Thursday, September 24, 2015

Most Likely to Succeed or This Whole Thing Called School is...?

Last week I had the honor and pleasure to be invited by Renee Boss of The Fund KY to a round (well sort of a long rectangle) table discussion with a group of stakeholders in Kentucky education. The conversation starter was the education documentary Most Likely to Succeed, and we were joined by the producer Ted Dintersmith. The documentary was part of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and is currently being screened around the country including October 8th in Louisville. I had the opportunity to view the documentary this week and it reaffirmed many of my beliefs about education as a student, teacher, and now consultant with the opportunity to work with and be in schools around the country. The documentary and our round table discussion also left me with questions including this biggest one: how do we get the American public to understand the urgent need for change in our education system in a way that they will act?

The film opens with the director and narrator Greg Whitely's 4th grade daughter as he explains that his previously "good student" is now bored and frustrated by school and in tears over a bad score on a math test. As she's wiping her tears we hear the teacher in the parent conference telling the little girl that she is building character and perseverance. Suddenly the narrator stops and shares what he thinks is going through his daughter's mind: "This is bullshit. This whole thing called bullshit." Now don't get me wrong, I understand that this is anecdotal and there are more than a few moments in every child's life that elicit tears and that's not always bad.
credit: Most Likely to Succeed
But this opener really hit home with me because I've lived it too. I saw something frighteningly similar a few weeks ago with my 3rd grade daughter when she found out that she regressed two points on her MAP score. Keep in mind that my daughters attend arguably the most progressive and innovative public school district in Kentucky and we made that school choice largely based on the leadership's philosophy that generally de-emphasizes tests and scores focusing more on teaching and learning than "achievement" (for more on that: How the Culture of Achievement is Hurting Our Schools). That's not to say they don't care about their accountability scores but they don't place them as such a high priority that their teachers feel compelled to teach to the tests. So if that's still happening in our school district, how is this playing out in the less progressive districts? And why? Why is learning put in "subject area" silos that don't in any way replicate the world that most of us, outside of teachers and students, live in? Why are students schooled according to their birthdate with standards that correspond? Why are our schools being held accountable for the data they produce when it doesn't reflect real learning? Why are our students being asked to learn loads of content they are very unlikely to ever use, and most certainly won't remember because they have no contextual connection to things they care about? Why are they being asked to recall facts for tests that really only matter to people other than students? Why aren't our students engaging in authentic work with real meaning and assessment that helps them (and their teachers) improve their learning as they pursue craftsmanship because, well's not "bullshit"?

credit: Most Likely to Succeed
Much of the rest of the film shows students and teachers in a much different setting at High Tech High and does a nice job of documenting parent fears and concerns around this very different approach that emphasizes deeper learning of less "content" and "standards" while students develop what they feel are more important skills like critical thinking and collaboration. In the interest of full disclosure; much of the work I do with schools around the country focuses on this kind of (primarily project based) learning, so call me biased. But if we're truly looking to move our education system (and country) forward I don't see how we'll ever do that by continuing with the status quo where only the students who are good at "playing school" experience anything remotely looking like success.

As a student I (maybe way too often) wondered and asked "why am I doing this?" when it came to schoolwork. When the answer was "because I said so", "it'll be on the test", "it's for points or a grade", or "you'll need this in the future" I almost always immediately checked out and quite honestly my report card often reflected that I just chose not to do it. You see, I was always interested in learning and excelled in extra-curriculars like Future Problem Solvers but I was almost never interested in school and there are millions of others who feel the same way. In fact, as a senior I once informed my parents that I was not going to college because I just wasn't interested in doing school anymore. Thankfully they "advised" me otherwise but think about the absurdity. We want and hope for students to continue their education past high school after they've endured what is likely a very uninspiring 13 or so years and oh by they way, we also want you to pay (and likely go into debt) for it. This is not to say that college is always the right post-secondary path but if we really want students to be excited (and prepared) for learning past the compulsory age then shouldn't we be doing much more to empower their learning in K-12?

1991, sound familiar?
Fast forward to my adult life where I often felt marginalized by my administration and peers as a teacher trying to operate on the premise that the best way to teach content is through thought, not the other way around. As a consultant I almost never encounter a teacher who places content before skills and thinking until we start talking about testing and scores. One of the most frustrating things about this as a professional is that we have been having this conversation for decades but in many ways regressing. At this point, the single biggest obstacle to teachers creating great projects and authentic learning for their students is the list of content standards they feel beholden to. So how do we move this conversation forward and get past the industrial model in which we've all grown up? Ironically it's education. I firmly believe that if parents understood what education could and should look like they'd demand change one vote at a time. As it stands our policymakers have little incentive to shift from a system that attempts to efficiently quantify student learning into a number.

So what can you do? Ask lots of questions and learn more. The folks at Most Likely to Succeed have put together a nice set of resources called Moving Forward to help learn more about how our school experience could look for students.

Reach out to me at if you're interested in project based learning and/or re-visioning your school culture, let's talk.

Most Likely to Succeed Trailer from One Potato Productions on Vimeo.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Improving Student Inquiry with the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) and PBL

I'm a big fan of inquiry, hence that tagline above, so when I came across the Question Formulation Technique by the Right Question Institute while reading the fantastic A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger, I was excited for such a simple yet powerful tool to increase the quality of student inquiry and immediately ordered Make Just One Change. While there are many ways you can use the QFT in any classroom, and the Right Question Institute (RQI) provides some great examples on their web site, I see it as a valuable tool in a project based learning setting. This type of rich inquiry elevates student autonomy and collaboration in a Yes, And sort of way and helps create a culture focused on safety in discovery rather than intimidating teacher coverage.

Taking a look over the infographic to the right you'll notice the QFT starts with a Question Focus. This is something that typically pushes the learner to take a side or provoke deep thought. Students then produce questions in a sort of "question-storming" way that I think works best when they all contribute (in small groups) on one large chart paper (see video below) or whiteboard. The synergy that can build from this type of collaboration is powerful as students essentially "Yes, And" the thoughts of others without judging or working to answer these questions. As the RQI folks note, the shift from being asked for answers to being asked for questions can really be powerful in building a safe learning environment. As students improve and work through the remaining steps of the QFT the opportunities for meta-cognition are rich and should improve as they become more comfortable with the process.

In the course of a PBL unit there are several phases and I can see the QFT being used in all of them. Initially you want to create some sense of cognitive dissonance or emotional engagement around the project's challenge or problem and the QFT can help do that by using it as an Entry Event and hook. In PEC PBL workshops we use the QFT this way to generate questions around data showing drops in student engagement and questioning over time. We then use these questions to clarify the purpose in our resulting Driving Question for the workshop. As a classroom teacher you might engage students in the QFT as a way to better understand student passions and interests (Genius Hour/20% Time anybody?) and use that data to design a project weeks later but using a powerful Question Focus to kick your project off can generate student interest and excitement while activating their schema (buzzword alert!) and helping to start your Need to Know list.

During a project there should be multiple opportunities for meaningful assessment as students work toward craftsmanship and refining their products. What if you used the QFT to assess student understanding of a text or teaching resource/material and generate meaningful conversation much in the same way a Socratic Seminar might to help spur deeper learning and differentiate? I could also see the QFT process being employed in the service of helping students struggling to move forward with an iteration or just needing peer critique and most certainly in helping them add to their Need to Knows. What if you engaged students and experts collaboratively in the QFT around student products in a way that helped them display their thinking like and alongside actual content area experts?

As you're coming to the end of your project what if, instead of giving a traditional test, you used the QFT as a summative assessment as the video below shows? While this might force you (and your students) to think differently about summative assessments, a teacher/facilitator can learn a tremendous amount about content understanding while engaging students in critical thinking.

Ultimately the QFT is a multi-faceted tool and the beauty of it is in it's simplicity. It helps students have more of a voice and helps teachers shift from being the center of attention and thinking to to the facilitator creating scenarios allowing for great questions that effective PBL demands. It also helps create a mindset and culture where students become resourceful and empowered by their inquiry because it's just that, their inquiry. As teachers we need to ask great questions but we also need students to ask great questions. They have them but often aren't asked to share in meaningful ways. Designing great learning means we're asking questions important to our students and presenting them with opportunities to do the same. This can be a challenge at all levels but the QFT can help. For a reflection of using the QFT in elementary PBL check out: What are you wondering when you hear…?: Student Engagement in a Project-Based Learning Primary Classroom.

For more resources about Inquiry and Project Based Learning visit my PBL bookmarks and the PEC Web Site.