teach, Work

The Maker Space is the new Computer Lab

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The first time I worked in a K12 school was in 2001. Until then I had occupied a post that oversaw technology strategy and support for educational partnerships across the continental United States, Puerto Rico and South Africa. I had no idea what I was in for in 2001 when I started working in a K12 private school. The main reason for me being in that position was to build a solid network and digital services infrastructure the school lacked. And I did.

After tackling designing and installing core networking services, along with wireless network access throughout a 16-acre campus; deploying desktops and laptops purchased directly from a single provider; and outfitting the different buildings with mobile laptop carts, I set my eyes on the educational aspect of my job. It was time to look at use and the value-to-learning of technology.

Something that quickly stood out to me was the number of tasks teachers must tend to, simultaneously. I was an opportunity for improvement where technology could contribute positively to teaching and learning. Nearing the end of my first academic year, computer labs because the focus of my attention.

It made little sense to me that teachers had to stop what they were doing, get kids organized, and bring them into a different room to work with digital tools to create and/or reinforce what was happening in the classroom. Within the second year of my new-found career I started to dismantle computer labs across campus. The upper school was the only place where a computer lab was left standing – albeit fitted with appropriate hardware – for the Computer Science program.

Philosophically, as well, it made little sense that as the world was becoming more and more digital, the adults in the building decided it was best to keep digital tools locked in a separate room. This was a private school with enough funding to consider a different perspective.

Now I think about how “maker spaces” are the new computer lab. Most school administrators I’ve visited in the past 7 years have been quick to point out their new and amazing maker space. Any campus visit I’ve made has included a walk to and through their maker space. It is reminiscent of campus visits in the early 2000’s.

Let’s think about this for a minute. A maker space is where students come to to work with hand tools; to learn about building materials and practices; and to receive specialized guidance in design using mathematical/engineering/architectural concepts they must understand before tackling whatever world problem they have identified that needs solving. And there is the design-thinking design cycle to follow. These things should not be the domain of a specific space but readily available/possible in any classroom. Most early childhood classrooms I’ve visited do not have a time-table for discussion and a separate one for making, and yet another for physical education. Most of these things take place during the day, at intervals the teacher deems necessary, and often in the same classroom and/or learning space. Why is making, then, separated and placed in a special room of its own, and often set separate from the rest of the learning in the timetable?

To remedy this itch, I am trying a new model. I no longer build maker spaces. Rather, I like to think of the entire campus as a maker environment, and of our teachers and learners as a maker community. To support such a community, I’ve focused on equipping our buildings with mobile tools, so they are in or come to the classroom as needed as opposed to the other way around. Hand tools are not heavy or large. 3D printers can be placed in a cabinet on wheels and are wireless/USB accessible for use. Materials can come and go as needed. Most robotics/electronic kits can be collected in “kit” mode and delivered/left in classrooms for students to have ready access. Even laser cutters/etchers are small enough to moved around and used in a well-ventilated space for a period of time.

The key is in the support teachers have when using the various tools often identified as having to live in a maker space. Brave teachers rely on students’ curiosity to figure out how some resources work. Teachers needing more support should have someone to guide them through introduction and use of some resources. Modeling use, providing tutorials, posting guides near equipment, providing full classroom kits to live in the classroom are only some of the practices we are trying out in my latest drive to dismantle the idea that students can only make and construct things in one place on campus and only during the proper time-tabled period.


Flashy & Sexy Sell

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Optics matter. I get it. We judge all that we see. Our ancestors stayed alive by judging from a distance whether an approaching person was hostile or friendly. To this day, it is an impossible switch to turn off.

And so it is in education.

Having worked in Latin America, throughout the US, Europe, and Asia has taught me that different cultures will have varying degrees of value placed on the optics versus the substance of education. Sadly, more and more across the board, more value is being placed on the optics.

By substance I mean the actual learning experience for the student. Is the learning experience transformative or could the time have been better spent doing something else? Did they walk away with something learned/done, something they could not otherwise have looked up on YouTube or Google? Did the student want to know more and do more on that topic after the experience?

By optics I mean technology, along with all its bells and whistles. Could the student have done the same thing without a screen or a small gizmo, for instance? Did the magical 3D-printing-pen allow the student to make something that otherwise could not have been made? Did the lights and sound distract from learning?

As a technology leader in schools I have a fine line to walk between providing enough flash and sexy to get Boards/communities/leadership to buy into recommended platforms/tools and ensuring there is depth such that skilled teachers take their craft to the next level by using the platform/tool. Honing in on a community’s value system is not always straightforward. Often it takes anywhere from 2 to 6 months to feel confident in the changes I can/should introduce or the amount of work I will impose on or create for teachers.

Given the trend toward a more optics-geared public, my job is getting easier. Low-hanging fruit often comes in shiny packaging, robotic this or the other coding systems, and “maker” / STEAM offerings. Whatever the bandwagon is, as long as the marketing is right, it’s an easy sell to tired, overloaded and overworked school personnel.

Finding something unique is a different challenge altogether. Private schools must offer something that is unique, otherwise it’s hard to justify the expense to parents. What makes your school different from others in the area? Optics being what they are, in certain communities, it takes just enough flash and sexy to get parents through the door.

teach, Work

Teaching should be fun…ny, but it’s not

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Not that I’m comparing the classroom to a sitcom, but it’s hard not to.

Allow me some room to think out loud…

I’ve been in education for 20-years, and over this time I’ve seen a parallel between two of my passions; teaching & moviemaking. The parallel I see is in the audience.

Let’s focus on teaching, and one characteristic of teaching that has become difficult for teachers; student engagement. The challenge is not getting a student engaged, it’s keeping the student engaged. Over my short career, student behavior has changed, and the most challenged teachers are those who cannot adjust to this change. Students have ever-decreasing attention spans, demand instant gratification, and will not sit long enough to hear the whole theory before wanting to get hands on.

The same scenario is playing out in the world of entertainment, and in particular in comedy writing. The reason I am focusing on comedy writing is that it’s easy to compare laughs-per-minute to engagement-re-engagement in a lesson… in my mind at least.

Bear with me…

In comedy film writing there is an element of laughs-per-minute that can be calculated, as done by Andrew Bender of Forbes here. In average, comedy film yields about 1.8 laughs-per-minute, according to Andrew’s unscientific study. In stand-up comedy, the laughs-per-minute yield is higher, coming it at roughly 4, according to Steve Roye. In sitcom writing, the laughs-per-minute yield is much higher, at 6, according to Talib Visram of The Atlantic.

This is where I see the correlation. In the classroom, much like on the small/big screen, the challenge of re-engagement – bringing student attention back to the subject in a focus manner –  is like that of sitcom writing and keeping the audience engaged by making them laugh often. Over time, I’ve experienced shorter attention spans in students, pushing some lesson-planners to producing more active lessons, adding more engaging content, and creating opportunities for hands-on activities. This is happening in the Humanities as much as it is happening in the Sciences. Some teachers have become more creative in their planning and delivery of lessons, otherwise they stand to lose student engagement. In a way, lesson-planning is like sitcom writing.

The reason I am sharing my thoughts on this is because of the insistence of some teachers to keep things as they were 5-years ago, and to play the blame game. Video-games, diet, lack of sleep, boredom, doctors and their ever-ready prescription pad, and many other aspects of a student’s life outside of the classroom gets blamed. Not to say those things don’t impact life in the classroom, because they do. However, the same teachers playing the blame game tend to deliver the same lesson plan year over year without updating their approach.

When walking into a class as an observer, I’m not expecting a show, however-much there is an aspect of performance in a teacher’s work. Regardless of the day a teacher may be having, they have to show up and put their best face forward. Equally, it should be noted that teachers need not be comedians to teach well, but to dismiss the importance of how things have changed over the past few years is to miss a huge opportunity for keeping students eager for more.

Maybe we should count of re-engagement-actions-per-minute during a lesson?



Model your way to productive use

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Recently I heard a senior administrator talk about the perception of students towards tablet as toys. Though I did not like the comment, I could not argue it. All one needs to do to confirm his theory, after all, is to walk into a mall, restaurant, airport, or waiting-room of any type to see kids’ hands on small/large screens either consuming content or engaged in a game.

In thinking of, and being frustrated at, the shortage of research of technology in the classroom, I’ve come to realize that there is one aspect of technology that has been given little attention; modeling behavior. I agree that children see the use of a table/smartphone mostly as an entertainment device, one to consume content rather than to make content. And if we think about it more deeply, maybe we can agree that that perception has been handed to students from adults, pun intended 🙂

I have seen how an inexperienced leader took a hands on approach in encouraging teachers to use tablets in a constructive way by modeling, even though she had little training and experience in what she was doing. She got up to speak to teachers with tablet in hand, and she showed how it was a powerful tool for teaching. Over time, this had an impact on how the device was used by teachers.

As parents/teachers, how adults approach technology is how children approach technology. If we are afraid, are not interested, and only use the most basic and superficial features, children will follow suit. If adults take an interest and use a device for more than watching movies or playing video games, I am confident children will do the same. This is the best teaching tool there is; modeling behavior.

I encourage you to take the time to discover ways to model productive and interesting ways of using technology in the classroom. It would make the argument that “tablets are only toys” change to “children use digital tools as adults model how to use those tools.”