A Challenge to ACT (and be your best!)

I have two weeks off this summer and this is the second day of the first week. Yesterday I stayed plugged in all day to Edubloggercon East, listening, learning and interacting and today I plan to produce. I want to blog, I want to move and I want to do something other than look at a computer.

It’s a busy week for me to have off–the Discovery Education Network Leadership Council is meeting near Boston. The Building Learning Communities Conference is happening in Boston. Both are gatherings where  many people I know will be sharing, tweeting, streaming and I can be learning much of the time. There are many other conferences going on as well that people in my PLN are sharing and tweeting about daily. It’s a GREAT week for me to have few personal obligations.

So this morning, Steve Dembo, @teach42, quoted Chris Dede as saying: The biggest challenge for educators is to reinvent the educational system of the 21st century. – Dede #denlc10

Then, Mary Beth Hertz, @mbteach, responded with: not sure we need to reinvent anything. Some things ARE working! We just need an upgrade.

Yesterday in an Edubloggercon East (#ebce10) session, there was a conversation about Rethinking/Renaming 21st Century Education.

I’ve been reading and blogging on the Cooperative Catalyst blog for months, and recently, I’ve read Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology and Seth Godin’s Linchpin. I’ve watched people at ISTE10 and on #edchat call for action, not words, any more.  People are saying it’s time to act and stop talking about acting. However, agreement about what specific actions to take seems to be lacking–or seems, at least, NOT to be pervasive.

Well, let me suggest some specific actions we should all take in all of our schools.

1. I don’t think changing schooling is about an upgrade, or about what IS already working, or even about reinventing, reforming or transforming. The big thing everyone seems to agree about right now is that schooling does not equal learning and what we’re doing in most schools today does not meet the needs of today’s learners or today’s world.

We have to agree on what kind of learning is important for our students and for us and act on that! Learning for life is not rote, but about deep understanding and questioning through inquiry, analysis and reflection. It’s about building habits of mind that allow and support learners to transfer learning across disciplines and situations to be adaptive and creative in complex situations. Deep learning occurs NOT in a vacuum, but socially, with others, so teamwork, collaboration, leadership and people skills are crucial to develop.

So, if what we want is learning that builds skills that transfer to new situations, we simply have to examine HOW we support learning for our students.  Doesn’t matter where that support happens, or when that support happens, but HOW it happens.

2. Seth Godin talks about two kinds of schooling:

Type 1. You can take a class where you learn technique, facts and procedures.

Type 2. You can take a class where you learn to see, learn to lead and learn to solve interesting problems.

The fact of the matter is that we’re always going to need some type of school and school building for young students. Early childhood is crucial for setting the stage for later learning, since it’s generally  in grades k-3 that students learn the basics–reading, writing, mathematical thinking and socialization skills. Once they have developed some building blocks of those how-tos, and a questioning frame of mind, then

We need to figure out how to provide our learners the second kind of schooling as much as we can, and act on that, strategically providing our students multiple opportunities in a group to figure out a problem, struggle to solve the problem and mess around with complex issues and make sense of  and offer solutions or changes to them.

Here’s where it gets tricky in my mind, as allowing students to do that does not look orderly, and often looks like chaos. It’s messy, it’s riddled with failures (cause that’s what we learn most from) and it does NOT look like a teacher standing lecturing in front of a room full of students.Thus, administrators have to understand what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how to help us get better at it through THEIR supporting OUR learning. Again, inquiry, analysis and reflection is important to any learning–including all of the adults!

3. The daily work students do must be engaging, involving the 8 engaging qualities of work described here: Teachers as Taskmasters

Like the title of that blog post, I say teachers must be MASTERS of task-making. I do not mean in the traditional sense of the word, as in making sure the work gets done, but as in MASTERFULLY crafting tasks. These tasks should be ones that engage, teach, allow for diversity of thought, stimulate creative juices flowing, and evoke a proud sense of accomplishment. They may even take on a life of their own, resulting in students taking the task to places the teacher may never have envisioned. Through rich tasks that demand rigor in thought and performance, that elicit cooperation and teamwork, students may also discover a passion for the subject or the discipline as well.

We need to observe carefully what students do in multifaceted and difficult situations and have deep understanding of their work and act on that to help them develop strategies for knowing what to do when they don’t have an immediate solution.

This ties in with the “struggle to solve the problem” in suggestion #2. David Berliner, who has done tons of research on “experts” talks about expert learners “knowing what to do when they don’t know what to do.” So, as we teach and support our students learning to find and solve problems, we also need to carefully observe what they do to help them make connections to multiple modes of strategic thinking, critical friends, and knowledgeable others who can help them get beyond a temporary stalemate. We also need to understand our content, knowing how to scaffold students for deeper understanding and next steps in specific processes.

4. It’s not just about OUR analysis of the quality of the work, but the students’ command of their depth of understanding as well. THEY are the ones who need to be able to explain their understanding, comprehend how much they know and don’t know, and be able to describe next steps for their own path.  It’s about students understanding that the questions many times are much more important than the answer and that the process we follow to get to where we do is usually much more informative than the answer.

We need to act to do rich, sophisticated assessment that clearly matches our  objectives, gives specific, timely and regular feedback on both student work and student learning, and provides rich descriptions and analyses of that work and learning that others (admins, parents, other students, etc.) understand.

When we report to parents, we simply have to practice 3-P reporting, where we share, and students self-report on

*Performance (based on criteria and performance standards)
*Progress (progress/improvement)
*Process (work habits, effort, attitude)

(See Grade Fog? Or Effective Grading?)

You know what?  The four specific actions (green sentences) I suggest aren’t new ideas. I’d bet Aristotle, or Plato, or even Thomas Jefferson, would all agree they are simply good education–or good “schooling.” I’d bet many of you learned them in your preservice classes, or in the freefall of your first few years of teaching.  What’s different is the hamstringing NCLB has done to us, what the state multiple choice tests have done to us, and the fear to which we have succumbed to NOT do what we know is best, and what’s been in many of our hearts all along. What’s different is the tools we have to do these things, and the ways we can manage them. So my challenge to you is simply this–let’s all go act on these four things and use all of the sophisticated tools we have at our disposal to do so. Let’s teach our students, interacting with them and all of our peers with all of our heart and soul and with every ounce of knowledge, art and craft we have to provide rich, incredibly engaging, and amazing learning opportunities for them. Let’s share what we do, (any ideas how or where?) and show the world we really don’t need those multiple choice tests to document our students’ learning and provide them the experiences they need to save our world from the mess we’ve made for them.

And, for a related post I wrote in May, go here.

12 thoughts on “A Challenge to ACT (and be your best!)

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  2. excellent post Paula.
    here’s the pickle..

    Let’s share what we do, (any ideas how or where?) and show the world we really don’t need those multiple choice tests to document our students’ learning and provide them the experiences they need to save our world from the mess we’ve made for them.

    I absolutely agree that’s a pickle. SO, I fully intend to stream lessons from my class this year–and post some of my assessments, lessons and units online to paint pictures of possibilities for other folks. I hope it’ll help spread the rebellion to other schools and other classrooms.


  3. Paula – Love your post. I have been tossing around similar ideas of my own lately – and have been trying to figure out a way to get our 21st century learning cadre to chew on this.

    I have been looking into “scenario based learning” – something that my husband actually had been doing ever since his days of teaching at the Air Force Academy, and then brought to the local university, and now to the Homeland Security Industry. Quite simply, he designs role-playing scenarios to help his students fully understand a problem, use critical thinking and creativity to solve the problem, and essentially “win” a friendly competition in the classroom. These almost never require computers – but he certainly has become a master task creator – designing these activities to help students reach the desired understandings requires a great deal of up-front work, but once done, he has activities to reuse with the next semester or workshop. They really work!

    I am going to take our 21st century cadre through one of his scenarios at a workshop next week – just so they can get an idea of how powerful this can be for learning – one designed to show the importance of teamwork and communication to problem solving. I think that unless we can experience this kind of learning ourselves, it is difficult to understand how this can help students master content and skills. I’ll let you know how it goes!

    I would LOVE to hear the rest of your story. . .please blog about it, or come back here and share or something so we can spread your tale. This is exactly what we need–specific examples of how each of us are trying to do this very difficult–but very rewarding–work in our own situations. Looking forward to hearing back!


  4. Paula

    Wow! You are right on so many points. The bottom line for me is that teachers need to define and study learning. Then they can create the task likely to produce the learning and the assessments to gain feedback for themselves and their learners.

    And, Steve, you touch upon a crucial facet of our work as well–creating the task that gains feedback for themselves and their learners. Too many times we don’t see the feedback that could help US get so much better at task-crafting. Yep, studying learning is the key. 🙂


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  7. Paula, As always I admire your comprehensive, sensible bravery.

    Here’s what I’m wrestling with right now in my own mind and spirit. Can the challenges you outline be done in school? How much of the legacy of the industrial model, and all its baggage, entailments, and cultural associations, simply gets in the way of the kind of learning you are imagining?

    Well, Kirsten, I have one of the most traditional teachers in my school ready next year to give me some of her kids to pursue their passions weekly, during their regular core content time. I think that will paint some pictures for possibilities for other teachers, and since she is a teacher leader in my school, I am hopeful for the potential impact it could have! We also have the “mastery extension time” school-wide first thing, so between the two of them, I am hoping to turn our schedules all upside down, topsy-turvy this fall. We’ll see.

    I understand I may not seem as revolutionary in my thinking about schools as some of my colleagues are, but partially that is my school system and partially the schools in which I work. I get LOTS of leeway and support for the out-of-the-box teaching I do anyway.

    My Sup’t has said she is ready to ask for our whole district to be a charter school district so we can get rid of the state tests. Wouldn’t that be great? It’ one way t work around the system. ..

    I fully intend to stream some of my lessons this year, AND to post some of my lessons/units online with kid work so people can see those robust assessments to which I allude. I think painting pictures for folks is crucial and I intend to do that this year in full force!

    Keep pushing, my friend. . . you make me think through my optimism to reality many times.


  8. Paula,

    I am curious to hear more about the ‘charter district.’ How does that exempt you from State tests? Philadelphia has one of the largest numbers of charter schools in the country for one district and all of them take state tests and aim for AYP to keep their charter.

    That said, I think your idea of converting the other teachers by showing them what their students can do when given the opportunity to explore is wonderful!

    Mary Beth,
    By the Virginia charter law, a charter school can propose alternative testing. Our charters are set up through our school boards and in my county’s case, the two charter schools we currently have are required by OUR school board to participate in the state testing. That doesn’t HAVE to be the case, though. Does that make sense?


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