Tuesday, March 26, 2013

It's not the kids who are failing.

Several years go, after participating in several cohorts of Powerful Learning Practices with Sheryl Nussbaum Beach and Will Richardson and with the support of another fantastic mentor in Robin Ellis, I realized that I had a lot of unlearning to do. One of the most challenging shifts for me to grapple with was to acknowledge that I was entirely too focused on what I was doing as a teacher and not enough on my students learning. What makes this so difficult for us as educators  is that this attitude or mindset often leaves us in an uncomfortable state of tension. That tension exists because of what we think we know to be true about teaching and what the reality of learning is for students. We know that teachers have a tremendous impact on student learning, but it's not necessarily in ways that we traditionally think.

As educators, we face a generation of students who appear to be disengaged, unmotivated, and unwilling to learn in school.  Yet, this is also a generation with more access to information,  an immense will to connect with one another and the world beyond them, and an intrinsic desire to be creative and innovative.  Our students are learning. It's just that they are doing it outside of school, without us.  Certainly there is argument on both sides of the debate as to whether this type of  less structured,  self driven learning will actually produce a generation of "well-educated" Americans (as if anyone has EVER defined that well).  Want evidence, just google the  MOOC debate occurring in higher ed. 

What has also become glaringly obvious to me is that many schools and classrooms rarely include students in  the decision making process. And I'm not referring to a Student Government or Student Advisory Council which are both fantastic opportunities for students to have a voice. How often do we ask students how they want to learn? How often do we ask students what they would like to create? How often do we involve students in the design process? How often to do we ask them to co-create rubrics or determine what success looks like in THEIR growth and learning?

As a history teacher, I love to tell stories. It's inherent in what I do and it's part of my instructional toolbelt. We know that storytelling is paramount to understanding the past and making connections to modern life, yet if the same person is always telling the story (ie. the teacher) there is little learning that is occurring. Perhaps the kids are being passively entertained. Maybe the kids are being politely compliant.  But if they aren't the ones telling the story, there is a limited chance that they will retain the story, let alone apply it or construct meaning from it. 

In the debate over what it means to be  "career and college ready"  (as defined by CCSS) most educators can agree that one of the goals is to help support successful self-directed learning and learners. Yet somehow we seem to be missing a voice, a story: the students. As educators, we know a thing or two about content and pedagogy. We attempt to marry the art of teaching with the science of teaching. We utilize the brain based research equally with what our own guts tell us. Yet despite all of our training and experience, learning is magic(al) and mysterious.  The only way to change that is to give control of learning over to the stakeholders themselves: the students. 

If we continue to make every decision for our students about what to learn, how to learn it, and when to do it, we can not call them disengaged, or lazy, or incapable of achievement. If we control every part of their school day, their lack of engagement, their lack of effort, their lack of learning is actually a reflection on us. No matter what one-size fits all strategy we employ, no matter what "traditional" teaching methods we cling to, no matter what new innovative technologies we believe will transform our classrooms, if our students do not have control over their own learning journey's, we are failing them

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Make it work for learning.

When we discuss the purchase of technology,  one of the main debates is typically over whether we will get enough student learning for our financial investment. As we know, a SMART board does not make a smart teacher.  And putting a tablet or laptop in the hand of every child does not guarantee growth either. Realizing that this is an oversimplification of a somewhat complicated scenario, what I hear most often debated is not student readiness, but teacher readiness.The debate becomes a chicken or egg scenario. Do we buy the “stuff”  first and then professionally develop our staff so they can use it with their students or do we try and build capacity, a tipping point, and then buy the “stuff” when people are ready?
We have come to assume  that students will learn how to use the “stuff” pretty quickly. Just last week I supported some teachers who wanted to have their 2nd graders try their hand at blogging about an upcoming trip to the zoo.   I pulled a group of 8 students into the hallway and we sat on the floor exploring Kidblog together.  Before I could even begin to give them explicit directions, many of them had already figured out the wysiwig tools and were changing font colors, font size, and underlining text. This led to a great discussion about how and when to use those tools for effect in blogging.
When I asked the students how many of them had seen Kidblog before, none of their hands raised. When I asked them how many of them had ever seen the bold, or italic, or underline tool before, only 3 of them raised their hand.  I didn’t have to “teach” them how to make text bold, italic, and underline. I did need to help them explore why they might use those tools within their text.  Despite a relatively new environment, the students were willing to play. They weren’t worried about breaking anything, and they weren’t worried about failing miserably. They simply wanted to see what they could do with the tool.
As educators, we have a lot to learn from these second graders. We are sometimes given many “gifts” in the form of new hardware, software, curriculum materials, and even professional learning opportunities. And yet, for some of us, instead of opening those gifts up and playing with them, pushing them to their limits, and seeing what we can do with them, we often let them sit in a box (literally and/or metaphorically) until someone gives us the proper training on how it works. I’m not sure where we as adults lost our sense of play and our fearlessness.  I’m not sure when we became so complacent and unwilling to take learning into our own hands either.
We also need to recognize that the technologies our students might innately come to understand are not necessarily going to be used academically or appropriately out of the box either. We must also remember that not  all kids have the same experiences or access at home as they do at school.  In the end, our responsibility becomes less about learning how to make it work and more about how to make it work for learning.