Can School Leaders Accurately Define 21st Century Needs?
Dr. Idit Harel, CEO and Founder of Globaloria, is an Israeli American entrepreneur with extensive experience in the trenches of education innovation and thought leadership. Since her days at the MIT Media Lab, and then MaMaMedia, Harel has been a pioneer in integrating computer programming in learning environments that advance students knowledge and application for what she calls the “new literacy.” Harel provides her insights and reflections on the role school leaders play in advancing STEM learning methods through innovative uses of technology, and connecting the dots for students and teachers.
Dr. Rod Berger: Leadership in education has been continuously attacked for a lack of forethought and guidance. Some of this chatter has been just that and some quite frankly has merit. You have had a wealth of experience in education, leadership and innovation. What can school and district leaders do to improve the public image of educational leadership?
Idit Harel: For me, a big part of educational leadership has always been to form an exciting vision by listening to society’s urgent needs, understanding how learning happens, and at the same time, listening to parents, students, and their teachers. CEOing the “business of schools” can be overwhelming these days, but taking the time to meet with all stakeholders, learn fast, and get opinions and feedback is extremely valuable, not only from a public relations perspective, but also to keep any leader grounded and focused on what’s important — the students who our next generation of problem solvers and leaders. The good thing is that some of the best ideas can be developed in collaboration with stakeholders, especially students of any age. By providing opportunities for involvement and for their voices to be heard, school and district leaders give stakeholders real ownership over the educational process and institutions. That said educational leaders must be relentless in their pursuit of increasing academic engagement, curiosity, learning capacities and achievements for their students. It comes down to choosing the “right things” to teach, and how to teach them, in a rapidly-changing world.
RB: Would the “right things” be curriculum that matches 21st century learning?
Unfortunately, too many students are simply not yet provided with the curriculum and projects that will prepare them for solving the challenges they’ll face in the global knowledge economy. Leaders need to continuously create learning environments where students are taught how to think analytically, innovatively, collaboratively, and work with big data and technology to creatively solve complex problems. A favorite example: education leaders need to recognize that globally, computational thinking and creative fluency with computer code is the new literacy, and they must respond swiftly by incorporating computational practices and programming tools into every classroom and every subject taught. One thing I know for sure: leaders who embrace societal and technological changes, who are committed to genuine progress, get noticed. Action is the best way to improve one’s image.
RB: Where are we, currently, in the battle to secure funding and overall support for technology integrated solutions for our schools? Are we on an uptick and can we feel good about our ability to accurately assess innovations value and our method to adequately fund these projects?
IH: Funding is an especially difficult topic, nationally. Most leaders of schools and districts are in a difficult place when it comes to determining their budget priorities. Historically, basic infrastructure, salaries, health and safety take up a great deal of a district’s expenditures, often leaving technology last or completely out of the equation. Also, the scale of keeping up to date with technology can also be daunting. Just purchasing laptops or tablets for one campus can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and when looking at a district, large or small, scaling technology infrastructure, maintaining and upgrading it as needed, like startups and corporations do in all sectors and industries, can be a great financial challenge. For example, the lack of financial commitment has led us to our current state of affairs where, according to a report from the State Educational Technology Directors Association, 99% of schools need greater bandwidth and 72% of those schools don’t meet basic Internet bandwidth requirements. Most districts leaders say they simply don’t have the resources. But this is unacceptable in 2015. In order to equalize education opportunities, engage ALL learners in contemporary learning process, and train ALL teachers well — we must have high-speed internet everywhere. So the real issue is how existing resources are allocated. I see how great education leaders are more efficient and innovative in how they spend the money they already have. Change is always hard. Often times, leaders need outstanding motivation to make difficult choices. Compliance with the upcoming Common Core Online Assessments may prove to be one motivator for many administrators to meet those requirements.
RB: How should we look at the deadline and adherence to it by districts? We hope the approaching deadline will provide the motivation for districts to increase much needed funding for technology. Another motivation is to simply do it. Incorporate innovation on a large scale and see results on the ground. The impact of Wikipedia, LinkedIn, YouTube, or Facebook on business and society nationally and globally would not have been understood and appreciated if only a 100 people were users of that system, and then adding another 100. These days, it takes more than a village, a million students and teachers, to realize the impact and value of the new blended-learning systems and how they actually transform learning, teaching, and professional development at all levels. It is wonderful to see how some education leaders simply get it and they figured out how to incorporate the “new mindset” on a large scale, right on; because they understand where the world is heading, and what’s really a huge priority for students preparation; and they have a drive and a vision for how to get there – by doing it; deploying innovations on a large scale; inventing the future in their very districts.
RB: You have spent a great deal of time close to the policy side of education in your career. How should district and school-based leaders view education policy and reform and what advice do you have for them when they are communicating updates to the local communities and families they serve?
IH: Policy issues provide education leaders with perhaps their most difficult challenge. Unfortunately, politics play such a large role in how decisions are made, and these decisions are not always in the best interest of children. My advice is to always be transparent when discussing these issues. As difficult as transparency can be, it is important to be forthcoming, to allow access to information, and to encourage the community to be part of the process. In most districts, education is a community’s single greatest expense. After all, the local community is, the taxpayers, the voters. They have a right to voice their concerns and to be heard and to be included. In fact, gaining their support can be extremely helpful in influencing policy decisions. Educators should not lose sight of the fact that parents are partners in education. All any parent really wants to know is that their school is preparing their children for meaningful life and successful careers when it is their turn to take their place and become good citizens in the digital economy.
RB: If you and I took a stroll down the hall, at a local high school, what might you point out that would illustrate growth in the schools and classrooms of tomorrow and what areas would you highlight as areas of needed change?
IH: Well, that all depends upon the zip code of the high school we’re visiting. There are pockets across the country where districts and schools have embraced technology innovation on a large scale; where technology is the tool that’s used fluently in every classroom every day (just like we’ll see if walk around companies such as Google, Microsoft, or Cisco). Those districts understand that Computer Science is a not just a fundamental part of the STEM curriculum, but is also a key skill set and a necessary mindset for success in the digital economy. Unfortunately, most of today’s high schools look like the “traditional classroom” with a chalkboard at the front, student’s desks organized in neat rows with little ability for movement and collaboration. My dream is for classrooms to be brighter, project-based, mixed-ages, encourage movement, collaboration, and student creativity and discussion. Schools need more innovative learning spaces; open spaces, modular furniture, free access to technology at all times, engaging learning curriculum on subjects that matter — these are the important components of school design for the 21st century. There are some amazing examples of schools creating these types of innovative spaces, creating environments that encourage team work, learning technologies anywhere, available anytime, and are connecting in-class social-learning experiences with peers and experts to other schools in the same district or in other states or countries. More and more administrators are discovering the value of creating learning environments that bring happiness to teachers and greater outcomes to students. I believe in intertwining four dimensions in every classroom: 1) spaces for learning through design (virtual, digital, and physical); 2) learning with peers (virtually and physically); 3) learning with teachers or coaches (not always from teachers); 4) learning with experts on demand (virtually and physically). If we want children to learn new thinking skills and master hard concepts, we need to make learning fun. That’s, for example, what we do at Globaloria: Playing games is the lure. Inventing, designing, engineering, and coding a creative playable computer game, app, or simulation is the new way to teach computer science and other subjects simultaneously. Blended learning is becoming the cost-effective and impactful instructional method for combining physical and virtual learning through design and engineering, with peers, teachers, and experts on demand. And, in the digital world, Computer Coding is the new writing.
*Story Credit: Scholastic District Administrator’s “Down the Hall”*
________________________________________________________________________________________ Dr. Idit Harel is an Israeli-American entrepreneur known for her EdTech innovations and companies. She is the CEO and Founder of GLOBALORIA empowering thousands of youth and educators in schools across the US to become computational inventors, fluent in STEM, productive digital citizens, collaborative and creative leaders in the global knowledge economy. In 2004, Dr. Idit Harel founded the World Wide Workshop, an EdTech Incubator for developing platforms that combine game mechanics and social networking for global learning. In the mid-80s, she pursued pioneering research in computation and cognition at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and MIT Media Lab. In mid-90s, her MIT spinoff startup, MaMaMedia, was the first born-on-the-net brand for digital kids, and won numerous partnerships, awards and recognitions. In addition to advising, founding and leading EdTech businesses. Idit is a learning theorist, education disruptor, award-winning author, a Huff Post Blogger, mentor of young entrepreneurs, and serves on several prestigious higher-education, media, and non-profit boards.
Dr. Rod Berger is a global education media personality. As an industry personality Dr. Berger has interviewed Ministers of Education, leading voices like Sir Ken Robinson, U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan, AFT President Randi Weingarten and other global thought leaders. Dr. Berger is a guest lecturer at Vanderbilt University and resides with his wife and two children in Nashville, Tennessee.