The system needs to change. It needs to adapt with changing times, changing students and a changing information paradigm. School needs to shift.
In my mind, it needs a radical tactical shift.
As I talk with other teachers, it seems that this is a universally accepted idea. The system needs to change.
John Mayer sings, “We are waiting on the world to change.” The problem is that year after year, as we sit and wait for a system that is adequately responsive, we lose another opportunity to get started.
Can teachers change the system? Are teachers system leaders?
On one hand, we are the front lines. We are the first person to deal with students and parents. We show up everyday and close the door. We have the utmost of control over the experiences of a student. Innovation and change can happen on a daily basis. We have the ability to radically alter how we approach learning, how we instruct, and how we assess.
Yet, the status quo is maintained. The change that happens is often minor. We haven’t seen any radical change since the dawn of the information age.
And the reason, because the system hasn’t changed.
This paradoxical relationship of change has stymied any lasting, important forward movement.
Teachers speak about a mistrust of administration, the Ministry and the support they’d have if they were to try something outside the box. Not to mention, the fear of trying something, failing and the lasting implication to the students under their care. For all the talk about trusting teacher practice and judgement, is there All valid reasons for sure.
Though it isn’t enough. Change is needed.
I’m left questioning the likelihood of true systemic change. I’m left wondering if the acts of a single teacher, or even a radical group of teachers is really change. But, that doesn’t make me still want to try new things, challenge the system and encourage others to do the same.
I guess my question is, are you waiting on the system to change or being the change?
The starting is the easy part.
To start a blog, you need five minutes on Blogspot or WordPress and you’ve got a blog. Now, you can say you have a blog. You are doing it. But, of course, you’re not. You have to put in the time, day after day. You have to write, consistently.
In university, I was focused on sitting down and writing a novel. I did. I got started. I wrote the first three thousand words. I could now tell people, “I’m writing a novel.” I felt that was the accomplishment. I thought starting was enough. But years later, I only had 3000 words and a fading belief that “I was writing a novel.”
Last week, I started a podcast. (Just a Teacher Podcast) I was proud. I said, “Hey world, I started something.” It took me about fifteen minutes to record my first episode, another ten minutes of editing, five minutes to download the correct WordPress plugin, and before I knew it, it was done. I had a podcast. This week the reality set in. I’ve got to do again. And again to make it meaningful.
Starting is not enough.
Call it what you will, follow-through, resilience, discipline or whatever. That’s when it gets hard.
Yet, that’s when it matters. That’s what separates an idea with a product. That’s what separates an intention with delivery.
Don’t get me wrong, starting something is great. In fact, I’m always happier starting something and letting it fade away then having the idea festering. But the world will never be changed without the next step. Or the one after that. The world will never be changed by just the start.
I have to sit down and write the next blog post. I have to write the next chapter. I have to create the next episode. That’s when it matters. That’s when it counts.
It’s easy to start something, the next step is when it counts.
I write this blog on a semi-regular basis. I follow a few other teachers, from across the province and Canada, that also write blogs. Not many. In fact, out of all my friends, I might be the only blogger. (Unless, they are blogging anonymously, which is distinctly possible.)
The point is, blogging may not be as “authentic” as I think.
I tweet on a semi-regular basis. I follow teachers from around the world that also tweet about education. Not many, really. In fact, out of all my teacher colleagues, about half actively use Twitter. (Unless, they are tweeting anonymously, which is distinctly possible.)
The point is, tweeting may not be as “authentic” as I think.
I read books and talk about them. I share the books I read and my thoughts on them with a group of people that fluctuates. In fact, many of my friends read sparingly, mostly the news or internet gossip sites. (Unless, they are reading novels and not talking about them, which is distinctly possible.)
The point is, reading and talking about what I read may not be as “authentic” as I think.
And so I’m left questioning, what am I in the pursuit of?
Theoretically, I want students to use their words as means of connecting with people. I want them to learn how to use language to move people, to persuade them, to inform them. I want them to understand that we must approach different audiences in different ways.
But who are these audiences I speak of?
My wife is an engineer. She writes on a regular basis, probably more than I do as an English teacher. Her audience is other engineers and she typically writes technical memos.
My brother is a radio promotions manager. He writes on a regular basis, probably as much as I do. His audience is other co-workers in e-mails, with point form descriptions of ideas and logistics.
I suppose I’m wondering, who are the audiences we are preparing our students for?
Most of us are not bloggers, or tweeters, or book club enthusiasts, yet I’m calling this the act of writing for authentic audiences. I’m wondering if I’ve missed the mark.
So, I ask you, where is your authentic audience?
“Often children –and adults– need external incentives to take the first steps in an activity that requires a difficult restructuring of attention. … But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.” - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow.
And so it exists, that place in between. The fulcrum point of getting learning going and maintaining momentum.
We need to be in pursuit of the perfect balance between externally incentivizing learning at the beginning, without making the external reward the only reason to persist, while creating a system to remove the external incentive when a student’s skills have made learning intrinsically rewarding.
Presumably, every student is different. Every student reaches that place of equilibrium at a different time. The seesaw of their motivation finds that perfect place at a different time depending on parental influence, ideas of achievement, use of punishment, etc.
I’ve been a strong proponent for getting rid of grades in school. I still think this is important. Marks are inauthentic. However, Csikszentmihalyi has got me thinking what external incentives should/could replace grades to get the learning started.
Are there authentic incentives that we can harness in schools? Views on YouTube, likes of Facebook? I don’t know, but maybe we need to spend more time thinking about these things.
A whole host of studies show that kids with engaged parents are more successful in school. They achieve more, are generally more safe, and most importantly, are more confident as they go through the schooling continuum.
I worry sometimes that this is because parents are marks-driven. I worry that the engaged parents are the ones saying, “You need to get 90s.” I worry that these studies reinforce the idea of parents and teachers as enforcers of compliance. But that’s a separate blog post.
Getting parents involved is important. Their involvement must go beyond parent’s night and report cards. And so I try something new.
Every Friday, in one of my classes, I’m having students write an e-mail to a parent. In the scope of a good conference, I’m having them write the e-mail, cc-ing me, that includes three components. 1. Their successes of the week. 2. Things they struggled with this week. 3. Their goals for next week. Every Friday, each student is going to answer the question, “What did you do at school, today?” with something more than, “Nothing.”
The idea of the e-mail is to encourage and enable students to tell the story of their learning. In their words, reflect on what’s working, what’s not and how they plan on going forward. But that’s not all. Every two weeks (I’ve divided the class in half, so 15 one week, 15 the other), I plan on replying to the e-mail, to each student and their parent. My reply will acknowledge, encourage, support and strategize with that student and their parent. It’s my attempt to let learning take precedence. It’s not about communicating a number, but rather it’s about documenting the process.
There are some reservations I can foresee: What if there are no parents? I think send an e-mail to someone you hope to make proud. What if the parent doesn’t have e-mail? We go old school and we write a letter. What if a student doesn’t write it? I still write my e-mail to them and the parent. However, it is based on my observations and conversations. The idea is that someone else is then telling their story.
Like anything, it’s an experiment. It’s an attempt at bringing together three pillars of a child’s education (themselves, school, parents). It’s something active that brings parents into the community of learning. But it might not work. I’m willing to take that gamble.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this plan, possible problems, etc.
Thanks to Mike Pinkney for helping me refine my ideas while shouting over the playing of the house band and thanks to Anne Doelman for lending me the book, Conferencing and Reporting by Kathleen Gregory et al.
A colleague of mine, who is currently looking for permanent work, e-mailed me the other day with a simple question:
What would you do if a student told you to fuck off?
A friend of hers was asked this as an interview question. As I was writing my response, I felt inadequate to answer the question. There are so many variables at play in a classroom, that to know what I’d do, is inauspicious. That said, in an interview, I’ve never met a question for which I didn’t have an answer.
So, I wrote back:
To be honest, that’s a tough question. I’d probably answer it like this:
Any reaction like that from a student requires consequences. No doubt about it. That said, learning is all about relationships. Sending a student down to the VP changes the relationship I have with that student. It might even undermine that relationship. So, how would I move forward? I can only assume that the reaction is from a build-up of frustration from the student and not an “out of the blue” eruption. I’d take a breathe. I’d tell the student to take a break, wait outside, or something like that. After ten minutes or so, I’d try to have a conversation with the student that begins, “I’m sorry that you are frustrated. We are going to deal with your frustration, but for us to be able to move forward, we need to make sure we both have respect for each other. In saying that, I’ve never sworn at you. I’d appreciate it, if you apologized for swearing.” In having the conversation, I’d try to address the frustration the student is having, and then offer them the chance to define a consequence for swearing. To apologize is not a consequence. At this point, repairing the relationship is my first priority.
I don’t know, that would be my approach. I’m not sure if I’d get the job, but that’s what I’d do, or at least, hope to do.
I’d love to know if I’m alone on this one or if anyone has an alternative approach.
What would you do?
I suffer from “The Bus Syndrome”.
The Bus Syndrome is a terrible affliction, which hampers my role as effective collaborator, effective teacher and effective colleague. The Bus Syndrome is such that I live in my own head. I am terrible at writing down my lesson plans. I am terrible at recording what I do on a daily basis. Sure, I document some things, but in general, I never take the time to keep good records.
If I was hit by a bus, my replacement would be lost. Thus, I suffer from The Bus Syndrome.
After thinking about the possibility of this demise, I thought I should record a few thoughts about my lesson plans. After reading James Robbins’ blog for awhile now (and directly in response to the format of his book), he has given me the vocabulary to process how I plan for the week ahead.
Following these nine questions allows me to be ready for the week:
1. How will I demonstrate my genuine interest in the lives of my students? Will it be an “impromptu” conversation, greeting them at the door, an acknowledgment of the major events in their lives, etc?
2. How will I provide timely, effective, productive feedback to each student over the course of the next week?
3. How will I reward and recognize specific students for their performance this week? Will I highlight their work to the group, tweet it out to the world, hang it on the wall?
4. How will I connect the purpose of what we’re doing to each student this week? This requires me to consciously know what makes each of my students tick, so I can be deliberate and intentional when connecting purpose for each of them.
5. What choices will I give my students this week that will give them a sense of control and autonomy? How will I encourage them to make choices that strengthen them, rather than taking the road of least resistance?
6. How can I help them grow this week?
7. How will what we do foster a greater sense of community within the room? How will I strengthen social bonds amongst students and between students and myself?
8. How can I inject some fun into what we do this week?
9. What skills, strategies, ideas do my students need me to model for them this week? Will it be a specific academic skill, a social skill, forgiveness, kindness, or maybe it is a time management strategy, an idea about living with passion, etc?
I believe these nine questions allow me to maintain a specific focus on my lessons and understand the virtue of public education.
If I’m ever hit by a bus, use these questions to figure where to continue on from.
Three students, three different outside interests. Three students that are taking time to create, develop skills, or produce professional work.
She’s writing a novel and is 30,000 words in.
He plays hockey four to five times a week.
He’s illustrating a children’s book for me.
Each of these projects are self-directed, have full student engagement, require these students to work tirelessly at developing the requisite skills and demonstrate them. Yet, things that happen outside of school count for nothing in it.
It seems that timing is everything because she’s demonstrating her English skills but unless it was assigned between 8-2:30 it seems that that demonstration doesn’t count.
Why don’t extra-curriculars count? Why don’t we assign credits to those students that demonstrate the elements of courses on their own time? Why do we require students to perform the tasks we assign as proof of skills and abilities?
I’ve floated this idea to some students, just as a supposition, their response, “Yeah, good question. But it’ll never happen,” or “Who’s doing the evaluation of these products?” or “How do you know it was that kid who did the painting?” or “Aren’t some sports teams harder and require more dedication?” or “What about access to resources, they aren’t equal?” All good questions, no simple answers.
But I’m left unsatisfied. I’m left thinking about the work that they’ve done and thinking why aren’t we encouraging this. Why aren’t we legitimizing their efforts?
I know, I know, people are going to ride me for suggesting we should provide extrinsic rewards for their work and undermine their intrinsic interest. I agree with that argument too.
However, while we’re counting, should extracurriculars count?
With the changing tide of public education, I think we are charting territories where this essential question is being explored?
Do you need a teacher to learn?
The idea that we are learning partners, or that we are no longer the fountain of knowledge, I think lends itself to this question. If we recognize that we are facilitators, activators, or evaluators, does the role of teacher go by the wayside?
I try to think of my learning, I don’t have a teacher in the formal sense, but I do need someone. Be it the writer of a book or the maker of the YouTube video, there is someone responsible for the dissemination of the information. But what happens when we start removing the human, is Google my new teacher?
In a tinkering framework, in a place where I start a problem, then wrestle with it, rearrange the pieces until the problem is solved, experience is my teacher.
If I write a novel, edit it, and print it, in our incredibly on-demand world, and it doesn’t sell, the marketplace is my teacher?
In our budget conscious, austerity measured world, is this what the corporate interest is investigating? Isn’t the biggest single cost-savings in education always teachers?
I’ve said many times here on this blog, that I believe it is absolutely paramount that teachers are learners, but by that very nature are all learners eventually teachers, or are all learners teachers to themselves?
In fact, my ramblings and reflections on feedback have brought me to this quote from Dave Nicol, “We tend to think of feedback as something a teacher provides, but if students are to become independent lifelong learners, they have to become better at judging their own work.” and so again I beg the question, are teachers an absolute requirement in the learning process?
Douglas Thomas suggests that the role for teachers now is to provide, “the context not the content.” Is this where we find the need for the external instructor?
I’m not suggesting we remove teachers from the room or even that the job of a teacher is not critical, however, for how long? If learning is our purpose, do we not need to look at whether teaching is inherently required?
This blog post has been rattling around in my head for a while, I know it is greatly incomplete and states a serious of ridiculous questions, however, I needed to get it out.
Last Thursday, I had the privilege of presenting my thoughts and ideas at the ECOO Conference 2012. My presentation was geared around my assessment and evaluation methods and madness.
I was proud to speak in front of such an intelligent, engaged audience who asked so many great questions and provided some varied perspectives. I have embedded below the slides from my presentation.
The conference moved this year from one where the tool was the principal focus to the pedagogical shift taking shape in education. Obviously, I like this move. I think too often we spend time worrying about the what and how of teaching, and too little time is spent wrestling with the why. This conference enabled that wrestling.
However, it also enabled something else for me, it forced me to focus my thinking around assessment, which ironically I spoke about. I realized, with more clarity than I had before, that assessment is right now the linchpin to the shift in education.
John Seely Brown, Michael Fullan, and even Nora Young, all addressed the shift in instruction, but none of them offered the insight into the shift in assessment and I fear that is underlooked.
Frankly, assessment and evaluation may be the structure of the system that slows down change the most.
I see it as there are two main cogs in education, instruction and assessment, and while instruction is slowly coming to life, assessment is still in a state of disrepair. It’s rusted over and will take some serious elbow grease to get it moving again.
And we can’t disregard it.
We’ve made cosmetic changes to evaluation, however, at the end of the day will universities and colleges accept our students if they haven’t jumped through the hoops of GPAs and averages. What then becomes of the innovation, creative problem solving, and imagination?
The ECOO experience has focused in my interest in assessment and evaluation, it has left me with more questions than answers and has enabled me to connect with other educators asking those same questions. I can’t wait to see where this takes me.
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