What are you learning?

“What are you learning?” It’s one of my favorite questions to ask kids when I am visiting a classroom, or when I see them working in the hallway.  More often than not, their answers will relate to the specific content they are working on in that moment.  The reality is though that they are learning so much more than the math, social studies, science, or whatever the content area may be.

We ask so much of our students when we put them to work.  We expect them to pay attention in class, to be engaged, to think critically, to work collaboratively.  Just think about how much work we are expecting our students to do.  All in the service of learning and growing.

Your role in the learning process of our students is so important.  They need us every day in order to learn, grow, and find success.  It’s such an important job!

But stop for a minute to think – when someone asks you what you teach, what is your answer?  Do you respond with your content area?  Do you respond with your grade level?

I’m going to share something with you that you may not like to hear though – the content is irrelevant.  That may be an uncomfortable thing to think about, but let me share with you why I believe this.  In my role, I get to walk into a lot of classrooms, I get to see a lot of lessons, and I get to see a LOT of GREAT TEACHING!  But in my role, I also get to notice some things that as a classroom teacher you might not get to see.

This year I saw a 6th grade science class doing a lab activity that was identical to something my daughter did as a 2nd grader.  Even the paper that went with the lab looked the same.  The teacher who was leading the lesson was teaching as though the students had never seen anything like this before.  I asked one of the students about the lab, and he shared that he did the same activity when he was in elementary school.  I can’t imagine the depth of knowledge on this activity was as great as the teacher might have believed since the student had already done it.  Another time I was visiting a junior high classroom and I saw a lesson on scientific method being taught in an 8th grade classroom as though the students had never seen anything like it before – it was identical to one I had just seen in a 5th grade classroom.  I know that when I taught 6th grade, my scientific method lesson was very similar as well.  Where’s the rigor in a lesson that is being taught to our students so many different times in basically the same way?  Where’s the depth of knowledge?

If the content was truly relevant for our learners, we wouldn’t be wasting our student’s time teaching them things that they already know as if they have never seen it.  I know what some of you are probably thinking though – maybe some of the students forgot!  Maybe there are students that weren’t in our district who have never done this before!  I’m going to push back on those ideas – what about the students who didn’t forget?  What about the students who were here, did this exact activity, and are bored out of their mind?  Even if the lesson is fun or one of our favorites, how are we serving the learning of our students?  A good formative assessment at the beginning of the unit may lead you to realize that what you were planning to teach isn’t valuable because the students already know it.

And that’s the thing, the most valuable commodity we have is time.  In education we are always asking for more of it.  One of the biggest complaints I hear from teachers about innovation and change is we don’t have enough time to do new things.  If we can gain some of our time back by not teaching a lesson of material that our students already know as if they have never heard it before, we might be able to do something new and innovative.  Instead of continuing on that lab that a student did in elementary school, what could we have our students do that would develop creativity?  How could we let our students communicate the knowledge they already have?  Is there some way they could work collaboratively?  The image below is one that I have seen shared on Twitter by so many people, I can’t even begin to guess exactly where it came from, but it’s an important reminder of the things that our students need to know for their future.

6 Cs of Learning

If the image above isn’t enough for you, what about some research?  According to the National Association of Colleges and Employees in a recent job outlook survey, reported in 2016, these are the top 5 attributes that employers are looking for: 1) Leadership; 2) Ability to work in a team; 3) Communication skills (written); 4) Problem-solving skills; 5) Communication skills (verbal).

As I was researching this post, one of the other topics that kept coming up is the ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

Hopefully, like me, you notice that none of the things listed in any of this research is specific to content knowledge.  That should challenge us to think a little differently about the question what do you teach.  I think the answer to what do you teach should probably be something like this: “I am teaching my students to have strong dispositions of learning.”

Our students don’t need to be able to recite back the scientific method.  They need to be able to use the process to solve problems they encounter in the world.  Our students don’t need to be able to solve stand-alone multiplication or division problems.  They need to be able to apply those math skills in real world situations.  If this is what our students need, what does that do to the way you might plan a lesson?  Assess your students?  Create a project?

I would love to hear your thoughts.  How do you get your students to have the dispositions for learning?  What would you do if you found that several of the kids in your class had already done the activity you had planned for today?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Advertisements

What is school for?

Put yourself back in one of your childhood classrooms – at the beginning of the day what was it that your teacher always said?  If it’s anything like my childhood experience, it was something like “Good morning class.” Then what would happen?  The whole class would respond “Good morning…”  And what happened if you weren’t loud enough, or respectful enough?

I think we all have lived that situation – and I may even have been guilty of fulfilling the teacher role (as recently as the first day of school… THIS YEAR!!!).  But here’s the question, what are we teaching with that call and response open to the day?  It’s mostly about teaching obedience.  Traditionally, the common school was built to prepare children to become the factory workers of the future.  Implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, schools taught students to be obedient, to hold a little back, to do the work assigned and nothing more.

Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.So that brings us to the bigger question: What is school for?  While some of our students may consider a role in manufacturing, the factories of today are way different than the ones of the early to mid 1900s that led to this factory model of education.  Many of our students will not be heading down the path of manufacturing, so that factory model of school definitely doesn’t apply.  If you believe that innovation is going to keep happening (and why wouldn’t it?), then we’re preparing our students for an ever changing world!  That is so different from the traditional model of school as a factory.  In an excellent TED Talk by Seth Godin, he gives 8 examples of things school should be doing:

  1. Homework during the day, lectures at night – flipped learning
  2. Open note and open book all the time – if it’s important enough to memorize, it’s also ok to have to look it up
  3. Access – any course at any time – programs like Kahn or MOOCs can achieve this
  4. Precise focused education – not a one size fits all model
  5. No multiple choice – life isn’t multiple choice
  6. Experiences instead of test scores – learning is focused on the experiences that take place inside (and outside) of our classroom
  7. End of compliance as an outcome – while compliance may be needed at times, it shouldn’t be our end goal
  8. Cooperation instead of isolation – the ability to work with others

I could go into more detail on each of these, but I can’t do any better than what Godin did in his talk, so if you’d like to know more about any of these things, check out that TED Talk here.

So here’s my answer to the question “What is school for?”: I want our students to be equipped to go out into the world and make something that has an impact on their lives and the lives of others.  And I want them to know that if they get stuck, to ask for help and support.  While we might not always have all the answers, hopefully we can help our student to find the answers.

I’m curious to hear your answers – for you, what is school for?  Share your thoughts 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.

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!

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

What’s your why?

The vast majority of the people reading this blog are in the educational realm.  Whether you are a teacher, a counselor, an administrator, or you work in a school in some other way, something called you here.  Take just a moment to think about it, what was it that brought you to this point?

For me, when I think about what brought me into education, there are a few moments in my lifetime that stand out.  I remember my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Gromer.  With her, the Maya Angelou quote to the right comes to mind.  There aren’t very many specific things I remember happening in her classroom, but I remember that I always felt welcome, and valued, and important.  I felt that if I wasn’t there, someone missed me, and some value was lost from the class.  While I had great teachers before her, and great teachers after, nobody ever made me feel as important in the classroom setting as Mrs. Gromer.

In high school, one of my stand out teachers was Señora Cease – she was my Spanish teacher for all three years that I took the class.  While I may not be fluent in Spanish today, I learned some valuable study skills that I don’t believe I would have learned anywhere else.  Learning a language came hard to me, and while some friends were valuable parts of my studying, her efforts and ideas in class gave me skills that translated to so many other areas.

Then I think about Professor Katz.  Easily the most entertaining professor that existed – I’ll put money on it.  He was a history professor at IU.  I had the luck of knowing him when I was young, which meant that when I walked into his class, I became an easy target of his.  In a lecture hall full of 400 students, he would find me no matter where I sat and ask my opinion.  While I am a fairly confident person now, I’m sure that term didn’t always describe me. On the first day of class he asked me a question, to which I responded in a noncommittal way.  His response “Are you asking me?  I was asking you.”  Professor Katz helped teach me to be confident in all that I do.  While many of the small groups were led by instructional assistants, I had the privilege of being in the group that Professor Katz led himself.  You had to know your stuff – there was no hiding from him.  In addition to confidence, Professor Katz taught me about preparation.

All of these pieces of my history in education are part of what I brought to my classroom.  I wanted to bring the warmth that Mrs. Gromer had – I wanted my students to know that they were valued and important in my classroom.  I would work to provide scaffolding to support students who were struggling, just as Señora Cease had done for me.  And I would challenge my students at times – push their thinking when I thought they were just giving me surface level knowledge – just as Professor Katz pushed me.

I’m sure there are other things that come from my history that led me to the role that I’m in now, but now, I have an even more important why.  I look at each of my kids.  They have such unique personalities.

Lainey is the quiet rule follower.  Last year she actually received a reminder from her teacher – just one – and she cried about it as soon as she walked in the house.  We still can’t talk about it for fear of another evening full of tears.  She’s also very intentional, to the point of perfection on some things, which causes her to work slowly and sometimes not complete her in class work or feel as though she is falling behind her peers.

On the other hand, there’s Brody.  He’s not in school yet, but he’s been going to preschool.  Brody’s curiosity is almost indescribable.  He’s constantly asking questions – Why? Why do they call it baseball?  What does that word mean?  Sometimes it’s almost exhausting to answer all the questions he has.  To go with that, he loves to play rough – there are a couple of times I thought he was going to take me out by the knees, and even though he’s grown up with a sister, and almost all the kids in the neighborhood around us are girls, he finds ways to get them to play rough as well.  I expect Brody to be a kid who will probably rush through things.  While on spring break last week, he was always asking what we were doing next, so excited to get on to that, that sometimes it seemed that he couldn’t enjoy what we were doing in the moment.

And I know that both Lainey and Brody will have challenges as they grow older.  School can be a difficult place for kids.  Lainey will have times that her perfection will cause her to fall behind others, while Brody will be so concerned about getting on to the next thing, that he’ll probably hand in a paper half completed with several mistakes.

I have hopes and dreams for these two.  I want the best for them.  And I know that if that is the way that I feel, then the parents who trust each of us with their children have similar types of hopes and dreams.  The faces that sit in our classrooms each day are their everything, and they want the best for their kids as well.

So while Mrs. Gromer, Señora Cease, and Professor Katz may be the past why that pushed me into education, and led me to be the teacher that I became, they aren’t the why that will push me moving forward.  The past isn’t going to push me to strive to go further.  The past isn’t what’s going to help me continue to learn and grow as an educator.  Instead, I rely on my kids to be the catalyst for that growth.  And each of the 1,000 kids who walk into our building each day becomes the fuel that keeps that learning and growth going.

So…  What’s your why?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.  I’d love to hear what it is that drives you to do what you do.  Education isn’t easy, and we all need that why to push us!

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.