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Tsunami Warning


Tectonic plates are colliding under the ocean of knowledge and information, and a tsunami is coming that will radically change the face of education as we know it. That was the message that Tom Welch delivered in today's opening session of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards 2009 Conference and Exhibition.


Welch (seen here talking to Michelle Johnson) set out to affirm and inspire the National Board Certified Teachers in attendance, and also warned us ahead of time that he intended to challenge us. As someone who likes a challenge, I sat up a bit straighter in my seat when he said that - then tried not to sink back down too far as I heard what the challenge is.

First, the tsunami. The "plates" in question are technology, common standards and assessments, and a movement towards "performance-based credentialing" for students. In other words, if a student has mastered what needs to be mastered in a course before the school year is done, they move up to the next level, and conversely, if a student needs more time than the school year allows, let them continue working towards satisfactory performance rather than letting the calendar close the door on learning.

Borrowing from Jeff Jarvis's What Would Google Do?, Welch passed along his two key take-away ideas: "the age of the middleman is dead," and "focus on what you do best, outsource the rest."

Having outlined how many different ways students can obtain information and interact with the world directly through information technology, Welch then asked, "So, who's the middleman in education?" There was no need for him to solicit responses, or answer the question the question himself. There was a palpable "uh- oh" kind of reaction among audience members.

But Welch is not suggesting teachers are obsolete. Far from it. The second idea is the key - focus on what you do best. Amid all of the web applications and the personal electronic devices, the ways we work need to change; but teachers are irreplaceable because the core of the work is still there. We still need to know our students and how they learn, create the opportunities for that learning to happen, and monitor the results.

From what I could gather and overhear, those in attendance were receptive to the message and open to the challenge. Our collective "uh-oh" came with a smile. And that's the way it should be among National Board Certified Teachers: self-assessment and critical reflection are central to our certification. The hard part for me in a situation like this is seeing the gap. We have a long way to go in many schools and classrooms, including mine. The value of Welch's challenge is that it offers a vision and a frame for thought that can guide the small steps that will take years for me to implement.

Some schools and classrooms may look like they're further along, but Welch suggested a second look to make sure that our vision of the future is not just an electronic version of the past. Computers and multi-media resources have great potential, but when they just guide children through their text books without capitalizing on more than sound and images, they haven't really moved very far. Smart boards are tools with great potential, but are we using them simply as digital chalkboards? Are students learning to use them, or are they sitting in quiet rows as passive observers of their teachers' use of technology?

We need to have our heads up and our vision clear, and stay loose, because when that tsunami rolls in, we're going to be swimming in some rapidly shifting waters.


The tsunami is rolling and it is wonderful to see that the convention is off to such a "graphic" start. Living in Hilo, where we have survived several VERY large and destructive tsunamis, the title of the blog is even more meaningful.
I just want to say that several representatives from the Big Island of Hawaii are presenting at the NBCT conference - both about the SAIL Leadership Program for NBCT's that is connected to working towards a doctorate in Teacher Leadership and the other presentation is by Bess Jennings and Mary Ann Joseph who have co-authored a 2nd edition of their very effective book on becoming a NBCT.
I am sorry that I was also not able to attend, but these NBCT's will represent our programs and island WONDERFULLY!
Thanks for tuning us into the events!
Mahalo nui, Pascale

Performance based credentialing sounds so sensible that it probably hasn't even been considered yet! And the idea of teachers retooling to focus on what they do best is another sensible idea. (In that case maybe I'd never have to keep a homeroom again.) Learning new ideas and revising the way I do things has always been what kept me fresh as a teacher.

Thanks for keeping us updated, David!

This makes me wonder about the future of virtual schools. It is good to see that we will not be replaced but honestly I have spent some time contemplating the day when people in any part of the world can come up to the computer and take a class on any topic and then - no wait a minute - that day is here (MIT world - check it out). I am a science teacher and I believe that there is no substitute for actual hands-on wet labs - not just virtual labs so maybe I will still have a job for a few years. Thanks for keeping us updated - and Pascale - it is nice to hear your voice from the Big Island again - always a joy.

There's a recent story in eSchool News reporting that many laid-off young teachers are applying for jobs with virtual schools -- including charter schools. It's interesting to think about whether teacher layoffs have actually accelerated the development of a virtual teaching force in the U.S.

Dear David,

Thanks for this report. I would have loved to hear Jack Welch's speech. I wonder though if he isn't mistaken about who the middle man is....are you sure it's teachers?

As I think about how schools are changing in response to a rise in technology, I don't see teachers as being the middle man. I think about the middleman being the textbook publishers and the policymakers as the middlemen.

Here's why....if students can take a bunch of standards and go about learning without a guide...I'll be stunned. But will they need textbook publishers telling them what kinds of information is important to know about the curriculum????? I don't think so. I think the curriculums will be asking students to find out the answer to that question by examining all sorts of resources to which they have access. I think the publishers will become more and more obsolete as what we study becomes more grounded in the world outside school. Students no longer need to be taught information in the same extremes as before...kernels of information get old faster than ever before. What students need to be learning is how to learn (and who teaches them how to do that except for teachers...it isn't a genetically inherited traits) and once they've found something how to interpret/analyze it (and that is again not something theyll know how to do without the guiding hand of an experienced teacher).

I also wonder if we'll need policymakers. If we have the curriculums specified and students have performance standards why we would need the micro-managing of policymakers who don't understand our environments and are far removed from the students they hope to help???? I can't really think of a good reason why.

Again, thanks David....this was great and I'm so sad that I missed it in person. I'm thrilled that you are reporting for us...I love hearing the sessions from a teacher's point of view.

I love the idea of performance based student learning. I have always thought that students should move through the curriculum - hopefully national standards - at their own pace. I think this method of learning would address student drop out rates. I think students would be more inclined to stay in school if they could move through the curriculum at their own pace, especially if the curriculum involved learning through technology. I think schools should be open year round, but still only require students to attend the number of days they now attend, that way the students and their families could attend school and take family vacations whenever it works best for their families. This type of schedule would be easy to work out if all students were working at their own pace. I do not think students should all be taught the same lessons on the same days so that teachers can abide by curriculum maps and scripted curriculums. I think these methods are the best way to lose the students' interest in learning.

I agree that there are some experiences that will never be as good virtually as they are in reality, but as many or more that will be wonderful in the virtual realm and impossible in reality. I'm also sure there a ton of ways to design virtual learning, distance learning, etc. There will no doubt be combinations and innovations we haven't really imagined yet, and they'll probably be here soon. But even in those models, I see a role for teachers in many or most cases. And I'm sure the vast majority of children will still go to school. It might just be that when they go, they don't get all of their instruction from people on site, and some of the instructors might be engaged with students who aren't on site, and the students might just be engaging with each other across great distances, synchronously and asynchronously.

You make a point that really hits home. No matter how good the microscope, for example, we cannot see the inner workings of a cell. However, thanks to computer animation, we can now "visualize" what is taking place. This is an example of something that is impossible in the real world happening in the virtual. Your point is certainly valid - it is exciting to contemplate what the future will hold, enabling us to see the unseeable in even more ways and communicate with people all over the world about it.

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Recent Comments

  • Eric Kincaid: You make a point that really hits home. No matter read more
  • David Cohen: Eric, I agree that there are some experiences that will read more
  • Beth Bley: I love the idea of performance based student learning. I read more
  • Marsha Ratzel: Dear David, Thanks for this report. I would have loved read more
  • John in NC: There's a recent story in eSchool News reporting that many read more




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