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While this ASCD session wasn’t exactly what I was expecting–didn’t read description carefully, I did leave with a number of great website links, and some clever paradigm-shifting analogies and anecdotes. Heidi Jacobs always has so much to share–I signed up more for her than the topic. I loved when Jacobs compared teaching to medicine.  Principals often brag that they’re using 21st century technology at their schools and then take you to see the 3 or 4 teachers who are implementing tech into their classrooms. Imagine if a hospital administrator bragged about her hospital using 21st century technology and then took you to see the 3 or 4 doctors who were using it.  If we wouldn’t allow medical staff to choose not to use current technology, why are we okay with teachers continuing to use strategies and technology that is antiquated and does not prepare our students?

Another great analogy: We treat curriculum like real estate—I own Dickens.  If we don’t look at the big picture collectively, then curriculum conversations often default to territory negotiations.

On a deeper level, Jacobs is completely on target when she argues that we need to restructure how we teach sciences. As she says, we’re “mammal happy”—think about how often students write reports on animals.  She argues that much of life science could be cut out to allow more room for contextualizing science and focusing on problem-based learning, not memorization.

Perhaps my favorite Jacobs comment addresses when teachers claim they don’t have time to infuse 21st century skills and tools because they have to “cover” so much material. Jacobs reminds us that “to cover” means “to obscure from view,” which is essentially what happens when we don’t teach authentically.

When we, as the adults, focus too much on what we want to teach, what we’re comfortable teaching, what we know and want to share, we miss the big picture: the students and what they need.  I’ll end where Jacobs began, who owns the learning in our schools? Who should?

While I was blogging this past weekend at Startup Weekend EDU Santa Clara, one idea crystallized even more for me the lean mode of thinking should be applied more frequently to school administration.  (If you want a brush up on lean thinking, here’s an earlier blog.)

I don’t need to convince Startup Weekend participants that they should follow a lean startup model—that’s what much of this past weekend was about.  Most teams struggled with defining their problem statements and refining their solution because doing this kind of work is hard and time consuming. It’s much easier to stay madly in love with your original startup idea.

Our LessonCast Learning team has spent hours working to define a single problem that we’re trying to solve, only to return to it again and again as we infuse new learning into our understanding of the problem. Still, it’s worth it. Until a problem is properly defined, it’s almost impossible to know if what you’re implementing is solving something.

Lean thinking clearly applies to launching a startup but I’m also going to be more deliberate about applying this philosophy during my work with my school district.

Many times the reason that decisions aren’t made is because the problems haven’t been clearly defined. Many great ideas bubble up; those ideas that are implemented usually happen because someone was able to persuade the right people to move it forward.

What would be more valuable—and rarely occurs—is for school administrators (including central office staff) to focus on defining the problems more clearly first. This past year our school system had each school and office complete a comprehensive needs assessment based on quantitative and qualitative data, which is a good start, but doesn’t completely capture what we need to be capturing.

Some common problems are never defined narrowly enough. For example, many school districts have students who are struggling readers.  There are many intervention strategies out there—outside programs, professional development, changing the organizational structure, adding instructional coaches, creating literacy campaigns.

However, a school can’t know which solution meets its needs best until the problem is more narrowly defined. For example, what’s the problem when some students struggle to read?

  • It is because the material doesn’t engage them?
  • Because their home situations are distracting?
  • Because they have gaps in learning?
  • Because they have learning differences?
  • Because they can’t focus because they’re hungry? Tired?
  • Aren’t in school enough because of suspensions?
  • Can’t sit still all day?
  • There are high rates of lead in their houses?
  • Because it’s not cool to enjoy reading?

We rarely take the time to dig this deep. Until we do, how are we supposed to recognize which solution is the best one to solve our problem?  If students aren’t focused because they’re hungry, that’s a very different solution than a student has a learning difference. In the first example, the solution would involve getting access to nutritious food for students. In the second, students would be tested to determine needs and a range of supports could be implemented. If the material isn’t engaging, then curriculum and instruction need to be addressed.

Lean thinking has the potential to focus on our limited resources on solving the real problems as well allowing us to see what works and what doesn’t more quickly and more efficiently.

Shaun Johnson’s article, “Climate Scientists, Educators, and Why We Avoid Consulting the Experts,” addresses an important issue that frustrates me on a daily basis—whose voices have the most influence in education? Johnson makes the parallel between non-climate scientists extolling their inaccurate expert opinions on climate change and “economists, statisticians, software engineers, CEO’s, politicians, financiers, hip-hop artists, and talk show hosts” explaining the best ways to improve education.  Why do we place so much weight on these opinions? If I need expert advice on how to treat my allergies, I wouldn’t ask a celebrity, my local congressperson or a financier. I’d ask my allergist. Yet, we don’t think twice of including these voices in debates about education.

Johnson also wonders:

Is it just coincidence that global warming and education are both socially and politically charged fields? There’s a lot at stake for wealthy interests to ensure that global warming remains controversial and contested. Otherwise, we’ll finally adjust our lifestyles and that could hurt a bottom line. A similar situation might be true for education. Certain well-heeled entities are very interested in the acquisition of valuable public per-pupil dollars. This might be why the real experts get shut out: they actually know what might be best for students and not someone’s bottom line.

This is the real question—what is the motivation for debates about education? Politics? Recognizing the possibilities of entering a $900 billion market? A (perhaps unconscious) desire to maintain the social status quo? Americans like to believe in the narrative of meritocracy—public education offers the opportunity for all Americans to pull themselves into a higher socioeconomic level if they simply work hard enough.  We hold tightly to this narrative, despite significant evidence to the contrary. Those in political power don’t want to admit that they might not have risen to that position if they had come from different circumstances—they all want to believe in the merits of their own hard work and labor.  If we really believed in equality in education, we’d make the hard decisions that would genuinely change the educational experiences of the children attending our under-performing schools.

When I’m evaluating people’s positions on educational reform, I’ve found that looking at their record on issues of equity serves as a good barometer for determining motivation. What other kinds of projects have been their passions?  Then I look to see their connections to actual educators—have they personally worked in education? If not, do they surround themselves with folks who have extensive experience in education?

There are certainly non-educators out there who fund projects for the right reasons—I’ve met a few. However, they’re the rare exception. Do I believe that only educators should be involved in educational reform or in creating new educational technology? No, what I believe is that we need true partnerships in designing the direction education should take that involve real education experts—those who have spent significant time in classrooms.

How can we shift our national thinking so that we recognize true expertise in education?

Okay, I’m taking another stab at my response to Khosla’s TechCrunch article because I don’t think I did him enough justice, or explained well enough my own issues with the piece. In one of my online communities, I was challenged by Doug Crets, a respected colleague, for missing the main points of Khosla’s article and not crediting Khosla with how closely he does align with the needs in education.  My title, “Teachers Won’t Replace Algorithms,” probably led readers down the wrong path, similar to how TechCrunch’s calling Khosla’s article “Do We Need Algorithms or Teachers” misleads readers as well. The issue is not an either/or question—what algorithms can tell teachers about student behavior has the potential to provide valuable tools in education, which will not replace teachers, but rather allow them to do their job more effectively and most likely differently.  My first blog responded to minor points of difference without acknowledging enough how much my beliefs about the future of education and Khosla’s align.

I agreed, and still agree, with every major point that Khosla puts forth:

1)   Seat time is highly overrated as a way to judge who deserves to be awarded a diploma. We all recognize that students learn at different paces, yet we don’t acknowledge this fact in our course and graduation requirements.  A professor friend of mine teaches one of her college classes now using a new model—when students have completed the level of quality of writing to receive an A, then they’re finished. If that takes 3 weeks, then they took a 3-week course. If it takes the whole semester, she’s right by them the whole way, providing support.

This is also true for individual high school courses.  I used the example of Algebra in my last blog because it’s a subject that is often repeated by students who struggle with its concepts.  Some students fly through the material and others need to work with the content in different ways than traditionally presents. Technology has the ability to provide avenues for students who can move on to more advanced materials, while also providing learning solutions for struggling students.

2)   The best man at my wedding works at Zynga, so I recognize both the value of the potential of gamification and the possibilities that big data can tell us about student behavior.  Most people agree with Khosla’s support for what gamification can do for learning. What many educators may not realize is that platforms such as Zynga have also provided us a way to test on a large scale what does and doesn’t work. Khosla captures this when we shares that these “new platforms…have the ability to rapidly run experiments with new styles, techniques and resources (like social learning) which will lead to a new understanding of education.”  Imagine what we could learn about where students get stuck when reading a science article, working through a math problem, or reading a short story, if we applied some of these same strategies/algorithms.

3)   Social media also has a place in the future of education. On a simple level, I already see students asking each other questions at night using social media. Companies such as Grokit and Inkling do this on a larger scale for college students.  Khosla is correct that even the students who help other students learn because the best way to learn material inside and out is to teach it. Again, this doesn’t replace the role of the teacher, just provides more tools for a teacher to use.

4)   Technology has the power to free up teachers to do what we do best—teach our students to think, read, write critically, to engage with the wider world, to be curious, to learn how they learn best, to be empathetic and compassionate and to have the tools they need to solve 21st century problems.  New advances could allow us to reach every single student by diagnosing issues quickly and precisely and engaging them in the ways each student learns best.

5)   Perhaps most importantly, I agree with Khosla’s vision of students enjoying the learning process. Young children absolutely love to learn, they’re curious about everything, and somehow our current system knocks this out of most of them. Technology can provide tools that help us get that love of learning back for all of our students.

When I heard Khosla speak in person, I left feeling similar to how I do now. He has so much right on target, but keeps missing the nuances. For instance, in both this article and in his comments during the interview I observed, Khosla only references lecture as a style of teaching because I believe it’s probably the only one he knows how to name. I wanted to spend a little bit of time with him to give him the language to use that would help him bridge the tech/educator divide. I also want him to say even more strongly that good teachers can’t be replaced by any form of technology. Technology just provides tools for teachers and these tools need to be designed for real problems in education and with real educators as part of crafting the solutions.

As a non-educator Khosla doesn’t always have the exact vocabulary to explain the nuances of the issues facing education, but he should get credit for recognizing (and funding) the patterns in the big picture.  As an educator invested in bridging the edtech divide, I should do more to bring that language to invested individuals like Khosla. Watch for more on this topic!

A year ago I would not have known anything about Startup Weekends or most of the terms I’ll be sharing in the short series I’ll be writing over the next few days in anticipation of DC Startup Weekend EDU.  As a teacher and administrator, I wasn’t connected to the world of startups; I had to climb a steep learning curve when I began working on an edtech startup. I’m hoping to make this process easier for other educators joining the EdTech movement, especially those who want to participate in the new Startup Weekend EDU strand. If I could learn what I’ve learned this past year, so can any other educator.

My next blog will share some Ed Tech terms, but I thought I’d start with some basic tips for first-time educators participating in a Startup Weekend EDU:

  1. Let your teacher and administrator friends know that you may be contacting them over Startup Weekend to try out some ideas. It’s great to have access to educators when you are validating your team’s idea. (More on this in tomorrow’s blog.)
  2. Let your students, friends, family know that you will be largely unavailable during Startup Weekend. You won’t have time to do any grading, prepping or responding to anyone with lengthy emails. You’ll be surprised by how much you throw yourself into the work your team is doing!
  3.  When you pitch your idea, make sure to state clearly that you are an educator. It adds credibility to your pitch. Some developers and others will specifically choose to join a group with an educator. For more tips on crafting your pitch, see one past judge’s advice.  *You do not have to pitch an idea! Some educators like to join teams for their first Startup Weekend experience.
  4. If you pitch an idea and pull together a team, then essentially you are the team leader and will be expected to facilitate conversations and workflow. Do not simply assign people tasks; take the time to find out what skills people bring and also what they were hoping to get out of the weekend. Most people enjoy the creation process, so be open to your idea transforming. Your team is not there simply to provide free hacking and design work (more on hackers and designers tomorrow!).
  5. Don’t assume that the audience or your team will be familiar with educational terms or even what’s good for students. Many non-educator participants really want to learn from your experiences as much as you want to learn from them. (See tomorrow’s blog for a glossary of ed tech terms.)
  6. It will be appreciated if you let other teams know that you’re happy to provide educator insight if they get to a point where they’d like feedback from someone in the field.
  7. Take full advantage of the mentors who stop by while your team is working. Use these “interruptions” as a chance to practice and fine tune your pitch. The mentors have a full range of experiences so take advantage of their different areas of expertise. Some will know the education space, some will be from foundations or venture capital firms and some will be successful entrepreneurs who want to remember what it was like when they were in startup mode. Don’t be surprised if some of the advice you get conflicts with each other–their advice depends on their experiences.
  8. Be prepared to experience a full range of emotions—at one point, you may feel like you’ve just created the next Facebook, only to feel downtrodden later that evening when you believe your business will never get off the ground. It’s all part of the cycle of turning an idea into something viable.
  9. Make connections with participants, organizers and mentors. A significant piece of the Startup Weekend experience is meeting folks interested in Ed Tech. Take advantage of the great wealth of expertise that attends these weekends.
  10. And most importantly, have fun!

Teaching is not easy. Most of us do not go into teaching because we want to reach tenure and then simply show up to receive a paycheck. We certainly don’t go into teaching to make a lot of money either.

Watching Matt Damon’s interview after the Save Our Schools event in DC, I understand why teachers are championing his comments. The reporter’s assumption that Damon did his best acting on projects because he wanted to keep making more money underscores how little the reporter and others understand what motives teachers and other professionals. Many actors like Damon are motivated by wanting to improve their craft, wanting to reach for an unattainable perfect portrayal of a character.

As teachers we often refer to our profession as a craft. We are constantly striving to find effective ways to reach more of our children. Watching a master teacher is similar to watching a well-choreographed dance number: what appears effortless belies all of the planning involved and the constant micro-decisions made to adjust for each nuanced interaction.

The satisfaction I feel after a lesson has gone well is what keeps me motivated; it’s watching students have those “aha” moments. It’s not the fear of losing my job or the desire to make more money. Teachers don’t need external motivation to want their students to achieve.

People whose careers are driven by the bottom line find it difficult to understand intrinsic motivation—they see the world through their own financial lenses so they want to offer carrots and sticks as motivators. Offering a teacher a little more money isn’t going to help her when she’s teaching 5 classes of 40+ students in a poverty-stricken area. What she needs is more collaborative planning time, fewer students, and sustained professional development so she can meet the specific needs of the student population.

In Drive, Daniel Pink highlights the research that illustrates how we’re hard wired to want to be truly good at something. Part of the current debate about education is a misunderstanding of what a teacher truly does. Carrots and sticks work as motivators for mundane repetitive tasks, but not creative endeavors. A teacher’s intrinsically motivated to want to improve his or her craft which looks much more like a creative endeavor than a set of mundane and repetitive tasks. Teachers need the autonomy and tools to become more effective, not the fear of being fired.

What do teachers want?

  • To be valued
  • Time to collaborate with colleagues
  • Time for professional development
  • Public respect and recognition
  • Parent and community support
  • Adequate facilities and supplies
  • Reasonable compensation

When teachers are provided these reasonable supports, then it is truly amazing what they can do to improve student achievement and to help develop the whole child.

“Teaching is not filling up a pail, it is lighting a fire.” -William Butler Yeats

My deep-seated belief in social justice drives all I do in education. In my heart of hearts, I truly believe that education is the only path to freedom and equity and that all students deserve access to a quality education.

If my family had an early inkling that I would become a teacher, it was cemented when I organized a neighborhood nursery school in our backyard the summer before I turned 11. I loved spending my afternoons teaching younger children basic math and elementary reading; I even included physical education and recess in daily schedule!

Like Nicole, my career path as a teacher and administrator has been nontraditional. I’ve spent my 20-year career teaching in both public and independent schools both in the US and abroad. I also spent at least 13 summers working in Johns Hopkins University’s CTY (Center for Talented Youth) Summer Programs throughout the country as a teacher, academic dean and site director. Because of my work with CTY summer programs, I was recruited by Johns Hopkins University to move to Bermuda to serve as the Deputy Director for CTY Bermuda. Over the course of three years, I helped design and implement a program that provides acceleration and enrichment for academically talented students. I’m currently the English Language Arts Supervisor for STEM in Baltimore County, a hybrid position recently created to encourage literacy across content areas. I’ve been fortunate to have been challenged to teach diverse groups of students: struggling readers, traditional learners, exceptionally talented students, children from some of the wealthiest families in the world and children from some of the lowest socioeconomic areas.

Recognizing that mentoring has proven to be the most effective practice for improving teacher effectiveness, I joined Nicole in developing LessonCast as a method to multiply the effects of mentoring for a global audience. I’ve thrown myself into this project because I believe that voices of teachers need to rise to the top as our nation debates educational reform. I hope you join us as we move to share best teaching practices with other teachers in an effort to make all of us better practitioners of our craft!