For students in the Virginia school district Eric Williams leads, technology and content are integrated seamlessly into life-changing, serviced-based learning projects. With a higher purpose driving them, students not only learn their curriculum-driven subject matter, they also master the 21st century skills they’ll need to succeed throughout life. And they stay engaged long after the assignment is due.
Williams, a former Social Studies teacher and principal, promotes providing students with opportunities to make a difference locally, nationally, and globally through project-based learning. He says it’s never too early to start students on this path, citing third graders in his district who were charged with a difficult decision: how to invest real charitable dollars allocated to Oxfam. The students experimented with different fertilizer types, Skyped with experts and ultimately made a decision based on their findings. “So much can be accomplished when you combine service learning with learning content,” Williams says.
In between his judging duties at the recent Partners in Learning (PiL) U.S. Forum, Williams took time to talk to me about the benefits of project-based learning – especially when it addresses important social causes, and about the importance of scaling up success. “What’s been incredibly inspiring at this PiL forum has been how innovative individual teachers are,” Williams told me, “and I don’t think that schools and principals have done a good enough job of scaling up. It is too common of an occurrence for a teacher to be doing something incredible effective in one classroom and for no one else in that building to know about it.”
Technology plays a key role, of course. Students in Williams’ district can bring their own technology to connect to the district’s wireless network, and with their private Internet cloud, students and staff are no longer tethered to a specific computer. Here, Williams shares how he’s managed to scale the great work of teachers in his district, along with some fascinating service-based learning success stories. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
We need to fight against the content coverage mentality that grips much of education. Too often, teachers set aside effective instructional practices in order to cover content. Too often, principals, superintendents and legislators make decisions, create procedures, and adopt policies that encourage a content coverage mentality. We should promote deep thinking and problem solving by our students, not just rote memorization. If we promote the joy of teaching and learning then students will have more success mastering the content and skills of the curriculum.
What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?
The best opportunity for innovation in education and for improving student achievement is to increase student engagement. Alan November asks the question, who owns the learning? To increase student engagement and ownership of learning, we should give students opportunities to do meaningful work-work that makes a difference locally, nationally, and globally. So, let’s work with students to identify and tackle problems, such as limited natural resources, childhood obesity, and illiteracy. As Angela Maiers puts it, let’s encourage students to choose to matter.
Innovation will allow us to be much more successful in engaging students in work that matters. Innovatively using technology to collaborate, to create, and to problem-solve will help students make a difference locally, nationally, and globally. Using technology to break down traditional barriers of time and space will also help students do meaningful work.
We refer to this approach in our district as transformative learning. Students are transforming the world around them through their work and educators are transforming the way teaching and learning occurs. As global futurist David Houle emphasizes, we need to transform teaching and learning to reflect the acceleration of globalization, personalization, and electronic connectivity.
What is your country/region doing right to support education?
Every day many teachers across the globe make a heroic decision. They say to themselves, I am going to resist the content coverage mentality that the educational system tries to impose. Instead of having students merely memorize a bunch of facts, I am going to stick with instructional practices that I know are effective. One example of this is teachers who engage students in work that makes a difference locally, nationally, and/or globally.
Examples of these heroes exist at all levels:
- Elementary school teachers whose students research and debate options for fertilizing soil in order to manage actual charitable donations;
- Middle school teachers who engage students in creating and publishing online book trailers to promote great books among peers; and
- High school teachers who engage students in restoring the oyster population of a bay in order to improve water quality.
These teachers understand that when students know that their actions count, they commit themselves fully to their work. Students’ effort with these projects shows that they know their work has meaning beyond a grade. They ask to stay in at recess to work on the projects. Due dates pass. Grades are assigned. And in some cases students keep working because they value the work beyond the grade.
Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?
I aspire to advance innovation by scaling up effective practices. Pockets of innovation exist in many schools and school districts. We see individual teachers employing highly effective, innovative practices. However, as Alan November has pointed out, too often teachers aren’t aware of innovation that occurs right down the hall. That is a systems issue that we need to change. So, to advance innovation, let’s focus on the holy grail of education — the scaling up of effective practices. How do we move from pockets of innovation to a sustained, consistent culture of innovation?
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
Technology is a means to an end. We leverage technology to improve and amplify the impact of student work. Our students blog, tweet, Skype, create, collaborate, and publish using digital tools as part of doing work that makes a difference.
Three key innovations have allowed us to create a technology infrastructure that is all about access— on-demand access to digital tools and online resources.
With Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT), students and staff members access our wireless network both with district-purchased and student-owned devices. Our robust wireless network and our significant bandwidth are important to BYOT in terms of providing the
access students and staff members want.
With our Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), the users of our network are no longer tethered to a specific computer at one location. VDI—our private Internet cloud— allows students, teachers, and others to use the district network’s resources anytime, anyplace, and from any device with an Internet connection.
Our online learning opportunities also break down traditional barriers of time and space. Students throughout Virginia have access to more than seventy virtual courses taught by our teachers. Also, our teachers are increasingly blending virtual instruction with face-to-face instruction. For example, some students meet with teachers and classmates online outside of normal school hours for additional work and learning.
What has changed as a result of your efforts?
I aspire to promote student engagement and the joy of teaching and learning. When students commit themselves fully to their work, when teaching and learning are not drudgery, learning is deeper and longer-lasting.
How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?
In addition to creating the technology infrastructure I described, three key steps would help others scale up the effective use of technology for learning:
- Crafting a Shared Vision—Students’ use of digital tools should be promoted in the context of a broader vision of engaging students in work that makes a difference in the world. Technology provides students with tools and resources for solving problems and for connecting with people who are both collaborators and an audience for student work. Without a broader vision for leveraging technology, technology will likely only bring superficial changes.
- Creating Supportive Policy—Transitioning from policies that support, rather than block, student use of technology will contribute to scaling up the effective use of technology for learning. In order to teach students acceptable, responsible use we need to give students guided opportunities to develop and practice digital citizenship. In our district, we do not ban Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. Instead, we promote the appropriate usage of these tools for learning. So, we have students accessing and sharing educational resources via Twitter, publishing tutorials via YouTube, and working in study groups via Facebook. We also foster students safely blogging and posting work for audiences beyond the walls of the classroom by obtaining parent permission for safe collaboration, connection, and sharing of work.
- Facilitating Professional Learning—We recently hosted a gallery walk featuring student and educator work in which our teachers learned from, and were inspired by, their colleagues. We engage teachers in using protocols for looking at student work and reflecting on best practices. We also encourage teachers to act as teacher-leaders by sharing ideas and resources to support colleagues.
What conditions must change in your country/region to better support education?
I just mentioned examples of ways we facilitate learning among teachers and other educators, but we need to create more opportunities for educators to learn from one another and to collaborate with others in support of innovation. This learning and collaboration can occur both in-person and through technology. The Microsoft Partners in Learning program is an example of addressing this need.
The Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools is another initiative that is forging partnerships to support innovation. The League connects schools and districts with entrepreneurs and researchers at top universities.
What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?
Don’t forget what motivated you to become a teacher—which I would guess involves connecting with young people, inspiring them, and making a difference. Resist the content coverage mentality.
What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?
I love the emphasis on personalization, but some people view automation based on student needs as personalization. That view of personalization gets in the way of learning.
Personalization should not just be about learning based on individual student needs. It should be about relationships and engaging students in work that is meaningful to them.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
Connectivity. Access to the Internet, while not a tool, is the most powerful means to learning and making a difference. With the Internet, people connect with ideas, tools for problem-solving and creating, as well as collaborators and an audience for one’s work. Connectivity amplifies our ability to do high quality work and to make a difference.
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About Eric Williams
Eric Williams is the Superintendent of the York County School Division in Virginia, a school district of 12,500 students served through 19 schools. He started his career as a teacher of Social Studies and English as a Second Language in Virginia and Brazil. After moving to Massachusetts, he worked as the Director of an alternative school that featured project-based learning before becoming a middle school Assistant Principal. He subsequently served as a high school Assistant Principal, Principal and Assistant Superintendent in a 40,000-student school district in Naples, Florida. Williams promotes the joy of teaching and learning. He advocates engaging students in rigorous educational experiences, rather than just covering content to prepare students for tests. He was named as one of ten recipients nationwide of the 2011 Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award.
- Birthplace: Waco, Texas
- Current residence: Yorktown, Virginia
- Education: A.B., College of William and Mary; Master in Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; Ed.D. in Educational Leadership, Boston University
- Website I check every day: Twitter
- Person who inspires me most: It’s impossible to name just one person. The list includes Alan November, Angela Maiers, and several current or former principals I worked for previously (Michele Lugo, Roy Terry, Charles Chaurette, and Mary Manning)
- Favorite childhood memory: Sitting on the stairway with my six siblings on Christmas morning waiting with great anticipation to open stockings and exchange gifts.
- Next travel destination (work or pleasure): I will be travelling with my wife and son to visit my daughter at Haverford College in Pennsylvania.
- When was the last time you laughed? Why? Laughing with my wife and son during our conversation over dinner last night.
- Favorite book: My favorite book that I read recently is The Dot by Peter Reynolds. The Dot is a children’s book about a little girl who is challenged by her teacher to “make her mark.”
- Favorite music: From classic rock (Styx and REO Speedwagon) to pop music (Maroon 5 and Michael Buble)
- Your favorite quote or motto: Choose to Matter.