MIA at ISTE: Critical conversations


There is something missing from my first ISTE experience. Something of such profound importance that I feel a responsibility as an educator to try and start the conversation. A crucial, and a critical conversation.

Based on what I can see, ITSE desperately needs more critical analysis of technology generally,  and also about the sort of conference this has become. Are the priorities in order? Are these sorts of events really the best approach to train educators, to share what we know about teaching with technology, and to choose the products we will use in our classrooms?

Overwhelmingly, the attitude I hear from teachers in attendance is unflinchingly positive, effusive even, with nary a critical comment to be heard. This event is it for I.T. - the Woodstock of education technology. If you're not here, or tweeting about how much you wish you were here, you aren't anywhere.

To a certain extent, I understand the enthusiasm.  Teachers are generally positive and optimistic by nature - they need to be to survive.

Beyond that, this conference does offer exciting opportunities. There are lots of people here I admire and respect, whom I've never had the chance to meet in person.  I've had interesting chats and seen great presentations from working educators I would never had encountered anywhere else. Ideas are exchanged, teachers are energized. With luck, education progresses. There is, without question, good stuff happening here.

But I can't be the only one who feels a great sense of discomfort with the extent of the corporate presence here. Or with herds of educators with their bags overflowing with sales material and swag, cheerleading for their favourite products with buttons and shirts and pens and sunglasses.

I'm uncomfortable with the massive amounts of money being spent to convince teachers to use one product or another.  The buffets, drink tickets, and raffles. I don't like pitches by paid consultants pushing a particular product, masquerading as professional development and teacher training. Free Surface tablets for everyone!

In my opinion, the goals of educators and our corporate "partners" are not necessarily aligned. Sometimes they are totally at odds.

Technology companies, like all other private businesses, have one essential, all-consuming goal - making money. Selling stuff - whether or not we need it, or want it, or can afford it. This isn't a problem - it is their basic nature. They have their own sets of responsibilities - to their bottom line, their employees, their shareholders.

I'm no radical leftist. It is good and right that businesses should protect these interests, sell their products, and try to turn a profit. It is the basis of the comfortable lifestyle we all enjoy. I recognize, also, that these companies often employ honest and well-meaning people, who try to produce products with real merit for teaching and learning. After all, quality products are usually easier to sell. But make no mistake about it - education isn't their primary goal, their raison d'être. Nor should we expect it to be.

Education is our responsibility. We are the gatekeepers who ultimately decide what makes it into the classroom.  We need to take that responsibility seriously, and teach our students to apply similar critical thinking skills towards their own use of technology.

We can't merely teach technology - how to use this gadget, or that piece of software - how to code, or build robots, or curate content. Those things are "cool", interesting and even important. But we must also teach our students about technology, including the trade-offs and possible negative consequences.

We must model how to approach technology critically, and how to look past the marketing to choose the best tool for the job. When is it appropriate to put away the technology? What are the implications of signing up for a "free" Google account, let alone signing up your whole school or district?  How is our personal information is collected, and bought, and sold? What are the conditions in the sweatshops and factories that produce our gadgets, and what are the environmental consequences of mining the necessary materials and disposing of the waste?  Where should technology funding fit in the grander scheme of education budgets?

Technology generally, and its role in education specifically, raises a miriad of critical and challenging questions. I don't claim to have the answers, but the importance of the conversation is beyond question.

So where are these critical conversations at ISTE?  They are surely happening, somewhere. There are too many intelligent, progressive people here for it not to be occuring.

Likely, you could hear them in hushed tones over beers, perhaps in an isolated Ignite session, or a Tweet or two. But in the 21st century they ought to be front and center, on the main stage.

When compared to the thousands and thousands of square feet devoted to sales, and the countless millions spent on various sorts of marketing, the priorities of this conference couldn't be more clear.  And education, sadly, doesn't seem to be at the top of the list.

The essential character of this event is corporate: more trade show more than teacher training.

We wax poetic about teaching our students digital citizenship, but what are our responsibilities as educator-citizens?  And more to the point, can we live up to those responsibilities while accepting the swag, buffets, and cheerleading for profit-driven interests.

The private sector has an essential role in education. Educators can't be expected to manufacture their own computers or write their own software, or run the cafeteria, or drive the buses.

But education is too important to hold ourselves to anything but the highest standards as critical consumers. I look around San Antonio, and I'm not certain that it is happening. You're entitled to disagree. I welcome the opportunity to be proven wrong.

We can start by having critical conversations. 


Reprint: I Walk To School: Observations from the streets of Guatemala City

License: Creative Commons, Some rights reserved by lastbeats, Flickr.

Note: This was originally written in Guatemala City in March 2011. I've made a few small edits since then. I'm reposting it over here just to add it to the portfolio. I still like it. Enjoy.

One foot in front of another, the throbbing of techno bass drives me forward at 129 beats per minute. The early morning sunshine is beginning to crest over the distant volcanoes.  The streets are still slightly damp from an overnight shower.  Noisy birds flit through the palms, and the air is thick with the fragrance of tropical blooms. Another day in Guatemala. Another day in paradise.

Walking the streets of Guatemala City has become almost an obsession for me. Daytime. Nighttime.  Pushing the limits of my personal comfort and good sense.  One of the most dirty, violent and dangerous cities in the world is a particular setting for a walk. In the last few years, more civilians have been killed here than in cities like Bagdad or Kabul.

Almost no one walks here, at least no one with any choice in the matter. Guatemala City is also home to the most dangerous city bus system in the world, and taxi cabs that leave trails of victims like smoke-belching serial killers.

And yet, virtually every day I face the incredulous, "You walked to school? Really?"


This daily ritual has become my most important political statement. I refuse (so goes the internal monologue) to give into fear, no matter how well-founded that fear may be.  I won't let the criminals and thugs steal that most basic freedom: the ability to move from one place to another on my own two feet. 

To hell with freedom of speech, I'll settle for simple locomotion. 

In the United States and Canada, it has become popular in dangerous city environments to "take back the streets". Citizens walk together after dark, candles lit, arms linked, through the darkest corners of the urban jungle, declaring ownership of their neighborhoods, daring the criminal element to face the collective strength of good and decent people.

I am not aware of any such movement in Guatemala, although it desperately needs and deserves it. The streets will never be safe, I try to explain to people, as long as only the criminals walk there. 

Initially, my morning route takes me twisting and turning through my relatively affluent neighborhood.  Patrolled by a crew of paid motorcycle vigilantes, it seems to be fairly safe, on the surface. 

And yet, within these three blocks I have cringed at the sound of not-so-distant shots, I have seen blood and bodies, and I know more than a handful of people who have personally looked down a barrel of a gun.

I lived for 34 years in Canada, most of my adult life in a city of comparable size and density to the Guatemalan capital. I never encountered a lifeless body in the street.  I've been here for 18 months and I am already numb to the violence. And yet I continue to walk to school, really? 


Emerging from my neighborhood, I am faced with Vista Hermosa Boulevard. Somewhat ironically named for a busy urban commuter street, it is perpetually shrouded in diesel fumes and lined with fast food outlets and strip malls pedaling surplus from local sweat shops.

Crossing directly across the surface of the road involves a Frogger-esque feat of agility, so every so often the powers-that-be have installed las passerellas - elevated staircases allowing pedestrians to climb up and over the busy traffic below.

This is the point of my morning journey where I feel the most exposed.  One staircase up. One staircase down. In between the only escape route involves a long drop to the busy traffic below.  Puffing slightly as I reach the top, I usually pause for a moment in the middle of the bridge, gazing down at the chaotic Central American traffic.

Pickup trucks loaded with gravity-defying pyramids of pineapples dance with motorcycles carrying families of four, sharing a single helmet. Old school buses, painted red, the anchors of the public transit system, crawl by with riders hanging out of the doors and windows. "Dios es mi salvador", the bright metallic decals declare hopefully.  Honking. Squealing. Swerving. Stinking. Above it all, watching, traveling by foot doesn't seem quite so irrational.


Until a shadowy figure appears at the top of the opposite staircase and slowly begins to make his way towards me.

Let's be honest; to a gringo walking alone, the definition of "shadowy" expands somewhat. A heavy, paint-stained hoodie is worn despite the heat.  Frayed jeans. Black baseball cap pulled low, obscuring his face. Perhaps just a guy, lucky enough to have a job, heading to work in the morning.

Surely the sense of alarm is merely an artifact of my hypersensitive state of awareness.  In this way, a walking alone in the city takes on a meditative quality: every detail focused. High definition. Head on a swivel. 

Glancing in the other direction I notice with some alarm that, in this case, my heightened senses have failed me. My shadowy figure has an identical twin, approaching me from behind.  Another black ball cap. Temperature-defying hoodie.  The same torn jeans.  Their matching uniforms seem to confirm my worst suspicions.

At this point, it is important to note that I try to recognize my own prejudices. After all, in part, it is my fundamental sense of equality that drives me to walk every day. Why shouldn't I walk the same route as a "poor Guatemalan"?  I'm not a better person: no more deserving of safety and security than any other human being.  We are the same.

And yet, as they draw closer, all I can feel is suspicion. Does this make me a bad person? Does it render my political statement shallow and hollow? 

That is the cruelest part of living in a city like this: the way you find yourself suspecting everyone, even people who are supposed to be your allies. The other good people. Other victims. People just like you.

As they draw closer, hands concealed in the kangaroo pockets of their sweatshirts, politics fade away and basic survival is thrust to the forefront. All that high-minded bullshit dissolves and I'm forced to question my own motivations. 

Do I really place such a low value on my own life? What drives a person to purposefully engaging in this sort of risk-taking behavior?  If I die this morning on this bridge, will there even be a slight ripple in the force? Will I be missed? Will it matter?

Deep breath. A quick glance behind me checks the position of Thing #2.  Chin up, eyes forward, I meet the stare of Thing #1. Onward.

One foot in front on another. Proximity dissolves away. Closer. Closer. Our eyes lock.

"Buenos dias," he says, flashing me a cock-eyed grin as he steps aside to let me pass.

"Buenos dias," I reply, nodding slightly.

Yes, I walk to school. 

For one more day, at least.


March 2011








Turning Off The Calculator


Reflections on Configuring a Standards-based Gradebook


Next year my school is introducing standards-based grading in the Upper School, where I am the Digital Learning Specialist. One of my responsibilities is digging into the settings and configurations of our electronic grade book, preparing it for the transition.

In case you’re not familiar with these sorts of databases: collecting, calculating, storing and reporting scores from different teachers and classes, for hundreds of students, is a somewhat complicated technical process at the best of times, let alone trying to blend together the data from two philosophically-opposed systems.

Good times. I won’t bore you with the particulars.

Thoroughly testing a variety of different gradebook configurations, mindful of how those configurations will affect teachers workflow is an essential part of this process. In traditional grading, this involves some math, spreading the final grade over the semesters and exams, assigning point values, weighing the relative value of a “test” versus a “quiz” and details like that.

It can be deceptively complicated to set up, let alone explain to a parent or student about how that meaningfully relates to learning.

In setting up our new standards-based gradebook for the first cohort of teachers, it turns out one straightforward approach was to simply turn of the automatic calculations altogether, using the “manual override” button helpfully provided by the software.

It struck me that this was a perfect metaphor to explain the fundamental difference in philosophy between standards-based grading and more traditional approaches.

Let me be clear - our teachers will continue to be rigorous, collecting the same amount of evidence they were previously. Likely, there will be more grading, since lists of specific standards and benchmarks will require a broader range of assessments.  

But the philosophical difference truly reveals itself in the basic nature of the data collected in the two approaches.

Traditionally, assignment scores entered into teacher gradebooks are, on a basic level, data being fed into an equation.

Assessments go in, final grades get spit out. Of course student performance matters - but so do the underlying calculations. Sometimes they matter a lot. Believe me - troubleshooting teacher gradebooks has been a big part of my job for quite some time.

In this sort of system, the idea of “turning off the calculator” makes no sense, because it is fundamentally based on reducing learning to a calculation. 30 percent for tests and quizzes, 20 percent for the final exam, and whatnot, is usually how it goes.

In a standards-based system, grades are better thought of as snapshots of student learning. They are indications of where students are at that moment, measuring their progress towards achieving specific standards and benchmarks.  We are still using numbers - in our case a simple 1 - 7 scale representing different achievement levels.

Besides being reassuring for college applicants, I think numbers can be useful to help teachers to be objective and consistent in assessment practices and communicating with parents.

But numbers representing positions on a simple 1 - 7 scale is fundamentally different from the sorts of algebraic calculations you see in traditional gradebooks.

A standards-based grade doesn’t reduce a semester’s work to final grade through calculation. Instead, those individual assignment scores merely answer the same, simple question, asked repeatedly:  “Where is the student, against this standard?”  

With this in mind, I think it is perfectly appropriate, philosophically and pedagogically, to instruct teachers to manually override their automatic gradebook calculations.

When you think about it, it is in the minutia of these gradebook settings that assessment philosophy is made real.

Still, trying to convince a calculator not to be a calculator is deceptively difficult.

But hunched bleary-eyed amongst discarded coffee cups, combing through help files and spreadsheets full of standards and benchmarks, I know I’m in the privileged position of being on the front line of progressive education.

Good times.

Note: As per usual, this analysis is my own and doesn't necessarily reflect the opinions of my employers or colleagues.



Compliance and Empathy: What to do with bullies?

by Michael Peters

International School of Prague

No matter how much effort you put into education and prevention, eventually every school will be faced with a broad spectrum of bullying situations, cyber and otherwise. A range of responses will be required to support the victim, of course, but ultimately something must done with the aggressors.

The consequences that are set for this sort of behavior must both deal with the particular situation and those involved, but also must set an appropriate tone, and contribute to a school environment where victims feel protected and empowered. Aggressors must be punished, and deterred, while getting help and support of their own.

I think the best approach will consider the issue both in terms of building compliance, and also empathy.


Compliance with community norms and school rules, immediately and moving forward. Protection of the victim from continued abuse is paramount. Cessation of bullying behavior and the disruption it causes to the academic environment.

Empathy. Wherever possible, consequences should attempt to go beyond surface-level compliance and attempt to develop a deep awareness of the issues, and the possible negative consequences for everyone involved.  

Disciplining Bullies: Principles and Basic Understandings

1. To be successful, any intervention, or system of consequences must be part of larger, comprehensive anti-bullying strategy with includes components targeted at staff, parents, victims and bystanders.

2.  In addition to the negative impact on victims, and the larger school environment, it is well known that bullies are often victims in other situations.  Whether or not this is the case, studies show that bullies tend to be at higher risk of depression, addiction, criminality, and other sorts of antisocial behavior.  Therefore, our duty to protect must extend to bullies as well as victims.

3. Studies indicate that a system of firm discipline, characterized by clear, consistent and predictable consequences is one of the most important features of a successful anti-bullying strategy.  Dealing with situations in an ad hoc manner is not advisable, and tends to work  against its value as a deterrence.

4. Notwithstanding #3, there is little data which indicates a relationship between severity of punishment and its deterrent value.  Most studies suggest that overly-severe punishments and zero-tolerance policies can have a variety of negative consequences, including increasing bullying behavior by further alienating the aggressor.  

In criminology, researchers argue that increased severity does not increase deterrence because aggressors don’t believe they will be caught - punishment doesn’t even enter into the cost-benefit analysis. It is more effective to increase vigilance. Increasing the certainty of being caught has more deterrent value.

This speaks to the importance of creating a school environment where victims and witnesses feel empowered to come forward. To that end, of course, punishments ought to be severe enough for the victim to feel that their situation was taken seriously, and that “justice” was done.  

5. Punishments should be delivered in a reintegrative way (by shaming the action), not in a stigmatizing way (by shaming the actor) Re-integrative shaming is likely to reduce offending, whereas stigmatic shaming is likely to increase offending.

6. Overwhelmingly, studies recommend consequences with educational and social development components over solutions which are totally punitive in nature. Most children are not sociopaths - they have positive values to build on. Consequences should work to correct the “mechanisms for moral disengagement” that allow essentially good kids to justify mistreating others.

One researcher describes effective discipline as teachable consequences, with the following components:

Effective programs:

  • Create reflection and acknowledgement that bullying is wrong by the bully

  • Drive introspection by the bully to really understand why bullying is both hurtful for the victim and quite damaging to the bully himself

  • Include a learning exercise where the bully is allowed to realize how bullying is damaging to our society

  • Promotes alternatives to bullying to address their own issues

Reading / References / Resources

  1. Helping Both The Victim and the Bully New York Times, July 8, 2010

  2. A Case Study with an Identified Bully: Policy and Practice Implications Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, July 2011

  3. Effectiveness of school-based programs to reduce bullying: a systematic and meta-analytic review  Journal of Experimental Criminology, March 2011

  4. Teachable Consequences Blog, 08/2011

  5. Deterrence: Certainty vs. Severity of Punishment The Sentencing Project, 2010

  6. The Psychological Effects Of Bullying Last Well Into Adulthood, Study Finds Forbes, 2/21/2013

  7. Punishment and Behaviour Change, Australian Psychological Society 1995

  8. Cyberbullying: Using Virtual Scenarios to Educate and Raise Awareness ISTE, 1999

  9. Influencing Positive Peer Interventions: A Synthesis of the Research Insight, EmbraceCivility.org, 08/2013


Can Learning Be Too Personalised?

Note: This is a piece I wrote for ITSE's Learning and Leading with Technology magazine. They have a Point-Counterpoint feature.  You can read the whole conversation on LinkedIn.

In today’s world, virtually all information we consume is customized for us. In his influential book and TED talk, Eli Pariser describes the phenomena of “The Filter Bubble”, where algorithms in search engines and social networks make judgements about our needs, our desires, and our beliefs; and deliver to us a totally individualized internet experience.

This is convenient, perhaps, when Google knows that we are planning a vacation and automatically delivers information about the very destination we are considering. But when our newsfeed delivers us only political perspectives we already agree with, editing out the opposing viewpoints, this becomes problematic.

Education can fall into a very similar trap. Today, the usual suspects in “big education”, as well as disruptive interlopers like Khan Academy, are lining up to provide sophisticated technological tools to assess our students and deliver highly individualized solutions to their learning needs. On the surface, this notion is difficult to argue against. Of course, teachers ought to take the individualized needs of students into account. Of course, education is best served by tapping into every student’s unique interests and perspectives.

But this total focus on the individual can create another sort of filter bubble, one that emphasizes the things that make us different, rather than those things we have in common. It minimizes the value of working together, and sharing a common experience.

We seem to have lost touch with a basic truth: we may all be unique individuals, but fundamentally humans are social creatures. It is the way we live and work, and learn.

Perhaps, technologically speaking, we are approaching the point where technology can do a decent job assessing a student’s skill gaps and delivering a program to address them. But this doesn’t really authentically simulate an environment where real world problems are solved. Most often we solve problems collectively; in groups, teams, communities and societies.

So, education is only truly successful insofar as it can prepare us for applying our individual talents while working with others. This often means putting aside our individual needs. We don’t usually get to choose our colleagues, preferred learning style, schedule, or how our work is assessed.

Clearly, educators should care about the individual needs of our students. We may wish to nurture individual talent, creativity - even genius. To that end, some individualized education is appropriate. But as a technology focused educator, I am most excited about teaching tools that enable us to work together and collaborate in new and innovative ways.