Redesigning Education: Designing for Deeper Learning

 

 

What counts and what matters in learning?  Contrary to centuries of practice, it is not really the grades.

Since April of 2017 I have been reading about and, now, practicing gradeless-ness in my high school 9th and 10th grade English classes.  Sure, I know that such a practice is not new, at least not in independent schools, but what I did not know was how widespread the practice had become in public-school classrooms around the nation.  The Facebook group, “Teachers Throwing Out Grades“, and more recently, the group “Teachers Going Gradeless” have been incredibly active in promoting this movement, and its history is as old as our system of public schooling itself.  While seemingly counterintuitive, given most Americans’ experiences in public school, going gradeless is a key aspect of the move to deeper learning….

Visit my work at plusus.org to continue reading.

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Redesigning Education: Iterating towards Mastery

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I recently listened to a podcast with Scott Looney, Headmaster of the Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio, and also the founder of the Mastery Transcript Consortium.  Mr. Looney discusses not only the project-based work he has introduced at Hawken, but focuses a good deal of his time on the history and philosophy around the Mastery Transcript Consortium–a group of independent and public schools devoted to shifting the high-school transcript away from meaningless letter grades, Grade Point Averages, and Carnegie Units (HS credits) to something more representative of the skills and knowledge students possess and the actual work  they can do….

Post is continued at:  http://plusus.org/redesigning-education-iterating-towards-mastery/

“Doing School Different”

Our new superintendent has initiated her tenure through this post’s titular phrase.  While I’m not enamored of the phrase “doing school,” I’m all for “thinking different”  and I hope my fellow teachers don’t, as is to often the case, approach this invitation from our superintendent with the perennial “change fatigue.”   However, we’re two days into the student year, and five days into the teacher year and the #(hashtag) we have on twitter for doing school different in my district is populated by a mere 15 tweets.

If we’re “doing school different,” then the royal “we” on #pvsddoschooldifferent represents a population of four.  And sure…it’s early in the year.  But what better time to try to alter the approach to education than now, the beginning, the point at which we set the culture, set the expectations, set the course, and steel ourselves for the journey ahead?  If we expect to wait and see, if we expect that we’ll be ready at some later point to “do school different” we are sorely mistaken and ignore the vast experience we have of how school years move into our lives, dominate our time, and leave us exhausted, treasuring the growth and binding the wounds the journey brings.

There is no better time than now to “do school different.”  (Again, I’m going to apologize for the phrasing.  It sits poorly with me.  It’s not that I mind it’s echoing of the famous Apple ad campaign for the iMac. It’s just the “doing school” part.  But I can live with it, I can make it work, I CAN do school different, because I believe that if I don’t, I assure myself of irrelevancy.  Over a decade ago the vice president of Microsoft’s Education division opened a talk to an auditorium full of teachers with the words, “Your students are learning without you.”  It’s more true now than ever.)

My distric has a superintendent who is inviting us to take risks, to take risks, and to turn the failures that will inevitably derive from those risks into positive learning experiences rather than marks against our person and profession.  The invitation is a clean, fresh, airy elixir that blows away the stagnant, hanging fog of “the way we’ve always done things because we’re good enough.”

I don’t know how many of my fellow teachers are on social media like twitter in order to build professional learning networks. I’d venture from the quick poll our Superintendent took at our opening day convocation that it’s a small percentage.  I also don’t know how many of us are blogging about our experiences in the classroom.  Given the time that takes, I’d imagine it’s a similarly small percentage.

Maybe that’s where we start…we start with “transparency.”  We start by breaking down the walls of the classroom and inviting the world inside.  That takes courage, it takes a willingness to hang one’s professional self in the open air and to potentially suffer the “slings and arrows” of whatever the blogosphere/twitterverse will launch at it.  From my own experience, these places are far more helpful than harmful.  In fact, they represent the most intense and informative Prof. Learning I’ve done in almost a decade.

Change and IrrelevanceAt the top of this paragraph I offer the words of General Eric Shinseki.  I offer them not to motivate through fear but rather to remind us that teachers are responsible for the future.  The future is not a place and it is not a time, it is the minds we help grow through learning each day in our classrooms.  The future is not an abstract concept, it is real, and it is human, and it is changing.  It will change without us, in spite of us, and regardless of us, for we, through our invention and innovation, have given it that power.  If we do not change ourselves, we develop little in our class but mediocrity and the increasing urge for our students to go elsewhere to find culture in which they can cultivate their genius.

(For many, the question is, I believe, not “Why should I change?” but rather, “How do I change?”  For a good start on this, I suggest the book whose cover appears in the featured image of this blog post (AJ Juliani and John Spencer’s Empower).  I also suggest reading this blog post from AJ Juliani:  Poking Holes in Pockets of Innovation. )

“Only Connect”–They Listen and They Hear

 

A few weeks ago I initiated a series of blog posts at PlusUs.org (cross posted here, and vice versa) investigating the rationale for using design-based learning as a teaching method.  I wrote I would be delving more into the ways I see design as a method that honors the traditions and goals of liberal education as outlined by Professor William Cronon in his essay, “Only Connect”: On the Goals of a Liberal Education.

Consider this blog post the first foray into the connections between the 10 goals of Prof. Cronon (and the great liberal educators who came before him) and design itself.

Some of these posts will be longer than others, but my intent is that, by putting Prof. Cronon’s ideas into dialogue and play with the field of design, we will recognize that, without question, design is a liberal art.  The implication here is two-fold.  First, that the development of designerly minded learners is a doorway to the development of singularly self-directed, self-determined learners.  And, second, that the liberal arts are key to security and prosperity in the future for ourselves and our students.

So, onto Cronon’s list…

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Part of a personal Mindmap of Cronon’s Argument in the essay, “Only Connect.”

1)  They Listen and they Hear.

Cronon states that this goal of a liberal education is something you’d think goes without saying.  Essentially, it describes people who “work hard to hear what other people say. They can follow an argument, track logical reasoning, detect illogic, hear the emotions that lie behind both the logic and the illogic, and ultimately empathize with the person who is feeling those emotions.”

There is hardly another goal so clearly linked to design as this one.  Design, like education, is a human-centered endeavor.  Educators like designers must empathize with their students/users.  If empathy is the heart of design, and design thinking more specifically, it seems listening and hearing is a fitting place to start this comparison, and more fitting to this argument that Prof. Cronon begins here as well.

I’ll admit to a good deal of bias here.  I’m a debate coach.  Offering students activities that help them work towards this goal is easy.  Engage them in structured controversies like debates and constructive discussions.  There are any number of debate structures you might employ, with the more formal styles outlined clearly and fully at websites like the National Forensic LeagueThe Pennsylvania High School Speech League, and other such leagues around the nation.  Additionally, teachers can employ structured discussions.  Programs like Paideia Seminars, Socratic Circles, Literature Circles, or The Touchstones Discussion Project all offer students opportunities to speak and listen and learn from each other in many different curricula (not just language arts or social studies).

However, for the teacher practiced in design-based learning, the opportunities for practicing listening skills increase exponentially.  Teaching students how to use empathy maps during interviews, or even as ways to track and analyze characters in works of literature help to hone this skill through real world practice or close reading.  Design research of this sort hinges on the key skill of listening deeply and empathetically.

My list is not exhaustive, but I am certain of the solid outcomes each of the different strategies I suggest can produce if a teacher buys into and believes in their individual processes.

And in the end, listening and hearing?  Sure, you can’t test for it, but you sure as heck aren’t building a solid foundation for a democracy if all you focus on is computation and comprehension.   At least by focusing on a goal like “They listen and they hear” we’ll have a chance to erase future episodes of The Jerry Springer Show from our airwaves and promote more civil discourse than what we’ve seen in the world lately.

Featured image: Simon Sinek–Quote Fancy

“What’s that Type of Learning Look Like?”

4be46c84fe8fed255075caec5ad84cc3-literacyLike many other teachers, I use my summer to reset, refresh, and recharge for the coming year.  For me, that means I finally get the time to engage with the words and the voices of people who are interested in shifting the way we–I hate this term–“do school.”  However, for the past three years (more or less ever since I moved from 21 years as a middle-school teacher to my current high-school position) my head has been swimming in the voices and words of these people.  You see, I’ve not been able to smoothly negotiate the tremendous chasm between the culture of learning in a middle school and the culture of learning at a high school.

And the differences are as vast as I suggest.  The pressure for grades, the pressure for academic standing, the pressure for students’ and teachers’ time, the pressure for (insert your own observation here)–it all just adds up to one big ball of stress for students and staff alike.

Of course, given what we know about learning at the level of biology, a little stress is a good thing.  Raising student’s level of concern, putting tasks just out of reach of their present capabilities but providing the scaffolding and assistance to make the stretch–these are good uses of minimal stressors.  They help attach emotional tags to the content we want students to retain.  But the stress I’ve sensed in my own students?  No.  That’s different.  Flat out different.  And it isn’t healthy.

Not only isn’t it healthy at the biological level for students, it isn’t healthy for the system.  These stressors, at least as I’ve observed them in my own district, have had the effect of pushing the act of teaching at the high-school level back into the “sit and get” methods I’d thought we’d moved out of decades ago.

So the culture shock for me?  It lingers.  I can’t wrap my head around the fact that we know what works and doesn’t work best for learners, and yet we continue to create classrooms that lock students into rows of hard plastic desks, ask them to pay attention for 45 minutes, and then send them off with homework for another few hours.  Add it all up, and it is easy to see how some of my students are up until midnight or later.

If, as someone has said (apparently not William Butler Yeats), “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire” then the majority of my students were all wet.  And sure, students need to fill their pail.  There’s a joy in finding things out, whether on your own or from the brilliant and engaging lecture of a scholar on Chinese history post-WWII.  But that’s substantively different than filling a pail for the better part of 7-hour sedentary days in rigid desks in rigid rows inside a rigid system.

All of which is to say, essentially…

I’ve had it!

I’ve had it with a system that knows what works best, or at very least, knows what doesn’t work very well and what is not healthy for students, and yet we perpetually roll out the same unhealthy, non-pedagogically-sound methods.  My own district is an excellent example, if only because we have a list of goals (see image below) created in 1994 that were, and largely remain, forward-thinking goals. And yet we’ve lost our way. Where once we forged ahead, driven by a community-created vision and mission, we now find ourselves wandering back into the future, our students once again little more than pails hoping to tip over into the lottery of Advanced Placement classes and colleges of choice.

You see, we’re good.  By any standard measure–SAT scores, APs taken and passed, State Standardized Tests–we’re good.  But good isn’t good enough for the future our students are facing.  “Good” doesn’t help us help students learn how to become self-directed learners capable of finding and solving real and relevant problems in their community or the world.

And if scholars like Tony Wagner, Young Zhao, Sir Ken Robinson, Grant Lichtman, Thomas Armstrong, George Couros and countless others are correct, it is that final skill set, the skill set of the innovator and entrepreneur (perhaps), that is clearly what we need to develop with our students.

But look at that last goal:  “Self-directed learners who accept responsibility for their own physical, social, emotional, and mental well-being, make decisions independently, develop life skills, adapt to an ever-changing world, and are accountable for their actions.”  We wrote that in 1994!  (Yeah, I know, Postman and Weingartner wrote about it in the 1970s…and Dewey wrote about it in the 1920s…are you sensing something here?) I can tell you, neither my district, in all our prescience, nor most districts I know, especially at the HS level, have achieved this.

So it is this frustration that guided my discussion with my superintendent.  (And this meeting was just one of many, both in person and online, I’ve had with my administrators to seek means for change in the district.)

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Mindmap of the discussion with my superintendent.

My superintendent and I have a strong relationship.  Several years ago, at her insistence, I left my self-created middle-school humanities class and developed our 9th and 10th grade gifted English program (a work still very much in progress).  Her encouragement and belief in me, as well as the monetary support for attending numerous conferences, was invaluable in my (somewhat successful) transition.

Thus, the conversation I had with her was frank, lengthy, and filled with a lot of affirmation.  And at first I was feeling rather positive about the possibilities this fall. I’ve asked us to host a community viewing of the documentary Most Likely to Succeed and/or a community gathering to watch the XQ Superschools Live Network Takeover on September 8th.  That’ll start the ball of change rolling and hopefully help us build some of the innovator’s mindset in the staff and community.

But we can’t/don’t stop there because in November my high school is hosting George Couros for the day.  He’ll be speaking about his ideas and his book and helping the high-school teachers work through ideas as to how those concepts can be realized within their own classrooms.

And then we…um…well, actually, that’s it.  All that build up and drive and then…we stop. Strangely(?) that’s sort of where our conversation stopped because my superintendent said, “Ok,  So what does that type of learning look like?”

“What does that type of learning look like?”

Yes, I responded.  Yes I talked about self-directed learners (pointing, OF COURSE, to our sixth goal from 1994!), Deeper Learning20time projects, Don Wettrick’s Innovation and Open Source Learning class, project- and design-based learning, XQ Superschools, Geniconsulting. I even spoke copiously about the full-time work I’m doing this summer at the educational design consultancy, PlusUs.

Yes, I made the case that we need a systemic change, not just change in certain classrooms, because the grounding philosophy of schools is so “off.”   (Larry Geni makes this argument far more eloquently than I am doing here.  These are his words below.)

The purpose of school as we currently practice it…

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The purpose of school as we ought to understand it…

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Empower

And, yes, I spoke about the Maker movement, and I nailed the reference to

AJ Juliani and John Spencer’s Empower: What Happens When Students Own their Learning (especially the last 30 pages or so) and so much else. I’d venture a guess that I’d left very few rocks of progressive education unturned.  And, given that one of the final comments I received was:  “I’d love to see your type of learning, this type of learning become more contagious,” I have to say that we have some common ground.  Perhaps things are looking up.  Perhaps empowerment, true learner empowerment is in play for this year.

empower-sla

So what does this learning look like? It looks like the future.  It looks like a juggernaut.  It looks inevitable, unstoppable, and, yes, to those who are just sitting around waiting, it’s frightening.  All change is frightening, not because change itself is frightening, but because it is always associated with loss.  Loss of space, loss of comfort, loss of the story we (teachers) have been telling ourselves and the country for so many years.

But there’s certainly one thing more frightening than change.  Irrelevancy.  I don’t want my district to find itself there.  I don’t want any district to find itself there.  But if we don’t change something fundamental about how we view the purpose of school and about what we do in and how we “do school,” we’ll rapidly discover what irrelevancy looks like.

(Post Script)

Grant Lichtman recently responded to my query about what to do in the face of the “What’s that type of learning look like?” question.  He noted that it seems like the district is in a perfect place for a design thinking challenge:  “How might we learn what deeper learning looks like in practice?”  I like this far more than the ominous image of the future looming over us.  As a design thinker, I should have seen this opportunity.  (They are everywhere, right Don Wettrick?)