Category Archives: Global Learning

Think You Know Disruptive Innovation? Read On!

From Dumaguete City, Negros Island, Philippines

Changing what we do in schools is uncomfortable, even hard sometimes, certainly complex.  But as you ponder the “why, what, and how” of change at your school, in your district, or by your community, as you struggle with the inevitable discomfort and disruptions, take a look at what REALLY complex school change might be, and how those with the tiniest fraction of your resources are finding ways to succeed.

In 1981-82, as a recent Stanford graduate, I was invited to teach at Silliman University, a highly-respected English language university on Negros Island, about an hour flight south of Manila.  Forward many years, and for the last decade I have partnered with Silliman, first leading the flagship annual experiential  student trip for Francis Parker School, and carrying on with a number of small school and community development projects. So, it is with a great deal of interest that I have followed the path of a MAJOR disruption to the education system here in the Philippines.

About six years ago, the federal government, with input from educators around the country, including those at the Silliman College of Education, decided that the Philippines had to finally disrupt the historic system that ended in 10th grade, and shift to a K-12 system.  Just think about that for a minute: in a nation of 90 million people, 5,000 islands, with huge modern cities and rural villages of subsistence fishermen and farmers, add two grades to every high school and take all graduates out of the college system for two years until the system normalizes.  Oh yes, and at the same time, let’s rewrite standards for the entire system to focus on 21st Century skills, content, and pedagogy.

That, my friends, is a disruption.

I have had only a small window on this process; for example, I watched as my Silliman colleagues designed and facilitated a five-day workshop last year for 1,000 teachers from their region. They had a week to convey new content and pedagogy covering 10 months of school time to teachers who have been teaching in a rigid, static system for their entire careers.  (They also had to kit out classrooms as sleeping quarters for those five days because there are not nearly enough hotel rooms for 1,000 visitors in the entire city of Dumaguete.) Talk about building a plane in flight! Did they get it all right the first time? Of course not. But they are iterating new workshops this year.

The results may already be remarkable to those of us who try to shift one school or district through much less daunting transformations.  I chatted with the principal of the small high school on Apo Island, an idyllic islet off the coast of Negros that I have frequented over the years.  Ten years ago, the high school was one classroom; today it has eight concrete classrooms; in two years, it will have at least twice that many.  They have wooden desks, a few books, and meager supplies. They finally have internet access for the two or three working computers…when the computers are working. Teachers bunk together in a small one-room house, cooking on a gas ring and sharing one toilet and one shower.

The principal is 27 years old, and I would hire her in a second to teach at my school. In a system that five years ago was as tradition-bound and rigidly teacher-centric as you could imagine, she estimates that now, just two years into the real changes, in the average week “teachers are lecturing from the front of the classroom only about 25% of the time”.  They have self-developed group collaborations and project-based learning; they have created a nascent STEM program; and she wants to build a maker-space-like “workshop”…if they can find a few square meters of build-able land in the village.  They are worrying about post-traditional student assessments.  They are asking “what parts of the Finland model will work here?” In other words, I had the exact same conversation with the principal of this high school on a tiny islet in the middle of the Visayan Sea that I frequently have at wealthy American private or public schools.

I asked her and the team from Silliman if the experience on Apo is typical or not.  Their response: “it all depends on the principals”.  Some are digging in their heals, and resisting the changes in program and pedagogy.  Others are moving forward because they see the world changing so fast around them and they know what they have to do.  On the whole, they are just six years in to a reconstruction of the entire system, and the needle has moved dramatically toward what we would call “deeper learning”.

And (here’s the kicker if you want to take the long view), the students and teachers in the Philippines have one HUGE advantage over American or school systems in the developed world. They are born tinkerers, makers, and fixers.  Most have nothing growing up, so they create.  There is no “sit and it will come to you” in their DNA. The teachers don’t yet know what the final product they are building will look like, but they are moving forward anyway.  They are courageous innovators.

Would you and your team like to video chat with some really good educators in the Philippines who are crossing the same bridges as you are, with perhaps some very different insights into how they are doing?  Might you like to share some of your own trials and successes?  Might the students get some value out of that kind of interaction with peers a world apart?  Let me know and I can set it up.  (And if you want to spend some time on “my beach” per this photo, that can be arranged as well!) The stubborn rock of education is moving, and despite the seemingly complex path ahead of you, the lessons of success are all around us.  Even on a small island with a poor, concrete school, but surrounded by one of the great coral reefs in the world!

The Problem is Not Climate Change; the Problem is Irrational Thinking

I rarely use this space to discuss themes that might be interpreted as political.  If the reader interprets this post as political, they are missing the point.  This post is about history, knowledge, what we do with knowledge, and the utterly unique role that education plays in that sequence.

imgres-1In the last week I read two articles about scientific research on coral reefs. One reported that enormous swaths of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have died in the last three years.  The other reports on a group of scientists who predict that 90% of the world’s coral reefs will be dead by 2050 due to rapidly increasing ocean water temperatures throughout the tropics.  I am specifically NOT citing a link to either of these articles because they were in newspapers and I did not read, nor would I be able to authoritatively discern, if the research cited in the articles was of such quality as to be considered “fact”.  I am not a marine biologist or a climatologist. There are likely scientists and others who disagree with both the rate of reef die-off and the causes.

I was, back in the day, a marine geologist, and recall well working with and learning from older oceanographers who researched global warming.  Way back in the 1960’s and 1970’s the best research and computer projections indicated that our planet would warm substantially over the coming century.  The predictions included melting of ice across Antartica, Greenland, and in mountain glaciers, rising sea levels, changes in average weather and rainfall patterns, and warming sea temperatures. Those predictions have proven both right and wrong. The planet has warmed, with almost all of the projected impacts, only it has all happened much faster than we predicted.  The vast majority of scientists and lay people around the world agree that this rapid warming is caused by the parallel increase in human-induced, carbon-based air pollution.

imagesCoral reefs are not just pretty places to visit.  They are very much that; I have visited and studied some of the prettiest in the world, but threats to beauty are not existential.  Coral reefs are one of the two most diverse, productive ecosystems on the planet (the other are the terrestrial equivalent, rain forests). They are incubator, breeding ground, nursery, and home to enormous webs of life that support the marine food chain, including humans.  Losing 90% of coral reefs in thirty years is a global crisis that is already in motion. Hundreds of millions of people rely on food that is supported by living coral reefs.  That is a simple fact.

Here is where education comes in. Research can be wrong.  We and our students need to have the capacity and mindset to look at research that suggests a global calamity within our lifetimes. What if the die off is slower?  What if only 50% of reefs are dead by 2050? Is that a good thing? We have proven throughout human history that we can change our planet, but we can’t change the laws of physics and nature. As educators, it is our moral duty to help students understand the impacts of messing with the laws of physics and nature.

imgres-2We have arrived at a place in America where somehow the burden of proof is on scientists to prove at a level of 100% that they are right about a future that is almost apocalyptically bad for virtually every human being. Any rational, well-educated person would take the opposite view: that you err on the side of caution; that if there is even a fair chance that something really horrible is going to happen, and you can do something about it, you do it.  The bigger the chance it will happen, and the worse the possible outcome, the more vigorously you pursue potential solutions. Then-vice president Dick Cheney, a person with whom I disagreed on almost everything he he ever said, used this logic with his famous “1%” doctrine: That if there were a 1% chance that terrorists were going to acquire a nuclear weapon, then any action to stop them was justified. T

The doctrine applies: Loss of 90% of coral reefs is the equivalent of dozens of nuclear weapons exploding in slow motion.  I hate to even think it, but the long-term pain and suffering that will result from loss of 90% of the world’s coral reefs will be vastly greater than a nuclear attack on a major American city. No one on the planet is immune from the changes in store when 90% of coral reefs die in a period of 30 or 40 or even 100 years.

Let me be clear: we did not wake up this week and realize the coral reefs are dying at horrendous rates. We have predicted and known it for decades.  If you are an educator, you need to help your students understand the relationship between history, knowledge, and their futures.   As educators we want our students to be problem solvers.  Well, this is a perfect example of finding the right problem to solve.  THE PROBLEM IS NOT CLIMATE CHANGE.  THE PROBLEM IS THAT, NEARLY UNIQUELY IN THE ENTIRE WORLD, A SEGMENT OF THE AMERICAN POPULATION DOES NOT BELIEVE IN SCIENCE THAT HAS PROVEN TRUE OVER DECADES. That is a problem that educators and students can and must solve.

If you are upset with me because I wrote about something that you think is political, or because I suggested that to disagree with my premise indicates irrationality or a lack of education, then I apologize for your discomfort.  You may stop following my blog; or please post a comment that points out the flaws in my logic; or denounce me.  Any discomfort among us does not measure up when it comes to problems of this magnitude.

Next Fall: Bulgaria!

If you think you have it tough as a teacher, administrator, or parent…

imgresI just committed to partner with an education NGO in Bulgaria, and to keynote and workshop a conference for about 1,000 teachers, parents, and students in Sofia in November.  It is a long way to go, and I am pretty sure I am going to absorb a large discount off of my normal speaker’s honorarium.  Why?

Here is what I learned today:  Bulgaria, a country with about 6 million people, is still, of course, heavily influenced by their decades under the heel of the former Soviet system.  Their students rank in the bottom third of PISA testing. Teachers make about $300 a month, and most are over 50 years old.  They have had 23 Ministers of Education in 25 years, and the system is largely controlled by the government.  Right now they don’t exactly have a government; the last group resigned and new elections have not yet been held. Teachers lecture from the front. In the classroom, kids are quiet a lot of the time.

And yet there is a growing understanding that the old model of education is busted, and the new generation has to compete in a world for which they are not being prepared.  And really bad things happen to a person if you are not prepared to succeed in a place like Bulgaria.  You might not starve (not sure about that), but life can be pretty grim in the former Soviet bloc nations. I know; I was there before “former” was part of the label.

imgresI told the two women who are organizing the event that I believe in knowing I will win before tackling a problem; the key lesson of the Art of War. With something approaching tears, they told me that they will win, that the schools will change.  With that kind of pitch, who is going to say no?  Not me.

My Russian is only slightly better than my Bulgarian, which is none, so I will present through a simultaneous translator, which I have done in the past, but that was usually while making toasts over vodka late at night, not in front of 1,000 people.  And lord only knows what we will do the workshops on.  They want to do an #EdJourney-like survey of consumer and educator wants and needs between now and then…if the can raise some money.

But what if the country is at that tipping point, perhaps where Poland was five or ten years ago, when they are ready to make some significant changes?  What if I might be a part of that, not just at one conference, but repeatedly?  In a country this size, like our friends in New Zealand, they all know each other, and that has some real benefits when it comes time for change to actually accelerate.

Besides, as we used to say at match point in the fifth set…this is why we play the game!  Stay tuned.

Award-Winning Student Film on US-Mexico Border Issues: Learning Beyond Classroom Walls

One of the hallmarks of deeper learning, and certainly one of the drivers of education in the future, will be a breaching of the walls between “school” and “world”.  Another is demonstration of understanding based on something more authentic than an essay or a test.

Yesterday I saw work done by two ex-colleagues at Francis Parker School in San Diego, and the students of their Social Justice classes.  Opportunities for this kind of learning, which encompasses so much of what we call “21st Century” or “deeper” are everywhere, if  we are just willing to create the time for our students and teachers to find them.


The Future of Education is Already Behind Us

Here is what keeps me up at night: this 3D holographic learning is ALREADY a reality.  How is your school or district preparing to intersect with a near-future where this is common place?  If not, how can “school” be the place where students prepare for their own futures?  How can we even put this kind of learning in the same universe as one where students sit in a walled classroom and listen to teachers and read from outdated textbooks? And this is not a teacher-less world; it is a world where teachers and students all have vastly more relational empowerment than any of us do today.



Teaching the Really Big Stuff

imgresChange is  measured by the passing of time.  Whether transformation is personal, organizational, social, regional, or global, change is always a measurement of “something different” on one axis, and “time” on the other.  I write almost exclusively about education; I try to know my readers and most of them don’t care much about my worldview outside of our shared interest in the importance of great education.  Once in a while the boundaries of “great education” stretch, and so must we. This blog is about the world, but at the end there is an easy challenge for educators to take on…now!

When I studied geology I was never very good at crystal structures, the physics of natural forces, or the detailed structure and chemistry of rocks.  But I can see (some things) in four dimensions. The fourth dimension is time, and when I look at a range of mountains, the Grand Canyon, or a scrubby desert vista, I can see how each got to its particular shape and set of relationships though a confluence of events that took place over time, more often than not, over millions of years.

imgresI have just finished reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert.  This is the kind of book that should be required reading by all educators as it deals with the single grand thematic challenge that is facing this, and every future generation, of humankind.  There have been five massive global-wide extinction events during the 4.5 billion year history of the earth. Four of the five were rather slow-moving in human terms; the fossil record suggest they actually took place over many thousands or hundreds of thousands of years. Even a multi-generational set of observers would not have noticed.  The fifth was the asteroid that hit the Yucatan Peninsula about 63 million years ago which caused global extinctions in a matter of years or decades at the most.

There should be no argument whatsoever that we are in the middle of the sixth global extinction event, and that the cause is human kind.  The evidence on three points is utterly overwhelming. First, it is being caused by human interactions with the environment, only one of which is global climate change. Second, the impacts are more intensive and happening faster than any of the other five extinctions except for the asteroid strike. Other than that bad day 63 million years ago when a rock the size of Manhattan hit the earth, what humans are doing to the planet is the only point in the entire 4.5 billion years of earth’s history that is happening on a time scale that will very much impact generations that are alive today. Third, the negative impacts will be enormous.  Over geologic time our planet will heal. But unless we change direction in serious ways, things are going to get very ugly for people and many, many other species over the next couple of centuries.

I won’t reprise all of the evidence. I will say that people who believe this evidence is inconclusive are just flat out wrong. Even if the evidence is imperfect, as all science is, not doing absolutely everything possible to reverse or slow these impacts is the most myopic, selfish act of one generation towards future generations imaginable.  And that is not what educators are about. We are about giving the next generation the tools they need to live better lives, not worse, than we have in the past. At the very least we can deeply embed these themes of biodiversity, climate impacts, rates of changes, and social and political economics into what our students learn. Most of  the impacts are not the result of evil intent; they are the result of ignorance.

This is not about left and right wing politics or political correctness. Former Vice President Richard Chaney, whose world view could not be more opposite from my own, once famously said that “if there is a 1% chance” that terrorists could get ahold of a nuclear or biological weapon of mass destruction, that anything we do to prevent it is legitimized.  I don’t agree with that, but I do agree with the philosophy: on some points you just have to err big time on the side of prudence.  If there is even a 1% chance (and virtually every objective scientist in the entire world believes that the chance is much, much greater) that reversible human actions are midway to causing the second fastest Armageddon in the history of the world, it seems like it ought to get a lot more of our attention as we try to prepare our next generations to deal with it.  I won’t be around to see it, at least not in this lifetime, but that is a pretty selfish excuse.

So, easy challenge: How might we embed apolitical themes of human global impacts and solutions into our P-12 learning experience across all subjects and grade levels? How might we better prepare our students to deal with the biggest challenges they will face, not the smallest?

One Way to Salvage the American Dream?

How might educators save what is left of the American dream?

A key lesson I tried to convey when I took students on two-week immersion experiences to the Philippines: in the developing world, most families live on the edge of functional bankruptcy every day.  While starvation is rare in the Philippines due to plentiful water and generally good soils, if a family has a medical emergency their only source of funds may be to sell the family water buffalo, their sole capital investment.  And that’s it; their “tractor” is gone.

9473c79c5Now, writing in The Atlantic, author Neal Gabler shares that he is one of nearly half, an astonishing 47% of Americans, who could not find $400 for a needed emergency. Half of Americans are living day to day, no more financially secure than Filipino families living in block and bamboo huts on dirt plots making the equivalent of $2 per person per day.

Gabler offers up the numbers, an autopsy on the death of the American middle class, and traces the roots of the disease.  In a broad sense, easy access to credit cards led to a radical drop in savings starting in the 1980’s, with many families feeling they were “saving” by watching their home value rise.  They made all the wrong choices, continuing to fund consumerism predicated on everything being wonderful rather than the possibility that things might turn downward. When the Great Recession hit, many were caught with little in savings.  Even then, some who still had income chose to continue “comfortable” consumption levels rather than cut back and add at least something to their savings.

Why do people make such wrong personal and national choices? Why do the last two generation save so much less than their parents did?  Why do Americans insist on squandering  wealth? How did we fall from the greatest creditor to the greatest debtor nation in less than a decade? Why do we keep electing politicians who continue to create conditions that are not in the long-term interest of the majority of Americans?

imgresGraber offers a logical progression that leads back to at least one answer: a 2011 study “measuring knowledge of fundamental financial principles (compound interest, risk diversification, and the effects of inflation) found that 65 percent of Americans ages 25 to 65 were financial illiterates.”

What can educators do?  Start teaching our teachers how to teach financial literacy, and make it part of the P-20 curriculum, not a month in a 9th grade Health and Wellness course, mixed in with good diet and safe sex, but an embedded part of project work starting around kindergarten.  Build in financial literacy alongside language literacy and numeracy. The concepts are not all that hard; they are a heck of a lot easier to teach and learn than sentence structure or algebra: Don’t spend more than you earn. Save first and early. High interest debt kills. Go to college and study hard. Diversify investments.

There are always options to point the finger, blame the system, or wring our hands that things are not the way we want them to be. Or we can just do it.  What if K-12 educators took the reigns instead of the back seat and shouted “we are going to save the American Dream!  We are going to ensure that the next generation is financially literate.” It would not reverse the historical, environmental, social, and global factors that suggest that American financial comfort, based on a time when natural resources were vast and imperialism garnered more than our fair share of global wealth, are gone. American financial comfort has always been skewed, systemically less available (or functionally unavailable) to segments of the population based on race, ethnicity, or gender. There are incredible inequities that are beyond the control of individuals that won’t be solved by choosing to not buy $6 cups of coffee you can’t afford. But radically reducing financial illiteracy is within our control. We can solve for ignorance; that is what educators do!  If we don’t, I don’t see how current mega trends of financial, environmental, and social ignorance are reversed in a time frame that solves the problems we collectively face.



“Why Doesn’t School Look Like This?”

What if teachers learned to teach and learners learned to learn like explorers, scientists, empaths, inventors, poets, artists, and entrepreneurs?  What if we started over in our construct of education, dialed it back to pre-1850 and extracted the pedagogy of apprenticeship, experience, observation, synthesis, and practice that underlay the wondrous mind explosions of the Renaissance, the scientific revolution, and Silicon Valley?

IMG_2485This week I had the pleasure of two days in outdoor learning laboratories with Bo Adams and his family, four highly willing students of whatever is new in the world around them. We explored animals at the San Diego Zoo, wave eroded cliffs and sleeping seals at La Jolla Cove, and the desert in bloom, from arid alluvial fans to quartzite mountains to a palm oasis and it’s disappearing creek bed in the Anza Borrego desert. We thought about how water has determined every facet of the history of western North America (particularly relevant in this time of drought and climate change), the dynamic history of the earth, and what happens when towns get built on ground where boulders wash down slopes in flash floods.

As Bo tweeted out: “Why doesn’t school look like this?”  Lessons and deep learning occur just outside every classroom and just adjacent to every campus if we know how to look for it.  Sure, we can say that the schedule and the Common Core don’t allow us the freedom to choose those options, but those are shallow excuses and plenty of other schools are making them.  I guarantee you that the two young Adams boys (and probably mom and dad) are going to remember a lot more about deserts from that one day than from all of the geography or science classes they ever take in “school”.

A View Into Transformed Learning at Public Design 39 Campus

Can a non-charter public school in California, with near-the-bottom public funding per student, truly transform learning?  As you know I have been closely following Design 39 Campus in Poway Unified, where the guiding principles are:

  • Nurture creative confidence
  • Practice design thinking
  • Encourage inquiry
  • Connect globally
  • Use technology
  • Promote courage
  • Instill a growth mindset

Well, here is what that actually looks like:

Rapid Prototypes of Near-Classroom Experiential Learning Units

Could your faculty (with maybe a bit of input from students) prototype an experiential learning unit in 14 minutes that meets the following specs?:

  • Student ownership of the project
  • Multidisciplinary content
  • Observation
  • Reflection
  • Synthesis
  • Action that impacts others
  • Outside the classroom but within walking distance

That is one of the fast activities we ran through yesterday at the ISEEN conference of experiential educators hosted at Philipps Andover. (A video was being shot of this session; will post links to it when I can.) With just 14 minutes, a few post it notes, some flip chart paper and a marker pen, we heard ideas about:

  • Dumpster-diving to find, retrieve, and build with thrown away materials, incorporating art, economics, maker-ing and social issues.
  • Observing Ferguson-based protests at a nearby college campus; 6th graders bringing those back and reflection-teaching to 2nd graders.
  • Studies and publication of water usage on and near campus.
  • Facilities mapping and contributions to master planning, folding together science, math, self-reflection on education, and economics.
  • Interviewing people around campus; building an empathetic inventory of the school community.

…and about a dozen more.  I have done similar mini-projects with elementary, middle, and high school students in 30-45 minutes with a prompt to “walk around your school, observe how learning takes place, and prototype an idea to pitch to the board about how learning can be more relevant to your lives and interests”.  Every time we find ideas very WORTHY of a pitch to the board.

Connecting with our community does not have to be time-consuming or expensive.  It just involves a very simple question: “How might we break down the artificial boundary/silos that we have constructed in time, space, and subject area that form the quantum cage of thinking and learning that we call ‘school’?”