Alan November at TEDxNYED

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A fifteen minute presentation format is a very short time to try to build a case for a big idea. Alan November’s TEDxNYED talk is about how the current culture of school typically underestimates the contribution that many students would make to solve real problems and to make a contribution to help classmates learn. Of course, a model of teaching to the test does not promote the kind of higher order problem solving that I try to outline in the talk. Alan is hopeful that authentic work and a culture of student contribution can support the current obsession with test scores.

I am very interested in what others have to say. Please respond to any of my questions and add your own.

  • What are the opportunities for authentic work for students within the current structure of school?
  • Can we really expect all students to make a contribution to the learning community?
  • How do we help teachers manage the shift of control to the students making much more of a contribution to their own learning and to the community?


  1. Great talk! Based upon my following of your work I believe you know the answers to the questions above. I have thoughts and ideas, but would be humbled to offer them in this format. The topic is so broad that snippets in a blog seems too limited and prone to misunderstanding. Keep up the great work. I’m watching and following!

  2. Unfortunately most of the opportunities for students to create include rules, constraints and a specific end in mind. This spoils the whole purpose of letting students create and the end product is flat.

    Students are contributing to the learning community. Too often it is happening outside of the classroom. Your example of Fan Fiction is happening in many different arenas. The next step is to EXPECT all learners to contribute to a learning community and incorporate this into daily practice.

    Your message needs to be heard and repeated over and over. The excitement for teaching and learning will build from within. Support the teachers who “get it” with whatever they need and celebrate those accomplishments.

  3. Timely info and perspectives. I am creating a course for online teaching that will utilize these ideas. Having teachers first experience this notion of using technology to solve real problems is what is needed. thanks.

  4. I find myself with all sorts of radical thoughts. What if students were involved in writing job descriptions for school positions? Or writing evaluation criteria for staff and teachers? If we want students to take ownership of their educations, then to whom should educators really be accountable?

  5. Alan:

    Great presentation! As you note, all of the tools are there for authentic, individualized learning – we just need to develop the capacity to rethink role of teacher (while still functioning w/in current regulatory constraints, of course, which is hard!). Let us know how we can help at Lightspeed.

  6. It really is exciting to live in this time of disruptive innovations that has allowed for the opportunity for discussions and hopefully widespread changes like these to take place in education. What is encouraging is the Great Convergence across disciplines that is taking place right now. As Wayne stated it is difficult to do this justice, but I believe in the power of collaboration to facilitate discussion on these important questions; I will respond with my opinions as best I can to the 3 VERY involved initial questions:
    1. It depends on how “the current structure” is at the individual school. It can be done constantly, but as Dan Pink points out the punitive nature of the bureaucracy in most places makes it difficult from a directional point. Those schools that are working in a “learning organization” structure with genuine students needs put first, I believe there are opportunities for meaningful purpose driven work to happen every second. Dr. Schlechty and Sir Ken Robinson both talk in great details about designing meaningful work for a creative and passionate learners.
    2. Yes and we must… even if we are in a system that puts up barriers. It is our civil and moral obligation to do so at every level of education.
    3. Strong leadership and support. From the leadership side everyone needs to have the same clear articulated vision, build trust, show compassion, provide stability, and create hope. From the support we need collaboration time built in specifically to use the cycle of modeling, practice, feedback, and coaching with both peers and students involved in this support process.

    As a classroom teacher I had 1 rule; you must create and publicly contribute something to the group that would build it up and help others. What was your rule?

  7. This was very insightful, especially the part about having students come up with the problems and then going back to figure out what technology would be needed to solve it. My wife and I have discussed this issue many times — teaching students first how to think critically and solve problems, THEN they can apply that knowledge to AP Language, AP Calculus, whatever. My seniors read the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, and we went through what I call a “free-thinking” exercise — think of a problem (school, local, state, nation, global) and unbind your mind to how to solve that problem. AP Lang and AP Calc, and many of the innumerable problems of this world, will never be solved by linear thinking; and too often our students come to us knowing how to regurgitate the rote answer but not being able to think critically. My question, and problem right now, is how to get students from the “free-thinking” stage to putting it into action — giving them ownership and motivation to go to the next step.

  8. One of the scariest moments of trying to teach high school students to identify their own problems occurred during the initial challenge of asking them to describe a real world problem. Many of them were paralyzed. I had to bring in various friends/community folks to explain how they identified and solved problems in their respective fields. I taught my students to interview them to learn a general problem solving approach. Looking back, it is possible that not one of my students had ever been challenged to solve a real world problem in school or had been taught a general problem solving approach.

  9. Nancy,

    Eureka! You are right. We should develop a staff development model that teaches teachers how to solve real world problems in their respective fields. Please let me know how it goes for you.

  10. Michael,

    I love your classroom rule: “As a classroom teacher I had 1 rule; you must create and publicly contribute something to the group that would build it up and help others. What was your rule?”

    What if every teacher adopted this rule? What if grades (similar to varsity sports) were dependent on the success of the class?

  11. Alan,
    Mike and I are using skype and google docs right now to talk about this video and the ideas you presented in the talk. At different districts our students developed the online textbook you referenced in the talk. We have a few thoughts and comments for your readers. But lets start with a quote from a 12 year old: “A student cannot master what is in the darkness, if there is not someone to light the way”

    Within the current structure of schools, authentic learning is an uphill battle. The true opportunities for authentic learning exist in the determination of teachers willing to take calculated risks and change education back to teaching. Authentic learning exist only through the hearts, minds and classrooms of teachers willing to create a partnership with their students. You referenced Dan Pink’s book Drive. Garth and I are driven in our work. We want students to leave a digital legacy, take ownership of their learning, and create knowledge not just for us and the front of their refrigerators at home, but for all people. To us, teaching is about heart and passion, our drive. Learning is not about teachers, it is about students. We facilitate opportunities for students to follow their passions and learn the way that is best for them. The classroom is a partnership. That partnership extends outside of the classroom, across districts and reaches around the globe via technology.

    We believe all students have the ability to contribute to the learning community. Teachers must help students discover ways to create their legacy. In the online textbook students are leaving their legacy through podcasting, cartooning, text, etc. We laid the foundation and allow students to create the structure using their strengths.

    In order to help manage the shift of control students must become active members in the process. During a recent conference, we took six seventh grade students with us to document the day. These students interviewed teachers, attend sessions and then produced and edited three videos (links below) in five hours. The students then presented their work to the 400+ teachers attending the workshop. It was complete role-reversal; students documented our day, instead of us collecting data concerning their day. We must also afford teachers an environment that encourages calculated risk taking, trying new methodology and stepping back to allow students to lead their learning. It’s scary to give control to students; can kids talk, laugh, type on a computer, gaze out the window while learning? YES. Teachers need to realize that if we look at how we learn research shows that the more difficultly the task, the more social it should be. We need to open our minds to a more social education. The time has come. Student overview of the conference Keynote mash-up Response to Vision for k-12 Education Today

    Mike and Garth
    “Be the change you want to see in the world” -Gandhi

  12. Mike and Garth,

    As you know I have been impressed with your student authored Wiki textbook in World History, You work continues to be an inspiration. We must find a way to instill your sense of empowering students to own and contribute to the learning of others within the design of the system.

  13. My students got so excited when they saw this video clip. We all thank you because our students love creating tutorials and they get thrilled when their work is shared with a global audience!

    I will comment more in a bit, but for now I wanted to say “thanks”. Also, one of our students mentioned she hopes to post a comment here as well!

  14. Hi Eric,

    Please encourage your student to post here. I think many of us would be interested in hearing how a learner feels about creating legacy.

    Perhaps she will inspire other students to share as well.


  15. Mr. November, your keynote was inspiring. I now fully understand the point of view that you express, the point of view that portrays the idea that if the students are given the opportunities and the choices to use technology, they will chose to do more. Although this ideas has occurred to me before, I have never thought about what would happen if this was actually implemented in a classroom. I now understand that this has the potential to redefine teaching itself.

  16. We may hear from student “Bob”! (She’s the one who made the Prime Factorization video displayed and referred to in this talk.) I think it’s safe to write that “Bob” and her parents were quite moved and proud when they saw your TEDx clip.

    In the meantime, I wanted to respond a bit to your questions at the top of this page. I have found that students crave for the opportunity to create authentic work. I have also seen that students can be natural collaborators. I am a huge fan of having students take an active role in their own learning.

    About 5 years ago, we had a physics simulation program on our tablet pc. Students would come by after school, on their own time, and try to make objects bounce around in various ways by adding gravity and forces. Students would ask another student, “How did you do that?” and they would show them. They would build on each other’s ideas.

    I remember one student created a star shape and got it to “defy” gravity by adding forces to make the star rotate in place. A group of students had gathered around the tablet. Suddenly, they all celebrated by cheering and they quickly applied the method and combined it with their own ideas to collectively make even more complex gravity “defying” scenes. This was where I began seeing the power in “kids teaching kids”. The students accelerated their own learning via this collaboration and contributed to the learning of others (including the teacher).

    Our student math videos (screencasts) evolved much the same way. When we began screencasting, we had no idea what to do or how to it. But the students learned from each other, sharing how they added pop-up graphics, transitions, music and such. We began to see how the screencasts were benefiting our math classes. Eventually, we created the Mathtrain.TV site and iTunes Podcast. But the real fun is watching all the heart that students pour into their 1-2 minute math videos.

    Today, students continue to come after school nearly every day in hopes of creating a screencast. They come from different grades, a variety of levels and they include students I have never taught. The students do not receive any extra credit and there is no official invitation – – they just show up because they want to! As you mentioned in your talk, the students will gladly work longer on just one video than they would on several night’s worth of typical homework! They like helping their friends with a math problem and they like having the opportunity to help people from all over the world.

    Creating student tutorials is actually easy to do. You do not need to have a podcast or your own video site. I can post some ideas on ways to get started if anyone is interested. Also, my students are always willing to help and/or exchange ideas with other educators and students. Thanks!

  17. Alan,

    I love the ideas that you talk about and I believe that all students have the ability to make a contribution to the learning community, what I see is that the contribution may take many different forms such as video, audio, web site development, musical composition, art etc. When I was a student we only had one possibly 2 options writing or oral presentation – today still as a learner I have so many ways to contribute. I focus on the ones that appeal to me and my ideas and part of that process is to create podcasts and over the years the podcast I am involved with has talked to Eric and his students about their learning to share with others.

    Part of the challenge our teachers face is being comfortable with being a learner and being comfortable with learning from our students and knowing that as a teacher you can provide advice, experience and knowledge without having to know it all yourself before you begin.

  18. Hi Alan,

    Thanks for this blog post. I was lucky enough to hear you speak virtually at a conference here in Queensland, Australia last year when you focussed on students creating an impact on the world that we lived in. I am a teacher of year 7 in Brisbane, Australia and am constantly looking for ways to make students have ‘authentic audiences’ to the work that they do. In my experience, if kids know that they were is going to be shared with more than the teacher, their peers and their parents, they are going to put a greater effort into their work and take more pride in its production.

    In regards to your first question about opportunities for authentic work opportunities – this is a constant challenge. In my organisation, we have a very closed and blocked system that does not allow a colloboration (I hate trying to spell that word) with others from outside of our system. I have been inspired by the work of Eric Marcos (and was excited to see that you mentioned him in your video) and decided to get off my butt and implement something. I asked him how he got started and off we went. My 7th grade students have been creating screencasts and we have been able to share them with the wider community within my organisation, not just with our class. The feedback that we have been getting has been great and the kids are inspired and motivated to do more. We are going to attempt to work with Eric’s class next term and I think that is going to be fantastic.

    I think that we can expect all students to make a contribution to the learning community. Learning is not longer an isolated experience and I know that I am learning from my students constantly. Everyday, I learn something new and inspiring. Sometimes those contributions are not overly complex but it doesn’t matter – the buzz that my low student gets when he or she is valued is amazing and we need to keep fostering and encouraging that.

    We are in the middle of getting the kids ready for our national test here in Australia (NAPLAN) and the writing task is a persuasive text. My kids emailed politicians in our country about their issue to give them an ‘authentic audience’. Then one of them had a bright idea to create online petitions and the rest is history. People from around the world have signed them and various blog entries have been created. Check out our work at

    Teachers shifting their pedagogy is the biggest challenge. I think we can help them by continuing to highlight the great learning experiences that students are having within these types of learning environments but if adminstrators are leading the push. A lot of teachers will ask ‘Why bother?’ My answer is that 21st century kids deserve 21st century learning experiences.

    We are in the middle of getting the kids ready for our national test here in Australia (NAPLAN) and the writing task is a persuasive text. My kids emailed politicians in our country about their issue to give them an ‘authentic audience’. Then one of them had a bright idea to create online petitions and the rest is history. People from around the world have signed them and various blog entries have been created. Check out our work at

    End of my long rant! Would love to hear your thoughts.


  19. Alan,

    We met through Bob Pearlman and Alan Michel. For the past year, the School Council of Somerville (MA) High School has encouraged students to create online portfolios, and, for the past six months, a tiny sub-particle of a larger Harvard/Ford program, OneVille, has supported a largely volunteer effort involving kids, teachers, departments, and a few of us outsiders in helping kids conceive and create their own portfolios.

    The truth is that they are all so proud that they’ll make them available online, but I’m so shy that I want to be careful with their information. Several students – there were 12 in all, from 9th through 12th grade – are particularly proud and eager to share, for example, Vanessa Cordeiro, here

    Portfolios have a long and reasonably distinguished history, even electronic versions like those at New Tech and High Tech High networks. Yet, in public schools, they tend to be only on paper – where control and academic requirements limit their vitality and…utility.

    Online, electronic portfolios say so much more they don’t compare with their paper precedents. They illustrate student-driven learning, in and out of school; how students integrate new knowledge with new problems they then solve; and how teachers can find out more about student skills than through assignments, tests, and all the superstructure of traditional curriculum

    Of one of our students, for example, on viewing poetry set to music and pictures by a Freshman, her English teacher marveled that she had never been assigned any poetry, and could write so well in spite of – one might infer because of – her bilingualism. Such comments rippled throughout the school of 1340 kids, and across all disciplines.

    The school is now, with very little foundation support, expanding the pool and models of those portfolios. They still incorporate Dr. Arnold Packer’s “soft skills” that integrate (rather than segregate) disciplines and problem solving – responsibility, teamwork, creativity, listening, etc. – yet they use, as Vanessa’s draft portfolio uses – a wealth of media, a range of different projects and team efforts, and remarkably frank and useful self-assessment.

    Your TED introduction seems well matched with this particular kind of assessment, and I wonder if there are other examples that might … go viral. There are a batch of other samples already, and more in the pipeline from Somerville. Good luck and let us “make it better.”

  20. Alan, great perspective as usual. I have really enjoyed the comments left by others on this blog!

    I feel a big miss in education today is the application of currently available technology to engage students and provide a safe-secure environment for interacting with business and mentors to explore general and career areas of interest. We have created a tool, called I-CAN. Imagine the ability for a student in their own Internet portal to click an interest button, then find an expert; click an opportunities button and view lists of business postings for internships, real life business projects for students, and global student STEM research projects; or to enter their private workspace to create portfolios based on real life projects. Based on our experience in education, I have made the following comments to your questions.

    1. What are the opportunities for authentic work for students within the current structure of school? Two important enablers – 1) teachers must have instruction for project-based learning; 2) students must be able to interact with business or other entities to become involved with research, projects and problem solving.

    2. Can we really expect all students to make a contribution to the learning community? Yes. Every student has something that interests them. By providing the student content, mentors, tools and a platform for presentation, every student can and will contribute because they are engaged. Particularly when facilitated by the teacher.

    3. How do we help teachers manage the shift of control to the students making much more of a contribution to their own learning and to the community? Professional development, modeling and mentoring. We have created professional development courses called TITLE (Technology Integration for Teaching and Learning in Education) with three goals –
    • Changing teaching strategies (project-based and student centered)
    • Teaching integration skills – every course starts with a project
    • Application skills as a by-product and not taught in silos

    Not just our teachers, but district and school leadership need professional development to support the efforts of our teachers for project and student based learning.

    KNS – Knowledge Network Solutions, Inc.

    I-CAN – Internet Community Action Network, Inc.

    Attached is a video we prepared for national education concerns expressed by President Obama and how it aligns with our online learning community solutions.

    Thanks for the opportunity to contribute to the discussion! – jon

  21. Within the current structure of school students have the opportunity to post school projects and other learning experiences to school blogs. As a result, student engagement has increased. They are able to communicate with others and gain another perspective. We need to create an atmosphere that allows students and teachers to bring in real world problem and work to provide solutions.

    All students are able to make contributions to the learning community. Our job as teachers is to understand student needs and strengths, give students purpose, and place students in roles in which they experience success.

    As instructional leaders, we can assist teachers with shifting the control to the students to make contributions of their own learning by helping educators understand how to connect authentic experiences with our curricular goals. We need to start small with guiding teachers to utilize technology to support authentic learning, and not develop authentic learning based on a piece of technology.

  22. There are opportunities for authentic work for students that are high ability and high potential, but the district leadership teams gave the teachers and students the problem to solve. Teaching teams then identify the resources and materials that are appropriate for students to use. Students then work in interest based teams to answer questions that they generated. Final presentations are often student choice. There are individual teachers that also have this vision, but feel too rushed to engage in a constructivist model.

    All students can identify a problem if given the opportunity. The teacher’s role is to facilitate learning by providing both prerequisite skills and teaching skills and strategies in context.

    For teachers to embrace authentic learning they need the freedom and encouragement to take risks and possibly fail. They also need professional development and tools to implement. They also need models of diverse learners (different languages and abilities) and different age groups who have succeeded in authentic learning projects.

  23. Our schools have the ability to support authentic learning because of the flexible teaming structure of the teachers. The time is more flexible, etc in the Middle school versus the structure of the elementary school. That being said, it does not mean the elementary school’s structure cannot change to meet the challenge. We tend to create the structures that are our own worst enemies. If we let go of the excuses and think differently, we could more easily adjust to meet the needs of authentic learning opportunities. When and how we do things can change, and teachers and principals are in control of this.

    We must expect all students to contribute to the learning community. Often those we feel cannot make the contribution are the ones who would benefit the most from authentic learning. To give low motivated students an opportunity to excel and have an intrinsic motivation to learn will accelerate their skills.

    We need to be flexible in how we group the student based on interests, needs, purpose. We need to create groups and roles within those groups to get things done, but to meet the individual needs of the student. We must define what the roles entail, and give students experiences in all. The students are going to contribute in many ways, so we can never say, “Johnny can’t do this role.”

    Teacher’s role is crucial in his/her ability to analyze the needs of the students, guide and layer the process to meet those needs, but not dictate what the roles and “authentic” purpose is.


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