Around the Classroom in 80 Games: Zendo

A few weeks ago, a colleague (high school Science teacher) sent me the following thought by email: "I'm watching the middle school boys play a ball game incorporating the dirt pile on the green - how much more fun would professional sports be to watch if the fields were non-planar .... and changed randomly from game to game requiring improvisation on arrival ….."

She and I talk a lot about education and most importantly educational practice. Classroom method. Lab practices. What works and what doesn’t? What do students in 2016 really need that makes them different from students in our classrooms ten years ago. That sort of thing.

Now from a gaming perspective, this email was awesome! My response was: "I can't even tell you how much I love this! A quick bit of game-design theory: every game is defined by its own "magic circle." The magic circle is composed of the rules, equipment and physical characteristics of the game...these things separate gamespace from realspace. You could take almost any physical sport and incorporate a non-planar element and you'd change the magic circle and hence the game. Think about the difference between skiing with or without moguls, for instance."

From a teaching practice perspective, it is in some respects even more intriguing. What factors/qualities make up the “magic circle” of your personal practice as a teacher? How does a student know the difference between being in your class and being in a colleague’s class? The students know this. Bet on it. Do you? Perhaps you should investigate this, if only to sharpen your own perception of what you do and why you do it.

What might you do differently with your students tomorrow that would shake up their expectations? How will you make your fields non-planar?

Bring Some Moguls to Your Teaching Practice

A few weeks ago, a colleague (high school Science teacher) sent me the following thought by email: "I'm watching the middle school boys play a ball game incorporating the dirt pile on the green - how much more fun would professional sports be to watch if the fields were non-planar .... and changed randomly from game to game requiring improvisation on arrival ….."

She and I talk a lot about education and most importantly educational practice. Classroom method. Lab practices. What works and what doesn’t? What do students in 2016 really need that makes them different from students in our classrooms ten years ago. That sort of thing.

Now from a gaming perspective, this email was awesome! My response was: "I can't even tell you how much I love this! A quick bit of game-design theory: every game is defined by its own "magic circle." The magic circle is composed of the rules, equipment and physical characteristics of the game...these things separate gamespace from realspace. You could take almost any physical sport and incorporate a non-planar element and you'd change the magic circle and hence the game. Think about the difference between skiing with or without moguls, for instance."

From a teaching practice perspective, it is in some respects even more intriguing. What factors/qualities make up the “magic circle” of your personal practice as a teacher? How does a student know the difference between being in your class and being in a colleague’s class? The students know this. Bet on it. Do you? Perhaps you should investigate this, if only to sharpen your own perception of what you do and why you do it.

What might you do differently with your students tomorrow that would shake up their expectations? How will you make your fields non-planar?

Experience Points Peer-to-Peer

Those of us who remember the old days of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (or the even more classic editions predating AD&D) can’t help but marvel at the roleplaying renaissance that’s been going on for at least the last ten years or so. In that time, one of the most innovative of these new independently-published RPGs has to be Numenera. Set in the “Ninth World,” (essentially an Earth so transformed by technology and change as to be unrecognizable…but still fundamentally Earth at the same time…you have to play to see what I mean) Numenera brings a host of innovations to the table that old-school gamers could really appreciate.

This article isn’t about the play experience of Numenera, though. Rather, it’s about one mechanic in the game that could easily be ported into your gamified classroom. Useful in any gamified classroom setting, this particular mechanic is uniquely suited to a classroom where you’re using avatars, skill systems or other forms of mimicry.

In every roleplaying game there is a system by which characters earn experience points (XPs), gain levels (reflecting that increased experience) and generally gain abilities to interact with the game world with greater and greater success. These experience point systems make it possible for characters to defeat challenges that in an earlier stage in the game would have been impossible. 

Experience systems always begin and end with the evaluation of the player’s work in that particular game session by the gamemaster. Every game has some rubric, (usually not very sophisticated) that helps the gamemaster make decisions about the awarding of experience. Experience points are a highly valuable commodity as they determine the speed at which characters progress.

Numenera has this kind of experience point system, but it adds a twist…there’s also a way for players to award experience points to the other players. That, from a gaming perspective, is revolutionary. In certain circumstances, the gamemaster in Numenera can offer a player what’s called an “intrusion.” In an intrusion, the gamemaster does something or changes something that alters the course of the game or interferes with players’ decision making in some way. Players don’t have to accept an intrusion, but when they do, they earn an experience point for themselves and an experience point that they have to give away to one of their fellow players. In this way, the players themselves are always part of the process of rewarding excellent play.

Envision a class experience where your students have created avatars to represent themselves.  Over the course of the unit/course, the avatars in question are going to gain experience through defeating obstacles and gaining knowledge and skills (sound familiar?). You could create a list of skills that are of interest to you…that you want your students to gain mastery in (like using punctuation correctly, understanding the difference between parts of a cell or synthesizing non-fiction reading) and give your students the capacity to recognize these skills in their peers. Perhaps there are some skills that an avatar can level only by gaining experience from fellow players.

In this way, you help your students understand the particulars of the learning objective. Moreover, you help them see the value of these particulars and to see the value contributed to the class as a whole by different classmates. This can, with thoughtful management by you, help develop a positive classroom culture.

The Unassailable Rule of Classroom Gamification

A great article from a few years back makes a case I’ve been making for years. When thinking about gamification in education, it is a mistake to focus only on the games themselves. As I have begun to argue elsewhere, games can and do have a role in your classroom. That role, however, is limited and must be carefully monitored. The game doesn’t serve its own purpose. It has to serve your learning objectives and your deeper goals for your students. Sometimes a game is uniquely suited to those deeper objectives. If it is, by all means use it! As I argued about the game Zendo, it is a particularly powerful tool to have students not just think about critical thinking abstractly but to actually do critical thinking (and to do it in a way that is meant explicitly to be fun…they can then apply the skill learned in the game in contexts that aren’t necessarily meant to be fun).

Rather than focusing on the games, focus on the gamification. What does this mean? A quote from the article gives a direction. “…gamification isn’t about games, but about game mechanics. Users don’t need to win or lose an entire game experience to become involved.” This is where gamified instruction has unique potential benefits. Every great game (and I mean this without exception) is an involvement engine first and foremost. Games want to be played! And great games make playing easy, richly rewarding and highly engaging.

The first rule of gamification in the classroom: it’s not really about the game. It’s about how your learning objectives can be served by one or more game mechanics.

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Ultima IV and Ultima V are among the most intriguing of RPG designs ever offered. Centering gameplay in the development of one's moral character (or responding to the ways such moral systems can actually become perverted), they push players in unexpected and intriguing ways. This great essay on these games is a reminder of their power.

Played Journey yet? It's free in September!

A succinct article from Alice Leung on Makerspaces and play, because it never hurts to remember that gasified learning is playful learning.

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Aesthetics form the basis of so many game experiences. The best board games have equipment that enhances the experience of gameplay because of something neat about the design (like the red train cars with the giraffes in the 10th anniversary Ticket to Ride or the art in Machi Koro or the ship in Riff Raff). In video games, one of the most important aesthetic qualities is music. When you think about great games, great music should pop right into your head. I've played a lot of World of Warcraft, and the music of Northrend is one of the reasons I liked that expansion the best. Here's a list of the Top 100 game soundtracks. My only complaint? Journey is better than #18!

Are you playing "Super Mario Maker?" You ought to be. From the perspective of a gamifying teacher, it is a powerful tool that can help you understand some of the nuances of experience design. I know that its lessons are one's that I can bring back to the classroom. Check it out!

And now for what NOT to do if you're doing gamified teaching. A fun story on the infamous backstab from Dark Souls...a game I've been too chicken to even try to this point!

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Achievement systems are a major part of gamification for a big reason - they help the user/player/learner chart his or her progress through their journey with concrete milestones tailored to their personal experiences. They're critical...and wickedly difficult to construct. Some thoughts on the X-Box's system and problems it experienced.

Are you a gamer AND a data nerd? Join the club! Here's a great study of the chess board and the survivability of chess pieces on that board. I've never looked at the game quite this way before.

Anyone out there playing Elite: Dangerous and using its play engines to create gamified experiences? I understand that this wildly huge open sandbox is bigger than anything in our past experience as players, but don't know how difficult it is just yet. Still, I'm looking forward to playing it and learning from it.

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Dungeons&Dragons remains the Giant Ape (level 16) of the roleplaying world for a reason. Its popularity undiminished by the strange side quest that I believe 4th edition will ultimately be seen as, its current edition is bringing all sorts of new players into the hobby. As an educator, D&D is probably too complex as a starting point, but it’s useful to know how the game is structured, how it thinks of itself and why it matters. This article is so helpful in understanding its impact.


An elegant design that can help you as an educator understand the difference between games that are “fun” and games that have other intentions. If you aren’t sure about how video games can have a positive social impact, play this just once and let me know what you think.


Games can and should be beautiful. Their beauty can help one understand how it’s played and how it works, certainly, but at the end of the day, the best thing about a beautifully designed game is its aesthetics.


Anyone up for some Yar’s Revenge? Venture? Xybots?

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Minecraft is one of those game experiences that die-hards totally get (and are rabidly committed to) but which non-players struggle to understand. I’ve been asked “what’s the point?” by more parents/friends/family than I could probably count at this point. The simple answer is this - Minecraft gives young people an opportunity to build something (digital building, I know, but don’t denigrate that) that they can come back to over and over again to rebuild, augment or transform. Building in the physical environment can be quite restrictive in terms of space; anyone who has built with blocks knows this. Anyone who has built a sandcastle knows that building in the “real world” can be a fleeting experience. Minecraft is one of the great “open platforms.” Not really a game, more like a toy, but a powerful stimulant to creativity and flow. Here’s a neat story on just how big the Minecraft environment is.


Ooh…now this is something I could get behind. One teacher’s approach to gamified instruction is this creative discussion-based game that gives students an opportunity to develop their speaking skills in a rich, content-centered context.


Level design is a fundamental component of contemporary game design. It’s also, on a very real level, what we do in teaching and curriculum development. No teacher starts with the final exam as the first experience! Great lessons build subtly, inevitably, towards that “boss-level” goal. Just the same as Super Mario Brothers. Here’s a fascinating story about the design of the very first Mario game.

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Gamified practice is at the heart of what this community of learners is about and every day there are more and more sources of wisdom to help us, inspire us and give us something new to think about.

A recent article published at ISTE makes a case for five different kinds of virtual worlds that you might use to engage your students. I am a big fan of digital social spaces for all sorts of reasons. The best use, I think, for some of these virtual worlds is to establish and nurture a 24/7 environment for your classroom. Having said that, this is something you'd have to actually want. Moreover, it would have to be in the interests of your students, your curriculum and your longer-term learning objectives. Virtual worlds in-and-of themselves are great as game-like spaces, but I don't know how helpful they are for learning.

On his personal blog, Mark Danger Chen discusses tools that you can use to actually make digital games in your classroom. He writes: "Games are about two things: agency and empathy." He's an engaging writer and the resources he's offering here are brilliant!

My argument is that gamification is more important than games themselves. Maybe you've had the experience of trying a game in class and it didn't quite work? Perhaps all you need to do is remix that game! Here's some tools to make that work with some old school classics.

What are you going to play this weekend?

National Game Design Month Kicks Off!

We all know that November is known for mustaches and turkeys, but I hope soon it will also be remembered for great innovative game designs. National Game Design Month started a few days ago - I hope you'll get some dice, a spinner, heck, even a pop-a-matic and think about some great ideas to bring your ideas to life. All you need is an idea. The game I'm working on this month is a spoof of America in the 1950s called Red Menace. It's a simple card game with player elimination. My hope is it'll take 15-20 minutes to play. Post here about your own designs!

Design Thinking and Leadership

I recently had the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and colleagues at the UCLA Education Leadership Program's 20th Anniversary Symposium. A rewarding keynote about the challenges facing the nation's education system in a time of rapid demographic change (with a special focus on how California is uniquely positioned to lead the country) gave way to panels on the charter school movement and a roundtable on global citizenship.

I spoke at a panel on Trends in K-12 leadership. I took this opportunity to share some thoughts on why educational leaders might look to the tools and principles of design thinking to inform their leadership practice in schools, particularly as it speaks to leadership capacity building. Leadership capacity is a critical notion in schools. Poorly resourced schools have an acute need of faculty, parent, community and student leadership as budget cuts have deprived these schools of the deep teams that can provide forward-looking energy in this time of rapid social change. Well resourced schools with these teams nevertheless benefit, and not in a small way, by distributing leadership in as many high functioning teams as possible.

The key notion here is high functioning. Contrary to general belief, leadership isn't something that most people are born natively being able to do. It's a richly complex skill, developed and nurtured over time. A well executed plan of leadership capacity building based on the principles of design thinking, as I argued, has the potential to inculcate into the novice leader a most important leadership habit of mind - the persistence needed to continue to lead after having either made a mistake or after launching a new initiative only to learn that it was the wrong approach or that it was wrongly timed. High functioning teams are those in which the team members have experienced what I will call "successful failure" - a failure which served as a growth opportunity and which their organization allowed them to make without recrimination. Schools that do not allow their leadership teams to make mistakes have the lowest leadership capacity and the least resilience.

The design thinking principle embeds within it two notions - iteration and prototyping - that offer the novice leader the skills to engage in productive leadership, productive learning and, if it comes to that, productive failure. Once the team identifies a problem, design thinking asks them to develop a process that is both creative and empathetic to solve it. Because educational problems are uniquely complex, they almost always require complex solutions. Faculty teams engaging in design thinking learn together to ask the right questions, align solutions to the correct audience and implement these solutions quickly, so as to gather meaningful data as quickly as possible. As they discover what they need to know, they can re-iterate and re-prototype as needed, learning what works, what almost works and what doesn't work.

Our future as a society is based on the foundation of excellent education. Excellent education is itself based on the capacity of teachers and schools to lead and teach in a rapidly changing world. Embracing the design thinking process can go a long way towards helping schools solve pressing problems.


A Design Thinking Bibliography

Tim Brown. Change By Design.

Larry Keeley. Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs.

Tom Kelley. The Ten Faces of Innovation.

Jeanne Liedka. Solving Problems With Design Thinking.

Thomas Lockwood. Design Thinking.

John Maeda. Redesigning Leadership.

Idris Mootee. Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation.

Daniel Pink. A Whole New Mind.

Websites and Blogs

Tim Brown

Tim Parsons

"Leading is Learning"

Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford


Designing Empathy Based Organizations

Emily Pilloton: Teaching Design for Change

John Maeda: How Art, Technology and Design Inform Creative Leaders

When AP Might Have Mattered

If the 20th century was the epoch of centralization and homogenization in education (which I believe it was), there is perhaps no greater example of that centralizing tendency than the College Board's Advanced Placement (AP) program. Begun in the mid-1950s, over the course of the last fifty years, AP has come to represent one of the gold standards in American education. At some point, it might have been. It no longer is, even though it is what colleges appear to want; it is want high schools want to offer and it is what students want to take and it is what parents want them to take.

The problem?

The way in which many AP courses are structured places weight mostly on content, which is assessed largely (though not exclusively) through multiple choice exams, rather than on critical thinking, which can be assessed dozens of ways. Furthermore, AP courses are often structured such that no reasonable teacher (and no reasonable student) could ever cope with the expectations of the nationally-normed expectations that the College Board demands of all courses being taught under the AP label. So, in a course where content is king, no school gives teachers and students (or could give teachers and students) the ability to learn effectively. Moreover, even if these courses were given the hundreds and hundreds of hours per school year their content-obsessed curricula demand, students matriculating out of these courses would have mastered a 20th century skill at the expense of urgent, 21st century needs. In this century, knowing content for its own sake will not be the hallmark of learning excellence. Rather, students who will are achieving great success now and will achieve success in the future will be those who, upon learning something, can critique it and apply it in some meaningful way.

Now, the College Board is beginning to institute changes in the AP curriculum. While this is certainly for the better (given that the national political culture fetishizes quantitative data regardless of the party in power), it points to yet another existential crisis for schools and the nation in the 21st century. Our kids, our schools, our teachers, our economy, our job market and our national culture all cry out for meaningful engagement. Will these changes create a culture of rich thinking and purposeful application? It's hard to see how.


Driven By Mission

In the US, we spend a lot of time in our educational discourse talking about the wrong things. NCLB, state-standards, content obsession or skills obsession or 21st century anxiety or panic about the corruption of our system by wingnuts pushing a 21st century agenda which either works or doesn't work, depending on your point of view (I am a firm 21st centuryer, in the interests of full disclosure). We have to remember that schools are not factories (even when they look like them) and they're not prisons (even if they function like them) and their purpose is not profit or servicing the economy or turning out compliant/complacent zombies. They are also not test centers, meant to create reams upon reams of data that measure our children's achievement of 19th century standards (provided they even tell us that, which, in all likelihood, they do not).

In the 21st century, effective schools will be those whose communities have developed clear, meaningful, powerful, transformative missions that place their goals and objectives for their students squarely in the school's local context while being mindful of the inevitable statewide, national and global contexts. This is, in part, why the charter school movement has been so successful. Lots of well-meaning people do not want their children to be ground through a politicized, state-mandated curriculum that has little to do with stimulating a child to develop into a whole person and lots to do with complying with dubious objectives. This is also why great independent schools are great. They are clear about who they are and what they want to accomplish.

I want schools and their faculty, students, parents and broader community to commit to being driven by mission.

If I were to start a school, here's what its mission would be. At SchoolNEXT, we believe young people learn best by doing. As citizens of the 21st century, we learn by applying time-tested wisdom to the opportunities presented by the transformative now. We respect ourselves and seek to live spirited, balanced lives. We dignify all members of our school, local, national and global communities and embrace our interconnectedness and interdependence as members of the human family.


Lessons From a Small Country, In This Case, Finland

In my last post, I argued that America is embedded in a global framework and that the decisions we make have an impact on others. I further argued that the reverse was also true. I recently came across the website of Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator who is the Director General of CIMO, the Finnish Center for International Mobility. In his work as an educational visionary, he offers some ideas about school change and the school change process that I want to share and comment upon. On the fifth slide of his January 2010 presentation to the University of Oulu, he articulates the educational values of the Global Education Reform Movement and alternatives to it. It is the alternatives that inform my sense of what we need to change in this country.

National Standards - Should the national government set high national standards and enforce those standards through central mandates, or should the national government establish a clear framework, but encourage local problem solving? The success of Finnish students by international standards, as well as the success of New Zealand students by the same measures, suggests that there is merit to a national framework of flexibility. While I don't believe there is anything fundamentally wrong with the nation's leaders "pointing in a particular direction," anything resembling national performance measures, high-stakes testing and/or centralized control at either the state or federal level in this country interferes with innovation, damages schools and interferes with creative teaching and learning.

Purpose of Learning? - What is learning for? Mastering basic skills or developing the full potential of children? I take Sahlsberg's argument that the alternative, namely that "teaching and learning focus on deep, broad learning, giving equal value to all aspects of the growth of an individual's personality, moral character, creativity, knowledge and skills" to be the purpose of learning. All of our focus on basic skills in this country has, if we look at the measures those who value this approach cite, amounted to very little.

Risk-Taking? - I strongly believe that decision making should be based whenever possible in the school itself, rather than in more centralized structures. In an age of rapid, radical change, we need teachers to boldly experiment, take risks and stimulate the creative problem solving of students, who will always rise to the challenge offered.

Sources of Inspiration - Teachers should learn together to enhance wisdom and professional practice. More importantly, perhaps, they should learn from their students. Many teachers are digital immigrants. They can learn a lot from their digital native students.

Responsibility and Trust - The administration of American education overly values centralized structures (like the factory system upon which it was based) and undervalues teachers and principals. Teachers and principals know what is going on at their schools (or they damn well should) and have to target their resources, whatever they are, to the problems they identify. Teachers have the capacity to take control of their own professionalism, despite the challenges we erect before them in this country.


Envisioning Transformed Schools

I believe young people (and adults) learn best by doing. Too much of education, particularly in the United States, is centered on content that is expected to be known for its own sake. This is no longer acceptable in the 21st century. A classroom is a learning laboratory - connected to the world and tethered to rich, meaningful questions based on essential concepts and questions. Our classrooms have to become these learning laboratories where students learn through active study (like debating the meaning of the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800) and vigorous student-to-student teaching. There is nothing more likely to show how well or how poorly you understand something than trying to explain it to someone else. I have observed enough math classes to know that there is a great virtue in having students working in groups explain to each other how they derived their answers. A student in a science lab should hardly ever be sitting quietly. There's too much to do!

The students and adults in our schools are citizens of the 21st century...they are individuals, craving to think critically, solve problems and engage with the world. Our children are not die-cut automatons waiting to be molded and churned out by factory-like schools. They are waiting to make connections between disciplines and reach out to their peers across the country and around the world. They are ready to teach us what they know and what we don't. Our teachers are lifelong learners with the skills to empower students, if only we would let them.

...who learn best by applying time-tested wisdom to the opportunities presented by the transformative now. Students still need to know how to read, solve mathematical problems, understand cause-and-effect relationships and know how to use the tools of rationalism to understand the workings of the world. The Greeks got it right - to ask good questions, think critically and give sound answers is the foundation of all education. But the Greeks could not have anticipated the web and web-ways of thinking. Hypertextuality, game-based learning, crowd-sourced wisdom (and crowd-sourced critique) can enhance students' understanding of truth and sharpen critical engagement. This is the age of the mash-up...the age of interconnections and the time of the collapse of nineteenth century learning silos. Mathematics divorced from science, art and other disciplines (just to take one example) is a thing of the past.

Communities are founded on respect, spirit and balance. If there is any quality of the 21st century everyone can agree on, it is that the speed of change is breathtaking. To ensure the stability of our learning communities and society in general, we have to turn to three notions - respect, spirit and balance. Respect reminds us of how essential it is to treat one's self and others in a way that dignifies them. Spirit reminds us of how important it is to engage with others in an open-hearted, joyful way. Balance points us to stop time and again, breathe, rebalance and reflect.

We are interconnected and interdependent. Decisions American make in the United States affect children everywhere, just as decisions made on the other side of the planet have consequences to our daily life. Globalization will not eradicate the nation-state or national identity. Our schools must help students situate their American identity within global realities.


Technology Integration Matrix - A Boffo Meta-assessment Tool

A colleague recently brought this extraordinary tool to my attention; it's clarity and careful development are excellent models for work any school might do as it considers how best to measure the effectiveness of all 21st century skills in curriculum development.

Having developed more than a handful of rubrics over the course of my career (who amongst us hasn't done so?), I was struck by the simplicity and clarity of descriptors that the matrix uses to measure levels of technology integration in the classroom: entry, adoption, adaptation, infusion and finally transformation. Directly citing the matrix, they define the terms thus:

Entry - "the teacher begins to use technology tools to deliver curriculum to students."

Adoption - "the teacher directs students in the conventional and procedural use of technology tools."

Adaptation - "the teacher facilitates students in exploring and independently using technology tools."

Infusion - "the teacher provides the learning context and the students choose the technology tools to achieve the outcome."

Transformation - "the teacher encourages the innovative use of technology tools. Technology tools are used to facilitate higher order learning activites that may not have been possible without the use of technology." 

It further posits (from an excellent research source) five characteristics of the learning environment: active, constructive, collaborative, authentic and goal-directed. These qualities speak highly of this tool as a rubric by which we might measure educational success (and in fact, points directly to qualities we should be both valuing and measuring in education in 2012). I have argued in a previous post that students learn best when doing. This is especially true when considering the use of technology in schools and classrooms. Technology is just a tool, after all. How are we helping our students develop thoughtful mastery of the tools? I particularly value that the rubric is looking for active and collaborative learning. Collaboration remains something difficult for educators to measure (how does one assess group work, for instance...); this matrix gives us a model to use to build other collaborative measures.

Even more important is the rubric's attention to student work in technology being "goal directed." The matrix says that students should "use technology tools to set goals, plan activities, monitor progress and evaluate results rather than simply completing assignments without reflection." This is the critical component of knowing whether the work that students do (again, not just with technology but generally) gives them the capacity to better understand themselves, their growth and development and to help them become better able to make decisions about their future.

Not bad for a rubric designed for technology purposes! Go have a look at it...


Specialization and Accountabilism

n a previous post, I reflected on the notion of schools as places of doing, rather than temples of the acquisition of knowledge, which is what they have predominately been for the better part of the 20th century. In that post, I shared a quote from Robert Heinlein where he remarked that humans should have diverse capacities and experiences because, “specialization is for insects.” Unfortunately, a lot of what goes on in contemporary education centers on developing specialization when it should be focused on building broad skills applicable across disciplines, types of work and critical questions.

In an article published in the September 2011 edition of Educational Leadership magazine, Phillip C. Schlechty of the Schlechty Center in Louisville, Kentucky shared a term that I hadn’t heard before - accountabilism. This idea speaks directly to the problem of specialization in schools. Schlechty’s article does a good job of articulating a fundamental weakness of the NCLB is focused on too little and what it is focused on it measures in too limited a way. He writes about this framework: “there’s no need to worry about whether students are learning more or whether they can retain what they learn to pass the test. What’s important is to focus on improving test scores - learning will take care of itself.” Heinlein and Castiglione are turning in their graves, and rightly so. As if passing a test tells you everything there is to know about a student and what they’ve if passing a test is an example of anything that happens in the world outside of schools. Schlechty is right to call this “nonsensical thinking.” Heinlein and Castiglione offer a vision of a young person who, through education and experimentation with young adulthood, is fully capable of shaping a life of rich meaning and purpose. Schlechty argues, correctly, that this is not the accountabilists agenda. He writes, “developing young people who grow up to be men and women who take pride in their work and believe in the intrinsic value of what they do is not on the accountabilists’ agenda.”

Accountabilism begets specialization which in turn begets adults who are less able to function in the world of the 21st century. In many respects, Daniel Pink described the general shape of what that world will need in his book A Whole New Mind. In it he described a world increasingly shaped by the forces of abundance, automation and the rising power of Asia and raised some compelling and troubling questions about the ways in which our focus on precisely what Schlechty and I are concerned about is shaping not just our policy but also our young people.

A whole adult can never emerge from seed planted in the weak soil of NCLB, accountabilism, high-stakes testing and an ever narrowing focus on what a complete education should look like. So where should we start? I refer you back to my previous post and Heinlein’s quote. Perhaps we start there, agreeing that we want our children to develop their full selfhood, personhood and capacity.


Doing - Heinlein and Castiglione

I was reading a post on Mark Sisson's always interesting blog Mark's Daily Apple a few weeks back about specialization and self-sufficiency in modern times. In it, he cited a great quotation from Robert Heinlein's Time Enough For Love (1973); Heinlein wrote: "a human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects" (p. 248) Setting aside whatever you might think about Heinlein's politics, this quote is worthy of a deep consideration. What kind of life is Heinlein calling on you to live? What kind of education is Heinlein calling us to craft for young people (and indeed for adults)?

In a previous post, I wrote that for schools to be effective in the 21st century, they have to become more and more places of doing rather than just temples of knowing. I argued that knowing outside of its doing context is insufficient. This quote strikes me as a great reminder of what education at its best and clearest always was in Western society. Surely Heinlein in this case is just updating Baldassare Castiglione's Book of the Courtier for a 20th century audience? Equally surely, education that aims for the Renaissance ideal of a well-balanced human being capable of skillfully doing many different things should be the purpose of our schools.

What would a school designed for these purposes look like? How would it function day-to-day? How would it be organized? I've spent a lot of time in my career thinking about and developing visions of the graduate and graduation requirements...think about what a school would have to devote its attention to if it set the Heinlein quote as its graduation requirements. Changing a diaper is simple enough. Program a computer and solve equations is actually not that much more complex (at least on its surface). But let's say you wouldn't let a student graduate until he or she had demonstrated proficiency at giving and taking orders...what would the curriculum for that look like? To say nothing of dying gallantly.

How would you bring Heinlein's quote up to 2012? What's new in what a human being should be able to do? Is there anything you would delete as unworthy, inappropriate or wrong-headed? Do you think Heinlein's ideas are wrong? Is specialization worth considering in 2012? In my next post I'll take up the idea of specialization.


Schools - Places of Doing

I had a great, short conversation with a few colleagues last week about this idea that has been circulating both in the general discussion on education and around my school campus. We are of a certain age, which is to say, an age that remembers when it wasn't so unusual for great schools (or even just ok ones) to have lots of course offerings in practical subjects like cooking, sewing, wood and metal shop and so forth. And we were wondering what happened to these offerings and why their demise across the country is a very bad thing. When did it become old-fashioned to go to school to learn how to do things?

We discussed how much we got out of these practical courses when we did them. Cooking and Woodshop both require a student to be able to read and understand complex instructions and to execute those instructions correctly to transform ingredients into either coffee cakes or bookshelves. I don't know about you, but following a recipe in a contemporary cookbook is not the easiest thing in the world. Without the cooking class I did in middle school, it certainly wouldn't be easier. Perhaps more importantly, we agreed, was the sense of completion we got from doing these courses. Simply put, when you finished a project, you had something. If you did your work correctly, you got a sublime coffee cake. If you didn't you got a flooring tile. In short, when you were done doing whatever you were doing, you had done something that you could see, touch or taste and you knew whether you had done it correctly. Ample and sustained educational research throughout the 20th century strongly endorses this perspective and organization of learning.

We got away from valuing this kind of learning when budget cuts in the 70s and 80s forced schools to contract their educational vision and then in the 2000s when the assessment and measurement philosophy of No Child Left Behind fetishized just one or two skills to the exclusion of all others.

And we got further away still because of the changes in American society wrought by Information Technology and the extensive economic, social and cultural changes that mark the transition of American society from America 2.0 (Industrialism) to America 3.0 (Informationism). As new educators and educational leaders entered the profession (myself among them), we placed more and more value on content for its own sake and got further and further away from the beauty of doing. It didn't help that for many of us, the connection between the doing we did in Cooking or in Woodshop didn't seem to speak in any clear way to the kinds of doing that students in 2012 should be focused on.

But I am ever more convinced that focusing on doing is ever more what we should be doing in education in 2012. I am less interested, for example, in whether a student can tell me a specific fact than in what a student can do with a particular fact. I am more interested in whether a student can search competently than I am in whether that student can memorize what I've told them in a class lecture and then tell me what I told them.

In short, I think the time has come for us to think about how we use our classroom time differently, focusing much more of our attention on how we want students to engage the world. Can schools become places of doing and not just knowing? If there's to be any future for America's youth, I hope so.