This morning, according to state law, we had to give our students at STEAM the end of course examination in US history. The test itself if not very good, a post for a different day, but as I observed our students complying with this state mandate the inescapable thought in my mind is the high price our kids have to pay for legislators and bureaucrats to feel like they are making a difference. The compounding of good intentions gone vastly awry made for a sad morning for over a hundred humans in this one room. Students at STEAM are typically happy, working on projects, chatting with friends, generally engaged in learning in its various forms ... but none of that this morning. Only the blank stares into screens reading questions detached from their realities. It is a high price to pay.
Last night our team ventured (it was not the best evening) out to our good friends in Trigg County, KY to support their district's first screening of the newest education documentary ... Beyond Measure.
It turns out, Trigg County was the main character in the film. From the superintendent to students, the district was featured in depth as they journeyed into the world of deeper learning. The film follows their initial failures, their persistence, and their growing successes. It follows them to High Tech High as they engaged in their own learning journey. It follows them to the kids who are honest about both what is harder and what is better (frequently the same thing). You get to see teachers personally transform as they understand and embrace better learning models for kids. And, last night, I got to see a Kentucky community embrace the work and leadership of their educators as this community took center stage nationally for something remarkably positive ... wanting a better future for their kids.
Filming ended over a year ago, and knowing Trigg, those successes keep coming more and more often. Some of the practices the early elementary teachers are using to personalize learning, for instance, are breathtaking. You simply must check out the film and the work of the superb educators in Trigg County.
But, last night was also a marker on our journey as a state as well. Trigg has been one of our stronger Next Gen. Leadership Academy districts coming back year after year, but they are far from the only one. That same story in slightly different versions is happening all over Kentucky right now. Our team at UK, of course, helped to make the initial connections and open some initial doors but we can take very little credit for the daily practices in those districts. Nevertheless, somewhere back there deep in the story of these districts is our work at UK. That work stretches back now around 7 years, but there it was last night on the silver screen ... Kentucky shining brightly.
So, as I watched the film open and close on the green pastures of western Kentucky my heart was filled with joy. This revolution in learning for our children is happening here. We, as a state, are on the front line and we are getting there the direct, honest, sustainable way by transforming classroom after classroom, school after school, and district after district. It is not flashy work. It is not happening overnight. And, honestly, it is not happening in nearly enough places. But, it is happening in districts all over the state as each Next Gen District embraces the direct, honest, sustainable work of transformation.
I personally am not a huge fan of a lot of media attention and certainly I do not think I could have tolerated what Travis Hamby did with the video cameras following him around constantly. The best work, I've found, frequently just happens directly with the professionals that have dedicated their lives to helping kids. But, once in a while, it is refreshing to see that those endless hours of hard, exhausting work for kids be brought so beautifully to light.
Last night, and now all over the country, that transformative work in Trigg County was celebrated. I was happy to celebrate with them.
Last Friday at our Next Gen Leadership Academy event we had Summit Public Schools come to speak about their new Basecamp program. Afterward, by luck we caught a UK basketball game and had some great conversations. I feel really positive about where they are coming from and how they want to work with schools. Their work is very well thought out and smartly packaged. They are the real deal too, as their leadership has legitimately done the hard work of opening new schools of innovation so we really connected on those fronts. Summit has been operating for around 12 years, so they have several schools behind them already. They are now taking the next step to make their network national. The Basecamp program, heavily funded by the Gates Foundation and and supported by Facebook engineers donating their time, is recruiting schools all over the US to participate. They started with 20 this year and are looking to add potentially many more. Their personal learning platform is available to the public for free, as is the support of the network, but getting into the network will take a commitment on the part of the school to a particular form of innovation at least at one grade level if not the school as a whole.
As we talked, I think they appreciated where Kentucky was at generally and our work at UK in particular, but, honestly, both they and I knew that we have nothing in Kentucky that is even in the ballpark. The hard work of teaching and learning is still something that is an art between leaders and learners and excellence can occur within nearly any system … but the structural packaging of the institutional model is a technology itself … and Summit is to traditional public schools what the car is to the horse and buggy (Summit is not the only one, but one of the better I have seen). At the core it is the same task, but it is a fundamentally different technological tool with which to execute the task.
In technology development cycles you see this all the time … the new technology frequently is actually rather old when it is adopted at scale. The structural components that Summit is relying upon are not new. PBL, personalized playlists, performance based assessment, individual advising, college transitions … those are all older technologies … but very, very few schools have managed to execute the entire package and fewer still have managed to execute the entire package time after time to show that the technology application is not something that is dependent on a particular circumstance or funder or founder.
Summit is born from Silicon Valley and Stanford ... and is doing what Silicon Valley and Stanford types are actually really great at … packaging all the new technologies together into a single platform and a single user experience. They are doing what Steve Jobs did … which is not actually inventing anything very new, it is inventing a way to package all the technologies together into a single device, which then comes to redefine the entire technological category. We think of the iPhone as the technology itself, and it is, but really at the beginning the iPhone was and mostly still is just a packaging of other technologies. The Gorilla Glass in the iPhone (made in Harrodsburg, KY), for instance, existed since the 1960’s and was used in cars through the 1990’s … but that technology had never been applied to a touchscreen device until Steve Jobs understood how to package that technology with the others into his new computer/phone. It is the exact same story with the Apple II. Nearly all of the technology existed, but it had never been packaged that way before.
I definitely feel like that is what I saw from Summit. Most schools are still the landline phones. A few schools are innovating and starting to figure out the new technology leading to some one-off, custom fit products (that is the category in which I would presently put STEAM). Very few schools have developed a product that was exportable and those that were available on the market were generally clunky, expensive, etc. — for instance, New Tech is a great network of schools developing across the US, but with a really high price to purchase. Like the Blackberry, it is clearly better and it clearly works, but it is not quite there yet.
Summit, particularly their scalable network, strikes me, potentially, as the iPhone. I don’t know how big this will get … but I think it will be big. We as Kentuckians, and educators everywhere, really need to think about what that means (or something in this ballpark). Let’s assume (major assumption) that the previous analogy is right and the iPhone event of the education system really is happening right now and let’s also assume (major assumption) that Clayton Christensen's disruptive innovation cycle will hold … then what? I don’t really know, but it scares/excites me. When a school district signs on with Summit and similar networks (and they will, even in KY) what need do they have for their local Co-Op if Summit is providing most of the networking support? When Summit publishes policy manuals, what need does a school have for KSBA policy writers? When Summit builds a graduate program to train teachers/leaders (and I expect them to) what need does a teacher have for college prep programs?
Many of the technological structural components of the current system are set to be replaced … but with Summit they will be replaced by a group operating in California. Are we as a state cool with that? If we at STEAM want to be a Basecamp school, and some in our school clearly do, we will probably more tightly aligned to Summit than to FCPS.
- If we need curricular support? Summit.
- If we need technical support? Summit.
- If we need policy support? Summit.
- If we need evaluation/assessment support? Summit.
- If we need PD support? Summit.
FCPS will still do transportation, athletics, and probably a few other things like personnel issues … but the core of what makes a school a school could be outsourced (even if the core of what makes learning happen, great teachers, won’t). Over time, cities and towns may adapt to manage transportation, athletics, libraries and the like (we are actually inefficiently operating 2 different systems for those things now) … and at that point … eventually, some day out there … someone may just decide that we do not need school boards, maybe we do not need superintendents, we certainly will not need such a large team at central office, we may not need local co-ops, we likely won’t need much of what KDE does now, we may need fewer local professional organizations, we might not need university-based teacher prep programs, etc. I’m honestly not sure at all where this rabbit hole ends. In each state, there must be a constitution and that constitution speaks to education. But, Kentucky's constitution says that the Legislature must "provide for an efficient system of common schools" … it says “provide for” … it does not say that we need to “operate" them. It is potentially feasible and perhaps even logical that the General Assembly may instead choose to outsource the basic operations of the system. We already outsource vast swaths of the system like assessment to outside companies like Pearson, et al. … so why not?
I’ve never really believed or seen a logical path from which the education system could be fully disrupted … until Summit and the scalability of Basecamp. Now, it almost seems to me to be a kind of certainty. What does Kentucky have that can legitimately compete with Summit? What are we going to say to parents who see kids in other states getting a Summit, New Tech, Big Picture, Envision, etc. education? What are we going to say to Legislators who ask if we can match the personalized performance of those schools? What are we going to say to EPSB (if that even exists) who asks why Summit should not be authorized to train teachers/leaders in KY?
Anyway, we DESPERATELY need to figure out how to move forward as a state, as school districts, as schools, as leaders, as teachers, as students, as universities, and as communities … how are we going to cope with the Tsunami if the iPhone event of education really is happening right now?
Here are the slide decks of the 3 presentations to the KySTE Fall Event on Education Technology Law. There are links and videos embedded into the presentations that take the material deeper, so don't be afraid to click.
Was happy to welcome visitors from Kenton County, KY yesterday at STEAM (we are getting lots of visitors these days). They are also in the process of transitioning to STEAM mindsets, so we had good conversations.
I am frequently so engrossed in the high school context, and the Lexington context in particular, that I do not take time to think about what elements of what we have learned at STEAM translate across any/all schools particularly the middle and elementary. So, just off the top of my head, here are some baseline STEAM thoughts no matter the context:
- Project Based Learning … we are not awesome at it now, but we are trying and getting better each year. The best place to learn more about PBL in a fun fashion is from this teacher at HTH: http://dp.hightechhigh.org/~jrobin/
- The Digital Side. At the middle school there would definitely be some learning management system in place for me and then backward mapping from there down into elementary. I would be doing a lot of digital work/production with my elementary students so that they deeply understood those devices are really about doing things rather than consuming things.
- Related to digital for us is the custom creating of lessons. This part is hard and sucks when you are seeing a hundred+ kids a day, but kids respond when teachers put their own touch on what/how to teach. When teachers do it that way (v. something from a textbook) there is a deeper understanding even on the part of the teacher of “why” something is happening and what new knowledge and skills should result … and that translates for the kids. This is of course, not new to STEAM, but throwing out the textbooks sort of puts teachers in this position and then they adapt (although that initial month or two is a doozy). Over-planning is key. I’ve had great success personally with structuring my lessons minute by minute and putting a time allocation on each thing I intend to do with kids so that both they and I know what is happening throughout all our time together (of course, some of those minutes are allocated to open discussion/study).
- Advisory … giving each kid a home in the school … at the elementary schools they already do this somewhat well. Each kid generally feels loved and feels like they have a home in the building and a place for them. As we transition the kids into middle, that sort of slowly phases out. Instead of phasing that out, how do we think about transitioning so the feeling of being loved and having a home at school stays with the kids through the middle years into high? It would just be a priority of mine. Middle school is where a lot of that goes wrong and then high schools are put in a difficult position because on day 1 a substantial percentage of the humans in the building do not want to be there.
- Get kids and adults out of the building as much as possible.
- Arts = culture. That probably should not come as a surprise given that when we study art we usually talk about culture … but we sort of had to learn that the hard way. As more art entered our building, culture improved. When we expanded to even more art … culture improved more. Funny, that. Now I sort of look back and think … duh. We had a culture problem in Year 1 partly because we had an Art deficiency.
- Really think about and know what you mean by STEAM … so, for me/us, here is how I personally think about STEAM. I’ve not been as public as I should have been about this yet, but it does impact what we do. Math is a language, Science is a process, engineering is the doing, and technology is the result … with Art throughout making things beautiful and interesting where they otherwise could be bland and boring. These are not separate things, they are all part of one way of interacting with the world that is particularly useful for making, creating, doing, understanding, etc. Particularly for the elementary and middle this sort of structured curiosity then creativity process is what I’d think about making the baseline of activities.
It is not a surprise to those that know me that I am currently interested in great spaces for learning. I am one of the leaders of STEAM Academy in Lexington that is, hopefully, going to be constructing a new facility soon. Also, as part of my EDL 664 course I am increasingly inclined to talk about how spaces and technology interact for great learning. So, I'm going to post some images and links to spaces here for my own records and, hopefully, for your enjoyment.
To get us started, I've been thinking about libraries a lot lately and I came across one that blew me away: Bibliotheca Alexandrina in, of course, Alexandria Egypt. The library was an official effort at creating part of what was lost with the fire of the Great Library of Alexandria. What they created is not only visually stunning, it strikes me as a great space for learning also. It seems both open and closed at the same time and there seem to be rather private spaces as well as extremely public spaces. Someone took this photosphere inside the library, which gives a nice sense of the place.
I was especially impressed by the teacher Susan Cintra who is the exact type of innovative teacher that is great for our kids and schools. As the student callers showed, it must be fun and informative to be in her class.