Thursday, November 29, 2012

Rigorous Work, Effort, and Gingerbread Houses

Almost every year, my family has a gingerbread house contest on Thanksgiving. (It is actually a keenly designed diversion to keep the entire family out of the kitchen for a few hours!) Over time, the contest has increased in its importance as the winner gets to choose post-dinner television viewing.

This year, my dad joined the fray in an attempt to see more football action and less Will Ferrell dressed as an elf.

As the work progressed, I glanced over and noticed my dad hard at work. Now, my dad's fingers are about triple the width of my fingers. Such close, fine-motor work was not easy for him. He struggled. His eyes rarely left the project and he uttered a few interesting vocabulary words that I've never heard before.

As dinner time approached and the contest ended, his house looked something like this:

Needless to say, my dad didn't win. However, his only response was-- "Guess I'll need to try that again next time." There was no moping or complaining. Just a realization that there was more work to be done.

No one at the table said any of the following:
  • "You came into this with limited skills and background knowledge. You just can't do it."
  • "You should have someone do all the hard parts for you next year."
  • "You'll probably never be a professional gingerbread house builder. You don't need this."
How many times do we cut our neediest children "a break" when they are in greatest need of a push? How many times do our (mostly unstated) expectations about a child directly impact the level of work to which they are exposed? Excuses stink, especially when there is more work to be done.

Everyone can do it. We just have to believe. (Fat fingers and all, dad!)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Extrinsic Rewards: Observations from the Office of a Car Salesman

My Faithful Companion....
A few weeks ago, my car died. My little silver Camry, a faithful companion through many of my life's biggest changes, sputtered to a stop on the side of a highway in Toledo. After a mechanic told me, "It's really over this time," I set off to the nearest car dealer to find a suitable replacement.

Upon my arrival at the dealership, I met Dennis who politely ushered me from shiny car to shiny car. Given that I'm a no-nonsense shopper, this lasted about 3.5 minutes until I told him that I had firmly decided and we should start to look at prices.

The first thing I noticed when I entered Dennis' office was that it was filled with awards. Some looked like gears, others were embellished with clocks, and some even had his picture embossed on them. There was barely a centimeter of wall space visible behind his desk. In some ways, it was almost comical. Perhaps I had stumbled upon the best car salesman in all the Midwest? Seems unlikely. (Especially since many of his colleagues also had heaping piles of awards in their offices!)

Sometimes schools feel like Dennis' office. Students work to receive awards, grades, and accolades. They all receive the mostly the same awards, regardless of their performance. Soon, these awards lose relevance to students, and they simply become inert artifacts of the experience we call "school."

Research tells us that extrinsic motivation is temporary, and it doesn't promote long term success. Much of the research in Paul Tough's most recent book (which cites Dweck, Duckworth, and Pink among others) tells us that we should provide students with feedback on their effort, not their achievements. This often does not look like trophies or awards, instead it looks like targeted, instant feedback on effort expended in relation to performance.

So... don't tell anyone they did a "good job" today. Instead note how hard they worked and it's effect on their performance. Unless you're trying to haggle a car salesman, that is!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Watch the Latest Edcamp Organizer Panel

Are you running an Edcamp event? Well, you may want to check out this panel discussion with Edcamp organizers from across the US. The main topic of the session is how to secure sponsors and funds for a venue. As always, if you need help with your event, please visit the Edcamp Foundation webpage. We are happy to help!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Formative Assessment: What's Your Waffle House?

Nighthawks 2006
In my area of the world, FEMA has gotten a lot of attention lately. It's been helping folks dry out after Sandy in lots of different ways.

I recently read an article discussing the tactics of W. Craig Fugate, the head of FEMA. In the article, his "Waffle House Matrix" was discussed. When determining the magnitude of an emergency, he immediately asks his team on the ground, "Are the Waffle Houses open?" If so, things are ok. However, if the Waffle Houses are closed, then things are looking pretty dire.

The reason that this philosophy works so well is because Waffle Houses' organizational philosophies require them to stay open as long as possible and to reopen immediately after an energy outage. In essence, they are a perfect "quick indicator" of progress regarding power and water.

So, I started to wonder-- what are my "Waffle Houses" in the classroom? What are my quick indicators that let me know when things are going awry with a task I've designed?

Here are some of my initial thoughts:
  • Lack of willingness to persist on a task-- This is a big red flag to me. It means that the instruction is not of the appropriate rigor (either too easy or too hard) or the student does not have any connection to the task.
  • Procrastination on a task-- Often in my online class, there will be 1 or 2 students who contribute to the discussion board every week just before assignments are due. These students miss all of the interaction that happens during the week to just "get it done." How can I better engage these students through my questions or video blog?
  • Fear of taking a risk on a task-- If students are more concerned with getting the answers "right" than genuinely creating, then I know I've missed the mark. Most complex tasks have a range of answers that effectively satisfy the criteria set forth. If students don't feel empowered by this, I must change something.
So... what are your Waffle Houses?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Drains and Sprinklers

When I was a little girl, my grandmother used two basic categories for people: sprinklers and drains.

Sprinklers were the people who embraced new ideas and spread them far and wide.
Jumping Into Summer

Drains were the people who sucked new ideas into dark places.
Flow down

So, of course the phrase "don't be a drain" was one I heard quite often growing up. Anytime I whined, sighed, or generally complained, my grandmother would glance in my direction and mouth the word d-r-a-i-n. To be honest, it was a very frightening sight at the age of six.

And, although it may be crude to sort everyone on this earth into two categories, it sort of works. Doesn't it? 

Don't be a d-r-a-i-n. (Insert menacing glance here!)

CC Photo Credits:

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Freedom <-- A Vehicle for Leadership


I've sat through many webinars, conference sessions, and book group discussions about instructional leadership. However, Chris Wejr completely reframed my thoughts on the subject during his insightful Leadership 2.0 session last week.

Chris caught my attention by talking about freedom. While everyone wants freedom, some people want "freedom from" and others want "freedom to."

In unhealthy, fear-based organizations, people want FREEDOM FROM the rules that exist arbitrarily. They want to escape the entire situation. They seek points, credit, dollars, or some other external reward. A leader in this type of organization must constantly monitor the team's compliance.

In vibrant, collaborative organizations, people want FREEDOM TO innovate, create new structures, and solve problems. A leader in this type of environment simply needs to nurture the ambitions of the team.

So... as instructional leaders we must create environments where people feel that they have the time and space to constantly improve the learning situation for kids. This is no easy task, but it all starts by focusing the team on student outputs, not teacher inputs.

A few days after Chris' session, I saw this tweet from Sam Chaltain:

Sam cites a post where John Morrow explores the need for students to produce meaningful, adult work. Educators need the FREEDOM TO try these types of tasks with kids and they need FREEDOM FROM the traditional assessments to make that happen.

This week, grow your leadership by giving your teachers and students the FREEDOM TO do meaningful things together. 

CC Photo Credit: Felicita by crazyluca69

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Culture of Practice

The Dreaded Basement
Practice doesn’t happen in a vacuum. How well practice is supported within any group or organization—be it a basketball team, a school, or a multinational corporation—can determine whether people embrace it and eagerly take on new challenges or whether they resent practice and fail to engage in it. Great practice, then, is not merely a triumph of design and engineering, but a triumph of culture. ~Doug Lemov

Throughout my life, I've been a part of many different teams. Some great, some merely good, and others just darn ugly. (That last one involved some fellow pointe dancers and expanding spandex polka dots...) Although I've always tried to embody a leader regardless of my title, my role as a team leader has become formalized within the organizations where I work over the past three years.

It has been one of my primary goals to model, expect, and reward a culture of practice. At times, this has been difficult for me, but the rewards always exceeded my expectations.

Consider the time when I had to bail rising water out of the basement in my office. (Oh, the joys of being a tech director.) In short, things weren't going very smoothly. Two of my team members, seeing me covered in mud, helped me brainstorm a better solution. We tried their solution. It didn't work. We tried something else. It still didn't work. After 3 hours of general mayhem, we finally stumbled upon success. As we wolfed down some Pizza Hut in the parking lot following the experience, I said, "Hey, maybe we should practice that tomorrow. Then we'll be able to react really quickly next time." Although they were skeptical at first, they complied and we practiced the next day. Sure enough, when the next large rainstorm resulted in a flood, we were able to solve the problem in 15 minutes. Once my teammates saw the direct value of practice, they were hooked. Soon we were having weekly practice sessions for problems that arose routinely in our work.

Just last week I had the opportunity to practice with three teammates on my current project. (We are working together to coach teachers.) Although I have a formalized leadership role, everyone on our team is encouraged to observe each other and provide feedback. This really helps to flatten the organization as well as increase everyone's access to models and feedback. During a debrief session with one member, I practiced several exchanges to deescalate resistance. Not only did I learn about my teammate in the process, but I gained some critical skills myself!

A leader who values practice has to be willing to admit weakness and failure. However, that's not enough. A leader who values practice has to model strategic improvement by trying again...and again... and again. A culture of practice is essentially a culture of messy, dynamic learning.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Pilgrimage of the Land of No Homework: Three Implications for Education

Note: This is cross posted at Smart Blog on Education.

If you’ve been watching the news or blogosphere, you may have seen a recent declaration from the President of France regarding homework. In essence, President Francois Hollande would like to forbid homework in schools to prevent students without support at home from falling further behind.

Interesting? Yes.

Amazingly, I’ve had the unique opportunity to explore French education (albeit superficially) over the past few days. What follows are a few feeble thoughts…

1. Kids are kids, regardless of where they live. In my jetlagged fog last Friday, I spent most of the day walking around the streets of Paris. Interestingly, schools in Paris appear surprisingly similar to schools in the US.  I even snapped this picture of high school kids “hanging out” when school lets out. Look familiar? (I’m pretty sure it’s a genetic, innate quality of preteens and teens to congregate in large groups on sidewalks.)

So, I propose that we need to start thinking BIGGER when we consider the education of children. Kids are kids and learning is learning. So…how can we work together, nationally and  internationally to solve educational problems? We live in a networked world. Let’s learn from each other. If a ban on homework works for the French, could it work for the US? Spain? Why or why not?

2. Understanding is constructed most deeply through guided exploration. In short, I’ve spent most of the past week geographically lost in some form or another. To me, that means I’m knee-deep in exploration. While I realize that wandering to and from various visual landmarks is incredibly inefficient, it is also the most effective way for me to personally garner mastery of my surroundings. Consider how this relates to kids. How often to we give kids goals accompanied by extended time for exploration? In a world where coverage is endlessly chased, are we allowing sufficient time for students to construct their own meaning? As part of my work with international teachers while in Paris, Grant Wiggins cited some research which notes that students typically forget academic knowledge at the same rate as nonsense words. What logically follows is that a laser-like focus on the acquisition of knowledge will generate graduates that don’t remember much.

Instead, explore a much smaller terrain, gain mastery, and emphasize the transfer of learning to new situations.

3.  The ways in which we design tasks is potentially the most important work that we do as educators. During my time in Paris, I had the enormous opportunity to explore assessment design with teachers from Paris, Madrid, and Berlin. What students spend their time doing in our classes really matters. This work should provide students with an authentic role and be created for a real audience. This makes the real world an extension of the classroom, aiding engagement, rigor, and relevance. Problems in the real world are messy. Students need to see messy problems in the classroom too. A problem that is easily solved isn’t really a problem. Is it?

Despite being far away from home, many of the issues appeared surprisingly similar. I believe we are more alike than different when considering our international colleagues. Perhaps we need to listen and learn more about education as a national community. We certainly have a lot to gain from a continued conversation!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

When Innovators Connect: A Concept Becomes a Movement

In a recent post, George Couros describes the need to spread “pockets of innovation” well beyond the walls of a single school. He says,
If these great ideas spread, we are more likely to create a positive culture in schools than if we kept them to ourselves.
The Heath Brothers referred to this idea as “finding the bright spots,” and it has seemed to hold true with every attempt at change I’ve ever had.

However, what happens when pockets of innovators are no longer limited by the constraints of time or space?

Meet Demetrius. (He’s on the left.)
Demetrius is a technology integrator for a private K-12 institution in Thessolaniki, Greece. Demetrius helps to organize TedX Thessolaniki, volunteers for the K-12 Global Education Conference, and is a general authority on all things “geeky.” We met during my travels this fall. We shared our stories and learned about each other. What sparked our initial conversation and meeting? Yup, you guessed it. He might want to run an Edcamp.

My first reaction was: How does HE know about Edcamp? Think about this. Before digital networks, innovators persisted and spread throughout their organizations or local areas. And that was likely the end of the story. But now, innovators can connect with other innovators throughout the world in real time.

What started as a crazy idea shared by six educators who attended a Barcamp unconference in Philly has multiplied exponentially over the past three years. With over 120 national and international events, the original Edcamp Philly team has been nothing but awed by the number of educators willing and ready to host their own local events.

Because of this idea, two people who may have never met are now colleagues and friends. All of this happened because a concept empowered both of them to be active innovators in a community much larger than themselves.

So, what happens when pockets of innovation are no longer limited by the constraints of time or space? Quite simply, a concept becomes a movement.

So, what did we do to take a concept that had been tried in several different forms and make it a movement?

Uh… well….we don’t really know. (And that’s the truth folks!)

But…. Here are my best guesses!

  • We tried the idea at the right time. In May 2010 when we hosted the first Edcamp Philly, Twitter was growing as a professional development tool for educators, and it was starting to gain traction. Without Twitter, no one would have known about Edcamp beyond the Philly area.
  • Teachers really needed something positive within their control. Edcamps are events that lie completely within the control of the educator. It is very empowering to take back ownership for your professional learning. Given the climate in America regarding teacher proficiency, it seemed to be the perfect reaction to all the negativity in the media and political spheres.
  • We let go. If we had tried to control or regulate the concept, we would have stifled the innovators we were trying to reach. While we love to help and offer suggestions, people are free to run their own event. This has allowed people to try different things and share them in the community. The support within the group of Edcamp organizers that I know has been incredible.

So, how do we continue the positive momentum of Edcamp and teacher empowerment? How do we help the pockets within our local schools to spread? Let’s find out together!


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