Saturday, January 31, 2015

18 years of moments

My daughter turned 18 today.

It seems like she went from little girl to young woman in the blink of an eye.

When she was young, I wrote this little poem after watching my wife cut her hair one day in the summer.

I saw the pieces of her hair scattered across the grass, and thought about how time was slipping through my fingers.

Then I thought about how the birds would probably use her hair to make their nests, and I thought about how these fleeting moments are not lost, but woven into the fabric of our lives.

So today I am thankful for 18 years with this wonderful young woman (and for 20 with her brother). And while a piece of me is nostalgic for those childhood days, all of me is enriched by every one of those moments.

And I'm looking forward to many more awesome moments with these two great young adults.

And I'm sure their lives will be full of awesome moments.

But that's really what it's all about--the present. The past is only important because it got us to the present, and the future's only important because it may one day be the present.

And all we really have is this present moment. 

Friday, January 30, 2015

Autonomy, mastery and purpose works

Today I started class by making some points about their Gattaca responses--most of them had some revision to do. I had thought about just giving them credit so they could move on to the next assignment without revision. Decided against it. I want all of their work to be quality work. Nothing just for credit.

Same thing went for their cancer prevention assignments. A few had been turned in, so I had seen that they need to go for more depth on their explanations and use of reliable references. So I touched on that as well in my daily de-briefing.

Then I introduced our new +Starr Sackstein-inspired system for setting goals and self-grading for the next assignment (the discovery of DNA). I told them they would grade themselves afterwards and I would only change it if I felt they had over or underscored themselves.

Then they got to work.

And they worked steadily for the entire first period... and most of the next. The first to drop off and disengage did so a full hour and a half into the two-hour period. That's 75% engagement. And that was the minimum. And that was 1.5 hours of fairly steady, largely self-directed work. Couldn't expect more form a room full of full-fledged adults like myself. No threats. Just autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

I moved from group to group, discussing cancer, their projects, people we knew who were affected, discussing what it means to explain how something prevents cancer, discussing nutrition, a mix of student-initiated and me-initiated conversations.

As he finished his project near the end of class, one student asked, "Do plants get cancer?"

"I don't know," I said, "maybe when they get those growths--burls on them. Maybe that's cancer, but I don't know."

He opened a chromebook to find out.

He reported back later, excited: "Yes, they can get cancer, but it doesn't spread like it does in humans, because their cells don't move."

And that... that is what it's all about. Why am I surprised this works?

Awesome job guys!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Seeing engagement... and success

A student teacher observed my mastery-based class today.

(Most students were working on their Gattaca responses or cancer prevention posters, while a couple were wrapping up previous assignments.)

What most impressed him, he said, was how engaged the students were.

That's funny, because that has been my biggest concern. In the absence of external motivators like hard deadlines and constant threats of point deductions, I worry about how to motivate and engage my students.

But this student teacher's viewpoint is encouraging. It validates the fundamental philosophical foundation of this whole approach: provide autonomy, opportunity for mastery, and purpose, and that will produce engagement.

And it made me realize something: Sometimes all I see is my failures. I envision the "perfect" classroom, and I focus on the shortcomings, problems, issues, and challenges. I hone in on what's wrong, and miss all that's right.

Not good. My students need to know how well they're doing. (And so do I.)

I did the same thing with their Gattaca responses. My first response was to notice what they missed--what they didn't do, instead of noticing the way they all authentically engaged with the content in their own way.

My perfectionism rears it's ugly head more often than I would like. And it is kind of ugly. Though it does have a few redeeming qualities, I'd rather focus on (and enjoy) the good stuff.

And for goodness sake, Bill, this is working. They are working. They're enjoying the class. They're learning. And that's what's important.

It may be a bit messy along the way. Some targets may be missed. A few vocab words may fall by the wayside. A few details forgotten. A few minutes spent playing fantasy football when they should be working. Who cares. More will be spent learning to enjoy learning.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

That elusive motivation

Ever since reading Drive, I've been trying to change my approach to motivating students. I no longer want to motivate them with threats of point deductions and lures of higher grades.

But is it really realistic to expect they will be motivated to do their school work simply because I tap into their desire for autonomy, mastery, and purpose?

I mean, what would they do if there were no grades or accountability at all--if they just came to class and didn't have to do anything?

Ahh, that's the crux of the issue, isn't it. Something's wrong with school because learning is supposed to be inherently interesting and fun. But it's not, and why?

Is it just because we ask them to think too hard, as Hattie and Yates suggest?

Or is it because we really don't supply them with sufficient autonomy, opportunity for real mastery, or purpose?

If that's it, then I guess it is realistic to suppose that autonomy, mastery, and purpose could be sufficient, if...

If we provide them enough autonomy, enough time to master things they consider meaningful, things that have real purpose.

Unfortunately, these three things are not easy to provide in the current system (which is why it needs to change).

Until then, my plan is to minimize the credit/grade-based penal system, maximize autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and work towards a more authentic, more human system.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Students determining their own grades

I've been inspired by +Starr Sackstein to work towards a system in which students help determine their own grades. In this video, she describes how she set up a Google form the students could use to self-assess, and in this one, she reflects on their self-assessments.

Hattie's work pointed to "students self-reporting grades" as the greatest of all influences on learning he investigated, so there's little doubt this will be a powerful strategy.

Of course, it's combined with lots of teacher feedback.

Today, as the #blizzardof2015 wound down, I revised the student "Learning Plan" form I've used with my biology and geology classes and combined it with the self-assessment form I've used to make one form students and I can use to track their goals and self-assessments.

I've got it set up so the same form is used for their goal-setting and self-assessment. When they visit the form, they're asked whether they are starting or finishing an assignment. The course is project-based: every assignment is a project designed to allow them to demonstrate mastery of a short list of learning objectives. They always get to choose among options for their projects: posters, essays, animations, labs, etc..

On the new form, they'll record the essential question and standards they are working on, and also what they are shooting for in terms of their rubric score on each standard. After they've finished the project, they return to the same form and use it to assess themselves on the standards. My plan is to make a copy of the form for each student so they can view the summaries of their responses with the Google forms summary feature.

My goal is that they could chart their own progress through time. That will be awesome. And I'd love to allow students to have  a voice in their own quarter grades, like Starr is doing.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Malcolm X and the achievment gap

 “Hence I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight.”
Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X

I'm about half-way through Malcolm X's autobiography, and it's solidifying some developments in my thinking about public education and social justice.

Last year, I read The Children in Rm. E4, and was blown away by damage that has been done (and continues to be done) here in my home state of Connecticut by subtly racist laws, rules, policies, and social norms. It was an impetus in my increasing awareness that often, struggling students are not to blame, at all, for their struggles at school. Even their parents are not primarily to blame.

We are. Our systems are. Our society is.

When we penalize them for their poor performance, we are committing an injustice, crushing them, as Malcolm said, and then punishing them for not standing under the weight.

The complexity and enormity of the interacting factors described in Children were hardly addressed by the outcome of Sheff v. O'Neill, in which the court basically told the state to "just do something about it." It's going to take something more in line with The Harlem Children's Zone combined with a radical regulatory reforms. It's going to take money, but it will be money well spent.

But let's take it one step further, because this principle extends to all of our students. Let's stop blaming them (or their parents) for their poor performance, behavior, and struggles, and start asking questions, identifying causes, finding solutions, providing real, comprehensive help.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Why kids don't like school

I've been frustrated with the chaotic state of education, the swirling stream of ideas about what works and what doesn't. What we need is more scientific research on the topic.

That's why I am excited to begin Hattie and Yate's Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. It promises to lay out the current state of the science of learning, and though I take that with a bit of a grain of salt, I am looking forward to having my own beliefs challenged.

The book starts with a bang, addressing the question: "Why don't kids like school?" And their answer is twofold. First of all, they sort of like it (avg. between 0 and 1 on a scale of -2 to +2).

But why don't they love it? It's all about the brain, they say. Our brains are really not for thinking--for extending knowledge beyond what we currently know. They are better suited to working from memory, working with what they already have. What we ask kids to do every day all day--acquire new knowledge, is harder than this, and so it's not really that pleasant. They argue that our large cerebral cortex is not really for writing theorems, but for dealing with complex social interactions.

Makes sense--I'm not sure I buy their whole the-brain-is-not-really-for-thinking concept, and they don't present a particular strong case. But one part seems clear, and very practical: They note that, while we as humans are motivated by knowledge gaps, we are put off by knowledge chasms. Most of us have little interest in how our computer works, because we know next to nothing about it, and it seems daunting. AND, the fear of failure outweighs the attraction of reward.

This is key, then. To increase motivation, connect the objectives to something the students already know (of course), but not only that, make it an extension of their current knowledge, a new, small, piece of the puzzle they are already working on, and already care about, rather than something totally new.

I'm guessing most teachers do this to some extent already, and maybe I'm behind the curve, but it definitely elevates the importance of pre-assessment and student voice and understanding where your students are before even trying to teach them. We can't just start with some pie-in-the-sky standards and expect to magically (or forcefully) insert them into students' minds.

As Hattie and Yates write: "Learning is optimized when teachers see learning through the eyes of the learner, and when learners see themselves as their own teachers."

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Literacy in the internet age

As of 2014 Google has indexed 200 Terabytes (TB) of data. To put that into perspective 1 TB is equivalent to 1024 Gigabytes (GB). However, Google’s 200 TB is just an estimated 0.004 percent of the total Internet. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that 16 years of video is uploaded to YouTube every day. - See more at:
As of 2014 Google has indexed 200 Terabytes (TB) of data. To put that into perspective 1 TB is equivalent to 1024 Gigabytes (GB). However, Google’s 200 TB is just an estimated 0.004 percent of the total Internet. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that 16 years of video is uploaded to YouTube every day. - See more at:
It's been estimated the internet may contain 5 exabytes of information. That's 2 million times the theoretical  capacity of a human brain, which may be 2.5 petabytes. And it's amazing that all of this is accessible with the tap of a few keys.

But is it, really? Or is the Google search a serious bottleneck between our brains and this vast treasure trove of extra input?

After all, finding what you're looking for on the internet is actually not simple. There's an art and science to the Google search, and it's a very verbal-linguistic sort of thing. Phrase the search differently, and you get a very different result.

Not only that, but once you find it, you have to read it (or at least comprehend the video or podcast).

This means two things (for now):

1) Although the information is out there, it's certainly not as accessible as the stuff in our own brains. We obviously haven't yet reached the time when our memories can be replaced by cloud storage. We still need to know the facts we want easy and quick access to.

2) Literacy skills are essential to accessing this treasure trove of knowledge. You can't get at it without being able to compose a good search. Of course, this situation may change in the near future. Imagine a direct interface between the web and you mind: It might at first be verbal-linguistic, but no reason it couldn't evolve to work just like our minds' own mechanism of information recall.

But for now, you rally need to have good literacy skills to be good at using the internet. So while it's true that memorization of facts is not nearly as important as it once was, literacy is more important than ever.
As of 2014 Google has indexed 200 Terabytes (TB) of data. To put that into perspective 1 TB is equivalent to 1024 Gigabytes (GB). However, Google’s 200 TB is just an estimated 0.004 percent of the total Internet. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that 16 years of video is uploaded to YouTube every day. - See more at:
As of 2014 Google has indexed 200 Terabytes (TB) of data. To put that into perspective 1 TB is equivalent to 1024 Gigabytes (GB). However, Google’s 200 TB is just an estimated 0.004 percent of the total Internet. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that 16 years of video is uploaded to YouTube every day. - See more at:
As of 2014 Google has indexed 200 Terabytes (TB) of data. To put that into perspective 1 TB is equivalent to 1024 Gigabytes (GB). However, Google’s 200 TB is just an estimated 0.004 percent of the total Internet. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that 16 years of video is uploaded to YouTube every day. - See more at:

Friday, January 23, 2015

Gattaca and the growth mindset

Nature vs. nurture.

Genetics vs. environment.

It's an age old (and tiresome) debate, recently re-framed by Carol Dweck: Fixed vs. growth mindset and, and depicted in a beautiful film called Gattaca.

I don't show a lot of movies in my classes--there aren't a lot of full length movies our there that are worth the class time, but I show Gattaca every time I teach biology.

It's not so much because of the questions it raises about genome sequencing (though those are interesting, timely and relevant questions). I show it mainly because I think it has an awesome and powerful message about living life.

For those of you who haven't seen it, Ethan Hawke plays a "God child"--a person conceived naturally, struggling to live in a world of people engineered for genetic perfection. His world believes that genes are destiny, but he sets out to prove them wrong--that genes are only part of the story, and that the limitations they place on us can be overcome.

And isn't this part of what makes us human? Overcoming limitations, pushing back boundaries?

That's why we watch it. And after we watch it, I ask my students to answer the question: Do our genes determine our destiny? It's a question that gets to the heart of education and growth in general. It's a message about growth mindsets and grit. It's a message I want my students to get loud and clear. I'm not sure there are any lessons more important: "There's no gene for the human spirit "

When Irene (played by Uma Thurman) finds out Vincent, through hard work and perseverance and has bypassed the discriminatory system and become an astronaut despite his flawed genetics, she says: "It's not possible."

Vincent replies, "You are the authority on what is not possible, aren't you Irene? They've got you looking for any flaw, that after a while that's all you see. For what it's worth, I'm here to tell you that it is possible. It is possible."

What's possible for you? For me? For our students?

What's holding us back, but our mindsets?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Proof it's not all about me?

Did you think this was all about you?

If some evolutionary biologists are correct, the simple fact that you are aging is evidence to the contrary.

I caught this blog post from Josh Mittledorf yesterday. He explains his view that the aging process itself evolved as a mechanism for shutting our bodies down after we got past reproductive age:
"Diseases of aging have been treated as if they were something that goes wrong, something we have to help the body to fix. But in fact, the evidence accumulating in recent decades is that aging is not something that goes wrong, and the body is not trying to fix it. Aging is natural. It is the body shutting itself down, putting itself out of the way after it has done its job, finished reproduction."
This makes sense. It's kind of like the leaves falling off an oak tree every fall--senescence, a kind of hard-wired altruism.

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that humans would be driven by two primal motivations: reproduction and sustenance of our offspring (and by extension, society, and that means we are all motivated by compassion and love). If Mittledorf and others are right (and their views are controversial), that just lends more with to the concept that we reall are not here for ourselves.

I have two things to say at this point:

1. This shut-down mechanism seems to be a bit, shall we say, outdated at this point in time, which is why I'm totally OK with treating it as something that needs to be fixed. As I mentioned in my last post, older folks have a lot to offer.

2. #1 raises a question about Mittledorf's theory: Why wouldn't it be beneficial to have a bunch of healthy, more experienced, wiser individuals around to support their offspring? Why not skip this whole shut-down thing. I'm sure there's a lot I/we don't understand about resource allocation, environmental considerations,  and so on (why do oak leaves fall every fall?) and not all species age the same way. How about that oak tree? It is just as reproductively active (more so) at 100 than it was at 18. So we clearly don't have enough info at this point.

But I have a hunch that the basic gist will hold true: Being human is not about being for me--it's about being for others, my own offspring, theirs, extended family, friends, and beyond--the whole race (and beyond?).

What if the "goal" of human life was simply to expand the reach and success of humanity as a whole?

How would that change our lives, our governments, our schools, our classrooms?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Thoughts on aging

“The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.”
                                                                  ― Robert Frost
I've been thinking a lot about aging lately.

Not that I'm really that old. In many ways, I still feel very young. (To many folks, I still am, I suppose.)

But still, it's tough if you see it as a steady decline over time, time that's running out on your unfulfilled hopes and dreams. Or if you focus on young competitors catching up and overtaking you, or all of your past failures and mistakes--greener grass you missed out on.

But what if, instead, you focus on where you are now, what you can do to help people now, what you do have to offer the world, now.

Because though the young may have a touch more energy, strength, attractiveness, time, potential, and perhaps creativity, they could probably use your experience, perspective, wisdom, insight, and capital. And they could definitely use your support, smile, compassion, and encouragement.

The day may come when you really do have little to offer--when you can't do anything but breathe. Then you can rest, as after a job well done.

But today is not that day, and you've still got work to do.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The future of schooling

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men.  -Nietzsche's "Madman,"

Richard Elmore has been a staple of my administrator preparation program. His work on improving the instructional core was foundational. But in this 2012 video (HT to Gary Houchens and Steven Delpome), he's doing something else:

He's announcing the doom of institutional public school, and he does it with all of the gravity it deserves. And like Nietzsche's "madman," I'm afraid it fell largely on deaf ears. He came too soon.

But he backed it up with a theoretical explanation: in today's world, hierarchy is out, networks are in. Institutional schools are hierarchical, and cannot survive in the future.

I'm not sure I completely grasp his idea of networks, but I'm pretty sure I get the gist of it. In my dissertation research, I was fascinated by how the complex behavior of the fire ants I studied emerged from the countless interactions between individual ants. They’re a picture of the power of networks. Lewis Thomas sums it up better than I can in Lives of a Cell:
"A solitary ant, afield, cannot be considered to have much of anything on his mind... It is only when you watch the dense mass of thousands of ants, crowded together around the Hill, blackening the ground, that you begin to see the whole beast, and now you observe it thinking, planning, calculating. It is an intelligence, a kind of live computer, with crawling bits for wits."
I see the same thing working with my honeybees. This sort of organization is eminently more powerful for than hierarchy. That's why nature is arranged as a network instead of a top down system of authority.

That's why I shoot for a cooperative, egalitarian, open, and voluntary approach to my classroom and leadership.

But as to Elmore's pronouncement: I have to say it's a bit discomfiting to someone whose just finishing a gruelling two-year program for school administrators, but I have three things to say.

1) Good riddance to hierarchies. They are the antithesis of natural order, cooperation, compassion, free thought, creativity, and the kind of autonomy that motivates us all.

2) I can envision a more network-based, less hierarchical school, and that's what I'm going for. Elmore implies the inevitable demise of institutional public schooling will not  be good for everyone. But I am more optimistic than that (and perhaps more ignorant). I think we can avoid the fallout and inequities he refers to. I think the public system can evolve into something that will not only survive, but thrive.

3) I'm most concerned about what's best for kids, and if that's something different than what I'm preparing for, then so be it. Good riddance to whatever is hindering us as a species.

Granted: Elmore's solemn prophesy in 2012 has obviously not come true yet, and may not. But he's no madman. It's hard to ignore the trend in business and society as a whole. Just because public schooling is a bit slow on the draw doesn't mean it won't soon succumb. He was a bit too soon with his pronouncement, but it will come. And I'll be ready. In fact, I'll be one of the folks saying, "What are you waiting for?" Because I don't see the future as doom and gloom, no matter what the particulars are. I see it as bright--bright as a thousand suns.

A rough sketch of balance...

I wrote this week about this annoying tension between contentment and ambition, mindfulness and achievement and I think I may be getting somewhere. 

First.. from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that humans would be driven by two primal motivations: reproduction and sustenance of our offspring (and by extension, society,and that means we are all motivated by compassion and love).

It does not make sense that sitting around doing nothing, content to just watch the eddies flow by in the stream would bring fulfillment. Sorry Lao Tzu.

Of course, zebras don't get ulcers, and that's because they don't worry about things that are not immediate threats. But that's because zebras don't have much for a cerebral cortex. And that's where the tension comes from: Zebras can't even imagine that lion-that's-not-there-yet. So the trick is how to be a zebra with a massive cerebral cortex.

So let's make an amalgam of all this:

Enjoy the present,

be content with what you've got,

enjoy the people in your life,

don't worry about the future,

but imagine a better one,

prepare for it,

and create it.

And when it doesn't happen the way you planned, chill. Enjoy whatever did happen. Then plan "Plan B." And enjoy the planning, and anticipation, and preparation, and thrill as you attempt it...

And always, enjoy the people you're with the whole time, because that's actually the biggest part of it all--that's what makes it most enjoyable (see previous explanation of evolutionary perspective).

Be the river that flows over rock, boulder and stone, but flow uphill (and the hill is about people).

Monday, January 19, 2015

Writing your own story

“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”

-Bast, in The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

If you could write your own story--your own life, what would it be like?

What would happen tomorrow?

What would happen this year? Next?

What would you be like 10 years from now?

These are good questions to ponder, because they might tell us something about ourselves. They might help clear through some of the confusion we accumulate in our minds every day about who we are and what we want out of life.

But more than that, I think Bast may be right. We do write our own lives.

Each day, a new chapter.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

On Twitter and transparency

Bill, why don't you have separate Twitter accounts, one for personal tweets and one for professional tweets?

That's a great question, and I know many educators do just that, and I understand why, I think.

But in my case, I have a few reasons to have just one.

First, one of my goals as a person is that my whole life will be just that: whole. I don't want to be one person at home and another at work. To me, that sort of thing cause a tension between the two, which results in stress. Having one account forces me to examine all of my posts in the same light, applying the same standard. If it's not OK to post something because my students might see it, then I need to ask why it's OK at all.

Secondly, I want people to see me as I am. That way there won't be any surprises. What you see is what you get.

Thirdly, I think there's a danger that if I present a different face to my students, one that is scrubbed clean of all weaknesses and points of possible criticism, if I post only education-related, purely positive and absolutely vanilla posts, then the message I'm sending is that it's not important to be yourself. Instead, masks are better.

I think it's good for my students to see that I'm a real person as well as their teacher, complete with potentially controversial views, strange music preferences, and a full and varied life outside of school.

What do you think?

Confessions of an over-40 EDM fan

Porter Robinson, Worlds, at Oakdale
Since I was a kid, music and dancing have been a big part of my life. We even had an under-18 dance club for a little while in Killingly, where my friends and I would go to dance to hip-hop tunes like Self Destruction, It Takes two, and Paid in Full.

You would think I'd grow out of all that, but then a student's senior project presentation introduced me to hardstyle (Headhunterz -Power of the Mind). Then came Porter Robinson's early stuff (The State), which led to Skrillex, and then European Electronic Dance Music (EDM) and Armin van Buuren.

Not that I don't have concerns about some aspects of the EDM culture. I do. But those problems (sexism, drug use--language/content warning!) are not unique to this genre, nor are they universal in the movement, and at the same time, there are some really positive aspects. We have work to do in the music scene (and society) in general, but as a whole, trance music has a decidedly positive message and is truly multicultural and unifying, as Skrillex noted in December. There is an open-source culture in the scene, where producers are constantly remixing and building off other's work, and the theme of love and acceptance is palpable at trance events. So if I introduce some folks to the genre, I think it's probably a good thing.

But sometimes I wonder: Aren't I too old for this? Shouldn't I be listening to Bach and Schumann or something, or at least 80's rock?

But I'm not so weird. Turns out that 14% of EDM listeners are over 35, and 18% of DJ magazine's top 100 DJs are over 40. And besides, I don't care, because it's an energizing, immersive, flow-generating experience, and the style I listen to (trance) is typically very positive and uplifting (check out A State of Trance on Spotify). The way I see it, I'll dance until I can't.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Feedback is key, but it takes time

I was rushing through the lab packets today. I really needed to get them all graded. They had already been on my desk for a week. 

And I was "in the zone" (#flow), comparing the boiling points the students measured to what they should have been, writing check marks or deducting points like an assembly line worker.

But as I was correcting their conclusions, reading over their explanations of why molar mass is related to the boiling point of the liquids we tested (one of the coolest labs EVER, BTW), I realized what I was doing (or not doing).

I was not leaving much quality feedback. I was not leaving them with much more than point deductions.

But I kept going, because time is not in infinite supply.

But I've been thinking: If quality feedback really is key, then I need to make time for it.

But how?

Maybe something else, something that's not essential, has to go.

Not sure what that is yet.

Actually, I'm pretty sure a big part of the problem is that we simply don't have enough prep time as teachers. US high school teachers teach more than half again as many hours per year than the OECD average (. I'm not whining. I'm just stating the facts. We have less time to plan, collaborate, and provide rich feedback.

And that's a big deal.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Comprehensive semester exams need to go

When the goal of learning for learning’s sake runs smack into the wall of semester exams...

That’s what it felt like today in my mastery-based class. I’ve been doing my best to use autonomy, mastery and purpose to motivate students instead of grades. But how do you do that when you’re up against a comprehensive semester exam?

If that exam is not based on standards that are inherently meaningful to students--if the exam itself does not tap into autonomy, mastery, or purpose, then you’re stuck. It becomes an irritating parenthesis in an otherwise increasingly authentic learning experience.

Solution: Get rid of comprehensive exams and replace them with a more authentic assessment.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

System-gaming vs. learning

A student told me today she sometimes thinks high school is all about teaching you how to cheat.

Maybe hyperbole. But maybe not. But I've been chewing on that this afternoon and evening.

I've often wondered similarly about CT's new teacher evaluation system. If improperly done, and it's all about points and ratings and scores and judgements on your worth and future, what's a teacher to do? You figure out how to make it work. You figure out how to survive. You learn to play the game.

I'll never forget a struggling students advice to another struggling student a few years ago in my general science classroom: "Just play the game. You have to learn to play the game."

That's what happens when we use accountability as a driver. All it does is produce system-gaming (and poor morale). It certainly doesn't produce the kind of motivation we want. That takes autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

So if it's true that high school is becoming a training ground for cheating, to whatever extent, what are we to do?

We could clamp down on the cheating, put up more and better dividers, more confusing test versions, use cell-phone jammers, make harder tests, drive harder, be tougher, and let the beatings continue until morale improves.

Or we could find ask what's wrong with the system and ask what we can do to make school about learning.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

What's the point of all this blogging?

About two months ago I was inspired by Fred Ende to start blogging everyday as a way to practice (and model) reflection.

The benefits so far:

1. I am forced to pull some learning out of every day and put it into words.
2. It helps me to reflect on the day--what went well, what didn't.
3. I get lots more practice writing.
4. I enjoy writing.
5. It's good for my health. (Thanks to my wife for finding this one.)

True, it takes time, and that's something in short supply these days.

True, I have to fight the feeling that I always have to be saying something profound. I have to remember that this is about reflection, not showing off.

True, some days I have a hard time coming up with something to write.

True, I'm pretty sure in the (near) future I'll look back on some of the things I write and shudder (for various reasons).

But that's the point, right?

Monday, January 12, 2015

You are more than a grade

It's a tough balance--the balance between drive and contentment, between motivating students to push themselves, and realizing the value of contentment.

I find myself flipping back and forth between my own drivenness and this glimmer of an idea inside that the real way to happiness is just being mindful of everything.

I feel a bit like Siddhartha, I guess, and maybe I'm on that road, but right now I feel like the answer is somewhere between a headlong drive for achievement and Buddhist detatchment--a balance of the two, if that's possible.

And that balance, I hope, is making it's way into my classroom.

Achievement is a great goal, but it's not the only worthy one, and probably not the most important. There's a lot more to life than that sort of success.

There's a lot more to being human than that.

And if any of my students are reading: There's a lot more to you than your grades. You are not a grade. The value of your life is not measured by your grades.

But do your best.

And I'm here to help.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

On the status quo and the need for change

I'm always puzzled by those who defend the status quo.

Maybe it's just that I'm a change addict and junkie for improvement (glutton for punishment?).

I understand the numbing and disillusioning effect of the constant torrent of new initiatives, and I don't believe in change for change's sake, but it seems to me that as long as there are things not working, then something needs to change.

Take the achievement gap, for example, or the place of the US in the PISA results. But I don't even need all of that evidence. I have it in my own school, my own classes, where I still have students who are not reaching their potential.

Maybe the problem is simply that we haven't been implementing the old, traditional methods with fidelity--that I'm not.

Maybe. But to me that's kind of like saying the reason we haven't cured cancer is just that doctors aren't doing a good enough job with surgery, chemo and radiation.

Maybe that's a bad analogy. But maybe not.

To me, if your method isn't working, whether it can't be consistently implemented with fidelity, or it just doesn't work well, then something's wrong with your method (which is exactly the complaint often raised against differentiated instruction, interestingly enough).

To me, what we need is an system of education that isn't forced, one that will be implemented with fidelity because it fits human nature like glove, one one that essentially runs itself.

Maybe that's beyond us, but I don't think so.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A snapshot of student engagement

Picture this snapshot of my classroom: 
  • one girl diligently painting cells in mitosis on a ceiling tile,
  • three others painting another tile, and socializing as much as they're painting,
  • one male student listens to music, his headphones plugged into the Chromebook while he plugs away at his cell parts analogy Glogster,
  • two boys alternate between their cancer prevention research and some sort of football game on their cell-phones,
  • two other pairs of students and one working alone are peering through a microscope at an onion root tip, counting the number of cells in the various stages of mitosis, and
  • another trio of girls is switching between the microscope and their cell phones.
Those cell-phone girls are studying mitosis, at least when they're not snap-chatting each other. By counting the number of cells in each stage of cell division, they can get a measure of how long the cell spends in each phase. I wonder, if I took a snapshot of this room right now, how many students are "engaged" in learning?

This is something I've thought a lot about as I've moved to more of a student-centered, project-based, and mastery-based classroom: What is an acceptable level of engagement in this environment?

An interesting survey of 38,000 people by Microsoft in 2005 revealed that "people work an average of 45 hours a week," but "they consider about 17 of those hours to be unproductive." People estimate they're only productive for 63% of the time.

If I apply that to my classroom, I guess I could expect students to be engaged about 36 minutes out of a 58 minute period or about 9.5 students engaged at any particular time. (I'm not too far from that in the snapshot described above. above.)

Of course, that number varies according to how the employee feels about their work. Another survey of workers found the following:

Time Wasted                  Pct of Employees
<1 hour                                 39%
1-2 hours                               29%
2-5 hours                               21%
6-10 hours                             8%
10+ hours                              3%

And they found the following reasons that employees waste time:

·      34% of employees say they are not challenged
·      34% say they work long hours
·      32% say there’s no incentive to work harder
·      30% are unsatisfied with work
·      23% are just plain bored
·      18% say it’s due to low wages

I wonder what a similar analysis of my class would look like. Wait... that's a great idea. I need to survey my class. I would also love to come up with a better way to measure engagement than just a casual scan of my classroom or a student survey. And I'd like to be able to measure not just the percentage of time engaged, but the depth of engagement, because it seems to me, not all engagement is equal.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Depth of Engagement & Depth of Knowledge

I'm finding it's sometimes tough to balance engagement with rigor, but that's really just a reflection of poor planning on my part.

For example, my biology students always get choices of assignments for each topic. I usually include a poster option to help engage those with an artistic bent. Sometimes they will choose to paint a ceiling tile instead so that their work will make a permanent contribution to the classroom.

But these take a while, and if I'm not careful in planning, they're not always the most rigorous assignment. Making a poster or ceiling tile of mitosis is not particularly high in terms of Webb's Depth of Knowledge--it doesn't require the students to really understand deeply what they are describing.

It's funny, a student was looking up old Monte Carlos yesterday while he was supposed to be doing his assignment, and I said--"Hey, you could make a Monte Carlo mitosis poster--Monte Carlos getting duplicated and sorted out, like at a factory." Something like that would probably bring us up to DOK level 3. (Not sure how I could get to level 4 with mitosis--maybe studying cancer and that's what we're doing next.)

But I still just love to see them engaged. I see that as the biggest step. And the problem of not-high-enough-DOK is solvable. And asking them questions about their paintings is a great way way to assess, and teach. And not every activity needs to be high Depth of Knowledge. Maybe sometimes high Depth of Engagement can make up for it.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

What collaboration is all about

Today I got to give a little presentation about our voluntary PLC that's been meeting once a month to work on differentiation and mastery-based instruction.

As I prepared for it, I was mainly thinking about how I might motivate other teachers to get on board.

Though I did originally have a slide about the meaning of a collaborative culture, my main intent was not to send that message.

But maybe that's what happened. For one thing, as I talked, that's how I felt. As I described what we do:
It’s not about showing off.
It’s about troubleshooting, sharing, experimenting and improving.
It’s about collaborating.
That's what I was feeling. And as I described what some teachers a have already shared at our meetings, and one teacher in particular who had run into serious challenges as he tried to implement the mastery model, I felt the need to reiterate:

That's what this is about. It's not about starting with the assumption our strategies will work. It's about facing the facts, whatever they are, and improving.
I needed to hear that.

And looking out at the crowd, I thought I sensed everything from resistance and fear to agreement and encouragement. And I guess all of those feelings are in me as well. The tendency toward isolation and every-man-for-himself educational survivalism in which we all have to pretend we all have it all together gets to me.

Afterwords, a colleague said, "Thanks for the pep talk."

I hadn't thought about it as a pep talk, though it turned out to be one for me. 

Time I got more serious about being vulnerable and open, facing brutal facts, and being fully committed to improvement, whatever the implications to me.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A call for a more scientific approach to education

Sometimes my head swims and my heart sinks when I see so many different perspectives on education. Everyone seems to have their own agenda, some promoting grit, and other opposing it, some promoting increased use of data and assessment, and others want less of it, some excited about differentiation and deleveling, and others attacking it, some excited about standards, others hating them, some voices calling for change, others asking what's wrong with the status quo. It makes you wonder sometimes if agreement is even possible, if the complexity can ever be overcome, or if real answers even exist.

But then I remember... of course there are answers. The world is complex, and humans, especially, but every time people say that humanity can't solve a problem, humanity proves them wrong. Every time people say science can't possibly figure it out, it does.

Patience. That's what's needed, and one clear goal upon which we should all be able to agree: improvement of our situation, and a meticulous, dogged, scientific, unrelenting pursuit of that goal. That's what it will take to clear away the confusion of the conflicting voices. As Neil deGrasse Tyson said:
"Any time scientists disagree, it's because we have insufficient data. Then we can agree on what kind of data to get; we get the data; and the data solves the problem. Either I'm right, or you're right, or we're both wrong. And we move on. That kind of conflict resolution does not exist in politics or religion."
Or in education... yet.

Monday, January 5, 2015

A framework for a mastery-based classroom

I've been working on building a mastery-based and student-centered high school science classroom system based on Pink's ideas on motivation. Here's what I've identified as 7 key elements:
  1. Start with meaningful standards. Can't overemphasize this--this is how to tap into two of the three keys to motivation: mastery and purpose. We're all more likely to want to master clear, clearly meaningful/practical goals, especially when they tie into a purpose bigger than ourselves.
  2. Class discussions regarding the objectives. Unpacking them together. 
  3. Students set their own goals (#autonomy) regarding the objectives and plan their learning process. I'm interested in teaching deconstruction as a learning technique (a la Tim Ferriss).
  4. Students choose among options for learning activities/products to better suit their interest and readiness. Autonomy, again.
  5. Students get immediate feedback as they work (from me and peers and self-assessment).
  6. Students get multiple attempts to master the material/skills. No zeros. No late penalties. Incentive to keep working is intrinsic, plus the realization that falling too far behind is a very real danger.
  7. Students share their work with each other and the world. @Twitter is key here, but @YouTube, etc. are also great.
Already running #4, and #6, and we've done some work with #3 and #7. Bottle necks are at #1, #5, and, surprisingly, #7. Building a truly meaningful curriculum would be a lot of work, but it would be worth it. Quick, quality feedback is always a challenge, but working on enlisting students to do it themselves and also on using more informal feedback rather than always using the formal rubric. Many students aren't up to speed with sharing things online, or are not ready to show their friends that they are scholars, but we're working on it.

I feel like if I can build the right structure, one that is in line with human nature, and then build relationships on top of it, it will run itself.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

What kind of ripples will I make?

"I have begun to think of life as a series of ripples widening out from an original center." -Seamus Heaney 

Tomorrow I'm going to see lots of students--in my class, in the hall, and I'm going to see lots of teachers and all kinds of other people. I'll be like a drop of rain falling into a pool. Ripples will widen out, blend with ripples from everyone else. What kind of ripples will I make?

Saturday, January 3, 2015

#Flow in relationships

There's this one short, steep slope on the trail where the underlying sand and gravel is exposed and the gnarled roots of old white pines form stairs and keep it all from slumping down to the bottom. Half way up, there's a yellow birch about six inches in diameter. It's roots mingle with the white pine--no, mingle is not the right word, they are tangled like the interlocking scaly fingers of of a couple of old dragons. In fact, they are growing together--growing into and around each other.

It made me think of the way relationships are like that. Our lives grow together over time, and we have to be careful with other people, because we're inextricably linked together. And the longer we've been in a relationship, the closer the ties, and the harder it is to tell where one of us ends and the other begins.

I remember Ray Kurzweil talking in How to Create a Mind about how our loved ones end up such a part of our minds that when a person's partner dies, it leaves a sort of gaping hole.

But I think this goes beyond our significant others, spouses and family members. We are all, of course, interconnected, especially with those we interact with the most--students, friends, colleagues.. We have to be so careful, but it's more than being careful. It's more than avoiding short-sightedness. It's more than being mindful of others... and compassionate. This interconnection means we are not alone. I'm not even sure we're separate at all.

But it's not easy, is it? When I'm on the trail, obstacles--rocks, mud, water, make the hike enjoyable. The challenge is part of the fun. But challenging relationships often don't seem the same way. Instead, those gnarly roots and boulders are often a just a source of stress.

But if rocks on the trail are sources of exercise and flow, why not these other obstacles? No doubt, navigating a few boulders on the trail is usually easier than relationship challenges: The wilderness of minds is much more complex than Wolf Den. But the fact remains, it's all in the approach.

Csikszentmihalyi hits on this in Flow, explaining how family relationships can be a source of flow experiences. There are certainly rules that govern relationships like these (like monogamy and societal expectation about childrearing) and as long as you have clear rules, clear goals, clear and immediate feedback, and just the right balance of challenge and skill, you've got flow.

And what about other relationships? What about our relationships with students and colleagues? Can my classroom be flow experience, just by virtue of my relationships with my students? Why not?

Of course, this takes lots of work. Csikszentmihalyi again:
"To play the trumpet well, a musician cannot let more than a few days pass without practicing. An athlete who does not run regularly will soon be out of shape, and will no longer enjoy running. Any manager knows that his company will start falling apart of his attention wanders. In each case, without concentration, a complex activity breaks down into chaos. Why shuld the family be different? Unconditional acceptance, the complete trust family members ought to have for one another, is meaningful only when it is accompanied by an unstinting investment of attention."
So let's go. Time to pay more attention to these relationships (#mindful) and take advantage of their flow-producing potential.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Why I like reading my law textbook (sometimes)

It's called The Practical Guide to Connecticut School Law by Thomas Mooney. That's 702 pages of solid legal discussion. Not exactly what you would call light reading, but I have to say, I've been enjoying it.

I'm fascinated by law. Seriously. Not so much Statutory Law, and certainly not corrupt law, but I'm into what is called common law--that tradition that goes back to the Magna Carta and before and stretches in an unbroken line to the present day.

I'm fascinated by the concept of justice, fairness, due process, trial by a jury of one's peers, and the protection of the innocent. One of my favorite movie scenes of all time is from A Man for All Seasons, in which Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) explains the importance of law.

But the common law system also has the ability to evolve and change naturally over time, like an organism (or like society itself) as each court works off of the last and yet makes adjustments. It's a sort of self-organizing system that works from the basic rules of human nature and naturally adapts to changing social mores and conditions.

So when I read case law of disputes between parents/students and schools, I don't see politics. I see something in humanity asserting itself... and evolving.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Getting the right teachers on the bus

If you have to ask the question, “Why should we try to make it great? Isn’t success enough?” then you’re probably engaged in the wrong line of work.”
-Jim Collins, Good to Great 

When I first read Collins' strategy of "getting the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus," I questioned whether it would work for schools, since we can't just unload people mid-year, and we can't hold out for the right person when a school year is looming.

I also questioned whether it fit with a growth-mindset model of leadership. If teachers are struggling, if they are rated as "Developing" in the new teacher evaluation system, isn't our job to support them and help them to improve, rather than just get them off the bus? That's should definitely be our approach with kids. Our job is not to filter them out of the system, but support them until every single one of them succeeds.

But then I came to the above passage in Good to Great, and I realized who the right people are--they're the one's who want to improve themselves and student performance. They're the one's who see the need for continuous improvement. They're the ones we need to support, because they have the most essential component for success. They're the ones we need on the bus.

The teacher evaluation system is designed to support teacher who see the need for constant improvement. The rest? Well, maybe we can change their minds, but if not, I'm afraid they're probably in the wrong line of work.