Tony Gurr

Posts Tagged ‘School Reform’

Why we need more “Committed Sardines”…

In Educational Leadership, Our Schools on 04/10/2011 at 7:22 am

A couple of days ago I did a “lazy Sunday” post – but shared a poem from the guys at the 21st Century Fluency Project (Ian, Andrew and Lee). The poem clearly touched a nerve with many of you and showed me just how much we educators value allthingseducation – and “the need for change”.

If only our schools, colleges and universities were half as passionate!

 

Lee, Andrew and Ian have recently published their latest book – Literacy is Not Enough –and have kindly offered to share selected chapters of the book with you all. After I had posted the poem, I thought elements of Chapter 12 (the end of the book) would be the best to start their series of guest-posts for us.

 

We must immediately begin to rethink and reshape the current classroom learning experience. We must re-examine the way we teach, the way students learn, and the way we assess that learning. We acknowledge that this is a great challenge. What we are being asked to do is not like changing a small bad habit such as smoking or eating a bit too much chocolate or biting nails.

The challenge we’re facing in education at this time is that educators are being asked to reconsider our fundamental assumptions about how we teach, how students learn and how that learning should be assessed.

But when we’re challenged to rethink education, we’re not being asked just to change a few small behaviors or habits like how we spend our money, what we put into our bodies, or how we spend our time. What we are being asked to do here is reconsider some of the most fundamental, traditional, embedded parts of our life experiences and our habits of mind.

And that is the real challenge that educators face.

And yes, change is hard. Sometimes the challenge of change seems absolutely overwhelming. So where do we begin? How do we in education deal with a world of such fast-paced change? How do we deal with embedded traditional mindsets about teaching and learning and assessment? How do we deal with the digital generation?

 

Facing the Music

It may seem a bit selfish, but what we passionately believe is that this is not about us; it’s not about our issues; it’s not about our comfort zone. This is about our children and our hopes and our dreams and our prayers for their future. They may only be 20 percent of the population, but they are 100 percent of the future of our nation.

Put on a more visceral level, all of our pension plans depend on how well we prepare them. Three billion new people entered the world economy in the past ten years, and if even if only ten percent of them have skills and opportunity to compete with us, that’s still 300 million people—about twice the size of the entire U.S. workforce and twenty times the Canadian workforce.

In the work culture of the 21st Century, everything from the neck down is going to be minimum wage. Everything that can be automated, turned into hardware, turned into software, or outsourced or offshored will be. So we have a choice. Either our students and workers have high skills or they get low wages. And if they don’t get those 21st-century kills in our schools, where will they get them.

We hear complaints all the time that kids today are different, and that our schools aren’t what they used to be. Frankly, we believe the problem with our schools isn’t that they aren’t what they used to be. Culturally and socially they are different, but structurally, they are just like they were when students were released for 3 months in the summer so they could harvest the crops based on a European agricultural cycle from 150 years ago.

No, the problem is that our schools are what they used to be. So if we’re going to prepare our students for their future and not just our past, if we’re going to prepare them for their future and not just our comfort zone, we’re going to need new schools—and more than that, we need a new mindset. We need new schools for the new world that awaits them. We need schools that will prepare students for their future—for life ahead of them after they leave school—for the rest of their lives. We know this is hard, but as educators, we must understand that our job is not just to serve what is or has been. Our job is to shape what can, what might, what absolutely must be.

Once again, change is difficult, and it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the changes required. But this is normal. Little has ever been understood or achieved in one blinding flash of light. The process of change is messy and doesn’t happen overnight.

Honestly, in writing a book like Literacy is Not Enough, and in creating a project as large as the 21st Century Fluency Project, it’s easy to feel completely overwhelmed, and we certainly do feel that from time to time. But when we do feel overwhelmed, there’s a place we like to go to decompress. That place is the Monterey Aquarium in Monterey, California. Some say it’s the world’s greatest aquarium.

 

The Joy of Whalewatching

A few years ago, Ian took his wife Nicky there for the first time. After they paid their fee, they walked inside. Immediately on their right was a gift shop that was playing a DVD about the blue whale, the largest and, at 190 decibels, the loudest mammal on earth—much louder than a person can shout (70 decibels) and louder than a jet (140 decibels). The video was full of amazing facts. The blue whale weighs more than a fully loaded 737. It is the length of 2 1/2 Greyhound buses put end to end and has a heart the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. It has blood vessels that a human adult could swim down, and a tongue 8 feet long that weighs 6000 lbs. One particularly amazing fact was that in its first year of life, a baby blue whale was estimated to gain 15 pounds an hour.

One other amazing fact caught their attention—a blue whale is so mammoth that when it swims in one direction and it decides it needs to turn around, it takes three to five minutes to complete the turn. There are a lot of people in our world who draw a strong parallel between the blue whale and the school system. And there are also a lot of people who believe that all the calls for charter schools and vouchers are being made by people who are wishing and hoping that we just won’t be able to turn public education around in time.

But if you walk past the video on the blue whale, turn to the left and walk about 50 yards down the way, you come to what we consider to be the absolute centerpiece of the Monterey Aquarium. It’s a 10 story, all-glass tank inside of which have been placed many of the creatures that are native to the Monterey Bay. If you’ve read ever John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, you’ll know that a century ago, twice a year, in the inner Monterey Bay, there used to appear—out of nowhere—schools of sardines that were the length, the width, and the depth of city blocks. These immense crowds of the tiny fish had the mass not of one, two, or three blue whales, but of rather thousands of them.

But there is a fundamental difference between the way a blue whale turns around and a school of sardines changes its direction. How do they do it? How do they know? Is it ESP? Is it Twitter? Are they using cellphones?

Because we were quite curious, we pressed our noses against the tank and looked at the gigantic school of sardines swimming around inside.

At first glance, it looked like all the sardines were swimming in the same direction. But when our eyes adjusted to light, we began to realize, slowly at first, that at any one time there would be a small group of sardines swimming in another direction. And when they did this, they inevitably caused conflict, discomfort, collisions, and stress to each other.

But finally, when a critical mass of truly committed sardines was reached—not 50 or 60 percent who wanted to change, but 10 to 15 percent who truly believed in change, you know what happened? The rest of the school turned and followed. And that’s exactly what has happened over the past few years with things like out attitudes toward smoking, our unwillingness to tolerate drinking and driving, or politicians who lie. It’s exactly what happened with regime change in the Middle East. Each and every one of them was an overnight success that was years in the making. Every one of them started with a small group of people who were willing to make the change despite the obstacles and resistance.

You All Need To Be Committed!

On the 21st Century Fluency Project website (www.fluency21.com) is our blog, which we call “The Committed Sardine Blog.” When we first started posting we had a vision of building a following and providing world-class books and free resources that would help to transform education to be relevant to life in the 21st-century. We had a trickle of subscribers, which has turned into a flood. Today we have tens of thousands of Committed Sardines in dozens of countries. The blog and resources have been accessed millions of times. Shortly it will expand into a personal learning network where you can create and share unit plans like the ones in this book.

So the big question is:

who amongst you is willing to become a Committed Sardine?

 

Who amongst you is willing to swim against the flow, against conventional wisdom, against our long-standing and traditional assumptions and practices in education and begin to move schools from where they are to where they need to be?

American anthropologist Maragret Mead put it this way:

Highly Educated Useless People (from “guest blogger” – Ian Jukes)

In Guest BLOGGERS, Our Schools, Technology on 27/02/2011 at 1:21 pm

Ian (you have to watch his video) is one of the team of “educational imagineers” that brought us  The 21st Century Fluency Project and the “Committed Sardine.

He’s on the road at the moment and busy working his way through his overflowing inbox – but took some time out to get us a few thoughts as the second of our “guest bloggers” this week.

I had just finished speaking at an international educational conference. What followed completely floored me. It was not only what was said but also who said it, and how they said it.

The comment was as follows:

“Our students are amongst the very best performers academically in the world on the TIMS.” . The TIMS stands for The Third International Mathematics and Science Study. The speaker was describing students from his country

As he walked away, he calmly added, “The problem is that most of them [students] couldn’t think their way out of a wet paper bag if their life depended upon it. They’re nothing but highly educated useless people.”

The commentator: The Minister of Education of a certain high profile country.

I was speechless. Highly educated useless people?

 

What was he really telling us?

What he was saying was that his high-achieving students had school smarts and thus could excel at school-related activities – that they had developed special abilities that would allow them to move smoothly through the school system because they had developed the necessary skills to effectively cram for and write tests. What he was suggesting was that most academically successful students do well in large part because they have learned to play the game called school.

But in describing them as “highly educated useless people”, what he was also suggesting was that while many students in his country, particularly the brainy ones, had school smarts, they did not possess what is generally known as street smarts. For him, being street smart was about having the necessary higher-level thinking skills and competencies above and beyond being able to do well on a written exam that were needed to live and work in the real world beyond school, solving real world, real life problems in real time.

We become curious. What were the distinctions between being school smart and street smart? How could so many of these students, who were good at school and able to do so well on the tests, at the same time be inadequately prepared for life?

What was going on?

After much debate around our expectations of the who, what, why, where, when, and how surrounding school learning, we believe we finally have one answer. Thus answer is related to how we teach our students to learn and think.

When children first attend primary school, they are completely dependent upon their teachers to tell them what to do, how to do it, when to do it, where to sit when they are doing it, and even for how long. The primary focus is on mastering content and learning through memorization within a tightly controlled instructional environment.

In this environment, mastery of content is valued over thinking critically about the content. The teachers tell the students what they need to do to pass the test, to pass the course, to pass the grade, to move to the next level, and finally to graduate.

All the answers are prearranged, preformatted and ready for absorption by those who are willing and able to play the game called school. These are the academically successful. These are students are comfortable operating in a culture of dependency – dependent on the teacher, dependent on the textbook, dependent on the test.

Then after graduation from school, having spent 13 or more years in the system, the educational infrastructure that has held the students up for all their years in education is suddenly removed. When this happens, many of the students fall flat on their faces as they enter the real world. And we can’t understand why. Even though it is we, the educators, who are responsible for creating this culture of dependency on the teacher, the textbooks, and the test, we feel confused.

In the real world of today, school success clearly does not guarantee success in life.

So, what is the problem?

The answer lies in our efforts to ensure compliance in our learners. Somewhere along the line, we have lost sight of the need to develop in our students the capacity to become independent thinkers and doers.

If our students are to survive let alone thrive in the culture of the 21st century of technology-driven automation, abundance, and access to global labor market world, independent thinking and its corollary, creative thinking hold the highest currency.

If our students are to be successful in making the transition, our job as educators must be to move from demanding the compliance of our students to making ourselves progressively redundant. As we do this, we must shift the responsibility of learning from the teacher where it has traditionally been, to the learners where it belongs.

This shift sounds simple, but in fact, it is an incredibly complex task because for it to happen, it must occur in the hearts and minds of every single educational stakeholder – from the politician, to policy designer, to administrator, to teacher, parent, and even the student.

The new and different paradigm of teaching and learning is that of progressive withdrawal. Our responsibility must be to ensure that our students no longer need us by the time they graduate from school.

This is no different than what we do as parents. Think back to the very first tentative steps of your child. They stood there wobbling and teetering. Inevitably they fell down.

What did we do when this happened? Did we rush over, point at them and say, “39 – you fail, 28%, C minus, I’m sorry, you’ve had five chances, you don’t get any more?”

The answer is – of course not! What did we do? We clapped our hands, helped them up, brushed them off, wiped away their tears, and encouraged them to try again. We understood that our job as parents, as difficult and challenging as it might be, particularly during the teenage years, is to help our children to become independent. People who could stand all on their own, as they began to make their way through life.

So, what should we do?

Do we give up on helping our students to become school smart and simply focus on helping them become street smart? Absolutely not – we need them to be both school smart and street smart. This is not a matter of either/or.

Beyond this, there is a deeper question we need to ask. What do we want our students to be, feel, think, and do that measurably demonstrates that they are prepared and willing to step up from school to the world in which they will work, live, and play?

This is not a simple thing to answer because our present day world is in constant and rapid flux and profoundly complex. And it’s not getting any simpler.

We live in the dynamic world of InfoWhelm, where content is growing exponentially in both quantity and complexity. In this shifting landscape where digital content, is readily available at our fingertips, learners must be able to move beyond simple mastery of content recall and must develop the capacity to interpret and apply old and new information alike to new situations, problems, and new environments.

Access to information by itself is not the issue. Rather, learning to become a discerning and creative consumer of information is. In this new digital reality, the application of higher-order independent cognitive skills, within the context of real world, real life, and real time tasks; and of being able to transfer previous learning to new, different situations and challenges is of critical importance.

We firmly believe that invoking progressive withdrawal and fostering street smarts in school smart students requires a major shift to the existing educational paradigm. To enable this shift demands that we rethink the design of our schools, our classrooms and other learning environments.

At the same time, we need to rethink our assumptions about instructional design, what constitutes learning and even our definitions of what it means to be intelligent. And ultimately we must also rethink how we assess and evaluate both effective instruction and effective learning.

The exponentially growing body of content brought on by InfoWhelm has moved way beyond the content of traditional school subjects. The newer 21st century content areas include global awareness, financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy, civic literacy, health and wellness awareness, leadership, ethics, accountability, and many others.

In particular, becoming an independent learner requires the development of two types of skills: those that emerge from the critical cognitive intelligences and those from the emotional intelligences.

Cognitive intelligences involve primarily the rational higher order thinking skills. These include how to manage, interpret, validate, transform, communicate, and act upon information. These cognitive intelligences include abstract reasoning, problem solving, communications, creativity, innovation, contextualized learning, and technical, information and media literacy skills all used in the context of content areas.

Emotional intelligence competencies include four major skill sets – self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Today there is much evidence to show that significant leverage can be obtained by promoting learning strategies in the emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is particularly important in developing street smarts.

Then there is the matter related to not only what we assess, but also how we assess learning? Standardized tests can only measure the very narrow range of rational cognitive skills that can be measured by a bubble test, multiple choice, or fill-in-the-blanks exam. Real learning is about assessing much more than this.

The bottom line is that schools must change drastically if we are the reverse the growing disconnect between being school smart and being street smart. If we are going to make schools more relevant to our students’ futures – if we are going to prepare students for the real world that awaits them, there are at least five fundamental changes that need to be made.

 

1. We must acknowledge the new digital landscape

Schools must embrace the new digital reality of the online, computerized world described by Friedman’s The World is Flat. Outside of schools, the digital world has fundamentally and irrevocably altered the way things get done. This is not just the case for business but for many aspects of our lives.

It must be stressed that this is not about schools having high-speed networks or students being able to use laptops or handhelds. Even when hi-tech resources are available, if the resources are only used to reinforce old mindsets about teaching and learning and how that learning is assesses, little will have changed. This is about developing the full spectrum of cognitive and emotional intelligences that are increasingly required in the culture of the 21st century. As such, this is primarily a headware not a hardware issue.

 

2. Access but little guidance

The new digital landscape allows students access to information and learning experiences outside schools and classrooms. Learners can engage in experiences that have traditionally been the domain of teachers and the adult world. From home, shopping mall, whenever and wherever they are, students can access information, music, original sources and multi-media, full motion color images from friends and acquaintances, as well as people who might have diametrically opposed perspectives.

Because of our current fixation on testing, we are unable to properly guide our students or help them develop the necessary skills that will empower them to effectively use these powerful resources. As a result, it is often the students, not the teachers who define where they go, how they get there, and what they do when they arrive.

This is compounded by the fact that many adults, decision-makers, and educators are not in synch with the new digital reality of students. We don’t have the experience, skills or even the inclination to help them even if we have the time. Schools and teachers persist in using new technologies to reinforce old mindsets. These are issues well beyond computers and networks and way beyond traditional testing.

To understand the new digital landscape– to leverage their world, we must be willing to immerse ourselves in that world and embrace the new digital reality. If we can’t relate, if we don’t get it, we won’t be able to make schools relevant to the current and future needs of the digital generation.

 

3. Changing minds

We must address the shift in thinking patterns that are happening to digital students. They live and operate in a multimedia, online, multitask, random access, color graphics, video, audio, visual literacy world.

As Steven Johnson points out in Everything Bad is Good For You, these new literacies are generally not acknowledged, valued, or addressed in our schools. This is because these emerging literacies do not generally reflect our traditional definitions of literacy, which were confined and defined by the technologies of the 19th and 20th century when PCs, Internet, cell phones, and other digital technologies were the stuff of science fiction.

We must acknowledge that because of this new digital landscape, our students not only think differently but also learn differently from the way we learn. Only by accepting this will we be able to begin to reconsider and redesign learning environments, instruction, and how we assess learning.

 

4. The whole learner

We must broaden evaluation to encompass activities that provide a complete picture of students learning. As management guru Tom Peters says “what get measured gets done” and conversely “what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done” – it’s imperative that we begin to measure more than information recall

Dave Masters uses this analogy:

“You can get a good picture of a person’s health by taking their height and weight but would you go to a doctor who only took your height and weight and said here’s a picture of your health. The answer of course is no. It would require a battery of tests – urinalysis, blood tests, blood pressure, cholesterol, checking for lumps and so on to get an accurate picture of your health.”

However schools act like the doctor who only takes your height and weight and then says here’s a complete picture of your health.

We test students using standardized instruments that primarily measure information recall and low level understanding, and then say here’s a complete picture of a student’s learning, which is absolutely not the case. It is extremely presumptuous for us to say that current test scores are a complete indicator of student learning.

A complete picture of student learning needs to include portfolios of performance, demonstrations not just of recall of theoretical content, but also the application of that theory used to solve real world problems.

 

5. Relevancy and connections

Last but not least, we must increase the connection between instruction in schools and the world outside if we hope to increase the relevancy of the learning that takes place. The key point here is that the students must perceive the relevancy of what they’re learning. They need to understand not just the content, but also the context of that content as it is applied to the world outside of schools.

For this to happen, schools need to become far less insular. We need to systematically work to bring the outside world into our schools while at the same time sending our schools out into the community. New technologies and an understanding of the new digital landscape can help us do both. The online world creates virtual highway and virtual hallways to both our local and global communities.

If we want to unfold the full intellectual and creative genius of all of our children -if we want to prepare them for the new world that awaits them – if we want to help them prepare for their future, not our past – if we are going to march through the 21st Century and maintain our tradition of success – if we want our children to have the relevant 21st century skills – then we must create a bridge between their world and ours so they can develop both street smarts and school smarts.

For this to happen, there needs to be fundamental shift in how teaching and learning takes place in schools. We must look for alternatives to the traditional organization of schools. We need to uncover our longstanding and unexamined assumptions about teaching and learning, about what a classroom looks, where learning takes place and the resources that are needed to support it.

And we also need to re-examine the use of time – the length of the school day and school year, the school timetable, and the traditional methods used for instructional delivery. And we must consider the potential of online, web-based, virtual learning that can be used to augment, extend, and transform the role of the traditional classroom teachers.

In other words, we cannot foster street smarts in our students who are school smart unless we ask the powerful and relevant questions around our assumptions of what schools currently are and what they need to be.

© The InfoSavvy Group, 2011

 

You can find Ian’s latest book (written with Ted McCain and Lee Crockett) on my list of 25 “must-read” books.