Wednesday, July 14, 2010

It's the students, stupid

ISTE was amazing and overwhelming and I learned a million and six different things, but in the interest of finishing my thoughts on this year’s conferences before, you know, next year, I’m going to condense a significant percentage of the conference down to “I learned a lot; it was cool” and spend my time reflecting on the two keynote sessions I attended.

I missed the opening keynote session (though it was, from what I hear, a “death by PowerPoint” experience, so I’m not exactly heartbroken). Tuesday morning there was a keynote panel titled "Innovation and Excellence: Buzz Words or Global Imperative." Speaking on the panel were Karen Cator (Director of the Office of Education Technology, U.S. Department of Education), Jean-Francois Rischard (former VP of the World Bank), Terry Godwaldt (Director of Programming, Center for Global Education), and Shaun Koh (a student from Singapore). Despite having the least “impressive” title, Shaun Koh was the speaker I found most interesting, and would gladly sit through as many speeches as he cared to give. Not that the others weren’t interesting, but his perspective and forthrightness were the most engaging.

Anyway, their thoughts and what I think of them:

Terry Godwaldt

  • 21st century skills require deep understanding of basic skills

Again, it’s nice to hear this emphasized; these new skills don’t replace the other skills we need to teach, they build on them.

  • You don’t have to invent projects; you can just open the newspaper.

Want to make learning relevant? Then don’t invent a project that’s like the real world; use a project from the real world.

  • At Google and 3M, they trust employees. We need to trust teachers

An obvious applause line, but a good one. This is, I think, a big part of why teachers rail against standardized tests—the implicit message is, “We don’t trust you to know what’s important to teach, or how to assess it.” It’s the problem with over-aggressive Internet filters, and administrators who push back when teachers try to do something new and innovative. The message is: We don’t think you know what you’re doing, and we don’t trust you. It’s really hard to keep moving forward when you don’t feel like your supervisors trust that you know where you’re going. And then people complain that teachers don’t do anything new or innovative. It’s enough to drive a person crazy.

  • Why did you work to solve these problems? Because they were there.

We need to instill in students the same kind of drive to achieve that got Mallory to the top Everest--I have to tackle this problem not because someone told me to, or because I’m getting a grade, or because it will look good on my college application. I need to tackle this problem because it’s there.

Jean-Francois Rischard

  • The dictatorship of the standard test doesn’t allow much wiggle room for innovation.

It was nice to hear someone outside the (sometimes insular) world of education acknowledge that we are stuck between two very demanding masters—we need to make sure students get high marks on standardized tests , and we need to make sure that students develop critical thinking skills and the ability to learn independently. Which are two diametrically opposed goals. It is possible, and I’ve seen teachers do it, but it’s not easy and it generally takes the kind of effort you see in those “teacher as super hero” movies wherein it’s made clear that all you have to do to be a good teacher is give up absolutely everything else in your life.

Karen Cator

  • Stay on questions longer

There is a time pressure that exists in education. Idea not working as quickly as you hoped? Students not finding the answer or finishing projects at the pace you've established? Then move on! Or, you know, not. It takes time to build momentum and get really engaged, and we tend to switch gears right as we reach that point. So take time. Really engage with big questions. And it will take a while for you and students to get used to that pace, so have patience with that as well. But in order to keep students really engaged with problems, we also can’t be using the same types of “find facts and regurgitate them” projects; they need to tackle real “real world” problems.

  • Education is the most reticent system, but change is possible. We need to start where we are

Not where we wish we were. We can’t talk about reforming and building upon the education system we wish we had; we have to work with the one we actually have, thorns and all. Just like we want our students to wrestle with real world problems, we need to do the same.

Shaun Koh

  • Technology is just an enabler. Don’t forget why you started teaching; technology makes that come alive.

There is no technology on the planet that will turn a bad teacher or a bad lesson into a good teacher or an interesting lesson. Good technology used ineptly is not good technology. I can’t remember if I heard it in this session, or another one, or only saw it on Twitter, but someone at some point said “The killer app for 21st century learning is a good teacher.” It really doesn’t get more complicated than that.

  • Listen to and watch your students--keep an open mind to ideas your students have

We are, as teachers, often afraid of letting go of control. And I feel comfortable saying this because I’m not completely comfortable with letting go of control myself. But I’ve done it, and you know what? The world did not end, and I learned something. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know,” but it’s even more okay to say, “I didn’t know; thanks for showing me.”

  • Testing sucks the passion out of learning

Another obvious applause line in a room full of teachers, but you can’t exactly argue the point. There is this conversation going on about how, in order to give time to subjects that are now getting short shrift due to standardized testing, we need to start testing those subjects as well. Ugh. No. I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but what we need to do is disabuse ourselves of the notion that the only way to measure learning is through standardized testing. Yes, it makes compiling statistics easier. But those statistics are a) essentially meaningless and b) completely and totally useless to the students who we are supposed to be educating. It’s not about us or our need for data. It’s about students. I think we need to revive the “It’s the economy, stupid” signs, but replace “economy” with “students.”

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