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. []
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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. []
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“Don’t Use the iPad Just to Use the iPad”

Tonight, we held our first in a series of informal meet ups intended to help build collegiality and shared expertise around being a 1:1 school district. Michelle named these events iPad Geekouts, or, for short, iGO.

During tonight’s event, I was responsible for facilitating some sharing and conversation around shifts and issues relating to technology and classroom management. In the group who came to the session was a seventh grader who is working on a design project intended to help the district think about our technology planning and implementation process from a student perspective1.
To close the session, I asked her to share some advice to the group about what she wished her teachers either would or wouldn’t do when it comes to technology in the classroom.
She thought for just a second before she said, and I’m quoting from memory:

Don’t use the iPad just to use the iPad. Have a purpose behind it. Have us use the technology to be interactive. Or to do something we couldn’t do without it. But not just because you want to say we used the iPads.

That’s pretty much the best advice ever. Our students can tell when we are faking it, so let’s make sure we’re not faking it.

How are you working to make sure that you’re using the right tools for the right jobs in your teaching and learning?

  1. I love that our CIO has enlisted a student group to provide intentional feedback on our process and implementation. []
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On Hope

Maybe it’s the cold, or this time of year, as they days grow darker and the workload grows heavier.  Maybe it’s the number of plates I have spinning right now, no more than ever, but no fewer than ever, either.  Or maybe it’s the last couple of weeks, some unexpected home repair, appliance trouble, and extended family illness.

Whatever it is, I’m certainly feeing something a little bit not quite right.  A little bit funky.  I’m off my game.

As the 1:1 I’m working on implementing turns from novel to habit for several schools and staff in my school district, I think many of them, and certainly I am, beginning to feel less ecstatic and more resigned to the grind of the day to day.

And certainly some folks have begun to wonder about the bad and possibly risky pieces of our plan to allow for more access to technology and the Internet to students as everyday habits in teaching and learning.  I do hear some people who are certain that things and networks will be used for evil rather than good.  “Let’s lock stuff down,” they say, “because students with too much ability and opportunity are bound to go astray.”

And I hear them. And I don’t want to promote the worst of what could happen.

Surely, when I’m off my game like this, when I’m second and triple guessing pretty much everything that I and others are up to, I could find it easy to be lured into believing that the worst of us is all there is, that we should be locking things up and shutting folks down. That it’d be best for everybody to find a lockstep path of compliance for everyone and always.

Moments like these, I could sure use a pep talk from someone. Might as well be me.

Here goes.

So what of all the talk of what might happen, of mistakes that could be made, of errors and missteps and failures imagined?  It might be, just might be, that when we give folks opportunity to do well, to dream big, to step forward and offer something big, bigger than we knew we could, to dream hard for something better and more beautiful than we knew we could be, well, maybe we can.

We’re all struggling the best we can to do right by children, and the conflict sometimes is not because we don’t all want to succeed, but it’s because we’re afraid we might.  And when we stumble, it’s not because we don’t mean well, but because we get stuck on the way to greatness.  Distracted, even.  Maybe it’s the cold, or this time of year.

But we can do hard things.  Of course we can do hard things.  Look at how far we’ve come.

That’s what I’ll bet on. On hope. The hope that we can be better. Let’s do good. Let’s bet on someone being great.

And let’s let that someone be us.

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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? []
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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. []
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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.

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A Little Bit of Modeling. A Whole Lot of Love.

I taught a class tonight and made it home just in time for bedtime.  I’d been looking forward to stories – and expected my daughters to be on their way up to bed.  But what I found instead was that Ani was already in bed and tucked in.  She wasn’t feeling super well and had retired early.  

Without packing her lunch.  Which meant it was going to be my job.  

But I found out that the lunch wasn’t made because I caught Teagan, her younger sister, already in the process of packing two lunches.  Without any prompting or complaining, she was helping out.  Just to be nice.

That, though, wasn’t what floored me.  I watched Teagan grab a Sharpie and begin to mark up the sandwich bag she had just filled full of sliced peppers, a staple vegetable in our school lunches.  Immediately, I told her that she needed to show her mother what she had done.  

She did this1:

Teagan Loves Ani

 

I can’t tell you how proud I was.  But I can tell you that I never told her, explicitly, that the way you help someone feel better is to write them a note.  That was something we modeled for her by slipping notes her way from time to time.  

You can’t teach love, so much, by way of demanding it or requiring it or lecturing on its finer points.  You’ve got to model it.  You’ve got to live it, or at least try to, and let the lesson come through a little bit on its own, as we trust that our children, or students, or colleagues, pay attention.  

Tonight’s scribbled notes2 were a fine reminder that, even when an example isn’t perfect, plenty of times the message still gets across.  

And I wonder where and how I could be modeling love better, myself.3  

  1. It’s maybe a bit hard to read – but it says “I love yuo (sic) Ani! (Heart) Teagan”. []
  2. She wrote a similar message on the pizza in another sandwich bag, too. []
  3. Later, Teagan chose Peter Reynolds’ The Dot as her story for the night.  Love notes to sisters and that book were the one-two punch of love for me tonight.  If you haven’t read that book, oh, you really should. []
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Talking iPads and Intention

A little while back, I had the opportunity to discuss our iPad 1:1 work with my friend and colleague, Antero Garcia.  He wrote up the conversation and posted the video.  Take a peek.

Be sure to read his comments about the conversation over at DML Central. I really hope we get the chance to continue the conversation.  Let us know what we should focus on in future videos in the comments.

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The Paradox of Possibilities

Time.  Counting down.

2014 begins with me, as I do every year, reevaluating a bit of what I’ve been up to, a bit of what I’m planning to do, and a bit of what I’d like to do.  And I’m a lucky guy, as I’ve never had a longer list of all three types of things when I sat down to start a year.

As I write my way into 2014, I’m stuck by all the things I could choose to do.  How will I spend the minutes of this year?  My brain of late is rushing with all the different things that I could be doing.  Here, in no particular order, is what flashed through my mind just now:

  • Explore the possibilities available in Longmont and the surrounding area for partnering with Spanish speakers to offer additional family-focused technical assistance in our new 1:1 initiative.
  • Wondering about and thinking through how our 1:1 initiative is also a family digital literacy initiative, to some degree, and wondering about how to support student learning through the lens of family learning1
  • Declutter and rethink my home office.
  • Explore the possibilities of moving from physical book collections in our secondary schools and building digital libraries for students and staff to access via our iPad 1:1.
  • Date my wife more.
  • Helping schools to think through how to repurpose no longer necessary lab spaces by rethinking the use of space in those rooms.  This might be looking at the Third Teacher and similar resources to create learning commons, or collaboration spaces.  It might mean building “iPad writing labs” by purchasing some wired keyboards.  It might look like something I haven’t imagined.
  • Build robots with my children.
  • Rethinking how we do professional development in my school district as the district has decided that we should not be utilizing substitutes to free teachers up during the school day, but rather that we should fit professional learning for adults into nights, weekends, and summers.
  • Play more music.  Maybe even write and record some.
  • Redeveloping and redefining my digital and paper workflows – collections of notes, active projects, and lengthy lists of to dos – in order to improve my efficiency and focus on any and all of these tasks.
  • Finally replace those shrubs in the front yard.  Determine if they are, indeed, dead, or just resting.
  • Wondering about my long-term career goals and whether or not I’m working towards them in my current work.
  • Diving deeply into how my children interact with technology, each other, and the world.
  • Helping teachers to rethink analog habits at a time of digital change and the eventual 1:1 move.  Wondering about how to help teachers both bring along the practices that they value and abandon the practices that they do not, either analog, digital, or some combination thereof.
  • Train for longer races as a runner who’s certainly 10K capable, but somewhat intimidated by half-marathons.
  • Thinking about family history, family archives, and the long term digital legacies I’d like to create, manage, and leave behind.

Again, these are just a few of the many things I’m wondering about wondering about as the year begins.  And the more I think about it, this is only a small fraction of a very large list.  I know that I can’t do all of these things, or at least do them all well.  I know that I am a very lucky person, as I have the opportunity to have my thumb in all sorts of projects and wonderings and dreaming about these and other things.  But I’m also struck by, when I take the time to map some of these ideas out, the idea that sometimes, it’s easy to see all of the things I could do and get stuck by the sheer “bigness” of it all.  I can get paralyzed by all of the possibilities and avoid moving in any one direction as I know that movement one way certainly closes doors on the other ways I could’ve gone.

One of the big takeaways of my freshman year of college was the phrase “opportunity cost,” one I picked up in an economics survey class.  Wikipedia provides a clear definition:

In microeconomic theory, the opportunity cost of a choice is the value of the best alternative forgone, in a situation in which a choice needs to be made between several mutually exclusive alternatives given limited resources. Assuming the best choice is made, it is the “cost” incurred by not enjoying the benefit that would be had by taking the second best choice available.

I get stuck too often in wondering which thing to do at the cost of not getting anything done.  So If I’m making a resolution this year, and, hey, it’s never too late, or a bad time of year, for a resolution, it’s this:  I pledge to recognize that I can’t do everything I’d like to do, but I’ve got to pick some things to focus on, otherwise, I’ll never get anything accomplished. As I age, I discover that I have less and less time available, and saying no to some things is the only way to say yes to others.

Deep breath.  Let’s dig in.

  1. Is a school district responsible for students only, or do we have a larger mission to support learning of all types for all folks? []
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