Teaser ~ Slippery Rocks & Hard Places: Twelve Bridges and Learning Matters

Here’s a glimpse of my K12 Online Conference 2009 presentation, Slippery Rocks & Hard Places. You can view the whole presentation on Thursday, December 10, 2009. Enjoy!

Teaser ~ Slippery Rocks & Hard Places: Twelve Bridges and Learning Matters from Dennis Richards on Vimeo.

Leadership Day 2009 ~ Learning Beyond School

Leadership Day 2009

Scott McLeod of Dangerously Irrelevant fame invited edubloggers (educational bloggers) worldwide to post (write in our blogs) about digital technologies. As a former superintendent of schools and educational leader in my state, I have a strong foundation in pre-digital age education. That foundation has prepared me well to know what I don’t know and need to know. Two years ago I realized the world was rapidly changing in ways that have major implications for how we teach and students learn. I’m on a journey to learn what I need to know. In this post I share some of what I’ve learned in hopes that all teacher and administrative learners will begin their own journey into the digital world.

The Times They are A-Changin

In the 1960’s change was in the air. The Beatles first trip to the United States was in 1964 and the Woodstock Music and Art Fair was held the summer of 1969 in Bethel, New York.  A whole generation was learning beyond school from the likes of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Peter, Paul and Mary and Pete Seeger.

When I graduated from college in 1970, there were transistor radios, TVs and record players or turntables. To the best of my knowledge, there were no computers; no Internet; no computer companies like Apple or Microsoft; no web browsers; no e-mail; no software for word processing, slide presenting, spread sheet making or video gaming; no ISPs; no SPAM; no .jpg or MIDI files, no MS Office; no RealAudio, no search engines; no modems, no Silicon Valley; no Napster; no cell phones.

All of these phenomena entered our world during the last three decades of the 20th Century. I continued to learn beyond school using these tools, but the pace of change was relatively slow. If the story ended there, maybe schools could continue to assign technology to the technology lab, ably managed by computer teachers or computer lab teacher assistants. In an imagined world we could control the learning environment by creating learning standards, routines and structures to prevent students from “growing up digital.” Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your point of view, the story did not end there and shortly after the beginning of the 21st Century, digital change began to dramatically accelerate. Technological innovation began to blossom. In fact, over the last few years, technology has began to transform our world in ways few of us could have imagined, a fact most people now recognize because we have experienced some of it. However, you may not be aware of the magnitude of the change because it is happening at breakneck speed — and it seems to be accelerating!

For Consideration

Consider this. Until the end of the century there were no intelligent mobile devices or PDAs; no Bluetooth; no IM/texting; no blogging; no Twitter; no Tweetdeck; no Skype; no Facebook or MySpace; no FlipVideo; no RSS feeds; no wikis; no podcasts; no iPods; no iPhone or iPhone apps; no Photo Booth; no GarageBand; no iMovie; no iTunes; no iTunes University; no YouTube or Vimeo; no Buzzword; no Diigo or delicious; no Flickr; no Skitch; no Mind42 or Mindomo; no Jing; no SecondLife; no Google Mail, Maps, Groups, Alerts, Docs, Books, Scholar, Calendar, Knol, Picasa, Reader, Sketch Up, Translate, Notebook, iGoogle, Custom Search; no Google Earth, Sky, or Ocean layer.

Now, I could continue the list for the rest of the article with a hundred more tools, but my point is that we are in the middle of a new revolution, the “Web 2.0,” “Read-Write,” “Participatory-Culture,” “Social-Learning,” revolution. Where this will evolve is uncertain, but I know from personal experience that the changes in technology are not slowing down. If there is a next stage, call it Web 3.0 for lack of a better term, you can be assured that the students learning today will direct future changes through their participation digital learning communities; communicating, collaborating and creating in ways we can’t even imagine.


When it comes to learning beyond school, students have choices. In many cases, students are beginning to see school as less and less relevant to their learning. Many students are using or learning to use the technology tools I mentioned above to learn without us. If this trend continues, combined with classroom activities that for too many students are unengaging, unmotivating, and unchallenging, some predict that as students develop personal learning environments less connected to what schools currently offer them, schooling as we know it will become less and less relevant.

As educators we have choices. Some of us are choosing to ignore the technological changes and are continuing to teach the next generation of students, who are growing up in this digital revolution as its citizens, the way we have always taught students. Then again, some of us are attacking the changes, pointing out the dangers, working to persuade the world that they know best. “Students have not changed,” is a comment some educators use to reinforce their argument against changing teaching practice.

Understandably, the fear of change and the lack of support systems can make both these choices seem reasonable. The standards do not assess these technological changes. The curriculum does not acknowledge the changes. Our professional learning does not account for the changes. Our administrator and teacher evaluations do not include standards for evaluating the changes. Most educational leaders are unaware of many of the changes so they do not use the tools or even think of including mention of them in strategic planning documents.


Now, don’t misunderstand me. I know “technology” is mentioned in these contexts, but not in significant, fundamental, all pervasive ways. The times we live in, the times that are shaping our children’s future, are not just different from the world we learned to navigate as successful adults and educators. Understanding the digital, participatory, global, complex, challenging, flat world we live is a little like understanding Parkour.

Just as Parkour throws the mind off balance ~ how could someone do something so dangerous? ~ the digital world represents a paradigm mind shift that most of us have little time, patience, or interest in understanding. At some level that reaction, as I explained above, is natural but also counter-productive to our mission to educate students in ways that engage them in their education so they develop the capacity to pursue their personal goals and life-long learning as autonomous, self-directed, confident participants in communities of learners.

In Times of Change

Eric Hoffer sums up our challenge.

Creative Commons Image Credits

Nourishment for Your Journey: A Few Learning Resources

Children-as-Learners’ Declaration of Independence (Revisited)

On October 27, 2007, I wrote a blog post, “K12Online Educators Community Thank You or Claiming What We Imagine,” that called for what a coalition of twenty-five superintendent in Texas has just declared:

Creating a New Vision for Public Education in Texas

Here is some of what I wrote in that post.

In some way what I am going to ask you will initially be perceived as a Declaration of Independence from our past, but like all learning of significance, it actually is an affirmation of the positive intent of our past motivations; educators always mean to do well by students; however, the profession now knows that, to be faithful to our trust with humanity, we must commit to the transformational behavior necessary for shaping a new generative, integral, balanced, inspirational learning landscape for educating whole children. If we do not commit, the downward spiral for too many children and schools will accelerate. If we do commit, some day each child will go to bed each night with recollections of a healthy, safe, challenging, engaging and supportive day. Like the Declaration of Independence that gave birth to America, there is no other way. This is the courageous choice that has been our songline for years; now it is ready to be born.

Here is the opening of an Associated Press article that appeared on www.Chron.com, the Houston Chronicle online edition, “Administrators Share Vision to Change Schools,” Linda Stewart Ball, Associated Press, Jan. 26, 2009, 3:16PM

DALLAS — Skip the piecemeal education reform. A group of Texas school superintendents are calling for a complete transformation of public schools to better prepare students for the future in ways that aren’t boring.

They’ve laid out the framework in a 48-page report called Creating a New Vision for Public Education in Texas.

Nearly two years in the making, the document spells out school leaders’ thoughts on six key issues, including the use of digital technology, abuse of standardized testing and designing accountability systems that inspire excellence instead of punish perceived shortcomings.

The 35 superintendents from Dallas, Cypress-Fairbanks, Fort Worth, San Antonio and numerous rural and suburban school districts are responsible for educating about a quarter of the state’s 4.7 million schoolchildren.

I want to complement everyone who worked on “Creating a New Vision for Public Education in Texas” for their vision and courage. What a great story and document.

The conversation they have started is what our children, our adults, our communities, our nation and our planet needs. I hope their colleagues and communities will see the light they have shined on the critical themes in their report and join the expanding community of educators, parents, students, politicians and other community leaders who are advocating and working for a better learning and leading environment for adults and students.

Here are a few touchstones for my thinking on learning and leading for the 21st Century that may be useful as they continue their conversation:

  • Stephanie Pace Marshall’s The Power to Transform
  • ASCD’s www.wholechildeducation.org
  • http://k12onlineconference.org
  • Philadelphia’s Educon 2.1 (see http://educon21.wikispaces.com) and
  • Personal Learning Networks of educators throughout the world they can cultivate through Twitter.com (I know Twitter.com scares some people, but for me it has been an incredibly rich source of creative, innovative and practical ideas and information.)

Hope is never having to say it can’t be done. Yes we can. This report is on the right path. I hope you will do what you can to share their story and document with everyone in your network. It is time to stand up, speak up and advocate loudly for children.

Web 2.0 Tools and Pedagogy ~ Educational Leaders and Influential People

The challenge is a lot larger than most people realize. Most, I suspect, don’t even think about this issue much.

Are the educational leaders in your community actively learning about, using and promoting web 2.0 tools and pedagogy as natural complements to skillful teaching and learning?

I was recently perusing my state superintendents’ web site (Massachsetts Association of School Superintendents) and noticed a PDF in the technology section. Our technology committee issued a PDF in the Documents and Reports section titled M.A.S.S. Best Practices in Technology that is worth reading if you want to gain an insight into the mindset of an influential group of educational leaders on pedagogy and technology. (Note: I had to right click on the report link and save the document on my computer to view it so I have inserted it at the end of this post. ) The twenty page “report” has nothing about web 2.0 tools or pedagogy. What you do find in the report, which is actually a listing, are plenty of references to schools using student management systems, biometrics, school security, one-to-one computing, wireless technologies, testing and student assessment, etc., a total of 21 headings.

I hope this is not the case for educational leaders throughout the world, but I suspect it is for many if not most. Scotland, Northern Ireland and Australia and some individual schools come to mind as exceptions I have encountered in my online network and self-directed learning on the web. I respect my Massachusetts colleagues, but their education in this area has a long way to go. To their credit, this fall, 2008, their technology conference is advertised as an attempt to reach out to the latest knowledge on technology best practices. They approved me as a presenter to speak about web 2.0 tools and pedagogy so I am optimistic.

The real story is not about adding technology; it’s about a vision of technology as a way of life infused throughout the application of the knowledge base of skillful teaching and learning in all our schools and classrooms. Until educators and influential people such as parents, school boards, teacher union leaders, and politicians understand what this vision of teaching and learning looks and feels like by experiencing it themselves, our progress will be limited to a few courageous souls fighting the status quo to no significant avail.

I hope organizations like CoSN and The MacArthur Foundation can help to significantly and rapidly advance the understanding and aceptance of web 2.0 tools and pedagogy by educational leaders and influential people who make the key decisions in this area. Here is a CoSN video Changing to Learn, Learning to Change.

The web is now about learning, dialogue and community. Speak to us. Let us know what the status is in your school or district.

This post was prompted by a press release on August 28, 2008 issued by the MacArthur Foundation:

The CEO of the Consortium for School Networking and a Professor Emeritus at Western Michigan University discuss a new initiative designed to assess how school leaders are affecting the use of Web 2.0 applications in schools. To read the full release, click here.

M.A.S.S. Best Practices in Technology 07