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The Secret Art of the Possible

When I'm speaking publicly, I often start by reflecting on the good fortune I have in being exposed to the enormous range of experiences, expertise and wisdom that comes from working across the diverse range of
cultures that I'm exposed to in my travels.

Having now worked with government and policy leaders, and educators across more than 40 countries over the past 10 years, I'm taken not only by those distinct things that separate one culture from the other, but
even more so by those things we share. Of all those common ideas and ideals,
one that I find most interesting is the widely spread mythology and misunderstandings
around teachers' enthusiasm for using computers, and their readiness to adopt
new practice to do so.

Let me share my observations. In the past, in many countries, at differing times, following the regular announcement by politicians of the annual "Ratio Hunt" (you know, "we'll increase our computer:student ratio to x" )... there was a commitment to increase teachers' digital competency. This was then followed by programs that saw teachers attending some form of digital literacy course..and then back to their
classroom..too often without access to their own computer, and with little impact.

While I will acknowledge that in more recent times we have seen a dramatic increase in the commitment by many visionary governments to either provide or assist in providing teachers with their own laptops, we still
have a long way to go. Surely by now they should simply be a "tool of the trade" and should be expensed as such.

Sometime later comes the move to student 1-to-1, too often without first addressing the most important question in teacher's minds..."What does this ubiquitous access to a laptop make possible for students?"

Yes, we can have teachers using email, and Powerpoint etc etc...but what about a clear articulation of the impact it will have on the learning experiences of their students?

What does it mean for a Grade 9 teacher of mathematics, or history? How can it impact on our ability to create better learning experiences for students in physics, in literature, in music? How can this access improve the learning experiences and outcomes for students?..in other words.. "Show me the Art of the Possible".

Without it, why should any teacher show real enthusiasm for using a computer in their classroom? Why have we been so besotted with digital literacy and "applications" and "integration", when we have failed to focus on the main game... What does this make possible for young people?

Imagine any other industry that tried to introduce technology to its workforce without focusing on the core benefit in the same way; and yet many are still surprised that some teachers might be understandably cautious about moving to 1-to-1.

Let's from now on, focus on this as our main game. Let's stop hiding secrets, and start proclaiming successes. Let's stop creating
barriers to the answers and start showcasing the extraordinary experiences that to date too few have seen...and then every teacher who is granted the opportunity to explore this new territory will grab it with both hands.

Yes, there are some teachers who are cautious and hesitant, but they are not blockers, but rather simply less able to intuitively see what's possible. It's now our job to show them.

There is not a teacher who calls themselves a professional, in any culture, or any country, who after being shown what learning 1-to-1 can make possible-- who after being shown how more students are able to access more difficult concepts, more deeply, across a diverse range of subjects-- will not
embrace the technology with both hands...and make that learning possible for their students.

Forget File, Print, Edit, and focus our resources and attention on how immersive access allows students to be historians, to explore science as a scientist would, to build their own understandings in mathematics and across disciplines with the medium of their time, a computer.

That is the real secret of the uptake and impact of technology in our schools, and that is where we now must now be focused.

I'm interested in your thoughts...regards
May 29th, 2009 @ 1:04PM | 0 Comments | Post a Comment

What if the 'best practice' you see, isn't?

I had an experience recently that I do not think was uncommon. I attended a national conference at which several teachers were running classes displaying what was ostensibly "best practice"..but it wasn't. Now I know that some now use the term Next Practice, but can I say in either case the
problem is the same--its Old Practice, and dare I say it, in too many cases, Bad Practice.

I always remember a similar occasion in the '90's, being taken proudly by two different Principals, in two different prominent schools, to their science classrooms to be shown a example of "best practice" in a 1-to-1 classroom in which the students were using a Paint program to draw a tripod
sitting over a Bunsen burner. Like I said, just bad practice.

And yet no-one can be critical of the teachers in either of the above cases; they were simply teaching in the best way they knew how--and there lies the problem, and the solution. In this often discussed world of Open systems, Open content and the like, I look to the concept of Open Practice as
an answer. If we reflect back for a moment on my last comment: "teaching in the best way they knew how". Here are classic examples of the challenge our profession must urgently face up to if we are to re-imagine what appropriate teaching practice looks like in a 21st Century classroom.

If we continue to permit teachers to be seen as the "lonely artisans", as my good friend Chris Gerry refers to them, then such artisans will never see the craft as it is performed by others; many of whom may well
serve as examples of "better" practice. This sometimes described de-privatization of teaching, or Open Practice, underpins what is possibly the single most significant reform we can offer policy makers and educational leaders seeking to bring about a revitalization of the classroom experience for young people in the future. Open Practice however must bring with it much more than that which created the woes of the '70's; bigger classrooms, more noise and students bewildered by old practice in new surrounds.

The new view of Open Practice must be built around professional learning communities that are diverse and many; that allow
teachers to observe, reflect and most importantly learn from each other, as a
life-long career behavior, rather than the current college-based notion of when
learning takes place. It must be built on professional trust and respect, rather than skepticism and doubt, and with it a notion of accountability that far exceeds any external high-stakes test. And above all it will reflect a new professionalism for teachers, who will see ongoing and continuous improvement in not only what they teach, but how they teach, and with what mediums they use to develop truly authentic, relevant learning opportunities appropriate
for 21st learners.
May 29th, 2009 @ 1:02PM | 0 Comments | Post a Comment

What if Every Child had a Laptop-- and Nothing Changed?

We must continually challenge ourselves to explore the impact 1-to-1 classes have on student learning. We, as educators, must continually be asking whether we are doing enough to engage our students in authentic and relevant learning experiences. We must ask ourselves:

What steps can we take to support those who are looking to create more powerful and worthwhile learning experiences for their students? What ideas do you have for educators, often in leadership positions, who are looking for strategies to build such commitment in all their staff, not just the one or two highly innovative faculty who in effect might be more the exception than the rule?

One suggestion is to provide support through a Technology Coach. The idea of employing peer coaches is not new; however, it is essential that we develop a clear definition of exactly what this role is.

*What do you think the role of a Technology Coach should be?

*How should it be classified?

*What skills are required to be effective in this role?

*How might we develop and prepare people for this role?

We envision a world in which our students develop creative powerful ideas around exciting projects that have an authenticity and relevance to them that has not been previously possible. That's the world to which we are all aspiring. The question is: how do we get there?
May 29th, 2009 @ 1:00PM | 0 Comments | Post a Comment

Sustaining What and Why?

Sustainability is an interesting topic that seems to be getting a lot of airplay at the moment. I have commented on this previously, but the recent One-to-One Computing Conference in Pennsylvania in April highlighted some of the real issues of which we need to be mindful.

Sustainability has several dimensions, the first and most obvious being, what is it that you are trying to sustain and why? Sadly, some might answer "our existing program" without questioning the value of the learning experience being delivered to students, i.e. 1-to-1 versus anytime, anywhere learning. As the vision of every child having access to his or her own personal portable computer becomes more real, and common, not enough questions are being asked about the vision for learning that should underpin any initiative.

Answers to the following questions might be a good starting point to determine the impact such an initiative is really having on your students' learning, and whether it is truly worth sustaining. Are current learning activities simply replicas of those done before, but done now with technology? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the questions below, as well as any additional topics you might like to add:

* Is it something different, rather than innovative?
* Is it genuinely improving the learning experiences for students? If so how? Can you very clearly articulate that improvement?
* How is it impacting the lives of your students?
* How is immersive access increasing the learning opportunities for your students?
* What is the scale of improved experience (ie how often, across which classes, and over what period of time)?

Seems to me that too often some might actually be trying to sustain legacy practice, under the guise of a technology initiative, without challenging the fundamentals of what is really going on.

So first and foremost, I would plead for a close examination of the impact on the learning experiences of your students. Then, and only then, would I start exploring the other dimensions such as funding sustainability and the options you might consider there. You see, without exception, if the impact in the classroom is significant, enough people will want to sustain the initiative. They will find the necessary funding to make it happen rather than the other way around.

Too often people see the funding stream coming to an end, and that becomes the focus of their energies. Get the experience for your students right, and the rest will eventually fall into place.
May 29th, 2009 @ 1:00PM | 0 Comments | Post a Comment

The Tipping Point-- to What?

It's certainly going to be a big year for 1-to-1. I have written previously of my view that there is now incredible momentum around the world towards 1-to-1 learning, and in the words of Malcolm Gladwell, it could be said we are indeed at the "tipping point", but tipping "to what" is the question that we must address.

For most, it is the reality that very soon, many children will have their own personal portable computer; and this in itself could be called extraordinary. But is it?

I lament our naivety around this. I'm saddened by our ability to say one thing and do another, for it seems as much as our political and educational leaders talk of the move to a revolutionary, or at least transformational, digital world of learning, the reality is quite the opposite. It seems as much as we have public acknowledgment of the need to invest in professional development to encourage teachers to adopt "bold" practice, the private reality is an insignificant investment in this support. And as much as we build excitement around transforming the learning experience for our young people, nothing or little changes.

Too often it comes back to being a simple case of technology distraction, rather than disruption!

So let's kick off '08 with a combined will to do something to change all that. Let's take this emerging era of "affordable computing", and start setting more ambitious goals for what might be possible. We talk about anytime, anywhere learning, but even at its simplest level, too many 1-to-1 schools are still trying to contain the learning inside their walls. We all know that we are still too often looking at subjects like math and even science through "pen and paper" eyes.

Well now the world of learning for our students can move beyond that. Students preferred learning medium is digital, and many more will have access in the very near future. No longer do we have to waste time drilling students on concepts that have no place in a digital classroom. We now have a very real opportunity to introduce some genuine rigor into those classes and focus their learning around the higher order tasks that 1-to-1 access makes possible. This doesn't sound too hard, right? Well to date and for many it has been. We as a global community must set ourselves as leaders to share our experience and expertise and look to guide other decisions too so that "beyond-technology" items will be seen as the priority. Then we might indeed "tip" towards a real transformation of learning for students which creates new and powerful opportunities for everyone!
May 29th, 2009 @ 12:58PM | 0 Comments | Post a Comment

Disrupting Thought

Over the past couple of months, I have been interested to see just how many people
I have come across who are reading, or have read Clayton Christensen's new book
Disrupting Class, How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns(co-authored with Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson). Rarely has a book provoked such breadth, and dare I say it, depth of conversation around educational futures. While I do not want to use this commentary to review the book, I do find the major thesis worthy of some reflection. In short, they suggest that there is a convergence of new technologies that will better address the needs of a group of learners they call non-consumers, who include a large number of students whose needs are currently not being met by the existing services of most schools. These include school refusers, students requiring subjects not currently offered within their schools, students in remote communities, and home schooled students, amongst others. Seems there are already millions of students in these groups, who are looking to use well-crafted on-line, web 2.0 supported courses that provide learning opportunities that would not normally be available to them. Now the precedent for such groups to provide a platform on which these "disruptive technologies" could significantly impact mainstream education is clearly outlined, and if their thesis is correct, it adds a real urgency to the steps we are taking to better embrace technology within our schools.

This is not book that sets out make unfounded predictions about the impact of technology on education, but rather it seeks to draw our attention to the potential for a collection of emerging technologies to disrupt the role of the institution of school in learning. For whatever parts you may or may not agree with, it grants us a very different perspective on the nature and possibility of fundamental, truly transformative school reform.

While I constantly refer to Papert's challenge that we do not have enough discussion around the extent and depth of educational change, be it incremental or fundamental, Christensen et al, add a threat to current array of imperatives that are forcing us to rethink "what school could be". It is both an challenging and thought-provoking perspective which also puts in context the small steps that providing 1 to 1 access can add to the process. Hopefully, it will greatly expand the necessary conversations around serious school reform that have so far been sadly lacking.
May 29th, 2009 @ 12:57PM | 0 Comments | Post a Comment

Researching What for Why?

I enjoy research. I spend much of my time reading it. I also often find myself in sustained and vigorous conversations with colleagues from some of the leading research institutions from around the world...and it's time that I value very much. Indeed, the Foundation maintains a register of some of the leading research around 1-to-1 on our site....however, I am also sick and tried of the unrelenting practice of political leaders and educational policy makers who continually seek to justify inaction and limit the scope for innovation in the name of research.

One only has to review the mountains of literature around the most effective ways to teach reading and the efficacy of small classes to conclude that too much educational research is based on loose assumptions, inappropriate methodologies, a blatant lack of rigor and ideological bias. Too often the funding base for educational research creates preconceptions about the outcomes, real or perceived, and the volume of research that swamps the education market seems to be more related to tenure or the attraction for doctoral topics, than a genuine need. It really is about time we took stock of the situation.

For more than three decades we have seen an increasing stream of research that has targeted our use of technology in schools. What purpose has much of it served, other than to often significantly distract educators from continuing to develop innovative practice, and seek new ways to engage young learners.

How can we support innovative teachers taking risks, if every move is covered by a researcher measuring outcomes? Where was the research to back so many of our current, dubious, practices in education? How indeed did all the mountains of research around computer use in schools in the 80's and 90's not condemn the grossly ineffective use of computer labs, instead of working on the assumption they were inevitable? Where is the parallel to our leading corporations, where good ideas, are keenly sought, encouraged, incubated, and then reviewed for their effectiveness and impact? When we are in midst of a time of potentially enormous transformation in our schools, not least through the integration of technology, it is time that we reflected more closely on the purpose, effectiveness and impact of much of the research that is being carried out.

Why don't we start by working on the culture of our schools, and encourage those that are seeking to create a culture of innovation. Why don't we start thinking carefully about what it really means to support risk-taking in our schools; it seems the only risks people are interested in are about the evils of the net and beyond...how about we support our educational leaders who are creating new agendas for learning within their schools, and seeking to genuinely leverage technology within an immersive environment to truly create worthwhile, authentic learning opportunities.

To do this, they must make mistakes, and we don't need research to identify every single one of them. What we need is a dynamic, constructive culture in our schools that builds reflective practice into innovation; that sets action research that is embedded into daily practice, and that seeks to continually improve the opportunities offered to young people.

With that sort of confidence in the teaching profession, with the sort of freedom that truly reflects the professional teacher, the research that will follow will at last be of real value to the lives of the students in our classrooms.

Interested in your thoughts, please add your comments below.
May 29th, 2009 @ 12:53PM | 0 Comments | Post a Comment

The Conversation has Changed

I'm not sure whether you realized it, but there has been a decided change in the conversation around schools of late. It may have been a case of the frog in hot water with the change happening so slowly we weren't aware of it, but either way we are now in a very different space to where we were even five years ago, and particularly where we were around the start of this decade.

Everybody is talking transformation, and like it or not, some of the issues and ideas that were once the province of a small number of so-called progressives, or dare I say, radicals are now part of the mainstream conversation.

This is, for the most part something to be celebrated. I mean we now have a very wide audience including everyone from Michael Barber to Bill Gates challenging the effectiveness of our schools and their ability to meet contemporary needs, and, for the most part, doing so in a constructive way to assist in seeking solutions. I was taken aback by the topics of informal and formal conversation at BETT in London in January, where there was continual discussion around the broad topic of 'what schools should/could be'; and given these BETT and the events surrounding it were attended by 30,000 educators from across the globe, including more than 50 Ministers of Education, and you start to get the idea that the conversation has indeed changed.

So what does this mean? Well in the first instance it should be a very hopeful sign. Finally we are getting some level of broad consensus that we need to rethink or re-imagine the nature of schooling, and the places where learning both on a formal and informal level should take place. That is extremely encouraging, and hopefully the breadth of the audience now engaged in it will contribute to some higher levels of conversation beyond the traditional trivialization of 'schools are failing so let's just test more.' Most importantly, and somewhat contradictory to the gentleman quoted earlier, we MUST ensure that it is informed educators who lead the public debate around these ideas, and not just the norm of journalists and politicians.

However, without wishing to put a damper on these developments, we do have significant problems looming, around language and definition. It's not a new problem for educational conversations, but with so much at stake, we need to urgently build a shared understanding of exactly what we are talking about when we start to use words like transformation. We've seen the continuous debates around terms like Schools of Tomorrow, Schools of the Future etc., but if we are at a stage where we are seriously wanting to re-envision what school could be, then let's get our understandings clear of what might be possible, and most importantly, what are the implications for all the constituents.

We are in the most fertile place, certainly in my lifetime, for us to challenge many of the norms that many of us didn't think would ever be challenged, and there is an eagerness for powerful ideas coupled with a courage to deliver on those in ways that I believe is unprecedented.

At the extreme ends you only have to look at the ambition and boldness of so many emerging countries that are literally betting the bank on improving educational outcomes for their young people, and leveraging technology in an endeavor to make it possible. In developed countries the microscope has highlighted what amounts to systemic failure in too many places, particularly in the ways in which under-privilege has been too readily accepted as an excuse for underachievement; and again much of the conversation is highlighting how 1-to-1 access for young people might be one key part of the solution.

How we might best seize this opportunity is our biggest challenge; for one thing is sure, if we don't there is a real possibility the conversation will be hijacked and all the legacies and ghosts of the past will re-emerge. Let's make sure that doesn't happen.

Interested in your thoughts.
May 29th, 2009 @ 12:51PM | 0 Comments | Post a Comment