For many months, or even years, I simply did not "get" Twitter. Perhaps it was its perceived origins: Hollywood celebrities informing their fans of where they were and what they were doing every hour of the day. "Ashton Kutcher just bought his groceries!" didn't seem worth the constant smartphone traffic.
But I have a confession to make: I now love Twitter.
For me, coming to appreciate Twitter is an example of the benefits of experiential, authentic learning. I did not see the inherent value in knowing what Ashton Kutcher was doing with his day, so there was never any innate interest in learning how to navigate and tap the potential of Twitter. And this was the case for a long time, until this summer's drama over at UVa following the sudden resignation of President Sullivan and her eventual reinstatement.
During those tense weeks this past summer, the news from Grounds was coming fast and furious, with meetings, rumors, analyses, protests, and more. It was hard to follow what was happening, what was accurate, and what the various constituencies felt about the events. And it was then that I discovered the value of Twitter, as I was able, with the discovery of a few key hashtags, to follow not only the news as it was unfolding, but also the opinions of those who love UVa. I would sit at home in the evenings, and rather than wait for the local TV news with the latest developments, I would follow hundreds of tweets from both local news organizations and hundreds of alumni around the country. The information that I was reading was current, precise, and informative.
My interest in Twitter only magnified as we headed into the presidential election season. I need not tell you what a treasure trove of news and analysis came via Twitter during those intense months and days. And I am now convinced that Twitter is an essential resource to have during any debate.
So as I have become more familiar with Twitter during the course of these two news events, I have also found its value as an educator. It is an invaluable tool in discovering new thinking about teaching and learning, sharing thoughts and resources with colleagues and constituents, and engaging in ongoing dialogue. In fact, Twitter has not introduced me to these important practices that lead to improvement and innovation, but has made dialogue and collaboration easier and more efficient. As faculty would tell you, I am constantly emailing articles about issues relevant to the work we are doing here at St. Anne's-Belfield School and entering into email exchanges about new ideas and innovative approaches. As a school, we have begun to utilize other online programs to facilitate the sharing of articles and ideas and ongoing dialogue about them. One example is diigo.com, which is used by both teachers and students.
Twitter makes the conversations not only easier, but also creates a broader audience for the ideas and issues at hand. I think that bringing more people to the table for discussions about teaching and learning will only serve to benefit our students. It is my hope that our parents, alumni, friends of the school, and our fellow educators will listen, if not chime in, to the ongoing discussions we are having about how our program must grow and innovate in the coming years. I would like to tap into the collective knowledge and experience of educational thought leaders and our own school community to help us realize our mission and fulfill our strategic goals. I encourage you to follow along or join the conversation on Twitter @LourieSTAB.
I was heartened to see so many parents in attendance at our recent Parents' Association meeting, during which we focused our presentation and breakout group discussion on understanding better our children's online lives. If you were not able to join us, please view the video of our guest presenters here. We have also provided notes of the main topics discussed by each division after the presentation as well as the available handouts about cyberbullying and internet safety.
The presentation from two members of UVa's Information Security, Policy, and Records Office was eye-opening, to say the least. The fact is that our children are so far ahead of the adults in their lives when it comes to comfort and competence in cyberspace, with more experience, deeper knowledge of how the internet and mobile devices work, and even an online language all their own. Ensuring that we are fully playing the roles of parent, teacher, and responsible adult will take both vigilance and continued education on our parts.
This continuing education about our children's online lives must encompass more than learning as much as we can about how the internet and mobile devices work. It will also take a deeper understanding about why our children appear to act so recklessly on the internet when the consequences seem so apparent. They know that what they post on social sites, be they private information, unkind remarks, or inappropriate images, is generally available for many--or all--to see and forward on to others. They know that future college admission officers and future employers will, at minimum, conduct a Google search on any prospective student or employee, and that these long-forgotten web posts are easily found, as every single webpage gets archived immediately. There is no such thing as deleting a web page or web post. They know that any email, even if sent anonymously or under a different name, is easily traceable by an IP address. There is always a trail left behind when one sends something electronically. Believe me, our children know all of this and much more.
Yet we hear far too often stories of poor decisions and misbehavior via the internet. Why? It is much more than the allure of technology and the need to stay in constant social contact with friends. In addition to these powerful temptations, extensive research on the neuroscience of the developing teenage brain tells us that our children are hard-wired to take risks. An article written by Maia Szalavitz entitled “Why the Teen Brain is Drawn to Risk” cites a recent study about risk behaviors and teenagers, and the results help to inform why some do engage in what is obviously reckless online behavior. In short, the study tells us that the biological need to experience risk is an integral part of the process of brain development.
The relationship between neuroscience and risky teenage behaviors was confirmed during a webinar that I "attended" in the spring. In it, I learned that risky behaviors result in powerful, neuro-chemical side effects in the developing teenage brain, including the release of dopamine. In short, taking risks makes teenagers feel especially good, better than when adults take similar risks. Again, this is part of their brain's development and an important part of their learning through experience to push boundaries and understand their limits. This is why, we learned during the webinar, that teenagers, and especially boys, appear addicted to video games. In a sense they are, for the way that video games are designed--that greater risks in the games carry great rewards, namely "getting to the next level"--feed into this biological need for risk-taking.
For this reason, lectures and discussions about online behavior will only go so far. To a certain degree, the poor online decisions by children are out of their control. They have a mobile device handy, a risky opportunity presents itself, and the upside of that risk (coupled with teenage impulsivity) outweighs any warning or lecture or threat. That is why we need to consider all angles in how we teach our children to avoid these, and indeed all, risky behaviors. It will take what I read in another article by Jeffrey Kluger entitled “What Goes on Inside the Brain of a Misbehaving Boy?” about the neuroscience of the teenage brain: a combination of the carrot and the stick. I understand the desire of adults to trust our children and give them the space to make mistakes. In a thoughtfully structured context, like a classroom or school, this is wise, as I have written many times about the rewards of failure followed by improvement and success. Yet the reality is that cyberspace is the opposite of a thoughtfully structured environment in which to take a risk. Therefore, allowing our children to have the independence to experiment and take risks in that setting carries, I believe, greater potential consequences. As a result, we must be more involved and vigilant with their online lives, including knowing, and frequently using, their passwords, checking their Facebook walls, reading their emails and texts, and reviewing the history on their internet browser. It means that we must take away their devices daily and most certainly when rules have been broken. They will no doubt complain about our lack of trust in them, but perhaps a discussion about how their brains are developing may lend some explanation and reassurance that we have their safety and best interests in mind.
With the celebration of our annual Convocation now a week past and the first day of Fall upon us, the school year is firmly underway. I cherish our traditional gatherings as I hope you do, as landmarks along the road we journey together each year. Through Convocation, we welcome the opportunity to honor those teachers who have long served our school and have helped prepare a pathway for us. We recognize the attendance of seniors and fourth graders, and note the significance the event has to the overall academic life of both groups of students.
Convocation is also a time to pause and reflect, when the year is yet new, on the months to come and what overarching goals we hope to achieve. This year, the simple yet profound act of reading has emerged as a powerful counterpoint to our efforts to incorporate technology and new ways of learning. I mean” counterpoint” in its most musical sense, as the combination of multiple melodies that work together in harmony. To be prepared for success in the 21st Century, we must keep pace with innovation. However, we must not allow a strategic focus on what is new to crowd out, or cause us to neglect, what is enduring.
It can be easy to underestimate the power of the written word to nourish and inform our lives, to touch us in far-reaching ways we often cannot imagine. Senior Class Co-President Mercy Sherman provided a perfect example in her convocation speech, through the description of her encounter with William Henry Channing’s poem, and how it has helped her determine the person she’d like to be. In addition to those “a-ha” moments -- the kind Mercy shared, and the kind I referenced in my experience of reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon for the first time -- habitual reading does more for us. It shapes us into leaders and fully-engaged citizens. As I mentioned in my Convocation speech, readers are more likely to engage in a host of desirable activities and behaviors, from patronizing the theater and museums, to exercising, to participating in community service and charity work, to voting.
With so many benefits, why wouldn’t we leap at the chance to begin a personal literary journey alongside our academic walk? Our Renaissance Reading program is poised to foster additional literary exploration and discussion between students and faculty, something I had the opportunity to discuss in a recent podcast with John Noffsinger. I encourage you to review the current reading list of non-curricular literature, and consider which literary worlds you’d like to visit this year. While the program will reward students “whose reading [generates] exceptional understanding and insight” (to quote the Renaissance Reading webpage), I think you’ll agree that developing a love of reading has a much greater impact on the lives our students will lead.
In one of the many conversations that I have had with teachers over these past two weeks of preparation for the school year, the topic of failure as a powerful teaching tool came up. It seems that over the past few years, from op-ed pages to educational periodicals, I have encountered more literature about how the adults in our children's lives have an obligation to "teach" them that to fail is a necessary step in the lifelong learning process. Far too often, the consensus seems to be, parents and teachers alike take pains to ensure that failure is not a part of our children's schooling and lives, and if it does occur, to mitigate its effects rather than embrace them. With so much allegedly at stake in the college admission game of roulette, I cannot blame anyone for fretting about the costs associated with, say, a low grade in an Upper School course that could possibly impact a college admission decision. I would never say that such low grades would not have a potentially deleterious effect, with some colleges now "boasting" single-digit acceptance rates. By accepting fewer and fewer students and making it harder and harder to get in, colleges are sending the none-too-subtle message to their future applicants (and those applicants’ teachers and parents) that they must be perfect in all respects to be, at the very least, acceptable. A blemish-free transcript appears to be the minimum standard for consideration, and often times this is not even enough.
So are colleges looking for perfection? While the numbers might indicate that this is the case, I sincerely hope it is not, for university campuses teeming with perfect people are not a preparation for any world with which I am familiar. That is why this recent article, “Teaching to Fail,” caught my attention. From Inside Higher Ed (www.insidehighered.com), it tells of a professor who includes failure as a portion of his overall course grade. It reads, "5 percent of their final grade is based on their 'quality of failure.'" To this end, he has "asked [his] students to intentionally fail." He offers his rationale as follows:
Individuals need to embrace the realization that taking risks and failing are often the essential moves necessary to bring clarity, understanding, and innovation. By making a mistake, we are led to the pivotal question: "Why was that wrong?" By answering this question, we are intentionally placing ourselves in a position to develop a new insight and to eventually succeed. But how do we foster such a critical habit of mind in our students — students who are hardwired to avoid failure at all costs?
While I agree wholeheartedly with his thinking, I hope that he and his colleagues recognize and accept their own responsibility for the state of college students who are "hardwired to avoid failure at all costs." This professor is lamenting his students' aversion to failure, yet these same professors demand from their administration more qualified (read: more perfect) students with each admitted class. Through their admission practices, they do not appear to tolerate any failure at the high school level, yet in this article lament its absence in their own lecture halls. So to fill this gap, they are forced to create failure assignments (which strikes me as the epitome of inauthentic learning). This divide between what professors want and what prep schools are allowed to provide via admission offices must be addressed through a candid K-16 conversation, one that must be had before admission rates fall even farther and demand even more perfection from an already pressured generation. While we wait for this conversation, I hope that this professor and his like-minded colleagues will advocate for more holistic admission policies and practices, ones that reward instead of punish high school students for taking risks and encountering failure for the sake of authentic learning and growing. If his university and others admit more imperfect students, I promise him that he will no longer have to assign his students an "industrial stress test" to prove their mettle. They will come to him already prepared, in more ways than one.
This Sunday's front page article from the New York Times about the fact that the bulk of Apple's workforce can now be found overseas, and predominantly in China, should be a must-read for anyone interested in the future of education, and thus the future competitiveness of our country. While schools' efforts at upgrading their programs for this new century of global competition are getting lost in the cliched term "21st Century Education," this article elucidates why this term and its resultant efforts are far from faddish. The crux of the article, in addition to the cost savings realized in manufacturing overseas, was that Apple concluded that the American workforce is not skilled enough and our factories not flexible enough to produce Apple's products according to the demands of, ironically, the American consumer. At least according to this most admired of companies, Americans love their iPods and iPads--yet we don't have the ability, infrastructure--and perhaps even the desire--to build them. Apple thus has had to look overseas for the right skills to deliver the products we consume. How sobering.
Data like this from Apple and countless other "American" companies that are looking overseas for talent should be a wake-up call for schools and the parents who rightfully demand that we prepare their children for productive and happy lives. As each day passes and we discuss improvements to our curriculum in the name of 21st century preparation, I am starting to see more eyes roll. The assumption is that this is yet another educational fad and we will soon come around to the way we have always done it, which has been just fine for a long time. Perhaps I, too, am getting caught up in the latest fad, but something tells me that this time it is different. Some of my thinking comes from ongoing review of the educational research and data--much like the article I refer to above. And some of my own thinking is guided, I admit, by a gut feeling that the rapidity of the economic and societal changes seem altogether more significant and paradigm-altering than previous education fads. Central to my gut feeling is the awe in which I hold the possibilities of the internet and technology. I use "awe" deliberately here, as a word that is not necessarily good or bad, and depending upon what one is in awe of, can fall into either category. I think whether we think that the internet and portable technologies are good or bad is irrelevant; they are here and not going away; they will become more and more pervasive. We must prepare and adapt to a lifestyle that continue to rely on these devices and an economy that will demand different skills of our graduates.
The challenge for us is whether we will embrace this need to adapt, change, and upgrade what we do for the children who will lead and work in this new century. Are we prepared to be bold as we encounter the doubts and insecurities that accompany saying goodbye to what we have done for so long, but frankly is not serving our future? Before we are to engage as a learning community in discussion about what is and what is not outdated, and what new skills and content should become the core of 21st century curriculum, we must make a commitment to embrace Goal #1 of our Strategic Plan: to be the leaders of educational innovation--and in the boldest sense of the term.