Our Students as Creators: My initial Thoughts

I wanna share this with you because I been thinking about it for a while now. In 2014, I began working in classrooms as a Instructional Tech Specialist, which is a bit of a misleading title, because instructional technology isn’t a thing to specialize in. Instruction is a thing to specialize in. And I’ve learned a ton. And it’s been difficult for me to make sense of all that I’ve seen and heard. But, I’m ready to try.

During this time (plus a bit before), I’ve heard and read a lot of really smart and well-researched people say a lot of things about teaching and learning. They are saying and writing some really good stuff. Among the people that I’m referring to are Kathleen Cushman, Angela Lee Duckworth, Christopher Emdin, John Hattie, Rushton Hurley,  Robert Marzano, Dan Meyer, John O’Connor, Sir Ken Robinson, Conrad Wolfram, and Gregory Yates. Some of these folks are specialized. For example, Dan Meyer once responded to a question that I asked with “I’d prefer to stick to offering my help to secondary math situations because it’s where I feel most qualified.” (paraphrased). Other folks area extremely general. John Hattie, for example, has advice to give on practically everything.

And I’ve had conversations with other educators who favor some of these educators over others. In our areas, “… because Marzano said so…” or “… because Hattie said so…” are becoming cliches and it is weakening the credibility that those two researchers have among many educators. I think that this is a critique that is best directed toward those attempting to apply the research more than the researchers themselves. (That said, I have heard some criticisms of both of these guys that are directed toward them.)

But, I see a few issues with “this researcher vs. that researcher” thinking. The primary issue that I see is that teaching and learning is really complex. Like… really, really complex. It’s hard to generalize and even once it’s generalized, it a second difficult task to execute it well. And it’s an even more difficult task to maintain excellence in that execution over an entire school year. So, while it may seem that Hattie and Sir Ken Robinson are disagreeing, it’s more likely that they are seeing different elements that are equally valid components of a complex whole.

There’s also my experience that I’m having a hard time ignoring. That I’ve seen some really effective teachers and some teachers who really struggle. And that is true of teachers of all types. I’ve seen teachers who are trying to “do STEAM” in their classrooms and their students don’t seem to be thriving. I’ve seen teachers who create the most dynamic, effective learning environments “doing STEAM”. Likewise with more traditional setups. I’ve seen teachers whose students learning at a very high level using a very traditional set up. And I’ve seen teachers who just can’t get this right.

What’s the difference? And more than that, is it a difference that can be taught? The quick-and-easy answer is “relationships.” And that does seem to be a big deal. A teacher who builds strong and productive relationships with students seem to have a leg up regardless of their teaching-and-learning style. But, here I’ll turn it over to my colleague Nate Stevenson:

I take that to mean there are still best practices that will maximize your students’ potentials. Relationships alone won’t do it. Neither, perhaps, will all the right teacher moves. There’s a marriage there. Like so many things, there’s a complementary nature between the two differences. Not one VERSUS the other, but the two coming together to make each other better.

With this in mind, I took to exploring the aforementioned educators thoughts and ideas and wanted to see if there was a way I could characterize quality education that took into account all that they were advocating for. I wondered if each of them was trying to describe a central reality from their own imperfect perspective. (And that isn’t a knock. There is only one perfect perspective, and none of those educators is God.)

That having been said, here’s my best, first try from my imperfect perspective. I requires me to classify two types of lessons. Activities and lessons where the students are primarily CONSUMERS and activities and lessons where students are primarily CREATORS. And my thought right now is that there needs to be a balance between the two. For each activity the students spend consuming new knowledge, they need an activity where they create within that content.

The researchers seems to make a handful of points quite consistently:

Teacher-student relationships need to be strong because…

  • students need to develop the ability to be pushed in a safe environment, learn to make mistakes and patiently grow rather than quit. Trust is key here.
  • students learn best in learning communities in which they feel valued and are making an active contribution.

Lessons and Learning Activities should (as often as possible) include…

  • Goals targeting both the knowledge and the actions. (What will they know AND be able to do?)
  • Effective direct instruction of new material to support the learning goals
  • flexible, yet predictable processes and procedures
  • An opportunity for the students to collaborate with each other
  • Options for demonstrations of student learning


Disclosure statement: I want to stop right here and say that if anyone has used this language before, I am haven’t read it. I’ll gladly yield the floor and give credit to those who have written on this before. Any overlap is very much unintentional.

I’m going to spend the next couple posts laying out my thoughts around this topic.


A word about fractions

This story begins with a tweet that I read.

This tweet poses a nice engaging situation where addition of fractions would be a very useful tools. But, addition of fractions involves common denominators. And, then I began to remember my students attitudes toward fractions, which can be summed up by the following…


… clearly fractions are so difficult that it requires someone with the reputation of Chuck Norris to be able to deal with them effectively.

Except, they aren’t. Or maybe they are, but they certainly don’t need to be. The logic that says that 2 min + 31 sec doesn’t equal 33 of anything is perfectly understandable to most. It’s the exact same premise as requiring common denominators to complete a fraction addition problem. And THAT is confounding to many. It seems like an arbitrary rule that math teachers invented to trick students.

And the teaching of it carries with it some strong opinions, too. I remember during my undergrad, one of my professors asked this:


One of my classmates changed his major that day. He got so angry that it we would be discussing the possibility that a student could write that equation and could be thinking something mathematically accurate. Dude literally stormed out of class and I never saw him again.

It is possible, by the way:

About the same time I was reading the IES Practice Guide for teaching Fractions. Are you familiar with the IES Practice Guides for mathematics? The Institute for Educational Studies gathers high quality research studies on educational and catalogs them in the What Works Clearinghouse.

The Practice Guides are documents that synthesize the multiple research studies that exists on a certain subject and operationalize the findings. Recently, I explored the IES Practice Guide for Fraction Instruction K-8.

I’d encourage you to check it out. To summarize, making fractions and conversations about portioning and sharing things a common part of math conversation from the beginning can help take the natural understanding that kids have and build fractions into that context. That will give us a chance to use math talk as a tool for students to need more exact language. My preschool son right now uses “half” extremely loosely at the moment. (I’ve drank “half” my water could really mean anything quantitatively.) In order for him to effectively communicate, he’s going to need to develop a more precise definition of “half”. That will require him adding additional fraction vocab to his toolbox.

As teachers, this gives us a chance to build in some more effective language, clearly defining the fractions as numbers. As such, encouraging a lot of conceptual sense-making about the different operational quirks that are required to effectively compute when fractions are involved. (If fractions aren’t numbers, but instead are just made-up, goofy ways of writing numbers, then the rules for computing them are goofy and made-up, too.)

The practice guide provides some tangible steps to achieve this. I’d encourage you to check it out. Lots of steps forward to take in the area of student comfort and effectiveness with fractions.

Zooming In, Zooming Out: On Education Research (and Religion)


U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate Chris Desmond. (RELEASED)

Feedback. Various researchers have stated that effective feedback should be of the “what’s next?” variety. Good feedback helps people see “what’s next?”

But what if the feedback is corrective? Is the revision of the previous attempt implicitly the “what’s next”? What if it wasn’t implicit? What if the teacher explicitly told the student to revise? Then does it become better feedback? What if the feedback isn’t directly related to the content, but instead the organization of their work? Does that reduce the quality of the feedback since the correction is toward a non-content goal?

What if? What about that? How about this?

These have been the conversations in which I’ve found myself several times over the last few weeks. My mind has been racing. Not only to understand the intense scrutiny with which we are examining teacher moves, but also to convince myself that these types of conversations are valuable.

Lines of questioning like I mentioned above are like zooming really far in on a certain single aspect of teaching and for a moment exploring it in isolation. Treating it like it is the only factor that matters in order to understand that one thing completely. As though, for a moment, all that mattered was good feedback. Or formative assessment. Or opportunities to respond.

The fact is that these different aspect of teaching and learning don’t exist in isolation. That’s one of the unrelenting truths of the classroom. Opportunities to respond and feedback depend on the quality of the classroom management. Good feedback depends, at least partly, on effective working relationships with students. And good formative assessment is quite dependent on the skill of assessment writing.

So, does the essential interconnectedness of these different elements of good instruction mean that we shouldn’t separate them out and examine each one? Well, not so fast. It’s true that lines of questioning like that can go on for a long time and in the end, we’ve created some pretty well-defined boundaries around things like feedback, or formative assessment, or opportunities to respond. But, I think we need to suspend our disbelief for a moment to understand that these types of conversations ARE important.

I repeat: These conversations are important to have and I believe more practitioners should be having them. There are a variety of terms that we use as educators that are common AND really poorly defined. Feedback is an excellent example, but also terms like “mastery”, “high standards”, even words like “compassion” get used with widely different understandings and thus widely different corresponding behaviors.

But these are words that have meanings and corresponding behaviors that will improve students’ lives and school experiences when done properly (and will have limited effects when done poorly.) There isn’t always an A-for-effort when it comes to teacher moves. “I tried to give good feedback” is noble, but “I gave good feedback” is more effective for student learning. And switching from the former to the latter will require locking down what effective feedback is and what it is not. This is true for any number of teacher moves from instruction to assessment to classroom management to communication.

But we can’t stay zoomed in. I credit a colleague for saying, “Education research is about constantly zooming in and then zooming out. Getting narrow and then widening your view. You work to create definitions, then you zoom out to see those definitions in context.”

This discussion isn’t entirely different from the back-and-forth required to become effective practioners of most religions. Most of the religions that I am even surface-level familiar with have this same back-and-forth between the experiential, spiritual, the perhaps undefinable side with the clinical, dogmatic and well-defined side.

For example, some religions practice fasting from food and drink for different times of the year. Further, some fast from meat and dairy on the ground that for a given time, they shouldn’t eat “animal products.”

What about eggs? Eggs aren’t meat or dairy, but they are clearly an animal product.

What about fish? Depends on how you define “meat.”

What about honey? Are bees animals? Is honey a “product” of that animal?

What about soy milk? It’s not an animal product, but it’s feels kinda like cheating. Is the goal to make do without milk? Or simply to not consume the animal product?

And when should do children start this? Should infants suspend nursing during the fasts because it’s milk? Or are infants exempt? If infants are exempt, what about their mothers who are needing to keep their diet somewhat consistent to stay well-nourished to feed their infants? When would the religious leaders guide the parents to start having the children begin fasting?

See? It all gets very clinical quite quickly. By asking such questions, we’ve allowed ourselves to zoom all the way into the nitty gritty details about this one aspect of the spiritual experience. And quite frankly, that’s okay as long as we remember that the  clinical exists to enable us to serve the bigger picture better. The point of fasting (at least as far as I’ve understood it) is to be able to pray better. That’s what we see when we zoom back out.

And being willing to help practitioners dig through the nitty-gritty can be a way to honor the sincerity of their devotion. They want to do the very best job they can and they have questions. That’s okay. It’s okay if they want to zoom in and examine the different elements of the work they are trying to do. We should encourage them to do that inasmuch as it is providing effective supports to their efforts toward the bigger-picture goals.

And this brings us back to the classroom. Classroom teachers should be encouraged to zoom in on the finer details of their work, too. The zooming in provides definitions and supports techniques. The zooming out provides context. Zooming in is where the fine-tuning occurs. Zooming out is where we learn how those updated practices look amidst the sea of other factors. Do we really have time? What will that activity look like the way my desks are configured? When will I be able to provide feedback to the second and third step of the project for each group?

It takes both. Neither is good enough on their own. They aren’t enemies, but rather they complement one another. And when we gain an appreciation of the place, value, and role of the zoom-in and the zoom-out, then we can start to use them both to make our work better and better.

The EdTech Conundrum

Imagine you were the CEO of a brand new EdTech start up with a brand new device that was ready to revolutionize education. (Or at least so your marketing team would have us believe.)

You unrolled your plan to get your device into the hands of students and put it into action. So, here’s my first question. What are your indicators of success? Profit? Devices sold? Number of districts implementing your device? Number of teachers implementing your device? These all seem fairly reasonable.

Do you know what almost certainly wouldn’t be one of your indicators of success? The degree to which your device is improving student outcomes.

So, let’s bring in an article: Education Week’s Popularity of Ed Tech Not Necessarily Linked To Product’s Impact. In which author Benjamin Herold builds a case that there is a fundamental conflict between the traits of Ed Tech that best sell and the traits of Ed Tech that best impact student achievement.

Among the traits that sold best, according to the article, “a promise of cost savings for schools, no requirements for face-to-face training, and an ability to be easily integrated into existing teaching and learning practices.” That is, light on financial commitment, light on PD, and light on classroom disruption.

It’s tough to argue with cost, but the latter two start to expose a weakness that are probably contributing directly to why these EdTech innovations aren’t having that much of an impact: They aren’t innovating. If you are integrating devices that don’t require educators to update what they do in the classroom, then don’t expect for any significant changes in learning outcomes.

The author, quoting Andrew Calkins, adds “Practitioners [in traditional schools] find it easier to adopt technology tools that readily fit within their existing models,” Calkins said. “That’s why tools and platforms that demand a lesser degree of disruption might have found greater purchase in the marketplace.”

It is easier, more comfortable, and less stressful on people and resources to integrate tools that integrate into existing school systems, traditions and practices. But this is fundamentally problematic in school communities where existing systems, traditions and practices had reached their capacity for student achievement. If the systems are working as well as they are going to work, then a tool that makes the system function better isn’t what’s needed. What’s needed is a new system.

And that’s a much tougher sell. And it probably explains why we continue to be somewhat disappointed with the way our technology is faring within our desire to improvement. This is why frameworks like SAMR serve such a valuable purpose. They provide structure and language to the act of transitioning from one educational paradigm to another. This highest level of SAMR doesn’t force a particular type of classroom action or behavior, but simply asks the educator to consider what is possible now that wasn’t possible before the technology was available.

And this becomes the ultimate value of the technology and it also explains why we’ve had such a difficult time having our hopes realized. Technology has the potential to fundamentally restructure the way our schools function. And unfortunately, we won’t see the value of some of these tools until we let them do just that.

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.


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.