Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On the Nature of Questions and Answers

A recent post by Kevin J. Ruth, Answers Are So Yesterday, got me to think about the nature of questions and answers.

Here are a few thoughts.

1.  We need answers, whether we want to admit it or not.

Problem solving is a critical skill.  To be a problem solver, you certainly need to ask questions, but if you never offer an answer, you haven't really solved anything.  We need answers, even if to force us to ask more questions.

2.  Answers are not the problem.  The type of answer is the problem.

Answers that make the audience think are valuable.  Answers that prompt additional questions are valuable.  Answers that silence the crowd are only useful in emergencies.  In schools, we need more answers that lead to better questions.  Answers that can be found with a simply Google search are losing value - quickly. 

3.  Bad questions are worse than bad answers.

If you ask a bad question, you will almost always get a bad answer, or at least an answer you were not expecting.  Bad answers can often be the "fruit of the forbidden tree."  If you want better answers, then you need to be willing to critically examine the questions you ask.

4.  More questions are not the same as useful questions.

Asking the same question over and over again is normally not valuable or useful to the group.  Useful questions move the discussion forward.  Asking questions for the sake of asking slows progress.  Asking questions for the purpose of deeper understanding is useful.

5.  There will always be more questions than answers, so answers must have value.

If answers were not important, we would stop asking so many questions.  Our thirst for understanding and meaning move us to explore and create new knowledge.  We need questions to fuel that exploration and answers to illuminate the path.

6.  Therefore, both questions and answers are equally important.  You don't really need to choose one over the other.  They need each other to exist.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

For fellow educators affected by Sandy

I have some experience with responding, as a school, to the aftermath of natural disasters.   Having worked through the results of Hurricane Katrina, I offer this advice.

Ultimately, you will be remembered for how well you supported the needs of your students, families, and colleagues - NOT for how fast you caught up on your lesson plans or syllabi.

Those needs may be physical, emotional, or psychological as much as intellectual or academic.

Care for others and remember to take care of yourself.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Supply and Demand and Content

Content is readily available.  There is no shortage of content.  The availability of content determines its face value, and for most people, content is too available to make paying a high price for it seem unreasonable.  This price may not necessarily be in hard currency, but in opportunity costs, time, labor, etc.  This is the reality of the connected/sharing economy that exists today.

What is less readily available are enchanting, relevant, personal, and social experiences that enhance learning, understanding, and application of content.  The value of these experiences are high because they are in demand.  These experiences are often ignored (at the least severely undervalued) in the test score driven, standardization culture that exists in many schools.

This is a significant part of why, I believe, many people are frustrated with the educational system as it currently exists.  They thirst for the connections we all desire, to share experiences, and find our place to contribute in a world that asks us all to contribute.  However, to satisfy these needs, they are asked to place a disproportionate amount of value on the objective measures of a non-personal relationship with a standardized test.

Even the best dieter will admit that moderation is the key to success.  I think the same may apply to testing in schools.  Committing to moderation and seeking balance is important factors to improvement and success.  There is some value in measuring results up against some outside metric for comparison.  However, there is as much value in seeking opportunities to dare to do something different (if not better).

If what we value the most in schools are the very things that are rapidly losing value in the social marketplace and if schools place too little value on the commodities that the social marketplace is demanding, then it shouldn't come as a surprise when society gets frustrated.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Arguing the case for "creating knowledge" as THE purpose of schools

In a recent video of a TEDxYouth talk he gave (and in his book, Stop Stealing Dreams), Seth Godin suggests the vital question facing our educational system is, "What is school for?"  In other words, "For what purpose do schools exist?"

On the surface, this may seem like a somewhat easy question to answer.  On the other hand, if you really begin to think about the implications of your answer, a great deal of complexity may begin to seep in.  If there was one purpose, then there would only need to be one type of school.  So, I tend to fall more on the side of there being "purposes" of schools and the need to have different varieties to address those purposes.  Malcolm Gladwell gave a good TED talk about this concept.

Having said that, I want to take a stab at answering Mr. Godin's question...or at least offer ONE possible answer.

The purpose of school is to "create knowledge." 

Creating knowledge, as I use the term, is the act of sharing information, observations, solutions, and questions in a manner that elevates the overall understanding and application of something (or things) previously discovered.

For example, your students may know the basic facts about the building of the Panama Canal. They may also know that America's involvement in world affairs is an essential theme to the study of American history.  However, by allowing those two pieces of information to collide in your classroom, students will not only walk away with a deeper understanding of the Panama Canal and America's role in world affairs, but also a potentially new lens through which they can judge future discussions on those two topics.

I propose these four reasons to consider "creating knowledge"as the purpose of schools.

1.)  Creating knowledge requires active participation.

"Creating knowledge" is an action.  It cannot happen by thinking alone.  You need to do something with your thoughts.  It takes effort to make connections, and creating knowledge requires connections to be made.  Creating knowledge is intentional.

2.)  Creating knowledge is a social function.

In order to create knowledge, you need to share what you know and what you are thinking.  That cannot be done in a vacuum.  The "shipping" of ideas for others to digest and respond to along with the internal satisfaction of redefining your role as a contributor to a greater understanding can be a major motivating force.  Social media works because people, essentially, like to share and feel connected.  The same basic premise exists in creating knowledge.

3.)  Creating knowledge values risk takers.

It takes guts to put one's ideas "out there" for others to see and consider.  This is especially true knowing that not everyone will accept your ideas.  Creating knowledge, therefore needs and values risk takers; and risk takers are important for the future of our society.  When I speak of risk takers, I am not talking about daredevils, but instead of those of us who face "resistance" and tell our "lizard brains" to shut up and get out of the way.

4.)  Creating knowledge rewards those who focus on growth rather than fixed results.

An underlying concept in creating knowledge is the belief that every idea can be improved upon.  To throw oneself into the creation of knowledge, therefore, there must be a belief that the goal is to improve an idea, to take an already good concept and apply it to a better use, to discover a gem of hidden value that was previously buried underneath reams of facts and data, etc.  Focusing on the making an idea better allows you to take risks and experiment with new ideas in a way that those afraid of being wrong or labelled cannot possibly understand.  There is a saying that the best get better.  When creating knowledge, the only way to success is to work towards better.  A fixed "best" restricts thinking and, thus, the creation of knowledge.

The debate over the purpose of schools will continue.

It should.

Ultimately, we may find that, like spaghetti sauce, there is no PURPOSE to school but rather PURPOSES.  Once we stop trying to find THE right answer, then maybe more "dreams" will be accepted, protected, and encouraged.

Maybe we will agree that one of those reasons is to create knowledge.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Seth Godin video from recent TEDxYouth event

I am a big fan of Seth Godin's work and enjoyed reading Stop Stealing Dreams.  However, the biggest reason I read Seth's blog and his books isn't because I agree with every point he makes.  I am a fan because he forces me to think deeper about the points of his with which I disagree.  

This video is no exception. 

I found it to be a very good use of 17 minutes not for the parts I nodded in agreement about, but for the moments I began shaking my head in doubt.

After watching, feel free to share your favorite points of agreement or disagreement here.

Getting the facts straight

How you choose to use factual content in your assignments can make a significant impact on the relevance and value of the work.  Below are two examples.  Read each and see if you notice a difference.

Example A:  Write an essay describing the Harlem Renaissance.

In this assignment, you are basically asking students to organize a number (3-5) factual items about the Harlem Renaissance and report them back to you in essay form.  The content is THE purpose of the assignment.  There is very little in the way of critical thinking involved with this assignment as the final product is probably no more valuable than what anyone can find with a quick Internet search of "Harlem Renaissance."  Content is abundant and available, so students doing this assignment are simply reporting what someone else has already found.

Example B:  Write an essay demonstrating how the Harlem Renaissance is an example of diversity playing a role in the shaping of our national identity.

With this assignment, factual content plays a significant, but different role.  Here, the student needs to know enough about the Harlem Renaissance to form a clear thesis.  Once that idea is articulated and the direction of the paper is set, the use of factual content then serves two purposes:
  1. As evidence suggesting the thesis has merit
  2. To help clarify a claim made in support of the thesis
The purpose of the assignment in Example B is NOT the content.  Rather, the purpose is the development of the thesis (and ultimately the creation of knowledge that comes with sharing the thesis).  Content plays the important role of support system for the thesis, but is not the main objective.

In both examples, content is learned (or at least more fully understood).  However, only one of the assignments provides an opportunity for critical thinking and knowledge creation.

For the purposes of your class, which is the more valuable, relevant, and enriching assignment?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Assignment: Relevance

I recently wrote a short post suggesting 6 questions that students should ask about each assignment.  That post prompted two comments.  One comment included the suggestion that teachers should encourage students to ask themselves something along the lines of, "How is this connected to something I'm passionate about?" for each assignment.

Thanks, Bill, for the comment.  It got me thinking, too!

Here are my thoughts.

I'm not sure there is any one thing with which each assignment should connect.  And while I agree that making a connection to a student's passion is desirable  I'm not sure it is possible given the fact that at any one moment a student can change their mind about which they are passionate.  

Of course all of this leaves out the other fact that, in a room filled with students, designing an assignment that connects to every person's passion seems virtually impossible.  

I am all in favor of teachers wanting to make the passion-lesson connection.  When you can make a connection between an assignment and something the student is passionate about there is certainly the potential for that lesson to truly have a lasting impression on the student.  Since such a result is highly valued, the passion-lesson combination is one teachers hope to make often.  Unfortunately, some students will simply not be passionate about what you are teaching.  

They may like it.  

They may tolerate it.  

They may realize it is something they need to do.  

But, they may never be passionate about it.  

Unfortunately, they need to do the assignment as well as those who may be passionate about your class.

So, in lieu of making the passion-lesson connection, what does a teacher do?  What is the more realistic goal of an assignment if the passion target isn't realistic?


While every assignment cannot connect to student passion, every assignment can certainly be clearly relevant to the course and its objectives.

When I talk with students about assignments, they rarely will be disappointed that the work didn't make a connection to the things about which they are most passionate.  Most students understand that in the real world their likes do not always determine the expectations others have of them.  However, students will clearly feel cheated if they believe the assignment has no relevance to their experience in class.  This is where the teacher must focus her attention when designing assignments.

My advice, then, is for teachers to be transparent and honest about student assignments.  

If the purpose of the assignment is to reinforce content related matters, then tell students that up front and explain how the assignment will help them learn the content better.

If the assignment is designed to refine an essential skill (collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, etc.), then tell students that at the start.

If the assignment was created to provide opportunities for independent learning, then make those expectations clear before the students begin.

What is interesting, though, is if you focus on relevance and work diligently to make that connection, you are giving your assignments the best chance to actually make the passion-lesson connection.  After all, not a single student can be passionate about a topic that has no relevance to them.  On the other hand, making a solid case for relevance and providing opportunities for that relevance to set in can prompt students to dig deeper into a topic - which is the genesis of all things about which we are passionate.

Use post-assignment feedback to shape future lessons

 One of the least used, yet most powerful, tools you can use to help your future planning is to ask your students for feedback.  I am not talking about an end of the course evaluation (though that is also useful).  I am referring to a post-assignment conversation about what the students just finished.  This is an easy conversation but does require some artfulness on your part in order to get good/useful feedback.

1.  Introduce the conversation by telling the students how important it is for you to give them relevant assignments.  Demonstrate that you care about how to better help them and hearing their feedback is an essential part of that.  If you are discussing a recent test or quiz, tell the students that their feedback will help you design better questions for future tests, which will help you evaluate how much they are learning.

2.  Ask open ended questions.  Avoid, "Yes or no" questions, such as "Did you like this assignment?"  Instead, us something like, "What parts of this assignment  did you like and what parts did you not like?"

3.  Use active listening.  When students are speaking, do not talk over them.  Wait until they are done and repeat what you heard and/or ask clarifying questions to make sure their point is clear to you.

4.  At the end of the conversation, refer to your notes (oh yea, take notes!).  Recap what you heard.  Tell them that you will use the information (if you know how, tell them).

5.  Actually use the information next time!  Remember, you are better off not asking for feedback at all if you are not willing to actually use it.

Friday, October 12, 2012

You Can Be More Successful At Attaining Your Goals

For anyone who has followed this blog, it comes at no surprise to hear that I am a big follower of Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson's work.  Two of her publications are among my most highly recommended pieces:
Nine Things Successful People Do Differently and Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.

She even has a new book coming out soon that is available for pre-ordering, Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence.

Here is a video I found where she explains that everyone can be more successful at reaching his or her goals.


Heidi Grant Halvorson: What Successful People Do Differently from BrightSightGroup on Vimeo.

Promote Growth Mindsets With This Exercise

  One of the challenges with which many teachers struggle is to assist their students in developing a better appreciation for a growth mindset.  There has been much written about the value of having a growth mindset, including the outstanding Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck.  However, like many teachers  I was struggling to come up with a simple "go to" exercise to help me work with students gain this growth mindset appreciation.  I needed something that was easy to use, easy to remember, and could be done fairly quickly (I rarely have more than 20 minutes at a time that I can spend with any one student during the day) that had the potential for a significant redirection in the way students think.

So, in working with some students over the last few months, I have begun to use a simple rating exercise that seems to work every time.  I have been so impressed with how this simple reflection exercise has worked, I want to share it with you.

Here is how it works.

1.  Ask the student to spend a few moments reflecting on her recent results in school. Yes, I know that is more of a fixed mindset way of thinking, but stick with me!

2.  Ask the student to reflect on what she did leading up to those results.

3.  Ask the student to rate how hard they worked to get those results on a 10 point scale (10 being as hard as they possibly could).

4.  If the student says anything other than 10, ask them to describe what the next number higher means to them.  If he says, "10" ask him to imagine that an 11 was possible, how would it differ from a 10?

5.  Now, ask the student to reexamine her results and imagine them having prepared at the number just above their reported effort.  Ask her to predict how the results might have changed.

6.  Suggest that the student set a goal to do a little better on their next test (or whatever mechanism reports results).  Ask him if the next effort rating level would help him produce better work.

7. Commit to following up and checking in with the student to help her recognize how focusing on getting better is helping her attain better results.

I have had good success using this exercise and I hope you do too.  If you do, feel free to either email me with your observations and suggestions.  Of course, you can also leave a comment here as well.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Impress your students

Knowing the content is a given.  It is a bare minimum expectation.  It impresses few people who can easily look up content online.

Having a prepared lesson plan is a given.  Being prepared to teach is also a minimal requirement.  Preparing a class is not impressive.

Knowing content and being able to plan a lesson are the minimal basic skills/requirements to even deserve to stand in front of a class and be called, "teacher."  However, neither of them are nearly enough to make anyone care about what you are doing.

In a world where sharing and transparency is the new norm (and a most valuable asset), the walls of your class no longer protect your class.  Teachers cannot hide behind content and planning for evidence of success.  The world desires more and is expecting our schools to model these values.  Like it or not, that is becoming more of a reality.  This adjusted reality can make some of us uncomfortable, but it shouldn't.

After all, the expectations of value beyond content and planning should be a refreshing change for those of us who entered the field of education to do more than pour content into our students and write lesson plans.  My decision to be a teacher wasn't because I wanted to prove how much about the subject I knew or how organized and purposeful my planning was.  It was to help kids.  It was to be a part of their growth.  It was to support them as they work to get better each day.  Maybe you became a teacher for similar reasons; maybe not.  It doesn't matter why because the reality is that in an environment where content and planning no longer impress, we are called to be more.

So, how do you impress students?  Here are a few thoughts.

1.  Demonstrate a commitment to learning.  Sure content isn't very impressive, but being dedicated to continuously learning more about your field is.  Share what you are learning with your class.

2.  Try something new.  Even if it doesn't work out as well as expected, taking a chance and sincerely gathering feedback to do it better next time is impressive.

3.  Be friendly.  Learn all your students names.  Greet them each day.  Smile.  Laugh with them.

4.  Be responsive.  Answer questions.  Be aware of the signals (verbal and non-verbal) you are receiving and make adjustments.

5.  Provide growth opportunities.  Instead of telling students you want them to do better, give them a chance to do better.  Take an assignment and provide individual feedback.  Give it back.  Provide a chance for the student to make improvements.  Reward the effort and difference.

Being impressive may not be the goal in and of itself.  However, working to be more "impressive" may move your students to take more interest in meeting their goals, which ultimately should be one of your goals.

Friday, October 5, 2012

6 Tips for Supporting Overwhelmed Students

There are times when school moves along quite comfortably.  Lessons and assignments come and go with relative ease.  Pacing seems appropriate.  Sailing is smooth.

On the other hand, there are times when the pace quickens, assignments become more time consuming, deadlines approach, etc.  In other words, students can get overwhelmed with the demands of school and trying to balance those demands with all the other aspects of life.

During these moments, it helps to have some tools at your disposal to help students fell less overwhelmed.

1.  Listen for the item that "tipped" the student from being busy to feeling overwhelmed.

Have the student try to identify which item on their agenda was the one that made the change.  Two things may happen.  One, the student, by reflecting on this, may come to realize that his situation isn't nearly as complex as he thought.  Two, by actively listening, you allow the student to vent about the situation, which in many cases, could be all the student needs to feel better.

2.  Work from each item's deadline then back to the present and map out a manageable plan.

I am a big advocate of working backwards in planning practically everything.  Unfortunately, students typically do not use this valuable skill, especially with assignments that are NOT due the next day.

3.  Is the overwhelmed feeling due to a task that the student finds particularly difficult?

Sometimes, having to perform a difficult task is enough to bring on the overwhelmed feeling.  If a student is facing a task that is particularly difficult or new, it may help to help the student break that item down into very small steps.  Basically, put together a "what to do" list of specific easy to understand steps.  In addition to knowing what to do, help students figure out when and where they will do it.  Another important piece here is to remind the student that, ultimately, what matters is that she needs to focus on getting better at the task not necessarily proving how good she is at doing it.  Work for improvement, not perfection.

4.  Get a toe hold on one item and work from there.

This tip requires the student to identify one item that can be easily and quickly done and do that task.  Get started, build momentum, begin crossing things off the list.  Getting traction can also build confidence and, thus, clear the student's mind to focus on the next task at hand.

5.  Prioritize.

Go through a discussion on priorities.  Have the student reflect on deadlines, assignments that may take longer or are more difficult, and decide which assignments can wait and which one need immediate attention. You may also ask the student to reflect on any goals she set and match up her priority list with her goals.  Also, when prioritizing, remind the student that they may need to give something else up in order to complete their responsibilities.  Therefore, recognizing that some of the items identified may be a "want" rather than a "need" and may have to wait until the "needs" are completed.

6.  Try counting down.

With this exercise, you ask students to rank their anxiety on a scale of 0-10 (10 being the worst).  If they say 10, then ask them how they think they can get it down to a 9.  If they say any number other than 10, ask them why it is not higher and follow up their answer by asking them how to get it down one notch.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Grit, Student Achievement, and Providing Support

Inspired by a very good article I saw at MindShift, How Important is Grit in Student Achievement?, I offer this reminder.

Having grit isn't the same as "going it alone."

Students (and adults for that matter) are much more likely to "stick it out" if they are being supported by an group.  Everyone benefits from knowing help is available and easy to get.

This is arguably one of the most important roles of a teacher - being a "help broker" for students.

The art of executing that role is balancing your desire to help with your need to support independence.

Students with more grit are, generally, more successful.  However, it is rare that such success resulted from working alone.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Helping students create choices

Students love choices.

The ability to chart one's own course is very enticing, especially to a student longing to spread her wings and be more independent.  As schools recognize the potential benefits of student choice, the desire to choose on the part of the student can sometimes outrun the school's willingness to offer more choices.

We see this, for example, in middle grades when students have been given "bite sized" chunks of independence and choice.  After 6th or 7th grade, these students will beam with joy when asked about the "freedom" they get in middle school.  Fast forward 2 years.  Now, these same students are 9th graders.  When asked about choice and freedom, these same students who praised the middle school will often talk about how few choices they had in 6th-8th grade, only to announce that they are finally being given a chance to be independent.

As I wrote at the beginning of this post, students love choices.  Speaking from the perspective of a school administrator, I love giving students choices.  However, managing choices and understanding the "big picture" are qualities that students (and some adults) struggle to develop.  So, when advising students who are frustrated with their lack of choices (or frustrated with choices they do not want), I like to talk about how they can create more choices for themselves.

1.  Take care of the difficult and/or unpleasant things first.  Then, with that out of the way, you may find more time to do more of what you want to do.  If you constantly push the difficult/unpleasant tasks back, you may never feel like you have time for the easy/pleasant items.

2.  Ask for them.  If you feel you are ready to have more choices, be honest and talk to those (teachers, administrators, parents, etc.) and make your case for being able to handle more.

3.  Choices, like trust, is often earned.  It is rare that a lack of choice is a result of a philosophical belief as much as a fear or concern that one isn't ready for more.  By responsibly taking care of the choices you have, you will find it easier to get more of the choices you want.

4.  Think of others.  Students who make decisions with others in mind demonstrate emotional and social maturity.  Teachers, parents, and administrators place great value on emotional and social maturity.  Students who consistently demonstrate an ability to make wise choices based on more than selfish reasons are in a better position to create more opportunities to demonstrate that quality.

5.  Ask for help.  One sign of maturity is knowing when to, and actually asking for help.  Knowing that students are ready and willing to seek help when needed is important to those tasked with providing the help.  Having choices doesn't mean being left alone.  Sometimes, new choices emerge - such "What do we do now?"  Having the maturity to ask for help is a good way to create more choices in the future.

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