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.

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Have you seen Desmos Polygraph?

Most of us are  old enough to remember the game Guess Who, right? It looked like this:

Guess Who

It went like this: You and an opponent each had a board in front of you that looked like this. Then you had a card with a face on it. So did your partner. By asking only questions that could be answered by “yes” or “no”, you needed to eliminate all the faces that were not on your opponent’s card in fewer turns than your opponent.

So you might ask “Does your person have glasses?” or “Is your person wearing a hat?” Based on the answered, you could flip some faces down because you knew they couldn’t be correct.

Okay. Now apply that to math. Imagine instead of human faces, it’s parabolas.

Polygraph Parabolas

They also have one for lines, hexagons, rational functions, quadrilaterals (both basic and advanced).

Still yes or no questions. Students still have to determine which pictures to eliminate based on the answer to the yes or no questions. Set-up is incredibly easy.

As if that wasn’t cool enough, if you can think of a set of pictures you’d like to see, you can create your own Polygraph activity.

I thought it would be cool if there was one for systems of linear functions.

If you haven’t taken the time to explore Desmos yet, I’d say it’s about time.

Excellent Classroom Action – Art and Geometry in the Elementary Classroom

I’ve written about the connections in math and art before. The visual nature of Geometry lends itself quite nicely to this. I found that the right pairing could bring in the engagement of the visual arts while maintaining fidelity to the content.

Exhibit A: Sarah Laurens, 5th grade teacher at North Elementary in Lansing. Mrs. Laurens reached out to me excitedly while I was in her building to see a math activity that she was leading her students through. They involved quilts hand sewn by Sarah’s grandma.

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The activity went like this: Students were in groups of threes and fours gathered around one of grandma’s quilts. Each quilt was made of a series of geometric shapes. Sketch the primary “unit” shape of each quilt and identify each of the polygons that are contained within it. On the surface, it is a fairly simple activity, but listening to the students talk to each other.

[Students looking at the black and blue quilt above left]

Student 1: “Those are just a bunch of hexagons.”

Student 2: “Hexagon’s, no… no… those are octagons”

Student 1: “Yeah, yeah… same thing.”

Student 2: “They’re not the same, one’s got six sides and one’s got eight.”

Student 1: “Well… wait… one… two… three… four… five… six… six sides! See I told you!”

[Students looking at the purple and while quilt on the above left]

Student 1: “That’s an octagon with kites around the outside.”

Me: “Are they kites?”

Student 2: “They look like kites.”

Me: “They sure do. How many sides do they have?”

Student 1: “One… t, th, f… oh! five…. They’re pentagons!

2015-05-06 12.23.10

Ms. Laurens and her students were comfortably saying and hearing words like “regular”, “tessellation”, and using definitions to make sense of what these shapes are, and using the definitions to settle disagreements (the foundations of proof…)

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Interesting images like these were leading to some interesting conversations as well. I’m thinking of  a conversation I heard between two students who were trying to make sense of the shapes they were in the picture directly above to the right. They were trying to to determine if the purple section in the middle was one big shape or two smaller shapes put back-to-back.

Then after some discussion, they realized that their answer would be the same either way. (Quadrilateral was their choice for the shape name. The word “trapezoid” was getting thrown around, but the students were having to be prompted for it).

I very much enjoyed getting to see these fifth graders exploring. Ms. Laurens was excited, the students were engaged (and this was clearly not the first time they were expected to be a self-directed and collaborative).

I’m just bummed that my schedule forced me out the door before I got to see Ms. Laurens’ closure of the activity. The students were wrapping up their discussions as I had to head out the door.

Activating the student-learner (emphasis on active)

I always found it tricky to get students up and out of their seats meaningfully. I know that cooperative learning manuals are full of ways to get students meandering around the classroom, but I always liked to try to make sure that the movement was meaningful as a tool to help them learn the content.

In the past week, I’ve seen two examples of meaningful active learning in the realm of Geometry. And as it happens, both are from my neck of the world.

One comes from Tara Maynard who teaches middle schoolers in Zeeland. Her post on “Dance, Dance, Transversal” plays off the mechanics of Dance, Dance Revolution while putting the students in an experience of having to know the different angle pairs coming out of parallel lines cut by a transversal.

Photo credit: Tara Maynard

Photo credit: Tara Maynard

The thing I like about this is that in the end, this is a vocabulary exercise, but Tara has found a way to use movement and activity to add some life to it in a way that fits pretty naturally. This is a nice pairing. And, as she states in her post about the activity, she pairs the students up so that one can watch the feet of the other to make sure they aren’t making mistakes and reinforcing poor understanding. She also includes the file so that your students can play, too!

The other comes from a pre-service teacher at Central Michigan University. Tod Carnish used Twitter to share a nice idea to help students explore geometric transformations. And as much as it hurts for me to say nice things about Central folk (Go Broncos! #RowTheBoat), this seems like a pretty solid idea.

Transformation Tweet

Sticking to the idea that transformations are really just the organized movement of vertices, why not have those movements represented with the students acting as the vertices? Think of the ways that one could use this as an introduction to function notation of the transformations? Characterizing the movement by it’s vertical and horizontal components?

Nice thing about these two fine educators is that they love to share. If you have questions about their work, or want to drop them some props, I’m sure they’d love to hear from you!

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?

Motivating Learners

What could make a bunch of 10-year-olds do this in July?

What could make a bunch of 10-year-olds do this in July?

Today was the opening day of Kids’ College, which is a two-week, half-day science academy for going-to-be 5th and 6th graders at Michigan State University. This is my fifth year getting to lead as an instructor. That makes this my fifth opening day. Today I was struck by some observations that I hadn’t noticed before.

First, I’ll set up the situation. After an auditorium-style presentation with the whole group (there’s 18 instructors each with a group like mine) getting through the get-to-know-you info (lasting about an hour), we split up into individual groups. This year, I am leading 10 young people. I’ve never met any of them. Only two of them have met someone else in the group. After some introductions, we have about 75 minutes to use pipe insulation, tape, a marble, and anything else at arm’s reach to build a roller coaster that met some basic common guidelines.

It is of note (at least to me) that I wasn’t going to collect anything, I wasn’t going to record any grades, truth-be-told I wasn’t going to hold them accountable at all. So, here we go.

It wasn't quite right, so they fixed it. I didn't have to tell them.

It wasn’t quite right, so they fixed it. I didn’t have to tell them.

Observation #1: Off-task behavior was shockingly absent.  These kids had ideas, discussed them, and designed, reality-checked, and made predictions. I told them that I wasn’t handing them a marble until the coaster was built, stable, and ready for testing. My favorite question became “If this coaster has trouble, where do you think the trouble-spots will be?” Both teams had talked about it already. They knew. And they were both right, by the way. Also, no bathroom breaks. No kids asking to stop to eat their snacks. No kids asking what time it is and how much longer we have until we are done. I mean that. None.

There was no grade on the line. He simply didn't quit trying.

There was no grade on the line. He simply didn’t quit trying.

Observation #2: They decided their own “good enough”. I told them the requirements. They weren’t constantly seeking my approval. They didn’t ask questions like, “are we done yet?” On the contrary, in both cases, I had to instruct them to stop after fielding “aww, just one more test run? C’mon, we just need to fix this one hill… hold on.”

This team discussed, sketched, delegated without much direction.

This team discussed, sketched, delegated without much direction.

Observation #3: Students developed roles within the 5-person groups quite well. One guy was the tape guy. He held the tape, ripped a piece, applied it where the designer told him to. This person was working on the loop. That person on the curve. This person’s job was to tape the insulation to the wall to create the initial hill. These kids hadn’t ever met. I didn’t see any squabbling. I didn’t see any hurt feelings. I didn’t tell them to divvy up roles. About all I said, “You better get this organized!”

Okay, now I’m already arguing with myself:

“Yeah, but these are learners who are interested in science.” Okay, perhaps, but that doesn’t explain the group dynamics. Besides, putting these kids back on the busses to go back to meet their parents was all it took to reveal to all of use that these were definitely normal 10-year-olds.

“You work with 15- and 16-year-olds. This stuff must be easier with 10-year-olds.” Is that true? I have friends who teach elementary school and they gripe sometimes, too. I’m not sure that simply supplanting my typical group of 15- and 16-year-olds with 10-year-olds magically makes a lesson plan more likely to succeed. Does it? (A bit of help in the comments would be fantastic from those readers in the elementary ranks.)

“You’ve done this activity before and it doesn’t always go this well.” Very true. I have had students in the past that are a bit tougher to motivate. I have had groups with super-dominant leaders who try to monopolize everything. (In fact, this year, I tried to get around that by adding the structured timing… first 10 minutes discussion/sketching… then no marble until the whole design is constructed.) I suppose the student selection forces-that-be may have blessed me with a good mix, but I can’t help but feel like there is something more at work here.

Here is a stand-alone lesson. Didn’t do anything to assess prior knowledge and there wasn’t an assessment following. Nothing was turned in. Nothing was graded. Science isn’t built on that stuff. LEARNING isn’t built on that stuff. Learning is built on the stuff that I saw today. Discussing, sketching, questioning, building, testing, adjusting, asking why. Perhaps we allowed for those things to increase by eliminating questions like:

“Is this going to be on the test?”

“When is this due?”

“Do we all have to turn one in?”

“How many points is this worth?”

I mean, believe me, I understand the role of assessments and obviously I have a situation where I’m not being held accountable much either, which gives me a lot more flexibility. But what if that is the key? What if all the off-task behavior that is getting in the way is being caused by grades, tests, and other stuff? What if I got a window into authentic learning? What if today I saw a formula that worked? How can I integrate the lessons that I learned today into the September-to-June environment?

All I know is that today I saw something work. I want my classroom to work like that.

I don’t know. I guess I have more questions than answers. Perhaps that is why I am asking the questions to all of you. I know that you have more answers than me. I look forward to your perspective.