Help students make connections. 

A chemistry teacher at our high school allowed me into her classroom to model how to use concept mapping with students. Today was the first day of the second semester, so we chose to work on some concepts that students weren’t getting as shown by their final exams. After showing them an example of a concept map, students were asked to make a concept map out of the chosen words in poster paper, give feedback on other students’ maps, and then provide evidence that they knew the connections between them. 

Here’s why concept maps are so awesome:

1. They help students practice making connections. Connections are how the brain remembers things. Too often we give notes and expect students to magically make connections when they’ve never actually had practice in doing so. Concept maps give students time to work on the “making connections” skill, especially when students must label he lines between words with why they are connecting those words. 

2. They allow for students to make meaning in their own way. There’s never one right answer to a concept map-only better connections than others. Getting students to recognize and discuss the difference between shallow and deep connections after making and looking at other students’ maps is a powerful thing. A word of caution – if you always hand out black line masters of concept maps for students to fill in, they’re not making meaning; they’re just filling in another worksheet. 

3. They give students a visual of their own understanding. Making the map itself can be a visual hook for remembering and connecting during later learning. 

4. They are an excellent assessment tool-both formative and summative. Walk around while students are making their maps, and it’s a great way to get a read on what students really understand. You can see if they are making surface or deep connections, or if they’re stuck making connections at all. I used to make students make concept maps for final exams to see if they really saw how everything we had studied was related. They are also useful pre-assessments, where you can ask students to connect critical vocabulary before instruction to see what they already know. 

Concept maps are a fantastic tool to put in students’ meaning-making toolbox. We need to use strategies like this to help students practice the skills they really need to be life-long learners. 

The formula for failure.

This year we’ve been pushing a bit in new directions for staff while really trying to support them as we go along.  Just a little reminder as I begin planning for the week ahead, thinking about specific professional development opportunities taking place that will continue to challenge the status quo.

While everyone may not agree or be happy, I don’t think we can forget that if we’re moving in a direction that’s good for kids and they’re learning, we’re going the right way.


Challenge all students.

One of the many things we’re working on at our district is the implementation of a program for students who are identified as academically talented (gifted).  While we have a vision for what we want the program to look like, we still decided to reach out to other districts with gifted programs in order to see if we could come take a peek at their program’s structure and instruction.  One nearby district graciously allowed us to come and see what they did at grades 3-5, allowing us to see their 3rd grade honors program and their magnet school (school within a school) at grades 4 and 5.

We saw some pretty awesome things – instruction was steeped in inquiry and problem-solving, with the expectation that students learn cooperatively but learn to be independent, and metacognition and the habits of mind were more than just posters on a wall.  They were infused into assignments and discussions.


Not once did we see lectures and the old “advanced kids get more stuff faster.”  Teachers were never the end-all and be-all of the classroom.  Kids were asked to do all the mental heavy lifting, integrating technology, with students told to “figure it out” with the resources posted in Canvas for them.  And it was obvious that the students were used this way of doing school, because they eagerly dug in, explored, and figured stuff out on their own and with each other.


It really seemed that the program embodied the motto I saw on every teacher’s classroom wall: “Home for your mind.”


I absolutely loved what I saw.  Real learning was the rule, not the exception.

But as someone who has taught AP and advanced classes and “basic” classes and team-taught classes and regular classes…the question that kept traipsing across my mind on the drive home from this visit was this:

Should this type of learning environment just be reserved for gifted students?

I didn’t get a chance to see the non-gifted classrooms in the building, so I can’t speak to the instruction that was going on in those rooms. But I ask that question above because, in too many schools, what I saw in those classrooms is usually only reserved for those gifted students, because people feel only “those” students can “handle it.” In my opinion, that kind of thinking devalues and underestimates the students who aren’t identified for those specialized programs.  That type of learning will work for all students, although it may involve a lot of reprogramming and practice and time and patience on the part of both students and teachers.

Because we’re supposed to be challenging all students, aren’t we?  And I mean “challenge” in the current best practice-real learning sense, not the “memorizing more stuff that won’t be used after the current grade level/class” challenge of old.


Proactive paranoia and not taking it personally

I’m currently reading the following book:

This is a very real look at how administrators need to have a “proactive paranoia” in order to deal with people that may seek to tear them down. I have to say I’ve developed a certain level of paranoia just reading the first four chapters, which detail ten adversarial tactics used by people and give real examples of bad things that have happened to administrators. 

I’ve worked in an extremely toxic environment before, and my main mistake is taking it personally and then trying to convince and reason my way back into harmony. What I need to remember is this quote from the book:

“Understanding that their behavior is about them-and not about you-will help determine what is in your control and what is out of your control.”

More goodness as I work my way through the book. 

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


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.

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.