Archive for April, 2014

Educators like all learners have a preferred way of learning. Some think of it as different “styles of learning”, but even that theory of  “learning styles” has been questioned by some. In a profession, which resides in a world where content and information constantly change and evolve at a rapid rate of speed, educators need to maintain relevance in order to create an authentic and meaningful environment for their students to learn and create.

Educators have always needed to master the understanding of at least two fields of endeavor to be successful. First, they needed to master their content field. They are required to be experts of content. Second, they needed to master the field of education with a clear understanding of the latest and greatest methodology and pedagogy available. The 21st Century has now further complicated the teaching profession by requiring an additional third area of mastery, digital literacy. This is required to accomplish many of the necessary tasks in the space occupied by our nation in a computer-driven world. It is the mastery of this third element that educators struggle with today. It is this third element that also directly affecting the evolution of content and education.

The problems stemming from this are many. How do we stress the importance of digital literacy to a group of people, many of whom are digitally illiterate in the modern sense of the term? How do we get educators to remain relevant in their areas of expertise, if their access to content is limited to the methods and tools of the 20th Century? How do we get educators to participate in collaborative learning on a global basis, when they are comfortable with their day-to-day, face-to-face connections with only their building colleagues?

Being a “connected educator” requires collaborative learning as a key to expanding personal learning. It requires at the least, a basic understanding of digital literacy. It requires an understanding of the connected culture in order to reap the full benefits of collaboration. It requires an investment of time that will vary with each individual depending on their learning capacity. Being a Connected Educator is a mindset and not the result of a workshop or seminar for professional development. It is that leap of faith to adopt a mindset for connectedness that will prevent us from soon becoming a profession of connected educators. There will always be some that will keep their feet firmly planted in the 20th century, because, to their way of reasoning, it served them well then, so it should serve them well today.  The two biggest obstacles to change require leaving behind control and comfort zones. This is not easily done.

I don’t even know if the answer to the problem could be solved by top down, or bottom up solutions. It will be more reliant on the culture of each school. To change any system, we must first change the culture. We no longer have a choice about using technology in education, since the education system is part of a society that depends on technology to communicate, collaborate, communicate, and create. The children that educators are preparing for life in that society deserve to receive the most relevant education based on up-to-date information, using the latest methodology, pedagogy, and tools for learning that are available. Little from the 20th century will serve them as well, as that which is in their own century.

We need to help our colleagues be less intimidated by all that is new. We should not put unrealistic time limits on their progress. It is a mindset, and we each will arrive there at our own speed. We must however strive together to get there. Not to attempt to do so is being remiss in our responsibility or our solemn obligation to create in our students the ability to be life long learners through our words and our own actions as life long learners ourselves.

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I have been thinking lately about professional relationships and what role they play in how we learn as professionals, and as people. It would be difficult to learn much in total isolation. We are social beings, so exchanging ideas and opinions is a natural occurrence for us. I think we tend to seek out people with whom we can share things. We have personal relationships to share personal things, professional relationships to share professional things, and casual relationships to handle everything else. These relationships validate, negate, or modify our ideas. We learn from this.

Our culture’s support of these relationships may best be reflected in our support of the Restaurant and Bar industry. I guess these casual, and personal relationships are as much a part of that industry as food and booze. Places of business, and education are where professional relationships mostly reside.  Although many faculty have been known to gather on a Friday afternoon at a watering hole outside the school district limits.

Many of these relationships are very fluid depending on our need to share and learn specific things at various times of our lives. People come and go in our lives continuously. Many of us have people that we refer to as our mentors. A mentor, I believe, is a person who heavily influenced us at specific times in our careers by exchanging, supporting, questioning, and validating our ideas about our profession. All of this is based on trust, which can only be established within a relationship.

Professional relationships prior to the 21st Century were, with the exception of the occasional pen pal, a face-to-face endeavor. As educators, professional relationships were most often within the school building in which an educator worked. Depending on the size and quality of the faculty, as well as the school’s culture, this was a hit or miss proposition for professional learning. If an educator was limited in professional relationships within the work environment, he, or she could attend classes in local colleges seeking out professional relationships with other teachers attempting the same collegial connections. As the rates for taking courses, continued to rise, higher Ed became a very costly drain on a teacher’s salary. Local, statewide, or national education conferences also provided exposure to more professional relationships, but many teachers were not privy to attending these conferences on a regular basis.

I was recently made aware of the principle of 10,000 hours. That is the theory that it takes 10,000 hours to completely master a complex skill. If there ever was a list of complex skills, teaching would be at the top. To make it even more complex it is also a moving target. Teaching today is constantly changing and evolving. In order to stay relevant and up to date, today’s educators need to be in touch with those changes. They need to embrace, experiment, and improve, or reject new pedagogy and methodology in education. They need to absorb and understand new and developing content that pops up every day. Education is not a static profession.

Educators, more than ever, need to be able to take a new idea and “run it up the flagpole”. The responses to that idea however need to come from people who have a clue. The relationships that educators count on need to be with people who are relevant and open to new ideas. This type of educator may not be found in large numbers in all schools across our country. Relationships with people who are rooted in the past will be of little help in a world driven by technology and a need for evolving an education system to meet the needs of kids who will not be living in the 20th century.

If technology is seen as the problem in driving the culture too fast for education to adjust and keep up, it may also be seen as a solution to that very same problem. If relationships are the stuff of better learning, then let technology provide better ways to relate. It is technology that can expand an educator’s relationships beyond the limits of a school, or district, or state, or even a country. Relationships with other educators, without the expense of taking costly courses are made possible. Contacts can be made with leading thought leaders, authors, and renowned experts in the field of education. Webinars are rapidly replacing the lecture halls. Through technology face-to-Face interactions are now possible with multiple people in multiple locations. The potential for meaningful relationships through technology are endless.

All of this is taking place today with connected educators worldwide. It only takes about twenty minutes a day, at any time of day, to maintain. That 10,000 hour goal will be whittled away after a while, but it would go more quickly with more time spent in these relationships which are both uplifting and thought-provoking. Those factors encourage more engagement with each visit to the connected community. Learning becomes self-directed, authentic, and, dare I say, fun.

The big picture of this can be overwhelming to a novice. It is a mindset change that requires understanding the culture of connectedness before a real immersion can take place. Educators need a basic knowledge of digital literacy to get started. This will quickly, and very painlessly grow with continued connectedness. There are several connected communities to help educators get started. The Educator’s PLN is a start. www.edupln.com.

Twitter is probably the best way to experience the need and benefit to connectedness in developing both professional and personal relationships with other educators. Remember that in a group of like-minded people, as smart as any individual is, the group is always smarter. Of course, if you are reading this online, you are probably already connected and all of this makes sense, since you have already drunk the Kool-aid. Please print it out and share with an unconnected colleague. To better educate our kids we need to better educate their educators.

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I recently had a discussion with a friend John, who is a Superintendent in a rural school district. We were discussing his district specifically and what it was providing its students in the way of relevant programs of study. The conversation came around to a question often asked and an answer that is too familiar. I asked what the purpose of school was? As educators what is it that we want for our students at the end of the journey of K-12? Of course the answer was to get them to college or to get them to a good job.

My friend was consulting with a number of local companies to determine what they were looking for in employees. He was also consulting with area colleges to see what they expected to receive as college ready students. He was doing everything a responsible, caring superintendent could do in order to properly prepare his students for the stated goals of education, getting to college, or getting a job.

Thinking about the goals, as pragmatic as they are, I was really having trouble with the idea of what the goals were. We were considering limiting kids’ learning to the limited needs an industrial complex, or the present entry requirements of institutions that are slow to change in an ever-changing culture.

My other problem with these almost universal goals of American education is that for too many kids these goals are not an inspiration to learn. If college is truly a goal for education, why is it that only a third of Americans have completed four-year degrees?  The first answer that comes to mind is that most were not able to handle the studies involved. A more likely answer however, is that a degree has become cost prohibitive. People can no longer afford to go to college without incurring massive debt. How can any kid embrace a goal of education knowing that it is financially unattainable, or that it will come at a cost of unending loan payments? This is not unlike promising every kid playing sports should have an expectation to play in any of the national, professional sports leagues. Few might, but most will not.

This goal of a college career is certainly less of an incentive when we consider schools in areas of poverty. Middle-income people may have some shot at college with the help of family, but that puts the student and the family into years of debt. What chance do poor kids have, especially in the current political climate of limiting any government funding for anyone?  Nationally, student debt is rising at an astronomical rate because of the need to fulfill the goal of college and its promise of financial security upon completion. Poor kids are told that college will break the cycle of poverty. How is that an incentive for a kid who knows its likelihood will never happen? Education’s goal is not the kid’s goal. That is not a winning strategy.

Now for the second goal of education for those who we recognize as the non-college ready students. Our goal is to place them in the labor force. We ask business and industry what they require of their employees, and then we work that into our education system. We have then prepared our students for the workforce of today. The problem here is that they are not prepared for the workforce of tomorrow. That is more likely the place that they will live. We saw the result of this when the economy went bust. Many workers who found themselves again in the job market, were not prepared for the world of work today. We can’t program kids to fit into a workforce that may not support their skills after they graduate. Business, industry and our entire society are subject to rapid change driven by the evolution of technology. Think of how different the workforce will look from when a kid enters school until his or her graduation. In that time, that twelve-year span, how many businesses died, and how many started anew? Yet, we will have programmed our kids to be work ready for a workforce that may no longer need those skills. Think of how long a time it took moving typewriters out of education in a world of word processors.

If college readiness and work readiness are failing goals in education, what should the goal of education be? I don’t know. I think life readiness or learning readiness might be more fitting for our world today. Teaching kids how to learn and continue to do so outside of a classroom is the best way to prepare them for whatever path they choose.  A goal of self-reliance might serve kids better in the future. To enable a kid to learn without a teacher is the best gift a teacher can give a student.

Change will be slow however, because all of our educators and all of our society have been programmed to believe that school is to prepare kids for college or work. We have come to believe that education is salvation, when in fact it is the learning that is important. Education is a certificate of learning that comes at great expense. It does have its place however, and we will always hold it in high regard. The fact is however that fewer people will be able to pay for that piece of paper, but the learning it represents may cost a great deal less, not in terms of effort or work, but in terms of dollars and cents. In the future it may not be the degree, but the learning that is important. Maybe we need to reassess our goals in education?

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At what point in time did schools obtain the power to suspend a teacher’s constitutional right to free speech? I know that social media is relatively new to our modern history, which is reason to give some institutions a little breathing space to catch up to all of social media’s ramifications on our society, but it doesn’t give any institution the power to suspend the constitutional rights of an individual, or to punish in any way an individual who exercises a constitutionally guaranteed right.

I read a post today about a teacher in a New Hampshire school district who was forced into retirement for refusing to unfriend students on Facebook. This is not an isolated incident. As a connected educator I have had many discussions with educators from all over the United States who are fearful of retaliation from their districts for involving themselves openly in social media communities.

I lived in the community in which I taught for 25 years. This is not unlike many educators in our country. At no time during my tenure in that district did anyone call me into an office and instruct me on how to interact with the children of the community. No one told me I could not be friends with children in the community. I was never told where I could, or could not go in that community. I don’t think any administrator would have even considered such a discussion. Yet, these are the discussions some administrators are having with teachers today about their social media communities.

I understand the need to protect children from a range of inappropriate adult behavior even to the extreme, contact with pedophiles. This however is not a reason to suspend every teacher’s right to free speech. Just because there are some inappropriate adults on the Internet, we can’t jump to a conclusion that all adults on the Internet are inappropriate, especially, those who have been vetted and entrusted with children face to face every day. Statistics tell us that our children are more in danger from family, close family friends, and even clergy, much more than people on the Internet. If we really want to protect our children on the Internet we need to educate them early and often, not ban them from what has become the world of today. They need to live in that world. I heard a TV celebrity say recently that parents need not prepare the road for their children, but they must prepare their children for the road.

Social media communities are open to the public where everyone sees all. It is transparency at its finest, and in some cases at its worst, but that is what we have come to expect from social media. We need to learn how to deal with that. There is no fixing stupid. Some people will be inappropriate, but the community will deal with that as it develops and matures. People are still adjusting and evolving in these social media communities. Having educators participating and modeling within these communities is exactly what is needed. The more they participate, the better the communities will all be. We, as well as our children, benefit.

Administrators are quick to use social media as a public relations tool to shout out the accolades of their schools. They have control over that. They do not have control over what others might say about the schools in a social media community. The blemishes are often exposed. If administrators are fearful that their image, or that of the school will be tarnished by people speaking publicly about the school, then maybe these administrators should look at themselves, or their policies. It may be indicating a need to assess a few things. Instead of trying to shut people down by limiting their right to free speech, they might try asking them to speak up. This is where listening skills become very important. This is why transparency is important.

Eventually, someone will take this issue to some court of law. After all, we are a very litigious society. It will be litigated and maybe even travel up to the Supreme Court. I cannot see any court supporting the idea that a person gives up a constitutional right, just because they are employed by some backward thinking school district.

Schools need to better understand the world our children will be living in, as well as the world that we live in today. Social Media communities are not going away. Technology is not moving backwards. It will always move forward bringing us new problems to deal with. We need to deal with the problems and not tell people they can’t use the technology.

It amazes me that I am even writing about this. It is very clear-cut to me. I know however that not everyone looks at this the same way. Before the comments start coming from protective parents and teachers, I need to say that I am the father of two girls. They were brought up using technology. They were taught the good and the bad, as well as how to deal with it. I live what I preach when it comes to kids and technology. I understand every parent has the right to bring up their kids as they see fit. I also believe that every person has the right to free speech. We need to find a way to respect everyone’s rights without denying anyone’s. The world is continually changing and we need to adjust and adapt if we are to survive and thrive.

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