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Archive for July 2010


Creativity, Change, Culture

“Schools in their present state are anti-creative.” [source] There are more than 120 different definitions of creativity but, in the case of creative thinking in schools, it is not just about bringing arts into the curriculum; it is about changing how we teach and learn. It is about creating a new type of school culture where learners are innovating, being curious, taking risks, and are okay about failing and learning from mistakes. Read Creativity at School: is it even possible?

I have been thinking about creativity while working with 1:1 laptop programs and schools that are integrating technology into the classroom. Just giving students a laptop or using technology in a lesson is not changing the culture of the school and how students learn. Learners need critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Teachers become more of a facilitator guiding the buzz happening in their classroom and online. We hear the why we need to change over and over at conferences, in speeches, on YouTube. We get it. We have to change our learning environments to prepare our students to be 21st century citizens. Read Ben Johnson’s post on “How to Ignite Intellectual Curiosity in Students” on Edutopia.

Changing schools like this is not something that happens right away. In fact, changing schools and school culture takes years. The reason is that the adults who work in the system, the teachers, administrators,  parents — all were taught in systems where creativity was not allowed. It was about memorizing facts. I still hear from some parents “if it was good for me, then it is good for my children.” The problem that we need to get across to these parents is that yesterday’s schools won’t work today and are harmful for our children’s future. The jobs you prepared for in the past are no longer available today. The world has changed and is changing faster than we can keep up. Our kids cannot compete now. How will they compete as a global citizen?  I said it once before — this is a moral issue.

Most innovative programs are with soft money (grants). When the grant ends, the program ends unless they find other money. Some grants are for one year. Some lucky grants are three to five years, but that still is not enough time to change the culture of the school. I’ve been throwing around in my head how much time is enough time for change. Every school, every teacher, every student is different and unique. There is no clear cut formula on change. How you deal with change is personal.

When you think about changing the culture in a school, you need to be creative and innovative. Actually, those are the skills you need to teach. How do you teach something you may not know about? We ask our teachers to integrate technology but, in many cases, we don’t provide enough technology or training, current technology, or technology that works all the time. In fact, it’s not really the technology that makes change. We continue using the same school schedule and assessment strategies. In other cases, we assume if we teach teachers how to use a technology, then they will automatically know how to include it in their lessons. Teachers will use an interactive whiteboard just like they used a whiteboard; in front of the classroom. They will use PowerPoint to present their lessons. Animating bullets may be all a teacher feels comfortable learning and doing. Teaching teachers to let go and let students become more responsible for their learning just doesn’t seem right for many teachers. Being a facilitator instead of a lecturer is not an easy move for teachers especially if teachers are told to teach to the test and follow a pacing guide.

Bringing creativity to the classroom is so big and scary for schools that it IS going to take time before we see full scale change. There are pockets of excellence here and there. There are programs like New Tech High and the Buck Institute where schools are changing to project-based learning. This takes a big effort from everyone and a commitment to invest time and money into people and appropriate resources.

Next post will be about a change process I’m working on with several schools. I thought I’d share how it works while it is being implemented. Going to take a few risks myself so all of us can learn together.


Why we need PBL

Collecting Data

students collecting data

Project-based learning (PBL) is a dynamic approach to teaching in which students explore real-world problems and challenges. With this type of active and engaged learning, students are inspired to obtain a deeper knowledge of the subjects they are studying. [Edutopia] PBL is an approach to learning focusing on developing a product or creation. The project may or may not be student-centered, problem-based, or inquiry-based. The main focus is engagement and being motivated to learn something they are interested in learning about.

Think about your own education and what made a difference in your life. We need to get back to how we learned in preschool – it used to be how we learned in Kindergarten, but now these beautiful young children are learning how to fill in a bubble on a test.

Enough! We are draining the creativity and curiosity out of our children. Children love to learn when they are young. They are so curious and want to learn their letters and numbers. We need to let our children ask “why is the sky blue” and “why do we need oil for our cars?” We want our children to ask questions why a certain problem is happening and if they can figure out the solution. Why children can figure out things probably better than adults is that their brains are not clogged with all the thousands of tasks, daily problems, and more that we have as adults. They are born with inquisitive minds and want to use them. However, they need guidance on how to develop critical thinking skills so they can effectively problem solve. Watch project-based learning in action:

For more videos on PBL, check out this library online.

Here’s a few sites on project-based and problem-based learning:

Explore the following websites as needed for more information:

Looking for lots of examples to share and schools that want the best type of education for their children. This is a moral issue now. Our children are not prepared for their future and are in need of high level critical thinking skills. They need to learn how to work collaboratively and use technology effectively. We are not preparing them for their future. Look at our college graduates who are not getting jobs. Maybe we should we be teaching entrepreneurship and innovation. It is time to look at what engages children in the learning process and to provide an education that they will need for their future NOW!


What schools can look like...

Chris Lehman is principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA. The Science Leadership Academy is a partnership high school between the School District of Philadelphia and The Franklin Institute. SLA is an inquiry-driven, project-based high school focused on 21st century learning that opened its doors on September 7, 2006. SLA provides a rigorous, college-preparatory curriculum with a focus on science, technology, mathematics and entrepreneurship. Yes – I said entrepreneurship. Students set up their own businesses and develop products and services.

ISTE 2011 is in Philadelphia next year. If you are looking at changing your school or changing you, I suggest you finding a way of going to ISTE and immersing yourself in this new learning environment where technology is transparent and ubiquitous, where students can create, collaborate, and change their world. There will be activities at his school. If you cannot attend ISTE, the school hosts Educon each year where students and attendees participate. If you are looking at strategies to move to your school of the future, I suggest you follow Chris. This presentation below is over a year old but still timely:

Chris used the Pechu Kucha model of 20 slides in less than 5 minutes. Whew! Great ideas with great visuals. Here’s the presentation:


Online Learning Challenges

Designing Online Learning Environments that Engage Learners
(first published on OnCUE Summer 2010 Vol. 32 No. 2 p. 10-11)

Teaching online is fundamentally different than teaching face-to-face. The design of effective online learning environments requires rethinking teaching practices. The rapid advances of educational technology encourages the growth of collaborative online learning experiences unconstrained by time and space. Even so, students may not learn from technology alone; they learn with the support of competent facilitators who design learning strategies that support learning goals and objectives.

Online learning technologies were first used to digitize existing instructional materials for easier distribution, to enhance consistency, and reduce costs. Unfortunately, this use of technology did not actually improve instruction. Now there is a shift to more theory-based online learning strategies that use technology to enhance an instructionally sound learning experience that meets the needs of all learners.

“Technology can play an important role in the achievement of learning outcomes but it is not necessary to explain this enhancement with a special account of learning. Rather, the challenge is to describe how the technology allows underlying processes common to all learning to function effectively (Mayes and de Freitas in Beetham and Sharpe, 2007, pg 13).”

With funding cuts, districts are looking at creative ways to provide courses not offered at their site. Students are becoming more proactive along with their parents on what they need to meet their learning goals so they graduate with appropriate credits. The number of K-12 students taking online classes is growing exponentially.  University students take it a step further. They not only search for learning opportunities at their school and online, they know a good online class. These students are picky about which classes they sign up for and will drop a class if the teacher is not effective. They are the new, savvy consumers of online education. In response to their higher expectations, designers of online education are incorporating increasingly sophisticated instructional approaches such as animations and simulations that address the challenges of presenting dynamic content to learners.
I asked online learning providers from my PLN (Personal Learning Network) how they design an environment that engages and motivates the learner to actively participate in the learning process. The top answers included:

  • Posting syllabus with due dates
  • Providing timely feedback
  • Individual support and coaching
  • Face-to-face meetings

All of these answers work to nudge the learner to logon, participate, and complete an assignment. Yet, even experienced curriculum designers are rethinking how to deliver instruction online so students want to be engaged in the learning process. Survey respondents also shared that about 10% drop out. Top three reasons presented were technology issues, not able to do assignments, and motivation. As educators with limited budgets and resources, we may be trailing the world of instructional design. Today’s students are different than five years ago. They are used to instant information, cell phones, games, and simulations. It is going to be difficult to keep them engaged with traditional education.

Virtual University Class

Dr. Scott McLeod

Teaching online class

Scott McLeod, Ph.D., associate professor in educational leadership and policy studies at Iowa State University, communicates with his students via web cam. McLeod is teaching two sections of Educational Law and Ethics wholly online for the first time this February. Each of his students were given a webcam to allow face-to-face interaction without having to leave their homes.

“The technology side of distance education is an add-on to the instructional content,” McLeod said. “…when students have lived in this online community for a semester, they start making connections back to their schools and translate these educational practices to their students and staff…”

Google Reader, Adobe Connect, and Moodle are also integrated into the course. Students are able to use Google Reader to keep abreast of new developments in their field, even after the class is complete.

“This enables them to continue learning, far beyond the classroom,” McLeod stated.

Professors who find they need to promote their courses are experimenting with social media and new technologies. Universities around the world are building virtual classrooms with Second Life, designing interactive programs and games, and posting free online courses.

Experience History as it Happens

Apollo 11

Launch of Apollo 11

Maybe we need to find content that lets our students experience how historical events really happened such as the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum’s We Choose the Moon ( At this site, users listen to the actual commentaries from Houston as Apollo 11 is launched. Users can watch and hear what happened on their own time by clicking through the stages and on different galleries.

Virtual Museums and Galleries
Schools are cutting back on field trips because of limited funds. Students now can navigate around exhibits right from their desktop with videoconferencing and links such as:

Learn by Doing
There are numerous online activities where learners of all ages can learn by involving themselves in hands-on activities.

Virtual Dinosaur Dig

Go on a virtual dinosaur dig

Play while Learning
Most students play games, so why not introduce games into your learning repertoire?

Interact with Videos and Audio
Reach those students that are auditory and kinesthetic learners with multimedia.

You as the teacher can be the instructional designer creating a learning environment that is engaging and challenging. You can set the pace and rhythm, vary the format of the instruction you deliver, give the learner control, and make learning fun: fun for your students and fun for you.

I recommend teachers building their own PLN with other teachers and instructional designers where everyone collects rich curriculum and learning activities to share with each other. Use social media and your network to learn about new resources, bookmark and tag them in or Diigo, and then share them with your students in an organized way that enhances your instruction. There is no reason to reinvent learning activities if they are already available.

Cited Sources
Beetham, H. & Sharpe, R., 2007. Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age: Designing and Delivering E-Learning 1st ed., Routledge.

Rydell, M. Online learning environments enhance education for Cohorts. Iowa State University news, February 11, 2010


Kansas City schools moving to ability grouping

School districts around the country are rethinking how they deliver instruction.

“The current system of public education in this country is not working” said Superintendent John Covington. “It’s an outdated, industrial, agrarian kind of model that lends itself to still allowing students to progress through school based on the amount of time they sit in a chair rather than whether or not they have truly mastered the competencies and skills.”

Here’s how the reform works:

Instead of moving students from one grade to the next as they get older, schools are grouping students by ability. Students, often of varying ages‚ work at their own pace, meeting with teachers to decide what part of the curriculum to tackle. Teachers still instruct students as a group if it’s needed, but often students are working individually or in small groups on projects that are tailored to their skill level. [Source]

I applaud Kansas City Schools for taking this step. I believe this is the first innovative step school districts need to make to meet the needs of today’s children. The industrial model is broken and needs to change NOW. We are losing children in every school in the US. What this means is that teachers need job-embedded professional development, students need a different form of assessment, and everyone in the school community needs to communicate with each other. Change is difficult. It is difficult to envision that the education that parents received isn’t working for their children. All they know now is that assessment means testing — testing means focusing on facts — and it’s important for their students to get high scores on these tests so they get into college. It is going to take the whole school community to embrace the change to ability grouping and then change how they measure learning.

This is the next thing that will have to change. For today’s jobs and future jobs, our children will not need to know facts. All they need to know is available on the Internet. They need critical thinking skills so they can find the information, determine its authenticity, validity, and appropriateness, and then how to use that information in problems, discussions, debate, and written form. It would be cool to work with them designing student ePortfolios. That’s the next step!

I believe all children are unique and smart in their own ways. Allowing ability grouping gives children the opportunity to spread their wings. I cannot wait to see how they fly!!!


Creating Showcase ePortfolios

I believe that each learner is unique. If you look at a classroom with everyone the same age, the children are diverse. They may speak different languages, learn at different levels, and be almost one year different in age. Schools group them by grade level and test them thinking that each student has the same understanding of the concepts. Not so! I’m into individualizing learning and assessment. One way to do that is ePortfolios supported with individual learning plans.

We are not going to stop testing even if it drives you crazy. It’s just the way it is. There are several types of ePortfolios: assessment, showcase, and resume. I don’t recommend replacing testing with ePortfolios. That’s one way to kill the excitement about them. Using an ePortfolio for assessment and/or evaluation can impact how the learner presents it. There is no risk-taking, creativity or innovation. Everything follows the rules similar to testing. Okay – so use the tests to determine if students are learning at grade level. Personally I don’t believe students have to learn at a specific grade level. That’s following the industrial model that’s been dead for years. We are in a very weird place – a transition to a new type of learning environment. We are stuck in the same old traditional school model: teachers in front the room as the all-knowing expert, schools open 9 months from 9-3 for 5 days a week, and with students grouped by age.

I had lunch with Helen Barrett at ISTE 2010 where we talked about ePortfolios. Helen knows everything about ePortfolios ( and she and I agree about keeping ePortfolios as a separate entity from assessment and evaluation. Before you start your ePortfolio, determine your purpose, goal, and audience. If you decide you want to create an assessment ePortfolio, then design it for your target audience. Is it to meet graduation requirements? If so, start collecting evidence of learning right from the beginning of your freshman year. To do that, then create a separate digital file cabinet for collecting that evidence. Collect whatever you think might demonstrate understanding. Then select the most effective artifacts for your ePortfolio.

Okay – back to the showcase ePortfolio. You can create either a personal or professional showcase ePortfolio that provides a forum for reflective writing where learners respond to key questions like:

  • What? What have you done well?
  • So what? What difficulties did you have?
  • Now what? What can you do next time to improve?

Reflection encourages learners to think critically about their own thinking. This process allows learners to take responsibility for learning how to think not what to think.