Take A Step Back


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This is for you new teachers out there…

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received in my teaching career was a simple one:

“Sit back, relax, and enjoy your time with the kids.”

I had just started a new alternative program for junior high in an Outreach School, and I had the great opportunity to work with some very unique and special young people.  Now with all the great things these students brought to our class, they also had some issues with behaviour, issues that could lead to some very trying and stressful situations. By the end of October I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do the work the rest of the year, I wasn’t sleeping much, I wasn’t eating a lot, and I was stressed out and exhausted.

My principal, one of the greatest mentors a teacher could ask for, came in to observe my class and offer his thoughts. After the students left for the day he flashed his knowing smile and chuckled, and I knew right away he had me and my issues figured out, that’s the way he was. He told me how I spent most of the class walking around looking for problems, or on the edge of my chair waiting for something to go wrong. He explained how I had amped myself up into a hyper-vigilant state, moving from problem to problem, just waiting for the next thing to go wrong.

Then he asked me “Have you had anything happen so far that you couldn’t handle?”, I told him no. Then he asked “Whatever might happen, could you handle it?” and I responded yes. “Well” he responded, “then stop looking for something to happen, or waiting for something to go wrong, sit back, take a deep breath and try to enjoy your time with the kids. If anything happens, you’ll be fine, and if you’re not, I will help you, but this will never be work you will enjoy if you move from crisis to crisis without taking any enjoyment from your day.

From that moment on, my time in the school and with my students got better. So much better. I spent time with my students and was able to bring more of me to my teaching as I relaxed and let down my guard a little. We still had issues from time to time, but they became mild inconveniences that we worked through rather than the dreaded storm that always seemed to be on my horizon.

For you new teachers, you are two weeks (or more) into your year and if you haven’t done so already, it’s time for you to take a step back and just watch the magic that is students learning together. Whatever might happen, you can handle it, so don’t worry about the class getting a little loud, or the learning heading off task, it will be fine. Students can sense when we are anxious or stressed, and it is not helpful in creating the relaxed and open learning environment you want for your kids.

We work in a great profession, and the part that makes it great is the kids, so make sure you take the time to enjoy them, and enjoy learning with and from them!

Have a great year!

Constraint


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Constraint:

  • something that limits or restricts someone or something
  • control that limits or restricts someone’s actions or behaviour

For a while now I have been a strong advocate for student voice in their learning and choice in what they learn. I have written about our four Innovation Weeks, and proselytized at length about the power in turning over control to our students, and the resulting learning that has occurred as a result. The push back against relinquishing control of our classrooms is dwindling, and I find far less resistance to these ideas when I present them at conferences or post about them here.

During one of my last conference presentations, the question came up about why I thought Innovation Week was beneficial to student learning, and how I felt it compared to other similar ideas like the wildly popular and fantastic Genius Hour. My response was that I find great value in the experience being limited by time, and that the deadline pushed our students to do amazing things in just that one week. I feel that the constraint of a one week time limit (5 days really), pushes students in ways that force them to deliver on their ideas (see fantastic Seth Godin video on “Shipping”), and that it helps focus what might otherwise become aimless or unmotivated without an end-point.

I read a fantastic post about Google’s ATAP team (Advanced Technology and Projects) a few weeks ago and in the article it talks about how the two-year time limit imposed on these ATAP teams motivates them to achieve great things because with every week that passes they are 1% closer to the deadline. I loved this quote, and it inspired a few posts (here and here) about how we should create similar research and development teams in education.

There is a sense of urgency, you don’t come to build a career. You come to do a project, to do something epic, and then you go.”

Since my last conference presentation I have been revisiting some ideas I had, and trying to look at them through the lens of constraint. I am starting to think that building in constraint can be just as effective as building in choice when we look at creating learning experiences for our students that challenge and grow their imagination. I was reminded of the scene from Apollo 13 when the NASA engineers had to create a solution to get a square CO2 filter into a round hole:

I believe that working to find a solution to a problem while navigating the restrictions or difficulties is an authentic means to fostering creativity, critical thinking and innovation in our students. We have no doubt done this already with spaghetti bridge building, shopping on a budget, and Rube-Goldberg machines built with things you find around your house. Where I think there can be some growth in this area is instead building a learning experience around a constraint rather than adding a constraint to an already developed learning experience, as I would suggest all of the above would qualify as.

Maybe one of the following may have potential, and maybe you can help me turn them into great experiences for our students with some suggestions:

- Guerrilla/Ambush Learning – excuse the cheesy title, it is a work in progress. The idea is built around the constraint of time and limited preparedness. Students sign up to participate, and on a chosen day, all participants are shuttled into the gym where we have tables and chairs set up. They are handed a coloured card and asked to sit at the table that corresponds to their colour. Once everyone is in, a problem is shared with the group, and the challenge is given to each table to develop a solution to the problem. A clock with let’s say 5 hours on it starts to countdown. The groups have to work together to come up with a solution to the problem and have it ready to defend at the end of the 5 hours. Sample problems could be clean drinking water in a third world country, inner-city literacy rates or limiting cars into a city centre. As long as the problem is big enough to tackle and a problem that exists somewhere in the world, I believe the task would be engaging and meaningful.

- Helping Hand - again, cheesy title that will be improved by someone (anyone?) out there. The idea is built around the constraint of space and limited resources. The idea initially started as lunch boxes to a 3rd world country but with some help from my colleagues (Thanks Courtney, Dana, Brad and Carson) we refocused this on cloth grocery bags for homeless people. The idea is that students have to come up with the best use of the space provided by one cloth grocery bag. The question would be what would be the most effective way they could fill the bag to provide to a homeless person with the most beneficial contents they could come up with. The limitation would be that they would have to actively seek out the donation of all contents. Whether it was medical supplies, a blanket, non-perishable food items, toiletries etc. they would have to contact a business, explain their project and then convince the business to help them out with a donation. I think with some work done behind the scenes before the project you could probably get some businesses or associations on board to help.

For the helping hand project we are thinking of doing it in January or February when it can get very cold in our neck of the woods, and after the Christmas season, when the shelters get a great deal of help from people already. We hope to partner with a shelter that can not only act as a resource for the exercise, but can hopefully facilitate our participating students in the handing out of these bags.

Whether the limitation or constraint you put on students is real or imagined, creating this type of experience challenges students to be imaginative in their finding a solution. Just as the best way to foster resilience in students is to give them a meaningful reason to be resilient, the best way to foster innovation and creativity is going to be to challenge them in ways that force them to be imaginative and innovative.

In a great article that Whitney Johnson wrote for the Harvard Business Review entitled Why Innovators Love Constraints, she talks about how constraints can push us, and how in the real world this type of thinking is required. I think this quote does a good job of connecting this type of learning to the type of thinkers our world is going to require, or already requires:

A tightly-lidded box can stifle and suffocate. It can motivate us to figure out how get outside the box. To make choices about how we will expend the resources we do have available to us, to find cheaper, more nimble ways of doing something as a person – and as a corporation. Our perceived limitations may give us direction on where we might play, or want to play. Indeed, if we will let them, constraints can (and will) drive us to disruption.

As always, I’d love your thoughts, comments, or recommendations.

The New Think Tank


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In my post yesterday, I put forth the idea of educational R&D teams and how they could be an affordable, scaled down way to bring research and development into our educational organizations without the cost and scale of an entire R&D department. In that post I suggested there would be merit in dedicating PD resources to developing knowledge and expertise amongst your own talented educators rather than paying people to come in and direct us with their innovations instead of us developing our own.

George Couros, the Division Principal in my division,  offered this in response:

If you only focus on developing and sharing ideas within, you can quickly see that the same things get done over and over again; it is tough to know any better.

He’s absolutely right, and while I was more speaking about replacing certain types of PD, it is important to keep this idea in mind. Just as important as empowering our own educators and building capacity in our organizations, is being open to the power of learning from others all over the globe.

Last night, I tried to imagine setting up an R&D team and trying to pilot this type of innovation and professional learning, so I started with a topic I am personally interested in learning about – Metacognition. When I thought about assembling a team, I realized that many of the people I would love to work with on this project weren’t in my division, or even living in the area. When I thought about connecting with them a new idea emerged – what about creating virtual think tanks, using all the tools we have available for online connecting now?

I immediately went and typed “virtual think tank” and “online think tank” into google hoping someone had already done this and could provide an easy to follow model. While there were a few similar ideas, I did not find one that involved educators. I think the closest idea I have seen would be the School Admin Virtual Mentor Program (SAVMP) that George ran last year. While that was an online mentorship program, I would see this more as eager, passionate educators who have an area of interest they would like to explore and try to bring to their building or division, connecting in some type of facilitating forum that helps bring together educators with a common interest. From there, using Skype, Google Hangouts, Twitter, Voxer, etc. they could find ways to research, share, develop resources, and push practice forward. A site would have to be set up and maintained, and resources could be curated and uploaded, but it wouldn’t have to be too expansive. Even if it started with just providing a message board or a hashtag on twitter, but doing something to bring the educators together to form these think tanks.

In a lot of ways I feel like I have lived some of this already, as I am sure many of you have. I’ve connected on twitter chats, on hangouts, or organized face to face meetings after first developing a dialogue on twitter. I’ve sought out help from others who have experience in areas I do not, by putting together a blog post or appealing to someone on twitter. I have connected with educators in Denver, Vancouver, Chicago, Philadelphia and London. This really is happening already, but because it feels so informal and easy, no one has named it a “think tank” because it probably felt too pretentious.

In my last post, I talked about how the constraint of a time limit would be important to any project, and when it comes to this idea, I believe even more constraints would need to be there to ensure follow through. Deadlines, scope of the projects, specific windows of time that meetings need to occur within etc. These think tanks would more than likely be projects educators would pursue on their own time and of their own volition, with people from multiple divisions from all over the globe, so some boundaries that pointed us in the right direction would be needed. As the community of innovators grew, accountability to the group and to share ideas would motivate people, but until that culture grew, it would have to start with these constraints in place.

Would people have an interest for this? What kind of support would you assume you would have from your administrator or your division? If the site was developed would you see yourself checking it out? What types of topics would like to see for innovations that should be pursued?

I would love your feedback so please leave a comment with any thoughts on this topic, and whether it is something worth working towards.

 

 

A Great Disconnect


creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-SA ) flickr photo shared by Joe Dsilva

I love to read about the ways that people are pushing boundaries and I do not limit that reading to the education realm. I believe so much can be learned from every other domain, be it business, the arts, etc. that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to focusing our learning from education minds alone.

My brilliant friend Paul Genge (follow him on twitter, he is doing amazing work in curriculum redesign) turned me on to the book Open by David Price which I am finding really quite interesting, as it talks about all the changes our new open knowledge culture will have on our global community in all realms – education, business, culture. While his commentary on the changes education will have to undertake to align itself with this new culture are fascinating, it was in a section on the changing world of business that I found inspiration:

If a business is simply buying in knowledge, as and when it’s needed, how is it going to grow its own bank of knowledge and expertise?  (Price, 2013)

Addressing just how easy it is becoming to outsource work, and to access freelance workers all over the planet, Price addresses the idea that by doing so, a business builds less and less intellectual capital within their company and amongst their own talented workers.

Immediately my mind went to the topic of research and development in education, a topic I have written about before, including my last post. In that post, I put forth this quote from research I had read in my recent masters coursework:

Advances in educational know-how are likely to remain slow and uncertain until educational institutions follow suit and devote funds to supporting their role in the production of educational PPK (Principled Practical Knowledge). (Bereiter, 2014)

Bereiter advocates innovation from within, and I have imagined this as our own funded and supported R&D departments, most likely at a divisional level, pushing practice and driving systemic change. When I honestly look at what that would mean, logistically and financially, I see the minimum commitment being no less than three professionals, and when including research, professional development and a working space, the cost would probably end up being close to half a million dollars. Working in a relatively small school division, the chances of this happening are probably very small. So what is the answer?

In a study done for Strategy & Business magazine entitled Making Ideas Work, Jaruzelski, Loehr and Holman looked at the research and development budgets of some of the world’s most innovative companies and measured that up against the success each company had, and the feedback the company itself gave about their own level of innovation. While their study presented companies with R&D budgets in the billions, and names like Apple, Google and Toyota, I found this finding the most interesting:

As our study has consistently shown over the past eight years, there is no long-term correlation between the amount of money a company spends on its innovation efforts and its overall financial performance; instead, what matters is how companies use that money and other resources, as well as the quality of their talent, processes, and decision making. Those are the things that determine their ability to execute their innovation agendas. (Jaruzelski, Loehr & Holman, 2012)

The “quality of their talent”, I would imagine this is a key indicator of success in any industry. So you need talented people. Of course. And you need to spend your money effectively. Yep. Nothing earth shattering in that, but when you think of the talent your educational organization has, and you think about what David Price talks about when he illustrated a key pitfall that occurs when businesses look outside their walls with freelance work and outsourcing, I find myself forced to reflect on our current practices. How much money is spent in an educational organization to bring in talent to guide us on our way? What would happen to the intellectual capital and level of talent/ability in an educational organization if that money was directed towards individuals within the organization to develop knowledge and guide the way from within?

So we probably aren’t ready to shell out half a million to set up an R&D department in most school divisions, but there has to be another way to develop ideas from within while developing ability within our organization at the same time. What about R&D teams? What about an R&D team of educators who come together periodically to work on an idea? Let’s say 4-6 educators, meeting 8 days of each school year and doing so for a 2 year cycle? The division provides a space to meet, sub coverage for the educators and support in the way of required materials and/or PD. The whole thing could probably be done for under $30,000 over a two year cycle. Hmmmm, now we are getting closer to numbers that are pretty reasonable.

Hypothetically, we put together a pilot group to tackle the idea of mindfulness in schools. We bring in 4- 6 educators, they review research and publications, they attend a conference or two, they use their time together to plan ways to bring the research to life in buildings, and at the end of two years they present the findings to the division, and hopefully to the rest of the educators so that the seed can spread, the practice take root and systemic change can occur.

The two-year cycle idea came from this great article that I read today about Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) team, and how Google pushes the team by creating a firm two year delivery date for their team projects and reminding them that every week they are 1% closer to the deadline. I think the constraint of a two year deadline is a key factor in the innovation, if you don’t put a delivery date on it, there is always a chance the work could keep spiralling without ever finishing – Seth Godin has a great video on the “Shipping” of innovative ideas. Since the teams would be on two-year cycles, this would by no means be a career change, there would be no need for permanent positions to be set up. It could be a lot like the way Regina Dugan, Google ATAP leader, puts it in this quote:

There is a sense of urgency, you don’t come to build a career. You come to do a project, to do something epic, and then you go.

A great disconnect I see is that we talk about innovation and building the capacity within our organizations but then we spend money to bring in outside experts to show us the way and to be the innovators. A lot of times, the topics  or areas covered are not beyond us, but out of convenience we pay them to come and lead sessions. If we looked within our organizations I am sure we often have the talent to lead in this area, or at the very least, a small group of passionate educators willing to learn more about it. If a goal for the professional learning of our organizations started first with a goal of building the knowledge and abilities of our educators we would be purposeful in the way we directed resources to ensure that we weren’t simply adopting someone else’s “best practices” but instead developing our own. The question should not be “Who should we bring in to be the expert?” it should be “who can become our expert?”.

Education R & D – The Need To Move Forward


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(This is part of the work I am doing for my Masters course “Conceptualizing the Learning Sciences” at the University of Calgary as part of my Design Learning program. I am planning on posting my work here, as well as on the site that my course is based on. This may not interest anyone beyond me, but when it comes to reflections, I like to post mine on my blog regardless of whether they are simply for me, for my PLN, or for another purpose like my Masters coursework.)

Advances in educational know-how are likely to remain slow and uncertain until educational institutions follow suit and devote funds to supporting their role in the production of educational PPK (Principled Practical Knowledge).” (Bereiter, 2014)

16 months ago, I was lucky to take part in a trip down to Cupertino, California with my school division to meet with Apple at their headquarters. One of the presenters was a key individual from their financial department, and a key point of his presentation that stuck out for me was when he mentioned the immense amount of their budget dedicated to Research and Development (R&D). I leaned over and asked a member of our division’s senior executive and asked her what portion of our budget was dedicated to R&D?

This quote above from Carl Bereiter suggests to me the need for our field to have research and development happening. At what level? People will point to universities and say that it is these institutions that should be handling that. My thought was that this should occur at the division level, and whatever departments we currently have should include one that is either renamed or created as “Research and Development”. My professor Dr. Sharon Friesen suggested that in fact this should be happening in the schools. I think maybe a hybrid of the two might be the answer.

I think too often we spend our time thinking about how we can apply what others have applied, or bring canned programs in from other people and places, but what do we do to foster new ideas in our organizations? Doesn’t the idea of “Best Practice” in itself strictly refer to what has been done? And what better way to ensure we bring research in to our practice then to have a department that focuses on what research is telling us?

I also think there is power in the title itself – “Research and Development”. If I was working in a department that was called something like “Learning Services” or even “Curriculum”, and suddenly we changed to something along the lines of R&D, it would change the way I thought about the work I did, and the goals I had for myself and my work. Maybe changing existing departments is too much to ask, and maybe a division could start with a small R&D department or even a person who’s job it was to bring that type of thinking to the division or schools. I would love that job.

We are in a time of change for education, no doubt, so if we are changing how we teach, how we assess and how we learn, maybe we should also look to change how we move our profession and our practice forward. What do you think? Does your division or school have some way to bring this type of thinking and ideation into the organization?

Resources:

Bereiter, C. (2014).  Principled practical knowledge: Not a bridge but a ladder.  The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 23(1), 4-17.

 

 

Misconceptions: Do We Really Understand Them?


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(This is part of the work I am doing for my Masters course “Conceptualizing the Learning Sciences” at the University of Calgary as part of my Design Learning program. I am planning on posting my work here, as well as on the site that my course is based on. This may not interest anyone beyond me, but when it comes to reflections, I like to post mine on my blog regardless of whether they are simply for me, for my PLN, or for another purpose like my Masters coursework.)

In the readings for my class today it talked about two Learning Sciences researchers who had fundamentally differing points of view when it comes to conceptual change. Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1970 and suggested that science moves forward through periods of radical change that differ greatly than the periods of relatively little change, which he referred to as “Normal Science”. He talked about scientists who thought the way everyone thought before the radical change and people who changed their thinking via the radical change ceased to see the world the same way. He referred to the change in terms of incommensurability, which referred to the inability of the new way of thinking to be stated in the old way and vice-versa. (Sawyer, 2006)

Conversely, Toulmin wrote Human Understanding in 1972 and it rejected Kuhn’s theory and presented an idea that suggested that the before and after wasn’t so different or defined, alluding to  metaphor of a moving picture rather than two distinctively different images. (Sawyer, 2006)

diSessa, who wrote the chapter A History of Conceptual Change suggested that the two helped form a fragmentation vs. coherence way of looking at conceptual change. Now I am no expert, but I took this, after doing a bit more digging into other articles, to mean that change can happen on the whole to an entire system of conceptual organization of knowledge, or by putting together and organizing all the little pieces of knowledge into a new and more informed conceptual model. If that sounds confusing then I have helped you join me in the same boat.

I found another article, which also written by diSessa, “Coherence versus fragmentation in the development of the concept of force”  which provided a bit more insight into the debate mostly because it suggested the debate was ongoing. Below is taken directly from the writing, and lists the three aims of  the paper:

1. We aim explicitly to articulate and explore an important and broad division among conceptual change theorists. We wish to contribute to the relatively sparse body of literature that self-consciously contrasts different views, and pursues an avenue intended to bring the debate to conclusion.

2. We aim to find common empirical grounds with other researchers, both in terms of age level of subjects and in terms of conceptual focus.

3. We deliberately seek to minimize differences in methods, rather than pursuing paths of investigation natural only to our own theoretical and empirical tradition. (diSessa, Gillespie and Esterly, 2004)

So it would seem, that at the time in 2004 when this paper was written the interested researchers were still trying to develop framework that would make studying conceptual change comparable. I notice a number of variables that they speak of, and that doesn’t even include the idea that maybe conceptual change occurs differently in different disciplines, as one of my classmates brought forward today. It would be interesting, when all the papers are done and I find myself with some time to dig, to dive in a little deeper and see what has occurred in this area of research since diSessa’s paper in 2004.

What I connected with in reviewing the article and seeking out further understanding, is the idea of studying something that, I think, is still trying to be resolved. It really brings the “Sciences” in Learning Sciences to life for me to think that I am looking in on research that pertains to my field and is ongoing, still searching for what could be considered some form of agreement or resolution. If my understanding of conceptual change remains a foggy, I can handle that, but it has caused a stir in me to look into it further, and maybe that’s a big part of what this experience is about.

Resources

diSessa, A. A., Esterly, J. B., & Gillespie, N. M. Coherence versus fragmentation in the development of the concept of force. Cognitive Science, 843-900.

Sawyer, R. K. (Ed.). (2006). Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.  NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.

 

 

 

A Radical Shift – Learning Sciences and Transformational Learning


creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-SA ) flickr photo shared by Jiuck

(This is part of the work I am doing for my Masters course “Conceptualizing the Learning Sciences” at the University of Calgary as part of my Design Learning program. I am planning on posting my work here, as well as on the site that my course is based on. This may not interest anyone beyond me, but when it comes to reflections, I like to post mine on my blog regardless of whether they are simply for me, for my PLN, or for another purpose like my Masters coursework.)

To foster conceptual change, learners need to deeply engage topics in ways that may radically shift their concepts, even while building on their existing conceptions.” (Hoadley and Van Haneghan, 2011)

…as all human beings in any society will experience situations where what they try to accomplish cannot be carried through, and if they cannot understand or accept the barriers they will naturally react with some resistance.” (Illeris, 2008)

Sitting at my table group with three very insightful classmates that brought different points of view, we had a discussion about how we are going to use what we have learned over the course of the two weeks in our classes when we return to our schools. In a lot of ways, helping move forward the teaching and learning in our buildings or classrooms will be a lot like a conceptual change as Hoadley and Van Haneghan talk about in their quote above. Our thoughts and applications will face resistance, as Illeris says, when our colleagues and in our own practice we run into a lack of understanding.

Taking the quotes, I have isolated three ideas that may be able to help guide our thoughts about taking back our learning:

Learning that is Deeply Engaged

For conceptual change to occur there needs to be deep learning and engagement, as stated in Hoadley and Van Haneghan’s quote above. All you have to do is think about how you looked at everything before you dove into your learning. Understanding that your colleagues have not just taken the same course you have, and probably haven’t experienced the readings and research that was part of the course, you can’t expect that everyone will take to the research the same way you do. Sharing some of your learning and then offering resources so that they can dive in a little deeper if they want is probably going to give them the best opportunity to join you in your learning, rather than meeting them with a blast of all that you have encountered, or dismissing practice because “The research says…”.

Overcoming the Resistance

Illeris suggests a lack of understanding can cause resistance to learning, and we need to take this into account when we share with our colleagues. If you go back to your school, stand in front of everyone, and then proceed to tell everyone how we have to change everything based on the research you have read, you are going to maximize the resistance you meet. If instead you introduce some ideas in discussion, maybe sharing interesting ideas along with the sharing that your colleague brings, you might find a spark of interest and find they want to learn more.

Support the Radical Shift

It may be a lonely feeling if your work environment doesn’t have a lot of people interested in the Learning Sciences, but in time opportunities will present themselves where you can offer insight you have gained from your learning to help a colleague. Maybe its a book club you open up to read How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school by Bransford, Brown and Cocking, a book I found on my principal’s shelf, or maybe you support a colleague on a project by providing a resource that will help them with their practice, whatever it is you do, be a supporter of professional learning. When you find people interested in what the Learning Sciences has to offer to our profession, support them and learn with them, and maybe your group of two will grow in time.

 

I am excited by what we have been reading, discussing and learning, but I am also well aware that back at my school, I can’t expect that everyone will be as excited as I am about it. Having our cohort online as a community to bounce ideas off of and to share stories with will help me see how best to bring the Learning Sciences in to my school, and to support what I hope will be a radical shift in my practice and, in time, the practice of others.

 

Resources:

Hoadley, C. & Van Haneghan, J. (2011). The Learning Sciences: Where they came from and what it means for instructional designers. In R. A. Reiser & J. V. Dempsey (Eds.) Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology (3rd ed., pp. 53-63). New York: Pearson.

Illeris, K. (Ed.). (2008). Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists…In Their Own Words. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge.