Rediscovering Modeling in Professional Learning

Teachers? How many of your PD presenters were willing to come into your classroom and demonstrate what you’re learning live with students in their natural element?

Principals? If a teacher you’re evaluating needs support in instructional or classroom management strategies, do you feel equipped to show them how it’s done?

PD Presenters? Do you ever get the opportunity to teach alongside someone who is learning from you?

These are the moves that make a difference. I’ve recently been reminded of this.

Since September, I’ve been involved in a new professional learning model that is built around job-embedded learning opportunities for one main reason.

To see if it works better. And it does.

Bad professional development is the worst-kept secret in education. I’ve attended them. Heck, I’ve given them. I’ve been called in to present some tech tool for a half-day to some captive staff and never heard from any of them again. Now, I’ve been told I put on a pretty good show. We laughed some. I used some fancy strategies.

But, I doubt they learned a thing. And what’s worse? Everyone seemed cool with that.

Well, our team stopped being cool with that. If it’s worth training, it’s worth putting a structure in place that will actually impact teacher and student experiences. And it required re-discovering modeling in the classroom.

And so, the former HS geometry teacher who’s last year in the classroom was 2014 with mostly 10th and 11th graders is going into early elementary classrooms and teaching math.

I promise, the students aren’t the only one learning something. Because I’ve discovered a paradox. In many ways, good teaching is good teaching. And in other ways, the early elementary classroom is a whole different world than the 10th grade classroom.

It isn’t always pretty. It is NEVER perfect. But it is almost always productive. And that is a massive step in the right direction from the standard remembrances of PD’s past.

Because here’s the reality. Can an elementary teacher learn from a HS teacher? Yes. But talk only goes so far. The PD presenter might say, “Your students need more opportunities to respond during your whole group time”. It is perfectly reasonable for the learner to say, “Can you show me what that looks like?” And instead of a cheeky demo on-the-spot, you make an appointment and a plan and go and teach that teacher’s students.

The feedback has been overwhelming. And the impact on teacher practice has followed suit.

And the stated difference in the feedback is the modeling. That has changed the game.

So, PD presenters: What options do you have to connect with folks you are presenting to? How might you get into classrooms to demonstrate?

Principals: How does your credibility spike when you can own a classroom for a half-hour to demonstrate good practice?

Teachers: If you have a trouble area in your practice, invite someone in.

It’s high time we start holding our professional learning to a higher standard.

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.