Modern stresses on classical systems

I was impressed by a lot of what I heard at #macul16 in Grand Rapids a few weeks back. (For those of you not in Michigan, the MACUL Conference is one of the biggest EdTech conferences in the Midwest. 4300 educators came together for three days of learning…)

But I can’t help but feeling like a wave has crashed on the shore. The overall messages sounded different than in previous years. Don’t get me wrong, there was still plenty of enthusiasm, but it wasn’t enthusiasm for technology proper. It seemed like the presenters were often asking: What kind of resources do we need to use to create the kind of cultures that will, as keynote speaker Rushton Hurley put it “make dynamic learning the norm?”

This was epitomized by Michael Medvinsky in his excellent talk about Culture of Thinking. The message was clear. FIRST decide what type of learning you want to see the students do. THEN decide what type of resources it will take to create an environment that is conducive to that type of learning. When the education system starts to process through those ideas and concepts, it can create stress in some very interesting areas.

What do we want the student learning about? Remember, we can talk about the TYPE of learning we want, but we still have to have some predetermined baseline for the WHAT of the learning. The maker movement and genius hour movement of recent years have inserted the importance of student-chosen learning time into the broader conversation, but the content we expect for EACH student by design says something about what we value as a culture. We need to take that message seriously. (I started hearing the term “passion-driven schools”. This actually makes me a little uncomfortable. More on that later.)

How do spaces like the library, the computer lab, and the cafeteria (before and after lunch time) play into our goals for our culture and environment? Come on a journey with Ann Smart and Kellie De Los Santos to see how the school library can be re-visioned. Also maybe Shannon McClintock Miller who models some fairly down-to-earth, but nonetheless super impressive redesigns for the position of librarian. Consider, too, that cafeterias tend to have tons of open space, high ceilings, varied structures for sitting, leaning, kneeling, doing work. And they are typically really, really empty during the school day with the exception of lunch times and overflow before and after school. In some places, this isn’t true as the cafeteria is also the gym, but in places where the cafeteria sits empty much of the day, what could be done with it that isn’t? What opportunities are being missed?

What’s the future hold for things like grades, calendars, credits, class rankings, GPAs, and so on and so on? The school environment is hanging on to a variety of structures that are throwbacks to a time when the industrial model of schools made a lot more sense. But modern changes are putting pressure on a lot of different things. Some of which are not getting discussed much in the conversations I’m hearing.

Case-in-point: I recently had a conversation with a teacher who had a variety of digital coding, IT, network security courses ready to roll out, free of charge, to students as young as eighth grade. He and I had a long conversation about how to get these courses in front of the students who’d be interested. And the primary sticking points? Well, first, the courses were typically projected between 40-60 hours to complete. That’s 8-12 weeks in most schools. (Schools normally work on 12-week, 18-week, and 36-week cycles). Second, what would the student receive at the end? A certificate from the course designer. (Schools usually operate in grades and credits.)

And I really feel like this isn’t small potatoes. (More on this later, too…) But this simple conversation about a perfectly reasonable idea did a great job bringing up how unprepared our structures are to cope with the flexible scheduling and grading practices that modern learning is going to increasingly require.

An idea like that? It changes the game. No cohort. No grade. No credit. And what do you do with them when it’s time for them to start something new in week 8 of a semester? (The same thing you do with the student who are ready two weeks earlier?) These absolutely aren’t insurmountable barriers. In fact, these are fairly solvable problems as long as schools are starting embracing a new vision for words like “course”, “learner”, “completion”, etc.

I got a what-if… What if we create a series of general elective courses that are designed in such a way that a student could enter at any time and be able to meaningfully join in. Maybe a phys ed, general art, theater, a project-based engineering course, and basic culinary. One for each hour of the day. Running both semesters. Courses with detached, independent units, something with a lot of DOING where the students who have been there longer are expected to model techniques for the new learners. Courses taught so that the successful completion of the course is judged based on the performance while there and not how long that time was. (That is, you can still earn an “A” for the semester having only been there two weeks. Even Our Lord realized how difficult that type of conversation can be.) It would be tricky. Especially at first. But not impossible. It will need to be designed intentionally, by people who are willing and able to do it well.

These questions have modern answers that bring with them a lot of potential stresses and unforeseen consequences. When you pile them all on top of each other, you just get a educational system that is ready to redesign itself from the foundations up. And I just hope that we’re ready for it. The proponents ready for the change not being as quick as they’d like and opponents ready to use their “yeah-buts” constructively.

The environment for risk-taking

Yesterday, I was in a local elementary school having conversation with grade-level teams about their students’ math learning. I heard something that I found incredibly impressive.

In one particular grade level, there was a small number of students who were still not quite mastering the targeted skills, but were getting really close. Many of these students had begun the year with a long way to go, so this is a very impressive amount of growth for these students. (In some cases, some of these students experience a year’s growth in their math abilities during the first semester.)

We started examining what had led to such growth, one of the classroom teachers remarked, “Well, they really try hard. They like to work problems out in front of the other students. They make mistakes, but the other students correct them.”

I paused.

Think of that. Just… do me a favor, will ya? Go ahead and picture the typical struggling math student. Got the image? I’ll bet you that student just LOVES putting their math skills on display for the whole class to see, don’t they? I’ll bet that student loves letting the other students in the class critique his/her work. (Sarcasm may not come through real well in the blogging medium…)


I asked this teacher, “You’ve created an atmosphere the atmosphere in your classroom that makes that student feel safe to make mistakes in front of the other students?”

Teacher shrugged as if it were really no big deal. “Mmm-hmm. Yeah.” (As if to say, “Sure, what’s the big deal? We’re all just trying to learn as much as we can.)

I love that it’s no big deal to her and her colleagues. But that is not common.

Believe me, I am convinced in the power of students examining and critiquing each other’s work, but ordinarily there is a bit of strategery involved to keep the pieces of work anonymous. (See Best Reflection for an example of what I’m talking about.)

But that’s not the case for this teacher. What a vision for a classroom. A place so safe and so locked into the mutual learning process that there is no need for anonymity. A student can stand up in front of his/her peers, submit their best try, the peers appreciate the sincerity and can offer feedback.

It’s just no wonder that the students who entered that class behind their peers were catching up so fast… and imagine where they’ll be by the end of the year.

Applying Growth Mindset to our Teachers

I enjoy reading/hearing discussions of education from the perspective of non-educators. Dan Carlin goes there occasionally as does Steve Dubner from Freakonomics and it was one of Dubner’s posts that captured my attention today.

The piece (entitled “Is America’s Education problem really just a teacher problem?”) explores the conjecture that has been expressed by a wide variety of people that the issue that our modern education system is dealing with really boils down to teachers. If teachers teach well, then the education goes well. If teachers don’t teach well, education doesn’t go well.

While I’m not prepared to validate the conjecture, I do think there is some value in exploring the power improved teacher performance might have to address some of our systems lingering issues. For example:

  • By focusing on teaching, we stick to factors we can control. Blaming the parent, the kid, the politician, the funding, etc. might be accurate and possibly satisfying, but we can’t control how those behave, so let’s not create solutions that require one of those “uncontrollables” to act a certain way.
  • By focusing on teaching, we stick to factors that are close to the students. Curricula, standards, college entrance tests, etc. are all going to have to be figured out eventually, but those are slow-burning solutions.
  • By focusing on teaching, we get a chance to explore a wide variety of the educational experience of the student. Instruction, assessment, feedback, engagement, classroom management, community relations, positive behavior supports, data collection and analysis all play a part in the work of the teacher. In addition, we can explore teacher training, recruitment and hiring, mentorship and development, pay, evaluation and union politics… I could keep going. That is an awful lot of the education sector that opens up when we start examining the work of the teacher.

And while I’m not in any position to put the salvation of the American public education system on the shoulders of the teaching profession, I would imagine if we give ourselves permission to examine the teaching profession, we might find some areas of improvement that would allow our system to better serve our young people.

Let’s also get out of the way right now that there aren’t any simple explanations to this problem and, as such, there aren’t any simple solutions. Also, let’s get on the same page about something else. From the article:

“When we say that U.S. students aren’t doing very well, and that U.S. teachers aren’t the best and brightest, let’s remember that we’re talking about averages. There are of course millions of American kids who get a great education in public school. There are of course many, many excellent teachers. We should also note that just because a future teacher finishes near the top of their high-school or college class doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be a great classroom teacher.”

American schools aren’t universally awful and it can also be a little tricky to predict what kind of student will end up becoming an excellent teacher. And while the system is complex and there’s a lot of moving parts, the teacher plays a central role in designing the experiences that students have during the school day. From the article (this quote is from David Levin):

When you think about the most important people in a kid’s life outside of their family it starts with their teacher. I mean for the obvious reason, right? You leave home, you go to school, and the teacher is the determinant of how that day goes. And even as the kids get older, when all the research says the peer effect is so essential, teachers have a huge impact on how peers interact in the classroom.

So, perhaps the most reasonable next step would be to make sure that each classroom has a talent teacher in it. Get rid of the lousy teachers and replace them with better ones. Right?

From the article (this quote is from Dana Goldstein):

And what I found is that this pair of solutions, driving people out, bringing new people in, it’s not enough. Because the demand for teachers is so high — we do need 100,000 new teachers every year to satisfy the labor market. So, what I suggest is, instead of starting with our fear of bad teaching, we look at teachers who are excellent at what they do right here in the United States, and we ask about how to create systems where we can replicate their best practices.

That’s a lot of teachers. 100,000 new employees every year? That’s a ton. And as far as best practices go, there are a couple of pretty approachable frameworks that are becoming pretty common place (Bob Marzano and John Hattie are becoming household names for a reason), so choosing a framework around the teacher development programs in school districts shouldn’t be the hard part. So what is the hard part?

Perhaps the hard part is that many schools envision their roles as developers of young people. (I don’t disagree with this, by the way…) Schools are in the human growth business. I suspect every single school in the country has a mission/vision statement that includes a lot of student-centered language about growth, development, and the like.

At the same time, I reckon hardly ANY of those districts see themselves as TEACHER development institutions.

But why not? If the data, research, and logic trail all point to excellent teaching being a huge indicator of overall district excellence (read “district excellence” as lots and lots of young people learning lots and lots and lots of good stuff), then wouldn’t a constantly improving teaching staff be a pretty reliable pathway toward improvement?

But what might that look like?

  • Schools subscribing to professional journals on behalf of their teachers and developing norms that the articles are read and discussed.
  • Real, effective mentorship programs that nurture the growth of their young teachers instead dumping them into classes and schedules that veterans would NEVER stand for.
  • open door policies where teachers are expected to visit each other’s classrooms to support, watch and then ask questions about what they saw and heard.
  • peer observation and feedback sessions with the intention of supporting the growth of a teacher who is struggling in an identified way. (Perhaps learning walks a la Kevin Feldman.)
  • teachers who are taking college course work getting opportunities to showcase their projects, discuss the texts that they are reading, and lead discussion in staff meetings.
  • high school math teachers (for example) being invited into an art teacher’s classroom so that the art teacher can demonstrate a really effective technique. (I am not a big fan of “only a math teacher can help/support/advise/understand another math teacher.)
  • a principal making sure that as many possible people on staff are qualified to lead a classroom of students for an hour so if a teacher needs to observe, discuss, consult, or brainstorm there is a variety of paraprofessionals, interventionists, guidance counselors, administrators, and other personnel who can stand in and let the growth process happen. (I can remember one school I worked at where even the athletic director could manage a classroom.)

This mindset see schools as the last part of the teacher training process. What if we saw the schools as the place that completed the training? (Not unlike teaching hospitals that openly have developing doctors learning their craft with real patients.) Not only will you be serving to improving the skill set of the teaching staff, but when professionals are cared for, have a sense of ownership and autonomy, their motivation and morale tend to improve.

Schools have long understood their role in developing humans, but perhaps they’ve fallen short because they’ve behaved as though their only task was to develop the minors. Perhaps if we get to the place where our schools understand their role in developing the adults as well, then we’d start to see the improvement that we’ve been seeking for so long.

The truth about instructional tech

One time I went to visit an early elementary school. I had been asked to show them tools for formative assessment. So I did. I showed them a couple actually. They are really good tools. I’d still recommend them.

When I went back to follow-up with the grade levels regarding the tools that I had presented, they were very forthcoming with their experiences. They hadn’t used them. At all. Not a one of them. And in fact, they weren’t even considering it.

They apologized. I think they felt bad. Perhaps they were concerned that my time had been wasted. Perhaps they felt like they were being rude to me. (They weren’t. They were being very nice about it.)

While I accepted their apologies, they were completely unnecessary. On the contrary, this has become one of my favorite moments. The moment when I went out to a group of educators, showed them some tools, and they were given the freedom and autonomy to ask themselves whether or not this is something that will be useful to them. It wasn’t. It still isn’t.

Instructional tech is about fit. It’s about support. A tool could be a great tool, just unnecessary. A tool could be a pretty pedestrian tool and be exactly what we need. (Kahoot! feels like this to me. It’s pretty much a one-trick pony, but it does that one thing better than anything else.) I stopped looking at tools and trying to assign value in isolation. The value is actualized only once the tool is integrated into a well-designed sequence of experiences meant to create student learning.

My role is a strange one. I’ve often described my role as the ultimate support role. Because I beginning to suspect that instructional tech isn’t a thing. Classroom management is a thing. Community relations is a thing. Visible learning, formative assessment, data analysis… these are things. You can study and practice and get better at these things. Technology exists to support those things. We’d be wise not to allow it to become a thing unto itself. Computers are valueless without an application, a designer, and a user.

Correctly placing our focus helps drive the conversation when technology gets involved. Start with the problem (and a lack of technology is so rarely the problem). As we design a solution to the problem, we craft our solution with the appropriate vision for the tech that might support that solution. Only then do we start doing things for the sake of the tech. Adding technology to a classroom brings with it additional considerations. And we begin asking all of those important questions: Who needs access? When? Do any tools they currently have do that? How do we manage security? Who’s covering the expenses?

But we don’t want to start with the tech. Likely the problem isn’t “we don’t have enough Chromebooks.” The problem might be “we are trying to create these types of learning experiences for our students and we are struggling to do that.” Let’s talk about the issues we are trying to solve, the realities around those issues and the best solution to fit. A tech solution might not be your best bet. In fact, some processes and problems would be better solved WITHOUT technology. The last thing we need is to spend more money that doesn’t solve a problem.

I recently read a blog post from Michigan educator Ben Rimes who asked if stoicism was appropriate in Ed Tech. “I’m supposed to network with individuals that have an insatiable curiosity and enthusiasm for educational technology in all of its many forms. And yet, the older I become (or perhaps the farther I get from the classroom), the more restrained I find myself when it comes to pursuing new technology,” Rimes reflected. I recognize this “supposed to” that he describes. Instructional tech is often met with tons and tons of energy. Lots of enthusiasm. 3-D printers, Makerspaces, Dot and Dash, lots of good things.

But amidst the enthusiasm, I find myself asking “What type of learning will it support? What types of problems are these tools trying to solve? and how are we going to make sure they are effective?”

Regarding what Mr. Rimes recognizes in himself, he adds, “…it makes me wonder if a healthy dose of stoicism is appropriate for those managing and driving the use of instructional technology. I’ve found myself drifting towards celebrating and uplifting transformative teaching and learning practice, regardless of whether it utilizes technology or not. At the same time, I don’t see many educators that have become “edu-famous” for their contributions to the realm of instructional technology transitioning to a more openly thoughtful reflection on instruction and learning in general.”

Perhaps the main way to create the appropriate amount of attention and energy around instructional tech is to continue to recognize that it flexes it’s muscles best when it is a means. Not an end.

And that doesn’t make it not really, really cool. There are some really outstanding tools out there. Seriously. Some very cool stuff. But they aren’t cool in a vacuum. It’s cool because of the types of experiences it enables students and teachers to have.

Stuff like ClassCraft and ClassDojo are cool. But they are cool because of how they can support effective classroom management.

Stuff like Google Forms, Formative, and Socrative are cool. But they are cool because of their ability to improve the role of formative assessment in a classroom.

Things like Zaption, and EdPuzzle are cool. But they are cool because they have the potential to add high-level engagement to previously passive instructional activities.

Popplet, Padlet, and Dotstorming are cool. But they are cool because they allow for deeper, richer collaborative activities that were difficult without them.

And those cool things all start losing their value if the folks who are implementing them aren’t implementing them well. The poor classroom manager isn’t going to become a better classroom manager simply because they use Class Dojo. A person with a shallow understanding of assessment is probably going to have a shallow understanding of how to use Google Forms for assessment.

And this is the truth about instructional technology. It’s not transformative. It can be fuel that drives a transformation. (Or, as Reggie Jackson might say, it could be the straw that stirs the drink.) But the transformation itself? Now, we have to get back to trusting people for that. And in reality, it’s never been any different. We need to stop looking for the next amazing tech tool, the next big technological game-changer and just support each other getting better at support our students every day.


Upcoming Public Presentations

The age of online social and professional networking has often provides opportunities for people separated by hundreds of miles to feel like they know each other, even though they’ve never met face-to-face.

(It has happened several times that I’ve received hugs from people that I’m ACTUALLY meeting for the first time. But it feels like we’re embracing a friend because we’ve been digital collaborators on lessons or brain-storm sessions for years.)

So, when I give public presentations and learning sessions, I look forward to meeting people who, up until now, I’ve only known in 140-character snippets.

So, here’s where you can find me in the upcoming weeks. You’ll notice that these are all in Grand Rapids. That’s actually by coincidence.

February 20Michigan Flip and Blended Teaching and Learning Conference – Steelcase Learning Center in Grand Rapids, MI

I will be co-presenting a 1-hour session on using instructional technology to approach the goals of Universal Design for Learning. Our lens will be the secondary math classroom, but I believe the content will be applicable to teachers of any content area.

March 3Michigan Center for Exceptional Children Conference – Amway Grand Plaza in Grand Rapids, MI

I will be co-presenting a 1-hour session describing two teachers’ story of how they enhanced the learning experiences for their students with significant disabilities by strategic use of instructional technology.

March 9-10 – MACUL Conference – Amway Grand Plaza in Grand Rapids, MI

March 9 -I will be co-presenting a half-day preconference workshop on effective blending of technology in classroom assessment. Topics discussed will be effective methods and tools for good formative assessment including giving meaningful and effective feedback.

March 10 – I will be leading a two-hour hands-on workshop for teachers to come and learn how to use Desmos.

March 10 – We will be rebooting the aforementioned one-hour session on instructional tech supporting Universal Design for Learning from February 20 (see above)


I hope you’ll come to learn with us. I look forward to collaborating with you!

The two sides of “should”

I am finding that there is a fondness among educators at all levels and roles for the word “should”.

“Should” is a tricky word. Should implies an assumption. Should is a word that sits between “is” and “is not”. When something is not what we expect it to be, we know that because we has a preconceived “should.”

With that in mind, “should” represents high expectations, big goals, ideas of things getting better.

“Students should be able to do these things by the time they make it to high school.”

“We should be able to reach out to our parents to get their viewpoint on this issue.”

“Our teachers should be able to solve these problems.”

In this way, should has the ability to represent vision. This becoming something different than they are, and preferably something better.


But “should” has a darker side. A side that reflects an expectation. And an expectation creates opportunities for let down. And then what?

“We don’t have time to teach that. You should know that by now.”

“You should be able write a decent test.”

“Well, if they wanted a say, they should have responded to the survey.”

In these cases, “should” represents a passing of the buck. It is a word used as a presumably more polite substitute for “that’s your problem, not mine.”

“Shoulds” that lead us to placing blame are valuable only insofar as they allow us to focus on a potential problem-solving process. Blame for the current state doesn’t equate to responsibility for solving the related problems. The leader in the situation is the chief problem-solver. Because they know the “shoulds”. (Side note: How many of our shoulds are unspoken, implied, or in some dastardly cases, flat out secret?)

When a student shows up in your classroom not meeting all of your “shoulds”, you have a choice to make. Okay, perhaps, it should have been done by now. Yes, the student should have done a better job learning. Yes, the school should have safeguards in place to ensure that doesn’t happen. Should this, should that. But it didn’t. And what are we going to do about it?

Remember, the fact that they should have done this or that means that it is especially problematic when they don’t.

If a student needed to be fluent in fraction arithmetic by the time he/she makes it to your class, that’s fine. But what are you going to do if a couple don’t? Because you have to do something. You can’t simply leave those students hanging out to dry.

If you are going to survey your community and a whole segment of your community doesn’t respond (like they should have), what are you going to do? You can’t simply make decisions ignoring the perspective of an entire group of your community.

If you expect your teachers to have a certain skill set, that’s fine. What happens when you find that some are missing some of those skills? Because you can’t simply leave those skills underdeveloped and you can’t simply fire them.


Perhaps we should consider “should” an incomplete word. It needs a partner phrase. let’s just start referring to it as “should, and if not”.

It might be a nice first step. We are no longer allowed to create any should-statements without also creating a sustainable, effective plan for what happens when people miss the mark. No more incomplete shoulds. Expect to be faced with people falling short. Because they will. In these days of shifting assessments and curricula, teacher mobility, and school of choice, there are plenty of chances for shoulds to not be met.

Also, inasmuch as it’s possible, state your all of your shoulds clearly, explicitly and up front. “Here’s what I expect. Here’s what we have in place to support you if you need some help getting there.”

That is an entirely different message than “You should be able to do this by now. That’s too bad for you.”

We are a growth community. Education’s job is to set the “shoulds” then create the conditions for people… all people… to grow to meet them.



#EdTech Tips for New Teachers

Last night I was blessed with the opportunity to talk to about 50 new teachers about instructional technology.

As I prepared my talking points, I considered what I would have needed to hear when I was 23 and in the midst of my first year in the classroom. Here’s what I came up with.

Here were my closing tips:

Don’t fix things that work well – When you discover a new tech tool that you want to employ into your work (either instruction, assessment, or organization/workflow), don’t attack an area that is currently functioning well. Use the new tool to attack something that really needs some serious improvement. That way, then the roll-out inevitably falls short of your expectations, you are much likelier to be satisfied seeing an improvement. And you haven’t ruined a process that was productive.

Don’t try to do too much – Get really, really good at using one or two tech tools before you try to add to your collection. Sure, you run the risk of students saying, “Guh… we use Socrative ALL THE TIME…” But this won’t last forever. You’ll pick up more tools as you explore more. And it’s a big improvement throwing so many tools at your students that neither they, nor you, get really proficient at using any of them.

Be patient with your students – Don’t get caught up in what they “should” know how to do. In reality, as far as your course, they probably shouldn’t be expected know anything. And even if they’ve explored some of the tools before, you probably use them slightly differently than the last teacher. So, go ahead and assume that each tech tool will need a guided exploration BEFORE you can expect them to engage meaningful content with it. Mixing a new tech tool and a new bit of content in the same activity should be avoided whenever possible. Otherwise, you risk the tool becoming the END of the learning rather than the MEANS.

Ask questions – Find yourself a mentor in your building who will help you explore instructional tech pieces. Take advantage of your district coaches and know who you can reach out to at the county level. Make e-mail friends with these people. Demand to be mentored.

Network, listen, and read – Find a social media platform you are comfortable with and turn it into an non-stop educational brainstorming session. I use Twitter. Use it to get ideas. And then try them out. Talk about them with the teachers near you. Join local PLNs if they exist. (Folks around mid-Michigan can join #CapitalAreaEdTech). The time/energy demands tend to be fairly light and the potential upside is huge.

Don’t fall in love with specific tools – They are going to break your heart. That free tool you loved was awesome… until it wasn’t free anymore (e.g. Newsela). Moodle was IT! Until Google Classroom came out. (Apple is getting ready to unleash an iPad based competitor to Google Classroom, by the way.) You had just nicely gotten the hang of your students’ laptops when the school switched to Chromebooks as a money-saver. Listen… listen… These things WILL happen. It’s not an “if” situation. It’s a “when”. If you tie your professional heart to these tools, you are going to find their removal difficult to recover from. Instead, fall in love with the types of student interactions these tools facilitate. Then, hang on loosely to the tool. It is temporary, as much as we’d like to pretend it isn’t.

Have I missed any? Care to push back? Use the comments. Perhaps share an anecdote from your first year teaching. With the right support, we can keep our young, excited teachers in the classroom.