Thursday, June 29, 2017

3 Classroom Tips for Stronger Digital Learning

More and more classrooms are gaining access to digital technology. And that’s a good thing. In a world that is increasingly reliant on digital tools, students need to have opportunities to learn with access to technology. Schools are adding Chromebooks, iPads, and other devices more than ever. Some are simply inviting students to bring their own devices (BYOD). But either way, access to devices is only growing in schools.

But the availability to devices doesn’t automatically result in more learning or better experiences for students or teachers. In fact, the addition of devices presents new challenges for educators to consider. When our school added Chromebooks for every student, we quickly learned we would need to address some new challenges. These obstacles can derail learning in classrooms where the potential pitfalls aren’t addressed or avoided.

If you are an educator who is fortunate enough to have access to digital devices for all your students to use, be ready to take steps to teach the procedures and routines that will help create success for using these tools in learning. It’s important to establish and maintain boundaries. And it’s also important to never make assumptions about what your students may or may not know about using the devices.

1. You can’t assume students are tech savvy just because they are digital natives.

It’s true that students in today’s classrooms are digital natives. They’ve grown up around technology and tend to have some skills that are helpful in navigating the digital world. However, it’s a mistake to think they are proficient in using any tool you might throw at them. For the most part, kids have used technology for social media or entertainment. Using technology for learning, productivity, or creativity might be new to them. So, when you plan for using a new tool in class, plan to spend some time orienting students to how it works.

Or, if you prefer for students learn the tool on their own, provide time for them to experiment with the tool and share out their learning to others in the class. It can be a good idea for students to “teach themselves” a digital tool. New tools and apps are being developed all the time. It’s great practice for students to be able to adapt to new tools and work on the intuitive thinking and problem solving required for “clicking around” and figuring it out. You might want to provide them with a list of tasks they should be able to do with the new tool. And it’s great for the teacher to model what to do when getting stuck. The ability to research solutions via Google or YouTube search can be very helpful.

2. Don’t just teach digital citizenship, embed digital citizenship.
It’s never a good idea to hand students devices without also supporting safe, responsible use. Many schools create their own digital citizenship curriculum or buy one to use with their students. There are also some excellent digital citizenship resources available for free online, from Google or from Common Sense Media for instance. Try to anticipate the problems your students might encounter in using the digital devices in your classroom. Be proactive and have discussions up front with your students about what is appropriate to share, how to judge validity of resources, how to respect content ownership and fair use, and how to report something that is threatening.

While it is important to teach digital citizenship up front, it’s also very important for teachers to monitor student use of technology and use teachable moments to address situations that may arise as students utilize tech. Often the most valuable lessons occur as opportunities arise to discuss relevant issues in authentic context. Digital citizenship should not just be a scheduled lesson. It should be part of everything we do related to the use of technology in the classroom. It’s something educators must model and discuss regularly. Moreover, it’s part of the bigger issue of developing good citizenship in the broadest sense. How are we helping students contribute as positive, productive members of communities online and in physical space?

3. Plan to manage distractions.

One of the most common challenges of implementing devices in the classroom is dealing with the potential distraction technology can present. While technology open up a whole new world of possibilities for learning, it also opens a world of possibilities for diversion away from classroom learning priorities. This prospect is very frightening for many teachers. How will I make sure my students aren’t wasting class time? How can I make sure students are watching content that is not appropriate for school? Will the presence of a screen take away from learning instead of accelerating learning?

Keep in mind distractions are nothing new in the classroom. Keeping students attention has always been a chief concern for teachers. Even in a class without devices, students can find a plethora of things to occupy their attention besides learning. The key to alleviate boredom is to stimulate curiosity and plan engaging lessons. Device distractions are no match for an amazing lesson! At least I think it pays to think like that.

Some schools also choose to purchase classroom monitoring software that allows teachers to view and even take control of student devices. This type of system typically allows teachers to monitor an entire classroom from the teacher’s computer. You may not have this type of software available, and I actually prefer not to utilize it. It’s better for the teacher to be able to move around the room and interact with students rather than being tethered to a computer monitoring students like Big Brother.

Here are some solid tips for managing distractions with no software required.

-Clearly communicate times when students should and should not be on devices.

-Clarify when it is okay to use earbuds and when earbuds should not be used.

-Set up the classroom so you can easily move around and behind students using devices. You need to be able to easily view student screens.

-Require students to only have one browser tab open at a time. This prevents switching tabs when the teacher is not watching to games or media that might be distracting.

-When transitioning from devices to whole group instruction or another activity, wait until you have everyone’s attention before you move on.

-Give specific instructions about which apps or sites should be used during a particular activity. Hold students accountable to use these tools only unless they ask permission to access another site.

These considerations are an essential part of establishing a strong culture of learning in the digital classroom. Other issues will also arise like caring for devices, dealing with tech questions, managing battery life, etc. The most important thing is to work with students to establish classroom expectations and revisit them consistently. It works best when teachers can develop a shared responsibility with students for using devices responsibly and productively. Just like any other classroom behavior, it’s not enough to proclaim a rule and never discuss it again. Students will need reminders and guidance to be successful.

Ultimately, the opportunity to develop digital learning skills is invaluable to students. Students will need to be able to successfully use devices for learning and productivity for the rest of their lives. Although there are challenges with implementing technology in the classroom, with the right approach, teachers can help students become strong digital learners.

Question: What other tips would you share about creating a safe, positive, and productive culture for digital learning? Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter. I can't wait to see what you've got to add. Together we are stronger!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Not Data-Driven But Student-Driven And Future-Driven

I gave an assignment to one of the graduate classes I teach to consider a technology purchase a school has made recently. Was there a good return on the investment? Was the total cost of ownership considered? Was there a clear purpose for obtaining the technology in the first place? Students then explore these questions by talking with a principal or other decision-maker about the process of acquiring the new technology in their school.

One of my students shared about how their school had purchased a software program to help with a broad array of learning objectives. I am paraphrasing below the response she shared from the school leader she interviewed.  
We don't really spend much on technology. We purchased the software to help with mastery of content, but our data didn't show it was effective. We bought it to increase student achievement across the curriculum. It was fun, engaging, and relevant for students, but we make our spending choices based on how it impacts our data. We are data-driven.
Now I certainly realize there are limited resources in every school, and honestly this software sounds like test-prep to me, and there are far more valuable, authentic ways to use technology in my view. But I was also puzzled by the idea that a method or strategy could increase engagement, be fun and relevant, and yet if it doesn't show an measurable impact in data, it's not valuable or worthwhile. That seems to be the line of thinking.

We've spent a significant amount of money in our district on Chromebooks as part of our digital learning initiative. And I'm thankful for the support of our district to provide this learning tool for students. But there have been questions raised about how we know this digital transformation is resulting in learning gains. What data proves that this is working?

And I can understand when a school is spending a lot of money, we want to see evidence that it's money well-spent. But that evidence may not be quantifiable. I believe providing a Chromebook for students to use for learning is a necessary part of preparing students as learners for life in a world that is increasingly digital. But I don't think it's possible with any degree of validity or reliability to show direct links between this tool and a learning outcome.

What if we applied the same type of thinking to other aspects of school?

Can you show me that your school library has a measurable impact on student achievement?

Could you please show us that your textbook has a measurable impact on student achievement? 

What data can you present to demonstrate that music, art, career education, or athletics has a measurable impact on student achievement? 

We spend significantly on all of these in our district because we think they are incredibly important (the importance of the textbook might be up for debate). And we know they are important not because we have data measures that tell us so. But we do have plenty of evidence that demonstrates their impact. We know they are good for kids and good for learning.

When I hear the term data-driven, I admit it makes me cringe just a little. I always try to view learning through the lens of being a dad. I never want the complexity of my child's learning reduced to a number. It is dehumanizing. Is it inevitable in the current system? Yes, it probably is. College entrance emphasizes the ACT score for instance. But I know there are many brilliant students who are not accurately represented as learners based on an ACT score.

Instead of data-driven, shouldn't we first be student-driven. George Couros has written about this idea and shared it in his presentations. People are always more important than any metric or number. When we reduce a person's abilities to a number we risk putting limits on their potential and capabilities. NBA superstar Stephen Curry didn't allow the numbers to keep him from greatness. Coming out of college he was considered by scouts to be undersized with athleticism far below the NBA standard. He couldn't run as fast or jump as high as the typical elite athletes in the league. From a data-driven perspective, at best he would be a marginal contributor on an NBA team. He would be a role player.

But what the NBA scouts didn't account for was his commitment to excellence, his incredible work ethic, his passion and instincts for the game. He turned the numbers upside down. He used creativity and risk-taking to gain the upper hand on superior athletes. His success reminds me of this Jon Gordon quote:
The world will try to measure you by scores and numbers, but they'll never be able to measure the power of your desire and size of your heart. 
When we are student-driven, we make decisions that recognize a student has potential far beyond what the numbers might indicate. We don't make our decisions based on numbers alone. We make decisions based on good thinking that includes what we know about human potential and what students need to succeed in a complex, uncertain world.

So even if we can't quantify the impact of a digital device, that doesn't mean it isn't valuable to learning. Our world is increasingly digital and being an effective learner means being an effective digital learner too. Being student-driven also means being future-driven, especially in today's rapidly changing world. We are doing the right thing for our students when we do what's best for them in the long run, not just to raise a score in the short term.

Later this summer, I'm releasing my new book, Future Driven: Will Your Students Thrive In An Unpredictable World? It will empower you to crush the status quo, create authentic learning, and unleash your passion to help students succeed in a time of unprecedented change. In hockey, the puck is traveling at speeds up to 100 mph. And that's why players say you don't skate where the puck is, you skate where it is going. The same is true for our students and schools. We must be student-driven and future-driven to create learning that will serve students well in our modern world. The puck is moving fast, and we have to help our students keep up.

In the coming weeks, I'll share more details about my book release and give my blog readers an in-depth preview. I've poured all my energy, effort, and enthusiasm into this project, and I'm excited to share it with you. It truly is a passion-project. And I think you'll love the message and want to add it to your professional library.

You might also want to check out this post from George Couros and this one from Lisa Westman both with strong ideas regarding being student-driven.

Question: What are your thoughts on being student-driven and future-driven? What role does data play? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Venting Doesn't Extinguish Anger, It Feeds It

It was a blast to join Jon Harper recently as a guest on his terrific podcast, My Bad. Of course, the show is all about owning a mistake you've made as an educator and reflecting on what you learned from it. It's a great concept because many of us working in schools think we need to be perfect. That's never going to happen. We just need to be authentic and striving to get better.

I shared about how I used to get so frustrated by students, parents, other teachers, administrators, etc. You name it. I got frustrated and let it be known. I didn't share my blaming and complaining far and wide, but with a small group of people it was common for me to just vent. And I thought that was perfectly healthy. It actually felt good. I looked forward to letting out all that frustration.

But I've learned that venting actually isn't helpful. In fact, it can cause more angry, aggressive behaviors. In his outstanding book, Originals, Adam Grant shares a behavioral study designed by psychologist Brad Bushman. It demonstrates how venting impacts our psyche.
Participants were asked to write an essay about whether they were against abortion or pro-choice. They then received some harsh written feedback from a peer with the opposite view, who rated their essays as disorganized, unoriginal, poorly written, unclear, unpersuasive, and low in quality, adding, "This is one of the worst essays I have read!"
The angry recipients were then randomly assigned to one of three responses, venting, distraction, or control. The members of the venting group were allowed to hit a punching bag as hard as they wanted for as long as they liked, while thinking about the jerk who criticized their essays and looking at his picture. The distraction group hit the punching bag but was instructed to think about becoming physically fit, and was shown a photo of someone exercising. In the control group, there was no punching bag; participants sat quietly for two minutes while the computer was being fixed. Which group would become most aggressive toward the peer who insulted them?
To find out, Bushman gave each of the groups the chance to blast their essay's critic with noise, letting them determine the volume and duration of the sonic blasts.
The venting group was the most aggressive. They slammed the critic with more intense noise, and held the button down longer, than the distraction and control groups. One participant got so angry after thinking about the insulting feedback that hitting the punching bad wasn't enough: he punched a hole in the wall of the lab.
Venting doesn't extinguish the flame of anger; it feeds it. When we vent our anger, we put the lead foot on the gas pedal of the go system, attacking the target who enraged us.
Working as an educator is a stressful job. There are many, many things we can choose to be frustrated about in a typical day. As a result, it is very tempting to vent to our friends, our colleagues, our spouse, or some other listening ear. But it's not a healthy response. It's better to do nothing than to vent.

But anger doesn't have to be harmful. Emotions are not good or bad inherently. They are only good or bad depending how we act on them. Anger can actually be a source of energy for taking positive action, solving problems, and making something better. Anger can motivate us to do something to improve a situation.

Blaming and complaining are completely ineffective. They just compound frustration and only have negative consequences, for us and others. Venting is blowing off steam without doing anything to correct the root problem.

Instead of venting, do something to create change.

But what about those situations you can't do anything about? There are some things that frustrate us that are completely out of our hands. We have no opportunity for influence. Now I would caution that these instances are rarer than most people perceive. We sometimes like to pass the buck and tell ourselves there is nothing we can do. Usually, there is some possible way to help or try to make something better. We just have to stop avoiding the things that frustrate us and step forward with solutions.

But if the situation is beyond us, it is still better to do nothing than to vent. 

Consider these questions when you are frustrated. What's bothering you? What would you like to do about it? What would be a helpful response? What's your next step? How can you be part of the solution?

I want to challenge all educators to stop venting and start doing. Be problem solvers. I'm trying to give up my venting ways. Complaining doesn't help me or anyone else in the long run. Let's all make it a point to give up on venting.

If you want to here my entire conversation with Jon, I've shared it with you below.

Question: How do you handle your frustrations? Are you ready to go beyond venting and help make the world a better place? Respond below or on Twitter or Facebook. I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

We Want Students to Think 'HOW Am I Smart?' Not 'AM I Smart?'

In a recent post, I considered the importance of building on student strengths rather than a deficit-driven approach. When we help students understand their strengths and use them for learning, we show them they are valued for who they are. And we help them develop greater efficacy as a learner so they will want to learn more.

As I continue to reflect on this idea, I am reminded that we should never sort kids into smart or not smart. Even subtle decisions in the classroom can lead kids to think of themselves as not smart. And when a student's confidence suffers as a learner, then motivation is likely to suffer too. Instead, we want them to think, "How am I smart?" Every student has strengths as a learner.

And these strengths shouldn't be confined to just certain subjects. For instance, some students think they are only good at reading or writing, but don't recognize any strengths in math. I am suggesting that in every discipline, we teach students to identify their strengths and build on them.

So, even when working with a struggling writer, we can recognize that the student has a strength with imagination, spelling, or whatever. What is one area of writing that is stronger than the others? Identify that and build on it.

If a math student struggles with basic facts or number sense that gap is going to present challenges, but what mathematical skills do they have that we can reinforce? What is a way they can enter the problem based on a strength they have in their thinking? Build on that.

Students with highly specialized minds can be brilliant in certain areas and struggle mightily in other areas. When we recognize things that are familiar to them as strengths, we can use these things as a pathway to learn new skills. We start with the familiar and move to the unfamiliar. We all like to learn that way.

All students want to feel like learning has value, and they have a good chance of success. It leads to more engagement. In fact, all performance is built on strengths. That doesn't mean students shouldn't try something new or shouldn't be pushed out of their comfort zone. But we must first start with strengths and use that to lead into more challenging areas.

Question: What ideas do you have for identifying student strengths? How do we do this? I want to hear from you. Share a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Do Something Today to Move in the Direction of Your Dreams

Walt Disney was fired by his newspaper editor because "he lacked imagination and had no good ideas." 

Reportedly, Albert Einstein was told as a child, "You will never amount to anything!"

Beethoven's music was not initially accepted by critics and one music teacher said, "as a composer, he is hopeless."

You've heard stories like these of famous failures. We see the incredible achievements of their lives, but we often forget the struggles they most definitely faced. We all face struggles. Most every person can relate to withstanding a biting critique or unfair assessment. 

And when we hear these voices expressing doubts about us, our abilities, and even our intentions, it can cause us to doubt ourselves, our worth, and our purpose in this world.

But often the voice that is most damaging to our future is the voice within us. It's our own shadow. We are often our own worst critics. Our internal voice says play it safe, don't take any chances, just stay comfortable.

Our shadow makes us hesitate. It generates fear in us that is paralyzing. We retreat to the familiar, the routine, the mundane.

But don't let your shadow steal your dream!

If you have a dream, don't put it off. If you feel a push to do something, make it happen. As Henry David Thoreau urged, "advance confidently in the direction of your dreams." Don't wait.

The shadow's push-back against your dreams will not relent unless you push-through and just go for it. Make something happen.

Over a year ago, I took the first step toward a dream I have of writing a book for educators. I wanted to write a book that would make a difference for classrooms and schools. I started. But then my own voice of discouragement slowed my progress. I was too busy (so I thought). My ideas were lacking (so I thought). I hesitated.

But I am determined to push through. I am determined to see this dream realized. Before I return to school in August, my new book will be published. My hope is that it will challenge and inspire educators to crush the status-quo so we can better prepare students for an unpredictable world. 

Cheesy photo to keep me focused!

I want to use my effort, enthusiasm, and experiences to strengthen our profession. I want to see stronger schools. I want to see more excitement for learning than ever before. I want to see students and teachers engaged and empowered by their school experience. That is my dream.

And I want the same for you. I want to see your talents and passions used to reach for your dreams. There will never be a perfect time. Your shadow always wants you to hesitate. Don't listen to your internal critic. Do something today to move in the direction of your dreams.

A body in motion tends to stay in motion. And a body at rest tends to stay at rest. If you are going to fulfill your purpose in life, you have to step forward in faith. You have to take risks. You can't play it safe. You have to take that first step now. 

As I make progress on finishing the book, I'll share some updates here on my blog. I'll give you a preview of the book and detailed plans for release. And I'll also ask for your help in sharing the news in your circles. 

Press on toward your dreams! 

Question: What are you going to do this summer to move in the direction of your dreams? I want to hear from you. Share your story of overcoming your shadow. Let's unleash our purpose and potential together. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Deeper Learning Is By Discovery, Not Delivery

We've been talking about Bloom's Taxonomy and critical thinking for as long as I've been an educator. And yet we still have work to do to get kids cognitively engaged in classrooms. We can't seem to shake the traditional methods that turn education into a delivery system, rather than a powerful engine of discovery and inquiry.

So much of the conventional wisdom is wrong. For instance, many teachers believe we should teach the basics and then if we have time, include opportunities for critical thinking. Our assessments are often organized that way. Most of the items will be recall/knowledge level questions with one or two performance events or critical thinking tasks at the end. It seems like critical thinking is always an after thought.

In my first year of teaching, I remember one of my mentors gave me this advice, "Make them (the students) think." And that's exactly what we need to do. We need to design learning that involves students in making meaning, not just accepting information. If we want students to get deeper understanding and enjoy learning, that is what we must do.

Here are some of the differences in approaching education as a delivery system vs. a discovery system.


1. Students are expected to accept information (textbook, lecture, study packet, notes, etc).

2. Learning is impersonal and disconnected. 

3. Understanding is limited to what was taught.

4. The teacher is doing much of the thinking and explaining.

5. Learning is measured by right and wrong answers.

6. The teacher mostly decides the direction of learning.

7. Teaches step-by-step problem solving (at best).

8. Relies on compliance, following instructions, rules.

9. Passive, receiving, accepting, memorizing type of learning.


1. Students are making meaning of information (thinking critically and creatively).

2. It connects to the learner's interest, aptitude, experience, and even their personality.

3. Understanding often results in new ideas.

4. The student is forced to assume more cognitive load. 

5. Learning is measured by the quality of your thinking (and ultimately quality thinking will result in right answers).

6. The students' questions help determine the direction of the learning.

7. Teaches students to activate their reasoning skills to solve problems.

8. Relies on curiosity, interests, and exploration.

9. Active, reasoning, questioning, connecting, synthesizing type of learning.

There are numerous advantages to discovery learning. Students will remember more of the facts and fundamentals of the discipline when they learn this way. They will have more context to connect ideas and make learning stick. They will also develop skills as independent learners, something that will serve them well their whole life.

And it doesn't have to be complicated. Although I'm a big fan of project-based learning, we can make students think in simple ways without an extended project. Sometimes the simplest teacher moves are the most effective. Try this: Wait longer after you ask a question before you accept a student answer. Then, wait longer after the student responds to the question before you say anything. Instead of saying the answer is right or wrong, ask, "And why do you think that?" 

This summer I challenge you to think about how a lesson could be better next year. How could you improve your lesson design so that learning becomes more discovery and less delivery?

Question: What tips would you share for making students think? How do you achieve cognitive engagement? Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter. Your suggestions are like gold!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Are You Strengths-Based Or Deficit-Driven?

An important part of being an excellent teacher is attempting to create conditions that cause all kids to want to learn more. If we can consistently develop each student's desire to know, they will eventually become unstoppable learners. We can never assume the motivation and engagement of students is a fixed characteristic. We should never assume some students are just naturally curious and others are not. Instead, we should always be striving to unleash the natural curiosity and wonder in every learner.

One reason some students withhold effort and engagement is a feeling that they will not be successful as a learner. When students don't believe in their own ability to learn, they tend to avoid learning. School has a way of sorting students into smart/not-smart, learners/non-learners, capable/not-capable. At least, that's how a number of students feel. 

Unfortunately, for too many students, school has felt like a place where they are constantly reminded of what they aren't good at. And that needs to change if we hope to create learning environments where all students become curious, enthusiastic, and engaged learners.

What if every educator in your school committed to make learning a strengths-based endeavor? What kind of place would your school be? Talk with your team about the belief statements I shared below. How can these translate into a different approach to learning for your school?    

1. Every student has unique gifts and talents as a learner.

2. Students who are confident learners will learn more. They will want to learn more.

3. Each student needs to feel like he/she can be successful.

4. Educators should recognize different aptitudes and adjust accordingly. One-size-fits-all doesn't work.

5. Learning is build on strengths and not deficits. Are you reminding students more of their assets or their liabilities?

6. We should focus on what a child can do, instead of what he/she cannot do.

7. Teachers should design learning experiences that allow students to use strengths to make meaning. Allow students to enter the problem in a way that is familiar and go from there.

8. It's impossible to develop an effective learning experience if we treat a classroom full of students like they all have the same strengths.

9. Success breeds success. So if students have success with a task in their strength area, they are more likely to take on a task that isn't in their strength area.

10. We all give and withhold effort depending on our own feelings of talent, skill and efficacy.

11. Seek to understand how students learn best, and help students understand how they learn best.

When we help students find their strengths and use them for learning, we show them they are valued for who they are. Their confidence soars. And with increased confidence, students will want to learn more.

Questions: How are you building on students' strengths as learners? What needs to change to make school more personalized to account for different learning strengths? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.
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