How might we co-create a lexicon of learning to empower our students?

Do students use the same words you use to talk about their learning? Are the words you use as an educator reserved for conversations about students or are the words you use for conversations with students?

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How might we create a lexicon for learning that invites our students in? How might we find words to include students implicitly in the process of learning rather than as something done to them and for them but not always of them? How might we move to words that explore learning as something not just done at school for 5 hours a day but a stance to take for life? How might we co-create a language that explores the emotions, depths, and connections of learning? How might we find words to use not about students but for students? What words might we use not only to describe students but to be used by students in the service of their learning?

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I am wondering if we might consider….

  • the design of learning spaces, pathways and experiences in place of linear and one time only lessons and lesson plans.
  • talking about learning pathways (with multiple entry points) instead of one time activities or worksheets to complete.
  • creating environments of agency rather than policies of accountability.
  • using the words “invite you” and “you could do” with students instead of “you must do” and “you have to.”
  • talking about being inspired rather than about being on task.
  • imagining and exploring what students need instead of listing what work is required.
  • asking students what they see, feel, hear, imagine and dream rather than only asking what they think.
  • starting from empathy for our students rather than exclusively from the learning outcomes.
  • creating opportunities for students to celebrate their learning rather than only creating summative assessments to be given (tests and quizzes).
  • inviting students to collect artifacts of their learning instead of doing formative assessments to students.
  • nurturing creativity instead of always pushing productivity.
  • inviting students to share their learning journeys rather than describing learning with a spreadsheet.
  • asking students to create stories to tell rather than give them notes to copy.
  • inviting students to do work that matters instead of work for marks.
  • referring to ourselves as “learners in chief” or “lead learners” instead of exclusively “teachers.”
  • asking students what they do well already before telling students what they must do.

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What words or phrases might you consider changing? What stance do the words you currently use represent? What words work well and hold meaning for both for you and for your students? What words do your students use that you don’t when talking about their learning?

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How might we co-create a lexicon of learning to empower our students?

Assessment in a time of abundance

push

“Never push a loyal person to the point where they no longer care”

I clearly remember a staff meeting from my first year of teaching. The discussion was “lates.” Our principal suggested the “have a quiz at the start of class” strategy to hold kids accountable. This was brilliant! We had curriculum to deliver or push at our students and a fixed amount of time in which to push said curriculum at them. We needed kids in their seats. Period.

Just in case curriculum delivered via push

When I began teaching content was bound by textbooks and the notes I gave in class. It was a time of information scarcity with limited opportunities to expose students to the knowledge pieces they might need in the future. As such, we relied on practices to push students to where the just in case curriculum could be delivered to them. Assessment was used to push students to the just in case curriculum. Assessment was used to determine the success of pushing the just in case curriculum at students. Assessment allowed students (and the system) to demonstrate the successful acquirement of the just in case curriculum and readiness for further investment of the limited resources. In a time of scarcity, procurement of limited resources was a requirement for further investment. Standardized common assessments allowed us to quickly determine who should move on to the next level of investment.

Scarcity shaped our present day assessment tools

Quizzes held students accountable to the knowledge pieces they might need for the test. Tests held them accountable to the just in case pieces they might need for the final exam. And so on.
In a time of scarcity it was not wise to invest in understanding or synthesizing until students indicated (through our assessment tools) mastery of the just in case curriculum (that would not be available to them later).
Fill in the blank worksheets, non-original assigned work, work with time penalty, all created in a time when the itty-bitty knowledge pieces might prove useful in the future.

Reconsider assessment tools designed for just in case and scarcity

Almost 30 years later the textbook and my notes are now the least relevant sources on content. The abundance of information is mind-boggling to say the least. My students show up with encyclopedias in their pockets, experts at their fingertips and the potential of networks waiting to be tapped.

Yet…the assessment landscape of middle and high schools remains unchanged.

The majority of the assessment tools used in high school today were designed to measure mastery of a just in case curriculum pushed at students. Homework asking students to answer already answered questions, in order to copy a line of thinking already thought. Quizzes designed to hold students accountable to a predetermined pathway of just in case content acquisition. Final exams designed to measure the amount of just in case curriculum in the student’s mind (all be it only temporarily), to determine whether they should move to the next level of the pyramid scheme.

Do these tools meet the needs of our students in this time of abundance?

Just in time and pull

In a time of abundance students need skills to pull the knowledge pieces just in time. Projects solving real and authentic problems create the pull and in turn students pull as needed. Students create the need to knows, the just in time schema, through the problems and puzzles they are trying to solve.

Problems, real and authentic need to pull students in. Students need to pull information and knowledge just in time to solve problems and create answers. Students need to be made responsible (rather than held accountable) with the skills, the opportunities, the know-how to pull the information they need, when they need it. Students need to do the pulling.

Holding students accountable to something no longer valuable devalues the system

The steps of mitosis, organelles of a cell, states of matter, dates of the world wars still matter. They do, of course they do. But they matter in context. In context of solving a worthy problem, in struggling with a dilemma, in writing a piece to understand ourselves, in creating a movie, etc.

But knowledge pieces lying in an extracted heap and pushed at students. Valueless. Completely valueless.
Pushing these knowledge pieces is no longer the why of school.

Instead of wondering how we can hold students accountable, shouldn’t we be wondering how we can make them responsible for finding and solving worthy problems?
Instead of designing assessments to validate our ability to push curriculum at our students shouldn’t we be wondering how to help student assess what pieces of content they need?
Instead of trapping students in a quagmire of knowledge pieces shouldn’t we be providing them with the skills to find and access the knowledge pieces when they need to find them in context?

Our challenge in this time of abundance is to create an environment that pulls students in. Not one that pushes them out.

How do you talk assessment?

“The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to a student but goes on inside students…
Changing assessment at this level should be the most important assessment goal of every school.
How do we get inside students’ heads and turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort.”

Ron Berger

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Trying to change assessment practices in your classroom? Where do you start? How to begin?

Part of changing my assessment practice was driven by altering the words I used with students. When I first embarked on this change, I was intentional and purposeful with “assessment talk.” Like learning a new language, I had to stop and think rather than reflexively rely on words I had used in the past. I found the intentional and consistent use of these words over several months helped to shift both my mind-set and students’.

Previously, my “assessment talk” had consisted of numbers on a spreadsheet, printed up, neatly tacked on the classroom wall and emailed to students and parents. I saw numbers as unemotional, objective and transparent. I believed sharing numbers frequently made me an effective teacher. Over time I realized I had blurred together assessment (which comes from the Latin assessus meaning to sit besideand evaluation. Regretfully, the predominant use of numbers to talk assessment, did not help students learn at all. Numbers signaled the learning as done and the numeric calculation was my evaluation of it. Numbers indicated a finality which made the focus of class culture centered around how to collect of points…rather than on understanding, exploring and unpacking the cognitive processes occurring for and inside each student. To explore learning with students, numbers had to be removed from the everyday conversations and I had to find simple direct words to signal this shift.

I now realize my practice of using numbers to talk assessment prevented, rather than encouraged, meaningful dialogue about student learning. Evaluation of the student learning had to happen later in the learning journey (when students were ready) after a significant amount assessment. But how to talk assessment? What words could replace the numbers I had grown dependent on? I had to find them. I had to practice them. I had to learn a new language to talk assessment with students

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Below are some of my favorite catch phrases and convo snippets:

1. This is not for marks…it is for learning.
Student’s query to any activity is “Is it for marks?” Students use this question to decide on where to focus their efforts. To shift their focus to learning strategies rather than on point accumulation strategies, activities need to be about learning and in the service of student learning … choose to do these activities in the service of your learning not in the name compliance and playing school.

2. YET…
When a student says: “I am not good at writing, reading, graphing.” Offer the simple word, yet, to the end of their fixed mindset sentence to change it to a growth mindset one (Watch Carol Dweck’s short video on yet here).

3. Explain to me how you think your learning is going in this unit, topic, or semester.
If I had a dollar for every “What is my mark?” question I have heard I would be a rich woman! Every time a student asked me this question I had to clearly put it back on them. They had to be able to talk about and describe how the course was going for them and if they couldn’t explain this, then we had to spend more time talking about their learning (this is not to say I withheld marks, it is to say evaluation has to come when it is relevant and useful to do so).

4. Are you ready to show me what you know/understand? When do you think you can be ready to demonstrate your understanding? How can I help you get there?
Many struggling students are not willing to engage; it is too risky to try only to fail yet again. Allowing students decide when they are ready to be evaluated removes the stress and game playing that goes along with avoiding it.

5. What does quality…writing, presentation, conclusion, lab design, questioning…look like, sound like, and feel like?
Students need to recognize what quality looks like, feels like and sounds out.  Understanding quality comes from experiencing the process without fear of  being penalized for not being at quality yet. Students need to know they will get another chance or opportunity, they need to know they have time to grow and develop towards quality.

6. Show me your evidence for/of your learning.
I recognize my learning  when I develop a mental picture or story about of a concept or idea. When I can explain or map out this picture, I feel like I have done some learning. The mental picture is my evidence, the tracks of my thinking. Students need to make tracks of their thinking in their own way and have a chance to talk about this process. Learning is not a set copied teacher notes, or a set of worksheets they mechanically and thoughtlessly filled in.

7. Show me how you figured it out.
Asking students to unpack their thinking, makes learning about what is going on in their brains, not something a teacher does or does not do. 

8. What is your plan to get there?
Many students are uncertain how to navigate to quality. Providing them opportunities to make and talk about specific actions portrays learning not as accidental (or just for gifted people) but requires strategies, habits, and specific situations. Many variables contribute to learning. Students need to know and decide what variables they need to support their learning.

9.  Let me know when you are ready for feedback.
Having the opportunity and time to do quality work is intrinsically satisfying. Quality work is not work done by gifted students but by students who have the gift of time with useful and specific feedback.

10. What do you notice about your brain when….you get confused, you feel confident, you are engaged, you are make sense of the problem.
Talking about what goes on inside our brains, invites students to connect with the mental process they are experiencing.  Learning is a process going on actively inside of them rather than something passively happening to them.

What are your fav words or phrases to use with students? What words have shifted your mindset and invited students to explore their learning as a journey rather than a destination?

Working as team destroyed me.

“As knowledge becomes networked, the smartest person in the room isn’t the person standing at the front lecturing us, and isn’t the collective wisdom of those in the room. The smartest person in the room is the room itself: the network that joins the people and ideas in the room, and connects to those outside of it… Knowledge is becoming inextricable from – literally unthinkable without – the network that enables it.” 

 David Weinberger

I transitioned this fall to our district’s Instructional Leadership Team which consists of 6 teachers and our principal. Previously, I have thought of myself as collaborative…yet, I am not sure if I would have called myself a team player, or if in fact, I understood what “team player” really implied or entailed. To be honest (and honesty is one of the main reasons I write here) I am not sure if I fully believed a “team approach” was effective or necessary.

Collaborative, embedded and responsive work with teachers in a continuous and exquisitely personalized cycle of co-teaching, co-teaching and co-learning…is new. In the past, teachers were meant to figure it out…by ourselves. Alone.

The steep grind up the first 90 days has worn down aspects of me and to healthy extents, I have had to let go of my ego, my expertise, and my confidence. In its place I have had to trust our vision, our work and our inter-contentedness as team…it has scared the pants off me. I do intentionally seek change for its vital role in maintaining flexibility and responsiveness to life, but (you heard it coming) I did not fully anticipate the feeling of loss in giving up my egocentric persona at work. Many “me treads” had to be worn off; burly treads are only useful in very specific terrains!

I don’t want to be a me-less, ego-less drone in a state of group think. No. It is a matter of willingly and knowingly standing up on the proverbial table, crossing my arms as I turn around and fall backwards into team. Completely.

I trust. Completely. I sink in. Completely. I co-create our vision. Completely.

Working as team has destroyed:

1. My “what’s in it for me” mindset:  As team, I see my choices beyond simply what’s in it for me. I look up to see how my choices impact and play out for others. I look beyond the small gains and out, towards a more long-term stability of “we.”

2. Working the veneer: In a team, there is not much you can “hide”. You cannot polish up the surface and be good to go. To create a shine requires of me to be solid and consistent throughout.

3. The burn out fluctuations: Alone, I gauged my commitments and energies for myself, by myself. When I got tired or overwhelmed, oh well. In a team I see how my ability or inability to create a sustainable balance directly impacts others.

4. The cloudy mirror: Alone, it was easy to look in a cloudy mirror. Together, the mirror needs to be clear, I see myself mirrored in others. I see how the ripples of my moods, thoughts and feelings impact, very directly, the team.

5. A protective over confidence: Alone, I worked to maintain a stance of expert. Together as team, not one of us is expert. We together create a collective, inter-connected, and inter-dependent expertise. 

I still miss the sharpness of me, the brightness of 100% me…I am sinking into the depth, comfort and shared wisdom of team.

When you lose your way…

There are times, there will be times, or maybe there have been times already…when you lose your way.

You may stumble and fall. Briefly. And be able to pick yourself right back up again.

There may be other times, when, seemingly out of the blue. You crack. The veneer you hold in place opens and you, raw sewage comes spewing out.

Today. I lost my way. I fell down and was not able to pick myself up.
I have been struggling with the transition to my new job. Trying to immerse myself with wholehearted commitment and unbridled abandon. I have been trying to find a pace to fall into. And to a certain extent this has worked.

Except.

I am having a hard letting go. Letting go and walking away. I know it is all very tangled up; the most tangled and entangled balls of wool, you probably would throw them away and start fresh. It would be easier. What is of my own making? What is simply my ego in need of validation? What is fear of not being needed? What is just normal transitional angst?  What is self perpetuated? I don’t know and I can’t really tell anymore. I just know today it all came pouring out, a deluge of grief for what I have left.

Behind.

Luckily. I work with good people. Really, really good people, who you can crack in front off and they open up their arms.

When you lose your way, there is only one way to get found again.

And this is the hardest step.

You have to admit your lost.

Can we quantify learning?

“The problem with making an extrinsic reward the only destination that matters is that some people will choose the quickest route there, even if it means taking the low road. Indeed, most of the scandals and misbehavior that have seemed endemic to modern life involve shortcuts.”
― Daniel H. PinkDrive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Last year I had 2 pivotal experiences: the first related to my own learning and the second to the learning of students I was working with.

In January 2013 I began, with 1000’s of other learners from around the world, #etmooc. I won’t call it a course because it wasn’t. It was a strange and fabulous journey. For a start, there were no specific goals to the event. Other people also thought it unusual as evidenced by this Tweet:

We were invited to create and declare publicly our own. Unusual (for me) but OK. I would give it a try and trust this seemingly ambiguous learning process. At the start, the wide open empty black space ahead gave me anxiety. Literally. I felt as a fish on the dock; floundering to survive in an unnatural environment. I floundered on and through.

There was no grand end or culminating moment of achievement. No certificate, no exam. In fact, it was…quiet.

Until.

Something happened, something shifted below and within. A massive boulder, that was lodged between me as a pseudo-learner (primed to follow instructions, take notes, please others, meet expectations) and the authentic learner from my childhood, moved. The trapped forgotten learner slowly but determinedly seeped out, as smoke might, through this narrow but open space. At first, she was faint, transparent and vacuous, not definable or consistent, a friendly ghost who haunted occasionally. Slowly, she grew bones, skin, a heart and became a fully embodied person…again. Re-connected to the flow of learning from long ago; joyful, no questions asked, intoxicatingly open…

The black faded to brilliant colours. The quiet tuned to a loud exuberant symphony. My fear devoured by a ferocious insatiable appetite.

Everything toppled upside down.

Simultaneously to this personal renaissance, I was working with a group of students in a non-traditional way. We meet when and how we could. It was sporadic. We spent a lot of time in conversation about learning. Again unusual, but…Ok. During times apart we Google doc-ed, texted and Facebook messaged in groups. And of course some students were more involved than others. But what emerged was a very peculiar thing; I saw students begin to take up topics and projects on their own and of their own choosing. I began to see them differentiate themselves for themselves. For example one group took it upon themselves to write a poem and turn it into a video…over the summer.  Another took it upon herself to raise funds and sign up for a 2 week leadership camp.  I saw students who wanted to continue to learn, continue to connect and continue to make meaning for themselves but together. Strange, strange, very strange. Over the summer students contacted me to ask if we could continue to work on our plans and projects yet “the course” had ended in June. This fall students asked if we could meet on Sundays to continue to co-construct our understanding around our work on digital leadership, citizenship and learning.

____________________________

Meanwhile.

We rip learning, with its long rooted tendrils, still growing, tentative and twined, and clinically drop it on our stark metal scales to measure and quantify it without a glance upwards into the soul of who it belongs to.  We then haphazardly slap a number on it, as a bar of soap gets stickered with a price tag at the dollar store.  The heaving disembodied mound is returned to the owner: “Here, here, here is your learning, back.”

65%

Do we really wonder why, then, the person who gave birth of themselves, of their humanness…do not want it back?

Do not rush to put this ripped, torn and damaged piece of them, back into to their own schema?

When we have the audacity (and I did) to tell students that this process will in fact help them in the future, but meanwhile, they see their souls leaking outwards, a visible puddle, on the floor. And they hear the crushing sound of their own curiosity being ground in gears of the system. Are we not telling them, don’t trust yourself, your inner voice, don’t listen to who you know you are and who you want to be. Instead rely on…us.
The boulder. Rolls into place. The passage closed and blocked. Slowly, we forget. Slowly the subterranean learner is asphyxiated and becomes comatose.

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While it may be possible to quantify a course, a laundry list of items to “learn”, a finite set of skills, that end, are finite, are helpful externally to the person (like crutches may help you with a broken leg) to maneuver the system….

I wonder with increasing uncertainty and frequency: can quantify learning?

Instead learning:

  • Is created within space and the opportunity to choose.
  • Is something vital, integrated and contextualized within being human.
  • Is not just something reserved for “geeks” but as normal, essential and integral to life as breathing.
  • Is not containable to books, institutions, courses or academics.
  • Has a language that is owned and created by the learner.
  • Is vastly complicated and marbled throughout our humanness, connected and influenced by our emotions, our experiences, our dreams, beyond and outside of anything that can be quantified.

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“… the human animal is a learning animal; we like to learn; we are good at it; we don’t need to be shown how or made to do it. What kills the processes are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it.”

                                                John Holt

 

 

What happens when…

what_happens

Shared on Flickr by Toni F. Mestres

Students come to school to check Facebook and go home to learn?

The structures meant to enable in fact block?

Students love to learn but hate being taught?

Twitter is a more responsive teacher?

The connections happen in spaces that are banned in school?

Students band together to write their own textbook in a Google doc, while the outdated textbook is used in class?

The mandated channels are empty and the flow is out in the open?

Students stay up late to work on their interests and come to school to rest?

Students see school as corrupt but are told to conform?

The top down is vapid and the flattened is full?

Students have much to say but no voice?

Activities that empower are seen as antisocial?

Students stop asking questions to buy right answers?

Talents are left to rot, while compliance is gilded?

Student confuse learning with hoop jumping?

Our informal learning becomes more vital than our formal?

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What happens???