Save The Planet–Starting Today

What are the most important issues of our time? Ending extreme poverty? Ending conflict? Access to basic sanitation? Reducing the harmful effects of climate change?

At the iNACOL Symposium (#iNACOL17) a group of us built a list of pressing issues that included many of the 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development– achieving these goals would mean an end to extreme poverty, inequality and climate change by 2030.

Global Goals are a good start, but most are pressing problems that don’t fully reflect all of the impact opportunities of our time. Exponential technology (AI+big data+enabling tools) is producing extraordinary benefits–diseases will be eradicated, clean energy will be produced, great services will become inexpensive and widely available. The technology is moving so fast that it’s creating new issues including algorithmic bias, robotic ethics and genome editing that are swamping civic infrastructure.

The combination of incredible opportunity and new challenges suggests some additions to the list of #GlobalGoals. We added eight goals inspired by the Gates Foundation sponsored Grand Challenges and the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges, and another eight that reflect equipped human beings making the world better for others–topics including extending dignity, powerful expressions and beautiful shared spaces.

Consider these 32 draft goals our attempt to identify the issues that matter most. We welcome additions and amendments or new lists. Better yet, ask young people in your community to study this question and build a list.

The driving question of this blog is, if we have a list of the issues that will shape the future–an earth owner’s manual–when and how should we introduce them to young people?

A Curriculum That Matters

Some of these issues have plagued the human race as long as the species has been around. What’s new is differential evolution–technology is moving faster than physical and social evolution. Now that most human beings reside in cities that are connected in a global economy, these differential impacts are experienced more quickly by more people in a collision of complex human and manmade systems–just ask three million Puerto Ricans and a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh (who will be settled just in time for summer floods).

The combination of urbanization, globalization, and automation is improving lives for hundreds of millions but yielding unprecedented novelty and complexity–more displacement, more disasters.

The good news is that there’s never been a better time to make a difference. It’s never been easier to learn, it’s never been easier to build an app, to launch a campaign, to start an organization and raise money around a good idea. Impact entrepreneurs are creating value by picking a problem, developing some domain expertise, building a dataset and applying smart tools. We call this new formula for making a difference “Cause + Code.”

And, more good news, young people don’t need to wait, they can make a difference right now, right where they are. As illustrated by our recent conversation with Mario Basora, superintendent of Yellow Springs Schools, difference making can start in elementary school with students angry about the lack of equitable handicapped access in their community. High school students in Yellow Springs asked, “Is it too lates to save the planet?” They identified a local version of a global challenge that they could take on (Check out #GlobalGoals for more examples of youth taking on the local version of global challenges).

If we take citizenship preparation seriously, we should be encouraging young people to engage with the world’s most important issues by helping them frame projects around these goals. Here are six reasons:

  • Extended and integrated challenges are the best way to promote deeper learning and develop readiness for the automation economy.
  • Goal focused projects get kids into the community and connected with local resources (we call it #PlaceBasedEd).
  • The goals include interesting and timely causes that many young people will find motivating–and engagement boosts attendance and learning.
  • Engagement in #GlobalGoals is a chance to shift the paradigm from “prepare for a career 10 years from now” to “make a difference right here, right now.” Preparing for 10 years from now is important, but let’s help young people reflect on ways they can be a better learner, contributor, and citizen tomorrow.
  • Taking on real challenges will promote creative and effective uses of technology shifting from consumption to collaboration to production.
  • Making a contribution toward a goal students care about may be the best way to develop student agency–and agency may be the most important ingredient in difference making.

#ReallyReady To Make A Difference

Students who are Really Ready–for careers of the future and for difference making today– possess deeper learning and social and emotional skills. These skills are necessary for many situations in college, work and life. There are many specific skills students will need (see the 28 Skills of a Really Ready Student infographic) but to summarize, really ready students are:

1. Skilled critical thinkers. Really Ready students are able to approach novel and complex problems with confidence. Many of them will  analyze big problems with big data sets and apply smart tools.

Critical thinking often is reserved for the students who have mastered basic-skills and ideas, but deeper learning experiences should be a part of every student’s secondary education. Just because a student is learning a language or may need additional help in a core academic area should not mean that they do not get opportunities to work on critical-thinking problems.

2. Great communicators. In our increasingly connected world, students need to be able to communicate their ideas in a variety of different environments (online, face-to-face, etc.) and formats (written, oral, etc.). In middle school and high school, students need communication skills when working in teams, presenting projects and with diverse groups of peers. Students also need to be able to articulate their needs, goals and strengths to colleagues and mentors that can then support them on their path to college or work.

3. Self-directed learners. Students need to be self-directed learners and able persist in order to meet their academic and personal goals. This is especially important for students who may not have a support system encouraging them to pursue their education. These students need learning experiences that are engaging, that encourage them to continue on, and that provide them the appropriate support and scaffolds to help them to be successful in middle and high school.

4. Open to a growth mindset. Students need to have a growth mindset or a belief that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. All students need to work on tasks that push them to persevere, even if they do not succeed in their first attempt. A growth mindset can be essential for students who are struggling academically and need to remember that they have strengths and the ability to succeed.

5. Able to demonstrate social and emotional skills. Students who are Really Ready are also able to interact with their peers and people in their communities. They demonstrate social and emotional skills such as leadership, self-awareness, grit and kindness. (Listen to this great conversation with Tim Shriver, CASEL chair.)

What Can Anyone Give You Greater Than Now?

Bill Stafford asked this great question–what can anyone give you greater than now?– in his “just do it” poem, You, Reading This Be Ready.

The question for us as educators is why have we organized and sanitized life preparation into isolated disciplines instead of asking young people to engage in the great issues of our time?

OK, the answer is complicated, I know there are tests and transcripts and traditions, but if we don’t give young people the earth owner’s manual, who will?

Another Stafford question for you and your students:
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

In other words, just do it! Find a way to engage young people in the issues that matter–to them and to the world. Make room for a project in your class, create an integrated block with another teacher (like teachers at Oso New Tech), support an after school program focused on service, replace an AP class with self-directed research project (read about Catalyst projects at Singapore American School).

Great opportunity. Big threats. The paradox of the new economy is a good news, bad news story. What’s clear is that the time for traditional approaches is long gone. It’s time to share the owner’s manual with youth and invite them into the driver’s seat.

For more see


How To Get Students Talking About Their Own Social-Emotional Learning

Getting students talking about their learning is a valuable strategy across all disciplines, and social-emotional learning is no different. Students learn more as they explain concepts to others, and they reshape and solidify their own thinking when listening to their peers. When students have opportunities to talk about social-emotional learning, they learn the language needed to express social-emotional nuances, and are better able to recognize, characterize and develop these skills in themselves and others. This process of metacognition gives students a model for practicing social-emotional strategies in their day-to-day lives.

While most teachers can think of quick and easy ways to get their students talking about their predictions in reading and their hypotheses for their latest science experiment, finding ways to encourage students to talk about their social-emotional learning often seems daunting. Teachers struggle with how to fit these topics into the curriculum or how to best support these types of conversations among students. Social-emotional learning is foundational to any subject matter, and is the thread that weaves together strong classroom and school communities. The strategies below can be useful ways to begin talking about social-emotional learning in the classroom, with peers and with families.

Talking About It In the Classroom

Begin talking about social-emotional learning in the classroom where students are most comfortable learning and discussing new ideas. The classroom can be a safe space to dig into new learning, and day-to-day classroom dynamics provide ample opportunities for conversations surrounding social-emotional learning.

  • Post a social-emotional learning target in your classroom each day that connects with activities you will be working on. Use simple and clear student-friendly language. Discuss the learning target and what it looks like. Explicit teaching of these skills, rather than the assumption of previous understanding, is integral to social-emotional success in the classroom. (Check out CASEL’s Five Core Competencies as a place to start when designing your classroom’s learning targets.)
  • Using the learning target as a guide, ask students to focus on the goal throughout an activity or day, and then ask them to reflect on their success with that goal. They could assign themselves a 1-5 rating and jot down evidence in a personal journal.
  • Encourage students to identify the daily target in one another when they see it in action. Students could privately share the student’s name and noted trait for an end-of-the day shout-out.
  • As students are first learning to reflect on social-emotional learning and recognize skills in themselves and others, talk aloud as you reflect and recognize these skills. The language you use becomes your students’ inner voice for processing that same information.

Talking About It With Peers

Once students are comfortable utilizing these skills in the classroom, I would suggest that they bridge their learning to practicing with peers. Constructing environments for students to talk about and practice these skills with other students allows them to solidify their understanding and begin building their own toolbox of social-emotional skills.

  • Try including SEL sentence stems on anchor charts for students. This creates a guide for students who are unfamiliar with talking about their social-emotional learning. Include the words and phrases that you are discussing as a class.
  • For young students who require more intensive social-emotional supports, think about ways that older students in the school could play a role. When young students are able to process their day with a peer, rather than an adult, they are exposed to more natural student-friendly language, the pressure is off, and a multi-age relationship is formed. Allow older students to serve as mentors in the classroom. Specifically, utilize older students to start a younger student’s day with positivity and enthusiasm and end their day with reflection.
  • As students are developing the ability to work through conflicts, give them the opportunity to use the skills they are learning. While teachers should support the process of problem-solving, tackling issues for students is not helpful in the long run.

Talking About It With Families

Families are, as we all know, important partners in students’ education. Including families in the conversations around social-emotional learning reinforces the learning at school and extends skill-building to a real-world setting.

  • Homework is one way that teachers and school leaders communicate to families. Assign homework that includes practice with social-emotional skills. This will not only give students practice, but it will communicate that the school believes in the value of social-emotional learning. For classrooms focusing on kindness, assign a random act of kindness. For classrooms focusing on responsibility, assign students a home chore. Then, talk about it in the classroom and prompt students to reflect on how they felt, and how the people affected reacted.
  • Homework can also include conversation starters for parents and children. How did you help someone today? What was something that was challenging for you today? How did you work through it? These questions encourage students to reflect on their social-emotional learning, and the dialogue further solidifies the bridge between school and home. Students might even pose these questions to their parents to extend the conversations and increase opportunities for modeling.

These strategies are simple, but can have a big impact on classrooms, schools and communities. The more that social-emotional learning is talked about in the classroom, with peers and with families, the greater the development of this essential life skill. The act of simply talking about it sets the foundation for a classroom and community culture where all are explicitly striving for and celebrating social-emotional learning.

For more, see:


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Smart List: 50 Organizations, Schools, Networks and Resources Improving SEL

As we come to the end of our October theme of physical and emotional school safety and social and emotional learning (SEL), we’ve been struck by just how many great resources and organizations we’ve worked with and heard about. It’s enough to feel a bit overwhelmed.

That’s why, to close out the month, we’ve compiled the following list of schools and districts doing good work on SEL, organizations developing effective new strategies and PD, organizations advocating for SEL and resources for teachers and EdLeaders.

We know there are a lot of organizations and people doing great work that we missed, but we hope this will get the ball rolling–please feel free to leave a comment with any additional resources you think are worth checking out!

Organizations Developing and Advocating for Effective New SEL Strategies

Teacher Resources for Addressing and Understanding SEL

School Networks and Districts With an Effective Approach to SEL

  • Big Picture Learning: Strong emphasis on mentorship and real-world internships.
  • CASEL (see above), who’s partner districts include: Anchorage, Atlanta, Austin, Chicago, Cleveland, El PasoNashvilleOakland, Sacramento and Washoe County, Nevada.
  • EL Education: Every day starts with “Crew,” a great advisory program.
  • Evanston/Skokie School District 65. Our interview with Superintendent Paul Goren has some great insights into their approach and commitment to SEL.
  • Fresno Unified School District: Has set a five-year goal that “all students will demonstrate the character and competencies for workplace success.”
  • Fusion Academy: Fusion was born out of a “passionate belief in the power of positive relationships to unlock academic potential.”
  • Gestalt Community Schools: Works to make every student “community-ready” by including service learning in their curriculum (see a profile on them by Christensen Institute).
  • Kettle Moraine School District: Learn more about their SEL program in our podcast with KMSD Superintendent Pat DeKlotz.
  • KIPP: Has an impressive commitment to a well-developed character program.
  • New Tech Network: In New Tech’s brand of PBL, every project includes agency and collaboration components.
  • Tacoma Public Schools: Has an impressive, research-driven approach to whole child development (see our article on their work).
  • Thrive Public Schools: Has a strong focus on developing college-prepared, career-inspired and community-minded students (see our feature on Thrive).

We’d like to give a special thanks to ASCD and Debbie Zacarian, Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz and Judie Haynes, authors of Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence, and Chronic Stress, for contributing ideas to this list.

Smart List LogoWe’re sure we missed some great resources. What would you add? Share in the comments section below, and don’t forget to check out our other recent Smart Lists at our Smart List Series Page.

Our Smart Lists are some of our most popular posts, and upcoming sponsorship opportunities are still available. Interested in learning more? Contact Erik: [email protected]

This Smart List is sponsored by Getting Smart Services, Getting Smart’s consulting division that helps schools, districts, networks and impact-oriented partners create, implement and amplify thought leadership campaigns, education initiatives, powerful learning experiences and forward-leaning strategies. Learn more about what they can do to support your education initiatives here.


Digital Promise and Facebook Developing New Micro-Credentials Program

Digital skills are skyrocketing in demand, and that is a trend that will only continue to increase in impact. More than 8 in 10 middle-skill jobs (82%) require digital skills, and tech companies everywhere often have trouble finding candidates with the right know-how.

One recently announced effort to address this challenge that has us excited is Digital Promise’s partnership with Facebook, in which the two groups have collaborated to create a set of micro-credentials (a form of digital badges) focused on helping adults in the workforce learn these “middle” skills in the area of digital marketing.

We think that this new set of micro-credentials, the pursuit of which will include successive series of in-person workshops organized and implemented by local partners (Digital Promise will train organizations across the state of Michigan to deliver the workshops to their local communities starting in November), is a great way to address the challenge of reaching those who need this type of adult education the most.

Facebook has pledged to train 3,000 Michiganders in digital skills focused on social media over the next two years through these workshops. In the workshop, students will learn some of the basics of social media marketing, and have the opportunity to earn four micro-credentials that demonstrate the skills they have learned:

  • Social Media Marketing Basics
  • Marketing with Facebook Pages
  • Marketing with Facebook Ads
  • Marketing with Instagram

Over four weeks, students will develop a Facebook page and Instagram account for a local community organization or business of their choice; use that page to create awareness, drive traffic, and/or attract customers; and create advertising campaigns in support of that page. We think this approach is exactly the kind of authentic, real-world PBL that will encourage adults to seek these new skills.

In our recent analysis of adult entrepreneurship education (a big upcoming trend), we found that a lack of respected micro-credentials was one of the biggest missing components of entrepreneurship education. The program being developed by Digital Promise and Facebook appears set to provide a model for those looking to address this challenge. Our team is looking forward from hearing more from Digital Promise when we attend EdSurge Fusion later this week.

For more, see:


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The Ghosts of Education

I am not above admitting fear. Not even close. In fact, I believe fear is one of my best motivators. Fear of inadequacies. Fear of failure. Fear of the unknown. Just plain ole fear. It drives me. But there is one way to make me, a seasoned educator of eighteen years, elevate fear to an uncomfortable level and switch from boxer briefs to Depends for Men.

Unfinished business.

Maybe it’s a quick trip into the school to retrieve my laptop for a late-night work session at home. Maybe it’s a snatch-and-go situation to grab a left-behind coat just after hopping off the cheese wagon and returning from a long road trip. Or maybe it’s a middle-of-the-night drop-in to prepare for tomorrow’s substitute. Whatever the reason, my “unfinished business” usually places my feet in an empty, cold, dark, and eerily quiet school way after closing time.

And that’s when I come face-to-face with the ghosts of education.

I key the lock and gently pull the door. The creaking of the hinges ratches my heartbeat up a few notches. Like Freddy Krueger’s nails dragged slowly across a chalkboard. And there they await. The ghosts of the entrance. Dressed sharply in suits and ties and dresses, standard business attire, a team of blandly grayish, other-worldly vagabonds hover just above and beyond the threshold to the school. Their eyes are solid black. No whites. Their mouths…stapled shut. No eye contact. No uplifting greeting. It’s as if I were not even there. So I walk on. Directly through their coldness. Ignoring them as they ignored me.

Next up? I have just under ninety-seconds to turn off the alarm system. The fast-paced beeping of the alarm system nearly matches my pulse, as I scramble under a lone security light to enter the small closet that harbors the school’s nervous system. I know who awaits. Alarm Annie, the ghost of the alarm system. She is one of the more tolerable spirits but more sarcastic than Mark Twain with a hangover. She starts in on me immediately with that twangy, drawn-out voice of hers and that piercing laughter. “Laaaawwwwd, Baldie! What ya gonna dooooo? Cut the ‘larm off?”

She lets out a cacophonic chuckle that would have made the Wicked Witch of the East drop her script and walk off the Wizard of Oz set.

Of course…I don’t respond. She says the same darn thing every time.

“Whaaaat?” she says. “Ya think somebody’s tryin’ to break in heeeere? Haaahh! Ya must be outta yo’ mind. Whaaaat? Ya think they’s a gang of uncreative, pencil-pushers who will break in here, steal a file cabinet full o’ worksheets and silently complete ’em all? Wooo! What’s their gang’s name? The Eastside Tree Killers? Wooooo!”

I punch in the code, as Annie, draped from head-to-toe in thick chains and connected Masterlocks, croons a sarcastic drizzle of words. I look back at her, like always, and notice again the same key dangling from her shoestring necklace. I think to myself. “All those locks, Annie, and you only need one key.” I offer my usual wink before closing the door and eventually cutting off her rather humorous bantering.

I turn a corner and head down the most traveled hallway, illuminated only by the red “EXIT” sign at the end. A conglomeration of young ghosts, heavily laden with backpacks big enough to conquer the Appalachian Trail, meander aimlessly into each other like bumper cars on ice. Their eyes glazed and fixated on a destination whose location appears to change every few seconds. Totally numbed by their fruitless movement, I walk directly through them, the ghosts of the hallway.

A periodical, popping sound, as if an object had just quickly sunk into a softer surface, alerts me to the next haunted area. The ghosts of the teachers’ lounge. Tightly clutching ham-and-cheese sandwiches in their free hands and ready-to-launch with solid black darts in their dominant hands, a team of saggy-eyed and sour-faced phantoms line up to sink their pointed mini-javelins into the hanging dartboard that consists not of numbers for each slot but instead contains negative comments about the state of education. Of course, the board is tattered and littered with a plethora of overused darts. But just one section remains untouched. And it is a different flavor than all the other words. It simply reads, “Positivity,” and it is the bulls-eye. They never hit that mark.

As I timidly walk in the direction of my classroom, a hypnotic and repetitive sound issues from the copier room. I muster up enough courage, like always, to peek in the room through the door’s glass insert and witness the horror of the ghosts of the copier room. Beginning and ending at a non-stop copier, a circular assembly line of the youngest ghosts, each one resembling elementary-aged students, passes reams of copier paper to the rhythm of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” I am not sure what is the most chilling. The ominous tone of the song, the robotic movement of the students, or the mindless gazes on their faces as they chant, “We don’t need no education.”

Thoughts of my chill bumps quickly fade as I hear the commotion from the nearby gymnasium, located directly in the middle of our school. The curiosity is too much, so I quickly walk to take a peek. And it is the weirdest thing. Taking place in the middle of the basketball court is an academic debate. Well, at least two teams of highly intellectual ghosts are attempting to win a cerebral battle, but there is no use. With bleachers full of ghostly fans screaming and hollering for the next “real” sport to begin, the academic specters stand no chance. The ghosts of the gymnasium are winning again. It appears there is no room for academic banners. Only sports.

Finally, I make it to my classroom, very visible thanks to a full moon. Oh, what activity! It seems the instructing ghosts of the classroom are busy smacking students’ hands with wooden rulers each time the dispirited kids attempt to use their smartphones or move about the class.

“Sedentary,” the stern-faced teacher yells. “We must remain sedentary. And no gadgets! The pencil and paper are all you need.”

I roll my eyes behind closed lids before reaching to grab my laptop off my rolling teacher’s cart, and the soul-less educator continues, “Now! Heads down. Finish your multiple-choice test and no talking…or you will be written up.”

Thankful to have survived the classroom dive to retrieve my laptop, I head down a long, dark hallway. I see the light at the end of the tunnel. I move towards it, hoping no spirits spring in front of me from any open side rooms.

Before reaching the end of the hallway, I hear the ghosts of the restroom strategize how they can coordinate another clandestine meeting tomorrow in order to escape their boring classes. I shake my head and march forward… finally to the end and ready to exit.

I quickly turn around and take one last look down the hallway, though, and peer into the darkness, into the unknown. I shiver one last time as I ponder educational reform, a topic so haunting to many that their blood turns cold and their skin turns pale.

(Cue the piano theme music from Halloween.)

It’s just enough to spook tomorrow’s necessary educator into remaining yesterday’s teacher and ultimately an apparition of infinite possibilities.

Yep. Another ghost…a product of unfinished business.

For more blogs by John, check out:

This post was originally published in March 2015.


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Data Interoperability in K-12: A Teacher’s Perspective

This is a blog post about data interoperability: the seamless, secure, and controlled exchange of data between applications. In this series, we will highlight the ways that data interoperability is laying the foundation for innovation and helping enable great classroom instruction. We will also hear from partners who are implementing solutions to overcome the lack of data interoperability today in the K-12 sector. You can find the whole series here. This blog post was originally published on the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation blog.

By Brett Emerson

Listen to the Full Audio Interview with In-Depth Responses:

Tell us what data interoperability means to you?

Data interoperability is the secure, controlled—and most important—seamless exchange of data between applications. The standardization of the language programs can use to talk to each other is going to benefit me as an instructor and the students. Another benefit of data interoperability is that parents, the key stakeholders in a child’s education, benefit from it. They need access to data as well, not just the students and the teachers.

Can you explain what issues or inefficiencies you face that could be solved by data interoperability in your school, and in your district?

The biggest issue I face is the lack of access to relevant information that gives a 360-degree view of student progress, student needs, and student history. For instance, there’s a lack of historical data on standardized tests students take every year. If there are specific areas with opportunities for growth, I don’t have enough specific information about each child. I also need student attendance information to assess how much my students have grown over time.

We also lack access to student technology that’s integrated into the district’s programs. That limits the extent to which students understand and invest in their own learning. Among my fifth graders, technology is no longer just a part of their lives, it’s completely integrated. The more technology I can get into the hands of my students, the more they’re going to understand data, why it is relevant to them, and how data can help improve the instruction I provide.

In my district, we have inconsistency among the applications we use for intervention and monitoring student progress. I have taught in this district for eight years. Every year, there’s a new intervention application or new student progress monitoring application introduced. I’d like to see a longer-term commitment to a specific platform that teachers and students can get used to. We’d all benefit from consistency.

What’s the benefit of data interoperability for students?

It allows students to invest in the learning process. Data needs to be shared in a thoughtful, responsible way with the students. I believe they will understand their own challenges better if they have access to that data. They’ll understand where and how they can improve. For example, they could see how 15 absences during a nine-week grading period effected their outcomes on assessments and their mastery of content standards. They need to understand that cause and effect relationship. Right now, my students do not have access to the data they need.

Parents will also invest more if they have access to the data needed to accurately monitor their student’s progress. My students’ parents can’t access grades online, and that’s unacceptable.

To what degree do teachers want all their students’ data in one place? Have you heard from other teachers who share your need for data?

Certainly. There are many types of teachers. We’re all different. We all have different philosophies and approaches in the way we instruct our students. Many teachers don’t even want to deal with data. Some want to continue with traditional practices such as teacher-led instruction, a lecture model of teaching. If that’s their firmly held belief, data interoperability is never going to be important to them.

So, teachers who understand the value of data interoperability need to be advocates. I have to show other teachers what actionable data is doing for my students. One motivating factor is when people see how data makes my life easier.

We need the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and others advocating on a nationwide scale, but we also need teachers and parents who are advocating for data interoperability on a local level. If we get more advocates who can demonstrate the benefits, we would have far more people on board.

What is your message to district leaders and vendors who can help make data interoperability a reality nationwide?

Change is going to come from district leaders and data vendors. It’s not going to come from the individual classroom teacher who really believes in data interoperability and wants it for his students. We need consistency across the applications we use for intervention and standardized assessments, as well as consistency in the vendors who provide them. And with that, hopefully, will come a common set of standards by which these applications can communicate with each other in a language that benefits teachers, students, and parents.

The students in my school took a standardized test at the end of last school year and our technology infrastructure failed to provide teachers and parents meaningful data. Even now, parents still don’t know how their child scored on last year’s standardized tests. That’s obviously unacceptable. My message to my district: please give us some consistency.

For more, see:

Brett Emerson graduated from Harding University with his Master of Education (M.Ed.) in 2004, and has been teaching ever since. 


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Inclusion Drives Innovation, and Inspires Microsoft’s Newest Updates

By Madison Edmiston

It’s October, which means it is U.S. National Disability Employment Awareness Month. This year’s theme, “inclusion drives innovation,” fits perfectly with the new tools Microsoft is introducing to enhance education accessibility.

This year’s theme hits close to home for Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella, who is father to a son with special needs. Nadella believes technology “can help people find immense joy and a deeper connection to the world around them, by enabling them to realize their professional and personal potential,” and Microsoft is focused on making accessibility a top priority in their product development efforts. Through partnerships, Microsoft is delivering innovative technologies like Microsoft Learning Tools and Microsoft Translator for Education, and improving existing capabilities like Accessibility Checker in Office 365.

Microsoft is committed to “empowering every person and organization on the planet to achieve more.” That is why Microsoft recently announced it is extending Learning Tools’ Immersive Reader to Word for iPad, the “Read Aloud” feature was just launched for Microsoft Edge, and new third-party research showing the impact of Learning Tools on student learning outcomes. Here’s a look inside Microsoft’s newest tools that are supporting students with special needs.

Immersive Reader on iPad

Microsoft’s Learning Tools Immersive Reader features, Read Aloud and Text Spacing will be launched on Word for iPad in November, which will allow students to access the tool no matter what device they are using.

These new features provide greater support for individuals with ADHD, dyslexia and dysgraphia, and also emerging readers. The Read Aloud functionality can read text out loud while simultaneously highlighting the words. In addition, Word iPad Read Aloud supports all languages installed on the most recent version of iOS. While Text Spacing increases the spacing between characters, words and lines. These changes to the platform create inclusivity for all students, allowing students to benefit from Read Aloud and Text Spacing.

Read Aloud in Microsoft Edge

In the Fall Creator’s new update of Windows 10, Microsoft Edge incorporates Read Aloud features, including word and line highlighting. Now, any web page, including PDF files, will have the capability to use the Read Aloud feature. The update also allows users to select reading speed and a preferred voice for reading aloud. Another exciting improvement: with the newest update, Microsoft Edge’s Read Aloud will now support 49 languages.

New Learning Tools Research

In a new study, RTI International’s Center for Evaluation & Study of Educational Equity found that students using Microsoft’s Learning Tools saw a ten percent increase in reading comprehension across the board, including students with dyslexia, by enabling access to learning materials in other content areas like math, science and social studies. Students also showed improved writing when using Learning Tools because the tool allowed them to hear their own writing aloud, helping them to identify errors.

The teachers using Learning Tools in their classroom found that the tool supports cognitive processes that improve learning. During the study, teachers noticed how “Learning Tools enabled their readers, regardless of skill level, to access content aimed at a higher reading level. In this case, ‘access’ means comprehension of content that had previously been unavailable.” The fourth-grade students using Learning Tools had notably more growth in reading comprehension than their counterparts. The capabilities given to students through Learning Tools has also, according to the report, allowed students to feel more responsibility and control when it comes to their learning.

Microsoft’s Innovative New Features & Products

Microsoft has come together to create technologies that have the potential to benefit millions. Learning Tools was created during Microsoft’s Hackathon, when a team came together to focus on developing technology to assist children with dyslexia. Through this initial goal, Learning Tools has expanded to include features that help make writing and reading more accessible to all students.

Microsoft’s yearly hackathon has created other products targeted at enhancing accessibility as well. The winner of the first Microsoft OneWeek Hackathon, Eye Control, began as a passion project and is now a feature of Windows 10. The original project, the first Eye Gaze Wheelchair, allowed former NFL player Steve Gleason to control his wheelchair with only the movements of his eyes as he looked at the controls on his Surface. Since then, Windows 10 has been able to become more accessible with on-screen mouse, keyboard and text-to-speech experiences founded on Eye Control.

Inclusive design means more than just a single product or feature for Microsoft. Nadella believes that “inclusive teams that propagate and advance inclusive principles will have the deepest impact in building products designed for everyone.” This push for more accessibility is more than a company motto. To Nadella, it is his son, it is people helping people, and it is changing lives–and because of that it has the potential to change education.

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Madison Edmiston is a Coordinator at Getting Smart.


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Lessons for PBL Educators from the Food Truck Phenomenon

Unless you have been hiding out exclusively in a school cafeteria or have been avoiding dining out altogether, you have probably noticed the onslaught and popularity of food trucks over the last several years. Food Trucks and Mobile Food are some of the hottest things in dining. Although street food is anything but new, almost every suburban and metropolitan area now has a plethora of food trucks serving everything from fusion to comfort food – and everything in between.

In my own urban area, we have several special events based on food trucks, as well as several new bars or pubs that allow food trucks to serve as their primary kitchen. And even though they are using a familiar idea, why have food trucks become so popular?

I’m reminded of the recent uptick in the popularity of project-based learning. PBL is not new either, but is getting more interest than ever before. Just like food trucks, PBL has evolved and is not the same as it used to be. It has a distinct pedagogy with concrete outcomes. And just as food trucks are revolutionizing eating out, PBL is revolutionizing the student experience.

So, what do food trucks and PBL have in common? Here are five ways that educators and schools could benefit from paying closer attention to both:

1) Authenticity: In general, food trucks are authentic–by which I mean they are typically not corporate owned, but rather operated by local food aficionados who live and work in their community where their truck, and they themselves, are known. Customers see food trucks as authentic because they appear to be owned, operated and envisioned by real people. These are real food entrepreneurs who have a real passion and connection to their food and their customers–we can see the food being prepared and have a real conversation with the preparer. PBL is authentic in a very similar way, and that’s why students often respond differently to project-based experiences. High-quality PBL is aimed at real-world issues in real-world communities, so students they see that their work is valuable and will be seen and experienced by real people both in school and beyond school in their community.

2) Differentiation / Specialization: I have probably eaten at hundreds of food trucks by now and I can honestly say that no two are the same. They are naturally unique. I might have patronized several Korean-Mexican fusion food trucks as an example, but each one of those has had unique names, menu offerings and recipes. PBL also offers differentiated, specialized experiences for students. Through student voice & choice, as well as teacher coaching/facilitation, students can focus on various aspects of a particular question or problem, choose a product that will demonstrate and articulate their learning, assume various project management roles, as well as focus on different skills that need to be improved. Just like food trucks have a unique brand and identity, students can develop confidence in their own approach to problem-solving through high-quality project-based learning.

3) Mobility / Flexibility: The obvious big advantage that food trucks have over brick and mortar restaurants is their mobility. They can come to the customers. Whether it’s a concert, a pub, a special event, a game, etc. – they can bring their unique food offerings to your activity. This allows the customer to enjoy their food in many different and unique environments. Schools and educators could learn a great deal from this when implementing PBL. High-quality Project-Based Learning allows for the learning to take place using a variety of places, teams, resources and partners. We can create flexible and individual environments, assessments and projects. Project-Based Learning is real-world work that is continually changing, adapting, evolving and being customized or personalized. Whether it’s connecting to the community, partnering with an industry or nonprofit organization, or getting involved in work-based or service learning, there is always room for flexibility. And with technology, we now have the ability to have our students access our curriculum and programs at home, with video, at different times and more.

4) A Focus, Building A Brand: Since Food Trucks are not large, they tend to focus their menus. They can’t be one of those food vendors (like too many restaurants) that try to prepare, sell and offer an unending list of seemingly unrelated foods. They have a handful of menu items and people flock to them for those. Their simple or focused menu leads to quality and brand recognition. Schools have long suffered from trying to do – or offer – too many things. Most schools have dozens and dozens of programs, initiatives and plans all trying to address hundreds of standards, needs and goals. If schools could focus on a universal, but very personal and customizable pedagogy such as PBL, then they might find their schools tastier (and maybe more successful). Food vendors (and similarly, schools) cannot be good at everything. All of us need to figure out what we do best and then learn to maximize, optimize that. PBL allows students to take advantage of their strengths and interest areas.

5) Make It An Experience (Social & Fun): Most of us that visit food trucks could also visit a restaurant just as easily. However, we are opting for the food truck experience – not just because it’s potentially convenient, but also because it seems fun, and somehow more social. Similarly, PBL is naturally collaborative (student-student, student-to-teacher/coach, student to community partner/expert, etc.) when compared to standard classroom practices. And collaboration is not just more engaging, but rather one of the most important 21st-century employability skills. Food trucks engage the consumer, and schools can do the same through PBL. Food tastes better when we’re having fun, and we also learn at higher levels when we’re having fun. All of us, and especially students, are looking for meaningful and relevant experiences.

Almost everything we enjoy is about the place, the people and the unique moment. Because food trucks tend to be simple, specialized, social, fun, flexible and mobile, they create a unique experience each time. Far too many students are not having unique or special experiences. Learning should be just that – an experience. If we don’t shoot for that each and every day, then our education risks become fleeting, meaningless and disconnected.

So next time you’re eating at your favorite food truck, and/or witnessing a great project at a school, ask yourself what could they have in common? Through more high-quality PBL implementation, maybe we’ll see our school menus improve and match the exciting world of the food truck phenomenon.

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How Can We Truly Meet Students Where They Are At?

By Karla Phillips

Competency-based education is a system of instruction where students advance to higher levels of learning when they demonstrate mastery of concepts and skills. In this setting, learning doesn’t rely on time, place or pace. Students are challenged and ultimately graduate ready to choose college or career. This new system is comprehensive and can include fundamental changes in schedules, calendars, assessment and grading.

I know what you are thinking… An education system truly centered on students? An education system where time becomes the variable and learning the constant? An education system where students move on when ready? What does that actually look like?

The toughest questions come with the realization that meeting kids where they are–and giving schools the flexibility to do that–may mean redesigning schools away from an age-based grade level system.

Thomas Rooney, superintendent of California’s Lindsay Unified School District, provided an answer at ExcelinEd’s National Summit that is the best I’ve ever heard:

“…You have a 16-year-old at a fourth-grade level. [What do you do?] I can tell you what we don’t do. We don’t put them down in a fourth-grade room.

We essentially put learners who are far behind like that on an individualized learning plan because they actually do know some of what’s needed in fourth grade; they do know some of fifth grade, some of sixth, some of seventh grade and some of eighth. So we clearly assess–determine–what they don’t know and do know, and we strategically go after it very intentionally individualized, or small group exactly what it is that they need. And what you might see is those learners are grouped with a group of 14, 15 and 16-year-olds that are all struggling. And for the first time, some of those kids in that environment are the smartest kids in the room. And they’re getting their needs met which influences motivation, esteem and takes off from there.”

Superintendent Rooney masterfully articulated the real goal of competency-based education–creating an infrastructure designed to meet students where they are. Flexibility in path and pace is not the goal but the means to a successful end.

It may look different from school to school but that’s a good thing. At its heart, competency-based education is a local initiative, and it may look different in a small rural school compared to a large urban high school.

Regardless of what their learning path may look like, the requirement to demonstrate competency in order to advance will help ensure that students will graduate when they are ready for college and career and this is the common goal for this new education system.

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This post was originally published on May 16, 2016.

Karla Phillips is Policy Director at the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Follow her on Twitter: @azkarla.


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Tom Vander Ark on Using Technology to Advance Student Learning

Our CEO Tom Vander Ark recently took an in-depth look at whether kids are getting too much screen time in school for our friends at Education Next. If you’re familiar with Getting Smart, you could probably guess that he doesn’t think the amount of screen time most kids receive is too much–but the reality is more nuanced than the situation simply “not being a problem.”

In a recent episode of the EdNext podcast, Tom explored these nuances in more detail with Marty West, EdNext’s Editor-in-Chief.

In the podcast, Tom argues that many of the less-than-desirable effects of technology that some have experienced were, in part, due to standards reform limiting innovation and the effective use of new technologies. It was this environment, he argues (for example), that led to the “worksheet” problem, wherein schools traded paper worksheets for digital worksheets.

And while he concedes that technology isn’t a prerequisite for personalized PBL (which we think is one of the most promising paths forward for education), without technology “it would be really hard.” And why subject ourselves to that challenge if we don’t have to?

To that end, he is excited about the new learning models being highlighted by organizations like New School Venture Fund, NGLC, and most recently XQ Super School. Similarly, networks and schools combining PBL & Personalized Learning such as Alt School, New Tech Network, Brooklyn Lab School and Summit Public Schools are showing that with intentional learner experience design and a proper balance, screen time can make a crucial contribution to students’ learning.

For more of Tom’s thoughts on subjects like intimate computing and experiential computing and VR and AR, check out the podcast above.

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