Developing a Growth Mindset within a Culture of Compliance

Many studies have shown that when students are engaged in learning, there is little need to bribe students to complete their work. Using external motivators in the name of learning has many critics. There has been no more outspoken critic of grades and test scores than Alfie Kohn. His specific concerns around the use of praise to coax work out of students in the name of outcomes have been substantiated by a body of research, of which he often cites to support his arguments on his blog, www.alfiekohn.org.

For example, in his blog post “Criticizing (Common Criticisms of) Praise”, which was also published in his book Schooling Beyond Measure: Unorthodox Essays About Education (Heinemann, 2015), Kohn reinforces the notion that telling students they did a good job when they complete a task sets up an imbalance of power between student and teacher.

Praise is a verbal reward, often doled out in an effort to change someone’s behavior, typically someone with less power. Like other forms of reward (or punishment), it is a way of ‘doing to’, rather than ‘working with’ people (96).

In addition, when we deliver praise, we are actually taking autonomy of a student’s actions away from them and attributing their efforts to us. The result can be that students become conditioned to want the “attaboys” as a reward for their work, instead of focusing on why the work was successful in the first place.

The effect of a ‘Good job!’ is to devalue the activity itself – reading, drawing, helping – which comes to be seen as a mere means to an end, the end being to receive that expression of approval. If approval isn’t forthcoming next time, the desire to read, draw, or help is likely to diminish (97).

As educators, we too often default back to how we were taught in our classrooms and schools. I catch myself at times with words of praise instead of acknowledgement of their efforts with our students and my own children. It is a hard habit to break. However, this habit is worth changing. Our choices in language create the conditions in which students can or cannot become owners of their personal learning journeys.

Pathways Toward Student Agency

Peter Johnston, literacy education professor and author of Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives (Stenhouse, 2012), offers similar concerns regarding the use of praise in order to motivate learners. When students are rewarded for getting the right answer and completing the task just as the teacher asked, they start to associate success with what the adult deems worthy. They fail to internalize an understanding of good work within themselves.

In fact, if teachers repeatedly offer praise to students, they can reduce the impact of their instruction.

When children are fully engaged in an activity, if we praise them we can simply distract them from what they were doing and turn their attention to pleasing us (42).

So what is the counter to this culture? Johnston suggests agency, or the belief that things such as our intelligence and our life’s outcomes are changeable (27). Agency can be developed in students when teachers offer an environment for students which directs their attention to their own processes and thinking and how their efforts contributed to their success. This concept has been a focus of educational research for some time. Agency is closely related to more readily-known concepts such as “growth mindset”, a term coined by Carol Dweck. However we describe it, the idea is that the language we employ in classrooms has a direct impact on how well students take responsibility for their learning.

The assessment habits we develop as teachers can contribute to or detract from our students’ sense of success and independence. On a positive note, formative assessment strategies offer teachers specific approaches to address includes the clarity of goals and the offer of support through feedback and scaffolding that allows the teacher to eventually release the responsibility of the work to the student. These strategies are best employed in classroom environments that utilize responsive language, structures for collaboration, higher order questioning, and honest celebrations of student accomplishments. These actions can make student agency a reality.

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This is an excerpt from my new eBook The Secrets of Self-Directed Learning. It is a free resource that offers readers four steps for helping students become more independent learners. You can download this resource by clicking here.

What should you do when students have already read or heard the book?

This seems to be a constant in just about every school: You have that favorite read aloud you have been waiting to share with your students. When you announce the read aloud, students say, “We already read that book.” or “Our teacher read it to us last year.”

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What do you do? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Read it aloud anyway.

Readers reread books if they were a favorite and/or had something profound to learn. Explaining this to students should help with any disgruntled listeners. A main point of the read aloud is for students to hear the written word spoken. If it is an excellent title, there should hopefully be few complaints. It might be wise to ask first before forging ahead, such as offering a choice between the book they know and other acceptable titles.

  • Read aloud parts of the book.

Selecting some passages to share with students who have already heard the book offers multiple benefits. First, it is a nice compromise with the kids. We can show that we are listening to them and value their opinion. Second, reading aloud selected passages is an opportunity to notice author’s craft. Teachers can point out what made the author’s writing so good and worth reading again. Finally, it is an opportunity to…

  • Select a new title to read aloud.

Excellent titles that would make for great read alouds are published every year. By being open minded about what books to share with students, we discover new books together.

If you would like a book that is similar to the title you had planned but the kids already heard, check out Amazon. Put in the title into the search bar, and Amazon will share other books readers have purchased in addition to the one you listed. For example, when I looked up Charlotte’s Web, Amazon suggested Stuart Little (also by E.B. White), Pippi Longstockings, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Mr. Popper’s Penguins. These are all classics for a reason.

(Note: Whenever possible, avoid Amazon and buy local. Click here for reasons why.)

You can also connect with your school’s library media specialist (and what a crime if you do not have one). Going with the Charlotte’s Web example, he or she would likely steer you to titles of the same genre and topic, such as Babe: The Gallant Pig and Owls in the Family. Your library media specialist may also suggest newer titles such as Flora and Ulysses and The Cheshire Cat: A Dickens of a Tale.

If you do not have library media specialist (again, a crime), check out the E.B. White award winners for best read alouds from each year. You can also purchase a copy of The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. It was my go-to guide when I taught 5th and 6th grade. I have the last four editions, as Trelease would update the treasury of book lists. He also offers suggestions on his website.

An essential element in reading aloud is what you choose to read.

-Jim Trelease

Whatever approach you take when kids have already heard the story, the more important point is reading aloud to your students every day.

Learning Management Systems: Who are they for?

A learning management system, or “LMS” is defined as “a digital learning system” that “manages all of the aspects of the learning process” (Amit K, 2015). A teacher can use an LMS for a variety of classroom functions, including communicating the learning objectives, organizing the learning timelines, telling the learners exactly what they need to learn and when, delivering the content straight to the learners, streamlining communications between instructor(s) and learners, and providing ongoing resources.

An LMS can also help the learner track their own progress, identifying what they have learned already and what they need to learn (Amit K). There are many options for learners to share their representations of their understandings within an LMS, including video, audio, images and text. In addition, discussion boards and assessment tools are available for teachers and students in most systems.

This definition and description of your typical LMS leads to an important question: Who is the learning management system for?

If an LMS is for the teacher, then I think they will find the previously listed features to be of great benefit to their practice. As an example, no longer do they have to collect papers, lug them home and grade them by hand. Now, students can submit their work electronically through the LMS. The teacher can assess learning online. The excuse “My dog ate my homework” ceases to exist. Google Classroom, Schoology and Edmodo fall into this category.

Also, teachers can use the LMS tools to create quizzes that could serve as a formative assessment of the lesson presented that day. Data is immediately available regarding who understands the content and who needs further support. This quick turnaround can help a teacher be more responsive to student’s academic needs. There are obvious benefits for a teacher who elects to use an LMS for these reasons.

If, on the other hand, an LMS is for the students, then we have a bit more work to do. With a teacher-centric LMS, not much really changes regarding how a classroom operates. The teacher assigns content and activities, the students complete it, and the teacher assesses. The adage “old wine in new bottles” might apply here.

With students in mind when integrating an LMS in school, the whole idea of instruction has to shift. We are now exploring concepts such as personalized learning, which “puts students in charge of selecting their projects and setting their pace” (Singer, 2016), and connected learning, which ties together students’ interests, peer networks and school accomplishments (Ito et al, 2013). In this scenario, it is not the students who need to make a shift but the teachers. Examples of more student-centered LMSs include Epiphany Learning and Project Foundry.

The role that teachers have traditionally filled looks very different than what a more student-centered, digitally-enhanced learning environment might resemble. I don’t believe either focus – the teacher or the student – is an ineffective approach for using a learning management system. The benefits in each scenario are promising. Yet we know that the more students can have ownership over the learning experience, there is an increased likelihood of greater achievement gains and higher engagement in school.

References

Amit K, S. (2016). Choosing the Right Learning Management System: Factors and Elements. eLearning Industry. Available: https://elearningindustry.com/choosing-right- learning-management- system-factors-elements

Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., Schor, J., Sefton-Green, J., Watkins, S.C. (2013). Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Media and Learning Research Hub. Whitepaper, available: http://dmlhub.net/publications/connected-learning- agenda-for- research-and-design/

Singer, N., Isaac, M. (2016). Facebook Helps Develop Software That Puts Students in Charge of Their Lesson Plans. The New York Times. Available: http://nyti.ms/2b3LNzv

Virtual Learning: Benefits and Challenges

I find it interesting that for the course I am taking, Technology and School Leadership, I drive two hours round trip once a week to participate in the learning. Technically, we could facilitate the course through the learning management system (Canvas). Online collaborative tools such as Google Docs and Skype could be utilized to work on projects from afar. Yet I don’t mind the drive, as I look forward to engaging in class discussion for the topic of the week based on the offered readings and content available online. Physically attending class has also broadened my personal learning network. The connections I make in person could lead to future collaborations down the road.

My personal example is worth noting as we are starting to see from the research coming available that the results of virtual learning, in which students engage in primarily online- mediated learning experiences, are mixed at best. For example, evidence from the Florida Virtual School program shows students did as well or only nominally better than their peers who did not participate in the virtual learning program (Chingos & Schwerdt, 2014). In fact, when comparing students from less affluent backgrounds with students from more affluent backgrounds, the use of technology for online learning can widen the achievement gap (Toyama, 2015). Some of these results are due to the varied levels of effectiveness that a virtual learning experience might offer. For example, how engaging and effective a virtual learning program can be may be contingent on the learning trajectories/projections developed that anticipate learners’ needs during a unit of study or module (Daro, Mother & Corcoran, 2011)

This topic comes back to a traditional aspect of school: the relationships and discussions that can be facilitated within a physical classroom. One might ask why education would want to replace the rich dialogue that occurs in classrooms with a learning management system, in which every student is looking at a screen instead of looking at and listening to each other? These instructional approaches are traditional in the best sense. Dialogue with others we respect and trust is how people have learned for thousands of year (see Socratic seminar for an example). There is robust evidence to support classroom-mediated conversations and the relationship-building as an outcome. John Hattie, in his seminal resource Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, sifted through fifteen years of research on many instructional practices. The results of his meta-analysis revealed that the effect size of developing teacher-student relationships and facilitating classroom discussions is 0.72 and 0.82, respectively (Hattie, 2012). In other words, teacher impact can be doubled.

There are times in which virtual learning is a necessity. For example, if there are no highly qualified teachers available, or if a brick-and-mortar school did not offer a specific course, then it would make sense to offer online instruction for students. Virtual learning also has promise in the area of self-organized learning environments, or “SOLEs”, developed by Sugata Mitra. Mitra prescribes that learners within a SOLE a) develop a big question, b) conduct research, and c) discuss findings (Mitra, 2016). SOLEs happen collaboratively, both offline and online, or exclusively online. This type of learning, however, is highly student-directed with minimal influence from a teacher or from formal instruction. This leads me to wonder: Is virtual learning as currently conceptualized in education merely old wine in a new bottle? It seems to depend on the purpose for learning.

References

Chingos, M. M., & Schwerdt, G. (2014). Virtual schooling and student learning: Evidence from the Florida Virtual School. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Kennedy School. Retrieved November 7, 2016.

Daro, P., Mosher, F., & Corcoran, T. (2011). Learning trajectories in mathematics: A foundation for standards, curriculum, assessment, and instruction. CPRE Research Report #RR-68. Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education. DOI: 10.12698/cpre.2011.rr68

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. New York: Routledge.

Mitra, S. (2016). “How to run a SOLE session” School in the Cloud. Website. Available: https://www.theschoolinthecloud.org/library/resources/running-sole-sessions

Toyama, K. (2015). Geek heresy: Rescuing social change from the cult of technology. PublicAffairs.

Personalized Learning: Exploring the What, Why and How

This post is another reaction paper I wrote for the course I am currently taking, Technology and School Leadership, through the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Enjoy!

In a typical teacher’s day, taking the time to learn about digital tools can be a low priority. So many things are thrown their way: assessments, evaluation tasks, submitting lesson plans, building duties, parent communications, and so on. Adding on technology, combined with the way it changes seemingly daily, can be a recipe for frustration.

Still, there is a pull to upgrade our instruction to meet the demands of the 21st century, summarized as the “Four Cs” – critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. The demand is real. “America’s system of education was built for an economy and a society that no longer exists” (National Education Association, n.d.). Memorization, basic skill development and surface-level understanding are no longer enough for our students’ futures.

Striving for deeper, student-centered learning experiences is the promise of personalized learning, which can include “students and teachers co-constructing learning goals and pathways around student interests and learning standards; students engaged in independent and self-organized group learning; and educators engaged in conferences with students on the process of learning as well as discussing goals and improvement data” (Halverson et al, 2015). Yet…students need to know stuff. We live in the information age. The challenge is teaching students how to take these disparate pieces of information and skills, analyze data to make complex decisions, and innovate when a solution is not apparent for a problem.

One approach that may offer that reasonable next step in embedding personalized learning into practice is blended learning. It combines online and face-to-face learning “that uses a variety of tools – digital, artistic, problem-solving, etc. – for the purpose of solving new problems, creating new conversation turns, composing new knowledge artifacts, and of seeing and beginning to inhabit, at least tentatively, new possible worlds beyond those that are current actualized” (Wilhelm, 2014). I prefer this definition over the typically more technical description frequently offered by #edtech evangelists.  The focus is on what might happen when students collaborate and communicate around topics of interest. Scaffolding through station work may be necessary in the beginning stages, as both students and teacher move toward a different and possibly more effective model for instruction. Age levels, discipline and digital access also matter when deciding how to incorporate blended learning in the classroom.

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As a structure is established and the purpose is clear as to why personalized learning is necessary, educators should be evaluating the impact of the technology on the instructional goals and student learning. For example, teachers use software to provide students with opportunities to develop skills in areas for growth. There are adaptive learning systems that use assessment results from one activity and guide students to that next learning activity. Then there are intelligent tutoring systems, or ITSs, in which “students are asked to do exercises and problem sets online; the computer uses their answers during problem solving to model how they are thinking about the topic and provides continuous personalized feedback based on its model of the students’ understanding” (Enydey, 6). To the point, with the student receives feedback within an ITS, it is during the learning itself, not after an activity is complete.

For teachers to incorporate personalized learning in the classroom, there has to be a recognized need, time for professional learning, and clear criteria for evaluating its effectiveness. These elements can ensure students meet their potential.

References

Enyedy, N. (2014). Personalized Instruction: New Interest, Old Rhetoric, Limited Results, and the Need for a New Direction for Computer-Mediated Learning. National Education Policy Center. Available: http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/personalized-instruction (Links to an external site.)

Halverson, R., Barnicle, A., Hackett, S., Rawat, T., Rutledge, J., Kallio, J., Mould, C., & Mertes, J. (2015). Personalization in Practice: Observations from the Field. Working Paper. Wisconsin Center for Education Research. Available: http://www.wcer.wisc.edu/publications/workingPapers/papers.php

National Education Association (n.d.). An Educator’s Guide to the “Four Cs”: Preparing 21st Century Students for a Global Society. Available: http://www.nea.org/tools/52217.htm (Links to an external site.)

Wilhelm, J. D. (2014). Teacher as Trickster: Navigating Boundaries into Blended Transformational Spaces. Voices from the Middle. 22(2), pgs. 42-44.

My Current Thinking on Library Media Specialists and 21st Century Learning

This is a summary of a conversation I had with our school’s library media specialist (LMS) Kari Kabat. She conducted an interview with me for a graduate class she is taking.

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How are schools helping students develop 21st century skills (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, inquiry and technology skills)?

Investing in an LMS is essential. We have a full time LMS in both of our buildings which is an important first step. Having this support for teachers and students to develop these skills and learning experiences will help with school culture and make it a part of how they do business. Developing goals and a framework for integration along with timelines to accomplishing these goals is a great start. Technology integration and having students use the 4C’s is not the responsibility of one person, but rather having the LMS there to support and model these skills for the students and teachers to begin to take a more active role in integrating them with the curriculum. This is what I see as a part of an LMS’ role in a school.

How would you like to see change or improvement in schools?

Using the gradual release of responsibility model to support a school’s efforts to help staff have more buy-in for using these methods with students.  We need to move from a consumption-based culture to more of a creation-based, collaborative one. Most schools need to make this shift. Students can have opportunities to produce authentic writing pieces and projects and not simply use technology only to consume more information.

What do you think are the three most important things a school librarian could do to help a school reach its goals and to help students develop 21st century skills?

First, have a well stocked school library that is appealing and always open for students to come find a book whenever they need one. Knowledge does not come out of thin air. A measure of this will be high circulation rates.

Second, introduce students and teachers to the tools that will help them accomplish one of the 4C’s.  With the LMS in a supporting role, they may model a lesson that highlights a specific “C” with students during their technology block and then help the teachers see how this can be used in other ways to support their work with students on the core curriculum. Introduce a tool to support the C and then expand from there.

Finally, develop a makerspace that will allow students to have a place to come explore, innovate, and create. A makerspace can be an excellent way to incorporate 21st century skills in an indirect way. Expanding offerings beyond the library centers and making them available as a place where teachers and students can come to think critically and problem solve together can help teachers rethink their instruction.

What issues do you see getting in the way of this approach happening?

Mindsets.  Educators should be rethinking who the library really belongs to.  It it not just a department in the school. Rather, it belongs to everyone in the school.  It should be a place of service, where you can come to have your needs met and explore your interests. That might be a place to find a good book or a place to inspire your creativity and imagination and allow you to investigate new ideas.

Personalization: Necessary or Nice in Education?

I advocate for providing for all students the opportunity to explore different resources in the context of a relevant learning task. Teachers should consider the whole child when they prepare for instruction, considering their social and emotional needs as well as the academic. The best education is one in which learners have choice in what to explore.

Yet I worry that we are tailoring our instruction for students to the point where they no longer have to struggle to attain essential understandings and skills in their lives. Let me explain.

My son had never seen Wall-e, a Disney Pixar movie, until last night. We watched it together, often discussing parts of the story when he had questions. The one issue he could not seem to come to grips with was why the humans in the spaceship Axiom were “so fat”. I responded that every task was now being done for them. For example, they didn’t have to walk anywhere because their hover chairs transported them to wherever they wanted to go. Their drinks were hand-delivered. Yet even after multiple explanations, he couldn’t grasp the concept.

I am not surprised. It’s a complex movie, rife with references to 2001: A Space Odyssey and other notable media and events related to space travel. More so, I wonder if my son struggled with the concept of people who cannot fend for themselves. He is an independent and active guy. The idea that someone else will provide for all of his needs and wants seemed foreign. Not that my wife and I don’t spoil him terribly…

In schools, we as educators are expected to ensure that every child succeeds (it’s an act, you know). This is an expectation regardless of a student’s home life, genetics, peer relationships, mental health, or past experiences. Our collective response seems to be one of bending over backward to accommodate our students in the hope that they avoid failure and move on to that next grade. Never mind that some skills have been ignored while other expectations have been met some time ago. Move along, move along…


This is a hard issue to address. I haven’t been in the classroom in almost a decade. To say that I can speak with authority on the topic of personalization might be a stretch.

What can I speak to is my own experiences as a life long learner. For example, I am currently pursuing my first degree black belt in tae kwon do. Right now I am in a unique situation: We are moving to a new location, in an area that does not have a tae kwon do center in which I could practice. “No problem – just get a punch card and come up on Saturdays to stay fresh and learn a new form,” states our master instructor. There is little accommodation for my situation. Either do it or don’t. It’s a centuries-old form of martial art and self-defense; no one is going to personalize this craft for me.

Do we do students a disservice when we adjust our instruction so much that we never give them a chance of reaching the original goals set? What would happen if we said, “This is the expectation; I expect you to meet it.”? The reaction would depend a lot on the context. In communities that expect the very best in their child’s lives, any deviance from a situation that does not result in success might lead to parental and even political consternation. No administrator or teacher wants that in their lives.

Maybe a better approach is to create the conditions for personalization. Meaning, how can we be attuned to our students’ needs and interests, understand this information, and apply it to our instruction in ways that both differentiate for students’ needs and honor serious expectations for learning? Learners naturally seek more complexity in their learning progressions. Why would we inhibit this? It is a misnomer that teachers should be differentiating for students. When instruction is prepared for possibilities, students can differentiate for themselves.

Personalization is not a promise for every student succeeding in school, nor permission that allows all kids to get by because the outcomes are more important than the processes. Instead, personalization should be about finding what approach best fits each child in their learning endeavors, and giving them the tools and knowledge to make sense of the world as we know it. This is education as it was intended.