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?

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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.

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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…

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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?

The same set of questions

I’d like to unpack this statement a bit.

Those who know me will not at all be surprised to find out that my thoughts need more than 140 characters to explain. Particularly when it is me explaining them.

When we think of teacher accountability, explicit instruction, “non-negotiables” and the like, it can tricky to express how we are expecting all teachers to “do the same things” without making it sound like all teachers literally need to be doing the exact same teacher moves in their classrooms.

Cookie-cutter, robotic, prescribed teachers isn’t the goal. However, there are some things that all teachers need to do. I’ve found that this seems to make the most sense as a list of questions. As my colleague Matt often says about the Positive Behavior Intervention Support framework: “It isn’t a program to be followed, but rather a list of questions that need answers.”

The implication in that statement is that each teacher has the freedom and flexibility to answer the questions however they see fit. That’s where the individuality comes in. They only thing a teacher wouldn’t have the freedom to do is NOT have an answer.

So, for example, in general for any given activity, you might envision something that looks like the picture on the left (credit: Wesley Friar) or the picture on the right (credit:Writing by Design) .

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both photos used via Creative Commons licensing 

Neither cooperative learning or guided individual practice are an absolute good or bad. So, the quality of the choice to use one or the other comes in the pairing with the desired outcomes. It’s the answer to the questions.

What are you expecting the students to learn by the end of the experience?

How does your strategy best support that?

Where does that learning target fit in the bigger picture of your course?

All teachers should be able to answer those questions for every lesson.

This doesn’t mean that every lesson has to have a hard content target. It could be that the catapult activity on the right has a learning target of team-building, problem-solving, and effective collaborative creativity (as opposed to being able to model the path of the ball with a quadratic and solve math problems using the model). But then those are your learning targets and they need to be explicitly understood as such because of the next set of questions.

How are you going to verify whether or not each student reached the learning target?

What are you going to do for the students that haven’t reached the learning target by the time of the assessment?

Anything worth making a formal learning target is valuable enough to ensure success for ALL students. This generally easier yet for content goals that are easily memorizable (Depth-of-Knowledge 1, if you’re familiar with Webb’s DOK Framework.) Name all fifty capitals is pretty easy to assess.

As learning goals get more complex or individualized, they also get trickier to assess. As a result, it seems that fewer teachers are asking their students to do complex things. Or at least that is the perception. “Boss says that I need to be able to verify my student growth using data, then I better choose learning targets that are easy to track data on.” This is one of the reasons that “data-based decisions” has taken on some negative connotations particularly among teachers who have powerful non-content goals for their students.

But this sets up a false set of adversaries in the struggle for school improvement. There’s no need to examine this as “things you can take data on” vs. “things you can’t take data on.” Instead, we need to be asking ourselves HOW do we assess our activity’s effectiveness in achieving the goals we have for it?

How do you assess whether a student is growing in his/her creativity? How do you assess student’s ability to collaborate effectively? These are powerful questions. And, quite frankly, it seems like the design challenge involved in answering these questions might appeal quite nicely to the minds of the educators that are advocating for these types of learning targets.

And in all this, we need to remember who we are fighting for. We take data because we need to know if our programs are helping our students grow the way they need to. Our students are too important to allow them to learn amidst ineffective programming. As a teacher, in many cases, I could decide to increase direct instruction an additional 15-minutes per day or add a weekly stop to the school makerspace or have the students start blogging. But, the reality of those changes and updates is that they need to be done FOR something.

And while I support teachers’ abilities to make decisions about what bits best in their instructional plan, all teachers should know what the different pieces are for and should be expected to evaluate whether or not those different pieces are doing what they were designed to do for the students.

More thoughts on Education’s “Game-Changer”

Photo credit: Maria Ly - used under Creative Commons

Photo credit: Maria Ly – used under Creative Commons

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

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

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

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

So, what does this have to do education?

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

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

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

So, it got a what-if.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If education REALLY needs a game-changer, then…

So, I got a “what-if”…

What if teachers only taught half their day?

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


It’s kind of long, sorry about that.

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

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

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

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

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

So…

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

Well, what are they doing instead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Blog Design

I decided it was time for a new blog theme.

I felt like the previous theme I used (the blue and gray) was optimized for tablets, which was fine, but led to some HUGE margins on a desktop screen. Longer posts and comments took a lot of scrolling to read and I couldn’t find any way to fill that space. I think this design fixes it. Plus it’s a bit brighter.

Anyway, just thought I’d post a bit of a notification if you are a frequent reader (thank you so much, by the way!). Wouldn’t want you thinking you’ve ended up in the wrong place.

For your students’ sake: Don’t stop being a learner

Yesterday, we designed an Algebra II lesson using 3D modeling to derive the factored formula for difference of cubes. As we began to finish up, Sheila (@mrssheilaorr), the math teacher sitting beside me made a passing reference to being frustrated trying to prove the sum of cubes formula. Me, being a geometry teacher by trade decided to give it a try perhaps hoping to offer a fresh perspective. I mean, I was curious. It looked like this:

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On the surface, it didn’t seem unapproachable. I quickly became frustrated as well. Most frustrating was the mutual feeling that we were so stinkin’ close to cracking the missing piece. Finally, Luann, a math teaching veteran sat down beside us, commented on her consistently getting stuck in the same spot we were stuck and then, as the three of us talked about it, the final piece fell in and it all made sense (it’s always how you group the terms, isn’t it?)

Then this morning, it happened again. Writing a quiz for Calculus, I needed a related rates problem. Getting irritated with the lousy selection of choices online, I decided that I needed to try to create my own. And I wanted to go #3Act and after some preliminary brain storming with John Golden (@mathhombre) (Dan Meyer’s Taco Cart? Nah… rates of walkers not really related…) we found some potential in Ferris Wheel (also by Dan Meyer)! Between my curiosity and my morning got mathy in a hurry.

First I tried to design and solve the problem relating the rotational speed in Act 1 to the height of the red car. That process looked like this:

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Meanwhile Dr. Golden found a video of a double Ferris wheel, which was pretty awesome. Seemed a little it out of my league, so kept plucking away at my original goal.

It clearly wasn’t out of Dr. Golden’s league, as he took to Geogebra and did things I didn’t know Geogebra was capable of. (You’re going to want to check that out.)

So, what is the product of all of this curiosity and random math problem-solving? As I see it, these past 48 hours have done two things: Reminded me of what makes me curious and reminded me what it’s like to be a learner.

I have a feeling my students will be the beneficiaries of both of those products. There’s a certain amount of refreshment that comes from never being too far removed from the stuff that drew us to math in the first place. The problem you want to solve just because you want to see what the answer looks like.

And this curiosity, the pursuit, it feeds itself. In the process of exploring that which you set out to explore, you get a taste of something else that you didn’t know you would be curious about until it fell down in front of you. (For example, Geogebra… have no idea what that program is capable of, which is a shame because it is loaded on all my students’ school-issued laptops…)

And this process breeds enthusiasm. Enthusiasm that comes with us into our classrooms and it spreads. I’m not trying to be cheesy, but much has been said about math functionality in the modern economy, how essential it is in college-readiness and the like with few tangible results. Let’s remember that there are kids who are moved by enthusiasm, who will respond to joy, who will pay attention better simply because the teacher is excited about what they are teaching. It won’t get them all, but neither will trying to convince them of any of the stuff on this poster.

Now, who’s going to teach me how to use Geogebra?

Bankshot 3-Act Revised

In my previous post, I presented Act I of a 3-Act geometry lesson that I called Bankshot. I also called out to the #MTBoS to support me by offering feedback of which I received two excellent comments that were rich in suggestions, particularly in the aspect of improving the student experience.

If you want to go back and look at the first draft and/or read the comments that got left, then feel free to check it out.

Now, all three of us agreed that the action begun and ended too quickly. Danny Whitaker (@nemoyatpeace) suggested that I slow the video down. In addition to agreeing with Danny’s suggestion, Dan Meyer (@ddmeyer) suggested that there was more I could do to set the situation up and make the clear what was going on before the I roll the film.

Danny also suggested that I cut the film before the ball bounces into the wall. Another interesting suggestion that Dan made was to include multiple attempts. I thought that those are both interesting suggestions.

You will see my attempts to respond to the feedback in this second draft of “Bankshot”. I start with a more direct set-up of the situation. I also added a second attempt from when I was filming to give the students something to think about. Now they have at least four guesses they could make. “Both hit target,” “both miss target,” “first hits, second misses,” or “first misses, second hits.” You will notice also that I slowed the playback down which cost us the sound. It’s possible that a bit of background music will be needed in a third draft, but that is something that we can talk about.

All right, #MTBoS, here is my second draft of “Bankshot.” I look forward to more feedback.