Saturday, 5 April 2014

Kids Say the Darndest Things

I remember when I was in kindergarten my teacher told my parents that I was a good student, but I dreamed too much. I remember other times in school where I was corrected to be more on task.

When I was in ninth grade my writing teacher would give students a topic, and then we had forty minutes to write a paper on the topic. I found myself sitting there and thinking of all the possibilities, and soon time would be up. I later learned that my ninth grade teacher conferred with my previous teacher to inquire why I had been recommended for the advanced writing class.

My previous teacher told my ninth grade writing teacher that I was not a speed writer, but rather a "thoughtful writer." When I heard about this conversation between my two teachers, I was struck by what I suddenly learned about myself as a learner. I learned that I was a thoughtful writer who needed time to think through a number of possibilities before making my choices. This was a critical turning point in my own learning, but that phase of my education could have destroyed my interest in writing forever.

About 15 years into my career as an educator I was given a going-away party as I was preparing to move to another school district. One of my gifts from my colleagues was a small handcrafted wooden box that had "wisdom" carved into the top. The box had a secret compartment that slid out, and there was a round metal piece that had "dream" carved into it. That gift has resonated with me forever. How do we find wisdom through our dreams? And how do we help students realize their dreams and passions to find their purpose and wisdom?

Sometimes I think we become so overly concerned about failure that we lose the dream and may also rob the dreams from our colleagues and students. Thomas Edison is a perfect example of a person who was willing to fail thousands of times, but eventually discovered the light bulb. I've written about this before, but we really need to recognize failure as an important part of the learning process. Having said this, we also need to remove some of the threats in schools that make students obsessed about right answers.

The world is complex, and we are not preparing students for a successful future when they believe there is only one way of doing things and only one right answer. In short, we're preparing students to be successful in our version of school, but we are not preparing them to be successful in life. Many students quickly learn to play a "safe game" so that they don't fail. I think we want students to dream and think big, so that they can have unimaginable opportunities in their lives.

Last year a friend told me about a book by Susan Cain called QUIET. It's a highly acclaimed book about introspective and reflective thinkers, how they function, and how they are understood and misunderstood. It turns out that a third to a half of all people are of this type, and yet the world sometimes expects them to be something different. I found much of who I am in this book, and once again powerfully learned about myself as a learner and how I can most effectively make my personal and professional contributions.

As you can see, I've been thinking a lot lately about dreams, how we know ourselves as learners, and how each of us fit into this world. While I am as research-based in my thinking on education as almost anyone, I think it is also important to keep alive the conversation about dreams. In many respects, research tells us what has been and dreams tell us what might be. I believe all of us educators need to dream more, and I believe we need to encourage students to dream more. It's in recognizing our dreams that we find our passion. In finding our passion, everything becomes possible.

Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech resonated for millions of people, and this dream continues to be a vital force in the world. Sometimes we sit back and say we'll believe it when we see it, but I think we need to further develop the skill Walt Disney recommended: "If you can dream it, you can do it."

As we look at ways to create better schools, we need to keep asking kids what excites and challenges them. We need to empower kids in their learning and encourage them to be advocates for their learning and the ways that they learn. We need to allow kids to pursue projects that demonstrate their learning in ways that fully engage them. All of this is frequently referenced as personalized learning, but essentially it's about all of us adults knowing who our students are as individuals, learners, and dreamers, and inviting our students to be passionate collaborators and co-designers in their learning with us.

There is clearly foundational knowledge that needs to be learned for students to be successful, and I am not abdicating that educators need to abandon many successful practices that are known to be effective. I am simply saying that there are ways for kids to be invited into the learning process that becomes more student-focused.

All over the world, I see a lot of educators running around with ideas about school reform. Meanwhile I keep thinking of a TV show ages ago where a guy named Art Linkletter would interview kids, and he would frequently comment that "Kids say the darndest things." As I continue to review all of the new educational ideas, I keep wondering "What would the kids say?".

As many of you know, I am an advocate for Professional Learning Communities where teachers support and challenge each other for improved teaching and learning. I am also a strong advocate for student voice and the power of students to help us create the dream schools where ALL students can flourish. I think we're doing a pretty good job on the teaching side of things, and I'm seeking more on the learner side. I guess I am looking for that era in schools where "kids say the darndest things," and their magnificently wild ideas and unique ways of presenting them become exciting new possibilities and even realities.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Envisioning the Whole Elephant

Creating a systemic approach to 21st century learning has frequently been like the story of the blind men and the elephant. Each blind man finds a different part of the elephant and thinks that is the elephant, but in fact it is only a part. Much of what has been written and discussed about 21st century learning are only parts, and sometimes the parts have unfortunately appeared as heated advocacy and debate. Therefore it is now invigorating to have a systemic model that best serves a holistic approach to student learning.

An important systemic model has emerged through a research paper by Michigan State University faculty members Kristen Kereluik, Punya Mishra, Chris Fahnoe, and Laura Terry that is entitled "What Knowledge is of Most Worth: Teacher Knowledge for 21st Century Learning," and is a brilliant synthesis of key research studies on 21st century learning. In addition to receiving a distinguished award and publication in the Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, the results of this research will also be a featured keynote at the ISTE Conference in summer of 2014.

This 21st century learning model has three main categories for student learning: Foundational Knowledge (to know), Meta Knowledge (to act), and Humanistic Knowledge (to value). Each main category has three sub-categories that articulate direction and intent.

The three sub-categories of Foundational Knowledge include: Digital/Information Literacy, Core Content Knowledge, and Cross-Disciplinary Knowledge. Within each of these it becomes important to identify what is of most worth for learning (as opposed to voluminous learning for the sake of learning) and to also look at ways to pursue authentic learning that establishes relevance and integration. There has sometimes been a struggle for dominance within these three sub-categories in schools, and this approach recognizes purposeful balance.

The three sub-categories of Meta Knowledge include: creativity and innovation, problem solving and critical thinking, and communication and collaboration. These are the critical processes necessary for developing high levels of foundational knowledge. These skills involve processes for effectively working "in the box" and also "out of the box,"so that learning is an act of production and creation. There has been justified criticism of education that it has become too much about learning and not enough about doing. This meta knowledge level is very much focused on active and engaged doing.

Finally the three sub-categories of Humanistic Knowledge include: life/job skills, ethical/emotional awareness, and cultural competence. These attributes focus on empowerment of the learner through awareness of self, as well as development of social and global context. Humanistic knowledge is sometimes an area that is slighted in schools, and this model suggests that success in life is interconnected with a humanistic perspective. There have been many brilliant people throughout history who have done horrible things, and this area of emphasis says that we need to pay attention to quality of life and to recognize our interdependence in the world.

In many ways this research shows that "nothing has changed" and also shows that "everything has changed." I have seen schools that have had a dominant focus on one or two sub-categories of Foundational Knowledge, and not recognized the important skills of Meta Knowledge. I have seen schools that have largely ignored Humanistic Knowledge. There are a multitude of variations that lack focus, coherence, and direction, and yet there are also pockets of excellence almost everywhere. The challenge is bringing it all together in ways that are purposeful, universally understood, and that allow people their creative modes of expression.

Ultimately it's important to understand the distinctions within Foundational Knowledge, Meta Knowledge, and Humanistic Knowledge, so that a well-rounded, comprehensive, liberal arts education is made possible in the education of the whole child for ALL children.

For staff at schools who are serious about developing a systemic approach to 21st century learning, I suggest looking at Appendix B in the research study to see all of the descriptors identified for the main categories and sub-categories. This could be an excellent source of conversation and self-assessment for identifying where to celebrate and where there is work that could lead to meaningful strategic planning and long-range goal setting.

For people who would like to read the full research study, here's the link: