Sunday, April 15, 2018

Shifting from Passive to Active Learning

Nothing could be more absurd than an experiment in which computers are placed in a classroom where nothing else is changed.” - Seymour Papert

When it comes to improving outcomes in the digital age, efficacy matters more than ever.  Billions of dollars are spent across the world on technology with the hopes that it will lead to better results.  Tom Murray and I shared this thought in Learning Transformed:
Educational technology is not a silver bullet. Yet year after year, districts purchase large quantities of devices, deploy them on a large scale, and are left hoping the technology will have an impact. Quite often, they’re left wondering why there was no change in student engagement or achievement after large financial investments in devices. Today’s devices are powerful tools. At the cost of only a few hundred dollars, it’s almost possible to get more technological capacity than was required to put people on the moon. Nevertheless, the devices in tomorrow’s schools will be even more robust. With that in mind, it’s important to understand that the technology our students are currently using in their classrooms is the worst technology they will ever use moving forward. As the technology continues to evolve, the conversation must remain focused on learning and pedagogy—not on devices.
Unfortunately, technology is not a magic wand that will automatically empower learners to think critically, solve complex problems, or close achievement gaps.  These outcomes rely on taking a critical lens to pedagogical techniques to ensure that they evolve so that technology can begin to support and ultimately enhance instruction.  If the former (pedagogy) isn’t solid, then all the technology in the world won’t make a difference.  As William Horton states, “Unless you get the instructional design right, technology can only increase the speed and certainty of failure.”

As I have said for years, pedagogy trumps technology. This simple concept can be readily applied to how devices are being used in classrooms.  In Learning Transformed my co-author Tom Murray and I discussed in detail how technology can be an accelerant for learning.  There was a specific reason that this was a focus near the end of our book and not in the beginning.  Going back to the sage advice of William Horton we stressed the need to improve pedagogy first and foremost.  Improvement lies in our ability as schools and educators to move away from broad claims and opinions to showing actual evidence aligned to good research.  This is why efficacy through a Return on Instruction (ROI) is equally as important. 

As technology continues to change so must instructional techniques, especially assessment. A robust pedagogical foundation compels us to ensure there is a shift from passive to active learning when it comes to devices in the classroom.  Passive learning with devices involves the consumption of information and low-level and engagement instructional techniques such as taking notes, reading, and digital worksheets.  On the other hand, active learning empowers students through meaningful activities where they actively apply what has been learned in authentic ways.  Are learners in your school(s) using devices passively or actively?



There is a vast amount of research to support why learners should actively use devices.  Below is a summary curated by Jay Lynch:
Robust research has found that learning is more durable and lasting when students are cognitively engaged in the learning process. Long-term retention, understanding, and transfer are the result of mental work on the part of learners who are engaged in active sense-making and knowledge construction. Accordingly, learning environments are most effective when they elicit effortful cognitive processing from learners and guide them in constructing meaningful relationships between ideas rather than encouraging passive recording of information (deWinstanley et al., 2003; Clark & Mayer, 2008; Mayer, 2011).
Researchers have consistently found that higher student achievement and engagement are associated with instructional methods involving active learning techniques (Freeman et al., 2004 and McDermott et al., 2014). 
The primary takeaway from research on active learning is that student learning success depends much less on what instructors do than what they ask their students to do (Halpern & Hakel, 2003).
The natural shift when it comes to device use by students is more active than passive learning.  Here is a great guiding question - How are students empowered to learn with technology in ways that they couldn’t without it? It is really about how students use devices to create artifacts of learning that demonstrate conceptual mastery through relevant application and evaluation.  What might this look like you ask? Give kids challenging problems to solve that have more than one right answer and let them use technology to show that they understand. When doing so let them select the right tool for the task at hand.  This is the epitome of active learning in my opinion.

Passive learning, as well as digital drill and kill, will not improve outcomes. Additionally, our learners need opportunities to develop digital competencies to thrive in a rapidly changing world. Investing in devices only matters if they are used in powerful ways that represent an improvement on what has been done in the past. Knowing is important, but being able to show understanding is what we need to empower our learners to do, especially when it comes to technology.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Relevance is the Fuel of Learning

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the importance of focusing on the why as it relates to learning.  Here is a piece of my thinking that I shared:
The why matters more than ever in the context of schools and education.  What all one must do is step into the shoes of a student.  If he or she does not truly understand why they are learning what is being taught, the chances of improving outcomes and success diminish significantly.  Each lesson should squarely address the why.  What and how we assess carries little to no weight in the eyes of our students if they don’t understand and appreciate the value of the learning experience.
The paragraph above represents the importance of making the educational experience relevant.  In a nutshell, relevance is the purpose of learning. If it is absent from any activity or lesson, many, if not all, students are less motivated to learn and ultimately achieve.  Research on the underlying elements that drive student motivation validates how essential it is to establish relevant contexts. Kember et al. (2008) conducted a study where 36 students were interviewed about aspects of the teaching and learning environment that motivated or demotivated their learning. They found the following:
"One of the most important means of motivating student learning was to establish relevance. It was a critical factor in providing a learning context in which students construct their understanding of the course material. The interviewees found that teaching abstract theory alone was demotivating. Relevance could be established through showing how theory can be applied in practice, creating relevance to local cases, relating the material to everyday applications, or finding applications in current newsworthy issues."
Getting kids to think is excellent, but if they don’t truly understand how this thinking will help them, do they value learning?  The obvious answer is no. However, not much legwork is needed to add meaning to any lesson, project, or assignment.  Relevance begins with students acquiring knowledge and applying it to multiple disciplines to see how it connects to the bigger picture.  It becomes even more embedded in the learning process when students apply what has been learned to real-world predictable and ultimately unpredictable situations, resulting in the construction of new knowledge.  Thus, a relevant lesson or task empowers learners to use their knowledge to tackle real-world problems that have more than one solution.  



Diverse Learners respond well to relevant and contextual learning. This improves memory, both short-term, and long-term, which is all backed by science. Sara Briggs sums it up nicely:
"Research shows that relevant learning means effective learning and that alone should be enough to get us rethinking our lesson plans (and school culture for that matter). The old drill-and-kill method is neurologically useless, as it turns out. Relevant, meaningful activities that both engage students emotionally and connect with what they already know are what help build neural connections and long-term memory storage."
In the words of Will Durant based on Aristotle’s work,” “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  The point here is that consistent efforts must be made to integrate interdisciplinary connections and authentic contexts to impart value to our learners. Relevance must be student based: the student’s life, the student’s family, and friends, the student’s community, the world today, current events, etc. 



When it is all said and done, if a lesson or project is relevant students will be able to tell you:

  1. What they learned
  2. Why they learned it
  3. How they will use it

Without relevance, learning many concepts don’t make sense to students.  The many benefits speak for themselves, which compels all of us to ensure that this becomes a mainstay in daily pedagogy. 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Ownership Through Inquiry

As a child, I was enamored by nature.  My twin brother and I were always observing and collecting any and all types of critters we could get our hands on.  Growing up in a rural area of Northwestern New Jersey made it quite easy to seek out and find different plants and animals on a daily basis.  We would spend countless hours roaming around the woods, corn fields, ponds, and streams in our quest to study as much local life as possible. It’s no wonder that I eventually became a science teacher as my surroundings growing up played a major role in my eventual decision to go into the field of education.  

To this day I still can’t believe how my mother tolerated us bringing an array of animals into the house.  For years my brother and I were particularly interested in caterpillars.  We would use encyclopedias and field guides to identify certain species that were native to our area. Through our research, we determined what each caterpillar ate and subsequently scoured trees, bushes, and other plants in our quest to collect, observe, and compare the differences between different species. We even kept journals with notes and sketches. When we were successful in locating these insects we then collected them in jars. Our research ensured that each species had the correct type of food as well as appropriate physical requirements to either make a chrysalis (butterflies) or cocoon (moths).  

In the case of moths, some were in their cocoons for months.  Hence, my brother and I stored these jars under our beds.  At times we forgot that we had these living creatures under our beds until at night we heard sounds of them flapping their wings and moving around the jars after emerging from their cocoons.  I can only imagine what my parents thought of this but am so thankful that they supported our inquiry in many ways from having encyclopedias available for research to providing us with the autonomy to harness our intrinsic motivation to learn.   Through it all our observations led to questions and together with my brother and I worked to find answers. Even though we were not always successful in this endeavor, the journey was worth it. Questions and even more questions drove the inquiry process for both of us and from there we leveraged available resources and synthesized what we had learned. 



The story above is a great example of how my brother and I embarked on an informal learning process driven by inquiry.  We owned the process from start to finish and our parents acted as indirect facilities through their support and encouragement.  Both inquiry and ownership of learning are not new concepts, although they are both thrown around interchangeably as of late, especially ownership.  Deborah Voltz and Margaret Damiano-Lantz came up with this description in 1993:
Ownership of learning refers to the development of a sense of connectedness, active involvement, and personal investment in the learning process.  This is important for all learners in that it facilitates understanding and retention and promotes a desire to learn.
After reading this description I can’t help but see the alignment to the story I shared above.  We learned not because we had to, but because we wanted to.  Herein lies a potential issue in schools.  Are kids learning because they are intrinsically empowered to or are they compelled to through compliance and conformity?  The former results when learners have a real sense of ownership.  There are many ways to empower kids to own their learning. All the rage as of late is how technology can be such a catalyst. In many cases this is true, but ownership can result if the conditions are established where kids inquire by way of their own observations and questions.  WNET Education describes inquiry as follows:
"Inquiry" is defined as "a seeking for truth, information, or knowledge -- seeking information by questioning." Individuals carry on the process of inquiry from the time they are born until they die. Through the process of inquiry, individuals construct much of their understanding of the natural and human-designed worlds. Inquiry implies a "need or wants to know" premise. Inquiry is not so much seeking the right answer -- because often there is none -- but rather seeking appropriate resolutions to questions and issues.
The first sentence ties in directly to the concept of ownership, but we also see how important are questions.  This is why empowering learners to develop their own questions and then use an array of resources to process and share new knowledge or demonstrating an understanding of concepts are critical if ownership is the goal.  The article from WNET explains why this is so important:
Effective inquiry is more than just asking questions. A complex process is involved when individuals attempt to convert information and data into useful knowledge. A useful application of inquiry learning involves several factors: a context for questions, a framework for questions, a focus on questions, and different levels of questions. Well-designed inquiry learning produces knowledge formation that can be widely applied.
Ownership through inquiry is not as difficult as you might think if there is a common vision, language, expectation, and a commitment to student agency.  The Rigor Relevance Framework represents a simple process to help educators and learners scaffold questions as part of the inquiry process while empowering kids to demonstrate understanding aligned with relevant contexts.  By taking a critical lens to instructional design, improvement can happen now. Curiosity and passion reside in all learners.  Inquiry can be used to tap into both of these elements and in the process, students will be empowered to own their learning. 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Journey to Becoming an Author

I never imagined I would have authored or co-authored a book, let alone six.  My unexpected journey began with a decision to give Twitter a try in 2009.  This should never have happened either as I was convinced that any and all social media tools were a complete waste of my time and would not lead to any improvement in professional practice. Apparently, I was dead wrong on this assumption and quickly learned that Twitter in itself wasn’t a powerful tool, but instead, it was the conversations, ideas, resources, and passionate educators that connected with me.  The rest is history. 

As my mindset began to shift from one that focused on the “what ifs” instead of the “yeah buts,” my staff and I started to transform learning in our school to better meet the needs of our students.  Social media not only gave us the inspiration but also empowered us to take action.  It is important to note that we weren’t doing a bad job per se.  The fact for us, like every other school on the planet, was that we could be better.  In the beginning, we really weren’t sure what we were doing or whether it would lead to improved outcomes, but we did our best to align every innovative idea with research and sound pedagogy.  Thanks to my amazing teachers, innovative changes began to take hold and outcomes improved in the process. 

My essential role in the transformation efforts focused on helping to clarify a shared vision, supporting my teachers, showing efficacy, and celebrating success.  Sharing why we were innovating coupled with how we were doing it and what the results were, gathered a great deal of attention that was unexpected at first.  To this day I still remember sitting in a district administrator meeting in November 2009 when my secretary called to tell me that CBS New York City wanted to come to the high school and feature how we were using Twitter in the classroom to support learning.  To say that I was floored by the interest from the largest media market in the world would be putting it mildly.  This point in time was a catalyst for the eventual brandED strategy that evolved.  I learned that social media was an incredible tool to tell our story, praise staff, and acknowledge the great work of my students.  



Little did I know, or plan for that matter, that sharing our transformation efforts would lead to me becoming an author.  This was not my intent or even a goal.  One day in 2010 I received a Twitter message from Bill Ferriter asking if I would be interested in co-authoring a book with him and Jason Ramsden titled Communicating and Connecting with Social Media.  My first thought was, “Heck no! I am no author.” Bill, the master teacher he is, reassured me that I could do this and would guide me through the writing process. Through his tutelage and many hours spent writing over weekends and breaks, the book took form.  Thus, my author journey began all because of the consistent efforts to share the work of my teachers.  

Shortly after this book came out, Solution Tree asked if I would work on another project. This one focused on a book for principals about teaching science, as this was where my experience was in the classroom.  I agreed to take this on only if one of my teachers could co-author the book with me.  This was just a small way of paying it forward since I would not have been in a position to author any books had it not been for the willingness of my teachers to embrace change and have the results to show efficacy.  

My teachers and students, as well as the support I received from the district, helped me evolve into the unlikeliest of authors.  Not only was I supported in writing books, but I was also encouraged to share our work at local and national events.  I cannot even begin to explain the sense of pride I felt by being asked to present on the work occurring at my school.  It was during one of these presentations at the National Association of Secondary School Principals Conference that I was asked by Corwin to consider writing Digital Leadership. At first, I said no as I really did not have the time needed to write a book all on my own.  After some persistence on behalf of my acquisition editor, I later agreed and scheduled the majority of the writing during the summer months when my students and staff were off. 

The publication of Digital Leadership in 2014 changed everything for me as the book performed exceptionally well and continues to do so.  As a result, I was flooded with speaking requests and asked to write even more books, including Uncommon Learning.  To this day I still can’t believe that anyone asks me to write a book.  The time then came that I knew a decision on my future had to be made. Even though I was fully supported by my district and dedicated myself 100% to the school, I came to the conclusion that I was not going to be fair to my students, staff, or community shortly. It was at this time that I made the painful decision to leave the principalship. 

You might be wondering what the actual point of this post was. As of late people have taken to social media to attack or discredit other educators who have written books while working in schools.  My take on it is this.  I am all for practitioners utilizing their time outside of classrooms and schools to write books that use research as a foundation while showing how their work and that of colleagues has improved teaching, learning, and leadership.  There is nothing more inspiring, and practical for that matter, to read about what actually works in the face of the myriad of challenges that educators endure on a daily basis.  There will never be enough books that lay out how efficacy can be achieved in the pursuit of providing all kids with an awesome learning experience.

There is a fine line here though. Authoring books should never conflict with, or have a negative impact on, professional responsibilities.  It goes without saying that all writing and sharing of books by practitioners should happen outside of regular school hours or on weekends and breaks.  My schedule as both a teacher and principal were jam packed so there was never aforethought about putting aside time to work on a book (or blog) that would take away from my contractual duties.  Sharing during the school day also sends a potentially negative message to colleagues and staff. 

Many people, like myself, never intended on becoming authors.  It was an unintended consequence of sharing successes of others who are in the trenches every day.   To this day I can’t thank my teachers, students, and district enough for not only believing in me but also empowering me to share the ideas and strategies that we put into practice.  I hope more and more educators contribute to the field by authoring books that will add to the vast knowledge base already available while providing practical solutions to transform education.