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.

Why We Don’t Ask if We’re a Learning Organization

You may be a learner, you may use a learning device. Does that matter if you’re not part of a learning organization?

My guess is no.

Today, I participated in Ben Wilkoff’s session at Future Ready: A Technovation Institute. The conversation was geared around some deeper thinking of what we mean and imply when we invoke the “1:1” ration in talking about learners and devices.

Midway through, Ben asked us to think about what is needed to support learners in tech-rich environments and what is needed to support devices as tools for deeper learning in those environments.

My answer kept coming back to the place where my thinking’s been living these last few weeks – learning organizations. Being a part of such an organization is necessary for both learners and devices to move beyond the shiny of new tech in learning.

Here’s what I mean by that.

Sure, classrooms, schools, and districts purport to be learning organizations in that they are organizations designed to facilitate the learning of those in their charge or care – namely, students. And, yes, this is a good goal. It is certainly better than being teaching organizations or education organizations. To hit lightly on being a learning organization is to at least imply that your goal is the learning of those within your system.

What I’d posit is necessary for the ongoing support of learners and the view of technology as tools for learning is that the classroom, school, or district is, itself, a learning organization. Better phrased, is any of these an organization that learns? Dice that apart. A school that is comprised of teachers who are learners may find itself ahead of other schools where teachers don’t engage their curiosity or agency to satisfy that agency.

Such a school still cannot go as far if it does not attempt, as an institution to learn from its mistakes, to move forward as a whole, and to be better as a learning body. This is part of what Chris and I mean when we write “Be One School.”

To be a learning organization classrooms, schools, and districts – either by dictate or consensus – would identify a driving, commonly held curiosity and then move toward investigating that curiosity together.

Whenever I’ve had the chance to talk to the leadership of any organization of which I’ve been a part, I’ve asked one question, “What are the three things you hope we’re working toward this year?” For whatever reason, I’ve yet to pose that question to a leader and get a coherent answer. Maybe they don’t know, maybe they’re being politic, or maybe they’re resistant to make their own goals the goals of all.

Imagine, though, what could happen if a superintendent, principal, or teacher engaged in a process of identifying those wicked problems to be investigated throughout the year. Shared ownership of these problems and shared learning toward their solutions would be a powerfully unifying experience.

From Theory to Practice:

  • If your organization has a leadership team or committee, pull them together and ask what big issues they would like to grapple with in the coming year. Make updates on learning a standing item on each meeting agenda.
  • In the classroom, select the big buckets of learning (usually disciplines) and have students work through their big questions for each bucket. Keep track of answers and new questions as the year progresses.
  • If you’re at the very beginning of this work and need to build cohesion, build a simple question into your formal conversations, “What is something you’re trying to figure out right now?” Keep track of the answers you get and see how you might be able to use common threads to plan events, learning sessions, and communications toward common cause.

I’m Falling Behind My Questions

Racin' Snails 2

I long ago gave up on examining all the information available to me. I’m slowly coming to accept I haven’t the time or focus to examine all the information that interests me either. The piles of books littering my home and office along with the dozens of articles I’ve currently got open across multiple devices are evidence I might be more curious than I have time for.

When I started talking with and coaching educators on building a conceptual framework for managing information flow as they started to utilize digital tools, my advice was to focus on those topics about which they were most interested. Now, that reasoning only stands to serve intensely acurious individuals.

Every question I can pose has a corresponding rabbit whole waiting for me to jump. Each of those books and open articles is a map of where I intend to jump – later. I don’t know that later will ever come. Not for all of them.

I will never have time to read and consider the answers to all of my questions. They are too many and the sources of information more multitudinous still.

Faced with the question of how to deal with an overflow of information now, my answer is to focus on the answers you need in the moment, and decide if free time is worth dedicating to new information or reflecting on the learning you’ve already done.

Given the effect of a full cognitive load, the answer might be none of the above. Folks might opt to zone out and let information settle. As much as I love learning and swoon over inquiry, the infinite information stream also calls for quietly doing nothing of consequence so that I can better appreciate the consequences of those answers I decide are worth chasing.

I know all of this, and yet I still pick up more books for which I can’t conceive finding the time or open yet another collection of interesting browser tabs. Because, maybe, I’ll get around to it as soon as I’ve read everything else.

I’m Exhaling Answers

Nancy Dwyer

I’m not one for answers. Giving them, anyway. I dig the search for answers, and I’m happy to help you on your way to whatever answers you’ve deemed worthy of your time. I’m not the person to whom you should turn if you’re expecting answers to questions that aren’t in my unique locus of control.

But I sure do inhale the loose ends, the un-networked nodes, the ideas in the ether that aren’t tremendously useful to me in the moment, but represent the potential of usefulness down the road.

I breath these ideas in and let them fire the respiratory flow of possibilities.

Then, in front of a classroom – in a conference presentation, on an email chain, or a chance meeting – I exhale these loose ends in hopes of creating a more complete atmosphere of answers to your questions. It turns out I’ve been carrying these loose ends to help you tie and tidy up your questions.

I’m the fellow who’s spent hours reading research reports, opening tab after tab on his browser window, shaking every hand at the party and cataloging them all in my head for that one question you ask when I’m on a panel. Often, far too often, the other folks will dodge your question. They’ll give you philosophical answers that start with, “That’s a good question,” with the subtext of, “And I’m going to answer a completely different one right now.”

That’s when I’m ready to exhale and say, “I don’t know if this will be helpful, but here are four specific places you should look to help you down your path.” I can’t promise they’ll get you everywhere you want to be, but they will get you closer than you are now.” It’s also my way of acknowledging I don’t know the answer, but I can hopefully connect you with someone who does.

In the classroom or working with a group of educators in professional development, my exhale may seem foul. Not because of me, but because of what’s come before. People are often conditioned for the yes or the no. They’re expecting the, “That’s wrong, and here’s what’s right.”

That’s not how I breath. My telling you doesn’t teach you. It might give you something new to tell others, but I’m dubious of someone who answers any question with, “Because Zac told me.” You’re ideas need something stronger than hearsay as their foundation.


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 #LifeWideLearning

Question, don’t Copy

jigsaw_puzzle_hires_designerspics_CC0

When doing the work to transform learning in a system, simply copying what other people are doing won’t get you what you need in the long run – not with the consistency another approach might provide.

That other approach? Find out what questions the other folks asked, and then ask those same questions within the system in which you find yourself.

Lifting the work of others, specifically highly-effective work deeply seated within a specific community (and these are the projects that most are most often ripe for replication) guarantees unsustainable or less-effective results.

An example?

Let’s say a principle and leadership team from a rural high school makes a trip to visit several highly-touted urban high schools within a few hours drive. While touring, they note that one of the schools has an internship program for its students that allows them to partner with local companies, non-profits, and service organizations for academic credit.
Talking with the leadership and participating students in the urban school, the rural school team hears strong testimony about the success of the program in helping students to discover and develop nascent interests and build networks of social capital they wouldn’t otherwise have had access to without the internship program.

“Yes,” the members of the rural team agree on their drive home, “This is a program we need to start when we get home.” And they do. The next school year, they start the program, placing 11th- and 12th-grade students with similar partners in larger neighboring communities.

Midway through the school year, despite the best intentions and hard work by a dedicated faculty and staff, the program is failing spectacularly.

Students often beg off the drive to partner organizations, citing travel times as unfair burdens and complaining about the added schedule demands on homework and extra curricular participation. Those without access to transportation find themselves relegated to a less diverse selection of partner organizations and are understandably jealous of their better-resourced partners.

By the end of the year, the rural leadership team decides the program more arduous than worthwhile given its diminishing returns. “The urban school,” they agree, “is better resourced to offer such dynamic experiences to it’s students.”

If only they’d asked questions instead of building someone else’s solution.

What questions? How about:

  •  What is the problem we are trying to solve?
  • What resources – physical and virtual – are at our disposal to help us solve that problem?
  • What is it about the urban program that we would like our students to experience in our own community?
  • What are the differences between our setting and the urban school and how do those differences present advantages and disadvantages?
  • What questions did the urban school ask as they developed their program?

Coming at the issue from a questioning rather than copying standpoint would likely have allowed our rural school to head off many, if not all, of the problems it experienced in implementation.

Perhaps the school would realize the lack of immediately local partners was an opportunity for students to identify local needs for community organizing and coordination. Perhaps the school would recognize that students could build these partnerships for the betterment of their town and leverage online access to experts and information to help build student capacity where deficits existed.

Questioning, not copying, would likely have resulted in a product that looks little like the urban program on the surface, but a product that provides the rural students with the same kinds of learning experiences that excited the rural team in the first place.

In the same way we don’t borrow from another puzzle when we realize we are missing a few pieces from the jigsaw we’re currently working, we cannot expect copying from other systems will provide the fit we need to serve the people in our care.

Passing the test of knowing how to talk to kids

Marcie Hull said something toward the beginning of our friendship that told me we would get along well.

When pointing to a couple at a restaurant during one of our first meals together, Marcie said, “He knows how to talk to kids.”

The he of the mixed-sex pair, was presumably the father of the 6 or 7 year old girl sitting between them.

I paused for a moment to eavesdrop on the conversation going on at the other table before asking Marcie what she meant.

I heard the man talking to the child in a voice that was warm, engaged, and likely very similar to the same voice he would use with the woman sitting with him or to a server that happened by.

I asked Marcie if what I was inferring had captured her meaning, and she said it had.

Since that conversation, this has become one of the litmus tests I use the first time I meet adults who work with children. Right or wrong, it is my brain deciphering how much those adults believe children are capable of.

The tone we reserve for babies and pets does not urge children to respond with aspiration.

It is a tone not of equals, but of esteem. Often, adults to who use this tone or register with children are also willing to have conversations with children to help them work through whatever they may misunderstand or question about a situation.

In his book How Children Learn, John Holt brings up this point again and again when describing encounters with children intent upon learning something. A child proffers a question and Holt proffers an answer in a tone he might also offer a colleague of similar age and experience.

His words (and the words I’ve seen Marcie use time and again when helping children work through difficult problems) are perhaps more intricate. They contain fewer assumptions of the shared language of mastery that can build up over time.

This is the tone we should use with our students, those who show up to learn alongside us each day.

They are, as Dewey implied, more immature in their learning, but not in their curiosity about the world.

The tone we reserve for babies and pets does not urge children to respond with aspiration.

I should make the distinction here between tone and content.

There are some who agree with what I’ve written so far with whom I deeply disagree. These are the people who talk to kids in the tone I’m describing, but bring that tone to bear encumbered by the expectations of adulthood. These adults forget the tempest of emotions they likely experienced during their youth and the vulnerability that comes with learning something new or complex like engineering or fitting in to new social situations. They forget they are the adults in the conversation and that the children with whom they are speaking are in their care.

These adults confusing speaking as an adult with speaking to an adult.

That’s unfair.

Working with a new class of ninth graders, Marcie speaks to them with a tone of esteem and respect, but her words also denote an underlying listening that is taking place between each thing she says. She is probing to find out how she can most effectively leverage her own experiences as a technologist, an artist, or a person against the learning taking place without becoming overwhelming.

Holt understood this too. He wrote about answering a child’s questions and accepting when the child wandered off, ready to mess about with something else. He wasn’t angered. He didn’t try to fill the space between them with more and more content as the figurative passing bell chimed. Not only was the tone he used respectful of the people he was interacting with, but he was respectful when they signaled they’d received the answers they needed. I think of this as the same way you or I would accept the signals from adult colleague when they noted they were ready to move on.

I know there are many ways to talk about this, from discussions of register to developmental tones. For me, what helps me keep my thinking centered, is Marcie’s plainly laid out knowing how to talk to kids.

Let’s honor the questions in the room

Finger face with a question

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” 
― Thomas PynchonGravity’s Rainbow

I called a store today to ask for a thing. It quickly became clear that this was the wrong store for the thing I was looking for. Usually, this would be the end of the conversation. It turned out not to be in this case.

“Well, what kind are you looking for?” the salesman on the other end of the line asked.

I explained in greater detail the doodad I was looking for, which, remember, we’d already established his store DID NOT HAVE.

“Hold on,” he said, “Let me take a look online.”

I waited a moment while he followed up on some leads. “Okay, here’s where you need to look,” he told me and then sent me on to a site with which he and his store were wholly unaffiliated with.

I thanked him for his time and attention to detail. Before we ended the conversation he told me to call back if those leads proved fruitless and he’d see what else he could do.

You, as I did, are probably flashing back to Macy’s and Gimbel’s. I want to take it a step further, because it’s been jangling around in my head as an important point to remember as we lead classrooms and professional learning.

The questions we’re there to answer may not be the questions those with whom we are working show up excited to ask.

It happened all the time for me as a student (at all levels). The teacher would introduce a topic of study and my brain would immediately begin generating questions sometimes ancillary, sometimes tertiary related to the topic. I would raise my hand, ask my question, and be greeted with a reply that told me I asked an interesting question, but that wasn’t the business of the day.

Eventually, I learned how to play school a little better. When a subject was introduced, I stifled the questions brewing from my own perspective and started to try to ask the question I thought the teacher or professor wanted me to ask. Sometimes, I knew the answers, but I’d learned that wasn’t so important to the teaching the teacher was there to do.

What the man on the phone reminded me today, and the lesson I hope to take with me the next time I work with a group, is that I’m there to help whomever I’m working with find answers to the questions that walk into the room. If we do that in our classrooms and staff meetings, then the other folks in the room – the ones walking in with the questions – might see our time together as that much more valuable.

Inquiry Beats Mastery

An education with inquiry as it’s goal beats an education with mastery as it’s goal every time.

I didn’t realize this is how I feel until a friend asked about the role of mastery at SLA.

Here’s why.

Mastery takes as it’s goal a finished target. This might not always be its intent, but it is the implication whenever we say the goal is getting a student to the point where they or we can say they have “mastered” some content or skill. Such a goal does not invite a logical next step.

Contrastingly, inquiry takes as its goal a continuing cycle of attempting to find things out. Questions beget questions, which beget questions.

If we are asking good questions, our students are going to examine the work they are doing and the answers (partial or whole) they find will lead to the generation of ideas that require more questions be answered before an issue be set aside as satisfactorily answered for the moment.

Some questions, lead to mastery mindset rather than a cycle of inquiry.

If the professional learning modules we are building in my district to help teachers consider and plan for teaching and learning in a 1:1 environment, I am attempting to thoughtfully craft essential questions for each one with avoiding a mastery mindset as one of my goals.

In the module investigating Internet wellness and digital citizenship in middle schools, one question reads, “What is a teacher’s role in helping students consider digital wellness?”

Whatever their initial thinking, a teacher grappling with this question will continue to evolve the answer throughout his career.

“How does a teacher block a website?” Doesn’t invite the same questioning. A skill is learned, and the content mastered. What’s more, when the process changes (as these things inevitably do), a mastery mindset invites a presupposition that the learning was taken care of the first go ’round.

Mastery makes sense as a tool for inquiry. In considering the biological answers to the essential question, “Who am I?” An SLA ninth grader will likely need to master some pieces of proper lab technique or working with the scientific method in the service of their questioning.

As questions become more detailed and the topics more complex, even that mastery will need refinement in hopes of more exact questions.

Mastery offers a waypost of certainty in what can start to feel like an endless cycle of inquiry. For students who frustrate easily, this can be a relief, a respite that allows them to say, “I don’t have the answers I seek, and I know this for now.”

Inquiry with moments of mastery is an invitation to greater discovery founded in growing abilities.


Photo via Candace Nast

116/365 Find Something Interesting, Ask Questions

oppression/liberation

On the pavement of a running and biking path are two images left by an anonymous stencil artist. The first is a profile of a woman wearing a hijab. Slightly lower and to the right of this image is another painted, stenciled image of what could easily be a rendering of an image of a mid-twentieth century pin-up girl.

Below the woman in the hijab is a single word “Oppression?” and below the pin-up girl, “Liberation?”

While some might see these images and bemoan the defacement of public property, in reality there is much more to be found in this small stretch of sidewalk.

This is a quarter’s worth of deep curriculum here that could push the most precocious students to challenge their beliefs about the world.

  • What is public property?
  • What does it mean to be liberated?
  • What does it mean to be oppressed?
  • How is gender defined across cultures?
  • How does your view of the world influence your understanding of how other people live?
  • What does art do?
  • What should art do?
  • Who decides the value of art?
  • When might it be acceptable to break the law?

The questions are potentially never-ending. They should be. Good, thoughtful teaching and learning is a process more generative of questions than hard answers.

In the schools we need, the world provides a curriculum rife with opportunities for questions, and the people within these schools recognizes these opportunities for what they are and could be.

This image on the sidewalk need not come packaged in an aligned, approved, and adopted curriculum. It need only come from an individual who has developed the habit of mind that allows, “Hmmm, that looks interesting,” to be followed by, “I’ll take a picture of that and see what we can do with it.”

In the simplest of terms, this process is probably perpetrated by classroom teachers. At least at first, this is likely the only way to cultivate such curiosity (especially given the educational and curiosity neglect many children face in schools). Given time, though, this will become the culture of the classroom. Given more time, it will become the culture of the school.

Most importantly, given space, this will develop an understanding that neither classroom nor school is defined by the walls of a building or a designations outlined by a district.

For any of the questions listed above, the only materials necessary for diving down the rabbit hole of inquiry is a device to capture and share the image and then not much else. If the questions are being asked in a school with wi-fi access and a “bring your own device” policy, excellent. If it is a school with access to 1:1 computers, superb. A computer cart or lab? Tremendous. A library within the school or down the street? That’ll do nicely.

In the same way that schools must learn to follow questions and allow them to generate more questions, they must consider resources as generative as well. After, “What are our questions?” teachers and students must ask, “How will we find answers?”

Some spaces with over-abundant resources and close community ties will find the process easier to navigate. Those schools with limited access will find it more difficult. What experience has shown and what can always be relied on is the fact that a good and worthwhile set of questions communally generated can overcome however easy or difficult the process may seem.

If students need to find answers, they will find them. This will not change the difficulty of the process in the most isolated schools of Appalachia or the poorest of urban schools. It will, however, make that difficulty surmountable.

A camera and the openness for questions. From there, it’s hard to imagine anything standing in the way of learning.

53/365 The Most Important Question is What Students are Curious About

Sit in any classroom, traditional or not, and wait until the end. Then, attend to following question, “What were the students in this class curious about?”

It will be tempting, in this excercise, to answer with what they were “supposed” to be curious about, what questions were asked as a class via teacher re-direction, or what you yourself were curious about and thereby assigned to the students. Don’t do any of these things.

Instead, look at the notes you were copiouslly jotting down during your observation and try to find direct, empirical evidence of student curiosity. If you cannot, something is wrong.

One of my favorite questions to ask when debriefing a lesson teachers have just taught is to ask them what they thought students were curious about during the class period. To do so reframes our reflection on teaching in a way that looks to learning as a process of exploration based on the naturally occurring questions and wonder that come along with encountering new ideas. Ask any teacher more in love with their content area than anything else why they love that content, and they’re likely to describe some formative experience when they started questioning and never quite found the motivation to stop. Sadly, these same teachers, enamoured of their content often fail to hold enough back in their teaching to invite those same questions from their students.

Lessons in these classrooms often become, “I know this, and this, and this, and this…and you should too.” Students in these settings have no need for curiosity. The content is presented to them as having uncovered all the answers worth finding.

If our goal is to foster in our students the same sort of wonder that drives our own curiosity, we must realize the answer is not showing all that we know and can be known.

Instead, the answer comes from Kurt Vonnegut’s eight basics of creative writing as outlined in his short story collection Bagombo Snuff Box. We don’t even need all eight. One will do.

“Start as close to the end as possible.”

While appropriating a guideline for fiction writing may seem strange when discussing those things worth knowing as true, it certainly isn’t. To instill curiosity in our students (and ourselves) we must start as close to the end of the story as possible.

History classes are as fine an example as any. In their most traditional sequence, these classes begin with the earliest recorded history and then move forward across the years. Oddly enough, since we began the teaching of history, more of it has taken place, but that might not be obvious in the contemporary history class. A student graduating high school might have learned about the past through the end of World War II (maybe the Vietnam War if he’s lucky), but that is likely where history ended for this student because of our fascination with passing on our knowledge of how things are starting with the earliest details as though they are inherently important to those during the learning.

Imagine, instead, if we take a page from Vonnegut, and teach history starting as close to the end as it stands now and walk into a classroom saying, “Here’s what happened in the world yesterday, what questions does that raise?” Such a class is likely to face a time crunch just as the traditional class did. This time, that crunch will be students not having enough time to ask and search for answers to all the questions that arise rather than the teacher not having enough time to lead an abstract field trip that finds as its point of origin ancient Mesopotamia.

If we ground our reflection in “What were they curious about?” and start our teaching as close to the end as possible so as to draw out that curiosity, we will have moved a long way to creating the schools we need.