Blend don’t Cram

Super-teachers Dina Strasser and Bill Ferriter battle it out on EdWeek’s Teacher Leader Network with a debate about online v offline and global v local.
I love the fact that Dina looks to Paul Farmer (Mountains Beyond Mountains) for inspiration and beats Bill over the head with Postman.  She warns against The Shallows, lost sensual connection, and even global warming (i.e., computers use energy and plastic, etc)!!
It’s interesting that Bill points to social action that formed on Facebook to make his case that local social action is more important than every and that technology makes it possible for anyone to make a difference.  He closes with Shirky, “It’s just new opportunities linked to old motives via the right incentives. Once you get that right, you can change the way people interact with one another in fairly fundamental ways.”
Bill’s argument reminded me of rediscovering one of Rainer Maria Rilke early poems:

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not ever complete the last one,
but I give myself to it.
(Love Poems to God, Macy & Barrows translation)

Bill is right, we need to make student’s lives bigger by connecting them to “widening circles.”  Dina is right that teachers are in the triage business and seldom have time to make these connections.
Here’s the problem—it’s the wrong argument.  They are arguing about what Christenson in Disruptive Class called ‘cramming’—stuffing computers into school as we know it.  We’ve been adding computers to how we’ve always done school for 20 years with little impact.  Instead, we should use technology as a ‘force multiplier’ to extend the impact of extraordinary teachers like Dina and Bill.
School of One is an example.  An under appreciated aspects of School of One is that it incorporates small group instruction and this magical fact—every student arrives at small group prepared for the lesson.  Daily assessment and a recommendation engine suggest small group instruction as the next best instructional strategy.  Students show up ready to learn—the right time, the right topic, and the right mode of instruction.
Blended learning incorporates multiple modes of instruction with an intentional shift to an online environment for a portion of the day to improve learning and operating productivity.  Blends can extend the day/year and extend the impact of great teachers like Dina and Bill.
Technology should leverage not frustrate great teachers.  Dina is obviously an extraordinary teacher.  I don’t want her worried about cramming computers into her 50 minute period, I want her:

  • owning half of the outcomes for half of the kids in a school with a team to support her;
  • owning half of the day with access to the other half when she needs it, and the ability to integrate across the curriculum, and ability to leverage local assets with frequent expeditions;
  • informed by continuous assessment and comprehensive student profiles; and
  • able to double learning time with the ability to create engaging personalized playlists and local community-embedded projects.

It would be fun to listen to Dina and Bill brainstorm a greenfield school with new tools and no constraints.  Given the new opportunity set, we need to free teachers like Dina and Bill to innovate rather than forcing them to cram engagement into 50 minute chunks.
[Note: I’m CEO of City Prep, a NYC-based organization that helps schools, districts, and networks create interesting and effective blended learning models. Contact me, [email protected], if you want to discuss blended learning.]

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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