Monday, September 10, 2018

"It's Hard to Be What You Can't See." So, read more.

In 2015, Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund, wrote an article with the title "It's Hard to Be What You Can't See." In the past few years, the phrase has been co-opted by STEAMsters who use it as a clarion call to educators about student opportunities for their futures. The phrase has become "They Can't Be What They Can't See." I've used it myself and, for many reasons, I think it true.

But just recently two things occurred to me. First, perhaps the way we're currently using it is too narrow and second, perhaps we've completely missed Marian Wright Edelman's intent. And so began my research journey.

The article itself was easy to find. Ms. Wright Edelman, born in 1939, is still active with the Children's Defense Fund. She wrote the article in 2015 and it was updated in 2016. Before I address the article and my thinking, a few notes. For those who don't know me, I'm a white female of a certain age; I have a doctorate in education; I've worked in various capacities in education, both corporate and non-corporate, for decades and oh my goodness that sounds like a really long time! Why does that matter? Because I know my age and my color influence my perceptions of context.

Another lengthy note. I worked for Pearson for several years. I was a director in the Teacher Education and Development Group which was, I think, the final name for our little business unit. I got to work with some amazing people as we crafting professional learning experiences and graduate programs for our university partners. We had video. Beautiful video filmed and edited by the ridiculously talented Jules Burke, founder and president of SMART Productions, and managed and frequently voiced by the also immensely talented Vikki Myers, who is one part of Kingdom Impact Ministries with her equally talented husband Michael. So yes, I was surrounded by talented people.

What's important here is that Vikki is not white. As we talked about video options and as we searched for schools that could help us capture the video we needed and wanted, Vikki ever-so-gently taught me the importance of faces of color in the classroom.

We often heard teachers talking about how they couldn't replicate a lesson taught by a 4th grade teacher because, for example, they taught 2nd grade. Or they couldn't use anything from a particular video clip because that teacher was elementary and the viewer was high school. Gadzooks people! But we knew that people found it hard to translate a learning experience when the ones they were watching did not look like or sound like them.

Even when the grade level and the content area matched, some teachers might say, "Oh sure, but she's only 23 students and I have more," or "Yea, but my school is Title I and urban and his isn't," or whatever nuance and detail did not match almost precisely. By the way, we modified the content to help teachers make the transition though this was often one of the more frustrating parts of our jobs. In this case, they couldn't be if what they saw didn't match their expectations perfectly.

Sure, it could be a simple matter of choice or a willingness to be creative and collaborative or any one of a number of things. However, we heard this from new and veteran teachers from all kinds of situations and demographics, and even from those who seemed to want to learn.

So my first corollary is this: "Sometimes it's hard to be what you can see."

But let's go back to Wright Edelman's article and the points she was trying to make, or the points I think she was trying to make.

She speaks first of diversity and global connection. When speaking of diverse books, she notes "it’s not because necessarily everybody needs to see themselves reflected in every book, but because we need that sense of connection." People have been making connections without those reflections, but why should they have to work that hard? And here is the crux.
It’s hard to be what you can’t see. Children of color need to be able to see themselves in the books they read. Just as importantly, all children need to be exposed to a wide range of books that reflect the true diversity of our nation and world as they really are. 
Deep in our heart of hearts we know that. Years and years ago I got to teach literature at the college level, and I'd do that again in a heartbeat (including teaching freshman composition because yes, I enjoy it!). I taught Children's Lit and Adolescent Lit, too, poor me. Because I taught some of the diverse literatures courses, I was always looking for books that reflected those that were rarely seen in my classrooms. Why? Because I knew, knew, in my heart of hearts that books might be one of the few ways to introduce students to those who were not like them. They might never meet someone like Okonkow in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, or any of the characters in In the Pond by Ha Jin or The Chosen by Chaim Potok or Silence by Shusaku. My goal was to help them see the characteristics that were reflected in their own skin and to figure out what differentiated them, other than accent or geography or skin color and how accent, geography, skin color, and more contributed to that differentiation.

Not too long ago a friend recommended Front Desk by Kelly Yang. The story itself is good and the characters are wonderfully crafted. I recommended it to a teacher in a neighborhood school and she wondered why they would read it since there aren't many Asian kids in the school. So we talked about the correlations her students might be able to draw with those of other races, ethnicities, and religions. And that's when it hit me.

Yes, using the catch phrase "They can't be what they can't see" is GREAT for STEM/STEAM programs, for promoting all kinds of options for kids who think their choices might be limited or who have no clue what possibilities might exist.

But let's go back to Wright Edelman's statement: "Just as importantly, children need to be exposed to a wide range of books that reflect the true diversity of our nation and world as they really are." Kids in rural schools need to have a realistic glimpse of what life is like in suburbia and cities, and vice versa. Kids in white bread schools need to know what life is like when your very being isn't privileged or when it is suspect because your skin isn't some weird beigey pinkish tan (you know we're not actually "white.").

So my second corollary is this: "Sometimes it's hard to imagine what you don't know, can't see, and haven't experienced."

I know of some students of color who have really limited ideas of the possibilities for their lives. I talked to one of the 6th graders who loves to run and loves to run fast. I asked her if she dreamed about being in the Olympics, if she dreamed of being the next Jackie Joyner-Kersee. She had no idea who I was talking about so I bought her a couple of books about African American women runners, including Wilma Rudolph and, of course, Flo Jo. A few weeks later her teacher sent me the most amazing thank-you letter written by this sweet girl. I know the books have changed some of her thinking and I know the experience of getting books was pretty cool for her. My hope is that now her dreams for herself will change.

And so, my third corollary, taking quite liberally from Wright Edelman, is this: "We all know more about what we might be and could be when we get to read a 'wide range of books that reflect the true diversity of our nation and world as they really are.'"

If we want our kids to be better equipped for this world and the world of their futures, they need to read more.

If we want our kids to have more information about what could be possible for them, they need to read more.

If we want our kids to begin to imagine what could be possible, they need to read more.

And they need to read "a wide range of books that reflect the true diversity of our nation and world as they really are." So have them read Front Desk, Long Way Down, The Hate U Give, Holding Up the Universe, I'll Give You the Sun, and so many more.

New City Library
Let them choose.

Let them discuss and reflect in ways that are meaningful to them.

Let them discover and grow.

Let them learn to imagine.

Let them imagine possibilities.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Design thinking in school: Students as designers, creators, and tinkerers

Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman are co-hosts of a new show called "Making It." Makers from around the country tackle projects using their own preferred medium. Because it's a competition, the least successful is eliminated each week. I adore this show and not just because it highlights the maker movement in a wonderfully creative way, or that it's hosted by two of the funniest people on TV. Participants have a limited amount of time to create their projects, but there is no way they don't know ahead of time what some of the projects are. They have to have time to figure out their materials and notify the show so each participant has access to sufficient amounts of the requisite materials. My point is that while they may make it look as though they are designing on the fly, the reality is that they have given some thought to what they are doing and how. Enter design thinking in a very real way.

Okay, you're thinking that's all very well and good for a television show and grown-ups who do crafty things for a living but let's talk about a classroom full of kids and limited resources since your classroom isn't backed by advertisers and a major network. Sure, let's talk about design thinking in the classroom. (If you feel like you need a little catching up, please read my blog post "Design thinking is not an output only process.")

First, I'm just going to say this: what we're calling "making" shouldn't be, needn't be limited to a particular place and time and it doesn't always require duct tape or a glue gun. Sometimes the process of making might require only a pencil and paper. I know, right? How droll.

The good folks at the University of Texas describe and define making in this way:
Making is an iterative process of tinkering and problem solving that draws on a DIY mindset. Making is collaborative and allows for self-expression through the creation of a personally meaningful artifact that is shared with a larger community. UTeach Maker Advisory Group, 2016 
Making promotes creativity and engages students in problems of their own invention. Making helps students develop identities as designers, creators, and tinkerers. Through making, students gain access to sophisticated tools for building and thinking critically.
Hang on to that. Now let's review what we're talking about with design thinking.
Design thinking is an approach to learning that includes considering real-world problems, research, analysis, conceiving original ideas, lots of experimentation, and sometimes building things by hand. The projects teach students how to make a stable product, use tools, think about the needs of another, solve challenges, overcome setbacks and stay motivated on a long-term problem. The projects also teach students to build on the ideas of others, vet sources, generate questions, deeply analyze topics, and think creatively and analytically. Many of those same qualities are goals of the Common Core State Standards. (What Does ‘Design Thinking’ Look Like in School?)
A.J. Juliani and John Spencer developed the LAUNCH cycle as a way for teachers and students to navigate design thinking. It's a great structure and you should most definitely visit their website for loads of resources. But I have to say this: all of the projects you see at this site and at many others are about engineering, about constructing something, about science or math. Nothing wrong with STEM or STEAM. I'm a believer. I'm a STEAMer myself. However, limiting design thinking to STEM/STEAM projects is, well, limiting.

Let's back up to the components of design thinking: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test. I talk about design thinking and how I used it as a computer engineer/systems analyst in this post, "Design thinking is not an output only process." Or, to simplify: identify the problem and figure out the POV, think about the end user (or reader), brainstorm possibilities, pick an angle and design an approach, design a prototype (write or create that draft), and redesign (revise that draft). How does that work for any content area?

First, you have to start with the right question, which may not be an actual question. I'm not going to talk about the "right question" strategy in this post but will in another. I'll make the connections for you, I promise. The not-question might actually be a concept or a broad area of reference or, my favorite, an "I wonder. . . " statement. Why not a question? Because students infer you want a specific answer if you ask a specific question. And they get frustrated if the question is too general.

Eons ago I did a high school paper on the religious and political implications of nursery rhymes. I did that paper because I'd heard someone mention that "Little Robin Red Breast" had religious and political implications about a particular Cardinal of the Church and I found that fascinating. That was an "I wonder. . . " moment and I had a fabulous time doing that research.

Let's think about social studies. The Treaty of Versailles was signed by Germany and the Allies in January 1919 at the end of World War I. The United States, Great Britain, France, and Italy negotiated the treaty. However, in November 1919, the United States rejected the Treaty of Versailles and refused to join the League of Nations. Rather than give a specific assignment or ask a specific question, I might offer up some "I wonder" statements to give students some idea of possibilities and then let them go from there. For example, I wonder what it felt like to be one of the allied countries negotiating that treaty. I wonder how one of the negotiators might explain what was going on to people back home, politicians or family. I'd also leave the "what" wide open so maybe students would write a series of letters from the POV of one of the negotiators. Or maybe do a series of news bulletins or broadcasts.

Design thinking might not work for every lesson or every assignment, but once students get in the habit of thinking in terms of empathize, ideate, design, prototype, and test, they will use those strategies whenever they can.

As a former English teacher, I get that you don't always want to read papers and not just because students don't always want to write them. Yes, they need the writing practice, which is one of the reasons we make them write papers, but there are other ways for them to convey that information. Even if they do a green screen presentation or use Adobe Spark or Book Creator or maybe even assessment tools like Nearpod, Quizlet, or Quizizz to present their content, they could easily use design thinking. And how much more interesting for them and for you if you ask them to write for a different audience. You could let them choose or you can use something like Wheel Decide to randomize options; that could be FUN.

Let's go back to that making definition, specifically this part: "Making promotes creativity and engages students in problems of their own invention. Making helps students develop identities as designers, creators, and tinkerers. Through making, students gain access to sophisticated tools for building and thinking critically." Think about tools your students use or could use. Even if they're creating a rough sketch or draft using pencil and paper, isn't that a form of tinkering? If they're working with classmates and they're pointing and grabbing at the pencil and erasing and talking over each other to adjust lines or numbers or ideas, isn't that tinkering? isn't that making? And while they're working alone or with each other working on that draft, whether using pencil and paper or a computer, they are thinking about the end user, they are thinking about the best approach, they are thinking about what will work and what won't: they are, probably almost by default, using elements of design thinking.

The more we encourage students to use design thinking, formally and informally, the more likely we are to help them tap into their skills and "identities as designers, creators, and tinkerers." Having said that, however, let me strongly encourage you NOT to formalize design thinking or laminate the steps as an anchor chart. There are ways to encourage this way of thinking without making it too formal.

Years ago, when I was still teaching literature as a general education class, I decided I could not read one more 20+ page research paper written under duress. I thought about why we were asking for such papers and I knew it was a culminating project to demonstrate learning. Okay, so why torture the students and me? So, way before all of this stuff was cool and trendy, out of sheer exhaustion and in self-defense, I told students they could do a final project however they wanted and for whomever they wanted as long as the audience wasn't me. They could create a video, design a game, create a sculpture or a painting, etc. Whatever as long as it expressed something about something in the class. And, of course, they could write a paper if that's what they wanted to do. I asked for an abstract so they could tell me what they were doing, explain the intended audience, and how it connected to the course which enabled me to create a simple rubric. I told them they were NOT being graded on the level of craftiness but on how well that product connected to what they wanted to say about what they learned in the class. I got some amazing work.

They were designers, creators, and tinkerers and I got student work that enabled them to express themselves in ways that truly reflected themselves as learners. Younger students might need more guidance and help with resources, but don't underestimate what wonderful creative thinkers and designers they can be when given the opportunity.


Additional resources
5 Ways to Use Design Thinking in Your Classroom
8 Steps to Implementing Design Thinking in Your Classroom
Design Thinking in Education
Introducing Design Thinking to Elementary Learners
Improving Schools Through Design Thinking
The Beginner's Guide to Design Thinking in the Classroom

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Reading with BHH. Book. Head. Heart.


I love Kylene Beers and Bob Probst. I love the way they write. I love what they write. I love them and yes, I'm privileged to know them. I'd love to hang out with them pretty much any time.

All of their books are useful and insightful, infused with that Beers/Probst humor. Their Notice and Note books are amazing but I want to talk about Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters.

Herewith some highlights and observations although it will be much, much, MUCH better for you to just get the book and read it. In fact, use it as a book study with your colleagues. Follow Kylene (@kylenebeers) and Bob (@BobProbst) on Twitter. It's entirely possible Kylene and/or Bob will agree to Skype in to talk with you and your colleagues about the book.
Too often, the right book created a compliant one-book-at-a-time reader, that kid who will willingly read the book we promise him he will enjoy. And yet, he doesn’t become the committed reader who searches on his own for the next great book.

And then we wondered if we were trying to solve the wrong problem. . . . Perhaps what was missing was helping students have the right mindset while reading. Once we reframed the problem, we began to understand why how kids read matters so very much (p. 17)
I was in a school library last year when kids were trying to finish all of their AR requirements. Kids were looking for books with the right colored dots. A few kids had finished their AR requirements and were looking for books to read for fun. For fun! Elementary students!! The library staff was making all kinds of great recommendations (that I was writing down for my own reading stacks). What was particularly fun was how enthusiastic the librarians were as they were describing the books they were recommending. Some of the books were not the right color dot, and the librarians would encourage the students to give the book a try. Calloo! Callay!

Students learn to extract information from texts and most of the work they do is about extraction. The following quote reminds us of the importance of flexible thinkers, which is often a challenge to the way we tend to want to do things in our classrooms.
We would argue that in today's world, learning to extract information is not enough. It's not enough to hold a reader's interest and it's not enough to solve our complex problems. . . . [Students] need to be flexible thinkers who recognize that there will rarely be one correct answer, but instead there will be multiple answers that must be weighed and evaluated (p. 21) 
I'd never thought much about a reader's responsibility to the text, but this section of the book was eye-opening. Beers and Probst state "While we, of course, want students who pay attention to what's in the text, we know that the most responsible reading requires that students pay attention to their own responses, their own thoughts, their own reactions" (p. 31).

Please note the emphasis on the word "own." Reading teachers like to talk about making connections: text-to-text, text-to-self, text-to-world. I remember startling a group of students by asking them what they didn't like about a story. When they were reluctant to answer (it probably felt like a trick question), I told them one of the things I didn't like about the story. Small light bulbs exploded as they began to realize that part of reading is recognizing what they like, how they connect, and, yes, what they don't like.

Heidi Weber sketchnote (p. 37)
If you're familiar with the Notice & Note books, you're familiar with the three big questions: What surprised me? What did the author think I already knew? What changed, challenged, or confirmed my thinking?

These questions assist students in their process of becoming responsible readers. These questions provide a means for expressing text-to-self and, quite possibly, text-to-text and/or text-to-world. But that's not the whole point. These questions also help students begin to think about what affects them, and why.

I'm going to fast forward a bit to the BHH part; otherwise, we'll be here all day.

I really, REALLY wish I had a recording of Kylene reading this part of the book and I'm going to quote from the text at length because it gives you insight into how they came to the BBH framework.
Our experiment with getting kids to read with the possibility of change in mind, willing to let the text be disruptive, got off to a rocky start. . .
We visited one classroom and said to the fifth graders, "As you read, we want you to think about the textual, intellectual, and emotional aspects of the text. In other words, we want you to read responsively and responsibly." We won't even record here how poorly that lesson went.
I must interject. These are two very experienced teachers who get to work with students often, so it wasn't lack of experience or perspective. I can't begin to tell you how helpful it was to me to understand this journey.
Next classroom: "Reading can change you. It can open up the world for you. But as you read, you need to think about your responses and you need to think about what's in the text. And you ought to ask yourself how this will help you be a compassionate person." One student responded, "Will you two be here all week?"
 My guess is that was not a question posed with joy and excitement.
Another day. Another class.  "As you read today, we want you to think about what's in the text and at the same time think about what your responses are to what's in the text." The response from the girl on the third row, middle seat: "Did you say if this was for a grade?"
Finally: "Okay. Today, as you read, think about what's in the book, what's in your head, and what's in your heart." Kids looked up. No one said anything. We took that as a good sign and wrote three words on the board: Book. Head. Heart. One boy repeated, "Book. Head. Heart." Another said, "Like what for the head?" We said, "Just ask yourself, 'What surprised me?' Then you'll be thinking about what was in the book while thinking about what you already know." He nodded and said, "Cool." Another asked, "What's a heart question?" We said, "Try 'What did this show me about me?' or 'How could this change how I feel?'" More nods. We held our breath.
The room was quiet. Kids studied our three words as we added some prompts. Then they shrugged and said, "Okay." And there it was. Three words. Book. Head. Heart. Our frame to remind kids that they need to do more than simply extract information from the text. . . .
 It's simple. Direct. And it keeps kids focused on where they must begin--with what's in the book--and where they must end--with how it's changing them. We tell kids, "Of course you must read what's in the book. The author put those words there for a reason! But you also must read thinking about what's in your own head, your responses. And finally you must read thinking about what you took to heart--your feelings, commitments, and values" (p. 62-63).

Why should you read this book? Why should you think about adopting some of their ideas and strategies? Because reading is meant to inform, entertain, and yes, can change us. It can change the way we understand. It can expand and change what we know or what we think we know. But we have to know how to read effectively, doing more than simply extracting information.

At the beginning of the book, Beers and Probst explain that disruptions begin because someone realizes there is a need for change. They note there are two questions asked: 1) What needs to change? and 2) What assumptions make that change hard? (p. 7).

We want students to be willing readers. We want them to be responsible readers who are will to reflect on what they are reading, who are willing to question what the writer has made them think and feel. It's possible that to help our students become disrupted thinkers, we have to disrupt our thinking and our teaching about how (and what) our students read.

You might also check out their Ten Tips:
Tip 1 Teach More by Talking Less
Tip 2 Value Change
Tip 3 Reading as a Transaction
Tip 4 Let Kids Reread
Tip 5 Book, Head, Heart
Tip 6 Give Kids Choice
Tip 7 Reading the Same Book
Tip 8 Books You Haven't Read
Tip 9 When Your Child Says "I Don't Get It"
Tip 10 Understanding Non-Fiction

Sunday, August 12, 2018

SEL isn't just another edutrend

A couple of years ago I would have scoffed at myself. I would have said that SEL is a new touch-feely trend in education destined just to add one more thing to the already overcrowded plates of teachers and administrators. And then I started paying closer attention to students and to teachers, and to the interactions of students and teachers.

In one of "my" schools, I witnessed a young boy slamming open the classroom door, then slamming it shut, and then heard him walking down the hall pounding on the wall. Second grader, maybe third. It was an explosive response to a teacher's quiet request. She looked at me. She had 24 or so other kids in the classroom. The phone was across the room. I got up and went after the student.

I pulled him down to sit on the floor next to me. It was easier than trying to kneel to be eye-to-eye and then we didn't have to be eye-to-eye. "So," I asked, staring at the opposite wall, "what's going on?" I felt him shrug because he was leaning towards me. I leaned back. He tensed, then relaxed a little.

"Oh. Okay. I thought you were upset the way you slammed the door. My bad."

After a few minutes of quiet, the two of us just sitting there, came the torrent of what was bothering him that had little to do with what the teacher asked or how she asked it but that she asked and, in that moment, he felt picked on. We took a few minutes to discuss why he felt picked on and it turns out he'd had a really rough night and a not very good morning. Lots of family stuff.

"So now what do we do?" I asked him.

I got a quiet "I dunno."

I told him I had some ideas and shared those, then asked him what he thought he might do. He started to get up and, because he's young and I'm not and I felt like he needed to feel in charge and needed, I asked him if he could help me up which was really funny because he really didn't know how to do that so we got the silly giggles which helped a lot.

As we walked back to the class I asked him if he was good for now. And he said, "For now."

Yea, for now. He was an elementary school student but old enough to know that our solution was for that moment and only temporary because there was still stuff going on at home and it would be there when he left school. He wasn't old enough to know how to manage those emotions and fears.

In my conversation later with the teacher, I told her what had transpired and she said something I've been hearing in schools for a while. She told me they needed school psychologists or people who could be in the halls when a kid has a meltdown so the student would have someone to listen to them and help them talk through whatever is going. She, like every other teacher, has other students who aren't acting out, who aren't throwing chairs, who aren't tossing books or iPads or Chromebooks out of frustration or whatever attitude is gripping them. She couldn't chase the one. Because I was there, she could attend to her students knowing that the one was being taken care of.

If I hadn't been there? She would have interrupted her lesson even more to call the office so someone could come to get him to take him to a buddy room or the timeout space or whatever they have for kids who aren't behaving. And what happens during that time? Nothing. The kids sit in those spaces still angry, still frustrated, and even more convinced that no one cares about their feelings or them as a person, even if they can't frame it in those terms. Then that student eventually returns and because the emotions haven't been handled, that student is still simmering or even angrier or more frustrated AND further behind.

That is just one of many examples of how I've learned firsthand the value of social emotional learning.

But let's start with what that is if it's not some eduspeak buzzword. According to CASEL, SEL "is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions." Their wheel of the five core competencies provides a framework for their work in SEL.

Okay, so that's a definition with a nice graphic, but what does that mean for students and teachers in the classroom? Because SEL cannot be a one-way street: kids have to be part of the conversation. Ideally parents or guardians would be involved, too, but starting with the kids helps.

Researchers Roger Weissberg, Joseph A. Durlak, Celene E. Domitrovich, and Thomas P. Gullotta try to explain this more in their book Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning: Research and Practice. They explain each of the core competencies and explain the value of students being able to manage themselves, make better choices, etc. Right on. That's good for everyone.

If you're anything like me, you want to know how. How do I integrate SEL? How do I help students learn to sort out whatever is going on at home or even at school and make good choices, manage their emotions, etc.?

Emelina Minero offers 13 activities. Okay, some of those make sense for some students and some classes. If you've read them, you're already thinking of the kids who will try to make a joke of some activity because it makes them uncomfortable, perhaps touches too close to an emotion they don't want to feel, or perhaps it just seems stupid for reasons they don't quite understand but that's their usual defensive posture.

Elizabeth Mulvahill offers 21 ways to integrate SEL. These are mostly designed for younger students but can be adapted for older students, of course. There are some growth mindset and mindfulness in this as well as the other activities, all good.

One of the 21 ways is simple: a check-in. Teachers stand at the door and greet their students, getting a sense of how they're doing that day. I've seen teachers do a check-in as students arrive and that's it. And even if the student is feeling sad or grumpy, the teacher might offer a few words of encouragement and that's it. Why? Because 14 kids have already arrived and there are 9 more straggling into the classroom and he has to keep the 14 in check or focused on a task and he has to hurry the 9 stragglers into the room so they can get started. Will he check-in with that student or any others any other time during the day? Probably not. Why not? He's got standards to address and a lot of work to do before the end of the class period or the end of the day.

I can hear kids thinking, "If you don't really care how I feel, don't bother to ask me." Why? Because then they'll lie so the teacher doesn't think the student is a loser--student's thought process, not mine--or they'll sink further into whatever funk they're in because the teacher is just one more example of no one really caring about them.

We have to remember that they're kids. Even if they're in high school, they're kids and there are a lot of emotions running rampant for a lot of reasons. Kids learn to hide things really well. It's one of the ways they survive. Overly dramatic? Not to them. Yea, I remember being one of those kids and for the majority of my school years.

Posters in the classroom might help some students. Games to build community will help many students. Whether the kids are from at-risk homes or apparently nice middle-class suburban homes, students struggle with figuring out their role in the emotional mess. I remember thinking that some of my mother's behavior towards me had to be my fault even though I knew she was angry with my dad. At some level, I understood the vicious circle of my parents' emotional battles.

So, like many other students, I learned to play the games, to participate when and where as needed to keep up appearances. One of the reasons I was hospitalized with an ulcer in high school is because I internalized my emotions and found other ways of expressing my anger, fear, and frustration, some healthier than others.

I'm not belittling posters or any of these strategies. I think the more resources and options teachers have available, the better. But I also know that many of today's kids need to know that someone cares, really and truly and deeply cares about them and, perhaps most importantly, that someone will listen to them and help them figure out how to make sense of whatever chaos is churning their lives.

We forget how much one or two kind words can matter because then a teacher gives the student the sense that he or she matters; that someone cares about them as a human being. It might not shut down the anger or help with the frustration, but it might.

Angela Maiers is the disrupter and innovator behind the Choose2Matter movement. She's incredibly driven and incredibly passionate about reminding people of the value and importance of these two words: you matter. I have the privilege of knowing Angie and yes, I promote her work whenever I can. If you don't have 20 minutes right now, watch the first 5 minutes of this video to give you a sense of how she's been trying to reconnect people to remember the value of the sense of community, the need we humans have to matter to one another and to belong. Then call her or email her. Book her to speak to your school district AND the community because Angie has been promoting and investing in SEL since well before it was a thing.

And even if you don't work with Angie, even if you don't completely buy into SEL as an important component of your students' lives, I can't encourage you enough to invest in your students as individuals. Do more than just check in with them first thing in the morning. Check in with them throughout the day. Let them know that they matter and their presence in the building makes a difference.



Additional resources:
The Future of Education Depends on Social Emotional Learning: Here’s Why (2018).
Social Emotional Learning: A Short History (2011).
"The Need for Social Emotional Learning. (1997). Promoting Social and Emotional Learning.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

What about a student's WHY?

You've probably heard about Simon Sinek's books Start with Why and Find Your Why. You may also be familiar with his TED Talk; if not, check out the edited version. In this video, Sinek talks about his idea of the Golden Circle and the center of that circle is, of course, WHY.



Now Sinek's idea was for organizations and leaders. One of his key lines in this video is that people don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

In the past year or so, there have been a lot of videos, articles, and more for teachers to reconnect with their "why." It's sort of like purpose-driven teaching. WHY do you teach? If you had to articulate a vision statement for you as a classroom teacher, how would it read? Would your statement be anything like this?
I am an educator because I love to use my skills and talents to help students be successful in every area of their life. Every student in my school is my kid. They have value. They have the potential for greatness, and I am dedicated to provide them the best education possible.
Finding and holding on to your why has become something of a business in some quarters, and for others it's simply a matter of asking some fundamental questions, though it mangles the Golden Circle because these questions start from the outside rather than the inside:
  1. What do we do?
  2. How do we do it?
  3. For whom do we do it?
  4. Why do we do it? What value are we bringing?
Sinek believes you should start from the inside of the circle and start with why because WHY informs HOW and then WHAT. Think about your approach to teaching if this was your WHY:
Everything I do as a teacher, I believe in helping my students identify as citizens, scholars, and individuals whose voices matter. I believe our world is better when individuals understand their value, believe in their capacity to cause change, and take action to better the world around them.
I think this is important, but the teacher's WHY is only part of the equation. As teachers are preparing for a new school year, they're thinking about those critical first few days and ways to start to build rapport with their students. They are thinking about how students see them as teachers and how they can learn more about students as individuals and as learners through different activities.

But what if teachers were to ask students about their WHY? What if students were given this prompt: "Everything I do as a student. . . " or "I am a student because. . . "? Sure, the responses from 1st graders might not be very deep, and you'd hope to hear something a bit more profound and insightful from a 9th grader and certainly from an 11th or 12 grader. But I have an itchy feeling about the kinds of responses we'd get from most students.

I had an interesting revelatory moment late last spring about which I was very uncertain because it seemed so odd: kids don't understand WHY they are going to school. I think most students know they go to school because it's what kids do, but they don't really understand what learning is and what learning could be. They don't really understand the potential of learning. They don't have the capacity or the experience or the exposure, maybe, to dream about what they could be or do because of learning?

Last year one of my big phrases was "they can't be what they can't see." I still believe that. Learning is a window to possibility.

If we want to help students be prepared for the world, we need to expose them to possibilities of the world. Yes, we need to be realistic about what we can do, about what they can do. At the same time, we can't underestimate their capabilities and capacities for learning. So we need to read them books and show them videos about scientists, engineers, mathematicians, inventors, writers, cartoonists, artists, and more. And we have to encourage each of them to think expansively and imaginatively about what learning is and what learning could be for them as an individual with all kinds of potential we might not yet recognize.


Resources
Defining your WHY – Keep Yourself Inspired as a Teacher
Starting with WHY

Monday, July 16, 2018

Form follows function: For office space and classrooms

www.siue.edu
"Form follows function" is an axiom in architectural circles. Those of us outside of that circle can try to parse its meaning, but let's just go to those who know something of Louis Sullivan. According to ThoughtCo, "Sullivan argued that a tall building's exterior design (form) should reflect the activities (functions) that take place inside the walls of the building."

UX Collective also quotes Sullivan and at length:
Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change… . It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.
The UX Collective article is actually quite fascinating, so go ahead and digress to explore that quick read. In the user interface context, the writer believes that today the credo might instead be "function follows human needs, form follows human behavior." And that is rather interesting. An example in this article is a chair and you might learn that designing a chair can be pretty complicated.

My current reading chair is a wing back armchair. It's comfortable but sometimes when I want to shift positions, I end up flinging one leg over the arm of the chair. Not good for my back; not great for the chair. Would a recliner be better? Maybe. But I'm thinking about this human behavior thing and wondering how that might impact the design of a reading chair for someone who occasionally would rather be sitting on something that's almost a chaise. Is it the sideways thing I like or just being able to put my leg or feet up? Good question and something a designer might think about.

You might be asking what on earth that has to do with office space and classrooms, but I'm guessing you're already there.

Recent articles have made it clear that the open office experiment has not been successful. According to Ars Technica, open office space is actual less conducive to collaboration and productivity. Inc. reports on the same Harvard study which indicates that face-to-face interactions increased as walls went up as did email and texts.

When I last worked in an office, we had walls. People would email to colleagues who were within a short walking distance. Why email rather than get up and walk? The perception of time saved in that I could send an email and rather than wait for a response, I could continue with other projects. . .and emails. At some point, the emails became ridiculous--even if they did provide a paper trail--and it was easier to get up and go to someone's cubicle or office, gathering others along the way, to finalize the conversation and decisions. And that's kind of my point. The email permitted us to get through some of the chaff to figure out the real issues and determine who really needed to be part of the conversation and then, after a 10-minute confab while leaning against someone's door frame, tidy up the details.

Could we have done that in an open office? I suspect not. Concerns about others eavesdropping on the conversation and offering unwanted, unneeded, or unnecessary suggestions; or others overhearing a conversation they shouldn't be overhearing. Or, for those of us who might have been trying to do other work while the conversation is happening, too much distraction because of that conversation which might or might not be relevant to me and my work. Which is why we see so many people wearing headphones and earbuds if they're working in that open space.

So when we think about the function of an office area or the form of human behavior in that particular office space for that particular organization and type of work, we can imagine how that office space might be organized differently depending on the work.

Does that apply to classrooms? After all, kids are in a classroom to learn. How complex is that after all?

3rd graders & Padlet
Ahhh, well, let's think about that. What does learning look like?

I'm not going to bash the "factory model of education" that has been prevalent for the past 100 years, which is where so many like to go. That's a tired trope. While I work with some teachers who have desks in their classrooms, sometimes those desks are grouped, sometimes they're in rows, sometimes they're in a circle or rectangle. It depends on how much space they have and what's happening in class that day, though it also depends on the teacher and how willing he or she is try something different.

Kinders: floor vs desk
I often ask teachers what they think a particular lesson is going to sound like and look like. I want to know what they see in their mind's eye and what they imagine they would like to hear; I want to them to think about what that learning experience could look like and sound like.

Some teachers can't help wanting Voice Level 0 or Voice Level 1 but I suspect that's because they're more comfortable with quiet than noise. Some teachers have that eye-widening recognition of how they're constraining kids because of the vision they have for what learning should look like and be.

Is learning always linear?

Is learning always hushed conversation and silent reading?

Is learning always tidy work spaces?

No, no, and no. So learning could be messy and noisy. It could be quiet and reflective. It depends on the learning.

Standing, sitting, however
I worked with a school that tried open classroom space for elementary students. The concept was that teachers would have a large space for team teaching and a smaller walled space for small group work, targeted student work, etc. The first challenge was the team teaching and when that didn't work quite as well as hoped, they found ways to create walls. Team teaching worked well in a couple of grades because the teachers figured it out and were okay with controlled chaos. The students adjusted for their classes. The open space for library work and some of the specials were less successful; they are still sorting out solutions.

Does learning really ramp up when form follows function? Maybe. I know a first grade teacher who gave her students choice of where and how to sit when they were reading their books. I was often amused by how students chose to sprawl or sit, but they were focused on their books. Of course, she's not the only one to give students options of choosing to stand or sit and where to sit or where to stretch out.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: pedagogy first. Cool furniture, nifty rugs and wall hangings, far out lighting, bean bag chairs, and chimes. It's all for naught if your teaching is below par.

I think it's great that school architects understand how students learn--and I agree. I think some of the findings in this article are spot on. But they also have to understand that what works in one second grade classroom might not work as well in another and it might not work at all in a sixth grade classroom. There are many influencing factors and many of them are not the same across grade levels. Classroom dynamics between teacher and students. This group of students is different from last year's and next year's will be different from this group. Curricular changes. District initiatives. Parental involvement. Community involvement.

Just as I believe we shouldn't generalize how office space should work across businesses, I don't think we should generalize how classroom space can help students in their learning.

Just as I believe we shouldn't generalize professional learning experiences and just as I don't believe we should generalize all student learning experiences, I don't think we can generalize how classroom space impacts student learning.

I think there are some fundamentals for classroom space: enough accessible outlets, options for teachers to store laptops or tablets so students can reach them as well, options for creating spaces so students can work individually or collaboratively, accessible white boards or smart boards for whole class instruction but also for students to use as they're figuring out their learning, options for media and technology so students can learn individually or collaboratively. The ideal, I think, is for teachers to be able to mix and match what they need for their classroom that's appropriate for their grade levels/content areas, and for how they wants to see and hear learning in their classrooms.

I know there is never enough wall space in a classroom and schools use hall space in various ways. I love the idea of grade level hallway space for posting student work (or QR codes that link to student work) as well as common anchor charts or whatever else they might need. That means kids need to be able to leave a classroom on occasion, which I do see in many schools. And then wall space in the classrooms could include a couple of smaller student-level white board for working out solutions to any kind of problem or learning task.

artspace.com
I also know that teachers like to set up their classrooms in specific ways based on their resources, what and how they teach, and the space they have available. I understand that and believe it makes sense. However, let's assume that function follows human needs, form follows human behavior.

I wonder what could happen if teachers paid close attention to the ways students interacted with the resources in the room, how students tried to make adjustments based on their individual instincts, and what students asked permission to do.

I wonder how teachers might opt to change the room to reflect how students were asking to be able to learn.

I also wonder how teachers might reflect on how they teach and make adjustments to their pedagogy to reflect how students were asking to be able to learn.

Function follows human needs, form follows human behavior. Apparently on multiple levels.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Design thinking is not an output only process

An Education Dive piece suggests that design thinking can help students with creativity and empathy. There has been a lot of conversation around design thinking because it's one of the current buzzwords in education. Some see it as an opportunity, some see it as an answer to a question they've not yet formulated, and others are waiting to see if this becomes an actual thing in education.

As the article notes, the concept of design thinking is generally associated with Stanford's d.School. The specific elements of that design thinking process are empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. Eons ago, when I was a systems analyst and programmer, we used the ADDIE model. There are some similarities though "analysis" sounds colder and more disconnected than "empathize."

So let's look closely at the elements of "empathize" in the Stanford model: interviews, shadowing, seek to understand, non-judgmental. As a systems analyst, I would have read a customer's project request so I had a very high level view of what the customer thought they wanted. Then we would do a version of 20 questions as I sought to have a clearer understanding of what the customer really wanted. They would be surprised by how much information they hadn't provided simply because it didn't occur to them. While I might not have been able to shadow in person, we would talk through processes, where things worked and where things needed to be improved or changed. My job was to understand what they were trying to accomplish and then provide a path to a solution that worked for the near-term and the foreseeable future. By often frustrating and painstaking review, we might uncover systems or processes they hadn't thought about or even situations they hadn't considered.

Then I could craft a design. We would review the design and make adjustments because by then the customer was thinking more clearly and more specifically. I'd have people tell me that every time they went back to their shop or their office, they would notice something they'd stopped seeing over time. Sometimes that mattered to my project and sometimes it didn't. When we were comfortable with the design, I would develop a prototype. We put together test situations to see how the system responded and would put it through its paces for the customer.

It was never right the first time, but we were often very close. We could then make adjustments, make sure we were really going in the direction the customer wanted, then fine tune the design and the product to a more final version.

Let me make a note here: there were times that the prototype showed the customer that their thinking was not quite accurate. By helping them notice more particularly, they often became aware of other issues that needed to be resolved. Sometimes that could be within the purview of whatever we were building but most of the time it did not. I've never had a customer scrap a project at the prototype, but I have had them make some serious adjustments to the final product or realize that the current project was an interim project.

Now, what does that have to do with the classroom? A.J. Juliani refers to the IDEO variation of design thinking which can provide students with a framework for thinking about how to find a solution to a problem and references other models for the design process.

So let me make another note here: what teachers are asking students to do is use a particular process to find a solution to a problem or situation. As a result of using this process, especially if they use the process regularly, they begin to adopt it and use this design process as a natural part of their thinking.

I've never stopped being a systems analyst in terms of the way I approach a challenge or problem, whether the project is for me or someone else (though I probably think through potential problems less when I'm working on a project for myself). So by using a design process--Stanford's d.School design process or IDEO's process or even ADDIE--students adopt and adapt the way they think about finding solutions.

John Spencer and A.J. Juliani developed what they called the LAUNCH Cycle for design thinking. It's pretty cool and definitely student friendly.
  • L: Look, listen, and learn. The point is for students to develop awareness. . .of the situation, of the audience who might need or want to use the end result, of the problem to be solved and why it needs to be solved, etc.
  • A: Ask tons of questions.
  • U: Understand the process or problem. In my opinion, this comes from asking tons of questions and doing research, maybe even seeing and trying to use the existing system or process or product to see why and how it might be improved or refined.
  • N: Navigate ideas. This is the ideate phase in Stanford's model and the design phase in ADDIE. Brainstorm, create a DFD or flowchart (seriously, a flowchart can really help!), test ideas, combine parts of ideas, and be prepared to do more research and ask more questions. This is most definitely an iterative process.
  • C: Create a prototype. This could be digital or it could be something made with craft sticks and duct tape or a glue gun. The prototype has to be testable.
  • H: Highlight and fix. This makes sense, of course, because once students start testing the prototype they'll see what works and what doesn't. This too is an iterative process. And, as Spencer notes, it's "where every mistake takes them closer to success."
Design thinking isn't new, but the names and some of the elements are new. Back in the late 70s, programmers used the Ganes and Sarson Data Flow Diagram (DFD) model, a model that was used through the 80s. In fact, the concept of DFDs can still be seen in agile modeling. Anyway, it was the same premise. Design something based on all of the information you have and can gather. Poke holes in it. Figure out where things could go wrong. Ask lots of questions. Redesign. Poke more holes in it. Figure out where things could go wrong. Ask more questions. Redesign. Once they determined they had covered as many known bases as possible, systems were built and tested. First came stub tests, then more complex tests depending on the nature and complexity of the system. I'll stop there because I can sense your eyes glazing over. ;)

But that testing piece is important and it is often overlooked in student-focused processes. So kids asked all of those questions at the beginning of the process to figure out how to build a prototype to get to a final product. But they use little of that data to figure out if the prototype really works because they don't design good tests. They design the basic "does it work?" test. And maybe that's enough.

What engineers and systems designers know about that the "does it work?" test is that it's not nearly enough. Does it work if the conditions are perfect? Excellent. But what if the conditions are not quite perfect? What if you try a heavier weight? What is someone tries x instead of y? Is that x variable a likely option? One of the challenges of testing is thinking about what users are likely to do and within reason. Asking students to design tests a bit more complex than "does it work?" will help them see flaws but also help them see potential.

My point is this: design thinking becomes a part of the way a student engages in learning and the world. Design thinking is a natural part of PBL. Design thinking can also be a logical and natural way to approach Genius Hour. After a while, design thinking will become a logical and natural extension of the way students approach any learning situation.

It is not limited to PBL or STEM/STEAM or Genius Hour. Design thinking can become the way students think. Period. The framework they use--whether Spencer and Juliani's LAUNCH cycle or the ADDIE model (more recognizable outside of schools) or the Stanford d.School model--doesn't matter.

The end result is thinking differently about a challenge or problem to be solved.

The end result is learning to think about how to find a solution that works and makes sense for the situation rather than simply how to solve a problem.

Monday, February 12, 2018

About That Instructional Coach

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about coaching and how a good instructional coach can make a difference for teachers and administrators. It's entirely possible you agree with that but aren't too sure what to do next or that you've had an experience with an instructional coach that wasn't all that positive but your gut tells you to rethink this proposition. Whatever brings you here. let's talk about instructional coaching.

You'd think most folks would understand instructional coaching--what it is and what a good instructional coach can accomplish. Experience tells me that's not the case.

The wonderful image to the left explains a lot of what instructional coaching is all about and one of the most important elements is non-evaluative feedback. One hopes it's on a regular basis, but that can be a challenge. But let me back up a bit.

In 2015, the incomparable Jennifer Gonzalez wrote about being an instructional coach. As she points out, there are reading coaches, math coaches, literacy coaches, and technology coaches. Then there are those of us who are generalists who can and do work with classroom teachers across grade ranges and content areas. My work is about pedagogy and, where it makes sense, an effective integration of technology. Gonzalez interviewed others to get their perspectives on coaching and reports what Elena Aguilar told us in The Art of Coaching: work on the relationship AND listen more than you speak.

I know the teachers with whom I work have expertise and experience. I cannot underestimate that. My job isn't to tell them how to teach; my job is to help them gain perspective on themselves and their students so they can maximize their skills and abilities in the classroom. My job is to help teachers figure out ways to help their students use their natural curiosity to learn how to learn.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron found herself making the transition from classroom teacher to instructional coach, and once that role became a full-time one, she notes she was able to mold the position to meet the needs of her site and her teachers. It's no surprise that the first function she lists is that of mentor. Again, listen more than you speak as you build that relationship. I find the teachers with whom I work often need me to help them filter the thousand-and-one things flying through their heads, and to help them brainstorm and to focus on ideas that they can make work. Unlike Ms. Wolpert-Gawron, I'm not permanently located in a district so my teachers see me once or twice a month. And though I'm available electronically, we make much more use of our face-to-face time.

One of the other roles listed by Ms. Wolpert-Gawron is that of professional development coordinator. When an instructional coach is really listening to a teacher, the coach can calibrate the professional development to meet the needs of a group of teachers or as many teachers as possible. Though we know one-size-fits-all is not ideal, our only option is often meeting with all faculty. So one of the things we need to be able to do is speak generally but engage specifically. In a word, differentiate.

What else do instructional coaches do? Again, Ms. Wolpert-Gawron is spot on: research, curate, and publicize. Most of the districts with which I work have created an email account for me so we can create an internal Google Classroom so I can share resources with teachers. And I can model how to organize and use Google Classroom at the same time! I use Edmodo for another district because that's what we started with three years ago.

I very deliberately called my company p20partners. My original goal was to work with teachers PreK through university level. I've been privileged to work with educators at the PreK through 12 levels, but still trying to break through that resistance at the university level. That's actually irrelevant because the most important part of my company name is "partners." I can't and won't tell a teacher how to do his or her job. I don't know their kids as well as they do and a few observations here or there doesn't give me deep insight into how they teach. HOWEVER, what I do know is that the teachers and administrators with whom I get to work count on me to help them think through their challenges, to come up with tools and resources to help them maximize their time with their students, to be available when they have questions or want to share out ideas via email or text, and to support them through their learning curves without judgment. And when they let me show their kids some new tools and resources to help students and teachers get a sense of the value of that tool or resource, that's just extra chocolate syrup on top for me.

Not too long ago I did a PD session with a group of teachers and we talked for quite a while about the 6 Qs: IQ, EQ, PQ, CQ, CRQ, and IMQ. The 6 Qs have a logical place in the corporate space, but it was clear that the teachers were quite thoughtful about the implications of these Qs not only for them, but for their students. They were particularly interested in the passion quotient and the courage quotient because they struggle with kids who aren't willing to persevere and they wondered if it's because they don't have the courage to fail. Teachers talked much longer than I expected; it was rich and so insightful for me. In fact, that conversation went so well, I'm planning to introduce some administrators to the concepts to see what they think and how the 6 Qs might influence how they interact with their teacher leaders.

I think a key role of an instructional coach is learner. When I have a teacher ask me about something and I get to scurry around the internet looking for resources or crowdsourcing colleagues to see what they know or have used. And then I get to play to figure out what might be best for that teacher and those students. But then I get to share that learning with others who may not even know that's a question they wanted to ask.

Whenever I learn something new, I get to think about "my" teachers and who might find what the most useful. I share with everyone, but I might send a separate note to a specific teacher because I want them to remember that even though I'm not always with them, I'm usually thinking about them and I want their very best for their students.

I always tell my teachers that our time together is not my time, but theirs: it's for their learning and growth, it's for their support and encouragement, it's for them to let me partner with them to help find some solutions or help them think through tools and resources that will meet a learning objective or help their students stretch.

Peg Grafwallner, writing for Edutopia, underscored how often the instructional coach provides that opportunity for processing. Just recently I was reminded of the one-legged interview, one of those strategies I'd forgotten--which reminded me of the conversations I often have with teachers who have forgotten effective strategies they used to use because their immediacy was crowded with all the new stuff. So the one-legged interview is called that because the conversations should last as long as you can stand on one leg. The questions are designed to invite teachers to process or to reflect. Non-judgmental; non-evaluative. A short conversation that may remind me of something or spark something for the teacher or lead to a longer conversation that invites more processing and reflection, more opportunities for me to rummage around the internet and find cool stuff.

So when you're thinking about hiring an instructional coach, either full-time or as a consultant, keep these roles in mind: mentor, listener, encourager, researcher, curator, disseminator, PD coordinator/collaborator, partner, and learner. Your teachers will thank you.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Personalized Learning: More than Student Choice?

Before we can assess how well it is working and what changes, if any, need to be made, we have to know what it is. In this case, the “it” is personalized learning and personalized learning has caused educator quite a bit of agita over the years.

In October 2014, Sean Cavanaugh of Education Week attempted to provide some discernment in his article “What is ‘Personalized Learning’? Educators Seek Clarity.” For many, technology provides the fulcrum for personalized learning. Eliot Soloway was quoted as saying “Many technology-based approaches to personalized learning amount to nothing more than tailoring or personalizing the reading of texts to students of different abilities—rather than personalizing a mix of activities that give students a richer and more meaningful educational experience.”

Teachers are often asking about different reading levels or lexile levels. As Soloway notes, they want different kinds of texts for different reading abilities. Teachers seem to conflate differentiation with personalization but that may also be because personalization seems too daunting. So rather than ask what personalized learning is, perhaps the better question is “What is personalized learning supposed to be?”, or, even better, “What could personalized learning be for students and their learning?”.

In 2017, Audrey Watters, she of Hack Education who likes to rattle comfortable ways of thinking, presented at an OEB Midsummit in Iceland and said, among other things, “But I contend you cannot analyze digital technologies and the business and politics of networks and computers without discussing how deeply embedded they are in what I’ve called the “Silicon Valley narrative” and in what others have labeled the “California ideology” – and that’s an ideology that draws heavily on radical individualism and on libertarianism.”

She has a point. Let’s look at who is investing millions of dollars into personalized learning: Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Why? Well, because they can, of course. The more suspicious of us would see marketing opportunities behind the alleged philanthropy. On the other hand, we know that online organizations want access to a lot of our information and they already gather beaucoup amounts of information through every transaction and every click online. Why? In theory so they personalize the ads we’re shown. And they do. It’s eerie, and a trifle annoying. (“Stop showing me ads for stuff I’ve already bought!” I tend to shout at my laptop, when I actually pay attention to the ads, which I rarely do.) Anyway, we can see the direction in which personalization is heading and has been heading, since back in the day when Burger King first started telling us in 1974 that we could have it our way.

Cavanaugh reported that Andrew Calkins, then deputy director of the Next Generation Learning Challenges, asserted that “[t]rue personalized learning calls for a ‘rethinking and redesign’ of schools, which could require them to overhaul classroom structures and schedules, curricula, and the instructional approaches of teachers.” We all know the on-going argument that teachers’ roles much change so they are “more like those of coaches or facilitators than ‘content providers.’” We also know the practical complexities of that model, especially for younger grades.

What we do know is that software is only one component of providing students with a possible pathway for personalized learning. But there is more to consider.

We also know that teachers and administrators still struggle to understand what personalized learning is or can be. Too many think it requires individualized lesson plans or requires 1:1 access for students. Kenya Ransey observes that ‘[l]earning is the primary focus, and technology can be along for the ride—or not. What does it look like when technology is not at the center of a personalized learning experience?” She also asserts that “it’s critical that we realize that once we all consolidate around a standardized definition, it will no longer be personal.” I’m not sure I agree with that, but I’m not yet sure why.

There are certainly plenty of educators who are not fans of personalized learning. Most of that resistance seems to be based on a lack of understanding of what it is and can be; that is, a lack of a concrete definition and clarity of expected outcomes. However, plenty of educators echo Audrey Watters’ concern that it’s simply an opportunity for large organizations to gather information about users for their own capitalistic purposes. Well, there is that and, let’s face it, every edtech organization wants to gather data on students for a range of reasons.

Robyn Howton is one of those teachers who crashed and burned a few times on her way to implementing personalized learning in her classroom. She did research, tried and failed a few times, made adjustments, and kept going. In her ISTE article, she refers to the Rodel Teacher Council Blueprint for Personalized Learning in Delaware as a resource. At the time she worked without 1:1 in her classrooms and realized that she made some errant choices about which technology to use when. Howton had some great a-ha moments when she analyzed her lessons and realized when and how she might have used technology more effectively which helped her determine which tools to use. (She refers to some great tools, too!)

One of Howton’s most important lessons was to give her students choice: “Class often starts with a mini-lesson, which then flows into students making choices about what they need to do next to meet specific learning targets aligned to the standards.

Writing for the Christensen Institute, Elizabeth Anthony notes “the magic of blended learning lies in the instructor’s ability to leverage technology to personalize learning rather than the mere use of certain software programs. A classroom can incorporate technology without actually changing the classroom model and the way students learn.”

What is interesting to me is how often blended learning is mentioned in connection with personalized learning and how occasionally there is reference to competency-based learning in conjunction with personalized learning. We have a lot of trends in education and that causes much of the confusion. Can you implement personalized learning without blended learning? Is competency-based learning an option in personalized learning? Should we be implementing competency-based learning instead of personalized learning?

But wait. This is about personalized learning and trying to figure out what that is and what it means. I don’t mean to oversimplify but I think Robyn Howton found an important key: student choice. Every teacher has objectives or learning outcomes for every lesson. The question to be asked is whether or not students have to demonstrate their learning in the same exact way and if they have to follow the same exact path to get there? If not, students have choice.

I think another challenge is that teachers think personalized learning, like blended learning, needs to be something they do every day for every lesson. That doesn’t make sense. Younger students won’t have the learning tools yet and some high school students may lack the maturity to make good decisions. And not every teacher can implement personalized learning in the exact same way every year. In fact, for middle and high school teachers, they may not implement personalized learning in the exact same way in every class.

I also think personalized learning is an aspiration for some teachers and they cannot be expected to make that transition overnight. That’s one of the reasons I appreciate Howton’s article and her reflection on her transition to blended and personalized learning. In fact, I think she offers something of a template for teachers interested in trying to implement personalized learning in their classrooms.

Teachers should start small, with one lesson. It’s not just teachers who have to learn how to conduct a class using personalized learning. Students will need to be taught to think differently about their learning and trust that it’s okay for them to have choice.

No one should expect dramatic changes overnight. It will take time and patience. And it will have to be okay to blow it every now and then, and then learn from the experience and what students can report from their perspectives. After all, it is about the students and their learning and what makes the most sense for them to be successful.


References
Cavanaugh, Sean. (2014). What is “Personalized Learning”? Educators Seek Clarity. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/10/22/09pl-overview.h34.html?r=2043444587

Christensen Institute (2018). Squaring Personalization and Digitization in 2018. https://www.christenseninstitute.org/blog/squaring-personalization-digitization-2018/. Guest blogger Elizabeth Anthony.
Herald, Benjamin. (2017). The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2017/11/08/the-cases-against-personalized-learning.html

Howton, Robyn. (2017). Turn Your Classroom into a Personalized Learning Environment. https://www.iste.org/explore/articleDetail?articleid=416


Ransey, Kenya. (2017). What personalized learning is not. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2017-09-01-what-personalized-learning-is-not

Watters, Audrey. (2017). The Histories of Personalized Learning. http://hackeducation.com/2017/06/09/personalization