I BELIEVE, DO YOU? – The Shift Paradigm Series

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I am on my own. You are on your own. When it comes to helping students learn, every teacher, in every classroom throughout the world, is on her or his own. The vast machine-like system of education, in which we are cogs, is incapable of connecting with each of us and connecting us to each other.

If you teach, you know the disconnection about which I write. It is readily apparent in the way the system of education ignores data about its performance. How the system discounts the findings of its own research. And in its benign enablement of approaches, activities, and books that do not connect to each other to form a common practice.

The disconnection is especially apparent in the system’s blatant disregard of the practical knowledge of teachers. Think about how leaders eagerly commit to new educational programs but do not adequately prepare you to integrate the programs into daily practice. Think about the many times you tap into your personal learning network for information and ideas that the system does not provide you. And think about how you, like every other teacher, have no voice, no support, and no choice to improve the system. You are on your own. You must use what you have, to do what you can to help students learn.

In response to these circumstances, many teachers, perhaps you are one construct a personal schema of practice to guide their instruction. Each of these schemas reflects one teacher’s beliefs and knowledge about learning. Like the teacher who creates it, some schemas are simple—lessons from a book, rows of desks, direct instruction, drill and practice, and homework. Others are more sophisticated and involve research proven practices, pedagogies, assessments, and technologies. None of the schema, simple or sophisticated, that teachers create reflects knowledge shared with the system or its teachers. All are symptomatic of disconnection between teachers and the system to which they adhere.

That these disconnections exist should not be surprising. After all, the system makes no effort to foster, among teachers, a common professional language, workable understanding of good educational practices, software tools for high quality instruction, or processes for collaboration among teachers. Hence, the limited reach of a teacher’s schema within and across the system of education.

What if circumstances changed so that you, and other teachers, would no longer be on your own?

If that happens, I want to believe you and most other teachers will embrace the research about high quality instruction. You will use that research to understand the conditions necessary for easily delivering high quality instruction, all the time, to all students. That you will quickly identify the practices—feedback, formative evaluation, prior-knowledge, self-reporting, and so on—that make such conditions possible. Employ those practices with requisite frequency, fidelity, and scale to significantly improve the learning and achievement of all your students. Moreover, I want to believe that over time, as results roll in, you and your colleagues will form a consensus that makes the conditions and practices commonplace at widespread scale.

At scale, you and your fellow teachers will no longer be on your own. You will have a common language with which to talk with each other about instruction. You will share an understanding of good practice. Other teachers and the system, will hear your voice. They will provide the support that you need when you need it. Delivering high-quality instruction, all the time, will no longer be a challenge. You and other teachers who teach well will no longer be threats to other teachers or the system.

Sounds good does it not? Do you believe what I believe? If so, then, here is how you might change the circumstances so that the beliefs can become realities.

Start small. Seek out teachers who believe what you and I believe. Do not waste time on non-believers. Let them keep doing what they have been doing. When you succeed, they will convert to your way of thinking.

Next, form a cluster of believers. Arrange for them to meet. Share respective schemas. Select a few promising approaches or practices. Ask each teacher to replicate, in her or his classroom instruction, one promising approach, or practice. Meet again to debrief about their experiences. Refine the approaches and practices. Replicate them again and replicate some others. Repeat the process weekly. After several repetitions, you will see four things.

One, the approaches and practices that teachers replicate and refine, will get better with each replication and refinement. As will the instruction of the teachers doing the replicating and refining. Two, after a few weeks the cluster of teachers will develop a shared schema that will have a common language, understanding of good instructional practice, and feedback process for informing the cluster, and its teachers. Three, a need will emerge or new technologies that (a) make it easy for teachers to design, deliver, and refine their lessons, and (b) help them create and sustain schemas with other teachers.

Four, instruction will return to its rightful place as the hub around which the system of education turns. As you and other teachers share, replicate and refine approaches and practices you will become aware that high quality lessons—not content, standards, or tests—are the spokes that connect you to each other and to the system. You experience how high quality lessons enable all students to learn what you teach and perform well. When they do, schools, districts, and states perform well too.

The four things playing out in your cluster also play out in other clusters. As they do, clusters connect with other clusters. They share schemas. A body of shared practice emerges that forces the system to self-organize. When this happens, connections replace disconnections. You and all other teachers are cogs no more.

I believe. Do you?

Mark


Note: This is the seventh post in the Shift Paradigm series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

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TEACHING PROBLEMS (And How to Solve Them) – The Shift Paradigm Series


coexist.001If you teach, you know isolation. It seeks you out at school. You cannot elude it.

Look at your school’s schedule. See how it allocates most of your time to students and precious little for teachers. Think about the meetings you attend, professional development you receive, and technology you use. See that they ignore the everyday realities you face. Do not help you teach better. Isolate you.

Think about the school building in which you work. See that its classrooms are isolation chambers for teachers. See that there are no places in the building for you to work collaboratively with other teachers. That the places where you most often encounter teachers are the lunchroom and bathroom. Neither place is suited for collaboration. Neither are places you want to spend much time.

The isolation you experience at school results from the paradigm to which the field of education adheres. Its beliefs, goals, practices, processes, tools, and values drive what happens at school. They affect the work you do there and how you do it. To see why isolation seeks you out, you must understand the paradigm.

The paradigm that guides the field of education assigns great value to standardized school days, unidirectional meetings, institutional not personal development, and classroom-only buildings. It commits students to age groups, teachers to levels and subjects, and both to buildings and classrooms. A teacher teaches a set of students in a classroom. There she is singularly responsible for how and what students learn. Every other teacher, each in a classroom, is singularly responsible for her or his students’ learning and performance on achievement tests and other academic measures.

The design and organization of your school—schedule, meetings, professional development, technology, and building—reflect the responsibility that teachers have for student learning. It supports them meeting that responsibility but prevents them from working collaboratively with other teachers. And, if they try to work together, they encounter difficulties. It makes you and other teachers co-exist. Co-existence is the source of your isolation.

Teachers who co-exist do their core work alone, all the time, never together. For instance, when one designs a complete lesson—pedagogical approach, strategy, materials, and rubric—other teachers do not benefit from her efforts. Similarly, when a teacher delivers instruction, she cannot share what she learns from her delivery with others. Such duplication of efforts and disconnection of core work is why your workload is so high. It is why you have neither time nor energy to teach well. It is why teachers burnout. Why the field of education cannot reform itself. And why you feel so isolated.

This is the teaching problem. To solve it you must stop co-existing with teachers and start co-evolving with them. This involves establishing mutual goals, fostering a common professional language, and developing a shared commitment to specific educational practices for doing core-work. It requires that you reciprocally engage with goals using the practices to which you are committed.

When feedback guides your efforts, over time, formal processes for conducting core work emerge. The processes refine themselves using ongoing feedback. Refinements give rise to efficiencies. Collaboration increases. Duplicative efforts go away. The quality of your instruction increases. You workload diminishes. More students learn more and better than ever before. And you never ever feel isolated.

The changes in the school are visible. Times, processes, and spaces for teachers to co-evolve replace isolation. Meetings and professional development, once the bane of your existence are essential to you and other teachers as you pursue shared goals. The common language you use makes for easy and joyful work. As evidenced by you benefiting when a teacher learns or creates something, and vice versa.

Sounds wonderful. Yes, co-evolving, done well, is wonderful. Teachers teach better. Students learn more. Schools improve. And isolation goes away.

Achieving co-evolution via normal approaches, at the scale of a school or beyond, is challenging. Getting to co-evolution—establishing goals, fostering common language, committing to specific practices, and using feedback—places great demands on the interpersonal skills of teachers. Leaving the relative comfort of co-existence for the promise of co-evolution creates turbulence. Navigating it requires much time and stamina. Few groups of teachers have capacity for doing this work.

Technology is the best hope for teachers wanting to co-evolve. Not the technology that you now use. It mostly complicates things. The best hope for co-evolution is a new genre of technology transforms interpersonal processes into technological ones.

This type of technology emerges naturally when teachers work reciprocally to achieve shared goals. The feedback that informs their core work causes processes to emerge. The processes, and subsequent feedback, make obvious the technological tools that teachers need. Processes previously handled interpersonally (e.g. feedback) become software enabled. When the design and delivery of high quality instruction is software enabled, designs and delivery become better and both continuously improve. Over time, the tools come to comprise a ToolKit for teachers.

A set of pilot schools, equipped with a prototype ToolKit, report about quick shifts from co-existence to co-evolution. Their design better lessons, deliver higher quality instruction, experience lower workloads, and re-teach lessons less often. Not surprisingly, students in the schools are more engaged in their learning and performing better on achievement tests. Moreover, meetings at the schools are more productive, professional development there is more meaningful, and collaboration, not isolation is the norm.

As a teacher, you know that, as Ken Blanchard says, “None of us is as smart as all of us.” You also know how difficult it is to be smart together while co-existing. What you may not know, but should know, is that paradigms serve their adherents. You and I can create a new paradigm for education. And that doing so with our fellow teachers requires that we co-evolve. It is time we demand the tools to help make this happen. Let’s end the isolation.

Mark


Note: This is the sixth post in the Shift Paradigm series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

WHEN LESSONS ADD UP STUDENTS ENGAGE (And Teachers Teach Better) – The Shift Paradigm Series



lesson.001Imagine yourself in classroom. Where you are observing a teacher and her students. You watch the lesson that she is teaching. Scan the room. Look at the students. See the behavior of each student that corresponds to what is happening in the lesson.

Are students engaging? Do they do what they are supposed to do? In five minutes, see what is happening in the lesson. Scan the room. What is each student doing? Are they on task? Repeat every five minutes until the bell ends the class period.

As you watch, a pattern emerges of the students’ engagement with the lesson. Most likely the pattern is like this. The class begins with attendance, announcements, and other business. Then the lesson starts. A majority of students, but not all, engage with the lesson. As the lesson continues, fewer students engage. Over time, less than half are engaging. At some point, as engagement dwindles, the teacher attempts to re-engage students by raising her voice. Perhaps she says, “Pay attention, this content will be on the test.” Or maybe she calls on a student, one, not engaging with the lesson, who is distracting a student near him. Student engagement keeps dissipating. As the period winds down, students and the teacher idly pass time until a bell signals class period done.

Hold on to the pattern. We will come back to it in a moment. In the meantime, think about how What Teachers Teach dominates the current educational discourse, and has for over a decade.

What Teachers Teach drives the standards that guide the curriculum that in turn determines what students are supposed to learn. Further, it drives the efforts to measure student, and sometimes, teacher, performance against the standards and curriculum and is the basis for the standardized tests that are the primary measure of performance. Some of the discourse about what teachers should teach occurs at the federal and state levels, a little of it happens in the private sector, but most takes place locally. Regardless of where the discourse occurs, you saw the end result of it in the lesson you observed.

Now, return to the pattern that you saw in the classroom. As you do, think about the field’s longstanding discourse. Were content, standards, and tests present in the lesson?

YES they were. However, their presence in the lesson, as the dissipating engagement of students made apparent, had little effect on student learning and the teaching of the teacher. The minimal effect is due to a disconnect that exists between the high levels of learning and teaching that the field seeks, its discourse about how to get both, and what actually happens when students engage with the lessons that they are supposed to learn.

Learning, as you saw, is about minutes and moments. When students engage minute-by-minute with a lesson they learn what the teacher is teaching. If, over time, students’ engagement with a lesson declines steadily, then their learning declines too. So if greater learning the Field of Education’s penultimate goal, then student engagement is an essential indicator whether progress toward attaining the field’s goal is occurring. The quality of a lesson asserts a direct and powerful effect on students’ engagement. The volume of a teacher’s voice and having items on a test do not.

To better understand the relationship between learning, engagement, and lessons, think about the lesson you saw in the classroom. Was it complete? Was its quality high? For instance, did it have sufficient structure to engage all students from beginning to end? Did it help all students understand why what they were learning mattered? Did the lesson connect to the lesson from the previous day? Set the stage for the lesson tomorrow? Was an instructional approach (e.g. direct teaching, cooperative learning) readily apparent? Did it employ instructional strategies (e.g. guided practice, rotate and check)? The answer to each question is NO.

If all students are going to learn at high levels, and perform well on standardized tests, then the answer we must seek is YES. Getting there requires that all lessons be complete, high quality—all the time. Here is why.

A complete, high quality lesson solves the engagement problem. A sizeable sequence of complete, high quality lessons solves the learning problem. Solving the learning problem across several classrooms makes standards attainable and achievement gains possible for a school. Attaining standards and achieving gains in multiple schools makes attainment and gains possible for a district.

Such attainments and gains at widespread scale necessitate that we take up the challenge of designing and building high-quality lessons. There are two routes we can take. One route is obvious, but little travelled. The other is little considered and under construction. Let’s start with the obvious route.

To understand the obvious route please consider a question that I often ask teachers—over 2500 of them during the past 15 years. How long does it take you to design and build a complete, high-quality lesson? A lesson that you are confident will engage every student for an entire class period. One that you are certain each student will master, and necessitates no re-teaching on your part.

Typically, the answers I get range from 1 hour to one day. Teachers quickly adjust their answer, when I say a complete lesson may include a PowerPoint or equivalent presentation, a video, connections to curriculum standards, and, of course, the dreaded lesson plan.

They adjust their answers, again, when I mention the requisite worksheets, handouts, and rubrics. And upon hearing visuals, manipulative, and graphic organizers they adjust yet again. Adjustments finished, they say that to design and build one complete, high-quality lesson for one class period, will take them one day to one week.

Next, I ask, “And how many ready-to-go, complete, sure-to-engage and produce-mastery-of-each student, high-quality lessons do you have?” Whatever response the question elicits, I welcome with a gentle smile, supportive nod, and receptive ear. Ten to 30 lessons, most teachers report. A few teachers offer up that they deliberately use one such lesson during semi-annual observations. Most talk about how they keeping their high quality lessons safe and frequently back them up.

Finally, I ask, “When and where do you design and build high quality lessons?” Teachers tell me how each day the have a 60-minute period for planning and preparation, 25 minutes for lunch, and barely enough time to go to the bathroom. That they must design and build lessons during evenings, weekends, holiday breaks, and summers—while raising families, taking classes, and living their lives.

Let’s do some calculating. First, a typical teacher teaches at least 180 days per year. She teaches four lessons per day. So that teacher needs, at least, 720 complete, high quality lessons per year.

Second, a typical teacher needs at least one day to design and build a lesson. Let’s assume she can use her one-hour of daily planning time to do so. And that maybe, just maybe, she can make one lesson per week. She will, working every week with no breaks, she will make the lessons she needs in 13 years and 10 months.

Third, if a typical teacher spends a five-day week building lessons, nothing else. Does so for 52 weeks (no vacations or holidays). Annually she will make 260 lessons. So in 2 years and 9 months she will have the 720 lessons she needs.

The calculations shed light on the challenges that await travellers who take obvious route. Hopefully the other route is better.

The little considered route involves creating the conditions necessary for all students to engage in their learning all the time. The presence of certain practices makes such conditions possible. The conditions emerge school wide when multiple teachers teach, share, compare, and refine lessons containing the practices.

Technology, in the form of a toolkit, enables teachers to design, build, deliver, share, and refine complete and high quality lessons based on specific Common Core Standards or Provincial Expectations.  Building one lesson takes a teacher 30-minutes. With the toolkit, doing so involves her clicking through a series of screens, accessing libraries, inserting elements, and attaching resources. Doing these steps automatically aligns the lesson to an appropriate standard. When the steps are done, a teacher, with one click, produces a handout, lesson plan, rubric, and homework assignment. Another click produces a PowerPoint-like presentation she can use with a classroom of students. Yet another click initiates a feedback process that improves the quality of the lesson and its delivery.

Independent researchers, using a controlled match methodology, found significant increases in student engagement and instructional quality at schools using a prototype of the toolkit. The increases came within 60 days of the first use of the toolkit. Moreover, its continual use led to sustained levels of high engagement and high quality instruction. Not surprisingly, these outcomes are prompting numerous conversations about next steps for the toolkit approach.

If you are a teacher, you know the impact that high quality lessons have on student engagement, learning, and achievement. Also, you know why so few teachers travel the obvious route to such lessons. For you, a toolkit is an exciting and much welcomed possibility. Hang on! Help is on the way.

Mark


Note: This is the fifth post in the Shift Paradigm series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

LESS IS MORE FOR TEACHERS (and Better for Students!) – The Shift Paradigm Series

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Conjure an image of a school. Visualize yourself entering a classroom. Students and a teacher are there. What do you see the teacher doing?

Chances are, the teacher you see is not resting, reflecting — or even preparing a lesson. Despite the relative importance such tasks play in the design, delivery, and improvement of high-quality instruction — teachers rarely have time to do those tasks at school. So the teacher you see is likely delivering instruction, managing students, assessing performance, or organizing resources — including technology. As you watch the teacher, it becomes painfully apparent that she has too much to do, too many students with whom to do it, too little time to get everything done, too many interruptions, and too many regulations demanding that she do even more. Further, you almost certainly see her doing several tasks at once.

Now conjure a classroom at a different school. See a teacher there calmly moving amongst students sitting in groups of four. Each student is engaging with other students in the group and each has a laptop computer, iPad, or smart phone to do their work. When the teacher stops at one group, she and her students have a lively exchange. When she stops at another group, again, a lively exchange ensues. After an exchange with yet another group, the teacher, acting on feedback from the groups, uses her iPad to send a message to each student in the class. Upon receipt, each student reviews the message and acts accordingly.

After the teacher’s last stop, she sits with us. The student she brings with her describes the unit-ending, problem-based lesson that is underway, pointing out that the lesson counts for 40 percent of the unit grade. We learn that this level of focus is important because the students and teacher share a goal of every student mastering every lesson and passing every exam. Attaining the goal accounts for 10 percent of each student’s final grade for the course and is a major part of the quarterly evaluation of the teacher.

The teacher tells us that she and her colleagues teach the lesson every year, refining it each time. They came up with the initial design for it five years ago using a software toolkit that teachers share with students, parents, and administrators. Teachers use the toolkit to design, deliver, assess, and refine all their lessons. Students, parents, and administrators use the toolkit for their unique purposes and needs. Everyone uses it to provide feedback about the current lesson. Thanks to the toolkit’s capacity for enabling, processing, and reporting feedback, the lesson and all other lessons improve with each delivery regardless of the teacher or user. The performances of students, teachers, administrators, and parents improve each time they interact with a lesson. The student and teacher are quite confident that all students will master the current lesson and subsequently pass the exam.

Two schools, two classrooms, two teachers: similar yet very different. How? Let us find out.

One difference is quite visible at the first school. Multi-tasking is the norm for teachers there. When in this mode, the cognitive load of teachers at the first school increase considerably as the efforts they expend to do everything that they must do. For students to learn what they must learn in this context, short-term processing capacity of the teachers’ and students’ minds are pushed to the limit and the reserve strength of their bodies is depleted. This everyday high-load reality is the dirty little secret every teacher at the school knows but dares not acknowledge or talk about.

Instead of confronting their secret openly, teachers at the school individually struggle to keep in check their respective cognitive loads. When load-weary, they sometimes do routine tasks in autopilot mode. Other times, they cut corners, inadequately prepare for class, or deliver instruction that is incomplete. Regardless of how they lighten their loads, each time they compromise student learning and generate more load for themselves later; but they somehow need to stay afloat. Yet, each teacher knows she is working as hard as she can. Predictably, the school reports no annual gains in achievement.

At the second school a key difference is visible too. There, everyone—students, parents, teachers, and administrators—shares responsibility for learning and teaching. Each has a clearly defined role and specific, measurable goals for learning and teaching. Their common language and understanding of instruction defines their work. Feedback guides the work they do and how they do it. Assessment of individual and collective performance informs what they do next. They rarely are overloaded, multi-task seldom, and year-over-year the school reports significant gains in student achievement. Everything adds up.

Teachers working at schools like the first inevitably figure out that the coping strategies they each construct actually do not lighten their respective loads. They come to understand that no effort to improve learning at the level of a classroom or beyond will possibly succeed unless the high-load challenge that teachers face is solved. Multi-tasking and maxed out, none of them can do more or perform better. So any improvement effort that heightens their load just makes what it seeks to improve worse.

For teachers in these schools the educational paradigm to which they adhere is the source of their load. The paradigm assigns each of them exclusive pedagogical responsibility for student learning. Their devotion to meeting that responsibility inevitably dooms them to careers of unattainable goals and high-load misery.

Six years ago, teachers at the second school chose to confront the dirty little secret. They began dispersing control for learning and teaching across all stakeholders, including students and parents. In short order, new and genuine commitments to roles, goals, practices, and processes, and tools were in place. Their toolkit makes the core educational work—teaching and learning—of the school powerful yet doable. They are a self-organizing school. Not surprisingly, school-wide performance is at an all time high and so is morale.

Improving education requires permanently liberating teachers from the painful and exhausting effects of their loads. Conjure all you want about fixing the prevailing educational paradigm; loads will not abate.

The time for a new paradigm is here. With stakeholders sharing responsibility for learning and teaching and having technological tools designed to enable, drive, and support their efforts, teachers can be more effective and energized. Teachers at the second school give us a glimpse of the new paradigm’s potential. Let us expose the dirty secret and change the conversation, and change the work of teachers, students, parents, and administrators so that all students can learn and be successful.

Mark


Note: This is the fourth post in the Shift Paradigm series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

Connecting Conferences and Classrooms

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Do education-related organizations and the conferences they host work for you? Or do you work for them? Do they even work for education?

Tens of thousands of education-related organizations exist worldwide. Most fit into two general categories—professional associations and advocacy groups. Professional associations are comprised of people who take on similar tasks. Advocacy groups seek to influence public opinion or policy. Nearly every educational role or issue has an association or advocacy group. If you perform education-related work then you probably belong to at least one.

Associations and advocacy groups typically have a goal to benefit their members (you!). Their documents—by-laws, mission statements, job descriptions—that set forth their purpose, design, and governance reflect that goal. They guide the work of the organization. Staffing and activities, for example, should advance their purpose and directly benefit you.

What benefits do you realize from the education-related organizations to which you belong? The conferences you attend?

I asked this of several teachers and principals, educators on the front line of learning. To a person, they consistently reported two benefits: a great annual conference or convention (often in a fun location) and an informative magazine, newsletter, or web site. A few respondents, those serving on the board of an association or group, reported additional benefits of paid travel, networking opportunities, and speaking engagements.

One specific and crucial benefit the educators did not report was getting genuine help resolving the front-line challenges that they face every day in classrooms and schools. When I probed, they said that their top challenge is how might they—with limited time, energy, expertise, and funds—facilitate high levels of learning among all their students all the time. Since they did not report front-line challenges being taken up by an association or advocacy group to which they belong, it is not surprising that no public report has been made about such organizations significantly affecting the overall educational system (except, perhaps, in peripheral or indirect ways). After further probing, all said their organizations should accept some responsibility for helping members’ resolve school house challenges in ways that add up to overall improvements in instructional quality and learning outcomes.

The comments that educators did (and did not) provide suggest two scenarios worth pondering. One is a possibility that even though an organization may aspire to benefit all its members, an individual member might not, for a variety of reasons, actually accrue advantages beyond the aforementioned “benefits.” In this scenario, aspiration, and benefit, back-line and front-line, organization and member are misaligned.

Another possibility is more disconcerting. What if the organizations—which in the name of their members collectively generate and spend hundreds of millions of dollars, convene thousands of events, send countless communiqués, and advocate endlessly for educational issues—are, individually and collectively, incapable of genuinely helping members resolve front-line challenges? Ironically, both scenarios lead to the same place; questions whether belonging to an association or advocacy group will benefit a member in meeting such challenges.

What might those questions mean for you?

Not much, for example, if modern, digital technologies flatten your association or advocacy group and bring you and it together for the purpose of meeting those challenges. Membership and staff share operational control of the organization, generate, and process feedback about the work you perform, and prioritize the challenges taken up. You and your organization are co-evolving. So when your circumstances change, the organization adapts—and vice versa. For instance, if revenues go down, members step up by recruiting new members and raising additional funds. And if a new front-line challenge surfaces, then the organization adapts to meet it.

Sharing control and responding do not happen spontaneously. They result from members and organization sharing a professional understanding about the work they perform. This is only possible when relevant, digital technologies are a distinct and intentional part of the design and operation of the organization. When that is the case, the what, why, and how an organization accomplishes things and addresses the frontline needs of its members is quite different from the what, why, and how most organizations do things. Within these differences resides the identity of the boss. And the boss determines what you get from your association, advocacy group, or conference.

Mark


 Note: This is the fourth post in the Shift Paradigm series—providing fresh perspectives on longstanding issues in the field of education. Please click the follow button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

Had Enough? Occupy A Classroom, Change Education

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Occupy Wall Street’s non-violent attempts to change the private sector suggest that similar tactics can be applied to America’s public K-12 education system.

This is an intriguing possibility given that nationwide just two of three students graduate school on time. Further, of those who do graduate on time, approximately one in 10 needs pullout remedial help, another one in 10 requires special accommodations, and yet another one in 10 is under-challenged. These numbers reveal an educational system that works poorly for half the school-age population. For urban areas, the numbers are worse.

Since the 1950s, getting from a system that educates some students well (let’s call it “A”) to one that educates all students well (“B”) has been the preferred outcome of countless reform efforts. During this time, while attempt after attempt worked in an occasional classroom or school, wide-scale achievement of B was elusive. Now, however, B is achievable.

Two sets of circumstances show this to be the case. The first involves tight school budgets and teachers perpetually overloaded by bureaucratic policies, inadequate resources, public derision, and jam-packed classrooms. The second includes how schools are organized and education delivered, not teachers per se, not supporting the work necessary to get to B. Certainly, such circumstances are dire. They also generate hope.

An educational system that doesn’t work for most children and youth when budgets are maxed out and teachers are overloaded is a perfect target for the non-violent approaches Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King used to break the chains of colonialism and bigotry in their respective times and countries. Gandhi led millions of Indians to self-rule by showcasing the precarious situation of their British overlords. His simple non-violent actions made the precariousness clear. When Gandhi’s compatriots followed suit, Indian self-rule occurred soon after. Similarly, King realized that civil-rights advocates, by occupying, sitting-in, and striking could callout discrimination and bigotry thus advancing the dream of equality.

Our educational state is analogous to colonial India and pre-civil rights America in that those most disaffected by the current system are now a majority. Imagine how quickly a shift from A to B would be made if, the millions of children and youth nationwide who are eligible to attend school, but currently do not, systematically and intentionally occupied the very classrooms to which they are legally entitled. Moreover, imagine if they joined forces with their remediated, accommodated, and under-challenged peers and overloaded and underappreciated teachers. The neat-rowed classrooms they’d occupy would be shown to have neither sufficient space nor teaching capacity for educating them all.

Further, the sudden influx of students would skew the attendance-based formulas that allocate taxpayer dollars for schools, putting cities and states at financial risk. The non-violent occupiers, all possessing a legal right to an education, would leave the educational system no choice but to reconfigure itself to better serve all students. Such a paradigm shift would be comparable to those brought about by Gandhi and King.

The numbers of lives being wasted should be reason enough to set course immediately for B. Concerns about classrooms being occupied and cities and states going bankrupt should spawn urgency for getting there. The underserved majority will lead the way.

Mark


Note: This is my third post in the Shift Paradigm category, dedicated to providing fresh perspectives on longstanding issues in the field of education. Please click the follow button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

Shift Paradigms – Quit Failing Technology

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Education is failing technology. Yes, you read that correctly. Education is failing technology.

To understand why this is the case, not vice versa, requires understanding what the research literature makes clear: It is possible to get all children learning at levels beyond their respective aptitudes. The same literature, however, makes clear that such levels of learning rarely occur outside one-to-one tutoring settings. Let’s unpack these seemingly contradictory statements to shed light on why education is failing technology and what we can do about it.

Nearly three decades ago, Benjamin Bloom (author of Taxonomy of Educational Objectives) led a research effort to find methods of group instruction that were as effective as one-to-one tutoring through which students performed two standard deviations higher than their classroom educated peers. Bloom named the target of his search the 2-sigma problem. The research-based solution he found was simple, yet profound. If certain instructional practices are used and specific conditions met then one teacher, instructing a group of students in a classroom, could help the students attain 2-sigma. The practices he identified that make 2-sigma possible include reinforcement, cues and explanations, corrective feedback, and cooperative learning. The conditions include student classroom-participation, student time on task, and classroom morale.

Despite Bloom’s work and thousands of subsequent studies by other researchers (e.g., John Hattie, Robert Marzano) that demonstrate the positive effect that specific practices and conditions have on classroom learning, 2-sigma remains a rare attainment for teachers. This is largely because in the current educational paradigm individual teachers must shoulder a disproportionate share of the pedagogical load for making 2-sigma happen.

The organizational and operational design of most schools—that make load sharing nearly impossible for 2-sigma oriented teachers–exacerbates the teacher-load conundrum. In such schools, a teacher trying to take a classroom of 30 students to 2-sigma must make it happen alone. That is a lot for an already heavily laden teacher to do; a load even heavier if that teacher lacks the emotional, intellectual, or pedagogical wherewithal for unilaterally taking on 2-sigma. That these circumstances exist at all is a failure of the field of education, not the teacher. This failure is quite ironic given the intense pressure placed on the education field to get teachers to produce ever-greater student learning and achievement, mostly in the form of improved test scores.

When viewed through a produce-greater-student learning lens, school-level support for all teachers, especially the 2-sigma seeking ones, may be the most pressing, yet least recognized educational challenge of our era. My colleague Alan Bain and I call that challenge 2:X. Sadly, classrooms and schools are not designed for meeting the 2:X challenge.

What can we do? The answer involves technology. Without its powerful benefits teachers face the same predicament and the educational paradigm stays the same.

During the past two decades many technologies have entered our lives. The technologies brought with them lofty expectations for transformation of classrooms and schools. Implicit in such expectations are beliefs that teachers and students with access to and mastery of technology would transform education.

While some evidence suggests that the personal lives of teachers and students have changed as a result of new technologies, little evidence shows their educational lives changing much. Technology has exerted little overall effect on educational settings and the teaching and learning in them. Student achievement test scores remain flat, school completion rates have not declined, and instruction remains mostly teacher-led in classrooms with neat-rowed desks.

The minimal effect that technology has had on teaching and learning is a failure of the field of education not a failure of technology. Teachers who strive to take their classrooms of students to 2-sigma, but have no school-level supports know this well. Further, those teachers know that the technology available to them barely connects to the real work that they do every day and the extra work they must do to make 2-sigma happen. And they readily admit that in many instances the technology that they do have actually increases their load. Not surprisingly, data show teachers rarely using technology in their classroom instruction.

What most teachers do not realize is that the lack of support for their efforts to attain 2-sigma and the ineffectual technology they are given are symptoms of a much more pervasive failure. The field of education failing to acknowledge its own research about what works and failing to investigate and build consensus about how to take what works to scale. This failure of scale limits the field’s ability to provide direction to the technology industry. It in turn limits the industry’s ability to help schools attain 2:X and teachers attain 2-sigma.

Fortunately, these circumstances are alterable.

The way forward starts with you, me, and other like-minded educators embracing Bloom’s and other researchers’ findings about the practices and conditions that have the most powerful effects on teaching and learning. Then, girded with these findings, we push, pull, and prod to secure school-level commitments so those practices and conditions become the basis for organizational and operational designs and decisions. In turn, the designs and decisions support putting technologies in place that enable teachers, students, and other educational stakeholders to generate emergent feedback about the school-level support they receive and guide further refinement of their efforts.

The necessary shifts in educational thought, theory, and action require that our field demand technologies for extending, connecting, and developing the capacities of teachers, students, and other educational stakeholders to benefit from the research of Bloom and others.

Sound preposterous? Perhaps it is. Anything less, however, reinforces past failures.

Mark


Note: This is my second post in the Shift Paradigm category, dedicated to providing fresh perspectives on longstanding issues in the field of education. Please click the follow button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

The Time Is Now: Learning Doesn’t Wait

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“Mark, got a moment?” says Rick over the phone. Quickly adding, “There’s something personal I want to talk about.”

Rick is a work acquaintance. His something is son Paul, a year eight student. Rick holds a report card showing Paul failed first term Algebra. Paul is an intelligent boy, capable of learning Algebra, who has previously done well in school. Paul’s future—acceptance at a good college, scholarships, good jobs, and more—hinges on him mastering Algebra and doing so this year.

Treading carefully, I say, “Tonight, over dinner, ask Paul when he first knew he was failing Algebra?”

The following morning, Rick reports about Paul being in trouble on day 6. I suggest he ask Paul when the Algebra teacher knew he was off track? Bright and early, Rick calls to tell me Paul’s teacher knew on day 15.

What is wrong here? On day six Paul knows he is lost. His teacher realizes this on day 15. Paul’s parents find out on day 53. A week later, day 60, all will meet to attempt solving Paul’s problem.

When is the optimal time to help Paul? Clearly the best time to intervene is between days six and seven (or before). But, for a variety of reasons, Paul’s needs are recognized and attended to far too late.

Imagine that feedback on Paul’s learning, or lack thereof is real-time. Further, imagine that the feedback generated about Paul informs and guides the instruction and support Paul receives…real-time, not weeks later. What would that look like?

On day six, when Paul turns in his Algebra coursework via the classroom web-portal, a bubble window on the screen says, “What grade do you give the work you are submitting?” Paul’s one-click response—“I give my work a D-grade”—creates an actionable data-point.

Paul’s mouse click triggers an alert to his teacher, who then takes appropriate action. Perhaps offering Paul personalized tutoring or web-based materials—text, simulation, manipulative, or video—to use at home to help him master the lesson with which he is struggling. His teacher alerts Paul’s parents to the situation, additional tutoring, and suggests they online the materials with Paul.

Now imagine that the principal of Paul’s school monitors her teachers and pupils’ work via a digital dashboard. She too receives an alert when Paul gives himself a ‘D’ and when his teacher offer assistance to Paul and his parents. It is likely the principal receives alerts that Paul’s classmates in Algebra (and other courses) are having similar difficulties. Seeing a trend and pattern, the principals convenes an impromptu meet of teachers to review and refine their instruction.

Before school starts on day seven, Paul goes to the Algebra classroom. His teacher gives him a problem to solve, which Paul does. That afternoon, in class, Paul moves forward with Algebra.

The speedy resolution of Paul’s Algebra problem stands in contrast to what he experienced. He, his parents, and educators are active participants in the resolution. Technology supports, enhances, engages, and guides the emergent work each does. Paul’s real-time feedback triggers a chain of events—self-report grading, formative assessment, and differentiated instruction—that drives continuous improvement of instruction Paul and his classmates at school receive. One click, many benefits.

Nearly all students can learn most lessons, just not at the same rate or manner. Sometimes, a student, as was the case with Paul, gets off track. When that happens, it is essential that the amount of off-track time be minimized. To do this efficiently requires stakeholders—students, teachers, parents, and principals—be tightly coupled with each other, research proven practices, and curricular content.

Technology enables such coupling. Feedback is the means by which stakeholders communicate. It is time we learn this lesson.

Mark


 Note: This is my first post in the Shift Paradigm category, dedicated to providing fresh perspectives on longstanding issues in the field of education. Please click the follow button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.