Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Technology as an amplifier.

When we think about the potential "technology" has to transform classrooms, there is no shortage of cliche's or 140 character "truths" that can be uttered in a moments notice. And it's not that I don't believe in many of these ideas or that our students do not deserve to learn using whatever tools help them learn best.  Over the years, one of the statements that has always resonated with me is the idea that "technology is an amplifier".  At face value, this may sound like a truly underwhelming vision of what "technology" can be in the hands of the right teachers and students. My initial thought about this statement years ago was that it didn't go far enough in shining a light on the potential "technology" has to offer in our classrooms and schools.

Yet here I sit several years later and upon further review, I think this statement is spot on.  That's not to say that the uses of "technology" in a classroom can't be transformative. It's just that often the "technology" we use shines a light on the wrong things. In some cases, it amplifies bad practices too. Which is why I think we have to be careful that we aren't being hyperbolic when discussing the power of technology to the technophobes and cynics when heavily investing in "technology" in schools. We have to accept that no amount of new devices or access to new software or tools will ever increase learning. Period.

What  does increase learning is the effort and will of the person(s) behind the design of the learning opportunities and experiences for our kids. (ie. the teacher)

Five years ago when I began to heavily invest in teaching and learning about technology in my classroom (mostly through my online PLN), it became obvious to me that I was a hypocrite. The very things I was spouting  to complete strangers and preaching  to colleagues  were not evident in my classroom. And maybe my colleagues were just patient because no one called me out on it. But it was true.  And that burden weighed heavily on me.  All of the technology I was using in my classroom was "amplifying" poor instructional and assessment practices. Having students re-create "digital" poster projects was not innovative. Disregarding curriculum in order to do projects that interested me and had little academic purpose other than to say we were learning "online" only benefited some of my students.  I'm not too proud to admit that I had wasted kids time by giving them way too many days to "research" just so I could say we were using online resources. The truth is that I loved the idea of doing all of these amazing "projects" I kept reading about, but I just didn't want to put the time or energy into ensuring that the "technology" was being used effectively, efficiently, and maximizing the learning potential for ALL students.  I did not want to collect and use evidence that might prove that I had absolutely no clue.

I didn't want to explore standards. I didn't want to determine the essential questions or enduring understandings. I didn't want to write student friendly objectives or have my kids reflect on them. I couldn't even begin to determine how to best assess my students because I hadn't even identified what was most essential to begin with. I was wandering the desert. And I suspect that many of my colleagues are stuck there right now too.

Perhaps to be fair, jumping from web based project to web based project led me to designing a project based unit which led to designing a few others.  I began to study the standards and grapple with essential questions. I began to explore transfer skills and determine what content was essential. I began to map out my assessments methodically and strategically and I was rarely surprised by the results I achieved (good or bad). I stopped hiding from the data and other evidence and each assessment provided an opportunity for me to challenge myself. It became as much about my growth as my students.

I have hope that many of my colleagues who are engaging in web based collaborative learning are moving towards the panacea of authentic, student led personalized learning too.  The potential to learn together, collaboratively and beyond our physical location is too great to pass up. But so is the potential of designing truly meaningful, authentic, standards driven (there, I said it) learning experiences that don't ignore the classic literature or seminal moments of mankind's history. We can't forsake exploring essential content or grappling with integral skills just so we can have our students use the latest web based tools.  We can't simply trade the textbook for a laptop and expect our kids to become expert learners.  At the end of the day, technology is an amplifier. The question we must all ask ourselves is "What exactly is it amplifying?"

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Technology is not a magic bullet.

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to check out the newest exhibit  “One Day at Pompeii” at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Aside from how well the Franklin treats educators on these “educator’s night out”, it was easy to be blown away by the technological advances the Romans had developed. Perhaps it’s just my lens, but I’ve always appreciated just how inventive the Romans were. From using terra cotta pots under floor boards to amplify sound in theaters to developing medical devices that are eerily similar in shape and function today. From  utilizing radiant heat to heat floors and walls to designing hydraulic metal gauges to alter water pressure through city pipes, the Romans were adept at evolving and changing technologically, to make their lives better and easier.  These advances also led to economic collapse and caste systems, and an ever expanding empire that could not sustain itself. When the Roman Empire disappeared, so did many of these advances (at least for a few hundred years). 

I also spent part of this past week reading an article in the New Yorker about the elusive self driving car. I found myself reflecting on the role that technology plays in our lives today. The idea of the self-driving car has essentially existed since the dawn of cars themselves. And in the age of technology driven distracted driving, it’s an idea whose time may have come. The irony is that the more that cell phone technology and mobile computing penetrates our lives, the more likely it is that we as humanity, will use it inappropriately. Our vehicles are becoming so technology rich that the basic function of driving has at times, taken a back seat (pun intended) to the navigation, entertainment, and communication options that are present.  I don’t mean to sound like an old fuddy-duddy, because if I’m being honest, the technology options are what draws me to certain vehicles.  The point I am trying to make is that the technology itself is not bad or evil, it’s how we use the technology that determines its effectiveness.

So what does this have to do with  teaching and learning?  
Technology in classrooms is not a magic bullet.

We are beginning to see entire city school districts jump on the iPad and tablet craze. We are seeing more and more schools go 1:1 with laptop initiatives. We are seeing a proliferation of BYOD policies pop up.  And unto themselves, these are hugely popular for students and are steps in the right direction. But as Lee Corso would say, “not so fast my friend”. Professional development for administrators and educators often focuses on the “how does it work” as opposed to how should we use this to help students make meaning, communicate, collaborate, and create?  Many unfairly assume that educators are chomping at the bit to design instructional learning experiences using technology.  This is true in some cases.  In other cases, laptops are used as paperweights at worst, and for word processing at best. Tablets are used for games and low level practice skill and drill. A teacher who focuses on memorization and low level thinking skills will not all of a sudden change their stripes when handed a new device.  

At its core, those who see the transformative potential of technology rich environments understand that it is not the technology itself we need to begin with.  It is the hearts and minds of our colleagues whom we need to help envision what their classrooms and schools could be like.  It’s about having many deep and personal conversations with colleagues around the kinds of learning experiences they wish for their students to be engaging in. It is about us nudging them and their students towards an even greater potential. It’s about coming alongside those educators and modeling and teaching and re-teaching and revising and reworking. It’s about designing units backwards together. It’s about debating  the essential questions and enduring understandings.  It’s about unpacking the standards and the skills. It’s about designing assessments that matter and making it all relevant to each individual student.  

I will admit that I am as much at fault here as anyone. When I speak about technology to my peers, it is often through the lens of efficiency (If you use this tool, it will grade all 500 of your essays FOR you!!!) . It is also often through the lens of a “cool factor”  (Check out this amazing new tool that allows you to share this youtube video in 100 million different ways and solve world peace at the same time).  And it’s not that those things don’t matter or shouldn’t be shared. They are entry points. But the truth is, like all things in life worth doing, there is no secret to making technology transform a classroom or school. Nothing will replace conversation after conversation. Connection after Connection. Nothing will replace the relationships built over time. And ultimately, building a technology rich learning environment takes sustained effort.

It is not a magic bullet.

(Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison knew it too)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A cycle of hypocrisy

As part of a job embedded community of practice with the Pennsylvania Institute of Coaching (PIIC), I am currently engaged in a book study of Elena Aguilar's: “The Art of Coaching”. Although I am only 4 chapters in, there is much to appreciate and utilize as both a coach and a teacher. In the fourth chapter, Aguilar asks us to consider applying a series of lenses to our work as coaches. These lenses include: 

    • the lens of inquiry
    • the lens of change management
    • the lens of systems thinking
    • the lens of adult learning
    • the lens of systemic (structural) oppression
    • the lens of emotional intelligence.

Although all of these lenses are essential to utilize and look at our work through, the lens of adult learning is the one that is most fascinating to me. Andragogy is a an adult learning theory/ practices that asserts that adult learners and learning are fundamentally different than child learners and learning. Let me state that I am far from experienced, nor would I consider myself even remotely expert on the subject. To further understand andragogy and the lens of adult learning, Aguilar states:
    • Adults want to be the origin of our learning and want control over the what, who, how, why, and where of our learning. 
    • Adults will commit to learning when we believe the objectives are realistic and important for our personal and professional needs. 
    • Adults need to see that what we are learning is applicable to our day to day activities and problems.
    • Adults need to see very clearly the relevance of what they’re being asked to learn. 
    • Adults need to have some say in what they’re doing.
    • Adults need direct, concrete ways to apply what we have learned to our work.
    • Adults (like children)  need to feel emotionally safe in order to be able to learn.

If you are an adult and if you are an educator reading this right now (and I’m assuming you are) , you are most likely nodding your head up and down vigorously in agreement with the statements above.  And no one would blame you if you took these statements and anonymously dropped them into a well-intentioned staff developer, district administrator, or building principal’s mailbox.  We have all struggled with mandates and initiatives that have faltered because the above conditions were not met.

But that’s the low hanging fruit here.  

Read these statements again with a little twist.

    • Students want to be the origin of their learning and want control over the what, who, how, why, and where of their learning. 
    • Students will commit to learning when they believe the objectives are realistic and important for their personal and professional needs. 
    • Students need to see that what they are learning is applicable to their day to day activities and problems.
    • Students  need to see very clearly the relevance of what they’re being asked to learn. 
    • Students need to have some say in what they’re doing.
    • Students  need direct, concrete ways to apply what they have learned to their work.
    • Students (like adults)  need to feel emotionally safe in order to be able to learn.

See what I did there?

It's not that I think andragogy is bunk or that there aren't some major differences between adult and child learning. It's just that when I look at this list, it seems like what is good and right for us as adults is certainly good for our students. Especially when we consider our task is now to prepare students to be career and college ready. In Aguilar’s defense (and I love this book, so please don’t misconstrue my issue with andragogy as an issue with Aguilar or her book), she states the following: “One of the most obvious differences between adults and children is that adults have simply lived longer and had more life experiences...as adults, we have more starting points and perhaps, more things to undo”  

There are two truths in this statement. The first is that I believe our role as educators is to provide our students with these learning experiences. To allow  them to take risks, try something new, to fail many times, and to persevere, overcome, and achieve. Our job is to provide opportunities that challenge and cause them to stretch and grow. This is what causes character and resilience.

The second truth is that as adults, our great disadvantage is “that which must be undone.” As educators we are constantly fighting old habits and ways of doing things. We have convinced ourselves that because we achieved and succeeded 25 years ago in school, it’s ok for our classrooms to look and feel the same way today. That it’s ok for our students to suffer through the same style of instruction and activities we suffered through because it built character or resilience. Our experiences in school have also convinced us that to teach is to be the conduit for all learning and knowledge.  Yet when you look at the statements above, it’s obvious that this is counter-intuitive to the needs of all learners. It’s not about what we teach, it’s about what they learn.  Time has a funny way of blurring the edges, forgetting the negatives, and distorting the reality of what it was really like for us as students.  As educators, we have a lot of unlearning to do.

Universally we were taught some form of the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  When I look at the lists above I wonder why there is such a disconnect between the world we wish to have for ourselves and the classrooms we create for our students?   I wonder why we haven’t admitted that the conditions in which we learn best are unique and independent to us as individuals and then treat each child with a similar point of view? I wonder when we will  have the courage to stop the cycle of hypocrisy that says “this is what I deserve as an (adult) learner” yet continue to deny those same conditions to our students?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Move fast and break things

This post on Mark Zuckerberg's vision at Facebook came through my twitter feed last week and it really resonated with me.  One of Facebook's core beliefs is that "moving fast" inspires innovation and empowers employees to try new things to better the product for the consumer.  Zuckerberg admits though, that moving fast also creates a lot of headaches and a constant need to go back and "fix" things that were broken as a result.  Along with "Move Fast and Break Things" the post also highlights some other key motivational posters and core beliefs such as "Fail Harder", "People over pixels" and "Done is better than perfect".

I wonder if we are preparing our students to work at a place like Facebook?

I would imagine that moving fast and breaking things can be a lot of fun and also incredibly scary. Every time Facebook changes even a minor privacy setting or enhances the view, one just needs to go to social media to see the hailstorm of criticism. Yet it remains the most popular social media tool on the planet. The most recent numbers indicate there are over 1.1 BILLION users and over 650 million active users a DAY! So if one of the most successful companies on earth with mind-blowingly active daily "consumers" are willing to move fast and break things, to endure criticism in the face of creating a better product,  why are we often so unwilling to allow our STUDENTS to move fast and break things?

There are a ton of things we struggle and grapple with when our classroom is not living up to our own expectations. They run the gamut from peer pressures ( I can't do something different because colleague x will be upset with me), administrative pressures (I need to make sure I am on pace or I will get in trouble.) , standardized testing pressures (If it's not on the state test, I don't have time to teach it) , parental pressures (As soon as I try something new, I might need to explain it to parents)  , student pressures (Some of my students can't handle this kind of work), and personal pressures ( I just don't have time to try something different today/this week/this month/this year) .  But those perceptions or worries, whether real or imagined, are not at the root of why our classrooms don't provide more room to move fast and break things.

Control is.

Our students are naturally inclined to work fast and break things, yet because we are uncomfortable with this, we slow them down and often praise them for doing things right the first time.  As teachers, we are incredibly reluctant to work fast and break things, especially when it comes to technology.  Innovation and inspiration often go hand in hand with failure and how we learn from those failures.  As educators, we sometimes struggle with new mediums, new pedagogy, and new ways of learning that are different than our own. Disruptions such as cyber learning, 1:1 initiatives, learning on demand through Khan Academy and MOOC's (for example), and the proliferation of web based social platforms (that can also be used to collaborate and communicate)  such as Twitter and Facebook create a greater divide between students who are chomping at the bit to move fast and break things, and teachers who often want to move slowly and keep things in order.

In the end,we must PLAY. When handed new devices, and/or access to new software or web-platforms, we must change our paradigm and see it an opportunity to learn from and alongside our students. Their willingness to work fast and break things is an asset, not a liability.  Giving up some control and permitting ourselves to be a learner with our students can be scary, but also invigorating. It's what makes us human to them. It empowers students to be seen as young adults who have value not just in their world, but in life itself. It creates a bond and a connection through learning together. It creates an opportunity to fail safely together and to learn from our mistakes too.

Work fast and break things. Together.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Differentiation is not enough.

One of my favorite posts of 2013 (and the chart  that accompanies it ) was written by Barbara Bray entitled “Personalized Learning is Not Differentiating Instruction”.  While I didn’t write about it at the time, I had a copy of the chart on my desk for several months. Several times a week I would see it out of the corner of my eye and I would reflect on what it meant to me as a teacher. Spending just a few minutes with the chart and the post itself would seemingly present a vision of what classrooms should look like presently as well as some clear cut goals for educators.

Many years ago, differentiation became an educational buzzword that myself and many in education loathed to hear.  When something wasn’t working in your classroom, the rallying cry became “Just differentiate!”  None of us knew what differentiation looked like or how we would even do it for our students. I often “taught” from a textbook, with desks in straight rows, and any learning that occurred was by luck and sheer happenstance. I began experimenting with offering different types of assessments as well as offering different ways for students to access content. It was as if offering kids...gasp...CHOICES for how they wanted to learn and how they wanted to show what they knew and could do became a gateway to a different type of classroom.

Along the way I picked up a lot of tricks from colleagues in my physical location as well as in the communities I was learning alongside online. For example, differentiating homework, taking  time in class to involve students in decision making, co-creating rubrics, brainstorming and creative problem solving, individual conferencing as often as possible. But all of these ideas required massive shifts in how I thought about teaching and learning. Mostly, it forced me to accept that teaching is NOT learning. I had spent a bulk of my career so consumed with the role that I needed to play, I had completely disregarded the learners themselves.

As teachers begin to play with many of these ideas, they realize how much effort and energy it takes to create a classroom environment that places trust and responsibility on the learners. They also realize how little our current systems are set up to truly support these kinds of classrooms.  Educators realize they are limited by bell schedules, pre-conceived notions of what teaching should look like from parents and administrators, and a game of chicken with students who are used to just sitting in their seat and collecting A’s for being awake. I have long been a proponent and believer in computers and  technology as a great equalizer. When used well, it can provide opportunities for differentiation, individualization, and/or personalization. It can open up lines of communication and create transparency. It can provide more choices and learning paths than ever before. But none of this matters without the vision or commitment to putting the learners first. It’s easy to say we are kid-centered. It’s much more difficult to live it.

When I reflect on this chart, it both humbles and angers me. On one hand, it reminds me that I failed countless learners because I made my classroom about me the teacher, instead of them: the learners. When we as educators are unable to check our ego’s at the door, we are about teaching, not learning. When we fail to fully integrate students in their individual learning processes, we are about teaching, not learning. When we claim the attitude “My job is to teach, their job is to learn.” we are about teaching, not learning. When we verbalize to our colleagues  “ Hey, I taught it, they should have learned  it”, we are about teaching, not learning.  

On the other hand, it provides me a solid vision of the kind of learning experience I want to create for my students each and every day. Phrases like “career and college ready” get thrown around often without enough discussion or agreement on what that truly means for our students. Is it my job to prepare kids for the current world? Or is it my job to prepare them to be mature learners for a world that hasn’t yet materialized. Statistics abound that support the fact that we are indeed preparing our students for jobs that do not currently exist and a world we as adults can hardly envision. It’s not enough to differentiate or even individualize.

There is one universal truth, all learning is personal.

Anything less is just teaching.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Make your classroom more like Wawa

Those of us who live in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey love our Wawa. For those of you who have never been to a Wawa, it’s like a 7-eleven, Sheetz or any convenience store/gas station... only better (in my opinion).  For more about Wawa’s business model, read here.  Although you can get just about anything you want to eat at a Wawa, they are especially known for their hoagies. If you don’t know what a hoagie is, check out this map, as you probably call it something else.
After returning from a recent trip to Florida where they only have a handful of Wawa’s, we stopped and got a hoagie for lunch. The process for ordering a hoagie at Wawa (or just about anything else made fresh) involves walking up to a touch screen and selecting a multitude of options. Do you want your whole hoagie toasted or just the roll?  How big of a hoagie do you want?  What kind of meat? What kind of cheese(s) do you want to add?  Do you want to add bacon? (ummm, yeah) What kind of condiments do you want on your hoagie (there are about 50)?   Do you want vegetables (there are about 30)? You get the point. Each hoagie is customizable and individualized as the customer wants it.
When Wawa first started using the touch screen technology years ago, no one taught me how to use the touch-screen. I walked right up and started to hit buttons. Occasionally, I would make a mistake and have to go back and make a change to my order. I learned how to use the technology to get exactly what I wanted in a hoagie. For those who are uncomfortable using the touch screen, there are pre-made hoagies and sandwiches that are not as fresh and created based on the desire of the sandwich maker, not the customer. The hoagie makers probably do their best to guess what customers might want to buy, but when you walk into most Wawa’s, few customers buy these pre-made hoagies. They would rather order a hoagie their way and wait a few extra minutes to get it exactly they way they want it.

So why does a customer at a convenience store get more customization, choice, and individualization than the students in our classrooms and schools? Why are many of our students left with the “choice” of  a pre-made, one-size-fits-all education in which we,  the sandwich makers, determine the best type of hoagie for our students to eat.  One doesn’t need touch screen technology, laptops, or other “technologies” (although it helps to give more choices and options) to individualize learning. The truth is, learning should ALWAYS be about the learner, not the teacher.  Learning by nature,  is an individual act.  Our classrooms need to provide more choices, options, and decisions so that our students can make the best decisions for THEIR learning.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The yin and yang of connecting and dis-connecting.

I've been thinking a lot recently about how we communicate. Since the dawn of man, the role of the story and storytelling has been a key ingredient in communicating ideas, purposes, and events. And as man evolved from cave paintings to hand-written symbols to written language, technology has always amplified the ability of man to communicate. Whether it was the printing press, email, and now social media, mankind has always been driven by a will to tell their story.

So in this age of youtube, vine, twitter, facebook, and blogging, (along with a multitude of other social networks and web based platforms for storytelling)  are we considering whether the stories we tell have value? Are we considering the purpose of the stories we are unintentionally telling on a minute to minute basis?  Whenever we hit "post" or "tweet", we are creating new threads in our own personal story quilt. Whenever we send that video to youtube or respond to a blog post, we are adding to a socially constructed story as well. And I'm certainly not advocating that we stop doing any of this. I'm just wondering whether we are as morally and consciously aware that with each keystroke, we are not only adding content, we are adding new chapters to a book that has no end in sight.

As a connected adult who is constantly checking social media,email, and reading posts online, I am wondering whether this hyper-connectivity comes at a cost.  Recent studies like this and this have forced me to acknowledge my addictions. (They say the first step is admitting you have a problem).  Have we forsaken relationships in our physical location for relationships in the "cloud"?  If the answer to the ills of public education and learning comes down to relationships, we need to ensure that we are watering and fertilizing both kinds simultaneously.  And obviously, this has tremendous impact on our students personal and academic lives. Not only do we need to model connectivity and dis-connectivity, we need to have conversations about it as well.

I guess my internal struggle right now is about finding balance. It's about living and breathing in a world that increasingly demands us to be connected to learn and grow, while seeking moderation and bringing that learning back to deepen the relationships in our physical location. It's about picking up a good old fashioned book while also flipping through twitter and an rss feed to read the opinions of those I respect and admire (even when I disagree).  It's about putting the phone, tablet, and laptop away during a meeting. Not because the notes one can take from the meeting aren't important, but because the eye contact and deep conversation creates a  connection that is essential to change in our schools and classrooms.

Ironically, this blog post is being published while I lay on a beach in Maui. I'm not telling you that to make you jealous (ok, maybe a little bit), but I didn't write it while in Maui. I wrote it two weeks ago and set it to publish on its due date. I turned off my work email, left twitter (for the most part) behind, and disconnected my digital life to spend my honeymoon connecting with my wife.   Just as much as using technology to connect can reap great relationship rewards, disconnecting every once in awhile affords many amazing ones as well.


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

We must eternally press forward for what is yet to get.

In a letter to a Charles Clay in 1790, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
 "The ground of liberty is to be gained by inches, and we must be contented to secure what we can get from time to time and eternally press forward for what is yet to get. It takes time to persuade men to do even what is for their own good."
If we interpret "liberty" as educational or academic liberty, and if we can agree on the definition of the word "persuade" as : to Cause (someone) to do something through reasoning or argument this quote resonates deeply with me on several levels.

As an educator, we must be more conscious of the "eternal" struggle our students engage in when it comes to learning about things that are meaningful, engaging, and relevant to them. We must also recognize that it takes time to persuade students to do even what is for their own good.

As an educator, we must be more conscious of the "eternal" struggle our colleagues engage in when it comes to learning about best practices, new initiatives and philosophical shifts that most likely conflict with their own ideals, beliefs, and opinions. We must recognize that it takes time to persuade colleagues to do even what is for their own good.

As an educator, we must be more conscious of the "eternal" struggle our administrators engage in when it comes to implementing initiatives that are beyond their control.  We must recognize that it takes time to persuade educators to do even what is for their own good.

As an educator, we must be more conscious of the "eternal" struggle our parents engage in when it comes to teaching and learning in the 21st century.  We must recognize that it takes time to persuade parents to do even what is for their own good.

As an educator, we must be more conscious of the "eternal" struggles our community and school board members engage in when it comes to balancing budgets and supporting our schools in cost effective and educationally principled ways. We must recognize that it takes time to persuade community members to do even what is for their own good.

As an educator, we must be MOST conscious of the "eternal" struggles we engage in surrounding our own belief systems about teaching and learning and being an educator in this time and age. We must recognize that it takes time to persuade ourselves to do even what is for our own good.

Conversations, discussions, arguments, and passionate discourse should always be a part of the educational process.  It should be happening everywhere from the classroom to the board room. While we must come to a consistent agreement on the end goal (student learning) , the road map will always be changing and evolving. As we complete another year in the life of a classroom, a school, or a district, the end will always represent an opportunity. The beginning is the end and the end is the beginning. If we acknowledge that positive change happens inch by inch, it is much easier to  "eternally press forward for what is yet to get".

As the hypothesis of  Joseph Ellis' biography of Thomas Jefferson "American Sphinx", Jefferson exhibited a duality that squarely placed him as both an idealist and a realist. Often,  this incongruity makes looking to him for wisdom a complicated endeavor. I believe classrooms, schools, and districts must live in this similar incongruity, at constant odds with the reality and ideal.  We must be content to "secure what we can be from time to time, gaining inch by inch, yet eternally pressing forward to what is yet to come." In other words, we must  accept our realities while steadfastly focused on what we must become for all learners.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

What is your definition of technology (in education)?

When exploring strand 8 (Science and Technology) in the National Council for the Social Studies Framework for teaching and learning, I came across this definition of technology.

Science is the result of empirical study of the natural world, and technology is the application of knowledge to accomplish tasks. (NCSS)

It got me thinking about what other traditional definitions of technology might be. From merriam webster:

the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area (merriam webster)
And from wikipedia:
The word technology refers to the making, modification, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems, and methods of organization, in order to solve a problem, improve a preexisting solution to a problem, achieve a goal, handle an applied input/output relation or perform a specific function. It can also refer to the collection of such tools, including machinery, modifications, arrangements and procedures. Technologies significantly affect human as well as other animal species' ability to control and adapt to their natural environments. The term can either be applied generally or to specific areas: examples include construction technology, medical technology, and information technology. (Wikipedia)

       For those of us who live and learn from and with technology, this common theme of “application” should come as no surprise. For many of us, where technology usage is ubiquitous, we often use technology to make meaning and show what we know to be true. While there are many excuses as to why we each don’t embrace certain technologies (ie. I prefer Diigo to Delicious or I don’t really “get” pinterest?), I wonder if not learning from and with technology at all makes someone an effective learner in the modern world? I’m not saying that we can’t and don’t learn in other non-digital ways because obviously we do. What I’m wondering about, is whether we are fully developed learners if at least part of our personal learning and growing is not with and through modern technologies. And what does this question mean for our students?

        Although we often dismissively chuckle at the luddite colleague who refuses to learn how to text message or the technophobe who thinks email is about advanced as it can get, we need to question whether those teachers are fully preparing students for a world that has rapidly and will continue to rapidly evolve in technologically driven ways. The factory model schools of the 20th Century are even less relevant to the knowledge economy that exists today . Perhaps it should have always been this way, but no one really cares what you know or how you know it. It’s about what you do with that knowledge. Schools and teachers who do not embrace learning through and with the modern technologies available to them are failing their students.

         Technology today affords global connectivity, an audience greater than the classroom, access to information faster than our brains can process it, and the ability to apply knowledge in creative, authentic, and meaningful ways. And yet what some teachers qualify as using technology in their classroom is limited to firing up the shiny new digital projector, moving a few items with the smart board, and having kids word process when it’s time to write. When technologies are available, it should not just be to check off a spot on a lesson plan or evaluation. It should not be a once a month or a once a year “thing”, it should be ubiquitous.

       My argument is not a new one and it is not easy to digest if you are a teacher who “dislikes” technology or “can’t learn from a computer”. The reality is, it’s not about YOU. It’s about the kids who sit in our classroom each day and the mission we have been employed with: to provide a quality individualized education to each and every child who walks through our door. And ALL of them need to learn and show what they know and can do in ways that are very different from the ways we might have learned. There is enough blame to go around. As a nation we have wasted a ton of money on laptops, interactive technologies, and ineffective training and professional development. Bad pedagogy is bad pedagogy and it has had disastrous impact on student engagement, motivation, and learning. There is simply no excuse for an educator (ie teachers AND administrators) to reject the necessity and learning potential of technology in today’s school and classroom. At the same time poorly teaching with technology might be just as detrimental.

       Our students need to make meaning, to create, to communicate, to connect, and to apply their knowledge critically. Is it possible to do all of this without technology? Yes. If every classroom and curriculum could guarantee every student this opportunity, we wouldn't be facing the challenges we are today. Those schools and classrooms would also be adaptable, flexible, and personalized learning spaces that were full of the tools that each and every student would need to show what they know and can do. Maybe that's my definition of technology in the classroom: Whatever is needed to learn and make meaning. What's yours?

(This post is cross posted at the Digital Learning Environments blog found here.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Living and growing in the classrooms we aspire to have.

As part of a  teacher driven PLC to improve instructional practices through peer coaching, several of us engaged in a book study of "Evocative Coaching" by Bob and Megan Tschannen Moran.  Although our task was to read the book through the lens of peer coaching, there are massive implications for our work with students.

 The overall premise of the book is that the best coaches are the ones who "evoke" understanding through empathy, trust, and deep questioning. One of the shifts in evocative coaching is appreciative inquiry in which we focus on what our strengths are and build upon them. It is a powerful book and I highly recommend several deep readings of it. I am on my third.

In Evocative Coaching, Barbara Frederickson's research  is referenced (see Frederickson's book: Positivity) as a gateway to being transformational in our relationships with others.

"Research points to four ways to build high-quality connections. The first is respectful engagement. Be present, attentive, and affirming. The second is to support what the other person is doing. Do what you can to help her succeed. The third is trust. Believe you can depend on this person to meet your expectations,and let it show. The fourth way is play. Allow time simply to goof off, with no particular outcomes in mind"

Now, re-read that again. This time, think about what this says about your classroom. 

When I think about the classroom environment I want to create with my students, I have to ask myself if the opportunities I create are respectful of ALL of my students as individuals.

Am I present at all times? Do I truly listen to what my students need from me as learners? Do I affirm their needs? Do I truly understand what their strengths are as a person and learner? Do I differentiate for learning styles and assessments? Do I engage students in the process of determining their own learning path? Do I support my students, doing everything I can to help EACH of them to succeed in ways that works for them? Have I established fair and reasonable expectations that ALL of my students can learn and make those expectations transparent and visible? Do I take the time to get to know them as individuals? Do I conference with them? Do I show them I care, each day? Do I create opportunities for learning to be messy, fun,  and unstructured, to learn from the unintended outcomes which can ultimately be more powerful than the intentional ones? Do we take time to PLAY?

In the standards driven, high stakes testing environment in which  focus is often on knowledge acquisition and curriculum has been interpreted as mostly about coverage (as opposed to un-coverage), many of us are struggling with classrooms that look and feel nothing like what we want them to be. I'm not proud of the fact that at times,  I have participated in many conversations  that  have placed blame for a lack of student learning at the feet of  parents not doing their jobs, administration not providing the right supports, and sadly, that students just don't care.  The truth is, it's not about what I teach. It's about what they learn. 

What I have realized is that while I have been busy blaming everyone else, I haven't been a good enough teacher (or colleague for that matter).  It has been very convenient and easy blaming the world because admitting that what I was doing  (or not doing) was not good enough would mean that I would have to change. It would mean admitting that I have failed at times. It would mean that I would  have to work harder. It would mean that I would have to learn and grow.  This doesn't mean that I am not a good teacher or colleague. But it does reflect a choice, that I'm not done. That I'm never done. That I will never be done. 

Next year, I want to build an emotionally rewarding, intellectually stimulating, and individually respectful learning environment for students and teachers. 

At some point in the 4th Century BCE, Socrates stated: "I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing". He also stated "Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel".  Admitting that we don't know as much as we think we do, and recognizing that our job is not  to teach, but to create personal connections and opportunities for our students to learn and grow would be a start.  Establishing high quality relationships with every one of our students and "coaching" them in their own pursuits of deeper understanding would go a long way to living and growing alongside our students inside the classrooms we all aspire to have. The same is true of our relationships with our colleagues.

In the fading moments of this school year, I have my goal for next year. What is yours? 


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Is there a right way to do Professional Development?

       On Saturday I had an opportunity to attend my first edcamp at #edcampphilly. Although the principles of an "un-conference" were completely familiar to me, being a part of it is something I highly recommend to any educator looking to engage in the big conversations around education with a completely diverse group of people. For more about edcamps and edcamphilly, please click on the links. I'm sure there is an edcamp organizing around you, and if one isn't, your job is to help get one started.

       The second half of my day @edcampphilly found myself co-facilitating with Kristen Swanson and Tom Murray around Professional Development in education. Notes from the session can be found here. There was incredibly rich discussion about the kinds of professional development we as teachers want and deserve.  The last session of the day, facilitated by Mike Ritzius also ended up in the PD direction as well. Even more rich discussion about the balance of traditional and Non- Traditional PD occurred within that session. Teacher professional development and the value of it will always be paramount for educators because the same individualized and differentiated approaches we seek to provide for our students, we wish to be evident in our own learning experiences as well.

      Kristen Swanson shared an insight that resonated with me, that #edcamp is like the "cherry on top of the learning  ice cream sundae".  For a long time, I have been convinced that "un" conferences were the ideal, that every educator should want to show up on a PD day, self organize and get to work sharing and learning. And maybe that IS the ideal, but I don't know that every educator wants to learn in this way or even CAN learn in this way. Perhaps those of us who love to learn in this venue, who are desperate for these kinds of conversations miss the point we are trying to make: the one size fits all model doesn't work regardless of which end of the spectrum you are on.

       If you contrast Kristen's culinary insight with my own which was that sometimes the content/tasks associated with district level Professional Development is something akin to "eating your vegetables: you don't like them, but you know they will make you stronger", you get a bit of an insight into the conundrum districts often struggle with in planning the time teachers spend together on these days.  For every educator who hates being told what to do, there are those who will say "Just tell me what to do and I'll get busy doing it." For every teacher who says "Let me own my own learning" there are just as many who just want to accomplish the tasks ahead of them.  Gerald Aungst added "As administrators, while we may be stuck serving  a can of vegetables, we need to do everything we can to make them as appetizing as possible."

     Yesterday in my school district, we had our third professional development day of the year. I have been fortunate enough to be a part of a core planning team of teachers and administrators this year. The day was divided into three sessions. The first session was entitled "Learning by Sharing" in which  all teachers and administrators K-12 (almost 500 people)  were randomly organized into 40 groups and were given 3-5 minutes each to share a new learning, the work of their PLC, highlight student success, or just share whatever they wanted to. It was the first time we did something like this, but the goal of bringing Elementary and Secondary Teachers and Administrators together to share was met. Early indicators from tweets and hallway comments were that this time was both valuable and enjoyable. Check out the twitter feed for the day: #qcsd521

       The second session was entitled "Learning through Work" and had teachers organized into department level groups by district administration. Tasks and conversations were determined by department co-ordinators and there were varying amounts of tasks being accomplished and dependent on each group's needs. There have been tremendous efforts to identify the unique needs of each department and trying to bring those needs in alignment vertically and horizontally as well as trying to align district curriculum with the Common Core Standards in PA.  Although this time might have been akin to "eating your vegetables", there were efforts by administrators to make that time as valuable and efficient as possible.  In the session that I co-facilitated, we left with a "ticket-out" that set our goals for next year as well as provide some direction to district office about our professional needs for next year. A colleague (and my wife) Jessica Evans noted "What I liked best about my session was that Dr. Holler provided us the flint and steel, but let us start the fire" in reference to the amount of work Dr. Holler did prior to the session to allow them to engage in deep discussions instead of seeking out resources.

     The third session was entitled "Learning through Choice". About a month prior to the day, teachers submitted proposals of sessions they wanted to facilitate. Those choices were entered into MyLearningPlan and teachers then had two weeks to sign up for the session that they wanted to engage and learn in. The types of sessions were as diverse as the types of teachers we have in the district. And while we can't yet determine the effectiveness of the sessions, we do believe that the choices provided for teachers were big steps towards differentiated and individualized learning opportunities. The only "rule" for the session was that you couldn't learn alone.

     While I am incredibly proud of being a part of a team who helped plan this time, I don't think we are done figuring out the right model. Mostly because our needs as educators (like our students) will always be changing. Attending #edcampphilly provided me insights into what we are doing right and what we need to improve. It also provided me a ton of ideas. In the end, what I believe about professional development mirrors what I believe about learning: it needs to be relevant, purposeful, individualized as much as possible , and a call to action.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Why should I bother with this homework?

Dear Teacher,

In this standards based grading system, my classmates tell me that homework doesn't count, that I don't get any "credit" for doing it.  Why should I bother doing it or doing it well the first time if I just get to re-do it?

Your Student

Dear Student,

     Thank you for your question and your openness. I'd like to help you change a misconception you have about homework not "counting" and share some perspectives I have about the role of homework in my class and in learning.  My hope for you is that in a few years you will graduate and maybe go to college. If you don't go to to college, that's ok too, but I want you to find a job or career that brings you success and happiness.  In most jobs and careers there will not be homework. There will only be the job or tasks that need to be accomplished. Your boss will care mostly about results.  You will need to ask yourself "Have I done the work that I needed to do to help  the company achieve their goals in the most efficient way possible? Have I done enough to keep my job or even advance into new challenging ones?"  The kinds of skills you will need will be hard work, perseverance, adaptability, collaboration, communication and a willingness to learn new skills and content on your own time.  At its simplest level, your motivation will be to maintain your job and earn a secure paycheck. At a more sophisticated  level, I hope your motivation will be to push yourself harder and further than you ever can in reaching your goals and dreams.

      Back to the issue of homework. I don’t like to give homework and I often feel that if we have both done our job in class together, there may not be a need for any at all. However,  in my class , if and when I  give you homework, there will be four kinds with four very different purposes. The first will be preview. I might ask you to explore the kinds of things that will help you to build some basic background knowledge. It might be a bit of reading, it might be a few problems to try, it might be to watch a brief video. The purpose will be to help you have a context for learning either the next day in class or somewhere down the road. This homework shouldn't take you a long time to do. It's purpose is to "prime the pump" so to speak.  Typically, everyone in the class will be given this homework (if my pre-assessments tell me that most students do not understand the concept or have the background knowledge yet). I won't be assessing this work but you will absolutely be expected to use this new information in class the next day during discussions with peers and within the activities we do together.  If you don’t do them,  you might  feel like you might have missed something during the class discussion. But you will still have time to catch up with us. I might ask you to do the reading or watch the video while the rest of us are doing something else together. This is not a punishment. It is laying a foundation you will need to be more successful.  Remember, when you have a job someday, you will need to begin to learn new things on your own to stay up to date with new technologies, new information, and new ideas to bring back to your company.

      The next kind of homework I will sometimes give you is practice.  At home practice is needed when the evidence you provide me in class shows me that you need to try it a few more times to truly "get it". I will do my best to help you in class, give you time to work with peers and practice with them. I will also do my best to make sure you understand a concept at a basic level before asking you to go home and practice it some more.  When I ask you to practice something, chances are, not everyone in class will have the same type of practice as you. And some students may not need the practice at all.  There will be times when you will not need the practice either. This is not a punishment. It is meant to help you become better at something you might not be very good at yet.  And sometimes, you might already understand and can do it, but I want to challenge you to reach beyond what you think you know and can do. Don't shy away from this challenge. Embrace it.
   If you show proficiency in the practice homework, it will always be considered as evidence in  your overall "grade" for that learning target, but it's ok to struggle and it's ok to not get it the first time.We know that the best kinds of practice are those in which we practice something we can not yet do well.  To FAIL means  your First Attempt In Learning and it wouldn't be fair of me to lump the first, second, or even third attempts as "evidence". I am going to use all of these attempts (both inside and outside) to help you get to where you need to go and to do what you need to be able to do. When I give you practice types of homework, they will be respectful of you as a learner. I promise to give you practice that is both at your individual level of need as well as not overbearing on your time at home. We will use this practice together to help you become proficient at the skills you need to shore up.  I will provide you feedback that is timely, actionable, and respectful to you as a learner.   Remember, when you have a job someday, you will need to practice the skills, learn new skills, and improve upon them to help make your company grow and achieve their goals.

     The next kind of homework will be performance or evidence. This homework will require you to apply all of the practice in a new way. It will prove to me that you understand and can do the work. Typically, this homework won't be given very often, but it will help me to see you as a learner in a new way if I do not have enough evidence in class. This kind of work will ask you to think critically and creatively. It will help me to see if all of the preview and practice has paid off. It will be a piece of evidence we use to help us decide together whether you truly understand and can do the target we set before you.  Not everyone in class will have the same type of performance task as you. And some students may not have an outside of class performance task at all.  There will be times when you will not need to do a performance task out of class either. This is not a punishment. It is intended to give you another opportunity and for me to collect more evidence of what you know and can do.  Part of this process will involve you assessing yourself and reflecting on what you know and can do. I will provide you feedback that is timely,  actionable, and respectful of you as learner so that you can improve upon future learning.  If you have done the hard work in class and on the occasional practice I have asked you to do at home, performance based homework should confirm what we both know about you as a learner. It should tell us that you are proficient or advanced.  If it doesn't, we will need to go back and practice some more. And this is ok, because I will never stop helping you, and I will never allow you to quit.  Remember, when you have a job someday, you will be asked to perform. You will be asked to see a process through until the very end. You will be evaluated on it and given feedback on how you can improve. But if you don't use the grit, perseverance, and passion to learn throughout the entire process, the final piece will show that you did not use all of the right tools in your toolbox to achieve the goal. This is why we need to give our maximum effort at all times, to try our hardest the first time.  We can never be our personal best if we hold back at any point in the process.

     The last kind of homework in my class will be the homework that I never assign to you. My hope for you is that on a daily basis you will be engaging in personally meaningful and challenging learning experiences and that you will want to continue doing that when you leave my class. My hope is that you will talk to your friends and family about what you are learning and the challenges you are facing. My hope is that you will seek out new information from other experts and from the internet to help support the learning you are doing in my class. My hope is that each night you will review your notes and/or reflect on the learning we did in class to help prepare you for the next day's challenges. My hope is that you will recognize the need to continuously improve and learn and that your opportunities for learning will never stop, even when traditional schooling ends.

     In the end, the most important thing for you to understand is that I will not allow you to take the easy way out. I will not allow you to settle. You will work hard and you will struggle at times. I will never let you stop and I will always demand your very best. I will do my very best to make every "at home" assignment I choose to give you,  relevant to you and worth your time commitment. In return, I expect you to complete them to the best of your ability. When you don't, I will give them back to you and demand a better effort. I will not give you feedback for improvement until you do. When you do not turn things in or do not turn them in on time, there will be consequences, such as pulling you from lunch or requiring you to stay after school with me to show me evidence of your learning. This will not be detention. It will be time we will spend together to talk about your choices and help you make the best choices for your learning in the future. My goal is to ensure you are learning and reaching your maximum potential. You may get more "homework" from me than in the past or you may get less than you are used to. No matter what, my goal will always be to help you be successful and learn to your greatest potential.

Your Teacher