It’s Wednesday. I’m sitting in my office with two students waiting for a third to arrive when one of them shares this epiphany.
“I couldn’t stop Dr. Podraza. I worked on this problem the entire weekend. I looked up articles. I had my parents Google stuff. I got everyone involved.”
“And I don’t think the math is actually right. After all, it doesn’t make sense that my answer was in the billions.”He then went on to explain why he thought his answer was implausible citing relevant facts.
There it was. The thing educators all dream of. A student who was so engaged in learning that he pursued it for the pure joy of it as opposed to turning it in for a good grade.
So what caused all of this determination and excitement?
Right before Winter Break, I was talking with these same students about how they hated the current way they had to learn math because they were given problems that were either out of context, completely fake, or that they were being forced to solve them in a way that was inefficient.
“So what do you think we could do about it? How would you like to learn math?”
“We think math should be connected to the real world. We should be able to solve problems about things that we can connect to, not some weird story about a monster at the bottom of a made-up lake or worse, Felicia’s cookies (this is an inside joke). We get that we have to solve problems and learn the math behind it, but it’s frustrating when we are told we have to use a specific way of doing it.”
“Ok, so what might that look like?”
“Well, there’s stuff going on in the world. Like global warming. Stuff that’s actually a problem and math is probably related to it. We want to solve problems like that.”
This was how the Top Secret “Tangerine” project began. We decided at that meeting that the three of them would create their own YouTube Channel (real name forthcoming) based on real-world math problems. It would be a weekly show where they presented a math conundrum to their viewers based on something happening in the news. There would be opportunities for viewers to suggest problems or topics as well, but the work would always be done by the students. They’ve even tossed around the idea of writing their own curriculum one day.
I’ve seen this type of enthusiasm in students hundreds of times throughout my career and it’s always related to the same type of work. Ryan & Deci would attribute it to something called, “Self-Determination Theory” which hypothesizes that any human needs competence, relatedness, and autonomy to be intrinsically motivated. In non-theoretical terms, it’s really just offering students relevant and meaningful work that they can connect to. Genius Hour, Passion Projects, Project-Based Learning, Inquiry-Based Learning, & Service Learning are all examples of how educators are currently harnessing the power of relevance in their classrooms.
So here’s what I’m currently grappling with. Students would love to pursue this type of work all day every day if we let them. The group of kids in the Tangerine project has requested to come to school as early as 7:00 a.m. to work on it and would stay until five or later if I had the time. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that school should be a place where everyone pursues projects all day long, but in reality, that may not be the case. It’s made me wonder…
What would school look like if we gave kids longer periods of time to work on big projects instead of the way we currently teach? What are the opportunity costs of this approach?
How do we balance teaching students’ skills with working on the projects themselves so that they can handle the cognitive load required? What types of teaching structures might work best for this?
Do we teach the skills in isolation first and then give students time to explore projects or do we have them work on projects first and teach the skills as they come up? (the chicken or the egg question)
What professional learning would educators need to successfully approach the classroom this way? Are there any mindsets shifts that need to occur (within myself and others) related to this?
I wish I could tell you I had an even semi definitive answer to these questions, but unfortunately, I don’t. I keep hearing that we live in a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous), so it makes sense that we should give students experiences where the answer is not immediately obvious. However, within this world of unpredictability, there are also constraints that we all must adhere to so it also seems relevant to provide students with structured learning experiences as well. The only way to really know how much of each is to continually experiment in the classroom and see what works best with our students.
I recently readthis articlefrom the Atlantic titled, Elementary Education Has Gone Terribly Wrong. It’s an interesting read for a variety of reasons, but what stood out to me was the plethora of evidence that confirms what many of us have known for decades: the standardized testing movement simply doesn’t work. Despite our efforts to systematize learning and add more “rigor,” we continue to end up with the same results along with an ever-expanding achievement gap.
The author, Natalie Wexler poses the questions, “
“What if the medicine we have been prescribing is only making matters worse, particularly for poor children? What if the best way to boost reading comprehension is not to drill kids on discrete skills but to teach them, as early as possible, the very things we’ve marginalized—including history, science, and other content that could build the knowledge and vocabulary they need to understand both written texts and the world around them?”
She pokes holes in many common literacy practices in the U.S. as well as presents examples of teachers who are finding success in trying out different approaches. The article got me thinking about education overall, how we have tried so many new things, abandoned many ideas, gone back to the same ideas, but education has, for the most part, looked the exact same way for generations.
The start of a new decade feels like a fresh start for everything, education included. There is no guarantee of what the next 10 years will bring, but I am optimistic that this decade will bring what the past hundreds of years have not, an education system that is valuable for all. There are a plethora of amazing educators who are leading the charge and sharing their stories on social media and beyond giving me hope that we can and will create powerful educational experiences to help ALL kids succeed.
Predictions for 2020-2030
The ideas I present in this post are a result of two decades of personal experience working with students, a lot of reading, watching & learning, and most of all, connecting with amazing educators across the globe. (Thank you PLN!) You will notice that no idea is brand new. I believe that we already have the answers which we seek, it is the way that we use them with students that has the power to shift education for the better.
Less About the Right Answer & More about Great Questions
One of the chapters that stood out to me in The Innovators Mindset was the chapter where George Couros discusses the importance of students being “problem-finders.” This was sparked from the work of Ewan McIntosh. The premise is that we spend a lot of time working with students to come up with solutions to problems, but what we really need in a dynamic world is students who can find problems and innovative ways to solve these problems.
Besides the fact that solving problems with predetermined answers can be monotonous and insanely boring, (geometry proofs anyone?), if we spend all of our time giving students problems to solve with a finite answer we are giving students the impression that the purpose in life is to simply get the right answer. Students leave school thinking there is a simple methodology to life and if they follow the success formula given to them they will be successful when really the opposite is true. We need creative thinkers, students who can look at the world with a new lens and make it better.
A great way to develop this skill is by teaching students to ask great questions and giving them opportunities to explore ideas that are meaningful to them. Genius Hour or Passion Projects,QFT, TQE Method, and Socratic Seminar are just some ways that educators around the globe are working to develop the questioning ability in students. Each of these methodologies helps students to not only create questions of their own, but they encourage rich discussion among students as well which can lead to new ideas from students. It is exciting to think about what kind of learning will take place when we spend more time empowering students to question, explore & discover as opposed to encouraging them to simply find the right answer.
In the next ten years, whether virtual or in-person, learning will extend more and more beyond the four walls of the classroom. Mentioned in the Wexler article, research confirms students learn best when they have experiences and background knowledge to be able to comprehend the texts they are reading. Creativity is the number one quality that employers are currently looking for. Reeves & Reeves suggest in their book on creativity, The Myth of the Muse that one of the ways to enhance creativity is through inspiration from experiences. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) recommend starting science lessons with a phenomenon so that students have a shared experience to ask questions and develop theories from. Although I still think the best experience is one in real life, Augmented and Virtual Reality makes this a daily possibility for students.
One school that is doing an amazing job at teaching from this approach is the GEMS World Academy in Chicago, Illinois. In this school, the teachers plan out larger units that explore a broad question related to an essential idea. Included in each of these are field trips to a place in the city where students can explore. From the shared experience students then create questions they have and spend the unit exploring answers to the questions they create. Each subject area is tied into this big idea including specials. The result is that students see learning as interconnected as opposed to limited to one subject area which enhances their creative ability to connect ideas and create new ones.
A More Personalized Approach to Education
If you would have asked me if this was possible ten years ago my answer would have emphatically been no. It takes too much time. It’s not necessary or realistic. It is amazing what a decade of experience can do. I now believe it is more necessary than ever. As you will hear me mention throughout this post, in the dynamic world we live in we no longer need students who can just get the right answer, we need students who are curious, think creatively and can find new problems to solve. We want students to leave school with a positive view of themselves, recognizing not only what their talents are, but how they can use them to make a positive impact on the world.
When I say a more personalized approach to education, I am not saying that every student would be doing something different in every moment of the day. Students need foundational knowledge in order to be creative, ask questions and generate new ideas. However, I think it’s a different approach to looking at the school day. Design39 Campus in California has been exploring this idea for the past five years. You can check outthis linkfor more information, but their day is split up into Integrated Learning Time, Deep Dives & Explorations. During Integrated Learning Time is when they explore content across curriculums for purposeful application of skills. Deep Dives is time for students to explore their passions in an academic setting. Explorations give students time to explore new things they are interested in trying. I love the way they organize their day because it gives students foundational understanding as well as time to explore passions and build new ones. For more information on how the idea began and the success they are having with students, check outthis podcastfrom Modern Learners.
Going Gradeless/Meaningful Feedback
At some point, we have to recognize that grades are just meaningless little letters that students look at and then toss. Even when we add in comments to the grade or SBR number students associate more meaning with the grade and typically ignore the feedback. Both John Hattie and Susan Brookhart have written books on the topic and the research shows that feedback is a much more effective learning tool for students over grades.
Many educators are already moving towards a feedback-heavy or gradeless classroom. (check out the#gradelesson Twitter) Instead of using grades or fear of punishment to motivate students to complete their work, they have shifted their instructional practices to have students set goals that are meaningful to them. The teacher and/or peers give them feedback on progress towards their goal to move their learning forward. Learning then becomes a continuum as opposed to an endpoint. I’ve linked a few useful resources below if you are considering making this shift.
One of the best videos I have seen this year that has had a huge impact on the way I think about the classroom isWhy School Should Be about Us Instead of Mefrom Trevor Muir. Besides the fact that it has a totally Hamilton-esque vibe, the premise that school sets up a culture of competition as opposed to what our world needs, a culture of collaboration, rings completely true. I’ve watched it probably 20 times.
I was definitely one of the students who groaned every time I heard it was time to work on a group project. There was always the people who did everything, a few people who did nothing, and then somehow a project evolved. It never felt to me like there was any purpose in working together. As a teacher, I tried to circumvent this issue by assigning roles to each student, but even this had uneven results with students continuing to work in silos as opposed to creating something together.
After reading a wonderful post by John Spencer about collaboration, what I realized was missing was students seeing the value in one another’s strengths and using those strengths to build something greater than what could be done alone. Instead of starting group projects by assigning roles, have students share their strengths, set goals for the project together and give them opportunities to give one another feedback along the way. This creates greater meaning for the work and also mirrors the type of work they will be doing outside of school. In the working world students will be collaborating daily, we have to increase the amount of collaboration they do throughout the day, but it also has to be done in a way that is meaningful so that it doesn’t just become another one of the dreaded group projects.
If you’re looking for ways to create this type of classroom, Trevor Muir’s new book, The Collaborative Classroom, filled with practical ideas and examples, is a great place to start.
The End of Labels
This last one I am most excited about, although I think it might take a little bit more time. I predict that gradually the labels we use in education, “gifted, special education, EL” will disappear. As we start to shift the focus of school from everyone ending up in the same exact spot to encouraging students to be curious learners who explore their passions and develop their talents, the need for labels will go away because we will see students for their greatness of whom they already are, not some arbitrary standard we want them to become.
“Logic will take you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” – Albert Einstein
We have spent the past hundred years approaching education from a logical standpoint. Students need to learn ______________ so we will teach them ___________________. We will set standards that everyone needs to reach and if they don’t reach those standards we will fix them with _____________________. This is a very logical approach if we are working with products, but hasn’t always served us well with students. We need more creativity and flexibility if we are going to reach all students.
I am optimistic about the shifts I continue to see happening in our schools. I believe that through these shifts we will have students leaving school with more creativity, empathy, equity, and curiosity than we ever have in the past. It is inspiring to think about the wonderful world that these students will create.
“Why are you so mad at that driver mama?” asked my daughter Alexandra on the way home from the grocery store last Saturday. I wanted to say in my most indignant voice, “Because he is driving slower than molasses and deserves to be yelled at,” but something about the way she asked the question snapped me out of my crazy road rage. Instead, I took a breath, paused, and wondered…
What was I so mad at?
It was by all accounts a gorgeous day. One of those beautiful days where you open the windows, breathe deep and smile at the luck you’re having on a September weekend in Chicago.
Except I wasn’t. Not one bit. The night before I had painstakingly mapped out every waking moment that day from my 5:30 a.m. workout all the way to Alexandra’s birthday party that night. I went to sleep that night thinking I was a genius of time management and that I was going to avoid any stress because I was so prepared. What I ended up doing was spending the day jumping from one activity without a moment for pause. The anxiety I was trying so hard to avoid had escalated to monstrous proportions.
What I realize now is that in my brilliant timetable, I had neglected to schedule a time for a pause in my day. A time to just do whatever I wanted to do. A moment of quiet or catching one of my favorite shows or reading a book or even just talking to a friend. Because of this, I was walking through the day feeling on edge.
I remember feeling this way many times throughout the years when I was a teacher. As the list of important objectives grew, the time in the school day remained the same. The only way to get everything done was to over-schedule every subject down to the minute leaving no time for pause, a teachable moment or connection to something not already planned in the day. Each day blended with the next, and although I had accomplished everything on my list I grew more and more overwhelmed.
Kids feel the anxiety as much as we do. Even when they are offered choice and voice, the purpose is still determined by the teacher. They spend 6-7 hours of their day doing essentially what someone else is asking them to do. When we do give them a moment away from the academic schedule, it’s usually a “brain break” where we dictate exactly what they will be doing to “relax.” What message does that send to them?
Google, “the effect of breaks on the brain” or “taking time for ourselves” and you’ll find a plethora of research and articles that support the idea that taking periodic breaks are actually better for learning. In a recent article from Edutopia, the authors posit that taking periodic breaks (including brain breaks) actually decreases stress and increases productivity. One of the most interesting studies they reference showed that when the brain is at rest it is actually highly active with different areas lighting up. “Breaks keep our brains healthy and play a key role in cognitive abilities such as reading comprehension and divergent thinking.”
If you’re still not convinced that learners need more downtime in school, think about the increase in mental health issues we have seen over the past few decades. According to the CDC, “1 in 6 U.S. children aged 2–8 years (17.4%) have a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.” Behavior disorders are greatest in students ages 6-11 while rates of depression and anxiety rise as children age, peaking at ages 12-17.
I have to believe that some of this is a result of the fast-paced world the students are a part of. At school, with the exception of lunch and recess, the content and schedule of their day are chosen for them. Many students continue this pace when they leave school moving from one activity to another. Even though most of these after school activities are chosen and preferred by the student, it still doesn’t leave time to just be present and reap the benefits of having time to pause.
If we want learners to be cognitively flexible and creative thinkers then we have to start giving everyone more breaks in their day. I’m not saying we need more brain breaks, or even more recess. Just some time broken up throughout the day when everyone in the room gets a moment to choose something that he or she wants to do that is not tied to a standard or a demand of another human being. The research seems to show that if we can do this, we’ll not only be better learners but happier humans overall.
So I’m starting with me. Next week I’m blocking out time in my day for myself. I’m talking to my teachers about doing this for not only the students, but themselves as well. We all work insanely hard inside and outside of school. Let’s give ourselves some grace and slow down the pace of the day. I don’t know where the quote below came from, but I’m going to end with it as a kind reminder.
I wouldn’t really describe myself as someone who cries easily, but as the closing melody of “A Million Dreams” began to play I found myself overcome with emotion, unable to hold back tears. Looking out across the audience of parents, students, and teachers I realized that the moment that we had been planning for months had arrived and the true journey was about to begin.
It all started last fall when author Katie Martin visited our school to talk with our teachers about her amazing book Learner-Centered Innovation. (Side Note: If you have not read this book, I highly recommend it. Check it outhere.) As part of the day she held a workshop with our parents that included conversations about our own school experiences, what we really want for our children, current success indicators vs. what we truly value and messages from parents to the teachers.
There were tears at this event as well as many participants realized that the message they were sending in their language and actions didn’t match the future that they deeply wanted for their children. Our community found connections in shared memories of their own school experiences, dreams for their kids, and what they valued most in education. They created new language stems to use with their children that better matched their desired outcome of a growth mindset, kindness, and empathy.
What I found to be most powerful about the workshop evolved out of one of the last questions: What do you want to share with the teachers? Smiles ensued as parents wrote down positive messages of support, a desire to be a collaborative partner, and deep admiration for the work that they do. They also discussed a need for increased communication due to the recent changes including a no homework policy, Standards-Based Reporting and a workshop approach to the classroom.
I walked away from that day with my mind brimming with ideas. We collected a lot of great information, but I knew the conversation couldn’t stop there. We needed to engage more people, collect more feedback and continue the dialogue started that day. The result could be a shared vision that went beyond just our district or school by integrating all of the stakeholders in our community. This would pervade everything we did and shape the culture of our school.
Beginning Stages of the Work
Knowing that a great way to engage the parent community was to first go through our PTA, I reached out to Erin Stratton, our dynamic PTA president. An organizational ninja, filled with ideas and always willing to lend a helping hand, she has been such an asset to our school both inside and out.
When I initially proposed the idea of engaging families in creating a shared vision of the school she agreed with me that this was a great idea, but posed a really great question:
How are you going to engage all stakeholders? Not just the ones who come to all of the meetings. How will you ensure that all voices are heard?
This question literally drove the rest of our conversation for the meeting as we brainstormed ways to get more people to come. We talked about typical ideas like making it fun, including food and maybe even holding it off school property so that we could include an adult beverage or two. What really struck me though was Erin’s honest conversation with me about the need to open up the school, give parents a window into what was happening in the classroom. Parents will always come if it is somehow connected to the kids and they can gain a greater understanding of how their children are learning.
This got the wheels turning in my mind again. I thought about doing a learning fair where we opened up the entire school and students could pick any sort of way they wanted to demonstrate their learning. Parents could move around the school, talk to the teachers and students, and get a sense of what learning looked like. After they did this we would have break out rooms to discuss what they saw and talk about what resonated and also other ideas they had.
The biggest obstacle I saw with this was time. When would students work on these projects? If it was going to be during the school day how would teachers feel about giving up some of their instructional time to facilitate these projects? The other tricky component would be asking teachers to give up a night for essentially another Open House at our school.
At the end of the meeting, we talked about building excitement for the event and advertising it to our community. I don’t remember whose idea it initially was, but we decided that some sort of promotional video that involved students would be a great idea to spark conversation and get people interested. It would include snippets of instruction as well as some sound bites. I told Erin I would reach out to Kate Allt in our communications department to help produce it.
We also sketched out some questions that we wanted to ask parents at the event to spark the conversation and decided that we would have a sign-up that night for parents to join a Shared Vision Committee that would do the work of putting the vision into action. The questions we initially thought we would ask were:
What resonated with you about what you saw in the video?
What was your experience like in school? What do you still use now?
What do you wish they would have learned in school?
What do you most value for their children in school?
What is your vision for your child’s future?
Hawthorne wishes for the school…
As Erin left the meeting I was excited about the work that was before me, but nervous about how it would actually all play out. The idea of a movie about our school really resonated with me and I started thinking it could go beyond just the promo and be the focus of the evening. I decided to reach out to Katie Martin to get her feedback on the idea and sent her an email with an outline of the plan. She liked the idea of inviting the community to a movie night that would spark conversation about a shared vision for our school, but added one piece of advice that ended up changing the trajectory of the film:
“I think you should definitely invite students to the movie night and see if a few of them can help you out the movie together. Their insights throughout the process would be valuable.”
I couldn’t believe I hadn’t considered this. I was currently working with a group of 5th grade students, The Hawthorne Hawkeye (YouTube Club as the kids affectionately named it), who were learning about video production with the goal of creating 5-10 minute videos about each classroom in our school. We had spent most of the year working on building their skills and understanding of film, but hadn’t actually started creating the mini-documentaries yet. They would be the perfect group to do the work of telling our school’s story.
Excited (yes, I know I get excited a lot), I reached back out to Erin to meet up again and talk to her about the slight shift in plans. She was in agreement that this was a good plan and we sketched out a tentative agenda for a “Movie Premiere Night” complete with popcorn, tickets to the event and maybe even a red carpet. The attendees (parents & teachers & involved students) would first watch the film and then meet in break-out sessions to discuss the questions listed above. After this, groups would carousel around to read other groups responses and we would create a list of themes. There would be a sign-up sheet for anyone who was interested in continuing the conversation and actually putting the vision into action. We decided to replace the PTA meeting on February 19th with the premiere which was a little over 3 months away.
Getting the Students Involved
Creating the video with the students was a three-step process with many intricate details and nuances along the way. I sincerely wish that I could say that the students drove the entire process, but with the time crunch and the fact that I could only meet with them once a week, I did take control of facilitating and designing of the structure and process.
Because asking good questions was going to be key to building a great film we started there, brainstorming questions for both our teachers and parents. Based on what we captured in interviews, it was our intention to then go in and capture “B Roll Footage” of classroom instruction that matched what the interviewees said.
In designing the questions I told the students that we wanted to capture what was positive about learning at our school, what made Hawthorne unique and what are some hopes for the future. After working in partnerships to come up with ideas, our teacher questions ended up as the following:
How long have you been teaching at Hawthorne and why did you become a teacher?
What is your favorite thing about teaching or What’s your favorite teaching moment?
What are attributes that you think a good learner should have?
What is your favorite thing about Hawthorne school?
What do you expect from your students?
Is there something that you want your kids to learn that you don’t teach? If so, what is it?
Did you like school when you were a kid? If so, what was your favorite subject?
What is your favorite subject to teach? Why?
What is your ideal classroom or school?
We then set up a schedule for teachers to sign-up to be interviewed during their lunch hour in our library and TRC. The students worked in teams of two to interview each teacher, one working the camera and the other being the interviewer. Mr. Chambers was kind enough to send over York High School students from Ytv to mentor the students prior to this in how to use the cameras and tips for capturing the best shots. I could see from the way that the students operated behind the camera as well as performed in front of it that this had a lasting effect on their work.
We did not have every teacher sign-up, but I did have teachers reach out to say they would have participated if all the slots weren’t already full. Our staff is amazing at jumping in and contributing to a variety of opportunities in our building. If we ever did this again, I would try to accommodate them all.
After Winter Break, we began the grueling process of interviewing students and collecting classroom footage. For the classroom work, we had the teachers sign up over a period of three days for 1-2 students plus myself to come in and record in their classroom for about an hour. We didn’t give them any specific parameters, only that it should represent learning in your classroom and that it didn’t have to be fancy. We ended up with at least one teacher volunteering in every grade level and even had a few specials sign up.
When it came to the actual recording, one of the students would man the stationary camera while another would capture more candid footage. At about halfway through the time the students would move outside of the classroom and would pull students to be interviewed to find out what was happening in the lesson from their perspective. They also asked them the following questions that the group had developed during one of our meetings:
How do you learn best?
What do you wish you got to do more of in school?
What do you want to be when you grow up or what problem do you want to solve in the world around you?
What is your favorite subject and why?
What is the best thing about your grade level and why?
What is one thing you would change about Hawthorne?
We also interviewed students during lunch and recess time with these same questions either individually, in a partnership or in a small group.
Although I had initially wanted the students to be involved in the parent interview portion as well, scheduling and time got in the way and I ended up creating the questions with feedback from Erin Stratton. We decided it would be best to send out a Google forms survey to the parents to pull quotes from first. The last question asked participants if they would be willing to be interviewed on camera answering these questions. We used responses to that question to invite parents in to ask them some of the same questions, plus a few more.
How would you describe learning at Hawthorne School?
What does Hawthorne School do really well?
What is your greatest dream for your children?
How does Hawthorne help your child to reach that dream?
What do you want to share with the teachers at Hawthorne?
When you imagine the ideal school experience for your child, what does that look like?
My favorite moment or favorite experience at Hawthorne School is…
How do you think Hawthorne is different from other schools in or out of District 205?
What do you wish Hawthorne did more of?
What was school like for you growing up?
One of the things I learned in conducting the parent interviews was how amazing it is to sit 1:1 with a parent and talk about their experience in the school. I met with parents who had children at Hawthorne from 1 year to 15! It was incredibly insightful to hear either viewpoint and moving forward I would like to start scheduling these annually to get an idea of where we’ve been and also where we want to go. If I was still a teacher, I would do the same practice, but with parents of students in my classroom. Surveys are great, but you miss out on some of the nuances and ability to probe more deeply.
The Editing Process
The editing process went through several iterations. The students quickly discovered that looking through film to find interesting quotes and clips was not as fun as doing the recording itself. These meetings tended to drag and I was honestly a little worried that we would ever finish based on this progress.
What made a huge difference was the way that we ended up organizing the way that we took notes on the clips. Instead of the original template that looked like this:
I ended up making a specific template for each group we interviewed with a section for each question. The students then signed up for the question they would be paying attention to as they listened to the interviews. (Try to picture the example below with a section for each question as well as the stakeholder.)
This expedited the process significantly because it gave students something to focus on. I also made a copy of the questions for each of the groups for writing down specific quotes that we might turn into quote slides in the documentary.
When it came time to decide on the structure of the video itself we went through and looked for themes in the questions and decided to organize the documentary that way. Here are a few examples of where we started:
By organizing all of our ideas ahead of time we were able to put the actual video together in much less time than if we had just input all of the videos into WeVideo and tried pulling clips as we went.
One huge obstacle to consider if you are considering having students do something like this with WeVideo is that the students can’t all simultaneously work on the same project at one time, even if it is in collaboration mode. To solve this problem and not waste students time during lunch I had them each sign up for individual times they would come down to my office throughout the day to work on the project importing clips or adding in design style like transitions, music etc. I am sincerely grateful for one student in particular who I am pretty much convinced is the next Steven Spielberg with his creative genius and ability to figure out any video creation obstacle that we needed to overcome.
If I thought Erin Stratton was a creative and organizational ninja before this process started, working with her on this project only reinforced that idea tenfold. Leading up to the event she dropped everything to come in, talk on the phone or even text about ideas. Her questions and ideas added incredible value to the focus of the evening as well as the smooth organization.
While OUT OF TOWN, she continued to work behind the scenes to ensure that this event was a success. She helped organize parent volunteers to facilitate the post-film discussion, recruited PTA President-Elect Jennie Beal to help with set-up and coordination for the night including assigning tables, decorations and food, and somehow managed to get back to help set up for the evening.
The final plan for the night ended up being the following:
Prior to the event starting, I met with the 10 table leaders to discuss how they would facilitate the discussion based on the guide. We were expecting around 100 people who RSVP’d including parents, teachers and students who were involved in the making of the film. We ended up with less than this number, but the conversation had by those involved was a powerful one.
After watching the documentary (huge applause, happy tears), tables started out talking about what resonated with them from the film. Many agreed with the positive messages about our school being one that focuses on the needs of the students. They smiled as they shared stories of the impact that particular teachers had had on their children and even discussed behaviors of teachers who had the opposite effect (I did not hear specific names used). I overheard conversations about liking our workshop model approach and how their children come home happy with school.
What sparked an interesting debate was our recent “No Homework” policy. Some parents thought that this was a great new policy because their children have so much they’re involved in after school and this gave them back more family time. On the flip side, parents who also had middle school and high school students were concerned that this wasn’t preparing students to develop organizational structures and responsibility when they start getting homework again as they are older.
Another interesting conversation that occurred at one of the tables came out of a conversation about bringing in more experts from the community to talk about the work they were doing. Some parents thought that we needed to do more of this because it would expose students to career ideas for their future. Another parent brought up the point that we spend a lot of time focusing on preparing students to be “career and college ready,” but we are missing out on the development of the whole child if we only focus our efforts there. It was an interesting conversation for sure and one that I would like to continue.
The cumulating work of each table was to create two posters based on the following:
Imagine a school where…
Then we need leaders who…
Then we need teachers who…
Then we need parents who…
I loved hearing tables debate back and forth about what was essential for our students and what we might need to make that happen. It was also amazing to hear families say, well, we already do a lot of these things. I want to make sure you know that this is not a criticism, but just our best ideas. A few of the posters created:
I had many amazing conversations that night with parents. One of my favorites came from a parent who was teaching a religion class and had started reading every Smokey Daniels book she could get her hands on. It was so fun talking to her about inquiry and how passionate she had become about instruction through this process. She jokingly mentioned that maybe parents could come to some of the staff development workshops that we did. I seriously thought this was a fantastic idea and wasn’t sure why we didn’t do this more! (Side note: I already picked up Upstanders and am enjoying it immensely)
After the Shared Vision Night, I took the posters and typed them up into this document. The starred items are ones that had additional markings on the posters indicating that more than just one group agreed with that statement when they did the gallery walk. Just like the day that Katie Martin visited our school, the themes that stood out were more greatly related to students truly enjoying learning, developing character and strong relationships being created among all parties.
The Work is Just Beginning
As much fun as it was working with the students to create the school documentary, the true work begins now. As you can see from thechartsfrom the evening there are so many ideas for what our ideal school might look like and what teachers, parents, and leaders might need to do to achieve that dream. The Shared Vision Committee will be meeting soon to discuss:
What are the common themes from each of the sections?
What do we already do well?
What are areas for growth?
What are our next steps in achieving our goals?
My greatest takeaway from this work is the importance of everyone having a voice in what goes on in our schools. In Learner-Centered Innovation, Katie Martin articulates
“If we want to better align our schools with the world we live in and develop the type of learners and people that will be productive citizens, administrators, teachers, families, and the greater community must work together to develop a shared understanding of the desired outcomes for students and align the vision, policies, and practices.”
Schools are the center of the community. They have great potential to connect those who might not otherwise connect, to bridge differences thought perhaps previously impossible, to create unimaginable and limitless possibilities for those they serve. As educational leaders, we can no longer sit behind the walls of our building developing plans based solely on academic outcomes related to levels of achievement. When we engage all voices, we go beyond academics and get to the dreams of the human beings we serve and start the journey towards the world we want to create.
If you are interested in watching either of the videos you can see them here:
You may have already surmised this from the rest of the story, but a key component of this process was generating help from others, sometimes by asking, and other times being the grateful benefactor of an awesome human being who hears a need and reaches out.
The first part I am referring to is our awesome music teacher, Ms. Cunanan. She is seriously one of the most generous and creative human beings I have come into contact with in education. Last year she helped myself and our instructional coach out when we were creating an end of the year video for the staff by having the choir record a song that we had written a parody to about all of the amazing instruction our teachers were doing. What’s even more amazing she didn’t ask any questions, she just said yes and did it. This year was no different.
I think I asked her in January if she thought that the choir would be able to learn the song, “A Million Dreams” and be ready to record it by February she didn’t hesitate. She found a lead singer, practiced regularly with the students, organized permission slips for the kids to record at York High School one morning and essentially took it over. I honestly couldn’t have organized it any better. I definitely couldn’t have gotten 40 students ready to record in the record time that she did. THANK YOU Ms. Cunanan and the Hawthorne choir for practicing relentlessly during your lunch recess to produce such a beautiful tune!
This brings me to my next musical genius, Mr. Chris Gemkow, the music production teacher at York High School. Last year he helped myself and a group of students to record a song for our “21st Century Learning” video for teachers at Lincoln at the end of the year. It was such a wonderful experience and I was excited for the opportunity to work with him again. The morning of the recording he gave up his own time to set up the sound booth to record almost 40 students plus one soloist. After this he produced the song and got it back to me within a week! Seriously blown away by his kindness!
Finally, there is ZERO way this video would have happened if it weren’t for the amazing and incredibly talented, Mrs. Leban, our creative tech teacher at Sandburg, one of our middle schools. (Side Note: If you do not follow her on YouTube you are missing out!) She actually reached out to me about WeVideo after hearing me talk about my technology dilemma with students using the Chromebooks in this process. I had been talking about it on one of the SuperCharged Learning podcasts and she emailed me to get together. We met during her lunch/plan time one day and I am sincerely grateful for her help!
When you have a moment to yourself throughout the day, (driving in the car, running on the treadmill, when the sun is rising and you’re just waking up) what does your mind go to? In the past, it’s been anything from how can I get ALL of my students excited about reading to imagining myself singing an epic (most likely 80’s) song on stage with a live band.
Lately though I’ve been reflecting a lot on my last post about the purpose of education. A former instructional coach and now administrator, I’m always thinking about the practical end of my ideas. The questions that seem to be recurring most are:
What is the core foundation of instructional practices in a school that values creating meaningful learning experiences that build on strengths and develop students’ passions?
How do I actually go about making this vision of a learner-driven education a reality? More specifically…
What structures need to be in place? (schedule, student grouping, learning spaces, etc)
What are the mindsets and values of the leaders and learners in this type of school and how can I help to develop them if they are not already there?
What shifts should be prioritized first?
So I was blown away when I started listening to a recentModern Learners podcast (if you are not listening to this podcast you are seriously missing out) where the hosts, Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon, interviewed Megan Power, a teacher who had not only explored these questions and more, but had been part of designing and opening a PUBLIC school that was actually DOING all of these things.
Located in San Diego, Design39Campus, is part of the POWAY School District. Its inception story is similar to many public schools around the country. Because of the growing number of homes being built in the area, a new school was needed to help with overcrowding in other buildings.
That’s pretty much where the similarities stop.
Instead of building a school that mirrored the others in this high performing district, the superintendent took this as an opportunity to go beyond what they had done before. With this in mind, he put together a team with a very specific challenge, how do we change the way we do school? The team took this question a step further and asked…
“How do we change the way students experience learning?”
The result of a deep exploration of this one question is what has built the foundation of this incredible school:
“Learning experiences are designed with the individual learner in mind. As a collaborative community, we nurture creative confidence, practice design thinking, learn through inquiry, connect globally, use technology and real-world tools, and promote the courage and growth mindset necessary to change the world.”
This approach has not only impacted traditional academic metrics (Their 6th-8th grade students consistently outscore the other students in the district on standardized tests.), but the mindset of the students as well. Instead of being excited when they have days off of school, parents are reporting that their students are actually upset not being able to attend.
Lessons Learned & Ideas to Emulate
Rather than rehash the entire episode, I’d rather focus on the big takeaways related to the questions I have been reflecting upon lately.
1. Time & Design Thinking
The first thing that really stood out to me was the amount of time that Megan Power and the team took to think deeply and explore every possible avenue related to their big question. Using a design thinking approach they “threw every piece of the education puzzle onto the floor” and reflected on each piece to see what worked and what they might want to change. Because of a grant, the members of the team were had an entire year out of the classroom to focus solely on this endeavor.
It has been my experience that in education we have a bit of the “Squirrel!” mentality where we jump from one new idea to another without really delving in deeply to explore why we want to implement the initiative. Even worse, we don’t take the time needed to explain the purpose and build the capacity of those who will be implementing said initiative. This results in either shallow implementation confusion or overwhelmed colleagues which inevitably leads to push-back from many.
2. Building a Shared Vision
One of the models of complex change that I continually come back to use in reflection is from Ambrose.
In order for complex change to occur, the five elements above must be woven into the work. If one is not present, then any of the five items on the right will occur.
One thing that the founders of Design39Campus did exceptionally well is build a shared vision and understanding among ALL of its stakeholders before even opening its doors. This started with parents.
Instead of telling parents what Design39Campus was going to be all about they held community nights where they asked participants what they wanted for their students and for the school. Attendees were asked to respond to the following:
Imagine a place where students could…
Then we need teachers who…
Then we need leaders who…
Then we need parents who…
What skills do parents use in their jobs all the time?
They wanted this to be an open forum so, in addition to holding multiple events, they collected every single post-it response created, typed them up, and posted them online. Their goal wasn’t to convince the community that they had all the answers, it was about getting their input so they could help decide what their school could be.
And it wasn’t just about getting their input in the beginning, the parents continue to be a partner in learning. They regularly hold workshops for parents and also share articles, videos and books aligned with the vision. Parents are frequently asked for feedback and this feedback is incorporated into the workings of the school. It is a continual collaboration between the community and the school. On theirwebsite, there is a plethora of information including a geniusglossary of all of the terms they use in their school that includes everything from instructional approaches to places in the building.
3. Getting “The Right People on the Bus”
Because they were building a school from a design thinking perspective, the team knew that they needed the right type of educators to become a part of the team. They wanted to hire teachers and leaders who were creators, innovators, and risk takers who would create deep learning experiences for students that would foster curiosity. With this in mind, they changed the titles of teacher and administrator to Learning Experience Designer and Lead Designer. I love how this small change already creates a different mindset of what each of these roles has traditionally meant.
If they were looking for a different type of educator, they realized that they needed to rethink their hiring process as well. A three-part process, the goal was to really get to know the educators personally and see how they worked in a team dynamic. The teachers would be meeting for an hour daily to reflect on practice and design learning experiences together so the ability to collaborate was critical to the success of the students and the school.
The first part of the hiring process they had teachers submit something called an E-Tell where could create anything they wanted to tell the school about themselves. In the next stage, selected applicants were asked to participate in a design challenge where they worked on a team to design a lesson. The finalists from this stage were then invited back to participate in an interview with a group, but even this was more targeted at getting to know them as a person outside of the school setting rather than their curricular expertise.
4. Deep Dives, Explorations & Integrated Learning Time
One of the trickiest dilemmas that I have reflected upon most often in this journey is how to balance building content knowledge and skills with fostering students’ passions and curiosities. In addition, I have always wondered how do we help students to discover new passions in addition to the ones that they are currently interested in? This delicate balance is an area that Design39Campus does incredibly well.
Design39Campus does not have a set curriculum that students must master at the same time each year, however, they do teach content.
“Yes, your children will learn phonics, write on lined paper, and learn how to read and do math. It is our plan to make those learning opportunities engaging and interesting for them so they never lose the joy of learning. Filling out stacks of homework packets is not what we are about.”
I can only imagine the conversations that inspired this quote. 🙂
The way they accomplish this is, instead of breaking up the day into subjects, which puts a focus on content areas, their school day is broken up into Deep Dives, Explorations and Integrated Learning Time.
Integrated Learning Time is when students learn content and build skills. Just like it sounds, subjects are taught together as part of a broader question that the students explore. This creates connected understanding and more greatly models the way the world works outside of school. During Deep Dives students are able to explore a passion of their choosing in an academic setting. Design39Campus has partnered with local businesses to create a wide variety of options. Finally, students go to Explorations. This is where they get to try new things that they might be interested in exploring more deeply later.
5. Constant Learning
Everyone at Design39Campus views themselves as perpetual learners. As Megan Power explained, “they are going to be like a start-up forever.” Because of this, they are constantly asking questions, reflecting and learning together. Teachers observe one another’s practice. They go and observe in other schools. They even have time that they spend in local businesses to better understand the work that they are preparing students for.
With design thinking, you are focusing on solving a problem through the lens of the people that the solution will serve. They spent the first institute day of this school year investigating the question, “What is learning?” demonstrating that, even though they have been doing this for five years, they know there are ideas to ponder and questions to explore that will even better the learning experiences for their students. Although they have created an amazing model they know they can always improve.
A Step Further in Answering My Big Questions
This podcast was extremely helpful in coming up with some answers to the questions I have been exploring lately. I especially love how a design thinking approach permeated the entire school from the start to current practice. If you’re an administrator like me you’re probably wondering though, how could I come close to replicating this in a school that is already established?
Going back to the work of Ambrose, I believe it starts with creating a shared vision. Because the founders of Design39Campus took the time to build a shared vision with all stakeholders, they created momentum for success for the future as well as greatly diminished a large push back to change.
It doesn’t just stop with vision though, a plan has to be created with specific ideas for not only actions to be taken, but knowledge to be gained by all stakeholders. If it’s a vision similar to Design39Campus’, then part of the plan has to be building capacity in learning experience design. When the majority of our educators went to college they were taught how to manage time, follow a curriculum and teach for understanding. The type of learning experiences we are expecting teachers to create in this type of school involves asking big questions, giving powerful feedback and starting with the learner in mind as opposed to the curriculum.
We can’t just expect educators to make this shift overnight. We have to build their capacity in a way that is meaningful and builds upon their strengths. We won’t be able to do any of this effectively if we don’t get to know the needs of those whom we serve first.
It may seem counterintuitive, but when I think about the structures that need to be in place I’m not sure that question can be answered prior to building vision and capacity first. One thing that I think will definitely be a part of the plan if we are going to teach from a broader perspective is larger stretches of time for students to work as opposed to segmenting the day up into smaller chunks. However, without building the common vision and understanding of why we need to do this the result will be a shallow change in instruction. Additionally, I would envision a large amount of push-back from parents and staff.
One of the most important takeaways from the entire podcast is that to truly do this well takes time. Give yourself permission.
Explore. Imagine. Create. Reflect.
Enjoy the journey.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from their website:
“Because of what we do, our kids don’t just ask about the who, what, and where, but they ask about the why.”
What the educators at Design39Campus are truly empowering students to do is to be eternally curious learners. And for me, that’s what makes all the difference.
Thanks for reading. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Christina
When I go to parties I can’t help myself. As much as I try to avoid it, I inevitably talk about education.
Especially if there’s beer. One good IPA will get me waxing poetic about my vision of education for pretty much the entire night.
I’ve never actually had two in one sitting. I can only imagine the diatribe of fostering students’ passions and deep learning that would result from a double Union Jack or L’il Sumpin’ Sumpin.
Usually, these discussions involve my educator friends (That would be most of them). But on my favorite nights, I’m chatting with a new person, a non-educator person, a person who has a career outside of the classroom who is killin’ it in the “real world.”
At this particular party, it was Anti-Hero, on draught. And an economist. Double Trouble.
The outcome? A completely thought-provoking conversation about more than just education.
So much so that I’m still thinking about it over two weeks later.
Sourdough, A Blog, & Some Calculus
“I’ve been working on mine for days. It’s a delicate process.” Two gentlemen close to me were having a rather intense conversation about something that sounded like it could be food related. I’d heard there was going to be a guy at this party who had recently taken a fairly lengthy sabbatical to create a blog based on the science of food (which of course piqued my interest).
Based on what I had overheard I assumed one of them had to be him. I grabbed my drink and headed over.
“What are you guys talking about?”
“Sourdough??” I responded incredulously prompting one of the men to start telling me about the process. Based on the amount of information he was giving me I was now positive this was the guy I had been hearing about. I was just about to ask him about his blog when my friend Sarah came over. (The birthday girl)
“Oh! So you met S! Did you know he has a food blog?”
And that’s how the epic conversation began. It turns out that S’s company granted him an 18-month sabbatical and he and his wife actually traveled all over the world for it. He even ended up contributing to a few cookbooks during this time. To make the story even more amazing his company actually continued to pay him part of his salary during the entire time he was on leave.
I had to know more. “So, what do you actually do?”
“I work in capital markets. Basically, I help multinationals manage their global foreign currency, commodity and interest rate risk. We help their treasury department to set up a sophisticated and efficient risk management policy and structure.”
“So like an actuary?”
“I use some of the same math, but no, not an actuary.” He then explained to me in more detail what he actually does on a daily basis helping me to understand the difference. It sounded insanely interesting and super mathy (which you know I am obsessed with) and I found myself wishing someone would have explained more math-related career options to me when I was trying to decide what to study in college. But I’ll get into my point about that later.
“So how can I follow your blog?” I asked as I pulled out my phone to open up the WordPress app to find it.
“It’s pretty easy. Just look up my name.” The bar had suddenly gotten louder so I had a hard time hearing which prompted me to move closer.
“I see you have the WordPress app. Do you blog as well?”
And that was that. I explained that yes, I had JUST started blogging and my passion was education. I told him that I am most passionate about creating learning experiences in school that better prepare kids to be successful in the innovative and dynamic world we live in.
So, of course, this led to me asking him about his school experience. How much of what he learned in college and high school did he feel prepared him for what he currently does? (I’m not shy. I have no qualms about asking people fairly personal questions regarding education.)
“A lot actually. I use a ton of calculus in my work. Most of my classes in college were math related. They built on the math I learned in high school. I learned about finance and economics. I wouldn’t say I’m in the majority though. I think the statistic is something like less than 8% of math taught in school is used in jobs and the percentage is even smaller for daily usage. Don’t quote me on that though.” (On a side note, I was curious and looked this one up after our conversation. He was pretty accurate. Check out this article in the Atlantic. I was surprised to read that it’s more prevalent that blue collar jobs that use calculus in their roles.)
We talked more about school and how I thought that we needed to include more opportunities for students to grow curiosity and build creativity. That many students see themselves as poor students or not smart because of the emphasis historically placed on how well they do in traditional subjects. (Not that they aren’t important, but that we need to broaden our definition of intelligence) If we changed schools from a focus on compliance to giving students meaningful learning experiences connected to the world around them, we would empower them to grow their passions, build on their strengths, and leave school already knowing the gifts they have to offer.
We agreed a lot during our conversation, each person adding in a different layer to the conversation. But at the end of our talk, he challenged me on one thing.
One MAJOR thing.
“You know people shouldn’t create a career out of their passion right?”
Huh? This one surprised me. He had just taken an 18-month sabbatical from his career to travel around the world creating a food blog. (which I still think is totally awesome)
“I remember seeing a title of an article about something like that on Medium recently. Tell me more.”
“School can’t be about people following their passions. It’s not economical. It could never work for society. You remember the bread conversation we had earlier?”
“Well, homemade bread will always taste better, but it’s not practical for everyone to make it daily. When mass produced bread was created it allowed people all over the world to start eating it on a daily basis. It solved a problem, especially for poor families.”
“You run into the same issue with careers. Think about the limited amount of jobs out there for people with a specific talent or passion. Mathematically it just doesn’t work out. There’s no way that every job would match up with every individual. Besides the point that most of those types of jobs don’t pay well or the higher salaries only go to a select number of people who become specialized and well known for that area. Take chefs for instance. The ones who are slaving away working in regular or even elite restaurants are making probably…(he listed a figure, but I honestly cannot remember the total)
Even though they are doing something daily that they love they are scraping by most of the time. When I was on my sabbatical if my company hadn’t continued to pay me a percentage of my salary there’s no way I could have gotten by. The entire sabbatical I probably made about $30,000 and that was including money made from contributing to a few cookbooks.
We need students to learn skills in school that will prepare them for jobs that will make them money. If we don’t, we are essentially setting up a greater economic burden.”
Wow. I had to think about that one. I understood his point about the mathematical probability of matching everyone’s career with their ideal passion, but I also know that if there’s a will there’s a way and people who are passionate about something will make something new. That’s how innovation works and the world changes right?
Seeing so many stories in the news lately about the middle-class shrinking and jobs being replaced by technology gave me pause though. Plus, it was midnight, and this party girl was about to turn back into a mommy. So I offered a few ideas and thanked him for the thoughtful dialogue. We both agreed to follow one another’s blogs and I left the bar to drive back to the suburbs.
Preparing Students for Success…in Anything
One of my favorite quotes from AJ Juliani is:
“Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.”
For me, it’s a great anchor for making decisions about school. At some point, I seriously need to get it framed.
So when I was reflecting on the drive home, this quote immediately came to mind. If we are going to prepare students for ANYTHING (or rather empower students to prepare themselves), a definition of what anything constitutes is important to define and explore.
In the context of the conversation I had with S, I wanted to explore more the economic side of that supposition.
If you look at the unemployment trendfrom the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), over the past ten years unemployment peaked in 2009 at 9.9%, but has been on a steady decline annually since and in December 2018 was 3.9%. That being said, according to the BLS Economic Situation Summaryfrom Jan. 2019, there are still 6.3 million adults in the United States who are unemployed.
A few days after my conversation, an article from Fortune magazine titled, The Shrinking Middle Class: How We Can Fix It, ended up in my inbox adding another layer to the economic conversation. According to the article, the middle class in the United States has been steadily shrinking over time due recently in part to the burgeoning “gig economy.” (Many people associate this with jobs like Uber, but it can be any kind of contract work.) People make a wide range of wages in these jobs, but what is causing a greater problem for many of them is that benefits like health insurance or a 401(K) are not included in the position. As a result, many are living paycheck to paycheck, in a constant state of stress. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, as much as 48% of contract employees struggle with poverty.
Besides the gig economy, the author also attributes private equity as another major factor in the decline of the middle class. These private investors often borrow heavily to purchase a company placing them greatly into debt. In order to repay their loans as well as investors, they have to “wring cash from holdings,” leaving little money to pay workers. Sears and Radio Shack are cited as examples of employees who suffered from this practice.
To find solutions to these problems the Fortune staff reached out to a variety of business leaders, economists and politicians to ask their opinion. The responses were mostly related to government-provided solutions such as raising the minimum wage, creating legislation requiring companies to provide benefits regardless of employment status, childcare tax credits, or universal basic income (UBI). The article even recommended emulating the government of Denmark where 98% of households with children under age 15 receive financial assistance from the government.
So what about the other side? The jobs that are out there? What skills do they require? LinkedIn annually analyzes hundreds of thousands of job postings to find out what careers are growing as well as what skills companies are looking for to fill these positions. In their recently published 2019 Report, the most promising jobs are wide ranging from Machine Learning Engineer at number 15 with a projected 96% increase to Data Scientist at number one, projected to have a 4,000+% (wow! is that number even possible???) increase in job openings this year. The other Top 5 positions on this list include Product Owner, Product Designer, Enterprise Account Executive, and Site Reliability Engineer. My favorite on the list was a position called a “Scrum Master.” You would not believe my disappointment when I found out this was not a pirate-related career, but someone who is involved in agile software development and project management. With the exception of Customer Success Manager, all of these jobs had median base salaries of $100,000+.
Additionally, LinkedIn uses this analysis to come up with the Top 5 hard skills as well as soft skills that companies are looking for. Job seekers can use this information to improve their employability by acquiring these skills and listing them on their resumes. For 2019, the hard skills most in demand are cloud computing, artificial intelligence, analytical reasoning, people management and UX design (user experience design). Making my heart (and Sir Ken Robinson’s) do a happy dance was the fact that creativity debuted as the number one soft skill companies are looking for. Time management, adaptability, collaboration and persuasion round out the rest of the list.
Implications for Education
So, what’s the final verdict? Is the purpose of education to build students’ strengths, develop their passions and foster their natural curiosity or is it to give students the skills and strategies so that they are qualified for a successful and high paying job? If we’re using the Juliani Standard (Yes, I made that up, but it should be a thing right?), then the correct answer is YES!
Reviewing and reflecting upon current economic problems as well as needs in the complex world we live in, schools are clearly not adequately preparing many students for the society they are graduating into, much less inspiring them to chase their passions and change the world. I admire the contributors to the Fortune article for brainstorming ideas to help others who are very much struggling in this new economy, but what they are not recognizing (with a few exceptions) is that no matter how much legislation we put into place, if we do not fill the knowledge and skill gaps of the individuals involved then we are just continually perpetuating a cycle of dependence on others.
Despite various government interventions over generations to help lessen the disparity between social classes in the United States we continue to have little growth in closing the gap. According to a 2018 report from the PEW Research Center, median middle-class income increased 6% from $74,015 in 2010 to $78,442 in 2016 with lower-income households (29% of adults) increasing 5%. Although those percentages point to a similar gain, when we look at actual median income dollars, 5% is really only an increase from $24,448 to $25,624 or a little over $1000 in a six-year period. Even worse, the median income was actually higher in the year 2000 ($26,923) indicating a negative growth over the past twenty years for low-income households.
We need to empower students before they enter the workforce not only with the technical skills to be successful, but with the understanding of what it takes to succeed in every aspect of a very dynamic world. We have a moral imperative as well as an incredible opportunity in education to close the gap during this innovative time known as the 4th Industrial Revolution.
In his book What School Could Be, Ted Dintersmith shares stories of amazing schools and educators that are both inspiring students and causing them to thrive in the world beyond school. In an epic journey he took to visit schools in all 50 states in just one year’s time he found these schools incorporated the following elements into learning :
Purpose: Students believe in the importance of their work.
Essential Skills and mindsets: Learning experiences foster competencies that are essential to adults (e.g., creative problem solving, critical analysis, communication, collaboration, citizenship, character).
Agency: Students create their learning experiences, set their goals, manage their progress, and evaluate their work.
Deep, retained Knowledge: Students develop real mastery of the topics they study. They can apply it, ask thoughtful questions about it, and teach others.
When I think about the elements of PEAK, my passion has been in making learning meaningful by incorporating students’ personal interests and building their strengths. They have created projects, set their own goals and reflected on their progress. I have observed this strength in many of the educators I have worked with in the past as well as present trying out a variety of new ideas including passion projects or genius hour, flipped classrooms and in general giving students more input in the classroom and designing learning with individuals in mind as opposed to following a boxed curriculum.
When I reflect on the other parts of PEAK, combined with the findings of the LinkedIn 2019 Jobs Report I realize that I myself have some huge knowledge gaps of what the current and future “real world” constitutes. Although I have played around a bit with coding and have a basic understanding of Artificial Intelligence and the implications it has for our society, I have zero idea what UX design really entails other than what I have read in articles. Many of the jobs listed in the report were fairly foreign to me. So how can I take the abstract concepts I’m teaching to students and give them relevance and meaning when I myself don’t have this knowledge?
Beyond reading about these jobs or taking some online courses to educate ourselves in these skills, the true learning is going to come from actual experiences themselves. What if part of the professional learning we offered our teachers involved spending the day at companies that did the work that our students may be doing one day? This could be an ongoing collaboration and partnership where employees visit the schools as well and mentor kids in the school. In reflecting on the P or Purpose in PEAK, kids would see any subject, but especially math as so much more meaningful when they see how it is incorporated into jobs that people are currently succeeding at. We spend a lot of time telling kids, “you’re going to use this one day,” but very little time giving them experiences in what that actually looks like.
What to Start?
As an educator you may be thinking this is great, but how can I actually do all of this? I have standards to meet and a curriculum to follow and I don’t really have control over much of the professional learning in my building or district.
If you’re not already regularly incorporating student interests and strengths into your lessons start there. It can be as simple as looking at problems you are using in your math lesson and changing the context to include experiences your students have had or topics they are interested in. Even more empowering, have your students help you with this process. In literacy, offer them choice in what they are reading or topics they are writing about. When you are planning and evaluating the work that you will be asking them to do think about whether this work is going to cause them to gain meaningful skills that will prepare them for their future or just an experience that will reinforce the target of the day. I understand that sometimes the necessary answer is the latter, but we need to show students how practicing that one small skill will lead to a much greater purpose.
Approach lesson planning with a broader perspective. Many of the jobs, as well as skills that students need to be successful in these jobs, require students to work across disciplines drawing from a variety of strengths. When you reflect on the standards you want your students to achieve what is the common thread that links them all together? Create a Big Question that students are working to answer during the week. Instead of teaching reading from 9:20-10:20, math from 10:20-11:20 and science from 1:20 to 2:20, approach each day with the lens of that question. This will help students to make more connections, ask deeper questions and see learning as a connected process which is more analogous to the work they will do one day in their career.
Although you may not be able to time shadowing people in their work, talk to your friends who are in a different field. Find out what they do regularly and what skills or attributes they needed to be successful. Start following experts in a variety of areas on Twitter. Expand your PLN to include people who are in a different field or who have a different perspective than you. Look for ways to incorporate how the learning experiences you are providing fit into these fields. Better yet, share the 2019 jobs report with your class and have the students explore what the careers and skills described entail.
Try new things. There are so many free courses out there where you can learn many of the skills that were listed in the LinkedIn Report. This list from the Muse is a great start. Next on my list is their graphic design course. I plan on incorporating what I learn into a student production group I am working with this year.
In the book Deep Learning: Engage the World, Change the World, the authors (Fullan, Quinn, McEachen) discuss something called the Equity Hypothesis which posits that if we give students deep learning experiences (those that incorporate the 6 C’s of creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, character and citizenship) then we will engage all students at high levels essentially closing the economic gap that has existed for generations.
When thinking about the purpose of school in the context of the conversation I had with S, it’s not an either or, it’s a synergy of one thought leading to the other. People can pursue their passions AND make money doing it. It’s up to us as educators to make that happen by making the school experience more readily prepare students for the complex world we live in.
In case you were wondering, S and I are now Facebook friends. We have plans to continue the conversation at a future date. I’m sure it will be equally as thought-provoking and I will share any new thoughts that evolve.
As always, thank you for reading (or listening). I know this was a long one.
Email at 9:30 p.m. Sunday night. Tomorrow school is cancelled due to inclement weather. (Cue the cheering)
Email at 9:45 p.m. All admin must still report to fulfill their contractual obligation. (Cue the booing)
Not gonna lie. That last email didn’t exactly make my night, BUT it did lead to an amazing meeting Monday. So, one might argue that the 9:45 email was actually better than the 9:30 one. Let me explain.
When I got to school I sent an email to my staff saying I was available if anyone needed anything. About 20 minutes later I received a response from a teacher asking if I would like to meet. We had been trying to officially talk for weeks about an idea she had, but up until this point it was all hallway conversations here and there. Turns out her power was out so this was a great opportunity for us to actually create a plan as well as a warm place to be. Win. Win.
The teacher was planning out a social science inquiry unit about the Age of Exploration. Her problem was twofold:
She frequently offered her students choice in how they would demonstrate their learning, but they ALWAYS seemed to use Google slides.
Finding good resources for the students to explore in the Hyperdoc she was creating was super time consuming.
Enter two of my favorite things: Curation & Meaningful Content. I learned aboutcuration when listening to a podcast fromJennifer Gonzalez’ Cult of Pedagogy websitewhen I was an instructional coach. (Sidenote: If you do not listen to her podcasts or at least check out her website periodically you are missing out on a WEALTH of tools, strategies, and just plain good stuff.)
There are many different ways to approach it, but basically curation is taking the concept of a museum curator and giving it a classroom context. Students might create a playlist of videos that are all relevant to a topic they are studying, make a list of articles, images, and videos that answer a question or even a create Top 10 list. The idea is that they are sifting through a wide range of information and choosing the best items to fit. In addition to giving them a purpose for watching and reading numerous content, it also causes them to have to apply critical thinking skills such as determining importance and synthesis. Check outher postfor many more ideas for curation applications.
Curation fit perfectly into the explorer unit. Students are first going to create their own question under the larger umbrella question of, “Is exploration always a good thing?” After reading and watching a few common texts and videos, the students will next be tasked with curating their own list of videos, texts and images that answer their personal question. The only requirement is that each resource on the list must be summarized with reasons for why it is included. These curations will then be reviewed by their peers(creating even more shared ideas) and inevitably be used in future years as well. Genius.
Books Make a Great Foundation, But…
Which led us to our our next dilemma. What kinds of resources did we really want students going through? Where would we start? When we first started chatting it was suggested that we take the students to the public library to find texts to use as their primary sources. Although I am a super fan of the library and will always believe in the power of a physical book, I thought we should also ponder digital content like YouTube, Blogs, and websites. This would give them an opportunity to explore media resources that they were already regularly consuming outside of school, but with a critical lens.
As I brought this idea up to the teacher she said she loved it, but wasn’t sure where to find blogs that would be useful. She had a few websites that she liked and a couple of videos, but hadn’t seen much else. I did a quick search of, “Social Studies Blogs” and found a treasure of resources created by history teachers for other teachers to use with students. (#sschat on Twitter is also a great place to look) I assured her that the beauty of curation was that we didn’t have to be the sole experts finding resources, it was up to the students. My guess was that they would surprise us with what they knew or were able to find. Just in case though we planned to make a list of a few good blogs and websites as well as some YouTube channels. (Crash Course Kids is one of my fave’s.)
Slide to the Left…Slide to the Right…
All of this curation led us back to problem number one: What were the students going to do with all of this knowledge that they had curated and synthesized? Although this teacher had offered choice in a variety of other units most students defaulted to the ever popular Google slides presentation. It’s not that Google slides aren’t a good way to present information, but if students are always demonstrating their learning in the exact same way are we really helping them to be prepared to contribute to the world outside of school?
Knowing that with their friends they spend a lot of time on YouTube we decided to start there. Students would come to class prepared to talk about their favorite YouTube videos that they have learned something from. They would present their videos in small groups and work to answer the question, “What makes a good presentation?” From this small group discussion the students will create a list as a class of qualities that make a presentation engaging as well as informational. These qualities will become what the students use to assess themselves on their work.
After this class collaboration the students would then get to work in stations to learn about some other options they could use to answer their individual questions including:
Adobe Spark – Students can use this to create videos with narration, creative graphics or scrolling webpages. It’s a pretty intuitive site if you have not used it previously.
WeVideo – This is an online platform for creating videos. I have to give a huge shout out to Jennifer Leban (@mrsleban), our creative technology teacher at one of our middle schools for teaching me how to use this super fun tool! (I have a future post dedicated to my learning with this one coming soon!)
Seesaw – This is a great tool for student creation, reflection, and collaboration. It can be used in so many different ways. One of the best parts is that it is easy to share with parents.
Students still have the option to use Google slides for their presentations. They just need to make sure that they meet the requirements that the class had come up with together. By doing this it will hopefully shift their presentations into more complex and engaging content as opposed to just bullet points and fun transitions with a few graphics. Or, they don’t have to use technology at all if they don’t want to. They have the option to create their own idea or use one from their teacher’s list like creating a book or a live interview.
This entire plan is designed to spark not only curiosity, but to also develop four of the six C’s of creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking. The teacher plans on using reading, writing, science and social studies as part of the interdisciplinary unit giving students an opportunity to see education as a connected process as opposed to independent ideas. After the students learn about historical exploration they are also going to be learning about space exploration to ponder how we can use the past to help us to understand or better create the future.
The two problems discussed in this post are not unique to the teacher I was speaking with. As a teacher and a coach I would sometimes spend hours on end looking for the best resources to use with students. This process would many times leave me frustrated blaming “the district” for not providing me with everything I need. However, when I reflect on what skills students truly need to be successful in school and beyond I think we are doing a disservice to students if we are always the ones providing them with the content they should be reading. We need to teach them not only how to find information that answers their bigger questions, but also how to evaluate the quality and validity of the information they find.
I truly applaud this teacher for reflecting on the needs of her students and taking the risk of trying something new with a unit that could easily be taught in a very traditional way. Moving forward she will be working mostly with our instructional coach, but it was such a treat to have time to talk this out with her on Monday. I cannot wait to see the creative ideas and projects that evolve as a result! #greatfulforasnowday