Saturday, August 24, 2013

Wonder vs. rules

As I've said before, I "get" to work with educators around the country. And I do mean that I get to; it's a privilege to be with a group of educators, most of whom are still dedicated to and passionate about their work, who are still interested in improving their skills and in learning new things. These lifelong learners appreciate what it means to be a student and seem to think about their students constantly; in fact, they often seem to put themselves in the seats of their students. That's a keen educational ear. Those are the teachers who get it done.

I've been reviewing some of the work we do, some of the conversations we have about Common Core and College & Career Readiness. I know there's a lot of muck out there about Common Core and I know there are plenty of educators who are being very rigid as they try to implement Common Core. That saddens me because Common Core really is about freeing educators to use their professional judgment and be more creative in their classrooms, to teach more organically and individually, and to know their students and themselves well enough to know when and how to make the kinds of adjustments that need to be made so their kiddos can actually learn.

So that got me to thinking about a conversation we have with educators as we ask them to think about the qualities and characteristics of the college and career ready high school senior. The answers are somewhat typical:
  • critical thinking skills
  • good writing skills
  • good speaking and listening skills
  • self-motivation
  • time management
  • self-discipline
  • technology skills
It's interesting to watch some of them be a bit flummoxed when I ask what they mean by "critical thinking skills" as that's a phrase we use and I'm convinced most of us don't really know what we mean by it. But that's a different post.

Anyway, we also ask about qualities and characteristics of the college and career ready 8th or 5th grader, and then of the kindergartner. Sometimes their eyes open a bit wide, but then they settle in with some confidence and shrug that the answers are the same. After all, we want to start developing those qualities and characteristics for that high school senior when they're in kindergarten.


In only one group did any educators talk about kindergarten kids using such words and phrases as these:
  • creativity
  • sense of wonder
  • sense of exploration
  • unaware of what they can and cannot do
I really like those answers. It has occurred to me more than once that many university faculty and many employers are frustrated by students' and employees' inabilities to be creative or to have a sense of wonder or exploration. While we need folks to have some sense of what they can and cannot do, you have to admit, even a little bit, that it can be very refreshing to have the student or employee who expresses some concern or doubt about being able to accomplish something but also expresses the willingness to try, to push beyond that individual comfort zone.

Perhaps as more teachers feel more confident to use their professional judgment and creativity they will be encouraged to invite their students to use their student creativity, to express that sense of wonder or exploration or discovery, and to poke at the perceived limits of their capabilities.

Friday, August 16, 2013

What it means to be ready

In my job, I get to spend a lot of time with educators around the country. Small districts, large districts; rural, urban, suburban. You name it: the diversity of demographics is there. I'm with those folks because they are seeking professional development for Common Core or for College and Career (work place) Readiness.

Because of our high-stakes testing mentality, we worry about the test scores. Is the ACT score high enough to get into college? Is the GPA high enough to graduate with honors? Are there enough passing credits to graduate? Is the reading or math or science score high enough to keep us out of hot water with whatever agency is overseeing us? How do we rank against other schools in the district or, as a district, against other districts in the state?

And if our scores are high enough, our kids must be ready for college.


Every classroom teacher was once a college student. Every classroom teacher knows there are good professors and bad professors; they are even GREAT professors and terrible professors.

Anyone who has worked in a job knows there are good bosses and bad bosses, even great and horrible bosses.

So what does it mean to be "ready" for college or the work place? It's not just the grade or the score. We know that, but we can't forget that. We can't forget that fundamental skills in speaking and listening are critically important. Students must be able to express their ideas, provide rationale for their opinions or positions. I'm sure there is a list somewhere, but what we know is that employers are looking for people with good communication skills, the ability to reason analytically and critically, the ability to solve complex problems and to work as part of a team or to be sufficiently self-motivated to work alone. These are important life, college, and work skills.

It won't hurt if kids know how to be on time, know how and when to ask follow-up questions and that it's absolutely perfectly okay to use those office hours to get clarification on an assignment or to share an idea or to ask for some help or to ask an opinion or just to talk about the content. It won't hurt if kids know how to be respectful of others' opinions and ideas and to know how to say "please" and "thank you."

When we think about what it means to be ready for college or the work place, what we're really talking about, in my opinion, is what it means to be getting ready for life.

I've said before that a very wise administrator once said that university is not a parenthetic; it is not that "between time" that serves as a bridge from high school to the "real world." It can be a significant part of the growing up and character-building experience. In that sense, students are NOT ready for college in many ways and it behooves university professors to remember that they can be part of the growing and developing process, and that it can be an honor to make that kind of difference in a young person's life.

But it also falls to university faculty, in some ways, to help ensure that the growing up and developing does occur, that university faculty hold students to higher standards of expectations in the ways they comport themselves as persons and as students, even as scholars.

I'd also like to note, though, that we're never really ready. Not if we're lifelong learners. We leave high school with a certain set of proficiencies, capabilities, knowledge. We leave college with more of the same, we hope, and more. We enter the work world with more than we had and with less than we need. We proceed through the work world, perhaps into our chosen careers with more than we had and with less than we need.

As lifelong learners, we're always "getting ready" for the next big adventure in life, in work, in learning.

Monday, August 12, 2013

What teachers do best?

"The idea is to free up teachers for what they do best, not replace them, advocates insist, though many people are skeptical." That sentence came from an article titled "In higher education, the Great Recession's unlikely impact: an innovation revolution."

At first I felt a moment of warmth and fuzziness. Then I started to wonder what exactly teachers do best, realizing the context is higher education but wondering, too, if that thinking might start to roll down towards K-12. And that forced me to return to the text and re-read what preceded that sentence:
What does this wave of educational innovation entail? To be sure, it includes the MOOCs and all sorts of “adaptive learning” software that promises to teach and measure some things better and more cheaply than a human teacher.
Adaptive learning. Is that like differentiated instruction? Or maybe it's more like project-based learning. How would software measure student learning better than a teacher, especially as we think about the performance tasks that are dominating educators' psyches as they contemplate Common Core? And how would software measure student learning in a project-based learning environment, which may be the most adaptive sort of learning? Even in higher education, would software truly be able to differentiate nuances of learning, styles of learning, styles of responses and approaches to articulating learning? I'd surmise the answer is "no" as there is much subjectivity in the world, and the work place.

Read on a bit further and you will encounter "We’ve been here before. Every new technology promises to transform education."

People. I'll say this again: technology does not teach; technology does not transform education. It is a tool and the transformative experience is because of the way a teacher or a student or both choose to use that technology in the classroom.

That exercise bike or treadmill or fancy elliptical machine in your house doesn't transform your workout. Nope, you've got to get on the thing and use it for any sort of transformation to occur. Otherwise it's just another place to hang stuff. Same thing is true with technology in schools and classrooms, whether smartphones, student response systems, interactive white boards, tablets, or web-based resources.
The consumer, after five years on a tablet and five years on an iPhone, is just sick of being told ‘You can’t do that,” says Brandon Dobell, a partner at William Blair & Co., an investment bank and research firm based in Chicago. “I can do everything else on my phone, my tablet. Why can’t I learn as well?
 You can learn, Mr. Dobell. There's no doubt that online learners do most of the work themselves to learn. Some observations: 1) most online learners self-select and tend to be good time managers and are self-motivated to do what needs to be done; 2) all online learning experiences are not the same; 3) not all teachers are good online teachers; 4) to date, MOOCs don't have great completion rates among their students; and 5) adults approach learning differently.

So what to teachers do best? Good teachers design excellent lessons so students can discover learning in unexpected ways. Good teachers recognize capabilities and find ways--sometimes conventional and sometimes not--to motivate, encourage, and challenge students to go beyond their own expectations and comfort zones. Good teachers pay attention to a catalog of non-verbal cues to determine how to direct, redirect, coach, question, challenge, and more. Good teachers do that dozens of time each class period and with each student, and every day. Good teachers, especially K-12 teachers, know they are helping their students develop learning skills that will prove useful beyond the K-12 classroom. They are helping students find, develop, and strengthen their learning legs.

Good teachers use technology and other resources in this exploration and adventure in learning, but they never forget their students are human beings.