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!