STUCK CONTAINER SHIP: A METAPHOR FOR THE EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM?

What could be harder to turn around than a 220,000 ton ship measuring nearly a quarter of a mile long?  The education system. The Evergreen however served as a fantastic metaphor.

For six days, the colossal three year-old was stuck. In a stretch of water narrower (985 feet) than the length of the boat (1,312 feet).  Not even a 3-point Austin Powers maneuver back and forth was possible “baby.” 

 

Not What It May Seem

Though the word “Evergreen” is painted on the ship’s side, on its back and bow in smaller letters is its official name, “Ever Given.”  A Taiwanese company called Evergreen Marine is responsible for operating the vessel, though it is registered in Panama.  Further, it is managed by a German ship company, but owned by a Japanese billionaire.

Education, more than a fifth of the way through the 21st century, is also not what it might seem. 

 

Roots of Education and Where We Find Ourselves Today

For most of human existence children educated themselves simply through play and exploration. A scary concept for most today.  Agriculture and the eventual systems of servitude resultant of the Middle Ages may have been what led to the death of children’s free will to organically learn.  In its place, obedience and reverence for lords and masters. The Industrial Revolution further squelched the innate desire to learn, as children were used for labor.  Once industry began to become more automated children were no longer as needed as much and at the advent of the 20th century child reform efforts surfaced. Finally, in 1924 opponents of child labor in the United States sought a constitutional amendment to allow Congress to “limit, regulate, and prohibit the labor of persons under eighteen years of age.” However, “the conservative political climate of the 1920s, together with opposition from some church groups and farm organizations that feared a possible increase of federal power in areas related to children, prevented many states from ratifying it.”  Not until 1938 were child labor laws enacted.  

 

Mind you, this is but 83 years ago!

 

Until Jean Piaget (1896-1980), pedagogical theory envisioned children as merely “empty vessels.” To be kept in line and “filled up.”  A diametric opposite of the very meaning of education. Etymologically, the term “education” derived from the Latin word “educare,” meaning “to bring up, rise, or to nourish.” Or, even more fitting is to consider the Latin “educere,” and its meaning to “to draw out.”  

 

Nourishing and Drawing Out.  Are Schools Doing This Today?  

More aptly, are schools whole-heartedly bent on settling for nothing less than a child’s best and allow for personalization?  I would argue we still have many miles of road to pave.  However, traction continues to be gained as educational systems move from compliance to empowerment.  The narrow ideologies of the past may pervade, yet however steeped in “control” they may be, such views are being sabotaged by digitization and connectivity.  Now, a teacher in the virtual world likely contends with YouTube, chat rooms, and possibly even Netflix, for a student’s attention.  “Armed” with pre-determined and trite curriculum, it often feels like a losing battle.  Vying for students’ attention and dumping curriculum on them was not the impetus most teachers got into the profession.  

An alternative approach might instead based on respect and trust.  Where the knowledge, skills, and standards checklists become more invitation than imposition. Or, what about the powers of collaboration?  How many educators are trusted, willing, or daring enough to set out to build a sort of kinship with students, where curriculum might be co-created?  A return to a more master and apprentice style; exploration as opposed to inculcation. For an example of how one middle school teacher does this, take a look at the basic structure for a unit design in a post written by Allison Zmuda titled, “A Play-By-Play Strategy for Co-Creating Curriculum with Students.”

 

Damage Done

The Suez Canal, a slit carved between the Mediterranean and Red Sea, took 10 years to build.  An investment well spent because today it is the preferred path connecting east and west. Ten percent of the world’s trade purportedly flows through these waters. From the 23rd to the 29th of March, the world watched as more than 360 ships were forced to wait.  A behemoth blocked the way. According to Lloyd’s List, a maritime intelligence organization, a total of $9.6 billion worth of cargo was held back each day.  Not until April 3rd did the Suez Canal Authority declare the logjam over and that all waiting ships finally crossed through.  Then, on April 13th, the Evergreen was seized and “Egyptian authorities said they wouldn’t release the massive ship… until its owners agreed to pay up to $1 billion in compensation.”

 

Are today’s schools similarly being held for ransom?

 

What is it going to cost to free our brittle, antiquated, and traditional system of education?  Though there is a clinging on to a delivery of knowledge; something seemingly more ubiquitous than even clean water or air, I remind you how the duration of this model, is but a flash in time. A “new normal” if you will. Yet, cracks in the system, like the ones the pandemic is inducing, continue to create a sort of vacuum. The rays of light clear the space for teachers to be more daring and for learners to return to what is instinctual.  Learning which is constructed, not consumed. Actively uploading, as opposed to passively downloading.  

 

Nothing New or Particularly Earth-Shattering

The late Sir Ken Robinson was turning heads 14 years ago, claiming how schools actually squash creativity. Further, in a visit of over 200 schools, Ted Dintersmith shared his observations in a book called, “What Schools Could Be.” Further, for specific schools standing out in the field, you may want to take a look at Getting Smart’s list of “Middle and High Schools Worth Visiting.”  Here you will see project-based learning, personalization, purpose, and a variety of other “ingredients” necessary to “unstuck” education.   

The stuck container ship is in fact a fitting metaphor for the education system. A difficult system to turn. One that still is wedged.  However, I like to think progress is being made, even if  transformation has not freed the “ship.” Marketer and author Seth Godin says it best, “Most difficult, quite rare and precious is the idea of transformation.”  The idea is there! Allies and advocates alike, we are tugboats.  Please stay the course, because your pushing and pulling is critical.  

 

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2020-21 A PUNCTUATED SCHOOL YEAR

You can sum up this school year in a variety of ways. However, please don’t use the word “unprecedented.” The challenge isn’t what to say about the past 7 or 8 months – the challenge is how will we end it. Punctuation marks might be the best way to frame this finish.

.

Over and done. We came, we saw, we conquered.  Signed, sealed, and delivered. A year like none other and thank goodness it is finally over.  Full stop 

!

I can’t breathe with this mask on! Hybrid model of education, I didn’t sign up for this!  Two more months, you got this! Summer time!

,

A pause, however continuation as next year is not going to be much different, and this situation/sentence will just continue to go on.

?

How will we start in the Fall? But what about graduation ceremonies? How might we go about really getting closure to the year What are the effects for children being in front of computer screens for so many hours? I never did understand, how is it sanitary for students to pass a football but not share a pencil? Do the footballs have an anti-bacterial coating?

A case can be made for the fittingness of each form of punctuation. Yet, a lesser known, unusual mark might top them all.  The ellipsis.  And maybe that is because ellipses do the opposite of what punctuation usually attempts; indicating relationship between ideas.

Ellipsis

The “dot, dot, dot,” usually  is used either for omitting text, for pausing or trailing off in speech or thought.

Perfect.  Even more so, considering the advent of the ellipsis can be traced back to the drama of the 16th century. “Drama was ‘especially important’ in the evolution of the ellipsis,” says Dr. Anne Toner a Cambridge academic.

Our parents and grandparents may have profited or toiled from the Roaring 20s and Great Depression. Unarguably very dramatic times. But, in our own lives, what has caused more stir than COVID-19? No better punctuation mark seemingly lends itself to the drama of the past year (or year and a half!) more than an ellipsis.

How we end the 2020-21 academic year is of our choosing. 

The “rain” has fallen.  I only hope we subscribe to American singer-songwriter Johnny Nash’s optimism, “Look straight ahead, nothing but blue skies.”

Because bright, bright sun shiny days are surely ahead.

To be continued

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AN UNWILLINGNESS TO HAND OVER CURIOSITY TO GOOGLE

Borrowed from Amber Kipp on Unsplash

“The important thing is not to stop questioning.

Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

~Albert Einstein

 

At the beginning stages of a project on innovation, I conference with students. My conversation with Anthony was staccato, more detached than cut short.

“Great, you want to see how gaming consoles have changed throughout time. As you begin to research, what are some questions you have?  Or, if you find out anything about gaming consoles, what do you wonder most?”

The response a dead end.

“Nothing.”

A child void of wonder could be linked to a listless boat in harbor.  Not only captainless but tethered.  However, eternal optimism screams out, “The boat is still afloat!”

Unfortunately, the conversation with Anthony was not exclusive, others had played out over the years.  Dejected tones imbued in learned compliance.  Students comfortable with conforming to carousels of simple obedience and going through the motions traditionally called, school.

In quiet reflection I question the myriad factors which might contribute to what appears to be an inverted approach to learning.  Specific to Anthony I wonder, “How often  in middle school has Anthony been given free reign to wonder?”  The normative approach possibly is one where teachers have over a hundred students and countless standards to “cover.” Systems of disempowerment where students are subjected to learning, as opposed to being agents of their own learning.

Further contemplation led me to take a deeper dive into what research says about the nature of wonder and curiosity.  There is little if any scrutiny of the value of curiosity in learning.  Yet, there is artistry behind designing approaches that truly listen to learners and provide the right conditions for revelling in wonder.  To do so would not be noble but simply, humane.  Intentionally fueling, as opposed to extinguishing this lifeblood. Curiosity, a hallmark of our human experience.

Tomorrow is Already Today

The role of curiosity is essential as we step into a possible fickle future. In an article titled, “Why Curiosity Might Be the Most Important Skill for Recruiters,” John Vlastelica shares:

“My team and I at Recruiting Toolbox have worked with thousands of corporate recruiters and hiring managers inside many of the best known companies on earth. And as you uncover what makes a great recruiter great, you start to hear common themes across industries and geographies. Curiosity is not always explicitly called out, but it’s there — it’s like an underlying competency, that leads to the more visible competencies that talent leaders and business leaders tell us they want to see more of in their recruiters.”

But it does not stop with curiosity.  So too is the need for context and razor sharp problem solving sets.  Kurt Reusser’s 1986 study, is in effect sadder than it is humorous. How Old is the Shepherd  posits, “There are 125 sheep and 5 dogs in a flock. How old is the shepherd?” Though absurd, researchers reported that  three quarters of schoolchildren were willing to offer a numerical answer to the shepherd problem.  Conditioned to calculate and not question, there is little wonder how passive learners were not confused by the word problem. They just needed to come up with a number.

Good news! This study was more than 40 years ago. Or is this really “good” news.  School curriculums have done anything but prune existing curriculums.  The time and space to develop intuition, explore, and question most likely has become even more confined. The pace of the world continues to quicken and students are expected to know and be able to do more, but seemingly in even less time. Racing as if there is soe sort of finish line. Further, consider the wieldy role of AI and algorithms.  Aimed at optimizing everything, algorithms increasingly are taking hold.  Their grip tightening as can be seen in the case of the “all knowing,” Google. “People Also Ask,” (PAA), previously known as “Related Searches,” appears after any word is typed into Google.  Only, no longer is this search all about knowledge and limited to generation of millions of results in less than a second.  Google also proffers a list of questions (PAA).  A list of what we might want to know.  The pivotal role of wonder shortcutted.  Users neither “have to” nor “get to” think of the questions.  Though under my brow for several years, only now am I conscious of the implications this feature may have on the future. The approach so seemingly sleight of hand. I am left with one dominant feeling.

Gobsmacked.

If you look up “gobsmacked” on Google, the first enquiry in “People Also Ask” reads, “Is gobsmacked a bad word?” Impulsively, I click on the question and find “…it’s used for something that leaves you speechless, or otherwise stops you dead in your tracks.”

Exactly. I am speechless, stopped dead in my tracks.

This is because “Googling” is no longer solely about knowledge and answers.  It is also about questions. Conditioned to still question I do not intend to hand over this privilege to Google. But how many busy learners will?  Or, already do!

Will Google revisit their mission and even rebrand themselves? This seems to be a matter of  subterfuge, as Google exceeds their  interest in, “organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful.”

This all reminds me of shopping for a greeting card.  Of greater importance than the inflated price tag, the happy birthday or get-well-card, comes with a message already written for the consumer who toils with the words to honestly express their feelings.  Yet, according to an Atlantic article written nearly a decade ago, “Consumers are expected to spend $860 million on about 150 million Valentine’s Day cards this year.”  In essence paying a card company to express YOUR feelings!

What We Can Do?

Warren Berger, self proclaimed questionologist and best selling author of A More Beautiful Question, references how today’s work environments are entrepreneurial and in need of educational systems which value questioning. Personally I plan to begin by truly nurturing curiosity and intentionally affording time to question in the classroom.  I myself modeling inquisitiveness and improving the habit of verbalizing my questions.  I also aim to take inventory of the types of questions students are asking.  Thankfully, “Is this going to be on the test,” appears to have all but vanished. I plan to hold close to the following five steps by Berger to help my students become better questioners:

1. Make It Safe
2. Make It “Cool”
3. Make It Fun
4. Make It Rewarding
5. Make It Stick

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INVALUABLE INTANGIBLES

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

As of late I find myself swirling, if not drowning, in acronyms. First SPACS and now most remarkable of all, NFTs. Non-fungible tokens.  Never one to be a laggard I took a deeper dive.. And to simply know what NTF stands for is not enough. More than “all the rage,” NFTs likey are the future. Clearly millennials grasp the concept of NFTs and are paving this somewhat ethereal and hard to conceive of future.  One where we may stray from the more traditional business model of stocks, bonds and mutual funds, but also dip into the entertainment industry.  Artists, athletes, and musicians are seemingly all rushing to create limited digital editions of their “goods.”

In layman’s terms, digital items being bought and sold with digital money.  What is especially of significance is how authenticity is being guaranteed.  Each item stamped with a unique code and stored on a blockchain.  For more information on blockchain technology, there are a host of YouTube tutorials on the subject.  For now, just think Bitcoin. and where a distributed ledger system underlies blockchain technology. Meaning, the ledger or records, are spread across the whole network, making tampering difficult.  Further, it is encrypted, anonymous, and data added cannot be removed or altered. Everything is recorded.  The whole “story” intact.

Big Money

In the news you may have read how a band called the Kings of Leon garnered more than $2 million by auctioning a song.  Then, American football superstar Rob Grownkowski auctioned playing cards.  Many others followed but none matched the recent trade of a JPG digital piece of art which sold for $69.3 million.

The beauty in each sale is how the internet acts as a short of auction house, helping artists reap the benefits of their trade. The middle man cut out.  In the case of the near $70 million dollar graphic art sale of “Five Thousand Days,” graphic artist Mike Winkelmann, known under the pseudonym Beeple, profited from his 13 years of attention on the “masterpiece.”

New York Times technology columnist Kevin Roose posited in a March 24th article, “Why can’t a journalist join the NFT party, too?”  $558,134.50.  This was the result of Roose’s column purchased by a user named @3FMusic.  “The biggest perk of all, of course, is owning a piece of history,” Roose wrote in the column. The article is the first NFT in the New York Times’s almost 170-year history.  The column purchased is about what NFTs are all about. Now that is philosophical!

Shifting to professional sports, there is question of whether or not athletes will be able to fully represent themselves.  Or, will players be more like owned commodities?  Gronkowski’s NFT trading cards were auctioned for over $1.6 million.   Patrick Mahomes, another professional football star raked in $3.7 million. The 25-year old has a mission to “make the world a better place,” and proceeds were donated to his 15 and the Mahomies Foundation, as well as 40 different Boys & Girls Clubs in Kansas and Missouri. However, the National Football League is moving fast in hopes of cashing in on NFTs.  Recently a memo was sent to teams telling them that  league approval was needed and to not begin making their own agreements.  This is on the heels of the National Basketball Association establishing a partnership with Dapper Labs and development of NBA Top Shot.  This is a place where fans are able to buy, sell and trade official licensed digital cards. With an estimated market cap over $1.5 billion, this is a slam dunk for the league.

But What Does All This Mean to Education?

A lot.

College admission is riddled with stories of fraud, cheating and inauthenticity.  The list is as long as it is wide. Implicated parties include organizations, universities, athletic departments, coaches, parents, and celebrities to name a few.  Centralization has permitted secrecy and scandal.  Timothy Collins, a financial adviser, recently shared how “the education industry could use NFTs to share and/or secure transcripts, letters of recommendations, standardized test scores, certifications, and diplomas.” What is being traded or shared as an NFT may be questionable.  However, the significance of adopting blockchain technology is certain.

The future of higher education, and I might argue the future of work, will make this shift.  This may even be considered old news, as nearly two years ago, “nine universities from around the world collaborated to create a trusted and shared infrastructure standard for issuing, storing, displaying, and verifying academic credentials.”  Amongst these was the University of California at Berkeley, MIT, Hasso Plattner Institute at the University of Potsdam in Germany, and the University of Toronto in Canada.

This is good news.

Verification.

Authentication.

A Future of Great Possibility

The fashion apparel brand Supreme was a bit a bit ahead of the curve. Opened in 1994, Supreme was just that.  Supreme in its uniqueness and originality, possibly even items being limited in stock.  Yet, living in Asia has afforded me many lessons. One, is to not be fooled by a fake.  Ubiquitous are the markets where knock-offs are so well constructed, that only the price attests to imitation. Buyers ultimately chasing exclusivity.

Will education follow a similar trend? Hopefully not in exclusivity but in authenticity. As students “brand themselves” with credentials and accomplishments that ultimately can be attested to by a ledger.

The future holds great possibility. And I wonder where we might be in 10, five, or even three years.  Because I continue to try and wrap my head around how a piece of digital art, a JPG file, something not in the physical realm sold for nearly $70 million.  Purchased with digital money also not in the physical realm.

Do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do (The Twilight Zone Theme Song).

Bridging the World of Teachers and Students

“Put your hands up if you can name a YouTuber.”
“Two Youtubers?”
“Keep your hand up if you know three YouTubers.”
18.
Then, 11.
And finally, seven hands remain in the air.

“Hands down.  Now, raise your hand if you know what is going on in neighboring Myanmar.”
Two hands hesitatingly raise up.

This fantastical visual served as a reflection of the need for a call to action.  The necessity to bridge a divide between a students’ world and that of ours, adults. Generation Z, or Zoomers, have an ocean of information to swim in, right at their fingertips.  However, just as I wish that students begin paying closer attention to the world around them, I too should have much to gain from taking a deeper dive into  what captures their 12 and 13 year-old attention.

 

Beginning With the “Why”

We may profess that we promote environments where students become caring global citizens, yet how might we move beyond mere words and into action? At the school where I teach, an intentional approach was taken to provide opportunities for students to speak, listen and learn about the world, ourselves, and what is currently taking place around us.  This mission was designed to help us maintain focus on why we do what we do.  Further, it is aligned with a three item list that is a header on our weekly meeting agendas.  To design with the following in mind:  agency (voice/choice); promote a robust array of opportunities to develop skills of reading, writing, speaking; and to prioritize meaningful learning that motivates and becomes transferable.  Furthermore, our aspirations as social studies teachers is further backed by our school’s vision statement:  “to enrich communities through the intellectual, humanitarian and creative thoughts and actions of our learners.” 

 

How A Teacher Might Get Started

One method of going about this is a robust current events integration.  This begins by our modeling of a presentation.  This year it was an event about Elon Musk and Space X.  Specifically how on average every two weeks of 2020 there was a commercial space launch. The Hong Kong protests was a close second.  After the presentation we invited students to comment positively and specifically.  Following this, we roll out the rubric.  Simplified, the one standard addresses communication and a students ability to engage in discussion on public issues.  The “discussion” is ultimately the passion a student is able to spearhead in class.  Can they proficiently speak loudly, clearly, and knowledgeably? Is a visual utilized to help guide the presentation?  And, is there a call to action?

 

At a More Granular Level

Once students are on board, we invite students to a simple Google Doc calendar and they self-select.  Some think of their soccer games and upcoming band performances.  A few students usually are quick to sign up to be first stating that they are either excited or “just want to get it over with.”  Whereas, others assign themselves towards the end, in an effort to be wise and build off the learning from all those before them.

A Google Slides presentation houses everyone’s presentation, to create a quasi archive in the making. Seven slides are intentionally placed at the start:

Now we make no claim that this is “the way” to do it.  Simply, we have found that it works for our students.  The directions for how to create the slides are explicit, yet allow breathing room for students to fill out with creativity. And they do!

Directions are to select one current event article to focus the presentation. This should be something the student cares about or possibly just wants to know more about.  The first semester students selected everything from whale migration to Black Lives Matter protests.  After reading the article and familiarizing oneself with the event, some students possibly will research more, but this is up to the individual.  Next their three slides are crafted.  The only parameters for the slides are that no slide should have more than 5 words.  This engenders brevity but also leads to the creation of talking points, as opposed to turning and reading slides during the presentation.  Note: this sometimes is challenging as “Death by PowerPoint” presentations have taken root and been accepted for far too many years.  It’s time to bring back tht personality of a presentation.  Remember Show and Tell and how much fun that was?  Imagine a first grader reading a PowerPoint to tell about the item they are showing!

Further, students are invited to thoughtfully incorporate the use  of visuals on their slides.  A range often is selected; charts and graphs, often along with provoking images. Last, we highlight the importance of structure. To begin with a title that hooks and to conclude with a call to action. Also in the beginning, the inclusion of a map will help the audience with context.  From the start the “what” and “where” is already highlighted. Logically, next students will touch on who, when, and why.  The call to action, the “how.”  The conclusion one that hopefully will leave us empowered either to change a habit or behavior. Or maybe just interested in educating ourselves more.  Ostensibly, all 5 Ws and How are addressed in the presentation. For students who may require or desire a template for more structure, we provide a graphic organizer to help with planning.

A hurdle every year is for students to trust themselves enough to present without the use of a script or cue cards in hand.  The expectation is to speak, as opposed to read.  However, with practice all students have demonstrated success in this.

 

Beaming at the End

The final step, a favorite, largely hinges on classroom culture. Applause usually ensues following a presentation.  Then, students have an opportunity to comment positively.  Hands often shoot up across the room and the presenter selects.  Observing amidst the “audience,” tears have welled up in my eyes on more than one occassion.  Kind and specific words spoken directly to another.  A boost in confidence noted on a child’s face, easily detected even though masked.

Since the precursory, “Put your hands up if you can name a YouTuber,” I made the decision to educate myself and join the legions of youth.  To do so, I openly took the recommendations of students.  Quickly three YouTuber names surfaced: Try Guys, Dream, and MrBeast.  The first, Try Guys clearly is a niche unto themselves.  Their online streaming of comedy already has 10 seasons of content. With an even larger fan or following base, Dream has close to 20 million subscribers.  This YouTuber is known for producing Minecraft and speedrun content videos.  The third, MrBeast, is just that.  Offline, known as Jimmy Donaldson, MrBeast has more than 50 million subscribers. A number larger than the population of Spain!  His videos often are expensive stunts, which combine his skills as an entrepreneur, along with philanthropy.  For example, successfully raising 20 million dollars to plant 20 million trees.  Then, there is of course the video of his preposterous counting to 100,000.  Sped up, over 40 hours of MrBeast just sitting and counting is condensed to a full day. Nearly as asinine would be someone spending a day watching MrBeast count.

Whose World?

Though I do not lay claim to have fully swung open the door to our student’s world, I feel positive to have begun to glimpse inside. In doing so, it is intriguing to observe how our teacher and student spheres can intersect, collide, or even casually orbit unto themselves. Yet, one thing I am certain. YouTubers have a magnitude of influence. Their style, wit, and communication patterns emerge in student projects, but also in day to day interactions. In a world still gripping with a pandemic and where officials launch lawsuits against a city’s board of education in order force opening of schools, it is refreshing to enter the world of our students. If even to watch a YouTuber pull off the painful stunt of completing a marathon in American size 40 shoes.

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Addendum:

Curated sources we encourage students to utilize can be seen below.  Some allow students to select their reading level which is a big help.  Additionally, we aim for our resources to be balanced and not necessarily promote any one country’s bias.

Newsela The Good News Network Dogonews BBC– British Broadcasting Corporation Time for Kids
CBC Kids News Kids News– Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Kids News– Australia News for Kids Newsbank
(our school database)

Deserving Permission

Two bits recently grab my attention as I grapple to better understand each.  The first is simply a matter of syntax but the words I hear and choose to use clearly have an impact. The second is of much larger context and regards the commodification of education.

“The self-talk you use regularly creates your reality and your destiny,” states Christopher Bergland in an article published in Psychology Today titled, “Scientists Find That a Single Word Can Alter Perceptions ~Language has the power to make the invisible appear real”.  Understanding this, two words seemingly have the power to raise the hackles on my hairless back.

“Deserve.”

And “permission.”

Consciously I no longer use either, a disappearing act from within my lexicon.  The first, “deserve”, exudes entitlement. “Have a great break, you deserve it!” Or, “Go ahead and eat dessert.  You deserve it!”

Caroline Myss, five-time New York Times bestselling author and internationally renowned speaker asserts, “The attitude of ‘deserve’, as a rule, is a one-way street.”  As if to say that the world and others are simply to revolve around an individual. Myss further adds, “Expectations do not get filled by themselves. Someone has to ‘make’ you happy; someone has to ‘provide’ security and safety; someone has to ‘provide’ love.”

The second, “permission”, appears especially out of place in the context of education.  A place where empowerment and innovation are essential.  Some these days even are proclaiming “fearless inquiry”.  Boldly questioning and willing to try everything. Yet, still hanging on are the enduring remnants of tradition and hierarchy.  A colleague in another school shared a pervasive example of a school community writhing in dysphoria.  “You have the permission to send Meghan to the office when she tells you to be quiet.”  A knee jerk reaction would surely need to be kept in check, a biting of the tongue just the same.  For surely there would be a desire to sarcastically respond, “Geez, thanks!”   Unfortunately this is not a stand alone example.  I have also overhead educators ardently disclose, “Jill (the principal) said we had permission to purchase supplemental materials with our PD funds.”  Like 7 and 8-year old children, professional practioners, those in the trenches, are so disempowered that they need to be given “permission.”  These examples are even more preposterous when we consider “teachers make over 1500 educational decisions every school day, a constant juggle of manager, content holder, master communicator, and support system.”

Occupying more of my thinking, at a 20,000 foot altitude is how might higher education be 10, 20, or 50 years from now.  Specifically, in the United States.  A proponent of alternative models and interested in learning from the past but also the pandemic present, a part of me is not entirely optimistic.  I have no sources to back my thinking, just experience.

Last year, Forbes reported how student loan debt is just behind mortgage debt, a figure of $1.56 trillion.  Clearly a broken system, however with all the talk about the unsustainability of student loans, I posit “What would happen if we emptied the higher ed institutions of privilege?”  What if not a single American student attended the Yales, Harvards, and Princetons?

A vacuum.

That’s my prediction of what likely would see.  As true as gravity.

A flood of F-1 student visas would result.  The elite from developing countries would fill the hallowed halls and desks up over night.  Education, a commodity bought up.  More than mere fad, attending such schools is a symbol.  Just as driving a fancy car, wearing certain designer clothes, or toting a $3000 purse.  In Bangkok, the city where I live, shopping is considered by some to be the nation’s favorite pastime.  With countless luxury malls, boutiques as well as upscale brands help fill a sort of void. Opulence a sort of addiction. Status but also appearance, the priority.

Education is no different.  A commodity.  Only in much of Asia, education is rooted culturally, the pathway to success.  Therefore, what is considered the “best” or “first-tier” naturally is what is sought after. Not necessarily for better or worse.  An Ivy League sweatshirt worn with pride.

However, what is different is the messaging. A more progressive view wells up in the United States.  One example is the rampant rise in credentialing. This appears far more aligned with what it means to learn and work in the 21st century.  In the United States alone there are over 730,000 confirmed credentials.  According to Credential Engine, “Through an increasing array of credentials – such as degrees, licenses, badges and apprenticeships – job seekers, students, and workers have more options than ever to help them get ahead.”Again, I have just experience to make these claims.  Yet, for now my recommendation is to just give students “permission” to pursue an alternative approach.  After all, they “deserve” it!

As Education Evolves, We Must Continue to Integrate Parents 

Schooling and learning have changed. From passivity to authenticity. Transferability the clear goal.  An analogy that might help better understand this evolution is the user experience of shopping and how it has morphed, almost into an unrecognizable state. The advent of shopping catalogs can be traced back further back in history than one might assume, however we are but a couple generations removed from the “Golden-era of mail order.”  You may even have memories, fond or otherwise so, of the 1980’s when we saw the likes of Lands End, J. Crew, and Sears.  The retail catalog business  estimated at $164 billion in 1989.  Catalogs now are but a faded memory, yet they were the  building blocks for the budding behemoth, Amazon. Nowadays there is talk about the use of augmented reality to assist with virtual shopping.  Amazon being one such company utilizing patented mirror technology.  The evolution of shopping is an illustration of an undeniably different world than the one adults experienced as children. This is not unlike our schools and classroom.   Yet, unless you never left school, many adults today may not have realized this transformation.

 

One Question Remains

Before the turn of the millennium I started teaching in an urban school in a large city in the United States. Three quarters of the 8 and 9-year olds in my class would not share the end of the school year, as name tags would tirelessly be replaced with the incessant cycling in and out.  Transience was often a result of families being evicted from government subsidized housing.  Most headed by a single parent, always mothers.  The young women’s experience with education, negative more often than not. To get them to come for a parent night or conference was a stretch.  Families merely surviving.

Fast forward to another reality, teaching in Asia at a respected international school.  Standards, compliance, and well resourced; many students have help at home: maids, tutors, coaches, and extended family.  Two parent households the norm; both often highly educated.  Conference attendance is nearly 100 per cent.  Still, one question is worthy of asking. 

How well do parents really understand what school is today?

In both situations above, intentionality is essential. How are we welcoming parents in, helping educate them on how the world has changed, and how this translates to being a student today?  Unless we do so, the divide likely will remain.  A disconnect where seemingly a more scientific rather than artistic means of measuring wins out.  The quantifiable, hard and fast grades prioritized over the qualitative process of learning.  Commanding teachers as opposed to empowered students.  

 

Just Where Are We Now?

During the pandemic Zoom was used in more than 90,000 schools in 20 countries.   In effect, this meant that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of classrooms were opened to parents.  Sitting on the periphery, or in the case of younger students possibly directly in front of the screen with their child. Parents had an opportunity to be fully integrated, immersed in the learning even if virtual school was different.  Smeared or possibly even “broken,” it was a “window” nonetheless.  Zoom certainly required teachers to be vulnerable.  

Ted Dintersmith, author and film producer, of “What School Could Be” optimistically reveres the pandemic as a remarkable opportunity.  “Will we rush to go back to ‘normal,’ piling on the worksheets and fact-based exams? Or will we learn from what worked this past year and use these insights as a springboard for reimagining school??”  A component of this “reimagining” hopefully will be the critical role of parents.

Dr. Diana Hiatt-Michael, a professor of education at Pepperdine University for more than three decades, examined the historical role of parents in education.  Published by Academic Development Institute, Parent Involvement in American Public Schools: A Historical Perspective 1642—2000,” attests to how the pendulum has swung back and forth. “From strong parent involvement in the home and community based schools of the agrarian seventeenth century to the bureaucratic factory model schools of the industrial revolution,” writes Dr. Hiatt-Michael.  What the impending Information and Experience Age propagates is still left to tell.  However, what is not in question, is the profound impact parental involvement has in a child’s education.  

However, hiring out or programming the lives of children is not call. Rather, the quiet strength in truly listening to children. As well, especially in the pre-teen and teenage years, maintaining trusting child-parent relationships where artful two-way conversation is a part of family’s home cultures.  This communication about friends, things a child may be excited or even nervous about, as well as what is being learned in school.  Parents and children alike never have expressed titillation from the generic deadend conversation that begins with, “How was school?”  

 

What We Can Do (3-2-1 A Common Technique in a Teacher’s Toolkit)

Parents play an integral role in assisting their child’s learning but how might we better facilitate this? Furthermore, how might we as students, parents, teachers, and schools have a more shared vision of what education can be?  Let us finish with some hopefully easily applicable ideas for paving a luminous path.

3 Things Teachers and Schools Can Do:

3 Invite families into the classroom to observe.  And not just once or twice a year.

2 Share regular “newsletters,” updates, or e-mails to help keep parents informed and involve .

1 Share recommended resources that can assist with building greater understanding of the world of children and education today.  As well, parenting wisdom.  For example, Madeline Levine’s Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World.”

 

2 Things Parents Can Do:

2  Set down your phones and create time daily to speak with your children.

1  Parents teaching parents:  volunteer to provide or attend a workshop.  Topics such as as self-management and finding balance with technology are often especially valuable.  

 

1 Thing Students Can Do:  

1 Do not wait for events like student-led conferences to share your learning and lives with adults. 

 

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LEADING AS OPPOSED TO MANAGING

Nearly four centuries ago samurai turned poet Matsuo Manefusa, or Bashō, gave us the gift of Haiku (The inspiration for the Haiku I created above). Similar to Haiku’s time-tested refined distillation of 17 syllables, Twitter constrained users to but 140 characters.  More practical than artistic, Twitter was initially designed as an SMS-based platform and 140 characters was the limit mobile carriers imposed. In both instances, paramount is getting in and out with intentionality.

If only all facets of life were streamlined. Imagine faculty meetings or even better, dentist visits!

Probably much like you, I have a host of people I follow across social media platforms and frequent newsletters. However, none whom I follow parallels the unmistakable brevity and potency as Seth Godin.

If you do not already follow Godin, I suggest you check him out. Godin is an inspiration of what it means to be both purposeful and clear.  For more than thirty years, he has shared inspiration through his writing.  An author of 19 best sellers, his daily blog is in its eleventh year and imparts clever but also applicable messages that pollinate ideas across a spectrum of workplaces. For example, his top two all-time most popular posts are titled, “Don’t Shave That Yak!” and “Quality and Effort.”

One constant of Godin’s style is his ability to succinctly convey his message, masterfully positioning us in the slipstream. Voice so present in his writing. Clear and in pure breviloquence, Godin’s posts are possibly two steps from Haiku and but one away from Twitter.  He imparts wisdom that is enduring but also especially transferable to the craft of education. For example in a recent post he commented on the power of more self-directed and project-based learning, “We can create a pattern of teaching people to be curious because curiosity is an engine for learning… it is less predictable but far more powerful than the current alternative: Creating a desire to get it over with, combined with the ability to believe whatever the person in power tells us to believe.”

Who could disagree with this? The difference between compliance and empowerment.

Just envisioning paths paved by curiosity but moreover what is possible, is the first logical step.  More difficult is the necessary next move. For adults; teachers, parents, and administrators to make a conscious effort to simply get out of students’ way.  Please do not take this as a recommendation for an anarchic melee. Instead, the motivation is more an invitation.  To allow students to genuinely take a front seat to their learning.  If not in the driver’s seat, at least to sit shotgun. Far too much chauffeuring of backseat passive non-learners has grown to be the default modus operandi.  A generation often labeled as bored, disengaged, and unfortunately ill-prepared graduates.

This is not the first time I made the bold suggestion to step out of the way so students can get on with learning. So salient it crops up daily in my reflections, after and sometimes even amidst a lesson. Seemingly I keep having to learn this, as I forget, unlearn and relearn. Why?  My best non-guess is that it is a matter of control and of critical importance is to courageously let go. This I confess with equal parts honesty and vulnerability. Further, I am beginning to think it best to begin each lesson or unit plan with an overt intention to lead and not manage. Similar to coaching.  Or, what Godin references to what we don’t see in a music conductor’s success, “They have less power than it appears, and use their position to lead, not manage.” Ultimately musicians, athletes and all learners will find themself on a stage, field, or court.  Let them manage.  Let them play!

CULTURE MAPS, NOT GAPS

Atop my wish list for 2021 is a post pandemic world.  As it pertains to the field of education, I also hanker for increasing adroitness and understanding.  Dexterity if you will, amongst people and cultures.  Understanding ourselves and our identities as individuals and collective societies is preliminary.  Then, it is fitting, as international educators we reflect how our school cultures blend, balance, or possibly even juxtapose with the host culture.  

Erin Meyer, author of “Culture Map” recently published another book alongside Netflix co-founder and CEO, Reed Hastings.  “No Rules Rules~Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention,” attests to the importance of freedom and responsibility.  Late in the book, cultural “maps” or charts are utilized to depict how countries compare one with another, along behavioral scales.  For example, communication tending to be high versus low context.  Or, leading being more egalitarian or hierarchical.  The results are revelatory. For example, when using the country mapping tool comparing the Netflix culture map with the the Singapore regional hub map, the results are nearly parallel.  The largest difference is in how time is scheduled.  Netflix has a bit more flexible rather than linear approach to time.  However, when Netflix and Japanese cultures are mapped, there is a near inversal relationship.  The most striking example is how in Japanese culture there is an avoidance of confrontation, whereas at Netflix it is considered disloyal to not express disagreement if your opinion differs. Netflix even socializes the idea of “farming for dissent.”  

Borrowed from: “No Rules Rules”

How fascinating but also worthwhile it might be if schools apply a similar approach?  To look at an institution’s values and compare it to the culture of the host culture.  In the school where I teach, what would various stakeholders say about the similarities but also possible glaring differences of our school values? In confidence the value of respect would likely be mapped the same.  But what about balance? Or, courage?  Would we similarly envision or even define these values?  

Enter innovation stage left.

Or quite possibly stage left, right, and center! With the continued shake-up felt around the world and increasing globalization, the role of innovation continues to be the loudest voice in the room. Whether wrench in the wheel or the necessary spark to the fire, innovation is more than mere buzz word.

However, how much ultimately has resulted from 21st century education and the declaratory driving force to be more innovative?  

How much remains just words?  

And is innovation embedded in our school cultures? If you live in Germany, Singapore, or Korea, innovation likely already has taken root in your host country and possibly is spilling into your schools.

Yong Zhao, Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas, cites a failure of education in its ability to catch up to technology. Moreover, professor Zhao attests to governments going at educational reform in an erroneous way.  The answers do not necessarily reside in curriculum, greater testing, school accountability, or even more educated teachers.  Rather, success hinges on creating environments where students own their learning.  

Within a school’s mission and vision, is there a tapping into the most powerful resource?  Students’ imagination, creativity, and joy.  Moreover, do teachers, families, school cultures and host cultures trust students?  By empowering students we ultimately will engage them in magic that education can be.  

Flexibility and adaptability are often preached, and yet so, we hold fast to certainty.  Prolific is the desire to just tweak. A freshening up of the baby’s bath water, as to not let any water escape.  Yet, at Netflix a very different approach is taken; the water blithely thrown out.  Netflix’s heart beats from a place of trust, empowerment, risk and responsibility.   Are these same variables commonplace in our schools? Amongst our teachers but also learners?  And are they implicit in our school’s values?

 

Let’s have 2021 be the year of paradigm shift. 

 

Naturally, a first step would be to informally audit, or least reflect on who are as an institution.  So too is the importance of grappling explicitly with reality and the culture of the host nation. In international settings, this close examination is especially critical. Where are the matches?  Contradictions?  Furthermore, what is reconcilable? Respecting of cultures is paramount, but so too is the necessity to strategically plan for pathways of growth.

The goal to clearly see our culture maps while diminishing the culture gaps.

GETTING OUT OF STUDENTS’ WAY

Education often is steeped in compliance as a result of control.  How nourishing the experience can be, when instead of control, context is the driver.  In October two students asked if I might be willing to sponsor a club called, “Green Oceans.”

The name was intriguing, as were the stickers already affixed to the computers of various sixth graders.  Instead of an ocean, the design featured a mountain. Come to find out that the mountains wished to convey a broader message of interconnectedness. The green referred to sustainability.  Needless to say, I gladly accepted the request to act as sponsor.

A week later, twenty-two motivated students filled the room.

The club was born.

Unbeknownst to me, the savvy pre-teens already were immersed in a digital platform called Discord.  They were quick to include and even assign me a “teacher’s chair.” Green Oceans already determined that the club’s two “founders” should help guide the decisions.  Further, two other students were quick to self-nominate to act as Green Ocean’s financial managers.

“Financial managers for what?” I question.  We didn’t have any money!

Though I initially did not know several of the students, it is quite possible that unconsciously I was able to trust in the goodness to come.  This especially so, having students named  Birdie, Whale and Proud in the room.  In Thailand it is customary to have a nickname or “chue len.”  Literally translating to “play name,” in 80% of the cases the chue len is but one syllable. It certainly helps with pronunciation, as official Thai names can be especially long.

At the heart of Green Oceans was an earnest desire to help spread awareness to take care of the oceans.  Furthermore, the club wanted to take action. Students were quick to decide that they should sell something.  One student already was recognized to have a talent for tye-dye, whereas another enjoyed making friendship bracelets.  The novelty of both would be customization.

Over the next month students were part of either the marketing or production team.  Marketing was responsible for creating posters to be hung around campus, as well as digital posters to be shared in both the middle and high school daily news bulletins.  Further, individuals on the marketing team learned how to develop Google Forms for collecting orders and spreadsheets were utilized for organizing payment and also for communicating with the designers.

Just as quickly as the club was born, orders began to stream in.  The production team was all hands on deck, while marketing worked closely with “clients” (student speak) to collect payment and communicate the time and place orders could be picked up.

All told, an equivalent of over $1000USD was sold. True service, not an assignment. The endeavor entirely student driven.  “My favorite thing about Green Ocean Club was we had a chance to lead the club.” A similar version of this comment was repeatedly made in a reflective survey.

In initial club meetings, Green Oceans decided to piggyback on the relationship the school already had with an organization called, Phang Nga Coastal Fisheries, also known as “Turtle Heaven.”  Founded in 1985, Phang Nga Coastal Fisheries is located in Southwestern Thailand, along Thai Muang Beach. The Andaman Sea is home to four species of turtle and Green Ocean club’s monetary donation will specifically help support an effort to protect important nesting areas for both Hawksbill and Green sea turtles.

Becoming a “sponsor” provided for a “guide on the side” approach.  As teachers we seemingly are quick to lead, maybe even control.  Getting out of students’ way may just be the panacea.  One which leads to greater empowerment but also success!