Just part of the air we breathe, teacher

heart rhythmLast Saturday my wife, Danielle, and I sat with my cousin Jim in the intensive care unit as he neared the end of his life. Not only did we accept that his vital signs would be monitored by several machines in the room and displayed in vivid colors with large font displays, over the several hours of our vigil, those numbers, sounds and traces became part of our collective experience, together with our dying cousin. Through medical technology, he was including us in his transition, sharing the data that has become commonplace in today’s hospitals, something unknown to humans a couple generations ago. Before, families watching a quiet bedridden relative would look for signs of breathing, listen for hints that life remained or had passed, but it was only through the stethoscope of the doctor (who may or may not be present) that they would eventually know for certain. Today, we have real-time data. We know, and it informs our way of thinking and perceiving.

Sitting under our plastic gowns, we could see that Jim was nearing the end of his illness, and his life. The nurse stepped over to Jim’s bedside, approached the monitor, switched off the display, and returned to her electronic charting. Danielle and I turned to each other with a look of “Wha?!” I looked at Jim, and instantly felt a broken connection, the frustration of information denied rising inside me. I turned to the nurse and said as politely as I could muster, “I assume you turned off the monitor because of all the alarms that will be going off shortly?” She looked mildly surprised, and said, “Oh, you want them on? Some families do, some don’t.” She restarted the monitor, and for another half hour or so we followed our cousin to his last breath and final heartbeat. It was intimate and precious and utterly unmediated by a third-person stethoscope, all thanks to the telemetry. I would not have given that up for anything.

It is important to this post that I cop to taking all that medical technology completely for granted. It felt familiar and necessary, and it is a comfortable part of my 21st Century experience. If I had walked into his hospital and had not seen evidence of data collection and display, not only would I have been disappointed, I would have demanded my cousin be moved to a decent hospital.

This is precisely the experience of our students when we, by force of law, pull them from their data-infused world and into school that often does not meaningfully follow their common access to data. We persist in demanding they break their connections, and most teachers want to be the stethoscope in the room to tell their students whether the heart of the world is still beating, or if it has a heart at all. And like our nurse, we are surprised when students are confused that we want them to disconnect from their data stream. They know their life is richer because of it. Can’t we see that?

Yes, instructional change is tough, but it begins with an awareness that humans’ relationship to technology has changed the culture of living and learning, in school and out. When students turn to us with a look of “Wha?!” in their eyes, it is simply incomprehension as they power-down, not insolence. Find what you can do to make your teaching and their learning as vital and meaningful, as intimate and precious as they know it can be.


THE 21st Century Skill: Ethical Learning

It seems I am on a Bianca Hewes roll here, but that is because the roll is hers.  I do believe that unless a teacher has project-based learning at the heart of his/her teaching, particularly in grades 5 through 12, there is a disservice being performed.

This six-minute video of Bianca, in what is undoubtedly an enviable educational setting, is well-worth your investment…

And teachers, take particular note of what she says about professional development, and who sets the course of teacher learning.

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.

More writing on American “post-exceptionalism”

Larry Cuban, by coincidence, strikes a similar note to my previous post, such that it deserves special mention here:

Please check out Larry’s post, Being No. 1 in the World

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?

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.

“Technology is not related to instruction”

The sentiment above has been expressed by those who prefer to concentrate their energies on preserving 19th century instructional practices, and this topic is debated endlessly, so for the moment I’m going to concede the position as being dearly held by many, and it sounds good when there is no immediate consequence to holding it.

However, while “There is no connection between instruction and technology” may be a position held by both practitioners and recipients of this thing we call “education,” the reality in the modern work world seems barely aware of the argument.

My recent brush with the media was instructive:  http://www.reuters.com/video/2011/09/07/roadkill-research-link to roadkill videoreveals-clues-for-cons?videoId=221334793&videoChannel=74 

Ben Gruber, the Reuters reporter who scheduled, interviewed, shot and edited this story, was a history major in college with a passion for writing and politics.  Over the course of his career, he was presented with a choice, along with his colleagues, between becoming technology-fluent or getting out of the business.  Multimedia news stories were once produced by a writer, cameraman, sound man, producer and (often) a driver.  Ben Gruber: one guy with a car, camera, tripod, and clip-on microphone.

If you weren’t willing to adapt to the changes in the profession, if you felt you didn’t have the tools to evolve professionally, the decision as to whether you would remain a Reuters reporter would not have been left for you to make.  No one wants to hear, “But no one showed me how to do that!” They only want to hear, “Sure, I can figure that out.”

Is the plea for students to master “21st Century Skills” really just cover for ed tech people to convince others to buy more toys?  Is it really okay to graduate someone who can only write, then another who can only run a camera, and another who can only drive the car?  Ben demonstrates here that we are advised to pay attention to what it takes to be a contributor to the world in 2011 and into the future.

The world that is looking for people to run modern systems has little room for narrowly-trained specialists, and desperate for creative problem-solvers who are willing to keep learning and create learning environments for themselves for their entire working lives.