Learning Alive: Trusting Students to be Learners

As educators, we are profoundly connected to the stories of our students. We know which students had breakfast, who fought with their brother on the way in, who feels anxious in social settings, who is celebrating a big flag football win, who is mourning the anniversary of losing a parent, who believes they are stupid, we know the one that feels isolated in their classroom. We know that every child comes with a unique story, a history that none other shares. It is our business to honor the humanity in our classrooms. It is our sacred duty to honor the identity of each student in our care.

Boxed curriculum falls short of honoring the identity of your students. It wasn’t created with them in mind. It was created for a number. It was created for an outcome. Created for an average.

This isn’t to say that curriculum companies aren’t trying. They work to offer differentiation strategies, they work to “personalize” pacing. But in the end, one problem remains: they don’t know the Students-with-Names in your classroom. They don’t know the stories that walk into your classroom each morning. Can’t possibly know the dynamics of your classrooms when all those unique stories collide and create a community of learners. I’ve been involved in education since 2003, and I’ve never had a duplicate story. Never had a community of learners that interacted in exactly the same way. As educators, we have to be agile.  Each day. Each hour. Each minute.

Boxed curriculum is far too static for the dynamic stories that fill a classroom. Unfortunately, it is boxed curriculum that dictates the learning in most schools. Walk into any classroom and you will see purchased curriculum. Schools even go so far as to brand themselves by the type of curriculum they’ve purchased. In the end it’s all the same. Static. Even the differentiation found in boxed curriculum is written as something that we do on behalf of students. “We will do something to our instruction so that the student can be more successful at meeting the requirements and goals set by norms.” This type of differentiation believes that by tweaking the way teachers  teach, it will make students better fit the system.

At Anastasis, we don’t purchase any boxed curriculum. At all. We are identity honoring, and we have yet to find a curriculum that takes into account the many stories that fill our building. The boxed curriculum packed full of differentiation strategies can’t hold a candle to what we’ve chosen to be guided by: Inquiry. Inquiry is a natural differentiator, but it isn’t something done on a student’s behalf; rather, inquiry empowers students as their own differentiators. Inquiry opens up the world of learning. It’s connective and has depth. It’s limitless. It honors identity by putting students in the driver seat.

Boxed curriculum gives students a map of a city. It details the exact destination, the route that must be taken, the transportation that must be used, and even the time that a student should arrive at the destination. Boxed curriculum’s goal is to get students to a destination as quickly as possible. Often students don’t even see why the destination is important or how it connects to the pre-determined stops along the way.

Inquiry opens limitless possibilities and puts students in charge of charting their own course. Instead of a map of the city, they are given a globe. They get to choose the route, destination, the transportation they will use. They get to decide where they will slow down to spend extra time exploring. They get to experience the joy in the journey. With inquiry, we offer provocations that set them off, but the journey, that’s for the student. The things they will see and experience, the connections they will make, the growth they’ll experience, the collision of ideas with classmates, it will be theirs.

The beauty of inquiry is that it honors the individual. It sends the subliminal message that we trust students to be learners, that they are capable, that they can do meaningful things without outside scripting. It demonstrates the deep belief that we are all learning beings. It reveals to kids that their interests/gifts/passions ARE learning. Suddenly they recognize that all learning is connected and living. That learning isn’t about school, it’s LIFE.

To reduce learning down to a scripted curriculum is wrong. It’s insulting. It puts learning in a box, limits it. It insinuates that learning has a beginning (Chapter 1) and an end (the test). It tells kids when they hit road blocks that their is something wrong with them (“I guess I’m just not good at math/reading/science/writing/history), instead of something wrong with the route chosen for them.

Inquiry is about a growth mind-set. Students see when they hit a hard spot in learning that there are ways to push in. They realize that they can chart a completely new path of discovery. They begin to see that maybe learning isn’t even contained to the continents and traditional modes of travel. They explore the possibility of choosing the moon, rockets as a mode of transportation. When this is possible why would we only give students a map of a city and try to tell them that it is learning?

Inquiry is identity honoring. It’s learning alive. A living curriculum.




Is differentiation a teacher-driven endeavor? Should it be?

Is differentiation a teacher-driven endeavor? Should it be?

This week I read a blog post by @whatedsaid that so succinctly describes the beauty of  inquiry for true differentiation. The post, How are all learners’ needs catered for?, proposes two scenarios for differentiation. The first describes carefully crafted options that provide access to a variety of learners.  The second looks at differentiation through inquiry. In this scenario there is an interesting open-ended question that naturally provides students ownership of their learning.  Toward the end of the post, @whatedsaid poses the question: “Does agency and ownership allow learners to learn at their own pace, seeking support when they need it?”

Where is the ownership of learning? In the first scenario, the onus of differentiation is on the teacher. It is up to the teacher to offer a variety of options that the learning could take. Ideally, enough entry points are offered so that all learners get their needs met. In the second scenario, students are empowered to own and direct their own learning through the inquiry process.

How do we help students encounter their own genius so that they 1) can engage the inquiry process, 2) learn at their own pace, and 3) Self-advocate when they need support?

At Anastasis, we cultivate student agency so that each child can uncover their own genius. Each student can drive their own learning in, and out of, school. Colleen Broderick of Re-School Colorado recently wrote about what this looks like at Anastasis in an article titled: First Steps Toward Agency: The Learner Profile.

So often when teachers come through Anastasis, they see our learner profile cards and think of the Learner Profile as a tool they use to differentiate the learning. The goal behind our Learner Profile is not to serve the teacher or the system, but rather the learner. The goal is to give students insight into themselves as learners so that as they engage the inquiry process they can make decisions to appropriately self-pace their learning, follow areas of passion, and self-advocate when they need additional support. The result is students who are equipped as life-learners. They don’t have to rely on a teacher to differentiate to meet their needs because it becomes part of their own learning process.

@whatedsaid, thank you for so perfectly summing up teacher-driven differentiation, and the differentiation that comes as a natural outcome of the inquiry process when we support kids in building agency!

When hunches collide

Lately I have had the overwhelming feeling that education is on the brink of something big.  Something that will so dramatically change the way that we think about school and learning that we may hardly recognize it as being such.  I feel like I am on the brink of something big within my own thinking, but it is like I can’t quite grasp it.  It is elusive like the word that is just on the tip of your tongue.  More accurately it is that my mind is racing with so much that I want to explore, but I don’t have time to slow down and think deeply about it because I feel like the run away trail of thoughts is leading to something important.  As I read through my Twitter stream and Google Reader I realize that I must not be the only one to feel this way.  I can’t be the only one with sticky notes all over the house, and scribbles on the back of receipts, and notes on my iPhone, tweets to myself, voice recordings in various apps.  Yesterday, I ran across this video that is an illustration of a TED talk by Steven Johnson called Where Good Ideas Come From.  In it, Johnson talks about how good ideas come in the collision between smaller hunches so that they form something bigger than themselves.  You have to create a way for those hunches to come together to form a breakthrough that is bigger than the sum of their parts.  I’ll let you watch the video (about 4 min. long) and then give you my thoughts.

As it applies to me:  This was really encouraging, I’m not the only one who thinks this way, who has a lot of hunches but can’t quite string them together into something coherent…at least not yet.  But, I am connected.  I am constantly letting my hunches collide with other hunches through collaboration on Twitter, blogs, and face to face conversations.  I’ll follow this line of thinking a little later in this post.

As it applies to students: Are we allowing students time to have good ideas?  Are they even provided time in the school day when they can even begin to have the smaller hunches?  If they are given that time, do we ever allow them to collaborate and let those hunches collide?  Is it possible that children could solve the world’s problems if we gave them time to develop their hunches and collaborate to the point of breakthrough?  As I think about great inventors and thinkers, it strikes me that the invention often happened in spite of their schooling (and often outside of it) instead of as part of their schooling.  This video reinforces the idea many companies are beginning to use of the 80-20 rule where employees are given 20% of their work time to sit and work on what they want.  Often what ends up happening is that the hunches begin to collide and breakthroughs in thinking occurs.  Google does this and has been wildly successful.  What if students were provided the same opportunities?  What might that look like?

Here are some things that have been percolating in my mind for the past week.  I have been meaning to write about each one separately but hesitated because I couldn’t pull the full vision together yet.  But I don’t have to be the one with all of the answers, I can offer my hunches, see what hunches you have in return and wait for the collisions and breakthroughs.

1.  The problem with curriculum and textbooks is that they complete thoughts.  Curriculum and textbooks give the impression that learning has an end.  That when you have made it from cover to cover the job is done.  I know in my own schooling this was true, I thought that school was teaching me what was important and that anything outside of the curriculum wasn’t important or relevant to my life…wouldn’t they have included it otherwise?  How did curriculum get this way?  Well, people realized that there was no possible way to cover every facet of learning, so they stripped it down to what they thought was important.  The problem? What is important to you may not be what is important to me.  What’s more, something that is very important to me may have been cut all together so I don’t even get the chance to know that it is important to me.  Humans tend to like things that are definable, we like things that we can put into a neat, orderly box and carry out in a predictable way.  It feels safe and manageable.  This is what led me to the following hunch:

What if curriculum was more flexible?  What if curriculum/schools/learning looked more like Pandora.  If you aren’t familiar with Pandora, it is an online radio station that plays the music that it thinks you will like.  You type in an artist or song and it creates a customized radio station just for you.  It is remarkably accurate.  Pandora almost never gets it wrong for me.  It is like they have a direct line to my brain and can predict what song I would like to hear next.  When it is wrong, I can give the song a thumbs down and it apologizes profusely for the error and promises never to play that song again on my station.  The other thing I love about Pandora: I can have multiple radio stations.  Because sometimes I really couldn’t think of anything in the world better than Frank, Dean, and Sammy; but other times  I also want a little Timberlake, Whitestripes, or Bangles.  What if curriculum looked like that?  What if learning happened as a result of typing in one subject or topic that a student was enamored with and a completely personalize learning journey began playing out for them?  What if students were led through a journey that was completely customized?  What if they had several stations mapped out for them?

It has always bothered me that I only had access to the teachers I had access to.  Let me explain that a little: I had some really incredible teachers growing up; my first, third, and fifth grade teachers were beyond exceptional.  I think about them often and model my own teaching on what they did.  I had an incredible creative writing teacher in high school.  I had an Algebra teacher who made me believe that I was a gifted math student.  I also had years with so-so teachers, teachers who didn’t really inspire the best in me.  That is not to say that another student didn’t connect with them and remember them years later.  It always bothered me that I didn’t get to pick ANY teacher in the world to be my teacher.  I knew that there were amazing teachers out there, why didn’t I get to learn from them?  Would my education have been different if I was matched up with the very best teachers in the world?  Would I be a different person if EVERY teacher I had inspired me the way that the 5 had?  Maybe what I needed was a mix of educational e-Harmony and Pandora.  A way to be matched up with the very best teachers for me alongside a curriculum path mapped out based on my passions.  That isn’t to say that I would ONLY be learning what I felt like learning, but if Pandora can get my song preferences right, and introduce me to some I didn’t know I liked, why couldn’t a curriculum do the same?  I’m not quite sure how that all plays out which is why it is hunch #1.

2.  What if every single school was built like an athletic team?  A dream team of passionate educators.  What if schools were marketed according to the dream teams and students could attend with the team that made the most sense for them?  Athletic teams are hand selected to meet certain needs, every football team needs someone who can throw well, someone who can run well, someone who can block, a strategist.  Schools are no different, they need teachers with different strengths and abilities to make up the dream team.  What if schools traded teachers every few years within the district, state, country, or world so that other students had access to those dream team teachers?  Forget about bad teachers, if schools were built this way only the best would be hired.  Maybe if we had dream team schools, teachers would begin to be viewed by the public as the professionals they are.  Schools would be known by the incredible professionals that make them up.  When the community starts viewing teachers as professionals, the pay scale should begin to shift to reflect that.  Dream teams would show the community and students that education is valued and important.  What message are kids getting now?  At this very moment a documentary and numerous media events are painting the problem with education as being directly in connection with “bad teachers”.  As a student, do you think education is valuable if you are being told that your teachers are bad?  Of course not!  We need parents to stand up and shout for their team (school) to tell the world that their teachers on their dream team are the best in the world.  How do we make that happen?  Again, I’m not quite sure…which is why it is hunch #2.

3. Most local businesses and larger corporations like to have their employees involved in some type of community service.  My husband’s company is involved in several community service ventures but they are more involved with the Boy Scouts of America.  They donate money, celebrate accomplishments, and show up at big events.  Since companies are already doing this (most half heartedly because they aren’t particularly passionate about it), why not use it to improve our schools?  What if the hours that companies committed were to schools?  Businesses could pledge time each year to be involved in the school.  Large companies could be involved throughout the year, smaller companies more sporadically.  Those within a company that naturally gravitate toward working with kids may be more involved.  Let’s get professionals in the schools showing kids where their learning is leading them.  Let’s give our students time to work along side a welder, carpenter, graphic artist, CEO, fireman, chef, restaurant owner, grocery store manager, etc., etc., etc.  Kids need to see what is possible and that learning is important.  Some don’t learn that until they are out of school.  How do we make the shift in the way companies think about serving in the community? Again, I don’t quite have it nailed down: hunch #3.

4.  The documentary Waiting for Superman has just come out in select theaters around the United States.  As a result people are talking about education as they never have before.  They are being critical of education and the school system (and they should be…it has been a long time coming).  There is a lot of talk about what is wrong and what isn’t working.  For the record, I think they are completely missing what is really wrong with education and focusing on the low hanging fruit (money, bad teachers).  Now that the focus is on education, why aren’t we standing up and doing something big?  Why are we letting Oprah and anchormen talk about education as if they know something about it?  What if each incredible educator in the nation put together a 60 second Superman/woman video?  60 second videos that show what is good in education, what is working, and offering ideas for change…solutions.   What if those videos went viral?  What if every teacher in every state wrote their local news stations and gave them access to the videos?  Would parents and community members start to get a more realistic picture of what is happening in education?  I’m ready to make this one more than a hunch!

5. Yesterday I was catching up on some Twitter conversation, I had just missed #cpchat where administrators get together for a live Elluminate session and talk education, leadership, and learning.  I saw a comment from @Cybraryman1 to @gcouros saying: “Wish we could start The Twitter Academy with all the great teachers and supervisors here. It would be a phenomenal school.”  I plunked myself right into the middle of this conversation and responded: “why can’t we start Twitter Academy? Let’s stop wishing and do it!”  What resulted was immediate excitement from several educators chiming in and calling dibs on their part in Twitter Academy.  I made up a hash tag #twitacad and before I knew it, a logo had been created by @mrsenorhill.  

Now, I’m not sure about everyone else, but I was serious when I asked why not?  I was serious when I said let’s stop talking and do it already.  The only people getting in our way is us.  Why a Twitter Academy?  Well see #1 paragraph 3 and you will have my answer, then take a look at #2.  A dream team.  Why not?  This is still hunch #5 because I’m not really sure how to make this a reality.  Could the dream team be virtual?  Could the dream team help to make #1 a reality?  Ideally Twitter Academy would be an actual location…but since I haven’t yet convinced you all to move to beautiful Colorado, I’m not sure that it is realistic.  But, what nuggets could we take of this idea (and those hunches above) to collide and create a breakthrough here?  I don’t think it is impossible, we just haven’t come up with the exact framework yet.  Those of you who attended the Reform Symposium, may have caught Monika Hardy and her students presenting on TSD innovation Lab.  They are on to something here and I think that this is the beginning steps of what Twitter Academy could look like.

Alright, now it is your turn, what hunches do you have?  What ideas can we bring together and make breakthroughs with?  How can we take steps to radically rethink education and then take action-today?  Who wants to be involved in Twitter Academy and what ideas do you have that will make it a reality?  Maybe it is arrogance or ego on my part, but I feel like I have been dropped into this point in history with connections with all of you for a reason.  I refuse to believe it is just so that we can talk education.

I believe it will be us.

We will be the individuals whose ideas collide together and transform education.