Change agent

| April 5, 2011 | 0 Comments

Part One – By Anthony Rebora
Will Richardson was a high school English and Journalism teacher in new Jersey for nearly 20 years.

During the early part of this decade, he began experimenting with the use of interactive web tools in the classroom, and was soon transfixed by their potential for increasing students’ engagement and exposing them to new resources and outlets for expression. His experiences led him to write Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms (published by Corwin). Now in its third edition, the book has become one of the most influential books available on integrating Web 2.0 technology in the classroom. Richardson is now an Educational Technology Consultant and co-founder of Powerful Learning Practice, a professional development provider devoted to fostering online communities for teachers. Here he speaks to Anthony Rebora.

You’ve written that too many teachers are ‘un-Googleable’. What do you mean by that and why does it matter?
What I mean is that too few teachers have a visible presence on the web. The primary reason why this matters is that the kids in our classrooms are going to be Googled over and over again. That’s just the reality of their lives, right? So they need models. They need to have adults who know what it means to have a strong and appropriate search portfolio – I call it the ‘G-portfolio’. But right now – and this is my ongoing refrain – there’s no-one teaching them about the nuances involved in creating a positive online footprint. It’s all about what not to do, instead of what they should be doing. The second thing is that, if you want to be part of an extended learning network or community, you have to be findable. And you have to participate in some way. If you’re not out there – if you’re not transparent or findable in that way – I can’t learn with you.

Why do you think many teachers are not out there on the web?
I think it’s a huge culture shift. Education by and large has been a very closed profession. “Just let me close my doors and teach” – you hear that refrain all the time. I’ve had people come up to me after presentations and say, “Well, I’m not putting my stuff up on the web because I don’t want anyone to take it and use it.” And I say, “But that’s the whole point.” We really have to be – or, at least, should be – sharing our stuff freely and, in doing so, making new connections and working in these communities and networks that can really enhance our own learning.

If you were a Principal, what would you do?
Well, first of all, I would be absolutely the best model that I could be. I would definitely share my own thoughts, my own experiences and my own reflections on how the environment of learning is changing. I would be very transparent in my online learning activity and try to show people in the school that it has value. Second, I would try to build a school culture where sharing is just a normal part of what we do, and where we understand the relevance of this global exchange of ideas and information to what we do in the classroom. It’s not like coming in and saying, “OK, everybody has to start a blog tomorrow.” We have to understand how being a part of these everyday interactions that go beyond school walls have value in terms of how
we help kids understand the world as it’s currently constructed.

You’ve written about ‘network literacy’ as one of the key 21st-century skills. What does that entail?
The way I define it is that students should be able to create, navigate and grow their own personal learning networks in safe, effective and ethical ways. It’s really about the ability to engage with people around the world in these online networks, to take advantage of learning opportunities that are not restricted to a particular place and time, and to be conversant with the techniques and methodologies involved in doing this. It’s really something that looks profoundly different from what currently happens in classrooms.

So how do schools teach this? Are there some that are doing it effectively?
I think there are some, but there aren’t many. And again, it comes back to teachers being able to model it and understand it – and ultimately to infuse it into the curriculum effectively. The schools that are beginning to kind of get it often make the mistake of then making it a unit somewhere. You know, they put together this ‘information literacy’ unit, and they think that they can kind of check that box. But this is not a unit we’re talking about. It’s a cultural shift in the way we do things. It’s a different way of teaching and learning. I think that even our first, second and third grade curricula should be looked at again, and we should be asking where we can begin to instil these kinds of skills and literacies, in ways that are age appropriate. Of course, we have to be balanced about this. We don’t want students spending the entire day online. But ultimately, kids are going to have to have these skills when they leave us, and right now, by and large, we’re just kind of crossing our fingers and saying, “Good luck with that. Hope you got it, because we can’t deal with it right now.”

What do you say to the argument that kids are already pretty technologically savvy? I mean, they’re already out there on Facebook and YouTube. So why should schools focus on this instead of areas where they’re lacking – like content knowledge?
Well, I think when people talk about kids being ‘digital natives’, it’s a real disservice, because it suggests that kids are just somehow born with the ability to use these technologies well. And that’s not the case. You’re right – kids today have much less fear around technology, and they can pick up the basics right away. But they still don’t know how to learn with these technologies, or how to connect with others from a learning standpoint as opposed to a social standpoint.

A couple of years ago, the MacArthur Foundation report – called Living and Learning with New Media – was published, and it distinguished two different ways that kids are using these online tools. The one way is the social side – Facebook, texting, that type of stuff. And then there’s this other way that they called interest-based. An example of that would be if you’re really into a 1972 Camaro, say, you can find other people online who are into that as well, and you can learn with them how to restore yours. It’s those types of interactions that are a little more nuanced, because you don’t know who these people are and you’re trying to get complex information.

So you’re trying to edit your contacts, you’re trying to get context for who they are, you’re trying to figure out what you can get from the learning interaction, or if there are better options, or if you need to supplement it in some way. Then you need to synthesise the information. That’s where kids need help. That’s the part where they’re not as good as we are – or at least should be – when it comes to discerning what information is good and what information isn’t, and with whom they should be interacting. They’re not as good at assessing those critical pieces. That’s where they really need us.

OK, but how do you respond to the more traditional perspective that says, “Hey, that’s great, but kids can fix up Camaros after school. In school, they need academic knowledge.”
I just think that we have for so long looked at education as this linear, everybody-does-the-same-thing-in-the-sameway process that it’s really difficult for us to think about education in other more personalised ways, in ways that let kids learn Maths or Engineering in the context of fixing a Camaro. Or that let kids learn English and writing in the context of what they’re passionate about. I realise it’s somewhat of a stretch – it’s a hard thing to envision.

But I think we’re at a point where we really need to think about not just reforming education but transforming it. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have teachers and classrooms and schools, but the interactions that happen just need to be really, really different, because the world is just such a different place right now, with everything we have access to. You know, when I think about my own kids, I have no doubt that the best teachers they’re going to have in their lives are the ones that they find, not the ones their schools give to them. And that to me is a huge shift in the way we think about the role of educators in kids’ lives. And I think that kind of captures a piece of how differently we have to think about this.

There’s a great book called Rethinking Education in an Era of Technology by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson. For me, these guys absolutely peg it. They talk about how we went from a kind of apprenticeship model of education in the early 19th century to a more industrialised, everybodydoes- the-same-thing model in the 20th century. And now we’re moving into what they call a ‘lifelong learning’ model, which is to say that learning is much more fluid and much more independent, self-directed and informal. That concept – that we can learn in profound new ways outside the classroom setting – poses huge challenges to traditional structures of schools, because that’s not what they were built for.

You’ve said that schools need to emphasise learning over knowledge. What did you mean by that?
Well, let me be clear: I’m not saying that we don’t need knowledge in order to learn well. But right now, that’s the total emphasis. It’s all about what we know – that’s basically what we assess, right? I look at my kids’ tests all the time – it’s just factual stuff. You know, “What was the third ship that Columbus sailed?” I can’t stand it, because it doesn’t have any relevance to, or any bearing on anything that they’re going to do in their lives. I get how it made sense 50 years ago. Maybe 30 years ago. But I don’t get it now, when my daughter could pull out her phone to find the answer in two seconds. It’s just silly.

So, I think we need to focus more on developing the learning process, looking at how kids collaborate with others on a problem, how they exercise their critical thinking skills, how they handle failure, and how they create. We have to be willing to put kids – and assess kids – in situations and contexts where they’re really solving problems, and we’re looking not so much at the answer but the process by which they try to solve those problems. Because those are the types of skills they’re going to need when they leave us, when they go to college or wherever else. At least I think so. And I don’t think I’m alone in that.

This interview f irst appeared in the Education Week Teacher Professional Development Sourcebook, in October 2010 and is reprinted here with permission from Editorial Projects in Education. Find part two in our next issue.

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Category: Autumn 2011, e-Education

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