Decisions: The Currency of Educational Action

Choices… decisions… education. Three simple words deeply embedded within my world. For years I have been amazed while reflecting on the cascade of decisions a teacher makes in even one class period with a typical group of 20 or so students. I felt compelled to ponder this subject a bit more after reading Dr. Dial’s recent blog post “Making choices through an educational lens.

united states currency eye

Teacher Decisions

The number of seemingly-small choices and decisions a teacher makes -in planning and on the fly- would melt the minds of many. I would further suggest that the more a teacher transforms the classroom environment toward one that features increased student leadership and freedom, the more complex the task becomes. A reasonably student-centered classroom (even in the world of NCLB’s accountability) is a far more complex beast than it seems. The teacher’s role in a traditional classroom might be looked at as the driver of a bus with holes in the floorboards. Though individual students might shift seats every now and again, they are all going to arrive at the same place upon completion of the trip… provided they don’t slip through a hole along the way. That’s a tough mission for sure, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the complexity of a more student-centered classroom.

In contrast, this elusive world requires in-depth discussion about what students already know prior to the introduction of new learning. It requires being attuned to not only the strengths and needs of the class… but of each individual student. It requires not only knowing but honoring the differing modes of communications preferred by each student. Mind you, I’m not necessarily speaking of “learning styles” here, but of communication preferences. I’m not going to get caught up in the “learning styles” debate in this post. In our world, we openly speak of preferences, allow students to work within those often… and then stretch everyone toward those modes that are outside of their preferences. Do we need to push some of our group toward more open, digital modes of sharing? Yes. However, this is not the primary goal of our time together. Our goal is deep learning that transfers beyond the classroom into real life.

pedals

That said, with a traditional classroom model, the volume of decisions is likely to be almost an order of magnitude lower. It’s no small number for sure… but compared to what goes on in the mind of an educator leading students through a workshop, or inquiry-based model of instruction… I just don’t think it compares. The more a teacher moves toward individually shepherding their students through a course of study- the more the classroom complexity raises.

In my opinion, the currency of these decisions is somewhat of a standard. Allow me to feebly attempt an explanation. What classroom teachers rarely get to see is the view from beside an admin on even a typical day. I’m betting even building admins rarely get to view the vista of a district admin. All three make crucial decisions, and yet, I would bet at times each thinks their perspective is the perspective. I might implore Dan Meyer to step in to propose an equation governing these interactions. I appreciate your creativity as a math teacher- what say ye, Dan? I know, it’s a tall order.

Here’s the deal: speaking from where I now sit, high school classroom teachers make decisions (of the whole-class kind) that impact anywhere from 20 to 180 students each. Building principals then make decisions affecting the entire student body that affect between 800 and 1700 students each. The district admin, in turn, makes decisions that impact the lives of thousands of students as well as their teachers. In the currency of these decisions, teachers are working with perhaps thousands of precious pennies each day, while the boss tosses dollars and the bosses of bosses place hundreds on any given choice.

I would suggest that none of these positions choose the next step lightly. I would assert that classroom teachers have precious little time and must make calls on a dime every time they turn around- if not more. On the other end of the spectrum, district admins likely get a bit more time to arrive at most decisions (without 20 kids ready to bounce down the hallway at the end of the period a mere five minutes from now) and yet many of these calls are made by filtering these same decisions through two layers of professionals at best. And don’t forget, any call here has reverberations throughout the entire system. The way I see it, the most crucial decision to make is the one sitting before you at any given moment, regardless of your position.

nervous system

Systemic action

Imagine, if you will, a school system as a human nervous system. Teachers sit at the fingers of the system. They man the digits that touch student lives at the most immediate of levels. District admins might then sit somewhere within the brain, making calls that influence the entire organism. Building principals would naturally then sit at some point in between, with ramifications that move an entire arm of the beast. This is the toughest for me. With the “fingers” of 50 to 100 teachers below them, each acting to move student learning forward… and district admins acting from the brain level above to direct the organization, it might be said that they make moves to push appendages in the right direction. This is where I may need some help with the metaphor. In a system not hitting on all cylinders, this might be the toughest seat in which to sit.

And yet, with a system that works, each might be informed from student action upward to create an organization (organism) that is efficacious in step and efficient in scope. Might I make the suggestion to actually sketch your local system as a nervous system? See what that does for you and yours. Do the signals usually come in from the best direction to move student learning? Furthermore, which is the best direction? In a living being, these electrochemical signals move in both directions for the ultimate well-being of the organism. Do they do so efficiently in your world?

Which is more crucial: nimble fingers or a receptive brain? I would suggest that in a living being, the answer is neither. If nothing else, 2010 is high time for honesty. Is this true for your school system? We should all strive, for the sake of our children, to be an effective and smart decision-making organism. If not, then wherein lies the disconnect?

Artwork

*united states currency eye by Kevin Dean on Flickr.
*pedals by madmolecule on Flickr.
*Bartolomeo Eustachi: Peripheral Nervous System c. 1722 from brain blogger on Flickr.
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Growing a Tree of Professional Development

Arboreal aspirations?

During a time of the year when perhaps sugarplums should be dancing in my head, I seem to be conjuring trees.  More precisely-  massive, skyward-reaching, luxurious and well-rooted trees.  I can’t seem to keep from dwelling in the metaphor of a tree as it relates to a professional development plan.  My school, and most recently my district, have been hurtling down the path of a 1:1 laptop implementation in the near future.  As an instructional coach in the school that is essentially leading the way down that path, I have spent a great deal of time spearheading ground-level professional development for this project.  In addition, I have spent countless hours reflecting and planning…  and planning and reflecting…  on our progress.

I currently feel that professional development approaches can be split into one of three types.  I will also argue that these three types can and sometimes should be done in tandem.  In this post I will attempt to outline my belief that professional development -particularly in the edtech world- needs to at least somehow include the strategies depicted in this image:

PD tree - nashworld

If you could create a metaphor for a smart and effective professional development plan, what would it look like?  How would you explain the elements within?  It seems that I never get full clarity of thought until I can develop a clear visual metaphor that seeks to simplify that which is complex.  This one is slightly mixed, but it is where my mind is right now.  Like most of the rambling on this blog, these assertions are also mixed with a request for input.  Don’t hold back- I look forward to your reactions.

Background

We began this quest last year from what was pretty well near ground zero in terms of educational technology integration.  We were a school blessed with the structural “stuff” of educational technology (powerful districtwide network, good saturation of laptop carts, projectors, clickers, data probes, etc.).  What we lacked were untethered computers assigned to staff, and a strong attention to “student-sided” uses of technology for learning.  It’s tough to imagine students using computers to learn if we do not do so ourselves, right?

Last year a volunteer group of twenty teachers spent extra time at our school as members of “Edtech Cohort One” in our building.  In this first baby step of the pilot, we had two goals:  1) to experiment with hands-on approaches to edtech professional development, and  2) to build a core of 20 teachers who could help serve as leaders the following year when our entire staff entered the world of purposeful edtech integration.  That “following year” is now.  Throughout this school year (which began with entire faculty PD events this summer) I have been watching closely for how to tweak this implementation if and when it is scaled up at the district level.  As it turns out, if is yes and when is now.  Allow me to explain this three-pointed approach.

Initiation

You can’t move water up to the top of a tree without a good strong push from the roots.  If this were a science blog, I’d spend some time referring to how the roots of plants accomplish this primary pressure even though they have no vacuum power.  It’s pretty compelling stuff I assure you, but I don’t want to lose anyone.  I think I’ll play it safe and stick to PD for now.

03/365 Splishy Splashy

The “initiation” phase of edtech professional development in my corner of the world revolved heavily around “technology operations and concepts”  -to use a NETS standard to describe it.  The problem here is that in 2009, this is no longer a NETS standard for teachers… it is bottom of six standards for our students.  And yet-  we’re playing catch-up.  Let’s face it, catch-up is never as inspiring as forging a new path.  However, if this need is real, the entire mission will collapse without paying attention to it.  To put it quite simply, shove a MacBook Pro into the hands of a teacher who doesn’t already have a computer, nor even Internet access at home…  and you had better pay attention to operation skills.  That example wasn’t exactly the norm in my school, but it was certainly a real factor to consider.  When looking at minimal expectations, you have to honor all learners at their individual entry point.  Don’t we believe in this for our students?  Can you imagine ever effecting inspiring changes in curriculum and instruction with a lack of simple technology operational skills?

In this “initiation” phase, we focused first on care & feeding of the new hardware, followed closely with a push beyond the “default settings” in order to become comfortable with the parameters of all of the stuff.  Our aim is most certainly here, but you can’t even hold the gun steady without a firm foundation.

Inspiration

However, I believe it is important to not only push up from the roots of initiation, but also to exert a gentle tug of inspiration from the top.  Water would never reach the highest leaves of a tree without the slight pull of transpiration into the atmosphere.  Likewise, I believe most people will mobilize if shown a compelling impetus for change.  In my mind you really need a two-pronged approach at this level.  Tapping keys and clicking trackpads isn’t in and of itself very motivational to most people.  Teachers are rather overburdened folks as it is.  Achieving success in the role of lead learner in the classrooms of today requires a terribly broad skill set coupled with a relentless work ethic.  There simply isn’t much more time left in the day.

sunflowers

Therefore, I would argue that no successful teacher is going to be open to instructional reform without being shown a bit of the view from the top.  What I mean by this is that along the way, even in the beginning, we need to provide glimpses of model uses of our most effective tools.  We need to sponsor innovation and experimentation with new approaches, and encourage the adaptation and repurposing of the ubiquitous tools for communications that now surround us.  Many of these tools are finally allowing teachers to bring about the kind of collaborative, constructivist-leaning environment for learning they were shown in theory some time ago.  I believe it is smart practice to sprinkle in highlights of rich models where this type of environment is already in place.  We also need to outline some of the shifts present in today’s world that no doubt impact the generational divide between most teachers and their students.

From day one, we have tried to build in job-embedded time to both learn the operations and take a look at the potential for a more student-led environment.  We seek the type of environment where students are compelled to take advantage of the opportunities to seek knowledge and skills from other sources rather than their teachers and textbooks alone.  Along with the keytaps and mouseclicks, we have looked for inspiration in projects and tools that allow regional, national, or even global collaboration.  So assuming a solid base of operational learning and open minds toward instructional transformation…  what’s left?

Integration

Much is publicized about the importance of technology integration.  This publicity is usually accompanied by examples of our nation’s inadequate movement in this direction.  It is even rather routinely touted in the echochamber of many edtech social media networks to be the single greatest challenge we face in education today.  I’m sure I wouldn’t be the first to assert that educational technology integration is not the holy grail we are after.  I want more for our kids.  A quick glance back up to our tree model shows where I see integration in the big picture.  I see actual integration as a branching out toward content specificity where teachers in a given subject soak up the pertinent applications and processes…  and then skillfully weave them into the quest for understanding.  In a nutshell, this would be a solid move inward on Mishra & Koehler’s TPACK framework:

TPACK

Integration at this level is a pretty lofty goal-  no doubt.  However, I hate aiming at what is the acceptable level by most standards.  Just using the latest tools to get the job done isn’t what TPACK is about, and it sure isn’t my cup of tea.  Instead, I favor drawing a bead on the transformation of our classroom experiences toward an end that features the teacher as learning coach in an open environment.  Now that goal…  that goal requires inspiration.

Onward

So let’s assume for now that our first two years forward with this implementation are a success.  I have no reason now to think that our teachers will not all possess a minimal level of tech savvy.  So where where might we go next in terms of staff development?  At this point, I have considered many options aimed at the best-case scenario for next year.  I would love the diverse input of my readers to help me nail down a more crystal focus for next year’s professional development.

I’m currently thinking that with a solid year behind us as a complete staff, we will now have the comfort level required to aim high and create more individualized  -and voluntary-  PD experiences that are aimed at content integration.  I have seen two basic models of edtech PD for high school faculties.  One model asserts that the aim should be to bring every teacher along to the same level of integration.  I think this might even be possible if it were the only element of change in the lives of educators.  However, another popular viewpoint is that PD for “all” is wasted on those that are resistant to change.  In this approach, more attention is paid to voluntary PD for those “ready to run.”

Oh.

I would have to say that in December of 0-nine I am still of the opinion that a hybrid approach is best.  And yet-  I am thinking that the goal going into next year is to provide future PD around a more voluntary model for those ready to roll toward a deeper transformation of the classroom.  In short:  require a certain level of tech savvy of all teachers… followed by enriched opportunities for those most ready… to roll into the future. It takes three processes to move water from the roots to the tip of a tree.  This includes a push upward from the roots.  Also crucial is the pull from above, and don’t forget the attractive forces throughout the entire journey upward.

More concretely, I am often reminded of the model MICDS employed in their second year of 1:1 implementation.  Having strong peers just across the state is a valuable resource to say the least.  I was lucky to be a guest of several of the workshops spearheaded by Elizabeth Helfant at the MICDS Summer Teacher Institute.  Anyone with an ear to the current edtech landscape would tell you that this is a shining model of a professional development series-  at even a global level.  I can’t help but be influenced by such an inspired plan.  Creating a voluntary development series in the summer of this caliber is something that seems both realistic and smart at this juncture.  I’m now wondering how much of this model could realistically be implemented closer to home.  After a quick glance, do you blame me?

Now it’s your turn.  I need feedback.  We need feedback.  Feed our roots with your diverse wisdom.

Artwork

*”PD TREE”:  my adaptation of “small tree on white” from stock.xchng.
*03/365 Splishy Splashy by Rachel Carter on Flickr.
*sunflowers by Marco Magrini on Flickr.
*TPACK framework by Punya Mishra & Matt Koehler.
*Oh. by Brendan Landis on Flickr.
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Zero Hour in the Edublogger World

Teacher as Writer

Whew.  I barely got this logged in time.  Too much fun making snowmen as of late.  Or work?  yeah, that too.  Allow me to get straight with it…

Last year I nominated Michael Doyle for the “Best Teacher Blog” in the 2008 Edublog Awards in this post.  Dr. Doyle writes a blog quite simply entitled “Science Teacher.”  If you dare think, “oh, a science blog… what’s the next one” then you and going to miss out in a big way.  This blog doesn’t need a snazzy title.  It doesn’t need a dozen crafty widgets or badges.  Here the words speak for themselves.

Desperate Horseshoe

If you’re a science teacher at any level, then this is your blog.  If you love honest and crafty writing with a fat dose of wit, then this is your blog.  Far more importantly, if you have even a shred of a connection to our natural world left within your spirit, (or perhaps even more importantly if you don’t) …then mark it.

Doyle blogs about the daily experience of teaching in the classroom, from the newspaper as a conscientious citizen interested in education in America, and from the Atlantic shore as a curious observer of life.  These threads are present from post to post as you read down the page from day to day.  However, what is particularly inspiring is the fact that they are typically interwoven within most individual posts as well.  If this award was more about writing from the heart and soul and less about edtech popularity then Science Teacher would be a shoe-in.  I hereby nominate this blog once again in the category of “best teacher blog” in the 2009 Edublog Awards.

Networks or blogs?

I am a huge proponent of the power of Ning networks done well.  Like most things, if you don’t know what you’re doing, the slick and simple technology at Ning certainly won’t save you.  However, if you are really good at facilitating strong community, then this platform has a million advantages.  I have led my school, our district and my classrooms through the use of this platform for rich sharing and reflection.  A quick glance to the right sidebar will net links to the networks I manage in some way or another.

legs

Speaking of facilitating community, Connie Weber has it going on at Fireside Learning.  She is one of the few network creators who does things that make me say:  “hey… I need to try that.”  This network is also not an edtech toolfest.  Hear me loud and clear:  I am a huge proponent of the potential of web technology in education.  However, I am rarely an outspoken fan when said technology is not mostly invisible.  Anyone can tap keys on a blog.  A monkey can start a social network on the Ning platform.  Yet where gifted educators apply their skill, sweat, and spirit… good things happen.  Fireside Learning is a solid recommendation for “Best Use of a Social Networking Service.

However, there is a bit of overlap where the rubber meets the road on blogs/networks.  Bear with me on this one.  It’s like this:  Melissa Corey’s Benton Media Center network is truly one of the best technical uses of social media in a school library that I have seen.  I am far more than happy to say that this is the website of our school library media center.  This site is truly a blog, but obviously also a crafty aggregation of multiple tools on the Ning platform that help to bring information to the students at Benton.  In fact, if I need a second pair of eyes on any design I create, she’s the gal I consult.  My nomination for “Best Library Blog” goes to Benton Media Center.  Yes, you wish your library were like this.  And yes… I fully understand that this site doesn’t use traditional blogging software, but it really is primarily just that…  a library blog.  It is certainly the dominant feature on the site.

Admins?

School administrators blog?  Seriously?  Wait…  did you say central office administrators?  What impact could they possibly have on a school system?  OK, sure, there are a small band of school administrators who write publicly in blogs.  For example, Chris Lehmann is the school administrator of a model school that rides the progressive edge.  I have followed Chris’s blog for a while.  His blog is an excellent blueprint for an administrator blog.  There really isn’t an award for “Best Administrator Blog.”  This is a pretty substantial shame.  We have a nomination for “best tweet” but not for a school administrator?  OK, I love Twitter, but I’m not remotely capable of laying out a nomination in that category.  Wait, I know-  let’s pretend!  Let’s assume for the time being that there really is a category for school administrators who blog.

3D Team Leadership Arrow Concept

For the central office administrator up-and-coming blog to follow, I recommend:  In The Lead.  This blog is written by Dr. Jaime Dial, the Asst. Director of Secondary Education in the Saint Joseph School District.  Jaime has only been writing this blog since summer, and I think you’ll see that her strength is slow blogging.  She allows ideas and experiences to simmer away inside before spilling out some very readable synthesis.  Not many people do that well.  I think you’ll agree with me…  this is a blog to keep track of.  I would love to see In The Lead score an official nomination in the 2009 Edublog Awards.  Perhaps next year we’ll score that category, huh?

In fact, if I could point to two, I’d also nominate my close instructional partner in crime at Benton High School.  Jeanette Westfall is Co-Principal at Benton High School in Saint Joseph.  She is the boss in charge of instructional improvement.  As the instructional coach at Benton, I work closely with Jeanette in the “pedagogy” sphere of the TPACK framework.  Jeanette is the author of Ancora Imparo.  She is an excellent example of a day-to-day practitioner in a public school who writes about it in digits for all to see.  In the end, keep your eye on these two.  Surely next year we’ll have a category that honors the rarest of educator-bloggers:  the school administrator.


Artwork

*Desperate Horseshoe by Bemep on Flickr
*legs by Thomas Hawk on Flickr
*3D Team Leadership Arrow Concept by lumaxart on Flickr

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