Don’t Look Back

Doing a little scattershooting about what I believe will have to happen to get education to a better place…educationalchange

  1. Scrap the existing accountability system. Bankrupt the testing companies while you’re at it, right up to those AP and college entrance exams. Accountability if okay, especially if taxpayers are footing the bills, but tests were not invented to drive the bus. Create a new system based upon a variety of standards, not just bloated tests of obsolete or low-level performance. New criteria might include such things as randomized evaluations of the curriculum by student portfolio/performance assessment, student/teacher evaluations, community evaluations, or post-graduation student outcomes (jobs, trade school, college, etc.). Allow local districts/schools and communities to create their own systems.
  2. Scale the curricula back. Way back. As the standards exist today in our state, teachers hit the classroom running and keep running until they collapse from exhaustion at the end of testing season. Meanwhile, students have been exposed to far too many facts, figures, and formulas to explore in depth or practically apply, meaning long-term retention is highly unlikely. Focus on broader, disciplinary skills and give teachers and students more freedom to set the contexts of those skills based upon interests, current events, etc.
  3. Re-train our teachers, and re-design pre-service teacher programs. The role of the teacher as a brilliant dispenser of knowledge and wisdom, well-versed in everything from phonics to plate tectonics, needs to be laid to rest. Our kids have more knowledge in the devices in their pockets and purses than we could ever hope to achieve. Create a new generation of educators who set the stage for learning and doing and make brilliant adjustments, redirections, and clarifications on demand.
  4. Rethink the fundamentals. Grade levels were designed to ensure every student followed the same curriculum at the same age and at the same pace, as we prepared robots for factory work. Does anyone who has ever studied human development think all kids develop cognitively or emotionally at the same time and pace? While we’re shaking it up, why have separate subjects and class periods at all? If school learning is ever going to reflect real, human learning, it will have to be much more integrated and messy. And let’s abandon those letter and number grades, which are as useful for learning as gasoline is for putting out fires.
  5. Ensure all students have access to specific, fundamental technology resources, especially high-bandwidth internet. The form can vary, but students without fast speeds and capable devices are at a disadvantage, as more learning moves online, and video and video streaming resolution continues to increase. A student’s access to the knowledge and resources available online should not be determined by their zip code.

I really am confident that the future of education will be exciting and drastically different than it is now–it drives me to get to work every day. Maybe I am overly optimistic, but I anticipate a period of rapid change, probably within the next decade, as policy makers and educators finally recognize the futility of doing the same thing, just a little bit more intently, and expecting better results.

There are more I’m sorting out, but I wanted to get these out and perhaps stimulate some responses/discussion. What other catalyst events/changes must we see to get where we want to go?

Why Are We Here?

downloadApologies up front for being a bit ranty, but it will be cathartic for me. :) Yesterday, a colleague from another district shared a conversation he was having via email with one of his own children’s teachers. The event that precipitated the conversation was a high school math test his child had not been able to complete within the confines of the class period. The child had requested to stay after class (It was the end of the day.) and the teacher refused, saying it would not be “fair” to the other students who had finished. The teacher defended the decision, saying they had “worked hard” to get the kids prepared to complete tests by the end of the class period, and that this was preparation for taking SATs or ACT tests, the STAAR (our Texas state assessments), and for life in college, all places or events that forbid the awarding of extra time. She also said that her predecessor had always had the same policy, so there you go. Where to begin…

  1. Question: Why do math teachers deem it necessary to have 25, 30, 50 versions of the same problem on an assignment or test? Answer: Because their teachers did that crap to them, so it’s what they know. Nevermind the fact that mastery of the skill could be demonstrated in 1 or 2 problems accompanied by a student’s narrative description of the process. This has perplexed me my entire teaching  life.
  2. Nowhere in any state standards I have seen are objectives dealing with getting kids “test ready”. Why? Because even the idea is so disgusting and ridiculous even a state board of education wouldn’t go there.
  3. If you don’t work for a college or university, your purpose in life is not to get kids “college ready”, either. That is a line that has been put out to k-12 schools by an industry with almost a half TRILLION in revenue in 2014. Does college open up some doors that might otherwise be closed? Of course. Is it the only path to happiness and success? Of course it isn’t. Our purpose should be to get kids LIFE ready.
  4. Assessments should be for determining mastery and directing instruction, not measuring speed. Don’t try to rebrand rigidity as “hard work” or rigor or high standards.
  5. Habit or tradition are terrible reasons to perpetuate a bad policy. Be bold, be original, be right.
  6. I don’t think you completely understand the concept of fairness or, at least, how to apply it universally. Blanket rules/regulations, zero-tolerance policies, etc. are for teacher/admin convenience, not the greater good of the students, we all know that.

Just to be clear, these aren’t directed at that specific teacher, who I only know from a few emails. I have been around for 25 years as a teacher, though, so I know these kinds of practices are commonplace all over the place. Am I being too critical or just way off base? Love to hear your thoughts.

Rapid Reaction: Most Likely to Succeed

The latest education-themed book I have finished is Most Likely to Succeed, by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith. It is a compelling, challenging book that questions a vast list of things that we take for granted as being fundamental in education: subject areas, daily schedules, grades, traditional assessment, standardized assessment, college entrance exams, college in general, and much more. It should generate powerful, change-inducing discussions if selected for a school or organizational book study. It is a fascinating and entertaining read, as well, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

I had the opportunity last night to view the related documentary, Most Likely to Succeed, at a screening in Austin. The film is much narrower in scope than the book, as is almost always the case. Rather than visiting a wide range of schools and taking on all of the issues of the book, the film focuses on 2 classes and, primarily, 2 students in the very non-traditional setting of San Diego’s High Tech High School. There is just enough historical background and future predicting to give context and purpose to the narrative of the students, then we are presented with a brief view into the day-to-day lives of the principle subjects. It is an entertaining documentary and has you rooting for the students to succeed. As a father and educator, it struck several chords with me and, honestly, made me a bit emotional at times. The following are a few takeaways from the film for me.

  • Traditional school curriculum is soul-crushing. We rely on perky or entertaining teachers to make our students’ days bearable and, occasionally, enjoyable. Make no mistake, though, most kids are riding it out, disinterestedly waiting for the bell day after pointless day.
  • The entire purpose of school as we have created it is to pass tests. Unit tests, benchmark tests, practice tests, state tests, college entrance tests, on and on. We don’t admit it, but that is our purpose as educators–not to help them succeed in life, but to help the kids pass tests.
  • committeeof10We are at the mercy of a bunch of rich, powerful men who died a century ago. The power and sway that a group of elite, white academics and industrialists still holds over education in the United States is baffling. Not that their intentions were bad–their world was simply an entirely alien place that bears no resemblance to ours, yet we still run our schools as if we arrived at work in our Model T’s.
  • Parents have a really hard time letting go of the past, Strangely, most adults do not recall how boring and meaningless much of our educational experience was growing up. Our lack of accurate reflection makes it extremely hard to imagine our kids surviving and thriving in a world without bells, subjects, and textbooks.
  • Students, especially high achieving ones, have the same hard time as parents. Top ranked kids know the routine, know what’s expected of them, and often don’t want their attention to be diverted to anything but gaming the system, getting a high SAT score, and getting into the Ivy League. New paradigms and routines can be very hard for these kids.
  • Is “college for all” really in kids’ best interest? This is especially thorny when kids experience a school like High Tech High or other bastions of creativity and imagination, then get to head off to the land of talking heads and academic loftiness (where they get to drop a couple hundred grand for the privilege).
  • Students engaged in meaningful, challenging work will exceed our expectations. It truly was staggering to see the quality of work of everyday, ordinary kids in the film. Likewise, the grit, leadership, and self-motivation they displayed was a beautiful thing to imagine.
  • hopeThere is hope! I see more evidence all the time of a trickle of  radical, powerful, completely new models emerging. They are models that put kids first, not tests, not rankings, not college acceptance. Strangely, their kids seem to do quite well on “the tests” and at the next level, probably because the challenges they have undertaken already are of greater complexity, difficulty, and meaningfulness than what they face in the established system. It is not an easy thing to achieve. It involves critical self-examination, humiity, open-mindedness, creativity, extreme working hours, new goals, communities with vision, and more. But it is occurring, and that gives me hope and faith in the profession I’m called to.

Image source, Committee of Ten

Image source: Hope

Mystery Maker Bag Challenges

The following are prompts for a set of engineering challenge bags I am putting together for our district STEAM fair tomorrow. They are variations on project ideas I have found in a variety of sites and resources. I thought they might be useful to someone looking for makerspace prompts or some quick, open-ended science projects.

Mystery Maker Bag Challenge
World’s Slowest Marble Coaster

Using the materials in the bag, create a marble roller coaster that takes as long as possible to get from the top of a table to the floor. If yours takes longer than 15 seconds, you are an engineering genius!

Mystery Maker Bag Challenge
Never Underestimate the Power of the Gumdrop

 Using only gumdrops and toothpicks, create a structure that can hold a textbook at least 6 inches off the ground for at least 1 minute. Feeling confident? How about 12 inches? How about 2 textbooks?

Mystery Maker Bag Challenge
Foiled Again!

Using only the piece of foil included, create a boat that will stay afloat with as many pennies as possible. How much treasure will your boat float? 10¢? 25¢? A dollar?

Mystery Maker Bag Challenge
One Small Step for Man…

Using the materials in the bag, paper rocket that will go as far on a breath as you possibly can. Feel free to customize the design. Does the shape affect the distance? Would adding extra features, like fins help?

Mystery Maker Bag Challenge
Beware the Bridge to Nowhere!

Using the materials in the bag, create a platform that extends out as far as possible from the edge of a table or chair. The catch? There can be no supports or other parts of the platform touching the ground. If you’ve ever seen the Grand Canyon skywalk, you will get the basic idea!

Mystery Maker Bag Challenge
A Bridge over Troubled Waters

Using only straws and pins, build a bridge that can hold as much weight as possible without collapsing. To test the bridge, use the cup and add a few pennies at a time. Don’t look down!

Mystery Maker Bag Challenge
Ping Pong Zip Along

Using the materials in your bag, create a way to transport a ping-pong ball safely to the end of a zip line. If the ping pong ball falls or gets stuck, it’s game, set, and match!

Mystery Maker Bag Challenge
The Paper Elevator

Using nothing but paper and tape, create a structure that will hold a textbook at least 12 inches off the ground. Can you achieve this using the fewest pieces of paper necessary? How about TWO textbooks, smarty?

Mystery Maker Bag Challenge
Paper Helicopter

Using the materials inside your bag, create a helicopter that will fall to the ground as sloooooowly as possible. Make that landing as soft as possible!

Mystery Maker Bag Challenge
Launch Catapults!

Using the materials in the bag, create a catapult that can launch a pom-pom as far as you possibly can. Want an extra challenge? Try making the pom-pom hit a target or land in a specific place!

 

Grade Your Makers, Kill Your Makerspace

I read an article this  morning in Edutopia titled Creating an Authentic Maker Education Rubric by Lisa Yokana. The article has some very good suggestions for the types of things we might look for in students’ makerspace projects, specifically three very sound categories: process; understanding; and product. It is worth a read and has given me some useful ideas about posters or rubrics or group discussion guides I might want to include in the makerspaces I am planning for my own schools.

parkerOne sentence right up front in the article made me cringe, however. Ms. Yokana asks “How will we justify a grade to students and parents alike, especially to the student who ‘just isn’t good at art’?” This sentence really sidetracked me, and I almost stopped reading the rest of the piece, which does have some good, useful stuff. Ms. Yokana, in her Edutopia bio, mentions the need for a “change of paradigm” and states that the “present model is no longer valid.” Yet, bam! Right from the start, we are talking about…grades. Grades in a makerspace. Grades in a place that is about innovation, creativity, and imagination. Grades where kids engage in playful, curious experimentation and (if I can use the phrase without risking our district’s state rating) the joy of learning.

It probably should not surprise me, given the fact that I have seen teachers assign grades to anything and everything a kid does in the school. I have seen a kid’s average go up because she brought the box of tissues on the school supply list. Permission slip returned? A+!  Walking in a straight line? Extra credit!

I hate grades–okay, I’ve said it. Grades are mostly for the kids who have hacked the system, who know how to play the game. Grades are overblown, overused, and usually give very little or no insight into learning. Grades do not engage or motivate most students. A favorite quote, which I keep pinned to the top of my Twitter page, is from Alfie Kohn:

“Helping students forget about grades is the single best piece of advice for creating a learning-oriented classroom.”

Taken even further, getting rid of grades entirely would be an even better step. There are alternatives. My kids’ kindergarten and first grade teachers sent home detailed, qualitative reports that listed the performance standards my kids were meeting, on their way to meeting, or needing to learn. There was no number, no arbitrary and meaningless percentage. It was informative and helpful, and I doubt it caused an ounce of stress or apprehension for my kids, their classmates, or any parents. Kohn (1999) cites a series of studies by Bulter that demonstrated that the mere presence of number grades reduced students’ creative problem-solving, even if qualitative feedback was included.  Put simply, grades kill creativity and motivation.

Our illustrious 17th VP.

Our illustrious 17th VP.

I think assessment of student maker projects is a great idea that should be implemented. However, assessment should be for growth and generating new, better ideas, not for grades. It should be self- and peer-driven, to promote reflection and critical analysis. Makerspaces are intended to promote creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and a host of almost impossible to quantify character traits and skills. I can quickly tell if a kid knows the 17th vice president of the United States (Shuyler Colfax, of course). I find it a lot harder to assign a number to the ideas of a child or the worth of his/her creations.

I don’t want to sound like I am picking on Ms. Yokana. She shares some great ideas. Rubrics would be great tools for project assessment, certainly. Her 3 categories of assessment would be great areas to focus class discussions. How about using her basic ideas to create posters for the school makerspace something like these?

-POP

Is my product well-contructed-What design elements need improvement-Does it work as intended-Is my design easy to use-My point is that assessment is great and appropriate, but grades do more harm than good. Keep the grades out of your makerspaces, your genius hours, your coding clubs, etc. Let’s give the kids these precious few times to think and invent and tinker without fear or consequence.

 

Technology Skills Your Students Might Not Have

Even before Marc Prensky brought the term “digital natives” into our lexicon, the impression of many teachers has been that our kids are young Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, spending their time away from school building robots, coding mobile apps, or creating the next Facebook. The fact is that our kids do have far more technology skills than we did at the same age, simply because an iPad was placed into their tiny hands at the age of two. They cannot imagine a world without smartphones, iPads, laptops, or wearables. However, we are being remiss if we believe that the technology skills most students bring to our classrooms are enough to get them through life. Here, in no particular order, is a list, based upon personal experience, of a few of the types of technology (and life) skills techno-savvy kids still need to learn.

  • Digital safety/security. Many of our students lack basic knowledge of email, preferring to use social media or texting, making them vulnerable to phishing, viruses, etc. Also, students are much, much less concerned with privacy than you or I probably are, making them more likely to share information that should be kept private. Students need opportunities to practice using email, interacting on social media, filling out online forms, even (gasp!) reading user agreements, so that they will know how to protect their identities, accounts, finances, and more.
  • Digital ethics. This one is a challenge, but we should at the very least be encouraging our students at every opportunity to be responsible, ethical, thoughtful users of the internet and social media, in particular. The detached or even anonymous nature of life online turns even the most mild-mannered into people who spread discord, misinformation, even hate. While this primarily goes to the core of a person’s moral makeup, adults can model proper, ethical behavior and encourage our kids to follow suit. They should also know that, increasingly, there can be real consequences to forgetting to do so.
  • Information literacy. The amount of information out there is really fairly staggering. There are 833 Tumblr posts, 463 Instagram photos uploaded, over 3800 tweets per SECOND online. Granted, much of these are nonsensical or pictures of some guy’s sandwich. Still, the cumulative effect is that students have to be smarter information users. They have to know how to wade through the inane or the inaccurate to find the inspired and informative. This takes practicing asking the types of critical questions that examine sources’ credibility, motives, currency, etc.
  • E-learning. When I say e-learning, I mean in terms of the formal, organized stuff that schools love. Kids do know how to learn online–they do it through YouTube, peer networks, etc. Formal online courses, however, have specific expectations, skills, and deadlines that require students to work independently but on a time table, if that makes sense. They have to be organized and have the drive to meet deadlines without a teacher’s constant reminders and encouragement. If you have ever taken an online course, you know it is an entirely different animal, and more courses are offered in this format by the day.
  • Higher tech skills.  These are the obvious skills like coding or robotics, of course. They also include things like basic hardware knowledge, such as how a hard drive works and, maybe, how to change one that has crashed. Knowledge of the basics of a wireless network have transferability to most homes and business settings. Skills like understanding and creating electrical circuits, simple soldering, disassembling and reassembling devices are all useful and needed down the line. The processes of problem identification/diagnosis, strategizing, and solving problems are ones that are useful far beyond the technology or electronics realm.
  • Electronic branding. Students need to be taught ways to leverage the internet and its relative permanence to their advantage. Creating “professional” blogs, websites, YouTube channels, etc. to document their accomplishments and learning gives students powerful tools to share with colleges, future employers, etc.
  • Screen-off time. Studies expressing concern for kids neglecting physical activity in favor of screen time are everywhere and a very important area of concern. Less discussed, however, is how so much screen time actually affects the way our brains take in and process information, even being linked to a reduced ability to stay on topic or focus on longer text. Students need to learn these potential effects and strategies to restore cognitive function, physical fitness, and interpersonal relationships (like actually get together with a friend and take a hike in the woods).

Seinfeld PD

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Image source: https://flic.kr/p/9C1u41

For more than a decade, I have been wearing myself out trying to plan the perfect PD session. I have taught on everything from how to save a file to how to build a robot and everything in between. I have done short, 15-minute mini lessons, all-day workshops, multi-day workshops, online courses, webinars, lunch and learns, etc. Something I have to admit, if I am honest, is  that probably only a small percentage of trailblazer attendees left my training and actually permanently changed their teaching practices. It doesn’t matter the enjoyment/engagement level or how amazing my presentation was, That is a cold reality. My success level is probably good for a power-hitting 3rd baseman, but not what I want as an advocate for innovative, effective classroom practices.

Something I have to admit, if I am honest, is  that probably only a small percentage of trailblazer attendees left my training and actually permanently changed their teaching practices.

An epiphany hit me this morning just as my 2nd cup of coffee kicked in. These aren’t the results I want, but I keep sticking with generally the same strategies (Something I constantly rail on with regard to our education system as a whole <slapping my forehead>.). What if I threw away the plans, the scripts? What if I “designed” professional learning about…nothing?  I shared the idea with my Assistant Superintendent, Bill Lewis, who like it and said it sounded like a Seinfeld PD plan. As a huge fan, I immediately stole the name.

What if I threw away the plans, the scripts? What if I “designed” professional learning about…nothing?

Here’s how it works. The goal is for PD to fit the curriculum and the classrooms’ needs as much as possible. So, instead of planning a session on Google Apps or digital storytelling, I will be implementing 3-hour sessions where teachers come with curricula in hand, and we collaboratively find ways that our available technology resources could be used to make the learning more powerful. This is what many of us have done for years on campuses we served–I just want to try it as THE district model for technology PD. There will be elementary and secondary sessions, and maybe sessions for specific subjects/disciplines. If someone suggests a tool for someone else, and we need to do a mini lesson or explore how it works, we will do so. The teachers, however, will drive the tech and the PD. Hopefully, everyone who attends will leave with a new skill or 2, sure, but, more importantly, with actual plans to put the tools to work as best fits their classes. My role will become that of facilitator (Ironically, a role I have advocated that teachers should take for years.). To be honest, sessions could be run and documented (for our district’s accountability purposes) by techno-savvy teachers. I also want to have fun with the setting. Meet at a local coffee shop? Why not?

This is a little bit similar to the so-called “un-conference” approach of events like EdCamp, but it differs in that the learning is even more individualized. It is immediately, directly applied to the teachers’ goals and needs.

Is it too open-ended? Too much teacher control and ownership? Will it even appeal to educators used to having these things planned out for them? I can’t say, at least not yet. I think it will be a success, though, because this will be about ownership over the learning, professional collaboration, and relevance. There are other considerations, such as having a variety of resources ready and waiting, just in case an iPad or a MakeyMakey becomes the tool of learning of the moment. Regardless of these questions, I like change, and I like risk, so I am going to give it a go. I will share my observations and assessments and teachers’ reactions as it moves forward.

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