What’s the goal of education?

As many of you know, I love to listen to podcasts. I probably spend more time listening to podcasts than listening to music. I see them as an awesome learning tool. In past posts, I’ve shared tidbits that I gained from some of those various podcasts. Recently I’ve become a big fan of Reimagine Schools hosted by Dr. Greg Goins. Goins is currently the Director of the Educational Leadership Program at Georgetown College in Kentucky, and previously has worked in many different roles in schools, including time as a district superintendent in Illinois. The podcast is a way to share some of his ideas on transforming our schools.

He’s had several great guests on the podcast, but a recent episode really struck a chord with me. That episode was an interview of Alfie Kohn. Kohn is a writer and speaker on topics such as human behavior, education, and parenting. He has written 14 books, as well as numerous articles over the years. I must be honest, some of Kohn’s ideas really push me to the brink of being a little uncomfortable, but they cause me to pause and reflect on his thinking. I’ve said it before, no growth takes place when we are entirely comfortable, so I’m hoping these ideas will help me grow in my thinking. I’ll include a link to the podcast episode at the bottom of this post.

There were several things about the conversation that really made me pause and think. While the conversation meandered between topics, I’m going to break up my thoughts into what I saw as the 3 primary topics: what’s the goal of education; measuring student growth without traditional assessment; and the role of homework in education.

What’s the goal of education

During the conversation, Kohn shared that “Traditionalism has ill-served the students of today.” Much of the current American system of education is based in economic and competitive ways. Things like standardized assessments were often instituted and created by people who look at education from a purely economic perspective – we put in this amount per student, and based on that, this percentage of students can pass a test at the end of the school year. For those of us in education, we understand that this economic perspective is not where learning happens. Kohn pushes that we need to move beyond stuffing kids with facts, and instead get to understanding ideas from the inside out.

Many schools are still focused on grades, rubrics, tests, quizzes, homework, and worksheets. Kohn calls this “intellectually unengaging” and shares that based on research, learning shouldn’t be this way. Instead, true learning should grow from kids questions. Our role as educators is to empower our students and create welcoming communities that encourage student learning. We as the teachers have to start by minimizing our own power, and providing students with the opportunities to make decisions because the only way to learn to make good decisions is by making decisions.

Student growth without traditional assessment

Most of the timeIn his conversation with Goins, Kohn challenges us that there is no way to measure or quantify true learning. The moment we try to put a numerical or letter-based score onto a learning task, we take away much of the motivation that students have to learn, and instead we create a system that trains our students for compliance. The things that can be easily measured in an assessment are not the things that truly matter. The example that Kohn used here was that on an assessment of a writing task, we may spend more time and effort in measuring the number of times that a student used punctuation correctly, however we don’t spend nearly as much time on whether the student expressed meaningful ideas in their writing. If we are developing learners in our world, what’s more important? I think most would agree that the ideas are the most important part, but ideas are hard to quantify, so we struggle to factor that into our assessments. As Kohn puts it “More focus on data in teaching means that we teach the trivial stuff more than the important stuff.”

This was an area that I really struggled. Currently we live in a system that we are judged based on our data. For better or worse, that is the system that we live in. If I as a teacher, or we as a school, decided to shy away from that data and focus on the so called “more important stuff,” there may be stakeholders who question our choices because the data is important to them. It’s a struggle between what we feel is best for students, and what our community and society expect for students. What to do?

Kohn did have some awesome suggestions for ways to assess students in more authentic ways. He talked a little about performance tasks, which I know there are teachers in my current building who do this at times. He talked about exhibitions of mastery – imagine a gallery walk at the end of a unit, or grading period, or school year at least, where students are able to share something that they learned with an audience of more than just their teachers and peers. Another suggestion that I know that I’ve mentioned below is a portfolio with a place for reflections by students. I see this blog as my own personal learning portfolio – by scrolling through past posts you can see what I’ve learned about, what I’m passionate about, and you can see my own reflections on those topics. You may even notice that opinions on some of the topics have evolved in the time I’ve been posting. A final suggestion from Kohn is something that a teacher, or even school as a whole could do to assess overall learning – that’s a random sample of students achievements (notice that both are plural, that’s important). By looking at the achievements of various students, you can see a little about the types of learning that have happened within your classroom / school over a given period of time.

The role of homework in education

For those of you who know of Alfie Kohn, you may know what to expect here. Kohn is not a fan of homework. As a short precursor, Kohn sees homework, especially before high school, as educational malpractice, and he has a few reasons for his opinions. First a foremost, he doesn’t feel that a kid should have a “second shift” of school at home. Most people, when they leave work, are done with work, but in education we send students home with more to do.

Now I know, some of you are saying “not my homework, it’s meaningful,” but let’s keep in mind what we are asking when we send work home with a student. First, homework can be tough on families and kids. By assigning homework we are imposing our demands on their family time, and Kohn feels that families should be able to determine how to use their family time. Second, according to Kohn, no study has found any benefit of any kind to any student before high school. And finally, Kohn says that homework leads to several potential negative outcomes for our students: frustration; exhaustion; family conflict; less interest in learning; and less time for kids to develop in other ways (socially, artistically, etc.).

I’m not saying that we should never assign homework ever again, but Kohn’s thoughts fit with some of the opinions that I have as a father. Our family time is precious, and I don’t want to spend it fighting with my kids about whether they have their assignments done from school. We’ve got much better ways to spend our time. Kohn’s definition of appropriate homework is “on those rare occasions when we can say that this will help kids think more deeply about questions that matter, and when it will make kids more excited about learning, then and only then will we infringe upon family time.”

So what are your thoughts? Are you going to listen to the conversation (the link is just below)? Do any of the ideas shared above cause you to reflect on your own practice? Do they make you uncomfortable? I can say for sure that there are things from this post that make me a little uncomfortable, but I’m trying to live on the growing edge! Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Progressive Education with Alfie Kohn

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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!

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.

Change requires connectivity

The innovatorsLast summer, I read the book The Innovators by Walter Isaacson. As a brief description, the book was about the work of the many different people who played a role in the development of the computer and internet. For most of us, when we think of innovation, we think of people like Franklin, Edison, Bell, Morse, Jobs, or Gates, but in the case of the digital revolution, most of the work was not the creation of any one person. Instead it was the work of many who connected, collaborated, and iterated. Someone like Steve Jobs is seen as the creator of the iPhone, but really he took several technologies that already existed and combined them into a form factor that connected with a market.

Creativity IncThis past spring, I read the book Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull. Catmull is the co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, and wrote a book about the steps that they take in order to build a highly functioning, creative environment that is able to churn out movies that people love (think Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. Finding Nemo, and more). One of my big takeaways from this book is that the amazing work that occurs at Pixar happens because of 2 things: teamwork; and a willingness to accept feedback from those around you, whether positive or negative, and understand that it’s being shared in the hopes of creating something better.

Now, as many of you know, this blog is geared toward education. You may be wondering what the creation of the digital revolution or the work that occurs at Pixar have to do with what happens in our schools on a daily basis. I’m hoping to make that connection here today!

The connection that I can make between The Innovators and Creativity, Inc. has to do with the collaborative networks that existed between the creators. As an educator, each of you is a creator EVERY DAY. You create the experiences that happen in your classroom. You decide on what the room looks like, you decide if the lights are on or off, you decide if there is music or not, you decide how the desks are arranged when kids walk in. Each of these little decisions plays a role on the learning environment, and those are just the decisions you make BEFORE the students walk in. Think about all the decisions you make during the lesson! None of you are ever allowed to tell me that you “aren’t creative” because you create EVERY SINGLE DAY!!!

Think for a moment about your existence as an educator. You work close to several other amazing teachers every day, but there’s one thing I know about teaching because sometimes I did it when I was still in my classroom: it’s easy to shut the door, do your own thing, and not worry about what’s happening around you. Education is one of the careers where we often live in silos – our classrooms, our content area, our team, our grade level, or our campus.

But there’s one thing that books like The Innovators and Creativity, Inc. hopefully remind us: innovation doesn’t happen inside of a vacuum, it happens with collaboration, teamwork, and connections.  With all the amazing educators and schools, we still at times fail to create those critical connections for collaboration that lead to real innovation in education.

This is why I see such value in what happens during our Professional Learning Community (PLC) time. It’s an opportunity for you to come together with your colleagues, to analyze the data your seeing, to talk about what’s working in classrooms, and then to be able to test out whether or not that works in your own room. It’s a chance for you as a team to take risks, to walk out on a ledge as a team, and try something new because as a team you feel it will benefit the students in your room. We all know there’s safety in numbers! We need to see PLC time not as something that’s done to us, but as a form of self and team-directed professional development with regular opportunities to collaborate and communicate.

But if we want to create the amazing innovative environments that our students need in order to learn and grow, we have to be ready and willing to connect on an even grander scale. If you are looking for other ways to learn and grow, there are lots of informal options out there. Things like Twitter chats, EdCamps, and blogs are free and easy way to seek out like-minded educators who are doing amazing things in their classroom. Or there are more formal ways to learn about innovation in the classroom. I recently learned of the Deeper Learning Network (click here to check out their website) that shares tons of resources for innovative ideas in you classroom. Some of the things you can find information about include: Project-Based Learning, Blended Learning, Inquiry-Based Learning, Authentic Assessment, and so much more!

Now, some of you may be wondering why we need to change. Well, the reality is that thanks to the work of the innovative people that are discussed in Isaacson’s book, many of our students are used to on demand learning, are used to making choices in what they want to learn, and how they learn. The digital revolution has changed the game for learners, which means we have to find ways to change the game as teachers to meet their needs. I think we all would agree that our students today are different than the students that were in our schools just 5 years ago. They are digital natives, and many know how to find what they want to know when they want to know it.

If we as educators don’t adapt to the new style of learning, our learners are going to leave us behind. If they don’t see the relevance of what they are doing, if they don’t get choice and voice in their learning, they will not engage. I continue to believe that the HSE21 Best Practice Model is our North Star that gets us to the learning environments that will work for our students. And the best way for each of us to learn and grow towards those best practices is through meaningful collaboration. As one of my favorite professors at IU repeated almost every day “Learning is social” and we are all learners too!

BestPracticesModel_HSE21_standalonegraphic_2017_05_24

Continue to seek out ways to collaborate. Take a moment to be vulnerable and ask a PLC team member to come observe one of your lessons to give you feedback. If someone asks you for feedback, be willing to give it. We ask our students to be vulnerable and a little uncomfortable every day because that’s where the learning and growth takes place. Why can’t we expect the same of ourselves?

What are some of the things you do to continue to grow? Is there a preferred method for learning from others that works best for you? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Running through the sprinkler

As I sit writing this, it’s Sunday afternoon. Sunday’s in my family are often about getting work done – chores around the house, prepping for school, groceries, etc. To fit with that norm for our family, today was no different. This morning my wife Diane, an amazing kindergarten teacher, needed to go over to school to do some prep for her week. I needed to mow the lawn and then get to the grocery store. The kids had no real responsibilities, so they were going to stay home with me. I knew that if I left them inside, even though they said they were going to read, it would turn into a Netflix binge of Dinotrux, or Glitter Force, or something of that nature. I wanted them to be active, so I convinced them to come outside and play while I was mowing.

As I did the front yard, they had out their big wheels, their stilts, and their pogo stick. They were working on creating an obstacle course in the driveway when I finished the front lawn and grabbed the sprinkler to try to deal with a couple of brown spots. As I starting working on the side yard, Lainey came running up to me and asked “Can we run through the sprinkler?”

I started to say no, I mean they had just gotten dressed, we had to run to the grocery store after I mowed, and Lainey was going to a birthday party for the afternoon. But then I looked at the excitement in her face – how could I say no?

IMG_5242.JPGFor the next thirty minutes, while I mowed the rest of the lawn, Lainey and Brody were in heaven with that childhood joy that goes with running through a sprinkler. I may have even let myself get sprayed because I was jealous of the obvious fun they were having.

Seeing the joy on their faces as they played in the sprinkler got me thinking about classroom conditions. How often, when you scan your room, do you see the look of joy that would accompany a kid running through the sprinkler? When I reflect on my own teaching practices, it probably happened far less than I would have wanted it to.

Last week I participated in an online, free, open to anyone PD called Hive Summit. It was put on by Michael Matera, the author of Explore Like a Pirate, and the front man for the #XPlap community. The gist of the Hive Summit was to bring together amazing educators to share little tidbits of knowledge in short, easily digestible conversations between Michael and various guests to provide ideas to help us start the school year off with a bang!

The last session of the Hive Summit brought in Dave Burgess, author of Teach Like a Pirate, and easily one of the most engaging presenters I have ever seen. Towards the end of the conversation, Michael asked Dave for some practical things that we can do right away. Dave started talking about the beginning of the school year. He suggested that we should “Invest time in the front end to build a community, to build rapport, and to create a place that kids are desperate to come back to the next day.” We don’t accomplish what Dave is suggesting by spending lots of time on procedures. Those can come later. We need to hook them, get them excited, get them wanting to be in your classroom, get them banging down the doors to come to school!

Dave went on to share a couple of his favorite activities to accomplish those goals. The first is the Play-Doh lesson. Students walk in to a container of Play-Doh on a paper plate in the center of their desk, and when ready, they are asked to create something out of the Play-Doh. The goal is to create something that is in some way representative of them. Let them know up front that when time is up, you are going to come around, show the class their object, ask a couple of questions about it, and then have them share their name. Let them know in advance that they will not have to stand up or come to the front of the room, and the process will take less than 30 seconds. Letting kids know what to expect will alleviate some stress that comes with any type of getting to know you activity. Give students 10 minutes of work time, and while they are working, walk around and chat with them in an informal way.

This is great because it gets your students creating right away. We live in a world where information is at our fingertips, and knowing things doesn’t make you successful. In today’s world, it’s about what people can do or make. When we show kids that’s what we value right off the bat, they will be more likely to continue to do and make things when asked.

Another activity that Dave loves is the plane crash on a deserted island lesson. 10 people are stranded on an island, and when a rescue helicopter shows up, it only has room for 5 people. Students are given a list of the different people, split into small groups, and asked to work together to come to a consensus on who should be rescued, and who has to be left behind (click here for a shared google doc with the instructions and list of people). Again, this activity immediately gets kids to collaborate, connect, and create to solve the problem.

Activities like this allow kids to engage right away, and think about how much more excited your kids will be about tasks like this instead of a more traditional lesson. All of us bring our own special skill set to the classroom, and we all have the ability to create learning environments that kids will be excited to return to day after day. You get to decide if the lights are on or off when students enter. You get to decide what shows up on your screen or board. You get to decide what is sitting on your students’ desks when they come in. When we pause in our lesson planning to think about those hooks at the start of our lesson, we’re able to create more of those “Running Through Sprinkler” kind of moments for our kids.

If you are looking for more ideas for amazing engagement strategies, check out Teach Like a Pirate (I linked to it on Amazon above), or if you’d like, I’ll loan you my copy (as long as you don’t mind my highlights and notes in the margins). If you feel overwhelmed by a book, look for Dave Burgess on YouTube or Twitter, or check out the #tlap Twitter chat on Mondays at 9:00 pm eastern. There are lots of small resources that will help you create lessons that engage students on the sprinkler level!

Let me know if you’re planning to try something new to create a sprinkler moment in your class! I’d love to see it, or talk to your students about it. I think we all want joyful classrooms! How will you bring that joy to your room?

IMG_1266

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!

Student apathy: #IMMOOC Week 3

During a recent #IMMOOC YouTube Live event, the topic of student apathy came up among the presenters. For any educator who has tried to do something innovative in their classroom, you probably know what this looks like – that student that is really good at “playing school”, but when you give them a task that is innovative, they just struggle to even get started. These are the kids that might ask you for a worksheet in place of the innovative student inquiry project that you are beginning to work on. John Spencer started talking about his take on students who show apathy about those innovative tasks. While I didn’t capture his quote exactly, I tweeted out the general idea of what he shared:

Spencer is a former middle school English teacher, and currently a professor working on training our future teachers to come into the classroom ready to teach in innovative ways. In the book that Spencer co-wrote with AJ Juliani, Launch, Spencer introduces the design cycle he used in his classroom to help his students become creative thinkers and problem solvers.

For those of you who have read my blog in the past few years, you know that I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the skills that our students will need in order to be successful in the future. In the current model of education that still exists in a lot of classrooms, there can be a lot of focus on assigning and grading.

When we focus narrowly on assigning and grading, we can miss out on the learning

The problem, as Katie Martin points out above, is that when we keep our focus on assigning and grading, we lose sight of actual learning. Think back to your most impactful learning experiences – it could be anything that you are passionate about – for me I think back to learning how to ride a bike. I didn’t learn to ride my bike because my mom wrote out strict lesson plans with specific standards to meet. Instead I learned through time spent on my bike. Nobody told me that I had to know how to pedal the correct way before I could give it a shot. Did I fall down? YES! Did I get back up again? YES! I wanted to be just like the other kids on my street who could ride their bikes.

Going back to that tweet that I shared at the top of this post, I am really intrigued by that idea of fear of uncertainty, of failure, of being outside their normal. This seems like a pretty normal human reaction. Part of the joy of learning to ride a bike is that little bit of fear, mixed with a bit of excitement, that runs through our body as we get ready to pick our feet up off the ground. So how do we get our students past whatever it is that’s holding them back? My best suggestion is through scaffolding.

When we try something that’s new and innovative, we need to be prepared for those students who might struggle to get started. When you’re planning, be thinking about what might be struggles, and then prep for that. Are you asking students to come up with inquiry questions? Have some question stems ready to help them get started. Are you wanting students to research a topic that interest them? Have some general topics that you know your kids are in to as well as locations to go to find information to help them start on a path.

One thing though – some students in your class will be ready to dive right in. Make sure that you don’t provide too many scaffolds for everyone – make sure that students do have some choices that they can make themselves. Save the extra scaffolds for the students who really need them. If you provide too many scaffolds for all, you will end up with work that all looks and sounds the same. That’s not inquiry, that’s not project based learning, that’s a recipe. And when we have a recipe, that means that some students might feel too boxed in, and not enough opportunity for creativity.

I recently saw a tweet from Alice Keeler that I thought summed up the stages that some of our students might go through as we try to move towards a more student-centered model:

With the appropriate steps to help our students who are afraid to go out on a limb, we might be able to get our students through those 7 stages more quickly.  All the better for you and for them!

What are your thoughts? Are there things that you have tried that have helped your hesitant students get going on an inquiry project? Have you had successes that I don’t mention here? Share your thoughts with all of us!