Learning is Complicated

“Thinking about software as the primary way of solving problems (in any field) forces us to frame problems in terms that software is capable of addressing.”  – Paul Franz at _The Atlantic_.

Software isn’t really meant to take the place of someone who cares about you and wants to work with you to succeed.  Unless we only care enough to pretend that we care.  

You know?

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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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On Coaching and Choice

We’re reading Unmistakable Impact by Jim Knight together as a large team at work.  This is the third post in my series on that reading and reflection.

This month’s chapter is on coaching, both the role of the coach and the practices and habits an instructional coach can use to make a difference in his or her work.   As someone who’s often in a coaching role, I found the broad strokes of the chapter useful, both as reminder and as a bit of a challenge for thinking through.  

What are instructional coaches, according to Knight?  Well, they’re folks who “partner with teachers to help them incorporate research-based practices into their teaching.” Also, the “partner with teachers to help them incorporate instructional practices into their teaching.” (Kindle location 1837)

The thread of choice was woven through the chapter for me, too.  Here’re some choice1 quotes: 

If a coach and teacher come together as equal partners, the teacher must have choices.  Partners don’t do the choosing for each other.  In coaching, this means, most fundamentally, that teachers have a choice about whether or not they want to work with a coach. . . . choice does not mean that teachers can choose to not participate in professional meaning.  No professional can choose to be unprofessional. (1872)

When professionals are told what to do and when and how to do it, with no room for their individual thoughts, that is a spiritual death experience.(1900)

And this, though not directly about choice, seems particularly relevant to my thinking about coaching and the choices that coaches should make:

When coaches focus on capacity building, there are tasks they do not do.  Usually coaches do not sub when teachers are away, do administrivia, or work directly with students except in the service of the larger goal of promoting teacher growth.  Certainly, there are occasions when these general guidelines are ignored.  Just as a principal may be forced to sub if there in no other alternative, so might a coach.  However, this should occur very rarely. (1978)

A little later in the chapter, Knight points to some data that suggests that the coaches he has studied often report that they spend only between 10 and 25 percent of their time as “coaches” instead of the fill in tasks he describes above.  That’s troubling to me because either instructional coaches are making pretty terrible choices about how to spend their time, or (and I think this is much more likely) they are not in the place to choose how to spend that time to begin with.  While they should be advocates for choice for the teachers they work with, their own choices are quite limited.  

That leads me to my larger reflection on this chapter, which is that I find that the role of an instructional coach and the role of a classroom teacher are really quite similar, or should be.  The job of a teacher shouldn’t be to force change on a student, nor a coach to force change on a teacher.  It’s a partnership.  The whole endeavor of learning, as I see it, should be the development of agency in the individual.  And perhaps the problem of instructional leaders choosing to put their coaches in places of fill in is one of a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of a teacher/coach.  And that fundamental misunderstanding isn’t simply a misunderstanding in the mind of the leader – it’s a deeply cultural mess that we’re in because what we think “teaching” looks like isn’t really what good teaching looks like.

When a teacher is “teaching,”2 what is happening?  Does “teaching” mean the teacher is speaking?  I bet for most of us, that’s the first thought that pops into our heads.  But it shouldn’t be.  What about when a teacher is “listening?” Or “pausing?”  Or waiting patiently while monitoring a classroom writing assignment3?  I think much of what we consider “best practice” in teaching and what we think of when we think of a teacher “teaching” just don’t line up in our heads and hearts as they should.  

And so sometimes we make serious errors in judgment about what a teacher is or isn’t doing.  

I think about all of my friends and colleagues who are wicked nervous about new evaluations in Colorado and other places, and I understand some of their dilemma.  Whenever a principal came into my room to observe, I wanted to be doing something awesome so that they “saw me teaching.”   The problem is, no one learns much in a room when I’m doing all the talking.  The real learning happens when I turn students loose on a concept or problem or task.  But me monitoring a roomful of excited and engaged students isn’t what I wanted my principal to see – because it wasn’t “awesome teaching.”  Except that it was. 

Other teachers I know reschedule their thoughtfully planned lessons and timelines around evaluations so that the principal sees them “in action.”  That’s a problem, because the thoughtful planning and scheduling was done intentionally, for good reason.  And the change is for a crummy, “observing a thing changes it” sort of reason.  

This is a ramble, and only a little bit about coaching now, but that said, let me return to my role as an instructional coach for a second.  Sometimes, the best way I can be helpful to a teacher is to say nothing.  To do nothing.  To sit very quietly and let the words that just were spoken roll back over the speaker. Choosing to respond is a choice.  It’s often what “good teaching” looks like.  But choosing not to respond is also a choice, and should be honored more often.  

Because that’s better teaching, and better coaching, too. 

 

 

  1. Ahem. []
  2. Or a coach “coaching.” I’ll be using these terms interchangeably for the rest of this post. []
  3. Better still would be writing alongside the writing students. []
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"What Apps Should I Buy?"

It sure seems like, whenever I tell someone what it is I do, that somebody wants to tell me about the tablet they just bought. Then I’m immediately asked this question:

“What apps should I buy?”

And I guess I understand why. Once you’ve got a piece of hardware, then certainly you need to put software on it. And there are plenty of “Top 100 Apps for X” posts out there, getting passed along and around like the candy that they really, in almost all cases, are not. It’s pretty easy to think that apps are everything.

But the advice I usually give goes something like this:

I really don’t have a clue about what apps you should put on your tablet, because I don’t know why you bought it. I don’t know what it is that you want the tablet to do. So let me ask you a question back: “What is it you want to get done with the thing?” Then we can have a conversation about what software to buy.

I’ve found there are two common scenarios when it comes to how people put apps on tablets. The first is the app junkie. Constantly on the lookout for the new stuff, they’ve downloaded dozens, and in many cases, hundreds of apps to their tablet devices. They might have spent time organizing them into folders or screens. And they don’t use any of those apps, but they sure do have a bunch of them. Their home screen is like the bookshelf in the house of someone who wants to impress you with his or her reading habits. Plenty of books. Few of them read.

The other common scenario I find is the one I want more people to embrace. This one involves folks who, when they realize they have a particular thing they want to get done, or a purpose in mind, approach their respective app store and search for apps that do the thing they’d like to do. They read reviews. They ask friends. And when they pull the trigger on an app or two, they poke at that app once they’ve installed it, seeking to see if it’s really the thing for them. They don’t have a ton of software, but what they have gets used.

You should be the second type of person.

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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. []
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A Year of Learning

Tonight, we kicked off the first team leader meeting of the year for the new cohort of the Digital Learning Collaborative.

The DLC, if you didn’t know, is a two-year professional development program we’re in our third year of developing.  Year one is a year for personal and professional learning.  Year two, which we’ll kickoff later this month for a different cohort, is a year of teacher inquiry into what happens for students when we use technology in the classroom.

Last night, we attempted, with our teacher team leaders, to set the culture for what it means to learn as teachers in community.  We reviewed some of our habits – making sure we have a plan for all of our monthly team meetings, how we use Google Docs to share those plans and to share notes we take when and as we meet, and making sure that we’re separating time for learning1 from time for collaboration and sharing.   And, yes, that’s messy.  Messy is okay.

But we spent the bulk of our time last night reading and thinking and talking to each other about a couple of pieces, written by Will Richardson, that explore connected and passion-based learning not just for students, but for teachers, too.

That led to some good conversation.  I heard Kelly, a first grade teacher, when she asked about how we help connect students to passions that they might not realize they have, and how we can encourage students to explore areas of themselves and the world when they might not have any knowledge about, well, much of anything.  I heard Rebekah, a high school math teacher, when she said that somewhere, students have learned that it’s cool to not like math.

I hope that folks heard me when I invoked Mr. Rogers, and his definition of teaching, the idea that what teachers do is that they love something, and they love it in front of their students.  Passion, indeed.

I heard Mollie when she said that it was important for teachers and students to follow their passions, and that, in a time of scripts and pacing, we’d do well to make sure that we’re injecting student interests and differences into our work.

I heard others, too.  It was a fine culture setting conversation.

We also talked about the power of reflective writing, and took some time to write together, as we will do during all of our meetings.  While I cannot share their writing with you just now, know that we’ll be hearing more from these teacher leaders and their teams as they begin to dig into their learning this year.

It was a fine start.

  1. Sometimes, this is training.  Other times, it’s time for reading and conversation.  There are other things this learning might look like, too.  Learning is complicated. []
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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. []
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So I’m Going To Be Teaching This Class. And Could Use Your Help.

I like new frontiers.  That’s why I’m excited to be participating in Karen’s attempt to create a School of Ed at P2P University this fall.  It should be a neat opportunity to fiddle with what it means to do PD.

I couldn’t be more excited to be facilitating a course we’re calling “Common Core & Writing: Deeper Learning for All.”  I pitched the course as “a course on writing to learn for non-English teachers” and that’s almost exactly what I’ll be teaching1.  Better yet – some of my friends from the National Writing Project will be helping me to develop the course.

The six week course, which will begin mid-October, is going to begin with a deep look at the Common Core State Standards, and particularly the section of the standards that addresses the role of writing across the curriculum.2 Then,’ we’ll tackle writing in the classroom from two distinct lenses:

1.  Writing to Learn – the habits and bits of writing that you do to make sense of whatever it is that you’re learning and exploring.

2. Writing for the Disciplines – the writing that’s specific to content areas other than language arts.  How do historians write for each other?  Scientists?  Mathematicians?  And why does that matter? How can we help our students to write in these ways?

As a final project, participants in the course will use this protocol from the NWP to help them develop some writing assignments for their own classrooms that should result in some thoughtful writing for and with students.   We should all get some good ideas.

As I’m developing the collection of resources, I know that NWP’s Digital Is will be an important text for the group.  And I’m also reminded of Peter Elbow and Donald Murray and their essential contributions to writing as process and writing as something that teachers just, you know, do.

But I could use your help.

Here’s a Google Doc where I’m beginning to draft a collection of readings and resources for the folks3 who I hope will take this course.

I’d sure be grateful if you’d offer your favorites and help keep me honest by pointing participants to actual examples of the two areas I outlined above.

And of course, this entire experience is, for me, first draft thinking.  I’d be open to your ideas, suggestions, and feedback as I’m working to construct an experience that’s ultimately useful to teachers and results in increased use of writing in their practice.

Thanks in advance.  And perhaps I’ll see you in class?  Sign up opens soon.

  1. Er.  Facilitating.  Teaching.  Guiding.  Whatever.  The participants and I will experience it together.  And we’ll all take turns. []
  2. Yes, technically, this is a rather large section.  Pretty much the entire language arts section.  But we’ll hone in on the specifics of writing for the disciplines other than language arts. []
  3. Remember – a targeted audience of non-language arts teachers. []
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#ISTE11: On Longitudinal Web Presences for Writing, Learning, Being

I had the opportunity to hear Paul Allison, one of my favorite teachers, talk at length about his work with Youth Voices yesterday. Usually, Paul’s asking about others’ work, or showcasing the work he’s doing – but not talking about the thinking behind the work. And I like it when he does so. I hope he’d do that more.

He said that the pedagogical and philosophical1 recipe for Youth Voices was something like:

  • James Beane and his work on breaking down the curriculum barriers and asking good questions
  • plus Paulo Friere’s thinking on asking learners to look for generative themes
  • with a dash of Peter Elbow who reminds us of the power of making things through free writing.

I need to return to all three of those folks and dig back in to some of their thinking.

But he said something, off the cuff, that I thought was really important. He mentioned that he’d been in the Youth Voices work for eight years2, and that students who started in tenth grade were able, in eleventh and twelfth, to return to the space and pick up where they left off. They didn’t have to learn a new space, and their work from previous years was right there.

That’s powerful and important and worth unpacking a little bit. Teachers who are using interesting technology with their students find themselves too often in the setup and infrastructure business – and that’s fine sometimes. But not every time or every lesson or every year.

One of the reasons I went to work for an IT department was because I wanted to help make spaces that had a life beyond one classroom. A student shouldn’t create one blog to suit the needs of every teacher that asks for work to occur in such spaces. Students create short term tools for what should be long term work, and they find themselves create blogs every time they start to do interesting work. The assumption becomes that the work they’re doing in these temporary spaces is throwaway work. When the unit, semester, or year ends, the space dies and the student is asked to create the next one.

That’s not how it should work.

What I love about Paul’s work, and the work of other folks who are thinking about the long game of educational spaces where work lives and breathes and mingles with other work, is that they’re building what I call3 longitudinal Web presences. Spaces where the portfolio happens as the collection grows. Places where the stuff a student made yesterday and the stuff a student makes today will be around for a student to add to tomorrow. Places that don’t die every few months or are subject to Teacher A or B’s personal web tool preference.

When Karl or Michelle or I talk about digital learning ecologies, or Paul talks about Youth Voices, I think that’s what we’re talking about. Teachers shouldn’t have to be in the creation and infrastructure business all the time. Nor should they be helping kids to cram important work into temporary places.

If you’re a tech director or a CIO, I hope you’re thinking about how to create these spaces. I also hope you’re thinking about how to help students return to them over time and to think through what they’ve made and how it resonates, or doesn’t, as they expand their knowledge and experience. In St. Vrain, we’ve built a few tools that help with this, but we’re nowhere close to figuring it out.

We do, know, though, and have been charged by our school board, that we are stewards of the work our students produce. That’s an important word – the IT department is responsible for looking after the students’ work. We’ve got to make sure it’s well taken care of and preserved and saved until they leave our care. And that they can take it with them when they go.

That’s what a portfolio should be. That’s worth making. Thoughtfully.4 I continue to be inspired and pushed by the work of folks like Paul who are building places of learning that last on the Web.

  1. My words, not his []
  2. Eight years. How many writing spaces do you have that last six months. Learning, folks, is a marathon. []
  3. Probably incorrectly, but playing with words is fun. []
  4. Sometimes, the curbs matter and the making of the containers are essential, in no small part because the traffic on the road and the stuff in the boxes is precious and worth looking after. The road needs to last for a long, long time. []
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