Lessons Learned from L.E.A.R.N

For the past few months, I’ve been involved with planning parts of the L.E.A.R.N Annual Conference, this year entitled, The Debate for America’s Future (#LEARN2013). Panel discussion topics included: restructuring school systems, teacher evaluation systems, district-charter collaboration, technology, & school intervention/turn around models. The overall goal of the conference was to assess ‘solutions’ currently being offered to address issues in each of those areas & determine what is/is not working in public education.

Per their website, “L.E.A.R.N., the Leaders in Education Advocacy & Reform Network, is an interdisciplinary organization that seeks to create a forum for graduate students interested in improving the quality of education in America’s schools.  We aim to foster dialogue about pressing issues, increase knowledge of and access to career opportunities, and engage students in service opportunities in the field of education law and policy. The organization is a joint effort between Penn Law, Wharton School, Graduate School of Education, and Fels Institute of Government. While I may not always agree 100% with the mission and/or approach of the organization, I am grateful to have had to opportunity to have had a hand in building this conference.

My role, specifically, was conference manager for the ‘Technology in the Classroom’ panel (#LEARN2013tech). I had the privilege of bringing together a fabulous group of panelists & moderator; some of who I had previously only known through Twitter. The panel was a very interesting discussion about different issues and terminology used within conversations about edtech. From the opening question of What is the most interesting use of technology inside the classroom and out? to those of how technology fits within our current assessment and teacher preparation structures, all of the panelists offered unique perspectives and resources that they are using in their work.

What will I take away from this experience?

  • Behind any and every event similar to this one, there are a bunch of people working to ensure that everything runs smoothly. I am indebted to the conference team, all of whom put in many hours to make this event a success.
  • Discussions like these, about the future of education, should not be limited to or privilege certain groups. It is imperative that all ‘stake-holders’ are included in the conversation & feel as though their voices and contributions are valued.
  • There needs to be an acknowledgement that (1) Students are people, & teachers teach students, not subjects (2) Learning environments exist within and beyond the typical classroom (3) Regardless of personal opinions/interests, the overall mission of education needs to be focused on what’s in the best interest of learning.

LEARN Conference Team Photo Credit: Adam Dunn (conference photos available here)

High-Tech vs No Tech

In working on my thesis & an upcoming panel on technology in the classroom-you could say I’ve been tech-obsessed lately. However, I think it’s important to stop and consider the difference between viewing technology as a shiny new tool versus a means of enhancing student learning. Adults get so caught up in focusing on the new and shiny and loose sight of what we actually want students to learn by using technology.

This reminded me of an awesome story I came across a while back about a kid named Caine. He is a 9 year old boy who built an elaborate cardboard arcade in his dad’s used auto parts store. See the story below:

So what can we learn from Caine? I think in our tech-obsessed culture it is important to reflect on how our students are actually using technology. If the goal is to help kids develop their skills in critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity, do we absolutely need technology? I would say that Caine’s arcade is an example of how those skills can be developed in kids with out relying on any technology.

The One Best Systems

No, it’s not a typo. This post is intentionally titled ‘The One Best Systems.’ This semester I’m taking a course that looks at schools from an organizational/management perspective. We’ve recently been discussing Tyack’s One Best System (1974). In looking at the evolution of the American education system, I could not help but draw parallels from Tyack’s account to the current education landscape & the never-ending search for that one best system.

In looking at the historical progression of American education, I find we are perpetually looking for the silver bullet, the one best system/model of education. Once a framework or philosophy has been found to work in a school, the immediate response is to expand that program or framework to all schools. The idea being that after all, it worked in one school, why shouldn’t it work in schools across the board. Yet the ‘best systems’ that have been introduced seem to only be temporal constructions. There has not been one best system that has been able to be sustained over time. We keep looking for that magic fix that will solve all the perceived problems in education. Why?

In thinking about our current predicament, I am reminded of a talk by Ken Robinson, “Changing the Education Paradigms.” It begs the question ‘Can we do better?’ What would happen if we essentially blew up the current ‘one best’ system of education? If we were to essentially start over, would the goal be to re-create another ‘best system’ or is there a lesson to learn from our history? Is it possible to blend centralization and local autonomy to create a network of best systems?

We know that children learn differently. We are imploring our teachers to differentiate their instruction to meet the needs of their diverse learners. Why would we settle for the one best system? It would only seem logical that we create a variety of systems, so that students could select a school that was the best fit for them, as an individual learner. Yet we are then faced with the roadblock of how to ensure that all students are actually learning; an issue currently addressed by standardized tests to generate outcome measures upon which comparisons can be made across schools. But what if different types of learning aren’t best measured by a standardized test? Does a network of best systems require a network of best assessments?

The Power of Picture Books

Lately I’ve been thinking about picture books, and the collective power of children’s literature. Having semi-recently switched jobs from children’s to reference librarian @ local public libraries, I’ve missed being surrounded by kids, their books, excitement, curiosity, and yes, sometimes reluctance.

About a week or so ago, I had the opportunity to meet with the owners of a fabulous local, independent, children’s book store. Meeting with them  got me thinking about the power of children’s literature. Reading a book as a child can have a profound impact on who that child grows up to become, influencing them in a way that reading later in their life cannot. Their store creates this sort of magic. By connecting children with books and characters that are ‘just right’ for them on an individual level.

In the learning environments I’ve worked and taught in, I’ve attempted to create those connections too. I absolutely love anything remotely related to children’s literature and am always looking to infuse it into my students’ learning. I love the challenge of finding that ‘perfect’ book for the reluctant reader who would rather be doing just about anything else but then becomes completely captivated and engrossed in his/her reading.

I have spent entire summers teaching, where every single lesson was somehow connected to a piece of children’s literature-picture books, read-alouds, etc. We had tons of fun and I would venture to guess that those kids learned a few new vocabulary words along the way. Yet many of school environments I’ve encountered don’t share this enthusiasm towards creating readers (students who are proficient in reading is another story).

I cringe (and sometimes create compelling research-based arguments) when a school I’m spending time in decides to cut their time spent reading aloud or independently in favor of skill/drill tactics to improve their test scores. Do you remember a favorite book or character from something you read or that was read to you as a child? I bet that that memory does not involve a character found in the pages of a test at school. If the only characters and stories that children are connecting with are found in the reading passages of standardized tests-what kind of people are we hoping to build?