A Case for Reinventing Public Schools

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Online Learning: A More Innovative Experience for College Students

Harrison College, which is a higher education school serving students both in the United States and internationally, is on the cusp of the future of education. Harrison has established a web-based form of the classroom, called KnowU. KnowU begins with the community, seeking to establish relationships among its students, professors, and administrators. It utilizes many social media outlets in order to bring people together even before they reach the learning environment. Non-traditional students looking for classes can learn online in real time, and the website allows them to keep track of class discussion, offers a wide variety of research and library materials, and helps them in their job search. Lastly, for any areas of concern, KnowU provides a wide range of FAQs for students, along with live support people who are able to assist in case the problem has not been covered elsewhere.

This method of education is innovative because it is not limited by time, place, or topic. Students are welcome to join in the discussions no matter where they are or what they might have been doing ten minutes earlier. In that way, KnowU is perfectly formatted to fit the needs of the modern students, many of whom have a job or children or both!

Robert W. Mendenhall, the president of Western Governors University, another online college, says that learning must be the constant factor and time must be the variable. In brick-and-mortar classrooms, time is the constant and learning must be modified to fit the established time. With online education, however, the students learn at their own pace and in the methods they find most effective.

Innovations in online education must begin with changing the relationship between the university, the establishment, and the students themselves. Though the students may be sitting in a dozen different places, often on their own, they all want to be involved in the community of the classroom. Online education, says Philip R. Regier, the dean of Arizona State University’s Online and Extended Campus program, is at a crucial point. If universities are able to reach out to their students and create community, they will continue to flourish. Though creating community in online classrooms requires somewhat different strategies from those used in conventional classrooms, the effort is necessary. No student wants to learn in a vacuum and the community of a classroom encourages discussion and better retention.

Lastly, online education must diversify the methods it has for reaching students. For too long, online education has consisted of reading, writing a paper, and emailing it in for a grade. Effective teaching, online or not, uses a variety of teaching styles to convey the information. Online education is no different. It can use chats for less formal conversations about the material, webcams for live demonstrations, and social media feedback once the class time is finished. Interaction between students is important to engage all learners and foster learning. Once these various methods are used, everyone involved in online higher education will benefit greatly – both from the classroom time and in the established community.

Ultimately online education, as it continues to evolve and innovate, may well become regarded as truly superior to traditional classrooms. After all, online learning allows students wherever they are in the world to view lectures from the very best professors in the field, to consult with scientists, researchers and artists wherever they may be, and to learn on a truly global scale. Surely, online education holds great potential in the future.

July 6, 2012   Comments Off on Online Learning: A More Innovative Experience for College Students

The Independent Project

This says it all.

I’ve been talking about the need to have choice as part of the learning experience. Here’s one of the best examples of young people being given not only the freedom to make choices but the independence and support to create their own learning path.

A school within a school – started and run by the students that participate in it.

You be the judge.

March 29, 2011   Comments Off on The Independent Project

Compassion in the Classroom

I just learned about these videos on YouTube. I imagine that many people who watch something like this might be scared of having this kind of emotional expression in a classroom. I could also imagine there being significant debates in School Board meetings, teacher’s lounges, and possibly even in parent/teacher associations. It’s possible this kind of emotional expression – and the maturity it develops – could be scary for Americans.

I don’ t have my own children but I would want the children of the world to have the opportunity and support to develop emotional intelligence and emotional maturity. My ‘make believe’ story about this is that this kind of compassion and understanding would lead to a different type of social engagement and a different type of society.

What do you think – would US schools allow this? What would have to change in order for this type of experience to be common in American Schools?

October 18, 2010   Comments Off on Compassion in the Classroom

No More College

Well, if Bill Gates says it’s so we might as well consider it to be so.

In a recent talk at a conference in California Bill Gates said that in five years the best education will come from the web. His logic is that the cost of most universities and colleges are out of reach for most people – and that at some point in the future the best lectures will be available for free on the web. So why would anyone go to college? The parties of course!

Five years from now on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world,” Gates said at the Techonomy conference in Lake Tahoe, CA today. “It will be better than any single university,” he continued.

Actually, I believe there is a good reason for people to still congregate in person – and there will be even more and better reasons to do so in the future – but I think Bill’s point is a good one. If we continue to think of schooling as the accumulation of data and information then the internet is more than sufficient in providing what most people would need. And, as more and more devices become internet savvy and it becomes available any time any where then why wouldn’t we be able to find the information we need when we need it?

So why would we still want to get together?

Collaborative Co-Creation

For one, I believe that more powerful learning experiences can be created by getting people together to collaborate on solving tough, complex, and difficult challenges. A good collaborative process can create conditions where everyone is stretched to learn from each other. A good collaborative process engages people emotionally as well as intellectually – and in my opinion better learning happens when the emotions are engaged.

Most importantly, a good collaborative process can engage people in collaborative co-creation, which for me is possibly the best reason.

We know creativity is important in the future but collaborative co-creation can be so much more powerful. Engaging the group genius is both an art and a science and something that can give all participants involved a very positive and powerful experience.

So will colleges be gone in five years? I doubt it personally, but the reasons for colleges should challenged and possibly re-invented to include collaborative problem solving and collaborative co-creation.

Read the TechCrunch article… where I read about Bill Gate’s statement.

August 11, 2010   Comments Off on No More College

Changing Schools is Beyond a Wicked Problem

One of my business partners, Jay Smethurst, sent me a link to a great article about a way to think about making changes to the public school system. Bryan Coffman, another partner, had exposed all of us to the idea of something called Wicked Problems some years ago. In this article, the author uses work from someone called Adam Richardson and his book entitled Innovation X: Why a Company’s Toughest Problems Are Its Greatest Advantage to describe a set of problems that go beyond wicked problems. He calls these problems X-Problems (or extreme problems).

Wicked Problems

The wicked problem was a term coined in the 1960’s by mathematician and planner Horst Rittel. He described them as messy, confounding, and aggressive. In 1968, C. West Churchman detailed the issue of wicked problems in an issue of Management Science.

Churchman describes wicked problems as, ” a class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing.

Simple Problems: These are problems for which both the problem and solution are easily defined.

Which budget should be used to purchase supplemental materials? Which grade level will require an additional teacher next year? Who is going to teach the new section of Latin? Which classrooms need instructional aides?

Complex Problems: Here the problem is known, but the solution is not.

How can we get students to complete their homework? Which technology is best to introduce into an elementary classroom? Which curriculum will best meet the needs of our students who are two years below grade level? How do we create a system that allows for student input? What is the most effective assessment of reading comprehension for English Learners?  How can we increase teacher collaboration and trust?

Wicked Problems: The challenge here is that neither the problem nor the solution is known. How can you define a good solution when cannot even state what the problem is?

There is no definitive statement of the problem, and each solution reveals new aspects of the problem.

In our work, the more we grappled with these kinds of challenges the more we developed a small understanding of their nature and complexity. We’ve been able to garner a few insights from this.

One insight is the process of solving wicked problems is non-linear.

Most problem solving processes are thought of as a step by step process – moving through the steps in succession and at the end having a solution. Solving (or attempting to solve) wicked problems doesn’t work like that. Solving wicked problems is non-linear. In practice what this means is that the individual or group engaged in the process bounces around to different aspects of the problem solving process – some times jumping to the end first or covering the same ground multiple times.

wicked problems

The other thing we’ve learned about addressing these wicked problesms is that they cannot be solved by one person – and possibly not by a small group of people.

This may seem obvious but attempting to engage in the problem solving process when dealing with these types of challenges is not something to be done alone. They need different perspectives and diversity to have any chance of developing insights. Facilitating this type of problem solving process has numerous nuances that requires a very skilled facilitator to navigate.

eXtreme Problems

From that article the author goes on to describe this other type of problem which he believes makes changing the schooling system is so complex. He says the problems we are attempting to solve are really X-Problems. He says these types of problems have extreme levels of risk along with extreme levels of complexity. He quotes from Adam Richardson:

But there is a problem even more difficult to grapple with than the wicked problem.

It’s called the X-problem. Why X-problems? Adam shares his thinking on why X represents another level of problem.

X is extreme: X-problems are extreme in risk and complexity.

Educating an entire country’s population and building a system that does it in the most effective way is a risky proposition. You can’t build the wrong system. You can’t make a mistake.

X is mysterious: Every X-problem revolves around questions that have never been asked before, or challenges that are unprecedented.

Solving the “problems” of education and doing so in a way that meets all the needs of all the stakeholders now and in the future is going to create some questions that we have never encountered of thought of.

X is a crossroad: A crossroads is a place where things converge together—and diverge outward. At a crossroads one must make a choice among paths, each of which could entail risk or opportunity.

Do we take the road of creativity, technology, brain research, etc? Saying yes to certain solutions requires that we say no to others. Which do we choose?

X means opportunity: X marks the spot for treasure—the winnings that come from finding the problem and capitalizing on it before others can.

Does this help frame the challenges in making changes to the public school system? If it does, and we started addressing some of the issues in this light, how might solutions developing for problems like this? Maybe there won’t be any solution that can be applied system wide?

That’s something I’ve been exploring in my own thinking lately and in a conversation with Bryan he said the following:

I think his definition of X-problems could be simpler. A wicked problem is one that’s complex where neither the true problem nor the true solution is known. An X-problem is simply a wicked problem with a large diversity of stakeholders who are in varying degrees of contention with one another. That would knock a wicked problem out of the park. Our little edge-of-chaos model for collaboration would predict that in such a situation where diversity of stakeholders is super high, that contrary to intuition, the system needs less facilitative behavior between players overall. In other words, since you can’t hope to facilitate a comprehensive solution, little cells of players who are diverse yet have affinities would hive off and build options. This is what happens in private schooling, home schooling, some rural schools where the stakeholder diversity is smaller, etc. It’s also what is happening with our NAPC project (now the Continuum Initiative). Attempts at national or state standards will ultimately fail to produce the right results because the common denominator they seek puts them way off the peaks of the fitness landscape.  So long as we seek system-wide solutions to X-problems, we will continue to fail.

What do you think? How would you see problems of this nature being addressed and possibly solved?

July 27, 2010   2 Comments

The iPad Creates a Problem for Schools


The iPad creates a problem for schools that will be interesting to see how it gets resolved.

The way I see it Apple has solved some problems with the iPad and created some other ones.

The tablet is a new form factor for a device and will clearly have a place in the computing world for some time to come. I feel the iPad solves some specific problems for schools and should really be considered as a schooling device. Some of the problems the iPad solves are simple:

  • The small form factor is nearly perfect for reading
  • The size and weight is reasonable for carrying around
  • The battery can last an entire school day
  • The number of apps that will be developed is nearly unlimited

I can’t imagine a scenario where schools wouldn’t want to consider moving to the iPad instead of text books (accept below where I identify one). The size and form factor are perfect. Imagine carrying around a 1.5 pound device instead of a backpack full of books. It’s a no-brainer.

In addition to being an excellent reading device it is perfect for surfing the web, doing research, keeping simple notes (like a notepad), and building simple presentations.

At the same time the iPad – or tablet sized, touch screen computers – create some other problems.

The iPad is NOT a Laptop

A few people in my life have asked me what I think the difference is between an iPad and a laptop. I think the difference is this:

  • A laptop is primarily a production device – where consumption has been slowly slipping more and more into the laptop computing world.
  • The iPad is primarily a consumption device – with very little producing going on (at this stage of the game – but I imagine we’ll see more and more producing start slipping into the tablet space).

I think the iPad is 80% a consumption device and at most 20% a production device. While on the other hand I think a laptop has the flexibility to cover the other 80% of the territory focused on production (and is pretty comfortable anywhere on that spectrum).

Giving iPads to students creates a problem.

I believe students really need to be creating things and NOT consuming them – so while giving tablet style computers is something I think should happen for many reasons, I’m quite challenged to see how they can be used to enable young people to produce. I think the form factor, size, weight, and user experience is pretty perfect for surfing the web, checking email, reading books, and watching videos. I imagine students will keep a calendar, manage their schedules, keep track of their tasks and homework (if there is such a thing any more) on a device like this. It might actually turn out to be a pretty good drawing machine as well (time will tell). But I’m not sure how much typing will actually get done so I’m imagining there won’t be many novels written using a touch screen on a tablet (again time will tell).

Creating a Bridge

I was perplexed initially when Apple release iWork for iPad. I didn’t quite make the connection at first but now I can see a path for how these applications can help bridge the gap between consuming and producing.

We’ll start with applications like Evernote or any other note taking application. I can imagine young people capturing clips – snippets of text, images, or videos and saving them in their note-taking application for use in a document or some research they are doing for a report.

They can then build an outline in Keynote or Pages and place those snippets into the outline and build the structure of their document.

So while, today, I see the iPad as primarily a consumption device, I imagine over time it will gain some ground on the production side as well.

But if you are in the market for a computer and are trying to decide between a laptop and a tablet style computer I think the criterion to be used is simply this:

  • Will you primarily be producing on your new computer or
  • Will you primarily be consuming on your new computer?

If your answer is producing I would suggest you go the route of a laptop. I would suggest you only consider moving in the other direction if your answer to the question above starts moving towards 70% consumption. If it gets to that point it probably makes more sense to go the tablet route (the caveat being what type of producing you need to do).

May 18, 2010   2 Comments

Motivation and Pay for Performance

I think we’re making another mistake when it comes to the conversations around motivation. One of my basic premises in writing this blog is that we, the people having a conversation about young people and learning, are continually lead in the wrong direction – or down a rabbit hole – by calling what we do in schools education.

That mistake leads to further mistakes. One of those mistakes is motivation. I’ve argued that extrinsic motivation is has potential short term gains (at best) but long term has more potentially damaging impacts.

We know there are movements for paying teachers based on merit – for performance (getting better test scores). We also know about the experiments taking place where young people are being paid to improve their test scores.

That seems to speak pretty loudly that test scores, and more specifically scores on standardized tests, are what is important in schools.

This Time Magazine article,  Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School? describes the research of Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr. in which he discovers bribes do work – for behaviors within a young person’s control – but do not necessarily work for things (like grades) that are subjective and young people cannot control.

Daniel Pink, in his video presentation above and in this CNN article argues that paying for performance (extrinsic rewards) work in a very narrow set of circumstances but for most conditions have long term negative impacts. Paying large bonuses do not produce the kind of results one might think they do. He further argues in his newsletter that merit pay for teachers is a pretty bad idea. He lays creating a system that is actually fair and based on good measures is near impossible and suggests a better alternative for improving performance is to simply raise base pay and creating a way to weed out bad teachers.

In my opinion, finding ways to improve the performance of either students or teachers in a system that is doing the wrong thing isn’t worth putting our energy into. I don’t think the results will get us anywhere closer to an educated populace – but then maybe that’s not what our government and the powers that be really want.

April 14, 2010   Comments Off on Motivation and Pay for Performance

Media Use Among Children and Teens

If I were to ask you how much time per day children and teens spend with various media – computers, televisions, video games, etc – what would you say?

Would you imagine it is more time than young people spend in a school on any given day?

In a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation called GENERATION M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds (January 2010) they found that young people spend 7.5 hours per day engaging with various media – but because of multi-tasking they pack 10.75 hours of stuff into that 7. 5 hours (and that’s every single day). And that’s the average! 11-14 year olds pack in 11:53 per day (nearly 12 hours) in total media exposure!

In addition, texting is NOT part of this study however 7th to 12th graders report spending about 1 hour and 35 minutes per day sending or receiving text messages.

Here’s a quote from a press release about that study:

With technology allowing nearly 24-hour media access as children and teens go about their daily lives, the amount of time young people spend with entertainment media has risen dramatically, especially among minority youth, according to a study released today by the Kaiser Family Foundation.  Today, 8-18 year-olds devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes (7:38) to using entertainment media across a typical day (more than 53 hours a week).  And because they spend so much of that time ‘media multitasking’ (using more than one medium at a time), they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes (10:45) worth of media content into those 7½ hours.

The amount of time spent with media increased by an hour and seventeen minutes a day over the past five years, from 6:21 in 2004 to 7:38 today.  And because of media multitasking, the total amount of media content consumed during that period has increased from 8:33 in 2004 to 10:45 today.

Assuming this is true, what do you think the implications are for schools and schooling? 

If young people spend approximately 6 hours per day in the schooling environment (not counting extra-curricular activities) doing what we might call single tasking while spending about 7.5 hours per day multi-tasking with technology what chance do schools have in getting and keeping their attention – let alone getting them to learn anything?

And, young people spend time using media 7.5 hours per day seven days per week, 365 days per year.

This blog has been attempting to explore the difference between schooling and education. One of the key models I’ve developed to explain this difference is something I call the Spheres of Influence model. The concept originated in some work we did with a school district in southern California back in the early 90s.

The model attempts to visualize several things. 1) Schools operate under a control and compliance operating principle. 2) The organizing principle is a hierarchy however that can be shown in a different way 3) All human beings want to have some control over themselves as well their environment. 4) the model attempts to show different spheres of influence from a systems perspective.

The model begins with the young person in the middle and moves out from there. The classroom is the first sphere of influence, then the school, then the school district. The school board has the most influence over the district with the state department of education influencing the boards and the federal department influencing the states.

The image above is a venn diagram showing these spheres of influence. It’s not to scale or meant to show the difference or amount of influence each sphere has over the other. This model by itself can be a catalyst for conversations about improvements and changes in the system that might be beneficial to the overall outcomes of the system.

At the same time we can also draw another model which reflects the influences in the young person’s life outside of the schooling system. These sets of influences can be considered the education environment (note: I will need to define what I mean by schooling vs education in another blog post).

This set of influences again start with the young person in the center. The family is the immediate sphere of influence around the young person, then the neighborhood and the community. Moving out from there is the city, the state, and then the nation.

The image above left is a venn diagram of these spheres of influence.

Note that the specific types of influences are not shown nor are the degrees of influence each sphere has over the other. Media of all types will show up in this sets of influences.

Again this model can serve in a number of capacities when thinking about making changes or improvements to the lives of young people.

In light of the research shown in the report mentioned above one simple way of looking at these things can be time. A young person spends more time in the model I’m calling education then they do in the model I’m calling schooling.

Research has also shown that young people spend up to 16% of their time in the schooling environment while they spend up to 84% of their time in what I’m calling the education environment.

The model at the top of the page, while not precisely to scale, attempts to show the situation described here.

These models, taken separately or together can provide a perspective and some food for thought when engaging in a process exploring influences in young people’s lives as well as changes that might be made in schools in order to be relevant in today’s world.

What do you think is most important in looking at these models? What kinds of things could you imagine schools doing in order to put them in the education business? What questions do these models raise?

What are the implications of the use and influence of technology and media on these models? and what should be changed in the system of schools and schooling to take advantage of technology and media?

Here are several links to the press release and to the report: Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds.

January 28, 2010   Comments Off on Media Use Among Children and Teens

The Future of Business Education

If you haven’t already seen it I posted a blog post on our main blog about the Future of Business Education. This post was inspired by a video interview by the McKinsey Consulting firm of Blair Sheppard, dean of Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. As the dean of the school he’s feeling like business schools need to change to provide a different and better product for a new era.

Check out the post at


and let me know what you think. Will business schools be able to make the necessary changes to not only keep up with the changes in society but to lead?

January 27, 2010   Comments Off on The Future of Business Education

The Best Platform for School Portfolios

Over the last few weeks I’ve been working with several clients focused on Career and Technical Education. One of the projects involved helping State Directors of CTE craft a vision and a set of principles to guide development of CTE into the future.

The other project focused on helping one state understand and define for themselves what it means to be ‘college and career ready’ (a new jargon that is getting more and more focus and will possibly be made into policy nationwide.

During these sessions, as has been the case for more than 10 years now, there was considerable conversation about the need for, and value of, digital learning portfolios.

As I listened to these conversations it became clearer and clearer to me that the perfect platform for wide spread adoption of a digital online portfolio for schools and learning already exists and is used by more than 300 million people. It’s called Facebook.

It’s so obvious to me that every person that has a profile is already used to creating and sharing some part of themselves with other people – mostly friends – but that this platform can easily be morphed into one that will support digital files and media of all types – allowing people of all ages to share and show-off what they have produced in the context of learning.

Facebook was originally conceived as a tool for people involved in a school to stay in touch with other people they knew from that school. As it has morphed into a social media platform for people of all walks of life the concept is very well accepted and well used (people spend more time on Facebook than they do on just about any other web site).

It makes perfect sense to me that every profile can have an option to add a section specifically designed to ‘show-off’ all forms of self-expression and learning.

If I was an app developer I’d develop that app immediately!

November 13, 2009   Comments Off on The Best Platform for School Portfolios

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