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.

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.

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!

Planting trees

8 years ago when my daughter was born, we planted a tree in our backyard. It was a Japanese Maple, and at the time of planting it only came up to about my waist. Unfortunately, we no longer live in that same house, so I am not quite sure exactly how tall that tree is now, but based on what I know about the growth rate of trees like the one we planted, it’s probably no taller than me. Given that amount of growth, I’m sure it only provides shade for a small section of the lawn. As any of you know, planting trees for your own benefit is a long-term project. The Chinese have a proverb that I believe says it best:

Chinese Proverb

Education can be a lot like planting trees. When our kids first come to kindergarten, they are a like a seed, and before long they begin to sprout. The amount of change that takes place in that kindergarten year can be truly impressive. Throughout elementary school, students develop much like that sprout, and by the time they hit the intermediate grades, they are a bit like a sapling. Those saplings are more developed, and beginning to look a little like a tree, but saplings still have a lot of development to do in order to provide meaningful shade.

One of our roles in education is to be like the gardener, and help each of our seeds grow into a mature tree over the life of their education career. There is an important thing to remember though – trees don’t completely mature in just a year. It takes time and effort to get them to grow.

In the house we live in now, there are 3 maple trees in the backyard. Two of them were already there when we moved in, and a third was added last summer. The tallest of the three is not even as tall as our house, and I didn’t even have to rake the leaves that were produced this year, I just ran over them with a mower. They don’t give off a ton of shade yet. At times that can be frustrating – especially on a hot summer day. Each year I have to trim back a little on the branches, but I know that trimming them back is sometimes the key to new growth.

I know that in time, those trees will grow and provide our backyard with plenty of shade. Two of them are close enough together that I may even be able to hang a hammock between them for some relaxation.

Just like those trees, our students don’t always come along quite like we would hope. Some of them are challenging, and we need to do work to help them to learn and grow as we would want them to. Some of them don’t seem to grow as quickly as we’d like them to. It’s easy to become frustrated when our students don’t get to where we “think” they should be, but we have to remember that the education of each of our students didn’t start with us, and it won’t finish with us. We get the opportunity to do the best we can with each of our students, help them to learn and grow the best that we can, and have the confidence that through our best efforts, they will continue to develop into the mature tree that we want them to be.

As I know I’ve shared before, I believe that every one of our students has a path to success inside of them. Sometimes it isn’t easy to see that path, but it is there. All we can do is to guide them along their path of development.

The value of communication and collaboration

Lombardi - Work Together

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

NACE Attributes Employers Seek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growth mindset and the innovator’s mindset

In the past 6 weeks I have been participating in #IMMOOC (Innovator’s Mindset Massive Open Online Course). For those of you who aren’t aware of #IMMOOC, the course is centered around the book The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros. The book focuses on these guiding questions:

  • How do you move from “pockets of innovation” to a “culture of innovation”?
  • How do we start to innovate inside the box?
  • How do we move from “engagement” to “empowerment”?
  • What does innovation mean for education, and should every educator be an innovator?

In the first week I wrote a blog post titled Innovate…why? in which I pointed out my 3 main reasons for innovation in education. One of the items I shared was on the role growth mindset plays in innovation in education. After posting my blog, I got the comment below from George:

Couros Comment

With this comment, I began thinking about the role that growth mindset plays in The Innovator’s Mindset.  Couros defines this mindset as:

the belief that the abilities, intelligences, and talents are developed so that they lead to the creation of new and better ideas.

I believe that all teachers agree that we are looking for ways to help the learning that happens in their classroom be “new and better”.  As I read more and more of The Innovators Mindset, I began making connections between what I read from Couros, and the book Mindset by Carol Dweck.  In this book, Dweck shares a quote from Benjamin Bloom that I feel relates to The Innovator’s Mindset:

After forty years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.

Think about the power of that statement. This is not about the top 1-2 percent – the ones we might call geniuses – being able to learn anything. It’s the belief that with the right circumstances, anyone can learn anything.  What does that fact do for you as a teacher? I know that for me, that drives me to think about what those appropriate conditions are that will lead to the best possible conditions for learning.

I don’t think that the traditional model of school creates those best possible conditions for learning. I think that we as educators reflect on what we can do to learn and grow in ways that will create new and better learning environments for our students. As I think back on the conversations through Twitter, through the guest sessions, and the text of The Innovator’s Mindset, there are a few things that I see as imperatives, and all of them take a growth mindset from us.  Here are 4 of them:

  • Risk Taking: This is not just about getting our students to take risks, it’s about modeling our own risk taking as educators. During our course kick off with Jo Boaler, a statement really resonated with me – “It’s hard to give kids a growth mindset if you don’t have a growth mindset about your own learning.” Statements like “I’m not good at technology” or “Math was never my strong suit” show your students a fixed mindset, and does nothing to encourage their own risk taking. Instead, we might say things like “We’re going to try this and see how it works out.” Even if you fall flat on your face, you modeled for your students a willingness to step outside your own box, which encourages them to do the same.
  • Homework: You better be coming at me with research on this one, because I know some of us in education view homework as a must. As Alice Keeler pointed out, that 10 minute per grade level rule of thumb for homework is totally bunk with no research to support it.  “Some dude just made that up” she says.  The research on homework, especially at the elementary and intermediate grade, shows that the effectiveness is very low. On the other hand, relationships have a very high correlation to learning and growth. What gets in the way of those relationships? One thing is the negative interactions that happen at the start of class when we are discussing homework that wasn’t completed last night. If we take that away, we instantly remove one of the barriers to great relationships with all kids! If you must give homework, assign 20 minutes of free reading time. That reading is correlated with a lot more success than any worksheet! And if the worksheet is so important, shouldn’t you be doing it in class so that the students have appropriate guidance?
  • Grading Practices: For years, there has been a tradition of teach the lesson, hand out the homework, collect it the next day, grade it, put it in the gradebook, and hand it back (that’s what was done to me, and at least for a while, it’s what I did in my classroom). Let’s be honest though – most of those papers we hand back end up in the trash. Kids didn’t value them. Parents often only valued the grade in the gradebook, and how it affected their child’s overall grade. Learning was not the focus, an A-F letter grade was all that mattered. When we put a grade on anything, that signifies an end of learning on that topic. If we want to continue the learning, meaningful feedback is so much more powerful.  And I have to ask, are there times that you don’t pick something up as quickly as a colleague? Maybe some new tech is taking you a while to get used to, maybe you’re trying to figure out how to embed more inquiry into your math, whatever it is, there’s probably somebody who “got it” more quickly than you. Should you be evaluated lower because it takes you longer to make it work in your classroom? I want to applaud those who try something new – even if it takes longer than the teacher next door to them! Students are entitled to the same chance. If the focus of your classroom is on learning, how can we not reteach to those who struggle? How can we not offer a retake to someone who wants to show that they are learning and growing? We need to celebrate that learning, whenever it happens!
  • Flexible Seating: This isn’t just about putting fancy furniture into your classroom and then assigning seats just like you did with desks. True flexible seating is like what happens each time you go to Starbucks to work. I know that sometimes I like the table and chair so that I can spread out. Other times I like the high table so that I can stand while I am typing, or use the stool if I must sit. And every once in a while, that comfy chair in the corner calls may name. How sad would it be if every time I walked into Starbucks, they told me where I had to sit? Kayla Delzer reminded me that “Starbucks is a better learning environment than our classrooms.” A true flexible learning space leads to ownership and choice, which leads to more motivation, which leads to better learning. And here’s the fact – if flexible seating can work in kindergarten classrooms, there’s no way you can’t set the norms for your class to make flexible seating successful! Have kids try out each seating choice, have them reflect on what is their best learning space and why, and then encourage them to choose the spot that works best for them! As you set the norms, remind them that you always have veto power on any poor choices that they make, and then give it a whirl. Why wouldn’t we want our students excited to get to class so that they can pick their just right seat?

OK teachers, how many of you are feeling challenged by some of the things in this post? That’s ok! Are you feeling intrigued to make a shift? Then just do it! Don’t wait for the weekend, don’t wait for Thanksgiving Break, if you believe that a change here could impact learning for your students, then take that leap. Have a growth mindset, but even more, have an innovator’s mindset to try something that will be new and better for your students!

Couros - Best for this learner

#IMMOOC Week 1: Innovate… why?

Innovate!As we think about innovating in education, it’s always valuable to spend some time thinking about why we do what we do.  As I begin my participation over the next 6 weeks in #IMMOOC (Innovator’s Mindset Massive Open Online Course), I’m driven to think more intentionally about why we innovate, and what innovation means in education.  Below are 3 reasons that stand out to me as why we need innovation in education.

  • The Factory Model of Education – Let me describe something, and you tell me if it sounds familiar: a publicly funded system where groups of about 28 students who are about the same age are taught by one teacher in a room of about 800 square-feet. This is the system of education that developed as a result of the free public education movement put into place in Massachusetts over 150 years ago.  Pieces of today’s curriculum can be tied directly back to decisions that were made about the initial curriculum in the late 19th  In today’s classrooms we continue to teach skills to kids that the iPad they carry can do for them, and then seem surprised that they don’t find value in it.  To give you some ideas of what 21st Century Education might look like, TeachThough.com created a great graphic:

4 essential rules

  • Growth Mindset – Last school year I read the book Mindset by Carol Dweck. While there were many parts of the book that had great value to me as an educator, my favorites came from chapter 7: “Parents, Teachers, and Coaches: Where Do Mindsets Come From?” How we interact with the children in our lives can have such an impact on the mindsets that they develop.  In the portion on parents, I took away the appropriate ways to praise children.  When we give praise that is focused on a child’s intelligence (“you’re so smart!” “you did such a good job on this paper.”), we may harm their long term motivation and performance, because taking a risk would mean possibly not getting that same praise.  Instead our praise should be focused on a child’s efforts and achievements (“I can tell you worked very hard on this!” “I love the effort you put in, but let’s work together on this part to figure out what you didn’t understand.”).  As the chapter continues, it talks about the importance of the words that teachers can use regarding learning.  I think we all know that at times learning is hard.  We need to let our students know that the hard things help us to learn, but only when we put forth effort.  I love watching some of the teachers in my building who are teaching the concepts of growth mindset directly to their students.  The kids in those rooms understand that ideas like struggling and failure help us to continue to grow.

 

  • Risk Taking – Intuitively I think all educators understand that risk taking is an important part of the learning process. Whether we realize it or not, our students are taking risks every day.  For some, simply talking in the classroom is a risk, for others the risk is in trying something new.  But what about us?  How do we model our own risks to our students?  Recently I was in a classroom and there was an issue with technology.  I overheard the teacher say “I never should have done this” and then shift gears into something entirely different.  What message do we send to our students when we give up at the first sign of failure?  How can we expect them to continue to take risks if we have modeled our own hesitancy to take any kind of risk?  We have to shift our own mindset and be willing to take risks for our student.  If that innovation works, then you may have created a truly meaningful learning opportunity for your student.  If the innovation doesn’t work, you have a real-life lesson on mindsets and how we deal with adversity.  By making ourselves vulnerable in our classrooms, we will show our kids that it’s ok to be a little vulnerable themselves.

These are just a couple of thoughts on reasons why we need to innovate.  What thoughts might you have?  Share your own additions or thoughts in the comments below!

The innovators

I’ve recently been reading a book called The Innovators by Walter Isaacson.  If you don’t know anything about Isaacson, he’s written biographies about Ben Franklin, Henry Kissinger, Albert Einstein, and Leonardo Da Vinci, but several of his other books are more about groups of people who have played a role in some way – one book, titled American Sketches, is about some of the great leaders and creative thinkers of our society.

The InnovatorsThe Innovators has the subtitle “How a group of hackers, geniuses, and geeks created the digital revolution.”  This book caught my attention for a couple of reasons – first, I’ve always been something of an early adopter of technology.  I love to check out new and exciting innovations.  A second reason that this caught my attention is that I’m always curious about how people made the leaps to take us from the earliest computers (devices that took up entire rooms in the basement of college buildings or at military bases), to the technology that I can hold in my hand every time I pick up my iPhone.

Innovation is something that we often think of in terms of those big leaps.  When I was in sixth grade, my elementary school was renovated, and one of the classrooms was converted into a computer lab.  The first time we walked into the computer lab as a class, we saw a room with about 30 IBM computers.  The only thing that I remember being able to do on those computers was a keyboarding program that began the process of teaching me to type.  For me, this felt like a HUGE innovation.  Little did I know how much more our students would be able to do in the future.

The chapter that I am reading right now is all about software, and one of the big names in the development of computer software was Bill Gates.  Early in the chapter is a quote from him about what an innovator is:

An innovator is probably a fanatic, somebody who loves what they do, works day and night, may ignore normal things to some degree and therefore can be viewed as a bit unbalanced.

Reading about Gates, and many of the others who appear in the book, I can see how this definition certainly applies to innovators.  Here’s the thing though – I think there are times that you could substitute the word teachers for innovators and that definition would still work (I know my friends think I’m a little unbalanced to spend so much of my time with 10, 11, and 12 year olds!).  We are all something of a fanatic about what we do – we’re fanatics for our kids.  We love them, we want to help them learn and grow, and we want them to be successful.  I know that our efforts to get there make us all feel a little unbalanced at times.

One of the things that I have taken away from the book The Innovators is that the transition to the digital revolution was NOT made up of several giant leaps.  Instead, the innovations that have led to the amazing technology that I am able to carry in my pocket has happened because of little steps layered on top of one another.  And more often than not, those innovations were not made by any one person.  People such as Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, Robert Noyce, Grace Hopper, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Larry Page (along with so many others) all played important roles in the digital revolution, but the steps of each of these people built on the ideas of others.

We as teachers need to remember that as fanatics, it may not always be easy to get our students to learn and grow as quickly as we want them to.  They may not be immediately successful, but if we continue to innovate in our teaching, if we continue to try to reach kids in new and exciting ways, we are going to be able to reach more of them.  We also need to remember the value in teamwork for our students to learn.  Just as so many of the innovators mentioned above found success by building on the ideas of others, you may find success with a student through strategies others share with you. Whether it be a teammate, your PLC team, someone down the hall, or any one of the multitude of other people in the building, there are others who might have an idea that helps you get that kid to move forward.

What are some of the things that you are fanatical about?  Have you ever tried something new that seemed to be the key to reaching that kid?  Share you experiences in the comments below!