The conventional wisdom about 21st century skills holds that students need to master the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — and learn to code as well because that’s where the jobs are. It turns out that is a gross simplification of what students need to know and be able to do, and some proof for that comes from a surprising source: Google.
All across America, students are anxiously finishing their “What I Want To Be …” college application essays, advised to focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) by pundits and parents who insist that’s the only way to become workforce ready. But two recent studies of workplace success contradict the conventional wisdom about “hard skills.” Surprisingly, this research comes from the company most identified with the STEM-only approach: Google.
Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both brilliant computer scientists, founded their company on the conviction that only technologists can understand technology. Google originally set its hiring algorithms to sort for computer science students with top grades from elite science universities.
In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.
Those traits sound more like what one gains as an English or theater major than as a programmer. Could it be that top Google employees were succeeding despite their technical training, not because of it? After bringing in anthropologists and ethnographers to dive even deeper into the data, the company enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors, artists, and even the MBAs that, initially, Brin and Page viewed with disdain.
Project Aristotle, a study released by Google this past spring, further supports the importance of soft skills even in high-tech environments. Project Aristotle analyzes data on inventive and productive teams. Google takes pride in its A-teams, assembled with top scientists, each with the most specialized knowledge and able to throw down one cutting-edge idea after another. Its data analysis revealed, however, that the company’s most important and productive new ideas come from B-teams comprised of employees who don’t always have to be the smartest people in the room.
Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.
Google’s studies concur with others trying to understand the secret of a great future employee. A recent survey of 260 employers by the nonprofit National Association of Colleges and Employers, which includes both small firms and behemoths like Chevron and IBM, also ranks communication skills in the top three most-sought after qualities by job recruiters. They prize both an ability to communicate with one’s workers and an aptitude for conveying the company’s product and mission outside the organization. Or take billionaire venture capitalist and “Shark Tank” TV personality Mark Cuban: He looks for philosophy majors when he’s investing in sharks most likely to succeed.
STEM skills are vital to the world we live in today, but technology alone, as Steve Jobs famously insisted, is not enough. We desperately need the expertise of those who are educated to the human, cultural, and social as well as the computational.
No student should be prevented from majoring in an area they love based on a false idea of what they need to succeed. Broad learning skills are the key to long-term, satisfying, productive careers. What helps you thrive in a changing world isn’t rocket science. It may just well be social science, and, yes, even the humanities and the arts that contribute to making you not just workforce ready but world ready.
CHICAGO — The sixth graders at Newton Bateman, a public elementary school here with a classic red brick facade, know the Google drill.
In a social-science class last year, the students each grabbed a Google-powered laptop. They opened Google Classroom, an app where teachers make assignments. Then they clicked on Google Docs, a writing program, and began composing essays.
Looking up from her laptop, Masuma Khan, then 11 years old, said her essay explored how schooling in ancient Athens differed from her own. “Back then, they had wooden tablets and they had to take all of their notes on it,” she said. “Nowadays, we can just do it in Google Docs.”
Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest school district in the United States, with about 381,000 students, is at the forefront of a profound shift in American education: the Googlification of the classroom.
In the space of just five years, Google has helped upend the sales methods companies use to place their products in classrooms. It has enlisted teachers and administrators to promote Google’s products to other schools. It has directly reached out to educators to test its products — effectively bypassing senior district officials. And it has outmaneuvered Apple and Microsoft with a powerful combination of low-cost laptops, called Chromebooks, and free classroom apps.
Today, more than half the nation’s primary- and secondary-school students — more than 30 million children — use Google education apps like Gmail and Docs, the company said. And Chromebooks, Google-powered laptops that initially struggled to find a purpose, are now a powerhouse in America’s schools. Today they account for more than half the mobile devices shipped to schools.
“Between the fall of 2012 and now, Google went from an interesting possibility to the dominant way that schools around the country” teach students to find information, create documents and turn them in, said Hal Friedlander, former chief information officer for the New York City Department of Education, the nation’s largest school district. “Google established itself as a fact in schools.”
In doing so, Google is helping to drive a philosophical change in public education — prioritizing training children in skills like teamwork and problem-solving while de-emphasizing the teaching of traditional academic knowledge, like math formulas. It puts Google, and the tech economy, at the center of one of the great debates that has raged in American education for more than a century: whether the purpose of public schools is to turn out knowledgeable citizens or skilled workers.
The director of Google’s education apps group, Jonathan Rochelle, touched on that idea in a speech at an industry conference last year. Referring to his own children, he said: “I cannot answer for them what they are going to do with the quadratic equation. I don’t know why they are learning it.” He added, “And I don’t know why they can’t ask Google for the answer if the answer is right there.”
Schools may be giving Google more than they are getting: generations of future customers.
Google makes $30 per device by selling management services for the millions of Chromebooks that ship to schools. But by habituating students to its offerings at a young age, Google obtains something much more valuable.
Every year, several million American students graduate from high school. And not only does Google make it easy for those who have school Google accounts to upload their trove of school Gmail, Docs and other files to regular Google consumer accounts — but schools encourage them to do so. This month, for instance, Chatfield Senior High School in Littleton, Colo., sent out a notice urging seniors to “make sure” they convert their school account “to a personal Gmail account.”
That doesn’t sit well with some parents. They warn that Google could profit by using personal details from their children’s school email to build more powerful marketing profiles of them as young adults.
“My concern is that they are working on developing a profile of this child that, when they hit maturity, they are able to create a better profile,” said David Barsotti, an information technology project manager in the Chicago area whose daughter uses Google tools in elementary school. “That is a problem, in my opinion.”
Google, a unit of the $652 billion Alphabet, is the latest big contender in a decades-old battle among tech companies to hook students as future customers. “If you get someone on your operating system early, then you get that loyalty early, and potentially for life,” said Mike Fisher, an education technology analyst at Futuresource Consulting, a research company.
Google captured these next-generation users so quickly by outpacing its rivals in both educational product development and marketing.
In 2013, while other tech firms seemed largely content to sell their existing consumer and business offerings to schools, Mr. Rochelle, a co-developer of Google Docs, set up a team at Google to create apps specifically for schools.
To spread those tools, Jaime Casap, Google’s global education evangelist, began traveling around the country with a motivational message: Rather than tout specific Google products, Mr. Casap told educators that they could improve their students’ college and career prospects by creatively using online tools.
“Teachers really helped to drive adoption of Google in the classroom, while Apple and Microsoft continued to leverage traditional sales channels,” said Phillip DiBartolo, the chief information officer of Chicago Public Schools.
But that also caused problems in Chicago and another district when Google went looking for teachers to try a new app — effectively bypassing district administrators. In both cases, Google found itself reined in.
Unlike Apple or Microsoft, which make money primarily by selling devices or software services, Google derives most of its revenue from online advertising — much of it targeted through sophisticated use of people’s data. Questions about how Google might use data gleaned from students’ online activities have dogged the company for years.
“Unless we know what is collected, why it is collected, how it is used and a review of it is possible, we can never understand with certainty how this information could be used to help or hurt a kid,” said Bill Fitzgerald of Common Sense Media, a children’s advocacy group, who vets the security and privacy of classroom apps.
Google declined to provide a breakdown of the exact details the company collects from student use of its services. Bram Bout, director of Google’s education unit, pointed to a Google privacy notice listing the categories of information that the company’s education services collect, like location data and “details of how a user used our service.”
Mr. Bout said that student data in Google’s core education services (including Gmail, Calendar and Docs) “is only used to provide the services themselves, so students can do things like communicate using email.” These services do not show ads, he said, and “do not use personal data resulting from use of these services to target ads.”
Some parents, school administrators and privacy advocates believe that’s not enough. They say Google should be more forthcoming about the details it collects about students, why it collects them and how it uses them.
“If my daughter came home and logged on to Google Docs on my computer at home, they’ll know it was now coming from this address,” said Mr. Barsotti, the Chicago-area project manager. “If this is truly for educational purposes, what is their business model and why do they need to collect that?”
A Campus Marketing Machine
Mr. Casap, the Google education evangelist, likes to recount Google’s emergence as an education powerhouse as a story of lucky coincidences. The first occurred in 2006 when the company hired him to develop new business at its office on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe.
Mr. Casap quickly persuaded university officials to scrap their costly internal email service (an unusual move at the time) and replace it with a free version of the Gmail-and-Docs package that Google had been selling to companies. In one semester, the vast majority of the university’s approximately 65,000 students signed up.
And a new Google business was born.
Mr. Casap then invited university officials on a road show to share their success story with other schools. “It caused a firestorm,” Mr. Casap said. Northwestern University, the University of Southern California and many others followed.
This became Google’s education marketing playbook: Woo school officials with easy-to-use, money-saving services. Then enlist schools to market to other schools, holding up early adopters as forward thinkers among their peers.
The strategy proved so successful in higher education that Mr. Casap decided to try it with public schools.
As it happened, officials at the Oregon Department of Education were looking to help local schools cut their email costs, said Steve Nelson, a former department official. In 2010, the state officially made Google’s education apps available to its school districts.
“That caused the same kind of cascade,” Mr. Casap said. School districts around the country began contacting him, and he referred them to Mr. Nelson, who related Oregon’s experience with Google’s apps.
By then, Google was developing a growth strategy aimed at teachers — the gatekeepers to the classroom — who could influence the administrators who make technology decisions. “The driving force tends to be the pedagogical side,” Mr. Bout, the Google education executive, said. “That is something we really embraced.”
Google set up dozens of online communities, called Google Educator Groups, where teachers could swap ideas for using its tech. It started training programs with names like Certified Innovator to credential teachers who wanted to establish their expertise in Google’s tools or teach their peers to use them.
Although business practices like encouraging educators to spread the word to their peers have become commonplace among education technology firms, Google has successfully deployed these techniques on a such a large scale that some critics say the company has co-opted public school employees to gain market dominance.
“Companies are exploiting the education space for sales and public good will,” said Douglas A. Levin, the president of EdTech Strategies, a consulting firm. Parents and educators should be questioning Google’s pervasiveness in schools, he added, and examining “how those in the public sector are carrying the message of Google branding and marketing.”
Mr. Bout of Google disagreed, saying that the company’s outreach to educators was not a marketing exercise. Rather, he said, it was an effort to improve education by helping teachers learn directly from their peers how to most effectively use Google’s tools.
“We help to amplify the stories and voices of educators who have lessons learned,” he said, “because it can be challenging for educators to find ways to share with each other.”
At Chicago Public Schools, the teacher-centric strategy played out almost perfectly.
In 2012, Jennie Magiera, then a fourth-grade teacher in Chicago, wanted her students to use Google Docs, which enables multiple people to work simultaneously in the same document. Because the district wasn’t yet using Google’s apps, she said, she independently set up six consumer accounts for her class.
“We were bootlegging using Google apps,” Ms. Magiera recalled in a phone interview. “I just knew I needed my kids to collaborate,” she said, touching on one of Google’s own main arguments for its products.
Chicago administrators like Lachlan Tidmarsh, then the school district’s chief information officer, visited Ms. Magiera’s classroom to observe. Mr. Tidmarsh said he concluded that if individual teachers were already using Google’s services, the district should officially adopt the platform — to make sure, for instance, that younger children couldn’t email with strangers.
Ms. Magiera’s advocacy came at an ideal moment. Chicago Public Schools was looking to trim the $2 million a year it was spending on Microsoft Exchange and another email service; it had opened bidding for a less expensive program.
A committee that included administrators familiar with Microsoft, as well as Ms. Magiera, reviewed presentations from several companies. In March 2012, the district chose Google.
Microsoft executives were disappointed, said Edward Wagner, the district’s director of infrastructure services. But at that time, Mr. Wagner said, Microsoft had neither a free array of web-based products for schools on par with Google’s nor Google’s level of grass-roots classroom support. “They didn’t have the teachers and the principals,” he said.
Quickly, though, a data privacy and security issue emerged, exposing a culture clash between Google’s business practices and the values of a major school district.
In interviews, Chicago administrators said they asked Google to sign a contract agreeing, among other things, to comply with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. That law permits federally funded educational institutions to share students’ personally identifiable information with certain school vendors, provided those companies use that information only for school purposes.
Instead, Google initially proposed abiding by its own company policies, Mr. Wagner said, and followed up by emailing links to those policies — terms that the company could change at any time. “Our lawyers were a little bit apoplectic when they were given links to security things,” Mr. Wagner said. “I don’t want a link that can change.”
Mr. Nelson, the former education official in Oregon, reported similar frustrations over student privacy when his state negotiated a contract with Google. “That’s why it took 16 months,” he said.
Mr. Bout of Google said that the tech company had “always taken the compliance needs of our education users seriously.” He added that “even early versions” of the company’s agreements for its education apps had “addressed” the federal education privacy law.
Today, Google’s standard agreements with schools for its education apps include a commitment to comply with that law.
Since adopting Google apps, Chicago schools have saved about $1.6 million annually on email and related costs, a district spokesman said.
Google then enlisted Mr. Tidmarsh, who now works in technology at a health care company, to share his enthusiasm by contributing to a Google blog. In the post, Mr. Tidmarsh described creating 270,000 school Google accounts. “It was easily the fastest and smoothest migration of this scale I have ever seen,” he wrote. (He did not earn a fee for the blog post, he said.)
“We were always enthusiastic to tell the Google story,” Mr. Tidmarsh said. “I would like to think dozens of school districts switched, based on our success.”
Ms. Magiera, now the chief innovation officer for another district, also helped Google’s cause. In 2012, as part of her effort to become a Google Certified Innovator in education, she said, she came up with the idea of having Chicago Public Schools hold a free conference — called Googlepalooza — to train teachers on Google’s tools. The annual event, co-sponsored by Google, now draws several thousand educators from the Chicago area, as well as a few from neighboring states.
(Ms. Magiera has since occasionally worked as a paid speaker for education technology organizations that train teachers on Google’s tools.)
“You can see it radiate out from certain geographic hubs, and that is very deliberate,” Mr. Bout said of Google’s growth strategy for education. “We are taking a very geographic approach because we know it works.”
Chromebooks Find an Audience
By then, Google had developed a simplified, low-cost laptop called the Chromebook. It ran on Google’s Chrome operating system and revolved largely around web apps, making it cheaper and often faster to boot up than traditional laptops loaded with locally stored software.
But there was one interested audience: public schools. In the fall of 2011, Google invited school administrators to its Chicago office to meet Mr. Casap, hoping to interest them in Chromebooks.
Mr. Casap didn’t talk tech specs. Instead, he held the audience spellbound as he described the challenges he had faced as a Latino student growing up on welfare in a tough Manhattan neighborhood.
His message: Education is the great equalizer, and technology breaks down barriers between rich and poor students.
In the audience, Jason Markey, principal of East Leyden High School in Franklin Park, Ill., was converted. Students in his blue-collar district near O’Hare International Airport faced similar struggles. On the spot, Mr. Markey said, he abandoned his previous plans to buy Microsoft Windows laptops for 3,500 high school students. Now he wanted Chromebooks for them instead.
“I went up to Jaime immediately after the presentation and said, ‘Are you guys ready to ship these?’” Mr. Markey said.
Then Mr. Markey went back to his district to inform administrators and teachers that he wanted to order an unproven device that most of them had never heard of. “It was a tough announcement to make,” he conceded.
It was an opportune moment for Google to pitch lower-cost laptops to schools. Districts administering new online standardized tests needed laptops for students to take them on. And Google offered a robust way for school districts to manage thousands of computers online: They could lock Chromebooks remotely so that students could not search the web during tests, or disable missing ones.
Another attraction: The Chromebook’s cloud-storage approach made sharing among students easier. They could gain access to their documents no matter which Chromebook they used.
“That is one of the big reasons we took off in education,” said Rajen Sheth, who oversees Google’s Chromebook business. “In less than 10 seconds, a student can grab a Chromebook and be off and running.”
The Chromebook’s price and usability fit neatly into Mr. Casap’s argument that, for students, access to technology was an issue of fairness. “I didn’t want us to be vendors in the space,” he said of Google’s education philosophy in an interview last year at the SXSWedu conference in Austin, Tex. “I wanted us to be thought leaders, to have a point of view.”
As he spoke, a group of students trooped past wearing purple superhero capes emblazoned with the logo for Microsoft OneNote, a rival classroom service. Spotting the capes, Mr. Casap said, “We don’t do things like that.” He added dryly, “I love gimmicks.”
Some critics, though, contend that the equity argument for technology is itself a gimmick that promotes a self-serving Silicon Valley agenda: playing on educators’ altruism to get schools to buy into laptops and apps.
“It centers learning on technology, not students,” said Mr. Fitzgerald, the learning app analyst. “It is a very narrow lens on equity that leaves out things like student-teacher ratios.”
(Mr. Casap said he would not advise school districts with deficiencies in areas like teaching or student support services to invest first in classroom technology.)
Mr. Markey, the East Leyden High School principal, had another equity concern. About 20 percent of his students lacked home internet access, he said. How would they do their homework on a Chromebook, which required a connection?
Google was already working on offline capabilities, Mr. Casap said, and ultimately modified its education apps so that students could take their work home on Chromebooks, then upload homework the next day using school Wi-Fi.
Soon, so many educators were visiting Leyden to see its technology setup that the school district started an annual conference to host them. Last summer, Mr. Casap gave the keynote address. And Mr. Markey now occasionally works as a paid speaker for EdTechTeam, a company that holds Google boot camps for teachers.
In 2016, Chromebooks accounted for 58 percent of mobile devices shipped to primary and secondary schools in the United States, up from less than 1 percent in 2012, according to Futuresource Consulting, the research firm. Google does not make money directly from Chromebooks — which are manufactured by Samsung, Acer and other companies — but it does charge school districts a management service fee of $30 per device. Chicago Public Schools has spent about $33.5 million on 134,000 Chromebooks.
“I don’t think I can ever remember when a specific device and platform has taken off so quickly across different kinds of schools,” said David Andrade, a K-12 education strategist at CDW-G, a leading Chromebook dealer.
A ‘Mission Control’ App
In 2014, Google’s education juggernaut hit a speed bump in Chicago Public Schools. The culture clash illuminated profound differences between Google, a build-it-first-and-tweak-it-later Silicon Valley company, and a large, bureaucratic school district with student-protection rules to uphold.
Google had hoped that Chicago would become an early adopter of Google Classroom, its new app to help teachers take attendance, assign homework and do other tasks. In August 2014, a Google team flew to Chicago to demo Classroom at Googlepalooza, the school district’s annual teacher conference.
At the time, she was the school system’s director of technology change management. Early on, she said, Google had invited teachers to try an initial version of Classroom, without first contacting the school district’s technology administrators — effectively making a district policy decision from the outside. Now Google wanted Chicago Public Schools to switch on the app districtwide, she said, before determining whether it complied with local student-protection policies.
“You can’t just hand out product and hope it will work in the classroom,” Ms. Hahn said. “You have to work with the districts to make sure that you are keeping the kids and the teachers safe.”
Jim Siegl, technology architect for Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, the nation’s 10th-largest school district, reported a similar experience.
He said that Google had directly contacted certain Fairfax teachers who had volunteered to beta-test Classroom, giving them early access to the app. In so doing, he said, the company ignored the Google settings he had selected that were supposed to give his district control over which new Google services to switch on in its schools.
Mr. Siegl added that Google did not tell him which, or even how many, Fairfax teachers the company had enlisted to try out the Classroom app. And by the time he was able to shut off the app, Mr. Siegl said, teachers had already set up virtual classrooms on the service and started using it with their students.
He said he complained to Google.
“Because of who they are and how sprawling the ecosystem is,” Mr. Siegl said, “they are held up and need to meet a higher standard than any other vendor schools deal with.”
In an emailed statement, Mr. Bout said of the company’s core education services, “In all cases, the use of these services is tied to the approval of an administrator who is responsible for overseeing a school’s domain.”
Classroom was the brainchild of Mr. Rochelle, who started Google’s education apps group, and Zach Yeskel, a Google product manager and former high school math teacher. They said they envisioned the app as a kind of “mission control” dashboard where teachers could more efficiently manage tasks like assigning and correcting homework, freeing teachers to spend more time with students. To create the app, they collaborated closely with teachers.
In May 2014, Google posted an announcement online, asking for volunteers to beta-test Classroom. More than 100,000 teachers worldwide responded, the company said, illustrating Google’s power to rapidly stoke demand among educators. That August, Google made Classroom available to schools.
“They developed a real momentum with teachers,” said Mr. Fisher of Futuresource Consulting. “Google Classroom was key to that.”
That was too fast for Chicago Public Schools.
Administrators there wanted to test Classroom first to make sure it complied with district policies and fit their teachers’ needs. So they set up a pilot program, involving about 275 teachers and several thousand students, to run for the entire school year. Every month, Ms. Hahn said, she collected teachers’ feedback and sent it to Google.
“We wanted to help them do it right,” Ms. Hahn said.
One immediate problem administrators identified: School board policy required employees to keep records of cyberbullying and other problematic comments. But Classroom initially did not do that. If a student wrote something offensive and a teacher deleted it, there was no archive.
“It took us a long time to get them to do it,” Ms. Hahn said. She added, “Unfortunately, there were things that a district of our size needed that Google did not understand.”
Google eventually added an archiving feature. The next fall, the Chicago district switched on Classroom. Teachers there later vetted other Google products, effectively becoming a test lab for the company. “We have said to Google many times, ‘If it works in Chicago, it will work anywhere,’” Ms. Hahn said.
Mr. Bout of Google agreed, saying that Chicago Public Schools often made more stringent demands on Google than other school districts did.
“If you can get it in Chicago, it’s sort of like you have passed a lot of tests,” Mr. Bout said, “and then you can probably get it into any school in the country.”
The relationship has benefited Chicago Public Schools, too.
The fact that Chicago schools were vetting Google products, like the Classroom app, gave administrators a welcome counternarrative of the district’s altruistically helping Google debug its products for schools across the country. And it remains a good story even as the district now faces a financial crisis.
Today, about 15 million primary- and secondary-school students in the United States use Classroom, Google said.
Google’s ability to test its products on such a monumental scale has stoked concerns about whether the tech giant is exploiting public-school teachers and students for free labor. “It’s a private company very creatively using public resources — in this instance, teachers’ time and expertise — to build new markets at low cost,” said Patricia Burch, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California.
Mr. Rochelle, the Google executive, said that it was important for the company to have large, diverse sets of educational users giving feedback — otherwise it might develop products that worked for only a few of them.
“Our goal is to build products that help educators and students,” Mr. Rochelle said. “Teachers tell us they appreciate the opportunity to get involved early and help shape our products to meet their needs.”
Ms. Hahn, who now works for the same health care company as Mr. Tidmarsh, agrees. She said that schools were getting something substantive in return from Google, something they had rarely received from other tech companies: quick product improvements that responded to teachers’ feedback.
After the Chicago schools tested Classroom, she said, members of Google’s education team started directly contacting her when they were seeking educators to try out the company’s innovations. “They no longer just turn stuff on,” she said. “They come to us first.”
Whenever a college student asks me, a veteran high-school English educator, about the prospects of becoming a public-school teacher, I never think it’s enough to say that the role is shifting from “content expert” to “curriculum facilitator.” Instead, I describe what I think the public-school classroom will look like in 20 years, with a large, fantastic computer screen at the front, streaming one of the nation’s most engaging, informative lessons available on a particular topic. The “virtual class” will be introduced, guided, and curated by one of the country’s best teachers (a.k.a. a “super-teacher”), and it will include professionally produced footage of current events, relevant excerpts from powerful TedTalks, interactive games students can play against other students nationwide, and a formal assessment that the computer will immediately score and record.
I tell this college student that in each classroom, there will be a local teacher-facilitator (called a “tech”) to make sure that the equipment works and the students behave. Since the “tech” won’t require the extensive education and training of today’s teachers, the teacher’s union will fall apart, and that “tech” will earn about $15 an hour to facilitate a class of what could include over 50 students. This new progressive system will be justified and supported by the American public for several reasons: Each lesson will be among the most interesting and efficient lessons in the world; millions of dollars will be saved in reduced teacher salaries; the “techs” can specialize in classroom management; performance data will be standardized and immediately produced (and therefore “individualized”); and the country will finally achieve equity in its public school system.
“So if you want to be a teacher,” I tell the college student, “you better be a super-teacher.”
I used to think I was kidding, or at least exaggerating. Now I’m not so sure. When I consulted a local career counselor who is on the brink of retirement after a lifetime in the public schools, he said I was wrong about my prediction—but only about it taking 20 years. “Try five or 10,” he said.
I smiled and laughed, and then suddenly stopped. I thought about how many times I had heard the phrase “teacher as facilitator” over the past year. I recalled a veteran teacher who recently said with anguish, “we used to be appreciated as experts in our field.” I thought about the last time I walked into a local bookstore, when the employee asked if she could order a book for me from Amazon. Are teachers going the way of local bookstores? Suddenly I felt like the frog in the pot of water, feeling a little warm, wondering if I was going to have to jump before I retire in 20 years. Try five or 10.
I started reflecting. A decade and a half ago, I dedicated two years toward earning a master’s degree in English literature; this training included a couple of pedagogy courses, and it focused on classic literature, the nature of reading and writing, and the best ways to teach it. A decade ago, my school sent me to an Advanced Placement English conference at which I studied literary analysis for three days. As with the graduate program, I don’t remember the conference involving technology—it was simply the teacher, students, and a lot of books. Now, I don’t remember the last time I’ve attended, or even heard of, any professional-development training focused on my specific subject matter. Instead, these experiences concentrate on incorporating technology in the classroom, utilizing assessment data, or new ways of becoming a school facilitator.
* * *
When I did some research to see if it was just me sensing this transformation taking place, I was overwhelmed by the number of articles all confirming what I had suspected: The relatively recent emergence of the Internet, and the ever-increasing ease of access to web, has unmistakably usurped the teacher from the former role as dictator of subject content. These days, teachers are expected to concentrate on the “facilitation” of factual knowledge that is suddenly widely accessible.
In 2012, for example, MindShift’s Aran Levasseur wrote that “all computing devices—from laptops to tablets to smartphones—are dismantling knowledge silos and are therefore transforming the role of a teacher into something that is more of a facilitator and coach.” Joshua Starr, a nationally prominent superintendent, recently told NPR, “I ask teachers all the time, if you can Google it, why teach it?” And it’s already become a cliche that the teacher should transfer from being a “sage on the stage” to being “a guide on the side.”
I started looking around me. Teachers like me are uploading onto the web tens of thousands of lesson plans and videos that are then being consolidated and curated by various organizations. In other words, the intellectual property that once belonged to teachers is now openly available on the Internet.
And the teachers unions don’t seem to be stopping this crowdsourcing; in fact, the American Federation of Teachers created sharemylesson.com (“By teachers, for teachers”), which says it offers more than 300,000 free resources for educators. And even though its partner, TES Connect, often charges money for its materials, the private company claims that nearly 5 million resources are downloaded from its sites weekly. Meanwhile, TeachersPayTeachers.com, an open marketplace for lesson plans and resources that launched in 2006, says it has more than 3 million users, including 1 million who signed up in the past year. Close to 1 million educators have purchased lesson plans from the site, while several other teachers are earning six figures for creating the site’s top-selling materials.
I think it used to be taboo for teachers to borrow or buy plans written by other professionals, but it seems that times are changing. Just last week, I spoke with a history teacher from Santa Maria, California, who bluntly said, “I don’t ever write my own lesson plans anymore. I just give credit to the person who did.” He explained, rather reasonably, that the materials are usually inexpensive or free; are extremely well made; and often include worksheets, videos, assessments, and links to other resources. Just as his administrators request, he can focus on being a facilitator, specializing in individualized instruction.
I’ve started recognizing a common thread to the latest trends in teaching. Flipped learning, blending learning, student-centered learning, project-based learning, and even self-organized learning—they all marginalize the teacher’s expertise. Or, to put it more euphemistically, they all transform the teacher into a more facilitative role.
In “flipped learning,” the student is expected to absorb the core knowledge at home by watching videos and then engage in projects, problem-solving, and critical-thinking activities at school, as facilitated by his or her teacher. Project Tomorrow’s nationwide 2013 survey found that 41 percent of administrators say “pre-service teachers should learn how to set up a flipped class model before getting a teaching credential,” while 66 percent of principals say “pre-service teachers should learn to create and use video and other digital media.” And once again, when the teacher relies on digital media to provide the core knowledge, his or her role will inherently shift to that of a facilitator. The University of Washington’s Center for Teaching and Learning, for example, explicitly describes “flipped learning” as a way for students to “gain control of the learning process” while “the instructors become facilitators … the instructor is there to coach and guide them.”
Likewise, “blended learning”—in which students take at least part of a class online while supervised by adults—is now offered by about 70 percent of K-12 public-school districts. According the Clayton Christensen Institute—a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that touts “disruptive innovation”—the number of K-12 students who took an online course increased from roughly 45,000 in 2000, to more than 3 million in 2009. The institute also projects that half of all high-school classes will be delivered online by 2019.
I asked a longtime friend of mine—a high-school principal in northern California—to tell me candidly what he thought about blended learning. He said, “we’re at the point where the Internet pretty much supplies everything we need. We don’t really need teachers in the same way anymore. I mean, sure, my daughter gets some help from her teachers, but basically everything she learns—from math to band—she can get from her computer better than her teachers.”
At a seminar about project-based learning, I told the presenter with an increasing sense of desperation, “You know, some of us English teachers still believe that teaching literature is still our primary job.” He smirked and put his pointer finger near his thumb and said, “A very little part of your job.” And I recently watched the TedTalk that won the $1 million prize at Ted2013, the one in which Sugata Mitra stated that “schools as we know them are obsolete” because the country no longer needs teachers. Here’s how he envisions the classroom:
In the original idea of the “flipped classroom,” it seems that the teacher was responsible for recording the lecture and posting the video online, but it’s now becoming more efficient to link to a professional video. And there are now thousands of videos from which to choose. The Kahn Academy—a nonprofit that claims to provide “a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere”—features more than 6,500 free videos and advertises over 100,000 interactive lessons on various subjects. According to Forbes, more than 500,000 teachers worldwide use these videos, which also have over 500 million views on YouTube. Meanwhile, YouTube’s own education channel (“Where anyone, anywhere can learn or teach anything”) has 1 million-plus subscribers. And about 2,000 TED talks are available to view for free online and have been seen more than 1 billion times total. The list goes on.
I recently spoke with Monica Brady-Myerov, the CEO and founder of Listen Current, a website that curates the best of public radio, including current events, and offers the three- to five-minute clips alongside a full set of lesson plans and worksheets. When I asked her about the recent boom in lesson-plan production, she said, “It’s like the wild west right now, both in terms of online resources and educational technology. It’s why I quit my job [as a veteran award-winning public radio journalist], so I could ride out west.” Here’s what Listen Current looks like:
I found brief solace in the idea that I could still be the professional teacher that compiles all these resources—and then I found Edmodo. Branding itself as the “Facebook for schools,” Edmodo started in just 2008 and now has more than 48 million members. I signed up just to see what it was all about. Within five minutes, I found a great lesson on Romeo and Juliet by John Green (a favorite author among teens, and on the list of Time’s “100 most influential people”), a Kahn Academy video, immediate access to 100 famous speeches, and a somewhat fun interactive game based on Lord of the Flies. According toEdSurge, the Edmodo CEO earlier this month said, “We want to do for teacher resources what Netflix does for movies.”
Well then. At least I can organize the video lessons and put them together in a sensible order—except that Activate Instruction is already creating a free and open online tool that is “similar to Wikipedia” and will “help put resources and curriculum in one place that any teacher can use.” The company even put these materials in logical “playlists”; the first one I looked at contained 11 different professional resources for teaching a specific skill, including printable worksheets, an engaging video, an essay prompt, and a final assessment. And again, this company is just getting started—Activate Instruction was announced in 2013:
I measured myself against these websites and Internet companies. It seems clear that they already have a distinct advantage over me as an individual teacher. They have more resources, more money, an entire staff of professionals, and they get to concentrate on producing their specialized content, while the teacher is—almost by default—inherently encouraged to transform into a facilitator. Some people might cringe at a “Netflix for teachers,” but it’s almost impossible to deny the inherent advantages Netflix has over a local DVD store, and it’s easy to imagine the potential improvements that could happen to these modern services.
For how many more years can I compete? A dozen years ago, I proudly worked for about 20 hours to create a lesson plan that taught poetic meter through the analysis of a rap song (I remember continually rewinding the cassette in my walkman). Last week, the first lesson I saw on sharemylesson.com was a thoroughly analyzed song by Katy Perry, with a printable worksheet that featured at least 10 literary devices, along with a link to her video. ListenCurrent.com gives me immediate access to public-radio clips that took me hours to accumulate just a few months ago. I may not use Edmodo or anything like it this year, but I also didn’t use Facebook in its first few years—or Amazon, or cell phones, or even ATM machines. Isn’t it probable that this educational technology is going to be overwhelmingly awesome in 20 years? I hear the career counselor’s voice: “Try five or 10.”
* * *
I think to myself: These resources are already good for education, and they’re only getting better. Part of me is really excited that in two decades, the giant interactive classroom computer screen that I foresaw is going to be far more sophisticated than I can possibly imagine. Why should I stand in the way of crowdsourced lesson plans and professionally edited video tutorials? Shouldn’t I stop trying to compete as an individual “sage on the stage,” appreciate the modern efficiency of today’s resources, and re-invest my time as their enthusiastic “guide on the side”?
When I told the school’s golf coach about flipped learning, I explained that it would be as if he asked the kids to go home and watch YouTube videos that teach proper mechanics and then practice those skills under his supervision on the course. He laughed and answered, “Oh, we should absolutely do that. Hank Haney’s video’s are way better than anything I can show them.”
And if I can compete with Hank Haney, shouldn’t I be Hank Haney? In other words, if I think my lesson plans or video tutorials rival some of the best on the Internet (for now), shouldn’t I be trying to make six figures on the open marketplace at teacherspayteachers.com or as a curriculum designer for a private company? The dilemma intensifies when I suspect that un-credentialed “techs” might bust the teacher unions in 20 years (“try five or 10”).
I looked through the current trends for some sign that the future classroom I envisioned won’t be realized within 20 years. I read Terrance Ross’s analysis of the Bridge International Academies and how their “scripted instruction,” combined with technology and statistical feedback, has efficiently earned revenue while improving education in Kenya. Fast Company put the company on the list of “The World’s Top 10 Innovative Companies in Education,” citing the fact that it’s already serving over 110,000 students, is significantly outperforming neighboring schools in both reading and math, and plans on educating 10 million students by 2025.
In a similar vein, live-streaming and other technology are also allowing some modern churches to move toward a “multisite” format, one in which a single pastor can broadcast his sermons to satellite churches guided by pastors who—this might sound familiar—concentrate on the facilitation of a common itinerary. Ed Stetzer recently wrote on ChristianityToday.com that “multisite is the new normal,” and later explained, “it’s easier to create another extension site than it is to create another faithful pastor who is a great communicator … it’s easier to start a campus and beam my sermons to other locales than it is to raise up leaders and laypeople.”
And as I mentioned earlier, last night I watched Sugata Mitra earn a standing ovation, $1 million, and a partnership with Microsoft for his TedTalk that declared that the “future of learning” is a “school built in the cloud”—one that doesn’t require teachers. It seems fitting that I watched the speech from my laptop, and that Mitra is a former computer-science teacher. Last November, Newcastle University opened the first “global hub” based on Mitra’s research, which suggests that children in self-organized learning environments “can learn almost anything by themselves” (and a computer).
This morning I spoke with a well-respected high-school teacher who supervises a blended course in digital photography. The course is mostly taught online, but students meet once every two weeks in the classroom. “So in five years, if a student has five teachers using this blended-learning style, they can just stay home the entire semester?” I asked. Apparently they could. And that, it seems, is homeschooling—with the high school’s resources.
I wonder why larger discussions related to these trends aren’t happening with greater urgency, if they’re happening at all. How hot does the water have to get before the best teachers start jumping for jobs in the private sector? As local communities and school districts nationwide commit to blended-learning programs, are they considering the long-term ramifications to the nature of their classrooms? Does the American Federation of Teachers know that, as its teachers upload their lesson plans into the cloud, they might be helping build an entirely different school, ones with self-organized learning environments instead of teachers?
I don’t have many answers in this brave new world, but I feel like I can draw one firm line. There is a profound difference between a local expert teacher using the Internet and all its resources to supplement and improve his or her lessons, and a teacher facilitating the educational plans of massive organizations. Why isn’t this line being publicly and sharply delineated, or even generally discussed? This line should be rigorously guarded by those who want to keep education professionals in the center of each classroom. Those calling for teachers to “transform their roles,” regardless of motive or intentionality, are quietly erasing this line—effectively deconstructing the role of the teacher as it’s always been known.
Meanwhile, back on my campus, I wonder about the advice I should give a new teacher. Should I encourage this aspiring educator to fight for his or her role as the local expert, or simply get good at facilitating the best lessons available? Should I assure this person about my union and the notion of tenure, or should I urgently encourage him or her to create a back-up plan?
And when I think back to the original discussion, I wonder what I’m supposed to tell the college graduates who ask about earning a teaching credential. Because while I used to think I was scaring the youngster with my 20-year predictions, now I’m afraid I’m giving them false hope.
2 innovative educators share tons of tips for creating innovative, inquiry-based classrooms in only one day a week
Originally pioneered at places like 3M and HP, Google’s vaunted 20 percent time, which lets employees spend a full one-fifth of their time on passion projects, has spawned everything from Gmail to Google News. Now it’s gaining ground among educators who are carving out a chunk of their already-limited time with students to work on innovative inquiry-based projects that resonate on a deeper, personal level.
Recently, Juliani and Brookhouser shared their top tips for getting started, overcoming obstacles, and creating something students find truly meaningful.
1. Dedicate One Day A Week
When he began 20 percent projects in his classroom, Juliani decided to dedicate every Friday to the project, instead of 20 percent of each class day, which he found insufficient. “I wanted to give them the ability to get into that state of flow,” he says. “Giving them 10 minutes a day, they were never going to get into that.”
2. It’s Not Just for High School
Twenty percent projects can be used in any subject, and with any grade or skill level. “I’ve done genius hour at the elementary level all the way to doing it with teachers so it doesn’t really matter the level,” Juliani says. “It’s more or less how you’re structuring or framing it to what that actual subject or grade level is.”
3. Set Your Own Parameters
As English teachers, both Juliani and Brookhouser knew that students would be hitting standards just by virtue of all the speaking, listening, reading, and journal writing they’d be doing. For other subjects, they suggest setting parameters on a subject-by-subject basis. Math teachers, for example, might require students to do accounting or use equations to solve project problems.
4. Start With Interests
“Passions sometimes is a big word” for students, says Juliani, who began the project by asking students to name their interests instead. “Whether high school or middle school or elementary students, they don’t have passions, but they have interests.”
5. Inspire Students With Great Projects
Over the years, Brookhouser’s students have worked with local architects to develop an eco-friendly dream home, started YouTube communities around teen fiction books, began an Instagram account (@CookThat) encouraging girls to cook and have healthy relationships with food, created their own games using Java, and more.
6. Use 20 Time to Improve the Community
Brookhouser uses his 20 percent time to foster student engagement within their school and community. “I first want my students to focus on their audience rather than their own personal passions, and filling a need that’s out there,” he says. Once they tap into that need, “I think the passion comes as a product of that.”
7. Find Projects That Pay
For students that struggled even to find an interest, Juliani got creative juices flowing by challenging students to turn a profit. “I had a couple students that did projects where they were trying to make money and that’s what drove them. If you get students to choose a project they care about or are interested in the rest of it goes much more smoothly.”
8. Get Students Thinking Like Entrepreneurs
According to Brookhouser, “increasingly, no matter what position anyone takes, students who enter in the real world need to think of themselves as entrepreneurs, even if they end up working at an organization or a big corporation. We all need to solve problems in an innovative way, and that’s really the big goal.”
9. Group Projects Work Well
For the most part, Brookhouser encouraged students to partner up for their projects. “They can do so much more together working as a team,” he says. “And in the real world generally we work in teams.” Likewise, groups can be used in younger grades to get students with similar interests collaborating with each other.
10. …Solo Ones Do, Too
Juliani, on the other hand, had students work individually. But instead of isolating students, it actually brought the class closer together, as they became interested in each other’s projects and their personal interests. “One of the side benefits was the kids learning more about each other through this project and also me learning more about my students,” he says.
11. Let Students Pitch the Class
Both Brookhouser and Juliani hold formal “pitch days” where students present their project idea via PowerPoint, with Juliani even fashioning his after the popular elevator pitch show Shark Tank. “They got four slides: what they were learning about, why they chose it, what they were going to do, and how they were going to measure success,” he says.
12. And Let Students Give Feedback
During the pitch-day event, Juliani encouraged students to share their feedback on each other’s projects. As a result, “so many students upped what they were doing,” he says. “It was like positive peer pressure.”
13. Think Practically About Projects
“As a teacher you’re going to have to become much more active to do two things: challenging the students to push themselves a little bit and then also reeling some students back in who are maybe going above and beyond,” says Juliani, who adds that students can always continue a project with new goals in the next semester if they want.
14. Be Flexible
At some point, students will likely have to tweak their projects. One year, a group of Brookhouser’s students aimed to break the Guinness World Record for the world’s longest continuous BBQ. But after consulting with Guinness the students discovered they were too young to compete. Instead, they took the work they had done and turned it into an event to feed the homeless. “In the end, they felt really great about the work that they did.”
15. Connect With Professionals
Brookhouser has gotten a lot of support for the project from local businesses and experts—like doctors and architects—via mentorships, where the professionals lend their expertise and their time to students. “I think a lot people recognize the value of participating in the education of young people,” he says.
16. Create Something Tangible
At the end of each semester Juliani’s students must have something to show for their work. It could be a report or a presentation, or something more creative. He recalls one student who used her time to learn American Sign Language to communicate with a deaf niece. For her final project, “she got up at the end of the presentation and she performed a song in Sign Language.”
17. Keep Track of Student Progress
In addition to a final presentation, Brookhouser tells every student to blog about their projects as a means of keeping him in the loop. “They include an image and that’s how I keep them accountable for what they’re doing,” he says. “I use that as a tool to keep them motivated.”
18. Some Sacrifice Is Necessary
Even though Brookhouser ultimately had to give up some of the traditional literature he usually taught, he says the trade off is well worth it. “On some level it’s painful to give up anything, but what my students are producing instead in that time is nothing less than inspiring,” he says.
19. Tech Helps, But Isn’t Required
“It’s much easier to let students explore when they have technology,” Juliani says. “They can reach out to mentors online, they can watch videos–they have so much more opportunity to learn on their own…. We’ve done it in classrooms without technology, but it really amplifies it.”
20. Share Your Success
For his final presentations, Brookhouser doesn’t just let the class listen in, he invites parents, younger students, community leaders, and media to attend. “They all have five minutes to present,” he says, “and that’s their opportunity to shine. The fact that they know they’re going to be presenting their work to others, including their peers, keeps them motivated to do their best work.”
By now, it’s no secret that tech has a gender problem. Recently, the same press that once lauded Silicon Valley’s meritocracy has taken a more sordid view of the same landscape. Or maybe it’s just a more honest one which admits that although hiring more women yields higher profits, minimal progress has been made.
Earlier this year, Google announced that more than four-fifths of its American workforce is male. It also pledged to donate up to $50 million to nonprofits that aim to close this gender divide.
How is that money being put to use?
Three months later, several U.S. national nonprofits have received grants from Google’s Made with Code initiative. In the U.S. capitol, Girls Inc. of theWashington, DC Metropolitan Area is one of them. They received $2,500 from their national affiliate to host 100 local girls at coding parties across four DC wards by December 31, 2014.
Their aim is to excite girls about what they can create with code, at an age when they are most likely to start abandoning STEM subjects in school. This involves teaching them what code can do – or, more specifically, what code can build that they might not have thought of.
“So far, we have hosted four coding parties serving 50 girls total,” Christina Brown, program coordinator at Girls Inc. DC, told The Next Web. “Three more hosting parties have already been scheduled to take place between the rest of September and the month of October. We are hoping to schedule at least one more in the month of October. We have partnered with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington to host coding parties to introduce their girls to the world of code as well.”
After a series of icebreakers and team building activities, girls at these parties make their own projects that range from JPEGs and avatars to music beats and jewelry.
“During the Coding Parties, we coded bracelets on madewithcode.com,” a 12-year-old participant named Calder explained via Girls Inc. DC. “We also coded avatars and some musical beats. I learned that code is used for a lot more than just computer websites and apps – it is used for music, jewelry, clothing, and so much more.”
But what happens once the parties end? Are they enough to spearhead further action?
Denese Lombardi, Executive Director of Girls Inc. DC, is well aware that inspiring girls to pursue STEM careers involves more than one-off events. It’s why she offers their girls options to learn more about these subjects during the nonprofit’s after-school programs. These programs, as well as the Made with Code parties, are an extension of a six-week summer camp that is hosted in partnership with Women’s Society of Cyberjutsu and Lockheed Martin.
And the nonprofit also offers SHE-E-O Career Days, where their girls “speed network” with women in STEM careers. Thus far, more than 100 girls have networked with women at companies like Cisco, NASA, Exxon, and more. Girls Inc. DC says they are thrilled to be working with Google, and hope Made with Code can be the catalyst for more direct mentorship.
In the meantime, Girls Inc. DC is focused on its Crowdrise campaign to buy an onsite 3D printer. Lombardi says the campaign will run at least through the end of 2014. She hopes that an on-site printer will allow their girls to see the instant results of their work, and continue coding/creating.
Students aren’t the only ones who should take advantage of the summer break and dive into a few good books. Blogs across the Web agree it’s the perfect season for both pleasure reading and professional development. Articles have been popping up with suggestions (even Pinterest pages!), so we’ve done a little research and selected a few we think our readers would find most useful for their betterment in the private-independent school world.
21st Century Skills, Learning For Life In Our Times
by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel
The content includes the basic core subjects of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also emphasizes global awareness, financial/economic literacy, and health issues. The skills fall into three categories: learning and innovation skills, digital literacy skills, and life and career skills. This book is filled with vignettes, international examples, and classroom samples that help illustrate the framework and provide an exciting view of 21 century teaching and learning.
When Can Your Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education
by Daniel T. Willingham
Each year, teachers, administrators, and parents face a barrage of education software, games, workbooks, and professional development programs purporting to be “based on the latest research.” While some of these products are rooted in solid science, the research behind many others is grossly exaggerated. This book helps everyday teachers, administrators, and family members separate the wheat from the chaff and determine which educational approaches are scientifically supported and worth adopting.
Leadership and the Art of Struggle: How Great Leaders Grow Through Challenge and Adversity
By Steven Snyder
Using real-life stories drawn from his extensive research studying 151 diverse episodes of leadership struggle—as well as from his experiences working with Bill Gates in the early years of Microsoft and as a CEO and executive coach—Snyder shows how to navigate intense challenges to achieve personal growth and organizational success. He details strategies for embracing struggle and offers a host of unique tools and hands-on practices to help you implement them. By mastering the art of struggle, you’ll be better equipped to meet life’s challenges and focus on what matters most.
How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character
by Paul Tough
How Children Succeed introduces us to a new generation of researchers and educators, who, for the first time, are using the tools of science to peel back the mysteries of character. Through their stories—and the stories of the children they are trying to help—Tough reveals how this new knowledge can transform young people’s lives. He uncovers the surprising ways in which parents do—and do not—prepare their children for adulthood. And he provides us with new insights into how to improve the lives of children growing up in poverty. This provocative and profoundly hopeful book will not only inspire and engage readers, it will also change our understanding of childhood itself.
Is College Worth It?: A Former United States Secretary of Education and a Liberal Graduate Expose the Broken Promise of Higher Education
by Dr. William J. Bennett, David Wilezol
For many students, a bachelor’s degree is considered the golden ticket to a more financially and intellectually fulfilling life. But the disturbing reality is that debt, unemployment, and politically charged pseudo learning are more likely outcomes for many college students today than full-time employment and time-honored knowledge. This book uses personal experience, statistical analysis, and real-world interviews to provide answers to some of the most troubling social and economic problems of our time.
Transformative Leadership in Education: Equitable Change in an Uncertain and Complex World
by Carolyn M. Shields
In the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world of education today, leaders need to take an engaged, activist, and courageous approach to help build optimistic futures for all students. Transformative Leadership in Education presents an alternative approach to leadership for deep and equitable change. Using vignettes, stories, research, and drawing on scholarship from a range of disciplines, noted scholar Carolyn M. Shields explores the concept of transformative leadership and its potential to create learning environments that are just and inclusive. Drawing on examples from transformative school leaders, Shields demonstrates that this leadership can promote academic achievement, family and community empowerment, democratic engagement, and global citizenship.
A very interesting concept in support of providing regular time for students to be innovators, and to shape a portion of their education. Perhaps our “Innovation Week” should evolve into providing weekly time or “genius hour” for students to innovate.
Have you ever met an adult who doesn’t really love what they do, but just goes through the motions in their job and everyday life? Have you spoken with men and women who constantly complain, showing no visible passion for anything in the world? I’m sure that, like me, you have met those people. I’ve also seen the making of these adults in schools across our country: students who are consistently being “prepared” for the next test, assessment, or grade level . . . only to find out after graduation that they don’t really know what they are passionate about. These are the same students who are never allowed to learn what they want in school. Forced down a curriculum path that we believe is “best for them,” they discover it is a path that offers very little choice in subject matter and learning outcomes.
Enter 20% time.
What 20% time allows students to do is pick their own project and learning outcomes, while still hitting all the standards and skills for their grade level. In fact, these students often go “above and beyond” their standards by reaching for a greater depth of knowledge than most curriculum tends to allow. The idea for 20% time in schools comes from Google’s own 20% policy, where employees are given twenty percent of their time to work and innovate on something else besides their current project. It’s been very successful in business practice, and now we can say that it has been wildly successful in education practice.
With 20% time, we can solve one society’s biggest problems by giving students a purpose for learning and a conduit for their passions and interests. If you listen to Sir Ken Robinson or Daniel Pink talk, you’ll discover this is an issue that starts with schooling. We spend 14,256 hours in school between kindergarten and graduation. If we can’t find a time for students to have some choice in their learning, then what are we doing with all those hours? There are many in education who are questioning “why 20% time would be good for schools,” so I’ve made it easy for each stakeholder to see the benefits.
It starts with the students. They are the reason we teach, and the future of our world. My daughter is four years old, and soon to be going through our public school system. I want her generation to have opportunities to explore, analyze and create projects that have unique meaning to each of them. Instead of answering a multiple choice test on The Great Gatsby, why can’t my daughter have the opportunity to write, collaborate, sing and produce a song that explains in detail the major themes of the story. Through 20% time, we give our students a voice in their own learning path, and allow them to go into depth in subjects that we may skim over in our curriculum.
We’ve got a tough but extremely rewarding job. Great teachers inspire and make a difference, but great classrooms have students inspiring each other. I’ve never received a better response from my students than when we did 20% time. Our class came together and learned everyone’s true interests and passions. We got over the fear of failing together. We cheered for each other during presentations, and picked each other up when things didn’t go as planned. We had conversations about standards, skills and learning goals. Using 20% time allowed me to “teach above the test,” and my students finally understood that learning doesn’t start or end with schooling.
Remember that conversation starter, “What’d you do in school today?” It will lead to an actual conversation during 20% time projects! I talked to a parent (who is also an elementary teacher) just last week about her daughter’s experience with Genius Hour. She said, “I always knew my daughter liked design and fashion magazines, but what girl doesn’t? When she came home making and creating her own clothes, I was shocked. I went to the store with her to pick out patterns, helped her sew, and actually make a few outfits!” We want our children to be successful. Sometimes we equate that with an “A” on a test. But what 20% time does is make success something tangible. It drives their hidden passions to the surface, and reinvigorates conversation about purpose in their lives.
Go watch the project presentations. When you see a tenth grader try to “clone a carnivorous plant,” or a ninth grader learn sign language to communicate with her deaf younger cousin, or a fourth grader produce his own movie, then you’ll know why 20% rocks. Sometimes as administrators, we can get lost in the numbers (test scores, graduation rates, etc), but 20% time and Genius Hour projects bring us back to why we got into education in the first place: to make a difference. My principal said those were the best presentations she ever saw — not because of the content, but because of the conviction the students had for their work. As an administrator, it is important to lead through support. Let your students and teachers make you proud by supporting these types of inquiry-based experiences.