Microsoft Underground Part 2: The Conversations
In an earlier post, I talked about the Microsoft Underground tour and workshop, and the technology we saw – Skype, Minecraft, the BBC micro:bit, and others. In this post, I want to dive deeper into why it was important – what’s in store for the future of education and what conversations are happening there.
The Purpose of Public Education
The group of people brought together for the workshop was interesting – a few of us are classroom teachers, and there were also educational technology specialists, leaders of ed-tech startups, students, bloggers and thought leaders. It was just as fascinating to note what was NOT said as what was said. We shared many thoughts about how to educate students in a creative, engaging, collaborative way. But the question of “why?” or “should we?” never came up. If you don’t live and work in the public education system, it’s a given that a kid’s education should be relevant and enjoyable, rigorous but creative. However if you gather teachers and administrators in a room, the subject of our conversations will be why and whether we should teach more creatively. The “real world” is ahead of us on this idea.
We also never brought up content standards and only mentioned test-based accountability a little. Again, if you gather teachers and administrators in a room and discuss improving teaching and learning, I guarantee we’ll mention test scores and discuss mapping to content standards. In our world, a quality education covers standards and is demonstrated by outstanding test scores, and if it happens to be engaging and creative, I would say that’s seen as a bonus. At the Microsoft workshop, the desired outcomes of our educational system were mentioned in the context of the four “C”s of a 21st century education: collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. This difference in mindset between the educational world and the rest of the world is important. Whether we want to admit it or not, for teachers and administrators, the purpose of our work is to meet standards and achieve decent test scores. The four “C”s are seen as a means and not as an end, or a bonus if you can find a way to fit them in.
Accountability, Metrics, Motivation to Change
In our conversations at the workshop, a common question was how to get teachers to more widely adopt innovative technologies and curricula in schools. There are many barriers, and test-based accountability is definitely one of them. Our success metrics are all wrong.
In some turnaround schools, kids get ONLY math and reading instruction and learn no science, social studies, or enrichments because of the need to bring test scores up. Would you want your child to go to a school like that? Yet teachers and administrators understand their metrics and strive to be seen as successful.
We talked about a common scenario in which teachers will visit an innovative classroom, say “Wow! I want this in my classroom! How do I get started?” And they try a more creative, collaborative, project-based lesson format for a while. And then they discover it’s difficult, and messy. The kids haven’t learned how to self-regulate their behavior or manage conflict, they’re not used to being self-directed learners, and there is no control in the classroom. If you aren’t committed to the effort, and your test scores are reasonable and nobody is making you change, it’s an easy call to quit. Put the desks back in rows and get out the textbooks and worksheets again. As Jim Collins says, the enemy of great is good.
I don’t see long-lasting change happening in classrooms unless metrics change. So what would 21st century metrics look like? I got an opportunity to brainstorm with Margo Day, the VP of US Education at Microsoft. Margo is awesome. She has immersed herself in the educational world to understand our model and gets it. I suggested we need the voice of tech companies in changing accountability systems. Big companies have a huge voice, and a more immersive and collaborative model in education benefits them and also the kids. She pushed back at first. Standards and accountability systems aren’t really their role, and I can see where she’s coming from, as it’s not in their business model or core expertise. As we talked more, we started to explore the possibilities in that space. What would an accountability system look like that really moved education forward?
Can you use mastery-based systems that level students up when they have achieved basic skills at a certain level?
What would you get if you asked schools what their students have created that year?
To what extent do you use student voice on how engaged, safe, and appropriately challenged they felt at school?
Can you keep basic standardized tests at a dialed-down level of stress and time?
What does actual college- and career-readiness look like and how do we know if we’re moving closer?
My district’s superintendent, Sandra Smyser, took a line from Jim Collins in her opening speech to our district last year, while unveiling new district goals / ends. To paraphrase, sometimes the best ideas defy measurement – and you don’t shy away from the ideas because they’re hard to measure.
We need to speak louder to our policy makers about this. Metrics drive performance. We’re measuring the wrong things.
Innovative Platforms, not Curricula
Microsoft is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the ed-tech market, and here’s why. Their vision is powerful and aligned with the potential that technology can unlock in our students. They could have come out with products that taught students skills mapped to standards, aligned to a curriculum, and focused on mastery of skills. But that’s not what they have done and it’s not what they believe in. Microsoft has created, and continues to create, open platforms. They’re endlessly personalizable, extendable, flexible. The most powerful learning tools allow the learner and teacher to create their own educational experiences, and to make a difference. Every technology we used, from Skype to Office 365 to Minecraft to TouchDevelop and more, is a gateway to possibilities. I sensed that vision in every employee I talked to. They are excited and passionate about what they’re bringing to the market. They see themselves as changing the world, and with that kind of cohesiveness and passion – Microsoft will, and you do yourself a disservice to underestimate them.
I really love the way they approach computer science teaching in cooperation with the BBC micro:bit platform. It would have been easy to look at the list of standards and come up with a curriculum, tests, and textbooks. Instead they see the challenge as how to create an open and flexible platform with which the kids can learn the key ideas through a personalized creative process. Wouldn’t it be awesome if every subject area had this philosophy?
My generation grew up with Microsoft products including Windows, Office, and Visual Studio. Today’s kids find these tools old-fashioned and stodgy, and Microsoft is working hard to win the hearts and minds of the younger generation. They love open-source and hacking and tinkering, social media and communication and creative arts. The way to the kids’ hearts is not through curricula and testing, but through enjoyable uses of technology that push the frontiers of what we can achieve. It so happens that these ideas align with good educational practices as well. This direction could be a true win-win.