Thursday, July 15, 2010

Identifying the cart and the horse (and then putting them in order)

Right as the closing keynote at ISTE was beginning I found out that my ride home from the airport had flaked out on me, which sent me into a bit of a panic. So I was one of those awful people who texted through the first part of the session, trying to arrange a new ride. I felt awful, but given that I was leaving for the airport in about eight hours, I also didn’t have many options. Luckily, I was able to arrange for a new ride very quickly and then devote my undivided attention to the speaker.

And I’m glad I did. The speaker was Jeff Piontek, the Head of School at Hawaii Technology Academy, and he was fantastic.

I’m going to do this in “what he said I what I thought” style again.

  • Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve

There’s a larger statement about educational philosophy in this idea, but there’s also day-to-day feet-on-the-ground implications. Oftentimes when we want to try something innovative or new in our teaching we “can’t” because we have too much material to get through (often with a test or semester end in mind); the pressure of the “can’t” comes from both internal and external forces. But are students really learning more if we manage to give them more facts within a certain time frame? And if there are—as I believe there are—certain core skills students need to be successful, what’s to say those skills can’t be taught—and better learnt—when contextualized in a problem-solving exercise? If students need to learn these skills to be successful in the real world, don’t just tell them that—open the newspaper and show them how these skills apply.

  • No one really knows what’s going to happen in 5, 10, 20 years.

His second point doesn’t really jibe with the rhetoric we usually hear when talking about education. We tend to hear “Kids need to be able to do X,” or “We’re preparing kids for jobs where they’ll do Y.” Which may be true, but is just as likely not to be true. So do we want today’s students to know certain facts and ideas, or be able to implement a set of skills? Which lead really nicely to this point:

  • Robotics is not about the robots; it’s about critical thinking, team building, problem solving.

At the pace things move, any robot a student learns to build in 9th grade will be beyond obsolete by the time he or she is in college—let alone starting a career as an engineer. But the skills they learn—critical thinking, team building, problem solving—will never be obsolete. These skills can be used for everything from robotics to surviving the zombie apocalypse (well, that and the double tap)

  • Standardized testing vs. portfolio assessments

It is, as Piontek said, the difference between one 8x10 photo vs. an entire scrapbook. Which gives you a better sense of a student’s achievement? But, as he readily acknowledged, it is pretty much impossible to do meaningful portfolio assessments when you teach 100 students. You just can’t do it. So what do we do? Well, the current answer seems to be standardized testing, which I think pushes the pendulum too far in the other direction. And as much as we would love to see it, I don’t think hoping for teachers’ course loads to be cut in half is realistic. Is there a middle ground?

  • Students and teachers want to be engaged with other people. It’s why we go to conferences—in order to engage with ideas and questions

Learning is, inherently, collaborative. Yet so much of what we do in schools requires students to work independently. And that, again, is driven in large part by our need to assess students and their individual progress. And knowing how each student is doing is important—collaborative work can’t become a way for struggling students to fall through the cracks. But there are meaningful ways to engage all students in collaborative work that are neither rocket science nor radically new. There is also something in this about the importance of teaching and planning collaboratively.

I also really appreciated, especially at a tech conference, the need for human connection that is a significant part of our learning. Many of those connections become easier with online communications, but there is something about face-to-face communication and learning that is really important—and we can’t lose sight of that for ourselves or our students.


STEM is the shorthand used to refer to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math; Piontek argued that we need to add Arts to that acronym in order to truly prepare our students for the challenges they will face. We need to bring back creativity and make it an integral part of what we do—and what we encourage our students to do. As Piontek said, you can teach math and science skills, but you NEED innovation. It’s the unGoogleable skill.

  • I would say I don’t like to criticize, but honestly I do.

I would take his brand of thoughtful, reflective criticism any day. The phrase “constructive criticism” is slowly becoming meaningless—it’s a way of saying “you’re doing it wrong, and I know how to do it better.” Sometimes I like the type of criticism that doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but is instead interested in unearthing all the questions.

  • There’s no longer an excuse not to know how

This goes back to something I was writing about one of the ALA sessions—basic know-how is no longer a high level skill. I was thinking of this the other day I was trying to figure out a new knitting pattern; I didn’t understand how to do the stitch I was supposed to use, but I was able to quickly Google a video of someone demonstrating that stitch. That does not make me an expert knitter. Knowing how to find something on the Internet is not a “21st Century Skill;” 21st century skills are not the same skills we’ve been teaching for generations, just done on a computer. The finding information part is now easier than it’s ever been; the real new skills we need to be teaching are what we do with that information once we have it. And sometimes we won’t know—but our students will have ideas, and we need to encourage that. As Piontek said, “Tip over the boat, even if you don’t know how to swim. Your students will teach you how to swim.”

  • All children should be able to give it a go. All children should have access

I wasn’t sure whether to stand up and clap or weep for joy at this. In part because you could tell he really, truly genuinely meant it. This is one of the issues that comes up a lot working with students with learning disabilities; there is this notion that we need to spend all our time on “the basics” and that we can get to this other stuff if there’s time—but this extra “stuff” is really the core of what we should be doing—particularly with LD students. These “extra” skills are what they’re really good at, and are their entry into learning the basics. When talking about basic skills versus 21st century skills, many argue that we need to be sure not to put the cart before the horse. I agree. I just think we’ve misidentified which is the cart and which is the horse.


  1. It sounds like this was an incredible conference, and I am really enjoying reading your thoughts about what you've heard! Clearly a lot to think about... - Casey

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