Dear Steve Jobs,
I need to tell you that I’m a huge fan of your work. Yes, I love my iPhone, Macbook Pro and iMac, but that isn’t what I’m talking about. The work of yours that I wish to talk about is your work at Apple Inc. as a leader. In the last 13 years you have helped apple focus, you have turned the company around from nearly bankrupt, and now to the largest corporation in North America. So why do we need you for our educational system?
You may have heard, right now the education system isn’t doing so well. If it were a corporation its assets would surely be up for sale. The reason? Far too many initiatives, far too many people pulling in different directions. To put it simply, we lack focus, we lack leadership. There are hundreds of great ideas coming from thousands of educators but we are spreading ourselves too thin. We preach assessment practices, technology, constructivism, 21st century learning. We argue about the need for grades, standardized tests, and curriculum. We have ‘regular’ programs, AP programs and IB programs. We have private schools, charter schools and public schools all fighting for the best students but we’re simply ‘stealing’ them from each other. We need your help.
Thirteen years ago, when you returned to Apple, you canned some great ideas. You got rid of the Newton (the worlds first personal digital assistant), and traded in an old operating system for a future-ready one. But these great ideas didn’t die, they just weren’t ready yet. Today, the concepts from the newton live on in much more refined and useable forms such as the iPhone and iPad. Apple offers only a few products, and they work well. This is what we need to do in education; offer few choices, but the few that are there are great.
We need to rebuild from the bottom up. We need to trade in an old system for a new one. We need to take all of the great ideas and have a think-tank of innovators put them together, into functional and seamless products. We need to learn to focus on a few initiatives, and do them well. Steve, you did this for a sinking corporation, turning it into the most successful in the world. Please do the same for our education system.
Once upon a time my partner, Susana , was sitting in a room full of teachers when she overheard something that got her blood flowing.
Before I go on, I guess I should tell you some background. Susana and I work full-time as consultants for publicly funded schools promoting 21st Century teaching and learning strategies. We work with teachers to promote reflective practice and focus on teaching teachers to teach learning strategies.
So, imagine Susana and I sitting at the lunch table, when across the room a teacher says
I tell my students to just use their textbooks to find information, searching online is a waste of time
Wow, really? [start sarcasm] Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for promoting the use of expensive textbooks bought with public funding. How else would unnamed publishing companies make their money on information that is available for free? [/end sarcasm] Seriously, information is so abundant it is effectively worthless. Our jobs as educators in the 21st century is to teach our students to discern between what is required and what is superfluous. Students must learn to discriminate between reliable and unreliable sources. Susana would agree with me when I say that this skill is possibly one of the most important in the digital world and in a global community. Information is coming at them more than ever on; google, bing, facebook, twitter, the blogosphere, YouTube, podcasts, tv news broadcast, radio and… oh yeah, print resources including textbooks.
The only way that our students will learn this is if we explicitly teach these skills and provide opportunity to hone them. Searching online is anything but a waste of time.
I’ve spent the past 10 months head over heels, smiling ear to ear because I am a new father. I spend as much time as I possibly can playing with my son, Ben. This evening while considering the enormous amount of learning that Ben is experiencing during our playtime, I realized my important role. To Ben, I am a safeguard; someone he trusts and who loves him. When I’m around, Ben has no fear, no inhibitions. He explores whatever interests him in whatever way makes sense. I provide the resources he needs; toys, books and musical instruments (he strums the guitar pretty good BTW). Coupled with a safe and comfortable environment, Ben will learn everything he needs to learn to be ready for life.
At home, I truly am a facilitator of learning. If only we can figure out how to make it work this well in the classrooms… with a set curriculum, 36 kids, nearly no budget for great resources and during a 67 minute period.
This afternoon I was hosting a PD session with a few colleagues and one made a comment that has me thinking. The session topic was something like “making projects rigorous” and my colleague, John, made a comment along the lines of needing to “hold students’ hands while they work on inquiry projects.” Instantly I was alerted.
After the session I shared with John a need to restrain myself from interrupting him. Rather than hand holding, I like the image of standing behind the students, recalling a popular exercise in trust-building where one person falls backwards and another catches them. I believe this to be our role as teachers in the 21st century. Knowledge is so abundant is becoming near worthless. There is no need for educators to ‘teach’ knowledge. We must teach students how to acquire information and use it meaningfully, while providing a safe environment for them to explore.
In this case, I believe semantics are worth correcting since the terms have strong cultural connotations. In my experience, handholding and spoon-feeding refer to situations where students are provided so much information and explanation that the critical thinking is taken away from them. What we should be doing, I believe, is teaching the students how to ask questions, acquire information, critique it on their own, and use that information in meaningful ways.
Stand behind your students to guide and support them throughout their explorations.