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Archive for May, 2012

America’s undisputed champion of Social Media in education, Tom Whitby, was recently jolted by an exchange on Twitter with a professional colleague.  Big ideas in education were “getting drowned out, ” his tech savvy friend remarked, as a result of the endless discussions about Social Media and the heavy emphasis on promoting “connectedness for educators.”  Social Media is a powerful medium that can be used to learn, but our near obsession with it may be at the expense of other powerful ideas. His Twitter friend went even further: ” it’s still all pretty much primordial soup.”  http://tomwhitby.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/social-media-help-or-hindrance-to-education-reform/

Sparked by that intellectual challenge, Tom took to his blog An Island View (May 29, 2012) to make the case, once again, for today’s educators to take full advantage of the Social Media in leading a 21st century revolution in education.   As the founder of  PLN, the Professional Learning Network, he can be quite passionate about its power to create “professional learning communities” spanning whole continents. Like Canada’s 21st Century Educator, David Wees, he credits Social Media for giving him a new lease on life.  It has certainly made a difference in their professional lives spawning #edchat and attracting a legion of camp followers.   Whether it is the harbinger of a new age education revolution is more open to question.

Since the explosion of Twitter, early adopters have been mad about its miracle powers. Back in September 2010.  Sarah Kessler sung its praises in “The Case for Social Media in Schools.” A year after Grade 7 teacher Elizabeth Delmatoff started a pilot social media program in her Portland, Oregon classroom, Kessler claimed that it worked like magic with kids.  Some 20% of students school-wide were completing extra assignments for no credit, grades had gone up more than 50%, and chronic absenteeism was reduced by more than a third. For the first time in its history, the school met its “adequate yearly progress goal for absenteeism.”  http://mashable.com/2010/09/29/social-media-in-school/

Social Media was trumpeted as the next great thing in inspiring learning and student engagement.   Zealots like Kessler made a compelling case and rhymed  off its advantages: 1. Social Media is Not Going Away;2. When Kids Are Engaged, They Learn Better; 3. Safe Social Media Tools Are Available — And They’re Free; 4. Replace Online Procrastination with Social Education; 5. Social Media Encourages Collaboration Instead of Cliques; 6. Cell Phones Aren’t the Enemy.

Her conclusion was a call to action. “Nobody would dispute that the risks of children using social media are real and not to be taken lightly. But there are also dangers offline. The teachers and parents who embrace social media say the best way to keep kids safe, online or offline, is to teach them.”

Since then, educators have become far more tech savvy, and, inspired by enthusiasts like Tom Whitby and David Wees, have adopted Social Media as a primary Professional Development tool and begun to introduce it into the kingdom of the classroom.

Promoters of Social Media can sound messianic. “We all learn from other people….”  but now” face to face connections have never been completely replaced, but rather enhanced, by technology.”  Borrowing freely from Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenburg Galaxy, they trace the steps from pen and ink to the printing press to electronic media. In Whitby’s words:  ” Technology historically allowed learning to expand from face to face contact to distances beyond the limits of both time and space, and the Internet has moved that to a whole new level.”  It is, he insists, time we began empowering educators with the Hi Tech tools and preparing students for life in this century.

Visionaries like Whitby are even dreaming of Schools that function like Twitter. ” I wish all educators had Professional Learning Networks like mine, but it is not a style of learning suited for everyone., ” he wrote. “Nevertheless, I began wondering what it would be like if the types of sharing, collaboration, reflection and discussion that are continuing activities on Twitter could at least be attempted in the school building environment.”  http://tomwhitby.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/what-if-school-was-more-like-twitter/

Promoters of Facebook and Twitter in schools have run into roadblocks on the North American educational highway. In many School Districts, they hit brick walls, especially so in Canadian K-12 school systems. That’s fully documented in my January 2012 SQE study, The Sky Has Limits, a recent look at the impediments to online learning and virtual schools in all 13 provinces and territories. http://www.societyforqualityeducation.org/parents/theskyhaslimits   Teachers are free to experiment with Social Media and to attend Ed Camps on their own time.  Far too many schools are “Out of Bounds” and an amazing number of elementary schools remain under IT lock-down regimes.

Fascination with Social Media is growing rapidly among teachers.  Some estimates are that  there are as many as 500,000 connected educators, globally using social Media for professional learning. That sounds astronomical until you realize that there 7.2 million educators in the United States alone.

Skeptics about the value of Social Media can still be found everywhere in the “bricks and mortar” school system.  High schools are full of contrarians who delight in quoting the latest commentary from Nicholas G. Carr and other leading critics. His Blog, Rough Type, is a veritable treasure trove of barbs and amunition for foes of the high tech revolution. Hot on the heals of his brilliant critique, The Shallows, he is fond of lampooning those addicted to Social Media.  His recent post comparing Various types of Social Networks to “recreational drugs” cuts close to the bone. After reading it, Facebook does seem like “pot” and Twitter may well simulate the effect of  “Black Beauties.” http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2012/04/social_networks.php

Breaking down the barriers in schools can be exhausting, sucking away energy and draining us of ideas.  Many gifted educators seek solace and refuge in the simple pleasures of a good book and a receptive class of students. Pushing Social Media, like flogging IT, is all too often about the process rather than the substance of education, teaching, and learning.   Learning how to learn seems to have supplanted the core mission of education — learning something that is worth knowing and actually matters.

Is Social Media a help or a hindrance to improving the quality of education in schools?  Is introducing the learning tools crowding out important ideas associated with education reform or, pedagogy, or methodology in education? Is it a distraction rather than a means for transformation? In short, have Big Ideas gotten lost in the scramble?

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The clock is now ticking for many of Canada’s rural communities. Declining enrollments are gradually emptying small community schools and provincial departments of education are attempting to address the “excess space capacity” with facilities planning models that promote regional consolidation, tend to ignore local community interests, and signal the death knell for small schools.

School accommodation reviews are the harbinger of school closures, essentially ripping the heart out of rural communities. Shuttering rural schools does far more than emotional damage. A June 2008 Canadian Senate Agriculture and Forestry Committee report, Beyond Freefall, identified school abandonment as a major contributor to the cycle of rural poverty.  http://www.parl.gc.ca/Content/SEN/Committee/392/agri/rep/rep09jun08-e.pdf

From Nova Scotia to Ontario to British Columbia, School Reviews become the defacto rural education strategy.  In Nova Scotia, the School Review process, revamped in 2008,  continues under rather legalistic rules that formalize a process pitting school boards against the communities they purport to serve.  Parents and families caught up in the process soon discover a regulated, quasi-judicial “chopping block” on the road to a more consolidated, regionalized, and remote school system. Being granted a reprieve is all most small, rural schools can hope for under the current School Review system.  http://www.capebretonpost.com/News/Local/2012-05-16/article-2981277/Schools-vital-to-rural-areas-group/1

The Schools at the Centre policy brief, produced by the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative and presented on May 15, 2012 to Education Minister Ramona Jennex , attempts to change the prevailing dynamic.  http://www.facebook.com/NovaScotiaSmallSchoolsInitiative  It calls for a moratorium on School Closures for one year to provide the time to develop a coherent, coordinated Rural Strategy aimed at revitalizing threatened rural communities. The Delegation challenged the Minister and her Department to take the lead, working with Rural and Economic Development and other agencies, in developing a “Schools at the Centre” revitalization plan, giving rural Nova Scotia communities some reason for hope in the future.  http://thechronicleherald.ca/novascotia/97233-committee-urges-province-to-keep-rural-schools-open

A coordinated, strategic approach to rural education and sustainability is imperative to the future of rural communities.  It is not really a new concept, because many  Provinces and Territories have at least formally adopted such policies. A few examples of Rural Strategies should suffice:

Manitoba: “Collaboration among school divisions, the provincial Government and community agencies is essential to the articulation and implementation of effective strategies and actions which will ensure a high quality of educational opportunity for all students in rural and remote areas of our province.” (Rural Education in Manitoba: Defining Challenges, Creating Solutions, 5)

Alberta: “As part of Alberta’s plan, a Minister’s Advisory Committee on Small and Rural School Programming was to be established along with “incentives…to encourage rural school jurisdictions and educational institutions to work with community agencies to make their schools and facilities a hub of services for children, communities and lifelong learning”. (A Place to Grow: Alberta’s Rural Development Strategy, Executive Summary)

 Ontario:“Our plan for rural Ontario recognizes that when young people have access to good education in local schools, our communities can grow stronger.” ( Ontario’s Rural Plan Update 2006)

 Prince Edward Island: “Given that many people prefer a rural lifestyle, rural communities that offer comparable levels of connectivity and educational services will soon be able to compete with urban centres for residents with high-quality talent and expertise, especially those communities with a vibrant local culture and identity. If rural communities can attract, and retain, even a small percentage of people seeking to raise their families in a rural environment – whether they earn their living in the community or an urban centre – these citizens could provide rural Prince Edward Island with the economic foundation it needs to maintain its way of life and achieve a higher quality of life”.( Rural Action Plan A Rural Economic Development Strategy for Prince Edward Island,  2010)

While provincial governments have various departments responsible for education, regional development, health, and community services, they still tend to operate in comfortable “silos”.  In the case of Nova Scotia, the new Kids & Learning First Education Plan is a prime example.  It contains a smattering of good ideas, but these in no way constitute the kind of analytical thinking and integrated planning necessary to tackle the issues of rural education, rural depopulation and rural economics, not to mention the most basic right of any child — a quality educational experience within her or his own community.

The members of Nova Scotia’s Small Schools Delegation challenged the Minister and her Department to take the lead in “reframing” the whole issue.  Rather than relying upon the School Review process to simply shed small rural schools, why not embrace a new concept of schooling?  A new Smaller Human Scale model that recognizes the centrality of schools in rural communities and one that demonstrates the viability of small schools run in an affordable, efficient fashion tapping into the potential of networked school communities.

Where do we start to address the core problem?  The NS Small Schools Initiative has recommended that:

1.     The Minister of Education announce the Department of Education’s intention to take the lead in developing a Rural Revitalization Strategy, working in partnership with Economic and Rural Development for an integrated government-wide approach.

2.     The Minister of Education take the lead in advancing the Kids & Learning First plan by embracing our Schools at the Centre philosophy aimed at revitalizing rural education through a province-wide, community-building and development strategy.

3.     The Minister of Education announce a moratorium on all School Review processes, effective June 1, 2012, affecting all schools recommended for closure in the current provincial cycle of school accommodation reviews.

4.     The Department of Education build on the Nova Scotia Virtual School project by initiating a Rural Schools Online Education Network, based upon the Newfoundland model, creating digitally-networked schools and taking fuller advantage of distance education in the 21st century guise of virtual schooling.

5.    The Department of Education take a lead role in facilitating the partnerships necessary to help small rural communities develop their school structures into multi-use community assets, through a public engagement process, involving all interested groups, including school boards, regional development agencies, school councils, teachers, local boards of trade, local government and citizens.

What’s stopping Canada’s provincial governments from tackling the challenge of revitalizing rural education?  Why do provinces like Nova Scotia, Ontario, and New Brunswick rely almost exclusively upon a School Review process to guide their policies?  Can we find the leadership to take up this challenge?

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On the eve of the 21st century, a seasoned British educator John Abbott challenged us with a perplexing Core Question and a Big Idea. In an incredibly rambling and thought-provoking speech in Sunderland, U.K., entitled, “”Battery Hens or Free Range Chickens,”  he asked an unsettling question: “What Kind of Education – for What Kind of World?” Even though politicians in many nations were claiming that public education was a top priority, the system was in crisis, Abbott declared, because schools had ceased to be about learning and were not really preparing students for an uncertain future.



Why was public education mired in a protracted crisis?  The essential answer, according to John Abbott , could be found in a rare nugget in David Perkins’ Smart Schools (1992): “Learning is a consequence of thinking.”  In direct, unvarnished English fashion, he was saying that there could be no real learning without thinking  and that the schools were failing today’s students, and particularly adolescents, on that score.

John Abbott’s amazing speech hit me like a flash of revelation. It wasn’t exactly a “Eureka” moment, but as close as I will ever come to such an experience. After three decades as an educator, spent in some outstanding schools, I couldn’t get that question out of my mind: What were we really teaching students — and why were most teachers seemingly content to “instruct” in ‘egg-crate’ classrooms and resigned to “going with the flow”?

Public education is driven, as you well know, by the Bureaucratic Education State, and not only encrusted with competing ideologies, but overflowing with meaningless edu-babble. In such a strange world, a metaphor is worth far more than a thousand words.  This potent metaphor will always be John Abbott’s greatest legacy. Public education, he proclaimed, in Britain and elsewhere, was “floundering for lack of really clear thinking.” Then came the pearl of distilled wisdom: “By default we will end up in a world of battery hens. Such hens hardly know how to stand on their own feet when their wire cages are removed…Those reassuring cages that now support us won’t be around in twenty years time… the survivors will surely be free range chickens.”

Since the advent of modern educational psychology, Jean Piaget and John Dewey, have successfully focused most educators on “the child” and the early years in child development. We needed to be reminded that the schools also seek to educate adolescents. It was John Abbott who issued the wake-up call. ” Adolescence is currently seen as a ‘problem’ in Western society,” he said,  and the schools were falling short in what he termed ” intellectual weaning” or providing the independence needed to become critically aware and independent in outlook.  Touche!

The historic tensions in public education — is education about content or about process? — continue to bedevil us.  It absorbs far too much of our air time and psychic energy.  Neither of these polarities is good enough and it’s time to lay it to rest.  That explains the rock star popularity of Sir Ken Robinson and the lesser known, but more profound writings of Kieran Egan, best expressed in The Future of Education (2008).  Sir Ken is big on “creativity” but I’m puzzled by the contradictions in his message. Pursuing “inventive education” which respects the intrinsic value of “core knowledge” would be far more constructive than trying to re-invent John Dewey for the 21st century.

Today John Abbott’s educational philosophy is being promoted by The 21st Century Learning Institute. What started out as an exciting breakthrough has produced mixed results, including the 2008 book,  Overschooled but Undereducated.  Abbott has attracted a loyal following, but his prescriptions now sound much more consistent with those of the educational psychologists than the thoughtful educationists. Today’s schools have taken the “factory model” too far, but the ingenious ideas of Abbott seem to have been appropriated by futurists without his grounding in our own educational tradition. “Tomorrow has been abolished and Today will be re-enacted as if Yesterday had never been…”  That chilling message is not new; it was sprayed on the walls of a Cambridge college more than half a century ago.

Rome, it is said, was not built in a day. Thought leaders like Sir Ken Robinson do provide a glimmer of hope.  In his TED Talks, he reminds us that not much has changed since John Abbott issued his call to action two decades ago.  Today’s school systems still promote conformity, uniformity, and industrial habits of mind. We still face the formidable challenge of re-engineering schools so that they foster creativity and innovation, encourage divergent thinking, and teach the way children learn.

We need to find our bearings and resist the temptation to Ride the Next Wave.  A recent Atlantic Canada Conference (April 23-24, 2012), sponsored by Bridgeway Academy, had it right. It is time to begin Turning the Tide in education. Over the next decade, let’s try to move the yardsticks in education closer to a system capable of educating more “free-range chickens” and fewer automatons, in the teaching profession as well as the millennial generation.

What kind of an Education do we need — and for what kind of world?  Whatever happened to turning “battery hens” into “free range chickens” in our schools? Where —and when — will we find our bearings?

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