Being a Designer of Learning

Recently, teachers in our Blended Learning grant project met for the first time to learn more about what Blended Learning is, and to get an idea of the work we hope they will accomplish this school year through the program.  The grant funding provides release time to work together collaboratively to backwards-design at least one unit that will be delivered  to students using blended learning.  We designed this professional development for the teachers using blended learning: direct instruction pieces such as how to use Moodle to set up a course, and other tools to support the learning such as Google Docs, blogs, and wikis are all available via tutorials on their Moodle course.

Last year, the teachers that participated in this project seemed bogged down by all of the technology tools and many just didn’t embrace the backwards design aspect, resulting in various levels of completing the project and successful impact with students. This year, we are changing things up a bit.

This change came about as a result of attending Advance UBD training with Grant Wiggins in July.  I wrote earlier about one of our big take-ways from this –we need to think like a designer –a designer of learning. This applies not just to teachers designing learning for the classroom, but to those of us charged with designing learning for teachers. We used the Understanding by Design process to design this professional development course.  The first step in the process is to determine what it is we want students (in this case teachers) to know and be able to do.  Here is our transfer goal:

Students(Teachers) will be able to independently design, develop, and evaluate authentic learning experiences and assessments incorporating contemporary tools and resources to maximize content learning in context and to develop 21st Century knowledge, skills, and attitudes.

From here, we determined our goals for understanding and acquisition goals for our teachers:

The students (teachers) will understand that an intentional shift in content delivery and instructional practices, away from the traditional schooling model, transfers the ownership of learning to their students.


  • What Blended Learning is and how it helps students
  • What UBD is and how it helps students
  • What 21st Century learning is and how it helps students

This gave us a much better place to begin designing our learning activities, always looking for alignment to assure we are on target to help our teachers reach these understandings.

Last year, our kick-off meeting focused on Moodle. We gave a brief presentation on what Blended Learning is – then proceeded to focus the majority of the workshop on getting each teacher onto Moodle where they could start building the online portion of their course.  We did provide a series of tutorials on the backwards-design process which they were expected to have watched prior to coming to the first work session, though we know that few did (Moodle provides pretty good stats on that)- and the result is as we should have expected – the focus was on the technology, and not on how to design learning.

This year, after deciding on our learning goals for the teachers, we knew this had to change. We decided it was critical to focus this first half-day workshop on bringing teachers to an understanding of the importance of being designers of learning, and to have a unified understanding of what blended learning means.  Rather than just telling them how we define these concepts, we started with a Socratic Seminar. We believed this kind of activity would be a way to honor the expertise in the room, let them construct their own knowledge, and to model and activity that they might use with students.  A brief but thought-provoking blog post by Anders Norberg was used for the Socratic Seminar. The 6 small groups were randomly formed, and each group had a good mix of teachers from different grades, levels, and subject areas.  The resulting discussions were rich and insightful.  It was tempting to jump in and steer their conversations, but our team recognized the importance of allowing the conversations to go where they needed to go.  Fears about technology and in many cases a lack of technology gave way naturally to discussions (“Is this what we are supposed to be talking about?”) to find answers to the guiding questions “What is Blended Learning” and “Why Blended Learning.”   At the end of the 20 minute conversations, they shared out with the whole group and had pretty much nailed the definition on their own.

Following this, we gave a  brief presentation on Blended Learning, (offering the definitions given in the Innosight report)  and then moved into an activity to help teachers understand where Blended Learning fits in the learning design. Each participant was given a strip of paper with one element of learning or teaching printed on it.  We projected the Venn Diagram you see below:

Teachers were asked if the item would be classified as something that mostly would be in a traditional classroom, blended classroom, or could be in both.

Some of the elements that they needed to place on the diagram included:

-Online Quiz
-Face-to-Face collaboration
-Video Podcast
-Students playing games
-Database resource link
-Instructional Design
-Formative Assessment
-Students reading a textbook
-Teacher lecturing
-Project based learning
-Motivated, Successful Students
-Online collaboration
-Threaded discussion

The “aha” for our teachers was that nearly all of these elements could fall into any area of the chart. This became clear as the person with the title, “Instructional Design” and the person with the outcome, “Motivated, successful students” placed their strips of paper on the diagram.

Another “aha” moment was that as a Designer of Learning, they manipulate all of the other pieces- but to create a blended learning environment – they need to allow students to have some element of control over time, place, path, and/or pace.  .  As a Designer of Learning, they decide which elements are best delivered in a traditional manner, and which could be enhanced through technology. As a Designer of Learning, they decide what is best taught through direct instruction, and what might be self-paced.  Direct instruction –what many think of when they hear the term “teaching” – is just one of the elements. A Designer of Learning carefully plans how all of the elements will be deployed   to assure that students achieve the learning goal.

Six Big Ideas for Educational Technology Leaders

Response to the  Leadership Day 2012 Challenge

I have had the opportunity to participate in some pretty great professional development recently, and so I’ve decided to share the highlights here and how I believe they apply to effective leadership strategies.

  1. Identify your vision – and share it with your stakeholders.  Keep checking your goals and initiatives to make sure they are on track to move towards your vision. Just like in good instructional design, design your initiatives to meet your learning goals.  Without vision, confusion results, and your ability to be an effective leader is diminished.
  2. Continuously model lifelong learning through the technology tools available today.  A leader in educational technology should be participating in a personal learning network, learning the way that our students learn and benefiting from the ideas and resources shared in this environment. If you don’t understand as a learner the power of social media, then  how can you lead others in helping students to tap into this vast resource?
  3. Change “yes, but” to “what if?”  In this era of high stakes testing, there are always reasons not to try something new or apply what you have learned to make positive changes in the realm of student learning. It is easy to fall back on the “old ways” of schooling – and then technology becomes just another delivery method.  Stay focused on your vision, trust in what you have learned, and help your stakeholders to think outside the box –or better yet, build a whole new box!
  4. Be a designer of learning.   Think like a designer!  Architects follow building code just as teachers should follow standards – but think how far beyond code an architect goes in designing living spaces that are functional. Really, they go way beyond functional to make them personalized and appealing. This is what technology has the potential to do in transforming learning – by following the code and applying the principles of good design. In designing learning, the focus must be on the learning goals. Then, align the assessments with those goals, and begin to envision how technology can transform that learning experience. (Special thanks to Grant Wiggins for sharing this concept and “What if” concept above!)
  5. Be willing to take a risk, fail, and learn from it. Margaret Elizabeth Taylor states in her dissertation  Teaching Efficacy, Innovation, School Culture and Teacher Risk Taking that “support for risk taking enhances organizational ability to overcome obstacles through adaptation and experimentation, allowing for continued effort toward implementation despite failures and setbacks encountered along the way.”  Just as we are understanding the importance of allowing students to fail on their pursuit of understanding and mastery, we need to allow this for ourselves as we strive to re-invent schools to increase student motivation and learning.
  6. Practice what you preach Connected educational technology leaders understand the potential of blended learning and personalized learning to transform teaching and learning for students.  But what about professional development?  We need to apply these same strategies when we offer professional development for teachers.   Teach teachers the way you want teachers to teach students.

Understanding Content Curation


There are many buzzwords and phrases prevalent in education today.  “21st Century Learning”, “Blended Learning”, “Personalized Learning”, “Flipped Classroom” – just to name a few. The one that has recently caught my attention and curiosity is “content curation.”

I manage a grant project in my district designed to assure students acquire “21st century skills” A current strategy for this is using backwards design, formative assessments of 21st century skills, and “blended-learning.” New for next school year: teachers are being asked to “curate resources” to accompany the backwards-planned, inquiry-based units of instruction.  I had my own ideas on what curating meant at the time I was asked to design professional development for teachers in the project – but realized very quickly that this term has taken on a life of its own, in uses by not just educators, but marketers.  A quick Google search on “content curation” turns up 1,240,000 results. Remove terms like “marketing”, “business”, “influence”, “customer”, and “startup” and the results are pared down to about 45,400 hits. Within this subset of information about curating content, definitions of curating seem to have no boundaries – collecting – aggregating – curating –what exactly is the difference?  Or is there a difference?

This curiosity led to further questions:  Why curate?  What is the value of curating for teachers? Really –what is the benefit of curating in terms of the learning goals – enduring understandings and 21st century skills for our students?

Collecting vs. Curating Content

I set out to read as much as possible of what others have written on the subject, (see my Scoop-It on Curating Learning Resources) to help with my understanding.  My goal was to come up with a framework to define curating in the educational sense, in order to answer the question of what is the value-added of curating, vs. collecting information.  Below is the graphic organizer I used to develop my thoughts.

Creative Commons License
Defining Curating in Education by Nancy White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Thinking Level

The first thing I realized is that in order to have value-added benefits to curating information, the collector needs to move beyond just classifying the objects under a certain theme to deeper thinking through synthesis and evaluation of the collected items.   How are they connected? What does the act of collecting add to understanding of the question at hand?




As I sifted through many so-called examples of curated items, I noticed that a lot of these resources seemed to be pretty loosely connected and lacked evidence of any real depth of understanding on the part of the collector. There seemed to be randomness to many of the collections that didn’t inspire deeper thinking.  To contrast, think of an inspiring museum display that you’ve visited.   Museum Curators go through an inquiry process to interpret a collection of artifacts, and then purposefully select, arrange and annotate them to tell that story. The key phrase here is inquiry process.  My conclusion is that to do justice to using the term “curating” for educational resources, inquiry must be a part of the process. Part of this process is deciding what goes “in” to the collection – meaning many, many items are evaluated and set aside.


In considering how resources are organized that have been curated, vs. simply collected, determining that collections are linked together thematically was an easy starting point.  I started wondering what the value-added aspect is with curating. I believe when we curate, organization moves beyond thematic to contextual – as we start to build knowledge and understanding with each new resource that we curate. Themes have a common unifying element – but don’t necessarily explain the “why.” Theme supports a central idea – Context allows the learner to determine why that idea (or in this case, resource) is important. So, as collecting progresses into curating, context becomes essential to determine what to keep, and what to discard.


In considering the advantage of collecting vs. curating, it seems that collecting serves primarily the needs or interests of the collector. With curating, a larger goal is to benefit not only the collector, but other potential learners as well. It is meant to be shared. And, both the process and the product of curating help the curator as well as those who view the curated collection to understand and to learn.



One element that seems to be understood about curating is that it is done for a broader audience. This necessitates that the curated items be organized, annotated, and published. This is an important part of the learning process that comes with the educational benefits of curating as compared to collecting.

One of the teachers in our grant project asked if her curated resources could just be part of her Moodle course, or if there is some different aspect to curating that required her to publish the resources elsewhere.  Actually it was this question that sent me on this learning journey.  My conclusion is that through publishing the curated resources, you add value to the collection as a whole by allowing others to share in that knowledge, comment on it, add to it, and participate in the learning that it generates. It gets back to my belief that learning is a social endeavor.  Participatory learning leads to increased understanding.  This led me to my next big understanding as a result of this inquiry.

Students as Content Curators

It’s great for teachers to curate learning resources for students, but isn’t it the students that we want to do this deeper thinking and reach these enduring understandings? So wouldn’t it be more powerful for students to be the curators? The act of true content curation allows students to construct knowledge. As teachers, we can build the scaffolding, present the problem or ask the essential question, design the learning scenario, give them the tools, and then turn over the learning to the students. Perhaps this act is a first step in assuring that students take ownership of their learning. And, a bonus with this is that students are practicing a very important skill for the 21st century –information literacy.



This Is “21st Century Learning”

Video of this presentation now posted on Aspen Valley’s Web Page. 

I had the opportunity yesterday to view –indeed, participate in – a culminating project with students at our district’s alternative high school, Aspen Valley High School. With a population near 100 students, this school serves students who have sometimes struggled in traditional high school environments.  They choose to attend this school for many different reasons.  Class sizes are small, but expectations are not.  It is a very diverse school where teachers have more than a passing chance to form real relationships with kids, and they really do.

With the full support of principal George Stone, three teachers are currently participating in the Academy District 20  21st Century Learning Cadre,  Gene Fisher (history), Simone Palmer (science)  and Jenny Stevenson (theatre/literacy).    A task for all of our 21st century cadre members is to help the staff at their school to understand what 21st century learning really means, what it looks like, and help them develop strategies to implement it in their own classrooms.  Gene, Simone, and Jenny started collaborating and planning this task several months ago, and came up with an idea that they thought would have maximum impact for not only their staff, but students.  Their plan was to collaborate and plan one unit with all of their students – history, science, and drama, and share the progress with the staff every step of the way as they collaborated to help students develop deep understanding of the impact of Hurricane Katrina.  The essential question for this unit: “How do people respond to crisis?”  Corresponding curricular driving questions were “What resources do people ‘need’ when natural disasters occur?” (history); “How should medical personnel prioritize patient care when resources are limited?” (science/health care) and “How can performance convey the human experience?” (theatre) They did this through a (student) collaborative project that involved  all of the students – not just their own – but the entire student body who would view, and participate in the culminating project, a dramatic, participatory presentation about the impact of Hurricane Katrina.

I visited the school just last week as students flowed between the 3 teachers classrooms and the computer lab working on the project. Students had taken charge.  Jenny, Gene & Simone gave some expectations for what would be completed in that class period, and the students got to work immediately. The stakes were high for them – performing for the entire student body and guests, sharing their knowledge –and creativity. It was risky – not only for the teachers, but for the students. They had a good handle on what needed to be done.   Some groups were engrossed in research about resource issues, and triage practices. Others wrote scripts, or searched for music that would present just the right tone to accompany videos they created that would be interspersed with the dramatic readings of first-hand accounts from survivors. Others puzzled over how to carry out the whole audience participatory section that involved the timed collection and disbursement of water and other essential resources.  At the time, I remember thinking that it was quite chaotic, and wondered if they would be able to pull this off with just one week to show time.  But my other observation was that these students owned the learning. They were totally engaged and committed to creating a quality project, which they would share with an authentic audience.  This put my doubts to rest.

I can honestly say I was stunned by the impact this participatory production had on me. I had goosebumps! Sure, there were some awkward moments, but what really impressed me was the response – especially during those moments – from the students in the audience. They were respectful and quiet if a student struggled with their lines – and enthusiastically applauded for their classmates in the end. We were all caught up in the drama and emotion these students conveyed in their original script, that flowed between the spirit of New Orleans, emergency preparations, comical skits that none-the-less showed the trouble with human denial, dramatic videos, the heart-wrenching decisions that sometimes must be made during triage of victims, and  finally the authentic voice of survivors and the aftermath they endured.  

This truly is what we mean by “21st Century Learning.”  Students collaborated. They created. They researched and used critical thinking to create a production that really did answer the questions about how people respond to crisis They exercised a good measure of self-direction and focus to get the job done in a timely manner, and technology was used as the appropriate tool when needed.  Multiple content areas were integrated to help students reach deep understanding, and the learning was relevant for every person in the room.  Congratulations to all!

Photo Credits:
1. “Fat Tuesday” by Don Leicht.
2. “Photograph by Jocelyn Augustino taken on 08-30-2005 in Louisiana.” Available:
3. “Photograph by Michael Rieger taken on 09-01-2005 in Louisiana” Available

The Potential of the Flipped Classroom

The idea of a ‘flipped” classroom has captured the attention and imagination of many across this nation.  Articles in Wired, The Economist, and USA Today are moving this grass-roots effort, pioneered by Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams to the mainstream, with plenty of help from Salman Khan and his funding partner, the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation.

 As Aaron posted on his blog this week, I  also have concerns about the term “flipped” being applied across such a broad spectrum of applications in our schools.  Just before reading Aaron’s post, I was pondering the idea that “inside-out” might be a better label for the practice, but even that overlooks the more important aspects that I believe should be in place for this to really have a dramatic impact on student learning.

 Without a doubt, this is one of the most revolutionary uses of technology I have seen in terms of the potential to help students learn. By creating video podcasts of direct instruction and using graphics and multimedia to help explain complex equations and processes, we are providing another means for students to grasp these ideas besides the textbook, which other than their memories from the classroom lecture, would  be all that students could use to help them during traditional homework time, unless they were fortunate enough to have a parent who could step in and help them. There is a wealth of research that proves that multimedia helps students learn.  This, coupled with the fact that students are now “working problems” during class time with peer and teacher support, are a great step forward.

 So, while this piece of what everyone now refers to as the “flipped” classroom does have potential, on its own, to help improve student learning, I think we have to go further in re-imagining what this frees up the classroom time to be used for, and evaluate all of our previous “teach to the middle – everyone on the same page at the same time” practices that the video podcasts allow us to re-think. 

 I keep thinking about what Conrad Wolfram said in his TED talk in which he makes a powerful statement about the teaching of mathematics.  In a nutshell, he says we don’t. We need to stop teaching calculation and start teaching mathematics.  He outlines 4 things that students need to learn to do. These are:


  1.  Posing the Right Questions
  2. Real world math formulation
  3. Computation
  4. Math formulation – real world verification


He asserts that at least 90% of the time students spend in a math class addresses #3 – computation.  His belief is that real transformation can take place through dramatically increased emphasis on 1, 2 & 4.   This makes me further think about learning things in isolation.  With all of this emphasis on working problems, which Wolfram also contends we should let computers do for us (as happens in the real world) students are given very little context for how this computation might be used in a real-world setting to solve real-world problems.  So why not use this new found classroom time to apply math in real world settings? 

 Mathematics is not the only area  that could benefit from opening up class time to students working to solve real-world problems.  English classes could be transformed into writer’s workshops, history classes could become game-based scenarios where students act out, debate and role play their way to understanding, and science classes, much like math classes, could involve students pursuing answers to real-world problems.  Lets give them practice in taking messy, ill-defined problems and work through the task of finding the right mathematical (or other) process to solve it. Lets start thinking outside the box about where this new ‘flipped classroom” approach can take us. 

“21st Century Skills,” Powerful Learning & Educational Reform

I am a “21st century learning and innovation specialist. “ I am asked over and over again about my job title – and I understand that a lot of people are tired of the worn out phrase “21st century learning” or “21st century skills.”  I, too, think that a decade into this thing, we would really be better off defining 21st century learning and perhaps replacing this term with what we really mean.  So what would you call it?  That’s where I get stuck.  It is just so hard to put a label on it.  To me “21st century learning” is huge – and represents something much, much bigger than what might enter most people’s consciousness when they hear the term. To me, it embodies the educational reform that we all seek.  

Here is how I like to explain it when I have a little time at a workshop or presentation for parents or community members – even teachers, I ask them to think about one of their most powerful learning experiences. Typically, in a workshop, I’ll give individuals time to reflect, and then ask them to form small groups and share their powerful learning experiences with each other.  Following this, their task is to create a list of the common elements of their experiences.  Then we share the results with the whole group. Guess what? The list is always the same.  What’s on it?  

  • Hands-on, active learning
  • Real-world problem solving/connections to community
  • Collaborative
  • Challenging
  • Built-in time for reflection
  • Feel safe to “fail”
  • Ability to build a relationship with the teacher

The next thing I like to do is point out that there is a fortunate connection between what produces powerful learning – enduring understandings, if you will, and 21st century learning .  All of the things listed above detail environmental aspects of learning. They aren’t what the teacher teaches, per say, but how he/she designs the learning activities to allow room for these things to occur. 

21st Century Learning is much the same.  Here are some typical 21st century skills identified by any number of educational think tanks:

  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking/Reasoning
  • Innovation
  • Self Direction

Do you see where I’m going with this? 


I think that it is pretty amazing that the things that we consider powerful about our own learning, that we might even call motivational factors of learning, are so similar to the skills that we need to address according to the various 21st century learning think tank and workforce studies.  Could this mean…we know what to do? We know how to motivate kids? We know how to ensure that they acquire both skills and understandings?  So what is standing in our way? Oh. Yeah. Educational reform. Standardized testing.  Lack of time. (see standardized testing).

I just learned about a new film being developed by Laurie Gabriel called Hear our Teachers.  I am very excited about this new film and the hope of finding some balance between what teachers know about how students learn and the sentiments being expressed by the Waiting for Superman and Education Nation crowds.

I think as we move forward, we need to keep the focus on students and how they learn.  Let’s set the political agendas aside and stop pointing fingers  for awhile and find some common ground in our discussions about educational reform. I think that powerful learning – “21st century learning” – is our common ground. Can this be our starting point for productive conversations about how to improve student learning?

Moving from Student to Learner: An Educon Reflection

I went to Educon this year on a quest, prompted by very candid remarks and stories shared by a student panel which was featured at the final meeting of our district’s 21st Century Learning Cadre. I wanted to find examples of teachers and schools successfully addressing the key areas these students consistently shared as highly important elements of the school experience for them.  No surprise, the  elements that stood out in their responses were relationships and  real world connections.

 Again, no surprise, I found the answers at SLA itself, in talking with students and attending sessions like Interdisciplinarity, facilitated by SLA teachers Zac Chase, Rosalind Echols and Diana Laufenberg, as well as the impromptu session on Friday hosted by several students who shared information on their Capstone projects, which are hands-on, real-world projects all SLA students do in their senior year. And  from our student tour guide who spoke with such poise and exhibited such pride in her school and accomplishments there.

The real magic at SLA is that this is a place where shift has happened.  Teachers don’t own the learning. Students do.  They look forward to it. They embrace the challenge. It is hard to believe these are high school students. They exhibit incredible maturity, intelligence and understanding. It is obvious there is some sort of driving force at work – and it really doesn’t seem to be grades. These students have a passion for learning. How did they get here? What is it that ignites such passion for learning in these students? How can I bring some of these ideas and practices back to my district and achieve this kind of transformation – the real reform that we are all seeking?

First of all, it is important to note that the SLA students were highly motivated to begin with. They had to apply and go through a very competitive selection process to be able to attend SLA.  That makes this quite different from a traditional public school that contains a real mix of both willing and unwilling students.  But I don’t think we can dismiss the possibility of adopting some of the core beliefs and practices of SLA to begin a transformation in our own schools. If it is working for this group of students, I can’t help but think  that employing some of these same  beliefs and practices in schools where students are less-than-motivated will have an even more profound effect. Here’s why.

The very same beliefs and practices that were wished for by the student panel last week in my school district are actually put into practice at SLA. Not some of the time. All of the time.  Here is what I observed and learned about at SLA that I believe are the answers – the pathway to achieve schools that transform students into self-motivated learners.

Relationships – this seems like such a simple thing, but really, it is not. And certainly not something we should trivialize.  As Chris Lehmann said in his blog awhile back, you have to plan for it.

 At SLA, we say that the way we treat each other is based on the ethic of care — the idea that caring relationships are at the heart of creating healthy learning environments. That idea has to live somewhere or eventually it will get squeezed out or only live within the people who came in already believing it. This is why we have Advisory — a four year relationship between a group of twenty students and a teacher that ensures that every teacher has a group of kids for whom they are responsible and every students has an adult in the building who will always be their advocate. We had to plan for caring, we couldn’t just assume it, and we certainly couldn’t just say it. (Lehmann, Nov. 13 2008. Practical Theory: “Where Does it Live?”[action]=search&serendipity[searchTerm]=relationships_)

 In almost every conversation I had with students at Educon, evidence of this level of caring and relationships was shared.  One student’s story in particular stands out to me.  She said that when she first came to SLA in the 9th grade, she was extremely stressed out, worried about her grades, and subsequently, not getting very good grades.  She met frequently with Chris, who encouraged her to stop worrying so much, find what she enjoys and is passionate about and go from there.  He encouraged her to follow her own dreams. She said when she finally listened to him and did just that, she was amazed! She began to really enjoy all of her classes, and all of her grades improved.  

 Related to relationships, the culture at SLA also is about a high level of trust.  One student, when sharing information on her senior Capstone project, commented that sometimes students get very involved in these projects, allowing other class work to “pile up.”  When asked to elaborate on this, she shrugged it off. She said we know what we need to do, and we’ll get it done. It’s not a big deal.  My take on this – no one is going to nag them. They accept full responsibility for their work and will take care of it.  What a concept.

 Real-World Connections and Active Learning were also on the “wish list” from my student panel regarding how they would like to change their school experience. Based on my observations, it seems that everything that happens at SLA is purposefully connected to the “real world” and learning is always hands on and project based.  To start with, every student has an Individualized Learning Plan, and Juniors & Seniors are paired with a mentor from  business or the community.  They work on real projects side by side with professionals, or they pursue more in depth classes at the university level. Student capstone projects are the culminating project from this experience.  Some that we learned about ranged from a student writing a screenplay to a student conducting research on student attitudes toward sexual abstinence, to robotics experimentation. Early dismissal on Wednesday has a purpose for students. It is when they can apply what they learn in the classroom to the real world through internships and real world projects.  And in the classroom,  active learning abounds.  The curriculum is powered by inquiry. Textbooks are just one resource.  The world is their textbook. I learned about an amazing interdisciplinary project that Diana Laufenberg and Zac Chase do with their history and English classes.  The students selected a particular building in Philadelphia that contains a person’s name and they conduct research to determine the history of the building, and the connection to community. This is just one example of the backwards-designed UbD units which all teachers create.  Questions guide the learning, and students do the investigating to seek out answers and explanations.   

How can we get there? Ideally, our schools and districts should adopt the same philosophy and mission that SLA has: that “students should learn in a project-based environment where the core values of inquiryresearchcollaborationpresentation and reflection are emphasized in all classes.”  Of course, individual teachers can advocate for this in their schools, but the reality is, they may not have the kind of influence to bring about this change school and district wide.  But they can do this in their own classrooms, and model it.  Here is a list of things I believe every teacher can and should do. This is a good starting point to start bringing some of the magic of SLA into your own classroom. These are the things I observed SLA teachers, and of course their principal, Chris Lehmann doing:

  • Model being a learner
  • Create a culture of trust
  • Create sense of team with the staff
  • Expectations for relationships with students
  • Laugh ! Play!
  • Respect – students and each other
  • Teach students – not subjects.  Be passionate about them and how well they understand.
  • Think out loud all the time
  • Build pride based on academics
  • Connect every learning experience to the real world
  • Bring the real world into the classroom
  • Let students ask questions.  Model how to find answers.
  • Allow room for choice, but be ready with support if it is needed
  • Put students in charge of their own learning. Just say it. And mean it.
  • Talk to students about concerns over their understanding. Not their grade.

 My heartfelt thanks to Chris and the staff, students, and parents at SLA for this incredible, inspirational glimpse at what education can and should be.

What Students Want: An Educon Preflection

I had an amazing experience Thursday which has really helped me to focus my thoughts about what I want to get out of Educon this year. I have been on a year-long adventure with a great group of teachers in my district. We started a 21st Century Learning cadre with the primary mission of finding ways to make learning more engaging and relevant for students, while making sure students had opportunities to develop 21st century skills. We explored this through topics such as motivation, creating a culture of inqury daily in the classroom, embracing the concept of democratic classrooms (inspired by an Educon session I attended last year), infusing game-based learning into the curriculum, and creating an environment where creativity, invention and innovation can flourish.

I realized as I was preparing for the final workshop with these teachers that one thing was missing. That was the student voice. So I arranged for a student panel to attend the first hour of our workshop, which had been billed as a time to reflect on our learning and plan next steps as the year of learning came to a close. The students were outstanding. We got the conversation going with a few simple questions:

What is it that makes a classroom come alive for you as students?

If there is one thing you wished your teachers understood about you and how you learn, what would that be?

If you could change your school experience to make it more relevant and engaginng, what changes would you make?

Do you feel the education you have recieved so far is preparing you to be competitive in a global world?

The questions helped get the conversation started, but the conversation traveled where it needed to go. The students were very honest and quite frank about how they feel. Here are some of the big ideas they shared, along with my translation and how this has created a “look-for” for me at Educon.

1. Class size matters. Large classes make it impossible to form a relationship with the teacher. Also, there seems to be a lack of focus when students are in large groups.

Message: Relationships with teachers are extremely important to our kids.

Educon Look-For: Class size is something teachers have very little control over. I will be looking for ideas how others can create an environment within the classroom that allows students to “feel” as if they are in a smaller class. I will be looking for teachers who have great relationships with kids and find out how they accomplish this.

2. Students crave real world connections. They are sick and tired of homework that is busywork, teachers who lecture, and hyper-focused on what they need to do for the grade. They could not concieve of a school experience that would focus on a passion to learn rather than just doing what they need to do to get the good grade so they can move up the system and on to the next hoop in their life – college.

Message: Following a passion for learning is a foreign concept even for the cream-of-the-crop students like those on our panel.

Educon Look-For: I will be looking for teachers who are successful at igniting a passion for learning in their students.

3. All students are motivated in different ways. In our group of 9 students, we heard about praise, competiton, choice, and grades as motivators, and several others. No two students were motivated in the same way.

Message: We have got to know our students! Relationships are key to understanding what motivates each child, and motivation is the first step to igniting a passion to learn.

Educon Look-For: See 1 & 2 above!

4. Students learn in different ways. Some like technology, and clearly, some do not. Some want and need more structure to their school day, and some prefer more freedom to follow a learning path that meets their area of interest. Clearly, one size does not fit all.

Message: We must provide choice. Choice in the learning process, and choice in the end product. But keep nudgiing along the way – giving students the opportunity to learn new things and get past fear and prejudices that might exist

Educon Look-For: I hope to find examples of teachers who are successfullly striking a balance between choice and scaffolding for success.

Personalized learning is where we need to go to meet the needs of all students. We have the technology. We just need to really think outside the box, or as they said at the Model School Conference, build a new box. The students on our panel had a hard time envisioning school beyond the traditional classrooms, though they hinted at hoping for something better. More meaningful. More relevant. I hope the amazing educators at Educon will be sharing lots of ideas and strategies that I can bring back to share with our teachers.