Check Out Canva’s Education Resources!

As regular Radical readers already know (see here, here and here), I’ve been a big fan of Canva — an online tool designed to make it easy for anyone to create stunning visual content — for a long while.  Understanding the role that visual content can play in communicating messages and persuading audiences is an essential skill in a world where pictures and infographics and videos are everywhere.  Canva facilitates that work, plain and simple.

What I love the best about Canva, though, is their organizational commitment to supporting educators.  In the past year alone, I’ve had tons of conversations with Cliff Obrecht — Canva’s Founder — about just what classroom teachers need in order to better integrate graphic design into their lesson plans.  And in that time, I’ve watched Canva create REALLY useful content that teachers and students can use immediately.

Need proof?  

Then check out Canva’s Design School Tutorials, where you can work through a series of lessons on topics ranging from pairing fonts together in a design to using whitespace to enhance a final product.  Every time that I poke around in the Design School Tutorials, I learn something new.  More importantly, every time that I poke around in the Design School Tutorials, I learn something that I can share with my students as I help them to master the art of creating influential visuals.

Need MORE proof?

Then check out Canva’s Teaching Materials, where you can find a growing collection of classroom-ready lesson plans that are being created by remarkable practitioners.  Learn how to use Canva as a part of a lesson on visual poetry from John Spencer; how to use Canva for mathematical modeling from Steven Anderson; or how to use Canva to create “fan pages” for historical figures from Vicki Davis.  There are also lessons from Monica Burns, Paul Hamilton, Terri Eicholtz, and some guy named Bill Ferriter.  It’s honestly a remarkable collection covering all subjects and grade levels.

Or just stop by Canva’s new Education landing page — launched at this year’s SXSW conference:

Long story short:  I’m a BIG believer that teaching kids to create influential visual content matters — even if creating influential visual content isn’t a skill that appears regularly in our required curricula.  To turn kids loose into a visual world without preparing them to communicate messages visually would be akin to turning kids loose in a text-based world without teaching them how to read and write.


And I’m a BIG believer in Canva.  They are a company with a great tool.  But more importantly, they are a company committed to doing everything that they can to make graphic design more approachable for teachers and for students.



(Blogger’s Note:  In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I’ve got a great relationship with Cliff Obrecht, Canva’s founder.  While we’ve never met in person, Cliff reached out early in Canva’s attempts to get into the education space.  I’ve been giving him advice ever since.  

I continue to fill that role for Cliff as an official “Education Adviser.”  That doesn’t come with any official salary — but Cliff does throw me gift cards that I can share with readers every now and then!  I don’t help him for free gift cards, though.  I help him because I believe in him.  He really does want to give back to practitoners — and that’s just plain cool.)

(Blogger’s Note 2:  Want a gift code good for 10 free premium images in Canva?  Cliff just sent me a ton to share with readers.  Drop me a comment with your email address.  I’ll send one along!)


Don’t Mistake Simple Sharing for Collective Action.

In a recent article titled Meeting the Challenge of Infusing Relevant PD in Schools, Lyle Hamm and Kevin Cormier argue that professional learning communities — which encourage colleagues to relentlessly question their practice together in service of student learning — often fail as a professional development strategy primarily because they require peers to come together for weekly face-to-face meetings with one another:

Imagine being an educator and getting up each week during a Canadian winter and travelling into a PLC session for a 7:00 a.m. meeting prior to preparing to teach all day. Or perhaps even more exhausting for educators is attending a session for one hour each week after they have finished teaching all day. This adds minimal value to the pedagogy of the educator; instead, it potentially creates mild to major anxiety and toxicity among staff and affects the school culture negatively.

Hamm and Cormier go on to argue that the bulk of teacher learning can be done by facilitating digital interactions and experiences in online spaces — which allow participants to interact with new ideas anytime and from anywhere:

In this professional learning format, the learner is able to continuously build their educational and networking capacities by reading over professional development content and articles. They may contribute to and read discussions where many participants engaged in the topic share ideas and experiences. Key ideas can then be brought back to their own schools to share with colleagues and additional community educational stakeholders such as parents.

As a guy who has spent the better part of a decade working in a school structured as a professional learning community AND using digital spaces to facilitate my professional growth, I see two points of concern in Hamm and Cormier’s thinking:

Digital spaces facilitate sharing and networking — but sharing and networking are entry-level collaborative practices:

Hamm and Cormier are right to suggest that any teacher working in any subject area and driven by any professional interest can find information that will challenge their thinking in digital spaces.  In fact, that’s what I value the MOST about the learning that I do online.  The peers that I learn from in places like Twitter or Google+ or on the blogs that I follow in my feed reader are always sharing interesting content that I can access easily whenever I have a few free minutes and an Internet connection.

But sharing and networking are entry-level collaborative practices, y’all — akin to nothing more than knowledge-building in our classrooms.

Would we settle for learning experiences that failed to give students sustained opportunities to wrestle deeply or to test their ideas or to be intellectually challenged by their peers?  Would we be satisfied if our students were never asked to systematically reflect on who they are as learners or to back up their notions with evidence collected over time?  Then why should we settle for learning experiences that fail to give teachers the same opportunities.

Now don’t get me wrong:  Deep and meaningful learning done in partnership with thoughtful peers and sustained over long periods of time is technically doable using nothing but digital tools.  Determined colleagues really ARE joining together in regular Google Hangouts or Voxer conversations or Facebook groups to reflect around problems of practice together.

But the truth is that deep and meaningful learning in social spaces isn’t nearly as easy as simple sharing.  And as a result, simple sharing has become the most common pattern of participation for educators living and learning online. PLCs done well, on the other hand, are designed to move teacher teams beyond simple sharing and into careful reflection.

The most valuable collaborative partners are those who share deep contextual understandings and who develop trust through ongoing personal interactions:

In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Karen Sobel-Lojeski, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Technology and Society at Stony Brook University, introduces readers to the concept of virtual distance — defined as the social disconnect that can develop between peers who connect primarily through screens:

Today’s keyboard-tapping workers have very little context around who their counterparts are, how they feel about things, or what they hope for — in other words, what motivates them. Without a panoramic perspective, it’s difficult to form a sense of common purpose.

In fact, when a seemingly intelligent screen is the only frame in sight, people often default to decoding messages based on what they know, filling the contextual void using their own experience to color in the blank backgrounds behind their co-workers. But this can create distorted perceptions about other people’s values and beliefs, causing collaboration conundrums.

Sobol-Lojeski goes on to document the impact that virtual distance can have on collaborative efforts, noting that in organizations with high levels of virtual distance:

  • Innovative behaviors fall by over 90%
  • Trust declines by over 80%
  • Cooperative and helping behaviors go down by over 80%
  • Role and goal clarity decline by 75%
  • Project success drops by over 50%
  • Organizational commitment and satisfaction decline by more than 50%

Organizational commitment built around a common purpose is fundamental to successful collaboration in the professional learning community model.  When done well, trust and innovation and helping behaviors become the norm in PLCs because peers KNOW that they can rely on one another as they work towards a clearly defined vision of a better future for the students and school that they share.

More importantly, teachers working in PLCs receive targeted support from one another built on contextual understandings that peers in digital spaces can’t always provide.  I am uniquely suited to lend a hand to the guy working across the hall simply because I know his personal and professional strengths.  I also know the strengths of our students and the system that we work in; I know the stated and unstated expectations of the community that we serve; and I know exactly which resources that we have available to us.

Once again, don’t get me wrong:  There ARE tangible steps that can be taken to reduce the virtual distance between peers who work together primarily in digital spaces — but without careful attention, peers working together in digital spaces quickly become nothing more than fellow participants instead of collaborative partners.

The truth is that I’ll never walk away from the peers that I learn from online.

The content and resources that they share are influential, forcing me to rethink my practices.  What’s more, connections to peers in other places provide me with a valuable lens for evaluation and comparison.  It’s easier to determine if I am on the right professional path when I can get a transparent look at the paths that partners in other places are taking.

And after investing thousands of hours adding comments to blogs, starting conversations in places like Twitter, and making time for face-to-face interactions at national and international conferences, I really do have a handful of peers that I know mostly through digital spaces who add as much to my learning as the peers I work with in person.  By nurturing those relationships over time in much the same way that I nurture relationships with learning partners in my school, I’ve eliminated the collaborative struggles caused by virtual distance.

But if I am being totally honest, the learning that I do in digital spaces still remains largely serendipitious instead of systematic.

I stumble across ideas that add value to my learning almost every day — but the value that they add rarely changes the work that I am doing right now.  Like the proverbial seeds strewn in a field, some of the ideas that I find today will take root months down the road.  Others will wither away and die almost immediately.  And a rare few will sprout as soon as I write my next set of lessons.  I know that I am learning whenever I am online — but I don’t often feel like I am truly studying my practice with intentionality.  My digital interactions are an essential complement to — but not a perfect replacement for — the work that I am doing with my learning team.

And that’s why I’ll never walk away from the peers that I learn with in person.

The simple truth is that they have a unique ability to challenge me as I struggle to meet the ever-changing demands of my classroom and my community.  The support that they can provide is truly “just in time” because they are using the same resources to deliver the same curriculum at the same time to students with the same sets of strengths and weaknesses.  What’s more, we have a history of interactions and experiences that we can use to inform our actions and our decisions.

I’m not suggesting that digital tools and spaces can’t facilitate LEARNING.  I’m just suggesting that when done well, PLCs facilitate COLLECTIVE ACTION — and collective action is the REAL key to moving any school or district forward.

Does this make any sense?  


Related Radical Reads:

Five Guys that I Love Learning Alongside

So Much More than a Personal Learning Network

The Power of PLCs


A Brave New World for “Personalized Learning”?

I have a rather uncomfortable confession to make*:  I think I am more than a WEE bit paranoid about the corporate takeover of education.

I often catch myself imagining cronies from huge conglomerates like Pearson and McGraw Hill smoking cigars in back rooms with heartless politicians, cackling as they systematically dismantle public education and suck every last damn dime out of a system scrambling for answers in a “high stakes” world where the “schools are failing” narrative has convinced everyone that teachers are incompetent and technology can do it all.

“Relax, Bill!” I’ll say in the middle of my incoherent ramblings and cold sweats.  “SURELY there are good people at big corporations who are developing products with PURE intentions.  It’s NOT about capitalizing on fears and making a fast buck. It’s about improving schools FOR THE CHILDREN!”

And then I read headlines like this one:

(click to enlarge)


Poke through the article.  It filled with horrifying quotes like this:

Based on Knowledge Space Theory, ALEKS uses research-based artificial intelligence to determine precisely what each student knows, doesn’t know and is most ready to learn in a given course. ALEKS interacts with students like a personal tutor, helping them study more effectively and efficiently by delivering the exact instruction they need, right when they need it.

The ability to assist students at all levels using real-time feedback and inherent motivators has resulted in significant improvements in retention, success and confidence. While the hallmark of ALEKS was its data-driven computational excellence, this new level of research on student behavior and archetypes will allow the learning system to focus more on conceptual learning and increase student motivation and persistence.

Sounds AMAZING, right?  HOORAY for Personal Tutors, Artificial Intelligence and Computational Student Archetypes!

That’s when the rational side of my inner-lunatic returns:  “Take off your tinfoil hat, Bill.  There’s no evil corporate cabal trying to undermine education.  You are being ridiculous.”

So I take a few deep breaths, stream a few Yo Gabba Gabba videos to channel my inner Foofa and think a few happy thoughts about daffodils and unicorns and pay raises for North Carolina teachers.  I settle myself and temper myself and steel myself for a return to the Internets in hopes of finding something hopeful to read about teaching and learning and schools.

And then I stumble across headlines like this:

(click to enlarge)

Personalized 2

Poke through the article.  It’s filled with horrifying quotes like this:

Cengage is leveraging the power of the Knewton platform to create a next-generation adaptive course that is built with personalization in mind from the start, said Jose Ferreira, founder and CEO.

“Students will get continuously updated recommendations for what to study at any given moment and instructors will get predictive analytics that help them intervene before a struggling student falls behind or an advanced student becomes disengaged. Furthermore, ASU is involved in the product development to further tailor the course for students and instructors.”

The Active Adaptive Psychology course will be the first in a series of new “Active Adaptive” General Education courses delivered through this partnership. ASU will study the effects of both delivery models in on-ground, hybrid, and online class settings.

Sounds AMAZING, right?  HOORAY for Predictive Analytics and Active Adaptive Psychology! 

Maybe I AM losing my mind.  At the very least, I probably need to burn my Conspiracy Theory DVD and kick my late-night Neal Boortz and Free Talk Live habit.  But then again, what if I’m right.  Maybe corporations really ARE pushing flawed definitions of “personalized learning” in an effort to sell crap to school districts desperate for the good press that comes from looking like you’ve found the solution to “ensuring success for every student.”

All that I know is that genuine learning is a heck of a lot messier than McGraw Hill and Cengage and Knewton are making it out to be.

There’s very little “predictive” and “analytical” and “artificial” and “computational” about genuine learning.  Instead, genuine learning is social and driven by interactions and preconcieved notions and intellectual challenge delivered at just the right moment by people that you trust and respect and enjoy.

I also know that my students are WAY more motivated and persistent when they are working to address real-world problems.  They want to participate and to make a difference and to belong and to matter.  Mastery is meaningless when it leads to nothing other than “progress pie charts” and “personalized celebrations encouraging students to attain learning momentum” — cheap promises that McGraw Hill pushes on its customers.

That messiness is stripped away by “personalized, adaptive technologies” whose primary goal seems to be to clinically deliver the RIGHT basic facts to the RIGHT kids at the RIGHT time so they can answer the RIGHT questions on the RIGHT end of grade exams — and the end result is learning spaces that are lonely and less personal than ever before.

Am I wrong here?


*Blogger’s Note:  Have fun figuring out what percentage of this bit is honesty, sarcasm and humor!  


Related Radical Reads:

Learning Should Never be Lonely

Note to Principals: STOP Spending Money on Technology

My Kids, a Cause and Our Classroom Blog

What Do Cat Herding and Data Conversations Have in Common?

A principal who I REALLY admire reached out to me recently with an interesting question.

She’s working with a group of teachers who are working to earn a degree in school administration.  In an upcoming class, she wants to get her students to think about the role that data can play in driving decision-making in schools.

“How would YOU start that conversation?” she asked.

That’s an easy one:  Regardless of audience, early conversations about using data to inform practice in schools should start with a careful study of cat herding:

(You DID watch the video, right?  If not, go back and do that now!  The rest of this post is pointless until you watch the video!)

Now at the risk of boring you with the obvious, here are three of my favorite reasons that cat herding is the perfect starting point for conversations about using data to inform practice in schools:  

Teachers — like unpredictable cats running from the herd — can take off in a thousand directions whenever we start conversations about using data to inform instruction.  Seeing dozens of cats running in dozens of directions can be a reminder that we need to slow down, focus our efforts and move as one if we are ever going to succeed.

There are literally a million different data sources that can inform our practices in schools.  If we try to chase them all, we are bound to fail — and to exhaust ourselves in the process.  That’s a lesson that is easy to learn from cat herders.

Inevitably, someone gets “scratched” when we use data to inform practice in schools.  It might be a struggling teacher who is intimidated by sharing results with their peers.  It might be the poor soul charged with facilitating a data conversation on an explosive learning team.  But scratches ARE going to happen.

It’s a great metaphor, right?

And my guess is that if you turn any room full of educators loose, they can probably come up with a ton of other similarities between data conversations and cat herding.  Better yet, my guess is that if you turn your audience loose with that metaphor, they will have a lot of fun with each other.

And THAT’s the lesson worth learning:  Using data in schools can feel pretty darn intimidating to teachers — particularly in a world where data is used to shame teachers and label schools.

Cat herding, on the other hand, is just plain funny.  Using cat herding as a starting point for data-informed decision-making in schools can get people to let their guard down and relax.





Related Radical Reads:

Numbers Never Tell the Whole Story

Is Standardized Testing Changing Me for the Worse?

Your Data Dream.  My Data Nightmare.

Five Guys That I Love Learning Alongside

One of the questions that I’m often asked is, “What blogs do you think are worth following?  If I wanted to start learning right away, what should I be reading?”

That question is REALLY hard to answer simply because there are SO many people who are sharing ideas in online spaces that you can literally find TONS of content on any topic that motivates you.  No single list of “blogs worth following” will ever accurately represent the wonderful diversity of thought and voices available to today’s motivated learners.

That being said, here are five guys who have had a sustained impact on my thinking over the years:

Dean Shareski – Dean is constantly pushing notions around just what teaching and learning should look like in a world where connections are the norm rather than the exception to the rule.  What’s more, he’s constantly emphasizing that connections — regardless of where they happen — depend on humanity.  Need an example of Dean’s impact on my work?  Then check out this post:  @shareski’s Right – My Students CAN Assess Themselves.

George Couros – What I love about George is that he is constantly taking difficult concepts about modern learning spaces and making them practical and approachable.  Every time I read his blog, I feel challenged — but I also leave convinced that I really CAN drive change.  That sense of “you can do this” is often missing in conversations about teaching and learning in today’s world.  Need an example of George’s impact on my thinking?  Then check out this post:  Simply Having Good Ideas Isn’t Enough.

Chris Wejr – In a lot of ways, Chris is the moral compass in my learning network.  He reminds me that taking a stand to protect students IS my responsibility.  He openly questions things like the impact that honor assemblies and student testing have on student motivation.  Need an example of Chris’s impact on my work?  Then check out this post: Shameless Self-Promotion in Social Spaces.

Scott McLeod – Scott is where I turn for provocative takes on literally everything connected to teaching and learning.  If he’s not eviscerating crappy educational policies, he’s pushing school leaders to think about the differences between schooling and learning.  Scott doesn’t just challenge my thinking.  He often points me to current research that proves my thinking needs to be challenged.  Need an example of Scott’s impact on my work?  Then check out this post:  The Straw Breaking My Professional Back.

John Spencer – John might just be the single most important voice in my learning network.  As an accomplished teacher willing to write about instruction, he regularly pushes my classroom practice.  Just as importantly, he often writes about the impact that educational policies have on classroom teachers.  Those pieces resonate — reminding me that I’m not alone even when I’m exhausted.  Need an example of John’s impact on my work?  Then check out this post: What DO You Want from Me?

Can I guarantee that Dean, George, Chris, Scott and John will change your practice in deep and meaningful ways? 

Nope.  If you have different interests or passions or needs than I do, my recommendations will be meaningless.

But I CAN guarantee you that investing time into finding bloggers who challenge you matters.  The simple truth is that adding voices to your learning network is essential to sustaining your growth as a professional no matter what role you are filling in our schools and systems.



Related Radical Reads:

Three Blogs You Should Start Reading Right Now

12 Remix Masters Who Have Changed Me

So Much More than a Professional Learning Network