Friday, February 16, 2018

Reflections on my “Shadow a Student Challenge”

Two years ago, I participated in the “Shadow a Student Challenge” to gain insight into our high school students’ learning experience.  This experience had a lasting impact and I looked forward to another chance to shadow a student.  Therefore, I recently participated in the “Shadow a Student Challenge” by attending the classes of a high school student for one day.  Empathy was my purpose for this day as I looked beyond my assumptions and put myself in the shoes of our most important clients, our students.  I reminded myself to be curious, suspend judgment, and just observe.  At the end of the day, my goal was to have gained a better perspective of our students’ learning experience.

I am always cautious about making overgeneralizations.  One class on one particular day is not always representative of an entire semester or year long experience. Also, one day does not always represent the overall learning experience of students in our high schools or district.  That said, I can only share what I learned from my experience for one day.  One final note, I intentionally left out specific details including the teacher and class.

I appreciated my time at the school.  The students were polite and respectful in a very safe environment.  It was obvious most students were interested in doing well academically.  Also, teachers have established good connections and share a mutual respect with their students.

My district recently formed an Innovations Committee.  The starting point for the committee’s work focused on the question; “What do you believe and know about how students learn best in the modern world?”  From the responses, 3 themes emerged: active, relevant, and hands-on which I would infer to mean more learner-centered experiences.  Therefore, I thought about my observation experience in context of the 3 themes of a learner-centered experience.

I think of “active” as any opportunity to move, collaborate with other students, and actively engaged in a curricular related assignments and projects.  Throughout the day, there were only a couple of opportunities for students to move from their desk.  Moving to work with a group or partner was noted in 3 of the 6 classes.  The best example of active learning was in the class in which students were randomly assigned a partner through a drawing and critical thinking exercise.  Students then worked with their partner on the problem and visual project.  I made a note in most classes; “sat for the entire class period.”  From my perspective as a “student” for the day, it was a long day of sitting and remaining focused on the information presented.  I wondered in most classes how teachers could incorporate some movement into their lesson and curricular content.  Click on Active Learning Strategies for some ideas.

I think of “relevant” as ways to connect students to the real world; their world.  Throughout the day, there were a few occasions when the curriculum was relevant for students.  The best example I observed was when the curricular content was directly connected to current events.  Students embraced the opportunity to share their opinions in a lively discussion and ask questions.  A missed opportunity was noted when a teacher stated to the students during a lecture; “I could put you on the Chromebooks now and you could Google [curricular topic] and you would get a list to better understand what I am referring to.”  But, time was not allocated for this opportunity so the teacher proceeded with the lecture and notes.  With lecture being at the top of the learning pyramid at 5%, I referred to this as a missed opportunity because I believe students could have been provided a few minutes to conduct a quick research on the topic followed by a discussion on what was learned.  Relevancy is enhanced when student agency and autonomy are embedded into learning.  

I think of “hands-on” as project-based and student-centered.  From what I observed, many of the learning activities were teacher led other than a few exceptions.  The best example I observed was when students worked on a problem with a partner and demonstrated their learning through creating a visual answer to the problem.  This activity was both project and problem-based in nature.  The students were highly engaged throughout this activity.  A missed opportunity was noted when a teacher conducted a "show and tell" with a series of objects to identify.  Each object was shown to the class while the students took notes.  The semi-engaging part of the lesson was the discussion and questions asked by the teacher.  But, I could only wonder if students were given some guidelines of attributes to look for, would the students be able to work with a partner to conduct their own research to determine the name of each object?  Instead of telling first, learning might be enhanced by allowing students to explore the attributes of each object, list their academic conjecture and provide evidence to defend their conclusion. The names of the objects could then be revealed followed by a rich discussion.

My goal in participating in the "Shadow a Student Challenge” was to  gain a better perspective of our high school students’ learning experience.  I thought back to my days as a high school student and wondered how much has really changed since the 1980’s.

As an overarching theme from the day, I wondered how high school can become more learner-centered.  Even small changes and efforts could move classrooms from being “school” to places of “learning.”  What if we asked our students how they learn best and made adjustments accordingly?  What if we asked ourselves if our practices work better for teachers or for our students?  What if we took some time to ask ourselves what we truly believe about how students learn?  What if we reflected on the “10 Characteristics of Learner-Centered Experiences” list below by Katie Martin (@katiemartinedu) and started by ensuring at least 2 characteristics are present in each class period?  Our students are asking for more active, relevant, and hand-on learning, so I believe we owe it to our students to take the next step.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The How and Why of Change

After reading a blog post by Bruce Dixon titled "2018-The Year For Living Dangerously"  and another one by Will Richardson "Stop Asking How," I ordered the book The Answer to How is Yes - Acting on What Matters by Peter Block.  After the first several pages, I appreciate how Block underscores why change can be so challenging.  “We may not know all of the How, but Why we must change is now so urgent, we can no longer ignore it.”

In Bruce’s blog post, he poses the question: What failures are you most afraid of?

To be very honest, I am most afraid of failing our students.  This fear includes failing to move from the status quo.  While I work in a very good district, I know the learning experiences could be significantly enhanced for our students who will echo the same sentiment.  They have many ideas, but we need to ask the question, listen intently, be prepared to hear their reality and then act on their recommendations.  I know my district is not unique with pockets of innovative learning, but a district-wide culture of innovation remains ellusive.  It reminds me of a quote by Jim Collins; “Good is the enemy of great.”  If we are already good, why do we need to move from the status quo?

In Will’s blog post, he poses the question:  What is the one burning question about education and schools that most keeps you up at night?

My question to answer the question is: “Why isn’t more being urgently done to address the student engagement issue in high school?”  The 2016 Gallup Poll on student engagement depicts what our students are telling us.  If high school students consistently posted standardized test scores just over 30%, there would be widespread concern and urgent corrective action.  Why isn't student engagement a similar or even higher priority?  Students desire school and learning to be more relevant, hands-on, and engaging.  Are we listening and changing accordingly?
These two timely blog posts resonated with me as I wrestle with the question; “How can we recreate school, revisit how students learn in the modern world, and ensure an innovative learning experience for all?”  Our district is undertaking a monumental task to address the question through our newly created district innovations committee.  Prior to our first meeting, we started with a discussion on the question; “What do you believe and know about how students learn best in the modern world?”  At our second meeting, we just started to scratch the surface by posing the question; “If we had a blank slate and we could create a high school track for kids, what would it look like?”  Students, teachers, principals, and district administrators were highly engaged in dreaming big, without limitations.  The ideas highlighted the reasons WHY change is so very important.  We will eventually have to address How?, but we must keep in mind “the how shouldn’t be about a recipe or formula, the HOW should come from a commitment from...being bold and ambitious, taking risks, because the WHY is that important.” (Bruce Dixon)

No one has all the answers.  If we had the answers we, along with many other schools and districts, would have changed a long time ago.  Change is difficult.  Here is a shout out to our district innovations committee and the challenging work that lies ahead.  Let's strive to move well beyond good, to great!  Are we going to wait for “...someone to write the script for what to do next, or is it possible that this year, in 2018, [we] are prepared to take the first steps, [our] first steps to school change?” (Bruce Dixon)

Sunday, December 31, 2017

#OneWord 2018 - DISRUPT

My #oneword for 2018 is DISRUPT.  Disrupt is often considered in negative terms, so let me further explain my #oneword choice.

As we close out 2017 and look ahead to 2018, I seriously considered using the same #oneword I used in 2016 and 2017; INNOVATE. (#OneWord2017 - Innovate) After all, in 2017, our state passed an “innovations” bill to encourage more dialog and planning to provide more innovative learning experiences for students.  Additionally, my district now has an innovations committee to rethink how students learn best.  These are wonderful opportunities, but, it’s time for a new #oneword to challenge me 2018.  Here are a few thoughts that support DISRUPT in positive terms:

1) In a 2013 Forbes article (Disruption vs. Innovation: What's The Difference?), the difference between innovation and disruption is outlined:
  • Disruptors are innovators, but not all innovators are disruptors -- in the same way that a square is a rectangle but not all rectangles are squares.
2) The 2013 TEDxChange event’s theme was “Positive Disruption.”
  • Disruption is usually unwelcome. It represents conflict, chaos, and potential danger. We discourage disruptive behavior in our homes and our societies, often favoring passivity and compliance instead.
  • But disruption can be a positive — sometimes vital — catalyst for change. It can challenge old assumptions, ignite conversations, activate authorities and expose new possibilities. Disruption can shed a unique light on difficult issues, giving a fresh urgency and perspective to the challenges of our global community.
  • To solve the most intractable challenges...we need positive disruption. It is the path to true progress.
3) Making ‘Disruption’ A Positive Word
  • Disruption is not only the point where something is interrupted, or broken, or changed.  It is also the point where something better is created, where something new improves what it breaks, and where the interruption is just the beginning point for what is to come. While breaking away from the status quo is important to a successful disruptor, their purpose in doing so is to improve, not cause chaos. This is why we should embrace, rather than fear, disruption.

Let’s create a culture together that values creativity and courage to think both “inside” and “outside” the box, and when necessary, "throw out" the box to reimagine education that is more engaging and empowering for students.  Let’s disrupt and reimagine education that works better to prepare students for THEIR future.

One of the great disruptors of all time, Albert Einstein, said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”  To solve our current problems, I have to continually remind myself to change my thinking. Therefore, disrupt will be my reminder in 2018 to listen, question, highlight the urgency, ignite conversations, challenge the status quo, and discover new possibilities.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Beliefs on How Students Learn Best in the Modern World

Prior to the Grand Forks Public Schools Innovations Committee’s first official meeting, a pre-survey was administered to committee members to gather their initial thoughts.  The first question was a critical starting point for our committee:

What do you believe and know about how students learn best in the modern world?

From the responses, I created a word cloud to visually depict the most frequently used descriptors of how students learn best.

As is evident from the word cloud, active, relevant, and hands-on were the most frequently used terms followed by engaged, choice, collaborative, real-world and problem-based.

Does “what we believe and know about how students learn best in the modern word” match the reality for students?  The overarching theme of the answers provided by the students serving on the committee was "except for a few isolated innovative examples, not really."  Don't get me wrong, Grand Forks Public Schools is outstanding, therefore not unique in trying to find our way to a more consistent approach to student-centered (active, relevant, hands-on) learning experiences.

How does the information of how students learn best inform the work of our committee?  Our first step should be to agree upon, as a district, how students learn best.  Take a look at these belief statements form Mount Vernon School and Peel District.  Does it seem both have a solid shared belief about learning?

We have a wonderful opportunity to: 1) “innovate INSIDE the box,” 2) think OUTSIDE the box, and potentially in some situations 3) THROW OUT the box, break free from the status quo and create something new and better.  I am looking forward to the discussions of the committee to envision an even better learning experience for our students.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Assessment: In the Real World

One of the goals of K-12 education is to prepare students for THEIR future, the next step, career, higher education, the real world.  Therefore, are we assessing students in ways that prepares them for the real world?  The real world, which we readily have access to information.  Or, are many of our assessments about memorization, content recall, and getting a “grade” as part of the game of school?

Real World Example
In my current position as director of technology and including all technology department staff,  if we were expected to do our job based only on the information we memorized and then recalled in order to solve problems, we would not be very effective.  The technology department’s success in solving problems is based on collaboration, information on the Internet, and inquiring with experts.
For example, I was recently trying to figure out a solution to a problem.  After many attempts and failure to figure it out, I called on a colleague to assist.  After working together to find a solution, we looked over our past notes and searched the Internet.  Still not resolving the issue, we reached out to an expert.  On two occasions, the technical expert, controlled my screen remotely to determine a solution.  Still not finding a solution, he accessed other technicians' notes in a wiki and had to inquire with another technician.  Finally, success! But, success was achieved based less on what I knew and more on my ability to be resourceful.  In the real world, resourcefulness equals success.  In school, it’s called cheating.

A recent podcast Your Cheatin’ Tech by Modern Learners, Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon explore the question; Shouldn’t we be allowing students to use all available resources to demonstrate their learning, as we do in the real world?  We can no longer think of school as it was in the past; the teacher as the expert, imparts their knowledge to students, students are expected to recall that information on a test to demonstrate learning.  David Helfand, a Professor of Astronomy at Columbia University, underscores this thought:

Changing Assessment
Is it cheating if we allow student to use whatever tools or technology they need to answer assessment questions?  If being collaborative, reaching out to experts, and using available technologies is cheating, isn’t it time to rethink how we assess student learning?  Maybe we need to change the test or assessment to better reflect the real world.  After all, “content recall is not what success is about in the world” (Will Richardson).  Assessments need to be designed in such a way that students can’t just memorize the information in order to demonstrate their learning, but rather design a more authentic and interesting assessment of learning.  Educators should provide more opportunities to make the test something that students can’t cheat on and just memorize.  Make the assessment about demonstrating applicable knowledge through authentic and interesting work.

It’s time to change school to be an empowering and authentic learning experience that works better for our students in the real world.  The change starts with a philosophical discussion and change in how students are assessed.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Listening to our Students

In a recent Grand Forks Public Schools Educational Enhancement Team (EET) meeting, our high school student representatives were provided an opportunity to speak freely on the topic of innovative learning experiences. The students were intermixed into breakout groups with district teachers and administrators and representatives from the community and University of North Dakota.  The students provided examples and reflections on both innovative learning experiences and non-innovative experiences.  Here are some direct quotes from the students:

“Our core classes, more than not, provide less opportunities for authentic, creative, and applicable learning.”

“Learning is often not relevant”

“Memorizing facts and information for a test, that is usually quickly forgotten, is not learning.”

“Real life application is missing”

“Standards mean nothing to students”

“Teachers are stuck in their ways, not open to innovative thinking”

“We would appreciate more project-based learning”

“Too much focus is placed on tests and grades versus learning.”

“Students are more apt to learn if it is relevant and interesting.”

“We need more opportunities to be creative and solve problems.”

“Students should be allowed and equipped to ask the questions rather than the teachers asking the questions.”

“We want to find things out for ourselves instead of being fed the information.”

“We know how to play school.”

“Boredom in school is normal.”

“Students are more engaged when choice is part of our learning.”

The student quotes speak for themselves.  When the students talked about their most innovative learning experiences, they eagerly discussed all the details. Unfortunately, the student representatives attending the EET meeting only had a few exciting examples to share. While some of the quotes might be viewed as reflecting poorly on our schools and district, I think it’s safe to assume that our students’ learning experiences are relatively consistent with students across the country.  Here is a recent Gallup Poll on student engagement in grades 5-12:

Our students’ comments should not be followed up with excuses, but rather a renewed sense of opportunity to provide more engaging learning environments for our students.  Drawing on the underlying themes from the students, they desire more authentic and engaging learning experiences through choice and project-based learning. Why shouldn't our district be the one to lead the way on flattening the student engagement curve from grade 5 through 12?

The comments from our students will only be an indictment of our schools and district if we choose to ignore and keep the status quo.  Let the words of our students resonate as we strive for more innovative and engaging learning opportunities.

Friday, August 25, 2017

An Open Letter to the GFPS Technology Department Staff

An Open Letter to the GFPS Technology Department Staff:

Dear GFPS Technology Department,

As we prepare to welcome our teachers back next week and students the following week, I want to take a moment to underscore the important role you play in the success of teaching and learning, integrated with technology, in our district.  Listed below are a few key reminders.

1. Students - Number One Priority
We all have a position in the district because of the more than 7,200 GFPS students.  While technicians and curriculum technology partners serve in different capacities, our collective work as the GFPS Technology Department is ultimately about student learning, engagement, empowerment, and innovation.  Whether direct or indirect, never forget that your work creates opportunities for students to be more engaged and potentially leave school more curious than when they started.

2. Our Vision
The GFPS Technology Vision clearly answers the question, “what do we aspire to become?”  Always keep the overarching theme of the vision at the heart of your work:  The Grand Forks Public Schools believe technology is an integral component of learning and is necessary to learn effectively, live productively and participate globally in an increasingly digital world. Technology resources transform learning by allowing learners to create, publish, collaborate and communicate with others in a global environment. Technology helps learners gather and analyze information, solve problems and develop higher-level thinking skills through authentic real-world experiences.

3. Teachers - Professional Learning
While classroom teachers have the biggest direct impact on student learning, teachers need support to bring technology-based and personalized learning experiences to their students.  Due to the ever-changing landscape of technology in schools, providing professional learning opportunities for all educators and administrators will continue to be an instructional priority. Building capacity and providing pedagogical growth opportunities for educators to integrate technology with learning is extremely important.  I am confident we will always be poised to assist.

4. Customer Service
Sometimes it’s easy for us in the technology department to think of all problems as technical in nature.  In doing so, we forget that the technology is utilized for one simple reason: to impact teaching and learning. When technology breaks, it is no longer serving its purpose.  When we realize we are really supporting teaching and learning and not machines, hopefully we respond differently, deliver even better service, and feel a greater sense of satisfaction with the work we do.  You each have knowledge and skills others are reliant on, so always remember; "You are a genius and the world needs your contribution." (Angela Maiers)

In closing, know that I sincerely appreciate the amazing and challenging work you do every day.  As a team, I am confident we will continue to have a positive impact on Grand Forks Public Schools.

All the best for an amazing school year!