Overthrow the CIA

Not the Central Intelligence Agency — I’m talking about the Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment paradigm. It’s time to take a close look at it and figure some steps to get us to a more effective paradigm for causing learning.

The initial problem with the CIA paradigm is that it was not designed to cause learning; it is a perfect fit for an instruction-centric model. It’s relatively easy to determine whether or not students have been successful in responding to instruction — that’s the purpose of good assessments in this model. And of course, the question about what should be instructed was settled by the notion of a curriculum, now literally a “standardized” curriculum.

The real problem with the CIA paradigm is that we have more data than we can handle to demonstrate that it’s just not that effective in producing long-lasting learning. Imagine if successful adults were given a 10th grade state assessment. Here’s an example of a school board member’s dismal showing. I bet you can identify with it!

So what could replace this model? I would wager that for the next decade at least, the CCSS (or a derivative) will still play some sort of a role in most schools. We’ve been in the “Standards” era for over two decades already. In addition, in all honesty, there’s been too much money invested in every segment of the education world for it to just go away- no matter how strongly (or wisely) some might wish for that to happen.

No, we’re not “there” yet, so what sort of a model might serve learners in a next step journey? I say “next step journey” because no one should ever be foolish enough to think that there is some sort of an end goal to a process like this. OK, one notion to start stepping away from the CIA paradigm might be a Standards, Learning, Evidence model. For now, accept the notion that someone has decided what kids should learn — be it the local teacher, the school, the district, the state department of ed, or a coalition like the one behind the CCSS.

Then what? Take off the limits of time and place for students. Help each learner determine what might be some appropriate next standards to set as goals and then help them meet those learning needs through whatever is best for him/her as an individual learner. No responding to whole-group (or even small-group) instruction. Learners pull from all of their life experiences, interests and passions and other learning experiences to meet their learning targets in a way that demonstrates to the learners and the teacher that the goal has been met. Then the evidence of that learning (in whatever form it has taken) becomes part of a portfolio tied to the standards.

Let’s figure out some other ways to move past a CIA mentality.

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Collaborate to Innovate!

There was a very interesting article in a recent edition of Education Week (January 23, 2013). The article focused on a group of eight California districts which had united to petition the USDOE for a waiver to NCLB. They were doing this independently of the rest of the state, and the state’s department of ed.

While the details are interesting from a policy perspective, it’s the precedent that I am excited about.

Since the beginning of the modern school age, we have depended upon a paradigm that focuses on a geographically-based unit as the determiner of what a student’s educational opportunity will be. Neighborhood school, local magnet, high-achieving district — these have all been vital for determining educational outcomes. While wonderful exceptions occur, there is still a strong correlation between zipcode and academic success.

In the 21st Century I refuse to accept that a student’s opportunity for learning should continue to be determined by geography!

If eight California districts can do it, why can’t eight innovative districts scattered across the U.S. decide to share expertise, teachers, resources, and opportunities for student learning that are not dependent on geography? Why not eight innovative teachers in far flung schools? I know this can work. A recent NASA grant to CCSSO (Council of Chief State School Officers) allowed 50 students from eight states, the District of Columbia and two kids from France to work towards achieving a credit in physics using content drawn from the realm of aviation, space exploration and related narrow interest fields.

A recent blog encouraged teachers or districts to try setting up an “innovation zone”. The zone designation would allow those involved to seek exemptions from school, district or state regulations (such as dependence on the Carnegie Unit, or school curriculum maps) which are not federally mandated or required.

Take heart from the California example! If you are an innovative teacher, or school, or district and know of others who are at a similar stage on the innovation journey, consider joining forces across arbitrary geographic boundaries. Be bold about working together to cause learning to occur in new and exciting ways for your students.

“The future’s ours, if we can free it!”

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Why not set up your own Innovation Zone?

I’m proposing that some of the teachers I know think seriously about setting up an “Innovation Zone” at their school.

Several state departments of education now have Offices of Innovation (or a variation). Those that I know of include Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan and Oregon.

The basic idea is to do what Gene Wilhoit (former Commissioner of Education in KY and former director of CCSSO) referred to as “wrapping a bubble around” a teacher or a project.

We used this concept at East Jessamine High School where I was principal when we first abandoned the Carnegie Unit a decade ago. Though details have changed, they haven’t adhered to Carnegie Unit “minutes” since! (Why tie learning to time, right?)

The reality of it is, that besides those things that are set in stone from the feds (and some from the state), exemptions can be granted for a wide variety of things. Think about grading policies, curricula, even amount of time necessary to earn a credit (Carnegie Unit). If you are considering performance-based grading, take a look at what is being done with “digital badges”, using Mozilla software.

Many times we think that because something is a department or school ‘policy’ that there is no way around doing it — when actually there is! But it won’t happen if you don’t ask. And when you ask, make sure you have thought through what you are doing, how it will affect things, what a backup plan might look like (you can probably revert to what you were doing before).

My suggestion is that you start with something small, but something truly innovative — something that will probably require permission. Don’t try to do something department-wide, or even school-wide. Just because you are ready to tackle something doesn’t mean everyone else in your department or school is — it doesn’t even mean that anyone is.

I have seen innovative things fail in schools quite often — and there is always much to be learned in failure. When things fail it is often for one of two reasons. One is that everything else in the department or the school must align to it in order for it to succeed, and the other is that the innovation is seen as a threat by others to what they are doing, or their employment in some cases — and that will bring the opponents out of the woodwork to shut it down.

So think about it — what do you really wish you could do with/for your students to help accelerate their learning?

Remember, NETWORK for support. Discuss your ideas on FB or with others in your social media network. Ask for their suggestions, their experiences, what they learned by doing something similar (whether is was a success or “failure”). Of course, feel free to contact me personally as well. Run an idea past me, or ask if I know of others doing something similar.

Finally, it would be very difficult to believe that your innovation would be something that could cause irreparable harm to your students. Besides, that’s why you have a backup plan.
Be courageous for your students! Be an example to them.

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I don’t feel old; I feel “experienced”!

In a blog post by Ben Johnson published this morning in Edutopia http://www.edutopia.org/blog/cross-curricular-teaching-deeper-learning-ben-johnson, there was a call for deeper learning (interesting term, isn’t it — I used to think I understood it, but not so sure anymore — I don’t know that learning should be so much about depth as it is connection, but that’s for another day). Johnson’s article was entitled “Deeper Learning: Why Cross-Curricular Teaching is Essential”.

If you have been following my blogs you know that my first reaction was to the word “teaching”. I find it to be a huge leap to go from cross-curricular teaching to deeper learning given the challenge of even a simple teaching=learning equation. Silly me, right? For instance, he lists requirements for Deep Learning, including engagement of the whole student and teacher; the need for enthusiastic partners; intensive preparation (first overt bleeding from learning to teaching); assessment that mirrors learning (but again this was all from the point of view of what the teacher should do); and finally, collaboration.

But let’s leave the requirements and look at the phases of teacher collaboration needed. These revolve around “alignment, cooperation, and conceptual”

Alignment — suggestion was that teachers “wade” in the same direction as their colleagues. As an example, he suggested that the English and Social Studies teachers have DBQ’s that count in both classes. Wow, great idea! It really is! Problem is that it ignores the realities of most high schools that I’ve been in or worked with. It’s hard enough to cooperate with one other teacher, but you multiply the challenge exponentially when you add in more. How many English and Social Studies teachers share exactly the same students? Perhaps in a very small school but not in many I know. And it might be possible to keep pace with one colleague for deadlines on papers, but it blows up when you add in others. If you’ve taught a high school Social Studies or English class (and I’ve taught both), you know what I mean. Also add in the 3 kids that are in the same Social Studies class, but are in different “levels” of English class with different requirements. Still too easy? Then throw in a school with block scheduling and you get kids who aren’t even taking English and Social Studies at the same time. Like I said, it’s a great idea!

Cooperative — The example here is the math and science teacher who get together and decide the best way to teach motion. Then you find out that only 75% of the kids are in the same math class and the same science class. And you find out that “motion” in the science class can “only” be taught at a certain point in the curriculum — and that’s because the math teacher was coordinating with the social studies teacher to talk about population migration and its tie to transportation speed changes across civilizations, etc. etc. Once again, great idea!

Finally is Johnson’s plea for conceptual collaboration. The example here is the science and art teachers working together. Pigment and light are functions of “wavelength, “electromagnetic spectrum and the dual nature of light.” Terrific! Now comes the kid who is in one class and not the other (art is an “elective” in most high schools, after all). The student now demands why they have to know and do “all this art stuff” in science class. “It’s fine for John, he’s taking art, but I’m not, so what good is it going to do me?” My hearty congrats to the teacher who can convince that student at a deep level of the value of expanding his art experiences, even though his interest in art was squashed by his 6th grade teacher. It really is a great idea. It really does make sense to do it that way. It really would help students learn better. It’s a great idea.

Reading Johnson’s article is inspiring, especially the conclusion! I loved it. But this is where I don’t feel “old”, I don’t feel jaded, I just feel “experienced”. My local system tried to incorporate interdisciplinary learning in a variety of ways at both high schools. We tried different models, different teams, different configurations. We had the greatest success with teams of 4 9th grade teachers who shared the same students, but even then it was a real challenge and it was still often connections across silos. Connections, yes, but silos remained.

So what can we do? First of all, learn from each other. Even our “failures” led to better efforts. I wish there were a place to go where schools could openly discuss what they had tried that did NOT work! I look at these “failures” as part of the learning process and I think their real value comes only in their sharing and analysis.

Another tactic is to start giving the learner more responsibility for developing cross-curricular learning. This means starting with the learner and his/her experience and interests and helping them go from that individual starting point to the standards or learning objectives. It is the opposite of the teacher (or team of teachers) choosing the objectives, the content, the timing and the assessment and then teaching them to the student.

When examining the delicate balance between control and responsibility we must figure out thoughtful ways to support the shift if we are ever to reach Johnson’s goal of making students thirsty enough for learning that they will give in to their inborn thirst for knowledge. It’s a great idea.

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Redefining Success

After the feedback on yesterday’s blog post , I thought even more about the notion of “college readiness” and “success”.

I grew up looking at many manifestations of the European “sorting” mechanism with a mix of disdain and sadness. “How sad to deny a student a university track when they are in middle school” I thought. And that sorting continues throughout their scholastic career. The first time I sat in on one of those “sorting meetings” in a school, I was taken aback. In another blog I will go into detail about what I learned observing a conseil de classe in France, but I want to talk briefly about what I came to realize about my own country’s system.

We routinely set kids up for failure. We certainly don’t do it intentionally (I don’t think we do, though I sometimes wonder about that as a way to continue an American “elite”), and almost without exception, the teachers I know are doing their best to help kids pass their grade levels or courses. Never the less, we set kids up for failure. As I mentioned yesterday, our graduation rate is only 73% — over 1/4 of our students NEVER MAKE IT OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL! Did you know that there are 8 countries in Europe with graduation rates of over 90%??

What are we doing when we deliver to our students the powerful message that ‘Everyone must graduate from high school’ and then wring our hands as over 25% don’t? We send over 25% of our population into adulthood with the message that they are failures. And then, of course, we have our current commitment to “college for all” when only about 30% are achieving that — and many of those that do are saddled with enormous debt and over a quarter of those can’t even find a job in their major!

We must find the courage to begin to align realities and opportunities. We must begin to develop new ways to help each individual understand their passions, talents, and interests and help them develop structures to take the next step in their journey. And it doesn’t matter if they are in grade school or finishing a post-doc degree. Success must be redefined in terms of defining and taking next steps. I’m certainly not talking about pulling back on learning, I’m talking about helping each person move ahead, and to stop worrying so much about someone else’s timelines or definitions of success.

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Forget College Readiness! Let’s Try Life Readiness!

What does college readiness mean, and more importantly, how do college readiness and life readiness compare to each other?

Let’s do some math and some honest, reflective analysis of the data.

An article last month in Ed Week (Dec 12, 2012) made me consider college vs life readiness in a new way. Granted, the story and data from the McKenzie Center for Government were for 25 countries, not just the US. so of course, the proverbial grain of salt must be taken into account. But I was confronted with some interesting ideas. First was a graph that showed 72% of educators felt that HS graduates were “adequately prepared” for college. That was way out of whack with what both “employers” and “youth” thought. They pegged it at 42% and 45% respectively. Educators pat themselves on the back, but both employers and kids are scratching their head going “Really?”

In the US, only 73% of our kids graduate from high school. Of those, only 56% went right into college. This was according to the National Center for Higher Ed Management Systems (NCHEMS) Did you hear that? Only 56% of 73%!! Even more interesting, the short article went on to report that of those who did enroll, 60% of them wanted “on-the-job training and hands-on job skills” but fewer than half had courses that met those goals.

OK, so now we have a significant number of kids who never make it to college — even if they pass high school, then most of them get an education that does not match their goals. After that, once they graduate from college (and in 2009 in the US only 58% do according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 25-40% report not getting a first job related to their college major! So I guess we can assume that only 60-75% of kids end up with a first job doing what they had spent vast amounts of time and money to do. And can you figure out what percent of high school grads get a first job related to their college major? Do the math!

So what does this say to us about the “college readiness” bandwagon? Well, we know that educators think it’s a great thing and that they are doing a relatively good job of preparing kids for it. And you can rest assured there are lots of big bucks associated with the efforts to define it, align the new CCSS with it, develop assessments that are in turn aligned, etc. Is it a movement whose primary outcome is to benefit the education establishment?

I am very well acquainted with the data correlating education attainment and income, so there’s a part of me that desperately wants to hold onto the notion that going to college is always the best thing. But I also believe that our duty is to make sure kids are ready to take their next step in life. Does the next step have to be college for everyone? In the 21st C we should be able to look at our preparation challenge more broadly, personally and filled with many more opportunities! I’m also starting to believe that Sugata Mitra might be right when he asserts in Beyond the Hole in the Wall: “we are entering a world in which it will be difficult, maybe impossible, to determine whether a person is educated or not. . . Is formal education, as we know it, an outdated idea?”

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“The Hole in the Wall” that opened up new ideas

As many friends and colleagues know, I am an avid TED talk fan! Last week I stumbled across a TED Talks book expanding on one of the videos I had seen. The title of the book is Beyond the Hole in the Wall: Discover the Power of Self-Organized Learning. Sugata Mitra is the author and Nicholas Negroponte wrote the forward. Wow! You may have heard of the project that placed a computer literally in a hole in the wall of a concrete building in India and watched in amazement as slum children not only learned how to use it, but became very proficient at running applications, going online to download games, music and video – and all in English (not their native language) and with NO adult assistance or intervention.

Talk about an inspiring read! I was hooked from the forward when Negroponte noted “Learning and teaching are not symmetrical. They are not the flip sides of the same coin.” And “What kids know is just not important in comparison with whether they can think.” The book went on to combine many of the ideas that have intrigued me and inspired me for the last couple of decades. One idea is that the “the nature of learning is hidden in the new science of self-organization and emergence.” He also used a term that he called Minimally Invasive Education. That is certainly a notion that is in stark contrast to the sometimes brutal way we insist on telling kids what to think and when to think it. Even when the message is delivered by the many caring, concerned, dedicated teachers I know, it is still anything but minimally invasive.

I also started to think about Dan Pink’s work on motivation and the way in which it ties in to the notion of self-directed learning. I began to reflect more seriously on how one might go about causing learning to occur for kids in an environment based upon these and other key ideas. Self-directed learning is not a threat to teaching – it is a way to continue efforts to redefine it and opens up incredible new avenues to help learners grow and develop into what they should become.

I would love to hear what anyone else has been thinking about self-directed learning. Keep in mind, I am differentiating this from what might be thought of as self-directed efforts to learn what someone else has said someone should learn. This is not the same as saying “Here is the curriculum, now you figure out on your own what the answers are.”

In fact, I’m enthusiastic enough to hear your thoughts that I’ll even “gift” a copy of the book (it’s only $2.99 to download from the Amazon Kindle store) for up to 100 of you. All I would ask is your initial reaction to the concept and this post, and your email address.
Here’s a link to the TED Talk video:

If you want to download the book on your own (although I really would enjoy gifting it to you), here’s a link to the Kindle store page:

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About this fibonacci-like journey . . .

There are no easy steps to take a person from one world to another. As the old saying goes, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” One of the profound beauties of that saying is that it assumes no particular beginning and sets no particular point as the end.

The journey from the Age of Schooling to the Age of Learning is like that. Each person who sets their foot to the path will be traveling a unique, personal journey. It is a journey of continuous discovery, with personal epiphanies and unique challenges as well.

So where does the journey of a thousand miles begin? Right where you are at this very moment. The only decision that is really required it to commit to the journey.

I traveled one of those roads as a teacher, and have changed shoes but not my commitment to the route as my roles have varied over the decades.

So how do you find the entry point to this path that you will be forging? Perhaps we can answer that together. I have begun a crude list that may be of help. I’ve been trying to think of places I’ve seen along the journey, roles for any of us involved.

My thinking is that together we might add to this list of things until we have enough ideas to see what some next steps might be.

My current thought is that a person might find themselves somewhere on a continuum that we would construct together, and then consider a next step. Please help me add to this guide. I welcome you adding other ideas or roles in any of the columns, or even suggesting new columns. The ones I’m really hoping we can flesh out are the ones labeled “What I’m doing” “What I’ve tried”, and “Something I’d like to try”.

For instance, if you’ve tried what Dan Pink referred to as “20% time”, then you might add that to the column “What I’ve tried.” If you’ve heard of something (maybe from someone at a conference) but haven’t tried it, put it in that column.

If the concept doesn’t make sense, then let me know and I will see if I can add some notes to this crude “guide”.

Follow this link to the continuum.

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Benevolent Dictator or Learning Concierge?

Why do kids fail?
Why won’t they do the work?
Why aren’t kids more motivated?
How do we increase student participation?

Sound familiar?

Yesterday a colleague passed along an email from a teacher in an online language course. One line really started me thinking. “Students don’t have the urgency to complete the tasks because those tasks are not counted for grades. Without the step by step practice, students can’t truly develop the language proficiency.”

I looked at it in a way I hadn’t considered before.

Is the question
“How do we get those darned kids to do what WE want them to do?” (Benevolent Dictator)

or is it
“How do we help learners who have formed personal goals for which knowing another language is going to be vital?” (Learning Concierge)

I think we have to consider both parts of that since they lead to very different places.

We have traditionally focused on the first one exclusively. As teachers we are confident that “we know best”, and so the task is making kids conform to what we know is best for them. This is the control/coercive model that is the foundation of our education system and our efforts. The email noted that “without step by step practice, students can’t truly develop the language proficiency.” To use an expression from my days in Nebraska, Horse puckey! Now I am sure I need to work this into a valid Aristotelean syllogism, but frankly, we know that we can coerce kids into step by step practice but not get the result of language acquisition. We can get them to get good grades, we can get them to complete assignments. In other words, we can get them to do what WE want them to do, but we don’t get language acquisition. :-( We hate this, and for the most part we refuse to acknowledge it as the result, but it seems to me that there is pretty strong data to support it. There are wonderful anecdotal exceptions which make language teachers proud, but the plural of anecdote is not data.
We also would have to admit that many folks who find themselves immersed in a foreign culture acquire language without step by step practice. In fact, the data would make a strong case that the only people that have really acquired a high level of proficiency in another language are precisely those who have NOT had step by step practice — they spoke it at home!

Teaching in the modern era has traditionally been a profession of coercion — how do we get students to do things they don’t want to do but which we want them to do. It seems we employ two main tactics. Carrot and Stick — On the one hand, we try to make what we want them to do entertaining, engaging, relevant, fun, positive recognition, etc. But we always have the stick at our disposal — and they know it. Do it, or else! And the else is always punitive to some degree — bad grades, extra work, public shame, communication with parents. But whether we use the carrot or the stick it is still the consequence of doing or not doing what WE want them to do.

How many kids take driver’s ed because they need an elective credit? They take it because they know they are going to be driving and it will be useful to them (safety, insurance discounts, etc.). Maybe we are fun, entertaining driver’s ed teachers who kids will enjoy, but I bet there aren’t many Old Order Amish kids who take driver’s ed (unless they are planning to one day leave and drive!).

If there are teachers out there who want to explore a gradual shift to a role that might be thought of as a “learning concierge”, let me know.

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Lets’ NOT use video games as “teaching” tools!

An article in eSchool News caught my eye today. It was entitled “How mainstream video games are being used as teaching tools”
There were some really exciting ideas mentioned in the article. One that seems really promising is the effort underway by Lucas Gillespie, a former biology teacher from Pender Co, NC. First he helped create a middle school language arts curriculum tied to World of Warcraft (WOW). Now he has expanded that in what, to me, is an even better direction. He is opening up his site to collaboration with the goal of tying WOW experiences to the Common Core (and not standards to the game?), and it’s available for use under A Creative Commons License. http://wowinschool.pbworks.com/w/file/41449036/WoWinSchool-A-Heros-Journey.pdf

What a great opportunity for contributions and collaboration that could be of tremendous value to students everywhere! We need efforts like this to really get us going. What I would love to see is an inverted design collaboration. If teachers make students aware of the standards, kids could begin to extract their WOW experiences, expand them as necessary, tie them to the CCSS and use them as evidence of ways that they are meeting the standards. And as someone with a passion for learning languages I can imagine the power of this when it’s an effort from an international guild of WOW players who are students at schools around the world.

Of course, there are naysayers. One response to the article had the following comments: “There is no doubt that video games do hone beneficial skills; however, schools must remain vigilant over the extent to which video games are used for instruction. Games certainly offer a greater incentive for many students to engage in the material, but none of the games listed in this article were specifically constructed to enhance learning. That is not to say that the mentioned games do not enhance learning, but there are a wide array of software providers who create engaging games and that are designed for the classroom.”

“Yikes! Save us from instructional games” is my response. WOW has all the elements for autonomous learning that Daniel Pink describes in Drive, control over Time, Task, Team and Technique. Responding to instruction –whether in a game or a traditional classroom severely limits each of those elements, and often eliminates them.

I hope many of my teaching colleagues will draw the attention of their students to Gillespie’s site and encourage them to get involved!

“The Future’s Ours . . . If We Can Free It!”

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