Evaluating Blended Learning Classroom Design

At this year’s AISA Educator’s Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, I had the opportunity to present some of the models that I have used and created to evaluate blended learning classroom design. Much of this work was done alongside Brad Arnold (@leybradly), and was previously discussed in my article, That digital program your school bought will never transform learning.

The format included a short mini-lesson on the need for self-reflection and self-evaluation of C21 learning environments by educators, and ended with enroled teachers using our rubrics to evaluate my own elementary digital courseroom. I was surprised and honored by the feedback that I recieved from this portion of the workshop. Many teachers noticed the quality of the learning experiences that my students have been engaged in this year, and I felt motivated to keep pushing forward with finding better descriptors and observable student actions for this kind of work.

As more and more teachers see the need for authentic technology integration to not only improve achievement, but to transform the learning experience for today’s learners, I hope to be a part of that change moving forward.

– Zach Groshell @mrzachg

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That digital program your school bought will never transform learning

It seems like most teachers and students have access to a paid-for digital learning program. You know the kind – RAZ kids, IXL, Spelling City, any one of those listed in the featured image of this article – and they all promise to raise achievement while making learning “fun”. These CAI (computer assisted instruction) programs can be traced back to  when Skinner first created his “teaching machine”, the original solution for replacing the teacher, pictured below.

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Skinner’s Teaching Machine

The thing is, these “learning” programs have not been proven to be as effective as the edtech industry overlords would like us to believe. In fact, the meta-analysis of John Hattie, which was shared with me at AEC 2017 by Dr. Sonny Magana (@sonnymagana), clearly shows that telling a kid to “go do Mathletics” will not make a sizable difference in the learning of our students.

Let me explain the research:

The Bad News: When technology is used to replace a teacher, it has a very small positive effect size on student achievement. Hattie’s research includes studies on the use of CAI programs across curriculum and contexts, as well as other approaches that mistake the transmission of information for authentic knowledge generation (Powerpoint use by teachers, for example). The graph below indicates with a black arrow the average of all of Hattie’s researched initiatives, programs, and strategies in education to be a 0.4 effect size. When we look at the effect size for how technology has been implemented over the last 50 years, including using computers for passive absorption of information transmitted by a CAI teaching robot, it falls below the average at 0.34. In short, Skinner’s Teaching Machine wasn’t particularly effective and neither is your school’s CAI program.

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“Despite the extraordinary developments in computer technology since the Kennedy Administration, not to mention the vast sums of taxpayer money spent on digitizing classrooms since the 1960s, the average effect of computer technology in education has been stuck well below the zone of desired effects. This is hardly cause for celebration.” Dr. Sonny Magana at #AEC2017

The Good News: When technology is used to enhance proven teaching and learning methods, the positive effect size is off the charts. When you compare the status quo, which is a below-average 0.34 effect size on student achievement, and the 1.6 effect size of a framework like the T3 (see below to learn more about this), it is clear that we need to change the way we facilitate learning with technology.

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Edtech models for transformation of learning

Poke around this blog a bit, and you will see several articles we have written on best practice technology integration. I hope that the theme that all of these articles have touched on is that technology should only be used as a tool to transform and maximize learning. Replacing traditional teaching with a computer is not going to ensure achievement for our learners. The use of a CAI like Mathletics or Spelling City to replace teacher and student-led instruction only gives them automated, rote practice. While this is not a bad thing, we need to refocus our planning so that students are spending more time developing their higher-order thinking skills through producing, inquiring and contributing with technology.

Here are some models that can guide the 21st century teacher away from edtech as a direct substitute to edtech as a tool for transformation:

#1 Early Years Blended Learning Development Guide (Zach Groshell et al)

The first model I’ d like to share is a guide that I created last year, in collaboration with Brad Arnold and elementary teachers at my school, which was subsequently implemented in early years classrooms. It uses 5 common and observable student actions (seen on the left column) and the SAMR scale to measure the level of edtech use. When teachers observe student learning that falls under the examples of modification and redefinition of the learning task, we know that instruction is likely going to have a positive effect size on student achievement.

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Click here to see the whole thing

#2 Blended Learning Development Guide (Brad Arnold et al)

This is another blended learning design model that I helped to develop with Brad Arnold (@leybradly), and it is slightly different from the rubric above as it is less focused on observable student actions and more on the traits of the learning environment. The 7 traits of a learning environment are the observable traits of any learning environment, shown in the left column below, and the top row of the rubric includes the SAMR scale to measure the level of edtech use. This guide is best used to facilitate teacher self-reflection on the effect of educational technology on the learning environment.

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Click here to see the whole thing

#3 T3 Framework for Educational Technology Use (Dr. Sonny Magana)

The third and final model I’d like to share for edtech instructional design is the T3 Framework (see video below). Based off of the body of research and implementation by Dr. Sonny Magana, the T3 Framework is designed to disrupt the current narrative about educational technology by contextualizing its use into 3 stages: Translational, Transformational, and Transcendent. Grounded in sound research and theory, the T3 Framework is designed to support how educational systems measure the ways classroom technologies are used to unleash student learning potential. Teachers seeking to base their instruction on the most effective strategies for student achievement should be looking up at the T2 and T3 stages, and pushing themselves to transform education by having students produce and contribute, and to “transcend” by using technology tools to facilitate inquiry and solve world problems that matter.

 


While the edtech companies may not agree that their expensive math and reading programs have limited effect sizes on student achievement, we should be looking closer at the last 50 years of research on this topic and seeking a better way forward when it comes to edtech use in the classroom.

We need to stop:

  • Using CAI technology to replace teacher and student-led instruction
  • Using technology to fill time
  • Calling the use of CAI programs “blended learning”
  • Thinking that a game or a program can teach just as well as a teacher

And start:

  • Looking at student actions through the lens of transformational and transcendent learning.
  • Considering the traits of an effective learning environment and how we know students learn best
  • Seeking to increase moments of “redefined” or “transcendent” learning  in our own practice

 

What do you think? Could this help to improve your teaching? Comment below with your thoughts on blended learning and keep coming back to EducationRickshaw.com.

– Zach Groshell, @mrzachg

Student Inventions Face Evaluation in the Shark Tank

This week, my students will be presenting their inventions to an audience of parents and community members. Instead of doing a traditional exhibition, where students stand for an hour and answer questions next to their display, we are doing something different: A Year 5 Shark Tank.

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Many of us already know the reality show, “Shark Tank”, that has celebrity entrepreneurs deciding on potential investments from wannabe inventors. The intrigue of the show is found in the neat and sometimes quirky innovations that come from these novice presenters mixed with the pressure that is put on them by the judges, or “the Sharks”. A similar scenario is going to take place at our PYP school for the students’ summative assessment.

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As students have gotten to work on their inventions, there have been some beautiful learning experiences, including:

Math Skills – Adding cost of materials and cost of labor (based on a agreed upon minimum wage) and subtracting from retail price to determine profit. Also, creating surveys and graphs to gauge interest in the product.

Presentation Skills – Creating a presentation with certain criteria made by students, using Keynote slides with interactive features so that visitors can pick the questions that are relevant to them as they come to the invention convention.

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Design Thinking – Students followed the design cycle of “Investigate – Plan – Create – Evaluate” to ensure that their product turned out how they envisioned it. Many students also wanted to create a beta version of an app that would go along with their invention, so we found ways to do an interactive mock up for these as well. Students really got into the spirit of collaboration and design thinking throughout the unit.


At the end of the Shark Tank, some community “Sharks” will decide on the invention that would make the world of work and leisure easier. I’m trying make sure that this small piece of competition does not get in the way of the important part – the process of design. It is merely a formality that frames the whole unit and ends with a bang!

What do you think? Check out the flyer for the event below, and be sure to comment!

– Zach Groshell @MrZachG

However, that being said, it is becoming increasingly obvious that our world is developing an unhealthy attachment to it. (1)

Ways to Enhance Reading and Writing Workshop with Technology

Our school recently made the switch to Columbia University’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Although Stephanie and I received some surface level training on the project in our previous school, this has been the first time that we have been asked to follow the program with a high level of fidelity.

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Like with any program, there are ways to improve outcomes by looking at how best to use technology to maximize learning. We’re all about looking at traditional teaching practices and seeing how they can be improved. The following are some of the things that we have tried in our classrooms to facilitate 21st century learning experiences within the Reading and Writing Workshop model.

Use online forums and chat rooms for class discussions, teacher and peer feedback, and ratings

Class discussions can happen in many ways. When the program asks for reading and writing partners to turn and talk about their thoughts, students can also do so in an online forum. The tool that you use doesn’t matter: This could be on Seesaw, Flipgrid, EasyBlog, Edmodo. . . whatever! I use Moodle for forums, because I find it to be very customizable, but you can have kids discussing on almost any platform. Again, it’s not about the tool, it’s about the learning.

There are inherent benefits to having discussions online. Instead of always communicating in informal language, as is the case with “turn and talk” in class, students are forced to use formalized language. There is a record of what they have said, and teachers can see it, give feedback on which terms they are using correctly, and can have students go back and edit their ideas for clarity. Students can continue the conversation at home, alone or with their parents, and you can always go back to the conversations during your conferencing, which is much harder to do with traditional “turn and talk”.

Use online multimedia journals with links, videos, photos, audio, drawings, table of contents, dictionary and thesaurus

I am a fan of both paper/pencil journals as well as multimedia online journals. While the benefits of the paper/pencil journal are well known, it is sometimes effective to give students the chance to write or write about their reading in an online journal.

In my students’ wiki journals, they are able to create new pages whenever, wherever they feel like. This creates great situations where they can [[link]] to a new page (for example, a character page), and then fill in their ideas there. If they need inspiration for character development, setting, or anything visual, they can pull up images from online and stick them in their journal. If they need to create a quick sketch, they just insert a drawing into their journal, and can move it around as they wish without feeling that they are getting in the way of their writing. When I provide them with materials from the program, they can link to these materials, refer to them, and annotate the parts that they feel they need to work on. By just clicking on a word, they can look up new words in online dictionaries and thesauruses and build their vocabulary . . the multimedia journal creates learning experiences that wouldn’t otherwise be possible with a 100% paper/pencil workshop.

Give assessments with feedback, rubrics, checklists, infographics, memes, pictures, video, inline editing

I find the assessments in the Reading and Writing Project to be easily convertible into online resources. For the beginning of the year reading assessment, I put all of the questions into an online assignment, and had kids take the test.

After the kids took the assessment, the data came back to me organized by student and question type. I was then able to give students feedback to enhance their learning. I did this in the form of inline editing, inserting the rubrics right into their answers, and providing checklists, infographics, memes, and links to previous discussions and journal entries that they had made. After I helped one student with a certain problem – using pictures, videos, or whatever – I was able to use that same teacher-created resource to help the next student that had the very same problems.

The point is, with technology you can link up all of the resources that you and your students have created – assessments, discussions, journals, rubrics, glossaries, etc –  at any time, so that students are not only making digital connections, but connections in their craniums as well.

Make the Heinemann resources accessible to students online

Instead of printing everything that I’m provided in the Reading and Writing Project from the Heinemann online resources – the sticky notes, the reading logs, the anchor charts, the exemplars, etc – I put them on my class website and into student hands. It saves a tree, and it helps students engage with the materials by actually using them in various ways.

Why not just project the resources? I find that projecting these resources without putting them up on my online courseroom makes it so that I become the “keeper of all resources”. I believe in a student-driven classroom, where information is accessible to all, parents included. By putting the resources up onto our Moodle page, students can not only access them anytime they want, but they can manipulate the content, insert it where they want, and ask questions and post comments about it.

Go nuts combining apps, web tools, social media and productivity tools!

There is so much out there that can help kids think and remove potential barriers for learning the content required in the Reading and Writing Project. I’ve written before about some of my favorite tech tools for getting kids writing, but I really recommend that you go sit on your couch with your device in hand, and explore the unlimited possibilities that exist out there.

Even if the Reading and Writing Project doesn’t explicitly say that you should or could use technology, that doesn’t make it wrong to take advantage of the best tools at your disposal. For me, technology is ubiquitous in the learning process, and learning is non-linear.

So, have kids record podcasts and watch their speaking and listening skills grow as they engage with the Reading and Writing workshop. Put up a green screen in your classroom, and explore the possibilities this has for student learning and engagement. I also believe that learning should be shared and public, and with technology this is possible. Have kids share out their reading and writing on blogs, social media, and e-mail. Get parents engaging with the Reading and Writing Project from their phone.

There are so many ways to make this program more dynamic and better for the learner. So if you’re like me and new to the Columbia University’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, keep at it. I know I will!


Thanks for coming back again and again to educationrickshaw.com, a website by Stephanie and Zach Groshell. Feel free to comment below!

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Homework not effective? What about distance learning?

Homework is one of those contentious things that divides teachers as well as parents. John Hattie’s research leads to the conclusion that homework in primary school has an effect of nearly zero.  But the reality is that many schools have policies that require homework to be assigned to students on a daily or weekly basis.

This year, I am experimenting with a theory that primary student achievement can be improved with homework if there is a distance learning tutor available for coaching for every assignment.

What I’m trialing this year:

This year I’ve told all of my students that whenever they need help with their homework, they should shoot me an email. I know, it sounds like a crazy responsibility for me to take on, and I’ll see if I have the stamina to keep up with it throughout the year, but so far it has gone really well!

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“I don’t get this”

Much like my in-class helpdesk, I want my 9-10 year olds to get professional help in a timely and effective manner. I don’t want some parents to help their kids while other kids are left alone to stress about math during their valuable home time. This year, my students were instructed that if they have a problem they should screenshot their math or take a video of the strategies they’ve tried and to send it to me by e-mail. I then respond by either giving them some written or video hints, or by directing them to an available resource such as a Youtube or Khan Academy video.

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“Is this correct?”

 

How’s it going so far?

It has been a very positive experience to start the year off with this model for homework. One thing I have noticed, though, is that the students tend to ask very simple questions without really showing their work or the strategies they tried. I am going to work with students on how to ask for help, and how to get the students helping each other much more often. I am also learning how to give just enough help so as to get the students to figure out the rest of the problems on their own.

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Student created instructional YouTube video on our class channel

I am also incorporating a YouTube channel with student-created instructional videos so that students can refer to a growing library of flipped lessons from their peers. This is in the process of getting put together (so far, we only have three videos) but the students seem very excited about the prospect of sharing their knowledge with each other and the world.

It’s not that much extra work… so far

I am a fan of living a balanced life as a teacher, so taking on a “distance tutoring model” by having kids e-mail me all night long (their limit is 8:00 PM) might sound like a recipe for disaster. But the truth is that I only get a couple of emails per night, and it usually only takes me a few seconds to send back a response with Mark-Up or my laptop’s webcam. Usually just copying and pasting the link to a YouTube video can help them solve their problems. As students become more familiar with this system, and increasingly independent, I hope to teach them to search for their own answers online and to take it upon themselves to offer peer tutoring during the homework hours.


What do you think? Will this strategy help improve achievement, or is it simply homework in sheep’s clothing? Is this plan sustainable, or do you bet I’ll let some student requests fall through the cracks? Comment below! We at educationrickshaw.com would love to hear your thoughts.

 

 

Podcasts are Great Way to Develop Speaking and Listening

If you’ve ever checked out our Friends of Educationrickshaw.com page, you may have seen mention of my best friend Jim Stewart Allen’s ongoing podcast project, Historiography!. While the content is geared towards adults, we were able to collaborate on an episode that made it into my classroom:

 

 

In the episode, Jim makes a call out to all of my kids in Sudan, which immediately blew their minds when I showed it to them in class. He then goes into his typical dissection of a media piece, this time being the Phases of Matter episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy, which my students had just watched in preparation for this surprise event. The listen not only led to a lot of laughs and conversation about the science, but it intrigued my Year 5’s  to the point that they wanted to record their own podcasts!

Recording the Podcasts

Like a piece of writing, there are both linear and non-linear ways of arriving at a published podcast. For brainstorming, the kids and I love Inspiration, and I made sure to have students practice with partners or small audiences before they launched into the publishing stage. For the actual recording, I had students create a cover photo and then record their voice over it using Seesaw.

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Thanks @MrsGadtke for the poster!

See Also: 5 Ways to Get the Most Out of Seesaw, which has been retweeted a few times by Seesaw themselves

Learning Potential

Almost all of the students felt that they needed a few shots to actually get it right, and it was wonderful to watch students struggle to produce the exact words they needed to convey meaning. One of the biggest hurdles that some students had to jump was filling airtime with entertaining banter and commentary. Many at first experienced a sort of podcast stage fright that forced them to scrap their recording and start over again. In one outlying case, a student had to switch over to recording in iMovie so that they could edit out the long pauses that kept making it into his final recording.

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The more that I think about the potential learning that can occur from planning and recording podcasts, the more I want to get going on another unit that includes them as a learning engagement. As you can see from the below photo, most of my kids’ podcasts would be considered “segments”, but I am sure there is room for the other two methods  as well. Interviews especially sound cool.

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Photo: https://coschedule.com/blog/how-to-start-a-podcast/

As we connected our Seesaw blogs to a class outside of Sudan, the students also can learn how to promote their podcasts to reach a larger audience, how to provoke and stimulate thinking from others, and how to keep the conversation going in the comments. The parents in my classes have been very engaged with all of our online tools, so their podcasts could be the source of discussion at the dinner table, thereby extending the learning into the home. If you’re looking for ways to meet speaking and listening standards, podcasts might be the way to go.


What do you think? We at educationrickshaw.com appreciate the feedback that you leave in the comments area below, and we always respond.

Thanks for visiting!

 

The Power of Digital Manipulatives

I wanted to share this Infographic by MIND Research Institute today, as it confirms some of my experiences with digital manipulatives in my classroom. My biggest takeaway from the infographic is the idea that you can scaffold the concepts by first starting with physical manipulatives (we do learn with our bodies!), and then transitioning to digital manipulatives to “improve transferability of math concepts”, and then finally representing the concepts with numbers and symbols.

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This webapp allows students to see money with the number blocks of their amounts – from mathlearningcenter.org

In my class, I created an elink of digital manipulatives so that students can have most of the digital manipulatives from mathlearningcenter.org at their disposal. You can download all of these tools as apps, but I found that the webapps were almost just as functional (downloading takes up precious storage on student iPads!). I very much followed a scaffolding strategy similar to what the infographic describes.

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I created an e-link on my Moodle course with links to all of the webapps. For more on elink, see Easy-Peasy Way to Give Great Links to Students)

Good teachers use everything that they have at their disposal, and don’t get caught up in searching for silver bullets. There is a place for physical manipulatives in the 21C classroom, as well as a place for digital ones.

Thank you for visiting educationrickshaw.com! Enjoy!


Digital Manipulatives Infographic

Courtesy of MIND Research Institute. 


What do you think about the role of digital manipulatives? Comment below!

3 Old School Elementary Events That Still Have Value (but Need to Change)

In a never-ending quest to innovate in the classroom, it can be easy to shun the traditional elements of Western education in favor of those that feel more trendy. Try posting a photo of a Science Fair on Twitter and you’ll get far fewer likes than if you post about students coding video games for a cardboard arcade (👈🏻 as I did). While I totally agree that there are some practices that are as dusty as an old chalkboard, this article is about three old school elementary events that may not be fashionable, but should still be a part of the curriculum.

#1 Science Fair

One of the downsides to putting on a traditional science fair is that it largely can come down to a competition between parents, rather than a good learning experience for the kids. In order to avoid this common problem, I had students bring in materials from home, but complete the experiments and boards in class. It may have taken more class time, but it gave me plenty of information to use to develop lessons that catered to the unique needs of this particular group.

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Another common problem with traditional science fairs is that the whole shebang is kicked off with little to no instructions or parameters, i.e. Prepare a science experiment, make a board and show it. 

This type of setup inevitably leads to very little understanding of the scientific method, or of basic scientific skills and concepts. Typically students end up creating cool projects like a potato clock or a volcano, but understand nothing about the science behind it. In my class’s science fair, we focused entirely on our UOI’s central idea, which was on the three states of matter. This way, students shared and built knowledge on the same topics. Students were only allowed to choose experiments that contributed to their collective understanding of the central idea, and we spent a lot of time reading texts, watching videos, and compiling information into online resources (Check out how to use Moodle in an elementary classroom).

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Finally, this science fair was not a competition trying to pit parents and students against their community members. It was a Year 5-only event that brought parents and students together to talk about the understandings that we had gained over the course of a six week unit. Did some students succeed more than others? Yes. Did anyone lose? Of course not!

#2 Spelling Bee

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Now that I just knocked turning elementary science fairs into competitions, let’s talk about the most notorious of all of the elementary academic competitions: The Spelling Bee. Let me be clear: I don’t have a problem with competitions that promote learning. I have a problem with competitions that only exist for competition’s sake (aka for the benefit of parents and teachers). When teachers set up a spelling bee in a way that promotes the learning of year-level spelling patterns, commonly misspelled year-level words, and develops a love of language, I am all for it.

My class’s spelling bee was a culmination of all of the work that we had put into spelling that year, and only included words that students had been tested on in weeks prior. There was home study time built into their homework schedules, but I structured it so that students would not exceed the required 15 minutes that they’d had all year anyway. I made sure to communicate my concerns to parents about turning this friendly competition into something that stressed students out to the point of disliking spelling, and they seemed to be on board. In the end, we were all proud of what the students had achieved, and they consequently did very well on the spelling portion of our end-of-year standardized assessments.

#3 End of Year Awards

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Much debate has surrounded how awarding students for every little achievement is turning the next generation (my generation?) into one that is thanklessly entitled and overprivileged. And if we’re giving students awards for something that they don’t earn, I guess I have to agree. At my school, we reward students for achievement in a variety of ways, but only those that deserve an award get one at the end of the year Prize Giving ceremony. We show a particular emphasis on progress, growth and development so that those students that deserve recognition for effort are recognized alongside students that are academically inclined. It may be old school, but it it an indispensable part of setting goals and achieving them in an academic setting.


 

What do you think? Would you scrap all of these in favor for alternative events? Am I wrong, and all of these need to go the way of the dinosaur? Comment below and keep coming back to educationrickshaw.com and check out our Teachers Pay Teachers.

 

 

“The What” vs. “The How” of Education

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After reading the above tweet, I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea that we may very well spend too much time talking about what we should teach rather than how we should teach. And the more I think about it, the more I crave conversations that concern the how of educationLearning-focused conversation is learner and pedagogy focused – The how not the what. If I had the power to singlehandedly change the conversation in education, I’d ask that we make a shift in the following ways:

Stop Talking So Much About What Curriculum We Should Be Using, and Start Talking About How to Facilitate Learning in the 21st Century.

Since I began teaching only a short time ago, I have seen schools go from local standards, to national standards, to international standards. Never during these changes was I privy to training on how to implement these standards with the best 21C teaching practices. It was always more important to document what I was doing, than how I was doing it. Even the Common Core website seemed to foresee this implementation strategy:

“. . these standards establish what students need to learn but do not dictate how teachers should teach. Instead, schools and teachers will decide how best to help students reach the standards.”

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How different things might have been in terms of buy-in by teachers for Common Core if we had known the strategies to implement these standards in the most research-based and pedagogically sound ways?

Stop Talking So Much About What Learning Platform We Should Be Using, and Start Talking About How We Can Redefine the Learning Environment.

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I’ve written before about different tech tools that I have found useful, such as Seesaw for portfolios, and Moodle as a learning platform for my elementary class. But I’ve found that most any tool can be tweaked and modified to fit any purpose; To use some SAMR-speak for a moment, teachers can Substitute with Edmodo just as they can Redefine with Edmodo. It is precisely for this reason that I get so tired of conversations over which learning platform is best. Rather than looking at How blended learning can take place, we are focused on the new-kid technology on the block. Changing from Schoology to Google Classroom will not solve any of a school’s problems, because the entire premise of the conversation is based around what is best rather than how is best.

Stop Talking So Much About What is the Best Device, and Start Talking About How We Can Best Integrate Technology.

It is true that there are downsides to tablets – no keyboard, low memory, etc – but the minute you want kids to take pictures and video you’ll find that there are also downsides to laptops. The same goes for IOS vs. Windows vs. Chrome, and mobile vs. desktop vs. wearables. Next year, it’s entirely possible that the coolest new gadget will come out and completely change the face of education as we know it.

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Rather than focus on the barriers inherent in any one school-adopted device, I’d like to concentrate more on ways to maximize learning in my classroom. How can we change the relationship between the teacher, the student, and their devices? How do we improve outcomes while promoting 21C skills and attitudes? How can I get the most out of my students and the resources that my school has?

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What do you think? The irony is not lost on me that I have just written an entire post which focuses largely on what we should be talking about as educators, and not as much on how we should be talking about it. . .

Keep coming back to educationrickshaw.com, and please leave a comment or question in the section below!

How to Set Up a Week of Free Inquiry for Anywhere, Anytime Learning

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When I was just a first year teacher, I placed a lot of value on my ability to control student behaviors. While students were quiet and well-behaved to the passing observer, I could sense that I was not facilitating the kind of learning experiences that I wanted from my teachers during my own education. The relationship between the teacher, the students, and the learning was traditional and strained, and everyday felt like a battle for points and rewards. I felt like I was part drill sergeant, part cheerleader, part disciplinarian, but not at all a teacher.

As my teaching became more and more inquiry based, and more and more student-focused instead of teacher-driven, I began to see that the increased trust that I had for my students did not result in a dramatic increase in unwanted behaviors. In fact, quite the opposite. This year, for the first time, I felt that I had finally built up the structure necessary to facilitate a Week of Free Inquiry, aka a Week Without Walls, or, as my students put it, “College”. For the first time in my career, I had to give up control of movement and control of content as students pursued their own interests wherever and whenever they wanted. Here’s how I did it:

Related: 5 Ways to Give Your Class Back to Your Students

I Organized a Legit Online Learning Environment

When I say legit, I mean legit. There’s no way that you are going to get students to perform at the highest levels in a wall-less physical environment without a dynamic and organized online environment. When my students started the week, they knew how to contact me (e-mail, instant messaging, commenting on assignments) and they knew where and when to find me (in the cafeteria, by online appointment). For weeks I had to build up a wealth of knowledge and skill surrounding the apps on their devices, and I had to foster IT-specific problem-solving skills so that students were able to figure out their IT issues on their own.

I am sure that any robust LMS could be used for a project like this, but I used my class Moodle page (See Moodle in elementary), and students were working on their own school issued iPad throughout the week. Assignments were turned in for review onto their online portfolio (we use Seesaw) and students had their own e-mail addresses. I wish that I had added instant messaging, like WhatsApp or something, to their iPads before the week began, but we communicated fine with just e-mail, Seesaw (see Using Seesaw to Teach Social Media), and the class chat activity on Moodle.

Students Put Together a Game Plan

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As the above sketchnote by @trev_mackenzie suggests, there is indeed a lot of autonomy and independence that comes from true free inquiry. However, even in the illustration we see that there isn’t total, complete freedom. To continue with the pool analogy, the above students may have increased freedom of movement, but they do have to remain in the pool at all times; they are not free to leave the complex without permission. Similarly, they are not allowed to make choices that put others’ safety at risk, or ruin the experience for themselves or others. At all times there is a “guide on the side”, but this guide is much more hands-off than during Guided Inquiry.

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To structure the inquiry I used both of these sketchnotes by @trev_mackenzie. The goal setting (#4) and the calendar (#6) were particularly important in organizing the project.

As students neared their final days of preparation, I had a litany of questions from students to go through, but the main question that kept coming up from my 10 year olds was: Can we do whatever we want? 

I tried to answer this question about the same way every time: This school is a learning space. You can learn whatever you want, however you want, and with whom you want, but you may not choose NO learning. You may take a break whenever you want, but in the end, this project is all about what we can accomplish in one week when we put our minds to it. I think you’ll realize quickly that you’ll need and want every minute that you are given during this special week. 

I Started the Year with a Plan for Gradual Release of Responsibility

There’s no way that a form of learning like this can be possible the first day of school. There are a lot of discussions, mini-lessons and student reflections about how we learn that must take place before a class is ready to embark on a solo journey of this magnitude. Gradual release does ultimately mean giving up the responsibility to the students. I knew my class was ready to take on this project when I felt that they had proven mastery of certain skills at least a few times before in a variety of guided inquiry sequences.

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This one pic says it all about how my class has developed. Idea wall and green screen in the back, flexible seating, blended learning, conferencing, and engagement, engagement, engagement. The students pursuing their own learning is at the center of every experience, not me.

You also have to accept that some students may take longer during the year to get to a point of independence where they will get anything out of a week of free inquiry. For those students, I put them with partners that I knew I could trust to move them along, and I checked in on them more frequently than I did other students. I tried to make sure that their failures at the end were limited to the product rather than the process, i.e. a bad final project, but abundant learning nonetheless.

I Proceeded with the Mantra of “Never Work Harder than Your Students”

After taking attending a workshop at the 2016 Africa Ed Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa by Karen Boyes called Never Work Harder Than Your Students, Let Them Do the Thinking, I began to see how the onus has to be on the student to take responsibility for their learning. When my teaching was teacher-directed, I was doing all of the work, and the students were merely passive consumers of information.

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Why do a song and dance and waste all of your energy while students passively watch the show? Let them do the thinking. Let them plan their path forward. We teachers sometimes just need to get out of the way.

After the workshop, I was very clear with my students about my new expectations: I should never be working harder than any of you! And if I am, then you’re not doing your job right and I’m not doing my job right. This idea of never working harder than your students was critical when I began the Week of Free Inquiry because I had to come to grips with what it meant to release all responsibility to the students as I sat back with a cup of coffee while waiting for my next appointment with a student group.

I Trusted and They Pulled Through

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Our class culture is built around mutual admiration and respect between learning partners. The traditional top-down relationship between teacher and student is virtually gone, replaced with a “learning partnership” model.

In the end of the day, building relationships with students to make them better people is why I became a teacher. I wouldn’t expect a teacher that feels differently and puts less of a value on relationship building to be able to pull off the Week of Free Inquiry. It takes really getting to know your students’ strengths and weaknesses, and really building a culture of trust and a love of learning. Because I trusted them, and they respect me to the point that they will go to the ends of the earth to impress me, they were able to accomplish amazing things during this highly unstructured time.

What do you think? Could your kids pull off a Week of Free Inquiry? Are you ready to tear down the walls and let them be free? Be sure to follow me on Twitter and check out @SGroshell’s Teachers Pay Teachers account.

First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth - TeachersPayTeachers.com