#IMMOOC Week 1: Innovate… why?

Innovate!As we think about innovating in education, it’s always valuable to spend some time thinking about why we do what we do.  As I begin my participation over the next 6 weeks in #IMMOOC (Innovator’s Mindset Massive Open Online Course), I’m driven to think more intentionally about why we innovate, and what innovation means in education.  Below are 3 reasons that stand out to me as why we need innovation in education.

  • The Factory Model of Education – Let me describe something, and you tell me if it sounds familiar: a publicly funded system where groups of about 28 students who are about the same age are taught by one teacher in a room of about 800 square-feet. This is the system of education that developed as a result of the free public education movement put into place in Massachusetts over 150 years ago.  Pieces of today’s curriculum can be tied directly back to decisions that were made about the initial curriculum in the late 19th  In today’s classrooms we continue to teach skills to kids that the iPad they carry can do for them, and then seem surprised that they don’t find value in it.  To give you some ideas of what 21st Century Education might look like, TeachThough.com created a great graphic:

4 essential rules

  • Growth Mindset – Last school year I read the book Mindset by Carol Dweck. While there were many parts of the book that had great value to me as an educator, my favorites came from chapter 7: “Parents, Teachers, and Coaches: Where Do Mindsets Come From?” How we interact with the children in our lives can have such an impact on the mindsets that they develop.  In the portion on parents, I took away the appropriate ways to praise children.  When we give praise that is focused on a child’s intelligence (“you’re so smart!” “you did such a good job on this paper.”), we may harm their long term motivation and performance, because taking a risk would mean possibly not getting that same praise.  Instead our praise should be focused on a child’s efforts and achievements (“I can tell you worked very hard on this!” “I love the effort you put in, but let’s work together on this part to figure out what you didn’t understand.”).  As the chapter continues, it talks about the importance of the words that teachers can use regarding learning.  I think we all know that at times learning is hard.  We need to let our students know that the hard things help us to learn, but only when we put forth effort.  I love watching some of the teachers in my building who are teaching the concepts of growth mindset directly to their students.  The kids in those rooms understand that ideas like struggling and failure help us to continue to grow.


  • Risk Taking – Intuitively I think all educators understand that risk taking is an important part of the learning process. Whether we realize it or not, our students are taking risks every day.  For some, simply talking in the classroom is a risk, for others the risk is in trying something new.  But what about us?  How do we model our own risks to our students?  Recently I was in a classroom and there was an issue with technology.  I overheard the teacher say “I never should have done this” and then shift gears into something entirely different.  What message do we send to our students when we give up at the first sign of failure?  How can we expect them to continue to take risks if we have modeled our own hesitancy to take any kind of risk?  We have to shift our own mindset and be willing to take risks for our student.  If that innovation works, then you may have created a truly meaningful learning opportunity for your student.  If the innovation doesn’t work, you have a real-life lesson on mindsets and how we deal with adversity.  By making ourselves vulnerable in our classrooms, we will show our kids that it’s ok to be a little vulnerable themselves.

These are just a couple of thoughts on reasons why we need to innovate.  What thoughts might you have?  Share your own additions or thoughts in the comments below!


The innovators

I’ve recently been reading a book called The Innovators by Walter Isaacson.  If you don’t know anything about Isaacson, he’s written biographies about Ben Franklin, Henry Kissinger, Albert Einstein, and Leonardo Da Vinci, but several of his other books are more about groups of people who have played a role in some way – one book, titled American Sketches, is about some of the great leaders and creative thinkers of our society.

The InnovatorsThe Innovators has the subtitle “How a group of hackers, geniuses, and geeks created the digital revolution.”  This book caught my attention for a couple of reasons – first, I’ve always been something of an early adopter of technology.  I love to check out new and exciting innovations.  A second reason that this caught my attention is that I’m always curious about how people made the leaps to take us from the earliest computers (devices that took up entire rooms in the basement of college buildings or at military bases), to the technology that I can hold in my hand every time I pick up my iPhone.

Innovation is something that we often think of in terms of those big leaps.  When I was in sixth grade, my elementary school was renovated, and one of the classrooms was converted into a computer lab.  The first time we walked into the computer lab as a class, we saw a room with about 30 IBM computers.  The only thing that I remember being able to do on those computers was a keyboarding program that began the process of teaching me to type.  For me, this felt like a HUGE innovation.  Little did I know how much more our students would be able to do in the future.

The chapter that I am reading right now is all about software, and one of the big names in the development of computer software was Bill Gates.  Early in the chapter is a quote from him about what an innovator is:

An innovator is probably a fanatic, somebody who loves what they do, works day and night, may ignore normal things to some degree and therefore can be viewed as a bit unbalanced.

Reading about Gates, and many of the others who appear in the book, I can see how this definition certainly applies to innovators.  Here’s the thing though – I think there are times that you could substitute the word teachers for innovators and that definition would still work (I know my friends think I’m a little unbalanced to spend so much of my time with 10, 11, and 12 year olds!).  We are all something of a fanatic about what we do – we’re fanatics for our kids.  We love them, we want to help them learn and grow, and we want them to be successful.  I know that our efforts to get there make us all feel a little unbalanced at times.

One of the things that I have taken away from the book The Innovators is that the transition to the digital revolution was NOT made up of several giant leaps.  Instead, the innovations that have led to the amazing technology that I am able to carry in my pocket has happened because of little steps layered on top of one another.  And more often than not, those innovations were not made by any one person.  People such as Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, Robert Noyce, Grace Hopper, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Larry Page (along with so many others) all played important roles in the digital revolution, but the steps of each of these people built on the ideas of others.

We as teachers need to remember that as fanatics, it may not always be easy to get our students to learn and grow as quickly as we want them to.  They may not be immediately successful, but if we continue to innovate in our teaching, if we continue to try to reach kids in new and exciting ways, we are going to be able to reach more of them.  We also need to remember the value in teamwork for our students to learn.  Just as so many of the innovators mentioned above found success by building on the ideas of others, you may find success with a student through strategies others share with you. Whether it be a teammate, your PLC team, someone down the hall, or any one of the multitude of other people in the building, there are others who might have an idea that helps you get that kid to move forward.

What are some of the things that you are fanatical about?  Have you ever tried something new that seemed to be the key to reaching that kid?  Share you experiences in the comments below!

Using outdoor spaces

Today I was reading a recent blog post by John Spencer about the ways that nature helps us to be more creative (check it out here).  Personally I love to be out in nature, so the post really caught my attention.  The gist of the post was about the fact that time in nature can lead us to greater levels of creativity.  His 5 ways that nature makes us more creative are listed in bold below, with my own thoughts added:

  1. Nature creates positive disruptions – Life draws us into the natural hustle and bustle of our world. Being in nature helps us get away from technology, current events, and everything else that makes it hard for our brain to stay focused.  That time away from all those distractions allows our brains to think more deeply.
  2. Nature encourages problem-solving – Almost every time I go for a hike, or spend some time in nature, I’m inspired to write a new blog post, or solve a problem, or be creative.
  3. Nature helps us embrace deep work – When do you do your best thinking? There is a lot of research that says that simply being active can lead to deeper thinking.  Simply going for a walk helps us activate our brain in different ways.  According to some research, throw nature into the mix and you multiply that effect.  So what does that mean for you?  Before teaching a particularly important skill, take your class for a walk in the woods outside of school.  Your students brains will be better prepared for deeper thinking when you return.
  4. Nature humbles us while also expanding our worldview – I’m not sure how many of you know this about me, but I was a 10 year 4-H member. I didn’t show animals (we weren’t on the farm), but I did lots of other projects over the years.  One of the projects I did required me to take multiple observations of a natural environment every day over multiple weeks.  I chose a small wooded area with a trail just a little over a mile from my home.  I had to observe at different times in the day, and I began to notice changes in what seemed like an untouched environment.  Some animals were more or less active at certain times of the day, some plants looked different depending on various factors.  The time I have spent in the natural world helps me realize that there are so many things happening in the world around us that we miss when we are in our cars, or on our devices.  Sometimes you really do have to slow down, look around, and smell the flowers in order to be aware of what’s happening in our world, and to realize how little control we have over so much of what’s around us.
  5. Nature can spark innovation – Did you know that Velcro was designed by a Swiss engineer after his dog was covered in burdock burrs after going on a hike? Or that the design of the nose of Japanese high-speed trains was meant to mimic the beak of a kingfisher?  These are just a couple of examples of innovations that came about because of things that people noticed in nature.  Imagine what the future scientists of the world (our students) may be able to develop if they learn to look to nature for ideas and solutions to our problems.

Reading Spencer’s post got me thinking about the natural wonders just waiting to be explored outside of our school.  By walking out the doors of our building, you can access a variety of outdoor environments.  Between the trails in the wooded areas, the stream running through the woods, the untended plain near the baseball fields, or the river, there are so many ways for us to access nature.  And the benefit doesn’t just stop with the kids being out in nature away from their devices.  Something they see while they are with you may inspire creativity and wonder in a way that is totally unexpected.

What have you done with your class in our outdoor areas?  Have you seen increased levels of creativity as a result of the time you have spent outside?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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.

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.