The Dots on the Line

bayesian-2889576_1280The bell curve. It’s a standard part of the old-school mindset of the Industrial Age of Education. For years, this bell curve concept represented where our students fall. The high point on the curve is seen as “average” and anyone to the left of that point was “below average.” Our goal as educators was to push students over the top of the hill so that they might move into the “above average” category. I’ve written about the concepts of average in a two-part series previously (see Part I here, and Part II here). While there have definitely been some shifts in education, there are times that schools still operate in an industrial age model.

Brief History of TechnologyThe problem with this is that our world has moved beyond the Industrial Age. Much of my lifetime, we have lived in the information age. For those of you who have been around for a while (like me), think about all the things that have come into existence in your life – from the birth of the cordless phone, to the original cell phone to the smartphone, iPad, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, Apple Pay, Zoom, Grubhub, Uber – this list could go on! The information age has been all about flattening the ability to gather information. Teachers and librarians used to be seen as the keepers of all knowledge. Today, our students can take out their smartphone or iPad (which both have more computing power than the rocket that took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins to the moon) and find any content they need to know.

A few weeks ago I was at our annual administrative retreat (this title makes it sound way fancier than it really was – this year we met in the cafeteria at the high school) and had an awesome session through Zoom (one of those tools I mentioned above!) titled “The Future of Learning, Today” with Jon Landis. Jon currently serves as the National Development Executive for Apple Inc. In his past, he spent time as a teacher, administrator, and assistant professor. There was so much goodness in his presentation. I wish there were a way to share this entire presentation, but I can’t find a way to do that anywhere. If you ever see an opportunity to view this presentation, you should absolutely go for it!

Jon talked about how at Apple they are now beginning to think of the world in a new way – no longer are we in the information age, but we have now shifted into “The People Age.” Historically educators grouped their students and created bell curves, but in the people age, we have to begin looking at the individual dots on the curve, not the curve as a whole. So what does that mean for education? Jon talked about 4 main concepts that affect learning in the people age.

  • Connected
  • Collaborative
  • Creative
  • Personal

Let me expand on each of these ideas:

Connected – In the modern-day learning can happen ANYWHERE! Anytime a student wants to know more, they can pull out their device and “search it up” (as my 8-year-old likes to say). Our job as educators is to help provide equitable access to quality content, anytime, anywhere. This means students no longer need to know it all. Rather they need to have the skills to understand if the resource they are using is providing meaningful and accurate information on the topic they are researching. Since we aren’t the keepers of the knowledge any more, the content isn’t what they seek from us, rather it’s the tools to know if the content is valid.

Collaborative – Our students love to share what they are learning – this is why the share portion of the workshop model is such an important part of the learning process. But another advantage is that when students share, they form relationships, and when they form relationships, they are able to build a stronger understanding and contribute to the world.  Look for ways for students to share their learning in authentic ways and beyond their own classroom walls. I feel my learning has grown and solidified since starting my blog because it forces me to process my learning in a way that I can share with others. How might your students be able to share their learning – could you start a class blog? Share on a class Twitter or Instagram page? Or maybe even on a YouTube channel? Or maybe it’s your students who could manage the blog, social media, or YouTube channel? Could you try to connect with experts in the areas our students are learning about so that students can share their thinking? I don’t know too many people who can choose to ignore an email from a cute elementary student!

Creative – This is where the true agency for our learners comes in! As teachers, we might pick an instructional goal for our students, but then we allow students to be creative in how they show their learning. Some students may choose to write an essay or create a poster, others might create something else. I’ve seen picture books that students created to share their knowledge of the water cycle. I had a student who built a model of a Roman Aqueduct to share what he had learned about Roman architecture. Other students might choose to create a digital presentation or a news broadcast. The choices that students could make are endless – your assessment is on the learning outcomes you are seeking, which means that your assessment tool can be used to assess anything that your students might create.

Personal – This allows students to make choices in their learning pathways. Ultimately we want to help our students develop a desire to learn about the things that are important or interesting to them. This means that no longer is the teacher the keeper of knowledge, rather the teacher may be the curator of a variety of tools and resources that students can choose between to make it to their ultimate outcome. One year as a social studies teacher we were learning about Ancient Rome. Our learning outcome was that students needed to have an understanding of the various aspects of Roman society. I did a brief introductory activity on Ancient Rome, and then let the students do research. They had our textbook, some videos I found, a variety of magazines and books I was able to find in our library, and a list of websites I shared with them. Students were able to pick one of the aspects of Roman society that they were curious about, and then dig in. Not only did a student create a Roman aqueduct, but I also had students who designed and then made their own Roman-style clothing, I had a student who taught others how to play a game that Roman children played, and so much more. The students in my class were able to design their own learning path for this unit, and they learned more about Rome as a whole than if I had taught a unit on Rome in a more traditional style. And my assessment? One basic rubric that involved general knowledge of Roman culture and tied back to our original learning target. My only regret – I didn’t teach like this all the time!

At the close of his presentation, Jon asked us 3 questions to reflect on:

  1. What is your vision for the future?
  2. How is your technology helping you get there?
  3. What if we lean into the realities of remote learning?

No longer do we live in the Industrial Age of education. No longer are we driven by the bell curve. No longer should our thinking be focused on trying to get our students over the top of the curve. In the People Age of education, we need to look at every child in our class and remember that they are a dot on the curve. We meet them where they are. We move them as far as we can while they are in our class. We provide the content, but more importantly, the tools they need to solve problems they are curious about. We help them to define their own learning path within the constraints of our learning outcomes. Because ultimately, not all things work for all learners.

The Intersection of the Soviet Union and COVID-19

IMG_3941This is me when I was in junior high. I know… Great haircut, right?

When I was in seventh grade, I had a teacher named Mr. Courtney. He was my social studies teacher and was truly one of the more interesting teachers that I had in my middle school years. The recent developments with COVID-19 have me reflecting on one of the long-term projects that we did while in Mr. Courtney’s class that year. You see, I was in seventh grade during the 1991-1992 school year. If you don’t remember the time, this is the year of the fall of the Soviet Union.

As a child of the 80s, I remember living through a somewhat constant level of… Fear? (That doesn’t feel like quite the right word now, but I’m not sure what works better). Also, there was some incredible music and hair! Anyway, there was this awareness of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. Who knew when things could erupt into a real war? But during the late 80s and early 90s there started to be some changes in the structure of the Soviet Union. Things really came to a head in 1991. This isn’t a history lesson, so I’m not going to go into the details of what I recall from the time.

Mr. Courtney, in a moment of great wisdom, made a decision to pivot with some of our learning. I’m sure that the fall of the Soviet Union was not on his curriculum guide for that year, but world history was. He knew that we were living through a moment of history. As an assignment during that school year, Mr. Courtney had us begin a journaling activity. We were asked to take newspaper clippings from the daily news about what was happening in the Soviet Union, as well as how it might be affecting the rest of the world. Then we were asked to write a journal response each day.

It’s got me thinking about what’s happening right now. All of us are living through a moment of history. What an authentic learning experience to bring into what we’re already doing. (And please understand, I’m trying to be really cautious not to use the phrase “opportunity” because this is a scary time for us all, and that word sounds kind of icky to me given the context of what’s happening around us. Sometimes authentic learning isn’t the topic that we’d ideally choose, and yet we go with it.)

In a team meeting with the fourth-grade teachers at my school, we began talking about an authentic writing assignment of a pandemic journal. Students can write about their lived experiences of this time around COVID-19. Students could share what they’ve learned about the virus. And to go with it, we talked about using resources on newsela as a way to read about COVID-19, viruses, and so much more of what is happening in the world. Here are just a few ideas I had around teaching during this period of COVID-19:

  • Create an informational brochure about viruses. Include ways to avoid spreading the virus, information on how long the virus can live, etc.
  • Have your students write a persuasive letter convincing their neighbors of why they shouldn’t be playing together with their friends right now.
  • Have your students learn about how a disease can spread through some of the amazing graphics from the New York Times here (or any of the other great graphics out there).
  • Have your students record a video showing what they are doing in their own homes to help keep things clean and prevent any potential spread of the virus within their own homes.
  • Have students use Wakelet, or something like that, to curate a list of news items that they find interesting relating to the world around them.

These are just a few ideas that come to mind in the short amount of time I spent thinking about it, but I’m certain that the chances for learning are endless. Here’s the thing, we sometimes get caught in what our curriculum guide says that we “need” to cover. At least here in Indiana, we know that we won’t be giving any standardized tests this year. While I’m not suggesting that we should throw out the curriculum guide completely, we can think critically about our standards and how we might be able to meet the learning goals of our students with a meaningful and relevant learning experience right now.

I still think about the assignment that Mr. Courtney gave us when I was in seventh grade, not because I want to reflect on the fall of the Soviet Union. Rather, I think of it when I want to talk about a model of what it means to be authentic and relevant for our students. I think about it when we contemplate how to be responsive to the world around us.

What things have you done with your class as a result of what is happening in our world now? Have you adjusted your plans? Created learning opportunities for your students that relate to what is happening in the world around us all? Share with us in the comments below a little about what you have tried, or are planning to try.