114/365 All the News that’s Fit to Align with What We’ve Already Read

dead newspaper

I’m just getting to today’s ASCD SmartBrief in my inbox. I don’t often have time to run through it, but it’s summer, and such extravegances are permitted.

The subject line today, “Principal: Testing is about measuring knowledge, not meeting deadlines.” The link leads to this Education Week commentary from Ryan McLane, a junior high school principal in Utica. I’ll leave the content of McLane’s piece to him.

This isn’t about that.

The second story is about 21st-century skills and a Gallup survey sponsored by Microsoft Partners in Learning and the Pearson Foundation.

Third? A story on Texas schools uncovering knowledge that taking kids on field trips helps them think about what they might want to do after school.

These are the top stories under “Learning and Teaching” for the day. While they speak to the trends of the American education landscape, but they do little to push at the boundaries, challenge popular beliefs or uncover new ground.

The other categories in the brief follow a similar pattern.

My ire was probably its highest under the “Whole Child” section which featured a single story on the pantopticonian increase in demand for survelliance cameras as the answer to school safety concerns followed by “Wyo. considers training teachers to recognize students who are at risk of suicide” under a sub-sub-heading.

To say this reflects a saddening national conversation would be an understatement.

Perhaps I’m asking too much of a SmartBrief as well as showing a naive hope that what remains of the Fourth Estate might take on the mantle of helping their audiences critically evaluate the objects of their reporting. At the very least, it would be nice to see any continuing coverage of school closings taking place across the country and how they might disproportionately effect students from different ethnicities differently.

Special thanks to my English teachers who, even though we were firmly in the 20th century, helped me to develop the distinctly 21st-century skill of critical thinking and reading closely.

66/365 Stop Hacking Things (If that’s What We’re Doing at All)

Image from the movie Hackers

My first hackers

Remember about a week ago when we could talk about “innovation” and be cool? Those were the days.

I’m not sure what the half-life of a buzzword in education is these days, but I’m thinking, as private companies start to catch up with the markets opened up by new media in education and their marketing departments start to push out more glossy 1-pagers at conferences, the life of an edubuzzword is likely to be diminished.

The next word on the chopping blog…er…block is likely to be hack. Look at the next conference program you’re handed and chances are some panel or another will be hacking curriculum, professional development, assessment, recess, technology, school lunches…

It’s as though education has been given a shiny new ax and been set free on language to hack as we please.

I don’t mind all this hacking. I’ve been known to profess doing a bit of it myself. What concerns me is that we might not be hacking when we say we’re hacking, and we might not be hacking what we say we’re hacking.

Such uses are bound to dillute the terms as we’ve diluted 2.0, read/write, next generation, and 21st century before.

I suppose, in an era when pundits, politicians, and other leading personalities bandy language around as though it has no meaning, such a carte blanch approach is to be expected.

I also understand the arbitrary nature of language. The word tree and an actual tree have no inherent connection. But, this fragility of vesiles should mean greater care in our use of them, not less.

Yes, hacking is a simple term, and no great harm will come from its dilution into its mass application outside of context and thoughtful use. When we do this to words, we dimish what they can do.

21st century barely made it to its namesake with any of its spirit intact. At this rate, we’ll be making the case for 45th century skills by 2025.

Hacking is a thing, and hackers do a thing. Saying we are hacking a subsection of education like classroom management when we mean questioning classroom management approaches, researching proven effective practices of classroom management, and developing plans for the implementation of those practices of classroom management misleads others about what we hope to accomplish and makes it more difficult to call hacking hacking when we truly intend to do it.

Language will change, and we will always ask words to do new things. Applying those words because doing so is in fashion is not engaging the full set of tools with which we are equipped. It is not even a race to the bottom. It is a race to the popular.

Things I Know 18 of 365: I don’t facilitate

Teaching is the greatest act of optimism.

– Colleen Wilcox

If I hear another keynoter say today’s teachers should really think of themselves as facilitators, I might retch.

If another peer in my grad class writes about giving his students the opportunity to learn, I might ask him to step whatever the online equivalent is of outside.

If I have to sit through another inane argument about what constitutes 21st Century Skills, someone’s losing a pinkie.

Let me be clear.

I teach.

You see, I’m a teacher.

While there is an element of facilitation in what I do, I’m not setting up shop in the ballroom of the local Holiday Inn to help my students unlock the power within and encouraging them to buy my book and accompanying keychain on the coffee break.

This is serious work, let’s not side-step it in order to pick up the cross of the semantic argument.

Yes, I’ve seen the inspiring videos telling me “counselor,” “parent,” “coach,” and “listener” are all words for teacher.


“Teacher” pretty much takes care of it.

Yes, it’s a noble profession. I’m proud to do what I do each day. Let’s not cheapen it by pretending the word’s not enough.

What truly is not enough is giving students the opportunity to learn.

Having a school in their neighborhood gives them the opportunity to learn. Being born gave them the opportunity to learn. Stubbing their toes gives them the opportunity to learn.

I give my kids and education and I do it by teaching.

Calling it something else make it sound soft. It makes it somehow less than.

“What do you do?”

“Me? Oh, I give opportunities.”

“What are you Willy Wonka?”

Take two.

“What do you do?”

“I teach.”

“Thank you.”

As much as a lesson will include student choice, it will also include moments where following the instructions means doing work that is mentally uncomfortable. I ask them to do things they do not want to do because I do know more about some things than they do.

I’m not so ridiculous to believe I know more about them or their lives than they do. But, I do know more. My knowledge is of value, and I work to find the best ways to teach it. Their knowledge is valuable, and I work to find the best ways to learn it.

Some people call the best ways “21st Century Skills.”

For a while there, I was all wound up in the whole 21st Century Skills rhetoric. It’s a sexy turn of phrase. Once every hundred years, the global community looks into the future of the next 100 years and divines the skills that will prove most valuable.

I’ll have what she’s having.

When I was in high school, I watched my stepfather and uncles build a house because they wanted to see if they could. They’d never done such a thing before. They read, they researched, they asked around. They tried and errored and tried something new.

The thing is, they did this all in the 20th century.

Wait, there’s more.

If they had attempted to build a house in, say, 1905, some of those skills would have been the same, but some would have been remarkably different.

Same century, different skills.

Mind = Blown

This is all to say those who believe in the importance of teaching our students to ask the right questions and construct the right plans for uncovering the information they need using the tools available today lose more than a little control of the argument when they timestamp what they’re talking about.

“21st Century Skills” offers up a flimsy rhetorical piñata.

“Problem solving” lives in a lockbox even Al Gore would find amazing.

Things I Know 17 of 365: Preaching doesn’t convert

I can’t believe I’m saying this, Mr. Mali,
but I think I’d like to switch sides.

And I want to tell her to do more than just believe it,
but to enjoy it!
That changing your mind is one of the best ways
of finding out whether or not you still have one.
Or even that minds are like parachutes,
that it doesn’t matter what you pack
them with so long as they open
at the right time.
O God, Lilly, I want to say
you make me feel like a teacher,
and who could ask to feel more than that?
I want to say all this but manage only,
Lilly, I am like so impressed with you!

– Taylor Mali, “Like Lilly Like Wilson

I spend the bulk of my day attempting to draw out, negotiate and refine discussions. It could be between people and people. It could be between people and texts. It could be between people and themselves.

Asking my students to consider their questions and then find answers to those questions affords me multiple moments of mindchange.

Being worth my salt requires me to keep my hand in the game as well. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by colleagues keen on elevating discourse. Each idea runs through the pasta maker of dialogue, elasticizing my thinking.

A few weeks ago, I read this blog post regarding what Lynne Munson believed to be the common flaw between former D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee and newly minted head of NYC schools Cathie Black.

I took issue with the following:

Topping Black’s list of work she wants to get done: “[R]ethink[ing] the standard model of a classroom so we can teach 21st Century skills in innovative and engaging ways.” 21st century skills is not a curriculum. It is a fad.

I tweeted my discontent. Debbie Schinker asked if I would be commenting. I said I would.

I haven’t yet.

Reading the four comments already posted, I’m not entirely sure how much my contribution would move the conversation. Munson seems fairly comfortable in her rightness.

Mary Worrell summed up my concern best, “Sometimes it’s so hard to even try to break the ice on stuff like that. Then again, maybe we shouldn’t just preach to the choir.”

In moments like these, I think about what I’d hope my students to choose in their best moments, and then I do that.

As enough preaching has happened and I’m genuinely interested in building my understanding, here’s the comment I’ll be posting:

Ben and Lynne,
Who decides the necessary information, and what’s the process there? I see the point about the importance of knowing things. At professional conferences, my ability to reference any number of authors acts as my entrance ticket to conversations. At dinner with new friends, whether or not I’ve seen Mad Men or Dexter – my pop culture fluency – can determine my social stock value. How, though, does one extrapolate those facts necessary for inclusion in curriculum?
If knowing facts can be quickening and enlightening and no real way exists for the teaching of all facts of possible relevance in the lives of our students, does it not seem prudent to help students navigate the structures (formal and informal) for the procurement of facts as needed?
Be certain, I include facts as a component of any conversation I have with my students. I’m able to shore up arguments and illustrate examples of otherwise out-of-reach ideas because of the knowledge I’ve gained. I certainly see the worth of this. Still, I recognize the absolute worthlessness of these facts in situations I’ve not anticipated. So, turn to the scientific method – a key 21st Century Skill – as a model for uncovering the facts my students may need and I can’t provide.
What do you think of the idea that championing the teaching of facts and labeling 21st Century Skills as a fad sets up a counterproductive falsely dichtomous mutual exclusivity?

That’ll do.