Thursday, May 31, 2012

Teachers risking failure: What is often left out of the conversation and how to address it

There is no shortage of videos and articles expressing the need to create an environment that does not fear failure in order to accomplish great things.  Some of these even speak directly to educators with the hope that teachers will nurture such an environment for their students.  I agree with many of these ideas, but I find that the conversation about eliminating the fear of failure in schools seems to be missing an important piece.

Examples of overcoming fear of failure often include very inspirational concepts that are tested in labs under controlled environments.  Why do you think new aircraft are tested in unpopulated areas?  Sure, there is security involved, but there is also a safety net built in.  After all, if the experimental plane fails in the desert or falls into the ocean, the liability for the failure is limited.  If such a craft was tested over a major city and failed, then you may have an enormous problem.

Limiting liability helps allow us to take chances.  If you want to eliminate fear of failure, you need to limit your liability.  By limiting liability, you can measure progress without fear of catastrophe.

To clarify, I'm not speaking of liability in the legal sense (though that too is important).  I'm speaking of liability as the potential for less than perfect results to cause an disproportionate level of damage to your credibility and effectiveness as a teacher.

This is where the concept of risk taking in schools becomes muddled.

For a classroom teacher, there is no lab.  If you try something new and it works, great.  If it doesn't, your experimental jet just crashed in the middle of your city.  

Therefore, a key component to trying something new and risking failure in class is to determine what aspects of the environment you have control over and exercise controls that limit liability.

Here are a few suggestions about how you, as a teacher, can limit your liability when trying new things and risking failure.

1.  No grades

For many students (and their families), the most important result of any class is the grade.  Risking failure with an activity that affects the grade is akin to high stakes gambling for those who value grades over everything else.  If you take grades off the table, you are now gambling with play money.  No risk of real loss for the student and no risk of grades taking attention away from the work at hand.

2.  Self-grading

If you must assign a grade, try having the students grade themselves.  If you do this, provide clear and specific instructions or a rubric to help students make an informed decision about the grade.

3.  Flip the grading

When you flip the grading, students grade the lesson...and your delivery.  This can be very helpful if you also ask students to write comments explaining their rating and how to improve the lesson next time.

4.  Include administration

Some of you may hesitate to bring your administrator into the loop before the lesson for fear of not being supported.  However, if you have a solid plan backed by sound reasoning and are well prepared, your administrator shouldn't have much of a reason to get in your way.  So why include her up front?  There are two reasons.  First, I have yet to meet an administrator that likes unpleasant surprises, and if you are trying something new, there is always a chance that it may not go exactly as planned.  Having an informed administrator is always better than one who is caught off  guard.  Second, believe it or not, administrators have great ideas too!  If you talk about your idea with them while planning, you may glean some wisdom that could help your lesson be even more effective.

5.  Collaborate

The old saying, "There is strength in numbers" applies here also.  By collaborating with another teacher to try something new, you gain the strength of working with another person and also the benefit of your collective wisdom can bring to the planning of the lesson.  Similarly, by collaborating, you can "divide and conquer" the work and also do a peer review of each other's class.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Degrees of success

File:Degree-Radian Conversion.svg
What is the difference between 0 and 1? 

The most obvious answer, and the one most people would say, is 1.  Simple math will tell you that. 

However, if you consider all the possible points along the way (0.1, 0.2, 0.3, etc.), your answer suddenly takes on a much different meaning.  In essence, the difference between 0 and 1 could be infinity.
I have seen a number of articles recently about how to rethink failure as a means of inspiring innovation and discovery.  My observation is that there are two general ways failure has been examined.  The first is based on the idea that by not fearing failure, we can free ourselves to accomplish great things.  The second is that by accepting failure as a growth event, we learn more about how to get better and can sue those lessons to improve our work.

Neither approach promotes failure as something we should want, but rather a natural part of development.  I tend to agree with that view.  However, such conversations can easily fall into the trap of examining outcomes in very black and white terms (failure or success) and I wonder if doing so creates a fixed mindset that ultimately discourages risk taking.  After all, in order to chance failure, you need to take risks and risk taking is a quality more often seen by people with growth mindsets, not fixed ones.

It is at this point, the fail or succeed only view, that I find myself wondering, "Are there really only two possible outcomes?  Can we not have degrees of success?  Is that not allowed?"

I suggest we view the attainment of goals as a series of gradually increasing degrees of success.  Since doing so may be difficult for some at first, I also propose a slightly different question to ask in order to maintain that focus.

Here is a common question when discussing goals.  "Did you achieve what you set out to achieve?"  The problem with the question is that it only allows for two answers, "Yes" or "No."  In other words, did you succeed or did you fail?  Unless you achieved all you set out to do, you are forced to focus on the negative, the failure; and no matter how much you may want to view failure as a growth opportunity (which it is), you still need to deal with the negative aspects of having failed.

Now, look at the exact same situation, but from a slightly different angle.  Ask yourself, "How close did you come to achieving what you set out to achieve?"  This question is open ended.  It requires reflection and careful attention to actual performance.  The scrutiny used to answer the question may even allow you to identify more clearly the places along the way that you need to adjust in order to move closer to achieving all you want to achieve.

I agree that if we are to accomplish great things, we need to take risks and try to do what we have not previously done, but is it necessary to risk failure?

Can't we take a chance on success instead?

Monday, May 21, 2012

The worst response?

 When you teach a class, the best student response is an actively engaged participant who obviously enjoys the lesson or activity.  Of course, you may also see students going through the motions who obviously do not like the lesson or activity.

If you ask both groups for feedback, you will likely get very good reviews and some not so good reviews. You may also think that the less than enthusiastic feedback is the worst response.

It is not.

The worst response is the non-response; the students who ignored your request.

Positive feedback helps you judge whether or not to repeat that type of lesson.  Negative feedback helps you make adjustments so that lesson is more engaging next time.

No feedback suggests no engagement at all.

Don't design lessons that only get good reviews.  Design lessons that inspire a reaction from all students.

Friday, May 18, 2012

How does your school use its "highlighters?"

A highlighter marks text to bring attention to that which has been determined to be most important and valuable.  Highlighted text serves to draw attention to the parts you most want to remember.

The end of every school year is a time for celebration and ceremony.  One of the benefits of ceremony is the opportunity to demonstrate symbolic leadership and highlight the aspects of your school.

How does your school use its "highlighters?"

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Happiness and the school administrator

Of all the subjects written about, I rarely read about the happiness that comes from being a school administrator.  As a matter of fact, I don't think I have ever read an article about that specific topic.  This is somewhat disconcerting.

As a school administrator, I wonder if happiness was a concept I gave up when I chose this path.  Maybe giving up happiness was in the fine print at the bottom of my internal contract to go the admin route.  Do administrators, essentially, inadvertently replace happiness with another emotion, like maybe satisfaction?  Of course one can be be happy and satisfied, but are school administrators generally able to experience both?

Then I reflect on my work and I realize that may not be true.  I certainly enjoy my work.  It is satisfying.  I know it is making a difference.  However, is it bringing me happiness?

Recently, I used the video below as a conversation starter with a group of middle school students.  They were somewhat amazed that their Division Head (Principal) would be interested in the concept of happiness and how it relates to them.  However, they all were able to think about happiness in a different way and, hopefully, left with a better understanding about how much control we do have over our level of happiness.

As school administrators, we should also take time to reflect on our level of happiness.  How much of it is related to external reasons -  happiness from receiving things or achieving goals?  How much of it is manufactured internally?

While I haven't read Dan Gilbert's book, Stumbling on Happiness, it is on my shelf and has moved ahead a few spots as a result of this video.  

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Leaders make room "at the table"

A few days ago, I read and shared an article by school leader Justin Tarte in which he highlights the importance of relationships within teams.  In the article, Dr. Tarte reminds us that strong relationships are a hallmark of strong teams.  I agree with Justin, and his post caused me to reflect for a moment about teams and leadership.  As such, here are a few thoughts of mine that, hopefully, will help add to Justin's insights.

Thought #1 - With some positions on teams, leadership is expected.  In other positions, it is usually earned.

Thought #2 - Whether leadership is expected or earned, a leader's actions tend to speak louder than words.  If you use words, use them wisely (and prudently).

Thought #3 - The players may change, but the team remains.

Thought #4 (and 5 and 6) - Since the players will change, if you care about the success of the team you need to keep these two things in mind:

  1. How well you do your part on the team will set the standard for your successor, so do it well and set it high.
  2. Make some room "at the table" for the next generation of leaders to join the team. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Defying the odds

Odds are...

  • summer vacation and all the trappings of the end of the school year are creeping into your classroom.
  • you are spending more and more time on next school year's projects than this year's.
  • your have finished your textbook or have decided that finishing it is impossible.
  • one more project or book to read for class is probably asking too much.
  • you feel as if you have done all you can do for a struggling student at this point in the year.
But remember it is often said, "If not for the last minute, very little would ever get done."

Defy the odds and push through to the end.  It may only make a small difference, but that small difference could  be the one that makes ALL the difference to someone sitting in your class.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A different perspective on ranking educational systems

 Recently, I had the pleasure of listening to a high school senior speak of the differences between the educational system in the United States and South Korea.  This student is South Korean.  Her family moved her to the United States four years ago.

Given the world rankings for educational systems, I anticipated her report to back up those findings and to herald the South Korean system as superior to the one she experienced in the United States.  After all, even our own President has commented on how our system of education could learn a few things from the South Koreans.

That did not happen.

Her report, while recognizing the higher test scores by South Korean students, was mostly a personal endorsement of the value and opportunities she received by going to high school in the United States; opportunities she claims she would not have had in South Korea.  She praised the work of her teachers to be more than task masters who desire to help the whole child, not just reinforce factual information.  The student, in her four years, had learned many things that she probably would have learned in South Korea, but she pointed out that the cultural differences between the two countries would have made it virtually impossible for her to explore her interests, be supported and challenged to do her best, and to reap the rewards of hard work and effort the same way she has been able to in the United States.

Next school year, she will attend a university in southern California.  When she spoke about how she came to the U.S. four years ago barely able to speak English and now is preparing to attend the university of her choosing, she was quite emotional.  Her journey, which began as one with limited choices and a mostly predetermined future, has now become one of limitless possibilities and great potential.

I am not familiar with the South Korean educational system beyond what I read in the news and what this student reported in her thesis.  Therefore, the intent of this post is not to criticize an obviously successful (in their own way) system of education in South Korea.  What I am hoping to point out is that sometimes it feels good to get a good endorsement of our work as teachers.

Internationally, the U.S. does not enjoy the highest ranking, but to hear a student, especially one from a country that IS near the top of the rankings, speak so passionately about her wonderful experiences...well, to me that endorsement means something.

As a colleague of mine also pointed out, "Each year thousands of international students come over to the United States for school.  Not just colleges and universities, but middle and upper schools.  On the flip side, we don't see a mass exodus of American students leaving home to go to school in South Korea or Finland."

Again, my point here is not to critique the success of another country's educational system.  Equally, my point is not to overlook the challenges facing the system in the United States.

The point is to bring into the conversation a perspective that includes the cultural differences that exist across the globe and to embrace those differences for what they can add to the equation.  Maybe the U.S. is not the top country according to the metrics used to rank educational systems.  Maybe the U.S. is a country that excels in providing hope, opportunity, and growth.

Maybe that is a point worth making.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Using goal setting to adjust student mindsets

Info graphic credit:

If your students resemble mine at all, when you ask them to set some goals for their classes, the majority of them will begin with something like, "I want to get an A in math" or "I want to earn a B in science."

Goals like those are indicative of a fixed mindset which seeks to validate intelligence by achieving noteworthy scores.  While there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to do well in a class, research suggests that a more growth oriented mindset has many advantages (see info graphic above).

So, as educators who work with students to set and attain goals, it helps to recognize these goals as opportunities to coach students to a better understanding of growth mindsets.

Here are some tips to help you use goal setting as a means to adjust mindsets.

1.  Recognize that making good grades IS important.  Do not try to convince the student that their goal to "make an A" is a "bad" goal.

2.  Focus the student on "what" she needs to do in order to achieve that result.  This will begin to introduce reality and potential roadblocks into the conversation, which is a good thing if you want to help the student.  Using the example of "getting an A" the components uncovered in the "what" conversation may include items such as high scores on tests and quizzes, turning in all homework on time and complete, attending extra help sessions, etc.

3.  After breaking down the goal into the various components, now work on "how" the student needs to approach each component.  This is where the student begins to understand the mental approach/attitude she must take in order to address each component.  The "how's" will spotlight one's effort, attention to detail, doing one's best with each opportunity presented, etc.

Now, look back on these steps.  You should see how a savvy teacher can use goal setting as a means to help students move from a fixed mindset about results to a growth mindset focused on effort and development.

Monday, May 7, 2012

THE formula for educational success?

Many successful products are seen as having found THE formula for success.  Either stumbled upon or developed over time, the formula is often seen as the key to success.  However, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in this TED talk, what we view as THE formula for success is often a diversity of formulas designed around the particular tastes/interests of a much wider group of potential customers.

Take Coke for example.  There is, of course, the famous formula for Coke Classic, which at one point was changed with disastrous results and quickly brought back (which is how we now have Coke Classic).  One may assume that Coke's enormous success is the result of THAT formula, and I would agree that MOST of Coke's success is due to that formula (and outstanding marketing/branding), but stop for a minute ans think about ALL the other flavors/formulas for Coke that exist today - Diet Coke, Caffeine Free Coke (and Diet), Cherry Coke, etc....

For students, teachers, and schools, success has never been nor will it ever be the result of finding THE formula.  Success, over the long term, may actually be the result of providing enough diversity of experiences.  No two schools are ever exactly alike.  To design and use a system of education that relies on THE formula will never produce the overwhelming success we expect and desire for our students.

However, the key to making great FORMULAS is in maintaining enough of the basic ingredients to make sure the product is still recognized as that product.  After all, while there may be dozens of varieties of spaghetti sauce, they all include tomatoes.  Without tomatoes, I'm not sure it qualifies as spaghetti sauce.

This begs the questions, what are the core ingredients needed by students to find success, needed by teachers to support student achievement, and needed by schools to create environments conducive to growth?  Does the debate over educational reform and effectiveness focus too much on finding THE formula instead of embracing the fact that there are FORMULAS for success - all of which have tremendous value?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

We all need a good commencement speech

 At this time of year, a great many graduates get to hear wonderfully motivating commencement speeches at their graduation ceremonies.  A very good example is this one given by Guy Kawasaki this week.

As commencement speeches, these are supposed to send students off to begin their journeys away from school - to impart some wisdom as students "commence" their non-academic lives.  However, I wonder if all of us couldn't benefit form a good commencement speech at certain intervals?  I wonder if there are times when a good commencement speech would be as valuable (if not more) than at a graduation ceremony.

For example, maybe the better time to hear a well respected and accomplished person talk about looking ahead could be when we START school.  I would have enjoyed and listened more to the commencement address if it had been during my FIRST day of undergraduate school rather than the LAST.  Another potentially good time to hear a commencement address would be the first day on the job.  This could be at your first teaching job or at your new school.

Are there any other times when either you or your students benefit from hearing a commencement address?  Feel free to share below.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Reality check before setting goals

So you have a goal in mind.  You are ready to make a plan and get to work.

Hold on for just one moment.  Are yo experiencing a moment of spontaneous inspiration or a true moment of clarity to be explored further?

Sure, there is nothing wrong with moments of spontaneous inspiration, but before you decide to transform that moment into a larger/long term goal, do a quick reality check.

Do you have time in your day to add the work needed to fulfill that goal?

If you think so, then double the time you THINK you need and recheck.

Still good on time?  Yes?  Move forward and begin working.

No?  You didn't have time originally or with the recheck?  What are you willing to give up in your day to replace with your new goal?

If you can willingly replace an old habit/plan with the new one, then continue and begin working.

If you cannot willingly replace an old habit with the new plan, then the new idea/inspiration is likely to become a source of frustration and doubt.

I have seen many people struggle to meet their goals as a result of not realizing the realities of attaining them.  Students, in particular, have difficulties understanding the sacrifices needed to achieve a goal.  If it matters - truly matters - you should be able to fit it into your day/schedule.  If you are unwilling to make room for a new goal, then maybe it is not worth pursuing at this time.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Bicameral System of Education

First, some historical background...

File:United States Capitol - west front.jpg
At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, two plans were introduced for creating the legislative branch of the government.  One plan, the Virginia Plan, called for representation based on state size/population.  While large states favored this idea, smaller states did not and an alternative plan was presented, the New Jersey Plan.  The New Jersey Plan called for equal representation for each state. 
Ultimately, a compromise was reached (called the The Great Compromise or the Connecticut Compromise of 1787) which established a bicameral legislature with one house of equal representation (The Senate) and the other house based on population (The House of Representatives).
Ok, now you may be wondering, "How does this apply to education?"

Well, as I read Seth Godin's Stop Stealing Dreams, I couldn't help but wonder if the debate over HOW and WHAT schools should do is not too unlike the debate held in 1787.  The delegates to the convention in 1787 were trying to basically accomplish two things:  fix the obviously flawed Articles of Confederation and establish a form of government that would sustain itself and the ideals upon which the young nation was founded.  While both sides debated over the pros and cons of each idea, ultimately what worked was the synthesis of the two by creating two separate bodies that are established to basically accomplish the goal of one branch of government - the legislative.  Sure, each house has its own specific functions, but in the end, they both are responsible for creating laws.

Schools serve to educate students.  That is the primary function of every school - to be a place where teaching and learning take place.  This concept is universal and applies to any school, system, or district.  However, factors such as culture, economics, environment, region, etc. contribute to the fact that not all schools, systems, and districts are the same.  Thus, these differences can greatly affect the resources available, how schools operate, what is valued, and what is taught.  In other words, how to support teaching and learning may take different forms given the factors associated with any one school, system, or district.

What is becoming clearer to me is that the debate over how schools should operate consists of two basic groups.  One group (I'll call it the "content" group) focuses on the delivery of basic skills and the learning of factual information.  This group, generally, relies heavily on testing to determine if enough factual information has been learned.  The other group (the "skills" group) places more value on the learning of skills.  This skill-focused group is more likely to emphasize the need to guide student passions and interests.  Discovery of the world through experience and investigation is a key component and value of experience is not measured through testing, but through a "portfolio" of growth over time.

The struggle between deciding whether schools (and school systems) should be organized around a "content" or "skills" based curriculum will likely never be truly resolved because most people see value in both camps (even if they do not want to admit it).

There is comfort and security that comes from knowing our schools are making sure students learn certain, specific factual elements.  This is supported by the idea that most people need to know the "whats" when faced with long term, difficult, and uncertain outcomes.  A child's education is a long term item (life-long) that provides no guarantees to parents for success, and often involves new unfamiliar topics.  In this situation, knowing "what" is taught (content) can be comforting.

On the other hand, the world is changing and we are responsible for helping students prepare for THEIR future (not ours).  This preparation involves opportunities to build and refine the skills needed to be a contributor in a increasingly connected world.  There is uncertainty in this camp also, so there have been specific skills identified to help guide schools in their effort to help students develop.  These are generally known as the "21st Century skills" and they include the C-words: communication, collaboration, creativity, character, and critical thinking.

Some schools do "content" well, but do little to address "skills."  Some schools do "skills" well, but struggle to demonstrate "content" learning.  I suggest that both of these types of schools are like the Articles of Confederation.  There are too many elements missing to make either very effective for what schools need to do.

Instead, schools should look to adopt their own "Great Compromise" and seek a bicameral approach to their responsibilities.  Good schools set up systems and operations that address and allow for both the "content" and "skills" to be taught and learned.
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