Tag Archives: student agency

The best gift

Little blue gift box

The best gift that we can give our students is the gift of self-actualization. Every day, every hour, in every class and every school we should be asking ourselves, “Is this an environment in which our students are discovering and nurturing their interests, skills, and talents to become their best selves and make a positive difference in the world?”

Image credit: Little blue box, Shereen M

“I tried giving my students some agency two years ago and it didn’t work”

Basalt

A couple of months ago I keynoted a STEM conference in Syracuse, New York. I talked a lot about the power of student agency and tried to give numerous, concrete examples of student-directed project- and inquiry-based learning in practice. We discussed the idea that the global innovation economy is pushing the skill sets of creativity, communication, critical thinking, and collaborative problem-solving much deeper into the labor pool than ever before. I also shared that the research on motivation and engagement from Deci & Ryan, Hallie, and others shows quite clearly that autonomy and self-direction are fundamental human needs that we violate to the detriment of both our students and our proclaimed academic goals.

During one of our conversation periods a secondary science teacher said to me, “I tried giving my students some agency two years ago and it didn’t work.” I did my best to quash my initial reaction of dismay that students lacked more opportunities for autonomy in his classroom and instead asked some follow-up questions. He shared with me that he taught earth science, that there was a mandatory segment of the curriculum on rock identification that was a significant component of the state exam, and that every year students were less than enthused about the unit (to be charitable). Two years ago he apparently had tried to give his students some choice in terms of both how they learned the material and their final work products but apparently student disinterest in the unit topic and/or how he framed the work were enough to overcome his early attempts at giving his students some agency and it went miserably. So he shut it down, returned to a very traditional structure of presentation and examination, and now was very skeptical of claims by myself or others that giving kids some voice and choice in their learning could be productive.

I couldn’t help but feel sad for this teacher. He took a small risk and it didn’t go well so he retreated back to his age-old practices, frustrated and resentful of others who preached something different. Numerous questions and concerns flashed through my mind as we interacted, few of which could be addressed in that venue at that time.

As school leaders, we must provide much greater support to our teachers as we ask them to initiate new instructional practices and ’transform school.’ I hear repeatedly from principals and superintendents that they supposedly have given their educators permission to be risk-takers. But it is not enough for school leaders to just give encouragement or permission. Our teachers deserve specific, concrete instructional (re)design strategies and techniques; short-cycle feedback loops; ongoing conversation with teaching peers about successes and failures; and long-term, follow-up activities that ensure implementation success. We also have to create organizational systems that foster ongoing innovation cultures rather than momentary risk-taking, including educator resilience and learning from failure. And we have to continually and critically interrogate our own internal culture, climate, messaging, reward systems, and other leadership practices that reinforce the status quo and mitigate our alleged ‘permission to take risks.’ During my short conversation with this teacher, it became clear that very few of these were in place in his school, which meant that from the start he was almost certain to fail. None of that was his fault, of course; it was the fault of the system in which he was embedded and the leaders of that system.

That science teacher in New York – the one who didn’t really know how to implement what he was trying and also didn’t have enough resilience to learn from his attempt and try again – represents countless other teachers all across the country. We have well-meaning educators everywhere who want to do right by kids and who want to innovate but lack the essential supports necessary to move their practice forward in ways that we are asking of them. Combine this lack of leadership and organizational support with compulsory topics of study (rock identification!) and compulsory exams (accountability!) that often don’t intersect with students’ interests or passions and it’s no wonder that we see so little innovation in our classrooms.

Dr. Richard Elmore, Gregory R. Anrig Research Professor at Harvard University, has written extensively about the concept of reciprocal accountability. Essentially, the idea is that for every increment of performance that school leaders and policymakers demand from teachers, they have at least an equal responsibility to provide them with the capacity to meet that expectation. We violate this capacity requirement daily in our school systems, piling mandate upon expectation upon wishful thinking without ever creating the concurrent support systems. Until we leaders take seriously our obligations of reciprocal accountability and capacity-building, we’re never going to see wide scale implementation of the changes so desperately needed in our classrooms and school systems.

Image credit: Basalt, David Ellis

Is the emphasis in your school on punishment and compliance or autonomy and dignity?

Deluxe teacher grading kit

When I was in high school, we didn’t have an ‘open campus.’ We were supposed to stay at school and eat our lunches in the cafeteria. Many of us would drive off anyway, hoping that we could make it back in time for our next class. We often were late because of the distance between our school and the fast food joints. But since I ran with a crowd of ‘good kids’ who got high grades and were heading off to college, we could stroll into class late – sometimes with coffee or an ice cream cone for our teachers – and suffer no adverse consequences. At the time I was blissfully unaware of the privilege I enjoyed simply by being a white, male, middle class, high-achieving student (or that I ‘earned’ by being mostly compliant).

Fast forward thirty years… Today we see a number of ‘no excuses discipline’ schools – particularly in urban school districts – that punish students for the slightest noncompliance. Tardy to class? Shoelace untied? Not walking quietly enough? Failing to follow the taped line in the hallway? A stripe on your sock? Slouching? The wrong color undershirt? Not raising your hand with a straight elbow? Rolled-up sleeves on your school uniform? Not tracking the speaker with your eyes? ‘Willful defiance,’ however arbitrarily defined? Yelling, shaming, assignments that get ripped up, public tracking charts, demerits, detention, suspension, expulsion, and numerous other academic and disciplinary punishments await…

Critics of these schools note that the children who attend them invariably are ‘other people’s children.’ They’re not the children of the white middle class. They’re typically black, brown, and poor. And the folks who often are the strongest advocates of these kinds of schools would never, ever send their own children there. But, you know, ‘those children’ need more structure. ‘Those children’ need that kind of discipline because they don’t get it at home. Hey, don’t blame us, those parents ‘chose’ that kind of environment for their children. And so on…

But here’s the thing: educators and parents who are aghast at these ‘no excuses’ schools need to recognize that most traditional schools aren’t much better. The discipline may be slightly less draconian for most students, but the heavy emphasis on punishments and rewards remains for virtually all students. In most schools students lack significant agency, are told what to do nearly every minute of every day, rarely have meaningful choice or input into their own learning environments, and are punished by teachers and/or administrators if they don’t comply with whatever is demanded of them. Students can tell you how disrespectful, disempowering, and apathy-inducing these environments can be. It’s pretty stifling to have so little choice in what you learn. And it can be soul-killing to be 17 years old and still need permission to use the bathroom. So, yes, like for myself, the ‘good kids’ may be afforded a smidgen of leeway and autonomy that seems utterly lacking in the ’no excuses’ schools. And, yes, traditional schools – back in my day and now – may be a little less worrisome because the penalties usually are slightly less severe. But when it comes to our disciplinary practices, we need to climb down from our pedestals because the differences are mostly a matter of degree, not orientation.

My University of Colorado Denver faculty colleague, Dr. Manuel Espinoza, has been talking with us about the concept of student dignity – about the idea of affording students basic, inalienable rights of autonomy and respect. Not because they comply with our demands. Not because we bribed or forced them. Not because the economic need for self-directed workers has never been higher. But simply because our children are human beings – precious, unique individuals – who deserve to be cherished and treated as such rather than as mere objects of our desires for control and order (no matter how well-meaning our motives are). To quote Manuel, “What would it mean for schools to treat children as if they were of supreme value, of invaluable exchange?” And, no, this doesn’t mean chaos and anarchy in our schools…

Learning environments that empower students as meaningful contributors and choice-makers – that recognize and treat students as worthy of basic dignity – look very different than those that view students as unable or unwilling partners and/or problems to be managed. Which views predominate in your school system? And before you answer, ask yourself 1) what alternatives to punishment/reward disciplinary systems do you see around you, 2) how many times a day and in how many ways is a student’s basic dignity disrespected, 3) what happens when a student disagrees or doesn’t comply with a classroom or school behavior policy, and 4) who gets to make and enforce the policies in the first place.

Joziah Grimm shares his Iowa BIG experience

I’ve written about Iowa BIG before. What I love about the school is that you can’t tell the 4.0 student from the student who was struggling academically back at his ‘mothership’ high school because at Iowa BIG they’re both doing amazing work. Joziah Grimm shares his story below. Happy viewing!

Technology questions to ask students during advisory period

Question mark cookies

Here are some questions that you could discuss with students during a 20- to 25-minute advisory period. These might be particularly apt for middle and high schoolers. If each advisory took notes and then you compiled the responses at the school level, I bet that you would learn some interesting things about the youth that you serve and spark some useful conversations with your teachers and administrators.

  1. What are some interesting or surprising ways in which you use technology at home to connect, share, and/or learn? (examples might include making videos on x topic, participating in a learner community around y topic, posting stop motion films, hacking their Minecraft server code, setting up and selling items in their own online shop, sharing their original artwork or music or writing or photography, participating in community or charity or political work, highlighting their athletic or crafting skills, gaining skills in a new area of interest, or…)
  2. How is your technology use at home different than your technology use at school? Which seems more empowering to you and why?
  3. How is your technology use different than that of the adults around you?
  4. How can we close whatever gaps exist between home uses of technology and school uses of technology?

What would you add? Let me know if you do this!

7th grade genius hour at Cascade Middle School

Dave Winters sent me a very nice message today thanking me for my TEDxDesMoines talk, Extracurricular Empowerment (Getting Beyond Fear). But what was even more fun was getting to see the compilation video of his students’ genius hour projects at Cascade Middle School. This is a touching, inspiring video and is a great idea for any school that wants to capture and share the enthusiasm that can accompany student-driven learning. Happy viewing!

DaveWinters

3 killers of student creativity and ownership

Three killers of student creativity and ownership:

    1. The teacher and textbook are always right.
    2. There is a correct answer and it’s your job to find, regurgitate, and/or comply with it.
    3. If you question either #1 or #2, you get in trouble.

(these apply to behavior too, not just learning)

Project-based learning in Northwest Iowa

Many schools in Iowa are trying to find small chunks of time that allow students to engage in some inquiry- or project-based learning. These might be class-level projects, teacher-led exploratories, or student-led ‘genius hours.’ Several districts in Northwest Iowa are going beyond these smaller experiments, however. They’re carving out a couple of weeks for a ‘J Term’ in January after winter break, or a May Term at the end of the year, or even a mid-semester ‘MidMester Academy.’ These initiatives typically offer students an immersive, project-based experience of 30 to 50 hours, capped with a public exhibition / defense to the community.

SpiritLake02

Student projects are quite varied and create student learning opportunities that may not occur in schools’ typical core curricula. For example, at Spirit Lake High School, students learn about Yamazumi charts, Kaizen events, elemental spaghetti diagrams, and other lean engineering techniques with Polaris, the local snowmobile manufacturer. They gain real-world web development experience by designing a new website for their community. They explore law enforcement issues such as crime labs, use of force, drug policing, SWAT, and polygraphs with the local police department. They discover how to weld by creating a new sculpture for the community. They learn about the beauty industry and the local theatre through field trips and hands-on disciplinary work.

Down the road at Okoboji Middle School, students learn about coding, robotics, computer-aided drafting, and 3D design in their Designing for the Future and Robots: Let the Races Begin projects. They identify a business or charity, create promotional materials, organize fundraisers, and compete against other teams as part of their Pioneer Apprentice project. They make atlatls, duck boxes, and goose nesting structures – and learn how to process wild game – in their Outdoors in Iowa project. Other projects allow students to explore Native American history, investigate risk-taking through the lens of immigration, study and create American folktales, use their geography skills to survive a fictional viral outbreak, and participate in an ‘Amazing Race’ focused on the provinces and territories of Canada.

Over at Southeast Valley High School, students learn the strategies of medieval warfare and compete against each other with self-designed catapults. They study the Holocaust and its relevance to today. They examine the history of rock and roll and write their own rock anthems. They design their own video games, learn about project planning and the hospitality business, are introduced to landscape design, and go deep with Rube Goldberg machines. And in Newell-Fonda High School, students learn outdoor survival skills, create ‘life hacks,’ explore the financial and marketing aspects of running a sports franchise, and investigate the science behind real world objects through their own, local ‘How Stuff Works’ spinoff.

Where’s the technology in all of these projects? As Chris Lehmann would say, it’s ‘ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible.’ Digital learning tools are present in all of these activities, they’re necessary to accomplish the work, but they’re invisible in the sense that they’re just a means to an end, not the end itself. And that’s how they should be.

What could your students do in a 1- or 2-week immersive inquiry- or project-based learning experience?

Image and video credits: Spirit Lake High School

Real projects. Real responsibility. Real contributions.

In 2009, the Blue Valley Schools in Kansas launched their Center for Advanced Professional Studies. Unlike traditional trade or vocational schools that historically have prepared students for ‘blue collar’ jobs, the CAPS model immerses students in ‘white collar’ professional settings. Looking for ways to provide high school students with authentic professional experiences, districts in other states soon joined Blue Valley’s CAPS network, including Waukee APEX here in Iowa.

The APEX model is powerful because students do genuine interdisciplinary work within real institutions. Their hosts – and clients – are corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, and other community organizations such as hospitals and small businesses. Instead of engaging in contrived simulations in classrooms, students immediately make authentic contributions to their local communities and gain both valuable professional experience and college credit while still in high school.

Waukee APEX has several strands, thus allowing students to tap into different interests or skill sets. For example, in the Business, Technology, and Communications strand, students have developed marketing, copywriting, photography, videography, and graphic design skills by working on advertising and informational campaigns and planning special events for Des Moines businesses and government agencies. In the BioScience and Value-Added Agriculture strand, students have learned about global agriculture, life science systems, and food policy while working with the Blank Park Zoo and the World Food Prize. In the Engineering strand, students have partnered with On With Life, a nonprofit that specializes in brain damage rehabilitation, and Iowa State University to create a ‘sensory garden’ for patients and worked with Hy-Vee to redesign its corporate headquarters and store parking lots and to make its stores more energy efficient.

Students in other APEX strands are learning different workplace skills. In the Finance and Insurance strand, students have worked with industry professionals to index and analyze key metrics for ranking nursing home facilities, raised money for and marketed a school district’s slip-trip-fall risk mitigation project, and developed analytical models that help consumers know when to buy indexed or term life insurance. In the Information Management Design strand, students have set up servers, built databases, and designed apps for strength and conditioning coaches and athletic departments. And in the Exploration of Health Sciences and Medicine strand, students have designed lab protocols to mimic various types of pulmonary pathologies for Drake University pharmacy students, created a recruitment video for the Mercy College of Health Sciences surgical technology program, worked with a Veterans Affairs psychologist to design memory books that assist veterans with traumatic brain injuries, researched high school students’ understandings of the dangers of tanning, and conducted an observational analysis to help increase the task efficiency of UnityPoint Health nurse navigators.

In all of these settings, APEX students are expected to act like working professionals, not teenagers. They’re expected to take on real tasks and assume adult workplace responsibility. In the process they stretch and grow and gain new skills that can’t be learned in traditional classrooms. The CAPS model illustrates the tremendous untapped potential of our own communities.

What could your school do to tap into the expertise, mentorship, and authenticity of the professionals around you?

WaukeeAPEXDCSfallinfographic2015

Image credit: Waukee APEX student Brandon Vacco created this infographic to highlight the work that was done in Fall 2015 by students in the Communications strand.

There is genius around us – and within us

A. O. Scott said:

The incentives not to think – to be one of the many available varieties of stupid – are powerful. But there is also genius around us, and within us.

via http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/31/sunday-review/everybodys-a-critic-and-thats-how-it-should-be.html

Are we unlocking genius in our classrooms?