Saturday, September 14, 2013

Why all teachers should be trained to "think like a lawyer."

I am not a lawyer. At one point I thought I wanted to be one, and actually my first major in college was pre-law, but a stint as an intern for a defense attorney quashed that desire. Instead I went on to a Political Science degree and later became a teacher but as I reflect on my 15 years in the classroom and current work helping teachers and schools I've come to realize the importance of "thinking like a lawyer". While thinking about lawyers may conjure all kinds of connotations the core skill to focus on here involves the art of questioning.
Much of my professional life involves training teachers in project based learning and while there are a number of learnings I want teachers to leave my workshops with perhaps the most important one is the art and value of questioning. Great projects start with a great question for investigation and continue the cycle of inquiry throughout. While not all teachers and schools may go wall to wall PBL what I hope is that they will continually practice the use of questions to lead others and uncover information. Great lawyers are skillful at questioning in client interviews, jury selection, and courtroom examination as they lead and uncover important information in building their case. While we don't want to think of our classrooms as settings for putting students on trial we definitely want to use Socratic Method to lead them, much like a lawyer leads someone on the stand, to an understanding without saying the answer ourselves. In the famous scene from A Few Good Men shown above you see Tom Cruise as an attorney leading Jack Nicholson. In the end Nicholson says the things that Cruise's character hoped and while our motives are different, this practice of using questioning to lead students is precisely what we want to model in our classrooms.
Of course not all questioning is used to lead students in pursuit of productive struggle. As teachers we also want to use questions to engage students and formatively assess their progress and modeling the practice as a habit of mind shows students how to do so themselves. Formative assessment uncovers student progress so we can know how to respond in order to build deficiencies.  This requires asking the right questions and as this (kind of cheesy) Mindtools video to the left notes, asking the wrong questions doesn't get us the information we need. Using methods like Socratic Seminar and Critical Friends Groups pushes students (and teachers) to learn how to do this and certainly highly evolved PBL classrooms have students constantly engaged in inquiry and questioning.
As we strive to prepare for college and career readiness it's important to note that great questioning requires the deep critical thinking that make students successful in both settings. This kind of rigor shows up as students learn to use different types of questioning and while teachers may be experts of content, the skills that trained lawyers excel in are the true key to unlocking student learning. Strong instructional design sets scenarios where students engage with the content by asking questions instead of the teacher dictating it. This intentional architecture includes ill-defined
problems that require students to identify things they need to know that should line up with your subject matter so they're working to uncover content instead of the teacher merely "covering" it. While teachers may be used to having all the answers I'll leave you with a question that stems from this comic that in the full version feels almost like a cross-examination...Is it better to have all the answers or all the questions?

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Assessing creativity with critical thinking

The other day as I showed one of the new Common Core ELA aligned presentation rubrics published by the Buck Institute for Education to a few colleagues I noticed a somewhat strong reaction to the word "creativity" being included in one of the sections. To be clear, this rubric is meant to assess a demonstration in project based learning that falls in the category of communication but the word creative shows up in the above standard "presentation aids" section. While the list of potential 21st Century Skills developed by various groups and organizations can be overwhelming many like to focus on the four C's (critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity). While I have argued for inclusion of compassion in a previous blog entry I think it's worth exploring the intersection of critical thinking and creativity and consider merging them for assessment purposes.

Just over one year ago, Grant Wiggins argued the merits of assessing creativity in a blog post. In that post he mentions synthesis as a level of thinking for creativity. I agree and think we can expand that to include evaluation and application as well. Using Sir Ken Robinson's definition of creativity, the process of having original ideas that have value, you can see how this might apply to the upper level of Bloom's taxonomy. Isn't the process of creating valuable ideas really evaluating, analyzing and applying prior knowledge in order to synthesize it into something original and useful? Paul Curtis of New Tech Network recently addressed this creative process through questioning in his recent blog, A Good Question is Better Than a Great Answer. As  he notes, "it is clear that fostering creativity and innovation can only happen if students are asked questions that don't have a predetermined correct answer". As students engage in in-depth inquiry, the process of moving from left to right in the image above would necessitate the application of prior knowledge (activated by a Driving Question) as a point of divergence followed by the analysis and evaluation of the ideas generated to converge toward solutions. Through this process of synthesis comes Robinson's "original ideas that have value." Returning to Grant Wiggins, he offers a rubric for creativity that includes language of synthesis like:
  • The problem has been imaginatively re-framed to enable a compelling and powerful solution
  • There is an exquisite blend of the explicit and implicit
that make even more clear the intersection of critical thinking and creativity 
Incorporating elements of design thinking and project based learning to identify challenges and solutions of value can be a fantastic invitation to creative thinking. Fostering creativity is one thing, assessing it is an entirely different matter and in my work training teachers implementing PBL, the issue of assessment is often one of the more daunting challenges. As a teacher, on presentation day, having too many things to assess in a short and intense time can be overwhelming and counterproductive. Instead of using separate rubrics meant to assess creativity and critical thinking you might consider using one with the language of critical thinking while looking for student processing toward original ideas that have value. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Too much collaboration?

I like to collaborate and I do it often. I collaborate when I design and deliver PBL workshops for the Buck Institute for Education, in my independent consulting work, and I certainly do it in my work with the Collaborative for Teaching and Learning. That being said, sometimes I'm a loner. Quite often I prefer to work from home instead of going into the office or at least wear headphones when I am in. The office is a busy place with people who talk to me and ask me questions and while I do enjoy chatting it's not always the most productive setting. As an educator I strongly believe in the power of collaboration but as Jason Fried points out in the video below, too much collaboration can be counterproductive.
One of the hallmarks (and criticisms) of Project Based Learning is group or team work. It's great to get students working with each other but if we place students in tables or pull desks together in squares and require them to stay that way throughout the project are we asking for trouble? A high functioning PBL classroom often looks messy with students sometimes appearing to be off-task (unlike adults who are laser focused 100% of the time in meetings and workshops right?) and some off- task behavior is natural. But placing students in an environment where they're forced to have to tune out the distractions that others can create for no real reason can be problematic. What would happen if we allowed students to check in with their groups when necessary and work on their own to complete work? Taking it a step further and moving away from seat time to a competency based model what if students could "work from home", the coffee shop, or in a location in the school building and attend meetings when necessary and appropriate? Teaching collaboration skills doesn't mean students should be collaborating all of the time nor does it mean they should be locked into their groups 100% of the time. Just like lectures and worksheets (or any part of instruction), collaboration has a time and place and too much of a good thing can be a recipe for disaster that leaves you wondering what happened at the end of your projects. Teaching students 21st Century Skills like collaboration is important but don't fall into the trap of trying to do too much of a good thing. Let your groups and teams breathe in an organic way that allows them to come together when it makes sense but work alone when the distractions of other students might slow the progress of your projects. When the time together becomes a bit more scarce you may just find that students level of productivity will increase, especially if the work they are doing is purposeful and meaningful.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

(A few) Secrets of Project Based Learning

Project Based Learning is riding a surging wave of popularity that may be a pushback to the achievement culture that's been created by high stakes accountability testing. During President Obama's recent visit to Manor New Tech High in Texas he celebrated the power of their PBL approach. Spend much time in Twitter's #edchat thread and you'll get a heavy dose of #PBL.  Regardless of the reason I'm excited to see this movement take hold and am enjoying the opportunity to work with schools around the country on refining their PBL practice. But not all PBL is created equal. They may have Essential ElementsSix A's or a variation of characteristics as starting points but truly great project based learning environments feature more.

Culture Shift

via @khkamps BIE PBL World
While it is true that effective project based learning can occur in small pockets the cultural shift that occurs when educators shift their overall instructional approach to one of facilitation is truly powerful. No longer is the teacher the giver of knowledge or the controller of behavior. Instead of the underlying tension of compliance, student behavior is shaped by a cycle of inquiry that is academically engaging. Additionally when teachers embrace a culture of sharing and refining their work using tools like Critical Friends Protocol they take the power of accountability into their own hands and place administrators in positions where they can facilitate and support outstanding teaching. Highly evolved PBL schools have less of the traditional routines of a "normal" school day and more of the norms and expectations of productive workplaces. As schools and teachers begin their PBL journey it's absolutely understandable (and often recommended) when they take baby steps into the process with just a project or two a year. Actually when I work with schools I see it as part of my job to scale back teacher implementation in some cases. I would much rather have teachers do a limited project successfully than a more ambitious one and have it be a trainwreck. With that initial experience under their belt it's the evolution to highly functioning PBL teachers and students that makes for a school culture focused on deep teaching and learning.


Great project based learning is designed with student engagement in mind. Many a frustrated parent and teacher have complained of the short attention span of children but when students are engaged they have very little trouble focusing. Try tearing a kid away from an activity they truly love and this becomes quite apparent. As the Gallup Student Poll shows the decline in student engagement drops significantly as students become "educated". From the active excitement of elementary students to the displeasure of middle school to the outright anger of high school students we need to be asking this question: Why would we not design instruction in a way that engages students? The pitfall here is that we often design activities and lessons that we as teachers think should be engaging and then become frustrated when our students don't find it so interesting. I love supply and demand curves but my students, well not so much. What if we helped our students identify and problem-solve instances of cognitive dissonance? What if we allowed them to demonstrate their learning in ways that they enjoy? While this is a tough nut to crack I'm a firm believer that when we solve the engagement riddle the rest of the problems that we often face as teachers go away.

                               Great Questions

The art of great questioning is just that, an art. In the truest sense of craftsmanship refining this skill takes tremendous practice and sometimes leaves students frustrated. As teachers it's tempting to provide answers, and quite often students will plead for just that, but the power of leading student thinking through questioning fosters the type of critical thinking we're after. Outstanding PBL starts with a Driving Question that elicits interest and generates a multitude of student questions but it shouldn't stop there. As teachers and students evolve along the PBL continuum questioning becomes an integral part of daily activity. As they find answers new questions are generated, leading to new answers as the cycle of inquiry helps create self-evolving learners. Great inquiry is founded in divergent and open-ended questions with rich language that requires unpacking. Finding the "sweet spot" of productive struggle is sort of like Maslow's ideal of self-actualization, it's more of a journey than a destination.
Highly evolved teaching is a craft and an art where students and their work is our canvas. Releasing control and the focus from teacher to student is a liberating but scary step. As we refine our PBL practice there are more "secrets" to be revealed along the way. What kinds of hidden gems have you found in your journey?

Saturday, June 1, 2013

How do we know what children are learning?

Last month I rambled on about my distaste for standardized testing and how they seem to be the eventual outcome of any set of educational standards like the Common Core. My suggestion was a much more authentic assessment process that relied upon and trusted schools to do the heavy lifting of evaluating student learning. Chapter 9 from A Year at Mission Hill, one in a fantastic 10 part series, is a powerful glimpse inside such a process. Clearly this is not a quick and easy solution but it is one that our schools and students deserve. It will take more (and smarter) funding to allow for planning and conference time and it will require skilled teacher facilitators and leaders but the difference this kind of narrative feedback along with the opportunity to revise based on reflection is a stunning alternative to the culture created by high stakes testing. The communication and collaboration skills necessary to have this discussion won't show up on a standardized test. Neither will the data show the relationship and sense of community and a host of other vital skills our students will need to be evolving learners facing an uncertain and increasingly fast paced future. Backtracking to Chapter 8 we see students working together across disciplines and grade levels learning what adults are doing in "the real world" and learning how to ask them great questions. The excitement of the students is palpable as the bust open the box of books they helped create. This is the stuff of real teaching and learning. This is critical thinking and work that is meaningful. This is not preparing for a test and hoping to hit a benchmark in order to avoid a remediation class or worse. As mentioned toward the end of the first video (Chapter 9), this type of education is in constant danger in the current political climate so how do we advance the conversation so that all students get this kind of educational experience?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Teacher Prep Academies = charter schools for teachers?
Interesting post this week from Anthony Cody on his great blog on Edweek, Living in Dialogue about pending legislation that would enable teachers to be certified by alternative teacher prep academies instead of the traditional colleges of education. As Anthony points out there are some inherent problems in this approach and clearly some interesting politics at play but as a concept I find it intriguing in much the same way as charter schools. I won't argue that charter schools are problematic and being used as a political football but the question for me is why we need charter schools in the first place? If our traditional public school system was meeting the needs of students then charters wouldn't be necessary. And as Kentucky's Districts of Innovation (perhaps a preemptive strike against charter legislation) rolls out this year it seems clear that we need disruption to a system that continues to make it difficult for schools and leaders to prepare students for their futures.
The truth is too many of our schools and school leaders are mired in an outdated model that is not responsive to students. Exemplary schools doing great work are clearly the exception, not the rule. Another truth is that our teacher training systems have been similarly ineffective. Nearly any educator will confirm that one of the great ironies of this industry is how poor teacher pre-service preparation programs have historically been. Are charters and teacher prep academies the answer? As "anti-charter" as Anthony is we've had a couple great discussions about the powerful work being done by Albuquerque's ACE Leadership Academy, itself a charter school. He's even had their innovative Principal as a guest blogger. So it's not that charters are inherently bad, instead it's the way they've been applied and we can assume the same with teacher prep academies. A disruptive alternative that forces a major change in how teachers are trained is absolutely essential but it has to be driven by the right motives, thus is the conundrum. I don't want to be accused of participating in the war on teachers, there are many great ones, but the reality is our schools and teaching need to improve as do our teacher prep programs. What if teacher prep programs were like the one at High Tech High where they train their teachers much like an apprenticeship? I love the idea of innovative educators training future teachers in the craft of teaching, helping them refine their work as they work, not in some classroom on a university campus. Why don't our colleges of education engage with our public schools in meaningful ways like this instead of a bunch of uninspired coursework capped off by student/intern teaching? The future of education depends heavily on the teachers and the programs that train them so don't we have a moral imperative to respond? How can we transform our teaching force and prep programs without the entanglements that seem to come with charters and the like?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

(De) Testing the Common Core

The surge of Common Core State Standards, once hailed as a turning point in education, is under fire from the left and the right for a variety reasons but for me the most pressing issue is the assessment piece  and the tentacles that surround it. Taking a look at the anchor standards (ELA) for reading, writing, speaking and listening I like the language that relates to the upper levels of Bloom's taxonomy. We want our students (and adults!) to be great at interpreting, analyzing and evaluating all kinds of text. It's imperative that they be great communicators able to write clearly and coherently as well as speak effectively, using rich language, in the form of a monologue or dialogue where critical listening skills come into play. Developmental psychologists debate the age appropriateness of the grade level standards and while increasing the sophistication of the application of the anchor standards with age makes perfect sense to me I'm not sure explicitly outlining what that looks like works well with authentic assessment. Therein lies snake in the weeds for me, the assessment.

sample PAARC item
Having a solid set of standards and significant content is an essential piece of effective instructional design. Teachers should be starting with the end in mind and designing around authentic assessment of those standards and content. But how authentic are the standardized tests being designed around the Common Core? Having looked at some sample items from different companies like Smarter Balanced and PAARC I can appreciate the layered nature of the questioning shown in the image. This is much better than the isolated 4 choice multiple choice questions that we've seen for decades but as a student I would wonder "why"? Good questioning in a contrived context leaves less time for quality instruction and leaves thoughtful students with the feeling of being exploited. Being subjected to a random set of irrelevant questions so someone, somewhere can judge me and/or my school isn't exactly the most motivating scenario. But testing is just a necessary evil that students and schools just need to "get through it" right?  As the father of a 4 and 6 year old I acknowledge that sometimes there are indeed situations that necessitate doing things just because they need to be done but I'd argue that evaluating student and school progress is not one of them.

What's the answer?

So if not a standardized testing system then what? The answer is not easy and that is the problem, using standardized tests are the easy way out. While the nation's guidance counselors may disagree, administering one test that can be scored quickly and used to compare kids is relatively simple but the limits on the reliability and validity are questionable. The Common Core skills are a small part of what makes our students successful in college and career and limiting our evaluations to those skills is insulting. Much has been made of the progressive schooling in Finland and while the problems and challenges are not the same as in the US it is interesting to note some key differences. As this Smithsonian article points out the overhaul included a much different approach to teacher preparation that has allowed for statements like this: "Finland has vastly improved in reading, math and science literacy over the past decade in large part because its teachers are trusted to do whatever it takes to turn young lives around." So should we trust our teachers? Speaking in general terms yes, we should trust the intentions but having faith in their training is another thing. 

The parent in the video above remarks, that if our teachers don't know their student's learning by April we have a problem and she's absolutely right. While many of our schools may know scores of their students they haven't learned how to authentically assess the teaching and learning going on in the building, and there is a difference. It's imperative that we train our teachers to design instruction that effectively assesses our students so we can trust their judgement and feedback to be used in a way that standardized tests only hope to accomplish. This reform includes building systems, like tuning protocols, into our schools that ensure quality with narrative feedback and creating a culture of critical collaboration among students and staff. Instead of teacher evaluations based on checklists they should be having conversations around meeting essential elements. If we knew that our teachers were doing a great job of assessing students on the local level why would we need a behemoth of a testing system? With the concern of assessing teacher quality being a driving force behind the creation of our testing culture this will take a massive retooling by our teacher training institutions and a re-visioning of local quality controls. This isn't tinkering with incremental change, it will require a reboot of nearly every aspect of our educational system. Consistent calibration with established norms to ensure quality work at each school would allow students to be assessed within the normal parameters of their daily "school work" instead of being subjected to days of external testing.
The continuation of the "Culture of Achievement" that remains focused on preparing for tests and comparing scores is a dead-end road with a low ceiling for our students, schools country. Demanding that our legislators and schools focus on high quality, meaningful work that results in authentic assessment will produce more engaged and prepared students. Quality education will never be an easy proposition but grassroots efforts and campaigns seem to be swinging the discussion away from the relative "efficiency" of standardized tests and I'm hopeful we can help them gain enough strength to scale the mountain.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Teams and groups...does distance make the heart grow fonder?

Recently a friend and colleague of mine, Tom Stanley, shared this great RSA video of renowned leadership specialist Khoi Tu talking about the "Secrets of Superteams". This talk left me with some important takeaways, especially as they relate to the management of students in a project based learning setting.
In my experience training teachers in PBL workshops one of the typical concerns is how to form and manage teams. Some PBL models like Edvisions seem to favor individuals mostly working on projects by themselves but the Buck Institute for Education model I mostly work with suggests forming teams or groups of four as a best practice. That's not to say that individual project work can't be useful but if we're holding collaboration up as an essential 21st Century Skill then harnessing the power of groups is one of the best ways to address this. But what about those students who prefer to work alone? Sometimes students prefer to work alone because they're afraid they'll have to do the bulk of the work while others slack off and receive the same grade. Certainly one of the challenges of effective group work is designing and managing for individual accountability. When some students don't carry their weight there needs to be a systemic way for the the group and the teacher to address this. One method I've seen used successfully is to award the group a grade or points for their presentation or cumulative product then multiply those points by the number of group members and ask them to divide among themselves. So in practice this might look like the worksheet pictured below. In this system in order for one student to be awarded more points there will be fewer points available for others. This allows students to connect evidence of their work to their points and have the sometimes difficult discussion of holding one another accountable. Feel free to contact me if my admittedly brief description of this method leaves you with questions.
One of the points made by the speaker in the video that struck me was his telling of how the Rolling Stones have endured for 50+ years by giving one another space. As he describes the different roles Keith and Co. play in the band Tu notes that they often grew tired of one another. This would lead them to break apart from each other for a time but inevitably returning to work together again. Great groups are made up of great individuals playing their roles but often individuals become frustrated when they are not allowed appropriate space to work. A popular idiom says "distance makes the heart grow fonder". Keeping this in mind when working with groups or teams in PBL, how might you allow for individuals to reap the rewards of a diverse group while also offering them opportunities and space to work alone? Perhaps that means groups identify work to be done by each member with a timeline to return to the group to share their work. Your groups may not produce hits like the Rolling Stones but allowing individuals the option to work alone may help them to be happier and more productive individuals and as Tu says, great teams are made up of great individuals.