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Reimagining Education at #EduCon Philadelphia

Meenoo Rami invited me to come and speak at EduCon and while I am by no means an expert on school reform or teacher professional development (and made that clear to Meenoo before accepting the invitation) I ended up finding a lot of connection points between the questions raised and challenges discussed at the conference, and my own and P2PU’s work.

Educon Philadelphia 2014

The focus of my panel was openness and transparency, and how they affect schools. We touched on the relationship between open and accountability, the need to protect vulnerabilities in an open environment, and the possibilities for innovation.

I tried to make two points:

  • “Open” is a mechanism for change and innovation, that uses networks enabled by technology. Open means you don’t need to ask or wait for permission. You can go ahead and do the things you think are right.
  • Innovation happens at the edges (and EduCon is a good example for the edge) and “open” can amplify the stories coming from innovators, and grow the networks of people who want to participate, to move innovation from the edges into the mainstream.

I believe both of these points are important and resonated with some of the audience, but they also felt a little abstract when faced with the day to day realities of teachers. Paul Allison told me about the school he is helping to start in New York and how they essentially serve kids that the other schools are trying to get rid of. These are kids who spend months in what sound like “detention centers” (although I am sure he used a different term) waiting for their cases to be heard. Another teacher told me that she has to balance teaching her students the things she knows will serve them well in the long-term (collaboration, team-work, curiosity) with the things they need for the standardized test. In light of those challenges I wish I had had more concrete “do ABC in order to achieve XYZ” type advice.

From my outsider’s perspective, it looks like the real tragedy is that those teachers and students who are already doing well, will continue to do well. They will get high test scores and still learn the important things that the tests don’t measure. But for the kids who are struggling, and the teachers who might still be learning themselves, the reforms and standardized testing are poison. They incentivize teaching to the test, and the danger is that the test focuses on the wrong skills. There are no quick feedback loops to make sure that someone who does well on the test will be more successful than someone who doesn’t in the long run. Or rather, that because they are focusing so much on these tests, schools will fail to provide students with the skills they really need. There are no quick feedback loops to test the assumptions underlying the use of these standardized tests.

On a more positive note, something that struck me as a great opportunity is that the best and most successful teachers (measured by any standard, including the standardized test) are those who are most vehemently opposed to the reforms and standardized tests. That is a story that needs to be told more loudly. It should be harder to push aside criticism coming from the teachers who are doing well than from those in struggling schools who are often portrayed as part of the problem themselves.

A quick shout-out for two projects we are involved in that are designed to grow the community of innovative educators:

  • The Deeper Learning MOOC is a collaboration with High Tech High, a great school in California. It’s a constructivist MOOC and the community is buzzing with energy – It’s not too late to join!
  • Learning Creative Learning 2 will be offered again starting in late March. It will be very different than last year. More details soon!

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