Developing wonder

I was recently having a conversation with a teacher. We were talking about her efforts to integrate more creative, outside the box style of learning activities in her class. She knows that for future success, her students don’t need to simply be able to regurgitate facts – Google can do that for anyone. It’s about what students can do with that knowledge, and she’s struggling with how to get there. You see, some of her students just don’t seem to be able to “think” in a creative way. They seem to prefer to have an activity with direct questions and correct answers. If given a choice between a creative activity that forces thinking in depth of knowledge level 3 or 4 or a worksheet with depth of knowledge level 1, her students would choose the worksheet.

This teacher however, understands that things that are depth of knowledge level 1 may not be what students ultimately need to be successful in the future.  Check out this short video that will show why:

If you search for Siri, Alexa, or Google Home homework help, you will find videos of students going down their worksheet and asking their “smart speaker” the problems they have to solve, and then copying down the answer. If there are other kids who have figured this out, you can guess that your students have too. Personally, I don’t have any problem with students using the tools around them to help them with their homework – I mean, what do most of us do with a question we don’t immediately know the answer to? But I recently read a quote from Yong Zhao, a Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas gave me pause and made me think about the types of questions we’re asking students:

If all children are asked to master the same knowledge and skills, those whose time costs less will be much more competitive than those with higher costs. There are many more poor and hungry people in the developing world willing to work for a fraction of what workers in developed countries need. To be globally competitive, developed countries must offer something qualitatively different, that is, something that cannot be obtained at a lower cost in developing countries.

In this quote, Zhao was talking about the standardization of curriculum and teaching methods, and the fact that our standardization fails our students in the long term. You see, when our students from a developed country move into the workforce, they will be too expensive for the jobs that take a low level of thinking. The students from developed nations need to be able to do things with their knowledge, and developing those skills can’t be done from DOK 1 questions on a worksheet. WorksheetsIf a student can turn to Google, Siri, Alexa, or whatever smart tool comes out next to find the answer to your question, then maybe we aren’t asking the right questions.

So here’s the challenge for this teacher. She knows that students will get more out of learning opportunities that push into higher level thinking. She knows that activities that require more creativity are inherently more “sticky” when it comes to student learning. But her students are have not been successful in doing this so far this year. Does that mean we give up? My answer would be no – just as with anything else, we have to keep trying.

Compliance-PinkThe students in our school in general are very compliant. Compliant students sometimes struggle with creative tasks because they want specific directions to follow. They may not remember what it feels like to be creative or curious. Years of compliance in the school setting seems to suck creativity and curiosity out of our students. I think that sometimes students lose that ability to be creative and curious because they have grown accustomed to the amount of scaffolding that we provide for learning activities. That scaffolding can begin to feel a bit like a cage, and students forget how to get out.

I’m not sure how many of you have had the opportunity to be around a kindergarten classroom. I get to visit one on occasion because my wife is a kindergarten teacher. When I walk into the room and listen to what’s going on, all the students have questions, and comments, and wonders. All those students feel creative and love to color, draw, paint, write, tell stories, and so much more! When I talk to the fifth and sixth grade students in my own building, many of them have a hard time identifying their own curiosities, their own interests, their own what ifs.

So how do we bring a little bit of that creativity and curiosity back to our students? One suggestion that seems promising is the idea of a Wonder Day. In a recent blog post by John Spencer (you can access it here) he talks about the idea of a Wonder Day where students spend the day immersed in research on something they are curious about, with an end goal of a multimedia presentation – it could be a blog post, podcast, video, or whatever other multimedia format that the students choose.

If you’d like to see a short intro of what a wonder day project might look like, here’s a 2 minute intro from John Spencer.

And if you’re not sure when you’d have the time for something like this, I love the suggestion that I’ve seen elsewhere that one of the best times to try something new and innovative is when the schedule is a little wacky. In my school, next week is the week of ISTEP, our annual state assessment. Because of the test, we run on a different schedule on each of the test days. I would encourage teachers to think about a time like this as the ideal time to try something new. If it doesn’t work for you to try during your testing window, then maybe you try it right before or after an upcoming break, or on the day of a school assembly, or just because it’s a Tuesday!

Our students need to be able to think. They need to identify their curiosity because, as Ken Robinson shares in his book Creative Schools, “Human achievement in every field is driven by people’s desire to explore, to test and prod, to see what happens, to question how things work, and to wonder why and ask, what if?” If we have the goal of students who are college and career ready, we have to help them develop that wonder.

Less curious

What do you think? Have you seen similar issues to the teacher above? What’s worked for you to spark that curiosity in your students? Share your thoughts in the comments below. Or, if you decide to try a Wonder Day – or something like it – share you experience with us! We’d love to hear about it!


Why are we teaching the stuff we’re teaching?

I recently saw a quote from Will Richardson. It’s kind of long, but I think it’s worth sharing the full quote for context:

More than, what, 90% of what we currently teach and talk about … is quickly forgotten once the next topic in the pacing guide comes up. Climate change, literacy, fake news, #metoo, what it means to be a citizen in a democracy, racism, income gaps, privacy, future jobs, AI, cryptocurrency… We can make a list of things that really matter today (or probably will in the future) a mile long.

And after we do, we have to own up to the fact that, by and large, even though we know that’s the stuff of modern life, we in schools say to kids “Good luck with all of that. Hope you figure it all out. We can’t really deal with that stuff because we have to teach you Geometry, which, btw, we know most of you will NEVER use, but hey, it’s in the curriculum and we’ve been teaching it forever.”

This is one of the many existential questions we need to be grappling with: Why are we teaching the stuff we’re teaching?

Now… before you get all up in arms at me, remember that this is not my quote, but the sentiment behind it got me fired up. I know that when I was in the classroom as a teacher, I spent a lot of time concerned with whether or not my students met the standard, whether or not we covered what needed to be covered. I also know that every year I had at least a handful of students who visibly and very apparently checked out. They didn’t do work (classwork or homework). I got frustrated.  I called their parents. Nothing changed. As I reflect now, I wonder how many other students in my class were simply too compliant – too good at playing the game of school – to take that path of not doing anything, and in actuality were completely bored by whatever we were doing because they didn’t care. I wonder what kind of disservice I did for those students. They were trying to tell me something, but I was too caught up in what I “had to do” to be able to hear what they were saying.

Now, I’m not saying there’s no place for traditional learning in our schools. I use geometry from time to time (I love woodworking, and often use those skills when creating a new design), and I know many of the topics our kids complain about do have real world value, they just don’t see it.

Here’s a quick quiz of some things that we all probably learned while we were in school (I have to admit, I saw this on the Modern Learners blog in a different post by Will Richardson). See how many of these things you can get correct – and NO CHEATING!

  1. What’s the circumference of a circle with a radius of 4?
  2. What Scottish scientist discovered penicillin in 1928?
  3. What geologic era are we in right now?
  4. In the sentence “The swimming pool is closed today,” is the word swimming the gerund or the participle?
  5. What’s the most abundant element in the universe?

I’m going to be honest… I thought I had three, then I checked.  I only had 2. Way back in the day, I’m sure that I passed the test with these questions. I was a compliant kid who did just enough to keep the teachers off my back. But did I truly learn? No way!

A term that I’ve heard before that gets at what Richardson is talking about above is the idea of the relevancy gap. We have this list of standards that our students are expected to learn. We have our preferred methods of teaching those standards. We go through the motions of covering the material, hoping the students do well enough on the test, and then we go on to the next topic.

Think about what you are getting prepared to teach next. We spend a lot of time thinking about “Did our students achieve X?” or “How do we make sure they learned X?” What the relevancy gap asks us to think about “Is X going to matter in the lives our learners are likely to live?”

That question is much more challenging to think about, because it messes up that list of standards, those preferred methods for teaching those standards, the curriculum maps, the pacing guide, and those worksheets and packets that we’ve lovingly created, not to mention the general model of school as we know it.  And here’s the issue with the relevancy gap – if the students don’t see the relevance, you’ll continue to have students who are checked out, and there will continue to be students who are compliantly doing the work while they are bored out of their minds.

RelevanceSo how do we add relevancy to the things that we are teaching our students? I’ve had this conversation with several people recently, and my best suggestion is that we need to help our students see how the thing that they are learning about in class actually applies to their life. Recently in my school, many of the science classes have been learning about outer space. Can we tie last week’s amazing launch of Falcon Heavy into their studies of our solar system? What research could be done on the potential and kinetic energy of a rocket launch? Or what about the fact that there is research on the angle of release of a basketball shot being related to it’s likelihood of going in the hoop? Or maybe there are amazing connections that our students can make to our content that we would never even think of – we just have to get out of the way and let them share!

Whenever I write about these grand ideas, I always try to leave you with some strategies to move forward.  Here are 4 ways that come to mind as ways we can add relevancy for our students:

  1. Discuss how learning can be applied in practice – what is a real world use for your students?
  2. Make a link to local cases – how does this knowledge tie in to something happening in your students’ community?
  3. Relating the subject matter to everyday applications – where might students see this in use in their lives?
  4. Discussing or finding applications in current newsworthy issues and events – what’s happening in our world or in pop culture that can be tied into your content?

What are some of the ways that you add relevancy for your students? Share some of your best ideas in the comments below. We can all appreciate a great idea!


And… because we all want to be able to assess our own work, the answers to the quiz above are: 1. ≈ 25.13; 2. Sir Alexander Fleming; 3. Cenozoic; 4. Participle; 5. Hydrogen.  How did you do?

The relationship of teaching and learning

The key to raising

This past week was the Global School Day of Play.  In our school, we formatted the day as a choice day.  Teachers shared activities that they would be hosting throughout the day, students were able to see all the options and then select the classes that they were the most interested in.

As I walked around the building, watching teachers share things that they are passionate about, watching students participate in fun activities that they had chosen, the smiles were everywhere!  I heard multiple comments from students throughout the day of “Best Day Ever!”

One of the other awesome things that I saw happening was our students were able to connect with new adults around the building.  Many of our students chose activities with teachers that they did not know, they never had met, but who offered something that interested them.  Those students chose to be in the room of our teachers because what they were offering sounded fun to them.  This makes me think of a line from Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess.  The book is all about student engagement, and in it, Burgess asks “If your students didn’t have to come to your class, would you be teaching to an empty room?”

That’s a challenging question to consider – I can tell you for a fact that with the model of our day of play, students did choose to be exactly where they were.  The lessons and activities that teachers were doing may have been outside of the normal classroom environment, but there was so much amazing learning happening.

I have heard (and earlier in my career may have even said) “my students don’t have to like me, but they will learn from me.”  In my experience, if your students don’t like you, they probably aren’t going to learn very much from you.  In her famous TED Talk, Rita Pierson talks about the value and importance of human connection, of relationships.  I think we all know that we learn much more from people we have a meaningful relationship with.  Sometimes we have to be reminded, our students are people too, just like us, and they want to feel loved, cared for, and supported.

For true teaching and learning to happen, there must be a relationship between the teacher and the student.  There must be a connection between the people involved in the transaction.

Now here’s the reality – I know that there are some kids that were easy for me to connect with.  I also know that there are some kids that seemed to want to hide from any adult interaction.  And, there are some of us who have a hard time connecting with certain personalities.  I know that when I was in the classroom, it was easy for me to connect with kids who were into sports, because I was into sports.  On the other hand, there were students who I sometimes struggled to connect with because we didn’t share common interests.  One of my favorite strategies with those kids was to just ask questions – what did you do last night?  What do you like to do when you have free time?  Do you like to play any games?  Eventually, after asking enough questions I would normally find something that we could chat about, that we could connect with.  And the amazing thing… Once I made a connection to that kid on a personal level, it seemed like the teaching and learning transaction between us was suddenly supercharged!

I recently read an awesome post by Aaron Hogan with 6 ways to build credibility with students (you can find it here).  If you’ve got a kiddo that you’re struggling to connect with, there might be an idea here that would work for you!

Here’s the challenge I have for you – what did you learn about your students on Global Play Day that you could leverage in your typical classroom lessons?  Is there some passion that they have that you could bring back?  Is there some interest that you found in common with them that could be part of a lesson?  Seek out ways to bring your students interests and passions into your daily class, and you will see increases in the relationship building immediately!

The ways we learn

The other day we were at Fort Benjamin Harrison State Park enjoying some beautiful weather on a late January day – not something you get a lot of in Indiana!  While there, we were passed by a kiddo that was probably about the same age as my son Brody.  She was riding a bike.  Brody watched her go by, and said “I wish I had my bike!”  We told Brody that he could bring his bike the next time we came if he learned how to ride without his training wheels.  Imagine the whiniest 6-year-old voice you can as you read his response: “I’m never going to learn how to do that” and his head went down in disappointment.

I told him “The only way you’re going to learn is if you try!”

This interaction got me thinking about when I was learning to ride my bike.  The training wheels had come off, I may have been wearing a bike helmet (come on, it was the 80s!) with my hockey shin guards and elbow pads.  I mounted up, and I tried…  I didn’t make it very far before I bit the dust.  But I kept getting up and trying again… and again… and… You get the idea!  Eventually I had it down – I could hop on and go without a second thought.

It took time for the neural pathways to connect so that my brain could figure out how to put together the locomotion, the balance, the understanding of body position, and so much more that goes into riding a bike.  Here’s the thing about learning to ride a bike… the only way you can learn is to do it.  No amount of time spent learning about how the bike works would have helped me to ride more quickly.  I wouldn’t have been a superstar rider on that first day if I understood the role that inertia, friction, and rolling resistance plays in being able to get myself to go.

I just had to get on the bike and try.  For those of you who are parents, or who might have helped a youngster you know learn to ride a bike, you know what that it’s so important to try it over and over.

I’d even argue – through my own experiences and the experiences of my daughter Lainey – that we learn how to ride a bike because of our failures, because of the falls.  Our brain figures out that we did something wrong, and helps our body to do it differently the next time until we have it down pat.

Learning anything does not happen by watching someone model.  Showing our students how to do something doesn’t teach them.  Having your students read about how to do something doesn’t help them learn how to do it.  Even watching a video doesn’t help them learn.  Ultimately the only way they are going to learn is by doing something.

Learning is an active process. We learn by doing. Only knowledge that is used sticks in your mind

Always be thinking about how you can make the activities in your class be focused on how students can actually do whatever it is that they are learning about.  Less time showing, more time actually doing!  That’s how we all learn just about anything!

What are your thoughts?  Am I wrong?  Are there things you’ve learned that didn’t actually involve “doing” it?  Are there other examples like the bike that you would only learn by doing?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Also, as I was writing this post, it got me thinking about an excellent video by Destin Sandlin, who runs an educational video web series called Smarter Every Day.  It’s a little under 8 minutes long, and goes through his process of learning to ride a bike in a whole new way.  Check it out to see how learning by doing really works!