Education Q&A

Change Agent

By Anthony Rebora — October 11, 2010 17 min read
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Will Richardson was a high school English and journalism teacher in New Jersey for nearly 20 years. During the early part of this decade, he began experimenting with the use of interactive Web tools in the classroom and was soon transfixed by their potential for increasing students’ engagement and exposing them to new resources and outlets for expression. His experiences led him to write Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms (Corwin). Now in its third edition, the book has sold more than 60,000 copies and become one of the most influential books available on integrating Web 2.0 technology in the K-12 classroom.

Richardson is now an educational-technology consultant and co-founder of Powerful Learning Practice, a professional development provider devoted to fostering online community for teachers. Both in his speaking engagements and on his blog, Weblogg-ed, Richardson argues that schools need to transform their models of teaching and learning to reflect broad changes in information technology and new intellectual demands and opportunities presented by global online networks.

You’ve written that too many teachers are “un-Googleable.” What do you mean by that and why does it matter?

What I mean is that too few teachers have a visible presence on the Web. The primary reason this matters is that the kids in our classrooms are going to be Googled—they’re going to be searched for on the Web—over and over again. That’s just the reality of their lives, right? So they need models. They need to have adults who know what it means to have a strong and appropriate search portfolio—I call it the “G-portfolio.” But right now—and this is my ongoing refrain—there’s no one teaching them how to learn and share with these technologies. There’s no one teaching them about the nuances involved in creating a positive online footprint. It’s all about what not to do instead of what they should be doing.

The second thing is that, if you want to be part of an extended learning network or community, you have to be findable. And you have to participate in some way. The people I learn from on a day-to-day basis are Googleable. They’re findable, they have a presence, they’re participating, they’re transparent. That’s what makes them a part of my learning network. If you’re not out there—if you’re not transparent or findable in that way—I can’t learn with you.

Why do you think many teachers are not out there on the Web?

I think it’s a huge culture shift. Education by and large has been a very closed type of profession. “Just let me close my doors and teach”—you hear that refrain all the time. I’ve had people come up to me after presentations and say, “Well, I’m not putting my stuff up on the Web because I don’t want anyone to take it and use it.” And I say, “But that’s the whole point.” I love what David Wiley, an instructional technology professor at Brigham Young University, says: “Without sharing, there is no education.” And it’s true. We really have to be—or at least should be—sharing our stuff freely, and in doing so making new connections and working in these communities and networks that can really enhance our own learning. That’s just what the world looks like right now. But it’s just a very different kind of culture and approach to learning than has traditionally prevailed—and still prevails—in schools. A lot of educators just don’t see the opportunities.

What could a school administrator do to help teachers make that shift? Say you were a principal? What would you do?

Well, first of all, I would be absolutely the best model that I could be. I would definitely share my own thoughts, my own experiences, and my own reflections on how the environment of learning is changing. I would be very transparent in my online learning activity and try to show people in the school that it’s OK, that it has value. I think it’s very hard to be a leader around these types of changes without modeling them.

Will Richardson

Secondly, I would try to build a school culture where sharing is just a normal part of what we do and where we understand the relevance of this global exchange of ideas and information to what we do in the classroom. It’s not like coming in and saying, “OK, everybody has to start a blog tomorrow.” We have to understand how being a part of these every day interactions that go beyond school walls have value in terms of how we help kids understand the world as it’s currently constructed.

You’ve written about “network literacy” as one of the key 21st-century skills. What does that entail?

The way I define it is that students should be able to create, navigate, and grow their own personal learning networks in safe, effective, and ethical ways. It’s really about the ability to engage with people around the world in these online networks, to take advantage of learning opportunities that are not restricted to a particular place and time, and to be conversant with the techniques and methodologies involved in doing this. It’s really something that looks profoundly different from what currently happens in classrooms.

So how do schools teach this? Are there some that are doing it effectively?

I think there are some, but there aren’t many. And again, it comes back to teachers being able to model it and understand it—and ultimately to infuse it into the curriculum effectively.

The schools that are beginning to kind of get it often make the mistake of then making it a unit somewhere. You know, they put together this “information literacy” unit, and they think that they can kind of check that box. But this is not a unit we’re talking about. It’s a cultural shift in the way we do things. It’s a different way of teaching and learning. I think that even our 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade curricula should be looked at again, and we should be asking where we can begin to instill these kinds of skills and literacies, in ways that are age appropriate obviously. Of course, we have to be balanced about this. We don’t want students spending the entire day online. But ultimately, kids are going to have to have these skills when they leave us, and right now, by and large, we’re just kind of crossing our fingers and saying, “Good luck with that. Hope you got it, because we can’t deal with it right now.”

What do you say to the argument that kids are already pretty technologically savvy? I mean, they’re already out there on Facebook and YouTube. So why should schools be focusing on this instead of areas where they’re lacking—like content knowledge?

Well, I think when people talk about kids being “digital natives,” it’s a real disservice—because it suggests that kids are just somehow born with these abilities to use these technologies well. And that’s not the case. You’re right, kids today have much less fear around technology—and they can pick up the basics right away. But they still don’t know how to learn with these technologies, or how to connect with others from a learning standpoint as opposed to a social standpoint.

There was a MacArthur Foundation report a couple of years ago called “Living and Learning With New Media,” and it distinguished between two different ways that kids are using these online tools. The one way is the social side—Facebook, texting, that type of stuff. And then there’s this other way that they called interest-based. An example of that would be, if you’re really into a 1972 Camaro, say, you can find other people online who are into that as well, and you can learn with them how to restore yours. It’s those types of interactions that are a little more nuanced—because you don’t know who these people are and you’re trying to get complex information. So you’re trying to edit your contacts, you’re trying to get context for who they are, you’re trying to figure out what you can get from the learning interaction, or if there are better options, or if you need to supplement it in some way. Then you need to synthesize the information. That’s where kids need help. That’s the part where they’re not as good as we are or at least should be—when it comes to discerning what information is good and what information isn’t and who they should be interacting with. They’re not as good at assessing those critical pieces. That’s where they really need us.

OK, but how do you respond to the more traditional perspective that says, “Hey, that’s great, but kids can fix up Camaros after school. In school, they need academic knowledge.”

I just think that we have for so long looked at education as this linear, everybody-does-the-same-thing-in-the-same-way process that it’s really difficult for us to think about education in other, more personalized ways—in ways that let kids learn math or engineering in the context of fixing a Camaro. Or that let kids learn English and writing in the context of what they’re passionate about. I realize it’s somewhat of a stretch—it’s a hard thing to envision. To be totally honest, it’s a hard thing for me to wrap my brain around, in terms of how we get there. But I think we’re at a point where we really need to think about not just reforming education but transforming it. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have teachers and classrooms and schools, but the interactions that happen just need to be really, really different—because the world is just such a different place right now, with everything we have access to. You know, when I think about my own kids, I have no doubt that the best teachers they’re going to have in their lives are the ones that they find, not the ones their schools give to them. And that to me is a huge shift in the way we think about the role of educators in kids’ lives. And I think that kind of captures a piece of how differently we have to think about this.

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There’s a great book called Rethinking Education in an Era of Technology by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson. For me, these guys absolutely peg it. They talk about how we went from a kind of apprenticeship model of education in the early 19th century to a more industrialized, everybody-does-the-same-thing model in the 20th century. And now we’re moving into what they call a “lifelong learning” model—which is to say that learning is much more fluid and much more independent, self-directed, and informal. That concept—that we can learn in profound new ways outside the classroom setting—poses huge challenges to traditional structures of schools, because that’s not what they were built for.

You’ve said that schools need to emphasize learning over knowledge? What did you mean by that?

Well, let me be clear: I’m not saying that we don’t need knowledge in order to learn well. But right now, that’s the total emphasis. It’s all about what we know—that’s basically what we assess, right? I look at my kids’ tests all the time—it’s just factual stuff. You know, “What was the third ship that Columbus sailed?” I can’t stand it, because it doesn’t have any relevance or any bearing on anything that they’re going to do in their lives. But they have to spend a lot of time on it, because if they don’t get that test answer right, then the school looks bad on the state assessment. It’s just so screwed up. I get how it made sense 50 years ago. Maybe 30 years ago. But I don’t get it now, when my daughter could pull out her phone to find the answer in two seconds. It’s just silly.

So, I think we need to focus more on developing the learning process—looking at how kids collaborate with others on a problem, how they exercise their critical thinking skills, how they handle failure, and how they create. We have to be willing to put kids—and assess kids—in situations and contexts where they’re really solving problems and we’re looking not so much at the answer but the process by which they try to solve those problems. Because those are the types of skills they’re going to need when they leave us, when they go to college or wherever else. At least I think so. And I don’t think I’m alone in that.

What’s your reaction to recent arguments, such as in recent Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, to the effect that the Web and other digital technologies are diminishing our attention spans and our capacity for deep, focused thinking? Are you concerned about a potentially negative effect of digital immersion on kids’ intellectual development? I mean, you’re a former English teacher. Are you concerned about kids’ ability to read deeply?

A little bit. But I don’t worry about the impact of technology so much as I worry about us not giving kids relevant stuff to read in schools so they can develop those deep reading skills. It goes back to the whole core content thing. Look, I understand the value of the classics. And I get the reason a lot people are married to teaching them. But you know, let’s be real. If we want kids to be readers, we have to be willing at some point to give them stuff that they want to read. And we just don’t do that right now—again, because it’s too difficult to individualize instruction in that way. We want everybody reading the same thing at the same time, because it’s much easier to organize and assess. You know, we all want kids to understand irony, and theme, and characterization, there’s no question about that. But the way we do that is what’s coming under some challenge right now.

I certainly want my own kids to read deeply—and we do limit their time online. Not to set myself up as a paragon of good parenting, but a lot of this is a parenting issue, you know. We really encourage our kids to have down time where they’re reading books, or magazines, because I do think their brains need to be exercised in that way, and I think mine does, too. But the problem with what Nicholas Carr is saying is it’s just too much of a broad brush. As others have said in response to Carr, this is a real period of transition, and it’s natural for us to do some hand-wringing when we go through periods of transition, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that 50 years from now we’re going to be stupid because of the Internet. In many ways, I think the Internet has made us immensely smarter. But there’s no doubt that the ways we process and gather information is going through a big change. That can be scary, but we can’t just put the genie back in the bottle.

And from an English teacher’s standpoint, one of the big questions I have is, why is it that no one is teaching kids to read and write in hypertext in schools? I almost defy you to find me anyone who consciously teaches kids reading and writing in linked environments. Yet we know kids are in those environments and sometimes doing some wonderfully creative things. And we know they’ll need to read and write online. You know what I’m saying? But educators would read Nicholas Carr’s book, and their response would be to ban hypertext. It just doesn’t make sense.

I guess the counter-argument would be, “Well, shouldn’t they learn to write first before they’re writing in hypertext?”

Oh, absolutely. I’m not suggesting you put 3rd graders into totally linked environments. Absolutely, kids should learn to read and write in traditional ways. But as they develop, they also should be helped to learn how to read and write in these new ways. But they’re not. Nobody teaches this stuff. No one in schools is saying, “We need to understand this for our kids. We need to help them understand how to process information in digital formats and digital environments.” And I just don’t understand that. Why isn’t it happening?

If you were a principal, in order to foster network literacy as you envision it, what kind of professional development would you provide to teachers?

I think that teachers need to have a very fundamental understanding of what these digital interactions look like, and the only way that you can do that is to pretty much immerse them in these types of learning environments over the long term. You can’t workshop it. That’s really been the basis of our work with Powerful Learning Practice: Traditional PD just isn’t going to work. It’s got to be long-term, job-embedded. So, if I’m a principal, I would definitely be thinking about how I could get my teachers into online learning communities, into these online networks. And again, from a leadership standpoint, I’d better be there first—or, if not first, at least be able to model it and talk about it.

But the other thing is, if you want to have workshops, well, that’s fine, go ahead and schedule a blogging workshop, but then the prerequisite for the workshop should be to learn how to blog. Then, when you come to the workshop, we’ll talk about what blogging means rather than just how to do it. Seriously, there’s not one of these Web 2.0 tools or technologies that a teacher couldn’t learn on his or her own in under a half an hour with an online tutorial. There’s not one. That’s why Web 2.0 is as huge as it is—because there’s a very low barrier to entry. It’s not rocket science. So, imagine if we took all the time we use in workshops doing how-to and instead used that time to really go deep and to talk about what changes.

I think we’ve become enablers for our teachers. We’ve kind of built this whole professional development thing around the idea that “We’ll provide you with the workshops, and the curriculum, you just show up. We’ll give you the computer, and teach you all the stuff you need to know, etc.” I don’t want to sound too patronizing about it, but it’s just silly. What we have to do is build a professional culture that says, “Look, you guys are learners, and we’re going to help you learn. We’re going to help you figure out your own learning path and practice.” It’s like the old “give a man a fish” saying. You know, we’re giving away a lot of fish right now, but we’re not teaching anybody how to fish.

If you were starting a school right now that you hoped embodied these qualities, what traits would you look for in teachers?

Well, certainly I would make sure they were Googleable. I would want to see that they have a presence online, that they are participating in these spaces, and, obviously, that they are doing so appropriately. Also, I’d want to know that they have some understanding of how technology is changing teaching and learning and the possibilities that are out there.

I would also look for people who aren’t asking how, but instead are asking why. I don’t want people who say, “How do you blog?” I want people who are ready to explore the question of, “Why do you blog?” That’s what we need. We need people who are willing to really think critically about what they’re doing. I’m not an advocate of using tools just for the sake of using tools. I think all too often you see teachers using a blog, but nothing really changes in terms of their instruction, because they don’t really understand what a blog is, what possibilities it presents. They know the how-to, but they don’t know the why-to. I’d look for teachers who are constantly asking why. Why are we doing this? What’s the real value of this? How are our kids growing in connection with this? How are our kids learning better? And I definitely would want learners. I would look for learners more than I would look for teachers per se.

In what ways do you expect schools—or the way education is delivered—to change over the next 20 years, and what should teachers be prepared for?

I don’t know that schools will change a whole heck of a lot in the short term, to be honest with you. I’ve been out here screaming this stuff for the last seven years—and a lot of folks have been at it for even longer—and I feel like the change has been glacial. I mean, really glacial. You look at all the state budgets, and the whole Race to the Top thing, and the choices that people are making in terms of school policy and programs are totally regressive when it comes to technology and these global, on-demand learning environments. And the choices that they’re making about curriculum are totally counter to self-directed, self-organized, independent learning. We’re just tinkering.

So in the near term, as long as people are almost totally focused on test scores, I don’t think schools are going to change very much at all. But if they are, they’re going to have to understand that learning is mobile. They’re going to have to find ways to leverage the one-to-one technology environments they already have in most high schools right now, using the technology that kids have in their backpacks and pockets. And I think we have to move to a more inquiry-based, problem-solving curriculum, because it’s not about content as much anymore. It’s not about knowing this particular fact as much as it is about what you can do with it. What can you do with what you understand about chemistry? What can you do with what you’ve learned about writing? What does it look like? Kids need to be working on solving real problems that mean something to them. The goal should be preparing kids to be entrepreneurs, problem-solvers who think critically and who’ve worked with people from around the world. Their assessments should be all about the products they produced, the movements they’ve created, the participatory nature of their education rather than this sort of spit-back-the-right-answer model we currently have. I mean, that just doesn’t make sense anymore.

A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2010 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Change Agent


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