Monday, March 29, 2010

Complexity is Everywhere

I just had an amazing week on the garden island of Kauai, HI.  The weather was great (sunny, hot).  My wife and I went hiking in the Waimea CanyonDSCN1231 We hiked the Pihea Trail along a rim that gave us spectacular views of the Na Pali coast and down to the Kawaikoi Stream.  It was jungle like and surreal. DSCN1252 We kayakedDSCN1264 up the Wailua River and then hiked a mile or so to the Secret Falls. DSCN1305 I guess they’re not a secret anymore.  Along the way we learned about a tree (some call it the “walker tree”) DSCN1285that literally walks towards water over time.  Look at its roots.

Being coffee lovers, we decided to visit the Kaua’i Coffee Company and learn about how coffee is grown, harvested, and prepared.  Wow, that is a complex process.  From coffee cherries DSCN1345 (didn’t know that) to beans in a store is an unbelievably complex process (check out their tour).

My wife loves gardens and flowers so we took in the National Tropical Botanical Garden tour of the Allerton Garden.  Besides coffee, chocolate would be our next love and we were able to see a chocolate (actually cocoa) tree DSCN1446(I didn’t know it grew on trees, did you?).  The process from harvesting the cocoa pod to chocolate factory is very complex.

One more example from the Allerton Garden.  We were privileged to see the Madagascar Periwinkle plant DSCN1402 which scientists have figured out how to produce a medication used to fight leukemia. 
What amazes me about these examples is the complexity of nature but then how people have figured out how to take what they find in nature and turn it into useful products.  I find it a bit mind boggling actually.

Technology plays a major role in making complex processes practical, efficient, and affordable.  Educated people design good processes and effective technology to make the processes possible.  There is a lot of talk about how our education system isn’t preparing students for the future.  But is it?  When you look back at the history of coffee, chocolate, or the Madagascar Periwinkle plant, and the processes required to take these from nature to product, people seem quite capable of figuring it all out with the education they received.   Perhaps the complexity of the problems of the 21st century will exceed our current education system’s ability to prepare minds to tackle them. 

What do you think, is our education system really broken and incapable of preparing students for the future?  Is it in need of repair?  Or does it need to be replaced with something very different?  Remember that
“the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”, Alvin Toffler.
Isn’t that really the key to our future and how education can prepare our students?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Digital Natives Need Infrastructure

I visited Riverside Secondary School last week to spend a few hours in their Digital Immersion 9 class.  Students can sign-up online using this web formMicrosoft Windows SharePoint Services LogoThis class consists of about 30 students who spent first semester together as a class learning digital tools, Science, and Math with one teacher.  As of February they are with a new teacher, Elizabeth Bancroft, all morning learning English and Socials.  The expectation is that most learning and teaching will supported by digital tools. 

Ms. Bancroft expressed to me her frustration with how things were working - mainly how the technology "wasn't" working...  I had read positive reviews in the local paper and viewed a positive news video.  Note that you may want to read James McConville’s post about his visit to this class.  I needed to see the class in action for myself.  I had an opportunity to share with the students some of my thoughts about blogging, writing for an audience, etc. and how that’s potentially more motivating then just writing for marks or your teacher to read.

These kids all have blogs (check their class blog for the student contributors) which they use for some of their assignments.  The teacher is using various tools to support class activities including their virtual classroom (in my43) to provide resources, have discussions, blog more privately, share documents, youtube, Google Docs for assessments, more sharing, Blogger for public blogging, to name a few.  They all have either a personally owned laptop, a rented laptop from the school, or a school supplied laptop.  Wireless network access is an essential requirement for this class to function effectively.  My mantra that “wireless should be just like oxygen” is what they need but it seems what they have is “wireless that barely works”.  Riverside teachers and students significantly adopted technology to support teaching and learning.  This use seems to have outstripped the infrastructure’s capacity to deliver.  Or has it…

During my visit I learned how frustrating it can be for students and their teacher when the digital infrastructure doesn’t work.  While I was their, Ms. Bancroft wanted to see how the kids would experience an online test using a Google Spreadsheet.  They talked about how to prevent cheating such as seeing each other’s answers, using the Internet to find the answers, etc.  But the conversation degraded into what to do when the network fails.  The kids were asking to do the test on paper or offline so that they could avoid the frustration and disruption - remember, this is a digital immersion class, paper should be a last resort.  Ms. Bancroft also tried to show an online Socials resource and had to plug in for it to work at all.  And even then, the Internet connection was so slow, the experience just wasn’t worth it.  I asked the kids for their thoughts on what the problem is and how to solve it.  We talked about how the behaviour of other students was affecting educational use in a negative way.  They had some technical suggestions:
  • create a special wireless network for their class and give them some guaranteed bandwidth
  • limit the network bandwidth students use for non-educational purpose to something small
When I had to leave I asked the kids if they had any further questions or comments.  I was asked straight-up, “when will this problem be fixed?”.  Ouch.  I couldn’t give them a definitive answer but suggested that we need to fix it before the next school year.  Incidentally, the principal told me the frustrating experience was negatively affecting enrolment for the class for 2010-2011… 

Yikes!  This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.  Something is seriously wrong with the network infrastructure.  Or is there…  This experience is becoming quite common place in our secondary schools (grade 9-12) and somewhat at the middle level (grade 6-8).  We have an open policy that encourages students to bring their personally owned devices to use at school.  For middle and secondary schools we have wireless access available through-out the schools.  1000’s of students have embraced this opportunity.  Unfortunately the most significant use seems to be for bittorrent, facebook, video streaming (not educational use) and other questionable purposes.  These uses are outstripping the network infrastructure’s capabilities and they don’t necessarily relate to the purpose of the network.  We are philosophically apposed to blocking so are careful to only go that route when necessary.  We’ve tried to block bittorrent but so far unsuccessfully.  We need to find ways to carefully limit the social and non-educational uses so that this use doesn’t interfere with the work teachers and students are needing to do in a digital way to support their learning and teaching.

I would really appreciate hearing from folks that have solved this problem in a way that doesn’t require general blocking.  What technical solutions have you implemented and how have they worked for you?  What supervision and consequence processes have you put in place to minimize this disruptive use?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

What is the purpose of school?

I am participating in the crowd sourced “10 big questions for education” that Will Richardson has facilitated.  Will put an invitation out to his personal learning network (PLN) for people to contribute what they thought are the top questions for education today.  I think there were dozens of questions posed.  He then asked the crowd to vote on their top questions from the list and from that surfaced the 10 big questions for education and a wiki for people to contribute their ideas to.  The goal is to potentially publish an “e” book representing, hopefully, a broad cross section of people and thinking.

I think I had a weak moment… I volunteered to moderate / edit question #1 “What is the purpose of school?”  This question has been on my mind for some time.  I think the answer has changed and evolved since the invention of school many hundreds of years ago.

Let’s start with a higher education’s (drop-out) student’s (Dan) perspective.
This video as of March 5th 8:44pm has been viewed 96,000 times and more interestingly has generated 4,315 comments.  4,315 people took the time to critique, support, rant, add to, etc. Dan’s views on education.  He provides, in a somewhat entertaining way, an interesting walk through the history of education.  Information (facts) has become free…  something that used to be valuable and funneled through schools, has become free.  Why pay for textbooks when the essential information is available for free, on the Internet.  I think he is essentially saying that the method of delivery needs to change, education needs to be reinvented.  The purpose of school is to educate but in ways that are relevant, flexible, and engaging.  Education should stoke new ideas, empower students, to change the world.

My own three boys, now 22, 21, and 17 (grade 12), experienced school (K12) as an obstacle they had to get through.  They rarely saw or bought into the relevance of what they were learning.  I found it rather frustrating since I love learning…  but that’s another story.  I’ll share a story about my youngest son Tyler.  He never really enjoyed reading in general, certainly not for information, or learning about history, politics, government, etc.  Recently he picked a book off my shelf with a strong conspiracy story line.  Something sparked in him!  This started a journey of learning for him.  He has now spent probably 100’s of hours researching historical and current conspiracy theories, government actions and legislation (in many countries), etc.  He even read Dan Brown’s latest book, “The Symbol” (my son read a novel!!) and enjoyed it.   He’s now reading a book I just read, the Upside of Down (I referenced this in a recent post “How much technology is enough?”), which shocked me given the difficult and intense read this book is.  My point with this story is that Tyler hasn’t been a great student in school (doesn’t like it, works to the minimum) but is now an engaged student outside of school doing “homework” ‘for free’ (no marks) just because he is fascinated by the topic. 

My wife Shelley (@shellsdesigns2) is great example of extreme learning with no connection to school or credit.  Just under two years ago she became a digital designer and created an online store Shell’s Designs using a print on demand service called  She has had to learn digital design, online business concepts, Internet marketing, and has become a writer in the process using her blog and her Squidoo lenses.  She tapped into expertise from people around the world.  She has written articles to help others from her learning.  I can’t tell you how many hours she’s invested in this journey but when someone is connected to their passion, they invest in learning no matter how much time it takes.  Now she has a growing online business and has connected with 100’s of people she’ll never meet.

Shouldn’t the purpose of school be to engage students where they are at?  Shouldn’t the purpose be to help kids discover their passion?  To connect them to essential learning but through methods and topics that they can relate to?  For sure society needs educated citizens to be able to function.  This involves learning a variety of knowledge (coverage), developing a variety of skills, discovering abilities, becoming socially responsible, etc.  But does the process have to be boring and something many kids dread?  Kids will pore themselves into things they connect with – shouldn’t school be designed to be this connection?  How should it be redesigned?  I’m not sure the purpose has really changed but I definitely think our methods need to.

Besides leaving me your comments here, please join the crowd over at Will’s wiki for the question I’m moderating “What is the purpose of school?”.

Monday, March 1, 2010

What should secondary schools look like in the future?

I wrote a post Schools of the Future back in January 2010 where I talked about our District’s Conceptual Design Group’s mission and asked for input on school design.  Today our Design Group met to discuss secondary school and specifically the replacement of imageCentennial Secondary school (website) established in 1967.   Schools have been designed for many years to support a very teacher centric model of education.  The architect took us through options for locating the school, fields, and parking on the site – lots of pragmatic stuff.  Then we started looking at some innovative designs to influence the future Centennial.

We first looked at the proposed design for the new University Hill Secondary school in the Vancouver School Board on the University of British Columbia campus – the school is being replaced.  Some of the design features we found interesting include:
  • envisioned as a project based, student centric, collaborative teaching, learner engaging school
  • rather than organized by departments, multiple learning communities or learning studios (Randall Fielding) for 120-150 students with core subjects, shared project space, lockers / social / work spaces, microwaves, sinks, etc.
  • streets of learning (hallways) with learning cul de sac’s (classrooms)
  • recasting technology trades programs as “pre-engineering” and embedding computer technology use
  • learning commons like a Starbucks, relaxed, soft seating, surrounded by counselor offices, seminar rooms, conference rooms, professional room (teacher work room)
    • a meeting place for teachers and students
    • not structured
    • serves online learners with a physical meeting space and access to learning coaches (counselors, teachers)
  • interior garage doors everywhere to easily open up spaces
  • roof top teaching spaces for outdoor, environment, etc.
We then entered into a discussion of student centered, self direction vs. teacher centric education.  The suggestion is that an information and communications technology embedded school lends itself more to students figuring things out on their own.  You know, they’re “Digital Natives” and we are the “Digital Immigrants”…  I used to advocate this view but over the past year have reconsidered this. Yes, kids get technology, they can pretty much figure out out to plug it in, install software, use all the features, etc.   Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University and author of The Dumbest Generation, takes a different perspective on “screen time”.  His premise as I recall it is that technology use has captivated young people (and we adults have not provided enough guidance) and has helped develop people who
“do not read literature (or fully know how to), work reliably (just ask employers), visit cultural institutions (of any sort), or vote (most can’t even understand a simple ballot).  They cannot explain basic scientific methods, recount fundamental facts of American (insert your country here) history, or name any of their local political representatives.  What they do happen to excel at is – each other.” (back flap).
I tend to agree that students left to themselves in using technology will typically use it well socially and for entertainment (I’m not talking about gifted students, rather the rest).  I think that they still need regular guidance and at the appropriate times, direct teaching, for them to achieve knowledge, wisdom, real expertise. 

In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes approximately 10,000 hours (or about 10 years) to become an expert at something.  I believe that true expertise comes with both time (practice, experience) and learning from others (mentors, teachers, experts).  Certainly there should be self-direction baked into the modern approach to education but not exclusively.

Back to secondary school design.  We talked about very different designs where there are a variety of learning spaces, sizes, and nothing resembling a classroom fit for 30 students.  We agreed that staff development is crucial to helping teachers adapt to change.  I think there’s definitely a need to re-envision the design but I fear swinging the pendulum from mostly traditional to fully different where we assume we’ve been doing everything wrong.  For example, a change from teaching all students one way (teacher centric) to turning them loose as totally independent learners (student centric).  We discussed this today… and felt that we need school spaces that are flexible enough to help teachers, students, and families transition perhaps in a few significant steps.  As well, not all students have a preferred learning style that is independent and self directed or perhaps only in some areas.  We acknowledged that we already enjoy significant success for students in our current schools.  Really what’s needed are spaces that support the best of both worlds, and support differentiation for a variety of student learning preferences.  The current method of education and the buildings that support this, are not entirely broken, rather they’re in need of some significant adaptation.

I’d like to hear from others on this.  What thoughts and ideas might you add to this?  What does a building with flexible learning (and teaching) spaces look like for you?  Anyone disagree with this like of thinking?