Thursday, October 21, 2010

Is the System Worthy

A considerable amount of attention has been paid towards education in the wake of Waiting for Superman, Mark Zuckerberg's donation to the Newark public school system, the Obama administration's Race to the Top initiative and the results of the D.C. mayoral election. Criticism has been directed towards teachers unions, school systems and teachers protected by the tenure system.

Everyone seems to offer an opinion on how to fix America's education system. I agree with other educators in stating that current public discourse should focus on learning. Parents, educators, students and politicians need to re-imagine learning. The factory model of scholarship no longer addresses the needs of students looking to make a difference in the 21st Century. Without intense and reflective discussions about how technology impacts learning, schools will be stuck supporting outdated practices.

Another important conversation that must happen has to do with systems that govern students assessment. A colleague of mine always asks what does a C or a B represent. Grades are supposed to represent student achievement, but can be viewed as an arbitrary delineation based upon a formula that varies from teacher to teacher. Can one be assured that an A represents the same level of achievement in every classroom?

Isn't the bottom line about whether or not students meet program benchmarks. Going under the assumption that a course has clearly defined objectives, it should be the job of teachers and students to collaboratively work towards ensuring that benchmarks are met.

Are we currently supporting a system that works against student progress? Where outside of education are grades that represent such a broad range of proficiencies used to determine one's capacity. In addition to critically thinking about learning and the types of experiences privileged for students, educators need to examine how student progress is defined. As the traditional approach to teaching and learning dissipates, it will become harder to evaluate students based upon the letter grade system. Just consider the standards produced by NCTE for 21st Century Literacy. Students cannot address just some standards or parts of a particular benchmarks, but should demonstrate proficiency in all. Without that, how can students progress within a school and eventually, graduate from high school.

The time is ripe for these conversations to happen. Let's hope the moment does not slip by.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Power of Sport

I do not know if you had the chance to watch the latest installment of ESPN's documentary series 30 for 30. Tuesday night was the premier of Once Brothers. The documentary presented the story of the former Yugoslavian national basketball team. The documentary traced the rise of the team that captured the 1989 European Championship to teammates pitted against one another as war erupted in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s.

The documentary followed Vlade Divac as he traveled back to Zagreb, Croatia twenty years after capturing the European title. Along the journey, Vlade Divace recounted the story of how his relationship with the Croatian players on the national team changed once the conflict erupted in Yugoslavia. In particular, Divac shared with the audience his relationship with fellow national team member Drazen Petrovic.

Petrovic was a member of the Yugoslavian national team and all star in the NBA. Petrovic was a star in Europe and a national hero in Yugoslavia. Exploits of his scoring prowess were legendary. For Divac, Petrovic was a player he greatly admired and looked up to (Petrovic was four years older than Vlade). Divac would get a chance to play with Petrovic when he named to the national team. The two roomed together during training camps for the Yugoslavian national team and both entered the NBA in 1989.

Divac, drafted by the Lakers and Petrovic by the Blazers, relied on each other to get through the first year. Thousands of miles away from family and friends, the two would spend hours on the phone at night talking about the transition to a new country and life in the NBA. This tight bond between Divac and Petrovic dissipated as the conflict worsened back home. It got to the point were both men barely spoke and only exchanged quick pleasantries when their teams met.

Petrovic's promising career was cut short when he died in a car accident in June 1993. Divac always believed that once the war ended these old teammates could come together and rekindle what once was a treasured friendship. It was not meant to be and Divac has had to live with regret until he returned to Zagreb and sat down with Drazen's mother and visited Petrovic's grave.

The story shared by Divac was genuine, emotional and gripping. It also personalized a moment in history. As the title suggests, a tight bond formed between teammates was destroyed as war in the Balkans escalated. The documentary demonstrated how neighbors, colleagues and teammates took up arms against each other and that relationships and past history was of no consequence.

Think about how defining moments in sport can be a vehicle to examine the world. What enduring understandings can be established from examining Jesse Owens' performance in the 1936 Berlin Olympics or Jim McKay's tragic remarks, "that they are all gone," during his marathon telecast from Munich in 1972. Similarly how can a picture of the medal podium featuring Tommie Smith and John Carlos spur further inquiries into the mystery behind the single black gloves.

The use of sport as a vehicle to engage and stimulate meaningful inquiries cannot be overlooked. The inherent drama and personal struggle embedded into each contest causes an emotional reaction amongst those who are viewing an event. For 90 minutes it was impossible not to reflect upon the relationship shattered by war.

If you have not had the opportunity to view Once Brothers it will be replayed and is also available on iTunes.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Networked Student

"Networked Student Model that promotes inquiry-based learning and digital literacy, empowers the learner, and offers flexibility as new technologies emerge."

The above quote, shared from an article written by Wendy Drexler, and published in the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology (2010), suggests the types of learning engagements students should experience in the classroom. Teachers should occasion inquiry driven endeavors that also, take into consideration the expanding definition of literacy in the 21st century. As students explore challenging classroom initiatives in a connected environment, they assume greater ownership over learning and bring to the surface unique processes for constructing knowledge.

The latter part of Drexler's statement reveals another reality educators and students must face. Considerable attention has been placed on the development of 21st century skills and the need to either embed in existing classes or create stand alone courses that foster effective and ethical ways students can produce and share information. Infused into discussions about literacy has to be the development of personal learning networks. Ultimately, there is a need for students to develop their own personal learning network and access this network to meet challenges faced in the classroom.

At the high school where I am an administrator, we have encouraged teachers to develop Moodle pages for their classes. Moodle is our school's personal digital community where students, teachers and administrators can post and exchange information. The use of Moodle has grown over the past year. Each day more and more teachers are developing class pages. Whereas at first Moodle was a site used to post classroom resources, now classroom participants are engaging one another in forum discussions, chat sessions and collaborating to complete academic tasks. Meaningful exchanges are allowed to develop as the traditional notion of class time has been altered to where learning occurs 24/7.

While the use of Moodle is encouraging, in a sense, it is limited. Moodle is an internal system. Access to Moodle is restricted to only building/district educators and students. Another piece needs to be added to the sharing witnessed on Moodle. Students need to develop personal learning networks that not only includes exchanges on Moodle, but also relies on relationships established outside of the school community. Our students have to begin to develop extensive social networks. These networks can be accessed to assist with academic related tasks or be tapped in relation to a personal interest or passion.

Part of developing the global classroom rests within the efforts of learners. Without prompting from a teacher, students should activate social networks to conduct inquiry-based initiatives. Educators have a responsibility to model the process of how they access a personal network to learn and grow both professionally and personally. Through this apprenticeship students will begin to expand personal networks. The end result is a classroom where students are constructing knowledge and not relying on a single source or the person sitting next to them to address a problem.

Virtual learning communities are valuable and have helped make some significant changes to instruction. However, there is a need to broaden the sources of information and perspectives students can reflect upon. Encouraging students to develop personal learning networks is critical and has enduring value. Personal learning networks are not restricted to a single class or school year. It exists for a lifetime and constantly evolves to meet the constant changes we all face.