Archive for February, 2011

The Purpose of Education

Today’s post is my contribution to an ongoing project organized by purpos/ed, “a non-partisan, location-independent organization aiming to kickstart a debate around the question: What’s the purpose of education?”  I am honored to have been invited to contribute my response to this question by purpos/ed co-founder Doug Belshaw.


The short answer: to foster growth & independence.

The long answer: In the States, we have an acronym that appears in our federal law governing special education: FAPE, or Free & Appropriate Public Education.  According to federal law, FAPE is what every child who is eligible for special education & related services is guaranteed.  This means that for every student with an identified disability, the school must develop an Individualized Education Plan [IEP] that best meets that student’s needs based on his/her individual strengths and weaknesses.  For some students, this means they are educated in the same contexts as their non-disabled peers with minor accommodations, while others require instruction on basic facets of daily living.  For some students, the most appropriate educational placement for them involves leaving our traditional American high school in order to learn basic employment skills.  Yet other students spend a significant portion of their time in a polytechnic environment, developing industrial skills in an apprentice-like setting.  For all of these students, their formal educations look very different, yet are presumably appropriate to their individual goals.

If working in the world of special education has taught me anything, it is that education can – and probably should – look different for every student.  With this perspective, the question I constantly ask is: to what degree are we providing ALL students – not just those with identified disabilities – with FAPE?  This includes, but is not limited to, re-thinking:

  • physical presence at school – do we all need to be there at the same time, or for the same length of time?  Why?
  • how we structure our day – should we isolate subjects from one another in 40-80 minute chunks?
  • who provides instruction – can students only learn from certified teachers, or was Illich on to something forty years ago?
  • the increasing emphasis on standardized tests in the US that is driving curriculum to focus more on students’ areas of weaknesses instead of their areas of strength, interest, and passion?

My home state of New Jersey is in the midst of piloting a program called Personalized Student Learning Plans, which, roughly explained, applies the concept of the IEP to all students from middle grades (ages 12-13) through high school graduation (ages 17-18).  I will blog about the initial findings soon, but for now I’ll say they look promising in terms of student engagement, student-teacher interactions, and, perhaps most importantly, student ownership of learning and ability to think critically.  When we honor the individual differences inherent in our students, we reinforce the message that they are capable of learning, thus (hopefully) laying the foundation for a lifetime of self-directed learning, or at least problem-solving.

As an educator, but more importantly, as a father, this is the direction in which I want our education system to move.  Let us engage both our students and our children by structuring their formal educational experiences around their passions and strengths, and let us challenge them to become self-sufficient critical thinkers, not expert bubble-darkeners.

Educon 2.3: Focus Question 3

Moving forward, we hoped that this focus question would get our attendees thinking about where to go with all this once they returned home:

What steps / structures can be taken / created to foster improved classroom practice through PLN interactions?

I didn’t see any common themes emerge from these answers (but see below and judge for yourself), but one attendee raised the question (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Why must there be structured steps toward tangible goals?  Can talking/thinking about issues be enough?”  I was sympathetic to this view – I have been influenced in my thinking by several folks in my PLN, but not every philosophical POV translates into specific classroom action.  I would argue, however, that these shifts in mindset will eventually manifest themselves somehow – in the quantity and quality of work assigned, in the decision whether or not to assign homework regularly, and even in how you interact with your students.

I think the SciDo/EngDo collaboratives discussed in my last post are probably the best examples of improved classroom practice as a result of PLN interactions.  It seems that having a more “permanent” (for lack of a better word) structure than the admittedly ephemeral conversations that take place on Twitter is necessary – a wiki to which people can contribute, a Ning such as Classroom 2.0, just something more established than a hashtag chat or random discussion.

See anything in the responses that I’m missing?  Agree/disagree with the need for an established structure like a wiki?  Leave a comment!

Our attendee’s verbatim responses:

* feels natural to translate it
* allowing yourself to fail miserably in front of V-PLN
* challenge yourself
* provide support to teachers who are ‘new’ to social networking.  Make time during school day for this type of engagement.
* Learn to work asynchronously.  Catch kids when they are ready to learn, not when they are scheduled.
* “@ – as much as possible”
* “tweacher”
* how do I find people I want to follow?
* contribute constructively and positively to edu-trends
* triggers from other social interactions – timely
* what is the real value of discussion?
* low opportunity cost!
* if expected value is high, then I will follow up on it
* get to 80%, go, figure out 20% (or more) w/kids
* allowing yourself to fail miserably in front of your v-pln
* challenge yourself
* ask questions and find people (like- and not like-minded) to help you answer them
* get many opinions & views on issues & problems
* my as home page
* “needs to be in front of me or I’ll forget about it”
* greater sharing can lead to greater opportunities for learning “give to get”
* demonstrate the value in connecting
* sharing is caring
* speak up but speak well
* see it -> self-evaluate -> do it
* is just talking about it enough to make you think in new ways?
* start a blog where you reflect & ask questions.  Use it to link up to other educator blogs and start conversations
* vlogging as often as possible
* follow a Twitter chat
* share lessons & resources – request great lessons from other
* join a professional online community
* co-develop methods with your PLN; all implement – focused crowdsourcing
* create an online portal to share resources among staff.  Have a place where colleagues can ask questions and receive feedback.

Educon 2.3: Focus Question 2

What examples do we have of personal learning networks leading to a change in classroom practice?

One group in our Educon conversation managed to group all the responses to this focus question into four main categories:


The proliferation of Twitter-based hashtag chats was mentioned in our presentation, and that resonated with our attendees.  #Spedchat and #BlackEdu were mentioned specifically as far as influencing “how we speak about students” and “finding edunerds of color on social media”, respectively (side note: if you’d like to join the fun on Twitter, see Ben Wilkoff’s excellent resource for keeping track of all edu-related Twitter chats).  The National Writing Project and their Digital_Is offshoot were also recognized as being highly valuable resources that have had significant presences on Twitter and Facebook.


With one of the EdCamp founders in our session, it came as no surprise to me that this grass-roots event – one that started in Philly and has gone nationwide in less than a year – was one of the top examples of a social media-driven face-to-face event for resource sharing, discussion, and professional growth (similar in many ways to Educon itself).  Folks also spoke about learning about existing events such as TEDxNYED through their social media connections, or by attending conferences and extending the conversations that started face-t0-face into the online space, well past the chronological end of the event.

Resource Sharing

The SciDo and EngDo collaboratives were both borne of teachers discussing sharing lesson plans and activities over Twitter.  Given the limitations of the medium, it made sense to move the discussion into action in a different forum altogether, and thus were born SciDo and EngDo.  These wikis, aimed at science and English educators, allow folks to browse, take, and also contribute their best/most fun/most exciting lessons.  Many of the folks involved in EngDo and SciDo also share documents via Google Docs, thereby opening the door to fellow educators to browse, pick, and choose resources at their leisure (and to return the favor to the community as well).

Beyond these two examples, participants talked about resource gained via the aforementioned hashtag chats on Twitter, reading blogs of fellow educators, and participating in Nings such as Classroom 2.0 for resource sharing and discussion.

Collaborative Problem Solving

There was some overlap between this group and the others; again, we see the conceps of soliciting feedback via participation in hashtag chats, Nings, and blogging.  One attendee said that “‘arguments’ or discussions between other people in my PLN help me to clarify my own position on things like “homework”, etc.”, and that’s probably one of the biggest reasons I stick with this.  Even in the “echo chamber”, there is still a multiplicity of attitudes and perspectives, and I rely on them to continually push my thinking and help me to grow and hopefully become a better educator.

Once again, the full list of responses:

* Digital_Is (see NWP)
* Teacher networks #NWP
* #spedchat – how we speak about students
* #blackedu – finding edunerds of color on social media

* Edcamp – ultimate in just-in-time learning
* Found out about TEDxNYED on Twitter & speakers there helped me to clarify positions on:
**attending conferences (eg AASL/NJASL & continuing conversations on Twitter afterward)
**#TEDxNYED Finding ppl who aren’t educators but are allies in innovative educational ideas

Resource Sharing
* #mathchat – pooling best & biggest resources for classroom math
* Ning for asynchronous portion of yearlong PD – classroom practices where ?? skills can flourish
* Dan Meyer’s blog helped 5 students to pass a state exam they had previously failed
* Requests for activities & labs on subjects where my stuff was lacking
* w/Paul Allison & Chris Sloan #NWP
* Ning – exchange lesson ideas and receive feedback
* collaboration from #engchat & #engdo
* #scido collaborative – – resource sharing and collaborative hub
* #hcrhs chat – develop lessons for integrating web 2.0 tools, made interdisciplinary connections that resulted in collaborative units

Collaborative Problem Solving
* #ARCSFloatOn – book reviewers pass on adv. reading copies to teachers
* blogging w/students and gathering feeds on netvibes helped me formatively assess
* #sbg and #sbar
* switched to SBG based mostly on connections/examples thru blogs/Twitter
* Classroom 2.0 – getting assistance w/ed questions re best practices; implementing in classroom
* student 1:1 pilot group
* reworked lessons/units to incorporate web tools and develop inquiry-based lessons/projects
* “arguments” or discussions b/w other people in PLN help me to clarify my own position on things like “homework”, etc

Educon 2.3: Focus Question 1

One question we presented to our Educon conversation attendees was:

What are the major barriers (beyond technical fluency) for social-network based PLN’s to become vehicles for transformative professional development?

Lots of great thoughts on this, and of the three focus questions, probably the easiest to answer.  After all, if there weren’t so many barriers, everyone would be learning via PLNs, right?  Let’s kick it off with the big one (literally and figuratively):

Photo by Ben Wildeboer

It’s not everyday you see a Post-It note re-tweeted, but surely fear of the Internet, fear of the unknown, fear of transparency, fear of accessibility, fear of sharing information, and all other manner of fears act as barriers to PLN involvement.  I certainly struggled with it to a degree when I first became involved in my online professional community, and I have had much prior experience online – I imagine it must be an even more significant barrier to overcome when “all this Internet stuff” is completely foreign to a person.

The “fear” theme was pervasive throughout the responses, but other interesting points were made as well:

  • The term “Personal” may be a barrier – can PD be too individualized, and therefore isolating?
  • PLN-style learning is not always valued by administrators or by the system that requires educators to quantify their learning (e.g., PD hours) – how do we put a number on the discussions we have or the resources we share?
  • Often, schools dictate what is acceptable professional development and what is not – if even structured, “official” PD can be discounted as “acceptable”, what chance does social, informal learning have?
  • PLNs are not PD unto themselves – they can be part of an overall PD plan, but this in & of itself is not enough

I would love to hear your thoughts on these.  If you’re interested (or you attended the session and are curious what everyone said), here’s the complete list of what the crew came up with:

* FEAR (RT @thejlv)
* maintaining status quo
* school policy
* don’t want to “put themselves out there”
* fear of sharing information
* policies dictating what counts as PD
* systems, i/e/ organizational issues
* convince admins of the value of social PD
* overgeneralization
* accessibility, liability, etc
* state/govt mandates
* lack/absence of methods, strategies proposed
* like students, teachers need to be taught (or re-taught) to think
* don’t know where to start
* getting knowledge out of boxes & into classrooms
* communicating ideas effectively for educators AND non-educators!
* Term “Personal” in PLN – is this a barrier?
* misperception
* if it’s not structured by an ‘expert’, it’s not ‘real’ PD
* PLNs are by definition small, focused, & scattered.  They are part of a comprehensive PD plan, but not plan themselves.
* unwillingness to be online
* people being comfortable taking risks and being vulnerable

Educon 2.3: From #chat to #do

This past Sunday, I had the distinct privilege of co-facilitating a conversation at Educon 2.3 at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.  Dr. Eric Brunsell and I spoke about our* research on how teachers use Twitter, and challenged workshop attendees to consider how to take the benefits, both tangible and intangible, of participating in an online Personal Learning Network (PLN), and translating them into actionable professional development.  In other words, what specific good comes of our participation in online communities?

After presenting our findings, we presented our participants with three focus questions to discuss in small groups, carousel-style.  They were:

  • What examples do we have of personal learning networks leading to a change in classroom practice?
  • What steps / structures can be taken / created to foster improved classroom practice through PLN interactions?
  • What are the major barriers (beyond technical fluency) for social-network based PLN’s to become vehicles for transformative professional development?

Our attendees came up with some great responses to each of these prompts.  I had originally planned to synthesize these into a single blog post, but as I sat in the SLA library typing them up on Sunday afternoon, I realized there was too much for a single post.  Over the course of the next few days, I’ll put up three individual posts, each dedicated to one central question and the responses generated.  In the meantime, have a look at the slidedeck that accompanied our presentation:

*Dr. Elizabeth Alderton, Eric’s colleague at University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, is also a member of our research team, but was unable to attend Educon.