Can the Principle of Least Privilege Apply in Educational Technology?

August 15, 2014

Are your teachers “local administrators” on their school division assigned computers?  Can they install their home printer without your permission?  Can they keep their own software up-to-date?   Are you going through the million reasons this would be a disaster?  Well, it’s not.  It’s not even a disaster if you make kids the “local administrator” of their machines in a 1:1 deployment.  Yep.  It works.

CIOs and CTOs talk about IT as INFORMATION Technology.  I talk about it as INSTRUCTIONAL Technology – technology for teaching and learning.  There’s a BIG difference.

Do kids make mistakes?  Yes.  So do adults.  School is a great place for mistakes to be made and learned from.  So, we teach and trust instead of lock down and control.  It’s really rather simple.

In the Principle of Least Privilege world, you are only given the rights and access to do what someone else perceives you need to be doing.  If your job is to use articles from approved media in order to write a research paper, you will only get access to those approved media and a word processor.  That’s it.  You don’t need that noisy Internet to distract you.  Trust me.

“Oh, but if you allow them to X, they will Y.”  Yes, they do.  For a bit.  Until the tasks you put forth compete with Y…until you have a relationship with them and they don’t see you as the enemy…until they are responsible to a team of peers for work they are compelled to do…until…

And still, they will do a little Y here and there.  They are human.  How will you respond?

So, as I talk about our 1:1 projects and speak to students as the “local administrators” on their computers, I get questions about viruses and hacks and games and all sorts of things.  What I don’t get questions about is kids who install apps that allow them to compile their own code or connect their school computer to their home printer or figure out how to translate a job application in to Spanish so their father can read it and apply for a job or any number of other things that represent exactly what we are going after – mastering lifelong learning skills.

So, we have to re-image a few machines here and there.  That’s why we have student run help desks!

Can the Principle of Least Privilege Apply in Educational Technology?  I don’t think so.  That is, not if you want learning lifelong learner skills to be mastered.  Don’t let your tech folks tell you they have to block Twitter because it’s the law or that kids can’t install software on their own computers because of something Microsoft or Apple did.  Don’t buy it.  It’s not true.


A Letter to Jack

December 13, 2013

Dear Jack-

I am pretty sure you have had a great year given where you are and all, but I know it’s not quite where anyone thought you would be at this time of your life.  I hope you were able to take in a few baseball games this year as I know you are a baseball fan like I am.  I didn’t go to any games this season but watched several on the Internet, but we both know that’s not the same.  But, it’s really not a big deal as I am pretty lucky to have such little things to trouble me.  I can’t imagine what your family feels when they hear a phrase like “that’s not the same.”  I can’t imagine what is the same for them.

I think about you and your classmates often.  I visit a lot of schools in my job and some times when I pull in to a parking lot and look at the school, I wonder if everyone is safe inside.  I wonder if there is a kid in the school who is sad or hurt beyond what I can imagine and needs help he isn’t getting.  I wonder a lot of things but mostly I wonder what I can do to make sure what happened to you doesn’t happen to another kid.

I know it has been just about a year since your death and I just want you to know that I am thinking about you, your family, your classmates and their families, and your community.  I hope that I and other people like me come to understand what we need to do differently to make sure kids like you don’t have to go through what you did.

Take care of yourself and enjoy the beautiful winter views!

Becky Fisher




Oxymoron or Potential Amplifier?

February 6, 2013

“That’s awesome! Kids would love playing in a room like that,” said one teacher. Another teacher countered with, “Since when have kids had time to play at school? It’s not on the SOL tests!” My question back to them was, “Is play a Standard of Learning to be tested or a strategy for learning to be used or not by our teachers?” The first teacher said, “I would love to ‘let’ kids learn by playing. Where do I start?”
There are so many things that go through my head when I have a conversation like this one. I think of the hours I spent at home, playing with math and learning far more about the discipline of mathematics than I did in school (not) working through problem sets that were of no interest to me. I learned the decimal equivalents of landmark fractions because they ALL are routine when you crunch baseball statistics. In a three game series, x/9 is not unusual for a full time player. I quickly figured out the pattern and didn’t need a 35 question worksheet to do it.

What about kids who don’t “play” with a learning goal in mind? Can we trust them to learn if we turn them loose in a Maker Space? How will we know? Is it “ok” for us to provide some structures for some kids?

What is a Maker Space anyway? My working definition of a Maker Space is that it is kind of like an art room, high-tech computer and electronics lab, Lincoln Log/LEGO trunk, kindergarten teaching kitchen, physics classroom, blocks and bricks corner from a preschool room, and science closet on steroids and all together. It’s the place I would go if I needed to find stuff to make something. It’s the place my students would go with or without me when they needed something we didn’t have or to do something they couldn’t do in our assigned learning space.

I had a conversation with a progressive educator/parent/colleague yesterday – he is worried his second grade son is experiencing too much choice in school and wants to ensure he also develops a sense of personal responsibility and how/when to protest, exercise choice, or comply. One adage from Bill Glasser comes to mind here – “With freedom comes responsibility.”

A really good “at home task” will come home, the kid will look at the parent and say, “I don’t really want to do this math assignment, I want to go play with LEGOs instead.” That would be fine with the teacher, but it is not sitting well with the parents to see this night after night. Having years of experience working with kids to negotiate “replacement activities,” I fell back on my own parameters for kids – “What learning am I trying to help you do or evidence? How does that replacement activity help you do this?” So, if the math assignment had something to do with exploring multiples of two, your replacement activity has to have something to do with exploring multiples of two. The educator/parent/colleague was going to share that notion with his wife to see if they could make that work at home. I submit that they will have far deeper conversations about curriculum, assessment, and learning with their bright child than they would if they simply made him sit through doing his homework as the teacher envisioned it.

So, is it so bad to expect kids to do things that move them toward deep understanding of the curriculum, or at least the parts that merit understanding deeply? I don’t think so. Do educators have the tendency to suck the joy and self-direction out of learning in the name of covering the standards for the state test or protecting their jobs? Yes, some of them do. Is there a way to balance our responsibility to our young people and our accountability to the state? I think so.

One idea I have been kicking around is applying a strategy I learned in 1988 – the Four Question Strategy. Dr. Julia Cothron used to be a science teacher, then a science coordinator in a district in Virginia, and back when our state department of education was into teaching and learning far more than testing, she was the science supervisor for the state. She did workshops all over the state and wrote a few books on teaching and learning science. Here’s one of her more recent books that includes information on the Four Question Strategy:
Here are the Four Questions in a combination of Dr. Cothron’s words and mine:

Question 1: What materials are readily available for conducting experiments on (the thing the state says you need to know about)?

Question 2: How does (the thing the state says you need to know about) act?

Question 3: How can I change the set of (the thing the state says you need to know about) materials to affect the action?

Question 4: How can I measure or describe the response of (the thing the state says you need to know about) to the change?

The book I linked to includes an example with plants to illustrate how the strategy might play out. How would these questions play out when the supplies are 2-D and 3-D fabrication tools, iPads, LEGO bricks, Raspberry Pis, etc?

Kids do these four questions intuitively when they learn to play a video game or to code with a new tool. Here’s a revised set of the questions I have heard or observed kids cycling through as they “play” with creating something in Minecraft or in mastering a game someone else created:

Question 1: What icons and objects are on the screen? What actions are in the menus?

Question 2: What do these things do?

Question 3: What is the goal of the game or of my design? How can these things help me achieve that goal or design?

Question 4: Is my game playing or my design good enough yet? What do I need to do differently?

So, how could these Four Questions support the Maker Space work of kids and keep school from getting in their way?

When you use the Four Question Strategy with kids, it takes a lot of stuff and the learning is inherently differentiated. The Four Question Strategy emphasizes science process skills and skills of Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking, and Creativity. The Four Question Strategy incorporates Schlechty’s Design Qualities of engaging work as well:

Content and Substance
Product Focus
Organization of Knowledge
Clear and Compelling Product Standards
Protection from Adverse Consequences for Initial Failures
Novelty and Variety

Is the Four Question Strategy a strategy that can help the adults see the learning value of mostly student-directed Maker Space work? Will kids see it as too much like “school”? What if we only “planted” the largest of topics and got out of the way? How do the adults NOT intervene TOO MUCH so that it kills the joy of exploring and making? How would you change the four questions to be a better match as a scaffold into the Maker Space work? Do you see Four Question Strategy in the context of Maker Space work as an oxymoron or a potential amplifier? Amplifier for whom – the grown ups or the kids or both?

Personalized learning? What does THAT mean?

August 10, 2012

Education is always aflutter with new buzz words.  Buzz words and phrases get bastardized as they are used in and out of different circles by people who have various depths of understanding about the origin or intention of the words.  I could cite multiple, historical examples and I bet you can, too!

A phrase that is being tossed around a lot in my district right now is “personalized learning.”  Well, learning has always been “personal” so what’s the big deal?  Ah, but something about this buzz phrase strikes a different chord with me.

You see, I love learn learning but I pretty much hate school.  That may be a little hard for some people to grasp as I am entering my 25th year as an employee of Albemarle County Public Schools, but it’s true.  As a professional educator, I have loved reading books like Garth Boomer’s Negotiating the Curriculum and Steven Levy’s Starting from Scratch.  I have enjoyed imaging how my school life would have been different had I had more teachers like this.  

Yes, but, we now have state tests.  What if we considered our standards sets to be the Power Standards only and we ignored the minutia unless an authentic need for knowing presented itself?  Or, what if we focused on concepts and big ideas and let thinking drive what we do and how we do it?  How would kids do on “the tests” then?  Doug Reeves thinks they would do just fine.

Some folks have heard “personalized learning” and responded by saying, “We’ve been doing that for years.  It’s called ‘differentiation.'”  Have we?  Is it?  I have had many opportunities to sit and chat with Carol Tomlinson over the years and have enjoyed her work immensely.  Have we really been doing what she describes?  I don’t think so.  I think we have done pieces and parts of what she pushes us to, but not to the extent that it is possible in our schools.

And are “personalized learning” and “differentiation” the same?  I struggle with that.  In my mind, differentiation is still about what the TEACHER does.  Personalized learning is what the STUDENT does.  I think I can say, “A student learning in an environment in which the educators subscribe to the practices and mindsets of differentiated instruction has more opportunity to personalize his or her own school-centered learning than a student who does not.”  But, that’s about it.

Why did I feel like I had to add the adjective “school-centered”?  Perhaps because of the “common good” clause.  We do have schools and we do have set curricula so there is, by design, a limit to the choices we can offer our young people.

How do we commit to ensuring learning is personal, personalized, differentiated, and standards-based?  Can and should there be an AND or must there be an OR?  


The Achievement Games

April 22, 2012

Last Sunday, I went to see “The Hunger Games.”  I haven’t read any of the books, but I went with @paulawhite who has read them all.  Since seeing the movie, I have viewed life through the lens of “The Hunger Games.”  I am sure I will be able to shake this at some point, but for now…

I began thinking about our state testing program in terms of tributes and victors.  Let’s talk about the perils of government-driven, norm-referenced testing that separates our tributes and is designed to result in a limited number of victors.  High stakes testing nearly always punishes kids who come in with fewer life experiences and resources. Then, I began to imagine Arne Duncan and Seneca Crane as one and the same.


As I think about the parallels between The Hunger Games and The Achievement Games, I keep looking for a place that it breaks down and I can’t shake these images from my head.

What about the reaping?  The anxiety over what will happen to me, how will I represent my district (school), how long will I live, will I have to kill anyone, etc. represents the test-prep arena.

Escorts are like principals, performing the PR and cheerleading services while making sure the whole team has all of the resources they need.  The mentors are the teachers, warning the tributes about stamina and providing them with test-taking strategies like how to avoid being slaughtered in the bloodbath at the Cornucopia.

The balloons with helpful hints and additional resources that were sent to tributes by sponsors just might represent the available funds and resources of the school district to ensure the first pass at learning is highly successful and to provide additional tutoring if it is not.

Gamemakers are like lawmakers.  Just when it looks like a tribute is going to be successful at something, additional challenges (like a forest fire or vicious animals) are conjured up to issue new challenges.  This is kind of like playing with cut scores or introducing Technology Enhanced Items.

I can keep going with this, but it troubles me more and more the longer I stay in this mode.  I surely hope the American government’s many checks and balances would prevent anything as blatantly horrible as The Hunger Games from happening here, but we have allowed The Achievement Games to continue for years.  Why?



None of us is as smart as all of us

February 23, 2012

I had a poster in my classroom that I have carried with me from office to office to office (I count 9 offices in 18 years) and it really sums up they way I think about learning and doing:

None of us is as smart as all of us.

I am ENTJ.  I don’t wait for someone to tell me what to do and sometimes even resent that to the point of no return.  I especially don’t like it when someone tries to tell me how to do something.  This applies to my learning as well.

I had the opportunity to engage in a conversation about “digital age learning” with an amazing group of educators earlier this week.  Of course, the conversation turned to technology.  Of course, that moved to a conversation about “too much” technology.  I stumbled upon a wonderful conversation on Twitter this AM and it led me to this blog post from 2008!

As I read it, I thought of that conversation and that caused me to think about a book and a Ted talk by Sherry Turkle (Alone Together) – and . Then, I thought about a graphic I have used in workshops on creating Personal Learning Networks using social media…


…remember, I am ENTJ and believe none of us is as smart as all of us.

What will come of all of this “social networking”?  Is networking learning?  Does learning require a network?  If someone learns something and never teaches someone else about it, is it really learning?

How I Learn New Songs in 2012: A Technological Timeline and Call for More Music in Schools

February 19, 2012

I have always loved to sing – sing along with Hee Haw, other tv shows, the radio, records/tapes/CDs, etc. I loved music class in elementary school and took band and “folk music” electives in middle school. And, I have parents that always made sure I had some way to listen to music and they didn’t even seem to mind the long concerts in the car as we went to visit my grandparents. My brothers, on the other hand, always seemed to be doing something else to drown out the noise I was making.

I got my first stereo for my bedroom when I was 6 or 7. It was a record player with speakers. I would watch a show on tv, hear a new (to me) song, and then try to find the singer or a song with a similar title in mom and dad’s record collection. If I found something I liked, I would play it over and over and over again until I either scratched the record or knew the lyrics.  At lot of Skeeter Davis and John Denver songs were learned like this.  Too bad they never (as far as I can find) sang a song together!

The next stereo I got was when I was around 10 or 12. It was a “combination” system with a record player, two cassette decks (one player, one recorder), and an 8 track player/recorder. I still have this system, by the way. Actually, it is in mom and dad’s basement gathering dust. The first thing I did was to make a copy of all of the albums I hadn’t ruined yet. This took a while because I had to acquire the blank cassette tapes and then sit through the entire album to record it. I found more new songs to learn this way, though. At this point, with the cassette player to support me, I could listen to a verse, sing it, replay it, sing it again, and move on to the next verse. I could learn a typical song by listening to it twice in this segmented way and then once all the way through. I developed strategies for remembering the order of the verses as this was something I had to deal with having learned the song a verse at a time.  A lot of Linda Ronstadt, Bette Midler, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Rachel Sweet, and Kiss were learned this way.

I kept a notebook through high school where I would “test” my memory of songs. I would sit down and think of a song I hadn’t sung or heard in a while and write out the lyrics. Then, I would pull the appropriate tape from my extremely well organized collection and see how well I had done. Then, I would relearn the tricky parts.  I made my way through a particularly boring high school math class by writing the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” in my notebook every day.

I continued enjoying music and learning new songs through college and my years as a classroom teacher.  I used music in my classes a fair amount and enjoyed singing with my kids as I could.  We used math to analyze different vocal qualities of artists the kids were interested in.  I took kids to concerts around town generally shared my love of music with them.  Check out and to hear beautiful music two of my former math students are sharing with the world.  They are both genius and amazing young people.

About 10 years ago, I began using the web to try to track down lyrics to old songs I hadn’t sung in years or new songs I heard some where. Wow, have the web sources of lyrics grown over the past 10 years!

A few years back, I started searching YouTube for “free” videos of songs. Some people like to put the words in a slideshow, add the music to it and post it to YouTube. It’s interesting to think about the different legal aspects of this. So, I adjusted my strategy to include only official videos released by the artist.

Then came Shazam. With Shazam, I can “listen” to a song and immediately know the title and artist and possibly get to a number of resources like printed lyrics or YouTube videos – all on my phone! I tag a song, go to the YouTube video to replay the song, and learn the song in 15-20 minutes. Now, Shazam has added the wonderful feature of showing the lyrics in time with the song – I can see the words and hear the music at the same time. Two passes like this and I have a song, typically.

When I look at the affordances technology has brought me in terms of personal song learning, I wonder what of this time line is reflected in schooly learning for our 13,000 kids in my district. How is learning new words different from kids now than it was when spelling/vocabulary lists were handed out on paper on Monday followed by a Friday quiz. How about how we learn complex processes now?

Michael Thornton (@mthornton78) and a few of us engaged in a Twitter conversation this weekend because Michael shared . We don’t really use music much in school, do we? I learned a lot about conjunctions and bills and other stuff by watching as a kid – always in my living room, never in a classroom. I was 9 years old when SchoolHouse Rock first aired and enjoy it still!

Over my years in central office, I have talked with elementary music teachers about SchoolHouse Rock and other tools like it. I usually get met with comments like, “I have my own curriculum” or “teaching WITH music is different from teaching ABOUT music. I teach ABOUT music” or some sort of critique about the chords and rhythms or some other musical element of SchoolHouse Rock.

How can we better use music to help kids access academic content in meaningful ways? How can we use music as a means of kids showing what they know, understand, and can do? As Michael said in our Twitter conversation, kids can “watch, create, share” – watch (and hear) for models, elements of quality, and to learn new information; create their own versions to show what they know, understand, and can do; and, share with a world-wide audience to check their understanding, receive feedback, and improve upon the quality of their work so that others may learn, too.

I realize this post has two distinctly different themes – (a) technology has changed just about everything I do as a learner in the past 40 years or so, but it hasn’t changed much of what we do in schools to promote learning, and (b) music is a powerful tool that is perhaps under utilized in schools. I chose to put these two themes in a single post because, as artists from Jim Reeves to Iron Maiden have sung, “When Two Worlds Collide” interesting things tend to happen.

Today’s High School Kids

February 4, 2012

I had the great fortune to be at Educon 2.4 in Philly last weekend.  Let me go on record AGAIN that the Science Leadership Academy kids are awesome!  I spent the day with some of the most awesome kids on the planet.  They were running a conference for teachers and having a ball at the same time!  Some kids were working the video streaming stations in the conversation rooms, some were running the coat check, some were tending to feeding and watering hundreds of educators, but all were focused, respectful, helpful, and amazing.

I probably interacted with the kids at Educon 2.4 more than I did my Twitterverse.  While I missed meeting several folks I had intended to, I enjoyed my time picking on the kids and listening to their quick comebacks and thoughtful responses.  From the student speaker at the opening night panel discussion to the kids printing out boarding passes and calling cabs as the attendees were leaving,  I was flat out impressed.

My time at my hotel was another story, though.  For the 3rd year in a row, I stayed at the Embassy Suites Center City.  It seems that about 25% of the hotel guests were Educon attendees, about 70% Ivy League Model United Nations Conference (ILMUNC) attendees and about 5% were wondering what they had gotten themselves in to.  Let me just tell you…


Both sets of kids are fun-loving, bright, successful, teenagers who had an opportunity to interact with educators from all over the country.  

The SLA kids made the most of this, asking questions about what we taught and where we were from and generally being interested in making positive connections. I even picked up a few SLA student followers on Twitter!

The ILMUNC kids I encountered were self-absorbed, entitled, and had fun at the expense of others.  When a hotel has 20+ floors, it is not a good thing to play on the elevators.  It took over 30 minutes for a gentleman who cannot safely walk down a set of stairs to go down a few floors in the elevators.  Apparently, an apple battle took place and some non-teenagers were pelted with apples when the elevator doors opened.  It appears no one has taught these Ivy League UN-ers basic elevator protocol and how to behave in public.  And, it appears neither the hotel nor the chaperones intervened.  

The response from the hotel each and every time that I complained was “each of the groups has chaperones.”  My response was, “Maybe on paper, but not in reality.”  

When I tried interacting with the ILMUNC kids (not fussing at them, asking them about their debate topics and countries they were representing), only a third or so responded as if they cared.  I was even completely ignored by two of the students at one point.

Am I being too harsh?  I don’t think so.  Am I expecting too much of our young people?  I don’t think so.  Am I expecting too much from the adults that guide and shape our young people?  Nope. The only time I witnessed a chaperone interacting with a student was when a student came to the bar area to check in with a chaperone.  Yes, the chaperone was enjoying the free happy hour while the students were wreaking havoc on the hotel elevators.

The stark contrast between what I encountered at Educon by day and my hotel by night and at breakfast is like a tale of two futures for America.  I choose for my future to be in the hands of the Science Leadership Academy kids!

Bloggers’ Cafe at VSTE 2011

December 5, 2011

We are talking about how we find time for blogging and what our motivation is. Who do you blog for? What is your general style? Should we blow up the term “blog”? What should we replace it with?

That was great! Now what?

August 6, 2011

Like many school divisions across America, mine is just coming off of our two day fall leadership retreat.  That was great!  Now what?

We were fortunate enough to be able to bring teacher leaders, principals, and central office leaders together with Peter H. Reynolds on Wednesday.  The overall response to the day was, “that was GREAT!”  Teachers and principals alike loved Peter’s message and his stories. He is clearly on a mission!  But, what will I do differently as a leader because of my time with Peter and the rest of our leadership team?

How will I act differently the next time I see a kid with an empty piece of paper or a colleague who appears at first glance to have not done his or her job?

What kind of feedback will I give and how will I push the next person I encounter who says, “I just can’t…”?

How will I solicit personal commitment and ownership from myself and those around me?  How will I demonstrate my own personal commitment?  How will I own my own work?

What will I chose to frame in “swirly gold”?

How will I bring out the best in the people around me?

How will I simultaneously foster experimentation and confidence building?

How will I move beyond “That was great!”?  

Now what?