3-2-1 For 2017

For the final 3-2-1 of 2016, here are three books, two audio books, and one movie you may want to consider enjoying during the coming year.

Three books worth a space on your reading list.

The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros.  George is very much an advocate for empowering students and this book is a wonderfully positive collection of ideas for making that happen. It include many great suggestions that could and should be used immediately. This is one book that should be read with a group of other educators. (about 4 hours, 16 minutes)

Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil. Many decisions made by corporations and governments, such as who gets a loan or who is paroled from prison, are based on mathematical models that are poorly understood, even by the people who create them. This book is especially for those who are not “math people” and I’ll have more posts about it later. (about 5 hours, 26 minutes)

Education Outrage by Roger Schank. Few people do outrage better than Schank but, as you’ll find in this book, there is much to be upset about in the American system of education. This is a collection of Schank’s essays that will challenge some (maybe many) of your beliefs about what school is and could be. Share the book with your local school leaders. (about 5 hours, 57 minutes)

Two audiobooks for your commute.

Medium Raw written and read by Anthony Bourdain. Although he’s a chef by training, Bourdain’s television is all about travel and exploring other cultures as wide ranging as Vietnam and New Jersey. This is the story of those travels, mixed with a strong critique of restaurant trends and food television. Be warned, he occasionally uses bad language. (9 hours)

Me of Little Faith written and read by Lewis Black. If you have seen or heard Black’s stand-up work, you might think this is just his very caustic humor applied to religion. You would be wrong. This is a very thoughtful, and very funny, philosophical treatise in which he asks many good questions, and arrives at at least some good answers. Be warned, Black also uses some bad language. (5 hours, 50 minutes)

One movie to watch when you have time

The Big Short. This film was released at the end of 2015 and probably didn’t get a big audience. However, it’s a very thoughtful, surprisingly entertaining story about the housing crash of 2008, and bitingly very funny as well. Based on the book by Michael Lewis and featuring great performances by Steve Carell and Christian Bale. (2 hours, 10 minutes; on Netflix)

3-2-1 For 12-18-16

Three readings worth your time this week.

Area 51, the top secret military base in the Nevada desert, is the stuff of conspiracies and legends. And, yes, it does exist. While there’s nothing about space aliens and their crashed spaceships, the real story of how the myth developed is still an interesting read. (about 6 minutes)

Although their animation technology is amazing, Pixar’s greatest skills lie in telling engaging and entertaining stories. One of their storyboard artists has been tweeting for years about that process and a graphic artist has put together 22 of the best ideas into a slideshow that includes some great inspiration for your story telling students. (about 10 minutes)

The US is facing a major shortage of qualified teachers in the next decade, and I don’t think the reasons are difficult to determine. But for some great insight into the problem, read this story about one talented science teacher who is planning to exit the profession because “US schools are broken”. (about 14 minutes)

Two audio tracks for your commute.

We walk into a room, flip a switch, and expect that we will have light. It wasn’t always so, of course, and for most human history “getting light was a huge hassle”. That history of light parallels economic growth in the world and it’s an interesting story. (20:29)

One summer night in 1979, at a Chicago stadium, disco died. Or at least that’s the verdict of many cultural historians. A new podcast called Undone examines events only to find that they “were actually the beginning of something else”. This first episode is an entertaining story about how disco actually got wrapped into many other musical styles. (39:20)

One video to watch when you have time

Stephen Johnson writes about innovation, both where it comes from and where it leads. In an unusual video from the TED people (no lectures here), he uses stop motion animation to illustrate the idea that innovations like the computer come as much from people playing around as they do from necessity. Maybe more from play. “You’ll find the future wherever people are having the most fun.” (7:25)

The Sad State of Digital Innovation

The National School Boards Association’s Center for Digital Education recently posted their annual national survey recognizing “school districts for innovative uses of technology”. More specifically,

The Digital School Districts Survey top-ten rankings are awarded to the school boards/districts that most fully implement technology benchmarks in the evolution of digital education, as represented in the survey questions.

Well, that’s pretty vague. So what “innovative uses of technology” did the winners exhibit?

For large districts, which is 12,000 students or more,1 the top ranked system “uses technology to encourage student and teacher engagement”.

In addition to Web-streaming their board meetings and producing a variety of podcasts for parents, teachers and students during the school year, HCS also provides digital literacy training for parents, including Internet safety and privacy, acceptable use policies and more.

A top smaller district was top rated for “using e-textbooks, online collaboration, quiz tools, instructional games, simulations, films, TV programs, YouTube segments, music, lectures and podcasts for instruction”. In another “data analysis is used to inform instruction, personnel and budgeting”.

Reading through this article and another posted by the Center about the awards, one major point stuck out: all of this technological “innovation” was being done by adults, and very little of it was really new.

E-textbooks, YouTube videos, and internet safety training don’t represent much in the way of innovation. Schools have had textbooks for centuries and were showing classroom movies long before I started teaching. Acceptable use policies are relatively recent but not really different from the long list of rules schools have always imposed on kids.

There was very little mention of kids actually using all this tech themselves. Nothing about students leveraging the power of devices and networks to direct their own learning. Almost everything highlighted is the digital equivalent of the traditional teacher-directed instruction process from the pre-digital era of schooling.

It’s pretty sad that this is what represents “digital innovation” in the eyes of the board members who are supposed to be leading our school districts.

Innovation in Name Only

I just finished reading Audrey Waters ebook “The Monsters of Education Technology”, a collection of her talks and essays. I always find much to like (not to mention agree with) in Audrey’s thoughts, but this particular line was one that jumped out at me:

Progressive teachers knew very well how to use the computer for their own ends as an instrument of change; School knew very well how to nip this subversion in the bud.

Over the years, I’ve met and worked with many educators I would call “progressive” when it came to using technology in their instruction (although they were certainly in the minority). I’ve also listened to far too many administrators and politicians praising those progressive teachers, saying that we need more of them.

However, those same administrators and politicians then create policies and processes that work very hard to stamp out any real innovation in the classroom.

The bottom line is that most of those progressive teachers define innovation far differently than most of the people running the system. Especially when it comes to instructional technology.

Learning Not to be Creative

You know all those “21st century skills” we want students to learn? Creative. Innovative. Critical thinking. Entrepreneurial spirit.

To be a “goal-directed and resilient individual”, which is one major category in the Portrait of a Graduate here in the overly-large school district.

But how do you teach someone to “think critically”? To be creative or innovative in their work? To be self-directed?

I don’t think it’s possible.

You can encourage, lead, model, inspire, coach, and mentor students. We can provide supportive environments for them to be innovative and collaborative. Teachers can experiment, investigate, explore, question, and play along side their kids.

But I don’t think anyone can teach a child to be creative.

The best we can do is reorganize the American K-12 school experience so that it doesn’t wring the creativity and curiosity out of kids before they even reach middle school.

Let children be creative, innovative, critical thinkers instead of teaching them not to be.