Friday, September 9, 2016

The frustration of (educational) jargon

Edu-speak. In 2013, Education Week published an article titled "Tackling Edu-Speak." It's focus on a glossary designed to help the weary, the wary, and the just plain baffled navigate the currents of jargon in education. It is The Glossary of Education Reform. It's like the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) of educational terms, jargon, and babblespeak. It should become your new best friend. Follow the link and bookmark it. Now. I'll wait.

What got me to thinking about educational jargon is the discussion, mmm, occasionally argument, over STEM vs. STEAM. Then there is the on-going yawner of tired controversy over Common Core. Of course, we talk about student engagement, student success, and student achievement and there are long lists of words, like stringers of bait, attached to each of those terms. What is so fascinating is how quickly we take that bait and leap to the next idea. Our appetites are often satiated for a while, but only for a while. I'll stop trying to make that analogy work, but you get the idea.

Writing in 2015, Liz Wellen wrote for The Hechinger Report on this very topic of "edu-speak" (and introduced me to the term "argle bargle"!).

Don’t get me started on overused phrases like “grit” and “rigor,” along with “21st century skills” or “researched-based programs” that educate “the whole child.” As opposed to only half of a child? And what of charter-school movement lingo, replete with “restorative practices” and “growth mindsets”?
I appreciate and applaud Ms. Wellen's frustration and mission to eradicate jargon and try to insist on returning to saying what we mean and meaning what we say.

I know educators often adopt language they don't really understand because they've read it or they've heard a boss use it. I know educators often use language they hope will confuse parents or others for a variety of reasons including that they don't really know what else to say so they hope using a litany of edu-babble will help move things along. What can happen is that people break into groups to have conversations about stuff they don't understand and everyone pretends to know what it means so they contribute superficial observations or simply agree with the person who is talking the most because maybe he actually knows what he's talking about and no one wants to look stupid. Great model for the kids, people.

Now I don't want to be the jargon police and not just because it's a thankless and endless job. But I do think that countermanding or, as Greg Garner wrote, undoing edu-speak is and will be difficult. In fact, his piece on trying to unload jargon is littered with jargon, which is no surprise given how embedded it can become. And not just because we are wont to incorporate the language of others into our own lexicon and often without vetting it, sifting it, or otherwise checking to see if it makes sense.

An aside: some years ago I noticed how quickly certain people picked up the current jargon. "Going forward" was the phrase du jour. It hadn't been a part of conversation and then everyone was using. Just because I'm stubborn about some things (okay, a lot of things) I chose not to use it. In fact, every time there was the possibility of using the phrase "going forward," I used something else. Then I decided to try an experiment. I used the word "hiccup" to describe what was, I hoped, an anomaly in a process. I noticed some interesting non-verbals when I used that word. It was weird. It was like predators sniffing the air to figure out if this was something on which they should pounce or if it wasn't worth their time. In my head, my little editor guy and I snickered. "Oh yea, this will be fun," we chortled. In another meeting I found an opportunity to use "hiccup." It wasn't contrived so the word fit the situation. Again, the non-verbal check. A few days later I used it again and within a couple of days after that, people were talking about hiccups. I stopped using it immediately. That fad didn't last long. After all, no one outside of our little community was using it but the experiment and experience left a profound impact on me.

I doubt we can eradicate edu-speak any time soon. There is too much government in our education and governmentese seems designed to obfuscate and frustrate any chance of anyone knowing what anyone is really saying. Ever.

But I do think we can make inroads. Each time we're in a meeting in which someone is yammering and using a string of education-sounding words, do a quick look-up in the The Glossary of Education Reform to do a bit of fact-checking. Or just ask the person to use plain English. And when we're in workshops or faculty meetings or professional development and we find our eyes glazing over because of the use of language we really don't understand, let's be brave enough to raise our hands and ask for an explanation.

Or just create a bunch of buzzword bingo cards and play the game with your colleagues, then hand the cards to the speaker/presenter on your way out.

For those of us who get to conduct workshops and trainings, who get to design professional development and other content, let's be much more mindful of the language we use. And if we have to use jargon, let's be sure offer clarification and edification but also find consensus. Please be sure it's on your radar and that your folks have visibility so it's easy for them to tap in. It's a value-add, win-win for us all. ;)

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Power of Yet
In February 2014 Dr. Carol Dweck gave a TEDxTalk titled "The Power of Yet." (The video is long and simply extends a lot of her growth mindset work. If you're not familiar with growth mindset, a short video that underscores her research can be found here, "The Effect of Praise on Mindsets.") The title "The Power of Yet" reminded me of a comment I heard from Dr. Kylene Beers as she realized how important it was to tell struggling students that they were working on a problem or project they couldn't complete yet.

With the Labor Day weekend behind, most of the rest of the schools in the country are starting up and those that started in August are regrouping after the holiday weekend, perhaps settling into their stride of pace and schedule. In the Sunday supplement of the Chicago Tribune was a piece on what teachers wish all parents would ask and it made me think of this power of yet as far too many parents as well as some teachers and administrators have unreasonable expectations for students.

One teacher noted she wished the parents of her students would believe more in their kids and their kids' capabilities. ". . .some parents fail to challenge or push their child academically in fear that, if their child is not successful. . . " It really doesn't matter what comes after that because the key here is what parents, teachers, and, therefore, children believe is "success." In Dr. Dweck's opening remarks she notes that a school gave students a grade of "not yet" when a student didn't pass a test.

Is success the final grade or success the actual, true, real effort the child put into learning? Is success the final grade that might be because of the work a parent did or the actual, true, real effort the child put into learning? Is success the child's understanding of what he can do well as well as the areas in which he struggles? Is success the child's development of skills and strategies to help compensate for her struggles? Is success encouraging a child to work around, behind, over, in spite of struggle because some day it might be that those struggles are no longer struggles? Or success a GPA or a grade?

Even though we seem to have plenty of business owners and hiring organizations that don't count a GPA as a mark of success, we also seem to have far too much emphasis on a grade. I'm not saying grades aren't important. For some students, they are a benchmark or evidence of their effort and their learning and legitimately so. For other students grades cloud the evidence of their effort and their learning which might be expressed in a different way.
Just as teachers need to believe in their students' abilities, so do parents and so do the students. Parents and students need to be realistic about their strengths and honest about their weaknesses, but academic weaknesses are not the end of the world. I think academic weaknesses might be a window to real possibilities because those weaknesses may close windows, even doors so that students can focus on their true strengths and capabilities which may lead to their true passions and futures.

Most parents want their kids to be successful, but they also want their kids to be happy. Part of learning is figuring out what success might look like and what happiness might feel like. While parents need to be aware of what their students are learning in school and should most definitely have conversations with teachers to find out concrete ways in which they might help their students at home, one of the most important ways that parents can help is to believe that their kids are capable of doing good work and that their time will come if they work hard and persevere, seeking to find their own path and their own way to success. And to help their kids believe in the power of yet.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Technology Infusion and the Classroom: Coaching Matters

AdvancED has published a 10-page paper titled "The Paradox of Classroom Technology: Despite Proliferation and Access, Students Not Using Technology for Learning." There are hundreds if not thousands of consultants and full-time people who are working with schools and districts, all of us yammering about technology integration. We're still answering the question "Why use technology?" for some just as we're helping teachers respond to the question "How do I use technology?" What this paper notes is that "After conducting over 140,000 direct classroom observations in K-12 schools in the U.S. and across the globe, AdvancED has uncovered that there are still relatively few classrooms in which students’ use of digital tools and technology is a regular part of a student’s school experience" (p. 2).

At the start of the school year, there is a rather substantial collision. New students, returning students, late-arriving students, students with IEPs, students without IEPs who need IEPs, students with helicopter parents, students with barely interested parents or family members or guardians. Then there are the administrator expectations for how teachers are going to make this The Best Year Ever.
Then there are the district expectations about how well and how thoroughly teachers are going to integrate every single new initiative and from the start of the year. The start of the school year is like trying to enter a double dutch only from a high dive or a high jump. It is layer of difficulty piled on layer of difficulty. It is no wonder that so many teachers are exhausted by Week 2 or 3 of school.

On top of all of this teachers need to be able to establish their own expectations and routines for the school year, and they need to start teaching. They can't wait for all of the kids who are coming to school to come to school. (Note to parents who think the first few days don't matter: they do.
Now let's add technology to all of the usual stuff of teaching. For many teachers, this is no big deal. After all, they understand that technology is just another tool and they will implement it as they see fit along with the other tools they have at their disposal. I've seen teachers who get the laptop or tablet cart once a week or once or twice a month include that resource with remarkable fluidity. I've seen other teachers who use their 5 or 6 tablets as stations or centers, simply figuring it out. And I've heard teachers fret about the lack of time, tense as they even think about how to manage their precious minutes with their kids and fearful of losing too many of those minutes to the distribution and collection of technology. I get that.

So here's the deal: in my own work (p20partners) and the work I do for other companies, there is considerable coaching and coaxing about technology infusion/integration/implementation. We talk about processes and routines, about strategies. Last year I had a teacher who appreciated being able to talk through his learning curve of getting the laptops distributed to and collected from his 9th graders. It wasn't until the 2nd 9-week period they got it figured out and the suggestions for smoothing the process came from the kids. On the other hand, I've seen a kindergarten class operate remarkably smoothly as the kids go get and then return their laptops or tablets. Color-coding works, my friends. "Purple table, please go get your laptops."

But let's get back to the AdvancED paper. A key phrase for me is "regular part of a student's school experience" and the word on which I focused is "regular" and 20-minute observations of 40+-minute classroom periods may not be sufficient, though I don't have any information about the actual observation processes, how often observers went back to the same classrooms, if they went back different times of the day, if the teachers knew they were being observed and for what kind of research, etc.

The reason this is a big deal for me is that many teachers also struggle to understand what "regular" means and to what extent anyone really expects technology to be infused/integrated/implemented in their classrooms. After all, technology is a tool or a resource just as crayons, pen, paper, worksheets, graphic organizers, and textbooks are tools and resources. A colleague of mine likes to say "do what makes sense." I've taken up that mantra because, well, it makes sense.

We ask teachers to consider their standards and their learning objectives. We ask teachers to differentiate. We ask teachers to personalize. We ask teachers to create engaging lessons that will spur students to further discovery and deeper engagement which, we hope, leads to deeper critical thinking. We expect teachers to use a range of tools and resources, digital and otherwise, to manage the differentiation, personalization, and engagement.

We know that administrative and coaching support is crucial for teachers to be more comfortable with technology. We know that establishing school-wide if not district-wide processes and policies for handling cheating and inappropriate use is a necessity, and in ways that kids can understand, which is not always true of the typical acceptable use policy. We know that consistency of classroom policy for digital literacy and digital citizenship are imperative. Some of us know that the teacher librarian/media specialist can be a tremendous resource for helping with much of the above.

AdvancED notes that "it is no longer a question of 'whether' but rather 'how' to incorporate and leverage the use of technology and digital tools to boost learning inside our K-12 classrooms. Technology has the potential to be the great equalizer as long as all students have access (both inside and outside school time) to these tools" (p. 8), and that is the crux: student access.

When teachers can be confident that students can have access outside of the classroom, they will view using technology differently. But that slides into another topic which is the value and application of homework.

I believe one of our first challenges remains helping teachers think differently about how their students can take advantage of the resources they have at school when they have them at school. Period. I believe that good coaching can help teachers feel like they have a partner who has a vested interest in their success as well as that of their students. A coach can help a teacher think through the barriers and challenges that are specific to that teacher and be a sounding board for that individual teacher's students, grade level, content area(s), and teaching style.

As a coach I'm mindful of the fact that it's not my classroom and those are not my students. I'm mindful of the fact that I need to see that classroom and those kids through the teacher's lens and perhaps help that teacher clean off some of the smudges. I'm mindful of the fact that it's my job to be an active and engaged listener and my suggestions need to be as though I'm trying to stand in that teacher's shoes, not try to make that teacher approach a lesson or a resource the way I would.

In-services, professional development, and solid training are important. But good coaching can help it all come together.