Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Wine and Education

Recently I had the opportunity to go to the British Columbia School Superintendent's Association Conference in Vancouver, BC.  At the conference, there were more than 450 District Superintendents, Principals, Vice Principals, Treasurers, and students in attendance to listen to presenters speak about personalizing learning for students in the 21st century in a British Columbia context.

Amongst the speakers was Charles Leadbeater, a renowned expert on innovation in various areas in the private and public sector.  He talked about a number of different things including the changing face of innovation with social media, the evolution of innovation from the contributions of few to the contributions of many, and the scaling up of innovation from small pockets here and there to large scale implementation of innovation throughout a particular sector.  He also described a series of thought provoking analogies;  while each was interesting, the one that piqued the attention of the large group on a Friday night after a long week was not difficult to pick out.

What education can learn from wine.

Dr. Leadbeater began to describe the French wine industry and the process of selecting a suitable bottle from a long list of French wines that one might experience were they to go to a posh and exclusive French restaurant.  He described the oft-intimidating process of the sommelier coming with a list that might have several dozen different varieties and brands to a person that might have little or no experience with wines.  Having gone through this experience on many occasions myself, I really identified with the strategy that he described:  "One doesn't pick the top three for fear that one might be seen as cheap just as one tends not to pick the bottom three because they are far too expensive.  Instead, the typical person blindly picks something somewhere in the middle, with little knowledge or proffered advice as to whether that bottle would go well with their particular meal."

I can identify with this.  I certainly have felt intimidated by what appears to be an expert who speaks in terms that I have little or know comprehension about.  Truth be known, I just hope that I get a nice wine that tastes palatable.

Leadbeater went on to describe what happens when the bottle shows up.   It is often non-descript, with a label in a different language and very little information about the contents.   I will admit (with a bit of a red face) that at times in the past, if the bottle was of a particularly dark color, that I have wondered whether I have actually ordered a red or a white wine right up to the point where I pour it in my glass!  He talked about how most people do not have the time to research and figure out whether a particular variety compliments their meal.  The French had the wine market cornered, the language of wine cornered, and did little to help their consumers because they didn't have to.  France and good wine were synonymous, and if you wanted to know what variety went with your lamb, you needed to go do your research and find out.

With many people nodding in the crowd, Mr. Leadbeater then talked about the Australian wine industry, and how they had stormed on to the wine scene with a very different approach.  If one were to look at their typical wine bottles, one would find a simple description of the wine AND some useful tips about which meals that particular wine might go well with.  Having Chicken Korma? Try me!  As a result, he contended, Joe Q. Public in a hurry on their way home from work would rather read a label and grab a bottle of the grape from Oz rather than wander aimlessly up and down the multitude of aisles filled with French wine trying to determine what was going to go well with the salmon they purchased from Costco.  This really struck a chord with me.

He then related this to education.  He cautioned the group about the current system and methodologies around education might be considered to be analogous to French wine.  In BC, education might be considered by many to be a lexicon for quality, with a proven track record of success.  However, for many, it might be shrouded in a dark bottle without a description of what it might actually 'go with'.  It might be considered to be described in terms that people outside of education are not familiar with, and understood only by educational sommeliers--district administrators, principals, and teachers.  And he also highlighted the fact that our consumers (our students and parents) right now may be looking for something that is more easily understood, that is in clear and transparent packaging, and that is more applicable to what they need to succeed.

This resonated with me.  I realize that oftentimes, I speak in 'educationese', in terms that are puzzling (and sometimes outright offensive) to people in business, industry, the trades, or to the general public (including our students).  In order to create positive partnerships with our 'consumers', we need them to be very knowledgeable and informed about what we do at schools and the value of this education for our students as contributors to society.  We need to be able to clearly articulate the skills that kids are learning in our buildings and how these will be transferable not just to something such as post-secondary education, but to business, industry, the trades, or whatever our students may choose to do.  And perhaps most importantly, we need to articulate this for our students in our buildings TODAY.

The answers to the question "Why are we doing this?" can no longer be "because you need to know this", "because it is important", "because it's on the test", "because you need this to go to university", or "because I said so".  To use the wine analogy,  if we don't put our outcomes from our classes and our system into a transparent vessel with clear markings that everyone can understand, we run the risk of our students and parents looking to 'consume' their education from a 'bottle' (educational provider) that goes better with their chosen meal (career).  If we do personalize this 'consumption', we have a much greater chance of engaging our students in their learning at our schools.

A great presentation by Mr. Leadbeater, and if you have the chance to see him, I recommend you do.  He will stimulate your thinking about education, and perhaps about wine as well!

Cross-posted at Connected Principals

Monday, February 13, 2012

Using Your Computer for a Football

It is stating the obvious when we say that technology has changed the way that we do business in our schools today.  The amount of information that is available, the speed at which we can access content, the types of collaboration and connectivity that we can have with others, and the type of data that we can quickly gather from and for our school community is truly staggering.  But as a tech-evangelist who champions all of the advantages that technology can bring to our schools, there is still one thing about technology that drives me crazy.

When technology does not work.

Today, we took our Grade 9s through the course selection process for next September.  It is a fairly simple process of data entry that takes less than 5 minutes of actual computer time to enter courses.  In British Columbia, we use a system called BCeSIS, which is a central student information system for nearly all schools in BC.  Our Grade 9s were to directly enter their course selections into the BCeSIS system, and then be able to review it with their parents at home online.   However, as our 9s sat in four computer labs poised to enter their selections, the system froze.  And when reset everything and we brought another group in, the system froze again.  While incredibly patient, you could see the anxiety on the faces of our students because they were unable to select their courses.  You could see the frustration of their teachers who had scheduled this time out of their classes to get the course selection process completed.  I felt bad for all of them, and in the end we had to abort the mission and reschedule for another time.

We had tested it.  It had worked prior to the session.  We had adult and student helpers.   We thought we had covered every base.

The technology just didn't work.

Suddenly, I found myself becoming gun-shy with the direct entry of our courses into BCeSIS.  We have a thousand more students who need to enter their courses.  What if it doesn't work next time?  How will the kids get their information into the system?  Will we have to do it by paper?  Will we have to find a workaround?   Should we just use paper like we have in the past?

This made me reflect on how difficult it can be for teachers when they are trying to use technology to increase the engagement of their classes or teach 21st century skills to their students, only to have the technology conk out on them.   Multiply this by a factor of ten for a teacher who is a neophyte with technology; the negative reaction that tech failure can cause for someone trying something for the first time with their class is one that can last for a long while.   I use technology every day, and here I was, mad, cringing at the thought of BCeSIS crashing again, and ready to 'abandon ship' for a paper solution.

I know that in the end, it will all work.  We will call and find out the reason for the crashes, and we will get all of the information from the kids.   But I only know this because I have had technology crash on me too many times to remember, and I have had people there to support me when I wanted to give up.  Bearing that in mind, I think it is paramount that those of us who are more comfortable with technology in tech leadership positions recognize the potential fragility of new tech users and consistently provide them with support for them when tech goes bad. 

Otherwise, I fear that we may find more computers being used for footballs, like the one above.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Go Ahead and Cheat

Do you remember when you were a student in high school, and your teacher said to the class something like this?

"For our upcoming midterm, you can use a cheat sheet."

I remember my heart rate would go up.  My mind would race.  I would begin scheming about how I would really make the teacher pay on this one.  I was going to anticipate EVERY conceivable question and problem that my teacher could come up with, and I was going to know the answer.  I was going to have examples written the way I wanted them, in a way that worked for me.  I was going to draw diagrams that were labelled and color-coded.  The formulas would basically solve themselves.  And not just that, I would get together with some buddies, and we would collude on all of the different things that our teacher could possibly think of.  There would be no way that the teacher could beat us on this midterm.  NO way.

And so, with painstaking organization, the development of the cheat sheet would begin.  Scouring class notes, my buddies and I would analyze what we felt was important.  We would argue and debate.  We would find interesting mnemonics to remember different things, some agreed upon and some we would make for ourselves.  We would find creative ways to maximize the use of space on our sheets.  A couple of us would go to the computer lab and minimize the printed portions and digitize our graphs.  The final product was a work of art--we were ready.

An interestingly, when the test day would come, our teacher would have a knowing smile on his face.  Each of us would come in brash and brazen, daring the teacher to say "Hey, you can't use that!".  We were ready and armed with our retort "YOU SAID we could use a cheat sheet!", but he would never say a word.  He would just nod with a rueful smile, as if to say "You guys REALLY got me this time.".   We would gleefully write our midterm, smiling and laughing because we had outguessed our teacher.  What a sucker, he never should have underestimated us.

We had been afforded the opportunity to be creative in making our cheat sheets.  To collaborate with our peers to determine what we might need to be put on them. To think critically about what might be on the midterm.  We got to use some computer skills in making our sheets.  We learned how to access information and put it into a useable fashion that would allow us to apply it to problems we would face.  We learned how to learn.

This is an example from 20 years ago.  But in my mind, it is an excellent example of what we need to continue to do with learners in our schools.  We need to find ways to make the CONTENT (in my example, the subject of the test, which by the way I couldn't possibly remember) teach our students the PROCESS (making the cheat sheet, of which I pretty much remember every detail).

It is no secret that our students will remember little of the content that is presented to them in schools.  For myself, while I do remember how to make a roux from Foods class, spit out a quadratic equation and maybe even do a Punnett square, I have certainly forgotten countless bits of information from thousands of hours spent in classes in high school and university.  This is why it is so encouraging to see more and more of the current educational discourse focus upon teaching students to communicate, to collaborate, to think critically, and to acquire the skills that will help them to be adaptable learners in society.

This is not to say that there should be no content within different curricula.  I believe there are certain things that are important for students to learn in their educational career.  However, if we can approach our content knowing that the likelihood of much of it being retained is not high, I believe that we can begin to look at our lessons in a different manner.  In a manner that allows our students to branch out and develop the skills that will allow them to find the problems that have yet to be created and solve them for the future. As a result, I want work with our staff to continue to investigate strategies that have an emphasis on developing skills as much as learning content.  To teach skills like those found here...

And maybe like my Physics teacher in high school, I can encourage them to let students 'cheat' on the content to learn the process!