20 November 2015

#tokfriday: Faith, Ethics, and #PrayforParis


On the evening on Friday, November 13th, the Islamic State (ISIL/ISIS) carried out a coordinated terrorist attack in Paris, France, killing at least 129 people. This was not the first attack ISIL has carried out, nor will it be the last. In addition, millions of refugees are fleeing war torn and terrorist strongholds throughout the Middle East and parts of Africa, seeking refugee status. The human and emotional toll of terrorism and extremism is overwhelming the world´s ability to respond.

The KQ

1st Order Claim: An individual person´s faith influences how they understand what is right and what is wrong.
2nd Order Claim: Personal faith shapes our shared understanding of ethics.

Other TOK Links:

Perception, Language, Reason, Religious Knowledge, History, Human Sciences

The Short Video and Article

Are religious children really more selfish than atheists?

Related Videos/Articles

The Paris attack: How the world is responding

Paris attacks: 'I will not give you the gift of hating you'

#NotInMyName: Muslims condemn attacks in Paris

Ted Cruz: "We ought to be a beacon of hope for Christians fleeing that persecution from ISIS "

School of ISIS

A Brief History of ISIS


Religion and Morality

13 November 2015

#tokfriday: Perception, Emotion, and Artificial Intelligence


On Wednesday, November 11, Microsoft´s Project Oxford Artificial Intelligence team released a series of new public betas versions of artificial intelligence tools for app developers. One of these is a facial recognition tool that recognizes emotion by analyzing your pictures. Users can upload their pictures into Microsoft´s Emotion API and get a reading on seven emotions, plus neutral. 

The KQ

1st Order Claim: Artificial intelligence can identify human emotions through facial expressions.
2nd Order Claim: Technology can perceive emotions.

Other TOK Links

Memory, Language, Human Sciences, Natural Sciences, Math

The Short Video & Article

Happy? Sad? Angry? This Microsoft tool recognizes emotions in pictures

Further Reading

Try it yourself! Emotion Recognition Live Demo

Microsoft's new emotion-detecting AI can be hilariously bad at detecting emotions


10 November 2015

The Backwards Design of School Evaluation (not in the good way)

There is a long running joke about education that goes something like this: A man gets frozen in a block of ice in 1915. He is found in 2015 and by the miracle of modern medicine is brought back to life. Upon waking up, he can’t believe the world he lives in; everything has changed so much. And he’s still in the hospital! Overwhelmed, he runs out only to find the world outside even more overwhelming—grocery stores, streets, transportation, phones, buildings, everything has changed. He searches for a safe spot, and unknowingly, he steps into a classroom. He looks around, lets out a big sigh, sits down, and says to himself “Finally, I can rest, I have found a place that hasn’t changed a bit.”

The premise of the joke hints at a truth. In a world where pretty much everything has changed from 100 years ago, the education paradigm is more or less persistently sticky. This stickiness isn’t likely to persist much longer. The education paradigm is undergoing a paradigm crisis, and lots of signs point to a paradigm shift on the horizon.

I have been thinking quite a bit about school evaluation. Over the past 5 years I have been apart of two two-year curriculum mapping exercises in two different schools (using Atlas Rubicon), two School Improvement Committees, and am now heavily involved in a multi-year, full school accreditation by NEASC. I have spent quite a bit of time using tried and true school evaluation techniques to look at where my school has been. But very rarely, if ever, have these evaluation measures began with and/or even focused on where the school should go. At the end of my current school´s accreditation process, combined with our curriculum mapping initiative, we will have spent over five years evaluating where we have been. I am not sure when we will begin to discuss where we need to go.

Current evaluation models used in education do not appear to promote and encourage a vision of where we need to be and a theory of change on how to get there; they are backwards.
The big question for me then is if the organization or system is undergoing paradigm instability, what Thomas Kuhn calls paradigm crisis, what is the proper role of current school evaluation models? Can current evaluation models help us create the next generation of school?

Evaluation in School

School, as a paradigm, employs many different evaluation techniques, nesting and overlapping in many different ways, from students to teachers to administrators to parents to boards to governments. I would like to highlight two major, comprehensive evaluations that schools undertake: curriculum alignment and accreditation.

The models and approaches that underlie today’s evaluation practice, according to Russ-Eft and Preskill “were developed in the late 1960s and 1970s”—in other words developed for a world that increasingly does not exist anymore.
A full curriculum review is a daunting undertaking. It involves teachers documenting the teaching and learning that goes on in their classroom, matching that teaching and learning to standards, and then aligning the scope and sequence of each course into an overall scope and sequence for a given subject, which can lead to an overall alignment of the scope and sequence of grade levels and that division of schooling as a whole. It can be a managed process of continuous review, but it is generally done over a few years as a direct initiative.

A school accreditation process is no less daunting. The school’s operations, services, and guiding statements are comprehensively evaluated by an external organization against a set of standards that try to define what a good school is. If the standards are shown to be met, the school is granted accreditation by the outside agency. The stakeholders of the school are intimately involved in the process as well. Generally the accreditation process is an initiative undertaken by the school over a period of two to three years within a long-term cycle of re-accreditation.

Both of these comprehensive evaluations take years to complete and are significant investments of time and capital (both financial and human).

Evaluation in Paradigm Crisis

I am currently reading Evaluation In Organizations: a Systematic Approach to Enhancing Learning, Performance, and Change by Russ-Eft and Preskill for a masters course. In it the authors define evaluation as “a form of inquiry that seeks to address critical questions concerning how well a program, process, product, system, or organisation is working.” The two types of accreditation covered in the previous section—curricular and accreditory—can be seen to fall in a number of different evaluation models discussed in Evaluation In Organizations. The models and approaches that underlie today’s evaluation practice, according to Russ-Eft and Preskill “were developed in the late 1960s and 1970s”—in other words developed for a world that increasingly does not exist anymore.

Current evaluation models used in school struggle to operate within a time frame and economy of scale that is quick, light, and responsive, and the 21st century world requires all three.
The above evaluation processes for the most part focus on what has already happened. But if the organization is undergoing a paradigm crisis, if there is an upcoming revolution, what does evaluation look like in this environment? If the crisis does lead to a paradigm shift, is what you are measuring where you need to be going? In a reality that necessitates innovation and new thinking, is what is needed more evaluation or more "fuzzy thinking"? More measurement or more experimentation? More documenting where you have been, or more theorizing of where you need to go?


To transform any situation you need three forms of understanding: a critique of how things are; a vision for how things should be; and a theory of change for how to move from one to the other. —Ken Robinson
It is unclear if current methods of evaluation are well-suited to operate in a climate of paradigm crisis, especially as they relate to education, especially when they using models rooted in the 1960s. They are too cumbersome and deliberate, and too wedded to models of standards and documentation; compliance. They are too costly in time and capital, and in general too focused on where the organization has been instead of focused on a where it needs to go. A continuous evaluation process might help understand the changes to the paradigm, but only if they were more of a snapshot, and not exhaustively comprehensive in nature.

This isn’t to say that evaluation qua evaluation—sui generis?—does not have a role in organizations in paradigm crisis. Nor that curricular reviews and alignment and school accreditation are not beneficial. They are, and have the potential to be transformative for the organization (in fact I think my school's current accreditation process might be impactful—for the current school model, namely the traditional assembly-line based paradigm).

Rather, that there are serious questions about the ability for current evaluation models to offer much forward thinking because of their nature, because of how we have defined both evaluation and the problem. Current evaluation models used in education do not appear to promote and encourage a vision of where we need to be and a theory of change on how to get there; they are backwards. They may promote and encourage the groundwork to understand the need for future change—the critique—but usually only within the same paradigm.

We live in a world of trade-offs and finite resources. Current evaluation models used in school struggle to operate within a time frame and economy of scale that is quick, light, and responsive, and the 21st century world requires all three. Education doesn’t need to continue to trade-off where we’ve been for where we need to go. We have been in the exact same spot, more or less, for 100 odd years. What education needs now more than ever is a focus on where it will be going into the next 100 years. The future of evaluation in school needs to focus on the vision and the theory. Without this, we will end up back where we started.

Will Richardson's thoughts responding to this post and other questions can be found here.

Check out Part II here: School Evaluation Has An Improvement Problem.

(Adapted from a paper written for HRD 585: Program Evaluation, Professor David Huang, University of Illinois, Masters of Educational Learning Design and Leadership in New Learning)

09 October 2015

#tokfriday: Ethics, Justification, and the #Kunduz bombing


"From 2:08am until 3:15am on Saturday, 3 October, the Medicin Sans Frontieres (MSF or Doctors Without Borders) trauma hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, was hit by a series of aerial bombing raids at approximately 15-minute intervals. The main hospital building, which housed the intensive care unit, emergency rooms, and physiotherapy ward, was hit with precision, repeatedly, during each aerial raid, while surrounding buildings were left mostly untouched. The total number of people killed in the attack is 22, including 12 MSF staff members and 10 patients. Thirty-seven people were injured, including 19 members of the MSF team" (MSF, 2015).

The KQ

Other TOK Links

Reason, Emotion, Human Sciences, Natural Sciences

The Short Article

Afghanistan: Enough. Even war has rules.

Further Reading

Factsheet: Kunduz Hospital Attackhttp://www.msf.org/article/factsheet-kunduz-hospital-attack

Doctors Without Borders bombing: can it be prosecuted as a war crime?

BBC - Ethics - War: Rules and conventions

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols

03 October 2015

Re-examining Arne Duncan's signature achievement: 5 reform ideas better than Race to the Top?

The retirement of Arne Duncan after 7 years as Education Secretary has generated quite a bit of renewed interest in his record. One of President Obama and Mr. Duncan's signature initiatives was the $4.35 billion Race to the Top competitive grant program.

One of the more interesting aspects of the R2T was the unique way the program used a monetary incentive structure to achieve its goals. Using a combination of competition, "free money," and weighted criteria, R2T was able to very quickly institute country-wide specific and demonstrable K-12 public education policy changes. This was and still is probably the key innovation of the R2T; for  $4.35 billion (4% of the $115 million allocated in the stimulus bill, a hypothetical 6.5% of the yearly federal education budget) it allowed the administration to bypass congress and state governments (for the most part) and implement a broad, sweeping overhaul of key aspects of K-12 public education.

Three of the biggest desired outcomes from the R2T incentive structure was to: 1) increase use of accountability metrics for teachers, principals, and schools; 2) adapt common standards; 3) remove barriers to charter school participation in public education. Much can and has been said about the empirical successes and failures of these specific outcomes. All totaled, the results of R2T probably represent the largest changes K-12 public education has seen since Brown v. Board of Education; changes that will continue to be discussed, parsed, studied, and debated about for some time into the future.

Knowing what we know now, one interesting question to ask is a counter-factual one regarding the educational trade-offs of R2T—using the same basic incentive structure of competition and "free money" but basing the desired outcomes around different criteria. All three of the outcomes listed above have been controversial enough to second guess their selection. The teacher accountability movement (focusing on value-added modeling) and the increasing role charter schools (pejoratively called charterization) are the two most challenging outcomes to accept as we learn more about their broad consequences to the ideals of liberal, holistic education.

So, with the benefit of hindsight, a reorienting of the criteria, and the theoretical stance that what is politically feasible and what is ideal are not in conflict, what would a new $4.35 billion R2T grant program incentive structure look like?

We can ask: should the R2T have been primarily animated by the pernicious black-white / low-middle income achievement gap? And view R2T within the tradition of the scholarship started by Daniel Patrick Moynihan and James Coleman in the 1960s. One possible source of inspiration to help answer this question is the scholarship of Richard Rothstein in his book Class and Schools.

In Class and Schools Rothstein offers 5 reforms of varying levels of realistic implementation and impact that could help narrow the achievement gap. There are:
  1. Stable housing reform—something like fully funding a program similar but more efficient than Section 8 housing; an increase of $1000 per pupil, nationwide
  2. School-community clinics—low-income school based health clinics that serve children and their parents through the child's high school career; an increase of $2500 per pupil who attend these (identified) low-income schools.
  3. Early childhood education—fully fund something like well-designed pre-k or Head Start; an increase of $2500 per pupil in low-income schools
  4. After-school programming—organized after school activities, both of the academic and non-academic variety; $5000 per pupil in low-income schools
  5. Summer programming—summer opportunities for low-income students to experience a “middle class” break from school; $2500 per pupil in low-income schools
(source: Rothstein, Richard. Class and Schools. Colombia Teachers College. 2004)

The claim isn't that any or all of these could be effectively funded with R2T $4.35 billion. Take early childhood education, for example. To scale universal pre-K up to a national level has been estimated at around $25 billion per year. The claim is more that the incentive structure could have been set-up in such a way as to attract a different type of "transformational change" and "ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform" by imagining a somewhat different set of criteria.

The question then becomes, given $4.35 billion is education funding, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape the direction of K-12 public education, and more or less the ability to circumvent congressional oversight and state interference, would choosing any set of these 5 have made for better R2T criteria? Would the fight for educational equity look and feel much different today if R2T had outcomes focused on narrowing the achievement gap and not ones based within the "education reform" movement? Would a focus on the achievement gap have results in a broader, bolder approach to education reform?

Unfortunately, while counter-factuals are fun thought experiments, they do not change reality. The reality is that many of the consequences of R2T have created as many or more questions as answers about its impact on the K-12 U.S. public school system. Focusing on accountability and common standards has brought with it a focus on standardized and high-stakes testing. And increasing charter participation and choice has brought conflict of interests within and across school districts who are also besieged by ever decreasing funds and political gamesmanship.

While the adoption of the common core (absent the enormous profits made by publishing companies by the nationalization of testing the standards ) can be viewed with partially rosy glasses (if for no other reason than (1) they are probably better standards than what was out there in the past and (2) guiding standards are an overall good in education), the focus on accountability and the promotion of charter schools has to be view as a misfire, and a missed opportunity.

Race to the Top is a great historical demarcation line in domestic K-12 education policy. It is becoming more and more evident that its criteria and outcomes are not the way forward. Instead, R2T may mark the end of an era, where the U.S. education policy shifted away from a emphasis on 20th century standardization, trading in "a century old factory model—the wrong model for 21st century," towards embracing new models for the 21st century, ones that re-imagines “structure and delivery” and is set-up to “explore productive alternatives.”

02 October 2015

#tokfriday: Math, Reason, and #GunViolence in America


Yesterday at a community college in southern Oregon 10 people were killed and 7 wounded in a mass shooting by a lone gunman. The numbers associated with the gun violence in the United States seem to suggest that the US has a unique gun death problem among its peer group countries. Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack in 2012, there have been 986 mass shootings in the United States. Americans are 40% more likely to be killed by a gun than Brits. Etcetera. President Obama, in his 15th address after mass shootings during his presidency, challenged the news media to publish a graph that plotted the number of US citizens killed in terrorist attacks against the number of US citizens killed due to "gun violence." However, in the past 7 years, no major gun legislation has been passed, and many states have loosened their gun laws through legislation, not strengthened them.

The KQ

Other TOK Links

Emotion, Human Sciences, Ethics

The Short Article

Deaths from terrorism and gun homicide, 2001-2011

Further Reading

In graphics: America's guns | To keep and bear arms

Gun violence in America, in 17 maps and charts

American deaths in terrorism vs. gun violence in one graph

U.S. Deaths From Gun Violence And Terrorism In Comparison [Infograpic]http://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2015/10/02/u-s-deaths-from-gun-violence-and-terrorism-in-comparison-infograpic/?utm_campaign=Forbes&utm_source=TWITTER&utm_medium=social&utm_channel=Business&linkId=17544026

More Americans have died in the last year from gun violence than in the last 40 years from terror attackshttp://www.businessinsider.com/more-americans-have-die-from-gun-violence-than-terror-attacks-2015-10?utm_content=buffer395c3&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

President Obama is right that guns kill more Americans than terrorism. So do lots of other things.http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/08/27/obama-is-right-that-guns-kill-more-americans-than-terrorism-so-do-lots-of-things/

30 September 2015

Designing the I.C.E. Lab—From Me to We

We just completed our first full month of our I.C.E. Lab class. I thought it would be good to provide a little update of some of our progress. The goal again is for students to be a part of the whole process, to own every aspect of this space, right from the beginning. So we did not start with a pre-made, pre-setup, pre-designed space. We are doing it from scratch, and hacking and problem-solving as we go along.

Problem 1 | Project 1: Design the Space

The first Problem we needed to work on, since we started with an empty space and a bunch of new technology, was:

How Do I/We Design a Creative Space?

The goal was to get the students thinking about the design process by getting them to start with what we have, think about what we may need, and categorize our inventory list in a way that would help create different micro-environments within our space. 

Students had to come up with their own ideas first, then the problem moved from "I" to "We." 

To facilitate this, we needed to start our first project:

Design our I.C.E. Lab

We tried to use some principles from Creative Confidence by David Kelley and Tom Kelley to help us. We also used some ideas from NoTosh.com to help with the prototype process (specifically the 1 Hour Prototype).

What did we find out from this process? Well over a month in, and we are still the process of setting everything up! We have had to beg, borrow, and "steal" to get extra furniture and supplies. Instead of being able to focus exclusively on setting up the Lab within the first few weeks, we have instead had to start and stop many times on specific goals because of the realities of living and working within a system that has constraints. And a school is a system with many constraints!


We were told we cannot permanently modify the space in any way, which has become a good problem to hack around.

We were not given a budget so the students had to come up with one and set-up a meeting with the director to ask for one.

We were not given any storage so a few of the students were tasked with coming up with the measurements of a prototype cabinet to present to the director.

Our DIY 3D printer was missing parts so we have had to mothball our biggest project until we can get the missing parts shipped to us.

We initially attempted to create a few different micro-environments (as suggested by the Kelley bros) but found the space had limitations (like outlets and not modifying) so we have more or less put that goal on hold.

The space only has one outlet so there is a maximum of one station that can have electronic equipment plugged in. Our current hack is to try to get maintenance to use the existing and unused projector mount connection to create a hanging, retractable ceiling outlet.

We have a Problem/Project of effectively sharing and communicating our ideas with various audiences. We have created a class blog structure but the idea has yet to take off.

Some students are not as into programming and robotics as others so they have had more difficulty finding projects to start now that we are not focusing on designing the space and the 3D printer.

18 September 2015

#tokfriday: Sense Perception, Bias, and #IStandWithAhmed


On Monday morning, September 14th, Ahmed Mohamed, a 14 year-old freshman in Irving, Texas, was arrested for bringing a home-made clock to school. The clock was deemed to be a suspicious item and Ahmed was subsequently handcuffed and brought to a juvenile detention facility where he was held on possible charges of making a ". On Wednesday, the Irving Police Department decided to drop the charges related to making a hoax bomb. The school gave Ahmed a three day suspension. The incident brought wide-spread media coverage, with many finding an explicit case of bias, stereotyping, racial profiling, and Islamaphobia. 

The KQ

Other TOK Links

Reason, Intuition, Human Sciences, History

The Short Article

Muslim ninth grader arrested for bringing an electronics project to school

Further Reading

Project Implicit

White kid builds nuclear reactor and Homeland Security offers help

This Is Ahmed Mohamed’s Clock

7 Kids Not Named Mohamed Who Brought Homemade Clocks to School And Didn't Get Arrested

Ahmed Mohamed swept up, 'hoax bomb' charges swept away as Irving teen's story floods social media

Ahmed Mohamed's arrest is the perfect example of why racial profiling doesn't work

04 September 2015

#tokfriday: Perception, Emotion, Art, and #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik


On Wednesday, September 2nd, an image of a drowned little boy, dressed in bright red t-shirt and jeans shorts, washed up on a prime tourist beach in Turkey shocked social media and the world. The boy was on a refugee boat attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey to reach the Greek island of Kos. Over the past past few months tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have attempted to flee the civil war tearing apart their homeland. 

The KQ

Other TOK Links

Reason, Ethics, History

The Short Article

These photos will change how the world sees the Syrian refugee crisis

Further Reading

David Cameron: UK to accept 'thousands' more Syrian refugees

Troubling image of drowned boy captivates, horrifies

Nilufer Demir, the photographer who awakened our conscience
Syria, Europe, and the Boy on the Beach

#tokfriday: Ethics, Reason, Emotion, and #HurricaneKatrina


The last week of August marked the 10th anniversary of the costliest natural disaster in United States history: Hurricane Katrina. On August 29th, 2005 Hurricane Katrina reached the coast of the southeastern United States. The city of New Orleans was especially hit hard. The levee system of the city completely failed, flooding approximately 80% of the city, stranding thousands of people and making rescue efforts near impossible.

The KQ

Other TOK Links

Bias, Intuition, Natural Sciences, 

The Short Article/Video

Watch first

Then Read
When Hope Turns to Anguish

Classroom PDF (abridged version with prompt)

(note: I've used these materials--the video and abridged article--as a moral dilemma for 6 years, and they work great together every time)

Further Reading

Emergency department triage: an ethical analysis

21 August 2015

#tokfriday: Art, Emotion and the #BlackLivesMatter movement


The Black Lives Matter movement in the United States has gained prominence over the past 3 years as a social advocacy organization that brings awareness and forces discussion about how the police treat of people of color. The movement is especially concerned with the violent and sometimes deadly tactics police use against people of color.

The use of art and emotion is important to any movement, from protest songs to state propaganda. Recently, Janelle Monáe and Wondaland Records shared their new protest song connected to the #blacklivesmatter movement, called "Hell You Talmbout."

The KQ

There can be no knowledge without emotion. We may be aware of a truth, yet until we have felt its force, it is not ours. To the cognition of the brain must be added the experience of the soul. | Arnold Bennett

Other TOK Links

Language, Reason, Ethics, Human Sciences

The Short Article

Janell Monáe's protest song is a heart-rendering role call of injustices

Further Reading

Why Music? A Look at Art & Propaganda

Straight Outta Compton's power is in its protest songs. It's time America listened
Riot on the Set: How Public Enemy Crafted the Anthem 'Fight the Power'

Janelle Monáe and Wondaland Records Share Protest Song "Hell You Talmbout"

10 August 2015

How Time Structures School | Part 2—Beyond Genius Hour

In Part 1 I tried to lay out a theoretical case for rethinking the way school views time as a defining structure; specifically looking at the way timetabling defines the learning environment, and therefore the knowledge and communication architectures within. In this post I’d like to explore three specific ways that school can start to re-imagine how time structures school: 1) within the classroom; 2) within the timetable; 3) within the school. We can also view these three as moving from least to most innovative (disruptive?) and in turn transformative from a “new learning” perspective.

Within the Classroom

For over 100 years traditional approaches to the use of classroom time have more or less been defined by the teaching of discrete subjects within a discrete timetable cell within defined walled spaces. While this format has worked well (and still works well for some students and for topics) the argument can be made that this model also creates barriers to a broader and bolder conception of what school can and should do with respect to teaching and learning in the 21st century (footnote: Is it time to stop calling for 21st century education? It is 2015. 2030 is closer in time than 1995. Why are we still talking about education as needing to move into the 21st century? We’re already here! 21st century education is the new normal, isn’t it?). Many classrooms therefore have begun to experiment with how time structures pedagogy and content within their own four walls.

The most salient example, I think, is the use of 20% time, Genius Hour, or Passion Projects within a classroom. Based on a principle first used by 3M and popularized by Google, the Genius Hour approach to re-structuring the time and therefore the pedagogy and content structure within the classroom has proven to be a powerful innovation. Genius hour empowers students to take educational ownership by giving them the choice and the time to pursue independent academic interests. The idea is to give students dedicated time in a classroom, every week, to pursue an inquiry-driven and/or choice driven learning model. The most common form is to give students one period a week, or roughly 20% of their week, to pursue an inquiry-based learning experience. This type of flexible time is generally undertaken by individual classroom teachers (although some models have cross-disciplinary teachers teaming up) and is not implemented school-wide. 

A great introductory resource to find out more information on 20% Time in Education can be found here. For a critical look at Genius Hour and whether it truly achieves it’s aims, Ewan McIntosh of NoTosh.com wrote a very good blog post here

The Project Based Learning, Problem Based Learning, and Inquiry Based Learning movements also, to varying degrees, play with how time structures the learning environment within the classroom. All empower students in different ways to take control of the learning by allowing them to use time in varying and different structured ways. The main limitation with both the movements above, and the Genius Hour approach, is that the learning environment is still defined and thus limited by the timetable cell. Robust conceptions of true multidisciplinary learning (or phenomenon teaching as Finland is calling it) are still effaced by the structure that the timetable places upon not only the learning environment, but also the way the learning environment is thought of. Students will still think of going their Genius Hour in Geography class with their Geography teacher, even if the project crosses the investigative boundaries traditionally set by the class title and content.

School, to take proper advantage of the learning affordances being brought in by the age of new learning, should be thinking broader and bolder, and encourage a move beyond Genius Hour. 

Within the Timetable

One way to circumvent the overarching way timetabling defines the learning environment (without throwing the timetable out) is to include within the timetable a cell for the type of broader and bolder multidisciplinary collaborative “21st century” learning environments valued. 

Flexible learning time is a concept that incorporates within the timetable a designated celled time for students innovating, creating, and exploring, often via in self-organized learning mechanisms. In practice flex-time might look something like this (the International School of Brussels High School successful operates a similar model):

Block Schedule with Flex Time
Block 1
Flex Time
Block 2
Block 3
Block 4
During flex-time students can self-organize around problems or questions they hope to explore, find a mentor teacher or teachers to help them with their investigation and exploration, and then follow through to the creating and innovating stage of their prototyping and problem-solving. They can also connect with the community, create student-led organizations and/or clubs, do independent research, among other options.

Another varient that I conceptualized but haven't seen adopted (and which I have tried to pitch to my school, unsuccessfully, for two years) is a "Friday Flextime" idea.

Core classes

Core classes

Core classes

Core classes
Core classes

Core classes
Core classes rotation
Core classes

Core classes

Core classes rotation
This large block of flex time could be reserved for student initiated and teacher mentored transdisciplinary Project-based learning—"passion projects," and student clubs and organizations in predetermined chunks of time (ie 1 hr for student clubs and orgs and 2 hrs for "passion projects"). It could be collapsed to do full half day activities (ie on and off campus service & experiential learning, guest speakers and workshops, etc)

The main change flex-time initiates is the idea that learning takes place in a discrete time, in a discrete location, within a discrete subject—and almost always with a age-based cohort of peer students. In contrast to 20% time, which is generally limited to specific classrooms, flextime becomes a school-wide change. Flextime provides for numerous possibilities with regards to providing spaces for inquiry-driven teaching and learning. Flex-time breaks down these artificial barriers, and allows for the learner to self-create a pathway and/or roadmap to and through learning objectives, with students and on topics of their own choosing

The inclusion of flex-time shifts the scheduling away from all learning in discrete, discipline specific timetable cells. Instead, flexible time is given to pursue non-linear, non-discreet, non-discipline specific teaching and learning by giving students dedicated time within the school day to innovate, create, explore by pursuing independent or collaborative projects, multidisciplinary project-based learning, and/or maker projects, among other things (creating “MakerSpaces” would be a great addition to the model of flex-time). 

Within the School

While flexible learning time has the potential to be quite powerful—if for no other reason that it breaks down to some extent the walls and cells—there are two inter-related but distinct concerns: 1) it falls short of a true multidisciplinary approach to teaching and learning; 2) it lacks certain design constraints and structures to help students maximize their results. What would re-designing and re-imagining time within school look like? It is important to state from the outset that the goal is not necessarily to create an ideal model, rather it is more to promote a changing perspective, or point of view.

There are still very good reasons to view some traditional structures of school and curriculum as necessary—students do not always know their needs, and many times they have misconceptions (sometimes drastic) about the world around them. Lessons in grammar, math, writing, researching, close reading, etc are all necessary components (most would argue and agree) of a well-rounded and complete student. But the question remains, can we balance this out more? And should we?

Finland’s new Phenomenon teaching requirement is a good starting point for a conversation on this shift toward a more balanced approach to teaching and learning, one that acknowledges the scaffolding needs of building block knowledge, while also projecting forward the needs of the new realities of teaching and learning in the digital information age. 

“The next big reform taking place in Finland is the introduction of a new National Curriculum Framework (NCF), due to come into effect in August 2016…The concept of “phenomenon-based” teaching – a move away from “subjects” and towards interdisciplinary topics will have a central place in the new NCF…What will change in 2016 is that all basic schools for 7- to 16-year-olds must have at least one extended period of multi-disciplinary, phenomenon-based teaching and learning in their curricula…The NCF [also] states that students must be involved in the planning of phenomenon-based study periods and that they must have voice in assessing what they have learned from it.” 

Finland isn’t ditching traditional school subjects. Rather they are starting the conversation about the idea of a larger, transformational shift in education, “that breaking down the dominance of traditional subjects and isolation of teaching is an opportunity to more fundamental change in schools.” 

To be sure, this is not a revolutionary idea either. A.S. Neil’s Summerhill School, John Dewey’s progressive schools, trade schools, and some “alternative school” models have all used variations of this restructuring of school. However it has always occupied a very small niche within school writ large. But school write large hasn’t had a foundational shift in structure in over 100 years. Maybe now is the time. 

For examples of a few select schools playing with this model, see the following links: 

09 August 2015

Introducing the UAS I.C.E. Lab

For over 4 years I've been incorporating some type of dedicated classroom time for students to pursue large authentic projects. First they were open-ended, choice-based end of the unit projects. Then two years ago I came across the Genius Hour/20% time idea and incorporated that into my classroom. By the end of the 2014 school year I had my 9th grade history class working on a project I called I.C.E. Lab (Innovate, Create, Explore), using 20% time to "create something" that was loosely tied to our Technology and Change theme in our 9th grade World History class (a performance final in lieu of taking a real cumulative final).

Sometime last summer (July 2014) I visited a Boys and Girls club in Appleton, WI. The director gave us a tour and at one point he took us to a room with some instruments and music equipment. In the corner of the room was a computer and a beat kit. We looked the room over and as he was explaining everything he said something that stayed with me, something to the effect while that most of the musical equipment doesn't get used a lot, the kids are always on the computer making music with a music making software and the beat kit. It was a space where kids came to make stuff, specifically music. I very quickly asked myself internally "Why don't we have a space to make stuff like this at our school?"

When I returned to Montevideo, Uruguay to begin the 2014-2015 school year I began to put together a proposal to create an I.C.E. Lab in our school—a continuation of the idea of Innovating, Creating, and Exploring that I tried out 4th quarter. I found $5,000 left over in a budget, wrote up a vision and basic outline and proposed it to the school administration. To my surprise, it was enthusiastically supported.

By the time 2nd semester of last year rolled around (February 2015), I was busy preparing to present at Innovate Graded 2015 and was also just starting my masters degree in New Learning at the University of Illinois. As part of one of my classes I wrote an update about my proposal to create an I.C.E. Lab at our school. It was only then after another student commented on my update that I learned about the growing momentum behind creating MakerSpaces in libraries and schools (and the literature supporting it)! I was at Innovate Graded just a few weeks later where I was exposed to even more excitement and materials around design thinking in schools, especially the work Ewan McIntosh and his team at NoTosh.com are doing. I also had the chance to tour Graded's MakerSpace. Lots of great minds we're thinking alike and many were already out in front of this idea.

By this time I also had to place our international order. Armed with the keyword I needed all along—MakerSpace—I began to put together the raw materials for our I.C.E. Lab space. The idea was to try to promote four different learning strands with the space: 1) design thinking, 2) cooperative/collaborative learning, 3) self-organized learning, 4) student ownership and choice. With that in mind I tried to order products and materials that would help. I ended up settling on four broad categories: 1) 3D printing, 2) digital media production, 3) robotics, 4) coding and programming. I was able to not only convince our library to help me run the experiment, but to also move some furniture around to help create the space; we ended up being able to squirrel away a corner space of around 4 meters by 3 meters for our lab.

Flash forward to this past week. I still wanted to preserve the original name I.C.E. Lab because I had grown attached to it (and it sounds cool and unique, no?). My idea is to build out from the original Innovate, Create, Explore acronym and include this framework into the structure of the learning that goes on. My principal and I decided that creating a class to help found the lab—design and create it—seemed like a good approach (with the end goal of opening it up to a much larger audience without necessarily a "class" attached to its use). At the end of last year I had asked my two sections of 9th graders to apply to be a part of the first cohort. 10 students ended up applying and were able to fit it into their schedule—a perfect number. This Thursday (6 Aug 15) we all got together for the first time!

I wanted students to be a part of the whole process, to own every aspect of this space, right from the beginning. Class started Thursday and I decided to spend the first two 45 minute periods having students work on our first problem and first project (I decided to use this Problem/Project terminology to frame our work together, we'll see how I like it). Problem 1: How do you design a creative space? Project 1: Design our I.C.E. Lab.

I created small handouts for the first two days, having students focus on taking inventory of what we have, measuring the space, and thinking about how to organize and divide the raw materials we have. And then using that information to begin their first prototype.

This Tuesday the students are going to be coming in with their 1 Hour Prototypes, where we'll then begin to combine our ideas and change the "you" to "we": How do we design a creative space? I'm excited to see what they come up with! 

My hope is to continue to document our learning journey together over the next few months here on this blog; to create a nice set of sharable experiences for anyone else who might be looking to start a journey of their own. We'll try to post again soon about some more of the specifics of the space and the raw materials we'll be working with, and my ideas on how to structure and scaffold the work students will be doing in the lab.

29 June 2015

Identity Formation and the Digital Self in School

Who you are—your identity—and therefore who you become is defined by many different factors: social constructions, personal choices, and historical constructs being three of the biggest. This identity is not made up of permanent states, or at least significant constituent parts don’t have immutable permanence. Identity is formed over time, and changes in time. More recently, identity has also taken on a digital component, as people have begun to create “digital selves” that are both an extension of and a separate formation of a person’s whole identity. The role school plays in the formation of the identity of a student is profound and multivarious. Therefore, how school problematizes and navigates this new digital identity formation world is of increasing importance.

However, it appears that most school policies regarding the digital self start and stop with admonishments as things you shouldn’t do—a strategy of scarring and thus protecting the students from the dangerous of the digital world. What is lacking in these policies is that the digital self formation is framed in purely prescriptive terms—thus missing the potentially progressive capabilities of framing digital self formation in terms terms of self-ownership and empowerment. I'd like to try to explore the ways school currently views digital self formation, and possible ways forward for a more full conception of identity formation and the digital self in schools.

What is a digital self?

The digital self is the outward expression and presentation of a person within online and digital mediums. Because it is online or digital, this identity is disembodied and sometimes anonymous. The digital self is also a very recent phenomenon—as little as fifteen years ago most readers would not have been familiar with the concept. But ask someone today and they could very likely give you at least a fairly concrete example of what an online identity is and even one they currently use.

The digital self is also evolving at a hard to comprehend pace. What started with email and chat rooms has now progressed to blogs, big data, social media, massive multiplayer online environments, and possibly even massive open online learning environments. As our day-to-day lives become exponentially more connected, our digital constructs of who we are and the ways in which we express and present ourselves becomes more complex and multivariable. It would be hard to imagine a more foundational, substantial historical addition to identity formation that the digital self.

The Digital Self in School

Identity formation in school, especially during the middle and secondary years, is mostly left to the “hidden curriculum.” Schools place a lot of emphasis on the formal curriculum of teaching and learning, but they also mold students identities and behaviors through these hidden— unwritten and unofficial—lessons (think detention, line making, asking before speaking, honesty, saying the pledge, etc). School understands it influences it, that students are forming them and that intervention is necessary when students need “redirection,” but there is very little active formal emphasis on identity (in most schools, in most circumstances).

Thus the digital self in school finds itself existing in a dance between the formal, hidden, and null curriculums of school. Most schools actively talk about the digital self in prescriptive ways by prohibiting certain actions or uses and by threatening the permanence of certain action or uses. In other words, bad use, but never wise use. The instances of the digital self that do not fall under prohibition or permanence instead become part of hidden or even more common null curriculum—curriculum that schools don’t teach. It is a mistake to only view the digital self in bad use terms. It is a missed opportunity. And the inaction is becoming more inexcusable as school stays silent while the identities of students become more and more intertwined with their digital selves.

Most schools currently treat the digital lives of students much in the same way as we try (and usually fail) to teach them about drugs and alcohol—prohibition and permanence. The message we send more often than not about the digital age is about all of the dangers. How much time do we devote to this, and how much time do we devote to talking about how they can take control of their own digital identities, about how the world before them is a world that will be paradigmatically different than the world 20 years ago, about understanding their digital and connected experiences by teaching and promoting digital citizenship? A better balance needs to be found.

Students also need to be learning and practicing about how to take self-ownership of their online identity, to function, find meaning, within the connections, find wise use. School need to be teaching and encouraging ways to do this and creating spaces and experiences to practice within. In a world of never ending data, what's important is not individual incidents of wrong or immature use, but demonstrated totalities of use, and school should be showing them ways on how to personalize it—so it can be creative, inventive, self-owned, and meaningful.


Where do we go from here? The digital self is becoming too important of a player in the formation of the identities of students for the totalities of use to be left as part of the hidden and null curriculum. As Michael Wesch claims, we are living in a different “media-scape” where we’re at the center. This center is comprised of user-generated content, filtering, organization, and distribution. This is especially true of today’s students, and will be ever more increasingly true as long as the world progresses on the same digital, interconnected trajectory we are on.

By prohibiting certain actions and uses and by threatening the permanence of certain action or uses what school is doing is pushing this part of identity formation outside of school when it should seen as integral, as part of the formal curriculum. School should not only be teaching the hows of wise use and the formation of the digital self, but also should be using the digital self to expand, take advantage of, and re-imagine the new affordances of teaching and learning in the digital age.

A full conception of what this looks like in practice needs to be explicated, but many teachers are already beginning the process by encouraging their students to write blogs, create e-Portfolios, use Twitter, join online learning communities, and publish their creative works in digital mediums. Teachers need to continue here, and do more. School as an institution needs to incorporate this new reality into their overall mission statement of what it means to be an educated and self-discerning young adult. If we do this we will begin the necessary step of problematizing the digital self.

(Originally written for EPS 415 A SU15: Technology & Educational Reform with Professor Nick Burbules, University of Illinois, Masters of Educational Learning Design and Leadership in New Learning)

“The Digital Self: Concepts, Culture and Society.” CHUCOL RSS. Web. 29 Jun. 2015. <http://www-chucol.mml.cam.ac.uk/?page_id=54>

Zhao, Shanyang. “The Digital Self: Through The Looking Glass of Telecopresent Others.” Symbolic Interaction 28.3 (2005): 387–405. Web.

“An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 29 Jun. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpao-lz4_hu>

08 June 2015

How Time Structures School as an Educational Technology

Two of the most persistent, pervasive, and prescriptive teaching and learning features (or technologies) of school over the past 100 or so odd years are: 1) the way school uses and defines space; and 2) the way school creates and establishes structure. These two features, more so probably than any other two, shape and frame the school teaching and learning environment. The discussion of school space will be bracketed in order to examine more in-depth the concept of the structure of school; specifically to critically evaluate the role different school created and established structures have in defining the communication and knowledge architectures of teaching and learning in school. A conclusion will be reached that the structures school has traditionally created may no longer fully serve and support the current and future goals of teaching and learning.

Structure Defined

What is structure, and is it an educational technology? In general, any of the mechanisms school uses to organize the teaching and learning environment and hence the communication and knowledge architectures in school is a structure. These structures can be both deliberately created and established, and arise as the unintended result of other structures. While the teaching and learning structures within school are too numerous to list (and probably not understood well enough to either), there are a select few that are obvious, deliberate, and near ubiquitous. We can highlight three: 1) timetabling, 2) pedagogy, 3) content.1

School as almost all of us know it is based around the structure of a timetable cell, with a class name and a start and stop bell (cells and bells). Discrete topics of learning take place within discrete cells of a timetable, only alterable by those in charge. The result of this is the delineation of where and when teaching and learning happens—it happens right there at that specific time.

These discrete topics are also many times filtered through an intermediary, traditionally called a teacher, who structures the teaching and learning in what many times become both categorical and idiosyncratic ways. These pedagogical decisions end up for the most part defining the knowledge and communication architectures within the learning space.

Not only is the way the information is constructed structured by the learning environment, but also the type of information is structured by the learning environment. The content—or curricula—is usually a predetermined, fixed entity, set to standards, sanitized and sterilized for consumption, and then delivered on a distinct and linear trajectory.

Taken together, these three interconnected structures of school account for a significant portion of the overall structured nature of the teaching and learning inside school. But is this concept of structure a technology? Following in the tradition set-out by American educational philosopher John Dewey and continued by philosophers Larry Hickman and Nick Burbules, a technology properly understood is not as a tool but as a kind of relationship. Viewed in this way, technology is not the thing that helps us solve problems but rather it is the result of the process of inquiry into problem-solving—technology is the result of a process of inquiry and a stage toward new inquiry (Burbules lecture, 21 May 2015).

The structures of school, especially the structures of timetabling, pedagogy, and content highlighted, fit very well into this definition of technology. These three structures, probably more so than any elements within a school except for the learner herself, form the relationship teaching and learning has with a process of inquiry. The results of this process of inquiry are in many ways dependent upon the structures set-up before the inquiry began. This effectively makes any inquiry structure a technology itself.

Therefore, structure can confidently be called a technology. However, technologies themselves, again following Dewey, Hickman, and Burbules, are not ipso facto good or bad. Their essence in this sense is determined by the use. The use needs to be critically reviewed in order to understand the affordances created between structure and teaching and learning.


Critical Review of Structures in Practice

It is difficult to isolate these three structures in practice because at a deep level they are interdependent. But more so than the other connections, the structuring of time drives the pedagogical and content choices made.

Timetabling standardizes the communication and knowledge architectures of teaching and learning in school into discrete periods and discrete subjects. For a long time, this model improved the teaching practice and created specific and successful models of learning and classroom climates. School was built on the assumption that information was scarce; therefore it had the job of delivering fixed content because it had the access to the information. Information was then broken down into standardized subjects, and pedagogy was designed around delivering the content with a discrete chunk of time. But what about where today and into the future?

It could be argued that information scarcity should no longer be a main driver of school assumptions. And if this is true, then timetabling teaching and learning should no longer solely drive the pedagogical and content choices school makes. A question to ask then is: Does it continue to make sense to require all learning to happen within a timetable cell (and therefore within four walls with controlled and fixed content choices) just because that is the created and established structure?

The current world teaching and learning inhabits is a world of abundance, and more so, an uncontrollable and ubiquitous world of accessing, creating, and sharing information (cf Will Richardson). What this world therefore also requires is for school to build different relationships with time. Learning shouldn’t begin and end with the sound of a bell. This world of abundance requires a refocusing of the communication and knowledge architectures traditionally set-up within a walled and timed classroom environment. It requires a focus on building the capacities within students themselves to think, learn, and grow. And to do this, it will be hard for school to continue to value timetabling over learning. A more flexible approach to time is needed.

Re-structuring the relationship school has to time, away from timetabling and towards a more flexible approach, is a foundational educational shift. The structure of the timetable technology was build for a teaching and learning world that is existing less and less. A new structure built around a more flexible relationship to time would help further the current and future goals of the teaching and learning ecology of school. The balance is currently too skewed towards a celled structure. School needs to also embrace a flexible time environment in order to take full advantage of the new learning affordances of today and into the future.

Go to Part II 

(Originally written for EPS 415 A SU15: Technology & Educational Reform with Professor Nick Burbules, University of Illinois, Masters of Educational Learning Design and Leadership in New Learning)

1It´s an interesting but altogether different conversation as to the why of their ubiquity and stickiness. Many blame Horace Mann, the Prussians, and the industrial model of education. Age grouping is another interesting case of an ubiquitous structure that will have to be bracketed for now—Ken Robinson calls into question this idea that the most important thing kids have in common is their ¨age of manufacture¨