Reflecting on Reflection

What makes you smarter? I bet you have a pretty good idea by now. Personally, I get a little smarter every time I’m behind the edit pane of this blog. I have a new bit of research to share that might even help reaffirm this little claim. Now, I don’t really know if you are actually getting smarter by being where you are right now, on the outside of the blog looking in… reading. I can assume you are getting smarter by reading this blog with about the same level of certainty that I can say my students got smarter by listening to me talk.



For most savvy educators, the metacognitive power of reflecting upon learning is no secret. I think few in the business would refute that assertion. And yet, I have long believed that we do not take this practice serious enough to truly nourish it until it flourishes.* The practice of careful and explicit reflection embedded throughout the process of learning is a far, far cry from the practice of merely assigning reflective thinking. As dialed-in to this practice as I am, I can’t say I’ve personally nailed it down to the: “Four Steps to Winning via Reflection.” Believe me, if I could write that blog post I would. The reality is that most of what it takes to support deep, meaningful learning is far too nuanced for a bulleted blog post hitched to a cocky title.

What I can say, however, is that at some point in my teaching career, I stumbled upon the advantages of thoughtful, coached reflection. If you’re tackling a concept sophisticated enough to require a bit of struggle, then you can benefit from careful reflection. Thankfully, I discovered this early enough in my career to be able to figure out -by trial and error- some thoughtful ways of encouraging, supporting, and embedding this type of thinking. I later learned this to be the seventh of the Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning by Jan Chappuis:

Strategy 7: “Engage students in self-reflection, and let them keep track of and share their learning.” – Long-term retention and motivation increases when students track, reflect on, and communicate about their learning. In this strategy, students look back on their journey, reflecting on the learning and sharing their achievement with others.

On Assignment

Again, contrast this embrace of the nuances of learning with the mere practice of assigning reflection. I reiterate this to insure that you don’t simply read the linked article, start assigning it on Monday, wonder why Friday’s quiz scores are no better, and then drop the practice as another failed attempt at smartering**. In fact, I would have to say this reminds me of a rather worn out practice within online/blended modes of schooling: the “post once, comment twice” approach. That protocol arises out of the fact that we would like to see a back and forth exchange of information in these new spaces. We’d like to see students engaged in conversation as an additional mode of learning. We’ve spent a great deal of time and effort to figure out how to support this sort of discourse in physical space. I’m guessing most of us would be far happier if it just “happened” for us in online spaces as well. It makes sense that we’d rather not have to spend the time and effort figuring out yet one more way to interact when we’ve already got this surefire way that still “works.” And thus, attempts at online learning experiences often fall far short on most measures of authentic engagement.

Spiral Bound Hoop Jumping

In short: without at least a measure of careful attention to fostering content conversations and open self-monitoring of learning…  reflection becomes yet another hoop to jump through. Experience tells me that assignments created without either input from or options for the learners themselves…  are a hoop. And before you label me a radical constructivist, I do believe students should engage in “path shaping” experiences designed by a learning expert. The degree to which those experiences are seen as “hoops” is entirely dependent upon design. Photocopy it from a text resource? Hoop. Include little more than low-level regurgitation of dogma? Hoop. Fail to help build a context for the work? Hoop. Require it to be done as a movie, merely because you can? Hoop. Every student in the class looking for the same “right answer?” Hoop. Less than timely and non-descriptive feedback on said assignment? Hoop.

Now More Than Ever

The list goes on and on. It takes serious effort to design learning ecosystems and experiences that are more than a collection of hoops to jump through. Teaching and learning are sophisticated endeavors. The world has changed. We don’t need to attend school to collect facts anymore. We can do that from our handheld devices. If you are still caught in a tell me things on Monday-I write it all down-you quiz me on Friday cycle, your approach has been seriously disrupted by the modern world and is ripe for reinvention. Start by studying self-reflection strategies. Perhaps now more than ever, what we do need to attend school for… is to seek wisdom: the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgement. I would further suggest that the road to wisdom is paved with reflection upon thoughtful reflection.

Getting down to specifics, purposeful self-reflection can help students on the path to wisdom in many ways. Coaching students through self-reflection on their learning process can help them…

  • see changes and development over time
  • deeply appraise their own learning process
  • take ownership of their own learning
  • diagnose gaps in their learning
  • select strategies that support their learning
  • find confidence in risk taking and inquiry
  • set goals for future learning

This Just In

The reason for returning here to think deeply about reflection was an EdWeek post from a few weeks ago entitled, Post-Lesson Reflection Boosts Learning by Ellen Wexler. The post outlines a study done via the collaboration of researches from HEC Paris, Harvard, and the University of North Carolina. The original paper, Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance, can be directly downloaded on the Social Science Reasearch Network. The author highlights the measurable boost in self-efficacy which is thought to be much of the fuel for the results shown. That is no doubt a significant factor, but I think there is more to it than that. I believe there is still much work to be done in this area.

To be clear, I don’t usually put a great deal of stock in the educational application of research fresh out of business school. Learning is learning, however, and this reminds me of so many practical action research projects my former students and I conducted along the way in any given year. Explicitly engaging students in my personal quest to learn more about learning was full of win. Tossing aside the mystique of schooling and involving students in the process helps to put them front and center in the classroom… where they belong. Get a start this summer. Read this article. Read the Stiggins and Chappuis stuff. Design one small way to make rich student reflection on learning more than another classroom hoop.

In Addition

*Nourish it until it flourishes:  I think I’ll use this phrase again. It has an almost musical-internal-rhyme-Marshall Mathers-sort of thing going on. Or something.

**Smartering:  A Michael Gier term for the goodness that takes place within the mindspace that is his classroom.

Finally, thanks to Bert Kaufmann for sharing A Very Escher Christmas, and Joel Penner for sharing “Hoop Jumping” both via CC license on Flickr.

EdWeekSJSD: A Litany of Thanks

The calm after the storm

I’m beat, but delightfully so. Deep learning is hard work. Designing an ecosystem in which others can learn deeply is even tougher. Teachers know this. I mean, pick your favorite food. Then eat five heaping plates of it. Back to back. If someone treated me to a week of epic seafood meals prepared by skilled chefs, I’d eat big every day. You don’t get that opportunity very often. Well…  we did that (again), and I’m tired. Next week I’ll revel in quiet solitude, no doubt reflecting on the intense social learning of the past week. This week was EdWeek.

EdWeekSJSD is but one small construct of the larger vision of professional development in our district. Sometimes in a large learning organization you design PD events where everyone sees, hears, and performs the same thing. You have to. There are times when we all need to be on the same crucial page. We need a core of common language around learning. We need a common vision at some level, and we need norms around the central mission of our schools.

Yet, like the students we serve, teachers are all individuals with differing needs and aptitudes. We could never meet the needs of 11,000 highly individual learners with a team of 900 identically-trained educators. In subscribing to that belief, on some level you must be willing to design constructs of learning that cater to these differences. EdWeek is one of those constructs. EdWeekSJSD is a series of day-long explorations into innovative and creative approaches to learning in a modern classroom. For more detail on the structure and happenings of this week, see the wiki from the past two years, as well as an explanatory post, There’s No Week Like EdWeek, I did last year in anticipation of our first experience of this type.

Thanks are in order:

We have so many thanks to give for the success of the past week. For one, if you were there at all, thank you. Trading in an off-contract day of basking in the summer sun is admirable. If you showed up at all, I salute you. Thank you for making all of the planning and preparation worthwhile. If you showed up for all five days, I am deeply humbled by your professional commitment and love of learning and sharing. I could go on and on about each of the past five days. The new things I learned, the collaboration I witnessed, and the open and public sharing that was done. Many of those details already exist online in reflective posts by my colleagues. Do me this favor, please post links to your work in the comments below, and I will embed those directly in a future edit to this post. For sharing in a collective reflection of this week, I thank you. I’ve already read many of these posts, and I couldn’t possibly detail those days any better. Nice work, Mike.

Digital writing matters

Troy Hicks, author of The Digital Writing Workshop, and Because Digital Writing Matters, took us on an exploration of the broader meaning of literacy on day one. Troy challenged us to see literacy as not only the ability to make deep meaning from reading and writing text, but other forms of rich media as well. For me, he drove home the point that literacy instruction in the classroom of today must make efficient and creative use of the many forms of media that blanket our lives like never before in our history.

Silvia, I thank you again

Joining us again this year, Silvia Tolisano reminded us that any approach to innovation with technology must begin with a focus on learning first, followed by careful selection of modern tools to do the job. She pushed us to consider uses of technology beyond the automation of substitution of current tasks. We both share the belief that using technology to maintain the classroom status quo is a prohibitively expensive proposition. What is beyond mere “integration” of digital tools? Using them to transform learning events into something that would not have been possible otherwise. A wiki that includes resources addressed that day gives you an idea of the broad scope and detail of those explorations. We’ll certainly soon be seeing some amplified classroom experiences for our children.

Learning to be

Our next two leaders were neighbors from the North. Darren Kuropatwa joined us this year from Winnipeg. I deeply admire approaches to learning that are multimodal and which feature rich instances of story. I especially appreciate these things when they arise from a career of motivating students to study mathematics in this way. He’s the math teacher I always wanted. He challenged us to create an environment where students aren’t merely doing math, or history, or science. The set of resources Darren thoughtfully planned to support our day is found here. He deftly made the case for empowering students to be… a mathematician, a historian, a scientist,  a writer. Thank you, Darren.

The seriousness of silliness and play

Dean Shareski made a return trip from Saskatchewan to Joetown this year with his fun and serious allwrappedintoone approach to learning and exploring media and ideas. You can’t spend professional time with Dean without making things. Experimentation and play was the theme of the day. We created artifacts, quickly, shared them widely, and debated where the learning lies within each. Check out the seven different forms of exploration from our day together. You can’t attend a session like this without re-examining your classroom tone, nor without acquiring new lenses for seeing the seriousness inherent within play and exploration. Dean- again, many thanks.

Now batting cleanup:

Diana Laufenberg. Diana brought the perspective of a powerfully creative teacher into our little meeting room…  and allowed us to swim around in it for a day. During the first half of the day, teachers found the tables turned as they took a reflective trip through what it feels like to be a student in her classroom. Diana helped us close out the week with a close examination of the architecture of and for learning she builds into her classroom. We also explored the benefits of participatory learning in a technology-savvy way and the crucial role of failure in any approach to learning. I’d be shocked if there was a single attendee who didn’t secretly wish to have experienced a government classroom that felt the way our room felt today. Thank you dearly, Diana.

Learners AND facilitators

Participating the entire week, and helping to facilitate it is a monster. You want to dig in and explore every single challenge. And yet, your role is also to help support a diverse room full of teachers with different needs. Just a short year ago, I was the lone instructional technology specialist in the room. With a massive bloom from four to fourteen 1:1 schools, we now have a real team to tackle our district’s burgeoning needs in this area. I can’t tell you how good that feels. We are gelling as a team in short order, and will have much to offer both individually and collectively as the coming year unfolds. Participate, facilitate, participate, facilitate. Focus on the task. Bounce about the room. Support. Comfort. Archive everything. Knowing just how difficult this is fills me full of appreciation of the work of Melissa CoreyTerri Johnson, and Jennifer Gatz. You were great this week, it wouldn’t have worked without you.

The die-hards

They just kept coming back. Just over one hundred teachers, coaches and administrators took part in the week’s festivities. An untold number lurked along via Twitter, Ustream, or Today’s Meet. A total of 38 participated in even more than one event. A few came back… every. single. day. What if you took them all to a conference like ISTE, and assuming the experience was equal to such a conference, (which is severely lowballing it) think about what that would cost. Do the math. Of the 38 repeat customers, 11 completed the full meal deal. Other than those of us who were participant/facilitators, there were six die-hards. Mike DialCindy FaucettErin NashMandi TolenJason Tolen, and Chantelle Schwope attended EdWeek in its entirety… all five days from 8am to 3pm. Epic. That is not easy. I have homeland knowledge of the fact that one of these folks was also simultaneously juggling two online graduate courses.

Opt-in professional learning, off-contract and in the summer. I begged for this two years ago. Not everyone believed this would fly. It was possible that no one would attend. It works if the design is right. Thanks to Dr. Dial’s trust and willingness to carve out a chunk of resources, it finally happened for the first time a year ago. This past week, EdWeekSJSD happened again; a hypodermic shot of innovation and creativity in an increasingly standardized world. Like I said, I’m beat, but delightfully so.


*”Twins” by Jon Smith via Creative Commons on Flickr
*The remainder were taken by either Jaime Dial or I.



Conversations On An Instructional Gap

A Conversation

In 2007, a then virtual-only colleague asked whether it was, “okay to be a technologically illiterate teacher?” NETS-T provides one standardized, big-picture perspective. Many others speak of new literacies unleashed by the reach of the Internet. A few have mentioned “big shifts” that define the changes and challenges to educators in rather recent history. At the other end of the spectrum, the Edu-Twittersphere offers up a litany of “gotta be using” tools on a nightly basis. Here’s the problem from where I see it: we have a gap.

On Sunday, the 29th, I’m leading a session at Educon 2.4 to drag a room of interested educators into that gap to poke around for 90 minutes or so. It’s like this: to the typical classroom teacher, things like “new literacies” and cultural shifts are pretty stratospheric. That’s not a value judgement in any way- it’s just the way I see it in my experiences working with teachers. In defense of teachers, it is quite possible that this career has never been more challenging than it is today. But if you’re reading this blog, you likely aware of this fact already.

In 2012, there is much chatter in social spaces that are loosely-tied by educators. Collections of teachers joined by technological tendrils tend to spout the virtues of every new digital tool to hit cyberspace. So many of these startups seem to vault into the limelight in no time flat, each in turn destined to set the educational world right again. Hype travels fast in a world devoid of complexity and nuance. Take Twitter for example. Twitter has been co-opted by educators in what is perhaps one of the most productive uses of its potential to date. That said, the media always affects the message, and 140 characters leaves much nuance at the door. Sure, you can hyperlink to meatier reflections, but that isn’t the norm.


So what do we discuss on the Twitter? More often than not: tools. We all get value out of the “head’s up” links on Twitter to new and interesting digital applications that -on the surface- promise innovation. And yet, I’d argue that tip-offs to shiny apps do little on their own to advance our understanding of the effects of this communications revolution. Who knows, perhaps we’re not meant to grasp the breadth and depth of a revolution in its very midst? Personally, I think education has to make an attempt to fly the ship while installing more effective wings. To ignore the challenge is to allow children fly a plane alone- and with untested wings. Life moves too fast and recent changes seem too profound I do know this: digital tools won’t educate a child any more than a hammer will build a house. Think of it this way: what does a carpenter need to know, and be able to do in 2012? And if you’re an administrator, perhaps you’d better think like a contractor. Yes, the metaphor is a mess, but it’s worth the ride. Take it…

Think of it this way: what does a carpenter need to know, and be able to do in 2012?

The Gap

So that’s it? Pin the standards to your chest and guess…  or chase each and every new app to debut? Is that the life of an enlightened educator in 2012? I doubt it. And yet, I’m also pretty certain that the classic ostrich pose in these times won’t cut it either. I’m betting a solid path to improvement is to be found within the gap. I was once a somewhat “reluctant technologist.” I never wanted to be seen as an evangelist of shiny gadgets. Now, I’m proud to say that I live my professional life within that gap. I spend my days helping teachers connect tools and processes to concepts, and sometimes rather lofty instructional goals and ideals. I work with principals and building administrators in seeing the big picture of how instruction can look. It is my role to assure that solid instruction leads the way in any implementation of technology… as opposed to gadgets.

So what exactly is this “gap,” if indeed it does exist? Well, that’s just it. That gap is why I decided to attempt to frame this question. It is also why I intend to leave my opinions out of this preview, as well as the framing of the question to begin my session.

One thing I do know: the room that day will be full of smart, passionate educators with varied knowledge and experiences. I already know what I have experienced. I want to learn more. I want input, and I don’t want that input clouded in any way by my own ideas at the outset. I want to walk away from Philly with either a disrupted or a clarified vision. Either way, it will help me refine, in at least some small way, what I do on a daily basis. It will shape how I think, what I plan, how I talk, and what I do in the months to come. A conference where the presenters themselves come to learn? That is pretty big from where I sit. Come to Educon. Join us. Come to my session, and let’s chat. Thanks again, Chris and team, for doing it this way…


 *”Educon 2.4 Icon” from the Educon 2.4 website
*”email symbol” by Micky Aldridge via CC from Flickr
*”Educon21_satsun_110” by Sarah Sutter via CC from Flickr



There’s No Week Like EdWeek

Play along?

Repeat the title in your head a few times. Did you get an odd desire to click your heels together? If so, it would be understandable. If you truly believe in the sentiment that “there’s no place like home,” then you would be directly channeling one of the main themes of this post. What might the others be? Personally, I love to travel, but I also love home-field advantage. Also: I love to learn. Follow below as I briefly highlight an exciting upcoming week of learning for local educators… one that even includes a day where folks from our wider region are invited to share in an informal exchange that is commonly referred to as an unconference. But first, if you’re local, you’d better click over to the Edweek SJSD wiki. Open slots are going fast.

Not in kansas anymore...


Our district is currently in a very interesting place and time. We have a couple of building-level initiatives that have readied staff and students for the creation of a 1:1 ecosystem. The essence of that reality is one where the entire community is equipped with a laptop and empowered to utilize digital tools to transform learning in ways we cannot currently deliver. By this time next year, we will likely have 1:1 schools representing all three levels (elementary, middle, high). While we no doubt still need a certain amount of boot-camp type catch up to do in support of those plans, we also have early-adopters and innovators to support at a different level. Much in the same way we now expect it for our children, we owe it to our staff to provide differentiated opportunities for learning and development. Consider this week a squirt of gasoline onto the fires of those staff members ready to push forward with innovation at this time.

EdWeek SJSD - nashworld

Format is everything

Can opt-in PD work in the Summer? We’re betting it can and will with this format. In fact, a couple of the sessions are already nearly full, and the others are filling up fast. And all this for a week in June? Wait: don’t they know this event is still two months away? Don’t these educators know that Summer break will have already begun by that time? It seems as if we have some people anxious for this type of experience with these sort of session leaders. More on our four guests later. So what’s so great about the format?

In short: everything. Think back to the last conference you attended. Walking into your room, finding a place to sit, and doing just that… sitting for an hour or ninety minutes before packing your things, getting up… and walking to the next room to do the same. In that typical format, real transfer of learning is hard to come by. After a few hours it can all start to blur together. That approach certainly can work for some things, but for many types of deep learning, you have to be very disciplined to emerge from the typical conference with anything close to “deep learning.” Finally, what about logistics? Sure, air travel to far away cities can be exciting and fun, but have you priced what it takes to send a couple of people to a conference several states away? Registration, airfare, room & board, etc. Imagine sending a couple hundred people to the same conference. Impossible.


If you’re a Dad like me, yet another three day weekend away from my adorable females is a tough sell at times. So, we decided to bring the conference home to Saint Joseph. There’s something to be said for sleeping in your own bed. There’s also something to be said for learning in the same room for an entire day, from the same gifted leader. In fact, there’s something to be said for actually experiencing and interacting in the learning event, as opposed to merely seeing or hearing about it. And what about being in the same room with 60 of your local district colleagues, all experiencing something new, in depth, and then having a huge body of future collaborators emerge from the room at 3:00pm? Finally, there is also something be said for the economics of it all. Several hundred district educators to the same conference? Good luck trying it any other way.

The week at a glance

Rather than spell it all out here again, I’ll be smart and point you to the EdWeek wiki. Be sure to check out the day-long sessions listed by date/session leader over in the right sidebar. Clicking those will land you on a page for each session complete with bio, and as time goes by, more and more information about the session for that day. In short, four friends I have learned much from in the past will be visiting us that week.  I have interacted and shared with them both digitally and face to face, in conference sessions and informally. I really can’t wait to introduce them to you, and you to them.

Karl Fisch will be coming to us from Colorado, and kicking off the week for us on Monday. Skipping for a moment to Wednesday, we will have Silvia Tolisano in from Florida. Thursday brings another Coloradoan in Michael Wacker, and our week will be wrapped up on Friday with a visit by Dean Shareski from Saskatchewan, Canada. The wildcard of the week, is Tuesday. On Tuesday, we will be holding a local unconference in the Early Childhood section of the Webster Learning Center. That might just be the most different day of all in terms of overall format (in some ways). Please read my description of the day and try to imagine it in your head. After attending a similar event this past Autumn, I had several teachers ask, “why can’t we do this back home in our own district?” My reply:  “we can.” And so we will. I think you’ll like it. In fact, due to the fact that this day could easily accomodate more participants, we will soon be opening up this day to our regional friends. You know who you are, right?

So, go…  check out the schedule, see what you can attend, and register online. Other than the unconference, all sessions will be capped at 60 participants in order to make sure the sessions have the setup required for truly active learning. I, for one, can’t wait.

EdWeek SJSD - nashworld


*”Not in Kansas anymore…” by DrStarbuck on Flickr.
*”Presentations.” by peruisay on Flickr.

Online Learning Networks in Science – An Interview

In keeping with the concept of using this blog as not only a synthesis of what I think, but also of what I do, I add this post. Last week I recorded a telephone interview with the folks at natureEDUCATION on the topic of online learning networks in science education. The time I spent on the phone with Ilona Miko, Senior Scientific Editor for Life Sciences, made me realize why it is that she is doing the podcast and I typically stick to the printed (digitally) word. She’s a pro from the word go.

You wouldn’t think I have a fear of publishing or sharing in any way. And yet, I’ve always had a distaste for the sound of my own voice. I cherish real human communication. I thrive on face to face chats…  even virtual versions via Skype, etc. However, hearing a recorded version of my voice always reminds of of Kermit the frog with laryngitis. Perhaps even share-junkies have their Achilles heel. Now that I think about it, considering my avatar, some of you might even see the first image of my mug where I appear sane.

Nature EdCast

Scitable is an open online collaborative learning space within the nature publishing group. If you are a science teacher, or you know one, you’d be doing a favor by forwarding the link to a friend or colleague. NatureEdCast is a podcast featuring some interesting folks from many perspectives.  If you get a chance, check out some of the previous twelve episodes here.  I’m honored to have been selected to share a few minutes on this program. I think I sound like I’m having a phone conversation (complete with near giggles a couple of times), but hey… I guess I actually was. By the end I think we hit on some issues that are important to the world of education, and even science education in particular.  See what you think.

If I had to pick the one thing from the episode I’m most proud of, it would be the fact that although the title features the text “Online Learning Networks,” a significant portion of the program is about students being outdoors, on-site, in nature, and learning with all five senses. Living online is not my style. I’d never want to build a name for that. Although, if done well, extending our classrooms through space and time into the digital world can enhance learning for all students. For that, I’ll sign my name.