Friday, November 22, 2019

Design Thinking and Global Competencies

Many of us are aware that the future will be shaped by the interaction of humans with technology. Outside education, we see the impact of artificial intelligence, biotechnology advances, social-media platforms, and a wide variety of other technological advances on almost every aspect of our daily lives.

Preparing our students for the complex world they will face after they graduate from our schools will require our schools and teaching practices adapt to these realities. Knowledge and content are important, just as they always have been. How our students are able to apply that information to solve the complex environmental, social, political, and ethical challenges on the horizon is critical.

For the past few months I have been fortunate to work with school directors, policy makers, and teachers in Kenya, Greece, Spain, and across the United States on ways that we can help students develop the academic, social-emotional, and critical thinking competencies they will need to be successful in their future. One of the best ways I have found to do that is to allow student to apply the design process to problems they identify through classroom connection and global learning experiences.

At the end of October I had the opportunity to keynote the Alaska Cross Content Conference (AKCCC) and spend two breakout sessions to do a deep dive into the role of teachers in preparing students in this way. *

My opening keynote focused on "Why Teachers Are More Important than Ever." As technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous in our lives, characteristics that are uniquely human such as empathy, compassion, and love will become more important. Teachers, who exemplify these traits, are also in a prime position to develop them in our students.

The breakout sessions gave teachers practical tools and techniques they could use to help students develop all of the skills vital to their future success. The first, "Connected Classrooms and the New World of Learning" allowed practice with powerful tools that provide global learning experiences to students. Cultural understanding will become increasingly important as technology brings our global society closer.

A game of Mystery Skype was a highlight of the session. To show how easy it was to connect with others, we used Skype to connect with former Top-50 finalist for the Global Teacher Prize, Elisa Guerra, and her daughter Annie. Participants in my session did not know where Elisa and Annie were located, and they didn't know where we were. Each group took turns asking yes/no questions in order to try and guess the others' location first.

Next I shared how easy it was to find teachers across the globe willing to connect their classes to play games like Mystery Skype, as well as Skype Lessons and Virtual Field Trips available on the Skype in the Classroom website.

The second breakout focused on how we can combine design thinking with these global experiences to empower our students to take action for social good. After exploring TeachSDGs and how the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals can be used as a lens through which global problem solving could be viewed, we spent time on an activity to practice using the design process to solve a problem in a rural community in Kenya.

I've always found that teachers are best able to implement new strategies and tools when they are given time to experience them firsthand.

The world is getting more complex and technological, and our students will need to develop cultural competencies and problem solving strategies in order to be successful in their future. Combining the design process with the Sustainable Development Goals, and providing teachers the training to bring new tools and pedagogical models to students is vital.

If the educators at AKCCC and the other locations around the globe with whom I've been working are any indication, our future is bright. The enthusiasm and dedication I saw in these teachers and administrators showed me that our students are in good hands. If we provide our educators with the support they need to be successful in meeting the demands on the horizon, our students will shape the planet they will inherit from us in profound, positive ways.
*Disclosure: While Microsoft Education paid my travel expenses to attend and speak at this conference, the views expressed there and on this blog are based on my experience.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Building Relationships and Empathy with EdTech

This post was originally posted on the Teaching4Tomorrow Blog

One of the most powerful moments in my 22 years of teaching occurred on the last day of the school year. 

During the first week of school, my students in rural Pennsylvania played a game via Skype with a group of students in a rural Kenyan village. During that call, they learned of a bridge in the village so dangerous that many children were not able to go to school because of it. Over the course of the school year, the children in Kenya taught my students how to garden. In exchange, my students designed and fundraised to replace that bridge. 

On the last day of school, I was able to share with my 5th grade students the picture I received of the completed bridge. Every one of the children in his village could now safely receive an education, and every one of my students learned how powerful they could be when they use learning to make the world a better place. Their unlikely friendship with children 7,500 miles away helped change not only how they felt about others who looked different than them, but also how they felt about themselves. Through global connection in our classrooms, we can teach our children how to be compassionate and empathetic. 

The key lies in helping students find a shared humanity with classmates and with others around the globe. We set the foundation for a peaceful future when we help students see each other as humans first, rather than through the lenses of limited identities that include race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, and politics. 

Most teachers want to foster empathy and a sense of shared humanity in their classrooms, but don’t know where to start. Luckily, we live in a time when free technologies exist that help us do this. Best of all, they are easy to use in the classroom.

Empatico is a free tool for connecting elementary classrooms around the world.* It takes less than five minutes to register and get started. After choosing one of nine activities that connect to most school curricula, you enter the dates and times that your class is available to connect. The website automatically connects your class with another more than 300 miles away that is available at the same time and looking to do the same activity. My students are currently building relationships with friends 1,000 miles away in Georgia as they work on a joint science project.

When children walk into my classroom and see the webcam and projector set up for a virtual call, they have trouble containing their excitement.

For middle school and high school teachers, as well as elementary teachers looking for multiple connections, the combination of the Skype in the Classroom website and the Skype videoconferencing software can create amazing opportunities for students. On the website, you can find thousands of teachers from around the world willing to connect with your students. 

My classes love playing games like Mystery Skype, which is related to the game 20 questions, with new friends that they are meeting via Skype for the first time. When playing these games, you don’t have to worry about language barriers. If you are using the latest version of Skype on a PC computer, the program has a built-in translator that will allow your students to communicate, even if they speak different languages. 

I have seen many times how these classroom connections can lead to cross-cultural relationships and students finding a shared humanity. In the past few years, my students have broken through the isolation of our rural area to travel to 95 different countries, the International Space Station, and to Antarctica. 

I often get asked how this type of learning fits into the curriculum. We need to shift from the curriculum being the basis of our planning. Start by designing incredible experiences. Create the kind of learning environment that makes kids want to beat down the door of your classroom to be a part of it. 

Then find ways to attach the curriculum you teach to the experience. If we model the same creativity and critical thinking that we are demanding of our students, this should not be hard. 

Once we connect the curriculum to unforgettable experiences, students will retain the lessons we are trying to teach them forever. Start small by giving students opportunities to connect and learn with tools like Empatico. Then move into lessons like Mystery Skype that take a little more planning. When you get comfortable with those lessons, start looking for virtual field trips and other global experiences where your students can learn from scientists, authors, museums, and national parks. 

Before you know it, your students will be world travelers and they won’t have left your classroom. More importantly, they’ll be learning with others who live in different locations, have different backgrounds, and a different view of the world. They’ll be developing the skills to be empathetic and compassionate lifelong learners, and they’ll be gaining practice with the tools they’ll need to make the world a better place.

Michael Soskil is a speaker, teacher, author, and host of the Education for a Better World Podcast. He is the 2017–18 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year and was named one of the top 10 teachers in the world by the Global Teacher Prize in 2016. 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, and business. To learn more about Michael’s work or to inquire about him speaking at your next teacher workshop or event, please visit his website at

*Disclosure: I have received compensation for consulting work with Empatico, which is an initiative of the nonprofit KIND Foundation, but the views in this post are my own based on experience. 

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.


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:
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. 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

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

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

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

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.