A More Practical Approach

Just an FYI post:

I’ve restarted a blog I haven’t revisited in four years.  I, along with my students, have been doing a lot of interesting work with K-12 students. So, I decided to start sharing some of those practical lessons and resources on a blog that will be searchable by grade level and NGSS subject.  I hope you’ll check it out or pass it on to your colleagues and encourage them to subscribe.

PS. Every elementary teacher should be teaching science (based on the NGSS) so I hope you’ll share with your K-5 compadres. There will be a lot of content for them as the work builds.

Posted in Science Education, teacher education | 2 Comments

Learning from Legos

I just finished watching the Lego “Brickumentary” on Netflix. It’s interesting how this simple toy has maintained its status over generations. Very little has changed. The first generation of bricks can be used with the newest generation of bricks. Yet, people continue to do innovative things with the bricks that have not changed for decades.

Schools by and large have also not changed in decades (even longer than Legos). Some argue we need to blow up the whole system to improve education. I disagree. What if we saw the pieces of school as Lego bricks? We might not be able to change individual bricks, but if we rearrange the bricks, we can innovate. We can create something new with the tools we have.

What will you do with your bricks today?

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Getting older (age graded school)

Today is my 36th birthday. While my age has ticked a new mark, I’m only one day older than I was yesterday. Keeping track of years to mark age is not a very precise way to measure age. I think this precision is worse when we are younger, say school aged. 

Yet, despite the imprecise nature of using years to measure age, and our knowledge that different kids mature at different rates & at different times within different domains, we continue to use age-graded systems in our schools. We use a convenient system at the expense of accuracy. We continually fall victim to the sunken-cost trap. 

I do not believe competency-based learning is a panacea. I think this strategy maintains emphasis on school being about particular outcomes instead of experiences and thinking. If school were to become about helping kids be better thinkers (instead of meeting particular content standards), I imagine there might be new ways to structure school that we can’t even imagine in the standards-based movement. 

Not yet. We’ll see what 37 brings. 

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Don’t forget to smile

When I am working with preservice teachers, we talk a lot about the importance of asking questions. We develop interaction patterns we want to work toward and talk about how we can use student comments to ask our next question rather than blindly plow through our list of questions. To do this well requires a tremendous amount of thought…tremendous.

What do people look like when they are thinking?

Imagine the tilted head, eyes up, scrunched up mouth, and wrinkled nose.  The face people make when they are thinking looks somewhat painful. Yet, we know that non-verbal behaviors impact student engagement. The “thinking face” is not what we are after.

So, one of the things my students and I work on during practicum is developing a habit of smiling while thinking. It feels disingenuous at first, but at some point the irony of the smile-while-engaged-in-deep-thought struck me and I’ve always been able to conjure up a smile in those frustrating moments.

Thinking is important, but don’t forget to smile.


Posted in Teacher Actions | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

What will become of teacher education?

Schools/programs such as Iowa BIG and Waukee APEX reflect efforts to reform education going back more than 100 years. While the people running these programs might not agree, there is a lot of similarity to vocational programs many of us grew up with. Even before moving on to teacher education, I explored ways to let my 8th grade students pursue their passions within the context of “traditional school” (see 2010 project, update, and student perspective). These experiences were amazing to watch and be a part of as a teacher and when you see the student perspectives, the students clearly enjoyed the freedom as well. Although, some students were stuck inside the “school project” framework, other students were building things, communicating with experts, and designing solutions to problems.

This has me thinking. If all schools were to become like Iowa BIG, Waukee APEX, or the Dewey School, what would happen to teacher education?

Thankfully, lesson planning would receive much less attention. WOW do we waste a lot of time getting students to fill out a template that they will probably never use again. In a PBL school, lesson plans in the traditional sense don’t make a lot of sense. Similarly, we could stop focusing on differentiation as some sort of panacea for learning. When students have choice and are working on a variety of projects, differentiation is inherent.

Instead, teacher education would need to be about learning how to react with students to emerging problems and learning hurdles. To react quickly in an educative capacity, teachers will need a flexible understanding of how people think and learn and an ability to pose questions to guide student problem-solving. The teachers will also need an expanded view of what it means to assess students. When projects and problems are not the same, we don’t get to use the same measuring stick on all students. Maybe the standards-based movement is taking us in the wrong direction.

The content of these schools/programs is likely to move away from traditional subjects. Instead, the content we’ll teach is around learning and thinking. Maybe philosophy will re-enter the curriculum.

Honestly, I don’t know that the way I teach teachers will change that much. I’ve always been less concerned about the content and more concerned about how to help students think more critically. I put little emphasis on planning and much greater emphasis on the action of teaching. It is the action of teaching (well, effective teaching anyway) that will remain in any educational experience.

Yet, even in high-level PBL schools/programs, I suspect teachers may fall into the old trap of doing much of the thinking for students because the projects will be interesting. Indeed, when I do projects with my students, I have to actively fight the urge to jump in with “let’s try it this way”. Recently, I observed some medical doctors working with their residents and medical students (a high level of PBL) and I noticed that the attending doctors would run through checklists instead of asking, “What else should we check?”

In a very real way, teacher education must prepare teachers who look at schools like Iowa BIG and the Waukee APEX program and say, “yep, that makes sense”. Much like some teacher education programs do now, a focus will need to be placed on changing new teachers’ view of the very nature of teaching. Teachers must develop an intuition that their job is less about their thinking and more about their students’ thinking. Teaching is not explaining or problem-solving, teaching is helping someone else explain or problem-solve.




Posted in Education Reform, Learning, Nature of Teaching, Teacher Actions, teacher education | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Teaching is Design: Cultural Constraints

I’ve written a few posts relating teaching and design (see here, here, here, and here). If teaching is designing, then ideas about design might provide interesting insight into teaching. Last time I wrote about material constraints, but culture and society create constraints for design as well.

In an effort to avoid political landmines, I’m going to use a hypothetical situation. Imagine a law was passed that knives could only hold a certain mass of metal.  Perhaps this law was passed to limit the size of knives in an effort to decrease the ability to of the knife wielder to harm others. You can imagine how knife designers would create non-metal counterparts to large knives or create knives with a non-metal “core” that is surrounded by less-than-the-limit coating of metal. These designers were not constrained by the material itself (e.g. the metal), they were constrained by the society in which they were designing by the society’s laws.

There are some obvious parallels to teachers as designers. For example, teachers are required by law to teach particular outcomes (e.g. state standards and/or national standards). Similarly, teacher education programs (what I do now) have particular laws they have to abide by when designing their programs. Sometimes these laws/requirements provide leverage to create a good program, sometimes these laws are hurdles to jump or work around.

Cultural constraints are not just official rules. Sometimes cultural constraints are the unspoken standard operating procedures within the system. These cultural or institutional constraints are at least partially responsible for the tremendous institutional momentum of schools. Administrators, teachers, and students create and maintain these cultural/institutional constraints. When teachers design, they must account for these constraints.

For example, the culture of the schools I taught in were such that my students resisted inquiry-based approaches to teaching science. I remember one student (son of a school board member) who stuck around after class one day and said, “You’re not really doing what you’re supposed to do. Why don’t you ever tell use the answers?” While the conversation that resulted was fascinating, his question perfectly illustrates the students as part of the cultural constraints. Therefore, as I continued to design my lessons I was sure to include explicit opportunities to have students reflect on how they were learning in my class. While having students reflect on their learning is clearly important, I was also having students reflect on my teaching to help them understand how what we were doing was different, but beneficial to their development as thinkers. The cultural/institutional constraints shaped the design of my teaching. Unfortunately, we too often ignore the cultural constraints or seek to place blame for cultural constraints. If we see cultural constraints as part of the design process, we might be able to focus our energies in a more positive, creative direction. 

Posted in Design, Nature of Learning, Nature of technology, teacher education | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

I wish I would have listened more

Early in my career I was (and still am to an extent) frustrated by how some of my colleagues (teachers) talked about students. I avoided the teachers’ lounge and vowed to never “be like them”. I denied having similar thoughts despite sometimes feeling frustrated with students.

I still believe that much of the negativity that exists in teachers’ lounges is unhealthy. Yet, I’m learning that “venting” is an important part of mental health. I’m also learning that secondary emotions like frustration and anger are indications of primary emotions such as fear and shame.

I understand those emotions. “Am I a good teacher?” “Do my students like me?” “Are my students learning?” “Will my students be proficient?” “If my students are not proficient, does that make me a bad teacher?”

Teaching is hard and emotionally taxing. I wish I would have made more of an effort to understand the deeper emotions my colleagues and I were experiencing. Perhaps we could have processed together. Perhaps we could have grown together.

Lesson learned being learned.

I’ll listen more.

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