Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Be Intentional about Scheduling for Student Learning


I believe that intentionality is the missing piece in today's schools. 

There's so much hype and clamor to figure out what's the best new tech tool, what's the latest and greatest program for struggling readers, what's the most ideal class size, how to create new structures for professional development, etc. I'll let you in on a little secret....

We don't need anything new.

We don't. Teachers, schools, and districts have enough tools in their toolboxes. What we need, more than anything, is intentionality about how we use what we have and what we know. And so, this post begins a new series about being intentional in our choices around teaching and learning.

In this first post, I'd like to tackle the issue of scheduling the school day. Notice that the title of this post refers to scheduling for student learning. I wonder if folks who are responsible for designing school schedules even consider student learning, let alone use student learning to drive their decisions. I posed this question on Twitter earlier today: Does the way we schedule the school day facilitate or hinder learning? Below are responses from a couple of my #nced friends.


I believe many of us would admit that school days are structured around the needs and wants of adults as opposed to the needs of children. Think about your school day. Who decided the day would be structured in that way, and why was that decision made in the way that it was? If you can't answer those questions, find someone who can. If no one can, then perhaps it's time for a fresh conversation. I would argue for school and district leadership teams to throw away existing schedules (and everything they know about school schedules for that matter) and start anew. If we could design the ideal schedule for student learning, what would that schedule look like?

I spent three hours this morning in a second grade classroom. During that time, I taught two reading groups, one math group, and one word study group. Oh, and we had a 30-minute recess and a 30-minute lunch. I spend quite a bit of time in elementary schools (admittedly less in middle and high schools), and the thing I notice most often is this: Everyone in the building is rushed. All the time. Think about that for a moment. Does student learning happen best when the teacher and students are rushed? Are teachers their most effective selves in that environment? Is there time for deep learning? For collaborative conversations? For reflection? For asking questions?

It seems to me that we're so busy completing tasks (Math journal? Check. Word sort? Check. Reading group? Check.) that we lose sight of our overall goal. Why is that? Who says the school day has to be rushed? Why do we feel the need to squeeze every content area into the school day?

So what's the solution? I believe there are an infinite number of possible solutions. I also believe that we won't find any of them without asking "Why?" and embracing a willingness to rethink everything. Below are some ideas to consider if we really want to be more intentional about scheduling for student learning.

  • Instead of breaking the school day into a million pieces, let's create and honor large chunks of uninterrupted time for teaching and learning. Design a morning, a class period, or an entire day around a quality essential question. Focus teacher and student energy, time, and resources on digging deep enough to develop meaningful responses to the essential question. 
  • With your students, collaboratively develop learning outcomes for the class period, day, week, or unit. Allow students to work toward those learning outcomes at their own pace, using whatever resources and processes best support their learning. Create opportunities for students to come together collaboratively as well as curl up in a corner on their own to pursue deep learning. Be available for one-on-one, small group, and whole group mini-lessons as needed.
  • Start small. Take one day a week, and throw out your typical schedule. Spend the entire day focused on a complex, real-world issue. Give students time to grapple with the issue and engage in productive struggle. Also give students an authentic audience with which to share their work.
  • Focus less on deliverables and more on the process. Do we really need hard evidence that students have met or are working toward learning outcomes? If the teacher is eavesdropping and kid-watching, there will be more than enough evidence of student thinking. Don't waste your learners' time filling out worksheets just so you have something to grade. Allow them instead to engage in meaningful learning. 
  • Implement sustained silent reading and writing time. Readers and writers need uninterrupted time to read and write. Allow students to choose their own texts and topics. No worksheets. No graphic organizers. Just reading and writing. And while you're at it, grab a book or writer's notebook and pull up a seat.
I would love to hear your ideas for being more intentional about scheduling for student learning. Also, stay tuned for my next post about intentionality in teaching and learning.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Substitution is Not a Bad Thing: Thoughts on the SAMR Model

Let me start by saying that I am a fan of the SAMR model. I think SAMR can help teachers think about ways to use technology to provide engaging and meaningful learning experiences for students. (If SAMR is new to you, you may want to read this and this.)

Although I see value in SAMR as a framework, I think we are heading down a dangerous path by placing too much emphasis on the levels. Lately, I have heard many educators profess that teachers should not use technology as a substitute. They say that all teachers should be working toward redefinition, all the time, and that there's no place for substitution in the classroom. I argue that there is a time and place for all levels of SAMR in the classroom, and that great teachers know when and why.

The truly great teachers move fluidly among all levels of the SAMR model, making choices about technology use after making choices about students' learning needs. These teachers understand that the use of a tool is not what determines student engagement and learning. They also understand that technology is not always effective/appropriate for all learning outcomes.

I frequently use my iPad as a calculator, my iPhone to listen to music, and my computer to take notes. Similarly, students often use tools in these ways, substituting the tool for another way of doing the task. Is that a bad thing?

If students use an iPad as a calculator, does that mean they aren't thinking about math in complex ways? Absolutely not. These students could be using the calculator app to solve relevant and complicated math problems.

If students use a computer to take notes, does that mean they aren't thinking about the content in deep and personally meaning ways? Absolutely not. These students could be responding to thoughtful and complex questions posed by the teacher or their peers.

Case in point:

A former colleague and friend of mine, Brooke Simpson, is the most exceptional math teacher I have ever observed. While Brooke is adept at technology use in the classroom, her exceptionality lies not in her use of technology but in the ways she gets students to think and talk about math. In Brooke's classroom, her students do not just do math, they understand math. From the first day of school, Brooke has her students thinking and talking about math in ways that are more complex than many adults understand.

On numerous occasions, Brooke's students would use the Magnetic Alphabet app as a substitution for number tiles. Brooke would select a secret number and provide clues to help students figure out the secret number. Early in the year, these clues may be simple, such as "My number is between the number of days in a weekend and the number of days in a week." Later in the year, her clues would be more complex, such as "My number is a factor of 12 and a multiple of 3." Although Brooke's students used the Magnetic Alphabet app as a direct substitute for number tiles, they were thinking about mathematics in sophisticated ways.

If you were to remove all technology from Brooke's classroom, she would remain a master teacher. I could give many more examples (as I'm sure you could) of master teachers who cultivate a love of learning in their students and impact student growth in profound ways with or without technology.

If technology is not what makes the difference, then what is it? It's the teacher. It's always been the teacher. Master teachers are those we remember years later, the ones who instilled in us a passion to learn, the ones who gave us skills that opened new doors in our lives, the ones who knew us and helped us know ourselves.

Let's stop guilting teachers into feeling bad for using technology as a substitute for traditional tasks. Master teachers engage their students and foster a depth of thinking with whatever tools they have available, and what often sets these teachers apart is their understanding of when technology is appropriate/effective and when it is not.

As we continue to engage in conversations about technology, let's keep our focus on what's really important. We need to find ways to build capacity in all teachers so that they can all be Brooke Simpsons and the other exceptional teachers we have known. Sure, technology professional development can be a good thing. But let's not forget about professional learning experiences that can help teachers learn to ask thoughtful questions, design relevant and authentic assessments, and be responsive to their students' needs.

And please, can we stop bashing teachers for using technology as a substitute? Focus on the learning instead of the tool, and then you'll finally be able to see what redefined student learning looks like.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Update: Gamification and Outcomes-Based Grading in Teacher Education

In July, I wrote a post describing my efforts to gamify a course for this fall semester. I'm using quests, outcomes-based grading, badges, and XPs (experience points) to model a gamified learning experience for students in my course on emerging web and mobile technologies. As part of this approach, I designed a pre-assessment, which my students completed within the first few days of the semester. The pre-assessment was vital for this course, in particular, because students in this graduate-level course vary widely in their background and experiences with technology. This pre-assessment provided students an opportunity to show what they know and is allowing me to customize the learning experience for students.

Based on students' pre-assessment responses, I awarded students XPs that can be applied toward specific quests (modules) in the course. For instance, when a student demonstrated on the pre-assessment that she has a great deal of expertise in concepts related to digital literacy, I awarded her XPs to be applied toward the digital citizenship quest. Later in the semester, when this student begins working on the digital citizenship quest, she can choose how to apply her pre-assessment XPs. Applying XPs from previously learned concepts and experiences can keep students from completing assignments that are unnecessary.

Since each student enters our classrooms with a unique set of strengths and needs, it is important to recognize and celebrate what students know and can do. It is equally important to recognize what students do not yet know and cannot yet do. Based on pre-assessment results, I know the strengths and gaps in each student's understanding of course concepts. Perhaps even more importantly, after completing the pre-assessment, my students now have an understanding of their own skills and competencies in relation to course learning outcomes. After pre-assessment results were in, a few students messaged me to say that they were surprised at how much they either did or didn't know.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of this level of self-awareness. Without a pre-assessment or some other opportunity to activate students' prior knowledge in relation to course learning outcomes, my students and I would be moving blindly ahead, tackling each topic and task without regard for students' strengths and needs. In online courses, which many instructors design and construct in their entirety before the semester begins, it can be difficult to envision ways to customize learning for students. This approach has helped me strike a balance between the need to design the course in advance and the need to be responsive to the unique learners in my course.