What Students Want and What They Need: Four Strategies for a Successful Year

I have hosted student panels for the last 3 years during teacher professional development workshops where we asked students about how they would change school to make it a more motivating place where they want to be and to learn. The list all 3 years was nearly identical.  Not surprising, as I have also asked parent groups and teacher groups about their most powerful learning experiences and the list contained the same elements.  What is surprising is that what students want is often the same as the strategies that will help bring them the most growth.

So – to help you get your year off to a great start – here are 4 things you can do to make this school year engaging for your students and successful in terms of student growth.

  1. Develop a personal relationship with every one of your students.  Not only was this the number one item on student wish lists, but in John Hattie’s research,  this will lead to more student growth than teaching study skills, reading recovery, or homework.
  2. Provide students with plenty of effective feedback.  Again, not only is this what students want –Hattie’s research indicates formative assessment and feedback are two of the most effective things you can do to promote student growth.
  3. Challenge your students.  Ranked in Hattie’s research as the 34th most effective strategy for growth, students on our panels also expressed a need to be challenged, to do relevant work, and to be able to set goals to get there.
  4.   Let them create.  Students want to learn by doing, to have an opportunity to make things, and share them with an authentic audience.  And –you guessed it.  Hattie’s research revealed that, creativity programs ranked 17 in their effect on learning.

I wish you all an exciting, inspiring, and successful school year!



Create a Culture of Questioning and Inquiry

1Question Time sign

I have often suggested to teachers that when students have access to technology, whether it is provided by the school in a 1:1, BYOD, or simply the smart phone in their pocket, there should never be a question that goes unanswered –or un-followed. These are teachable moments for how to effectively search for information (information literacy & digital literacy) and allowing the time for students to explore connected ideas brings more depth to the learning, and allows students to make sense of things as they combine new information what they already know and understand, as well as to identify misunderstandings.  Questioning leads to synthesis. It also makes the learning personal for students.

What I discovered in the 300+ observations I have done for our 21st Century Learning grant work was that the problem isn’t necessarily about allowing time for students to answer questions. The problem is that they rarely ask questions beyond simply clarifying what needs to be done for the assignment.  Something happens to the majority of students after the primary years – and the questioning process seems to give way to compliance. “Tell me what I need to do to get an A.” (…or just to get a passing grade, as the case may be)

As the new school year begins, think about how you might begin to shift from a culture of compliance, to a culture of questioning in your classroom.  Here are a few ideas that you might introduce at the beginning of the year.

Ask: “What do you wonder?”2Linoit student

This seems like a simple thing to do – and it is!  One idea is to use current events as a springboard for questioning. Rather than ask students to write a summary of a current event (or in addition to) – ask them to write down the questions that popped in their head as they were reading.  A great tool to collect these questions, besides using chart paper & post-it note is Lino-It. Follow up the questioning activity with time for students to investigate and seek answers!


 3Question ExtensionsQuestion wall

I found these in several classrooms I visited recently. Sometimes this might take to form of a KWL chart.  Most teachers are familiar with KWL: What do you Know, What do you Want to Know, and What did you Learn.  My suggestion is you add an “I” to the chart –for “What will You Continue to Investigate?”  While these are not always expressed as questions, it still gets back to the concept of getting kids in touch with their curiosity.

Question journal

Get students in the habit of collecting questions in a journal – paper or electronic. Evernote would be a great tool for this with the ability to add multiple tags. Students record questions as they occur, and share them during a designated class time, allowing the teacher to model how to go about seeking answers. This would be a great way to start helping students with information literacy skills.


Question Formulation Technique4QFT chart

I was excited to attend a workshop last year sponsored by Colorado Metro State’s Teaching With Primary Sources program and delivered by The Right Question Institute where we learned how to use The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) strategy to teach students how to question. The process is simple and available online – however I encourage you to get their book Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions for more in-depth ideas how to use the strategy. An elementary TAG teacher I work with recently used the QFT with her 5th grade students following a Human Body Unit.  They filled up 2 chart paper sheets full of questions that they still had – even when the unit had ended! What a great opportunity for extending the learning in the direction of the student’s own area of interest!


Inquiry days

Building on the idea of Genius Hour or 20% Time –perhaps some students would relish in the opportunity for “inquiry days.”  The student would assume the role of Content Curator and, after deciding on a question they are passionate about answering, begin pursuing answers.  This needs to be free from formal grading, but formative assessment of the 21st century skills are a must!


Here are 3 of my favorite books to help get you started with creating a culture of inquiry & questioning in your classroom:

Learning to Question, To Wonder, To Learn by Jamie McKenzie

Q Tasks, by Carol Koechlin and Sandi Zwaan

Make Just One Change: Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions, by Dan Rothstein & Luz Santana

Teacher Creativity Leads to Student Creativity

For more on this topic, listen to my interview with EdChat Radio.

I’ve been working with some really good teachers in my district on instructional design as part of our 21st Century Learning grant project.Meaning making and transfer Our emphasis has been on using backwards design, and, following the wisdom of Grant Wiggins, one of our goals has been to design learning for meaning-making and transfer.

The part that our teachers have struggled with the most is transfer.  Transfer is the ability to use the understandings, knowledge and skills the students have learned in a given unit (connected to what they already know and can do)  to solve a new problem or create something  authentic and meaningful. The task might be entirely different from anything the students “practiced” in the course of their learning.  The messier the problem is, the better.

One way to design a transfer task is to imagine what someone in “the real world” might do with that knowledge and skill – what kind of work would they be doing?  Then, build a plausible scenario where students can be in those roles, and/or make it real by having their final product, thinking, and ideas shared with an authentic audience.

I think one reason this is so difficult is that teachers are struggling themselves with the age old question students ask, “Why do I need to know this?” They are having a hard time identifying themselves how the content transfers to the “real world.” For others, the concept of transfer is simply not understood.

Driving in rain and trafficOne way to think about transfer is through a common learning experience the majority of us have had: driving a car. If we were only taught about every little part that is in a vehicle and each driving law was only learned and memorized in isolation, would we actually be able to drive a car?  Of course not – we need lots of time practicing and applying (transferring) the knowledge and skills learned  to be able to pull it together – and be able to drive in in any kind of  condition. And then – feedback is essential to improvement. In the driving scenario, that feedback might come from other students in the car, the instructor, or even other drivers on the road.  Often, it comes from our own gut feeling (which might in fact be generated through non-verbal feedback and reactions around us).  The same is true of sports, cooking, gardening – all require knowledge & skills that only improve with the opportunity to transfer that knowledge and skill to the actual “real world” task. We get feedback, and we try again.

There was an interesting exchange on #edchat last week regarding whether or not the Common Core Standards allow room for creativity and innovation.  My opinion? If you teach the standards in isolation, without ever giving students the opportunity to “pull it all together” through transfer and feedback, then probably not. But if you design learning for transfer of the content and standards to real-world authentic tasks as a primary goal for student learning and plan backwards from there, then yes – because the teacher designs the learning to include opportunities for students to practice creativity and innovation through the transfer task. C

Standards don’t prohibit teachers from using their own creativity to design learning that requires meaning making and transfer, but ironically, often teachers limit themselves (or feel limited by structures and/or authority)  in pursuit of meeting the standards.

Teachable Moments for Digital Citizenship

Update: Since this was posted on Edudemic 11/23/13, I’ve had a few requests for a PDF of the poster.  Here it is! Teachable Moments for Digital Citizenship Infographic

In preparing for professional development on the topic of Digital Citizenship for teachers in our 1:1 iPad pilot next school year, I have been searching for a resource to share on the importance of modeling these skills. While there are some great resources available for teaching  Digital Citizenship as a separate curriculum to students (Common Sense Media, KidSmart, and Digizen to name a few) I know that teaching in isolation is not usually as effective as taking advantage of teachable moments – when students are actually online and pursuing a learning task to reinforce appropriate behavior, safety, and application of skills.

I didn’t find what I was looking for – so I decided to create an infographic. I  used Pictochart – great tool! 

Here is a direct link to the infographic on the site.

Digital Citizenship infographic

From Technology Integration to Learning… by Design

I just read Scott McLeod’s post “The Unholy Trinities of Classroom Technology Usage” which prompted me to share my thoughts on the need to take the next step –beyond an emphasis on integrating technology.  We need to shift our focus from learning with technology to learning by design.

This chart was inspired by the Teachbytes.com table  by Aditi Rao showing the progression from using technology to technology integration, and the work of Grant Wiggins & Jay McTighe:  Understanding by Design. My belief is that in order to shift our focus, we must stop talking about technology integration.  Until we do, we will continue to pay more attention to the technology than the learning.

Technology to Learning Design Chart

Students as Curators: Moving Towards Personalized Learning

By Ronald J. Bonnstetter: Available http://wolfweb.unr.edu/homepage/jcannon/ejse/bonnstetter.html
By Ronald J. Bonnstetter: Available http://wolfweb.unr.edu/homepage/jcannon/ejse/bonnstetter.html


When I first started exploring inquiry-based learning several years ago, I found this chart to be extremely helpful in identifying different levels of inquiry. It was a way to look at a process to get students to think deeper and use problem solving and critical thinking skills in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. In traditional and structured inquiry, and even in guided inquiry, the teacher maintains control of the learning by providing the topic, question, materials, and procedures to assure students are learning what they need to learn to meet the requirements of the course, yet students are still exploring big, essential questions.  It was a good starting point for teachers who were uncertain about this model of teaching.

Recently, as I have been exploring the topics of personalized learning and curating, I have come to the conclusion that the two converge in the last column of this chart, labeled “student research.”   This column represents to me what personal learning is or can be.  Moving from the left to the right side of the chart, as the author Ronald Bonnstetter describes, is a paradigm shift –from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning.  He states, “This is the inquiry ultimate goal. At this point the student simply needs support and guidance from the teacher.”

Also, as we move from the left to the right side of the chart, students are taking more and more ownership of the learning.

The recent think tank organized by Discovery Education, “Beyond the Textbook” produced some great ideas and reflections from the participants as they brainstormed and shared ideas on what the future of textbooks should be.  Two comments in particular caught my attention:

Mary Beth Hertz wrote:

I imagine a techbook looking like a science notebook or journal. It would be a place where students can take notes, pin articles and videos, record experiments and discussions or lectures, organize data tied to these experiences sketch out ideas in words and pictures, and send and receive emails or other messages.

Frank Noschese wrote:

For me, going beyond the textbook means giving students a toolbox rather than an instruction manual…So what would a student see when they first opened such a book? It’s blank.

I agree with them.  And I think these are both descriptions of the last column of the table. If students can engage more in inquiry of their own making: questioning, curating, designing, and real-world problem solving, then students will own the learning.  This, to me, is what personalized learning should look like.

Designing Learning That Includes 21st Century Skills

Teachers participating in the 21st century learning grant project in my district have been hard at work on designing four units using Understanding by Design.  They have been working on these since an intensive 3 day training took place in June.  Most have drafted the 4 units at this point, and we are now beginning the peer evaluation phase of our project, which will include feedback on the unit designs and for peer observations.

As teachers are beginning to share their units within their assigned peer groups, they are wondering how to best provide feedback to each other on one particular element that we requested, which is not specifically a part of the UbD  process. That is to purposefully incorporate at least one of Colorado’s 21st century skills into the design.

To help them with this task, I created the following checklist:

What is it you want students to know and be able to do?

___Stage 1: One or two 21st century skills are identified as learning goals under “skills acquisition”

Probably all of the 21st century skills will be practiced at some point in the unit– but this skill will be purposefully modeled, taught, and assessed.*

How will you know that they know it and can do it

___ Stage 2: The performance assessment task provides ample opportunity for students to practice and demonstrate the skill(s) identified in stage 1.

___Formative assessments  (checklists, conferencing, peer assessment, reflection, etc.) are used frequently during the unit for the identified 21st century skill(s)

___Students receive regular, timely, useful feedback via the formative assessments of the 21st century skill(s)

The Learning Plan

___Stage 3:  The 21st century skill(s) identified in stage 1 are taught through modeling and/or direct instruction as appropriate

*Note: This is not necessarily about “grading.” It is about creating opportunity to give students feedback on the 21st century skills so they can improve!

What are your thoughts? What else should be included in this checklist?

Assessing 21st Century Skills

Recently, one of the teachers who is participating in our district’s 21st Century Learning grant project came to talk with me about assessing 21 century skills – one of the expectations for teachers in this project. Her observation was that students frequently practice the skills when engaged in research or project based learning.  The thing she was struggling, with, though, was how to “grade it.”

Assessing skills like collaboration, information literacy, creativity, self-direction, and critical thinking seems like a difficult task–when you think of assessment as “grading.”  To understand what is meant by assessment of 21st century skills we need to examine the term “assessment.”  At its core, assessment should be thought of as an opportunity to give feedback. Without giving students specific, targeted feedback on how they are performing these skills, students will have little opportunity to understand how to improve their level of creativity, become better researchers through increased information literacy skills, become better at collaborating with groups for project creation and problem solving, or develop good habits of mind to become self-directed learners.  Feedback is critical to help students improve.  Another essential element is to design learning that gives students authentic opportunities to practice the skills.

So to effectively assess skills and habits of mind –we must design a performance task for the students. An assessment director in my school district once said, “If you want to assess if a student can play basketball, you don’t give him a multiple choice test!”  How valid would a multiple choice test be in telling us if the student could pull together all of his knowledge and skill, to actually collaborate with his teammates and perform during a live game with an audience? If you’re thinking multiple choice tests won’t work in the basketball scenario –then you also need to think again about what assessment of 21st century skills should look like.

One of the most difficult tasks of designing an effective formative assessment tool for 21st century skills is deciding what criteria should be included. The criteria should be descriptive enough to provide guidance to students of things they can do to improve that particular skill.   For example, if you were trying to put in kid friendly language a formative assessment tool of the 21st century skill of creativity, we need to think about what processes and habits of mind contribute to being creative.

These items become the criteria upon which a rubric or checklist can be built. As you can see, these items are not necessarily things that you can assess in one project. Additionally, they might be best used in self-evaluation, followed up with conferencing for an opportunity to give more in-depth verbal feedback.

Another great strategy for building a formative assessment of 21st century skills is to seek input from the students.  Brainstorm as a class what they think contributes to increased creativity, self-direction, collaboration, etc.

There are many excellent resources available via the Web to begin the process of creating a formative assessment tool for a particular skill. My favorite is the Intel Assessing Projects Database.  (click on “workspace” to create a free account – then explore the library of hundreds of formative assessment tools for 21st century skills!) I have also assembled several formative assessment tools of the 21st century skills on my wiki which you are welcome to access and use.

Additionally, below you will find my slides from a workshop I have created on assessing 21st century skills.

Thinking Beyond eTextbooks

SETDA (State Educational Technology Directors Association) just came out with a new report ““Out of Print: Reimagining the K-12 Textbook in a Digital Age,” I love the fact that they are recommending a shift that considers all digital resources –rather than just replacing a print textbook with an electronic one (with perhaps some embedded multimedia elements for good measure). They recommend districts should develop a vision that “looks beyond textbooks alone and considers flexibility, quality, and effectiveness of ALL materials.”

The purpose of a textbook originally was to deliver content during a time of information scarcity.  We can no longer think of the textbook as serving this purpose. Teachers who rely solely on a textbook to deliver content in this century are not preparing students to deal with the realities of information abundance (overload!) – and the skills needed to deal with that – how to efficiently and effectively locate, evaluate, and synthesize information.  This also includes new literacy skills needed to effectively navigate, read, comprehend, and decode online content.  Continuing to spoon feed information to students through lecture and textbook (whether it is print or electronic) and failing to plan for a way to move beyond this delivery of knowledge and content method will be disastrous for our students.

It is my hope that school districts will keep the recommendations in SETDA’s report in mind as they pursue not necessarily just “etextbooks” – but a larger possibility of what learning might look like if students have access to multiple digital content sources. As we explore blended learning, curating resources (by both teachers AND students) and begin exploring concepts such as personalized learning (or as Will Richardson says —PERSONAL learning), we should be creating processes and practices for students to access information and to learn from multiple sources: online, print, face-to-face (or virtual face-to-face) with experts, and in context through virtual or actual field trips to museums and historic places.  While we are at it, we need  to make sure  active learning and real-world problem solving are not just an occasional event, but are the expectation for all students.  Technology makes it possible.

Will Richardson states in his wonderful new book, Why School:

“As globalization and connectedness ramp up, traditional definitions of employment are being rewritten. Based on existing trends some now predict the year 2020 will see 56 to 70 million freelancers, consultants, and independent workers representing more than half of all US employees. That is four times the number today.”

The problem is, today’s schools are still preparing students for work in the last century –not this one.  If we continue down this path, or  settle for simply replacing a print textbook with an electronic one, we will not be preparing today’s students for this workforce reality.

Now is the time. Schools, districts, and state departments of education are all feeling the urgency to come up with a plan for digital textbooks. Let’s recognize that textbooks –print or electronic – won’t provide the transformation in learning that our students so desperately need. Let’s use this opportunity  to come up with a plan to re-imagine what learning should look like to prepare students for working in this century.