My Professional Journey circa 2015


My goal has long been to help educators and schools nurture meaningful student achievement.  Often this includes a conceptual shift from teacher-delivered lessons to student-driven learning.  I’ve spent decades working on this problem and would like to use this post to describe how I’ve come to what is a new chapter in my professional life.

The Past

This journey begins when I was a classroom teacher, integrating word processing, multimedia and desktop publishing into circa 1990s high school English classes. District technology mentorships and other recognition at the time indicated that my attempts were viewed positively. Yet I was fortunate enough to work as an occasional teacher education instructor at the time which exposed me to the latest learning theories. These helped me see the fil-bluewebnweaknesses in my classroom units and inspired me to get a Masters degree in Instructional Design.  After almost a decade I left the classroom because I wanted to focus on creating the best learning experiences I could.  This was the period, 1994-97, was when I worked with Professor Bernie Dodge to develop the WebQuest approach and I went on to articulate other formats to integrating the Web into rich and authentic learning experiences.  I mention this phase of my career because it relates to this post’s topic in two ways.  First, Understanding by Design was the assigned text for one of the courses Bernie and I team taught, thereby immersing me in the work of Wiggins and McTighe early on. Second, you can see that my focus was on designing and developing classroom learning activities: thus curriculum, not technology.  More about why this is significant shortly.

 As the Years Passed

After leaving the university and moving to Australia, it was only natural to keep developing Web-based learning strategies. This early flurry of work included model activities like Searching for China and Eyes on Art as well on the online design environment called Web-and-Flow. My main audience were other “pioneers” in Web-based learning and authentic education and we wanted to “push the boundaries” to create inspiringly rich and meaningful learning activities for our students.  But there was a problem.  And the problem has only grown as technology has gone from “emerging” to “ubiquitous.”  The problem is that to make any real difference, “rich and meaningful learning activities” can’t be a “one-off” or something students did in 6th grade with Ms Tech-Savvy.  The problem is analogous to when one teacher tries to enforce a rule the rest of the staff tacitly ignore: students adapt to the dominant culture.  So many early adopters of ICT-enhanced learning discovered that most students had learned and preferred the easy path of “playing school: you pretend this is learning and we’ll pretend to learn.”  Back in 2001 I explored this challenge in an article titled “Re-Tooling Schooling” and it denotes a shift in my thinking and focus.  Yes, I want students in a classroom to engage in great learning activities, but as someone who wants to make a real difference, I realised that the only solutions from this point on had to be systemic.  If a whole school or system wasn’t transforming itself, the spirit of inquiry would find it hard to flourish in a culture of passivity.  So where are we now?

The Present (The Problem)

Unfortunately, as technology has gone from emergent to ubiquitous, it has failed to make significant differences in shifting schools from teacher-delivered lessons to student-driven learning.  I have two theories for this.  The first I call “tech’s appeal” and fully intend the rhyme with sex appeal. Because of the amazing advances we’ve all experienced through new technologies, we’ve been smitten by a kind of collective mystique that some new gadget or software will achieve the desired transformation.  We’re blown away that Walkmen have become iPods that have become smartphones that have become cameras that have become GPS transmitters that have become friend finders, that have become watches, that will become…?  So in education we swoon before tech’s appeal, wanting to believe the same magic will transform school-based learning. We fall for the allure and buy computer labs, videodisc players, CD-ROM encyclopedias, interactive whiteboards, iPod Touches, clickers, iPads, eTexts, course management systems, and try HTML, blogs, QR codes, YouTube, podcasts and TED Talks.  And on and on…  But things haven’t changed fundamentally.  Maybe the technologies aren’t really “there” yet, but there’s a second problem besides blind faith in the power of technology.

The Second Problem

Education has Attention Deficit Disorder.  I base this on the multiple messages I receive everyday from my educational networks. Posts, links, tweets and emails buzz constantly about “the new:” gadgets, apps, ideas.  The current flavors are PBL, STEM/STEAM, Maker Movement, coding, gamification…  Don’t get hung-up on these examples because they are no better or worse than the dozens of others that buzz about the press daily. Over the years other such ideas have borne the weight of high expectations for improving schools: flipped classrooms, PLNs (Personal Learning Networks) or SOLEs (Self Organising Learning Environments). Rather than change education, these good ideas and frameworks have probably yielded nothing more than Educational Attention Deficit Disorder.  See if you don’t feel like our friends below:


How are we meant to engage in any substantial transformation when we’re buried by a stream of constant “good ideas” and “necessities?”  We have to focus.  And be honest: if an easy answer or silver bullet solution were out there – one that really produced the results we want – in this age of instant communications we would all hear about it and re-tweet exponentially so that schools everywhere would be transforming with the virality of funny cat animations. So what is the honest truth?

The Honest Truth

Like any human organisation, education is a complex endeavour with many interconnected parts. Even knowing where to begin the work of transforming schools is a challenge. The video above illustrates that. So the problem is not a shortage of good ideas. After many years wrestling with this, I’ve come to believe we lack three things: a focused vision, a worthy process and sustained effort.

A Focused Vision

I’ve written elsewhere about recommended steps and benefits of clear and focused vision, so I won’t labour the point here, but let’s highlight the obvious: unless we’re sure where we’re headed, we’ll never get where we want to go.  The twists and turns, detours and distractions, are too numerous.  Similarly, if everything’s urgent, we’ll never get to the essential.

 Understanding and other worthy processes

The business world long ago realised the importance of a process for continuous improvement. Things like Total Quality Management (TQM) turned Japanese cars from flimsy to first-class in a generation. Unfortunately, most schools continue to operate based mostly on habits and engrained patterns.  Being the complex places they are also makes it tough to know which processes to use as the lever for change.  Amidst the buzzing of new ideas and Ed Tech ADD distractions, it probably sounds like the oldest, most boring solution, but there is one aspect to schooling that touches every student and teacher in every grade level and course: our curriculum. Unfortunately, I’ve found that an impoverished definition of curriculum often prevents this powerful tool from realising its potential.  Start with the vision: what amazing things do we want our students to achieve?  what does successful achievement look like?  Let’s make authentic performance of these achievements the heart of our curriculum.  To encourage success, let’s be specific about success criteria and provide samples of such achievement by previous students.  These measures are the kind of assessments that guide students and empower their ownership of learning.

jmctighe-tmarch-bangkokEducation is fortunate that we have evidence-based processes to use.  My preferred frameworks are Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding and Schooling by Design®, Robert Marzano’s High Reliability Schools and integrations of research by folks like John Hattie and the team at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.  Each provide processes that, used over time with quality-reviews, can empower a school’s continuous improvement.

My Best Chance to Make a Difference

Having arrived at this point, 2013-2014 was a period where I explored avenues where I could apply the above learnings to make the biggest difference.  This included a time in Cambodia working on the senior education team at a lapp-farewellrge NGO as well as focused-upskilling on my part with Jay McTighe who’s been generous and gracious in supporting my expertise in Understanding by Design to the extent that I am now a member of the McTighe & Associates Consulting group and we have co-authored an article.

However, as a pioneer (e.g., Filamentality) and believer in the power of smart software to accelerate what I call Next Era Ed, I entered into discussions with companies who support a richer view of curriculum.  My thinking was that working for the right company on a good team who was committed to evolving a “smart digital environment,”  I would be in contact with many more schools in an ongoing partnership as they develop their use of the software to continuously improve the achievement of their vision.  Fortunately, through a lucky synchronicity of timing and opportunity, I joined Hobsons at the beginning of 2015 as the lead consultant for teaching and learning.  What set Hobsons Edumate apart edumate-logowas that rather than only curriculum mapping, they offer a unified system of what I call “closed loop” curriculum: vision > unit design > online learning space > rich student assessment > back around to vision and unit design with revisions based on students’ actual performance.  So more than a “written” curriculum, we move past the “taught curriculum” and capture the “learned curriculum.”   In my role I essentially provide my “strategic friend” consulting, but also influence software design and help school leaders with pedagogical integration and change management.

After working mostly alone since starting in 1998, it’s a joy to be part of an enthusiastic team, driven by a passion for helping schools to authentically move from “schooling” and “teachers” to “learning” and “students.”  We’ve wanted this for decades and now, with 1:1 devices and evidence-based pedagogies, we can make the dream a reality.

Focus: Treatment for Education’s ADD

Reflections on treating Educational ADD

Here are four suggestions for dealing with the Attention Deficit Disorder that may keep your school from articulating its vision, its real purpose for existing.

1) Stop believing in silver bullets – Like any complex human endeavor, especially one that’s been practiced in a fairly specific way for decades, there is no single, easy, fix.  Because technology is so amazing, it’s understandable that we imagine some new gadget/software/environment/etc. could come along to instantly transform our schools into what we want them to be. But here’s a reality check: it’s just not going to happen. Let’s stop waiting for miracles and get to work creating one.

2) Don’t Jump to Solutions – All these great ideas that people come up with tend to be strategies designed to solve particular problems. Using them without considering the big picture is like taking someone else’s prescription because it works for them.  Or think about it in the military sense of “winning the battle, but losing the war.”  Schools are far too full of strategies that end up running at counter-purposes to each other. We initiate iPad programs and ban phones from classrooms.  We engage students in making Public Service Announcement videos, but block Tumblr. We deploy Khan Academy but don’t challenge students to apply mathematical understanding in authentic tasks.  So don’t even worry about, let alone debate or implement, new strategies until you’ve really dealt with #2 below.

3) Focus on your Vision – The incessant flow of “new ideas” assures distraction, perfectly illustrating the oft-quoted “Chinese Curse:” May you live in interesting times. Caught in the blur of the new, Education puts no attention on the significant.  What is the purpose of your school?  A purpose that every teacher, student, parent and community member knows, lives and breathes.  This is not a workshop brainstorm and a tagline on school stationery, but a systemic exploration and validation of your institution’s DNA. One fantastic attribute of the 21st Century is that we don’t all have to be the same.  Slavish uniformity is out and flourishing excellence is in.  So what will be your school’s claim to excellence?  Developing a real vision for your school will not be the product of an after school PD session (although it might start there), but rather a long-term effort that includes input from present and past students, parents and a wide-ranging exploration of what challenges and opportunities await our students throughout their lives.

4) Build a Curriculum that Realizes your Vision – Lucky for us, we have a means to achieve our vision. And, in the buzzing of new ideas and Ed Tech ADD distractions, it probably sounds like the oldest, most boring solution: our curriculum. It’s something that touches every student and teacher in every grade level and course.  Unfortunately, I’ve found that an impoverished definition of curriculum often prevents this powerful tool from realizing its potential.  Start with the vision: what amazing things do we want our students to achieve?  what does successful achievement look like?  Let’s make authentic performance of these achievements the heart of our curriculum.  To encourage success, let’s be specific about success criteria and provide samples of such achievement by previous students.  This is the kind of assessment that guides students and empowers their ownership for learning.  None of this will happen over night and none of it is easy.  But nothing in teaching is easy so why not focus on what will make a real difference?

Free eBook Launched

Brutal_Truths_coverI’d like to announce the official launch of my new eBook, Brutal Truths for Schools.  For those who have seen me present, this eBook is part one of my “It’s broken, so Let’s Fix it” theme.  I thought I’d put all the “bad news” (it’s broken) into one work.  This way, it’s a starting point for those who haven’t confronted the reality that, as the sub-title states, “Education Fails Students in our Digital Age.”

My thinking is that the main readers will come from three audiences.  First, anyone new to the profession or in a teacher ed course currently.  These folks need to know that the schools of their near future do not need people who will prop-up a broken model, but who will grow into the next era of education where schools promote intrinsic motivation and personal learning.  The second audience is educational leaders who are already advocating and realizing the power of digital learning, not assembly line schooling.  You folks might find something useful in my 10 Truths.  Lastly, those teachers – whatever their age or years in teaching – who refuse to confront reality and grow their practice.  For these folks, the Truths are indeed brutal.

I encourage you to download the eBook for FREE and view it on your iPad or Mac laptop.  There is a Kindle version, but it is text only and will cost you .99 cents.

Please use this blog post, twitter or the user reviews at the iTunes store to give me feedback.


Engaged is Nice, but not Enough

What do Students Need to Succeed?

When students have 1:1 access to digital resources, the traditional role of the teacher as information source is “disintermediated.” This doesn’t mean that students never need a teacher, or that educators don’t have a critical role in 21st Century learning, but it acknowledges that a good portion of student learning will take place via 1:1 interactions with digital resources and environments. You may be an evangelist of self-empowered learning and think this is great or you may be a champion for the classic bodies of knowledge and cringe at the missed opportunities and misunderstandings that await unguided innocents. Both views are slightly beside the point: students will and do directly access the world’s wealth of information – whether we like it or not has no impact on the reality.

What we must do is analyze the situation to determine, “Okay, if this is the way it is, what will help students be successful?” I suggest three traits: self-initiative, critical thinking and an appetite for lifelong learning.


Without self-initiative, no one’s really driving the cursor. Without larger goals and a little focus, the digital world is hardly more than the latest, greatest “timesuck.”  Conversely, those who take advantage of online opportunities have a purpose and put their interest into action.

Critical Thinking

The second necessary trait for disintermediated learning is critical thinking. In the early days of the Web, people quickly recognized the unreliable nature of what’s published when anyone can write and post a Web page. As examples, we highlighted sites on Martin Luther King, Jr. served by white supremacists and the imminent agricultural threat to the world’s Velcro crops. With the coming of Web 2.0 and an explosion of user-generated content, these Web 1 cautions look reassuringly obvious in a world of blogs, wikis and videos. Thus the ability to analyze and evaluate what we read, see and hear is essential. But another dimension of critical thinking is ultimately more important than deciphering veracity and reliability. This is the ability to learn. The aspect of critical thinking required here is the richer notion of “making meaning.”  It involves what many have termed “habits of mind,” “dispositions of thinking” or “dimensions of learning.”  Each of these robust contributions to pedagogy vary in the particulars, but share an appreciation that thinking is a complex activity that invokes an array of attributes. Critical thinking in the Digitial World is not a simple formula for “evaluating Web sites.”

Lifelong Learning

The third trait necessary to succeed in a 1:1 digital environment is an appetite for lifelong learning. As important as we feel our subjects and content areas are, the new reality is that students live in a 24/7 connected world where the only certainty is change. What we define as essential learning will go through infinite permutations over the next decades. If content doesn’t change due to new discoveries in the arts and sciences, the methods for engaging with the learning will certainly evolve as it has already from clunky online courses to slick personalized feeds. To be successful, our students need to be open to such opportunities, even welcome change as a means to rewarding and ongoing growth.

So self-initiative, critical thinking and lifelong learning are essential. Without the first, this richest library since the days of Alexandria is lost. Without the second, it’s meaningless. Without the third, there is no future. Students who lack the characteristics to be self-learners will blob along blithely into adulthood. Because we care about students and want to do our part, we ratchet-up our resolve and do what we do best. But here’s the problem. “Teaching” is useless in helping students become self-initiated, critical thinking, lifelong learners. Can you “teach” someone to take initiative? While we might teach some critical thinking strategies, the more complex and idiosyncratic aspects of making meaning don’t fit into a fifty-minute, five-step lesson plan. Finally, the desire to pursue learning for a lifetime isn’t an instructional event. Thus, the most important keys to student success in the digital era aren’t helped by what we do best. So what do we do? Fortunately our colleagues in university research centers have some answers that we’ll explore in the next chapter. But before that, to validate the traits that I’ve suggested students need to be successful, let’s look at what’s already happening…

The Web disrupts (20th Century) “Learning”

If you don’t believe we need a different approach to “teaching” given the richness of the Web and digital technologies, take a look at three ways the Web has already undermined a “teaching” approach to “learning.” If mass production is the model and information the piece that needs attaching, then it makes sense to determine success by measuring how much of the new information is ultimately attached or transferred. With something concrete like information, content or correct answers, we know exactly what we are looking for. From the earliest days of the Web, we could see three aspects inherent in this new medium that would undermine the notion that demonstrating possession of new information or right answers indicated learning. These are: facile plagiarism, spot knowledge and the information explosion.

Exponential Plagiarism

For the current purpose, it’s obvious that the Web facilitates plagiarism: new information or correct answers no longer necessarily come from within the student, but could have just as easily been retrieved for the teacher without altering any synapses in the minds of the learner. New industries have been built attempting to detect plagiarism, and while sophisticated data mining and analysis is fundamental to the Digital Age, using the power of technology to prop up a decidedly limited vision of “knowledge” is a waste of time and effort. As educators we should invest our professional expertise in revisiting our goals for learning and devising tasks that require more than copy/paste keystrokes to complete.  We’ve had the Web for about two decades – what was that earlier remark about human institutions being slow to change?

Spot Knowledge

The second way the Web undermines a “learning as the recitation of answers” view is what James Fallows calls “spot knowledge.”  This highlights a positive attribute of the Web where, a decade after inception, enough people have posted every different kind of knowledge that, to quote the Urban Dictionary, we can “access unanticipated areas of knowledge quickly and efficiently.”  Thus, unlike the problem with plagiarism, spot knowledge doesn’t challenge how we check for achievement of learning, but calls into question the very nature of what we’re asking students to do. Learning is a cognitively taxing endeavor. Whether you look to Piaget’s assimilation and accommodation, Bloom’s taxonomy or later theorists’ construction of meaning, all emphasize that developing new knowledge is hard work. Given the degree of difficulty – and the relative ease of accessing spot knowledge – don’t we owe it to our students to be very careful and selective about what information actually needs to reside in the minds of learners and which can live just as happily “out sourced” or available “on-demand?”  On days when cynicism gets the better of me, I relax in appreciation of the “Forgetting Curve,” the century-old understanding that reveals that without repetition or reinforcement of what is newly learned, we forget 80% of it. On less cynical days I appreciate just how important it is for us to choose wisely and teach effectively so that the remaining 20% is significant and worth remembering. Regardless, it’s the rare curriculum initiative that recognizes the reality of easily accessed spot knowledge and instead we see vested interests continue to heap-up the content of already bloated syllabi and curricula.

Information Explosion

The third way the Web undermines current assembly line concepts of learning relates to the two previous, but presents a different challenge. Yes, a basic information acquisition approach invites plagiarism. And Spot knowledge calls into question the appropriateness of asking students to commit large amounts of easily accessed information to memory. But, thirdly, the very explosion of information that makes plagiarism easy and spot knowledge accessible also highlights an essential skill this new environment requires and we would be remiss if we didn’t address. The need to sort and make sense of this explosion also points us in a better direction for using the Web to support classroom-based learning. When so much information is so readily available, accessing it is nowhere near as important as doing something with it once you’ve found it. Thus rather than repeat back little bits that are easy to cheat on and just as easy to forget (or find when you might happen to need them), making something from this wealth of information and adding it to a growing body of knowledge that is personally meaningful and useful becomes not only a good idea, but essential. Essential that is, if we are to help students do something worthwhile with this new default of 1:1 digital access.

The Web Requires Real “Learning”

This section started with the assertion that successful learning in a rich digital environment requires self-initiative, critical thinking and an appetite for lifelong learning. Having just seen how plagiarism, spot knowledge and the information explosion are (not) being dealt with in most classrooms and curricula, notice how the three line-up.  If students today, in our 20th Century schools had positive self-initiative, plagiarism wouldn’t be an issue.  Certainly acts of plagiarism may tap into self-initiative, but this is to circumvent uninspiring and extrinsically motivated tasks.  Similarly, spot knowledge becomes the raw data for critical thinking if we cared to alter our assignments.  Finally, in a world where accessing exploding information is like “sipping from a firehose,” the best option for managing the overflow is as a lifelong learner whose interests shape the data as needed.  Even though developing students with these positive traits has always been worthwhile, it looks like it took the Web throwing a wrench into the Assembly Line to make it necessary.

A sad fact is that while schools can make the curriculum adjustments to support such cognitive development, they play an active and tragic role endangering students’ mental health.  We explore this serious threat in the next chapter.

13 Reasons Why Digital Learning is Better

What’s so Good about Digital Learning?

The following section moves through an extensive list of some of the main aspects that make digital learning different – and better – from what we might be used to. You may be very familiar with some of the items that follow and less so with others so the purpose here is to give us all a common foundation upon which to later draw.  Please use the comments link to add your thoughts and anything I’ve missed.

Richer Resources

The first identifiable benefit of digital learning comes from digitization itself. When media shifted from analog to digital – from movie reels and cassette tapes, books and posters, worksheets to Web sites – the very resources for learning were transformed. Like many, I was slow to pick up on the significance of this digitization. Until I experienced the World Wide Web. Even in its earliest incarnation of straight hypertext and static images, I “got” that combined with the delivery platform of the Web, digital resources opened a new era for humankind. This is no overstatement. Comparable to the Gutenberg press, the Web has continued this “flattening of the hierarchy,” putting in the hands of everyone what was once available only to the elite. An early example was the Web Museum, posted by Nicolas Pioch in 1994, which shared Wikipedia-like information and images celebrating the greats from art history. Now anyone with an interest could survey art through the ages from any Net-connected computer. Led by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, we have gone from a postcard-sized scan of the artwork to gain the ability to zoom into the finest of brushstrokes without losing clarity. I’ve used the visual arts as a case study to demonstrate a Gutenberg-like transformation in access from the few to the many. As previously mentioned, one principle benefit of digital learning is disintermediation, the ability of learners to connect directly with what they want. Those of us with any years behind them, can recall having to pay for a tape or transcript of an interview heard on public radio where now these and more appear free of charge via podcasts in digital audio & video splendor. From interactive Flash learning objects for primary students to online simulations and games for middle schoolers and even bridging senior students to courses and lectures at the world’s finest universities, a clear vision, appropriate for 2020, of what our students can achieve must include how access to such a wealth of resources change upgrade our expectations.

Customization & Personalization

We have already observed one key element of the Digital Era seen through the lens of the Ford Motor Company. In Henry Ford’s day, decreasing the time and cost of production enabled the “common man” to join the motoring world. Now that the world is full of cars, empowers people to design and “build” something uniquely their own. In the same way, one of the key elements the digital learning enables is the personalization and customization of not only learning resources, but also the very experience of learning itself. In the first instance, by the time you read this, specialized search engines will be embedded in online learning systems that modify results and resources based upon individual profiles. Previous searches, reading levels and expressed interests will factor into a refined list of resources tailored to the learner.

Cognitive Tutors

More significant are the current early attempts to customize the learning experience itself. One example in this area are the cognitive tutors and interactive skill-building software that goes far beyond early software based on “Drill and Kill” for right answers. If we recall Bloom’s research showing the positive impact of one-to-one tutoring from teachers, it’s not surprising that programs could be written that emulate the best of a teacher’s ongoing modifications based on a student’s ability. A second instance of digital technology’s ability to personalize classroom learning can be demonstrated by the service offered by Wireless Generation, a company that provides a reading program for schools. Students’ performance on one day is processed overnight so the next day teachers are delivered instructional activities targeted to address specific learning gaps. More will be explored in the last section on Smart Digital Environments, but for the purpose of the current topic, it’s clear that personalizing and differentiating learning is a core benefit available to us in the next era of school-based learning.

Engagement and Interactivity

Related to, but different from, the personalizing power of technology is its interactivity and how this increases user engagement. Little needs to be said about the contrast between passively sitting in class versus controling an experience that provides immediate feedback and leads to new options and decisions. Any hands-on, active learning that challenges students is preferable to passivity. Thanks to Web 2.0, many such experiences are available through a Web browser.  An early example familiar to everyone is Google Maps. Where once we had to wait for a new map to download everyone time we zoomed in, because Google Maps are built in AJAX (Asynchronous Javascript And XML – extensible mark-up language), additional views of the same map are loaded with the first view so that as we move and drag, the preloaded content is immediately available. Many Web sites take advantage of AJAX and Flash so that the Web is now a place to actually do work whether that means is to compose text, edit a video or use tools like Hans Rosling’s Gapminder to depict and interpret data. With such powerful tools available to every digital learner, our vision of what they can achieve needs updating from worksheets and recall to include new productions and knowledge construction or the tools remain only intriguing play things.

100% Classroom Participation

In a similar way, 1:1 digital access also affords 100% participation, because one person’s contribution does not prevent another’s as it does in such common activities as classroom discussions. Synchronous participation of every student is possible when discussions are online. Many of today’s educators can already testify to the benefit of giving everyone a voice, not only the usual handful of willing or lovingly nudged contributors. Digital participation also provides alternative modes of expression because responses can be verbal, written or figurative. Finally, online participation alters one of the most precious commodities in education: time. A five minute digital discussion means five minutes of everyone thinking and formulating responses as opposed to the round robin attempts to get as many voices heard as possible.


One complaint historically made against “computers” is that they isolate people.  I suspect this charge can be dismissed now that, literally, everyone and their grandmother is part of a social networking site. This human-to-human connection enabled by the technology also benefits digital learning. In the last example, we saw a classroom discussion blossom from just a few raised hands to 100% participation. But the benefits continue!  Not only does everyone have a voice, but these voices can communicate, challenge and confer with others at the very same time when collaboration software is used. A range of intriguing Web-based collaborative platforms allow students to build knowledge in real time. Rather than a cacophony of calling out that a teacher must frantically manage if anyone is to be truly heard, online collaboration improves when individuals lend their voice to a shared space. I see this change from the teacher-led to the student-empowered discussion along the lines of change from film to digital cameras. When each photograph consumed film and had to be developed, we attempted to limit how many photos a child took – remember all the blurry, finger-obscured images shot through windows of moving cars? But now with digital cameras, we’ve flipped completely. Take as many photos as you like, because capturing even one great candid adds to the gallery of family classics. In the same way, moderating precious classroom time so as not to waste a limited resource changes overnight to encouraging enthusiastic online chatter with the goal of finding a few epiphanies and insights. These then get shared back to the group as examples of a captured cognitive “Eureka!”

Digital Archives

This line of benefits related to online discussion, naturally leads to another. In addition to facilitating 100% participation, the content of the discussion doesn’t evaporate into the ether, but becomes part of a digital archive that can be revisited, extended and deepened. Forum software, blogs and wikis are simple ways that such discussions can be posted online. Although this facility is as old as the Web, what changes in the Digital Era is that once all students have 1:1 access, such discussions can become the norm, which means that thoughtful responses, extended wait times, threaded discussions and deeper understandings also become the norm.

Global Publication

If we expand the notion of posting one’s thoughts and the power of online collaboration, we encounter yet another benefit of digital learning: global publication. Once students use online tools to share their insights there’s nothing preventing those thoughts from joining a wider community of learners. Young students, led by enthusiastic, child-centered primary school teachers, currently enjoy using a growing range of friendly Web 2.0 applications to publish such things as Voicethreads, Glogs and Vodcasts. Tools such as these seem to appear daily so exactly what they are and do is less important than the fact that very young students already enjoy something very few previous generations of students had ever experienced: producing work for an authentic audience. This is the huge difference between “doing homework” that a teacher will “mark” and knowing that your creations will be viewed by a range of real people. A child is more powerfully motivated to clearly express, execute and polish something if they know it can be viewed and commented on by a grandparent or other students. In this way, the classroom walls dissolve so that students – from the beginning of their formal education – don’t suffer the artificiality of learning in an isolated box.

Online Learning Communities

Combining collaboration and publication naturally evolves into communities of online learners – something that has breathed new life into leading educators’ careers. Used to working in the isolation of a classroom, many teachers have discovered a new world of fellow-travelers in online learning communities. The experience often starts by joining an email list or starting a personal blog or wiki. The interactions then tend to expand to a personal learning network of sympathetic souls who willingly share their obstacles and insights. The vitality that these teachers exude is contagious and a gift to our profession. Mentored by these, students can also enjoy this feeling of connectedness – a feeling that we will see also increases intrinsic motivation.

“Serving the Net”

But motivation for what? As we will see in the section on pedagogy, contributing to something beyond your self leads to feelings of “authentic happiness.”  So the wise educator will leverage technologies’ global publishing capability and channel students’ efforts toward pursuing a meaningful goal. This is beautifully captured in a phrase from Al Rogers, one of the seminal figures facilitating global classroom learning. Al said that he didn’t want students to just “Surf the Net,” but to Serve the Net. I believe this is epitomized in the work of a teacher at Immaculata High School in Somerville, New Jersey. Quoting from the Child Slave Labor News Web site:

 “… the senior U.S. History II Honors class, taught by Miss Joann Fantina, publishes numerous newsletters throughout the year covering many aspects of child slave labor. A new group of students takes over the project each year as the previous class graduates. It is a common interest among the students and is continued enthusiastically year after year.”

Visiting the Web site immediately conveys that this is a pursuit of passion, a public service, not an exercise in Web publishing. Currently 32 student writings are listed with 10? three additional years’ worth in the archive. Although much more could be done to leverage the Web’s power, the Child Slave Labor News is compelling in its effectiveness and simplicity. No teacher could be intimidated by CSLN as it is essentially a posting of essays like those any class of students could write. Child Slave Labor News demonstrates the power of a good idea shared and developed over the years. Proof of this statement is realized by searching for the term “child slave labor.”  Regardless of the search engine used, Miss Fantina and her students’ work comes up first on the list of results. Forget international Non-Governmental Organizations or university research centers. No, a passionate teacher and a bunch of teenagers are the global “Go To” place for seeing what’s posted on the topic of child slave labor. Imagine how these students feel. This is a great touchstone for the kind of authentic learning all students can experience when they make significant contributions to the global learning community. More ideas and examples on “Serving the Net” are provided in the New Routines section.


Traditional research and essay writing are excellent skills to master and will continue as part of the next era in education. This said, a new way to gather information has emerged with the Web. When someone benefits from the accumulated contributions of (often anonymous) others, the process is referred to as “crowdsourcing.”  Examples range from massive collections like Wikipedia, The Gutenberg Project (e-Texts) and Gracenote (the database that magically supplies song titles when you import a music CD). A more recent permutation has accelerated the process. Like any new tech trend, Twitter has attracted media attention, adoration and derision. Love it or dismiss it, what can’t be ignored is that key figures with legions of “Followers” enjoy a new source of collective intelligence. When they have a question or seek input, these leaders can rely on instantaneous contributions. One such leader is David Pogue, a technology writer for the New York Times who provides an endless supply of good-natured reviews and insights. An example related to crowdsourcing was posted back in September of 2009, entitled, “Got a Burning Question? Ask the Net,” in which he says he could rely…

“on Twitter for all my obscure-question-answering needs. Often I’d ask for help on some tweaky Photoshop filter setting or a detail of some 1950’s Broadway show–and sure enough, someone or other would always know the answer.” [1]

Now it’s common for everyone from individual bloggers to international media conglomerates to track Twitter feeds to get the scoop on what’s happening from the real-time source of natural disasters, people’s rebellions and celebrity sightings. Pogue goes on to celebrate a more recent application called Aardvark ( where a more sophisticated approach facilitates connecting ordinary people who have questions with those who can answer them. Clearly crowdsourcing will continue to offers benefits that enhance digital learning and should inform a vision of students as sophisticated participants in the knowledge building process.

Software that Gets Smarter

If work done online creates a digital archive and individuals actively participate in sourcing and construction of knowledge, then leveraging the “data trails” our online activities generate is also a core benefit of digital learning. In addition to the deliberate data that individuals post online, the growing trove of data that accumulates through a user’s online interactions is the next benefit of digital learning. Google’s early accomplishments in this area are akin to Henry Ford’s first moving assembly line. Just as in the earlier industrial era, manufacturers already took advantage of interchangeable parts to enable mass production, but it was Ford’s idea to animate the task by bringing it to a ready line of workers that revolutionized the industry and our world. Similarly, technology companies in our era knew that the data being passively generated by online users held secrets, it wasn’t until Google applied its algorithms that the data could be assembled into meaningful information. Like the preceding benefits mentioned where digital learning provides a more personalized experience, this aspect of data trails is the underlying mechanism that will drive even greater benefits.

Some have referred to this aspect of data mining as “Web services,” “Web 3.0,” “The Semantic Web” and “The Internet of Things.”  The essence of these related concepts, and what powers Google’s success, is that the entire system continues to “get smarter” without human intervention. Web services are applications of machine-to-machine interactions that enable a new iteration of the Web that goes beyond Web 2.0’s capabilities so that appliances on the Internet share information in ways that create new knowledge – all without active human management. To make this abstraction a little more concrete consider how a Google search improves its results through use: as millions of people enter particular keywords, click on certain sites listed, spend time at some sites and interact with a few, the ranking of sites changes over time. Anyone who has spent time using the Google search engine since 2000 has witnessed these improvements.

The Internet of Things

Taking the concept further, we can see how our geographic location becomes a “machine-to-machine” variable: when we search Google Maps from our phones, the engine doesn’t look for every café in the world, but assumes we’re after one in the local area: without any input on our parts, the phone has prompted an “advanced search” and contributed data about our location. This experience is an inkling of what’s in store with the “Internet of Things” that many see in our near future. Just as we had computers in homes, schools and businesses that we then joined by the Internet, we also have a huge array of “computers” in our home electronics, personal devices, cars, “loyalty cards” and home appliances that can also be interconnected to enable object-to-object communications. A simple, only slightly sci-fi, scenario might be that your refrigerator notices you’re low on milk, your car recognizes your location at the grocery store, your loyalty card “sees” that your preferred brand is on sale and your phone suggests you pick up a carton of “Light White” – how were you to know the kids are in the midst of a cookies and milk binge while you’re out on an errand?

Consider the applications for education once learners’ digital trails combine with this “Semantic Web” where “sense” is made from data. Two very general possibilities emerge immediately. First, as already suggested, as students undertake more of their learning online, Smart Digital Environments will “get to know them” as learners. This includes offering resources and experiences increasingly tuned to a student’s abilities, prior knowledge and past successes. This has already been mentioned in the context of cognitive tutors, but in the timespan of a child’s school years, this capability for such systems to “get smarter through use” will become the norm. A second set of applications – and one that will truly alter the teachers’ responsibilities – involves taking over some of the more menial logistical tasks. Much of the time consumed in schools is focused on logistics, not learning: taking attendance, checking homework, marking assignments, compiling grades, communicating student performance to parents, classroom management techniques that keep everyone doing the same thing at the same time…  Gone. Really. What’s more, these largely computational tasks are more likely to be error-free when automated. A more complete exploration of the possibilities follows in the last section of this book on Smart Digital Environments, but for the purpose of setting a renewed vision of “2020” learning – I think we can see some of the potential digital learning makes available to school’s next era.

WebQuest Transformations


I’ve found that there are two main phases to creating and participating in WebQuests.  First there is the whole immersion and information-gathering phase.  Interest is excited and the problem becomes clear so we prepare and soak up lots of new information and perspectives on some specific aspects of the issue.  Although this can sometimes feel challenging because of all the information available, generally, this first phase is an one of engaged and enthusiastic pursuit – there’s lots to learn so we get on with it.

The second phase is different.  It’s a phase we don’t often get to in our Assembly line method of schooling.  It’s the sticky part after information is acquired.  What’s to be done with it?  Do we hold it temporarily, say for an exam, and then left it go or do we want to keep at least parts of it and add it to what might be called our “knowledge.”  You’ve heard of this process many times and with a range of terminology.  Classically, it’s Piaget’s shift from assimilation to accommodation.  Others have referred to it as “construction of meaning.” It’s the “Ah-Ha!” insight that sometimes follows the “Huh?” of cognitive dissonance.  It’s the painful shift from short to long-term memory.  Bloom’s taxonomy and the information literacy processes that embody it might see it as “Synthesis,”  the putting together after of something new from the pieces derived by careful Analysis.  I have come to refer to it as the “transformation of new information into new understanding.”

The problem with this second phase is twofold:  it’s hard work and it’s idiosyncratic. The hard work is because this task is very cognitively demanding – it hurts our heads and often feels like we’re treading water, not sure if we will learn to swim or sink into confusion.  The second problem is the idiosyncratic part – if the process of “making sense” from complex new information is unique to each individual (can you imagine it being any different?), then how do we “teach” it to a big group of students, a classroom of them, for instance?  Wouldn’t it require time?  A lot of one-on-one Socratic mentoring?  How can this work with typical teacher-directed learning when the bell’s about to ring, the semester end and kids are lining up to accept their diplomas?  So it’s no wonder that 80% of WebQuests leave this pesky transformation bit off – but thus aren’t WebQuests. It also why I get a little ranty at Info Lit processes that neatly label a stage “Synthesis” as if giving it a name makes it happen (I like to refer to that tact as the “Insert Magic Here” approach).  

So today’s challenge comes with a rare opportunity – working with a small group of teachers who have already spent two days (Day 1 and Day 2) gathering online resources and brainstorming perspectives on an appropriately complex and rich topic.  Today we will see if we can design for each topic a process that guides a group of students toward the light, to accommodation, construction of meaning, Eureka! and Ah-Ha.  One trick we have up our sleeves is that the best Group Transformation processes flow naturally from the acquisition of new information that has preceded it.  Just like a teacher working with a group of students in a WebQuest, I will be working with a group of teachers facing the same Task: given what I have learned, how do I shape it into a new understanding, representing Knowledge I didn’t have before.  The first requirement for this task is met: we have the time.  The second follows with what I hope is Socratic coaching and online resources to inspire possible solutions.

Please go to the Workshop site to re-read this article and access online support through further readings, examples and tools.

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.”


PLEASE Stop Teaching!

Here’s a passage from my Next Era Ed book I wrote this morning.

What if we could improve students:

  • conceptual understandings
  • retention of information
  • quality of performance
  • achievement
  • interest in pursuing further study
  • mental wellness & self concept
  • sophistication of thinking

What if the methods were “sure-fired” with decades of research at some of the most respected universities in the world?

What if each were backed up by a model that defined effective strategies to ensure success?

Want to review the list again, because I’m about to pose a trick question?

Ready?  Okay, you can improve students learning in all the ways in the list above as long as you don’t do one thing: teach.  Especially in a school.

It seems cruel doesn’t it?

But a few hours later as I am going over a list of ICT Skills generated by a school I work with, I ran across this item that a “teacher” added to the list of “baseline skills.”

  • Teach students how to use the Internet for research purposes, including advanced search functions, keyword choice. etc.

This kind of thing makes me want to scream (and validates my point above).  Can’t we recognize that if we stop thinking “teach” and shift to “learn” that it creates an entirely different (and better!) criterion?:

  • Create a task that can only be achieved when students appropriately use advanced search strategies.

I suppose one main difference is that the first one is very easy…

(please pardon my frustration, but some days the mountain seems awfully steep)


Tom on Ed Tech Crew

Continuing on the NML de-brief, I had a really nice chat with the Ed Tech Crew: Darrel Branson (The ICT Guy) and Tony Richards (from

Here’s the podcast:


Don’t forget to look for links and further discussions on the NML Conference de-brief post itself.

Contemporary Teaching Skills

Hello!  Above is an emerging vision of how to define and support teachers as they develop their “Contemporary Teaching” (and Learning!) skills.  The term comes from MCEETYA, which does a good job of describing what others have called “21st Century” or “ICT” teaching skills.  Please provide feedback on a draft Skills Checklist.