Posts by: Ben Grey

Proud to Tell our Stories

I get to tell stories as part of my job. Hopefully, you do, too.

I think, sometimes, people forget the power of human story. Or, at least, we forget the power of telling our stories. Especially in education.

There are so many incredible events happening each and every day in and around our classrooms, and as pressed as we all are for time in the present landscape of learning, I hope we can find more time to tell the stories of what we’re getting to be part of. The successes we see in our students. The celebrations we share with our school families. The connections we’re making with our communities.

The video above is an example of that. It’s something I’m proud of.

And, I think it’s just fine that we admit that. When we’re proud of what we’ve done. We can celebrate that. We can share that. It’s not bragging or flaunting or self-aggrandizing.

We are facing too many competing storytellers who are working to take charge of the message of education and tell a narrative very different and very much in contrast to the great experiences happening in our classrooms each day for us not to find a way to share the good we’re seeing around us.

Committing ourselves to sharing the good also compels us to create the good. It helps encourage us to keep providing those opportunities that we know our students need in order to understand they are part of something important. That they are doing something important. That they are someone important. And that we’re creating opportunities that are good enough to be worth sharing.

I hope you make the time in whatever job you find yourself working to share your stories. We all need the chance to hear them.

We need to think very, very seriously about this

This story is incredible, and admittedly, unfinished. There’s much more we need to learn that hasn’t been told yet, but what we do know c(sh)ould change things. Maybe even a whole lot of things.

Recently, the OLPC organization took boxes of tablets, carefully and tightly taped up, and dropped them in two remote villages of Ethiopia. There were no instructions. No teachers. Nothing but a group of first grade-aged students for whom the tablets were intended. Students who couldn’t read, couldn’t identify the single form of a letter, had never before seen any kind of technology.

What happened is simply astounding.

Six and seven year old kids who had never before encountered any form of written language were demonstrating obvious emerging literacy skills within weeks. Without the interference help of adults.

“I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,” Negroponte said. “Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.”

As stated, there’s a lot more we need to learn about this story. But there’s also a lot we need to learn from it.

Because it raises some serious questions. Questions I think we need to take some time to answer.

  1. Why don’t we give kids more credit for their natural capacity to learn?
  2. What if we’re the ones getting in the way?
  3. Can we finally put to rest the silly digital immigrant/digital native nonsense?
  4. Why does there remain such a fascination with teaching kids very specific technology skills in our schools today?

It’s intriguing to compare the new approach OLPC is taking with the tablets to the approach they took in Peru. Reading through the reflections on the failure* in Peru brings to the surface two immediate observations. The hardware/software wasn’t ready for the task. And the adults continued getting in the way. The second point, to me, is the most salient. Read through each section of Patzer’s observations, and you see how often the breakdown happens in the way the adults try to move the students through a pre-determined way to learn with the device.

I believe the second experiment is working because nobody is there trying hard to figure out how the new technology should fit into the old model of teaching and learning.

And nobody is trying to frame the learning experience through superficial content that the kids just don’t care about.

Because learning isn’t putting content in little boxes to be handed to kids one after another only to have the boxes thrown away quickly after the handling. To be forgotten in an effort to remember the next in the long line to which they can’t see the end.

It’s letting the kids discover what’s in the boxes. And how to get it out of the boxes. And why the boxes even matter in the first place.

It’s setting a goal, establishing an environment to realize the goal, and trusting in the capacity of human potential. Student potential.

And sometimes, it’s just getting out of their way.


*I encourage you to read Gary Stager’s comment below providing more details and his perspective on the Peru “failing.” I think it’s an excellent perspective and merits further thought before we accept that program actually failed.

How can we help?

Please help me help a friend of mine.

I received an email this week from a good friend asking for help that extends beyond my capacity, and I’m hoping that there are some people somewhere who can step in and provide some guidance and assistance. Because it could mean the world to some students.

The situation:

My friend started teaching three sections of a senior English class this year for students who have recently exited the ESL program but aren’t yet ready for a remedial-level general education classroom.

There is no curriculum for the course, and the only real feedback and guidance my friend is getting from within his department is, “you’ve got to give them blowoff movie days once every couple of weeks to keep them motivated.”

Many students in the class live with extremely challenging life circumstances that do not leave them motivated to engage in the class or the process of learning to be literate. Some of them very much resent that they are in school at all.

After two months of trying to find answers and working to create meaningful learning experiences, my friend is growing exasperated. Because it isn’t working.

So, the question. Does anyone have any resources, contacts, insights, ideas, or any other way to help my friend? I give him great credit for admitting he needs help.

I hope we can get that for him.

What’s the opposite of an echo?

The echo chamber. So many people love to hate the idea. Hang around Twitter for a bit, and you’ll invariably see someone complain about it. You’ll see people fret about it. You’ll see people walk away from it. You seldom see people defend it.

That’s good. And bad.

What’s the opposite of an echo?

In the sense it’s usually discussed in regards to thinking, the opposite of an echo amongst ideas is typically diversity. People often advocate for diversity of thoughts, ideas, and discussions. Hang around the same people with the same ideas talking about the same things and you risk entering the echo chamber where the same ideas are espoused and echoed around by everyone in the group. Or, you run the risk of groupthink.

So, people talk a great deal about diversity. I know I’ve advocated for introducing and entertaining as many different perspectives and ideas as possible when building programs or making important decisions. But, I’m starting to rethink that a bit.

I started listening to David Weinberger’s Too Big To Know this week, and chapter 4 discusses the notion of scoping diversity. The idea brings us back to the echo chamber. Weinberger doesn’t encourage us to entirely abandon or bemoan the presence of echo.

As Weinberger indicates in the chapter, there is a balance needed for diversity. It isn’t desirable to have too much or too little. There is a point where the right amount of diversity helps a group “work together and make itself smarter, as opposed to either falling into groupthink or falling apart because people just disagree too fundamentally.” I keep coming back to those last eight words.

In our great haste to flee the echo chamber, I fear too often conversations fall apart because we’ve run too far in the opposite direction. You see it all the time online. In politics. In discussions about education.

Try it. Go talk to someone with the opposite political affiliation as yours. Go talk religion with someone with an opposite worldview. Go convince a PC person they should become an Apple person. Go tell iPads to become netbooks.

You won’t get anywhere, and almost always, neither will the conversation.

This is why committee work is often such a challenge. We convene a group that is so divergent, the conversation can’t get past the first step from the gate. You need some degree of commonality. You need some amount of echo.

So, what’s the takeaway? That’s what I’ve been turning over in my mind. What does it mean for us? I think there’s something very important in Weinbergers four heuristics. Having had a little time to consider it, here are a few of my own reflections.

  1. Diversity is good, but to move an idea forward with a group might require accepting the idea there might be a “right amount.”
  2. It’s ok to have some echo in the chamber. We might be preaching to the choir, but many times the choir needs to hear the preaching just like anybody else. Or, at least, be in the same building to be able to hear the preaching.
  3. Consider diversity when creating a committee. Or, setting goals for the committee to accomplish. It’s a waste of time to hope the committee can advance an idea like how to use technology in learning if many in the group don’t see the value of using technology in the first place.
  4. It’s ok to let a conversation go when you realize it’s not going anywhere. Some people call this a taffy pull. A whole bunch of talking with nothing getting done.
  5. Use human moderators in the process to find some commonality when the chasm between positions is too great or to introduce differences when the echoes start getting too loud.
  6. Sometimes, too much diversity will make an issue fall apart.

It still doesn’t feel quite right to admit there’s such a thing as too much diversity. Or, the wrong kind of diversity. I’m not sure why that is.

Perhaps I’ll convene a committee to figure it out.


Image courtesy of TimOve

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