What’s in Your Front Drawer?

I want to stop and think about the requirements of the modern educator. Considering ways to upgrade the design of education and move the construct away from silo-based learning models to one that resembles an mobile think-tank, we have to remember that the instruments of learning are many. Ideas in a learning space should move in many directions at once. Adding in the potential for a hybrid design of school, we have to recenter learning properly.

Learning spaces are small ecosystems of growth and development, requiring an educator to know every inch of the physical or digital space and the opportunities therein.

Think about all the time we have spent in quarantine. Most of us have not taught in a classroom since last March. That leaves six months of time when a learner was left to her own devices – daily accountability becomes harder and harder to maintain when the structure of the day disappears and consistency is lost. Even when remote school programs were in session, interactions that occur organically during in-person school were sorely missed – all instruction and collaboration had to be constructed and thus felt artificial. Learning spaces are small ecosystems of growth and development, requiring an educator to know every inch of the physical or digital space and the opportunities therein. Oftentimes, the supremely talented educators do not have the extra bandwidth to think about the system as a whole. And rightly so: the amount of work that goes into one learning space is exhausting and requires one’s full intellectual capital.

The Road Ahead

As a school leader, I must work to connect the dots and create a supportive cultural web which aligns with school mission and values. This is what I like to think of as my “Front Drawer” material. When opening the front drawer of your desk, what is it that you see? Do you have necessary items for the day, or is it loaded with surgery snacks that you aren’t allowed to have at home? (I have fallen prey to the latter throughout my career.) Is there a journal, or loose leaf paper for writing down ideas? Does the drawer have quick access to references that provide a focus on the vital pieces of school policy and culture? Are there reminders of why you are where you are?

Now, think about the abstract files, components, and capabilities that may appear in your “mental” front drawer. I have had a few conversations on this topic and will share what I believe to be essential components in the mental front drawer of the modern K-12 educator. I’m sure I’ll miss something, so feel free to chime in (though know that I will steal your idea as a contribution to the list!).

Here are the components and capabilities that I’ll review over the next few weeks:

  • Designing Learning Opportunities with Intention
  • Explicit vs. Implicit Instruction
  • Technological Confidence
  • Culturally Aware and Anti-Racist Educators
  • Practical Approaches to Modern Learning Using Brain Science
  • Understanding Divisional Expectations

Designing Learning Opportunities with Intention

The resulting garden of ideas allows for diversity of thought and joyful collaboration.

Teachers should have a endgame plan for anything introduced in the classroom. Inspired teaching surfaces when an educator has an innovative idea for a learning session filled with wonderful conversation and discovery. Moving from good to great teaching occurs when the educator connects the innovation to a bigger picture that he or she is hoping will take root in the minds of students. Without that connection, the session becomes a one-off moment of light bulb explosion without a denouement. The best approach here is to start with a goal that is malleable, not in a way that compromises the end game, but in a way that allows the learner to define how his or her process can arrive at the established goal. In other words, teachers must set parameters wide enough to allow for a goal to live and breath, adapting to the direction each child takes it. The resulting garden of ideas allows for diversity of thought and joyful collaboration. A goal whose scope is too narrow in its original form may develop a glorious flower, but that flower is singular in design, and more often that not fails to personalize the learning process for each child as they are only enhancing someone else’s work instead of making the work her own. Build a rich garden – many colors, many sizes and shapes. It’ll last longer in the minds and maximize the capabilities of the gardeners.

Speaking of a beautiful garden, let’s consider how to set that up. I encourage educators to consider ways to build a demonstration of the learning that rests on top of the learning goal as opposed to creating an assessment that comes at the end of the process. Learning offers the opportunity to make minor course corrections along the pathway to understanding. The ability for a young person to iterate based on discoveries over the course of the learning process is a skill that needs guidance with a focus on metacognitive reflection. Therefore assessment of the learning process best occurs (for the most part) in real time so as to encourage reflection and refinement. There may be a final rubric to which a learner must adhere; in many cases there is a need to finalize and move on. For this reason, the comprehensive rubric should be available from day one so that the target reference is always accessible. As a student reflects, she can build and adjust her contribution to garden as she sees fit within the ecosystem created as a palette.

An assessment should be a palette of your creation on which the students can design a way to show that they have both realized something and are eager to share their discovery with someone else.

Though I’m over-simplifying, “I’ll just put a question about today’s lesson on the next test” simply doesn’t cut it. Would you want someone to acknowledge a great feeling of accomplishment by assessing how much has been memorized as a way to determine success? On the contrary, an assessment should be a palette of your creation on which the students can design a way to show that they have both realized something and are eager to share their ideas with someone else. It is up to each educator to create the framework which inspires this way of thinking from the start. The process through which this constructive-based knowledge should manifest can stem from different lesson constructs. Every teacher has his or her own way of building lessons, and that is great as long as the pattern of creation is consistent. Whether using Backwards Design, Universal Design, or Design Thinking models, all must first start with a goal for understanding followed by a way to connect the daily activity to the overall learning goal. I encourage you to explore these three models to learn about them and how they fit your pedogogical opinions and connect to the idea of tying daily activities to the big picture.

What is your method of content creation? Do you refer back to a guiding question you have created or adopted? Please share in the comments.

Driving towards a better model

Many schools today consider a move towards new learning methods as they seek to improve on traditional school design. A program in which I am participating, called Change.School, consistently stretches my brain to consider ways in which I lead my school and why I have chosen to do so. Some questions presented by a colleague in a recent post had me thinking particularly hard, so I will share my thoughts with you.

1.  What is the role of direct teaching in an inquiry based classroom driven by student questions?

I have researched the National Paideia Center and later had this organization come to train our faculty on a component of their framework: the Paideia seminar. Their stance is that a typical classroom should see about ten to fifteen percent didactic learning (with the vast majority of the remaining time be saved for practical application of knowledge and discussion via the aforementioned seminar). I’m a math guy, so these numbers speak to me as proper guidelines for leaders who want to give learning ownership to the students in the classroom.

2. Is there a role for teacher developed provocations?

I strongly believe in modeling how we expect our students to engage in their learning. Trevor MacKenzie has written Dive into Inquiry, a text that focuses on a gradual release of ownership to students when building an inquiry-based classroom. From phrasing the essential question which guides the inquiry to choosing research methods and the eventual medium to demonstrate learning, MacKenzie explores how to gradually shift each of these pieces to eventually reach “Free Inquiry.” Food for thought (and a good, quick read).

3. Once we determine the exit skills for a variety of stages in the educational development of children, can we give ownership of the standards to the children and allow them to determine how they will demonstrate their proficiency?

I think this is a brilliant idea. But as a senior thesis paper must be “defended,” so too should a student have to defend how and why the chosen demonstration accurately displays proficiency. Perhaps a better question is: “How can a student show learning as opposed to proficiency?” It seems to me that we need to measure progress and development towards mastery and not the snapshot, quantitative value on where a student is at any given moment. Learning is linear and follows its own time…but we can objectively measure that development given the proper rubric to follow.

4. How do we ensure a visibility to the teaching and learning going on in schools and how do we ensure parents are integral partners in the process.

Parents must have a strong level of engagement in the learning process. In the demonstration of proficiency you mentioned in the previous question, I would think that parents should be able to observe and appreciate the level of learning that has transpired. A fun activity would be to build a sort of “passport” for parents or visitors to use as a roadmap to see the different displays of learning to a) build a community that celebrates learning, and b) see the comparative progress made from one student to the next.

5. Should we be co-creating assessment criteria with students and then give them full partnership in assessing their peers and themselves? What does the role of the teacher look like in this environment?

This question brings to mind a slide that my headmaster uses in his presentation on assessment. It looks something like this:

There are 3 types of assessment in today’s classroom:

  1. Assessment FOR learning – enables teachers to use information about students’ knowledge to inform their teaching while providing feedback to students about their learning and how to improve
  2. Assessment AS learning – involves students in the learning process where they monitor their own progress/skill development through self-assessment and teacher feedback. Students can ask questions about their progress as a reflection of their learning and to re-set goals for the future.
  3. Assessment OF learning – the most typical type of assessment in today’s schools; this type of assessment measures student achievement against learning goals and standards.

6. Should attention still be paid to building community and ensuring we are building citizenship skills as well as facilitating student driven inquiry?

In my mind, a student is never going to remember what he learned in 6th grade science; however, she is NEVER going to forget the way that teacher made her FEEL. If you haven’t yet seen Mrs. Rita Pierson’s Ted Talk on relationships, then take some time to do so right now. Why am I a teacher/school leader? To ensure that I am building inquisitive CITIZENS who understand that character builds reputation (not knowledge or skill).

7.  Is there a time when a topic is so compelling a teacher should/must draw it to the attention of students and invite them to investigate?

I think this question goes into my answer for question 2. However, when something like the World Trade Center attacks occurs, we MUST stop and investigate how this changes the world in which we live. Granted, I believe this disruption is both the most difficult and most impactful “teachable moment” an educator has the opportunity to share with his students.


As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on these topics. Thanks for reading!

if you got a problem…yo, I’ll solve it.

Ice, Ice, Baby

This is a great article, and one worth considering as applicable to students and to the adults in the room. I just returned from a conference with other Division Heads during which Dr. Rob Evans, educational psychologist and author, spoke in the closing session about the “tough conversation” between schools and families. One major connection to this article Kate shared and his talk occurred when he stated,
“We live in a time when opportunities for our children continue to increase exponentially, while predictability of future options has been decreasing just as quickly.” 
It sounds like the coping mechanism for anxiety is often medically prescribed, when, in truth, what we all need is more time; however, I don’t think any remedy outside of a magic wand can provide us more hours in our day. Yet we crave a time to think and reflect on our daily lives, our school schedule, etc. From the very youngest to the CEO, time to think would do us all a world of good and lead to better choices. Dr. Evans goes a bit further to discuss a very poignant fact:

Problems can be fixed; dilemmas can be managed. 

Often times, looking at the way we handle issues in our lives can determine how much anxiety we bring upon ourselves. We cannot control everything, yet our instant life via mobile devices makes us think we can. But true problems are in need of solutions that disrupt the issue and provide a new road to travel. A dilemma is more on the level of inconvenience; perhaps, dilemmas can be serviced better with a bit of white-out rather than trashing the blueprints altogether.
The summer provides me an incredible opportunity, even in the midst of shuttling my boys to and from activities to keep them occupied while I’m at work, to reflect on my practice. I can slow down, think about priorities and (for instance) write about my thoughts in a venue such as this blog. I can think about how I do school; my expectations and reasonings behind various events and actions throughout the year. Most of all, I need to consider what problems I can cut out, and what dilemmas I am capable of fixing.
I hope and pray that your anxiety levels drop with the coming of a slower, or perhaps an alternative schedule this summer. I invite you to view the future weeks with hope and possibility.