How to create a student-centred classroom? One small step at a time.

Teachers who are interested in shifting their classrooms often don’t know where to start. It can be overwhelming, frightening, and even discouraging, especially when no one else around you seems to think the system is broken.

A question I’m asked often is “Where should a teacher begin?”  Should teachers just let students go or is there a process to good student-centred inquiry?  I’ve reflected on  this a fair amount, and I think small strategic steps are the key.  I think letting students “go” without any structure will likely create failure, especially if students haven’t spent much time collaborating.  Skills need to be modelled.

Many teachers have likely engaged in some type of inquiry or project-based learning, but with frustrating or dismal results. I hear things like, “students weren’t on task”, “one student bossed most of the kids around”, “the end product wasn’t very good”, and many more. I’ve had these same experiences.  What I’ve come to realize when I see these “behaviours” for lack of a better term, it’s likely telling me students are missing skills, or a structure to help them through the learning process. It’s my job to ask kids questions to find out what’s really going on.

When I start with a new group of students, the design is tight.  Choice is given, but I often pick the topic and options for student voice. I model skills like collaboration, thinking out loud about my learning, and explicating integrating tech and why it’s being used. I also add particular group activities that help kids develop these skills, and use rubrics, like those found on the BIE website, to help them assess their own ability to collaborate, etc.

I’ve also discovered I need to teach the difference between collaboration and cooperation. Most students have been taught to cooperate. “Play nice in the sandbox”.  Collaboration is an entirely different thing. Many adults don’t know how to collaborate well.

1. START WITH ONE UNIT

Start with creating one inquiry unit in one subject. You can jump in and change everything at once like I did, but that’s slightly crazy. Instead, if you design one unit in one subject, at the end of each day, or week, you can analyze what worked and what didn’t. While teaching doesn’t always leave a lot of time for luxuries like reflection, it really is the key to figuring out inquiry learning, and as the teacher, it’s one of your most important roles.

Sometimes you may not understand why certain things aren’t working. Ask your students. I’m often surprised by how much they know and how adept they are at articulating what they need.

Two of the best resources I’ve found for creating an inquiry classroom are Carol Kuhlthau’s work and Alberta Learning’s Guide to Inquiry Learning.

If you don’t know how to create an inquiry classroom, ask me. I’m happy to help. You can begin by posting comments here. If you need resources, I can probably point you to some. Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to email, Skype and, if distance allows, have teachers, administrators and superintendents visit my classroom to see what we do.

2. TALK ABOUT LEARNING

Talk to your students about their learning — a lot.  Especially in the beginning, I talk to my students about why my classroom is structured differently than every other class in our school. I show them Ken Robinson’s talk about how the 20th century school system doesn’t really prepare students anymore.  I also show them Chris Lehmann’s TED-X talk emphasizing howeducation is broken and Karl Fisch’s Did You Know?.

I tell my students that essentially I’m preparing them for jobs that don’t currently exist, that will use technology which hasn’t been invented yet, to fix problems we’re not currently aware of. They get the point. It’s about developing skills and habits of learning, and we use content to do that.

But I also talk to my student’s about stuff like how their brain works, and how neural connections need to be made. That often, in order for students to learn something new, it needs to be attached to things they already know. Just before the recent break, during the last week of school, we talked about cognitive dissonance and Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. They like to know there’s a reason for the way they feel when they don’t “get it.” And they like to know that everyone’s zone of development is different. In fact, they were amazed to find out everyone’s brain is different.

And, yes, I use the big words. I simply explain what they mean. I don’t use them to sound smart. I use them because it makes my students feel smart; most of our society doesn’t treat our students like they’re capable of understanding or doing much. I do.

3. MAKE TECH WORK FOR YOU

Embed technology in ways that are authentic to the learning process. The first tools that I teach my students are Google Docs, Diigo or Delicious to bookmark their research, and Symbaloo to house their tools.

Experience has taught me that the first day I introduce a class to Google Docs, we will get nothing done. To them, it’s the most amazing thing ever. They usually spend most of the class typing back and forth to each other in the doc. No big deal. However, eventually, my students open Google Docs without me telling them to. I have students who literally use them for every lab, essay, and assignment. And the ability for a group to work on and edit the same document at the same time, more than makes up for the initial class we lose.

The social media tools we used to show our learning in our slavery unit seemed like the most natural and logical tools to use. As a learning community, we want our learning to extend beyond the four walls of our classroom. So we have a discussion, or likely multiple discussions, about what that should look like. We also want our projects to have “real world” implications. What’s more real world than advocacy against modern-day slavery using social media?

Essentially these are the two criteria we use to assess the product we’re going to create. How do we extend our learning beyond our classroom — and how can what we do here make a difference to the real world?  Our tool selection is guided by the answers to these questions.

4. EXPECT TO HIT THE WALL

Remember that inquiry learning is an emotional process. Each stage of learning has specific emotions attached to it, and at some point, you and your students will likely hit the wall. That’s normal.

I’ve found that we need to talk more as an inquiry class. My role is to be well aware of how my students are doing emotionally, especially when we’re dealing with a weighty, overwhelming topic like slavery. While this may not matter much in a traditional classroom, it can completely blow apart a community learning through inquiry.

I won’t promise you that any of this will be easy. It’s not. You’ll likely have days when you wonder why you ever started it. But trust me, it’s worth it.

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Your Turn.

untitledI love social justice.  I love empowering people to make a difference in their own lives. It’s what I do with my students. It’s what I try to do globally, as well.  One of my favourites? Kiva. And this month, in honour of International Women’s Day, you have the opportunity to help a woman change her life, and the life of her family — at no cost to you. Seriously.

On March 8, millions of people worldwide will celebrate the 104th International Women’s Day. While many gains have been made, the dream of women’s equality is still far from reality. The truth. In the year 2015 inequality is still all around us. Opportunity is not equal. Education is not equal. Wealth is not equal.

But dreams… all dreams are created equal. And that’s where we can start.

In honor of International Women’s Day – and the days that follow – Kiva has launched Kiva.org/Dreams to spotlight the power of women to create sustainable change when everyday people lend their support.

By visiting Kiva.org/Dreams you can back a dream by choosing a woman that Kiva should lend $25 to. There is no cost to you. By choosing her, you help her to follow her dream of starting or growing her business, sending her children to school, and gaining financial independence.

Without access to resources to attend school or grow a business, their dreams are far too often out of reach. This affects us all.  Women’s empowerment means economic growth for their families, communities and the world. A case in point: if women farmers had equal access to farming assets and finance, they could increase their crop yields up to 30% and 150 million people who go hungry every day would be able to eat.

Kiva.org is the world’s first and largest crowdfunding platform for social good with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty. Since 2005, more than 1.6 million people turned their dreams into reality because 1.3 million people backed their dream on Kiva. Together, more than $675 million in loans have been crowdfunded, with a 98% repayment rate.

By contributing to the success of an entrepreneurial woman who has overcome obstacles most of us cannot even truly imagine, we discover so much more about our own resiliency, possibility, and potential. Each of us has a part to play and together we can make dreams a reality for thousands of women around the world.

So, in honor of International Women’s Day and the power of women to create lasting change, back a dream at Kiva.org/Dreams.

This is a tremendous opportunity to involve your family, friends & you class in helping to change lives.  Go! Make a loan today.

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Pardon, me?

522627013_3421e45562_mI learned early in my teaching career that the simplest things are sometimes the most powerful. Like the power of communication.

During my internship, I had one student who I didn’t get along with. At all. Day after day we seemed to be at odds with each other. I had no idea why. And being new at this teaching thing, it didn’t occur to me to ask. But that all changed with one phone call. You may be thinking I called his parents to discuss his disruptive, antagonistic behaviour. I didn’t. It was actually the exact opposite. I called to tell his parents how well he was doing in my class. It was true. He happened to get one of the top marks on the assignment we did that week.

From the first week of my internship, I took the time every Friday to call the parents of students who had done well on assignments, projects, or tests in my class. His parents must have said something to him because after that our relationship completely changed. He became the student I connected with the most. One phone call.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve taught students from grade 9-12, and over and over, when I call parents to express praise of their child. There tends to be the same response. “Pardon, me?” or dead silence at first. Too often the only communication that comes from a school is negative. Or if things are going well — none.  I wonder if a step as small as this can pay huge dividends towards creating relationships between teachers and parents. Every child does something well. I especially love when an answering machine picks up because then the child can hear it. And some will play it over and over.

And too be honest, I loved the stunned reaction of parents. It told me I was doing something right.

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Please, Stop Calling Students Lazy.

I hIMG_1712ate it when teachers call their students lazy. Or when they refer to having the class from “Hell”. When teachers say that do they really know what they’re saying? I’m offended when I hear that. I think a student’s parents would be offended to hear it. What about the students themselves?  If a teacher thinks that poorly of their student or class, do we think that can be easily hidden?

I’ve actually never met a lazy student. Bored? Yep. Disengaged? Yep. Unmotivated by irrelevant academic hoops? Yep. But lazy? No.

The truth is I was one of those kids. Most of my marks throughout elementary & high school were pretty dismal. Usually it was because I was bored. Worksheet after worksheet. I skipped most of high school. I even skipped most of University. One can only handle so many lectures.  It wasn’t until Grad school that I began to flourish in academics. Most places, things haven’t changed a lot, so let’s not blame our students.

Yesterday, I FaceTimed with my 10 year-old. School had been boring, except for Gym. Yet, the one thing she talked animatedly about was her upcoming school science fair prIMG_0946oject. She loves the project fair. Why? Because she can study things she cares about. For as long as I can remember, she has wanted to be a marine biologist. Poor girl. We live in a land locked province. Two years ago her project was on dolphins. Last year, sharks. This year the coral reef. She’s excited about designing one. Bored? Yes. Lazy? No. She reads voraciously. She’s read the Harry Potter series. The Hunger Games. And is just finishing the last Percy Jackson book. She just turned 10. But she never talks about what she reads in school. Is she lazy? No. Bored? Yes. This is the same girl who figure skates 4 times a week; twice a week this requires her to get up at 6:30 in the morning. She has a variety of interests, but school rarely touches on them.

That’s not to say as a teacher I haven’t had kids with challenging behaviours. My students learned very quickly that I wouldn’t tolerate being disrespected, but I cared about who they were and what they need. At the same time, I use to rant about kids who wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do. And that’s really the key. It’s what I wanted them to do. For a long time I didn’t take into consideration the voices of my students. However, once I started to, the whole dynamic in my classroom changed.

Too often teachers are the ones who value academics that don’t really matter. I’ve been giving this a great deal of thought lately. Is it crucial to anyone’s life that they know what a synecdoche is? How many of you reading this need to Google it to know what it is? Yet, your life has probably gone on quite fine, maybe even better, without knowing what it is. No. I’m not going to tell you. I’ll make you do the work.

How often do we major on the minors? I’ve never taken calculus. I don’t understand it. I don’t want to. Does that make me lazy? Unmotivated, sure. But, lazy? Most people who know me would not choose that as an adjective to describe me.

Let’s think really carefully before we label kids lazy and classes from Hell. Yesterday I tweeted out how much I hate when teachers call students lazy. Another educator responded:

A teacher at my gym bragged about posting article showing area test scores to remind his class about “how lazy they are.” WTH?

In turn, I responded:

Wow. If area test scores were posted to show how lazy teachers are, there would be outrage. At the very least.

And I know that happens too.

I think what teachers mean when they talk like this is kids who aren’t compliant. Who won’t jump the hoops or play the right game. And yet, often as adults, these are the innovators who are lauded for their ability to go against the crowd, think differently, and not be dissuaded by public opinion. Sometimes these are our heroes.

School should be a place where kids can discover what they love. They should be able to ask the questions that matter to them and pursue the answers. They should discover what they are passionate about, what truly sets their hearts and souls on fire. They should discover they can make a difference now. Above all, they should leave school knowing what they are good at. I fear too many are judged by if they’ll do what we “want”.  And if they don’t, they’re lazy or they’re labelled as the class from Hell.

Our school system doesn’t need to create kids who are good at school. Instead, we need to create an environment that engages learners, fosters creativity, and puts responsibility for learning where it belongs – with our students.

Instead of rote learning, teachers need to use content to teach skills. We need to build environments that allow our students to get messy and build things. Places where students learn how to learn, and know how they learn best. Where students engage in significant research, and learn how to identify credible resources amidst a plethora of information that, at times, may seem overwhelming.

And if we don’t do that. We can’t blame our students for not engaging. So please, stop calling students lazy.

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The McDonaldization of Education: the rise of slow

5792035508_fb667bdb01_zSlow.  I love this word, and yet it tends to have many negative connotations  in education. Which is too bad because it’s the very philosophy we need to save our education system, and give kids the time and space necessary to grow into the thoughtful, articulate citizens we desperately need them t0 become.

The 20th Century is known for many things. It’s mass destruction. Statistics show we managed to destroy each other and plunder the planet at a rate unequal to any other time in history. At the same time, it was also a time of great exploration, innovation and technological advance. The exploration of space. The eradication of disabling and fatal diseases. Increased global awareness. Gaining at least some measure of equality for groups who are disenfranchised.

However, the thing that stands out most vividly is what Canadian journalist Carl Honore describes as “the cult of speed”.  Slow ways of life have largely disappeared. Many see them as ancient, naive, or largely impractical.  Instead, we live in an instant world, where most often if you ask someone how they are, the reply is busy, as if the response justifies one’s existence on the planet. Few people stop to ask if what we’re so busy doing is actually worth the energy we’re expending.

According to Honore, fast and slow “are shorthand for ways of being, or philosophies of life. Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity. It is about making real and meaningful connections with people — culture, work, food, everything.”

Unfortunately, our education system, at least in North America, has been deeply influenced by the “need for speed”, or what George Ritzer has termed “McDonaldization” — that is, “the process by which the principles of the fast food industry are coming to dominate more and more sectors of the world.

Ritzer outlines four characteristics of this mechanistic worldview: efficiency, predictability, calculability (quantifiable results) and control — or at least the illusion of control. In regards to education, McDonaldization attempts to wipe out any of the messiness or inefficiencies of learning. Instead, it attempts to reduce it to a commodity that can be packaged, marketed and sold. Rather than cultivating a deep, holistic love of learning that touches every aspect of a student’s life, learning has been reduced to an assembly line. In reality, we’ve imposed a mechanistic view of life onto how people learn, which is largely an organic process, and at a great cost.

Education continues to rapidly adopt short-cuts that reflect the dimensions of McDonaldization. Essentially, this imposition seeks the most efficient (read, easiest) way to get a student from kindergarten to grade 12 .  In an assembly line, things are homogenized as much as possible. In education we tend to see this in the assumption that the most important thing a group of kids have in common is the year they are born.

Efficiency has also the birthed the idea that teachers can be replaced by Khan Academy, and the ridiculous class sizes that many teachers now have to deal with. I don’t doubt that the Khan Academy can transmit information, but that’s assuming that the transition of information is the most important part of learning. Can it help to develop our children into thoughtful , ethical citizens, who critically evaluate, rather than being swayed by the flavour of the day? Does it create citizens, instead of consumers? When learning is treated as one more product to be consumed, a horrible disconnect occurs in our students. It becomes about the mark. It becomes about the diploma. It becomes about the end justifying a lot of terrible means.

And if a student is not quite ready to read when it’s introduced, if they’re “slow”, if they mess with the efficiency and control of the system, then they often pay the price for the rest of their lives. Kids are labelled as being not “academic”, as if being academic is the most important quality a child can possess. Creativity is quashed. Curiosity is quelled. It may also explain the huge amount of student disengagement we see in today’s classrooms.

Predictability causes the standardization of a curriculum, and the way it’s taught, with little or no regard for student interest, background or ethnicity. Every student must be able to display the same skill (or regurgitation of content knowledge) at the same time. However, it’s important to be able to calculate if any of this is making a difference, so a system of high stakes testing is introduced.

In some cases, test scores are up, whatever that means. But our students are also more stressed and disengaged from their learning. They can jump hoops, but most have little idea about what they’re passionate about. Of course, another caveat is that it’s not clear what the long term costs of all of these methods will be. What does it do to a child to spend 12 years stressed out by tests or not measuring up to an arbitrary standard usually created and advocated by someone who can’t pass “the test” themselves?

And of course, there must be a way to control those involved. Fear. Fear of losing one’s job. Fear of losing funding. Fear of embarrassing test results being published. Fear of one’s child not being able to get into college to get a “good” job. There’s an awful lot of fear in education today, and the truth is, we have no idea what the long term cost of this is either. We know in the short term, we lose a lot of new teachers in the first five years. We know that others quit early or need stress leave. We know that children are more heavily medicated now more than any other time in history. So how do we change all of this insanity?

Enter the slow movement

For awhile now, I’ve been researching and thinking deeply about the slow movement. The Slow Food movement is a grass roots movement that began in 1989 in Italy. Over the past 25 years, it has branched out to other areas of life that have been co-opted by speed & efficiency.

The Slow Food movement abdicates the industrial food conglomerates, and seeks to reconnect citizens to the richness of a common life with the neighbours who grow and prepare our food. The Slow movement is a call for intentionality, an awareness of our mutual interdependence with all people and all creation. And it seeks to root people in their community.

Slowness doesn’t require everything be done as slow as possible. Instead, it seeks to do things well & at the right speed.

So what does the Slow movement mean for education? It asks us to reimagine what it means to be a community of learners.  It requires us to admit to, and evaluate the organic, messiness of learning. It requires admitting that a large part of what is happening isn’t good for our children, our teachers, or our communities. Rather than a top down industrialized and homogenized assembly line of education, we need a grass roots development of education that takes into account what real learning looks like and what children really need.

Instead we need a reimaging of what learning can be: Slow Education. As Honore states, “We are doing a great disservice to our children by pushing them so hard to learn things earlier and earlier and by keeping them so busy. They need time and space to slow down, to play, to be children. Across the world, parents, politicians, adults in general are so anxious about children nowadays that we have become too interventionist and too impatient; we don’t allow them enough freedom. ”

The principles of the Slow Food movement are good, clean, and fair. I imagine the principles of the Slow Education movement as authentic, individualized, and formative.

Authentic education requires that learning not be based on worksheets, standardized tests, or the myriad of other terrible things we subject children to. Instead, it allows children of all ages to engage in real, meaningful work that matters to them and their community. Learning that gives them an authentic purpose and a role in society, other than consumer-in-training. It allows students to discover the everyday citizens in their community and how they are working to make it a better place. Furthermore, it empowers kids with the opportunity to identify and seek solutions to the problems in their community. As a consequence of these changes, it seeks to re-educate our communities to see students as authentic, active participants in community life. Authentic education is also an act of justice. It’s about allowing kids the chance to explore social issues and helping them become ethical citizens who speak out and make a difference.

Individualized. Enough homogeneity. Education must be responsive to the real needs of students. We need to shift to using content to teach skills, student interest and most importantly teaching kids how to learn. It needs to put the onus of learning on those who have the most at stake: students. It requires teachers to become co-learners, and let go of control. It requires districts to trust administrators, administrators to trust teachers, and teachers to trust students. It requires a great deal of conversation about what real learning is and why it matters. It allows kids to explore what matters to them, to build things that don’t work, and to figure out why. It requires them to form opinions and justify them based on solid evidence. And it requires adults who care and can speak carefully, and honestly into the lives of their students. Supporting all of this is a community that is deeply connected to the life of the school.

Finally, all learning should be formative. We talk a lot about formative and summative assessment. But I honestly wonder why we even have summative assessments? Bottom line? To give a mark. To give the test score. So kids can have marks for college. Marks should be abolished. I realize that’s a strong statement, but I have good reasons for saying so. In addition to being an arbitrary symbol that we’ve given an awful lot of power to, it means very little. What does 82 mean? Really. I’ve asked students that question. I’ve asked parents and other teachers, as well. No one really knows. Does it mean you don’t know 18% of the stuff? And which 18%. What if it’s the really important 18%?

I once broached the topic of abolishing marks with a senior administrator in my school division. The response was, “Do you know how big that is? Do you know how much work that would take?” Yep, I’ve probably briefly pondered it. So is the reason we don’t do what we know is best for our children because we don’t have the guts or because it’s too much work?

On the other hand, formative assessment allows kids to reflect on their learning. To figure out how to create better. Why something works. Why it doesn’t. What did they do well? Where can they improve? It allows for more failure and less judgement. It provides feedback that matters to students. It provides voice. And it allows me to know everyday what my students can do well and where they need to improve. I’ll take that over 82% any day.

If we slow down education, kids might learn less. Yep. But often less is more.  A slow education values understanding over covering content. I truly question how many students are learning anything now, other than how to do school, or that they’re not academic. Instead, we have the possibility of educating kids in a way that helps them to develop into people who are happy, healthy and humane.

So what is the bottom-line of the slow education movement?

✓ We abolish the busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, quantity-over-quality education environment that prevails today.

✓ We educate parents and communities about the risks of today’s current model, including the drawbacks of “edubusiness.”

sanders-learning-fair2 ✓ We create learning environments that are carefully crafted, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity and engaging.

✓ We develop curriculum that has greater depth than breadth.

✓ We make sure our curriculum takes into account local culture and celebrates the uniqueness of our local community.

✓ We don’t isolate skills development but let students grow their skills as they engage with important content.

✓ We construct learning environments that foster questioning, creativity and innovation, such as the maker movement and project/problem based learning.

✓ We find the courage to have serious discussions about abolishing standardized testing, classroom marks and grading, and the use of “birth year” as our primary criterion for sorting students.

✓ We lobby our governments for funds to assure true equality in education for all children.

✓ We discontinue the ranking of teachers and schools.

learning-about-slow-food ✓ We replace our egg-carton grades with flexible, personalized learning that takes into account when students are ready to engage in and acquire important skills.

✓ We make time for teacher collaboration a top priority.

✓ We expect all classrooms to connect students globally so they can learn from others around the world and apply what they learn in their own communities through meaningful projects and service.

✓ We make student voice and choice an integral part of everyday teaching and learning.

It’s time for the rise of slow. It’s time for environments that nourish children’s minds, hearts and souls. To create spaces that allow kids to learn at their own pace, in their own way. Do I believe any of this is easy no. It will be real. It will be messy. It will be worth it.

Slow. For me the question isn’t who will let us; the question is who will stop us? It’s time to do what is best for students. It’s time to do what’s best for teachers. It’s time for a grass roots movement that comes together to change the tide. Are you ready?

 

Photo courtesy of flickr cc: Daniel Oines

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The Gift of Failure

3312922051_580a6e9625_nLife is interesting. You think you’re going to end up in one place, and, surprise, you end up in another. I think that’s very much like the world we’re preparing our students for. Nobody really knows what the world will look like 10 years from now. We’re preparing students for jobs that don’t exist, using technology that hasn’t been invented, to solve problems we don’t know about. How do we do that? It’s not by focusing on content. Instead, it’s about skills. And for me, what’s the most important one? The ability to learn.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn – Alvin Toffler

Most of this process involves a lot of failure. When I fail, I have a choice. I can blame it on external factors, or I can dig down deep, develop the grit & tenacity necessary & figure out how to create something out of a situation that didn’t go right.  And while I have a Professional Growth Plan that I need to work on each year as a teacher, failure isn’t  a category.

Our students need this too. However, we live in a culture that abhors failure. Although at times, we like to pretend this isn’t so.  When our students fail, we rattle off some line about Thomas Edison not really failing, he just discovered 100’s of ways not to create a light bulb.  I’m not sure our students are really inspired by that. Instead, most students try to avoid failing.  The “A” is the goal, rather than the process of learning.

Let’s take a look at the truth. Professional athletes who fail too often eventually get cut or traded.  Athletes with serious character flaws are considered damaged goods. Coaches who lose too many games are fired.  Celebrities who fail are the stuff of weekly tabloids. We’re an unforgiving culture.  It seems the only time we talk about failure as a pep talk tend to include people who eventually succeed in momentous ways.  Bill Gates & Steve Jobs dropped out of college. Yep, but we don’t talk or celebrate average people who drop out of college & get average jobs.

So I think if we’re going to talk to our students about failure, we need to be authentic. We need to be real about the culture we live in. That it’s a culture that celebrates success and abhors failure. That celebrating failure is bucking the trend. It goes against everything most people believe in.

I think if our students make it through school without ever failing, we’ve failed them. Badly. Because life involves a lot of figuring out how to do something a different way. It requires a lot of problem solving. And sometimes when things go wrong, it is other people’s fault, but getting stuck there isn’t going to help us. Instead, we need to learn, unlearn, and relearn.

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Shifting the Classroom, One Step at a Time

Teachers who are interested in shifting their classrooms often don’t know where to start. It can be overwhelming, frightening, and even discouraging, especially when no one else around you seems to think the system is broken.

A question I’m asked often is “Where should a teacher begin?”  Should teachers just let students go or is there a process to good inquiry?  I’ve reflected on  this a fair amount, and I think small strategic steps are the key.  I think letting students “go” without any structure will likely create failure, especially if students haven’t spent much time collaborating.  Skills need to be modelled.

When I start with a new group of students, the design is tight.  Choice is given, but I often pick the topic and options for student voice. I model skills like collaboration, thinking out loud about my learning, and explicating integrating tech and why it’s being used.

1. START WITH ONE UNIT

Start with creating one inquiry unit in one subject. You can jump in and change everything at once like I did, but that’s slightly crazy. Instead, if you design one unit in one subject, at the end of each day, or week, you can analyze what worked and what didn’t. While teaching doesn’t always leave a lot of time for luxuries like reflection, it really is the key to figuring out inquiry learning, and as the teacher, it’s one of your most important roles.

Sometimes you may not understand why certain things aren’t working. Ask your students. I’m often surprised by how much they know and how adept they are at articulating what they need.

Two of the best resources I’ve found for creating an inquiry classroom are Carol Kuhlthau’s work and Alberta Learning’s Guide to Inquiry Learning.

If you don’t know how to create an inquiry classroom, ask me. I’m happy to help. You can begin by posting comments here. If you need resources, I can probably point you to some. Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to email, Skype and, if distance allows, have teachers, administrators and superintendents visit my classroom to see what we do.

2. TALK ABOUT LEARNING

Talk to your students about their learning — a lot.  Especially in the beginning, I talk to my students about why my classroom is structured differently than every other class in our school. I show them Ken Robinson’s talk about how the 20th century school system doesn’t really prepare students anymore.  I also show them Chris Lehmann’s TED-X talk emphasizing howeducation is broken and Karl Fisch’s Did You Know?.

I tell my students that essentially I’m preparing them for jobs that don’t currently exist, that will use technology which hasn’t been invented yet, to fix problems we’re not currently aware of. They get the point. It’s about developing skills and habits of learning, and we use content to do that.

But I also talk to my student’s about stuff like how their brain works, and how neural connections need to be made. That often, in order for students to learn something new, it needs to be attached to things they already know. Just before the recent break, during the last week of school, we talked about cognitive dissonance and Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. They like to know there’s a reason for the way they feel when they don’t “get it.” And they like to know that everyone’s zone of development is different. In fact, they were amazed to find out everyone’s brain is different.

And, yes, I use the big words. I simply explain what they mean. I don’t use them to sound smart. I use them because it makes my students feel smart; most of our society doesn’t treat our students like they’re capable of understanding or doing much. I do.

3. MAKE TECH WORK FOR YOU

Embed technology in ways that are authentic to the learning process. The first tools that I teach my students are Google Docs, Diigo or Delicious to bookmark their research, and Symbaloo to house their tools.

Experience has taught me that the first day I introduce a class to Google Docs, we will get nothing done. To them, it’s the most amazing thing ever. They usually spend most of the class typing back and forth to each other in the doc. No big deal. However, eventually, my students open Google Docs without me telling them to. I have students who literally use them for every lab, essay, and assignment. And the ability for a group to work on and edit the same document at the same time, more than makes up for the initial class we lose.

The social media tools we used to show our learning in our slavery unit seemed like the most natural and logical tools to use. As a learning community, we want our learning to extend beyond the four walls of our classroom. So we have a discussion, or likely multiple discussions, about what that should look like. We also want our projects to have “real world” implications. What’s more real world than advocacy against modern-day slavery using social media?

Essentially these are the two criteria we use to assess the product we’re going to create. How do we extend our learning beyond our classroom — and how can what we do here make a difference to the real world?  Our tool selection is guided by the answers to these questions.

4. EXPECT TO HIT THE WALL

Remember that inquiry learning is an emotional process. Each stage of learning has specific emotions attached to it, and at some point, you and your students will likely hit the wall. That’s normal.

I’ve found that we need to talk more as an inquiry class. My role is to be well aware of how my students are doing emotionally, especially when we’re dealing with a weighty, overwhelming topic like slavery. While this may not matter much in a traditional classroom, it can completely blow apart a community learning through inquiry.

I won’t promise you that any of this will be easy. It’s not. You’ll likely have days when you wonder why you ever started it. But trust me, it’s worth it.

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Because Sometimes Life Happens

DonnaGraysonI haven’t blogged for awhile. There’s a number of reasons for this. Those who know me know that I’m a huge advocate for inquiry and PBL. And after the past few months, I’m an even bigger advocate. Why? Because sometimes life happens.

You never really know what life is going to throw at you. Sometimes there is only one right answer. But rarely in life is that the case. And rarely in life is the answer found in the back of the book, although too often that’s what our students learn. Maybe as teachers we’d like to believe that too. It’s easier.

Sometimes there’s an economic downturn and you lose your job.

Sometimes your marriage falls apart.

Sometimes you’re diagnosed with a chronic illness.

In my case, it’s the latter. Four days into the school year I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and put on medical leave. The short version of fibromyalgia, for me, is that almost every muscle in my body is in pain all of the time. Often, it’s exhausting. There are multiple theories as to what causes it, but no one really knows. There’s no cure. There’s no medication for it, although there are medications that have been developed for other things that sometimes help alleviate symptoms. There’s not even a “typical” fibromyalgia case. Each is distinctly different. I’ve had to learn a lot.

Some people are able to manage their symptoms successfully and live a pretty normal life.  However, approximately 1/3 of people who suffer from it are unable to work or are severely limited in their daily activities.

So what does this have to do with inquiry? For the past four months my life has become my inquiry project. Those who manage to live successfully with this syndrome are those who take control of their life.  They research. They create a team of experts to work with. They exercise & eat properly. They rest. They become their own advocates. This is what I’ve spent the last four months doing.  Western medicine has little to offer those with fibromyalgia, so a lot of alternative therapies are necessary.

If you want to plunge into a mountain of research that often contradicts itself, fibromyalgia would be it. I’ve had to wade through the minutiae, trying to figure out what I believe to be true and what works for me. And more times than I’d like to count, I’ve learned what doesn’t work, rather than what does.  And I’ve learned it the hard way.

When it doesn’t work, it’s more than getting a bad grade. It means I can’t get out of bed. Or I miss my daughter’s skating practice. Or I don’t feel like eating for three days. Getting it wrong really matters.  And along the way you have to have the tenacity to pick yourself up and try again. Are today’s schools instilling this in our kids?

Furthermore, it’s a highly emotional process, just like any inquiry project. When I work with teachers around the topic of PBL & inquiry, I always make sure to emphasize this point. It really matters. The most important job I had as an inquiry teacher was to be aware of the emotional climate of my classroom. Emotions can derail you.

isp_chart

There are days I feel optimistic about the future because I’m ambitious and strong. I’ve overcome a lot in my life. I’ve worked hard, and I love trying new things. However, there are days I feel overwhelmed, frustrated and doubtful because my mind is as sharp as ever, but my body won’t do what I want it to. It leads me to wonder, “What if this is as good as it gets?” “What if the rest of my life is like this?” Do most classrooms prepare students to deal with these emotions?

And after 6 months at home, I’m bored. I like to be challenged. Thankfully, I have a masters in Ed Tech to fall back on, and I’m able to work as an instructional designer for two post secondary institutions designing on-line courses, mostly from my kitchen table. As an instructional designer, I’ve been able to learn new content and skills. But I miss teaching. I would love to be able to teach on-line, but currently, that’s not something my school division really has. So if you’re looking for an online teacher, let me know. I’d love to talk.

I’ve come to realize that I may never be able to go back to the classroom, and that I may not be able to resume my PhD work. It’s hard to let go of something you were pretty good at, and that you really loved to do. I’ve had to learn to hold these things in an open hand. To figure out what really matters. And in some ways, redefine myself.  Do our current school systems foster this type of resilience?

 I know that being an inquiry teacher has greatly benefited me throughout this process. It’s made me more flexible, thoughtful, curious and bold. Fibromyalgia can’t be fought, only embraced.

I haven’t blogged lately because I’m not sure what to do in this space.

But I’m more aware than ever that our students need inquiry classrooms. They need to know how to research. They need to know how to check sources and try out what works. They need to know how to advocate for themselves and others. They need to know how to think critically, creatively, and to evaluate multiple viewpoints. I honestly believe the most important skill we can foster in them is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn, as Alvin Toffler so wisely stated.

Because someday, their lives may depend on it.

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Academics: What’s it good for?

Moose Jaw-20110829-00007Academics. Most of our current school system revolves around it, and yet, I think it falls miserably short of what our kids need. To be honest, I think our academic system of education is highly overrated, at best. At worst, it destroys a number of our kids.

Hear me out. I’m not saying that our kids shouldn’t learn to read, or do math, or develop other valuable skills. But too often, the focus of our kids’ school day is Content with a capital C, with little connection to why it matters. Instead of learning together, many of our students spend hours filling in worksheets or copying down lecture notes that they could google in 30 seconds.

Too often the lectures they listen to are boring and irrelevant to their lives. And from my experience, most of this content is simply memorized, spewed out for an exam and then quickly forgotten. But beyond this, there’s often only one right answer, which frequently cultivates in our students a fear of failure.

Schools value hoop jumping

For the most part, kids who we consider “academic” tend to be good hoop jumpers. They’ve figured out the system and can navigate their way through the predictable demands of the system. But they are seldom truly engaged. Rarely are they transformed by their learning. They’re going through the motions.

Research shows that some of the least engaged students are the highest achievers. Think about that. They do well because they know how to “do school.” Is this really the best we have to offer them?

What if you’re not “academic”? Most of these kids pass through too many years of their young lives feeling like they don’t measure up. Feeling stupid. And for some, it radically alters their trajectory of their adult lives. Unfortunately, too many students have to recover from school once they graduate. Is this really what we want for them?

I used to teach this way

In all honesty, I have to admit that I used to believe in this academics-oriented system. For too many years my students sat in straight rows. I asked the questions. I had the answers. I controlled the learning.

The truth is I did this because it’s what I knew. It’s how I’d been trained. It’s what I saw replicated in universities and in other teachers’ classrooms. I sincerely believed that good grades mattered.

I’m an English teacher, and I subscribed wholeheartedly to the belief that the pinnacle of success in English was the ability to write “the essay.” But I’ve radically changed my position. I’ve come to believe that the traditional essay is one of the most useless things we teach our students.

Recently, I’ve started to ask people I know, “Do you ever write an essay?” I’ve never had one person say yes. I wonder how many teachers, except those who are taking university classes (or writing an opinion piece like this), ever write true essays. If I may be so bold, I wonder how many English teachers frequently write essays.

I’m not saying our kids shouldn’t be able to write. On the contrary, I think our students should be able to argue gracefully and persuade powerfully. They also need to know what they believe and why. I simply think the essay is a medium that has outlived its usefulness, at least in high school.

Academics for the academicians

I’ve come to realize that being “academic” doesn’t tell you much about yourself. It tells you you’re good at school, which is fine if you plan to spend your life in academia, but very few of our students do. It doesn’t indicate whether or not you’ll be successful in your marriage, raising your kids, managing your money, or giving back to your community. All things that matter much more than being good at school.

School should be a place where kids can discover what they love. They should be able to ask the questions that matter to them and pursue the answers. They should discover what they are passionate about, what truly sets their hearts and souls on fire. They should discover they can make a difference now. Above all, they should leave school knowing what they are good at.

Today, I think most kids graduate only knowing if they’re good at school or not. Often our students have many talents; they just don’t fit in our current curriculum because their talents are likely not considered “real knowledge.” And what is that? In the Biology curriculum that I’ve taught for the past several years, one of the objectives that my students need to know is earthworm reproduction. Really? Out of all the things we could be teaching a 17-year-old about biology, someone (a whole panel of someones, we can guess) decided earthworm reproduction was essential?

Our students lose their curiosity

We are born curious. Babies explore their environments to learn; they do it naturally without being told. Three-year-olds constantly, at times annoyingly, ask, “why?” And yet, by the time my students arrive in Grade 10, they have all but lost their curiosity. Consequently, when I get a new class of students, we start by unlearning.

We begin by imagining what school could be, instead of what they’ve known for 10 years. Only then can we move into the work that will help them become lifelong learners who truly enjoy the search for answers, rather than the mark at the top of their exam.

Recently I’ve been reading Amanda Lang’s The Power of Why. In it she states:

Curious kids learn how to learn, and how to enjoy it – and that, more than any specific body of knowledge, is what they will need to have in the future. The world is changing so rapidly that by the time a student graduates from university, everything he or she learned may already be headed toward obsolescence. The main thing that students need to know is not what to think but how to think in order to face new challenges and solve new problems (p.14). 

Learning how to learn and fail and learn some more

Our school system doesn’t need to create kids who are good at school. Instead, we need to create an environment that engages learners, fosters creativity, and puts responsibility for learning where it belongs – with our students.

Instead of rote learning, teachers need to use content to teach skills. We need to build environments that allow our students to get messy and build things. Places where students learn how to learn, and know how they learn best. Where students engage in significant research, and learn how to identify credible resources amidst a plethora of information that, at times, may seem overwhelming.

Furthermore, our students need to be able to problem-solve, innovate and fail over and over again. Throughout all of this, our kids should be collaborating with each other, as well as virtually with students across the globe. They need to be able to communicate powerfully using the mediums of print, photography and video.

Three questions to guide student-driven learning

3-questions-160As I’ve worked with my students, we’ve come to realize they need to be able to answer three questions, regardless of what we’re researching:

• What are you going to learn?

• How are you going to learn it?

• How are you going to show me you’re learning?

How they get to this last question is often their decision. And what they come up with never fails to surprise me.

My classroom hasn’t always looked like this. But over the past three years we’ve shifted to a constructivist pedagogy that has transformed not only my thinking, but my students as well. Now we learn in an inquiry, PBL, tech-embedded classroom.

The journey at times has been painful and messy, but well worth the work. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that my students will often exceed my expectations, if only they’re given the chance.

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Start with Why: the power of student driven learning

3177240743_28279f4bb3I know a high school student who is quite amazing. She’s keen. She’s hungry. She wants to be challenged. She’s also bored out of her mind. Frustrated. Angry. Because the truth is, she’s just jumping through hoops, and she knows it.

In the graded world, She’s a 95-percent student, and like many of our most capable students, she’s disengaged from her learning. Studies have shown that many of top students are simply “doing school.” In fact, an entire book has been written about it.

She’s a student who would thrive in an environment that allowed her to co-create her education.  An environment that would allow her to spend 20 percent of school time pursuing her own interests — that would challenge her through inquiry, learning to collaborate on projects with students in other cities, provinces and countries.

She would thrive after being asked: “What do you want to learn?” “What do you want to read?” “What matters to you?” And then taking her answers and the curricular outcomes and designing a learning plan that incorporated all of this, plus embedded technology.

But she can’t

She’s stuck in a traditional school, in a traditional classroom, and she’s just putting in time. What a waste. But the truth is there are thousands of students bogged down in this exact situation.

In all honesty, I used to run one of those classrooms.  But at a pivotal point in my teaching journey, I was presented with the opportunity to do things differently.  I won’t pretend for a moment that it’s been easy.  It hasn’t.  But it’s been worth every moment, to see my classroom come alive.  I shared part of the story here in a recent TEDx talk:

We start in the wrong place

So often in education we focus on the wrong things. Test scores. Marks. Awards. Simon Sinek has it right. We need to start with why. So often we start with other things like the what (curriculum) and the how (instructional strategies). I’m not saying content isn’t important. I want my doctor, lawyer & accountant to all know their content. But we’ve lost sight that it’s what you do with the content that matters. Memorizing & regurgitating falls miserably short of equipping our students.

As Sinek states:

Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do.  When I say why, I don’t mean to make money — that’s a result. By WHY I mean what is your purpose, cause or belief. WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?

I think teachers and school organizations need to ask themselves the Why questions, beginning with: Why do we own the learning and not our students? Or, as Will Richardson so eloquently posits, Why School?

Why do we have so many students like the one I know, frustrated and bored, just waiting to be challenged? We’ve made education about manipulation and hoops instead of inspiring our students to pursue learning that matters to them — learning that can help them make a difference in our communities and the world.

When I ask someone why they became a teacher, often it’s because they “love kids” or “want to make a difference.”  That’s a pretty vague why.

 So what do I believe? What is my why?

I believe students are fully competent to be co-creators of their own learning environments.

I believe that students can change the world; they are not the future; they are right now.

I believe that students need skills that go far beyond the content of most curricula.

sticky-eyesI believe that students want to learn, but often they lack the environment that sparks the emergence of passionate, life-long learners.

I believe that my students have a voice and it should be heard.

I believe students can read at their appropriate grade level and still be illiterate.

I believe that each of my students has unique talents and interests that should merge with our learning environment at school.

I believe my students are not empty vessels waiting to be filled.

I believe that my students need to develop metacognitive skills and make their thinking visible.

I believe that students are fully capable of differentiating their own learning.

I believe my students are creative and can teach me important things.

I believe school shouldn’t be a place where young people go to watch older people work hard.

I believe, if given the chance and the right support, my students will become more than they ever thought they could be.

I believe that once students begin to see their talents and gifts, they will grow in confidence.

As a teacher:

I believe that my classroom should be a place of joy, engagement, learning and play.

I believe that I should be less helpful.

I believe that I should ask more questions, and offer fewer answers.

I believe that I should model what learning, failing, grit & perseverance look like.

I believe that I should take risks, even when I’m afraid.

I believe it’s crucial to use content to teach skills.

I believe that the most important question I often ask my students is, “What do you need?”

I believe that I am not the all-knowing guru, nor do I want to be.

I believe I need to be transparent with my learning and who I am.

I believe that kids need a life outside of school, so I don’t believe in homework — at least not the rote, meaningless stuff that’s usually assigned.

The how and what come from our why

What we truly believe about our students informs the structures of our classrooms. Whose voices are heard most frequently? Whose are silenced?  Our beliefs about students dictate who designs and drives the learning.

Shelley-slavery-3In my own classroom, the how has taken the form of an inquiry-based, PBL, tech-embedded classroom. My students drive the learning, and starting with curricular outcomes, outline what they’re going to learn, how they’re going to learn it, and how they’re going to show me their learning.

The what has resulted in my students creating a Holocaust museum, launching a multi-media campaign against modern day slavery, and (as you heard in the video) raising over $22,000 to help rebuild schools in a war-torn country. They also work on much smaller projects, individually and collaboratively. But we never start with what. We always start with why.

What stops teachers from putting the Why first?

Fear. I think we’re afraid. I think we’re afraid of losing control and looking incompetent. I think we’re afraid of not knowing what will happen. I think we’re afraid that we won’t figure out how to shift our classroom or use the new technology. I think we’re afraid of being different than the other teachers in our school — of being an outcast.

The truth is, I’ve felt all these fears and experienced all of these situations. But I still wouldn’t teach differently than I do now.

There’s a power in student-driven learning that’s contagious and exhilarating. Being an inquiry teacher has made me a better thinker and learner. It’s made me a better Educator with a capital “E”.

If you want to join me in making a difference, start with WHY.

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