Rethinking Passion Projects, Genius Hour

At some grade levels in our school, students are offered time to pursue passion projects in “genius hour” flexible time, often quite generous chunks of time over a number of weeks. Often, this time is presented as preparing kids for self-guided inquiry or the like. Several years ago, at ASB Unplugged, students gave inspiring TED-ish talks about the fruits of genius hour labor in a high school math class, including a smart trash can that separated recyclables from garbage, as I remember. The creativity and service embodied by such projects were awe-inspiring.

By the same token, I once heard a description from a parent of her student’s passion project focused on perfecting the bacon weave. When I delivered the graduation address for my cohort at Western New Mexico University’s Gallup Graduate Studies Center, I spoke eloquently (gorgeously, even?) about my drive to perfect an omelette, so far be it for me to critique this student’s passion. My speech about making an omelette made the point that it doesn’t really matter what we learn to do (within reason), but that we keep learning. In this vein, weave your bacon.

In another vein, school provides a time and place for more focused learning, and decisions are made, ideally by children and adults, about what to learn, when, and for how long. Passion projects implicitly teach that following our passions is a highest purpose, but that feels pretty wrong, fairly narcissistic. Maybe, we should teach something else instead. In fact, one needn’t search long before finding quite strong evidence that perceived success and well-being arises from a sense of being needed and useful to others. Indeed, the folks at 80,000 Hours suggest “you can develop passion by doing work that you find enjoyable and meaningful. The key is to get good at something that helps other people.”

That’s been my impulse for decades, and it’s nice to see it spelled out so succinctly. My confirmation bias is assuaged.

What, then, might a genius hour look like with young kids who, for the most part, have yet to develop professional-level competency in any areas from which others might benefit? How about a “Strengths for Service” hour? Kids could consider what they do well, thinking liberally and creatively about their strengths. Next, a crash course in design thinking like this one from Stanford University’s d.school could equip students with tools they can use to learn something real about people, places, or situations.

If kids used their Strengths for Service time to engage intentionally with their world, they may well find passions beyond football or creative meats that could begin making a difference today. The minor tweak to genius hour here is an outward focus, seeking to do well for others in a way the others need or want. Serving the needs or desires of others is as much altruism as entrepreneurialism, so this seems like a way to develop skills for life.

On Innovation vs. Regeneration

Innovation – we want some. Let’s do the new stuff, re-envisioning the old to make something better! I saw a graphical version of this blog post recently, an argument centered on torquing Dweck’s “growth” vs. “fixed” or (my preference) “entity” mindset concepts past their core purpose in order to “go beyond” to an innovator’s mindset. This argument means well, but sort of misses Dweck (imo) and focuses on an implicit value in new! shiny! that has some flaws.

From Juicero’s failed $400 juicer (expensive juice packets not included) to this little gem that popped up this week in my feed – Teamosa (#innovationnamingconventions) – a $399 tea kettle (early bird just $239!!!) that uses “ultrasonic extraction” to amp up antioxidant… oh, never mind, you get it: Innovation is often underwhelming and focused on selling us something we already have at a new, improved, higher price.

Recently, I worked with a colleague to refine an existing rubric for an essay to include specifics about the modes of exposition and rhetorical strategies that students would be expected to use. I realized that this process of reworking the rubric, refining for specificity and clarity of outcomes, was an inquiry for the teacher himself. We were digging into what good looks like on this sort of essay in response to a specific unit of inquiry into text and personal beliefs. We discussed lining up exemplars, as well, to really nail down the rubric and expose the expectations for the assessment.

None of this was new, really. But it was better. Better for student learning, better for teacher learning, so therefore better for instruction, better for assessment. By engaging in a process of regeneration, we built together on the good that existed in this rubric and this unit of study, standing on the shoulder of giants like Grant Wiggins in the process. I don’t think this is innovation, because we’ve got nothing to sell to anyone at the end of the process, and we aren’t done at the end of the process. We reflect, refine, and start again at the beginning of the process, which is a lousy product and a precious learning experience.

Regeneration guides authentic teacher learning by doing and, ideally, inquiry into learning evidence. Just as schools teach content – so out of fashion – like texts or mitosis or Reconstruction, schools teach teachers how to best guide learning through working on the work, regenerating and refining what is already good to be better. Just as students can’t think deeply without rich, relevant facts and content to dig into, neither can teachers build ever more effective skills, practices, strategies, approaches, skills, or theories on what’s best in all of the above without something real to work on and improve.

Innovation can look like anything, really, and can certainly be good, at least for a while. One of my mentors, the inimitable Julie Horowitz, told me once that kids are not experiments, which is right. We needn’t be stuck repeating the follies of old to play it safe, though, but should lean on expert teachers and well-founded evidence of what works. Teachers, like students, need the “more knowledgeable other” of Vygostky to guide their continued growth as practitioners across the multiple axes of good teaching. Happily, that can be anyone with expertise and care enough to share – that degree of “more” knowledge or skill in a given area.

Regeneration honors what is good and old – Dewey, dialogue, Duvel – by re-conceptualizing, reinvigorating what works in order to know and be able to do it. Students coming to a deep conceptual understanding of how and why the quadratic equation works aren’t inventing anything, but are at once learning real content and becoming experts in the process of gaining expertise itself – the learning process. Teachers inquiring into their work and refining it to become demonstrably more useful for students in the process of learning themselves are learning by regenerating.

 

Innovation Kickoff!

Today, in fact right now, our Upper School faculty are engaged in the classic Marshmallow Challenge to kick off a year of innovation. The always-modeling-best-practices Elizabeth Wargo (@wargoelizabeth on Twitter) organized this mini-project to get people moving in the morning, excited about the day, and working together from the get-go. //instagram.com/p/roVKM4sxr1/embed/ I was tasked with using hashtags and social media, as well as WordPress blogging to later share as a PBL option for archiving and sharing. I used #zispbl and #marshmallowchallenge through Instagram linked to my Twitter account, adding in Twitter usernames of colleagues featured in photos and videos.

What do I love about this? As mentioned above, modeling best practices. This is a kick off, and will lead into a Speed Geeking session in which we share the various methods in which faculty recorded, archived, and shared this session. Perhaps obviously, this is an initial reflection – time has just been called! People are very into their towers. Jason Welker (@jasonwelker on Twitter) is measuring the towers, logging group numbers, tower heights, and time to completion into a Google form to track and graph data. Alison Callaghan has photos and notes in Microsoft OneNote, Geoff Peake has video and photos, Christine Jordan has audio going onto SoundCloud via her phone.  All are options, depending on the desired outcome, and can be mixed and matched.

Liz Wargo also retweeted one of my videos, sharing with Suzie Boss, PBL expert and all around great person who will be joining us in October for 10 days of workshopping on PBL. The same tweet was retweeted by an #edtech robot because I slapped that common hashtag on one video, which is an interesting example of how hashtags work, extending the conversation and aggregating information. Additionally, Carmen Crenshaw-Hovey, one of our do-it-all folks around the Upper School, liked and commented on my Instagram posts. Once again, social media has the potential to share learning experiences in ways we may not anticipate and to involve more of the community beyond the classroom.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js
Liz is debriefing now and launching into the rest of the day while linking to our summer reading, Bringing Innovation to Schools by the aforementioned Suzie Boss. Now break, then Speed Geeking. Soon, I will share this post with colleagues and discuss how blogging for reflection and blog-as-digital portfolio for archiving might work for teachers and students. One final learning piece for me: if a Twitter username is used in Instagram posts shared to Twitter, those posts drop the @ and are not usable in Twitter. Weird. Play nicely!

Ok. For now, The End…

//instagram.com/p/roUQgKMxrH/embed/

//instagram.com/p/roUsecsxrh/embed/

Reconstructing Legacy: A Visit to a “Steve Jobs School” in Sneek, Netherlands

 

Maurice de Hond gets attention – in conversation, at a dinner table, and in national and international media. After a few minutes in de Hond’s company, the forces of both his personality and intellect assert themselves.

Steve Jobs School, Sneek
Steve Jobs School, Sneek

No wonder then that de Hond has taken on nothing short of the structure of public education in the Netherlands as a project in founding “Steve Jobs Schools” throughout his country.

Steve Jobs Schools have ambitious plans to change the structure of the school day and year, allowing students to meet required curricular outcomes via virtual school spaces, apps, and coaching from a team of teachers in and out of school. Currently, the schools must adhere to Dutch regulations requiring a uniform length for the school day,  but they have been able to consider 10% of the school year “virtual”, according to de Hond, ostensibly reducing the amount of time students are required to attend school in person.

We visited one of several Steve Jobs schools operating since August, 2013. A full day trip, a group of international school teachers traveled from Amsterdam to Sneek by bus, regaled with Dutch history and geography, and informed about the history of this project by de Hond as we went.

Kids still work in analog at the Steve Jobs School
Kids still work in analog at the Steve Jobs School

Once we arrived at the school in Sneek, a small, nicely designed school in what appeared to be an economically diverse area, we were free to wander and speak with anyone we wished. I witnessed lots of normal behavior for any school: students read books, filled out worksheets, had conversations, played on and off the iPad, got shushed by teachers, got coached by teachers, and gawked a bit at their visitors.

I also saw plenty that was interesting. Students have an individualized learning plan with goals created by the teacher, parent, and student working in concert. Students learn language, math, and science in classrooms during 20 minute blocks, then retire to a central common area to work. In these classrooms, kids of all ages appear to be learning together. Students come and go independently, reminded by their iPad’s calendar when to move. This was all pretty impressive.

In the common room, the teacher in charge worked with two assistants to keep kids on task and to help out when needed. This teacher reported enjoying his new job a great deal, stating that it was both more fun and fulfilling than his prior position because he could help each student individually via their “Learning Talks” and goal setting.

Rainy day recess turned into a little Despicable Me viewing.
Rainy day recess turned into a little Despicable Me viewing, which gave me pause.

Clearly, the Steve Jobs Schools are a response to the current lockstep curriculum of the Netherlands, in which inspectors enter a certain class on a certain day, expecting to see everyone working on the same page of the same book. EDIT: Maurice de Hond shared via email that these inspections are less rigid than I described here, stating that ” of course the tests are forcing many in a rigid system.” As an option to what could be a stifling academic environment for some learners, de Hond’s project makes good sense.

But these schools are fledglings, with a palpable sense of running on enthusiasm inherent to such a new, attention-grabbing enterprise. Teachers are working long hours compared to their previous jobs, and the personalization level they hope to reach is not currently in operation – eventually, they plan to have each child’s iPad set up around her goals. Currently, the set-up is the same for all the kids. Ever greater personalization will lead to more hours, I imagine, particularly if the school is responsible for organizing such a set-up, rather than transferring responsibility to the child.

Additionally, succumbing to the fantasy that being busy is the same thing as learning can be intoxicating, at least as alluring as the classic teacher fantasy of controlling learning. Watching a child swipe randomly minute after minute across number and mathematical operator symbols to arrive at an answer was unnerving. I saw many abacus apps, and a good deal of app jumping. However, I also saw kids using blocks and good old analog manipulatives, sand tables and books. In this quick, drop-in tour, my biggest take-away was that this was a school, working like a school, with a good deal of learning and some healthy mucking about taking place simultaneously.

11th Century Learning.
11th 17th Century Learning. Thanks to Maurice for the correction!

At lunch following the visit and on the ride home, de Hond shared his vision of education freely and his hopes for his organization, O4NT (Education for a New Era). We visited the Sneek school because it is currently the most compete realization of the organization’s vision for Steve Jobs Schools, but a handful of others exist, employing recommended strategies to varying degrees. De Hond didn’t express an interest to force schools to conform to a standardized approach, but he can see a time in the future when some adherence to basic norms – once more well-established than they are now – is necessary.

I went into the Steve Jobs Schools fairly skeptical of what I might see – personalization as a playlist of worksheets or more old things done in new ways. However, this iteration of Dutch schooling as an innovation on the past and on existing regulations has potential to offer variety for students turned off by traditional schooling.

Future challenges exist. Is this model exciting enough to help teachers and students maintain their energy and enthusiasm long term? Can O4NT keep personalization and community relevance at the fore while demanding some sort of brand standardization for Steve Jobs Schools, or will this lead to stronger echoes of the existing system of education? Once finely-tuned, what relationship will the O4NT suite of virtual school apps have with Steve Jobs Schools, and to what degree will such apps drive educational, curricular, or pedagogical decision making?

New approaches in education are few and far between, with much that is new or reform-minded providing little more than a fresh glaze over last century’s progressive-isms (many of which featured great ideas). De Hond and his Steve Jobs Schools are executing some thoughtful concepts and forging a clearly welcome path through the community of Sneek, engaging kids in the process. And de Hond seems to bring enough energy to the project to keep it steaming along for some time.

The Tale of My Blankie – from “Gears of My Childhood”

For whatever reason new, first time parents make decisions that seem, in retrospect, hilarious, my parents bought for me a white baby blanket, waffle fabric like old fashioned long underwear with a synthetic silken border. A melange of vomit and other bodily fluids, dirt, foodstuffs of all kinds, pet hair, and Play Dough slowly, almost generationally melded into a gray Earth tone no bleach could penetrate. White was their choice, but experience turned the blanket into the color of a November Ohio sky.

I have no actual memory of the synthetic silken portion of the blanket. According to my parents, I immediately set about tearing it off, so the frayed, soft edges of cotton are what I recall. I’m not surprised I hated the snaggy, slick feel of polyester silk; I hate synthetic fabrics still. Once altered and mine, the blanket became a constant companion and the basis of a narrative that still shapes not only how I learn, but how I interact with the world.

Somehow, the blanket became wedded to an imaginary, invisible friend named “Ghost.” Today, I can see that Ghost allowed me to weaves stories through my daily activities, processing in words and imagining worlds within worlds. When I first read Seymour Papert’s “Gears of My Childhood” essay introducing Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, I thought “Oh, it’s books for me.” Books and stories have been at the center of my life for as long as I can remember, but of course the stories came first – those read to me and invented by me.

Even today, watching my 4 1/2 year old daughter spin stories of play and possibility, I see the power of narrative to hammer experience into something comprehensible. In learning anything, I try, observe, reflect, and revise reflexively. Experience teaches, and narrative contextualizes the teaching intellectually and emotionally, in the way that we feel stories.

As I grew older, the blanket and I curled up on heating grates, couches, into corners, and in bed, endlessly reading. I read early, and continued reading. I’ve never really stopped. Growing up soaked in fiction led to an internalizing of narrative structures, and for better or worse, I recognize narratives unfurling in the world around me as a result. I explain ideas through stories. I see the inner narratives of people around me and their effects. I write stories. I am insufferable at the movies, often identifying the entire plot arc before the ice melts in my Coke and usually explaining my prediction to the groans of my wife.

Like Papert explains in his essay, the affective nature of narratives for me is anchoring and positive. Like Papert, nobody told me to read or love reading; in fact, people often begged me to stop or read less. When I write, I disappear somehow, absorbed. I still love imagining worlds, people, situations, reactions, causes and effects. The love that I have for narratives is engrossing. When I can build a narrative around an experience or through an experience of classroom learning, I succeed. When I can’t, I fail.

Through history, biological sciences, and some mathematics, I connected and made relationships with the subject matter, internalizing, revising, and building interpersonal narratives. When this process failed or was broken for me by teachers, I disconnected from the material intellectually and emotionally.

Beyond school and more importantly for my life today, my early experiences in the outdoors were regular and intense, leading to a very close relationship with the natural world. When I get to choose my leisure activities, they are outdoors or creative, like photography. Through these activities, I dream stories. I sit at night, quietly imagining the next time I run a rapid or snowboard through a tightly wooded glade, visualizing. Outside, I relax and my mind whirs through stories. Inside, like Wordsworth and his daffodils, I often drift off to a Colorado mountainside or a Slovenian river.

So why a blanket? Attachment to a material object is an attachment to memory, and my memory is story, image, and a marriage of the two. Imagining a friend based somehow on the blanket is my earliest memory of making stories, constructing narratives. The stories we tell ourselves are the foundation of our identity. I process the world through stories and conceptualize of complex relationships between ideas, objects, and people as narratives. Further, I see narratives in my mind’s eye, experiencing them, feeling them. The blanket is the genetic object behind my relationship to narratives.

Papert claims “Anything is easy if you can assimilate it to your collection of models. If you can’t, anything can be painfully difficult.” My experience as a teacher and a learner supports this claim. I feel lucky to have a diverse and useful set of mental models for learning, but each gets processed reflectively through an internal narrative. From my earliest important material object to my career as an English teacher building literacy and writing skills with children, roots from this genesis of learning through narratives spread broadly, connecting it all into a (mostly) coherent whole.

Badges for Student Choice – Not Revolutionary (Yet), But Positive

One informed risk I’ve taken this year is the introduction of badges in my AP Literature and Composition classes. After a semester,  the reviews are positive – many students appreciated the opportunity to branch out and try something a bit different.

These badges replaced an outside reading requirement and allowed for student choice of both material and assessment type, something difficult to accomplish in an externally moderated course like the AP or IB. While the badges may not have provided whee-fun! responses per se, the respect afforded by choice improved the classroom environment in what can sometimes be a bit of a slog through content and repetitive writing types.

Less than five students chose to read outside of class for their badge. Far and away the most popular badge was the Internet Enlightenment badge, and it led to great discussions with students about their social media presences. As an “edtech” wonk, the depth and breadth of these conversations was surprising; I couldn’t predict student responses. Kids obviously chose this badge for its ease, which is perfect, because it made them change their behavior online, or at least change their privacy settings.

One concept that repeated through the conversations was the idea of “parking” social media personas for later use in life. If a kid isn’t using Google+ today, she sees that she may in two years, so she wants to keep that space “clean.” Pretty informative perspective, really. Spaces like Facebook are useful in the same way that my daughters’ playroom is useful for containing the mess in our flat, but the girls will outgrow this space someday.

The coolest badge was clearly the Starving Artist. I received beautiful digital art from a student on one of my favorite novels, Siddartha by Herman Hesse. Students made paintings and drawings based on all sorts of novels, including Kafka on the Shore, which impressed me. One student even made a dress of white chiffon with a belt made of real chains spray-painted gold on the basis of her outstanding reading of “The Lady of Shallott” by Tennyson. This young lady arranged a model and blew my mind with the rigor and specificity of her analytic argument, connecting throughout to the text specifically. Her rationale is a stellar example of literary argument.

While she wasn’t happy with the final result of the dress, she made it, and it was cool. Additionally, she reflected specifically on what she would do differently next time. All of this made my day, but it’s the display of fine literary argumentation produced through the pursuit of the badge that makes me so happy. Self-selected, this assignment rang true and captured the student, leading to excellent, meaningful practice. This didn’t happen for every student, but it will in other assessment contexts. When it happens once, I’m stoked.

Other students extended the classroom into other directions, resulting in learning that I value, and that many of them valued. If the badges doesn’t advance toward our AP Lit goals, I’m okay with that. In terms of the partially successful requirement that these badges replaced, I’m happier with the greater proportion of success created by the badges so far.

 

 

Student Centered Grading

This is a work in progress, building off of my work over the past eight years with students writing rubrics for performance tasks, but I’m examining student-set goals and measurement of progress this year in my Digital Journalism 2 course. So far, these kids have done incredible work in the first six weeks of school. Together, the students have made inroads into a variety of social media – check out Instagram #zispeaceday – and published a vastly improved, though still quite flawed, student newspaper. In a small class of seven, each is following individual interests, asking me questions I’ve never heard in 12 years of teaching English: Hey, Mr. Hoke, I was thinking of writing a piece on mobile phone use in school. Is that okay? Is it okay to write? 

Yes.

Of course, we’ve created rubrics for features, but there’s other stuff: managing social media arms, formulating marketing campaigns, managing peers, publishing photo essays. This week we’ll sit down individually, and students will share what they want to be graded on, and how. I already know they’re learning and that they are making improvements to the products they are creating, but we need to make the learning transparent via their blog-based portfolios and get some reflection going, leading to future goal setting. However, I want the students to feel flexible, able to respond to needs as they arrive, which makes goal setting a tricky prospect. As long as time frames are loose, this should be no big deal.

We’ll see. I’m sure there’s plenty I can’t anticipate right now, but I’m not cynical about the possibilities. This won’t get gamed because the students care about the product, the outcomes. I will have to push them toward professional-quality work by sharing models found online, but together I hope we can spiral up toward better and better products sensibly.

My Big Open Classroom, An Intro

At one point last year, during a meeting of my school’s leadership team, referred to as a Curriculum Area Leader meeting, I said “Sign me up.” This is the kind of statement I have been known to make when somebody throws out a wild idea that fits my educational philosophy. Implicitly, I attempt to express support for an idea in this manner. Explicitly, I agree to take part. Which is why I now teach in a classroom twice the size of any other at my school, and why that classroom has no doors, separated from our giant hallways, known as coreways, by a partial wall of glass.

This has positives:

  • Amazing space for flexible furniture arrangements, including a couch and a tall round table with stools
  • An open classroom fits my philosophy and approach – come on in! We’re a community.
  • Classrooms are awkwardly small in our building, which was built to encourage breaking out of classrooms into the gigantic hallways. We get the best of both worlds with the new room.
  • Lots of light!
  • We now have a water fountain in my room, which is great. Hydration is life.
  • We get to play with a new generation Smartboard projector. After three years of trying, I get a regular whiteboard to use! Wahoo!
    • The downside is that I keep tapping the whiteboard with my finger when the beamer is on. The pen is an awkward tool thus far.

Drawbacks also exist:

  • The classroom can become suddenly swamped by noise. For some reason today, the PE teachers were rocking out to AC/DC and the door from the gym to our floor was open. Loud. Two teachers choose to communicate between stairwells – loud. Giggles – loud.
  • Somebody overheard me talking about 50 Shades of Grey in AP Literature, which led to some light teasing. I was making a profound point about genre… 🙂
  • It is now totally impossible to do any high quality recording in our classroom for digital journalism purposes. The ambient noise is too unpredictable.

The coolest thing about this classroom is that it is a leap toward a more open school. I am always surprised by the reticence of some colleagues to have others enter their classrooms; I understand concerns about interruptions, but have never found this to be an actual problem. My guess is that my classes will grow more and more comfortable with class that isn’t behind walls, less likely to be disturbed by people wandering in and out, and immune to the ambient noises. We’ll see.

The coolest thing that happened today, tangentially related to the classroom layout, was that a student asked to sometimes drop by the new Digital Journalism 2 course for help with her writing. We discussed how she could choose to write for some editions of the student newspaper, stopping into the class (which coincides with a free period for most 11th and 12th graders) whenever she wanted feedback from a peer or from me. She was stoked enough by the idea to join in for class today and get a preview of our Basecamp setup for managing the paper. The open classroom sets a tone, reinforced by students opting into some sessions of the course during their free periods. I can’t help but think this sends a cool message to the kids who are enrolled – others want to be here, too!

Certainly, this is a bit of an experiment at school, and I’m honored to be leading the charge. Another colleague teaches two courses in the space, while I teach a full load of five courses there. I will regularly reflect on our experiences as they accumulate.

 

Gamification: Bad Design, Good Design

I was struck today during a portfolio conference with a student who was laboring under the perception that we were adversaries, that her job was to guess my mindset and reflect it back at me, fool me into believing she had learned something or improved her writing. She declared that she thought I might be refreshed by honesty. After a dozen amazing conversations with kids about their writing, I was rather stunned. Just prior to this conversation, I proctored a final exam. After the exam, a student squealed repeatedly about all of the “C” answers on the multiple choice – he had changed some because it seemed like too many Cs in a row to be correct.

So I believe this about gamification: When grades are on the line, design the game or be at the mercy of an implicit, insidious game.    Inherent in school’s current design is this game; we cheat to win games, to gain advantage. Shortcuts in games may win us some upper hand. When I was an offensive lineman, I was a master of holding, which is a penalty if caught. In fact, any decent O-lineman can tell you how not to be caught, just keep your hands inside and let go if they spin or get separation. Cheating in this case is built into the game play – defensive linemen learn how to get loose, “break the hands” off the jersey. This isn’t necessarily a flaw in the design of the game, though, because a certain type of holding gets penalized 95% of the time (hands outside the body).

In school, shortcuts save time or effort, and cheating more so. However, this isn’t built into the game play of school, because when kids cheat or take shortcuts, they lose. Granted, when we offer nothing of value to students, maybe they don’t lose. They do, however, develop odd superstitions like Skinner’s pigeons and erase a few Cs when all signs point to C. As I reflect on my own gaming of school as a teenager, I suffered from arrogant self-perception (likely do still, after all, I blog). The choices I made that cheated me out of learning or experiences like speaking another language hurt me. I like to believe that by being open and transparent, by giving students control over their learning and the expression of their learning as in this portfolio assessment, they will take some ownership and do something that displays growth. Many do, some don’t, and I’m focused here on the negative.

What is the solution to breaking the implicit games of school? Relationships first, transparency second. Third and fourth, choice and authenticity. If I can design a curriculum that is open, student-centered, and constructivist in nature, most students will come along. Designing a framework in which students can learn language skills by doing isn’t even that hard, but it sure looks different. Good design, thoughtful design, is important, because otherwise we stay victim to the implicit design and fight the same battles, again and again as the gamers lose. At the very least, we could try to design in some more fun.

On Modeling & Teacher Assessment

I often monitor the daily Twitter #Edchat conversation for nuggets of goodness, but have never jumped in until this week. Yesterday, a conversation was flowing around the concept of teacher portfolios for teacher assessment. I have some experience with this, as my first year at Tohatchi High School featured a mentoring program and a portfolio to judge my highly qualified-ness. While I worked to complete this portfolio in earnest, many of my peers openly joked about it as a hoop to be jumped through, ticked off the boxes, and scored exactly the same as me: Passed.

When a principal is asked to assess 35 or more professional portfolios, I question the depth of assessment that will result. On a more basic level, I question the need for standardized assessment of teachers as much as I question the need for standardized assessment of children. Most likely, teacher portfolios will take time and attention away from planning, delivering (or organizing), and assessing student learning. Granted, this is a skeptical view of the portfolio in operation because the term assessment in the United States is forever wedded, at least on the macro level, to the term high stakes. If teacher assessment is used to determine levels of compensation, terms of employment, or competency for publication (as in New York), teachers will rationally place their energy in satisfying those demands, which would be in creating beautiful portfolios rather than reflecting actual practices – dog-and-pony-show production. As long as education “reform” in the US is centered on the fetishization of data, these processes will fail, portfolios more than most because portfolio data is qualitative, not quantitative, and so not easily aggregated and communicated for (spurious) purposes.

An argument that was presented in the Twitter conversation was that teacher portfolios would serve as models for student portfolios, and that teachers would be role models by producing their portfolios, learning how best to instruct portfolio creation through action. Modeling is clearly an essential practice for teaching skills. If students are building art, writing, physical education,  or media portfolios, for example, their respective teachers should model the creation of quality products and the organization of these products into portfolios. If teachers cannot produce such quality content, they should reach out to those who can. But modeling the authentic creation of a body of work – videos of discus throws showing improvement over time, for another example – is much different than teachers using portfolios of their teaching practices as exemplars for students. I regularly notice unwarranted enthusiasm for treating students like wee teachers, engaging them in information about instructional practices and training them to deliver content, especially among progressive educational circles (whatever that means). I wonder if anyone is asking students about their genuine level of interest in these materials and skills, or if they’d rather have an opportunity to develop a portfolio of apps or websites they designed themselves? A model portfolio of a teacher-as-learner would be of limited value to a student seeking to create a portfolio of herself as a learner, because the material and skills involved are bound to differ wildly.

I love teaching; I am endlessly fascinated by education. I don’t imagine others to share my passion. Some do – fantastic! Others don’t, and when those others are our charges, we should engage them in the creation of work products related to their own passions. Portfolio creation is a great idea, but the reasons behind requiring people to do so and the goals for the process and product should be more universal and flexible, requiring teachers who can model skills other than teaching. Otherwise, those involved may not see far enough past their own noses to truly engage students in authentic, meaningful learning activities.