Teaching right answers is not the purpose of school.

A quick thought that was spoken to me today by an educator whom I respect highly:

“If you’re just teaching students how to get the right answer, you’re not teaching them to be good at whatever subject area it is.  You’re just teaching them to be good at school.”

This reminded me of the long-term purpose of school set forth by Wiggins and McTighe :

Learning for understanding requires that curriculum and instruction address three different but interrelated academic goals: helping students (1) acquire important information and skills, (2) make meaning of that content, and (3) effectively transfer their learning to new situations both within school and beyond it.

Our students are stuffed with out-of-context stuff.  Help them learn how to use that stuff.

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.

img_9855

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.

img_9856

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

img_9854

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.

 

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

question-310891_1280

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.

same-thinking

G+ Communities for Professional Growth

screen-shot-2017-01-08-at-9-42-46-am

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.