Cycle of Learning, Part II: Servants of Two Masters

One of the great works in the dramatic tradition of Commedia Dell’Arte is Servant of Two Masters (1743) by Carlo Goldoni.  Its comedic zenith occurs when the clever servant, Truffaldino, races around Venice attempting to tend to the needs of both his employers while convincing them he is loyal to each exclusively.  Truffaldino started looking quite foolish – thinking himself twice as clever as he actually was, and contorting himself into all kinds of uncomfortable scenarios all the while trying to satisfy a hungry stomach.

Students in the 21st Century are not too far removed from the slapstick of Truffaldino when you discuss social media with them.  Desiring both the attention of the world and privacy from the same, they desperately try to have it both ways.  I hear innumerable tales of postings online that went awry because the intended audience was not the only recipient of the message.  Too many students have yet to learn proper Expression, the second phase of the Cycle of Learning.

20120116-114254.jpgIn my last post, I identified the need for promoting curating as a 21st Century skill.  After students have developed an understanding of content, then they need to harness the proper means of sharing their understanding.  The Internet is an ideal vehicle for sharing content, yet the pitfalls are numerous, and it is incumbent upon today’s educators to guide students in the maturation of their voice in what is a very public arena.  The major difficulty for honing 21st Century communication skills involves recognizing Web 2.0 as a megaphone, not a confessional.

While there is certainly a place for weaving 20120116-115118.jpga personal narrative into the fabric of cyberspace, far too many students fail to realize that the narrative you weave may live beyond your initial motivation.  Commentary that you believe to the private whisperings of two is actually a drama witnessed vicariously by many.  There is no such thing as volume control in social media sharing, and this is the element that needs to become part of our educational practice.  Tone and audience are both nuanced concepts that need rigorous practice, and if our students are going to be successful participants in the new information economy, then they need training in how to calibrate their narrative voice.

Just like Truffaldino, our students are often hungry – they want respect, attention, and positive reinforcement.  Instead of bemoaning the state of affairs in social media today, let’s create a new pedagogy that harnesses these powerful tools in a way that leaves all of the players onstage smiling at the end!


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Cycle of Learning, Part I: The Age of Discovery

One of my most prized possessions is a compass that my father gave me for my 18th birthday. It was his compass from his time in the Scouts as a young boy and he wanted me to have it as I became an adult so that I would never get “lost.” It was a touching father-son moment and I’ve never forgotten it.

Great educators are a compass for their students, helping to direct them through their “Age of Discovery,” and hopefully to avoid getting lost. For many students today, however, finding their way through a dense sea of information is a challenging prospect. This is why I propose that the Cycle of Learning begins with Discovery and the 21st Century skill of curating. Navigating the oceans of adolescence can be difficult enough without complicating matters from the rising tide of media overload. It never ceases to amaze me how comfortable students seem midst the chaos.

Our students are flooded with information on a daily basis – how will they determine what merits attention and what can be dismissed? The ability to discern valuable from invaluable content is a critical one for the 21st Century. This responsible content consumption is the essence of curating, and it is a fundamental tool needed in the new information economy. Is it the only tool? Of course not! There will always be a place for more traditional practices for the development of content knowledge. Yet a place for this type of learning needs to be found in the classroom, and our pedagogy needs to evolve to match the epistemology of a new Age of Discovery.

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Internet

The year 2011 was perhaps one of the most humbling years of my life, professionally speaking. I began the year believing that I was quite in command of my office, my classroom practice, and that I was ready for the next step administratively. Then something funny happened. I didn’t get the job I wanted. At the time I was devastated, but in the end it might have been the best thing that ever happened to my career. The rejection forced me to go back to my roots and reinvent my approach to professional development. How can I grow to become an instructional leader that will be effective? That became my mantra. It led me back to the classroom, as I redoubled my efforts to complete a second Master’s Degree, but it also led me to the Internet once again. This was where the humility truly began.

I was so confident in my knowledge and use of educational technology that I thought I had nothing to learn. Unfortunately I had fallen into the complacency trap, and my rude awakening came fast. Something has happened to the web over the last five years. I was a participant in social media networks and was well-aware of what had commonly been labeled “web 2.0,” but I had yet to realize the radical shift that had taken place through blogs and sites like Twitter.

The Internet was being used in a new way. Rather than simple posting of content, the storage space had evolved into a conversation, and the conversation was being conducted in a collaborative fashion. While I slept, the Internet had completely changed! I immediately realized that my arrogance in thinking I knew it all about educational technology was so far off that it was comical. My proficiency in technology skills meant nothing because I lost sight of what was a moving target.

Technology didn’t stop developing in 2005, and neither did the innovation in its applications. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama famously posited that we had reached “the end of history.” Yet I have spent the last five months feeling more in tune with Vaclav Havel’s declaration that “history has accelerated.”

Catching up with the furious growth of concepts that have dominated the blogosphere and Twitterverse has been a maddening and thoroughly humbling experience for me professionally. Most of all, however, it has been an enriching one. I have found the voices of fellow educators to aid and guide me – which was something that I had never experienced before! The old Internet was a very cold, solitary experience – this new Internet is dynamic and very engaging. Ideas get exchanged in an open forum, and I have yet to come away from an #edchat experience where I wasn’t blown away by the great ideas of someone else.

Perhaps the lesson is that complacency is the enemy of progress. To be a quality educator means not resting on one’s laurels. We have to continue to pursue new ideas and new ways of thinking.  This happens best for all of us when we develop a PLN.  This will be an ongoing process for me in 2012, and I’m excited to be back where I belong!

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Tradition vs. Innovation: New Year’s [Conflict] Resolution

20111225-204309.jpgHappy New Year! Having just finished with the holidays, tradition has been in the air, and nothing is more traditional in education than the time-honored three R’s – Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic.

But the old idea of the three R’s certainly has taken a beating these days, hasn’t it?

Mary Bart, writing for Faculty Focus, identified what is quickly becoming accepted as “best practice” for a new generation of learners:

Christy Price, EdD, a psychology professor at Dalton State College, became interested in Millennial learners when she noticed a gap between students’ expectation for success and the effort they put forth in the classroom (Price, 2009). Price then conducted a qualitative analysis of narratives provided by more than a hundred Millennial learners to get a more accurate picture of what makes them tick.

In the recent online seminar Five Strategies to Engage Today’s Students, Price shared some of what she’s learned regarding the characteristics of Millennials’ ideal learning environments, their preferences regarding assignments and assessment, and the characteristics of their ideal professor. She then outlined the instructional implications of her findings with these five R’s for engaging Millennial students:

  1. Research-based methods: Research suggests Millennials prefer a variety of active learning methods. When they are not interested in something, their attention quickly shifts elsewhere. Interestingly, many of the components of their ideal learning environment — less lecture, use of multimedia, collaborating with peers — are some of the same techniques research has shown to be effective, Price said.
  2. Relevance: Millennials have grown up being able to Google anything they want to know, therefore they do not typically value information for information’s sake. As a result, the professor’s role is shifting from disseminating information to helping students apply the information. One of the greatest challenges for teachers is to connect course content to the current culture and make learning outcomes and activities relevant, Price said.
  3. Rationale: Unlike Boomers who were raised in a more authoritarian manner in which they more readily accept the chain of command, Millennials were raised in a non-authoritarian manner and are more likely to comply with course policies when teachers provide them with a rationale for specific policies and assignments.
  4. Relaxed: Millennials prefer a less formal learning environment in which they can informally interact with the professor and one another. In interviews with students, the term “laid back” was used repeatedly.
  5. Rapport: Millennials are extremely relational. They are more central to their parents’ lives than previous generations and are used to having the adults in their lives show great interest in them. They appreciate it when professors show that same interest, and they seem to be more willing to pursue learning outcomes when instructors connect with them on a personal level.

Another take on reforming the three R’s can be found here by edublogger Mark Brumley:

Creating is not only at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy, it is a critical skill needed for the advancement of our society. The “Creative Class”, a term used by author Richard Florida in his book The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, is growing and manufacturing jobs are dwindling. We must teach students skills to engage in non-routine cognitive work.

Curating is a skill needed to sift through the mountains of new content created every day. Students need to know how to discover and discern what is truly meaningful and relevant and discard the rest. This includes “crap detection” (Howard Rheingold) but also “gem detection” to determine the truly remarkable content.

A key component of creative class jobs is collaboration. In almost all cases, these types of professions involve working with others and creating and curating within the groups. Of course this means not only collaborating with the people next to you but globally and even virtually.

So the Industrial Revolution gave us the 3 R’s and now the Digital Revolution has given us the 3 C’s. In my next series of posts, I plan to outline the relationship between the traditional methods of pedagogy and the rise of a new model appropriate for the 21st Century.

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Mathemagicians Unite!

I am not a math teacher.  However, I do believe strongly in the value of mathematics as part of our academic programs in schools.  I also think that there has to be a way to do it better than it is being done in so many places.  I remember being bored to tears by the repetitive nature of one problem after another.  Much like Donald Duck in this 1959 classic by Disney:

As we prepare to shift paradigms to a 21st Century pedagogy, how can we be certain that the math classes don’t fall by the wayside?  It seem to me that they are the most likely candidates to do so, if only because the rote nature of the instructional approaches taken for so long still proliferate, even as a new generation of amazing math educators arises.  What can be done to make math more aligned with the Cycle of Learning model that I have advocated (Discovery-Expression-Collaboration-Integration)?  How can we find a way to advocate 21st Century skills in a discipline where far too many think that calculators are evil?  Torie Bosch writes for Slate and takes a stab at it here:

Math education: How colleges and high schools can fix it..

One of the primary problems with math education today, according to Benjamin, is that the sequence of courses leads students in the wrong direction. “For the last 200 years, the mathematics that we’ve learned starts with arithmetic and algebra, and everything we do after that is taking us toward one subject, calculus. I think that is the wrong mathematical goal for 90 percent of our students,” he says. “We’re now living in an age of information and data, and the mathematics that will be most relevant to our daily lives is probability and statistics.” Only some professions require calculus. Everyone reads—and many misunderstand—media reports about health, science, and the environment that contain statistics. Better literacy in probability and stats would benefit everyone.

I think Bosch manages to identify our central fallacy very well – that one size fits all!  How can we realistically expect all students to fit into the same track?  Surely there must be a way to differentiate our experience of mathematics at the high school level.  Are probability and statistics part of the solution?  Is there an experiential model that work out there?  Math teachers – help me out!  How can we make the “language of technology” actually gel with the innovations that they helped create in the first place?

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Rogues’ Gallery, Part III: The Wrath of The Jargonator!

The next person who tells me to “think outside the box” is going to get hurt. Don’t tell me that you haven’t thought that at least once in your career! We often make a game of this to pass the time during mandatory professional development sessions (#donttellmyprincipal) – How many buzzwords and jargon phrases will get thrown out at us this time? At a recent staff meeting, I gave up somewhere north of 20… I zoned out halfway between the third time I heard “benchmarks for growth” and the eighth time someone referred to an educational concept as a “piece.”

We all know this guy (or gal) on our staff – I call him The Jargonator! His superpower is to take a buzzword and repeat it ad nauseam until it no longer has any meaning! Then he can cloak himself in an impenetrable fog of meaningless vocabulary and mask his incompetence. The real problem of course is that this linguistic jujitsu hurts the students. Important reforms can be waylaid while The Jargonator flexes his grad class dictionary muscles. No one wins in this scenario.

One of my favorite online writers, Peter DeWitt, tackles this issue in a recent entry for Education Week. He examines the latest victim of The Jargonator – the term “Twenty-First Century Skills”…

Using Social Networking to Build 21st Century Skills

In education we have a habit of using terms so often that we push staff to a place where they do not want to use them anymore, which means they are in jeopardy of not being engaged in the process. We have seen it with terms such as “differentiated instruction” and “hands-on learning.” If we’re not careful it will happen with a very important term which is “21st century skills.” […]

The race to nowhere is paved in countless mandates and new ideas. We can become overwhelmed with the amount of educational information that we see in journals and cyberspace. New ideas are being proposed all around us. Some of which are just creative advertising on the part of textbook publishers, while others are creative ideas that will help us keep up with our younger generation.

However, are they really new ideas? 21st century skills are critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. For those of us who have been educators for a long time we have always taught our students how to think critically, communicate with others, collaborate on projects and be creative. Long before the 21st century, that was the basis for education for many years.

In addition, one of the best 21st century skills that we can teach students is the art of reflection. Through reflection students can assess their critical thinking skills and creativity. They can also work in collaboration with other students to reflect on the work that they completed. Reflection is an additional 21st century skill that would be beneficial for all students, staff and administrators.

DeWitt goes on to describe how he came to discover Twitter (@PeterMDeWitt) and other social media services as the perfect modern vehicles for just that type of professional reflection. He encourages educators to join Twitter and to use it to network with peers in the field. I recently took his advice (@John_DAdamo) and have quickly found new ways of tackling old problems. The regular sessions followed by the #edchat hashtag have provided a real treasure trove of ideas for me this semester. Not to mention they come jargon-free!

Certainly our students can benefit from this type of reflection! The Cycle of Learning model extends “traditional” education beyond the Discovery (content knowledge) and Expression (assessment) phases into the areas where Collaboration (dynamic cooperation) and Integration (reflection via technology) are mastered as well. Our students live in an age where they are bombarded with a constant stream of information – it is on us as educators to teach them how to filter through it for what is instructionally valuable for their achievement, success, and ultimate growth as a human being.

Don’t let The Jargonator win!

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Rogues’ Gallery, Part II: Mr. Passive-Aggressive

Black Friday!  Unlike many Americans, I do not typically engage in the mercantile free-for-all that has come to characterize the day after Thanksgiving.  I prefer to sit back, enjoy my leftovers and another tryptophan-induced coma, and just marvel at the spectacle of it all.

My wife accuses  me of being passive-aggressive when it comes to shopping.  Admittedly, my cooperation on shopping trips may be *somewhat* less then total.  Maybe it is hard for me to get excited about saving money that I never wanted to spend in the first place!  Far too many of our colleagues fall into that “hostile cooperation” trap on the job, which is what leads me to the second installment of my ongoing series The Rogues’ Gallery – Introducing Mr. Passive-Aggressive!

Passive-aggressive (PA) behavior in the workplace is an exceptionally easy pattern to adopt.  Especially when that workplace revolves around children!  Because, in effect, PA colleagues are not modeling behavior for the students – they are allowing the students to model behavior for them!  That might seem harsh, but consider the truly insidious nature of PA behavior on our goal of boosting student achievement:

Mr. (or Ms.) PA is dark when we need optimism, vague when we need certainty, and evades responsibility just when we need leaders to take a stand for accountability.  Yet the veneer of professionalism is implied with everything that they say and do, just enough to get them off the hook for whatever might come there way in terms of consequences.  These experts of insinuation and guilt-trips are excellent at manipulating language.  Then they wield their influence in a manner that can counter everything you attempt to do as an instructional leader.  While The Complainer (discussed in RG, Pt 1) tears your efforts down – at least he/she does so to your face!  Mr. PA does it with a smile on his face, and often behind your back!  People like this can be truly poisonous to your efforts at changing institutional culture, and they need to be dealt with appropriately.

Dr. Carl Robinson’s article from corporate America is enlightening:

The typical way most people encounter a passive aggressive executive is over disagreements in plans of actions affecting them. The PA generally gives up after a brief fight or acquiesces when he meets resistance from a superior or their peer group (team) and then feigns agreement. You think he has agreed and is supporting you. However, soon enough, he some way or another sabotages your efforts while leaving few, if any, fingerprints. You’re left scratching your head trying to figure out why things went sideways with your well planned and seemingly well supported initiatives.

PA’s are almost always on the defensive.  At the core of a PA personality is insecurity and fear, so whenever a PA feels threatened – which is often – he or she will act out in this manner.  When confronted, a PA will try to hedge away from blame also. Robinson notes that –

Classic passive aggressive comments – all plausible, perhaps even reasonable (which is why it’s hard to catch a PA) include:

  • You or she/he misunderstood me.
  • I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you say not to do x. I thought you were just making a suggestion.
  • I was only trying to be helpful.
  • You told us to take more initiative. I only did what you asked.
  • You should have been more specific.
  • I told you that might happen.
  • If only she/he/they would have followed my suggestions that would not have happened.

Alleviating the fears and needs for defense up front are key to neutralizing a PA threat to your educational leadership.  Perhaps this means opening with a mea culpa for your role in whatever element of the toxic culture helped make your PA so defensive.  In their book Leadership on the Line (2002) Ronald A. Heifitz and Marty Linsky do an excellent job of outlining the approach needed to navigate this minefield.  “Acknowledging Their Loss” is a key step.  Change is always going to make some people uncomfortable, and might even require some measure of sacrifice.  Instructional leaders cannot act as if they are oblivious to the discomfort.  It needs to be noted, mentioned, perhaps even grieved for.  The staff for the most part will appreciate the steps taken to acknowledge the hesitation or resistance present regarding a change.  Humanizing yourself as a leader is valuable, and it begins with seeing the perceived flaws and failings of our colleagues as having very human roots.


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The “I” Formation

Happy Thanksgiving! It’s a day for being grateful, for family, friends, food… And of course, football! Luke O’Neil from Slate reflects on why sports are no longer the communal events they used to be:

Why none of my friends wants to watch football with me.

Technology has changed that calculus. I no longer need to be in the same room with my friends to share a collective moment of euphoria. Now I can simply share my delight on Twitter or Facebook and collect dozens of electronic high-fives instantaneously. I spend more time now interacting with my friends digitally than in the flesh; it’s only logical that we’d take that approach to sports as well. Right now, for example, my friend is G-chatting me about how much he hates Tim Tebow, while another handful are complaining about their teams on our fantasy league board and a third group is texting me about the Patriots game. In a living room, you’d call that noise. Here at home, it’s a lot easier to manage. We’re essentially watching TV together—why do we need to be in the same room? […]

On the few recent occasions that I have dragged myself to a friend’s house, or vice versa, we spend most of the time staring at our smart phones and tablets. What exactly is the benefit of physical proximity in that scenario? “Check out this funny tweet I just sent” doesn’t really count as conversation, does it? And there’s always the one poor guy who didn’t bring his laptop and has to continually ask one of us to check his scores for him. He might as well be watching the game through a hole in a wooden fence like a cartoon character from the 1930s.

This together/alone approach isn’t unique to sports viewership. Consider how video-game producers have moved away from split-screen games and multicontroller hubs and toward online multiplayers where everyone logs in from their couch. A generation of children is being raised with the idea that “hanging out” means logging on and “playing” with your friends online… Is technology like this isolating, or does it allow us to connect with more people more often?

There are definite echoes of Bowling Alone (Robert D. Putnam, 2001) present in O’Neil’s musings. And while the fragmentation of American culture is certainly nothing new, the rise of new technologies has accelerated the process in ways we never could have predicted. Activities that used to be communal are now individual and the web is used to loosely connect us only to the degree we choose. Asking if this digital revolution has united us more or made it more convenient to isolate ourselves is a very important question for everyone.

Educators in particular need to be aware of this shift, because the behavioral patterns are changing the way that humans think. Mental skills and synapses that go unused can atrophy and devolve if they repeat in enough generations. Now while some would see this as reason to sound the alarm about the dangers of the Internet and why it has an adverse effect on our society, I take the opposite tack. I would argue that it is critical for educators to grab this moment and use it to our advantage. Let’s build a culture of learning that empowers our students to collaborate across all literacies – digital and interpersonal. A balanced offense is a winning strategy that would truly be something for which we could all be thankful!


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Hunting the Tree Octopus

So it’s time for some important counterbalance!  I have been a major advocate in this blog in support of the “digital literacy” that students will need to be competitive in the 21st Century.  However, I can’t emphasize strongly enough that this must be a “both-and” situation, not “either-or.”  Digital literacy and other 21st Century skills will never replace more traditional educational practices.  This should be augmentation in most cases, and an adaptation in many others.  Collaborative grouping is not going to be an effective strategy without having some baseline knowledge in place to use as a springboard.  Certain basic concepts will always need to be taught in our schools through tried-and-true best practice.  Annie Murphy Paul throws the baby out with the bathwater here a little bit in her article for TIME, but her points are broadly valid:

Annie Murphy Paul on Why ‘Digital Literacy’ Can’t Replace The Traditional Kind.

Have you heard about the octopus who lives in a tree? In 2005, researchers at the University of Connecticut asked a group of seventh graders to read a website full of information about the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, or Octopus paxarbolis. The Web page described the creature’s mating rituals, preferred diet, and leafy habitat in precise detail. Applying an analytical model they’d learned, the students evaluated the trustworthiness of the site and the information it offered. Their judgment? The tree octopus was legit. All but one of the pupils rated the website as “very credible.” The headline of the university’s press release read, “Researchers Find Kids Need Better Online Academic Skills,” and it quoted Don Leu, professor of education at UConn and co-director of its New Literacies Research Lab, lamenting that classroom instruction in online reading is “woefully lacking.”

There’s something wrong with this picture, and it’s not just that the arboreal octopus is, of course, a fiction, presented by Leu and his colleagues to probe their subjects’ Internet savvy. The other fable here is the notion that what these kids need — what all our kids need — is to learn online skills in school. It would seem clear that what Leu’s seventh graders really require is knowledge: some basic familiarity with the biology of sea-dwelling creatures that would have tipped them off that the website was a whopper (say, when it explained that the tree octopus’s natural predator is the sasquatch). But that’s not how an increasingly powerful faction within education sees the matter. They are the champions of “new literacies” — or “21st century skills” or “digital literacy” or a number of other faddish-sounding concepts. In their view, skills trump knowledge, developing “literacies” is more important than learning mere content, and all facts are now Googleable and therefore unworthy of committing to memory.

For the record, here’s the fake website.  As I said, the criticism of those who go overboard on digital literacy is valid.  It would be wrong to completely pivot 180 degrees and ignore the beneficial aspects of our existing systems – and yes, there are many!  Anyone reading Annie Murphy Paul, however, who might want to engage in knee-jerk reactionary rejection of the new literacy would do our students just as great a disservice!

A balance will certainly have to be struck between old and new literacies that provides our students with all of the skills, knowledge, and abilities that they will need to achieve success.  How could any of us settle for anything less?


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Back to the Future!

Most of what passes for education in America today is grounded in the values and workforce needs of the Industrial Revolution.  Preparing the next generation for the assembly line was coupled with the desire to purposefully cripple creativity – thus making one’s factory employees more malleable.  Sir Ken Robinson, internationally-recognized speaker on the field of education, puts it this way:

So, if Robinson is correct, then whither shall we go?  Craig D. Jerald of the Center for Public Education suggests the following:

Defining a 21st Century Education: At a glance.

As a result of these forces, three kinds of learning are becoming increasingly important if not essential for students to succeed in work and life:

1)    Traditional academic knowledge and skills. The belief that students will no longer need to learn the academic content traditionally taught in the school curriculum is false. Students will need strong math and English skills to succeed in work and life, for example. A strong academic foundation also is essential for success in postsecondary education and training, which itself is increasingly necessary for anyone who wants to earn a middle class wage.

2)    Real world application, or “applied literacies.” Students will need not just knowledge but also “literacy”—the ability to apply their learning to meet real-world challenges. That applies to all subjects, including English, math, science, and social studies.

3)    Broader competencies. Students who develop an even broader set of competencies will be at an increasing advantage in work and life. Based on employer surveys and other evidence, the most important seem to be:

    1. The ability solve new problems and think critically;
    2. Strong interpersonal skills necessary for communication and collaboration;
    3. Creativity and intellectual flexibility; and
    4. Self sufficiency, including the ability to learn new things when necessary.

We need to prepare our students for the world that will be, not the world that is!  That begins with recognizing the Digital Revolution for what it is – the biggest communications paradigm shift since the Gutenberg printing press.  To truly reform education in America, it will take an equally large paradigm shift by the next generation of school administrators.  Are we prepared to take the next step?  Or will we remain mired in the failed practices of the past?


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