The Birth of a New Paradigm

For me, Virus of the Mind by Richard Brodie is another book that has influenced me both professionally and personally.  Brodie, who incidentally was one of the original authors of Microsoft Word, explores the somewhat controversial science of memetics.  Memetics is the study of the workings of memes (pronounced “meems”), the basic unit of cultural transmission or imitation.  As the gene is to genetics, so is the meme to memetics.  According to Brodie, ideas (memes) act in a way similar to “real” viruses.

Viruses – say a flu virus or a computer virus – essentially do three things: the first is to duplicate itself, the second is to infiltrate any openings or weaknesses, and the third is to spread.  With either flu or a computer viruses one can easily recognize the process as each has physical properties.  It all sounds very daunting, however, Brodie’s intent is not to suggest that all viruses of the mind only have a negative impact; we can have memes that are positive. He suggests that ideas can move through society in a way similar to other viruses, only a meme has no physical properties; this is how we develop cultural norms he suggests.

One meme that is very common amongst most people is that it takes a long time to change. . When we say that, we are essentially making a prediction about the future and, according to Brodie, if we keep telling ourselves that it takes a long time to change then it will (A positive meme would be that change is easy). Most memes are programmed into people without any conscious intent and can develop from your upbringing, your relationships, from television, and from advertising, just to name a few sources.  It is a very interesting read and certainly challenges us to think and reflect on why we believe what we believe, and whether or not what we believe is actually true.

Here’s the point. In the introduction of the book Brodie outlines the Birth of a New Paradigm and the four stages a new paradigm must go through in order to gain widespread acceptance.  Given where we are in education with 21 Century learning, the rapid evolution of technology, and everything we’ve learned about learning, these four stages brought me comfort in knowing that in order to get to acceptance, all other stages had to be experienced.  As a leader, I have been able to stay the course with any new initiatives and now have a level of awareness about what’s happening within the organization I work.

So, given all that we are trying to accomplish in education, know that all new ideas have to run this course:

1. Complacency/Marginalization: At first, new ideas are seen as off-the-wall ideas that are quaint but don’t threaten the dominant view.  As a result, most people will not pay too much attention the idea when it first comes out.

2. Ridicule: Complacency fades as the new ideas refuse to die which results in people ridiculing the new idea as it is inconsistent with what they hold to be true.

3. Criticism: As the new idea gains acceptance, people who have held conflicting views take off their gloves.  Those whose reputations are invested in the ‘old’ paradigm begin to sharpen their criticism through accusatory language and emotional feedback.

4. Acceptance: The new paradigm gains both intellectual and psychological acceptance as enough people make the leap; those who understand the new ideas are no longer alone.

My take: When we hit the stage of serious criticism, leaders can take solace in the fact that the new idea is on the verge of gaining widespread acceptance.  If it wasn’t, sharp criticism wouldn’t be necessary as the idea would just fade away on its own.

Whether we are looking to implement “new” assessment practices, grading routines, instructional processes, integrate technology, or any number of “new” initiatives, knowing these four stages has help me step back from being emotionally competitive about any implementation plan.  Knowing that new paradigms have to run through these four stages has brought a level of awareness to my leadership that allows me to support people as they work it out for themselves.

We’re Talking “Seamless Math” K-12

This week I have had the pleasure of working very closely with our school district’s Math teachers.  On Monday night (Feb. 21) we hosted a dinner meeting with Middle & High School Math teachers, specifically Gr. 7-10, and school administrators.  Last night, we held a similar meeting with Elementary & Middle School math teachers, specifically Gr. 1-7, and school administrators.  So as not to overload anyone, we asked that the Gr. 7 teachers & middle school administrators not be the same people at both meetings.  Our district has K-5 elementary schools, 6-8 middle schools, and 9-12 high schools.

There has been a feeling in our district that Math has been the poor cousin to our other two goals: Literacy and School Completion.  For all of the right reasons, we have focused so much of our attention and resources on improving the literacy skills of all of our students, but especially for our vulnerable learners. We have also put a tremendous amount of energy behind our School Completion Goal trying to uncover the complex reasons why some of our students are not graduating from high school.  However, as I posted on February 5, “Math still takes kids lunch money!”

This year we have put some purposeful energy behind supporting and enhancing our Math instruction.  Over the past number of years there has been a pedagogical shift in the B.C. Math curriculum that now emphasizes mathematical processes and the core nature of math more than simple rote memorization and drill-and-kill. This shift in pedagogy has caused some stress and anxiety amongst our math teachers, especially for those who have never utilized manipulatives, for example, as effective instructional tools.

With all of that, we felt it was time to bring our Math teachers together to talk about how we develop a Seamless K-12 Math Experience for our students.  We’ve done an excellent job in our district with the social transitions between our schools.  As I like to say, “We have enough balloons and BBQs.”  Where we need to improve is in our curricular transitions; specifically how our students transition from an elementary to a middle to a high school math classroom.

Both evenings were divided into four segments (about 30 min. per).  The groups were mixed by level and by schools; here’s what we talked about.

1) Common Practices between Levels: The groups discussed the commonalities and differences in five specific areas: Classroom routines, Lesson format, Practice time, the Literacy of Math, and Assessment.  We certainly found a lot of overlap, but there were some differences; differences that will create a significant challenge for our vulnerable learners to move seamlessly through the system.

2) Communication Needs: Groups discussed what communication is currently working well, what further communication is needed, and whether or not the information being communicated is specific, timely, and/or useable.  Communication between the adults is the key to creating effective curricular transitions.

3) Problem Solving, Differentiation, and Manipulatives:  The groups then had discussion on these three specific topics.  The goal was to understand how these areas were addressed at each of the levels and what could be done to bring about more alignment. Again, while there was some overlap, we were able to identify certain practices where some significant differences existed.

4) Essential Learning: We know that we always run out time before we run out of textbook, so our teachers are already making choices about when to go deep and when to move on.  With that, we wanted to be a little more strategic about those choices.  We discussed the concepts that are essential; which curricular outcomes are essential and which could be marginalized for the sake of deeper understandings.  The example I’ve often referenced is should teachers spend more time on ‘fractions’ even at the expense of ‘statistics and probability?’ The overwhelming response from our group was ‘yes’.  Some math skills are more important than others if students are going to successfully navigate the math curriculum within their schools. Grounding our students in the fundamentals – not memorizing, but knowing – will build their confidence and allow them to expect a positive outcome.  If everything is a priority then nothing is.

This was just the start as we still have a lot of work to do.  Our goal is to create as much of a Seamless Math Experience for our students as we can.  The conversations have just begun, but they were focused, deep, and constructive.  We all love it when a plan comes together.  These were nights where I was able to sit back and soak up the conversation; to allow the experts in the room to do what they do best!  Lisa West & Steve LaPointe (our District Numeracy Helping Teachers) organized two excellent evenings of discussion and our teachers left feeling optimistic about where our math instruction was headed.

…and the cheesecake for dessert wasn’t bad either!

Enough with the Late Penalties!

Here is my issue with Late Penalties being applied to student work.  If we are going to reduce an entire course worth of work down to one symbol for the purpose of reporting, should we not at the very least ensure that the grade is accurate?  Late Penalties lead to inaccuracy, which leads to deflated grades, which distorts the students’ achievement; their true ability to meet the intended learning outcomes.  In most jurisdictions (if not all) grades are supposed to reflect the student’s ability to meet the intended learning outcomes of the course they are enrolled in. In my 20 years I have never seen a curriculum guide that had “handing in work on time” as a learning intention.  It’s possible that one exists, I’ve just never seen it.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for students meeting set deadlines. It is obviously a great habit to develop that will serve students well as they make the transition to adulthood.  I also believe in holding students accountable for deadlines, I just never applied a late penalty.  Like “0”, I was the late penalty guy early in my career; “10% per day” was my middle name. Over the years I saw the late penalty as a waste of time. I’d rather support the student than penalize them.  10% is a nice round number and that’s likely the reason we’ve chosen it through the decades as it keeps the math easy! I am not aware of any educational research that proclaims “Late Penalties” as an effective practice…are you? The threat of a penalty is supposed to motivate students into meeting the deadline. Clearly that threat isn’t working as that threat has existed for decades and yet students are still late with assignments.

Here is my position: Students should be graded on the quality of their work (their ability to meet the desired learning targets) rather than how punctual the assignment is.      Here’s why:

Some students predictably struggle with deadlines. Once a due date has been given, most teachers can predict which students will be on-time and which students will be late. We know that most students will meet the deadlines.  If most don’t, then there is likely a flaw in the assignment.  The few that struggle with deadlines need support, not penalties.  The other aspect is that we already know (to a certain degree) who is going to be late.  Think about that…we can predict they’ll be late, but do we act to ensure the learning and/or assignment is on track?  Most students like deadlines and the organization and pacing they provide.

Quality work should trump timeliness. Would you rather a student hand-in high quality work late or poor quality work on-time? Now I know that in an ideal world every student would complete all assignments correctly and hand them in on time, but I choose quality and I think you would too.  We have spent far too much time in education focusing on the things that sit on the periphery of learning.  Meeting a deadline is a good thing – even a great thing – but it doesn’t have anything to do with how much Math or Social Studies you understand!

The flood is a myth! No, not that flood.  The flood of assignments at the end of the year that you think you are going to get; it won’t happen, at least that wasn’t my experience.  In fact, in every school I’ve worked in where teachers eliminated their late penalties they did not experience the flood. As I said above, most students like deadlines and not having a late penalty doesn’t mean you don’t set deadlines and act when they are not met; just don’t distort their grade by artificially lowering it.

We don’t ‘add’ for early. When I’ve asked teachers who have late penalties why they don’t add 10% per day for early assignments they usually say something like, “I couldn’t do that.  That would inflate their grade and wouldn’t be accurate.” I think they’ve just answered their own question.  The exact same logic as to why adding-for-early is not appropriate applies to late penalties; the logic of inaccuracy.

Behavior & Learning must be kept separate. Inaccuracy comes when we start to include student attributes into reporting.  Not handing in work on time has nothing to do with what they know; it reflects what they haven’t done.

Ken O’Connor writes:

The punitive nature of the penalty is a powerful disincentive for students to complete any work.” 

If I’m a marginal student who barely passes most assignments, why would I even bother doing the work if I’m 3 or 4 days late?   I vote for eliminating the penalty altogether, but here are some other suggestions if you insist on keeping your late penalty.  After all, I can’t make you change.

  • Provide a DUE DATE WINDOW and allow your students to manage their time. Provide a window of a few days or an entire week.  Then, after the window closes consider them late.
  • Spend MORE TIME IN PREPARATION making sure every student is clear on what to do and how to do it.  Students might need exemplars or deeper explanations before they are ready.
  • Provide EXTRA SUPPORT AHEAD OF TIME.  We know some students struggle with deadlines and it would be irresponsible as a teacher to not act upon that knowledge before it’s too late.

Now, if all of that doesn’t work for you, then here is a late penalty I could support; I don’t like it, but I could support it. 1% per day! If you are like most teachers I’ve suggested this to you will have one of two reactions.  One reaction is that, “it’s hardly worth the effort so why bother.” EXACTLY! The other reaction is, “that’s not tough enough!”

The second reaction usually reveals the real motive behind the penalty; that for students to comply with deadlines we need to toughen up on them.  Just like with “0”, the punishment paradigm will never produce the academic epiphany.  Making school less pleasant through artificial penalties has never inspired students to exceed expectations.

I set deadlines, but I negotiated deadlines if students came in advance. I held students responsible for deadlines and reacted NOW if a deadline wasn’t met. I contacted parents if deadlines were consistently being missed or avoided, but I DIDN’T PENALIZE STUDENTS in the GRADE BOOK! I accepted late work, but I never got the flood at the end of the year!

So…enough with the late penalties already and let’s put our focus back on learning!

We all need to Press ‘Pause’

Another Saturday, another day of skiing.  It was an incredible day at Apex Mountain so I thought I would snap a few pictures to share.  As busy as we all are it’s easy to get caught up in what’s next…my next tweet, my next blog, my next link.  Today I decided to press ‘pause’, appreciate the moment, and see my mountain for the first time.  I live in a beautiful part of the world (I’m sure you do too) but sometimes I take it for granted; today I didn’t. My challenge to you is to do the same.  Press ‘pause’ every once-in-a-while and live in the moment you’re in…it’s good for the soul!  Have a great weekend!

Are You as Good the Truck Driver?

On my way to work this morning I was reminded that excellence is everywhere and that if we pay attention, we can find inspiration from anyone.

Taking my usual route to work I was confronted by the sight most drivers would dread…an 18 Wheel Truck attempting to back into an unforgiving lane adjacent to the business he was delivering to.  As I approached and saw the driver pull up into the “ready” position I thought, “This is going to take forever.  He’s probably going to need 4 or 5 attempts to get this right.”  Wrong.

With amazing precision, the driver backed the truck up with supreme confidence, effortlessly made the 90 degree turn, and parked his rig exactly where he wanted it.  To top it off, he did it virtually one-handed, with his left arm hanging out the window, as though he were parking a Smart Car.  One shot…less than 60 seconds…and I was on my way.

As I resumed driving I kept thinking, “I hope I’m THAT good at what I do today!”

We can either ignore the little things or see them; today I chose to see it and it reminded me that excellence is everywhere and that truck driver put me on notice that for the students and staff of School District 67,  I need to bring my ‘A’ game every single day!

21st Century Learning…I think?

First, I don’t think anyone can definitively say what 21st Century learning is.  We all think we know what it might be, and in many cases we’re probably right, but we don’t know for sure.  In 1911, did educators really envision the world their students would live in 40 years to the future? How about the world we live in today? Everything put forth here is my first attempt at trying to develop some personal clarity around 21st Century Learning.

The inspiration for this post came from Darcy Mullin’s (@dMully) post entitled, “Inspired by Real Learning.” http://darcymullin.wordpress.com/2011/02/08/inspired-by-real-learning/ and a comment he wrote on my post “What Educators sometimes say…” While commenting on my post, Darcy wrote,

I had a discussion with a colleague today about personalized learning. We were talking about reservations we had about integrating technology into a classroom (IPads, smart boards etc.) until there is a pedagogical shift in the classroom.

So that got me thinking…what should that pedagogical shift look like?  Maybe what we need to do is take the pedagogical logic we have traditionally used and reverse it. Maybe what used to be the means now become the ends?

Our traditional organization put skills (creativity, problem-solving, teamwork, innovation, adaptability) or tools (technology) in service of content outcomes.  Students would be asked, for example, to use their creativity and problem-solving skills to learn the causes of WWI, understand how to add & subtract fractions, or describe the respiratory system.

Maybe students should be asked to do the opposite.  Maybe students should be asked to use curricular content in order to develop their skills.  Instead, maybe they use the causes of WWI, adding & subtracting fractions, or the respiratory system as the means to arrive at the ends of life skills, innovation skills, and technology skills.  Maybe developing student capacity with the use of technology is now the end result of discovering how the Ancient Romans lived.  This might allow our students to draw from cross-curricular sources to see and/or create the bigger picture.

21st Century learning is hard to define, but maybe we’re not supposed to define it.  Yes, we have to have some kind of roadmap, but maybe we’re not supposed to be able to pin it down.  Maybe that’s the point.  If we fully define 21st Century learning we limit it.  A definition inherently includes what it is and what it is not which creates limits.  Maybe it’s the limits of our traditional curriculum that is responsible for the fixed mindset about learning that has been so prevalent.

Maybe the adaptability, creativity, and innovation are what will prepare our students for an unknowable future. Rather than defining it maybe we should just be ready for it.

I don’t know…maybe I’ll change my mind in a week…maybe that’s the point!

What Educators sometimes say…

…that you wouldn’t hear in any other profession!

Every profession has a way of doing business that makes the profession unique; education is no different.  That said, every profession can also become insulated, then isolated and then develop habitual ways of thinking that don’t make sense in other walks of life.

Over the years I’ve thought about a few of things we say as educators (not all of us, of course) that don’t really make sense in other professions.   These examples are meant to make us reflect and to have a little fun…to be considered but not overanalyzed.  Here are just a few…

Could you imagine someone ever saying, “This is the cell phone I used back in 1991.  It worked back then, why would I change phones now?We change technology more often than we change lesson plans.  Now granted, not much has change with the Roman Empire in the last few years and 3 x 2 is still 6, but shouldn’t we at least be a little more open to reflecting on whether the lessons we developed ten, five, or even two years ago are still current? How many of us have the same cell phone we had three years ago? What about your lesson plans?

How about the NFL coach saying to his team, “I’ve given you the opportunity to play football.  If you choose to go out and lose that’s your problem.” This mindset that our job as teachers is to simply deliver information and that it’s entirely up to the students to get it or not is erroneous. We all know that in the professional sports world it’s the coach who is the FIRST to get fired if the team underperforms; he or she has a vested interest in how the team performs.  Coaches can’t actively distance themselves from the direct results of their work; neither should teachers.  If we teach, but kids don’t learn, who’s responsible?

Here’s a good one, “I’m sorry Amanda, your second driving test was excellent, but when I average it with your first test you still fail.” The mean average has dominated the way we calculate grades, even though there are other ways.  In fact, there are three different ways to calculate the average – mean, median, and mode – and each of them is not perfect, not to mention the fact that there are numerous other ways to determine grades as well.  The biggest challenge with the way we calculate grades is that the most recent evidence of improvement – significant or not – doesn’t usually play a role in determining the students’ levels of achievement.  Either you can drive or you can’t.  If you can’t you don’t get your license; if you can you do…end of story! If I didn’t know but now I do, why does what I did when I didn’t know still count?

And my personal favorite…imagine your dentist saying, “It’s February 17th, that means I’m doing a root canal.  I’ve done root canals on February 17th for the past 16 years!” The dentist can’t scope-and-sequence her patients; they are patient responsive professionals who respond to the needs of the patients in front of them.  Also, when a patient comes running into the dental office in April holding their cheek in need of a root canal, the dentist doesn’t respond by saying, “Oh I’m sorry, we did root canals back in February…it’s too late… we’ve moved on.” There was a time when you were the envy of the staff if you were photocopied-up-to-Christmas, that is of course, unless a new student arrived and then you had to make one more copy of everything and that ruined the little tabs you had separating the handouts in the pile over by the…you get the idea.

Anyway, these are just four examples of things we say in education that don’t make sense in any other walk of life.  We have to continually challenge the way we think, reflect on what we say, and collaborate to find a better way.  Lifelong leaning means WE lifelong learn first; it starts by questioning our established ways of thinking that hold us back from maximizing our success as teachers…and we have to be able to laugh at ourselves every once in a while.

Happy Friday!

“Can’t do” vs. “Won’t do”

This is something I’ve wondered about for a long time.  Why is it that when students are unable to meet academic expectations we typically consider it an issue of what the student can’t do, but when a student is unable to meet behavioral expectations we typically consider it an issue of what the student won’t do?

Now, I know that is an overgeneralization, but I do think our collective outlook toward behavioral challenges is very different from academic challenges; should it be?

When a student can’t add fractions, write an essay, or shoot a basket we typically react in a supportive way; we identify something the student can’t do and intervene with a variety of secondary or tertiary instructional strategies.  If they can’t do it we teach them.

However, when a student misbehaves we often assume that it’s an issue of compliance; that it is a matter of choice or won’t do.  Is it possible that some behavioral issues kids present are can’t do issues; that they actually don’t have the social skills, support, or circumstances necessary to act in a way that is expected in class or within the school?  If we mirrored the instructional strategies we use for academic deficiencies with behavioral deficiencies would students learn more appropriate, pro-social behavior?  This year, all around the world, Kindergarten students are learning that raising your hand is a pro-social way to access adult attention.  They are not born with that skill so teaching it must be possible.

As a school administrator I learned to ask a very simply question whenever a teacher referred a student to me as a result of their behavior: From your perspective, is this a ‘can’t do’ or a ‘won’t do’ issue? While it’s not always obvious, most teachers are able to make a best-guess (based on their experience with the student) as to which one they suspect it is.  Won’t do means the student is fully capable of behaving appropriately but they are choosing not to; can’t do means the student, for a variety of reasons, may not be capable of behaving in the way that might be expected.  For some students, for example, sitting quietly through a 60 min. assembly might be asking too much of them.  That doesn’t mean they will never be able to sit through an assembly.  It just means we have to have reasonable expectations given the existing limitations the student might be currently dealing with.

I don’t think can’t do issues should be dealt with as discipline issues, even if the behavior is disruptive.  If we believe there is a skill missing, I think we would be much better served teaching the student what the appropriate pro-social behavior within the given context would look like.

I think won’t do issues are issues of student discipline that should be dealt with through the school’s discipline policy, practice, and/or routines. That doesn’t mean punishment; the most effective discipline policies are instruments of support and inclusion, not removal and isolation.

By asking ourselves the simple question – is it a won’t do or a can’t do we will immediately be focused on the proper kinds of interventions necessary to help the student improve.  When neither the teacher nor I were sure, we always deferred to can’t do; there is no rush in applying any kind of discipline practice to a situation.  The absolute worst case scenario is to discipline a student for something you find out later to be a can’t do. I think this one simple question will help guide you to make more effective and efficient decisions when it comes to supporting our students who demonstrate challenging behaviors.  Once you make the distinction you will be much more able to drill down to the root of the problem.

That’s what I think…you?

“How did he get so Good?”

My son, Adrian, is an exceptional skier.  Now before you think I’m about to take credit for it you need to know that it had nothing to do with me.  In my first blog post on confidence (Jan. 27) I mentioned how afraid of skiing he was when he first learned; he’s not afraid anymore. The picture on the left is of Adrian last year (age 9) so clearly fear is no longer a factor.

Every Saturday morning Adrian and I make the 35 min. drive up to Apex Mountain. Adrian is part of the Apex Freestyle Program.  Now I’m not saying he’s going to the Olympics or anything, but when your ten-year old tells you that the double-black diamond runs are easy and boring you know he has some skills.  Every Saturday he skis with the freestyle program.  So we drive up to Apex, I drop him off with his coach, and then I head off for a day of skiing.  If my wife and daughter choose to come then I ski with them; otherwise I’ll ski with some of my friends who are at Apex that day.  It’s a small mountain so it’s easy to find someone.

This past Saturday, however, was a little different. There was no one for me to ski with so I decided to ski alone.  One thing I learned about skiing alone is that it really tests your own commitment to improvement.  I am a good skier, not great; moguls are my enemy!  I found out that when you ski alone you don’t really have to ski any mogul runs. After all, no one is watching.  However, I did head over to a few of the more challenging runs because I do want to improve.  After bouncing my way down one of the black diamond runs – I didn’t fall, but make no mistake, I didn’t ski it – I stopped to catch my breath.  As I stood – alone – thinking about what I had just done, I kept mentally referring back to the images of Adrian skiing the very same run. I wondered aloud, “How did he get so good?”

I traced it back to two things: First, he has spent a tremendous amount of time on his skis over the last 4 years; last year he skied 25 times.  However, time on skis is not enough if you are consistently practicing the wrong technique.  Second, and more importantly, he’s had excellent coaching.  As I thought about the coaching he has received and reflected upon it within the context of what we know about assessment for learning and sound instruction I realized his coaches did all the right things.

Here’s what his coaches did:

  • They figured out his strengths and weaknesses as a skier.
  • They made Adrian spend most of his time strengthening his strengths in order to maintain his confidence & motivation.
  • They put Adrian on the edge of improvement by introducing challenges that gradually pushed him.
  • They gave him specific, descriptive feedback on how to improve.
  • They taught him how to recognize his own mistakes and how to correct them.

Here’s what his coaches DIDN’T do.

  • Evaluate him every week and send a report home.
  • Set unattainable improvement targets.
  • Keep the standards for excellent skiing a secret.
  • Only tell him what he was doing wrong.
  • Set a time limit for improvement.
  • Scare him or stress him out by expecting too much too soon.

As I thought about Adrian’s experience, and how proficient at skiing he has become, I realized that his ski instructors got it.  Everything they did with him fell in line with the current thinking about formative assessment, descriptive feedback, and the role both play in allow kids (students) to maximize their success.  The self-assessment/correction piece was the icing on the cake.  By teaching him the standards of excellent skiing and breaking down the techniques into manageable chunks, Adrian is able to now correct himself when something (or he) goes sideways! After all, the person who does the assessing does the learning.

How do we get more of this in our classrooms?  I know it’s there, but how do we get more? How can we give our students more opportunities to strengthen their strengths, self-assess their progress, and continually sit on the edge of improvement?