Walk Out or Walk Up: Quit the Divisive Rhetoric and Celebrate the Students

As I’m sure you’re all aware, many students across the nation participated in a Walk Out on March 14th in order to protest government inaction regarding gun control. I’ve seen news coverage of the story across the U.S. I got the chills when I heard some of the student activists speak on the matter. Overall, I was impressed by the demeanor with which many students approached this highly controversial, yet extremely timely and important topic.

Then, I noticed another budding movement on Twitter. I first saw a picture on my feed advertising a “Walk Up.” I immediately became intrigued and conducted further research. This “Walk Up” focused on walking up to other students and being kind in an effort to create better/safer school environments. To me, this completely made sense. The way I see it, in all honesty, regardless of any protests held on a myriad of school-related issues/policies, there will always be students who are ostracized or cast out or alone in every school. Thus, I really gravitated toward this movement, as it seemed to focus more on an issue over which we in education actually have control: being kind and reintegrating students who may be lost or ostracized.

Unfortunately, in regards to both movements, a politically motivated, dichotomous dynamic has presented itself. It seems that adults have successfully oversimplified and debased both ideas/movements to either gun control related or mental health related. People have declared that Walking Out won’t help because it won’t address the heart of the problem: poor school environments and students feeling isolated. People have decried that Walking Up won’t help because it won’t address the heart of the problem: guns. The debate has raged on in the Twitterverse for over a week now.

Whether Walking Out or Walking Up, I think it’s important that as adults, we celebrate the students’ courage, leadership, determination, organization, social awareness, creativity, passion, fortitude, and unity (among other qualities). Granted, some adults are celebrating these efforts. But, I think it’s important to remember: rather than distracting from the students’ achievements by hijacking the foci of these movements, we should acknowledge that Walking Out or Walking Up requires strength and perseverance. I truly believe these students, whether they Walk Out or Walk Up, are striving to make changes in a world where, unfortunately, children have been dying in the one place where they should be the safest.

Also, I mean, does it really have to be so two-sided? Honestly, can’t schools/students engage in both a Walk Out AND a Walk Up? Obviously, the national Walk Out was held March 14th. The Walk Up sounds like an ongoing endeavor.

Let me know what you think!

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Technology Restriction and Confiscation: There Are Better Strategies for Teaching About Being Safe in a Connected World

Last year, I attended a Protecting God’s Children workshop at a Catholic parish up north. These workshops are required if you plan to work with children in any capacity through the church or in parish schools. A group of approximately 20 people were in attendance that evening. The age range in this group was quite large. We had some teenagers, middle-aged people, and some elderly folks.

Obviously, we talked about the importance of maintaining appropriate relationships with all children. We watched videos and read articles about the safety of children within our care. We discussed various scenarios and were quizzed on making appropriate choices while interacting with children. Pretty standard stuff for anyone interested in getting into education or working with children (public or private).

Interestingly, when we started talking about inappropriate online relationships and social media, an intriguing conversation commenced over appropriate technology usage. A woman in the group started saying that her own children wouldn’t experience these types of problems because she restricts their usage by confiscating their technology before they go to bed at night. In addition, she had their passwords to all their devices and their accounts (which she checked regularly). What is more, as a punishment, she would also take away their phones if they ever misbehaved. One or two other parents chimed in and stated they followed a similar protocol in their homes.

I tried to remain cool, calm, and collected. I tried to refrain from entering the conversation. I tried focusing on other things (like the new Star Wars movie that would soon be in theaters). But, if you know me, you know I have a really hard time with this. Thus, I engaged.

I started with an easy question. “Excuse me… do your children have any social media accounts?” Of course, they responded, “Absolutely not!” (that they know of, LOL). I figured this would be their response. I then decided to ask some leading questions that would surely help. “Do you have video game systems or a SMART TV in your home?” They all said yes. I stated that, if so inclined, one could use either a video game system or a SMART TV to surf the web. They responded that the TV was password protected and that, like phones and tablets, video games were confiscated at a certain time. “What if your child has a project to do that requires him/her to use technology past the technology curfew?” They responded that they would supervise their children as they completed online work. I saw where this was going. But, I thought I would try one more inquiry. “What about when your child goes on a sleep over to a friend’s house?” They stated that they knew the parents of every single friend their kids had, and that they trusted those parents.

I thought with my leading questions, these parents would soon see that they would not only become exhausted in their efforts to monitor their child’s online usage/presence, it would be almost impossible to fully monitor ABSOLUTELY everything. I thought they would see that if a child really wanted to, he/she would find a way online (where there’s a will, there’s a way). I was wrong. They continued to wholeheartedly believe that technology restriction and confiscation would keep their children safe from the dangers of the online world.

I’m not saying don’t set boundaries with children when it comes to technology. However, I’m proposing that rather than trying to hide children from the realities of the online world, we focus on teaching our children how to safely and successfully navigate those precarious situations. Just a few tips:

  • Keep yourself and your children informed about the internet and its rapid changes.
  • Teach kids about the different types of online dangers that exist and what to do if they come across any of them.
  • Teach kids how to keep personal information safe and private.
  • Teach kids about passwords.
  • Encourage your child to come to you if he/she encounters a problem.

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The STEM Challenge Conundrum: Learning and Making Meaning Through Interactive STEM Challenges

DISCLAIMER: I LOVE STEM! I was a cofounder of a STEM school. I spent summers developing integrated project-based learning (PBL) curricula for the school. I procured computer coding and Project Lead the Way engineering curricula for those students. My doctoral dissertation focused on STEM (specifically, challenges facing upper level female undergraduate engineering students). I LOVE STEM!

All that said, I can’t help but be somewhat critical of the “STEM Challenge” craze currently gripping schools throughout the nation. I’ve observed this craze all over Pinterest, Teachers-Pay-Teachers, and at teacher stores like Lakeshore Learning. Again, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure STEM challenges garner high levels of student engagement. It seems STEM challenges also really pique student interest. Yet, that’s not what concerns me regarding STEM challenges. I’m focused on the actual learning that occurs while students engage in STEM challenges (currently, I can’t find any research on this. Maybe it’s still too new).

I once participated in a STEM challenge a teacher was conducting with her students in her classroom. She distributed the directions, gave the students a bunch of supplies, and then told them to accomplish the task clearly delineated in the directions. Like I said, as I watched and participated, there was no denying the high levels of engagement and interest. Later that year, I was presenting at the International STEM Education Association Conference in Branson, Missouri, and I sat in on another STEM challenge presentation. This teacher did THE SAME EXACT THING. Obviously, two teachers (out of the millions who probably conduct STEM challenges with their students) who conduct STEM challenges the same exact way is NOT generalizable. However, that got me thinking… What learning (if any) is actually occurring during these STEM challenges?

Applying what I know of cognitive psychology and cognitive load theory (which, admittedly isn’t a lot), I’m attempting to better understand and articulate how students learn (or don’t learn) during STEM challenges. First, let’s briefly discuss a basic premise of cognitive psychology. Knowledge is stored in long-term memory (LTM) and new information is processed in short-term memory (STM). When considering learning and problem solving, for people who have the necessary information stored in LTM, it’s easier for them to bring that information into STM and manipulate it to make sense of newly received information.

Cognitive load theory suggests that our working memory capacity has inherent limits. Many cognitive researchers posit that our STM can only hold seven plus or minus two units of information at a time (some people can hold and manipulate up to nine units of information while others can only hold and manipulate up to five units of information in STM). When excessive cognitive load exists, it creates error or some kind of interference. So, for people who don’t have the necessary information stored in LTM, asking them to manipulate a variety of supplies and simultaneously learn new content and concepts may be excessive cognitive load (i.e. STEM challenges).

This may then suggest that students, depending on the capacity of their STM and how much knowledge they have stored in LTM, would only have space to possibly manipulate some of the supplies, rather than also learn the new content and concepts associated with a STEM challenge.

I always refer to this in my integrated PBL presentations and when talking about other constructivist approaches to learning as well. If students don’t have the necessary information already stored in LTM, and they’re being provided with too many units of information during a STEM challenge (being given a variety of supplies, being asked to learn new content, and being asked to understand new concepts), they may be experiencing cognitive load which could be hampering their learning.

I’ve heard from some teachers that they like to engage in a KWL or anticipatory set in order to gauge prior knowledge before starting a STEM challenge. I think this is definitely a good way to start a STEM challenge. However, I’m very interested in empirical research about learning using STEM challenges. Know any? Please share!

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State Standardized Testing: A Quasi-Debate Concerning Feedback

I recently engaged in a quasi-debate on Twitter with a few educators regarding the data generated from state standardized tests. An educator proclaimed that viewing state tests as a waste of time that reduce and limit classroom instruction is “ignorant of the bigger picture.” I immediately inquired, “Hmm… What exactly is the ‘bigger picture?’” A digital debate ensued.

First and foremost, solid research exists concerning the actual narrowing of school curricula as a result of state standardized testing and the pressure schools feel to do well on these tests. This pressure and the resulting narrowed/hallowed out curricula are especially prevalent in economically disadvantaged areas. Essentially, the exact opposite of this educator’s claim that standardized tests reduce and limit classroom instruction is true. This testing and the deleterious pressure put on schools as a result of this testing has been shown to reduce and limit classroom instruction.

Honestly, that’s not even where I found the deepest flaw in his proclamation (though that flaw is pretty significant and not to mention the research that suggests that state standardized tests don’t accurately show what students know and can do). After reading his edict, my mind immediately jumped to the idea of feedback. The feedback generated from state standardized tests is notoriously delayed, at least here in Illinois. Yet, I presume this issue would impact all states that are a part of the PARCC consortium.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of administering a state standardized test, you know that schools don’t receive the feedback generated by these tests for months after the test is administered (maybe even years). Even after these testing consortiums claimed that going computer-based would help expedite feedback, schools don’t receive the feedback much faster (if any faster at all) than previous paper-based state standardized tests. I’m sure most Illinois educators recall the Illinois Science Assessment (ISA). We administered this exam to students in 5th and 8th grade in the Spring of 2016. Frighteningly, we still haven’t received the results from that assessment.

I know state standardized testing feedback may help some districts make program decisions. This type of feedback might help from a macro perspective (finding trends in learning across schools/subgroup populations). Susan Brookhart describes feedback as “just-in-time, just-for-me information delivered when and where it can do the most good.” I love this quote! When considering assessment feedback, the question must be: how can this feedback be used immediately in the classroom, where it can have the biggest impact on student learning?  That being said, I find it much better/more efficient/more logical to use formative assessment feedback for the purpose of impacting student learning in the classroom (I know I’m not alone in this thought.  But, the amount of people in this debate who vehemently approved of our state testing prioritization concern me).

With that in mind, another question arises: should schools/districts/states limit or forgo state standardized testing (like Finland) in order to focus their time and attention on the formative assessments that generate feedback that is most useful to teachers and students in our classrooms (not to mention the money/resources it would save districts)?  Throughout my career in education, I’ve never known a time without state standardized testing. Many educators from my generation share that sentiment. It’s hard to imagine an education system without these tests. However, at this point, I see state standardized tests, with their delayed feedback, as mostly accountability measures with limited relevance to improving classroom instruction in a timely manner.

Important to note, I’m not advocating for zero standardized testing. I think some value can be derived from certain standardized tests. But, I find the way we prioritize state standardized testing problematic.

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The Best Professional Development Providers are the Educators You Already Employ

I know there’s debate concerning the distinction between “professional development” and “professional learning.” Many believe that “professional development” is outdated and that districts (on a macro scale) and educators (on a micro scale) must consider and employ “professional learning.” For the sake of brevity, I won’t get into the clarification between the two concepts in this post (I plan to discuss the distinction in a later post). But, I’m going to use the phrase “professional development” throughout this post to help make my point.

In regards to districts providing professional development for their teachers, it is essential to remember that the best professional development providers are the educators currently employed by the district/school. The educators on staff who are in the trenches and charged with the tasks of implementing new curricula/designing and rolling out innovative behavioral management plans/actualizing cutting edge learning strategies/etc. are the experts. They know more about all of that than the grand majority of “consultants” or “PD providers” from any of those large education corporations/text books companies/etc. They’re the ones in the classrooms making this stuff work with their students! They have the best firsthand knowledge regarding the good, bad, and the ugly of every district initiative!

Educational leaders must work to identify the teachers (or other staff members) who have successfully implemented the district initiatives and build up their capacity so they can share their knowledge with others. Seeking out the expertise of educators currently on staff and offering them the opportunity to share their knowledge with others is empowering. Offering these opportunities to educators already on staff is encouraging and helps foster leadership qualities.

Now, I’m not saying that the teachers on staff with this expertise are the best PD providers or presenters. And, to be clear, some staff members wouldn’t want this added responsibility or feel comfortable presenting in front of their peers. I get that. But, if we’re concerned with offering the best professional development for our teachers, we owe it to them to at least try and get the best professionals to provide that development.

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“My/Your Students” vs. “Our Students.” Harm Caused by a Competition Mindset

Competition… Good or bad in schools? I’m not talking about school athletics, band, or other extracurricular activities. I’m talking about schools competing against each other for better test scores or other standardized measures of success. The verdict may still be out. Some researchers have found positive gains from competition in schools (though the validity of said research is now being questioned). Other researchers suggest that any gains from those studies are so small, they may as well be insignificant. Many conservative education reformers declare that schools and educators operating in a free-market system encourage innovation. Let’s look at the charter school movement. Some charter schools are doing amazing things. Some charter schools do sound very innovative. However, the research is fairly clear… charter schools perform no better than public schools when educating the same students (comparing apples to apples, not apples to oranges). Whatever you believe, in the end, one thing is usually certain… when gauged through the lens of standardized measures such as test scores, attendance percentages, or drop-out ratings, competition usually leads to problems in education.

Don’t get me wrong… I like competition. I’m not very competitive myself. But, I love watching (certain) competitive sports such as baseball, basketball, golf, and the UFC. What is more, I’m obsessed with the Olympics. The Olympics are pretty much the gold standard when it comes to competitive athletics. So, I don’t take issue with all competition. I’m not saying “all” competition is bad.

However, in my experience, when I’ve seen schools compete against each other for better test scores or better levels of student achievement, students and teachers suffer. Some immediately ask, “Why?” or “How can that be?” Because, as research has shown, competition leads to the privatization of professional practice. Competition, in this sense, hinders collaboration and the sharing of ideas among schools. Yes, Albert Shanker’s initial conception of charter schools and the sharing of ideas among all schools sounded promising. Under more ideal circumstances, that model may work. However, realistically speaking, competition has perverted his work.

When I hear about educators who embrace a competitive mindset so much so that it hinders collaboration, that always makes me wonder, “Aren’t we in this together?” “Aren’t these students ‘our’ students?” Rhetorically speaking, if the students in my building or classroom can benefit from something the students are doing in your building or classroom, but you erect barriers to the sharing of that knowledge, you’re hurting the children. What’s even more unfortunate, I see this as a disservice to children all in the name of professional, adult pride.

I read something from George Cuoros the other day. Along with some educators and cognitive neuroscientists, I question his work regarding the “innovator’s mindset” and his obsession with innovation. However, in this case, I thought he was right on the money. In one of his posts, he posed an interesting duality: Classroom Teacher vs. School Teacher. Cuoros states that, the “classroom teachers know their content amazingly well and are great with their current group of students. But, once they step outside of their classroom, the students they do not teach are ‘not their problem.’ ‘School teachers’ on the other hand, can do all of those things that classroom teachers do within their own classrooms and subject matter, but when they walk out of their room, every child in the school is their child.” In education, it would behoove us all to understand that these children are “our” children… The students at this school are not “their” children. The students at my school are not “my” children. They are all “our” children. We must constantly be thinking about what we can do to best serve all of “our” children. I’m going to take Cuoros’ duality a step further by arguing that competition enforces the classroom teacher mindset, rather than the school teacher mindset. Let’s remove competitive barriers and see ourselves as “school teachers.”

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