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.

Make It Rain


I apologize outright if you are from a drought-striken region desperately searching the electronic ether for a glimmer of hope, only to have arrived at this post courtesy of the title. There are no deluge-inducing instructions here. No chants. Barely a plea. But questions? Yes. This post is about questions.

Family Tree of Droplets


While sitting on the deck taking in a beautiful early evening outside, I began my traverse of the daylight/dusk/night barrier when my five year old daughter approached me at the table on the deck, and asked to climb into my lap. While shimmying in for kitten-like comfort, she kicked up a seemingly simple conversation…

Neve: “What are you reading?”

Me: “Oh… just about about ways of thinking. Just something to help me be smart about the work I do.”

Neve: “So, can you read a book to get smarter about anything?”

Me: “Almost. Yep… If you think about something you want to learn about, or know how to do… you can probably find a book to help you. You can pretty much learn about anything you want to today.

So, yeah… if you want to learn something, we’ll find books and things to help you.”

Neve: “Can you get a book if you want to learn how to make it rain?

Me: “(pause) Well… actually yes. Probably. There are people who have been trying to make it rain for a very long time. And sometimes they’re getting pretty OK at it in small spaces. Sort of.”

The conversation from there got a little too lengthy and geeky to relay here, but you get the idea. Learning at age five has so…… so much potential. Infinite, really.

Screenshot 2014-06-16 21.01.27


I’m really not entirely certain what the segue might have been between these two events, but, fast-forward twenty minutes to when I posted this*:

“Holy cow…… the girls asked what a cardinal sounds like. I pulled up a video from the Cornell Ornithology Lab on my iPhone, and seriously, our backyard is now a cacophony of cardinal music.

Why have I not done this until now?”

The comment stream below the post was rich as well, with several connections from those who had done similar things, as well as some fantastic suggestions for taking this to the next level. I get smarter, kids get smarter, rinse, repeat.


Once the girls heard the cardinals come to life around us, once they saw two land on the fence directly in front of us, they were in. “What does a goldfinch sound like?” “What about an oriole?” “Does a hummingbird make a sound?” While we Googled every last question in the fading light, I tried to interject a thing of two about the limits of their quick little tests. “Maybe those other species weren’t close by.” “Perhaps this was the wrong time of day for them to respond in that way.” Maybe this, perhaps that…  but at this point they had already crossed over into trying to mimic backyard birdsongs themselves to even hear my prompts. At this point, science was bridging a wee bit into art and I knew this wouldn’t be the last time we attempt such an exploration. 

Here is my question for you: do you realize how close real, honest-to-goodness, publishable scientific inquiry is from this very point? Once you’ve asked a fascinating question (often by accident) and taken the time to muck about and explore the elements of the investigation, you are so close to real sophistication. The sophistication of the process. It is at this point you begin to take those “what ifs” and figure out the scope of what you might be able to find out next. You’re digging into what others have already discovered. You are figuring out feasibility. You are formalizing. Little kids don’t need names for these things to inquire, they just need a guide. A guide who will stay out of the way. A guide willing to intervene minimally and only when needed, but a guide that is curious and kind enough to keep pushing. Gently pushing. Ask questions to get questions. Fewer answers. More possibilities.

Science education begins quite young if you let it. Ask the questions. Keep asking them. Once you get more in return than you give…  you’re winning. Go ahead, make it rain.

Today Weather

*”Family Tree of Droplets” by HUSO on Flickr via CC.
*”Neve and The Inchworm” by me.
*”Today Weather” by kristina Alexanderson on Flickr via CC.

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.



High school science is all wet

Sean Nash asked me if I’d step in for him this week. He’s a mensch, and I happen to be off this week, so I said yes. We both write about similar things, but from different angles. I’m on my best behavior here–so I’ll save my opinions on vaccines, fluoride, God, and Higgs bosons for another day….

An osprey, first one of the season, hovered over me while I was fishing this afternoon. It looked down at me, I looked up at it. 400 hundred years ago, on this same shore, an old Kechemeche man stared up at an osprey, and it stared back at him. Our story has changed. The osprey’s has not.

I think the Kechemeche had a better story than ours. In our story the osprey had nothing to share with me. I’ll never know, since their story is now dead. I know this much—the osprey was aware of me on a late afternoon. The tide was rising. The sun felt warm on my face.

There’s a tension between what we know, what we can know, and what’s unknowable. Teaching what we know seems to be the least controversial. Teaching what’s unknowable should not be a function of science teachers in public schools, but distinguishing between what’s knowable and what’s not, well, that’s science.

Why is water wet? Why does my hand get wet when I hold it briefly over a lit grill? Why does water cling to the side of my glass?

That hydrogen bonds form between water molecules, that organic fuels have electrons ripped off by oxygen to form water, and that water molecules cohere to charged surfaces are good enough answers to pass high school science.  Reciting them without grasping that they are models of reality, myths, stories of a special sort, is to give science idolatry it does not warrant.

Science uses models, imaginary constructs, to piece together the world. The world (in science) means the stuff we can sense, directly or indirectly, or logically (and rationally) infer from what we sense.

If a child does not grasp the idea that the constructs of science are, in a real sense, stories, myths framed by specific parameters, the child will see science as facts, tidbits of truth, nuggets of knowledge. Trivia.

And we teach it as such. We trivialize science.

Why  is water wet? What does it even mean to be wet?

I spend a few messy moments in class asking my lambs to do a simple task. Take a handful of peat moss, toss it in a beaker, and wet it. What happens?

The lab benches get messy and wet, but the peat moss mostly stays dry. Why? Why does water roll off wax paper but sticks to cotton?  Why is water wet?

Now the question is not so silly. (Alas, it does not make my students any more likely to dive into the chemistry of water, but at least they have an idea what “wet” means.)

Next question. Why does my hand get moist when I hold it briefly over a flame?

“Simple, Dr. D! You sweat!”

I grab a cool beaker and flame the outside of it with a propane torch. It “sweats.”  I flame the metal faucet pipe—it immediately fogs up. Where does the water come from?

I could show them this equation all day long:

C3H8 + 5 O2 —> 3 CO2 + 4 H2O

I interpret it, which helps a bit:

Propane + oxygen => carbon dioxide + water

Seeing water rise from flame still startles me, every time I do this. Despite my training, or maybe because of it, I forget that chemistry is descriptive, not prescriptive. We put together the story after we gather what we see.

You cannot learn science as you would learn truths, or dogma, or religion. We see the shadows, then we make up the story. The story, however, must make sense. It must give us a way to grasp the shadows, to predict what the shadows will do next.errant horseshoe crab

The tide rises, the tide falls, no matter who tells the story, no matter what the story says.  Until the child can see the osprey, the water, the tides, the stories cannot make sense, no matter how scientific they sound, no matter how hard she studies.

~Michael Doyle


Making Friends With Failure


So here’s the setup… today’s Daily Shoot challenge was to capture a silhouette of some sort.  My plan from the warm confines of my living room this afternoon? =>  Turn it around a bit.  Grab that copper likeness of the sun from a nearby wall, take it to the river with me and my little girl, and have her hold it out at arm’s length, directly in front of the sun… thereby creating a silhouette of the sun… by the sun.

I’m here to tell you that it didn’t work out as smoothly as I had thought it might.  My near-three-year old quickly found the “sun” too heavy to hold in such a way.  “It’s too heavy daddy.”  Well, of course I wasn’t disappointed in the least, but since I got her all fired up for the shot on the drive down to the snowy shore of the Missouri River…  she certainly was.

my little perfectionist

So I stepped back, stuck the sun into the snow, and snapped off a shot to remind us of the attempt.   Even though I didn’t take the time to adjust the setup (and so you see the sun “blown out” and over-exposed), I really did capture a moment in time.   After scooping her up and telling her how she is the most precious thing to me-  followed by some intense tickling, we climbed inside the toasty car.

The bottom line:  she’s a bit too much like me at the core.  I’m glad I know that while she’s only two years old.  It took me a long time to make friends with failure.  I’m comforted that she has parents who are now quite fond of the messiness of learning.  Being the first-born daughter of two first-born parents might just otherwise carry some potential stress, if you subscribe to that sort of thing.

her eyes

Education is life, is…

So in typing an outline of this little story into Flickr, where I am ten days into my first image-a-day “Project 365,” it hit me how close this comes to the classroom at times.  You see, I knew exactly what I wanted out of that shot.  I have stood behind an SLR with an excited neuron enough times to know what I can and cannot do at this point.  And right here is the rub.  How many times have you envisioned a classroom task where the student work failed miserably to meet your expectations?

I don’t think I have to say “if so” here, do I?  We’ve all been there.  My question is…  what did you do about it?  Hopefully, you finally got around to looking inward at your own expectations, approaches, and scaffolding.  We all jump too fast along the continuum of gradual release from time to time.  It’s hard to slip your brain inside those of a hundred others to see what the best “next step” is every time.  And if you’re an innovator?  Well, if you’re prone to innovation, you often swim in unfamiliar waters… continually using your teacher senses to lead your students through the rip-currents of failure.

Jumping too early and expecting more autonomy than is warranted at a given moment in the educational spectrum is commonplace.  What I would suggest isn’t so routine is tapping on the brakes for a moment, stopping the classroom bus and saying:  “hold on a sec…  I took something for granted…  let’s go back and try it this way.” It is far easier to push the blame onto our students.  We get into that, “well when are they going to learn responsibility and independence?” …sort of thing.  I’m certainly not saying that students can’t be lazy from time to time.  I could write the book on that.  Yet, I would suggest that our teacher energy is best channeled into what we can realistically control.  The only things we can 100% control within the classroom on a daily basis are the choices we make.

successes and failures

I think we need to create little microcosms where failure is frequent.  Not because failing is magical, but because stopping short leaves potential learning on the table.  I advocate the creation of zones where we actively engage failure as some sort of pushing-back-against-boundaries sort of thing.  Our classrooms can be this.  Allowing  -even pushing kids-  to “safe” failures teaches us all something about what we can and cannot do any any given point in time.  We have to get to the point where that isn’t scary.  Especially for our most talented children.  If you are so accustomed to winning, and have forgotten feels like to fail, after a while you teach yourself to avoid it at all costs. Our kids suck a bit of water up their noses while learning to swim, right?  In our protective arms, this sort of failure builds confidence.  Should it really be that different in the classroom?

Prevent the big fail.  Rub elbows with your students.  Sit side by side with them as they work and watch them interact with…  whatever it is you’re asking them to interact with.  Find out what makes each kid tick.  Put out sparks before they become fires.  Teach.  Teach along the way.  And pay close attention:  if you didn’t already attempt the student project yourself, then you should be sued for malpractice.

And really, if you’re still didactically preaching along from the pulpit on most days, you’ll likely not even run into this little snag.  I bet this job looks easy from behind a podium.


*”my little perfectionist” by me on Flickr.
*”her eyes” by me on Flickr.
*”successes and failures” by Will Lion on Flickr.