Saturday, April 17, 2021

Face To Face With Technology Icon Alan November

It is unlikely anyone would doubt that Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, garners respect as being one of the top leaders in the field of business, much like Peyton Manning a frontrunner in football or Alan Dershowitz a most-distinguished lawyer. In the field of education and technology, Alan November blazes the path.

His company website quotes someone saying about November, “An iconoclast whose common sense we cannot afford to ignore.” Why would we consider listening to him? Reputable companies, such as Apple, Cisco, Disney, Harvard, Stanford, and Time Warner have hired his company, November Learning. Many educators are familiar with the work of Alan November, especially those involved with using technology in the classroom.

This past school year, Southlake’s Carroll ISD began implementing a $138 million bond proposal that includes $26 million dedicated mostly to technology innovations. With this infusion of technology in our classrooms, Carroll ISD is training the staff on how to use and incorporate these new innovations.  Being the Coordinator for 21st Century Learning and Professional Development, I attended an educational conference keynote speech given by Alan November. In his speech, he presented numerous ways and strategies that educators can engage students in meaningful contexts. Those ideas were relevant and useful for not only today’s classrooms, but as importantly, tomorrow’s classrooms.

After his session, I had an opportunity to speak to him. “How do we do this? How do we help our teachers, and ourselves, move forward?” I asked. He responded, “One teacher at a time.”

When Alan November informed me of an upcoming presentation to a local school district, I volunteered to pick him up at the airport and transport him to his hotel. Based on this opportunity, I had prepared a list of questions to ask him. “May I ask you a few questions?” “Sure,” he stated. Upon asking the first question an inquisitive smile lit up his face.

Lisa: Tell me how you got to where you are today?

Alan:I was born in New York to a chemical engineer systems-thinker father that helped build the Gemini rocket and a Swiss mother that spoke five languages. At the age of one, my family moved to Boston where I still live today.

Lisa: Did you grow up attending a public or private school?

Alan:I went to a public school. After graduating from high school, I went to the University Of Massachusetts, which is like your University of Texas, and graduated with a degree in City Planning. I was asked to help an island school, off the coast of Boston, to rebuild. This school was designed to help troubled teens. The job was for the summer only. After my three months, I packed up my bags to head back to Boston. The very last day of my contract, the school came to me and said, “We had a teacher resign. Would you teach?” So, I did for one year. While at the island school, I realized this school needed financial assistance and would not be able to maintain stability, so I wrote a grant for the school. This is something I am still proud of today. The school is still functioning as an Outward Bound Center. Beautiful school and place.

Lisa: What did you do next?

Alan:I ran a high school in Lexington. I was exposed to violence again when a student pulled a knife on me the first day of class. This school in Lexington is where I met a very unique student. He broke into this alternative high school to learn and program. Broke in… Lisa, have you ever seen a kid break into a school to learn?

Lisa: No, I never have.

Alan:I had definitely never have seen this. The kid was failing all of his courses and was about to drop out of school. I talked to the other teachers and asked them if this kid could show he could do the work, would they pass him. They said okay. This kid did the work for a full course load over a weekend. Have you seen this before?

Lisa: No, I have never seen that either.”

Alan:Two Nevers. I think I will start calling this kid Two Nevers. I steered this young man into a successful future. This kid was accepted and ended up graduating from the University of Chicago, one of the most prestigious schools in the country.

This experience made me question and think about solutions to the violence I saw, the schooling we are providing. So, I went to Harvard Graduate School and majored in Developmental Psychology to help answer these questions.

Lisa: It has been said that 21st century learning skills do not prepare students for college and for the SAT. What do you say in response to that?

Alan:Put together human networks and look at global communications. (He pulls an article from the USA Today newspaper, probably read on the flight to Dallas.)It is the Tom Friedman[1]thing; any work that has linear rules to getting it done, those are over. Many jobs we have we will lose. Work moves to any place that is faster, cheaper, and better. We must teach our kids the global way. We must give kids a global model. The United States will be a shrinking opportunity for jobs.

Students must become independent. Our system teaches them to be dependent. The self-directed worker becomes the norm. People that are self-directed have an amazing economic opportunity. Steve Jobs has a graduation speech at Stanford; go visit it on YouTube.  The three failures he describes in his speech helped him. Look back and track your success by examining your failures. Also, watch J.K. Rawling’s speech she gave at Stanford. Watch this. Then, build a series of questions for the parents in your district. I did a video for Birmingham, Alabama’s parents. Ask questions around these speeches by famous people. Get your parents to think.

Lisa: What do you think schools will look like in ten years?

Alan:Unfortunately, most schools will look the exact same with only one thing missing: textbooks. Textbooks will be gone completely. Texas has strong leaders though. Examine your Project Share. This is a statewide network that will allow knowledge to be shared with typically isolated teachers. Educational conferences and traditional professional development will be more online. PD on-demand…that is where we are headed. With the new testing system in Texas, you guys will now be able to see which teachers are truly the most effective. Videos of the best teachers will be made public for all to see in Project Share. Teachers will watch one another more frequently.

I have been working with Cypress Fairbanks ISD. They have school visits where administrators go and visit other campuses. The schools that are the host school highlight an innovation; the host schools are the ones that benefit the most. Sitting around and discussing the innovation and preparing for people to come and see their innovation, spurred on changes and enhancements to the innovations. EVERY school should be forced to host, present, and showcase an innovative technique at their campus.

Lisa: Will we be using iPad type devices and laptops?

Alan:Well,we will be using iPad type devices and smaller. Cellular devices. I went to Singapore last month and saw a device that costs $99 and has capacity to hold textbook information for students and has web capabilities. Online learning will explode. More learning will be on-demand.

Research shows that half a second is the maximum amount of time a student should wait before getting feedback on a problem. Rutgers Dr. Paula Tallal and other scientists have found if you make a mistake, you will continue the mistake and your brain is recording that mistake. The traditional saying that practice makes perfect is not correct… it is now practice makes PERMANENT. It is too late. A teacher telling is processed in a different part of the brain. We harm children. The chemical pathways have been laid and formed.

Lisa: What are three steps that school districts and primarily school administrators should take in order to prepare its students to be successful in college and future careers?

Alan:First thing I would say is start with a vision. I think all would agree. My own vision emanates from a question, “Who owns the learning?” I think this is the most important question. My opinion is that too much technology goes to teachers to improve their teaching so they own the learning. Ask if there is strategy about teachers owning their learning or students owning their learning. We can debate whether that is a good enough question or not. Let’s decide that it is good enough to criticize. Look at your strategy to see if students own the learning. For example, students should be designing tutorials to build a collective library of high quality content approved by the teacher; it is really children helping children. There are all kinds of jobs we can give kids where they own the learning. I think that is a great strategy.

Second strategy, focus on very specific curricular areas, such as reading. Research in reading, for example, is very clear that students that read at home perform higher in reading when they read with parents. In England they are producing video with Flip Cameras that goes home on a DVD with a teacher reading with that child. The teacher looks directly into the camera and talks to the parents and gives them instruction on what to do. Very often the parent that gets the DVD does not come to parent night at the school because they were traumatized by schooling themselves. The whole capacity to pick a specific curricular area, such as reading, and building a plan around that makes sense to me. Too often what I see is technology for technology’s sake…like “Let’s do Prezi.” Or, or..Whatever the technology du jour is, you know, we’ll have our next favorite technology. So, extending beyond that, the vision absolutely comes first, then the technology. It is not the other way around. In that regard, the real revolution is not technology; it’s information and relationships. So what I just described around reading is taking information of the teacher reading with the student and giving it to the parents who have never had that kind of information before. So, that is the critical question: Are the right people getting the right information at the right time. Do teachers have the right information? Do students have the right information? Do parents have the right information? I would focus on those three questions. Before I go off and figure what technology I want, I would figure out what information do I want. Then, after I figure out the information question, I would ask if we have the right relationships? Collegially, teachers working with teachers, parents working with teachers and students, and students working with students and parents. I would say no, no, no. Schools typically don’t think about the home but the four walls of school.

Finally, my favorite skills… We need to do a whole series of things to give kids discipline and an individual work ethic of being self-directed. My favorite three skills:

  1. Need to get the right information at the right time. That means really good web literacy skills…hardly a kid today has.
  2. Fantastic global communication skills. So, every classroom is a global communication center teaching kids to be fearless communicators around the world creating content and assessing together. Otherwise the US economy isn’t going to grow jobs as fast as the rest of the world, and we need to give that sense of fearless to create jobs.
  3. Finally, be self-directed. If you are too dependent on being managed, and this goes back to who owns the learning, the longer you stay in the American school system, the more dependent you are to be managed around learning. That kind of kills lifelong learning. You may want to establish a base level of learning; every kid should know Diigo, tagging, and Twitter. Every kid needs an eLearning portfolio. Every kid should take an online learning course while in K-12. We need to do a whole series of things to give kids discipline and an individual work ethic of being self-directed.


Lisa Young is the Coordinator for 21st Century Learning and Professional Development in Carroll ISD in Southlake, Texas. Tweet, text, email, or chat with Lisa. Twitter username: younglisa811, Email:, Phone: 817-949-7051.


[1]Friedman, Thomas L., The World is Flat: A Brief History of The Twenty-First Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).