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What's the New Narrative in the Education Revolution?

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To Will Richardson, the word "reform" is inadequate in describing what needs to happen in education. "Transformation" is more accurate, and for years, he's been actively proselytizing the need for a complete restructuring of the public education system. Richardson is now galvanizing his educator peers to send a loud -- and just as importantly, clear -- message to parents about "the new faces of learning and change in schools."

His challenge to his peers: "Can we leverage the networks that we currently have to bring 10,000 (or more) parents together across the country next fall to hold a real conversation about education and change?"

I spoke to Richardson, the author of Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms about his views as an educator, about information control: adults (teachers and parents) figuring out their changing roles in children's lives, and what it will take to move the needle. (Part of the conversation is in last week's post "The Control Shift: A Grassroots Education Revolution Takes Shape.")

Q. Being an educator yourself and spending so much time with educators, what do you think their perception is of this issue of control?

I talk about this a lot, and I help at least start conversations around why things are changing. The biggest shift that educators have to make is away from content expertise, and it’s a tough one for people to make. At the end of the day, we have to examine what we’re doing in terms of content in the classroom. It should be more about learning, helping kids get content on their own.


The control piece is really big because, if it’s acknowledged, it really leaves teachers and educators with this empty hole. “Well, if we’re not doing that, then what are we doing?” That’s where the conversation needs to be. And that’s not where a lot of people want to go. It’s a hard conversation to have. It’s very difficult for people to see themselves in a decidedly different role in the classroom.

But the interesting thing is that all of them will acknowledge that it’s happening. I don’t think there's anyone fighting really hard for the idea that schools should be the places where we’re the ones who should mete out content, or that because content online is unfiltered and unedited, you can’t trust it. But it’s hard to take that next step, and say, “Okay, so we really do have to change the whole concept of what we do  at school, and away from content delivery to learning, and we really do have to change our roles as teachers to co-learners and supporters and mentors?”

And the parent part interests me too.

I don’t think parents really have a clue, in general. I think parents understand that schools need to do something different – but "different" doesn’t equate to anything really different at the end of the day because they want their kids to pass tests, get to college, do all the things that we define as traditionally successful. It’s less on the minds of parents in terms of real change in schools.

[Parents say]: "There are places that are experimenting on that stuff, but don’t experiment on my kid. I want those grades. I want those scores, that diploma."

Q. That's what they know as their own experience.


Q. It sounds like a pretty high mountain to climb, to make that shift.

It is a pretty high mountain to climb, but I think it’s going to happen. I don’t mean this in the literal sense, but I don’t think there’s a peaceful path to this, in terms of everyone sitting down and agreeing that we have to do things differently. It's going to come in fairly typically slow, three-steps-forward, two-steps-back kinds of change that happens in schools. The only problem is that things seem to be changing so fast right now, and with the typical pace of change in schools, I don't know how it's going to keep up.

One of the books that's influenced me a lot is Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology by Allen Collins and Richard Halverson.

I think they’re right. They leave it with this idea: If we don’t figure this out, there will be lots of opportunities for the kids who have access to opt out and do things in a much more customized,  personalized way that will eventually find accreditation and find acceptance in the larger conversations around education. Whereas there are going to be a lot of kids stuck in schools, and those schools won’t be able to make the shift.

Q. Having spoken to Department of Education's Director of Technology Karen Cator, it's hard to see where policy can make a difference. It seems much more like something in the zeitgeist has to change.

I agree. The rhetoric in the DOE's Education Technology plan is spot on. But I never get the sense there’s a path to implementation. And I don’t know if she has articulated one. "You’re saying all the right things, but how are you going to get there?"

Q. One of my questions to her was, can you mandate any of this? And the answer is no, it has to go district by district, state by state.

District by district, state by state, and yet schools are being seduced to doing what the administration wants them to do, or they’re not going to get anything. There’s no consistency in that message that I can find. I’m not optimistic about it. It’s nice to hold out there -- "Things are changing and here’s how we have to change" -- but at the end of the day, the impetus isn’t there.

Q. When it comes to schools, your comfort level with the wild west of the Web isn't typical. Most people are scared, and want to see and abide by what they think is "official."

Because we can control it. It is at the end of the day, all about control. The conversations we need to have are too hairy for most people to think about. If you think about the way education is going... I love the idea of the unbundling of education – that all the stuff we used to do in schools is being unbundled, that we can find everything we need all over the place.

There's a piece of me that thinks the big step backwards we're taking right now is this response to this challenge that the Web is posing right now. People don’t know how to respond to it, so they’re just battening down the hatches, trying to keep doing what they’re doing, just better. But I'm hoping that it will fail miserably – but without hurting kids. I don’t see how that happens. That’s the horrible part of this. The next decade or so will be hugely disruptive and there will be a lot of kids who will be lost in this. Kids who are stuck in systems that will require them to pass the same old tests who aren’t going to have options that some people will have.

I know a lot of people who are in public schools who are thinking about what they're going to do with their kids. I don’t think I have any answers at all. If anything, I hope I’m asking the right questions.

Q. I guess it's a matter of getting people to think about it in those terms.

The media is not giving us any column inches. Look at all the attention around "Waiting for Superman," the media narrative is all around the party line.

I'm not sure how much scale these conversations are having. They're not taking place outside the networks we have, and I'm not sure our networks are that big. I go places all the time, and people look at me and say, "What are you talking about?" They don’t have a clue as to what is going on... And I'm talking about people who are going to school, saying, "We have to get our test scores up, because that’s what school’s about."

And I want to say to them, "No, there's a really different narrative that's beginning to be put together outside of schools," and they say, "What do you mean?"

Q. What’s the definition of success for you? When do you think the school transformation piece will start to form, when you start to see something happening?

That's the burning questions. How does that begin to happen? A lot of us who voted for Obama thought that was going be the impetus. That there would be a different vision of what schools are about and could do and it would be articulated on a different scale that we could work toward, and it obviously didn’t happen.

One of the big indicators will be when we get rid of these stupid tests that we make kids take. At some point, when we can finally begin to assess kids based on how well they do learning instead of how well they do knowing, that might be the first indicator that we might be moving needle somewhere. That’s a huge what-if, too. That’s a huge mountain too. It’s so ingrained.

I love being in this conversation in this moment about the way things are changing. I find it fascinating and interesting, but it is frustrating. There are no clear answers to this. No clear pathways. We struggle with this all the time. Chris Lehmann wants to build more schools, and I want to get to parents, and other people want to do something else. What is the way?

Q. Maybe it's the collaboration of all these efforts.

Yes, I'm sure it is.

Q. But nobody has the blueprint.


And no one has the new story. We can kind of tell what the new story is, but to really make it where people say, "Oh yeah, let’s do that!" -- it’s still really difficult to get to that point. It’s going to take a whole bunch of people doing it differently, and there will be a tipping point of some type where people realize this old system doesn’t work anymore. We really have to change it. But it’s going to be a very long and very difficult few years of trying to do that. There's no easy way to do it.