Lost in a sea of strategies? Focus on Engagement.

For the past few months, PLCs have been exploring a variety of instructional strategies. These conversations usually take the form of “Activity A begets Strategy B.” The result is a lot of strategies and A LOT of activities. While this may work for some, the surfeit of options leaves some teachers to nod politely and continue on with business as usual.

Rather than placing the focus on activities, consider the atmosphere of your class. What’s it like? What are students doing and how are they doing it? How do they enter your classroom? Far from ephemeral, these questions were studied by a team of researchers whose findings were published in a 2016 article for Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. The authors identify three ways in which teachers may measure engagement:

Academic Engagement

The authors lift up attentiveness and compliance as hallmarks of the academically engaged classroom. Attentiveness and compliance are anathemas in many present-day conversations around classroom management. “Attentiveness” means an excessive focus on the teacher while “compliance” suggests that we’re grooming automatons. For starters, attentiveness and compliance connote an adherence to social norms in class, which means that norms must have been established. (“In this class, we attend to everyone and we make sure we understand the demands of the task before we begin the work. Everyone on board with that?”) Students should certainly bear the agency to question ideas, but they had better understand the rules of engagement such that the seeds that they sow fall on ground that’s ready to nurture them. Far from a flock of conscripted sheep, an attentive and compliant classroom can start all manner of revolutions.

Cognitive Engagement

Cognitive engagement can often be very difficult for an outside observer to identify. I’ve visited many classrooms where only after I knelt down and spoke with students did I realize the high-octane work that they were doing. Analytical, collaborative work can draw in students that are nurtured by a challenge. Most English classes that I’ve observed have high levels of cognitive engagement…reading Chains or The Outsiders through the lens of depression or examining dystopic elements of our own societies through the lens of dystopia novels. Even at the middle school level, students can shoulder these ideas and concepts, not just for their provocative nature, but for their relevance to their own lives.

Relational Engagement

Based on my observations, the amount of relational engagement really depends on the teacher’s belief behind the role of knowledge in the classroom. Those who believe that knowledge should be earned and displayed (on an assessment) will demonstrate low levels of relational engagement. Knowledge is guarded and sometimes fought over, a prize to be won through a high quiz or test grade. By contrast, classrooms that view knowledge as a shared endeavor, the force that raises the tide of understanding for the entire class, these classes show unmistakeable amounts of relational engagement. Class conversation is discursive, relaxed, students attribute one another’s work and build upon it. How deftly this is done usually depends upon the amount of scaffolding teachers have built around discussion. The use of sentence stems (I like what Cristiana said about…) help build student fluency with relationally intelligent conversation.

So, now what?

When teachers talk about strategies, a litany of activities (and accompanying to-do’s in order to set up said activities) is soon to follow. Rather than think about strategies at the activity level, consider thinking about strategy at the atmospheric level. What’s the vibe in your classroom?

  • Are students attentive to the teacher and to one another? Have they all bought into the same rules of engagement on the task at hand?
  • Are they engaged in highly challenging cognitive work? Are they asking or answering How and Why questions, rather than a lot of What and When questions?
  • Are students encouraged to share their knowledge? Have they learned strategies and protocols to share knowledge fluidly?

If your classroom looks like this, may I pay you a visit?

The authors’ article may be found at Sage Journals.

Two “business” books that have something to say that teachers need to hear

Soapbox moment: The term “business book” troubles me because the category unnecessarily creates a degree of separation from industries (such as education) that sorely need to learn what some of the world’s great thinkers are thinking. What if we called them “insight books.” Perhaps they would wind up in teachers’ stockings around the holidays. End of moment.

Now to the books.

The brain is a thinking tool, not a storage device. -David Allen

David Allen, Getting Things Done.

Reason why teachers should read it:

  1. Teachers fill a number of positions for which they receive no formal training (budget forecasting, project management, etc.). Aside from the obvious learning gaps this presents, teachers need superb organizational skills which are largely “solved” with a visit to the Container Store. David Allen’s productivity methodology, if part of the common PD profile for teachers, would allow teachers to free up their psychic RAM (the words of the author) so that they may do the “real work”–realizing the best educational outcomes for their kids.
  2. The premise itself behind the need for GTD productivity methodology (and recently reiterated by the author during his interview on the Simplify podcast). If we took this axiom with us to planning meetings, parent meetings, PLC meetings, I suspect the decisions we make around curriculum and assessment design would see significant changes.

Kerry Patterson, et al., Crucial Conversations

Reasons why teachers should read it:

  1. Two truths about schools: they are hierarchical and they are siloed. This combination makes change difficult. The change that most impacts schools is not of the technical or mechanical sort; it is deeply linked to individual teacher philosophy and identity. (“I’m a traditional/progressive/strict/caring teacher.”)
  2. Although a hierarchy exists in schools, real change happens laterally–between teachers. In order to grow and to grow others, we need to learn the currency of communication. Crucial Conversations equips the reader with the mindset and the tactical skills to enter into a conversation with respect and purpose. Respect keeps the conversation going, but purpose will lead to actual change.

Faking Failure

Take risks! Embrace failure! Dare to flop!

I’m not sure where the ethers of risk appetite came from, but I know that they come from a good place. But as long as learning tasks are one-off activities that result in a grade, our calls to take risk are disingenuous. The impact of grades and internal and external pressures lead to a process of hedging (pretending to take risks while still keeping an eye on what students think the teacher really wants) that almost guarantees sub-optimal learning outcomes for our kids.

Over the last several (10+) years, a persistent wind calls for emphasizing process over product. Not a bad idea. But we’re still putting the main focus on the binary question of “What am I going to get out of this? (a grade vs. a judgment of how I do the work).

Rather than focusing on the product vs process (both of which are products…one is graded and one is couched in terms of behaviors or tendencies), what if we begin the whole process with the question, “Why do we do this work in the first place?” Rather than ask what I’m going to get out of it, ask what is the cause of my doing this at all?

Grounding student work in the genesis may prompt students (through careful teacher scaffolding) to consider questions like:

  • Who do I want to be as I enter into this work?
  • How do I hope to respond to situations of difficulty or conflict?
  • What do I hope to learn throughout this process?
  • How do I hope to respond if in the end I don’t succeed?

Those last two questions are very much product oriented, but framed in terms of goals rather than task completion. The difference between framing a learning task as described above versus simply “putting the emphasis on the process” may be subtle, but meaningful. Assessing process imposes externalized teacher expectations (usually in rubric form) applied to future student work. Expectations are compared to execution and the rubric is graded accordingly. This is a FINE way to teach kids about desired learning behaviors.

What if no rubric were applied to the learning process and students rather reflected on the questions above (or yet better questions thought up by someone more insightful than I)? Does the lack of teacher imprimatur still make for evidence of worthwhile learning?

If grades are a necessity at your school, you very well may frame learning around the genesis of the work as described above, but still employ some not-that-unreasonable techniques to ensure that process is examined instead of or alongside the ultimate product. Some ideas:

  • What if every (and I do mean EVERY) assignment that results in a recorded grade allows for multiple permutations before its final version is submitted?
  • What if all one-off learning tasks, graded or ungraded, did not reach to the report card, but rather were used as feedback for future work?

Schools exist that put such prototyping skills into daily practice, but they do stand apart as if they were a different species than the majority of schools out there.

The result for a traditional school would be fewer grades in the gradebook, for sure. But those grades would be grounded in a large quantity of examined (better yet, self-examined!), process-oriented work.

Change for change’s sake

Whether you’re a “tow-the-line” individual contributor, an mid-level manager, or a change agent in your organization, you’ve probably found that the best way to curry favor with others in your organization is to bark about the perils of “change for change’s sake.” Your belief in the default status of the status quo gives you the air of an efficiency-minded pragmatist and as one that seeks to minimize inconvenience and discomfort for your colleagues.

But are you doing them, and yourself, any favors?

The phrase “change for change’s sake” presumes that the need for novelty is at the heart of unnecessary change. By that same logic, going out for a run without a destination is lunacy.

Just as jogging conditions our bodies (and as it turns out, our brains), adopting small change conditions us to acclimate to change when there’s no other alternative but to change. If you’re a jogger, you’re probably motivated by one of two factors:

  • long-term advantages: overall fitness, heart health, reduced likelihood of disease in your “golden years”
  • short-term advantages: ability to survive bear charges, muggers, and work-sponsored fun runs

By deliberately running without destination, joggers prepare themselves for the continuous, inevitable, long-term circumstances of age as well as the sudden, unforeseeable threats to the status quo.

Instead of decrying “change for change’s sake,” consider extolling “continuous preparedness for change.”

Your lungs, muscles, brains, and your institutions will thank you for it.

Born to Create: Letting the brain do what the brain is meant to do

In an article in Psychology Today (October 2016 issue), Todd Kashdan brings us this pearl of wisdom:

“Our brains are designed to create, not to hold onto content. It is essential to extract information and file it away into easily retrievable documents.

He recommends keeping electronic diaries and sprinkling notebooks around your spaces (school, home). I love this idea and it puts retained knowledge where it belongs: within reach but not necessarily at the ready. This frees us up to let the brain do what our brain really wants to do.

Let the brain focus on creating new knowledge, not storing old knowledge.

I say this as a person that prides himself on knowing a lot of stuff. But I also recognize that my fondness for knowing things is a form of vanity. I take pride when someone looks at me, a Spanish teacher and running coach, and says, “Why on earth do you know that?”

And to be fair, I believe knowing things makes you an all-around interesting person. But we should be clear with our students and with ourselves that the purpose of education is not to retain knowledge in perpetuity or even for the long term.

The purpose of retaining information is to hold on to it long enough to make connections with other information in the hopes of creating new information from it and in deriving value from both of those learning processes. How does this information apply in this novel circumstance over here? Or perhaps it’s worthwhile to simply ask What does collection of information mean for me?

Either accidentally or deliberately, we communicate to children that the purpose of memorization is permanent storage and immediate retrieval. I do hope that we rethink this. It’s still A-OK to quiz students to confirm short-term retention, but we’d be doing them a great service in saying, “All right, folks. As soon as you can find some worthwhile reason for learning this information, I encourage you to let it go and move on to novel information with greater utility.”

“And I hope you look forward to that wonderful feeling you get when, in the middle of a conversation in some far-off future, your eyebrows pop off your forehead and you shout, ‘Oh yeah! I remember learning that somewhere!'”