Saturday, February 27, 2010

At 35,000 feet

Blogging as an act of defying gravity this morning! I'm on the plane, headed home from 3 days in San Francisco at the NAIS annual conference. The wifi on the plane is such a bonus--I'm not the world's happiest flyer and the attractions of playing around online do a fabulous job of distracting me from the stresses of worrying about "what was that bump?" every few minutes. Of course, I've already tweeted that I'm pondering the fact that wifi is easier at 35000 ft. than at the Moscone Center.

Today's post is an extended thank you note to a number of people who have inspired me to think and build new connections in my brain lately. It's not a reflection on the many wonderful, thought-provoking sessions I attended--that's coming later.

This is the third time I've attended this conference and the second time I've presented. It's a conference that can be a little intimidating--lots of heads of schools and senior administrators in attendance. I co-presented with Jason Ramsden of Ravenscroft School, who is one of those fast-thinking, fast-talking, million miles a minute people who are just fun to listen to. It was an honor to be invited to present with him.

As so often happens, while the session went well, the thought and planning that went into creating the session was the most professionally satisfying part. Jason and I have been having an ongoing conversation about innovation for almost two years. We've been talking (along with Sam Morris, Meredith Stewart, and Matt Scully and a few thousand other eduthinkers) via podcast chat rooms, twitter, email, skype and occasionally we're even in the same place at the same time.

The conversations take on different flavors, depending on the focus, the type of school, current events, student needs. . . but there are recurring themes. What do students need and deserve from educators? They need our A game, every day, every period. How do we keep getting better at what we do? We need to be creative and forward-thinking in our professional practice. Are these notions in conflict? How can we be at our best every day if we are also supposed to be taking risks and accepting that we'll fail sometimes?

I'm not sure we solved that dilemma in our session, but I hope we brought the right questions. The truth is that our students leave every class with (we hope) new meanings and connections in their minds. We can't put this meaning in those minds, they have to make it. The same is true of attendees at a conference session. And that's why we encourage innovating (and accept responsible failure). Because if it is done intentionally, a la Peter Gow, then students will be empowered to make meaning out of the experiences we share with them. And so will we.

I tried something new for me and included some unscientific drawings in the session. I was inspired by Jessica Hagy, whose brilliant blog first came to my attention with her Why Teachers Drink post. I'm not the only person who has been inspired by Hagy's work, but I bet I was the only one at NAIS with completely data-free graphs in my presentation :) To the left is my favorite, inspired by Ralph Davison's "Think small, big ideas scare people."
And, because it's my blog, here's one more on how good things (autonomy, feedback) can become problems (neglect, micromanagement) without intentionality. I'm going to try making more of these in the future because drawing them forces me to reflect on my thoughts in a non-language way that I'm not accustomed to doing. It's unbelievable how many drafts of these simple diagrams I created along the way. New dendrites!

I was grateful that the group arrived ready to talk--we had several pair-share times built into the session, and I should have known that a room full of independent school educators would have no trouble making the most of that time! We also had a live-blogger in the room, many thanks to Chris Bigenho for sharing his talents with us.

One of the comments that was shared during the discussion time focused on not letting the pace of surviving the day and its challenges keep us from reflecting on our practice and growing intellectually. That is a constant challenge for me and, I think, for many others. I am grateful to be an educator in the web 2.0 era. I benefit every day from the tools that make it so easy to participate in a network of "smart happy people" who push me to reflect on my practice.

So--to those I've mentioned and many others I haven't, a heartfelt thank you, this session couldn't have happened without you! You defy gravity every day!


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Why students should model themselves after experts.

Some of the material I've been reading lately has helped me clarify my thinking, but not completely. So there's a bit of digestion going on in this post, with more to come after I finish Curriculum 21.

I've been struggling with Daniel Willingham's Why Don't Students Like School? I wouldn't presume to question Willingham's discussion of the cognitive science behind memory and the structure of how the brain learns; that part of his book is instructive and very interesting. Instead, I'm struggling instead with some of the conclusions Willingham draws, such as Students Are Ready to Comprehend but Not to create Knowledge, which is a subtopic in one of his chapters. Another is that we can't effectively teach children about a subject by having them do what experts in the field are doing. He calls this Don't Expect Novices to Learn by Doing What Experts Do.

Just over a week ago, I was fortunate enough to attend Educon and tour the Science Leadership Academy where students do indeed learn by doing what experts do. In fact, one group of students is seeking a patent for a process that they wouldn't tell me very much about (smart kids!) Willingham makes a good case for the value of direct instruction. Sometimes, educators sound like we are eschewing direct instruction when what we're really doing is assuming it. Kids need some explicit instruction in order to be able to engage in meaningful project-based-learning. But, what value does the direction instruction have without application?

I like Willingham's call to clearly teach students about learning, and not just about content. I try to actually use the terms for the types of teaching I'm using and make the process more >> trendy term alert>>transparent for students. For example. my students know the term Imaginative Rehearsal and that it means they are using fiction and role play to imagine scenarios and the possible outcomes.

Just recently, someone pointed me towards How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School (1999), specifically, chapter two: How Experts Differ From Novices. There's a fascinating description of an historical puzzle and the different approaches to solving the puzzle that experts and novices took. What constituted expertise? High content knowledge and strong process knowledge. The experts in the process of historical research were more likely to find the solution than were those with just high content knowledge. Those with both process expertise and high content knowledge in another area were able to solve the puzzle, but needed more time than the experts who already had relevant content knowledge. Those with only content knowledge did not solve the puzzle.

This finding encourages me. Willingham asserts that novices can't learn by imitating experts because their cognition isn't the same. But he never describes how to teach cognition. In contrast, the authors of How People Learn spend a great deal of time stressing the importance of metacognition, or thinking about your thinking. The virtuosos they describe were self-reflective enough to understand what they didn't know, to realize what they needed to learn, and then how to go about that learning. This is a process that even young students can learn. I've learned that when I work with teachers on improving their professional practice, it's important to find a way for them to be reflective. Not everyone is a blogger (writer), but that's not the only method for reflection. Michael Wesch, of has done fascinating work on video diary experience.

Most of the talk today about what makes meaningful learning are based in what Demitri Orlando and others call "any-century skills." I'm not one to think that only new books have implications for the classroom experience. The idea that students need intellectual agility didn't originate with Tony Wagner, although he does a masterful job of articulating why this matters. While I was completing my reading specialist work, there was research from decades ago that was meaningful and important.

I decided to ask a group of our sixth grade students what they thought about the idea that they weren't ready to "imitate experts yet." They had a lot to say! They gave me example after example of times they exhibited what I would call expert-like behavior. I wish I'd thought to video their responses. They also talked about how meaningful they find projects such as the student organized blood drive we're engaged in right now. This is a project that makes me proud of our students and our school every year!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Educon in 5 minutes?

So--I've been asked to explain my Educon trip in less than 5 minutes to our PDT (curriculum) group this afternoon. The email asking me to do this was sent at 10:19pm last night! Now, I'm sometimes a late night kind of gal, so I picked it up then and went into panic mode. I immediately turned to my network for help.

Of course, the network came through! First, I received a link to the perfect article about Educon in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Why perfect? It's short, has a nice summary of the history, and includes this quote from Chris Lehman, the founding (and current) principal of Science Leadership Academy It is fundamentally an educational forum that looks at the intersection of progressive pedagogy and 21st-century tools

I've diigoed the article, along with my highlights to share with the curriculum group. More than half of them will have read it by the time we meet. I also made a Wordle out of the article:

Wordle: Educon

I tried making a wordle out of my live-blogs, but there was too much editing required.

Then, @jasonmkern led me to visible tweets. So cool! Not sure what to do with it though. No projector at this gathering.

My favorite Chris Lehman quote is "Technology should be like oxygen; ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible." So there's my starter. It's not a 2010 Educon quote, he's been saying this for a while, but it's worth saying over and over. Wash, rinse, repeat.

While my head is still wrapping around much of what I learned, I did come back with one immediate take-away. Dave Bill and Basil Kolani at the Dwight School led a conversation about creating a model for online participatory learning. Their model + the conversation in the room led me to start bugging a group of our teachers. We're going to start teaching the kids we have in the classroom, online. Next week. Well, later this month anyway. I really like what Bill and Basil accomplished by using online methods with on-campus kids. It makes for a nice transition into the world of online learning.

We know that by the time they get to college, most of these students will take a significant portion of their coursework online. How will they cope? By introducing them to online learning while we still have physical access to them, we can help students with an eye to their developmental readiness. Plus, the students and the teachers can defy gravity but still have a safety net. This image is actually of a trampoline, but I loved it and time pressure means. . .

So there it is! Think I can do it in 5?