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Normally, I am not one to write on controversial issues, but there is freedom in the provocative, and the time is now (or yesterday) for action in education. Although this speaks to one state's journey through the massive budget cuts and the looming additional injustices, I think that most educators in the nation have experienced a degree of this. I humbly share my thoughts with legislators considering budgets for next school year and the community of ASCD advocates:
How will your child suffer? We must stop this ridiculous abomination of a proposed budget now. The incessant and continuous hit that education has taken in the last 5 years has been beyond reason. However, this year's proposals fall just shy of criminal. As a voter, a parent of children in the school system and a school principal, I have many perspectives to offer. First, as a voter: We elect officials into office who we believe will stand for the things that we hold close to heart. Public schools are the birthplace of some of the best minds in America. What does it mean to be American? Please ask yourself this, as our elected representative. Americans value critical opinions and diversity but stand united when someone attacks our home or our community. To my esteemed elected officials, I say: We are under attack. Make no mistake... this is a war of interests. We must not let the future of our children and ultimately our country falter to other priorities. We know that you are under pressure to invest in the political interests that got you into office, but we beg you not to sacrifice our children, your children or the future of our great nation in doing so. As a parent: We cannot provide quality schools without adequate funding to do so. Should we settle for mediocrity? Would you settle for mediocrity for your own child? Absolutely not. I want my children to get access to teachers with skills that will challenge their minds and inspire their hearts. Teachers deserve pay worthy of the countless hours they spend planning. Let Principals hold them accountable to that. I want my children to have adequate support in their classes as they are acclimated to the rigor of public schools. Teacher Assistants provide this support. They are educators, advocates and probably teach your child in a center or reading group. I want my child to have access to the equipment, books and materials needed for 21st century learning. As a school principal: Is the public aware that kids in most counties are still using outdated books, so teachers have to develop their own curriculum materials to match the new standards? And what justice do we pay teachers when they do this with a smile on their face and protect our children from the perils of society? We cut their support (TAs), cut their pay (furlough), cut their money for supplies (instructional money), increase their class size (class size waiver elimination), increase their insurance premiums and cut their access to resources and support (district funding going to charter/private schools). Teacher Assistants are not just secretaries for the teacher, and I wonder if the public realizes that. They are instructional assistants... they help your children and grandchildren learn. Also, as a school administrator, one of the ways in which we can provide a duty-free lunch for teachers (which is a state requirement) is through the use of teacher assistants. Similarly, I wonder if the public understands the correlation between effective instruction and the number of students in a class. There is an inverse relationship between time for critical learning and the number of students in a class. This state and this nation is in a dire place of certain demise, if we cannot commit to providing safe, quality schools for our children today, so they can solve nationwide and worldwide problems tomorrow. With the proposed legislation about class size, harsh cuts to public schools (again), elimination of Assistants, sequestration at the federal level, and funneling the leftover pocket change to charter/private schools rather than public schools... I must ask the question... how will your child suffer?
After watching the Jeff Bliss’s, viral video, as well as the remix of it, created to popularize the event even more, I was almost moved to do a reflective post on the subject. After viewing a number of supportive blog posts for the Bliss position I kind of backed off thinking that I was off base in my position. Then I read Why the Jeff Bliss story makes me want to quit by a fellow English teacher.
The end of the academic year has all teachers stressed out. After giving one's all for a year, and having it come to an end, hoping all along for the success of the students, leads one to question much of what had been done during the year, and even why it was done. When I first saw the Bliss video, I saw a kid being asked to leave the class for whatever the reason, and the kid trying to get back at the teacher. The kid began to use an attack that echoed the focus of many educators seeking to reform the system with the same rhetoric. Without knowing anything of the student, I determined he must be active on social media and had an interest in what was being said about the change in education. This was some evidence of intelligence. I also felt that everyone would see this teacher as the “devil teacher” responsible for all the ills of our system. There is probably some accuracy to both of those descriptions but I think neither is a reflection of the whole truth in this situation.
As a retired teacher I encountered many rants from students that I removed from class for disruptive behavior. What is different in this instance is the addition of social media and the educator’s perceived opposition of the position taken by the student. This was further advanced by the teacher's negative responses to the student's critique. All of this recorded and published to the world in You Tube Celebrity.
I was moved by the frustrations of the blogger who feels overwhelmed with the on going blogging, reflection, and discussion in social media about all of the turmoil in education. Much of this is flamed by the mindless, senseless and poorly planned reforms put forth by non-educators. I am not arrogant enough to think only educators can intelligently reform education, but the general feeling among educators is that the reforms are being mandated with very little educator input. That is the most frustrating part to many educators who are being targeted and maligned even by fellow educators. Educators seem to be circling the wagons and shooting to the inside.
Most educators are doing what they have been trained to do, or what is supported by their school’s culture. I hate the fact that so many teachers use the work packets to present material, but that again is what is supported by the system that they must work in. We need to improve our professional development and be open to more relevant teaching methods, employing more relevant tools for learning, as well as more relevant attitudes toward student-centric learning.
My friend and colleague Lisa Nielsen is a great student advocate and passionate education reformer. We have collaborated on a few very popular blog posts. I do not fault her for taking the side of Jeff Bliss in his rant against his teacher. Bliss made a convincing, and passionate speech against an outmoded method of teaching that stymies our system of education every day. I hope Lisa continues to follow her bliss (not the student) in supporting students in education reform. I would only hope that an “us and them” mentality does not dominate the discussion of education. There is no group more in favor of positive education reform than educators. We must keep in mind that educators are also products of the same education system that we seek to reform. They should not be the targets for the reform; they are in fact victims of that system as well. In order to educate our students, we need to first better educate our educators, and continue to educate them as part of their job. To be relevant educators, we need to be relevantly educated. That implies continuous education in a computer-driven, continuously developing culture.
I would hope that this blogger was not discouraged by the reflection and conversation going on about education reform. We need more educators involved in the discussion that has been hijacked by business profiteers and politicians. There is a planned assault on public education. We need more educators adding their voices to the needed change. We need educators to tell other educators that it is okay to give up methods of the past, that are not working in today’s system of education. It is a question of permission, as opposed to confrontation. Educators are all in favor of kids succeeding; it is but a question of how to accomplish that goal. I would encourage this blogger to hang in and continue to speak out.
If the post by this English teacher moved me, others may be moved as well. That is a skill that is not mastered by many and it is a powerful tool for change. We need more educators stepping up and speaking out if we as educators are to take back the discussion that we left to other less qualified people to dominate.
This commentary examines criteria for selecting effective curricula and instructional models in a 21st century world, and also provides eight examples of relatively unknown yet powerful curricula-instructional programs that should be considered for adoption.
In the same way that it is hard to build a building without an architectural blueprint, so too it is hard for a teacher to be effective without strong curricula-instructional frameworks. Curricula/instructional frameworks lay out the goals, methods, strategies, approaches, assessments, and resources needed for successful teaching and learning. The better the framework, the more likely will be the sturdiness of the foundation and the effectiveness of instruction. The more that curricular-instructional models available to teachers are consistent with the goals and practices of the teacher and school, and the needs of students, the more likely it is that teaching will have good results.
Just imagine how an architectural blueprint influences and affects the construction of a building. Building construction based on a poor design may make it difficult to walk from one part of the building to another, make communication among building occupants difficult, make furniture arrangements impossible, make lighting too dark or too light, make the building safe or unsafe. In the same vein, a poorly designed curriculum may lead to too many unclear, vague goals that do not match student needs, include too much to teach, limit “deeper understanding” of a subject, teach the wrong skills, provide few connections between its different parts, have little meaning for learners, foster passive learning, and make alignment of content among teachers and grade levels difficult. When teachers work from poorly designed curricula and instructional frameworks, they have to work very hard to redo the curricular and instructional practices encouraged by these frameworks, and many times powerful learning is difficult if not impossible to create within the given framework.
What are the components of successful curriculum/instructional frameworks for teaching in a 21st century world? Some framework characteristics might include:
Teachers, schools and districts need to regularly review their curricular programs in order to update them and create programs more attuned to this new age that we live in. Ultimately, this will make a huge difference for children in this new age.
The following curricula and instructional models exemplify powerful “21st century” program elements built around many or most these criteria. You are probably unfamiliar with most or all of them. They, and programs like them, should become familiar to educators and achieve greater use throughout the educational community.
NOTE: Many of their descriptions are adapted from the program’s website.
1. LITERACY DEVELOPMENT
SERP-Word Generation for the Middle School
SERP - Word Generation is a research-based, highly motivating “vocabulary” development program for middle school students designed to teach words through language arts, math, science, and social studies classes. The program consists of weekly units, each of which introduces 5 high-utility target words through brief passages describing controversies currently under debate in this country. The paragraphs are intended to help students join ongoing "national conversations" by sparking active examination and discussion of contemporary issues. The target words are relevant to a range of settings and subject areas. The cross-content focus on a small number of words each week will enable students to understand the variety of ways in which words are related, and the multiple exposures to words will provide ample opportunities for deeper understanding.
The Word Generation program is designed to build academic vocabulary, i.e., words that students are likely to encounter in textbooks and on tests, but not in spoken language. Interpret, prohibit, vary, function, and hypothesis are examples. Academic vocabulary includes words that refer to thinking and communicating, like infer and deny, and words that are common across subjects, but hold different meaning depending on the subject, like element and factor. Both types of academic vocabulary are likely to cause problems with comprehension unless students have been taught how to deal with them.
For more information, go to: http://wg.serpmedia.org
For information about other SERP programs in development, go to: http://www.serpinstitute.org/2013/
Other literacy development programs you might want to examine:
Children’s Literacy Initiative (CLI) http://www.cliontheweb.org
Reading and Writing Workshop: http://readingandwritingproject.com/about/overview.html
100 Book Challenge: http://www.americanreading.com/products/100bc/
Touchstones discussion Project: http://www.touchstones.org
Jr Great Books Program:
2. CREATIVE THINKING
Design Thinking is a structured approach to generate and develop new ways to solve difficult problems and challenges. Design Thinking starts with a challenge, and then works through a series of steps to help find creative solutions to the challenge, such as empathy, interpretation, brainstorming and choosing alternatives, building models, and planning for implementation. The process can be used to help solve school challenges or world-wide challenges. It includes learning additional skills such as finding reliable information, developing surveys and questionnaires, and building interview skills. It can be adapted to be used with students at all ages.
Other creative thinking programs you might want to explore:
Creative Problem Solving: http://www.creativeeducationfoundation.org
The Future Problem Solving Program: http://www.fpspi.org
3. POSITIVE ATTITUDES, VALUES, AND COMMUNICATION SKILLS
Champions of Caring: Journey of a Champion Middle and High School Programs
The Journey of a Champion Middle Grades curriculum is a year-long course of study divided into 4 modules. It promotes academic excellence, character development, service-learning and citizenship. The curriculum is a catalyst for encouraging caring, thoughtfulness and good judgment through service and civic participation. Students gain civic engagement skills as they design community and school service projects. Civic skills developed include:
The Journey of a Champion High School Program is a character education and service-learning curriculum for students in grades 9-12. Through this program, students learn how to act as responsible, caring and involved citizens who respect themselves and others and succeed academically.
Journey of a Champion invites students to learn about and reflect on the challenges they and their contemporaries face. It places those challenges in a historical context and leads students to develop strategies and skills that will help them confront those challenges. The journey "destination" is students creating and planning sustainable service and civic participation. The curriculum affects positive change in students by:
For more information, go to: http://www.championsofcaring.org
Other programs to look at:
Second Step: http://www.cfchildren.org/second-step.aspx
4. ECONOMICS AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP
Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE)
Entrepreneurship education is a tool that can equip young people to not only start businesses and create jobs, but also to be opportunity-focused, flexible employees ready to fill existing jobs.
NFTE fosters the creation of entrepreneurship skills, businesses and the development of an adaptable, driven and opportunity-focused workforce that ultimately promotes economic stability. External research has shown that NFTE graduates start and maintain businesses at substantially higher rates than their peers. Other research findings indicate that students develop:
Working with schools in low-income communities where at least 50% of the students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, NFTE targets young people who are at risk of dropping out of school, and helps them graduate with their own personal plans for success. The program, Highly Academic, is a semester or year-long class with a NFTE-certified teacher who guides students through one of the curricula: Entrepreneurship: Owning Your Future or Exploring Careers for the 21st Century. Lessons include the concepts of competitive advantage, ownership, opportunity recognition, marketing, finance, and product development - and all tie back to core math and literacy skills. Lessons include field trips, games and experiential activities. Classes regularly have guest speakers. Students are paired with coaches who help students work on their business plans, and business plan competitions are judges by local entrepreneurs and business people.
Each young person who takes a NFTE class works toward completing a business plan, then goes on to present and defend it in a classroom competition. The winners of these competitions go on to compete in citywide or regional competitions, with the hopes of reaching our annual national competition.
For more information, go to: http://www.nfte.com
Other Economic-Entrepreneurial Programs:
General information about entrepreneurial education programs can be found at: http://www.entre-ed.org
Information about Economic and Financial Education resources can be found at: http://www.councilforeconed.org
5. INQUIRY-BASED SCIENCE
Full Options Science System (FOSS)
Science is an active enterprise, made active by our human capacity to think and “search for the truth”. Scientists value open communication, investigation, and good evidence for drawing conclusions. Scientific knowledge advances when scientists observe objects and events, think about how they relate to what is known, test their ideas in logical ways, and generate explanations that integrate the new information into the established order. Thus the scientific enterprise is both what we know (content) and how we come to know it (process). The best way for students to appreciate the scientific enterprise, learn important scientific concepts, and develop the ability to think critically is to actively construct ideas through their own inquiries, investigations, and analyses.
The FOSS program was created to engage students in these processes as they explore the natural world. FOSS program materials are designed to meet the challenge of providing meaningful science education for all students in diverse American classrooms and to prepare them for life in the 21st century. Development of the FOSS program was, and continues to be, guided by advances in the understanding of how youngsters think and learn.
FOSS K–6 is a complete program consisting of 26 modules for self-contained elementary classrooms. The components exclusive to K–6 are
FOSS Middle School components consist of nine units for students and their teachers in departmental science grades 6–8. Each unit requires 9–12 weeks to teach. The Middle School program includes the following five interconnected components:
Two components that apply to both FOSS K–6 and FOSS Middle School are the FOSS Assessment System and FOSSweb.com.
For more information, go to: http://www.fossweb.com
Other programs to consider:
Active Physics: (high school): http://its-about-time.com/htmls/ap.html
6. CONCEPTUALLY-ORIENTED MATHEMATICS
Cognitively Guided Instruction
Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI) is a professional development program that increases teachers’ understanding of the knowledge that students bring to the math learning process and how they can connect that knowledge with formal concepts and operations. The program is based on the premise that children throughout the elementary grades are capable of learning powerful unifying ideas of mathematics that are the foundation of both arithmetic and algebra. Learning and articulating these ideas enhance children's understanding of arithmetic and provide a foundation for extending their knowledge of arithmetic to the learning of algebra.
CGI is guided by two major ideas. The first is that children bring an intuitive knowledge of mathematics to school with them and that this knowledge should serve as the basis for developing formal mathematics instruction. This idea leads to an emphasis on working with the processes that students use to solve problems. The second key idea is that math instruction should be based on the relationship between computational skills and problem solving, which leads to an emphasis on problem solving in the classroom instead of the repetition of number facts, such as practicing the rules of addition and subtraction.
With the CGI approach, teachers focus on what students know and help them build future understanding based on present knowledge. The program aims to improve children's mathematical skills by increasing teachers' knowledge of students' thinking, by changing teachers' beliefs regarding how children learn, and by ultimately changing teaching practice. In 1996, CGI was extended into the upper elementary school levels to assist first through sixth grade teachers in integrating the major principles of algebra into arithmetic instruction.
There is no set curriculum. Teachers use the CGI framework with existing curriculum materials, or they use CGI principles to help develop their own math curriculum.
For more information, go to: http://www.promisingpractices.net/program.asp?programid=114#programinfo
Other math programs that might be considered:
Project Seed: http://projectseed.org
Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP)(High School): http://mathimp.org/general_info/intro.html
7. SOCIAL STUDIES/CIVICS PROGRAMS
Social Studies School Service
Social Studies School Service offers teachers, K-12, a variety of alternative and unique materials, programs, and curricula for social studies at all levels. The materials have been developed for the many aspects of social studies – government, history, geography, and civics – and often are interdisciplinary, incorporate conceptual understanding, develop research skills, big ideas and essential questions, and use data-based test questions (DBQ’s), performance tasks, and multiple readings. Catalogues of available materials are frequently sent out and shared.
For further information, go to: www.socialstudies.com
Other social studies/civics programs to consider:
Teacher’s Curriculum Institute social studies programs: www.teachtci.com
Center for Civic Education: http://new.civiced.org
Zinn Education: http://zinnedproject.org
A History of US: http://www.joyhakim.com/works.htm
The Choices Program (Middle and High School): http://www.choices.edu
8. STEM (SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, ENGINEERING, MATHEMATICS) PROGRAMS
Engineering is Elementary
EIE consists currently of twenty STEM units designed for the elementary grades. Each EIE unit ties in with an elementary science topic and is meant to be taught either concurrently or after students learn the appropriate science content in life science, earth and space science and physical science areas. Each unit has five “lessons” (lessons can be more than one day).
The units attempt to combine learning in a science area with engineering concepts. Engineering projects integrate other disciplines. Engaging students in hands-on, real-world engineering experiences can enliven math and science and other content areas. Engineering projects can motivate students to learn math and science concepts by illustrating relevant applications. They foster problem-solving skills, including problem formulation, iteration, testing of alternative solutions, and evaluation of data to guide decisions.
Learning about engineering increases students' awareness of and access to scientific and technical careers. The number of American citizens pursuing engineering is decreasing. Early introduction to engineering can encourage many capable students, especially girls and minorities, to consider it as a career and enroll in the necessary science and math courses in high school.
For more information, go to: http://www.eie.org/
Other STEM examples:
Engineer Your World: http://www.engineeryourworld.org (high school)
Project Lead the Way: http://www.pltw.org (high school)
Some Final Thoughts
Every school and district should have some mechanism to help staff members regularly review the many available potential curriculum and instructional programs and approaches, and to select those that provide students with opportunities based on the criteria suggested at the beginning of this commentary, such as focused, meaningful goals; targeted key skills, attitudes and values; multiple formative and summative assessment options; a focus on deeper learning; and active student engagement and inquiry.[i]
The programs listed above are only some examples of the many powerful curricula and instructional options that are often neglected and put into place too infrequently in schools and classrooms.[ii] Many others that meet the criteria cited above and match 21st century goals should be considered. Through continual review and renewal, every District should move towards having a set of powerful curricula and instructional programs, tied to appropriate staff development training, that help prepare students to live in a 21st century world.
We also now have the technology to develop curriculum review websites, comparable to Amazon’s book service and reviews or TripAdvisor’s travel site that rates hotels and bed and breakfasts in all parts of the world. The website should include a comprehensive set of curriculum programs, all reviewed by experts and rated by users. Such a site would provide educators with data that would be helpful in a curriculum review and renewal process.
[i] For additional information about curriculum renewal criteria and strategies, go to www.era3learning.org, then to resources, then to curriculum renewal, and then to the article by Elliott Seif, Reconfiguring Learning Through Curriculum Renewal (unpublished).
Each Sunday afternoon there are five Topic questions posted on a poll to determine which will be selected as that week’s #Edchat Topic. There are two #Edchat discussions each Tuesday on Twitter, so the top two topics selected by the poll become the topics of the chats. The number two choice goes at noon, Eastern Time, and the number one selection goes at 7 PM, Eastern Time. The larger audience is the 7 PM Chat. If you did not know it before, I am the person responsible for making up the #Edchat Topic questions that are voted on each week. I admit that I do have favorites each week, but, more often than not, they are not the favorites of the voting public. This week it was a little different. I actually had two favorites, and fortunately for me, they were the chosen topics for the chats. I found both yesterday’s #Edchat discussions thought-provoking, and very much in need of public discussion. The topics were very much connected as well.
#Edchat is very much an open, public discussion by educators from around the world. Ideas on each topic are presented from various points of view as we discuss the varied topics in education each week. As in any public discussion, a person may pick and choose those ideas that suit his/her needs and in this case, educational philosophy. Sometimes it is a new idea, and other times it is validation of what is already being done. Since it is a discussion using Twitter as the platform, most of the participants are educators who are somewhat familiar with technology and social media. As a generalization they tend to be a collaborative group, more progressive in their approach to education, and open to the use of technology as a tool for learning.
The other day I engaged an educator who described himself as a 20th century traditionalist educator (my words). He said that he participated in #Edchat so that he could know his “Enemy”. When I called him on this, he informed me that “Enemy” was in quotes in his tweet. I guess that was to make it humorous, but there is much truth in humor. The point here is that most of the participants are striving to move from the methods and pedagogy of 20th century education to a place that we have not yet found. It is also a great help when authors and experts on these various topics join in on the Chats giving clarity and direction in their areas of expertise. Many of these thought leaders are connected educators.
Usually the #Edchat question is a singular interrogative. The Topics this week had more than one part in the hope of generating more discussion. The noon Chat Topic: What is the BIG Shift in education that everyone is looking for? Is there one big idea that can positively affect education? If not why? Of course there is no single idea because education is too complex for an easy fix. A point lost to most politicians and business people. The question, I thought, would prompt the chatters to present and promote their best and biggest idea.
From the folks I engaged in conversation on this topic the overwhelming objective was support of student-centric as opposed to teacher-centric lessons. The shift being from Direct instruction, and lecture to problem-based, or project-based learning. The teacher would no longer be the content-delivery expert filling the empty vessels of students, but rather a mentor, guiding their learning direction rather than mandating it.
The 7 PM Question: Children are anxious learners in the early grades of education. What are the factors that turn kids off to learning, as they get older? This #Edchat started slowly. I hate when that happens. My biggest fear in doing these chats is that there may come a time when nobody responds to the question. Going into moderator mode, I broke the topic down, and peppered the chatters with a series of smaller questions to loosen them up. That worked which immediately calmed me down. It was like the priming of an old well. It took a minute to get it going, but it came on strong.
Words that popped up with those who I engaged were curiosity, authenticity, and ownership. What I took from it was that students at a young age are curious about learning because it is all new and exciting. It is also relevant ant authentic since what kids are learning enables them to participate in more stuff as well as society. However, some reach a point where they think they have as much as they need and the curiosity is gone. The direction however continues providing to them things that they no longer want to engage in. They do not own their learning and cannot direct its direction to things they would like to learn. If this occurs in a student, it comes at different times for each student. Some teachers saw it on the elementary level others in Middle school where hormones play an even bigger role. The point here is that it happens to many students.
Engagement in learning is the goal of education and the ability for students to own that learning and for it to be authentic, and relevant was a theme for this #Edchat. Again it came down to the teacher being the guide or mentor and not a content delivery person directing content to kids who don’t see it as relevant or authentic. They prefer to create content instead of memorizing it. They prefer to use content instead of regurgitating it on a test.
Both of these #Edchats led me to the same place. For kids to be engaged in learning it will be more effective if they own it and direct it. Teachers can always guide the direction and, as content experts, they have the capacity to do so. Teaching kids how to learn, and how to continue to learn, is more important than whatever content the curriculum tells us the students should know for a test. If we can use their interest to promote our content, fine. If our content doesn’t interest students at all, then what do we do?
#Edchat is not the best method to introduce people to online chats for the first time without preparation. It requires some knowledge and a little strategy. If you are interested, this may help: #Edchat Revisited. If you are interested in viewing the past #Edchat discussions, we have archived the last several years here: #Edchat Archives. If you do not have time to read, you can download a podcast analysis of several of the #Edchats from Bam Radio Network, and The #Edchat Radio Show. #Edchat is one of many education chats. It was started 4 years ago be Shelly Terrell,@shellterrell, Steve Anderson, @web20classroom, and me,@tomwhitby. It was not the first chat, but it is the most enduring, and it has spawned many, many others.
Over this last year I have been fortunate to have been sent to many education conferences on behalf of SmartBrief in pursuit of content and guest bloggers forSmartBlog on Education. It is a dream job for a retired educator and an education blogger. The intent is to always keep the educator’s voice on SmartBlog authentic and relevant. In that capacity, I have attended and conducted a multitude of workshops on various education topics. Since I am no longer in the classroom, and have no need to apply what I learn about current teaching methods in a classroom setting, I often attend these workshops as an observer, or even a critical observer in some cases.
In conference after conference, and workshop after workshop I have observed successes and failures in the methods employed by presenters to get their material across to their audiences. Of course my biggest criticism is that too many presenters view the people in the room as audiences, and themselves as some sort of entertainer. Of course a successful presenter is part entertainer, as is any teacher, but more importantly, he or she is there at a conference workshop to educate educators and that is a primary goal. For that goal to be met presenters might be better served thinking of the people in the room as learners, and employ their best skills as an educator. In fairness to most presenters, the best do just that.
Much can be learned as an educator by watching what works with a bunch of teacher/learners. Of course there are some who would argue that these are adult learners and shouldn’t be compared to kids. I used to think that as well, but I am not as sure, after all that I have observed.
I found one of the best explanations of adult learning in this article: “Adult Learning Theory and Principles” from The Clinical Educator’s Resource Kit.
According to the article Malcolm Knowles an American practitioner and theorist of adult education, defined andragogy as “the art and science of helping adults learn”.
Knowles identified the six principles of adult learning as:
After considering these principles and observing many of them first hand at these professional conferences, I started to wonder if the reason why these same principles do not apply to kids, at least on the secondary level, is because we prohibit them from happening in our education system. Do we limit our students learning by blocking access to the very things that motivate us as adults to learn?
Can Students be self-motivated and self-directed? As adults some might say we are “pursuing our bliss” therefore, we are self-motivated and self-directed. Are our students bereft of bliss, or are we blocking out their bliss?
At the more successful conferences providing adult learning environments I have observed many things that aided the learning of adults. The best conferences provided Internet access for all. This enabled adults to use varied and sundry laptops and mobile devices. I still revel at the memory of a room full of learners listening to Chris Lehmann at the Educon Conference as he placed notes on a white board. When he was finished with his illustrated point in the conversation, 40 adults stood up and took a picture of the whiteboard with their mobile devices (mostly cellphones) for later reference. Student classrooms might have over 40 students in them but how many are allowed to take pictures of the teachers’ notes?
Of course the resounding positive comments from any of these learning environments is that there is a love of the conversation, as opposed to the lecture. That is common at Educon and it is the mainstay of the most successful Edcamps. Of course that conversation method is not the focus of teaching kids. Most educators focus on direct instruction and lecture as the mainstay for their lessons.
Then there is the cry from a multitude of adult conference learners that they hold teacher-presenters in the highest regard, because they are authentic. They have been in the classroom, and have paid their dues, so to speak. When real classroom teachers talk about education, it is relevant and real. This is a common sentiment among adult conference learners. I guess that relevance is important to the adult learner. When it comes to the kid learners are they even given a smattering of relevance or are we steeped in curriculum some of which may have been around since the mid 1900’s?
Of course the biggest outcry from adult learners at conferences comes when they are subjected to PowerPoint presentations that are text-ladened and read to the learners word for word by the presenter. This is the most egregious of mistakes and often the initiator of an exodus by the adult learners from the room. What alternative do kid learners have given the same set of circumstances?
Maybe as adult learners we need to take a look in the mirror before we resume our role as teachers for kids. In the final analysis, I do not think that there are differences in the way we learn as adults, or kids, but rather the differences lie in the opportunities afforded to learn. If we respected kids more as learners, they might be more self-directed and motivated in their learning. If they are allowed to participate in their learning, they might take more ownership. What learner wants to own something that is not in his, or her interest to own? If we can understand better how we learn best, maybe we can alter how we teach to be the best.
I recently participated in what might possibly be a one-time experience for an educator, an education conference in Las Vegas. Of course that probably doesn’t hold true for Nevada educators. Solution Tree Publishing sponsored the Leadership Now Conference in Vegas. It was a Quality event with high visibility speakers keynoted the event.
The speakers at the event were Solution Tree authors and each was a leading expert in their area of expertise. They were also all affiliated with the Marzano/DuFour group. This was a big showing of the PLC at Work institute. For the most part I happen to be a believer in most of what they preach, so I was quite happy with the topics presented.
Of course the backbone of most of what was discussed was the idea of collaborative learning communities within individual school districts. I love the idea and I believe in the concept that collaboratively we all benefit more in learning and teaching. I do find the idea of stopping that collaboration at the district level somewhat limiting however. We need global networks of collaboration. We should not stop at the borders of our own school district or just the network of a group of paying participants of some larger group. Collaboration through social media is free and global. We need to explore and use it to our best advantage as educators and as students.
The First keynotes by Robert Marzano and Richard DuFour lasted an hour and a half each. They were lectures with text-ladened slides to keep the audience (learners) on track while laying out the research and philosophy of the grand plan. There was a printed and bound compiled text of the presentations along with worksheets for the learners. I actually weighed it. It was THREE pounds.
The highlight for me was the keynote by Sir Ken Robinson. He did a keynote that covered many aspects of several of his TED Talk videos. Although I heard much of it before, it meant more live, presented in sir Ken’s unique blend of humor, irony and common sense. This was a vast improvement over the last time I saw him at ISTE with a disastrous panel presentation after what seemed like a ten-minute keynote. In contrast to that, Sir Ken’s Solution Tree retrospective presentation was one to remember.
The workshops following the keynotes were again 90-minute lectures with text-ladened slides that corresponded to the three-pound, bound, text workbook. The material covered in the workshops was essential. The research seemed sound. It was all a common sense approach to the complicated problem of education reform. Each workshop was a clear presentation of how we might best approach what we are doing now in education with what we might be doing even better.
I only wish that they applied the same amount of time, research, and development to their methods of teaching and presentation as they applied to their subject material. First rule of PowerPoint: Don’t read from text-ladened slides to the audience, even if it is from a book written by you, the presenter. To do such a presentation differently is not going to be an easy task and it will probably take several iterations of a presentation to eliminate so much text from slides, but it will help the learners or should I say audience. Although there is a certain element of entertainment in education presentations they are designed to inform and teach. That means the seats are filled with learners and not audience members.
The workshop leaders of the workshops that I attended were wonderful, knowledgeable, and experienced educators. Leaders included: Rebecca DuFour, Tammy Heflebower, Timothy Kanold, Anthony Muhammad, Phil Warrick, and Kenneth Williams. The workshops that were most striking and helpful to me however, were the workshops of Anthony Muhammad. He dealt with changing the culture of the school in order to affect any meaningful change in the structure of the school. I found him to be a shinning star in a room full of stars. He was dynamic, engaging, and most of all gave out meaningful ideas to deal with the real changes for education reform with the most “elephant in the room” problems. He later gave a rousing, closing keynote.
The low point for me anyway came when they had the panel discussion at the end of the sessions of the second day. It was not very well attended by the participants of the conference. The panel was made up of the key members of the Marzano group. Of course the lead panel members gave the longest answers. It was the questioning of the panel that struck me to be rather archaic in our world of technology. The audience was asked to write questions on a piece of paper that would be picked up and delivered to the moderator. There was no microphone stand for open questioning. There was no hashtag back channel screen. The moderator was not monitoring an iPad for questions. I guess this was made difficult because there was also no Internet service for the conference, which should be a mainstay of any education conference.
Criticisms aside, I found this to be a very informative conference. I wish it could have been live streamed to the many connected educators who were following the conference hashtag over the three days. I think the Marzano approach to collaboration and addressing the whole system in order to affect change is a sensible and sound approach. I would simply love to see an updated methodology in their approach.
If innovation is something new than the idea of technology-driven collaboration in the form of a PLN is old news and no longer innovation. Since it is no longer innovative, maybe educators will consider it, as a possible next step in education that will enable needed change. The idea that educators may be anti-innovative is my only explanation as to why the idea of a Personal Learning Network has not yet moved educators to accept it as a method to move educators, and education to a better place.
The term “innovation” has been thrown around through the halls of education for several years. Its creation in our education system is a stated goal by our Department of Education. It is a reason, although some would call it a justification, for charter schools being formed. Charter schools were supposed to lead the way to innovation for public education. A problem with innovation however is that we often do not know it when we see it.
The whole idea of innovation is that it is something new. The other part of that, which is implied, is that it is also a successful improvement. That may be the piece that prevents recognizing innovation in education. Teachers, when it comes to education, are a conservative group. Change comes slowly, and there is a comfort in holding on to what has worked in the past. This has long been reinforced by the many trends and fads in education that have come and gone. Teachers have been programmed to believe that whatever the change being mandated by the powers that be, it will be gone with the next change of power. “If we wait a little while, this to will pass” becomes the educators’ mindset.
The newness of innovation is probably its greatest obstacle to acceptance. Teachers generally rely on the tried and true methods, proven to work over a long period of time. Innovation requires a leap of faith on the part of educators that the innovation will be a success. Unfortunately for innovation, the conservative nature of educators does not support taking risks. It may have something to do with self-perceptions of many teachers that as “content experts” they shouldn’t make public mistakes. Supporting innovation that fails would be a commitment to failure in the eyes of many educators. Obviously, this slows innovation acceptance.
This entire process has been further complicated by the rate of speed that technology moves and affects change. Committees, research and approval are very big parts of change in education. Today however, change comes faster and more significantly than in years past primarily because of the advancements in technology. These advancements continue to move forward regardless of anyone’s committee, research, or approval.
Collaboration has long been an element of learning. The term social learning is now creeping into discussions more and more giving collaboration a facelift. Face to face collaboration is the oldest and most easily recognized form. It is also a positive reason for department and faculty meetings. When learning individually we are good, but more often than not, learning collaboratively we are better. Technology tools for collaboration have moved collaboration to the forefront.
Now, let us combine collaboration with technology and see if it fits into our education system. Technology has most recently provided many tools, or applications for collaboration. Social Media is not one tool, but rather a network of many that overlap and intertwine. Educators can: join a Ning community,and meet a colleague from anywhere, converse on that site, connect and collaborate on Twitter, continue face to face collaboration on a Google Hangout, or Skype, collaboratively create and publish documents, presentations, Podcasts and videos. The potential ability for educators to harness this power and use it to model and guide learning for their students is mind-boggling to me, as a 40-year educator. It is only surpassed by the idea that the same potential ability in the hands of the students will take collaboration, creation, and learning even further.
We have labeled this innovation the Personal Learning Network. It is what we use to connect educators for collaboration beyond their buildings, districts, towns, and countries. It is technology-driven innovation that may profoundly affect education in regard to collaboration and professional development. It connects teachers with students, administrators, thought leaders, authors, and experts in all areas. It enables collaboration and creation on every level for educators to learn and teach. We become connected educators giving us insights and relevance that has been enabled by technology.
This innovation has been percolating for several years now, yet it has failed to be accepted as innovation. There is a growing gap between the adapters, or the connected educators, and the unconnected educators. The continuous discussions of the connected are directed and led by thought leaders and collaborative reflections, discussions, and content. The unconnected educators rely on the past and whatever direction is given by the powers that be in their districts.
A high performance team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are equally committed to a common purpose, goals, and working approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable. Members of the team are deeply committed to one another’s personal growth and success (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993).
As I observe classrooms and visit schools, I am always looking for high performing teams. I am impressed by a fourth grade teacher who can differentiate, analyze assessment data, lead professional development, teach students to think outside the box, and integrate technology on a daily basis. However, I am in awe of high performing teams. In The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork, Maxwell (2001) wrote, “Communication increases commitment and connection; they in turn fuel action. If you want your team to perform at the highest level, the people on it need to be able to talk and to listen to one another” (p. 197). Does your professional learning team communicate on a regular basis? Do you plan to meet daily, weekly, or monthly? How often do you need to meet in order to make certain all students learn the essential learning outcomes?
High performing teams use the following strategies to take students to the next level:
Team norms are the foundation of a high performing team. Some teams feel like they can operate without norms, but conflict or a dysfunctional team member highlight the purpose of norms. When teams operate with norms, each member of the team understands how to communicate, how shared decisions will be handled, when to arrive for meetings, and how to professionally disagree. I have observed teams that developed norms five years ago, but they fail to revisit the team norms. When a new teacher moves from a different grade level or from another school district, it is difficult for the teacher to participate as a team member because the team norms are akin to living and working in a different country or culture. Solution Tree has developed a free online resource which supports the development of team norms titled, Developing Norms.
A precursor to improvement is a clear understanding of the goal. Educators often enter a new nine weeks and don’t pause to reflect on the current reality (i.e., Where are we? Where are we going? How will we get there?). If six eighth grade science teachers each develop their own goals and learning outcomes, is it likely that students will end up at the same place when they enter ninth grade science? Blanchard (2007) contends, “Goal setting is the single most powerful motivational tool in a leader’s toolkit” (p. 150). A school without clearly defined goals is like a ship without a rudder; it lacks direction and a slight wind could easily blow it off course (Wiles, 2009).
Teams set goals, companies strive to meet sales or production goals, and successful individuals monitor their diet, finances, time management, life-long learning, leadership growth, and other established goals. If school teams are aiming for student achievement, then they must become crystal clear on how to help each member of their school district meet the goal. DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker (2008) wrote, “One of the most pressing questions a school must consider as it attempts to build the collaborative culture of a PLC is not, ‘Do we collaborate?’ but rather, ‘What do we collaborate about?’” (p. 28). A lack of clarity on intended results is a barrier to growth and continuous improvement in schools.
One strategy that is overlooked in schools is the power of small wins. When I memorized 1 x 1 through 12 x 12, my second grade teacher gave me a poster autographed by a Razorback basketball player (talk about a small win)! Memorizing my multiplication facts did not make me a mathematician, but my teacher took time to recognize the small win each time a new student reached the goal. When I played high school basketball, the coach would require each member of the team to make ten free throws before we left practice. This was a small win and it was psychological. New York Times bestselling author Daniel Coyle wrote, “Perhaps most important, the “small-win” approach is aligned with the way your brain is built to learn: chunk by chunk, connection by connection, rep by rep. As John Wooden said, “Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts” (April, 2012).
School teams are implementing common formative assessments, the Common Core State Standards, technology integration, reading programs, literacy across the curriculum, character education programs, state initiatives, and more! Most teachers understand the importance of celebrating a small win with students. We need to use this same strategy when we work with our colleagues. Small wins are identified and celebrated by high performing school teams!
Meetings have become a burden to teachers. If a school still operates where each teacher believes, “These are my students and those are your students....” – Then, it will be difficult for teachers to see why they need to meet as a team. High performing teacher teams realize, “These are our students and this is our community.” High performing teams have a meeting agenda, clear meeting outcomes, and action items. If team members are arriving at each meeting asking what are we going to discuss today, then it won’t be a very good use of time.
Some of the best ideas at my elementary school come from team meetings. A collaborative team of teacher leaders, motivated by preparing all students for the next level, is a powerful force to reckon with. This is the scene that every taxpayer should demand from a public school. Schmoker (2005) wrote, “It starts with a group of teachers who meet regularly as a team to identify essential learning, develop common formative assessments, analyze current levels of achievement, set achievement goals, share strategies, and then create lessons to improve upon those levels.” That is the kind of school I want to send my children to.
Essential Learning Outcomes
Effective teams develop and agree to provide all students with essential learning outcomes. In the absence of learning outcomes, students receive a disjointed curriculum experience. Why do some teams skip this step if it is such an important part of teaching and learning? From my observations, developing essential learning outcomes involves trust, conflict, debate, time, and the ability to come to consensus. If teams lack trust or don’t schedule a weekly meeting, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to identify essential learning outcomes. Swan (2010) wrote, "Learning outcomes refer to the skills, knowledge, and attributes students should have upon completion of a particular course or program of study."
Wiggins and McTighe (2005), wrote, “In the absence of a learning plan with clear goals, how likely is it that students will develop shared understandings on which future lessons might build” (p. 21)? If teachers claim to operate as a professional learning team, but they lack clearly defined learning outcomes, then students will experience a disjointed curriculum. If goal-setting is important in athletics and on business teams, then professional learning teams must take time to see how the absence of essential learning outcomes can interfere with the team’s common purpose. Does your team have essential learning outcomes for each nine weeks or semester?
Sports fans love to analyze the greatest teams of all time. The New York Yankees have won more World Series than any team in baseball (27). UCLA men’s basketball team has won more NCAA National Championships than any other college basketball team in history (11). Ten of those championships were won under legendary coach John Wooden. The Pittsburgh Steelers have won more Super Bowls than any other NFL team (6). What makes a great team? Great teams are made of great individuals. Mark Sanborn outlines the “4 C’s of a Great Team Member (1:44).”
If you entered the field of education to make a difference, ask how your individual strengths can benefit the entire team. Michael Fisher (2010) wrote, "If your schools/districts are made up primarily of those with an ‘island mentality,’ then they need to join the continent.” High performing teams are needed in our schools. Students deserve our best and we can work more efficiently if we turn our school teams into high performing teams.
I just spent the morning viewing a livestream from an Education Forum from Education Week. For those who may be unaware a livestream is a live transmission of an event over the Internet. This was a forum that recognized Education Leaders. It was titled Leaders To Learn From 2013. I think what Education Week did was great and I hope not to diminish their contribution. I do have some observations that I would like to share.
My friend and colleague Kyle Pace, @kylepace, was the person who drew me to this forum. Kyle is a connected educator known to tens of thousands of educators as a collaborative, connected educator who engages people with knowledge and information in the realm of technology in education. If any educator deserves an award for collaborative leadership, Kyle would top my list of candidates. It is a well-deserved recognition.
What struck me about the other award winners recognized for their leadership accomplishments that other educators are supposed to learn from was that we as an education community have not heard from them before? I realize that not all educators are connected through social media. It also seems to me as an observer of social media in education that it is often more difficult for Administrators to connect than teachers. There are reasons for that, both real and imagined, and I understand that. It would seem to me however, that if collaboration is part of a reason for recognition, the award winners should demonstrate some proficiency in modern collaboration as educators.
I also attended a Discovery Education forum recently where a number of Superintendents were recognized. When asked about their professional Social media involvement and collaboration, each claimed Twitter accounts and some claimed to have blogs. Of course sitting with Josh Stumpenhorst, @stumpteacher, we were able to quickly fact-check each of their claims to discover that most of them rarely tweeted and few had Blogs.
In a time when mobile devices can vet any speaker in a few seconds, people should not speak out of hand. In addition to education leaders, all leaders should get the fact that they can, and will be held more accountable for what they do compared to what they say. The world and information distribution has changed. Their failure to recognize that fact is testament to their relevance in a technology-driven society.
I have made my views on sharing as a professional responsibility known in many previous posts. A question from Dean Shareski really summed it up for me in regard to professional collaboration. What would we say about a doctor who found a cure for cancer or even a partial pathway to that end, but failed to share it with medical colleagues?
If educators are doing things in a better way, why are they not collaborating using the methods of today? Educators may not have the Journal of the American Medical Association, but we do have Twitter and we do have Blogs. I am tired of educators who espouse technology for everyone else, but fail to employ it for themselves and their profession.
Many Administrators use the Internet to vet out teaching candidates. They get to Google information about individuals that they are legally precluded from asking about in an interview. If that has become the standard then let’s have at it. We should look at everyone’s digital footprint including administrators. What is their educational philosophy as it is stated in the digital world? What does their Professional Learning Network include? What is it they have collaborated on in the Social media world? How effective are they in the very collaboration skills that they claim to have? How reflective are they based on their public blog? Do they hold to their principles in their public reflections?
We are moving forward in the way we access and obtain information. If an administrator has not contributed and that information is not obtainable, then that may be an indication of ability, or relevance, or both. At the very least it should be a red flag. I am not suggesting that any administrator who is not on social media is a Luddite. I am suggesting that the best leaders in an age of technology are those who understand it as a result of effectively using it, as well as modeling it for those who follow. We need to consider relevant collaborative skills as a requisite for administrative positions if we have hope for changing the system in positive ways.
The current requirement that public and charter school students demonstrate their proficiency through standardized, top down tests has in many schools narrowed the curriculum, increased sterile test-prep classroom activities, and focused the public measurement of school and student success narrowly and imperfectly around a few traditional tests. This “test-centered” focus makes it more difficult for many schools to educate and assess students so that they are prepared for a world with exploding amounts of knowledge, fundamental changes in technology, and the new skill sets required for successful careers.
By contrast, a “learning-centered” focus starts with establishing meaningful, purposeful educational outcomes for a 21st century world, such as preparing students for both lifelong learning and citizenship, focusing on the development of key skills for a new era, and customizing learning in order to develop each student’s talents, interests and abilities.
Based on the above learning centered outcomes, here is a checklist of potential characteristics and qualities that we might expect to observe in classrooms, schools and districts:
√ A conscious effort to develop positive learning attitudes and values, such as curiosity, wonder, responsibility, motivation, persistence, effort makes a difference, and collaboration.
√A “deeper learning” curriculum in all subject areas, including the arts and social studies, that help students build focused networks of core background knowledge and understandings about the world around them.
√Inquiry based learning approaches that engage students in learning and support the development of critical learning skills, such as questioning and problem finding; reading for understanding; processing information and data; many types of writing; research and study skills; logical, inductive and creative thinking; discussion and presentation skills.
√Preparation for citizenship through rigorous, engaging, interactive history, geography, current events, and service-learning experiences.
√Customized learning opportunities that develop individual interests, talents and strengths, as when students can choose from an extensive array of classroom, school, curricular and extra-curricular activities and electives[i].
√ Research projects, field trips and other experiences that help students connect to “real world” events, activities, and individuals.
√ Internships and Internet course options for high school students that expand student horizons.
√An accountability system that uses multiple types of assessments to determine student progress and success[ii], such as writing of all kinds, research projects and performance tasks, essay tests, self-reflections, and plans for the future. Traditional tests are only a small part of the assessment process. Student portfolios – collections of student work - become part of a multi-faceted growth and evaluation process.
√Technology in the service of all of the above that supports students as they conduct research, process information, develop and write papers, collect work in electronic portfolios, create on-line presentations, conduct simulations, contact outside experts, and the like.
Does your classroom, school or district have a test-centered or a learning-centered approach to teaching and learning? Are the above components in place in your classroom-school-district? Not all of the checklist may be appropriate for your own situation, so feel free to adapt, change and add as necessary. Use this guide and checklist as a catalyst for your own thinking, discussion, and planning.
Many will say that these ideas are unrealistic in light of the current emphasis on standardized tests, state standards, and the Common Core standards. My view is that a systematic learning-centered education will provide a long-term vision of a good 21st century education that will be a framework for educating students for many years to come. With a meaningful and purposeful learning-centered framework, students will be well prepared for standardized tests, programs will satisfy Common Core standards requirements, and we will be ready for any other regulations and changes that come down the pike!
We can only hope that, instead of a test-centered approach, “learning-centeredness” -defining and implementing a set of 21st century student learning outcomes, assessments, and practices - will become the predominant educational focus for governments at all levels, the educational community, and the public at large in order to think about, define and plan for educational excellence in the future.
Elliott Seif is a long time educator, teacher, college professor, curriculum director, ASCD author, school volunteer, and Understanding by Design trainer. You can read more about this learning centered approach to education in a new age at his website: www.era3learning.org
[i] Thematic schools, such as schools for the arts, sciences, engineering, business, culinary arts, and the like, would be likely to customize according to their themes.
[ii] This broadened accountability system suggests a different way for individual classrooms, schools and districts to judge success and achievement. For example, school superintendents might present a more complex picture of accountability to the public and school board by providing examples of the types of student work completed at different levels (average, excellent, and poor, with percentages of each), examples of books read by students at different levels, sample self-reflections, student survey data, research paper examples, and student presentations. The same broad-based data might also be presented by schools and individual teachers. While this data may be harder to collect and summarize, they should give a much better picture of student success and achievement.
I’m working with a new group of collaborators who happen to be in the fourth and fifth grade.
Nine to eleven year olds from the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School (http://www.mjgds.org) are creating a book based on some kids’ poems I wrote decades ago and are illustrating them and publishing them and selling them and creating a marketing plan around our work. Eventually, they will use what they’ve created as a fundraiser for their school.
These students are participating in a new form of learning that involves a mentoring relationship, new classroom roles, and embedded virtual learning. I’ve been able to Skype with them, email feedback about their work, and create additional learning “side trips” based on in the moment opportunities.
Their art teacher, Shana Gutterman- http://shoshysartroom.blogspot.com/, their classroom teacher, Stephanie Teitelbaum- http://teachblogandtweet.wordpress.com/, their Learning Coach, Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano- http://langwitches.org/blog, and I virtually collaborated on the development of this project, via Skype, email, and Twitter. We came up with objectives and lesson activities and planned virtual sessions. We had a modern learning plan in place and launched our project with the intent of changing the level of engagement and learning with students.
Then, we discovered something. Something big.
Because of the depth of instruction and the built in time to negotiate new roles for the students and the upgrade of seeing themselves as collaborators rather than passive learners, we struck oil! Silver! Gold! Students began to self identify interests that were related to their planned learning and lead us down paths of unplanned learning that enriched the designed project.
While students were working on designing pictures to accompany poems in a book for multiple audiences, they also opened up cans of worms that were unforeseen in the curriculum design. These were some of the “teachable moments” or “side trips” that came out of our collaborative work:
Students learned new contextually specific vocabulary words such as emphatic, explicitly, iteration, synesthesia, and negative space.
Students were invited to investigate the meaning of “chiaroscuro” as it related to contrasting elements in their illustrations.
Beyond the chiaroscuro investigation, they were invited to read a book, The Tale of Despereaux, which explores chiaroscuro as a metaphor for the characters and action.
Students were asked to investigate and learn about Grandma Moses and art techniques that involved the layering of backgrounds and foreground elements in a painting.
Students learned about warm and cool feedback and improvement for the sake of the team versus just getting good grades.
They learned to articulate the reasoning behind the “why” of what they were doing and to be as specific as possible in deciding why their illustrations were a good fit for the poem’s text. They did this both with me and their peers, which I personally think is hugely significant. Once again: their peers helped to inform their improvements.
They became open to suggestions that were rooted in improvement versus identifying what was wrong with their work. This positive take on “doing what’s best for the intended audience” was a huge shift in meaning making.
They learned that its okay to explore different interest areas that were outside of the intended learning, particularly with one student that wanted to create his own comic books. We were able to have a conversation about the usage of Comic Life on the iPad to start designing his own graphic novels.
They learned to respond to different types of feedback from their formal teacher, their virtual collaborator, and their peers as they shaped their work.
I would also like to add that the students referred to me as their collaborator; that the work we were doing was OUR work. I loved that. I also loved that their classroom roles included roles like “Skype coordinator,” “Twitter Expert,” and “Illustrative Notes Expert.” So far beyond “Reader,” “Writer,” and “Notetaker.”
Authentic learning experiences that ask students to be part of the instructional design process AND the product are critical in the modern learning classroom. Student-centered work becomes student-owned learning even if teachers maintain an instructional anchor. In this case, the anchor was the product: the book. Everyone is contributing to it, though in multiple ways and with multiple extensions around their individual learning.
I should also mention that this project, because of the level of collaboration between teachers and students, was not a neatly contained event. It took some time to develop, to interact, to collaborate both virtually and in person, and even after these several weeks, the students are just now gearing up to start working on the marketing plan. As teachers, we had to find a new common ground of comfort when balancing the time it takes to do something like this with the deep learning that was possible.
Also, if you’d like to look at the project from several points of view--there’s a lot of blogging going on around it:
Learning in the Modern Classroom - by Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano
And my favorite on vocabulary: Wacky Wacky Words!
Needless to say--but I’m REALLY proud of my collaborators! I will be presenting with them at EdJEWcon in Jacksonville, Florida in a couple of weeks. I couldn’t be more excited to finally meet them in person and see our finished product! I’d also like to say Thank You to Shana, Stephanie, and Silvia for all of the great professional collaboration.
Upgrade Your Curriculum - Now available from ASCD
An advantage that I have as one who is fortunate enough to attend many education conferences, or special education events is the contact I have with many of the thought leaders in education. Of course most of those folks do not think of themselves as thought leaders, but just educators. The fact is that we are often defined by the perception of others. This holds true for institutions as well.
We started a Saturday program at my school in order to provide students with additional academic remediation, support, and some fun. I know that some of you might think this is just another "test prep" venture to raise scores considering we identified specific students, and it's April.... You would be both correct and incorrect (or maybe it is just how you define test prep).
Here is a little information about the program. We have targeted about 30 students in grades 3, 4, and 5 to provide math and language arts remediation through a very effective tool. The tool that we use is SuccessMaker which is a digital learning curriculum that is designed to assess, remediate and instruct based on the Common Core and New Jersey Model Curriculum. In addition to the online instruction and assistance, we have teachers who work with students individually on their specific needs. SuccessMaker can develop specific lessons for the teachers and students to master. Additionally, SuccessMaker also facilitates 21st century learning as the students are required to use high levels of Blooms Taxonomy to solve problems while also providing them with the experience for taking the online assessments such PARCC.
But there is more to our program then SuccessMaker. First, team-building and cooperative learning activities are embedded within the structure of the program because we feel urged to not only address the academic needs but also the social and emotional needs of our learners. We want them to feel confident as they approach problems and situations that involve critical thinking. Since we have the students grouped into three teams, we wanted to continue to push the envelope and challenge the students, and that is where Problem Based Learning comes in.
For our "problem", the students are going to have determine why there is an achievement gap and what they can do to "solve" the problem. During the first session, we presented them with the challenge and what the end result could look like (an invention, commercial, iMovie trailer, etc.). We also asked them to define what is a "problem" and why are some students achieving while others are not. For instance, in order to engage them in self reflection (we all know that kids like to point fingers), we asked the students this question, "Who is responsible for the achievement gap... is it parents, teachers, principals or students?" Most, if not all the students said the responsibility falls on themselves. Their rationale for owning the problem included items such as low self esteem, not paying attention, and not taking school seriously.
Over the next few weeks the students in PBL will be presented with data about the achievement gap as well as what adults say about the achievement gap. Ultimately, the students will solve this problem and present their findings to parents, teachers and other students at our culminating event on May 11.
I will make sure to report back on their progress each week as well as their solutions to this age old problem... why do some students achieve while others do not.....
NOTE: I recently posted a commentary on ASCD Edge (co-authored with Jay McTighe) identifying ten research-based beliefs about teaching and learning and their implications. #7 was:
Attitudes and values mediate learning by filtering experiences and perceptions. Therefore, teachers should understand how student attitudes and values influence learning and help students build positive attitudes towards learning.
This commentary elaborates on that belief, suggests its importance, and describes more ways to implement it.
In America, especially during the progressive education era and the “open education” years, building positive attitudes towards learning, motivating students, creating interest in learning, making learning relevant, and yes, even promoting the joy of learning were important aspects of educational planning, development and practice. The belief during these time periods was that building curiosity, expanding student interests, and making learning relevant and interesting would promote active student inquiry, build on a natural human inclination to learn, and help create an educational environment in which students would WANT to learn.
Unfortunately, this emphasis has been mostly lost, even negated, in the push for teaching “the basics”, often through worksheets and drills, and then with the more recent focus on passing high risk standardized tests, teaching skill based reading and math, and cutting back on “frills”, such as the arts and social studies. Today, it is hard to find schools where curiosity, interest in learning, being motivated to learn, and making learning joyful are as important as doing well on standardized tests, taking four years of English, or passing AP courses. These goals are also missing from any meaningful discussion about what we want to accomplish with our students, what we will assess, and what kind of learner we want to graduate.
Yet, if we really want to encourage students to learn, grow, succeed and achieve in a 21st century world, if we truly want them to be lifelong learners in a world of rapid change, social media, access to technology, and transformative job development, we will need to create a new and different kind of approach, one that puts curiosity, motivation, interest, and joy back into the learning equation. What primarily distinguishes our country from the rest of the world, what makes us unique, is not how well we take tests, but the unusual amount of curiosity, individual talent, creativity, ingenuity, and interest in learning and growing that comes from so many Americans and is developed in so many different ways. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were unusual not only because of their drive, but also because they were curious about how things worked and how they were able to learn about things they were passionately interested in. Bill Gates became interested in computers in part because the opportunity to work with computers was presented to him in high school outside of his regular courses. Steve Jobs created the diverse calligraphies found on the Apple computer because he took a calligraphy course that interested him after he had left the formal college world. Their natural leadership inclinations happened because they were curious about and interested in computers, and because they knew that, in order to keep pace with others, they needed to grow, adapt and change.
Unfortunately, due to the pressures to do well on standardized tests, to time spent on practicing for these tests, to the need to “get through” multiple topics required by coverage based standards, to the emphasis on getting more students to take AP courses, and so on, millions of children are lacking the kinds of positive learning experiences that support lifelong learning, increase curiosity, build individual talent, and make learning interesting, rewarding and just plain fun!
How do we promote a focus on developing the positive learning attitudes and values identified in this commentary? A good place for an individual teacher or a faculty to start is to first examine and explore the following questions: What motivated you in school? What did you enjoy doing? What interested you? What types of activities piqued your curiosity? Spurred you to continue learning and growing? My guess is that many teachers would say that they enjoyed learning because they were good and successful at it! They were rewarded for what they did. They did well on tests. They were encouraged to build on their strengths. They liked hands on activities and projects. They were given choices. Few would say that they enjoyed being reminded of their failures, that they liked taking multiple-choice tests or doing worksheets, that they liked reading textbooks, that they found enjoyment in doing an activity that they didn’t understand or was so far above their abilities that they had no chance at success. Most probably had mentors and supporters in times of difficulty. Most had at least a few teachers who encouraged them who were good at explaining difficult concepts or who helped them “learn how to learn”. The list of answers might be expanded through reading articles and books on how to build curiosity, motivation, individual talents, and interest in learning.
Once a list of answers is developed, then the following questions might be examined: What am I/are we currently doing that builds curiosity, interest, relevance, enjoyment, and the kinds of “learning to learn” skills and competencies that our students will need in the future? How do I/we implement and expand programs, approaches and activities in schools and classrooms that motivate and interest students in learning and create enjoyment?
Based on my own informal research and discussions of this topic with teachers and others, here are thirteen suggestions as food for thought:
In sum, a focus on how to create positive attitudes such as curiosity, interest, motivation and relevance leads to a very different way of thinking about school and classroom missions, outcomes, the learning environment, curriculum, instruction, and assessment. For example, instead of a focus on standardized tests passed by everyone, a portfolio assessment approach helps students focus on their individual strengths and reflect on what they have learned. Teachers concentrate on building student strengths rather than dwelling on their failures. Students are provided with opportunities to improve their work before they are graded. More choices and options are given to students in the form of classroom choices, electives, and enrichment activities. Some learning, such as research projects, is built around student interests. Many types of questions become more central to the learning experience. “Learning to learn” skills become a critical part of the classroom experience. There are more opportunities for students to make connections to the outside world in order to raise expectations and build motivation.
These ideas are just some of the starting points for your own discussion on how to develop positive attitudes towards learning and build the individual curiosity, skills, talents, and interests that will propel our students towards a better life, towards continued learning, and towards “pathways to student success” in a 21st century world. While this way of thinking might lead to a wide variety of suggestions and ideas, please remember: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.
[i] SQ3R is a study guide model that is focused around:
Surveying what you are reading;
Questions: Turn chapter and section headings, titles, subheadings into questions;
Read for the answers to each question;
Recite your answers after each section – orally ask yourself the questions and summarize your answers;
Review what you have learned.
Elliott Seif is a long time educator, teacher, college professor, curriculum director, ASCD author and Understanding by Design trainer. If you are interested in examining additional and related teaching and learning topics in order to help to prepare students to live in a 21st century world, go to his website at: www.era3learning.org
With state assessments in multiple states coming up soon, I thought I'd share some resources about assessments and test anxiety and opting out and those things related to assessments that have been in the news recently.
This blog post is meant to briefly address the recent “opt-out” concerns and provide resources so that the reader can make informed decisions. Some of the resources that I am sharing here will be easy to nitpick apart and cull details from that may seem inflammatory when pulled out of context and remixed and redistributed. I encourage any of you reading this to read closely what the text says explicitly, paying attention to words like “may” and “might” and “could.” These words are modal words of variability and as such, should be read with a menu of potential implications in mind--not a set in stone either/or scenario that the media tends to latch onto.
The major issue here is not really too much testing, it is academic integrity. That integrity extends over the whole of our educational system and has been in place ever since the notion of school was conceived. Teaching and learning without assessment is like preparing for a performance you never give. Like a book never published, like practicing on a field for a game never played. Integrity is disrupted when we only accomplish part of this process--education must be directed to its designed checkpoints--the assessments.
Students need opportunities to show what they know. The media and all others who are against the high stakes testing are really fighting the wrong battle. The “high stakes” part are labels attached to assessments recently and represent the usage of the data from the assessment to figure into student promotion, teacher evaluation, Title 1 funding, school effectiveness, etc. Those are external issues applied to assessments that have been in place for decades. These external issues are passed down to teachers and students which is what is causing the stress--not the assessment itself.
Additionally, because of the “high stakes” label, schools and teachers are participating in associated behaviors that represent what we should really be “opting out” of. Those behaviors include: test prep for weeks on end, multiple practice tests, teaching TO the test, traditional teaching throughout the school year and then a mad rush just before the assessment, negative assessment talk, misalignment in the rigor of instruction not matching the rigor of the assessment, misinforming or not informing parents about changes in standards and assessment in a timely manner and more. We maintain the “high stakes” label with all of these associated behaviors.
Last year, I wrote a blog post entitled “Ditch Test Prep.” Click the link and you can read what I wrote, but I encourage you to read the comments as well. All blog posts are invitations to conversations, not one-off publishing moments. The conversation in this particular blog post helped me shape my thinking around being what my colleague Jen Borgioli calls being “test-wise.”
In an effort to be more “test-wise,” I’d like to share the following resources:
Jen Borgioli’s Test Prep without Corruption Video Series on YouTube.
The actual document from the New York State Association of School Attorney’s about opting out.
My resources on Test Taking Skills (caveat: I used this stuff years ago and it has not been recently updated, but it represents perhaps a few different ways to approach embedding "test-wiseness.")
Please, continue to advocate for kids and their learning. Continue to do what you think is right for your children. But, be informed. Know what the real issues are. (For instance, I didn’t mention anything here about students being “overtested,” which the media would have you believe. If you think that, have you actually been in the schools looking at the way data is collected and used for instruction? If assessments are being done for the sake of “giving a test,” then perhaps the students are overtested. If the assessments are being used to shape instruction and give teachers an idea of the next instructional steps, then probably not.)
Our students need a chance to show what they know. We can talk about college and career readiness, we can talk about preparing kids for the world they will be graduating into, but I like to think about it like a ship we’re all on. Teachers are captains and the students are crew. If the students don’t ever get a chance to demonstrate the understanding of their learning, they will never be captains themselves. We need these assessments. We just don’t need all of the associated minutiae around them.
If you know of additional resources, please feel free to share them here!
I recently bumped into a friend at an education Conference. This friend is what I consider a thought leader in education. He is a well-known speaker and author and a person who many educators deservingly look up to for both guidance and wisdom. I thought that I would take advantage of the encounter by asking for a guest post for SmartBlog on Education, an education blog with which I am associated. He must have been having a bad day based on his response.
“I am tired of teaching everyone”, he said.
Knowing how much this person always offers to all who listen, this reaction was out of character and a clear indication of a frustrating day. Sharing is a learned behavior. It is not a behavior common to everyone. It can be easily abused and discouraged. If a person shares and gets the feeling that his or her sharing is not appreciated or under-valued, that spigot of sharing may quickly be turned off.
My teaching career started about two days after the last Dinosaur died in the eyes of many. Back in the day there was not a great deal of sharing. People would share advice very quickly, but lessons were kept under lock and key of the filing cabinet. It was at the end of the year if one was lucky enough to know a retiring teacher that the sharing took place. If someone from your department were retiring, on the last day of their service there would be a gathering in their room. The File cabinet would be opened and the sharing would begin. Files, annotated books, tests, lessons, worksheets, overheads, and dittoes would all be bestowed onto the junior members of the department. The senior members actually got the empty file cabinets. The senior members of the department always had the largest collection of file cabinets.
That was then and this is now! Sharing has become part of the culture of teaching. It is the currency of social media. We can’t be just takers. If we are using social media to gain information, we should have an obligation to provide information as well. It does not have to be original. It can be something that we learned from others. In Twitter terms that would be a ReTweet or an RT. Never assume people know what you know. Always share information at all levels of expertise. Social Media has people from all levels participating in the exchange of ideas.
Every person has a different level of understanding and participation in social media. Some folks read more blog posts than others. Not everyone reads the same Blogs. If you find a good post share it. There are hundreds of thousands of educators on social media. Most Blogs do not have those numbers reading their posts each day. A good post needs to be shared. “A rising tide raises all boats.” The more we share, the better off our profession will be.
Also keep in mind that everyone has a different Personal Learning Network. No two people are following the exact same list of people on Twitter or LinkedIn or Facebook. If you see something of value, share it. Others may not have seen it. Even if they did, your emphasis on it may cause them to view it differently. Never underestimate your influence on others.
Education is about the free exchange of ideas. The exchange part is where the sharing comes in. Without sharing, there is no exchange. At one time content was a commodity that was doled out for a price by institutions that housed the texts that contained the content. That is no longer the case. A combination of content on the Internet as well as the advance of social media and it is a whole new paradigm. Of course this only works if exchanges of information takes place.
If we are to benefit from the Internet as a profession or a society we need to feel an obligation to be more than takers. We need to be makers and exchangers as well. We need to keep the exchange alive by not counting on the few, but by involving the many. We need to believe in the premise of Share and Share alike.
I am still waiting for that guest post that I requested.
People who know me understand that I have hot buttons that set me off when it comes to certain topics of education. That would actually encompass a huge number of topics including the rights of teachers. As I scanned the news channels last week, I came upon a story covering a teacher strike in one of the urban districts of the U.S. The reporter covering the event kept repeating and repeating a single line during his coverage that just set me off. “These teachers care more about their jobs than they do about the kids”.
What is it that enables people to vilify teachers for placing the security of their families before the demands of their job? Of course the security of a teacher’s family must come before the demands of the job. Doesn’t everyone value their family and want to insure their safety and security as a first consideration in life?
The fact is that here are many teachers who grapple with this very issue throughout their career. Teaching is a noble profession that does require sacrifice on the part of each educator to do right by his or her students. It is that self-sacrifice and “teacher’s guilt” that has enabled some districts to take advantage of teachers in regard to labor issues since the beginning of public education.
As a generalization most teachers do not market themselves well. They do not expound upon their accomplishments. They view that as flaunting one’s self, and that is frowned upon by teachers. They do not like it when any teacher publicly claims credit for accomplishments. They consider it as bragging or showboating. Most teachers are humbled by public recognition. By and large teachers do what they do, not just because the public expects it, but it is they who expect it of themselves. That is their strength and their weakness. It is that very feature in teachers that enables a reporter to repeatedly state: “These teachers care more about their jobs than they do about the kids”. That question tears at the teacher more than it resonates with the public.
People have been convinced that the American Education system is failing our country. Too often we try to simplify complicated issues. There are many, many reasons why our education system needs improvement. An objective analysis of the issues is warranted and should be done. Tax reformers, politicians, and business people looking to profit in an education market however often obscure that needed objectivity. To sell the snake oil, they simplify the problem, and target a simple solution, the teacher. It is a travesty that the very group that is maintaining the best of a system, which is in need of repair, while being maligned and even corrupted by the interference of non-educators, has come under attack. Teacher morale is the lowest it has ever been. Teachers are leaving the profession and youngsters are hesitant to enter it. This will only add to the problem.
Teachers need to take back the discussion of education that has been hijacked by so many non-educators. They need to shout out their accomplishments. Administrators need to lead, as well as call out the praises of their teachers. Superintendents need to claim their leadership positions in education to stand against mandates being imposed that are detrimental to education and educators. We must have our leaders connect and collaborate on the needs and solutions for education and not have them dictated to educators by non-educators who are unaware. Public Education is very much in jeopardy if left to the politicians and profiteers. Timidity is not a virtue in a modern educator.
I was recently contacted by Barbara Madden, a Missouri educator with a Mississippi dialect, who is conducting a survey of educators, who use Twitter for Professional Development asking for some feedback. Barbara had been in contact with a college professor who wanted to know the effect of Twitter as PD and it’s effect on student outcomes. That really got me thinking about PD and Twitter. I have heard many, many educators claiming that Twitter is the best PD that they have ever had. Others have said they learned more from Twitter than any graduate, or undergraduate education course they have taken. I would have doubts about both of those statements, or at the least questions about our higher education system if that were true.
Education has always been an isolated profession that called out for collaboration, but it did not have an effective way to collaborate. Department meetings and faculty meetings potentially provided limited collaboration. Education conferences were slightly more collaborative, but educators really had to put themselves out there to find ways to collaborate with other educators in an effective way. Collaboration is a very personal way for an individual to learn. It requires trusting other individuals, which is not easy for many, but it is also, for many people, the best way to learn.
Social Media is simply a conduit for connections. These connections then lead to collaboration. It enables connections to be made globally with ease and in numbers never before possible. It is this ease and quantity of connectedness that fosters collaborative learning on subjects that interest the connected participants. When educators are connected to other educators the natural discussion is education.
The way I look at it is that educators discussing education force each other to think and reflect on what it is that they do in education. Educators are a reflective bunch as a profession. It is the resulting change from all of this collaboration and reflection that enables educators to view what they have been staring at for so long with a new lens.
In addition to viewing things differently, a new level of relevance is added with technological advances being shared. Technology changes so fast that few can keep up with all that is going on. Collectively however, and through the power of collaboration, things are shared, discussed, and experimented with. This is all done with the safety net of collaboration. Failure becomes an option because do-overs become possible. It’s not about how many times you are knocked down, but rather how many times people help you back up. That is what educators do with Twitter.
If we were to measure anything, we would need to know what educators were like before Twitter to evaluate how they interact, reflect and teach or administrate after the Twitter emersion.
Can we measure how an educator views education differently after experiencing collaborative learning as a professional tool? If that experience changes that educator’s outlook, relevance, and educational philosophy, does it change that person as an educator? In what way do we measure that? How do we measure that in regard to its effect on the students’ outcomes? If a teacher is employing different methods of teaching that he, or she has never used before, how do we gauge that as effective or not? If a teacher has gained a better sense of confidence in the classroom, how does that translate to positives for students? Giving teachers the confidence in knowing that there are no longer boundaries to the questions they may ask, or the people they may ask them from may not be measurable. Twitter is more about ideas than titles. In the area of education Administrators, Authors, Teachers, Students, and Parents are all equals on Twitter. Exchange of ideas and experience is the currency of that medium. How do we measure the effect of that on education?
There is now a new gap in education. In a system riddled with too many gaps, this is not good news. Technology and social media specifically have provided tools that enable educators to connect, communicate collaborate and create. That ability makes a difference in individuals. It enables reflection and relevance. It is also creating two groups of educators, the connected, and the unconnected. The discussions of the connected seem to be focused on the future and moving toward it. The discussions of the unconnected seem to be steeped in the past with little or very slow-moving forward movement.
I do not think of Twitter as a tool for providing Professional Development, but rather a tool that enables collaboration. That leads to a curiosity, or more, a love for learning that takes some learners further down the road that all educators should be travelling. By any measure that must be a positive result for educators, that will impact their students in a positive way as well.
Do you ever wonder why history facts that students have learned are not remembered after they are taught? Why many recent graduates can’t make change when they work at McDonalds? Why so many students remember so little from their previous grade level and courses?
Powerful learning is purposeful, meaningful, and contextual to the learner! We are more likely to remember the times tables when we use it to find an area, or quickly figure out how much six of any one item will cost us. Addition and subtraction skills are more likely remembered when they frequently help us make and get change. Historical facts stay with us when they help us examine an issue in history and think about present day issues. Writing skills are less likely to atrophy if they help us communicate a powerful story or communicate a coherent and well thought out point of view that is acknowledged by others.
Unfortunately, much of the time math and writing skills and historical facts are learned without enough application, without context, or without personal meaning. Math skills are learned as repetitious algorithms, sometimes with 25 similar problems at a time. Writing is boiled down to the five-paragraph essay formula. Historical facts are memorized in order to do well on the multiple-choice test. So why would our students remember facts and be able to apply skills? Why would they become good writers and use their voice to create meaningful communication?
Standardized tests only compound the problem. Almost all standardized test questions are “decontextualized” through isolated multiple choice, matching, or fill-in-the-blank questions, short, artificial reading passages, decontextualized problems, and short essays that are mostly designed to see if students remember isolated facts or use low level thinking skills. Even tests of writing skills use artificial, formulaic rubrics to rate students on how well they did in their writing, sometimes scored by computers!
While there are some people who are good at remembering isolated facts and figures, for most of us information and data fade away unless we integrate and connect them to previous learning or figure out how to use them in meaningful ways. Only when we find some use for our learning, some purpose, and use what we learn frequently in different contexts do we store it in a place for ready recall. When this doesn’t happen, students are more likely to do poorly on tests that measure knowledge or apply skills that have been taught and supposedly learned over time.
What makes learning purposeful and contextual? My next door neighbor’s daughter, age 7, is constantly coming into our house with math mysteries -- giving us math problems to solve on the calculator. She loves to do that. She’s practicing her math skills on us! When my daughter was younger, she and a cousin would go around the house measuring the area of everything. The well-known math teacher, Kay Toliver, has created a series of materials and DVD’s that demonstrate her engaging teaching strategies, and in one of them she takes walks around the local school community with her students to discover how the math that she is teaching can be used to figure out the price of an item in a store, or to measure the area of a playground[i].
Unfortunately, much of today’s commercial curricula and curriculum standards are focused on covering too much knowledge and teaching too many skills learned in too short a period of time! In Philadelphia, where I live, the social studies curriculum standards are chock full of so much content, taught is such short periods of time, that it is virtually impossible to teach social studies with any meaning and purpose. Over the years, I’ve examined too many curriculum guides and standards, observed too many teachers, watched too much passivity among students, and read too many traditional tests that emphasize the learning of too many inconsequential facts, trivial skills, and/or global generalities. For some reason, in a world of search engines that enable us to find large amounts of knowledge instantaneously, many still think that the more knowledge students are taught, the more educated they are. We’ve got to come around to the idea that meaningful learning puts greater emphasis on asking good questions, learning how to inquire, focusing on a relatively few core ideas and powerful learning to learn skills, giving students something important to think about, applying learning to new and novel situations, communicating well, giving them a reason to learn something, and slowing down the learning process.
We as educators need to concentrate on and share ways to make learning more purposeful and meaningful for our students. We need to develop good reasons for students to learn what we think is important, put more learning in a larger context, help students make connections and develop networks of learning, and provide more opportunities to apply learning. Purpose and meaning can come in very different forms. Poetry or art education classes might include a discussion of the meaning of a poem or artwork, a comparison of poems or artwork from the same author or artist, and an opportunity for students to write their own poems or create their own artwork in the style of the author or artist. A history teacher might discuss what it was like to live in a different time and place and then explore the question: which time period would you rather live in? A statistics teacher might ask a group of students to create and conduct a survey, and then to tabulate reliable and valid survey data. Sometimes meaning and purpose is created simply by emphasizing the fun of solving mysteries and puzzles, of conducting a research project on something of interest, or of being hooked by a good story.
The current emphasis on “standards” and standardized tests that promote out of context learning, without connections, without motivation and engagement, and without meaningful inquiry is one of the most serious problem in education today. The emphasis in many high schools on taking Advanced Placement tests that include too much knowledge and not enough meaningful and purposeful activity only exacerbates the problem. In place of AP classes, high schools need to offer in-depth elective seminars on a variety of topics that broaden student’s critical and creative thinking and interests, promote discussion, and offer opportunities for research into questions of interest. We need to increase the emphasis at all levels on implementing performance tasks and research projects that help students apply learning and see connections to the outside world. And we need to offer more opportunities for students to interact with the world outside classrooms and schools.
There are ways to do this, and some are already available. Understanding by Design, published by ASCD, has at its core a planning process that promotes the development of unit based essential questions, big ideas that isolate critical knowledge and skills, performance tasks, and interactive, engaging instruction. Project and problem-based design models, such as the project design approach developed by Buck Institute (www.bie.org) also promote meaningful, purposeful learning. Curricula already exist that focus on clarity of purpose, relevance, depth, contextual and meaningful learning[ii].
Until teachers, schools and districts spend more time finding ways to make learning more purposeful, and to engage students in more meaningful learning, we will be teaching too much decontextualized information, ideas and skills that are hard to remember and limited in their usefulness. In a world of so much information and the technology that enables people to find information quickly, literally in the blink of an eye, some purposeless, sterile, decontextualized learning is bound to be part of the educational experience. But without a long-term focus on creating a more meaningful curriculum, too many educational experiences will be built around a traditional learning model that doesn’t provide enough children with purposeful, context driven, and motivating learning experiences.
Let’s hope that we all come to our senses soon and make meaning and purpose a much larger focus of educational planning and practical implementation in a 21st century world.
[i] For further information on her materials, search Kay Toliver or go to: http://www.fasenet.org/store/kay_toliver/#
[ii] For examples of purpose and meaning based curriculum materials, go to:
I have long been a David Letterman fan on any of the shows he has hosted. Over the years one of my favorite Letterman bits has been when he and Paul Shaffer would discuss the possible ability of a specific item to float in water. After their predictions the item would be tossed into a giant, transparent vat of water to determine who was correct. The results were apparent and immediate.
Professional Development has long been an element in American education. At one time things changed slowly so that the need for development seemed less a concern. The country’s shift to being a technology-driven society has increased the rate of change, forcing a need for a more rapid rate of absorption of developments for people in all jobs and professions, but especially education.
The difficulty in education is its goal; it is not just to educate kids about their past and how it relates to the present, but also what to expect in the future. Of course we have no idea what the future holds, because the present is moving so quickly. Consider for a moment the effect of Smartphones and iPads on our culture. iPad technology is but three years old and has had a profound effect on those places that have embraced it. Smartphones have been around a little longer and have taken longer to be accepted by educators, but they are creeping successfully into the system after changing forever how the country communicates and accesses information. All of the technology and its effects have had a great influence on how kids learn and are motivated to learn, as well as what it is they are learning for. In many cases teachers have no idea what they are preparing their students for because their students’ future will be different from our present, and light years from our past. These are all reasons for educators to be relevant in terms of what is needed to teach as well as how to teach today.
The question is: does the system address the need for relevance in education? Many systems require teachers to acquire a specific number of PD hours over a period of time by selecting and taking courses or workshops on topics pertaining to education. These choices are left to the individual teacher to select and obtain. Of course some obvious questions pop up here. If the teacher is not comfortable with technology will technology be part of that teacher’s training. If a teacher has not kept up with current trends and research in education, how will he/she make choices that will best benefit his/her students? Is the teacher versed well enough in technology to relate to the technological changes that effect our population? It always comes down to relevance. Is the teacher able to make relevant decisions based on experience in a technologically driven culture?
Rather than try to hold millions of teachers accountable for these questions, a better method might be to look to the districts and the education leaders. Are they maintaining relevance? Are they providing professional development to their staffs to maintain relevance? Are they supporting teachers with time to collaborate in order to incorporate what they should be doing. Have they gotten beyond the keynote lecture and hourly workshops once, or twice a year as their total commitment to teacher training?
Most educators consider Professional Development a key component to what they need to be an effective teacher. Most Administrators point to Professional Development as a key component to what their teachers need to be effective teachers. Most districts point to Professional Development as the key component to what their district needs to be an effective district. Yet after all of this, TEST Preparation and not Teacher Preparation is still the priority in American education.
Professional Development must be part of a teacher’s workweek. It must be prioritized, paid for, and most importantly PROVIDED. We should not expect anyone to take an uncomfortable path down into unfamiliar territory without some sort of guidance or leadership. It cannot be left up to people who may not know what it is that they do not know to decide on what they need to be effective.
A lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client, and physician heal thy self are commonly understood. Maybe we need a phrase for educators trying to educate themselves? The system of PD in most American schools has become another victim of a fast paced technology driven culture. It no longer works as it did. If we do not change and adapt to meet the changes in our culture, we will surely be irrelevant as an institution. Now here is my question: PD in its present form; Will it Float?