Avoiding “Unmitigated Disasters”

Yet another

After stumbling upon the article, “Switch to e-books was ‘an unmitigated disaster,’ says school principal,” in my feed this past week, it occurred to me that there are increasingly predictable patterns surrounding stories of failed “innovation” in digital learning initiatives. Schools have been assigning computers to each child for some time now. And still, we continue to see stories like this in the media.

In short: we can do better.

Defining targets differently

The real target

But how? Unfortunately, none of these stories are terribly surprising. Many who read this article will likely slide straight into: “The HP Elite Pad? No wonder this was a disaster. That’s clearly the wrong device.” Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t recommend such a purchase for most classroom situations. My preferences over the past five years can likely be mined from the pages of this blog. But keep in mind: most outright failures of a digital learning initiative aren’t about the laptop/tablet you choose. I’ve noticed that time after time, most of these stories of failure in the media seem to arise from schools that set their sights upon a “digital conversion.” To me, this usually indicates a black hole of vision within the system. Making a massive systemwide purchase all in the name of trading out paper textbooks for digital textbooks is drawing your aim at the wrong target. Carefully consider this point: adopting computing devices as front-line learning tools is not the end game, it is one strategy in building a modern and responsive educational ecosystem.

It is true that a move from a dearth of access to one where every student is saddled with a laptop/iPad/Chromebook/etc. is a significant one. Because of this, it is easy to sit back and bask in the satisfaction of  tackling the access issue. It is certainly a celebration worth having. Computers are everywhere on day one of a 1:1 rollout. Access is the easiest box in the plan to check off. It is true that getting to this level of access requires significant logistical, financial, and political struggles. The real festivities should happen when, and not before, the entire learning environment has changed for the better. The issue at the heart of all this is where you want to be when all of these hurdles are cleared. If you cannot envision the details of the learning ecosystem you are seeking, go back and dig into what this means for a learning institution. The last thing you want to do is try to figure this out after every child and teacher possesses a digital device in support of yesterday’s educational ecosystem. Start at the top.


Get out the telescope

Ask yourself what it is you really want for the children in your charge. Are you still comfortable with the following?

  • Textbooks being the central resource for course content
  • Student tasks submitted for an audience of one: the teacher
  • Every child learning the same thing in time with every other child
  • “Creative” experiences consisting entirely of document creation
  • Online learning that consists of a checklist of independent tasks
  • School as defined by what is taught as opposed to what is learned
  • Measuring seat time and percentage grades as indicators of academic success

If you can say “yes” for many of the above, you might not find the logistical, financial, and political friction required by a move to 1:1 worth the trouble. If you’re still comfortable with many of these elements, you are still content with school as it has been for decades, and so often continues to be. Changing any of these characteristics takes more than a pocketbook and a five-step rollout plan. Developing educators as leaders on top of a shifting paradigm of what learning can be today is a far different task. This requires a plan with a robust framework for professional development and a built-in ability to be responsive to the needs of educators at each stage of the process.

We already know this to be true. Outstanding teachers effectively plan on two levels: 1) designing a long-term framework for learning built directly upon standards, that 2) includes a system of short-term responses to react to individual student needs based upon authentic formative assessment of learning. You read it right, a two-tiered plan involving both proaction and reaction. The best planning at any level involves a complex interplay between the two. The long-range and the short-term. The big picture as well as the detail. Education is serious business, huh?


Plug in the microscope

The same attention to proaction and reaction applies to the planning needed to move any learning organization into new territory. If you are truly no longer comfortable with the seven elements listed above, the next step is to dig into the details of your vision. Ask yourself and your team the following questions:

  • What resources for learning are available today? What would an ideal mix of resources consist of? Who is responsible for vetting said resources?
  • How can we best harness the power of the Internet to cultivate authentic audiences for student work and learning? What does open inquiry look like today?
  • What is the ideal progression of learning for a child? Do we plan for this at the student level? Do we react to this at the student level? How do we facilitate this?
  • What is an authentic learning task? What does creativity look like today? Does your definition extend beyond the realm of documents? How do you feel about digital “poster projects?” Study the TPACK & SAMR frameworks together.
  • Define “blended learning.” What do you think of when you hear the term, “online course?” What should define an “online course?” Where and how does conversation fit into the description? Talk about space and time. Talk about the Carnegie Unit.
  • Is a 1:1 implementation an opportunity to study standards-based grading? If you’re really daring, try considering… why grade?
  • Can you sketch three scenes depicting what your ideal school should look like? What is happening in those scenes? What is not? I’m really not kidding here. Do this. Don’t just discuss it. The value is in the slow process and the conversation.

If you really commit to an open study of these questions and tasks, then you will have a far clearer picture of what you believe today. You will possess the raw mental material for the next step. The next step will be to design the framework for the future. This is the fun part; the good stuff. This is the step I cannot even attempt to deliver generic bullet points for. This is the stage that, based upon your responses, moves in a unique direction for every learning community. How do you know when your educators are on the same page? How will you know your broader community understands what you’re trying to do? Quickly get beyond the jargon. Disclaimer: There is nothing inherently magical or official about the above set of mental metrics. They are merely questions I believe lie at the heart of this work.

It all comes back to your vision for and philosophy of learning. If you continue to see school as a top-down endeavor where knowledge is first owned by the teacher and then somehow magically transmitted into the brains of students, then that will guide (no: govern) your mission of bringing modern technology into classrooms. However, if research and experience have led you to the idea that perhaps real learning happens within the mind of the learner and is influenced by many inputs (one of which is a skilled teacher)… then you’ll likely make significantly different decisions for the future.


Design the process

This morning’s stream of thought reminds me of a post I logged four years or so ago. I can actually say I still stand behind those “four pillars” after considerable experience since that time. Like I said back then, “It’s not that dark in there anymore. Trust that there are others who have proceeded down this path before you, and they have learned many important lessons.” Get the right people into the room from the start. If you fear, “we don’t know what we don’t know,” get some outside experience into the room. Represent all levels of your organization. Think big, and think little. Ask the big questions first. Then work through the details before even mentioning “the device.” Many will want to jump there. Stay strong. Design protocols that help protect the conversation. Develop a true vision. Let it guide you. Under our best progressive lens “unmitigated disasters” rarely happen.


*”Defining targets differently” by Fritz Ahlefeldt-Laurvig on Flickr via CC
*”Untitled” by Brongaeh on Flickr via CC
*”Objectives” by Oliver Braubach on Flickr via CC
*”Business project drawn…” by Sergey Nivens purchased from Shutterstock.

On the Digital World and Culture

When we look ahead to the sorts of things that could be happening (especially where every learner is saddled with an Internet-capable device) in our classrooms and beyond…

Online in 60 Seconds

I just caught this image in a Facebook post by Will Richardson and it made me return here to record and share a few thoughts.


I think the infographic above begs this question:

“If this is already happening- if this is a truly a baseline average of what is currently happening online in a rather generic way, how do we harness the power of participatory culture for learning?”


It begs questions relating to relevance. It also begs for discussion about meeting kids where they are. It also makes me reflect on the theme of a rather powerful meeting this morning regarding “culture.” Is the culture we seek to create in school… from scratch and of our own doing? Or are these questions also an element of the debate? How can we also credit the culture being created today, and not only bring students into the fold of our vision, but also join them in new places to co-create a culture of learning for the future?

From where I sit, it is no longer a question of if we should. It hasn’t been. A few are already embracing these channels for good, and have been for some time. In my reality of classrooms soaked in the ubiquity of personal computing, I could easily be misled into thinking this is already the norm in many places. I’ve seen some pretty wise examples of this firsthand with teachers I work with. Yet, the reality is:  the sort of smart, purposeful embrace of new media for learning I’m talking about is still existing only in pockets.

And yet, I think that if we aren’t yet at least asking these tough questions, we’re behind. Television captured attention in its day. Digital gaming was perhaps the next cultural crack to vie for the attention of youth. Today it is the web. Each of these entities was potentially more all-consuming than the previous…  or potentially liberating. Yes, much of what is in this graphic is still little more than noise. That says little of the potential here. I believe it to be your mindset that largely frames the issue.

Delaney With Hermit Crab


Do I think life and learning does or should exist solely in a virtual world? No. Not even close. Trolling back through the hundreds of posts here will show this to be true. I have been a life sciences teacher for 21 years. I have been a parent for the past six. I want all children to learn by touching, smelling and interacting with the real world. I want them to learn deeply and rather slowly at times.

I also want to credit the modern world that currently engulfs us. I want smart teachers leading the way. I want balance in these things. I have long been of the opinion that playing “defense” and plugging away on a path that doesn’t credit modern communication channels is just, well…  nearly malpractice. Truly embracing these changes might be down the path for you and your organization, but that doesn’t mean you cannot engage in these tough questions as you strive to build a nimble and complete learning environment for the young people you serve.

Thank you………..  drive through.



*Will Richardson, who has pushed my thinking for well over half a decade.
*Dr. White’s Leadership Team address today that heavily featured the topic of school culture.
*My wife, Erin (pictured above) for being that kind of Mom to our girls.



EdWeekSJSD: A Litany of Thanks

The calm after the storm

I’m beat, but delightfully so. Deep learning is hard work. Designing an ecosystem in which others can learn deeply is even tougher. Teachers know this. I mean, pick your favorite food. Then eat five heaping plates of it. Back to back. If someone treated me to a week of epic seafood meals prepared by skilled chefs, I’d eat big every day. You don’t get that opportunity very often. Well…  we did that (again), and I’m tired. Next week I’ll revel in quiet solitude, no doubt reflecting on the intense social learning of the past week. This week was EdWeek.

EdWeekSJSD is but one small construct of the larger vision of professional development in our district. Sometimes in a large learning organization you design PD events where everyone sees, hears, and performs the same thing. You have to. There are times when we all need to be on the same crucial page. We need a core of common language around learning. We need a common vision at some level, and we need norms around the central mission of our schools.

Yet, like the students we serve, teachers are all individuals with differing needs and aptitudes. We could never meet the needs of 11,000 highly individual learners with a team of 900 identically-trained educators. In subscribing to that belief, on some level you must be willing to design constructs of learning that cater to these differences. EdWeek is one of those constructs. EdWeekSJSD is a series of day-long explorations into innovative and creative approaches to learning in a modern classroom. For more detail on the structure and happenings of this week, see the wiki from the past two years, as well as an explanatory post, There’s No Week Like EdWeek, I did last year in anticipation of our first experience of this type.

Thanks are in order:

We have so many thanks to give for the success of the past week. For one, if you were there at all, thank you. Trading in an off-contract day of basking in the summer sun is admirable. If you showed up at all, I salute you. Thank you for making all of the planning and preparation worthwhile. If you showed up for all five days, I am deeply humbled by your professional commitment and love of learning and sharing. I could go on and on about each of the past five days. The new things I learned, the collaboration I witnessed, and the open and public sharing that was done. Many of those details already exist online in reflective posts by my colleagues. Do me this favor, please post links to your work in the comments below, and I will embed those directly in a future edit to this post. For sharing in a collective reflection of this week, I thank you. I’ve already read many of these posts, and I couldn’t possibly detail those days any better. Nice work, Mike.

Digital writing matters

Troy Hicks, author of The Digital Writing Workshop, and Because Digital Writing Matters, took us on an exploration of the broader meaning of literacy on day one. Troy challenged us to see literacy as not only the ability to make deep meaning from reading and writing text, but other forms of rich media as well. For me, he drove home the point that literacy instruction in the classroom of today must make efficient and creative use of the many forms of media that blanket our lives like never before in our history.

Silvia, I thank you again

Joining us again this year, Silvia Tolisano reminded us that any approach to innovation with technology must begin with a focus on learning first, followed by careful selection of modern tools to do the job. She pushed us to consider uses of technology beyond the automation of substitution of current tasks. We both share the belief that using technology to maintain the classroom status quo is a prohibitively expensive proposition. What is beyond mere “integration” of digital tools? Using them to transform learning events into something that would not have been possible otherwise. A wiki that includes resources addressed that day gives you an idea of the broad scope and detail of those explorations. We’ll certainly soon be seeing some amplified classroom experiences for our children.

Learning to be

Our next two leaders were neighbors from the North. Darren Kuropatwa joined us this year from Winnipeg. I deeply admire approaches to learning that are multimodal and which feature rich instances of story. I especially appreciate these things when they arise from a career of motivating students to study mathematics in this way. He’s the math teacher I always wanted. He challenged us to create an environment where students aren’t merely doing math, or history, or science. The set of resources Darren thoughtfully planned to support our day is found here. He deftly made the case for empowering students to be… a mathematician, a historian, a scientist,  a writer. Thank you, Darren.

The seriousness of silliness and play

Dean Shareski made a return trip from Saskatchewan to Joetown this year with his fun and serious allwrappedintoone approach to learning and exploring media and ideas. You can’t spend professional time with Dean without making things. Experimentation and play was the theme of the day. We created artifacts, quickly, shared them widely, and debated where the learning lies within each. Check out the seven different forms of exploration from our day together. You can’t attend a session like this without re-examining your classroom tone, nor without acquiring new lenses for seeing the seriousness inherent within play and exploration. Dean- again, many thanks.

Now batting cleanup:

Diana Laufenberg. Diana brought the perspective of a powerfully creative teacher into our little meeting room…  and allowed us to swim around in it for a day. During the first half of the day, teachers found the tables turned as they took a reflective trip through what it feels like to be a student in her classroom. Diana helped us close out the week with a close examination of the architecture of and for learning she builds into her classroom. We also explored the benefits of participatory learning in a technology-savvy way and the crucial role of failure in any approach to learning. I’d be shocked if there was a single attendee who didn’t secretly wish to have experienced a government classroom that felt the way our room felt today. Thank you dearly, Diana.

Learners AND facilitators

Participating the entire week, and helping to facilitate it is a monster. You want to dig in and explore every single challenge. And yet, your role is also to help support a diverse room full of teachers with different needs. Just a short year ago, I was the lone instructional technology specialist in the room. With a massive bloom from four to fourteen 1:1 schools, we now have a real team to tackle our district’s burgeoning needs in this area. I can’t tell you how good that feels. We are gelling as a team in short order, and will have much to offer both individually and collectively as the coming year unfolds. Participate, facilitate, participate, facilitate. Focus on the task. Bounce about the room. Support. Comfort. Archive everything. Knowing just how difficult this is fills me full of appreciation of the work of Melissa CoreyTerri Johnson, and Jennifer Gatz. You were great this week, it wouldn’t have worked without you.

The die-hards

They just kept coming back. Just over one hundred teachers, coaches and administrators took part in the week’s festivities. An untold number lurked along via Twitter, Ustream, or Today’s Meet. A total of 38 participated in even more than one event. A few came back… every. single. day. What if you took them all to a conference like ISTE, and assuming the experience was equal to such a conference, (which is severely lowballing it) think about what that would cost. Do the math. Of the 38 repeat customers, 11 completed the full meal deal. Other than those of us who were participant/facilitators, there were six die-hards. Mike DialCindy FaucettErin NashMandi TolenJason Tolen, and Chantelle Schwope attended EdWeek in its entirety… all five days from 8am to 3pm. Epic. That is not easy. I have homeland knowledge of the fact that one of these folks was also simultaneously juggling two online graduate courses.

Opt-in professional learning, off-contract and in the summer. I begged for this two years ago. Not everyone believed this would fly. It was possible that no one would attend. It works if the design is right. Thanks to Dr. Dial’s trust and willingness to carve out a chunk of resources, it finally happened for the first time a year ago. This past week, EdWeekSJSD happened again; a hypodermic shot of innovation and creativity in an increasingly standardized world. Like I said, I’m beat, but delightfully so.


*”Twins” by Jon Smith via Creative Commons on Flickr
*The remainder were taken by either Jaime Dial or I.



I’d Rather

…eat a pizza prepared by Geoffrey Zakarian wielding an Easy Bake oven, than one prepared by, uhhh… damn near anyone else using a $1000 oven.

Just saying.

Maybe that’s important, maybe it’s not. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out what business this post has on my blog. Perhaps nothing. I’m open to that.






*For “Home Made Mini Pizza, Cooked” by Yortw on Flickr Via CC, & for…
*Allowing me to ask questions… even when they don’t carry a question mark. According to Michael Wesch, this is something only a human can do.
*For the clarity to write my shortest-ever blog post.

On Being a Public Educator, or: Once Again, Why I Love The Web

Transforming by connection

In my time as a teacher, I have tried purposefully to connect my students to experts beyond the walls of our classroom. When I began as a teacher in 1991, this was a pretty difficult task compared to today. Contacting local experts in biology or conservation took going out of the way to recruit the efforts of kind, caring professionals who were willing to share their experience with my students and I. Today, it can happen almost accidentally. Today, a few extra steps can flip the equation to a reality where talented individuals can find you. While balancing a myriad of responsibilities in the classroom of today, this shift in reality can be a transformational one… helping to bring relevance and authenticity to the lives of students.

Allow me to quickly switch to the issue at hand, and then wrap up my case by the end. Today, I bring you yet another opportunity to assist the education of students in Missouri, from wherever you may be. Cutting to the chase, a talented and giving artist from the state of Florida recently contacted my students and I with the offer to contribute an a work of art to help my students pay for the fees of a field study on the coral reefs of Andros Island, in the Bahamas.

Connecting to art

Cheryl Ferrari is a passionate artist and a giving person. My students and I are quite happy tonight to announce an opportunity for you to own an amazing piece of art while making a donation to hardworking students who are doing extra work on their own time to learn about something they are interested in. On Friday, I will be able to add an actual photo of the actual work. It is an beautiful and massive 36×24 inch print on canvas. Not only was the work donated at an approximate value of from $2000 to $3000… but the framing was donated by a local company. J. Franklin Gallery of St. Joseph donated the $400 framing.



Clicking the “buy now” button above will allow you to enter a credit card via PayPal from wherever you may be… to an SJSD account to earn a chance to win the print. This is essentially a donation where 100% of the funds go toward a rich educational experience for my students. We are offering each chance at $5, and three chances for $10. The raffle will take place on the night of March 28th, the eve of our upcoming field study in The Exuma Cays.

Yes, public

You see, I take the idea of being a public educator rather literally. In short: whenever and wherever possible, I pull open a window of transparency allowing a peek into the work we are doing. Softening the walls of the classroom in this way has brought us many powerful connections over time. Cheryl Ferrari is a Florida resident who grew up snorkeling and diving on Florida’s coral reefs when they were vibrant and healthy. She no longer dives today, and relies on photographs from those who do as inspiration for her work.

Cheryl messaged me via Flickr in April complimenting the work we are doing in chronicling the life (and sadly, death) of coral reefs today. She kindly asked permission to reference our work, and three months later, she messaged again with the image you see above. We could clearly see the elements of the painting that were inspired by photographs we have taken and shared. After more conversation on the details of our program, she offered to donate a limited-edition print to help student offset the costs of the field study portion of the course. And really, though you can’t quite tell it here, this connection has almost left me speechless at times.

Connecting to science

Since 2000, we have had authors join our discussions of their works. We have had the Center for Biological Diversity request photos for use in a formal federal petition to list two Caribbean corals as threatened, and eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act. (it worked, by the way) We have had a former student of this program now with a Ph.D. and working on national marine policy, rejoin our community from time to time, as one of our informal teachers. We have had students live blog hurricane landfalls from the gulf, and report back from their work in fisheries from Dutch Harbor, Maine. And on and on. I’m certain I’d leave someone out if I tried to name them all.

These connections have transformed our classroom time and time again. It is this sort of real transformation that makes expenditures of modern technology worth the cost. Join us in some way. Take a chance on owning a bit of our story, and thanks so much in advance, from all of my students and I, for donating to such a relevant and authentic cause in the lives of kids.

Artwork thanks

Turtle Flirts” by Cheryl Ferrari… photograph of oil on canvas

Massive Sea Fan” is one of ours. See the connection?

Mike Westfall – Thumbs Up” is also one of ours