Tag Archives: class environment

The Power to Choose Nothing

“I have a student who says that he isn’t passionate about anything. I ask him what he’s interested in, and what he does outside of school, but the answer is always the same: nothing. What do I do with a kid like that?”

The above snippet was part of a much larger conversation about Genius Hour that took place during an edcamp event I attended this spring. Genius Hour, Passion Projects, 20% Time, or whatever label it is given, isn’t a new concept, but it has gained momentum as a way to increase student voice and choice in the classroom.  Once teachers begin to believe in the reasons behind Genius Hour, it isn’t uncommon for their good intentions and belief in the basic principles to be tested by a student like the one referred to in the quote above. When a teacher shares their experience with such a student, they are often wrestling with an assumption that lies just beneath the surface of his or her frustration: students in school must do something; nothing is not an option. As I did during the edcamp session, I respectfully disagree. Just as doing something does not guarantee learning; doing nothing does not mean no learning.

After years of experience with an education that relies heavily on compliance and external motivation, is it any wonder that students are wary when a teacher tries to hand over more control (and responsibility)? Student reactions to Genius Hour vary widely, but even the most hopeful, positive student wonders, “What’s the catch?” It is a certainty that some students will not choose a passion because they don’t understand the concept, don’t know how to make the choice, or are nervous about “doing it wrong.” These students can usually be helped with some coaching/teaching aided by resources such as the Genius Hour livebinder. It is the student who seemingly refuses to choose that truly tests the resolve and philosophy of the teacher who advocates for student choice.

I don’t wish to oversimplify, for people and motivations are complex , but in my experience, most students who refuse to choose are influenced by a combination of two factors: disbelief and disavowal. They don’t completely believe that they can choose whatever they want, and they don’t want the responsibility for directing their own learning. The two factors may be mixed in different proportions, but generally they are both present in any student who persistently deflects any attempts to help them. There isn’t a type, but don’t be surprised if the student who rejects Genius Hour and other forms of student-centred learning is a bright underachiever, someone who doesn’t like to play the compliance games in school.

So, it is time to get back to the question of the frustrated teacher, “What do I do with a kid like that?” My answer is, “Honour his choice.” Show him that you really do give him the respect and authority to choose by allowing him to refuse to participate…and then keep trying to encourage him to participate. Make it your Genius Hour project to get to know him without a hint of compliance pressure. I’ll repeat the hard part: without a hint of compliance pressure. Keep the conversation going; keep the invitation open.

As long as we connect the student’s choices to relevant, natural consequences and keep the lines of communication with the student and her home open, then we have created the environment for learning. Perhaps some of the most important learning the student will experience will come from doing nothing. She will learn that you keep your word. She will learn how to build a relationship with an adult. She will learn that you respect her and that she is the one primarily in charge of her education.

If we truly wish to foster independent learners and believe that compliance is not the way to do it, then we must allow students the power to choose nothing.

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Attentiveness and Participation Assessed! Sort Of.

In an attempt to reframe effort in the classroom I’m trying to sift through the more traditional elements of effort (attentiveness, participation, compliance, focus, organization) and save the learning kernels after the chaff has drifted away. In my SBL and TTOG classroom I’m finding the learning outcomes that help students see the reason we tried to value effort by awarding points.

My less-than-effective way to encourage and grade classroom conversation: Track how often students participated in class activities. Award points to frequent talkers, hand-raisers, and question-askers. Remind infrequent participators that class participation is part of their grade.

My less-than-effective way to assess attentiveness: Observe the body language of 20+ students while I lecture. See who can answer the occasional pop question. Prod the inattentive or slumbering with a walk down the aisle and/or a reminder of the importance of attentiveness to their participation grade.

Even though it has been a long time since I practiced those methods, it’s pretty embarrassing to see them in print. What specifically did I think I was teaching those students? And while I stopped using such methods (which were far more about filling up a grade book than about learning) I didn’t find alternative ways to help teach the skills that I was ineffectively trying to value with my participation grade, skills such as speaking and listening.

Speaking and Listening are two of the language arts that appear in my curriculum, and they are a big part of what I was trying to encourage when I stressed the value of participation. They are valuable tools for learning and everyday skills that can improve quality of life in and out of school.

Here is my more effective way to teach and develop attentiveness and participation in class:

The beginning of the year includes mini lessons on speaking and listening. For example, I try to simplify speaking to the intentional use of face, body, and voice in order to enhance meaning. A good speaker will use a gesture to emphasize an important point or feeling; they will use a pause or change in volume to draw attention to a key idea. Other teachers use other methods (PVLEGS for example), but once the basic instruction for speaking and listening is in place, the classroom is ready for some practice.

Next I will ask the students to listen for moments of quality speaking in class. Perhaps, Jason shrugged emphatically when he replied, “I’m not entirely sure,” to a question. Maybe Sherise paused effectively when challenging Greg’s line of reasoning. I will also point out a few quality moments as a model.

Once a few examples have clarified the type of observations that I’m after, I will more formally assign a minimum number of positive observations to be made in a set time period; something like five observations in the month. I’ll have students post their observations using Google Keep notes. If you haven’t used Google Keep, it is basically a Sticky note app with variety of helpful functions like tags, sharing, and colour-coding. I will have students tag their observation notes with tags signifying standards/skills (eg. speaking, voice) and then share the note with me and the observed student speaker. When it is time for me to track or assess progress, I can search and filter my Keep notes by standard or by student.

There are many benefits to this assignment:

  • It creates artifacts of learning that can be tracked over time for both individuals and the entire class.
  • It creates teachable moments for speaking and listening.
  • It offers insight into further instruction based on which standards/skills are underrepresented or observed without adequate sophistication.
  • It values attentive listening and quality speaking in everyday classroom conversation.
  • It builds community and reflection through the encouraging, positive observations of peers.

That’s my rough draft idea, one way to reconcile “effort” and standards-based assessment. Already I can see the potential to teach responsible social media use by having the observations shared class-wide, but at this moment I haven’t imagined how to make the tech happen (a Padlet wall? A class social media account? Any ideas out there?). I’m excited to try it out in class, and I will report on field testing during the semester.

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Individuals and Interactions Over Processes and Tools

Note: This post is the first in a series on The Agile Schools Manifesto that I introduced in an earlier post.

I do love my gadgets and tools. I rarely leave my local bike shop without another freewheel remover or cone wrench, and I’m always up for a conversation about which apps you are using. There is nothing inherently wrong with tools. I could not have prepared my bike for its daily ride to school without my bottom bracket adjustable cup wrench, and it would take a mighty big plan ‘B’ in my class if Google Drive went down.

It would be easy for this post to devolve into a rant about how smartphones in our classrooms distract us and that we get so hung up on the tools and learning how to use them that our focus drifts from the learning outcomes to the tools themselves. Certainly the tools could distract us; especially when they are new and we are learning how to use them. However, I generally believe practicing teachers quickly recognize distraction and do a pretty good job of owning their tools instead of letting the tools own them. No, the real potential danger of tools and processes are much deeper and more subtle than simple distraction.

Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly) in a conference keynote at the end of the 20th century said:

Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three powerful ideas. These ideas are often hidden from our view because they are of a somewhat abstract nature. But this should not be taken to mean that they do not have practical consequences.

Perhaps you are familiar with the old adage that says: To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We may extend that truism: To a person with a pencil, everything looks like a sentence. To a person with a TV camera, everything looks like an image. To a person with a computer, everything looks like data. I do not think we need to take these aphorisms literally. But what they call to our attention is that every technology has a prejudice. Like language itself, it predisposes us to favor and value certain perspectives and accomplishments.

Beyond technology’s potential for distraction is the bigger question, “How are our tools shaping us?” What prejudices and values are inherent in the tools we use? The Agile Schools manifesto wants us to value people and their interactions more than tools and processes. I think many people would agree with that priority. However, it is my contention that prioritizing people is only possible if we are thoughtful and intentional about our tools. If we are unaware of the value-shaping tendency of tools, then it is entirely possible that any time and energy spent on relationship building will be undermined by our tools. I’ll give an educational example.

Several years ago, many schools began using digital grade books and parent portals in order to increase and improve the efficiency, transparency, and communication of assessment (For now I’ll avoid discussing the other, more pessimistic reasons for open grade books). The early digital tools only allowed for columns of numbers that averaged to a percentage. This encouraged and reinforced a task-based classroom structure, and while parents were potentially more knowledgeable about classroom assignments, communication didn’t necessarily improve. Parent/Teacher conferences focused more and more on the tasks and the marks rather than the student and his/her learning. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the answer to avoiding an awkward conversation about the validity of my marks was…more tasks and marks to justify my marks! (Yes, I’m confessing here.)

The tool that was hailed as a way to improve communication actually inhibited it. Instead of discussing students and their learning with parents in a way that would allow us to build relationships and learn from each other, we were discussing marks. The tool’s bias in favour of tasks had me creating more tasks to satisfy administrative guidelines and justify marks which actually inhibited my relationships with parents, students, and administration! Yes, I was using the tool poorly, but the tool itself was biased toward process, not people.

Others, like George Couros has here, have already written about how technology can be used to build relationship. Teachers want to build relationship because we know it is an important way to set the stage for quality learning. In order to prioritize individuals and interactions over processes and tools, we need to support each other in selecting tools that are biased in favour of relationship. For example, this semester I chose to use the tool, EduSight Notes (as I wrote about here) precisely because it would create a routine that would help build relationship. I think it will help infuse community-building into the very structure and processes of my practice. The tool will support, not undermine, what I value–the students I’m teaching and learning with.

That, paradoxically, is how I can write an entire post about valuing people over tools while focusing mainly on tools. Through collective reflective practice, let’s find the tools that best support our values.

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Choking or Panicking?

I’m a fan of Malcolm Gladwell‘s writing. Last night I read his article The Art of Failure where he distinguishes between panicking and choking. In short, people who panic stop thinking; people who choke over-think and lose the use of internalized skills. Both can result in failure, but choking happens to people with developed skills. Gladwell uses the example of a professional tennis player who honed her skills through years of practice in order to internalize the complex skills of touch and ball control. However, in a pressure situation, over-thinking (choking) shuts down the hard-earned instincts of ball control and causes a regression to the more novice practice of consciously thinking about shots. The tennis player loses her touch. Choking happens to skilled people and is largely triggered by the context or audience of the performance.

Near the end of the essay Gladwell reminds readers that a professional tennis player can’t change the context of his/her performance, but in many other areas of life, context and audience can be adapted to facilitate better performance.

“Choking is a central part of the drama of athletic competition, because the spectators have to be there–and the ability to overcome the pressure of the spectators is part of what it means to be a champion. But the same ruthless inflexibility need not govern the rest of our lives. We have to learn that sometimes a poor performance reflects not the innate ability of the performer but the complexion of the audience; and that sometimes a poor test score is the sign not of a poor student but of a good one.” –Malcolm Gladwell

The quote begs the question, “What is the complexion of the audience in my classroom?” The article was an excellent reminder to be vigilant about creating environments that allow students to showcase their talent and knowledge effectively. When my instinct tells me that a student choked, I need to reflect on the context and help him/her find another way to make their learning visible. How do you help create contexts of success for your students?

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