Summer Reading for Educators

In some past years, colleagues have asked me for lists of books i recommend or suggest for their summer reading (who says teachers are idle in the summer vacations!). However, on this occasion ASCD and Edutopia have put together a superb Pinterest Board of suggested reading – and eclectic mix that isn’t all directly about education.

There are more than a few here that i’ve already read, but plenty more that will shape my reading list in the coming weeks and months.

(Click on the link below to go to the Board)

Pinterest Board – Summer Reading

Differentiation Revisited

Carol Ann Tomlinson conducting a Webinar for ASCD in which she revisits her work since she first wrote ‘The Differentiated Classroom’. A very interesting and useful review for teachers and interesting insights for parents

Becoming vs. Learning

Marc Prensky was the man who coined the phrase ‘ digital natives’ to describe young people growing up in a time when technology is a ubiquitous and natural part of their lives. He is also a future oriented thinker who writes and speaks passionately about the education young people need to be effective in the Twenty First Century.

This is a superb article written by Prensky recently for Education Week. In it he highlights how those who treat learning as the end product of school education are pointing towards the wrong end goal. To him ‘becoming’ must be the end purpose of school education;

Marc Prensky – Education Week Article

I recall a few years ago in a graduation speech to senior students setting out the goals that they should aspire to be the best ‘them’ that they can be. The best person, friend, employer, employee, spouse, sibling, child, friend, citizen etc.

Within school we have the ability to help children to develop the reflective skills and the understanding of the importance of these over simple things like how many maths sums one can answer correctly or how many social studies facts one can remember and reproduce in an exam.

One key element is recognising and focusing more on progress, effort and movement forward as justifications for recognition and praise more than end outcomes. For example, i am reminded of a piece I read about some German research based on a longitudinal study of young athletes and sports persons. They were tracked from childhood. The ones who, in the longer term went on to achieve at the highest levels in their chosen sports were not the ones identified as having the highest levels of latent talent at a young age. Ultimately, those with the high latent talent too often squandered it, or at least failed to apply themselves enough to develop what they had. Those who were the long term winners were the ones who took their initial abilities and worked, strived and applied themselves to honing their talents and building their skills.

In some of my future articles here in the blog i will be focusing on the directions i believe we need to take in schools to shift the focus to ‘becoming’ as the overriding objective.

Technology Extending the Classroom

Google recently announced ‘Google Classroom’ that comes in to compete in the same area as programmes like Blackboard and Moodle.

Fast Company Video and Article

I see these as exciting developments as the competition will spur greater innovation and creativity. Also, I hope that the net effect will be to encourage far more teachers to be prepared to put their toes in the water. Having been involved with projects based on use of Moodle in the past, I’m convinced that such virtual learning environments offer considerable opportunities for empowering learners, freeing up teacher time for personalised facilitation and generally making more effective use of time in school.

Marketers Need Accountability Around Our Children

Once upon a time there was a merry band of Kings and Queens who were very very rich indeed. They had got rich selling magical brown liquid that cost virtually nothing to make in enormous quantities to children. Things were going well, except there were two little problems. Firstly, these Kings and Queens just couldn’t ever be as rich as they wanted to be. However much they had, they always wanted more. Secondly, some pesky troublesome peasants started spoiling their nice little earner by pointing out to anyone who would listen that the magical brown liquid was very harmful and one of the biggest contributors to obesity (especially in America and Europe).

(Some information about just one of these evil Kingdoms from Wikipedia – “Coca-Cola has been criticized for alleged adverse health effects, its aggressive marketing to children, exploitative labor practices, high levels of pesticides in its products, building plants in Nazi Germany which employed slave labor, environmental destruction, monopolistic business practices, and hiring paramilitary units to murder trade union leaders. In October 2009, in an effort to improve their image, Coca-Cola partnered with the American Academy of Family Physicians, providing a $500,000 grant to help promote healthy-lifestyle education; the partnership spawned sharp criticism of both Coca-Cola and the AAFP by physicians and nutritionists.” As just one example.)

They were ready for the fight. They tried everything. They told people they were just being silly and not to listen to nonsense. But still, those pesky peasants kept putting the boot in to their lovely profits. However, these were very clever Kings and Queens and with all the money they had made they could afford to employ even cleverer marketing people – ones with brains but no morals.

Firstly, they took a leaf (sorry about the pun) out of the tobacco Kings’ playbook. They had also suffered from ‘uncomfortable truths’ from pesky peasants. So, they launched themselves on new markets – billions of people in the East who hadn’t heard of the evil properties of the magical brown liquid. Even better, they could be persuaded to believe that this magical liquid made them cool, sophisticated and more like the rich western people they envied.

Still, this wasn’t enough and the rich Kings and Queens always had to worry about those pesky peasants spreading rumours far and wide about their product. They needed another strategy. When it came it was a master stroke – the work of evil genius in the marketing departments – they invented “sports and energy drinks”. Now, as we’ll soon see, you mustn’t be taken in by the name – this was all part of the cleverness.

You see, first of all, they didn’t even have to worry about whether these new magical liquids really did what they claimed. They alleged that they were for ‘athletes’ and people who engage in strenuous exercise. However, common sense only tells us (if we step out of the magic haze for a moment) that there are never enough of those to really justify all the hype, marketing and advertising spend on these new magical liquids. The fundamental trick was the same – load it with tons of sugar to give a ‘feel good spike’, and the desire to keep having more. Then, they got even cleverer – use some fancy gimmicky terms like ‘isotonic’ and you can sell it for prices way higher than the magical brown liquid. In fact, the fact that it was expensive made it even ‘cooler’ and convinced people that it must be smart.

The big trick was, they knew all along that athletes and genuine heavy exercisers would only ever be a tiny part of the real market for this whizzo new liquid. The real market would be young people who didn’t exercise much, but who wanted to be linked with healthy living by association. What a wheeze!! The world fell for it – big time.

Once, a clever salesman for one of these sellers of magical liquids approached a large group of schools in Delhi and Gurgaon, India. “Let us sponsor your soccer tournament for you, so that you can keep all your money for other things. We’ll give all the players fancy shirts (with our name on, of course), we’ll provide these energetic and active young boys and girls free bottles of our wonderful magical liquid that will make soccer heroes of every one of them.”

“Wow, how wonderful,” said the citizens of school land. “This is so generous. They are indeed superb and kind people. We must welcome them with open arms.

On the sidelines, quietly, the clever salesman said to the lead civil servant in school land, “Just two little things. We want to do a workshop for all your PE teachers and sports coaches about young people’s health. They should be encouraging the children about the life-giving properties of our magical liquids. Oh, and we’ll start stocking our magical liquid in your school canteen for sale from now on.”

“Oh ho!! There’s the trick, said the head pesky peasant of school land. They don’t care about sportsmen and women, they just want to get access to sell their evil poison to all our children, not just those who might benefit a little (maybe) when very active physically, but those for whom this would be like a poison. No, our doors are shut. Send him away.”

The good citizens of school land were very angry with the Head Pesky Peasant. Who was he to turn away good money? And, after all, they only wanted a little favour in return.

Around 2 to 3 years have passed since that time. Maybe when the good citizens of school land see this report, they may understand a bit better that they had an escape of sorts;

Teens and Sports and Energy Drinks

Is this an end to it? Will those clever clever marketing people and the Kings and Queens of the soft drinks lands now discover integrity? Will they now stop trying to exploit the young for their profits with products which are downright bad for them?

Well, this Head Pesky Peasant isn’t counting on it. So, I will continue to watch out for their evil deeds and will continue to encourage all my fellow citizens in schools lands far and wide to share the cautionary tales with children – so that they can make wise and good decisions for themselves, not taken in by the greedy Kings and Queens.


Don’t ‘Teach’ Ethics and Values

Here’s a great TED talk that’s very thought-provoking from an educator’s perspective. How do we nurture moral skill and moral will? Barry Schwartz was very clear in this TED talk – we don’t do it by teaching morals and ethics in ‘capsules’ – in fact that ensures that children know we’re not serious!

Instead, what he advocates is we need to be ‘every day heroes’ and moral exemplars to children (and for those of is in leadership roles we owe this duty to every person in our organisations).

I particularly liked the way he talked about the work at KIPP schools in the USA emphasizing the vital importance of the development of character. It’s not for nothing that in our own school, one of the four core stated values reads as follows:

“Character Forms the Basis of a Fulfilled Life:
In an age when the media would have us all believe that ‘the cult of the personality’ is everything, we believe that individuality and personality should always be secondary to character traits that manifest in effective habits. These are habits of both self-management and those practiced in one’s relationship with others. In GDGPS, we believe that those who develop positive habits of character live the most fulfilling lives.”

The Comet & The Tornado

In April 2011 I was incredibly fortunate to have a two week study tour to the USA when I met some of the most dynamic people influencing education at the time. This was all thanks to my great friend Amit Bhatia of Aspire. Along the way we met Sal Khan (Khan Academy), Dr Howard Gardner, Peter Cappelli (author of ‘The Indian Way’ and professor at Wharton School of Business), senior professors at Columbia School of Teaching, Stanford School of Education and many more.

One part of the trip that has stuck in my mind more than most was an amazing afternoon at Carnegie Mellon, visiting the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) and meeting the man who heads it up – Don Marinelli. The Center was founded by Don and the now very famous Late Randy Pausch (The Last Lecture) and brought together the combination of Randy’s IT background with Don’s background in Drama. The result is a real eye-opener!

I recently came across this interview given by Don in March 2010. In this fascinating and wide ranging discussion he touches upon many of the things we talked about. Incidentally, our meeting with him took place in the same room – his office at the ETC, surrounded by all his baseball memorabilia, lava lamps, airplanes and film posters.

What he has to say about schools, about learning in the twenty first century and especially about learning spaces are refreshing. However, here we are 4 years later and I suspect Don might not be too impressed with progress to date.

As Don showed us around the ETC the infectious enthusiasm of the students was quite contagious. Here were people who were genuinely excited by what they were learning. Each project team had its own room. Each room was quirky and different in its own way, unique to the people who occupied it (and nobody needed to tell them how long to spend on task!!)

When he talks in the interview about people filling their rooms with things that matter to them, I am reminded of a conversation I once had with a room full of teachers. I posed a question to them. I pointed out that even when you visit the most nondescript of office buildings, one finds that each person has personalised their desk and the space around it in some way. One might have photos of family members, another has a favourite mouse pad, another a coffee mug,a plant in a pot, a poem or picture that means something significant to them. Yet, when we enter a teacher's workplace (the classroom) we find it sterile and not a shred of evidence of them - nothing personal. So, I asked them - what would happen if you personalised your workspace in some way - brought some things in to it that are significant to you? The answer was a very sad one - "it wouldn't last 5 minutes," said one teacher, and the rest in the room promptly backed her opinion.

Were they wrong and unduly cynical? If they were right, then what does that say about the de-humanizing, cold and institutionalised spaces we have created - spaces within which people are supposed to do great learning, and do it with enthusiasm? Places within which young people are meant to be learning about how to 'be in the world'.

I'm with Don - I think we can do better than that. A whole lot better.

(P.S. The Comet and the Tornado goes on to my 'To Be Read' list)