Monday, October 13, 2014

Would I Want to Do This?

"Would I want to do this?"

What if we approached lesson development for our classes with this simple question?  When I ask groups that I work with to come up with the conditions that make up their "learn best whens" for students, typically the participants come up with something that looks like this (this one is taken from a session in Texas earlier this year):

'Engaged' is a term that pops out of the page, as does 'interested', 'challenged', and 'supported'.  If we agree that students need to be engaged, it is not a stretch for us to believe that part of engaging students is creating activities that they actually WANT to do.

Many might scoff at this idea.  "There are always things in life that we have to do, whether we like them or not!" some would say, and I couldn't agree more--there will be lots of things in life that are less than pleasant for us to do.  But it's not a dichotomy, is it?

Wouldn't it be better if school had as many engaging things for students to do as we could possibly come up with?  Yes, it is unrealistic for us to believe that our students are going to want to do absolutely everything in school (some of the Grade 9 Science activities I assigned to students come to mind).  But so what? I believe that if we can turn more of those 'have to do's' into 'want to do's' in our classrooms, in our faculty meetings, and in our professional development days, schools are going to be better places to learn.

But how do we do it?

One of the things that I have had to come to grips with is the fact that I am not cool.  And as much as I hate to break it to you, to today's teenager, neither are you.  In fact, anyone beyond the age of 21 is considered 'old' (just ask them)!  So when we think something is "cool", sorry, we are usually wrong, and if you are still using the term "cool", you have clearly defined yourself as old.  But kids know what is cool to kids, so why not have them be a part of the conversation in lesson design?

I still think that the High Tech High tuning protocol is a useful tool that can be used/adapted to determining whether a project (lesson, staff meeting, Pro D session) is going to be compelling for a target audience.  But a key component of this protocol is to have representation from the target audience!  Having our students involved in determining what would be engaging with respect to their learning empowers them.  Having staff members and team leaders involved in faculty meeting design and PD days empowers teachers as learners.  Isn't that what we want?

I do, and I have to make sure that when I am designing a lesson or a meeting, I ask that simple question:

Would I want to do this?

If the answer is "probably not", why the heck would anyone else?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

'Control' Does Not Equal Learning

About 18 months ago, I wrote a post about my fascination with the idea of Self-Organized Learning Environments, (SOLE), an concept that came from the work of Sugata Mitra as a result of his "Hole in the Wall" Project.  I talked about my own experience with the type of learning that Sugata suggests--learning based in broadband connectivity, collaboration, and encouragement (although my 'granny cloud' seems to consist of guys like Chris Wejr, Pete Jory, Bill Ferriter and Tom Hierck, who collectively would be considered the oddest looking grannies on earth).  And I have also used a SOLE approach with our teachers to create our school's collaborative groups not only because I believe in SOLE as a learner, but because I felt it was important for me to experience what that felt like as a teacher and co-learner.

As a learner...being a part of a SOLE feels fantastic.  As the 'teacher' in our faculty meetings or in a classroom with students, well....the idea of SOLE seems not so great.  Why is that?

As a learner, I love the idea of being able to pursue questions that captivate me.  I enjoy being a involved with a collective that I want to be a part of, and being able move along when I feel that I have more to contribute to another group.  I like connecting with others, to find articles, to question research, to exchange ideas of how to design and implement a concept for our schools, or to simply shoot the breeze about something that we are working on.  When I am in this sort of learning environment, it is incredibly relaxed, highly productive, and oddly self regulating--we absolutely get off task sometimes, but one of us always brings the group back to the task at hand.   These less focused moments are essential--a kind of pressure release that allows the learning system to re-calibrate itself--but we always get back to it.    

My feelings fit well with data I have collected from workshops that I have done where we consider the results of a typical 'They Learn Best When'; an exercise that I got from the Instructional Rounds program at Harvard and now use with teachers and administrators.

So why do I get so nervous about letting my learners engage in SOLE when I know they are the very environment that my best learning occurs?  Is it because I don't trust the participants?

In thinking about this a great deal, I have come to realize that my discomfort with SOLE is mostly because I don't trust ME.  I don't trust that I have asked a question that is compelling enough for the learners in the room.   I don't always trust that the task that I have set up is one that will require the learning and participation of each student in the room.  And as a result, I am often reluctant to relinquish control in the way that a true SOLE requires, even if I KNOW that I am likely not creating a very dynamic learning situation.  Pathetic, I know.

I think I am getting better with letting go, and letting the SOLE take its course.  And one of the things that has allowed me to do become more comfortable with leading SOLE is to co-create questions, and co-create the activities that we will be doing as a larger group.  I think the High Tech High Project Tuning Protocol is an excellent tool/model that can be adapted to formatively assess whether a question is truly a driving question, and whether the task and potential learning products are ones that the group will find meaningful--meaningful enough to bring them back from those moments of off-task, 'pressure release' that I alluded to above.

This year, I want to model SOLE more, and use the HTH Tuning Protocol to help guide my questions, my faculty meetings, and my presentations.  And while there are some pieces that make me nervous, I need to accept that 'control' does not equal learning.

Here is an excellent video describing SOLE:

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Better Is Not Easier - #LeadershipDay14

"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." - Thomas Edison

In early 2010, I was in tenth year in administration and my seventh year as a high school principal.  To that point in my career, I had spent a great deal of time focused on understanding curriculum, instruction, assessment and intervention through the lens of the Professional Learning Community.  In different schools, we had created collaborative time for teachers, determined essential learning outcomes for our students, created intervention strategies for those students who didn't learn those outcomes, and additional opportunities for those that did.  And while no where near perfect, we had seen a distinct and notable increase in success rates for our students. For the most part, things seemed to be going pretty well.

However, like many schools, we noticed that in the hyper-stimulating digital environment that we call the 21st century, students were (for the most part) being forced to power down and slow down when they entered our classrooms. We asked ourselves a question:  "Our students are being successful in school, but are they engaged in their learning?".  And as the Principal of our school, I was doing absolutely nothing to model the use of web tools or social media for learning.

Not good.

As a result, I took took a team to the 21st Century Learning conference Chicago in 2010 so that as a group we could get an understanding of how we could better meet the needs of today's learner and how I personally could lead by example by integrating digital tools into teaching and administration.  The conference blew me away:  witnessing the power of a digitally enhanced learning environment shook my entire foundation, and changed my thinking about teaching and learning from that point forward.

Four years later, after a few thousand tweets, a couple hundred blog posts, experimenting with dozens of web tools and applications, trying a multitude of different bits of hardware, attending numerous professional development sessions on technology (and eventually giving a few on my own), and enduring a whole host of failures along with a number of successes, I find that I am comfortable working in and around a digital environment.

There was a time when I found myself being a technological evangelist.  I would talk to people about the benefits of Twitter ("24/7 professional development!"), about collaborative projects using Google docs, about digital bookmarking, screencasts, podcasts, wikis, blogs, and virtually everything that I came across during my evenings experimenting with different web tools.  I would implore people around me just to 'give technology a try', and I would attempt to 'sell' people on the idea that technology "makes life easier" and, after some front end work, saves time on the back end.  I would try to place a digital pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for neophyte tech users.

Bad idea.

I don't do that anymore.  I use technology, but don't really think about it because it is just a part of my day.  I try to model the use of digital applications when they are better for engaging learners, and when they enhance and maximize interactions between the learner, the teacher, the content, and the task.  I try to share what it is that we are doing as a school, and I love talking about the uses of technology in classrooms and in administration.  I hope that I am the biggest cheerleader when people want to try new things, especially with technology because I get excited about that sort of stuff.  But I do not 'sell' the use of technology with the idea that it makes life easier, even though for me personally, digital solutions do in fact make my life much simpler and more efficient.  I don't sell it this way because I no longer buy what it I was previously selling.

From where I stand, the truth of the matter is plain:  like anything worth doing, integrating technology to increase the individual ownership of learning for students and adults takes time.  It takes a willingness to experiment.  It takes networking with other people using social media to hear the pros and pitfalls.  It takes crowd sourcing of ideas using collaborative tools and applications.  It means enduring sketchy wifi and fly-by-night applications that crash and sometimes even disappear from the internet.  It means confronting the way that funds have been traditionally spent rather than wistfully dreaming of bags of technology-labelled funding that will never come. Ultimately, integrating technology takes work.  And while I don't find this experimentation to be 'work' per se because I enjoy tinkering with web tools, others will find it to be laborious, arduous, and frustrating.

However, the worm that I will dangle at the end of the fishing pole is this:  if one is willing to put in this work, integrating technology has the potential to engage learners in a multi-sensory way that was not possible twenty years ago.  This is not a certainty, as many use technology as a more expensive substitute for what can be done with an overhead projector.  But used well, technology can captivate students in a way that is so rich and interactive that it will allow them and their teachers to work together to ask compelling questions that have multiple answers or (gasp!) no answers at all.  In a way that will make students, teachers and administrators stay up at night trying new things and sharing their successes and failures with friends, colleagues and others they have never met.  Integrating technology has the potential to make learning better.

But 'better' is not necessarily 'easier'.  And that's ok.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Working With High Tech High - Part 1

Several months ago, we hatched the idea of a school of unique and innovative teaching and learning.  The driving vision for this school is “Sa-Hali Secondary School will be an exemplary learning environment for students, teachers, and future teachers. Through innovative educational practices, we will design and implement meaningful, problem-based learning tasks that, through their real-life application, require learners to demonstrate and apply our collaboratively-developed attributes that will prepare them for an ever-changing future.”  As a staff, we have been working towards realizing this vision on a variety of fronts:  we examined the importance of deeper learning, we have been crafting our attributes, and have begun the process of increasing our understanding of task analysis, ‘learning to see and unlearning to judge’ and the collection of descriptive observational data to allow us to scale up innovative deeper learning practices in our building and our district.

Inasmuch as we have made great strides, naturally there have been many questions and concerns about what our journey to create this environment of deeper learning could look like.  To help us along this pathway, our professional development committee determined that we needed some exemplars of learning environments that modeled deeper learning.  After a great deal of planning, we were able to bring High Tech High teachers Chris Wakefield and Anthony Conwright to our school this past week for our May Professional Development day to introduce us to the practicalities of PBL.  And if there was one word to describe the session that our staff had with Chris and Anthony, it would be ‘outstanding’.  

The session was incredibly dynamic.  There were ice-breakers, followed by short instructional bursts and demonstrations interspersed with small and large group activities.  There were exemplars of projects and ‘beautiful work’ throughout the library for each of us to touch, pick up, and examine.  There were multiple opportunities for reflection.  And ultimately, small groups were taken through the process of creating and tuning projects that we will use in our classrooms.  We learned the work by doing the work.

Personally, I had several takeaways from our session, including:

  1. We need to give students training in giving critique and multiple opportunities for revision.
  2. Our collaboration model needs to evolve to utilize the expertise of multiple departments.
  3. The tuning protocol used by HTH has multiple applications, especially for administrators.
  4. We have numerous artificial constructs that inhibit creativity.
  5. We are limited only by our imagination when it comes to PBL.

Over the next couple of weeks I need to unpack each of these separately.   But I am going to start with the first one.

We need to give students training in giving/receiving critique along with multiple opportunities for revision

When I was a teaching senior biology on the Copernican timetable, we did a lab nearly every day.  Within those labs, students would have to do a practical, hands-on piece such as a dissection, document the process they used, and explain their findings using a combination of drawings and written description.  The students would do these lab write-ups using a template that I had given to them at the start of the year.  Armed with a big new red pen, I would pick a night during the week and strap myself in with a big pile of student work and begin marking.  And much to my chagrin, I would often see work that was messy, inaccurate, and often times incomplete.  I would find myself making the same comments over and over--’where is your evidence?’, or ‘you labelled this incorrectly’, or ‘it’s “gizzard”, not “blizzard”’.  

I would return the work with a big “10 out of 15” on the front, and to my surprise, a large percentage of students would look at that big red mark on the front, shrug their shoulders, fire it in their binder (or the trash), and move on to the next lab.

And make the same mistakes again.  And again.  And again.  And guess who was to blame?  


Guess who was getting better at giving specific feedback?  Guess who was getting the benefit of looking at great (and sometimes not so great) drawings and insightful answers?  Truthfully, guess who was getting better at doing labs?


One of the things that Chris and Anthony from High Tech High stressed was the importance of public critique and providing students with multiple opportunities for revision.

They began by showing a video called “Austin’s Butterfly”:  this video shows Ron Berger (Chief Program Officer of Expeditionary Learning Schools and a leading advocate for ‘beautiful work’, working with primary and intermediate students on the concept of kind, specific, helpful feedback and multiple revisions.  Take 6 minutes and watch this (if you haven’t seen it already).

Then, Chris and Anthony gave our staff multiple progressions of a project, and had our staff practice giving kind, specific, helpful feedback that would make the project better and better.  The small groups discussed each progression and saw first hand how their feedback could make the project better and better.

This process was powerful in a few different ways.  The small groups saw the project getting better as a result of the feedback, as one might expect.  But these critique groups learned together--they learned about giving kind and helpful feedback, they learned from each other’s comments, they saw their comments build on themselves and get even more specific and meaningful, and they learned that by giving students multiple opportunities for feedback in a public setting, the products and producers improved immensely.

I look back now on my time as a biology teacher and shake my head at myself.  Wow, could I have done things differently.  I could have had the students working in small groups (and then larger ones) to give each other this kind, specific and helpful feedback.  They would have been able to improve each other’s work in a kind and non-threatening manner, and would be able to look at their own work more critically at the same time.  And in the end, when their work came to me, it would have gone through multiple revisions and a couple of dozen different sets of eyes.  

If we compared the consistent quality of work that students would produce using this approach to the work from the “one and done” (set of eyes AND opportunity) approach that I used, well, there would likely be no comparison.

As a staff, we need to design and implement activities that utilize multiple revisions and public, kind, specific and helpful feedback for our students.  As an administrator, I need to use a similar approach to the things that I do with staff.  We have great collaborative team leaders and a very knowledgeable faculty.  Like our teachers, I need to ensure that I use the collective knowledge of the group to give me kind, specific and helpful feedback on multiple iterations of projects that we will undertake as a staff so that in the end, we have ‘beautiful work’ of our own.

Part 2 Next Week - Our collaboration model needs to evolve to utilize the expertise of multiple departments.