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.

Maker Geometry – What can blocks do for you?

So, today I got to play with blocks called Keva planks. A set of Keva planks are nothing more than a whole bunch of congruent wooden rectangular prisms. You can build towers, mazes, bridges, and… of course… geometric shapes.

So, a task came to my mind. Let’s suppose we were going to take the planks and make the smallest possible cube.

  1. How many planks would we need for the combined widths to match the length of a single plank?

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The answer’s five, by the way. So, each face is 5 planks wide (which is a single plank long)

Looks kinda like this…

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So, naturally… now we can calculate stuff. Like surface area and volume. But to do that, we’ll need some numbers.

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So, in my haste,  I clearly did a lousy job of lining up the blocks on the measuring tape. Sorry about that. Not exactly a deal breaker, but annoying.

But since maker materials are becoming more common, I figure you might prefer your students pull their own measurements.

There are a couple of ways that I could see variations of these: different shapes (different kinds of prisms, for example). I could also consider challenges like, given x-number of blocks, who can build a figure with the largest volume or a flat shape with the largest area?

Keva blocks seem like a low-risk, high reward manipulative simply because the start-up would be so quick. What could you do in your class with a set?

The two key ingredients of real problem-solving

A quick word about dissent.

During a recent conversation with a teacher-friend I we stumbled into an area of conversation that allowed me to see dissent through the lens of leadership and problem-solving in a way that I hadn’t before.

Acceptance of dissent isn’t a new idea in leadership. Lots of writers talk about the need for leaders to appreciate it… here’s an example.

“Defining effective leadership as appreciating resistance is another on 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.)

We were talking about problems that tend to have some pretty zealous advocates. For the sake of exploring a concrete situation, I’ll choose one for an example. How about student retention? This is a topic that can bring some energy out of some folks. It’s an important conversation, too. What happens when a student finishes a school year without meeting the minimum expectations to complete the grade/course they are in?

To push them forward would mean pushing the student forward into academic challenges that they likely aren’t prepared to tackle.

And making student repeat grades has just not been an effective solution according to ASCD, Education Week, John Hattie, etc…

So, when a district sits down to really solve this problem, they need to accept that they probably are going to need to choose a third option. Carelessly moving the student on is probably a poor choice. Making the student repeat the grade is also a poor choice.

The better option, the third choice, the one that will work better, is likely going to have to be crafted on site and with the resources available helping to guide the process.

This is where I began to see the need for two very distinct groups of people.

One group of people creates the boundaries… I’ll call them the idealists. These are the people who say, “We can’t retain them. We can’t. I don’t care what we do, but we aren’t retaining them. It doesn’t work.” Every issue has these people. Most of us can become these people when the issue at hand strikes us right. Luckily, they seem to be essential to the process. They also happen to be very frustrating to people who either disagree or just don’t see the issue as important.

The main issue with these folks is that zeal often doesn’t really solve problems. It creates boundaries for the solution, but (in the case of our example issue) simply eliminating retention doesn’t actually solve the problem of students falling behind. It just eliminates a series of potential solutions.

So, we need to bring in the dissenters… I think of them as the holders of the “yeah, buts…”

“We can’t hold them back.”

“Yeah, but they are still behind in their learning, so we can’t just move them on.”

Now… at this moment… as long as neither the idealist or the dissenter storms out of the room, the real problem-solving work can begin. The boundaries are set, the reality checker is in place and now the focus can turn to the ACTUAL problem In the case of promotion v. retention, it’s the fact that students are making it to the end of the school year not ready to move on.

And that takes some deliberate focus and patience. The zealous boundary-setters don’t want to hear about “yeah, buts…”. The dissenters tire quickly of the perceived inflexibility of the idealists. But I’m not sure real solutions to tricky, messy problems are more likely than when these folks can unify around a common goal.

American education (shoot, American culture as a whole) has a whole variety of problems that we are having trouble solving because the zealous idealists and the persistent dissenters have such a hard time embracing the valuable contribution that each other makes in the course of creating real solutions.

But real solutions… solutions that are effective and sustainable… probably require the active presence of both.

College-readiness, math, and reading… Part II

This is the third in a series of posts where I ask you for help understanding the idea of “college-readiness”.

The first post examines “college-readiness” as one of several competing ideas about the goals of a public school education.

The second post looks at math through the lens of reading and how some pretty influential people seem to support the idea of math and reading being combined for assessment purposes.

Math and reading both have the ability to act as gatekeepers. The ability to read is a classical form of empowerment. It was, for centuries, the primary way that powerful people controlled less powerful groups. In the last century a variety of different folks have suggested that math beyond basic computation is creating unnecessary barriers. (W.H. Kilpatrick was writing about this after WWIAndrew Hacker and Steve Perry are championing this cause in modern times.)

So, combing math and reading together could be troublesome. Kids are having to get through two gates with separate keepers in order to attain this “college-readiness” label that is so important.

And unfortunately, at least some data sets cast some doubt on whether or not our educational structures are properly preparing students to enter high school ready to take on the challenges of a system that is going to require to both read at a high level…

… and to perform mathematically at a high level.

So, we have reason to believe that the majority of our students are entering high school not proficient in math or reading… possibly both. (I am fully aware that this is just one measure… and one that isn’t universal beloved either.)

Let’s recap:

The College Board is writing college-readiness math tests that are written at about an 8th grade reading level to complement their college readiness reading and writing exams. And we are going to give this test to 11th grade students who have a better than 50% chance of entering high school below grade level in either reading or math.

Sounds like those of us in the education profession have a tricky task ahead of us.

I don’t want to make it sound like I’m the first person exploring this problem. Thanks to the work of those who are championing Universal Design for Learning (UDL) we are starting to discover that creating structures, supports, and access points for those who struggle either because of disabilities or lower prerequisite skills improves the experience for everyone.

The idea is that we can flex on the methods, the means, and the tools in order to keep the achievement expectations high. In math, this often means sticking to the learning objective without unnecessarily complicating the task by including areas of potential struggle. For example, students struggle with fractions. When you are introducing linear functions (a topic that doesn’t immediately depend on fractions), don’t use any fractions in your activities, materials, or assessments. In this way, you don’t create an artificial barrier to the learning of new content.

This thought process also applied quite readily to reading. If your students don’t read well, then why make them do it when we are trying to learn math? Dan Meyer suggests that there are student engagement points to be won by reducing, what he terms, “the literacy demand.” Rose and Dalton from The National Center on UDL discuss the variety of benefits of creating opportunities for our students to listen instead of reading. (One of which is creating better readers.)

And all of this makes so much sense…

… until our resident decision-makers decide that reading comprehension (in the traditional sense) is an essential component of a “college-ready” math student.

This puts math teachers between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, we can follow Dr. Meyer’s sage advice to reduce the literacy demand on our students. I’ve done this. He’s darn right about what it does for engagement.

But on the other hand, if the College Board knows what they are talking about (and I’d really like to think they do), do we risk eliminating an essential element from our courses if we work hard to limit the reading?

Perhaps this isn’t as tough a spot as we originally thought. Simply put, the work of the math teacher is complete when the student has developed the ability to solve a targeted set of math problems. This requires helping the students learn certain tools: Equation-solving, data collection and representation, strategic guessing and estimation… These (among others) are all essential problem-solving skills.

Most math teachers have mechanisms in place to support students who are in a variety of developmental levels on the  journey toward proficiency of any of those skills. They aren’t uncomfortable with a student who struggles to solve equations. We see it all the time. We know it’s our job to help support that student. So we do.

What if we looked at reading the same way? What is reading if not an essential mathematical problem-solving skill? A skill that our students are in a variety of different places on?

As math teachers, perhaps it is our job to teach reading.

In my next post, I’ll lay out what it might look like for a math class. I don’t mean a math class with a high literacy component. I mean a math class where the teacher and students all recognize that role of the math teacher is to help the students develop as math readers.

Coke vs. Sprite – One Class’ Response to Dan Meyer’s #wcydwt Video

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Almost three years ago, I highlighted the Coke vs. Sprite video that @ddmeyer made. It is a very intriguing question (which glass contains a greater amount of its original pop) without a clear answer.

Today, I let a class give it a go and here’s what they came up with.

First, they chose to model it with integers. Said one student: “I pretended it was a jar with 10,000 marbles.” 2014-04-03 11.07.36

Then they assigned “a dropper-full” to be 100 marbles. So, the first dropper took 100 red marbles and placed them into the jar with the 10,000 green marbles.

Now we assumed the stirring made the mixture homogeneous which meant that there was a consistent 100:1 green-to-red marble ratio in the right jar. So, when we pull another 100 marbles to put back, (with a little bit of rounding) we pull 99 green marbles and a single red marble back into the left jar.

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A little number crunching reveals (at least in this model) that there would be 9901 original-colored marbles and 99 other-colored marbles in each jar.

My original assumption matches their investigation. It seems (at least by this model) that at the end of the video, each glass is containing equal amounts of their original soda.

Another teacher Chris Hunter (@ChrisHunter36) also battled with this video and created an excellent read about his experiences. Check them out.

 

The 70-70 Trial

Education is a world with a whole lot of theories. Intuitive theories at that. I’m sure it’s like this in most professions. We are seeing an issue. We reason out what the problem seems to be. We determine what the solution to our supposed problem seems to be. And we implement.

The problem with that is problems often have multiple causes. Solutions are often biased. Results have a tendency to be counter intuitive. For example, a paper recently published suggested that the increase of homework might actually cause a decrease in independent thinking skills. This probably isn’t a conclusive study, but recognize the idea that if students aren’t demonstrating independent-thinking skills, prescribing a problem-for-problem course of study for them to do on their own might not be the best solution.

This leads me to a trial that I am running in my classroom for a semester. I have four sections of geometry. I am going to leave two as a “control group” (very imprecise usage, I’ll admit) that will run exactly the same as they did first semester. The other two will run “The 70-70 Trial.” This is one of those theories that has gotten tossed about our district many times. It seems intuitive. It seems like it addresses a persistent problem.

The theory goes like this: If you go into a test knowing that 70% of the students have 70% or more on all the formative assessments leading up to the summative assessment, then we know that the students are reasonably prepared to do well on the test. If you give a formative assessment, and you hit the 70-70 line or better, you move on with your unit, business as usual. If you miss the 70-70 line, you pause on the unit until enough of the class is ready to go.

This seems reasonable to some, and ridiculous to others. Our staff meetings have seen some pretty intense discussion over it. Proponents lean on the logic. How can a group of students with high scores on formative assessments struggle on summative assessments? Opponents speak to the time crunch. When do you decide to move on? You can’t just keep stopping and stopping forever? You’ll never get through the material. Both seem like logical points…

But, as far as I can tell, no one has tried it to see what would happen. So, I figured that I had two classes that really struggled their way through first semester. It became very hard to energize and motivate these students because of how difficult they found the material. Perhaps shaking up the classroom management and unit design will add a bit of a spark. These two classes will be the focus of the 70-70 trial. I will use this blog as a way to record my observations and entertain any ideas from people who are looking to give me ideas to help this idea work.

This starts one week from today. I don’t know if it will work. I have my guesses as to what I think will happen, but I am going to keep those to myself. I absolutely want to see this work because if it does, that means my students were successful. My chief area of concern is what to do when 61% of the students score 70% or better (for example). By the rules of the trial, I can’t go on. I need a reteach day, but over half the class finds themselves ready to move on. What do I do to extend the learning for those students, while supporting the learning for those who need some reteaching and another crack at the formative assessment?

These are the kinds of things I will be looking for help with. Thank you for being patient and willing to walk this path with me. I will look forward to hearing whatever ideas you have.

Thoughts on Proof… and showing your work.

Suppose I give a group of sophomores this image and asked them to find the value of the angle marked “x”.

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Consider for a moment what method that you would use to solve this problem. (x = 121, in case that helps.)

Now, suppose I asked you to write out your solution and to “show your work.” What do you suppose it would look like?

I was a little surprised to see what I saw from my tenth graders, which was a whole lot of long hand arithmetic. Like this…

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and this…
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One-in-three had a mistake, which, in the midst of grading about 90 started to become an entire class worth of young people who were making mistakes doing a process that seemed fairly easy to circumvent (and by tenth grade, seems fairly cheap and easy to circumvent without much consequence.)

So, I asked why they were so intent on doing longhand arithmetic. The responses were fairly consistent.

1. Our math teachers have asked us to show your work and that’s how you do it.

2. It’s easier than using a calculator.

I will admit I was not prepared for either answer. (In retrospect, I’m not sure what answer I was expecting.) When I was asking students why they resisted the calculators knowing that they lacked confidence with the longhand, they said multiple times that they could show me that they “really did the math” without demonstrating the longhand. Also, one girl wondered why I would be advocating for a method that, as she put it, “makes us think less.”

They knew that I expected them to provide proof of their answers. Most of them were perfectly willing to provide the proof.

This student is starting to suspect that proof means words. So, he used words to describe the process.

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The conversation was pretty engaging to the students. A variety of students chimed in, most of them willing to defend longhand arithmetic and the only “true” work to show. I had shown them a variety of different looks at the longhand (the ones picture here, among others… including some mistakes to illustrate the risk, as I see it.) Then I asked this question which quieted things down quite quickly:

“Okay… okay… you proved to me that you did the subtraction right. I’ll give you that. Which of them proved that subtracting that 146 from 180 is correct thing to do?”

At first, they weren’t sure what to do with that. Although, quickly enough they were willing to agree that none of the work got into explaining why 180-146 was chosen over, say 155+146 = x or something.

I tried to convey that by tenth grade, I’m really not looking for proof that students can do three-digit subtraction. I would very much prefer discussing why that is the correct operation. They didn’t seem prepared to hear this answer. Apparently we’re even…

To be fair, there was one example where a bit of the bigger picture made it into the work. Check it out:

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I learned a lot today. I feel like I got a window into the students who are coming to see me. I ask them to explain, to prove, to show their work. Many of them willingly oblige, they just see an effective mathematics explanation differently than I do. It might be time to help the students get a vision of what explaining the solution to a math problem really looks like.

I would very much like your thoughts on this.