Thursday, March 29, 2012

Preassessments: Ditch the Discrete Knowledge Questions


I had the opportunity this week to learn with Grant Wiggins regarding Understanding by Design. He mentioned pre-assessment and it's role in supporting the ultimate goals of your unit or course. With this, he said the following: "Pre-assessments should not include discrete knowledge or skills that you are about to teach."

At first glance, this seems crazy. Upon reflection, this makes TOTAL sense.

You should be thinking about students' views, cultures, and breadth of knowledge regarding an understanding. For example, what is students' ability to craft logical arguments? How do students infer and connect information to their previous experiences?

And here's the best part: If the essential question (or questions) that you have identified are really powerful, they can sometimes serve as both the pre-assessment and post-assessment of the course. (It doesn't work for every unit, but it does work if your essential question truly invokes transfer.)

Bad preassessment question: What do you know about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War?
Good preassessment question: What does loyalty mean to you?

If students already know the discrete skills that you are about to teach, you may STILL have to teach them to transfer that content to unique situations across several disciplines. So... measuring it has limited value.

This was a surprise realization for me. What do you think?

CC Photo Credit: Red Button

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Edcamp Hits ASCD

Edcamp on the BIG SCREEN

On March 24, 2012, I shared the Edcamp Model with Chrissi Miles and Ann Leanness at the annual ASCD conference.

Chrissi, Ann, and I have been sharing the Edcamp Model (along with the rest of the Edcamp Foundation Board) at lots of different events, both physical and virtual. However, most of our contacts and conversations have occurred with individuals "inside the Twittersphere" who shared our ideals about decentralized, organic learning. ASCD offered us a slightly different audience: Folks who are doing the hard work of leading and managing schools.

The people who lead and manage schools face many challenges. In turn, our model was a bit foreign to them. The session generated many good questions, but most of them were based around fear. Consider the following:

  • What if my teachers don't do anything with the time?
  • What if no one posts a session?
  • How do I measure what is learned to hold everyone accountable?
  • Seriously, how is this going to work?


These fear-based questions are likely rooted in their experiences as a learner and as a leader. Professional development is often extremely directed with limited opportunities for creation and synthesis. (UbD Connection-- most PD is at the acquisition phase of learning.)

The Edcamp Model offers a radical departure from directed learning. Everything comes from the participants, and everyone is a learner. The schedule and topics are not even prepared in advance. They are determined by the participants on the day of the event. These things run counter to our prior experiences and our understanding of how humans behave "at work." However, giving people autonomy, mastery, and purpose often creates some unanticipated outcomes.

Remember, no one is advocating for a strict learning diet of Edcamps. It's only one item on the menu of professional learning. In some ways, "flipped PD" needs to happen for Edcamps to be successful. Teachers need to research, experiment, and learn in virtual and personal spaces before an event so they have something of value to share. This concept needs more development, so expect more posts on it in the near future.

For more specific information for our session, check out the Storify I created below:

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Project Based Learning vs. Transfer

Demon Robotics Team 4342
A few weeks ago, I judged a FIRST robotics competition. Since I participated on my high school team many moons ago (Go 272!), I knew what to expect. It's basically 2 days of nonstop competition, cheering, and fun.

Most schools have robotics teams as after-school clubs or activities. During the 6 week "build season," kids can spend 6-7 days at school, welding, wiring, and writing code for their robots. It is an immersive, exhilarating experience.

Seeing the high levels of student engagement and student competence at the competition always makes me wonder: Could activities like this be a replacement for traditional schooling?

On some levels, I believe that school should be more like a FIRST robotics competition. Yes, school should be engaging. Yes, it should be fun. However, completing a project in one context does not equate to rigorous learning.

Project based learning is always "hands on" but is it always "minds on?" 

When we teach using projects, we scaffold and assist students. We help them be successful and guide their learning. BUT, do we ever give them opportunities to transfer their learning independently to novel situations? If not, we are not expecting enough of our students.

The FIRST robotics competition is an incredible experience for high school students. However, it's not a replacement for well designed instruction that fosters understanding and transfer. Could it be redesigned around these principles? Absolutely! Is it perfect "as is" or "out of the box?" Not yet.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Digital Reading: Curation, Not Intake


This month's issue of Educational Leadership focuses on reading, the Common Core Standards, and increasing comprehension for all of our students.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the articles addressed issues regarding digital literacy and its impact on modern readers. After devouring the entire issue in a single sitting, I took a few moments to reflect upon my recent journeys as a reader and writer.

I do a lot of reading, and I do a lot of writing. At this point, most of my reading and writing is digital. I still receive a few hard copy items via professional subscriptions, but I cannot remember the last time I willingly purchased a hard copy text. This has had a significant impact on my reading and writing habits. I would argue that, when used appropriately, digital texts have advantages that cannot be matched by hard copy texts. Do I still enjoy reading hard back books? Well, sure. I just don't reference or remember them as often during the writing process.

In short, I believe there are 3 needs in modern literacy that we cannot ignore as educators.


  1. Digital literacy is not an "option" anymore. Most of the texts that we read each day appear on a screen, complete with embedded media, advertisements, and hyperlinks. Navigating these spaces is required to function successfully in modern society. We should immerse our students in these mediums, and provide them guidance to maximize their learning.
  2. Digital texts foster curation and recall. When I read texts in hard copy, I often annotate using words and images. This helps me to make meaning of the text in the moment that I'm reading it. However, when I read digital texts, my annotations and sketches are automatically added to my intellectual database in Evernote. My database is fully searchable by content and tag. Therefore, when I need citations, information, or ideas to guide my writing, I most often return to the digital sources, ideas, and phrases captured in my database. In short, texts in hard copy make an impact, but digital texts shape my thinking and writing more often.
  3. Teachers need to teach students to digital and hard copy texts equally. Existing resources coupled with teacher comfort levels often reduce the amount of instruction that students receive regarding digital texts. In fact, a teacher recently told me that "you just can't get the same experience from a Kindle as you can from a hardback book." Really? We need to get comfortable with digital texts ourselves and share the process meaningfully with students.


CC Photo Credit: Easy on the Eyes by Mortsan

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Collecting the Dots vs. Connecting the Dots


Seth Godin has recently released a manifesto about the role of school in modern society. (You can download the entire document for free HERE.) Although many of the points were relevant to the notion of school reform, I found one quote within the text particularly powerful:

The industrial model of school is organized around exposing students to ever increasing amounts of stuff then testing them on it.

Collecting dots.

Almost none of it is spent in teaching them the skills necessary to connect dots.

The magic of connecting dots is that once you learn the techniques, the dots can change but you'll still be good a connecting them.

This quote articulately sums up what is missing in many classrooms: TRANSFER. We need to give students opportunities to apply their learning independently to novel situations. We need to help students see patterns and themes that thread throughout disciplines and life itself.

So, help students connect some dots today!

CC Photo Credit: Vectorportal

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Culture of Revision


I am lucky. My life brings me into contact with many brilliant, creative people. These people, whether they are physical colleagues, virtual pals, or bosses, encourage me to look at things differently. Over the last few months, I've been reframing many situations and expectations about learning and achievement.

The thought process has been challenging yet rewarding. Essentially, I have moved from a "culture of efficiency" to a "culture of revision." Instead of viewing my time as a discrete set of tasks or meetings that must be completed, I have come to view my time in the context of a simple mission: Get more transfer into learning experiences for kids.

In the past, I would work to "get things done." Yes, I was efficient, and yes I accomplished a lot. However, this type of work style is not conducive to maturing unique ideas. Now, I constantly find myself moving in non-linear patterns: Tweaking, re-doing, and scrapping things all together. It is MUDDY.

For example, I've revised the indicators on a rubric I'm constructing over 6 times. And I don't think that I am even near completion.....

However, the work that I have completed within a "culture of revision" has been of high quality, and I've truly owned it. I can easily explain my work to others, and I believe in it. Confidence in the work breeds success.

Given my experiences, here are a few things you can do to encourage a culture of revision in your school:

  • Narrow your focus- If you have thousands of initiatives, you don't have time to explore, tweak, and revise. Ensure that your school environment has one or two clear goals.
  • Get out of the crisis zone- Living in a world where "reaction" trumps "planning" will kill a culture of revision. Honor what matters most.
  • Encourage and reward constructive feedback- Roll out new materials or initiatives with a pilot phase. Openly admit that it probably won't go perfectly the first time and seek information to make the second (and third, and fourth, and fifth) time better. 
  • Make it clear that revision is natural- Many leaders and teachers are hesitate to revise because they believe it indicates failure in some way. Make it clear that revision is a natural part of the learning process, and it is expected.
  • Use time wisely- Ensure that time is allotted for things that matter. Good revision takes time.

Alright... back to that rubric...again. <-- Insert contented sigh here.

CC Photo Credit: Jeffrey K. Edwards

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Yes... I joined Pinterest



A few weeks ago, I joined Pinterest. I've enjoyed adding it to my ever-evolving set of curation tools. Specifically, I like the visual nature of the site, and I think it is an interesting curation tool for images and video. Seeing thumbnails on a page certainly helps me remember what I'm looking for! However, I do wish the site had more flexible tagging. (Maybe there is something I'm missing?) See below for some boards that I've created. Do you have any curation advice for me? People I should follow? Leave it in the comments below!




Wednesday, March 7, 2012

One Lovely Blog Award





Thank you to Julie Greller fromA Media Specialist's Guide to the Internet for nominating me for One Lovely Blog Award! I am not usually recognized as "lovely" so I am enjoying it! Julie, you have quite a blog yourself!

Here's how the One Lovely Blog Award works:
1) Link back to the blogger who gave it to you.
2) Follow the person who sent it to you.
3) Pass the award onto 15 other bloggers.

Here are my 15 blogs (in no particular order):

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Collaboration by Design

Caleb Chancey argues that collaboration occurs best "by design." He bases this assertion on his experiences organizing small group feedback sessions for musicians. The events, known as GreyHavens, remind me of Edcamps. In short, the professionals found value in giving and receiving feedback from their peers about things they care about. Sound familiar? Watch the entire video below.
(Thanks to Jeff Richardson for sharing this amazing video with me!)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Tenets of Adult Learning... Oh yea, and come to Edcamp Philly!


The National Academies Press recently published an excellent report that synthesizes many years of research on brain activity and academic achievement.


When describing teacher professional development, the NAP report (Available for FREE DOWNLOAD here.) offers the following 4 problems with traditional models:


Professional development programs for teachers, for example, frequently:

  • Are not learner centered. Rather than ask teachers where they need help, they are simply expected to attend prearranged workshops.
  • Are not knowledge centered. Teachers may simply be introduced to a new technique (like cooperative learning) without being given the opportunity to understand why, when, where, and how it might be valuable to them. Especially important is the need to integrate the structure of activities with the content of the curriculum that is taught.
  • Are not assessment centered. In order for teachers to change their practices, they need opportunities to try things out in their classrooms and then receive feedback. Most professional development opportunities do not provide such feedback. Moreover, they tend to focus on change in teaching practice as the goal, but they neglect to develop in teachers the capacity to judge successful transfer of the technique to the classroom or its effects on student achievement.
  • Are not community centered. Many professional development opportunities are conducted in isolation. Opportunities for continued contact and support as teachers incorporate new ideas into their teaching are limited, yet the rapid spread of Internet access provides a ready means of maintaining such contact if appropriately designed tools and services are available.

So, come to Edcamp Philly this year on May 19, 2012 to experience a different type of professional development. Attend learner-centered sessions that are situated within the context of a caring community. Get feedback on your practices, explore topics in-depth, and participate in stimulating conversation. Your ideas and your knowledge will make the day a success. Hope to see you there! (By the way...it's FREE!)

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