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Reflection Point

New Year Toast

Happy New Year!

Although, today is a somewhat odd date for a big beginning. It’s not the start of any meteorological season. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, winter is just getting started. Hardly a reason to celebrate.

No religion I can think of holds January 1 as sacred. In fact, here in the US, starting the new year on September 1 would more closely align with a major religious event – the start of football season. All hail the NFL!

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Where Are The Kids?

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This past weekend was spent the same way I’ve spent the fourth weekend of January for the past twelve years: in Philadelphia attending EduCon.

EduCon is a relatively small conference that someone described as a popup community. It’s a community of smart, interesting, passionate educators who come from near and far to immerse themselves in discussions around many difficult topics about learning and society.

Reflecting back on some of the sessions I was part of, I think I may have been a little repetitive. Possibly even obnoxious.

I found myself asking the same question over and over: where are the kids in this process?

You’re designing a new school? Why don’t you have students on the primary planning team? Based on possibly many years of experience, they likely have some strong opinions and wonderful insight. After all, they will be expected to do some serious work in these spaces.

You’re revising the curriculum? Wouldn’t it be better if you included students who had taken the course in the past? Certainly there is a core of information, some of it required. But kids could tell you exactly what worked and what didn’t how that information is presented.

You’re writing a mission and vision statement for your school? I’m pretty sure it’s going to say something about kids and their future. They should be on the core committee right along side of the administrators, teachers, and those other “stakeholders”.

I’m pretty sure the people I used to work with were tired of hearing me regularly bring up the topic. The idea that students should be part of the teams that are responsible for planning the educational process that will have a major impact on their lives.

In our overly-large school district, students might be brought in as part of focus groups later in the process, but their input likely didn’t have much influence. When a project reached the focus group stage, the major decisions had been made and this was just about tweaking things around the edges.

Anyway, I never intended the question to be a criticism of anyone in the room at EduCon. And I think many members of this community are very aware that most schools and districts do a rather poor job of including students in their planning processes.

I hope at least some of them will take the idea back to their workplaces and begin asking their colleagues, “where are the kids?” more often.

The image is one I keep coming back to almost every year: looking down at the SLA cafeteria from the second floor. I’ll have to look for another view next year since the school and EduCon will be moving to a new building in the fall.

Speaking of Education

Last weekend at the EduCon conference, I found myself in several wonderful conversations about language. The words that are used, and often misused, when discussing education, schools, students, and learning. And especially in the debate over education reform.

Words like the ones in the picture above (click to enlarge) that Meredith asked us to reflect on and decide if there was a consensus of meaning. It wasn’t an easy task. Most of these terms, like “accountability” and “STEM” (or any of the variations), are often reinterpreted by different groups depending on the goals being advocated.

Many of the same words reappeared the next day during a session in which Diana challenged us to brainstorm our own collection of “silver bullets, panaceas and elixirs”. Part of the collection from our table can be seen above. Some overlap, but much of the same vocabulary.

One thing I think both groups agreed on is that most of the words were not inherently bad (in Diana’s session we had a small pile of words that the table felt should be rejected). Almost all the ideas represented on both the Post-It notes and the word wall began their life in the education discussion with good intentions. The problem is always in the implementation.

For me a good example of that misapplication is the concept of the “flipped” classroom, which came up in both groups. The idea was to shift some of the basic fact gathering responsibility to students so that more classtime could be spent in adding context to those fact. Too many teachers, however, simply recorded the same lectures they always gave for kids to watch for homework, and then have them do the same assignments they used to give for homework during class. Flipped, but not to the benefit of the students.

Then, part of both conversations, was my particular pet annoyance phrase: “personalized” learning. I won’t waste space here repeating myself (you can read my past rants on the topic if you like) but this is one concept that sounds good until you see how it gets applied, especially in edtech products which are more about programming than personalizing.

Anyway, these great discussions were just part of the three days. You can watch the panels from Friday (jump to 17 minutes) and Sunday (jump to 1 hour 10 minutes), where the topic for both was another frequently used ed reform term: “empowerment”. And if you would like to be part of discussions like this, plan to join us for EduCon next year, January 27-29.

Far From Home

After twelve hours of flying, airport running around, and the (now) usual security dance, we find ourselves here…

Qingdao, first of five stops on a tour of Chinese cities by the choir in which my wife sings. Me? I'm here for new experiences, learning, and picture taking opportunities.

As time and connections allow, I'm going to try posting one or two pictures a day (subject to the whims of the great firewall), along with a short reflection of the sights and sounds. Enjoy.

Some Rambling EduCon Reflections

I can’t believe EduCon 2.4 ended just a week ago. As much as I love this annual event, it can be a very frustrating experience. For one thing, it’s only two days* when I would love to be able to spend a week with the people who make the trek to SLA.

Then, not only are there too many great discussions scheduled opposite each other during each block, the hallway and lunch conversations (an indispensable part of all conferences these days) are usually truncated far too soon. Even so, EduCon packs a lot of valuable ideas, learning, and reflection into a very short time.

EduCon Session

The high point of my EduCon experience this year was the opportunity to meet and hear from Dan Barcay, a software engineer in the Google Earth group and a leader in making that software more interactive. Considering how much time I’ve spent working with GE tours, I wish I had more time to pick his brain. I’m sure there’s lots I’m missing.

Dan was also part of the Friday night panel at the Franklin Institute where the question was how do you sustain innovation. We hear a lot about the need to teach innovation but if you look at the environments in which the panelists work, it’s more a matter of creating an environment in which people are free to innovate.

I was a little frustrated that they didn’t discuss the role failure plays in innovation beyond a very brief part following a question from the audience. Our education system tends to place too much emphasis on the need to get the right answer rather than helping kids understand how to deal with and recover from failure as one school in England is doing (although one week hardly seems like enough time).

In addition to innovation, another unstated theme of EduCon centered around the idea that we need to build communities that will advocate for real change. It reminded me of a conversation from two years ago where some of us were frustrated with slow pace at which the talk was being turned into action. The difference in 2012 is that there were lots of communities represented in that weekend at SLA who feel the same way and are doing something about it.

Finally, one of the major benefits of traveling to Philly the last weekend in January each year, is the homework I assign myself. The recommended books and articles for my reading list, connecting with new people whose blogs and Twitter feeds I need to follow, the ideas generated that deserve far more research and thought.

Ok, so if you take all that into consideration, I guess EduCon lasts a whole lot longer than two days. However, I still would like more time for extended conversations with several dozen of the truly inspirational and smart people in attendance.

* Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to do the Friday SLA visit since year 1

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