More thoughts on Education’s “Game-Changer”

Photo credit: Maria Ly - used under Creative Commons

Photo credit: Maria Ly – used under Creative Commons

I’m intrigued by the idea of finding/developing the next “game-changer” in education. My last post tossed out one suggestion. After a conversation with a colleague today, I have another idea.

First some background: I want to relate this idea to the medical world and professional (or large college) sports. So, in those areas there are successful teams and less successful teams. Those teams are built of individual members strategically collected because of their individual skill strengths.

In medicine, general practitioners handle small ailments. Larger ailments get referred to specialist. Each specialist focuses on a much more focused area of health: Back, allergies, ear-nose-throat, kidneys, endocrine system. If the person needs surgery, then send them to a person who is skilled in that. That person has their own team with someone who is skilled in anesthesia. And none of these people deal with patients paying their bills. There are receptionists and accountants for that.

In sports, same idea. There are lineman, backs, receivers, ends… and that’s just on offense. There are a separate set of defenders.

So, what does this have to do education?

Teaching well requires a crazy amount of skills. Just think of the things that teachers need to do: They need to design and deliver lessons to engage all learners, modify for those reluctant, adapt for those with special needs. They need to assess the learning of each one of the diverse learners, interpret the deficiencies and provide meaningful feedback, often redesigning learning opportunities targeting the weak areas. The process of classroom management often requires afterhours follow-through like parent calls, detentions, sit-downs with counselors or principals. They need to take, record, report out, and interpret a variety of student data points. Believe it or not, that’s the bare minimum.

What if they want to sit on committees? Coach? Get involved in the union? Community? After school clubs?

Why did anyone ever think this was a job for one person?

So, it got a what-if.

What if we broke that job into two parts. And by that, I mean we asked our professional educators to do half of those tasks. We’ll have two separate roles. I’ll call them the “instructor” and the “evaluator”.

The instructor would handle the parts of the job that dealt with instructing the students. Designing/delivering lessons and course materials, managing the classroom, disciplining students, accommodating, grouping, etc.

The evaluator would handle the formative and summative assessments, data analysis, feedback, parent contacts based on learner struggles, etc.

Then, we team up. Each core team would consist of four highly-effective instructors in each core area and maybe two or three evaluators. All of these people are certified teachers in the areas that they are working. Included in the team would be a number of support folks that could provide consulting for accommodating struggling learners and/or modifying to support students with disabilities. There would be a designated meeting time at least three times a week for the teams to discuss what the assessment data is showing and to inform decision-making.

Yeah, it sounds a little strange, but it changes the game. And it does so in some pretty important areas.

This allows teachers to focus on one of the two gigantic, essential, “can’t-get-rid-of-it” areas of teaching that are becoming so intense and so technical that it is becoming increasingly difficult to do them both. Who has time to design/develop/deliver powerful, scaffolded, differentiated lessons AND design/deliver/record/analyze meaningful, informative assessments and provide meaningful feedback in a timely manner. Especially considering the community relations work increasingly required in both areas?

But what if each teacher was only responsible for one or the other of those? Instead of two teachers taxed, stressed and burned out trying to climb the whole mountain, what if one of them spent all his/her time on instruction and the other spent all his/her time on assessment.

If the two were consistently and effectively collaborating, then the flow of information would supply both of them.

Then the instructor could be present while the students were learning and not leaving them alone to grade papers.

Then the evaluator could effectively tend to the students in the assessment experience and not ignore them to get a jump start entering the data.

Then the instructor could update groups and seating arrangements several times a week instead of surrendering all his/her creative time to printing reports and stuffing them in binders.

Then the data wouldn’t become a paper to be printed, filed, and ignored, but instead would be examined and used to inform future assessments and instruction.

Marzano, Hattie, Boaler (most reformers in fact) talk about the power and overwhelming positive impact of layered, intentionally-designed learning activities. (What does Boaler call them? Low floor, high ceiling? I might be wrong about that, but the spirit is correct…). They also talk about the power of meaningful, well-planned assessments with thoughtful, timely feedback.

So, here’s my second game-changing idea: What if, in order for both of those things to have the impact on students that we all know they can have, we need to accept that it is too tall an order for one person to do alone?

If education REALLY needs a game-changer, then…

So, I got a “what-if”…

What if teachers only taught half their day?

Follow me down this rabbit trail for a minute. It started with a video. This one. Watch it if you haven’t already.

It’s kind of long, sorry about that.

So, technology isn’t a game-changer. That’s because it doesn’t change the game. It’s a different strategy to bring to the same game. Instructional technology is just that: INSTRUCTIONAL. You don’t change the game by changing INSTRUCTION.

You change the game by changing LEARNING. That’s where the revolution comes from. It’s fair to say that one definitely leads to the other and it certainly isn’t valuable to separate those two practically Siamese educational activities. Teaching and Learning.

So I began to ask myself, what produces high amounts of learning? Well, at the risk of oversimplifying: good teaching. And good teaching rests on foundation of good lesson-planning and good lesson design.

In fact, according to L. Dee Fink of the University of Oklahoma, “designing and managing an instructional event” is the “most crucial” quality in “ensuring whether or not students have a significant (rather than a boring or trite) learning experience”.

That having been said, take a look at The University of Michigan Center for Research on Teaching and Learning’s Guide for Effective Lesson Planning. Many seasoned teachers look at that list of super important items and chuckle to themselves at how no one in the teaching profession has time to put that kind of detail into their lessons.


We have created a situation where the people who have the most impact on the learning don’t have the ability to do the thing that research suggests will have the largest impact on the learning.

Well, what are they doing instead?

Well, here’s an infographic. (I’m not sure if infographics count as “citing research” or not, I’ll let that come out as critiques as my peers review my blog posts, but I think the point is well made.) In a typical work day, teachers spend the majority of their time instructing students, which might seem like a no-brainer except they have to teach them something. The typical processes include using instructional materials (which have to be chosen or designed) and giving assessments (which need to be chosen or designed, and then graded and returned with feedback.) Without those things, we don’t see learning. And learning is the goal.

Which means this super-important lesson design work, which has to be done for high amounts of learning to occur, is not given sufficient time within the typical teacher’s day. Most days it isn’t given ANY time in the teacher’s day. Or it is given time that is supplanting family time, relax time, or hobby time. That isn’t just me being sympathetic. Those things keep teachers from getting burned out.

So, you can’t really change the job of teaching. It is all of those things and not because we chose them to be.

But our culture doesn’t need teachers who lesson plan. It needs teachers who lesson plan WELL. It doesn’t need teachers who assess learning and give feedback. It needs teachers who assess learning WELL and give GOOD feedback. It doesn’t need teachers who reach out to reluctant learners. It needs teachers who reach out to reluctant learners PERSISTENTLY and EFFECTIVELY.

Those things take time. Time our teachers don’t have because of the way our education system requires its teachers to work.

So, enter my original “what-if”. What if teachers only taught half the day?

Secondary teachers would teach three classes. or elementary teachers would teach either the morning or the afternoon. Secondary folks might have 75-80 students instead of double that, in some cases.

Then, the other half of the day, they are collaborating, researching best practices, lesson planning, giving feedback, observing each other teach, making contact with parents. Young teachers could experience real mentorship. Teachers could really reflect and really collect, look at, and examine student data.

I know, I know, I know. Money, money, money. I understand that this plan isn’t a cheap one. I get that. I don’t think this plan is going to be the next one tried. But it is simple. It is elegant. And it probably would work. And if education needs a “game-changer”, then we need to think about ACTUALLY changing the game. This plan does that.

There are teachers out there doing amazing things right now. Imagine what those folks would do if you gave them that kind of time. They wouldn’t be amazing anymore. They might just be revolutionary.

Climbing the Wealth Ladder

So, during my recent internet travels I came across this tasty picture.

Oh! The math we could do with this!

Oh! The math we could do with this!

What questions come to your mind when you see this? I can think of a couple.

Which stack has the second-highest value? Which stack has the lowest-value? (Start with predicting since those are essentially counting by 5s, 10s, and 25s questions.)

Suppose you had three different stacks of dimes and then set them beside three stacks of nickels of equal value. Would there be a consistent height difference? Would the nickels proportionally taller? Would there be no relationship at all?

What questions do you have? What do you think you could do with this? What do you think your students could do with this?

Sky Dive Trampoline: Real or Fake?

It has been a while since I’ve posted an additional installment to my “Real or Fake” Collection, but when I see videos like this, I just wonder what everyone else sees when they watch it.

So, a man jumps out of a plane at several thousand feet with no parachute and slips through a 3 x 5 hole in the roof of a warehouse to land on a trampoline where a crowd of perhaps 100 wait to celebrate his victorious descent.

If this is a hoax, the sell job is pretty elaborate: the tech team on the in the control room, the steering device, the slow-motion replay… It sells well. I suppose that is why the video went viral.

But I’m not sold.

First, this stunt is awfully high-risk. Like, it either works, or the stunt man isn’t getting up.

Second, no rehearsal for this technology that is probably seriously tricky to get right. I suspect this guy would have wanted to see a trial drop with a test dummy at least once before he jumps.

I envision that first test drop going sort of like this:

Third, can some of my physics friends verify my skepticism over the meager bounce the man shows once he lands? One minute at free fall? That’s a lot of kinetic energy. A lot. That’s all I’m saying.


All right, your turn.


What do you think? Real or fake?


If you are curious, here are my other posts in the “Real or Fake” collection.

Life-Saving Baseball Catch

Ski Jump Luge

Regarding Blended Learning

Is “blended learning” a trend?

I think it would be easy to call “blended learning” a trend. It seems to be rather popular in education right now. There are lots of grants available to support it. Instructional technology is a common talking point among reformers. Many teachers in many schools are experimenting with it, some with fantastic results. Others with frustration.

Blended Learning has been on my mind recently as it has become the current focus of my professional work. And to answer my opening question, for some, I suspect it is a trend. Write a grant, get some cash, buy some tech, generate some buzz. That’s how you take advantage of a trend. But for some, there might be more there. The reason that I have a hard time calling blending learning a trend or a fad is because of what is driving it. Or should be.

For many, myself included, it is being driven by an appreciation for the educational opportunities that in the internet provides that aren’t nearly as available without the internet. Flipping classes, collaboration, cross-curricular projects, etc — this stuff existed prior to the internet. But never have those tools been so available and so easy to implement and adapt.

So, will it work?

That completely depends on whether or not we are prepared to allow blended models to address our most pressing issues. I’ve written about this before. Blended learning is no magic bullet. Blended learning is an opportunity. Nothing more or less. It can be capitalized upon or it can be wasted. As with all opportunities, in order to take advantage of it, you need to be waiting for it. You need to be expecting it. You need to know why you are looking for it and what you expect to be able to use it for.

Because make no mistake, underperforming students and schools aren’t underperforming BECAUSE the students haven’t been using the internet. Therefore, simply involving the internet in their schooling isn’t a meaningful end. Blended learning is a how, it’s a means. A means to what?



At this point, I’m going to shout out to Simon Sinek, whose TED talk I recently saw. There were some quotes in this that I really liked. For example:

“But very, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do. And by “why”, I don’t mean “to make a profit.” That’s a result. It’s always a result. By “why”, I mean, what’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief?”

When I heard that portion of the talk, I replaced “to make a profit” with “to improve student achievement.” Re-read the quote with that update. Improving student achievement shouldn’t be a why. It should be a result. What is our compelling “why”? Why should we blend offline and online resources to create a new educational model? What is the value the model? What transformation are we trying to create? Why will our students have access to a more powerful experience because of it?

The “whys” that we choose will drive our ability to create blended learning opportunities that have value instead of those that are blended because that is what folks are doing these days. They will energize us when our work exhausts us. They will help us to motivate our students when they (and perhaps we) are tempted to think that engaging a new learning opportunity is too much work. Those moments are real. And when it comes time to push through them, it isn’t the “what” that inspires.

It’s the why.

I suspect there will be teachers and schools that implement blended learning with fantastic results. I also suspect there will be teachers and schools that will implement blended learning and be very disappointed. It will depend completely on the “why” at the center of the golden circle. What will separate the two is the effort and energy spent developing the why.

And it begins with conversations like this: “I think we should start to implement blended learning.”

“Oh yeah? Why?”

A few words about failure…

I just finished up a day on campus at Michigan State University attending the Michigan Virtual University Symposium. It was a daylong set of discussions and panels dedicated to blended and online learning.

There were a lot of interesting discussion points to be sure, but the one that is going to stick with me the longest is, perhaps, the one that we try the hardest to forget:


Toward the end of the day, in the final panel discussion, the value of failure came out multiple times. The process of learning REQUIRES a certain amount of failure. Failure lets us know that we are pushing ourselves to grow. Failure is a sign that we are trying to put new understanding into practice. Failure gives use opportunities to check our progress toward a goal that sits out in front of us… a goal we haven’t reached yet, but continue to reach for.

We should fail sometimes and our students should see us do it. If we are really trying to show our students that we are lifelong learners, then we need to show our students what learning really looks like.

Many, many students are under the unfortunate impression that failing is something that weak students do and succeeding something that strong students do. While, the latter is certainly true, the former is certainly not.

Failing is something that happens with practically each first try at a new skill. Failing is something that is a natural part of the learning process. It is natural and it is helpful.

I am not sure this education system of ours is encouraging that fact – not of its administrators, teachers, or students. We expect progress now. We expect implementation to demonstrate immediate results. We want our teachers to teach in such a way that our students don’t get wrong answers.

Perhaps what we need to do is get back to the basics of learning. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

From Geometry to Instructional Tech: A New Adventure

2014-09-10 11.30.43

This month, my journey in education takes a turn in a new direction. Thus far, all of my experience in education has been directly working with students, both teaching and coaching. (Well, with the exception of a short stint as a night custodian at a middle school when I was a freshman in college.) Teaching is a role that I have grown quite comfortable, but sometimes opportunities come along that give you a reason to consider other options.

So I will be leaving the classroom. I’ll be heading to join an exciting team (headlined by @HeidiGascon and @t_becker10) a few miles south of my house. I will be asked to specialize in instructional technology. I do not consider myself an expert in this field. I will be asking for lots and lots of help from all of you. In addition to learning and growing in my knowledge of instructional technology, I will be asked to explore (and provide insight) on the whole spectrum of k-12 instruction… all grades and all subjects. I will be asking for lots and lots of help from all of you in this, too. There are some excellent opportunities for personal growth in this new role and as you all have helped me grow into my role as a math teacher, I wonder if you’d continue to help me grow into my new role as a specialist in instructional technology.

My goal is to continue this blog. I would love to continue to discuss math, instruction, assessment, and learning with you. It’s been great so far. I am sure that I’ll be offering other insights and seeking other types of discussions as well. I look forward to where this is going to take us as a community.