School Culture, Educating Citizens, Creating Democracy

democracy_and_educationExactly 100 years ago, John Dewey asserted that a purpose for our schools should be the creation of citizens who share the highest values of democracy. Only education can bridge the distance between our “uncivilized” nature and the skills and habits of people who have learned to exist in a thriving body politic.

American schools then perform their civic purpose by playing a powerful role in building democratic culture and educating citizens.

In progressive schools that take their democratic purpose seriously, students experience the complexity of democracy — they think critically, discuss and sometimes argue about ideas, co-create solutions to meaningful problems, and build community. A school culture that embodies civil discourse, and values conversations even when they are difficult, builds students’ capacity to act in the public world, to make good things happen. In these schools, students learn how to truly disagree in the way citizens who share a hope for common ground do, and then move toward finding that ground.

To create such a school culture, conversations about politics are essential. Because educators care about the affairs of their communities, and because they believe in the democratic process of collective decision making, educators should engage students in discussions of public affairs. To avoid what is political, because it might be difficult to discuss, would be an abandonment of the civic duty of schools. They would fail to cultivate in students the interests, skills, and habits of citizens.

Of course, educators should not use their authority to cultivate support for strictly partisan purposes. To advocate or oppose particular political parties or public political figures would be wrong. Engaging in open dialogue about public life among people with different ideas is not always easy, and requires courage. Educators can demonstrate the maturity, balance, and empathy required to listen and discuss ideas without becoming one-sided and closed to opposing viewpoints. Of course, mistakes will be part of the learning process.

Educators recognize that to engage in civil discourse, and to create a democratic and inclusive culture, students and faculty must learn to enjoy arguments and moments of discomfort. The civic duty of schools is to help students to listen and explore ideas, to co-create solutions and community, and to commit to building a world that values and protects every person.

Education Week, Bridging Differences Blog, Democracy in Schools:

Making Math Education Inquiry-based, Interdisciplinary, and Meaningful

A long-time member of my professional learning network, Alanna King, posted today about “wrestling with math.” Alanna’s son has found his way into the meat grinder that is math education in most schools, and she is thinking about his struggles in light of her reading of Building School 2.0 (recommended).

We all know the story of the kids who struggle in math. Long nights of homework, tutoring, and some of them never quite become the computational experts their personal computers are. This week I was in a parent-teacher conference with a really top student who excels in all of her classes but is struggling in Calculus class. All that anxiety and stress because she believes (and with good reason, unfortunately) that Calculus is a mountain she must climb in order to get into the college of her choice. The student disclosed in her conference that she wouldn’t be taking the course if she didn’t think it was necessary in the college rat race.

College is a real world goal for students, certainly, but if it is the only reason to take math, it seems like a poor one. Students should understand that math education has a more meaningful purpose, and that purpose should not be math itself. A “siloed” math education divorces the meaning from math and for students who don’t see it as fun, the typical question is “why am I doing this?” Math should be a problem-solving tool for the real world, and education in math should look like that.

what is math?I wrote about this on my blog back in November 2010, and about Conrad Wolfram’s TED talk in which he argues that computers should do most of the computational work of math, leaving the focus on the interdisciplinary purpose of mathematics:

Teaching in the 4th Information Age

I’ve been reflecting yet again on how much has changed since I began my first day of teaching a little more than 20 years ago.

I plan to write frequently this year about how I teach history courses for this information age, not for the last. Hopefully, the writing will help me better understand what I do, and to learn how to do it better. I’m a much different teacher than I was when I started. For example, I used to do these 4 things consistently that I won’t do this year:

  1. I won’t give a classroom lecture.
  2. I won’t write notes on a board or in a PowerPoint that I expect students to copy verbatim.
  3. I won’t assign homework.
  4. I won’t give a multiple-choice exam.

How can I be a history teacher?

In 1991, I was assigned 5 sections of 9th grade Ancient History with the clear expectation that I would lecture daily, write notes on the chalkboard, and the students would memorize what I told them. They’d follow up my lecture with some reading, and take a weekly chapter quiz and monthly unit exams. I would deliver the information, they would consume it. That was standard history education for college-bound students in the early 1990s.

My students willfully obeyed me, knowing the most efficient means for them to get the information was to write down what I said and wrote on the board. I augmented their textbook, telling interesting stories – well, they were interesting to me, perhaps trivial to others – and they had little chance of tracking down whether I’d gotten the facts correct, as the encyclopedias were not quite thorough enough, and the library was hard to search. In 1991, being able to consume data and remember it made you more valuable than the next guy.

Circumstances sure have changed.

When the internet hit for real in 1994 or so (those of us who were on it before that are the exception more than the rule) I slowly woke up to the big shifts that were happening. I saw that college professors were putting syllabi, readings, and presentations online, and that it was possible to quickly search for quality historical information. Meanwhile, I was beginning to understand Dewey’s writings about learning and progressive pedagogical perspectives like constructivism. By the late ’90s I was able to get students online consistently to have them contribute to discussions and create content for their peers. My class had entered what Cathy Davidson and Robert Darnton have called the Fourth Information Age.

In 2012, being able to remember more information than the next guy is still valuable, but just barely. Today, information is everywhere, and knowledge emerges from personal and network connections. In this new age, success comes from knowing how to retrieve, curate, synthesize, analyze, and construct meaning from information, not from memorizing what your teacher tells you. Looking back on what I was doing in 1991, it’s hard to believe anyone ever thought that was education.

And yet I still see lots of classrooms every year in which teachers are lecturing and students are writing and memorizing notes for multiple-choice exams. Why? What skills does this hone? And what knowledge do we think this builds in students?

Cathy Davidson poses similar questions:

What are we doing, on a national level, to educate our kids for a new digital age? In a world where any knowledge is at your finger tips, is multiple choice really the way to be teaching kids about how to search and how to evaluate what you find? Is extreme field specialization, so crucial for a segregated and hierarchical workforce, the right way to train kids for a future that might include three to seven career changes? Futurist Alvin Toffler has said that, in addition to reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic, the most important “’literacy’ for the twenty-first century is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Do our schools today teach that ability to rethink one’s assumptions and try again? The way we organize our classrooms now is geared toward producing success as defined in the last century, not this one.

Many teachers have made the shift, but still more have not. Unfortunately, the standards, national exams, the movement to AP-everything, and frets over our nation falling behind aren’t helping. But we do desperately need to move toward educating our students for their future, not our past. Look for more on this from me this year.

What to Teach is What’s Usually Missing in Ed Reform Debates

So frequently today, we read about the problems of education being about how students are taught – pedagogical theories are debated, teachers’ methods are scrutinized, and charters proliferate based on promises that they’ve found the magic strategy for teaching mastery of standards.

Unfortunately, we don’t spend enough time discussing the what of education. Generally speaking, what we teach in our schools today remains unchanged despite the host of changes the internet has ushered into this Fourth Information Age. That we are nearly 20 years into an information revolution, and schools still teach the information needed for a different age demonstrates how misguided the education reform movement is.

Curt Bonk puts it well in his latest post:

“When we can have the equivalent of the Library of Alexandria in our pockets on an inexpensive flash drive, we must begin to question exactly what should be taught and ultimately what knowledge is… The purpose of education has swiftly pivoted from knowing what something is to knowing how to find out about that thing. The basic tools of knowledge discovery are now Wikipedia and other wiki-like tools, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, TED talks, online news services, digital books, and a vast array of online learning courses and modules.”

And yet, how many standards recognize this shift? Why don’t the standards require students to demonstrate they know how to navigate Wikipedia? how to use Google’s advanced search to find a primary document? how to identify the best online services for objective information about local city council candidates?

As a history teacher, I know the national standards suggested by the NCSS, NCHS, and even the College Board (AP History) are improving somewhat by recognizing “historical thinking skills.” My question is, why don’t the standards recognize that knowledge is now digital, ubiquitous, and organized in networks? Why do we still have standards built around memory of historical periods in American History, for example? Is it really more important for students to demonstrate knowledge of colonial American culture than it is for them to demonstrate they can evaluate assertions about colonial church-municipal relations using online resources?

Many traditionalists and mainstream educators would retort that such a shift in education would make us too dependent on technology. It’s true, actually, that collectively we are more dependent on the web for memory than on our brains, according to studies by Harvard professor Daniel M. Wegner’s research team. But Wegner cautions us not to fear the “cybermind”:

“Some commentators see this as the beginning of a chilling new world in which we have uploaded everything we know quite out of our own heads, becoming fools in the bargain. Like those who feared the iron horse or the electric toothbrush, though, people with this neo-Luddite view of technology are quite likely to be left behind as the rest of us rush to keep plugged in… Each time we learn who knows something or where we can find information — without learning what the information itself might be — we are expanding our mental reach. This is the basic idea behind so-called transactive memory. In 1985, with my collaborators Toni Giuliano (who is also my wife) and Paula Hertel, I wrote a paper introducing the idea of transactive memory as a way to understand the group mind. We observed that nobody remembers everything. Instead, each of us in a couple or group remembers some things personally — and then can remember much more by knowing who else might know what we don’t. In this way, we become part of a transactive memory system… Groups of people commonly depend on one another for memory in this way — not by all knowing the same thing, but by specializing. And now we’ve added our computing devices to the network, depending for memory not just on people but also on a cloud of linked people and specialized information-filled devices.”

We need to talk more about what’s in our standards, and the curriculum choices we make, as much as how we teach. The Ed Reform movement needs to pivot on the recognition that knowledge comes from our connections, and that connected-knowledge literacy is the most important thing students should master.

Distinguishing the Open part of Massive Open Online Courses

With the news of Coursera adding 12 new universities, the blogosphere erupted yesterday with stories of disruption, the end of Higher Ed as we know it, and some tentative hope for general social improvement. Not lost on a few bloggers though was the important point to note that Coursera isn’t really offering MOOCs, in the way that the approach was designed originally by George Siemens and Steven Downes. Massive Open Online Courses meant that the resources were, well, open to anyone and open to use thereafter. Audrey Watters points out the Coursera difference:[blackbirdpie url=”″%5D
Indeed, it appears the openness of the Coursera courses is that anyone can join, and NOT that the resources are openly available. But full open enrollment is a powerful thing, mind you. According to an email I received from Coursera last night, the potential to educate people everywhere is emerging:[blackbirdpie url=”″%5D
So, let’s distinguish open in the context of Coursera, as opposed to the openness of the Siemens/Downes model (or like this MOOC upcoming on Mobile Learning): Coursera = open-enrollment/closed-resources, Siemens/Downes-style MOOCs = completely open.

Is there virtue to making all the course resources open? For one, teachers like me could use the excellent elements of a Coursera course in my own classroom. Or people anywhere who weren’t able to enroll in the Coursera course at the time of its offering could take the course when they’re able. Open Education Resources (OER) remain available on the web, for the good of all of us. If the 17 Coursera partners were to commit to making the courses this open, we’d all need to stand and applaud the impact for good they would make.

I think there is some hope for more openness from Coursera than it may seem though. I was curious about a course that looks remarkably similar to the one I’m paying for at the University of Edinburgh in September. The free “E-learning and Digital Cultures” course will be an innovative study of “how digital cultures intersect with learning cultures online, and how our ideas about online education are shaped through ‘narratives’, or big stories, about the relationship between people and technology.” And, importantly, it’s a wee bit more open than other Coursera offerings:

E-learning and Digital Cultures will make use of online spaces beyond the Coursera environment, and we want some aspects of participation in this course to involve the wider social web. We hope that participants will share in the creation of course content and assessed work that will be publicly available online.

How much of the work of this Edinburgh Coursera course eventually goes onto the open web is yet to be seen. That participants will be producing work for all to see is a hopeful sign however. If the model works well (and of course it will), perhaps it will push other instructors to make their resources more open.

I for one welcome Coursera as an emerging positive force in the education marketplace, despite a host of reservations. When it becomes more open, many of my reservations will melt away.

Questions for K-12 as the Niche of Higher Ed Shrinks

The move of a dozen more top universities to join Coursera’s Massive Open Online Courses is all over the news today. If you missed it, try these two articles at the NY Times, and Insider Higher Ed.

Stanford University’s president said last spring that a tsunami is coming. Today, Georgia Tech Computer Science Professor Richard A. DeMillo said “This is the tsunami.”

What’s happening in Higher Education? Disruption on a massive scale, according to Richard Perez-Pena of the New York Times:

“if it becomes possible in years to come to get a complete college education from an elite institution online, free or at relatively low cost, experts wonder whether some colleges will find it harder to attract students willing to pay $20,000, $40,000 or even $60,000 a year for the traditional on-campus experience.

‘The people who should be worried about this are the large tier of American universities — especially the expensive private schools — that are not elite and don’t have the same reputation’ as the big-name universities now creating MOOCs, said Anya Kamenetz, an author who writes on the future of higher education.

Most experts say there will always be students who want to live on campus, interacting with professors and fellow students, particularly at prestigious universities. But as a share of the college market, that is likely to be a shrinking niche.”

Maybe Perez-Pena and Kamenetz are reading the crystal ball correctly, it’s hard to say. But their predictions seem like safe ones to me – higher education has been ripe for disruption for a long time now, offering a product many people want at a price point that very few can reach.

In considering what Coursera is doing, it’s important to understand that each of the new member schools have committed to offer the most highly reputed parts of their curriculum – medicine and public health courses from UCSF and Johns Hopkins, biology and life sciences courses from Duke, business and software courses from Washington – for free, according to Inside Higher Ed. They’re giving away what they do best.

The most important part of all this is the democratizing effect open online education should have. When people who might be able to complete such courses are able to access them at very low costs, we reduce the knowledge gap between them and people of privilege. Stephen Downes quotes Sebastian Thrun‘s response to whether this is the end of higher education as an exclusive enclave for a limited number of students at high tuitions: “It’s the beginning of higher education for everybody.” At this early stage at least, MOOCs represent a moral good.

As a practical matter for those of us who work in the K-12 world, we need to start thinking about several things.

  • How do we prepare our students to be effective in Massive Open Online Courses? or in smaller closed online courses? How do we foster initiative, self-advocacy, and the skills of time-management and communication?
  • What will be our response to parents who insist on school credit for completion of courses from Coursera, Udacity, edX, etc.? Do we really tell a parent their child must take our Calculus course when she may have already completed a MIT course? Maybe, but we need to think of this eventuality.
  • What does this tell us about learning in the 21st century? Do we need to come to a new understanding of college preparation? Should all high school students take some online courses?
  • As more K-12 schools move toward blended learning, will MOOCs become possible courses for high school students to take at their brick-and-mortar schools? Should we offer discussion seminars alongside a Coursera offering? What kind of training will K-12 teachers need?
  • Should elite schools be thinking about spinning off some of their own courses, and joining coalitions to offer online courses at the high school, or middle school level?

Many questions, the subjects of future blog posts.

What questions did I miss?

Response to ‘school is too easy’ survey, Huff Post article

I was interviewed via Twitter and email yesterday about a report released this morning by the Center for American Progress, claiming students find school too easy and that what is needed are more “rigorous standards”. I’m sure I was just one of a number of educators the writer interviewed, and my comments didn’t make it into the Huffington Posts’s article, posted today.

Essentially, the CAP report suggests the move to the Common Core and more strenuous state-wide standards will challenge students more. Here’s my response:

I think the survey results are an indictment of the standardization of education, not of instructors, or schools more generally. I’m dismayed by the Center for American Progress’s call for increasing standardization at a time when leading thinkers in the field of education like Yong Zhao (University of Oregon), Howard Gardner (Harvard University) Diane Ravitch, Sir Ken Robinson, and Tony Wagner frequently make the point that we need a whole different understanding of learning for the 21st century.

If the data are correct that students report certain school tasks are easy, I suspect it is because they are bored and uninspired by one-size-fits-all curricula. It has been my experience over 20 years that students engage in school more deeply and report they are challenged when they are allowed to pursue their passions. This can be done using project-based/inquiry-based learning strategies and by giving students more choice in what and how they study.

If the Center for American Progress and others concerned by this report would like to make recommendations for improving our public schools, they should look carefully at the work of project-based schools, like High Tech High in San Diego. At these innovative schools, students are deeply immersed in high-quality exploration of real-world problems, working cooperatively and creatively. Students find their work challenging because they and their teachers are allowed to set the bar high for personal development, not toward conforming to standardized outcomes. It is schools like these that represent the model for improving education.

In an era of mass customization, policy-makers should not seek to take our schools backward to further standardization.

You can read the report here, and the Huffington Post report here.