What do students REALLY need to learn?

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“By leveraging their passions during the school day, we can give students more opportunities to connect what they are studying with the real-world issues they care about. That’s how students will define innovation on their own terms, as something that will enable them to shape their future. In the long run, engaging student passion may be our best strategy for bringing innovation to school.” – Suzie Boss, Bringing Innovation to Schools

In a digital learning landscape, student passion lies at  the heart of of the disruption we are beginning to see in truly innovative schools. Many educators are seeking ways to develop student innovators within the frameworks of the traditional school structures. Initiatives such as introducing technologies can give students more tools with which to create and problem-solve. Seeking out authentic audiences and providing real-world problems to investigate provides powerful motivation for students to produce quality work.

Educators have been working to become effective facilitators of learning, or “the guide on the side” for over a decade now. Yet, it seems we still need to tackle the core issue of information overload. The standards movement has been working to define what each student needs to know since the 1980s. Since that time, knowledge has continued to grow exponentially. If mastery of a defined content – a core component of schooling in the past – is still relevant today, how do we select what students should learn once they have mastered the fundamentals of literacy and mathematics?  

What should learners know when they have access to all the world’s information at their fingertips?  If we are honest with ourselves and truly mean it when we say that learning should be student-centred, the answer to this question is inevitable:

Whatever they want.

Throw Away the Map!

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“YOU THREW AWAY THE MAP!”, is the terrifying pronouncement that leads to the demise of three young, guileless campers in The Blair Witch Project. Without the map, they despaired of finding their way out of the dark and scary woods. Fortunately for us, that film is from 1999, and in the 21st century, as Seth Godin notes, the map has been replaced by a new compass.

It is time to disrupt schooling as we know it. Yet many educational leaders are looking for the mythical Map to Transformation that will provide the steps necessary and outline a clear path to future learning. This Map is reminiscent of the strategic technology plans of our recent past, which clearly outlined “what needs to be done” over three, five and sometimes even ten year years. We had such confidence in those documents; encoded pathways to a secure, successful future.

In this period of rapid change, educational leaders can no longer rely on a map, but must instead set their compasses towards a compelling vision of schooling that is more authentic, student-centered,collaborative and creative. Technology propels us towards an ever-changing, open landscape. Like explorers before us, we must chart the course and constantly recalibrate and adjust as we go.

Luckily, educational leaders do have some things they can rely on during this time of transformation. Schools with cultures that embrace change, support teacher leadership, and develop shared vision can move forward, tentatively at first, and then with bolder steps towards a transformed learning environment. The compass adjusts to each step we take, hopefully, bringing the destination closer. Those waiting for a step-by-step map, will be increasingly left behind. Those venturing to a different future do so with the interests of students at the heart of all they do, confident in the knowledge that the 100 year old status quo will no longer suffice. Only by keeping the compass steady, will we make it through the woods. This is the moral compass that obligates us to do what’s best for students.

Digital Presence vs Digital Citzenship

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“Let’s not let students leave school in isolation, with only Friday on their minds. Let’s ensure they are well connected, independent, and empowered to learn anywhere, anytime.”Paul Moss

“Connected, independent and empowered” learners should be the aspiration for all students and every educator. As schools strive to provide students with greater agency over their learning, online connections become increasingly important. Students following their passions must connect with others who share that passion as well as experts in the field. The expertise teachers now need, is to help students locate, connect and contribute to online communities that can support them as they learn.

As we explore this learning model with our students, we quickly find the conversation about online collaboration shifting away from one of Digital Citizenship to one of Digital Presence. Digital Citizenship focuses on a set of rules and obligations that all responsible users adhere to. While students certainly need to be aware of ethical online behavior, some of the traditional rules of Digital Citizenship are actually counterproductive to developing a Personal Learning Network. Should students not tweet questions to political figures or university professors or researchers? Can they genuinely engage with other learners online if they do not share at least some personal information?

According to George Couros, “as kids, we were continuously told “don’t talk to strangers”, and this generation has been told the same thing. Times have changed and we have to really rethink this notion.” For Couros, our obligation is clear: “If we let our notion of what a “stranger” is and decide not to connect with these people, we are taking away tremendous opportunities from our students.  Instead of the idea that we “shouldn’t talk to strangers”, maybe we need to focus on Bill Nye’s notion that “everyone you meet knows something you don’t” and teach our students how to be safe in a world that is powerfully connected.”

We need to help our students understand how to manage the power of social media and in that process to curate and cultivate the digital presence they want. If we neglect this crucial role, we will fail to create the connected, independent and empowered learners we aspire to.

Notes

Paul Moss, “Why Learning Through Social Networks is the Future.” Teachthought, November 26, 2013.

George Couros, Myths of Technology Series: “Don’t Talk To Strangers”. The Principal of Change, April 4, 2014.

Image courtesy of William Iven at https://unsplash.com/@firmbee

Digital Drugs and Petrified Parents

A thoughtful contribution to the ongoing “technology is scary” debate.

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“She found him sitting up in his bed staring wide-eyed, his bloodshot eyes looking into the distance as his glowing iPad lay next to him. He seemed to be in a trance. …. Distraught, she could not understand how her once-healthy and happy little boy had become so addicted to the game that he wound up in a catatonic stupor.” – Nicholas Kardaras

I routinely receive questions from parents about our learning approaches and environment. On occasion, these questions are about technology and our commitment to providing a tech-rich learning environment. One such communication I received at the start of this school year raised some reasonable questions. The tone of the communication was thoughtful, honest, and constructive. The concerns included:

  • Worry about the open internet access available on the laptop we provide
  • A strong conviction that the internet is not good for young people
  • A desire for the school to…

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4 Keys to Making Disruption Happen

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“Learning is clearly the best immunization for the disruptiveness associated with change, and the changes of the 21st century can only be embraced with a genuine disposition to permanently learn.” – Gabriel Rshaid

The case for change in schools is compelling. Most thoughtful educational leaders have moved beyond the “why” conversation to the “how” of school reform. This, of course, is a much more complex discussion. Schools and communities approach this task from a variety of starting places, dependent on context. Regardless of the starting point, any successful change process contains some core truths. At  my school, our process of moving beyond disruption has been the impetus for several significant changes in recent years. Each change process had some common principles embedded. Below are the 4 tenets that have guided much of our change management thinking.

Learning Before Leading
As Rshaid states, permanent learning is the only way to handle disruption, and educators are no exception to this. We now have access to a vast array of resources; including research studies, blog posts, connections to like-minded professionals grappling with similar issues. We must embrace the type of learning we want our students to engage in. This is not to say that educators must have all the answers as they embark on change, far from it. But leaders must model the learning they want to see in others and empower their teachers to demonstrate independent, modern learning habits themselves, too.

Conversations, Conversations, Conversations
Disruption is unsettling for many. Teachers, parents, and students need to be provided with a clear understanding of how change is going to improve student learning. Parents must be allowed to ask questions, and not be seen as problematic or challenging when they do so. The dialectic of open, honest conversations is how change really happens and how ideas are improved. Teachers need opportunities to express their thoughts, and talk through the proposed change. A collaborative and supportive culture is essential to these conversations.

Students First, All the Time
Change is messy, complex and, at times, frustrating. What students need to be successful learners is clear. Keeping student learning at the center of all decisions maintains focus and momentum. In conversations with uncertain community members, putting students first gives all participants a common starting point. There are very few teachers in the profession – and none that I work with – who do not want to do what is in the best interest of students.

Be Comfortable With Uncertainty
Navigating disruption is not a straight path. Forward movement is often slow, and usually not steady. Some plans will work beyond expectation, some will not, for reasons not immediately apparent. Often, the next step is not readily apparent. Not all educators are at ease with this. In the old learning paradigm, things were certain. Teachers owned, delivered, and assessed  learning. As we transform classrooms to communities of learners, some teachers will struggle with lack of control and the desire for bygone certainties. The same is true as schools embark on a transformational path.

Change management is an iterative process. Disrupting schools to meet the learning needs of our rapidly-changing world is challenging, rewarding, and difficult work. We may not always be certain of the way forward, but standing still is not an option. To disrupt is to think anew. Educators must go forth boldly in new directions, embracing challenges and opportunities. Our students and our times demand it of us.

Image credit @bryanMMathers via Visual Thinkery.

Authentic Learning is Uncomfortable

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“Social science studies show people often feel the disruption or mess is getting in the way of their ability to complete the task, while in reality, their discomfort is actually helping them reach higher.” Tim Harford  

It is a time of great opportunity and challenge for schools. In many schools, leaders are embracing the need to rethink all aspects of education in an effort to equip students for the world they live in. In our middle school, we are in a process of disrupting education. As I have documented a bit on this blog, in recent years, we have radically rebuilt our assessment system,  implemented a 1:1 laptop program, adopted Google Apps For Education, built a Makerspace, and, next year, we will launch a new block schedule that has a daily Personal Learning block for all students, coupled with a stronger commitment to the Arts, Creativity and Design. Each change has begun with intensive reading: books, blogs, and academic articles, followed by critical questioning of our current practices. We articulate where we want to go, and then engage in the complex process of getting there. We invite all faculty voices into the conversation and encourage teachers to take the lead on new ideas.

This process, like any learning we would want for our students, is messy, iterative and complex. We are often required to challenge deeply-held practices, and reimagine traditionally successful ways of doing things. Sometimes the obstacles seem insurmountable. Occasionally it appears as if we will need to compromise student needs for contextual, cultural or systemic realities. Now and again conversations become heated.  Somehow, we manage to find solutions we hadn’t previously envisioned as possible, because of dogged determination. Harford is spot on when he talks about the discomfort aspect of disruption, and sometimes it can feel downright painful.


There is a school of thought that suggests that professional collaboration should be carefully structured and abide by certain conventions. Truth be told, however, in the intensity of these messy conversations, such considerations must take a back seat to the centrality of doing what’s best for students. This does not mean that our conversations are not respectful, but we prefer the dissonance of challenging conversations to the sometimes contrived collegiality of being nice to each other. We share candid opinions of one another’s ideas, we interrupt each other, we freely offer our perspectives. Attempting to adhere to a list of conversational rules, would actually inhibit our conversations. If we consume energy monitoring the ways we interact, we sacrifice the authenticity of that collaboration. As we try to avoid making each other uncomfortable, we miss the discomfort of reaching our highest level of work.

There are no norms for disruption. The messiness, the discomfort, that’s where breakthrough happens.

Image credit @bryanMMathers via Visual Thinkery.

Disrupting Learning, One Day at a Time

 

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Client waiting for his 3-D printed hand to be assembled.

We recently disrupted our school schedule so that our students could build hands for kids who were born without them. Three of these children and their families were there to show our students the profound impact of this most authentic work.

Two of our teachers heard about a group called Enabling the Future from another group of teachers at a workshop, on a totally different topic. This organization asks individuals with 3D printers to volunteer to print hands for people in need. This is a grassroots movement, started by one woman in the United States. Like most powerful, grassroots social innovations, Enable now has worldwide chapters. Through the website, our teachers got in contact with Thierry Oquidam, from E-Nable France. His passion for the project led him to offer to work with our students. We built a prototype, sent it to Enable, made several adjustments to materials, strength, and design before our work was accepted into the program. We then printed pieces for twenty hands, in a variety of colors. Forty students from our Student Council met Thierry and the families, and spent a day of school assembling twenty prosthetic hands. For everyone involved, it was an incredible, empowering learning  opportunity and life experience.

That’s the short story. Of course, in the background, were countless hours of preparation and logistics.  The result was unequivocally impressive. But this is not my take-away. As Assistant Principal, I greatly appreciate this learning day for our students and I see it as something much more than a one-day event. The process that led us to this day reflects the type of learning we would like for our students everyday.

Through a series of connections, our students are now part of a global community working to make a difference at a local level. The task is as authentic and relevant as they come. Perhaps one of those students will be inspired to build prosthetic limbs in the future, to study birth defects, or to become an inventor. It was exactly the type of learning that should be happening in a modern school. It was a day beyond disruption. One day can become two. Two days can become three. This kind of learning can and should become everyday.

Why Education is at a Crossroads

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Fair Isn’t Alway Equal” is the title of one of Rick Wormeli’s books on assessment and differentiation, and the phrase continues to resonate as a potential, guiding principle for schools attempting to embrace more personal approaches to learning.

For many years now, teachers have been differentiating within the classroom; adjusting materials, pacing, lesson structures  and assessments to meet the needs of the wide range of learners in our classrooms. Research supports the widely-held belief that this approach, done thoughtfully and well, benefits all learners. Today technology opens up access to an unprecedented wealth of information, allowing educators the potential to teach students how to critically evaluate information, identify problems, and connect to a community of experts in a bid to develop solutions. In this environment, it is possible for students to study whatever topics interest them, at a level appropriate to their specific learning needs. In this way, perhaps for the first time, schools can begin to make learning truly personal for students.

At the same time, we have learned from Carol Dweck and others that students who have a growth mindset characterized by resilience and persistence have the potential to learn whatever they possess the determination to. As Dweck puts it, “No matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.”   Educators strive to build student tenacity and grit – characteristics key to success in a complex and changing world – and actively encourage them to embrace and learn from failure.

How can we reconcile what we know, with traditional systems that continue to act as gatekeepers to higher level content via test scores? There is another way, another mindset. We are now in a transition period, and many of our educational structures, including college admissions, have not yet begun to adapt to the modern reality of learning in the digital age. K-12 schools that are moving forward, are struggling at the crossroads, as are many students, teachers and parents.

For example, mathematics has long been used as a gatekeeper subject. Students who have the ability to succeed in higher level mathematics in high school, are granted access to a wider set of university program options. Often, whether a student will be permitted to take higher mathematics or not is decided in middle school, or at the start of high school. Of course, not all students want or need advanced math courses, despite what their parents might believe. But what can we do for that student who has, for example, a passion for architecture, and needs higher-level math for university, but has not been highly successful in the past in this subject? Traditionally, these students have been denied access to those courses, and expected to develop other, often less ambitious or fulfilling, career aspirations. What can we do about the student who has the passion and mindset to study architecture in a world of abundant knowledge and limited access? How can we reconcile this system with passion-based learning?

Universities have started looking for new ways to differentiate among the number of “top” students that apply to them. In the US, the Coalition for Access is launching a common application that has a digital portfolio component. In the UK, students who are granted interviews at places like Oxford and Cambridge are expected to demonstrate their passion for their intended area of study. There are signs that the system is slowly starting to respond.

When Scott McLeod came to our school to work with our community this year, a colleague asked him, “How can we teach like this, when we need to prepare students for external exams?” His response: “We need to decide what kind of school we are preparing our students for, the exam or their futures.” The challenges schools face are complex, and, at times, it appears easier to surrender to the understandable demands of parents and the regulations imposed from outside organizations than it is to confront the profound choice that McLeod articulates.

There are no simple answers to this challenge, but we need to have this debate. A new report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education outlines some possible solutions, including valuing a variety of ways for students to contribute to their communities that emphasize the importance of authenticity. We have a moral obligation to remain true to our students as we navigate the emerging path to new, more authentic education for all students. Have we any other real choice?

Image credit @bryanMMathers via Visual Thinkery.

Unencumbered Learning: Inspiration, not Documentation

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“Today, we have the capability to give every child the tools, materials, and context to achieve their potential, unencumbered by the limited imaginations of today’s education policy makers. There are multiple pathways to learning what we have always taught, and things to do that were unimaginable just a few years ago.”
– Sylvia Libow Martinez & Gary Stager, Invent to Learn

If you ask teachers why they teach, most will express a profound sense of purpose to connect with and inspire students to reach their potential; to give them the self-confidence and skills necessary to lead happy, successful lives. Teachers become teachers because they believe they can have an impact on the future of young people. Often, educators cite the impact of a teacher in their own lives as the key factor in their decision to join the profession. Clearly, teachers have noble goals for their professional careers. They want to inspire and, in turn, to be inspired.

Yet, in schools, all too often, the way we discuss learning and growth is mired in the language of certainty, measurability and accountability. We ask teachers to document learning, to implement curriculum standards, to analyse testing data. Where does this focus on certainty come from? As we prepare our students for an unknown future, we need to find ways to inspire creativity, encourage exploration, and embrace uncertainty. Teachers focused on strict unit and lesson planning protocols may find their own joy for learning constrained in the process. That is not to say that planning, goals and standards do not have their place in schools. However, if that is the dominant conversation we are having, do we not rob both our students and teachers of their potential, of the nobility of the learning process?

Granted, most schools have mission and vision statements that are intended to outline their overall purpose.  Yet many of those contain statements about “lifelong learners” and “global citizens” that are not clearly defined, and do not reflect the exciting opportunities emerging technologies offer for learners. In the past, vision statements were crafted to define a future direction. How is this possible in our current, rapidly changing world? How do we define the future of learning with certainty? Why must it be prescriptive?

As David Perkins noted in Futurewise: “What’s worth learning?” is an impossible question if we want the perfect answer. We are indeed educating for the unknown. But with some thoughtful criteria and a sense of mission, we can grope smart.”

Some people may crave certainty and clear direction, but this is the precise quality that can rob us of our creativity. Modern school leaders are challenged with the task of building a culture that leverages learning purpose in a manner that enables ambitious, noble teachers to leverage and harness the enormous potential of new technology tools. As leaders, we need to use language that captures the excitement of the dynamic changes happening in our world, language that encourages and inspires teachers to take risks.  We need to unleash teacher creativity so they can do the same for their students.  Ed Catmull, in Creativity Inc. sums up the leader’s role:

Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear. Doing all these things won’t necessarily make the job of managing a creative culture easier. But ease isn’t the goal; excellence is.

This is where the teacher’s career began. Isn’t excellence everyone’s goal?
Image source: http://www.okbu.edu/assets/images/content/legacy/obu_inspiration_web.jpg

Managers Do Not Take Risks. Leaders Do.

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With 3D printers whirring in the background and the smell of laser-cut wood fresh in the air, a group of dedicated  teachers and students sat at a workstation to write a mantra for our Makerspace. Inspired by a process documented by Kevin Jarrett, the task took us only 20 minutes. My first thought was that we had defied the “rules” of change management.  Looking back now, however, I began to understand that change is not something that necessarily follows a linear process.

“You didn’t really have a plan for your Makerspace, did you?” a colleague said to me a few months ago. Conventional wisdom suggests that technology planning needs to begin with a vision of what the learning outcomes will look like. The vision development process must have input from, and be shared with, all the key stakeholders in the community. “Begin with the end in mind” is the oft-repeated key for success. It is not unusual to hear school leaders say that they can’t move forward until they have a clear vision and path defined. While knowing exactly where you are headed is ideal, I suspect it is becoming increasingly impossible in today’s dynamic world. The certainty of long range planning seems a thing of the past.  As David Price has remarked, “We know only two things for certain. The first is that we should learn to embrace uncertainty…. The second is that if all the old certainties are gone, then we have to be open to radical shifts in how we work, live and learn.”

Last year, as we started planning for a new Design Studio for our middle school, we knew that there were tools our students could use to make, design, create and prototype; we knew that we wanted creators, not consumers, and I suppose that was largely the extent of the initial vision we had. We were not certain how these machines  worked, or what students would do with them, but we knew if we got those tools into the hands of students and teachers, something great would happen. Our ultimate ambition was to create opportunities for our students and teachers and to empower them to take advantage of this potential. We spent a great deal of time researching 3D printers, laser cutters, vinyl printers. We read voraciously, attended conferences, connected with experts in our PLN. Perhaps, more than anything, we had endless conversations with colleagues about the potential of our somewhat raw vision. We assembled a team that included teachers from the art, mathematics, science, theatre and technology departments.  The team visited several fab labs in our city, had some basic training, made key local connections, asked for a lot of advice.  Even after this preparation, we all agreed that we would not really know what would happen until we were fully immersed in it. But the team had some critical ingredients: enthusiasm, energy, a huge sense of fun, a major desire to do awesome things for our students, and a massive desire to learn and take risks. At our school, we call this culture.

We secured the support of our Board, we brought in some alumni to help us design the studio: the space became a reality. We bought the machines, and slowly learned how to use each one, teachers and students learning together. The team connected with other makers on Instructables to find ideas for projects, and then contributed their own ideas to the maker community. We made mistakes, we laughed, and we learned. The lab has been running for seven months now, and we wrote the mantra three days ago. In just 20 minutes our vision was clear and, for the first time, defined. It struck me that we were recording the results of a learning process that was messy, but ultimately rewarding in a studio that would not exist for those who insist on knowing all the answers before beginning an ambitious project.

Some might argue that that we really should have established the vision first, that we got lucky. I believe we had a critical component in place that was more important than vision – a culture of learning, of collaboration, of taking risks, of doing the right thing for students. Wanting to know all the answers before embarking on change is the domain of managers, not leaders.The difference, according to Tony Wagner, is this: “Managers do not take risks. Leaders do. They model the behaviors of learning, collaboration, effective teaching, and risk-taking that they expect of their teachers.”

There is no denying that vision plays an important role in leadership. Our mantra now proclaims the kind of learners we want our students and teachers to be. It is a mantra not just for our Design Studio, but for our school. Ironically, it articulates the very journey we took in establishing our program this year. We were able to get there, because the culture of the school supported the type of learning, discovery and risk-taking needed to make the transformational changes our digital world demands. As educators, we need to model the kind of learning we want for our students. If we wait to know all the answers, we will be left with only questions.

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