What if we learned about our students differently?

When I started teaching at SLA, there was a standing assignment for 9th grade students. It had begun with the inaugural class and had continued into the second year when I picked up my teaching load. Me Magazineswere a way for students in their English classes to get to know and share about one another as they started a new year in a new school. As SLA draws from myriad middle schools around Philadelphia, it made sense for this new cohort to have a chance to share and get to know one another.

I don’t share this with any illusions that Me Magazines were avant garde or broke any molds of creativity. I’ve been around enough to know the Me Magazine was of a family of activities teachers ask of their students at the start of the school year. There’s the Where I’m From poem, the I Am poem and any number of derivations. Instead, I’m sharing about Me Magazines because I wish I hadn’t assigned them.

They started my year off on the wrong foot. It was in that gray area that looks like augmented student agency. It tiptoes around authenticity. “The students are writing about themselves, their lives, and their experiences,” you might say, “How is that not agency and authenticity?”

Well, for one, their doing it in a way that says, “This is how you share about yourself in this space. I want you to talk about yourself and consider where you’re from, but I want you to do it in the way I tell you to.” While the content may be specific to the student, such assignments are often a more creative version of telling students they need to make a PowerPoint presentation and it needs to have N slides with X on Slide Y, etc.

To redesign the assignment, my question is always to return to the purpose of the task and experience. What, at its core, are we attempting to do when we assign these get-to-know-you openers to the school year?

  1. We, as teachers, want to know who these fresh faces are and how they talk about themselves.
  2. We want to students to have a forum to share pieces of their histories with their peers.
  3. We want to see what they can do as a baseline in writing when give familiar content.
  4. We want to create a sense that this space is one where it is safe to share.
  5. We want to position the class as one where agency, voice, and authenticity matter.

So, let’s take a turn at opening up the assignment so that we are adding structure to the experience, but not necessarily the final product.

  1. Instead of building in your questions for content, open up the assignment for students to share the aspects of classmates they think it’s important to know and share. Compile a brainstormed list as a class and then give students (maybe in groups) a chance to elect one question to priority status, so it’s built into the assignment. This is also an opportunity to work on building consensus.
  2. Open the format of the presentation of learning to student choice. “What’s the best way for you to share who you are with this class?” This not only opens up student agency and choice, but it will help you see whom among your students decides to perform and who decides to build or code.
  3. Explain your purpose as a teacher. The learning shouldn’t be a secret. Yes, you’ll open it up to students’ chosen presentation formats, and you’re looking for some specific understandings as well. If this is an assignment that is meant to help you understand students as writers, then tell perhaps whatever they design must include a written component. Or, if you want to keep the thrust of things open, say the one thing you’re going to require is a reflective piece of writing explaining why they made the choices they did and how they think those choices affected the outcome.
  4. Have options at the ready. As was the case in my classroom, you’re going to have students who are overwhelmed by choice. Have pathways at the ready to help these students work through selecting the right format for them. This is where you might drop in Diana’s speed learning activity. You might pair students who are stuck with parents who immediately stand out as wealths of ideas. And, in the rare moments all this doesn’t help, you’ve got those formats mentioned above at the ready to be modified to fit whatever the class has decided is important.

Making these tweaks to the traditional assignment moves us closer to our goals for the experience while also adding in elements of collaboration, student inquiry, and making the classroom a more transparent place.

Cross-posted on Medium.

How Do We Begin to Create a Culture of Reading and Writing?

Boy reading book on the floor of a book store.“Do me a favor,” I say, “and close your eyes. I’m going to ask you to visualize something. If I told you you’re visiting a school with a healthy culture of reading and writing, I want to you visit it in your imagination. Start with the lobby or entryway. Notice everything you see and hear as you walk through.”

The exercise goes on for about thirty seconds. I ask the assembled room of teachers to walk the halls, look in on classrooms, listen in on the conversations in common spaces and between the folks they pass in hallways.

I ask them to pay attention to the adults and to the students equally. “Everyone is responsible for creating and sustaining culture, so make sure to observe and listen in on everyone.”

When each teacher has finished their tour, it’s tie to write. “Take five minutes and put it all out in writing. Capture as much of the detail as possible. If you draw a blank, keep writing, ‘and, and, and, and,’ until your brain fills in the holes. Trust that it will.” And, the room takes five minutes to write.

Next, I ask them to share with someone else in the room, not reading the writing verbatim, but distilling to key ideas. I limit the time to talk because conversations at this point are fully-fed and reproducing like tribbles.

The final step, jumping into a shared and open google doc where they answer one question as many times as they can, “What would it take to create the kind of culture you envisioned in your school?”

Again, the activity is timed. Most of the time, I’m having this conversation as a drop-in to a larger meeting. There are other atomized conversations about literacy on the agenda.

I’ve run this conversation several times in the last few months. As the language arts coordinator, it’s one of my favorites. The creativity and joy it elicits each time can be unfamiliar for your average professional meeting.

All of that said, we need to be having this conversation or some variant thereof as much as possible in schools of every level. From pK to 12, we need a picture of the kind of culture of reading and writing we’re hoping to inspire and establish if we want the people in our care to see themselves as readers and writers who aspire to ask and answer better questions.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed in each iteration of this conversation:

  • No one – no matter their subject area – has ever said, “I don’t know” at any point of the process.
  • No one has argued with the assumption what they’re being asked to envision is not important, worth their time, helpful to students, or a better version of what learning and teaching can be.
  • Once they get started with the writing and the talking and the coming up with ideas of how to make it work, the conversations are difficult to curtail or contain.
  • Almost every single idea these teachers generate for how to shift the culture of their schools is free to implement. When it’s not free, it’s low-cost or an idea any PTO would be thrilled to help realize these ideas.

So, let’s do it. Let us build a context around the atomized skills we’re all-too-clear our students need help building and then make it the norm that every person in our care instinctually knows our schools are places where our implied shared identity is one of curious readers and writers.

The Purpose of Writing

We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed. Frank Bidhart

When I was in university and going through some things, I wrote poetry. Not the poetry you’re thinking of – stream of consciousness poetry. Pages full of word after word poetry. My professor, to her credit, saw that those words and how they poured out of me were about more than whatever assignments she’d been giving. Whatever grades I earned in that class, they were about my ability to analyze the works of others and certainly nothing to do with what I’d created.

Whenever I’ve been in love, I’ve written poetry to the object of my affection. Hours have been spent agonizing over stanzas, couplets, and figurative language. In a few instances, those relationships inspired poetry from others. I got to come to an understanding of what I meant to another person in verse.

Throughout high school, I wrote a regular column for the local paper’s youth section. Some pieces were ridiculous attempts to replicate the humor I’d found in the columns of adult voices. Others worked to build a bridge between my high school experience and that of other students and adults who were reading. The ones I loved most started with a mindset of, “What if I try this?” Having that space and that audience made a huge difference in my sense of identity in high school.

I don’t remember much about college, but I remember working at the paper. I remember starting out as a reporter and scrapping for stories. I remember writing my first column and taking that job as seriously as I’d taken anything. I remember becoming editor-in-chief and feeling the responsibility of informing a campus. I remember telling my editors and reporters, “If every student on this campus can’t see themselves somewhere in each issue, then we’re not doing our job.” Different than my high school writing, this was writing with a responsibility I’d never felt before.

Now, my day gig gives me the opportunity to work with practitioners and experts from across the country to form guidance and material that pushes people to shift their thinking about how they form systems and processes of learning. I am asked on a regular basis to provide content that will inform policy and messaging at levels I’d never imagined being a part of. Getting things right has only mattered this much once before.

Writing project descriptions as a teacher was the most difficult writing I’ve ever done. Several years in, the biggest learning I did was asking students who’d had my classes before to read my plans and tell me where I’d screwed up. That writing wasn’t just to explain a thing to other people, but to help them move toward experiences that built on their understanding of the world. Getting things wrong meant they didn’t get to where I knew they could. Getting things right meant they completed projects beyond my imagining. I was writing for the approval of my students and their advancement. What could matter more?

I think you mean, “What are the purposes of writing?” No teacher could have anticipated the things that lead me to write so far in life, and I’ve learned I shouldn’t assume to know what will inspire me to put words to screen or page down the road.

What is the purpose of writing? All of them.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

Stocking our libraries with students

Brooklyn Art Library

“Harry — I think I’ve just understood something! I’ve got to go to the library!”
And she sprinted away, up the stairs.
What does she understand?” said Harry distractedly, still looking around, trying to tell where the voice had come from.
“Loads more than I do,” said Ron, shaking his head.
“But why’s she got to go to the library?”
“Because that’s what Hermione does,” said Ron, shrugging. “When in doubt, go to the library.” 
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

If we are to truly have conversations about students as publishers and have them consider copyright and what rights they want on the works they create, then there are other questions of infrastructure.

The main question, where can we put these things so that they will live on? Sometimes we think that they will be okay if they are put “online” as though the world is standing at their browsers waiting for a new student-produced video to watch.

It is not that we do not value student-produced content on the whole, but that we do not go seeking the fifth-grade research report about bees from four states or two districts away.

We have places for these things and the chance to imbue them with greater worth and an audience relevant to the places in which they were created – libraries.

One of the first questions I ask of potential digital content management systems is, “Can we catalog and feature student work in your system?” If not, move along.

As teachers increase the number of authentic learning experiences to which they introduce students, it’s going to be important that we not only capture that learning and reflection, but that we have a way of sharing it and cataloging it as well.

I work with middle and elementary schools where the younger students feed directly from the lower school to the upper school. As I work with teachers, I ask how their students are building resources and content for those who will come next.

This is obvious in Language Arts classrooms where students can write stories and create picture books for their elementary counterparts to be logged in the catalog systems of each school and accessible to students.

Less obvious might be the science report, the biography of locally-relevant historical figures, histories of businesses or farms within the city or town.

One of my favorite components of Howard Gardner’s definition of intelligence is the ability to create something of use or value to the culture to which a person belongs. Imagine a library with limited budget that can be stocked by the creations of students. Imagine the one student who has been tinkering on a novel or novella secretly who is given the chance to showcase his work across his school or an entire district.

If, as I’ve argued we ask students to consider how they want to copyright work they’ve released into the wild, then we should also create wild spaces where those works can graze and circulate widely.

The wrong way to think about copyright in the classroom

Copyright license choice

“Keep in mind that in the whole long tradition of storytelling, from Greek myths through Shakespeare through King Arthur and Robin Hood, this whole notion that you can’t tell stories about certain characters because someone else owns them is a very modern one – and to my mind, a very strange one.” 
― Michael MontoureSlices

We might just be teaching copyright wrong. Even those who regularly talk to their students about the importance of fair use, citing sources, and linking to original content are still missing the big ideas. They are still looking at copyright from a consumption model.

Salt-worthy teachers are talking to students about things like Creative Commons and explaining what it means when a content creator claims a specific kind of copyright for a given piece of work.

The boat we too often miss, though, is asking kids how they want to license the things they create. As the quality of what students can do with the tools in their hands increases, students are making things that have worth standalong projects or increased remixing and hacking potential.

If this is true, and the stuff that’s coming out of classrooms is high-quality, we owe it to our kids to ask them who they want to be as content producers and how they want the rest of the world to access their work.

For students blithely torrenting movies and other content from the web, the conversation can become quite different when asked if they want to freely release something they’ve spent time and energy creating. Do they want credit for their work? Do they want compensation?

Perhaps we are mum on this topic because we are worried about hte complicated possibilities of opening up the choices and opportunities that could arise if students start thinking about how they own their work.

Student A releases a report into the public domain. Student B realizes they can pull entire swaths of that report without being legally compelled to cite the source material. What, now, constitutes cheating? Plagiarism? Intellectual property?

This question and others like it are all the ways we should be introducing and learning copyright with our students. It’s ineffective and out-of-touch to teach only a consumption model of copyright. It ignores the productive, creative, prodigious work being done in our classrooms.

What kind of publishing do students want to perpetuate? How do they want to release their work into the wild? What is the difference between the access they want to provide others to their work and what access they expect to the work of others. Above all else, why?

Write your way into the day, lesson, meeting, keynote…

journal pic

It’s the part of any workshop, presentation, keynote, etc. that starts teachers hesitating. I usually say something like, “Before we begin our work together, let’s make sure we’re here together.”

Then, we do something many of them haven’t been asked to do since, maybe high school – we journal. We write our way in to the work.

Whether it takes place here in the states or with a group of teachers in Capetown, South Africa or Lahore, Pakistan, there is always a moment of hesitation as they settle in.

“Really?” their faces say, “This is how we’re learning about X?”

The answer is yes, it is. Writing and reflecting at the moment of commencement centers participants on where they are, where they’er coming from and where they want to be.

In a recent week-long workshop on project-based learning and educational technologies, I asked participants to journal at the top of each day. The hesitation was there one moment, and a few sentences later, it was gone.

I used the same format I used with high school and middle school students. Projected on the screen at the front of the room were three options: Free write, respond to a given quotation, respond to a given image.

Some days I asked if they’d like to share, other days I did not. While there’s value in the sharing of what teachers write, it’s not the point. They are their own audience in the composition of these reflections. This is a practice meant to help them center.

At the end of the week in Pakistan, teachers of all levels and disciplines approached me on breaks telling me they’d enjoyed the journaling and would be taking it back with them to their own classrooms. A few days after I returned to the States, the photo above appeared in my Facebook timeline. Somewhere in the string of 30+ comments, someone asked of the writing, “You don’t teach English do you?”

It was a gentle jibe at the teacher, commenting on the syntactical and grammatical errors in the writing, the postin teacher’s response was perfect, “No, I’m teaching them social studies. I purposely did not do correction as this was journaling for the felf and I committed to students that it’s their piece of writing.”

And there’s the key. With the championing of failure, we must also champion reflective thought. Failure is only worth as much as you learn from it. And, you’re not likely to learn much without pausing to reflect.

Aside from the professing of their own thinking, this type of reflection also frames writing as a different activity than teachers and students might find familiar. Much, if not all, of the writing both teachers and students are asked to do is meant for evaluation, consideration, and judgement of others. A teacher’s lesson or unit plan, a proposal for a field trip, a book report – they are all meant for someone else to read and evaluate the thinking and learning of the write.

Journaling in this way asks the writer, “What makes the most sense for you to be putting down on the page or the screen in this moment? What have you brought with you into this process?” and then gives space for that creation and reflection.

This is all to say, stop, write, reflect, move on.

From Theory to Practice:

  • The next time you lead a meeting of other folks (children or adults) ask everyone in the room to write their ways into the day. Take 5-10 minutes and ask people to write about where they’re coming from and what they hope out of their time together.
  • Build it as a practice around any major work. For students, ask them to write a reflection on their learning at the end of a lesson, unit, class period, etc. For teachers, take 5 minutes at the beginning or end of the day to reflect on the learning that’s happened and that you hope will happen.
  • Respect the privacy of reflection and allow for the choice of taking it to the public forum. If I know you won’t make me share what I write, I’m likely to write more openly and truthfully. I’m also more likely to write something I’m proud of and want to share.

Cursive II: A New Hope?

Image via DragonLord878 on Flickr

I’ve been taking notes in my iPad quite a bit lately. It’s the one device that always seems to make it into my bag. Sometimes, I’m typing – but not always.

I’m a doodler from way back, and my notes tend to be all over a page when I use a pad of paper or a physical notebook. I’ve got boxes and arrows and squiggles. If you want an idea of how my brain organizes information, look at my notepad.

Typing notes doesn’t do that for me. It requires lines and linear thinking that just don’t mesh with how my brain wants to organize ideas on a page. That’s not how I hear them and it’s not how I catalog them in my thinking.

So, I’ve been writing. If you’ve ever tried to write on a tablet with your finger, you know that’s an easy way to start hating using a tablet. Unless you’ve razor-sharp, pointy fingers like Gollum, hand writing on a tablet isn’t at all like your, well, handwriting.

Instead of embracing the frustration, I’ve worked my way through a series of styli for tablets and settled on the JotPro. Instead if the foam or rubber tip of other choices in the market, the JotPro uses a tiny plastic disk attached via a ball bearing to help you make your marks. It is the closest I’ve come to something like a pen on the tablet and I like it.


It makes a sound. I’m a printer by practice, largely owing to my second-class left-handed status. I was the only one in my class with this particular affliction in second grade when we were learning cursive, so I got about a fifth of hue he instruction and it was backwards.

So, I print.

When using a plastic plate on a glass screen, though, this can mean I make some noise. Printing, for me, with the JotPro sounds like I’ve brought some tinkering elf from Santa’s workshop to the meeting, and he’s building a tiny house. It’s a distraction.

About two weeks ago, I switched from printing. I reluctantly started writing in script. It meant the stylus glided across the screen with only intermittent taps. The elf was sent packing. I’ve not regularly used cursive since…I can’t actually remember.

Now, I’m using it whenever I take notes. Slowly, I’m remembering how to connect all the letters. I still pause longer than I’d like when remembering how, exactly, to form the capital “G,” but I’m on my way.

Lately, in many of the conversations I’ve had in our schools around the district’s plans to put iPads in the hands almost every student, there has been much gnashing of teeth about the future of handwriting and cursive instruction. Those lamenting the possible death of cursive speak of it as though it is a piece of our humanity and not a tool developed for a purpose long forgotten.

I haven’t cared. If the goal is communication, I don’t much care the tool so long as messages are effectively sent and received.

These last two weeks have me thinking a little differently. Perhaps cursive has a place in the modern world. Perhaps it is the tool these new tools were accidentally built for (accidentally).

Cursive isn’t inherent to our becoming whatever the better versions of ourselves might be. It’s possible, however, that cursive might find a renewed purpose in helping us interact with the things we make and the capturing of the ideas that surround us.

A practical consideration of Robert Rothman’s thoughts on the Common Core

In the July/August issue of the Harvard Education Letter, Robert Rothman, senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education, outlined “Nine Ways the Common Core will Change Classroom Practice.”

He pointed to four ways mathematics education will change and five ways the CCSS will impact English Language Arts instruction in the US. I leave critique of the mathematical implications to those more experienced in teaching math than I am. My focus, instead, is on Rothman’s assertions about how the CCSS will change how we teach students English.

5. More Nonfiction. Reflecting the fact that students will read primarily expository texts after high school, the Standards call for a much greater emphasis on nonfiction. The document proposes that about half the reading in elementary school and 75 percent in high school should be nonfiction. This would include informational texts in content areas as well as literary nonfiction in English language arts; publishing companies are likely to respond by revising their textbooks. Narrative fiction will become less prevalent. The Standards also expect students to write more expository prose.

The caution here is to think about factors that lead to people thinking of themselves as readers and writers. I don’t just mean thinking of themselves as people who can read and write, but as people who enjoy reading and writing as well.

We do a great job of telling students they are “readers” or “writers,” and many schools are able to focus on drilling students to say/chant aloud, “I am a reader,” or “I am a writer.”

As others have pointed out before me, these standards run the risk of preempting students’ development of their own reading tastes and identities as readers. It also ignores the possible effects of varied fictional structures on individuals’ habits of thinking and problem solving. Those people I know and respect as the deepest and most insightful analytical thinkers are also some of the most voracious readers of fictional texts I know.

Both have a place at the table, and to prescribe a reading diet as though all minds need the same percentage of texts is as potentially harmful as prescribing an eating diet as though all bodies need the same foods according to the same schedule.

6. Focus on Evidence. In reading, students will be expected to use evidence to demonstrate their comprehension of texts and to read closely in order to make evidence-based claims. To prepare them to do so, teachers will need to take time to read carefully with their students and in many cases reread texts several times. In writing, students are expected to cite evidence to justify statements rather than rely on opinions or personal feelings.

So tempting to make an off-handed remark about the possible implications of an evidence-driven populace on the standards of political elections and journalism, but I will resist.

I am concerned each time we breeze past the words “take time,” without pausing to consider from where that time will come. Will this mean cutting further into arts education, free time, play, physical activity?

If it is not an extension of the school day, what pieces of instruction within the existing structures will be sacrificed? At the most basic level it is a slight to teachers, presuming they are operating with a dearth of expectations on their time with children.

7. “Staircase” of Text Complexity. Students will be expected to read and comprehend increasingly complex texts in order to reach the level of complexity required for success in college courses and the workplace. The Standards document cites evidence that the complexity of texts used in schools has actually declined over the past forty years. To reverse this trend, teachers will have to choose materials that are appropriate for their grade level; states and organizations are now developing tools to help teachers evaluate complexity.

“Grade level?” To paraphrase Monty Python, “Now we see the ignorance inherent in the system.” Teachers must have and must demand the professional respect of choosing texts appropriate to the students in their classroom, not to the grade level to which students are arbitrarily assigned. As reading scholars like Nancy Atwell have discovered, such an approach doesn’t retard student progress in literacy acquisition, but hastens it.

For teachers, this will also mean revising practice to do away with the arbitrary assignment of whole-class texts and considering individual assignments and needs.

8. Speaking and Listening. The Standards expect students to be able to demonstrate that they can speak and listen effectively—two aspects of literacy rarely included in state standards. One of the consortia developing assessments to measure student performance against the Standards will create a speaking and listening assessment. Expect to see teachers asking students to engage in small-group and whole-class discussions and evaluating them on how well they understand the speakers’ points.

Less about speaking and listening, this point speaks to the lack of teacher agency present in a commodified education landscape.

No matter the quality of the consortium’s assessment, it will be seen, by teachers, as someone else’s assessment. The proctoring of such assessments will be, at its basest level, always be seen as jumping the hoop to get to the real teaching.

A key question here is “Do we want all of our students to speak and listen well or do we want all of our students to speak and listen in the same way?” We are plotting a course toward the latter.

9. Literacy in the Content Areas. The Standards include criteria for literacy in history/social science, science, and technical subjects. This reflects a recognition that understanding texts in each of these subject areas requires a unique set of skills and that instruction in understanding, say, a historical document is an integral part of teaching history. This means that history teachers will need to spend time making sure that students are able to glean information from a document and make judgments about its credibility. Science teachers will need to do the same for materials in that discipline.


I agree.

Here is how this has been attempted in almost every school and district I’ve seen across the country:

  1. Training is developed to give teachers the school or district’s preferred method of teaching literacy in, say, science classrooms. This isn’t done in the belief that teachers are incompetent, but in an act of benevolence. The matter is urgent, and asking teachers to develop their own approaches will take time none of them thinks he has in the schedule.
  2. Teachers will take back these prescribed approaches to their classrooms and begin implementing them. Some will not implement them. Some will make them their own. Most will do as they are told for fear of repercussions. Test results will move slightly, but then become stale a year or two after.
  3. Frustrated, administrators will seek out a new way to tell teachers to implement literacy practices, assuming something was wrong with the original approach. Step 1 will be repeated in this process.
  4. Teachers will repeat Step 2. This time, those teachers who whole-heartedly accepted the first approach will be slightly jaded. It won’t be as obvious because their acceptance will have been replaced by teachers new to the school/district who have not seen this cycle before.
  5. The cycle will continue. Teacher agency, creativity, and voice will diminish.

To prepare teachers to make these shifts, states and private organizations are planning and implementing substantial professional development efforts. In Kentucky, for example, the state department of education is undertaking a massive campaign to inform teachers about the Standards and their implications for practice and is making available sample lessons and other materials on a website. But these efforts will only be successful if all teachers understand the Standards and how they differ from current practice.

Key here is the lack of any act of inquiry required by teachers. Utilizing the authority-centric approach of content delivery we are attempting to eliminate in classrooms, state education departments will disseminate materials and step-by-step guides like so many classroom worksheets.

If understanding is our highest goal, we have aimed too low.

Some thoughts on re-mediation in the teaching of literacy

For one of my grad courses, I signed up to read and start discussion on the class blog about the article “A Socio-Historical Approach to Re-Mediation” by Mike Cole and Peg Griffin. Catchy title, right?

The blog is  walled off, but I was so taken with Cole and Griffin’s ideas, that I’m reposting my post here. 

Some things that caught my attention:

…I dig this, and it  throws into question the simplification of teaching and learning as they are traditionally presented in schools – “Here’s a piece. Here’s a piece. Here’s a piece. If you stick with it long enough, you might just get to the whole.”

…Cole, Griffin and I get into a disagreement here.  Then, I reminded myself they were writing in 1978, so the kind of computer re-mediation they were talking about had more to do with the basics of phonetic, piece-meal instruction than with what current computers are able to do.

Still, if you look at computer use in literacy instruction in most classrooms, you’ll find pre-packaged software that is simply an electronic version of the instruction Cole and Griffin describe.

Something to think about, though, is what those on the bleeding edge of how computers can re-mediate learning across and within disciplines, change is coming. Unfortunately, it’s also messy, so that’s going to slow down adoption.

…Yes, let’s do this…more.

…This piece hit closest to home with me. It’s part project-based learning, part funds of knowledge, part situated cognition, part Making Learning Whole.

The Questions

What do you think about the excerpts above?
What factors at various systemic levels support or prevent Cole and Griffin’s theory from being more widely implemented?
If you’re interested in reading the full article, you can find it here.

We Should Embrace Confusion

The video below, from Yes to the Mess author Frank Barrett, touches on the idea of disruption of routine as a catalyst to innovation, that wimpiest of buzzwords.

Still, if your goal is to get folks – let’s say teachers and students – thinking differently and creatively about their learning, it’s an interesting line of thinking. More important than Barrett’s point about disruption, though, is the point he (mostly indirectly) makes about the role of confusion in helping people think differently.

It connected nicely with a passage from John Holt’s How Children Learn, which I’d re-visited for class this past week:

Bill Hull once said to me, “If we taught children to speak, they’d never learn.” I thought at first he was joking. By now I realize that it was a very important truth. Suppose we decided that we had to “teach” children to speak. How would we go about it? First, some committee of experts would analyze speech and break it down into a number of separate “speech skills.” We would probably say that, since speech is made up of sounds, a child must be taught to make all the sounds of his language before he can be taught to speak the language itself. Doubtless we would list these sounds, easiest and commonest ones first, harder and rarer ones next. Then we would begin to teach infants these sounds, working our way down the list. Perhaps, in order not to “confuse” the child-“con- fuse” is an evil word to many educators-we would not let the child hear much ordinary speech, but would only expose him to the sounds we were trying to teach. (emphasis mine)

John Holt. How Children Learn (Classics in Child Development) (p. 84). Kindle Edition.

Perhaps we’re getting less and less out of teachers and students (and I’m not convinced that we are) because the systems in which they operate are working at top speed to make certain they avoid confusion at all levels. Teaching scripts, standardized test instructions, online learning platforms, google search – all are designed in ways that make it as difficult as possible to be confused.

If a teacher working from a pre-packaged lesson plan never has to wrestle with how to solve the problems of student engagement or differentiated instruction because the introductory set is included and the lesson’s been pre-leveled, there’s very little thinking to be done. If I’m not confused, I’m not likely be solving problems.

Similarly, if the directions to an assignment spend a few paragraphs explaining what information I should include in the heading, how many sentences constitute a paragraph, what I should include in each of said paragraphs, and the topics from which I’m allowed to choose, it’s unlikely I’ll risk the type of thinking that could perplex or confuse me as to what my exact position regarding my topic might be.

To be certain, obtuseness that renders teaching and learning inaccessible is not helpful. At the same time, clarity that renders the two unnecessary is harmful.

To Innovate, Disrupt Your Routine – Video – Harvard Business Review.