Saturday, November 3, 2018

Stop Pretending and Make School Relevant

Anyone who has been in a teacher training session in the last two decades has heard that we need to make school relevant. Usually these words of wisdom are accompanied by a statement about the need to tell kids how our content connects to the 'real world' so that children know why they are being coerced to learn the content we are putting in front of them.

Nonsense.

Telling a 4th grader that in a decade they will need to use multiplication someday when they are buying apples in the grocery store, trying to convince a middle school student that finding the main idea of a non-fiction passage will be vital in their future career, or asking a high-school sophomore to know the function of a mitochondria because someday they might be a doctor are all great ways to get children to drool on their desks out of boredom rather than actually engaging in learning.

If you have spent time around any children of school age, you know that this will not convince them that the content they are learning is relevant. The frontal lobe of our brain, which allows us to understand the consequences of our actions, is not fully developed until our mid-twenties.

In schools, we need something more effective than, "Trust me. I'm an adult."

If we want school to be relevant to what's going on outside our school walls, we actually need students to get involved in using learning to solve problems outside our school walls.

If we want school to be relevant, make it relevant. Don't pretend it's relevant and try and sell that to kids.

Students working on building aquaponics units out of recycled
materials to help those in regions with drought.
The content we teach has real applications to make the world a better place. It's our job as teachers to help children see the connections.

Problem-based learning, when combined with a focus on improving students' local and global communities, creates a dynamic environment in which students don't have to wonder why they are learning. They know they need to learn in order to make their world a better place.

Using learning to make the world a better place is exactly what education should be about. Many of our school mission statements include language about creating contributing members of society and good citizens.

Early in my career, I remember helping 5th graders understand fractions by planning and cooking a Thanksgiving dinner for a family in need. More recently my 4th and 5th grade students have designed and facilitated a global video learning exchange that helped children with limited resources learn with math manipulatives. They collaborated on a global garden project where students exchanged techniques they learned to grow food. When they met children in a rural Kenyan village that couldn't go to school because the community bridge was dangerous, my students used the learning in their science class to design a new bridge that was built with funds they raised. Last year, after hearing about the drought and famine affecting children in Malawi, my 5th grade students designed aquaponics units out of recycled materials that grew food with 90% less water than traditional farming.
Book written and published by Beth Heidemann's students

My students don't ask me why they are learning. The relevance is obvious.

If you teach younger students, know that children are never too young to change the world.

When Beth Heidemann's kindergarten students in Maine learned that the friends they met in the Kibera Slum of Nairobi faced food insecurity issues that mirrored some of the issues in their rural town, they wrote a fairy tale. It was set in Kenya and described children overcoming problems due to lack of food. They published the book and used the proceeds to send funds to both their local food pantry and their friends in Kibera.

It is vital that this relevance extends to all subject areas, including the arts. The arts allow children to learn to perceive beauty in the world. More importantly, though, the arts allow us to emotionally connect with each other. They allow us to develop empathy and find our shared humanity.

Mairi Cooper's orchestra students have used the design process to innovate new ways to use music as a tool for social good. Using "pop-up concerts," they have found ways to bring the beauty of orchestra music to people in locations that otherwise would not have access, including homeless shelters and children's hospitals.

Students in any subject area or grade level can find true relevance in their learning if we give them the autonomy, resources, and support.

Mairi Cooper's students performing at a center for the blind.
Picture credit: Twitter.com/patoy2015
We must understand that true relevance comes when the purpose of school is detached from the tests, quizzes, grades, and rankings that we have used for decades.

If we hold dear to our traditions and tell children that school is relevant, while at the same time our actions show them that what we really care about are arbitrary numbers written at the top of Friday's test, state assessment scores, or class rankings, our students will see right through us.

While mindset shifts can be scary and take time to fully develop, here are some ways to get started:

  1. Understand that the learning in your classroom belongs to the learners and not to the teacher. Make small changes to move from a coercive environment to a learning environment where inspiration is used to motivate. Give your students as much autonomy and choice over classroom rules, curriculum, and application of learning as you can.
  2. Start with local issues. Help students begin thinking about ways their learning can be used to make their community better. Over time, help them understand that they are also part of a global community. 
  3. Use the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the basis for connecting required content to initiatives to make the world a better place. TeachSDGs.org is a great tool for helping students see the context for the content they learn. 
  4. You can't change the world if you don't know much about it. Use free videoconferencing tools to allow your students to learn with other students in distant locations
  5. To learn more about how to shift toward a Project/Problem Based Learning environment, start with Ginger Lewman's book "Lessons for LifePractice Learning." 
Michael Soskil is a dynamic speaker, professional learning facilitator, author, & one of the most highly recognized teachers in the world. The book he co-authored, Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, has been called "an authoritative guide to teaching practice over the next three decades" and has been endorsed by world leaders in government, education, & business. To learn more about Michael's work or to book him as a speaker for your next teacher workshop or event, please visit his website at MichaelSoskil.com.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

When Hate Becomes Mainstream

In the span of three days, the United States has seen a racially driven murder of two African-Americans in Kentucky, an assassination attempt of more than a dozen Democratic political figures, and the what may be the deadliest attack on Jews in American history here in my home state of Pennsylvania.

Like many Americans I am faced with the feelings of sadness, anger, helplessness, and determination that often come after acts of mass violence that have become all too commonplace in our country. 

Yet, in watching news coverage of these events, I am struck by something else as well.

We live in a society where hate has become normalized.
Photo Credit: Flickr/USMarshals

I've watched interviews with people who knew the Pittsburgh shooter and the person who allegedly attempted to kill political figures by sending them bombs in the mail. 

The former boss of the bomber said that she was shocked that he would do something like this because he was a model employee and seemed so normal. This was just before she described how he routinely expressed white supremacist views, told her that she was going to burn in Hell for being a lesbian, and that he was very upfront about his hatred for non-white people.

A neighbor of the Pittsburgh shooter said they couldn't believe that he did this because he was such a "normal guy." Yet, his radicalized anti-semitic rants online and hatred of Jews were known before he walked into a synagogue and opened fire. 

In America today, when our neighbors and co-workers spew hate, it is viewed as normal. These people didn't think it was abnormal that those they knew were filled with prejudice and hate. 

Our public discourse has become so heated and divisive that prejudice and intolerance of groups of people are expected. 

Anyone who teaches or spends time around children knows that environment matters. We tell our children to choose their friends wisely and to stay away from those who will encourage them to make poor choices. Those we surround ourselves with influence how we think and how we act. 

We have allowed an environment where being filled with hate does not make you an outlier in our society. This impacts all of us who are in this environment.

When people practice stereotyping, discrimination, intolerance, or hatred of ANY group, they spread the hate that is consuming our country. 

When people post on social media or engage in rhetoric that stereotypes or generalizes Jews, Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, refugees, "Liberals", Republicans, "the left-wing media", or any other group they contribute to the climate that has made current events possible.

Stereotyping is a form of prejudice. Prejudice leads to intolerance and hate. 

Each of us must examine our behavior and the way we refer to other groups. Regardless of what "side" each of us is on due to our political beliefs, we must commit to refraining from the intellectual laziness that leads to attacking groups of people rather than calling out individuals for their transgressions. It's much easier to share a hateful meme than it is to craft a nuanced post about a policy or figure with which/whom you disagree. 

Too often I see individual examples used as the basis for generalizing about entire groups in order to score political points. Every time we do this we move further down the road of normalizing stereotypes and prejudice. We move further down the path of normalizing hate in our society. 

We also must look to our public officials and demand of them civility. Culture is determined by leadership. The current culture of mainstream hatred has been created by the public discourse led by our elected officials. 

Regardless of political party, anyone who engages in stereotyping, intolerance, or outright hatred of large groups of people for political gain must be voted out of office. Whether these stereotypes are based on religion, race, political affiliation, sexual orientation, ethnicity, country of origin, or any other attribute should not matter. The very act of othering for political gain should be a disqualifying offense in our political system.

So many of the darkest moments in our history as a human race began with othering, stereotyping, and prejudice that grew into heinous action. The Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the Holodomor, the Armenian genocide of the early 20th Century, and on, and on, and on. 

Those who live in democratic societies are blessed or cursed with the governments they deserve. 

Each of us has a choice to make.

Do we want a culture in which hate is normal and mainstream? Or do we want a culture of civility and inclusion? 

I pray that we choose the latter.

Michael Soskil is a dynamic speaker, professional learning facilitator, author, & one of the most highly recognized teachers in the world. The book he co-authored, Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, has been called "an authoritative guide to teaching practice over the next three decades" and has been endorsed by world leaders in government, education, & business. To learn more about Michael's work or to book him as a speaker for your next teacher workshop or event, please visit his website at MichaelSoskil.com

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Finding Our Shared Humanity

We are living through a time of unprecedented change. Change is inevitable, but the pace in which our society is changing the way we live, work, communicate, consume information, and relate to each other is moving faster than at any time in human history.

This is being driven by technological advancement. Social media, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, mobile devices, and all of the other advances of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are forcing our environment to change faster than we can often adapt.

Global Teacher Prize finalists from around the world put their differences
aside at the Global Education and Skills Forum to discuss how
to ensure every student around the globe has access to a quality education

One of the effects of this rapid transformation has been the polarization of viewpoints. Here in the United States like many other places in the world, our political discourse has never been more divisive. Relationships are breaking and family members are disconnecting with each other because of ideological beliefs.

Throughout history, we have seen that people who are afraid or unsure about the future find solace and emotional protection in their limited tribal identities. We've also seen that such tribalism leads to conflict.

We must fight to find a shared humanity rather than retreating to the divisiveness of identifying with our political parties, religions, races, or even nationalities. We can be all of those things - Democrats, Republicans, Christians, Muslims, Jews, of African descent, of Caucasian descent, of Oriental descent, mixed-race, indigenous, Americans, Iraqis, Russians, etc. - as long as we see ourselves and each other as human first.

Conflict is caused when we put our limited identities before our shared humanity.

Education must be a tool for bridging the gap between differences rather than driving a wedge. Students must be given the opportunity to learn and build relationships with others who are different than they are. Free video conferencing tools make this easier than ever before.

Empatico is a free tool that was developed for the purpose of making it easy for 7-11 year olds find their shared humanity and to build empathy. It takes 3 minutes to sign up. Then, your students can learn with another class and travel the world. It's the easiest way I've found to get started.

Other tools like Skype in the Classroom provide additional opportunities for connection and virtual field trips. No longer are the experiences in school limited to the walls of the classroom.

Global connection alone will not change minds. We must also closely examine our curricula to ensure that shared humanity is being promoted above tribal identities. When children learn that their country is "better" than others, they learn prejudice and othering. Patriotism and love of country are important, but not at the expense of humanity.

If one's nationality makes them better, why wouldn't other traits like race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation make some people better than others as well? It is a slippery slope that we must stop going down. All people have worth, and it is our obligation as educators and adult members of the human race to ensure our children understand this.

We must teach children that they are part of a collective humanity first. We must help them to see value in all people and appreciate differences as learning opportunities rather than reasons for fear and division.

Only when we do this will we be able to truly say that education is the key to a more peaceful and prosperous society.

Michael Soskil is a dynamic speaker, professional learning facilitator, author, & one of the most highly recognized teachers in the world. The book he co-authored, Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, has been called "an authoritative guide to teaching practice over the next three decades" and has been endorsed by world leaders in government, education, & business. To learn more about Michael's work or to book him as a speaker for your next teacher workshop or event, please visit his website at MichaelSoskil.com.

Disclosure - In addition to using Empatico in my own classroom, I have done paid consulting work for them. 

Monday, October 1, 2018

Should We Pay Teachers More?

Recently, Time Magazine ran a cover story that illustrated the financial struggles that American teachers face. Some of the quotes from that story have gone viral on social media. 
"I have a masters degree, 16 years experience, work two extra jobs, and donate plasma to pay the bills."
"I have 20 years experience, but I can't afford to fix my car, see a doctor for headaches, or save for my child's future."
"My child and I share a bed in a small apartment, I spend $1000 on supplies, and I've been laid off three times due to budget cuts."

Perhaps in reaction to that story, I was recently asked the question, "If we make teaching a more financially attractive career will it improve education?"

The simple answer is, "Yes."

But, when we hear this question, I don't think it's really asking what we think it's asking.

Of course, making teaching more attractive will lead to more qualified people choosing to teach. It will lead to greater respect for the profession. If teachers don't have to take on second and third jobs to pay off their student loans, they'll be able to focus more energy on their students.

I believe the real, unspoken question that is being asked is, "Is it worth investing in our teachers?"

Those who ask this question really want to know, "Is it worth taking money away from all the other places we spend it in order to pay teachers more?"

The only way to answer those questions is to examine what the trade-offs would be.

In the United States, the amount of money spent by states on standardized testing each year has been estimated to be $1.7 Billion. It is also estimated that American parents spend about $13.1 Billion on test prep, tutoring, and test fees each year.

Standardized tests are a great way for companies to make profits off education. They are also wonderful for generating data that can be analyzed in order to figure out how to make even more profit off education.

They are not much use for those of us who are trying to help children actually learn.

The United States has about 3.8 million teachers.

Reallocating money being spent on standardized testing toward teacher salaries would lead to an average increase of about $3900 per year, approximately a 7% raise.

US schools also spend about $7 Billion each year on textbooks, many of which are out of date before they are even published due to the exponential growth of human knowledge.

In addition to their lack of relevance, textbooks often come with scripted lesson plans and standard assessments which prevent both teachers and students from being successful. The importance of creative thinking, collaboration, and personalized learning in our future society are well documented. These textbook programs often create environments void of those skills. A teacher reading from a teachers' manual is not modeling the creativity we need in students and has no need to collaborate in designing better lessons. Standard assessments prevent us from ensuring every student is getting his/her needs met. In fact, many schools tell teachers to stick to the textbook programs "with fidelity" in order to make the data from standardized tests just a little less meaningless.

This is not to say that schools should not purchase books. They should. Books will always be an important aspect of education.

Expensive textbook programs that undermine teacher autonomy are not.

When schools are spending billions on textbooks that prevent teachers from growing and students from learning, while at the same time teachers are forced to work second and third jobs in order to pay their bills, we have a problem.

We could look at how schools purchase technology that is not used effectively, spend millions of dollars on athletic fields, and dozens of other ways that we spend money in education on things that are not nearly as important to our student's future success as their teachers.

Our priorities are clearly askew.

If a society values having an educated populace, a strong democracy, a thriving economy, and healthy citizens, it must put adequate resources into it's public education system.

And, if that society wants that system to be successful, it needs to demand those resources are being used to recruit, retain, train, and support the most important in-school factor in determining the success of our children: their teachers.

Michael Soskil is a dynamic speaker, professional learning facilitator, author, & one of the most highly recognized teachers in the world. The book he co-authored, Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, has been called "an authoritative guide to teaching practice over the next three decades" and has been endorsed by world leaders in government, education, & business. To learn more about Michael's work or to book him as a speaker for your next teacher workshop or event, please visit his website at MichaelSoskil.com.

Friday, August 31, 2018

It's Not the Amount of Time, It's What You Do with It.

When I was a student in elementary school I hated writing. Heck, I pretty much disliked most of the activities in school that weren’t recess, lunch, and gym class.

I still have some of my old report cards. My teachers’ comments are pretty telling.

“Does not work to his ability.”

“Shows serious lack of effort on writing assignments.”

“His grades do not reflect his ability.”


It’s not that I didn’t have the talent to be a good writer. I’m now a published author and have had articles I’ve written appear in numerous publications. The problem during school was that I didn’t see any relevant reason why I should write about boring stuff I didn't care about.

The issue was certainly not that we didn’t have enough time to learn writing in schools. Forcing me to do more of it without finding different ways to motivate me would have made me hate writing even more.

Here in the United States we seem to have no limit on the number of education decisions we make that fly in the face of what we know about learning.

For over a decade now, there have been calls to extend school years and school days as a way to improve America’s international education ranking on PISA tests and to close achievement gaps.

In the past two decades No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RttT) have caused schools to adopt educational practices that contradict what we know works in the most highly performing education systems in the world.

We have evaluated teachers and allocated school funding based on junk science standardized test data.

We have pressured teachers into using pedagogical models in classrooms that reduce learning.

We have narrowed the curriculum and eliminated history, science, the arts, and humanities – especially from schools in high-poverty areas.

Extending the amount of time that students spend in schools will not solve these problems. It’s not as if our American students do not spend enough time learning.

American teachers already spend among the most time in the world teaching students. Other countries may have more school days, but American teachers are among the world leaders in instruction time.

It’s time to use what we know about learning, what we’ve learned from highly-successful school systems, and input from teachers in the classroom to drive our educational decisions.

We need more humanities, arts, and creativity in schools. This is what allows us as humans to see beauty in the world. It’s what allows us to make connections between subjects. It’s what makes us create the emotional connection with content that allows us to store learning in our long-term memories.


We need to shift accountability measures from standardized test data to measures that ensure all of our students have access to quality educational opportunity. Our relatively low ranking on international tests is driven primarily by the inequities in our system and our society

We need to focus more on intrinsic motivation and less on extrinsic rewards in schools. Our school mission statements talk about creating “life-long learners,” yet our schools are driven by grades and test scores. We know that extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can be inversely correlational. As we rely on rewards to motivate kids we destroy their ability to become the life-long learners for which we strive.

If we really want an excellent and equitable education system we need to focus more on what our students are doing in school instead of how much time they spend there.

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 Teaching4IR.com


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.