Making School Different

I have been reading, with great interest, a series of blog posts on the theme of making school different. Each post lists 5 things that we need to “stop pretending”. Thanks to Heather Theijsmeijer, who challenged me today to add my own thoughts.

My post risks offending some, though it is not my intent. I’ve had a lot of great “courageous conversations” with colleagues this year that have really pushed me.  I have seen a lot of value in just saying what you think, bluntly – but then being open to the feedback and dialogue that happens as a result. Please feel free to comment and even to disagree.

My post also risks being repetitive. I’m sure my 5 are not unique but if there are commonalities among those of us writing on this topic, that can be powerful. I’ve been really inspired by hearing from so many people who are willing to step back and consider that maybe “the way it has always been done” is not necessarily the best way. So many people have taken the risk to change, not knowing for sure if it was the right thing to do, but having strong reasons to believe it might be – and the guts to try.

In no particular order:

1. We have to stop pretending that kids all need the same thing. Sure, our words and policies often promote differentiation and IEPs, etc., but do our actions? And I don’t mean different for just some – I mean different for all. When we stand up in front of a room full of children and teach them all the same lesson, expect them all to do similar assignments, give them tests at the same time and expect them all to complete work by the same due date – we are not doing our best. This may mean looking at curriculum in a completely different way than we have before. It definitely means looking at assessment differently than we have before.

2. We have to stop pretending that truly differentiating is not possible. If you are trying to teach in a traditional framework, I can see how having to plan multiple lessons and multiple assignments and multiple assessments can be overwhelming and can make differentiation feel like a burden. We have split grades, several IEPS to manage, and a wide range of abilities in each class. That is our reality and if we see students as all needing to learn the same things and reach the same goals, it does begin to feel impossible.

When you see all students as individual, capable, curious and creative learners, and you give them a framework that is flexible, encouraging and challenging – shifting the responsibility of learning from the teacher to the student – it works. I have not always taught this way, but now that I am embracing inquiry, digital badging, and open, student passion driven learning, I can’t go back to how it was. I can’t promise reaching 100% of students 100% of the time, but I wasn’t achieving that before either.

When students have ownership of setting goals and planning their own projects, it doesn’t increase the teacher’s workload. My students come to me with proposals for what they want to do in order to reach overarching goals. Because they designed their own task themselves, they are so invested in it that classroom management is rarely an issue. I rely heavily on observations and conversations during the process – to encourage, to point out relevant resources, to inspire self-reflection, to give direct instruction on an “as needed” basis, to assess. By the time the final product is reached, students have already had ample feedback, there are no surprises and they have something they are proud of. I never have a pile of 30 of the same thing to mark. A few finished assignments come in each day. I conference with the students, we discuss successes and next steps and usually also take a moment to share and celebrate what was created with a wider audience.

I could go on, but I hope you get the point – true differentiation is possible and it is powerful. We have to let go of the curriculum “as a checklist” and embrace connecting overall themes cross-curricularly while focusing on really developing the learning skills students will need for their futures.

3. We have to stop pretending that testing and grades are accurate reflections of learning. I refer to both standardized provincial testing as well as teacher created tests and exams. At best, they are a snapshot of a particular moment in time – vulnerable to influence by so many unpredictable factors. At worst, they are a stressful, completely inaccurate and even limiting tool that is wildly misused (emotionally, politically, financially and otherwise).

The only place I give a grade is on the report card – and only because I am required to do so. To be sure – that does not mean that I am not assessing students on a regular basis – I am – through conversations, observations and feedback, but while doing my best to not control the journey and instead embrace each child’s intrinsic motivation. It is far more powerful for a student to know exactly where they are in their learning journey, and be in control of that learning, than to be trying to meet the expectations of someone else and not truly know how you measure up. We’ve all had those moments where we handed in something we knew was not a good effort, yet it got a good mark or vice versa. Certainly, we all require feedback and it can be dangerous to not know what we don’t know… so outside feedback from a teacher is still incredibly valuable, but it should always be connected to the context of each student’s own goals.

4. We have to stop pretending that keeping up with the latest new app or latest buzzword is important. I am a very tech-savvy person. Tech for me has always worked best on an “as needed” basis – that is to say, I select a tool to fit what I want to accomplish, rather than finding a new tool and figuring out how to integrate it.

When I first got an iPad, I spent days downloading hundreds of different apps, obsessed with finding the best ones for my students to use. If it was in someone’s ‘must have’ list, I tried it. If someone mentioned it on twitter, I tried it. If it was featured in the app store, I tried it. It was all futile.

There are only a handful of apps that I use on a regular basis. Once I find something that works, I stick to it unless it no longer meets my needs (which, of course, are evolving). I will occasionally try something new based on a critical mass of people I respect talking about it so much that my curiosity can’t take it anymore – but that is rare. This isn’t to say that trying new things is bad, but we really don’t need to master 5 different apps that do essentially the same job.

App smashing is a term that drives me crazy. When I first heard it, I realized that the process of app smashing was something I did without even realizing I did it – so I’m not at all bashing the process of using multiple apps to ultimately reach an end goal – sometimes it really is necessary for the best product. What does drive me crazy is the “recipes” that tell people what to use or the spinners/dice I’ve seen that randomly dictate to students what two tools to “smash” or the idea that using multiple apps is somehow preferable to using one app. Workflows often require using more than one tool. This is nothing new and existed long before apps and iPads. Being able to access the right tools to get the job done is an important skill and our end goal should drive our choices.

5. We have to stop pretending that the current method of organizing schools is the best way. Both physically in the design, layout and construction of schools, as well as the ways in which we group students and subjects within those four walls. I don’t know that I have the answers for how things should be – though it is something that I greatly enjoy considering. I do know that I’m in a brand new school building that was still designed exactly the same way schools have been designed since before I was a student. I also know I get the best results from students during my extra curricular activities (which, by the way, are the exact same activities students can do during class time but yet, when grouped with peers with similar interests, regardless of their age or ability, it’s a much better experience). I know that our day is artificially broken down into 40 minute chunks of time and I am often having to interrupt great learning right in the middle of peak engagement. I know that we have 30+ cookie cutter classrooms that should have been designed with student use of technology in mind – but they weren’t. We have individual student desks suited for rows and storing papers and books but not practical for accessing power and supporting collaboration. The whole idea of “classrooms” period could stand some reimagining.

6. We have to stop pretending that it’s okay for teachers to not be tech savvy. I have great admiration for teachers who, regardless of their prior experience, are always willing to improve in their use of technology. I am not talking about those people who are currently teaching, have a growth mindset and are making time to learn. But teacher education programs and new teacher interviews should be highly focused on ensuring a base level of confident tech use. I’m not saying everyone has to be an expert. But everyone should be able to do basic troubleshooting steps independently. Just like we want our students to use their resources and try strategies before coming to ask the teacher for help, we need to do the same thing before calling tech support. We will get better and better with technology the more we use it. We develop a toolbox of “things to try” when technology doesn’t behave how we expect. We become familiar with the ins and outs of the “quirks” of the devices we use. We are able to approach unfamiliar hardware and software and, with some trial and error, figure it out without too much anxiety. I strongly believe that truly great, transformational teaching outside the “traditional” cannot ignore technology as a major driver of learning. Teachers need to be suited to work in that environment.

 

So, that was 6, not 5… but while I was on my soapbox and on a roll, I just went with it 🙂 

 

 

 

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