Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Shaping Education: Form, Reform, or Transform?

President-Elect Obama's pick for education secretary is all the buzz. Should he pick a reformer or a transformer? What will make the unions happy? Who can bridge the gaps between conflicting schools of thought? What will become of NCLB? Newsweek writer Jonathan Alter is betting Obama will tap Denver superintendent Michael Bennet to fill the job, based on his record of negotiating well with the teacher's union. Other names include Chicago's Arne Duncan, Linda Darling-Hammond and South Carolina's Inez Tenenbaum.

I have my fingers crossed for an education leader with the vision, courage and ability to transform schooling into a learning enterprise. School currently drives about half of students out before graduation day. How can we transform the system into one (or many) that prepares students well for their future? It's a tall order, yes. And so worth doing.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Real Learning

My 11-year-old daughter came home from school several weeks ago all fired up about an idea she and a friend had. They noticed during lunch that the trash can was overflowing with styrofoam lunch trays -- they keep piling up and they aren't biodegradable. So Dana and Claire decided they would DO something about it! They could research the problem, raise money if necessary, change the world -- or at least change the school's use of environmentally unfriendly lunch trays! They discussed it with their teacher, who said she'd get them an appointment to see the principal about it. So far, nothing has happened. Every so often I talk with Dana about her and Claire's idea. As the weeks go by, I can see the spark of passion fade, buoyant determination replaced by dull resignation.

Meanwhile, the Challenge group Dana and Claire participate in is investigating environmental issues. They walk the neighborhood looking at potential environmental problems and solutions. Last week they discussed vandalism. (Yawn. Shrug.)

This is real learning. Dana and Claire have a topic that interests them a lot. They aren't working on it in school yet. They're learning that changing the world takes some effort. They're seeing that their days (and their teacher's and principal's days) are already full. I hope they will learn that in the real world, unlike on television, making something happen takes effort and persistence. These habits of mind are keys to success in life. I'm hoping their interest and passion will find some expression beyond the idea stage -- maybe the upcoming science fair project, or maybe in a project that happens outside the school day.

I'm learning too. I'm passionate about powerful teaching and learning, and so is a growing cadre of educators in Colorado. For each of us, our days are full. The curricula are set, the CSAPs are coming, and our to-do lists are longer than the work day. It takes effort, action and persistence to change the way we work and learn. It's a work in progress and it couldn't be more important.

Information Theory of Learning, Part 3

Applying constructivist learning theory pretty much rips apart the way we do school.

Learning theory says that the learner must make meaning of new information. To do that she needs context — a way to connect new input to what she knows already. Not this-will-be-useful-later appeals, but real connection — like reaching a personal goal, satisfying curiosity, or doing something that really matters (to the learner).

Learning theory says the learner needs to work the new information — apply it; reflect on it; change it — in order to fasten it to her existing knowledge network.

Where in school do students work information in authentic contexts? Athletics; student publications; theater/arts productions; vocational ed; clubs/activities. These experiences — considered peripheral to the mission of school — create powerful learning for students, the stuff that sticks throughout their lives.

Can math be as compelling as football? If not, we’re just wasting time.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Information Theory of Learning, Part 2

In the preceding blogpost, I claim that constructivism is a theory of learning. So…?

This means that the theory of behaviorism — the lodestar of schooling — is wrong.

We do not learn in response to the application of rewards and punishments. We adapt our behavior to get the rewards and avoid the punishments. We comply, not learn. So, grades, high stakes tests, and monetary reward for appropriate behavior do not promote learning — other than learning how to be “good students.”

We do not learn by accumulating ordered chunks of information in a linear sequence. Our knowledge expands simultaneously in multiple dimensions as our brain circuitry rewires.

We do not learn by memorizing. We need to work with new information — apply it; reflect on it; change it — in order to fasten it securely to existing knowledge.

If school were about learning, how would we do it?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

An Information Theory of Learning -- Part 1

Constructivism is a dirty word in K12 education. While educators generally acknowledge constructivism as a pedagogical theory, they doubt its practicality — Too unstructured; takes too much time; OK in the arts or Gifted classes, but doesn’t work for all subjects and all learners.

Here’s something to consider: Constructivism is not a theory of pedagogy. It’s a theory of learning.

Cognitive scientists and other who research how humans think say that we learn by constructing new knowledge. [See How People Learn (2000), from the National Research Council.] That doesn’t mean that we make up things (like intelligent design). It means that we add new information to our existing frameworks of knowledge. We literally rewire our neural pathways in order to fasten new material to existing parts of the network.

This is how we learn. All of us. All of the time. In all circumstances.

Think about the implications…

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Orders of Change

I was thinking about orders of change yesterday while I was stuck in a traffic jam during the middle of the day. I escaped to a side street by nudging my car across three lanes of stopped traffic to make a right turn. I was somewhat pleased with my relatively nimble escape. Three other cars, in front of me, had also taken the road less travelled. They all turned left at the first traffic light to return to their intended direction. But I cleverly proceeded to the next traffic light. That’s when I started thinking about orders of change. To wit:

Experiencing the problem -- Stuck in traffic
First order of change -- Get off the thoroughfare to the side street
Second order of change -- Take the second alternate route

But then it occurred to me that I hadn’t made any change at all. I got out of the traffic jam, but I didn’t do anything to help alleviate the problem of congested auto traffic. Talk about quick fixes. Do I ride public transit frequently? Do I push for more video conference meetings? Do I join a monastic order?

Education leaders like to talk about second (and third) order change. Meanwhile, we quietly return to tracking, and we test all kids more. We jump from Reading First to RTI. We work in PLCs. We make decisions based on data (whatever that means). We get document cameras for every classroom. Maybe some of these are first order change, although they mainly feel like taking the sidestreets to me.

What would second order change look like? Focusing our learning standards on mastery of skills rather remembering and comprehending content? Ensuring that every learning experience is premised on authentic student engagement? Insisting on rigor rather than coverage?

To create powerful learning that prepares kids (and adults) for their future, we need to rethink the entire framework and culture of school. That is going to be difficult even to conceive, much less to do. But it’s the only way.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Organizational Size Matters

In our conversations about education change, Stevan Kalmon and I explore the conditions that support change in schools and districts. Recently we discussed the Rule of 20 as defined by the Coalition of Essential Schools: that classrooms of no more than 20 students, and schools with no more than 20 classrooms provide ideal conditions for learning to take place.


Taking it a step further, Stevan posited that districts should have no more than 20 schools. Go too far beyond that number and the bureaucracy required to hold things together pushes conditions toward rigidity. Change is difficult and there is great pressure to hold to a uniform way of doing business. Go too far below the Rule of 20 and districts/schools/educators tend toward isolation; new inputs are limited; organizations are not at critical mass for dynamic action.


Of course, great things can happen at either end of the school district size spectrum. But larger districts must cope with a higher degree of complexity. One of our Learning Partners, Eagle County School District, near Vail, Colorado, seems well poised for change. With 19 schools, it meets the Kalmon Corollary of the Rule of 20. Eagle has a dynamic and forward-thinking new superintendent in Sandra Smyser, and a smart staff of professionals steering the district toward a vision of 21st century learning. Under John Kuglin’s tech leadership, the district is integrating tech tools in support of its instructional goals in innovative ways.


I suspect we’ll learn lessons from Eagle that will prove useful to others interested in developing intelligent learning communities. We’ll keep you posted.