Changing mindsets = unlearning

I was in a meeting recently where we were discussing some procedural changes that needed to be made across the district regarding behavioral supports for students. These changes would also need an accompanying change in mindset on the part of classroom teachers, which was acknowledged during the meeting by several attendees.  And then someone asked this question:

“How can we change their mindset?”

In my experience, there’s two ways organizations such as schools usually go about that:

  1. Convince, convince, convince.  And then try and convince some more.
  2. Force everyone to change their practices in hopes that people will “see the light” after they’ve been implementing the new practices.

I think you’ll get a little change with either of those tactics; I’ve seen both work in various circumstances.  However, I read an HBR article that adds another dimension to changing mindsets/practices:  Unlearning.

Unlearning is not about forgetting. It’s about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm. When we learn, we add new skills or knowledge to what we already know. When we unlearn, we step outside the mental model in order to choose a different one.

Most of the changes schools seek to implement these days, it seems to me, are ones that require unlearning: standards-based grading, flipped classrooms, problem-based learning, student-led learning & classrooms, true student choice and voice, genius hour, etc.  No wonder these changes are so hard to take root in schools; it requires a choice to unlearn what has been drilled into us through our own schooling and teacher prep programs, to accept the loss of what we used to do and to embrace the hard work of doing something different for the simple reason that’s it’s better for students rather than easier for us.

But we have to remember that accepting a new mental model and working towards it is not a linear process.  Unlearning is a messy, nonlinear affair, just like learning is.

So as you begin unlearning, be patient with yourself — it’s not a linear process. Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” In this time of transformative change, we need to be conscious of our mental models and ambidextrous in our thinking.

We cannot help improve student learning through the lens of traditional approaches in education.  It can only come through adopting new mental models, and supporting teachers through the messy unlearning and learning that has to happen for change to occur – changes in student learning along with changes in mindset.

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G+ Communities for Professional Growth

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Our district recently set up Google+ Communities for our staff.  Currently we have two communities set up, one for our PreK through 5th grade staff, and another for our 6th grade through high school staff.

Why did we do this?  Well, for a lot of reasons:

  1. Creating a district culture. There are four buildings in our district – one for PreK-2, one for 3-5, one for 6-8, and one for 9-12.  Even though the buildings are all geographically close (two of them are even connected), ideologically, culturally, and pedagogically, they are sometimes worlds apart.  Creating online communities that combine buildings is an attempt to bring those worlds a little closer together, with staff interacting in an asynchronously so there is no need to carve out time during the school day for that interaction to happen.
  2. Magnifying the positive.  One of my goals is to take the positive that is already there and magnify it, letting it run rampant and causing good wherever it goes.  What better way to do that than creating a space where teachers can share all the good stuff they do in their own classrooms?
  3. Making professional growth the norm.  Along with all that sharing of goodness, Google+ communities within an educational G Suite domain are a private space where teachers can have conversations about what they do in their classrooms and why they do it, providing and/or sparking ideas among all staff.  While developing a PLN of educators around the world is always a fantastic idea, sometimes the best ideas for helping a teacher grow in their practice are locate right next door to their own classroom.
  4. Building relationships in an online space. These G+ Communities allow teachers, principals, and district administrators to engage in dialogue that normally might not happen.  I know I always have every intention of getting out and about into classrooms, but then end up getting pulled back into my office because of some situation that arises.  However, if I’m in front of my computer, I can interact with teachers and other administrators that are posting at any time.  I’m not saying this is a replacement for face-to-face interaction, but I feel it can offer another avenue to build relationships when time is always in short supply.
  5. Modeling technology expectations. Everyone is responsible for growing, and I believe it’s a responsibility of administration to model how to do that.  That means participating in these G+ Communities is a chance for administrators to model what growth in this day and age looks like, posting and discussing and growing out in the digital open.

While the expectation is that all teachers join one of our two communities, there is no expectation to post.  If some feel comfortable posting, fantastic.  If others just want to lurk and get good ideas from their colleagues, that’s great too.  Whatever use they get out of it will be a good one, as long as everyone is growing together.

Because that’s how good district become great – they never ever settle, and never stop growing.

Changing a system we created in the first place.

Is that what we want? Kids who get straight As but hate learning?

The question above is from an excerpt from Jessica Lahey’s book “The Gift of Failure  in this article from The Atlantic poses that very question.

Prefacing that question comes a story about a student names Maureen, whose mother is worried about the fact that her daughter seems to have lost her love of learning.  The author is wondering what to tell this parent, and ultimately decides to tell her the truth.

The truth—for this parent and so many others—is this: Her child has sacrificed her natural curiosity and love of learning at the altar of achievement, and it’s our fault. Marianna’s parents, her teachers, society at large—we are all implicated in this crime against learning. From her first day of school, we pointed her toward that altar and trained her to measure her progress by means of points, scores, and awards. We taught Marianna that her potential is tied to her intellect, and that her intellect is more important than her character. We taught her to come home proudly bearing As, championship trophies, and college acceptances, and we inadvertently taught her that we don’t really care how she obtains them. We taught her to protect her academic and extracurricular perfection at all costs and that it’s better to quit when things get challenging rather than risk marring that perfect record. Above all else, we taught her to fear failure. That fear is what has destroyed her love of learning.

We can’t forget that the students in front of us are products of a system we created.  What we need to focus on now is how to fix that system.  And I don’t mean with surface, structural changes that don’t get to the heart of the problem – that the way we do school to students must change, where we teach less and give more feedback, setting up learning experiences rather than lessons where students can find out what they love.

Those kinds of changes require changes in mindset and a lot of time and effort, not changes in schedules or grading scales or what report cards look like or any other change schools tend to make that doesn’t directly change learning.

There’s no quick fix to this.  But it all boils down to changing a system we created in the first place.

 

Getting better = pressure, but support

“You’re always trying to be better.  You must be exhausted all the time.”

That was something a colleague of mine once said to me as I was starting my journeys into 1:1 learning and standards-based learning (at the same time).  I didn’t realize that “always trying to be better” was what I was doing by constantly trolling Twitter and my feed reader for new ideas and ways to do school a little differently.  It was and is still exhausting, but the payoff is huge – if you can stay in the struggle.

Being in a constant cycle of self-improvement means you’re constantly causing yourself a lot of pain, suffering, self-doubt, and self-reflection, but knowing you and your students will come out the better for it on the other end.  I came across a tweet yesterday that contained a visual map of all this pain and suffering:

The reason I connected with this visual was that everything on here is pretty much what’s coming out of my mouth or rattling around in my brain about something I’m working on at any given time.  I remember being in the dark swamp of despair at around this time of year when I was implementing standards-based learning in my classroom, putting my head down on my teacher desk and just wanting to leave education altogether.  And I would have left if I hadn’t had some timely administrative support when I needed it, yanking me out of that swamp.

Now, as an administrator, I’m looking at this in terms of staff readiness for this type of journey. How many really understand what happens during the journey to something great?

How many of them really understand that mistakes, readjustments, and sometimes outright failure have to happen before greatness can happen?

But that’s one of my jobs, then, isn’t it-to make staff aware of the emotional journey they face when enacting change, that constantly trying to be better sometimes really, really sucks.  But it’s also my job to make sure I’m there to support them in any way possible, just like my administrator did for me the day I wanted to walk out the door and never come back.

Pressure to change for the good of students, but also support-that’s my job.

 

Some “whys” that need honest answers

Why are we still using teaching methods that we know don’t maximize student learning?

Why is what we’re teaching useful for students in their lives – and not just for the next grade level or course in the sequence?

Why are we still reporting student learning in terms of letters that represent how many points students have collected through the semester or year?

Why do we still insist on documenting student learning deficiencies rather than progress they’re making towards mastering a skill or concept?

Why are students still showing up only to watch teachers do their jobs?

Why is surface-level learning still valued by the majority?

Why do we do all the things that we do?  If the answer to that question isn’t deeply honest and truthful, if it’s just “because that’s what we do because that’s what was done to me,” then that answer or any answer that’s really saying that only with different words just isn’t good enough anymore (if it ever was).  It’s an answer that serves the best interests of adults, not students.  It’s not honest – it’s just an easy way out of addressing the real issues.

It’s time we searched for honest answers to questions that matter.

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What teaching less and giving more feedback looks like

My last post talked about teaching less and giving more feedback to produce greater learning in students.  But what does that look like in a classroom?  Well, let’s consider a process built around the idea below, as stated by Dr. Robyn Jackson:

“The person working hardest in the room is the only person learning.”

This isn’t to say that teachers can sit back, relax, and watch their students toil over worksheets or glaze over watching a video all period.  To me, it means two things:

  • Teachers must stop planning lessons centered around what they will be doing in front of students
  • Teachers must start planning lessons centered around what students will do to master learning targets.

It’s this shift in the direction of lesson planning toward students and away from teachers that is a subtle but necessary shift.  To think in terms of student activities oriented toward learning is the vital first step in teaching less.  To teach less, students must be engaged in meaningful tasks that allow them to do the intellectual heavy-lifting instead of watching the teacher do their job all period.

But how does a teacher know what meaningful tasks to give students?  Well, that’s based on the learning targets/outcomes the teacher wants the students to learn.  From standards learning targets are born…and then the assessment that clearly depicts what mastery looks like for students.  The students learning tasks should be selected or designed to get students to master the targets in such a way that is aligned to what’s on the assessment.  To some that’s called “teaching to the test.”  To others it’s called “setting students up for success” and “getting all students to learn the material they’re supposed to learn by helping them clearly see what they have to do and not make learning a guessing game.”

And what about the feedback component?  If you and your students know what mastery looks like by having assessments aligned to learning targets (beginning with the end in mind), everyone is better equipped to give and receive feedback on progress towards mastery – and what it takes to get to mastery.  The whole intent of a formative assessment is to not only inform the teacher of where students are at so instruction can be planned and modified as needed, but also to give information to students about where they’re at with their learning.  The assessment itself is a powerful tool for feedback and learning, if designed in such a way that mastery of a learning target is made clear ahead of time.

But, again, none of the above actually gets down to the nitty-gritty of this “teach less/more feedback” idea – what it looks like in the classroom.  The truth is, it can look like a lot of things:

All of the ideas mentioned above have students at the center of any learning going on, with feedback loops created as needed.  Really, it looks like anything but traditional teacher-centered factory-model education.

So how do teachers get started teaching less and giving more feedback?

The answer is…that depends.  It depends on their students, it depends on the teacher’s level of readiness, it depends on how well the culture of a teacher’s school is developed to allow teachers to take risks and support them in those risky ventures.

But we have to be brave and take the risk.  Because once we put students in the center of learning, amazing things start happening.

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Teach less and give more feedback.

As I was scrolling through my Twitter today, I came across the tweet below:

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I was having a conversation last week with a teacher that is trying to do just that – less teaching, more feedback, to allow for student ownership of learning.  She said the thing that is upsetting her the most about letting students have more control in the classroom is that she has less control – and she doesn’t feel like a “real teacher.”

I told her that real teachers help students learn, and learning doesn’t happen until we stop doing all the talking.  That’s the purpose of school, after all – to help students be learners by having them do the learning.

Our job isn’t to feed students all the information in an easily understandable format so they can repeat it back to us with ease, only to forget it just as easily.  Deep understanding takes time, clear criteria for success, mistakes, do-overs, and clear feedback for students so they can focus their learning efforts.

Learning happens when we stop talking and give students meaningful, rich tasks that foster their own learning development. Teach less. More feedback.