Reorienting Education Toward Sustainability

The greatest dilemma that humanity faces today is an unprecedented need for large scale and rapid change.  Our situation is urgent, as the environmental and social challenges before us indicate.  We face a convergence of crises, from climate change and global warming, to the increasing number of environmental refugees and the effects of rampant consumerism.  All of which urgently call for action.  Although there is no universal solution to our vast array of problems, it is quite clear that we must change the ways by which we think, act, consume and waste, collectively.

Ultimately, many of the problems that face us today are the result of yesterday’s solutions.  We have arrived at our current situation only because we have been so successful.  Industrial and consumer outlooks have increasingly dominated our ways of thinking over the last two hundred years.  These ways of thinking have brought forth extraordinary successes beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

This is, in part, what makes our challenge so daunting.  We are faced with the reality that our old ways of doing things will no longer serve us, and yet they have been so astonishingly successful in the past.  What needs to change is an established norm, and such changes do not come about easily.  In his book, The Necessary Revolution, Peter Senge writes that the Industrial Revolution “did not simply change the way we worked; it transformed the way we lived, the way we thought about ourselves, and the way we viewed the world.  Nothing like it had ever occurred before” (2008, p. 14).  This is the magnitude of change that is needed today.

The impacts the Industrial Revolution had on quality of life were undeniable.  As industrial expansion continued into the twentieth century, life expectancy in the industrial world roughly doubled, literacy jumped from 20 percent to over 90 percent, and benefits hitherto unimaginable sprang up in the form of products (from private cars to iPods), services (from air travel to eBay), and astounding advances in medicine, communication, education, and entertainment.  With this kind of success, it is little wonder that the side effects of the Industrial Age success story went largely ignored. (Senge, 2008, p. 15)

The dominant modes of thinking of the Industrial Age have produced astounding progress and success, but also severe side effects.  The very advances that have enabled such perceived increases in quality of life are also the causes of critical imbalances in the natural orders of things.  Advances in industrial production and consumption of goods, among other advances, have contributed to several unsustainable crisis situations, both socially and ecologically.

Although the concept of sustainability is not new, it is being discussed more frequently.  In a recent guide, the steering committee for the Saskatchewan Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Network (2009) notes that “calls for sustainability date back to the 1970s, when the combined effects of human population growth and resource consumption started to appear at the global level” (p. 4).  As the discourse around the concept of sustainability develops, it is becoming increasingly clear that in order for significant change to take place, a shift in the role of education is necessary.  “It is also clear that sustainability is ultimately about transforming the values, beliefs, and attitudes that support, and are reinforced by Western industrialized cultures” (SaskESD Network, 2009).  Dr. Glenn Sutter, curator of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, and chair of the Saskatchewan ESD Network has written that in order “to foster a culture of sustainability, we need to develop appropriate technologies, policies, and regulations at various scales, but these need to be supported by a fundamental shift in our thinking and actions, ostensibly through education” (2005, p. iv).

Educators of the Future

Isaac Asimov stated in the early 1930’s……….

“It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”

Undoubtedly, our world is changing drastically and rapidly.  These changes make us question the foundations of our systems of education and schooling.  It is becoming increasingly essential that educators continue to stay current and familiar with emerging technologies and that they are comfortable integrating a variety of technologies into their educational practices.  Technological literacy has emerged as an essential literacy of equal importance to reading, writing, mathematics, scientific inquiry, and critical and creative thought.  However, it is also important to remember that technology is often the medium, and should not be confused with the message.  Educators of the future face the challenge of implementing technology in order to aid in reaching the larger goals of education; in order to create motivated life-long learners who have the skills, abilities and the willingness to educate themselves.  As the Internet and the ‘world of Education’ continue to shift progressively toward a notion of open thinking, sharing, and collaboration, the role of the teacher must also shift from sole provider of knowledge to a facilitator of learning.  As our planet and the human race face a convergence of simultaneous crisis, the implementation of web technologies will not be education’s greatest challenge.  Teachers will increasingly be faced with the challenge to create projects and learning environments that aim towards solving real world problems and sustainability.

Digital Storytelling

In Dean Shareski’s latest post on his blog ‘Ideas and Thoughts”, he passes on the idea [with credit to Doug Peterson, ZeFrank, Stephen Downs among others] that Google Streetview and its ever growing database is an exceptional tool for storytelling.  Dean created and shared a video about his small hometown of Morden in Manitoba, which emphasizes the point about Google’s growing database – even relatively small towns have now been ‘Streetviewed’.

Dean also shares a link to a video by Jim Groom, saying that, “Watching Jim Groom’s video, was like literally like going for a walk with him.”  It was Jim’s video that really hit me with the power of Google Streetview.  Jim tells his story about growing up in a tight-knit community in Long Island.  This is a part of the world that I know almost nothing about, and yet after watching his video,  I feel that I would ‘know my way around’ if I was to go for a walk in his neighbourhood.  I feel that I’ve learned something about the culture that is associated with the place.  Now Jim’s story is not particularly exciting or interesting, although I do feel that I have learned about that part of New York.  It is the power of this technology that I have found exciting and interesting.  If this technology was used by someone who did have an interesting story to tell, it could be quite powerful.  Google Streetview allows anyone with the right technology, and a bit of time, to create engaging videos to support a story of a place.

So I got to thinking about place, and stories of place.  What place would I love to tell a story about, and share with my students?  I first Googled my house, and switched to Street View.  I thought that it was pretty cool that my property was on Street View, although not interesting enough to share with anyone.  Then I thought about one of my favourite places on this planet… the artists’ market square in Montmartre, Paris, France.  I Googled Montmartre, and sure enough Street View was available.  I had to call upon my memory from walking the streets of Montmartre several years ago, and eventually found my way to the artists’ square.  If done right, some very interesting stories could be told with the Street View images of this heavily trafficked place.

The man in the green shirt in the center of the image below is a painter by the name of Cawian Mahmud.   When I visited this square about six years ago with my wife, we bought four paintings from Cawian to decorate our newly purchased house.  It was quite interesting to me to ‘find’ him in street view, as I have often wondered if he still worked and painted in Paris.  Cawian’s story is just one of the details that could be interwoven into a Google Street View walk through Montmartre.

I doubt that my small attempt is a great example (especially since I haven’t yet made a video of the ‘streetview walk’), never-the-less, I think the power of Street View is evident.  Whether used by teachers, or by students, Street View can be used to create interesting stories about the culture of a place.

On-line PD – I’ll Get to the Point

In order for true quality professional development to take place, I think that we need to address some of the ways around which we think about professional development as educational systems.  Yes, it is certainly true that there are hundreds of on-line tools and resources available to enhance PD, but I don’t think that it would matter if we had hundreds of thousands of excellent tools to choose from.   These tools are simply the medium through which to facilitate PD.  If there is no unified direction of message, does it really matter what tools or media are used?

Herein lies the point.  There seems to be a lack of direction as to where we need to head in education.  There seems to be a lack of direction in aiming towards best practices in education, and there is certainly a lack of direction in how we should best utilize professional learning time.  Essentially, I believe this to be an issue of control, and I think it is time to let go.  Traditionally, educational systems and their leaders have prided themselves in their abilities to create quality professional development sessions that have been intended for the masses; a great majority of teachers.  I don’t think this works anymore.  We simply have too much choice, and that is a good thing.  Let’s embrace our power of choice.

It is time for educational systems and their leaders to understand that TEACHERS ARE LIFE-LONG LEARNERS. It is time to give up the control over how PD time is to be spent.  We need to pass this control over to the individual teachers who, as dedicated life-long learners, will ultimately decide what their best possible learning path is, and how they should best go about it.  This is how true PD will take place.  Teachers must be invested in their learning in order for it to take place. A growing number of teachers are finding many current PD opportunities are simply not engaging.

Scenario A.  A PD session is implemented with mandatory attendance from all staff members.  The PD session is designed in a sort of ‘top down’ approach in which the direction was decided upon by an educational leader.  The topic is yet another of several ‘new initiatives’.  The session is well attended, and many staff members contribute to the discussion, however others are not engaged, even sowing buttons on shirts in the back of the room.

Scenario B.  A block of time is set aside for PD opportunities to take place.  Staff members were given advance notice and ample time to ‘choose their own adventure’.  Some staff members have decided to drive to other schools in the system to meet with teachers with a similar focus.  One group in particular meets to learn photography techniques from a teacher who has already set up a successful photography program.  Other teachers decide to head to their classrooms.  One teacher uses his lap-top to watch a lecture from professor Michael Wesch via Ustream.  Another spends time watching a few TED Talks videos about creativity [like Ken Robinson’s, or Elizabeth Gilbert’s].  A small group of teachers meet to discuss potential recycling and composting projects to be implemented in the school.  One of the teachers in this group logs in to Tapped In, and they meet up with a couple of other teachers in another city who have already begun similar projects.  Another teacher browses through a list of new Web 2.0 tools and begins to play with software she was not familiar with.  Several others meet in the library for a more traditional and guided PD session and discussion about literacy.

From these example scenarios, it is my opinion that the second involves a higher level of professional development.  More teachers are engaged in their learning, as they’ve had control over the design of their learning path.  In order for this to happen, we need to change our outlook about PD.  We need to understand that professional learning can take place on-line.  We need to understand that PD can be solitary, and that professional learning can take place by watching quality lectures or YouTube and TedTalk videos.  It’s time to give the control of professional learning over to the professional who is to be learning.

On-line PD – TEDx Indie

There are an ever-growing variety of Internet tools, programs, and technologies that pose great potential for professional development opportunities to take place either on a local or global scale.  Over the last week or so, I have taken a look at the following:

In my last post I talked about about the VWBPE Conference in Second Life and how that led me to some professional learning about augmented reality.  I began to contemplate and consider how augmented reality is already becoming a prominent part of our digital world, especially with GPS tools, smart phones, and iTools like iPads, iPhones, and iTouches.  This led me to some reflection about augmented reality in the classrooms and some thoughts about the iSchool initiative.

The next on-line PD resource that got my brainwave moving was TEDxTalks.  As most tech savy educators, I’ve been a fan of TED talks for a while.  Many of these lectures are quite exceptional, and I’ve often played TED talk videos in my classroom.  My favourite TED talks are lectures by visual artist and activist Chris Jordan, Al Gore,  and by Sir Ken RobinsonWill Richardson posted an early morning ‘brain dump’ after a mind jolting experience at TEDxNYED in New York.  As a fan of TED, I was already interested, and then Will’s list of speakers really had me intrigued: Michael Wesch, Lawrence Lessig, George Siemens, Chris Lehman, and many, many others.  What is this TEDxNYED?  I followed his link, and then another, and another, and I ended up on YouTube’s TEDx channel.  I was blown away by the number of very high quality lectures, and really just the very concept of TEDx.

TED has always been an excellent resource for professional development.  There are just so many great lectures on TED, and TEDx is a very welcome addition.  I browsed through, and quickly found a series of TED lectures from NASA.  After a few short lectures, I am now much more knowledgeable about the happenings on Mars, and about our advancement in the engineering science of robotics.  I haven’t managed to find any of the New York ED video here yet.  If you know where I can view them, let me know.  I’d like to see another lecture from Michael Wesch.

Want to know more about robots in 2010?

On-line PD – Augmented Reality – iSchool

The 3rd Annual Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education Conference in Second Life (VWBPE) took place on-line in the virtual world of Second Life last Friday and Saturday.  This conference was absolutely massive, and brought together educators, researchers, academics, and business professionals from around the world with a focus on 3D virtual collaborative environments and how they can best be used to support education.  Just one glance at the 48-hour schedule of this conference will give you a sense of just how massive this was, as it offered a vast array of topics  through more than 170 presentations in the virtual world.

Unfortunately my real life schedule didn’t allow me to spend very much time at this conference in Second Life.  However, I did pop in and out a few times to check it out, and did watch a lecture about the fascinating topic of Augmented Reality that was posted as a video by treet.tv.  I’ve learned a lot about augmented reality, and see that this is something that poses a lot of potential impact to education.  Augmented reality is essentially the data and information, aided by tech tools, overlaid upon the real world in real time.  This is the direction that our technology infused world is heading.  Tools like the iPhone and iPad have already made augmented reality a reality, and I suppose that it is only a mater of time before education finds a way to embrace this. I love this young man’s argument about this point.  I love this  iSchool Initiative argument because I believe that such a one-to-one initiative could be a solution to many problems that face education today.  iTools allow students to bring augmented reality into the classroom, and therefore all of the worlds recorded history at there fingertips, all day, everyday.   Its happening anyway, and it would be wise for education systems to take some leadership before we have chaos.

As it stands now, many of our students are showing up to class with ‘smart phones’ in their pockets.  And for the most part, we tell them that they are not allowed to use them.  There are a couple of very important issues to consider here.  One is of course an enlarging generation gap between teacher and student, or perhaps a growing disconnect between students and the system.  These smart phones are becoming an essential part of how many students communicate in this world.  When students bring these small computers into the class, the education system essentially responds with, “Well that is how you can communicate ‘out there’, but in here, we’re going to communicate the ‘old way’ [even if we have computers in the room].”  Of coarse this is going to cause some disconnect.  Another issue is the issue of equity and equality.  Some students are showing up with powerful Blackberries, others with iPhones, some with much simpler cell-phones, and still many with no technology of their own.  This is an area in which schools will very soon need to take some leadership in order to ensure that all students have equal access to the ‘augmented’ layer of information that the Internet provides.

I understand that this post is getting quite lengthy already, but I want to finish with a short example.  In my art room, many students depend on having a image to look at in order to practice their drawing or painting skills.  If students want an image, they often need to leave the room and use the computers in the library or computer lab in order to print an image.  When they return, they have a black and white image that they found through a Google image search.  They often get started with their drawing, but then come back again to ask if they can see the image in colour, or if it can be printed in colour.  Now, this year, I’ve had a few students who have a large image printed in black and white for their drawings, but use their smart phones to view images in colour.  Of coarse there are many ways to provide equal access to colour images in my classroom, and last year I had a student printing station set up [that lap-top has died].  The point is that it seems logical that all students should have their own devices that allow them to see images in colour, thus no longer requiring colour prints, and making access to this advantage fair and equal.  Student prefer to use their own devices, and are using them in class anyway, but the students that can afford the best phones, have the best access.

Our PD Problem – A Lack of Direction

On Will Richardson’s Weblogg-ed yesterday, he discussed Linda Darling-Hammond’s new book The Flat World and Education.  Will describes her book as being “rich with detail about everything that’s troubling about the US education system (and the potential fixes).”  A section of her book describes the deficiencies relating to professional development in American education, and she states, “the landscape of supports for quality teaching looks like Swiss cheese.” I find this an apt description also of Canadian education as well, certainly in my realm.  Darling-Hammond discusses the general inconsistency in the delivery of professional development – a problem that exists here as well.  Will shares some ‘extended snips’ of her book that clearly outline her point [which I recommend reading – here].

“When a profession’s knowledge is not organized and made available to the practitioners who need it most, advances in the state of both knowledge and practice are slowed.”
“If teachers, principals, superintendents, and other professionals do not share up-to-date knowledge about effective practices, the field runs around in circles: Curriculum and teaching practices are inconsistent, many poor decisions are made, and the efforts of those who are successful are continually undermined and counteracted by the activities of those who are uninformed and unskilled.”
“Students experience an instructional hodgepodge caused by the failure of the system to provide the knowledge and tools needed by the educators who serve them.”

When I read these words, I can’t help but feel that she is describing the education system of which I am a part.  Now, I don’t mean to be overly critical of my principal, superintendents, directors or other leaders in my system.  I am quite sure that most have very good intentions for education, as well as for professional development opportunities.  However, I don’t think that it is a stretch to describe our current situation of professional development in education as ‘looking like Swiss cheese’, or ‘not organized and made available’, and that teachers are ‘running around in circles’.

Darling-Hammond criticizes the American education system, saying that American teachers spend more time in the classroom and have less opportunity for professional development than in other nations.  In Canada, I don’t necessarily see that we have a problem in a lack of opportunity for professional development especially in terms of time.  The problem is not a lack of available time, it is a lack of unity.  Our professional development opportunities only contribute to the chaos that is keeping us running in circles and creating and instructional hodgepodge.  There is no cohesiveness of direction, there is no unified messages or guidance of message, there is no consistency of direction for best practices in education.  So as I don’t criticize the intentions of the leaders of my system, I do criticize the lack of consistency of direction.

Richardson criticizes Darling-Hammond’s book, noting that, “there is very little here in terms of a meaningful discussion around what role technology plays in educating for a “flat world.” Kind of ironic.”  He goes on to discuss his own work with PLP that he feels “addresses most of the issues that Darling-Hammond cites.”  My next post will discuss a variety of web tools and resources that offer great potential for professional development opportunities.  As I head in a direction of evaluating or critiquing such resources, I can’t help but think that these tools are simply the medium.  There are some truly great technological tools that pose great benefits to opportunities for professional development.  However, if there is no unified direction of message, does it really matter what tools or media are used?

Darling-Hammond advocates for state and federal intervention as a solution to these issues.  However she goes on to say that, “I’m not optimistic that will happen anytime soon.  We can’t seem to agree on much in this country these days.”  And I think that this statement points towards the root of the problem.  Do we lack consistency of direction because we have too much choice?  With research that points in so many directions, do we no longer have any direction of best practices in education?