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Inspiring… or not

Stop stealing dreams, by Seth GodinLearning math by building bridges or designing aircraft wings is inspiring. Chugging through the odd-numbered practice problems at the end of the chapter is not.

Improving our community by collecting data and investigating the causes of local environmental challenges is inspiring. Participating in artificial, recipe-like science ‘experiments’ from a publishing company is not.

Wrestling with controversial but important political issues is inspiring. Regurgitating decontextualized historical names, dates, and places is not.

Writing for and advocating to authentic audiences around societal issues that we’re passionate about is inspiring. Writing 5-paragraph essays about books that we don’t care about is not.

Investigating our own questions about the world and how it works is inspiring. Spitting back the ‘right answer’ to someone else’s low-level questions is not.

Finding areas of interest and passion is inspiring. Slogging through a lifeless textbook is not.

Active, energetic, enthusiastic, maybe messy, and probably noisy collaboration is inspiring. Working in isolation and sitting quietly in rows and columns are not.

Using technology to learn with and from students in other parts of the world is inspiring. Using technology to complete digital worksheets is not.

Interdisciplinary learning that is seen by students as meaningful, authentic, and connected to the real world is inspiring. Subject-siloed, isolated, disconnected learning is not.

Internships and community partnerships and impactful service learning opportunities are inspiring. Pretend word problems and scenarios are not.

Learning spaces that honor children’s dignity and value their worth are inspiring. Learning spaces that are overwhelmingly focused on compliance are not.

And so on…

Inspiring… or not. What vision are we selling to our students, parents, and communities?

And, no, we don’t have to do the uninspiring before we can get to the inspiring, particularly if we rarely get beyond the former…

Image credit: Stop Stealing Dreams, Seth Godin

Incented memorization

Seth Godin said:

Useful modern education is not the work of rote. When you tell someone the answer and then give them a test to see if they remember what you told them, that’s not education, it’s incented memorization.


What do you want school to be? [VIDEO]

A wonderful video from the Early Learning Alliance. Some of my favorite quotes include:

  • I want school to do no harm. I don’t want my kids coming home less interested in their world than when they left. [YES!!]
  • I wish I felt like I had somewhere to go to learn about what I’m interested in.
  • I seriously just don’t want to be annoyed by mindless crap in my kids’ backpacks. It’s 2018. Are you telling me that those worksheets are still the best we have to offer?
  • I want school to be a reflection of where we are going, not where we have been.
  • I want school to be harder. They go a mile wide and an inch deep. No one needs that in today’s world… I’m pretty sure that’s why God invented the Internet.
  • I want school to not stress me out over stuff that doesn’t really matter. Some of that stuff we are expected to remember, I doubt any adult knows that stuff.

How could you use this video in your own setting? Or, better yet, what could you make with your own community? 

Happy viewing!

Are your equity efforts aimed at test scores or life readiness?

Physics word problem... who cares?

Jason Glass said:

I have an assignment for you. Tonight, I want you to go on the internet and download some worksheets on quadratic equations – try for at least 20 of them … on each side of the page, spend some time memorizing the periodic table, and while you’re at it memorize the major dates, battles, and generals associated with the American Civil War.

Let me break it to you ahead of time: these tasks are going to suck. They are mind-numbing and you will find yourself wondering … how is any of this relevant, important, or useful to me? Unless you teach high school math, chemistry, or history and do so using a very traditional approach – it probably isn’t relevant, important, or useful.

In order to get kids to repeat and repeat and repeat these mind numbing tasks, you are going to have to bribe them, threaten them, provide extra tutoring and support for them, medicate them, and minimize other more vibrant, interesting, and engaging parts of their lives so they can focus on mastering those repetitive … and mostly useless and obsolete … tasks.

In Jeffco, we say keep the main thing the main thing – and that is student learning. More precisely, we need – at scale and with urgency – to profoundly change the tasks and experiences our students are having so that they are authentic, engaging, provide them the opportunity to practice complex and important skills, and to really prepare them for the world they will step into. We do this through the deep infusion of project and problem-based tasks which give our kids the chance to practice Generations skills.

People have argued with me about whether or not this kind of learning is “right” for kids from underserved backgrounds. I have heard that “those” kids “need” to focus on the basics, that they aren’t ready for complex thinking or a skills-based education, that they aren’t developmentally prepared to have agency, or to act as an active participant in their own learning. That “those” kids “need” a test-prep education so they can get higher test scores and close our “achievement gap.”

“The soft bigotry of low expectations.” Perhaps no more profound words were ever put forth by President George W. Bush … or at least his speech writer.

When we relegate our underserved students (or any student, really) to a narrow, repetitive, and routines-based education that does little in the way of preparing them for their lives and futures we have lowered our expectations for them. In my book, there is no greater moral failure for us as professional educators.


I love this so much. Some kids get the opportunity to gain 21st century skills in addition to traditional content and to become ‘future ready.’ Some don’t. And we know which ones don’t. 

Equity is about much more than so-called ‘achievement gaps’ on standardized tests of low-level knowledge and procedures…

10 tech tools that will make you a super teacher!


Just kidding.

Because there are no tech tools that will make us super teachers. Pencils didn’t make us super teachers. Textbooks didn’t make us super teachers. Chalkboards and whiteboards and overhead projectors didn’t make us super teachers. VCR and LaserDisc and DVD players didn’t make us super teachers. Why should we expect computers and apps and online tools to do so?

Want to be a super teacher? Change what you do with students.

  • Do a learning audit. See how often students in your classroom spend time on lower-level thinking tasks (factual recall and procedural regurgitation) and instead create more opportunities for students to engage in tasks of greater cognitive complexity (creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, effective communication and collaboration, intercultural fluency, etc.). Find ways for students to live more often on the upper levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge wheel) than the lower ones.
  • Do an agency audit. See how often your classroom is teacher-directed versus student-directed. Find ways to enable greater student agency, voice, and choice. Create opportunities for students to have more ownership and control of what, how, when, where, who with, and why they learn.
  • Do an authenticity audit. See how often students in your classroom do isolated, siloed academic work. Ask students how often they struggle to find meaning and relevance in what you ask them to do. Create more opportunities for students to engage with and contribute to relevant local, national, and international interdisciplinary communities. Foster environments in which students can do more authentic, applied, real world work in context. Help students become more connected so that they can begin to create active networks with individuals and organizations for mutual benefit.

There isn’t – and never will be – a set of tech tools that will make us super teachers. We need to stop looking for them and look inward instead.

P.S. Want to be a super teacher? We have a (re)design protocol for you.

Image credit: Superman, Dayna

Good luck with that

The benefits of active learning

Science summer camp 2011

In an article lamenting the reduction in kindergarten of teacher autonomy and child-directed activities, Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss quoted early childhood development expert Nancy Carlsson-Paige:

We have decades of research in child development and neuroscience that tell us that young children learn actively – they have to move, use their senses, get their hands on things, interact with other kids and teachers, create, invent. But in this twisted time, young children starting public pre-K at the age of 4 are expected to learn through “rigorous instruction.”

Strauss noted in her article that researcher R. Clarke Fowler found that 

about half the teachers who responded said their [Massachusetts] districts had adopted scripted programs in math and writing – and 60 percent in phonics and spelling – which reduce a teacher’s autonomy in instruction. Seventy-four percent of teachers from high-SES districts and 64 percent from low-SES districts reported their schools had cut the amount of time scheduled for child-directed activities in recent years. 

Given what we know about teacher retention and/or the cognitive development of young children, this is incredibly dismaying (and not limited to Massachusetts). It also seems to be a harsh indictment of school leaders’ inability to enact research-based (or even common sense) best practices.

Of course the benefits of active learning are apparent beyond the kindergarten sector. For instance, the Hewlett Foundation and the American Institutes for Research have been studying ‘deeper learning schools’ in project- and inquiry-based learning networks such as High Tech High, the New Tech Network, Big Picture Learning, and the EL Schools. That research indicates that students in these schools generally have higher scores on both traditional state tests and international assessments. They also tend to report greater collaboration skills, greater feelings of belongingness, higher levels of academic engagement, greater motivation to learn, and higher levels of self-efficacy. They also are more likely to graduate high school on time, are more likely to enroll in 4-year colleges and universities (particularly true for 9th grade low achievers), and persist and graduate from college at higher rates. In other words, compared to more traditional schools, these schools ROCK IT on many of the outcomes that we say that we are trying to achieve for our students. Plus there’s a ton of research confirming the power of project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, student agency, and so on.

Unsurprisingly, these findings hold true at the university level as well. For example, when MIT changed its freshman physics class from a model of hundreds of students listening passively to lectures in an auditorium to a model of smaller, interactive classes that emphasized hands-on, collaborative learning, it found that attendance increased and that the failure rate dropped more than 50 percent. Research has shown that “most students learn fundamental concepts more successfully, and are better able to apply them, through interactive, collaborative, student-centered learning.” Similarly, the 10 or so universities participating in the Student Engagement in Mathematics through an Institutional Network for Active Learning (SEMINAL) project have begun to initiate active learning methods and collaborative problem-solving into their math courses. They are seeing increases in average test scores, decreases in students earning less than a C, and numerous other benefits. These postsecondary examples confirm research by the National Academy of Sciences that students in active learning environments are “33 percent less likely to fail in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses.”

It’s pretty clear that active learning techniques seem to have multiple payoffs compared to more traditional instructional methods. The question isn’t whether active learning techniques work. The question is why we’re not doing more of them given the rich research supporting their effectiveness.

Image credit: 2011 Science Summer Camp 138, thewomensmuseum

The real reason we ban cell phones

Marc Prensky said:

Let’s admit that the real reason we ban cell phones is that, given the opportunity to use them, students would “vote with their attention,” just as adults “vote with their feet” by leaving the room when a presentation is not compelling. Why shouldn’t our students have the same option with their education when educators fail to deliver compelling content?

via Listen to the Natives

Not sure I buy into the idea that educators should be ‘delivering content,’ no matter how compelling! But I like the quote. Anyone else besides me want to admit that if you had mobile phones and social media when you were a kid, you would have tried to escape your boring classrooms too?

We can mandate their attendance but it’s nearly impossible to mandate their attention.

Why are we teaching the stuff we’re teaching?

Will Richardson said:

More than, what, 90% of what we currently teach and talk about … is quickly forgotten once the next topic in the pacing guide comes up. Climate change, literacy, fake news, #metoo, what it means to be a citizen in a democracy, racism, income gaps, privacy, future jobs, AI, cryptocurrency… We can make that list of things that really matter today (or probably will matter in the future) a mile long.

And after we do, we have to own up to the fact that, by and large, even though we know that’s the stuff of modern life, we in schools say to kids “Good luck with all of that. Hope you figure it all out. We can’t really deal with that stuff because we have to teach you Geometry, which, btw, we know most of you will NEVER use, but hey, it’s in the curriculum and we’ve been teaching it forever.”

This is one of the many existential questions we need to be grappling with: Why are we teaching the stuff we’re teaching?

via the Change.School community

New Year Leadership Challenge 2: Curiosity

Question Mark Cookies

[Instead of just challenge-based learning, how about challenge-based leadership?]

Sir Ken Robinson said in Creative Schools:

Human achievement in every field is driven by the desire to explore, to test and prod, to see what happens, to question how things work, and to wonder why and ask, what if?

Young children have a ready appetite to explore whatever draws their interest. When their curiosity is engaged, they will learn for themselves, from each other, and from any source they can lay their hands on. Knowing how to nurture and guide students’ curiosity is the gift of all great teachers. They do that by encouraging students to investigate and inquire for themselves, by posing questions rather than only giving answers, and by challenging them to push their thinking deeper by looking further. (p. 135)

Others have noted the power of students’ asking their own questions – not just answering those of others – and using those inquiries to drive meaningful learning:

When students know how to ask their own questions, they take greater ownership of their learning, deepen comprehension, and make new connections and discoveries on their own. However, this skill is rarely, if ever, deliberately taught to students from kindergarten through high school. Typically, questions are seen as the province of teachers, who spend years figuring out how to craft questions and fine-tune them to stimulate students’ curiosity or engage them more effectively. We have found that teaching students to ask their own questions can accomplish these same goals while teaching a critical lifelong skill. (Rothstein, D., & Santana, L. (2011). Harvard Education Letter, 27(5))

Unfortunately, as Postman and Weingartner noted long ago in Teaching as a Subversive Activity:

What students do in the classroom is what they learn (as Dewey would say) . . . Now, what is it that students do in the classroom? Well, mostly, they sit and listen to the teacher. . . . Mostly, they are required to remember. . . . It is practically unheard of for students to play any role in determining what problems are worth studying or what procedures of inquiry ought to be used. . . . Here is the point: Once you have learned how to ask questions – relevant and appropriate and substantial questions – you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know . . . [However,] what students are restricted to (solely and even vengefully) is the process of memorizing . . . somebody else’s answers to somebody else’s questions. It is staggering to consider the implications of this fact. The most important intellectual ability man has yet developed – the art and science of asking questions – is not taught in school! Moreover, it is not “taught” in the most devastating way possible: by arranging the environment so that significant question asking is not valued. It is doubtful if you can think of many schools that include question-asking, or methods of inquiry, as part of their curriculum. 

New Year Leadership Challenge 2: Curiosity

What could you do as a school leader to hack at some new possibilities for curiosity- and inquiry-driven student learning…

  • in the next two weeks?
  • in a one- or two-month spring pilot?
  • in full-force implementation next school year?

[HINT: think some students, not all; some teachers, not all; some blocks of time, not all; some locations, not all; etc.]

New Year Leadership Challenge 1: Same-age grouping

Bluegrass Stockyards

[Instead of just challenge-based learning, how about challenge-based leadership?]

Sir Ken Robinson said in Creative Schools:

The principle of linearity works well for manufacturing; it doesn’t for people. Educating children by age group assumes that the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture. In practice, different students learn at different rates in different disciplines. A child with natural ability in one area may struggle in another. One may be equal to older children in some activities and behind younger ones in others. We don’t apply this batching principle outside of schools. We don’t keep all the ten-year-olds away from the nine-year-olds, in separate facilities. This form of segregation mainly happens in schools. (p. 37)

New Year Leadership Challenge 1: Same-age grouping

What could you do as a school leader to hack at the deficiencies of same-age grouping…

  • in the next two weeks?
  • in a one- or two-month spring pilot?
  • in full-force implementation next school year?

[HINT: think some students, not all; some teachers, not all; some blocks of time, not all; some locations, not all; etc.]

Image credit: Bluegrass Stockyards gates, pens, and corrals in black and white; Anthony