Monthly Archives: February 2014

Less Grimness, More Green Shoots

My last few posts have been a parade of depressing rambles on the likely inevitable end of the kind of schools and teaching I love. It is time to snap out this wintry funk and examine the daffodils for a few moments. 

Online education can duplicate many aspects of secondary education. In some cases, it can better them. In other cases, it may fall a little bit short, but it does so at such a lower price that it will be embraced anyway. But there are many things it can’t duplicate. Social media can create a community of a sorts, but it isn’t the kind of community we have on the physical campus of our school. As people come together in different configurations — in assembly, in classes, on sports teams, in the dining hall, in the dorm, in their advisory groups, in Meeting For Worship — the exchange of greeting, glances, handshakes, hugs, moods, and reactions transcends the online experience and defies it. Of course at a Friends school the silence in the room during Meeting has a palpable texture that is a little bit different every time, and this element that is so essential to our understanding of our community is totally impossible to reproduce online. But so is the shorthand joshing that takes place between classmates who have shared a desk for months in a sunny corner classroom in the English department’s building. So are the smiles that are exchanged between a teacher and her former student from two years ago as they walk by each other on the path during passing time.

Are these interactions important? Do they “add value” to the education? I’d argue that they are the education, that they are co-curricular and the raison d’etre of a school like mine. We educate our students with the end in mind of creating a better world tomorrow, and with the hopes that each student will have a chance to live his or her best life. Without the experiential learning that breeds comfort with one’s fellow human beings, that outcome is impossible. How does one learn empathy sitting in front of a computer screen watching a lecture that was prerecorded? Even a live chat with video and a bunch of faces in little squares has no hope of approximating actual human contact. So much of communication is nonverbal.

Sure, the age of blended learning has arrived, and things are going to start changing (rapidly, I’d wager). But our students just wrapped up their performance of the winter play (Pride and Prejudice), and if you wanted to find the perfect example of what technology cannot replace, there it is. The students worked for months to rehearse, build the set, design the lighting, etc. Every cue had to be perfected, every dance step choreographed. The theater was jammed both Friday and Saturday nights with friends, siblings, parents, teachers, alums, etc. This kind of learning impacts everyone in the community, and we all live and die together with each perfectly delivered rejoinder or slightly flubbed delivery. There is a kind of literary arc to the theater program. It has its rising action and climax that is not exactly in sync with the rest of the academic program and thus brings a different rhythm to the week of the big production. How will online learning duplicate that? 

Yes, there are a lot of ways to answer my argument. Schools are defunding the arts left and right. Students who attend wholly online schools could participate in the performing arts through local after-school programs. But this points out the vital need for great traditional school environments, and there will be many parents who seek those out for their children. The end is not nigh. Perhaps the end is not even a dot on the horizon. Despite my earlier jeremiad, my obsolescence may not be right around the corner. The real question for me is how to manage change, and how to help my colleagues understand it. Lately that has been looking like a daunting task, but it is a more useful one than issuing vague warnings about how we are all going to be replaced by apps. 

The Gigging Teacher

Disruption is coming to the K-12 education industry, or maybe it is more accurate to say that it is already here. While sturm und drang in the public school world gets most of the attention, independent school people like me have to face the reality that our once sustainable advantages are eroding. My thinking here is transparently influenced by Rita Gunther McGrath and her book The End of Sustainable Advantage, which is an eye-opening (and angst-inducing) read if you come to it from a career within the independent school world. Today’s NYTimes piece about index pricing strategies for independent school tuition is just the latest indication that the old way of doing business may be coming to an end.

Authors such as McGrath and Reid Hoffman (the founder of LinkedIn, etc.) argue that the future of work will look like a series of gigs, not a long-term relationship with one employer. The responsibility for one’s career trajectory will fall on the employee, not the employer. It is up to the employee to seek new skills, professional development, new opportunities, etc. This is the reality for workers in many industries today, such as high tech workers in Silicon Valley, but it doesn’t resemble what is currently the norm in K-12 schools at all. Will it soon? Will schools be competing for a select group of “superstars” who will jump from employer to employer in a series of horizontal moves as McGrath suggests? Our industry is currently structured in such a way that the path from where we are now to an arrangement like the one McGrath describes seems unthinkable.

The problem for me is that I am completely convinced about what McGrath has to say about transient advantage, innovation, and strategy at the industry/institutional level, so I cannot simply ignore what she has to say about the implications on careers. I can’t simultaneously believe that the next decade will bring massive shifts in the K-12 landscape, but classroom teachers with traditional job descriptions will skate by untouched by what’s going on. The implications are troubling, though. If every classroom teacher is simultaneously trying to attend to her teaching duties responsibly (more than a full-time job as it is!) and also trying to build her brand, innovate, tend to her career, network, add new skills, and be on the lookout for the next opportunity, then the K-12 world will start to look like reality TV. It will be a ruthless pack of self-promoting, wannabe-celebrities competing for Twitter followers and blog page views when the true business at hand is educating kids.

McGrath sees work as organized around “jobs to be done” rather than product offerings. Instead of a school saying, “We need a full-time teacher to teach four sections in our English department,” they might say in the future, “We need a skillful teacher to deliver 150 hours of grammar instruction to 40 tenth graders between the dates of October 3rd and December 19th.” That instructor might very well do that job from her home hundreds of miles away from the school/students, or maybe the “school” will be a virtual one in the first place, and the students will be scattered geographically. In this model everyone is a freelancer, every job is just a gig, and teams are assembled and then disbanded in rapid succession. Perhaps “schools,” whatever they might be in ten or twenty years, will have a very small roster of permanent, superstar teachers who are lavishly compensated and who serve to promote the school’s brand. These superstars will be the face of the institution and serve to attract families. Thinking about it a little more, isn’t that trend already emerging at the university level? Articles about the move towards more and more adjunct faculty and away from tenured professors have been all over the media in the last few years.

I’d love to write a paragraph here about whether or not this is good for education, the academy, the soul, etc. But what’s the point of writing that paragraph when the change is inevitable? The shift from physical dollars to digital pennies has ravaged the print media industry, sent the movie rental business into bankruptcy (Blockbuster?), maimed the real estate agent and travel agent professions, and now K-12 education is in the crosshairs. Strangely, I feel energized by the change that I know is coming, despite what it may mean for my future cash flow. My industry is vulnerable because it has been lazy about strategy, and laziness deserves what it gets.

As for me, I think I’m going to enjoy gigging. Maybe the best professional development for me over the next few years won’t be adding tech skills or taking management coursework, but rather building a resume as a tutor.

They’d rather be trapped on campus

We had our first snow day since 2010 this week. By the luck of the draw, I was the dean on duty on Wednesday night, so I was behind the desk as our day and boarding students positioned themselves for what was shaping up to be a likely day off. Not surprisingly, there were local boarding students who chose to go home and enjoy the day off with their families, but what was refreshing was the number of day students who wanted to spend the night in the dorm so they could enjoy the fun on campus. We spend a lot of time trying to dream up weekend activities to bring day students here. It turns out that 8″ of snow is all it takes. I can’t blame them. With no homework due the next day, the dorm becomes a giant slumber party with more friends than your parents will let you have over, and our campus offers better sledding than the surrounding suburban neighborhoods. Freshmen in particular seemed eager to be snowed in with their friends. This leaves me feeling optimistic about the future of our community.
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A giant pileup on the PA Turnpike today got a lot of attention. A former colleague of mine from the Hun School was stuck in the jam, so she used Facetime to lead her class from her car. I missed it, but apparently she was featured on CNN! That kind of dedication makes for good press for Hun, independent schools in general, and teachers everywhere, so I’m proud to be even tangentially connected to it. But in truth I’m also jealous. I want my school to distinguish itself for its adoption of technology; enough that we would be recognized for it, too. My grand blogging proposal to shake up the English department’s summer reading assignments was greeted with more enthusiasm and acceptance on Tuesday than I was expecting. Now I need to actually make it happen, and in a hurry! It’s a daunting task that will require hours upon hours of work, and I’ve brought it on myself. The potential pitfalls are frightening, too, but I’m oddly at peace. Perhaps the dozen or so Twitter chats I’ve participated in this year in which countless English teachers have shared their successes (and entire schools’ successes) with student blogging have helped boost my confidence. Hurray for the PLN!

#isedchat Thursday night was on the topic of blended learning, flipped classes, MOOCs and such. I mostly just lurked since I have so little to share (. . . so far). But I wanted to play devil’s advocate a little to hear how blended learning supporters respond to the critics. I asked if independent schools are “giving up our biggest assets,” such as small classes and strong communities, by embracing these new technological delivery methods. Scott MacClintic of Loomis-Chaffee (who consistently sets me straight at #TABSchat) responded: “The question is…are those “assets” going to be worth 40K as we move forward? A real question to consider, in my honest opinion.” [I’ve cleaned up Scott’s capitalization to account for the long-reads format.] This is precisely the intellectual challenge that has been obsessing me for the last two years. If you are interested in the answer, close your browser (or WordPress app) and go get a copy of Rita Gunther McGrath’s book The End of Competitive Advantage. The answers are in there.

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Dilemma for the weekend: Grade all of my sophomores’ persuasive essays, or binge watch all of Season 2 of House of Cards? Nevermind; I’ll do both. Nina, if you’re reading this, NFLX deserves the $400 share price.

My freshmen are finishing up their wonderful short stories. These compositions are a high point of the year for me. I’ve noticed the last couple of years how many of the students choose to feature psychology as an important plot element. They like writing about mental patients. Is that the influence of The Catcher in the Rye? Or maybe The Chosen, which we read earlier in the year? Or are our students lives, even at age 15, touched by people they know who are struggling with serious psychological illnesses? Perhaps it’s time for us to think about offering IB Psychology. It bugs me a little bit that the text our Religion Department uses in our Spiritual Practices class is so anti-Freud, and we don’t counter it by teaching Freud anywhere in our curriculum. I haven’t looked at the IB Psych curriculum; maybe it is nearly Freud-free (which would be like a plot line from The Chosen come true). Either way, this is a chance to embrace technology. We could offer IB Psychology through the IB’s online course partnership with Pamoja Education.

 

On my future obsolescence

When will high school English teachers be obsolete? When will we be made redundant by technology? I expect to retire around the year 2035; will my job description still exist in twenty-something years? Let’s take a look at the different components of my work and imagine when they might no longer require a human being with specialized skills to perform them.

Vocabulary instruction: Obsolete within 2 years
Gamification and artificial intelligence should produce a better way to teach students vocabulary any day now. Students already grind through SAT-style vocabulary lessons for hours on end in some prep classes (esp. overseas), and there is very little that requires a human instructor to improve learning outcomes.

Grammar instruction: Obsolete within 5 years
Existing software to catch grammar mistakes in students’ writing is better than it was a few years ago, but still pretty weak. Idiomatic statements and artistic turns of phrase confuse the grammar checking software of today, but it should begin to improve rapidly now that companies such as Apple and Google are throwing so much weight behind speech recognition and natural language search. Combining all of the books that have been scanned by Google with a product like IBM’s Watson should dramatically improve a computer’s ability to understand context. Meanwhile, the grammar checking function within Microsoft Word is already quite reliable for run-on sentences, fragments, agreement, case, and basic punctuation errors. The fact that society is putting less and less emphasis on proper grammar anyway (Do you use “whom” in your spoken English at all?) helps by lowering the bar.

Writing instruction: Obsolete within 8 years
Even today, I’m hard pressed to argue that writing is always best taught in a classroom setting. Distance writing instruction, albeit with a human instructor, can replace the classroom model now. Editors have been working with authors to improve their manuscripts via snail mail more less since the Flood, and real-time collaborative document mark-up apps are proliferating. Low paid copy editors could be given the task of marking papers, and once this function is separated from the more artistic side of teaching writing, the teacher-student ratio could be altered dramatically. Teachers are getting busted for outsourcing their grading today. Out-of-work humanities majors could grade 500 essays a day for peanuts while a shrinking number of “star” instructors will be the last few permitted to run elite writing workshops (via video conference, of course).

Literature instruction: Obsolete within 10 years
MOOCs can deliver quality college-style literature instruction today. If you want something closer to the 15:1 student to teacher ratio discussion experience that independent school English teachers deliver, you may be waiting a while. But does society even put a value on that model? A MOOC taught by a distinguished professor, abetted by a squadron of TAs in a work-study program could instruct a thousand high school students through a reading of Macbeth for a fraction of the price paid to teachers today to deliver that instruction. Online chats will replace face-to-face instruction, but will that be a noticeably inferior way to wrestle with literature?

Communicating progress to parents: Obsolete within 2 years?
Many schools have embraced LMSs that report grades back to parents in real time. As this increasingly becomes the norm and gamified instruction proliferates, parents will have access to real time performance data any time they want, delivered via their handset. Sure, parent-teacher conferences will go the way of the dodo, but the colorful charts and graphs will be very reassuring.

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I’m struggling to keep working on this post. My problem is that I can’t decide if I’m writing satire or not. If I knew it was really satire, I could embrace the genre and go for laughs. If it isn’t satire, it needs many more specifics (names of apps, software, companies, pilot programs, research reports) which I can’t rattle off from memory. In truth, I’m just becoming familiar with many of these options as I hear more and more good suggestions from my PLN. Of course I believe that the personalized, relationship-based, community-building style of teaching that independent school English teachers like me deliver can’t be duplicated by apps and software next year, or ten years from now. But it doesn’t have to be 100% as good, does it? If it is 90% of the way there, my career could be headed for trouble.

But on reflection, I suspect that my future obsolescence will come not from technology replacing English teachers per se, but from technology replacing the schools in which we work. As online education increasingly offers a cheaper alternative to venerable institutions with major overhead problems, English teachers will all be freelancers running our own tutoring businesses and contracting ourselves out to the online grading-mills. Our existing secondary school system is under assault from both ends: parents looking for better alternatives to disappointing public schools, and parents looking for more personalized and cost-effective alternatives to pricey independent schools.

The answer for English teachers like me? Permanent beta, of course. But if the number of English teachers needed to deliver the same quality of instruction is cut in half in twenty years, it will require an awful lot of “building one’s brand” to stand out from the crowd and be one of the survivors. How many of us have the patience for that dreary exercise?

On Flappy Bird and Grit

Two Fridays ago as I settled into my seat at Assembly, I found my freshman advisee enthralled in a game she was playing on her iPhone. That was my first introduction to Flappy Bird. To my credit, I realized right then and there that I should immediately buy stock in the company, but alas, .GEARS STUDIOS is a closely held firm out of Viet Nam, so that’s a no-go. Two weeks later, I find myself living in a Flappy Bird world. My students are playing the arcade-style, retro big-pixel game at every available free moment. The chatter before my last class this afternoon was who had the highest score ever. I downloaded the game an hour ago. My high score so far is 3. That’s not a typo; the game is brutally tough.

Why then are the students so enthralled? The game is challenging and boring at the same time. But they seem to enjoy the challenge. This got me thinking about the opening remarks our Associate Head of School gave to the faculty at the beginning of the school year. It was the first time I heard about Angela Lee Duckworth and the “grit” phenomenon. Since then, grit has been on every educator’s lips, and it comes up frequently in the Twitter chats I participate in as I dive deeper and deeper into my new-found connected educator identity. Teachers are living in Gritland and students are living in Flappyville. Are they the same place?

The students’ willful application of their attention to a boring-yet-challenging game seems to be the epitome of grit, but if so, a depressing one. The skill they are developing (tapping on a screen delicately to guide an animated bird through narrow openings in metal plumbing) is useless and has no transference possibilities. The game isn’t aesthetically uplifting. It’s just a challenge that seems to have a siren song despite its banality.

This looms large in my mind because last night during #isedchat I saw the grit phenomenon publicly challenged for the first time by a head of school that I’ve come to admire from afar. Apparently there is a bit of a grit backlash going on, and as a lifelong contrarian and outsider poseur, I felt an immediate kinship with the grit rejectors.

Should I, though? To be sure, there are many students I know who could use more self-discipline and better work habits. What is the Quaker educator’s answer to grit? Friends believe in hard work, to be sure, but also compassion and love. I’d rather see my students doing less drudgework but losing themselves deeply in challenging work that has no ceiling for the those who have unusual aptitude. And yet they choose Flappy Bird. (I can hear students’ response to this already: We don’t all play Flappy Bird. Many of us wouldn’t waste our time on such nonsense.) There is nothing wrong with down time, however, and I don’t want to judge how students choose to relax. Flappy Bird is no worse than the crummy arcade games I played as a kid.

It’s Friday afternoon, and I have a lot to do this weekend. Varsity basketball at 4pm, field trip on Sunday, grading and planning, supporting my partner as she runs East/Central Weekend, etc. But I think I’m going to add a little Flappy Bird time in there, too. Maybe I can raise my high score to 5 by Monday. At the same time, I’m going to feel empowered to speak out against the grit-pushers when they get out of line. Grit is good when the task is righteous, and downtime is needed if over-scheduled teens in a college preparatory school are going to maintain their sanity. Have a great weekend, everyone.

The first #gschat is now in the books

Ever since I began participating in Twitter chats for educators, I have been dreaming of the day when I could organize a chat just for the George School community. Tonight that dream came true, and even though participation was so-so, I can see the path to making this a monthly event with many more participants.

I cobbled this first chat together in a big hurry. Although I spoke to a few key administrators weeks ago to float the idea, I didn’t get to work planning in earnest until this past weekend. I invited three students to help me moderate, and to my great relief they all said yes. I planned seven questions for us to pose during the chat, and that part went off without a hitch. Where I really fell short was in advertising the event. I didn’t put up signs or make posters. I just announced the event on our intranet the morning of. I wanted to make it happen on Digital Learning Day, so I forced the issue a little bit. And, ironically, DLDay turned out to coincide with an ice storm, so there were power outages and our network was down for a while this morning. Next time, if I plan ahead and really advertise, I’m guessing that I can drum up more students to participate.

What was deeply rewarding was the presence of several of my colleagues who stayed for the full hour. I’ve been trying to sell the value of the “connected educator” movement to my colleagues, so they got a little taste of the Twitter chat format tonight. It was kind of a training wheels event, but once you master the interface, you can take those skills anywhere. If they and the student moderators help me evangelize for the next one, we could increase turn out significantly. And my colleagues were their brilliant selves: quick witted, funny, caring. Anyone who thinks that the 140 character format is too stifling needs to jump on a chat.

I tweeted at alums and members of the GS board of trustees in the hours leading up to the chat in hopes of enticing their participation. I didn’t get any takers, but alum/former admin Ari Betof jumped in, generously giving us some of his time. My ideal vision for these chats would be to involve all of the consituency groups: students, alums, faculty, staff, admins, parents, past parents, and board members. The experiences of parents of our international students came up during the chat. This could be a great way to make them feel a part of the action (although it’s the middle of the night in Asia).

In summary, the event was a success. I didn’t get called away to deal with a deans’ office emergency, the student moderators were flawless, and the other students who participated were polite even in the instances where they were mildly critical of the school. I feel like I helped the school take a small step forward in the social media innovation area, and maybe lit a spark that could grow into a flame. Excuse the worn-out cliche; its weariness matches that of it’s author.

Here’s a link to the Storyfied chat: http://storify.com/ewolarsky/first-ever-gschat?utm_content=storify-pingback&utm_campaign=&awesm=sfy.co_qOKq&utm_medium=sfy.co-twitter&utm_source=t.co

Reflecting on this afternoon’s #edchat

The noon #edchat today was built around the prompt: “How do teachers as education experts regain the leadership of the discussion on education reform?” I typically feel like an outsider when the conversation is ed reform since I’ve spent my entire life and career in the independent school world (well, my entire life since fourth grade, to be more precise). It is always dispiriting to hear my fellow teachers and administrators in the public school world describe their problems and frustrations.

Actually, there is more optimism in a Twitter chat on this topic than in the general society at large. Connected educators feel like they are part of a movement that is going to have a powerful impact (eventually, somehow). We all feel like we need to stop talking and do something, but every movement goes through that phase. Many participants feel, and I agree with them, that the increased communication and connectivity has an effect on reforming the industry even absent any other activism. More teachers and administrators are sharing ideas instantaneously, so one could argue that the pace of positive, incremental evolution within the existing system is already accelerating.

I hope I’m right about that because the chances for top-down reform that isn’t a political boondoggle are pretty terrible. My frustration while participating in the chat on this topic is that the education sector is hostage to all of the structural problems in our political system, state budget woes, and family balance sheet disasters that are afflicting all of the other areas of the economy. It’s tragic to see so many trapped in the system, and I feel guilty for having the means to exempt myself. This is why the independent school corner of the business has to continue to focus relentlessly on accessibility and affordability.