“Forcing” Change

Avid gardeners know it is possible to ‘force’ some bulbs to sprout and produce flowers ahead of their normal schedule and outside their natural environment. The process requires that you artificially mimic and compress the process that would occur naturally if left in the capable hands of mother nature. However, attempts to repeat the process 2 years in a row will be unsatisfactory because the process actually weakens the bulb. You can however, plant bulbs that have been forced in a garden and within a few years, they will recover from the stress of the ‘forcing experience and once again produce show quality flowers (i.e. return to their natural state.)

I think school improvement and the change process have a lot in common with ‘messing with Mother Nature.” First of all, it is possible to ‘force’ change on schools, but there is definitely a ‘cost’ involved. We’ve seen it time and time again, with top-down decisions and/or with legislatively mandated changes. They result in failed efforts for many reasons, not the least of which is the limited ‘buy-in’ from stakeholders to make the solution at hand successful. Such well-intentioned but misguided initiatives, can actually lead to internal, underground efforts to sabotage the initiative at hand. The cost is reduced morale among staff and in some cases results in the creation of ‘silos’ among staff members.

It should be no surprise that organizations have a natural tendency to navigate back to the comfort of how things have always been. If stakeholders have had no ‘voice’ in understanding the problem and/or defining potential solutions, this is likely an accelerated process and ultimately leads to another failed change initiative on the ‘tried that, it didn’t work’ pile.

Finally, like the bulb example, change initiatives ‘forced’ upon the stakeholders are rarely systemic in nature. Rather they are like ‘window dressing.’ Oh sure you can see them, but they are temporary in nature and have not really changed anything physically about the window except the appearance. From the outside, it may appear that miraculous things are happening, but if you peel the curtains back, it is clear that ‘business as usual’ is the reality.

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At the Intersection of Career and College Ready

Historically, high schools have treated college readiness as a distinct and separate track than career readiness which was often referred to as ‘vocational education.’ Furthermore, I think it could be argued there was an understood (although not often stated) premise that vocational education was a less desirable path and was really there as an option for ‘those kids’ who weren’t college material.

Today, we find ourselves challenged to graduate ALL students ‘college and career ready.’ I would argue, we have a better idea of what it means to be ‘college ready’ than we do what it means to be ‘career ready.’ Whether or not high schools are adequately preparing students for success in college can be argued, but the point is, we have a pretty good idea what is required.

The elusive piece in mind is what it means to be ‘career ready.’ While I’ve argued in the past, college readiness is not necessarily the same thing as being career ready, I’m willing to concede there is likely a point of intersection that is common to both. In other words, while the specific prerequisite academic requirements vary greatly depending on the field of study and the institution at which one plans to study after high school, there are probably a common set of cross-disciplinary skills that serve all students regardless of their post-secondary path.

These cross-disciplinary common practices are not specific to any particular academic content area. They are critical elements for success in all aspects of life, not just further education. I believe the point of intersection can best be summed up as the 16 thinking dispositions that Dr. Art Costa refers to as “Habits of Mind.” They can be infused in any learning opportunity, are critical for life success and they include:

1 Persistence
2 Managing impulsivity
3 Listening with understanding and empathy
4 Thinking flexibility
5 Thinking about your thinking (metacognition)
6 Striving for accuracy
7 Questioning and problem posing
8 Applying past knowledge to new situations
9 Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision
10 Gather data through all senses
11 Creating, imagining and innovation
12 Responding with wonderment and awe
13 Responsible risk taking
14 Finding humor
15 Thinking interdependently
16 Continuous learning

The question then is– “What changes in current educational practices/structures need to take place across the nation to ensure all students leave our doors armed for success?”

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3 Factors that Impact Student Engagement

Ask any teacher about the relationship between student engagement and learning, and they’ll likely confirm that higher levels of engagement lead to improved learning. However, the understanding of what constitutes engagement may not be as universally agreed upon.

For the purpose of this post, I want to discern between ‘Ritualistic Engagement’ and ‘Authentic Engagement.’ Ritualistic Engagement might also be thought of as ‘Institutional Engagement.” It refers to students ‘doing school.’ In other words, they are willing to do what is typically expected of them as a student. They go through the motions and compliantly do what is asked of them.

On the other end of the spectrum is the idea of ‘Authentic Engagement,’ which refers to students who are seriously emotionally and intellectually engaged in their learning. It’s much deeper than just going through the motions. This obviously better describes the desired state of engagement for students.

So the million dollar question is, “What are the factors over which schools have control, that can lead to more students reaching deeper levels of ‘Authentic Engagement?”

In no particular order, three of the most powerful factors for improving student engagement include:

1. Strong, Healthy Teacher/Student Relationships
2. A Learning Climate Conducive to Learning
3. High Expectations from Teachers

Schools spend a lot of time, money and energy improving the pedagogical practices and content knowledge of their staff. These continue to be important. However, the culture and systemic practices of a system are often overlooked as powerful levers for improving student results.

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The Wrong Way to Bring About Change

Unfortunately, we have a long history of approaching change in schools from the wrong angles. We’ve tried to ‘force’ change to happen through deliberate policy and legislative mandates (think NCLB). We’ve experimented with external motivators (think merit pay). We’ve tried to improve the whole by focusing on growing the parts (think teacher evaluation). Finally, we have countless examples of implementing fragmented strategies.

At ‘face value’ all of the above approaches ‘seem’ like they might lead to the desired changes. Why then are our results so dismal?

Michael Fullan, renowned leadership expert would suggest they are the “Wrong Drivers.” The above approaches focus on external accountability, focus on individual versus group solutions, and tend to be piecemeal initiatives versus an integrated or systemic approach.

He would argue that the right drivers INSPIRE, but more specifically they inspire and engage COLLECTIVELY not individually. They tap into the intrinsic motivation of the people in the profession. It’s about 100% being involved in the systemic improvement process–students, teachers, schools, states etc. It’s about Professional Learning occurring on an ongoing basis not as an event on the calendar.

In short, the right drivers change the ‘culture’ of the system. They motivate people because they can’t imagine not pursuing the excellence.

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Student Engagement

There seems to be more and more talk and focus on the idea of “Student Engagement,” which causes me to ask, “What is meant by the construct of engagement and how do you measure it?”

In a recent review of current thinking about engagement and student success, the American National Research Council (2003) concluded that focusing on the more immediate indicators of engagement, such as attendance and dropout rates, is valuable but, in the end, what must be achieved is “the more ambitious goal of deep cognitive engagement that results in learning.”

To borrow from the works of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, we are probably talking about a state of ‘Flow,’ which is defined by Wikepedia as “the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.” Probably the best way to understand the concept of “flow” is to think about a time when you were so immersed and involved in an activity that you lost all sense of time. You probably felt a sense of deep satisfaction and were intrinsically motivated by the task at hand.

Measuring “deep cognitive engagement’ then is more than just observing students compliantly following teacher instructions. It should include attention to quantifying the extent to which students identify with and value schooling outcomes, have a sense of belonging at school, participate in academic and non-academic activities, strive to meet the formal requirements of schooling, and make a serious personal investment in learning.

Additionally, measuring student engagement should take into account the degree of enjoyment, interest, and motivation to do well as well as the extent to which students see these classes as relevant to their everyday life.

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Do students have shorter attention spans today?

Talk to almost any educator, and they will support the idea that this technologically rich world is ‘re-wiring’ the brains of students. This makes perfect sense if you think about how the brain develops. Without a doubt, early experiences in life, wire the neural circuits. In fact, the synapses in a child’s brain are strengthened through repeated experiences, whatever they may be. On the flip-side, if a pathway is not used, it’s eliminated based on the “use it or lose it” principle.

So let’s think about the world of a toddler in an average middle class home. What are their likely early experiences, and how are these impacting their development? And for the purpose of this post, the bigger question is, “Do kids today have a shorter attention span as a result of repeated exposure to technology?”

The answer to the above question might surprise you. While it is true, that the ‘hard-wiring’ for today’s youth differs from a generation ago, there is no discernible difference in attention spans. In fact, if you think about it, there is a mound of evidence to the contrary. Kids (and even adults) will spend hours on end, focused and involved in things that ENGAGE them. (Think about the World of Warcraft game.)

What has changed are the number of demands competing for a student’s attention. In other words, a teacher is now competing with real-time interruptions via technology–From texting, to phone calls, to surfing the net, devices sometimes smaller than a deck of cards provide ample opportunity for students to attend elsewhere.

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Impact of Technology on Memory Systems

Many years ago as the district in which I was employed prepared to move to a ‘block schedule’ at the high school level, we had outside speakers who provided training about effective instructional practices in longer blocks of time. The training included some insight into long-term and working memory systems. We learned that somewhere around the age of 14, individuals can handle about 5-7 chunks of information at a time. This was pertinent because obviously trying to ‘cram’ more than that into a lesson without a corresponding processing activity to move the knowledge into a longer-term ‘bucket’ was fruitless.

I was interested to hear David Sousa update this piece of knowledge at a recent conference I had the pleasure of attending. According to David, while it used to be 5-7 chunks that could be held in working memory, it is now 3-4 chunks.

Why the change? Speculation is that kids are now learning WHERE to find information rather than memorizing pieces of knowledge. This change of practice requires fewer cognitive processes.

Good or bad? I guess whether it is good or bad is a moot point. It is the new reality. Educators need to be aware of the ‘new reality’ because instructional practices should be reflective of the most current brain knowledge.

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