The Art of Pursuing Truth: a call to Educators

You might be familiar with this quotation from the master. What’s usually shared is only the first part:

We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth,

Certainly this is the magic of any real work of art, regardless whether it’s painting, sculpture, poetry, prose, music, filmmaking, etc. The artist brings together insight and techniques to communicate something that is usually impossible to communicate in direct statement. Typically, this is because the “truth” of anything of significance is more complex and multi-layered, and these insights on a broader and deeper story are what we can see and feel in the presence of great art.

Or can we?

This is where the ending of the sentence comes in, the one that’s often left off.

at least the truth that is given us to understand.

The “us” in this statement is, of course, the artist, who must have some understanding worth sharing. But this “us” is also “us,” the viewers, the audience, those of us attempting to perceive the artist’s truth. Lived experience is sometimes the only preparation needed, but we can all look to learning experiences we’ve had that developed a more ready foundation to realize the understandings communicated in great art.

And when we have this greater foundation and we can see and feel more, we are more fully human. This is the benefit of a real education and the crime of inflicted education, schooling that isn’t wholly focused on allowing each individual to develop their own richer understandings.

Let’s keep the pursuit of this truth deep in our hearts and the front of our minds as we use what we know works in classrooms: giving students meaningful choices in the development of their education as we support their increasingly sophisticated competence in a culture of mutual respect and growth.

Thanks, Picasso and all the masters who have enhanced our lives.

Political corollary: Interesting that some leaders in my home country today are having difficulty understanding that great work of political art: The US Constitution, and the framers’ emphasis that no one is above the law. Perhaps some missed the lesson plan distinguishing between art and propaganda? Real, rich and relevant education matters.


Quote from a 1923 interview with Pablo Picasso in the New York City periodical “The Arts: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine Covering All Phases of Ancient and Modern Art” as evidenced by The Quote Investigator. Picasso Image from Wikimedia Commons

WebQuests at 20: a lesson in “only new mistakes”


seaching-for-china-0.1I wrote an article last month, The WebQuest: A Parable reflecting on the 20th anniversary of WebQuests (Education Technology Solutions magazine – also available as a pdf). I won’t repeat the article in this post but use what follows to provide a bit of evidence that K-12 education doesn’t need any new ideas, but new mistakes.

Evidence of Missed Opportunities

The heart of the reflection was that I think we’ve missed two decades of opportunities for educational technology in K-12 schools to make a difference, to achieve the goals we had for ICTs to empower authentic, personally rewarding and meaningful learning. As a way to verify this – and to double-check that I haven’t descended into a crotchety middle-aged pessimism – I recently asked a room full of ICT educators and leaders how often they observed the following happening in their school’s classrooms:

  • Essential questions and inquiry drive learning.
  • Students choose their own pathways through content.
  • Students analyse complex topics from multiple perspectives.
  • Learning activities are scaffolded to support differences among students.
  • Students use ICTs as tools for constructing knowledge and creating rich productions.
  • Students work in teams and collaborate with peers online.
  • Students get real world feedback from experts in the field.
  • By the end of every unit students have transformed information into understanding.

You can see the live poll here. The results are in no way a criticism of the people in the audience as I’d wager that this group is more sophisticated in their ICT integration and curriculum than most similar cohorts as they were a self-selected sample of keen educators who chose to attend an EdTech conference.  Here’s what we learned:


Ouch.  Of course the “gotcha” is that each of these teaching and learning bullet points are integrated into every real WebQuest. To verify this, you can take a look at What WebQuests (Really) Are. And these things aren’t radically difficult or cutting edge – and have only gotten easier as technology has becomes faster, more powerful and ubiquitous.  So I think it’s fair to say, as a general summary, that pockets of pioneering educators have ALWAYS done great things, but also, that we’re still far from pervasively improving what’s done across all schools.

I think that what’s heartening is that almost 20% identified that Carol Ann Tomlinson’s (et al) efforts in differentiation have had an impact.  Fantastic!  I have to be a little cynical, however, about the second most-observed aspect of “using ICTs as tools for constructing knowledge and creating rich productions.”  I justify my skepticism on two fronts.  First, again, these responses come from ICT integrators and leaders in the field so are not representative of an average school.  The second hesitation I have is around “constructing knowledge” and “creating rich productions” for which I set pretty high bars.  I see “constructing” as analogous to “understanding” and my work in Understanding by Design with schools indicates that many teachers still don’t have a great sense of the difference between “knowing” and “understanding” – not being harsh, just a reality that springs from mandatory curricula that tend to focus on covering content, not uncovering enduring understandings.  Also, in terms of “creating rich productions” the “richness” I seek is not just in terms of “rich media” which is great, but “richness” of thinking, relevance and authenticity: using technology to transform information into understandings that matter to the students and the world.

Of course the point is that the challenges schools face will not be solved by technology or any “new idea.” Just significant, hard, but deeply meaningful, work. The work, in fact, that only educators can and should do.  So let’s not fret or get too worked up by the latest buzzwords – today’s STEM/STEAM is yesterday’s “Challenge-based learning/ PBL” and last decade’s WebQuests.  This is why I say forget the “new ideas” and focus on making “new mistakes” because the mistakes people are making with STEM and the same they made with WebQuests.  Also, let’s not fixate on things we can’t change (unless you can) like high-stakes tests, government funding, cultural obsessions with technological silver bullets or social scourges.  Let’s keep focused on what we can do to transform our school cultures and curriculum from accepting calendar-based, mass produced teaching to competency-based, personally meaningful learning.

Thoughts?  Leave a comment.


More PISA Support for “Understanding”

The recent release of results on PISA’s new assessment of Problem-Solving skills in participating countries supports a curriculum focused on deeper understanding and being able to transfer those conceptual understandings to new situations. The graph below (and the pages that follow it) illustrate the demand in three representative countries for skills in analysing and problem-solving over performing routine cognitive and manual skills.

PISA-Problem-solving Graphs

Consider referring colleagues in education to this information if they persist in the false belief that society wants students who can recall memorised information of perform basic skills.  As the executive summary of the report states, “In modern societies, all of life is problem-solving.

Visiting Northern Beaches Christian School

Died and Gone to Heaven NBCS

Yesterday I finally got around to something I’ve been meaning to do for over a year.  Ages ago, I began hearing through the grapevine of a school in northern Sydney that was really taking on integration of Moodle.  As few schools were getting beyond the install/die-on-the-vine phase, I filed the name Northern Beaches Christian School away as one to look into.  Then last year, many of the participants at the CEFPI conference I keynoted came back from day visits to NBCS raving about what they had seen.

Finally, when the team I’ve been working with at Launceston Church Grammar School came back from touring several Sydney area schools, they said one that really impressed them was Northern Beaches. Because I’m looking forward to an on-going partnership with Launceston Grammar, this prompted me to make the drive up. So I contacted Anne Knock, director of development, and she generously set up a time when we could chat and she could take me around the school. That was yesterday.

I’m guessing that this a the first of what might be several-to-many posts celebrating the great things going on at NBCS. So I’ll be brief and simply bullet out a few of the things that most impressed me.

  • Every student I saw was engaged. Some were working in groups, others in pairs, some alone.
  • If they weren’t in the industry-standard design & tech work space, art studio or a playing field, students were using their BYO device without any dramas.
  • Teachers were relaxed, respectful and focused on individual or small group learning (meaning – supporting differentiated student learning).
  • Students were relaxed, respectful and focused on individual or small group learning (meaning – pursuing personal growth).
  • Of course the architecture, learning spaces and furniture all announce a game-changing from “playing school” to something different.  It’s refreshing to get out of the school boxes.
  • All of this to say what everyone knows when they spend even a short time at a great school – this is the real thing: the joy of learning’s happening here.

“Buy Focals”

File Under: You Heard it Here First

Over the years I’ve come up with a few “clever coinings” for phrases that capture some new aspect of our technology-enmeshed world. I swear I was the first person I knew to use the term “linkrot” to describe the broken links that invade Web pages. This was back in 1994, but by the time I got around to searching it, many people had been using the term. Most likely this was just the amplification of many minds engaged in a similar online reality so it’s no miracle that more than a few people more-or-less synchronously come up with the same idea. Sort of the typing monkeys coming up with Hamlet’s “To be” sollioquy – given enough monkeys…

Linkrot was followed by a few concepts:

A New 3Rs: instead of Reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic – learning in the Web era should be “Real, Rich and Relevant.”

The New WWW – Whatever, Whenever, Wherever: This is the mobile Web, but with a particular understanding. I published an article on it in Educational Leadership in 2005. The main point being that such pervasive access of immediate gratification – especially for children and teenagers – was that the “Whatever” aspect was not voiced in amazement, but the apathetic “whatever” so often heard by teens and immortalized in the Nirvana lyric: “Oh well, whatever, nevermind.”

Along these lines I also spoke sometimes about “Jiminy Click-it” that little voice of conscience that can’t be heard over the siren song of the New WWW.

Around the era of the invasion of Iraq, mobile phones were becoming more ubiquitous and I referred to them as the most lethal WMD – Weapon of Mass Distraction. And for the past couple years I have posed the question about youth and their digitally connected gadgets: “What do we expect when they are left to their own devices?”

Which brings us to the point of this post (no, it’s not for you to pity my monkey-mind obsession with coining new phrases). I want to (finally) go down on record as the first one to refer to Google Glasses as “Buy Focals.”

The Google Glass Project video points out how utterly helpful these cool specs will be, but, of course, their real intent is to support ubiquitous consumption and know what you want before you do.

Nothing wrong with that – who wants lame search results? But the developed world’s penchant for purchasing could be questioned on an individual basis. Will this happen? How quickly have “smart” phones become pervasive? And isn’t 24/7 access to Facebook and Angry Birds what makes phones so amazing? Such “must haves?”

Then again, I’m the weirdo with no TV or game console in the house (but tons of favorite Web sites, podcasts and apps). Alvin Tofler in Future Shock said that one of the hallmarks of the future (read: “where we are now”) would be that anything would be available for us to choose from – I don’t think he expected us to want it all!


Schizophrenic Ed

File this post in the “It would be funny if it weren’t so sad” category.  Today’s ASCD’s email “SmartBrief” inadvertently juxtaposes two articles that highlight for me exactly what drives me crazy:

Here are the links:

The real question is whether we are working to prop-up Assembly Lines Schools or support individual student learning.  For me the answer is found in today’s date: 19?? or 2012? Nothing more needs to be said.


Education: We’re in the Humanity Business

The following is a passage from a book I’m working on. I wrote it this morning and thought I’d share it to see if people have any comments.  Thanks, Tom —


Clearly we can’t simply drop even the best psychological models and digital technologies into our schools and expect profound improvement. Efforts over the past decades have tried, but if we look through the literature and Web sites, where are all these new schools whose enthusiastic students are busy taking on the world?  With the way everything “goes viral” nowadays, wouldn’t we all be copying these incredible successes? If we were a knowledge-building entity, education would be learning about what really works and continuously improving.

assemblyine-carframeWe can be, we just need a new understanding, a new awareness.  An “Ah-Ha!” Harkening back to Piaget, let’s go through the process: the fact that “technology + assembly line learning ≠ desired improvements” create cognitive dissonance.  Something doesn’t make sense based upon our current understanding.  Instead of ignoring the dissonance, we could get more deeply into the problem, to explore the gray areas, to immerse ourselves in what may feel like chaos, but once encouraged, our human instinct to learn kicks in and we seek to make cognitive connections between the limits of our understanding and the possibility of assimilating new information and thus broadening our understanding, building knowledge.  The “Ah-Ha” came for me when I acknowledged the transformative power of mass production and the moving assembly line and how it has shaped society, including education.  We didn’t consciously ask for this transformation, but once it began, nothing could stop it.  The “Ah-Ha” insight clicked in when I realized what this century’s equivalent of mass production and the assembly line is.  It’s data – from digitized information, to mass customization, to digital footprints and profiling, to smart algorithms that just get smarter through our use. Just as Henry Ford said, we asked for a faster horse, but when the affordable automobile came along, we hopped aboard and never looked back.  Those who lament the unintended negative consequences the automobile has had on society and the environment may envision similar downsides to the next revolution through Data mining, but it can’t be stopped.  Is anyone asking for poorer search results, less engaging entertainment or losing touch with friends?  Just as factories can accost humanity whether in 19th Century England, 20th Century American or 21st Century China, our digital technologies will have their victims while the wider culture embraces what digital data makes available.  I’d like to suggest that the victims are not the few horrible cases where Facebook is used by predators to stalk and lure the innocent and naïve.  Although blared across the media and clearly tragic, the real victims will number in the millions.  And as the world has suffered from the impact of the automobile, another, more analogous revolution, more pertinent to Education and technology’s impact on humanity, is the television.  In some ways TVs were the next revolutionizing product after the car to come off the assembly line.  Like digital technologies, they also provided a platform for entertainment and socializing that was completely different from what went before.  I find it amazing that people will complain about the remote possibility of a child falling prey to Internet-facilitated abduction, but not monitor a child’s access to hours of gaming, chat or surfing.  I saw a chilling example recently in a doctor’s office waiting room.  A young mother waited with a new-born in a stroller while her toddler danced around the chairs, magazine racks, other patients.  This young thing was not being a nuisance, but being a child, seeking something to do.  My complaint is not that the mother didn’t reign-in this free spirit, but that never once did the mother look up from her iPhone and Facebook.  This is what I think people don’t get and makes me harp on and on.  The media loves a good hysteria, but ignores drugs to the masses.

As educators we are in the Humanity business. We can not disconnect from the wider technological and social transformations swelling over the globe.  We don’t have that power.  Just as we couldn’t provide a scalable alternative to the Assembly line school.  What we’ve done is try to humanize this artificial construct as much as we can.  We are better at this in the early years when the system is less artificial – when students aren’t shifted down the conveyor of content areas to the ring of a bell and shuttled off to the next stage, the next classroom and year level.

So while we have no power to stop – and really wouldn’t want to – the next revolution based on digitalized data mining, at this early stage of the transformation, we can have a greater impact than we will be able to once the model and patterns are fully functional and implemented.  Reflect on how difficult it is to even tweak the current model to consider block schedules, inter-disciplinary studies, cross-age learning or team teaching?  Once the dust settles, it will be just as impossible to modify the next model of schooling.  Unless we get involved now, in this early and dynamic, sometimes stressful and chaotic transitionary period, software companies, textbook publishers, teachers unions, politicians, and hardware manufacturers will create “solutions” and they will all target the largest customers, the largest educational systems, those that, because of their size, still embrace and are founded upon “one-size-fits-all” and minimizing risk and failure.  In other words, 20th Century thinking.

As educators, in the humanity business, our challenge is to use the best tools and approaches currently available to effect the changes that we can – what happens in our classrooms and our schools.  This requires taking risks, choosing to do what’s right as opposed to choosing what’s easy or doesn’t create friction to the assembly line.  Let’s not support the myths that “School is Learning,” that “Curriculum is Knowledge,” that “Results are more important than Wisdom.”  Our mass production schools will not be the same by the time our Kindy students graduate Year 12.  Right now, during this little window between eras, we can influence whether “not the same” means “better” or “worse.”


%d bloggers like this: