Starting from Scratch- #IMMOOC Round 2

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So here I am blogging for Week #1 of the second round of #IMMOOC. It was such a great experience last time that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn some more from all of the participants. I have “met” so many dedicated educators as a result of the first #IMMOOC and will be forever grateful to George Couros and Katie Martin for taking their time to put these on. So…let’s get to the point of this blog post…If I was starting from scratch what would my school look like? What would stay and what would go?

Obviously the answer to this question can and does fill whole books so I will deal with just one major change…getting rid of grades! I say this having given the topic a lot of thought over the last year. Grades just seem to be one of the root cause of the issues that we have in schools. This is a hot topic that causes much disagreement among educators and the public. Grades, not true learning, are what motivate many students. Grades are the way that schools say, “see what our students know.” Grades in and of themselves aren’t bad, but it is the power that we have given them over time that has become detrimental. If I were to look back anecdotally over my twenty-three years in the classroom, high grades were many times not a true reflection of the talent of a student. There were many instances where those with the high grades simply knew how to play the game of school while those with lower grades had a myriad of reasons for not getting higher grades. Many of those were related to boredom and/or home issues.

The popular feeling among many educators that failure is necessary for student growth runs head on with most grading systems that involve the idea of punishment for making mistakes. The punishment is a set number of points deducted from 100. These lost points are never able to be retrieved. Don’t even get me started on extra credit! The motivation for students is to not lose points. That sounds great until you look at how this plays out in the real world. Every point is a battle! It is a battle in the mind of the teacher, student, and parents. I cannot count the number of times that I had discussions with students or parents about one or two points. From a teacher’s perspective, they have taken the time to grade according to a rubric or set of standards. Through this lens, those one or two points seem to be a carefully arrived at through something akin to the scientific process. Truly being honest with ourselves would allow us to be able to admit that this is fantasy. As much as we try to be consistent and fair with grading, there are too many variables present. Did I grade the first papers when I was relaxed and motivated? Did I finish a class of papers at 2:00 am? Add to the mix that there are some schools who give only letter grades, while some give percentage grades. To make it even more confusing, some grading scales use 90-100 to earn an A where others use 93-100. The district in which I work has college credit granting courses that use different grading scales for the high school and college credit. Earn a 92% and you will receive an A for the college portion and a B+ for the high school credit. Imagine how that goes over with students and parents!!

There are many more examples of the negative impact of grades on the educational system. When I bring this idea up to other teachers and administrators the reaction is almost always same…”Yeah but that’s how it has always been and it is what colleges look at when deciding on acceptance standards. It is so ingrained in how we educate students that there is no way that it can or will change.” But…I have been given the power of a blank slate, a tabula rasa! Standards based grading seems to me to be the best system for being able to hold students accountable for their learning. In a perfect world, there would have to be no accountability because everyone would learn because they wanted to and were motivated. While that would be awesome, I am not so pie-in-the-sky as to believe that is ever really possible. Teachers would learn to evaluate student work according to standards on a scale from not-meeting to exceeding. This would be much “easier” than applying a percentage grade to student work. This work would be looked at in terms of standards that were attempted.  I would personally use a system where a student would always be judged by their best work as to further encourage progress over points. There wouldn’t be a penalty for scoring low on an early attempt at a standard, only room for growth. Quality narrative feedback would help guide students to areas where growth was needed. This would truly allow students to experience the benefit of “failure” in leading toward mastering a standard.

A whole new societal mindset would be needed to throw out grades. There are individuals who are trying, but society as a whole still clings to grades. Starting in elementary/middle schools would probably be easier simply from the standpoint of colleges not being involved.  High schools have the added problem of doing what colleges expect. Until colleges change their focus on grades, high schools will have a tough time trying to reform grading practices. But, I can still dream!

Don Sturm

The process is important!

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Imagine…students working diligently on a project. They are interacting with each other. Their interest levels are peaked. They are seeking out new information. The teacher is happy, the students are happy, everything is right with the world. Then…the final product is turned in…and it is not very good. What happened? What grade do you as a teacher give to the finished product? You have a rubric that you live and die by, you really have no choice but to give a low grade. The final grade is not what the students expected.

As a former high school history teacher, I can speak first hand about how easy it is to forget the importance of the process of learning. High school teachers especially seem to focus more on the final product than the steps that students followed to produce that product. I am not sure if it is the content heavy nature of high school or the idea that students at this level are ready to be set out into the dog-eat-dog world, but there is a huge focus on final products. Educators, no matter the grade level, need to be sure to place an emphasis on the process rather than the final product.

Don’t get me wrong, at some point the final product needs to count for something. The key for those involved in educating kids is to find a balance of process and product. My biggest issue is that many teachers (myself included) give many one and done type of assignments. Students work for a set amount of time (days to weeks), turn in it in, and wait for a grade. The grade is given and the something new is assigned. The problem…many times the new project involves new skills that haven’t been honed through previous work. This process is repeated over and over throughout a semester or school year.

Wouldn’t it be better to incorporate a set of skills/standards that students would work to master throughout the course or year? In theory, every assignment or long term project would incorporate these skills/standards. This would allow students to use what they learn from each project to hone these skills over a longer period of time. Projects turned in at the end of the course or year would presumably be better than those turned in during the beginning of the year. This is true growth!

Probably one of the biggest hurdles to this type of thinking is the nature of grades in our education system. The belief that everything that students complete has to be graded and then recorded is pervasive in our society. Parents have to have something to see in the gradebook…don’t they?? This expectation is then carried over to assignments. If students complete and turn in an assignment, it is easy for a teacher to just look at that final piece of work and, in turn, the learning process is almost completely discounted. And…if the work is all done at home, there is really no effective way to assess the learning process. Thus, the push by some educators to do away with homework. While I am not suggesting that there is no place for homework, I do think that this makes a final grade almost always reliant on the final product and not the process.

How to implement this is the million dollar question! One thought gaining traction is to use more of a standards based grading system. This type of grading system allows students to work on standards that will be mastered over time. In this type of classroom, students are always assessed based upon their best work. I am currently working with a high school ELA teacher on this type of grading system. It is worth noting that this is being done within a traditional grading system, but grades do not appear until midterm and final report cards. This is what George Couros might describe as innovating within the box. As students work to meet standards, their best attempt is recorded. This is direct attempt to balance process and final product. Final products are always being assessed, but there is a focus on continual growth. The focus is on process.

The challenge for teachers is to at least be aware that the learning process is important. This awareness will hopefully lead to some discussions about how to assess the process and not just the product. It is also important to stress this idea to all involved in the education process: students, parents, administrators, and school board members. When showcasing work…focus on the process that was followed and the learning that resulted. Don’t always feel like you have to showcase the final video or presentation to others. In fact, don’t lead with the finished product, lead with process!

Don Sturm

Where to start??

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There is just so much in Part 2 to discuss, but I think this graphic is a great place to start! I remember the first time I read The Innovator’s Mindset, I stopped at this graphic and just pondered all that is presented here. The funny thing is that I asked myself…what if the physical schools could be like this graphic. Funny because I had yet to read the What if section of the book just a few pages further! Those eleven bulleted points are HUGE! Imagine how the world and our kids would be different if we focused more on the right side of the graphic than the left.  The right side is what I wanted for my kids when they were in school. There were those teachers who inspired and challenged my kids, but I would say that most of their formal education took place on the left side. I tried to promote the right side when I was in the classroom as a high school social studies teacher, but I think in the end the left side won out more often than not. There were those that I think I fostered in my students…challenging perceived norms,  promoting the idea that everyone is both a teacher and a learner, and making your own connections. Those were the ideas that made me love teaching.

But (and I don’t mean to get negative here!), it is challenging to truly make some of the changes that I believe need to be made. Schools are behemoths…they change at a snail’s pace. Let’s not forget that it is not just the teachers or administration who might be resistant to change. One of the biggest “roadblocks”  to change is the community. The mindsets of some communities are hard to change. I know that I am preaching to the choir here, but it is REALLY hard to encourage innovative thinking when community members are not convinced of the benefits of the right side concepts. I can only speak for the areas in the Midwest where I have lived and taught but, the common thought is teachers need to teach and kids need to learn. Teachers talk, kids take notes. Teachers give tests, students take tests. Community expectations make it more difficult to convince teachers to try for more of the right side!

So what can be done is what has been suggested by George Couros, innovate inside the box.

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As educators, we need to make those right side ideas/concepts part of the culture of the classroom. Just as we can help one teacher at a time innovate, so can we make changes to the community as a whole. It would be hard to question the excitement for learning that your child brought home as a result of having a teacher who believed in the right side ideas. What if education became more about learning and less about schooling??

Don Sturm

Practicing what I preach!

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My job as a technology integration specialist is to push teachers and students to change. I try to “preach” that this change is necessary and good for all involved: teachers, students, parents, heck, society as a whole. Change comes easy for some, for others….ummmm…yeah, not so much! I do think that is it imperative that I practice what I preach when it comes to innovation. George Couros has challenged us this week with this question.

“Change is an opportunity to do something amazing.” How are you embracing change to spur innovation in your own context?

The district leadership team came up with a list of seven principles that will help guide our six schools as we implement innovative teaching practices. These seven principles have been dubbed 709 Above the Line. Above the line referring to the upper rungs of the SAMR model  that we have used to help guide guide teachers as they implemented 1:1 iPads into their classrooms. This phrase will hopefully permeate the district as a whole as we move forward. We have started using #709abovetheline when we post to Twitter or Facebook.

  • Student Engagement:  Students are engaged when they have an active commitment to challenge themselves by demonstrating ownership of their learning.  
  • Collaboration:  Collaboration is a dynamic process whereby members (students) can have a respectful and authentic analysis of ideas toward a shared educational goal, which involves critical thinking and problem solving.
  • Innovation:  Innovation occurs when a teacher gives students the freedom to use their intellectual creativity to solve a problem, answer a question or determine a NEW WAY to accomplish something.
  • Quality of Creation:  Quality of creation is evident when the product demonstrates higher level thinking skills were used to show mastery of a skill or concept.
  • Meaningful Outcomes:  A product should show a student’s creativity or ingenuity while also displaying a depth of understanding of the content.   
  • Problem-Solving:  Problem-solving should show complex, creative, logical thought by students to solve a new, authentic problem.
  • Higher-Order Questioning:  Higher-order questioning should require a complex response requiring students to analyze, apply, predict or synthesize information in such a way that it prompts additional conversation by the class.

I have been tasked with developing multiple professional development opportunities for each of the seven, giving me an outlet to practice what I preach. Feeling strongly that most professional development that has been offered to teachers has not been effective because it was given in sit and get sessions with the whole district in one place at the same time, my goal is to offer opportunities that teachers can pick and choose based upon their comfort level, and most importantly, their interest level. While a challenging task, developing these PD options has provided me a way to do what I am asking classrooms teacher to do…innovate! I am currently in the process of creating panel discussions with volunteer teachers to share what/why/how they are providing “above the line” experiences in their classrooms. These discussions will be provided through Google Hangouts On-Air (now YouTube Live)**. This allows for teachers to watch the event live, or because it is automatically posted to Youtube, whenever they can find the time. The hope is that teachers in our district will have more interest in hearing about the innovative practices their colleagues are using in the classroom than they might from an “outsider.” I have gotten a great response from teachers who are willing to share their classrooms with others…my job is to connect them with teachers who are willing to listen and hopefully take a chance on trying something new and innovative with their students.

**- This is a resource that you need to try! I did it a few times before IMMOOC, but I am loving seeing other ways of using it!

Don Sturm