Accidental Theme Day

I heard the phrase “disruptive innovation” 23 times today. For a good portion of the day it was all I talked about. It took a raucous, yet fresh perspective on our use of technology in schools by Gary Stager to counterbalance it.

Not that I minded the term’s dominance, rather, I thought it was about time that more influential people are ringing that bell. Tools are great when placed in meaningful context and supported by educators who know how and when to leverage them, and at conferences like FETC, the tools tend to dominate the subject matter of the sessions. Whether it’s a teacher that is proud to show off the methodology he or she has created around that tool, or it’s a vendor marketing that tool to new audiences, the majority do not appeal to me. Those sessions that did dealt with school change. Throughout the course of the day, I was able to learn from Curtis Johnson, one of the co-authors of Disrupting ClassDr. Chris DedeIan Jukes, and Stager in sessions aimed squarely at the very meaning of what we do in school.

Curtis explained to his crowd that we would be hard-pressed to find an “industry” or model more ripe for disruptive innovation than the educational system is right now. He pointed to several factors that made this so, and used them in opposition:

Old Assumptions Emerging Realities
Knowledge is scarce, hard to access
knowledge readily available
subjects-courses-sequence
multi-dimensional learning
improvement by command
crucial role of motivation
students learn same way/same time
kids more different than ever
Standardization-batch processing
radical personalization

My first thoughts, and I dropped them into our group notes, were of customization. Available to us now are the tools to really customize learning for large numbers of students. What we are lacking is the thought and the vision to realize it. I am speaking of my immediate situation when I say this; there are numerous conversations I have had with others, and some I have initiated, around this idea that our students need choice in what they are learning, yet, what steps have I taken to make sure they get it? My thoughts as I go forward this year are directed at trying to find ways to scale this for the students we need to serve better.

Chris Dede made me want to be a better presenter. His content was impeccable, as was his demeanor in front of a room of nearly two-hundred people. He was calm, witty, and extremely gracious with his time. His story, which wound itself around the theme of disruptive innovation throughout, dealt with some more of the pressing issues that we deal with in public education, namely those of engagement and accountability. Dede spoke about the need for their to be quantifiable data for our teachers to analyze if they are to assess students progress according to the standards they are held to. When looking at the MUVE he showed calledEcoMUVE which he and a team of scientists are designing for the Cambridge Public Schools, he remarked about how because the servers store student activity as events, there is so much information about what the students are doing, and in many cases that data is in the form of snapshots taken, notes written, and questions asked and answered.

Working with teachers as often as I do, I see the assessment piece as one that will be a tough nut to crack if we are going to bring customized education to each of our students. We need to rethink the notion that assessment is an end product. Dede showed us that while the students immerse themselves in the pond in EcoMUVE (literally and figuratively), they may disengage on occasion. The game, much like other games on the market today, contains an Easter Egg of sorts. On a given date, the students return to the pond and find that all of the fish have died. The task than becomes somewhat of a CSI:Pond. Since the server catches everything they do within the environment, teachers can choose a variety of ways to assess their progress in the task: notes they enter as they investigate, snapshots of plant and animal life and its possible link to the dying fish.

In light of the current discord in New Jersey regarding our governor and his stance on the public education teachers union, theNJEA, a few things from the day stood out rather clearly.  I asked Curtis Johnson what he thought of the situation in New Jersey whereby unions are being blamed for the slow pace of change in education.  His thoughts were fantastic.  What if unions, he asked, decided to come out in support of these changes and made their own models for how it could happen?  What if, instead of being blamed for the problems in education, they presented their own disruptive innovations?

Food for thought.

Next: Jukes to Stager in one afternoon.

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