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 value of communication and collaboration

Lombardi - Work Together

About a month ago, one of my posts (What are you learning?) made reference to the National Association of Colleges and Employers Job Outlook report.  I want to come back to that report today and look at the top 6 items on the report.  As I look over the list it keeps bringing me back to one of my favorite questions when thinking about learning in our classrooms: What do our kids need in order to be successful in the future?  This list can help serve as a guide.

NACE Attributes Employers Seek

Think about some of the most successful companies in our world today.  Whatever the company is, if they are trying to be innovative in their field, they are focused on creating the best products possible for their customers.  What does work look like for those innovative companies?  I’m guessing that they are concerned about their teams of employees working together to create innovation.

Think for a second about your best lessons.  How many of you can claim that every aspect of your best lesson for your students was imagined, planned, created, and developed completely by you?  I know when I was still in the classroom, I was constantly collaborating with other teachers to improve my lessons, to add cool new ideas, or to make the learning experience even better for the learners in my classroom.  I’m guessing that most (if not all) of you will say the same thing.

If we know that innovative companies seek communication and collaboration, and we know that we achieve our own best work through communication and collaboration, and the data from the most recent NACE Jobs Outlook report shows that employers value communication and collaboration, what are we doing in our classroom to explicitly teach our students how to communicate and collaborate?  Paul Solarz, the author of Learn Like a Pirate has an entire chapter on peer collaboration.  He shared lots of great ideas of how he creates a collaborative environment for his students.

Early in the chapter he talks about the importance of establishing classroom expectations and norms as a group, where all members of the class have their input in those norms.  As you build in and truly teach collaboration skills, students will take ownership of those skills and will help one another to be better collaborators, letting each other know what they need from one another so that all can be successful.

Even with the opportunity to teach collaboration, the only way students will be able to learn and grow in this skill is through the opportunity to practice.  Be looking for as many ways as possible to integrate collaboration and communication into your lessons.

And something has to be said about the classroom environment in order to create an environment that is conducive to communication and collaboration.  Think about when you are working with colleagues, how do you choose to sit?  Based on my informal observations visiting team PLC time in our building, generally we sit in a group in such a way that everyone can see everyone else.  Students need to be able to do the same when they have time to collaborate.  Rows aren’t conducive to communication and collaboration.  Seats where students are far away from their nearest neighbor don’t facilitate collaboration either.

Many of the classrooms in our school have created opportunities and spaces for students to be able to sit together and collaborate, whether it’s a small spot on the floor, a rug area, creative seating options, a couch, or high tables and chairs, there are places where students can sit together and collaborate in the classroom.  To take it a step further, how many of you have considered not having a seating chart in your classroom?  A true flexible seating environment can be created where there are norms about students choosing the space that they are able to do their best space.  And as a safety net for you, you can always set the norm that poor choices by students may result in the teacher asking the student to make a different choice.  Think about the way you would empower the learners in your room to be able to select their own seat each and every day in order to meet their learning needs!

I want to conclude this post sharing some pictures from offices for Google and Apple, two of the most innovative companies around today, as well as one of my favorite shared working space, Starbucks.  I’m not saying that our classrooms need to necessarily look like these (they’re a bit extreme), but we might want to think about how spaces like this create environments where employees are able to put out amazing and innovative products.  We also should realize that some of the students will be doing work in environments like this in their future.  What can we do in our classrooms today to help them be successful in their future?

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So what are your thoughts?  Have you had success teaching students communication and collaboration explicitly?  What has worked for you?  What concerns do you have about integrating more collaboration and communication into your classroom?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Reaching all our students

One of the challenges of teaching kids in the middle grades (I’m calling that 5th through 8th grade for the purpose of this post) is that physical maturity and social emotional maturity do not always match up.  A couple days ago I was talking with a teacher about the immature behavior of a student.  A comment that stuck with me after I walked away was “But he’s the biggest one in the class…”

Sometimes there is a misconception that the tallest kids are going to be the most mature and therefore capable of doing the most, and that the smallest ones are the least mature.  But in my experience, that expectation doesn’t always work hold true.

The next chance you get, just scan your room.  As you look, you will see a huge variety in physical differences among the kids that are sitting in your room.  Not only are each of those kiddos physically different, they all have differences in their cognitive, social, and emotional needs.  While it’s easy to recognize those physical differences, perceiving what’s going on inside a child is much more difficult.  With all of these differences, how do we try to meet those needs?

Meeting the needs of all learners by differentiating instruction begins with accepting the fact that your students are all cognitively different than one another.

The Center for Applied Special Technology has been focusing their work on the Universal Design for Learning (UDL).  There are three main principles of UDL, and thinking about these principles as you design learning experiences will help you better to reach the diverse needs of your students.

  • Principle 1: Provide multiple means of representation: We can all agree that our students all learn in different ways.  This means it is so important for us to present and represent learning in multiple ways.  Some students would learn best from a video clip.  Others might learn best from a reading assignment.  Others might need graphic organizers to help them to capture their learning.  The key is to remember that if you only provide one entry point for learning, you probably will not reach all your students.
  • Principle 2: Provide multiple means of action and expression: We all have our preferred ways to be able to express our knowledge.  For me, I love to share my learning through written expression. Others might prefer to record a quick video clip, while still others might want to create a presentation through Power Point. The same is true of our students.  While we can have our big ideas and learning targets that we want students to reach, they don’t all have to show what they know in the exact same way. The more choices we offer students in expressing their learning, the more likely we are to meet the needs of every student.
  • Principle 3: Provide multiple means of engagement: We all know that if learners are not engaged, they are not going to be learning.  Students are most engaged when they are given the opportunity to participate in authentic learning experiences that are responding to their questions, concerns, or interests.  If we can give students opportunities to develop they questions or look into their concerns and interests within the scope of our learning goals, they will be more engaged, and feel empowered

Ultimately, our goal for all students is that they learn and grow.  Through the use of these 3 principles, you can design learning experiences that allow our students to feel engaged and invested in their learning, and in turn you will be more likely to move our students forward in their learning.  What are your thoughts?  Have you seen these principles help your students find more success in the classroom?  Are there any principles that you would add to this list?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!

What is school for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m curious to hear your answers – for you, what is school for?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!

5 questions

Inquiry

Student voice, student choice, relevancy, collaboration, intellectual risk-taking.  All these phrases should sound familiar as they come from the HSE21 Best Practice Model.  While these are all things that we strive for, sometimes we might wonder how we help our students understand that this is what we’re going for.

I recently saw an article from the Harvard Business Review about questions that businesses should ask their employees.  Based on a 2016 study by Deloitte, people feel loyalty to companies that support their own career and life ambitions.  Wouldn’t it be fair to say that our students are likely to feel the same way (more interested in learning when they feel that the learning is valuable to them)?

With that, imagine the empowerment our students would feel if we not only ask these questions, but actually use their answers to guide the learning that’s taking place in our classrooms!  Here are the questions:

  1. What are you good at doing? What school activities take less effort? What do you do first because you know it will be easy? What things do others notice as strengths for you? These questions will help students to identify their strengths and find possibilities to grow those strengths.
  2. What do you enjoy? What are the things at school that you most look forward to? What things give you extra energy when you know they were coming up? If you could design your own school day with no restrictions, what would you spend your time learning? These questions help students find, or remember, what they love about school.
  3. What feels most useful? What about school makes you feel most proud? What do you do that is critical to the success of others? What are your highest priorities for your life, and how does school fit in? These questions will highlight the inherent value of certain activities.
  4. What creates a sense of forward momentum? What are you learning that you’ll use in the future? What do you envision for your future? How’s your work today getting you closer to what you want for yourself? This line of questioning will help students think about how the things they are doing now will help them achieve their goals.
  5. How do you relate to others? What kind of work partnerships are best for you? How does your work at school enhance your connections with others outside of school? This will help our students see the value in meaningful relationships.

Helping our students to identify their purpose for learning will help them feel more connected in the classroom, and to see the value that comes from their learning.