As a technology integrator, a trained Learning Design Coach and a Critical Friends Coach, I often get asked by my colleagues, “How can I make this better?” and “Will you help me think about _____?”
So it made sense that my friend and colleague would send me a text message over the summer that read, “Will you help me with ideas on retrieval practice?” He had just listened to a podcast that our division director shared with the faculty. It was Jennifer Gonzalez’s (Cult of Pedagogy) interview with Pooja Agarwal, Ph.D., cognitive scientist and founder of RetrievalPractice.org.
When I think about retrieval practice, I immediately think about throwing a tennis ball for my dog (which I had to teach him to do because he didn’t instinctively know how to retrieve) and I ask myself, what’s the point of retrieval practice? It’s fetch and bring back. Fetch and retrieve. It’s the act of asking a learner to fetch knowledge and bring it back in new and different ways. Retrieval practice can either be off-the-cuff or intentionally planned, but in both cases, a teacher is asking a learner to recall information and make sense of it in a new way. It tells the teacher, what stuck, what’s lasting, and what’s still missing.
Well, that’s an assessment: ongoing and formative. It’s a glimpse of a student’s knowledge construction: how she makes sense of new information and forms a new understanding or reality.
Sounds awesome, right? Isn’t that what all educators seek to provide? My colleague was essentially saying to me, “Yes, and how do I do that?”
Imagining he wouldn’t be alone, I put together three questions teachers can ask themselves when creating opportunities for retrieval practice and ongoing formative assessment.
1. What do you want to know?
Do you want to know if students remember content and facts? Or maybe you want to know how students make sense of the new content? Both? All three are important to consider because they change the type of question you might ask.
For example, you might ask a student if he or she can remember the four types of sentences: declarative, interrogative, blah, blah (I don't remember the other two and I used to teach it myself). This type of question will tell you whether a student can recall facts and definitions from a lesson. But you can also ask a student, "Why would you, as an author, want to use a declarative sentence in your writing? How would it make your audience feel?"
Both questions are retrieval, both tell you what stuck, but the second question relies on accurate information AND exposes how the student personally makes sense of the information and how he or she would imagine using it.
2. What kinds of questions will get to what you need to know?
Do you want purely recall of facts or do you want to see how knowledge has changed? Do you want students to imagine the implications for this new information? There’s not one, best question, but what you ask can change the purpose of the retrieval process.
3. What method will you use?
There are a lot of contexts in which students can retrieve information. It can be in a journal or in a conversation, online or in person, written, drawn, or recorded. My colleague decided that in the example of the types of sentences, used above, he would first use Turn and Talk so that students could retrieve and verbally explain their understanding of the four sentences. Students would then use Seesaw to label four types of sentences and add a voice caption explaining how one of the sentences would be used by an author. Once all students posted their responses, individuals would read and listen to peers’ posts, looking for ways they could improve their OWN post.
Luckily, for all of us, retrieval IS an instinctual, normal process for recalling information that is important to us. When used in contexts that are personally meaningful, it actually becomes fun to retrieve information, stories and experiences that have shaped and reshaped our understanding of the world around us. When learners regularly retrieve information, not only are they practicing the information, but the act of retrieval itself. Retrieval becomes a metacognitive strategy that students can call on to remember information. Retrieving to be better at remembering AND retrieving to be better at retrieving.
Two skills in one.
This fall, we're piloting a pre-K to grade five maker/STEM lab at Park Tudor School. Call it planet alignment, but we discovered that for a variety of reasons, we'd have a usable space (formerly a science room) that we could reimagine into something different for the 2018-19 school year. With the ideas of nearly half of our Lower School teachers on our minds, three of us set off for Seattle, Washington to attend the Teacher's Tool Kit workshop in the "BIG Lab" at Evergreen School. It was three days of "flow" - the experience of working on something that is so personally meaningful and challenging that time seems to stand still, or go fast. Basically you have no sense of time. It was that fun, eye-opening, inspiring...just make a plan to go, if you can. Aptly named the WonderLab, our new space would also be a place where little fingers with big imaginations could build, create, program, imagine, wonder, and find their own flow during the school day.
So as a wanna-be-blogger, I told Lindsay Own, the Coordinator of the BIG Lab, that I'd make it a goal to write a post about the experience and it'd be called, well, just what I wrote. Here's what I came up with.
1. Take people with you.
Originally, I was all set to go visit the BIG Lab on my own. It's just kind of what I do. I find these smaller, less well know professional learning experiences that don't really fall into the categories of "workshop" or "conference" and so I usually go on my own because it's tough getting colleagues to trust my intuition (all the baggage from bad conferences really weighs people down). But this time was different. I was able to add the expense of two more people and it was worth every penny. Not only do I have two allies in this endeavor, but we speak a common language now, share a common goal, and see a common vision. Going forward, the WonderLab is the product of a movement, and not just one person's agenda or a flashy, new initiative.
2. Push past uncomfortable.
Or lean into it. Whichever catch phrase you prefer. I guess I'm a perfectionist at heart, never truly comfortable with trying something new because it's physically painful to struggle through something I'm not totally good at. Plus, I'm too impatient to learn from others or read directions - I like to fiddle with new apps and figure them out for myself, not reading instructions until I'm totally frustrated or about to give up.
My time in the BIG Lab forced me to push into the discomfort I had with Adobe Illustrator and Tinkercad, two apps that I'd always avoided because it was "that STEM thing". Other teachers could be good at it, but not me, I used to say. It's their thing, I told myself.
Moving past the discomfort, however, has opened my eyes to so many new experiences and creative opportunities that redesign learning.
3. Don't fall for the flashy, all-in-one, pre-packaged, "this is all you need" stuff.
No offense to great products and their excellent marketing teams, but we won't be falling for the expensive (or even inexpensive) STEM-in-a-box stuff. Not yet, at least. Yes, these products are certainly excellent tools for busy teachers who need to rely on a "plug-n-play" option because of very real classroom constraints, but that's not what we're going for in the WonderLab. Our shopping list for year one includes coin batteries, cardboard cutters, glue guns and sticks, brads, LED lights and craft sticks. We're asking parents to send in beer bottle caps, wine corks, and thin cardboard (think cereal boxes).
4. Yep, a laser printer, vinyl printer, and a 3D printer make kids say, "Look what I made!"
And that's worth the money. There absolutely is a wow-factor that comes from Making and a young child's feeling of accomplishment and ownership of a truly unique product of work is priceless. Whether it's wires and LED lights, or a laser cut cardboard gear, there are just some tools that, for children and adults (I saw and experienced it myself) turn imagination into tangible reality. Purchasing the expensive items that completely redefine the outcome of a project is well worth it.
5. It most definitely is NOT as complicated as you think.
Even more, it doesn't take any specialized knowledge. If it does, that's when you reach out to huge network of folks, like @LindseyOwn, who've been Making and STEM-ing for years. They wouldn't want you to reinvent the wheel. The "Maker Movement", by it's very nature is like an open-source movement. Sharing experiences and information that is freely available, redistributed, modified in ways you see fit. The Teacher's Toolkit workshop was 100% open source. We found that we didn't need to be experts in engineering, circuitry or programming to get started on our own ideas. We tapped into our own "Yet, sensibility" (aka a growth mindset): we may not have all the skills, or tools, or ideas...yet.
So, just start.
A hiatus would imply that there was some consistency in my blogging in the first place. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If you've always WANTED to blog, but felt like you didn't have anything truly NEW or inspirational to contribute, leave a comment below so I don't feel so alone. Maybe we can create a BLOGGER WANNABE support group and make it our goal for the 2018-19 school year!
Yes, help the teacher with the malfunctioning document projector, even though you know, in all likelihood, it just needs to be plugged in. Yes, be there when that Mac display needs to be mirrored, again.
But you have a Master's degree in Education? You have a decade or more of experience in the classroom? Teachers need to check their own plugs before asking for your help?
I know. I know. It stinks. I've been "there." But I'm here to remind you, it's a bitter pill, that pride-methylphenodate and sometimes it looks bigger than a horse pill. You can do it though. Just take a big gulp and swallow.
Why, you ask? Because it's not your job to make people into what you want them to be. It's also not your job to bring people up to your level. It's your job to help create the conditions that allow people to grow, try, and feel successful.
Don't we all want to work in a place that feels safe? Where we can feel successful and valued?
Take Simon Sinek's well known TED Talk called "Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe." I've posted the video below, but in his talk, Sinek describes our "Circle of Safety" as a place where people feel safe and protected from the dangers of our environment. No, not saber toothed tigers. Yes, safe from the things that make us feel vulnerable, out of control, and anxious.
Technology can feel dangerous, risky, uncontrollable to a novice or semi-novice user. A fellow teacher may feel as though using technology with a room full of students is like treading water in a rough sea.
At that moment of danger, you wouldn't yell, 'Swim!" to a colleague. Your job is to jump in and say, "Don't panic. Hold on to me. I'll swim with you."
That's empathy. Trust, safety and protection grow from empathy. As Sinek says, "Trust and cooperation are feelings, not instructions." You can't make someone trust you. They have to believe that you are in their Circle of Safety.
So yes, sometimes, to a teacher, that unplugged document camera is a thing that's trying to "frustrate and reduce opportunities for success." Plug it in, say it was your pleasure to help, and walk away knowing that you are creating conditions for growth. You are staying in the teacher's Circle of Safety.
Stay there and, one day, that teacher will say to you, "I'm ready to swim."
My husband and I just finished clearing our 576 square feet of soil that we call our vegetable garden. Until recently, it was full of flourishing, happy, spring time weeds that we just let grow for far too long.
Our vegetable garden is a battle we fight every spring. The Memorial Day weekend rolls around with its beautiful weather, lengthening days, and the promise of growing our own pumpkins for the fall, from seed, gets us right back out there with shovels. We (or maybe just me) become re-inspired by what our enormous, urban garden could become.
Vegetable gardens take a lot of work. Maintenance is required nearly every season of the year, depending on where you live.
So gardening has been on my mind the last few weeks and having just returned from my second year attending the Traverse Conference, hosted by the Watershed School in Boulder, Colorado, I found myself thinking about our roles as school leaders, educators, and "changemakers". We often speak of how we need to cultivate our students’ mindsets for growth and innovation. This is, indeed, true and I believe is becoming more and more crucial every day. However, I believe it is equally important that we develop the same mindsets in the adults we entrust to lead them. The learning environments we create, and the instruction we design, promote a culture of thinking and a growth mindset that can be prolific.
I wondered: How might we cultivate a growth mindset in our teachers?
Identifying a growth mindset teacher
First, I think we must know how to identify a teacher with a propensity for innovation. Any person in a position of fostering cultural transformation within a school could identify a teacher with a growth mindset by observing the following characteristics:
Producing the most yield
Growth mindset teachers are the seeds of transformation and they will help grow the instructional landscape in your school, so it is vital to nurture them well. By following a few simple steps, you can help ensure that the characteristics of a growth mindset teacher take hold of your school culture with deep, healthy roots.
1. Help them find spaces to flourish.
Growth mindset teachers need new roles, new professional relationships, new experiences, and new connections to thrive. Remember, they’re sending out runners and you can help them by introducing them to other people and places that are doing the same.
2. Honor their “Yes, and” mindset and resist saying “Yes, but” to their ideas.
This certainly doesn’t mean letting a teacher go rogue, implementing whatever he or she pleases. However, growth mindset teachers believe that every idea is worth pursuing even in small increments. In fact, when a growth mindset teacher hears, “Yes, but” he may instinctively withdraw from conversations. “Yes, but” is a signal that another person may be functioning according to constraints, rather than possibilities. Instead say, “Yes, and as you develop that idea, here are the constraints you may need to consider.”
They also believe their ideas can be better, so bring them your feedback and ideas, frequently.
3. Intentionally connect them to the larger structure of the institution.
These folks are not likely in a position of formal leadership, and yet they’re seen as trailblazers, pioneers and yes, tragically, even disturbers of the status quo. They will often times feel unsure whether their actions and ideology still match up with the greater mission of the institution.
Make sure they are strongly connected to the lattice work and trellises of the institution so they have something intentional upon which to grow. Share your joys, concerns (when appropriate), questions, ideas - your vision - regularly, so they know they’re growing along-side larger goals.
Plans for our family vegetable garden continue to take shape. Each day the potential for what we could do in that space changes and evolves. Today, it's just vegetables, but tomorrow, or next year, we may add a chicken coop. Either way, for me, it's a space to practice continual redesign, imagine limitless potential, and explore the boundaries of mastery. Our educators, and our schools, should be too.
Does it matter?
(originally written in the fall of 2015 for Traverse 2016.)
“Do you care about the problem you’re trying to solve?” I asked our iDesign students.
Most of them responded with “Yes.” Whew! That was a relief. I honestly thought they did care about their challenges, but I didn’t want to be naive. I had a hunch it would be multi-layered so when I asked more questions, the layers began to show.
A colleague and I started iDesign & 3D Prototyping for eighth graders this fall, the first course of its kind during the regular school day at Park Tudor. It was new, and their attitudes were generally positive. They were motivated by the challenges they identified and by being at the core of their own learning. The were energized by a teacher asking them, “How might you?” instead of telling them, “You will.”
For the students, brainstorming and designing their initial sketched prototypes were by far the most engaging and exciting pieces of the design process. But then, iteration two happened based on feedback from the first. And then, again, onto iteration three based on more feedback. They then hit a creative roadblock. I’d seen it before so I was expecting it, but I didn’t know how to handle it. I had no idea how to reignite their enthusiasm.
I didn’t ask the question, “Do you care?” out of the blue. I didn’t even know to ask until I reached out to Greg Bamford and asked, “Is this normal?” and “What do I do?” Greg helped me by reminding me to ask them if they care about the problems they’re trying to solve and making sure their prototypes matter to them.
Ta-da! Failure on my part. I didn’t ask the powers that be if the kids’ prototypes would matter before I let the them take on some pretty impactful challenges. I didn’t ask if there was a budget for implementation, or even if the same challenges were already being handled by adults. The students were redesigning the school schedule, prototyping a digital tool for kids and teachers to stay organized, reimagining a shared outdoor space, and building a device for charging personal devices while at school. Because when the students told us they cared, it was followed by, “But it’s hard to care when you think it might not matter.” Heart dropping - thud. Really, this is just a reminder that eighth graders are smarter and more intuitive than I thought to give them credit for.
Of course their designs matter! They’re based on human need! The design teams are tackling real, deep needs for our school that were discovered through their empathic exploration. It matters! But does it really? They know it might not.
Beyond seeing a prototype come to fruition, the students question whether their voice will be heard. Will their designs be taken seriously? Will their design hold the same value as one created by adults? Does it matter? I didn’t know but promised to find out. Eventually, the design teams will present iterations to decision makers within the school hierarchy and hopefully this will encourage them and reaffirm that their designs will matter, even if in just a small way.
Then a deeper layer was exposed. Our students said, “It’s hard to care when we don’t know what will happen to the prototype, or our idea.” Uncertainty. Lack of clarity. Unpredictability.
It’s uncomfortable for kids to work on something that may or may not have a concrete outcome. More than just the question of whether their designs have value, the students discovered that uncomfortable reality of not knowing. Each day, they’re told what to create, how it will be graded, and how to maximize their grade. A product is created, or an assessment is completed, and the outcome is mostly within their control. And more often than not, their confidence is rooted in that process. They get the road map and directions, then do what they need to arrive at the destination. This unfamiliar terrain of “not knowing” is frustrating, irritating, scary, and exasperating (I’m sure I’ve seen some eye-rolling at times).
For me, this raises more questions than answers. Do kids really need a sense of finality in order to maintain their creativity and motivation? Or, do they just need time to discover another way? As their consultant/teacher/navigator, I care more about how the kids create together than what they create - will that be enough for them? Will they grow to understand and be driven by creativity and wonder, rather than a set of directions and a letter grade? How do I help them feel safe in this zone of discomfort?
We get a new group of students next semester and a new opportunity for a second iteration of iDesign & 3D Prototyping. Come January, the group will absolutely know their designs matter because I’ll have done my research beforehand.
When you’re out there, standing on the crossroads between Highway “Follow the Crowd,” with all the road signs and mile markers to the next big destination that make you feel safe and confident, and County Road “Take a Risk,” which, if you know Midwest County roads, they look like endless roads to the middle of nowhere, you need a group of people who will remind you that it’s okay to not know where you’re going - the journey is what’s meaningful. Don’t be afraid of the unknown. I’m sure more failures will be discovered because there are no real road signs for how to teach like this. All you can do is turn to traveling companions who will encourage and inspire you along the way. Moreover, your companions should be able to say, “I don’t really know either - let’s figure it out together!” That’s why I’m looking forward to Traverse16.