If it doesn’t look radically different, you’re not really doing it.

I attended a workshop earlier in the year regarding NGSS instruction, and something that was flashed on the presenter’s screen has stuck with me every since:

If instruction doesn’t look radically different, you’re not really doing it.

I think this is true regarding a lot of what’s seen in education today. We think we’re innovating, doing things differently, but we’re really doing the same old things in the same old context using the same thinking we’ve been using for the last 100+ years in education.

“Well, we do that…but we do it this way.”

“We started doing that, but we can’t do a lot of it because of all the content we have to cover.”

“We can only do it this way because our test scores may suffer.”

Test scores will be fine.  Students will learn what they are supposed to learn (and a lot of what’s in content standards they will never need for their lives, anyway).  If we really want to students to do real learning, we have to get beyond the obstacles we think are in our way under the traditional system and starting doing things the way they need to be done for real learning to happen.

And that means doing things radically differently.

 

Confusion for deeper learning

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From John Spencer’s recent post “Should school be more confusing?”, where he quotes Ann Murphy Paul regarding confusion in learning:

“We short-circuit this process of subconscious learning, however, when we rush in too soon with an answer. It’s better to allow that confused, confounded feeling to last a little longer—for two reasons. First, not knowing the single correct way to resolve a problem allows us to explore a wide variety of potential explanations, thereby giving us a deeper and broader sense of the issues involved. Second, the feeling of being confused, of not knowing what’s up, creates a powerful drive to figure it out. We’re motivated to look more deeply, search more vigorously for a solution, and in so doing we see and understand things we would not have, had we simply been handed the answer at the outset.”

As I discussed in a previous post, this is a new mental model for some teachers.  They will have to unlearn the “my job is to make learning easy” model and adopt the “it’s OK if students are confused” model.  The main issue I see with this is that sense of loss that teachers will feel – a loss of feeling needed, a loss of feeling like they are “teaching” if they’re not the ones in the front of the room leading every single minute of class time and marching students through a series of steps and activities that make logical sense to us but where the students are going through the motions, not making connections because all of the thinking has been done for them.

What we have to remember is that learning doesn’t happen when we’re the ones talking at students; students can only learn when they’re doing the work of learning.  And that work involves setting up those confusing mysteries, student dialogue, mistake-making experiences that students have to do and explore.

That work happens outside of the classroom.  Inside the classroom, students are doing the work rather than watching teachers do their jobs, encountering confusion and learning deeper in the process.

It’s a lot of work for both students and teachers – but, again, it’s not supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be worth it.

It’s not supposed to be easy

Yesterday we had the privilege of having Dave Burgess come on out to speak to our staff about engaging students in their learning.  His message was very well-received, a lot of our staff told me afterwards that his ideas and his enthusiasm was just what they needed to re-energize them and their teaching at this bleak wintery time of year.

During his presentation, he said a lot of things that I’m sure resonated with out staff, such as:

“Don’t just teach a lesson – create an experience.”  Experiences make students remember the content and concepts we are teaching students – create experiences around our content standards to help students deeply learn.

“Safe lessons are a recipe for mediocrity.” Taking risks is how you grow and get better – and become amazing rather than stale.  And it’s awesome for your students, too.  You can’t be afraid of taking a risk and trying something new in your classroom to engage students in their own learning.

But the one thing Dave Burgess said that really smacked me where it counts was this:

“It’s not supposed to be easy – it’s supposed to be worth it.”

One thing I found when I was teaching was that whenever I opted for the easier route (usually rationalizing it by saying, “Why reinvent the wheel?”), it was never worth it.  The payoff in student learning was never there.  But when I put in the work outside of class time, planning and often plotting with my colleagues, that’s when I saw a huge return on investment.  Specifically, I think of my attempts at problem-based learning – at first, they were far from perfect, but I kept taking the risk and I think I and my students got better and better as time went along.  And the payoff in learning – and getting students to own their learning and learn how to learn – was entirely worth it.

Any teacher can create amazing and engaging learning for students. You just have to be willing to put in the work and take some risks to create experiences for students rather than lessons. It won’t be easy, but boy will it be worth it.

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If you want to take the excitement out of an innovation, make everyone do it. 

In one of the presentations I gave a few years back about standards-based learning, I used the slide below:


I think you could say something similar applies to innovative ideas and practices that are being implemented by teachers willing to take the risk:

“If you want to take the excitement and passion out of innovation, make everyone do it.”

Have a few teachers implementing new grading practices? Let’s form an implementation plan so everyone is doing it. 

Have a few teachers flipping their classrooms?  Let’s make it a school-wide mandate. 

Have a few teachers implementing new technology tools in their classroom?  Let’s train everyone on those tools and expect to see them in most lessons. 

Just like forcing all students to do the same thing all the time even though they all have different learning needs makes absolutely no sense, neither does making all teachers implement a practice in the name of uniformity and “fairness.”  It’s not that teachers shouldn’t be trying to improve their skills by learning new techniques and practices, but I’m not sure what the long-term staying power of any innovation will be if the impetus originates from above rather than below. 

There is no “standard” student.

When I was in the classroom, every time I treated all of my students as if they were the same, I was inevitably disappointed.

  • Everyone did the same project – some did well, but most turned in work that wasn’t really up to their potential.
  • Everyone took the same test – some did well, some did OK, and some did not at all OK.
  • Everyone took the same notes on the same stuff the same way – some students remembered, others didn’t.
  • Everyone did the same set of problems – some aced them because they already knew how to do it, others didn’t get a single one right.

I was constantly disappointed that not everyone understood, that not everyone reached mastery…that not everyone succeeded.  I was one of “those teachers” that believed all students could learn; I just had to set up the right conditions for them to learn.

And that meant different students get different opportunities, different activities, different assessments, and different stuff. Students don’t all learn at the same rate or the same way, but they all still can learn.  It’s when I started seeing my students as individual learners that I was constantly amazed by what they could do rather than disappointed.

Student don’t come in size “standard.”    We have to stop treating them as if they do.

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Help students be good at life.

Below is a quote from this KQED MindShift article titled “Why Academic Teaching Doesn’t Help Kids Excel in Life:”

Today, I think most kids graduate only knowing if they’re good at school or not. Often our students have many talents; they just don’t fit in our current curriculum because their talents are likely not considered “real knowledge.” And what is that? In the Biology curriculum that I’ve taught for the past several years, one of the objectives that my students need to know is earthworm reproduction. Really? Out of all the things we could be teaching a 17-year-old about biology, someone (a whole panel of someones, we can guess) decided earthworm reproduction was essential?

I am one of 5 siblings, and I am the only one who entered public education as a long-term career.  My brother works in construction, my twin sister works for a major IT company, another sister own her own karate studio, and yet another sister is a police officer.

Not one of them needs or has ever needed to know or use 95% of what I taught my 9th graders when I was teaching high school science.  And I’m pretty sure most of my students didn’t need most of what I taught them either.

So why do we teach what we teach? (Back to those pesky “why” questions…)

Most of what we teach is mandated to us in the form of standards that are mostly what academics need to know.  How we teach that academic stuff most of the time, unfortunately, only teaches students how to be good at school.

We can do better.

At the end of the article, the author (a teacher) suggests a more constructivist approach, with students answering these three questions in her classroom:

  • What are you going to learn?
  • How are you going to learn it?
  • How are you going to show me you’re learning?

Imagine what powerful learning can happen if classrooms were focused around those three questions using mandated standards as a vehicle for this learning.  Imagine the ownership, not only of ideas and concepts, but over the process of learning that can happen in classrooms set up around those three questions.  Imagine how many students will find their passions in life answering these questions (and think about how many of your students found their passions filling out a worksheet or taking a multiple-choice test).

Imagine. Then make it a reality.

Yes, we have to teach certain stuff that students will never ever need or use. But no one says we have to teach it like we’ve been teaching for the past 100+ years or so.  Let’s start teaching so students will be good at life.

 

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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