Innovation Exchange 2018

This past week I had the opportunity to participate in an awesome professional development experience put on by 2 amazing school districts – Hamilton Southeastern Schools (my home district) and Noblesville Schools. Each day was filled with a morning keynote, followed by tons of choices in concurrent sessions. Anytime I attend something of this nature, I feel it’s successful if I can take at least one idea from each session that I can implement into my practices. As I look at my own notes today, I have so many more ideas than that, but I want to share a few of my key takeaways.

Our opening keynote came from Mark Wagner, President & CEO of EdTech Team. During his keynote he asked us the question “What do you want to learn?” and then challenged us to think about whether or not we were spending time asking our kids this same question. While we have standards to meet, that doesn’t have to be done always based on our expert decisions as the teacher. Wagner argued quite convincingly that learning will be more meaningful for our students if we share with them our goals, what we need them to learn, and then ask them how they want to learn those skills. Wagner encouraged us to think of the changing role of educators, and rather than seeing ourselves as the keepers of knowledge, who then dispense that knowledge to our students, we should start thinking of our role as that of a connector.

Within our own community, there are people who have skills and experiences that are much greater than any of us could ever hope to be able to share with our students. Our job, in part, is to connect our students to the experts they need in order to learn the skills they want to learn.

more than I should

During the second day I had the privilege to listen to Luke Reks, a recent graduate of Noblesville High School. Luke shared with us his experiences in the Innovations class he participated in during his sophomore through senior years of high school. In that time, Luke connected with filmmakers, CEOs, and philanthropists. As part of his learning, he interned on the set of a low budget film starring James Franco and was able to network with Hollywood producers and directors. In a partnership with one of his classmates, Luke is now working to build a school in Africa that will serve youth, bringing them access to learning, and including the Innovations model of learning within its curriculum. Luke reminded me that opportunities are everywhere for our students. As teachers, sometimes we just have to get out of the way of the passions of our learners, and they will take their learning much further than anywhere we can hope to take them.

Also on the second day of the conference, Kerry Gallagher was the keynote speaker. After listening to her keynote, I made it a point to attend one of her concurrent sessions as well. Her keynote was on the effects of technology on our brain, while her concurrent session talked about best practices related to screen time. The information shared in both was based on research from sources that I know and trust – Common Sense Media and the American Association of Pediatrics to name just a couple. There are many people who spend time talking about the bad aspects of screens, and there’s plenty of research and opinion that support the drawbacks of screen time, but as educators, we have to also remember a couple of important things about technology. First, technology is an opportunity that provides our students access to resources, tools, and experts that would never be available to them without the use of technology.  Along with that, Gallagher reminded us that increasingly our students will need to be able to interact with people through the screens in front of them.  Google, Airbnb, Uber, and other transformative companies require their employees to be able to interact with customers through screens.  How are we teaching our students to interact appropriately?

If a student’s first time to interact with a screen is as a preteen using an iPhone with unlimited access to the rest of the world, they won’t have the tools to be able to use that power responsibly. This has me thinking about the importance of digital citizenship lessons for even our earliest learners. As a district that is 1:1 in all grades, kindergarten – 12th grade, we can’t wait until kids are in the middle grades to begin talking about appropriate ways to interact through screens. We can use developmentally appropriate apps to help our students learn those skills beginning at the earliest levels.

Overall, there were so many great takeaways from the 2 days, these are just a few of the highlights for me. Did you attend? What were your main takeaways? Do the thoughts above have you reflecting on your own practices? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Student apathy: #IMMOOC Week 3

During a recent #IMMOOC YouTube Live event, the topic of student apathy came up among the presenters. For any educator who has tried to do something innovative in their classroom, you probably know what this looks like – that student that is really good at “playing school”, but when you give them a task that is innovative, they just struggle to even get started. These are the kids that might ask you for a worksheet in place of the innovative student inquiry project that you are beginning to work on. John Spencer started talking about his take on students who show apathy about those innovative tasks. While I didn’t capture his quote exactly, I tweeted out the general idea of what he shared:

Spencer is a former middle school English teacher, and currently a professor working on training our future teachers to come into the classroom ready to teach in innovative ways. In the book that Spencer co-wrote with AJ Juliani, Launch, Spencer introduces the design cycle he used in his classroom to help his students become creative thinkers and problem solvers.

For those of you who have read my blog in the past few years, you know that I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the skills that our students will need in order to be successful in the future. In the current model of education that still exists in a lot of classrooms, there can be a lot of focus on assigning and grading.

When we focus narrowly on assigning and grading, we can miss out on the learning

The problem, as Katie Martin points out above, is that when we keep our focus on assigning and grading, we lose sight of actual learning. Think back to your most impactful learning experiences – it could be anything that you are passionate about – for me I think back to learning how to ride a bike. I didn’t learn to ride my bike because my mom wrote out strict lesson plans with specific standards to meet. Instead I learned through time spent on my bike. Nobody told me that I had to know how to pedal the correct way before I could give it a shot. Did I fall down? YES! Did I get back up again? YES! I wanted to be just like the other kids on my street who could ride their bikes.

Going back to that tweet that I shared at the top of this post, I am really intrigued by that idea of fear of uncertainty, of failure, of being outside their normal. This seems like a pretty normal human reaction. Part of the joy of learning to ride a bike is that little bit of fear, mixed with a bit of excitement, that runs through our body as we get ready to pick our feet up off the ground. So how do we get our students past whatever it is that’s holding them back? My best suggestion is through scaffolding.

When we try something that’s new and innovative, we need to be prepared for those students who might struggle to get started. When you’re planning, be thinking about what might be struggles, and then prep for that. Are you asking students to come up with inquiry questions? Have some question stems ready to help them get started. Are you wanting students to research a topic that interest them? Have some general topics that you know your kids are in to as well as locations to go to find information to help them start on a path.

One thing though – some students in your class will be ready to dive right in. Make sure that you don’t provide too many scaffolds for everyone – make sure that students do have some choices that they can make themselves. Save the extra scaffolds for the students who really need them. If you provide too many scaffolds for all, you will end up with work that all looks and sounds the same. That’s not inquiry, that’s not project based learning, that’s a recipe. And when we have a recipe, that means that some students might feel too boxed in, and not enough opportunity for creativity.

I recently saw a tweet from Alice Keeler that I thought summed up the stages that some of our students might go through as we try to move towards a more student-centered model:

With the appropriate steps to help our students who are afraid to go out on a limb, we might be able to get our students through those 7 stages more quickly.  All the better for you and for them!

What are your thoughts? Are there things that you have tried that have helped your hesitant students get going on an inquiry project? Have you had successes that I don’t mention here? Share your thoughts with all of us!

Compliance or empowerment: #IMMOOC Week 2

Are your systems designed for people to

I recently had a post titled Why are we teaching the stuff we’re teaching? The post was based primarily on a single quote from Will Richardson about the fact that we’re aware of all the things that our students are interested in, but today, what we have to focus on is our geometry lesson that we know most of our students won’t be likely to ever use. Reading the quote above got me thinking about that post again. In that post, I was looking at what we can do about our teaching to make sure that we are finding ways to make learning relevant to our students. Today, I’m thinking more about the things that teachers do in their classroom and making sure that the things we ask of them are relevant in the eyes of teachers.

This year in my school, we began the school year with two slogans we wanted to focus on:

  • The Power of Why
  • The Power of Yet

We encouraged our teachers to think about why they did the things they did, and also to focus on having a growth mindset. When we met our students on the first day of school, we encouraged them to do the same. Throughout the year I’ve had conversations with teachers and students about these two ideas – why do we do the things that we do, and what does it mean to have a growth mindset about whatever we are learning or doing.

Even though we have encouraged these ideas, I still think there are things that happen in classrooms that we can’t really identify why we are doing it. And not knowing why we are doing something takes away from the potential value.

For several years now, many of the teachers in my school have had the standards and objectives for their lessons posted on the board, or in their agenda PowerPoints, or however they communicate to their students what they will be doing today. For some teachers, I think the main reason that it’s put there is because the Teacher Effectiveness Rubric that we are all assessed on has a section about lesson objectives, so they include it because that’s what the rubric says to do. That’s all about compliance.

Here’s the thing though. If the only reason you’re doing something is because it’s what you’re supposed to do, how is it serving the learning in your classroom? In her book Learner Centered Innovation, Katie Martin points out that putting the standards and objectives on the board is not just about checking some box. As Martin reminds us in her book: “The reason “they” make teachers put the standards and learning objectives on the board is because when students know what they are supposed to be learning or where they are headed, that knowledge impacts student engagement and achievement.”

So, why are you placing the standards and objectives on your board? Is it about checking some box, or is it done in service of the learning and growth of your students? If we do things with our learners in mind, and we think carefully about how those choices will impact the learning of our students, we can use our actions to guide coaching conversations with our students so that they better understand the reason behind what we do.

In Martin’s book, she talks about the idea of an Innovation Ecosystem, where teachers should feel trusted to learn, improve, and innovate in order to better serve our kids. I hope that through my actions, through the things I say and do around my building, that the staff in my school understand that I hope we all see our school as an innovation ecosystem. I hope the teachers in my school don’t feel bogged down by compliance-based tasks, but rather feel empowered to push the innovative envelope in order to create amazing learning opportunities for our students.

It is my hope that as I continue with my learning throughout this round of #IMMOOC, I learn new ways to help the teachers in my building feel that empowerment! And to the teachers in my building that may not currently feel empowered, and feel that you are bogged down by compliance, please remember that we all have the power of why. If we don’t know why we are doing something, we aren’t going to do it well. Feel free to ask why when something doesn’t square with what you believe is best for your students. Hopefully we can work together to create a solution to those problems.

I’m curious what you do to make sure that there is an Innovation Ecosystem in your school? Or, do you have ideas about how we can create a better innovation ecosystem within our schools? Share your thoughts with all of us in the comments below!

Sparking curiosity #IMMOOC Week 1

When school is

Ever since seeing the animated version of Ken Robinson’s “Changing education paradigms” TED Talk, I’ve been thinking a lot about the things we do in school. I’ve definitely noticed, and at times have been a part, of the factory model version of school. In this model, kids come in, we give them what we believe they need, and then we move them along to the next level. I feel the biggest shift in my beliefs about education began around the time my oldest child was born. Throughout my career, I have run into the occasional student who made comments like “I hate school,” or “School’s boring.” Early in my career, the typical response to these types of statements might have been something along the lines of “Well, you have to be here, so you need to make the most of it.” I put the onus on the students – it was their responsibility to do school, and if they didn’t like it, well too bad.

After our daughter was born, I started to notice things in a new light. It wasn’t just the kids who were disconnected socially or the kids who were doing poorly in class that were saying that they didn’t like school, or that they thought it was boring. I started noticing kids who were really bright, kids who seemed to have great relationships with their classmates, who even seemed to like me and their other teachers, that just went through the motions in the classroom. They did what they had to in order to keep the adults in their lives happy, but they would never have thought of doing anything that was above and beyond. And those kids told me about how much they didn’t like school, they shared how boring they thought some of the things we did in class were, and I began to think that if there were kids who were so on top of things and did well in class who hated school, maybe this wasn’t a student issue, but rather a teacher issue. Maybe this had to do with what I was doing in my classroom.

As a science teacher, I noticed that kids were pumped for the days we were doing hands on learning. If we were in the lab, the curiosity was there, and energy was flowing! I began trying to find more opportunities for students to be active in their learning and found that some of those more passive learners were much more excited to come into the classroom. This seemed like a win to me.

Maya Angelou has a great quote – “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” For a long time, I viewed the role of the teacher as the gatekeeper of information. I was the keeper of the knowledge in my classroom, and students got what I thought they needed when it was time. But the results were poor. Students were bored, disengaged, and there was no desire to learn. Many just went through the motions.

As my mindset shifted, I began to seek out more opportunities for students to make choices in their learning. I began integrating technology as a learning tool, checking out iPad carts and using tech to enhance learning opportunities.  Little did I know that I was on the leading edge of innovative thinking in the classroom.

No longer do students need access to teacher for content, but they desperately need teachers to guide them as they develop the skills, knowledge, and dispositions to be lifelong learners

Currently, I’m reading Learner Centered Innovation by Katie Martin.  In it she says that “Our job is not to provide the answers that can be found in a textbook or in a webpage but to create the conditions that inspire learners to continue to wonder and figure out how to learn and solve problems and seek more questions.” The most important piece of the puzzle in this process is not the technology, or access to it, but rather teachers who can help to spark that curiosity in their students. Those teachers need to be able to find the wonder that exists in all kids, and then fan the flames to help them turn that wonder into amazing learning opportunities.

I look forward to continuing to share my learning from this awesome book from Martin, it will probably be the basis of my posts over the next few weeks.  But I’m curious… What have you noticed about learning when you create opportunities for your students to explore their wonders in connection with your material? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!

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 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!