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.

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!'”

Homework: to grade or not to grade? Better question: “Why are you assigning it?”

In our PLCs we are discussing assessment and percentages (this is a crude reduction of the many conversations that are going on, but for the sake of brevity…).  One of the issues that we’ve been touching on is homework.  Here’s the question, or rather, series of questions:

  • Should homework count?
  • Should homework be graded?
  • Is homework a demonstration of student responsibility?

How do we address homework in a world of competing assumptions, philosophies, and objectives? Should a school be expected, for the sake of continuity of experience, to have a uniform policy on homework?

First, ask yourself why you assign homework in the first place.  Is it to prepare them for a future assessment?  To reinforce something that they’ve already learned, perhaps mastered?  To deepen their understanding of a concept learned?

Would this assignment best be done at home, alone, with no support from the teacher?  With limited resources?  Or would this assignment create greater meaning if it took place in the context of a conversation with a subject matter expert in the room?

I’m curious to hear from any and all.

Leading long-term change: Can the…ehem…USPS give us guidance?

When you think “United States Postal Service,” effective change management probably doesn’t come to mind.

It goes without saying that living through long-term change is difficult. With a field of vision several years in the distance, how do you keep your people interested, motivated, and believing that a) the change will come and b) that it will mean something?  The progress that you can see through the day-to-day lens of “doing work” often seems insignificant.  This leads believers to lose heart (or focus) and allows resistors to affirm their suspicions that the proposed change lacks meaning.  How then can we shepherd change in a way that gives hope to the hopeful and evidence to the skeptical?

I recently read a travel blog post that described a desert mystery that might “point the way.”

What big arrows can you lay down to point the way to the ultimate destination?  And what meaning can you make of those big concrete arrows?  We often see benchmarks as points along the way toward a place of meaning, as if the arrows pointing the way are themselves less meaningful.  Let’s never forget that the benchmarks we create as waypoints toward change can have enormous impact for your team or community as a source of inspiration, growth, and reflection.

Don’t simply fly over the arrows…go in for a landing and build something there.  Celebrate them and learn from them.

Why add pre-assessment to the classroom learning experience?

Before you dust off last year’s book of lesson plans (giving many the benefit of the doubt…), consider this:

Should I make pre-assessment a part of the learning experience in my classroom?

It’s a big question, really. So by all means ask it, but make sure you understand what it entails…

Pre-assessment is not an activity, it’s part of your students’ “assessment strategy”

Pre-assessment (the act of demonstrating your current knowledge or skill prior to instruction) must figure into the overall plan for assessment.  A pre-assessment must assess the same knowledge or skills that are on the end-of-unit assessment and most, if not all the formative assessments in-between.  Which means that the teacher needs to have the framework in place before students begin the pre-assessment process.

Pre-assessment will expose kids to failure…and that’s a good thing!

Students should NOT perform well on a pre-assessment.  If they do, they should move on to something else, or at the very least, learn what they’re about to learn so that they can demonstrate an even higher degree of mastery.  Pre-assessment forces students to confront the notion that they don’t know something.  And much to our own chagrin, school isn’t set up for that reality.

What if pre-assessment were a small, easy step to change the reality of school?  If students establish a “I don’t know A, so I’m going to learning by doing B” schema at the beginning of a unit, might that change their mindset going into the first graded assignment?  (My answer: Only if the teacher crafts the language he/she uses around that schema)

Pre-assessment just might change your curriculum…permanently and perpetually

If a pre-assessment identifies what a student knows/doesn’t know and can do/cannot do, the results of that pre-assessment must affect the students’ next steps.  And odds are that those next steps do not match the scribbles from last year’s lesson plan book.

What if a pre-assessment were followed up with the question, What should we do next (first) to increase your performance on the next assessment?

A skilled teacher may be apt to answer this question, perhaps even for every student in the classroom.  But students can often answer this question for themselves.  Who then owns the curriculum?


Pre-assessment has the potential to significantly impact:

  1. The framework and progression of a unit of instruction
  2. The students’ mindset of learning, doing, and learning about how they’re doing
  3. The ownership of the curriculum itself

At the very least it helps improve your design potential and student mindset.  At the most, it redefines the learning experience in your classroom.