The Happiness Budget Loop

Image Credit: Lorenabuena
All schools want happy students. It makes sense. Happy students mean easier days for everyone involved. Less fights, less distractions, better performance. As I thought about this I realized the following:
  1. Schools want their students to be happy
  2. Schools need money to provide those happy things
  3. Schools budgets are tied to testing results
  4. Schools cut non-essentials in order to focus on tested subjects to raise scores/budgets
  5. Students are unhappy at school
  6. Test scores go down
  7. Schools loose money
  8. Schools cannot make student happy
  9. Back to Step 1
The worst of it is that this is what people were saying when NCLB was first introduced. The educators said this would happen. They were ignored. They said that students and schools would suffer. They were ignored. Now American students, while improving are being outpaced by students in Latvia, Brazil, Hong Kong, Germany and Poland by as much as 3-1 in gains.

Now I read this post, The Education Reformers End Game by Marc Epstein which asks the obvious question, what happens if the reformers get their way. Won't we revert right back into the same situation they put the public schools in? I have a feeling that many charter schools are posting better results because they are able to choose which students they enroll. If all parents have choice these schools will no longer be able to deny admittance to under performing students. So I guess it will be back to step one again? I wonder who will be the Michelle Rhee of the new age?

Teaching Adaptation

It seems more and more lately that schools are adding a specific goal to the list they display to the public and it goes something like this;
"Prepare students to utilize 21st century skills"
Sounds good. But what does it actually mean. Far to often it means that students are simply going to be taught how to use current technology; keyboarding classes, computer centers, "netiquette". Students are sat in front of a computer and shown how to get online, how to use a mouse, how to use Office products or Photoshop or iPads. While these are all great skills to have the teaching that is done is often very superficial.

As a member of the IT department for a mid-sized school district I often have to update software to newer versions. Nothing is crazier to me then to see an educator go from version 1.5 of a piece of software to version 1.8 of a  piece of software and act totally confused about how to navigate it. They are terrified of the change and refuse to even entertain the fact that the software might be more valuable. By only teaching students how to use specific software to create specific things this is the type of user we are creating.

Image Credit: Houston Press
Schools think that best way to teach skills that students will use in the future is to teach skills that the students need now. 10 years ago the Dell Dimension 4550 was released. This computer sold for around $1000 and came with 256MB of RAM and a 60GB hard drive. As a comparison the phone in my pocket cost $600 off contract, has 1GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. That means that for nearly 1/2 the price I have a computer that is 4x faster and fits in my pocket. Not to mention that my phone can also access the internet over 500x faster, act as a GPS and even make phone calls! Usually.

No teacher taught me how to use a device like that when I was in high school, I wouldn't expect them to. What they did do for me however is inspire a natural curiosity. They taught me to explore the world around me and not be afraid to experiment with anything. That skill is what allows me to adapt to changing technology and if we don't teach students to adapt we have failed them to "prepare students to utilize" anything that they will actually be using in their careers.

Book Review: Professional Learning in the Digital Age by Kristen Swanson

When I heard that Kristen Swanson was releasing a new book on my birthday I jokingly reached out for a copy as a present. Little did I know that she took me seriously. Find the review below.

When I received my copy of Professional Learning in the Digital Age : The Educator's Guide to User-Generated Learning I was initially put off by the size of it. How could someone possibly fit a guide to all that the internet has to offer educators in just over a 100 pages. Turns out the brevity of it is what makes this book so easy to pick up and learn from.

When most books describe tools available on the internet they lead off by telling us what the tool is; Twitter is a micro-blogging platform, Pearltrees is a curation tool, Blogger is like a journal that everyone can read, and then explains how that tool is useful in a given situation. Swanson turns this around by first telling the reader the problem and then walking them through the solution, introducing tools along the way. What is really interesting however is that even though I am familiar with nearly all of the tools described in this book I was still drawn into the stories presented. It allowed me to see how others are using these tools and reflect on some of the ways I am using them.

The book is very targeted. It doesn't attempt to cover classroom tools or grading systems or classroom management techniques. It focuses on getting educators to building their own digital file of colleagues and resources that will in turn allow them to find the resources and tools that they can implement in their classroom. Because of that this book actually contains much more information than is actually contained in the 100 odd pages. Swanson was able to compress the methods it took me 3+ years to learn on my own into an easy to read and concise book well worth the time it took to read.

I am already thinking about who I will be passing this onto next. I have certain middle school principle in mind already...

You can pick up Kristen's book at Eye on Education and at Amazon (it's on Kindle too!)

Why it Sucks Being the IT Guy :INFOGRAPHIC:

Found this infographic fairly true. 

/* Infographic: Why it Sucks Being the IT Guy */

Teachers Need to be Foxy

Wait, that title might not come out right. Let's try this again...

Teachers Need to be More Like Foxes and Less Like Hedgehogs!
Okay forget the title.

I am currently reading "The Signal and the Noise" by Nate Silver, the now famed economist/blogger that correctly called 50/50 states in the 2012 presidential election. The book discusses how predictions are often incorrect but sometimes can be correct (or something like that). The part that led me to write this post however is based around a chapter that asks the question "Are You Smarter Than A Television Pundit?". Silver discusses research by Philip Tetlock, a professor of psychology and political science. Tetlock was examining predictions made by "experts" and found that while they overall were about as accurate as a coin flip there was a slight differences in two subgroup he labeled "foxes" and "hedgehogs".

The names of the groups was based on a passage from greek poet Archilochus:
"The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."
 Here is a more in depth description from Silvers book:
  • Hedgehogs are type A personalities who believe in Big Ideas- in governing principles about the world that behave as though they were physical laws and undergrid virtually every interaction in society.
  • Photo Credit: XWiz
  • Foxes are scrappy creatures who believe in a plethora of little ideas and in taking a multitude of approaches toward a problem.
Photo Credit: DigitalPrimate
In case you haven't realized it by now teachers need to be more like foxes. They are like "Renaissance Men", studying as much as possible so that they can apply those ideas to whatever it is they are doing. Silver characterizes them as multidisciplinary, adaptable, self-critical, tolerant of complexity, cautious (when it comes to opinions) and empirical. Now try and tell me that doesn't sound like an ideal teacher! Teachers need these qualities for their classroom. Foxes understand, and can draw from multiple disciplines when speaking on a subject. We always talk about being interdisciplinary, threading lessons through as many different subject as we can so that we highlight that subjects are not compartmentalized. We need teachers that can do that in their own classroom.

We probably all know a hedgehog-ish teacher. A teacher that knows their subject inside and out but is completely unable to speak with any credibility on anything else the students may have questions about.

We need foxes in schools. We need teachers that are willing to learn. We need teachers that branch out. Most of all though, we need teachers that model the type of multidisciplinary learning that we expect from our students. 

Standards Based Grading

Right now I am not teaching. I left a teaching position at a private high school to take a position in the IT department of a public school district. I hope to go back into the classroom next year and as I mosey around my PLN I am collecting ideas that I may want to implement in that classroom.

The most recent idea I came across that interested me is the idea of standards based grading. I have heard this term before but I became interested when I noticed a grade book service named Active Grade claimed that their entire grade book hinged on standards based grading. As I began to research the idea further I became interested for several reasons.

Most importantly I consistently ran into a problem with grading where students were not receiving grades I felt they deserved. I found myself playing with averages and tweaking numbers in order to get students to a grade I felt they deserved. One instance was a student I will call Jim. Jim struggled with testing as well as writing out his ideas. He did however generally understand the material (computer technology) presented in the class. Because of this Jim was unable to receive a high mark in the class but was actually passing as far as knowledge is concerned.

According to what I have found standards based grading would have remedied this problem. I am actually genuinely excited to get back into the classroom so that I can begin to implement these ideas. I am even willing to keep separate grade books for the first couple years in order to be sure I have the methods down before jumping in.

Standards Based Grading Resources:
The Challenges of Standards Based Grading
7 Reasons for Standards Based Grading
Active Grade
Active Grade FAQ
Active Grade - Starter Kit

Rethinking Professional Development

An idea came to me today while reading through the blog roll of David Jakes, specifically a post titled Words Matter | Professional Development. David questions the current popular definition of professional development. Professional Development carries with a sort of negative feeling. It is something that is required of you in order to continue doing that thing you enjoy doing, teaching. He recounts a colleague that begin each of his presentations with something he learned the night before. Something that may be completely unrelated to the topic but still sets him up as a learner, someone who strives to learn something new every day. He goes on to talk about creating a "learning culture";
Model it, live it, make it visible.  Do this, and you'll take some significant steps towards developing a learning culture...and that's the real prize.
image credit: JMSmith
I couldn't help but think about a recent conversation I had with a middle school principal I know. He explained that in addition to PLC and grade meetings, the teachers at his school are given weekly "reflection" time. Time that they were to use to look back on their week, think about what changes they need to make, or learn something new. When I asked how they made sure this time wasn't wasted he explained that each teacher needed to write out what they used their time for and explain what it was they did. I accepted this answer at it's face but I have continued to think that maybe this time was still being wasted. Maybe the teachers were simply making up the things they said they were doing. Really, who is going to take the time to read these essays? Are they graded? Do they get put into the teachers personnel file for later review? What real consequence is having them write it out besides busy work that we all hate assigning to students. I feel that this falls into Davids current definition of professional development and could be changed. 

Instead of having teachers write out their learning experiences for review by administration, why not have them post something they have learned each week to a school blog? Or have their learning experience emailed to a random colleague or posted on a board for the rest of the faculty to read? Why not hold a monthly "unconference" where teachers can get up individually or as a group and present a tool, technique or revelation they had during this time?

Don't get me wrong, what this middle school is doing is definitely on the right track. I think however that it can be taken to whole other level. I think that while they started correctly by encouraging teachers to learn, they reinforced the notion that learning happens while studying alone. Learning happens as part of a group. If there is nobody that is challenging or adding to what you are learning then how are you going to grow?
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