Category Archives: Teachers Reflect on their Practice

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

Peer Feedback Matters.

Over the last several years, I’ve done a ton of experimenting in my sixth grade classroom with peer feedback — structured opportunities for students to give and receive feedback from one another.  

That’s primarily a function of efficiency.   Teaching close to 120 students with a wide range of skills and abilities every single year makes it darn near impossible for me alone to provide feedback to the learners in my classroom.  If the best feedback is both timely and directive — an argument that Bob Marzano made nearly a decade ago — we need to teach students to look for guidance and support from one another rather than simply waiting to receive feedback from classroom teachers, who are perpetually buried in stacks of papers that need to be graded.

Every time that I pitch peer feedback to other educators, however, I’m met with real skepticism.  Teachers doubt the value of the feedback that students can provide to each other.  That’s a legitimate concern, given that most students have little experience giving feedback to — and receiving feedback from — one another in traditional classrooms.

The solution, though, isn’t to avoid peer feedback.  The solution is to give students lots of experience and practice with peer feedback.  The more structured opportunities that students have giving and receiving feedback with one another, the more skilled they will become.  And the more skilled that students become with peer feedback, the less teachers have to worry about whether or not the experience will be worthwhile.

So how do you ensure that peer feedback experiences are productive?  Start by encouraging students to give each other observations instead of evaluations.  

Statements like, “I really like” , “You’ve done a great job on _________” or “You need to improve your _____, ” are the kinds of comments that students are used to giving to one another.  After all, they are the kinds of comments they’ve long received from the teachers and other adult mentors in their lives.

But they are also evaluative — implying a judgment — and that’s when peer feedback can feel intimidating and awkward.  Sometimes, peers shy away from giving negative feedback to one another because they are afraid of hurting feelings.  Other times, peers are hesitant to receive feedback from one another because they don’t see classmates as authority figures capable of making accurate judgments.  The result is mediocre feedback experiences, hurt feelings, or both.

Instead, teach your students to use statements like “I notice that _____,” or “I’m not sure that I see ______ in your work.”  Those phrases are simply observations.  They don’t imply a judgment at all, leaving the recipient to decide what the feedback means about the overall quality of a work product.

Best of all, encouraging students to make observations instead of evaluations is easy.  Getting started requires nothing more than sharing lots of examples of observational sentence starters with students.  You can also compile lists of samples of comments made during peer feedback sessions and ask students to identify the statements that are observations and the statements that are evaluations.

Dylan Wiliam likes to argue that we need to turn feedback into “detective work.”  His central argument is a simple one:  The best feedback is gathered by — rather than given to — learners.  Well structured peer feedback experiences built on observations instead of evaluations can give BOTH students involved — the giver and the recipient — chances to act like detectives by reflecting on how well individual work products align with success criteria.

That means time spent in peer feedback experiences is time that everyone spends learning.

To learn more about the role that peer feedback can play in your classroom, check out Bill’s newest book, Creating a Culture of Feedback.  


Related Radical Reads:

Is REAL Formative Assessment Even Possible?

What Can the Principals of PLCs Learn from Handwashing?

Turning Feedback into Detective Work

 

Here’s Why Teaching Today is So Darn Difficult.

Did you guys happen to see the story of JP Krause — the Vero Beach High School Junior whose election as Senior Class President was voided by his high school principal earlier this year? 

To campaign, Krause made a 90 second impromptu speech during his AP History class that was essentially a spoof of every ridiculous claim/proposal that Donald Trump has made over the last few years.  He promised to build a wall between his school and the neighboring high school — and to force the neighboring school to pay for it.  He claimed that his opponent in the election represented Communist ideas.  And he defended his speech as a “complete joke from the beginning and completely satirical.”

And then he won the election.

#sheeshchat

#soundfamiliar

The principal of the school — Shawn O’Keefe — voided the election, arguing that an election had to be based on something more than satire.  He was trying to reinforce the notion that people running for leadership positions should take pertinent issues seriously — and that when a student body refuses to consider pertinent issues when selecting student leadership, the administration should step in and take action.

Now there’s a lot of room for open-minded debate here.

Some might think that JP’s speech was just another example of a “kid being a kid.”  (I do.)  You could argue that the best lessons students at Vero Beach can learn by electing JP is that elections have consequences.  (I might).  Some might believe that because a school’s principal has to work closely with student leadership — particularly the senior class president — that O’Keefe has the right to filter who gets elected and who doesn’t.  (I do — in extreme cases like this).  And others might believe that we ruin our relationship with students when we take heavy-handed actions like voiding an entire student body election (I don’t.)

But open-minded debate isn’t what happened at all.

Instead, JP was invited on Fox and Friends to talk all about how liberal educators were trying to silence a conservative voice who supported Trump.  Then, the Pacific Legal Fund sent a letter to Vero Beach High School claiming that JP’s constitutional rights were violated by O’Keefe’s decision.

What do JP’s parents think of this entire situation?  They are concerned that the school’s actions are going to hurt JP’s college admission chances, believe that “there wasn’t anything wrong” with his actions, and just wish the school handled the situation better.

Stew in that for a minute, would you?  

A kid gets up, makes a speech in an AP History class that he described as “a complete joke,” and he ends up on Fox and Friends as an example of how conservative voices are stifled in America’s public schools?

A kid gets up, makes a speech in an AP History class that he described as “a complete joke,” and a school system is threatened with legal action for violating his constitutional rights?

A kid gets up, makes a speech in an AP History class that he described as “a complete joke,” and his parents wish the SCHOOL handled the situation better?

Would any of this have happened ten years ago?  Twenty years ago?

What would your parents have done if you had disrupted one of your classes in the same way as JP had?  Would they have argued that the school had handled the situation poorly?  Would they have supported a lawsuit arguing that your constitutional rights had been violated?  Would they have allowed you to go on Fox and Friends to vent about the horrors of the school’s decision?

Those aren’t the decisions that my dad would have made.  

He would have recognized my actions for what they were — a silly prank that had no real place in the classroom.  I don’t think he would have punished me — but he also wouldn’t have bemoaned the school system or suggested to me that I had been wronged in any way.  He would have taken the call from the principal, apologized for my actions, and told me to quit being a goofball in class.

THAT’s why being an educator today is so darn difficult, y’all.