Thursday, November 8, 2018

A Quick Return to My #EdTech Foundations

A good friend of mine asked me to share my five best arguments for why technology should be integrated into the curriculum or a teacher's practice. He's a super smart guy whose own expertise in this area is exceptional, so he wasn't really likely to learn anything from my response, so much as he was looking to see what wrinkles I might add to his own thinking.

Because he knows me, he asked me to limit myself to 5 bullet points. I may have a reputation for verbosity and ADHD-enhanced mental overkill. I don't generally limit myself.

BUT, I like a challenge, so here is what I sent back:

  • Technology amplifies great teaching and learning, making good learner-centered lesson design, great. It enables educators and learners to do real, complex work that can have an impact beyond the classroom and after the bell. 
  • Technology enables the 21st Century Skills referenced in [our school district's] Vision for Teaching and Learning: Creativity, Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving (as well as others that appear in a wider sweep of the literature).
  • Technology connects students more directly to wider (and more authentic) audiences for their work which encourages greater ownership, provides them with richer feedback, and gives them more opportunities for voice and choice.
  • Technology opens a door to richer content with which to engage, exposing students to more opportunities to understand the world from diverse perspectives and learn empathy, providing them with greater power to use their own inquiry to drive learning, and connecting them to expertise that would otherwise be limited or unavailable.
  • Our students are living blended (digital and analog) lives that are on-demand, democratized, connected, and empowered. Their learning has to be blended as well to a) be relevant to them, b) help them understand their blended world and their rights, responsibilities, limits and opportunities within it, and c) teach them the technical skills and modern literacies (digital, information, media) that will help them be life-ready citizens in the Digital Age.
Obviously, I cheated a bit. Those are some dense bullet points. A short-hand version might be:
  • EdTech makes learning-design more impactful and engaging.
  • EdTech empowers future-ready skills development.
  • EdTech makes learning more authentic and meaningful.
  • EdTech provides access to the world's resources.
  • Tech is part of the world. EdTech prepares kids for it.
That's as concise as I can get. #TheStruggleIsReal

This was a fun exercise. I'm sure on any given day, my answer might be slightly different, but that's why it is good to circle back around to what you think from time to time. 

I'd be curious to know what the rest of my #edtech friends would list as their 5 best bullet points on this topic. Feel free to share yours in the comments.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Thursday, April 5, 2018

If Broken, Break

A couple of weeks ago, I was broken. I had zero creativity left in the tank. All of the projects that I wanted to move forward on felt like unscalable mountains. If I had to compare my mental state to anything at that time, it would be like experiencing a dream in which you really need to read something for information, but you aren't able to. As a result, my productivity tanked, and the noise that can fill my head with negativity and hopelessness crept in.


I know that we can all feel that way from time to time. No matter how passionately we love our work, believe in our cause, or care about those we serve, we only have so much fuel to keep our machine running. I call it passion fatigue.

Once I am in that mode, no amount of inspiration is going to fix me. I've hit a wall, the airbags have deployed, and the windshield is a spiderweb through which I can no longer see. My foot might be on the gas, but I'm not going anywhere.

I have broken when I should have breaked.

Fortunately, last week was our Spring Break, and we had booked a fun-filled week at Walt Disney World for the family. I turned off my notifications, set my out-of-office email, and completely disengaged from all priorities other than family fun.

It worked. As busy as we were (6 days of crowded parks and 2 days of hectic travel), my brain came back rested and ready to climb every mountain. This kind of active distraction is really effective for me. I'm not the meditative sort (though I totally buy the argument for mindfulness). And passive distraction like television, my newsfeed, video games, and even reading, fail to recharge my batteries. In fact, that kind of distraction tends to deplete me more by adding to my head chatter.

The best thing for me seems to be play. Active, creative exploration with people I care about.

Ideally, I would learn from this experience to hit the breaks before the crash, to allow myself smaller, more frequent brain breaks. I should forgive a bit of playful distraction to fuel my passion. In my best moments, I do. More often, I do not.

It seems like we have devalued active play in our world. Imagine what it would look like to put "Play" as an item on your To Do list, or to include it as part of your lesson plan, or to block out space for it in your calendar. Imagine if our students' days prioritized undirected and active play. What would people think? How can that be justified? What does that say about you?

It might say something positive.

You are the ultimate boss of you. You could decide to reframe that. I am trying to.

So here is my challenge for myself, and if it works for you, feel free to share my challenge. Find a way to play every day. Tap the breaks on your passion machine, and maybe put it in park for the time it takes you to just have some fun with the people who make you happy. It won't be wasted time, unless you tell yourself it is.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Trying Something New

So one of my favorite organizations in the world has begun a "Spring Into Blogging" challenge, and I am excited to participate. The topics are shared every 2 weeks and will run for 3 months. I think the goal is to encourage participants to build a lifestyle, rather than just participate in an event.

The first topic is Try Something New. That can feel daunting because in our busy lives who has time for something new? It's easy to fall back on familiar patterns that ask very little of us. But the down side to that is that when just keep repeating what we already know, we don't create new neural pathways, and we feel less alive.

New can be challenging, but it also makes us feel more alive. Our senses engage more fully because we have to process a lot more new information. Think about how you feel when you are in a new relationship, you visit a new place, or you step outside of your comfort zone to try something new. I love that feeling.

I have been trying to stretch myself more over the last couple of years. I think it is because I am going to turn 50 this year, and I am starting to feel the critical eye of my mortality. I've attended a couple of art classes; I've picked up the guitar; I've been learning French. All of these have felt difficult along the way, but I don't regret any of them because they have forced me to be more interested and participatory in the world.

For this challenge, though, I think I want to try new approaches to reaching and sharing with an audience. To that end, I will attempt a few different approaches and see which ones hit home.

Here is my first one:

Last year a colleague and I came up with the idea of quick, one slide idea shares. We called them our small BUTTS because we were a) inspired by Peter Sims' concept of Little Bets, b) we wanted to share things that were Bite-sized, Useful, Timely, Tech-enhanced, and Shareable, and c) we are clearly juvenile.

My wonder is whether a blog post with nothing but the single small BUTTS image will hit home as a way to share ideas via my blog. Obviously, if I embed it here, you will have no way to help me know if such a post is useful to you, so here's how you can help me:

  • Visit this post.
  • Let the small BUTTS wash over you :)
  • Let me know in the comments if it was an effective approach to sharing ideas via a blog.
Thanks for any help you can provide.


Small Butts #1: Pixiclip

Is a share like this useful? Let me know in the comments below. Thanks!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Complexities of 'Belonging' in the Digital Age, Part 1

I recently read an interesting article on Fast Company by Sebastian Buck titled "The Best Brands Are The Ones That Build 'Belonging'." There is much to recommend this article, but I want to focus on 2 things:

First, I buy it. When I think about where my brand loyalties lie, they are clearly influenced by that sense of community. I'm a Mac person. I'm a Disney fan. I'm a Google user. All of these companies have sold me a lifestyle, but also a community. They have made it possible for me to find others who share my interests, and they have encouraged my ongoing interaction with their products. They have designed a culture that I can describe and contribute to. That's powerful stuff.

To be clear, I am not "buying in" blindly. I have the wisdom of age and experience. I recognize that the purpose of these companies is to get my money. They have an ethos that they are selling, and I am buying off the rack. I could just as easily have been a Dell person, a Universal fan, and a Microsoft user. I picked the brands that felt like who I wanted to be, and then (to the extent that I could), I did the work of personalizing my experience. I convinced myself that among these options, I chose wisely. To do otherwise would have meant that I had succumbed to Barry Schwartz's Paradox of Choice, and accepted a less satisfying life. My complicity in brand-loyalty (an act of self-deception) has to be driven by something very primal, which leads me to my next point...

The power of Buck's article is that he lays out a compelling argument for why we are likely to desire and seek out belonging, especially now. We do seem to live in a time of social isolation in which we have fewer institutional options for finding our tribe while, simultaneously, we have many more individual options for doing so.

Technology has made it possible for me to connect with more people (and brands) who are more like me. I can get really granular in my search for the ideas, things and people who reflect my tastes back to me, AND I have 24/7 access to those things. Once I find them, automation and algorithms ensure that I remain in contact with them at the expense of other ideas, things and people, because really, with the limited time I have, can I waste it on something I know I won't buy?

I think you can see the good and the bad here.

It's small wonder that with the exponential growth in choice and the immediacy and convenience of access, that our sense of civic obligation, our trust in our institutions, and our empathy for others are all in decline. As long as there are brands that are capable of filling my particular needs, not only will I be less likely to look elsewhere, I will grow to trust my choices of brands uncritically, while seeking every reason to disparage competing brands (whether it be my choice of cell phone, my preferred place to buy my groceries, my source for news, or my political party affiliation).


This has enormous implications to those of us in education.

It was difficult enough to think critically and independently before the Internet and 24-hour news and market research. Thinking is hard. Asking yourself if you are wrong in a world of personalization is even harder. Everything is set up to affirm our notions, to satisfy our appetites, to cater to our preferences, and to ensure our choices remain predictable.

Additionally, given this level of personalization, I am reminded of a passage from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 in which the character Beatty explains the demise of the book. Essentially, in this dystopian universe, people's interests became so personalized that books that held a particular point of view (and that could consequently offend someone) fell out of fashion. It was better to be distracted by fun, non-controversial diversions than to have to confront someone else's beliefs. As a result, society self-selected away from challenging ideas and toward meaningless drivel.

I wonder if we are at the beginning of that process. There are still plenty of controversial ideas, and they are pitted against one another daily on cable news, in our mobile news feeds, and through social media. Right now, it feels like we're anything but avoiding controversy.

HOWEVER, I also know how tired of it many of us are. We aren't engaging in meaningful dialogue or truth-seeking as much as we are broadcasting our truths into the void of our individual echo chambers. How easy would it be for us all to just give up the fight and instead be distracted by mass media designed to make us feel good?

Maybe that is what is already happening. Perhaps the fact that we can all pick the people who inhabit our virtual islands is a twisted form of happiness. Yet, we are still at war with the other islands. Inclusiveness is easier when it is enabled by exclusiveness.

The next natural step might be Bradbury's world. In our world, brands are facing big choices today. They can either stand with one camp and risk the backlash of another (for example, Dick's Sporting Goods' recent announcement) or avoid controversy at all costs (for example, L'oreal and Revlon's responses to the political statements of their representatives).

If multinational brands are struggling to navigate these waters, imagine how our kids will fare?

It may have never been more critical that we teach our students media literacy than it is today. Our kids deserve to have a clear understanding of how all brands seek to influence us, how big data uses everything we do online to target us with messages, and how the algorithms that social media uses gradually isolates us from new ideas. It's equally important to help them develop the wisdom they will need to make thoughtful contributions to a complicated world and the empathy and interpersonal skills they will need to live in a world filled with a rich diversity of beliefs.

In future posts, I plan to look at two related issues: 1. What are the roles and realities of educators and schools in this age of hyper-personalization, and 2. How can classrooms and schools create a more sensible space in which students can find and create belonging.

In the meantime, I'd love to know your thoughts. Are we a match for the persuasive power of brands?  Are there benefits to the role brands play in creating a feeling of belonging? Are there sensible choices we can make to repair the isolation our digital world can create? Do we still live in a world that is capable of deliberation, compromise, and productive dialogue? Do we want or need to? What is the role of education in all of this?


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Has It Really Been 3 Years?

One of the goals I set out for myself this year was to return to blogging as a means of reflecting on my own learning and as a way to share ideas and resources with others. Somehow, I allowed myself to get away from that. There probably aren't any really good excuses or explanations. I did other things instead.

So I just fired up the old blog, and the first thing I realized is that my last post was in 2015.

Three. Years. Ago. 

I'd love to wax poetic about the passage of time, but that is not my ultimate purpose of this post. Here is the purpose of this post: To plant a flag in the ground of my life. To make a symbolic commitment to myself that my voice matters in a sea of other voices. To remind myself that I have the opportunity to influence my world and my profession through my hard-earned experience. And, probably more than anything, to break through the rust that has accumulated in 3 years of disuse.

This is me doing that.

The Argument Against Returning

I have worried, especially recently, that our social media has become a burden on our lives. I worry that we all feel a little too empowered to share our every thought as if it is truth or as if it is a challenge to others to either agree with us or expose themselves as fools. I worry that when we post, we are creating reasons for others to feel separate from us or feel harmed by us. I hate the thought that sharing ideas in the public arena is a form of participating in a culture war. Who am I speaking to if the only two options are an audience who will drink my Kool-Aid, or an audience that wants to tear me down?

I also worry that when we do this we are just adding to the noise of the world. Do my reflections need to be public? Does it matter if no one ever knew what I think about? Do I want to be another distraction to be consumed in a world that offers enough without my help?

Finally, I have been concerned with sharing my thoughts because of the overall tone of our discourse. It seems that there is no longer room for uncertainty, compromise, or grey areas. We seem locked into camps (on all sorts of issues, not just political ones). I truly worry that learning out loud means either limiting my curiosity to safe ground that will connect me with a smaller set of accepted ideas (in one camp or another), OR it means inviting the slings and arrows of both camps when I don't move in lockstep with either. Everything feels like a hot button issue. Everything is high stakes. Every word feels like it could set off a time-consuming flame-war or painful process of explaining myself due to a poorly chosen image or unimagined trigger.

All of this has made me reticent to pick up the virtual pen again.

So why this moment to return? Why step into a space that raises some serious angst?

Two things: First, I look at the remarkable courage of people who every day use their voice to try to make the world a better place. I am constantly inspired by people who ask challenging questions, who fly in the face of conventional wisdom, or who shine a light on something I've never seen before. All of these people rise above the noise, rather than contributing to it. I aspire to do that. I'm even jealous of that.

Second, I was struck by a quote that appeared in one of the end-credits scenes of the movie, Black Panther (which was an awesome movie, by the way). In it, the character T'Challa says:

Now more than ever the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.

This strikes me as getting to the core of our current problem. We are being forced by the "illusions of division" into a world where what connects us is lost in the noise of what separates us. Our media experiences are echo chambers to the point that neighbors can, in a real sense, live in different worlds based on the information and opinion they consume. And unless there are those who have the courage to construct bridges, to live in the center, to find common ground, we will just continue to descend into warring tribes over every issue.

Make no mistake, our children are learning to fight wars, not create better worlds. They are being trained to dehumanize those who disagree with them, rather than to seek to understand another point of view. They are conditioned to react to sound bites rather than do the long, difficult work of truth-seeking.

So that's why I'm back to this. If nothing else, maybe I can model sincere learning that is focused on building from the center instead of defending from one side or another. Perhaps I can increase the amount of hope and positivity that we bring to our shared journey. Maybe I will share an idea or strategy that will inspire someone else to build something cool, or draw new connections, or consider another point of view. Maybe I can find a way to be one of those rare threads that connects otherwise disconnected worlds.

No promises, but a guy can dream.