Happy Birthday, Dr. Hawking

stephen hawkingThe press is full of news of the 70th birthday of Dr. Stephen Hawking on January 8th, including Discover magazine’s coverage of how he could have lived so long with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Not that I feel he needs me to add to his accolades, but I do have a favorite “Hawking Moment” of my own that continues to inform me professionally, and indeed how I live my life.

In an earlier post here I promoted the book, Transforming School Culture by Anthony Muhammad.  In that post I described my encounter with Dr. Hawking thusly:


Some years ago (I think it was 2003), the UC Davis Cosmology Group invited Stephen Hawking to present a recent paper, and as luck would have it, one of my 5th grade students that year was the son of one of the cosmology faculty who had extended the invitation to Dr. Hawking, and I was politely invited to join the physicists for lunch with him. Yes, as an amateur astronomer I was thrilled to sit at the master’s feet, and he said a great many things of great complexity and importance during his public lectures.

professor stephen hawkingBut to this lunchtime crowd of mostly his peers, the one thing he said I will never forget was, and I paraphrase here: Forget everything you think you know.  Be like a child and receive the new data as if you were just born.  Easy for you to say, you might think.  Well, nothing is easy for Stephen Hawking to say, and he challenged his colleagues to engage in a personal dogma dump so they might comprehend the meaning of the new astrophysical data emerging at a fantastic rate.  He encouraged them to let go of everything they thought they knew about the universe.


So, Dr. Hawking, thank you for encouraging the dogma dump, that we might regard our world and our roles in it afresh as the data informs and change remains our ever-present companion.  We are all the better for it.


Gaming to save the world. Not kidding.

Last September brought us the news that the online game Foldit had produced actual real-world solutions to a biochemical puzzle, leading to advances in medical research, specifically in the struggle against HIV/AIDS. The news of the discovery was good, but the fact that it was brought to us courtesy of the gaming culture those of my generation have long feared and disparaged was the real earth-shaker here.

Jane McGonagal, Ph.D., takes this news to the next level, and we need to pay attention.  For my entire professional career I’ve begged my students to become participants in the salvation of their deeply at-risk world.  With a number of stunning exceptions to the rule, for the most part the response has been, “Uh huh, let me get back to my X-box if you don’t mind, Mr. Storm.” For me, and most of us, this channeling of our brightest minds into (what we perceived as) mindless gaming was ample cause for despair, portending no less the end of civilization and perhaps the species.

In this TED talk linked below and in her book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, Dr. McGonagal sees not only hope, but cause for actual excitement arising from this enormous body of talent and passion growing from the gaming culture.  Have a listen, and see if you don’t find yourself allowing for the possibility she just may be onto something.


At the risk of revealing my personal lag time for becoming aware of an ed tech tool for which I’ve been pining these many years, I am posting here a few links to information on a service that may well become the transformational tool of the current generation of K-12 teachers who are currently stretched and stressed beyond anything sustainable.link to edmodoEdmodo, simply put, is Facebook for the classroom.  Not coincidentally, Facebook and LinkedIn are major funding sources for this free service.  In this space, teachers can provide streaming interaction with their students through accounts they alone supervise, based on Groups established (i.e. classes) for teaching purposes.  Edmodo is wildly customizable, to the degree that the same application can also be utilized for established PLCs or other more informal interest groups with colleagues.  Edmodo is safe, a “walled garden” available only by invitation, and accessible through any Internet-connected device.  Mobile Edmodo apps allows students to interact through smart phones and tablets, in addition to any Internet-capable computer.

While Edmodo sponsors excellent webinars to get teachers and districts up & running (district-specific subdomains are also freely provided), of the 500,000 teachers and 4.5 million students using Edmodo at this writing, blogger Bianca Hewes has done a particularly nifty job in describing her use of it in her English classes, most recently in this recent post, Edmodo: resource sharing, collaboration, lessons, communication, assessments and organisation.

While Project-Based Learning (PBL) is clearly at the heart and soul of Edmodo designers and its most devoted users, it seems any pedagogical stripe can be accommodated as long as personal interaction is the goal.  Edmodo invites the curious to set up a free account and give it a go.  You just may love it.

Cathy Davidson

Educators with an affinity for technology and living in the 21st Century with an inclination to thinking about the future, find common purpose whenever someone begins a rant about education going about its business the wrong way.  We have a sense that instruction needs to incorporate the abilities and sensibilities of the networked digital students in our classrooms, and we can point to growing evidence that traditional lecture drill & kill instructional models are damaging our collective futures.  We know this grasping at traditional pedagogy is not only rendering our education systems ineffective, but perhaps utterly irrelevant to the degree its practitioners and administrators ignore the changes in how information molds our culture and its youth.

Yesterday I attended a UC Davis Chancellor’s Colloquium featuring a meta-thinker who is providing clarity on the science of precisely why education needs to massively reconfigure its practice in order to succeed at its task.

Cathy N. Davidson of Duke University has written the book Now You See It: How the brain science of attention will transform the way we live, work, and learn.  As codirector of the HASTAC Collaboratory , Cathy the book, Now You See Ithas drawn upon the collective knowledge of brain scientists, psychologists, educators, technologists, management scientists and more (from the book jacket) not specifically to offer “The Solution” to all our ills, but get us talking and thinking in dynamic ways; talking to each other and thinking out loud together to develop real solutions to real problems in evidence in the misalignments between education and culture.  Read more about HASTAC.

You can watch this 2008 video of Cathy Davidson here, or you can wait for the video of yesterday’s presentation.

Another excellent opportunity to hear her is featured in Duke University’s Office Hours, where she takes questions on Learning in a Digital Age.

cathy davidson signing her book, now you see it

I highly recommend making her work a frequent stop in your learning journey, either by reading her excellent book (seen here signing my copy) or following her blog .  It was with great pleasure that I add her to my link set of Necessary Thinkers on this page, as no one better fits that descriptor.

Occasionally I hate when I’m right

South Korean students using computers in their classroom

Quote from a recent BBC News article on global (and particularly South Korean) educational technology:

“President Barack Obama’s “Digital Promise”, announced last month, involves a new national centre to advance technologies that can supposedly transform teaching and learning… Given the way education in the US is so highly devolved there are bound to be continuing questions over how much the initiative can achieve.”

Ouch.  That word: devolved, really hit me where it hurts.  Why? because I’ve used it on this blog before, though this BBC reporter has added the even more damning adjective, highly.  It has long seemed that while the rest of the developed world invests mightily in its future (the kids), bringing to bear the best technology and practices our innovations and research have to offer, voters in the US have driven the political system into a death spiral of complacency.

So here we have an article, written by the British press, peering into our house and perceiving its condition the same way I do, though part of me has long hoped that the decline I have witnessed is relatively insignificant compared to what our politicians would have us believe is our fundamental, God-given, inevitable superiority.

So am I merely cynical, or is this an accurate representation of what American education has become and  will be for generations to come?

Teachers: aspiring bureaucrats?

Blogger relationships are dangerous places. Particularly for educators, topics are intertwined whether we consider our professions through the lenses of technology, equity, curriculum, access or whatever, so we often find ourselves moved to comment on topics related to our particular focus.

So it is here with this blog post by Starleigh Grass, What’s the difference between a bureaucrat and a teacher?

How often do we find ourselves locked into systems that exist merely for the sake of the system? How often are our energies devoted to just keeping the system going, while our presumed clients tug at our coattails and skirt hems as if saying, “I’m still here… ?”

Assessment, yes. We need radar to find those who cruise below it, to put light on those the bureaucracy fails to serve. But do all standardized materials serve all the children we host in our classrooms?

We need to standardize certain aspects of our profession: it should be absolutely uniform in all children’s experience that they arrive at school and know they can learn, and they know this because the adults who work there believe this about them. And the adults who believe this do so because they love them and they love the potential each child represents, and are excited by the future they see in their classrooms.

You may enjoy this writing by another blogger who brought Starleigh’s article to my attention: Literate Owl’s comments on What’s the difference between a bureaucrat and a teacher?

Interactive White Boards: Tool or Toy?

Yesterday brought a blog post by the Skunk, What makes an interactive white board interactive?, prompting my reply below.  I am a huge proponent of IWBs, though the financial and physical implementation of them is merely the beginning of what is required to make them an effective tool for 21st century instruction.


I’ve always seen IWBs as the critical bridge between a generation of digital natives and their teachers, who remain largely comprised of digital immigrants. New teachers who are also digital natives are much more attuned to the value of interactive, project-based learning environments, though their employers rarely give them the opportunity to practice teaching that way.

Internet-connected IWBs provide the training wheels to bring teachers into a much more interactive mode of “instruction,” providing a rich digital resource that can be shared as a class. The key to knowing whether IWBs are being used effectively is imbedded in the term “shared.” If a teacher manages the technology such that students are regularly creating meaning using the IWB (and/or related response systems for checking for understanding), then it is being used effectively. If the IWB is a jazzed up presentation tool used exclusively by the teacher, the teacher will realize a certain bump in their students’ level of engagement in the short term, but they will not be using the full power of the tool.

Effective IWB professional development focuses on guiding teachers through these stages of understanding the meaning of “learning through interaction.” It is not about students seeing or holding technological “things,” but having human interaction in a learning environment made more dynamic and rich with the aid of digital tools. In 1:1 classroom computing environments, facilitated by a teacher who understands 21st century learning dynamics, the IWB is completely unnecessary, because the interaction and consequent learning is happening between students with access to 21st century tools.