Sunday, January 5, 2020

Does a mistake have to be an "epic" fail? Or does it just feel like one?

I've been thinking a lot about failure. There's no need to suggest an intervention of some sort. It's just that I've been paying particular attention to all of the things that educators should be doing, or ought to try or implement in their classrooms. It's exhausting. I mean, it's only the beginning of the year and already educators are getting pressed to try or read or do something new. There are just so many lists out there!

I wrote recently about failing forward and whether or not that was truly a thing in education. I'm not sure we really believe that failing forward is okay or that FAIL is the "first attempt in learning." Yes, some teachers do and do that well, encouraging their students when they make a mistake, helping their students that a mistake was not the end of their learning or personal universe, etc. And through that encouragement, and through teachers modeling how to behave when they make a mistake, is helping students learn how to fail.

It amused me that after I published my blog, there were other considerably better known educators and bloggers who published about failure, so clearly I was channeling something, and it caused me to reflect more on how we see and respond to "failure." I put the word in quotes quite deliberately because one of the things I muse on in my other blog is the difference between making a mistake and actual failure.

Apollo 13: Launching "Failure Is Not an Option"
Museum of Flight
The movie Apollo 13 was released in 1995. It was, and is, a compelling film. From that, thousands, maybe even millions, of people adopted the famous phrase "failure is not an option." Now, in the film, failure really wasn't an option, not if they wanted to get the crew back to Earth alive. Those were very distinct and important parameters, and there were very clear implications and consequences if that engineering team failed or if the crew failed to implement the solution successfully.

After the film there were movements in leadership and in education about failure not being an option. Go ahead and Google "failure is not an option" to see the numbers of books and articles espousing that very idea. Among those books was Alan Blankstein's book, Failure is Not an Option: Six Principles That Guide Student Achievement in High-Performing Schools. I have issues and not just the qualifier of "high-performing," though I should note the title changed in the 3rd edition to "highly effective" schools.

Based on an account of his ASCD presentation, the first three principles Blankstein espoused are not unfamiliar: 1) Teachers pursue a clear, shared purpose for all student learning; 2) teachers engage in collaborative activity to achieve that purpose; and 3) teachers take collective responsibility for all student learning." Yet, that's all about the teachers and what they do. What about the students?

Oh it certainly didn't help that schools were shamed when test scores weren't good and browbeaten when test scores were failing, and then teachers were equally shamed for "teaching to the test" which they really had to do to make sure their test scores were good even though most competent human beings know that standardized tests aren't necessarily equivalent to measuring actual learning or that they measure actual learning that is worthwhile.

Why "epic" fail?
I know "epic" is a cool descriptive, but in the part of my mind that is a pursed-lip, frowning language pedant, I'm troubled by the overuse because then what do we use when something is truly epic? You know, something amazing and truly heroic? I don't mean something that makes you look like a fool because you tried a trick on your skateboard and fell without managing to do serious harm to yourself.

But hold on, there's some learning to do here.

In 2018, A.J. Juliani, an educator and blogger I follow and for whom I have great respect, published a blog titled "My 2018 Failing Report." That's pretty innocuous, right? In it he has a great image of the difference between one's plans and the actual reality, which serves to remind us that most things don't go as we plan. In the blog he talks about the "epic fail board" and his mantra, "Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn." In the blog he goes to talk about what he believes constitutes his failures; for example, he wanted to create a number of videos but created only two. He explains that he learned through the process of creating videos and how those worked with his blogs. My favorite part of this blog is this:
Failing, it seems, is part of the job. Admitting that you’ve struggled is one thing. Sharing how you’ve struggled and learned is what I’m aiming for with this post.
Then I read about an Epic Fail Board at Northern Arizona University, it's focus on mental health. As I read this article, it occurred to me that "epic" is a matter of perspective.

In the moment, a mistake can feel like an epic--as in colossal, life-changing, horrific, death-defying--failure.

We've all had those moments and, later, when the emotion has ebbed away, realized the situation wasn't as dire as all that. Though, yes, it certainly felt epic until it didn't.

How to fail successfully
Way back in 1982, Jill Briscoe published a book titled How to Fail Successfully. Briscoe is a Christian writer and appealing to Christian readers and I seem to recall some kerfuffle about the title, that maybe some people wouldn't want to read the book because of the word "fail" in the title. And yet the Bible is filled with individuals who failed and her point is that they needed to fail to be successful or that they were successful in spite of or because of their failure.

Just reflect on that for a moment because you know it's true. We do learn through mistakes and often learn more and better because of mistakes. And if you don't believe me--and you have no reason to do so even if in your heart of hearts you really do--you can believe these folks who tell us that learning is optimized when we fail 15% of the time. It's also called the Eighty-Five Percent Rule for Optimal Learning.

How do mere mortal teachers measure that on a day-to-day basis? Hey, they know. They know which kids are breezing through their work and so not really learning anything new. They know the kids who are making mistakes and gutting it out to figure it out. They know the kids who are making mistakes and believe their lives are over and the kids who just don't care. Apathy is a completely different topic, and that blog post is to come.

Now I circle back to those teachers who encourage their students through their mistakes, who help them understand they've made a mistake and it is not the end of the world. They are the teachers who permit students to retake a test or redo an assignment because the teacher's emphasis is on the learning, not on the grade.

The colossal and complex challenge for teachers and students alike is that we send mixed messages to and through the classroom. Yes, we want you to learn to learn and we want you to learn through your mistakes but we have a curriculum to follow so fail faster and learn faster and make fewer mistakes or just accept your crappy grade and get left behind. And that, of course, helps contribute to apathy because if the teacher doesn't care, why should the student?

Learning from business, and wrapping this up
Business coaches, leaders, and other gurus all are about failing forward. John Maxwell built an industry around the concept.

Failing forward is about learning from mistakes and intuitively recognizing that making mistakes comes with innovation, comes with ideation, comes with learning. We know the 409 and the WD-40 stories, all the quippy and emotional stories of those who were deemed failures or had failures and became success stories. Most of us just want our students to understand place value, be able to capitalize words correctly, and know how to use a period. Even so, we can learn something from business.

Pulling from The Ten Most Important Tips for Failing Successfully, I think we might encourage our students to think about learning, making mistakes, and failure thusly:
  1. Go ahead and be upset, angry, or whatever you feel. Feel the feels. And then move on.
  2. Move on because that mistake or failure of that assignment or test does not make you a failure. You had a bad day, you didn't prepare, you couldn't remember something. Figure out what went awry and figure out how to do better next time.
  3. Let it go.
  4. Don't try to blame the homework or the test or the temperature in the room or your computer or your pen or pencil or that low-level hum that comes from somewhere or anything else. See #2.
  5. Ask for help if you think you need but only after you're sure you can't figure it out on your own or with help from friends. Some teachers call this some variation of "Three, Then Me." 
I had students who would not ask for help because they thought I would think less of them. When I approached a student who was failing and told that student to come to me so we could figure out how to help him succeed, I thought he was going to keel over. From that moment on, I told students that asking for help was a sign of true intelligence--at least by my definition and in my mind--because it indicates when we're aware of our limitations and it indicates a willingness to learn.

I still think we need to do a better job of crafting assignments and assessments that allow for failure, maybe even encourage failure, though that's probably going too far. Even so, growth mindset reminds us that failure isn't a permanent condition. It seems clear that failure is an option for optimal learning.


Friday, December 27, 2019

Failing forward. Do we really mean that in education?

In education we talk a lot about encouraging students and teachers to take risks. We pontificate on the value of learning through failure. We try to model what failure and learning through failure look like whenever we make a mistake. We talk about developing grit, promoting perseverance, and building stamina even though nearly everything in our educational culture, at least in the United States, screams that failure, and even error, is nearly catastrophic. That made me think about how we need to design learning experiences that optimize error and even failure. And then I got to thinking about the differences between making a mistake and actual failure.

Teachers make mistakes all the time. Teachers make mistakes while teaching, when they type up assignments, when they assign stuff, etc. They recover by saying, "Oops. That's the wrong web site." or "That's the wrong page number; I meant to say. . .". Students simply adjust to the mistake and the correction. There is no red pencil swooping down to mark a big X on the teacher's forehead. There are no points taken off that teacher's teaching grade for the day.

Kids make mistakes on homework all the time. Some are unintentional; some are because they don't know or don't know any better. However, for the students there IS a red pencil (or its stand-in) swooping down to mark a big X next to the error and to deduct points. In some cases, students are allowed a do-over; their own version of "I meant to say. . ." or "I meant to do. . .". In many cases there is no opportunity for correction. And so students are then penalized for their mistakes.

And that means they learn that mistakes are bad. They learn they lose points for mistakes. Mistakes that may have been unintentional, or mistakes they made because they did not know or did not understand. They are penalized for the error as well as the lack of information or knowledge or the lack of understanding. And what do they learn from that? Especially if there is no opportunity to correct the error, to clarify or correct their learning, to fill in the gaps? They learn that making a mistake makes them a loser of sorts. And they learn that not only from the big X next to each error, but they learn that from their classmates who gloat when they made few or no errors and from the shame of their classmates who have done as badly or worse.

Sure, those mistakes could be viewed as failures: failure to remember, failure to understand, failure to express themselves correctly, failure to parrot the correct answer, failure to complete, failure to. . . . Will students view those failures, especially a series of failures in the same or different content areas as FAIL: first attempt in learning? Or will students view one or more failures as an indictment of their abilities as students, as learners?

I've seen middle and high school students exhibit no interest in retaking a test or redoing a homework assignment. When asked why they won't take advantage of the offer, they usually shrug. I've taken the shrug to mean one of several things, and typically along the lines of "What's the point?" If I were able to sit with any of those students to ask more about their reluctance, I bet I would hear a litany of penalized mistakes--bad test scores and marked up homework--from preceding school years, all of which leads to believing there is no point in trying and there is no point in trying again.

After years of failure, students see themselves as failures.

After years of marked up mistakes and low grades, students see themselves as stupid or incapable or dumb. They don't see the point and they don't believe the teacher who tries to tell them otherwise because they've been hearing differently for years.

This article about the key to optimal learning reinforces so much of what I believe to be true. I need to contextualize this with two anecdotes. The first is about a second grader who got so frustrated by her inability to subtract two-digit numbers that she threw her pencil, slumped her head in her hands, and muttered, "I'm just stupid." Second. Grade. I retrieved her pencil and put my head down close to hers and told her that no one expected her to come to second grade already knowing how to do this math. I explained to her that the purpose of school is to learn to do things like subtract two-digit numbers. She looked up at me with a thin veneer of belief that maybe, just maybe, I spoke the truth.

Please note that I had to explain to her that she was in school to learn. 

The second anecdote is personal. I was one of those students who grew up believing I wasn't "good at math." My mother also said she wasn't good at math, even though she was a very good cook and baker, and she was the one who managed the household finances. Apparently none of that is math, but I believed her and didn't see the obvious at the time. It wasn't until much, much later when I was thinking about a Master's in computer science (to legitimize the near decade I already had as a software engineer/systems analyst) and I was taking a course in differential equations, a course I ended up not needing. I found myself intrigued by the mathematics and, as an English major, I was a bit horrified. I felt like I was being unfaithful to myself. And then later when I was teaching basic math to college students, I realized that their journey had been much like mine in that we had failed to realize we were in school to learn the things we didn't know or understand as well as the things we thought we loved and about which we wanted to learn more.
As a learner, the thing to focus on is to make sure you’re pushing yourself and getting into this region of intermediate difficulty where you are making mistakes and getting things wrong and accepting that’s part of how you learn.
In the article about optimal learning, Robert Wilson, a researcher at the University of Arizona, speaks of accepting that getting things wrong is part of how we learn. He goes on to say that "We reward perfection maybe too much. . . Errors and mistakes are just a part of life and as we’ve shown here, a crucial part of learning."

If we--educators and others--truly believe that failure is an integral part of learning and doing, we need to build assessments with that in mind; we need to create learning opportunities with that in mind; we need to allow space in our work environments with that mind.

We need to be crystal clear about the parameters for that failure, for that risk, for those errors and mistakes.

We need to be crystal clear that while errors and mistakes are indeed part of learning, there will come a time when errors cross the threshold of acceptable risk, which means we have to be crystal clear about what we mean by "risk" and what constitutes acceptable risk, whether in learning or anywhere else.

And if we mean that failure is an integral part of learning and doing, and if we build that way of learning and doing into our day-to-day teaching and students' day-to-day learning, then they will be more willing to embrace what they learn through failure and become more attuned to what failure and error and risk actually mean.

And that will be worth the risk.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Hacking learning, again? Meh. Teach on.

Just before Thanksgiving there was a #HackLearning Twitter Chat. I did not participate but I did see the questions, obs or they wouldn't be included in this post.

And I mean no offense to the #HackLearning team, but I was a little hacked about these questions, and not the kind of hack to which these folks referred--and can I tell you how over I am "hacking" pretty much anything?

Let me speak first about my understanding of English Language Arts. I know that ELA has experienced a lot of changes and certainly many were informed by our venture into Common Core. The key to ELA is the phrase "language arts" with the emphasis, I think, on the word "arts." What are the arts of language? Reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

To the first question: What are the challenges of integrating English Language Arts in the content areas? Huh. You mean making sure that students can read, write, speak, and listen in math, science, social studies, art, music, PE, health, consumer science, etc.? Um, shouldn't that be happening by virtue of the fact that students are in each of the classes?

Okay, I'll stop pretending I don't know what they're talking about because they're talking about the likelihood that all of those non-ELA teachers don't have reading and writing strategies in their teacher toolboxes. Fine, but that's really easy to rectify. I'll come back to this.

To the second question: What are the advantages of integrating ELA in the content areas? I won't be quite so snippy because there are some interesting textures in this question. One of the first advantages is that students will stop thinking that reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills are the sole domain of ELA class and begin to realize that reading, writing, listening, and speaking are important in everything and all the time. However, it is important for students to recognize that reading strategies may be different in non-ELA classes just as writing strategies may be different.

The last question is a bit perplexing: What are some ways we can find time and resources to integrate ELA into other content areas? I think this third question is inextricably connected to the first. I don't think it's really a matter of time. I do think it is a matter of resources just as it is also a matter of inclination for non-ELA teachers in middle and high school who believe their tasks are to teach their content areas even as they are possibly complaining that students don't know how to read and write in their content areas.

A sidebar. When I taught ENG 101 at the university level, I had some colleagues who complained bitterly that their students didn't know how to write for their respective content courses. We'd already seen a wave or two of writing across the content areas which was exhausting for most freshman writing teachers who found the first thing we had to do was un-teach the five paragraph essay and help students understand the value of specific writing rules, like punctuation and capitalization (I kid you not). Weary of colleagues who gently berated me for frittering away the 15 weeks I had in ENG 101 and clearly not using that same number of weeks wisely in ENG 102, my writing colleagues and I had a little symposium with our non-writing colleagues. We had them review some freshman papers and score them using our rubric. The numbers were, as expected, all over the place. Interesting conversations ensued and a modicum of understanding might have been achieved. That didn't stop them from complaining because they knew they didn't have the skills to help students correct their writing in their classes and didn't want to spend any of their precious 15 weeks providing any kind of instruction for writing correctly in business or science or whatever. Stalemate achieved.

But let's take a step back. The majority of reading and writing in non-ELA classes is termed "non-fiction." So we're talking about students knowing how to use text features: titles, subtitles, graphs, charts, etc. Some ELA teachers spend a bit of time on such things, but quite possibly not enough although elementary teachers could fairly easily incorporate some coaching in their non-ELA blocks of the day. Non-ELA teachers assume students know how to read graphs and charts which they could have learned in elementary school, but might not have done.

Well, we need to take a further step back because my question to non-ELA teachers is this: what skills exactly do you need of your students in the areas of reading, writing, listening, and speaking? Or, let's focus just on reading and writing. And, I put it to you again, what exactly do you need them to do? Yes, you need them to read the word problems and take the time to read them. There's no special strategy for that though you could practice a variation on a close reading strategy to see if that helps because you need to help them understand the importance of content area fluency and comprehension which isn't just an ELA thing but a human being thing.

You need them to write in complete sentences and, because you're not an ELA teacher, you're not comfortable being the grammar and mechanics police. Well, if they're in middle school or high school, they should know better; however, if they have time and opportunity, they could do a quick check of their work using Grammarly. What I don't like about this kind of a tool is that they don't learn what they did right and what they need to learn how to correct.

There could be ways for students to keep track of what's corrected by Grammarly and, perhaps, in collaboration with the ELA teachers in your building find a way to create a writing workshop time or study hall. It would have to be by choice. Depending on your classroom and technology situations, there are ways way to gather this information so ELA teachers will have more targeted information and, perhaps, find ways to bring non-ELA texts into their classrooms.

As a matter of fact, that is one of my favorite things. Maybe every two weeks, the students work from their math, science, social studies, or other texts in their non-ELA classes. They use those texts for their independent reading. Wigs kids out a bit, which is fun for the teacher for a little while, but also reinforces that reading and writing skills are important. Period.

I think finding the time isn't an issue, not really. I think figuring out how to create assignments or think about student work is how and where language arts skills practice and development can be reasonably integrated into any other content area.

If you are looking for more concrete resources, you might check out Reading Non-Fiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies by Drs. Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. They quite literally wrote the book on the subject.

You might also watch this video focusing on teaching non-fiction, which is a significant clarification about "non-fiction" and what it is.

As you continue to think about language arts skills in content areas, it can be easy to be dismissive or distracted by so many resources that seem geared towards elementary classrooms. For example, in an Edutopia article published first in 2010 and then updated in 2014, some of the strategies might seem inappropriate for AP Physics or Math III or even high school social studies classes.

But here's the thing: you don't have to do those exact strategies. For example, the "stop and jot" strategy is one that is often overcomplicated, in my opinion. Sure, you might use some sort of a graphic organizer or worksheet for younger students, but for older students--middle school and up--just have them write in their journals or wherever. They write for 1 minute or 30 seconds or 42.3 seconds or whatever and they write to secure what they've just been hearing. Maybe they end up jotting down two things they remember and a question. Great! We like questions because questions help us know what kids are really getting, what they're really understanding, what they're thinking about, what kinds of connections they're making.

By having them write down what is essentially a learning summary, they are creating a hook to what they've heard and what they're retaining. They are creating what could become a framework for study and review.

Can you build on that? Sure. Use Wheeldecide or some other approach--craft sticks with a student's name on each stick works--to pull a random name or two. Don't belabor it, but doing a quick check also helps ensure that most students stay focused. And by chunking it with lecture or discussion or reading, and then a "stop and jot" periodically, students are more likely to be able to sustain and retain.

Here's another thing. You can start your chunking by talking and them jotting every, say, 7 minutes. Do that for a week or so. Then chunk for about 10 minutes, then let them jot. After a couple of weeks, chunk to about 12 minutes, then let them jot. I honestly wouldn't go much further than that just for retention and comprehension purposes, but by slowly extending the amount of time they go between jots, you are also helping them build stamina. Sneaky, huh?

So are some of these suggestions hacking learning? Or just some recommendations for helping students learn? You decide, and teach on.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Data is cool. . .and beautiful

A colleague of mine and I were talking about data recently and how hard it is for many folks to understand data and to contextualize it. She'd found a really cool video, which is among those below.

What I'm thinking is this: perhaps one of the data videos would be fun and interesting for students, and perhaps they might think differently about how they try to create data representation or how they use data or why data is important or how they can use data representations in something they write. 

One of the first videos you might want to watch is this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Zg-C8AAIGg. There are other TED and TEDx talks about data. Okay, this one is pretty cool, too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8DqQCZMawNg.

There is a "Data is Beautiful" channel in YouTube. Here are a couple of videos I found fascinating. You might need to set aside a few minutes to watch these but set a timer so you don't get lost in  this beautiful demonstration of how data works.
This is cool for different reasons.
What I love about this second one is how long AOL is at the top and then what happens when Yahoo! takes the top spot and Google begins to make its run. And keep an eye on Amazon and WalMart. Fascinating. There are all kinds of social implications to those changes, too.

Enjoy, and I hope you can find ways to use some of these, especially if there's a way to use one (or more) of them across content areas and be interestingly transdisciplinary. Let me know what you're able to do in your classrooms!

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Learning is not a competition. But what is it really?

Ms. Sackstein has a point and you'll learn more about her thinking in her article "How Can We Move Education Forward When So Many Educators Can't See Past the Way We've Always Done It?" The upshot of her article is this:
Once we jump down the grading rabbit hole, for example, we aren't just changing the way we label learning on a report card, we have to look deeper (italics mine). What are we calling learning? How will it be assessed and by whom? Which standards are we using? Are they universal? How do we agree on what mastery looks like at every age level in different content areas?"
All of these are complex questions and yes, answering them, agreeing on the answers, and norming those answers would be great. But my oh my will be it difficult, if not impossible.

I love the universal standards questions. We've tried Common Core for Math and ELA and, it still exists in many forms, some slightly modified and renamed by states and yet essentially Common Core.

In October 2018, Singapore announced it was doing away with ranking systems in its report cards. The Education Minister announced that, "Learning is not a competition." The Education department and, apparently, the teachers of Singapore realize there is no point in encouraging students to compare themselves to their classmates.

The reality is that our world and the future world of our students is and will be radically different. We have to make radical changes, and we have to make them now.

As I thought about Sackstein's writing and what we think we might be looking for, I realized that I already know a number of teachers who are just doing what they need to do and not just because we've been saying that one-size-fits-all doesn't work for anyone: not the student and not the teacher. I remember having a long conversation with a social studies teacher who noted that success for one of her students was different from success for another student. Which leads me to think that defining mastery at every age level in any content area is not a good use of anyone's time.

I've long been a proponent of the one-room schoolhouse concept: that kids work through their learning at their own pace, achieve proficiency or mastery or whatever they need, and then move on to the next thing. That teachers facilitate that learning to help them discover what they're really interested in and guide them accordingly. Oh yea, I know that's hard to do for about a zillion reasons though the "modern" one-room schoolhouse isn't a new idea.

I've given a lot of thought to how I would design a school system if I were starting from scratch. There are a lot of conditions and requirements, of course, and would require that unions completely rethink the role of a classroom teacher and the expectations of a teacher. And it would require that colleges and universities approach teacher preparation completely differently.

Whether it's a redesigned school system or a one-room schoolhouse, or what we have now, the key element is the student and what and how the student is learning. It's about the learning, the learning, the learning.

We've been toying with differentiation and personalization for a long time now. We have adopted tools and software programs that claim to assist in both or either, but the structure of how we do school hasn't changed radically. We adopt new programs and initiatives and hope for change, even as we try to cling to old ways of doing. We are reluctant to change in case it doesn't work which is exactly the wrong reason not to change. But if we don't have a vision or an idea of the kinds of outcomes we want before we change, we'll be setting ourselves for failure because we have to be thinking about students and their learning.

I think the most important question Ms. Sackstein asks ends up getting buried: "What are we calling learning?"

Don't crowd learning with how its going to be assessed because then you've already predetermined what learning is. Don't weight learning with the need for data, with trying to determine the socioeconomic challenges or privileges of a student. Don't confuse it with curriculum or pacing guides or even content areas.

Strip it to its bare minimum: what is learning? It's the process of acquiring new skills and knowledge through experience, study, or being taught.

Now we can reimagine how learning could be accomplished by students, for students and with the help, guidance, coaching, facilitation of classroom teachers. Especially if we stop thinking that learning is a competition and that every student has to learn everything to the same level of competency.

Maybe some day this will be more than a dream. Maybe.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Social Emotional Learning matters. . .to everyone

I didn't grow up with FOMO--the fear of missing out--and many of the other challenges today's kids experience so it can be easy for me to dismiss legitimate SEL concerns. After reading this article about social emotional learning, I realize that it can also be easy for education to adopt a new concept or issue and ask teachers to add it to whatever else they're doing, that we don't always train folks to understand why something is important, and HOW and WHEN to make use of any training.

When I think about the stressors of growing up and how those can be exacerbated by social media, it's no wonder "7 in 10 teens think anxiety and depression are major problems for their peers." Some will say the easiest solution is take away students' phones and to limit their time on social media. I suspect that would just be FOMO amplified. Of course, kids aren't the only ones influenced by FOMO as adults can fall victim to it as well.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has been doing this work of SEL education for over two decades, so the concept really isn't new. I think it's become a thing because there is finally recognition that students need to be taught how to manage themselves.

The SEL wheel is informative and the explanations for each of those pie segments might be enlightening.

I hear teachers remind students to "make good choices." They say that repeatedly throughout the school day. Yes, responsible decision-making is important, but what if kids really don't know how to make good decisions? What if they have limited self-awareness or self-management? What if they don't have much experience with social awareness because of their age or their own family background? What if they're still working on those relationship skills?

I get to work with teachers at all grade levels and I have mountains of respect for kinder and 1st grade teachers because a lot of what they do is related to these SEL core competencies in addition to teaching them other stuff like, IDK, how to read, how to blow their noses, how to write, how to count--that list goes on and on.

Somehow we stop being overt in teaching or coaching these core competencies as students get older. We tend to assume (always dangerous) that students have some proficiency, even mastery, of these SEL core competencies by the time they're in upper elementary and certainly when they're in middle and high school. And yet, student behavior tells us that is simply not the case.

High school teachers are often flummoxed because this SEL stuff is not what they expect to have to do. Some middle school teachers seem less perplexed because they are champions at working with kids who are going through multiples of changes--physical, emotional, hormonal. (If you have not thanked or honored a middle school teacher recently, it's way past time.)

If anything, I think FOMO amplifies these SEL concerns for middle and high school students. All that self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making is likely in tatters by the time they hit middle school and then shredded again in high school, especially for freshmen.

So I think it's imperative that we are mindful that there are stages of SEL, compounded by FOMO, and often exacerbated by whatever is or is not happening at home. Helicopter or snow shovel parents? Complex adult/guardian relationships? Absence of regular adult/guardian positive influences?

This is all a big ask for teachers. The expectations for educators are immense and there is no sign of that letting up with increasing demands and concerns from a wide range of sources. But educators can't be expected to just "do" SEL; they have to be trained and, in fact, they often need a little SEL for themselves.

I suspect we make it a lot harder than it really needs to be with fancy programs and PD that, in theory, help teachers embed SEL. I'm not saying PD or training isn't necessary, but I do think that those who are making decisions about professional learning and expectations for SEL as well as trauma-informed teaching and learning (a whole different area that needs to be included and not treated as its own one-off) need to think holistically about what they would like to see happening in their schools and their classrooms, and they need to do so with teacher input as well as parental input.

This isn't just an education concern so kids behave in classrooms and do well on their tests. This is a community well-being and growth concern, and matters--or should matter--to everyone.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Of comfort zones, compliance, and the student "why"

I'm weary of the oft-made connection between comfort zone and fear, though I get it. I know that people are often afraid to step out of a comfort zone and for common reasons: "Tried that before and it didn't work." "My colleague tried that and it didn't work and she's smarter than I am." I think there's more to it than that.

Sometimes I think I hear behind that reluctance is: "If I try this and I'm successful, they'll ask me to do more and I'm just tired."

Sometimes I hear a whisper of this: "If I'm no longer sure why I do what I do, or if I no longer believe in why I do what I do, why should I change?"

And sometimes I hear a whisper of this: "My students don't seem to want to learn and I can't figure out how to motivate them to learn, how to make them care about learning. I'm not sure why I should try anything else new when so much of what I've already tried doesn't seem to work or help them."

Eric Sheninger recently wrote about the comfort zone and fear. Now he's better known than I am: he's actually published the books he's written and has way more followers in all forms of social media, speaks around the world, so you'll likely believe him before you believe me. However, I ask you to think through this and your own experiences with change and your comfort zone.


The image Sheninger uses is a good one and he points out there are nuances in each of these. It occurs to me that some of this comfort zone/fear discussion has something to do with one's prior experiences, one's general need to be in control, and one's stage of life.

There have been very clear times in my life I have not been willing to step out to make a change, and all of those fear zone factors came into play. But part of what held me back was a gut sense that the decision to make that change would not be a good decision ultimately.

In the instances I have stepped into change, it's mostly been so that I've been able to use my skills and expertise in a different way; to extend my skills and expertise and, therefore, learn more; and/or because I was ready for a change. That underscores that not all elements of each of the zones is applicable to all people in all change situations.

Because we're talking about change, I have to bring up one of my favorite change management models first introduced in 1991 by Dr. Tim Knoster. Typically  we hear about this model being applied to organizations, which makes sense. I've used this model when I've talked with district and building administrators, but I've also referenced this when I've talked with teachers. What has crept into my conversation over the past few years is the question "Why?"

That's always been my favorite question; I can be very toddler-like in wanting to know "why" though I hope slightly less exhausting. And many of us have been influenced by Simon Sinek and his golden circle as people think about their "why." There have been plenty of articles and blog posts and keynotes and other such addressing how we can know our why and why that matters. Let me pursue that for a bit.

In Knoster's model, he points out the need for vision, skills, incentives, resources, and an action plan. Teachers have a vision for what they want to accomplish each day, the standards they hope students may be able to achieve or begin to achieve. They think about the skills and resources they need to teach and facilitate, and the skills and resources their students need to learn. And they have a lesson plan that documents all of this.

It is likely the skills and resources teachers think about for themselves and their students are fairly concrete: textbook, digital resources, laptop, calculator, grasp of math facts, recollection of particular information, etc.

I haven't talked yet about incentives because that is most definitely at play, but perhaps for reasons that aren't the usual. For teachers, the incentive for what they do and try to do every day is tied to their "why." And, I believe, their incentive, interwoven with their understanding of their "why," informs how they view their comfort zone and their willingness to step beyond it, even a little.

We all know that fist-pumping moment of sheer joy that a student "gets it," or when that reluctant reader has his own revelation about himself as a reader, or when that student who has often been difficult behaviorally turns some sort of a corner. The thrill of that moment can be a teacher's "why."

I work with a high school teacher who teaches one of the sciences and has that typical challenge of students who don't see the point. She works hard to engage them and find ways to entice them to learn. She has a group of students in which she is so proud because the strides they have made even though so much seems to be against them and the ways they have embraced learning in that class.

I work with many other teachers, mostly elementary teachers, who consistently battle different kinds of mostly minor behavior and attitude issues and who work just as hard as that science teacher. What I hear from them is this: "Kids don't want to learn."

All right, so I'm going to wander down a rabbit hole for just a smidge because I'm going to follow it further in another blog post because I don't think the issue is that kids don't want to learn. I think kids really have little incentive to learn because we've been telling them, directly and indirectly, that all they'll ever need to know is at their fingertips thanks to their friends Alexa, Siri, and Google. We further their confused understanding of school and learning because of the way we assess and what we value in assessment.

Kids seem to think that learning is the completion of a task, the production of some product of Google Slides or Google Sites or Powerpoint or a Google Doc. I have frequently shared the story of a frustrated second grader who threw down her pencil because she couldn't do a two-digit subtraction problem. She wailed that she didn't know how to do it and looked genuinely perplexed and surprised when I told her that's why she was in school--to learn how to do it, that we didn't expect her to come to second grade with that knowledge and skill.

And that's what prompted me to start thinking about the student's "why."

Do students understand, really understand, why they are going to school? Is it for compliance or for what could be the more compelling reason of needing to know how to learn? of needing to know how to frame questions for Alexa, Siri, or Google? of needing to know how to filter the information provided by any research source to know what could be valid and what is not? of needing to know basic math and literacy skills so they can start to become whatever is the best version of themselves?

I think this is a significant barrier to a teacher's willingness to step out of a comfort zone. It's not for want of learning and growth. It's because of an intrinsic yet unspoken recognition that many students have little or no incentive for being in school other than parental or legal ones.

Sure, there are many students who want to learn and like to learn. They have their own internal incentives, which is why those kids are in AP or honors classes and why they are the ones who do well in whatever they approach. They understand why they are in school, they have a vision for what they want to accomplish even if they can't articulate it until they're older, and they are not afraid to step out of their comfort zones. Those students check all of the Knoster and Sinek boxes.

Stepping out of a comfort zone may have something to do with fear--fear of failure, fear of looking incapable or incompetent. Absolutely. But it's not just that and it's not that easy. In the exploration of why teachers won't or don't try something new, we have to give them space and grace to contemplate their perception of change and their "why" for teaching, their reason for trying or not trying something new, and how what they do and how they do it helps students grasp their "why" for learning, if our emphasis really is on learning rather than compliance.