Friday, September 4, 2009

School Starts Next Week--Time to Get Real About Innovation

Writer's Note: This blog post is inspired by the upcoming first day of school. Having spent the summer reading, reflecting, and generally thinking big & abstract, reality set in when I had to wrestle with a photocopier earlier this week. This post is my attempt to link some big ideas about educating innovatively with some practical considerations, programs, and technologies I'll be using and writing about this year. It is my hope that this begins a conversation towards identifying the fundamental skills and values we will need as netizens.

by Dana Lawit

Live from the the Whitestone bridge this post comes to you as I sit on a bus to Boston which has wireless internet. I'm able to use my 4-5 hour journey to follow up on email, do some planning, and figure out how I'm going to get from the train station to where I'll be staying. 5 years ago I sat on the bus to Boston with different tools. book and an iPod to keep me company. In just a few short years it is clear, the world is changing.

Today, employers expect their employees not only can use Microsoft Office, but many Web 2.0 applications that connect and support collaboration. Students gain most of their information instantly from laptops. In our personal lives, we tag ashare photos with our grandparents on Facebook and track down friends from elementary school that we haven't spoken to in years. Technology is enabling us to curate our public and private lives.

The world is changing is nothing new, but I suspect that the rate of change is accelerating. This is problematic for those of us working in schools. On my bus ride 5 years ago, I never would have speculated that today I would be able to writing this blog post. And even now I'm behind the times, I'm writing from my clumsy PowerBook; I don't even have a SmartPhone. Which makes me wonder:

How do we prepare our students for an ever-changing world?

In trying to answer this question, I came upon Project New Media Literacies, a research initiative out of MIT's Comparative Media Studies program. The project's white paper outlines new essential skills:
  1. Play— the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving
  2. Performance— the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery
  3. Simulation— the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes
  4. Appropriation— the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content
  5. Multitasking— the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details.
  6. Distributed Cognition— the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities
  7. Collective Intelligence— the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal Judgment— the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources
  8. Transmedia Navigation— the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities
  9. Networking— the ability to search for,synthesize, and disseminate information
  10. Negotiation— the ability to travel across diverse communities,discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.

Of these skills, what is new? And what is missing? These skills echo Bloom's Taxonomy (introduced in the 1950s) higher order thinking skills of evaluating and creating. Following the 1983 release of A Nation At Risk: The Imperiative for Educational Reform, schools were called upon to focus on "critical thinking" to better prepare students for a new and changing workplace. So perhaps the skills themselves aren't as novel as the setting in which we ask ourselves and our students to apply them.

So then what is missing? If one of the functions of education is to prepare citizens to contribute to the communities in which they reside, then how are we to prepare netizens? Beyond skills, what are the values and understandings students need to contribute to the virtual communities in which they thrive? Here's my tentative list:
  1. equity- we must expect and demand equal access to information and technology
  2. creativity- individuals must be driven to find solutions and ways of expression despite limitations
  3. responsibility - we are connected to our natural and virtual surroundings and the other individuals who populate them

So how will all of this inform my practice? This year I plan to do the following:
  1. have conversations with my colleagues and students about how they use technology. What uses enhance our life? --stronger collaboration and sharing of information, connecting with friends. What uses cause stress and potential threats?-- my relationship with our school's photocopier, online safety, privacy and the security of information.
  2. make stuff. And help others do so as well. Technology clearly has the potential to engage kids. Armed with a flip video camera, digital voice recorders, I plan to capture some of the great moments of learning--recording a student performance, creating video art, documenting field work...
  3. make time for play. Show students enriching and engaging ways to use the internet (Pandora and GrooveShark instantly come to mind). I plan to find time during advisory to talk to kids about multitasking and using the web to work faster and smarter. They'll need to experiment and play.
  4. reflect and connect. I will be writing about many of these initiatives on this blog, hopefully you will continue to share yours
Even though the world is changing more quickly than before, it has always been changing much faster than schools have kept up with. Innovation, is our attempt to close that gap.


  1. These are very practical thoughts for this time of year and I’m thankful to Dana for getting them out in such a thought provoking post (Disclosure: Dana and I work together and I’m a big fan of her work). One thing that sparked for me when I reflected on her question of “What’s missing” is the issue of the dark side of multi-tasking for many of today’s youth (and adults for that matter) - which is distraction. We’ve been seeing more and more findings on the toll unhinged multitasking can take on our safety (texting while driving/operating a train/etc) as well our concentration (see: Urban Dictionary: frazzing). I think one of the essential skills, therefore, has to center around some idea of technological discipline. We need to figure out better how to help students take advantage of the technical tools at their disposal without using them as an excuse to avoid doing work that requires uninterrupted attention to task. Without this, I think we are going to be hard pressed to really get them engaging with the other essential skills in any meaningful or quality way

  2. Mr. Brown, thank you for your insightful feedback and attention to a deeply interesting topic of the dark side of multi-tasking. I too have read about this, but I can’t help but wonder if there is also a bright side of multi-tasking, or even if multi-tasking must be categorized into different types. Texting or talking while driving is clearly dangerous regardless of who is doing it, but driving alone requires all sorts of multitasking to take place from the mechanics of simply driving the vehicle, to being aware of other cars around, watching signs, taking weather into account, etc. So, focused multitasking, designed toward meeting a goal, I contend is different that doing two very different tasks.
    This is personally important for me because I notice my brain operates differently than that of most adults and closer to that of students. When an adult comes by my computer and sees all that I am working on, they often comment that it leaves their head spinning. During my recent preparation for a keynote to ELL educators I found myself with over a dozen websites, tools, resources, and documents open on my computer and I seamlessly moved through them all and at different times while I had the music on, TV on, IMed, EMed, and BBMed with others to get feedback, ideas, and encouragement and I also called upon my friends from Twitter and Facebook (who were tremendously helpful-thank you all) to help me put this together. In the end I have what I think is a very nice presentation and soon-to-be-published blog post.
    I fear that if we group multi-tasking as categorically bad, students (or adults) who operate like me will be at a loss. I think it may be important to caution against adults thinking the same rules apply for digital immigrant adults as they do for our digital native students. There is a growing body of information saying this is not the case. An excerpt from Marc Prensky points to the fact that “Some have surmised that teenagers use different parts of their brain and think in different ways than adults when at the computer. We now know that it goes even further—their brains are almost certainly physiologically different.” (,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part2.pdf). As Prensky also shares when speaking to groups, “Many students feel they have to power down at school.” While there can be a dark side to multi-tasking, I instead prefer to ask innovative educators to take a look at the bright side and help enable these multi-tasking teens to focus their work. To make this request we have to ensure their teachers are knowledgeable enough themselves to be able to guide them effectively. I hope some of the ideas in this blog will help toward that end.