I struggle: lessons I’ve learned from being an inquiry teacher

8475376072_bd2422be64_nFriday afternoon, while sitting in an airport, I read a  recent post by George Couros entitled “I’m tired“. I was incredibly impressed, not just because he’s a friend, but because of the sheer audacity & frankness of his words.  How often are people in leadership that honest?  Reflecting on that post for the past three days has led me to writing this post.

I struggle.  I struggle with where I am & what I’m doing. I struggle with the educational system as we know it. I struggle with the painfully slow pace of change.  I struggle with people in power who say they care about kids, but don’t do the hard things to make a really huge difference in creating a learning environment that matters.  With all the research that exists, we know what’s good for kids. Let’s not pretend otherwise. I’m tired of all of the talking and very little of the doing. All the tinkering and cosmetic changes in education mean little. Having Macbooks in a classroom means nothing if they’re little more than a glorified pencil.

Part of this struggle has likely been prompted by my PhD.  At times I feel like I’ve enterd the Matrix.  Systems of power become apparent, and either I have the choice to deny what I’ve seen, or struggle with the sense of disillusionment in light of the truth.  I’ve thought about quitting a billion times, which my supervisor tells me is normal.  That’s not comforting. Sometimes I’m tired. Sometimes I’m angry. Mostly I struggle.

So what does this have to do with being an inquiry teacher?  As much as we talk about inquiry being good for kids, it’s good for teachers too. I’ve grown a shocking amount during the past couple of years because of it.

First, I’ve learned how to struggle.  When I taught traditionally, I didn’t feel I could show the struggle, even though it was there under the surface.  Learning to struggle has helped me to ask questions, in fact, pursue them, even though I might not like the answer. We need inquiry classrooms because struggle is such a normal part of our lives, and kids need to see it modelled and embraced as something good and life sustaining.  When we stop struggling, we stop growing.

Secondly, I’ve learned that I don’t have to be in control. That’s a big deal.  Here’s why: I’ve been teaching for almost ten years, and I’ve had a dawning awareness over the past while that I want to do something else. Not necessarily leave education. I’m passionate about education. But I want to do something else, and at this point, I don’t know what that is.

I want to do something new — likely in the area of my ed tech degree. Something not in a traditional classroom. I’ve even thought, for the first time, possibly something in higher ed. I want to do something that requires me to grow & stretch, at times to the point where I feel like I might shatter.

This is really surprising to me. For most of my teaching career I thought I would put in my 30 years, retire, and then move on to something else.  Safe. Easy. And it comes with a great pension. Sometimes life requires more risk than that. Becoming an inquiry teacher, I’ve learned to take risks.  Not necessarily not to be afraid, but to keep going despite the fear. I want to do something innovative that pushes the edge, where I can collaborate, take risks, have things fall apart & then figure out how to make it work. I’ve come to the conclusion that a change of this nature will probably require my family to move, most likely out of the province.  I’ve lived here my entire life, which leads to the next lesson.

I’m okay with the ambiguity & the mess.  I don’t know all the details.  A couple of years ago that would’ve freaked me out. But one of the great things about teaching in an inquiry classroom is that you never know what’s going to happen. On the flip side, one of the scary things about teaching in an inquiry classroom is that you never know what’s going to happen.  I’ve learned to roll with the punches, to improvise, to problem-solve when things get messy and the path seems unclear.

And at this point, that’s all I know.

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Math: Small Steps

5807208_08e151f86c_mI learned something this week.  You learn your subject area and classroom management and introduce pbl & technology and expect to co-construct criteria all at the same time.  It won’t happen or you’ll go insane making it happen.  So this past week I focused on the first three.

In the past, I could do large-scale inquiry & PBL because I had extensive background knowledge in the areas I was teaching.  My classroom management was solid.  I knew my students & what they were capable of and this gave us the freedom to experiment with inquiry, tech & co-constructing criteria, assignments and units.  But things are very different now.

This week I started teaching grade 6 & 8 math, a completely new subject area for me.  I also discovered that I have few classroom management skills for grade 6.  Things I took for granted in high school I can’t take for granted here.  So for the next couple of weeks we’ll be discovering what routines make things easier to learn.

We began with ratios, percent & fractions, and I’ll admit, I used a boring worksheet to provide a formative assessment. I really had no idea the capability of a grade 6 student or their background knowledge in this area or how to figure it out otherwise.  I found out quickly they could convert pretty well between the three, but the bigger thing for me is can they actually use them? I’ve read in numerous places of students being able to plug information into a formula, but not being unable to use it in “real life”, so we began our first PBL.  Using ratios, my students have chosen something in real life and are scaling it down to create it.

When beginning a course of action like this in high school, I would have to spend a great deal of time “unteaching” much of what they’ve learned the past 10 -12 years.  In grade six, I wasn’t sure to expect.  I showed them the Welcome to my PLE video created by a grade 7 student.  I asked if they wanted to learn like that. They were in. That’s it  None of the cynicism or apathy that I encounter in high school.  They were excited.  Too excited and that’s what I’ve been trying to reign in all week.

While it’s great to create projects, they also need to teach the skills we’re working on — using ratios. It’s important to create the scale & blueprint before they start building. Instead, they want to build right away. They’ve come up with terrific ideas volcanoes, NHL rinks, McDonald’s, our school library.  And I’ve learned in explaining scale & ratio over and over to each small group that they don’t really understand the math.  So I end up saying things like, “so every centimetre on this piece of paper, is equal to five feet in real life”  and then the light goes on.  I find it interesting that they can do the math on paper, but the truth is they don’t necessarily understand it.

I’ve come to realize this week that PBL & inquiry is incredibly important for this age group.  Developmentally they’re at an age when they’re searching for independence & responsibility, even though they might not be able to articulate it that way.  But in order to be independent & responsible, there are a few self-regulatory skills that need to be learned. I think that’s why PBL can go awry when teachers try it for the first time with this age group, and yet I think these are some of the most important things middle years teachers can help students with. It’s using content to teach skills.

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The Next Step

5829426287_97719620a8_mYesterday I accepted a new position with my division.  Starting Friday, I’ll be the Vice Principal at Lindale, a K-8 school in our division.  I’m excited that I’ll be with kids everyday. I’m looking forward to the energy & enthusiasm, both mine & theirs. I’m also going to be teaching grade 6 & 8 math.  And it terrifies me.

Partially I’m struggling with how to come into a classroom that isn’t mine & start over, essentially. It’s not like I’ll be picking up where they left off. I only teach one way — an inquiry, pbl, tech-embedded classroom.  So we’re going to need to imagine, together, what learning can look like. We’ll need to unlearn a bit, and figure out what independent learning looks like in grade 6 & 8 because the truth is, I have no idea.

And then there are the questions. What if I can’t replicate what I’ve done in the past? I know I’ve created this environment for learning before and my kids thrived, but what if I can’t do it again?

Secondly, and likely most ironically, I was terrible at math in school. I hated math. It made me feel incompetent & unintelligent.  And as soon as I could stop taking math classes in school, I did. For many years, I thought of myself as someone who was not “a math person”, then I became a Chemistry teacher and realized I could probably do “normal” math.  The truth is, I still have no idea what the purpose of the Pythagorean theorem is, and now I’ll be teaching it.  How do you teach students to think mathematically, when I’m not sure I even think mathematically?

I’m incredibly thankful for serendipity & the network that I have. This morning I read Shannon Smith’s post Minds on Math.  And it’s helped me realize there are a number of things much larger going on in a math classroom.

Math is as much about identity as it is about math. This is especially true of middle school students who have such a fragile and confused identity to begin with.  While we learn math, I need to give my attention to how students construct their identity as someone who can solve problems and become numerically literate.

Secondly, I need to learn how to foster curiosity about problems, while helping kids think about their thinking and identify where they are struggling.   It’s about patterns & relationships and developing curiosity and understanding about them. In truth, I never thought about math like that in school. For me, it was about memorizing the equation.

Finally, it’s important that my students do a lot of the talking & discovering and I listen around the edges.

As a teacher, I know what it’s like to hate math & to struggle with it.  While I want my students to struggle, I want them to understand that struggling is good. It means your brain is trying to create synaptic connections & pathways are trying to mylenate. Beyond this, I want them to love learning. I do.  Even if it’s math.

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The Struggle

5523432259_6115cd280dA little over a year ago I blogged that I was leaving my classroom to accept a consultant position with my school division. I’ve been in this position for almost a year. And in all honesty, it’s been a struggle.  In fact, this past year has probably been the most difficult year of my teaching career.

At first I thought it might be an identity thing. I knew how to be a teacher, but had no identity as a consultant. Maybe it would go away.  But the truth is, it hasn’t.  In December, I let both my coordinator and my superintendent know that I was deeply struggling with being a consultant. However, I couldn’t specifically pinpoint the exact problem. I work with great people. I’ve learned a ton. I’m treated with respect. What more could anyone want?

After having the conversation with my boss, I spent the next three days in bed sick, and almost every waking moment I spent pondering this dilemma. What exactly is wrong?

And then it hit me — it’s not the position; it’s me. Everyday since I’ve left my classroom, I’ve missed it.  Everyday I have missed kids. I miss their energy and enthusiasm, their optimisim. Their quirks. Their struggles. Their hugs. I miss the energy and noise of a school.  And even though I work in classrooms, those kids are never mine. They always belong to someone else.

Beyond this I miss pushing the envelope, trying what’s new.  Innovating. Failing.  And learning in the most intense way I’ve ever experienced.  I love taking risks, problem-solving the glitches and the intensity it requires of my brain. It makes me feel alive.

And as hard as this year has been, I don’t regret it. I’ve learned so much about teaching & schools that I never could have learned in my classroom. I’ve learned in vivid, sometimes startling ways, how important the administration of a school is for setting the tone, creating the culture, and supporting change.  I’ve learned how curriculum, instruction and assessment intersect in valuable ways with student support to provide an education that matters for all. I work with some of the most amazing people.  Consultants who are incredibly generous and talented, and I have learned so much from so many of them.  I’ve learned that we do so many great things in elementary school to support students that all but disappear by high school, and in order for our kids to be successful, they need to continue.

But I’ve also come to realize that I need to go back to the classroom. At this point, I don’t know exactly what this will look like or what the timeline will be or even where I’ll end up. But I’m open to whatever possibilties open up.

My ideal would be to move into an administrative role in a K-8 school in the fall, so that I can still teach part-time. And I have reasons for this. I’ve heard many times from skeptics that I can do this inquiry/pbl thing because I teach older students. I want to prove them wrong. I want be able to work in grade 1 classrooms to create pbl & blended learning environments.  And I’m excited at the possibility of working in middle years to foster independence & responsibility for their own learning and create thin walls in our classroom, so they can collaborate with classrooms elsewhere.

At this point I have very few answers. And sometimes that feels a bit scary. But I trust that I’ll end up where I belong.

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. Ralph Waldo Emerson

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The Problem of Student Engagement

AdamBindslevWhenever I hear talk of student engagement I wonder what the problem is. I doubt that it’s the students, their role possibly — but not them personally. I don’t buy into the idea that most of our students are lazy or incompetent.  Instead, I think they’re bored.  Every student I’ve taught could learn, just often not the same thing, or in the same way.  And when I’ve asked my students about it, I’ve always found they love to learn; they just don’t like school.

The research around student engagement has changed over the past 40 years.  During the 1970’s, student engagement research largely dealt with a marginal population that was disengaged from school and at risk of dropping out.  Jump ahead 40 years.  While this problem still exists, student engagement research deals with a sizable population of students.  In fact, the majority of our students aren’t engaged in their day to day learning. Depending on the survey, anywhere from 50 to almost 70% of our grade 10 to 12 students are not engaged in their learning.  That’s shocking.

When I first learned this statistic I was stunned. Moreover, research shows that the longer our students are in school, the less academically competent the feel (Covington & Dray, 2001) — even students who are considered “successful” in our current system experience this problem. That’s a pretty big deal. School shouldn’t be something you have to recover from, and for too many of our kids, it is.

What do I mean by the term student engagement? There are as many definitions for this term as there are words in this blog post.  Engagement is often broken down into different categories: social/psychological, behavioural, academic/cognitive, or some variation of these. Some deal strictly with behavioural compliance in a classroom, but that’s not what I’m interested in.   For me, engagement is  a genuine disposition for self-directed, deep learning, fostered from an early age and continues life long.  That’s the point of engagement, not to coherse kids into performing the tasks we want them to do.

One might think that our “top” students are engaged in their learning. Studies show most aren’t.  Successful students often describe their learning experience as “boring, hectic, stressful and disconnected from the real world” (Dunleavy & Milton, 2009, p. 11).  Many are simply jumping the hoops or “doing school” — hoping to move onto a better educational experience once they’ve graduated from high school. Unfortunately, with today’s current university system, many will be disappointed.

Too often I’ve heard students talk of their desire & need to escape the day to day educational institution. It saddens me because I know it can be so much more.  At the same time, it frightens me because research shows that a boring environment has a more powerful thinning effect on the brain cortex than an exciting or enriched environment has on cortex thickening (Diamond, 1998).  That’s a really big deal.

Starting in grade 6, student engagement begins to plummet, until about grade 9, when it bottoms out at about 30%.  I’m curious as to why this starts in grade 6. What happens in grade 6 psychologically or neurologically that prompts this freefall? And  just as importantly, can it be stopped or reversed?

Currently, I have a directed reading course on neuroplasticity & learning.  The change in an adolescent’s brain is immense, with large portions of the executive function and the prefrontal cortex maturing.  There is also a significant proliferation in dendrites & synapses that causes the adolescent cortex to thicken, before it goes through  6 or so years of intense pruning.  It’s vitally important that our students be deeply engaged cognitively during this period.  The brain works on a use it or lose it principle. So you can see why a boring environment having a more powerful thinning effect on the brain cortex than an exciting or enriched environment has on cortex thickening is a big deal. Boring classroom environments might actually be harming our students ability to think.

For my PhD dissertation I’ve decided to research student engagement, but not typically how it’s been done.  One of the gaps in the research is the absence of student voice.  Research tends to talk about kids, not with them. I hope to use youth participatory action research, as a means to not only amplify student voice around this issue, but also to empower students to change the circumstances in which they learn.  Participatory action research “seeks to understand the world by trying to change it, collaboratively and reflectively”. I think this process sounds a lot like me.  And I think it sounds a lot like the kids I’ve taught.  So many of our students come to school everyday hoping they’ll do something that makes a difference and engage in real work that matters.

Participatory Action Research allows students become partners and co-researchers in creating the education they want and need.  They identify the problems in their current circumstances and co-create the solutions. They write. They speak. They change, not only themselves but also the environment around them. In short, they make a difference.

My framework will likely be critical theory, which is about emancipation and transformation; it seeks “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them” (Horkheimer 1982, 244).  I think that might not be too far off from describing some of our schools.  It questions current power structures and seeks to understand the ways in which various social groups are oppressed. I include many of our students in this group.  They’re stuck jumping through hoops, most often without meaning, that someone else has created for them.  Most importantly, critical theory empowers students to transform their education.

My initial thought is to use a method like Photovoice, which I think authentically gives power to students.  Through photographing the everyday events of their lives and merging these with story, students will share what school is really like.  It is often used among marginalized people, and is intended to give insight into how they conceptualize their circumstances and their hopes for the future.  Photovoice attempts to bring the perspectives of those “who lead lives that are different from those traditionally in control of the means for imaging the world” into the policy-making process.

Our schools need to change, and the voices of our students need to be heard for this to happen successfully. I hope to use technology as a tool to give a voice to students who are normally silenced, while at the same time empowering them to use technology to create an educational environment that allows and fosters self-directed, deep learning. Now I just need a classroom…

Photo courtesty of cc. Flickr: Adam Bindslev

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I used to think…

3246596357_46b575e8c1I used to think that giving homework the first day of school set the “tone” for our classroom, that this was an academic class that had rigor and demanded their best. Now I realize that I was trying to intimidate my students so that they would work hard and know that I was the one in charge.

I used to think that compliant, well-behaved students were the ideal; now I’m afraid for them. I’m afraid for the kids who think that scoring 90% actually means something in the real world. I’m afraid for the kids who believe the academic hoops they jump through so effortlessly guarantee that they will be successful at life. I’ve come to believe that being good at school might mean you’d make a decent academic, but it isn’t a guarantee of much else.

I used to think, as a high school teacher, that reading was someone else’s job to teach. Now I think it’s important for learners to be taught these strategies across the K-12 spectrum.

I used to think that some kids weren’t cut out for school. They were lazy, unmotivated, and not “academic,” as if being academic was the most important thing in the world. Now I’ve come to realize that it’s the cutout school that’s the problem. Kids love to learn and do it quite naturally. They just might not be buying what I’m selling.

I’ve learned about self-regulation

Self regulation is defined as the process of taking control of and evaluating one’s own learning and behavior. Self-regulated students are learners who can reflect critically and accurately about their own thinking and learning.

Look at the research:

“Self-regulated learning (SRL), as the three words imply, emphasizes autonomy and control by the individual who monitors, directs, and regulates actions toward goals of information acquisition, expanding expertise, and self-improvement” (Paris and Paris 2001).

In particular, self-regulated learners are cognizant of their academic strengths and weaknesses, and they have a repertoire of strategies they appropriately apply to tackle the day-to-day challenges of academic tasks. These learners hold incremental beliefs about intelligence (as opposed to entity, or fixed views of intelligence) and attribute their successes or failures to factors (e.g., effort expended on a task, effective use of strategies) within their control (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Dweck, 2002).

Finally, students who are self-regulated learners believe that opportunities to take on challenging tasks, practice their learning, develop a deep understanding of subject matter, and exert effort will give rise to academic success (Perry et al., 2006). In part, these characteristics may help to explain why self-regulated learners usually exhibit a high sense of self-efficacy (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002). In the educational psychology literature, researchers have linked these characteristics to success in and beyond school (Corno, et al., 2002; Pintrich, 2000; Winne & Perry, 2000).

To be honest, until 8 months ago I’d never heard of self-regulation. Now I believe it’s one of the most important things we need to develop in our students, starting in Kindergarten right through to grade 12.

No more “fill-er-up”

I used to think that my job as a teacher was to “fill” my students with the knowledge I possessed, even if I’d just acquired that knowledge from the internet the night before. Lecture was the primary modus operandi in my classroom.

Now I believe that an inquiry/pbl classroom is both empowering and liberating. The most important skill I can model for my students is how to learn and how to talk about learning. Instead of seeing my students as empty vessels, I believe they are reflexive learners, capable of change, who have much to offer to my own learning. My students have proven themselves to be competent researchers.

I used to think I needed to “run the show.” Of course this would be the only way to avoid discipline & behavior issues. Now I know that my students are able to be co-designers of our learning environment — from choosing which curriculum objectives we will work on, to unit and assignment creation, to co-constructing the criteria for the assessment.

I used to think that content was the most important thing I could teach. What was I thinking? In a Google world, most of the content I once valued so highly can be accessed in seconds, making the role of content provider obsolete.  Now I think skills, like collaboration, critical thinking, and being able to locate rich, reliable information are much more important. So now I use content to teach skills. I’m a skills provider.

I used to think that ranting at students about their lack of engagement and their apathy towards learning might get a positive response. Now I realize that if you’re learning about and working on a project that is worthy of your time and attention, you don’t have to be cajoled. Students will devote everything to worthy work, in ways you can’t even imagine at the outset. Students will often defy our expectations if we give them the opportunity to do so.

I used to think homework was important. Now I believe most of what I assigned didn’t do much to enrich my student’s learning.

I used to think the essay was the Holy Grail of the English classroom. Now I honestly believe it’s one of the least useful forms of communication I teach, at least in the 5-paragraph essay format. I still believe it’s important for my students to be able to persuasively argue, but now they learn how to do it via blogging, social media, and using visual and audio formats.

What does 82% really mean?

I used to think marks were important. Now I think they’re arbitrary at best. What does 82% really mean? I’ve asked my students that question. They don’t know, and the truth is, most often, neither do I. I would like to get rid of all marks, and move solely to feedback, and the more often this feedback can be verbal dialogue the better. When my students receive lots of formative feedback they know where they stand as learners. Then it’s about learning, not marks and grades.

I used to think teaching an AP class of top students was the pinnacle of a high school teacher’s career. Now it would feel like I was wearing a straitjacket.

I used to think technology was for searching and sporadic use during end-of-unit projects. Now I believe it has to be infused, authentically, into every step of the learning process.

I used to think exams were vital at the end of every unit. Now I believe that deep learning is much too complex to capture well in this format. Learning needs to be expressed in multiple formats, over a period of time.

I used to think our current K-12 format made sense. Now I believe it fails so many of our students. I look at students who are in Grade 1 or 2 and struggling to learn to read at the teacher’s pace. For some of them, their little brains just aren’t quite ready yet — all they need is more time. But the current system we have doesn’t allow for it. Kids are pushed along the assembly line and many develop not only large learning gaps, but a lack of self-efficacy.

I see this in high school too. Some kids take longer to develop abstract thinking, and struggle with math and other abstract concepts. The truth is that in high school I couldn’t understand Chemistry. Now I teach it. I could learn it in university, as an adult, because my brain was ready.

I used to think I knew what good teaching was . . .

I used to think I was a pretty good teacher. Now I realize that I did the best I could with the knowledge I had, but my classroom was woefully inadequate for many of my students. I failed to equip them with what they needed.

During the past 6 months, working in multiple schools, I’ve learned so much from modified & alternative education students. These are the kids at the margins, the ones who don’t jump the hoops properly. Many of them, by the time they reach high school, don’t feel good about school, about themselves, or about learning.

Unfortunately, many drop out. As much as so-called “regular” kids need our schools to be better, these kids need schools to change even more.

I’ve come to realize that every student deserves to be in an environment that helps them grow and learn, and makes them feel good about themselves. All kids want to succeed. It’s my job to help them find ways to do that. I now believe my students are competent to show me what they need, if only I take the time to listen and ask authentic questions.

I’m becoming a better teacher by giving up a lot of what I used to think.

 

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The Flip: End of a Love Affair

A little over a year ago I wrote a postabout the flipped classroom, why I loved it, and how I used it. I have to admit, the flip wasn’t the same economic and political entity then that it is now. And in some ways, I think that matters.

Here’s the thing. When I recently re-read the post, I didn’t disagree with anything I’d said. Yet my brief love affair with the flip has ended. It simply didn’t produce the tranformative learning experience I knew I wanted for my students .

When I wrote that post, I imagined the flip as a stepping stone to a fully realized inquiry/PBL classroom. And the flip’s gradual disappearance from our learning space hasn’t been a conscious decision: it’s simply a casualty of  our progression from a teacher-centred classroom to a student-centred one.

What is the flip?

The flipped classroom essentially reverses traditional teaching. Instead of lectures occurring in the classroom and assignments being done at home, the opposite occurs. Lectures are viewed at home by students, via videos or podcasts (found online or created by the teacher), and class time is devoted to assignments or projects based on this knowledge. In theory, this sounds terrific.

When I first encountered the flip, it seemed like a viable way to help deal with the large and sometimes burdensome amount of content included in my senior Biology & Chemistry curricula. So many times in the past I had thought what many science teachers must think: “I’d love to do more hands-on activities, but we have to get through the content first.” The flipped classroom might offer a solution.

My flipped experiments

I first encountered the flip in a blog post. At the time, it was a relatively new idea (at least in the K12 world). There weren’t any websites or books devoted to it. And while the particular post I read was actually expounding the virtues of traditional teaching vs. the flip, I thought, “Flipping could actually work.”

My students loved the idea of trying something that very few other students were doing. Some of my students even benefited from watching and re-watching videos. Even so, we used it sparingly. We never moved to an entirely flipped classroom that required my students to watch lecture after lecture, day after day, by video. Even so, when we did “flip,” it felt more like we were juggling the traditional lecture around than moving forward into a new learning paradigm.

We began to shift

As I shifted my classroom from teacher-centred to student-centred, my students began to do lots of their their own research. Sometimes this resulted in them teaching each other. Sometimes they created a project with the knowledge they were acquiring. But the bottom line was that their learning had a purpose that was apparent to them, beyond simply passing the unit exam.

What was my role? I helped them learn to learn. I prompted them to reflect on their thinking and learning, while at the same time I shared my own journey as a learner. I helped them develop skills such as using research tools, finding and evaluating sources, and collaborating with their peers. My goal as a teacher shifted from information-giver and gatekeeper to someone who was determined to work myself out of a job by the time my students graduated.

The flip faded away

As this new way of learning played out over time, my students found they didn’t need me to locate or create videos for them. Instead, they learned how to learn, and they were able to find their own resources. For me, this was a much more important skill than following my directions or using the resources I told them to use.

As this shift occurred, the flip simply disappeared from our classroom. It took almost a year for me to notice it was gone. Instead, our classroom had become a place where students discovered and shared their own resources, while engaging in projects with each other. There was no need for me to assign video homework or create portable lectures. It all happened during class.

Lest anyone think we were able to do this because we learn in a high-tech school, that’s not the case. We weren’t a 1:1 classroom. We used whatever devices my students had, which often was a couple of iPads, a few computers, and student cell phones. There were students who didn’t have a device, so other students shared. We made it work and everyone learned.

The flip is gone for good

While I may not have intentionally removed the flip from my classroom, I would never resurrect it. Here’s why:

1) I dislike the idea of giving my students homework. Really? Yes. Students spend over five hours a day engaged in academic pursuits. I think that is enough. Recently I’ve been reading Alfie Kohn’s book The Homework Myth. He has mined the research on homework thoroughly, and — overwhelmingly — it shows that homework has no long-term impact on academic achievement. That’s likely shocking to some teachers.

But beyond this, I think there’s more to life than being engaged in academics. Students need to participate in a variety of pursuits — sports, music, drama, meaningful jobs — to fully develop all of their talents and discover areas of interest. Furthermore, students need to spend time with their families. What right do I have impinge on this?

2) A lecture by video is still a lecture. This summer I had the opportunity to speak with a superintendent from a division outside of my own. He was curious about the flipped classroom. We were with a group of educators and he asked if anyone present had used it. Since I was the teacher with the most experience with it, I spoke about what it looked like in our classroom. Mostly I talked about inquiry learning and student choice.

At the end, he looked at me and said, “So the videos — did you make your own, or use ones that someone else had made?” My immediate thought was, “you don’t get it.” I was candid: “If you think it’s only about the videos, then you have a really shallow definition of what this could be. The real power is when students take responsibility for their own learning.”

Of course, the reality is that many if not most teachers who opt for the flipped classroom strategy are not pursuing a student-centred approach to teaching and learning. The traditional model of learning is simply being reversed, instead of being reinvented. The lecture (live or on video) is still front and center.

Learning isn’t simply a matter of passively absorbing new information while watching a lecture on video; new knowledge should be actively constructed. When we shifted to a student-centred classroom, my students took control of their learning, and I quit lecturing. I haven’t lectured in almost two years.

3) I want my students to own their learning.  It’s been stated that “At its most basic level, the flipped classroom gives students more control over their educations, allowing them to start and stop or rewind important lectures to focus on key points.”  To me, this isn’t giving students control over their education, although it may be creating new markets for content-oriented videos and related materials.

In our classroom, we sit down with the curriculum, and students actually see what the outcomes and objectives are. We then have a dialogue about what my students’ learning might look like. They have a choice over what order they are going to work on outcomes, how they are going to learn and reach those outcomes, and how they are going to show me what they have learned.

As my students worked with me to invent our own version of student-centred learning, we realized that the three questions every student in our classroom had to answer were: What are you going to learn? How are you going to learn it? How are you going to show me your learning? This became our mantra — our framework for learning.  This is what it means to give students “control over their education.”

4) My students need to be able to find and critically evaluate their own resources.  Consequently, if I’m continuously handing them resources, they are not going to learn this skill. It’s more important for my students to learn to learn than to absorb the content in any video I might make and hand to them, with most of the thinking already done for them.

What did our classroom become instead?

Last year in my Chemistry class, our last unit was on Stoichiometry, which, essentially, is chemistry math.  We had approximately 10 concepts to learn in 8 weeks. Each concept built upon the other, so there was a specific route we had to follow for it to make sense. Beyond that, how we got there was completely open.

I told my students we had 10 concepts to learn in 8 weeks. They could work at their own pace, with whatever resources they chose, but in the end, we all needed to be done in 8 weeks when the semester ended. On the first day we all started in the same place. I had provided a rudimentary outline of the concepts we needed to study on our wiki (which we’d been using all semester to create our own digital textbook). My students chose the resources that helped them learn best. Throughout the 8 weeks, students sent me the ones they considered “best of the best,” and they were added to our online textbook. And it really was “ours.”

What happened over the coming days is that my students fanned out. Some shot ahead because they found the initial concepts quite easy. Others needed to hunker down to really grasp them. My students differentiated their own instruction. They worked at their own pace, since they chose their own resources. They could do extra work at home if they felt it necessary.

I talked to every student every day. I could look at their work, have them articulate their thinking process, and see where they were struggling. I could spend time helping those who really needed it. The thing I find about Chemistry is that many students lack the background knowledge to begin to make the neural connections that are essential for understanding it. Some students experience a great deal of cognitive dissonance, and when they do, we talk about that in the context of their brain development.

To work through the concepts, some chose on-line stoichiometry sites, others preferred pencil and paper, and still others constructed models of their thinking. One student decided to use a traditional textbook. The students who needed to talk through their thinking could do so with their peers or with me.

Essentially, they needed to construct theories as to how stoichiometry works, rather than watching a video and memorizing the equation. As Alfie Kohn states, a learning environment that promotes constructing knowledge “treats students as meaning makers and offers carefully calibrated challenges that help them to develop increasingly sophisticated theories. The point is for them to understand ideas from the inside out.”

That’s how most people learn best, learning things from the inside out, and I don’t think lecture videos promote this.

Was it chaotic?

No. The thing that I didn’t expect was that my students created flexible groups, depending on what they were working on. They found peers who were working on the same concept they were, so that they could help each other. Sometimes they realized who they couldn’t work with on a particular day, and found a different group of peers to work with instead. And to solidify what my students were learning, we engaged in hands-on activities and labs that actually used the Chemistry concepts they were studying.

For the first time, none of my students were left behind. Everyone learned Chemistry. Everyone received credit for the class. And my students became more adept at research, thinking, collaborating, problem solving, and reflecting on their own learning. Everyone finished on time.

It’s not about fads – it’s about ownership

I’ve learned that inquiry & PBL learning can be incredibly powerful in the hands of students. I would never teach any other way again.

When students own their learning, then deep, authentic, transformative things happen in a classroom. It has nothing to do with videos, or homework, or the latest fad in education. It has everything to do with who owns the learning.

For me, the question really is: who owns the learning in your classroom?

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What Really Matters.

Today I had the privilege of attending the We Day Saskatchewan kick off announcement.  Saskatchewan will have it’s very first We Day on February 27th, 2013, in Saskatoon!  We Day kicks off a year long adventure that promotes and supports student activism through educational partnerships, curricular resources, a social media community and a plethora of other good things.  Students have the opportunity to earn tickets to the We Day event by participating in one local and one global social justice event or activity.  The aim of We Day is to help create global citizens. The day includes rock stars like Hedley and Justin Bieber and speakers as diverse as Jane Goodall, The Dalai Lama, and Elie Wiesel.  Imagine having your students listen to any of these speakers — the passion, awareness and empathy it would create.


Afterwards, the leaders of three school divisions in our province met with the staff of Free the Children, including Craig Kielburger to find out more specifics about We Day and how it works.  One of the leaders stated, “This is going to be a hard sell.” And then proceeded to list the numerous reasons why.  None of them good.

The thought that popped into my head was, “What?”  And I was faced with the terrible choice that I often am.  Am I quiet? Or am I honest?  I chose honest.  I said, “This isn’t going to be a hard sell. Kids are going to grab hold of this and run, and we’re going to have to decide if we’re going to keep up.”  Then I told them the story of when my students raised almost $23,000 in about 45 days.

That’s what students do when they’re passionate about something.  They make it happen. They make a difference. They change the world.  It’s also the reason why I love working with teenagers. Adults often believe that kids are apathetic.  And in some ways they are.  But I think it’s because we’ve relegated them to the role of consumers of garbage media and cheap merchandise, instead of providing them with life-giving and authentic roles that matter. We need to change that.  We need to focus on what really matters.

Is it our kids discovering what they’re passionate about? That their life matters now? That they really can make a difference, even if they are only 12 years old? And if it is, then we need to do what’s necessary to support that. This is who this generation is.  To be honest, I could care less if my students can balance a chemical equation, if they have no idea about what is going on in the world or feel no responsibility to help others who are in need.

Maybe we need to re-imagine what instruction and assessment look  like.  Maybe instruction can have the energy of  a rock concert. Maybe some of our ideas about teaching and learning are outdated. Two students involved with our campaign to raise money for schools spoke in front of hundreds of people to raise money and awareness.  If someone captured it on video, would it not be a better way to assess a student’s speaking skills than a classroom audience of 20?

I’ve found the reason most students aren’t activists is because they don’t know. And so in my classes, I begin to teach them. Not by yapping at them with a bunch of statistics.  I show them.  My students have learned about the issues that water shortages cause in Blue Gold and the slavery often involved in procuring coffee.  We look at the injustice involved in most of the blue jeans my students are wearing and the human rights issues that have ensnared Walmart — who’s really paying the price for those low prices?  Leonardo DiCaprios The 11th Hour looks at the causes of global warming and the solutions that might change our trajectory.  However, the most powerful video I’ve ever seen is Not My Life.  A shocking and honest look at the problem of modern human trafficking.

As a class, we watch four or five of these videos.  By about the third video, my students usually half jokingly say, “So what are you going to ruin for us today?” Then I know it’s starting to sink in.  The world isn’t quite how they thought it was.  Then I have them find the justice issue that matters to them. Sometimes it takes a bit, but they’ve always found something to care about.  And that’s the difference between activism and slacktivism.  When you care about something you don’t just press the Facebook like button, you do something to change things.

I’ve never done a big, “Let’s change the world” speech.  Instead, I’ve simply said to them, “We all have to be here for an hour. So what do you say we do something that matters.  Something that changes the world.”  I’ve never had a student say no.  And that’s what really matters.

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The Difference

Two recent experiences have significantly impacted the way I think about teaching and learning and the importance of student autonomy and volition in our classrooms.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a PD seminar around embedding technology in the classroom.  A wonderful goal, really.  I think embedded tech is important; in fact, I think it should be the status quo in every classroom, every day.  I honestly think there’s little point to tech as an after thought so that we can say we’re doing something “techie”, as if that’s the goal instead of deep, authentic, transformative learning.

As I listened to the presenter, something didn’t sit right with me.  At first I couldn’t figure out what it was. So much of what was being said I agreed with.  Tech needs to be part of the entire learning process; social bookmarking during research, Google Docs to create a common document, collaboration between peers, the creation of technology projects –things that I advocate and have implemented in my own classroom. It wasn’t until talk turned to the importance of outlining  student objectives at the beginning of each class that it hit me — This is a teacher-centred classroom that’s being advocated  — the complete opposite of my own classroom.

As presenter and participants discussed the importance of  introducing students to the days objectives by posting them where students can see them, I thought, “”Why would I do that?” My students know what our objectives are because they’ve chosen them and they know how they’re going to be assessed because they construct the criteria.  Not that they can’t be posted, they can.  But who creates the objectives is even more important than where they’re posted.

And that’s when I realized — it’s not enough to embed technology.  It’s possible to embed technology in every aspect of teaching and learning and it still be a completely teacher-centred classroom.  The teacher in control of what is learned, how it’s learned and for a large part, how students show their learning. This needs to change.

The real power comes when students take responsibility and ownership for their learning — when they become co-creators of their learning experience, rather than their education being something that is done to them. This is where true student empowerment and engagement begins.

The second experience is somewhat along this same line.  It involved my two daughters.  Rebekah, who is 7, and Chloe, who is 4, were playing school. Rebekah was the teacher, and she’d spent a fair amount of time creating worksheets for Chloe. She was really proud of the work and effort that went into these magnificent artifacts of learning. Chloe, in her 4-year-old wisdom, didn’t want to do them. Why? They weren’t any fun.  Maybe we should have more 4-year-olds designing our educational system, but I digress.

Rebekah came to me completely distraught that Chloe wouldn’t jump through her hoops.  So I responded from my own experience as a teacher and said, “Well, why don’t you ask Chloe what she wants to learn about?”

Rebekah looked at me retorted, “That is not what school is like.”

“Well, that’s what my classroom is like.”

Quite emphatically she exclaimed with all of the authority that a seven-year-old can muster, “Well, all the years I’ve been at school I’ve never had a teacher like that.  Miss-so and-so didn’t do that, and Mrs. so-and-so didn’t do that. You sit in your desk and do what the teacher tells you. That’s how school works.” And she stomped away.

I knew the assimilation into factory schooling began pretty young, but I didn’t realize how much it had taken hold by grade 3.  It was honestly shocking to encounter it face to face, especially with my own daughter.  And to try to convince her that there was another way “to do” school was much like trying to convince her that fairies were real. Students aren’t really asked what they want to learn about. That’s a fairy tale.

We need to make this fairy tale a reality. Student-centred learning is powerful, transformative and life changing, for teachers and students.  I’ll be honest, it can be difficult and messy, but once you’ve experienced it, you’ll never go back.

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One Thousand Gratitudes

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is
given us.– J.R.R Tolkien

Last June I wrote a post stating that I wouldn’t be spending the summer learning how to become a better teacher. After all, I already spend 10 months a year immersed in professional learning. The past couple of years I’ve come to a place where I want my summers to be about more than being a teacher.  Partially because I want my life to be balanced, but also because I honestly believe the most important quality I have to offer my students is being an adept and critically evaluative learner.  Alvin Toffler states, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”  My summer will be devoted to some of each.

My first summer challenge is developing a life of gratitude. What? I think most people are great at being thankful when it’s slotted on the calendar, like Thanksgiving day, but in my regular day in and day out life, it’s easy for me not to be grateful for all I have.

So although I’m not a journaling person, at least not in the traditional sense, I’ve started a list. My goal is to write down 1,000 things that I love.  Things that I’m incredibly thankful for that make my life rich and enjoyable.  The thing I’ve noticed so far is that the items on my list don’t tend to be “big” things. Most of them cannot be bought. A few examples:

6) The feel & smell of the cool earth as I garden.

18) Freshly picked strawberries –warm from the sun.

4) The freckles on my 4 yr. old daughter’s nose.

19) Driving to work past cows, fields of golden wheat rippling in the wind & expansive skies of blue.

I admit, at this point my list isn’t very long.  I’m still in double digits, but it’s a work in progress.  I write things down as they come to me, or more often, as I notice them. And I think that’s how it’s been most helpful; it’s helped me to stop and notice all that I have. I’m learning to pay attention.

My second challenge is learning about global and ecological economics.  Not the stuffy, academic, theoretical kind — the practical, why-this-matters-to-everyone kind.  I took a few economics classes in university, and haven’t really learned much about it since. However, with everything that’s going on globally, it’s pretty fascinating, and with what might be looming on the horizon, I also think it’s pretty important. Ecological economics looks at the true cost of all we produce and buy. Global economics looks at the intricacy, and quite truthfully the fragility, of our entwined economies. I’m learning that what I do, what I buy, and what I take for granted matters and affects lives other than my own.

Finally, my most difficult challenge is figuring out if our family can actually eat locally.  Seriously. For me, the whole organic, sustainable and local thing really matters. I’ve read numerous terrific books about it over the past couple of years.  And it’s something we’ve dabbled in, going to farmer markets during the summer and shopping occasionally at local organic stores. We’re also pretty fortunate that we already have local, sustainable sources for our beef, pork and chicken.

But now I’m talking the full deal.  Everything local, organic, sustainable. Here’s the thing — I live in Saskatchewan.  And for at least four months of the year, the climate is like frozen tundra, which means salad is off the table for almost half the year and bananas are out of the question.  So over the next two months I’ll try to figure out what does it really look like to eat like this? How do we do that year round? What are the sacrifices our family will have to make and are we willing to make them? These aren’t easy questions, but to me they’re important ones.

So that’s what I’m doing this summer. I’m pursuing the questions that matter most to me. I’m learning, unlearning, and relearning, and likely failing a lot, too, along the way.

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