Sunday, September 6, 2009

World Class Cyber Meeting for Schools? Not This Year!

I'm still watching you, Mr. President, and I'm still holding you accountable for the beautiful words you spoke at the Democratic National Convention on August 28, 2008. Just days short of one year ago, you grabbed my attention and you inspired this educator. I have not forgotten. You said:
"Now is the time to finally meet our moral obligation to provide every child a world-class education, because it will take nothing less to compete in the global economy.
I've quoted this quote many times since your election to the office of the Presidency. I admire and ascribe to the message inherent in words like "world-class education." It conjures images of students with access to "America's digital infrastructure" -- "the backbone, the foundation for getting the job done." My image of the world-class school is rooted in your own words shared on May 29, 2009 in remarks on Securing our Nation's Cyber Infrastructure. You speak of cyberspace as "a world Americans depend on every single day." You call attention to "our hardware and our software, our desktops and laptops and cell phones and Blackberries that have become woven into every aspect of our lives." Yes, I am convinced that you share a vision for schools where students learn as they live-- "with broadband networks and wireless signals-- that make us more interconnected than at any time in human history."

Because I quote you often, I am compelled to watch your actions - anxiously awaiting signs that the time for meeting the world-class moral obligation for creating 21st Century schools has come. I look for evidence that political actions taken will actually impact the learning of all students in my city, state and nation. I look for actions that lead to educational equity - particularly for those young people who must depend on our schools to bridge their cyber-steps into the 21st century. Your administration's rhetoric continues to resonate loudly-- but it often seems that the action initiatives may not be not in sync with your eloquent words of 8/28/08. Too often, the actions at the "top" seem disconnected from the reality at the "bottom." I find it increasingly difficult to "quote your quotes" to educators that live the reality in today's schools and see no changes in the conditions that every child faces each school day.

Let me explain precisely how an educator can become confused at the grass roots level. I'll use your proposed "back-to-school" address to our nation's students at noon on Tuesday, September 8, 2009 to make a case in point.

First, I must be clear that I've carefully read the script for your Back to School Event. I've also reviewed the materials (K-6) (7-12) your office has posted for use in our nation's classrooms. I have no objection whatsoever to your message or the materials you recommend. I commend your desire to inspire and engage our students in discussions about the importance of education in the 21st Century. I am actually intrigued with the idea of students working in tandem with an American President on topics related to personal responsibility and academic goal setting. I see the logic, the merit, and the purpose in this activity and I view it, in theory, as positive and productive.

What perplexes and confounds educators, however, is that this plan and the experience you propose to share with students conflicts with the actions your administration has taken to equip our nation's schools with the "digital foundation for getting the job done." The idealism of the proposed "moment" contradicts our ever-present reality. On the one hand, you invite all of America's students to watch you deliver your message via a live broadcast on the White House Web site at 12:00 p.m., ET. You actually encourage educators to collectively use this moment in cyberspace to help students get focused and inspired to begin the new academic year.

On the other hand, Mr. President, did you listen at all when I whispered these important words to you in my 11/8/08 blog Yes, We Can, Mr. President? I spoke quietly hoping you would listen closely:

"If you want your children and my child, and all American children to have a world class education, you must connect them to the world."
Do you realize that all of our schools cannot possibly "meet with you"for a live broadcast at noon on Tuesday? If all of our schools attempted to connect to your live broadcast at one point in time using our limited infrastructures, minimal bandwidth, low-speed connectivity, and limited technical support, the infrastructure would surely cough, spin and likely collapse. Uniting our schools via the web for "this moment" to help students "get focused" and to "inspire them to begin the new academic year" would create technical chaos! In fact, it would underpin and reinforce what educators and their students already know: Our schools are not technically equipped to serve students in the 21st Century. "This moment" that you strive to create would epitomize the frustrations of this nation's educators, serving as an exemplar for the loss of millions of "teachable moments" we have already sacrificed to technical failure. Surely, Mr. President, you cannot be so far removed that you are not aware of the fatal flaw in your plan for "this moment."

Frankly, this educator grows increasingly frustrated as trillions of dollars are appropriated for projects that are far less crucial than reforming the archaic education system that is failing our children. Yet, it seems that as funds are quickly appropriated for various industries and innovations, reform for education is met by "inspiring" our nation's children to set goals that cannot be accomplished in our 19th and 20th century schoolhouses. Perhaps, "this moment" will serve to inspire you to make haste in appropriating funds that ensure that next year's "back-to-school" broadcast is accessible to
every child that needs a world-class education. Only then can our educators convince 21st century learners to engage in and set goals for 21st Century success in our nation's schools.

In the meantime, I encourage you in your efforts to inspire our students. I ask you not to assume that the nation's educators rejected your back- to-school message because we do not login in mass to your live broadcast during the back-to-school week. I earnestly believe most educators would gladly meet you in cyberspace-- if we had confidence that we could do so-- but, frankly, Mr. President, you need to know this: Our schools are not equitably and adequately equipped for cyber meetings in real-time. We know our network limitations and, I'm sorry to say that where connectivity is concerned, "No, we can't."

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Is There Satisfaction in Knowing Without Doing?

On July 14th, 2009, Bob Sprankle, co-founder of the Seedlings Social Network and author of the Bit by Bit blog and podcasts published a fascinating little survey that posed an intriguing question: Are You Satisfied with the Pace of Change? I am so intrigued by the question Bob posed that I'm returning to The 21st Century Centurion to blog on this topic after a seriously focused work-binge (excessive indulgence in work) in our nation's amazing schools. Believe me, it took an intriguing topic to lure me from my current reality!

Bob's original survey items asked educators to respond to their level of satisfaction with the pace of change in education by selecting from the following responses:
This survey confronts a critically important issue for all educators. In my mind, the questions and truths that run beneath Bob's survey questions are far more complex than the information Bob collected from selected responses. In fact, the hidden questions (and quite likely Bob's hidden agenda!) are so vitally important that I believe they may unveil barriers to the transformation of schools as we know them.

It would have been easy to simply click the survey's radio button, recording my vote for "I think things are moving way too slowly." It was tempting to stop right there and skip about in the comfortable but shallow waves of change. I so desperately needed to "click and run" on a day when time was short and I owed everyone a few "bits" of my time. I was captured by Bob's question, however, and I could not run. Had I clicked to run away, there'd have been no place for me to hide from the deeper questions. Bob's survey caught me. It stopped me cold as it challenged my professional sense of urgency and deep commitment to education reform for the 21st Century. I knew myself well enough to resist the "quick click." I had to face part two of the fourth radio button.
"We've been talking about all this for so long." Bob said.
Yes, indeed, Bob, we have been talking, and talking and talking for way too long.

But Bob pushed forward. I still had to face part three of the fourth radio button.
"Why am I still seeing traditional schools stuck in traditional practices, slipping further and farther away from the realities and advances happening elsewhere outside the school building?" Bob asked.
W-h-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-w! Talk about a loaded question! I quickly realized that my reaction to the "pace of change" in our nation's schools was NOT the issue that stings and torments me. The issue that stings, torments and drives me is captured in Bob's probing question:
Why am I still seeing traditional schools stuck in traditional practices?
The fact is, I think I know why - at least in part. If you are reading this blog, I'm betting that -- on some level-- you know why too. I know that we continue to "see" traditional schools because our our profession is deeply ensnared in the abyss of the "knowing- doing gap." This common organizational phenomenon is described by J. Pfeffer and R.I. Sutton(1999) in their informative book, The Knowing Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action. Very simply, the authors confront education's #1 PROBLEM:

"WHY do educators know so much and do so little about the pace of chan

According to Pfeffer and Sutton, the
knowing- doing gap occurs when knowledge is not implemented. In a nutshell, the field of education is engorged with knowledge experts - but it is painfully short on doers who implement knowledge and do so to promote organizational change. The authors correctly note that the most destructive aspect of the knowing-doing gap is the substitution of TALKING ACTIVITIES for action. Too often, they warn, these TALKING ACTIVITIES engage practitioners in dialogue that changes absolutely nothing. While other more familiar reasons for the knowing-doing gap are mentioned (outdated culture, fear of change, internal competition, meaningless measurements), I am convinced that that the lesser mentioned TALKING ACTIVITIES are a serious threat to the the pace of change in education. Frankly, I am tired of talking about change. In fact, I stopped blogging (talking) for awhile for the explicit purpose of implementing knowledge. Before the bloggers attack me, let me be clear in explaining that the the pace of change (implementation) in my organization is so great and so fast that my time for extraneous TALKING ACTIVITIES is seriously limited. Personally, I prefer the faster pace-- but it does take a toll on time for blogging! This is not an attack on blogging. It is rather, a statement that this blogger is challenged to implement at a rapid pace and blog at the same time!

I am confide
nt that many educators in this country KNOW what changes must be made to reform our schools. We KNOW how people learn. We KNOW our students deserve opportunities to thrive in learning environments that honor this generation's unique place in time. Very simply, we KNOW that today's students need to meet high standards by learning in and about the world in which they live and must produce. A strong network of KNOWLEDGEABLE educators who will IMPLEMENT could literally catalyze the reform that brings education into the 21st Century.

When educators get serious about IMPLEMENTING their knowledge, the pace of change will accelerate
. "Teacher-doers" in collaborative teams hold the power to reinvent school from the bottom up. I know this because I have done it and I see it happening today. I never doubt the power of a core group of "teacher-doers" to IMPLEMENT foundational and lasting change. Until our profession begins full implementation of our collective knowledge, I doubt we will enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done.

IMPLEMENTING knowledge-driven change to meet the needs of modern learners is education’s primary challenge and #1 function in the 21st Century. As soon as the numbers of teacher-doers reaches a critical mass - we WILL reinvent school - and the pace of change will be difficult to contain. I predict that the change will come much sooner than later. It won't come easily, however, nor will it happen without hard work. I'm betting that the pace of change picks up as the number of "teacher-doers" slowly outnumbers the masses of "teacher talkers." Only then, will our profession move from KNOWING to DOING the right thing for students.

Photo Credit: Implement - jpg -

Thursday, January 1, 2009

21st Century Questions

Oh, Ben, Ben, Ben! I was so enjoying a quiet, unfettered afternoon - and there you go again - over at The Edge of Tomorrow posting 21st Century Clarification on New Year's Day! I've been following your conversations since reading your December 20 blog post 21st Century Confusion, in which you expressed concerns and reservations about the movement promoting 21st Century Skills (or literacies) in our nation's schools. I need you to know that I purposefully clicked away from your blog on December 20. Frankly, I was feeling too weary and too worn with the hype of the season to begin an explanation of the critical need for immediate attention to 21st century skills in our schools. I did "tweet" a DM to you, just to let you know I'd be back to share what I hope will be a clarifying rationale for the pressing call for 21st century school reform. I didn't expect to be roused, however, from the complete peace and relaxation of New Year's Day by the post 21st Century Clarification! It's a great post, Ben, but, you see, I'm like the old, wounded bull in the picture on this topic. Your recent post is the bright red cape that provokes me to respond. Your blog just happens to be the skilled matador on this New Year's Day - the engine that fanned my fire. You are not the enemy, Ben. You are obviously a bright guy seeking clarification on a movement you are trying to understand. That's a very good thing. I hope I do not let you down.

Your fundamental point of confusion becomes apparent when you express doubt over the 21st century "concept" and beg the question, "What does it mean to be literate?" You must understand that the 21st century skills movement is not a philosophical "hair-splitting" exercise over nomenclature. It is a very serious, very real, and incredibly important action initiative that must be examined and processed by every educator because - like it or not - our profession is being redesigned by the nation's need for a workforce that epitomizes the 21st century skills.

Let me take you on a step-by-step journey to make my point. We'll hit the high spots. I know where we're headed. I've lived it. Bear with me, I'm going to try to be very, very clear because I'm counting on this to make a difference for you, Ben.

Point 1: The first call for skills essential to success in the 21st century came in 1983 in a report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education entitled A Nation at Risk. This call to action spoke of the "tide of mediocrity" that characterized the American education system. The report extended literacy to “Five New Basics” - English, mathematics, science, social studies, and computer science. A Nation At Risk specified that all high school graduates should be able to “understand the computer as an information, computation and communication device; students should be able to use the computer in the study of the other Basics and for personal and work-related purposes; and students should understand the world of computers, electronics, and related technologies."

That was 1983 - twenty- six years ago. I ask you, Ben: Has education produced students with basic knowledge in the core disciplines and computer science TODAY? Are we there yet? OR - are we still at risk for not producing students with the essential skills for success in 1983?

Point 2: In 1991, eight years after the release of A Nation At Risk, the U. S. Department of Labor and the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills released "What Work Requires of Schools: A SCANS Report for American 2000. In a nutshell, the SCANS Report called on schools to produce students with "three essential skills: 1.) A solid foundation in the basic literacy and computational skills, 2.) thinking skills necessary to put knowledge to work, and 3.) personal qualities that make workers dedicated and trustworthy."

That was 1991 - eighteen years ago. I ask you, Ben: Has education responded to this call to produce a nation of high school graduates that have mastered basic literacy and computation skills, thinking skills, and workplace ethics TODAY? Are we there yet? OR - are our businesses still looking to public schools to produce students with essential skills for success in 1991?

Point 3: On June 29, 1996, the U. S. Department of Education released Getting America's Students Ready for the 21st Century; Meeting the Technology Literacy Challenge, A Report to the Nation on Technology and Education. Recognizing the rapid changes in workplace needs and the vast challenges facing education, the Technology Literacy Challenge launched programs in the states that focused on a vision of the 21st century where all students are “technologically literate.” Four goals, relating primarily to technology skills, were advanced that focused specifically on: 1.) Training and support for teachers; 2.) Acquisition of multimedia computers in classrooms; 3.) Connection to the Internet for every classroom; and 4.) Acquiring effective software and online learning resources integral to teaching the school's curriculum.

That was 1996 - thirteen years ago. I ask you, Ben: Has education responded to this call to produce a technology proficient teacher corps and technology equipped classrooms with high speed internet access TODAY? Are we there yet? OR - is our nation still looking to public schools to provide teachers that use technology to support instruction in the basic literacies by producing students with new, high tech skills?

Point 4: In 2001, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) No Child Left Behind established a statutory requirement that underscored the growing consensus regarding the importance of technology literacy - the ability to use computers. The law says: “To assist every student in crossing the digital divide by ensuring that every student is technologically literate by the time the student finishes the eighth grade.” Another goal encourages “the effective integration of technology resources and systems with teacher training and curriculum development to establish research-based instructional methods that can be widely implemented as best practice by State educational agencies and local education agencies.”

That was 2001 - eight years ago. I ask you, Ben: Has education responded to this call to produce technology proficient students by the end of the eighth grade? Are our teachers using technologies to teach based on research-based instructional methods TODAY? Are we there yet? OR - are our public schools ignoring the law requiring that students master basic computer literacy and have opportunities to learn core subjects using modern technologies and research-based practices?

Point 5: In 2002, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills published Learning for the 21st Century. Here is an excerpt: "To cope with the demands of the 21st century, people need to know more than core subjects. They need to know how to use their knowledge and skills-by thinking critically, applying knowledge to new situations, analyzing information, comprehending new ideas, communicating, collaborating, solving problems, making decisions.” This important document, designed to influence policy ,called attention to the need for students to know and be able to do "more than core subjects" for success in life and work in the 21st century. These skills were advanced and are often referred to as 21st century skills:

  • critical thinking
  • apply knowledge
  • analyze information
  • comprehend new ideas
  • communicate
  • collaborate
  • problem solve
  • making decisions

Now, I know you say these skills have always been important, Ben. I agree. The point, however, is not whether the skills are important or not. It is well established that the skills are important. The point is whether or not we are teaching these skills and students are learning them in schools.

That was 2002 - seven years ago. I ask you, Ben: Has education responded to this call to produce students with competencies beyond basic literacy and knowledge in core subjects? Are our schools empowering students with opportunities to construct knowledge in a manner that facilitates development of the 21st century skills? Look at the bulleted list again. Do we see students developing these skills in public schools TODAY? Are we there yet? OR - are are educators scratching their learned heads and grappling with whether or not to call the competencies "skills" or "literacies?" Now you see where I'm coming from, Ben. It is way, way, way too late to debate and "wordsmith." Our profession is failing miserably to respond to twenty-six years of policy, programs and even statutory requirements designed to improve the ability of students to perform and contribute in a high performance workplace. Our students are losing while we are debating.

Point 6: Now we are in trouble. In 2007, The Report of the NEW Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce: Tough Choices or Tough Times made our nation hyperaware that "World market professionals are available in a wide range of fields for a fraction of what U.S. professionals charge." Guess what? While U.S. educators stuck learned heads in the sand, the world's citizens gained 21st century skills! Tough Choices spares no hard truth: "Our young adults score at “mediocre” levels on the best international measure of performance." Do you think it is an accident that the word "mediocre" is used? Let's see, I believe we saw it w-a-a-a-y back in 1983 when A Nation At Risk warned of a "tide of mediocrity." Tough Choices asks the hard question: "Will the world’s employers pick U.S. graduates when workers in Asia will work for much less? Then the question is answered. Our graduates will be chosen for global work "only if the U.S. worker can compete academically, exceed in creativity, learn quickly, and demonstrate a capacity to innovate." There they are again...those 21st century skills!

What we have here is a fundamental GAP between what our nation's workplace (and the global workplace) need and what our schools are willing to deliver. After twenty-six years of warnings, suggestions, policies, programs and LAWS, I am humiliated to admit that our profession is still quibbling about the "definition" of 21st century skills. I am mortified when I see brilliant educators debating "verbiage" when the barn ( schoolhouse) is burning and our children are endangered.

Ian Jukes asks a good question in his paper "That’s the Way We’ve Always Done It." Jukes says, "For what world will today's schools prepare our students?"

I'd like to add to these good questions to Juke's prompt:

  1. Will our schools continue to prepare students for the Agricultural Age - that shaped our current school schedules?
  2. Will our schools continue to prepare students for the Industrial Age - that shaped our current instructional designs?
  3. Will our schools continue to ignore the demands of the Information Age - that shaped the nation's current demand for school reform?
  4. What will our profession do with the demands of the Conceptual Age in which an educator's economic function is to create new ideas, new applications of technology for learning, and new content that addresses the 21st century skills?
Jim Carroll, a leading international futurist and innovation expert makes a salient point his article “What Comes Next? A Trends Perspective 2008.” I'll use Carroll's important point to conclude these thoughts. Carroll says:
“Learning is what most adults will do for a living in the 21st century."
Think about this, educators, please. As adults, we'd better start learning how to reform our schools for the 21st century. In tough financial times, do you really think there will be funding for educators that find it important to debate the definitions and split hairs about the value of 21st century skills? There is twenty-seven years of documentation and a federal law to answer your concerns about the need for 21st century skills. Read it! Our job now is to learn how to create learning environments in which our students have opportunities to practice and to demonstrate these skills - in our schools - and in life as they take their place in the highly competitive global workplace.

Ben, thank you for your willingness to open the discussion. I hope this bit of historical perspective is useful as you continue your search for professional meaning in the 21st century. I wish every educator would take this discussion as seriously as you so obviously do. You care. So do I.