Sunday, August 23, 2020

The Learning Journal: Day 0

School starts for me tomorrow, Monday, August 24. I am an adjunct at a local university teaching ENG101 and Children's Lit. I've been given the choice of teaching in-person, remotely, or in some sort of hybrid model at my discretion.

I'll teach Children's Lit face-to-face (f2f) because it is a small group of students and we'll be able to distance. I'll start ENG101 in person and then see as I know the classroom will not allow students to social distance and I need to be sure they all wear masks when in the classroom.

For the past few weeks I've been having conversations with K-12 teachers in a few districts, providing recorded "show and tell" videos of various strategies and technology tools. We've been talking at length about the challenges of teaching remotely and in-person, given the circumstances, fears, range of challenges, and more.

Like many educators, parents, and just onlookers, I've read numerous articles, opinion pieces, and posts and screeds on Facebook, Twitter, and in blogs. This afternoon I saw this article by a teacher in Hawai'i. Mr. Stinton's message is one of hope. And that reminded me I've read other messages of hope and encouragement. Many of them said, and I paraphrase with abandon, "It wasn't easy, but it wasn't horrible and I think we'll be okay."

Mr. Stinton suggests the same, even as he acknowledges they are all early yet in the school year. So much could happen. And yet, none of the bad stuff might happen. Everyone has to be diligent. Everyone has to be rowing the same direction.

Some friends of mine are moving their son into his university today. They are only mildly apprehensive because they felt like the university did such a good job of making adjustments in the spring when all the kids had to go home. They are confident their son will be smart about things. (I think he's a little afraid of his mom still, and that's kind of cute.)

Some other friends will also be moving their son into his university. She has some medical issues of her own and is worried about her own potential quarantine when she returns home, and she is slightly less confident in many things. I suspect her son will be fine, but I will diminish her concerns. She has every right to have them and feel them. Even so, she is encouraging her son to row with the others and follow the rules.

Mine is a small university, so my sense is that my concerns might be limited. I might not feel the same if I were teaching at a larger school and yet this morning I read about how University of Illinois has prepared for the return of 35,000+ students. UofI expects a bump based on its extensive model, and they believe they are ready unlike some other places that seemed not to make the kinds of plans necessary or have not been as adept at responding to student needs. 

I've got my syllabi ready, and my lesson plans for my first classes ready and drafted for subsequent meetings this week. I am as ready as I think I can be as I prepare to return to a classroom after a 17-year hiatus. Now I just have to figure out what to wear on my first day of school.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Expectations matter for student success: Think forward

I may be alone in this, but I do wish people would stop talking about the COVID slide. Were most students where anyone hoped they would be by the end of 2019-2020? Probably not. Some might have been, but a lot weren't. Okay. But here's the thing: if we start the 2020-2021 school year with the expectation that students are behind, we start from a position of defeat. 

I know school has already started in some places, which boggles my mind. Others won't be starting for a few weeks yet and may think there is way too much work that has to be done for remote learning to be done successfully. Well, they're partially right because there is a lot of work but lesson and unit design doesn't have to be completed for the whole school year.

There are lots of articles from individuals with far more renown than I in the education space, but a lot of us are saying similar things. I will also say this: we are missing one heck of an opportunity to transform learning if we don't begin to make some changes now. 

I've said some of these things in my videos and in some of my blog posts, but I'll highlight some thoughts because of this Education Dive article about the so-called COVID slide.
  1. Assess early, but don't go overboard. Yes, and target those assessments. For example, if I teach 4th grade, I'll look at my critical or power standards for where kids should be at the start of 4th grade. I'll give them a brief assessment based on similar 3rd grade standards or the standards that lead to what kids need to know for my 4th grade standards. That's it. I don't need to assess any further than that because it won't matter. I need to focus on first things first. I can do similar assessments for other content areas, but none of these assessments have to be long or arduous. Students will be experiencing enough stress without compounding it will assessments even they know are to indicate how far behind they are which may easily translate to how stupid they are. 
  2. Standardize online learning by which they mean standardize the platform rather than offering students a hodge podge. I'm working with a school district that is using Google Classroom for every grade but kindergarten, and I understand why. It makes sense and so, in that sense, they have standardized. However, they are giving teachers opportunity to figure out how best to use that platform for their grade levels and which other tools they may choose to use. In many districts there seems to be more grade level collaboration as well as more vertical collaboration than ever before. What a stupendous opportunity we cannot squander! 
  3. Expect varied experiences. In one household a student barely kept up with his work last spring whereas in another household a student kept up with everything. The difference? Teachers. We've all heard the horror stories of remote learning gone bad or rogue, which made sense given that last spring was mostly crisis teaching and learning. We've all heard stories of parents who have done more to engage with their children, as they've been able, to find online resources. And we've seen stories of teachers who went the extra mile (on top of the thousands of extra miles they already go for students) to help students be as successful as possible. That was then, and this is now. Everyone has learned. Parents have learned. Teachers have learned. Students, well, some students have learned. 
Many have learned more about how to make remote learning more successful, more palatable, less stressful, and, to some extent, more accessible. I think that remains one of the greatest challenges--accessibility and continuity in many households. 

I want to say this in flashing neon letters: just because students come from single-parent homes or just because students come from homes with less than others does NOT mean they haven't been learning and learning important things. What they've been learning may not fit tidily into any standards but guess what? learning and life are messy and rarely fit tidily into any standards. We cannot, however, discount that students may have been learning some powerful and positive lessons because of and through this pandemic. 

I will say this again: if we start with the expectation that students aren't where we think they should be, that they are behind because of summer slide exacerbated by COVID slide, we start school from a position of defeat and negativity. But if we start from where we are and determine where our students are and learn about them to figure out and help them figure out what they can and where they can be, we start from a position of POSSIBILITY. Then so much of what we do is informed by a perspective and an expectation of what we can do and what our students can do. We start from positivity. We start from strength. We start from a mindset of what can be and look AHEAD, not behind.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Creating Balance Between Teaching and Learning, Part Last

Part 1 is here and it's a stroll through some educational history: some Ira Shor, thinking about constructivism with a dash of Vygotsky, and ruminating about the effects of NCLB and AYP. Probably a bit too prosaic and theoretical.
Part 2 is here and it has a smidge more meat. You may push away from the table still hungry, though there some tasty bites.

The tasty bits and bites
I end Part 1 with some questions, a truly annoying habit I have of which I'm well aware and yet seem to be unable (maybe unwilling) to squelch. I'm reframing the questions a bit for this reprise because I've done more reading and thinking since then. And so. . .
  • When thinking about finding balance between my role as educator and my students' roles as learners, what is the role of cognitive rigor and cognitive load? (I need to be aware of students' abilities to manage cognitive load and I need to give them options for levels of cognitive rigor which means I might to revisit the concept of performance tasks and Webb's DOK). 
  • Do my students really understand the purpose of assessments or are they simply a grim imperative on their intellectual capability or a celebration of their capacity? (They probably don't realize that assessments, including homework, could be ways for them to measure their growth and development, to celebrate what they're doing well and better determine what they've not achieved yet.
  • When I opt for differentiation, is that what we today call choice and is that somehow informed by Tomlinson's view that differentiation is "an instructional approach to help teachers teach with individuals as well as content in mind. Differentiation really means trying to make sure that teaching and learning work for the full range of students, which really should be our goal as teachers." Yes.
In Part 2 I was momentarily inspired by a recollection of performance tasks and Webb's DOK. I was thinking about tiered or layered assignments and how students could be given the option of the pathway they chose to showcase their learning.

Thinking more about differentiation and assessment
Before the end of this post, I'm going to make a shameless plug for a recorded "presentation" I've done as I've been thinking about differentiation, assessment, and feedback. I've kept in mind more of what Tomlinson had to say in 2011 about differentiation, and gave maybe a heartbeat of thought to how her thinking has evolved since the 90s because one would hope her thinking would evolve. Her comments in 2011:
Differentiation requires second order change. It really requires many teachers to change their approach to teaching as a whole—how we think about students and their capabilities, how we use assessment, how curriculum is crafted, flexible instruction to ensure that students go where they need to go. Perhaps most challenging, it asks teachers to learn to handle a classroom where two or three or four things are sometimes happening at the same time.
Differentiation seems to be that we offer our students options or choices in the way or ways they might go about this process of learning. In her 2017 text How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms (3rd), Tomlinson gives us seven things differentiation is:
  • proactive: lessons, tasks, and activities are designed to be "robust enough to engage and challenge the full range of learners;"
  • more qualitative than quantitative so that the nature of the assignments is more conducive to the way the learner learners and can best express that learning;
  • rooted in assessment--and here I'll editorialize a bit--in that both the teacher and the students recognize that EVERY task and activity is a form of assessment from which both the teacher and the students can learn something about the process of learning, the students readiness for (another dash of Vygotsky) and inclination towards learning;
  • taking multiple approaches to content, or what students are to learn; process, or how students go about making sense of what they have learned, what they are to learn, and why; and product, or how students demonstrate, express, or showcase their learning;
  • student-centered; 
  • a blend of whole-class, group, and individual instruction; and
  • is "organic" and dynamic in that teachers and students learn together and from each other.
That last point might sound a little too kitschy for some teachers, but I do have issues with educators who think they can never learn something from their students.

I love this statement: "Teachers monitor the match between learner and learning and make adjustments as warranted. And while teachers are aware that sometimes the learner/learning match is less than ideal, they also understand that they can continually make adjustments."

Don't make that face. Teachers do this all the time--they are constantly aware of what's working and what isn't. The adjustments many try to make is not about the lesson, activity, or task but about the student and how the students is working. The teacher who observes that something isn't quite working for a student says something like, "Hey. Looks like something isn't going the way you'd like. What don't you try. . .?". 

AND, if the teacher is using a single point rubric, this adjustment doesn't cause as much ajita because teachers are frequently concerned about how to assess student work, and rightly so.

And now we've wandered into assessment.

In finding balance between teaching and learning, I think we all need to keep in mind three questions:
  1. WHAT do we want students to know and be able to do?
  2. WHY do we want students to achieve those learning expectations?
  3. HOW do we want them to learn what they need to learn and HOW do we want them to be able to show what they know and can do?
This is one of the major ways we create balance between teaching and learning. When we think very specifically about WHY we want students to do whatever we want them to do, we can see more clearly HOW we want them to get from where they are to where they need to be AND we can help them understand where we have to be more prescriptive and where we can allow them a bit more freedom.

For example, in chemistry and many other science experiments, prescriptive procedures are imperative. It may be possible for them to find their own ways to learn and retain those procedures, but maybe not. If they understand the WHAT, WHY, and HOW, it is easier for them to begin to manage their learning.

We talk about giving students ownership, then we dangle the keys just out of reach.

We talk about giving students agency, then we give them a checklist.

We talk about meeting students where they are to help them get where they need to go without telling them that we've already decided what they'll wear, the route they'll take, and everything else they will have to do down to the size of the lines on their paper because so often we have a very precise view of what the end is supposed to look like, sound like, and smell like and we really don't want to have to figure out how to grade any variations.

Okay, so, I teach writing and yes, I do tell students that margins have to be 1" and I prefer a san serif font and I prefer the font size to be 12, but that depends on the font. So, yes, for some things we have to be prescriptive. But making it easier on myself is not being student-centered, so if I use a single point rubric I'm more likely to have some flexibility in how students find their ways from where they are to where they need to be.

When our students also have an idea of the end we have in mind and they have an idea of some specific of the learning objectives and goals, they could have more opportunity to have a say in how they proceed from where they are to where they need to be. 

Will some get lost along the way? Sure, but we're the facilitator and guide to help them figure out the path and get back on it.

Will some fall short? Sure, and, again, we're the facilitator and guide to help them get across the finish line even though really isn't a race.

Will some choose a shortcut or do less than they're able? Of course they will and part of our responsibility is to let them know that we're on to them and to find ways to encourage them to reach and push the limits of their capabilities.

Here are some sort of last thoughts because I'll keep working on this for a while. It's a fascinating puzzle that has no actual shape with pieces that keep shifting in size, color, and design and there is no clear design because the puzzle box lid is nowhere in sight.
  • Differentiation done right and well means that I will work really hard at first, and then should be working differently hard once my students get the flow of how things will work.
  • Differentiation done right and well means that my students and I will find some balance between the work they do as learners and I do as teacher, facilitator, and guide, and that sometimes the balance edges more towards them and sometimes it edges more towards me.
  • Creating balance between teaching and learning means I have to trust my students to be learners which means I have to trust that I am a good teacher, facilitator, and guide to help them be and become the kinds of learners they can be and become.

And now my shameless plug for this recorded presentation on differentiation, assessment, and feedback. I didn't discuss feedback specifically in this post, though I think the three are inextricably linked.

If we're going to create balance between teaching and learning, we have to think differently about differentiation, assessment, and feedback, especially in an online/distance/virtual learning environment as well as in the classroom.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Be concerned, be smart, be safe. The 2020-2021 school year will be online.

Lots of others have written on this topic and I really have little to add, though I will add more.

Dr. Kylene Beers, a renowned educator, wrote this in her blog post: "EASIER IS NOT SAFELY. FASTER IS NOT SAFELY."

My colleague Tracy Antonioli wrote this in her compellingly titled blog post, No One Wins, But No One Dies: What School Must Look Like in Fall of 2020: Schools cannot be re-opened safely.

Please note the word SAFELY

The classroom is only a place. It is not the imperative for learning. Educators are.

Tracy's solutions have merit and many of the districts with which I'm familiar are learning in this direction. Teachers won't be happy. Parents won't be happy. And a whole bunch of kids won't be happy, but the point is not your happiness. The point is safety: everyone's safety.

Someone from Fairfax County Public Schools wrote an extensive post about people's concerns regarding NOT going back to school. The post is making the rounds on Facebook with a bright yellow #302 box. LMK if you've not seen it. I won't share the whole thing here, but I will sum up some of the points he made that I've heard repeatedly.
  1. My kids want to go back to school. As he pointed out, maybe. They want, you want, we all want, what is familiar and comfortable. They want to see their friends; so do we. They want to hang out in the cafeteria with their friends. They want, you want, we all want whatever normal was for us before mid-March 2020.
  2. Kids are going to be left behind. Hello. The whole country has been left behind. Are you concerned they'll be behind some artificial measure of what any kid should know in a particular grade? Perhaps this is the most propitious time to re-examine what we think students really need to know and be able to do and that may have nothing to do with what standardized test results tell us.
  3. Classrooms are safe. Really? When was the last time you were in a classroom with 20+ kids of any age? Imagine being in a classroom with more than 20, let's say, 3rd graders, and expecting them to stay at some safe distance from each other when your classroom is already barely large enough for them, their stuff, and their desks. How are you going to make sure that the desks and chairs and every other surface is wiped down sufficiently whenever students leave the room? How are you going to make sure they do not share pencils, markers, crayons, erasers, binders, whatever? Let's look at middle and high school classrooms and the fact that students change classrooms. Unless we suggest that students stay in one room and teachers move from room to room. No matter what, ensuring safety of everyone will be a problem.
  4. Kids are less susceptible. Well, that seemed to be true, but now it seems not to be true. The fact is that we know considerably less about this virus than we need to know to a) keep people safe, b) keep people from dying, c) keep the virus from spreading, and d) find a workable vaccine.
I've seen Tracy's guidelines echoed elsewhere. It's all doable. Little of it is what anyone really wants. All of it is intended to keep everyone safe and still work towards providing students with opportunities for learning.
  • All instruction online. 
    • Lower your eyebrows and stifle that sigh. What we had to do in March was extraordinary and while some did it well, most educators felt like it was the worst experience ever in teaching. Kids thought they had an extended spring break and then an early summer break. But we know more now and we can be better prepared to make this accommodation and to make sure that students, all students have the technology resources they need.
    • We can make sure that teachers have the professional support they need to design solid lesson for online or even blended delivery because some schools are trying to figure out how they might have students on campus for at least two days a week. If I lived in a community in which there were few or no reported cases of COVD-19, I'd be tempted to go the partial in-school route. . . IF IT CAN BE DONE SAFELY.
    • Districts must invest in resources to enable teachers to provide instruction.
  • If students MUST be in a building for a whole host of reasons--no adult can be home with the children and no child care is available, students need particular services, etc.--the classrooms must be sanitized, there must be a schedule for repeated cleaning, everyone has to wear a mask, and there must be appropriate distancing and even partitions or some way to separate kids.
    • Parents have to take the responsibility to check temperatures every morning. EVERY morning. Any child with a fever stays home and stays home for a quarantine period.
    • Substitute teachers are already hard to find and will only be harder to find but because of this economy, it's possible there will be adults who will be willing and able to step in to provide various levels of care and support for students who must be in a school building. These folks are not teachers. They could be reading buddies, they could be tutors, they could be individuals who like to play games with kids and support their socialization and learning in various ways. They are not quite paraprofessionals, but they are more than babysitters.
Like others, I've been reading and re-reading about the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. It lasted over a year. There were three waves.

I've also been reading about the history of vaccines and why it takes so long to develop a vaccine. Apparently it can take up to 10 years to develop, test, and distribute a vaccine. 

Others suggest there is a remote possibility the virus could peak before a vaccine is found, as was the case for H1N1, but even those who say seem to think the possibility is very remote.

There are plenty of us who can help prepare teachers, prepare administrators, even prepare students. We can also help support teachers, administrators, and some of us can even support students throughout the school year.

I've started a Google Classroom with the intent of making it a sort of PLC. If you're interested, LMK and I'll send you the code after we "chat"--via email or a virtual call--about what you need so I can be sure those needs can be met.

I've started posting some videos on a YouTube channel, EduTechxplorer, though I'll also put them in the Classroom. The videos are to help you as you develop lessons for your online/remote/distance learning classroom.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Creating Balance for Teaching and Learning, Part 2

In Part 1 I felt compelled to do a slight bit of educational archaeology, delving into a bit of exploration of Constructivism and what happened with NCLB and its subsequent iterations.

I started thinking more about how to find this balance between teaching and learning, especially as we're thinking about pandemic-era teaching and learning. I asked a lot of questions about understanding rigor more, contemplating the impact of cognitive load, more effective use of technology, being more mindful about the use of formative assessments, how standards apply and matter, and more.

But I realize I have to back up a bit to get to the root of why thinking about creating balance for teaching and learning matters, at least to me.

In 2009, Robyn Jackson wrote a book titled Never Work Harder Than Your Students (ASCD). I have confessed several times that I've never actually read the book though I've never forgotten the title, obvs. 

Here's the thing: teachers DO work harder than their students. They have prep, they have grading, they have SEL concerns that linger long past the school bell and start well before it, and they have managing all of the "other duties as assigned" for which they volunteer or get voluntold. So let's just get straight that most teachers will work harder than the majority of their students and do so throughout the calendar year and well after dinner time, whenever dinner times happens to be on any given night.

Creating a balance for teaching and learning is NOT trying to balance the ration of how much time and effort teachers exert to how much time and effort students exert.

In my meanderings, I found several articles and posts in which people said what I've often said and that is that we need to focus more on how students learn rather than how we teach. Which makes sense in some ways and is completely preposterous in others.

In 2011 David Truss wrote a post titled "We aren't in the 'teaching business,' rather we are in the 'learning business.'", and which is where I found that nifty teaching/learning scale image. Go ahead and read the post if you like though I don't think you'll find anything new. Part of his argument is that teachers are also learners. True.

Many of us have attended professional development that has been useful and helped shaped our practice. We have also attended PD that has been less helpful and useful. You can describe your experience however you like. My point is that our learning is not always been even, elevating, engaging, and entertaining. Huh.

I have several scattered thoughts here I'll try to gather into a coherent point.
  • I worked with a teacher who was so frustrated with her students when they were reviewing some content because she had just taught it to them the day before.
  • Teachers talk about "covering" content.
  • It's been several years since I first saw the question "Would you want to be a student in your classroom?", but, like the title of Robyn Jackson's book, I can't forget it. 
Which leads me to this:
  1. Teachers learn about strategies and resources to become better teachers.
  2. Teachers want to become better teachers because better teaching will help their students learn.
  3. Students need to acquire information, which may become knowledge and actual learning, because they need to do well on assessments.
  4. Students need to do well on assessments so scores suggest that students are learning.
I think that's the logic; I know that's how my mind has worked anyway. Nothing wrong with that except I've realized and learned that some of us have never really bothered to tell the students. . . or their parents.

Go ahead. Tip your head like a dog listening to a funny sound or hoping that crackling noise will lead to a treat. You're processing.

Here's the big question: ARE STUDENTS ACTUALLY LEARNING?

See, I don't remember being taught how to learn. I learned because of the lessons given to me and because of the assessments and because of the grades I got and whether or not those grades mattered to anyone. (I was an ambivalent student; let's leave it at that.)

It wasn't until I got to college that I realized I had truly badly developed, let's say underdeveloped, study skills. But I also realized I was reading, taking notes, synthesizing, and summarizing to prepare for tests. It wasn't until I was in graduate school that I figured out to apply the learning thing to academics.

Yes, I learned a lot of things before graduate school, especially since I was in my early 30s before I went to graduate school. I'm sure there were plenty of things of actual use I learned during my undergraduate years of college because there were things I'm sure I managed to retain. Please don't try to test that theory.

Back in 2013, my friend Kevin Honeycutt (@KevinHoneycutt) started sharing out #Learn2Learn. Some of that was directed towards teachers, but some of it had to do with his own story, which you should hear from him, especially if you want to be inspired as an educator.

But Kevin also wants to inspire kids to become and be learners. To realize that a lot can happen in the classroom that is important, powerful, engaging, electrifying, relevant, useful, helpful, and so much more. I think all educators want that but too often we get bogged down by expectations and demands beyond our control. Like standardized tests, and that's all I'm going to say about that.

Because to find that balance for teaching and learning, we have to be designing teaching for the purpose of student learning. You're muttering about how obvious that is but hear me out. Yes, most teachers do think they are designing teaching for the purpose of student learning. Teachers are thinking about standards, SLOs, and more. They are trying to design lessons with the end in mind, but exactly what is the end in mind?

A bunch of years ago people got all excited about multiple intelligences, and then excited about learning styles, and then excited about teaching styles and dedicated hundreds of hours of professional development to learning about those things and how to apply them to their teaching. Some teachers had students do surveys of their learning styles. So on and so on. You may have lived through this.

When I think about that question "Would you like to be a student in your own classroom?", what I think about is whether or not I can design lessons--activities, tasks, lectures, and whatever combination of whatever--that provides opportunities for students to want to do more than be compliant.

I want to design lessons that not only build on student background knowledge, but entice them to continue construction. I want to create or frame out activities that encourage them to dig deeper, to wonder, to ask questions and then allow them the freedom and the time, whenever possible, to pursue their curiosity. And if they're not curious or very much interested in that particular lesson, that doesn't mean there won't be something later that entices them to want to know even a little more.

In other words, I think where I land in creating this balance for teaching and learning is that I provide them with resources, with background information and context, and maybe a few starter questions. I make sure they're aware of the learning objectives and how they will be measured against those standards and then, wherever possible, give them options to achieve those objectives. And when I can't give them too much or any choice, explain why.

Now those of you who teach certain concrete things are wondering how this can apply to you, and with good reason. Some months ago I was talking with a middle school math teacher. We were talking about the importance of students understanding the math processes. She was talking about problems she wanted them to do to demonstrate their understanding and that they needed to understand the importance of showing their work.

I had an epiphany and a multi-part idea. Here was the epiphany: showing my work is as much for me as it is for the teacher. Only took me a few decades to get there.

Here was the multi-part idea: 
  1. Give students a few problems to complete. There is no point in giving them a whole bunch of problems if their inability to do one tells you something. Decide the role of each problem or task in informing you about their misconceptions, their understanding, and maybe even the connections they've made with prior learning.
  2. Give the students a few problems and each problem has a part or parts of the process missing. Their task is to figure out the missing part of the process.
  3. Give the students a few problems to complete and make sure there are a couple of errors. The students have to find and correct the errors to determine the correct solution to the problem.
I think variations of that could work in a number of content areas.

Take a moment to reflect on what students have to do to complete each of those problems and how it reflects not only what they've actually learned, but what they've recalled, what they can replicate (all DOK 1), what they can synthesize, what they can reason, and probably more. If you give them three problems of each "category," that's nine problems and then you can give them a 10th "bonus" problem. I'd have three more problems, one from each category, and they have to choose which one to complete. That choice will tell me something about each learner as well.

All of that might be sufficient as we think about this balance of teaching and learning, but all educators know that the work accomplished in a classroom isn't only about content. I'll approach that in the third and final part of this particular journey.

Thank you for coming along.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Creating Balance for Teaching and Learning: Part 1

I have a collection of books scattered around my work area. Some that have languished on shelves for a while; others that have been perched on my "to read" pile for another while. John Spencer's Vintage Innovation rubs covers with Kieran Egan's Getting It Wrong from the Beginning which rests near Neil Postman's The End of Education which shadows James Alan Sturtevant's Hacking Education: 50 Tips & Tools to Engage Teachers and Learners Daily. There are others muttering that I should be paying attention to them as well. I share this observation about the cluttered range of texts I've read and revisited as I continue to ponder this beautiful work of teaching and of learning because, in what drives and motivates and encourages us, all teachers are learners.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Learning to Teach; Learning to Learn: Part III

The formal field of learning science was new to me, but in my research I learned that it is very definitely a growing field. In fact, in an article about the field, the McGraw-Hill Applied Learning Sciences team has this to say
The learning sciences allow us to ask fundamental questions about every single aspect of the classroom, and then draw from a broad and deep base of research to answer those questions in ways that enhance our practice and empower our learners. This truly is the intersection of where the science of learning meets the art of teaching — because learning science offers us the power to apply empirical validation to our decision-making in education.

What fascinates me is that although we spend a significant amount of time investing in teacher learning, preparation, and professional development, we spend considerably less time really thinking about student learning.

And, randomly, why is learning a science and not its own form of art? Why does learning have to be so encumbered although I appreciate how brain science, psychology, sociology, and other -ologies help us better understand how to make learning more accessible for students? But isn't it interesting that so much is available to and for teachers and so little seems to be for the learners themselves so they can better understand how to make the best possible use of learning tools and resources?

I mean, sure, we talk about student learning in the course of teacher professional development, but the focus of any PD is on the teacher and the strategies, resources, tools, etc. that the teacher might use. We seem to spend far too little time talking about the other side of that PD experience: the student.

Any of us who have facilitated professional learning have heard so many reasons why a particular strategy or tool or what-not will not work, and it's often something about the students, if it's not about time. I will readily admit that school systems are stacked against students as well as teachers. Michael Soskil, an amazing teacher who lives and works in Pennsylvania, posted in Facebook about his own frustrations with the educational system as he reflected on systemic racism and how our school systems perpetuates ways of thinking and doing. And if you don't follow Michael on Twitter, you should: @MSoskil.

It might be too easy to say that standardized tests, pacing guides, the way we use textbooks or digital text resources, and the way we use adaptive or any learning resources contribute to the way we fail students in helping them learn to be learners. That's only partially true because I've witnessed educators find ways to work around, with, and in spite of the systems that hamper them. I think there are things we need to understand about student learning. No, I think there are things students need to understand about student learning, but we'll start with what educators need to think and know about.

Some research on student learning
In 2018, McREL International published a paper titled "Student Learning That Works: How brain science informs a student learning model." (Please note the use of the article "a"--it is not THE learning model but a model, one model of what could be many models.)

Bryan Goodwin, the paper's author, highlights the fact that learning is something we rarely talk about; I confess to be gratified that I'm not alone in my thinking. Goodwin notes that we have numerous frameworks for teaching and evaluating teaching because the emphasis on what helps makes schools successful has been and is about teaching.

But teaching is one part of the equation because student success is really about students learning. And if students can't learn or don't learn, no framework is going to matter.

Goodwin goes on to talk about some of the neuroscience behind learning: the significance of the three major phases of remembering and the roles of different memory capacities and capabilities--immediate, working, and long-term.

Let me take a little side trip here. I posted a question on Facebook about how people learn something new. Those who responded are all accomplished adults, and many of them are or were educators. They referenced the need for both visual and audio learning support, they mentioned the value of having something modeled or demonstrated, they expressed the importance of relevance, and they talked about how chunking a task was important. These are folks who have learned how they learned.

Younger students have impressions of how they're supposed to learn and they work within the parameters of teacher expectations for what learning results look like. Older students have adjusted as they have gotten older, perhaps intuitively realizing that not all teachers have the same expectations and not all tests are created equal or have the same ultimate impact on their school lives. And when teachers complain that the only thing students want to know is if something will be on the test or if the work is for a grade, we really have no one to blame but ourselves and the systems of school. Because we seem to have taught students that learning is all about the grade and all about the test.

Let me go back to Goodwin for a moment. After he addresses the importance of getting students interested in something, the next task is to "help students commit to learning new knowledge." Teachers can do that by "presenting new knowledge and skills as part of a big picture that impacts their lives as well as help them to set clear, reachable goals for their learning."


We've been doing all of that or trying all of that for years, so it's time to step back and again rethink this whole learning thing and how teaching has a role in helping students become and be learners. The kind of thinking Goodwin purports is the very reason constructivism came to be and why teachers are trying to explore personalization, even blended learning. The kind of direction offered by Goodwin is one of the reasons so much has been written about gradual release of responsibility. They know they are working too hard and they know students need to have more responsibility for their learning, but everyone seems to be trapped within the system of teaching and learning.

It's all about the students and THEIR learning
I've long said this. And I know I react somewhat badly when the entirety of a professional learning experience is based on what the teacher is doing and she/he/they might be doing it without any reference to what is happening on the other side of the experience: the students who are expected to learn.

I just had another random thought, though it's probably not so random. You know all of those times you've facilitated PD or been in PD and teachers have been asked to behave like third graders or try to engage in any activity like their students? How likely is it that teachers are trying to experience something like they hope students will experience it rather than really, really, REALLY trying to see that strategy or tool through the eyes of their students?

In 2009, Robyn Jackson published Never Work Harder Than Your Students through ASCD. Ms. Jackson writes of seven principles; they follow with my thoughts:
  1. Start where your students are.
    • Or at least where groups of them are because you've got 27 to 32 kids in your f2f or virtual classroom and it's hard to start exactly where every student is. 
    • Make sure your students know where they are and make it clear that if they are ahead or behind or right where they're supposed to be, you've got them.
  2. Know where your students are going. 
    • Make sure your students know where they are going by helping them understand the immediate goals or, if they are older, by helping them set reasonable and meaningful goals.
    • Help them understand WHY they need to accomplish this goal and please don't tell them it's so they can be successful in a higher grade or pass a test. There are skills they are learning as well as content they are learning, so there are good, strong, and relevant reasons for them to go through this learning experience.
  3. Expect to get your students there.
    • Even better, expect your students to be able to get themselves there.
    • Kids know if you think they can't do it, even if you say nothing. They are able to read your facial expressions, your body language, and your tone of voice. What you say and do may only amplify what they hear at home, so you need to believe in them no matter what. No matter what. No matter what.
    • No matter what.
  4. Support your students along the way.
    • Review goals with them to see if they need to chunk it further.
    • Help them understand that not all learning is "fun" just as everything about life isn't fun, and help them understand that while they think they might not be good at or interested in certain things, they can't know for sure until they explore it.
    • Help them understand that a key element of learning is willing to try something new and that there is valuable learning is failure.
    • Find out what's getting in their way if they seem to be struggling and understand they may not be able to articulate what's getting in the way.
    • Offer options for learning. In the 90s we did a lot of work with learning styles until they were no longer the new shiny thing and there are plenty of educators who think learning styles are bunk. And yes, kids need to be exposed to various options because it can't hurt to learn how to learn in ways that are uncomfortable and unfamiliar, but you have to help them figure out what works best and you have to help them figure out when to tackle something new and uncomfortable and only, only, ONLY when they know you support them and believe in them.
    • This is where professional learning could have the most emphasis and with the perspective that by improving a teacher's craft, a teacher is improving the likelihood that students will be better able to learn.
  5. Use feedback to help you and your students get better.
    • And use feedforward. Help students see what they've done well and what they need to work on.
    • Use feedforward to help them see how they can apply what they've learned about themselves and their learning to improve their work on the next task or project.
    • Encourage them to be a part of the process of understanding their learning rather than bystanders. It is their learning, after all.
  6. Focus on quality rather than quantity.
    • I've never understood teachers who assign a lot of versions of the same thing. Why assign 20 problems when you can tell with only 5 problems if a student can do the work or needs help?
    • Learn more about cognitive load theory so you can help them manage a reasonable work load and, therefore, help manage towards more success in learning.
  7. Never work harder than your students.
    • Education is a tacit partnership.
    • Every teacher, aide, specialist, and paraprofessional is an integral member of the partnership.
    • In this partnership, the teacher needs to try to make clear the parameters of the partnership: the teacher will do his/her/their part and the student will do his/her/their part. The student's part must be clear and specific, including taking on the responsibility to do the work of learning.
I know there are some who are pooh-poohing pretty much everything and I get that. This kind of conversation really needs to be a conversation because one size does not fit all and what works in one teacher's classroom may not work as well in another because just as there are learning styles, there are teaching styles. And, of course, building, district, and state initiatives can create barriers for some of what teachers want to be able to do.

I think the bottom line is that we get in the way of our students and their success more often that we realize. Until we pause for a bit to think about what it means to learn and what learning could look like, sound like, and feel like in our classrooms, we will continue to impede our students. And it just doesn't have to be that way.

My plan was for this to be a 3-part series because it's a manageable segmenting for readers. Part I can be found here and Part II can be found here. I will be doing more thinking about learning and how I think we need to shift our educational focus to learning rather than teaching. That's not to say that we don't focus at all on teaching because we can't stop, but we can adjust the balance. Too many teachers have gotten into the habit that all of what happens in the classroom is on them, is their responsibility. By providing so much support or scaffolding, I think we have inadvertently undermined students' beliefs in themselves and their abilities and in their understanding that they have a role and a responsibility in learning.