What Do Students Want?

“You are unique…”

At the core, I believe what students want is to understand their place in the world. They find themselves in turbulent, even traumatic, times. They are told from the time they can speak that they are unique, that they should dream of a livelihood to expresses their own uniqueness. And students embrace these dreams. They want to be firemen, nurses, teachers, astronauts, even president of the United States. Yet students also find themselves immersed in a world where they are powerless to control the things that haImageve the most effect over them. They can’t choose their family. They can’t choose their school. And they can’t choose the church they attend (or don’t). At every turn they face the limitations of their powerlessness.

Students try, of course, to face their powerlessness head-on. They choose their friends. They choose the activities they participate in, like sports, music, art, or student council. And in expressing themselves through these activities they can find some comfort, perhaps even profound meaning. Through these activities of self-expression students can begin to understand their place in the world and how they might one day live up to the mantle of uniqueness that has been laid at their feet.

“Here is a syllabus…”

ImageThe problem is that many classrooms don’t allow the same opportunity for self-expression that students’ chosen activities offer. In many classrooms, students face a long list of agendas, assignments, procedures, and curricula which they have almost no power to change. On the first day of school the teacher tells them “you are special. You are unique. You can be anything you want to be.” The
n a syllabus is distributed. The students notice that every week is accounted for, that every assignment has already been weighted, every due date assigned, and every consequence for not meeting those due dates spelled out in bold letters near the top of the syllabus.

A situation like this would never be accepted by those of us old enough to forget what school is like. Yet students soldier on with barely a word of complaint. To them, it’s not a shock that there is a disconnect between “you are unique” and “here is a syllabus – go complete it like a cog in a machine.”

“Student voice…”

Do students want technology integrated into their classes? I have no doubt that they do. But I think an important follow-up question is why do students want technology integrated into their classes? The answer to this question is all around. Students have posted it on Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Many students, like in this video, have said powerful statements. Important statements. From my observations, there is one common thread in all of these student statements. They want a voice to determine what and how they learn. They want to stop seeing the disconnect between “you are unique” and “here is a syllabus – go complete it like a cog in a machine.” In these students’ statements, technology and student voice have become connected.

It appears that many students (and adults) believe an increase in technology will create an increase in student voice. After all, many of the classrooms with the most student voice are also connected classrooms. So it would appear that there is a correlation between technology and student voice – increased technology causes increased student voice. But what if technology and student voice aren’t correlated like this? What if a classroom teacher’s desire to integrate student voice causes him/her to also integrate technology as a tool to increase student voice?Image

I would like to argue that this is in fact the correct correlation – that most of the early adopters of technology pursued a connected classroom because they believed it would bring more voice to their students. If this is true, what is important is not whether a school adopts a Chromebook, iPad, netbook, or laptop. If this correlation is true, what is important is whether a school puts student voice at the center of its culture and curriculum. I would argue that adding devices to a classroom lacking student voice will change very little. The worksheets will become Google docs, the scantron sheets will become Google forms, and the flashcards will become Quizlet links. But the students will still feel the same disconnect. They will be told they are a unique snowflake, but they will look at their world and feel like a cog in a machine.

So what do students want? They want to be unique, not just be told that they are unique. They want to express this uniqueness through meaningful activities both outside and inside the classroom. They want the freedom to choose how they should pursue these meaningful activities so they can, in turn, understand why they should pursue these meaningful activities. And once students understand the why they will be able to understand where they fit into this crazy, disconnected world.

I understand that this is a tall order. For some, it is perhaps an impossible order. Many classroom teachers will find themselves in institutions where there is a disconnect between their own uniqueness and the cog in a machine mentality. Many classroom teachers will not have the freedom to pursue student voice because a department/school/district/state-wide curriculum has been handed down from the powers that be. Many classroom teachers will be afraid to pursue student voice because it disrupts the way things have always been done. These concerns are all valid, and I can’t pretend to know the answer. Change is hard and opportunities for change are rare. However, the upside is that we are right now facing an opportunity for change. Technology does, in fact, offer an opportunity to disrupt the system and implement change.  But change must be implemented for the right purpose, as a way to increase student voice, help students understand their place in the world, and help students achieve what they truly want.

Are we implementing technology change for the right purpose? Are we giving students voice in the changes we are making? Will those changes help students better understand their place in the world? These are the questions we should be asking.

– @BushJMS

A Better Ed-Tech Conference

I’ve noticed a trend in ed-tech conferences. We get caught up in the technical side of ed-tech and forget the education part. We offer multiple sessions on how to use Edmodo, how to build assessments in QUIA, or the best iOS apps for the classroom. We focus on how to click, and too often forget how those clicks can be applied in the classroom to build learning.

20140406-120931.jpgWhy do we do that? It’s particularly confusing because when I talk to the most tech-savvy people I know, I find a similar mindset. Most people that know ed-tech understand that it’s not all about the tech. It’s what you DO with the tech that matters. In short, most tech-savvy educators “get it.”

So why do we keep offering the same ed-tech conferences that focus on clicks instead of what you do with the clicks?

I have a theory. I think we’re underestimating educators. I think there is an assumption that learning how to click is the first step, and learning what to do with the clicks comes later. This is a fair argument, and it makes a great point that some “learning how to click” sessions should be offered. But it still doesn’t explain why we get caught up on step one.20140406-120921.jpg

I’d like to go to an ed tech conference and see a session on strategies for enhancing creativity. Or hear a civics teacher share how they conducted a Twitter campaign during the election. Or listen to a panel debate the pros and cons of project based learning. In other words, an ed-tech conference that focuses on the ed, not the tech.

I think we’re ready. I think it’s time we stop underestimating educators. Let’s move beyond step one.

– Jeff (@BushJMS)

The Birth of a Coordinated Effort: a National State Chat Network

It’s happening. And I can only express gratitude that I’m along for the ride. Within the last month, thanks to the leadership of Joe Mazza, the state chats across the United States have begun talking in earnest.

“This network is going to make things happen.”

It began with a map of the state chats, then expanded to a Google+ community and a hashtag. It’s alright if you didn’t notice. On the Twitter-Richter-scale, it barely measured as a rumble. But make no mistake. This network is going to make things happen. The energy in the group is palpable. And this is a group of connected educators who want to drive change, and want to connect with others to help each other drive that change. State Chat Map Screenshot

It’s been less than a week since I joined the Google+ community, and within the last week I have witnessed state chat moderators coordinating their schedules and discussing the possibilities of coordinated chats. Jeremy Evans asked if guest moderators would like to join #ohedchat. Naomi Bates has begun collecting information from the other state chat moderators. And other state chat moderators have begun to join the state chats across the country. For example, I was flattered to see  Ryan Archer from #caedchat, among others, join the #miched chat this past week (Wednesdays, 8 p.m.).

Recently, I sent out a survey to the state chat moderators listed on the national map. In one of the questions I asked what the state chat moderators would like to see to help support each other. The top suggestions were coordinate topics, promote chats, combine chats, and help guest moderate the state chats. This list is impressive on its own. But what is even more impressive is that these efforts began immediately. No one asked these educators to do these things, they just knew instinctively to get it done, because this group of connected educators have already made it happen in their respective states.

“I don’t know where we’re going, but I know it’s someplace necessary and good.”

I can’t wait to learn from and watch this group grow. I am in awe of the things the other state chats have accomplished. What will a national state chat network look like in one year, two years, three years? It’s almost impossible to know. Because the state chat movement itself is so young. A handful of state chats began in 2012, many more in 2013, and still some in 2014. MichED

I remember the birth of #MichED on Saturday, November 3rd, 2012. Ben Rimes, Craig Steenstra, and I sat in a room at Grand Rapids EdCamp. We wondered what Michigan educators could do to connect with each other more. Soon after the meeting we were joined by Brad Wilson and Todd Bloch. The following Wednesday a state chat was born, and was followed by a website, a podcast, and a YouTube channel, with plans for a state-wide virtual conference. Since that time the #MichED team has expanded to include Rebecca Wildman, Kit Hard, Rachelle Wynkoop, Ben Giplin, Tara Maynard, Scott Panozzo, and Mike Kaechele. But even more important, #MichED has become a real, true community. The team above is incredible, but the true heroes of #MichED are the educators across Michigan who connect with each other everyday. A trip to our recent state tech conference showed the power of the #MichED community. Seemingly everywhere I turned I met people who were grateful for the #MichED community, who thought of that community as colleagues, friends, even family.

And what is hard to comprehend is that the #MichED state chat is just over a year and a half old. It has been absolutely amazing to watch a vibrant community take shape in such a short period of time. But what of the other state chats? They all have similar stories to tell. They have their own vibrant communities, and have developed these communities in a short period of time as well. I don’t know where we are going, but I know it’s someplace necessary and good.

“This is not just another education hashtag. This is education hashtags 2.0.”

The reality is that the Twitter state chat movement is growing so quickly because it fulfills a vital need. The need to connect Twitter with real world relationships. There are education hashtags that get more traffic, more retweets, or draw in large Twitter followers, but the state chat movement provides something even the largest education hashtag can’t – an ability to develop grassroots relationships at the state level. And I don’t intend this as a criticism of the large national hashtags. They are awesome incubators of ideas. The point is simply that what a national hashtag can offer is inherently different from what a network founded on statewide, grassroots networks can offer.Hashtags

What excites me about a national state chat network is the opportunity to develop these grassroots relationships, to build upon them. I firmly believe this is a game changer. This is not just another education hashtag. This is education hashtags 2.0.

So what are we going to do with this? Other survey responses included conversations on culture and issues, create a website, tweet ups, virtual meetings, classroom Skype, connect the users of our hashtags, and create challenges or goals for our state chats. These are all great goals, and I would personally be happy to participate in any of them.  But no matter what we do, I think the driving force behind our decisions should be founded on what makes a national state chat network different from the other education hashtags – that we are built on grassroots, statewide networks.

The conversation has begun. Now the excitement begins.

So where are we going to take this?

– Jeff (@BushJMS)

 

The Misuse & Abuse of Power Point: a Response

Recently, I discovered this slide share argument, called “Power Pointless” (props to David Coffey, @delta_dc, for posting & Rebecca Schuman, @pankisseskafka, for creating). The argument is straightforward and, I believe, spot-on accurate: that Power Point presentations are abused by professors and students throughout academia, and that the quality of learning has dramatically declined through the misuse & abuse of this medium.

It’s hard to argue otherwise. We’ve all had a “death by Power Point” class. Just thinking about my own experiences make me want to scream. Why are you doing this? Do you really think this is effective teaching?Image

So let’s just agree that it’s a problem. Power Point is routinely misused and abused. And it’s infuriating.

My first reaction is to blame the instructor. Lazy, lacking creativity, apathetic – pick your stock shocked and outraged response.

But what if the primary cause of misuse & abuse of Power Point doesn’t originate with individuals? What if the primary cause is not individualistic, but institutional?

Recently I was asked to create an online digital course, posting lessons, links, activities, assessments, and online videos using Power Point slides to supplement information. I believed it would take about two weeks of work during my summer. It didn’t. Two months into summer the project just kept going and going. By labor day weekend I still wasn’t done. I entered the project with all the best intentions, planning to make creative, engaging videos with animations and multiple cuts edited on iMovie. By September I just wanted to be done. Let’s just say the final video product was far from engaging. Death by Power Point would be a nice way to describe it. Since this experience caused me to rethink my standard shocked and outraged response to the “death by Power Point” scenario. Now, when I am tempted to pass judgment, I remember the obstacles to effective teaching that I faced. Could college professors also face significant obstacles?

Indeed, college professors routinely face similar situations. They are regularly over-worked, under-paid, and stretched far beyond their limits to implement effective teaching. Tenure is being systematically filtered out and, in it’s place, is an army of adjunct professors who are paid barely above the poverty level, with no health care, few opportunities to network with colleagues, and increasingly shrinking chances to escape their situation. According to the Huffington Post, there are several constraints on a typical adjunct professor:

  • “Adjuncts typically earn between $20,000 & $25,000 annually.”
  • “An adjunct must teach between 17 and 24 classes a year to afford a home and utilities in Boston.”
  • Adjunct professors routinely face class cancellations with little to no warning .

Given the constraints above, it should be assumed that every adjunct professor is working two Imageoverwhelmingly full-time jobs: one to teach his/her classes, and the other to look for a tenure-track position. Even worse, the route to finding a full-time, tenure-track position is not good teaching, but publication and research. Still worse, an estimated 67% of professors are not in a tenure-track position.

So, to review:

  • The vast majority of college teaching is done by adjunct professors.
  • The vast majority of college adjunct professors are over-worked, and paid barely above the poverty line.
  • The path out of adjunct teaching is not good teaching.

Given the constraints listed above, the question is not “why do college students routinely face ineffective Power Points?” Instead, the question is “why don’t ineffective Power Points happen more than they already do?”

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Training professors on the effective use of Power Point may help alleviate the problem, but the root cause is not individualistic, but institutional. Quite simply, it is unreasonable to expect significant gains in effective college-level teaching as long as the above constraints remain “baked into the cake” of education. Or, to put it another way, teaching won’t improve until our institutions make better teaching their top priority.

In the end, it’s on us. Institutions exist to perpetuate their own existence. We cannot expect them to change unless they are compelled to change.

So what are we going to do about it? How can we communicate to the higher ed institutions that effective is their first calling, their reason to exist? Very little will change until we effectively answer these questions.

@bushjms

“Fix It!”

In one of my favorite SNL skits, “Fix it,” Seth Meyers asks financial analyst Oscar Rogers what we should do about the economy. “Fix it!” shouts Oscar Rogers. “So what exactly should be done?” asks Seth. Oscar responds: “It’s a simple three step process. Step one: fix! Step two: it! Step three: fix it!! Then repeat steps one through three until it’s all been FIXED!” “How do we begin to fix it?” “Fix it!” “Who’s going to fix it?” “THEY are! They gonna fix it because THEY broke it! Fix it, fix it, fix it!!!”

ImageThe skit is brilliant, a satire of the living room trolls who shout “fix it!” from the comfort of their couch. The skit was written as commentary on attitudes towards the Great Recession, but what makes the skit brilliant is that it’s really much larger than that. The “fix it!” attitude could apply to many fields. Lately I been thinking that the “fix it!” attitude is especially applicable to education.

I’m not referring to the cries of “fix it!” from parents, politicians, and business owners. There is little doubt that there have been frequent cries of “fix it!” from these groups, and that these cries of “fix it!” are hard for educators to handle. But there’s a more damaging “fix it!” approach.

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The most damaging “fix it!” approach is not how others view the education field, but how I view the education field, and my own place in it. To teach is to face a constant stream of “fix it!” moments. Yesterday’s lesson didn’t go well. The student I watched improve just took a massive step back and now teeters on the edge of the cliff. The email to a student’s mother seemed alright, but I now wonder if I parsed my words too much and didn’t explain the full extent of her son’s actions.

As an educator I don’t just face imperfection – I swim in it, I breathe it in. There is always a better way to teach, a better way to relate, a better way to model learning. As an educator, this reality of imperfection is both sustaining and draining. Facing my own imperfections every day pushes me to improve to such an extent that I wouldn’t know how to exist as an educator without it.

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And yet, such constant contact with imperfection has a darker side – the “fix it!” side. Some days I drive home with a “fix it!” refrain. It wasn’t good enough. The day was lost. The students learned nothing. On those days, I wish I had a better answer. But the reality is that I don’t. The best thing I know how to do is just to let the “fix it!” moment pass, go home, watch some really stupid TV, and wake up the next day prepared to start all over again. The “fix it!” mindset tells me I should have THE answer in class. A sustaining mindset tells me it’s alright if I don’t, and it’s alright even if it doesn’t feel alright.

In the end, perhaps the best answer I know comes from Oscar Rogers himself. Yes, things aren’t perfect. But it happens. And when it does, we should try as best as we can to laugh about it and make it better the next day.

Big Fishes, Small Fishes, and Ponds of Various Sizes: Thinking About Academic Rigor

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “David and Goliath,” is about the hidden disadvantages in things traditionally regarded as advantages and the hidden advantages in things traditionally regarded as disadvantages. It’s a down-is-up, up-is-down approach to the goals society props up as desirable. You know, it’s the hidden second part of the phrase that comes after “an ivy league education is not for everyone.” 

We’ve all heard some variation of this before. It’s supposed to be inclusive and understanding of the fact that not everyone was born with an ivy league mind. Sometimes it’s followed with an affirmation that, yes, learning a trade like plumbing or carpentry is just fine. But that’s not the truth. Because the hidden second part to “an ivy league education is not for everyone” is that “everyone should want an ivy league education.” It’s the idea that you may not have been first in line when God passed out the brainy DNA, but that’s OK – you can still lead a perfectly adequate and, in your own way, meaningful life. Don’t despair that you won’t cure cancer or be the next Steve Jobs. You’re a unique snowflake in your own way – just not as smart of a unique snowflake as those snowflakes that get into Harvard.

The funny thing is that I don’t think everyone should aspire to attend an ivy league college. And yet … were the president of Harvard to walk up to me tomorrow and say, “hey, I watched the way you ordered that Starbucks grande Pike Place with room for cream – I think you’re Harvard material. You can have a full-ride and study any graduate program you want.” – would I not seriously consider this? Yes, I know, it’s ridiculous. But put that aside and interject whatever scenario that makes sense. The president of Harvard offers you a full-ride to study whatever you want. What would you do? I know what I would do. I would quit my job and go. 

And the question is why. Why on Earth would I even consider doing that? I love my job. Absolutely love it. I teach at an innovative school with some of the most talented staff and most creative, thoughtful students I’ve ever been around. So why would I throw all of that away? The (depressing) reality: because it’s Harvard. 

But I don’t think I’m alone. As a teacher in the classroom I have watched students and parents obsess to the point of compulsion over getting into the “best” college. Parents express this idea when they say, in effect, “my child doesn’t have an A in your class – what are you going to do to fix this?” Students express this idea every time they take an AP course in a subject they’re not interested. Of course, you don’t have to be a classroom teacher to know that things have gotten a little out of control. Just go on a college campus tour sometime with prospective students and parents and watch the looks of anticipation and anxiety wash over some of the faces, like a child on Christmas morning excited to open his present and get what he wants, yet nervous if he opens the box only to find it’s something different. 

The funny thing is that none of it should matter. Each school offers a unique experience and the yearly school rankings just don’t capture the full extent of each school’s advantages and disadvantages. In his latest book, Gladwell has made a compelling argument that a little fish in a big pond experience is not necessarily in the best interest of the student. “The Big Pond,” says Gladwell, “takes really bright students and demoralizes them… It’s the Little Pond that maximizes your chances to do whatever you want.” 

The advantage of an ivy league education is that it’s so competitive. That’s great for the small percentage of students who rise to the top in that environment, but not so great for everyone else. And it turns out that the disadvantage of an ivy league education is the exact same thing – that it’s so competitive. For the majority of students who fail to rise to the top, argues Gladwell, there is little statistical advantage for attending an ivy league school over attending a quality state school, even though that state school doesn’t have the same prestige as an ivy league school. 

Intuitively, this makes sense. In ultra-competitive environments the difference between the winners and the losers is very small. It must be this way because it ultra-competitive environments all the participants are immensely talented. As a society we have spent too much time thinking about the talent of individuals and not enough time thinking about the effect of an environment on those individuals. We forget that environments with more competition will create risk averse students because the difference between winning and losing is so small. 

How much innovation can happen in a risk averse environment? I don’t think it’s insignificant that some of our most innovative minds – people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates – chose to drop out of college in order to pursue their own path. They chose a risk-taking path rather than the safe, risk averse path. It turns out that one of the things those top schools couldn’t offer them was teaching how to take a chance. That lesson had to come from someplace else. 

The main idea from Gladwell’s new book is that better isn’t better – it’s just different. Each experience offers its own unique opportunities and challenges. Thinking about things in this way can expand our mental horizons and help us make better choices. Something in mind the next time you’re waiting in line at Starbucks and the president of Harvard walks up and offers you a free-ride if you quit your job.

Top-5 Take-Aways from MACUL 2013

This past week I attended MACUL 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. It was an amazing experience, put on by even more amazing educators. Every session was filled with ideas to bring back to the classroom and enhance the teaching, learning, and professional improvement. Below are the top-5 takeaways from my experience.

Take-Away #5: the battleground for the classroom is grass roots content vs. corporate content.

Presenters shared resources where teachers could take control of the content in their own rooms. In one session on CK-12 flex books, a resource which allows teachers to download textbook templates, then modify them to perfectly fit their classroom experience. The room was filled with standing room only, teachers sprawled out on the floor, standing in the back of the room, and spilling out the door into the hall. There was an excitement in the air as educators realized they no longer had to just take what the textbook companies gave them, but could make their content their own and cater it to their classroom experience. At another session a group of teachers strategized to collaborate an iBook author “Hack-a-thon” to collaborate on building their own textbooks for iPads. Truly, the level of collaboration and educator-initiated work on digital textbooks is impressive to see.

Take-Away #4: Michigan teachers are incredible

Every room was filled with highly-motivaed, highly-skilled educators doing incredible things inside and outside the classroom. A trip to MACUL is truly an exercise in humility when you realize just how much talent exists in Michigan schools. It was such a refreshing experience, after watching the local and national media only cover the things that are going wrong in the schools. But MACUL was filled with the people who were doing great things in the classroom. Talk to anyone in the hallway or the food court – you would find great stories and great educators. A trip to MACUL would convince even the most hardened skeptic that Michigan education is in good hands.

Take-Away #3: Project Based Learning is for real

Pickney New Tech High School conducted several PBL training sessions, explaining their model and describing the opportunities and pitfalls of teaching in the Project Based Learning model. I was struck by just how well-thought out the PBL model is. Before this session I knew that PBL offered tremendous opportunity for student engagement focused on high level thinking skills. What I didn’t know was how the PBL model also translates well to teaching standards as well as teaching skills. The educators from Pickney High School shared this presentation, which laid out how the PBL model uses extensive scaffolding and background activities to teach students mastery of the content before it teaches them mastery of 21st century skills. After seeing this presentation on PBL I am convinced we have just heard the beginning of Project Based Learning.

Take-Away #2: The #MichED movement is just getting started

This past year a handful of educators began a Twitter hashtag and education chat called #MichED. The original concept was to help educators in Michigan network and collaborate. Throughout this year the group of educators has grown and has even expanded into creating education-themed podcasts to celebrate the good work of students and educators across the state. It’s been great to watch this organization grow, but I didn’t know just how powerful #MichED could be until this week at MACUL. #MichED was everywhere. Teachers involved in #MichED wore t-shirts to promote the movement, presenters plugged the group at every opportunity, and some even passed out flyers to get word out. #MichEd is still in its infancy, but one thing is clear from MACUL: this is just the beginning. #MichED is going to become a powerful positive force in Michigan education.

Take-Away #1: Conferences aren’t about content, they’re about the people you meet there

Thursday night myself and a couple of teachers walked into the lounge at the Renaissance and were invited by Kevin Honeycutt and his fellow presenter, Ginger Lewman, to join their table. What followed was an incredible few hours of conversation on education and learning. I couldn’t help but think two things: 1) we had no business sitting at the same table with the conference keynote speaker, and 2) Kevin and his crew are incredible people who never acted as though they are above a group of everyday classroom teachers – this was just a group of people getting together to discuss a topic close to all our hearts. It was a pointed example of  how and why MACUL works. MACUL is more than a group of presentations filled with good content. MACUL is about the people who go there, and throughout my two days at that conference I met person after person who shared the collective vision for making our schools better through working together around a common goal: providing a better experience for our students. All conferences are about the people who attend, but MACUL was a truly impressive collection of dedicated professionals. It is a conference I will return to again and again.

Thank you to all those involved with MACUL for working so hard to make this event such a positive experience!