“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
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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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Misuse of Standardized Tests

Students taking a test.By definition, standardized tests are administered and scored under clearly defined, uniform conditions. Most are commercially prepared for nationwide use, and they provide information about performance relative to others of the same age or grade.

To understand how standardized tests and their scores can be misused, it is critical to understand a little about the construction of such assessments. First of all, it’s important to note that in addition to providing a point of comparison, standardized assessments are designed to discriminate among students, which means there must be a spread of scores.

There are two kinds of questions that can ensure ‘spread’ exists. One is to design questions that are heavily influenced by socio-economic factors. (After all, socio-economic status is a nicely spread out distribution.) Students from middle class or upper class status are likely to do better on these types of questions because they are more likely to have encountered the content outside of school. (Yes, you read correctly, test items on standardized tests do not necessarily assess content taught in schools.)

The second type of question that can help ensure ‘spread’ exists are those that assess inherited academic aptitudes. If you are thinking to yourself, this is another example of testing something that is not necessarily supposed to be learned in school, you are right. In fact, some studies suggest that as much as 75 percent of the content assessed on standardized tests is not even supposed to be covered as a part of the school curriculum.

Finally, if you want substantial spread among the scores, items on the test will need to be answered incorrectly by about 50% of the test-takers. That’s right, you need about half of the students to miss questions so differences can be noted between and among students. It would seem obvious then, that questions which are designed to measure what I’ll refer to as ‘mainstream’ content are likely to be absent on such tests.

Now that you have a little better understanding of the role and construction of standardized tests, it should be obvious that such assessments should not be used to measure the effectiveness of a classroom teacher. After all, by design most of the questions on such test are not even designed to test content commonly taught in the classroom. Too many students would answer such question correctly, sabotaging the need for a spread of scores.

Commercially constructed standardized tests also have limited value as a formative assessment. It would be ludicrous to expect a test that measures very little of the content commonly covered at a grade level, to provide meaningful data to classroom teachers about mastery of the content.

Finally, when you consider that most of what such tests measure are inherent abilities, and experiences that students have outside of school, it should be obvious that they also have very little utility in measuring the quality of a given school. In reality if you want to judge the quality of instruction, a test should be designed to measure how well children were taught, not whether they’ve been fortunate enough to have rich life experiences outside of school.

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College and Career Ready–Are they the same thing?

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the dismal job we are doing when it comes to helping kids define and prepare for their path in life. It seems obvious to me that others are noting this too. After all, the first goal in the “Blueprint for Reform” is to ensure that all kids leave high school “College and Career Ready.”

However, everything I read leads me to conclude that there is a belief that what prepares you for one prepares you for both, and I’m just not convinced this is true. I am willing to concede there are commonalities. For example, both (college and the workplace) require high levels of communication skills (reading-writing-speaking), as well as the ability to understand and work with numbers. Both also require the ability to reason and make decisions etc. (There are obviously others but you get the point.)

However, while I don’t think they are mutually exclusive, I would argue that a College-Prep Curriculum prepares you for just that–College. More specifically, I would suggest that a College-Prep Curriculum is designed to prepare students for a 4-year university, not just any post-secondary learning option, and such curricula certainly is NOT designed around the needs of the workplace. Even the structure of such classes mimics college courses, not activities in a workplace.

Although learning irrelevant information is not necessarily harmful, it just isn’t all that helpful for students who don’t need a degree from a 4-year university to fulfill their career goals. As evidence to the irrelevant nature of some of the curricula, I would invite you to consider the works of Shakespeare or the ability to compute polynomial products. Most workplaces do not require their workers to know or do anything with these pieces of knowledge yet both are common in college-prep curricula.

If you need further evidence of the difference between the needs of the two environments, consider the fact that college-preparatory mathematics courses in “experimental,” “integrated,” “technical,” or “unified” curricula are not always recognized by admissions counselors in the post-secondary world. Yet, these are the very kinds of courses that employers are demanding.

I’m not advocating that one is better than the other, rather I’m suggesting that Career and College Ready are not the same things. One is not better or harder. They are just different.

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Thoughts about iPads and Learning

We have a full house in the office today. In fact, over 120 educators have convened here to collaborate around the topic of using iPads in the classroom. Obviously much of what is being discussed applies to other digital mobile devices too.

I must admit, I’m a skeptic by nature. I rarely get excited by the ‘cool’ factor of new ‘glitzy’ toys. Those who know me will attest to the fact that I’m usually not excited about a new piece of technology until I see how it can do one of two things–Either allow me to operate more efficiently or make it possible to do things that weren’t possible before.

I’m not a Luddite. Really I’m not. I get the potential for technology to enhance if not transform teaching and learning. I’d have to be blind not to recognize how ubiquitous technology is in the world. I know it’s here to stay, and there’s no doubt technology has been and will continue to transform all aspects of our world.

But when I think about how we’ve embraced technology in education, I have to wonder about the cost to benefit ratio. Too many examples of technology being used to ‘automate the past’ exist. The potential of many devices have been neutered by overzealous filtering and security lockdowns on the network.

So as I think about the introduction of technology such iPads in the classroom, I automatically ask, “Why? What is the anticipated impact? ” To be clear, I’m not asking for a metric to focus on equipment itself. In reality, the iPad is akin to pencil and paper. It is merely a tool not curriculum. I’m interested in knowing what has happened as a result of introducing iPads (or other similar digital devices). In other words……

**How has student learning been impacted?
**Are students more ‘engaged’ with learning?
**What are students doing now that they weren’t doing before?
**Are students demonstrating higher levels of understanding?
**Are students using the tools to do things that weren’t possible prior to the introduction of the resource?
**In what ways have instructional practices changed?

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