Science, but not science class

“Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.”

Jules Verne

Science class, or any other class, is made up of mistakes that carry a discounted grade and perhaps a discounted sense of self.

The education we sell, the one we wish for for our kids and the one we seek for ourselves, is best achieved by those that can tune out the bell ringing, point deducting, grade norming, and finger pointing.

In order to thrive in the “fail up” sales pitch of modern school culture, you must first have been imbued with high self-esteem, been born to the parents that get it, and been assigned to the teachers that don’t use grades as weapons.

In other words, you have to have won the lottery.

What if work were assessed using rubrics rather than grades? What if your report card were a digest of the type of work you tend to deliver, rather than a derivative numerical abstraction of the same? What if your final mark, if such a thing were necessary, were a measure of your improvement over time, rather than the mean of your performances over time?

What if your work, both the successes and the mistakes, were seen as the thing that leads you little by little to the truth?

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.

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.

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!'”