Perplexity and how it appears…

Here’s a video (by Derek Alexander Muller) I think you should watch.

 

The critique of #flipclass aside, I’m intrigued by the way the narrator describes the value of “bringing up the misconception”. It’s almost like a thorn that creates some discomfort that only learning will relieve. This gets close to Dan Meyer’s use of the word “perplexity”.

From Dr. Meyer: “Perplexity comes along once in a while. What is it? It’s when a kid doesn’t know something, wants to know that thing, and believes that knowing that thing is within her power. That right there is some of the most powerful learning moments I’ve ever seen – so powerful that it’s really hard for me as a teacher to mess those up.”

There’s power in perplexity. I’ve seen this in my classroom on multiple occasions. It’s important to remember that there’s three distinct parts to creating what Dr. Meyer is describing. First, there needs to be something worth knowing. Second, you have to create the want. And finally, we need to empower the students so they feel enabled to know that thing. What Dr. Alexander suggests is that becoming aware of your misconception seems unsettling (leading to claims that videos were confusing), but also leads to more learning. The discomfort fed a drive to resolve the discomfort.

The tricky thing is that misconceptions are a tool you can use when they are available. Science provides a particularly fertile ground for misconceptions because so much of it is drawn from experiences many of us have regularly. Alexander uses the model of a ball flying through the air. This video uses the phases of the moon and the seasons.

The potential for misconceptions is necessarily lightened when there’s no misconceptions, so the quest for perplexity in math needs to take on a different look, proper planning and timing, and different strategies for when perplexity isn’t an available option. (Preconceived notions are just as good at times. After all, we ALL think we know something about squares!)

It’s like Dr. Meyer says, those wonderful perplexing moments only come along once in a while. We foster those moments when we have them, try to create as many as we can and we do our best every other time.

 

A year’s worth of questions

For the past two semesters, I’ve been in lots of mid-Michigan classrooms. As I observed teachers teach, I wrote down my questions. I wrote them down in a little black book that fit in my back pocket.

The questions serve for good reflection. They have more to do with my developing understanding than they do the teachers’ performances. That isn’t to say that sometimes I didn’t see stuff that needed to be fixed up. I did. But these questions were often meant to guide my own thinking.

Here are some of the questions I asked and the observations I made.

“How do we sell screeners?”

“What’s the role of balance?”

“Do you believe in growth mindset? It should follow then that something is true that doesn’t currently make sense to you. Probably more than one. Who do you trust to give you that growth?”

“How do you download the interactive whiteboard lesson?”

“Seems like students with speech disabilities might struggle with “stretch out the word.”

“What are the expectations with iPads?”

“Could students fill out an online form instead?”

“How could we up the engagement?”

“Don’t say this: ‘I need to pull up my rubric so I can grade you’. Say instead: ‘I want to document the different pieces of your presentation.’ ”

“Presentations are tough. That was largely wasted time. How to do better?”

“They aren’t sure what to do. And they are having a hard time staying in their seats.”

“It’s loud, but to be fair, the center activities are somewhat loud… and the parent volunteer isn’t managing the volume at all.”

“Teachers who are trying to recover their classroom management will become cold… tough… no-nonsense. Does that help?”

“What if you think-pair-share…? This is too rich an activity to only have a handful of confirmed engagements.”

“What about those four kids in the back?”

“Teacher seemed to feel her control slipping, so she went heavily to individual. Calling on kids as a control piece.”

“Big question: What is the learning target of this lesson?”

” ‘I’m going to let Mikayla have some think time here.’ What if they were all solving the problem while Mikayla was thinking?”

“What is the group’s cue that they should talk?”

“Blurting out is a problem because so many want to participate. Could they?”

“It included this beautiful moment when the teacher actually said, “Gimme fiv… oh.” and was surprised when the kids were all on task.”

“Teacher never raises her voice… on the contrary, when a kid needs more attention, she seems to get quieter.”

“Big issue here is that the students aren’t responding.”

Effective collaboration means embracing dissent

As professionals, we give ourselves and each other a lot of credit for being good collaborators.

We do this because there is a notion that collaboration is what professionals do. It’s the Law of Detachment, right? If we are professionals, then we collaborate. We are professionals. Therefore, we collaborate.

Except that, as with most things, it isn’t that simple. For starters, basic professionalism requires that people play nice with each other which is related to, but different than from effective collaboration. Second, collaboration is a skill. It must be practiced. There’s explicit expectations. It’s more than just sharing space while working.

Finally, and most important, collaboration is going to require people to be faced with dissent — or at least be willing to do so.

And not simply because it’s polite to do so, but because the dissent makes your final product better. And the goal of collaboration is to allow multiple people to create a product that is better. By better, I mean a product that will have be more effective, efficient, more smoothly implemented and long-term sustainable.

And the stakes are rising. These last six months here in the US have ramped up a lot of frustration among educators of all kinds. The election and related sound bites matched with different changes at the state levels (here is Michigan, we’ve got state-level assessment changes, new science standards, new student literacy laws… just for starters) are generating many, many, many opportunities for meaningful collaboration.

The tricky part is that when we are frustrated and stressed (and many of us are), we don’t want dissent. It FEELS a heck of a lot more productive to knock out a plan amidst conversation where everyone is (more-or-less) on the same page to begin with.

But, in so doing, we lose the chance for the dissent (which shows up in the form of “yeah, but”). And the dissent is how the thoughts go from ideas to effective solutions.

Put another way, Michael Fullan says:

“Defining effective leadership as appreciating resistance is another one of those remarkable discoveries: dissent is seen as a potential source of new ideas and breakthroughs. The absence of conflict can be a sign of decay.”

– Michael Fullan (From Leading In A Culture of Change, 2001, pg 74.)

Groups of like-minded people are often biased. They often have blind spots built around their common appreciation of the issue in question. They often have a hard time empathizing with people who either disagree or are agnostic to the issue in question. This is generally true regardless of the group or their nature of their agreement.

Put specifically, folks problem-solving around inquiry and PBL need explicit instruction advocates on their team to create effective solutions. Standards-based grading folks need to keep their traditional-grading colleagues at an arm’s reach. You want to do a better job of supporting those unrepresented students, your problem-solving group better include some folks who think those kinds of supports shouldn’t exist. You want to create that maker space, go find the person who thinks makerspaces are a waste of time and resources. Progressives and conservatives need each other to navigate these modern issues (that extends beyond the realm of education, by the way).

It’s not the most comfortable, particularly when the issues are charged with emotion. It may not even be productive at first. We need to learn to frame these conversations differently.

Statements like “we want to create a makerspace” might need to become “We want to create a more effective use of the media center. Here are some ideas we have.”

There will be misunderstandings, some of those will be ongoing, and possibly loud. But in the end, it opens the door for a better solution. A solution with more roadblocks anticipated and prepared for. A solution with a broader embrace of the realities of the implementation. A solution that wider appreciation for the struggles of a diverse group of people who will be operating within the solution.

In short, a better solution.

And it begins with embracing each other for the value we bring to the solution, particularly the folks who say and think things we disagree with because you want those folks to show us all of the ways our plan is ineffective. Expose our bias. Reveal our blind spots. We all have them. And if they don’t get exposed during the planning process, chances are when the solutions are rolled out, they will be exposed then. And your window for that solution might close with the problem still the problem.

And once we’ve made the decision that our chief goal is creating meaningful, lasting solutions we’ll need to learn to identify those who disagree with you not as folks to be avoided, but rather folks who are essential to the problem-solving process.

Guiding student voice

Every parent that I know goes through this see-saw moment with their babies. There is such excitement, anticipation, and drive to get that baby to start talking with real words.

Then inevitably, there comes a time (somewhat quickly after) when the parent wishes that the child would learn to not talk so much. This usually occurs sometime during stretch of hearing the word “Mama” loudly… and on repeat… for minutes at a time.

It’s common. It’s real. And it prepares us well for this new era that we’ve embarked upon where capturing student voice is becoming a goal that is gaining popularity as a way to make the learning experience for students more personalized and relevant. I’ve seen this work well. I’ve seen students who otherwise were detached reengage because they were given a chance to more authentically speak, think, and create. (It also did wonders for my ability to effectively teach proofs in Geometry.)

But, just like literally everything else in education, it only works when it’s done right. This is true of instructional tech, explicit instruction and inquiry instruction, standardized assessments, etc. The better the execution, the better the results regardless of how well-meaning we might be.

Capturing student voice to personalize the educational experience and give students more ownership is not different in this respect. If you want your students to realize the full benefit of this, you’re going to want to figure out how to do it right.

Case-in-point: Let’s travel to Barrington High in Rhode Island where a few dozen students gathered on a fall Friday to lend their voice to a decision that the district was considering to delay start times at the secondary level to better align their schools to research that suggests quite strongly that starting school at 7:30 AM is a bad idea for adolescent learners. (stuff like this and this and… there’s more.)

Read the article, of course. But, in short: a district committee had made a motion to move secondary start times back a half-hour to support student achievement. This group of students organized a rally to voice their dissent in hopes of influencing the decision.

According the article “[The junior class president and lead organizer of the rally] and others said that pushing back the start of the school day would be far more disruptive to their lives, noting that it would cause all sorts of scheduling problems for extracurricular activities, including sports.”

So, here we go. We are capturing student voice. We have an authentic audience. The article was written in The Providence Journal which is a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper.

But now we are forced to show our students the authentic response to individual voice. Capturing student voice in authentic ways is only part of the story. Once the voice is captured and shared, the response is authentically assigned as well. And, like we all have learned, when you speak, sometimes your voice gets honored. Sometimes ignored. Sometimes corrected.

This is for lots of reasons. Sometimes your voice isn’t loud enough. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s too loud. Sometimes your voice isn’t well-informed enough. Sometimes it is. Sometimes your voice doesn’t doesn’t reflect a perspective that decision-makers find valuable. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it does, but you have to convince people of that.

And often, you don’t have control of those factors unless you are a decision-maker. So it goes. And that’s okay.

And the student group has chosen to chime in on quite an essential question for us as educators: If later start times for our secondary students produce higher levels of academic success while at the same time putting strain on our extra-curriculars (Montgomery County (Md.) reported a 30% drop in after-school activity participation the year it rolled back start times), is that something that school leaders see as a reasonable trade off? Will their communities agree with them?

It’s not cut and dry. Schools don’t exist to create sports teams, but sports teams are good for kids. Many schools have struggled to create viable robotics and maker-space curriculum pieces, so many places have those as extra-curricular pieces.

And the short article juxtaposes two conflicting perspectives. From the end of the article:

“School Principal Joseph Hurley said the students were asked to stay on the sidewalk — not school property — and to not disrupt the flow of traffic as students arrived for school.

“They’re exercising their rights,” he said. “They are being so respectful.”

“It’s not fair,” said junior Kannetha Brown. “They should have come to the people this issue affects the most. They still haven’t listened to us.”

There’s all sorts of interested nooks to explore about this situation. Including the statement by Brown, “They should have to come to the people this issue affects the most.” There is plenty to explore about that statement alone. Also, a student who is having a statement printed in a newspaper feeling like she’s not being listened to.

But regardless of the outcome or the level of satisfaction, isn’t this what student voice, authenticity and personalized learning is all about? To get these situations out of the textbook and in the hearts and minds of the students? Are these students fully engaged in their school community? Are they organizing? Leading? Collaborating with each other?

Absolutely. And what should their reward be for their efforts? Not a guarantee of success in their endeavor. And as this situation drags on, (the article cites an agreement to delay implementation of a time change) the students will learn perhaps the most valuable of lessons moving forward.

Not working this time doesn’t mean not working forever. If it doesn’t work this time, analyze why not. Make an update. And try again. That’s the heart of maker thinking, the NextGen Science, the Common Core SMPs, and more I’m sure. Students, if this doesn’t work out the way you wanted it to, then remember to fail forward.

And should that disappointment come, let’s just hope the school has adults who are ready to guide these young people in turning their frustration into productive reflection. For in that is the essence of turning immature voices into productive ones.

Math Talk by Necessity: a 4-year-old’s story

20161219_185140

My 4-year-old is chatty. And while he will occasionally talk to himself, he’d much rather talk to you. And to him nothing is more frustrating than not being understood.

So, he’s realized that he needs detail. Words like “lots” or “just a little” or “soon” are easily misunderstood. Like when Dad says, “Hang on, dinner will be ready soon.” He’d prefer to have a better understanding of whether you mean 30-seconds soon or 10-minutes soon.

The math teachers among us see this as adding units to your answer. We ask our students, “What was the final speed of the car?” We don’t expect them to say, “fast.” We’d prefer something like “54 m/s”. So would my 4-year-old. “Soon” is too loose a word.

Except, most of the typical units don’t mean anything to him because he is still developing his understanding of what “a mile” is. First, that it’s a unit of distance. Second, how far is one of those. These two things are essential to making meaning out of a statement like, “Well, the store is 6 miles from here.” Without those, statements like “This box is heavy. It’s, like, 6 miles!” are not uncommon around my house right now.

But yesterday, something new happened. Together, he and I made Alton Brown’s Hot Cocoa Mix . To go from ingredients to a drink, you have four units of measure. (cups, teaspoons, tablespoons, and ounces)

So, midway through as we were chatting about this and that… together making the distinction between teaspoons and tablespoons… why two cups of one ingredient looks so much different than two teaspoons of another… stuff like that. Then, we came to the part where we needed to scoop the mix into the mug and I handed him a “scooper” and he says, “I need two… two… of THESE, but I don’t know what it’s NAME is? Dad… what’s this one’s name?”

Did you catch that? There was a step forward in that.

He knew the number wasn’t enough. “Put two in there” is really easily misunderstood. That would be a problem. Two of what?

He also knew that it totally mattered what “name” he gave the scooper. If he called it “a cup”, he risked calling it the wrong thing. Two cups of mix makes a totally different amount of hot cocoa that two tablespoons. And both could be called “a scoop”. (Two scoops from the coffee can is different that the two scoops of raisins on the cereal box.)

Finally, he figured out that this thing had a name. That I knew it. That he needed to know it and that it wouldn’t work to make it up. If he is going to communicate this amount to others, he needed to know the ACTUAL name of this scooper. Not his preferred name.

There you have it. Math talk by necessity. Lends credence to the notion that if you put students in rich enough environments, you won’t have to mandate good math talk. They simply won’t be able to communicate effectively without it.

Now, we just have to deal with the fact that when Chef Alton says “two tablespoons”, Dad tries to measure accurately while the 4-year-old would prefer that mean “the maximum possible amount of hot cocoa mix that the tablespoon will transfer to the mug.”

Growth Mindset – It’s not that simple

guitar

Photo Credit:  Flickr user “WoodleyWonderWorks”

I am often not on the intellectual cutting edge. Pretty much any idea that I’ve had, someone else has had before. Usually lots of people, actually.

This discussion of growth mindset is no different. The Atlantic (specifically Christine Gross-Loh) and the Harvard Business Review (written by Growth Mindset author Carol Dweck) beat me to this one. And that’s okay. They have folks whose job it is to write. I do this as a hobby. I’m just grateful for their shoulders to stand on.

Growth Mindset is becoming a fad. Of course, Dr. Carol Dweck (who is responsible for coining the term and the supporting research) understands this better than anyone. What will happen to the term “growth mindset” when it gets unleashed on the public and Twitter gets a hold of it?

Well, certainly the nuance is gone. The public arena (and it’s right arm: social media) tends to treat nuanced arguments like they belong on a dollar-store clearance rack. So, at the very least, you can count on growth mindset being over-simplified (probably quite significantly at that).

With over simplification comes the inevitable misunderstanding. If all you know about this idea a series of talking points laid out 140-characters at a time, the chances of you missing an essential component are quite good. Of course accidental misunderstanding is independent to one’s confidence to propagate their (mis)understandings on the topic.

And of course, researchers have a love-hate relationship with this phenomena. On one hand, they are getting often getting criticized for statements made by people who don’t really understand the actual point they are making. Not fair, but common. (Ask our Lord Jesus Christ, Charles Darwin, Martin Luther…).

On the other hand, your idea becoming a household-familiar is evidence of success. The constant (though flawed) propagation of your idea means you’ve created something that’s resonated with the masses. (Or, as Chamillionare said, “Weird Al isn’t going to do a parody of your song if you’re not doing it big.”)

And of course, this explains why growth mindset is talked about with such a wide range of implications. Sometimes, it takes more than Yoda and Darth Vader posters to explain complex topics… particularly topics wrapped around the way an individual sees the world around them.

Says Dweck (in The Atlantic article), “Many people understood growth mindset deeply and implemented it in a very sophisticated and effective way. However, there were many others who understood it in a way that wasn’t quite accurate, or distilled it down to something that wasn’t quite effective, or assimilated it into something they already knew.”

As with most things, in order to experience the full benefit, there needs to be fidelity with the implementation. Otherwise, what gets left out might be the thing that makes it effective.

From The Atlantic article:

But Dweck recently noticed a trend: a widespread embrace of what she refers to as “false growth mindset”—a misunderstanding of the idea’s core message. Growth mindset’s popularity was leading some educators to believe that it was simpler than it was, that it was only about putting forth effort or that a teacher could foster growth mindset merely by telling kids to try hard. A teacher might applaud a child for making an effort on a science test even if he’d failed it, for instance, believing that doing so would promote growth mindset in that student regardless of the outcome.

Or as Dweck says later in the piece:

another misunderstanding [of growth mindset] that might apply to lower-achieving children is the oversimplification of growth mindset into just [being about] effort. Teachers were just praising effort that was not effective, saying “Wow, you tried really hard!” But students know that if they didn’t make progress and you’re praising them, it’s a consolation prize. They also know you think they can’t do any better.

So, there’s a little more to fostering Growth Mindset than “praise the effort, not the outcome.” A lot more, it turns out. From Dweck’s article in Harvard Business Review:

“Even if we correct these misconceptions, it’s still not easy to attain a growth mindset. One reason why is we all have our own fixed-mindset triggers. When we face challenges, receive criticism, or fare poorly compared with others, we can easily fall into insecurity or defensiveness, a response that inhibits growth. Our work environments, too, can be full of fixed-mindset triggers.”

It involves really understanding our own inner balance of fixed and growth mindsets. Growth mindset isn’t the easiest way. It’s the most valuable way. Are you sure you really want a growth mindset? Remember, thinking you’ve maxed out your ability provides a neat little excuse to only “do your best” as opposed to what WMU football coach PJ Fleck regularly calls “changing your best.” And even if you are convinced in the value of growth mindset, you still have to convince your students.

Dweck beat me to that one, too. From the Atlantic article:

Finally we talked about why someone would want a growth mindset. We realized that some kids would be overjoyed to hear you can develop your intellectual abilities, but others might not think it was the most exciting thing. So we then had a whole section on why you might want to develop your mind. Teenagers are really excited about the idea that they can do something to make the world a better place. So we asked them what they want to make their contribution to in the future—family, community, or societal problems—and then talked about how having a strong mind could help them make their future contribution.

Nestled deep within growth mindset is “growth”. Growth toward what? Well, certainly away from what we currently are (because it’s not good enough yet) toward something else (presumably something better.) This mindset is fundamentally at odds with a philosophy that says, “Don’t worry. You’re perfect just the way you are.” If that were true, why would we need growth? Why are we trying like crazy to help our students “grow”? Why should we be trying like crazy to model that in ourselves?

Certainly because we’re not all “perfect just the way we are.” In fact, in a time of struggle, it might be more helpful to be told, “perfect or not, you’re not stuck the way you are. You can be more. I’ll help you. And if you try for it, your effort will be rewarded.” That’s what growth  mindset brings to the table.

So, how do you operationalize that? We’ll have to save that for another post. (Although, as usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts.)

 

Investigating the shadow

I relearned an important lesson about students today. And, as is often the case, the lesson was learned while visiting church. But, it wasn’t the priest who taught me the lesson. Not the deacon, not a Bible study leader… not even a human.

It was a candle that illumined me.

See, in our church, there’s candles. Candles do a variety of different things. The most obvious of these is they produce light. But this isn’t all they do. See?

img_20161129_190036795

Actually, maybe you don’t see. I mean, when you are used to looking at candles like this, then the light is probably the most obvious effect. I suspect if you are close enough to it, you will quick recognize the heat as well.

But those candles are doing more than that. (I’m not trying to get all spiritual on you here. I’m talking physically.)

Can you see it? Maybe you need another picture of the candles.

img_20161129_190051749

So, this is the same set of candles, but see? I took a picture of the shadow the candles cast on a nearby wall. See the distorted image vertically rising from the candles? There’s something happening to the light that passes through the space directly above the flames that messes with the light as it passes through.

But you can’t see it here. I mean, I guess maybe if you stare at it long enough… maybe…

img_20161129_190036795

Anyway…

By now, it would be reasonable to ask why I was so interested in candles. And the simplest answer is that I saw something that intrigued me.

Is this the way it is with our students? There are lot of things they are doing that are obvious. They are loud or quiet. They are successful or struggling. They are social or reclusive. These things are obvious. These are the flame of the candle. Any teacher paying any attention to their students would see these things.

But what we don’t see are the hidden effects.

We don’t see that the successful student is working like crazy because of the pressure her parents are putting on her. (It’s not work ethic… it’s fear. Be prepared for what that looks like when the struggles come.) We may not see that that student who is struggling is a skilled leader on her soccer team. (There’s a lot of usable strengths if you can just create classroom situations that use them.) We don’t see that the student who we don’t think is paying attention could design and implement not less than 3 effective fixes for that wobbly stool in your classroom. (How can you sell your content on that student?)

To successfully support these students, we need to see their shadow along with their light.

How do you look at your students differently? There’s a variety of different ways, but the first is that you need to be interested. You need to be willing to see something that intrigues you. Find ways to see them differently. In general, school mostly expects students to do the same sorts of things. But you don’t HAVE to do it that way. Challenge the successful student. Innovate with the struggling student. Chat with the quiet student.

Remember that their “shadow” would almost certainly reveal plenty of things going on. Important actions, skills, impacts that you aren’t aware of. How would the classroom experience improve, both for the student and for you, if you knew what those “shadow” effects were?