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”

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!

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

#IMMOOC #IMMOOCB1: A culture of yes!

So we say we want innovation in our schools, in our classrooms.  Many of us feel that this is the best way to get our students past the point of engagement, and moving to the level of empowerment.  But there is one little word that can kill that process – no.

In the past couple of years, we have had many opportunities to interview potential teachers.  Every time we bring an interview team together, we all agree that we are looking for people who are “go-getters” – people who will do whatever it takes to make the learning experiences for their students new and exciting.  They have helped to bring exciting new learning opportunities into our school.  At the same time, many of the teachers in our building continue to learn and evolve – trying new formats of teaching, new activities, new technologies.  This innovation continues to spread, and is so exciting to watch!

If you know much about improvisational comedy, you know that during a scene the key is to not say no.  The mindset has to be to have an attitude of “yes, and…”  This is what we’re seeking for innovation.  When there are new and exciting ideas that will make learning better for students, I strive to say “yes, and…”

My hope is that this culture of yes will allow us all to continue to learn and grow.  Ultimately, our growth will allow us to make learning more innovative for every student!  Isn’t that the goal?

Successful adaptation

I’m not sure how many of you have read the book The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros.  It’s a book that I have referenced in the past, and today I happened to be on his blog and came across a great post that I want to share.  Below you’ll find a link to his short post titled “Successful Adaptation.”  Click the link to check it out, and then come back here for some closing thoughts:

Successful Adaptation – by George Couros

How many of those contradictions are things that you’ve heard, or maybe even said, before?  I feel our steps with the HSE21 Best Practice Model have helped us to attack many of the contradictions, however I still see some of those contradictions within our building.

I know Couros shared his own remix of those contradictions written as questions, but I have a few more questions for us to think about:

What have you created in the past week?  Month?  Year?  Have you shared any of those things with your students?  How could our own efforts at creation model that expectation for our students?

What are some areas that you would be willing to give up the expectation of students asking for permission? (assuming they are acting responsibly)  How would this promote greater empowerment for our students?

What are the things that you have let go of this year in order to show more of a growth mindset?  What are the policies within our classroom or our building that get in the way of the growth mindset?

I want to say again, I am not asking you to change for change’s sake, rather I am asking you to think about how you might change in order to make your classroom a better learning environment for our students.  With that, I want to leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Couros:


If you feel up to it, share your response to one (or more) of these questions, or one of the questions from the original quote by Couros in the comments below.

What is the “average” student? (Part II)

Last week I shared with you a little bit about the idea of averages.  From astronomers in the 16th century, to the work of Quételet in the 1800s, to Lincoln’s efforts to standardize the military during the Civil War, averages have a long history of being used to understand humans both physically and mentally.  During World War II, the research of Gilbert Daniels showed that averages were not a great idea for design of the cockpits of airplanes because no pilot fit the mold of the average man.  As a result, the Air Force banned the use of average for design, and began demanding design to the jagged edges.  This led to adjustable foot pedals, helmet straps, flight suits, and seats (things that seem like a no-brainer today).

airforce-dimensionsThrough the choice to move to flexible design, our Air Force was able to move forward in ways that they were not able to do when design was based on the average.  Now I know that some of you probably read last week’s post and may not have seen an immediate connection to education.  If you recall, in last week’s post I mentioned Todd Rose, a Harvard professor and a high school dropout, who is doing some interesting research in the science of individuality.

During a TEDx Talk titled The Myth of Average (if you have a chance, this is a really good TED Talk with some real implications for the education of all students), Rose talked about the educational repercussions of using average to design learning.  Sometimes our classrooms are like the airplane cockpits at the beginning of World War II.  There aren’t a lot of options for adjustments, and because of that, there are students who struggle.  Here’s the dirty little secret though – it’s not just the kids at the bottom who struggle in school.  When you look at dropout rates, a significant portion of high school and college dropouts aren’t leaving because it’s too hard, they’re leaving because it’s too easy and they aren’t challenged or engaged.

Over the summer I had a video post to the blog titled “An Open Letter to Educators.”  More recently I have been reading the book The Boy Who Played with Fusion, the story of Taylor Wilson, a 22-year-old who built a fusion reactor at the age of 14.  Both talked about a need to embrace new formats of education in an effort to be more individualized and prepare our students for the real world.  The implication I saw was that this individualization isn’t just for the kids that we identify on the low end of the spectrum, or those on the high end of the spectrum, but also for the kids we identify as the “typical” student.

No matter how we might identify our students (typical, below average, above average), our students come to us with jaggedaverage-student learning profiles.  Some are strong in math, but struggle in ELA.  Others have a talent for memorizing facts in social studies or science, but when you try to get them to think deeper, and solve the problems of our scientific world, they just can’t do it.  What if our education system was designed to adapt to the jaggedness of our students instead of expecting our students to adapt to the school setting?

The HSE21 Best Practice Model is a great method to get there.  Through student-centered approaches, transfer of learning, cognitive curriculum, and fundamental classroom conditions, we can develop an environment that accepts students where they are, and helps to move them further.

As you continue to design your classroom conditions for your students, be thinking about their jagged profile of learning.  How are you making the learning environment more flexible?  What are you doing for that science genius who struggles with the reading?  They may be awesome with the hands-on portion of science, but when it comes time to read and learn about theories, they just don’t get there because the textbook is too challenging for them.  Our goal has to be one of constant incremental growth, both for the kids who are struggling in a lot of areas, as well as those who seem to have it all together.  Remember, we’re all jagged!

Technology can help us to get there.  With an iPad, each of your students has the ability to translate text, look up vocabulary, or even have text read aloud to them.  With programs like NEWSELA or Achieve 3000, we are able to have our students read materials that are at the appropriate level for them, be able to understand what they have read, and in turn have an opportunity to grow.

Flexible design in learning is the school equivalent to adjustable seats!  These adaptations will nurture the potential of each individual in your classroom.  And remember, adaptations aren’t just for those on either end of the spectrum.  That kid that you think of as average probably has a jagged profile of learning too, with strengths that we can tap into, and weaknesses that we can target for growth.  The adaptations that we’d make for anyone with a label can work for those without any specific label too – and as the teacher, you are allowed to make the choices of what is best for your students!

What might flexible design in education look like in practice?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Get rid of specific numbers on assignments (3 pages, 5 paragraphs, 4 signposts, etc.) and shift to requiring quality work instead.
  • Allow modifications on assignments.
  • Create a loose structure for projects to allow more student autonomy in what they are creating and how they are making it.
  • De-emphasize standardized test scores or other systems where averages are used to judge students.
  • Let students select the strategies that work best for their own learning (that student who struggles with reading might be able to listen to a podcast or watch a video on YouTube and think just as deeply as that star reader who can learn from the text).
  • Change the pace so that certain students can finish earlier and have enrichment opportunities and others who are behind can have more time to work and not feel like all they are doing is to catch up.

Now, I know some of these ideas sound crazy, or scary, or hard to put into practice.  We can’t change everything at once, but we can move incrementally to try to develop an environment that our students will be able to have more success.  Just like setting goals for students to grow, we have to set goals for our own growth, and then take steps to get there.

But isn’t it worth it?  Who knows, that kid who is struggling in your class right now might be on the path to dropping out, but they may have the potential to be a professor at Harvard – or any one of millions of other successful paths.  They just need to have the opportunity to embrace their individuality!

So what are your thoughts?  What successes have you had when adapting to be better suited to the individuality of your students?  What challenges do you see in this way of thinking?  Let us know in the comments below!