We Don’t Need Better Teachers

outhouse

I’ve been listening to lots of talk lately about how to “fix” education. Mostly, from people not currently involved in the design or delivery of education.  And there are lots and lots of theories.

(I’d imagine that when plumbers get together for a beer, they laugh about how architects think they know how to “fix” plumbing.  It’s always fun to listen to people who have used a complex system pontificate about how to redesign it.)

And like the plumbers, it looks pretty simple to me.  The problem is that the people sitting on top of the system don’t really want to think about all the crap that flows through the system.  And eventually the sheer amount of crap in the system plugs it up, and the system stops working.

Roto-Rooting K-12 Education

outhouseMany years ago, we all headed outdoors to do our business.  There was a little house with a half-moon on the door and a Sears catalog.  That worked just fine, until the whole idea of indoor plumbing came along and pretty soon there wasn’t much of a market for outhouse manufacturers.  It didn’t mean that they weren’t high-quality outhouses, or that the people who built them didn’t care a lot about their product.

But things had changed.  Technology had come along that was more efficient and better served the needs of the user.

So even if we’d paid more for the outhouses, or given them incentive bonuses for taking higher levels of crap than the average — it wouldn’t have fixed the basic problem.

A Better Way To Do It

The type of learning that we’re trying to support in K-12 is, in large measure, not very difficult to provide.  Much of it is rote memorization, matching patterns, and understanding simple relationships.  The content (reading, writing and ‘rithmetic) hasn’t changed markedly since I was a tiny tot.

What has changed is the availability of technology to deliver this learning.  Beginning with Sesame Street and the Muppets, we saw that the use of well-designed video really worked for learning.  Then video games showed us that higher level learning could also be very effective.  Now e-learning provides more than half of the training that happens in the corporate arena.

But our school districts keep telling us that we need more money to find and hire highly skilled teachers for the classrooms, and pay them incentives if they succeed at teaching Johnny to read.

(In the corporate world, we call this “Instructor Led Training” or “ILT” — and there’s less and less of it every year.  It’s very expensive, often gives inconsistent results and isn’t very flexible for individual learners.)

But – But – But

No, I’m not saying we don’t need to have children spend time learning social skills.  Or understanding how to work with others, be part of a team, support diversity, appreciate fine art or hug trees.  Those are things that technology-driven learning doesn’t always do well — yet.  A human instructor is great for that kind of content.

But right now, 50% of the kids in my state don’t graduate from high school.  The lion’s share of graduates don’t read at grade level.  Making change is a challenge. Basic economics is a mystery. These are skills that could be taught easily (for most students) with technology, leaving our teachers lots of time for the outliers and special situations.

But the people sitting on top of the system just keep downloading more crap.

Let’s Put On A Show! My Mom Can Make The Costumes…

bugsy_siegel

I spent 14 hours on the road (well, in the air and in airports and waiting in shuttle buses) the other day to come to rainy Las Vegas for a show.  It’s about Learning, that thing that I spend lots of time trying to help clients make happen.

“Putting on a big show” is a concept that has really run into some difficult times over the last few years.  Airplane bombers, tanking economies, online learning and general “I don’t want to spend a week away from my desk” sorts of attitudes are making it pretty difficult.

As someone who used to build content for great big shows, it makes me sad.  As someone who comes to speak at great big shows (to troll for unsuspecting clients) it makes me even sadder.  It’s just not much fun anymore.

bugsy_siegelThere used to be free food.  At this show, I’m going to get a free ice-cream bar.  There used to be free bands at cocktail parties.  At this show, I’ll have to hum ABBA songs or listen to my i-Pod while I pay $20 for a beer.  And there used to be lavish hotels and convention centers — and at this show, I’m a mile from the strip in a hotel that looks like Bugsy Siegal might come around the corner any minute.

But I had a pretty good group for my workshop yesterday — they struggled a bit (I’m not your typical PowerPoint lecture sort of guy) and there were a few evaluations that reflected that.  And I’m enjoying my hallway conversations and the Twitter backchannel discussions during the presentations.

But it just doesn’t stand up to having Bono up on stage, with 7,000 people dancing the night away drinking from an open bar.  Oh, well.

Learning To Use That New Hammer

hammer

I’m facilitating a workshop this week for a bunch of Learning 2.0 folks in Las Vegas. (No, I have no plans to be “teaching” or “training” — thanks for asking.)  The title I came up with is “Relax!  Everything You Know About Content Is Wrong…”

hammerYeah, part of getting sessions accepted is a catchy title — but I really believe that most everything we’ve taught our students about content in their formal educational history is wrong.  How we design it, how we deploy it, how they interact with it and how we judge if they’ve taken it in successfully.

So I spend a great deal of time nowadays talking to fellow learning designers about that, in the guise of showing them “new media tools” like Twitter and Facebook and NING and Wicker and Spooty and Fitzzle…  (Points will be given for those of you who realize which of those are made up gibberish.)

In reality, these things are just tools.  What we’re really doing is responding to the fact that there are better ways of dealing with today’s learners and their needs, and the existence of some of these new technologies is giving us a long overdue kick in the Kirkpatrick to encourage some change.

Here’s my list of what “old” content looks like:

  • I’m up HERE, you learners are out THERE
  • I know the answers.  You’re supposed to take them in from me.
  • My answers are the right ones.  Yours are not.
  • My content (the text book) is correct.  Your experience or theories are not valid.
  • We measure success on how well you can parrot back to me what I said.
  • Old, gray heads make the best choices about what to learn, when, and how.
  • You start here.  Then you do this, then this, then that.  Then you stop.
  • If I want your input, I’ll ask for it.  And then evaluate it.
  • You in the back — quit whispering. You’ll disturb others.
  • Here’s a list of work to do outside of class. I chose it.
  • These are the accepted resources and authorities. I chose them.
  • At the end, we’ll grade on a curve.  There will be winners and losers.
  • If you’re louder, you get noticed.  If you’re quiet, you don’t.
  • If you agree with my theories, you’ll get praised.  If you don’t, you won’t.
  • You should highlight the stuff that I say is important — it will be on the test.
  • Name in the upper left-hand corner.  Points given for neatness.

So — what did your classroom look like when you were in school?  My workshop at TechKnowledge 2010 (TK10) in Las Vegas this week will break every single one of these rules, I hope.

It should be total chaos.

Using Content To Find New Four-Legged Clients

wateree

Yesterday I spent some time talking to a new client (whee!) about what seems to be a very common problem for small businesses.  And it looks like I’ll be doing some work with them, and actually using them as a case study of sorts.

It’s the Wateree Animal Hospital in Camden, SC.  I found them because one of our little pugs had a sore leg, and I just wasn’t happy with the big “shopping center vet” that we’d been going to — so I asked my Twitter peeps for a recommendation.  They sent me to a town about a half hour from my house, that’s even smaller than Columbia.  Tiny.

wateree

Why did I go there?  Well, because my pets are very important to me, and I wanted someone who’d really care about them.  And take good care OF them. (And it didn’t hurt that their web site had a HUGE picture of a pug on the home page.)

I ended up spending time talking with the owner, with the Practice Manager, and several other members of the staff after Max got his leg taken care of.  They had a pretty decent web site, and had just set up a Facebook page.  But were a little confused about what happens next.

(If you tell people you’re a nerd, you probably have this conversation as often as I do.  And find it just about impossible to explain how to use social media effectively in ten minutes.  Unless you’re Chris Brogan.)

So I offered to come back and spend an hour or so showing them around the Interweb and give them a few pointers, in thanks for getting my doggie back to top condition.  That led to lots of talking, and now we’re going to spend some time adding good content to their site, doing some SEO, sharing out what they know on Twitter and Facebook, etc.  All the basics.

Will I get rich off this?  No.  But it will be lots of fun, I’ll be able to write a heck of a case study, and who knows — someday I may need to get a pug taken care of at 2AM on a Sunday.

Just feeding the Karma machine.

Is SEO DOA? Maybe Content Matters!

seo_school

There’s a great post over at Tim Bray’s blog about the continuing discussion of whether Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is still important.  In a nutshell, SEO is the science (or art) of making your web site rise to the top in search engines like Google so people will find you.

I believe that SEO is still important.  People need to be able to find you, so it’s important that your site follows the rules and is searchable in the ways that work.  You’ve got to understand this stuff if you’re going to succeed developing all that great content that I keep talking about.

seo_school1If you really want advice on how to make it happen, head on over to Naomi Dunford’s site and buy her SEO School — a great overview of how it all works.  Most of it makes my head hurt.

(Disclaimer:  That link is NOT an affiliate link, and I don’t get a dime if you buy it from her.  She really doesn’t much approve of me and would NEVER accept someone like me into her affiliate system, I’m sure.)  (Unless my mailing list was much, much bigger.)

The thing that really caught my eye was in the comments, though:

A lot of times good SEO is just a matter of making a good site. The classic example of an “impossible” case is the local real estate agent.Who’s going to make a link to a real estate agent’s sites? Nobody… I mean, who cares about some real estate agent?

Your average real estate agent wants to pay an SEO $500 who will then sprinkle pixie dust and spammy links around.

A good (effective) SEO will tell the real estate agent to spend one commission on a freelance writer; one commission is a handsome sum for several months of blogging. [And it also provides a lot of "deep link" targets for... uh, "content syndication"]

Your average real estate agent will stomp out and think making a blog is entirely beneath them, but the one who follows your advice will be the winner and the one who doesn’t will be the loser.

How amazingly true!  And how often I’ve had this conversation with a potential client, and had them end up paying somebody else $500 for some pixie dust and spammy links!

At the end of the day, SEO is just a part of the plan.  More and more often, content is what makes the difference.

How To Edit Your Own Copy

Writing for your web site or email newsletter might be the most important thing that you do — if people don’t want to waste time wading through your lengthy prose, they’ll never get to your amazing offer.  There are lots of great resources like MenWithPens and Dave Navarro and  Naomi Dunford and Sonia Simone to teach you all about it, but I’ll give you a little tip that I use right here.

Step 1: Cut.
Step 2: Cut some more.
Step 3: Cut a little bit more.

Most of us tend to fall in love with the sound of our own voice, whether it’s out loud or just the gentle clacking of the keyboard. So go ahead and write your paragraph, then start editing out every single word that you can. Do this until it “breaks” the meaning. And then you’ve got a winner.

Here’s an example of some copy for my Imaginary Swimming Pool Company:

pool#1 Summer Is A Great Time To Consider Buying One Of Our Swimming Pools!
As Spring turns into Summer, it gets warmer and we begin to think of how hot we’ll be outdoors. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a nice, cool, relaxing swimming pool to jump into after work so that we could cool off and enjoy ourselves once we’ve gotten home?

#2 Summer Is A Great Time To Consider Buying One Of Our Swimming Pools!
As Spring turns into Summer, it gets warmer and we begin to think of how hot we’ll be outdoors. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a nice, cool, relaxing swimming pool to jump into after work so that we could cool off and enjoy ourselves once we’ve gotten home?

#3 Summer — A Great Time To Enjoy Buy Our Swimming Pools!
As Spring turns into Summer we begin to think of how You’re going to be hot we’ll be outdoors this summer. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a nice, cool, relaxing swimming pool to jump into after work so that we could and cool off and enjoy ourselves?

Summer — A Great Time To Enjoy Swimming Pools!
You’re going to be hot outdoors this summer. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a cool, relaxing swimming pool to jump into after work?

A Magical Jelly Bean For Christmas

magical_jelly_bean

I didn’t have time to get to the Jaguar dealership to buy all my readers cars this year, but here’s something even better — a magical jelly bean just for you.

This is a little bit of free software that roots through your computer and finds those serial numbers that you should have written down somewhere for your Microsoft products — like Windows, Office, and other things you paid good money for.

Just run it once, save the little text file somewhere not on your computer and you’ll be able to easily re-install the software when disaster happens.  (Note that I didn’t say “if” disaster happens.)

Here’s the description from the site:

magical_jelly_beanThe Magical Jelly Bean Keyfinder is a freeware open source utility that retrieves your Product Key (cd key) used to install Windows from your registry. It allows you to print or save your keys for safekeeping. It works on Windows 95, 98, ME, 2000, XP, Vista, 7, Server 2003, Server 2008, Office XP, Office 2003, and Office 2007 family of products. It also has a community-updated configuration file that retrieves product keys for many other applications. Another feature is the ability to retrieve product keys from unbootable Windows installations.

I Need More Noise, Please! And Random Conversation! And Distractions!

cool_beans

Some people prepare to release their creative Djinn by turning off the radio, closing the doors, sending the kids out to play and putting a sheet over the goldfish tank.  They like peace, quiet, and tranquility for their surroundings.  This allows them to carefully focus their grey matter on the task at hand, with no distractions.

cool_beansI am not those people.  Today, I wanted to try to rough out a writing project and finally gave up working at home — it was just too quiet.  So I’m here at “Cool Beans” Coffee Shop on the campus of the University of South Carolina.  It took me a good ten minutes just to find a place to park, and there isn’t another empty table in the whole place.

There’s Blondie playing on the sound system, young people chattering at seven other tables in the room (there are three other rooms), and the clang and bash of dishes in the kitchen as people yell out their orders and greet favorite customers.  Starbucks, it ain’t.

This makes me think about the typical model of education that we offer to students — aligned in neat rows, keeping quiet and listening carefully, afraid that they’ll miss something that will be on the final test.  Then we send them out into the noisy, un-planned world where they have to make sense of all the input on their own.  (When the Army teaches people how to do urban warfare, they have situations where both “good guys” and “bad guys” pop up randomly, some with guns and some holding babies.  Turns out that there’s a world of difference between teaching people how to shoot at paper targets and doing it in real life.)

The best learning I’ve ever done has been messy.  Where I didn’t really know what was going on, didn’t understand exactly what the rules were, and was allowed to push that old envelope to the point that all four corners were in tatters.  Then I could reel things back in and take a look at what I’d found.

skidIn Minnesota, as a young pup, Dad would take us out to a big empty shopping mall parking lot on the first snow of winter — and let us go wild driving the car around with abandon.  Spins, skids, locked-wheel stops — we had a better time than any bumper-car ride at the State Fair.  I’ve always suspected that’s why we never had any bad accidents — we all had a pretty good idea of what “awful” looked like, and it wasn’t too surprising when it happened.

So how about you?  Do you work to keep everything neat and tidy?  Or is it ok if there’s a little mess involved in your learning?

Yada, Yada Yada. Blah, Blah, Blah. Get To The Point!

smc_columbia1

It has come to my attention that some of you didn’t get the memo.  You’re apparently unaware that we’re living in a world of 15-second TV commercials, 140-character tweets, and three-minute “long-form” videos on YouTube.

Nobody gives a rat’s ass about your context, your setup, your overview, your background, your rationale, your reasoning, your formative thinking, or the deductive path that you followed.  Except maybe your mom.  (And she’s lying, you know.)

You need to get to the point, right now.

If it’s a presentation, make it clear and easy to understand.  Here’s one of the opening slides I used last week to explain the talk I was giving:

smc_columbia1

No animations, no bullets, no fancy fonts and it stayed on the screen for about 60 seconds.  But it clearly outlined what folks would be hearing from me, and I referred back to it at least a dozen times in the next 45 minutes.

And while this is great advice for a presentation, it’s also pretty wonderful for blogging, picture captions, white papers and email.  Tell me early on what the reason is for the experience, and let me decide if I want to know more about the other stuff.

(Now as an experienced education professional, with a degree and all, that’s not the way I’d always prefer to work.  If I’ve got you locked in a room with me for an hour, I may spend some time setting up what we’re doing, giving you the “big picture”, or somehow providing context.  But if we’re working online, I’ve got to accept that your forefinger is itching to click that mouse button and move on to something involving either cute kittens or hamsters.)

As a test, hand your copy to a friend and give them two minutes.  Then take it away and ask them to tell you the one big thing that came out.  If it’s not the main point of what you’re doing, draw a big red X through what you’ve done, and start over.