Essential skills

I’ve recently been spending some time looking at the Innovation Playlist, a series of links, ideas, and videos all about ideas for how schools need to innovate in order to prepare our students for the future. That future is one that is ever changing and hard to imagine. It’s a dynamic and uncertain place, and we need to help our students be better prepared for that.

In a recent post, I mentioned that the smartphone debuted in 2007 (see that post here). Think about all the changes that have happened since then… Off the top of my head here are a few things that are commonplace today because of the existence of the smartphone: bluetooth, podcasts, wifi, iPads, the Apple watch, turn-by-turn gps navigation, the permeation of streaming video, in-app purchases, order ahead (via an app) carryout at numerous restaurants. Honestly, this whole post could be a list of the technologies that exist because of how commonplace the smartphone has become. That’s not the main point.

Exponential CurveThink for a moment about the exponential changes that have happened since the roll out of the smartphone in 2007. Then think for a moment about how exponential curves work (you can see an example to the right)… If there has been that much change since 2007, think how quickly our world is going to continue to change!

Looking back at the history of my posts, one of the running themes has been about the fact that the factory model of education has become obsolete. In the past, content knowledge was something that had to be given to you by a teacher. But today, content knowledge is ubiquitous. It’s free, it’s readily available, and it’s ever changing. No longer is what you know important, now it’s what can you do with what you know. That’s a totally different way of seeing education!

BewareThomas Friedman says that our students need to be capable of innovative thinking – critical thinking and problem solving should be a given for all in this day and age. He wrote about the importance of those skills in The World is Flat which was originally published in 2005. Now he’s thinking more about that idea of innovative thinking, which to him means not only are you able to do the job you are given, but you are also able to invent, reinvent, and re-engineer the skills necessary to accomplish that job.

And what’s difficult about that is that our education system is not ideally set up for innovative thinking. You can’t create a test that is going to easily measure someone’s ability to think in an innovative way. Those skills are not easily assessed, and yet they are the skills that employers are seeking (See what the National Association of Colleges and Employers say they are looking for in job candidates here).

Add to this, much of what we do in the traditional model of schools actually discourages creativity. As educators we often discourage creativity when we expect students to:

  • Answer with what others think is right.
  • Find answers rather than ask deep questions.
  • Shoot for efficient answers in our classrooms rather than allowing deeper exploration.

So… If our system isn’t set up to train students for innovative thinking, what are the things that we can do to better encourage innovative thinking in our students? What are the ways that we can disrupt the system from the inside? Here are a few ideas that I picked up as I explored the Innovation Playlist (linked above):

  • Have your students invent a science experiment – what is it that they want to test? How do they want to share their learning?
  • Ask students to write a creative essay – by encouraging creative thinking in the context of the classroom, you give them permission to think about the things that provide them wonder and curiosity.
  • Give your students the opportunity to come up with an interesting historical perspective on an event that they care about.

These types of activities push our students real world thinking that integrates what they know from multiple perspectives and fields of knowledge. These also create more opportunities for student voice and choice. While they may be harder to assess, they push the students to a culture of learning, which is very different than a culture of being taught.

What are your thoughts on this? Have you found ways to provide your students opportunities to be innovative thinkers and learners? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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The North Star of Great Learning

Moving the RockThis summer a group of educators in my school district did a book study of Moving the Rock: Seven Levers WE Can Press to Transform Education by Grant Lichtman. I was not an original member of the book study, but when that group came to an end, they decided they wanted to keep meeting, and that they wanted to grow the group – so, I was invited to become a member. That group is called the Innovation Task Force. Since I felt a bit behind the other members, I decided to read the Moving the Rock. I picked it up and read it in just a couple of days (I could have finished it in a day if I let myself!).

When discussing the first of his seven levers, Lichtman used the phrase the “North Star of Great Learning.” In the book, he suggests that defining that North Star is one of the first ways that we can create the demand for better schools. So, what is our North Star? As a way to help define what that may look like at our school, we spent a portion of our first staff meeting talking about what great learning looks like. We began our meeting with the following image:

Learning
Thanks to Susan Drumm for creating this image.

We asked each teacher to respond with a single word. We then created a word cloud from the ideas that were shared by our staff. This is what we came up with:

Opening Day Word Cloud

I think that’s a pretty impactful list of words to describe what great learning looks like, and it definitely helps us as a building chart the plan for what deeper learning should look like in our building. It seems that if this is what we believe, it should serve as the foundation of the North Star of Great Learning.

BestPracticesModel_HSE21_standalonegraphic_2017_05_24As a district, we also have our Instructional Framework, Called the HSE21 Best Practices for Teaching and Learning (it can be found to the right). As I look at this framework, and compare it to the words that we as a staff selected to define great learning, they seem very well aligned.

I wonder at times though, how often we reflect on what is happening in our classrooms on a daily basis compared to what our beliefs about great learning actually are. Is our practice meeting what we say that we want great learning to look like? I wonder if we were to ask our students about learning in our classrooms what they might say about our daily practices.

I’ve often heard leaders talk about the idea of cognitive dissonance, that idea of being a little bit uncomfortable with what you are doing. Of being ok with others questioning our practice. Of understanding that we are all here to create the best possible learning environment for our students (and sometimes that will not be the easiest path for the adults!). Of understanding that if you are completely comfortable in all you are doing, you probably aren’t growing that much.

During our last meeting as the Innovation Task Force, one of the colleagues in the group shared that instead of thinking about how to prepare our students for when they graduate from high school, maybe a better thing to think about is how do we prepare them for life at 22. When we think about graduating from high school as our end goal for students, we let ourselves off the hook for helping them be ready for what they need to know in those first couple of years AFTER they graduate from high school.

Raise your hand if there were things that you didn’t understand about the world when you graduated high school. I can assure you that my hand is up too! Creating a transformational learning environment will help our students to see that learning is something that can happen anytime and anywhere, not something that is done to them while they are sitting in a classroom.

Just like the mind shift that it takes to transfer our classrooms from the traditional learning environments that most of us grew up in towards transformational learning environments who implement the 4 Cs on a daily basis (Creative Thinking, Collaboration, Creativity, and Communication), we have to shift our thinking about what it is that we are truly preparing students for.

The next chance you get, ask your students about the favorite things that they have done in your classroom so far this year, or ask them to tell you what great learning should look like. Reflect on the things they share with you. Create more learning opportunities like that! Then, share their responses in the comments below. I’d love to hear from our students.

Teaching in the technology age

Out of curiosity, how many of you remember when the first iPhone came out? Did any of you have one? In case you have forgotten, that first iPhone looked like this:

iPhone 10th anniversary

In case you have also forgotten, that beauty of a phone was released to the public in 2007. Now I must admit, I did not have the original iPhone. If you recall, when the iPhone first came out it was only available on AT&T, and I still had a contract with Verizon – that meant I had to wait. But I remember friends who rushed out to get that first iPhone. And they were blown away by how amazing it was.

So why am I bringing up the release of the iPhone? If you haven’t been paying attention to the birthdates of your students, you may not have noticed it, but most of our 5th and 6th graders here at RSI were born in 2007 or later. Think about that. Most of our students have never lived in a world that didn’t have an iPhone! The kids we are teaching truly are digital natives. They have had the entire world at their fingertips their entire lifetime.

We are born without knowledgeLet’s contrast that just a bit with human history. I’ve recently been reading Walter Isaacson’s fascinating biography Benjamin Franklin. There were a lot of things that I knew about Franklin, his role as an inventor/scientist, his time as a member of the Continental Congress, and that he’s a writer and printer. I don’t know that I fully realized what a world traveler he was. I also did not quite realize just how curious he was – throughout his life he found wonder in the world around him, and spent time trying to learn more.

One of the things that being alive in the 1700s allowed Franklin, and his contemporaries, was time alone with their thoughts. There weren’t distractions like television, radio, podcasts, phones. I mean, when he wanted guidance from back home while working on the treaty for the Revolutionary War, he had to hand write a letter, sometimes multiple drafts, send it on a ship back to America, and wait, typically for several months, for a response. Think about how much time he had to just wait and think!

Now, when do your best ideas strike you? If you’re anything like me (and brain research says that most humans probably are), it happens in your moments of rest and solitude. I can’t tell you how many times a great idea comes to me in the shower, only to be lost by the time I get out and have a way to write it down. The truth is, there is constant thinking happening in our minds. Sometimes it’s self-talk, sometimes it’s planning, but other times it’s when we get our best ideas. How often do you spend hours laboring over something, not quite sure how to make it perfect, only to become frustrated and walk away? Then, in a free moment, it suddenly clicks and the solution you’ve been looking for is right there.

Our students don’t have enough opportunities to just wonder, to think, to get bored and then allow creativity to get them out of their boredom. Most digital natives are not used to that feeling. They are used to getting what they want when they want it. And as such, they need to be better trained to find their creativity and curiosity.

What does that mean for us in the classrooms? Sometimes we as educators get caught up in the idea of “I have to cover…” so we rush in, we swoop them up when they might get a little stuck, we solve the problem for them instead of allowing them the time and space to solve the problem on their own.

Our students, in their long term though, need to be able to work through problems and solve them. The reality is that there are a lot of things that the devices they have grown up with can do for them, but there are also things that those devices can’t do. In his book What School Could Be, Ted Dintersmith spends time in the first chapter talking about the digital revolution and the rapid growth in computing power. While computers are getting exponentially faster every year, and at some point, computers most likely will surpass the average speed of the human brain, they haven’t yet been able to do the creative problem solving that humans can do. Computers can only solve problems that they have the information and programming for. Dintersmith shares that “Children need to learn how to leverage machine intelligence, not replicate its capacity to perform low-level tasks!” The ideas that allow them to learn this skill only comes from time spent wondering or practicing creativity.

When you try to think about ways to integrate curiosity and wonder, take the topics you are learning about in your classroom. Create provocations for students to wonder about that tie to what you are learning about. Allow the learning in your classroom go sideways just a little bit because of the “What if…” questions that students ask. When we feed into their wonder, we tell them it’s ok to be curious.

Then, provide them with opportunities to be creative! On Wednesdays, our media center has become the hub of creative activity with makerspace activities going on. This feeds the creative mind and soul! It helps our kids to understand that technology is not always the answer! Allow every child to see themselves as creative in some way! Not only does it turn on that part of the brain, it’s a lot of fun for you too!

 

What are your thoughts? How have you integrated creativity and curiosity in your classroom? What have you learned from your students when you take that time to dive into their wonders? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

Creativity

Over spring break, I had the opportunity to do some reading, and finished 3 different books that were awesome. One of those books was Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull (the president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios).  Primarily, the book is about creativity, but Catmull also describes it as “an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible.”

I have been reading a lot about creativity recently. I’ll be honest, I sometimes struggle to describe myself at a “creative” person. I always felt that I struggled in the related arts classes – while I enjoyed going to art class in elementary school, my work was never the type of thing that would have been chosen to hang in the display case outside of the art room. Even today I sometimes doodle in my notes and have been playing with the idea of sketchnoting as a way to increase learning and memory on certain tasks, but those sketches aren’t something that I feel very comfortable to share publicly. While I learned to play several different instruments in elementary, middle, and high school, I have not stuck with any of them beyond my school career. I have a guitar that spends more time in my closet than anywhere else in my house.

6 Cs of LearningBut here’s the thing, if I just accept that creativity isn’t my thing, then I feel like I’m doing a disservice to the students whose life I impact. In previous posts, I have shared the graphic to the right. One of the keys to developing kids who are ready for their unknown future is developing creativity, and if we just throw our hands up and say “But I’m not that creative, so I can’t teach others to be creative” then we are not helping them be ready for whatever their future may hold.

One of the first books that I read that really got me thinking about the importance of creativity in teaching and learning was the book Ditch that Textbook by Matt Miller (also the book that got me thinking about starting this blog – one of the ways that I express my own creativity).  If you haven’t read DITCH That Textbook, DITCH is actually an acronym for Matt Miller’s teaching model.  DITCH stands for: Different; Innovative; Tech-laden; Creative; and Hands-on.

Creative GeniusAfter reading Miller’s book, I was led to Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess.  Burgess spends a huge chunk of time in this book talking about creative ways to hook our students into our lessons. He believes that creativity is something that can be developed in anyone through practice and effort. I have to say that I agree with him on this one – we can help develop creativity in others by giving them the time, space, and opportunity to use their creative ideas in their learning!

I’ve shared before that I often think of teaching as an art. Developing lessons that are interesting, exciting, and engaging takes time and effort. Some days our lessons nail it, and our kids are totally into it. Sometimes the lessons that we think are going to be “so cool” just fall flat.

In Creativity, Inc., Catmull shares that “If we can constantly change and improve our models by using technology in the pursuit of art, we keep ourselves fresh.” For many of our students, they continue to look at their iPad, their phone, or other pieces of technology, as a tool for entertainment purposes. They can play games, watch videos, and consume in so many ways. While there are times that consumption can be necessary for the purpose of learning, we generally retain so much more when we take our knowledge and create something with it. When we use the technology that our students see as a tool for consumption, and help our students see that they can use it for creation, they can go so much further in their learning.  I’ve said it before, technology can be an accelerator that pushes our learning to new heights.

With that in mind, here’s the gentle nudge – think about ways that your students can use technology to create something that would never have been possible without the iPad they have in their hands. Help them to think about how they could make something that reminds them of the things they most like to consume. Then, set them free to be creative.

In Ditch that Textbook, Miller encourages us to think about how to integrate more creativity with the following questions:

Creative: What types of products do you and/or your students consume a lot? How can the role of consumer be flipped to creator? How do you or your students demonstrate original ideas? How can those translate to the classroom?

What are some ways that you have integrated creative thinking into learning opportunities successfully? What are some ideas you have to add a creative piece to what you are already doing? I believe that most kids want to be creative, but they don’t often get the opportunity to in service of learning. When we set those creative juices free for our kids, they will be so much more likely to retain the learning that was going on in connection with their creative thinking.

Compliance diminishes creativity

In last week’s post I was thinking about the idea of student apathy, and how sometimes what you or I might identify as an unwillingness to work might actually be a sign of fear that the student is moving out of his/her comfort zone. One of the suggestions I made for how to handle that issue was to prepare for those students by providing scaffolding for our students to support them as needed.

Have you ever watched a building being built? Living in a neighborhood that is still growing, I get to watch houses being put up constantly. My 6-year-old son loves seeing the excavator or bulldozers doing their things. Around our downtown area, there’s lots of construction going on. A couple days ago I noticed a new building going in right behind our favorite pizza place (Greek’s Pizzeria – possibly the best breadsticks in the whole world!). As they have added to the height of the building, the scaffolding is added for the next level. Builders don’t put up all the scaffolding they need at the beginning, and then begin building – instead they add the scaffolding they need at the “just right” moment.

When is the just right moment in education to provide that scaffolding? If you provide too much scaffolding too early, and you give it to all your students, you may take away some of the opportunities for choice. In one of the first years I was at Riverside, I decided that I wanted my students to do a project at the end of our unit on Ancient Greece. I had them research a Greek God or Greek Hero, then create a poster. At the beginning of the project, I gave them a list of resources that I suggested, I gave them a detailed rubric, we talked about what the final project might look like, and I shared an example that I created. Then I set them free reminding them throughout that they had freedom to use additional sources that they might find in the library, and that they were free to switch up the design however they wanted. On the day the project was due, I had everyone share their work with the class. I must admit, I was a little disappointed that everyone’s poster was almost identical.

I didn’t make the connection in the moment, but as I reflect on it now, I provided too much scaffolding too early in the process. Instead of being there to support the learners as they needed it, I created boundaries that they chose to stay inside of. Instead the resources I gave them acted as a recipe to what success looked like, and compliant kids are going to take the path of least resistance to success.

As we continue down a path of creating learning experiences that allow student choice and voice, we have to remember that true authentic learning doesn’t happen when we have prescribed experiences. It doesn’t happen when we hand out recipes to success.

Control leads to compliance;autonomy leads to engagement.

Reflecting further and thinking back on what I would do differently with that project, I’d probably remove a lot of the stuff that I provided in advance. I’d still prepare a list of potential resources, but I’d hold it back and only share with students who were struggling to find a good resource. I wouldn’t hand out a highly descriptive rubric to all the students, instead I’d create one that left lots of freedom. I definitely wouldn’t create an example of the poster that all the kids could copy! If students weren’t meeting my expectations I’d give them specific feedback on where they were lacking and how they could improve. We’d start with the standards, I’d share with the students our goal and purpose, and then I’d set them free. As I observed their work, I’d add scaffolding to those who needed it, but a lot of kids are probably going to come up with something way better than you imagined when you started the project. Don’t believe me? Try it. What’s the worst that happens? You already have the scaffolding ready, so you share it with all who need it.

What have been your experiences with scaffolding? Have there been times you added too much at the beginning and it was like a recipe? Reflect on that experience and share what you might do to make it better! Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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!