Things I Know 359 of 360: This approach to learning might be frightening to many

Over at Marc and Angel Hack Life, they’ve a compilation of “12 Dozen Places to Educate Yourself Online for Free.”

It’s got me wondering.

What if you said this to a student:

Here’s today’s newspaper.

(student reads for a bit)

What are some things you wonder based on what you just read?

(student lists questions)

Okay, so let that guide your learning today. Here’s a blog post to get you started. How would you like to show your learning around these questions?

(student thinks, lists, and sets goals)

To get you started, here’s a blog post that can help you find some starting places for your search. Feel free to work with anyone else based on the questions attached to people’s names I’ve posted around the room. I’m here if you have any questions.

(students start learning)

Let me ask my two favorite questions:

If this seems strange, why?

If this doesn’t seem strange, why?

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Things I Know 324 of 365: From Freakonomics to freako-not-so-fast

Half my life is an act of revision.

– John Irving

I mentioned the other day how much I enjoy reading the Freakonomics blog. Today, I read this piece from American Scientist by Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung who took a deeper look at the work of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner and found some easy mistakes.

They took the guys who ask “What’s really going on here?” and asked “What’s really going on here?”

Gelman and Fung aren’t out to discredit Levitt and Dubner. Instead, they are watching the watchmen and point out moments of Freakonomics where Levitt and Dubner miss the mark or fail to ask the next question.

It’s another case of what’s popular not necessarily being what is right.

The piece is interesting for a number of reasons, but appealed to me mainly on the level of helping people to ask good questions. Rather than simply pointing out the problem, Gelman and Fung conclude with a set of recommendations that have direct implications for anyone working to make inquiries into the world and working to make their work accessible to a larger audience:

  • Leave friendship at the door.
  • Don’t sell yourself short.
  • Maintain checks and balances.
  • Take your time.
  • Be clear about where you’re coming from.
  • Use latitude responsibly.

For guidelines to asking good questions and working to craft answers to those questions that show integrity and understanding, this list is a great start. It’s also a reminder to any reader of anything that the iconoclast should be questioned as often as the traditionalist.

Things I Know 311 of 365: Schools need question portfolios

Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.

– e.e. cummings

I stood in the snack food aisle today, in awe of what we can do to a potato. Beyond ridges or smooth, the modern potato chip can look like pretty much anything we want it to look like and taste like pretty much anything we want it to taste like.

Humankind has mastered the potato.

Take that, blight!

After the awe, I started to wonder. How do we do it? How do we make this batch of potato chips taste like dill pickles and that batch taste like prawns? When I buy ketchup-flavored potato chips, is it because they used ketchup or they found the chemicals necessary to make potatoes taste like ketchup? I had to start looking for the dishwashing liquid because the potato chips were too interesting.

On the drive home, I started thinking about potato chips and how we keep track of students’ learning.

Portfolio assessment has been around for a while and more resources have been devoted to its use and misuse than I care to plumb. What if we’re doing it wrong?

What if, instead of or in addition to student work, we were to keep a portfolio of the questions students asked?

Imagine a question portfolio that followed students throughout their time in school that reminded them and their teachers of the questions with which they’d wrestled as they learned. What would it look like if, attached to each question, was the latest iteration or the lineage of answers the student had crafted for that question?

What difference would it mean to create a culture of learning where parents were encouraged to ask their children, “What questions did you ask today in school?”

I have a suspicion that in valuing questions, we’d have no other choice but to make school into places where students had the space to answer the questions they thought most intriguing. It also seems likely to me that a student who has been taught the value of a good question and been given the support, resources, and space to seek answers will have no trouble learning anything that’s necessary throughout her life.

We do a decent job of telling kids there are no stupid questions, but a horrible job at showing them that the act of questioning isn’t stupid.

Once I got home, I remembered I’d read a passage about the science of potato chips in David Bodanis’s The Secret House. I found it on my shelf and started searching for answers to my grocery store questions.

What questions did you ask today?

Things I Know 257 of 365: It’s time to give up the drug of classroom management

We are constantly working towards the highest level of compliance possible.

– Mike Davidson

A few weeks ago, I had a telephone interview for a part-time job. If I’d gotten it, I’d be working with pre-teachers who are planning on seeking jobs with “no excuses” charter schools. While these aren’t the types of schools I’d choose to work at or send my kids to, if there’s a chance I can help out someone who’s headed to or in the classroom, I’ll pitch in.

Aside from my resume, it became apparent quickly the woman interviewing me had typed my name into a search engine and was struggling with how I might fit the model of the program.

“Now, we find our teachers struggle with group work and projects in the first year,” she said. “So, we focus on teaching them direct instruction and classroom management. It seems that you’re more of a constructivist.”

She had me.

“Yes,” I admitted, “I tend to favor inquiry and constructivism as pedagogies.”

And that was where it became clear to us both that I wouldn’t be the best fit. We said our goodbyes, both a little relieved.

I don’t think it’s a matter of the teachers not being able to handle group work or projects. It’s a matter of not asking questions or inviting them.

A friend of mine disagreed with me on the topic this weekend.

Here’s the thing, across international lines, new teachers polled after entering the classroom report they wished they’d had more training in classroom management. Kids, it turns out, are difficult.

I posit the idea that they’re asking for the wrong thing. I humbly beg whoever’s got their hand on the spigot of classroom management training to turn off the flow.

Let’s stop teaching classroom management. We’re not really teaching classroom management, anyway. Nor are we teaching learning management. The deeper we dig into classroom management, the closer we find ourselves to teaching management. If a kids happen to learn in the process, it’s likely because we’ve eliminated their access to anything (read everything) more interesting.

More heinous is how far training on classroom management takes new teachers from investigating how to foster caring relationships with their students, how to build systems to support curiosity in their students, and how to refine the theories of learning driving their own practice.

Implied in my interviewer’s claim that their teachers struggled with inquiry in their first year was the allowance that such an approach would be something they picked up in their second or third year.

It’s possible this could happen, but I’d wager such a turn would be by freak chance and not the natural evolution of things.

Managing children so that you can teach them becomes a bit of a drug. You get them semi-compliant and quiet the first year, and you start thinking about how you can get them to let you teach a little more next year.

New teachers struggle with classroom management because, given the choice, most students would not sit through their lessons. This should tell us we need to throw our interest behind improving the lessons, not finding new carrots and sticks for getting kids to listen while we teach.

Things I Know 229 of 365: I’ve seen Problem-Based Learning from the other side

It takes half your life before you discover life is a do-it-yourself project.

– Napoleon Hill

I just turned in my second statistics assignment. I should note (and I’m sorry Mr. Curry), when I took statistics during undergrad it became a sad march toward intellectual self-destruction. I hesitate to say intellectual, but the professor certainly attempted to steer my thinking that direction.

More often, my thinking was, “How does this count as math? I know calculus. How is this math?”

It wasn’t pretty.

My current statistics professor came with glowing reviews – from everyone. Everyone.

And he’s fantastic.

A lecture hall can be a stuffy space.

A statistics course can be a stuffy space.

The intersection is potentially numbing.

Not with Terry Tivnan.

In a course explicitly designed with the beginner in mind, Professor Tivnan works to set a pace and climate that has yet to have me feeling out of my depth.

Given the laughter and applause that pepper our classes, I’d say my classmates are in a similar situation.

And then the assignment came.

Now, remember, I have been teaching in an inquiry-driven, project-based school for the last for years and another school for two years before that that was doing those things, but didn’t think to say so. Not only is this learning I believe in, it’s learning I’ve assigned as well.

Until recently, it hadn’t been learning I’d experienced. Seems appropriate I dove into the process in a field for which I’ve less natural predilection.

Without going too deeply into details, our assignment gave us two data sets, some information about national trends regarding that data, and asked us to compare the data and write up a report for a fictional school board regarding our findings.

That’s it. No one outlined steps. No one said this is the information you must report.

“How are these two things related, and what does that mean?” we were asked.

It hurt my brain.

A lot.

Unclear as to how to approach the problems and feeling the wait of my mathematical past, I avoided the assignment for as long as I could.

I worked to help classmates make sense of the work, while avoiding my own.

And then I realized what he had done.

He wanted us to own the process. I’ll get nowhere if I have to look to an authority each time I need to decide when and how to use a “z score” or the importance of a weighted mean. I needed to own it.

The process needed to be mine.

Now, these are things I’ve professed for years. I’ve stood in front of audiences and classrooms and argued the importance of this kind of learning.

Here’s the thing – it’s tough.

As incredibly difficult as shaping a lesson or unit plan for problem-based learning may be, learning that way is incredibly difficult.

From several classmates I heard cries of, “Why won’t he just tell us what he wants or what to do?”

I’d heard that before.

“But how do I do it, Mr. Chase?”

As supportive as I’d meant to be, I never truly understood the difficulty involved in adapting new habits of learning.

I expect it’ll get easier – not quickly – as we’re expected to do more on our own with the knowledge and understandings we’re acquiring.

For this go ‘rough, it was tough. I need to remember that.

Things I Know 161 of 365: There’s a whole lot of awesome out there

No shame in saying that I felt a loneliness drifting through me. Funny how it was, everyone perched in their own little world with the deep need to talk, each person with their own tale, beginning in some strange middle point, then trying so hard to tell it all, to have it all make sense, logical and final.

– Colum McCann

Tim and Tanya like to have a reason to have a party. Last Saturday was a great example.

The invitation was open.

The event was named – The Day of Awesomeness.

The rules were simple – come join the fun, be ready to share some part of your awesomeness with the rest of the guests. Anything was fair game.

Seriously, that’s what we invited people to.

Thinly veiled by Tim’s birthday and my approaching departure, the day was really about awesomeness.

It lived up to its name.

Emily and I led the guests in about 10 minutes of improv warm-ups which had everyone moving and laughing.

Roz taught us the proper way to make frosting and frost a cake.

Tim taught us both the timeline of life on Earth as well as the difference between oaken and unbaked Chardonnays.

Marcie taught us how to draw a portrait that looked like a person more than it looks like a Peanuts character.

Steven taught us about industrial exhibit design.

Tim’s sister Meg hosted a round of trivia built around Tim’s life.

Most of the people in attendance were my colleagues at SLA. We do a tremendous job of speaking the same language of SLA every day. Our thinking on benchmarks, core values, backwards design, ethic of care and the many other components of the school is largely in sync.

For the day of awesomeness, we got to see and share the other passions that drive our lives. Much to the boredom of everyone else, we could have sat around and talked curriculum or policy. We could have tweaked classes or completed cross-curricular planning.

We didn’t, and we were better for it.

I wrote a while ago about the idea of passion-based PD. This was as close as I’ve been able to get to seeing it in action.

It was a concrete example of the best kind of learning I can imagine. “Here, I think this is fun and interesting,” everyone was saying, “Can I help you try it out?”

And we all agreed to give it a try.

We cross-pollinated our passions.

The next time I sit down to consider my perspective on an issue, I’ll remember Marcie explaining that most people draw the eyes of a face too close to the top when our eyes are really about halfway from the top of our heads to the middle of our faces. I’ll let that inform my understanding of the fact that how I am perceiving something and the actuality of what is in front of me are often wholly different.

The same is true of the people in front of me. Understanding Roz’s love of baking connected to her passion for physics helps me see her more completely. Frequently I worry about regressing to the same myopic view of others in my life that I had as a student in middle school. It was this view that made it so jarring when I saw one of my teachers at a Schnucks or Applebees.

How did they exist outside of school? Were those jeans they were wearing? Did I still need to raise my hand to talk to them?

The Day of Awesomeness reminded me that we teach children, and we do so much more. We have passion for our profession, and we have passion for our lives. One need not supersede the other. In fact, the more our passions intermingle, the more enriching it can all become.

I definitely see more days of awesomeness in my future. Consider this a standing invitation to attend.

Things I Know 118 of 365: I object and everyone else should too

Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.

– Howard Zinn

I wonder how often teachers encourage their students to disagree. For all of the talk of student-centeredness, I think we miss it by miles.

Disagreement or discourse strikes me as a hallmark of a truly student-centered learning environment.

As I wrote a couple days ago, I submitted a course reflection Saturday that voiced my dissent from the learning module I just completed.

In one section, I admitted to doing the opposite of what was asked of me.

I only wrote the reflection after some calculations revealed I would still earn an A in the course even if I didn’t complete the assignment at all.

Only when my dissent couldn’t be held against me did I feel comfortable voicing it. This within the bounds of an academic institution.

In a place of learning, dissent should be welcomed. It should be encouraged. It should be expected.

I’m tempted to qualify that expectation with terms of civility, but I realize dissent sometimes erupts from a place where the bridge to civil discourse has long since been burned.

Often, when I encourage my students to ask questions, I’m really encouraging only those questions that imply agreement.

“Question,” I seem to be saying, “but make them questions about how and not why.”

Though these implications don’t show it, I’m fine with my students questioning my authority.

I must be.

My hope is that they will move on to question those in authority on a regular basis. I can’t work toward that with the caveat of “Question authority, just not mine” and then hope for any kind of real trust.

It’s the kind of questioning I would have hoped for when Gov. Chris Christie spoke last week at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

To what the New York Times called a “polite and subdued” crowd, Gov. Christie said, “You are among the leaders of our educational future,” he said, “and if you’re not disrupted yet, I’m going to disrupt you now.”

I suppose that’s what I’m hoping for as a teacher. I want to disrupt and challenge the thinking of my students about everything from social issues to parts of speech.

Like Christie, though to a lesser extent, my rhetoric discourages my audience from working to disrupt me.

“Others, yes, disrupt others, but trust me, I’m the teacher.”

The crowd should have disrupted Christie.

They should have asked him the difficult questions that required him to be the most thoughtful and intelligent version of himself.

Whether they agreed with him or not, those in attendance should have demanded clarity when Gov. Christie referred to the NJ teachers’ union as “a political thuggery operation.” If they are the leaders of our educational future, then they should have asked the millions of questions they would hope to pour from students in any similar situation.

They should have asked more.

They should have required of him the same kind of explanation and thinking any math teacher requires when asking students to show their work.

They should have asked for the same reason any student should demand an explanation beyond, “Because I’m the teacher, that’s why.”

Gov. Christie, though, is not one to show his work, nor has he shown himself to be skilled in civil discourse. Instead, he wraps his opinions around bricks he throws through the ideological windows of those who stand in opposition.

It’s not enough to have an opinion, teachers (and governors) must be able to substantiate those opinions with something other than bricks.