Redefining Academic Rigor

There are two kinds of academic rigor. The standard kind is measured in number of hours spent; in the amount of predetermined information memorized and regurgitated. It involves running fast to jump through the hoops put before you. It involves being handed problems and showing you can follow prescribed pathways to solve them. It involves following orders. The message to students is: “Put your head down and slog through it. One day it will pay off.” This is not the rigor that leads to a sustainable world. We need so much more.

We need to think of rigor in a different way. Engagement and effort are indeed key indicators of rigor, but what you engage in and how you engage with it are equally important. What about learning to identify on your own what is important? What about being able to identify opportunities no one else has seen? Rigor, yes—but towards the goal of creating advanced learners, not just advanced rememberers; towards fostering advanced creators, not just advanced imitators.

Children are innate learners, and the key is to build on that strength. With them. As partners. Doing real things in the real world. Modeling for them what it means to be an advanced learner, and collaborator, and doer. And helping them engage rigorously with the world around them so that they gain not only the knowledge they need to thrive in it, but the skills, and the habits, and the attitudes that allow them to use that knowledge for the most meaningful impact possible.

Pedagogy vs. Curriculum – The How is the What

The How is the What

What (content) and how (pedagogy) cannot be separated. How we teach also teaches a what.

Example 1: Coercion has no place in education.

If we use coercion to get students to study what we want when we want, we are teaching them that how you get people to do the things in this world is by using a power imbalance. We should be teaching them that respect and empathy are the primary drivers of influence.

Example 2: Students need to define what is important

Telling students what is important to learn teaches them that their own interests are not of value.

It also removes from them the ability to evaluate what is important themselves. An illustration:

“Students: We are studying American History from the Civil War to World War II. Here are the important things to know about this period, and how we will engage with learning them. And the dates we will cover each.”

An alternative how would be: “You have chosen to study this period in history. How about we start by each looking into what might be important to know about form this time period, and we’ll come back together and build that list? If you are able to convince others of the importance of the items you pick, they will more likely make it on the list.” This helps them build the skill of determining what is important and understand why. They learn the “content” while they are learning these important skills (and they learn the content better).

Example 3: Instruction can be powerfully destructive Continue reading

Technology Idol Worship

A tech director colleague posted to a forum recently inviting feedback on whether or how he should re-institute a tech committee at one of his schools. Teachers there had requested it, but his trepidation is understandable, and here’s why: tech committees are part of the wrong paradigm. Focusing on technology is educational idol worship—it is confusing a physical form for the ideas and beauty and power—for the spirit—represented by that form.

I’ve coordinated or sat on tech committees of various ilks and intents, and they always feel like a failure because they are doomed to failure—by design (except for those focusing on how to improve access to technology, or those described below…).

If we need committees at all, then what we need are communication committees; or information committees; or literacy committees; or learning committees; or better yet, we need to just do real learning in the real world, and then any technology that can help you will become part of what you are doing, and people will be—communicating; and informating; and becoming literate in critical skills including all of those that technology can be involved in; and learning; and doing.

When the printing press was revolutionizing and democratizing education, the powers that be’ed were afraid not of books, but of what books represented—of knowledge and therefore power in the hands and minds of the people they had so long controlled. Those in control of books and literacy held power because they controlled access to information, and communication. And that is what we need to be focusing on—information and communication, and learning the tools while we do that.

Our students and our teachers need to focus on the powerful things that technology allows us to do; on the spirit contained therein, and not on the body, or conveyance, of that spirit.

I’m constantly endeavoring to mediate that struggle, to get people using the tools they need, but try to re-route the conversation path so that it gets there through the lens of learning, and not through the lens of technology. For instance, in a course I teach for masters candidates for foreign language teaching, which is ostensibly about technology, we approach the conversation not through tools but through the essential components of learning, how those components manifest in language learning, and then on supercharging learning experiences to intentionally and explicitly leverage those components, through technology and otherwise, as appropriate. We also talk about the critical skills and attitudes that come with a healthy and productive use of technology, and how those are the same attitudes and skills that all of our students in every discipline need to develop so they can leverage technology in their lives in intentional and productive ways. In other words, we talk about 21st century skills, and 21st century learning environments, and try not to talk about technology as a specific thing unless our reaching towards a goal would be helped by it. And then we practice, and iterate, and share.

Technology and the Future of Education

Why has it been so hard to ‘get technology in the classroom” for the last 40 years? Because it’s a round peg in a square hole. Technology is of a different world, where information is free-flowing and flat and wide, liquid networks prevail; where inquiry can always find fuel and sustenance at the moment of spark and grow with iterative input from others.

Technology will become an obvious extension of teaching when our century-plus old model of education shifts its paradigm to be about learning instead of sorting and conditioning; when schools put learning first and college hoop jumping gets retrofitted in, instead of other way around (at least until colleges get on board with using more meaningful metrics for admission).

Joel Rose does a nice job addressing this issue in his recent Atlantic article, How to Break Free of Our 19th-Century Factory-Model Education System:

‎”…our collective charge in K-12 innovation today should go beyond merely designing and producing new tools. Rather, our focus should primarily be to design new classroom models that take advantage of what these tools can do.”

If you replace “classroom” with “learning” in Rose’s quote, I think it’s spot on. I say that because the new model may in fact preclude the idea of the classroom in any sense of how we currently know it.

And what will these new learning models look like? Here is a quote from MacArthur Foundation Director Connie Yowell on the foundation’s shift in focus from traditional school reform to learning:

A shift from institutions to networks. In the digital age, the fundamental operating and delivery systems are networks, not institutions such as schools, which are a node on a young person’s network of learning opportunities. People learn across institutions, so an entire learning network must be supported.

A shift from consumption of information to participatory learning. A new system of learning must be peer-based and organized around learners’ interests, enabling them to create as well as consume information.”

It’s about networks, it’s peer and inquiry driven, and here is a key point: we can’t build it and then hand it to the kids; they have to co-create it with us.

In closing, I offer a small example below of the power of this technology to network, to facilitate iteration of ideas between peers, and to catalyze inquiry. Thanks to the wonderful Kat Haber whom I met in Doha, Qatar (and thanks TEDx) and with whom I share a connection to many others around the world on this and many other subjects. Exchanges like the one below, involving multiple people in many cases, have helped me iterate my thinking on the points above in ways that could not have been possible in such a quick time without today’s technology.

Here’s hoping for faster iteration and evolution in education.


Higher Education is Changing (?)

A couple of items in the news recently have combined with a local tidbit to raise an eyebrow about what higher ed will look like in 10 or 20 years:

1) A local graduate school (I will withhold the name) has a team looking into whether tuition-driven universities will even exist in the near future, and how to evolve fast enough to stay relevant

2) Take it with a grain of salt since this article is from MIT news, but this is actually creating a pretty big stir.
MIT and Harvard launch a ‘revolution in education’”

3) Offering scholarships in exchange for a stake in student start-ups (Clarkson University)

Flash in the pan or the beginning of a big shift….?

From my own viewpoint I will say that I think any school of any level not looking hard at how to become nimble enough to iterate and evolve quickly in response to our changing environment – in all aspects – risks becoming irrelevant.

My crystal ball leaves me to think that in the not-too-distant future an obviously superior paradigm of education will break through, and the exodus from the current system to the new system will mimic the flow from MySpace to Facebook in scope and timeline.