Things I Know 330 of 365: This is what I mean when I talk about authentic learning

The closer you stay to emotional authenticity and people, character authenticity, the less you can go wrong. That’s how I feel now, no matter what you’re doing.

– David O. Russell

I met my friend Andrew Sturm a few months ago at ReImagine:Ed. He’s about one of the most kind, thoughtful and creative people you could hope to meet. Among his other duties, Andrew was at Re:Ed to provoke by sharing his work with 5750 Dallas.

5750 Dallas is so named because there were 5750 men, women, and children who were homeless in Dallas at last count. Their goal is to reduce that number while guided by research that supports the idea that the best way to get people off the street is to give them a home and training rather than training toward a home. A model guiding by the organization Housing First.

Inspired by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 5750 took to the streets populating public spaces with plywood cut-outs in the shape of homeless people holding cardboard signs with Dr. King’s words on them.

The signs also included things like:

A frozen yogurt store sells $250,000 worth of product every month. That could buy 500,000 meals for the homeless.


For what you spent on your iPod and music collection, you could buy 598 pairs of shoes for those in need.


On Super Bowl ticket gives you a seat for 4 hours. That money could give a homeless person a bed for two years.

The 5750 site has more information on the installation and accompanying next steps they organized for those moved to act.

This is amazing work that combines art, math, social sciences, civics, and English.

Why aren’t projects like this starting in schools? The creativity is there, the knowledge and resources are there. And I’ve  a hunch Sturm and everyone associated with 5750 Dallas would have been happy to work with teachers and students if they’d been approached.

These are lessons and unit plans waiting to be written. The algebra, research, persuasion and design skills here are all nestled snugly in the Common Core (though you wouldn’t worry about that if you were in Texas).

I’m blown away by the simplicity, beauty, and impact of the work of 5750 Dallas. Since I met Andrew, I’ve shared the installation with a few dozen people.

Think about it this way, what would students who designed and executed a project like 5750 Dallas know and be able to do when they were done? What would they feel compelled to do next? How long would that learning last?

Things I Know 291 of 365: Here are my principles for designing a learning organization

As part of my final learning task for one of my courses, I must draft my principles for building a learning organization. Mine are:

  • Processes for organizational review must be explicit and ongoing.
  • Leadership and accountability are shared at and across all levels.
  • Learning must be collaborative
  • The physical and temporal learning spaces must be adaptive.
  • All members are asked to complete quality work.

What do you think? How would learning of adults and children look in such a space?

Things I Know 272 of 365: Sketching a school brought clarity of practice

Architecture aims at eternity.

– Christopher Wren

Tonight, in preparation for our next learning task, the class was asked to think about the physical design of a school or learning organization.

What would it look like?

On the heals of drafting our theories of learning and how we might design for difference, this learning tasks makes sense.

It’s also right up the alley of thought I’ve been strolling down recently. Design has been on my brain.

Interestingly, when the professor gave us time to play and told us to see what we could come up with in sketching out what our schools would look like, I had no previous experience to draw from.

I’ve spent the last 8 years re-tooling, rearranging and rethinking classroom design. For the last 6, I’ve been thinking heavily about the systems, structures and pedagogy that work best to the good of the children and adults in schools.

If you asked me what I thought it would look like to see teachers and students interacting in these environments, I’d rattle off words like caring, collaborative, curious, reflective. Then I’d pepper it with examples from my own experiences.

The thing I haven’t done, that I hadn’t done until tonight, is sit down and sketch out what the physical structure of that place might be.

Part of that is likely tied to the fact that those in schools rarely get input into the spaces in which they teach and learn. Often, it’s a rehabilitated building or one that’s been around for decades. To design the physical space is a rarity.

I doodled for a bit tonight, playing with shapes and trying to piece together the structures I’m drawn to and where my students have told me they learn best.

More than anything, I wanted a set of LEGOs. The paper didn’t do what I wanted it to. I needed something bigger and more malleable.

Just before time was called, my group asked me to piece all of our sketches together for a composite final product. You can see it below.

What I said to me team, and what is still true, was that this space is a place I’d both want to teach in and send my kids to.

And that’s just one the first try.

I wonder what would happen if teachers took five minutes to doodle their ideal teaching spaces and then worked to teach as though they were in those spaces. I wonder what would shift. I wonder how interactions and expectations of the students would change.

I wonder what they would sketch with their practice.

Things I Know 267 of 365: I got some advice on designing for difference

Last week, I was working on an assignment that asked me to define difference as it related to educational design. From there, I needed to develop my principles of school design. It seemed like the perfect chance to draw on the wisdom of friends, so I sent out an e-mail to some designers I know with the question from my assignment:

What counts, or should count, as a “learning difference” in the organization of learning environments?

The paper ran long, and some of the responses came back after I’d shaped my draft, so I didn’t get to explicitly use their responses. They took the time to craft their responses, though, and I wanted to honor that by sharing them here. My text on the question is at the bottom.

I can’t help but lean towards a student (at the scale of one) having the proactive ability to discern useful resources / flexibility found within a given learning environment, rather than just to assume that clarity will be given to them. Thus, how we set up a student to seek such resources / clues (within a test, within a project, within a team, within a community, etc) may therefore suggest a way to measure (or design for) differences.

– Christian Long

We are going to have an interesting conversation on Thursday at the Goldberg Center on “alternative assignments” for students.  that is, rather than a teacher saying “term paper due on Friday,” the students can devise their own ways to demonstrate their knowledge (we will have one example on Thursday of a student who demonstrated his knowledge by choreographing and performing an interpretive ice dance of a novel he had read…)  I can recall a student once who said to me “rather than an exam, I would much prefer to give a speech to demonstrate what I know.”  I’ve often thought that would be an intriguing way for students to own their learning.

– David Staley

What if one of the first thing a learner did was to design how they would be measured and configure their learning experience to match that and then have that be a part of some sort of public “learning identity” allowing their differences to both set up the parameters for their education and encourage peers to understand each other and connect to one another because of their differences?

e.g. I see from Sally’s profile that she is so good at advanced math that she was able to test out and focus on French history – I wonder if she would consider tutoring me in math and whether we could team up on our French Revolution project?

– Andrew Sturm

Listing the learning differences for which we are accounting, we risk inadvertently neglecting or denying a possible impact of a difference. In thinking about possible differences, it is helpful to appropriate Rosabeth Kanter’s (1993) understanding of difference from “A Tale of ‘O’” in which she defines the normative culture as those who are found in large numbers and those who are different as “the people who are scarce.” Different learning tasks create shifts in populations. In a classroom where students are expected to remain at their desks, a student in a wheelchair could be considered part of the normative culture, while the hyperactive child who squirms and wiggles in his seat looking for any reason to move would appear different. This same group of students on a soccer field during a P.E. class shifts the norms of expected behavior in such a way that the former student now appears different while the latter student becomes normative. Context must be considered when considering the organization of learning.

Non-physical differences can also impact student learning. Personal perception as affected by the stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995) or a fixed theory of learning (Dweck, 2000) shift student performance on learning tasks. Unlike those differences described above, these internal differences are not easily perceived, nor should they be presumed in students belonging to one group or another. All possible differences should be counted a differences affecting learning in organizing learning environments. This means subscribing to David Rose’s (2011) rejection of the notion of the standard child, and acceptance of variability as universal.

– me

Things I Know 252 of 365: How we shape learning shapes learning

I’ve been thinking about shape a lot lately. Specifically, how the way we shape things shapes how we shape thoughts. I know I’m not the only one to have considered this, but I’m the only one in my head to be considering it, so I’m going with it.

Friday, I visited an elementary school to observe and report.

I saw first, second, fourth and fifth grade classrooms.

In working toward a goal for a learning task in one of my classes, I noted the arrangement of each of the classrooms. My sketches weren’t perfect, but they reflected the general arrangement of each room.

In first grade, there were groupings of five or six tables, there was a carpet by a dry erase board. A teacher desk suffocated beneath papers. A kidney-shaped and a circular table both hinted at where the students might work to complete a collaborative task or work together with the teacher’s help. When I walked in, students were everywhere. Some were at their desks completing math work. Some were reading. Others were working together on the ground to paint what looked like it was the makings of a tree trunk. At one point, students transitioned from their myriad tasks to a whole-class reminder of the previous day’s learning and then community time at the carpet with the teacher.

The second grade class had even more of the frenetic energy you’d hope to see in a place where people are learning. The class’s co-teachers were across the room from one another working with small groups of students in rotation while the other students worked their way through stations where they read, counted using number lines, colored, completed their poetry journals and fitted blocks together to form vocabulary words. Just when I thought I’d gotten a handle where everyone was, they slid seamlessly to another station.

The portion of fourth grade I observed had fewer stations, but the co-teachers worked together to move student learning. One sat at a kidney-shaped table with a small group while the larger class worked on an assignment in organizations ranging from 1 to 6. The task involved manipulatives and the students each used them to find answers to the problems they were addressing and explain their answers to group members who weren’t seeing their logic. Though focused on one task, the room was still abuzz with difference.

Fifth grade took a turn. Groupings of desks changed from a standard of 4-5 to 3-4. The room had a clear front and back. The teacher was at the front. Her desk was at the back. The students were facing her. Focused on a singular task, student shared their answers and the teacher asked if the class thought those answers were correct.

I’ve only got a sampling of four classrooms, but I think I can see where this is going. All I need do is examine the learning spaces I head to throughout the week to see the natural end of this progression.

Each class is a variation on a theme. Scaled up and down according to the room and how many people we need fit inside it. The these horseshoes are where we learn about reforming how students learn. They are where we read about and discuss the importance of collaboration and choice. In these spaces, we examine student- versus teacher-centered practices and question why it is so difficult to move teachers’ practices to the former.

Some professors have attempted to break the space against itself and encouraged group work and movement. But the spaces weren’t meant for this. They don’t invite creative uses.

I looked at the collection of how teachers were using the spaces in the schools I’ve visited this year and noticed a trend.

The learning was different. The lessons were different. The voices and sizes were different. But the spaces moved toward one singular design.

I know where this leads my thinking, and I wonder what kind of thinkers, creators and citizens these spaces encourage and invite. No matter our professed values, are we building spaces that ask students to question, build and move forward?

Things I Know 231 of 365: Let’s kill school

Kill the mothership.

– Kendall Crolius

In 2006, the former head of San Diego schools Alan Bersin commented on his controversial approach to improving the district’s schools. Not surprisingly, I reacted strongly to much of what Bersin had to say. One comment has remained lodged in my brain since I first read the piece:

In the elementary schools, we moved schools out of the bottom deciles through a common instructional program.  In the secondary schools, the surest way to remove schools from the academic cellar was to shut them down.

I don’t disagree with Bersin, not generally. He’s certainly not the first to suggest hitting the “do over” button as a path to rejuvenating failing schools. I’m sure he won’t be the last.

In Disrupting Class, Christensen, Johnson and Horn tinker around the idea when they suggest fixing ailing schools is akin to repairing an airplane mid-flight.

An apt analogy.

Watching the design teams present today at Reimagine:Ed’s Next Chapter summit, an approach other than powering down and deconstructing occurred to me.

Shut everything down but the library.

Build out from there.

Start a 1:1 laptop program in the school with online and blended classes. Staff the library 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Host study sessions at regular intervals in each discipline. According to student interest, begin pouring money into music, drama and visual arts programs.

Still, no straight physical classes.

Still, a 24-hour library.

During the day, have students design and form student organizations with faculty sponsorship. Technically, these organizations will count as electives. They will range from urban farming to bicycle repair to yoga. At the same time, start up school sports teams with the same eligibility requirements the school had in place before (or more stringent).

In the meantime, students begin repurposing the physical space with funding saved from the reduced overhead of operating the school.

This classroom is a student-run thrift store. The school paper is next door and actually serves as a periodical for the entire neighborhood.

Across the hall, what was a long-neglected home economics room transitions to a coffee shop.

As students determine their interests, they use the library to find the resources they need to draft the business plan the school requires of any student-led venture. Most of these initiatives feature parent volunteers who have parallel careers acting as community advisors.

At night, through a partnership with the local community college, students take college-level courses with local community members. The courses are joint-funded by the school and the college. They are taught by the school’s faculty.

Students comment the spaces make them owners of the school and provide them with the flexibility and support they need while expecting high levels of learning. Teachers comment they able to design more dynamic curricula, build close relationships with their students and  emphasize knowledge, skills and understandings in ways that are authentic and deep. The parents, at first resistant, are amazed how involved their kids are in the school community. They admit life is easier now that their kids have class schedules that fit with their natural internal clocks.

College admissions offices confide they’re amazed to have applicants with diverse interests and college credit. Secretly they worry their universities’ lack of entrepreneurial options might make it difficult to attract the students of the school. Community members – frequent guests and participants at the school – feel a sense of ownership and protectiveness for the space. They take credit for the reduced crime rate around the school since their neighborhood patrol has started guarding what many of them see as the center of their communities.

no straight classes.

24-hour library

robust arts programs

student-led organizations

student entrepreneurship

community involvement/ownership

college preparation/credit

I’d want to teach there.

I’d want to learn there.

Things I Know 176 of 365: Classrooms must design away from anxiety

Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,

Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not

even the best,

Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.

– Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

If I were teaching teachers, I would have them read this Economist article examining a newly published German study showing a strong positive correlation between urban dwellers and high levels of anxiety.

We would discuss the study and its methodology. We’d work our way through a round of “I noticed…” “I wonder…” “What if…” and then someone would hopefully notice the smallish size of the German study. Perhaps a hand would be raised and a “yeahbut” would be voiced.

“What about this,” I would ask, sharing with the assembled teachers this 2009 New York Times Magazine article about Dr. Jerome Kagan’s decades-long research into the origins and possible causes of anxiety.

Kagan has been compiling evidence since the late 80s that shows a connection between anxiety in infants and continued anxiety in those same subjects as they move into childhood, adolescence and eventually adulthood.

These teachers and I would discuss Kagan’s theories regarding those who are “wired to worry.” Again, I would query them on what they noticed, what they wondered and their what ifs.

Using some intertextual analysis, we would then start to make inferred connections between Kagan’s work and that of Dr. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, the author of the Economist study.

Wanting to learn alongside, I would posit the idea that one who is both wired for worry and raised in an urban environment would seem to have the proverbial deck stacked against him.

To this person, it would seem not only that the world is a highly unstable and difficult place, but that the environ within which he lives is only working to accentuate that instability. Despite his best intentions, this person will worry, doubt and second-guess more than his hypothetical twin separated at birth and raised in a nearby farm town.

Finally, to bring things back home, I would point these teachers to Sylvia Martinez’s reflections on a recent keynote by NYU Associate Professor Joshua Aronson. We would examine Aronson’s definition of the stereotype threat – being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group.

Martinez writes:

Simply putting a box to mark gender, for example, at the front of a math test significantly changed test scores – for both men and women. Compared to a test where gender was not asked for, if gender was asked for at the beginning of a test, boy’s scores went up, girls’ scores went down. If gender was asked at the end, boys’ scores went down, girls’ scores went up.

And then we would discuss the implications of these three assembled pieces on the practice of the teachers in the room.

The idea of urban anxiety makes sense to me. I saw it time and again teaching in Philadelphia. Students became distraught and anxious in the face of seemingly surmountable odds. Students completely capable of completing an assignment or understanding an idea shut down or expressed extreme doubt or anxiety. Whereas I could normally connect with and deescalate similar situations with ease, these moments required a level of effort I found deeply surprising.

For me, this creates a question of practice. Even if the vast majority of students are not “wired for worry,” the possibility students in city and urban environments could be more highly predisposed to anxiety illuminates a barrier to learning many teachers probably sensed, but had no name or schema for until now.

Knowing or almost knowing creates an imperative to change.

If the goal of the assembled teachers is to help all students more fully, if elevated anxiety levels impede that learning, and if environment influences those anxiety levels, then it is incumbent upon teachers to design a learning experience that lowers anxiety levels as much as possible.

How can you build a classroom that works against a natural proclivity for anxiety? What could you stop doing immediately to make life less worrisome for your students? What systems can you build to make your classroom, and then your school, a haven of diminished worry?

I have some ideas. I have many more questions. Mostly, I have burning sense that knowing that the designs and structures of learning spaces could be impeding the health and learning of those we are to care for means an ethical imperative to break down those impediments.

Things I Know 120 of 365: I’m pretty sure we meant to build schools

America is the land of the second chance – and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.

– Pres. George W. Bush

Think back to your school. Elementary, middle or high – it doesn’t matter. Picture the structure, the hallways, the classroom, the layout. I’m guessing you had a central location where you could stand and monitor the goings on in multiple hallways as you turned around.

Picture the materials. Cinder block. Windows that opened, but only a little. (If the room had windows.) A heating system that worked – sometimes. An air conditioning system that didn’t exist. Periodically throughout the day you heard a PA system that announced who should be where when. This was in addition to the bells or tones that sounded at regular intervals to move people from one place to another. The system was likely made complete with the addition of closed circuit cameras and metal detectors in the mid-90s.

Did I get pretty close?

Now add uniforms.

Now add 8-foot fences.

Now add razor wire.

Now you’re in a prison.

We’ve been building schools like prisons for a long time. Lately, we’ve been arguing the design has been about security. I’m uncertain if we’re protecting the students from the outside world or the outside world from the students. Either way, there’s not much about traditional school design that screams “Learning!”

Diana jokes that my classroom is more of a club house. Within my first weeks at SLA, the architects whose offices were directly under my room showed up at the door with a tape measure.

“You have the students moving around quite a bit,” they said, “We’re going to pay for carpeting to help soften the noise.” Since then, I’ve been adding to the room the way large families store things in their garages or attics.

Most recently was the addition of desks whose surfaces operate as dry-erase boards. Throw in the bean bag chairs, icicle lights, and bright paper from lessons past and the club house description becomes apropos. Oh, and their’s a picture my students drew of Neverland on a 14-foot sheet of butcher block paper. It’s hanging from the ceiling.

Levity aside, my classroom is a constant effort to build a comfortable space where people would want to read and write.

Many of my students’ initial literacy educations were in school lockdown. Seated in rows of desks facing a teacher desk, they compliantly learned how school readers read and how school writers write. They did as they were asked to do.

It was incarceration-based education.

A part of me wonders whether the education community should be looking for leadership in the work of L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca who is beta testing his new Education-Based Incarceration Initiative designed to prevent recidivism once inmates are released.

According to NPR, “Baca wants his prisoners to accomplish more than academic achievement. He wants the program to equip inmates for a better life outside prison walls. Courses in life skills like leadership and decision making give time in prison a constructive purpose.”

Not unlike the description of the physical space, replace “prison” with “school,” and you have a decent explanation of what I want for my students.