Thursday, July 18, 2019

Teachable moments

Back in the day (1990) when I thought I was teaching high school earth science (as opposed to teaching adolescents) I would embrace teachable moments.  Often, these teachable moments came in the form of an earthquake, volcano, or hurricane that occurred somewhere else in the world.  (It seemed the only natural disasters upstate New York ever experienced were blizzards and the occasional glacier.)  I asked students to read the newspaper and share stories of Earth Science related phenomena.   Thankfully they would also share feel good stories about the space program, advances in green technology and success stories related to environmental protection.   So it wasn't all doom and gloom.

We kept a bulletin board on the wall to display the articles and students would summarize, ask questions, speculate and draw conclusions.  I facilitated small group discussions and occasionally asked students to write down their thoughts.   Feedback came from peers and myself verbally.   I didn't rank their performance.  I didn't assign a grade based on a rubric.  I didn't record anything about it.

The annual New York State Regents Examination in Earth Sciences did not assess or measure critical thinking skills.  Or summarizing skills.  Or questioning skills.  Or listening skills.  But I felt that these things were important so I made sure to spend time on them.  If a hurricane occurred while we were in the middle of the rock cycle unit, then I would still spend time in class that day discussing hurricanes.  Later in the year, when we were in the weather unit, I would refer back to that hurricane.  But it never concerned me that we "lost" a day during the rock cycle unit.   In fact, I found that about 3 weeks of test prep in late May/early June was sufficient to achieve the highest results in my district.

Thought experiment: What if the entire schooling experience were built from provocations that came from news or observations?    Instead of organizing the content into different classes, taught in different rooms, by different teachers, at different times students and teachers might be organized differently.  Perhaps the role of a teacher would be more like an advisor. 

Here's one scenario...
A student would choose the provocation.  The teacher would orchestrate activities that would build skills like communication, reading, speaking, summarizing, reflection and critical thinking.  Content would be dictated by the information that is necessary to understand the provocation.  If students needed additional explanations of concepts or required additional facts, then the teacher (or other students, or media specialist, or librarian, or principal, or community member, or parent, or the teacher next door...) might provide that explanation or that fact or the resources to find them.  Students might produce a multimedia product to share their learning.  They might be inspired to organize and complete a service project or task related to the news item they chose.  All along they would receive feedback from all those people listed previously.   No need to assess or rank or grade or describe.

Would students get better at communication, reading, speaking, summarizing, reflection and critical thinking?  Depends on the frequency and quality of the feedback and then how the students apply that feedback.   That part of learning won't change. 

Would students find relevance and motivation and interest and engagement?  Probably. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Getting From A to B

I am staying in Old Town (Alexandria, Virginia).  The Model Schools Conference is at the Gaylord Convention Center across the Potomac river.  The conference provides a shuttle bus each morning, but I was ready early this morning and decided to take an Uber.  My driver, Lee, was friendly and safe and she got me to the Gaylord.  She did miss an exit along the way which required us to travel an extra mile and do a U-turn to get back on track.  Now, in her defense, she did need to navigate the spaghetti maze of highways and ramps shown in the photo.  She knew immediately when she missed the turn and said, "I'm sorry.  I knew I should have turned there, but I was reading the signs and they didn't match."  Luckily, I have a growth mindset, a polite disposition and I was not in a hurry.  Also, the exact same thing happened to me in an Uber with a different driver three days ago.

This is the new world.  Anyone can be a part-time taxi driver.  This new world requires a comfort with mistakes.  It requires the ability to respond to mistakes with civility.  It requires the ability to respond to feedback and know how to fix mistakes, problem solve and think critically. It requires people to interact, apologize, empathize and treat others with kindness.  It requires social and emotional intelligence, a growth mindset and resilience.   More people are doing more things that are new to them.

You could argue that those skills have always been important long before they were packaged as 21st Century Skills.  But the industrial age of the 19th and 20th centuries diminished the frequency of their use.  People were often trained to do low-level manual tasks early in their careers and then continue doing those for a lifetime.  If they encountered any problem solving or critical thinking it was early in the process and once they figured it out they seldom encountered different circumstances in which to apply those skills.  Teaching others and learning from others was relegated to schools, not the "real" world.  On the social/emotional front it was always important to be polite and perhaps even cooperative, but true collaboration didn't occur all that much.  You learned how to treat other people from your parents, siblings, church, scouts, and sports teams.  Not math class.

So what?  Now what?  What are we going to do about the gap between the new world and schools?  How are we preparing students for this new world?  What assurances will we have that they have the skills they need?  And, by the way, they are here now.  The children are not our future.  The children are here now.  Living lives.  Wanting to be part of society.  Wanting to contribute.  Let's not make them wait.

How are schools acting for impact?  That is the question posed at this year's Model School's Conference.  They have provided many examples, many strategies and much inspiration.  The answer to that question is now up to each of us. 

Monday, June 24, 2019

Time to get specific about relationships

The openomg keynote speaker, Weston Kieschnick, spoke about the importance of teacher-student relationships.  Strategies and tools are well known and documented and can be provided to any teacher.  But, he pointed out, we are often vague when we speak about the character traits master teachers possess that enables them to connect deeply with kids.  He connected 12 specific items from John Hattie's work and presented this slide.  Each item is shown with its effect size and he backed each up with a vignette that illustrated how a teacher has used this to build a relationship.  Very specific.

Wes is a motivational and moving speaker.   I enjoyed his anecdotes and much of what he said resonated with me.  He also used the word rigor.  "Rigor. Relevance, Relationships."  Not sure how I feel about using that word in reference to learning.  Perhaps it has lost some of its dictionary meaning?   Is it possible that the word rigor can refer to "challenging, joyful learning" instead of drudgery and misery that the original word conveyed?

Sunday, June 23, 2019

A Culture Focused on Learning

I attended the pre-conference session titled "Leading a Culture Focused on Learning".  It was facilitated by Bill Daggett, the founder and chairman of the International Center for Educational Leadership (ICLE - the host of this conference).  Anthony Colannino, a recently named Senior Fellow at ICLE co-facilitated.

Much was packed into this four hour session.  They walked us through the reasons why we must examine, question and ultimately change the way schooling has been done for 150 years.  They found that schools who are succeeding in innovation are those that are future focused, student centered and growth oriented.  They organized these in three handy contrasts.

  1. Future focused vs forward focused.  
    1. Envisioning the needs of the future, regardless of what has been done in the past.
    2. Forward focused schools extrapolate from the now. They continue to add to existing programs and practices rather than invent new ways of doing things.
  2. Student centered vs content centered.
    1. Identifying the needs of students.  SEL, interdisciplinary, relevant, personalized, quadrants B & D.
    2. Content focused schools operate in what he calls quadrants A & C.  (knowledge based)
  3. Growth oriented vs proficiency oriented.  
    1. Based on Carol Dweck's work with Growth Mindset
    2. Proficiency based models force all students to learn the same things at the same time.

The SEL and interdisciplinary aspects of contemporary learning resonates with me, as does the understanding of the origin of the 19th century schooling model and its shortcomings in addressing today's learning needs.

I did notice how often the terms "rigor" and "rigorous" were used.  Indeed, it is one of the conferences tag lines and in the title of one of Bill's books.  (Relevance and Rigor)  I have always taken exception to that term being used to describe learning, which I believe should be joyous, relevant, engaging, thought provoking, challenging and at times, difficult.  But the dictionary definition of rigor is too strong and is often used in contexts of undesirable and traumatic experiences.  On the other hand, I do understand its connotation in education, even if it is distasteful to me.

Let The Year of Learning Dangerously begin!

Attending the Model Schools Conference 2019 in Washington, D.C..   Lots of schools already doing lots of things to move education forward.  I have mixed feelings of hope and despair.  Hope that many people share my desire to change schools.  Hope because many teachers, administrators and boards are making decisions and incremental changes on the micro level.   Despair because it feels like a monumental task.  Despair because large scale change will depend on legislative support which in today's political climate seems impossible.

Looking forward to learning from those in the trenches over the next few days.