Expanding the boundaries #expbound

I’m sitting in the room at Expanding Our Boundaries (#expbound)  in Toronto.  The 2 day event, co-hosting by OTF and ECOO, is facilitated by Will Richardson.  Gearing up for the event, I connected with some of the other attendees through various blogs, the Expanding our Boundaries wiki and twitter.  Discovering our common interests, besides the conference, almost every attendee with whom I connected was reading Ken Robinson’s The Element.  Not a huge surprise, but a happy coincidence.  And, promising.

What is the element and where do I get one?

Ken Robinson explains his use of the term the Element: 

I use the term the Element to describe the place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together.  I believe it is essential that each of us find his or her Element, not simply because it will make us more fulfilled but because, as the world evolves, the very future of our communities and institutions will depend on it. (xiii)

Reflecting on this, I ask myself questions like, “In what ways am I in my Element?” and “Is my classroom a place where every single student in the room is able to be in his or her Element?” and “Are my colleagues in their Elements?”

Are you in your element?

This morning, Will Richardson blogged about Robinson’s book.  It is a great blog post that you can check out here.  Reading it got me thinking:  How many educators are reading Robinson’s The Element ?  I wonder about this because I think that Robinson’s text asks us to find that space within which both our talents and our passions connect – and get there. (You can check out WordPress blogs with the tag Ken Robinson to get a sense of the numbers of people out there who are reading and synthesizing the text)  If we are teachers and the element isn’t the learning environment within which we work with kids from day to day, then something is dreadfullly wrong.  In his post this morning, Richardson says, 

Teachers are learners. If they’re not, they shouldn’t be teachers. In a world where we can engage in our passions through the affordances of connective technologies online, we need to be thinking about how to personalize the learning of the adults in the room as well as the kids. This is not the easy route, by any stretch, but it’s the best route if we’re serious about moving the education of our kids to a different place.

Teachers need to be learners.  Absolutely.  And personalized learning is essential.  I agree on all of those points.  The question that I have is:  What are the roles in terms of ensuring that personalized professional development is available to us?  As an educator, I need to ensure that I am seeking out opportunities to extend my own learning and keep me in my Element.  These past 2 days at #expbound saw a room full of educators, all at different points along the web 2.0/social networking/collaborating continuum, come together to learn with Richardson.  Although I know that the sessions were overwhelming for many of the attendees, but I also witnessed 

Transformation in Education

I’m optimistic that change is happening.  But it feels slow and I am not sure that it is nearing the level of transformation – what Robinson advocates for in The Element.  I find myself wondering how I can go beyond my own learning to work towards that transformation within my district?  Big questions after these 2 days.  Thoughts in process, for sure.

Education’n’Technology’n’Change – Oh My!

In the March 2009 issue of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) Journal Educational Leadership, Douglas Reeves writes about 3 challenges of Web 2.0.  Reeves is the author of several books on assessment and educational leadership, and could be considered an authority on school leadership for change and school improvement.  Unfortunately, this time around, Reeves exposes the type of anxiety that I feel stagnates real change in education.  Reeves’ article projects a cautionary tenor and neglects teasing out the optimistic possibilities within a shift to education 2.0.  I worry that, armed with this type of article, leaders in education will more easily say ‘no’ to the innovators within their buildings who want to embrace the learning possibilities within activities such as social networking, online collaboration and mobile and connective devices.  I want to offer here a brief challenge  to Reeves’ 3 challenges (meta challenge?) and offer a more optimistic view of the potential of learning 2.0:

Partners vs Promotion

Reeves begins by comparing advocates for technology in education to the narrow-minded advocate for plastics in the film The Graduate.  There is no deep inferring required to know right off that Reeves feels threatened and responds by painting all of us who are interested in exploring the potential offered by increased use of technology to facilitate learning as both fanatical and short-sighted.  It is important to be wary of those who come to education looking to push their particular technologies into the classroom.  As always, we need to be vigilant and critical when making decisions around what we will introduce and model in our learning environments.  But this isn’t a web 2.0 challenge.  Dubious partnerships between education and industry predate the connected world.  Enough said.

High Touch vs High Tech

In this challenge, Reeves endorses and implicitly frames online connectivity as a threat to face to face communication, rather than as simply another mode of communication.   Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t we witness backlash everytime there is a change in communication (from oral to written, for instance)?  Imposing a false hierarchy on modes of communication has no basis in any research with which I am familiar.  In fact, I would argue that when it comes to learning, online can be a more powerful mode under certain circumstances.  As Will Richardson said during his keynote at Expanding Our Boundaries (#expbound) this morning, “If you have an internet connection in your classroom, you are not the smartest person in the room”.  And maybe this is the real threat.

Filters vs Fountains

For my challenge of Reeves here, I will simply focus on one quote:

Oppressed as they are by a teacher who finds WIkipedia an insufficiently credible source without supplementary documentation, my students sometimes work longer and less efficiently with a search engine than they would have by consulting a carefully chosen reference book.

Woops!  I think that Reeves has pulled back his own curtain here.  Clearly, Reeves has a bad case of “techno-agoraphobia” – that is, a fear of the participatory online crowd.  To dismiss Wikipedia, and paint those who teach it and use as “Wikivangelists” (loaded language?), Reeves takes himself out of the game.  Ignorance is not ok.  The reference book, no matter how carefully chosen, likely contains as many – perhaps even more – errors as the Wikipedia article.  But, the Wikipedia article trumps the reference book in that it is a dynamic text that can be added to and improved as new understandings and developments surface.

 A More Compelling and Optimistic Perspective

Alec Couros, Associate Professor of ICT at the University of Regina, created the following visualization to articulate a vision of the connected and open learning environment:

Alec Couros - Open Teaching Thinning the Walls

– Alec Couros “Open Teaching – Thinning the Walls” cc licensecc some rights reserved

I think that this is a compelling visualization of the productive and powerful potential of connectivity in learning.  Notice how the left side of the visualization highlights a very structured learning environment that excludes some learners (the learner on the outside looking in).  As the walls thin, in other words, as students and teachers become connected with the world outside the brick and mortar of the classroom, students are able to benefit from the ‘gifts’ of those outside the traditional learning environment.  The walls (read: constraints) of the traditional classroom become thinner and, I believe that the learning is enriched, when we reach out into our learning networks.  I would argue that Couros’ visualization demonstrates the ‘high touch’ potential of ‘high tech’.

I’m eager for my print copy to arrive, so that I can check out other articles, such as Becoming Network Wise by Will Richardson.  I’m hopeful that this article, not available in full online version (is that another blog post – decision-making around who gets a full voice?) might offer the more optimistic glimpse of the power of embracing the connectivity in which our students are already swimming.


I’ve Been Tagged

Well, actually, I was tagged twice in the fb “25 Random Things” meme.  The second tag was from a colleague with whom I will travel to Toronto this week to attend a reading conference.  Since we are sharing accommodation I thought I should check out her 25 things in case she a)snores or b)sleepwalks.  If she does, she didn’t reveal, but here I go:


Here are 25 random things about me. If I’ve tagged you it’s because a) I’m interested to know more about you or b) I’m working for a secret organisation and am preparing a dossier on you. Once you’ve been “tagged”, you are supposed to write a note with 25 random things/facts/habits/goals about you. At the end, choose 25 people to be tagged. You’re supposed to tag the person who tagged you.

I know this may be something you can’t be bothered to do but I’m supposed to say ‘I had so much fun writing mine and have aimed to add in only things that you would never know unless you asked’

1.   I have always considered myself very lucky.  I feel like my life is better than it was meant to be.  I think my husband is better than I deserve. 

2.   I get up at 5am every morning to run.  Right now I am listening to Ken Robinson’s “The Element” whilst running.  Well, not RIGHT now, but recently.

3.   I am working on a secret project with my buddy Rob.  It has to do with teaching, the internet and professional development.

4.   My daughter has an extremely rare genetic disorder, chromosome 15 ring syndrome.  She was born in Toronto and no one at Sick Kids or CHEO has had a patient with this syndrome before.  She blows me away and I think that everyone whose life she touches should feel honoured.

5.    I love teaching.  I don’t enjoy being around people who aren’t learning.   I get impatient when colleagues talk about how things used to be in a longing way.

6.   I ride an orange baby Vulcan (500cc) cruiser when the weather and the mood is right.

7.   I secretly think my son is destined to be a leader one day.  At 6 he surprises me with his observations.   

8.   Wet socks make me fall apart.

9.   I wish that I could find a way to absorb information from many books at the same time.  I would love to just open up my head, pour lots of stuff in from a variety of sources, and then let it swirl around and settle.

10.   I love a quick nap, but think of sleep as an inconvenient necessity.

11.   I’m just about half-way done this and starting to panic because I don’t know that I have 25 fb friends who haven’t already been tagged… 

12.   I believe John and Yoko represented something very good and pure.

13.   I like sour AND sweet together.

14.   When I was officially a ‘stay at home mom’, I became certified and set up my own business providing prenatal instruction and support.  I learned how to create a website and garnered enough business through my site to fill my schedule every month.  I attended just under 40 births.  Each one was truly amazing.

15.   M daughter is named after my grandma and my son is named after a folk singer.  

16.   I enjoy change and uncertainty, although I do wish I could keep my house in better order.  Laundry is never done.  I don’t even know what that might mean.

17.   February is my least favourite month.

18.   I think we need to learn to trust students more and to model trust building and risk taking.

19.   One of my favourite words is eviscerate.

20.   I get a lot done while procrastinating from doing other things.

21.   I love the idea that sometimes you need to believe it first, and only then will you be able to see it.

22.  I’m saving the last 3 random things for later in life.

Who will I tag?  You!

Attention in the Connected World

In a Wired.com interview, Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted:  The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age suggests that,

This degree of interruption (in the connected workspace) is correlated with stress and frustration and lowered creativity. That makes sense. When you’re scattered and diffuse, you’re less creative. When your times of reflection are always punctured, it’s hard to go deeply into problem-solving, into relating, into thinking.

These are the problems of attention in our new world. Gadgets and technologies give us extraordinary opportunities, the potential to connect and to learn. At the same time, we’ve created a culture, and are making choices, that undermine our powers of attention.

 Neuroscience tells us that the executive functions system in our brains is responsible for how we manage novel experiences and information.  It encompasses our ability to engage with new ideas.  The web 2.0 world does appear at first glance to be a chaotic inundation of novel information overloading our ability to engage deeply.  Think about the last time that you hopped on the web to check your email, or find information on Wikipedia.  If you are like me, you may have been drawn in to further meanderings as hyperlinked information caught your attention and begged further inquiry.


Deep Surfing?

This non-linear surfing experience may indeed signal a lack of attention or focus, but I think that it also offers the possibility of refining and augmenting the ability to engage in higher levels of cognitive processing.  Each time I click through a link to expand my schema – the cognitive library of background information I’ve acquired – my executive functions system is called into action.  And it is called into action to engage in higher order processes of analysis, evaluation and synthesis.  I need to accept/reject information, based on criteria that are responsive to and reflective of my purpose.  If I accept information, I need to analyze its` import for my purpose.  Through that analysis, I proceed to synthesize the information with my schema.  My schema is thereby augmented and reorganized to reflect new understandings.


My argument is that I don’t think that it is the environment that is connected and therefore richer in information and interaction that needs to be quieted down.  What causes stress in the connected environment is the increased cognitive load placed on our executive functions system when we encounter new ideas, information and experiences more rapidly than in the past.  The analysis, evaluation and synthesis of new information encountered via the digitally mediated environment has not yet become a collectively automatized skill – at least not for those of us born in the pre web world.

While as teachers we may find ourselves and our colleagues lamenting the apparent lack of attention evident within our classrooms, I have to wonder how much of what we are seeing is a result of the fact that our lessons, stuck in the pre web 2.0 pedagogical frame, are not engaging a generation for whom the tasks of acquiring, analyzing, evaluating and synthesizing new information and experiences may be further automatized than our own.  In other words, I wonder if their engagement with the online environment has altered the speed or ways with which they process information and develop schema? 


Frankly, I’m not sure.  This is definitely a thought in process, but what I do know is this:  If I see students in my classroom who are unable to focus on the task at hand, I need to reflect on what might be changed in my own practice in order to continue to engage and stretch my students. 

And you can bet I`ll be checking out Jackson`s book to expand my own thinking around neuroscience, attention and focus.

facebook is as facebook does

In his online article on Newsweek.com, Steve Tuttle journals his decision to quit facebook, after finding that he had wasted countless hours on the social network site:

When I think about all the hours I wasted this past year on Facebook, and imagine the good I could have done instead, it depresses me. Instead of scouring my friends’ friends’ photos for other possible friends, I could have been raising money for Darfur relief, helping out at the local animal shelter or delivering food to the homeless. It depresses me even more to know that I would never have done any of those things, even with all those extra hours.

Of course, the cynic in me wants to check in with Steve in a month or so to learn how much of his newly liberated time he now devotes to saving the world, since he admits his own lack of engagement in that last sentence.  Steve just doesn’t sound like a participant.  In other words, his use of fb was non-participatory – He didn’t wield the tool to make his life (or anyone else’s from the sounds of things) better.  Among other things, he missed the opportunity to become more involved in social change movements on Facebook, if that is something that he was interested in pursuing. 

Exactly a year ago today, Josh Catone blogged about fb’s ability to mobilize the masses on ReadWriteWeb:  

Another example of someone successfully using Facebook to enact change is the “For Every 1,000 that join this group I will donate $1 for Darfur,” which was started by NYU student Marek Grodzicki. The group has 424,000 members — or $424 — and Grodzicki is renewing his pledge for next year. That may not be a lot of money, but it’s almost half a million people who may now be more aware of an issue because a single person was able to reach them simply by announcing an altruistic act on Facebook and letting viral nature of social networking take over.

See, the thing that I think Steve (and his ilk) is missing is that fb, like any other tool out there, is what you make of it.  The danger exists in allowing fb to consume your time and energy in non-productive ways.  Seen as time-wasting and meaningless, fb becomes the next repository of what Clay Shirky calls “cognitive surplus” – the collective intellectual power absorbed by empty leisure time activities.  From this perspective, fb and the sitcom don’t differ in terms of their ability to suck the time out of us.  However, fb and other networking sites also offer the potential to turn that surplus into powerful, engaged and innovative participation in the world.

Confessions of a Skeptic

Ok, I have to admit something here.  I am a social network newbie (see “2 Resolutions and 3 Moments”).  Prior to taking the leap into facebook and twitter, I felt that they offered nothing to make my life more productive.  What changed?  I started to hear about people using social networking to expand the realm of their professional learning.  Tired of taking rigid professional development courses that aren’t nearly personalized enough, I took the leap. 

And what have I found?  A month in and I’m starting to connect with people who are knowledgeable in areas in which I am interested.  Through fb and twitter, I engage with folks from whom I want to learn.  I put out questions and participate in conversations that provide me with tools I can use to make my instructional practice better.  I connect with colleagues across the globe in Australia and New Zealand, as well as down the 401 in London and Toronto.  I share out my ideas and get feedback, as well as receiving great information and resources.  In other words, I get back what I put in.  My learning is personalized – I select the content, as well as the pace.  And yes, I do take some time to check out the adorable baby pictures posted by my colleagues and friends.

What is the Purpose of Learning? (reframing the question)

What is the Purpose of Education?

This conversation sprang out of the Friday night panel at Educon 2.1 (no, I wasn’t there in person…) and continues to reverberate around the web.  This morning Karl Fisch blogged “What is the Purpose of School?” and included responses from both David Warlick and Seth Godin.  As Fisch points out, both responses include critiques of current education, as well as thoughts on what education might become.  The question got me thinking…

I think what we need is a move away from School as Institution or infrastructure to organize children and Education as Curriculum, to an understanding of Learning as Process or experiences through which we acquire skills and knowledge.  As I see it, School as Institution and Education as Curriculum are on the way out.  The new purpose of Learning must be the acquisition of the capacities necessary to thrive in the digital age.

21st Century Learning

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills recently released their white paper on 21st Century Learning Environments:

21st century learning environment as an aligned and synergistic system of systems that:

·  Creates learning practices, human support and physical environments that will support the teaching and learning of 21st century skill outcomes

·  Supports professional learning communities that enable educators to collaborate, share best practices, and integrate 21st century skills into classroom practice

·  Enables students to learn in relevant, real world 21st century contexts (e.g., through project-based or other applied work)

·  Allows equitable access to quality learning tools, technologies, and resources

·  Provides 21st century architectural and interior designs for group, team, and individual learning.

·  Supports expanded community and international involvement in learning, both face-to-face and online ( 2009, p.5) 

As an educator, I can use the Framework for 21st Century Learning to help me align my teaching and learning with the student outcomes necessary within the context of the accelerated and digital age.  In other words, I can reflect on my practice and strive to make change happen within my own circle of influence – my classroom, my staffroom and my PLN.

Let the process begin.