Thursday, August 18, 2011

Why I LOVE My Vibram 5 Fingers!

This summer I got a pair of Vibrams 5 Fingers sports shoes for my birthday. I'd had my eyes on these for a little over a year, at first attracted to their potential as great water sports shoes and later for their benefits for trail hiking and running.

The day I chose my pair of Komodo Sports I tried on 6 styles of 5 Fingers in 3 different shops. I walked around the store for at least 5 minutes in each style, sometimes longer, really getting a feel for how they felt. And to be honest, they felt amazing. I didn't want to take them off. I couldn't believe how they made my entire body feel, not just my feet. I felt better than I ever have in shoes and also better than I feel in bare feet. The best description I can relate the feeling to is that of a super racing glove for my feet. I wanted to run and jump and climb the walls!

Each pair I tried was quite different and I liked different aspects of each variety. I tried on the Komodo Sports in the middle of the fitting session (before I went back to the first shop and re-tried the first 2 pairs). The Komodos have shorter toes, funky designs, all around support for various activites and a generally a strong feel to them. I knew they were the ones for me.

So what is it that I especially love about my Vibram Komodo Sports?

- When I put them on, I feel totally energized
- They make my entire bosy feel more alive and more tunned into what I am doing
- There is never a rub, pinch or a squeeze
- They are so versatile, they satisfy the function of 5 shoes combined
- My feet and ankles are stronger every time I wear them
- I don't need anything else when I'm travelling and they pack well
- They can be (and need to be) frequently washed, by hand or machine
- I feel completely protected and am comfortable running with them on rough trails
- Feeling of the textures under your feet (thick grass, sand, mud, etc.) are such a rich and fun sensations that help you reconnect with where you are

Since buying my 5 Fingers in July, I have successfully recruited 5 other people, convincing them to also invest in a style of 5 FIngers. It's funny how everyone loves a different style, which is proof that you should really try on as many different styles as you can until you find your perfect fit. Happy trails!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

There Is No More Standard Google Anymore

I watched a TED talk recently by Eli Pariser about filter bubbles, the sorting of information based on personalized criteria and how the internet is becoming less democratic. While the overall message was simple, he explains that online programs are deciding what information becomes available to us based on criteria we don't even know that we are providing about ourselves. On a similar strand, earlier this week I enjoyed learning about the new relationship between Bing, FaceBook and the 'Like' Button in the article And Now Let's See If This Social Search Stuff Actually Works by Jason Kincaid. The talk by Eli Pariser succeeded in grabbing my attention enough that I've reflected on it many times and been inspired to formulate and explain my own response. More than anything, this is because I want to challenge it and because the more and more I see other people referencing it as worth thinking about (at least 3 of my friends on FB have posted it), the more I am surprised at how routine and mainstream we have become in our online habits, our choices and conveniences.

I am always thinking about how I use the internet and the processes that have quickly become habitual for me as I spend more and more time connected to an online lifestyle. Over the past  15 years of discovering a online life, many of us have flowed uniformly into the narrow channel of the internet's mainstream, all using the same programs and applications. In Eli's talk, he explains how he felt about the internet in its emergence as something that was designed for its users, for the public and something that promoted democracy. The internet, to him, was a place that opened up equal access to information. He goes on to explain how the internet is changing. An invisible shift where the information that we consume is sorted based on relevance to criteria about us that we don't even define. Scary thought to some, sure. It's scary because some of us connect strongly to the ideas of exploration and discovery. We want to learn from the unknown and surprise ourselves with revelations. The idea of everything being tailored to our preferences and personalized characteristics scares us because even though we like what we like, we still really like to learn about the things we don't even know we like yet. Also, what defines us now might not define us later, so the sorted relevance could induce a boring consistency instead of promoting growth and development. It whispers monoculture and conformity and suddenly we're all afraid of turning into the same person, or remaining exactly the same indefinitely. Most of us want the serendipidous experience of learning new things in unexpected ways. At the same time, I identify strongly with the opposite side of this argument as well. To some, algorithmic sorting is the best thing to ever happen to our time and our energy expenditure. Sorting the billions of bytes of information that we might be faced with in response to a query, these sorting systems provide a huge advance in productivity and general efficiency for finding what we need when we need it. Interestingly enough serendipity even comes in an algorithmic form these days. For more on this fun topic of personal relevance vs. serendipity read The Myth of Senrendipity by Henry Nothhaft Jr.

As I listened to the rest of Eli's talk, I realized that he kept referring to how the internet is changing, while he only used key examples of the big shots, namely FaceBook, Google and Yahoo. Are these now the primary elements that define the internet? The obvious answer is yes, no matter how badly we don't want it to be true.

What? Wait a minute..... let's pull the brakes on that train of thought for a second.

Does our internet usage really have that much control over who we are and what we do? Does the information we garner online have that much impact on our development and learning? Maybe... If you're a student in a 1:1 school, most definitely. Has the general public become helpless and detached in terms of determining and understanding exactly how we use and interact with the internet? If we have, then it is our responsibility to makes some serious changes. It is our responsibility to educate and model for younger generations the fundamentals of how the internet works and how it is changing. Predominantly in schools, we are teaching kids to search using Google. Are we doing a good enough job of it? Should we be spending more time examining with them the richness and diversity that can be found with other search engines? I believe that our students can grasp the sorting features and their implications if we help them to understand the mechanisms behind them.

So for all of the people out there who consider themselves independent and critical thinkers, deviants from the norm, risk takers, social outcasts, etc. I ask you this, does your online lifestyle and relevant choices regarding technology applications really reflect that philosophy? Do you take the time to source the right sources, search the right searches and utilize the best utilities? Or do you simply follow the flow of the mainstream? Has the internet's status quo snuck into your daily life and defined you as just as normal as everyone else? And if it has, if you're using these mainstream programs and services like I am, then I challenge you to think about how complacent you may be about how they work and what control they have over your internet experience.

At the end of his talk, Eli Pariser challenges Google and FaceBook to consider their use of algorithms to sort the information we consume based on personalization and relevance to who we are what we do. He lays down a sequence of statements beginning with "We need you to..."
"We need the new gatekeepers to encode that kind of responsibility into the code they're writing... We really need you to make sure that these algorithms have encoded in them a sense of the public life, a sense of civic responsibility. We need you to make sure that they are transparent enough that we can see what the rules are that determines what gets through your filters. And we need you to give us some control. So that we can decide what gets through and what doesn't."
And I counter to this, "What do we need from ourselves?" We need to challenge our own responsibility to become more educated about the tools and programs that we use in our daily online lives. We need to seek out the underdogs, the alternatives, the non-conformists who might have something better to offer us. We need to make our own relevant and informed choices, with an awareness and sense of ownership over not just what we're consuming but also how it is delivered to us. We need to stop being so indifferently complacent to all things that are easy, immediate and convenient. Most of all, we need to acknowledge that asking the super powers to change their algorithms and marketing strategies in order to bolster the public's sense of democracy and equal access to all information is not a reasonable tactic towards this goal. What needs to happen is that the public starts taking control over it's own habits, online choices and internet use to the point where we've recreated or at least salvaged what it is that we're looking to preserve.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm still going to use those wonderfully filtered and sorted mainstream programs for the multitude of reasons that I love about exactly what they do. For certain searches, I like that Google sorts my search results based on where I am and potentially who (it thinks) I am. What I want to become better at is using the appropriate tools for the appropriate means. I also want to learn how to help my students understand this and its relevance to their own lives. What we need is to find a balance between using the tailored searches and discovering newness. A balance between fostering our social circle of common interests and community in online places like FaceBook and still going out to meet unexpected people in the real world. A balance between personalized filtering for efficiency and filtering that breeds conformity.

On a side note, I'd want to share another thing I've noticed about TED. During my recent 24 hour spell of heavy rains and lack of commitments, I indulged in a few hours of straight TED talks. I haven't done this for ages, so there was loads of material for me to catch up on. This was wonderfully rich time to spend on a random assortment of topics. One thing I always like (often even more than the TED talks themselves) is reading the commentary which follows the release of the talk. I was surprised to see that not one single newly released talk was free of numerous removed by the admin. messages. Countless comments have been deleted, deemed by the admin. to be offensive or inappropriate for the TED audience. Who is this TED admin. I wonder? What did those commenters say? Wouldn't it ultimately be better to let all peoples' voices be heard, in whatever fashion that they want to express themselves, and accordingly be judged by the global audience as each individual chooses to interpret it? The other thing that I noticed was that almost all the removals came following someone expressing the opinion that the talk was not 'good enough' to be a TED talk. Arguments about what the T.E.D. acronym stands for (Technology, Entertainment (not Education) and Design) and what standards people expect from TED lead to comments about certain talks being less than adequate. This negativity, born out of someone's sense of the status quo or intellectual bar, seemed to have led to most of the negative or offensive comments. And I can't help but ask, "Are people seriously arguing over the merits or inherent value of TED talks?"

If you're also in the mood for a TED catch-up - here is a list of recent talks that I really enjoyed:

Paul Nicklen: Tales of ice-bound wonderlands
Terri Moore: How to tie your shoes
Carlo Ratti: Architecture that senses and responds
Michael Pawlyn: Using nature's genius in architecture
Deb Roy: The birth of a word (although it's argued that they're nothing more than flashy and hyped, I still loved seeing these amazing analytics!)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Redesigning Learning Environments

I work in a place where professional development is taken very seriously. Teachers are encouraged to seek out opportunities for growth and are almost always supported in their own endeavors, whether it be in terms of time away from school, in-school training or funding for a trip. I have found that in international schools in Asia, educators are constantly considering the 21st century learning landscape. Most teachers I meet in this region want to embrace and promote the ideas of a new educational framework, constantly feeling inspired by people like Stephen Heppell, Marco Tores and Ken Robinson. We've been told that Schools Kill Creativity and Shift Happens (even in education) and we need to Pay Attention. We’ve also aligned our motives and intentions with the ideas and direction found in clips like the 21st Century Pedagogy, Changing Educational Paradigms and Learn to Change, Change to Learn. If you haven't seen these clips, I recommend watching them, not only because they're great, but also they will give you a feel for where the rest of this post is coming from.

While these videos abound at professional development workshops and training sessions making educators oooh and ahhh in support of their revolutionary ideas, educators often don’t feel very empowered to initiate change, let alone even jump on board when we see changes happening in our own schools. Too often we are left frustrated by these ideas because, while we agree with them and believe in their message, we just can’t put them into practice within the settings where we teach. We commit ourselves to what we strongly value and what we think should be possible, only to find ourselves feeling like were stuck at a dead end because we can’t put it into practice in our very own classrooms. It’s not only frustrating; it’s also demoralizing and inhibitive.

So I’ve started to think about what it means to be a teacher with a vibrantly new outlook on education, while still stuck in a traditionally walled, desked, chaired, poster-boarded, cubic classroom.

Recently I visited the Google HeadQuarters in Mountain View, California. Having not done any homework (and not knowing anyone else's personal account) on which to build expectations about the company’s facility structure and design, I was pretty blown-away by what I encountered and discovered.

Everything you need is provided - free full-service cafeterias, coffee bars, snack stations, laundry service, shoe repair, exercise facilities, interest classes, social outlets, sports facilities, fully stocked bathrooms, etc. You could live here, easily.
Everything is inspiring and fun - boldly colourful, quirky and innovative, strangely unusual and awesomely interactive stuff is everywhere.
Everything is open and comfortable - open cubicles adorned with comfort items, windowed and/or open project and resource rooms which let you see what people are doing. the campus is open to public visitors, created a feeling of transparency and trust.
Everything is connected - staff on-site can connect with each other through an internal network, allowing them to see who is available and who is working on what projects
Everything is accessible – Google bikes are scattered around the campus to allow anyone to grab one to scoot to where they need to be.
Everything is realistic – people at Google are really productive. they're working hard and collaborating on projects, designs, innovations, etc. this is a place that tugs at your sense of work vs. home vs. life vs. school.

So recently I keep coming back to this question...
What would happen if schools were modeled after Google HQ?

What would happen if there weren't classes to attend, rather just things to try and stuff to learn. Project-based learning, spanning across age-levels but specified to student interest and, most importantly, applied to real life? Places, not rooms, where research happens, experimentation is rampant and innovations are encouraged and supported by both students and teachers.

What would happen if the only test in school was, "does it work?' or "did it achieve y/our purpose?" leading into "how can we make it better?" and "what would happen if....?"

What would happen if kids were able to hang-out with and learn from the teachers and other students - the ones with whom they connect really well and share common interests with? Would this change their learning?

Giving people, even very young people, a sense of choice instills accountability for their own decisions, encouraging them to mature and allowing them to believe in themselves. It promotes confidence and reliability. It requires a grandiose amount of trust. Many of the small jobs and tasks that schools outsource, can actually be done by learners themselves and often in a more authentic and meaningful way. Which leads me to think even further away from my classroom box and I start to imagine...

What would happen if students and teachers collectively run the entire show? Design the curriculum? Paint the walls? Plan the field trips? Cook the food? Balance the budget? Manage the schedule? Clean the bathrooms? Hire the teachers? Decide what's important? Pay the bills? It could happen...

I was first inspired by reform in educational spaces design by a man named Stephen Heppell who spoke at the Apple Leadership Summit in Hong Kong (2009) hosted by my school, CDNIS. Stephen talked about redesigning the new landscape of education. At the time, I took in his ideas as nice little added extras and not much more. I was not overly impressed because what I saw/heard seemed like basically interior design decorating ideas. I thought to myself, ‘Sure… lovely… wouldn’t it be great if we could model creative/fun learning environments to inspire teachers and learners? Let's give everybody comfort and accessibility while they’re learning! Awesome. It would be nice… but can't be the main focus. What really matters is getting people to change their pedagogy and their philosophy. Physical spaces do not play a key role in this and should probably only be considered only once changes in thinking and practice have been adopted by people at the school.” At the time, I also became a bit hung-up on the idea that only very rich schools would ever be able to afford such added cushy benefits and bonuses of Heppell's 21st century designed learning spaces.

Now, after my visit to Google HQ, I see the errors in my thinking and prioritizing. What if learning spaces design is the fundamental key to promoting changes to our current models of education? I wonder if the traditional learning environments (that we are trying to create fundamental changes within) simply can’t support such changes. Maybe the design of the physical space is the critical component (to a mixture that requires a multitude of interactive parts, of course)… or let's say, not an element on its own, but rather a catalyst, one that will encourage and facilitate authentic educational reform. Maybe 21st century learning just can't happen in 20th century classrooms and school buildings. What if  the setting is where changes need to begin?

"Now we're looking at a whole different range of schools. We're looking at a schools that produce ingenious, collaborative, gregarious, brave children... who care about stuff, like their culture. And to build schools like that is a whole nuther challenge. And around the world, you know, people are testing the ingredients about what makes that work. And those ingredients are being assembled into some just stunning recipes in different places. It's a very exciting time for learning. It's the death of education, but the dawn of learning." - Stephen Heppell

Notes & Resources

The Best Question in the World, What Would Happen If…

About Stephen Heppell
Stephen pioneered, and was the guiding "father" of, early social networking with seminal projects including *ESW in the 1980s, Schools OnLine for the UK Department of Trade and Industry in 1995/6, Tesco Schoolnet 2000 from 1999 - the then Guinness Book of Record's largest internet learning project in the world. with Oracle from 1999, Talking Heads linking every UK headteacher into a community of practice
Stephen lobbied for the creation of (in 1997) and then created in 1998, guiding for ten years, at the time a uniquely effective project to re-engage children excluded from school by behaviour or circumstances.
In recognition of all this work, along with just 51 others including Damien Hirst, Jarvis Cocker, Harrison Ford, Lauren Bacall, Muhammad Ali; Stephen became an Apple Master in the 1990s.
Stephen is at the heart of a global revolution in learning space design, with a string of major new building projects worldwide including a 0-21+ academy in the UK and a complete makeover of a national education system in the Caribbean.
From -

About the Google Head Quarters
Google is infamous in the industry for treating its employees to not just free drinks and snacks on tap, but full-on gourmet meals, three times a day at a plethora of on-site cafes and eateries, as well as regular BBQs during the summer. Brin and Page have been quoted in the past as saying no Googler should have to go more than 100 feet for food, leading to snack-filled “microkitchens” that are liberally dotted around the Google offices.
From -

Our corporate headquarters, fondly nicknamed the Googleplex, is located in Mountain View, California. Today it’s one of our many offices around the globe. While our offices are not identical, they tend to share some essential elements. Here are a few things you might see in a Google workspace:
  • Local expressions of each location, from a mural in Buenos Aires to ski gondolas in Zurich, showcasing each office’s region and personality.
  • Bicycles or scooters for efficient travel between meetings; dogs; lava lamps; massage chairs; large inflatable balls.
  • Googlers sharing cubes, yurts and huddle rooms – and very few solo offices.
  • Laptops everywhere – standard issue for mobile coding, email on the go and note-taking.
  • Foosball, pool tables, volleyball courts, assorted video games, pianos, ping pong tables, and gyms that offer yoga and dance classes.
  • Grassroots employee groups for all interests, like meditation, film, wine tasting and salsa dancing.
  • Healthy lunches and dinners for all staff at a variety of caf├ęs.
  • Break rooms packed with a variety of snacks and drinks to keep Googlers going.
From -
Life at the Googleplex

Friday, January 14, 2011

Letting Kids be Kids.... All Over The World

There is a discussion hurricane currently swirling around Amy Chua's article, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior from the Wall Street Journal last week. For examples of interesting follow-up and reaction to the piece see Christine Lu's post on Quora and the more recent response from Amy Chua herself in the article Mother, Superior?   I am intrigued by people's extreme perspectives on parenting, although I am not yet at liberty to weigh in on that exact realm, I am of course, more intrigued with people's perspectives as they relate to teaching, growth, development and learning - something I do know a bit about.

I want to share with you, a connection I made this week between what I do and this discussion surrounding cultural differences in parenting. I teach in an IB World School. We follow the IB Primary Years Programme (PYP) curriculum framework and instructional design model. The PYY is inquiry-based, student-centered, trans-disciplinary and concept-driven.

I teach Grade 5 and we recently put on a grade level concert, one night of the entire year when the students get our state-of-the-art theatre facility all to themselves to show their parents what they've been learning in their units of inquiry and the performing arts. This year we asked the students to create their own skits/dances/poems/songs about our current unit of inquiry and our amazing performing arts teacher tied it all together with a rockin' soundtrack of songs that connected seamlessly with the ideas we were learning. Our unit was about how humans manage solid waste and it falls within the theme of how we organize ourselves. The students took the information and concepts that had become most pertinent to them in their 5-week unit of inquiry and began to develop their performances. The teachers then allotted approximately 4 weeks for intermittent practices and rehearsal times, followed by 2 solid days of stage rehearsals the day before the show. In those critical two days, the teachers helped by giving advice and feedback as we watched their acts  - 32 in total - which were combinations of small groups and mixed class clusters. The teachers assisted with technical requirements and helped them become familiar with the theater, the equipment, and the time structure, but we never suggested that they change anything about the content or delivery of their performances. For two solid days we all worked collaboratively in the theater, 135 ten-year olds, seven teachers and three theater staff. An amazing thing I noticed, was that their performances did change as they practiced. They took our feedback and mixed it with their own intentions and then applied it to their work to make it better. They were definitely in charge, every step of the way.

What came together on the night of the show absolutely knocked the socks off of the parents and school administrators who sat, happily entertained, in the audience for 90 minutes. It was amazing. The one thing that many people noticed and appreciated was that this was obviously the authentic work of the students. No longer are our annual school concerts the polished performances of robot students who learned to follow a teacher's instructions, monotonously repeating a performance piece that they have zero connection to. No longer is our annual school concert the result of a teacher's hard work, a teacher's expertise and/or a teacher's dedication to education! Why was it ever about that in the first place? Now we boast an annual school concert (in every grade level) that shows 100% of the hard work, expertise and dedication of the star performers themselves - the students! And they know it. They get it. And they love it. So far, from the responses I've heard, so do their parents.

Did I mention that these students (and of course their parents) are mostly Chinese?

Thinking about this school performance and the students' sense of  ownership, collaboration and responsibility has helped me articulate my own responses to the array of perspectives on parenting strategies that have been voiced in response to Amy Chua's article. Here's what I've been digesting.

Ownership A person must have ownership over their own growth and development in order to find authentic value in what they do. People can arrive at a level of ownership by way of numerous pathways, both self-directed and also directed to it by others. There is something to be said, however, for the individual who learns how to direct and navigate their own life journeys independently, to come to an understanding about how the world around them works on their own terms. It is important to have pride and self-worth that is rooted in our own ambitions and desires. Not to say that this can't stem into the joy of fulfilling someone else's ambitions and desires, but the roots must belong to the individual.

Collaboration I feel that this is another important life-lesson and a developmental necessity. Knowing when to be competitive, when to be collaborative, and how to balance the two, is a key to success in the 21st century. Unfortunately, too often we teach our students to be competitive through testing, grading and ranking mechanisms that are embedded deeply into K-12 and post-secondary education. (These may also be influences felt at home, especially if your mother is Amy Chua!). Once these individuals enter the 'real word' - the 21st century world - we expect them to be strong collaborators, effective team players and cooperative contributors. We are not preparing them for this 'real world' if we're insisting that they must always be # 1. Harmony is described as the consistent, orderly and pleasing arrangement of many different parts. A deep understanding of all aspects of human nature - social, physical, intellectual and emotional -  is required to be successful in the world we live in.  When a parent or a teacher removes some of this balance or tips the scales to focus heavily on a certain aspect of development, the resulting inequity begins to dismantle stability. I believe that such a collapse is most often seen as a result of neglecting the social or the emotional. A lack of personal self-efficacy can create a void in an person's metacognition, which is the understanding of their own growth and stages of developmental awareness. Learning about how we learn is most effective in collaborative and safe environments. Children need to be supported holistically in order to begin unpacking their own learning. I wonder if this can ever happen in a household like Amy Chua's.

Responsibility A sense of responsibility for one's own actions, awareness of cause and effect, and experiencing the inherent value of making mistakes, are vital to creating the balance and harmony needed to cope with the world we live in. I believe that we need to focus less on challenging children to learn skills and memorize content (because these develop naturally with each individual's specific interests), and move towards teaching children to understand, and evaluate exactly how they understand, how the world around us works and how to successfully work within it. They need to become responsible for themselves at an early age.

In terms of Amy Chua's written article, I had a hard time respecting what she wrote. I have subsequently had a hard time respecting many of the responses I hear or read because everyone keeps perpetuating the stereotypes described in the article. Here are my thoughts on respect and the perspective Amy Chua chose to share with the world.

Respect I am amazed by commenter support and confirmation of stereotypes that were distastefully scattered throughout Chua's article. Why are we establishing and substantiating these generalizations and blanket summaries of Chinese parents vs American parents? Staging a competition about 'who is better' or 'who is right' based on national or cultural identity is.... blatant discrimination, plain and simple. I am happy to see blogs like The Good Chinese Mother and articles like, In China, Not All Practice Tough Love which explain a fresh look at parenting in the 21st century in China. Presumably it should have been obvious that within any nation and within any culture, variations in perspectives on parenting strategies are as diverse as any other perspectives on issues such as politics, religion, the environment or education. We know that stereotypes can dominate the perception of a country or a race. We've seen it all too often in our lifetime. But I think it's important to note the rate of change that we are living in right now. Those stereotypes we know are evolving so quickly and over time I think it's fair to say that the lines which once defined them are becoming blurred by the global pallet of multiculturalism and the influence of communication technology to connect big cities.

This discussion is fascinating. The world of parenting and teaching is also the most dynamic place to be! Imagine knowing that your influence is going to shape the generations of our collective future. Ultimately, I have an investment in the notion that humans will always do things very differently and from these differences, we will continue to challenge ourselves, explore the unknown and learn about the world around us from each (and every different) other.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

My M.Ed Application

Here is a fun Wordle of my statement of purpose and my resume which I recently used to apply to the Learning, Design & Technology Masters of Education program at Stanford University's School of Education. Writing a statement such as this one and hammering out a modern resume was a fabulously challenging experience for me. Getting my statement down from 5 pages to a measly 1000 words, meant that I scrapped a lot of my favorite fun adjectives. Therefore, you will not see such an abundance of eloquently poignant and illustratively descriptive words as you probably would expect to see in my regular writing.
No real surprises here.