Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Death of the Hotel Education Conference

As a teacher consultant we are often called upon to either attend and or present at various educational conferences.  Without explicitly naming any direct conference that I have attended, I want to state that as education has evolved, so to has the model for professional development.  Three things ring true with most centralized educational conferences.

1. They cost a lot of money
2. They have little impact on teacher practice
3. They reinforce a teacher centered pedagogy

1. They cost a lot of money

Pic. of me prior to my Google +
workshop at GAFE Montreal
The irony of this statement is that I have found that the most beneficial conferences have been the less costly ones.  For example, Educon in Philadelphia (which you can read about here) costs a mere 150$ and was a great experience.  Edtech GAFE (Google Apps For Education) are extremely beneficial and cost around 250$ on early bird pricing.  Both these conferences are held on weekends, therefore no supply cost is incurred, and the participants and clearly vested, since they are willing to give up their weekends for PD.  In contrast,  some conferences cost well over 1000$ per attendee and are held during the week when Districts will incur additional supply costs.  Holding the summits in schools seem to be a cost saving initiative that makes for a more authentic learning experience than the impersonal feel of large hotel ballrooms.  Also, hosting your conference in a school allows for a more personalized learning experience for your attendees, since you can offer multiple breakout sessions.  This leads me to the second point.

Jim Sill (@mistersill) giving his wicked Youtube
workshop at GAFE summit Montreal

2. They have little impact on teacher practice

In his book Visible Learning for Teachers, John Hattie lays out a meta-analysis of many different teaching strategies to measure their impact on learning.  Systematically, centralized direct instruction, demonstration, formative practice and coaching all scored relatively the same in terms of comprehension.  However, in terms of skill acquisition, formative practice and coaching had a significantly larger impact than direct instruction and demonstration.  Lastly, in terms of concrete and sustained application of these new skills, the only method that had any impact was coaching.  So what exactly does coaching imply? John Hattie defines it as:
 "Coaching involves empowering people by facilitating self-directed learning, personal growth, and improved performance." 
This is why tools such as Google + and Twitter, which allow teachers to grow their PLN (Professionnal Learning Networks) have such value, since they are asynchronous and low cost.  In the end, the quote implies that centralized training, unless supported by continuous mechanisms that are accessible and affordable, has next to no impact on teacher development.  I remember a conference that I attended recently where the schedule consisted of 2 days of back to back keynotes (about 20 in total) with very few breaks and little time for reflection or interaction.  It isn't that any one of the presentations were all that bad (I was giving one of them #irony), or that the facilitator didn't do a good job moderating the conference, it is simply that this conference model is no longer relevant in education.  By the end of the first day, a fellow attendee (@Dlnorman) tweeted this out to the conference hash-tag during the final panel:

After laughing (almost out loud) I realized that he basically summed up the feeling of most of the room. Again, it wasn't that what the panel was saying was completely irrelevant, it's simply that the attendees weren't active participants and they felt they weren't given the right context to express themselves and debrief about the happenings of the day; therefore, learning was not present.  How does this reality translate into our schools? Our classrooms? I guess the question that needs to be asked is: If this training model has little to no impact on teacher practice and learning, why are we doing it?  That takes me to the third point.

3. They reinforce a teacher centered pedagogy

It should come to no surprise that the hotel type educational conference is still a favored format for teacher PD.  In the end, this mode of delivery reinforces what most teachers are comfortable with: many students learning from one all knowing expert.  This phenomena is nothing new however, models for integrating new technologies in schools have also been subject to this kind of problematic.  Just look at Bill Ferriter's (@plugusin) excellent blog post on Why He Hates Interactive Whiteboards.   Basically, no one likes change, but given the new technological context our students and teachers are now subject to, there is an immediate need for it.  School Districts need to invest in teacher PD since they are the front liners.  Teachers are the ones who interact with students everyday and have the greatest impact on their learning.  In the end, it is time to actualize a new vision of teacher PD and realize that if we want teachers to take risks, evolve their craft, and do things a bit differently, maybe we should start training them differently and offer different mediums by which they can improve.

I feel it is time to do away with the stale danishes and watered down coffee; the drawn out Power Points and the complex packet handouts.  It is time to network teachers and support them in a timely, cost efficient way.  Let's give our teachers time for them to create and develop together.  Let's allow teachers to build on their curiosity.  Let's encourage our teachers to re-establish their relationship with wonder.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

It's About Priorities... Not Time

In my last blog post I quickly referenced Prometheus, the Titan that gave man fire (Knowledge). The myth explains that Prometheus stole the fire from the gods because he felt bad for man; who had to survive the harsh winters without food, shelter, or warmth.  This gift allowed man to innovate and evolve, but it wasn't without consequence.  In order to punish Prometheus, Zeus chained him to a mountain where everyday a giant bird would eat his liver, only to have it grow back again until the end of time. This is kind of gruesome. During the time he was chained to the mountain, Prometheus (whose name means FORESIGHT) was continuously planning his escape.  He was incapable of the reflexion needed to grasp the severity of his deed.

I find myself thinking of the Myth of Prometheus a lot lately when visiting our District's schools.  When I exchange with teachers at different grade levels I find they are all well intended.  I have yet to meet a teachers whose goal is to be hated by his students, or to make them miserable.  Whenever new initiatives are presented to these teachers, it is never a question of will that stops them from trying out new pedagogical models or integrating technology in their teaching. It is rather a question of time.  There is never enough time. I find that we as teachers have modeled ourselves after Prometheus for too long.  As teachers we value foresight, proper planning, and predictable outcomes. We need to realize that effective pedogogy isn't about time, it's about priorities.

With the exponential growth of information and emerging technologies, I feel that the modern day teacher could learn a lot from Epimethius; Prometheus' twin brother. Where Prometheus is organized Epimethius is spontaneous.  Where Prometheus plans Epimethius reflects. Where Prometheus translates into FORESIGHT, Epimethius translates into AFTERTHOUGHT. As teachers we are continuously planning for the next unit, the next quiz, or the next report card. We seldom take the time to truly reflect on what we and our students have done, and how this might effect learning outcomes.  Leo Strauss describes Epimethius as:

"the being in whom thought follows production, represents nature in the sense of materialism, according to which thought comes later than thoughtless bodies and their thoughtless motions."

 If we transfer this to the teachers' context, we start to see how important it is to prototype our class.  Teaching should not remain stagnant for very long. We should develop a positive relationship with failure in order to continuously improve.  In other words, as Molly Shroeder (@followmolly) puts it :

 "We need to embrace Beta Mode".  

I remember an Ancient History teacher tell me once that there is no reason for him to adapt his teaching since "History hasn't changed... it's still the same as it was last year."  I feel that this is simply a result of this teacher not prioritising the learning experience for his students, but rather feeling the pressure of covering a curriculum that is probably too loaded and focuses on content rather than competencies.

Please don't think that I am putting the blame on teachers.  Again, I have yet to meet a teacher who is not well intended.  I think that Districts and administrators should recognise the importance of reflection, and allow teachers the time to reflect on their craft and how they might want to improve it.  I don't feel that most PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) achieve this, since students' results are at the centre of most of these discussions.  Teachers need to start asking themselves what these results actually mean, and whether or not students are developing the skills and competencies they will need to face the world of tomorrow.  Competencies such as critical thinking for authentic problem solving, collaboration, creativity, and empathy are not competencies that are measured by standardised tests used to measure student learning and overall pedagogical improvement.  I believe Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) said it best (although a bit crude) when he tweeted:

We need to trust the people who are in the classrooms everyday and empower them so that they can offer the most authentic learning experiences to our students.  We need to minimize administrative process and procedure in order to allow our teachers time for professional reflection and growth.  This is the only way that we can attack the mindset of these teachers in order to get buy in and achieve a shift in pedagogical culture.

I hope that people don't think that I am saying that teachers should fly by the seat of their pants and forget all aspects of planning.  After all, Epimethius was responsible for opening Pandora's box... not his greatest victory.  However, one might say that a teacher's job is also to open Pandora's box.  Everyday, teachers seek to inspire and instill curiosity in their students.  What better way to do this than to be a little curious ourselves; to give in to a bit of spontaneity, and allow our inner Epimethius to capitalize on a learning opportunity when we see it... even if it doesn't fit into our careful planning and curriculum. 

I realize that some mistakes or failures, such as the opening of Pandora's box might have graver consequences than others.  Nevertheless, it is these 'mistakes' that lead to new possibilities.  Had Epimethius never met Pandora, they never would have had their daughter Pyrrha who eventually survives the great Deluge and be charged with repopulating the earth with modern man.  In other words, our greatest accomplishments sometimes are the result of our greatest failures.

I feel as though teachers should set aside their curriculum for a bit and turn their attention inwards.  Ask themselves if they have a good relationship with failure; if they feel their students do.  I feel as though the common answer from teachers would be that they love the idea but simply don't have the time. But this isn't a question of time; it's about priorities.

My priority is making sure my teaching has a transformative effect on my students - you can't do that by sticking to curriculum. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

EDUCON 2.6 - Or the Modern Prometheus of Educational Conferences

After a two year hiatus, I have decided to start blogging again (WIN!).  I have found in the past that I sometimes struggled to find my voice, but my most recent visit to EDUCON 2.6 in Philadelphia, and some slight arm twisting by Bill Ferriter (@plugusin), has renewed my will to share my humble opinions with the World Wide Web.

So what is EDUCON 2.6? Well I think Jaime Casap (@jcasap) said it best when he tweeted:  

And he is absolutely right.  EDUCON is about the collective intelligence of passionate educators from across the globe who come together because a group of students, some parents, and a dedicated Principal named Chris Lehmann (@chrislehmann) invited them to.  Take a moment to hear Chris talk about his vision of education in this short video, and you will instantly understand why SLA (Science Learning Academy) is such a special school with him at the helm.

What makes EDUCON such a special conference though isn't the all star cast of attendees (I was a little star struck when I saw Will Richardson (@Willrich45) walk in as a participant and not the main Keynote Speaker).  It is the SLA students that make this conference/school so intriguing.

First at the top of the list is Amy, a sophomore at SLA who gave me an initial tour of the school.  Amy was polite, self-aware, and friendly.  She was very positive when speaking of her teachers and her peers, and was very excited about showing us around.  You could tell that Amy was proud to be a student at SLA, and she loved being at school and learning about different subjects even though they weren't always easy.  

SLA is about developing a culture and fostering dispositions.  I was trying to understand what some of the sanctions where when students would skip class or arrive late to their next period (since SLA has no bells, I figured this happened a lot), and most students didn't understand what I meant.  One student even told me: 

"Skip class?! Why would I do that? That's just disrespectful... and besides... I like my classes."

Can someone please pinch me.  This demeanour seemed to be contagious, since all students I was able to speak with seemed to genuinely love their classes and their school experience at SLA.  Just look at this High Quality Compliment wall that was up on the second floor.  Students were invited to leave compliments for other classmates and/or build on compliments that were already up.  Imagine starting your day with a new compliment.  Imagine how much more you want to be part of an institution that positively reinforces the person you are becoming. 

When I was a classroom teacher, I felt as though I was pretty wise for giving a general theme to each of my courses.  For example, the theme to my grade 11 English course was the nature of man.  Whether or not the Math class down the hall spoke about the nature of man to students was of little concern to me.  At SLA, they have assigned big ideas for each grade level.  These big ideas guide each of the projects that the students must complete throughout the semester.  Because of this, teachers at SLA don't need to seek out interdisciplinary relations; the students can make these connections for themselves.

After the tour of the school, conference attendees were invited to a panel discussion at the Franklin Institute on Openness and Transparency in the digital age.  The Panel featured people of interest such as Kin Lane (@kinlane) and Jamie Casap (@jcasap).  The discussion started with an acute focus on MOOCs, but was able to move on to more conceptual themes such as what it means to be transparent and open in the digital age.  The panel was quite fruitful and the Twitter backchannel was trending in less than 5 minutes.  Needless to say, the panel set the tone for a very promising conference.

The opening Keynote for day one was Richard Culata (@rec54) who is Acting Director of the Office of Educational Technology for the US Department of Education. His message can be summed up by a statement he made near the end of his allocution: 

"Nothing makes me angrier than seeing teachers create problem sets rather than using problems that are already out there."

The different sessions I attended throughout the weekend were all about Design Thinking and prototyping.  All of the sessions were dynamic and invited a lot of participation.  Nevertheless, it was the culture of SLA that stole the show at EDUCON.  Nothing blew me away more than to speak with the teachers, students, and parents who made this school a living organism of learning.  

At the start of the weekend I had an aside with Christian Long (@christianlong), one of the speakers and vice-president of The Third Teacher +.  Christian was explaining to me the importance trying to have a bigger impact on my District.  Without criticism, he communicated that I might be selling myself short on my initiatives, since I didn't believe I could tackle the real issues at hand.  I kept coming back to small scale initiatives, when he believed what I REALLY wanted to do had a deeper meaning and a broader scope. 

Coming back to work on Monday morning I caught a Twitter post that Christian shared with his followers:

This post got me thinking about our conversation on the Friday before EDUCON.  Throughout the day I reflected back on my experience in preparation to writing this Blog post.  I thought about how the conference lacked a bit of structure and was at times unapologetically messy - although no one seemed to mind and everything followed the schedule well enough.  I thought about how the school looked a bit tattered and plain - But the students were happy and learning was obviously prevalent. I thought for a split second about how my District might be able to organize something like EDUCON, and how the students from my District could be just as enthused by their learning experience as the students from SLA seemed to be. 

That's when I got it.  That's when the fire in me was lit (had to sneak Promethean in there).

EDUCON isn't a conference - It's a mindset.  EDUCON is an eternal prototype of people coming together to improve rather than preach - to celebrate rather than point fingers - to learn rather than educate.

EDUCON isn't over because the weekend came to an end.  For this first time attendee, EDUCON is just beginning.