Monday, June 25, 2018

New Literacies for a Complex World

We live in a time of great uncertainty and change. Economic, political, cultural, technological, and societal disruption are forcing us as educators to reexamine what it means to provide a quality education for our students that prepares them for the world they will face.

And, we are realizing that this reexamination will have to become the norm. Nothing is guaranteed in the future except for continued change.

Too often the discussion of how to shape our education systems revolves around the economic needs of our societies.

“What do our students need to find jobs when they graduate?”
 “How can we prepare students for the 21st Century workforce?”
“What skills will our students need to be productive members in a time of rapid technological advancement?

This is the wrong focus, and these questions leave out some of the most important aspects of education.

The damage we could inflict upon an entire generation of children by reducing them to cogs in an economic machine designed to maximize profit would be devastating.

Education encompass so much more than “college and career readiness,” a term that is often used in the United States.

We must strive to ensure that our children get an education that allows them to be happy, healthy, and successful in life – with “success” being defined in a broad sense that includes much more than the generation of wealth. Of course, within this greater goal, students will be prepared for their future careers and potential further learning after graduation at an institution of higher learning. But, they will also be prepared for so much more.

In order to prepare our students for such a broad goal in this time of rapid change we will need to move beyond the traditional literacies taught in school. The importance of reading, writing, mathematics, science, and history will not wane in the future, but they will have to be intertwined with new literacies in order for our students to meet the complex demands they will face after graduation.

The questions we must ask ourselves must focus on both the old literacies and the new.

“How can we show our students ways to use the learning in school, their passions, and their talents to solve problems in their local and global communities?” 
“What experiences do we need to give students in school that will prepare them for a world that is complex, globally connected, and pluralistic?” 
“How do we help our students develop the ability to have respectful, nuanced conversations with others who have diverse perspectives?” 
“Can we prepare students for the workforce, while simultaneously preparing them to be civically engaged and reflective members of their community?”

Answering these questions means focusing on additional competencies and literacies that must be developed in our students. Here are a few of those “new literacies.”

Global Literacy – In the first decade of my teaching career it was either impossible or prohibitively expensive to provide my students with any kind of video conferencing or virtual experience outside our school. Now, children are routinely chatting face to face with each other from every part of the globe, a field trip to a museum on another continent is a Skype call away, and finding time disconnected is much more difficult than finding ways to connect. In fact, I’m even writing this blog post on an airplane 35,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. Our classrooms and lessons must reflect this interconnected world. We must be giving students access to a diversity of cultures, learning experiences from the globe, and collaboration with those applying concepts being learning in school in actual ways.

Global Literacy, featuring Michael Soskil from Discovery Education on Vimeo.

Emotional Literacy – Studies have shown that emotional intelligence and empathy correlate highly with success in business. Those who are compassionate are also better able to see their worth and are more able to use new learning and resources to help their communities. We must strive to provide opportunities for our students to feel the joy of helping others while they are in school. If we can find the intersection in our schools of technological relevance and strong relationships built on respect and empathy, our future generation will have the building blocks for a peaceful and prosperous society.

Informational Literacy – As information has become ubiquitous due to technology, the ability for manipulation of the public through information has risen exponentially. Our students must learn to identify bias in the information they consume, judge the reliability of sources, and seek multiple viewpoints in their research. They must learn to break out of ideological bubbles caused by social media and recognize the danger of confirmation bias. Success in the future will be dependent on one’s ability to navigate the complexities of constant and instant information. 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Are Robots Going to Replace Teachers?

As computers get faster and smarter, it stands to reason that robots and artificial intelligence will replace any job that they are able to do more cost effectively.

If a robot can do it just as well for cheaper, it will.

What does this mean for teaching? Will robots replace teachers? Some researchers believe so. They claim that artificial intelligence will have the ability to teach children more effectively than humans within ten years.

I believe this conclusion is based on false assumptions about the purpose of education and what teachers do. Teaching is more than assessing students’ academic needs and providing the correct content. Schools are more than places where children are prepared for the workforce. Our educations systems were created to serve society, not to be places where individuals are molded into compliant automatons.

If we want a future where citizens do exactly as they are told, ignore the suffering of others, operate without moral guidelines, and react to stimuli instead of proactively creating the kind of world they want, then robot teachers will be perfect. After all, these are the qualities of computers.

I believe that we desire more than that out of our education systems.

In the book I recently authored with five other Global Teacher Prize Finalist, Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Standing at the Precipice, we look at dozens of teachers who are exceptional at preparing their students for a complex, technological future. At the heart of each of their work is the ability to make human connections and to build relationships with students.
Available from Amazon at

This is something that a machine will never be able to do, regardless of how many calculations per second it is able to compute.

Robots will only replace teachers if we allow teaching to become automatable. If we allow our profession to continue the trend toward scripted lessons being read out of teacher manuals, distribution of mind-numbing worksheets, and preparing children for mass-produced high-stakes standardized tests, we will be replaced.

Instead we must ensure that teaching remains a job rooted in humanity, emotionally connecting with both children and content, and love. This will not only prevent machines from taking our jobs, it will also give our students the education they deserve.

As technological innovation advances the possibilities available to us in education and society, we must be very intentional about the learning experiences we provide our children. We must allow them to think critically about their communities – local, national, and global, and encourage them to use new technologies to improve the world around them. Empathy and compassion must be the driving forces behind the way we teach our children to use technology.

This is the way to prepare our students to be leaders in a democratic society. Democracy only works if those who are being governed are empowered. Equity and empowerment go hand in hand, and empathy can be a driving force for closing equity gaps.

As technology continues to advance rapidly, it will have both the power to unite and divide us. The path we choose – unity or division – will largely depend on the choices we make in our classrooms and education systems.

Let us choose to keep education grounded in the best parts of humanity.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

6 Things My Students Have Taught Me

Twenty-one years later, I still remember my first day of teaching and how misguided my perceptions were about the career upon which I was about to embark. Like so many others, I thought that the primary role of the teacher was to deliver information to students. I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

Now, years later, I have come to understand that being a good teacher is as much about building relationships with students while modeling determination, curiosity, compassion, and helping others through the process of learning. I am constantly learning new things from my students. Here are six things they have taught me.

Don’t take yourself too seriously. I don’t think you can be an effective teacher if you aren’t willing to make mistakes in front of your students and laugh at yourself. When I first started teaching I wanted to make sure my students knew I was in control of the classroom. I had great classroom management, but very little classroom empowerment. Now I am much more comfortable allowing my students to see me as a fellow flawed human. There is a culture of respect in my classroom. I respect my students, they respect me, and they respect each other. Within that culture, we understand each of us makes mistakes on occasion, and that they are learning opportunities.

Passion is powerful. Years ago, when I was teaching 5th grade, I started shifting my classroom to be more focused on letting students learn through their passions. Instead of everyone reading the same non-fiction text to learn our reading standards, students were able to choose books on topics that interested them. Instead of each student having to write a persuasive essay on a prompt that I gave them, they were able to blog about an issue they cared about and publish it to a global audience. As they were able to discover and pursue their passions, they became more engaged in learning. They also helped me see how important it was to pursue my passions and to use my voice to share them with others.

Autonomy is necessary for empowerment. When we find ways to give autonomy to students in the learning process they flourish. I’ve seen this many times in my own classroom, but the example that sticks with me happened during a visit to the HIP Academy in rural western Kenya less than 2 weeks after the school opened. I brought with me some donated tablets and an internet connection. The teachers told me that few of the students had ever seen a screen before I arrived. During my visit I facilitated a Skype call between those children and 2nd grade students in Australia. I told the Kenyan children that they were in charge of teaching the Australians the names of different animals in Swahili. After a few moments of nervousness, the HIP students began to shine with confidence as they picked up stuffed animals and taught their new friends. Being given the chance to be in charge of the call allowed those students to take ownership of the lesson.

You can’t change the world if you don’t know much about it. I teach in the small, rural town where I have lived almost my entire life since I was 11 years old. Like all teachers, I want my students to believe that the learning that happens in school matters, and that they can use it to change their world for the better. I have learned to give them opportunities to see beyond our school walls and make a difference in their local and global communities by connecting with community members and using videoconferencing tools like Skype. As a result, my students have taught me how those experiences allow all of us to see ourselves as interconnected like never before. 

Everybody has the capacity to impact their community for the better. Each time we collaborate with a scientist, astronaut, park ranger, international teacher, or group of students from around the globe, it is a great learning experience for students. So many times those connections have inspired my students to develop ways to make the world a better place. They have designed and fund-raised to build a bridge in Africa so that students could go to school. They have started gardening projects to grow produce for the local food pantry. They have worked to provide clean drinking water for children in the Kibera Slum of Nairobi. They have stopped using plastic straws in the cafeteria in an attempt to save penguins from plastic pollution. Through these student-driven projects and so many others, I have learned that children of any age or background can make their world a better place if given the opportunity.

Teaching is the greatest job in the world. Again and again, my students have taught me that there is no better job on the planet than being a teacher. Teaching is an emotional roller-coaster. Because we care about our students so much, we experience the joys of success with them and the pangs of failure. We deal with the anguish when there are situations out of our control that cause our students pain, and we rejoice when we watch them overcome obstacles to reach their potential. But, we get back so much more than we put into it. Each day we are with our students, we have the opportunity to make the world just a little better for each of them. More importantly, we get to teach them how to affect positive change and feel the joy of doing good for others. Over the years, my students have taught me how lucky I am to get the opportunity to love them and to watch them grow.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

This Teacher of the Year Showed Me Just How Important DACA Is

This post originally appeared in Education Post. I am cross-posting it here to my personal blog. 

I am currently 34,000 feet over Colorado on a flight home from one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Over the past four days I have gotten to represent Pennsylvania teachers as I learned with, and from, fellow 2018 State Teachers of the Year (STOYs) from around the country.

One of those teachers is Ivonne Orozco, the 2018 New Mexico Teacher of the Year. Like the others in our class, she is an outstanding teacher, dedicated to providing her students everything they need to be successful.

Unlike the others in our class, she was brought to the United States as an undocumented immigrant as a 12-year-old child. Like 9,000 other American teachers, she is currently protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

With the DACA program in jeopardy, so is Ivonne’s place as a role model and leader in our country.

Like the vast majority of Americans, I believe that the 800,000 people protected by DACA—all of whom pay taxes, have never committed a crime, and are contributing members of communities across the country—should not be used as a political bargaining chip. Congress should pass comprehensive legislation that protects their status.

Until this week, I didn’t truly understand how vital this legal protection is to the future of our country.

On Thursday, Ivonne and I joined about a dozen STOYs visiting Boynton High School to learn about the Educators Rising Program they are implementing. Through this, students who are juniors and seniors in high school have the opportunity to take classes that help them learn about careers in education.

Educators Rising is helping to overcome a national teacher shortage crisis and a severe lack of diversity in our teaching force by encouraging students from all backgrounds to learn the aspects of teaching that are lost on the general public—both the behind-the-scenes tasks and the joy that comes from helping others achieve their potential.

At the end of our visit, those enrolled in the Educators Rising Program were given the opportunity to ask questions of the teachers who were visiting. During this time, Ivonne spoke to the group about the power they held to make a difference in the lives of others.

There were tears in the eyes of many of the students. Ivonne had managed in a few short sentences to make each of them believe that they held the power within themselves to create a better future for themselves, their future students, their communities, and our country.

She made them believe that they mattered, regardless of their background or the obstacles in their lives. She made them believe that they held within themselves a power to affect positive change.

I know from their faces that she convinced them that serving others, by teaching or other means, will make their lives more meaningful and our world a little better.

America needs Ivonne Orozco and others like her. At a time when Americans seem to increasingly struggle to understand each other and treat each other with civility, Ivonne radiates compassion.

Every one of us in that room—the school staff, the State Teachers of the Year who were visiting, and the students who were asking questions—is better for having been part of that discussion with Ivonne.

She is just one of 800,000 protected by DACA who is currently worrying that they will be uprooted from their communities, their jobs, and their schools.

If our lawmakers have a tenth of Ivonne’s compassion, they will find a legislative solution to this issue.

If they have an ounce of common sense, they will see that America is better served by keeping and developing more people like Ivonne, not sending them to other places.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Learning With Students From Other Cultures Is a Key to Progress in Our Global Society

Last week I authored a blog post for EdWeek Teacher and NNSTOY on the importance of keeping empathy and the best parts of humanity at the heart of our education system. A few paragraphs from the article are below. You can read the full article at Education Week.

We live in interesting times. As our global society struggles to navigate problems brought about by fear and misunderstanding of those who are different, we have unprecedented access to tools that make connecting and learning with others easier than ever before. This is the great challenge we face as both educators and humans: As technology continues to advance rapidly with an increasing power to both divide and unite us, which course will we choose? The path we take--division or unity--will largely depend on the choices we make in our classrooms and education systems.
The key is to keep empathy, compassion and the best parts of humanity at the heart of our education system while still ensuring the learning in our schools reflects the technological realities outside them. This premise is the basis for Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Standing at the Precipice, a book I recently authored with five other Global Teacher Prize finalists. While each of us comes from disparate experiences in a wide array of teaching environments, we agree that regardless of how fast computer processors become, machines will never replace teachers. Teachers will always be more important than the technology used in schools. Though they can be helpful tools to help us make positive connections with others, machines will never be able to love students the way we do as teachers.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A.I. and Big Data Are Not the Answer in Education

Today I came across an article in the NY Times entitled A.I. and Big Data Could Power a New War on Poverty. Since the implications of Artificial Intelligence and other technological advances in the 4th Industrial Revolution on education is a topic I've been delving into quite a bit lately, I was curious to see the perspective of the author.

Let me start by saying that I think the author, Elisabeth A. Mason, has a solid premise; we should look beyond the disruptions and chaos that new technologies like artificial intelligence will have on our lives and instead look to the benefits that they can provide society. On this I agree. There are many exciting applications for new technologies that can help alleviate human suffering and can potentially even combat poverty. 

However, I have to take issue with her second main point in the piece that connect directly to education. For reference, here are the three paragraphs that relating to education: 

Second, we can bring what is known as differentiated education — based on the idea that students master skills in different ways and at different speeds — to every student in the country. A 2013 study by the National Institutes of Health found that nearly 40 percent of medical students held a strong preference for one mode of learning: Some were listeners; others were visual learners; still others learned best by doing.

Our school system effectively assumes precisely the opposite. We bundle students into a room, use the same method of instruction and hope for the best. A.I. can improve this state of affairs. Even within the context of a standardized curriculum, A.I. “tutors” can home in on and correct for each student’s weaknesses, adapt coursework to his or her learning style and keep the student engaged.
Today’s dominant type of A.I., also known as machine learning, permits computer programs to become more accurate — to learn, if you will — as they absorb data and correlate it with known examples from other data sets. In this way, the A.I. “tutor” becomes increasingly effective at matching a student’s needs as it spends more time seeing what works to improve performance.

Those of us who are teaching actual children can see some problems here. Let's take them one at a time.

First, the idea that people learn better through different learning styles is a myth (Pashler, et. al.). It has been debunked (Association for Psychological Science). There is no credible evidence to support it (letter to The Guardian from 30 prominent researchers). Even if A.I. was going to lead to an incredible revolution in education, basing that revolution in learning styles is akin to having A.I. teach children differently based on their zodiac signs.

Second, the criticism in the second paragraph that our schools are overly standardized is both harsh and somewhat accurate. For almost two decades now, our education systems have increasingly become driven by big data - generated by mass-produced standardized tests and compiled with the processing power available due to technological advances. This has led to misuse of educational technology, the narrowing of curricula, and a lack of compassion in schools. Children are seen as numbers on a spreadsheet rather than unique individuals with wonderful potential.

Artificial intelligence may be able to adapt to a child's curricular needs, but this is but a small part of what it means to be an effective teacher. Every day, teachers make 1,500 educational decisions. I would bet that the majority of those educational decisions are not curricular in nature and are based in relationships, empathy, and emotional intelligence. This is what makes teachers effective.

Machines may be able to crunch a child's data, but they will never be able to love a student the way a teacher can love a student.

Understanding a student's needs will always be more complex than simply analyzing answers on an assessment. Anyone who has taught understands this. If students in one of my science classes fail a test, I have a responsibility to figure out why. It may be because they didn't study. It may be because they didn't have breakfast that morning. It may be because they misunderstood the lesson. It may be because their baby brother cried all night and they didn't sleep. It may be because they are stressed over a parent's substance abuse. It may be because I did a lousy job of teaching. Each reason demands a different and nuanced response that fits both the child's academic and emotional needs. This is what teaching is.
Graphic from
Teaching in the 4th Industrial Revolution:
 Standing at the Precipice

Assuming that education is only about the transfer of content from teacher to student is a recipe for disaster, especially in our increasingly complex world.

Third, this article is focused upon the ability for artificial intelligence to help alleviate poverty. Our children in poverty are the ones who are most in need of the compassion that robots will never be able to provide. According to the American Psychological Association the psychosocial outcomes associated with children living in poverty include:
  • Children living in poverty are at greater risk of behavioral and emotional problems. 
  • Some behavioral problems may include impulsiveness, difficulty getting along with peers, aggression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder. 
  • Some emotional problems may include feelings of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. 
  • Poverty and economic hardship is particularly difficult for parents who may experience chronic stress, depression, marital distress and exhibit harsher parenting behaviors. These are all linked to poor social and emotional outcomes for children. 
  • Unsafe neighborhoods may expose low-income children to violence which can cause a number of psychosocial difficulties. Violence exposure can also predict future violent behavior in youth which places them at greater risk of injury and mortality and entry into the juvenile justice system.
There are important ways that the technological explosion can have a positive impact on education. We must make sure, however, not to repeat the mistakes of the past by believing that technology is the answer to our problems. It is not. Teachers are, and will remain, the most important in-school factor in helping children learn. 

If we really want to overcome poverty, we need to stop looking for easy fixes and cheap solutions. Along with addressing the societal problems that lead to so many of our children living in poverty, we must focus on recruiting, retaining, and supporting excellent teachers so that every child, in every location, receives a quality education.

Michael Soskil is co-author of "Teaching in the 4th Industrial Revolution: Standing at the Precipice." All profits from the book are being donated to promote teacher education, development, and collaboration around the globe.

Friday, June 9, 2017

So What About the Evolution of Blended Learning

Learning is inherently about experiences. Whether in a formal school setting or in our everyday navigation of the world around us, humans learn through experiences that move us emotionally. As teachers and learners, we know this intrinsically. When we think back to the teachers that had the greatest impact on us during our time in school we often remember those who had the ability to make their lessons meaningful to us on a personal level.

In the last decade, technology has changed much about how learning happens in schools. Unfortunately, too much of that change has been driven by efficiency and productivity concerns. Instead of looking at technological advances as opportunities to provide students with new, exceptional learning experiences and emotionally engaging applications of their knowledge schools have focused upon ways to save time, improve workflow, and analyze data. None of these goals are bad for students, but none are focusing on the preparation of our next generation for the unique challenges they will face in a complex global society. 

Blended Learning was born out of the desire for education to be more efficient at delivering instruction and evaluating students on their acquisition of knowledge. Knowledge and assessment will always be important in the learning process, and in that regard Blended Learning has been successful in meeting those narrow goals. Students are able to move at their own pace, receive feedback on their progress, and review content as many times as they need. Because effective formative assessment and differentiated instruction are proven ways to improve student performance on traditional metrics, the use of Blended Learning has gained attention as a possible way to revolutionize education for the 21st century. 

While improving personalization of students' consumption of information, Blended Learning does not address some of the most important needs our children have in order to be prepared for an increasingly global and complex world. Innovation, creativity, and problem solving are best developed when students have agency in the learning process within a culture that lets them experience the joy of using learning to make the world better. 

Teachers know that "delivering instruction" is but a small part of the vital work they do in helping students develop into lifelong learners. Of course we want our students to be knowledgeable, but we also want them to develop into socially minded citizens who can use that knowledge in ethical, innovative ways to affect positive change on their communities. We want them to learn the importance of empathy. In fact, empathy is the character trait that correlates most strongly with success in life

When we look at technology's ability to transform learning, we must start by asking what emotionally engaging experiences can be created for students that would have been impossible previously. We must look at how new technologies afford our students the ability to work with those who are different than themselves, solve problems with experts who are using knowledge in practical ways, and experience the satisfaction of helping others. When we do this in our education systems we will see the true power of technology to transform education and develop our next generation of global problem solvers.