Doing the same…

Recently I’ve been really digging into Project-Based Learning. My last three posts have all revolved around this. Often when I talk with people about a shift to more learning that is project-based, inquiry-driven, choice-based, and experiential, I get pushback asking for the research that backs it up. The truth is, there is a lot of support for this type of learning. If you want to do a deep dive into that research, check out this great post from A.J. Juliani on The Research Behind PBL, Genius Hour, and Choice in the Classroom.

If you take the time to read through that post from Juliani, you’ll find research on engagement and achievement, success stories from fellow teachers, ways that PBL is connected to standards, and some related reading. I’m thinking about this question of research because two authors that I follow both recently shared posts that questioned why we continue to do some of the same things in education. We’re so driven to think about what the research says about new practices, that sometimes we don’t look at what the research shares about the stuff we’re already doing.

Before I get into that too far, here’s what I have learned. Research changes over time. Methods and strategies change over time. Things that were considered “Best Practice” in the past may not be true best practice anymore. And there are times we find that things that we thought were not a best practice have become one after further study. The other thing I’d say about best practice is that sometimes there are practices that we utilize that are pretty good, but when we learn that there are better practices, it might be time to make a shift. What is it that Maya Angelou says?

A recent post from Scott McLeod (here), and then a related post from AJ Juliani (here) both shared a link to this post from The Hechinger Report. As we spend time talking about transformative learning opportunities in our schools, I think the data that The Hechinger Report is sharing should drive us to think more deeply about why we do the things we currently do in education. Let me share some of the key points that stood out to me from this post.

As we all know, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 mandated that every student in the 3rd through 8th grade need to take an annual test to see who was performing at grade level.

In the years after the law went into effect, the testing and data industries flourished, selling school districts interim assessments to track student progress throughout the year along with flashy data dashboards that translated student achievement into colored circles and red warning flags. Policymakers and advocates said that teachers should study this data to understand how to help students who weren’t doing well. 

Anyone who’s in education probably has spent significant amounts of time in the past 20-ish years analyzing student performance on tests. Here in Indiana that might include the IREAD-3 or ILEARN tests. It might also include time spent poring over data from NWEA, or other formative assessment data within your district. So, here’s the question. If these tests are supposed to help us identify the students who need the most support, and help teachers adjust to meet the needs of those students, why do we continue to see the same learning gaps from many of the same demographic groups?

According to Heather Hill, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “Studying student data seems to not at all improve student outcomes in most evaluations I’ve seen.” A review of research by Hill (found here) finds that in terms of student outcome, most of the 23 identified outcomes were unaffected, and of those that were affected, only 2 had positive impacts, and in one case the result was negative.

So, if the time analyzing student data (something that seems like it would be beneficial and impactful for students) isn’t having a positive outcome for students, we must ask the question, why?

According to these studies, teachers are using various assessments to identify content that they need to return to. Often, they then make plans to revisit those concepts using a combination of whole-group and small-group instruction. But we need to go a step further. We must take that data that’s been collected, along with what we know about kids, to deepen our understanding of how kids learn, identify the reasons behind misconceptions, and then adjust our instructional strategies.

If our strategy to support students on concepts that they are not currently grasping is to re-teach the topic the way we did the first time, hand the student a worksheet, or put the student on a technology-based program to practice, we’re not going to impact student learning. We can’t do the same thing again for a student who is struggling.

That is part of why I am on this path of pushing others to think about doing school differently. More inquiry, PBL, or design thinking will put our students in learning situations that are different. It forces students to move out of their comfort zone and to the growing edge. And that’s the reality – we all need to be a little bit outside of our comfort zone to grow. Trying new instructional strategies are going to force you out of your own comfort zone.

And I don’t want a takeaway from this post to be that we have been wasting our time with data-driven instruction, PLCs, RTI, etc. That work is valuable, but if that work doesn’t also change teacher instruction, the learning gaps are going to remain.

As McLeod closed his post, so will I: It is time we make schools different.

PBL Assessment

Today I’m continuing a series of posts about Project-Based Learning (PBL). I first wrote a bit about the difference between doing a project and PBL (see that here). Then I wrote a bit about the process of developing a PBL Unit (see that here). This week’s post is focused on assessment in PBL. Before I get started on explaining the process of assessment, I need to share with you a bit about my journey related to the assessment of project work.

As a classroom teacher, I considered myself a person who understood assessment. I remember team meetings in 2005 discussing the question “What does a grade mean?” I felt like I had a firm grasp on formative and summative assessment. But as I reflect now, I think that my definitions of assessment would have been a bit too close to the idea of assigning a grade.

As an assistant principal, I was asked to be a part of a committee to revamp the intermediate report card in our district. As part of this process, I read the book A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades by Ken O’Connor. I probably read that book a little too late! As I learned more, I began to realize how many “grading mistakes” I made as a teacher – averaging grades, grading group work, focusing on deadlines, and other compliance-based measures in my grading. This book led me to more about assessment from authors like Alfie Kohn, Thomas Guskey, Bob Marzano, Rick Wormelli, John Hattie, and Thomas Reeves.

Over time, I grew to understand that there is a difference between assessment and grading. When I think of assessment, its goal is to improve student learning and move students towards mastery. Grading on the other hand is typically about placing an evaluation on the current level of performance. True project-based learning is going to lean more toward the assessment and feedback side. I’ve heard it said that the moment a teacher puts a grade on something, it narrows students’ focus. The first thing they look at is what their grade is, the next thing they look at is how their classmates did, and then if they do look at the feedback you put on the assignment, no matter how well thought out and meaningful, they probably don’t take any of it in because the grade tells them that learning is done, so they put the paper in a folder or the trash can, never to be seen again. If we really want our students to learn from the feedback we provide them and want them to move closer to mastery of a skill, feedback with no grade given is the key!

Today, I was going back through some files and found this:

This is a typical and traditional rubric I created for my students during the 2006 school year for a planet poster project. In a previous post, I shared a quote from Chris Lehmann that says that when everyone turns in the same thing, you don’t have a project, you have a recipe. And I would say, when I look at the standard that I was trying to meet and then reflect on this rubric, it is probably closer to a recipe than a true project. At the time that I created this, I didn’t have the knowledge that I have now in terms of assessment. Let me point out a couple things I notice about this rubric:

  • I included time management, appearance, and whether it was on time as 18 out of the 50 points. In A Repair Kit for Grading, Fix 1 says “Don’t include student behavior (effort, participation, adherence to class rules, etc.) in grades; include only achievement.” And Fix 2 says “Don’t reduce marks on ‘work’ submitted late; provide support for the learner.”
  • The accuracy section, which is the only part that ties to the main purpose of the project, is only 12 out of the 50 points. Another 20 points of the project (Research fact sheet, bibliography, and spelling, grammar, & punctuation) are all academic and important, but do not relate to the standard this project was focused on. In A Repair Kit for Grading, Fix 7 says “Don’t organize information in grading records by assessment methods or simply summarize into a single grade; organize and report evidence by standards/learning goals.”
  • Appearance making up as many of the total points as the accuracy of information is just flat out embarrassing. Yes, we want what we share to look nice for our audience, but to be equal to the value of the learning? Nope. I’m sorry to my students from 2006!

As I have learned more, I would totally revamp this rubric. My first step on this rubric would be to remove the columns labeled 4, 3, 2, and 1. These categories tell students very little about what I was looking for in the project. I would also remove the column for scoring, because as I shared above, the moment we put a grade on something, students stop looking at any of the feedback provided. Instead, I would have a rubric that had 3 columns based on the Progress Assessment Tool developed by Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy:

  • Learning Targets: If you read the post last week, I talked about learning targets. These are the student-friendly statements of what we want our students to learn or be able to do at the end of the project.
  • Success Criteria: This column would define what it looks like for a student to hit each of the targets. Ideally, this would be developed in a collaborative process involving students and their teacher. If possible, developing this might involve looking at exemplars that you have pulled from past projects, or elsewhere (for example, if there is a learning target related to writing a persuasive letter, you might have examples of well-written persuasive letters for students to reflect on).
  • Feedback: This is the location for you to give written feedback to your students at various waypoints through the project. When students see that your notes are formative and meant to guide them to higher quality work and learning, they will begin to look at feedback as part of the process of learning. I would also build in points for the students to do some self-reflection on how they are doing on each of the learning targets.

Ideally, I would create the Project Assessment Rubric as a shared file that my student and I could both access and edit. I would be able to add notes and see the student’s reflections. Through the use of something like OneDrive or Google Drive, this could be accomplished easily!

Now, I know that projects are about moving students toward mastery, but I also recognize that when we devote periods of time to learning, some teachers will feel that they need to take grades. If you utilize a purely standards-based reporting measure, you can tie your feedback on the project to the standards on your report. But if you have a report card that requires you to assign grades to your students, feedback alone is not going to be what you need. If this is the case, you might consider using a more formal assessment to measure student learning. If I were doing this, I would put it at the end of my unit and might be a quiz or test that specifically assesses students’ abilities on the standards our project is focused on. If I were using a formal assessment, I would probably give a version as a pre-assessment, and then another version as a post-assessment to see how much my students had grown during the course of the project.

I’m going to be honest, if I were heading back into a classroom, I would do the absolute best I could to shift all the assessments in my classroom to a standards-based feedback model. I believe that this does the best to help our students move towards mastery of our content. If you are in a system that will allow you to assess your students in this way, I encourage you to begin thinking about how it would work. Could you track student growth on standards over the course of the year? Could you create learning targets and success criteria in collaboration with other teachers on your grade level team? As you learn more about assessment, you may find that your students grow much more in this model of feedback.

If you are in a system that requires grades, I encourage you to think about how you might be able to push back on this system. Go to your administrator. Tell them about what you are trying to do, and frame your plan as a pilot program. Then, begin thinking about how you might track your student learning and growth.

A word of caution though – the initial shift may be difficult for some students, especially the older they are. It may take some time, and they may even push back on you about your assessment practices, but the research really does support a classroom that focuses much more on feedback, and much less on grades.

What questions do you have? Are you looking for more on assessment practices? Do you need to think a little more about what a gradeless classroom would mean for you and your students? Do a little digging, or if you are like me, use your social media to connect with others that might be on the same journey!

Developing a PBL Unit

Last week I was having a conversation with a teacher about planning for some Project-Based Learning (PBL) in her classroom. She said something to me that I think a lot of teachers might think when they hear the phrase “Project-Based Learning.” She shared that she wasn’t sure that she had the time to devote to project work in her classroom. And I think that’s what can be tough about moving towards project work. We hear stories about these amazing projects that spanned weeks or months, like the time some 6th graders at my previous school worked to bring ice cream to our school cafeteria (see a post about that here), or the long term project by a 3rd-grade class who noticed a big blank wall and felt like they could make something much more beautiful.

The reality is though, you don’t always have to have huge projects like this. Sometimes project-based learning may only take a day or two and be really focused on a specific skill. This post is going to dive into some ways you might think about the planning side of PBL. In my current school, our leadership team is working closely with a pilot team that will be launching a mini-PBL unit in their classroom in the coming weeks, and the process is related to what I’ll be sharing here.

So, let’s start with how you might kick off the planning process. The way I see it, there are a few different ways that you might begin on the path to PBL work. Here’s a list of a few:

  • Academic Standard or Unit of Study: You might be looking at a list of standards that are coming up, or a Unit that you have used in the past, and that may spark an idea for a project. In last week’s post (see it here), I shared a social studies project that started in just this way.
  • The End in Mind: As I’m writing this, President’s Day has just passed. What if we looked at our school calendar and said, “I want my students to be able to share something about…”? This could potentially work for any holiday (US or elsewhere), or for other things that come up on the calendar. You have a clear end in mind, and you backwards plan.
  • A Way of Thinking: Imagine that you want your students to learn more about something like mindfulness, or restorative practices. Or maybe you want something that ties more directly to a standard, so you want them to learn more about the scientific method or engineering process standards.
  • Something Awesome: Maybe there is something that you recognize your students being really excited about (this is how the mural above got started). It’s taking that excitement in the moment and running with it!
  • Student Ideas: You might recognize that your students are really interested in Minecraft, or a video game, or animals. Take that idea that they are interested in and help guide them!

Now, some of you might be saying something like, “But what about my standards!?!?” And I get it, ultimately, we are all beholden to our standards, but I guarantee you that with any of the ideas I listed above, we can find a few standards that we can tie in. If nothing else, you’ve got standards related to reading, writing, and research that can be connected to just about any project. That said, if you can integrate multiple subject areas, you have hit the pay dirt! I also often found that as we worked our way through a project, there would be things that came up that I needed to create a mini-lesson on. When I was teaching sixth grade, I had to create a mini-lesson on plagiarism after seeing kids cut a paste from some of their resources. In another project, we folded in a grammar boot camp to help with some of the grammar issues that were coming up. These were teaching moves that I made in the middle of a project as I recognized a need.

Once we have our starting point on the path to PBL selected, we next need to think about how we’re going to get to the endpoint. You might have students work towards a product – something that could be shared on a specific day, or at a specific event. Every student will create some type of product, but choices are made in how they get from the start to that product. Another option might be to start with a problem – maybe leading up to President’s Day you have a bunch of students asking why there isn’t school on that day. This could be our problem that we’re going to solve – we need to find out why President’s Day is a holiday, and then we could share our findings with our school community. Finally, you might decide to make the endpoint more open-ended. You might have your starting point, share with your students what it is that you want them to learn about or take away, and then allow them to pick a product that suits their needs.

I don’t necessarily believe that any one of these three methods is the best. I would say that it might be challenging for students to jump into an open-ended pathway if they have had limited project experience in their school careers. As with any creative task, our students will need some guardrails to help guide them. When those guardrails are too wide-open, some students struggle to even get started.

So, at this point, we have an initial idea, and hopefully a pathway we will be following. Now we need to select a few standards that may serve as the basis for your project, as well as some standards that may support the learning. In my past, when I was planning a PBL unit, I’d pull my upcoming standards and look for standards that are seeking a deeper level of understanding (words like apply, understand, or explain are good key terms to watch for). And again, it’s a great idea to try to find standards from multiple subject areas to be the key ideas. These standards can be the driving force of PBL. One thing to keep in mind though – if you try to pack too much into a single project, you begin to lose focus on the main point. While there may be several skills that you are able to touch on throughout the work, you should have one or two standards that are the primary focus of the project.

Once we have a couple of standards identified, we want to think about what we want our students to learn or be able to do because of this project. These are the takeaways we want to highlight. When I did project work with my students, I would share the takeaways with them at the beginning of a unit and would reiterate them throughout the unit. I always tried to make sure that this was in “kid-friendly” language that they could understand and describe to others. I would often also use these takeaways to create what I liked to call our guiding question. This question would boil all our projects down into one question. A couple of examples from past projects I carried out in my classroom include:

  • What are the planets and objects that make up our solar system?
  • What are some of the cultural achievements of Ancient Rome?

OK, so I know this is a lot, but here’s what we’ve got so far:

  • Starting point
  • Project pathway
  • Standards
  • Takeaways
  • Guiding question

One of the things I have noticed about PBL is that there are lots of different protocols out there. You can choose to pick one to guide your planning, you can decide to create your own hybrid of the ones that exist, or you could create something all your own. But to me, the items that are listed above are keys to the planning phase, no matter what you call them. Even with the work we’ve done so far, we aren’t ready to dive into the project yet. We must always plan for the end in mind. So next week, we’ll talk about the importance of assessment. When thinking about backward design, we need to plan our assessment before we begin teaching our unit. We’ll talk briefly about pre-assessment, formative assessments along the way, and some potential options for post-assessment.

So, what have I missed? Is there anything that you are still wondering about with the planning process? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Doing a project, or project-based learning

I’ve been reading a book called Project-Based Learning: Real Questions. Real Answers. How to Unpack PBL and Inquiry by Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy, and I find myself reflecting on my past as an educator. As a science teacher for most of my career, I had a lot of opportunities for project work to happen in my classroom. But here’s the thing, I’m not sure that I was always achieving the full potential impact of project work. And I think the difference lies in whether we are “Doing a project” or if we are engaged in “Project-based learning.” I’d love to dig into those ideas a little bit more.

Doing a project

When I taught sixth-grade science, a section of the standards we covered each year was related to space science. One standard was something about gaining an understanding of the planets and objects in our solar system. It seemed like a great opportunity for a project. So, I opened a word document to start writing some directions. I pulled together resources (checked out books from the library, found some websites to share, and collected some videos on our solar system). I decided that the best format would be a poster. When I finished my directions, it was about a page long. The only choice that a student got to make in the project was what planet/object they wanted to learn about.

While we were working on the project, I provided class in time to do research. I provided supplies for students to make their posters. I met with students regularly on their projects to make sure that they were on the right track (most of these meetings were about whether or not they were following the directions). At the end of the project, I collected the posters, and as I went through them, I noticed a few things.

Every one had the name of their planet/object centered at the top of the poster. Everyone had one of the same two dozen pictures that I had printed out for them to use. Everyone had the same types of facts (size, mass, distance from the sun, length of the day, length of a year, etc.).

Now, there is nothing wrong with this project. Students learned about their planet/object. Students created something that they were proud of. Students were excited to have them displayed around the classroom as well as in the hallway outside of our classroom.

But what they did, I don’t know that I can call it true project learning. I had the privilege of meeting Chris Lehmann when I was at the ISTE Conference in Philadelphia. Something that I’ve heard him say is:

Think about it. Websites like Serious Eats or Bon Appétit post some amazing recipes. Many of those recipes have been developed by professional chefs working in professional kitchens, and then they are tested by others in their home kitchens so that the recipe can be adapted so that I, as a home cook, can make J. Kenji López-Alt’s All American Meatloaf recipe in my house and end up with a result that looks (and hopefully tastes) like the version that Kenji made himself (by the way, this is seriously one of my family’s favorite recipes that I make, and is worth every second of the time it takes to make).

So, what’s the point? What does recipe testing have to do with project work? Well, recipes are developed so that anyone who makes them can make a version that they can be proud of. But if you are great at following recipes, I’m not sure that you can call yourself a chef (yet). Similarly, doing a project is more likely about following directions, especially if a category of your rubric is based on following directions! Often, doing a project has more to do with following directions than learning.

Project-Based Learning

So, let’s think about how Project-Based Learning might be a little different than simply doing a project. Here’s an example from when I was teaching social studies.

One year I was part of a team of sixth-grade teachers. Within that team of teachers, my role was to teach all our students in science while the other teachers would teach our students other subjects. Then each one of us would teach social studies to our homeroom class. One of the years I was teaching social studies, my students got into doing “extra” research on the topics we were learning about. As we were approaching our unit on the Roman Empire, I wanted to lean into that interest that they had. Instead of teaching that unit in the typical format that was suggested by our curriculum guide or our scope and sequence, I decided to create a project. But this was when I was several years deeper into my teaching career. I had learned from some of the issues of “doing a project” that I had learned as described above.

For this project, instead of creating a word document that was full of directions, pulling together a bunch of resources, and then expecting a similar outcome, I decided to go very much minimal. I wanted to see what my kids would come up with. I decided that I was going to create the conditions for students to dig into the things they were most interested in about the Roman Empire. And my students did not disappoint! So, here’s what we did:

At the time, there was a single standard that said something along the lines of “understand the rise, fall, and cultural achievements of ancient civilizations in Europe and Mesoamerica.” Then it listed several examples including the Roman Empire.

On the day we started the project, I had no directions sheet. I had not pulled together any resources. I put the standard on the board, and as a class, we dissected what it meant. We talked about what it meant for an Empire to rise and fall. I had students share what they thought the phrase cultural achievements meant. I let them make conjectures based on current cultural achievements. Students brought up music, art, clothing, design, architecture, and so much more.

Next, we talked about resources we might be able to use to learn about some of these things. Students brought up our textbook, the library, digital encyclopedias, and the web, among other options.

The next day, I gave students time in class to learn. I had gone to the library and checked out everything I could on Ancient Rome. I checked out the iPad cart (does anybody else remember those) and put a handful of quality resources on my class website (this was before having an LMS like Canvas for a middle school class). But I also told them that if they had other ideas of places they might look for information, they certainly could use it. I told them that by the end of our third day, they needed to select a topic they wanted to learn more about and share with the class.

The next few days in class were a blur of research and work time. When students were struggling to find what they needed, I would sit down with them, but they also worked collaboratively at times. My role was that of a guide, not the all-knowing sage. They became aware of others learning about similar topics and they shared resources. On Monday of our second week of the project, we came back together for a brief share of what they found most interesting about our topic, and then we started talking about ways they could share what they knew. Some students wanted to make a poster, a few wanted to create a PowerPoint, one student who was studying architecture wanted to build a model, yet another student said she was going to design and sew a Roman outfit. We set a target due date of Friday for students to share what they had learned.

That week, our classroom converted to a working space every day in social studies. We had kids designing, building, sewing, and more! They spent time developing and then practicing their presentation. The learning was electric! A couple of times I needed to pull the class together to go over a few important details where I noticed some misconceptions. When Friday came, it was sharing day. The kids were so excited to share what they had learned. We invited our principal and assistant principal, our librarian, and anyone else who wanted to come for a visit that day. We had food, we had a fashion show of Roman clothing, we had a student who built a miniature working Roman aqueduct. This is a project that will stick with me forever!

Pulling it together

What I want to point out about the difference between the Space Science project on planets, and the Ancient Rome project was in how the learning happened. In the space science unit, learning happened prior to the project. We tacked a couple of days onto the end of the unit for students to put together a poster of things they had already learned. All the resources and materials were provided by me, and the results were identical. But in our Ancient Rome project, the work we did for the project was where our learning occurred.

One of the things that I figured out by the time I led my students through our Roman project is that some of the best learning experiences take place in integrated learning experiences that are fun and authentic! And even more important than that, I’d argue that the overall learning that happened for students during this project went far deeper than what the standard asked for.

Next week, I plan to look at how we might go about planning a great PBL experience for your class. I also hope to share some of the mistakes that I think I made in some of my earlier PBL experiences (hint: assessment! It can be hard in PBL settings!)

I’d love to know more about your thoughts. Have you ever noticed a difference between doing a project and engaging in project-based learning? Is there something that you’re still wondering about? Let me know! This is a topic I’m going to be digging into in the coming weeks, and your questions may help guide my direction.

Moving from why to how

In the last post, I shared the importance of meaning and purpose in learning. As Grant Lichtman has pointed out, “…there is substantial evidence that having purpose, more so than strong test scores, leads to outcomes of success and happiness that most of us want for our students and ourselves.”

I’d like to think that we all agree, in some form, on the importance of purpose in learning. And that is true whether we’re talking about our own learning or the learning of our students. For most educators, we got into this profession because we want to help our students to learn and grow. For most of us, helping our students to learn is a big part of our why. But I’d also say that embedded in that desire to help our students learn is the continuing desire for all of us to keep learning too!

I’ve referenced Simon Sinek before on the blog. His TED Talk about the Golden Circle helped me to shift my thinking, realizing that the real driver of transformational education is that we have to start with the why rather than focusing first on the what (you can see that TED Talk here). If you don’t have time to watch the TED Talk, the basic gist of the Golden Circle is that the most inspiring leaders, brands, and ideas don’t start with a question of what, instead they start at the core of understanding their why, then moving outward on the circle to the how and what.

Last week’s post really dug into my thinking about why learning should bring meaning and purpose for our students, but it didn’t get so much into how we might do that. As I was thinking about how to bring more learning and purpose into our schools, I remembered a book I read a few years ago by Katie Martin titled Learner-Centered Innovation. The basic premise of the book is that we live in a world that requires people to think creatively and work collaboratively. Our traditional learning experiences in schools are driven by a curriculum and by teacher decisions that do not allow our students to think creatively or work collaboratively.

I’m reminded of my experience as a sixth-grade science teacher. One of our units was on space science. If you’ve ever taught any form of science, you know that it is ripe with opportunities for students to ask questions and get creative. We could spend an entire class period talking about the “what-if” questions that my students had. Unfortunately, as a teacher, I didn’t always see this as a good thing. I mean, I had my scope and sequence that I needed to try to stick to if I wanted to “cover” all the material. I literally remember saying “We don’t have time for your questions.” Insert face-palm emoji here! Also, if any of my former students are reading this, I’m sorry I discounted your curiosity. It’s one of the things that I find myself reflecting on as I learn more.

In retrospect, that unit was an ideal opportunity to create a project-based learning experience. I could identify the standards, create learning targets for my students, and then help them develop their own project that would allow them to meet the learning targets while also allowing each student to scratch the itch of curiosity! They could have helped create a plan for how they would show what they know in relation to those standards!

Now, I admit that not every unit we teach will have this level of curiosity naturally embedded in space science. But I do have some ideas of little tweaks that we might be able to make to take something traditional and turn it into something more meaningful.

Imagine if you would a unit on literary devices. Maybe you have a standard that says that your students need to understand simile and metaphor, or maybe they should understand imagery and symbolism. Or you might have a series of standards related to the point of view in a story. In a traditional format of teaching, you might work on defining the terms, you might have students read a passage and identify an example of a specific literary device. Maybe the student would be asked to read a sentence and then answer a multiple-choice question identifying the literary device. Maybe then there would be a test or a quiz, and we can check off that standard and move on. (And just to be clear – I AM NOT saying that there is anything wrong with a unit design of this nature!)

Here’s what I’d challenge you to think about though. Our standards are meant to be a guide, not a checklist. And when we think about learning, does being able to regurgitate some information in a moment on a worksheet, or in a packet, or on a quiz/test mean that I have learned that information? I would argue that true learning doesn’t happen until we are asked to do something with the knowledge we have gained.

So how might we take that Literary Devices activity up a notch? Again, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with any of the steps we have taken thus far. Part of the learning process requires that we as teachers share information in some way, part of it requires students to practice a skill, but the true magic happens in the doing. You see, learning definitions, identifying examples in a passage, answering questions, are all relatively passive parts of the process. Thomas Jefferson said, “What we learn to do, we learn by doing.” What if after the introduction of skills, we asked students to create a piece of writing that includes the literary devices that are included in your standards? We could have them write a short story and label where they used simile and metaphor, identify the point of view, or highlight an example of imagery or symbolism. Now, we’re taking a Depth of Knowledge level one or two activity and turning it into a DOK level 3 or 4. It’s more challenging for students, but that challenge helps develop stronger synapses in the brain.

This is just one example of how we might be able to take a more typical learning experience and make it more transformative without having to completely rewrite the way we do things. Here are a few more things that you might consider that would help students better see meaning a purpose:

  • You could start a classroom blog – not for you to write, but for your students to write. They could share what they are learning about. They could share how it impacts them and their world. They could choose to include pictures or videos. As students share their learning, they will see that they have an audience that wants to know about what’s happening. If a whole blog post seems overwhelming, maybe you could start a classroom Twitter or Instagram page where students craft the message that will be shared, and then (pending your approval) they post the update. Many of us utilize classroom jobs – this could be one of the jobs in your classroom. Students could have a specific time each day or week to update the world on what’s happening.
  • Help your students find ways to use their learning to create action – at a previous school, a group of students noticed that many of their items from the lunch tray should be recyclable, but it all went in the trash. This happened to tie to a standard on sustainability. They worked with their classroom teacher, did some research, and eventually were able to get a representative from a local recycling company to visit their class. They were able to present to the representative, and our school was then provided with a recycling dumpster. The students then took on the challenge of teaching other students what should go in the recycling and what should go in the trash. They created PSA videos, put posters up around the school, and even created smaller fliers to go on the lunch table. The ownership of all parts of this project was taken on by the students in this classroom, and the learning was able to spread throughout the building. For something like this to happen in your classroom, you just have to pay attention to what your students seem interested in and are talking about. That teacher recognized early on that her class was full of “social-justice warriors” and she found ways to let them use that drive in their learning. You might notice other things about your class and find ways to integrate your standards into their interests and desires!

It’s important that we all remember, as Katie Martin says, that “Learning is a process, not an event.” The more chances for students to do something with their learning, the more likely it is that the learning sticks. When we help our students to explore what they are learning, we help inspire students to solve problems and innovate!

Meaningful and purposeful learning

I was recently reading a blog post from Grant Lichtman (you can find that post here). If you don’t recognize that name, he’s been working with school teams to help transform K-12 education. He’s the author of 4 books, lots of articles, and blog posts, and has supported thousands of schools to work on their own transformations.

If you’ve read my blog very much or worked with me, you probably know that the transformation of education is something that I also spend a lot of time thinking about. I’ve talked in the past about the design of the public school system – much of it was built to prepare students for a knowable future, often related to factory model working conditions. I’ve talked about whether or not the system we still have serves the need of our students for their future. Since the development of the factory model of education, work has changed. According to a Gallup poll from late in 2021, about 45% of Americans are able to work from home either part or all of the time. And while we can all agree that some of that change has been driven by the Covid-19 pandemic, many companies are realizing that their employees are just as productive, if not more so, when working from home. Many plan to keep work-from-home options for their employees even once we are back to a more “normal” time.

Lichtman uses the term VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) to describe the speed at which our world is changing. Many employers today are looking for people who are about to work collaboratively, engage in research-driven inquiry, and build skills to locate and solve the problems of the world around us.

But think about what most are concerned about for our students: grades, stronger curriculum, higher test scores, higher graduation rates. Just turn on your local or national news and wait for a segment about public education. Most likely you’ll hear people saying that schools do not have strong enough of an academic focus, or that teachers should focus more on their “curriculum” and less on developing well-rounded students.

The misalignment of what employers say they are seeking and what parents and/or politicians are saying students need is hard to miss.

So as educators, what are we to do?

I would argue, and many others seem to agree, that helping students find a purpose will help to take our students much further than just good grades and strong test scores. And as a powerful addition, people who have a sense of purpose in their lives “are physically and mentally healthier, live longer, are happier, have more and richer social connections, and are more well-liked and admired by their peers” (Lichtman).

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we need to ignore academic success. Instead, I think we need to find a balance. If we have high school graduates who leave to go to college or into the workforce but have no understanding of their own purpose, they will flounder. They might end up in coursework or a career path that they later regret.

Over the course of the 2020-2021 school year, a team of teachers, with input from our stakeholders, developed a value proposition for the school site where I lead. A value proposition is a statement to our stakeholders that helps define what we see as the way we add value to our community. We know that ours is an aspirational statement, and most likely a long-term goal, but this is what it looks like:

As we continue to work towards becoming a school that meets this proposition, I feel confident to say that we will help our students to become more aware of their purpose, as well as their own ability to have an impact on our community and world. As Lichtman says, “The realities of VUCA that are driving the human condition require that education helps prepare our students with finding and understanding meaning and purpose.”

The role of educators is such an important one. I believe that thinking in transformational ways about how we support our students will help them to better understand their purpose. They’ll continue to learn to read and write, to solve math problems, to carry out experiments, to know and understand history, but they will also learn that those skills will help them to carry out their purpose. To find meaning in why they are here. To be able to change the world in a way that has positive impacts for us all.

I’d love to know your thoughts. Did your K-12 education help you find your purpose and meaning? If it didn’t, what did? Let us know what you think in the comments below!

Talent is jagged

I was recently scrolling Twitter (as I often do). I often think that Twitter is one of the best free and on-demand professional development resources out there. The number of new ideas I’ve gotten from it is too great to count, not to mention the friends and connections that I have made because of my activity in that space. I know not everyone loves social media, and I really do understand why, but I think it is one of the greatest ways to share the story of your classroom or school and connect with others with who you might never normally be able to connect.

While scrolling last week, I came across an amazing infographic on Universal Design for Learning:

This graphic on UDL comes from Katie Novak. I’ve mentioned her on the blog a couple of times before. You can see those posts here and here. What really jumped out at me about this infographic is the section about the variability of “Average” Student A and “Average” Student B. The graphic immediately made me think of the book The End of Average by Todd Rose.

In that book, Rose tells a story about the history of the Air Force. When designing the planes in the 1940s, a lot of pilots were having issues in flight. This was happening as the planes were transitioning from propeller-driven planes to jet propelled (that made them much faster!). Initially, designers struggled to figure out why those issues were coming about. The earliest opinions issued were that the issues came from “pilot error.” Pilots were convinced that the issue could not be them, so they blamed mechanical issues. But study after study showed no sign of mechanical issues.

Over time, the focus began to be on the design of the cockpit itself. After some research, it became clear that the cockpit was designed based on the average measurements of hundreds of pilots in 1926. The dimensions of the cockpit were standardized based on these measurements so that all planes had the same measurements within the cockpit. The Air Force was concerned that maybe the average size of pilots had changed a bit over the years.

Now, let’s pause for a moment there. If you have a vehicle, think about what it would mean to have a car that was designed for the average-sized person. Imagine not being able to make adjustments to the driver’s seat in your car, the height of the steering wheel, or even the mirrors!

So, going back to the story, beginning in 1950, a new study was started. Over 4,000 pilots were measured on a wide variety of variables, and then averages were found on each dimension. The initial belief was that this new study would lead to a better-fitting cockpit. But one member of the team had some doubts. Lieutenant Gilbert Daniels decided to compare the individual measurements of all the pilots in the study with the average for 10 of the physical dimensions. What he found surprised even him. Not one pilot fell within the normal range on all 10 dimensions. There was no such thing as “an average-sized pilot.” Instead, the Air Force recognized that with each person there came some variability.

After learning this, the Air Force went back to the drawing board and made the decision to create environments that fit the pilot, rather than expecting pilots to fit the environment. This meant that new planes had to have adjustable seats, foot pedals, helmet straps, and flight suits. When these changes in design went into place, performance among pilots improved significantly. And as a side bonus, the lessons learned in this research were able to help make automobiles adjustable too!

So when we think about UDL, we have to think about our students. Like the pilots who had different measurements, no two students will have all the same strengths and weaknesses. Take a moment to scroll back to the infographic at the top. Those zig-zag lines that represent student A and student B remind us that every child has variability (In his book The End of Average, Rose refers to this variability as a jagged profile). No two students are the same! Talent is always jagged. When we better utilize UDL strategies, we help adapt the learning environment to the needs of students, as opposed to expecting students to adapt to the learning environment.

I could go on to make suggestions for how you might implement more UDL practices into your classroom, but I really doubt I can do any better than what Katie Novak did in the infographic above. If you’re interested in trying out some of these tips, I’d suggest choosing one or two, and trying it out for a while. Once those tips become routine, then add in another. As you increase your utilization of UDL strategies, you will be better at adapting your environment to meet the individual needs of each student in your class.

If you want to dig into more of Katie’s work, check out her website here. On the site, you will find options for PD, Online Courses, other Resources, and Katie’s blog. While there are other resources out there for UDL, this is one that I know that I would trust!

If you decide to implement some of these strategies, I’d love to hear more about them! Be sure to come back and share on the blog, or let me know in some other way!

Are we a teaching organization, or a learning organization?

Recently I’ve been thinking about a statement I heard once – I honestly can’t remember who I heard it from first, but I think I recall versions of the quote from Dave Burgess, another version from Matt Miller, and yet another version from George Couros (all are some of my favorite authors in the educational space). The quote basically says that teachers who have a 25-year career need to avoid teaching 1 year 25 times.

Let’s unpack that a bit – the gist of what they are saying here is that as teachers, our students change from year to year. Their needs change from year to year. The world changes from year to year. A teacher who teaches 1 year 25 times is someone who has their “January” binder or folder that they pull out every year and it has all the activities for the month of January pre-created. In environments like this, the focus is on the teaching – often it’s about “what is easier for the adults in the building?” The problem is that it may not be what’s best for our students.

Instead, what these authors say we should strive for is to teach each year one time. We adapt our lessons and curriculum to meet the needs of our students, to meet the needs of our community, and to meet the needs of what’s happening in the world right now. And to me, that’s the beauty of the Professional Learning Community! Your PLC team is there to support one another in identifying needs, doing some research on how to meet those needs, and then testing it out.

As I think I have shared before, I’ve been reading the book Professional Learning at Work this school year. I finished it over winter break, and it has me thinking about what it takes to be a school that is focused on learning rather than just on teaching.

Let’s take a moment to define the differences – in a teaching organization, we might have our list of standards and skills or lessons from the textbook, and we say “I have to get through all of this!” It’s almost like we create a checklist for learning. Once I get through item number 1, I move on to number 2, and so on down the list. Can you see a problem with this? I don’t think students can be thought of like items we’re producing. A checklist will not meet the need of every learner in a classroom. Learning is not about developing a lesson design, implementing the steps, and ending at a finished product. I think we all know that students don’t work that way. Learning rarely happens as a straight line – instead, it’s often made up of a bunch of squiggly twists and turns.

On the other hand, a learning organization is all about looking at learning as a process of perpetual renewal – for us as teachers and faculty, for our students, for our community. We get there by focusing on the emotions that have brought us to the career path of teaching, and the emotions that keep us coming back each day (no matter how good or bad yesterday may have been). Ultimately a learning organization is a place where the community is passionate, driven, and in a continuous process of growth.

In a previous blog post, I wrote all about “My Why” – the things that motivate me to do what I do (You can see that post here: Starting with why). I encourage all of us to do a little self-assessment – where are you now? Do you trend towards the teaching mindset? Or do you trend towards the learning mindset? Are you comfortable with where you are? Is what you are doing helping your students to learn and grow?

If you feel completely comfortable with your answers, good for you (To be honest, I’m not sure I can say that I am 100% comfortable with my answers). But if your reflection leads you to feel like you have some growing to do, then go with that. Reassess what you can do to improve. My goal is to help lead a school that is a true learning organization. I see our process as one of continual growth and renewal, and I’m always thinking about how I can help in that process. We will never get to a point where everything is perfect! Even when we meet our initial goals, that creates a place where we can set a new goal. 

What are you working on? What growth do you seek? Share with us in the comments below!

Teaching or learning

When we think about an effective school environment, there are a lot of factors that go into it. Ultimately though, the key to an effective school environment is creating the conditions for students to learn and grow in a developmentally appropriate way. There are many things that must happen to create those conditions, but one of the pieces is having strong instructional leadership. While many might point to the school principal (and I see that as an important part of my role), there is more than one person who can own the instructional leadership. In some schools, there is an administrative team, there may be a coach, and there may even be teacher leaders that are a part of the instructional leadership team.

In my current school setting, much of the instructional leadership comes from our Professional Learning Community Leadership Team. This team is made up of representatives from every grade level, the teacher-librarian, the counselor, the resource teacher, the instructional coach, and the administrators. To help make sure we are all on the same page, here’s how we define the PLC: “A school’s entire staff engages in an ongoing, collaborative process of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for their students.”

But here’s another thought about the effective school environment – even with great instructional leadership, the success of any initiative in a school will also depend on the competence and commitment of the professionals in that school, specifically the teachers. The word professional is an important one to me. Educators – teachers, administrators, support staff members – are all professionals in what they do. The work we do for students can’t happen without the people who are devoted to it. Unfortunately, some do not see educators as professionals. Let me share a story of an experience where I was seen as something less than a professional:

In my junior year of college, I was living in a fraternity at Indiana University Bloomington. It was a couple weeks before the end of the first semester, and I was studying for an upcoming final. Junior year was packed with several classes in the School of Education, but one of the requirements I was completing that semester was a class called Music for Elementary Education. Throughout the semester, we’d been learning about instructional practices in music and ways to integrate music into the learning that happened in our classroom. For the final, there would be two parts, a written final based on concepts we learned, and a performance portion on everyone’s favorite elementary school instrument – the recorder. I was practicing one of the pieces that I’d have to perform for my final in my room at the fraternity house (Hot Cross Buns if I recall). I had the door closed but soundproofing in our fraternity was severely lacking. I’m sure that anyone on my floor could hear me playing the recorder. Suddenly, the door burst open and the guy who lived in the room next to me yelled “What in the world are you doing in here?!?! I’m trying to study for my bio-chem final.” This guy was a pre-med student, and he was wrapping up a stressful semester and was truly upset with me at the moment. I told him that I was studying too – “I have to play this for a final in my music class.” Let me tell you, it was all I heard about from any of the guys who lived on my floor for quite some time. While we all laughed about it at the time, they clearly saw what I was doing as anything but preparing for a professional career. Many of the guys who lived on the floor were studying business, or science, or several other “professional” careers. This is not the only time the career I was preparing for was not seen as a profession. I’ve had people ask if I got into teaching so I would have the summers off. I’ve had people give me a hard time about our fall, winter, or spring breaks. It’s frustrating to be working in a career that many people claim is important, but at the same time have people treat me as something other than a professional. With that in mind, we have to make sure that the things we do as professionals are modeling what we want our stakeholders to see us as.

In the more traditional factory model of education, I would say that much of the focus of what happens in a school was on the teaching. In this model of education, there is a curriculum that would tell you what to do, what day to do it, what questions to ask, what homework to assign. The goal for teachers would be to make it to the end of the textbook. Maybe students would get to do something fun in class if they finished the book early. A popular refrain for teachers in this model of education would be some variation of “I already taught that; they just didn’t learn it.”

I would argue that schools of the information age must move beyond this focus on teaching. Professional teachers must exemplify the skills we seek for our students: curiosity, tolerance, honesty, fairness, respect for diversity, and appreciation of cultural differences. To professionalize education, there must be a new relationship between students and teachers. Professional teaching requires so much more than just the presentation or coverage of material. It requires a focus on learning that is both measurable and measured. This is some of the key work of the professional learning community and brings us back to the quote that was at the beginning of this post.

You see, if we gather data from our students, and that data shows that our students have not learned material in a meaningful way, then we need to find a new way to present that material. We must focus instead on ways to develop a deep understanding of the content. As a professional learning community, we should be identifying areas of inquiry we want to pursue. This means we need to think critically about what we are noticing with the members of our PLC team. Next, we research our topic – this might include analyzing student work, adjusting plans, studying new ideas or strategies, adjusting plans, teaching, and monitoring achievement. This cycle of inquiry allows us to deepen our knowledge as professionals and is a sign of strong professional learning communities.

So, let’s take a moment to reflect. When you think about the work you are doing in your PLC, does it align with this process? Are you focused on learning? Or are you focused on teaching? To be sure, they are aligned with one another – learning can’t happen without good teaching. But if we only focus on the teaching, how can we know if learning is really occurring?

I challenge you in the coming weeks to use these reflection questions to guide the work you are doing in your PLC. If you are truly doing the work of professional teachers, you are spending much more of your time focused on whether students are learning. Then, you can reflect on what you should do as a response.

A couple great questions

I was recently sitting with a student who was working on a few math problems. As I sat down next to him I recognized that a couple of the problems he had completed were not correct. Instead of interrupting him, I watched as he worked on one more similar problem. The student probably had no idea that there was anything wrong in the problems he had completed as he was confidently continuing on. As I sat there, I was looking at the previous work to see if I could figure out what he had done wrong, but the aha moment came as he continued with the problem he was working on. I saw him skip a step. Immediately, I could see that was why he had missed the previous problems.

I asked the student to pause their work so that we could go back to the first problem. I asked him to explain to me how he knew that his first answer was correct. He started talking through the process. As he got to the critical step, he recognized his mistake all on his own. “Oh my gosh! I skipped a step!!!” He grabbed an eraser, went back to the problem, and restarted.

As I reflect on the moment, it would have been so easy to stop the student as soon as I noticed a mistake and gone through the process with him, but the reality is that by allowing him finding his own mistake, he created a new neural pathway. It’s the beginning of a learning journey, and by recognizing the mistake on his own, he learned it better than if I had just pointed out the error. We looked at the other problems on his page, he noticed the same mistake several times, and made the appropriate corrections.

A couple things stand out to me about this experience. First, if an adult hadn’t recognized the mistake in the moment, that child would have practiced the same process on all the practice problems incorrectly, and therefore build a working model in his brain that was incorrect. Second, I didn’t actually have to tell him he did anything wrong. I just asked him a simple question: “How do you know that?”

This experience reminded me of a quote from Loris Malaguzzi. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, he was an early childhood educator who founded the educational philosophy known as the Reggio Emilia Approach.

Malaguzzi, Loris. Your Image of The Child: Where Teaching Begins. June 1993,

What does this mean for our students? How often do we only see the product of a student’s work? Maybe in class we have them working independently on a white board, and then they hold up their answer. Some are correct, but occasionally you’ll have some that aren’t. Without watching the work being done, you may not immediately know how to support that student. This is why small group and individual conferring can be so valuable!

I know that working independently with all students is hard – there’s only so much time in a day. When we think about what kids need though, it’s that time with an adult watching them do the work, giving them feedback, and helping them to recognize their strengths and weaknesses. Recently I was listening to an interview of Lana Steiner, a math educator who loves to ask her students two questions: “How do you know?” and “Tell me more.” These questions allow her to better understand how a student arrived at their current understanding, and when necessary, to build in ways to support the student.

When we truly take the time to listen to our students, we validate their image of personal self-worth, and we give them the time to explain their thinking and reasoning. I have long believed that the person who does the most talking in class is the person who is doing the most thinking.

I encourage you to do some self-assessment. Pay attention to what is happening in your class in the coming week. Try to track the amount of time that you spend talking – during mini-lessons or other times of instruction – compared to the amount of time your students are able to talk. If you are doing more of the talking, how could you create more spaces for your students to be the ones doing the talking? Could you implement some more small group work, or turn and talk? Could you ask more open-ended questions? Could you decrease the length of your own explanations? Or depending on what is happening in your classroom, maybe it would work to set up role plays for students, or add in some reader’s theater. Or maybe take on the mindset of Socrates – pretend you don’t know anything about a topic and ask lots of follow-up questions that will get them thinking. Or maybe you need to get comfortable with wait time.

What are your thoughts? What have you learned about students by watching them carry out their work? Or by allowing them to explain their thinking? I know that I have often been impressed to learn what my students know by listening more and talking less!