A Grand Finale

This past week my teaching partner, Chris Fox , and I rolled out the final comparative assignment  for our Grade 8 History Research Project, which also serves as our culminating project for the COETAIL course. And it’s so far, so good! If success can be measured at this point by the fact that we haven’t had to attempt a complete re-design and that our original goals remain the same, then  all is, indeed, well.

Since its inception, we have been able to run with the same overarching “content goals,” namely that student will:

  • …Explore a history passion
  • …Compare two (or more) of the six ancient civilizations studied in Grade 8 History
  • …Compose an insightful thesis statement including comparative statement and analysis (Answer Qs: Why? So what?)
  • …Prepare a presentation to communicate what has been learned and engage the audience
  • Image by Microsoft Clip Art

Through collaboration with our middle school librarian and middle school technology coordinator, we added to these content goals the following specific information literacy (IL) and research goals, as well as IT/CT (info technology / computational thinking) goals

IL (Research) Goals:

  • …Effective use of NoodleTools:
    • **NoodleTools Notecards for note-taking
    • **NoodleBib for Works Cited submission
  • …Effective use of a variety of MS Library Databases (minimum of 4 substantial sources)
  • …Effective use of Creative Commons for identifying appropriate and engaging images, and citing of images

IT/CT (Info Technology / Computational Thinking*) Goals:

  • …Problem Decomposition (breaking down tasks into smaller, manageable parts): In planning the research and presentation of this comparative report, identify:
    • **roles, responsibilities,
    • **timeline,
    • **resources needed to complete the project, and
    • **appropriate technology to communicate with and engage the audience.
  • …Data Collection and Analysis (making sense of data, finding patterns, and drawing conclusions): Gather appropriate information about the different civilizations/chosen topic; identify similarities and differences; analyze similarities and differences.
  • …Abstraction (reducing complexity to define main idea): After studying the topic/ancient civilizations, identify key comparative elements, and compose an appropriate comparative thesis statement.
  • …Parallelization (organize resources to simultaneously carry out tasks to reach a common goal): Student teams plan production of the final project presentation, including script, props, and roles of each individual in producing the presentation. Identify tasks that will be carried out simultaneously, and milestones where the pairs check in, and plan, and put things together.
  • …Computational Thinking Dispositions: Ability to handle ambiguity and complexity; ability to communicate and work with others to achieve a common goal or solution.

*Computational Thinking goals drawn from CT Teacher Resources by CSTA and ISTE: Click here to download.

It feels good to have the blessing of our middle school librarian and technology coordinator who both believe that the open-ended nature of the project is an appropriate culmination of the skills acquired through Grade 8 History this year, as well as across the students’ three years of purposeful research and technology skill-building across middle school. The scaffolding is finally coming down, and although we will be supporting students through this process on an individual basis with a running GoogleDoc of check-ins, it really is time to see how the students navigate through their options to determine the best match of resources and technologies to their purposes – on their own. Another source of my satisfaction regarding this approach is that we know the next research project the students will face – next year in Grade 9 – will be even more open-ended in terms of content, but at the same time more restricted in terms of final product, as the students will have to produce a traditional research paper. This grade 8 end-of-year project is an appropriate send-off for the students to position them for success in their next endeavor, while still providing room for individual creativity and collaborative learning.

We built a GoogleSite to hold all the pieces together – the goals of the project; the steps to complete the assignment; explicit teaching of skills such as revising and narrowing down essential questions and composing the thesis statement answer; links to our MS Library database and other research help; links to a plethora of technology tools to enhance the final presentation; a timeline of check-ins and due dates; and assessment information.

So, now our front-loading teacher-prep part of the project is pretty much done, and we can look forward to the grand finale – a final week of presentations showcasing the creative, original, and engaging final products – which will be the true measure of the success of our work in history this year. It also serve s as an appropriate metaphor for the way our integration of technology in the classroom has evolved since the early days of the 1-to-1 laptop program at our school, from a tool-driven, teacher-driven, minutely-managed approach to one in which the teachers now truly turn it over to the student experts. And genuinely feel comfortable with that!

Throwing it out there

The two of us – Chris Fox and Kristin Rowe, Team History in Grade 8 with “Ancient Civilizations” – have enjoyed the early days of our new course. We have had lots of space to dream, and we’ve been throwing around big ideas and grand visions regarding flipped classrooms, reverse instruction, the mastery learning approach, vodcasting, and computational thinking, etc, and what we could do in an ideal world/school/classroom.

But the dream is about to end, because we have to nail it down to reality! At this point, we have identified our year-long IT/IL project as the best opportunity to stretch ourselves regarding IT integration. So far, we have been working in collaboration with our middle school librarian to dip into database research and note-taking with NoodleTools alongside our daily classroom instruction, for which the textbook provides a foundation. The recurring themes holding our civilization study and research together are the five common Essential Questions (EQs). So the question is, besides picking up valuable research habits along the way, what is the final product for which they are doing all this research?

First, let’s consider the path we have started down, and what else we hope to encounter on this road. Students have been steered towards school-subscription databases like  Encyclopedia Britannica and Grolier Online as well as an appropriately titled  Ancient Civilizations Reference Library eBook for information and note-taking.  We will continue to broaden the resources to which we point the students; for example, we are want students to become Google power-users with advanced searching capabilities, and we want students to develop a more critical approach regarding website evaluation as we set them loose beyond the school database boundary.

We are encouraging students to practice titling their notecards with the five thematic EQs and “tagging” their notecards to allow for later comparison of aspects of civilization, and we know we want to include this higher-level thinking – a more in-depth comparative study – as a key descriptor of the final project.

But perhaps we don’t need to narrow it down much further than this:

  1. We want a comparative project around the EQ themes.
  2. We want student choice to allow them to pick up whatever ideas have intrigued them through the year.

And perhaps the rest should be a matter of student choice. One of the points identified by ISTE and CSTA  as key to 21st century computational thinking is the idea that students should have exposure to a range of research tools and strategies  so that they are in a position to identify, analyze, and implement the most efficient and effective combination of steps and resources to achieve their goals. If we narrow it down too far, we are taking away the opportunity for students to work through the chaos of choice to good decision-making around the most appropriate means for the most effective end. And if we want students to be able to follow their passions and for their passion to come through in their final products, then they need plenty of choice regarding final presentation of their learning.

Thus, our task would be to clearly define the options and support them with a framework for the process of planning and preparing a final project of their own design.

As we continue to brainstorm how students could present their research products, we really want to give student options regarding what tools they can use.  Of course, we have the standard GoogleApps or Inspiration 9.0 resources, but we are interested in exposing the students to a wide variety.  In our research, we are pleasantly surprised to find so many great sites about web 2.0 tools.  One of our favorite sites is Web 2.0: Cool Tools for Schools. It provides a plethora of options, each with a unique twist on its special features.  For example, one program that is new to us is ClipGenerator. Students can create their own cool video clips, add music and images, plus their own photos, and finish with a professional film cut and animation.  What a great way to hook the audience with the research topic.

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The Simple Show describes applications for the tool and “how to” work with it:

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We are shooting for a new way to present research, using collaboration and creativity.  It would be easy to simply have students complete a traditional two or three page research paper with cover page and Works Cited, but we want to arm the students with tools in order to be truly successful as they move to Upper School and prepare for what lies ahead –  the resources and opportunities are endless.  So, we are excited for the first time to throw this challenge out there to the students and see how it goes!

Stand and Deliver! Promises I have to keep regarding my new History course

History is as essential to human society as memory is to an individual.  It provides a framework within which we can explore and debate complex issues such as identity, morality, and reality. Examining the historical precursors to the modern world also provides a reference point for speculating about what is possible in the future. History is concerned with the entire range of human activities so it is a super-subject, a meta-subject, if you like, that embraces many other disciplines. It requires the rigor of a scientist, the persistence of a detective, and also the imagination of a novelist. So we are excited to share with you the details of our new Grade 8 History course!

Thus began my “Back to School Night” speech delivered to a theater full of Grade 8 parents one evening last month. Part quote/part paraphrase from Deakin University course materialsthat I had stumbled across from my old M.Ed. program, I guess I was in a fairly evangelical state of mind to be using such grand language!

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Certainly, I am finding a whole new excitement in my teaching this year. After seven years of teaching Humanities, a combination of Language Arts and Social Studies, the school administration decided to decouple these subjects and overhaul our K-12 Social Studies curriculum, so I put my hand up to develop the new Grade 8 course and get back to my first love: history.

Actually, I wasn’t really looking for a change,  but once our principal announced the new approach to these subjects, I suddenly felt that proverbial seven-year-itch and I knew I couldn’t stand another year of doing the same thing – another year of an intricately woven but therefore tightly-packed curriculum, a course that was increasingly unwieldy under the weight of our efforts to meet Language Arts standards as well as Social Studies standards (as well as general community expectations – exactly when are you teaching traditional grammar and Shakespeare? And how well are the students performing in those standardized tests?) as well as the sundry IT/IL goals we knew we should get around to…

But now I have a blank page on which to balance competing interests about what curriculum pieces, exactly, we should “uncover” (as opposed to “cover”)  in Grade 8 History. Our administrators have given us the content “headings” – ours will be an Ancient and Classical History course following the rise and decline of six great civilizations: Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, and Rome. (This will serve as a foundational course for the two Grade 9 History options: History of Asia and AP World History). And I have been partnered with my wonderful colleague and good friend, Chris Fox, who is also sharing the Jeff Utecht COETAIL journey with me!

So, it’s back to the beginning with curriculum development. And, now that we have no excuses, it’s “back to the future” in terms of our priorities for teaching and learning. We know we simply have to infuse 21st century skills into our classroom practices.  And just last week with the BTSN presentation that Chris and I delivered, we know we have made a promise to the parents about the kind of critical thinking their children will practice as apprentice historians.

Again, we stated it in grand terms:

 As students progress through each civilization, they will be challenged to understand how different societies influenced and adapted to their environment, and how they developed tools, technology, and infrastructure to meet their needs. Students will learn about trade, competition, and conflict over resources. In addition, they will examine the evolution of belief systems and government systems which shaped the lives of individuals and drove creative expression and historical accomplishments. Combining a chronological and comparative approach, students will explore the interplay of all these factors in explaining the rise and fall of entire cultures and civilizations, and their enduring impact on the present day.

Using “Understanding by Design” and “Teaching for Understanding” principles espoused by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, and underpinning our school’s approach to curriculum writing, Chris and I have identified a common set of essential questions and understandings that will enable a comparative approach to our study of civilizations, even as we take them up in chronological order. We know, however, that this is just one of many design elements we need to employ in our course to develop the higher-order skills our students will need in their unknowable future of miscellaneous opportunity in an increasingly complex, demanding and competitive 21st century. As the Partnership for 21st Century Skills national  organization advocates, for our students to compete in the global  economy, their education needs to fuse the traditionally tested core subjects (the “three Rs”) with the “four Cs” (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation).

 Check out this short, animated film about the “3Rs + 4Cs” approach:

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What it really means to embrace the 4Cs is elaborated upon in P21′s one-stop-shop for 21st century skills-related information, resources and community tools: Route 21. For one thing, the The 21st century Route 21 ideas challenge us to focus on the final statement I made to the parents – that we would connect this ancient history to the present day. More specifically, we need to make sure that our history course promotes understanding of academic content at much higher levels by weaving 21st century interdisciplinary themes through it – literacies like :  Global Awareness, Financial, Economic, Business and Entrepreneurial Literacy, Civic Literacy, Health Literacy, and Environmental Literacy.

Clearly, literacy is the buzz-word! Perhaps the most important aspect, however, is encouraging students to “buy into” the idea that this history course is not just about amassing the right GPA to be able to advance to a higher level option in the next grade level, but that the historical literacy they are developing is, itself, the goal.

We want students to realize that learning to “think like a historian” will provide them with a highly valuable and desirable skill-set to be competitive in their near and distant futures.

Once again, we sought to make this clear to parents when we canvassed the following history classroom practices:

  • Analyzing primary and secondary sources
    • which sets students up to be information detectives, sifting through evidence to be able to distinguish between fact and fiction, to identify perspective, exaggeration, and bias, and to evaluate the reliability of information sources
  • Analyzing cause and effect
    • connecting the dots between historical events and individual people, as well as the interplay of broader factors such as geography, economy, politics, religion, science and technology.
  • Practicing problem-solving and decision-making
    •  … particularly through…
  • Engaging in simulations and debates
    • ….and various role-playing activities that take students back to critical turning points in history, and which help to build understanding and empathy for people from other times, cultures and viewpoints
  • Advancing their research and information literacy skills …

…but that will the be the focus of the next blog. Meanwhile – phew! – we already have our hands full with all these promises and obligations about our new history course. That blank page on which to develop this year’s curriculum doesn’t seem so empty anymore!

Three Branches of Government – Many Ways of Looking at It

Visual aids have perhaps never been so important to my teaching of Social Studies concepts as when I taught about US Government this past month. In preparing and teaching this unit (Course 3 project) with my teaching partners, Chris and Erik, we rummaged into all the nooks and crannies of our visual literacy toolkit to pull out the following gems.

Students have a lot of persnickety tidbits of information to assimilate as they grapple with the idea of three branches of government  – the separation of powers, and the checks and balances. And while we would like them to be able to describe the range of responsibilities for each branch, we have more lofty goals than simply the recall of information. We want students to be able to describe what they know in metaphorical terms. We know that analogical reasoning is a higher-order thinking task, so students are set up to collaborate on a poster project for which they identify an appropriate three-part comparison and then explore just how far they can take those similarities.

Schoolhouse Rock! provides a handy example with “Three Ring Circus.”

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Then, with the goal in mind, we begin a series of lessons that seek to raise students’ awareness about the Constitution, how it works as a “rule book” for the game of government, describing the role of the various players and their “moves.” Below is one slide from our introductory PowerPoint:

This PowerPoint punctuates a rather long lecture on the history of the Constitution and how it came about (as we need to assume little or no prior knowledge of US Government), so we know we need to give students a chance to process all this verbal and visual information in a more collaborate, student-directed activity. Two Inspiration Webs serve this purpose. Pairs work with one computer between them to take a list of key vocabulary terms/concepts and add these into the web organization, adding text to explain connections:

Then, a more detailed slide show compares and contrasts features of the Three Branches, such as terms of office:

The remaining time is divided between further interactive activities such as three BrainPop video/quizzes (“The US Constitution”, “The Bill of Rights”, and “The Three Branches of Government”):

BrainPop “Three Branches of Government” (www.brainpop.com/socialstudies/usgovernmentandlaw/branchesofgovernment/)© 1999-2011 BrainPOP. All rights reserved. BrainPOP is a business name of FWD Media, Inc. Your use of the site indicates your agreement to be bound by our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

And students play interactive games from the excellent civics curriculum resource, iCivics, to review, apply, and self-assess what they have learned. Once again, we add the collaborative element by instructing students to work in pairs, so that decision-making is a shared meaning-making exercise.

In addition, we have charts and posters around the room for visual reference. The students’ own “Three Branches of Government Metaphor Poster Project” will become another one of these when they are finished; thus, students ultimately have the benefit of everybody’s collective creativity and metaphorical thinking … at a glance!



A Re-education for Would-be Revolutionaries

Another group funneling money into technology for the purpose of enhancing education is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – a $20 million dollar injection of grant money, in fact. The Next Generation Learning Challenges initiative to support the work of the nonprofit EDUCAUSE, is focused on improving college readiness and completion through expanding the use of IT tools. In an October 11 eSchoolNews article Bill Gates explained the impetus this way: “American education has been the best in the world, but we’re falling below our own high standards of excellence for high school and college attainment. We’re living in a tremendous age of innovation. We should harness new technologies and innovation to help all students get the education they need to succeed.”

All of this seems very laudable, but I do wonder how much change and improvement we will see in education while we focus on the tools rather than the overarching paradigm – because, as Sir Ken Robinson has commented so compellingly in his TEDTalks (Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity Posted: Jun 2006, and Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on the learning revolution! Posted: May 2010, and also the following blog post: TED and Reddit asked Sir Ken Robinson anything — and he answered Posted: August 2009), the educational paradigm under which we are all operating, and into which we are, in fits and starts, trying to employ these IT tools, is seriously misguided. The whole system needs overhauling to fit the demands of our modern, post-industrial society. The entire philosophy just doesn’t make sense anymore.

To start with – and there are many ways our current education system lets students down, to the detriment of society as a whole, so there are many places we could start with this argument – but one obvious way we know our institutions are failing us is the high number of people with degrees who can’t earn a living because they can’t find a job. According to an article in the New York Times, even “Doctoral Candidates Anticipate Hard Times” in our faltering economy. For so long we have operated under the assumption that getting a college degree is the ultimate goal of going to school – that a degree will ensure employment and financial security. And yet students who are achieving the ultimate accolade – the PhD – still can’t get a job. Robinson, in the Q&A blog post, calls this the “biggest fault line” in our education systems right now. When the “basic currency of education has defaulted” we’ve just got to think again about what we’re doing it all for.

And Sir Ken is happy to help us with this. He calls for a radical rethink of school in order to cultivate creativity – the most critical commodity in these 21st century times.

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For our own personal fulfillment and for the betterment of our global community, we need to stop “educating people out of their creativity” and start inspiring it. This also requires that we recognize and nurture multiple types of intelligence to get the best out of people.

Robinson should know what he’s talking about. After all, just over a decade ago at the behest of the British government, he led a massive inquiry into creativity in schools and the significance for the economy. In 2003, he was knighted for his efforts. Then, in 2009, he published a book on his ongoing investigations into creativity and education: The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.

But perhaps it is his engaging TEDTalks that have disseminated the message most powerfully.

Bottom line according to Robinson – our current school system educates students to become good workers, rather than creative thinkers. Therefore, individual creativity has, and continues to be, ignored, stifled and/or stigmatized. It is simply anathema to the industrial revolution model of mass production.

Yet times have changed, even while the education system has not. When Tom Daccord workshopped with TAS Social Studies teachers on September 22-24, he introduced us to Harvard economics professor, Richard Murnane, and his research into the evolution of workplace skills: The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market (published in 2004 with MIT professor, F. Levy). Murnane’s review of economic and civic changes since the introduction of computers to the workplace shows that routine manual skills and routine cognitive skills have been massively devalued through technology and automation. Meanwhile, complex communication skills and expert thinking skills have become increasingly in demand compared to 1969, with an upsurge in the 1980s.

This makes a lot of sense to me. Computers have replaced human tasks and responsibilities all across the employment spectrum. Even the infamously complex and long-winded process of checking in at airports has miraculously given way to self-service. (I stepped past the self-check-in stands initially for the familiarity of the face-to-face routine, but the last few times I lined up at the airport, it was to get the job done myself. Consumers like me are voting with their feet.) Clearly, computers do very well in “if-then scenarios.” But what they can’t handle is a new problem. They deal with existing data, so if it’s a new scenario, they are lost. Humans still have the upper hand through our ability to adapt and innovate in response to changing circumstances. We also have a distinct advantage when it comes to communication – we trump computers at complex social interaction. Therefore, what the world of work demands from graduates is excellent communication skills and creative thinking/problem solving skills. If the purpose of schools is to prepare students for the job market, our educational curriculums need to shift away from standardization and routine manual and cognitive skills.

And we need to give our employees-to-be access to technology in schools because, as Daccord cited for us, the fastest growing job sector is technology; 15-18% of new jobs in the next decade will be in technology. Therefore, while technology is taking jobs away from humans on one front, it is also creating jobs on another.

Daccord brought in another “big gun” to reinforce this point. He canvassed Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind, to spotlight once again the shift from an Industrial/Information Age economy (which relied on left-brain skills) to a new Conceptual Age (which emphasizes right-brain skills).

The 2001 make-over of Bloom’s Taxonomy was prompted by exactly these concerns that our education system needs to prioritize creativity. The top spot on the order of thinking processes is now reserved for the verb CREATE.

In case educators need some prompting about how to “create” with information and communication technologies, Andrew Churches added some digital jargon in 2008 ( “Bloom’s Taxonomy Blooms Digitally” in Tech & Learning):

Creating = designing, constructing, planning, producing, inventing, devising, making, programming, filming, animating, Blogging, Video blogging, mixing, remixing, wiki-ing, publishing, videocasting, podcasting, directing/producing, creating or building mash ups.

While some educational theorists are reinventing old taxonomies, others are developing new learning theories. George Siemens (in Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age) explains that the old theories of behaviorism, cognitivisim, and constructivism are limited simply by virtue of the fact that they pre-date and therefore do not take into account the impact of technology on education. Connectivism attempts to do this.

The case for a connectivist theory of learning includes the same arguments about job market trends as I’ve mentioned previously. We know that our future graduates will work their way through a variety of jobs in different fields of employment over the course of their lifetime. Higher order thinking skills – creative problem solving skills – are gaining increasing currency as far as employers are concerned in today’s knowledge economy. “Know-how and know-what is being supplemented with know-where.” In other words, learners need to understand where to find the information they need, and how to evaluate, reapply and transpose it to new situations.

Furthermore, Siemens argues that a new theory of learning needs to take into account new technology-enabled trends in learning. For example, formal learning is giving way to informal learning through personal networks and online communities, as well as being ongoing in the world of work. In addition, the technology tools young people are using is rewiring their brains, changing thinking and learning. Another line that is blurring is that between the individual effort and organizational learning.

At the heart of it is connection-making. Identifying connections between disciplines, fields, and concepts is key, as is nurturing and maintaining connections in order to facilitate continual learning.

We know this is an essential understanding that Jeff Utecht wants us to take away from Course 1 – that the internet is really a mass of connections, and that these connections “trump content.” That the advent of the internet hasn’t left us all as isolated hermits withering away in the perpetual darkness of our home offices, ordering pizza online while the old pizza boxes pile up and fester around us, as Sandra Bullock’s old movie, The Net, would have led us to believe.

Instead, the internet has played host to an ever-growing number of online communities and changed the landscape of people’s social lives, student lives, and work lives.

In Jeff’s TEDxTalk, he reeled off an incredible statistic from the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt: “We create as much content in two days as we did since the beginning of mankind until 2003.” That’s an incredible amount of information out there right now, and an unfathomable amount yet to be created. Knowing how to connect to this information, and knowing what to do with it, will henceforth be critical to success and satisfaction in our personal, social, and working lives.

The Horizon Report 2010 underscores these same points about the need for educators to focus on helping students navigate our new information-rich, highly connected, increasingly collaborative world. No doubt Sir Ken is pleased to see the report recommend strongly that schools emphasize “critical inquiry and mental flexibility” and also provide today’s learners with the necessary tools to engage with broad social issues and tackle large-scale civic action.

So now watching Ken Robinson exhort us to “Bring on the Revolution” has begun to seem less revolutionary to me. Still compelling. But more and more like “old news” – because Murnane, Pink, Siemens, Utecht, and others have been chomping at the bit about this for some time already.

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In fact, it’s all starting to sound like common sense.

Actually, I feel as though there are two things that need to go on at the same time here. On the one hand, educators need to facilitate social and global connectivity to enhance learning. On the other, we need to remember that technology in education also offers huge potential for personalizing and customizing education. One way this is already happening, driven by student-consumer demand, is with online learning. A recently published study showed that the number of students enrolled in some type of online course climbed from 50,000 in 2000 to more than 1 million in 2008. It was reported that these are typically high-schoolers taking courses not available at their local school, or they are catching up on classes they did not pass the first time around. But most interesting is the number of students receiving their entire education online: 200,000.

“For better or for worse, imagine a near future in which your avatar can attend high school in a Second Life-like environment, your body no longer required to sit quietly in a row and your mind no longer obliged to settle for what the local district can offer. You won’t need a locker, and if you realize with swooping horror that there’s a big test today and you’re not ready, you can stop time and study until you are. And your avatar’s skin is clear. And you can fly.”

Yes, technology can certainly provide more personalized learning – a prerequisite for nurturing individual creativity. Thus teachers – yes, that’s me – I need to be more imaginative and creative in how I use IT.

Why me? Because, as Sir Ken reminds me, education is what is happening in my classroom, in the malleable minds of the individual students that I see for 95 minutes every day. Not in the school board room, not in the offices of school administrators. Not in government committee rooms or in international think-tanks on education. But in my classroom. It’s what’s happening in the brains before me. The education my students are getting is the result of what I’m doing with them every day. So it’s my everyday practices that need to change.