Archive for March, 2010

I recently attended a thoughtful and thought-provoking webinar conducted by Ira Socol. If you are a twitter user, you may recognize him as @irasocol. The result of this webinar was the identification of yet another needed skill that our education system needs to address with passion, the skill to verify truth in information. Of course this is just another skill to be added to a long list of skills that educators must prepare our students with, if kids are to be successfully educated. By the way I don’t think this skill is represented on a standardized test.

The failure of our education system to address this skill is evident and underscored each and every day in the news. Technology has given us the ability to store and enable access to a huge amount of information which continues to grow exponentially. The information however, is both correct and incorrect, both true and false, both fact, and fiction. The skill to not only be able to obtain the information, but to also verify its truth, is essential. A reason to support public education is the necessity to educate the population of our democratic society to make intelligent choices of those issues which will affect the lives of all citizens. If people are basing their decisions on false information, the intended outcome will not be successful.

Consider the emphasis that our news agencies now place on the popular man/woman in the street interviews. People are asked their opinions on topics without regard to how well they are prepared for that opinion. This has been referred to as “Opinion without Portfolio”. Yet, after the opinion is given, it makes the airways without verification of the truth. To continue the process we have a large number in our society that believe, if it is on TV, it must be true. If we needed a life saving operation, would we go to the person on-the-street interview to consider our choices?

Consider the role of Polls in newscasts. If we think of a poll as a type of formative assessment or a snapshot of public support of an issue, it is valid. When the opinion poll and individual contributions to that poll are featured as the focus of the story it is a problem. The opinion is then presented as fact and it, at the very least, muddies the issue.

Consider the TV ads for Cable, Satellite, and Verizon. Each claims to be giving the facts as the truth. When we compare the facts of each, we must determine someone is being less than truthful. We do not hold anyone accountable we just believe whichever one we like without verifying what is true.

Joe the Plumber was my favorite. He was a plumber who asked, then candidate, Obama a question about taxes and starting his own Plumbing company. Joe was then catapulted to fame as an expert on taxation, free enterprise, and entrepreneurship. He was even a highlighted speaker at John McCain rallies. He was interviewed several times, as if he was an expert, and those interviews were broadcast to the American public. His credentials were never questioned until after the election and his 15 minutes of fame had been somewhat dulled by the facts.

Politicians are the worst offenders in our efforts to teach the skill of verifying the truth. Members of both political parties claim to be representing what the American People really want. This is not a stretching of the truth but an outright lie on the part of both parties. A plague on both of their houses. Now, we have the Birthers, those claiming the President is not American. There are also the experts who claim there are Death Panels in healthcare plans. What about legislation that will be “breaking the bank” or” saving the ranch”? We have become a society of extremes with the truth being lost in the middle.

If we are to be considered good educators we need to be able to instill in our students a need to strive for the truth. They need to be able to determine what information is of value. If information is the food of knowledge, then we need not consume food which has no nutrition at the best, or is poisonous at the worst. This is difficult for educators to do, for if we teach our students to question, they must question us as educators as well. “Be careful what you wish for!” comes to mind. Where does this skill fit in a list of all of the other skills that educators are now required to teach? Is this for the English teacher, or the social studies teacher, or the science teacher? Of course Math is always truthful. That is probably why it is so hard.

As always I come away with more questions than answers. I do believe however, that an important question was posed by Ira Socol: “How do we know that’s true?” This must be asked by everyone in our democracy and it is the educator’s responsibility to make it so.

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The word “Passion” is often thrown around by educators when it comes to educational reform. It has also appeared in more and more tweets and Edchat comments. That is probably a result of it being so difficult to promote change within the Educational Community. Ordinary enthusiasm is often not enough to get it done. One reason for this is that, as educators, we have been conditioned to believe that once a movement for change comes banging at our door, if we wait long enough, it will go away. Sometimes, it depends on who has the most passion for their cause, in this world of winners and losers, to wait it out. Whoever has the most passion to hang in the longest wins. Unfortunately, this often takes us to a place where it is about what is best for us, and not what is best for our students.

Since I am passionate about education, and accessible to other educators in several social media venues, many people share with me their stories of wins and losses in the battle for educational reform. That is not a phrase I select without thought. There is passion amongst the 10 to 15 % of people who will always be satisfied with education as it remains today and also as it was yesterday. They are passionate for what some refer to as a comfort level, but it is in reality a call for the “Status Quo”. If it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for my kids!” They attempt to recruit as many to their cause, as do the reformers to theirs. This creates the “us and them” mentality that hurts collaboration. Need I mention the word “PARTISANSHIP”?

An experience shared with me recently, may serve as a good example of the problem faced by passionate reformers. It is a typical story like many told to me on a regular basis. This incident took place in the arena of Higher Education, but it could have taken place at any level. It occurred at a Professional Development workshop conducted by an educator who is interested in integrating technology and learning. The workshop addressed how to incorporate Web 2.0 tools into lessons. Everything seemed to be going well, until the end of the presentation when the participants were asked for questions or reflections.

One professor passionately motivated to share his views stood up before the group to respond. Since this came to me second-hand, I cannot be exact, but he said something to the effect that, if anyone needed to get information to him, they need not text, twitter, message, or email him. They should simply talk to him. It was good enough for him, so it is good enough for his students. Furthermore, what was the need for this tech stuff anyway? These kids know how to do this stuff when they come to us. (So much for formative assessment.)  The workshop obviously was not working its magic with that Professor. But wait, there is more! If you believe in edtech reform, the part of the story which may cause you to start “screen-screaming”, is this; the audience of educators applauded the statement.

That might almost be enough for some to run from that room into the streets screaming “All is Lost, All is Lost!” But alas, we must remember these were the words of a “Ten-Percenter” and not necessarily the opinion of the majority. We all have the right to make personal decisions. The nature of these decisions however, is just that, personal. They should be decisions affecting us individually and our families. As educators our decisions have a ripple effect that goes out and touches the lives of many individuals.  If we make a personal decision to live in a cave that is fine, it is our right. We do not have a right to make others live in a cave with us.

Tradition, however, falls on the side of the “ten-percenters” when it comes to Education. A majority of our society sat at desks in rows looking at the blackboard, or squinting at an overhead, or listening to scratchy records and tapes. They may have watched movies on film, film strips or video tapes. We were even used to filling out mimeographed worksheets. Those are all familiar tools which made a majority of us comfortable. These tools are also in the process of disappearing. We will no longer see them. Some are gone already. It may be the time to get out of the horse and buggy and ease into the car. YES, it is true a good teacher needs no tech to be good! It is also true that a good teacher with tech can be better!

I hope this is more than a re-hash of things I have said so many times before, but rather, a call to passionate change agents of educational reform, not to be discouraged. The “ten-Percenters” are the reason so many call for the tearing down of the system. The reason so many say we can’t wait for these people to die off. I believe passionately that is a radical approach. We need to keep plugging away at change. These people are dedicated and educated individuals who may need to be cajoled into a level of comfort with technology. To those who totally refuse the call to change, we may need to ignore. They will be revealed as time passes them by. To those who remain passionate in their pursuit of reform, I would say in my best dialect free Latin, ILLEGITIMI NON CARBORUNDUM, which sounds much more intelligent than its English translation, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”.

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A recent tweet about my “crew” brings me to this Post. I did not know that I had a crew until someone pointed it out in a tweet. The tweeter made reference to the @tomwhitby crew discussion – 1) Admins stink. 2) Teachers are holy. 3) ???? 4) Profit! I really did not fully understand points 3 & 4, but, based on 1 & 2, I believe this person felt that I always knock Administrators and praise teachers.

If that is the perception of the flavor of my tweets, I am misrepresenting my beliefs and I should apologize to a number of people. I firmly believe that, if education is to improve, it will be because a number of great educational leaders will lead us from where we are today, to where we should be tomorrow. I do not believe we should throw everything out and begin from scratch.  Many of these leaders reside in the ranks of today’s educational administrators.  In my not-so humble opinion there is a difference between leaders and administrators.

My perspective on this comes from a career in education as a teacher who has worked with a number of Administrators. My personal,professional experience has spanned over three school Districts and two Colleges. I entered the teaching profession as enrollments were declining and schools were reducing their staffs to accommodate the shrinking size of their baby-boomer, student bodies. Many teachers lost their jobs and did not re-enter the profession. With each reduction I was lucky enough to land on my feet and secure positions in other schools.

In 34 years I worked under many administrators; Eight Superintendents, nine Principals, sixteen assistant Principals, ten department Chairs. Recalling these numbers for the purpose of this post brought to mind many good people and many others who did not exactly advance education. Those I had great respect for included: Two of the eight Superintendents, three of the nine principals, two of the sixteen assistant Principals and three of the ten chairs. My respect for those administrators came from their ability to understand and enable teachers on the staff to be successful. It was apparent to me that for many reasons, the great administrators came in much smaller numbers. Too many of the less supportive people floated to the top. I am haunted by the thought of those 13 AP’s moving up.

During my career I have always been involved with Professional Development. Many of the teachers that I worked with looked to improve their teaching methods and learn about new tools. This is not to say that there weren’t teachers who were unwilling to learn and grow. I really believe that I have addressed those teachers in many of my tweets. I also spent Five years on the Board of Directors of the New York State Association of Computers and Technology in Education. I worked with many progressive administrators leading their schools into the future with technology. That was highlighted by their teachers giving wonderful presentations of accomplishments with Tech and Teaching. Presentations which would not be possible without administrative support.

Teachers, however, are at the bottom of the power structure. The only group lower than teachers in regard to power would be the students. If real change is to come, it might be suggested by the lower levels, but it must be directed to happen from the top. Superintendents and Principals are in a much better position to promote lasting change in the educational system. Their attitudes and leadership  will direct buildings and districts. Teachers or students, although influential, do not have that power.

And then there was the Superintendent from Rhode Island announcing that her entire teaching staff was being terminated. The teachers refused to work longer hours and more days without additional money. They also refused to eat their lunches in the student cafeteria with the students. This particular superintendent did not provide the leadership needed for improvement. If the teaching methods were not working during the regular work week, why would a superintendent expect that, an increase in the number of hours and days using those same methods, would improve a dropout rate? What other ideas had this superintendent implemented for professional development? Did she promote best practices? Was there a mentor program in place? How supportive was she of her staff?  

What made it worse for me was that our head Educational leader, Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, immediately supported the action and said that more actions like this may follow. This was underscored by the President of the United States reaffirming that statement within days.

What motivates people to become teachers is usually a need to affect change. I see many students enter the profession with passion and energy to change the world. They are smart and willing to work. If, after a period of time as a teacher, these qualities are less obvious, they may not have disappeared, but rather may have gone dormant for a number of reasons, lack of leadership being one. These qualities  do still exist. They may need to be awakened by a caring and knowledgeable leader who looks to build and not tear things down. Teachers should teach, and Administrators should lead. Politicians should do whatever it is they do, but that would not be anything involving Education, unless it is their own. The only way to improve education is to lead us to improvement. Tearing down the system and starting over wastes resources, money, and people.

With this as a backdrop to my tweet, I apologize to all of those administrators who are supporting their staffs and encouraging learning. I believe teachers who are not doing their best to advance themselves professionally are doing wrong by themselves, and their students. They should be held accountable. I do not apologize for promoting collaboration and discussion to involve those who need to be changed. I believe teachers need to support change by directing and supporting their administrators in the best ways to teach kids how to learn. I believe social media allows all parties to collaborate and exchange ideas to benefit all educators. I believe anyone willing to be in my crew gets an extra ration of RUM.

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