My Toaster is Broken: An Analogy About the Current State of Education

smoking toaster

It makes a terrible cup of coffee.

I put the coffee in the toaster, pour in some water and push the lever down and then I get sparks, and smoke and, well, really gross coffee. My toaster is just terrible. It needs to work harder. Each day I try something new. I jostle the level, play around with the settings, vary the timing and the amount of water, but it still produces terrible results.When I compare the coffee my toaster makes to the coffee I get at Starbucks, it’s really quite frightening.

My point, patient readers, is that my fictitious toaster dilemma is (in my opinion) analogous to the current state of education in North America (And I must give credit to Melanie McBride for using the toaster analogy one night–although I think we were discussing a different issue). I haven’t seen “Waiting for Superman” yet, and I’m not sure I can handle it because, as a teacher, I’m feeling a bit fragile at the moment. Based on what I’ve read about this documentary, it identifies a number of problems with the American education system, including the opinions that raising test scores are a top priority and teachers just aren’t trying hard enough.

Even if I’m wrong and the documentary doesn’t suggest these points, they’re certainly not points we in education haven’t heard before. School improvement plans are consistently tied to standardized test scores, and teachers consistently get the message that they’re just not cutting it.

Just to clarify, teachers are not toasters in this analogy, but they’re part of the toaster. The toaster is our current education paradigm, and we desperately need a paradigm shift. Don’t believe me? Ask Sir Ken Robinson. He’s much more persuasive because he’s a “Sir” and has a clever British accent.

We’re working within an educational model that hasn’t changed much since the 19th century and was never designed to get all students to excel; it was designed to create factory workers with basic literacy and numeracy skills who could follow orders. We’ve got an educational model that was designed to produce well… toast!

Should we expect teachers to work hard? Absolutely. I don’t believe in dwelling helplessly on things that are out of our control. BUT, if you’re going to go talking trash about my toasters er colleagues, I’m going to come out swinging.

Reflections on this semester’s love affair with technology

Othello wordle

I could use the extended metaphor of a torrid romance with a sexy bad boy to describe my experience with technology this semester, but that might a bit overblown and, some might argue, a product of my students’ obsession with Team Edward vs. Team Jacob. Zombies are also trendy right now, but I don’t think brain is equipped to fashion that metaphor right now.

So, let’s get to it.

As I finish up this semester I’ve had some hits and misses. If you’ve read some of my other posts this year (and I know, they have been few and far between. New school, new challenges, new excuses), you’ll know that I approached my classes with year with a kind of outlook that can only be described as naively optimistic. I saw rainbows and puppy dogs everywhere I looked. I assumed my students would be putty in my hands because they were digital natives and I GOT them. So, in summary:

Stumbling blocks:

  • I didn’t consider that other members of the staff might resent the fact that two English classes were scheduled in a computer lab every day when access to computer labs is already at a premium. Not my fault, but it didn’t really matter.
  • Although my students are digital natives, they were not all tech-savvy
  • Although most of my students use social networking sites and web 2.0 apps on a regular basis, a number of them balked at using these tools for educational purposes
  • Many students were opposed to sharing their work (even though many of them are okay with showing inappropriate pictures on facebook!)
  • Some of my students have adopted anti-technology positions in, what I can only assume is, a desire to please authority figures who condemn technology as frivolous or non-academic.
  • Paper: I still need paper for some things, and for some reason I feel like I’m being judged as a bad teacher if my students don’t have any paper handouts. I’m working on it.
  • Oh, and apparently I adopt every new tool that interests me.

Now, for the good news:

  • Some of my students changed their minds. I had a student tell me that initially, he was “creeped-out” by edmodo, because he didn’t really understand what it was. He is a thoughtful cautious student who has taken to heart all the warnings about the dangers of posting too much information about yourself online. As the student learned that social networking sites can be leveraged for positive purposes, he came to love edmodo because he found that he could access assignments and send me messages using a tool he was already using (um, that’s the internet if you’re wondering. Or the “the infornet” as my mother-in-law calls it).  Edmodo has been a huge success. It’s eliminated a great deal of paper–not to mention excuses.
  • Ning: I used Ning for a number of different purposes. At first I didn’t really know how I’d use it (I’m finishing my action research project on this and I’ll post it soon so I won’t go into great detail here), but eventually the most significant use became blogging. Some of my students were skeptical about the Ning at first, but their work stands for itself. They shared and read ideas they would have never otherwise encountered. They also reached much deeper levels of synthesis and analysis because their posts were not “published pieces” in a traditional sense.
  • My website and class blog. I did a pretty good job of updating my class blogs on a daily basis. Now when I scroll back through my posts, I have a wonderful series of snapshots of my semester. It’s fantastic. I never managed to update my “daybook” or planner the way I’ve kept my blog up to date.

In the immortal words of Joss Whedon, “Where do we go from here?” (Oh, Buffy, how I miss you)

  • I’m going to use Ning even more, and try to do even more with student blogging now that I have evidence that supports its effectiveness.
  • Edmodo: I need to do more training at the beginning of the semester so that students use edmodo properly. (How to submit an assignment vs. how to send a link)
  • Use less paper. I can do it!
  • Bring in Diigo. Love Diigo, but didn’t really get a chance to try it.

I think that’s plenty for now. I’ll keep you posted.

I promise.

No really!

Where will the jobs be in the future?

David Warlick said that “No generation in history has ever been so thoroughly prepared for the industrial age.” In other words, our current model of education is very good at preparing students to memorize and repeat instructions and tasks. Unfortunately, the skills workers need today and will need in the future are problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and flexibility.

I was listening to CBC today on my drive back to the London from a workshop in Kintore and there was a story on Richard Florida’s article in the Toronto Star. I admit, I probably only started to pay attention because it was -23 when I left the house this morning and Florida sounds very appealing–but I’m glad I did pay attention. In the article, Florida and Roger Martin discuss the results of the study they completed on the changing structure of Ontario’ economy.

They write: “We are moving to an economy that values people’s creativity, especially a combination of analytical skills – reasoning in uncertain environments to make good decisions – and social intelligence skills – capabilities to understand other people and to work in team settings. Routine-oriented occupations that draw primarily on physical skills or abilities to follow a set formula can be done more cheaply in emerging economies.”

While there are some who still believe (or want to believe) that Canada’s manufacturing industry will always remain strong, I think at the very least we need to acknowledge the new skill-set that our students will need to be successful in our changing economy.

Click here to read the entire article.

Comic Life, Literacy, Gradual Release of Responsibility

This is the link for my portion of a workshop on using Comic Life to improve the literacy skills of struggling student. I’m involved in the project as a literacy person, not a techie person, so that’s why you won’t see any info on HOW to use Comic Life. My colleague Bruce will be handling that.

But I thought I needed to embrace the technology and just say NO to paper handouts. So this will be made available to teachers in the project.


 

Now, you can’t view the video clip this way, but if you want to access the google doc, click here.

Readicide–Musings on Kelly Gallagher’s new book

First, about the book title, Gallagher writes “Read-i-cide:noun, the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools” pg 2. Not to be too picky, but I think “Legicide” would be a slicker name– “Legi” from the Latin “Lego” meaning to read. But it also has the sweet connotation of legislate, so you end up with the idea of a legislated killing of reading.

Not really the point. Sorry Mr. Gallagher.

My point is, after an admittedly brief skimming of the book (which is hardly enough evidence upon which to formulate an opinion–I know), I surprised to find myself disagreeing with him a little bit.

I don’t disagree in principle with the idea that an over-emphasis on high-stakes testing is partially responsible for killing “reading for the love of reading”. Thankfully, I don’t teach in the United States where some schools actually receive economic sanctions for poor test scores! Although I do think that placing too much importance on the evidence we get from EQAO tests hurts student learning and teacher practice in the long run.

Nor do I disagree with his point that “there is a dearth of interesting reading materials in our schools” (pg. 45).

Maybe Gallagher would disagree with me, but I get the impression that when he writes about reading materials, he’s only talking about novels. I don’t think that’s a misinterpretation since he writes “When schools remove novels from the students’ curriculum and replace challenging books with shorter pieces and worksheets, they are denying students the foundational reading experiences for developing those regions of their brains that enable them to think deeply” (pg. 40). First of all, from my perspective as a teacher, I know that novels have been disappearing from course outlines, but not to make room for more standardize test preparation; rather, they have been removed so that we have more room for texts that represent authentic reading for our students.

Gallagher writes about the need for authentic reading experiences, but he really only seems to be writing about novels. I would argue that if we really want to give our students authentic reading experiences, we need to provide texts that honour the types of reading they see as valuable. I believe novels can be a part of that, but when I think of a wealth of reading materials, I’m picturing a print rich environment that includes magazines, non-fiction books, blogs, wikis, newspapers, plays, graphic novels, scripts, AND novels. I am coming at this from the perspective of an English major who loves to read novels but respects the fact that many highly intelligent critical thinkers do not share my love of reading novels.

It really is a wonderful thing when you can turn a kid on to a novel–when they find that story they can connect to and become engrossed in, but I don’t think that should be our ultimate goal as English teachers. I think we need to find ways to provide opportunities for students to engage in reading so that they are thinking critically, questioning, responding, connecting, and being entertained! But I don’t think that The Novel is always the best way to do that.

We need to broaden our definition of reading, but we also need to broaden our appreciation for the benefits of different types of reading, especially when thinking about what it means to be literate in the 21st century.

Technophobe embraces technology

I watched this video posted on edutopia and it made me smile to see teacher, Jim Wilson, go from one of those “I don’t need this new-fangled technology to teach my kids. Why, in my day….” teachers to a self-professed “facilitator”. I love it! Granted, the way in which he’s using the technology may not be considered very progressive by some, but the point is, he’s trying because he realized that he can reach kids by embracing the tools that are part of their worlds.

Watch this video. I bet he’ll remind you of people you know. There’s hope!

Are you literate? Are you sure?

What does it mean to be literate in the 21st century? I’m certainly not the first to ask the question. But here’s the thing: I know a lot of fantastic intelligent educators who don’t place much value on being technologically literate. They almost wear it as a badge of pride. In a “Oh I barely know how to check email!” kind of way. And I kind of get the impression that they think that people who spend a lot of time on line are either looking at porn or finding or staring off into a technological abyss of pretty lights and pop-up ads. I don’t think a lot of them understand that what many of our students are doing on the internet is interacting with other people, communicating, and–dare I suggest–learning. 

I’m sure there are lots of reasons for this attitude. I know, there’s an age gap factor, but I’m turning 30 on Sunday and I remember the pre-internet days so this isn’t exactly something I’ve grown up with either. But I really believe like so many other teachers, that we have no idea what the future holds for our students, but we do know that we are currently preparing our students for a future that passed us by 20 years ago (at least!)

This is what David Warlick says about being literate in the 21st century:

“Being literate in this future will certainly involve the ability to read, write, and work with numbers. However, the concept of literacy in the 21st century will be far richer and more comprehensive than the 3 Rs of the one room school house. . . . Our notions of literacy must expand to address a rapidly changing information landscape where information is networked, digital, and overwhelming.”

(Seriously, google this man and be amazed by his awesomeness)

I know this scares a lot of teachers. But I really don’t think it needs to. I was in a computer lab a couple weeks ago with a bunch of teachers, some of whom barely knew how to access their school email, and by the end of the day they were hosting video conferences with teachers in other boards and writing in google docs at the same time.

I think we need to convince ourselves that digital literacy is not a luxury but a necessary part of our definition of literacy in the 21st century.

Where do you start?

Read this article by Vicki Davis. And then subscribe to her blog. She’s awesome too!

 

Preparing our students for Yesterday Today!

My brain is full. That’s a good thing though. I think.

At the conference today, the two keynote speakers really stressed the fact that we are preparing our students for a future that we can’t even imagine using technology, strategies, and pedagogy that really hasn’t evolved much since the 19th century.

Public education as we know it today grew to develop a population of literate workers for the industrial revolution. But what did that actually mean? 

It meant that workers needed to be able to read print (maybe), do simple arithmetic, and follow instructions. So we told students to sit in rows, be quiet, do the same thing as everyone else, and not ask too many questions.

Well, jobs that require workers who can do that are rapidly declining.

And yet, the majority of classrooms still bear a striking resemblance to those 19th century classrooms. 

And I can’t TELL you how tired I am of the response, “Well that’s what they’re going to get in university so we might as well prepare them for it.”

First of all, if we acknowledge that something qualifies as “bad teaching” then doing more “bad teaching” to prepare them for “bad teaching” seems ludicrous to me!

Secondly, we as teachers have this mindset that we need to prepare the majority of our students for university (because we did, and probably most of our friends did), when the fact is that very few of them are GOING to university–and not because they’re not smart enough, but because many of them realize that having a degree behind their name isn’t a guarantee of anything anymore.

 Sir Ken Robinson on how schools kill creativity

I strongly believe that the world they encounter within school at least needs to acknowledge the richness of the world that exists for these students outside of school. They’re doing all kinds of learning without us. Think of the potential for learning that could happen if we saw ourselves as facilitators. We don’t need to teach the kids how to use the technology, but we need to give them opportunities to use it to demonstrate to us what they know.

Now, I have to figure out how to do that in my classroom. 

Help?

The Mouse Potatoes are LEARNING

And you thought they were just checking out inappropriate pictures of each other on Facebook.

A new study out of the US shows that all that time kids spend on social networking sites is actually helping them learn. The study’s researcher says, “spending time online is essential for young people to pick up the social and technical skills they need to be competent citizens in the digital age.”

The way that teens socialize and learn from each other online raises questions and possiblities about the way in which we teach.

Some of the key findings in the study are:

  • There is a generation gap in how youth and adults view the value of online activity.
    • Adults tend to be in the dark about what youth are doing online, and often view online activity as risky or an unproductive distraction.
    • Youth understand the social value of online activity and are generally highly motivated to participate.
  • Youth are navigating complex social and technical worlds by participating online.
    • Young people are learning basic social and technical skills that they need to fully participate in contemporary society.
    • The social worlds that youth are negotiating have new kinds of dynamics, as online socializing is permanent, public, involves managing elaborate networks of friends and acquaintances, and is always on.
  • Young people are motivated to learn from their peers online.
    • The Internet provides new kinds of public spaces for youth to interact and receive feedback from one another.
    • Young people respect each other’s authority online and are more motivated to learn from each other than from adults.
  • Most youth are not taking full advantage of the learning opportunities of the Internet.
    • Most youth use the Internet socially, but other learning opportunities exist.
    • Youth can connect with people in different locations and of different ages who share their interests, making it possible to pursue interests that might not be popular or valued with their local peer groups.
    • “Geeked-out” learning opportunities are abundant – subjects like astronomy, creative writing, and foreign languages.
  •  

    I don’t think anyone would be surprised to learn that teens prefer learning from each other. Maybe we should be looking for ways to use this to our benefit rather than search for ways to block sites from our school networks.