“Fight perfectionism, but have high standards. Allow kids to follow their interests. Don’t be an authority” – Switzerland

Ian Hoke, who presented his project on digital storytelling at the recent Partners
in Learning European Forum 2012
in Lisbon, is a progressive educator in every sense of the word. He creates a classroom safe for exploration and discovery, applying a constructivist approach, often through the application of technological tools. He is committed to the advancement of education globally, and shared his teaching skills with students in Kyrgyzstan, China and on the Navaho reservation in the US before joining the Zurich International School.  Hoke’s popular blog and twitter feed reflect on the most critical issues facing educators today, offering up straight-forward solutions. Here, Hoke shares his philosophy on education, and on the particular challenges we face in our efforts to reinvent it.

Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?

I certainly don’t imagine that my work has advanced innovation in education. This sounds awfully lofty. I consider myself a learner, and I’d like to think that I model learning everyday for students and for my colleagues. As such, perhaps I have helped others find comfort in taking a risk, trying something new, or expanding their teaching practice in an innovative manner. Seven years ago, my students on the Navajo Nation were blogging and creating electronic portfolios, as well as working on a cooperative project with students in Armenia via a Project Harmony exchange I participated in. While projects like these changed the way my kids were used to learning and interacting with technology, no discernible mark was left on Education with a capital E.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

With any luck, some minds have changed, opened, learned to be critical, engaged citizens of the world.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

While I have taught in schools with significant challenges, like the two years I taught at the Babur Mektep in Bazaar-Korgon, Kyrgyzstan, where our classroom was tiny and our only resource was a painted board in the front of the classroom, I now teach at an international school with incredible technological resources. It has never been easier for me to try new methods, especially with technology, and what I am learning is that innovation begins with curriculum. All the neat-o tools and toys on earth are poor substitutes for student-centered, supportive learning environments and anyone can build that anywhere. Of course, all children should have unfettered access to information technology and this access should be a teaching tool and involve the exploration of ethics, digital citizenship, and media literacy, but globally we are a long way from this ideal.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

I have been able to create student-centered discussion spaces online, allow for creativity via media production, open opportunities for publishing via digital platforms, receive regular, timely feedback from students through online surveys, and connect students across the globe through technology. I am experimenting with modeling writing processes via “flipped classroom” style videos. I’d like to move to e-readers in student “alliances” or reading circles to allow choice and cooperative, constructivist environments in the high-level English literature classroom.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

In the US, I’d say the biggest obstacle is the current regime of high-stakes testing used to control funding, evaluate schools and teachers, and shutter neighborhood schools. No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the end result of a manufactured “crisis” in education over the past 30 years, has been an unmitigated disaster. The entire concept of clean data generated by standardized bubble tests is broken badly for any number of reasons and undermines the great egalitarian mission of the American public schools. As long as one-fifth of American children live in poverty, what are these tests going to show that wasn’t explicated by Peter Sacks and his now-famous “Volvo effect” more than 10 years ago? It’s sad, but I don’t currently teach there, so it’s hardly my problem right now. I know and respect so many outstanding educators who are working like mad to serve their students and learning communities throughout the country. They are heroes. In my international school, we are very, very lucky not to have these problems.

What is your country doing right to support education?

In the US, I’d say that some states that generate a statewide pool of funds from property taxes to support kids equally on a per capita basis are doing something right. Innumerable teachers and administrators are doing great work to connect kids, protect kids and teachers from these invalid, awful standardized tests. I know teachers who write grants to stock their art classrooms despite funding cuts. This is all amazing. Any parent who opts their kids out of standardized testing as Will Richardson has just done is also doing something right. Here in Switzerland, the model is fairly traditional as far as I have been able to tell, but many schools are making strides in applying a more progressive model, bringing technology into the classroom, and so on. I also find the apprenticeship model here very compelling, with much to offer a variety of learner types.

What conditions must change in your country to better support education? 

In the States, I’d say NCLB must go and the tests have got to be ditched. Communities should have greater control of their schools, as well – that’s the nature of democracy. If there is less coercion from the top down, maybe there will be less coercion in the classroom and we can start building more powerful communities of learners within and beyond schools, across generations. I’d like that.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

I’d say first in curriculum design and second in technology. There is so much that we don’t do, don’t ask kids to do in schools. The Dewey School was utilizing amazing curriculum in 1898, but you don’t hear that in energizing TED talks on what is wrong in education; it’s like the Industrial Revolution came along and everybody became cardboard cutouts. All sorts of excellent ideas are out there, we just need to grasp them, to trust kids, and to empower teachers and administrators to break out of the box in the best interests of their students, communities, countries, and the Earth. We need creative thinkers to make earth wonderful for the 9 billion people who will be here in 2050. Of course, technology creates powerful opportunities for students and teachers alike to do real, authentic projects in order to start solving problems today, together. I’m a big believer in what Clay Shirky calls “cognitive surplus,” and the more we connect youth, or allow them to connect themselves, the quicker they are going to learn to work together in virtual spaces. This may look like kids are wasting time occasionally, but giving students space to “hang out, mess around, and geek out,” as the Digital Youth Project terms it, is important.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Be passionate about your discipline, be interested in education, and be ready to make (and embrace) open, obvious mistakes in front of children and colleagues. Fight perfectionism, but have high standards. Allow kids to follow their interests. Don’t be an authority – this has always been true, but today they’re going to search for the right answer and create a hilarious meme about your stubborn refusal to say “I don’t know, but let’s find out.” For anyone wanting to make a difference in education, learn the history of education. Today’s hippest blog trend is to deliver a manifesto on education, because everyone has been stuck in a desk for 10-20 years of their life. Don’t waste your time synthesizing liberal education or vocational education, but instead learn the brilliant ideas that already exist (but that aren’t in the pop cultural zeitgeist) and THEN synthesize an ingenious solution to help kids.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

I’d say that project or problem-based learning is a great trend that is helping kids. Of course, these things take time, which is tough in test-drilling situations. But, this is a way forward for schools. Clearly, social connectivity is a powerful trend that kids are using to learn on their own, as well. So that’s powerful. Trends that get in the way of learning include demonizing schools, kids, teachers, parents, communities, poverty, and so on. I’m wary of the “flipped classroom” in some ways, because I’m sure that lecture doesn’t work for most kids, and often this is the “lecture-as-homework” model, which is not very inovative. I think this trend has great potential as a storehouse of models for kids to check out and learn from, writers writing, mathematicians doing math, biologists dissecting, and so on. But, it should be preparatory for actual doing, not a replacement for kids having authentic experiences of their own.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

This is a great question. I want to say an e-reader with complete access to every text ever written, like a volcanic English teacher fantasy. But, it would be a fully functional laptop, ideally with Internet access. The computer is an easel, a darkroom, a printing press, a library, a café, a telephone, a movie theater. Powerful. There’s no denying it.


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About Ian Hoke
English Teacher Adliswil, Switzerland

Ian Hoke is an international educator, currently working at Zurich International School’s
Upper School as a high school English teacher. Hoke teaches English through the older grade levels, AP Language & Composition, AP Literature & Composition, and digital journalism. He has taught English as Second (or additional) Language at the Babur School in Bazaar-Korgon, Kyrgyz Republic, high school English at Tohatchi High School in ohatchi, New Mexico, on the Navajo Nation, middle and high school English and history, including AP World and AP European History at Quality Schools International’s International School of Chengdu in Chengdu, China. He is engaged in learning his craft daily, and in learning of all sorts – creative writing, sports like cycling and snowboarding,
meditative practices like Ashtanga yoga, mastery of fly-fishing, improving interpersonal communication, parenting, and being a better person. Hoke is an active blogger and writes poetry and fiction.

Birthplace: Cincinnati, Ohio
Current residence: Au  ZH, Switzerland
Education:  BA English Literature – Miami University, Master of Arts in Teaching – Secondary – Western New Mexico University
Websites I check every day: my Twitter feed, full of excellent educators, writers, thinkers.
Person who inspires me most: Noam Chomsky
Favorite childhood memory: Splashing in the freezing North Sea in Northumberland with my sister and cousins.
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Back to Colorado for the summer.
When was the last time you laughed? Why? Today with athletes at track practice, trying to throw a slippery discus in the frigid rain. Perseverance!
Favorite book: Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabakov
Favorite music: Bluegrass!
Your favorite quote or motto: A traveller! By my faith, you have great reason to be sad: I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men’s; then to have seen much and to have nothing is to have rich eyes and poor hands. -Rosalind in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It


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