Different doesn’t mean wrong. Sometimes different is what we need.

From Will Richardson’s post Zen and the Art of School Change:

And the idea that schools (meaning the people in them) do this for “the perpetuation of their own functions” is absolutely true. If we truly were to move agency over learning to the learner and hew to the truths about learning, our functions would radically, fundamentally change. Teacher wouldn’t be teacher. The architectures of schooling would be seen as barriers to learning, not as paths to efficiency. The narrative would have to be completely rewritten. But the reality is we’d rather be “better” than “different” because the former doesn’t require huge change.

It’s that last line that resonates with me.  In my job, it’s all about better scores, better instruction, better strategies, better curriculum.

But when I suggest things in classrooms need to be different for them to be better, I am often met with resistance.  That’s because there’s a huge mindset shift with different.  There’s the realization that things need to be totally redone with different.  There’s the idea that different means a lot more work.

But that different work is in the direction of what’s better for kids.  And that’s why we’re in education, isn’t it?

Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Sometimes it’s just the idea we need to stop doing the same things and expecting different results.

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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.

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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Doing nothing is risky, too.

Our staff aren’t ready for that new technology.  We should wait on that.

The community isn’t going to like it; we should wait.

That teacher is about to retire; there’s nothing we can do to help them improve.

The change we want to enact may make people upset because it’s so different from what has been done traditionally; we can’t take the risk.

Well, doing nothing has it’s own risk.  By doing nothing you risk falling behind, going stale, honoring tradition over what’s right for students, and risk not giving students the needed skills they need to be successful in their world…which, we have to remember, isn’t our world.

We have to move forward, or risk becoming victims of our own inertia.

We’re not brave enough

A quote from Will Richardson’s recent blog post:

The workplace is transforming, and I don’t use that word lightly. But in education, we’re still happy to just adopt and trumpet “innovations” that at the end of the day change little because we haven’t been brave enough to do what we all know is best for powerful and deep learning (not schooling) to take place in classrooms, and because we’re loathe to keep up with and embrace the difficult new contexts of life and work that our kids are facing.

Lone educational nuts of the world unite…and be brave.  Effect meaningful innovation and change that really matters for kids, no matter how many crazy eyes you get from people.