K-12: Where Net Gen'ers and Economic Vitality Meet

As I began thinking about what I would say to Leadership Iowa's 2010-2011 Leadership Class tomorrow morning, I did my usual and processed through writing. Never wanting a piece of writing to go without an audience, I figured I'd share my thoughts with the blogosphere. 

Let's start by looking at some recent headlines and quotes:

Des Moines Register: Need more start-ups "The state needs to drive its economy through innovation”

Institutional America has knocked the start out of us “We need to get back to being great at starting things in our country.”

Entrepreneurship requires changes in education “If we want entrepreneurs, we have to train them”

Educating the Net Generation “The Net Generation has grown up with information technology. The aptitudes, attitudes, expectations, and learning styles of Net Gen students reflect the environment in which they were raised—one that is decidedly different.”

The K-12 world stands directly in the middle of these two issues. The children in our classrooms today are fundamentally different than generations of the past, and our economy is crying out for creators and innovators. We have to step up and embrace the challenge before us. By leveraging the traits of the Net Generation and changing the core focus of our schools from content knowledge to skills and dispositions of the 21st century, we in the K-12 world are poised to raise up that generation of creators and innovators that will breathe new life into our economy.

Children come to us in kindergarten naturally curious, as intrinsically motivated learners, and by 3rd grade we have institutionalized the spark and drive right out of them. Walk into any kindergarten classroom, and you’ll see a teacher working very hard to get kids to stop talking, to sit down, to raise their hands. Walk into a secondary school classroom, and you’ll see a teacher working very hard to achieve exactly the opposite goal. There’s no question that we have to change the way we do business in schools.

We have a long ways to go, but there are many examples of the kind of educational innovation happening in schools in our state right now. As a lifelong Iowan, I’m still in awe of the phenomenon, but Iowa is leading the charge in 21st century educational reform. To prove my point, consider this tweet from an educator watching what's happening in Iowa schools from the outside:

There are a variety of reasons for this, but I would point to some of these as illustrative examples:

·       Public-private partnerships: You’ve heard about VREP and its remarkable efforts to connect students with virtual reality technology. There is great input coming from the private sector that is informing new ways of defining "life, work, and post-secondary ready."

·      Distinct efforts to think beyond K-12: We now talk about PK-14, PK-16, and even PK-20 education. Our middle and high schools are part of the Project Lead the Way initiative that provides a clear gateway to technology in middle school—we’ve even made it our fifth core course—and an articulated pre-engineering sequence in the high school that ensures our students are ready to step into a higher education engineering setting without missing a beat.

·      The Iowa Core: With its statewide focus on rigor and relevance; deep conceptual and procedural knowledge; Universal Constructs (creativity, collaboration, complex communication, flexibility and adaptability, productivity and accountability, and critical thinking); creating school administrators who are instructional leaders; and more—the Iowa Core has been a powerful catalyst for statewide change.

·      Widespread technology integration: You’re probably all aware of the 1:1 wildfire, but it’s more than that. Putting a computer in the hands of a student doesn’t change a school. Successful 1:1 schools have embraced a transformational integration of technology that focuses on how technology can make the impossible possible.

·      Virtual, open source, and hybrid learning opportunities: In times of declining resources, ramped-up expectations, and world-flattening technologies, we have to think beyond classroom walls and district lines. There are federal and state supported, as well as school district-driven efforts to share content, teachers, and learning spaces to do just this.

·      New modes of learning: Recognizing that today’s learners are wired to think in a world that is multi-sensory with massive input, there are new and unique genres of curriculum. Gaming and interactive media are making serious headway in the education world. You don’t have to look beyond Inanimate Alice and the burgeoning Athena Project to understand what I’m talking about here.

I could go on and on—and I’m sure I overlooked some stellar examples, but my point is this: pushing forward existing K-12 reform efforts, creating even more of them, and sparking systemic reform that will move us beyond district-specific islands of excellence are critical to our future economic viability.


My Comments to the Board on Technology Integration

During paradigm shifts we work to improve the old paradigm while simultaneously creating the new paradigm that will eventually render much of the old paradigm irrelevant. (Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions)

It’s almost 2011. We’ve been talking about educating for the 21st century for more than a decade now. We have to begin to make clear and consistent steps that put a little walk behind our talk.

CASTLE Director, Scott McLeod illustrates what this alignment of talk and walk might look like in his November 22nd blogpost, “If we were really serious about educational technology.”

We’ll have to become committed to teaching digital citizenship to our students, teachers, parents, and community—rather than ignoring reality by blocking access. We’ll have to teach our students to become and commit ourselves to being savvy, critical consumers of the masses of information and gadgets vying for our attention.

We’ll have to become committed to universal access for our students, and that commitment may have to come in the form of a line item in the budget for technology and a public Board position that values technology in budget allocation.

We’ll have to embrace our commitment to lifelong learning in a way we’ve never done before, because I can almost guarantee you the tables will be turned. At times, we adults will be learning at the feet of our students.

And we’ll have to do all this because the world has truly changed. Our primary concern used to be about whether or not our students knew the right content, but now content is readily available anytime, anyplace. I have more computing power on my iPhone than the entire world had in 1950.

We’ll have to embrace a new way of doing business. We’ll have to be committed to integrating technology in a way that transforms learning, not just laying new tech applications over existing practices.

We’ll have to embrace a new mission of ensuring our students have deep conceptual understanding and possess transferrable skills sets, rather than being concerned that they know the capitals of all fifty states. Today I could learn nearly everything I learned in school through YouTube and iTunesU.

In the end, we’re talking about thinking differently. In edu-jargon, we’d be talking about a paradigm shift. The tricky thing about educational paradigm shifts is that we can’t stop and retool. Essentially, we have to rebuild the plane while it’s still flying—with 2000 W-SR kids on board.

It’s truly an exciting time to be in education, and we have a golden opportunity rising just west of here in that beautiful new middle school. Instead of painstakingly retrofitting and retooling an outdated infrastructure to support a new model of learning, we’re building it from the ground up.

Technology decisions are among the hardest to make, because the reality is always that what you purchase today will be improved upon tomorrow, but it is time to start making technology decisions for next year. We are committed to due diligence in determining what’s best—both long and short term—for the district—as well as balancing instructional needs with fiscal realities.