Category Archives: Teachers Facilitate Learning for their Students

Transferring Facts v. Building the Future Together.

Over the last five years, I’ve really been wrestling to understand the changes that are needed to create the schools that our students deserve.  

For me, that wrestling started when I realized that it was becoming harder and harder to truly engage my students in the lessons that I was teaching.  Instead of being active participants in class — something that I’d never struggled with before — my kids were increasingly passive and disconnected from the work that we were doing.

Sure, they were still playing the “grade game” — turning in tasks that showed mastery of the standards.  But there was little to no real inspiration in their efforts.  It was clear that they saw school as something to be endured instead of enjoyed.

So I started thinking about the differences between ENGAGING and EMPOWERING learners.

The way I saw it, traditional schools stripped learners of any real agency — and learners without agency are uninspired.  What’s more, I want kids to leave school convinced that they can change the world around them for the better — to see themselves as people with both the capacity and responsibility to be a positive influence their communities.

That’s when I started tinkering with purpose-driven learning — the notion that kids are most motivated when they are wrestling with causes or issues or problems that are meaningful and purposeful beyond the classroom walls.  If I could use problems as an invitation to learn the required curriculum — an idea that Garfield Gini-Newman calls “problemitizing the curriculum” -I could meet the expectations outlined in the required curricula while simultaneously creating learning experiences that my kids really WOULD care about.

But I’ve always struggled to explain in clear and simple terms what this change in education should look like — and that’s kept my thinking from spreading widely beyond my own room.

It’s easy to SAY that empowerment trumps engagement and that purpose should stand at the center of the classroom learning experience, but what exactly does that MEAN?  How would learning experiences be restructured if that shift stood at the center of the work we did with kids.

That’s why I was jazzed to stumble across this Erik P.M. Vermeulen bit describing the expectations of millennial learners on Hackernoon in my stream this morning.

In it, Vermeulen writes:

“The world has really changed. Education has become less about the transfer of “fact”-based information/knowledge and much more about exploring and building the future together with the students.”

That’s SUCH a powerful statement, y’all.  Read it again.

And then ask yourself a simple question:  Are the bulk of your learning experiences about transferring facts or about exploring and building a better future together with your students?

Chances are that if you work in a traditional school, you’re still transferring facts.  And if so, chances are your kids are bored.

How do you fix that?

Constantly remember that transferring facts is a heck of a lot easier and more inspiring when it happens as a part of an attempt to explore and build a better future together.

Kids need purpose, too — and all too often, that purpose is missing from the work we do in schools.

#trudatchat

If you want to learn more about using causes as levers for learning, consider checking out Creating Purpose-Driven Learning Experiences — my latest book for Solution Tree Press.

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Related Radical Reads:

Should We Be Engaging or Empowering Learners?

How Engaged are YOUR Students?

Why Can’t THIS Be School?

 

 

Session Materials: Annual Conference on Assessment and Grading

Over the next two days, I’ll be working with a group of incredibly motivated teachers and school leaders at Solution Tree’s Annual Conference on Assessment and Grading in Phoenix, Arizona.  Together, we’ll be wrestling with what good assessment looks like and the role that both feedback and grading can play in informing practice and developing learners.  My unique contribution to the conference will be primarily centered around student-involved assessment practices.

Here are my session descriptions and materials:

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Creating a Culture of Feedback

Slides | Complete Handouts

In spring 2012, educational change expert Dean Shareski issued a simple challenge on his blog: “I’m wondering if you’re ready to let your students assess themselves. Not as some experiment where you end up grading them apart but where you really give the reins over to them?” This session introduces participants to the tangible steps William M. Ferriter has taken in his sixth-grade classroom to move from a culture of grading to a culture of feedback as a result of Shareski’s challenge.

Bill discusses the differences between grading and feedback. He helps participants explore simple self-assessment behaviors that can be integrated into any classroom. Teachers learn more about the common challenges of moving from a culture of grading to a culture of feedback in a classroom.

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Digital Tools Can Make Differentiation Doable

Slides | Complete Handouts

If schools are working to ensure success for every student, learning experiences should be customized and aligned to student interests, needs, and unique learning styles. The challenge, however, rests in making differentiation manageable. While few teachers doubt the importance of differentiating, many struggle to make customized learning spaces a reality. William Ferriter introduces participants to a range of digital tools that can be used to 1) track progress by student and standard, 2) provide structure for differentiated classrooms, and 3) facilitate initial attempts at remediation and enrichment.

Bill shows how digital tools can provide quick checks for understanding and tracking progress by student and standard. Digital tools can deliver content and free class time for individualized instruction. Tools can help teachers use classroom observations to show student progress.

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Assessing Learning in a Purpose Driven Classroom

Slides | Complete Handouts

Technology expert Will Richardson maintains that today’s classrooms are failing students. In Why School? How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere (2012), Richardson says, “We focus on the easiest parts of the learning interaction, …accomplishments that can be easily identified and scored. Learning is relegated to the quantifiable.”

To create highly engaged learning spaces, classrooms must be reimagined as places where students work together to do work that matters. These arguments aren’t new; project-based learning has been promoted for the better part of a decade. How do we assess learning in classrooms where complex projects — rather than accomplishments that can be easily identified and scored — stand at the center of the curriculum?

Participants discuss why project-based learning should play a role in the modern classroom. They examine a planning template that illustrates project-based learning experiences focused on essential outcomes in a curriculum. William M. Ferriter explores simple steps for teachers to evaluate student mastery of essential outcomes.

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How Do We Turn Failure Into Learning Opportunities?

Slides | Complete Handouts

Over the past five years, the notion of learning from failure has become widely embraced. Businesses tout the importance of failing fast and failing often to succeed sooner. Educators argue that failure helps students learn to be resilient and determined, and failure is the first step towards building a growth mindset.

No matter how well-intentioned we are, failure in schools still carries negative connotations and incredibly high stakes—fail a test and your grade suffers; fail too many district benchmarks and you are assigned to remedial classes; fail an end-of-grade exam and you are held back; fail to earn a very high GPA and your college and career choices are limited. The truth is no matter how intimidating failure can be, it can also be turned into a positive learning experience as long as teachers help students analyze their performance and make plans to move forward—a process William M. Ferriter introduces in this session.

Bill reviews four main reasons people fail at important tasks. He examines differences between learners who see failures as dead ends and those who see failure as a starting point for new learning. Carefully structured feedback can play in helping students turn failures into learning opportunities.

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Using Digital Portfolios in Grades 5-12 to Create a Culture of Feedback

Slides | Complete Handouts

Research on characteristics of effective feedback reveals one simple truth time and again—feedback gathered by learners is more powerful than feedback given to learners. Our primary role in promoting learning should be to develop students who constantly reflect on what they know and what they don’t know—behaviors that can be encouraged through the regular use of digital portfolios in the classroom.

William M. Ferriter discuss the role of reflection in developing independent, self-directed learners. He examines how blogs, simple Web 2.0 tools, can play a role in digital portfolio projects. Participants learn how they can launch digital portfolio projects in their own classrooms.

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If this content resonates with you, you might also want to check out my latest book, Creating a Culture of Feedback.  It’s a quick read that will force you to think carefully about the difference between grading and feedback in the modern classroom.

 

Are Your Science Standards Producing Scientifically Literate Citizens?

Blogger’s Note:  This post is long and nerdy.  But it’s essential.  I double-dog dare you to read the entire thing. 

As many of you know, I’ve been working hard over the last several months (see here, here and here) to get to know my curriculum better by creating a digital portfolio full of short, standard-specific videos that I record a few times a week and post to the web.

The effort — inspired by Kyle Hamstra’s #hashtag180 work — has really been rewarding.  Not only am I creating content that many of my students dig viewing, I’m also creating instructionally centered content for our school’s social media feeds and creating a searchable archive of my instructional practices all while studying my standards in a more systematic way than ever before.

This week, I was teaching students about experimental design.  Specifically, we were talking about the role that dependent and independent variables play in creating reliable results and in drawing reliable conclusions.

But when I went to post my final videos to Twitter and hashtag them with the standards that those lessons represented, I discovered that the North Carolina Standard Course of Study for sixth grade science doesn’t articulate the core elements of good experimental design at all.

Instead, the standards make general reference to the importance of teaching experimental design in “seamless integration” with scientific content knowledge.

Now I know what you are thinking:  What’s the big deal, Bill?  So content is emphasized in your standards.  Sounds pretty typical for a science curriculum.  

Let me show you just how big a deal this is.  Start by checking out a few standards from the North Carolina Science Curriculum:

Recognize that all matter is made up of atoms and atoms of the same element are all alike, but are different from the atoms of other elements.

Explain the effect of heat on the motion of atoms through a description of what happens to particles during a change in phase.

Compare the physical properties of pure substances that areindependent of the amount of matter present including density, melting point, boiling point, and solubility to properties that are dependent on the amount of matter present to include volume, mass and weight.

Now, look at similar standards from the Next Generation Science Standards:

Develop models to describe the atomic composition of simple molecules and extended structures.

Analyze and interpret data on the properties of substances before and after the substances interact to determine if a chemical reaction has occurred.

Develop a model that predicts and describes changes in particle motion, temperature, and state of a pure substance when thermal energy is added or removed.

You see the difference, right?  

Every one of the Next Gen Science Standards REQUIRES students to engage in good experimental design.  In fact, the emphasis of the standard is on the process of science instead of the scientific content that kids are supposed to learn.

More importantly, the specific element of experimental design that students are supposed to learn is mentioned explicitly by name in each and every standard.  Students should be developing models and analyzing and interpreting data.  Is content important?  Sure.  But scientific and engineering practice is just as — if not more — important.

All kids in North Carolina are expected to do is “recognize,” “explain,” and “compare” — lower level thinking skills that have nothing to do with designing reliable experiments.

Now, think through the impact that one seemingly small difference has on the instructional choices of classroom teachers.

Teachers working in states that have adopted the Next Gen Science Standards know, without a doubt, that they need to be creating lessons that allow students to DO science.  Not only that, they know exactly which scientific process skills their kids are supposed to master unit by unit.  To successfully teach their standards, they have to do more than just deliver content.  They need to develop practicing scientists.

And principals working in states that have adopted the Next Gen Science Standards know, without a doubt, that for a teacher to be successful in the science classroom, they need to be doing more than just delivering content to kids.  Instead of observing science teachers through the lens of, “Are they teaching kids the right concepts?” they are observing science teachers through the lens of, “Are they teaching kids to act like practicing scientists?”

In North Carolina, on the other hand, science teachers are told to “seamlessly integrate” science process skills into their instruction, but they are left to figure out what those process skills are.  Worse yet, if they skip over the opening statement in their standards document — something I’m betting most teachers probably do — they would never see a single reference to experimental design or process skills.  Instead, they’d see a list of facts that they were supposed to teach their kids over the course of a school year.

And principals in North Carolina might have no real cause to question science teachers who spend most of their time delivering content instead of engaging students in experimentation.  After all, specific experimentation skills aren’t explicitly mentioned anywhere in the curriculum anyway.  If a principal has no background in science, they’d have no reason to question “content-first” pedagogy — and no way to support something different.

Which classroom do you want to have your kids in?

But here’s an even MORE IMPORTANT question:  Which classroom is going to result in scientifically literate citizens that can make sense of the research being used by politicians to make decisions that will have an impact on our planet for generations?

Take climate change, for example:  Our current president has called climate change a hoax perpetuated by China to hurt U.S. manufacturing efforts.  The current director of the EPA has argued that the science around the impact that carbon is having on our environment is unsettled.

Our current Energy Secretary thinks that the oceans — not humans — are the “primary control knob” of our planet’s increasingly rising temperatures.  Organizations funded by the oil industry are generating their own “research” calling climate change into question — and then systematically sending that research directly to K-12 science teachers in an attempt to influence the message being delivered to elementary, middle and high school students.

In the meantime, there are NO professional scientific organizations — groups representing practicing scientists — that doubt the impact that man is having on our planet’s increasing temperatures.

None.

Not one.

So someone’s lying, right?

Whether it is the political leaders currently making policy or the scientists generating research to document our changing planet, someone isn’t telling us the whole truth about the conclusions they are drawing or the positions that they are taking.

There’s simply no way that climate change can simultaneously be a hoax and a position supported by carefully conducted scientific research.

THAT’s why it’s so important that students in every school — regardless of state — learn about experimental design, y’all.

Even if they never become practicing scientists — and most of them won’t — the kids in your classrooms will be faced with a thousand moments where decisions that will affect their lives are made based on science.  Some of those decisions will be supported with reliable research and evidence-based conclusions.

Others won’t.

If our kids grow up in classrooms where they are learning about the characteristics of quality experiments, they will be better prepared to draw their own conclusions about those decisions because they will be able to identify research worth believing in and research worth questioning because of flawed experimental design.

If our kids grow up in classrooms where content is prioritized and the elements of good experimental design are left to chance because they are buried in the opening paragraphs of standards documents and identified only as “essential” and important for “seamless integration”, I’m not sure they will ever have the skills necessary to make literate judgments about the research being used to shape their lives.

Go take a look at your state’s science standards now.  They really are a helluva lot more important than you think.  

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Related Radical Reads:

When Did Teaching Science Become Political Bloodsport?

More on Teaching Science and Political Bloodsport.

Climate Deniers Sending Sketchy Science to Every K-12 Public School Teacher in America.

Do Your Technology Investments Advance Your Priorities?

Last week, a client that I have consulted with for almost a decade asked me a simple question:  With a TON of digital tools being embraced by teachers but a limited budget to pay for district-wide subscriptions, how could he be sure that he was making the right choices about which tools to invest in and which tools to walk away from.

That’s an essential question, isn’t it.  And probably one that you’ve had to wrestle with at some point in your professional career.

The truth is that there ARE a ton of great services being developed for the educational marketplace.  But it is equally true that we DO have limited budgets.  We simply can’t invest district resources into every single tool that teachers believe in, no matter how valuable those tools seem.

The good news is that identifying the right tools to invest in is actually pretty darn easy.  

In fact, the best decisions around technology investments can be made by working through three simple steps:

Step One:  Clearly define the core teaching and learning behaviors that you want to see happening in your classrooms.

The way I see it, school leaders have two primary responsibilities.  First, you must create a clear and compelling vision of general terms like “effective instruction” and “meaningful teaching and learning spaces.”

I ought to be able to ask you to describe what an ideal classroom would look like in action and you ought to be able to give me specific descriptions.  What would teachers be doing in those classrooms?  What would students be doing in those classrooms?  Why do those behaviors matter to OUR students and OUR communities at THIS point in time?  How would technology be used to support the core instructional and learning behaviors that you value the most?

Once you’ve developed a clear and compelling vision of the teaching and learning behaviors that you want to see happening in your classrooms, you need to communicate that vision consistently to everyone in your system.

If your principals and teachers have no real sense of what your “ideal classroom” looks like in action, they can’t take proactive steps to create those classrooms on a regular basis.  As my good friend Becky DuFour likes to say, clarity precedes competence.  You can’t expect meaningful change until people understand exactly what you mean by “meaningful change.”

Need some help developing a clear vision for what meaningful instruction should look like in your classrooms?  Here are some planning handouts that I use in workshops that I run:

Technology Vision Planning – A document that can help school/district leaders to carefully define a technology vision based on their community priorities.

Technology Vision Statements – A document that can help school/district leaders to develop a set of clear statements defining what effective technology integration would look like in their classrooms.

Technology Scenario –  An example of a scenario that a school/district might develop to communicate a vision of an ideal classroom in action.

Step Two:  Identify digital tools that can be used to support the core instructional/ learning behaviors that you believe in.

Finding digital tools in today’s educational marketplace isn’t the hard part.  A simple scroll through your Twitterstream will leave you buried in potential services to spend your money on.  And the fact of the matter is that, with rare exception, ALL of those tools and services can probably improve teaching and learning in SOME of your classrooms.

That’s why you have to be deliberate about FIRST defining what your priorities are and THEN identifying specific services that advance those priorities.

Don’t over-complicate this.  Start by creating sets of simple If, Then, Because statements detailing the reasoning behind each individual choice that you are thinking about making.  Here are a few examples:

If we believe that teachers should be providing instruction that is carefully targeted to the individual needs of students, then we would invest in MasteryConnect because it automatically tracks and reports progress on classroom assessments by student and by standard.

If we believe that professional learning teams are the most powerful change strategy in a school, then we would invest in Global PD because it provides comprehensive resources that support learning teams at each individual step of the collaborative process.

If we believe that intervention efforts in our multi-tiered system of student supports should begin in the regular classroom, then we would invest in Brainpop because it allows for quick initial reteaching and retesting of core concepts without requiring a ton of additional planning on the part of the classroom teacher.

If we believe that students must begin to accept ownership over tracking their own progress towards mastering important outcomes, then we would invest in SeeSaw because it allows students of all ages to begin building digital portfolios of artifacts that can serve as evidence of their learning.

Once you’ve developed your initial If, Then, Because statements, have teams of teachers and school leaders challenge the service that you’ve linked to in the “then” portion of your statement.  Are the services that you’ve identified capable of supporting the core behaviors that you say that you believe in?  Are there other services that do a better job supporting the core behaviors that you believe in?

For some extra fun, try to write If, Then Because statements for the services that you ALREADY invest in.  You might just find that you are spending money on services that do nothing to support your vision of what good teaching and learning should look like in action.  The fact of the matter is if you struggle to write an If, Then, Because statement for a service that you are spending money on, you are probably wasting your cash.

Step Three:  ALWAYS compare the per pupil price of services that you are considering to the money that you are spending on other school products.

Whenever I make technology presentations, I nudge school leaders to invest in the paid versions of the services that they believe in.  That often feels counter-intuitive to my audiences, who have grown up in a digital age where we expect every digital product that we use to be free.  That also feels impossible, given that a school or district-wide subscription to any service can cost thousands and thousands of dollars.

But there’s good reason to invest in the paid version of services.  Perhaps most obviously, the paid version of services often include additional features that have real value.  Often, those features facilitate collaboration between teams of teachers, communication with parents, or tracking of progress at the school and/or district level.

Perhaps most importantly, purchasing the paid version of services can help to ensure that the services you are investing in will be around for the long haul.  The simple truth is that digital services are for profit companies that are trying to make ends meet.  If we want them to help us meet long term district goals, we have to count on them being a part of our instructional/ learning practices for a long while.  Purchasing the service helps to make that possible.

So how do you justify laying out anywhere from $5,000 to $100,000+ for a subscription to a digital service?

Start by figuring out the per pupil cost.  Chances are that those costs will fall into a range somewhere between $3 and $7 per kid.  Then, ask yourself how that $3 to $7 per kid compares to other things that schools spend money on.

Is that more or less than your students spend on school spirit wear?  Is it more or less than your students spend on their student planner/agenda for the year?  Is it more or less than your students spend on their field trip to the zoo?  Is it more or less than your students spend on their fall festival or their field day at the end of the year?  Is it more or less than your students spend on admission to a school athletic event or dance?

How does that $3-$7 per kid compare to the cost of the staff polo shirts that your school buys every year?  How does it compare to the cost of the motivational posters that you have hanging up in your building’s hallways every year?  How does it compare to the cost of the meals that you purchase for your faculties for professional development days?

What you are likely to find is that the services that you need to support the instructional / learning behaviors that you say that you believe in don’t cost a heck of a lot when you compare them to the cost of other things that you are already spending your money on.

If that’s true, start advertising that to everyone in your school community.

Ask teachers if they are willing to forgo faculty polo shirts and staff meals on professional development days in order to invest in services that can help to change instruction and learning in your building.  Ask parents if they are willing to sponsor a subscription to a service instead of purchasing a team t-shirt.  Ask the PTA if they would consider rolling their yearly fundraiser proceeds into a subscription to a service instead of a campus beautification project or an end of the year gift from the graduating class.

The fact of the matter is that until schools are fully funded by our state legislatures, our primary goal should be to prioritize our spending on things that can make high quality teaching and learning more effective and efficient.

We don’t always do that.

Does any of this make sense to you?

Essentially, I’m arguing that schools and districts need to start putting their money where their mouths are when it comes to technology spending.  In the words of Richard Elmore, for every new increment of performance that you demand from classroom teachers, you have an equal obligation to provide the time, the tools and the training necessary to meet those new expectations.

That’s impossible when we aren’t making deliberate choices about the digital tools and services that we are purchasing.

#trudatchat


Related Radical Reads:

Does Your School Have Technology Vision Statements?

Is Your School Wasting Money on Technology?

Note to Principals:  STOP Spending Money on Technology

 

Three Tips for Throwing a Solar Eclipse Viewing Party for Your Students.

I’m sure that by now, you’ve heard that on August 21st, a total solar eclipse will cut a path across all of North America for the first time in over 100 years, haven’t you?

That’s HUGE, y’all.

While eclipses — including total solar eclipses — aren’t all that uncommon, because the path of a total solar eclipse is so narrow, they are typically visible to less than one HALF of ONE percent of the earth’s surface.

What does that mean for educators?

If you have ANY students on your campus on August 21st, you’ve GOT to take some time to teach them a thing or two about eclipses.  And if you are ANYWHERE in the path of the eclipse, you’ve GOT to get your kids outside to see the eclipse as it happens.

Want some help pulling some plans together?  Here are a few ideas to get you started:

You’ve got to buy approved solar eclipse viewers NOW:  It won’t come as any surprise  that looking directly at the sun for any prolonged length of time can cause significant damage to your eyes — so if you plan to watch the eclipse at all, you need to buy solar eclipse glasses that are certified as safe for solar viewing.

There’s two hitches here.  First, there are tons of companies selling knockoff glasses that LOOK safe, but haven’t been certified as safe.  Second, companies making eclipse viewers are rapidly selling out, as most of America gets in on the excitement of a once in a lifetime event.

Viewers aren’t terrible expensive.  You can get them for somewhere between $1.50 and $3.00 a pair, depending on how many you plan to order.  But ONLY order them from companies that are reputable and certified.

You can find a list of reputable vendors here on the American Astronomical Society’s website.  And you can find a list of vendors who’s lenses have been certified as safe by NASA on their eclipse safety website.

Give kids chances to practice making scientific observations:  Solar eclipses are awesome opportunities for students to practice their scientific observational skills.  Not only will the moon slowly block parts of the sun from view, temperatures and amounts of light drop, shadows cast by objects become darker and more clearly defined, reflections of the eclipse can be seen in the shadows cast by light passing through the branches of trees, and the behaviors of animals — who are confused by the early onset of night time — change.

Consider asking students to make systematic observations of these changes throughout the observational period.  Being deliberate about observations, spotting changes over time, and keeping careful records of just what is being observed are core practices of successful scientists.

Here’s the observation sheet that I’ll be asking my students to fill out.

Don’t forget to incorporate some social studies instruction into your viewing party:  One of the lessons that I always like to teach to my students is that early civilizations were just as curious about the natural events happening in the world around them as we are — but they didn’t have access to the tools and technologies necessary to fully understand those events!  That led to some interesting explanations for natural events.

Take solar eclipses for an example:  People in India believed that a headless demon named Rahu was swallowing the sun during an eclipse — but because he was headless, the sun would fall right out of the back of his throat every time that he swallowed it!  Similarly, the Chinese believed that a Celestial dragon was swallowing the sun and the Norse believed that wolves were chasing and eating the sun during an eclipse.

Because all cultures knew about the importance of the sun, eclipses were a source of great fear for them — and in many places, residents would pour out into the streets to try to save the sun from attack by those mythical creatures.  They’d scream at the sky, bang pots and pans, shoot arrows and even fire cannons in an attempt to save the sun from attack.

Why not teach kids about that mythology?  Here’s a great National Geographic bit with some of the best myths from around the world.

And better yet, why not have your students develop their OWN chant designed to save the sun from attack on eclipse day?  Maybe consider modeling it after the haka chants used by the Maori people of New Zealand to scare away perceived enemies?  YouTube is full of great videos of the New Zealand rugby team dropping hakas on opponents before games.

And then, have your kids drop their own hakas during your eclipse viewing party.

How much fun would THAT be?!

They can learn a bit about mythology, understand the connections between mythology and early scientific understandings of natural events, and have a heck of a good time all at once shouting at the sky together!

Whatever you do, DON’T miss out on this once in a lifetime chance to experience one of our universe’s most remarkable events. Science is about observing the world — so get your kids outside and learn together. 

#truth