Friday, October 29, 2010

Content Standards -- Going Deeper

It's been said that K-12 education standards run a mile wide and an inch deep. Well, Colorado is gearing up to go deep. Along with Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Oklahoma, new Colorado standards include Depth of Knowledge (DOK) indicators, based on the model developed by Norman Webb of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. 

There are 4 levels:

Level 1:  Recall -- recalling facts, definitions, terms and such
Level 2:  Skills and Concepts -- deciding how to approach a question or problem
Level 3:  Strategic Thinking -- explaining, generalizing or connecting ideas
Level 4:  Extended Thinking -- complex reasoning, planning, developing and thinking over an extended period of time 

In her module, Depth of Knowledge: What Does It Mean for Students and Teachers, Pam Lowe explains, "Depth of knowledge is the degree of depth or complexity of knowledge standards and assessments require; this criterion is met if the assessment is as demanding cognitively as the expectations standards are set for students."

DOK is similar to Blooms Taxonomy, but there's greater emphasis on the context, according to Debbie Baughman in her overview. Depth is one of six dimensions for assessments required by the U.S. Department of Education, along with comprehensiveness, content and performance match, emphasis, consistency with achievement standards and clarity for users.  
I really like the idea of deep learning. It implies a level of mastery and understanding, and requires higher-level thinking. AND I worry about what we're asking of our educators. We've seen how high-stakes testing sets up a near-frantic drive to "cover content" so that students will be prepared for the big tests. Sadly, this content coverage often this comes at the expense of other learning opportunities and teachable moments. 

Can we keep all the content, add 21st post-secondary and workforce readiness skills, and go deeper? Maybe we can, but the way we teach and learn will have to change dramatically. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Layers of Learning

Imagine that schools were communities of learning. What would it look like? How would it be different from what we typically do now? My colleague Dixie Good and I have many opportunities to observe and think about learning communities; sadly, most of the communities we observe are not schools. Our experience suggests some thoughts about schools and learning that… well, I don’t think Arne Duncan would approve.

Teacher teams in the St. Vrain school district (Longmont, CO) are embarking on action research projects that explore the effectiveness of various educational technologies: Document cameras; blogs; Google Apps; iPods;… How can they use such tools with their students to create demonstrable impact on what the kids know and can do? In September team leaders participated in a workshop led by action researchers connected with Colorado State University to learn how to guide their respective teams’ projects. 

Consider the layers involved. 
  • Leaders of teacher teams from across the district work in collaborative groupings to design action research questions and devise data collection plans for inquiries they will pursue with their team leader colleagues. 
  • The team leaders are also preparing to guide their school teammates in action research projects. 
  • All of these projects, of course, complement the work of each individual teacher with her own students. 
  • The team leaders are guided by a team of facilitators who, for the most part, are themselves classroom teachers. As they facilitate the team leaders' work, the CSU facilitators are also learning – about their own research questions, for example, and about how to guide professional learners. 
  • Dixie Good and I observe and participate so that we can give evaluative feedback to our colleagues, Michelle Bourgeois and Bud Hunt (who are leading this professional learning process). Our observations and participation help us to learn about action research as well as how people learn.
One of the CSU folks, a classroom teacher, said to Dixie, “I was dead professionally. And then I connected with this group. And then everything about my work became more interesting.”

The discourse of education (even the word “education” itself) is largely about what adults do to/for kids. Instruct. Teach. Close achievement gaps. It evokes an externally imposed, mostly detached view of the learning process. Behaviorism in its most thorough manifestation. That's how we conduct school, but it's not how we learn. Learning is personal and subjective. It happens when the receptors within each of us connect to the stimuli flowing among and around us, prompting us to construct networks of affinity and meaning.

Let me rephrase my opening questions: What if every person in a school were continuously engaged in the work of learning?

New Targets, New Approaches?

In Colorado Springs School District 11, the school board has adopted the ACHIEVE profile of a high school graduate. It’s D11’s take on the traits and skills necessary for a person to thrive in the 21st century. 

The profile is a good target. C21L worked with the district on refining the ACHIEVE model and thinking about ways to infuse it into the current system. Together with district leaders we wondered:
  • How would students know where they stand in relation to the ideal?
  • How would students find opportunities to progress? 
  • How would they and their teachers measure their progress? 
These are important questions to ask and ask often as we move toward a greater emphasis on skills-based learning. Educators across the state are asking similar questions about the new Colorado Model Content Standards, which now include 21st century skills and postsecondary workforce readiness skills. 

We need guidance, models, research on effective methods, and, perhaps most importantly, a culture of practice that supports the development of these skills. 

Monday, October 18, 2010

Social Networks for Professional Learning

A few weeks ago, I listened to a presentation by Colorado 3rd grade teacher Terri Reh on how she uses social network tools for professional learning. This is an area in which I am developmentally delayed, and her narrative was both inspirational and informative for me. Below are my notes from that presentation, which she entitled “Lurk and Learn.” The notes are as much in Terri’s voice as I could reproduce by typing them during her talk. (Yes, I should be recording such talks. One step at a time…) Quotes indicate a 90% probability that I have her exact words.

Lurk and Learn — Terri Reh
Wouldn’t it be great if you could develop your own professional learning network from the comfort of your own couch?

Blogs –
You pick one that resonates, then lurk. Just watch it. Eventually, that one or some other, you’ll want to respond. I once posted something on my Facebook page that responded to one person’s blog. Since 2003, over 70 million blogs have been created. It’s news that appeals to a small number of high-interest audiences.

Pointing is what people do. It builds relationships with other people who have same interests. They read and quote each other. (Example: One teacher in the audience has a blog about being a “soccer dad”. He has about 50 followers.)
Examples of blogs
·   Adrian Bruce (The Teacher Toolbox) – great middle school blog
·   It’s Not All Flowers and Sausages — the humor of being a teacher)
·   Spencer’s Scratch Pad — “It’s thick and deep.” His mantra is, “I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.”

“I went to the ISTE national conference in June. Now I have a professional learning network of about 120 people – principals, teachers,…”

Twitter —
“I’m A-D-D., and I know it. But you can limit yourself. I don’t use Twitter for personal stuff, just professional. I use Facebook for personal stuff.”
“Someone told me that Facebook is for people you went to school with, and Twitter is for people you wish you had gone to school with.”
“I’m following selected groups – like ISTE10. I run Twitter while I’m grading, just let it flow. Like the other day, another teacher and I were talking about teaching author’s purpose. So I posted a question about how to teach that to the TweetDeck, and within two hours I got some great ideas. I used it during ISTE to get comments from people in multiple sessions while I was in a session myself. I saw a post: If WWI took place in a bar, and all the players were in a bar scene, then… I thought it was hilarious and a great characterization, so I sent it to a middle school social studies teacher.”

“Hashtags in Twitter represent a group of people or an idea. Whenever you post to Twitter, you end it with a pound sign tag; that’s the hashtag that identifies the group or idea under which your post goes.” Like #ISTE10, #Edchat (which has an hour-long Twitter conversation once a month), #Elemchat,

Some things I have found through the TweetDeck:
·       Wikis for collaboration — like SkypeForEducators For instance, a teacher in Pennsylvania was looking for books to use for e-read-alouds. She got tons of suggestions, and comments on suggestions. “She and I decided to read it [a read-aloud] together and collaborate in our two classrooms.” I also found a wiki page for collaborating with others on using VoiceThread.
·       Blogs for teaching strategies and collaboration

An interesting thing is that you start following a group on a Twitter or blog, then these people seek you out at a conference. Everyone wants to put a face to a name. “Being a part of some group, whether you tweet or whether you blog, is a great way to be connected with people. I have three different collaborations going, none of them in Colorado. It’s not hard, and it’s not time-consuming.”

Terri’s presentation has me thinking. So, imagine that you’re working in a virtual office. Facebook and Twitter are the environment in which you’re working. You’re still working at your own desk in your own space, and other people are working in their spaces. But you and they are also in an office, talking to each other, passing by,… You exchange greetings, maybe chat, maybe chat about work, maybe have an extended conversation about work. I’m used to that in the face-to-face environment. I just need to apply that to the virtual environment.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Communities of Softball

On Wednesday this week I played my last game of softball with the Lost Boyz. In case you missed the reports on ESPN, the Lost Boyz have been my team for the past 14 years. We play seven months of each year (March through October) in a highly competitive double-header league, and we are very good. I decided that it was time for me to, well, retire. I’m by far the oldest guy on the team, and the team needs to get younger to stay competitive. And I don’t want to be The Old Guy that everyone tolerates because, y’know, he’s always been there. Competitive athletics doesn’t really have a place for that.

By now,  you’re thinking what the hell does this have to do with 21st century learning? Probably not much. But I wanted to write something about it.

I’ve almost outgrown competitiveness. I still get caught up in the desire to Be the Best at whatever… softball; golf; thinking; Scrabble; Sudoku… But, mostly, I recognize the symptoms early and go to a better self. I focus on excellence of execution, on appreciation of the comradely opponent, on the now of the experience — all that kinder, gentler stuff. With the Lost Boyz, I’ve come to focus on the brotherhood we create. A bunch of rapscallions who come together once a week to play games. In that manly way that men do, we share community. We continually make our disparate selves into a team.

Some of the most important lessons of my life have come through being with these teammates. Most of them about balance — competition and community; striving and relaxing; pushing and accepting; execution and play. I’ve learned mostly by having to adjust from being tipped too far in one direction (you’ll never guess which way) and by, way too often, being a major pain in the butt for my teammates. For the most part, they have been lovingly tolerant of me, in a jocular brotherly way. And I have learned. More importantly, I have experienced, repeatedly, the great joy of being in their company.

Maybe it’s just the mood I’m in, or my advancing age. But I’m believing more and more that what matters most in a learning community is the community. The learning is this extraordinary, challenging, often exhilarating thing we do. It matters a lot. It keeps us growing and flourishing. But the community is who we are. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Public Education -- Alive & Evolving

Rumors about the death and malingering of public education are largely exaggerated. Great things going on in many public schools.* I'm fortunate to be able to visit classrooms around Colorado, and observe teachers and administrators working and learning from each other. What I see is an amazing amount of professionalism, creativity and innovation. (Admittedly, there's mediocrity and bureaucratic fumbling at certain levels too, but that's for another post.)

For all the hand-wringing about education, the U.S. education system overall is doing better than ever — graduating more students, sending more to college, and ramping up the sheer volume of content learned in pre-K through grade 12. To be sure, we can do better, especially with marginalized or disadvantaged students. The industrial model we have been using to organize education is outdated. The shift to a newer, more individualized delivery system is a massive undertaking. District and school change is a slow and poorly understood process, but it is happening. C21L is cataloguing some of that change through the Promising Practices video work.

Recent media coverage about home schooling prompted a reporter recently to ask me if "people are fed up with public education." Some people are indeed, but I am very optimistic about the future of public education, and most Americans feel the same way. In a national survey by Education Next, 43 percent of adults surveyed give the schools in their own community an A or a B, 38 percent assign a C, and 18 percent give a D or F. The ratings are somewhat less favorable among African Americans and Latinos, for good reason — schools are less successful with those students. Even so, most people tend to think the schools their kids attend are good to great. It's those 'other' schools that are doing a poor job.

The media are quick to sound the alarm that schools are doing miserably. In large part, it comes from the politician's playbook -- loudly lament the poor quality of one of government's most important investments and promise to do something about it. For all its flaws, education is the single most important lifeline to pull people out of poverty, and it's our greatest economic engine.

I'm definitely in favor of transforming education organizations toward being more responsive to the needs of individual learners (see Digital Game Changers). I'd be thrilled to see a greater focus on helping students acquire relevant skills for 21st century life, and less emphasis on content coverage. And I'm confident we are moving in the right direction, v-e-r-y slowly.

* For more on this, look at the post by Nancy Flanagan in "The Answer Sheet" blog of the Washington Post.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Networking for Organizational Learning

In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande argues that the complexity of human undertakings can be managed more effectively through the use of (you guessed it) checklists. No, really. And he makes an excellent case.

First, he points out that “[T]he volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably. Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us.” (Checklist Manifesto, p. 13) Gawande says that checklists enable us to take advantage of our complex knowledge, rather than get buried under it. Checklists ensure that we follow essential procedures and communicate effectively with colleagues (forging teams).

Gawande presents compelling examples. Most of these come from medicine, his field of practice, where simple procedural checklists (like making sure that physicians have put on their masks before cutting into patients) have literally saved lives. But the stories from outside medicine are especially interesting. For instance, Gawande describes how employees of Wal-Mart responded more effectively to Hurricane Katrina than FEMA did (pp. 73-78). Top level Wal-Mart executives authorized New Orleans employees to “Make the best that you can with the information that’s available to you at the time, and, above all, do the right thing.” According to a case study from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the response by the locals was swift, imaginative, and effective. Gawande concludes from such examples (not all of them dealing with crises) that 
"under conditions of true complexity — where the knowledge required exceeds that of any individual and unpredictability reigns — efforts to dictate every step from the center will fail. People need room to act and adapt. Yet they cannot succeed as isolated individuals either — that is anarchy. Instead, they require a seemingly contradictory mix of freedom and expectation — expectation to coordinate, for example, and also to measure progress toward common goals." (Checklist Manifesto, p. 79)
Complex environments and challenges require us to “balance freedom and discipline, craft and protocol, specialized ability and group collaboration.” Checklists support this dance of virtues by making sure that things don’t get overlooked, of course, but also (and, methinks, more importantly) by making sure that “people talk and coordinate and accept responsibility while nonetheless being left the power to manage the nuances and unpredictablities the best they know how.” (p. 79)

The first aspect everyone knows. The grocery list. The ToDo list. But the second aspect — talking, coordinating, sharing responsibility, individualizing response,…? That needs some thought. How do we have that kind of talk?

My colleague Dixie Good and I are the evaluators for the Digital Learning Collaborative in St. Vrain School District, Colorado. Excellently facilitated by Instructional Technology Coordinators Michelle Bourgeois and Bud Hunt, building-based teams of teachers (4 to a team, 35 teams in all) are learning how to use edtech to promote powerful learning for their students. (Bud and Michelle provide valuable ongoing commentary about the DLC in the district Instructional Technology blog.) The best part (IMHO) of the DLC? The teachers are learning, or re-learning, how to learn. How to be teammates. How to communicate within their own team and across the DLC network. How to think about learning. What Will Richardson, among others, refers to as “network literacy”.

What does this have to do with Gawande’s checklists? Everything.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Learning In and For the 21st Century

A couple of weeks ago I attended/observed an excellent daylong professional learning day at Flagstaff Academy, a charter K8 in Longmont, Colorado. The title for the day was “EdTech 2010: Filling in the GApps.” Session topics included how to use GoogleDocs, how to use Google Forms, how to create a class website (on, you guessed it, Google Sites), and how to use Twitter and blogs to participate in professional learning networks. In the afternoon keynote address a first grade teacher described her year of learning how to integrate technology into the classroom. She provided a really helpful narrative about developing a “Take Your Teacher Home” iPod program for her students, as well as her use of iPods to help kids work on vocabulary and reading proficiency. All great stuff.

More than once during the day I heard these uses of educational technology referred to as 21st century learning. And, as such comments always do, these made me wonder, Is this 21st century learning? My answer has been changing over the years, and no doubt will continue to do so. But here’s my thinking now (12:32 p.m., MDT, 10/11/10):

We’re really talking about two related, overlapping, but distinct concepts — learning in the 21st century and learning for the 21st century.
• Learning in is about modality – using 21st century tools, media, and cultural patterns to provide learning experiences. Digital manipulatives on the InterWrite Board, students working the manipulatives on the portable tablet. Fishbowl literary discussion, with the outer circle Tweeting about what the inner circle is saying. Video Skype Q&A with scientists in Antarctica. ePals in Afghanistan.
• Learning for is about targets – aiming at knowledge that’s essential for thriving in this century (the Information Age, or Conceptual Age, or CyberAge, or Digital Age, or Age Age, whatever…). Student teams in World Languages create and maintain the website for a Hmong community. Math students present a proposed skate park design to the city council. An international robotics competition.

Just to be clear. These aren’t mutually exclusive learning processes; in fact, they’re often mutually reinforcing (though not always and not inherently). Both may yield powerful, valuable learning, depending on the quality of the instructional design. It’s just important to know which is which, since learning in strategies, however compelling, may not actually help students (or teachers) prepare to thrive in the 21st century.

So, what about that overlapping area where the learning is both in and for? How about we work on using the tools and transforming the purposes for which we use them?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Digital Game Changers

Recently a reporter from Courier-Life Publications in Brooklyn, NY, asked me some questions about my views on the future of education. She had run across my paper, "Future Trends Affecting Education," that I'd written for Education Commission of the States some years back. I'll share my thoughts in several posts.

What are some of the main changes you see happening in education and why?
We are certainly seeing education opportunities multiplying. Online education is one of several forces expanding the options for learners enormously, and it is "disruptive" as Clayton Christensen et al describe in Disrupting Class, in the sense that it is spurring educators and policymakers to re-think the model for public education. It's exciting to see school districts using online and blended learning to supplement classroom activities or replace the traditional classroom if the student needs such an option. Jefferson County Schools in Colorado presents an interesting model in that the superintendent is in front of this blended learning approach and as such, the level of inter-departmental cooperation on this is very high. In many large districts, the technologists, online learning folks, the curriculum and instruction specialists, and the assessment people operate in separate worlds. In Jeffco, they are collaborating to bring more and varied learning opportunities, including a hybrid (or blended learning) high school and extensive offerings in its Virtual Academy. This sort of expansion in options is good news for learners!

Through Colorado Online Learning and other providers, students in rural Colorado now have access to classes and teachers that can be hard to come by in resource-scarce areas. For example, students in remote areas can take classes in Mandarin Chinese or Latin, study AP physics, and earn dual credit / college credit for their high school courses. Online learning opportunities go a long way to take the student's zip code out of the access-to-quality-education equation.

School districts compete for students much more so now than they have in the past. Charter schools, magnet schools, and schools within schools are among the many choices available to students and parents searching for learning experiences that fit best with their interests and learning styles.

At the Council on 21st Century Learning, we are excited to see teachers collaborating and using digital tools to work with peers, as well as to provide similar learning experiences to their students. Teachers in the Digital Learning Collaborative in Longmont's St. Vrain Valley School District are embarking on a year of action research to test the effects of various tech tools on student learning. These new ways of connecting to people, ideas and content are just beginning to take hold, and they are game changers. If you have a choice (and of course you do), you want your child to be learning from people who are active learners themselves, and who explore new ways of learning and collaborating.

We are seeing the "content is king" mentality shift toward a new focus on students acquiring essential skills, like those espoused by The Partnership for 21st Century Skills. In Colorado, new state standards call for incorporating 21st century, postsecondary and workforce readiness skills. (By the way, no one really knows how to teach or measure these skills yet, but we're on the right track.) These are all encouraging signs.

The single most exciting development I'm seeing -- and it's directly related to the trends cited above -- is the growing ability and willingness to individualize learning. This is a huge and much-needed shift, one that is slowly but slowly taking hold.