Category Archives: Technology in Education

Nothing Like Seeing Deeper Learning in Action

NOTHING is as effective in transforming schools as seeing “it” in action.

IMG_3086I spent Monday with a visiting team of elementary school teachers from Albermarle County in Virginia as theytoured four elementary schools in Cajon Valley USD, just east of San Diego. Albermarle Supt. and national edu-leader Pam Moran sent the team out to look at deeper learning in action as they develop a plan to gut an existing school and re-build it for the future. As I have written previously, Cajon Valley is a highly diverse district of about 17,000 students. School demographics range from largely Caucasian upper-middle class, to highly underserved with some of the densest concentrations of immigrant, refugee, and ESL students in the country.

Now in his 4th year at Cajon Valley, Supt. David Miyashiro and his team have made changes that others think are impossible.  In classroom after classroom, with student-teacher ratios ranging from 28-38 to 1, we found focused, engaged students learning in highly differentiated modalities.  Since they became a 1:1 laptop district, teachers have begun to adopt a completely new relationship to their classroom. Students down to the level of kindergarten clearly have and take responsibility for their own learning.  Teachers spend vastly less time talking to whole classes at a time, and much more working with small break-out groups for short periods.

IMG_3080Students are not required to sit at their desks. In almost every room we visited, students were grouped and sprawled where they wanted and needed to be, on the floor, on couches or pillow, under tables.  But we did not see a single student doing nothing; they were all on task.  We asked students repeatedly some version of “what are you doing; why; and how do you know if you are being successful?” Every student had a good answer appropriate to age and grade level, even students for whom English is pretty new ground.

I had two big takeaways from the day:

IMG_3089First: I was overwhelmed by the calmness in these classes. I did not see any students bouncing around, noisily bothering others…and these are little kids! Some of this is due to the personalized routines that largely have students working at their own pace on their computers. But they are not glued to computers all day; much of the work is in collaborative teams, and I frankly was amazed at how well all the students were working with very little teacher direction. These students are not constantly asking the teacher “should I do…?” or “what should I do next…?”

Second, I asked David his response to those who say “this system is like an aircraft carrier and just takes sooo long to change…”. He said, essentially, “you can change what you imagine and believe you can change”.  And the district is proof.  They have no advantages in terms of money, demographics, or facilities. They have HUGE advantages when it comes to leadership, vision, communication, and growing community support of what is taking place in these schools.  And ALL of those are within the control of every educator and community in America.

The Albermarle teachers’ heads were spinning with ideas and confirmation of some of their own initiatives, and I am sure that is only increasing as they visit other schools this week, including a tour I will help lead at Design 39 Campus on Friday.  Yes, it is an expense to fly a dozen people across the country for a week, but it is a small expense compared to what we spend in our schools every day, and a uniquely powerful investment if we really do want to turn these aircraft carriers around.

Hill School is Breaking Some Traditional Independent School Paradigms

IMG_3057I am at The Hill School outside Philadelphia today and tomorrow; I have been working with the humanities departments this year on reimagining their program, offerings, and departmental structure.  But this post is not about the humanities; we are prototyping solutions later today and will have have a lot to report by the end of March.

In discussions and classroom visits today, I learned about the economics course that has test-piloted-busted some core assumptions about the student-teacher ratio.  Starting a year ago, an introduction econ class has a single principal faculty member who provides lectures to up to 48 students.  Eight students who took the class last year act as “TA’s” to this year’s cohort. Initially there was fear that parents would rebel against a class of this size with just one principal teacher, but that has not happened.  The students are working on a more self and group-directed basis, and there has been little pushback and a lot of positive feedback.

At lunch I spoke with a junior student who had just come back from “City Term” in New York City.  I asked her to think about what elements of that program might be applicable to Hill, nestled in historic, semi-rural Pottstown.  Len Miller, Hill’s Associate Headmaster, agreed that it would be invaluable for her to present some of her experiences, reflections, and ideas to a group of Hill faculty who have not had a similar experience themselves.

IMG_3058I visited a newly renovated space that houses Hill’s three-year engineering arc.  Students work in pairs and small groups to learn some basics of engineering, and then proceed through a series of design-build challenges.  It is not terribly tech-heavy: some desktop computers, small leg-style robotics kits, one laser cutter and one 3D printer.  There is one principal teacher handling more than 100 students, assisted by two other faculty members  a couple of periods a day, who are learning the program.  They anticipate by next year or the following year they will have 150 students in the program, which is enormous for a school of this size.

I asked the students what they liked about the class, what was different, and what elements might carry over to their other course work.  All of the responses were variations on a theme: “This class is different in that there is not one set answer; we like that we get to figure things out on our own; we are learning to think for ourselves, and that is a more important skill in the real world than learning something for a test.

I will challenge the humanities teams to import these lessons as they re-think their own programs and pedagogy. Chalk up The Hill School as another leader in re-thinking the industrial-era school paradigm, moving teachers out of their traditional roles, and allowing students to own more of their own learning.

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.

Keep an Eye on Transformation at Vista Unified Schools

Keep an eye on Vista Unified School District in California.  You may want to add it to your list of visits for your teachers and administrators to see how learning is dramatically changing, even in schools with very significant challenges.

I have written extensively about Vista Innovation and Design Academy, and the dramatic positive changes there in just the last two years under the leadership of Supt. Devin Vodicka and his team.  Then last fall, the district won one of the ten coveted XQ America super-schools awards for Vista High School.  Yesterday, at the EdTech Teacher Innovation Summit I sat in on a workshop given by a team from Rancho Minerva Middle School, which, like VIDA, serves a population of mostly low income students. In the last four years they have:

  • Adopted a 1:1 laptop and tablet program.
  • Built a student-centered personalized learning approach using a range of tools and classroom approaches, including individual student and teacher playlists.
  • Gotten rid of many textbooks and are building curriculum with open educational resources.
  • Created a mentoring program where every student meets individually with a staff member at least once a week.
  • Created a “swat” team of students to help teachers and other students learn to use technologies, and to partner with teachers in developing their curricula.
  • Found 85 minutes a day for teacher team collaboration.

Like other schools I have worked with and visited that started these shifts from a place of low student engagement and performance, the student results have been very positive.  And like other schools that adopt a deeper learning model, the teachers say that “they have never worked this hard and would not want to work anywhere else; this is why I got into teaching!”  What impresses me is that, given good leadership and a strong, collective vision, these changes, even in schools with significant initial challenges, are happening in just a few years.  That is light-speed in “school-time”. The models are out there!

Brushfires of Innovation at Columbus Academy, Ohio

If you walk around schools, if you ask the right questions, if you stop and listen to teachers and students, if you look at how spaces are arranged and used, you can tell a lot about a school in a short period of time.  I am in freezing Columbus, OH for the NCAA volleyball Final Four (Stanford is going to the finals!!), and was so happy to be spur-of-the-moment invited to spend some time at Columbus Academy on their last day before the holiday break.

CA is a highly-respected preK-12 independent school that is well on its way towards shaking up traditional learning systems.  Here are just a few things I saw and heard, artifacts of a school that is pushing traditional comfort zones and ready, in my opinion, to start asking some of those big questions around what it means to be a leader in education in the future:

  • Makerspaces that are integrated into the daily life of students.  Innovation is not about img_2972having a 3D printer or a room with some tools in which students spend an hour a few times a week.  We want to see the ideas of student-centered design and making percolate across the curriculum.
  • A “skunk works” program, where students were offered open-ended funding of $200 to develop personal drones…and then some students partnered to pool stipends, and one group asked if they could build an electric skateboard instead, which is now sitting on display for others to see…and the ball gets rolling as part of student culture.
  • A 5th grade classroom with kids on the floor, and others on “study bikes”; and a teacher who tries to have her students at their desks no more than 30% of the time all year.
  • A female senior student leader of the robotics team who, on her own, started and runs a program for middle school girls to get them engaged in STEM before they get to high school.  40% of 9th graders who elect to take a popular intro programming course are girls, and girls make up at least half of the varsity robotics team.
  • Annual teachers-teach-the teachers professional development days where faculty who have received PD during the year are expected to lead workshops for their colleagues.
  • img_2968Open spaces where students not only can hang out and work, but do hang out and work together in small groups.

Perhaps most of all, I was impressed with leaders at the school who recognize the difference between starting pilots and changing a system, who are not willing to rest on the easy laurels of strong admissions demand and enviable college matriculation stats.  As we finished my visit around the lunch table, we agreed that for school leaders the question should not be “what have you done for me lately”, but “what are you going to do for me 10 years from now” to ensure that a strong school today is a leading school in the future.

Explosion of Deeper Learning at Underserved Neighborhood School: Bayside STEAM Academy

And people wondered why the low income school with the mascot of a big wave with fists had a lot of trouble with fighting during recess…

img_2959The new mascot is the green sea turtle that live in the shallow, southernmost reaches of San Diego Bay just a few steps from the newly renamed and rebranded Bayside STEAM Academy, a public K-6 school that is rapidly transforming itself from a low performing place of bored students and stale curriculum into a vibrant learning community.  Bayside is a public neighborhood school in a largely Latino, severely underserved community that, until this year, was the lowest performing school in the South Bay Union School District.  Like other schools that have pulled themselves into a dramatic transformation, Bayside STEAM decided to “change to ready, shoot, aim” instead of waiting any longer, says principal Kevin Coordt.

img_2964I visited Bayside to see their AR sandbox, which may be the first built and deployed in an elementary school in the country.  This remarkable invention by scientists at the University of California, Davis, cost less than $2000 to make and all of the plans and software are open source and free.  (Check out video link to the AR Sandbox to see this amazing learning tool in action!) As an ex-geologist and oceanographer, I was blown away that the work we did by hand a few decades ago can be simulated in real time by a bunch of kids who can build and change landforms, oceans, and the flow of water and rain by moving sand around and doing some simple coding.

But the sandbox is just one element of the transformation at Bayside.  Like other schools, they restructured their school day to include passion driven electives offered by teachers who get to select areas of personal interest.  These 8-week electives include everything from making musical instruments out of trash to studying the art of Georgia O-Keefe and Matisse.  One class has built working mini-submersible ROV’s out of PVC, tiny motors, and Arduino units that can submerge, maneuver, and test water for temperature, salinity and other environmental indicators.  Their students entered an Arduino competition, and despite academic test scores that lag way behind almost every other school in the competition, their teams took first and second place.  “Our kids know how to fail, try something else, and try again:, says Coordt, “because that is what we are doing every day.

In addition to having built the AR Sandbox, teacher Michael Moran is building on the students’ new understanding of landforms to map the area around the school using borrowed surveying equipment, to understand how and where some parts flood during high tides and rainstorms.  Then the students are selecting plant types that will thrive in different slope and drainage conditions.

img_2965Coordt says that the impact of their new emphasis on design, making, and STEAM has already percolated across the school amongst teachers, students and parents.  Attendance is up, referrals for discipline are down, and the school’s 79% increase in year-to-year performance on standardized test scores is one of the highest increases of any school in the county. Parents report that their students now don’t want to miss a day of school.

Are you finding it hard to shift your schedule, let go of classroom time that you know is ineffective, engage students who sit and are bored much of the day, elevate engagement and deeper learning practices, fire up your faculty, or raise test scores?  Connect with Kevin and his team and learn how they are doing it in real time in a school that for years had been tagged with that perpetual assumption of low performance in a poor community.

Textbooks Will Soon Be On the History Shelf

imgresIn an industrial-age system of education known for rigidity, there is nothing that screams “one-size-fits-all” more than the box of clean, new, un-scuffed, tightly-bound, inky-smelling textbooks that arrives in a teacher’s room once every five or six years, accompanied by an instruction manual about how to efficiently transfer the information in those boxes to groups of students.  Like holy tomes copied by Middle Age monks, these textbooks are one-way transfer points, purchased with your precious tax or tuition dollars from a small oligarchy of publishers to whom we have collectively ceded control over what our students need to know.

The material in the book might be out of date; some of the books were written years ago and “updated” as the publishers see fit.  The material in the book used by students in Maine might have been massaged or factually compromised by politically motivated state review committees in places like Texas or California because those huge, monolithic markets can drive what is actually delivered by the publishers to every school and district in every other state. Billions of dollars are spent out of the public coffers each year.  Deeper learning principles are ignored or violated. Young students bend under the bulky weight of stuffed backpacks, like Sherpas on a Himalayan trail, hauling thick volumes home only to “read pages 100-106 for the quiz tomorrow” or “do the odd-numbered problems at the end of the chapter”.

The entire process is positively medieval…and it is an unnecessary, wasteful, easily-avoided obstruction to deeper learning for both students and teachers.  Simply, textbooks are the instruction manuals of outmoded education. They tell the teacher, “do the exact same thing you did last year, and the year before…until we change the book for you.”  They tell the students, “just learn what is in here, at the rate at which your teacher tells you to turn the page or read the chapter, know this stuff when the exam is put in front of you, and you will be OK”.  They enforce a false narrative that success in the world is about mastering the art of knowing what is in a book, just like the instruction binder that used to be required reading for an entry-level worker on an assembly line in the age before even assembly line jobs required thought, judgment, and collaboration.

In my upcoming book I devote a chapter to the rise of open educational resources (OER), and the impact this tsunami will have on K-12 education.  If your school is still wasting money on published textbooks, still robbing your teachers and students of the opportunities and expectations of creativity and deep interaction that come with thoughtful selection of curriculum and materials, take a look at the universe of widely-used, fully accredited, standards-based, FREE  OER that are available right now through non-profits like EngageNY, CK12 Foundation, K-12 OER Collaborative, Minnesota Partnership for Collaborative Curriculum, and many more.  Start on your path towards a very near future when this will be the norm in schools, not the exception.  Textbooks are history.

Stay tuned for much more on this rising tide!

Virtual Reality Will Change “School” Forever: Major New Article

Transformational technologies — from the wheel to the printing press, steam energy, the telephone, radio, air travel, television, personal computing, and the internet — have never been just about changing how we “do” the mechanics of our lives. Truly transformational technologies allow us to fundamentally re-imagine our relationship to the world around us.

In a major article just published by ISTE, I share something I have been working on behind he scenes for the last two years: the rise of virtual reality and what it will mean to the future of education. I make the argument that, until now, technologies in education have largely been transactional tools. Virtual reality is the first evolving technology that merges both transactional and relational capabilities, and as we all know, relationships are the key to great learning.

Education has not, in fact, been fundamentally disrupted by the computing revolution as predicted 20 years ago. It will be disrupted by virtual reality, as both adult and student learners are able to connect in deep learning experiences outside the bounds of time and space that currently define “school”.  This transformation is going to happen extremely quickly relative to the rate of change in most schools, yet we, the educators, are not developing the pedagogy required to take advantage of this revolution.  We need to get in the game now, not ten years from now.

Please share the article!


Schools Need Marketing to Survive, Thrive

Schools need students. That sounds trite, but until a very few years ago, this was not a concern for the vast majority of public schools. By far, the majority of students attended the public school closest to their home.  That has now changed, and changed substantially for many American families who have a large and increasing array of choices, including magnet, choice, charter, independent, faith-based, online, hybrid, and home school options.  The bottom line is that if school leaders, which includes teacher, administrators, and parents, don’t create and justify a strong value proposition, families will go elsewhere, and this is no longer the problem of just those schools that charge tuition. If you  think the logic does not apply to you and your school, private or public, you are wrong.

This week I visited Rios Elementary School in the Cajon Valley District of east San Diego County, an area that, forty years ago was called “the back country” of sage-covered granite hills and valleys.  Like much of America land values closer to downtown San Diego soared; brighter, newer neighborhoods for the middle and upper middle class who were willing to put up with long commutes sprung up, and along with them newer schools. Now the area has pockets of wealthier and pockets of poorer families. District-wide school choice followed, and families living near Rios voted with their cars and feet to send their kids to the newer, brighter schools. Enrollment at Rios dropped.

CkIuGwEUoAEfw9WSo Rios re-branded itself as a computer science magnet school. This post is not about the learning outcomes of the wonderful coding program that is engaging students and parents at Rios; it is about the need to engage those families in something that they value. Superintendent David Miyashiro and principal Maria Kehoe retained marketing consultant Howard Shen to work with the school to help build up enrollment. Simply, says Howard, “We have a great product here but people don’t know about it.”

I attended a day celebrating student successes in programming and making, proud parents and grandparents learning what has excited their kids all year.Maria had posters about the day printed and hung in small shops and restaurants around the neighborhood. Prospective families had a chance to see how the school differs from other options they have.   Unlike just a decade ago, schools, like all other consumer-driven organizations, have just a few variables upon which to build value and market share: cost, quality, market segment, and differentiated brand. Public schools can’t compete on cost, so they have to focus on the other three. Rios has chosen differentiated brand, and Maria understands that one of the new roles of a successful principal is as “brand champion.”

I happen to think the new approach to student learning that is taking root at Rios is a wonderful upgrade from a traditional, undifferentiated learning model, but what I think is not important. Rios, like so many other schools will survive and thrive based on what their consumers think, feel, and believe. Some schools will do well in this environment; others will not. Evolution is not always friendly, but it is inevitable.

“Future” Maybe Becoming a Relative Term in Education

What if the future is already behind us, and we just don’t know it? While this sounds like Twilight Zone fiction, I think the future may be a relative term for school leaders.  What is an improbable, fuzzy vision fraught with big obstacles, uncomfortable transitions, and unknowable outcomes for some schools is already in the rear view mirror for others. “School” is starting to radically differentiate, and yesterday I saw one of those futures in the gym at Val Verde High School at the district’s elementary-secondary STEM fair. The future of education lies with those who find the intersection of Chaucer and robots, and you have to decide if your school and your students will be part of that future, or left behind.

Cool stuff made by kids in robotics classes is nothing new, so why am I highlighting this fair?  A couple of decades ago, what is now Val Verde was an off ramp on highway 215 between San Diego and Riverside, a brown patch of flat sage brush and dirt, dry farm land, trailers, and fast food stops. Land got sparse and expensive in California, and the population just kept growing, so places like Menifee and Perris have grown into a new suburbia. They are largely Latino and relatively poor; in other words they are the face of a growing part of the American landscape. 90% of students I met yesterday are on free or reduced lunch and blond hair is rare. Roughly 10% of the proud parents who turned out to help their kids showcase their work have a college degree.  Several parents admitted to me with a smile that they have no idea how their nine and ten year olds are able to do what they so enthusiastically do.  Communities like this have not traditionally been on the leading edge. Well, watch out.

I talked to 4th grade girls who could explain the difference between reflective and laser holograms. A little boy decide to plug carrots and portobello mushrooms into a computer to make a drum set because of the stick-like nature of the carrots.  Two high school juniors joined the robotics team and said they wanted to major in engineering in college. Two seven-year olds whipped together blocks into some kind of a moving mechanical chunk and looked at me like I wasn’t very smart when I questioned how they did it.   A middle schooler confidently taught me how to control her tractor-bot. Two girls explained how their Rube Goldberg contraptions helped them understand geometry.  And when I asked two 5th graders if they could incorporate writing, maybe stories or proposals or journals, into their electronic-musical wind chimes, they excitedly turned to their teacher and asked “Yeah, we can do that; how come we aren’t doing that?”

The future that is possible is a bunch of kids from a traditionally underserved community getting fired up about coming to school and learning how to learn. Sometimes it takes gadgets to build engagement and teachers who told me “we just have to either get out of the way of learn beside them”.  I compare that to the conversation I had heard 12 hours earlier: a “long -tenured” high school English teacher who just could not understand how The Canterbury Tales were not critical path to a young person’s preparation for life.  The dissonance is too obvious to belabor. If students can build Chaucer into their ownership of learning, great!  If not, get the heck out of their way and let them create music with some wired-up vegetables.