What’s In A Name?

Have you ever said a word over and over only to have it sound so strange to your ear that you wonder if you are in fact pronouncing it correctly or if it is in fact a word at all?  Lately, while immersing myself in education articles, books, and conferences covering every currently hot topic imaginable, I have had this experience more than once.  Sometimes I think that educators believe if they just use the same word over and over again actual change will occur without any actions being taken to make it so.  It’s as if the words are a magical incantation that when said in just the right way or with just the right tone can make all our educational problems disappear.

What troubles me about this is not that the latest trends don’t offer real solutions, it is that those solutions are being lost and squandered.  Instead of doing the hard thinking and hard work that it takes to make those potentially great ideas a reality, we just talk and talk and talk.  The more we talk, the less the words mean.  An obvious example is, of course, the phrase “21st century learning.”  In 2000, it made sense to talk about how 21st century learning should be and would be different than 20th century learning.  The problem is that it is now 2013, we are into the 2nd decade of the 21st century, and we are still talking about it like it is brand new or not yet here.  Guess what?  It’s here, and we are living it.  Has it lived up to its hype?

Similarly, I see great potential in the “Maker Movement,” but if I am honest, I would not be surprised if it does not live up to its potential.  Sylvia Martinez, a big name in the movement, recently commented in a Tech and Learning article, “I realize the attraction of always searching for the “new new thing,” the magic wand that will fix all problems.  I don’t believe that the Maker Movement is a magic wand.  I hope it doesn’t get turned into a buzzword.  Maybe we can talk more about how to make sure the hype doesn’t overwhelm the promise of the Maker Movement in schools.”  I was so thankful to see this comment at the very end of the article because at least it’s a start, an acknowledgement of the possible pitfalls.

One way to make sure that something as potentially good as the Maker Movement doesn’t end up a mere buzzword is to put more time into (gasp!) planning.  In the article, the 3 key areas that Martinez sees as places for schools to begin with the Maker Movement are robotics, programming, and 3-D printers.  On the one hand, I was happy to see that my school is working on all 3 components currently.  On the other hand, my worry is that we will throw a 3-D printer or some robotics into a room or with no plan of action, no systematic way to make and measure our goals for these tools and programs.  If we do this, we can repeat over and over that we are a part of the Maker Movement all we wish, but in the end, it’s just a name.

P.S.  In thinking about this post, a scene from the movie The Princess Bride also came to mind.  Enjoy!


The Art of Self-Reflection

When I was in graduate school, I designed and implemented a study on teaching students about metacognition, or in layman’s terms, teaching students how to think about their thinking.  After nearly two decades of school in one form or another, I had learned through trial and error how to monitor my own thinking and learning, but I believed (and still do) that teaching students to do this from a young age can pay huge dividends throughout their school careers and beyond.

To me, metacognition is one particular form of self-reflection, and I have come to realize as an adult that self-reflection is a life skill that too few people possess or at least use on a regular basis.  No matter our chosen profession, no matter where we are on our career path, we all need to self-reflect on a consistent basis.  We all need to apply to ourselves and our endeavors the basic concept we learned as college freshmen in that oh-so-stimulating-course Economics 101: the cost-benefit analysis, or if you like to see the glass half full, the benefit-cost analysis.

The eternal optimist may have more trouble with cost-benefit analyses than the pragmatist or the pessimist.  Optimists, of course, always look for the good, for the beneficial.  This is a worthy character trait; we all need those people in our lives who lift us up.  Yet an optimist who forever closes their eyes to problems is a risky and dangerous person as far as I am concerned.  Small, fixable problems that go unseen by the optimist who only measures things based on the beneficial qualities they possess become large, intractable problems over time.  So optimists, more than even pragmatists and pessimists, need to learn the art of self-reflection.  Pragmatists and pessimists need to learn this art as well, but I do believe it comes more naturally to them (too naturally, for the pessimist perhaps).

Self-reflection is actually not all about the self, despite the name.  Self-reflection involves thinking about how one’s words and actions affect others, too.  What turned out to be of great benefit to you or to some around you, may have cost others a great deal.  In school environments, those costs are important because school cultures operate not around single individuals or small groups but around the community as a whole.

Teaching young people to self-reflect is not easy, for as a friend and colleague of mine says, teenagers often come down with severe cases of ITB, or irrational teenage behavior.  More often than not, those teenagers catch this “disease” by failing to think about others first.  Fortunately, the disease is curable, but only if we teach young people the art of self-reflection.  Otherwise, we are likely to end up with a much worse and far less treatable disease called IAB, irrational adult behavior.


Rigor: Part II

So if you read my last blog post on rigor, you may have breathed a sigh of relief.  After all, if rigor is not found in doing more of the same problems or asking more of the same kinds of questions, then that’s less work for both teacher and student, right?  Not so fast.

Creating a truly rigorous course does involve work and often it’s work of a more difficult variety than simply adding on more of the same.  In fact, it’s relatively easy to simply add more of what you are already doing.  Sure, you may have to spend more time grading and students may have to spend more time on homework, but time is the only real difficulty when one equates rigor with the amount of work.   When you start to see rigor differently, however, when you stop equating rigor with the amount of time spent on a class, things get messy.

If rigor is actually found embedded within instruction, as I posited in the last post, then teachers who want to increase the rigor of their course have to grapple with what to change and how to change different aspects of their teaching.  This then, not just finding the time to grade more of the same, becomes the real difficulty.  A teacher has to rethink how they are presenting information, what questions they are asking in class, what assignments with which to task students (or not task students, as the case may be).  In the end, a teacher may not have to change all that much in order to increase the rigor of their course a great deal.  It could be as simple as asking questions in a different way so that the teacher is not leading students to an answer but getting the students to think through a problem and determine various possible answers.  But this change will only come when the teacher takes the time to reflect on their practice and craft, and this is what makes increasing rigor challenging; teachers have to be willing to reflect and change even when it’s hard.

Before you think that students are getting off a little too easy, let me reassure you.  When a school decides to up the ante in terms of rigor, everyone – and I mean everyone – bears some responsibility.  Students must be willing to feel uncomfortable, be willing to feel like they aren’t quite “getting it.”  If the teacher is asking more difficult questions, then students are bound to  feel this way.  Oh, and parents must also be willing to let their children go through this process.

Now for the good news for both teachers and students.  When you start to see rigor this way, it actually means less “busy work” and more time spent on what is really important and relevant.  Teachers may actually have less, not more, to grade, while their time spent planning might increase. Students also may spend the same amount of time on a class, but as with teachers the time is spent differently, with more time spent thinking and less time spent filling in a second worksheet with similar problems to the first.  I know which of these scenarios I’d prefer.  How about you?

Postscript: This is my 100th blog post!

100th Post

Rigor: What Does It Really Mean, and How Do I Find It?

Around my school as around most others these days, there’s an increasing emphasis on the word rigor.  Administrators, teachers, and parents all want their school to be seen as a rigorous one, one that is full of challenge that requires students to dig and think deeply.  We like to use the word in our public relations materials, our course guides, in faculty meetings, and in conversations with parents.  The word pops up again and again in my Twitter feed or online discussion boards.  And why not?  It’s a nice buzz word.  Unfortunately, like most buzz words, we often use the word without a firm understanding of what it really means, without a clear vision for adding or increasing rigor within our classrooms.  Even if we personally understand what we mean when we use the word rigor, we don’t always communicate our understanding to others effectively.

In the last two weeks, I met with both a parent and a teacher on separate occasions.  The topic of rigor came up in both cases.  The parent, while herself on board with increasing the rigor of the school’s curriculum, mentioned that not all parents felt the same way.  Some parents, she told me, worried that the workload was already tough enough for their students. Adding rigor equated in these parents’ minds with adding more work, both in class and at home.  Similarly to this parent, the teacher I met with agreed that she needed and wanted to add rigor to her course, however, she did not seem sure of how to do this.   Both of these conversations made me think more deeply about rigor than ever before, and here are some of my initial thoughts.  Hopefully, they will prove useful to you as you wrestle with this issue yourself.

  • Increasing the rigor of an assignment, course, or entire school curriculum is NOT the equivalent of adding more work or more standards.  Rather increasing rigor involves taking the current assignments or standards and making them more challenging both through the way we instruct our students  and the way we assess student learning.  Doing more of the same problems or asking more of the same kinds of questions does not increase the level of rigor.
  • This leads me to the second point.  If you truly want to increase the rigor of any given assignment or course, begin by looking at the questions you are asking.  The rigor is in the questions one asks more than in the assignments or standards.  Quite honestly, this is Bloom’s Taxonomy 101, whether you are using the traditional or revised taxonomy.  If you are a teacher who is unsure of what it means to add rigor to your course, I would suggest getting and keeping a question flip chart as a starting point.  It’s a simple but handy reference to use when creating an activity or asking questions during a class.
  • Understand that the standards in the curriculum do not say anything about how you should instruct students to meet that standard.  Your instruction and student learning can be a mile wide but only an inch deep if you only cover the very surface of a standard, if you only ask students to practice recall or memorize a procedure.  In many cases, to increase rigor, it’s not the curriculum (i.e. the standards) that needs changing but the instruction of those standards.  My official job title is “Director of Curriculum and Instruction,” (although the principals of the lower, middle, and upper schools also have just as large, if not a larger, part to play when it comes to instruction since they are instructional leaders).  We define curriculum as what is taught, whereas instruction is how we teach what is taught.  Do you see the difference?  The rigor, more often than not, is embedded within the instruction, within the “how.”  For example, the standards (the what, the curriculum) in AP European History that concern the French Revolution won’t change all that much over time, but the instruction (the how) may change if I want to increase or decrease the rigor of my course.

6 Lessons I’m Still Learning About Leadership

Today marks 3 months since I took a new position at my school – a new administrative position. I am no expert at leadership, not by a long shot, but here’s a few things I picked up so far. I am writing this post for myself more than anyone because I process best through the written word; however, if it is a help to others, all the better.

1. Define your terms. Eduspeak is only helpful when everyone knows and understands the terminology. Words and phrases like “21st century learning,” “student centered learning,” and “blended learning” are not necessarily common to all. Even when all are using the same terminology, they may be using the words in different ways. Making sure that you’ve defined those terms for yourself is step one; step two is communicating your definition clearly to others. Oh, and step three is listening to how others define those same terms and trying to find a compromise when needed.

2. Know where you’ve been. Vision is great, but a vision that is not connected to where you are at present or a vision without a clear understanding of where you’ve been in the recent past is a vision without legs on which to stand. I am fortunate because my new position is at the same school that I’ve been at for the last 5 years, so I know where my school has been, how we got to the present, and where I hope to see us go. For instance, I understand that my school has only been 1:1 from 6th-12th grade for one year.* Sometimes it feels like longer, but I have to remind myself that it’s only been 1 year – that students, teachers, and parents are still going through a very steep learning curve.

3. Be wiling to see the grey. As a student of history, I have an easy time seeing past black and white to the many shades of grey that make up the real world. My undergraduate and graduate courses taught me well to see an issue from multiple perspectives , to see that one could marshal evidence for nearly any position (within reason). Very little in this world that involves human interaction is black and white, and I actually think it’s beneficial to play devil’s advocate with yourself and others so long as you are willing to make the necessary compromises in the end.

4. Differentiate your leadership. In education, we talk about differentiating instruction to reach all learners. Well, administrators or lead teachers need to differentiate their leadership as well. Not everyone responds to the same style of leadership. For example, I do not respond well to the “boot camp, in-your-face” kind of leadership, but I know others who do. Know your audience and provide leadership for them accordingly.

5. Differentiate your communication. Along with leadership, differentiate your communication. Not everyone needs the same message, and sending a mass communication to everyone when only a handful of people need that particular message is a turnoff. Such messages also have the pitfall of being misunderstood by both the intended and unintended receivers. Take the time and speak more directly to people by differentiating your communication.

6. Practice what you preach. I am so lucky to still be in the classroom so that I can really practice what I am preaching about teaching and learning, and I feel blessed to work in a great department that is constantly trying to be better than they were the day before. Even if you are not in the classroom anymore, you can still do this in other ways…starting with all the other lessons mentioned above.

*In 2011-12, two grades received laptops (7th and 9th); in 2012-13, all grades 6th-12th were given laptops.