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.


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. []

Come to the Grand Opening of the Discovery Center for Make/Hack/Play

I’m excited to announce that we’ll be kicking off our programming and opening the doors of the Discovery Center for Make/Hack/Play at Spark! Discovery Preschool on Saturday, September 14th, from 10am to 2 pm here in Frederick, Colorado.  If you’re in the neighborhood, you should come make something and bring your family.  Admission is free – and there’s plenty to play with.

I’d love to see you there.  And I love that this idea is becoming a real place.  Now to build the community . . .


Screen Shot 2013 09 06 at 8 14 33 AMScreen Shot 2013 09 06 at 8 14 50 AM


Oh, the Humanity

Professional learning that dehumanizes its participants carries the seeds of its own failure. When a select few do the thinking for others, when people are forced to comply with outside pressure with little or no input, when teachers asking genuine questions are labeled resistors, when leaders act without a true understanding of teachers’ day-to-day classroom experiences, those dehumanizing practices severely damage teacher morale. And when teachers feel disillusioned by the professional learning they experience, their disappointment, hurt, and unhappiness surface in the classroom and inevitably damage the very children they are there to educate and inspire. – Jim Knight, Unmistakable Impact, Kindle location 385

In the first chapter of the book that some of my colleagues and I are reading together, quoted above, Jim Knight lays out the idea that one of the core concepts for a truly great school is that we must build schools that are human, and that respect the humanity of the people serving them and served by them. A discussion question we’re talking about in our book group this week asks us to consider how we move closer to learning communities that empower teachers to embrace proven teaching methods. While I’m hesitant to take a stance, just this minute, on “proven teaching methods,” I feel like I want to advocate right now for a stance in a learning community, professional or otherwise, that focuses on the humanity of all involved.

A humane learning community takes time to explore ideas before rushing to move forward. This takes, well, time, but it’s time well spent. You can move fast, with shared purpose, when time has been taken to ensure purposeful conversation has been a part of the community building.

A humane learning community is one where questions are honored and taken at face value, where the presupposition of positive intent is absolute and intentional by all in community together.

And a humane learning community is one where learning is modeled by all in the community, especially the leadership.

These things are difficult to do, to take time to learn, or to honor questions, or to explore purpose together. Modeling learning, in my experience, seems most difficult. But they matter. And they carry messages, whether done or undone, that will impact the efficacy of the community.

I’m looking forward to being in conversation with my colleagues about this text. If you’ve read the book, I’d be curious to know what you thought of it.


Don't Make It About the (Digital) Tools When You Want It To Be About the Learning

I was sitting in a meeting today with some administrators, and we were discussing what we were looking for when we were looking for the thoughtful use of technology to support learning. What, we wondered, does the thoughtful use of digital tools for learning look like?

And that’s a good question to spend some time on. It was a good conversation.

But why do we always wonder about “digital” tools?1 What about the analog ones?

What does the thoughtful use of pens and pencils to support learning look like? How about the thoughtful use of sticky notes and index cards? What does/can/should that look like?

Seems to me the push to understand and separate digital tools from the analog ones can often confuse the real issue, the meaty question that is really the point of talking about iDevices, or tablets, or touchpads or whatever.

And perhaps exploring more familiar tools can help us get to the bottom of that in a better way.

That question is, of course, “What does learning look like?”

How do you know?

Defend your answer.

  1. Certainly, in the particular conversation I was in today, it was specifically about some new digital stuff. It made sense for us to focus on the digital. At least a little. But I’m wondering more broadly here. []

Off to NCTE

I’m sitting at the airport this morning waiting for a flight to Las Vegas for the NCTE 2012 Annual Convention. I’m eager to be in conversation and community with friends and colleagues.

And I’m also excited to find my conference schedule a little lighter than in recent trips, which means I get to do something I don’t do as often as I’d like – I get to listen. While there, I’ll be listening specifically for folks reactions to Common Core implementation, the coming assessments, and how devices are or aren’t making their way into schools and classrooms.

What else should I be listening for? To whom should as be listening? I’d be interested in your thoughts.


Centering on Essential Lenses

(Cross-posted from the Center for Make/Hack/Play, a new project we’ll be working on.  Find the Center for Make/Hack/Play on Twitter and Facebook.)

photo: alexkerhead

Lenses are powerful tools.  With the right lens on your camera, you can see things very close up, or incredibly distant.  The right lenses can help you bring light to dark places, or shelter the darkness from too much intruding light.  Turn the lens on your microscope or telescope the right way, and what was blurry becomes much easier to see.

Lenses are good for focusing on what matters in a given situation, challenge, or opportunity.  But you need several in your camera bag if you want to see the most of the world and capture it for yourself or others.

Beyond cameras, the metaphorical lenses or frames that we apply to our experiences can help us to better understand them, or to give us new ways of seeing what’s happening to or around us.  There are three lenses that seem essential for any learner’s toolbag, be that learner a student in a classroom, or one who frames the learning of others.  Helping to build and shape and develop these lenses is essential for lifelong learning in the 21st Century.  Or the 20th.  Or the 22nd.

How you see is shaped by how you look.  And we say folks should look with lenses like these.

1. Making

There’s a copy of Make Magazine on my desk right now as I write this, as much as talisman as anything else.  I’m not a big DIY guy around the house.  To be honest, my lawn sprinklers are in serious need of attention right now, and I am in over my head.  I pity the portion of my yard that suffers while I figure that out. It’s a slow journey for me as a suburban homeowner to adapt my environment to my needs.

But I’ve always believe that making things is essential to the craft of teaching and learning.  Students learn more and better and fuller and richer when they are making something to demonstrate their learning.  Or making something to share their learning.  Or making something to help them understand their learning.  Or . . . well, you get it, don’t you?

Learning happens when we make things.  We make sense of new situations.  We make knowledge by processing our experiences.  We make tools to help us do things we might not yet be able to do.  Making matters.

2. Hacking

Hacking too often gets a bad rap, because we’ve lost the sense of the word.  The original definition of a hack was a fiddle that improved a process or a program.  A hacker was someone who made such changes.  Hackers were revered in technology communities, because they took what was there and made it better.  The first hackers tweaked some code and made their software or hardware do something that it couldn’t do before.  Later, the term grew to include people who fiddled for nefarious purposes.

But the original meaning of hacking is worth reclaiming.  Hackers are the folks you want on your side when something’s not working like you want it to.  Hackers improve things.

Learning happens when we hack things, too, because we must understand what our situation is, and how we can fiddle with it, in order to improve it.

3. Playing

While there are many definitions of “play,” our favorite is the definition of play as the search for freedom within constraints.  When a system, be it law, or culture, or “the rules” of whatever you find yourself in, blocks something, playing with that system results in your discovery of freedom or agency.  That playing might require you to make something, or to hack something.  But good play certainly requires that you understand what and who you’re playing with, and perhaps even the nature of the game.  If you don’t like the game, perhaps you can tinker your way into a better one.

Playing with information or structures or situations can lead to powerful learning.

Centering, Then

And maybe the best sort of way to spend your time as a learner is through making, or hacking, or playing.  Or maybe all three.  And along the way, you might rediscover the parts of yourself that have gone to sleep.  Or have never been awake.  Those are the parts that you can use to make and hack and play wherever you happen to be.

These lenses can lead to agency.  And that’s worth shooting for.  That’s a life skill that’s bigger than science or geography or math or language arts.  Applying and being aware of agency to and in whatever you’re doing, agency informed by your abilities to make and hack and play, leads to you being more fully in control of your situation.

That’s powerful learning.  So enter the Center for Make/Hack/Play, an ethospace informed by and seeking to inform others of the value of making, hacking and playing.  A place where it’s all about the agency of the learner and the art and habits of active learning.

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing some ideas for applying making, hacking, and playing lenses and principles to the work that should happen in schools and classrooms and learning organizations.  We hope to offer workshops and work with schools and teachers and the community to build and sustain spaces for this kind of learning.  While some of this learning requires specialized tools and equipment and classrooms, not all of it does.  The principles of making, hacking and playing can thrive in any learning situation.  And maybe they should.

So that’s worth figuring out.  That’s worth doing.  So let’s begin.


In Search of Agency

It sure seems like a lot of things just happen to people. You know, beyond our control and all. We’re well-intentioned, and rocking along, and all of a sudden, but on a pretty regular basis, something just happens.

And we are helpless in the face of all this happening stuff. Right?

Of course not, but when it comes to teaching and learning, I have come to see that way more often than I’m comfortable with, teachers and students alike just let their schooling happen to them rather than acknowledging that they have control over what and how and even when they learn. Even in the face of mandates and political pressure. Even then.

But folks feel helpless more than I think they actually are.  Learning, or school, or whatever, seems to happen to them, rather than the other way around.  It’s supposed to be the other way around.  Folks are supposed to own their actions and habits and the way they spend their time.  And our culture too often supports passivity and compliance.

I feel like folks forget they are the agents of their experiences.  We have agency.  Power. Control.  Maybe not over everything that happens.  Certainly not all.  But over more than we realize more often than not.

So how might we work to build agency in teachers and learners?  Let me simplify that question – how can we help folks develop the ability to recognize the constraints of a situation and to begin to play with them?

As I delve more into elements of play and hacking, and even maker culture, it seems to me that there’s fertile ground there.  Play, if you recall, is the ability to move freely within constraints.  Hacking is the ability to see the system – and a problem with it – and work to improve it.  Making is creating.  It’s fiddling with the constraints of lots of different systems.  Yarn.  Blocks.  Food.  Circuits.  Classrooms.  Textbooks.  Laws.  Whatever.

Hacking and making and playing are how you figure out where the constraints are, and how you might be able to fiddle with them.  As well as what happens when you do.  These skills/habits/attitudes/frames of thinking are useful when thinking about developing agency.

That was where I got to in my wondering and thinking when it was time for Michelle and Kyle and I to think about what we’re going to work on next.  And then I got a whiteboard pen in hand.  And we did this1:

Enter hacking/making/playing. Or, more specifically, Hack/Make/Play.  It’ll be a multiple day and ongoing PD experience that we do in the district.  In conversation with other folks. If school’s but one node in the learning networks of children, well, we want to play nicely with the other nodes.  And we want to use our time with teachers to help them make things.  To help them understand how to identify building blocks.  And to help them figure out when and how to take things apart and put them back together differently.

Building on others’ successes in maker and hacking spaces, and on the idea that learning is, to some extent, playing with information, deconstructing and reconstructing it, we would like to create some professional learning experiences that would help people to begin to feel equipped, and to a more important extent, empowered, or permissioned, or whatever the word is for “it’s okay to do this”-ed in order to build those senses of agency for teachers and students and anyone involved in learning.

Right now, it’s just notes on a board.  And messy ones.  We started thinking about a week-long camp.  But that wasn’t right.  We want lots of entry points into this kind of thinking.  Lots of ways to engage and get involved.  So the “days” I spell out are probably not going to happen sequentially.  We don’t know yet.  But I do think that each of them is a kind of entry point.  Hacking the Web seems an important way of thinking.  Making stuff another.  Hacking curriculum?  Well, you get the idea.

The essential question at the bottom is, I think, the big piece – “How do I approach a system to determine where my agency lies?”  If you’re able to play, you can see the constraints.  To see them, you’ve got to know how and where to look.  Hacking, making and playing seem to be useful ways to answer that question.  Not the only ways – not everyone needs to play with Picocrickets, or build toy cars.  Heck, the knitting circles I’m familiar with in our district likely embody the ethos we’re aiming for.  Everyone needs to be making something.

Over the next several weeks, we’ll begin to flesh it out and look for the connective tissue that will hold various groups of hackers, makers, and players around our district together.  In some cases, we’ll probably start new groups.  In others, we might help existing groups to find one another.  I don’t know.  But I do know that something I said earlier in this post is worth saying again – there’s fertile ground here.  Hackers and makers and gamers are really good at learning.

You might already be farming spaces like these – so I’m asking: Where do we go next?

  1. I should not be allowed to use whiteboards without some serious remedial handwriting work. []

Visiting with a Neighbor. Sort of.

Had a short visit the other morning with monika, who’s trying something new ((Or, really, quite old, perhaps.)) just up the road from where I work and down the road from where I live.  I can’t quite sum up her work in a one sentence “this is what she’s doing” statement – but I can say that she and her students are exploring something important.  They’ve been on a journey for a few years now that’s leading them to some interesting spaces.

And I’m looking very forward to hearing from her and them on this month’s CLN Webinar next Tuesday, November 15th, at 3:30pm Mountain.  You should come, too.

On a semi-related note, I just had to share with you these words monika wrote recently in response to something I said back here a week or so ago.

i think we compromise too much be seeking proof for things.
what if we experimented more with a culture of trust.
that people are good right now.
that you are fine today…. let’s just start being/doing more of you.

Poetry there.


What Counts

On Thursday night, I was helping to introduce the concept of teacher research to a group of teachers in my school district.  And it happened.  The thing that often happens when you introduce qualitative methodology.

We read a sample teacher research study that Michelle and I are fond of.  I like the study, a short piece on a teacher wondering about the value of a pullout literacy program in her school, because it emphasizes three things I think are essential to consider, and often re-consider, when ot comes to teacher inquiry specifically and qualitative research generally:

  1. Teacher research is an opportunity to dig into the “I wonders” and the “what ifs” that come up from time to time in your classroom.  But it’s not the same as “what good teachers do every day.”  It’s more intentional and purposeful than that.  And that’s a good thing.
  2. Teacher research is contextual.  It comes from you, the researcher.  The classroom you teach in, the students you know, the wonderings you have.  That works two ways – both the questions and your answers to them are contextual.
  3. Teacher research involves “data” that doesn’t show up in a quantitive study.  Stuff that doesn’t count because it can’t be counted.  Or, at least, not as easily.  And what matters, or at least what should, when it comes to measurement and paying attention is not either/or but yes and.  Qualitative and quantitative measures are friends.  Honest1 .

And it’s the third point that usually involves controversy.  Things get heated.  And that troubles me.

Folks make statements, when we start to fiddle with traditional notions of “data,”2 about their stats professors, or n values, or other things that suggest that Math Is THE Way of Knowing The Universe.

While I find lots to like in science and math, it’s not the only way to go after what’s right and good and true in the world.

Teachers, of all people, should have a good and always developing sense of this: they should know and understand what it means to measure, and how measurement affects the thing you’re measuring, and how there are ways other than percentages and standard deviations to explore vital areas of life and living and learning.

If you think that’s wrong, and that cold, hard numbers are the only way to Know Something, well, consider this –

How do you know you love your spouse?  Your best friend?  Your children?  Your parents?

Prove it.

But you only get numbers.  I’ll wait here.  Take your time.

  1. As I write this, I’m in the middle of a mixed-methods study.  The two go nicely together. []
  2. And the air quotes make appearances usually at this point in the conversation. []