Feet, You Had Feet?

Love In The Time of Corona and Other Musings…

Zagreb, March 22, 2020

When I was younger in the U.S., there was an old Roy Rogers commercial playing with two men arguing about who had it harder growing up. They started talking about walking to school long distances, not having shoes, then socks, ending up with the punch line which is the title of this story. It’s ‘dad’ humor but I still love that line.

But c’mon, you gotta give it up for Zagreb. We had an earthquake in the middle of a pandemic. And can you believe people had to practice social distancing whilst evacuating onto the streets?

Can I get an amen?

While many of you may have experienced snow days, our school called an earthquake day which was a relief from virtual day because of pandemic week. Thankfully, although several teachers lost their apartments, no one in the entire school community was injured or killed by the 5.4 tremor. This is truly amazing for a place with old buildings that hasn’t experienced something like that in 140 years.

I asked some of my Croatian friends how people were being so stoic through it all and they said, “Well, we did live through a war only 25 years ago.” Ah right, the war. And so it goes.

There are many international teachers that have been in tough situations. Wars, floods, earthquakes, fire, coups, sudden closures, disease, and the list goes on and on. So, this is certainly not an attempt to demonstrate anything new in the experience of international teachers or to make some platitudes about how we have to pull together in tough times, with or without feet.

But what opportunity, what necessity that stands right before us (that amazing and always reliable mother of inventions), is the chance to teach us something that we cannot miss in that precious space when new knowledge meets experience, that thing most often referred to as learning.

We thought we were doing this as educators before, but most of us were not. We did some online stuff, a few Khan Academies served with a side of Pamoja. There were tech integrators, workshops, and even virtual learning platforms, but it wasn’t all in. Now, obviously it is. What an amazing ice bucket challenge.

So now we stand side by side with our students, hand in virtual hand, having to figure &%$ out, humbled by realities that we don’t have answers for, but with a blue moon chance to redesign not only the what of our work, but truly the WHY of it. (Thanks Simon Sinek for that).

Of course we have to be a stable force for our students. We cannot throw our arms up, wailing at the sky proclaiming that nothing matters anymore. Of course it does. Much of what we’ve been doing to this point matters very much. But this is our chance to move that needle not just by an incremental skip but by a leap. Are we really going to go back to school once we get through this (and we will), and be like, “Whew that was close, okay everyone, now where were we? Oh, right, chapter five, photosynthesis.”

No, we’re not. We’re going to take a real, hard look at the WHY. We have to.

Why am I standing in front of you?

Why am I asking you to learn these things when those other things are SO much more important but we never get to them?

Why don’t I listen to you more and to myself talking less? (After all, for the past several weeks or months you hardly heard me talk at all).

Why can’t we be the change we want to see in the world now instead of hoping that years from now when you get out of university you might decide to make a difference?

This relationship between learner and teacher, between prior experience and new knowledge, between expert and witness, has changed. It has by necessity. It has for the better.

So, when we do go back, when we return to what we used to think of as normal, even if it takes a long time, we have to take what these opportunities have taught us and be honest about them, not just about the virtuality of learning, but of the humanity this revealed and what we owe to our students to do something real with it.

It’s nice, after all, to have feet.

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Does Changing Assessment Improve Instruction?

In 2015-2016 we planned a new middle school, with a minimalistic standards based grading system. In the same year, a math teacher piloted standards based grading in one of her grade 10 classes. The success of these two experiences led to whole school work on assessment in 2017-2018, culminating with an inservice by Ken O’Connor, based on our interest in his book A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades. A coordinator was hired to lead the process in 2018-2019, which happened to coincide with a new PowerSchool administrator, and in Fall 2019 we launched standards based grading across the entire school.

Not without some issues, of course. 

But the issues haven’t given rise to any serious roadblocks, even if at times parents aren’t sure what grades mean and we teachers are left scratching our heads over how our inputs produced this or that Powerschool output. 

All in all I think we can say the transition has gone well. 

Faculty are indeed a bit weary of talking about assessment. It’s been multiple years now that this has been our school focus, so the creeping fatigue is understandable. Departments aren’t all on the same page and standards, though written, aren’t necessarily part of the school’s DNA. But we’ve successfully abandoned A-F grades. We’ve successfully separated course content from behavior – no longer is a student’s grade lowered because of a uniform violation or late work, things not directly associated with demonstrated student knowledge in a particular academic discipline. We report less by type of assessment and more by what is learned. And we are slowly aligning school privileges and identifying tutoring needs based on real need. Plus, the stage is set for a culture of students revising subpar work, or even good but not great work, to cyclically continue to improve. All good stuff.

But. You knew there was a but. And there is. 

But can we say that instruction has actually changed for the better? To what degree have we assimilated the changes, as teachers, in a way that supersedes reporting, interfacing with PowerSchool, toeing the new line, and so on. The big question:

Are students likely to learn more due to our new assessment system? This was our hope.

So far it’s hard to say. And it’s hard to research. First, our scale has changed from A-F to 1-7, differently defined. We can’t compare one to the other to see if more learning is going on. And as our assessment leader pointed out, which group of teachers should we work with to see if we’re making a difference? The early adopters who have been operating quite close to our intended design? Or the early adopters who have been more liberal in their adoption? Or the late adopters who may be on the right track, but don’t have much experience yet? Or the late not-quite adopters who need more time to get on board? 

And there’s one other interesting question, at least from the point of us research-practitioners. If we research instructional change and student outcomes based on any instructional changes due to the new assessment system too early, and find no change, are we damaging the potential for the new assessment practices to bring about change? Is it actually wisest not to ask ourselves yet if it’s “working?” 

But. When will be the right time?

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A Virtual Hug

So just like thousands of schools around the world these days, we have been thrust into the reality of distance learning. We managed to successfully navigate through the first four days with our community just last week, and for the most part it went really well. We had plenty of success stories and celebrations, and of course a few glitches to work through, but all in all we transitioned nicely. We were super fortunate that we had some wonderful on-line platforms already in place, and as was the case with so many schools around the globe, we had our educator friends and colleagues in Asia to thank for blazing the trail and showing us the way. 

That said, I’m fully aware that it’s only been four days, and as we stare down the possibility of a long term campus closure we need to turn our attention to sustainability and community balance…it’s going to be tricky I know, but like the many schools who are already weeks ahead of us, we will eventually find our way. 

What I really want to talk about this week however, is how inspired I am to be a part of this amazing International School community, and how proud I am to be an educator as we lean on each other through this difficult and interesting time. We often talk to our students about the power and importance of sharing and collaborating and risk taking, and how true growth and success comes out of facing adversity and being resilient.  What I’ve seen over the past several weeks has cemented my belief that the world’s truest superheroes are educators, and I want to thank you all for your passion, creativity, generous spirit and your unwavering sense of joy and hope. 

I feel like the world is waking up to the incredible complexities of teaching, and how much hard work and effort it takes everyday to engage children in their learning…and that’s just on a regular day! In exceptional circumstances like these, where educators need to show such unbelievable adaptability, imagination, and flexibility, it drives home the point even more…educators are truly modern day heroes.  

Anyway, I just want to reach through this computer and give you all a virtual hug, and thank you for all that you are doing for our children, our families and our world. Keep sharing, keep collaborating and keep leading the way as we all struggle through this global situation together. There are of course many silver linings to this experience, and if we continue to lead with our hearts we will come out the other end all the better for it as an educational world. Have a wonderful on-line week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other. 

Quote of the Week…

No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra to play it.

  • H.E. Luccock

Inspiring Videos – 

On-Line Courses for Kids

Inspiring Millions

Brothers in Humanity

TED Talk – Adversity

Distance Learning (Funny…Be Thoughtful)

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Will Covid-19 Kill Homework?

After our first full virtual learning day, I looked to my daughter finishing her dinner and said, smiling, “So, do you have any homework?”

We both broke out laughing hysterically (as one can do in these dystopian times) and then fell quiet.

“No, actually, I don’t,” she said with confidence. “And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Will Covid-19 kill homework?

When learning becomes seamless, it really shines a spotlight on our arcane routines. What is it about virtual learning that seems to disintegrate homework? Is it the lack of physical movement from one place to another, school to home? Is it just something that is supposed to happen after dinner?

I cannot envision us going back to ‘work at home’ and ‘work at school’ once this horrible crisis is over. If homework is to survive, it can no longer just be an extension of the stuff we did all day at school, or busy work as a thin guise to convince parents that we have ‘rigor.’ Now that those lines have disappeared, we are going to have to really introspect why learning in a ‘social setting’ is important and why being home is important in a different way. (It’s the same reason we have to re-think meetings, but that’s another blog).

The data coming out of this crisis is going to be absolutely stunning. From human behavior under stress, to the rise of the introvert and independent learner, to the relationship of caretakers and children, communications platforms, online assessments, asynchronous and synchronous learning, creativity in traditional subjects, balance, and all the things we have talked about as the future of education but were just too busy to do…until a pandemic forced us to do it. I am really curious to see if homework in its current form is going to survive, and if it should.

I had the last laugh with my daughter, however. “Well, since you don’t have homework,” I said with confidence. “You can take the dog out AND do the dishes AND clean up your smelly soccer jersey on the floor AND…

Homework? You just might have met your match.

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Splashes of Yellow

So sometimes the road leading out of winter and into spring can be long, and in countries like France, it means clouds and rain and a constant chill in the air. You can find yourself longing for a burst of sunshine and if you’re not careful it can start to negatively affect your energy and mindset. Last week I even found myself having to dig a little deeper to keep my energy up and my smile bright, which is very unusual for me, until out of nowhere something super small happened that gave me the boost that I needed. 

I was coming home from walking the dog early one morning, just as the light was beginning to spread across the day, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a beautiful splash of yellow. The first gorgeous tulip of the season had magically appeared in my yard and I instantly felt this boost of joy and inspiration. It was exactly what I needed at the time and honestly, it reminded me of schools in a funny way, and the day to day lives that seem to string together in a blur during these long stretches at work. It re-connected me to the importance of little celebrations…the intentional and purposeful celebration of little wins along the way with our kids and with each other…those little splashes of yellow that come out of nowhere and scream out to be recognized. 

Oftentimes in schools, and in life, we can go way, way too long without stopping to recognize and celebrate the incredible work that we all do, and the amazing daily accomplishments that happen in the learning lives of our students. I spent that tulip flower day last week reflecting on the journey that we’ve been on as a collective team, and really, it’s staggering to think of how far we’ve come over the past two and a half years. We are in the midst of so many wonderful changes as a division and as a school and we can’t forget to regularly celebrate. I think in many ways we do a nice job as educators with our weekly celebration google doc, and our fun March Gladness initiative, and with our celebratory faculty meetings that we have from time to time, but I’m wondering if I (we) can do a little bit more celebrating with our kids. 

This literal “march” into Spring is hard for many of us as adults and I know it can be hard for our students as well. My challenge to all of us this week is to intentionally celebrate our kids for their effort, their success, their positive attitude and for their youthful joy…they are all throwing out little splashes of yellow all over the place, each and every day, and a compliment and a simple public recognition will be that burst of sunshine that they need…it will make us feel warm and sunny too! Okay, I’ll commit to continue to find ways to celebrate our many successes as a team, and I’m going to celebrate as many kids as I can this week…join me for the fun and let’s all be their makeshift sunshine, and the little splashes of yellow for all of them until the actual sun decides to make an appearance. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other. 

Quote of the Week…

Celebration comes when the common features of life are redeemed

  • Richard J. Foster

Inspiring Videos- 

Home for Senior Dogs

Friendship Saves

How NOT to Raise Your Children

TED Talk – Fear Setting

TED Talk – Giving as a Source of Pleasure

Related Articles – 

Celebrating Our Students

Celebrating Accomplishments 

Small Wins at Work

Achieve Big Goals

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Visiting Scholars

Our school has been hosting visiting scholars for the past six years. To date nearly fifty graduate students, business people, teachers, and professors have lived and worked with our faculty on curriculum, research, and other projects. 

As I write, one scholar, now on her third visit, is taking the train to visit a student in the hospital. He recently interviewed her in front of several classes – the day before, in fact, the ski accident that landed him in the hospital. In front of me are the preparations for two additional visiting scholars, arriving this weekend. One is on sabbatical from his teaching position, here to learn how we use technology at our school, the other is contributing her knowledge to our ongoing studies of research about the climate crisis.

This past week I interviewed some former visiting scholars for a publication that four of us are working on – three past visiting scholars and me. The interviews were the first time in six years that I’ve reached out to visiting scholars to learn about the experience from their perspective. (From my perspective their visits are incredible. I learn from them and with them and get glimpses into their cultural points-of-view. My colleagues connect with our visitors, many form ongoing friendships which sometimes lead to travel, presentations, and additional projects.)

So while we plan to write up what we learn from our interviews in a more formal publication, I don’t have the patience to wait before sharing some of the things I’ve heard in the first three interviews. From Australia and Northern Europe, here is what they said.

Alys shared that she had strong feelings of accomplishment while with us and that she gained personal confidence. As a PhD student at the time, being treated as an expert, and given the chance to make useful contributions to our faculty members, helped her develop into the academic she is today. She enjoyed the creativity, the chance to work directly with students, and all the conversations and reflections with those she met at our school. 

Alys remembers in particular the drama teacher that she met during one of her visits and how he appreciated having someone outside the school observe his lesson. She enjoyed being a presenter at our annual student conference, and publishing a piece about the curriculum we developed for that conference. She also made at least three further connections through our research center, connecting with administrators and visiting their schools in Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.

Alma stayed with us once, for nearly eight weeks, during which time we developed and taught a curriculum unit on the rights of the child. We published a piece about it following her visit and I still use the curriculum in teacher workshops I lead now and again.

Alma was chiefly looking for a quiet place to do her own work. She found it here among the Alps, in our quiet village. She rearranged her room so that the desk faced out across the valley, enjoying the view while she read and wrote. 

While she enjoyed her experience, she reflected afterwards – and she recommends for future visiting scholars – that it’s good to get involved with the school and it’s valuable to spend time with the children. She reflected on her own time in boarding school, at roughly the same age as our students, and how children face more or less the same issues that she faced. 

Alma also mentioned that through the visiting scholar experience here in Switzerland she got to know one of her own colleagues, Baldur, from their university.

Baldur stayed for a shorter visit than Alma, but like Alma, enjoyed the ability to concentrate, away from the phone calls and meetings of university life. He read and wrote and enjoyed the inspiration of our school’s setting, particularly after he realized that we didn’t expect him to prepare a report or achieve any particular results. He felt he could just care for himself and adopt a rhythm which allowed him to catch up on reading and writing that he had been waiting to get to for a long time.

Baldur is proud that an initiative he started, a student led writing center, has turned into an ongoing project supported by both librarians. His university has in fact provided online training for one of our student writing tutors, and as our writing centers grow we intend to lean on Baldur and his expertise even more. 

Baldur also felt he grew a bit personally as he watched the faculty and students of an international school, from more than forty nationalities, interact on a daily basis. The international nature of the curriculum and the constant infusion of global issues differs from his experience at home. Luckily he attended an event led by a group of university students during his stay – an event that we were bringing students to, so we took Baldur along. That night we all simulated the negotiations of the Paris Climate Agreement in the basement of a hotel, as representatives from various countries across the world. 

Summary

Jumping into whatever activities the school happens to be involved with is a hallmark of the visiting scholar experience. As Baldur said about the grill party in our community garden, with chickens running between us pecking for fallen scraps of food, “I loved it.” 

Each of these visiting scholars mentioned the beauty of Leysin, the view, and the ability to focus (even while living in the middle of a boarding school). They all three mentioned meeting colleagues from around the world, particularly in the cafeteria, and all the conversations they had, whether about their own research or other teaching and learning going on at the school.

And as is evident, they all stayed connected with our school, and they all hope to come for another visit (and we would love to have them spend more time with us). It’s a beautiful thing to grow an interwoven community of practice across institutions and countries, and even more gratifying when the scholars become lifelong friends who invite us from Leysin to come visit them in their homes and spend time at their schools and universities. We are a truly lucky school.

During the 2019-2020 school year, over 20 visiting scholars have visited LAS. We thank them for sharing their time with us and invite you to contact us if you are interested in learning more about the program.

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What to Read in 2020

So it’s that time again and I’m super excited…new books for a new year! I just finished my final couple of books from 2019 over the February break, and I’ve spent the last week or so compiling my list for 2020…I’ve looked at book reviews and online articles, I’ve combed through book stores, and I’ve asked around for recommendations from friends and colleagues from all around the world, and I now have a preliminary list of 15 books that I’m eager to read…see below.

As usual, I’m encouraging you all to take a few minutes this week to look through these titles, and to order one (or five) that resonate with you…or, do your own research and share those titles with me so I can add them to this list. The suggestions below revolve around the themes of education, leadership, creativity, innovation and culture building, with an overarching focus on becoming a better person and educator for our world. Anyway, happy reading in 2020…a good book can be transformative in so many ways, so please make the time, I promise you it will be time well spent. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.

Quote of the Week…

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body – Joseph Addison

Recommendations –

Malcolm Gladwell – Talking to Strangers

Buckingham-Goodall – Nine Lies About Work

Max Yoder- Do Better Work

Lydia Denworth – Friendship

Dan Heath – Upstream

Daniel Levitin – The Changing Mind

Paul Tough – The Years That Matter Most

Kim Marshall – The Best of the Marshall Memo

Jessica Carson – Wired this Way

Simon Sinek – The Infinite Game

Rob Walker – The Art of Noticing

Medcalf-Mattison – The Future of Leadership

Sugata Mitra – The School in the Cloud

Jim Davies – Imagination

Karen Catlin – Better Allies

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Cybersecurity Part 4: Surviving Ransomware

By Tony DePrato | Follow Me on LinkedIn

The scope of all the following arguments is for equipment owned by the school, or equipment approved to use at school. This post is not promoting policies for personal devices used solely at home, nor is this post addressing devices that may be used for entertainment or non-academic purposes.

Ransomware, in its most basic form, is self-explanatory. Data is captured, encrypted, and held for ransom until a fee is paid. The two most common forms of ransomware delivery are through email and websites.~ https://insights.sei.cmu.edu/sei_blog/2017/05/ransomware-best-practices-for-prevention-and-response.html

Ransomware is scary. Ransomware, once it begins to propagate, becomes more about survival and mitigation and less about prevention.

I have thought about how to advise K12 schools around the world how to prepare for ransomware. I have concluded that there are only two approaches everyone can follow: Reduce or Completely Remove Windows and Create Very Inconvenient Backups of Data. 

Reduce or Completely Remove Windows

I decided to compile known types of ransomware. I stopped at 106 identified types. Here is a graph, and link to the sources, that demonstrate what operating systems are vulnerable:

Screen Shot 2020-02-19 at 8.58.44 AM
Data Link

If you want to do the math:

  • 106 Ransomware programs
  • 100 Target Windows Operating Systems
  • 93%-94% of Targets are Windows Operating Systems
  • Using Windows is Riskier than Using other Systems

“Riskier” is a little weak in this case. It is very likely that Windows users will be a target, it is very unlikely that Apple and Chromebook users will be a target. 

If the goal is to live in a relatively peaceful ransomware free environment, then the majority of end-users need to be using Apple or Chrome-based devices (Linux varieties are also an option for a subset of users). 

There are tools for Windows that help defend and protect against ransomware. However, nothing is better than not being attacked at all.

Create Very Inconvenient Backups of Data

Every time I ask an IT director or IT manager about backups, they claim they are 100% compliant and 100% able to deal with any problems. I have never believed my planning was close to 100%, nor have I ever believed I could restore 100% of all data. I would say, at my best, I am 60%-70% certain that I can restore 80%-90% of data. 

Data. Not operating systems and settings. Data. Not the software that was installed. Just all the data consisting of but not limited to documents, databases, movies, music, pictures, special configuration files, scripts and code, and the inclusive content of all websites.

There is only one question a person needs to ask to confirm if backups are safe from ransomware: “Can the backup be accessed right now if we need it?”.

If the answer is ‘Yes’, then backups are going to be vulnerable. 

There should be at least two layers of backups. Layer one can be data that is backed-up and accessible on the network, in the cloud, and/or from normal workstations. Meaning, someone can sit down and create or restore a laptop, database, etc by following a workflow at their desk. 

Layer two backups are inconvenient. These backups are stored outside of the normal network. These backups are scheduled and not even accessible by network administrators without taking extra steps. These backups require some level of multifactor authentication or even a physical lock and key.

Backup

Layer two backups also need to be tested at least monthly (this is only recommended for K12 schools most businesses need to test more frequently; school districts would need to test very often and on a predetermined schedule).

Tests need to include:

  1. Data restoration
  2. Data access and use
  3. A scan for malware, ransomware, etc
  4. An iterative process to consistently reduce the size of backups
  5. An archival process to store data that will most likely never be needed, but is legally required to store
  6. Imagination. Because you never know where you will be and what the situation will be when you need to access these backups

A very low tech approach to a layer two back-up could include someone taking an external drive to the data source, moving the data manually, and then locking the drive in a safe. Do not overthink this, just start doing it and keep improving the process. If you can access these backups from your workstation, then those backups are vulnerable by definition.

If ransomware happens, and the data cannot be decrypted, this layer two data would be safe as it would be offline. Layer one backups may stay secure, but layer two backups will be secure unless you are victim of very bad timing. 

The cybersecurity industry is rapidly developing better protocols for handling ransomware. Staying educated and studying cases is not only essential, but it should also be scheduled into the cycle of work at least once every 6-8 weeks.

The data above could change. An uptick in ransomware for Chrome or Apple of even 1% is enough to review internal processes and procedures. Until then though, get the number of Windows OS users down and make better backups. 

businessman hand holding money banknote for paying the key from

Start Your Research Here

Ransomware: Best Practices for Prevention and Response

https://insights.sei.cmu.edu/sei_blog/2017/05/ransomware-best-practices-for-prevention-and-response.html
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Demos and feedback: Students learning from each other

This the fourth and final blog post in a series of reflections with Bill Tihen. I am pleased that, just as we finish processing Bill’s notes from his November visit with LAS visiting scholar Bret Thayer, Bill has scheduled a new visit to attend the ECIS STEAM conference we are hosting March 6-7.

Students must learn to give, hear, and accept feedback. Bill suggests that there are four general steps to make feedback effective. 

  1. Students plan and present a demonstration of their work, keeping the requirement for feedback in mind. Ideally students share their work for other students (and faculty members). Before presenting their work, students predict what sort of feedback they are likely to receive – both positive comments as well as suggestions for improvement.
  1. After students have presented their work, they receive feedback. When students receive feedback they keep it safe for those giving them feedback by restricting themselves to listening and taking notes. Students learn to resist the urge to challenge the feedback, clarify misunderstandings, or justify themselves. In this manner, students and faculty giving feedback do so in a safe environment – and the students receiving the feedback actually hear it. 
  1. Giving feedback entails:

(1) commenting on those aspects of the work that are well-liked and how the demonstration shows movement toward the end goal; and

(2) commenting on what would make the work even better. For those things that might need to be addressed, an acceptable formulation of constructive criticism might be: “I like the [whatever it is] and think it might be even better if you [did this, changed this, considered this alternative, etc.]

  1. And finally, working with the feedback requires clearly using one or more suggestions received from the group. Students give credit for the origin of the idea and explain how they made the suggestion their own and integrated it into their work. Work completed without adopting and adapting ideas from others is incomplete.

These four steps from Bill can lead to great use of feedback – or not. We’ve seen both results, so it’s probably fair to say that these may be necessary but not sufficient conditions in Bill’s framework. Other factors, like having the time and space to work without constant adult interruption, having an atmosphere of trust, and so on, are also important.

As I reflect on Bill’s four steps, two interesting parallels jump out. First, how similar his suggestions for receiving feedback are to student feedback sessions of LEINN International at the University of Mondragon. Second, how refreshing it is to hear someone require students to incorporate each other’s ideas. 

LEINN International is an undergraduate program for future entrepreneurs. (LEINN stands for Leadership, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation. It is managed by a highly creative company, Tazebaez, which is itself a product of the parent LEINN program.) The day I visited, a cohort of freshmen were giving each other feedback. They sat in a circle. The student receiving feedback took notes and limited his responses to a “thank you” for both positive and constructive comments from each colleague. I was amazed at how frank the feedback was, how carefully presented by the students, and how gracious those receiving feedback seemed. In hindsight, they were doing nothing other than what Bill suggests in (2) above, something we’ve adopted for our alternative 9th and 10th grade program at my school.

Requiring students to use the ideas of other students contradicts a lot of common practice in schools. How often have we heard teachers admonish students to “do your own work” and “keep your eyes on your own paper?” Bill is doing the opposite, requiring students to get and use feedback from other students, and above all else, not to try to go it alone. Please, please look at other students’ papers (plans, projects, models), he is saying. Learn from each other, exchange ideas. And then give credit where credit is due. What a refreshing take on learning.

Thanks, Bill, for the years of collaboration, the experimental classes, and the debriefings that continue when we get together, most recently in this series of blog posts. You are amazing to work with. 

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Uplift: Contextual Exploration and Building Student Confidence

This is the third in a series of four posts based on ongoing conversations with Bill Tihen.

On a recent Sunday morning I was playing badminton with my nine-year old daughter. Our rallies were extraordinarily long, we had really gotten the hang of it.

Then she said, “Let’s count how many we do!” She served the birdie off the edge of her racket into the net. “0.” She sent the next one over and I missed it. We couldn’t get another good rally going. Soon she asked if we could switch activities. 

During the long rallies we experienced a feeling of “uplift,” the sense of each one of us doing well on account of the other, the sense that we were able to help each other have the next good shot. Individually we were a good team and being a good team made us good individually. We were in a state of “flow.”

When Bill speaks about uplift, he focuses on the creation of an atmosphere in which students build on existing strengths and grow their self-confidence. Bill feels that students are more likely to find joy in learning when they start from a position of strength, and that redirecting them from distracting activities toward helpful activities is easier. An uplifted atmosphere is full of exploration and meaningful context, one in which stress is reduced by focusing on what students do well. 

Dangerous to an atmosphere of uplift are traditional assessment practices. Assessment shouldn’t hinder motivation or impede performance – think of our terrible badminton shots when we started focusing on assessment! We need to avoid letting our assessment practices lead to student behavior that is safe for the assessment practice but damaging to a creative sense of exploration. Assessment serves learning, not the other way around.

For example, in our 3D Nautical Design class, where students designed and printed plastic boats, students tested the boats in a pool of water so that everyone could see what boat designs work and which do not. Assessment (and reflection) is needed to advance the learning. Students test as they are ready to test, not to demonstrate mastery, but to discover the next step, the next improvement. The students are experimenting with the performance issues that they are designing for. They don’t need a teacher to tell them if a boat is right or not, they will see for themselves if it can’t handle a payload or gets swamped by a wave. Assessment becomes personal, with a goal of iterative improvement, which can actually contribute to the atmosphere of uplift. Assessment is not a teacher’s judgment of ability, which ranks students against each other or to levels on a rubric. Assessment is what is needed to take the next logical step, discovered by the student.

Uplift by focusing and building on strengths. Increased ownership and student agency will follow. 

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