Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Four Reasons to Create a Low Stakes Classroom

© Copyright wfmillar
Toward the end of class on Tuesday, one of my students asked: "we have only one grade on the grade book, is that right?". I stopped for a second, my co-teacher and I have provided individual feedback on assignments to every student and had many other meaningful opportunities to interact and respond informally. At the same time, I had to respond "yes, only one grade." She continued: "I know that you do not care about grades, but we do!"

She is right of course. After so many years of conditioning and signaling through grades, it is unfair of me to expect they will be able to accept this approach. Even more so when they have high stakes in the form of a GPA (for grad school, job search), scholarships and more.

That same evening Justin Olmanson brought up the same feature in a Q & A we both participated in. I have also seen it in many of the classrooms using Minecraft as part of instruction. It seems like we have a much easier time letting go of stakes in informal making tasks (art, shop, Minecraft) than in traditional school ones. So, I wanted to take the opportunity and clarify why I try to create a low-stakes classroom:

1. Honest dialogue. When I ask my students to teach and report about their experiences, I want them to be honest, open, and reflective. Honest dialogue is hard to do in a high-stakes environment. If a successful lesson is a high-stakes yardstick, I am pretty sure that each student would try and spin their lesson in the best possible light (maybe even bend the truth). All their efforts would be to protect themselves instead of reflect on what they learned. In a sense, they would be learning about self-preservation instead of personal growth.

2. Creating cycles of self-improvement. Feedback in a low-stakes environment allows my student to revise and improve their learning products no matter how good they are. High stakes grading shift foci from growth to outside criteria.  A great example is high achieving students who often get very high grades. Once the grades are in they see no reason to go on and improve their performance.

3. Improving performance. There is quite a bit of experimental work showing that high-stakes reduce performance in high cognitive load tasks. At the early stages of their career, my students need to focus on process and procedure as a way to get better.

4. Creativity. Creativity and expertise are closely related. I believe that when expertise level is relatively low, as is the case with students, creativity can happen when the stakes are low as well. In a low-stakes environment failed experiments are acceptable as steps towards expertise and the thrill of creating something new.

Lowering stakes does not mean lowering standards. It means that we allow learners to participate and find their way to reaching and surpassing the standards.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

What the New York Times missed about the teacher sharing economy

A story by Natasha Singer in the New York Times on Sept. 5th focused on the Teachers pay Teachers website. It is not surprising that a business reporter for the NYT would concentrate on a company making money off of sharing. A careful read shows that only a tiny fraction of the teachers on the site make a meaningful amount of money.

In this blog post by David Cutler discusses a concern that I share. What does the site say about teachers who share their work for cash instead of mentoring the next generation of teachers? What does it say about teachers who complain about one size fits all curricula and then turn around and buy lesson plans from someone that does not know anything about their students?

I would like to make a different point, though, the discussion of the sharing economy ignores the much wider phenomena of teachers sharing the products of their work WITHOUT charging anyone. Online platforms allow teachers to share in ways that were not possible before high bandwidth internet connection. For example the web-based quiz platform Kahoot! has over 3.3 million quizzes shared for no cost. Going even further, most of the quizzes on the site have a Creative Commons license that allow other teachers to change them to fit their needs and keep sharing the new results.

The US alone has over 3.5 million k12 teachers. If each one of them posted a few of their best lessons, we could have an incredible repository of lessons for every topic and grade level. Sharing could work even if we chose on the top 10% of teachers. We can monetize the creativity of teachers in a different way by sharing without charging. Sharing can lead to the creation of Open Educational Resources that would allow schools and whole states save on curriculum and use the savings to expand professional development and the reach of technology.

Another radical idea: instead of praising teachers for selling shiny apples from carts to supplement their income, maybe just maybe, we need to pay them well.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Three ways to keep innovative teachers in the classroom

My last post garnered great reactions from many corners. Some pointed out that innovative teachers
are rare while others discussed ways to keep these teachers engaged. These two reactions are not in any way contradictory. We have few, or too few, and we need to make sure they stay in classrooms long enough to have a real impact on their students, colleagues, and school.

While I have no direct research on innovative teachers (would love for one of my students present or future to pick that up!), I am using some of my own experiences, as well as the work on motivation and rationality.

1. Let them innovate. Create a space that teachers who seek to try new ideas can innovate without looking over their shoulders. One such example is the classroom structure one fourth grade teacher created in Bellevue NE. It has to be ok for some classrooms to look and be different as long as learning happens and they meet standards.

2. Challenge teachers. Innovative teachers need to be challenged. They need feedback and honest conversation about what they accomplished. Yes, we need to celebrate their creativity, but we also have to provide tough questions and room to discuss their concerns. Sometimes we celebrate our innovative teachers and miss the fact that they may be less sure of what they are doing than they let on. Moreover, innovative teachers sometimes rush from one innovation to the next without firm results. They need the challenge to do better to think about evidence for learning this challenge will keep them going and improving on existing practice. The challenge needs to be in the format of a low-stakes critical friend group.

3. Let them learn. Innovative teachers seek out professional development. Support their efforts to get the right PD by making sure they have control over their PLN. It can be more formal such as graduate degrees, and conferences or less formal in EdCamps, and Twitter.

If we want to keep innovative teachers in the classroom for a while longer (they will not and should not stay forever) we need to act and provide them space, feedback, and opportunity.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The two emotions that matter when we ask educators to integrate technology

In a recent TechEDGE meeting with teacher educators, we asked everyone to rate their excitement and apprehension about technology integration.

Wherever we go to talk about technology integration, new literacies, and 21st-century learning (overlapping ideas to be sure) we find two emotions: excitement about possibilities and apprehension about being able to keep up with it.

The first finding from all of our encounters is that all educators agree that digital technologies are becoming part of education. It is a process that will not stop nor reverse.

As for the teacher educators that joined us this August? Only 10% were indifferent. The rest 90% were split evenly between the Gung Ho group that was rearing to fearlessly charge ahead, and the more cautious Careful Enthusiasm group that were excited but also concerned.

I like the Careful Enthusiasts, with some encouragement and support they can use technology in ways that can enhance instruction immediately. These are discerning consumers of educational technology that ask hard questions of us the Gung Ho crowd making us think about what we are doing and justifying some of our decisions.

I also wonder if teachers at the edge of the Gung Ho group, the most fearless and excited are those we lose out to industry and new ventures. If so, how can we keep them in the profession innovating inside schools?

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The three things I tell my sons every morning before school

It is a new school year, and my four boys are back to formal learning. Two are in college and do not need a drop-off. But most mornings I drop off Oren (11) to Middle school and Itai (9) to elementary. I try every morning to send a message and say:
Be brilliant, work hard and be a good friend.

1. Be brilliant- for me is about daring to think and create, daring to share original thoughts. I want to encourage my boys to go beyond the minimum, beyond compliance, so school becomes a place of intellectual engagement and original thinking.

2. Work hard- an effort is crucial and regardless of the subject matter we all hit frustrations. The reminder to work hard is to remind my boys that hard work is critical. It is easy to rely on "smart" and things you can do easily and then get discouraged when things are not this easy.

3. Be a good friend- friendship and social interaction are some of the most important things you learn in school. Many of these become lifelong relationships and a pattern for later relationships. Being supportive and yes, nice is critical. Being a good friend is more than having friends it is about the way you interact with everyone around you.

I don't know if my kids hear me or understand what I am saying. I am hopeful though.