Sunday, April 15, 2018

Shifting from Passive to Active Learning

Nothing could be more absurd than an experiment in which computers are placed in a classroom where nothing else is changed.” - Seymour Papert

When it comes to improving outcomes in the digital age, efficacy matters more than ever.  Billions of dollars are spent across the world on technology with the hopes that it will lead to better results.  Tom Murray and I shared this thought in Learning Transformed:
Educational technology is not a silver bullet. Yet year after year, districts purchase large quantities of devices, deploy them on a large scale, and are left hoping the technology will have an impact. Quite often, they’re left wondering why there was no change in student engagement or achievement after large financial investments in devices. Today’s devices are powerful tools. At the cost of only a few hundred dollars, it’s almost possible to get more technological capacity than was required to put people on the moon. Nevertheless, the devices in tomorrow’s schools will be even more robust. With that in mind, it’s important to understand that the technology our students are currently using in their classrooms is the worst technology they will ever use moving forward. As the technology continues to evolve, the conversation must remain focused on learning and pedagogy—not on devices.
Unfortunately, technology is not a magic wand that will automatically empower learners to think critically, solve complex problems, or close achievement gaps.  These outcomes rely on taking a critical lens to pedagogical techniques to ensure that they evolve so that technology can begin to support and ultimately enhance instruction.  If the former (pedagogy) isn’t solid, then all the technology in the world won’t make a difference.  As William Horton states, “Unless you get the instructional design right, technology can only increase the speed and certainty of failure.”

As I have said for years, pedagogy trumps technology. This simple concept can be readily applied to how devices are being used in classrooms.  In Learning Transformed my co-author Tom Murray and I discussed in detail how technology can be an accelerant for learning.  There was a specific reason that this was a focus near the end of our book and not in the beginning.  Going back to the sage advice of William Horton we stressed the need to improve pedagogy first and foremost.  Improvement lies in our ability as schools and educators to move away from broad claims and opinions to showing actual evidence aligned to good research.  This is why efficacy through a Return on Instruction (ROI) is equally as important. 

As technology continues to change so must instructional techniques, especially assessment. A robust pedagogical foundation compels us to ensure there is a shift from passive to active learning when it comes to devices in the classroom.  Passive learning with devices involves the consumption of information and low-level and engagement instructional techniques such as taking notes, reading, and digital worksheets.  On the other hand, active learning empowers students through meaningful activities where they actively apply what has been learned in authentic ways.  Are learners in your school(s) using devices passively or actively?

There is a vast amount of research to support why learners should actively use devices.  Below is a summary curated by Jay Lynch:
Robust research has found that learning is more durable and lasting when students are cognitively engaged in the learning process. Long-term retention, understanding, and transfer are the result of mental work on the part of learners who are engaged in active sense-making and knowledge construction. Accordingly, learning environments are most effective when they elicit effortful cognitive processing from learners and guide them in constructing meaningful relationships between ideas rather than encouraging passive recording of information (deWinstanley et al., 2003; Clark & Mayer, 2008; Mayer, 2011).
Researchers have consistently found that higher student achievement and engagement are associated with instructional methods involving active learning techniques (Freeman et al., 2004 and McDermott et al., 2014). 
The primary takeaway from research on active learning is that student learning success depends much less on what instructors do than what they ask their students to do (Halpern & Hakel, 2003).
The natural shift when it comes to device use by students is more active than passive learning.  Here is a great guiding question - How are students empowered to learn with technology in ways that they couldn’t without it? It is really about how students use devices to create artifacts of learning that demonstrate conceptual mastery through relevant application and evaluation.  What might this look like you ask? Give kids challenging problems to solve that have more than one right answer and let them use technology to show that they understand. When doing so let them select the right tool for the task at hand.  This is the epitome of active learning in my opinion.

Passive learning, as well as digital drill and kill, will not improve outcomes. Additionally, our learners need opportunities to develop digital competencies to thrive in a rapidly changing world. Investing in devices only matters if they are used in powerful ways that represent an improvement on what has been done in the past. Knowing is important, but being able to show understanding is what we need to empower our learners to do, especially when it comes to technology.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Relevance is the Fuel of Learning

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the importance of focusing on the why as it relates to learning.  Here is a piece of my thinking that I shared:
The why matters more than ever in the context of schools and education.  What all one must do is step into the shoes of a student.  If he or she does not truly understand why they are learning what is being taught, the chances of improving outcomes and success diminish significantly.  Each lesson should squarely address the why.  What and how we assess carries little to no weight in the eyes of our students if they don’t understand and appreciate the value of the learning experience.
The paragraph above represents the importance of making the educational experience relevant.  In a nutshell, relevance is the purpose of learning. If it is absent from any activity or lesson, many, if not all, students are less motivated to learn and ultimately achieve.  Research on the underlying elements that drive student motivation validates how essential it is to establish relevant contexts. Kember et al. (2008) conducted a study where 36 students were interviewed about aspects of the teaching and learning environment that motivated or demotivated their learning. They found the following:
"One of the most important means of motivating student learning was to establish relevance. It was a critical factor in providing a learning context in which students construct their understanding of the course material. The interviewees found that teaching abstract theory alone was demotivating. Relevance could be established through showing how theory can be applied in practice, creating relevance to local cases, relating the material to everyday applications, or finding applications in current newsworthy issues."
Getting kids to think is excellent, but if they don’t truly understand how this thinking will help them, do they value learning?  The obvious answer is no. However, not much legwork is needed to add meaning to any lesson, project, or assignment.  Relevance begins with students acquiring knowledge and applying it to multiple disciplines to see how it connects to the bigger picture.  It becomes even more embedded in the learning process when students apply what has been learned to real-world predictable and ultimately unpredictable situations, resulting in the construction of new knowledge.  Thus, a relevant lesson or task empowers learners to use their knowledge to tackle real-world problems that have more than one solution.  

Diverse Learners respond well to relevant and contextual learning. This improves memory, both short-term, and long-term, which is all backed by science. Sara Briggs sums it up nicely:
"Research shows that relevant learning means effective learning and that alone should be enough to get us rethinking our lesson plans (and school culture for that matter). The old drill-and-kill method is neurologically useless, as it turns out. Relevant, meaningful activities that both engage students emotionally and connect with what they already know are what help build neural connections and long-term memory storage."
In the words of Will Durant based on Aristotle’s work,” “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  The point here is that consistent efforts must be made to integrate interdisciplinary connections and authentic contexts to impart value to our learners. Relevance must be student based: the student’s life, the student’s family, and friends, the student’s community, the world today, current events, etc. 

When it is all said and done, if a lesson or project is relevant students will be able to tell you:

  1. What they learned
  2. Why they learned it
  3. How they will use it

Without relevance, learning many concepts don’t make sense to students.  The many benefits speak for themselves, which compels all of us to ensure that this becomes a mainstay in daily pedagogy. 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Ownership Through Inquiry

As a child, I was enamored by nature.  My twin brother and I were always observing and collecting any and all types of critters we could get our hands on.  Growing up in a rural area of Northwestern New Jersey made it quite easy to seek out and find different plants and animals on a daily basis.  We would spend countless hours roaming around the woods, corn fields, ponds, and streams in our quest to study as much local life as possible. It’s no wonder that I eventually became a science teacher as my surroundings growing up played a major role in my eventual decision to go into the field of education.  

To this day I still can’t believe how my mother tolerated us bringing an array of animals into the house.  For years my brother and I were particularly interested in caterpillars.  We would use encyclopedias and field guides to identify certain species that were native to our area. Through our research, we determined what each caterpillar ate and subsequently scoured trees, bushes, and other plants in our quest to collect, observe, and compare the differences between different species. We even kept journals with notes and sketches. When we were successful in locating these insects we then collected them in jars. Our research ensured that each species had the correct type of food as well as appropriate physical requirements to either make a chrysalis (butterflies) or cocoon (moths).  

In the case of moths, some were in their cocoons for months.  Hence, my brother and I stored these jars under our beds.  At times we forgot that we had these living creatures under our beds until at night we heard sounds of them flapping their wings and moving around the jars after emerging from their cocoons.  I can only imagine what my parents thought of this but am so thankful that they supported our inquiry in many ways from having encyclopedias available for research to providing us with the autonomy to harness our intrinsic motivation to learn.   Through it all our observations led to questions and together with my brother and I worked to find answers. Even though we were not always successful in this endeavor, the journey was worth it. Questions and even more questions drove the inquiry process for both of us and from there we leveraged available resources and synthesized what we had learned. 

The story above is a great example of how my brother and I embarked on an informal learning process driven by inquiry.  We owned the process from start to finish and our parents acted as indirect facilities through their support and encouragement.  Both inquiry and ownership of learning are not new concepts, although they are both thrown around interchangeably as of late, especially ownership.  Deborah Voltz and Margaret Damiano-Lantz came up with this description in 1993:
Ownership of learning refers to the development of a sense of connectedness, active involvement, and personal investment in the learning process.  This is important for all learners in that it facilitates understanding and retention and promotes a desire to learn.
After reading this description I can’t help but see the alignment to the story I shared above.  We learned not because we had to, but because we wanted to.  Herein lies a potential issue in schools.  Are kids learning because they are intrinsically empowered to or are they compelled to through compliance and conformity?  The former results when learners have a real sense of ownership.  There are many ways to empower kids to own their learning. All the rage as of late is how technology can be such a catalyst. In many cases this is true, but ownership can result if the conditions are established where kids inquire by way of their own observations and questions.  WNET Education describes inquiry as follows:
"Inquiry" is defined as "a seeking for truth, information, or knowledge -- seeking information by questioning." Individuals carry on the process of inquiry from the time they are born until they die. Through the process of inquiry, individuals construct much of their understanding of the natural and human-designed worlds. Inquiry implies a "need or wants to know" premise. Inquiry is not so much seeking the right answer -- because often there is none -- but rather seeking appropriate resolutions to questions and issues.
The first sentence ties in directly to the concept of ownership, but we also see how important are questions.  This is why empowering learners to develop their own questions and then use an array of resources to process and share new knowledge or demonstrating an understanding of concepts are critical if ownership is the goal.  The article from WNET explains why this is so important:
Effective inquiry is more than just asking questions. A complex process is involved when individuals attempt to convert information and data into useful knowledge. A useful application of inquiry learning involves several factors: a context for questions, a framework for questions, a focus on questions, and different levels of questions. Well-designed inquiry learning produces knowledge formation that can be widely applied.
Ownership through inquiry is not as difficult as you might think if there is a common vision, language, expectation, and a commitment to student agency.  The Rigor Relevance Framework represents a simple process to help educators and learners scaffold questions as part of the inquiry process while empowering kids to demonstrate understanding aligned with relevant contexts.  By taking a critical lens to instructional design, improvement can happen now. Curiosity and passion reside in all learners.  Inquiry can be used to tap into both of these elements and in the process, students will be empowered to own their learning. 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Journey to Becoming an Author

I never imagined I would have authored or co-authored a book, let alone six.  My unexpected journey began with a decision to give Twitter a try in 2009.  This should never have happened either as I was convinced that any and all social media tools were a complete waste of my time and would not lead to any improvement in professional practice. Apparently, I was dead wrong on this assumption and quickly learned that Twitter in itself wasn’t a powerful tool, but instead, it was the conversations, ideas, resources, and passionate educators that connected with me.  The rest is history. 

As my mindset began to shift from one that focused on the “what ifs” instead of the “yeah buts,” my staff and I started to transform learning in our school to better meet the needs of our students.  Social media not only gave us the inspiration but also empowered us to take action.  It is important to note that we weren’t doing a bad job per se.  The fact for us, like every other school on the planet, was that we could be better.  In the beginning, we really weren’t sure what we were doing or whether it would lead to improved outcomes, but we did our best to align every innovative idea with research and sound pedagogy.  Thanks to my amazing teachers, innovative changes began to take hold and outcomes improved in the process. 

My essential role in the transformation efforts focused on helping to clarify a shared vision, supporting my teachers, showing efficacy, and celebrating success.  Sharing why we were innovating coupled with how we were doing it and what the results were, gathered a great deal of attention that was unexpected at first.  To this day I still remember sitting in a district administrator meeting in November 2009 when my secretary called to tell me that CBS New York City wanted to come to the high school and feature how we were using Twitter in the classroom to support learning.  To say that I was floored by the interest from the largest media market in the world would be putting it mildly.  This point in time was a catalyst for the eventual brandED strategy that evolved.  I learned that social media was an incredible tool to tell our story, praise staff, and acknowledge the great work of my students.  

Little did I know, or plan for that matter, that sharing our transformation efforts would lead to me becoming an author.  This was not my intent or even a goal.  One day in 2010 I received a Twitter message from Bill Ferriter asking if I would be interested in co-authoring a book with him and Jason Ramsden titled Communicating and Connecting with Social Media.  My first thought was, “Heck no! I am no author.” Bill, the master teacher he is, reassured me that I could do this and would guide me through the writing process. Through his tutelage and many hours spent writing over weekends and breaks, the book took form.  Thus, my author journey began all because of the consistent efforts to share the work of my teachers.  

Shortly after this book came out, Solution Tree asked if I would work on another project. This one focused on a book for principals about teaching science, as this was where my experience was in the classroom.  I agreed to take this on only if one of my teachers could co-author the book with me.  This was just a small way of paying it forward since I would not have been in a position to author any books had it not been for the willingness of my teachers to embrace change and have the results to show efficacy.  

My teachers and students, as well as the support I received from the district, helped me evolve into the unlikeliest of authors.  Not only was I supported in writing books, but I was also encouraged to share our work at local and national events.  I cannot even begin to explain the sense of pride I felt by being asked to present on the work occurring at my school.  It was during one of these presentations at the National Association of Secondary School Principals Conference that I was asked by Corwin to consider writing Digital Leadership. At first, I said no as I really did not have the time needed to write a book all on my own.  After some persistence on behalf of my acquisition editor, I later agreed and scheduled the majority of the writing during the summer months when my students and staff were off. 

The publication of Digital Leadership in 2014 changed everything for me as the book performed exceptionally well and continues to do so.  As a result, I was flooded with speaking requests and asked to write even more books, including Uncommon Learning.  To this day I still can’t believe that anyone asks me to write a book.  The time then came that I knew a decision on my future had to be made. Even though I was fully supported by my district and dedicated myself 100% to the school, I came to the conclusion that I was not going to be fair to my students, staff, or community shortly. It was at this time that I made the painful decision to leave the principalship. 

You might be wondering what the actual point of this post was. As of late people have taken to social media to attack or discredit other educators who have written books while working in schools.  My take on it is this.  I am all for practitioners utilizing their time outside of classrooms and schools to write books that use research as a foundation while showing how their work and that of colleagues has improved teaching, learning, and leadership.  There is nothing more inspiring, and practical for that matter, to read about what actually works in the face of the myriad of challenges that educators endure on a daily basis.  There will never be enough books that lay out how efficacy can be achieved in the pursuit of providing all kids with an awesome learning experience.

There is a fine line here though. Authoring books should never conflict with, or have a negative impact on, professional responsibilities.  It goes without saying that all writing and sharing of books by practitioners should happen outside of regular school hours or on weekends and breaks.  My schedule as both a teacher and principal were jam packed so there was never aforethought about putting aside time to work on a book (or blog) that would take away from my contractual duties.  Sharing during the school day also sends a potentially negative message to colleagues and staff. 

Many people, like myself, never intended on becoming authors.  It was an unintended consequence of sharing successes of others who are in the trenches every day.   To this day I can’t thank my teachers, students, and district enough for not only believing in me but also empowering me to share the ideas and strategies that we put into practice.  I hope more and more educators contribute to the field by authoring books that will add to the vast knowledge base already available while providing practical solutions to transform education. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Teachers are the Driving Force of Change

During virtually every keynote, presentation, or workshop that I give, the topic of change is very much a part of it.  Leading the effort to uproot the status quo and prepare kids for anything as opposed to something is easier said than done.  As Tom Murray and I state in Learning Transformed, "To prepare students for their world of work tomorrow, we must transform their learning today." Great progress is being made in classrooms and schools across the world.  As technology has continued to evolve at an exponential rate we have seen passionate educators begin to embrace and implement innovative strategies to better meet the needs of learners today. 

As a result, isolated pockets of excellence have emerged in virtually every school.  Don't get me wrong, this is great.  I am all for progress and a move from business as usual to unusual in pursuit of learning that will prepare kids with the critical competencies to excel in a disruptive world.  However, we cannot be satisfied with just a few pockets as every student deserves an amazing learning experience.   Change at scale is a collective effort where we must leverage the unique assets embedded in every position and at all levels.  As the saying goes, there is no "I" in team.

Now granted, building and district leaders play a huge role in supporting change and ensuring success.  Their role is to build on these successes while removing obstacles, establishing a shared vision, developing parameters for accountability around growth, evaluating if efficacy has been achieved, and reflecting on the entire process.  Reflection could very well be the most important aspect of the change process as there will either be validation or the identification of needed elements to ensure success.  Since there is always room for improvement in the education profession these leaders need to take action on the broader issues to improve the culture of learning at scale. 

The most important group, however, rarely gets the credit they rightfully deserve.  The most impactful change doesn't come from people with a title, power, or authoritative position in education. It happens at the ground level with our teachers as it is they who have to implement ideas for the direct betterment of students.  Think about this for a second.  If it weren't for our teachers embracing broader ideas and putting them into practice would any change in schools actually occur?  The simple answer is no.  

When I think back to all of the success that we had at my school it wasn't because of me or the fact that I was the principal.  Sure, I played my part as described previously in this post, but my role in the bigger picture was a small one.  It was because my teachers believed we could be better for our learners and as a result, they embraced innovative ideas.  This brings me to a critical point.  We must celebrate the invaluable leadership of our teachers while also working tirelessly to create the conditions where they are empowered to be the change that is needed.

Never say you are "just a teacher." Let your actions, not a role, define you. The change our schools need at scale can only be ushered in by our teachers. If you are in a typical administrative position to make that happen then become a beacon of support, not a roadblock to progress.  We need bold administrators to enlighten others who are unwilling or scared to embrace innovative ideas that go against the status quo. Only by working together can both groups transform learning for all kids now and well into the future. 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Change the Narrative

No matter our level of digital proficiency, educators grapple with the rough-and-tumble pace that professional connectivity demands in our new age.  A change of thinking is in order if we are to face a hyperlinked world of education.  We facilitate learning and lead schools today, preparing our digitally and socially savvy students for success as adults in a future where many of their jobs haven't been created yet. To do this successfully we have to take a critical lens to our work and determine what can be done differently.  

In these changing times, opening the door to sharing and the transparency it brings in a digital age may make you pause. Let's be honest. The old-school one-way messaging behavior for leading a school doesn't jibe with our engaged, digital communication environment. A paradigm shift is in play. It is important to recognize and lean into it: Our community of stakeholders wants us to engage with them-starting with our students and ending with the world beyond our school. In this ever-evolving world of digital communication, a world where information arrives at our digital doorstep without being invited, we have to reset traditional thinking. Our stakeholders' lives are now about exchange powered by inbound social and digital forces. As outlined in BrandED, a new educator mindset is in order: one that calls for the clear, connective, engaging concept of storytelling to build trust and powerful relationships. The bottom line is that if you don't tell your story someone else will. 

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In today's engaging, digitally empowered school setting, questions arise as to whether schools are best suited for educating their learners. We have to do a better job of communicating what we do and showing how we do it. We must be part of the exchange. It gives us the best chance at connecting with current and potential stakeholders in order to win support for schools. Today's educators who embrace the power of storytelling don't need to be humble. In the noisy digital world, educators must proudly use stories of their classrooms and schools to convey a consistent message about who they are, how results are achieved, what they stand for. The importance of embracing a brandED mindset to become the storyteller-in-chief can't be overstated. 

I cannot overstate the importance of telling good stories to develop a new narrative in the education space.  Science has shown how storytelling impacts the brain and aids in getting an important message across to diverse audiences.  An article by Jonathan Gottschall in Fast Company sums it up well:
"Humans live in a storm of stories. We live in stories all day long, and dream in stories all night long. We communicate through stories and learn from them. We collapse gratefully into stories after a long day at work. Without personal life stories to organize our experience, our own lives would lack coherence and meaning."
Today's schools exist in a digital town square where people meet daily. School value is one of the most discussed topics online. People, both with and without children, search the Internet and consult online real estate sites to find data about their prospective local school. Educators need to be cognizant of this fact and leverage the inherent power of their work to create a narrative that conveys value that speaks in an authentic voice to an audience. Adopting this strategy to benefit kids helps you attain a synthesizing view, preparing you to communicate with the varied segments of stakeholders who will research, observe, and engage with your work online on a daily basis. Today's digital world is driven by mobile content in short form and long form, in text and video just waiting to be taken advantage of. 

When adapted by all educators, the message of all the positive that takes place in classrooms on a daily basis becomes a beacon - the touchstone of why we act the way we do as a school, why we teach and learn the way we do, and how success is measured by so much more beyond a test score. Beyond the emotional connectivity, strategic thinking about messages shared enables educators to set measurable goals that ensure long-term trust. Without trust, there is no relationship. Without relationships, no real learning occurs. 

Change begins with each and every one of us. Together let's use our collective voices to change the narrative to one that clearly depicts all the amazing work that happens in classrooms, schools, and districts across the globe.  

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Learning Transformed Course

The reaction to Learning Transformed has been truly humbling.  Tom Murray and I have watched many book studies and Twitter chats unfold since the release of the book in June of 2017.  We have also had the honor of co-presenting workshops across the United States. All of these experiences empowered us to think about and then create a deep learning experience that could be easily accessible to all educators across the globe.  As a result, an online course was created with the help of Participate. Anyone can register HERE.

Below you will see how the course is structured as well as learner outcomes.  The content is aligned to well over 100 research studies in addition to what successfully implemented innovative practices actually look like in action. The key to change is not telling, but showing how ideas can transform teaching, learning, and leadership.  We can't stop here.  The most important aspect of this course is pushing learners to not only reflect on their own practice but to also develop focused plans to take action through constructivist learning theory.   

Course Description

The Learning Transformed course is designed to support your classroom, district or school's transformation efforts! The current speed of technological and innovative breakthroughs has led to the coming age of workplace automation, dramatically altering the world of work that our students will enter. With all that is known about how students learn and the predictions regarding the world that our students will face tomorrow, a one size fits all approach to teaching and learning is educational malpractice. 

Built on the foundation of leadership and school culture, a redesigned learning experience fundamentally shifts the teaching and learning paradigm to one that's personal. It alters the use of authentic assessments, how technology is leveraged, the spaces in which the learning occurs, the way educators grow professionally, how schools collaborate with the community, and the sustainability of the system as a whole. The authors will dissect an approach to unlocking tomorrow's schools so that today's modern learners leave ready to create new industries, find new cures, and solve world problems.

Although not a required reading, the content for this course expands upon the book, Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow's Schools, Today. Throughout the course, participants will be encouraged to reflect and share their learning using the hashtag #LT8keys on Twitter and/or LinkedIn.

The course is structured in a way for all educators to take a critical lens to their practice in order to improve the learning culture in a classroom, building, district, or organization. Each module is designed to support your learning through self-assessment, content delivered by us, independent readings to extend learning, videos that showcase innovative practices in action, opportunities to reflect, and application to practice. Tasks in each module are listed further down.  Directly below are the nine modules that participants will work through asynchronously. 

  1. Vision for Change
  2. Creating a Culture of Innovation
  3. Redesigning the Learning Experience
  4. Return on Instruction
  5. Designing Learner-Centered Spaces
  6. Making Professional Learning Personal
  7. Leveraging Technology 
  8. Collaborating and Engaging with the Community
  9. Leading the Charge

Driving Question

How can classroom, school, and district leaders transform the student learning experience to one that better prepares them for their future?

Course Objectives

Participants will:

  • Self-assess current beliefs and established practices to develop a call to action.
  • Learn from Tom and Eric as to how research-based and evidence-driven practices can transform the learning culture in your classroom, school, or district.
  • Explore and reflect on video content and innovative practices in action from educators currently leading these change efforts.
  • Complete activities to support your individual, school, or district's transformation.
  • Actively apply what has been learned to initiate sustainable change and achieve efficacy.

Course Module Activities Include:

  • Self-assessment
  • Content delivery from Tom Murray and Eric Sheninger
  • Independent readings
  • Video case studies
  • Podcasts
  • Reflection questions
  • Action items for completion that align with your specific role and context

Learning Hours

20 hours.

What You'll Get

Learners will receive:

  • Digital badge
  • Guided lessons from Tom and Eric
  • Access to Tom and Eric when using #LT8Keys on social media
  • Activities to guide transformation and reflection
  • Articles and videos to spur conversation and push thinking
  • 50 additional tools and resources to drive innovative change 

We hope you enjoy this course and encourage you to take the time to reflect and dive in to support your school, district, organization, or classroom's transformation. Your brain might hurt at the conclusion of this journey, but rest assured you will be equipped with the ideas, strategies, and tools to transform learning for every student. Together, we can do this. You are part of the solution. Register today!

Consult with your local school or district as to how this course can be used to satisfy continuing education and professional learning hour requirements.  In addition to the digital badge awarded at the end of the course, once all requirements have been met we can also send a signed certificate of completion. 

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Empowering Learners to Think with Performance Tasks

Pedagogy has been at the forefront of my thinking and work as of late.  Decades of solid research have laid the foundation for current studies that bring to light how we can improve teaching, learning, and leadership.  As Tom Murray and I highlighted in Learning Transformed, this research has been taken to heart by schools across the world as they have transformed learning while improving results in the process. It is important not to lose sight of what has been found to work.  With all of the great ideas that educators are exposed to thanks to social media and live events, it is essential that we pause to reflect on what it takes to move from what sounds good in theory to successful implementation into practice.  Ideas shouldn't just seem right. They must lead push learners to think while providing validation of improvement through evidence. 

During my work as a principal, I wanted to transform the learning culture of my school.  For so long my students, like many others across the world, just did school. Learning, or at least what we referred to it as was more or less a monotonous task consisting of the same types of activities and assessments that occurred over and over again.  We weren't consistently getting our students to think deeply or authentically apply what they had learned.  Getting in classrooms more, taking a critical lens to our work, and working towards a Return on Instruction (ROI) helped us take the needed steps to raise the learning bar while expecting more from our students. We began by improving the level of questioning across the board.  From there, our focus was on the development of performance tasks that took into account objectives, learning targets, and curriculum alignment.  

Performance tasks afford students an opportunity to actively apply what they have learned and create a product to demonstrate conceptual mastery aligned to standards. Jay McTighe describes performance tasks as follows:
A performance task is any learning activity or assessment that asks students to perform to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding, and proficiency. Performance tasks yield a tangible product or performance that serve as evidence of learning. Unlike a selected-response item (e.g., multiple-choice or matching) that asks students to select from given alternatives, a performance task presents a situation that calls for learners to apply their learning in context.
Learning in highly successful schools enables students to know what to do when they don't know what to do. This is also referred to as cognitive flexibility, the mental ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts and to think about multiple ideas simultaneously. To gain that competence, students need to acquire depth of knowledge and a rich set of skills and then be taught how to apply their skills/knowledge to unpredictable situations in the world beyond school.  This is critical if we are to prepare students for the new world of work adequately.  

By using the Rigor Relevance Framework as a guide, educators can begin to develop performance tasks that push learners to show that they understand while applying what has been learned in relevant contexts. McTighe identifies seven characteristics to consider during development:

  1. Performance tasks call for the application of knowledge and skills, not just recall or recognition.
  2. Performance tasks are open-ended and typically do not yield a single, correct answer.
  3. Performance tasks establish novel and authentic contexts for performance.
  4. Performance tasks provide evidence of understanding via transfer.
  5. Performance tasks are multi-faceted.
  6. Performance tasks can integrate two or more subjects as well as 21st-century skills.
  7. Performances on open-ended tasks are evaluated with established criteria and rubrics.

The GRASPS model (Wiggins & McTighe, 2004) can greatly assist educators in the construction of quality performance tasks. The GRASP acronym stands for the following: Goals, Role, Audience, Situation, Products or Performances, and Standards.

It is important to remember that the two critical elements in any quality performance task is evidence of learning and relevant application.  As we began progressing through our digital transformation at New Milford High School, technology became a vital component of performance tasks.  To see some examples, take a look at this post.  

The Independent OpenCourseWare Study (IOCS) that we created is another excellent example. It allowed students to fully utilize OCW to pursue learning that focused on their passions, interests, and career aspirations.  They could select offerings from such schools as the MIT Harvard, Yale, University of California at Berkeley, and Stanford, applying their learning to earn high school credit. Students combined their creativity with their newfound knowledge to synthesize a unique product that demonstrated and implemented the new knowledge and skills they gained from the OCW. The aim was for students to produce an actual product, whether it was the demonstration of a new skill, the creation of a physical model, the designing and conducting of an experiment, the formulation of a theory, or some other creative way to show what they've learned. 

If it's easy, then it probably isn't learning.  Performance tasks push students to think more deeply about their learning while developing a greater sense of relevance beyond the classroom.  

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2004).  Understanding by Design Professional Development  Workbook. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, VA.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Scaffolding Questions to Develop Deeper Understanding

Over the past couple of months, I have been working with a variety of schools and districts in the role of a coach.  Most of this work is focused on digital pedagogy so naturally, I am focused on observing and collecting evidence to get a handle on both the level of instruction and the learning that is taking place.  To allow educators to critically reflect on their practice I take many pictures of what I see, especially the types of learning activities with which students are engaged.  After numerous visits, we all debrief and discuss the good practices that were observed, but also areas needing improvement.

The message that I try to convey is that technology should not be separate from sound instructional design, but instead serve as a ubiquitous entity that supports or enhances curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  There are five main areas that are critical components of sound instructional design that I tend to focus on during debriefing conversations: level of questioning, authentic or interdisciplinary contexts, rigorous performance tasks, innovative assessments, and improved feedback. Of these five components, questioning techniques are something teachers and administrators can work to improve in every lesson. 

Here is what I struggle with based on what I actually see in practice.  In many cases, the "wow" factor of technology is placed ahead of getting kids to think deeply or authentically applying their learning.  Take tools like Kahoot and Quizizz.  There are no inherent issues with the tools themselves, educators just have to be more mindful of how they are being used.  Many of these tools add either a fun or competitive factor to the process of answering low-level, multiple-choice questions. Now I am not saying that foundational knowledge is not important. It is in many cases. However, if this the only way tools like this are utilized then we are missing a golden opportunity to challenge our learners to think deeply about concepts.

While conducting some coaching visits at Wells Elementary School recently, I saw Ms. Mican using Quizizz.  At first glance, all I saw were student responses to knowledge-based questions on the interactive whiteboard to check for understanding.  What I saw next really made me smile.  With the students sitting on the floor around the IWB Ms. Mican displayed the Quizziz results and then had the kids explain why they answered the way they did.  This is a great example of scaffolding and building on the content.  As I said previously, foundational knowledge provides a bridge to higher-level thinking and application.  They key is to make sure when using response-based technologies that the level of questioning is addressed through scaffolding techniques. The same can be said in regard to any type of activity without technology.

Scaffolding refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process. Questioning is an integral component of this process. NSEAD provides this synopsis on the importance of good questioning techniques. Check out the link in the previous sentence it contains a wealth of information to improve the level of questioning in any class. 
Historically, teachers have asked questions to check what has been learned and understood, to help them gauge whether to further review previous learning, increase or decrease the challenge, and assess whether students are ready to move forward and learn new information (factual checks - ie 'Closed' questions). This can be structured as a simple 'teacher versus the class' approach (Bat and Ball), where the teacher asks a question and accepts an answer from a volunteer, or selects/conscripts a specific student to answer. These approaches are implicit in any pedagogy, but teachers need a range of 'Open' questioning strategies to address different learning needs and situations. Teachers must also pitch questions effectively to raise the thinking challenge, target specific students or groups within the class.
The Rigor Relevance Framework provides all educators with guidance to scaffold questions.  It is an action-oriented continuum that describes putting knowledge to use by giving teachers a way to develop both instruction and assessment and gives students a way to project learning goals. This framework, based on traditional elements of education yet encouraging movement from the acquisition of knowledge to the application of knowledge, charts learning along the two dimensions of higher standards and student performance

Below is a breakdown of the four quadrants:

  • Quad A - Students gather and store bits of knowledge and information. Students are primarily expected to remember or understand this knowledge.
  • Quad B - Students use acquired knowledge to solve problems, design solutions, and complete work. The highest level of application is to apply knowledge to new and unpredictable situations.
  • Quad C - Students extend and refine their acquired knowledge to be able to use that knowledge automatically and routinely to analyze and solve problems and create solutions.
  • Quad D - Students have the competence to think in complex ways and to apply their knowledge and skills they have acquired. Even when confronted with perplexing unknowns, students are able to use extensive knowledge and skill to create solutions and take action that further develops their skills and knowledge.

Below you will see how questions can be scaffolded according to each quadrant of the Rigor Relevance Framework.

With and without technology it is important to empower our learners to think. Scaffolding questions enhance learning and aids in the mastery of concepts by systematically building on knowledge and relevance. The ultimate goal is to develop competent thinkers and doers who can not only use knowledge in new ways but also construct their own.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

To Improve Outcomes, We Need to Take a Critical Lens to Instructional Design

No one can deny the fact that we are seeing some pretty exciting changes to teaching, learning, and leadership.  Advances in research, brain science, and technology are opening up new and better pathways to reach learners like never before.  This excitement in some cases is leading to change with supporting evidence of improvement. In other cases, money is being dumped on the latest tool, program, idea, or professional development without ensuring that instructional design is up to par in the first place.  Pedagogy trumps technology.  It also goes without saying that a solid pedagogical foundation should be in place prior to implementing any innovative idea.

Let's start by looking at practice from a general lens.  To transform learning, we must also transform teaching.  When looking at the image below where does your practice or that of your teachers lie? What immediate changes can be made to improve learning for your students tomorrow? 

Now let's turn our focus to some more specific elements of instruction. It is important to take a critical lens to our work to ensure efficacy if the goal is to improve learning.  With that being said it is incumbent upon all of us to make sure shifts to instructional design are occurring that result in better student outcomes. This is why a Return on Instruction (ROI) as described in Learning Transformed is so important both with and without technology.
"When integrating technology and innovative ideas there needs to be a Return on Instruction (ROI) that results in evidence of improved student learning outcomes."
The key to future-proofing education is to get kids to think. If it is easy, then it probably isn't learning. Challenging learners through complex problem solving and activities that involve critical thinking is extremely important, but they also must be afforded opportunities to apply their learning in relevant ways.  This does not have to be an arduous process that takes up a great deal of time.  Below are five areas to look at when implementing any digital tool or innovative idea to determine whether or not improvements to pedagogy are changing. Each area is followed by a question or two as a means to help self-assess where you are and if improvements can be made. 

  • Level of questioning: Are students being asked questions at the higher levels of knowledge taxonomy? Do students have the opportunity to develop and then answer their own higher-order questions?
  • Authentic and/or interdisciplinary context: Is there a connection to help students see why this learning is important and how it can be used outside of school?
  • Rigorous performance tasks: Are students afforded an opportunity to actively apply what they have learned and create a product to demonstrate conceptual mastery aligned to standards?
  • Innovative assessment - Is assessment changing to provide critical information about what students know or don't? Are alternative forms of assessment being implemented such as portfolios to illustrate growth over time?
  • Improved Feedback - Is feedback timely, aligned to standards, specific, and does it provide details on advancement towards a learning goal?

Improving outcomes relies on aligning instruction to solid research, ensuring that pedagogical shifts are occurring, holding ourselves (and others) accountable for growth, and showcasing evidence of improvement.  By taking a critical lens to our practice we can determine where we are, but more importantly where we actually want and need to be for our learners. 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Lost Art of Listening

Have you ever had a conversation with someone and knew with certainty that he or she was not listening? Of course, you have.  It is fairly easy to tell when someone is not engaged in a conversation either through lack of eye contact, facial expressions, or the loathed phrase "What did you just say?"  The chances are that the shoe has been on the other foot and you have been guilty of the same behavior.  People know when we are distracted and not actually "present". We must rediscover the lost art of listening.

You would be hard-pressed to find an effective leader who is not an effective communicator.  Communication is vital in accomplishing tasks and getting things done, passing on important information, acquiring information, developing a shared vision, reaching decisions through consensus, building relationships, and moving people to embrace change. For many people, communication is viewed through a lens that focuses on why and how information or targeted messages are delivered.  However, the most effective communicators are those people who listen intently.

By improving our listening skills, we can become better communicators in our respective positions while simultaneously building better relationships with students, colleagues, and other stakeholders.  Below are some solid tips from Ed Brodow that can help you become a better listener:

  • Develop the desire to listen. You must accept the fact that listening to others is your strongest weapon. Given the opportunity, the other person will tell you everything you need to know. If this doesn't create desire, I don't know what will.
  • Always let the other person do most of the talking. This is a simple matter of mathematics. I suggest a 70/30 rule. You listen 70% of the time and you talk 30% of the time.
  • Don't interrupt.  There is always the temptation to interrupt so you can tell the other person something you think is vitally important. It isn't, so don't. When you are about to speak, ask yourself if it is really necessary.
  • Learn active listening.  It's not enough that you're listening to someone - you want to be sure that they know you're listening. Active listening is the art of communicating to the other person that you're hearing their every word.
  • Ask for clarification if needed.  This will clear up any misunderstanding you have.
  • Get used to 'listening' for nonverbal messages - body language.  The other person may be communicating with you via body language. You need to decode the message.
  • Ask a question...then shut up.  This is a foolproof way to listen. Think of yourself as an interviewer - Barbara Walters! She listens and questions - so should you.

In addition to the great tips above, I would add that we must work harder to let other people know that we are actually listening.  The use of eye contact and facial expressions followed up by either additional questions or a synthesis of what was heard conveys to others that you are actually present. If the conversation is happening over the phone or through a digital medium, consider following up with a short summary as to what you heard. The final tip is probably the most important.  The best way to illustrate that you have really listened is to take action in some way so that the other person, or people, know that they were actually heard. The action could be moving an idea forward or explaining your decision to go in another direction.  There are always the times when people just want to vent and be listened to. In these cases, the most important thing you can do is show you care. 

In the digital age, we are all trying so hard to be heard, but are we making the time to listen and reflect?  As I discussed at length in Digital Leadership, social media ushered in a new era of communication and collaboration.  Traditional hurdles such as time, distance, and money have been overcome as more and more tools are available that allow people to share resources, ideas, opinions, and feedback.  For all of us who routinely leverage social media for these purposes, we are a vibrant part of a globally connected community committed to improving professional practice as well as our own lives.  Being able to share information and ideas like never before is exhilarating, but are we taking the time to really listen to what others are sharing? 

The art of listening can be extended to the social media space.  This applies to all of us and I know personally it is an area that I can improve upon.  Consider engaging others in conversations about their ideas and questions by commenting on blog posts or responding to updates on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, or Facebook.  This means more to people than you will ever know, especially if that person doesn't have a large social media following.  It shows that you care and are actually listening in digital spaces. If someone reaches out to you in this space with a question or comment, take the time to reply back. 

As Aristotle once said, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." Make improved listening a habit to move more ideas forward and build positive relationships in the process. 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

To Fail Forward You Need to Believe in Yourself

"Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently." - Henry A. Ford

I was never one to embrace the mindset that failing at anything was good for you.  For the most part, my educational experiences kept me in a box where success was determined by the destination, not the journey.  Grades and marks were the main indicators of how well I did and with a few exceptions, the learning process focused on a linear path.  As I have grown as a professional and learner, the one thing I now believe in without a doubt is that success and learning follow a similar path, which is anything but linear and often a convoluted process.  It is important that we as adults understand this if we are to transform learning in an effort to improve education for students at scale.  

Failing forward is the ability to reflect on unintended consequences in pursuit of goals and ultimately achieve success.  It requires a mindset rooted in determination, self-efficacy, patience, resilience, creativity, big-picture thinking, and accountability.  Above all else, you need to believe in yourself and your own unique abilities.  Quite often I speak on the need for the profession of education to redefine success and learning.  When doing so I point to the acronym that many people now use for the word FAIL: First Attempt in Learning. So, what does this really look like in the context of transformative learning, innovation, and success?  Look no further than famous failures throughout the course of history who persevered after many failed attempts to succeed.

Now there are numerous famous people who have failed forward. One of the stories that I like to share most often is that of Henry Ford. Not only is his story inspiring, but the quote at the beginning of this post is one of the most powerful quotes related to learning that I can think of. I read a great summary about Ford on the Intellectual Ventures blog. He was an amazing entrepreneur and as history has shown he optimized transportation forever changing the automobile industry. Even though he succeeded, Ford experienced numerous failures. From the lessons learned he was able to fail forward to eventually develop an automobile manufacturing process that was cost efficient, produced reliable vehicles, and paid workers well all while creating a loyal culture.

The Intellectual Ventures post goes on to summarize the two main failures that Ford experienced:
The capital was difficult to attain and in the late 1800s, no one had established a standard business model for the automobile industry. Ford convinced William H. Murphy, a Detroit businessman, to back his automobile production. The Detroit Automobile Company resulted from this union, but problems arose shortly after its creation. In 1901, a year and a half after the company began operations, Murphy and the shareholders got restless. Ford wanted to create the perfect automobile design, but the board saw little results. Soon after, they dissolved the company. 
Ford recalibrated his efforts after his first failure. He realized that his previous automobile design depended on serving numerous consumer needs. He convinced Murphy to give him a second chance. However, their second venture, the Henry Ford Company, stumbled from the start. Ford felt that Murphy pressured him to prepare the automobile for production and set unrealistic expectations from the beginning. Shortly after Murphy brought in an outside manager to supervise Ford's process, Ford left the company, and everyone wrote him off. 
These two failures could have been career-ending, but Ford continued. Several years after the second parting with Murphy, Ford met Alexander Malcomson, a coal magnate with a risk-taking spirit like Ford. Malcomson gave Ford full control over his production, and the company introduced the Model A in 1904. 
For Henry Ford, failure did not hinder innovation but served as the impetus to hone his vision for a technology that would ultimately transform the world. 
The story of Henry Ford is so empowering, as he did not let failure inhibit his resolve to succeed. Each failed attempt to revolutionize the automobile industry provided the vital learning lessons he needed to create something amazing. The story is the same for virtually every other famous person who did not succeed at first.  You must have a desire to change. Then you have to follow through with the process of change, which will not always go the way you would like. Ultimately, we must believe in our abilities to transform ideas into actions that produce a better, more successful result.  History has taught us that we should never doubt the difference one person can make with the right attitude and commitment to be the change. Those who fail forward change the world. 

Achieving success in the real world is rarely easy.  It is a convoluted process fraught with obstacles and unforeseen challenges.  That same goes for learning.  If it is easy, then it probably isn't learning. Our learners also need to see the value of failing forward.  The transition from Quad A learning to B, C, and eventually D as outlined in the Rigor Relevance Framework helps to give students a deeper understanding of concepts through authentic application. Quad D learning sees failure as being an iterative component of the learning process. Take a look at the image below that illustrates the power of Quad D learning to push students towards deeper thinking and application.

It is not what students ultimately know that really matters, but what they actually understand. When students are able to solve complex problems, even though they might experience setbacks along the way, critical competencies are developed that will prove invaluable in the future. This is key if we are to groom the next generation of inventors, thinkers, and entrepreneurs poised to succeed in the new world of work. 

Whether it is success in the real world of the classroom, failing forward requires an unwavering belief in our abilities as well as getting students to believe in theirs.