Not evenly distributed

The future is already here,
it’s just not evenly distributed.

Sci-fi writer William Gibson

This undated photo shows electric vehicles being plugged into what we today would refer to as charging stations. Early in the 20th century auto makers dabbled with electric vehicles. They repeatedly came back to the enterprise, most notably with the Saturn EV, profiled in “Who killed the Electric Car.” In every instance, the future was there for all to see. It just wasn’t evenly distributed.

Any time a good idea dies in its infancy, we can look to two reasons: technology and mindset. The batteries were laughably short-lived and the network of charging infrastructure to make long-distance travel possible was non-existent. And yet, as recently as a few years ago, the situation was no different. Battery technology (including but not limited to longevity, size, weight and cost) kept the major manufacturers from jumping into the EV space, and since ICE vehicles were still selling, with pickups and SUVs being the most lucrative categories, Ford and GM stayed where the money was.

Then Tesla. And Fisker. And Rivian. Lordstown. Lucid. Et cetera. The small outfits that tolerated the the lack of profitability in order to realize the dream of sustainable EV production themselves created the technology and mindset that led to sustainable EV production. (Let’s ignore momentarily that profitability is a key component of sustainability.

There were missteps along the way. In their investor presentations, the Nikola Corporation famously rolled a semi down a hill in order to simulate what it would look like if their long-haul EV tractor had worked. Then CEO Trevor Milton was swiftly mocked and relieved of his duties, and both Ford and GM withdrew their interest and investment capital. Notwithstanding the technology that already existed, if Tesla, Fisker and others had not sufficiently changed consumer and investor mindset, would Nikola’s gag have put EVs back on the shelf for another generation?

Electric vehicles are no longer the future. They are the present. The name of the game now is adoption rate. As we look to the future, what are the trends that reflect an unevenly distributed future? Hybrid workplace, augmented and virtual reality, Internet of Things, decentralized finance. These are just a few of the trends that have made headway in recent years, most of which gained momentum (or at least mindshare) during the 2020 lockdown. Which glimpse of the future will you seize on, invest in, adopt into your professional practice?

Sometimes the future stares us in the face and we don’t know what we’re looking at. These police officers didn’t know what they were looking at. They saw an affront to law and order. They were actually looking at the future 16-term congressman from the state of Georgia, John Lewis. Future on the right, the past on the left—unevenly distributed.

If I had had the opportunity to meet Rep. John Lewis before his passing, I would have thanked him for bringing the future to us a little sooner than the country expected. He paid dearly for it.

What social trends do we see going on around us? What is as it should be and what is in dire need of change? Is the thing you see that makes you uncomfortable or makes you angry wrong, or is it the first glimpse of a future you have an opportunity to be a part of?

If you spend more than five minutes in the room with a self-proclaimed “educational innovator,” they will point out that the classroom of 2021 looks very much the same as it did in 1921. It’s one of our favorite zingers.

COVID-19 forces the world to adopt remote learning, and we learned two things from it: 1) It sucks and 2) It holds promise.

More than anything, we learned that regardless of where we are in our technology and our mindset, learning is nothing if not a deeply social enterprise. We NEED to connect with the people we learn from and learn with. And yet, as any introvert can tell you, not EVERYTHING needs to be done in groups of three framed around a “do now” and an “exit ticket.”

So, as schools reopen in the fall, or as those that have been open loosen restrictions, what should endure from our flirtation with virtual school? What does the future look like, its full distribution we’ve only begun to glimpse?

An English teacher colleague of mine has recently rekindled his love of teaching writing. He is far from stagnant in his practice, but neither does he chase every pedagogical whim for the sake of being “the innovative teacher.” He swings at pitches that he know will drive in runs.

When our school went virtual in the spring of 2020, he was forced to conduct writing consultations with students via a screen-shared Zoom call. This intimate setting allowed deep conversation, thoughtful inquiry and self-assessment, and frank conversations about one’s writing. Suffice it to say, this practice will endure the reopening of schools.

A math colleague began the practice of “breakout rooms of one.” She put her students alone in a breakout room during moments of reflection and assigned them a conversation with themselves. They had to speak out loud and they had to participate in both sides of the conversation. Although it took practice, students responded positively to the exercise. In particular, they like holding the responsibility of both formulating the question and finding the answer, of providing both the point and the counterpoint to a problem.

Which brings us to now. Nearly out of the pandemic, we probably spend more time looking to a more normalized future than thinking about our constrained past. Which of those constraints are worth holding on to? What should live on in your teaching practice? In the life of your school? What’s worth distributing now?

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.

It’s time to consider backward design…your students already have.

Recently I attended a training on Understanding by Design (UbD). Otherwise known as Backward Design, this curriculum design methodology popularized by Jay McTighe and the late Grant Wiggins encourages the designer to plan with the end in mind, seeking clarity of purpose above all things. The intent is that by declaring purpose (“what will learners take away from this experience?”), assessment and activity design become much more focused, resulting in the abandonment of less important activities and content. Speaking personally, the practice of UbD, in conjunction with my work with educational consultant Greg Duncan and my colleagues in PLC, has transformed how I plan, how I teach, and how I communicate with students regarding their growth as language learners.

End of infomercial.

My writing today is prompted not by my belief in the effectiveness of backward design; rather, by a comment made by a colleague during today’s training. A Grade Chair and music teacher in the training said, “Kids walk into my class thinking with the end in mind all the time. They say ‘Why do we need to learn this anyway?'”

Why do we need to learn this anyway?

A teacher’s reaction to this question is most often rage, frustration, or anaphalaxis. It seems to us like the knee-jerk reaction of an ill-informed and petulant child. In reality, kids are asking themselves the very question that we should be asking: “why are we doing this in the first place?”

It can be a sobering moment when someone you previously considered “under your wing” is actually way ahead of you in the thought process. While kids aren’t really thinking about backward design when they ask the dreaded question, they are thinking economicallyHow will I benefit from the lesson you’re about to put me through?

Economist Thomas Sowell would put it like this: My time is a finite resource that has alternative uses. Why am I using it like this?

And while our first reaction may be to buck up and throw a flag (“Disrespectful remark…five yards, loss of down!”), we should instead join them in their thinking. Why am I teaching this lesson? How does it figure into the unit of instruction? What skills or capacities should kids expect to gain from this experience?

I’ve heard kids ask me “why do we need to learn this?” for years. But I wasn’t listening. I didn’t realize that they were asking the question that, until recent years, I never thought to ask myself.

That’s something I should think about.

“The benevolent future of the Internet”

I first heard this TED Talk through NPR’s TED Radio Hour. Links to both the video and the NPR segment are below.

http://www.npr.org/2012/05/18/152883399/how-do-you-make-a-virtual-choir?sc=17&f=57

In the transition to a 1:1 school, and at the beginning of the school year for many years after 1:1 was established, there is a great deal of concern over the dangers surrounding this tool, a networked laptop.  These concerns need not be minimized by pointing out what an interviewee in this story calls “the benevolent future of the internet.”  What a wonderful term that is, “the benevolent future of the internet.”  There is hope and grace in connectedness.  That doesn’t make the dangers any less real, but it does change the calculus in our decision to allow or restrict our children’s access to the internet.

Why are “bloopers” celebrated while “mistakes” are feared?

Near the end of every student video project is the bloopers real. It’s, by the look on their faces when the project ends and the bloopers begin, they’re favorite part of the project by far.

How strange that in a video project mistakes are captured and unnecessarily added to the end, while in 99% of school life mistakes are feared, avoided, hidden, covered over, judged, or even punished.

What can we do about that?