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How to find a 21st Century Teacher?

April 15, 2010

I read a great blog post today by a colleague at Newell-Fonda High School that discussed  what we are looking for in a 21st century teacher.  The post discussed how most of the questions we have asked in the past don’t really apply anymore.  We used to focus on content knowledge in the era of “teacher as expert” and now we need to find out whether our candidate is a lifelong learner and how they can empower their students to connect to their own learning.  The original post is here: http://newell-fondahs.blogspot.com/

Her post got me thinking…what do we ask now? What questions can we ask a candidate to uncover their ability to be successful in the new educational paradigm?  What examples can we ask for?  How can we seek to uncover the skill set we are looking for?

Time for a little participation.  Here’s the question…what questions should we ask to find the next generation of great teachers?  I look forward to your ideas and I will post a few of my own as well!

An Open Letter to the Governor…

April 6, 2010

Dear Governor Culver;

We stand at the edge of a monumental shift in education.  The world around us is changing at an exponential rate.  All sectors of life are in flux in a way and at a rate not before seen.  One needs only look at data related to economic and employment trends to see that the world future generations will live and work in is fundamentally different than the world of the past.

Iowa has long prided itself on its strong tradition of innovation and the “can do” spirit that seems to come naturally here.  We have created one of the strongest public education systems ever seen.  This system has successfully prepared many generations of Iowans to live, work, and thrive.  We are rightly proud of the educational heritage of this state.  However the world is changing.  Our students today are not asked to compete with students in neighboring towns, states, or even the nation.  We are knee-deep in a global economy in which we are drastically outnumbered.  The top 25% of students in China outnumber the total number of students in the United States.  In this competition, we are vastly outnumbered.  We are the underdogs.  It is a position we have been in before as Americans and specifically as Iowans.

The selection of our next Director of the Department of Education could not be more critical or come at a more historically significant juncture.  To liken our educational structure to the military, we are looking for a new Commanding General.  As one of the proud troops dedicated to carrying out this mission I would like to ask for a three things as you search for our next commander.

  1. Find us a visionary – As mentioned above, the world is changing at exponential speed.  If we expect to fulfill our mission of preparing students for it, we must change too.  The industrial model used to sort students and send most into agricultural and industrial production of goods does not work in a state where less than 15% of available jobs are in manufacturing and more than 50% of recent job losses fall under the same category.  We need a leader that will recognize and understand this game-changing shift in the world and make the case for change in our schools.
  2. Find us a uniter – We live in a divided world.  Politically, socially, and economically we are fractured.  In tough times division is common.  As administrators and boards try to cut costs to fit shrinking budgets, teachers worry about cuts and reduced incomes, and communities brace for increased taxes, division grows.  We need a leader that can rally us around our common cause.  A true director of education that collaborates, listens, and leads ALL stakeholders toward the goal.
  3. Find us a leader – A famous general once said “You can’t lead from behind.”  Too often I fear the DE has done just that.  Individual schools are making great strides in innovation.  In some cases groups of like minded schools have banded together to further the cause of innovation in our state.  As an example, on April 7th many of these schools will meet in Des Moines for the states first annual 1:1 conference.  These schools believe in the power of giving each student a laptop computer and are realizing the fruits of this commitment.   As I peruse the list of presenters and sessions I see schools spanning the length and breadth of this great state.  What I also see is the notable absence of the Department of Education.  Like any great general, our next director needs to understand that you can’t lead from behind.  My hope is that when I attend the Second Annual 1:1 Institute next April, I can attend a session sponsored by the department and maybe even rub elbows with our new director.

In conclusion, I could not be more proud to do my part to further the educational mission of this state.  Every day I am reminded of the thousands of talented and committed people who show up early and stay late doing the exact same thing.  We have devoted our time, creativity, and energy to this cause.  We implore you to find a leader that will do the same.  One that can create, sustain, and communicate a common vision for our schools that is progressive, responsive, and innovative.  We realize it is a tall order and in order to fill the bill you will need to find an educator and leader of the highest caliber.  That is exactly what we expect.  The children of this state deserve no less than the best.

The Power of Teachers

March 29, 2010

A recent study of 1:1 effectiveness cited teacher implementation as the most crucial determiner of success or failure in a 1:1 initiative.  This should not surprise anyone.  Take out the phrase “1:1” and insert any educational initiative or program, the result is the same.  The most crucial determiner of a reading program, math strategy, etc is always the willingness and ability of teachers to implement the program with passion, enthusiasm, and a focus on continuous improvement.

In Chapter 6 of “1:1 Learning: Laptop Programs that Work” Livingston lists crucial elements in getting teachers to buy in and become leaders in effective 1:1 implementation.  Here are some highlights:

  1. Give the teachers the laptops before you give them to the students.  This should be a “no-brainer.”  We have all used a piece of technology that is new to us and we all know there is a learning curve.  As children we must learn to run and kick before we can put these skills together and be able to play soccer.  In the same way, we need time to learn how to use a piece of technology before we can learn how to use it for learning.
  2. Train a group of tech-savvy students to support teachers.  This one is crucial and something we have worked hard on in my current school.  We have a large number of digital natives that laugh in the face of Youtube and scoff in the face of Google Docs.  The fear no technology and they can be an outstanding resource if we first ask them, second empower them, and third (and most important) become willing to learn FROM them.  This paradigm shift is significant and is one we have discussed before.  Some teachers will find it difficult to learn from students, after all, they are the students and we are the teachers.   If they know more than we do then why are we sitting in the big desk?  The answer of course is that they don’t know more than we do, about the content that is.  They have expertise in using the technology tools, we are experts in content.  If we combine those areas of expertise there is no limit to what we can do.
  3. Reach out to master teachers and early adopters.  Leadership does not come solely from the principal’s office.  In fact in the best schools it does not even come primarily from the principal’s office.  The primary source of leadership in highly effective schools is from teacher leaders who have been inspired and empowered by their administrators.  Each teacher will come into the initiative with their own areas of strength, interest, and comfort.  If you have a teacher who really takes off with a certain tool or project, share it!  We have done this through formal and informal means including demonstrations by staff members that are seeing success in using certain tools, programs, or methods.
  4. Schedule regular, varied, informal learning opportunities.   I have chosen to begin this process with voluntary weekly learning opportunities.  Each week we discuss a different program or tool.  So far we have had a few sessions and some teachers have come every time, some have come to one or two, and some have not come to any.  At some point the expectations to utilize these tools will be laid out but by training early adopters and the eager staff members early, when that time comes we will not only have a significant amount of support but we will also have a cadre of proficient users and great examples to learn from.

There is no question that teacher buy-in is crucial.  By planning, discussing, and utilizing strategies like the ones listed above we can gain the teacher support that leads to successful implementation.  Never underestimate the power of teachers!

It’s People, Not Programs…

March 11, 2010

This is one of my favorite lines from Todd Whitaker’s book “What Great Principals do Differently, 15 things that matter most.”  In the book he refers to programs as the initiatives that we as schools put in place.  He argues that the people in a school are vastly more important to student success than the specific programs being offered.  As our school continues taking steps toward our upcoming 1:1 program (which is official after a 5-0 board vote Monday night YEAH!), this phrase has taken on a new meaning for me.

As we rolled out the initiative and the reasons behind it to our various stakeholder groups, we were met with very different reactions.  Some were extremely excited and quickly began planning how they would capitalize on the wonderful new opportunities this change would enable in their classrooms.  Others were not so sure.

Like all schools we have faculty members at many different levels of experience, expertise, and comfort with technology integration into the learning process.  As we began discussing 1:1 and the changes it would bring to the learning process I could sense anxiety rising among some staff members.  Over the past several days we have set out to engage in conversations, provide opportunities for learning – including utilizing Skype to hear from students and teachers at another 1:1 school, and take every opportunity we could to clarify, discuss, and get concerns out in the open.  Throughout this process one thing has been reinforced in my mind..it’s people, not programs.

We have an amazing staff – and so do the schools we are learning from and partnering with.  As I watched our staff listen and learn from two Van Meter staff members I was thrilled to see the gears turning in so many powerful educational minds.   We have discussed many important questions as staff members begin planning for successful implementation, months before the computers even arrive.  From an email exchange about the importance of writing skills vs penmanship, to a staff member asking for tech help from their middle school students, to the number of staff members we have that have shown a sudden interest in expanding their personal learning network through services like Twitter, the can-do spirit that I see rising up in our staff is both inspiring and humbling.

As one teacher put it, we may not all be going the same speed, but we are all on the same road, going the same direction.  Some may need the occasional tow truck or to stop to ask for directions, but it is clear that we are committed to the success of this program…

The program will work…our students will thrive…with people like we have and the partnerships we are creating, it is the only possible outcome.

Adaptability Defined

March 2, 2010

The words “adaptable” and “adaptability” have become regular fixtures of my vocabulary lately.  When asked to define the word adaptability, Google lists the following responses…”the ability to change (or be changed) to fit changed circumstances” and “maintains effectiveness in a changing environment.”  When we discuss the integration of technology into education we often discuss the adaptability of the tool.  Will this computer or that be more adaptable?  Is this software package more adaptable than this one to our changing needs?  Adaptability is important in hardware and software but it is even more important in another area…

More than the hardware or software, what must be adaptable above all else is the teacher and student.  Recently we have begun having important discussions with our faculty about our upcoming 1:1 initiative.  Faculty members have reacted to the news of this coming change in many different ways.  Some have welcomed the news and already begun making plans for how this will change the learning process in their classrooms.  Others are more cautious but intrigued at the possibilities this change will bring.  A third group is worried.  Some have been more vocal than others, but this group is very concerned.  They ask questions like “what are you expecting from us?”  “What will this do to my classroom?” and “What will we be required to do?”  Some are even looking for a sample lesson plan to show them what a lesson looks like in a 1:1 classroom.

What sets these groups apart is not technical skill or prior knowledge…it is adaptability.  An adaptable teacher knows that in education, as in life, two things are true… 1. the only constant is change and 2. thats okay!  Some teachers were successful in the classrooms of yesterday, some are successful in the classrooms of today…but an adaptable teacher will be successful in any situation, come what may.  They realize that by being adaptable, the situation becomes the only variable, success remains the constant.

In my humble opinion, much of what we call “21st century skills” can be boiled down to adaptability.  Above all else, our students need to be prepared for a changing world.  In a recent discussion with my wife, we discussed this concept as it relates to our own children.  It is our firm belief that above all other skills, talents, and interests, the most important characteristic we must instill and cultivate in them is adaptability, the ability to be effective in a constantly changing environment.

E. None of the Above

February 26, 2010


Above is a picture of a project completed by one of our recent alumni for a design class at Iowa State University.  He calls it a “pop up passageway.”  This is a student who is in his second semester of college.  Seeing this image I was immediately impressed with the clear talent of one of our graduates.   I began to wonder…what helped him build the skills that allowed him to create something like this.  Was it:

A. multiple choice tests

B. worksheets

C. tedious, repetitive busywork

or D. memorizing names, dates, or facts

The answer, of course, is E. None of the Above.

This student has a clear ability and passion to create.  He spent a lot of time in art classes developing and honing these skills.  My question is….did we give him opportunities to do this in other classes as well?  Many students have a passion to create, to build, to make something that was not there before and show it to others.  There is a sense of accomplishment in this type of task.  Obviously this young man felt this sense of accomplishment as he proudly shared this picture on Twitter.

If authentic, relevant, project based assessment is good enough for a college course (and the rest of our adult lives as well by the way),  why are we so resistant to utilize it in core courses?  I have often said that in real life I have rarely seen jobs gained or lost by performance on a multiple choice test.  I know a local contractor who installs stone flooring.  I once asked him if in the bidding process he ever demonstrated his company’s skill by showing potential clients their performance on a standardized test of flooring installation.  He chuckled.

I think this picture also calls into question one of our most common refrains when challenged to increase our use of authentic assessment in K-12 education.  That is the claim that “it doesn’t prepare them for the way they are tested in college.”  This is a freshman student in a course with large enrollment in one of the largest universities in the state.  It seems they are finding ways to use authentic assessment…maybe, just maybe, we should too.

Kids don’t mind hard, they mind boring…

February 15, 2010

This phrase was discussed in the 1:1 Learning book.  It was originally shared by Papert (2003).  I think we miss the boat when we say “kids today don’t want to work hard.”  In reality, they don’t want to work hard on something they find boring.  I have read many times that we as teachers tend to teach the way we were taught.  I also believe that most teachers enjoyed school as students.  I don’t know what kind of sadist would go into education as a career if they hated school.  So if our teaching ranks are made up of people who enjoyed and were successful in a school where they were taught in traditional 19th century ways, it makes sense that they would teach the same way.  If all of our students were school-loving future teachers, we would have nothing to worry about (forgetting for a moment the desperate lack of higher order thinking in the 19th century model.)  Engagement would not be an issue.  All of our students would joyfully work their way through stacks of math facts and vocabulary words.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of our students are not future teachers.  They do not find worksheets motivating.  In fact, worksheets bore them to tears.  So the challenge becomes how and with what to engage them.

An engaging teacher is a great start.  An engaging teacher can challenge students, can hold their attention, and can motivate them to care about something they may never have considered before.  However, at some point the direction of that engagement must become larger than the teacher themselves.  The best and most engaging teachers engage their students with their curriculum rather than themselves.  The “sage on the stage” can be very entertaining, and can hold students’ attention…but are they truly creating learning?   I enjoy watching Vince Vaughn.  He holds my attention and entertains me very well.  He can even keep me awake past 10pm with his humor…which my wife can tell you is very hard to do!  But I can’t say I have ever learned something from him….

The best teachers engage their students don’t just engage their students with themselves…they engage them with ideas, with concepts, and with thoughts that are bigger than they are.

A classroom in which an engaging teacher continually provides opportunities for students to become actively engaged with ideas that expand their understanding and their world…that is the classroom in which I want my children to learn…and I will gaurantee you…if you give them that kind of classroom…they will work hard…they all will.

Kids don’t mind hard…they mind boring.  Motivated and engaged learners are not bored.