Friday, August 24, 2012

Connecting through Stillness

Van Gogh - Starry Night - Google Art Project
While we ponder what it means to be a connected educator (and by this we generally mean an educator who uses new and emerging technologies like blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other web 2.0 tools to teach and learn) and whether it’s even ethical (a strong word, but used by some) for teachers to be unplugged, others are arguing that we can’t think, never mind teach and learn, with the noise of our digital distractions.   Unhappily, I've discovered that I can’t even blame the Internet for my lack of focus:  I clocked my distractions when I wrote my last blog post.  Real life and online are about even.  Given a difficult task, I can find distractions anywhere.  But if I continue to reflect on my task, the distractions (I tell myself) are often a thinking prompt.

For example, in writing this I allowed myself (as usual) to be distracted by a Facebook post from Ted about the Google Art Project.  The immensity, the glory, the power of all that was once available only to a select few – great art from around the world – now in the hands of each of us is unthinkably awe-inspiring.  It struck me as madness to have students merely cut and paste coloured tissue to make a tree or weave construction paper placemats when this resource is available with a click. I felt the scale tip heavily toward digital connectedness as a prerequisite for educators.

But the best part of the talk came at the very end when Google Art developer Amit Sood said, “All the amazing stuff does not come from Google or the museums; it’s from the artists.”  And that, I realized, is exactly what I haven’t been able to articulate yet, even to myself, what's missing, I think, in our conversations about 21st century education: what art represents, these human ideas that are enduring and connect us all at the deepest level, are what we must focus on to become connected educators.  It’s marvelous that we now have the tools to facilitate this connection, tools unimaginable even a few years ago, but the tools are not essential to connect meaningfully and, in fact, can distract us, not by delaying us in our tasks or sending us down different paths as we are thinking, but from our purpose as educators. I'm thinking that before we plug in, we need to refocus on what is enduring rather than what is changing.  We get caught up, too often, in chasing what’s new, what’s intriguing, the next trend (and in education, we seem to have created an industry around our latest buzzwords and “best” practices and the attendant profusion of tools and gadgets).  Yet as Seth Godin said in a recent blog post (another one of those Facebook updates that I was distracted by – fortuitously, I like to think):
Your audacious life goals are fabulous. We're proud of you for having them. But it's possible that those goals are designed to distract you from the thing that's really frightening you--the shift in daily habits that would mean a re-invention of how you see yourself.
Our failure to transform education, it’s possible, has been in large part due to chasing the next best thing (even when it’s good), rather than doing the hard work of changing our habits and re-inventing education by re-inventing ourselves.  

And perhaps to re-invent ourselves in the midst of the relentless pace of our modern world, we need stillness for a little while - in our digital and analogue spaces - to remember again the enduring connections.  Look at a work of art.  Listen to extraordinary music.  Read an exquisite poem.  And then keep still.  At the count of twelve…

Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about,
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead in winter
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Pablo Neruda, Extravagaria, translated by Alastair Reid

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Is it okay for educators not to be connected?

Do you know that jumping-out-of-your-skin feeling – kind of like having 14 cups of strong coffee - that you get when you are learning something and you are awash in ideas but don’t know what to do with them yet?  That’s how I’m feeling right now.  I signed up for the Leading Edge Boot Camp through Powerful Learning Practice and have just spent an hour and a half in a small group conversation with Scott Shaw, Will Richardson and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach.  (This is a seriously cool world we live in.  Will was on the road and didn’t have Wi-Fi in his motel, so was sitting outside his car at Starbucks in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin!  Definitely life on Mars.) Our topic was personal learning networks and one of the questions that Sheryl has dropped into our discussions frequently is this:  Is it okay for educators NOT to be connected? 

To try to put my thoughts in some sort of order, I went for a walk. (I agree with Dickens who said, “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.”) As I passed by one of the houses in my neighbourhood, I heard someone practicing piano and remembered how much I had yearned to play as a small child.  However, I lived in the back of beyond; I don’t know if there was even a piano in our remote community.  I did find a book, though – I wonder now, where I found it, since there was also no public library and our school was only tiny, one room for the 9 students.  In the book was a picture of piano key board and I used to “play” it for hours.  It made me think, though:  if instead of tweeting and blogging and facebooking right now, I were practicing piano, I’m sure I would not be a better or worse teacher – merely different.  Instead of learning widely, I’d be learning deeply and could bring that perspective to my community.  And that’s okay.

On the other hand, I’m beginning to believe that it’s not okay for today’s educational leaders to be unconnected (in the unplugged sense).  Part of the reason is related to the little girl I was.  Today, even in remote communities, children who yearn to learn anything, can.  But someone needs to know about the possibilities, and certainly it strikes me that school leaders, at the very least, ought to be immersed in those possibilities if they are going to make key decisions and support magnificent learning in their communities.  I am beginning to believe that an educational leader who is not connected is like an English teacher who has never read Shakespeare and hates poetry – he or she can technically do the job, but not with depth or integrity or authenticity. But everybody doesn’t need to know everything – certainly I don’t hold it against my math teacher friend that he has never read Shakespeare, unless you count the Cole’s Notes versions (although I think it’s sad; he thinks my inability to solve complex mathematical puzzles sad, too – and so do I); our communities are richer for our diverse strengths and passions.  I have a colleague who is an artist.  She has an art studio and brings the most glorious art-infused slant to teaching and learning.  I lean on her shamelessly for artistic inspiration.  I’m grateful that she dives deeply in a different direction than I do, but I pay attention, when I’m “out there” to bring things to her (I just sent her this link to a Love Lettering project that I found through my Twitter network and am excited to think about what she might do with it!).   She and I have been talking about district-wide art experiences to connect and re-vision in our community, and I’m thinking about technology platforms that would bring the idea to reality.  I’m also pondering how to effectively connect teachers in our community to some of the work she has done and am following a trail of ideas about matching people like her who are passionate about art to more of our students, and the possibilities in the idea Mimi Ito calls eHarmony for students, “an optimal matching algorithm, for 1-1 virtual mentors.”  

So back to Sheryl’s question – is it okay for educators not to be connected?  No.  But they don’t have to be connected in the same way to the same things (Twitter is definitely an optional connection!).  However, our schools, our district, our education systems (via our educational leaders) need to be lit up with connections, face-to-face connections certainly, but also virtual ones; they need to have plug ins and channels out everywhere that allow us to use the diverse strength of the extraordinary educators everywhere, all the time, in ways we have never imagined so we can serve all our children with the abundance that is a click away.  (And now I think I’ll take a break from thinking to play on the virtual piano I found!) 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Who’s listening?

Recently I watched Sherry Turkle’s Ted Talk.  An early adopter of technology, she is now concerned about the effects of technology:  “We’re  setting ourselves up for trouble,” she says, “trouble certainly in how we relate to each other, but also trouble in how we relate to ourselves and our capacity for self-reflection.”  She says that Stephen Colbert asked her, "Don't all those little tweets, don't all those little sips of online communication, add up to one big gulp of real conversation?" Her answer was no: “Connecting in sips may work for gathering discreet bits of information, they may work for saying, ‘I'm thinking about you,’…but they don't really work for learning about each other, for really coming to know and understand each other. And we use conversations with each other to learn how to have conversations with ourselves.”

My brother died 8 years ago today – before Twitter, before Facebook, before smartphones (he would have loved smartphones).  He and I and my sister grew up in a very different world from the one he left, much different, even, than most people our age.  We lived in remote communities on the coast of British Columbia.  Our first school was a one-room schoolhouse with nine kids from grade one to high school.  My youngest son, trying to wrap his mind around a computer-less, mall-less, video-store-less, TV-less world (there was no cable and limited reception in these remote places) cried, “But what did you DO?”

We had a record player.  Marc and I knew every single word on every single record.  We knew all the words to Hank Snow, Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton.  We knew the whole Bambi sound track by heart.  We played contract rummy by the hour.  And we loved it when the catalogues came in the mail, especially the Christmas catalogues, and we would play my page, your page.  You might not know that game.  You sit side by side with the catalogue on your laps and your page is the one nearest you.  You take turns randomly turning the pages and wherever it lands, you can pick whatever you want from your side.  And sometimes you get something marvelous, while the other guy gets lady’s underwear.  We rode our bikes.  We built forts in the bushes. We pushed each other on swings so high that we sometimes flipped over.

Today, when I am taking time to think about my brother, I remember that despite the fact that he grew up to be one of the busiest men you’ll ever meet, an entrepreneur, a self-made man, the ultimate self-directed learner, he was never too busy.  It was his gift, I know, but I’m guessing it was a gift nurtured by the way we grew up in a slower time, in a time when people were your world. 

It reminds me that the dizzying speed of change is only the outside things.  What remains the same are the people, and our constant desire, not for the next best thing or to win whatever game we are playing or even to change the world, but for someone to listen to us.  In a world where so many people are connecting and sharing, where we can have friends and followers and our smartphones constantly beep and buzz and chirp with new messages, the loss of one person who really knows and understands you can break your heart.  

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Practical Guide to “Life on Mars”

I’ve continued my “Life on Mars” – living in this extraordinary digital world - by engaging in Connected Educator month, participating with educators from around the world and connecting with inspiring thinkers in real time.  (In 1973, “real time” would have seemed an odd phrase to use.)  I listened to the legendary Deborah Meier, entered an hour of conversation with Chris Lehmann, another hour with Douglas Rushkoff and sat in on three panels with thinkers such as Chris Dede, Lisa Nielson, Ira Socol and Mimi Ito.  While I’ve been thinking hard about the content of the conversation (and feeling extremely lucky to have had the opportunity), one part of me has also been thinking about the experience of virtual participation and what it will take for educators to take advantage of the digital revolution.

Familiarity with Tools:  In one of the sessions, the moderator was unfamiliar with the tool used - Blackboard Collaborate.  This meant that a good deal of time was spent dealing with an off/on microphone issue.  Given that people chose to participate and navigated their way into this session, there were very few participant issues, but I’ve been in other sessions stalled by people saying that they can’t hear or can’t figure out the microphone or interrupting the conversation for links that are posted in the chat.  To ensure that these digital opportunities are widely used, the tools need to be invisible.  To ensure this, we need to create regular ongoing meaningful in-district supported opportunities for all educators to become comfortable with the digital tools. We can’t expect teachers, whose focus is on students, to find opportunities to learn the tools.

Infrastructure: At a conference earlier this year, one of the speakers identified the three pillars of learning empowered by technology (a key driver in BC’s Education Plan): a robust network (so we can access the technology), technical support (so the technology works) and professional learning (so we know how to use the technology).  In one of the forums I participated in last week, a panelists kept cutting in and out due to insufficient bandwidth.  If we attempted to participate from most of the schools in our district, we would have had the same issues.  This is deeply frustrating and a key stumbling block identified by our teachers for not even getting started.  Sometimes we forget to take this into account when we wonder why teachers still use their overhead projectors (at least it is reliable and they don’t have to share it with 10 other teachers) and the VCR (almost none of our schools can access streamed video and even use of DVDs is limited by the library's sparse collection).

I continually hear that teachers are resistant or afraid to try something new or are not “learners.”  I think, rather, that teachers are practical.  They have only so much energy to spare: a teacher has 30 to 120 students, all with unique needs and strengths and dreams and disappointments; they need to connect with families, counsellors, education assistants, student support teachers, teacher-librarians, colleagues, coaches and possibly a wrap-around team of child and youth care workers, psychologists, pediatricians. They need to deal with school and district goals, ministry mandates, parental expectations, school initiatives, juggle access to limited resources.  Someone says – why don’t you use digital storytelling?  Eyes roll.  Resistant?  No.  Practical.  In our elementary schools, they have a 30 minute block to access the computer lab – but it takes at least 15 of those precious minutes to boot up the machines.  By the time the students have logged in (and inevitably some will have forgotten their password) to go to Voice Thread, let’s say (it will take a while; the bandwidth is low), there will be the next hurdle – emails are needed to log in.  In our district, students don’t have school email, so the teacher has to problem-solve that.  Needless to say, by the time they get started on the digital story (I won’t even begin to talk about the difficulty of browsing for images with low band-width or taking and uploading pictures with limited resources or the unlikelihood that there will be microphones available), it’s time to log out again. Of course, someone will have forgotten to save his work, or the computer will crash just before she hits the save button.  Tears.  Frustration.

It isn’t that our teachers are resistant to using technology; they simply can do more at the present time – given our networks, technical support and the skill level necessary for complex problem-solving – with paper and pencil. I don’t say this to argue we shouldn’t continue to find ways to empower our practice through technology; I just think we need to reframe the question.  We don’t need to find ways to “motivate” resistant teachers; we need to find technology that fits their needs, can meaningfully support their work, and is “invisible”.  Again, a teacher’s focus is on the child.  If a tool becomes the focus because it uses a good deal of time, energy and resources, then it’s hardly surprising that it is set aside.  It is up to the school, the district, and teacher support teams to find ways to ensure that the tools are “just right” for teaching and learning.  When that happens, teachers will line up to get their hands on them.

Flipping PD:  Given the extraordinary access to content, we are all wondering about the purpose of “bricks and mortar” learning.  Lately, the conversation has centred on “flipping” classrooms so that the lecture (on video) is sent for homework and the classroom/workshop time is reserved for discussion, tutoring, figuring out, building on, connecting.  I am not convinced that this is a transformative approach – as Ira Socol says, “A "flipped classroom" is the same classroom, just re-arranged” – but it is a starting place for rethinking practice.  And it’s not easy.  First, and all teachers know this, of course – a percentage of students/workshop attendees won’t do their homework.  How do you have meaningful conversations about content, when some or even most of your participants don’t know the content?

The second difficulty with getting beyond lectures or “sit and get” as almost every presenter now states as a goal in their preamble – and this has certainly been a recurring refrain in the Connected Educator sessions – is that the results are mixed.  Not only will many of the participants not have done their homework, but too often the content people have come to hear is sidetracked by the agenda of a single participant or will lose focus in the cacophony of voices and divergent threads.  To learn, most of us need some structure, a narrative arc that moves us beyond a kind of "cocktail hour" conversation filled with interesting tidbits to a focused, deep, thought-provoking, engaged dialogue.  Moreover, despite invitation to participate, many find it daunting to speak or write publically as they are learning – especially in these global spaces where they have no relationship with the group – not because they are not “risk-takers,” but because they prefer to synthesize information before giving an opinion about it.   Generally, only those who are confident step forward to participate and that isn’t necessarily a good thing.  As Charles Darwin said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”  In The Invisible Gorilla, Chabris and Simons write that when they tested this observation, they discovered over and over again that people who were most incompetent consistently (confidently) rated themselves as most competent. This doesn't surprise me.  Almost without exception, the most exceptional teachers I know are extraordinarily humble and more aware of what they don't know than convinced that others would want to hear about what they do know.  Too often in these “flipped” sessions, instead of learning from someone who has reflected deeply on a topic we are interested in, we hear the strongly held opinions of the "confident."

We have work to do to meaningfully flip our PD (and classrooms).  Part of it will mean some combination of pre-reading/viewing, well-structured conversations, space for reflection and follow-up partnering.  But the best way, I think, to get it right is to ask a different question again.  Let’s stop asking – how can we get teachers to “buy in” or “motivate them” to learn in digital spaces about 21st century pedagogy.  Instead, let’s figure out how we can build meaningful spaces for learning that meet teacher needs – and this will demand that we listen deeply and respectfully to teacher concerns.

The more I engage in this digital world, the more convinced I am that we need to find ways to connect educators.  But it isn’t just because teachers need technology; it’s because the digital world – this life on Mars – needs all teachers, that broad and deep range of skills, attitudes, talents, and perspectives, if it is going to fulfill its promise for a different tomorrow.

Mars from rover Curiosity (NASA)

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Life on Mars

Recently, thanks to Netflix and a few days of illness, I found the TV series “Life on Mars” – the UK version.  In the story, if you don’t know it, a police officer is in a car accident that puts him in a coma and he “awakens” in 1973.

I keep thinking about 1973 now.  It isn’t very long ago, yet our world today is massively different in so very many ways.  We know this, of course, and speak of the speed of change endlessly, it seems, but the backdrop of 1973 played against the expectations of a 21st century time-traveller makes it concrete.

Certainly my morning yesterday couldn’t have happened in 1973; undoubtedly it could scarcely be imagined even by the most imaginative.  Martians would have been easier to envision.  I woke a little late (I’m on holidays, after all) and quickly made coffee, turned on my computer and entered a live online session with two educators I admire: Will Richardson and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach.  I talked with them, shared ideas, and listened to theirs along with a small group of educators.  We will spend the next five weeks exchanging ideas, building plans, chatting, sharing and meeting both synchronously and asynchronously.  One of us is in Cyprus, I’m in BC and the others are in the US.   We were all in our homes, able to take on other tasks as we participated (this is more and more possible now even when we meet face to face, of course).  One person posted in our chat window that UK had just won a gold medal.  I responded to a text from my daughter, read a friend’s Facebook invitation to coffee, and downloaded a book mentioned that I hadn’t read.  And if I missed anything while I was multi-tasking?  No worries.  The session will be archived.  

We were asked, at the beginning of this very 21st century learning session, to share the obstacles we face in leading a shift to 21st century learning in schools.  The most difficult hurtle identified: test results.  The question many are asking (even in Canada) is this: How can we still get good results in our traditional tests/curricula and still implement 21st century shifts?  When I think again of my glorious morning, about this extraordinary personal learning experience, it seems like the wrong question entirely.  But it isn’t a surprising one.  Our greatest challenge is always to reconcile our traditional understanding with new ideas vaguely understood and a future that is a mystery.  We should expect that we’ll drag our feet, become confused, frustrated, even angry as we ping-pong between what seem to be irreconcilable ideas.  We should expect, too, that we will always be “outdated” in education.  In 1954, philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote “The Crisis in Education” (we are also always in crisis in education, as a quick glance through history will affirm):
Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint, for this is the basic human situation, in which the world is created by mortal hands to serve mortals for a limited time as home.  Because the world is made by mortals it wears out; and because it continuously changes its inhabitants it runs the risk of becoming as mortal as they.  To preserve the world against the mortality of its creators and inhabitants it must be constantly set right anew.  The problem is simply to educate in such a way that the setting-right remains actually possible, even though it can, of course, never be assured.  Our hope always hangs on the new which every generation brings; but precisely because we can base our hope only on this, we destroy everything if we so try to control the new that we, the old can dictate how it will look. 
How do we preserve the world for the new without dictating how it will look?  I’m not sure.  But I do know our tests are designed exactly to dictate the future.  I keep thinking about 1973.  What lessons could have been taught then that would have allowed us to set the world right in 2012?  Today, we have extraordinary learning tools and the wisdom of the globe at our fingertips.  Surely we can find a way.  If, through some strange accident, I were set down in 2043, will the children, educated today, have found a way to do what we have not yet done - live together in peace and in harmony with nature?  We hope so – and it is this hope that inspires our continued efforts, even when the task of ensuring beautiful learning for each child seems as distant as life on Mars.

Painting by Leslie Carr, based on a drawing by R.A. Smith in The Exploration of Space (1951) by Arthur C. Clarke. Via Paleofuture