Live-Blogged Notes from New York Times Schools for Tomorrow Conference 2013

Panelists speaking at "Schools for Tomorrow" conference.

Panelists speaking at “Schools for Tomorrow” conference.

These are my live-blogging notes from morning sessions — especially Sal Khan’s keynote — at the New York Times Schools Conference on September 17, 2013 at the Times Center.  Here are some high-points from Sal Khan’s keynote, which expand on the basics about reach that you may already know (reaches 200 countries, 8 million registered users, 1.2 billion problems completed):

  • Khan Academy (KA) is implementing game mechanics, badges, leveling-up, lots of experimentation, assessment of big data, testing education theory – including growth mindset theory of Carol Dweck at Stanford, e.g. (early returns suggest that she is right).
  • What KA is super-focused on is common core alignment, deep mathematics, and real mastery.
  • If you or child go to KA today, you will get asked to take an 8-question pretest for math, starting personalization & pathways.
  • “We are a tool, but it’s really about the teacher.”
  • Blended learning: promising results by teacher Peter McIntosh at Oakland Unity in implementing the KA model in a classroom.
  • KA is not about putting kids in front of a computer, but rather to free up time for teachers and learners to do better things with time off the computer.
  • There is a great deal of work underway around the world to take KA into communities, via non-profits and schools.
  • The #1 creator of content in Mongolian is a 17-year-old girl in an orphanage who just started with KA content at 15 when Cisco engineers spent their vacation setting up tech in Mongolian orphanages.
  • Last week: launch of the full Spanish language KA.  Brazilian Portugese is next, and on from there.
  • “We are at a special moment in history” for education, Khan claims.  It’s not a cheap approximation of a good education that we want to provide for kids who are not otherwise able to afford it; we ought to provide a world-class education for anyone.  Education is not scarce and only for the few.
  • The advanced placement tests will be going up on the site, with Phillips Academy faculty (yay!) working with Khan Academy team members on advanced mathematics, e.g.

Good questions for Sal Khan from the audience:

  • Tension between two statements: 1) teachers matter and 2) any child can get a world-class education for free.  How can those both be true?
  • Worries about data privacy (as a non-profit, we are careful about that, says Khan).
  • Is it ever going to be possible to get a high-school degree just on KA, without ever going to a school?  Maybe, says Khan.  We should have a mastery-based model rather than a time-based model.  Perhaps community colleges will be involved; maybe employers; but in any event, it will be a competency-based model.
  • Two questions address the role of community college.  Sal likes the combination of a competency-based online assessment with an in-person component, perhaps at community colleges.

From the “debate” on “whether the university has had its day” (which no one on the panel seems to think has had its day):

  • Residential education can be improved.  Online education is causing hard questions to be asked about both online and in-person teaching, which are only to the good.
  • There’s no “one” single higher-ed experience, as teachers or learners.
  • President Martin of Amherst stresses things that can only happen in person, on college campuses: certain important intergenerational relationships, life in the most socio-economically diverse communities that exist anywhere, and the value of the company of attentive others, which should not be foregone, for instance.
  • There’s already a disruptive set of innovations underway at the hands of institutions on their own.
  • There’s a changing high school demographic that will cause enrollment to flatten in higher ed, says Chancellor Zimpher of the State University of New York.
  • We’re not good enough at measuring success in higher ed (possibilities thrown out by panelists and Tweeters: completion; mastery; education-for-education’s sake; learning things like ethics and morality?).

All-School Meeting Remarks: Opening of School, 2013 at Phillips Academy

I thought I would share on this blog a copy of what I said, more or less, to the assembled 1,129 students and to hundreds of faculty of Phillips Academy this morning to open our school year.  The All School Meeting, held in Cochran Chapel, started with a procession of 58 flags representing the countries from which our students hail, the spirited entrance of the Class of 2014, and the introduction of the faculty of the Academy.  After a brief welcome and acknowledgement of the 9/11 tragedy, and a moment of silence, the two, articulate student body co-presidents addressed the students, as did an extraordinarily poised student representing the international student body.  I then shared these thoughts with the students to start the year.

students carrying flags

The first ASM starts with a procession led by flag bearers carrying flags from the 33 countries represented within the student body.

Thank you, all, for this spirited all-school meeting – this Celebration of Community.  We are strong because of what makes us different from one another – our diversity – and also what we share – our values and our humanity.  We celebrate this joyful mix this morning.

At this time of year, I find myself looking forward to what the academic year will hold – thinking about my aspirations for the school year to come.  For the next few minutes, I hope that you will set aside your most immediate thoughts – like what’s for lunch, or the homework you have to do later, or who might have texted you in the moments before you turned off your device for ASM – and devote your mind to what you want to do, who you want to be, in the months to come.

We have the great privilege of being at Andover, together, for the 2013-2014 year.  We have, give or take, nine months together.  How do you want to spend your time?  How shall we spend this time together?  How shall we use this gift together?

I have three metaphors in mind.  Perhaps at least one of them will work for you.

The first is the metaphor of the starfish.  I chose today to wear a tie, given to me by a new member of this community, that has on it a starfish.  This tie is appropriate for today in multiple respects.  One respect is its colors: it has in it both the deep blue of Phillips Academy and the pale blue of Abbot Academy.  We are the merger of both these two great schools, 40 years ago.  It is incumbent upon us to learn and to recall this shared history, of girls and boys, of women and men, who have come before us to create this great school that thrives here today.

Back to the starfish itself.  The starfish is pretty – and that’s part of its appeal.  But it also has an unusual ability – the ability to regenerate itself.  This metaphor applies to school communities because, each year, some of the members of our community leave, and new members come to join us.  The starfish – and the community – end up looking a little bit different each year.  But the whole remains the same.  It our job to make this regeneration beautiful and harmonious with the whole – for leaders to step up in every walk of life at the Academy, whether the administration or the grounds crew, the Phillipian or the Philo, in each and every classroom, team, and artistic endeavor.  Many of last year’s leaders are in college or pursuing other dreams.  Now is our time at Andover.  Let’s make the most of it.

Second metaphor: a canvass.  Each of us has before us this gift of a year.  It’s a year of our life, a precious gift, and we have it to spend, here and now, at Andover – to me, among the highest privileges one can imagine.  Few people on the planet have such privilege.  We should not wallow in guilt but rather make the most of it.

As you think about your canvass for the year: what will you fill it with?  I hope your canvass will include creative things you thought you’d never do; some things you expected to do and have done extremely well; and also some blank space, for time you spent resting and caring for your self – yes, by that I mean sleep.  I hope your canvass also includes beautiful connections to other people, the joy of community that we share and that we celebrate today.

Part of what is exciting about life at Andover is that each of our canvasses connect to one another.  We are making our own year, but we make it together, connected to the lives and the aspirations of our friends and colleagues.  We are never, at Andover, alone; our actions are never without consequence for others.  Pursue your dreams, yes, but recall non sibi – recall our commitment of not for self – and recall what great power you have to help your fellow students through the hardest of days at Andover.  Think now, as you walk to your next class or to lunch, about what you want your canvass, for this year, to look like.  It’s in your hands.

Finally, the metaphor that most resonates for me each year at this time.  I cannot start a school year without thinking of the steps in Paresky, the steps that lead from the first floor to the second.

I think about these steps because I think a lot about what it means to be the 15th head of school at an Academy that has been one of the great institutions of teaching and learning in this country for 235 years.  Much of what I think about has to do with the balance between tradition and innovation – about what we want to keep, and what we need to change – and about the role that each of us play in that process over time.

My very favorite place on campus happens to be these two staircases, leading from the first floor to the second floor of Paresky.  There is something about progress upwards, toward the divine, or towards the future, that I like about them.  Perhaps it has to do with the food, which is far better than the dining hall food I’ve had at any school I’ve gone to or worked at.  But mostly it has to do with the steps themselves.

You’ve probably noticed these steps.  The steps have indentations in the marble – indentations made by generations of students, faculty and staff who have gone before us.  I love these indentations because they make me mindful of the fact that we are not alone in this journey.  We are not alone today and we are not alone over time.  This is an institution that has stood the test of time – and has thrived because it has grown and improved over time.  It has stood true to certain principles, but it has also changed as it needed to change.

Why I like the steps in Paresky so much is that I know that my steps – as head of school – matter.  They matter in that I, too, am making those indentations deeper than they were before.  If I put a foot in the deepest part, I am making that indentation just a bit deeper.  If I step where others have not stepped so often, perhaps closer to the middle of the stair, then I make a tiny mark where others have not so frequently walked.

I know that my steps do matter, as your head of school.  But, as an educator and as a matter of physics, I also know that my steps do not really matter any more than your steps.  Perhaps I weigh a bit more than some of you, so my indentation is a bit deeper, or my footfall heavier than yours is, as you sprint more quickly from the first to the second floor.  But none of us can change this place very quickly with our footsteps.  None of us can change those steps, all that much, on our own.  And we will be followed – there will be a sixteenth head of school.  There will be a class of 2045, perhaps with some of your children in it, or my grandchildren.

I had the great pleasure last year and into this summer of meeting many of the school’s roughly 25,000 alumni.  I’ve met very recent grads and members of classes that have already had their 50th reunions.  I’ve met graduates who did not like their time here much and some who have given much of their time and their treasure to support this school.

One meeting, that I’ll remember for a long time, was with the Mr. and Mrs. Paresky, in their home.  They invited me in for lemonade on a warm summer’s morning.  I asked them why they loved the school so much, and why they had given us the generous gift of the new Paresky Commons.  I loved what the Pareskys said that day: it had to do with how much the school had given to David Paresky as a student, and to their own daughter Pamela, in particular, when she followed him to the school.

But it also was about the way that Mr. Paresky thinks about obligation: the idea that he had been given much by the school, at an early age; that he had gone out and done well – and many good works, in the true non sibi spirit – in his life; and that he believed that he needed to be a steward of Andover, that he had an obligation to give back.  We get more from Andover than we give, he told me, and he wanted to be sure that the students at Andover today know about both the wonderful opportunity that you have while you are here – seize it! – and also about the extent to which great institutions like Andover don’t just happen.  They become great because generation after generation, students have been mindful of their own footsteps here and then have given back, when they’ve moved on from life on campus, out of a sense of love for the place and also obligation.

And that’s the key point about the footsteps.  We are part of a legacy.  I am the fifteenth head of school, acutely aware of the fourteen who have come before me and those who will come after me.  We each have a role to play in the story, the history, of Andover.  We can do much to change the school, but we cannot alter it completely – much as our footsteps going up the steps in Paresky cannot completely remake the marble.  We must be mindful of what we do here and the effect of our choices, now and into the future.

And as we do so, we should have fun – good, wholesome fun, of course.  We will work hard, but we should play a lot too, and enjoy this community that we are so lucky to be a part of.

Before we go, I’d like to do a few quick things.  I’ve been so happy to hear the joyful voices of all of you students lighting up this campus since the Blue Keys started to cheer on the corner as new students arrived.

First: Juniors, Lowers, Uppers: the seniors came in with a lot of spirit this morning.  I want all the juniors, lowers, and uppers, to make some noise in appreciation of those students who are going before you.  Let’s hear it for the seniors!

Seniors, you get another shot.  Let’s hear it for the juniors, lowers, and uppers, who are following in your enormous footsteps!  Make some noise!

And last, after this last cheer, the All School Meeting is adjourned.  I want you to do one last cheer – hold on! – and then walk out of this chapel into brilliant sunshine, ideally with a big smile on your faces, and perhaps a little attention, in the back of your minds, to your footfalls, today and for the nine months to come, as you go.

All students, you are going to do this last cheer.  You are surrounded, in this community, by some of the finest adults I have ever had the privilege of meeting.  This is a mindful, inspired, caring community of teachers who are devoting their professional lives – and in many respects, their personal lives, too, as they live in the dorms with you and eat together and play together – to your education.  For our last cheer of the day, Andover students, and as our last act as we leave the chapel: Let’s hear it for the teachers!

Night at the Cambridge School Committee

At the Cambridge City Hall, the School Committee is meeting about its budget for the coming year.  There’s not a seat to be had in the Sullivan Chamber.  People are clustered in the antechamber, watching the proceedings on a TV monitor in the hallway.  The School Committee is expected to approve the proposed $137.5 million budget (various relevant links from here).  But it’s a tricky business: the new superintendent has to come up with $3.7 million in cuts to make up for a budget deficit.  And there are issues that are controversial.  The biggest one is a proposed administrative restructuring.

For instance, two representatives of the Cambridge Teachers Association raised concerns about the administrative restructuring proposals built into the budget.  The arguments are familiar: 1) there’s concern that faculty will be giving up decision-making authority to administrators (a message heard often down the street at Harvard in various contexts); 2) that the restructuring process is not sufficiently transparent; 3) that the input requested is not meaningful, too little, and too late; and 4) that current Cambridge Public Schools employees be considered before outsiders for any attractive new mid-level jobs created as part of the restructuring.  School Committee members, too, raised concerns about not knowing all the details about where the cuts will fall exactly as part of the administrative restructuring before voting in favor of the budget overall.  The echoes heard in this process to restructurings elsewhere in academic settings are remarkably clear.

The best part, though, is the public comments from students in the school district.  One after another, students from the Cambridge public schools are encouraging the school committee to invest more in the school system’s environmental programs.  One after another, eighth graders from the King Open school are making serious, compelling arguments to expand a pilot composting program from one school across the system and to increase purchasing of biodegradable trays.  The students earn — and get — huge applause for their efforts.  It will be interesting to see what kind of a lesson the School Committee gives these students in terms of rewarding their activism in a period of big budget deficits.


At a focus group today for the digital natives project (and our book, Born Digital), an interviewee mentioned VoteGopher.  It’s very clever: a site by students that helps you decide who to vote for.  The founder is a Harvard College sophomore, Will Ruben.  It’s a much more fun and interesting site that some of the traditional voter-information sites.  A combination of straightforward user-interface and lots of information goes a long way.  Check out the page on Barack Obama, then compare candidate positions on various issues.

John Mayer of CALI at Berkman

The executive director of The Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI), John Mayer, is a totally wonderful guy. He’s funny and smart and cares about cool technologies and access to justice — all good things. That’s especially good news for us, since he’s giving the Berkman Center luncheon series talk today. If you’re familiar with CALI, you know what an amazing resource he and his colleagues have created for law students and those who teach them. If you’re not, it’s well worth a look.

In their own words: “CALI is a U.S. 501(c)(3) non-profit consortium of law schools that researches and develops computer-mediated legal instruction and supports institutions and individuals using technology and distance learning in legal education. CALI was incorporated in 1982 and welcomes membership from law schools, paralegal programs, law firms and individuals wishing to learn more about the law.”

One of the things they are up to is eLangdell. The idea is to make the legal casebook of the future. Rather than buying a $120 casebook that comes out every four years on Evidence, say, eLangdell will let all of us collect the cases that we teach in our respective courses and rip-mix-burn our syllabi and teaching materials. His vision: these casebooks could serve a law professor and her students at a fraction of the cost of traditional casebooks and fund ongoing development of the system and the course-materials. The parallels to H20 Playlists is obvious. (One thing I wonder: why hasn’t someone set up a wiki server that lets people create syllabi for courses we teach in every high school in America?)

Not everything they do at CALI is about legal education in the strict sense. One of the ideas that he’s talking about is legal aid case management systems, an important concept for the provision of legal services to the poor.

I think some of the most interesting things he’s talking about has to do with taxonomies. Fortunately, The Man on taxonomies, David Weinberger, is right here next to me, tap-tapping away on his little ThinkPad — hopefully, for the rest of us, he is blogging away. Look to him for insights on this score, as always.

In response to questions, John says he’s very big on “legal literacy.” He points to a CALI service called Learn the Law that lets anyone get access to CALI lessons if they want to learn more on a given topic of law. He notes that in some areas, like intellectual property, we all need to know something about the law, whether we’re lawyers or not.

Participate in a survey on Digital Media by Harvard undergrads

Five talented students in my Freshman Seminar at Harvard College have created a survey on digital media usage. They could use your help if you are currently an undergrad at a US college. Here’s the announcement, in their words:

“Do you condone stealing?

“Internet piracy is a prevalent issue on college campuses from coast to coast. Many times we, the students, are unaware or even uninformed about what is illegal and what is not. The purpose of the project is (1) to investigate the level of piracy in American college campuses and (2) to see if students understand what actions constitute copyright infringement.

“If you are currently an undergraduate college student studying in an American university and have 5 minutes of free time, please visit [this site] to take the 100% anonymous survey. We are five Harvard undergrad students seeking to understand the computer habits of our generation. Please help us out!

“Spread the word. Thanks. =)

“Andrei, Chen, Elizabeth, Eric, & Lauren
The PiracyEdu Team”

Note also that Chen has posted a real, redacted cease and desist letter on the site’s blog.  And they are working on an “online course” as well.

Special Copyright Podcast

The Berkman Center’s increasingly terrific new media production team has rolled together this special-edition podcast on copyright in the context of teaching and learning. It’s an extension of the work done on the Digital Learning Challenge, led by Prof. Terry Fisher (the first voice you hear on the podcast) and former Berkman fellow, now Prof. William McGeveran, and funded by the Mellon Foundation. The theme of uncertainty in the digital copyright realm is particularly real in the context of using works in teaching and research, despite all manner of reasons why we wouldn’t want that to be so.

Computing and education

I’m in the computer room at a grand old hotel in New Paltz, NY, the Mohonk Mountain House, fretting about what to say to a group of school business managers gathered here under the banner of the NYSAIS. I’m here to talk about computing and education. (At the Berkman Center, this topic is one of our three core thematic areas of inquiry, along with Internet & content issues like IP and Internet & democracy. Charlie Nesson, JZ, and Colin Maclay do a much better job than I do in keeping this issue in the foreground of our work.)

The best part about attending a similar event last Fall was meeting several inspiring and insightful teachers. Some of them not only blog themselves, but think hard and well about computing and teaching. One of those teachers is Arvind Grover, whose blog I was scanning by way of research for some of those inspired thoughts I recall him having. For one, he thinks that “We need to be training our students to be problems solvers, not fact-repeaters. I advocate for computer science starting lower school and going all the way through college. The effect of technology on the world has been dramatic and it continues. … If your school does not have a computer science program, you must ask yourself why not? If your school does have a computer science program, you must ask yourself is it the right one?” He refers us to a ComputerWorld article on the future of computer science.

I agree. But I’m also puzzling over another, related question. If you are teaching today’s Digital Natives but not using technology to do so, why not? And if you are, what’s your purpose in doing so? You may well have a good reason NOT to use computing in any way in the teaching process. A professor at Harvard Law School, Elizabeth Warren, makes a compelling case about how she teaches using the Socratic method and the extent to which that method is about a highly focused, person-to-person exchange in the classroom (and associated benefits to onlookers who are not looking at IMs and smirking about what someone just sent them). Absent a specific pedagogical reason of this sort — and there are many — I think any educator, at any level, has to ask themselves if they are in fact engaging students in the digital environment in which a large percentage of their students immerse themselves. It does not mean everyone has to teach computing, or the law of computing, or some off-shoot of it. But I do think that it’s becoming increasingly important to join the issue in schools of all levels. What is your strategy for using computing as part of the teaching and learning process? If you ignore computing, are you effectively preparing your students for where they head next? Are you engaging them where they are right now? Are you, and your students, contributing to the emerging digital commons of shared knowledge? And are you making the most of your community’s digital identity? Charlie Nesson asks, “What’s your cyberstrategy?”  The answer might be no, or I don’t have one, or I don’t care, but failing to ask the questions strikes me as the big potential mistake.