Caution: Distractible Professionals in an Age of Engagement

As our own professional learning is no longer limited by space, geography or job title, so too should our schools reflect this reality. As technology has erased all physical boundaries for us in terms of our learning, so too should we appreciate the idea that a schools’ primary identity being linked to a building from 8 to 3 is becoming an anachronism.

Schools, like our own learning, should become diverse mechanisms where information is accessed, mastered and used. Paul Hill and Mike Johnston in their article, “In the Future, Diverse Approaches to Schooling” (PDK Nov. 2010) bring this point home:

The process of information gathering is diffuse, infinite, and without any physical home, it is managed entirely by the user and not the physical provider. The notion that in the year 2040, all 12-year-olds will be boarding a school bus and riding to a comprehensive public school building to learn how to read and write from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. is now as preposterous as presuming that in the year 2040 that same student would be riding a bus to the public library to flip through the card catalogue for books on snakes.

No doubt education will change; however, there is a distinct urgency right now as Chris Kennedy made clear in his response to me at Culture of Yes:

I also need 2015 to be different. Part of my urgency is the urgency of my own kids. My kids begin to graduate in 2020 – I need the system to prepare them for the world that so many of us are talking about.

In other words, as we think of the promise of schools, we must consider what it means for learning, for bringing up our children . . . now. Elizabeth A. City in “Will Unbundling Provide the Best Education for All” (PDK, Nov. 2010) poignantly reinforces Chris’ sentiment:

The quality of schooling to which they [students] are entitled is what the wisest parents would wish for their own children, the best education for the best being the best education for all.”

How then do we ensure the best education for all by the year 2015?
How do we incorporate technology when years of technological advances, from television to computers, have significantly impacted society but have not impacted the shape of schooling?
How do we move forward and use innovations innovatively and not simply use them in an existing model to garner little or no impact to learning (what, another separately roomed computer lab that I have to sign up for if I wish to use it with my class!).
And ultimately, to what end? How will all of this educational change raise the level and type of tasks that we engage in on a daily basis as part of our learning?

Last evening, at the Phi Delta Kappa – UBC Chapter dinner meeting on the topic of “Internet Connectivity, Personalization, and Engagement in Learning,” Chris Kennedy, Superintendent of Schools in West Vancouver, Steve Cardwell, Superintendent of Schools in Vancouver, and Jan Unwin, Superintendent of Schools in Maple Ridge / Pitt Meadows addressed these questions. What became apparent through all three speeches was that at the heart of the matter, teaching and learning were and still are of paramount importance.  What has changed is that now, to paraphrase Steve, we are also talking about student engagement in the age of distraction. I would argue that this distraction also applies to us as educators as we devise policies and school organizations that, as Heng and Hess succinctly state, “can make the long-term process of absorbing new technologies smoother and less likely to result in political trench warfare.”

Chris Kennedy is correct when he says that internet connectivity will help us realize that ideas matter and that they are not tied to geography, distance, or demographic clustering alone. He is dead on when he says that schools must play a role in teaching students how to effectively use social media; how it’s time for schools to adapt to the world and not for students to adapt to schools!

How can one argue with Jan Unwin when she speaks of intrinsic motivation, of the shift from teaching to coaching, of the need to use technology as a tool to assist learning?

What of Steve Cardwell and his assertion that the answer is not technology but teaching and learning and how we support our teachers?

What all three speakers clearly stated was that when we are focusing upon technology, we are stressing the how we are going to generate improvement; however, each was rather adamant in their belief that while we discuss the how behind school improvement we should never neglect the why or for what purpose we are “reforming.” In order to ensure a coherent and successful plan for 21st century learning we, like Elizabeth A. City, need to continue asking:

• What will it look like?
• What are the essential building blocks for personalization and when are learners ready for personalization?
• What will students be doing and saying?
• What will teachers be doing and saying?
• How will it all be different from what they are doing today?

The reality is that if we neglect these why and what questions, this purposeful piece, then nothing happens and, to borrow from Steve Cardwell, we run the risk of becoming distractible professionals in an age of engagement.

  1. Gino: Thank you for summarizing so succinctly. It is very encouraging to see that our leaders and decision-makers are keeping teaching & learning at the forefront of the conversation. And it is a conversation, which is important if we are all to move together. This is an exciting time to be an educator. Jacob

    • You’re right Jacob, these are exciting times.
      The key is that we do continue to engage in the conversation and retain our focus upon ensuring a dynamic and rewarding learning experinece for all involved.

  2. Spot on, Gino!

    A neat phrase that I heard from Cheryl Lemke at the 21st Century Learning Conference was this–“Students are excellent at using social media, but are poor at using social media TO LEARN”. As educators, we have a tremendous opportunity to help students use the powerful tools of social media to leverage the peripheral learning that takes place outside of the classroom.

    It is refreshing to see that we feel that we are dealing with the “how to” part of the equation. Often, I find that people are quite comfortable dealing in the “why”, but when it comes to the “how to”, there can be a tendency to become more vague. Being more practical, I love hearing the “how to”s, at it inspires me to stop talking about it and just do it.

    A very well written post, Gino. Great job!

    • The how to, Cale, is a stumbling block because we’re not talking about a “one size fits all” model. How do we create contextually relevant approaches which will also meet the personalized needs of our respective students. If this statement is left as is, I, like you, would complain about its vagueness and its “tell me what I don’t know” quality; however, when we come together as we did at PDK and share thoughts and best practice, we take those steps toward moving from ideas to action.

      I like Cheryl’s phrase about social media – you’re right it does provide us with a tremendous opportunity and as educational leaders, we can model it’s usage and appropriateness: one of its draws for me is that social media demonstrates that effective leadership is not only about action but also about being a reflective practitioner.

      Thanks for your comments, Cale.

  3. Gino,
    As a high school principal in Coquitlam, I agree with everything that you say, however, we will not know how to infuse technology effectively until the collective educational community (students, parents and educators) agrees upon what the specific 21st Century skills and knowledge are and then what best pedagogy and assessment to use to teach/learn it. Then I think tech, school facility redesigns can move along synergistically.

    • Dave, I like how you lay it out: 21 century skills – best pedagogy – assessment – instruction to match assessment (classic Understanding by Design and best practice).

      The issue for me is how do we create instructional practice that focuses as much and more on process/skills than presently on product (the issue is not solely technology but it is one piece of the facilitation of these skills). The agreeing upon what this should look like and why (the ‘pre-how’) is the big piece, you’re abolutely right.

      As educators we are immersed in both the educational literature and the reality within our schools to a degree that most parents are not. We’re asking them to forgo everyting they know about education and have expereinced in their own lifetimes to entertain a new apporach which is foreign to them. How can we ask them to move from the known to the unknown if we cannot tell them what we think this new learning will look like?

      In the 15 years that I’ve been in education, I’ve seen alot of people with lots of “hows” which have ended in the dumpster of educational change. The ‘why’ and ‘for what’ at this point cannot slow down ‘the how’, things are changing too rapidly for that right now; instead, as it is for tech and school facility redesigns, I like the idea of all three – the why, what purpose and how – all moving along synergistically to bring about change within our “collective educational community.”

      Thanks for the comments Dave. By the way, are you on Twitter as well?

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