go through extensive schooling before being licensed. The healthcare industry is full of such requirements. There are other majors in college that only require the degree if one wants to work in another educational institution.  These are self-referential programs. You must earn a PhD in history to teach future PhDs in history. One does not need to earn a terminal degree in history to write history books, develop knowledge and skill in the valuable tool of historical inquiry for the workplace, or to create a historical documentary.

More than any time in history, an individual with a device and Internet access has not only unprecedented information, but unprecedented access to social networks, experts, and learning communities from which to learn.  Granted that I have the basic competence and confidence to thrive in a MOOC or an online community of practice, I can potentially cultivate knowledge and skill that match or exceed that of a graduate student in a given discipline. I can read the same books and journals, dialogue with the same types of peers and experts (maybe more), and get feedback of my work and ideas from a global audience.  I can develop a deep love and appreciation for the arts without taking a single art class.  I can identify my strengths and limitations, and then devise a plan for leveraging my strengths and addressing harmful limitations. I can to read, write and speak one or more new languages. I can take up a new instrument, start a business, or become an expert at marketing and sales. None of these require a formal college degree, and there are more alternate paths to achieving such goals than any time in history. While they don’t require a degree, they all require skill in learning.

What I am sharing is not new. As an example, consider the following short list of books that guide people through developing what it takes to leverage this massive and open learning network available to us today, and to grow as self-directed learners.

Where does this leave the teaching component of 21st century Universities? Does it make them unnecessary apart from the professions that strictly need a given degree as an admission ticket? I don’t think so, not unless higher education institutions dig their heels in and insist that things become more regulated, that they be the default and required ticket into most careers. They can’t survive by thinking that they are primarily in the business of selling degrees. Instead, higher education institutions must stay focused upon helping people develop as powerful learners.

This is a wake-up call for colleges and Universities to pull from the deep and rich treasure trove of the liberal arts, which is not simple about mastery a specific body of content, but about cultivating knowledge and skills that empower one for a life of self-direction and human agency. In other words, institutions will need to make it a priority to become as unnecessarily as possible for the students that they serve.  If it takes some students a year to reach a certain level of competence and confidence, then make that the stopping point for the students.  Why have students continue three to five more years for a full bachelor’s degree in such instances?  Or, if they show the equivalent mastery of a student who studied for three to five years, then give them the degree and let me start the next part of their lives.  If some programs require a deep level of expertise that may require the equivalent of a PhD and 5-10 years of study, then so be it.  However, there is no need to keep students around just to mark all the necessary checks off a list of graduation requirements. This might even mean taking pride in the dropouts that get what they need and then move on to start a business. It also calls for us to pay closer attention to the impressive body of literature around competency-based and personalized learning, and to invest in the many transformational learning experiences that occur during college, but in informal out outside-of-class activities.

There is another important element to this, one that relates to the list of books above. If you are a college graduate, how many classes, text or discussions did you have about the types of ideas in those books? How many Universities make it a priority to help people learn how to learn, develop the confidence and competence necessary to develop new skills and bodies of knowledge? Why not make this an explicit part of a student’s general education? This could include things like building a strong personal learning network, making connections with experts and new people, getting the most out of the things we read and watch, and understanding what it takes to learn something on one’s own. As an example, many Universities teach literature, but fewer teach reading after elementary school. This is the gap that Mortimer Adler sought to address when he wrote, How to Read a Book, a sort of advanced literacy text for adults. As much as Universities are supposed to be places of learning, shouldn’t they emphasize their skill in helping students, more than anything else, to become the best learners in the world?

More than any specific innovation or emerging practice, I contend that such a shift in focus will do more to secure a persistent and valued role for higher education.  There will continue to be strong movements that offer alternatives to college, and I fully support them.  At the same time, what if Universities took it as a personal challenge to offer a learning context that directly competes these alternatives by pointing to the high-caliber of learner that graduates from such institutions, and how that person thrives in a 21st century world?

10 Critical Questions for High-Impact #1:1 Programs

Choose_Pill_by_rockyspringsster

http://rockysprings.deviantart.com/art/Choose-Pill-100967292

Which tablet or device should we use? When I speak for different groups, I often collect questions that I could not get to during the live session. I commit to a dedicated blog post in reply to each question over the upcoming months.  This present question is fequent, and past posts dealt with related themes (See articles like Task Complexity an Duration with 1:1 Programs, 10 Affordances of 1:1 Programs and Mobile Devices, and 12 Things You Can’t Do With an Ebook). However, this current question usually comes from people at schools who have decided to move to a 1:1 program, but they are struggling with which device to select.

At times it seems like people are hoping for a quick suggestion. Go with the iPad Mini, Chromebooks, Dell laptops, Android tablets, MacBooks, or a BYOD program. Unfortunately, my reply is rarely that simple.  Instead, I suggest a process for deciding. This process requires the conscientious and collaborative exploration of 10 questions.  While this is not the answer that most people want, the process has the promise of high-impact results, not to mention a rewarding learning experience. The questions also remind us that a 1:1 program is much more than just a decision to add more technology to a classroom.

1. How can we make the 1:1 transition part of the learning experience?

In most contexts, decisions related to a 1:1 program are done to students with little direct involvement from students or parents.  What would happen if we did things differently?  Consider ways that there could be true shared ownership in this decision-making process. It could even be repeated with groups of students on an annual or biannual basis.

This could be a powerful semester or year-long project, one that would produce far more than a decision about a 1:1 program. The students, in consult with teachers, parents, people in other schools with 1:1 programs, researchers and vendors, could agree upon the decision and help plan the implementation.  It could be a group interdisciplinary project-based learning experience. Along the way students refine their skills with budgeting and finance, collaboration and group decision-making, critical thinking and analysis, current and emerging learning theories and educational models, self-directed learning schools, educational design, ergonomics and health considerations. They could even delve into the psychological and sociological factors. This is a rich and promising set of 21st century skills, and such an approach allows us to embrace a vision for democratic living as opposed to dominant schooling models that seem to relate more closely to preparation for life in a monarchy or oligarchy.

Even if this sounds too extreme for your school, the questions will guide you toward a better final result. It is still useful to ask, “How can we engage all stakeholders in the decision-making process?”  At least, this allows for more commitment from different people and it helps to manage expectations.

2. Who are the learners?

In instructional design, we calls this a learner analysis. This can include things like age, background knowledge and experiences, beliefs, family values, and anything else that would help someone better understand the students. List out the teaching and learning implications of those attributes. Include parts about what is developmentally appropriate for different ages.  Brainstorm a list of questions that you would like to discover. Again, try to involve everyone in creating the questions and discovering the answers. This is an important step, as it forces us to think about what is best for specific learners, and not just making a decision that worked for another school.

3. What is the teaching and learning vision for the school?

Not are schools are alike. Not all classrooms are alike. Moving to a 1:1 program is not just adding some technology to an otherwise unchanged classroom.  The 1:1 movement is an educational technology conspiracy that carries with it values of student-centered learning, increased digital collaboration and connectivity, more project and process-based learning, and less teacher-directed classroom lessons.  One of the ways that 1:1 programs fail is by ignoring the educational implications, not to mention the way that it changes the dynamics and management of a classroom.  Similarly, different devices may impact the environment in different ways.  Mobile devices are…mobile. They have the affordance of learning on the move.  If you are just going to have students sit in straight rows in a classroom all the time, then why use something like an iPad?  Instead, if you have a vision for a dynamic classroom with frequent reconfigurations, collection of media from the surrounding world, trips into the community, and learning on the go, then a tablet may be a promising possibility. If your vision involves students working on long papers and projects that need full-featured computers, then a laptop might be a better option. Do not make those device decisions yet.  Just describe the vision for what students are doing and learning, and what it looks like.

Somewhere amid this exploration, take time to explore the SAMR model of technology integration from Rueben Puentedura. Do an honest assessment of where you are as a school and where you want to be. Again, my suggestion is to do this with all the stakeholders, not just a leadership team and/or teachers.

4. What is happening in contexts outside of the school environment where students hope to live and work?  What will be happening in 5-15 years?

What are the goals and aspirations of the young people?  Explore that and then see what sort of devices and configurations exist in the places where the young people hope to be some day. What are the tasks and responsibilities in these environments?  Conduct research, interviews, and take visits to these places. Use this as inspiration for how your 1:1 program might look. What you will likely discover is that most contexts don’t use a 1:1 program.  They use a 2:1, 3:1, or 5:1 model.  Perhaps there is a way to recreate something like that in the school.

5. What infrastructure do we need in the school to support a vision that embraces ideas from questions 1-4?

This will include everything from needs for power to classroom configurations, adequate wireless access, lighting, projection and printing capabilities. The interviews and visits of people at other 1:1 schools and in technology rich outside-of-school organizations will be especially helpful.

6. What are the device options and what are the affordances and limitations of each?

Take time to explore the dozens of options available.  Collectively create a massive chart to compare the options. Create rows dedicated to everything from technical features to the teaching and learning benefits and drawbacks with the different devices (and sizes of devices). The items listed in each row should connect to what you learned from answering the previous questions.  Frequently reference the answers to question #2-4 as you build this comparison.  It should represent values of all stakeholders: parents, students, teachers, and administrators.  The list will may well include 50-100 categories if you are being thorough.

7. What do we need to learn to get the most benefit out of a 1:1 program?

This is the professional development plan necessary to make the dream described in answer to questions #2-5 a reality.  This is not just professional development for the teacher. It is for everyone. Consider what you need to learn and different ways that you can learn it.  This should be an ongoing learning plan, not just going through a few tutorials or a 2-day workshop (although those could be part of the plan). Make sure your plan includes lists of learning goals, a solid feedback/formative assessment plan, possible content sources, and potential strategies for reaching the goals (See the following article for more information about these four.).

8. What is our decision? 

Reviewing answers to everything above, what is our top recommendation?  What about a second and third option as well?  Include a detailed explanation of your reason behind each recommendation, showing how it supports the goals and vision established in answer to the previous questions. As part of your decision, you might want to choose something that includes one or more pilot phases, and then return to previous questions based upon your experiments and discoveries. It might also include different phases or different options for distinct groups of students. This need not be a one-size-fits-all decision or something inflexible.  Be creative and look room in your plan for ongoing adjustments.

9. What will it take for us to make this happen?

This is where we create an action plan.  How will we address the funding, the infrastructure build, the ongoing technology management and the other parts of the implementation? Do we need outside help? How much can we do ourselves? Who is responsible for what? What is our timeline? What are our contingency plans?

10. What is our plan for evaluating and adjusting our plan?

Once we decide and the implementation is underway, things will go wrong. We will catch things that, despite our detailed planning, we missed. We want to create a plan for continually reviewing what is working and what is not? How is the implementation helping or hindering us from achieving the goals listed in answer to the earlier questions? This plan might include weekly surveys and focus groups, frequent completion of checklists or rubric that helps us keep our teaching and learning goals and values the focus, and intentional time to informally discuss what is working and what is not.

This ten-question process does not give you a quick answer for which device to use.  Instead, it offers a means of answering the question as a group. It further provides the framework for this transition, and it brings to light what goes into a well-planned 1:1 project. It reminds us that a 1:1 program is more than device choice, and it invites us to be a learning organization of collaborative creators and not compliant consumers.

What behavior is reinforced 16,000 times by high school graduation?

Listening to the beginning of Jerrey Michalski’s 2012 TEDxCopenhangen talk, I realized something about a typical kindergarten through twelfth grade student experience.  If a school year includes 180 days of class and each day has 6-8 bell rings, then that adds up to over 16,000 rings by the time a student graduates from high school. It is the first time that I realized what this means about the curriculum of most schools in the United States. It means that responding to bells is one of the more reinforced and near universal lessons in a school experience.

My wife, who was a model high school student, once got a referral when she was late for lunch because she was helping a girl on crutches get her lunch to the cafeteria.  She was twenty feet away from the cafeteria doors when the bell rang.  So, she needed a conference with the principal and got three after-school detentions.  Also consider that it was a licensed and publicly funded educator’s job to stand at the door of the lunch room and disseminate such punishments. This is hopefully an extreme and unusual occurrence in schools around the world, but it is an amplified version of what happens all the time. The fact that it happened is a cause for pause and reflection about the system that we designed for our young people.

Image of Pavlov's dog, where they trained the dog to salivate in response to a bell, even in the absence of food.

This is an mage of one of Pavlov’s dogs. They trained the dog to salivate in response to a bell, even in the absence of food.

While I’ve yet to see “adapt behaviors in response to bells” as a documented learning objective, it is an institutionalized but unwritten objective in thousands of schools. It is one of the more reinforced lessons in many student’s entire schooling experience. It tells us when the school day begins and ends, when classes start and end, when we are supposed to stop focusing on an engaging reading or project, when we can go to the bathroom, and when we can eat.

Returning to my simple but persistent question, what are the affordances and limitations of this bell schedule that is so deeply ingrained in the institutional values of schools around the world? I’ve listed a few below, but I welcome your thoughts as well.

Affordances

  • It helps with crowd control.
  • It is organized.
  • It allows for a standard and scalable system.
  • It promotes standardization of time devoted to different topics and activities.
  • It teaches conformity.

Limitations

  • It teaches conformity.
  • It inhibits flow and deep learning that often doesn’t fit nicely in 45-60 minute class time slots.
  • It elevates strict scheduled time slots above almost any other activity, including reading, writing, collaborating on projects, helping another person, or getting lost in a learning experience.
  • It highlights compliance and conformity to the schedule above many of the values that we most want our students to develop.
  • It inhibits opportunities for students to cultivate more real world time management skills.
  • It doesn’t represent life in any other part of a person’s life, unless they end up working in a school or maybe certain factories.
  • It makes the school day technology-directed, which as the potential to de-personalize the school experience.
  • It makes personalization and customization an exception and not the norm. If a student needs to work on something for 80 minutes instead of the 60-minute class period, then the student is treated as abnormal or non-standard; addressing it by working before school, after school, during recess, or by making an exception to the bell schedule rules.

How can schools function without bells?  There are plenty of examples. I’m particularly intrigued by this 2006 article about a school that made the shift. Initially, it was a bit rough, as people needed to re-learn time management (and some how to tell time). However, over time it became comfortable, and the author reports many benefits to the bell-less school. For a few more examples and perspectives, see the short list of articles below.