Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Advantages, or Opportunities Lost?


The number of students taking online courses in British Columbia is growing.  And while this growth has slowed slightly in the last couple of years, the impact of the rapid increase from 30000 to nearly 80000 unique students taking one or more courses since 2008 in BC distance education facilities is something that I have begun to notice at our school.  Our district is no exception--for example, more than 300 students were taking online Physical Education last year.  And while it may seem paradoxical that students are taking a physical activity course on the computer, it is happening.  And not just in PE.

To be quite honest, when asked, I have been cautious about recommending online courses for students.  I have always felt that the online learning environment can be effective for certain students, but for others, online courses can be much more challenging to complete.  I have always felt that a 'regular' classroom is a better place to learn than in an online environment.  

I fully acknowledge that I have a bias: I am a product of the public school system, I work in the public school system, and my children are in the public school system in typical, 'bricks and mortar' classrooms.  For all intents and purposes, the public school system has served my family very well.  But the reality is that more students are finding alternative ways to explore their passions and get credit for it at the same time, and as a result, those students are moving away from the traditional 'bricks and mortar' schools.  I also acknowledge that my experience in an online learning environment is limited--I did the Deeper Learning MOOC last year and got a great deal from it.  However, even with the scant evidence that I have to support my feelings--I feel the in-classroom experience has some decided advantages for kids.


Bearing these thoughts in mind, I began pondering a question: 


"What are the advantages for a student in a typical, face-to-face, 'bricks-and-mortar' school versus an online learning environment?"


I have asked a number of colleagues this question, and even posed the question in a survey on Twitter.  Here are some of the more common answers came back to me:

  • interact/work with others in a face-to-face environment
  • more 'immediate' interaction with a teacher and other students
  • someone there to motivate, inspire, and 'drive the learning'
  • getting to hear the ideas of others
  • a diversity of hands-on activities
  • being a part of a culture, something larger than the individual
  • student-student relationships
  • student-teacher relationships
And while there are likely numerous other pieces that we have not considered (and please feel free to add them to this survey), I want to evaluate each of the advantages above, but focus in on each of them with a slightly 'tighter' lens, which is

Are we consistently leveraging the advantages that we say that we have in 'bricks and mortar' schools?  Considering each of these advantages, if evidence to support these factors is difficult to find on a consistent, classroom-to-classroom basis, then these are NOT true advantages that we are leveraging. Instead, one might argue that they are little more than lost opportunities.

So here we go, let's examine them, one-by-one...

Interact/work with others in a face-to-face environment:
Working with others in a face-to-face environment is a skill that has been both deemed as necessary and condemned as being lost with today's student, all in the same breath.  And while there are certainly more jobs that can be done 'remotely' or from behind a screen, the majority of jobs and interactions that students are going to have in the next few years are still going to require face-to-face interactions and cooperation.

But ask yourself this....

What are the nature of the interactions that are taking place in classrooms?  Are students actively taught how to effectively collaborate in partnerships, triads, small and large groups? Are there driving questions and opportunities for kids in the class to dialogue and practice these skills?  Are the tasks that students are asked to do requiring them to participate and interact with each other?   Are the tasks ones that require positive interdependence between the students, or for them to simply to do their part? Is the seating arrangement in the classroom conducive to these sorts of conversations?  Is the length of time spent on these interactive activities long enough for students to become proficient at these skills and make them transferable to other situations?  


Someone there to motivate, inspire, and drive learning:
Each of us has had those teachers who were truly inspirational, that got to know us, and got to know what our strengths and interests were both in and out of the classroom.  They took something as boring as Ohm's Law or poetry and turned it in to something that was both interesting and meaningful.  Their passion for their subject area was second only to their passion for us as students in the classroom. They kept us on task and roughly moving in the same direction.  It was awesome.

But ask yourself this...
What percentage of your teachers or university professors fit the above description?  100%?  10%?  1%?How many of them tried to determine what motivates students to learn?  In our schools, do we ask students what their motivations are, or do we assume they are driven by things like grades, university, or the promise of a better life (which may or may not be so applicable to a rambunctious Grade 7 boy who has just come in from the playground)?  Do we ask driving questions (check out the 'Tubric' from the Buck Institute), and use tuning protocols to empower students in their learning, or do we come up with the activities in isolation, and hope that students want to do it? Do we think of learning from a  developmental perspective, honoring the fact that if we create our lessons with the acknowledgment that students come from different backgrounds and have different skill sets, that they will be more motivated to do the task? Do we try to determine what gets students into 'flow'?

If we don't do these sorts of things to inspire our students, we cannot lay claim to having someone there to inspire and motivate as an advantage--we can only lay claim to having a person...well...there.


Getting to hear the ideas of others:
There is no doubt that crowd-sourcing an issue is going to lead to a more diverse set of solutions.  Among many examples, Steve Johnson's "Where Good ideas Come From" talks about the collision of smaller hunches to form bigger ones, and the Professional Learning Community model of collaboration both point to the power of the group versus the individual.

But ask yourself this...

Do we consistently give students tasks that require multiple perspectives and multiple solutions?  Do we actively demonstrate to our students that there is more than one way to accomplish a task or meet a learning outcome?  Do we 'go wide' with our students, asking the shortest question possible and then encourage divergent thinking?  Do we create a safe forum for this to occur, and have students display their learning in such a way that it allows others to comment on, critique, and draw inspiration from to affect their own work in a positive way?


If we have students do tasks that require one answer or that can be copied from a book/website/peer or have students demonstrate their learning in ways that are not visible to their peers, this cannot be considered an advantage.

A diversity of hands-on activities:
Individual work.  Group work.  Driving questions that require creative solutions. Peer review and evaluation.   Labs.  Projects.  Role plays. Digital portfolio work.  Video creation. Connections with the community.  Field trips.  Internships.  Cross school/district/country collaboration using technology.    The list of possibilities goes on and and on for activities to do in the classroom with students.

But ask yourself this...
What are the typical tasks that students are required to do in each of the classes in our schools.  I can say with honesty that some of my science classes were predominantly textbook based, with the 'where's Waldo'-style review questions at the end of a section, potentially a lab, and then some sort of quiz or test.  Occasionally I did a debate, role play, or something that I thought was pretty cool (although I am not completely sure that the kids agreed with me). However, for the most part, I felt as though I had a great deal of content to get through and didn't have a lot of time to 'waste' on these sorts of activities.  I rarely did any task analysis to see what my students were actually required to learn as a result of doing the tasks in my classes.  Looking back, I could have truly empowered my students in their learning by having them involved in task development:  I could have used a variety of different activities that would have been designed with a focus on  'how best will students learn this' rather than 'how best can I cover this material'. 

If students are mostly exposed to textbook/worksheet based tasks with quizzes and tests that are multiple choice, matching, short answer and long answer questions, we are not maximizing our opportunities to engage kids with the activities that are possible in a face-to-face environment.

More 'Immediate' Interaction with a Teacher and/or other students
For a variety of reasons, students in an online environment may experience a 'lag' in terms of needing versus getting assistance.  And if the online experience is such that a student is working individually and asynchronously, the odds of the student being able to work with their peers can be 'hit and miss', depending on who is online or whether such a mechanism has been set up with that particular course.  In the 'bricks and mortar' classroom, the students are in physical proximity to the teacher and eachother, and most often are learning synchronously.

But ask yourself this...
Can the student access the teacher at any time, and if content coverage is a norm, is there even time for students to get help from a teacher?  And if not the teacher, are there mechanisms for peer support that have been created and actively taught in the classroom so that students can get this 'immediate' interaction?

Being a part of a culture, something larger than the individual
Friday night football, Texas-style.
Last year, I got to cross off a 'bucket list' item when I was able to go to a Friday night, high school football playoff game in Texas.  The kids were there in school colors.  The parents were there in school colors.  The marching band was there in school colors, playing the school song.  The home town was there.  The visiting town was there.  Everyone was there.  I got goosebumps just sitting in the stadium, thinking that I was a part of something amazing--even if I wasn't from Texas.  


LINK Crew - Day 1!
Of course it's not about football, it's about that connection to the school, the colors, the mascot, and the community.  To be a 'Sabre', a 'Dragon', or a 'Bulldog' right along side of the rest of your peers.  But if we don't consciously and consistently create opportunities (like LINK Crew, peer mentorship, spirit days, intramurals, recognition assemblies, etc) for our students to connect with our school and the people that work there, they are not a part of something larger than themselves.

Student-Student Relationships:
Students love to come to school to see their friends and socialize.  They love to work with each other in class, and play with each other at lunch.  

But ask yourself this...
As schools, do we cultivate these relationships, and ensure that they are positive and productive?  Do we have programs such as Me-To-We, RespectEd, Roots of Empathy, and Safe Schools.  Do we monitor our progress and how students are feeling about our schools through Student Voice, Satisfaction Surveys, tools like Tell Them From Me, and focus groups.  And when we get this information from our kids, do we respond to it so they feel better about connecting with each other and the school.  Or do we hope for the best, and allow the "Law of the Jungle" (a tongue-in-cheek quote from one of our excellent staff members) to manifest itself in our hallways with a "they need to sort it out" philosophy?  

While this area is not a dichotomy, we need to help students with developing positive relationships with their peers.  Adults need help with their relationships all of the time--why would kids be any different? 

Student-Teacher Relationships:
This could be the biggest leverage point of all for bricks and mortar schools!  Research validates the statement that kids 'don't care what you know until they know that you care'--in fact, the teacher-student relationship has seven times the impact than does the teacher's knowledge of their subject area.  What an advantage, right?

But ask yourself this...

How are we getting to know our students, or are we really getting to know our students at all?  Would our students say we have positive student-teacher relationships in each of our classrooms? Considering there is a repository of ideas only a few mouse clicks and key strikes away for getting to know our students, do we use these sorts of activities to create connections between ourselves and our students?  How do we determine the prior learning and individual contexts of our students?  Do we believe in that respect is something that is earned, and therefore that we must earn the respect of our students and their parents?  Are we vulnerable in front of our students, and comfortable telling them that we don't have all the answers, and it's ok?

If we do not actively cultivate these relationships, we have lost one of the very biggest potential advantages of a 'bricks and mortar' school.  


In conclusion, I want to add one big qualifier--each of our schools is doing many of the things above, at the least in smaller pockets, and sometimes full-scale.  And should we leverage each of these opportunities that we have with children in our schools, there is no one who could convince me that the online experience would be superior to the in-class experience for student learning.  Yet given the proliferation of students choosing alternative options to pursue their passions while concurrently getting credit towards graduation, I think all 'brick and mortar' schools need to take a sincere look at each of these opportunities for us to enrich the in-class environment to see whether they are truly advantages that we are realizing rather than tremendous opportunities that are lost.


This has been cross posted in the Sa-Hali Educational Sandbox.

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.