Thursday, November 13, 2014


Whenever something like this happens, I am mindful of educators I have met who do not think Fun & Excitement has a role to play in academic pursuits. That somehow intellectual seriousness and emotional engagement are incompatible. That you can either be learning or having fun, but not both.

I am not talking about a "straw man"--some hypothetical extreme I am setting up to make a point. I have met educators who insist that the two need to be separate if students are to learn. A principal once told me she thought we did students a disservice if we did not occasionally bore them. "Life is not all fun and games, you know?"

I submit that the successful landing of Rosetta--and the countless other times we have seen a group of serious-minded people throw their hands up ecstatically at achieving a goal--indicates exactly the opposite. What drives people in a years-long and intellectually challenging serious pursuit is not mere science or history or language or mathematics; it is passion. Dare I say, love.

Here's to the men and women who dreamed of landing a space probe on a planet and made it happen. Here's to dreaming and doing.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Real Common Core?

Michelle Harvin at EdTechTimes recently wrote about a Harvard Study by Dr. Hunter Gehlback  (whom I have had the pleasure of meeting) which found that when teachers and students discover interests they have in common, they do better academically. The article, Study Finds Social Connectedness in Classrooms Improves Grades, notes that, after a get-to-know-you survey, "the research team gathered the grades at the end of the first quarter and found that when teachers received feedback about being similar to their students, the students earned higher grades." The effect was most pronounced for Black and Latino students.

QISA research thoroughly supports this finding. QISA studies show that when students experience the support of teachers, they are 8 times more likely to be academically motivated than those who do not feel similarly supported.  That academic motivation can inevitably translate into better academic performance. Actually for us, academic motivation, is a better metric. Lots can happen to produce improved academic performance. Cramming, improving test taking skills, having a teacher teach to the test, even cheating, are all ways to improve academic achievement. For my own children, I would want their improved academic performance to emerge from academic motivation and mastery.

The key to creating life-long learners is in learners wanting to learn. And absolutely wanting to learn develops when your teachers want to learn something about you. We hear all the time in focus groups that students work harder, study more for, pay attention to teachers who they believe care about them as a person and not just as a student. The real "common core" turns out to be, not the object matter we want students to learn (i.e., the academic disciplines), but our common bond as persons and as learners. That's at the core!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Election Day

One of my favorite outcomes of Aspirations work is the following. The staff in this middle school had worked on student voice for a few years and wanted to put something systemic/structural in place. Moreover, they knew they needed to address "Old Guard" concerns about giving students too much say. In essence, they needed checks and balances in their system. Where better to look for a model than the U.S. Constitution.

They were able to create a “balance of power” in school leadership based on the idea of different branches of government. The administration was appropriately considered the “Executive Branch” and was responsible for enforcing all school rules, among other things. The “Legislative Branch,” responsible for overseeing and creating policies and procedures, was made up of a Faculty Senate and a Student House of Representatives. Faculty elected senators to a two-year term from among a list of student-nominated teachers and students elected representatives to a one-year term from a list of faculty-nominated students. The “Judicial Branch” was a group of five staff members and four students selected by the administration and approved by the legislative branch. Note that this gave the staff a majority bloc for handling discipline disputes, if it came to that, but students seemed to understand and accept this fact. All students learned about this system of government in their social studies classes. Students at this school believed that students had a genuine voice in decision making.

Monday, November 3, 2014


Last week I was interviewing students in focus groups. The first group were 3rd graders, then 4th, then 5th, ending with 6th. Maybe it was because they came at me in such neat developmental order, but I noticed something interesting I hadn't noticed before.

When I asked the third graders what made them work their hardest in school, almost all of them mentioned getting prizes of some kind or another: from small toys, to extra time to play, to parties. When I asked the 4th and 5th graders, most of them answered with the importance of their efforts to getting into college and/or getting a good job. When I asked the 6th graders, most of them answered that they liked learning new things or were motivated to try harder when they got something wrong.

Do you see it? There is a move from extrinsic rewards (prizes that have little natural connection to the effort to earn those prizes) to external, but internally desired rewards (benefits that have a natural connection to the effort to earn them) to intrinsic rewards (benefits that are directly related to the effort itself). The 3rd graders were all about the bling, the 4th and 5th graders were all about the future payoff, the 6th graders were all about the learning for learning's sake.

There has been a lot written about extrinsic vs. intrinsic rewards in education. Some say motivating students with stickers and various kinds of prizes is a necessary transition to the more mature intrinsic motivation that comes later. Other say that extrinsic rewards do students no favors, teaching them only that learning has some other goal whether it be grades or, later in life, money.

For now let's agree that those 6th graders are on their way to becoming lifelong learners.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Important Tests: Part of Quest or Cause to Obsess?

If I asked you which of two students, a college senior or a third grader, was more obsessed about an important test that loomed on their educational horizon, what would you guess?

I listened in on two conversations recently: One was eavesdropping and the other was watching a colleague work with some third graders. On my flight into Pittsburgh, I overheard a college senior tell his seat mate that he was flying home to take the MCAT exam. He thought it would be a good idea to get a solid night's sleep in his own bed, be around the support of his family, and have a home cooked meal. The test was obviously important to him. He did not seem overly stressed, just wanting to do his best for this important step on his quest to go to medical school. His attitude seemed entirely appropriate and right-sized.

The next day a colleague was talking with a group of third graders about their experiences of school in a district in Ohio. She was asking general questions about why it was important to do well in school, why paying attention was important, and why they thought teachers wanted them to be successful. These third graders kept coming back with the same answer no matter what the question: "To do well on the OAA."  "To pass the OAA." "The OAA." "OAA." In a word they were obsessed. Third graders. Our own Q-Team in the building had made a dozen "We Will Rock the OAA" type posters and were planning and OAA pep-rally. Does this seem appropriate or right-sized to you?

I wanted to hear that it's important to do well in school so that you can become a doctor or a lawyer or a baker or a candlestick maker or whatever you want to be. That paying attention was important because you can't learn if you don't pay attention. I wanted to hear that their teachers want them to be successful because they know their teachers care about them. After 30 years in education am I that naive?

How did we get to a place where a roomful of 8 year olds think the entire purpose of school is to do well on a state standardized test? How did we make that the goal of education? Aren't tests, as the student on the plane seemed to know, a means to the end of a young person's aspiration? Isn't there a way to have students take the test seriously without obsessing? What have we done to make elementary students think the test itself is the end, the purpose, the telos of the third grade?

Sadly, I am not naive and I know the answer to this. We have made students think the test is the goal of education because we have made teachers think it is the goal of education; and we have done that by making schools think it is the goal of education; and we have done that by making districts think it is the goal of education; and we have done that by making the stakes-based-on-test-scores so high for schools and districts. At the highest levels of our state and federal education accountability systems those tests, given on one day, the primary measure of how a school will be judged as successful or not.  Even though those tests do almost nothing to measure curiosity, creativity, collaboration, technical proficiency, or interpersonal skills--some of the very qualities it actually takes to be a successful person in the modern world. Nor do they measure the Self-Worth, Engagement, or Purpose than we know leads appropriately to the the academic motivation that sees tests as a means to an end.  Prior to the test, teachers spend a lot of time and energy talking about the importance of the test. After the test, schools play games and go on field trips and watch movies.

We have done this.  And we can change it.

Friday, April 18, 2014


I have heard Dr. Russell Quaglia speak any number of times. He is always motivational and inspirational whether one-on-one or with our QISA staff or in a hall filled with thousands of people. His closing keynote at ASCD 2014 was no exception. His passion for student voice and for trying to make schools a better place for all kids is fueled by a deeply held conviction that students are the potential, not the problem, in education. Their experiences, their insights, their judgements, their decisions and actions, when partnered with ours, can significantly change the educational landscape.  Let's be honest, 20 years of "Ed Reform" with only the adults at the steering wheel have gotten us exactly the results we are getting. They are good, but it's past time to take it to the next level.

While Russ inarguably has a fiery and dynamic speaking style, part of what roused the attendees at ASCD 14 instantly to their sustained standing ovation was the data he shared with them from over one million students. Over the years QISA has surveyed hundreds of thousands of students from all over the world and have spoken in focus groups to thousands upon thousands more. We have worked alongside students whose ideas for improving their school have been both innovative and practical. They have pointed out the insanity of punishing a student with ten unexcused absences with an out of school suspension, of dress code policies that do not allow for ripped knees, but do allow shorts when it gets hot, and of students who listened to an iPod during study hall being sent to an in school suspension room where they are allowed to listen to an iPod. They have engaged in projects that have brought healthier food into their school cafeteria and better people flow to the cafeteria lines. They have worked with teachers to make classes more engaging and figured out ways to help students struggling with transitions into their school.

What Russ Quaglia did at ASCD, what he established QISA and the Aspirations Academies Trust to do, and what, indeed, he has spent his life doing, is to amplify the voice of students. Russ is a megaphone. For many years his call to the cause of student voice sounded to many like catering at best or pandering at worst. To some it still does (see the last 2 paragraphs) and that's because often student solutions are counter-intuitive to adults. But now it is increasingly apparent that we need students to be our active partners and not just the passive recipients of our well meaning efforts. Are you ready to listen, learn, and lead?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

On Thinking Pink

The first general session keynoter at the ASCD conference I referenced last week was Daniel Pink. Mr. Pink has written a number of best-selling books that might be considered business books, but have a broad appeal because the topics are broadly human. Education has been one of those crossover fields for his work, which is why he was asked to speak to 9000 educators is L.A.

A Whole New Mind, for example, is about the importance of combining linear, logical left brain thinking with intuitive, creative right brain thinking given the current set of economic, political, and global challenges. There are obvious implication for school systems that prepare those new, whole minds.  Drive is about how autonomy, mastery, and purpose are far more motivating than the carrot and stick, no matter how big the stick or how many carrots are offered. Again the target audience is business managers who need to motivate employees, but the implications for teachers who need to motivate students are inescapably present.

His most recent book, To Sell is Human, is also about motivation and was the basis of his ASCD talk. The key paradigm shift in business has been from a world in which sellers had an advantage for knowing more about their products than consumers--hence: Buyer Beware--to a world in which consumers have as much information about products as the sellers from whom they purchase. He calls this information parity and the same phenomenon exists in education.  We hear it all the time in focus groups as students wonder out loud why they need to go to school and sit in classes to learn information that can easily be learned anywhere at any time online.

This shift requires a new approach for anyone who is trying to convince anyone else to "buy" what they are "selling"--whether it's a washing machine, an opinion, or that doing your math homework will help you be a successful person. I will leave it to your reading of the book to learn about that ABC approach, but the A stands for "Attunement". Or if we can let go of the A, which sets up a great mnemonic, what can be called "Perspective Taking".

Mr. Pink's point is that a key to motivating our students in a world with information parity is that we need to become adept at taking on their point of view, of seeing what our classrooms look like from their side of the desk. Indeed, this is the core of QISA's work and what we believe is the game changer in the school change effort. It is what My Voice and iKnow My Class surveys are all about. It is why we conduct hundreds of student focus groups every year. It is the driving force behind our MAAP. It is why we insist that our Demonstration Sites give students a seat at the table where meaningful decisions are made. It is why student voice has become a movement in education such that it is becoming a key component in teacher evaluations.

Do students have a voice in your school? Are you prepared to listen and attune yourself to their point of view? According to Pink you need to consider what students think if you want to motivate them.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Educational Entrepreneur

Have you seen this TED Talk by Cameron Herold on how schools should be doing much more to support students who are entrepreneurial?

It's worth the full 22 minutes. At about 2:22 Herold says:

If we can teach our kids to become we teach the ones who have science gifts to go on in science, what if we saw the ones who had entrepreneurial traits and taught them to be entrepreneurs? We could actually have all these kids spreading businesses instead of waiting for government handouts. What we do is we sit and teach our kids all the things they shouldn't do: Don't hit; don't bite; don't swear.

So here is something I came across recently:

In a middle school that implemented a 1-1 student to device program this year, there are clear restrictions placed on apps and various kinds of access. The district's IT department has made sure all the iPads are appropriately password protected for certain levels of access, that students couldn't download apps without going through proper channels, etc., etc. You know the drill.

Now let's play "You Be the Administrator": 

You see a student playing Angry Birds on his iPad. This app is forbidden. You lean on the student pretty hard to find out how he was able to download the game. Under the bright light of your interrogation, the student gives up one of his classmates who--for a tidy sum of $1--will change profile settings for any student who seeks his services.  What do you do? Your answer may depend on whether you spent the 22 minutes on Herold's video or not, but post your answers in the comments section.  The story continues next week!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Learning Agility

Five posts ago I referenced a Thomas Friedman article from the New York Times about how to get hired at Google. I recently came across this post by Gary Burnison that says Mr. Friedman didn't mention that those same 5 traits can get you a job anywhere! In particular Mr. Burnison's article talks about the importance of Learning Agility.

First can I just say I love the term. "Learning Agility" captures so much so succinctly. According the Korn/Ferry Institute's paper, learning agility is "the willingness and ability to learn from experience and then apply those lessons to succeed in new situations." Factors that contribute to being an agile learner include:
  1. Mental Agility — ability to examine problems in unique and unusual ways
  2. Self-awareness — extent to which an individual knows his or her true strengths and weaknesses
  3. People Agility — skilled communicator who can work with diverse types of people
  4. Change Agility — likes to experiment and comfortable with change
  5. Results Agility — delivers results in challenging first-time situations
No doubt the traditional disciplines lend themselves to developing mental agility. But to develop the other four, the learning environment must be rich in the 8 Conditions. Belonging and Heroes are necessary for people agility and self-awareness. Sense of Accomplishment also makes an important contribution to self-awareness as a student's effort and perseverance are noted and celebrated. Curiosity & Creativity supports change agility and Spirit of Adventure fosters both change and results agility in so far as they benefit from experimentation and the courage to act in first time situations. And Leadership & Responsibility and Confidence to Take Action are all about delivering results.

Notice, too, the importance to learning agility of the ability to "learn from experience" and to "apply".  These are not things that can done reading textbooks or even, perhaps, in a classroom.  If we are to develop the skills necessary to be life-long, hireable-by-anyone learners, then the traditional approaches must give way to much more flexible ones rooted in student voice and our students' real world experiences.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Principal Concern

I really don't know how they do it. Four schools this week in two different states. Four principals. Two high schools, two middle schools. I don't know how these people are standing up. I am not saying that to flatter them or fawn over the role or further their esteem in others' eyes. This is a genuine, honest to goodness intellectual curiosity: I have no idea how principals are doing the job anymore. In my humble estimation, the principalship has become an undoable job. It's a wonder any one lasts a year in the job, never mind the national average of 3-4 years.

In each school I was in, the combination of planned meetings requiring energy and attention (which included attendance at Aspirations Team meetings), and the unscheduled or scheduled at the last minute meetings, which also needed the principal's energy and attention, would have overwhelmed all but the most competent of jugglers. And yet these incredibly busy people found time to sit with student teams and listen to their ideas about how to improve school and worked alongside staff as they sought to improve the 8 Conditions in their buildings. As undoubtedly they considered the email inbox they were going to return to, the bus duties they had yet to find coverage for, the after school meeting at central office about making up for school closings due to weather, the impending testing season, and the parent meeting they had that evening, they sat and listened and participated and gave every indication to every one present that this was every bit as important as everything else.

John, Margaret, Steven, and Judy, you were my Heroes this week. Your energy propels me. I have just one question: When do you sleep????

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Learning Facilitators

I am blogging from the SXSWEdu conference. Wow! Such a wonderful gathering of creative, committed, and passionate educators in one place. I have been hearing many amazing things--mostly being plugged into the conversation happening around student voice. On twitter check out #StuVoice and #studentvoice to catch up.

Highlights include:

  • The Pearson Foundation's announcement of Project MASH: a social network that brings students, educators, and research together in a place that leverages the best of what we know about new pedagogies. Be the source!
  • Being part of a webinar on Student Voice with Zak Malamed, student voice champion, and Adam Ray, of the Pearson Foundation. It was a privilege to be part of an ongoing dialogue dedicated to the expanding movement that is student voice.
  • Learning about Next Lessons from CEO Dion Lim--a website filled with best practices aligned to common core for all grade levels in all subjects.
  • Brainstorming with educators from Eanes ISD in Austin who, knowing they already have a very successful school system, want to take things to yet another, higher level. I was inspired by their willingness to continue to learn and grow despite their 98% college enrollment rate.
  • Meeting Adora Svitlak and Nikhil Goyal, whose videos and insights we share in the field as outstanding examples of the thoughtfulness of young people calling for change. They are not the leaders of tomorrow, they are the leaders of today!
  • Attending a panel discussion with Zak, Nikhil, Adora and four other students. They led an interactive session that drove towards solutions for several of the challenges in education today--including having more young people at SXSWEdu in the future!
At this last session, I met Tom Rooney, Superintendent of the Lindsay Unified School District in California. He didn't sugar coat it or pretend that they weren't still a work in progress at five years into their change efforts, but from the little I heard about LUSD, they get my vote for being on a short, yet growing list of schools that are getting it most right. Visit the website and judge for yourself.

I want to make note of one thing they do that is subtle, but extremely significant and easily adoptable: They have turned away from the term "teachers" and refer instead to "learning facilitators." As someone who loves language and words, I love this shift. I also know it is not mere semantics, but a reflection of an approach to education I believe we all need to accept if schools are going to be engaging and relevant to today's learners. 

In other words, the truth of the matter must become that the only thing that distinguishes the adult learners in a school from the young learners is that the former bear a responsibility for organizing, encouraging, supporting, and resourcing educational experiences. This simple change in words implies that LUSD is not teacher-centered or content-centered, or even student-centered, but learning-centered. It communicates that learning is life-long, that even the most educated among the adults are not finished learning, and that together young people and adults can be partners and co-creators of educational experiences.

Thank you to all whom I encountered at SXSWEdu this week for facilitating my learning!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Predictive Value of Doing Well on Tests

Zero. ICYMI that was the assessment Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google, gave of the value of a student's GPA to predict their ability to succeed at Google. Actually, iThomas Friedman's recent article on How to Get a Job at Google, the word he used was "worthless."  So much for GPA, AP, AYP, SAT, ACT, ETC.

Surely there are other (though maybe not cooler) places to work than Google, but the point of Mr. Friedman's article is the disconnect between what schools focus on and the lessons needed for those seeking jobs today. The role of content knowledge makes the list, but it is 5th of 5 characteristics. In order of importance, he lists them as:
  1. Learning Ability
  2. Emergent Leadership
  3. Humility
  4. Ownership
  5. Expertise
The ability to learn is a desirable commodity in a world where knowledge is easy to come by. Consider this: How would allowing students access to the internet change the kinds of questions you asked on a test or final exam? Whatever ability enables them to search, vet, and then create a compelling or creative argument to answer the question will make them much more employable in a world in which anyone can know anything at anytime.

Emergent leadership is not about the role playing that is being president of a club or captain of team. It is about knowing when to step up because one's particular skills and talents are required to move a project or idea or class or school forward. And similarly when one should sit down to make room for another's talents and skills. Humility, therefore, is also a desirable trait. 

Putting together Emergent Leadership and Humility with Ownership is equivalent to QISA's 7th Condition of Leadership & Responsibility. Students must not only be allowed to make decisions as emergent leaders, but also to accept full responsibility for the decisions they make. These qualities are not personality traits, they are  a set of skills that can be learned and nurtured. 

Apparently, the least important quality Google looks for is expertise. The thing the most time and energy is expended on in schools: Have you mastered math? Have you mastered science? Have you mastered the Great Gatsby? Have you mastered the U.S. Constitution? according to Mr. Bock is the very thing that should take up the least amount of our time and energy.

The take away is this: It's not that traditional measures of success are not at all important; it's that they are not nearly as important as we continue to make them out to be. In perspective, doing well in school--as schools traditionally measure "well"--is fine. However, there are several other more important skills schools should be working on that would serve students better than getting As and Bs. We know how to cultivate Expertise in schools. How do we cultivate Learning Ability, Emergent Leadership in all students, Humility, and a sense of Ownership?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


Anyone who reads this blog (anyone? anyone? Bueller?), knows that I am not a huge fan of bubble tests. They have their place in educational assessment, but that place is a fairly narrow one. It is a far cry from the be-all-and-end-all that they have become as a measure of success at the school, classroom, and individual level. If we really want to know all the "adequate yearly progress" a school makes with its students (and not just their left frontal lobes), we will need to measure many, many more things than reading and math scores. If we really want to know the value a teacher adds over the course of the year, we will need tools that measure engagement and love of reading as much as reading skill level. If we really want to know what a student has learned after a week, a unit, or finally, a year, they will need to make the pudding and we will need to eat it.

"The proof of the pudding is in the eating," as the original saying goes. In other words, the real test of anyone's knowledge is in its demonstration and application, not its merely academic (see meanings 3 and 4) performance on a test. Rather than write an essay, write something worthy of being published in a newspaper or magazine. Rather than read a short story and prove that you have comprehended it by choosing one of four right answers on a standardized test, read a short story and produce a YouTube video of the same themes in a different genre (e.g., if it was sci-fi making it a vampire movie, if it was drama make it comedy, etc.) Number of views can be part of the assessment rubric. Rather than complete a math worksheet for homework, plan, operate, and run a small fundraiser for a local charity.

This is why real world learning holds such promise for the future of education. I have recently been learning about Michael Fullan and Maria Langworthy's New Pedagogies for Deep Learning. This is indeed the direction we need to be heading. Getting out of the school building, both to learn and to prove that one has learned, is a welcome change from the cycle of tests that prove only that you can move on to the next level to take more tests. The proof of the learning is in the doing.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

s NO w Days

The number of school cancellations because of snow and cold across the country seems at an all time high. One district we work with had snow days tacked on to their holiday break and did not have school for a total of three weeks. Even schools in the south have been closed by weather this year. The steady rhythm of the school week has been regularly disrupted each week with a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday off. It's pretty difficult to hit a teaching or learning stride when its. M T W off F off off...

Under all the snow lies a fundamental assumption that needs to be dug out: That learning is something that only takes place in a school building. No school, no learning. But that's a snow-job, right? This same assumption is what makes the summer break a problem and it's what lies behind issues with homework. Somehow we have sent the message that if you are not in school, in a classroom with 25 other students and a teacher; if the bells are not ringing and their are no desks in rows; then the only thing to do is hangout, play video games, or watch TV.

Blended learning is beginning to melt that assumption. Now what we need is a blended learning plan for time off we can't plan for. We need to let students know before the first flake falls that on a school day when there is no school it does not mean there will be no learning. In it's simplest form students can be expected to learn as much as there is to learn about snow and weather and the Polar Vortex. But it is also not out of the realm of possibilities (access to technology would be an obvious concern), that teachers would have an e-learning plan to use the Internet, Skype, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media to interact with students and keep the learning happening.  I am not suggesting a full on 6 hours of teaching and learning, but teachers can plan at home learning experiences that keep up the learning even as the snow comes down.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Olympic Opportunity

We are just 8 days away from the Winter Olympics. How exciting. Human beings at the top of their game testing themselves against one another in a spirit of friendly competition. I have always enjoyed both summer and winter Olympics. Not just because I love sports, but because I love drama. One hundredth of a second can mean the difference between medaling or not. Teenagers competing for the first time; veterans possibly for the last. Stunning. Sometimes scandalous. It's all there.

Which is why it is perfect learning material for your classroom in February. Need numbers to crunch? There will be plenty: From averaging skating scores to calculating the engineering in the bobsled run or the trajectory of a ski jump. Need stuff to read? Besides the blogs and the newspaper columns and magazine articles, there are dozens of biographies and human interest stories surrounding these Olympians and those of the past. Social Studies? We have been reading about the political situation in Russia daily and are hoping for a safe winter games, but what is going on that there is this level of concern? How do different countries choose and prepare their athletes? How do all these countries come together peacefully? What happened when Nazi Germany was host? Which Olympics has the United States boycotted and why? And science?! Do you want physics? Biology? Chemistry? It's all there.

One of the complaints we hear from students all the time is that they see no connection between school and their everyday lives. Given the fact that at least watching the Olympics will be part of most students' everyday lives in the next couple of weeks, teachers have a rare opportunity for material that is both inspiring and engaging. When a student has to investigate the variations in a figure skater's heart rate during competition, comment on a blog in French written by a French Canadian athlete, calculate the best angle for a speed skater to enter a turn, or read and report on the politics surrounding the Jamaican luge! It's all there.

I challenge you to spend the next week designing at least one lesson that connects what your students have to learn because it is based on some mandated rubric or pacing guide and the winter games. Post your ideas in the comments below, on QISA's Facebook page, or tweet it to @qisatweets and we will award gold, silver, and bronze medals for the best ideas. It will all be here.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Shark Zone

A friend of mine has a son in 6th grade. Let's call him Jacques. Bright. Curious. Cautious, but not risk averse. A bit shy, but not withdrawn. The type of middle schooler who takes awhile to warm up to people, but once he does will engage in great conversation.

Recently Jacques was given an independent research project. Something with sharks. In his wheelhouse. His research was thorough and excellent. He actually read books, not just wikipedia! My friend said he went at the project with enthusiasm as well as intellectual wonder. So far so good. No sweat.

Part of the assessment was a formal presentation to his classmates and teachers. Jacques had to dress up. Create a powerpoint. It was video-taped. Not as easy as actually doing the research and writing a report, but doable even for someone a little on the shy side. The internal resources were available, they just had to be mustered. A little perspiration can be good for kids.

But another part of the assessment was a presentation in front of parents. Note, this was not "extra credit." There was no choice or flexibility. This was part of the rubric the teacher had created that would be included in the final grade for the project. A presentation in front of mostly strangers. Nice strangers, no doubt, but people Jacques didn't know. He sweated this big time.

Not every challenge is appropriate for every student. The effective stretching of our students depends upon knowing them well enough to begin from where they are and tug at them with expectations just enough out of reach that they grow. Students--like all of us--have a Comfort Zone, a Challenge Zone, and a Panic Zone. Part of teaching is making sure students do not work only in their Comfort Zone, absolutely. We hear a lot these days about the importance of "grit" in education. I am all for it. But learning cannot take place in the Panic Zone.

In the comfort of the research, Jacques learned about sharks. In the challenge of the classroom presentation, Jacques learned an even more important lesson about himself. In the panic of the seemingly shark-infested parent presentation, through which he fumbled and stumbled and nearly shut down, Jacques learned nothing.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Don't Turn Your Back

One of my favorite things about visiting our schools in the South is how polite the students are.  Today, during our focus groups in South Carolina, the middle school boys I talked with peppered their responses with "Yes, sir"s and "No, sir"s. They shook my hand on the way in and the way out. They looked me in the eye when they answered. They interrupted each other in the excitement to give answers, but never interrupted me, and always stopped talking over each other when I asked them to.

One of the questions I asked about was respect for teachers.  In this particular school, the total in agreement for "Teachers respect students" on their My Voice survey was 43%.  Interestingly, on the My Voice staff survey, the total in agreement for "Students respect me" was 84%.  This gap in perception is actually not atypical.  Teachers perceive more respect from students than students say actually exists.

When I asked the students what respectful behavior towards a teacher looked like, they described the same overt behaviors I experienced:  Being polite, following teacher instructions, not disrupting the class.  When I asked what disrespectful behavior toward a teacher looked like, they described why there is a gap in perception on this issue: Making faces after a teacher leaves, eye rolls when they turn their back, cussing at a teacher under your breath so students can hear but not the teacher. Respect is what happens to a teacher's face, disrespect is what happens behind her back.

I guess that is not so surprising. Besides never turning our back on students, what is to be done? Modeling is a start. Stephen Covey writes about the importance of "Loyalty to those who are not present." How are teachers with that? Another solution is to build relationships with students.  Students are not disrespectful to teachers they believe respect and care about them.  In fact, they report getting on other students who are disrespectful to such teachers.

When students become your allies in correcting unwanted behaviors it no longer matters if your back is turned.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


In the clip below from a 1936 Little Rascals episode, we find Our Gang at recess...

Notice anything familiar? Besides Porky, Spanky, Alfalfa, and Buckwheat, I mean. In 1936 in order to get students to move from one part of the school day to another, a bell rang. To send them to lunch, to get them to move from math to reading, to call them back from recess. Ring-a-ling-a-ling. Early on it was a hand held bell like the one Buckwheat rings. Later they became automated.

Most of the schools I go into still ring a bell. Sometimes it's a buzzer, or a chime, or a soft beep, but the principle is the same. Time to move.

A high school in Montana was having problems with students coming late--late to school, late to their next class, late getting back from lunch. They gathered their student Aspirations Team and asked them what they thought should be done. "Stop ringing the bells," the students said. This was counter-intuitive for the adults. As adults, our solutions would be to ring the bell louder or longer, to put teachers in the hallways to hustle students along, to have some kind of zero-tolerance threshold at the threshold: If you are not through the door frame when the second bell stops ringing you are late! The students said: Stop ringing the bells.

The school tried it for one month to see what would happen. Not ringing the bells virtually eradicated the lateness problem. In fact, most students at that school now arrive early to class, chat with friends or the teacher, get organized, or read a book waiting for class to begin. Every one gets where they are going when they need to get there. Among the few tardies that remain, most are for legitimate reasons.

Why did this work? Because it shifted responsibility for when to get where from an outmoded system to the students and the students rose to the expectation that they should be on time, instead of finding ways to game the outmoded system.

Why is the system outmoded? In 1936 when Spanky and his friends were in school, in 1976 when me and my friends were in school, and even in 1996 when my daughters and their friends were in school, time in a building as sprawling as a school (or a factory or prison...ehem) was not synchronized. The clock in one room had one time, the clock in another another. Some were fast. Some were slow. Some didn't run at all.

Look at the clock on your computer right now. Whatever time it says is exactly that same time for everyone reading this blog right now. Take out your cell phone, what time does it have? Ask someone next to you what time it is on his or her cell phone. I shared this story in a room with 200 people in it and asked them to raise their hands if their mobile device had the same time I called out from mine. They all raised their hands. Mobile devices make time completely synchronized. Not ringing the bells worked because every student in that school had a cell phone or was with someone who did and was willing to be responsible for being on time.

Why are we still ringing the bells?

By the way, what other ideas to students have for solving problems in schools whose roots lie in outdated systems?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Aspirations Dysmorphia

The other day a teacher used an interesting analogy for students who are in the category we refer to as Imagination in our Aspirations Profile. He said they are like someone with a body dysmorphic disorder. He went on to explain how people with this condition look in the mirror and see something that's not really there. They may see themselves as overweight when really they are very thin. They project what they see in their imagination onto to what they see in the mirror, and the result is a kind of disconnect from reality.

Many male students tell us that they want to be professional athletes. Most of those, NFL or NBA. As a sports fan myself, I can see the attraction. What boy doesn't imagine himself catching a pass from Tom Brady or out rebounding LeBron James? The excitement, the fans, the salaries! The reality is that a very small percentage of students who play high school sports wind up in the professional ranks. It's .08% for football and .02% for basketball. The best bet is baseball at .5%.

This brings up an ongoing discussion we have whenever we discuss Aspirations that are, shall we say, lofty. On the one hand we want students to dream big, to feel like "the sky is the limit," and to believe they can become whoever they want to become. On the other hand, we have a responsibility as teachers, guides, and coaches to point out reality and the steps necessary to attain such a goal. Doing the latter without bursting the former is a tricky business.

I am a big fan of connecting as many assignments to a student's dream as possible - biography reports of those who have done well in a particular field, using numbers and statistics from a field of interest in math, social studies assignments related to the field. There is good evidence that such connections make learning more engaging for students. Perhaps another benefit will be a better grounding in reality, discovered by the students themselves. Such grounding might lead them to the actual "doing" that is necessary to make a run at their lofty dreams - or to adjust these dreams to be more in-line with what they are prepared to do to achieve them.