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, https://www.reggioalliance.org/downloads/malaguzzi:ccie:1994.pdf.

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!

Where are they now?

I’m not sure how many of you know this about me, but when I was younger, I was actively involved in scouting. I started in a Cub Scout pack/den based in my elementary school. Eventually, I crossed over to a Boy Scout troop with many of the members of my pack. Scouting helped to introduce me to many activities that the typical suburban kid may not be able to experience: camping; backpacking; hiking; canoeing; and more. Every summer our troop would go to scout camp and spend a week together in the wilderness. While we had moments of free time, much of our time at camp was filled with opportunities to earn merit badges.

One of the requirements for advancement through the ranks of scouting is tied to merit badges. To earn the Eagle Scout rank, you’re required to complete 21 merit badges, 13 of which are required, plus another 8 of your choice. One of the merit badges I recall working on at scout camp was the Orienteering Merit Badge. The skill of orienteering is all about being able to find your way from point to point with the use of a map and compass.

The reason I’m thinking about orienteering is based on a couple of conversations I’ve listened to on recent podcasts. The gist of the podcasts was that far too often, when students are struggling academically, we start to talk about the skills they are lacking. We might be looking at our resources and notice that a child seems behind, or we might be looking at our standards and see a skill that the child cannot meet. We then start talking about what the child cannot do.

When you are on an orienteering course, all you have is a map, a compass, and a set of directions. Those items are meaningless if you do not know where you are on the map. In today’s world of GPS on our phone, many of us might say that they can just pull their phone out and figure out how to get where they needed to. The outdoor survivalist in me is bound to ask what you would do if you do not have a signal? Or what if the battery is dead? We must be able to identify where we are on the map to figure out where we are going.

This is true with our students too. We have our standards, they are what we are ultimately accountable to, that map out what our students should know. We can also look back at previous grade levels to see how those standards progress over the years. But to figure out what to do next with a student, how to support a student who is struggling, we must know where they are at the start. Once we know where they are in terms of skills the students do have, we’re better able to identify what comes next. For example, in math we start with basic skills like counting and number identification, work our way into addition and subtraction, and eventually will make it to the point of things like geometric theorems or factoring polynomials. There is a progression of skills that all build upon one another. When we know where a student is on that progression, we can identify skills that come next.

If you work in a district that utilizes NWEA like mine does, from your student profile report, you can drill down to specific skills that this assessment feels a student is ready to develop. Now, as with any standardized test, take this with a grain of salt. You may find that a student has some needs that fall outside of what is suggested. There is no better resource than your formative assessment and responsive teaching, however this is an excellent starting place.

So, what can we do with this knowledge? I would encourage you to start framing your conversations about what kids can’t do a little differently. Instead of pointing out what students cannot do, start to notice what they can do. Then think about what comes next in the progression. Whether we’re talking about math, reading, or writing, there are typically agreed upon progressions that will help guide the learning process.

How might this impact your next conversation about a student who is struggling? Can you think of some different things you might say? Different ways to approach the struggle? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Better is good

Better is good

As many of you know, I like to read widely as I feel that there are lessons to be learned about education from books that are not specifically education books. I have a whole shelf of books in my office that is devoted to leadership, economics, and behavioral sciences. Related to that, I also listen to a wide variety of podcasts because again, there are lessons about education from non-educational podcasts. One of the podcasts that I love is called Freakonomics. It came about after Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt wrote a book by the same name. The gist of Freakonomics is that there is a hidden side to everything and that when you view things from an economist’s standpoint, you may be able to better understand why things happen the way that they do.

In a recent episode (which you can find here), Dubner had the behavioral scientist Richard Thaler on the show. Thaler is the author of the book Nudge, and after listening to this interview, I added it to my Goodreads list! In the recently updated version of the book, there’s a three-word quote from Barack Obama. “Better is good,” he said.

Here in education, sometimes I feel like we have conversations around what’s happening, and we’re looking for the silver bullet. The thing that will suddenly make everything better. A couple of examples come to mind:

When we are talking about our school improvement plan, and we have set goals that feel too broad, we come to the realization that it’s not possible to meet all the steps that we want to take in the time frame that is available. We need to narrow our focus a little. But invariably, that means picking something that we all know is important and cutting it out of the plan, knowing that we can’t do all the things at one time. But how do you decide? Depending on who is involved in the conversation, there may be people with different “sacred cows” that they are not willing to let go of. So ultimately, nobody wants to be the one who says we must cut this one thing. But we end up having to make some difficult decisions because in the end it is not possible to do it all!

Another time that we want to have the perfect solution is when we’re dealing with student behaviors. There are times where we might bring together a team of people to come up with the best solutions. A student might be acting out, or putting hands on other students, and ultimately not appropriately participating in learning opportunities. It’s tempting to think about what we are going to do to be able to get that child to actively participate in the classroom. But the reality is that we cannot address that issue until we take time to address the underlying behavior of acting out. We must set a priority for a student, and attack the first issue with all our energy, then once that is under control, we can move on to the next biggest problem. Sometimes we’re tempted to build a behavior plan that tries to get at all the issues. In my experience, those big plans do not work because we are never able to devote enough time to any one thing, which means that nothing gets better. We must pick one thing to be the focus for right now. When it’s better, then we can pick the next focus.

Hopefully, these examples can serve as a reminder that there is no silver bullet (perfect solutions), but maybe there are lots of bronze BBs (better options).

Voltaire is credited with having said:

Interesting fact: This has been utilized by many. The Italian version that comes from a proverb says "the best is the enemy of the good." 

Others have spoken of the golden mean, which says that 20% of the time is needed to complete 80% of the work, while the last 20% of the task takes 80% of the effort. 

In King Lear, Shakespeare says "striving to be better, oft we mar what's well."

And Conficius is attributed with the statement "better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without."

This aphorism is one that’s often hard for educators. Think about it, most of us have known we wanted to be teachers ever since we were little. Many of us were probably that teacher’s pet, doing all the things that a teacher asked, and then some. We probably played school, and you better believe we had the PERFECT classroom! Not only did our students (maybe our stuffed animals at home, or our friends at daycare) behave perfectly, but our classroom was decorated to perfection!

But the truth is, perfection is an unattainable goal! Think about that for a second. One of the things I have learned is that every time I say to myself “It will be perfect after this one more thing,” then I find something else I could do that would make that version perfect. The finish line for perfect just keeps moving farther down the road!

So back to that quote “Better is good.” Sometimes we might be having a conversation about some issue that we can’t completely solve, but we have an idea that might make things better. What we must be willing to say to ourselves is “Well, better is good.” We can talk until we’re blue in the face to come up with the perfect solution, and maybe never actually get there. In that case, we should do what we can to make a small change here, or a small change there, because better is good.

Can you ever think of an experience you’ve had where you had to take incremental steps to make things better a little bit at a time? Share your comments below!

All kids can learn

All kids can learn

If you are anything like me, at some point in your career as an educator, you have had to write your belief statement. I know when I was in my undergraduate program, that was a requirement as we were building our professional portfolio. I was asked to do the same again during my Master’s Program. It was something that I was asked to think about, or even write, by administrators that I worked for earlier in my career. If I were to go back through each of my belief statements, I am sure there is one phrase that would appear in every statement – some version of “I believe all kids can learn.” 

When you pause to think about it, the statement “all kids can learn” has almost become a cliché. But it is also something that we all feel like we are supposed to say. The reality is that saying that all kids can learn adds little to the practices that exist in our classroom. We must go just a step further – we must define what we will do if a student is not learning. 

I would guess we have all had a student (or more) that struggled in our classroom for some reason. Maybe a student came to your class with fewer skills than most of your students. Maybe a student’s behavior appeared to impact their ability to participate in learning activities. Maybe a student did not seem interested in the learning that you had to offer. Maybe you believe that a student’s ability is fixed and that you have little influence over that – this may mean that you believe a student needs a specific program or track to meet their needs. Or maybe you think that a student could learn if they took better advantage of the opportunities you offer in the classroom. Or maybe we are content with just seeing growth from a student, even if that student is not closing any gaps that may exist. 

Do any of these things mean that a child is unable to learn? No. Instead, there are challenges that may make it harder for a student to meet expectations that you would have for the children in your classroom. But by no means does it mean that a child is unable to meet those expectations. 

So instead of asking if we believe that all kids can learn, we need to ask a couple of questions that will help us build a greater sense of purpose: 

  1. If we believe all kids can learn, exactly what is it that we will expect them to learn
  1. If we believe all kids can learn, how do we respond when they do not learn

These questions can help us drive meaningful conversations as a collaborative team, or grade-level PLC (Professional Learning Communities). It helps us to identify the work we need to be engaging in with each child that walks into our classrooms and schools. These are questions we must constantly be wrestling with throughout the course of a school year. 

In the past, when we think of school through the industrial model of learning, it was acceptable to sort and select students based on their abilities or willingness to master parts of the curriculum. In the industrial age, there were more opportunities to pursue an occupation that did not require higher-order thinking skills. Now we are living in the information age. In this society, it needs to be a belief of schools that we will bring all students to their full potential. This will help them prepare for their future and the jobs that will exist when they are ready for a career. 

This means having the belief that we will establish ambitious standards of learning that we expect ALL students to achieve. And here is the thing, all really does mean all. We cannot fall back on the mindset that some of our students are not capable of meeting those expectations. 

During my career in education, I remember several colleagues who would make statements like “My babies just can’t manage that.” Let us be real for a moment. Efficacy is a real thing. That belief that we have in our students will impact on how they do. Henry Ford has a quote that comes to mind:

Similarly, if we believe our students can, or believe they can’t, we’re right. Efficacy is all about what we believe. If we do not believe our students are capable of something, then we can almost guarantee that they will never find success in that thing! And I will be honest, I have had those thoughts too at times. 

But here is the wonderful thing! You do not have to do this on your own! Hopefully, you have colleagues around you that can support you in your goals for your students. Hopefully, you can work with the resources in your building to solve problems for those kids who are struggling. Hopefully, your PLC can work together as a collaborative team to address the questions above to find how to best support ever student that walks into your classroom. As you dig into the questions, you’ll find new ideas, new solutions, and new successes. And your students will learn. Maybe not as quick as we would like, but with time, with focus, and with belief, they will get there!

What are your thoughts? Have you ever found success with a student that you were not sure you would be able to? Was there something you learned from that experience? Share with us in the comments below!

Logistics over learning?

Logistics over learning?

Recently I have been spending a lot of time thinking about the power of learning in the school setting – not just for students, but also for the teachers and staff of our school. In turn, that has led me to look into the history of public schools in the US. As a quick refresher, American public schools were originally organized according to the concepts and principles of the factory model of learning. Around the late nineteenth century, effort had been put into the creation of school in the image of a factory. One of the books that exemplified this was Frederick Winslow Taylor’s book Principles of Scientific Management. Taylor argued that “one best system” could solve any organizational problem. In this theory, it was the job of a manager to identify the best way, then train workers to do so. This hierarchical, top-down management created a rigid sense of time and accountability. This process is best modeled by the assembly line that existed in factories of the time. The advantage of an assembly line is that the parts that made up the assembly line were viewed as interchangeable. Any worker could complete any role with the appropriate training. Business leaders and politicians argued that schools should adopt a similar model to produce the kinds of workers that were needed in industry. 

Now, I see a lot that is problematic in this quick overview above. First, “one best system?” Does that ever exist anywhere? I think if we looked at factories and assembly lines of today, we would find them to be vastly different from the version of the early 1900s. Innovation has changed the process. Schools need to keep up with those changes. Next, do schools exist in a hierarchical, top-down model? I mean, they may exist, but my experience is that they are not super successful overall. Finally, there seems to be some important voices left out of the creation of a school model based on the factory – educators! Shouldn’t their voice, their knowledge be at the table when we are trying to build a system of learning? That may be the mindset of many educators now. But in the 1900s, most educators went along with the plans set forth. Check out this quote from Ellwood P. Cubberly, an American Educator, author, and Dean of the Stanford University School of Education: 

“Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which raw materials (children) are to be shaped and fashioned in order to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of the twentieth century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.” 

Ellwood P. Cubberley (1868-1941) – American Educator, author, and Dean of the Stanford University School of Education

This thinking quickly became the standard for schools and school districts. A whole new hierarchy was set up, similar in thinking to the business: decisions would flow from the state board of education down to local school boards, on to superintendents, then to principals, and finally to teachers who would, like factory workers, be expected to follow the guidance in lockstep. The students did not matter. They were no more than raw material in the formation of a more perfect industrialized workforce. 

I would love to be able to say that this thinking from the 1900s has left, but I cannot. Those factory model mindsets still prevail in many school settings here in America. If you ask politicians what is needed to make education more successful, they will talk about stricter standards, better methods of evaluation of teachers, or possibly a longer school day or year. The focus, far too often, seems to be on procedures rather than results. And that brings us to the title of today’s blog. Far too much time is being spent on logistics instead of focused on learning. But when we talk to business leaders, many of them are saying that they are not able to find workers appropriately prepared for the workforce. They are telling us that the skills workers need have more to do with collaboration, teamwork, and problem solving. Check out these results from the National Association of Colleges and Employers Job Outlook Survey. These results come from the 2020 version: 

NACE Job Outlook Survey

Think about the conversations you have at school. If you are like me, far too often we get drawn into conversations about the organization of the schedule in the day, the length of a school day or year, the teaching of a prescribed curriculum, the size of a class, the use of a textbook, or the number of credits earned. Far too little time is spent paying attention to whether learning has occurred. And how do any of those conversations help us prepare kids for the future that business leaders say they need?  

So here is the nudge – let us all take a moment to think about how we can move our conversations away from trying to identify the “one best system” and move towards a mindset of wanting to “get it right, and then make it better and better and better.” 

So, what might that look like? It might mean trying something totally outside the box. It might mean piloting a new strategy. It might mean utilizing supplements to your curriculum from online sources like Kahn Academy. When we analyze how kids are doing, and we really think about the results, we must recognize if the steps we are taking are impacting student learning. If the answer is no, then we must analyze what we will do to reach those kids. And if the answer is yes, then we must think about what we can do to extend that learning even further. 

The reality is that the top-down factory model is not adequate for meeting the needs of our students. It is not adequate for preparing students for their future. We need to shift our goals to really invest in what we can do to get all students to master rigorous content, learn how to learn, pursue a productive level of employment, and compete in the global economy. 

If you take a moment to read between the lines of what this entails, you might notice something. In our professional learning community, we have four guiding questions: 

  1. What do we want students to know and be able to do? 
  1. How will we know they have learned it? 
  1. What will we do when they have not learned it? 
  1. What will we do to extend the learning when they already know it? 

I think the power to shift the system exists within each member of a school. By participating in meaningful professional learning communities, we can take that top-down approach from the factory model, and flip it on its head. We can take control of what needs to happen in our classrooms to provide support to our students. 

What steps can you commit to in order to make a shift in your practice? What do you need to be able to take the next step in that shift? As Nike likes to remind us, Just Do It. Too often in education we get stuck in the planning phase, and not moving into the action phase. Act today!