Archive for Professional Development

Teacher Leadership

By reputation, teaching offers few advancement opportunities. Schools don’t normally have many management positions, and only a few teachers transform into school administrators. At University Prep, however, we believe in the value of broadly distributing teacher leadership, both to enhance the educational experience and provide avenues for professional growth. We provide many opportunities for teachers to assume leadership roles.

Department heads are the school’s instructional leaders. They supervise and mentor teachers, collaborate in hiring and staffing processes, and develop the instructional culture of the school. Department heads receive a reduced course load and a stipend to support their work.

Class deans oversee student progress and needs within each grade level. They collaborate with the Student Services Team to identify and support students with socio-emotional or academic needs. Class deans receive a reduced course load to support their work.

Ad-hoc committees explore emergent school issues and recommend next steps. Recent ad-hoc committees have studied teacher feedback, extra help, mindfulness, narrative reports, computer science, and laptop programs. Teachers often initiate and lead ad-hoc committees.

Strategic planning includes teachers in board-led committee work on the long-term future of the school, particularly the direction of the educational program.

Curriculum proposals are initiated by teachers and then discussed in departments before moving to administrative bodies for approval.

School programs such as outdoor trips, Global Link, community service, ski bus, and middle school assemblies and socials depend on teacher leadership and participation. Some teachers receive a reduced course load in order to lead these programs.

Student clubs each have a faculty advisor. The advisor experience is very rich in the more active clubs such as National Honor Society, Students of Service, Mock Trial, Debate Club, Science Olympiad, and Multicultural Student Alliance.

Change of Pace Days depart from the regular class schedule to focus on contemporary issues such as social justice and community service. Teachers propose topics, facilitate workshops, and tap their professional networks to enrich the student experience.

Conferences: Teachers share their work at national and regional conferences, including the NAIS Annual Conference, People of Color Conference, NWAIS Educators Conference, National Arts Education Association national conference, Washington State Council for Social Studies annual conference. Teachers are well-supported to attend conferences and visit schools, expanding their exposure to new ideas and developing their professional networks.

Accreditation teams: We support teachers in serving on NWAIS accreditation visiting teams, an incredibly rich experience for understanding school program design and our peer northwest schools.

Career advancement: A number of our department heads who assume significant leadership responsibilities subsequently take jobs in school administration, both at University Prep and elsewhere.

Book Review: Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice

inside the black boxHere is a very brief review of Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change Without Reform in American Education. I so appreciate that Larry Cuban continues to publish productively on the history of education and school change. Through his blog, book forwards, and latest book, Cuban explores the most confounding quality of school reform: the more policymakers change, the more classroom practice stays the same. Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice summarizes Cuban’s past work comparing national education policy to his direct observations of classroom practice. In this way, Cuban explodes myths about the effects of federal and state education initiatives on the student experience in schools. Cuban also spends a chapter exploring parallels to the evolution of the training and evaluation of medical practice.

Central to the argument is the idea of the multi-layered curriculum. Federal education policy is interpreted by states. State education standards are interpreted by districts. District initiatives are monitored by schools. Teachers interpret the curriculum as they teach. Students interpret the curriculum that they receive. Finally, assessments reveal only a partial picture of what students have actually learned. Cuban explains that these many layers have so diluted the original intent of education policy that classroom practice has remained fairly immune to change over decades. He also points out that much national and state education policy has been alarmingly simply in its theory of school change, for example that school accountability to student test scores would necessarily cause improvement in teaching practice, or that adding thousands of computing devices would necessarily improve student learning.

Education is not just complicated, however. It is complex. Cuban explains that complex systems involve humans making varying decisions and lack central command. Interdependencies and interactions exist among many different actors, often with conflicting objectives and methods. Top-down directives and simplified change theories fail to cause actual change in complex systems. Rather, Cuban argues, education policymakers would do better to empower and support teachers as professionals, change agents, and experts. School reform must address all layers of the multi-layered curriculum in order to have any chance of causing actual change on the ground.

Ironically, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice does not get very far into the classroom beyond confirming that it remains little affected by decades of large scale education reform. Other books and studies help complete the inquiry. For example, David Perkins and Project Zero studied classrooms in depth to determine when moments of understanding were achieved and created a model for effective classroom instruction based on that. Jack Schneider examined four changes to education practice that did in fact take root in the classroom and identified key factors in penetrating the black box of classroom practice. Together, these studies help identify key aspects of each layer that affects classroom practice and ultimately may help educators navigate the complex, shifting worlds of education policy.

Teaching for Understanding

This article describes University Prep’s emphasis on teaching for understanding, a focus of our professional development program this year. I wrote it for the University Prep community, to be published in the winter issue of Happenings, the school magazine.

Raise your hand if you are against understanding. Anyone? It seems obvious that understanding should be the goal of education. However, during its history, American education has assigned greater importance to knowledge and procedure than to analysis, insight, and application. Schools have generally expected students to memorize great volumes of detailed facts and practice formulaic solutions to stock problems. The nation’s recent emphasis on standardized testing, to measure both student progress and teacher quality, has further narrowed this emphasis.

20 years ago, one of my teaching colleagues epitomized the traditional teaching method. He lectured from a sheaf of handwritten notes, yellowed from years gone by and marked with tiny refinements. His students listened closely and transcribed furiously, then pored over these notes in preparation for detailed tests. Thinking was not required, since the teacher told the students everything he expected them to know. Understanding was far from guaranteed, as students had few opportunities to draw their own conclusions and receive feedback. Yet, this teacher was considered one of the best of the faculty, a master of the craft.

Since the advent of the information age, both teachers and students have gained access to more knowledge than one can consume in a lifetime of study. Computers have gradually automated most of the procedural tasks that we used to complete manually. Has computing therefore reduced the importance of thinking and understanding? Not at all! Now that practically anyone can find and share great volumes of facts and execute procedures, our students must develop sophisticated thinking skills and gain understanding. Critical analysis, persuasive speaking, cultural competency, logical and sequential reasoning, and other thinking skills are now necessary in order to successfully distinguish evidence from opinion, appreciate different arguments and perspectives, and use technology to further human society.

As public schools have gradually ceded control of their educational programs to state and national mandates, independent schools have continued to develop student thinking and understanding. Teachers have selected the topics that best serve students. Students, working in small classes, have shared their ideas and received feedback. Multiple ways of thinking, such as the arts, languages, and physical education, have remained integral to the academic program. Rich co-curricular subjects, including outdoor education, global programs, social justice, community service, information studies, academic technology, and learning support, have broadened students’ understandings.

Great lessons start with great questions. How has the past influenced the present? How can we tell whether two variables are associated? How will we provide energy for future generations? What are the rights and responsibilities of a citizen? On September 25, the full faculty completed a workshop on essential questions, ideas that encourage thinking because they are open-ended, house multiple perspectives, and reflect current topics in the discipline. Leading research and professional organizations have informed this work, including the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Coalition of Essential Schools, and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. The book Making Learning Whole, by David Perkins, is a good place to start if you want to learn more about essential questions and authentic education.

High-quality classrooms encourage students to think. This is harder to accomplish than you might think! In one large project, researchers from Harvard’s Project Zero studied hundreds of classes and identified the moments during which learning happened and understanding was achieved. Based on this research, they then developed “thinking routines,” questions and activities that encourage student thinking and make it visible to the teacher. “See, Think, Wonder” encourages students to generate questions about a topic. “Think, Puzzle, Explore” asks students to identify dilemmas and enter them through stories. “Slow Looking” plumbs the depths of an image for its most revealing clues. “The Language of Thinking” asks teachers to use better words than “think” to encourage specific kinds of intellectual activity.

On October 10, four U Prep faculty and staff members traveled to a conference titled, “Making, Thinking, Understanding.” The Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and the Center for the Advancement and Study of International Education (CASIE) offered the conference. Our colleagues learned about some 40 thinking routines and studied examples from various subject areas. On October 22, they shared their favorite thinking routines with the U Prep faculty and had their colleagues practice the routines as students.

Successful students grasp the core ideas in a discipline. How do experts in English, history, and science make sense of the world? What questions remain unanswered? What controversies are most active in each field? To further develop instruction in these areas, U Prep faculty and staff members attend a variety of disciplinary conferences each year. Just this fall, these have included the Race and Pedagogy National Conference, the Washington State Council for the Social Studies, and the Northwest Mathematics Conference. Conversations continue each year about how to further refine our curricula to reflect contemporary thinking in the disciplines.

U Prep teachers are recognized leaders in teaching for understanding. On October 10 alone, the statewide in-service day, eight U Prep teachers presented their work at regional conferences, on subjects as varied as computer science, art and social change, Maker programs, teaching contemporary methods in English and visual art, and Middle School debate programs.

As independent schools such as U Prep continue to teach for understanding, the national education dialogue has begun to shift away from standardization and testing. The Common Core increases emphasis on analysis and application relative to previous national standards. Recent articles (e.g., Seattle Times Education Blog) have suggested that smaller class sizes and student-centered instruction help students succeed in school. While time will tell whether American education fully commits to the pursuit of thinking and understanding, U Prep will continue to prepare students to think, understand, and become intellectually courageous, socially responsible citizens of the world.

 

Stanford+Connects Seattle

IMG_2572I relived a little piece of the Stanford experience and met interesting people at the Stanford+Connects event this past Saturday at the Washington Convention Center. These alumni events travel the country, featuring talks by the university’s president, several distinguished professors, and two students. I don’t ever make it to reunion events, and while I attend similarly timely and stimulating University of Washington or independent school talks from time to time, I don’t ever attend my college reunion events. I also got to learn about topics that I typically only read about or listen to through TED talks and NPR pieces. Some highlights for me: President Hennessy spoke to the many building and program development projects at Stanford, a number of which have emerged from the a recent comprehensive study of the undergraduate program. Among these: ten new joint majors that combine computer science with subjects in the humanities.

The five mini-lectures were most welcome, because of course I wanted to hear all of the speakers. These included two students: Westin Gaylord on a project that he and his friends started to write creatively every day, and Derek Ouyang on an energy neutral, pre-fab house core design competition for which he led a team. Three professors also presented mini lectures, Carla Shatz on restarting synapse generation in old age, S.V. Mahadevan on bringing emergency medicine to developing nations, and Robert Sutton on improving organizations by eliminating the bad. Dan Klein (with a nod to Patricia Ryan Madson) added an improv demonstration and three activities that got us out of our seats and meeting neighbors!

With a nod to our grad school memories, my wife and I attended David Kennedy’s historical review of water management in the U.S. west. Many alums fondly remembered Kennedy’s lectures, though this was my first! Kennedy shared a wealth of historical facts that laid the groundwork for contemporary federal water management practices, including many challenges. Did you know that the federal government owns fully 45% of the last west of the 100th meridian? This is in contrast to the east, in which the federal government sold nearly all of its holdings in the past. He painted a rather bleak picture for the future of the combined effects of rising global temperature, drought, and consumption increases.

Margot Gerritsen presented a detailed view into “unconventional” oil and gas, including tar sands and fracking. Her perspective, backed up with copious data, is that unconventional energy has already arrived, and we would be best served minimizing its negative effects than trying to “prevent” it from “emerging.” Gerritsen also demystified newspaper headlines, looking at the data to suggest that injection of chemicals into deposits during fracking is unlikely to contaminate groundwater, but water injection is in fact responsible for up to magnitude five earthquakes!

With a rare opportunity to learn outside of my field, I did not attend the one education session. However, I did take a moment to skim a paper by Candace Thille, who presented a session on big data and transformations in education. Thille is an expert on MOOCs and co-founded the Open Learning Initiative (OLI), first at Carnegie Mellon and now at Stanford. She echoes the distinction that others have noted between the original cMOOCs that adopt a connectivist pedagogy and the newer xMOOCs (Coursera, EdX) that have fueled popular interest. Thille then makes a further distinction between xMOOCs that simply put the university lecture hall experience online and those that make student data analytics available to instructors to further instruction.

Many thanks to the Stanford Alumni Association and Stanford Club of Washington for arranging a day of fun, learning, and contemporary topics.

Computer Science: Where Are We Now?

IMG_2470

The view from my seat

At the NWAIS Educators Conference two weeks ago, I facilitated a session to gather teachers and school leaders to discuss the current state of computer science instruction in our schools. The importance of learning coding, in particular, has received much national attention lately through initiatives such as Code.org, Hour of Code, and the Maker movement. Computer Science courses at major universities have exploded in popularity. Technology use has become ubiquitous in practically all aspects of life and work. K-12 schools are wondering how to modify their programs in response. Should all students learn to code?

At the same time, I wonder whether parallels exist with the programming instruction movement of the 1980’s. More accessible computing languages such as BASIC and Pascal led to similar calls for programming literacy. Many K-12 schools offered their first programming courses, and a number of colleges made basic coding a graduation requirement. However, personal computers also became more available during this time, and technology literacy surpassed programming as the required competency. Programming receded as a K-12 course of study, even disappearing entirely from some schools.

At the NWAIS session, we discussed a series of questions that I think are fundamental to the question of computer science at K-12.I deliberately avoided typical questions such as what programming languages we teach or what computing platforms we use. Participants offered responses to these questions and shared a wide range of new ideas that they are trying at their schools.

What are the pros and cons of “coding?”

I asked this question to explore the distinction between coding and computer science, which I think is fundamental to the longevity and educational value of computer science instruction in K-12 schools. Coding refers to the writing of code, also known as programming, a core concept in the field of software engineering. However, software engineering is just one specialty in the discipline of computer science, and it’s an applied field, not even in the core of the discipline. A 2005 report by the CSTA Curriculum Improvement Task Force noted:

… the view that computer science equals programming is especially strong in most of the curricula because introductory courses focus (sometimes exclusively) on programming and this focus limits the ability to reliably describe the intellectual substance of the discipline. (Denning, 2004)

The core ideas in computer science are theoretical and perhaps most accessible to K-12 education through the concept of “computational thinking.” Logical and sequential reasoning, algorithms, data structures, and systematic approaches to problem solving are some of the principal concepts in computer science. Students can explore and learn these ideas with programming and even without a computerScratch is a popular learning environment in elementary grades in part because it captures some fundamental CS concepts so well, although one might argue that is miseducates for other concepts (e.g., variables).

Interestingly, the distinction between coding and computer science did not resonate with most of the participants in our conference session. While they expressed many positive reactions to the nationwide emphasis on coding, they did not share our concern about the potential conflation of coding with computer science. One school did support the idea that computer science is broad field with many applications. As an example, they offer two computer science electives, Software Development and Design & Technology, that underscore such distinctions.

Which department should house CS courses?

Similarly, the decision of where to house computer science courses has many implications. At different schools, the math, science, arts, and even languages departments house and provide credit for computer science courses. However, theorists agree that computer science is a distinct discipline, and universities typically have a college for computer science, sometimes joined with engineering. Some high schools affiliate with this idea by creating a computer science department even if it includes only one teacher. U Prep created a “general studies” course category (not an actual staff department) to house computer science, digital media, journalism, and global leadership courses.

At the elementary level, the question is a bit simpler, since the school day typically includes just two kinds of classes, homeroom and specials. “Computer class” can house many applications of technology, including computational thinking, what problems technology is good (and bad) at solving, simple physical computing, computer ethics, and basic software development. Or, computing can be integrated within homeroom.

How may we reach all students with CS? How may we attract and retain girls and traditionally underrepresented minorities?

Historically, computer science courses have appealed to a niche group of students, likely due to a self-reinforcing cycle of cultural stereotypes, curriculum, and teaching styles. How may we broaden the appeal of computer science so that all students at least consider that they might find an elective course in computer science interesting and fulfilling?

We are trying several approaches at U Prep. The school’s first full-time computer science teacher earned her major in gender studies, minor in theoretical computer science, and master’s degree in teaching. She therefore possesses the variety of life experiences needed to design our computer science program for content, teaching methods, and social dynamics. We can deconstruct how different students contextualize computer science within their cultural contexts and act in a manner that is responsive to their needs.

Another key idea in our program is the introduction of computational thinking to all students through the required courses in our early grade levels. Our computer science teacher also partners with our sixth and seventh grade science and math teachers to ensure that all students have a direct, positive experience with computer science before they have the opportunity to select subsequent elective courses.

How may we meet the needs of CS enthusiasts?

While it is critical to consider our “non-majors,” we also want to meet the needs of our computer science enthusiasts and provide welcoming spaces for geeks and non-geeks alike to explore and learn with different technologies. We aim to provide students who express high interest in computer science with a theoretical grounding through our CS courses, as well as an array of student-led, faculty-supported clubs, so that they may explore specialized fields such as mobile software development, physical computing, web programming, and security.

How can you attract and retain great CS teachers?

It is very difficult to attract and retain full-time computer science teachers at K-12. One may try to hire computer science specialists, but they tend to have little teaching experience and more lucrative job offers beyond education. Or one may hire candidates with solid teaching experience but little subject matter expertise. Neither case is ideal. At U Prep, we are trying a combination of both ideas, following the model we learned about at Menlo School. Our full-time computer science teacher plans to work with interested math teachers to first integrate computer science instruction within math courses and then recruit and train up interested math teachers to teach introductory computer science courses. While this may blur the lines between disciplines, it has a good chance of growing our pool of qualified teachers of computer science.

Where may you get support and ideas?

During a time of rapid change in the discipline, and its application to K-12 instruction, it is critical to have a solid network of CS education professionals to share ideas and approaches, and provide support for one’s work within schools. Here in Seattle, we are lucky to have the Puget Sound Computer Science Teachers Association and the University of Washington’s Computer Science and Engineering K-12 Outreach Program. Both are invaluable in our development of computer science curricula. You probably have a CSTA chapter in your area.

Book Review: Making Learning Whole

Making Learning WholeIn Making Learning Whole, David Perkins provides a highly accessible, comprehensive summary of curriculum design principles that encourage thinking, engagement, and mastery. Perkins frames the discussion within a sports metaphor, comparing the way that young people play a “junior version” of professional sports to how students might master the fundamental concepts and skills of an academic discipline such as English or science. The concepts themselves are commonly expressed in the technical language of education theorists — zone of proximal development, experiential learning, and so on. Perkins wraps these ideas within an overarching framework of accessible, common language that is friendly and approachable.  It helps if you have heard these terms before, but Perkins helpfully summarizes each concept in case you have not.

Perkins addresses one of the most significant but not well-publicized core problems with education in the United States today: the epidemic of student disengagement with school learning. American schooling has become a chore that the great majority of students suffer through. Content is dry, disconnected from real life, and overly procedural. Although many students learn to play the game of school and find success, most leave so much engagement and learning potential on the table, and an alarming number fail outright. Some find their passion for learning outside of the core school program, either in co-curricular activities or through personal hobbies. Schools, not students, are the problem. Perkins would like to see teachers “make the game worth playing.”

Unlike some education books, Perkins does not limit the text to one education concept. Each of the seven principles of “making learning whole” includes within it several curriculum design principles gleaned from education research. For example, “work on the hard parts” encompasses practice activities, formative assessment, peer- and self-assessment, isolation/reintegration, six forms of knowledge, and instructive exercises. This makes the text a rich resource for learning the practice of curriculum design, whether one is relatively new to the field or a seasoned educator.

Perkins takes the sensible route between competing ideologies. While firmly constructivist, Perkins acknowledges the importance of basic skills acquisition and other hallmarks of traditional education. He thus avoids the pitfalls of binary education debates and emphasizes a holistic view of education. For example, when exploring “playing the whole game,” Perkins includes “project-based learning, problem-based learning, case-based learning, community action initiatives, role-playing scenarios, formal debate, and studio learning.” Each of these learning forms has its books and proponents. Perkins skillfully emphasizes principles shared among these while acknowledging differences, an approach friendly to education practitioners.

The chapter on “the hidden game” is particularly powerful, as it treats fundamental flaws in thinking processes that pervade student (and teacher) work. Deficits in self-management, causal thinking, depth of explanation, and complexification affect not only learning but full participation in society. Perkins badly wants students to become logical, critical thinkers who achieve a depth of understanding that prepares them to more fully understand big, sometimes contentious ideas of our time: evolution, climate change, global conflict.

In contrast to some education experts, Perkins believes that quality curriculum is more important than quality pedagogy. Noting that students forget most of what they learn in school, one might think that the process of learning wad more important. Perkins is unwilling to throw in the towel on content, rather suggesting that reorganized content has a chance to stick.

The education profession badly needs more books like Making Learning Whole, which presents a wide range of teaching practices within a highly accessible, overarching frame. All too often, problems in education are reduced to simple forms that writers purport to solve with simple solutions. Perkins embraces complexity but also provides an opening for the everyday teacher, parent, or student to understand it. Perkins’ contribution may help the general public understand that education is a complex profession in which well-trained professionals should be supported and empowered to deepen their practice and give all kids the quality education that they deserve.

The Smartest Kids In the World

Each summer, U Prep faculty members read a choice of three books to kick off the professional development theme for the following academic year. This year, our professional development theme is “Teaching for Understanding,” defined as curriculum design and teaching practices that lead students to acquire deep, enduring understanding of subject matter and skills. The first book, The Smartest Kids In the World, asks what the United States high school education system can learn from comparisons to three countries: Finland, South Korea, and Poland. Written by a journalist, the book meets our summer reading criteria of readability, thoughtfulness, and connection to our professional development theme for the year.

book-photo-smartestSome authors, it seems, try to write a book from material that would have done just as well as a magazine article. The Smartest Kids In the World is no such book. Impressive in scope, Amanda Ripley explores and connects several topics worthy of a full volume. Ripley begins by explaining the origin of the PISA test, the basis for recent comparisons of student performance among different countries. In several subsequent chapters, she tells the stories of three American high school students who each study abroad for a year. The three stories weave in and out through chapters organized connected to principles from education research. Making specific connections between research and practices supports Ripley as she explores the implications of the three students’ experiences. The appendices provide information useful to parents, such as Ripley’s take on things to look for when you observe a school and what PISA reveals about beneficial parenting habits.

Ripley repeats her primary message throughout the book: national education reform is possible, because here are three countries that have made massive changes over relatively short periods of time. Finland rocketed up the standings by overhauling its teacher selection, preparation, and induction programs. Poland committed to rigor and student accountability in order to emerge from the damage wreaked by political instability. South Korea is portrayed as two systems: formal schooling that students largely ignore, plus night tutoring centers that do the real job of teaching students. Ripley, the journalist, observes, summarizes, and then concludes, lending support to her recommendations.

Ripley sees several lessons that the U.S. should learn from these three educational systems. High expectations are critical for both teachers and students. Ripley’s students find themselves behind as a result of moving from the U.S. to these countries. National testing enforces high standards, leading to rigorous study habits and high quality instruction. Each of these countries has a high-stakes, national exam toward which students are constantly working. Unlike in the U.S., the national exam has direct career implications for students, so that they have high motivation to work hard and succeed. High standards for teachers make it possible to uphold high standards for students. Finland’s teacher education programs have high entry requirements. In South Korea, a second, the most effective night tutors profit directly from these business ventures. Poland provided teachers with curricular freedom while implementing more rigorous standards.

Common Core notwithstanding, the U.S. education system is primarily directed by individual states. Can these reforms, found in other countries, work in the U.S.? Ripley finds such a state in Minnesota. This completes her argument: if three U.S. students find more rigor abroad, and a U.S. state can similarly improve, then this must be the way to go. At the same time, Ripley pulls no punches in her criticisms of the dominant mindset in U.S. education. Ripley repeatedly cites examples of a failure to commit to high standards, hold students individually accountable for their performance, and select the best teaching candidates and prepare them thoroughly for teaching.

Ripley’s argument passes the “common sense” test. High standards, teacher preparation, and accountability certainly makes a good formula for improvement in education systems. The book also serves as a useful introduction to international comparisons. As a New York Times best seller, this message has broad reach. However, her book is less useful for the purpose of making actual education reform in the U.S., as Ripley’s argument skirts a number of important additional questions required to reform education systems.

Let’s start with PISA, the foundation for these international comparisons. Does PISA predict future economic success for individuals? The path to employment in the U.S. is very different from other countries. For some industries, high school math preparation may lead directly to professional success, particularly in those professions in which accurate completion of tasks is most important. However, new, information-based industries have fueled more recent growth in the U.S. economy. Procedural, and even conceptual, mastery of high school curricula may not build the thinking skills that individuals require to be economically successful adults. Ripley does not extend her thesis to adults and their professional success.

With all of the education scholars that Ripley cites, her omission of Yong Zhao is particularly notable. Zhao also compares education systems in other countries and finds that some, like China, are actually looking to reduce their emphasis on rigor, performance, and long hours of study and emulate the U.S.’s focus on education options and creativity. While the two approaches reflect different conclusions from international comparisons, Ripley could strengthen her position by addressing Zhao’s work.

While Ripley supports her main points well with evidence, some minor points read as pure opinion. Her argument that students in other countries have gained strong conceptual mastery and critical thinking skills is not well-supported. Any standardized test is limited in its capacity to measure higher-order thinking skills such as making connections among different ideas, inventing new ideas, and identifying themes within and among disciplines. While the PISA may do a better job of assessing higher-order thinking than other tests, the format has unavoidable limitations. Ripley also does not address the subject area strengths in the U.S., for example literary analysis and writing, which typically do not receive as much attention in other countries.

U.S. education systems emphasize choice and student direction. Diverse elective course offerings are a hallmark of U.S. schools, allowing students to personalize their own education based on their interests. The emphasis on choice continues into college. Is this part of the reason why the United States has succeeded in generating dominant, new industries over time? In most other countries, students commit to a specific professional track early and subsequently lack the flexibility to shift disciplines as they learn more about themselves and as national economic needs change. Finally, Ripley’s suggestion that teacher kindness towards students undermines teaching effectiveness is suspect. While the U.S. system places the burden of motivation on individual students, and does not serve all students equally, it also offers many avenues for achievement and excellence. Many examples exist of benefits to students who have strong relationships with their teachers.

With The Smartest Kids In the World, Amanda Ripley makes an welcome contribution to popular education literature. Now the opportunity exists for U.S. education systems to give teaching higher status and support in order to achieve higher standards and student success that most would like to see.

EdCamp Sessions Impress Again

Last week, over 70 educators from 50+ public and private education institutions, from Kindergarten to School of Education, gathered on a Saturday to explore topics of interest. Participants proposed and led all of the discussions, and all attendees actively participated. U Prep hosted the fourth edition of EdCamp Puget Sound.

I was uniquely impressed with the range and thoughtfulness of sessions. Titles included:

  • Teach (blank) Through (blank); Integrating Interests and Project-Based Learning
  • Twitter 101
  • Lecture-less, Screencast-based Learning in the New Technology classroom
  • Painless Failure, Practice, Revision & Creativity
  • Learning from and teaching 2E (twice-exceptional) kiddos
  • Construct meaning through experience; Service learning & moreSupporting
  • Stem & First Robotics: How is Special Ed Suppose to support?
  • Not “Mad Men”: Use advertising techniques to communicate like a leader
  • Content-area disruption: New school subjects?
  • Online Discussions & Journaling
  • Mentoring: What does it mean?
  • Let’s All Learn About #MysterySkype
  • Effective Group Work and Accountable Talk
  • Conversation Around Blended Learning
  • Teacher Leaders; Teachers of the Year; Tech & Learning
  • U Prep Ac. Tech Q&A:Device Program, Comp Sci, Maker Lab (etc.)
  • Engaging social justice w/all students (not just the ones who opt in!)

I also benefited from the vast range of perspectives and life experiences present at the conference. EdCamps truly bring together a vibrancy of shared ideas unmatched by other education professional development events.


edcamp1

edcamp2

edcamp3

edcamp4

Faculty Professional Development Days

Each year, U Prep devotes a number of full or half in-service days to professional development to support continuous improvement of teaching practices in our faculty. These full-faculty workshops complement the individual and group professional development that the school also supports. We have held two of these in-service half days so far this year. What did the faculty do when school was dismissed early?

October: Differentiated Instruction and Technology

Differentiated instruction is the practice of varying teaching content and methods so that students are appropriately challenged and significantly learning every day. The opposite of “one size fits all,” differentiated instruction assumes that students have varying learning needs and therefore should receive varied instruction. Teachers design learning environments to appropriately engage and challenge all students, based on their facility and interests.

Differentiated instruction methods include: providing students with activity choices; asking students to work at their own pace; giving students a variety of presentation format options; providing material to students in different forms of media; assigning open-ended projects and individualizing feedback.

Dr. Jane Cutter, U Prep’s Learning Resources Coordinator, notes that many teaching techniques originally designed as learning accommodations are also effective with our entire student population. Scholars Carol Ann Tomlinson and Tonya R. Moon note that instruction can be differentiated through content (the information provided to students), process (learning activities), product (how students demonstrate mastery), and environment (resources and classroom setup).

Technology is a powerful tool to facilitate all of these forms of differentiation. Teachers can quickly provide varied materials through Schoology, individually communicate with students at any time, and link students to a variety of online activities and media. Students can organize their own work environment, collaborate with classmates, and demonstrate learning through a variety of means.

During this workshop, teachers attended a joint session together and then participated in one of five, topical breakout sessions. Sybille Stadtmueller, Meg Shortell, Karen Slon, Brad Gosche, Yayoi Brown, Moses Rifkin, and Alec Duxbury shared examples of differentiation from their work and facilitated the sessions. Teachers explored the connection of differentiation to assessment, creative work, and student voice.

Further reading: http://bit.ly/differentiation (Carol Ann Tomlinson interview in Education Week)

November: Attention, Mindfulness, and Technology

U Prep has worked hard over the past years to keep pace with rapid technological changes occurring in society. The main event has been a huge infusion of tablet and laptop devices that we have placed in students’ hands, plus consideration of how to change our instructional practices to take advantage of the devices’ many capabilities.

At the same time, we feel equally strongly about the importance of balance in our lives. Balance between high-tech and low-tech learning environments; balance between email and face-to-face communication; balance between productivity and reflective practice.

In one of the faculty’s summer readings, William Powers wrote:

We’re losing something of great value, a way of thinking and moving through time that can be summed up in a single word, depth. Depth of thought and feeling, depth in our relationships, our work and everything we do. Since depth is what makes life fulfilling and meaningful, it’s astounding that we’re allowing this to happen.

Even in a hyper-connected world, everyone has the ability to regulate his or her own experience. It’s the same theme that great thinkers have struck time after time over the last two thousand years, but it keeps getting forgotten. The answer to our dilemma is hiding in the last place we tend to look: our own minds. The best tool for fighting back is still the mind itself.

With this introduction, the faculty considered five current approaches to attention and mindfulness in a technology-rich world.

Executive Function: neurobiology, memory, and learning

Mindfulness: contemplation and quality of life

Engagement: project-based learning and progressive education

Mastery: getting control of technology by getting better at it

Social media: what students are doing behind those screens

David Levy, Professor of Information Sciences at the University of Washington, facilitated on of the sessions. Megan Reimann, parent and special education expert, facilitated another. Many thanks to both.

Further watching: http://bit.ly/davidlevy (Prof. David Levy on information overload)

More Professional Development Coming Later This Year

February: project-based learning with technology

March: cultural competency in a diverse community

April: a model for technology lesson planning

Attention and Mindfulness in Technology Use: Five Perspectives

U Prep facilitates professional development opportunities for the individual teacher, group of teachers, and whole faculty. This year, at least three of these sessions consider our new iPad and laptop program, wholly within the context of principles of teaching and learning and youth development. Today, we explored the topic of attention and mindfulness in the context of technology use.

On the one hand, we are working hard so that our school keeps up with rapid technological changes occurring in society. The main feature is a huge infusion of tablet and laptop devices that we have placed in students’ hands, plus consideration of how to change our instructional practices to take advantage of the many capabilities of this change.

At the same time, we heard a clear message from our community as we designed the program last year—we want and need balance in our lives. Balance between high-tech and low-tech learning environments; balance between email and face-to-face communication; balance between productivity and reflective practice.

What does imbalance look like? When we feel compelled to answer emails at our desk instead of seeing colleagues in the staff room. When we spend hours addressing a technical problem instead of getting work done. When we find students watching a video or playing a game instead of paying attention to class. Looking to the future, one might image a dystopic view of technology in our lives. Let’s take a look.

In one of our faculty summer reads, William Powers wrote:

We’re losing something of great value, a way of thinking and moving through time that can be summed up in a single word, depth. Depth of thought and feeling, depth in our relationships, our work and everything we do. Since depth is what makes life fulfilling and meaningful, it’s astounding that we’re allowing this to happen.

What does balance look like? When tech is truly complementary, part of the environment, rather than taking center stage. When we have the necessary self-control to avoid immediately responding to that ding, buzz, or alert window. When we feel that our humanity is preserved in our very personal practice of living and working within a learning community.

Again, quoting William Powers:

History is replete with moments when some astonishing new invention came along that suddenly made it easier for people to connect across space and time. And those earlier shifts were as exhilarating and confusing to those who lived through them as today’s are to us.

Even in a hyper-connected world, everyone has the ability to regulate his or her own experience. It’s the same theme that great thinkers have struck time after time over the last two thousand years, but it keeps getting forgotten. The answer to our dilemma is hiding in the last place we tend to look: our own minds. The best tool for fighting back is still the mind itself.

We must move a step forward in our understanding of attention and mindfulness, so that we may open the classroom to technology without feeling ruled by it.

How do we achieve this? First, let’s understand that the study of attention and mindfulness with technology is an emerging field. Different approaches exist: some support each other. Others contradict. It’s quite likely that some combination of approaches will be best.

Let’s take a look at five approaches to attention and mindfulness in a technology-rich world. We may identify which aspects of these approaches have the most potential, so that we may implement them broadly throughout the school, incorporate them into our behavioral and professional norms and expectations.

Executive Function

This topic asks what brain research can tell us about learning and technology use. Karen Bradley, a teacher at Head-Royce School in Oakland, describes executive functions as, “our judgment, the ability to set priorities, to choose a ‘go’ versus a ‘no-go’ action, to distinguish junk from useful information.” The use of executive function is critical for young people to learn, as they make decisions about whether to pay attention in class, do homework, and consider thematic concepts in the curriculum.

Frequent interruptions by technology may impede executive function, as students lack the “quiet space” to think deeply, and as their working memory is bombarded by new inputs. Brain scientists such as John Medina tell us that multitasking is a myth, that frequently switching our attention is a detriment to productive thought.

Let’s take a whimsical look at multitasking with designer Paolo Cardini.

[ted id=1622]

Megan Reimann is an expert in special education. She has taught study skills, resource room, language arts, and social studies and is a U Prep ninth grade parent. Megan currently specializes in working with students who have executive function deficits to help them create strong study habits. Megan ran one of our breakout sessions during the professional development day.

Mindfulness

Our second topic is mindfulness. Did you know that you may actually hold your breath when you open your email app to check for new messages? The tense moment of uncertainty—what’s in there?—triggers our fight-or-flight response; our physiology is on high alert while we wait to find out.

How is our quality of life when these moments of alertness happen all day, in quick succession? What can we do to create contemplative spaces and improve our quality of life? How may we teach our students to do the same?

David Levy is a professor at UW’s Information School and an expert in information, contemplative practices, and the quality of life. David is a former computer scientist, researcher on the nature of documents, and student of calligraphy and bookbinding. Dr. Levy’s more recent work has focused on contemplative practices, the quality of life, and how to use digital tools more mindfully. He gave a superb talk on the activities teachers can organize for their students to promote self-awareness and mindfulness. This video provides a brief introduction to his work.

Engagement

This topic looks at attention and mindfulness from the perspective of student engagement. Maybe our students and their technologies aren’t the problem. Maybe our educational paradigm needs to change instead.

Cathy Davidson, another of our summer book authors, asks whether we need to update our definitions of attention and engagement. She argues that distraction actually helps us receive a variety of input that supports creativity, connection, and collaboration. Instead of keeping technology at arm’s length, perhaps we should embrace it and change our educational environments to match. Information is no longer scarce, and teachers have a new, exciting role to play as the architects of student-directed learning environments. Progressive education and project-based learning meet technology in this topic.

In this video, Alan November describes one such learning experience (jump to 3:35).

Further reading:

Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design” (Mizuko Ito et al)

Exploring the Edge: New Learning Environments for the 21st Century” (John Seeley Brown)

Mastery

This topic asks whether we feel uncomfortable with technology simply because we have not fully mastered it. Alerts and notifications can be turned off. We can get better at how we use communication and collaboration tools, so that they truly become part of the background of our educational environment.

In Send, David Shipley provides perspectives and techniques to allow you to take control of your email inbox.

Howard Rheingold invites us to tune our “crap detector” and “attention muscles” (to borrow a term from David Levy) to restore control over our electronic interactions. “Dive into the deep end,” Rheingold tells us.

Clay Shirky says that the problem is not information overload, rather it is filter failure. The key skill now is to be able to set up systems to bring the most relevant, stimulating content to our attention.

Further reading:

Attention, and Other 21st-Century Social Media Literacies” (Howard Rheingold)

It’s Not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure” (Clay Shirky)

Personal Learning Networks: Knowledge Sharing as Democracy” (Alison Seaman)

Students’ Social Media Lives

What are students doing behind those screens? Anthropologists Mimi Ito and danah boyd have a lot to tell us about how young people experience life through social media. Understanding their perspectives may help us work with students in classes and evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of separating students from their devices.

Further reading:

Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project (MacArthur Foundation)

Teens and Technology 2013” (Pew Research Center, Berkman Center for Internet and Society)

Teens, Social Media, and Privacy” (Pew Research Center, Berkman Center for Internet and Society)