Able to see problems in a single glance

The Boxes Arrived

The boxes arrived last week.  Those boxes stacked high, full of Iowa Assessment test booklets, answer sheets, and directions for administration.  They arrived and are sitting against the far wall of my office – not physically, but philosophically in the way.  In two weeks, our students will take those tests.  They will spend multiple hours over a course of a week filling in bubbles to demonstrate to the federal and state governments that they have grown academically in content areas like reading, math, science, and social studies.  There will be no test on grit or perseverance – except their ability to complete the test without creating a pattern on the answer sheet.  There will be no test on creativity – unless they do create a pattern on the answer sheet.

All of this will happen in the midst of a year where my district has truly pushed itself to know the learner better to grow the learner better.  We have pushed hard to mold ourselves into what our students need, not mold the students into what we need.  We have more teachers that ever using data to revise instruction, using standards-based learning, and thinking about competency-based education.  We work toward a new goal of personalized learning in our district – and it is exciting, invigorating, daunting, and … the right work.

So, those boxes sit in my office while I have the pleasure of attending a convening hosted by the Nellie Mae Foundation and KnowledgeWork on the federal accountability framework in light of competency-based education.  The convening was a great two days focused on assessment, core CBE principles, the role of the federal government in education, and the unintended consequences of building a new framework that is easy to understand (and which may do more harm to CBE than the current one).

The discussion on accountability traveled far and wide.  Some of the main points and questions raised included:

  1. We do not want to see competency education mandated from the federal government. We want to have federal accountability policy be structured to enable competency education and its core principles.
  2. Is it possible to establish policy that builds upon a continuous model so that districts can use one set of reporting systems that tracks student achievement rather than two, one for themselves and one for the federal government?
  3. What would it take to have teachers make the determination of proficiency and then have that data roll up into a school, district, state and federal reporting system focused on student progress and achievement?

I was excited by the opportunity to impact federal policy, yet realistic enough to know that it would not be done when the convening was complete.  We must struggle with the enormous task of changing a federal mindset that accountability is one battery of tests once a year.  This is completely antithetical to competency-based education and personalized learning.  We must work to change this mindset and the system of accountability derived from it if we are truly to have an opportunity to meet every student where they are at and guide them to where they can be.

I know it will not be an easy fix, but it is the right work to do.  We must persist, we must challenge, and we must ask the questions that change policy, challenge politics and improve the learning environments and experiences of our students.  A student is not a series of data points.  Each student is a complex combination of dreams, passions, fears, and possibilities.  No test, or battery of tests, will ever fully measure all of that. But we can – and should – get a lot closer to it.

When Collins-Maxwell began a 1:1 iPad initiative for all students in grades 6-12 in the fall of 2012, one of the largest concerns among teachers, parents, and board members was the management of the device.  Teachers were worried that students would be off-task in class, refusing to do the assigned work.  Parents felt that students would bring the devices home and fill them full of games, songs, and inappropriate pictures.  Board members felt that teachers would not know how to manage the new technology in classes AND that parents would be frustrated that taxpayer dollars were spent on devices so kids could listen to Pandora while playing Angry Birds.

Yes, it all happened.  Everything we feared would come true did to some degree.  We had students that got off task in class and missed the assignments or the lecture or the project.  We had students download music in the hallways between classes so they could listen to it in the next period.  We had students at home not doing the work they didn’t do in class because they were playing games, or on Facebook, or tweeting, or listening.  Yes, it all happened.

But not for every student.  And not for every teacher.

We had our students who followed the rules to the letter.  They never downloaded anything that was not teacher approved.  They never got on the iPad in class unless there was a reason explained by the teacher.  And they certainly did not use the iPad at home inappropriately.  It was only used for schoolwork, and then charged for the next day.

And we had teachers that had no problems with students off task.  Here is the success of the management of iPads.  We had teachers treat the iPad like any other tool in the classroom.  For the past few years, we have allowed cell phones in school for student use.  Many students have used them to take photos of problems on the board, use calculator functions, or text answers to an online poll.  The teachers who have used cell phones in this manner in the class were the same ones who had little problems with the iPads.  They realized the iPads were tools to help students learn, so they worked to see the iPads as supports for learning.  Now, those teachers did not feel the need to use the iPads every day, just to use them.  They used the iPads only when it suited the learning.  When the iPads were not in use, they were turned off and put under the desks or set aside in the classroom.  Those teachers who saw the iPads as possible improvements to learning also knew when they would be impediments to learning, so they created clear rules for engagement in using the iPads.

Other teachers who were not as comfortable with iPads struggled to see how to use them in their classrooms.  Therefore, they used them for artificial purposes thinking the administration wanted the iPads to be used a lot in classes.  The truth was the administration never gave a clear expectation for how often the iPad was to be used in a class.  We wanted it to be a natural extension of support for learning.  For some teachers, that was a good idea.  For others, they felt like they were not using it enough and that would be a disappointment to the administration.  When those teachers tried to integrate the iPad into a learning activity that did not suit it, problems occurred.  Or if the teachers tried to ignore how to use the iPads in class, then the students had them out and engaged in off-task behaviors.  Interestingly, by not addressing the iPad as a tool that may or may not support learning in specific instances, the teachers inadvertently allowed the iPad to become a bigger obstacle to learning in every instance.

From the various viewpoints of the teachers implementing iPads in their classrooms, the administration began to notice a unique paradigm: there were some that were truly trying to manage the iPad while others were trying to lead learning with the iPad.  It became clear to the administration that those teachers who used the iPads to lead – or support – learning were more successful in using the iPads.  Those that tried to manage the devices seemed to have more struggles with students.  The administration also noticed that learning tasks began to change.  Many teachers found that using iPads to do the same type of work before their introduction caused more problems and off-task behavior.  When teachers changed the learning target or asked students for their input in how to use the iPads, there was greater student engagement, higher quality learning, and greater teacher satisfaction.

In all, we also worked to tighten our security of the iPads to limit downloads, added some consequences for how to use the devices, and supported parents to better understand how to use the iPads at home.  But our greatest discovery in managing iPads was learning to not manage them, and instead lead learning – where appropriate – with them.  Now, teachers and students are making better decisions about how iPads support student learning.  Our philosophy to technology – and not the iPads themselves – are helping our students be better prepared for the 21st century of learning, earning, and living!

Sam and His Pillowcase

Another family member has taught me a lesson about schooling.  Last time, it was one of my daughters, Elle.  This time, it was my oldest son, Sam.

Sam is five years old, and bright as can be.  He just soaks up everything he hears and sees.  He is already reading books, spelling, and doing math above his learning level.  Some things academically are coming easy to Sam.  So, I am glad he helped me make his bed recently.

My wife and I decided to wash the bedding for all of our children, and Sam was asked to help put his back on – like his older siblings.  Sam’s job was to put his pillows back in the pillowcases.

This was not an easy task for Sam.  He struggled to figure out how to get the pillowcase on the pillow.  He sat on the floor and tried to push the pillow into the case.  He stood up and tried to kick the pillow into the case.  And he pleaded to his father to end his suffering and do it for him.  (He does not have that type of dad.)

I told him to keep trying and tell me what he learned.  When he became less frustrated, he was able to share that he could not get the pillow into the case by pushing it in.  He stood with the pillow and the case and began to share back and forth while getting mad again.  Suddenly, he noticed that some of the pillow was slipping into the case.  Now, he began to jump up and down to get more of the pillow into the case, watching his progress with each jump.  When the end of the pillow was completely in the case, Sam threw the pillow up in the air, and announced, “I did it.”  The smile on his five-year-old face was bigger than his pillow!  Sam proceeded to do his other pillow in the same manner with the same success.

After his bed was made, I sat there while Sam picked out his clothes for school the next day, and I realized that Sam had persevered.  He had shown grit and determination, and he was successful in the end.  I sat there on his newly made bed, and I wondered if I should have modeled how to put a pillow in the case or even start it for him.  In the end, I am glad he struggled.  Yes, glad.  I want things to be difficult for Sam (some things) so he can know the depth of his resolve.  I want him to know that he can struggle and still be successful.  He should know that some successes only come from struggle.

I want the same for Sam in his school, and for all of his peers in the education system.  We must have students construct more of their learning, struggle more to find success, so they can be flexible, adaptable and resilient learners.

If we accomplish that goal, we will truly have the learners we need in the future.  Sam’s journey has already begun.  I hope others help him struggle.

I realized this weekend that I might be a bit of a hypocrite . . .

My second child, Elle (age 7), loves to ask questions.  Lots of them.  Random questions.  Pointed questions.  Questions with easy answers and questions with no good answers.  But, A.  Lot.  Of.  Questions.

And, sometimes, I am annoyed by the questions, the sheer number of them.  Sometimes, I ask Elle to stop or wait, or (rarely) go ask her mother.

And this weekend, I realized that every time she asked a question, she was trying to make sense of her life, her world, and her experiences.  She was trying to learn more, and I was denying her that experience because I was tired or busy or embarrassed to not know the answer.  But, I was clearly stifling what comes natural to her – asking a lot of questions.

I believe strongly that school should be filled with STUDENTS asking questions are a far greater percentage.   Th students should ask more questions than the teachers.  And both the students and the teachers should sometimes struggle to get the answers to those questions.  Not all answers are quick or easy in life, and we have an opportunity (and in my opinion, a responsibility) to show that life does not always have the “right answer”.

Those of you who know me, know that a child of mine who asks me a lot of questions is exactly the child I deserve.  Yes, she is.  I deserve to be asked to match my professional support for inquiry with my parental responsibilities.  Anything less is hypocritical . . . And I am sure Elle will ask me what that means and why I am one.

The What Before The How

With a new school year started, we are busy thinking about all the things we want to accomplish this year.  We are thinking about our reading scores, our math curriculum, our science standards, our fine arts, our athletic teams, our building goals, our community’s expectations, and our state reports (couldn’t resist!)

In the midst of all of the ‘doing’, we need to take time to determine the validity of the doing.  Educators are great at searching for “the how” to improve scores, implement curriculum, unpack standards, build students relationship and support district initiatives.  We need to be even better at knowing “the what” and “the why”.

It makes no sense to look for new instructional strategies if we are not clear as to the type of instruction we want – or need.  We must take the time to continually reflect on what we want and need to succeed.  We cannot do what we have always done just because it is comfortable.  We should do it because we get the results we need.  We must be clear about our vision, our passion, and our needs.  Then, we can determine our action steps.  The “how” must never come before the “what” and the “why”.

Once we define our purpose, then we determine our practices.

Productive Struggle

This summer has not been the summer that I wanted, expected, nor planned for.  It has been a summer filled with setbacks, surprises, and struggles.  And throughout the summer, I have worked hard to deal with the surprises, address the setbacks, and work through the struggles.

It has taken a lot of work, a lot of time, and a lot of sacrifices to continue to feel like I was moving forward the summer, that I was doing the things that I needed to get done.  And that I was maintaining some sense of balance in my life – the reality is there was no balance.

The truth is that the entire summer has really been focusing on working through the struggles.  Recently, I attended a leadership conference for administrators, and I heard the term “productive struggle”, and I finally realized that was what I have been trying to accomplish this summer.  Educators have often talked about the things that are not as easy to learn are the things that we remember better.  They advocate for students to have a productive struggles in their learning, so that they would develop grit or perseverance or the willingness to follow through to completion.   Ultimately, we will have students that remember and have learned better.  And so I take the idea of productive struggle and analyze my summer and I realize that I will remember this summer.

I will remember all the new information I learned – and I will remember all that I learned about myself once again – and finally I will remember the choices I made to learn and to get done what needed to be done.  In some cases, I hope I do not have to make the same choices again.  In other situations, I hope that I will remember how I proceeded through the struggles and how I felt on the other side of them.  I have learned, I have grown, I am better than I was before.

Robert Frost once said, “the best way out is through.”  I have never appreciated or understood that comment more than I do at the end of this summer of productive struggles.

We’re Getting Closer

This past Friday, I had the opportunity to have a phone conversation with Jesse Moyer and Lillian Pace from KnowledgeWorks.  Jesse is the Manager of Strategic Initiatives and Lillian is Senior Director of National Policy.  Jesse and Lillian wanted to speak with me about Iowa’s role in supporting competency-based education (CBE).  I was thrilled to speak with them for well over an hour to share what is happening in Iowa, as well as to learn what is happening nationally.

Lillian mainly works in Washington, DC to support efforts at the national level.  She remarked that there is a lot of great work happening at the state levels, so there needs to be a focused effort at the national level.  KnowledgeWorks has been working recently to influence language in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as the No Child Left Behind Act.

Lillian remarked that competency-based education should continue to grow from the ground up, but there are federal barriers that will hinder its growth.  KnowledgeWorks is working to help legislators at the national level understand what is CBE, as well as to provide legislation that encourages its growth.  Currently, the strategy is to advocate for innovation so CBE can flourish organically, instead of demanding a mandate that might unintentionally stifle its development.

KnowledgeWorks has partnered with iNACOL to develop a series of white papers to support the implementation of competency-based education.  The first paper focused on the federal accountability system, which is written so tightly around time-based metrics, that it hinders CBE.  The second paper focused on current innovations support be the federal government – such as Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation.  The papers found a strong trend that those organizations that received those funds tended to support personalized learning, a parallel to CBE.  Two more papers are scheduled to be released soon – one focusing on the multiple pathways for student success and the other on specific recommendations to change federal policy to better support CBE.

My conversation with Jesse and Lillian also focused on the good work occurring in Iowa – the recent legislative funding for CBE work and pilot CBE districts, the CBE district readiness survey, the Iowa ASCD CBE conference, the Iowa legislative CBE task force, and innovation already occurring in many local districts.

Our work is being supported at the national level, and it is being recognized at the state level.  Every day, through passion, purpose and partnership, we are getting closer!

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