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.

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.

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.

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.
EDUCATORS RISING


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.
PHOTO COURTESY OF IVONNE OROZCO.