Allowing (And Accepting) Students’ Choices Is Hard

One of the really difficult things about giving students meaningful choices is that they will sometimes make horrible ones.  This isn’t a school problem, so much, as it is a democracy problem.  And I’ve met plenty of people who don’t feel that all adults are able to make good choices, either.

People don’t always make the choices that we want them to.  But honoring freedom and liberty means that we allow them to make bad choices.  And we don’t stop folks from making choices just because we wish they would’ve made different ones.

I was reminded of this today as I was listening to a teacher lamenting the fact that some of his students sometimes don’t complete their schoolwork.  In class or at home.  They just choose not to do the work.  It’s a struggle to figure out sometimes when to acknowledge and when to struggle with doing something about that.

There’s a school of thought in education that suggests we cannot allow a student to make the choice to not do things, to choose to fail.  This gets expressed in plenty of ways, but one of my least favorite of those is the ways that lock students into situations (lessons, projects, readings, or even devices) over which they have no meaningful control.

I don’t find myself aligned with that school of thought so much.  Real choices mean real consequences – but also they mean that we can’t undo the deal of every bad choice a student <ahem> chooses to make.

I noticed tonight that an Alfie Kohn essay I fawned over when I read it in English Journal four years ago was recently re-posted on the Answer Sheet.  The whole thing is worth your time (and related to the above), but here’s a choice bit:

The sad irony is that as children grow older and become more capable of making decisions, they’re given less opportunity to do so in schools.  In some respects, teenagers actually have less to say about their learning – and about the particulars of how they’ll spend their time in school each day — than do kindergarteners.  Thus, the average American high school is excellent preparation for adult life. . . assuming that one lives in a totalitarian society.

When parents ask, “What did you do in school today?”, kids often respond, “Nothing.”  Howard Gardner pointed out that they’re probably right, because “typically school is done to students.”[8]  This sort of enforced passivity is particularly characteristic of classrooms where students are excluded from any role in shaping the curriculum, where they’re on the receiving end of lectures and questions, assignments and assessments.  One result is a conspicuous absence of critical, creative thinking – something that (irony alert!) the most controlling teachers are likely to blame on the students themselves, who are said to be irresponsible, unmotivated, apathetic, immature, and so on.  But the fact is that kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.

Conversely, students who have almost nothing to say about what happens in class are more likely to act out, tune out, burn out, or simply drop out.  Again, it takes some courage to face the fact that these responses are related to what we’re doing, or not doing.  And the same is true of my larger point in this essay:  A lack of opportunity to make decisions may well manifest itself in a lack of interest in reading and writing.  Were that our goal, our single best strategy might be to run a traditional teacher-centered, teacher–directed classroom.

If you only let1 students make choices where the stakes are irrelevant and the options are, too, then you’re not really in the choice business, are you?

  1. This notion of permission is tricky, too, isn’t it? Are we really the folks who control whether or not choice can occur in our classrooms?  I’m not so sure about that. []
Share

When Programming Becomes Persuasion

It’s probably a month or two ago now that I was talking with my friend Ben about programming and some of the work that he’s exploring and that I’m involved in.

There’s a project in my school district, folks working to figure out how to encourage computer science as the “fourth r” alongside reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic. We are looking to see where computer science and programming live in our district habits and practices while we encourage teachers to incorporate principles of CS into their daily work.

And Ben’s all over top of projects that seek to bring programming as a skill and a habit to students from early elementary through high school.

But if you know me, you know I spend a lot of time wondering what’s new about the new stuff, and why the foundations we’ve already said we value are insufficient to incorporate the flavor du jour, whether it’s apps or programming or STEM or whatever. Most of the new, I’m certain, is covered in what we claim to value already.1

In talking with Ben, I wasn’t quite able to articulate some of my beef with programming and computer science as a new collection of knowledge that we already emphasize and value. Let me see if I can do a better job here.

Alan Turing, more than fifty years ago, made a case for how and when we’ d know that computers were thoughtful. Instead of asking “Can we tell if computers can think?” he fiddled with the question a bit. His question was something like “If a computer is talking to us, and we can’t tell it’s a computer, then that computer is clever enough to be confused with a person.” 2

If the singularity is fast approaching, and if the computers we grow closer and closer to are able to both respond to and decipher voice commands, how far away from a time and place are we when programming (coordinating and sequencing a series of steps that leads a machine to perform some work we’ve asked it to do) is really not at all functionally different from us asking someone to step into the next room and bring us a glass of water (coordinating a person to perform some work we’ve asked them to do)?

Is programming a new task, one of teaching oneself to speak an entirely alien language? Or is it an old skill – one of persuasion? How about a hybrid – language learning and linear thinking? Are we better served to distract attention from these old skills we say we value, or to find room for the new stuff in the middle of the old we already have too little time to work with?

And is programming itself a transitional skill? How long before it’s truly a persuasive task, rather than a language one?

I dunno. But I do know that an “hour of code” is a tease and not a rich, fulfilling experience. And that “covering” programming isn’t really enough.

How are you finding room for the best of the old and new in your work? And do you find programming to be a new set of stuff, or more of the valuable old?

  1. The trick is that we claim in our words and creeds more than we honor with our time. That’s not an empty critique – it’s really hard to squeeze all the important stuff in. []
  2. He and others have done much more articulate and thoughtful work on the nature of intelligence, artificial or otherwise, but go with me on the gist of the idea. []
Share

“How Many Minutes Should We Spend on the iPad?”

There are some questions that students and teachers ask that we really need to stop asking.  No, that’s not quite right – we need to start asking them differently.

When I was in the classroom, my students always, in the course of receiving an assignment from me, would ask “How long does this need to be?”  I understood the question, but my response was always “As long as it needs to be.”  We’d then review the criteria of the assignment, and I’d ask the question back: “How long do you think this needs to be?” I’d ask.  And learning would ensue.

As we are rolling along with our iPad 1:1 in the Learning Technology Plan, there’s a new question that I hear from parents and administrators that is worthy of a similar response.  The question’s in the title, but here it is again:

“How many minutes should we spend on the iPad?”

Each stakeholder group tacks a contextual reference on the end of the question.  For teachers, it’s “each day in class?”  For administrators, it’s phrased more like “How many minutes a day should I expect the teachers to use or direct their students to use the iPads?”  For parents, the question morphs into a question about health and wellbeing and general screen time. But whatever way a group is asking, the answer is very similar, I find, to the pushback I gave students who asked about assignment length.

The answer is, of course, a definitive “It depends.  How long do you think they/you should spend on the iPad?”  Sometimes, it’s like this: “Well, that depends on what you’re wanting to actually do.”

If your goal is to replace a physical task with a digital task, then it should be about the same as the old task.  Or faster because, you know, digital.  If your goal is to have students make something awesome, say a movie or a text or an info graphic or a piece of code, well, then the answer is that they should take as long as it takes to make something good.

But the answer should almost never be “thirty minutes three times a week,” or anything like that. We don’t argue for specific amounts of time for pencils or pens or little pocket notebooks. Let’s stop doing so for the machines.

Computers aren’t Bowflexes. And shouldn’t ever be.

Share

Keyboards? Who Needs Keyboards?

For quite a while now, I’ve been concerned that not enough writing is going on in our classrooms1. It seems as though we really want our students to write, but we never seem to give them time or models of writing.

Now that devices are going into our classrooms, I regularly see concerns raised that without keyboards on those devices, our students will never be able to write either fast enough, or correctly, or in the same way that they’ll be expected to in an assessment. So they never write.

Might it be that we are stuck on the notion that writing happens when keys are touched and that the only way words go into computers is via keyboards?

What did we do before keyboards, and is it possible for the first time we are in a world where we can think about what will do after them?

It might be a little premature to think about a post-keyboard world, but I sure think we’re getting close.2

  1. That’s not just me – the National Commission on Writing wanted time spent on writing in classrooms to double.  I suspect that didn’t happen. []
  2. How, where, and when are you working with dictation and input tools that aren’t keyboards? []
Share

If You Need a Plan B, Maybe Just Go With That Instead

I dig technology when it’s used well and thoughtfully and purposefully.  Heck, sometimes I just dig shiny things.  But I have to say that what I like and what’s worth spending time on and with in a classroom are two very different circles in the Venn diagram of my life.

I often hear that teachers using technology in their classrooms should have a Plan B or a backup lesson for if (and many would say when) a technology component of a lesson fails. The latest place I saw this was in Andrew’s piece over at Edutopia1:

Beyond ensuring that your students are actively learning or creating to meet certain goals or objectives, the key with technology is making sure that your technology use is organized, and that you’re ready to use it. And, as we all know too well, technology will sometimes present a minor glitch. That’s why it’s always important to have Plan B ready to go, possibly an analog version of your scheduled activity, in order to keep the pace of the class and keep the lesson on task. So that’s one of the first steps in successfully integrating technology into your classroom: have a backup plan ready. Without a plan to seamlessly transition from a digitally-infused lesson to an analog lesson, your class will surely descend into chaos.

I certainly think that teachers should always balance careful planning with the ability to move when the circumstances change.  If students already understand the material you’ve prepared and paced and planned around, you’d certainly change up the instruction.  A fire drill happens, changes get made.  Every once in a while, the rock solid wireless in your school may well stutter2  Occasionally, the website you’re sending folks to will get overloaded, or some other thing will happen.  I get that.

But the idea that I should always have a second plan ready to go if the technology fails says, to me at least, that the technology isn’t ready for my classroom, and probably shouldn’t be in my Plan A.

If Plan B’s plenty good, then why bother with the technology in the first place?  And if the technology isn’t so reliable, then let’s not rely on it.

Focus on the purpose of your activity in Plan A before you worry about anything else, technology included.  If you know the purposeful way you want to spend students’ time, you can make a Plan B, C or any other iteration on the fly without too much trouble.

Said another way – experimenting is fine for plenty of things, but if something just HAS to work, and is likely not to, don’t invest time and effort into giving it a whirl with a class full of students.  Their time, as well as yours, is better spent on other stuff.

 

  1. And I don’t mean to pick on him here.  This is just the latest place I saw the “Plan B” argument.  He’s been writing some really useful stuff lately.  Earlier in the piece quoted below, he gave a great answer for what to do when someone asks you if they should move from a thing that’s working really well to a new thing that everybody’s talking about. []
  2. Like, say, in March, when everyone that has a screen seems to be streaming a college basketball game.  Or today, when a large software company launches a major software update. []
Share

Don’t Talk Restrictions. Let’s Talk About Distraction.

Earlier this week, I was in conversation with an administrator in the district where I work.  She was asking some really good questions around some of the cultural issues she’s been seeing in her middle school which, like all of our middle schools, has just gone 1:1 iPad. At her school, she observed, many of the problems that have emerged as “iPad problems” are ultimately larger issues about behavior.  One stuck with me.

Lunch, it seems, is taking too long at the school.  A parent, too, had complained that their child hadn’t had an opportunity to eat at all one day.  The administrator has been investigating to see what’s going on.

Turns out a couple of things.  For one, some students are grabbing their lunches, taking trays to table, and then pushing food aside to focus on whatever they had on their iPad screen.  She didn’t elaborate, but I guess that sometimes that’s a game, other times a book or piece of reading.  But the iPad’s getting in the way of the meal, in a sense.

Another thing that’s happening is that some folks in the lunch lines are moving slowly, faces down on screens, and perhaps not paying attention to the questions from the staff serving food.  It takes longer to get through the lunch line, so lunch takes longer.1

She asked a colleague and I what she could do about that.  What, she wondered, might the consequences for this be?  How could we fix it?

I pushed a bit.  Because I don’t think distraction is necessarily a middle school problem.  Or an iPad problem.  Distraction, I think, is a culture problem.  Everybody’s distracted lately.  And there’s plenty of shiny, important stuff to be distracted by.  So possibly, instead of needing to develop consequences for behaviors resulting from distraction, her school needs to think about how to collectively discuss what to do about attention and a lack thereof.  She agreed.  I’m looking forward to seeing how she tackles the conversation.

Other middle schools in our system have decided that lunchtime isn’t device time, because the staff there wanted to value the role of face to face talk around a table with friends.  And recess.  Running around is pretty important sometimes, too.  Our district doesn’t have one answer for places like these, because school culture decisions should be made, appropriately, at the school level.

It’s not just middle schoolers who have problems managing their devices and attentions.  I’ve worked with, for, and in meetings with folks who aren’t there with us, but are somewhere else, checking email and other things.  In my home and work, sometimes, I’m present but absent, too.2

Howard Rheingold has been arguing for a while now that attention might be one of our most precious nonrenewable resources.  And he’s developed some good tools for helping folks to think through attention.  Focus will become more important as we continue to have more and more opportunities to learn about/from/through/with more and more things.  Our students, and the rest of us, need to be able to focus on the right stuff at the right time.3

Rather than label behaviors as “bad,” and attempting to correct them through punitive measures, shouldn’t we instead engage the cultures and deeper issues that these behaviors manifest?

I wonder how you’re helping to create conversation and attention to culture building in your schools and classrooms, and how we can all do a better job of managing our attention.

  1. This isn’t just an issue at her school.  I saw this post a little while back and was reminded of it.  Our devices and connections are sometimes getting in the way of, well, pretty much everything else. []
  2. A colleague this morning told me another story about a student who was waiting for class to begin at a different school.  The teacher hadn’t yet arrived and the student took a moment, while waiting in the hallway, to play a game.  A passing teacher, see the violation of the “Don’t use your iPad in the hallway” rule, confiscated the student’s iPad.  I wasn’t impressed with that response.  If that teacher has Candy Crush or Words with Friends on his or her phone, and has ever launched it between 8 and 5, well, I guess that a bit hypocritical. []
  3. And to be able to decide what counts as “the right stuff.” Teachers shouldn’t always be the people deciding what’s right for their students. []
Share

Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom

Screen Shot 2014 03 15 at 5 40 11 PMRecently, a project I spent some time on last spring and summer came to life. Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom is now available for free download as a PDF or a 99 cent eBook via the Amazon Kindle store.  I’m biased, but I think you should take a peek.

The goal of the project was to put a face of specific examples from real classrooms on the Connected Learning principles.  Again, I’m biased, but I think if you read the text, and follow the links to the projects from Digital Is we focused on, I think you’ll get a sense that real, live teachers and students are engaging in some very dynamic work in classrooms right now.  They’re not waiting for someone to show the way.  I was particularly pleased to see so many examples of “teacher” and “student” shown in the text.  We all take turns with both of these roles.  That’s important to remember.  Gail, Mike, Adam, and Jenny, the teachers who wrote the examples I showcase in the chapter I worked on, were all my teachers on this project and I’m grateful for their contributions to my learning and this text. You will be, too.  So take a look already.

But other teachers, as well as plenty of non-teachers who make big pronouncements about schools and schooling, would benefit, too, from a glimpse of the work we reference. So share this with them, would you?

Last week, several of the other project editors visited for a webinar at Educator Innovator. That webinar is below.  Give it a listen.

Share

Turn It Off, or Turn It Up?

My school district has been adding some infrastructure to a facility for support offices recently, and our network team noticed some serious spikes in WiFi use after hours at the sites.  A few years ago, we implemented a very easy to use public network for any guest or personal machine in our schools to be able to connect with minimal inconvenience.  Basically, we have Starbucks-style free WiFi running at all of our sites.  That’s a good thing – as public schools are community institutions, funded and supported by the community.  That support should go both ways.  And yet – it’s a rocky road.

This facility, surrounded by homes and broadcasting a strong WiFi signal, was getting hammered by private residences in the area.  Serious use.  Non-staff use on the public network side.

So the decision was made, because of concern about the network and the high traffic, to shut down that site’s access points after business hours.  

One network technician, leaving the site, was asked by a nearby resident “Why did you turn off my wireless?”

What an interesting question, and it got me thinking.  What is the role of public infrastructure when it comes to personal use beyond the scope of our educational mission?  

I see both sides of this one – a network with no available bandwidth for students and staff to conduct their work just won’t do – and the primary mission of an educational entity is to educate the folks within the entity.  

But I wonder, too, about the larger role of a public school district in terms of its educational mission to the community beyond the classroom.  How do we create opportunities for learning for the folks served indirectly by our primary efforts?  Is a school’s WiFi, funded by the community through tax and use fees, “mine,” or “theirs,” or, maybe “ours?”

As the lines blur further between personal and professional and in-school and out-of-school, I think this is an important question.  I wonder how you’re answering that in your institutions, districts, and classrooms.  If you’ve got a great answer, I’d love to hear it in the comments.

Share

Digging Out My Sash

I took a quick peek at the Mozilla Open Badges project a little while back, and liked what I saw.

It’s an attempt to create an open infrastructure for badges around the Web. I like the technical pieces that allow anyone to offer any badge to anyone else in a consistent way. It makes sense to build tools that work for everybody, and that are open. I like that.

And I thought I was something I’d want to explore later, as I’m always looking for ways to help make the professional development I’m doing to make sense to other people. Maybe, I thought, a badge could help1. I put that idea on a side burner.

Then yesterday happened, and I’m going to have to pay a great deal of attention to the project. In a hurry.

That’s because this year’s Digital Media & Learning Competition is all about the badges.

It was fascinating to listen to the announcement2 and to follow along as the tweets came rolling in. It was, and is, also fascinating to consider the possibilities opened up through the use of badges to build portfolios of experiences and skillsets, to show the world what students, of all ages, can learn and do.

Except. Hang on a second.

I’m writing this post when I should be working on my thesis. The thesis is the last thing I’ve got to do in order to earn my badge Master’s degree in English Education. But it seems like there’s an awful lot of important questions wrapped inside assumptions in DML’s competition announcement. Felt right to at least try to get them down.

The Twitter stream of commentary, a piece of which was captured earlier by Audrey, was chock full o’ questions and concerns. Alex and plenty of other folks have all written thoughtfully about the announcement. It was clear to me, as I watched the announcement follow up panel, that the group, as a whole, didn’t have a consistent idea about what badges were/are/for/might do. I heard each of these possibilities:

Badges as credentialing

Badges, I heard, might be used as a way of denoting that someone has a particular skillset in a field in which there might not be a current credentialling method. Makes sense, and is the most straight forward use of a badge. Think Boy Scouts. Girl Scouts. Medal of Honor.

Badges as awarding credit

This one seems mostly similar to the previous function of credentialling, but it’s not. Quite. Earning a badge that counts as credit would require that a credit-granting institution3 would accept the badge in lieu of another requirement. Put enough badges together, and you get a really advanced badge. Or a diploma. Or a degree. So, not only can you do something in the eyes of an institution, but will another institution believe them and let you take a pass on their test of competency?

Badges as a way of honoring non-school learning

I’ve written before about how I find some of the most interesting learning taking place on the edge of school and home, in semi-school spaces. After school clubs. Fringe projects. And I want that learning to “count,” in the sense that I don’t think that teachers should have to fight so hard for those types of learning experiences. But I wonder if the best way to honor that learning is to make sure it stays out of school. If, as I heard a panelist say during the announcement, school is so ineffective and terrible at learning, then shouldn’t we try to fix school? Might we want to move some of the good semi-school learning into the classroom?4

If badges are an attempt to rebuild school, well, that might be a fascinating idea. Or a terrible one.

Badges as motivation

Students will be more inclined to go after a particular type of learning, I heard, if there were a motivator to push or pull the student along.5 That’s a dangerous reason to even consider a badge, I think, as I know enough about motivation to know that, as soon as the badges go away, the learning stops. Not good. Uh uh. Don’t pursue this one.

Badges as assessment

Actually, the badges wouldn’t be the assessments – just proof of their successful completion. And that’s where this starts to get tricky for me. For one thing, I don’t think enough folks understand that a badge involves assessment of one sort or another. And it’s the assessments and experiences that we want to fiddle with in school.

Badges as curriculum design

If badges can count as far as credit in traditional schools and universities, then badge program designers are now curriculum designers. What I didn’t hear at the announcement, but hope to hear about soon, is how folks might think about the Common Core SS, the current consortia developing the next generation of school assessments, and their thinking about badges.

Those were the purposes I heard in the time I was listening. And that’s complex stuff.

Other folks, I’m sure, who are smarter and more articulate than I am, will soon start talking about this work and what it means for power relationships between traditional schooling and other institutions.6 But what I’m not hearing people talk about, or suggest that they understand, is what it is that it means to “count.” I mean count in two senses of the word – both the mathematical meaning of seeing how many of something that you have, but also the way a student asks when they’re handed an assignment – will this count? Does it matter?

And, at school, we’ve done a bad thing by tying “counting” or “mattering” to “grading.”

If all badges do is fiddle with the object that students are taught to worship, rather than working to eliminate idol worship altogether, then there’s not much sense in exploring them.

If badges transform all grades that matter into “pass/fail” situations, well, that might be something. To match what students can do with their academic credentials as measured by actual performance tasks would be a good thing7.

But, if the DML competition encourages thinking and writing and exploration and action around ideas like the idea that any accountability system, or accreditation system, is ultimately a subjective system, made by people, however we design it, then I say, let’s rock. But let’s do so carefully.

Badges are not magical. They do not cure cancer. They are unable to stop large (or small) scale forest fires. Badges, particularly digital ones, cannot be eaten. The digital kind can’t even be burned for fuel. Badges do not make children smarter, or hard work less difficult.

But they’re certainly worth talking about, if they might lead to productive change. And, if they’re going to make a grand entrance in teaching and learning, at school and in the community, then I hope to goodness that teachers are paying attention.

  1. Give us a way to show scope and sequence, or perhaps a “brand” for our teachers in a way that would be postiive. I wasn’t sure, and still am not. []
  2. I only caught the second half, but I think that was the really fascinating bit. []
  3. school, university, etc. []
  4. Or, can that learning only happen on the fringes? If that’s the case, then I want more fringe. []
  5. Cathy explains that idea further here, in point four of a definition of badges. []
  6. As I was about to post this, I ran across this post from Alex. And while I don’t have a place to stick this quotation properly in the text, I wanted to save it and share it with you, so here it is: What I believe we must resist is mistaking real motivation and meaningful learning for increasing our value as a human commodity in the marketplace. I’m fairly sure that education doesn’t make us “better” humans. I don’t even think learning can make us “more” human (whatever that might be), though it could expand our experience in interesting ways. The one thing we have to prevent is schooling making us feelless human. []
  7. Parents and plenty of other people would have trouble, for a time, as ranking their children to other people’s children might be more difficult, but that would pass. []
Share

Connective Children. Nothing New?

This afternoon, Mary Ann and WIll were talking a bit about Kindergarten standards.  I butted in.1

And Mary Ann and I, and some others, worked our way into a conversation back and forth talking at one another chat about a post of Mary Ann’s.  You should read the post2.  As I read it, I was struck by the notion of connectedness – and the implication that it was about online.  Now, the Gee concept she references3, and I’m about to requote, does state that:

An affinity space is a place where informal learning takes place. According to James Paul Gee, affinity spaces are locations (physical or virtual) where groups of people are drawn together because they share a particular common, strong interest or are engaged in a common activity.[1] Often but not always occurring online, affinity spaces encourage the sharing knowledge or participating in a specific area, but informal learning is another outcome.

But even though these spaces don’t have to be online, I got the sense from the post that the online-ness of connected children’s experiences might be the unique thing.

And I want to push back on the assumption that connected of today is somehow significantly different than the connected of yesterday.  Just as I wonder about the importance of the Internet in the notion of connective writing, so, too, would I wonder about the necessity of the Internet for the creation of the modern connected child.

That’s not to say that it’s not a factor, that speed and access are not better than they’ve ever been4.  But I want to push against the idea that they’re new.  That wanting to know what’s going on somewhere else as quickly as possible is a trait of only the 21st Century.  That seeking an audience for one’s efforts is a notion of those of us born after 1985.  That being in conversation with someone from a different place didn’t happen prior to Skype.

Easier?  Perhaps.  Likely, even.  Faster?  Often.  But new?

I don’t think so5.  And when I say that I wonder about connectivity, or connectedness, this is what I’m talking about.  Certainly important.  I want my children, and their schools, to be about connectedness through the tools of today. But what makes them differently different than all the children that’ve come before?

But I’m not so sure that’s new6.

  1. That’s one thing Twitter’s good for – having open conversation – both so that you can model what that might look like as well as allow folks to intrude.  And, yeah.  I know I just wrote this.  And am now praising Twitter.  It’s a contradictory night. []
  2. And most of what she writes.  She’s wise. []
  3. By way of Wikipedia []
  4. Too many nots there – of course it’s faster and better than ever.  But that’s mostly been the case for the last several hundred years. []
  5. I may well be wrong.  I argue with myself about it.  Frequently. []
  6. I’m grateful for Pam Moran’s gentle suggestion that I should pause to write this up.  She was right. []
Share