If You’re Going to Do Test Prep, Don’t Be Horrible (20/365)

Photo by ShareGrid on Unsplash

We will, at a later date, examine me railing against test preparation. For today, though, let’s take a look at the problem below.

It is not unlike a problem a well-meaning teacher might put in front of their students. Because exposure/preparation/familiarity. Our well-meaning teacher would take this or something like it from a released bank of items on Standardized Exam Ultra and give it to their students to complete. Why not? The items are aligned to standards, the students will see things like this when they take the real Standardized Exam Ultra, so let’s get them started.

Pedagogy aside (and it’s quite difficult not to go off that way), a completed and scored set of these practice items would give the teacher little to no useful information by which he could shift his practice.

Let’s say 90 percent of the class misses question three. What would scoring this question tell our teacher? Well, it would tell him, in a class of 30 students, 27 got the question wrong. What he’d be likely to claim is this shows his students don’t understand verb tenses, commas, and apostrophes. That’s quite a bit to fit into a single question. In reality, there are at least 27 different paths each of these incorrect students could have taken to reaching the wrong answer. Getting this question wrong only informs instruction insofar as our teacher was wondering whether students got it wrong or right.

If our teacher insists on using this form of assessment, I’d point to a few easy tweaks that would provide greater clarity while increasing the cognitive load on students. I’d even go so far as to claim these tweaks would increase the likelihood of the students arriving at the correct answer.

My first alteration is to include a space under each question asking students how they reached the answer they chose. This reveals the paths students took not only to incorrect answers, but correct answers as well. Suddenly, our teacher is able to better understand process. It also moves student reflection into the assessment itself. Rather than asking students why they missed a problem post hoc, we are building a mechanism for students to consider the why of their choices in the moment. Here is the first place I’d argue our group of 27 is more likely to shrink as students pause to think about what they’re doing in ways exercises like these don’t naturally demand. We even put value on answers of “I don’t know.”

What if the shift above isn’t the only move we make? What if we add another space for feedback. This time, though, our students have passed their papers to another classmate and our teacher has asked each classmate to look at the answer and justification of her peer and then reply with her thoughts on the justification? At this point, we’ve begun a conversation, if small, where our students are no longer looking at the answers, but looking at the reasoning and asking if they arrived anywhere worth going.

Think, then, of the information our teacher is working with when he collects these papers. Rather than simply knowing if a given student got a question correct or incorrect, he now also knows how they got there and has given all the class an opportunity to chime in on that thinking at the same time.

The next day, he might pull together students who took similar approaches to reaching the incorrect answer and offer some targeted instruction in correcting their missteps. He might not point out the errors, but put our three correct students in a group with 9 other peers and have them work in small groups to consider how they answered and why they made the choices they did.

It is conceivable our class might grow frustrated with our teacher’s lack of simply telling the correct answer. This is good. I’m assuming these students have computers disguised as phones in their pockets and bookbags. When the discussion reaches its highest frustration, our teacher might say, “Okay, see if you can find help online.”

Here, we’ve taken something boring and inauthentic and built a community around it. We’ve manufactured value to something that originally would have told us if students picked the correct letter or the incorrect letter. While this is not preferable to some authentic, contextualized tasks that would also lead students to practice these skills, it is certainly better than we found it.

How Not to Build the Systems You Hate

framing hammer collection 2007

Quite a bit, I get to work with schools and districts as they work to think through their strategic plans. Visions and mission statements are set. They are quickly complemented by action items and assignments of responsibility. An excitement, a fervor start to pass over those assembled. This is it! They are finally moving!

And then I stop things.

Anyone who has begun this work has done so because the status quo is no longer acceptable. They have become frustrated because so much of what is being done is justified by the way the system has operated in the past. They’ve always done it that way. Over and over again, folks are upset by the sturdiness of the system. Banging and clawing at it, they’ve gotten me in the room after a prolonged fight.

So, I ask, “Where is the timeline for review?”


We are in the room because of frustration over a lack of reconsideration of priorities. There has been no institutional process for reflecting on whether things are going well. More often than not, the newly proposed system (no matter how forward-thinking) is equally devoid of review.

As much as they may recognize the need for student reflection, for professional pause to consider their practice, they have not thought to include it in their new plans for their schools and districts.

It’s possible they see their new mission, vision, and the lot as perfect. I don’t think that’s it. More likely, they are excited by he possibility of change. The immediate future overrides the later possible.

And that’s why I stop things.

Without planning a process for review, they have doomed themselves to repeat the past. They have cemented the status quo. Without intending to, they have built a structure against which future members of the community will hit their heads.

They have made the arbitrary.

That’s the key for anyone building something new. You are creating something of value to you with deep theoretical roots planted in the soil of today.

This is how the systems you’re fighting against were begun.

Build something better.

This doesn’t mean anticipating the future. As anyone with a platform and technological megaphone will tell you, we can’t anticipate the future. Instead, it means anticipating the future will need something else – something specific to the time.

In any system, the arbitrary is the most unfair. It is the thing to which people point and say, “Well, it’s always been that way.” It is the immovable that most needs moving.

So, we stop things and look at the system they have designed and start asking where it makes sense for future community members to be called upon to examine the status quo for cracks in the foundation.

What makes sense today will be the status quo of tomorrow. It will come replete with the seemingly arbitrary trapping of “we’ve always done it this way”, and that is reason enough to guard against it.

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.

Asking Who I Want to Be


A few weeks ago. An email from a friend, “I just took this job, and I got an offer for this other job. What should I do?”

My response, “Who do you want to be in this situation?”

End of conversation.

That was the guidance necessary, not an answer, but a question to which I did not know the answer.

This is often the case.

At SLA, Chris will often say his hopes for the students are that they will leave the school thoughtful, wise, passionate, and kind.

I want those things too, but it’s not my answer. My answer with anyone is that I hope I can in some way help them on their way to being the better version of themselves.

It’s my answer for myself too.

Today, in a conversation at work, I found myself faced with a colleague whose approach was to point out the problems we were facing and then stare at me. The eyes I saw across the table said, “Problems everywhere. Probably more problems on the horizon. Might as well pack it in.”

If you’ve spent any time with me, it’s clear I’m not keen on dwelling for long on the difficulties problems present. Sitting across the table, I could feel the little stress ball starting somewhere between my stomach and my chest.

In that moment, I asked myself, “Who do I want to be right now?” The act of asking moved me from loudly inquiring, “How did you let these problems happen in the first place?” and moved me to, “What are do you suggest we do next?”

To be sure, I was still frustrated. I still am. The difference was asking who I wanted to be when I found myself sitting in frustration. In the second it took me to think of my answer, I was able to change tack. As I’m recounting this story here, I realize I’m closer to proud of that version of me than I would have been if I’d let loose what I was feeling in the moment.

It’s a question I’ve had to ask myself quite a bit in the last week as I’ve watched the aftermath of Charleston, people’s response to today’s health insurance decision, and either way the gavel falls on marriage equity in the next few days.

“Who am I?” is important.

“Who do I want to be?” is equally so.

Capturing (Balancing and Being Present for) 2015

Glenn Robbins tagged me in his tweet of this thoughtful post on reflection and his goals for 2015. It concludes with a short set of words toward which Glenn has taken aim for the year ahead. He shares the tweet below from Jon Gordan regarding resolutions and gearing up for the new year.

I’ve been sitting on the post for a bit as I thought about what my word or words would be. A few days in, and I think I’ve noticed a trend. This year has all the makings of being about capturing for me. From logging miles to snapping photos, from blogging daily to recording stray conversations, I’m hoping this year ends well-documented.

My time in D.C. has a clock on it, and from the moment I got the offer to come out here, I have held it in my head that I need to savor the experiences, the connections, and the learning. Hopefully, capturing as much of it as possible will allow me the kind of mementos my grandparents evoke when I visit and hear about their slides from Europe or the photo albums my grandmother has curated over the decades.

As I write this, two other words seem key to the ballyhoo of capturing and documenting the year I find myself in – balance and presence. I don’t want to be so set on capturing memories that I forget to live them, to be present. As I document and curate that documentation, I want also to live in what I’m documenting. I want to balance the capture of memory with presence in what will be remembered.

Thinking about this, I turned to Daniel Kahneman’s TED Talk (embedded below) on “anticipated memory.” I’d seen it a bit ago, and it was a good time to turn back to it. This led me down the Google rabbit hole to the video below with Jason Silva’s take on Kahneman’s ideas.

“We all become architects of our mental narratives,” Silva says. I like that. As I think about my life as trying to be an architect of the future I’d like to see, I’m also architect of the past I will recount.

Documenting it here and in other spaces allows me to “italicize the memory” as Silva says. In the end, it’s no different than my grandparents’ slides and albums. I know they were present, and I know they worked to find balance. I also know from the stories my father and uncles tell when my grandparents have left the room that the memories being relayed and italicized aren’t the whole story.

History never has been. I suppose this year, I’m committing to capturing the story knowing full well some parts will be left out.


Remembering ‘The Good Stuff’


Facebook Reading

Sometimes I think of all the times in this sweet life when I must have missed the affection I was being given. A friend calls this “standing knee-deep in the river and dying of thirst.”

– Robert Fulghum

I started packing for a move today. I hate packing, and I hate moving, so it’s a special kind of day when I get to be thinking about both.

The nice moment, though, is the special kind of reflection I forget is part of moving from one home to another. It’s the process of deciding what piece of the past, what belongings in the old house need to make the transition to the new house so that it might be the new home as well.

For me, in every move since I first became a classroom teacher, there is a manilla folder that gives me pause. It is similar to the memory boxes my mom kept for my sister and me as we were growing up.

It’s not labeled, and it’s outgrown what’s inside long ago. Still, a manilla folder is the right container.

If it had a label, it would simply be “The Good Stuff.”

This is a folder that holds the notes and fragments of teaching. There are letters from parents, drawings from students, notes passed in class. These aren’t all the piece of teaching.

The folder doesn’t hold any perfunctory Christmas cards clearly scribbled at the behest of a doting parent.

Instead, there’s the note from Kyle, whom I got to teach when he was in 8th grade. Toward the end of the year, Kyle and I had a handful of talks about how his group of friends was changing. He talked in the most nascent of ways about who he wanted to be in high school and beyond, and I held my tongue as much as I could because I knew he had to learn these lessons for himself.

Kyle’s note, scribbled in the scratch that belied the haste in which it was written is a simple, heartfelt thank you for simply being there and listening. I knew what it meant to me that Kyle was willing to work through his thinking aloud to me. It was this note, though, that let me know Kyle was also grateful for those conversations.

One card is written out in the experienced hand of a mother. I’d been able to teach her son three of his four years in high school. They had not been uneventful. His graduation was of the sort where those faculty in his orbit had looked at one another as he crossed the stage and traded a glance that said, “We made it.”

This mother’s note simply said she knew things had been trying and she was forever grateful for the time and care I’d shown her son.

The thing I remember most when I leaf through my file is that these notes arrived on my desk or in my mailbox as a result of no superhuman effort, no extraordinary circumstances. These came as a result of me doing my job and those most affected by that work taking the time to let me know they took notice and were grateful.

As much as these notes were a place of support at the end of days of teaching where the temptation was to give it all up to be a turnip farmer, they mean something else now. In my work supporting teachers, leaders, and learners, these notes and the things that led them to being are a reminder of the importance of taking time (just a few moments) to thank the people around me for the time and dedication they show when they do the work we do.

I love my file of good stuff. Even more, I love the idea that something I jot down might make its way into someone else’s good stuff.

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.

148/365 Let’s Begend


I’ve been on the road the last five days, crossed three time zones, and had innumerable conversations with educators of all stripes.

As it sit in the Minneapolis airport, waiting for my flight to board, this feels like the right time to start to reflect on the slam of excellent idea exchanges I’ve had the good fortune to experience over the last several days.

My handy dandy notebook is full of seeds of posts, so I’m expecting this space to be informed by those seeds for the next few entries. I hope you’ll join in my reflection and participate in the conversation. My understanding is always more fully formed when informed by the voices of others.

What strikes me now, though, is the difficulty I’ve had in the last few evenings trying to get my thinking out as I experience things.

More than once, I’ve sat down with the intention of capturing at least a piece of the day’s thinking, only to be confounded by the notion that I was still in the experience, still living the things about which I wanted to write.

The will was there, and the head space was lacking.

Each time, I started to wonder about how this feeling is embodied in the experiences of students across our learning spaces each day.

A math student is cold called amid a lesson to explain his thinking and freezes because his grain was busy buffering the new material and constructing the connections to what he’d learned previously.

The history student finds herself up against a deadline to write a reflective blog post about her work curating primary sources for a display to be experienced by younger students only to find that she’s more consumed with determining how best to achieve flow in the presentation than she is able to coherently spew her thoughts online for others to read.

In the same way that learning must happen in its own time and students must have the space to connect ideas and build artifacts of learning, we must remember that the artifacts of reflection (the metacognitive learning) must also come at its own space.

I will need a few days to process some of the more powerful conversations of the last week. Some require distance of time and space before they can be externalized.

This I will take with me as I help others in their learning. In the classroom, a frequent practice is to ask students to reflect on their learning immediately after a project has been completed or an assignment has been submitted.

Beginning reflection, I’m understanding, required more distance than our immediate or arbitrary classroom deadlines often allow.

Let’s begend.

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.

17/365 Back to Dewey 1.5 – ‘The Nature of Freedom’

It may be a loss rather than a gain to escape from the control of another person only to find one’s conduct dictated by immediate whim and caprice; that is, at the mercy of impulses into whose formation intelligent judgment has not entered. A person whose conduct is controlled in this way has at most only the illusion of freedom. Actually forces over which he has no command direct him.

– John Dewey

Experience & Education

This post continues a mini-series examining John Dewey’s Experience & Education chapter-by-chapter.

Though one of the shorter of the 8 chapters in this already-short tome, no. 5 packs a punch as I Dewey takes a moment to extoll the virtues of freedom – particularly freedom in schools.

Enforced quiet and acquiescence prevent pupils from disclosing their real natures. They enforce artificial uniformity. They put seeming before being. They place a premium upon preserving the outward appearance of attention, decorum, and obedience. And everyone who is acquainted with schools in which this system prevailed well knows that thoughts, imaginations, desires, and sly activities ran their own unchecked course behind this facade.

What sells this passage for me, which ultimately sums up the chapter perfectly, is Dewey’s own wink to the idea that, “We’ve all been there, right?” While the vast majority of his arguments and reasoning have been rooted in the language of philosophy up to this point, in Ch. 5, Dewey pulls back the curtain a bit to acknowledge that, in progressive education, he’s also describing the types of schools he would have liked to attend.

Freedom in learning, Dewey is writing, allows for action in learning. This, stands in stark opposition to the passivity he identifies in traditional school experiences.

And just as I was starting to wonder about this constant action and the criticism I could see it inviting, Dewey paused for a moment to speak to the importance of pausing. Learning, (true, active learning) my should be followed by moments of stillness and reflection so that students can take the information and knowledge they’ve gathered in their actions and organize it in a way that makes their experiences meaningful and opens questions for further experiences.

Freedom, yes. Freedom without organization and reflection, no.

Three things I wish I’d said to shift thinking about assignment deadlines

I’d asked for push back. Toward the end of my second keynote address in as many days at the Technology Integration & Instruction for the 21st Century Learner (TICL) conference in Storm Lake Iowa. I had the audience stand up, mix about, and share their thinking on what I’d just said.

The morning’s topic was “digital literacy” and I was highlighting projects I’ve designed as a teacher and completed as a student.

“What’s the ugly?” I’d asked, “What did you hear this morning that you don’t agree with.”

One of the participants raised his hand and said his partner understood the importance of choice, but wasn’t jiving with the portion of the writing project I’d described where students were allowed to set their own due dates.

He was a business teacher, you see, and in the business world you aren’t allowed to miss deadlines. Letting students set their own schedules would mean missed deadlines, and that wouldn’t do.

In the moment I agreed with the teacher. He was teaching a business class. If meeting deadlines was a skill firmly planted in his curriculum, then perhaps more freedom wasn’t the answer in that arena.

Since then, I’ve had some opportunity to think more on the matter, and my answer was wrong.

1. Most of the undesirable habits we say won’t fly in the business world probably will. I’ve heard enough stories from friends in the business sector of employees who don’t meet deadlines or need a bit of extra time on a project. Those employees, it turns out, don’t lose their jobs. “You won’t be able to get away with this in the workplace,” is teacher code for, “Because I said so.” While it would be easy to suggest that taking a more hands-off approach could lead to further reinforcement of bad business practice, you need only survey the current global business playing field to realize the strict hierarchical, authoritarian approach hasn’t led us anywhere good.

2. Make deadlines worth meeting. The auditorium wasn’t the place to have this conversation. If I’d been talking with this teacher in a breakout session or one-on-one it would have been an excellent opportunity for the difficult conversation around the goals of deadlines. In adults’ daily lives, if we’re playing the game correctly, we’re faced with requirements of our jobs that ask us to keep up with deadlines. We meet them because they are the terms of staying connected with something we’ve determined is important and valuable in our lives. Assignments and class deadlines often assume students are playing by the same rules and with the same intent. Often they aren’t. Assignment to a class or registration to fulfill a credit requirement isn’t the same as jumping administrative hoops as part of a job you’ve chosen and find intrinsically rewarding.

3. Learning is the goal. If students aren’t learning, the question shouldn’t be “How can I lock this class down so they have no choice but to complete the assignments?” It should be, “What’s going on in my instructional practice that’s turning kids off to learning?” It’s a more sensitive and ego-deflating question, but it runs a far greater risk of improving and increasing learning than racheting up the perceived punishments of coming to class.

Of course, all of this is contingent on whether or not the teacher in the audience was keen on a convervation or had decided this was the reason he was looking for to discount anything else that might shift his thinking.

I tend to assume the best in people, and I’m sorry I missed the chance for the conversation.