Category Archives: Teachers Reflect on their Practice

Do Your Students Treasure Answers or Collect Questions?

One of the brightest minds I know is a guy named Evan Sharp.  I had the chance to meet Evan at Educon this year and his drive to wrestle with big ideas was instantly contagious.

At one point over the last year, Evan shared this cartoon with me.  

Go ahead and read it.

I’ll wait.

Really.  I want you to read it.

It’s interesting, right?  And it has me thinking this morning.  In fact, it’s stirred up a bunch of provocative questions that have been sitting in the back of my mind.  

Here’s just a few:

Do school cultures teach kids to treasure answers or to collect questions?

We know the answer to this one, don’t we?  Knowledge driven curricula and high-stakes, fact-based end of grade exams have placed a high priority on answers and a low priority on questions.

Need proof?

Ask the kids in your classroom two questions.  Tell them that you are going to grade the first and the second is just for fun.  See which one they tackle first/work hardest on.

#sheesh

How will a “treasuring answers” attitude towards learning help and/or harm students in today’s world?

I’ll admit it:  I’m SUPER skeptical about the “treasuring answers” approach to learning that we’ve taken in the last few decades in American schools.

I think it was a function of easy accountability instead of an attempt to truly prepare students to be successful in life.  And I think kids who treasure answers will struggle with the one skill that Seymour Papert identified as essential for being competitive in today’s world:  Knowing how to act in situations for which you were not specifically prepared.

Treasuring answers feels like rehearsal to me.  “What am I going to be asked — and how do others want me to answer those questions?”

Collecting questions feels like discovery to me.  “What can I find that no one else has considered before — and why are those new discoveries important to me and to the people around me?”

But IS there a place for treasuring answers in school?  SHOULD we be preparing kids with a solid foundation of basic information that they can draw on and from?  More importantly, is it possible to ask good questions if you don’t have a solid foundation of basic information to draw from?

What’s the right balance between treasuring answers and collecting questions?

What steps can we take to create learning spaces where the questions that kids ask are perceived as just as valuable as answers that they give?

Maybe this is an easy fix.  Maybe teachers should just create time and space for their kids to ask and answer their own questions in class.  Kind of like the Wonder Question project that I started tinkering with last year.

Or maybe we need to begin educating parents — who often have traditional views of schooling based on their own experiences in classrooms decades ago — about the tension between treasuring answers and collecting questions.

Maybe we need to do a better job identifying (and eliminating) the nonessentials in our curricula to create time and space for questioning.

Or maybe we should start grading questions.

(That was a joke, people!)


Related Radical Reads:

What Kind of Students is YOUR School Producing?

Wonder = Joy (And Joy Should be Shared!)

More on the Challenge of Wondering in Schools.

Is Your School Producing “Copy and Paste” Kids?

Something special happened to me last week, y’all:  I was at school late on Wednesday trying to get myself above water after three days with a brand new group of sixth graders.  I was equal parts exhausted and frustrated.  Schedules were wonky, the air conditioning in my room wasn’t working, and I had a thousand signed parent information forms to file.

That’s when Stephen walked in.  

He’s a senior in college now.  Going to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — one of the toughest schools in our state to get into. Majoring in finance and set to make a bazillion dollars over the course of his life.

But he’s got the same energy and spirit and smile that he had when he was my student almost a decade ago.  A kinetic energy.  Constantly moving.  Constantly thinking.  Constantly riffing on ideas and finding humor in situations.  Constantly questioning — questioning rules and limits and expectations and ideas and people.

I’ve always loved that energy and spirit — and I knew it would make Stephen remarkably successful someday.  But it didn’t make him all that successful in school.  Instead, it got him in a ton of trouble with teachers who didn’t see value in a kid who couldn’t sit still and who was just as likely to blurt out 37 times a class period as he was to turn in a piece of work that showed a depth of thinking far and beyond grade level expectations.

I watched teachers try to crush Stephen — and it broke my heart.

They’d sign his behavior tracker for talking out of turn.  They’d call him out in front of everyone when he wasn’t sitting down.  They’d grumble ABOUT him and grumble AT him, wishing that he would “just follow the rules.”  I’d point out that everything that he’d blurt out in class was brilliant and they’d point out that blurting is disruptive and disruptive kids should be punished.

One woman was more than a little open about her dislike for Stephen, going as far as to argue that tolerating his actions would send the wrong message to all of the rest of our students about “what is acceptable and what is unacceptable” in school.  To her, he was intolerable — and she wasn’t willing to apologize for her opinion.

That sucks, doesn’t it?

But it’s a sad fact:  Kids who don’t conform — who aren’t quiet and well prepared every day and willing to raise their hands and take their turns and walk in straight lines — can become outcasts in our buildings pretty darn quickly.

I asked Stephen if he remembered the teachers who had such antipathy for him — and more importantly, if their actions had left him with a bad taste for schools.  He laughed.  Wanted to know WHICH teachers I was talking about.  Turns out that in Stephen’s mind, MOST teachers had a sense of antipathy for him!

And then he shared a piece of slam poetry with me describing his take on his time in classrooms of all shapes and sizes.  His argument:  School is mostly a joke.  A trial.  A test of conformity instead of creativity.  Some people commit to playing the game and they  “succeed” — if obediently producing and repeating thoughts, meeting other people’s expectations, and answering other people’s questions is what you mean by “being successful.”

Stephen wasn’t buying it.  Never was.

Here’s what he wrote*:

COPY AND PASTE

Who are you?

If you answered, they wouldn’t listen

You’re given your name and identification through the perpetual system

Where you’re not you, you don’t exist, and you have no personality

You’re nothing but a name on a piece of paper, a product of formality

For individuality is the fatality

Of conformity’s brutality, it’s the new reality

Where they don’t care about your past, present, future, and they don’t know your face

They just do their very frickin’ best to press copy and paste

To breed and grow you like the rest, what they believe works the best

But nevertheless this is why we get depressed

Because our creativity’s suppressed, our ingenuity oppressed

Because you’re not going anywhere if you don’t know how to test

Now, I must confess, this is a particular skillset that I possess, I study a little less, and get lucky when I guess, but nevertheless I still don’t believe we should attest our success

To our ability to retain and return the bullshit facts that we learn about things we don’t care about – and in ten years won’t know about – but I digress

Learn to love powerpoints, forget about hands-on

Turn on the radio, you’ll keep hearing the same damn song

The world’s foundation is falling, we have nothing to stand on

When everything you are lies in a bubbled-in scantron

This is our handicap, not just something to rant on

If they heard my words they’d laugh hand a tampon

Some of you might too, because you’ve already been stamped on

Our anthem is void, it’s now nothing but a phantom

Damn son, you may say, you seem pretty upset, I say

Upset? I’m frickin’ livid, given the world in which we’re livin’

Where we’re missin’ the frickin’ point, back practicing fast facts and cold religion

Where we’re told not to speak and only to listen,

Where teachers laugh at unique ideas, diss ‘em and dismiss them,

Where school isn’t a place of learning, it’s a clone factory and prison

Where we all get tested under the same curriculum

The rules have been set for you, and you better learn to stick to them

It simply makes me sick, we’re replicated and sent through the reticulum

You try to picket the system? Ridiculous, that’s it, your done

Just find the sum, write the essay, circle C, prepare for test day

Busy work and study dates, up until we graduate

But my friends, that’s not the end, only one cycle complete

Go back to school, go back to rules, apply, dry, rinse, repeat

And then get a job, stabilize, work every day from 9 to 5

Then go home to your kids and wife, don’t disagree, it causes fights

How has it ended up where we all live the same life?

It’s because we’re taught how to find x, and told not to ask y

I couldn’t stress how much potential we waste

When we highlight, right-click, and select copy and paste

When we generalize instead of work case by case

This will be the downfall of the human race

I mean, sure we’ll survive, maybe we’ll even evolve

But if you don’t live your own life, did you really live at all?

Learn your lesson, society, you’ve really dropped the ball

You can either pick yourself up, or continue to fall

But you’ve committed an unspeakable sin, murder in the first degree

For you killed individuality when you pressed “control c, control v”

Stephen told me that he’d written his poem for a college class.  Just something that he’d whipped up because he was tired of the parade of PowerPoint presentations that substitute as learning products in class after class, year after year.  He figured he’d mix things up a bit.  Challenge the norm and watch what happened next.

#awesome

As he recited it for me with all of the cadence and rhythm and emotion that defines a master poet and artist, I couldn’t help but wonder what his university classmates and professor thought when he stood in front of them “presenting” a product that they’d probably never seen before.  Did they respect the risk that he took?  Admire his willingness to stand out — or maybe even apart — from them?  Did they see his choice as foolish — why poetry when PowerPoint was good enough?  Did they knock points off of his grade because he didn’t do what was asked of him?

I also couldn’t help but wonder what the teachers who had tried to squeeze him into their boxes so many years ago would have thought of his poem.  Would they have finally seen him as a deep thinker?  A kid with opinions worth listening to?  A person of reason and rationale instead of as a person who just couldn’t follow the rules?   Or would they have been offended, realizing that he was poking fun at the traditional classrooms they’d created?

But most importantly, I couldn’t help to wonder if we are ever going to get to the point where our schools value something other than creating copy and paste kids.

That’s a question worth asking — and I’m so glad that Stephen is willing to ask it.

#wrestlewithTHATchat

 

*I’ve asked Stephen to record himself reading this for all y’all, Radical Nation.  Leave him a comment down below to let him know how much you would dig that.  I don’t think he realizes how powerful his words can be!


Related Radical Reads:

Can the Quirky Kid Thrive in Our Schools?

Too Many Kids ALREADY Hate School.

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

 

What IS the Ultimate Goal of Schools?

I was poking through my Evernote collection today and I rediscovered this great Fast Company bit about the role that design thinking can (and should) play in schools.

In it, author Trung Le said something that resonates times about a thousand with me:

(Click here to view and/or download original image on Flickr.)

Slide - Outrank Other Countries

Trung is right, isn’t he?  

Outranking other countries on assessment tests ISN’T our ultimate goal.  Instead, our ultimate goal should be to leave kids better prepared to tackle the kinds of borderless challenges that our towns, our communities, our states and our nations are forced to wrestle with.  Whether we like it or not, issues like poverty, drought, access to healthy foods, and pollution in all of its forms are in need of solutions.

What if, instead of spending every bit of our professional energy preparing students to pass assessments of all shapes and sizes, we invested that same professional energy into helping our kids to master the skills necessary to solve complex problems with no clear answers?

Fifty years from now, our world ranking on international assessments isn’t going to mean very much, y’all.

But fifty years from now, the kids in your classrooms right now are going to be leading the world.  How can we best use our time today to prepare them to make a real difference tomorrow?

That’s a question worth asking.

#trudatchat

If you are interested in learning more about incorporating global challenges into the work you do in your classroom, check out Bill’s book, Creating Purpose Driven Learning Experiences — which is currently on sale for $5.00.  

 

 

Banning Phones in Class Might be the BEST BYOD Policy.

A recent report  from , and the University of Texas at Austin has me questioning my professional decision last year to allow students to bring their cell phones to my classroom.

In Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity (summary, full report), Ward, Duke, Gneezy and Bos argue something that I’ll bet all of us have experienced:  When your phone is present, your brain is not because you are constantly wondering what is happening in/on your device.  The urge to check your phone — to look for new likes or favorites in social media spaces, to answer the latest email and/or text message that has landed in your inbox, to check your news feeds for the latest celebrity blunder or political disaster or blockbuster trade — can be impossible to resist even when you are determined to attend to the world around you.

Specifically, Ward and her colleagues found that the presence of smartphones — whether they are turned on or turned off — had a negative impact on the working memory and fluid intelligence of participants in their study.  

Working memory is the ability of an individual to select, maintain, and process information relevant to current tasks and/or goals. Fluid intelligence is the ability of an individual to understand and solve novel problems.

Another finding was that the working memory and fluid intelligence of participants in Ward’s study increased consistently as their phones were put in locations that were less visible and accessible.  Participants who were asked to put their phones in their pockets or their purses did better on tasks requiring high levels of working memory and fluid intelligence than participants who could see their phones.  Participants who were asked to leave their phones in another room, however, did the best on those same tasks.

Figure

What’s interesting is that participants could not detect the impact that the presence of their smartphone was having on both their working memory or their fluid intelligence.

When asked, participants in each of the three control groups reported that (1). they weren’t thinking about their phones and that (2). the presence of their phones had no impact on their performance.  Evidence from each experiment, though, tells a completely different story.  “This contrast between perceived influence and actual performance,” writes Ward and her colleagues, “suggests that participants failed to anticipate or acknowledge the cognitive consequences associated with the mere presence of their phones.”

What’s also interesting is that working memory and fluid intelligence were impacted the MOST in participants who reported high levels of dependence on and emotional attachment to their smartphones.

Stated more simply, the participants who did the worst on the tasks designed to test working memory and fluid intelligence were the ones who reported the highest level of agreements with statements like “I would have trouble getting through a normal day without my cellphone” and ““Using my cellphone makes me feel happy.”

Ward and her team make a few recommendations and draw a few conclusions at the end of their study.  Perhaps most importantly, they note that the only strategy that worked to mitigate the impact that smartphones have on working memory and fluid intelligence was separation from the device.  Their testing showed that participants still struggled with working memory and fluid intelligence even when utilizing common mitigation practices like turning devices off, leaving them screen-down on tabletops, or leaving them in pockets or purses.

They also suggest that their research is specific to smartphones only — primarily because of our persistent and complex relationships with our phones.  “The role of dependence in determining mere presence effects suggests that similar cognitive costs would not be incurred by the presence of just any product, device, or even phone,” they write.  “We submit that few, if any, stimuli are both so personally relevant and so perpetually present as consumers’ own smartphones.”

So what does all of this mean for classroom teachers?  Draw your own conclusions, but I’m thinking that the BEST BYOD policy might just be to ban smartphones from our classrooms in most circumstances.  

I know.  That feels like blasphemy, doesn’t it?  Schools have raced to embrace technology at every turn.  We know full well that digital tools can make incredible things possible in our classrooms.  Students can ask and answer their own questions using digital tools.  They can connect to new information and individuals, find partners to think with and learn from, and direct and document their own learning using devices.  They are excited about their phones — and we figure we can leverage that excitement to do great things.

Just as importantly, we bear at least SOME responsibility for teaching kids to use their own devices productively, don’t we?  If our kids don’t recognize the power sitting in their pockets, backpacks and purses, we are failing them — and we can’t just assume that kids will automatically figure out ways to leverage their phones for learning on their own.  That’s the kind of expertise that WE can bring to the table and pass on to our students.

But here’s the thing:  We are also failing our students if we don’t help them to recognize how to mitigate the negative impacts that those exact same devices have on our lives.  

As educators, we tend to give technology the benefit of the doubt, assuming that more technology is always a good thing.  Ward’s study proves that’s not always true — and we owe it to our kids to help them see that sometimes — particularly in spaces where working memory and fluid intelligence are important factors for being successful (read: classrooms), the best plan for maximizing your ability to concentrate and to develop strategies and to find novel solutions is to leave your smartphone in your locker unless it is absolutely necessary for whatever task you are trying to complete.

In the end, that may just be the MOST important lesson that we can teach our kids about their personal devices.

Need some specific recommendations?  Try these:

  • Revise your BYOD policy.  Make sure that it explains that smartphones will be allowed in classrooms only on an as-needed basis.
  • Start a conversation about Ward’s research with everyone (parents, students, teachers) in your school community.  Emphasize the importance of working memory and fluid intelligence to classroom success.  Detail the positive impact that separation from smartphones has on working memory and fluid intelligence — particularly for people who report high levels of dependence on and emotional attachment to their phones (read: students of darn near any age.)
  • Begin recommending to parents interested in providing their children with devices that they invest in Chromebooks and/or tablets instead of smartphones.
  • Remind everyone in your school community that technology isn’t ALWAYS additive and encourage everyone to think more deliberately about the costs of the technology used in your classrooms.

 

 

This is Why I Teach: Powerful Goodbyes.

This has been a tough year for me, y’all.  

I found myself second guessing my decision to stay in the classroom just about every single week.  Little things left me frustrated even more than usual.  I felt angry a lot — and dissatisfied and discouraged and sad.  Moments of true inspiration were few and far between — both at school and in my professional life beyond school.  Nothing seemed to come easy.

And then, yesterday happened.

It was our last day of school and the eighth graders were having their graduation ceremony.  It’s a moment of celebration for them — another rite of passage marking the end of three years in our care.

As a sixth grade teacher, though, I never get the chance to attend the ceremony.  I’m busy with my students, celebrating in our own small way even though we will see one another again in just a few short weeks.

In some ways, missing out on the eighth grade ceremony bugs me.  

There are so many students that I want to say goodbye to — kids who I’ve mentored and coached and taught in both formal and informal ways.  The suggestion that the only teachers who should be present are those who taught our kids last — instead of those who have known our kids for the longest — just feels silly to me.

But the kids that I am the closest to always seem to find me — and no matter what I’m in the middle of, I drop everything to connect one last time.

That’s what happened in the middle of our sixth grade Quiz Bowl, when Jacob, James and Thomas* — triplets that I’ve grown connected to over the years —  showed up in the media center.

The minute I saw them, I knew that I was going to struggle to say goodbye.  Each of them has impressed me and made me smile time and again over the last three years.  They are creative and funny and competitive and kind — unique boys with great personalities and a willingness to listen and learn and take advice.  Given that they’ve stopped by darn near every day during their seventh and eighth grade years, I knew that they appreciated me — and I’ve certainly appreciated them.

We talked for a few minutes — but the words were hard for all of us to get out.  We found a way to smile for pictures — but it was in between wiping away more tears than any of us would be willing to admit. Watching them walk away for the last time felt like a loss.

But instead, that single moment was a huge win.  

Those tears — which came quickly and caught us off-guard — were proof that the time we spent together mattered.

And those tears reminded me that I’m not in this position for the pension or the summer vacation or because I am passionate about teaching science.  To be honest, the pension will be nice if I can live long enough to earn it, the summer vacation doesn’t exist given that I have to work multiple jobs to pay the bills, and most of the kids in my class will forget most of the science I teach them before they even start seventh grade.

I teach because I love knowing that I can make a difference in the lives of kids.  There’s nothing more rewarding than that.  And powerful goodbyes on the last day of school are the evidence that I needed that the daily grind of teaching is totally worth it.

This is why I teach.

 

(*Not their real names, y’all. )


Related Radical Reads:

This is Why I Teach:  Watching Kids Learn

This is Why I Teach:  Individual Moments Matter

This is Why I Teach:  They are Learning from Me