Ready for Some Solid Food?

Image source: https://flic.kr/p/6Abr9K
Image source: https://flic.kr/p/6Abr9K

I had some great conversations in the past couple of weeks with some folks that I really respect as educators. We talked about an array of topics that gave me lots of opportunities to stretch the mind, but one that struck a particular chord with me involves the subject matter and objectives that our professional development programs aim for. Stated more directly, do we fill our conferences and school/district training with enough really powerful, high-level thinking about pedagogy and how our kids learn? Or, do will continue to churn out top 10 lists of Web 2.0 or rapid-fire run-downs of the latest apps for learning fractions?

As I reviewed proposals for my own district conference and for others I am responsible for, I saw plenty of both. There are some very insightful educators sharing some really challenging concepts and powerful strategies. There are also lots of fast, fun proposals from which to choose that are, honestly, a lot less cognitively taxing. I tend to lean heavily toward the former, as I believe we educators need to experience things that make their brains sweat (That may be an event theme in the very near future!).

However, conference planner me knows very well that is not what sells the best. No, the lists of websites, the parade of new gadgets, the endless array of apps win every time. At my own conference last week, one such session required around 20 extra chairs to be brought in. Meanwhile, a workshop on metacognition had 5 folks that I had trapped and forced to attend. Clearly, they are what the people want, and they are not without value.

So the discussion revolved around just whether or not this really was the worrisome thing I saw it as, or was it enough that they were there, learning something. Also, if it is terrible (which has not been fully established), how do you attract them to the more challenging, brain-stretching sessions? Should we never schedule the sessions that seem more fluffy, and simply force-feed the sessions on cognitive theory and connectivism to the masses in attendance (I actually spoke to a friend in a district-that-shall-not-be-named last week where they just did this very thing.). Maybe we bribe them with double door prize tickets if they attend the less sexy sessions!

Original image source: https://flic.kr/p/97yJpb
Original image source: https://flic.kr/p/97yJpb

Actually, I think the most important factor has nothing to do with the conference sessions. It happens well in advance of the PD offerings. It is the professional climate in which the teachers work. If our leaders value new ideas and encourage teachers to learn, share, and take risks, we will probably see more butts in the metacognition seats, so to speak. If we celebrate the efforts teachers make to be on the cutting edge of practice and technologies and research half as much as we celebrate high bench mark test scores, we’ll have created a climate that encourages teachers to push themselves. If, on the other hand, we value compliance, lock-step adherence to a rigid curriculum, test scores above all else, and PD attendance with the primary goal of earning a comp day, then we get standing room only in the sessions on funniest cat videos of all time.

Maker Education Up to PARR?

I posted a new podcast today that outlines a rough idea I’ve been kicking around for standards for Maker projects in the classroom. The standards are identified as P.A.R.R., meaning Plan, Assemble, Reflect, and Repeat. It is something of a hyper-simplified spinoff of the engineering design process that is intended to help schools be sure that maker projects aren’t actually glorified arts and crafts.  Take a listen for more information, if you have a few minutes, and let me know if it makes sense or is just out there.

Sowing Seeds of Innovation in the Classroom

Original image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cimmyt/8208414926/sizes/l
Original image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cimmyt/8208414926/sizes/l

I have been struggling mightily lately with just how best to give our students more opportunities to imagine, invent, inquire, and create. I have witnessed so many formerly great teachers succomb to the quicksand of assessment preparation in recent years, abandoning the activities and settings that once inspired their kids to do amazing things. I am not judging these teachers. I realize the bureaucracy and profit-driven, immensely powerful forces that work against genuinely beautiful teaching and learning today. But we cannot just cave in and become glorified tutors, not if our kids are going to achieve their dreams and solve the problems we share tomorrow. We must find ways to inspire new ideas and dreams, and achieving exemplary scores on the state tests is, frankly, completely irrelevant.

With the goal in mind of creating this type of classrooms, I would like to offer this quick guide to regaining “genius-inspiring educator” status:

1. Be curious. Teachers who love learning, and I mean really love it, ask questions, read, visit new places, seek out strange new worlds, make, and explore. We all say we love learning, but few live it. Curiosity is contagious, and curious adults beget curious kids.

2. Be bold. Don’t fear trying a new approach or a new resource. Buy that Raspberry Pi or Arduino and see what you can do. You might fail, but you might succeed magnificently. The good news is that your students are highly unlikely to be ruined for life.

3. Be nonprofessional.  Resist the sage-on-the-stage role now and then, unless you have something to say that inspires or prods a student in the directions that help answer their questions or put their ideas into action. Give up the all-knowing-one title whenever possible.

4. Be equipped. Invention and creativity are resource-intensive tasks. Keep your classroom well-supplied with varieties of paper, fabrics, cardboard, glue, tape, simple electronic components, wood scraps, etc. A simple not home to parents is the ticket to keeping your supply closet or box filled.

4. Be a failure. Plan, execute, and fail, then let your kids see how you respond productively. Don’t fail on purpose, but don’t hide it, either. Ever have a lesson that just fell flat on its face, then you regrouped, redesigned, and conquered? Oh, me either…cough.

5. Be a borrower. Look for ideas from other teachers for ways to make learning more engaging, inventive, and meaningful. Get a PLN if you don’t have one, and start asking questions. Really radical idea–look for ideas from your students.

5b. Be a giver. Share your triumphs, your kids’ moments of inspired genius, your great activities, your hits, and your misses.

6. Be an advocate. Brutal honesty here, but too many schools and administrations have stopped caring about kids and want classes to exclusively be test preparatory programs, often to the point of forcing scripted, horridly standardized curricula. No research on the planet supports this model of student learning. Fight to make your class better for the unique needs of your kids. This means being a bit of a rebel at times, too. It may even mean looking for other opportunities, if leadership can’t reclaim the vision that brought them into the business.

He Thinks He’s Just Playing…

My son, Reilly, is a fairly typical 11-year old. He is into Pokemon, his Xbox, iPads, and sees school as valuable because it connects him to his friends and the library, but little else. It’s not that he is not a ravenous learner, mind you. Give him something challenging and interesting, and he is all in. It’s just that school is rarely either for him. He puts out the minimum effort he has to to make A’s, generally. At least to this point, he’s the polar opposite of my “valedictorian or bust” daughter, who applies laser focused effort no matter how mundane the school task.

If you want to see effort from Reilly, relevance and intrinsic motivation are where it’s at. For instance, he got engaged in an idea and ending up winning the award for the top 5th grade science project at his school this year. The project involved burning things and was completely his own invention. Fire and personal choice. Can’t miss.

Reilly's alter ego.
Reilly’s alter ego.

For consistent apex effort, though, you need to observe him working with and learning about Minecraft in all of its 8-bit, retro graphic beauty. His teachers would be insanely jealous. If allowed, he will spend hours researching, studying, creating, re-creating, collaborating, and communicating with, in, and about Minecraft. On occasion, I have been known to sit down and play Minecraft with Reilly. I tell people that the conversations go something like this:

Me: “Look, I made a house!”

Reilly: “Awesome, daddy! I made a city with a solar-powered, aerial tram system that is activated by this pressure plate inside the passenger cars. Each tram station also has an anti-creeper and zombie, redstone-powered security system and is designed to look like a natural part of the landscape and have zero carbon footprint.”

Me: “My house has windows.”

So last night I went into the living room to watch him play. He was in creative mode (meaning limitless resources, and you can fly) in an online Minecraft server. The last time I checked his game out a few days prior, he was creating a house he described as a “modern design”. Frank Lloyd Wright would have approved of the glass and lines, the big-screen television, the modular sofa, and the ground-level bed. He had since finished the 3-story house using blueprints found only in his mind and helpful tips from another community member whose structures Reilly had admired.

His next project was astounding to me. He had created an underground shop next to his house. Inside, visitors could find a collection of amazing and creative Minecraft character heads (Reilly referred to his store as a “head shop”. I internally giggled and decided that was some learning that could wait for much later.). There were at least 40 varieties of heads, as I recall. Visiting Minecrafters were actively browsing the store as I watched. Reilly had set up a brilliant system for visitors to order their own Minecraft heads:

  1. Visitors browse the collection of numbered heads, hanging on the shop walls.
  2. They next visit the order box and fill out an order form with the number assigned to each desired head. Return form to the box.
  3. Reilly reads the form, copies each desired head, and places the filled order into the filled order box.
  4. Visitors pick up filled orders.
  5. Reilly files filled order forms in another chest for safe keeping.

He explained that he could charge something like silver or gold or diamonds, but prefered to give the heads away for everyone else to enjoy. A “customer” messaged him as I watched and invited Reilly to visit his Minecraft home to see the collection on display. Reilly obliged and gave the inquisitive and grateful user a few tips on how to “rank up” before returning to his virtual home.

Image source: https://flic.kr/p/eXMx43
Image source: https://flic.kr/p/eXMx43

After dealing with several visitors back at the store, Reilly decided to post instructions on his shop wall, telling visitors how to make their own free copies using a combination of keyboard keys and mouse buttons. This would allow users to enjoy their own heads even while he was offline. It was a hoot watching him direct a pixelated customer over to the instructions, see the character reading them, and then heading over to copy a couple dozen varieties of heads.

If we don’t pay attention, we might miss all of the value here. Reilly created, he applied economic principles, he collaborated. He solved problems, designed, and redesigned (He tore the modern house apart numerous times as I watched, meticulously trying to get it just right.). He showed initiative in seeking knowledge from experts and shared his knowledge freely with other learners. He was organized, open to criticism, and willing to make mistakes. He demonstrated patience with others and their myriad questions and generosity with his resources. I observed him engaging in communication, science, art, and math.

Reilly calls this fun, a game. I call it worthwhile. I call it inspired. I call it amazing. I call it learning.