Sunday, June 17, 2018

Using Feedback Logs to Empower Learners

The most successful companies are successful because they are always looking for ways to improve.  When it comes to their employees, there is no ceiling as they are continually pursuing pathways and allocating resources to help the best get even better. The same philosophy can be applied to our schools. Continuous feedback for all learners, regardless of their abilities or where they are at, is pivotal if the goal is to help them evolve into their best. The research fully supports this proclamation.  Goodwin & Miller (2012) provided this summary:
In Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock's 2001 meta-analysis, McREL researchers found an effect size for feedback of 0.76, which translates roughly into a 28-percentile point difference in average achievement (Beesley & Apthorp, 2010; Dean, Pitler, Hubbell, & Stone, 2012). John Hattie (2009) found a similar effect size of 0.73 for feedback in his synthesis of 800 meta-analyses of education research studies; in fact, feedback ranked among the highest of hundreds of education practices he studied.
The bottom line here is that feedback matters in the context of learning. It should also be noted how it differs from assessment. Feedback justifies a grade, establishes criteria for improvement, provides motivation for the next assessment, reinforces good work, and serves as a catalyst for reflection. The assessment determines whether learning occurred, what learning occurred, and if the learning relates to stated targets, standards, and objectives. In reality, formative assessment is an advanced form of feedback. 

In my opinion, you can never provide learners with too much feedback. However, the way in which it is delivered matters significantly.  Nicol (2010) found that feedback is valuable when it is received, understood and acted on. How students analyze, discuss and act on feedback is as important as the quality of the feedback itself. I couldn’t agree more.  In a recent post I identified the following five components of good feedback:

  1. Positive delivery
  2. Practical and specific
  3. Timely
  4. Consistency
  5. Using the right medium

For some more research-based tips on providing students meaningful feedback check out this Edutopia article by Marianne Stenger and the excellent image below.

Knowing what the research has found, how can educators realistically provide learners with quality feedback during every lesson? The answer lies in placing the responsibility on them. During my work as an instructional and leadership coach, I typically see teachers monitoring students during cooperative learning activities or working with specific groups face-to-face in blended learning station rotations.  During debriefs, I often ask how feedback is given.  The response is that it is presented verbally. Now I am not saying that this is an ineffective strategy at all, but something was missing. This is where I came up with the idea of feedback logs.

Think about all the conversations that educators have with learners on a daily basis. The valuable information in many cases aligns with what the research has said constitutes good feedback. The problem though is the reasonable possibility that learners forget what they have been told regarding progress or improvement and they don’t have the ability to later reflect on the feedback that was given. You know how the saying goes, out of sight out of mind. Having students create a feedback log solves this issue by helping them remember, retain, reflect upon, and chart their progress of improvement. Best of all it requires no extra time on the part of the teacher.

A feedback log can be created in many ways and aligned to skills, concepts, or standards.  Students can then use this as a means to track their progress and growth over time as more feedback is provided over the course of the year. If students genuinely own their learning, then they must be put in a position to reflect and then act on the feedback they are given. The use of a log can also strengthen partnerships with parents. By making them aware of the log, parents have an opportunity to be more involved in their child’s learning each day. 

Implementing feedback logs as a part of consistent professional practice saves precious time, can be seamlessly aligned with research-based strategies, will help students monitor their understanding of essential learnings, and can be used to provide more targeted support to those students who don’t show reasonable growth over time. Best of all they can serve as an empowerment tool to help kids exert more ownership over their learning. 

Nicol, D. (2010). From monologue to dialogue: improving written feedback processes in mass higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in 
     Higher Education, 35(5), 501-517. 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Reflective Learning as the New Normal

The quest to improve pedagogy, and in turn learner outcomes, is a focus of many schools.  We toil away at chasing the next big innovative idea, trend, or tool as a path to improvement yet little changes. Maybe success lies in taking a more detailed look at daily practice. The key to future-proofing education is to empower students to not only think, but to apply their thinking in relevant ways to demonstrate what has been learned.  Whether you call this rigorous, deeper, personalized, or just plain learning is of no concern to me.  Semantics aside, the goal of all schools should be to equip students with the appropriate knowledge, skills, mindset, and behaviors to help them develop into competent learners.  Getting better at this seems to be a potential rallying cry. 

We can have students learn to do or flip the experience and have them do to learn.  The question then becomes not a conversation as to what pathway is better, but whether or not learning has occurred. Sure, we can slap a grade on it and in many cases that become the evidence that learning did or did not happen. There are flaws inherent here. As many grading practices still are entirely arbitrary and do not provide an accurate indication of learning, we need to re-think our practice. Now I am not saying to do away with grades or tests, as that is just not realistic right now, although it might be at some point in the future. The question then becomes what can be integrated into daily practice to help students learn? 

To get to where you want to be, you need to be honest about where you are right now. This leads me to ask the following question: Are your students provided an opportunity during every lesson to reflect on what he or she has learned? As John Dewey stated, “We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.” It is not a hard ask at all to ensure that students are provided with an opportunity to reflect on the learning target for the day. As I work with schools and districts as a job-embedded coach, one of my main focus areas is to help improve pedagogy both with and without the use of technology. More often than not I do not see opportunities for student reflections through countless walk-throughs, lesson plan reviews, or audits of how digital tools are being used. This is an easy fix if an approach is taken where there is a combination of self-efficacy and commitment to a school-wide goal.  

Something so simple can have a significant impact on learning.  The University of Sheffield provides the following synopsis that validates the importance of this pedagogical strategy:
Reflective learning is a way of allowing students to step back from their learning experience to help them develop critical thinking skills and improve future performance by analyzing their experience. This type of learning helps move the student from surface to deep learning.
Daily reflection provides students with an opportunity to exert more ownership over their learning. Below are some simple strategies that can be used to integrate reflection into any lesson:

  • Writing - A daily journal, blog, and LMS (i.e., Google Classroom) can be added as a means to not just review, but also reflect on prior learning.  It can also be used as a form of closure. Simple reflective prompts can also be used.  During a coaching visit I observed Zaina Hussein, a 4th-grade teacher at Wells Elementary, use this with her students (see image below). A great deal of research reviewed by Lew & Schmidt (2011) in their study suggests the positive impact of reflective writing on cognitive development. 

  • Video – Flipgrid fever has overtaken many schools. This tool can allow students to use video to reflect on their learning. They can be guided with simple prompts like the ones used by Ms. Hussein. All of the videos are then easily accessible for review on a grid. Think about the value of having students see and hear from their peers about what they either learned or struggled with during the lesson. In their research, Rose et al. (2016) found that video made the reflection experience more authentic and meaningful for both student and teacher.
  • Peer interaction – Research by Hatton & Smith (1995) indicated that engaging with another person in a way that encourages talking with, questioning, or confronting, helps the reflective process by placing the learner in a safe environment so that self-revelation may take place.  Consider implementing the critical friends’ strategy or more opportunities for discussion as a means to reflect.

For more strategies and ideas on how to incorporate reflection into pedagogical practice check out this article. If you are interested in learning more about how technology can be used as a catalyst for reflection the check out this post by Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano HERE. She also created a great summary image, which you can view below. 

Making the time for students to reflect on their learning leads to more ownership of the process, builds essential connections between both present and past experiences, provides teachers with valuable information related to standard attainment or mastery, and compels them to exert a degree of self-management as they become more capable of regulating their own learning. With these positive outcomes, reflective learning should become the new normal.

Hatton, N., & Smith, D. (1995). Reflection in Teacher Education: Towards Definition and Implementation. 
     The University of Sydney: School of Teaching and Curriculum Studies.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Pedagogy of Digital Discussion

I wasn’t an overly confident student when it came to engaging in open conversations during class.  If one of my teachers posed a question, I only raised my hand if I was 99.9% sure that I knew the correct answer.  I guess you can chalk this up to the fact that I lacked a certain degree of confidence in my knowledge acquisition or the fact that I was a relatively shy student when it came to class participation. Perhaps it was a combination of both. There were other issues at play that impacted my level of engagement. Not only was I averse to answering questions, but I also rarely directed any to my teachers outside of a one on one conversation.  Discussions with my peers were limited to the rare occasion when a cooperative learning activity was planned.  Such was life in a classroom back in the day.

I often reflect on what my learning experience might have been like had my teachers had access to and used the many interactive tools that are available today to enhance classroom discussion. During every single workshop I facilitate, I have participants in both peer and randomly selected groups engage in face-to-face conversations on numerous question prompts. It is during this time that they get to share their ideas on the topic, discuss implementation strategies, reflect on what others have said, or provide positive reinforcement.  I am always inspired when I eavesdrop on these conversations. There is no substitute for real human interaction as this is the ultimate relationship builder.  After a set amount of time, they are then all asked to share their responses using one of many different digital tools. 

Let me take a step back now and share some insights on why classroom discussion is so meaningful. As I was researching for some solid pedagogical links, I came across this wonderful article that Todd Finley wrote for Edutopia titled Rethinking Whole Class Discussion. It is not only a great read but also what he cites aligns with the strategies that I described previously in this post.  Here is one piece that he shared:
Quality discussion, according to the University of Washington's Center for Instructional Development and Research, involves purposeful questions prepared in advance, assessment, and starting points for further conversations. Teachers are also advised to:
  • Distribute opportunities to talk
  • Allow discussants to see each other physically
  • Ask questions that "may or may not have a known or even a single correct answer.”
  • Foster learners talking to peers
  • Encourage students to justify their responses
  • Vary the types of questions
Below are some strategies to enhance classroom discussion. For even more research-based ideas click HERE

Research supports the importance of discussion when backed by the purposeful use of technology.  Smith et al. (2009) found the following:
When students answer an in-class conceptual question individually using clickers, discuss it with their neighbors, and then revote on the same question, the percentage of correct answers typically increases. Our results indicate that peer discussion enhances understanding, even when none of the students in a discussion group originally knows the right answer.
As a supplement to traditional discussion strategies technology can serve as a catalyst to increase engagement by getting more learners actively involved during lessons.  It can also take conversations to new levels of interactivity and expression.  There are so many great tools to choose from, but we have to be focused first on the improved outcomes that can result from purposeful use.  Digital discussion: 

  • Allows creativity in responses (video, images, online research citations)
  • Provides an avenue for open reflection
  • Affords more learners an opportunity to answer and ask questions
  • Better meets the needs of shy and introverted students
  • Can extend conversations and learning beyond the traditional school day
  • Welcomes participation from others beyond the brick and mortar classroom
  • Can be used to show parents and stakeholders the learning that is taking place
  • Works to create a culture grounded in trust and responsibility

Now that I have covered the many ways digital discussion serves as a sound pedagogical strategy, the next step is to begin implementing various tools into daily lessons and learning activities.  Some of my favorites include Mentimeter, Gsuite, GoSoapBox, Tozzl, and Padlet (check out the backchannel option). Many learning management systems (Google Classroom, Schoology, Microsoft Teams) have opportunities to facilitate digital discussion as well.  Harness the power of digital to take conversations to the next level while empowering both students and adult learners in the process.

Smith, M. K., Wood, W. B., Adams, W. K., Wieman, C., Knight, J. K., Guild, N. & Su, T. T. (2009) Why peer discussion
     improves student performance on in-class concept questions. Science 323 (5910):122–24.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Power Up Your Spaces

Times are a changing in case you haven’t noticed. We have seen disruptive innovation across so many different sectors of society.  If you were to go back in time and pinpoint when disruption began to take off, I would wager that it correlates with the proliferation of the smartphone. Pause a second and think about companies such as Uber and Airbnb.  Had it not been for the smartphone their innovative apps might never have come to fruition or experienced immense scalability as they have. Where would many of us be without these or similar apps today?

Now we know that across the world adults have pretty much embraced the smartphone. Some would even go as far to say it has become an additional appendage of many. Statista predicts that approximately five billion people will use a smartphone by 2019. Imagine what this number will be in years to come.  With all of this predicted usage, I was curious to know how many of our learners owned a smartphone. Well, I did find some stats for kids in the United States and am willing to bet that other developing countries have similar numbers.  The site eMarketer found that 41% of students ages 0-11 and 84% ages 12-17 owned a smartphone in 2016.  These numbers are predicted to increase to 49.7% and 92.9% respectively by 2020. Before we know it almost everyone that wants a smartphone across the globe will have one.

The increase in smartphone ownership is a good indicator as to where many schools are headed.  Over the years we have seen more embracement of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and 1:1 device rollouts.  Cost and ease of access will only lead to more schools and districts going down this path. The USDOE’s Office of Educational Technology places emphasis on students and educators having access to a robust and comprehensive infrastructure when and where they need it for learning.  The National EdTech Plan goes on to state the following:
Preparing students to be successful for the future requires a robust and flexible learning infrastructure capable of supporting new types of engagement and providing ubiquitous access to the technology tools that allow students to create, design, and explore. The essential components of an infrastructure capable of supporting transformational learning experiences include the following: 
Ubiquitous connectivity. Persistent access to high-speed Internet in and out of school. 
Powerful learning devices. Access to mobile devices that connect learners and educators to the vast resources of the Internet and facilitate communication and collaboration. 
High-quality digital learning content. Digital learning content and tools that can be used to design and deliver engaging and relevant learning experiences. 
Responsible Use Policies (RUPs). Guidelines to safeguard students and ensure that the infrastructure is used to support learning.

Now don’t get me wrong, all of the above are great.  However, there is one crucial aspect that needs to be considered. A focus on logistics must complement the pursuit of a more enriched and challenging learning experience for students in the digital age, which Tom Murray and I lay out in Learning Transformed.   In laymen’s terms, this means having enough power to support all of the connected devices.  I know it’s not flashy, aligned to research, or even directly connected to pedagogy….but it is a necessity if the goal is to support learning. 

To begin, consider conducting an audit consisting of walk-throughs with IT, maintenance staff, teacher leaders, and administrators to determine where there are areas of opportunity. Many outlet additions can be completed over summer and holiday breaks.  Polling students to gain their insight is a good move as well.  The next step is to determine if there are excess funds in the budget (there is almost always money to spend at the end of the year) to make changes immediately.  If not, then this should be worked into the budget for the following year.  Below are some practical suggestions to power up your school.

  • Transform blocks of hallway lockers into charging bars. During a coaching visit to the Downingtown Area School District, I saw how Lionville Middle School has begun to transition some of their obsolete locker spaces into charging bars (pictures above). Many lockers go unused as our digital learners don't find a need for them so converting them seems like wise decision. 
  • Overhaul old typing rooms and computer labs. If your middle or high school building isn’t relatively new, then the chances are that there were at least one typing room and numerous computer labs. These rooms had numerous outlets throughout to power devices so a little innovative design can transform these spaces into power hubs. 
  • Purchase furniture and accessories that have built-in electrical outlets. This strategy seems like a no-brainer when schools are looking to refurbish libraries and comfortable furniture for common areas. Check out Steelcase for an array of ideas and solutions specific to education. 
  • Replace standard outlets with multi-functional USB combos – When assessing power needs through an audit, count the number of outlets in classrooms, hallways, and common spaces. You can then purchase and replace those outlets with dual USB tamper-resistant models, which will essentially double the available power in any room or space.  
  • Invest in school branded charging stations – As the principal, I invested in a few of these mobile stations from a company called Kwikboost and placed them in common areas throughout the building (picture below).  One of the benefits was that each station already came with every type of charging cable pre-installed.  During events like concerts, plays, and art shows these devices can easily be temporarily placed in these spaces to meet the power needs of stakeholders visiting the school while showing off some school pride in the process. 

When more devices, whether school or student-owned, are integrated to support learning an infrastructure must be in place to support the need for power.  What unique ideas and strategies have you seen that you would add to the list above? 

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Digital Leadership is Not Optional

Leadership has less to do with position than it does disposition.” – John Maxwell

I am currently working on a new edition of Digital Leadership for Corwin and I am very excited, as it will be in color. There are many changes I intend to make, but the most significant will be creating a book that is more “evergreen,” a book with less focus on tools and more on the dispositions of digital leaders.  I would love your feedback after reading this post. What would you like to see emphasized in this new edition? What should be removed? 

A great deal has changed since Digital Leadership was published in 2014.  For starters, I have now been going on four years since transitioning from high school principal to Senior Fellow with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE).  Society is now in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which was in its infancy as I began writing this book.  Personalized and blended learning pathways were proclaimed to be the future of education. More and more schools have gone 1:1 thanks to the cost-effectiveness of the Chromebook and cloud-based tools.  Makerspaces have moved from fringe initiatives to vibrant components of school culture.  Emerging technologies such as augmented reality, virtual reality, open education resources (OER), coding, and adaptive learning tools are moving more into the mainstream in some schools.  Twitter chats have increased from a handful to now hundreds happening on a weekly basis.  

What I have described above only accounts for a small subset of the changes we have seen since 2014. Change isn’t coming; it is already on our doorstep and about to knock down the front door.  The need for digital leadership now is more urgent than a few years ago.  Our learners will need to thrive and survive in a world that is almost impossible to predict thanks to exponential advances in technology.  Automation and robotics are already disrupting the world of work, as we know it.  The Internet of Things (IoT) impacts virtually all of us. Have you heard of it? Perhaps not, but once you know what it is you can see how it connects to your life. Wikipedia defines IoT as a network of physical devices, vehicles, home appliances and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and connectivity which enables these objects to connect and exchange data. How are we preparing learners for this world? How are we adapting and evolving? 

Expectations are also changing in a knowledge and information-based society where information can easily be accessed from virtually anywhere.  The World Wide Web has transformed how we access, consume, create, and share information.  From a growth perspective, the Personal Learning Network (PLN) concept has dramatically impacted countless educators across the globe. People crave more than a drive-by event, traditional school professional development day, or mandated training that does not have an authentic outlet that caters to their interests.  As educators lust for knowledge, parents and other stakeholders desire more information about schools and how the needs of learners are being met.  Engagement using a multifaceted, two-way approach seems to be a no-brainer at a time when email has lost some luster.  Providing pertinent information in a timely fashion helps to build powerful relationships and is a more substantial component of working smarter, not harder.

There is so much more than I can say, but to sum it all up digital leadership in our classrooms, schools, districts, and organizations is needed now more than ever.  Research has shown how crucial digital leadership is to organizations.  Here is a little bit that Josh Bersin shared in an article titled Digital Leadership is Not an Optional Part of Being a CEO:
Culture is key. Success is mostly dependent on people sharing information with each other, partnering, and continuously educating themselves. This can happen when you build a collective, transparent, and profoundly shared culture. CEOs who are digital leaders are continuously reinforcing the culture, communicating values, and aligning people around the culture whenever something goes wrong.
The importance outlined above extends well beyond the private sector and into the field of education.  As times change, so must the practice of leaders to establish a culture of learning that is relevant, research-based, and rooted in relationships.  Digital leadership is all about people and how their collective actions aligned with new thinking, ideas, and tools can help to build cultures primed for success.  

Definitions of digital leadership vary and have pretty much become a semantic issue.  Leadership is leadership ladies and gentlemen. The same general tenets that embody all great leaders we have come to respect and admire over time still apply. With this being said, I am slightly biased towards my definition created years ago that aligns well with Josh Bersin’s thinking.
Digital leadership is a strategic mindset and set of behaviors that leverage resources to create a meaningful, transparent, and engaging school culture.
The digital before leadership implies how mindsets and behaviours must change to harness current and emerging resources to set the stage for improving outcomes and professional practice.  The Pillars of Digital Leadership provide a focus that can move us from talk to implementation and eventually evidence of improved outcomes.  These guiding elements are embedded throughout all school cultures, which compel us in many cases to do what we already do better.  I hope to flesh out each of these pillars more than I did the first time while also including many more strategies to aid in practical implementation. As for other significant inclusions, efficacy will be a substantial component of this edition as it was reasonably absent the first go around. 

I now turn to all of you.  Even though I think I know where I want to go with this edition the fact is that I am not writing a book for me – I am writing it for all of you!  Please use the comment section below to share your insights and ideas on what should be included as well as de-emphasized.  I am also looking to add great images that align to each of the seven pillars with credit. Thanks in advance!

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Finding Comfort in Growth

"Comfort is the enemy of progress." - Hugh Jackman, The Greatest Showman

Have you ever been complacent when it comes to undertaking or performing a task? Of course, you have, as this is just a part of human nature.  In our personal lives, complacency can result if we are happy or content with where we are. Maybe we don’t change our work out routines because we have gotten used to doing the same thing day in and day out.  I know I love using the elliptical for cardio, but rarely use any setting beside manual. Or perhaps our diet doesn’t change as we have an affinity for the same types of foods, which might or might not be that good for us.  So, what’s my point with all of this? It is hard to grow and improve if one is complacent.  This is why we must always be open to finding comfort in growth.  If we don’t, then things might very well never change. 

The issue described above is not just prevalent in our personal lives. Complacency plagues many organizations as well.  When we are in a state of relative comfort with our professional practice, it is often difficult to move beyond that zone of stability and dare I say, “easy” sailing.  If it isn’t broke, then why fix it, right? Maybe we aren’t pushed to take on new projects or embrace innovative ideas.  Or perhaps there is no external accountability to improve really. Herein lies the inherent challenge of taking on the status quo in districts, schools, and organizations.  

There are many lenses through which we can take a more in-depth look to gain more context on the impact complacency has on growth and improvement. Take test scores for example.  If a district or school traditionally has high achievement and continues to do so the rule of thumb is that no significant change is needed. Just because a school or educator might be “good” at something doesn’t equate to the fact that change isn’t required in other areas.  It is also important to realize that someone else can view one’s perception of something being good in an entirely different light.  Growth in all aspects of school culture is something that has to be the standard.  It begins with getting out of actual and perceived comfort zones to truly start the process of improving school culture. 

In a recent article Joani Junkala shares some great thoughts on the importance of stepping outside our comfort zones.
Stepping out of our comfort zone requires us to step outside of ourselves. If we are going to strive for progress, whether professionally or personally, we have to get comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable. This isn’t easy for everyone. For someone like me, who is a self-prescribed introvert, this can be difficult. Stepping out of our comfort zone requires extra effort, energy, and sometimes forced experiences. It requires us to set aside our fear and be vulnerable. We have to be willing to try something new, different, difficult, or even something that’s never been done before. We have to put ourselves out there — trusting in ourselves and trusting others with our most vulnerable self. It’s a frightening thought. What if we get it wrong? What if we look silly? Will it be worth it in the end? Will I stand alone? What if I fail? Oh but, what if I succeed and evolve?
Change begins with each and every one of us and spreads from there. Finding comfort in growth and ultimately improvement begins with being honest with ourselves.  Let me be blunt for a minute.  The truth is that there is no perfect lesson, project, classroom, school, district, teacher, or administrator.  There is, however, the opportunity every day to get better.  This is not to say that great things are not happening in education. They most definitely are. My point is that we can never let complacency detract us from continually pursuing a path to where our learners need us to be.  

Are you comfortable where you are at professionally? What about your school, district, or organization? Where are opportunities for growth? By consistently reflecting on these questions a continual path to improvement can be paved.  Questions lay the path forward. Actions are what get you to where you want to be. 

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Tic Tack Toe in the Blended Classroom

The other day I was conducting some learning walks with the administrative team at Wells Elementary School in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (CFISD). Throughout the school year, I have been assisting them with digital pedagogy as it relates to blended learning and the use of flex spaces.  The primary goal has been to take a critical lens to instructional design with a focus on increasing the level of questioning, imparting relevance through authentic contexts and interdisciplinary connections, creating rigorous performance tasks, innovating assessment, and improving learner feedback. I cannot overstate the importance of getting the instructional design right first before throwing technology into the mix.  

A secondary goal has been facilitating a transition from blended instruction to blended learning. This is not to say that the former is bad or ineffective, but it can be depending on whether or not the technology is just a direct substitute for low-level tasks or use is more passive as opposed to active. With this aside, there is a difference between the two, and it all has to with how the technology is being used and by whom.  Blended instruction is what the teacher does with technology. Blended learning is where students use tech to have control over path, place, and pace. Herein lies the key to the practical use of flex spaces in education. The dynamic combination of pedagogically-sound blended learning and choice in either seating or moving around in flex spaces results in an environment where all kids can flourish and want to learn. 

Over the course of the year, I have seen some much growth and improvement since the work began in August.  My visits to this school have been inspiring as I have seen the future of education in the present.  This is one of the main reasons that my daughter loves being a student here. Unlike our learning walks in the past, the teachers at Wells Elementary did not know I was going to be in the building on this particular day.  The idea was to see if the goals for digital pedagogy and blended learning in flex spaces were well on their way to being accomplished. 

I saw so many activities that warmed my heart where kids were authentically engaged in meaningful learning. However, stepping into Zaina Hussein’s 4th-grade classroom provided a perfect example of how the entire Wells community has evolved together to deliver fantastic learning opportunities for kids.  As we walked in a Tic Tac Toe grid was displayed on the interactive whiteboard.  Word on the street is that she “borrowed” this idea from Kendre Millburn, my daughter’s 5th-grade science teacher.  If you are not familiar with this type of learning activity here is a description from the IRIS Center out of Vanderbilt University:
Tic-tac-toe sometimes referred to as Think-tac-toe, is a method of offering students choices in the type of products they complete to demonstrate their knowledge. As in a traditional tic-tac-toe game, students are presented with a nine-cell table of options. The teacher should make sure that all options address the key concept or skill being learned. There are several variations on this method: 1. Students choose three product options that form a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal line. 2. Students choose one product choice from each row or from each column (without forming a straight line). 3. The teacher can create two or more versions to address the different readiness levels. To learn how to create an acnhor activity using a Tic Tack Toe board click HERE.
I loved this activity for so many reasons. It incorporated choice, formative assessment, purposeful use of technology, and differentiation. All learners had to complete the middle box with the gold star emoji.  The flame icons represented activities that were more difficult.  

I was so mesmerized by the structure of the lesson and the engagement of the learners that I almost missed what possibly could have been the best part of the class – an opportunity to reflect.  Costa & Kallick (2008) share why reflection is a critical component of the learning process:
Reflection has many facets. For example, reflecting on work enhances its meaning. Reflecting on experiences encourages insight and complex learning. We foster our growth when we control our learning, so some reflection is best done alone. Reflection is also enhanced, however, when we ponder our learning with others. 
Reflection involves linking a current experience to previous learnings (a process called scaffolding). Reflection also involves drawing forth cognitive and emotional information from several sources: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile. To reflect, we must act upon and process the information, synthesizing and evaluating the data. In the end, reflecting also means applying what we've learned to contexts beyond the original situations in which we learned something.

It is important to understand the convergence of so many elements present in the examples above that align with sound instructional design and real blended learning.  Learners had a certain amount of control over path, pace, and place thanks to using flex spaces and the Tic Tac Toe activity that incorporated blended elements.  Student agency was also evident.  This is a hallmark of a well-structured blended learning activity, which is why I was so pleased to see choice (Tic Tac Toe activity, flex seating) and voice (reflection) incorporated.  

Over the course of the school year, I have seen so many exemplary blended learning activities implemented by Wells Elementary teachers across all grade levels during my time there as an instructional and leadership coach.  I cannot commend their progress and success enough, but I would be remiss if I did not add how helpful the entire administrative team has been.  They all have provided unwavering support to their teachers while also learning alongside them. When an entire school believes in different and better, takes collective action, grows together, and has the evidence to show improvement the result is efficacy. 

Follow the learning adventures at Wells Elementary on Twitter at #ExploreWells

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Preparing Learners for the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Do you like change? If you do, then living in the present is an exhilarating experience.  For those who don’t, buckle up as we are only going to see unprecedented innovations at exponential rates involving technology.  You can’t run or hide from it. The revolution, or evolution depending on your respective lens, of our world, will transform everything as we know it. We must adapt, but more importantly, prepare our learners for a bold new world that is totally unpredictable.  Welcome to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  

In Learning Transformed, my co-author Tom Murray and I looked in detail at the disruptive changes we are all seeing currently, but also those that are yet to come.  Below provides a synopsis of the book:
Today’s pace of technological change is staggering, and the speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent. Consumers may seem well-versed with the latest personal gadgets, yet growth in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, autonomous vehicles, the Internet of Things (IoT), and nanotechnology remains hardly known except to technology gurus who live and breathe ones and zeros. The coming interplay of such technologies from both physical and virtual worlds will make the once unthinkable, possible. 
We believe that we are in the first few days of the next Industrial Revolution and that the coming age will systematically shift the way we live, work, and connect to and with one another. It will affect the very essence of the way humans experience the world. Although the 2000s brought with them significant change in how we utilize technology to interact with the world around us, the coming transformational change will be unlike anything mankind has ever experienced (Schwab, 2016). 
The Fourth Industrial Revolution, toward which we are facing as a society, is still in its infancy but growing exponentially. Advances in technology are disrupting almost every industry and in almost every country. No longer do natural or political borders significantly reduce the acceleration of change. 
Today, we are taking our first steps into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, created by the fusion of technologies that overlap physical, biological, and digital ecosystems. Known to some as Industry 4.0, these possibilities have been defined as “the next phase in the digitization of the manufacturing sector, driven by four disruptions: the astonishing rise in data volumes, computational power, and connectivity; the emergence of analytics and business-intelligence capabilities; new forms of human-machine interaction such as touch interfaces and augmented-reality systems; and improvements in transferring digital instructions to the physical world, such as advanced robotics and 3-D printing” (Baur & Wee, 2015). Such systems of automation enable intelligence to monitor the physical world, replicate it virtually, and make decisions about the process moving forward. In essence, machines now have the ability to think, problem solve, and make critical decisions. In this era, the notion of big data and data analytics will drive decision-making.
To prepare learners for success during the fourth, or even fifth, industrial revolution the notion of education has to change at scale. If all of the change we are seeing has taught us one major lesson it is that schools must prepare kids to do anything, not something. Having current and future generations go through the motions and “do” school just won’t cut it. Just because it worked for us as adults, does not mean it works or even serves, well for our learners.  The transition to the Fourth Industrial Revolution does not spell doom and gloom for society as we know it. The idea here is to be proactive, not reactive, and to understand where opportunities lie for growth and improvement in education systems across the globe.

There are two images that come to mind that represent the need to reflect on where education is at in order to move to where it needs to be.  The first one below pulled from an article titled Automate This: Building the Perfect 21st-Century Worker, represents the skills our learners will need to compete in a more automated world.  

The second image comes courtesy of futurist Gerd Leonhard. This image is a simple, yet powerful reminder of the critical role soft skills and qualities that cannot be measured with traditional metrics will play in preparing learners for success during the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  

As Tom and I state in Learning Transformed, “To prepare students for their world of work tomorrow, we must transform their learning today.” Skills are important, but we need to nurture competent learners who can think divergently, exhibit empathy, ask more questions than seek answers, and empower them to own their learning.  It begins with taking a critical lens to our work followed by active reflection to determine if we are on the right path. However, it is important to understand that paths can and should readily change and that there might be multiple paths taken to get our kids to where they need to be.  Are your learners prepared for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Cognitive Flexibility: Paving the Way For Learner Success

A few years back the World Economic Forum came out with an article titled The 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The opening two paragraphs sum up the point of the piece nicely:
By 2020, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will have brought us advanced robotics and autonomous transport, artificial intelligence and machine learning, advanced materials, biotechnology, and genomics. 
These developments will transform the way we live, and the way we work. Some jobs will disappear, others will grow and jobs that don’t even exist today will become commonplace. What is certain is that the future workforce will need to align its skillset to keep pace.

The image above shows the skills that will be most in demand in 2020 and probably well beyond. After reading this article I was extremely interested in how schools and educators provide opportunities for learners to not only acquire these skills but also illustrate competence in how they are applied. Some of the skills and how leaners can demonstrate competency are self-explanatory.  Others are not.  This led me to focus on one skill in particular that crept onto the list at number 10 – cognitive flexibility.  What does this skill entail?  Below is a good definition from the University of Miami:
Cognitive flexibility is the ability to shift our thoughts and adapt our behavior to the changing environment. In other words, it’s one’s ability to disengage from a previous task and respond effectively to a new one. It’s a faculty that most of us take for granted, yet an essential skill to navigate life. 
Spiro & Jehn (1990, P. 65) provide another look at the skill:
By cognitive flexibility, we mean the ability to spontaneously restructure one’s knowledge, in many ways, in adaptive response to radically changing situational demands.
Both definitions seamlessly align with Quad D learning based on the Rigor Relevance Framework as described below:
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.
In my mind, cognitive flexibility might be the most important skill on the list as it incorporates so many of the others in some form or another.  Below are a few ideas and strategies on how to help learners develop this important skill:

  1. Design learning activities the support divergent thinking where learners demonstrate understanding in creative and non-conventional ways.
  2. Empower students to identify a solution and then come up with a workable solution in a makerspace.
  3. Allow students to explore a topic of interest in OpenCourseware and then demonstrate what they have learned in non-traditional ways (see IOCS).
  4. Implement personalized learning opportunities where students think critically, openly explore, and then do using their own intuitive ideas to learn in powerful ways.
  5. Engage students in a real-world application in unanticipated situations where they use their knowledge to tackle problems that have more than one solution. 
  6. Provide pathways for students to transfer learning to a new context. 

How we prepare our learners for the new world of work has to be a uniform focus for all schools.  The key to future-proofing education and learning is to get kids to think by engaging them in tasks that develop cognitive flexibility.  

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.