A Challenge to Doubters: Do Something Impossible

| March 14, 2011 | 21 Comments
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Make Your Own List. Make Your Own Future.

The article “21 Things That Will be Obsolete in 2020” has elicited a range of responses from readers. One describes a school where much of the predictions are already happening, while others convey serious doubt that any of these will come to fruition — whether it’s due to lack of money or dedication to education, fixation on standardized testing, or just plain jadedness about the possibility for change.

I asked the writer, Shelly Blake-Plock, to respond to the comments. Here’s his thoughtful observation.

By Shelly Blake-Plock

I’ve heard the criticisms regarding how outlandish these predictions seem for low-income schools. And I think a lot of it has to do with the transition period we find our selves in as a society and I think a lot of it has to do with the seemingly endless failures that have shaped the view of many an educator when it comes to the word “reform.”

And so when it comes to digital technology, folks say to themselves: “I’ve heard all that before. I’ve heard about how computers are going to change everything. I heard about how our offices were going to be paperless. Right. I’ve heard about the latest program that’s going to help my kids learn and I’ve seen all the computer games and seen money wasted on computers that are obsolete by the time they are plugged in.”

We’re not talking about computers anymore. We’re talking about the way that we connect to one another as human beings.

And I think, by-and-large, those folks making those complaints have been right to do so for years. But what they perhaps aren’t getting is that we’re not talking about computers anymore. We’re talking about the way that we connect to one another as human beings.

Those connections have changed. We don’t need to be broadcasted at anymore. We don’t need so many of the hierarchies we used to unwittingly depend upon. Just ask any manager of a CD shop in the mall.

We’re in the middle of a transition that extends to every conceivable form of human experience.

Including education.

We’re in the middle of a transition period between analog and digital realities in work, school, and life. That isn’t to say the analog isn’t important — it’s just to recognize that the digital in many ways opens up new opportunities that the analog just can’t offer. Anyone who has been able to immediately share pictures and videos of the kids in real-time with family elsewhere in the country can attest to this.

In schools, however, we often act as though nothing beyond the classroom walls and the strict curriculum taught within them matters. And we act as though digital technology is somehow only auxiliary to the experience our kids have in learning throughout the course of the day. So we have “reading time” and “math time” and “tech time” (maybe), but we often fail to integrate those things in the way they are already integrated in reality. We fail to integrate them, we fail to personalize them, and we let ourselves believe that doing so would just take too much effort and not show anything quantifiable for it in the end.

Many of the folks who’ve criticized my ideas in terms of tech in the classroom have told me it’s not feasible because “we don’t even have books, how are we going to provide computers?”

And I think that’s a fair question. But I’d argue that by-and-large you don’t have to spend a ton of money on computers. Because your students are often carrying more technological capacity in their pockets in the form of cell and smart phones than you could ever have imagined years ago.

Many schools are considering “BYOD” (Bring Your Own Device) as a way to fundamentally alter the playing field. The most important thing is being able to connect; it doesn’t matter so much exactly on the device. So let kids bring what they have and let them work together and share. Improvise. Experiment. Learn to trust one another and teach one another. Supplement what you actually need rather than spending money on 30 or 60 or 1,000 of the same thing. Manage your class in such a way that some kids can be using the available devices while other kids are doing something else. Not everybody in your class has to be doing the same thing at the same time. Mix it up.

The idea of something like Facebook connecting 600 million people seemed pretty extreme four years ago.

As for books: Think about how much those textbooks cost; and think about how often new editions are printed. Think about how much money you waste on paper, toner, and copy machines. I’d suggest reallocating your funds from perishable forms of information to dynamic and ever-updated forms available online — and often for free. All you need is to provide the connection.

Now, yes, some things on my list of things that will be obsolete in schools by 2020 may seem extreme. But the idea of something like Facebook connecting 600 million people seemed pretty extreme four years ago. The idea of social media becoming a force in journalism, protest, and organizing seemed kinda extreme. The idea of a Fortune 500 company hiring someone in charge of Tweeting probably still seems extreme to a lot of folks; but go take a look at the Twitter feeds of every major corporation and organization today.

Yes, crazy stuff happens. And maybe if we deal with the poverty and crushed communities that are realities for our lowest income students and maybe if we allowed them to actually have voices and take part in the digital revolution that is galvanizing the spirit of low-income and oppressed people throughout the world into something empowering and reality-changing, and maybe if we got rid of the red tape and the fear that gives us excuses about why there has to be a digital divide, then maybe we’d actually be amazed at what our kids can do.

America doesn’t lack money. The money is there. What America seems to be lacking is the will to actually use its strength to empower the folks we’ve conveniently left behind.

I teach pre-service and young teachers in the grad program at Johns Hopkins University. These teachers work in classrooms throughout Baltimore City Public Schools. Some of them are in places with fresh paint on the walls and computers in the labs, while some of them are in classrooms without enough books for the kids. A few months ago, one of my young teachers found himself in a discussion with the principal about what to do with some recently available funding. He actually managed to convince him to let him pilot a 1:1 iPad program for inner city high schoolers. By all accounts, it’s worked out great for him. Another of my teachers started a tech and new media program in an unused room in his high school. His kids are engaged in what they are learning and they are applying real-time learning from the Web to the realities of their lives in Baltimore.

Don’t let the reality of whatever condition your school might be in right now dictate what reality will look like in the future.

So when I hear people say: “This is impossible,” I tend to react by telling them to figure it out and do the impossible. Teachers: you are the most amazing people on the planet. You are gifted with a fine mind and great compassion. You handle adversity and trauma and you inspire the future. You are going to have to be the ones to figure this out. You can’t rely on your administrators to do this for you. They are busy. They don’t always see what’s going on or what’s available. So you’ve got to make it happen. Go to Donors Choose and apply for funding for your classroom. Get a Twitter account and follow #edchat to make connections with like-minded educators around the world. Don’t let the reality of whatever condition your school might be in right now dictate what reality will look like in the future. Shape the future you want to see. Organize with the families in your school’s community. Find energetic young teachers at your local college and put them to work helping us all create something new.

And your future doesn’t have to look like mine. My list isn’t some steadfast rule, it’s just a silly list of ideas. But I’m trying to do my part to make my silly list of idealistic ideas come true for the teachers I serve in Baltimore City. I’m trying to make it come true for the kids I serve at the little Catholic high school where you can find me most weekdays. I’m trying to make it come true for my own three kids who go to a public elementary school where classes meet in trailers, but nonetheless kids get to present work online. You’ve got to make your own list. You’ve got to make your own future. Do something impossible.

Read more in the School Day of the Future series.


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  • http://twitter.com/davidwees davidwees

    Great story Shelley. I can imagine that for someone living in a high poverty area, like Detroit for example, it can be quite difficult to imagine a future where more schools have computers for kids to use. There are some great organizations out there though trying to make a difference. Donor’s choose is one of them as you suggest. I also really like the work Free Geek does to make donations of computers available for organizations (like schools).

  • http://twitter.com/monk51295 monika hardy

    i love this challenge Shelly.. to do something impossible.
    and i especially love this part:

    Yes, crazy stuff happens. And maybe if we deal with the poverty and crushed communities that are realities for our lowest income students and maybe if we allowed them to actually have voices and take part in the digital revolution that is galvanizing the spirit of low-income and oppressed people throughout the world into something empowering and reality-changing, and maybe if we got rid of the red tape and the fear that gives us excuses about why there has to be a digital divide, then maybe we’d actually be amazed at what our kids can do.

    America doesn’t lack money. The money is there. What America seems to be lacking is the will to actually use its strength to empower the folks we’ve conveniently left behind.

  • Marion Hubbard

    It is precisely deconnection with our our humanity which is at the root of our so-called ‘educational crisis’. Why does ot take so long for the realisation that meaning active and creative education is not about curricula as much as about learner-oriented educational policies based on natural laws of human development. .(www.HolisticEducator.com)

  • mallory

    Adults assume what they want when it comes to technology. They think it’s limited to computers, iPods, and televisions, and they’re only distractions to children today. Don’t get me wrong – they are distractions. I’m a seventeen-year-old high school senior. If anyone knows anything about distractions, it’s this girl right here. But adults fail to realize that there is so much more in the word “technology” than what they think. I agree with Shelly Blake-Poke completely. Take my parents for example. They automatically assume whenever I’m on my laptop that I’m changing my status on Facebook, when, quite honestly, I’m usually typing notes for a class or researching information on a subject on the internet. My parents don’t understand that a lot of the tech-savvy things I use actually have to do with my schoolwork. Like Shelly explains, we need adults to understand that we can incorporate and integrate these new technological advances in a positive, educational way. Technology helps the world connect. Shelly states that if “we deal with the poverty and crushed communities that are realities for our lowest income students….then maybe we’d actually be amazed at what our kids can do.” And that is so true. Adults, give us some credit and some sort of trust. You might just be surprised.

  • nick saia

    I agree with this article. I think that the future is on its way and that more people are using social media and communication more on the computer than anywhere else. As said in this article we need to become more modern and make technology more efficient. School education needs to become in more use with the computers to make education more modern with the students. As said in the article we should have classes that teach students about the computers due to the fact that these computers will be in the daily lives of the kids future so in that case they should learn more about them. Cellphones should also be used for education at least the smart phones in which you can use the internet in class on them. My school is getting the ipads next year and every student will have them and that is just an example of the change in education.

  • Billy

    You bring up a lot of good points in this post. A lot teachers and older people believe that technology has no important use in school, and that it should not be taught, but i also disagree. Technology is very important and it should be integrated into schools. Now a days technology is becoming a important part of everyday life for social use and even for business use. Companies around the world use technology everyday to connect with business partners or customers. I agree with you that the world is beginning to change and everyday more technology is used. Like you said, teachers and other people believe that using technology in schools would cost too much money and just be used for bad use, but books cost just at much as computers or iPads, maybe even more because they have to be updated about every 5 years. Students have iPods or smart phones that can be used to connect to facebook or to text friends, so what is the difference if they can do it on a computer? I agree completely with all of your topics and i think your most of your ideas are very good points that should be thought about in all schools everywhere.

  • stephen

    The future is already here. People need to start embracing the changes instead of running away.

  • Eric

    With technology becoming more and more important in our everyday lives we should not be afraid of incorporating them into our education. Businesses use technology to connect with other businesses all over the world. There is no reason why we shouldn’t incorporate them into schools. Ipads and smart phones can revolutionize how we learn education. No longer will we need text books, foreign language labs, and maybe even paper. A lot of older teachers in our school feel like technology has no importance in our school. It’s because they have been through life without new technologies and they are afraid to use them. My school is going 1:1 with brand new iPad 2’s. My principal is very progressive and is pushing for technology to be used in classrooms. I believe in 10 years from now that almost every school in America will go 1:1. Using social media in schools can revolutionize how we can teach students all over the world.

  • http://twitter.com/ryshea42 Ryan Shea

    i really like this article because it gives people a new way to think. it can give people confidence in making new ideas. facebook is a great example as stated. it makes alot of sense to make a list because they are good goals to remind yourself what you need to do.

  • http://twitter.com/bhally342 Brian Halloran

    I really thought that this was a good article. I like it because it gives people a new prospective on how to think and it will give them some confidence on sharing these good ideas. All of these things that we use now become obsolete. We must move on to other types of technology to help us out with social networking and such. It will better benefit us in the long run.

  • KsTchr

    Thanks for articulating what I say over and over in my building, in many conversations. I am constantly striving to give my students the experiences discussed. We don’t have a 1:1 program in our district and many of my kids don’t have computers at home. But, I haven’t let that be an excuse – I make them engage and come in to my room (where I’m lucky enough to have a couple student-use computers) to get things done. It is not only the world they will live in – it IS the world! I love the idea of BYOD – maybe as districts begin to have to slash budgets, they will bbe more open to trying things like this as a way to support our students adn give them some control over their own learning. We can hope. But in the meantime, we need to go out and make things happen. If we don’t change things, nothing ever changes.

  • Fife

    Someone, anyone, find research that states the majority of
    kids (nationally or locally) below the age of 13/14 are developmentally ready
    for the abstract concepts in Algebra. Don’t bother trying because you won’t
    find any…

    and tomorrow there will be kids younger than 13/14 who are ready to master
    Algebra and good for them. But the vast majority of kids are not ready to
    master the concepts and skills of Algebra. Notice I write the word master; if
    one wants to think of mastery in terms of typical grades than equate it with an
    A or B. So many students who take Algebra I now, earn a D or F and just pass
    by. Or even earn C’s but their understanding is minimal at best.  And consider how many students who “pass” Algebra I in 8th grade eventually need remedial course work.

    initiatives like having a certain number of 8th graders in Algebra I and get
    credit (or pass) is complete nonsense. Students can earn low grades (D’s and
    even an F) and still pass. These type of initiatives are politically motivated,
    not what’s best practice in education. Unfortunately, the public is swayed by
    such information. When will most parents and pretty much all politicians
    realize learning something well is far better than just getting credit for it
    even if learning it well means taking a course one, two or even three years

  • Gericar

    Who are you and why should I believe that you know anything about how people relate to each other now or in the future.

  • Debate_nerd22

    Still, you’re being fairly outlandish and way too optimistic on how much tech is going to change in ten years. From 2000 to 2010, I still used the same methods and technology for research. We also seem to be stagnating technologically. Ask yourself: has technology really changed like it did from the 70s to the 80s and from the 80s to the 90s? I don’t think it has. We hit the 90s, and we slowed down dramatically. We have tablet PCs, you might say, but we had those last decade, as well as those fun little things called Palm Pilots in the 1990s.

    • Beyondtool

      I could not disagree more. You seem to have missed the tablet/smart phone revolution, the incredible increases in videogame technology (the Wii now used by retired folks and Kinect as a fitness program), and the advent of sites like Wikipedia..an incredible source of information generated by academics all over the world working for free (there are many other sites that focus on developing rigorous academic literature using networks of academics). The IPCC reports are created by scientists all over the world sharing ideas online..that certainly didn’t happen in the 90s.

      Sure the humble PC has not changed much, but it is being superseded and newer technologies like biotech and nanotechnology are the coming revolution. Where is it going from here? Well a video that shows some potential: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Cf7IL_eZ38


  • Glennonrp

    This article, along with its predecessor is full of awesome and brimming with win. If you told me ten years ago that I would watch movies streaming from the Internet on my wireless home network, that I would be able to access my email, documents, and the whole internet from almost anywhere on a mobile computer the size and weight of a small notebook, I would have been just as incredulous as some of these comments. Fifteen years ago, cell phones were for the rich, doctors, and drug dealers. Today it’s weird for someone not to have one. Ten years ago a smart phone was a novelty. Five years ago, a smart phone was owned only by high powered business people. Today, many teenagers have them. Technology is changing very fast and yet so subtly that it’s hard to believe. Phones and tablet computers are changing our culture the way that cars and electricity did. Believe that.

    To the person that said why should you believe? Don’t believe. But in five years you will be surprised at how this article actually is. It’s happening whether you believe it or not.

  • Beyondtool

    I think the most important point here you nailed, it’s not about computers its the way we can now connect globally. The internet is finally showing signs of maturing from facebook to google +, wikipedia becoming more authoritative than the Encyclopaedia Britannica, how Apple have harnessed iTunes and finally education is starting to catch up.

    Just a few revolutionary education related ways of connecting and learning I discovered last year:
    * Free, flexible, peer reviewed, updated text books for K-12 http://www.ck12.org/flexbook/   
    * Possibly the most motivating learning tool for Maths and Science ever http://www.khanacademy.org/
    * An inspirational look into the future of education: http://creatingthefuturetoday.com/

  • http://twitter.com/ChiStories ChicagoStories.org

  • Jonathan E-W

    The concept of leapfrogging may be useful here. Most of Africa and parts of Asia never got phone lines, and never will. They skipped that level of infrastructure and built a better one. As a result, mobile payments, banking and related phone-based services in Africa are routinely more sophisticated than what the US has access to. 

    Those schools that never got decent textbooks? Maybe they never will. They’ll skip dead tree textbooks entirely and move ahead to the free/open digital alternatives. There is the opportunity to redress some of the systemic inequalities by seeing that schools that have the most need are the earliest adopters, not the latest, because the improvement to best-of-tomorrow will outweigh the nontrivial frustrations of being early adopters. As feedback to Shelly, I would love to see the ideas of sharing culture, open licenses and a public commons be made explicit. These are not technical innovations, they are policy innovations, but they will play a huge role in making the technical innovations mean something. Having digital textbook-equivalents won’t be revolutionary if publishers can still change $100 a student to view the content. But unless we start articulating the issues,  publishers of proprietary (as opposed to publicly owned) texts will go to absurd lengths to protect their dead model. Very soon, New York or Texas will commission a set of textbooks and release them to the public, and that’s going to be a great day. But it won’t happen unless educators get a little smart about licenses and intellectual property. 

  • AdminWhoLovesTech

    This is very inspiring. Our school is working on integrating technology for our students, and I think this was an outstanding position that demonstrates some of the very real benefits of technology in the classroom. I am a paperless administrator, and I push our school in that direction as well. I have faith in our students to use technology wisely with supervision and guidance, and it is good to see that there is a growing community who understands this as well.

  • Sam Young

    Thanks for the post. I lecture in management, and all my students come to class with a laptop or iPad. Textbooks are now as often as not purchased as ebooks. Students still take notes, but they are using OneNote or comments boxes instead of taking paper notes.

    Group discussion informs a lot of our class work, as my lecture materials have been recorded and posted online.

    Check out the update to Corning Glass’ video clip: the “A Day Made of Glass 2: Unpacked” where Corning explain what their technology will be able to deliver in the near future, and what is deliverable right now at http://www.youtube.com/watch?annotation_id=annotation_152905&feature=iv&src_vid=jZkHpNnXLB0&v=X-GXO_urMow