Category Archives: 21st Century Skills

Asking Deeper Questions

Since the turn of the century, educators have been encouraged to integrate what were called 21st century skills, so-called “soft” skills such creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration and citizenship that were needed to help students learn to thrive in the contemporary world. In a complex world, being able to ask the right questions, examine the underlying systems, and apply creative and critical thinking is the way to find solutions. 

Well, a pandemic that closed school buildings (NOT schools if you equate school with learning) certainly revealed complexity especially in terms of how interwoven those buildings were to so much more than just schooling.  And, in addressing the complexity, it seems to me that officials have chosen to ask only one question: “How do we get kids back into school buildings?” And asking only one question immediately limits the critical thinking that can lead to creative and equitable solutions. 

The other problem with asking only that question is that it conflates school buildings with schooling and assumes that the best and really only way for students to learn is face to face in one location with children of the same age. It’s the model we’ve known, it’s the model around which most of our research is done, and, perhaps most importantly, the model around which we have built lots of systems including extracurricular activities, child care and meal distribution.

The buildings play essential roles in the community beyond schooling. But, and here’s the place where I think we are missing the opportunity to ask deeper questions, the buildings are not essential for schooling, at least for everyone in the one-size-fits-all way we’ve always done it. This narrow focus limits the opportunities for innovative solutions, the kinds of solutions that could meet the needs of all families and children in ways that we haven’t thought of before. 

In her book Real Change, meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg tells the story of a research study designed to see if people who practiced mindfulness were more compassionate to others. It was simple: a waiting room with three chairs, two actors glued to their phones, and a participant. The participant takes the last chair. The third actor enters, walking with crutches, obviously in pain. While it would be nice to think everyone would give up the chairs, they didn’t. But the mindfulness practitioners had a higher percentage of those who yielded their chair to a fellow human being in pain.  While Sharon recognized the need for these personal acts of kindness, she also calls for a wider view:

It can also be helpful to recognize the value of thinking in terms of systems change even as we might be focused on acts of personal goodness. We rely on analysis and conscious reflection to make that distinction. When I heard of DeSteno’s experiment, it made me think in terms of systems. I wondered, for example, if anyone questioned how the people running the lab were allocating resources if they were putting so few chairs in the waiting room? (p. 180)

Right now, we have the opportunity to look deeper and  think in terms of real system change in education. We have the chance to ask more than just one question. Here are the ones I’ve been thinking about:

  1. Who is benefitting from virtual learning? 
  2. Who might benefit from virtual learning if we had better resources including broadband in every home or easily accessible community-based child care? 
  3. How can we take some of the individual solutions that arose in the past year such as learning pods and integrate them in an equitable system? 

Most importantly, how can we make sure that the voices of those clamoring to return do not drown out the voices of those who are not eager to get back in the buildings–teachers, parents, and students alike–because they do not trust the current system to care enough about them to keep them and their families safe?

We must go beyond communicating empty-sounding reassurances about CDC guidelines and open ourselves and the system in order to collaborate with all stakeholders on creative solutions that could finally REALLY customize and personalize schooling for every kid in a way we never considered before the buildings closed. 

Stephen Covey & Informal Learning

My big take away from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People was the same as Eric Jackson who wrote an elegy in Forbes on the occasion of Covey’s death in 2012.

We all need to spend more time in the second quadrant of Covey’s time management matrix: the not urgent but important quadrant. Long term planning, relationship building, research: those kinds of tasks that we know we should be doing but get pushed aside to put out fires and focus on things that seem important but aren’t.

Johnson writes:

The most important thing you can do in your career relating to this simple two-by-two matrix is to do some Quadrant 2 stuff (not urgent but important) every day.  At least 10% of your day needs to be devoted to this important but not urgent stuff.  Ideally, you’re spending 30% of every day on this.

I think Covey meant this to be time for informal learning. Time to explore: read that article or blog post or newsletter, post that question to a community, google an acronym or topic, finally figure out what Reddit has to offer. Maybe write your own blog post musing about a topic. We don’t always have a goal or even a direction for our learning.

A Homemade Education

John Wesley PowellIn Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, Wallace Stegner tells the story of John Wesley Powell, probably best known as the first explorer of the far reaches of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. A Civil War veteran who lost an arm at Antietam, he was an ethnologist and geologist who led both the US Geological Survey and led the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian.

Stegner deliberately does not provide lots of details about Powell’s early life. His book, he says, is not a typical biography full of personal details. Instead, his focus is on Powell’s career and how his work led to the opening of the American West.
Stegner does discuss Stegner’s early education and, like many of Powell’s contemporaries, it was a “homemade education.” The son of a poor preacher, his family moved several times when he was young, and Powell had little formal schooling. Instead, he borrowed books from wherever he could find them, reading when he could find the time in his hard scrabble life. It is reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln who said, “The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is a man who’ll git me a book I ain’t read.”
Depending on who that “best friend” was often determined the direction of the reader’s later life. Lincoln borrowed books from a lawyer and thus the law became his path. Powell was fortunate to meet George Crookham, a farmer and scientist, who kept a private natural history museum and a scientific library. This meeting is fortunate for the rest of us as well as it led Powell to his lifetime’s work.
But, Powell had another teacher and that was nature itself. Like John Muir some years later, Powell spent time in the woods around his Wisconsin home:
Both boys were confirmed in their scientific interest by the surroundings of a backwoods Wisconsin farm, by nature in its intimate variety, by wandering Indians, by the persistent, constant stream of questions that the mind proposed and clamored to have answered. Both boys broke away for long rambling excursions justified by scientific collections (p. 15).
And they engaged with formal education on their own terms:
Both sought college at their own expense and interrupted their schooling by intervals of teaching and farm labor; and both ultimately got what the schools could give them, but never graduated (p. 15).
This education sometimes hurt Powell as he was not as systematic in his science inquiry as those with more formal training. But, it also helped him as well. Stegner compares him to Clarence King, a contemporary of Powell’s who enjoyed a Yale education but failed to live up to expectations:
Clarence King failed for lack of character, persistence, devotion, wholeness. For that important job he seemed to Adams cut out out to do, John Wesley Powell was actually much better equipped. Despite his homemade education, and just possibly because of it, he would do more than Clarence King would do and do it better (p. 21).
There is a lesson here for contemporary educators: Powell was just one of many great Americans who spent very little time in school rooms, putting in seat time. His own curiosity and creativity was what drove him to learn. I was struck by a similarity in the path of Evan Williams, one of the founders of Twitter. A recent New York Times’ article describes how Williams, a farm boy from Nebraska, found his life work and it did not happen in a classroom:
In 1993, a chance encounter with a new magazine at the mall in Grand Island, Neb., seemed to seal his destiny. It was the second issue of Wired, a publication dedicated to the geek gospel that a new world was dawning. One story was about a retired Army colonel named Dave Hughes who wanted to hook up all 5.5 billion brains on the planet. No farmer’s kid need ever be lonely again.
I am heartened to hear stories of innovative schools that are letting kids explore the world and pursue their passions, designing their own “homemade” educations. The stories of people like Abraham Lincoln, John Muir, John Wesley Powell, and Evan Williams suggest that they will turn out just fine.

The Importance of Keeping Good Records

I just finished David McCullough’s story of the Wright Brothers and their contributions to the history of flight. It is a biography of sorts, telling the story of the family but focusing on the years when the brothers were developing and demonstrating the plane. Maybe that is less by design and more because by 1910, McCullough notes that they had really “accomplished all they had set out to do.” (p. 253). Wilbur Wright died young, just a few years after the momentous events of the early 1900s. Orville outlived the rest of the family but spent much of his time in bitter disputes over patents and legacy and had a falling out with his sister who had done so much to support the brothers. A sad ending, really.

The legacy seems to be the most important part and continues to be controversial as there is another claimant to the “first to fly” mantle: Gustave Whitehead. His claim had been largely debunked throughout history–McCullough dismisses it in a few sentences–until Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft published an editorial claiming photographic evidence.  I was not prepared for what I found doing some quick Google searches. This is a big fight amongst the aviation community and several states. Gustave has his own website and prominent supporters.

Meanwhile, aviation historian Carroll F. Gray tends to the anti-Whitehead website devoted to questioning all things Whitehead. In a lesson for all inventors, keeping good records is essential. Gray argues that a major reason to support the Wrights’ claim over Whitehead is that there is just more documentation:

Lost in much of the discussion and debate over who was first to fly is the simple fact that the evidence for Gustave Whitehead is extremely thin to non-existent, while the work of the Wrights is evidenced by volumes of notebooks, numerous diaries, piles of photographs and reams of letters. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that those who believe that Whitehead actually flew sustain themselves on “a hope and a prayer” — faith in that supposed fact — because the absolute proof of that claim is nowhere to be found.

Finally, there’s a humorous political aspect to all this. Based on that one editorial in the aviation magazine, Connecticut legislators decided to declare Connecticut the birth place of aviation and put all their support behind Whitehead. North Carolina and Ohio, states that have often fought over the brothers, now joined forces with both states passing their own resolutions against Connecticut’s claim.

I think this might make an interesting conversation in a history class or makerspace about keeping historical records and how innovation happens. No one can seem to determine if the brothers knew about Whitehead who, even if he didn’t fly, did some inventing and tinkering around planes and the idea of a flying car.

 

Why “Teach” Social Media

This post is in response to Maryam Kaymanesh in the VCU thoughtvectors MOOC who is thinking about why high school students should be taught how to use social media for a future job. I wouldn’t have seen the post but Tom Woodward tagged me in his reply to her and I got a ping to alert me to the reference. Why mention this? Because it gets at the heart of why we need to “teach” social media: it IS the way we communicate these days, and we have always taught students how to use contemporary media.

When I started teaching high school English in the late 1980s, my curriculum included formal letter writing and research skills using paper databases like the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature. I think we understand better why we need to teach students the research skills, but it’s 21st century writing that we grapple with as teachers roll their eyes when kids use emoticons or Internet slang in their research papers. Case in point: check out the Wikipedia entry on LOL. The authors spend a lot of time quoting the critics of the use of these abbreviations as inappropriate in formal writing. But they certainly have a place in the fast-paced, shortened world of Twitter and texting. So, lesson one for all 21st century writers is how to distinguish between the wide variety of writing outlets and the kind of writing they demand.

The other challenge for contemporary media users is how to use social media to portray yourself publicly. The Washington Post article When Young Teachers Go Wild on the Web is one I still share with the adults I work with as it asks the hard questions about sharing on social media. In the six years since that article was published, stories continue to come out of grownups, including veteran teachers, doing dumb things in public using Twitter or Facebook. This incredibly kind interview demonstrates clearly that it isn’t just high school students who need a lesson or two:

But, despite the possible pitfalls, social media is also where we go to connect with others. Whatever your passion or area of study, social media can help you connect with others in the field. I require the students in my educational administration course to get involved in social media professionally by discovering the important voices and publications in education. Who are the bloggers and tweeters and googlers that you should be reading regularly? And, how can you become one of those voices? What can you contribute to the conversation?

There are also important questions for businesses to ask as they move into this hyper connected world. As someone who runs an organization that uses social media to both communicate and connect, I think about how to use it all the time. What do we want to do with it beyond just simple marketing? How can we become a portal to help curate the web for our followers? It is very much a similar kind of question to that for individuals: just how do we portray our company in social media? I can pretty much guarantee that unless your future job is hermit, you will, either as an employee or employer, ask these kinds of questions. 

And, while I can craft a persona for myself and my business, I can’t control the message completely since everyone has a voice. Reactions to a story are part of the story. The Today Show had a clip about getting good customer service and spent a good bit of time offering consumers tips for how to get noticed by a company by using Twitter or Facebook. Companies must be monitoring these outlets to be able to respond and react quickly before something goes viral. 

I’ll end with a recent example from my field of the complexities of being part of this new world. A brutally honest blog post about terrible experiences at a conference in 2013 appeared just as folks were gearing up for the 2014 version. The post, which has been removed by the author but is easy enough to find in an archive, was prompted by the #YesAllWomen campaign. It garnered a strong response from some in the field but others pushed back suggesting that this is a complex issue that requires more than a visceral, black and white response. Some spent time just trying to figure out who she was talking about. A second bog post tried to sort out the writer’s reactions to these different responses while the organization in question crafted its own response.

There are lots of lessons in this one event, not the least of which is that deleting stuff on the web doesn’t always mean it goes away. I’m not sure we can “teach” our students or ourselves exactly how to live in this social mediated world, but these kinds of case studies can help us grapple with the issues in powerful ways. If schools choose instead to ban and ignore, they miss the opportunity to truly prepare their students to live empowered lives in this world.