Indiana STEM Education Conference

Last week I had the privilege to attend the Fourth Annual Indiana STEM Education Conference at Purdue University. Purdue’s College of Education sees K-12 STEM education as one of its two signature areas of focus for pre-service teachers. In this K-12 STEM path, Purdue is “preparing teachers who can weave STEM subjects throughout their curriculum and introduce the concepts through real-world application. Our focus goes beyond the specific STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, and math – to include literacy, social studies, problem-solving, critical thinking and communication.” This belief fits well with the Indiana Department of Education’s STEM Six-Year Strategic Plan (can be found here: http://bit.ly/IndianaSTEMPlan). This plan has the stated mission to “Ensure Indiana teachers are prepared to provide every student in grades K-12 with an evidence-based, effective STEM education…”

aldrinThe opening of the conference included a guest speaker that I was super excited to see – Buzz Aldrin!  It was cool to hear Aldrin talk about his experiences, as well as his hopes for continued space exploration. Aldrin is a huge supporter of getting a human being to Mars. Not to mention, there’s something pretty awesome about being in the same room as someone who actually walked on the moon.

The rest of the conference was made up of several break-out sessions, and I have to say that every one I attended was excellent. I want to share some of the tidbits I picked up while I was there.

My first session was on the connection between STEM and Project Based Learning. In that session, we began by talking a little about the Science and Engineering Process Standards (SEPS). If you look at the science standards of any grade level or science curriculum, the first two pages of the standards are made up of these process standards focusing on 8 key areas:

  • SEPS.1 Posing questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
  • SEPS.2 Developing and using models and tools
  • SEPS.3 Constructing and performing investigations
  • SEPS.4 Analyzing and interpreting data
  • SEPS.5 Using mathematics and computational thinking
  • SEPS.6 Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
  • SEPS.7 Engaging in argument from evidence
  • SEPS.8 Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

By looking at the specific standards for your grade level or subject area, you can see a deeper description of those process standards. Look here for more info: https://www.doe.in.gov/standards/science-computer-science

In two of the sessions I attended, presenters talked about the value of STEM Challenges or Engineering Projects as a way to help meet some of these process standards. Here are a couple of examples:

  • The Paper Chain Challenge: For this challenge, students need 1 piece of paper, scissors, and tape. The challenge? Try to make the longest possible paper chain. As a constraint, you could change the materials allowed. Another variation on this was that you do not provide tape, and you had to make the longest continuous piece of paper without using tape, paperclips, or any other objects to connect the paper back together. When we did this challenge, we were only given 5 minutes, then had a 5 minute conversation to process our designs, compare the length of each chain, etc. In those 10 minutes, we hit on 5 of the SEPS!

 

  • Drop Copter Challenge: Have you ever made a drop copter? For directions, click here: http://bit.ly/DropCopter. Once you have the students create their drop copter, then you add in the challenge. Now they have to make one modification to their copter to improve the way the copter falls to the ground. I’m sure there are a variety of ways you could define “improve”, so you can figure out what it means for you (or even better, let the students decide!). After the adjustment and testing, spend another 5-10 minutes processing the challenge with students. Again, several SEPS hit in less than a half hour!

 

  • Parachute Challenge: Provide students with large sheets of tissue paper (like for wrapping a present), tape, 5 paperclips, and 2 pieces of string (you can decide on the length). Give students 5-10 minutes to design, build, test, and redesign a parachute. The goal is to design a parachute that takes the longest to reach the ground. When time is up, have all the students come to the front, drop from the same height, and compare the fall time. Finally, spend some time processing the challenge with the kids. Again, we’ve just hit on multiple SEPS in less than a half hour!

These are just a couple of the potential STEM Challenges that were fairly short. Another session I attended also hit on the SEPS, but they were coming at it from the Engineering Design process. I’ve seen lots of different models for the Engineering Design Process, but I liked the language that was used by Science Learning through Engineering Design (SLED). Check it out:

sled

SLED has an awesome website, STEMEdhub.org, but I wanted to direct you in particular to their Design Resources page (check that out here). This page lists a multitude of activities and various grade levels. When you click on a title, it takes you to a page with more information about the project. Want to see more (like the lesson plans, materials needed, etc.)? Click the purple Download button to the right of the title. Unlike the STEM Challenges above that could be done in a half hour or less, these are more in depth, long term projects that will take your students through the design process you see above.

real worldI wanted to briefly touch on my final two sessions, which were on similar topics. One was about an intermediate school in Ellettsville that implemented a school-wide genius hour program. At this school, every other Friday, the entire school basically shuts down for the last hour of the day. Students then work on their genius hour projects. These projects are ungraded, student-led, and lead to a STEAM Night Showcase where students share their findings from their genius hour project. The teachers, administrators, counselors, custodians, and other adults in the building are all able to serve as advisors for students who choose projects on a topic that they have an interest or understanding in. The school has even partnered with outside professionals who can come in and help be mentors for topics students are interested in. Being located near Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center and Cook Inc. opens up the possibility of some great partnerships for this school.

recipeThe final session of the day that I attended was put on by the innovation director and principal from New Palestine Intermediate. This year they created a new day in their related arts rotation called Innovation Hour. Other schools might call this learning clubs, or choice activity time. To create the clubs, staff members signed up with something they were passionate about. Examples include gardening, drones, coding, woodworking, etc. Students then sign up for their top three choices. Once assigned to an Innovation Hour, then they meet every 4th day from 8:30 to 9:20, and all the students are able to participate in the club they are assigned to. So far, everyone has been able to get one of their top 3 choices.

One of my current goals is to figure out how to bring something like either the Genius Hour project, or the innovation hour to Riverside Intermediate. On February 6th, our students will be participating in the Global School Play Day, and we have it set up with choice activities that students will be able to get involved in. It is my hope that this will serve as a jumping off point for one of these more long term learning opportunities for our students!

So, what are your thoughts? Anything here that you plan to use in your classroom? Anything that you already do that you can share with our readers? I’d love to hear what you have to say!

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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

Teaching in the technology age

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

iPhone 10th anniversary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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!

Developing wonder

I was recently having a conversation with a teacher. We were talking about her efforts to integrate more creative, outside the box style of learning activities in her class. She knows that for future success, her students don’t need to simply be able to regurgitate facts – Google can do that for anyone. It’s about what students can do with that knowledge, and she’s struggling with how to get there. You see, some of her students just don’t seem to be able to “think” in a creative way. They seem to prefer to have an activity with direct questions and correct answers. If given a choice between a creative activity that forces thinking in depth of knowledge level 3 or 4 or a worksheet with depth of knowledge level 1, her students would choose the worksheet.

This teacher however, understands that things that are depth of knowledge level 1 may not be what students ultimately need to be successful in the future.  Check out this short video that will show why:

If you search for Siri, Alexa, or Google Home homework help, you will find videos of students going down their worksheet and asking their “smart speaker” the problems they have to solve, and then copying down the answer. If there are other kids who have figured this out, you can guess that your students have too. Personally, I don’t have any problem with students using the tools around them to help them with their homework – I mean, what do most of us do with a question we don’t immediately know the answer to? But I recently read a quote from Yong Zhao, a Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas gave me pause and made me think about the types of questions we’re asking students:

If all children are asked to master the same knowledge and skills, those whose time costs less will be much more competitive than those with higher costs. There are many more poor and hungry people in the developing world willing to work for a fraction of what workers in developed countries need. To be globally competitive, developed countries must offer something qualitatively different, that is, something that cannot be obtained at a lower cost in developing countries.

In this quote, Zhao was talking about the standardization of curriculum and teaching methods, and the fact that our standardization fails our students in the long term. You see, when our students from a developed country move into the workforce, they will be too expensive for the jobs that take a low level of thinking. The students from developed nations need to be able to do things with their knowledge, and developing those skills can’t be done from DOK 1 questions on a worksheet. WorksheetsIf a student can turn to Google, Siri, Alexa, or whatever smart tool comes out next to find the answer to your question, then maybe we aren’t asking the right questions.

So here’s the challenge for this teacher. She knows that students will get more out of learning opportunities that push into higher level thinking. She knows that activities that require more creativity are inherently more “sticky” when it comes to student learning. But her students are have not been successful in doing this so far this year. Does that mean we give up? My answer would be no – just as with anything else, we have to keep trying.

Compliance-PinkThe students in our school in general are very compliant. Compliant students sometimes struggle with creative tasks because they want specific directions to follow. They may not remember what it feels like to be creative or curious. Years of compliance in the school setting seems to suck creativity and curiosity out of our students. I think that sometimes students lose that ability to be creative and curious because they have grown accustomed to the amount of scaffolding that we provide for learning activities. That scaffolding can begin to feel a bit like a cage, and students forget how to get out.

I’m not sure how many of you have had the opportunity to be around a kindergarten classroom. I get to visit one on occasion because my wife is a kindergarten teacher. When I walk into the room and listen to what’s going on, all the students have questions, and comments, and wonders. All those students feel creative and love to color, draw, paint, write, tell stories, and so much more! When I talk to the fifth and sixth grade students in my own building, many of them have a hard time identifying their own curiosities, their own interests, their own what ifs.

So how do we bring a little bit of that creativity and curiosity back to our students? One suggestion that seems promising is the idea of a Wonder Day. In a recent blog post by John Spencer (you can access it here) he talks about the idea of a Wonder Day where students spend the day immersed in research on something they are curious about, with an end goal of a multimedia presentation – it could be a blog post, podcast, video, or whatever other multimedia format that the students choose.

If you’d like to see a short intro of what a wonder day project might look like, here’s a 2 minute intro from John Spencer.

And if you’re not sure when you’d have the time for something like this, I love the suggestion that I’ve seen elsewhere that one of the best times to try something new and innovative is when the schedule is a little wacky. In my school, next week is the week of ISTEP, our annual state assessment. Because of the test, we run on a different schedule on each of the test days. I would encourage teachers to think about a time like this as the ideal time to try something new. If it doesn’t work for you to try during your testing window, then maybe you try it right before or after an upcoming break, or on the day of a school assembly, or just because it’s a Tuesday!

Our students need to be able to think. They need to identify their curiosity because, as Ken Robinson shares in his book Creative Schools, “Human achievement in every field is driven by people’s desire to explore, to test and prod, to see what happens, to question how things work, and to wonder why and ask, what if?” If we have the goal of students who are college and career ready, we have to help them develop that wonder.

Less curious

What do you think? Have you seen similar issues to the teacher above? What’s worked for you to spark that curiosity in your students? Share your thoughts in the comments below. Or, if you decide to try a Wonder Day – or something like it – share you experience with us! We’d love to hear about it!

Why are we teaching the stuff we’re teaching?

I recently saw a quote from Will Richardson. It’s kind of long, but I think it’s worth sharing the full quote for context:

More than, what, 90% of what we currently teach and talk about … is quickly forgotten once the next topic in the pacing guide comes up. Climate change, literacy, fake news, #metoo, what it means to be a citizen in a democracy, racism, income gaps, privacy, future jobs, AI, cryptocurrency… We can make a list of things that really matter today (or probably will in the future) a mile long.

And after we do, we have to own up to the fact that, by and large, even though we know that’s the stuff of modern life, we in schools say to kids “Good luck with all of that. Hope you figure it all out. We can’t really deal with that stuff because we have to teach you Geometry, which, btw, we know most of you will NEVER use, but hey, it’s in the curriculum and we’ve been teaching it forever.”

This is one of the many existential questions we need to be grappling with: Why are we teaching the stuff we’re teaching?

Now… before you get all up in arms at me, remember that this is not my quote, but the sentiment behind it got me fired up. I know that when I was in the classroom as a teacher, I spent a lot of time concerned with whether or not my students met the standard, whether or not we covered what needed to be covered. I also know that every year I had at least a handful of students who visibly and very apparently checked out. They didn’t do work (classwork or homework). I got frustrated.  I called their parents. Nothing changed. As I reflect now, I wonder how many other students in my class were simply too compliant – too good at playing the game of school – to take that path of not doing anything, and in actuality were completely bored by whatever we were doing because they didn’t care. I wonder what kind of disservice I did for those students. They were trying to tell me something, but I was too caught up in what I “had to do” to be able to hear what they were saying.

Now, I’m not saying there’s no place for traditional learning in our schools. I use geometry from time to time (I love woodworking, and often use those skills when creating a new design), and I know many of the topics our kids complain about do have real world value, they just don’t see it.

Here’s a quick quiz of some things that we all probably learned while we were in school (I have to admit, I saw this on the Modern Learners blog in a different post by Will Richardson). See how many of these things you can get correct – and NO CHEATING!

  1. What’s the circumference of a circle with a radius of 4?
  2. What Scottish scientist discovered penicillin in 1928?
  3. What geologic era are we in right now?
  4. In the sentence “The swimming pool is closed today,” is the word swimming the gerund or the participle?
  5. What’s the most abundant element in the universe?

I’m going to be honest… I thought I had three, then I checked.  I only had 2. Way back in the day, I’m sure that I passed the test with these questions. I was a compliant kid who did just enough to keep the teachers off my back. But did I truly learn? No way!

A term that I’ve heard before that gets at what Richardson is talking about above is the idea of the relevancy gap. We have this list of standards that our students are expected to learn. We have our preferred methods of teaching those standards. We go through the motions of covering the material, hoping the students do well enough on the test, and then we go on to the next topic.

Think about what you are getting prepared to teach next. We spend a lot of time thinking about “Did our students achieve X?” or “How do we make sure they learned X?” What the relevancy gap asks us to think about “Is X going to matter in the lives our learners are likely to live?”

That question is much more challenging to think about, because it messes up that list of standards, those preferred methods for teaching those standards, the curriculum maps, the pacing guide, and those worksheets and packets that we’ve lovingly created, not to mention the general model of school as we know it.  And here’s the issue with the relevancy gap – if the students don’t see the relevance, you’ll continue to have students who are checked out, and there will continue to be students who are compliantly doing the work while they are bored out of their minds.

RelevanceSo how do we add relevancy to the things that we are teaching our students? I’ve had this conversation with several people recently, and my best suggestion is that we need to help our students see how the thing that they are learning about in class actually applies to their life. Recently in my school, many of the science classes have been learning about outer space. Can we tie last week’s amazing launch of Falcon Heavy into their studies of our solar system? What research could be done on the potential and kinetic energy of a rocket launch? Or what about the fact that there is research on the angle of release of a basketball shot being related to it’s likelihood of going in the hoop? Or maybe there are amazing connections that our students can make to our content that we would never even think of – we just have to get out of the way and let them share!

Whenever I write about these grand ideas, I always try to leave you with some strategies to move forward.  Here are 4 ways that come to mind as ways we can add relevancy for our students:

  1. Discuss how learning can be applied in practice – what is a real world use for your students?
  2. Make a link to local cases – how does this knowledge tie in to something happening in your students’ community?
  3. Relating the subject matter to everyday applications – where might students see this in use in their lives?
  4. Discussing or finding applications in current newsworthy issues and events – what’s happening in our world or in pop culture that can be tied into your content?

What are some of the ways that you add relevancy for your students? Share some of your best ideas in the comments below. We can all appreciate a great idea!

 

And… because we all want to be able to assess our own work, the answers to the quiz above are: 1. ≈ 25.13; 2. Sir Alexander Fleming; 3. Cenozoic; 4. Participle; 5. Hydrogen.  How did you do?

College and career ready

Think back to the beginning of your college career.  What did innovation look like for you?  What did technology look like for you?  What did learning look like for you?

I know what it looked like for me:

 

 

I’m sure that each of us could come up with a different description of what learning and innovation looked like at the beginning of our college career.  Then I think back to my 5th and 6th grade years.  The first time I remember using a computer was as a 6th grader.  Our school put in a computer lab that year as part of a remodel.  The only thing that we did with the computer was learn keyboarding skills (as far as my teacher was concerned, the computer was just a fancy typewriter).

Now let’s think about what innovation might look for our students after they graduate from college.  For those of you who work with kids who haven’t even hit junior high yet (like me), it’s kind of hard to imagine, right?  The sixth graders in my school will graduate from high school in 2024, and our fifth graders will graduate in 2025.  We could make predictions today about what specific skills our kids may need when they graduate, but knowing how much things changed between the time I was in 6th grade and when I graduated from college, and knowing that technology is accelerating at a pace much faster than it did during my formative years in the 80s and 90s, there is no way for us to be sure what specific skills our kids will need in terms of innovation and technology.

And yet, there’s always that idea that we need to “prepare our students for a successful future.”  Isn’t that what most teachers would agree is our goal?  So how do we do that when we don’t know exactly what our kids need to know?

Edutopia is one of my favorite social media follows, and this is what popped up in my Instagram feed the other night:

What strikes you as you look at that graph of job growth?  Look at the growth in the need for analytical skills and social skills, while there is a massive fall off in the need for an ability to complete repetitive tasks.  What are you doing in your class to explicitly teach social and emotional learning to your students?

Daily Quotes

Recently I was sitting in a meeting with a family, and the teacher of the student leaned over and said to the student “When you’re here, I’m worried about expanding your heart … and your brain.”  I loved how this teacher put the heart first, and how there was a pause before the brain!  In a world where the answer to almost any question can be found by looking on Google or YouTube, college and career readiness isn’t going to be defined by how many factual questions your students can answer.  It’s going to be driven by your student’s ability to be empathetic towards others.  It’s going to be driven by your student’s ability to see problems in our world, and collaborate with peers to find solutions.

I’ve recently been reading the book Creative Schools by Ken Robinson, and there was a quote that stood out to me:

Our communities depend on an enormous diversity of talents, roles, and occupations. The work of electricians, builders, plumbers, chefs, paramedics, mechanics, engineers, security staff,

Let us all remember that our students’ futures don’t necessarily rely on their ability to recite their math facts, to memorize 20 vocab words in this unit, to be able to identify all 50 states and capitals, or be able to list the names of the planet in order from the sun to the end of the solar system.  All of those things can be answered now, in most living rooms, by asking Siri, Alexa, or Google.  Also remember that academia may not be the path for every student who steps into your classroom.

There is such a diverse range of needs for the future that I believe the best thing we can do is to focus on those so called soft skills.  Take the time to model what collaborative skills actually look like.  Use a fish bowl activity where some students model while others observe, then have students both on the inside and the outside of the fish bowl discuss what went well and reflect on areas that they need to continue to grow.  If needed, as the teacher you should give them the feedback that they need to be successful the next time they are working collaboratively.

Help your students learn how to use technology to accelerate their learning.  It’s not just for consumption, but also for creation.  Allow them to notice real world problems, and then help them to figure out ways to solve the problems they notice.  Keep working with them on their communication skills – both written and spoken.  Find ways to encourage every student not only to speak, but to lead in the classroom.

As the Friedman quote above reminds us, we are preparing our students for an unknown future.  The constants for our kids will be collaboration, technology, problem-solving, communication, and the ability to be a leader.  As you plan your lessons, focus on those skills.  If you empower your students in all those areas, they will be ready for whatever the future holds.