This class just can’t handle it…

When I was in high school, I remember taking a physics class – I believe it was my sophomore year.  At my high school, physics classes were taught in the wing that had once been the area for “shop” classes.  My physics classroom was this huge open space.  One side had a large garage door that once allowed cars to come into the building for students to be able to learn how to work on them. By the time I was in high school, the “shop” classes had been shifted to the Hoosier Hills Career Center across town, and the shop classrooms had been converted for other uses.  On any given day, I would walk into this classroom, and around the outside of the class I would see various experiments in process.  There were large lab tables – at one point there were lasers on every table that were being used to make holograms.  Another time there were these air rails that were angled and allowed people to measure velocity and acceleration based on the time it took an object to travel across the rail.  In one corner, there was Newton’s Cradle built out of cable and bowling balls and hanging from the rafters high up in the room.  I could go on…largest-newtons-cradle2-500x334

As a sophomore, I would walk in and see these awesome experiments that would pique my curiosity.  I made it a point to arrive to physics class as early as possible to check out these things.  I remember wondering how you could use a laser to create a hologram, or just how the timing controllers worked on the air rails.  But then, the bell would ring, I would make my way over to my desk in the middle of the room in front of the chalk board, have a seat, and take out my textbook.  You see, as a sophomore, I was in the basic physics class.  Those experiments were not set up for our class, but were there for the AP Physics class that also met in the same classroom.  Now, I don’t want to imply that we never got to do experiments in my physics class that year, but it was nothing on the level of what the AP class was doing.

Thinking back to my experience as a sophomore in high school in my physics class, I know that some of those experiments probably were things that I did not yet have the true theoretical understanding to be able to carry out and understand, but that doesn’t take away how bummed I was to see cool things set up in my classroom and feel as though I could not participate.  The reality is though, there were probably variations on many of those experiments that would have tied to the standards that my basic physics class was expected to cover.  There were probably ways my teacher could have provided scaffolding and support to allow the students in my basic physics class to participate in those cool experiments.  Would we have gone as deep with the experiments?  No, but we would have had that hands-on experience that was sometimes lacking from my physics curriculum that year.

This memory comes to me when I occasionally hear teachers say things like “My regular class just isn’t ready for this.”  Or “this group is my resource group, so they may not be able to do that activity.”  (I’ll admit – I may have made statements like this when I was a classroom teacher).  That fear that students aren’t ready or aren’t capable can hold us back from such cool learning opportunities for our students.  If you’re worried about kids not being ready, you should know that there are some second-grade classes in this district that have been doing some of the same experiments that I have seen happening this year in some of our sixth-grade classrooms.  I’m sure there were adaptations to make the learning accessible for a second grader, but if a second grade student can successfully carry out activities that our sixth grade students are doing, isn’t it worth finding ways to adapt our activities so that all our fifth and sixth grade students can do them?

Whether we’re talking about a socrative seminar, a hands-on experience, an experiment, or a project, we need to makes sure that all our students have the opportunity to learn in exciting ways.  Think critically about how you might be able to adapt your class so that no matter what level your students are at, they have the opportunity to be challenged.  How could you scaffold and support those students that some might say just aren’t ready?  If you’re struggling to find ways to integrate some of these higher-level experiences into your classroom, find someone to collaborate with – it could be with a teammate, a teacher down the hall, a teacher in another grade level, a TDS, one of our resource teachers, or maybe it’s one of our related arts teachers.  We have lots of great people working in this building, and through working together, we can make sure that all our students are able to participate in amazing learning opportunities!

Also, just so that you aren’t too worried about my long-term well-being, I apparently liked that basic physics class enough to go on and take the AP Physics class the next year.  I was able to participate in all those cool experiments that I was so curious about as a sophomore.  I learned how to create a hologram of a die using a laser, I got to do those experiments with the air rails while learning about acceleration and velocity.  I also remember AP Physics as the most difficult class that I took that year, but at the same time it was the most interesting and rewarding because of the hands-on experiences that we had throughout the year.

The cool stuff, the fun stuff, those are the things that get students excited about learning.  Those are the things that students will talk to you about when they run into you in the future.  Those are the activities that stick with them as they get older, that they can go back to and recall what they learned while they were in your classroom.

Do you have memories similar to mine?  How did it make you feel to not be able to do some of the “cool” things that your teachers did with other classes?  Have you ever talked to your students who don’t get to do some of those things because they “just aren’t ready?”  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Incremental improvement


If you were to draw a path to success, what do you think it might look like?  I recently saw this visual, and it made a lot of sense to me:3dd260bf-ecde-4bdd-b88d-ebdcd9bbc539

I think we all would agree that the path to success is not a straight line.  We’ve all had bumps in the road on our own path to where we are.  In the version of success that appears on the right, there are some ups, some downs, and some times in the totally opposite direction of where you want to go. When you understand that this is what the path to success looks like, you also understand the concept of incremental growth.  These are the small steps we take to get closer to our goals.  When we focus on incremental growth, we don’t care as much about the external factors, and instead focus on the things that we can control.  Hopefully you will see the benefit of the rest of this post if you hear questions like this in your classroom:

  • How many points is this worth?
  • Can I earn extra credit?
  • Did you grade the tests yet?

Questions like these are a sign that students care only for an extrinsic motivator – the grade.  The problem with our students having this mindset is that when students are motivated solely by a grade, they will find ways to get the work done and earn the credit, but they will completely miss the educational value of the lesson, and will not retain anything.  The best way to get them past these extrinsic motivators is to shift the mindset of your students.  Work to get them to focus less on the external motivation, and more on the internal motivators.

The first step – make sure that students understand that grades are just another data point, nothing more or less, that tells teachers and parents a little about where students are right now.  When you attach rewards or consequences to a grade, you train the students who do well to expect an external motivator, and you completely miss that kid who might be doing everything in their power just to keep their head above water, and never getting anything for it.  When you talk about report card grades, make sure students know that you are much more concerned with their day to day efforts than you are with their overall grade.

So what are some of the ways that you can give this message to your students?  Check out the points below:

Improving through effective feedback

If you want your students to value growth, you have to give them feedback that shows you recognize their growth.  Normally this can’t be shown just in the grade on a paper, but rather through the words you speak to a student.  During work time, be walking around, observing what students are doing, ask questions of them, and sharing your thoughts.  Since we all know that our students have a jagged learning profile (see the last post on “Average” students), we should also be aware that every child is at a different place, with different goals and different needs.  Our feedback should focus on what’s most important to THIS child at THIS time.

One of the other keys to effective feedback – focus on the future, not the past.  Instead of saying “You shouldn’t have done it this way; you should do it this way…” you might want to try saying “Next time, I’d like you to do it this way because…”  Our words totally change the feedback and focus on incremental growth moving forward.

Improving Results

One of the best ways for students to be able to see their improvement is to have a way to reflect on their learning process easily.  A great way to do this is through portfolios.  In this day and age, the portfolio can be totally digital, and easily viewed, shared, and managed.  Apps like SeeSaw, or a blog, can allow students to share their work and create a reflection in writing, audio, or video of what they have learned in their work.

Depending on the task, what you might ask students to include in their portfolio may vary, but some of the things that would probably be valuable to include would be:

  • A title that describes the Big Idea or concept
  • A picture or video of the process or final product from the activity
  • Answers to reflection and synthesis questions that guide each child to successfully demonstrate their understanding of the concept.

The reflection questions should vary depending on the activity and be based on your learning goals, but the idea is to get students to reflect on their learning.  If nothing else, ask them “What did you learn?”  If they can reflect and articulate that, their retention will be that much stronger.

If you feel that students are lacking in their answers to the reflection questions, there is a simple solution.  Follow up their answer with “Tell me more.”  This simple statement gets students to think a bit deeper, and if you model this enough, your students will eventually begin answering your questions in a more complete way without you having to ask.

Critical Peer Feedback

If you are the only person in the classroom who is able to provide feedback, some things might get missed.  We all know there’s only so much time in the day!  The key is to get students to understand that when they are looking at each others work, they are not being judgmental, rather they are looking for specific things that could be improved.  In order to help students understand how to do this, here are some steps you could introduce to them:

  1. Tell your peer that you have an idea of where they might improve. This way they know that you are just trying to help them make their work better.
  2. Start or end with a specific compliment! Let them know what you like and why you like it – when they know you appreciate something they have done, it’s easier to take some critical feedback.
  3. Give your suggestion as a question rather than a statement. Instead of telling your peer what to say, you could ask “have you thought about doing this…” or “I wonder if others might understand it better if you…”

Hopefully you see a couple of ideas here that you could implement in your classroom to help your students move towards an attitude of incremental improvement.  Maybe you noticed that a big key to incremental growth for students is feedback.  Meaningful feedback is the key to incremental growth for all of us!

If you decide to try out any of these strategies in your class, I’d love to hear how it goes!  If you’ve tried anything like this, tell us about it in the comments below.  What worked well?  What were your sticking points?

What is the “average” student? (Part I)

99piI’m not sure how many of you listen to podcasts, but for me, it’s almost all that I listen to – in the car, on a run, working on the yard – if my earbuds are in, I’m probably listening to a podcast.  I used to love to listen to talk radio, but the commercials drove me crazy, not to mention that I had to put up with topics that didn’t interest me to get to the interesting stuff.  One of the great things about podcasts – you only have to download the ones you find interesting.  If you don’t like a topic, don’t download it.  There are a couple of podcasts that I listen to no matter what the topic is.  The other day I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible.  It’s a show all about design, but looks at it from all kinds of perspectives – sometimes architecture and infrastructure, sometimes history, sometimes visuals, even a series on vexillology, which is the study of flags (I know, I’m a geek!).

the-end-of-averageOne of the most recent episodes was titled “On Average.”  Much of this episode is based on the work of Todd Rose, author of The End of Average.  One of the things that I found most interesting was that Rose, who is a professor at Harvard, is also a high school dropout.  His research on the science of individuality is based on his learning that nobody truly fits the average – more on that later.

So where does the idea of average come from?  While there are some mathematical references that go back to ancient history, the first scientific documentation of the idea of averages comes from astronomers in the 16th century.  In tracking the orbits of planets, astronomers would scratch the lens of a telescope in 2 spots and keep track of the amount of time it took the planet to move.  Astronomers realized that individual measurements could be highly inaccurate based on who was taking them, and other factors.  However, by taking many measurements and finding the average, the data seemed more accurate among multiple astronomers.

Fast forward to the 1800s, and a Belgian mathematician named Adolphe Quételet.  He decided to take a tool primarily used by astronomers and apply it to people.  He started with a data set of thousands of Scottish soldiers, and found that the average chest size of the soldiers was 39 and three-quarters inches.  He considered this to be the “true” size of a soldier.  Quételet extrapolated this data to say that if all lived in optimal conditions, they would be average.  Over time Quételet’s ideas expanded to find the normal rates based on all kinds of data sets – marriages, murders, suicides, etc.  Quételet went so far as to say that the individual person was synonymous with error, while the average person represented the true human being.

One of Quételet’s fans was none other than Abraham Lincoln.  During the Civil War, Lincoln had the army take data on soldiers to assess them both physically and mentally.  The data sets were then used to decide on appropriate food rations, design of weapons, even the size of uniforms.  Prior to the Civil War, every soldier received a uniform that was custom made.  With the number of uniforms necessary, this was no longer feasible, so the soldiers were broken into average sizes (small, medium, and large) so that uniforms could be mass produced.  Today we buy clothes based on sizes that relate back to these measurements from the armed forces.

Average based design became the way for the military, and from the time of the Civil War until World War II, everything built for the military was designed based on the average size of the soldiers.  Whether we’re talking about uniforms, bedding, food rations, weapons, vehicles, and as they came into use, airplanes, all were built to specifications that matched the average size data.

During World War II, the Air Force noticed a huge decline in the performance of pilots.  As the first air based war, this was a problem.  Initially blame was placed on the pilots, then on the trainers.  In time, the Air Force realized the issue was the size of the cockpit.  The cockpit didn’t fit the pilots.  As a fighter pilot, when split second decisions can make a difference between survival, the Air Force saw that they needed to find a new average.

Researchers at Wright Air Force base in Ohio were tasked with finding new averages.  Members of the team traveled from base to base taking measurements of pilots on 140 dimensions (some were the obvious – height and weight – while others were much more unique – length of the thumb or the distance from a pilot’s eye to his ear).  One of the members of the team was Gilbert Daniels, a recent graduate from Harvard in the field of anthropology.  As he was taking the measurements, Daniels started to wonder how many of the pilots truly were average.

Daniels took the data from a set of just over 4,000 pilots.  He found averages on the 10 measurements that would be considered the most important in terms of the design of an airplane cockpit and set up norms based on a 30 percent range (the average height in the study was 5-9, so the range was 5-7 to 5-11).  He then he went back to the individual data.  The assumption going in was that most pilots would fit the definition of the average pilot.  When he compared the individual measurements of all the pilots in the data set, he was stunned to find that not one of the pilots fell within the average range on all 10 dimensions.  When they narrowed the study to only 3 dimensions, less than 4% of the pilots met all 3.

The research showed that there was no such thing as the average pilot.  Instead the data looked a little like this:

Rose describes the variation that shows in these measurements as Jaggedness – which represents that fact that everyone has variations from the norm or average.

In response, the Air Force made significant changes to their design process.  No longer would they buy airplanes that had cockpits that were designed to the average.  The Air Force banned the average for design of airplanes!  Instead they needed planes to be designed to the edges.  Prior to World War II, the pedals, seats, helmets, controls, and anything else in a plane was static, it could not be adjusted.  Following the results of this study, the Air Force demanded adjustable seats, foot pedals, helmet straps, and more.

When the change was made, guess what happened?  Pilots got better!  No longer did they have to adapt to the size of the plane.  Now all planes can be adapted to the size of the pilot.  Think about it, how many of you would purchase a car that did not have adjustable seats, mirrors, or steering wheel?  These adjustable features came about thanks to the Air Force’s research on averages.

I know that this post hasn’t gotten into the education implications yet – I promise that’s where I’m going next week.  To help next week’s post make more sense, we needed some background information about averages.  Next week we’ll get into how the research on the science of the individual translates into the classroom, and what we can do to design education to the edges, not just to the average.

What thoughts do you have?  Do you already see a connection between this backstory and your students today?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Moonshot Thinking

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. ~John F. Kennedy

The Crossroads of Creation and Consumption

What’s the last thing that you “consumed”?  Maybe it’s a new series on Netflix, or a great book, or maybe you listened to a playlist of songs you love.  All of those could be examples of consumption.  Our students are experts at consumption!  Playing a game while listening to music, and with something on the TV.  I know that often in our classrooms we are seeking to help our students to create something for the world.  In your ELA class you might expect them to create a presentation to go with their persuasive research paper.  In science it could be creating an experiment that shows some of the scientific properties that you have been studying.  In math you might ask them to create a model of some of the geometric shapes you have been learning about.  This list could go on.

Oftentimes we think of consumption as fairly low level thinking, while creating is higher level thinking.  But I want to challenge that a bit today with certain types of consumption.  Recently my family decided that we wanted to have a vegetable garden in our back yard, but didn’t know exactly what that might entail.  I consumed information from websites and blog posts to think about where we should put it, and how we would create it.  After looking at a variety of options, we decided that we were going to do a raised bed in the back yard.

Next we had to come up with a design.  Again, I consumed resources.  I jumped on Pinterest and looked at pictures of examples of raised bed gardens.  Did we want to use stone or lumber?  Once we decided on wood, then it was a question of what kind.  My searches on Pinterest took me to various websites that talked about the advantage of cedar compared to redwood compared to treated lumber.  The options (and the opinions) seemed endless.  Eventually we decided to go with treated lumber.  Check out the pictures below documenting some of our process!

I guess what I’m getting at is that all of us have to consume from time to time, and so do our students.  Part of 21st Century Learning requires consumption, but I think we would all agree that there is a difference in consumption of a series on Netflix or a book that we are reading for enjoyment as compared to the type of consumption that we do when we want to learn about a new teaching strategy or a project that we want to do at home.  That’s where we come in – through guiding our students in how to consume information, we can help make sure that consumption is for the purpose of learning and creation.

What strategies have been successful to guide your students to meaningful consumption?  What things have you consumed that have led to additional learning?  As lifelong learners, it’s important to verbalize what we are still learning about!  That’s part of what I am documenting in these weekly posts, my own learning!  Share with us in the comments below things that you have taken in that have led you to create something – for your students, your classroom, your family, or just for you.  Or share with us some of the things you students have created!

If you find the idea of creation and consumption interesting and would like to dig a little bit deeper, check out the Ted Talk by Larry Lessig titled Laws that choke creativity.  It might lead you to think about consumption a little bit differently!

The “Typical” Day

What does a typical school day look like?  Get to school on time, go to class, sit quietly, do your work, write all your answers down, listen and take notes, leave at the end of the day, do more work when you get home.  This sounds pretty routine, and is exactly the model that Ken Robinson was arguing against in his “Changing Education Paradigms.”

Matt Miller -
Matt Miller –

In a recent MIT study, researchers identified two categories of work that have been in a fairly consistent decline since 1960.  Those are the jobs that are defined as routine and manual.  The jobs that have been growing are the non-routine tasks.  Those are the tasks that require problem-solving, intuition, persuasion, creativity, situational adaptability, visual and language recognition, and in-person interaction.

In our school improvement plan we say that engagement and inquiry should be in the forefront of our planning.  I believe that it is much more important for our students to know how to ask the right questions, and then how to find the answers themselves, rather than simply answering the questions we ask.  In the book Future Shock, Alvin Toffler said “The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write.  The illiterate will be those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”  This applies to education just as well as it does to any other part of society.

Matt Miller
Matt Miller

I think that as teachers, many of us think that our classroom should somehow resemble the classrooms of our childhood.  When I first started in education, I thought it was a good thing for my students to be quiet – especially when my principal came in the room.  Now I don’t feel that way.  When a classroom is silent, my first reaction is “are they taking a test?”  Collaboration and problem solving rarely involve silence.  I’m not saying that it should never be silent in a classroom.  There’s a time and a place where that is necessary.  However if we are trying to meet the concepts of the Best Practice Model, should it be silent most of the time?

Reflect on your own classroom.  What does your class look like most of the time?  What changes have you made, or will you continue to make, in order to help your students be ready for the non-routine tasks of their future?  In the comments share some of the things you’ve tried before, or share something that you feel like you want to try soon.