Friday, October 3, 2008

Determined to Practice

In response to Tracy Rosen’s October 3, 2008 blog post Educational Malpractice: "A Values Charged Assessment" on her blog Leading From the Heart, and in response to a comment by Heidi Glass Gable in her October 3, 2008 response to my October 3, 2008 blog post, "Well…Is THIS Educational Malpractice?”

Tracy and Heidi, you raise interesting and thought provoking ideas and questions. I thank you for getting involved in this conversation! It is not easy to step forward and share thoughts and feelings. It takes courage.

Heidi, you suggest that such conversations are “useful as a beginning step to determine what the issue is.” Thank you for making this observation. That is precisely the intent of my initial blog post, "Is This Educational Malpractice?" I sincerely believe that most members of our profession will not interpret the hard questions as a “judgment of failure.” We are much tougher than that. Most educators know they are not failing. Some acknowledge that the change mandates facing schools are not unreasonable and some accept the logic behind the directives. Some superlative educators are more than willing to embrace personal accountability on issues surrounding 21st century skills - and, some educators are embracing student-centered learning with one (functional!)computer in their classrooms! As Tracy (who knows she is not failing) points out - active, engaging, social learning does not necessarily require computer hardware and connectivity. While it is possible for students to practice many learning skills in the absence of technology, I ask WHY? I suggest that using the tools of the age is essential to building the skills students will need for success in a modern society and a global economy. In my opinion, we need all of the teachers to embrace the 21st century challenge! We need every student to have opportunities for participation in the world’s conversation - just as we are participating now. Students need opportunities to demonstrate competence in essential 21st century learning standards and performance skills. To do so, they must be able to use technology. In a time when the digital divide so seriously threatens “equity” for all students, the schools serve as “the bridge of hope” for technology literacy for many American children. We cannot let these children down.

Tracy, you suggest that we identify those who are “mal-practicing” and you put forward a far more complex and serious observation: “If there is malpractice it is systemic.” I say, thank you. While I am not at all in favor of pursuing “mal-practicers,” I am most interested in a conversation that advances our profession’s ability to articulate an argument for substantial, proactive change in our nation’s classrooms. I embrace your good observation and pose it back to you as a question: “Is education malpractice - with respect to the 21st century skills - a systemic problem?” I’m not sure it is, but I am willing to suggest that a time of reckoning is upon our profession. As a member of the education community, I am prepared to objectively consider the possibility of systemic malpractice in implementing the 21st century skills in our schools. I am willing to partner with teachers, leaders, policy makers and government officials to be certain the barriers (which Heidi describes as “what stands in the way of DOING”) are removed. Common barriers cited by educators include: 1.) lack of teacher professional development; 2.)lack of teacher time for learning and practice: 3.) fear of change; 4.) fear of technology; 5.) resistant attitudes; 6.) lack of technology: 7.) lack of technical support; 8.) blocked web access and on and on. There are many barriers – but they are not insurmountable. There are solutions. I am willing to be a part of solutions that makes it possible for educators and students to learn using the most powerful learning tools of the age - in spite of the barriers. There are scores of teachers that work toward these goals on a daily basis. There are some education leaders across this nation that work daily and diligently to eliminate barriers. But we need help. I suggest that the entire education community is needed to support the migration from traditional education practices to 21st century learning environments.

Tracy, I totally disagree that the compelling need for 21st century skills is “a values-charged argument.” I suggest that adopting, embracing and teaching the learning skills it is a responsibility. I also disagree that the whole language movement is “values-charged” movement. The whole language movement (simplified) advocates for knowledge construction as learners make meaning in language-rich environments. Promising research-based principles that point to efficacy of whole language methods attract educators. Yet, in the current decade, the 2000 National Reading Panel released "The Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read," which concludes that children benefit most from explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, text comprehension and oral reading fluency. Now, here is my point. The "reading wars" are a debate between two research-based methodologies. It has become an emotionally-charged issues for some educators - but both camps agree on the value of teaching children to read. The methods teachers use do not deprive students of reading instruction. Clearly, our nation’s teachers work to teach reading - and they are passionate about it. With respect to 21st century skills, however, a teacher’s decision not to use technology (where it is available) deprives a student of opportunities to practice and learn the 21st century skills in technology-empowered, information-rich environments. It is irresponsible to "decide" not to use technology for learning. I'm calling for a passionate teacher workforce that champions the use of technologies to advance the 21st century skills.

Heidi, I'd like to answer your good question: “Why, as a system, are we failing so miserably in providing teachers with mentors and coaches who will help them (teachers) through this change?” That is, in fact, the specific work that I do each and every day. I work with teacher leaders and mentors who “lead the learning” in schools committed to becoming models of 21st century learning. We are not failing. These educators are amazing! Education specialists who guide and support teachers through the process of transforming education are an invaluable investment. They are hard to find. They are hard to keep. They are, in my opinion, the change agents needed to make positive change happen. And I believe, they are responding to the call to "stand up" for updating our schools for the students of the 21st century. Still, there are too many educators that irresponsibly "decide" not to participate. That is a shame.

So, we have had quite a discussion! I’ve neglected some very important work this past 36 hours – and must get back to it - but I consider this conversation worth a lost night’s sleep. I’m signing off on this topic now – but leave you with an earnest question. Are we, as an education community, willing and able to consider the question of "malpractice" with respect to implementing the 21st century skills in our classrooms? I find the question intriguing. I've been thinking about it each day since I heard it. I am not discouraged and I am not defensive. As an educator, I am determined to practice the 21st century skills!


  1. Thank you, Beth, especially for pointing out the barriers for implementing 21 century learning skills; as a vocational school teacher from Germany, I can only confirm them. As far as I can judge, there seems to be a change in paradigma in teaching and education worldwide, or at least in the industrialised nations. And I agree that educational malpractise seems to be systematic. The teaching force in Germany is overaged and from the times when teachers were trained to keep absolute control over the classroom situation. So you have mostly hyperactive teachers practise ex-cathedra teaching. Students are used to that and not to self-directive teaching, because this is more exhausting to them.

    Of course, there are movements for self-directive learning, and the training of student teachers has changed a lot. Still, the educational authorities don´t really promote self-directive learning.

    As an ESL teacher, self-directive learning means methods like learning vocabulary by finding new words from a text for themselves, compiling presentations in class or dialogues in relation to vocational situations. I was deeply impressed by vocational education in Southampton GB at vocational colleges. Students work on long-term assignments which is not possible in German vocational schools just because of the fact that e.g. office clerk classes have eight lessons spread over a period of weeks until the end of term in January. This is systematic educational malpractise by authorities in my view.

    I am very much interested in taking part in the discussion and exchange of views, and I find that the problems in your part of the world seem to be similar to ours.


  2. Ralph,
    You make such an important point. The challenge of upgrading schools for the 21st century is a GLOBAL challenge. I'm learning that educators world-wide are facing similar problems. Perhaps, by working together, we can solve problems across states, countries, and continents. It is not too much to hope for - and it is increasingly possible through educator networks!

  3. Hi Beth,
    Thanks for your thoughtful and thought provoking responses!

    I completely agree that we have gifted and amazing teacher leaders & mentors. My point, though, as that they are often excellent IN SPITE OF the system, rather than BECAUSE OF the system.

    The Districts I'm working with have either implemented limited mentoring (due to budgets) or virtually none at all! Despite that, there are many teachers who step up and become leaders in their own communities - BECAUSE THEY CARE!!

    And I applaud all of you who have picked up this challenge!

    Now, what would be possible if the system weren't something the teachers had to "beat", but actually supported excellence? What would that look like?

    We all know the things we should be doing - learning teams, time for experimentation, mentoring, reliable technology, etc...

    What will it take to make that real?

    I would say it has a lot more focus on the human aspects of change (many that you mentioned - like fear, etc...).

    I think it means collaboration - not only of educational partners, but also bringing parents into the conversations.

    Parents are a vastly underutilized force for educational change - both at an individual classroom level (imagine having a force of 30 families working to support every teacher!) and at a systemic level (the political power of parents and teachers working together, with passion, for the good of children is immense!).

    I believe that leaps forward will come through collaborative systems!

  4. Hi, Heidi,

    You make two incredibly important points. First, you recognize that "systems" often fail to provide the support structures needed for sustained change initiatives. I agree with you. I think you and Tracy are about to identify a systemic problem in education that begs to be addressed.

    Second, you understand and have made the point for active PARENT involvement in school improvement initiatives. I AGREE! As an Honorary Lifetime Member of the PTA, I know what parents can accomplish. I've always believed that parents (the most invested education stakeholders) CAN exert sufficient pressure to change the system! Recently Wes Freyer blogged about "Back to School Night" at his child's school. He was concerned by minimal uses of technology. What I know is this: Those teachers KNOW Wes Freyer's child is in their school. They WILL step it up! The school will improve because Wes is vested in his child's education. Parents are their child's BEST advocate in schools. Noone will advocate for your child as you will - and noone can make as much difference.

    Are you on Twitter? I'd love to follow your tweets!

  5. Hi Beth,
    Thanks for your encouraging words!

    I'm on Twitter as HHG
    And my blog is at

    I look forward to many more conversations!


  6. I have just had the most demotivating experience in a class of first year training airport handling staff trainees. First lesson, and they rearranged the seating scheme to ex-cathedra teaching! What do they expect? I posted some thoughts on my blog, and would be grateful for any helping comments.