Category Archives: school reform

Making Time & Space for Informal Learning?

I have spent many years of my life teaching and learning in formal environments. I have tried, as much as possible, to include student choice in those environments. My middle school students chose their own reading materials and writing topics and genres. My graduate students pursue a passion project as a way to explore their own area of interest in ed tech. But, this kind of learning still happens in a formal way, with goals and objectives and some type of assessment.

Informal learning seems more open ended: the participants in the #UnisonEDU chat mentioned learning through networks like Twitter or YouTube. In fact, much of what I know about Minecraft was learned from 5th graders on YouTube. They listen to podcasts on their way to work and connect with others in communities like Reddit. They learn in face to face environments as well through EdCamps and conversations with colleagues. While it may not be built into the school day or recognized with continuing education units, informal learning is taking place in schools.

At least among the teachers…informal learning for students was a little harder for people to imagine. Teachers are, as I did with my students, finding ways to incorporate student choice and voice, but the content is largely untouchable. Informal learning suggests exploring resources without any particular goals or objectives: clicking around, pursuing various threads, letting curiosity take the lead. A plan may emerge eventually, but it will be self-imposed. Not that informal learning isn’t taking place in school: as part of student group work or during free time around lunch and recess, any time students have time to create and collaborate with their colleagues or when a structured conversation slides a bit off topic.

What do you think? Can we find a way to give kids informal learning time during the school day? Can we fit formal and informal together?

Good News/Bad News

Yesterday, as part of an opening session at a regional professional development event, I had the opportunity to facilitate a conversation with students grades 3 – 12 about their own and their classroom technology use. I wasn’t really prepared for what I heard.

The good news: They are, for the most part, using lots of tech in their lives. They don’t have a lot of rules as they seem to be doing a good job regulating their own tech use outside of the classroom. Even the techiest of them, a programmer who was wearing Google glasses, spent lots of time outside, hiking, camping and swimming. They were really an impressive bunch of kids: thoughtful, funny, charming.

The bad news: The classroom picture they painted was pretty depressing for someone who has been part of the “ed tech revolution” since 1988. For the elementary kids, we heard a lot of descriptions of the three-computer classroom where the computers are used by the students when they finish their work to do extra review or to take reading tests. iPads housed textbooks and a few apps. In high school, we heard about lots of research and testing and not much else. There were some pockets of creative uses but they were few and far between.

I guess I was just naive. I hang out with the innovators, the tech coaches who are leading pop up makerspaces, setting up Minecraft servers, and  facilitating hour of code activities. But, from the conversation yesterday, these things are happening outside of regular instruction, either during electives or after school.

Is this the norm? This was one group of a dozen students all from the same school division. I don’t think so: I had lunch with one of the innovators from another division and it seemed that things were the same. A few teachers doing interesting things while the rest focused on content and testing.

We ended the session with a maker activity: simple straw rockets and gyrocopters. One of the attendees commented that they were like kids, they were having so much fun. And we brainstormed ideas for integrating these into content area classrooms. The students on the panel all agreed they liked to make things so maybe I made a little bit of difference in a few classrooms for next year?

But despite the upbeat ending, I’m a bit depressed this morning and, later today, I have to provide words of wisdom to my pre-service teachers at the end of their “tech” course. Hmmm…not sure what to say to them.

At Week’s End

I am tired on this Friday evening. I have been fighting a chest cold for ten days but today I seemed better. I took the afternoon off and soaked up the sun on our sun porch. I read a bit and just rested, knowing that the weekend provided lots of time for checking in with my online students and doing some website work.

I don’t have any official sick leave from an employer. No one is going to ask for a doctor’s note. I looked at my to do list for the week and felt good about what I had accomplished so I put the lid down on the laptop and took a break. The world lived without me for a few hours.

I earned these hours of rest and freedom while the rest of the world watched the clock because my work doesn’t include seat time. It’s about getting work done rather than being some place for a certain amount of time. And, in many cases, I am the one deciding the work that needs done. For instance, I teach online courses and we are heading into the fifth week of the course. I like to take some time to provide feedback on their work. I use the audio recording feature in Evernote to record and email feedback to my students. I comment on what they have accomplished and look ahead to areas where they may need to dig in a bit more. All of them could be tweeting more, I think, but they are connecting nicely within their course.

I think, in many ways, I represent the future of work. A subcontractor with a variety of clients and jobs to claim my attention. I determine long range goals, focus on daily priorities, and am able to carve out pockets of time for my own work. I may work on Sunday afternoons and Tuesday evenings so I can sit in the sunshine on Friday afternoon. I don’t spend any time getting ready for work or commuting so my mornings offer opportunities to read and write that others may miss as they get to their jobs.

Seat time…it really has nothing to do with learning or working. It is an easy way to hold people accountable: count the number of hours you spent in a particular place supposedly completing particular activities. Projects stretch to fill the hours since there is no real incentive to finish early, just another job designed to fill the day. One school I am working with is using mastery learning to help differentiate instruction. Students work at their own pace, completing activities and projects and then demonstrating learning through formal assessment. I can’t help but wonder what will happen if a student gets done early, say in mid-May. They’ve learned everything they need to learn for 7th grade. Now what? Can they move on? Is the 8th grade teacher ready for them? Or is now when they get to do something fun, during the “extra” time they don’t need?

Earlier this week, Sam Chaltain asked what we should be getting rid of as we reimagine school.  He doesn’t mention seat time but he does wonder about age-based cohorts and I think the two go hand in hand along with the Carnegie Unit, which came into question in a report issued at the end of January. We are starting to focus on what students learned rather than how long they spent learning. And we’re starting to consider that standardized tests are not the only way to determine if students learned, particularly when we are interested in skills and dispositions rather than content knowledge. I believe we are at a moment of transition in education. The status quo is being questioned even by those in the mainstream and interesting conversations are taking place in school divisions across the country. Possibilities seem to be blooming and it is up to us to find our place in the conversation. So, what do you think needs to go in order to realize a vision of a contemporary classroom? Here’s Sam’s question:

What would it need to look like if a system of schools was truly aligned around a different set of organizing questions — where the goal is not to standardize, but to individualize; where the objective is not uniformity, but uniqueness; and where the feelings “school” arouses in the majority of us are not endless shades of grey, but wild and inspiring spectrums of color?


It’s Not About Unions Either

I caught the tail end of this CBS News report this morning. It’s the typical kind of media coverage of teacher unions that gives one hugely horrible example of how tenure protected someone who shouldn’t have been in the classroom in the first place and then suggests we need to get rid of unions completely. If the laws are making it difficult to get an abuser out of the classroom then those laws need to be modified. But doing away with teacher unions, which is the real purpose of the multi-billionaires who are funding this lawsuit, is not the answer if the question is how do we make teachers more effective and students more successful?

How great it would be if the billionaires put their money into the classroom to provide coaching and support for teachers to help them become more effective. Think of how far all that money that is currently going to lawyers on both sides would go if the two groups worked together to identify the most challenging environments where teachers, students and their families need substantial social, emotional and economic support to succeed. Let’s move beyond union busting to have the harder conversations about equity and opportunity in this country. Maybe like they are doing in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

At the end of the piece, the commentators all agreed that providing the best education for these kids is the answer to everything so even though they sympathized with the teacher, we just have to guarantee that a good teacher is in every classroom, and they seemed to support this lawsuit. Certainly having effective teachers is essential, but I’m not sure this lawsuit would really make that happen. And, honestly, the better answer to everything would be to figure out how to lift every kid out of poverty.

Two Views of Unions

Last week’s reading included books with two very different views of labor unions, and Labor Day seems the perfect time to pull together the blog post I’ve been drafting.

Two books–For the Win by Cory Doctorow and Class Warfare by Steven Brill–deal with labor unions from two very different perspectives.  

As with much of his fiction, Doctorow’s story is set in a not-too-distant future where young people work in virtual sweat shops gold farming in games for businessmen. They love playing the games and the money they bring in makes a real difference for families where the only other jobs are in real sweat shops that offer little money and imminent dangers from both people and machines. But much of the story could have been set in America’s not-so-distant past as the virtual and real workers begin the painful process of unionizing. It also draws from current events such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building earlier this year. For The Win is not always an easy book to read as the characters we come to know and love suffer violence and death as they seek justice. This book would make great reading for an American history class, opening up the conversation about the functions of unions in a free market economy.

Brill’s book shows what happens when unions become part of both the economic and political landscape, receiving benefits that go far beyond those original desires to be paid a living wage and not to be fired without due cause. While I believe he does so in a biased way, clearly a huge fan of Teach for America and the passionate reformers and policy makers it spawned, his message is not to be ignored. Negotiating contracts that include 8.5% guaranteed rates of return on retirement plans can only lead to financial disaster as municipalities try to balance already out of balance budgets. Harboring teachers in rubber rooms where they sit idle while their arbitration cases make their way slowly through the process is a ridiculous waste of time and money.

I think it was that last example that bothered me the most. I was reading the book as I did summer workshops for teachers who are exploring how to leverage new technologies to create more challenging learning environments for their students. I don’t think there was any reason that the leaders in New York couldn’t work with the teachers in the rubber rooms to help them become better teachers. And Brill doesn’t give any details about what kind of interventions were provided when a teacher received her first unsatisfactory review. Perhaps at least part of the problem lay in principals who, while they seemed to be able to recognize bad teachers, were unable to help them become better teachers. Instead, we hear only the most egregious stories of the drunken educator who managed to beat the system. Principals who are trying to improve their schools by getting rid of teachers instead of developing them are heralded as heroes.

I’ve already written a bit about my summer work. One theme has emerged as I talk, plan and explore with the teachers: how to make sure we didn’t lose sight of the content that would be tested at the end of the year even as we try to incorporate critical thinking and collaboration into the classrooms. Nowhere in the book does Brill suggest that the relentless testing espoused by the reformers he loves might have a chilling effect on innovation.  Rather than engage with someone like Diane Ravitch, Brill dismisses her in a few pages by suggesting that she doesn’t have any new ideas, just complaints. And the book conveniently ends before the cheating scandal that emerged in the DC public schools that may have accounted for the amazing gains touted by Rhee, certainly Brill’s golden girl.

I think the biggest take away from Brill’s book for me was the unreasonable demands we make on teachers. The mantra of the reformers was that a good teacher never sat down. Really? Not to plan? Not to reflect on practice with other teachers or principals? The old comparisons were trotted out: how badly America is doing behind countries like Finland. Brill chose to ignore the organization of Finnish schools where teachers not only sit down, they do so often:

Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers. Teachers use the extra time to build curriculums and assess their students. Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal. Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7. “We have no hurry,” said Louhivuori. “Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?”
Brill’s message was that good teachers can’t have personal lives: one of his main characters ends up leaving the classroom as her commitment to her job is interfering with her marriage. There’s something wrong with that message, and even Brill starts to recognize that by the end of the book.

Spoiler alert! Throughout the book, Randi Weingarten, the leader of the United Federation of Teachers, is painted as the bad guy, standing in the way of reforms, supporting bad teachers, and just generally keeping well-intentioned people like New York Schools’ Chancellor Joel Klein from doing the best he could for kids. Brill does give her a little credit as he describes her efforts to walk the tightrope between her union members and reformers. She endures being told that she is only concerned with the adults even as she opens her own charter school. But, by the end, Brill is recommending her for the new chancellor of the New York schools because she does have the wide view. When asked about his change in tone, Brill says that he learned that school reform was “complicated.” Joe Nocera, in an Op-Ed column in the New York Times written after Weingarten held a book party for Brill, sums it up nicely:

When I asked Brill what caused his change of heart, he responded gruffly: “It’s called reporting.” The two years he spent researching school reform had given him a far richer understanding of the complexities involved in reforming the nation’s schools — and that understanding was sobering.

I would argue that most issues, whether related to labor unions or school reform, do not offer easy answers, and anyone who claims otherwise has snake oil to sell. I’m wondering if Brill is working on his more balanced look at the complexities of school reform?