The why

This week was one of the most exciting learning opportunities that I will have all summer.  On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, my home school district held an event called Launching Inquiry.  This 2-day event had a keynote speaker both mornings, and then multiple breakout sessions throughout the day.  Today I’ve been reflecting on my learning from the event, rereading my notes, highlighting things, and thinking about next steps for all of the learning that happened while I was there.  I find myself repeatedly returning to one quote from the event:

This quote came from a breakout session with Will Richardson (@willrich45).  I’ve posted before on a description of my “why” for education (What’s your why?), but after sitting through Richardson’s keynote, and a couple of breakout sessions with him, I find myself re-examining my why.  In my original post, I identified my kids as the primary catalyst for growth, along with each of the students who set foot in my school.

For a fuller context of the quote above, in the breakout session we were talking about new literacies, and the role they may play in self-determined / self-directed learning.  Based on a question from one of the other participants in the breakout session, we began talking about the topics that today’s kids need to know to be able to actively participate in society.  If we let student learning be self-determined, some worry that they will only learn about the things that they are passionate about – so they might only study baseball, or animals, or whatever it might be that draws their attention, and never learn about the things that they aren’t passionate about.  If that’s all they “know” and all they learn, how will they be able to participate in dinner conversations that branch into other topics? (maybe it’s politics, maybe it’s history, etc.)

The issue with this idea of topics that kids “need to know” is that depending on who you talk to and what their background is, that list of things kids need to know is a moving target.  In the session, the example that was brought up was the idea of World War II.  While I consider myself to be a person who is well rounded, and a guy that likes learning about history, I don’t know how much I’d truly be able to offer to a conversation about the intricacies of World War II.  I could share my surface knowledge, but to be able to get into an in-depth conversation, I might need my brain hard wired into Google.

Think about it like this: if you were to put a math teacher, science teacher, English teacher, and history teacher together to create a list of the 3 most important things that all students need to know, odds are it would be impossible for them to come to consensus.  Each would likely put higher value on their own content, and lower value on the content of others.

As I processed this quote, and other aspects of the conference, I wonder if we might be having a hard time seeing the forest through the trees.  The research is solid, kids don’t maintain our “content” for a long period of time.  If you give a kid an end of course assessment in June, and then the exact same kid takes the exact same test in September, you are going to see a significant decline.  The content doesn’t stick – no matter how great a teacher you are, or how great a student you give it to.

So, what are the implications for each of us?  For most of us, when someone asks us what we teach, our answer is our grade level, or our content area.  I’m starting to think that the content area is the individual tree.  But the beauty of the forest is all of the trees together, along with all the other things that are living and growing (or sometimes decomposing) there.  And for me, that forest has to be the concept of learning.  If we know that content doesn’t stick, if we know that kids are probably going to forget a portion of the content that we teach them, then I guess the forest – the thing we need to focus on – isn’t so much what our students learn, but simply that they know how to learn, and have a desire to learn.

In Richardson’s keynote, he used the phrase productive learning.  Seymour Sarason says:

“Productive learning is where the process engenders and reinforces wanting to learn more.  Absent wanting to learn, the learning context is unproductive.”

After processing these thoughts, it’s time to come back to my why.  It’s going to continue to be my kids, and it’s going to continue to be the students that walk into my school building in August, but it’s also going to be about productive learning.  It’s going to be about creating situations where our students want to learn more.

What are your thoughts?  Do you have ideas on how you’re going to help get your kids have the desire to learn?  Share them in the comments below.

Make it meaningful

I was recently directed to an interesting article by Zachary Johnson titled “Bored Out of Their Minds” (click here to access the article).  While there were several aspects to the article that I connected with, and lots of interesting data and statistics about students’ engagement, one passage in particular stood out to me.

“But the biggest shift we need,” Rose believes, is much more elemental. “We need to get away from thinking that the opposite of ‘bored’ is ‘entertained.’ It’s ‘engaged.’” It’s not about pumping cartoons and virtual reality games into the classroom, it’s about finding ways to make curriculum more resonant, personalized, and meaningful for every student. “Engagement is very meaningful at a neurological level, at a learning level, and a behavioral level. When kids are engaged, life is so much easier.”

Parts of this quote come from Todd Rose, author of The End of Average.  I read the book last fall, and wrote a couple of posts on the ideas learned from the book here: Part 1; and here: Part 2.  The idea of the book is that the “average person” just doesn’t exist – there is jaggedness to us all.  The implications of this jagged profile for educators is that we have to remember that no matter what label a student may carry, they all have strengths and weaknesses.  We can’t expect our students to fit into specific characteristics that we place on them.

What leads kids to disconnect as they grow older?  One of the things that Johnson brings up is that as students grow older, they have less and less choice in what they do.  I think back to my own educational career – in elementary school we were given great leeway to dig into the topics that interested us.  I was free to choose what books I wanted to read (my sixth grade reading log would show lots of Stephen King novels), what topics I wanted to research for the science fair, and how I wanted to share my learning as we discussed European explorers visiting the “New World” – these are just a few of the choices I got to make.

This photo was titles “Boring Lecture, 1940s”
https://www.flickr.com/photos/dukeyearlook/2076633334/in/photostream/

By the time I got to high school free choice was mostly gone, most classes were lecture based.  Many of my class syllabi were the exact same as the ones that were used for the students before me, and the students before them.  I remember being checked out of my trigonometry class (sorry Mr. Petry), putting forth just enough effort to get through biology, and being bored out of my skull by the filmstrips that were shown on a daily basis in world geography (at least I could get extra credit by bringing in a box of Kleenex anytime we were running low).

So how do we help our students to stay connected to the learning that happens in our room?  The HSE21 Best Practice Model helps us to get there.  We can help provide the relevance for our students to see why it’s important to learn whatever it is that we’re doing in our classroom.  We can give our students choices in how they express their learning.  We can push our students to ask questions and wonder once they have seen the relevance in their learning – getting us to that inquiry driven study that we’re looking for.

As the summer approaches, take some time to reflect on the things that your students have done this year.  What are the things that worked best?  What are the things that fell flat?  With those things that were best, what was it that got the kids excited about learning?  And with those things that may not have been so great, how can you add more relevance and choice so that students may be better engaged?  Remember, as Johnson says above, engagement isn’t about entertainment, it’s about finding ways to make the curriculum more meaningful for every student.  I’d love to help you on that path!  If you have an idea and want someone to brainstorm with, let me know.  Two brains are always better than one!

What are some of your best engagement strategies?  How have you been able to get your students highly engaged in learning in your classroom this year?  Share with us in the comments below!

Guardrails

Have you ever driven in a freshly painted empty parking lot?  There seem to be no limitations, you can go any direction at any speed you’d like.  As a few more cars join you, things become more difficult – lines have to be added, maybe even stop signs or curbs in order to keep us all safe.  These limitations are visible reminders to all of us about the correct way to go, as well as the ways we should not go.

As teachers, we set guardrails for our students at the beginning of the year.  We explain our expectations.  We practice what we need to do.  Over the course of the year, as you become more comfortable with your students, and your students become more comfortable with you, then we may loosen our expectations, give more freedoms, and allow things to slide a bit.

Then comes the end of the school year.  Suddenly things seem to change.  We want to be able to give our students the freedom that they have been enjoying, but we begin seeing poor choices.  Don’t hesitate, even in the month of May, to take time to review your expectations.  Explain your expectations, practice them.  In some cases you might even need to add a few new expectations.  When students do well in the moment, show that you appreciate it.  If they do poorly, review it again.

Just like the parking lot needs additions to keep drivers safe, you might need to add some lines, curbs, or guardrails to keep your students safe.  Even late in the year, a few moments invested can be so valuable.

I’m sure that some of you have things you’ve tried at the end of the year.  What are your best tips and tricks to help your students finish out the school year successfully?  Share with us in the comments below.

Cognitive load

How many times have you been in a conversation with a colleague, and they started giving you suggestions?  Each one sounds great, you think they could work in your room, but then you walk away from the conversation and nothing has stuck.  All those great ideas went in your ears, passed through your brain, and then disappeared into the ether.  No amount of thought can bring them back, and you feel embarrassed to go back to the colleague because you think that they might be offended that you didn’t remember the first time.

Created by Marshall Vandruff

For all of us, there’s this idea called cognitive load.  Cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory.  When you were talking with that colleague and they were sharing more and more ideas with you, it was causing your brain more and more of a cognitive load.  In that moment, your brain is kind of like a cup – it can only hold so much new information before it begins to overflow.

Now, if each of us struggles cognitively to hold on to multiple ideas in a short conversation, how does this translate to our students?  In a lot of the research on cognitive load in children, there is a clear difference between adult and child knowledge.  Because of the differences in knowledge, children have to make a greater effort to simply process what is coming in, which means that their cognitive load will be exceeded more quickly.

I know that there were times as a teacher when I might have a student ask me a question.  As I was answering the question, I might give more detail than was entirely necessary in order for students to better understand.  Then, a few minutes later the student would ask the same question.  At the time, it was frustrating – “Come on, I just told you that!” but I now understand that by giving the extra details, I was causing too heavy of a cognitive load on my students.

So, what does that mean for us?  As we talk with students – whether we are giving them feedback on classwork, discussing their behavior, or making suggestions, we need to keep it short and to the point.  In a recent post from Matt Miller, he suggested using the sandwich technique:

 

  • A compliment (positive feedback)
  • A change they could make
  • Another compliment (more positive feedback)

Is it possible that we could suggest 17 corrections?  Sure!  But if we make all 17 at one time, the student will be overwhelmed, and none will get done.  Pick your main point, your main concern, and focus on that.  Once the student has shown that they understand your initial change, then maybe attack one of the other 17 things.

Meaningful feedback to students is one of the best ways to increase learning outcomes for our students.  Give that feedback in the moment – while you’re walking around and peaking over shoulders, and keep it to the point.  Students will learn and grow.

What are some of the strategies you use to give feedback to your students?  Share with us in the comments below.  If you’re looking for a few new ways to give quick feedback to your students, check out this awesome post from Matt Miller:

10 strategies for lightning-quick feedback students can REALLY use

When should we try something new?

How many of you are like me, you see something cool that someone else is doing and you think “I want to try that!”  You may be hearing about a cool activity that a colleague is doing, or it might be seeing something on one of your social media accounts that you think would be great for your classroom.

Sometimes, once we are “into” the school year, it can be tempting to see a cool idea and think “I’ll look at that in the summer.”  Maybe you even go so far as to save the idea as a bookmark, or send yourself an email to keep in a folder in your inbox.  I know that happens to me.  Then what happens?  If you’re anything like me, you might actually go back to that folder or bookmark, but all the context is gone, and you don’t remember why you were so excited about the idea.  Or even worse, you might forget to ever go back to the bookmark or folder!  Please tell me that I am not alone in this!

Earlier in the spring semester, I was participating in a massive open online course led by the author of The Innovator’s MindsetGeorge Couros.  I’ve mentioned it in the blog before.  Couros is all about innovation in education – he defines innovation as things that are new AND better for learning.  During one of the activities for the course, there was a conversation between Couros and a couple of his guest hosts.  The question came up – “When is it best to try things that are new?”  While many of us would feel the temptation to wait until our next group of students so that we can set up expectations and “get it right,” Couros and others encouraged a different mindset.  Think about your current students.  How excited are they when you switch things up?  Something as simple as a new seating arrangement can be the biggest deal to your class.  If a new seating arrangement has such an impact, how might a new and exciting teaching method go?  How much might that accelerate the learning in your classroom?

As an added bonus, you have the benefit of trying something new with a group of kids that you actually know.  Does this activity seem to motivate that kid that you’re always trying to pull along?  Maybe you have a winner of an idea that you want to continue to play with and tweak.  On the other hand, if your kids don’t seem that into it, you know that the idea might not be the best, and you can quickly shift gears back to something that you know will probably work better.

At this point in the year, with so many things going on, and the general stress that goes with the approach of the end of the year, it can be comforting to say “I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”  But here’s the thing, as our student’s attention begins to wain – they see the sunshine and recognize the warm weather, they start thinking about their spring/summer activities that are getting started – it can be difficult to maintain that high level of engagement in the best of situations.  Some of us, without thinking about it, react to that by lowering the cognitive load of our students.  We think that slightly lower expectations may lead to higher engagement.  So, how’s that working for you?

I know that these were choices that I sometimes made when I was in the classroom.  An extra video clip instead of a more challenging activity.  Maybe a simplified version of an activity so that my students could just get through it.  I think back to those choices, and wonder how many of my students I may have short changed in the last few weeks of school.

Keep pushing yourself to look for the new and better activities.  Instead of lowering expectations for students to keep them engaged, throw in a new and exciting activity to amp up the learning in your classroom and hopefully lead to higher engagement for all your students!

What cool new things are you thinking about trying as the end of the year approaches?  What hesitations do you have for trying something new at this time of the year?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Building on our strengths

When you get up in the morning, what are you excited about?  For most of us, the thing that gets us going in the morning is also the thing that drives us throughout the day.  It’s also typically something that we feel confident about, that we think we do well, and we enjoy doing.  Most importantly, that thing is also something we would identify as a strength.

I feel that often in education, we get drawn into thinking about weaknesses.  As a teacher, we have to identify weaknesses in our students in order to find ways to support their growth.  As an administrator, evaluations often include identifying weaknesses of the staff in our building, and planning to lead to future growth.  We get caught in a cycle of looking for the weaknesses around us.  If our strengths are the things that motivate us, isn’t it safe to assume that our learners would be motivated by their strengths?

A few years ago, as an ongoing activity throughout our unit on Ancient Rome, I provided students with a list of possible ways they could articulate learning.  These choices involved aspects of Roman society and culture.  I was amazed by the projects that students were able to create based on their strengths.  I had students designing roman outfits based on research because they were interested in style and design.  I had a student write a children’s picture book about the Roman Empire because they felt they were good writers and illustrators.  And probably my favorite, I had a student, Patrick, who had struggled all year long but designed and built a scale model of a Roman Aqueduct that was SPECTACULAR (it’s still in my office today) because he liked to build things.  While we were doing in class activities for learning, students were also researching for these projects.  They were able to select a project that fit their strength, and the results were amazing.  Having students present something that they had learned that also fit with their strengths was such a rewarding experience for me, and I’m sure led to a greater transfer of learning for each of them.  I would guarantee that none of them would be able to answer any of the questions we had on a summative exam, however I would also bet they could tell you about what they created for that project.

Knowing how strengths can motivate all of us reminds me to be on the lookout for strengths as I am walking the halls.  I am challenging myself to look for the strengths or everyone, and recognize those strengths!  I challenge you to do the same.

Be thinking about the data that you collect on students.  Don’t just look for patterns in terms of weaknesses.  Also look at the data that supports their strengths.  Give them the opportunity to build upon those strengths.  Most of our students will choose a career path based on their interests and passions.  Wouldn’t school be a better place if we gave our students the opportunity to accentuate their strengths?  I’m not saying we ignore areas where a student needs to grow, but I can tell you that all the time that my sophomore English teacher had me spend diagraming sentences is not what has led me to be a good writer, a good reader, or any of the other skills I have developed.  All it did was make me hate sophomore year English (sorry English teachers!).

Take a few moments in the coming days to seek out the positives in the students that are in your classroom.  Identify the things you see, and share it with your students.  See how they react to some strength-based feedback.

#IMMOOC #IMMOOCB3: Engage or empower

Engagement.  We all say that this is what we’re striving for when our students are in the classroom.  We want our students to be engaged in whatever’s happening in our classroom.  Normally that means getting your students excited about whatever it is that your class is studying.

But as we think about what it takes for any of us to learn something new, being engaged in the activities doesn’t guarantee learning.  I can guarantee that in the next few days I will be engaged in hours of watching NCAA Basketball.  The likelihood of any kind of deep learning happening in that time is not very high.

Bill Ferriter – @plugusin

To get students to that deeper understanding, the learning needs to be meaningful.  Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) says “Kids need to be empowered NOT engaged.”  So how do we get there?  Ferriter goes on to say that “Empowering students means giving kids the knowledge and skills to pursue their: Passions, Interests, Future.”

One of the things I believe in education is that we have great power to help our kids be excited about learning.  The more student choice and voice we give, the more authentic and relevant approaches we take, the more we shift our students from engagement to empowerment.