Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Anti-Bubble Sheet

"By looking closely at student work with students and with adults, it sends the message that the quality of student work matters - Ron Berger, Chief Program Officer, Expeditionary Learning in DLMOOC Week #2 Google Hangout

This evening Mr. Justin DeVries, one of our outstanding teachers at Sa-Hali Secondary, was proudly watching students in his Digipen Academy do their first Presentations of Learning at our theatre.  Each of the six groups of students from his class were showcasing the different video games they had made to a crowd of more than 80 people that included teachers, parents, trustees, administrators, fellow students, and a panel of video game designers.  Although I could not be able to be there in person, through the miracle of technology, I was able to watch a live stream through a web feed, ask questions and give feedback.

Each of the groups went on stage and described the ideas and tools that led to the design of things such as the characters, the flow and play of the game, the sounds, the math, the artwork and the psychology behind their creations.  They then played the game for a few minutes to show the results of their hard work, and answered questions at the end.  As much as there were some fascinating technical questions that the groups fielded with amazing depth and clarity, the questions that I found most interesting were the ones around what the students had learned as a result of the experience of working together to design their projects.  These were just some of the (unfiltered) responses that I could jot down:
  • team work
  • communication
  • importance of a team
  • working at home--we wanted to do it at home
  • it was more up to us
  • homework is just one thing, like math or english or socials, in this its everything, math, art, group work, cooperation
  • it was more of a challenge, all the puzzles and I love puzzles
  • I loved all of the math
  • I loved working with my team
  • knowing what it is like to work in a group
  • we grouped together every week--we would meet every Friday and fix out all the bugs
  • cannot do well just being one guy not working well with other people
  • this is good for me, because I didn't used to like working with people
  • I don't like doing presentations - this is hard, way more stressful than a math test


This evening, I watched students proudly display their collaboratively created projects that required them to use math, physics, art, psychology, and logic as tools to help them do something that was meaningful to them.  They needed to work together, delegate duties, create their own timelines, and keep each other on task.  They had to communicate with each other, evaluate themselves, give constructive feedback and accept constructive criticism.  And then they had to create a presentation, decide on what they needed to show and how best they could communicate their accomplishments in an interesting and coherent manner.  And they needed to present in an environment that had an incredibly high level of accountability--to a group of their peers, their parents and experts in the field.   

The kids were proud.  The teacher was proud.  The parents were proud.  I am so proud to have these students, Mr. DeVries, and this program at our school.  And after watching the Presentations of Learning tonight, I have never been more motivated or determined: I truly feel that the Digipen Program will be a touchstone for our staff, students and parents as we begin to move towards deeper, problem-based learning and authentic presentations of learning at our school.  To paraphrase Ron from the DL MOOC, we looked closely at the work, and we sent the message that the quality of work matters.  And our students responded with quality work.

Coincidentally, today was the end of our examination period for provincial exams in the first semester.  The Science 10 final exam had sixty multiple choice questions that required students to bubble in answers on a white, 8 1/2 x 11" sheet of paper.

I think it is time for us to think differently.   

Thank you so much to Mr. DeVries and his amazing students from the Digipen Academy.  We watched you learn so much, and yet through your learning, you have taught the rest of us so much more.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

What Do You Ask Students to Produce?

Those who are working with me (or perhaps are within a five thousand mile radius of me right now) know that I am more than just a bit fired up about deeper learning for our students and for the educators at our school, in our district, and at our local university.  To their credit, my staff has been incredibly patient with me vibrating as I walk down our halls, and more than polite in saying things like 'this is REALLY fascinating, but I kinda have to get back to my class'.  Bless them, and I hope that they can forgive my exuberance as we move forward.

In order to learn more about deeper learning, I have enlisted the use of Twitter, connected with a number of members of my PLN, been clipping every blog, graphic and article that I can find into Evernote, phoning places like High Tech High, and soaking up everything that I can from meetings with people like the Dean of Education from our local university.

However, I also wanted to try something new--I had heard a great deal about MOOCs (both positive and negative), but wanted to find out for myself how an asynchronous, self-directed learning environment would work for me.  And as luck would have it, there was a MOOC starting that was perfectly topical for my headspace right now, and as a result, I have joined more than a hundred other educators in a nine-week, Deeper Learnng MOOC.

Currently, we are in week one.  And along with a number of readings, there was a live event this evening (which I had to miss--not quite home from school yet).  Fortunately, it was a Google Hangout that was archived, and I was able to watch it an hour and a half later.

Deeper Learning MOOC - Week One Google Hangout

Tonight was a panel discussion that included people like Larry Rosenstock, CEO of High Tech High, Eduardo Briceno from Mindset Works, a number of teachers from High Tech High, a few others from various educational organizations, and a tenth-grade student from High Tech High named Maya.

There were a variety of different questions about deeper learning that were posed with responses from different members of the panel.  These ranged from queries such as "Is deeper learning for everyone?" (short answer - 'yes') and "What needs to happen for adults if we are to follow and model deeper learning?" (short answer - 'work together, not in isolation').  But one of the most interesting bits (at least for me) posed by the moderator was around assessment:  "How would we know that deeper learning is going on?" This struck a chord with me:  some of the consistent questions that I have heard from our staff are "How do you assess problem-based learning?" or "How do I assign a mark to deeper learning?".  I would guess that these are questions that educator might ask, especially in those in a system that is so traditionally based in numbers and letter grades.

Larry Rosenstock took the lead on this one, and his answer resonated with me.  He said that 'the proof of the pudding is in the tasting--looking at student work is a really powerful way to see what has been going on'.

Seems simple enough, doesn't it?  Makes perfect sense.  A simple man I am, but even I can get to the idea that the evidence of learning is, the evidence.

But it made me ponder a further question:  What is it in education that we ask students to produce?  And perhaps more specifically, relative to the attributes that we as a staff (and now our parents, and very soon our students) have determined our students need to be successful at and beyond our school, are the artifacts we are tasking our students to produce allowing and requiring our students to demonstrate these attributes?  Are they allowing and requiring our students to demonstrate 'deeper learning'?

I am really enjoying the DL MOOC so far, and I can already see how it is going to stretch my thinking. Over the next few weeks, I am looking forward to investigating my questions from today's session with our staff as we begin to analyse the tasks we assign to our students through the lens of our attributes.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Give Students More Credit

This past Friday, I was fortunate enough to be in beautiful Kelowna, BC to attend the British Columbia School Superintendents Association Conference on Innovative Practices.  It was an outstanding day of learning, marked by brief keynotes, short and direct breakout sessions, and plenty of opportunities for questioning the presenters, each of whom was a practitioner that was proudly sharing their innovation with smaller groups.

But most the most impressive and impactful piece from the conference took place in the first hour of the day. Hugh Gloster, Superintendent of Schools in Kelowna, had arranged for each of the 45 or so tables filled with educators to be paid two fifteen minute visits by STUDENTS from his district.  Each of these middle school students gave a brief presentation about how problem-based learning had impacted their educational experience to a group of complete strangers.

They were unbelievable.

Two different students came to our table and candidly described the pros and cons of PBL and how it had made a difference to they learned in their classrooms.  And after the students had finished, they answered every question that we could possibly ask them.  And they answered the questions well.

Each of the students was able to clearly articulate the attributes that they were required to develop and demonstrate.  They were

  • learner
  • thinker 
  • collaborator
  • innovator
  • contributor

I was impressed that each student was so keenly aware of what it was they were supposed to learn.  However, our time with the students got better:  each of them described how they saved artifacts of their learning in a digital portfolio, and then had to select a representative cross-section of them so they could best demonstrate each attribute through a Presentation Of Learning (POL) that they (and every other student) was required to do at the conclusion of each course.  And to top it off, they had to select a community member (which could be their parent, but didn't have to be) to be a part of the audience to whom they would present.

One of the students' set of responses was particularly intriguing:  she said she hated PBL.  More specifically, she hated problem-based learning AT FIRST.  She liked what she called a 'traditional class' with lecture, a video, worksheets, and a test at the end of the unit.  Why, I asked?  "Because it was easy.  You were always looking for one right answer.  So I could learn something for the test, and then forget it and move on."  (these were her words). But now, she was dreading heading back to a more 'traditional' style class (still her words)--she felt like in a traditional class, she would have little or no choice in what she was going to learn about, how she was going to learn about it, and how she was going to demonstrate her learning.

Wow.  This was a STUDENT speaking.

She said with PBL, she would never forget what she had done in her class because of the deep learning that she had done and the numerous reflections that she did over the course of the term.  She described how in the past in science, her whole class would have made a 'cell cake' to replicate a cell in Biology.  Everyone would have.  In her class, students needed to create their own analogy (she chose her home city), and as a result, the whole class made different ones and then learned even more ways to think about the cell from each student's presentation.  And then she said "I don't think that will happen in a traditional class.  I wish all of my classes were problem-based learning classes."

Again, I want to be clear, these were HER words. That is truly how she was talking.  She was speaking about HER learning.  She was not only able to critically evaluate WHAT it was that she had learned about in her project, she was able to critically evaluate HOW she learned best--a level of metacognition that I can say without equivocation that I have NEVER heard from a ninth grade student.  And the best thing was, the next student spoke in very similar terms.  And when I spoke to other educators who were at the other 40 plus tables in the room, they said the same thing about the students that had come to their tables.

How did this happen?  How could each of these students be able to speak to a group of adults about their own learning with such clarity and conviction?


I began speaking to some of the adults in the room from the Kelowna district.  And when I spoke to them, each of them spoke of the five competencies.  Each of them knew what was happening in many of the classes at the middle school level.  And each of them believed that they were seeing success.

I asked an administrator where these competencies came from.  They told me that a process was developed to involve every partner group from support staff, teachers, administrators, students, parents and community members in the examination of research of the skills that students would need to be productive members of the future workforce.  They developed a mechanism for students to store authentic archives of these competencies (a digital portfolio).  And they created an evaluative tool that would allow students choice and the opportunity to showcase their learning in a setting that would further their skills in presentation and allow them to learn about how others approached the same problem.  And then they dedicated (and continue to dedicate) resources and professional development to make it happen

In my experience, it would not be uncommon when we have these sorts of committees to meet, to come up with ideas and methods of implementation, to put it out there, to get traction in small pockets, and to see very little evidence of that work coming to fruition.

This was not the case in the Kelowna district.  And to use Instructional Rounds parlance, my evidence is that, without coaching or a script, STUDENTS were able to demonstrate the products of the committee in their 'interviews' with the educators in the room--they were educating the educators.  There was a direct line from the work that was done in that group at the district office to the classroom. And it was amazing.

After this past Friday and a great deal of reflection on the way home, I have decided that, in my time as a teacher, I did not give students enough credit.  I thought I needed to be the person out front.  The one to sift through curricula and find for them what was truly important.  I gave them tasks that challenged them to do little more than find one answer that could be found on page 26, in boldface, near the end of the third paragraph.    I gave them tasks that had a single answer, or that created a single product like a poster at the end of a unit.  I evaluated them using a single instrument that, at least in some cases, worked best Something that was likely relatively easy to mark, but was probably quite exclusionary in that it required students to demonstrate their learning in a specific way, not demonstrate their learning.

I did not give students enough credit for being able to direct and demonstrate their own learning.

For me, this does not mean that tomorrow, we are going to simply throw our students and our educators out there on their own and say 'go find some problems, solve them, and show me what you learned'.  Not at all.  At Sa-Hali, we spent a great deal of time articulating the attributes of a Sa-Hali graduate that would help them meet the challenges that will confront them in their future.  We have started some of the leg work.  However, we need to get more stakeholders involved.  And we need to look at the existing structures and constructs that we have in our school that both help us and inhibit us in moving forward to create a model that allows students choice and flexibility in meeting and demonstrating the learning outcomes of their classes.

This will require time.  This will require resources.  This will require in-servicing and training for staff and for students. But most of all this will require a clear vision and subsequent commitment to that vision that we as educators will be co-learners and co-creators of the educational experience at our school with our students.
And at our staff meeting on Monday, we will get started on the process of giving students more credit for their ability to determine and demonstrate their learning.