Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Creating Balance Between Teaching and Learning, Part Last

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we've wandered into assessment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, July 12, 2020

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

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

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

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

Please note the word SAFELY

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Creating Balance for Teaching and Learning, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for coming along.