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May 2013

KEA's "TALK" Conference to feature Heidi Hayes Jacobs

I have philosophical differences with the Kentucky Education Association, to be sure, but I am always supportive of the organization's efforts to promote high-quality teaching.  Next month KEA will partner with the Pritchard Committee for Academic Excellence and the Kentucky Department of Education to hold a teacher-led conference called "Let's TALK: Conversations about Effective Teaching" (TALK is an acronym for Teacher Advocates Leading Kentucky). 

The conference will be held June 19-21 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Louisville and keynote speakers will include Heidi Hayes Jacobs, national-known curriculum development specialist and author of Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World.

Conference registration is $50.  Click here for registration information.

Dates announced for Summer 2013 Kentucky Principal Test

All Kentucky aspiring school principals must successfully complete the Kentucky Specialty Test of Instructional and Administrative Practices.  Summer dates for this test have been released by the Educational Professional Standards Board.

The paper administration of the Kentucky principal exam will be offered on July 20, 2013.  The online version of the test is available July 29-August 17, 2013.  Click here for more information or to register.

Remember that you must also successfully complete the School Leaders Licensure Assessment (SLLA) to apply for principal certification in Kentucky (and many other states).

Online learning and the future of schooling, Part II

A few weeks back I began a two-part series of posts responding to Francisco Dao's assertion that "online learning is a fantasty."  Dao, a tech/innovation guru, argued that online courses lack the structure and interpersonal component to be effective for unmotivated learners, and will therefore be ineffective for "educating the masses" as some school reformers imagine (or as Dao seems to think some people imagine).

In my first post I concurred with some of Dao's concerns about online learning, based both on my experiences as an instructor in online classes and as a former principal who worked with at-risk high school students.  But I also challenged the notion that many serious thinkers actually believe that online learning - in general - is a silver bullet for solving all the problems in 21st Century education.

Moreover, Dao doesn't ask the most basic question about unmotivated learners: why are so many unmotivated in the first place?  Besides many other factors, what does the structure of schooling itself have to do with that lack of motivation? 

Dao's blog post misses a fundamental point: that schooling as we know it, especially at the high school level, is possibly broken beyond repair.  Or, perhaps more accurately: schooling as we know it no longer functions in any effective way for educating the vast majority of children, given our goals for education in the 21st century and the economic and moral imperative of improving student learning.  We should be seeking strategies and that would help us transform the very structure of schooling rather than continue to (expensively) tinker with a system Richard Elmore has a called "a dying institution."  In whatever renewed form schooling takes, technology is sure to play a key role.

As John Taylor Gatto points out, the present system of American schooling was based on an early 19th century, Prussian model that was designed to rank and sort students into effective roles for a compliant, efficient industrial workforce.  To the extent that this system ever "worked" for students, it did so by standardizing learning in a way that largely brushed over, neglected, or worked around individual student differences and needs.  Creativity, intuition, and especially student choice were largely ignored if not squelched outright. 

The NCLB era brought a demand that all students reach proficient levels of learning (whereas the older era accepted that large percentages of students would drop out or be minimally educated), and established rigorous accountability requirements for school improvement, but preserved the industrial structure of schooling that was never intended to educate all children, while also adding an obsession with standardized tests that remain a clumsy and highly limited measure of teaching or learning.

The 21st Century economy demands a level of individualization in student learning and a focus on innovation, creativity, and human relations skills that the present structure of schooling cannot accommodate.  Moreover, the 21st century digital culture means that families and students have become thoroughly accustomed to a range of individualized choices in all aspects of their life never before seen in the history of humankind.  It's not just that the current structure of schooling will fail to adequately meet student needs; parents and their children will not abide by the stifling, limited, one-size-fits-all format of the traditional school. 

Something will have to change in the way we "do" school, for moral, economic, political, and cultural reasons.

What will the future of schooling look like?  No one can accurately predict, of course, but it's becoming increasingly clear that the future of schooling must be much more highly individualized than in the past.  If we want a future generation with more capacity for critical thinking, perseverance, creativity, and collaboration, one-size-fits-all formats for schooling with fragmented, disconnected curricula must give way to approaches that emphasize student choice, self-pacing, and an integration of the academic disciplines. 

Trevor Eissler and his merry band of brothers have suggested the Montessori method as one strategy for renewing the structure of public schooling, and the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector has been established as a clearinghouse for resources and information on this century-old approach to student-centered learning.  The Sudbury method, pioneered at the famed Sudbury Valley School, offers an even more radically student-focused approach.

But even within the existing structure of traditional schooling meaningful innovations are emerging, like the "Independent Project" at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where students are crafting their own curriculum, assessments, and learning strategies with the support of teachers who truly function as "guides on the side." 

To Francisco Dao's argument that online learning will fail to "educate the masses," at Monument Mountain, as in many other places across the country, technology is playing a key role in helping students and teachers craft new approaches to learning.  In fact, the notion that students must attend a brick and mortar (government-run) building to obtain knowledge and skills is as outmoded as the factory design of schools themselves.  Many states are now experimenting with "a la carte" options for student learning, heavily facilitated by technology, that allows students to supplement their education and add a high degree of flexibility and personalization to learning that doesn't necessarily mean the wholesale replacement of schools by computers.

As Sugata Mitra and Charles Leadbeater have vividly documented in their TED talks, adults grossly underestimate what students can do all by themselves given the right tools.

Ultimately, I don't believe these kinds of innovations can succeed in a system wherein the state has a total monopoly on schooling for the majority of families.  Of all the structures that must change to accommodate 21st Century learning, the notion that the government can adequately plan, direct, and deliver education is perhaps the greatest, and serves as the chief obstacle to moving us forward.  Meaningful structures of school choice must be developed and implemented so that a far wider range of educational options are available to families.

So is "online learning" the answer to education's ills?  Certainly not, if by simply grafting online learning onto traditional notions of schooling is what we mean.  But technology could play an essential role in the total transformation of schooling as we know it.  And that's what all of us should be working toward.

"That's Me!" Enneagram profiles for school leaders

The Enneagram personality typing system figures prominently in my work with aspiring and practicing school leaders.  Unlike most other personality systems, which primarily just describe a typology of behaviors, the Enneagram goes deeper, exploring the deep system of inner motivations that explain and drive each type.  Understanding why we do the things we do can provide enormous leverage for personal and professional growth.

Along with my Contemplative Learning Solutions partner, Dr. Tom Stewart of Austin Peay State University, we have been writing a series of profiles examining how each Ennea-type functions in the role of school leader.  Because the context of P-12 schools and the role of school principal in particular are so unique, the Enneagram shines a bright light on the work of education administrators and how they function as leaders.

We are pleased that an excerpt of our profiles is featured in the current issue of Nine Points magazine, an official publication of the International Enneagram Association.   Nine Points has just be redesigned in a fully online format and we're honored to be included in its inaugural edition.  Read our article, "That's Me: Using Ennea-type Profiles to Enhance School Leader Effectiveness."  And read our complete series of profiles here.

Online learning and the future of schooling, Part I

Our friends at the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) recently shared this blog post by Francisco Dao on "Why online education is a fantasy."  (AERO emphasized they were just promoting discussion, not endorsing Dao's ideas).  The blog post challenges the notion that online learning, MOOCs, and the internet "will cure all of our education problems."

While Dao raises some important points, I think his blog post misfires on several levels, and suggests the need for a much broader, more thoughtful discussion about online learning and the future of schooling itself.  I'll respond to Dao's argument in two posts.

Dao's chief complaint seems to be that if students aren't motivated to learn online, then online learning won't be successful.  The library has been a source of free, self-directed, self-paced learning for decades, and yet you don't see every kid turning himself into a "self-taught entrepreneur" by biking to the local library instead of going to school. Dao goes on to note that completion rates in online courses are lower than in traditional classes, which have a "fixed structure and ... sense of belonging."

Some of Dao's concerns are certainly merited.  There is a great abundance of poorly-structured, low-rigor online learning opportunities out there, often appearing as components of a "traditional" university learning environment.  The university principal certification program where I teach has struggled against cheaper, fully-online competitors that, I believe, offer a lower-quality learning experience.  But convincing students that they should pay more for a hybrid program like ours, which allows us to have face-to-face interactions and stronger personal relationships, has been a challenge.

And motivation obviously plays a role in all learning settings, whether face-to-face or digital.  I spent four years as principal of an alternative high school for at-risk students.  This was the time when online courses were emerging as the most popular solution for credit recovery, and I quickly discovered that many of my students needed a high degree of monitoring, structure, and support to be successful with these programs.

But I do not see how Dao can draw the sweeping conclusion that online learning "will fail to be the solution to educating the masses."

First, who exactly is suggesting that online learning in general is such a solution?  The abundance of failed one-to-one laptop programs or SmartBoards as glorified overhead projectors has abundantly demonstrated that just putting technology in the hands of students or teachers doesn't really do that much to change the quality or character of schooling. 

No one should assume that just replacing a face-to-face course with something online will contribute to any kind of magical results.  Technology is a tool that may be used well, used poorly, or not used at all.  For at-risk learners, there's no doubt that online learning experiences will need to be well-structured and accompanied by a generous dose of personalized attention.  In some cases, that might require face-to-face interaction, but my own experience of teaching in online environments has taught me that the technology itself can help to facilitate personal interaction, whether through synchronous video conferencing, discussion boards, e-mail, or other media.

All things being equal, would I prefer to also meet my students face to face?  Sure.  And hybrid formats permit me to utilize the best of both online and face-to-face learning.  But increasingly I'm finding that, when carefully planned and utilized, strong interpersonal connections among students and between students and instructors is possible even in fully online environments.

When I consider my own personal and professional learning as an adult, this becomes obvious.  Almost all of the meaningful learning I've engaged in since the end of my formal schooling experience has been mediated by online environments.  I get interested in a topic, usually through some encounter on the Web (often from a social media source), Google to learn more, tweet about it and follow others on Twitter who share the same interest, establish new learning networks, and eventually share ideas and engage in new collaborations with people from around the world via e-mail, Skype, and other platforms. 

Of course, in this respect I am the motivated learner that Dao acknowledges will thrive in an online world.  What about the unmotivated?

Here, I think it's important to ask two questions.  First, why are there so many unmotivated students in our traditional schooling environments?  And second, why do we assume that there are only two options for educating "the masses:" traditional or fully online?  Why aren't we contemplating the full-scale dismantling of schooling as we know it, or pondering what might replace it?  I'll explore these questions in a future post.