All posts by Paul Magnuson

Several years ago, Paul Magnuson founded a research center at the high school level in collaboration with colleagues at Leysin American School. The center supports professional learning through a variety of programs, including year-long action research projects by faculty who receive competitive resident scholarships. In addition, the center works with schools and universities around the world, hosting 10 to 15 visiting scholars annually, and consulting and presenting at schools and other organizations. Paul has created a number of tools and programs, including classroom observation schemes, language immersion summer camps, the middle school at LAS, and most recently, edge, a high school program which offers an alternative to traditional school through greatly increased student agency. His current interests are the documentation of edge, pulling agile into education, and self-regulation for both students and teachers.

Reform: affordances and hindrances … and crowdsourced success

I suppose there are lots of teachers who are fine leaving schools as they are. Traditional schools have educated a whole lot of people, after all, and the world is working fine. (Or is it? Over 70 million people recently used their vote to endorse Trump’s unpresidential behavior.)

But there are also a lot of teachers who would like to reform school. To shake it up, to do things differently. The overwhelming majority of these teachers work in traditional schools, and the overwhelming majority of schools are traditional. So it’s probably not a bad idea to consider, for a bit, how to bring reform to traditional schools settings. What are the affordances and hindrances?

The affordances. I want to start with these, because so often when we talk about reform we slip into but-but-but … and then we throw our hands in the air and give up. 

So the affordances. What is working in our favor? What factors are on our side?

At the classroom level, we usually have quite a bit of autonomy. The class is usually ours to teach. We are generally allowed to try out new approaches to teaching, and often new content. We can make mistakes in our classroom that won’t necessarily haunt us – probably no other adult in the school witnessed an activity gone bad, that peer review that didn’t work, those presentations that didn’t hit the mark. That autonomy is something to build on.

A math teacher at our school experimented with standards based assessment about five years ago. Just in one class, just for a semester. She helped kick off a schoolwide switch to standards based grading. We are in the second year of that now. 

I volunteered about the same year to create a class for a group of students who just didn’t fit in the schedule anywhere but needed one more elective. Perhaps because I helped make the schedule work, I earned greater freedom in both content and my approach to teaching. We learned languages that year, any language or languages the students picked, with online tools. And I discovered eduScrum when I needed a better way to organize student workflow. eduScrum led to a focus on pulling agile into education, which is still going strong, and influencing many teachers.

eduScrum itself is a great example of a teacher using the affordances of his classroom to bring about reform. Willy Wijnands, teaching chemistry in his Dutch high school, began experimenting with his own class. The students still did well on the tests, so Willy was able to continue with his unique approach to instruction. He started sharing with others. And now eduScrum has representatives in over 30 countries. Maybe this is too big an example. You don’t have to influence other classrooms to contribute to school reform. You just have to influence your own.

The point is: We can use the autonomy given to us to experiment and create small reform. All of us can.

We have a great affordance in online professional development. It’s accessible and, now more than ever, omnipresent. And it’s often free. There are high quality podcasts and Meet Ups and webinars and other opportunities. There are social networks we can use to share ideas with people working in similar ways, puzzling over the same issues.

And there is a growing, worldwide conversation about school reform. About the need to reconsider current practices, current curricula, and beyond a doubt, current assessment policies, from the classroom level all the way to the federal government. It is easier to think and act a bit differently if you know others are trying to think and act differently, too. They are. This is a huge affordance.

Now the hindrances. There are many. There is tradition (how we were likely taught). There is inertia (it’s easy to find English, science and history teachers; but try finding a Collaborate teacher or a Growth Mindset teacher). How do you break out of the traditional set of subjects if your pool of teachers are trained only in the traditional set of subjects? There are state and federal laws, university admissions, cultural expectations, a dearth of alternate models, book publishers, square school buildings, square classrooms, square schedules … Right angles everywhere, really, in a world that is obtuse, curvy, and unpredictable.

But there are affordances. You, in your classroom, can do a little more of this and a little less of that. You can start a small shift. Your small shift can join other small shifts. You just have to take the affordances available to you and start. And tell others about it. And listen to others. 

Imagine the combined result, if each of us did just a little. Nothing short of seismic. 

The Scab Faerie

If that title doesn’t get your attention, I’m not sure what would. The Scab Faerie is a whimsical children’s book about the many fairies that visit our homes at night. It’s not just teeth they are looking for!

I had the pleasure of putting this book together with Sonia, a sophomore at my alma mater, St. Olaf College in Minnesota, USA. I studied creative writing there, among other things, and this year, 36 years after graduating, luck put the two of us together on the adventure of taking a book from start to finish, author and illustrator, combining creativity with an attempt to publish a story that might actually sell a few copies. Fingers crossed.

At the end of the project, Sonia, the illustrator, sent the most wonderful email. It took me several days to figure out exactly how to reply. I was somehow quite moved. In her mail were two brilliant nuggets for educational consideration, though that wasn’t her intention. But we teachers tend to notice examples of educational moments that truly matter. I think Sonia happened to deliver.

Sonia wrote: 

Your whimsy, open-mindedness, and abundant creativity made it easy and gratifying for me to share in such a bright creative spark. Illustrating and describing our faeries didn’t feel like a chore, but an adventure.

Ah yes. When work isn’t a chore, but an adventure. When school isn’t a slog, but a sprint. When we hit a state of flow, as Czikentmihaly puts it, and the difference between work and play disappears in the buzz of purposeful, joyful production. Are we doing school with the glow that comes from finding that state of flow for our students and ourselves?  

Sonia continued:

Having to … edit things let me know that we were treating the project seriously, as well.

Sonia does good work. And I think my text was pretty good. But of course, we had different ideas about different parts of the book. We also had ideas that seemed good when we imagined them but didn’t look as good after they were drafted, which then required flexibility on both our parts. In short, we collaborated and compromised, from a position of true investment in the outcome.

During our adventures in school, are we setting projects up so that first tries, however hard we work on them, aren’t good enough? Are we setting projects up in a way that require collaboration and feedback from multiple sources? Is feedback something that is acted on? Or is feedback mostly a mark in the gradebook?

Questions that matter

Ten years ago my colleagues and I developed a classroom observation tool. Among other data, it tracked how often teachers asked a question to which they did not know the answer.

You can probably guess how often this part of the tool was used. If the answer isn’t obvious to you, you might be in a very unique school environment and I encourage you to enjoy every second of it!

Unfortunately, many of us can guess how often we ticked that particular box during an observation. Hardly at all. In fact, that part of the observation form was so rarely used that when we moved from a paper version of the tool to an online version, we didn’t even include the option of noting such questions. In other words, although teachers asked a lot of questions, they asked so few questions to which they didn’t know the answer that it didn’t make sense to keep track of them.

You may be doubting that this can be the case in your school. And if you are lucky, maybe it is not the case. But I challenge you to look for questions that are really questions. Really things that the teacher is interested in knowing more about because the teacher doesn’t know the answer. There is an easy way for you to find out, of course. Visit a handful of classes, even for part of the hour, and make a tick for each question a teacher asks that is a true question, not a display question, not a question the teacher is asking instructionally, not a question to which the answer is already known. 

There is room for asking questions we know the answer to. I do see the value in this particular tool of our teaching toolbox. It’s just that there is also room and purpose for including questions that we don’t know the answer to – in order to explore a topic with students to find something out, together. Might this develop a classroom atmosphere of standing shoulder to shoulder to discover instead of face to face to, well, to be blunt, tell

It of course takes no small amount of confidence to set up learning in a way that allows for these types of questions. For one, teachers have to have the confidence to not know, on the spot, with students observing. We tend to shy away from constructing class in a way that exposes the weakness in what we know. After all, we’re supposed to know the subject, right? Even be experts?

Maybe we can finesse those last questions, though. As teachers, let’s suppose that one of our primary roles is to get students interested in our subject. We can’t expect to know everything anyway. And we certainly don’t want to cap what students can learn at the points where our own learning runs out. Perhaps if we focus a bit more of our teacher pride on being experts in how students go about learning and developing further interest we’d feel easier about getting into subjects at the edge of what we know. So we can explore together. So that our questions are a bit more real. So that we are all learning together.

Here’s a challenge for you. When you are teaching today – no need to wait – ask a question that you are interested in and to which you don’t have the answer. And notice what happens.

Maybe Google isn’t the issue

I highly recommend checking out the podcasts at Modern Learners. Often a single podcast spins off a number of ideas in multiple directions, under the general theme of teaching and learning more fitting for our current times.

For example, at the end of a podcast with futurist Brian Alexander (August 11, 2019), a single comment by host Will Richardson really perked up my ears. 

Will says to make sure your class isn’t “google disabled.”

Right. My colleague Bill Tihen has often mentioned Google when we talk about teaching and learning. Bill puts it this way, more or less: You have to set up class so there is more to learning than what is googleable. Will’s comment made me think of the same concept in a complementary way: Telling students they can NOT use Google might be a red flag. What would prompt us to tell them that? That perhaps what we are assessing is information retrieval (which one can get easily on Google) rather than application and synthesis of information.

So. Bill and Will are telling us not to “Google disable” our classes, or to make sure that what we bring to instruction is more than what is googleable. Googling is perhaps best thought about as where learning starts, not where it ends.

Over the past several years – four or more depending on how you count – we’ve been changing our assessment system to reflect what Bill and Will are saying. We’ve moved away from a 0-100 American scale to a 7 point scale with school level descriptors and complementary specific descriptors at the assignment level, for each of the seven possible results. There are two significant benchmarks, one between levels 2 and 3 and one between levels 4 and 5. 

A mark of 2 or less signals significant issues. A mark up through 4 includes memorization and giving information back. In other words, up through 4 is googleable. Only with the application and synthesis of what was googleable does a student encounter the 5-7 range. 

There is no reason for a teacher to tell a class not to use Google (as Will reminds us); in fact, an assessment system like the one we’ve developed, correctly understood, should put some pressure on the teacher to ensure that lessons routinely go beyond googleable thinking in order to offer the students opportunities to think and work in the 5, 6, and 7. Recall, remember (levity intended), ends at level 4. 

There is every reason to ensure that the teaching and learning we orchestrate require students to go beyond Google. Lessons that do not go beyond googleability should simply not be assessed on the 1-7 scale (since 5-7 aren’t demonstrable). 

The difference between learning and recalling facts and applying those facts is neither hard to grasp nor unknown to teachers. Getting students to think and to learn how to learn are regularly repeated goals across schools. In practice, however, if we are honest with ourselves, our school culture tends to focus our thinking and practice on recall. Our assessment practices may often be unwitting abettors, so much so, that we’ve found it surprisingly difficult over the past years to clearly articulate the appropriate use of the 1 to 7 scale with its division between recall, level 4 and below, and application, level 5 and up. We continue to mistakenly record the results of a vocabulary quiz, for example, on a 1 to 7 scale. There is nothing wrong with a vocabulary quiz. There is everything wrong with assigning the quiz anything greater than a 4, since vocabulary quizzes are not made to demonstrate application. Knowing the meaning of words will help application down the road, but alone, word knowledge is not application, so a perfect result is a 4, no higher. Use a raw score or a yes/no type of score (good enough, not good enough). 

Interested in more about standards based grading? Google it. 4. And then talk about its probable ramifications on teaching and learning, in your particular school setting, with your colleagues. 5-6-7.

Slacker or Hacker?

I’ve always thought of myself as a non-conformist, even though I have a strong inkling that others view me very much as a conformist. Perhaps this is why I feel so at home in Switzerland – I’m a non-conformist committed to following the rules. I’m willing to put up with a fair number of constraints if the train comes on time, the mountain roads are meticulously maintained, and things just plain work.

Outside Embers in Summer 1988, before moving to
Regensburg, Germany, to start slacking … or hacking?

So I’ve read with interest over the years the stories of those who have succeeded because they bucked the trend. I like reading about people who quit school to build famous businesses, who were fiercely independent and are now successful because of it. Of course, I enjoy reading about them after coming home from my comfortable middle class job with a dental plan and a pension.

I realized one day that I didn’t have to just admire the folks I knew that were hacking their own education. (Besart, you know I’m thinking about you here, the Meister of moving from one opportunity to another by working your network.) I don’t need to admire from afar and lament that I don’t have the same spirit. I actually have hacked some of my education, back in the day. I just hadn’t thought of it like that.

After a short stint as a short order cook following graduation (Remember the Embers?), I moved to Germany, enrolled in the university in order to get a work permit, and did enough odd jobs to support two hobbies: writing poetry and traveling. The experience created a second rate but well traveled poet who fell in love with a third hobby, languages.

I sort of thought I was just being a slacker for those four years between undergraduate and graduate school, but I think I can reasonably reframe that time as hacking my own education. I was, after all, a student at the university (who didn’t attend the classes in my declared major, but I did join the theater troupe, learn some Swedish, read for hours in the library, and write for many more in the computer lab). I learned German through those activities and odd jobs, and with my collection of Donald Duck comic books from every country I visited, I learned to marvel at how languages work.

The hacker mentality that I learned during those years has stayed with me. It has been second nature to me for a long time to supplement any on the job training with additional opportunities, whether related to the job or not. I almost always jump at the chance to join a professional development opportunity, even when the connection to my responsibilities is a bit tenuous. I’ve regularly taken extra computer classes, went with the yearbook crew on a weekend retreat, attended conference sessions on a whim, signed up for MOOCS ranging from chicken care (University of Edinburgh) to studying complexity (Santa Fe Institute). A professor of mine once said “You read the strangest things,” which I took as a compliment. I think I’ve also been rather adept at constantly redefining my role in my current position so that work stays both relevant and interesting.

Those hacker years, even though I was worried at the time that they were slacker years, contributed greatly to my personal drive for lifelong learning. I’m not only curious, something I may have been lucky to have been born with and to grow up with in my family, I’m also willing to find a way to learn more, in my free time or combined with my job, and to make connections between seemingly unrelated pursuits.

Now I find myself quite committed to helping students learn to self-regulate, to make their education their own, to learn when it is worthwhile to follow a pursuit that others may not be so readily supporting. In short, I’m all about helping students learn to hack their education more and follow the prescribed route less. But in a measured, polite, Swiss way.

From classroom to learning space

Sometimes a little avocation creeps into your life that you might not notice until someone else points it out for you. Maybe there’s something that you have to get done so you take care of it, and that leads to another something or other that needs getting done, and pretty soon you know a little bit about it and find you enjoy it. You might call it an interest, something short of a hobby.

I’ve developed an interest in what learning spaces look like. Not until a colleague pointed this out, though, did I step back and take some time to think about it. Had I become, in a small way, an interior decorator for the school? 

This past year I began moving a new program into a two-floor, six room building that we used to call the Math Chalet, because it has a Swiss Chalet look about it and math classes were taught here. Over the past year we turned it into the Edge Chalet to host some of our alternative programs.

I didn’t want the classrooms to look like classrooms, so room by room I removed the desks and chairs with furniture you might expect to find in your house. In fact, to keep costs down, I used a number of pieces of furniture that I got from houses, others and even my own. I aimed for a look that was less school, more house. What I didn’t know about interior design I made up for by simply eliminating the uniformity of the typical school classroom.

I started with one room, purchasing some furniture in pairs: small wooden kitchen tables with matching chairs, two blue armchairs, two tables with drawers. I set the room up symmetrically, with a view across the balcony at Le Chamossaire, a Swiss Alp which gives the room a breathtaking view.

A carpet and a bookstand split the two halves of the room. Using pictures of my own family and other household miscellania I made the room feel homey. I left the whiteboards in the room, holdovers from the math department. Behind the door I tucked a small fridge and a coffee maker. 

The room is now my office, and the office of visiting scholars, when they are on campus. It can also be a breakout room for the other learning spaces (I can’t call them classrooms, they just aren’t that) in the building. We meet here with student advisory groups, too. The room holds up to ten people comfortably.

Gradually the other rooms in our new Edge Chalet lost their classroom look to more welcoming hangout spaces. A building in town slated to be torn down gave its last furniture away one weekend. A colleague and I collected a worn wooden cupboard, full of dust and character, as well as a long red farm table and some benches. We matched these pieces with some more modern furniture, hung pictures on the wall to help the farmhouse look, and we were done. Another room became a convenient spot for me to store my old roll top desk, which didn’t fit in my new apartment anyway, and a large chest of drawers. That room had a piano, which gives the room lots of character. I hung pictures from two former art teachers and added maps to the wall (and in the cubbies of the desk) to give the room a travel theme. As an international school teacher, I had plenty of other knick knacks for decoration, including gifts from visitors.

You can tell I enjoy doing this. And when I look back, I’ve been enjoying it for a while. I just hadn’t noticed. A few years ago I took a skinny, underused classroom in a different building and turned it into what is now called the Research Lounge. I love that name. It’s also a living room and café sort-of-space with rugs and plants. It is a place for teachers and students to be that is calm, respectful, and less schooly. 

And before the research lounge, a colleague and I took two large rooms in yet another building and created a large makerspace. I remember getting inspired during a conference at the International School of Brussels. They had recently remodeled with lots of thinking space, I think they called it. So we brought in high and low tables, stools and couches, rolling whiteboards which doubled as space dividers, large screens, a sound system, and plenty of storage. We also had plants and decent wall decorations.

Why is the appearance of a learning space so important?

Most simply, because it is a place we spend time in. Better that it be aesthetic and comfortable than boring and uncomfortable. Maybe a test would be this: if you were designing an office for yourself – a place where you were going to spend a lot of time – would you design a standard classroom? Or something more inviting?

School reformers talk plenty about moving away from a factory model. Because school reform is notoriously sluggish, I imagine that reformers would like every possible advantage to help shift the way teaching and learning plays out. Here’s where I think the learning space really matters. Consider school environments that you are familiar with. Are most of the spaces filled with tables/desks and chairs? Is there an obvious power center of the room, probably in the front, perhaps filled with the teacher’s items and a space to address the whole class? Does the orientation of the room assume a specific teaching style? Does a whiteboard figure predominantly?

All of those things matter. They affect how we think about teaching and learning. And they do it perniciously. We don’t really notice how the space is affecting us because it’s just there. But the space matters.

Several years ago there was some excitement at our school because we took whiteboards to the next level, straight past Smartboards to short-throw projectors aimed at specially prepared walls which allow manipulation of the computer image through touch, as well as drawing on the walls with markers and hanging materials with magnets. Some teachers use them, some don’t, results are a little mixed, but of this I am certain: the set up reinforces, for all but the most careful teacher, a classroom of stand and deliver. The set up also makes the classrooms quite schoolish looking, since the blank white wall becomes the focus of the room and a natural station for the teacher, the teacher’s desk, the place for lecturing … you see what I mean.

Now that I think about it, classroom design started for me with my first administrative job, leading German immersion language teachers at Concordia Language Villages in the early 1990s. Folks were a little surprised when I removed the tables from the classrooms one summer. You can’t come to summer camp to learn through language immersion and then sit at a table with books and pens! Or at least that’s what my young idealistic self thought. (There may actually be some merit to the idea: I’ve noticed a few posts from teachers using TPRS – Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling – that eschew classroom tables, too). 

At any rate, if, when you were picturing classrooms in your mind, you found it hard to think of examples that don’t look like traditional school, you might ask yourself how far from the factory model teaching and learning can really hope to be. And if you have even a little interest in interior design, the next time you set up a classroom, make it just a little less school and a little more home, a unique spot, built perhaps for just a bit more creativity and collaboration over uniformity and competition. 

Schools of the Future

Recently I went back to the Schools of the Future report by the World Economic Forum (WEF). It’s dated January 2020. If you haven’t had a chance to take a look at their recommendations and the exemplary programs they chose to highlight, you probably should take a minute to do that now. I won’t be offended.

If you want a preview, here are my takeaways.

The report recommends shifting the learning experiences we educators provide our students. They encourage teaching and learning to look like this:

  • Personalized and self-paced learning;
  • Problem-based and collaborative learning; and
  • Lifelong and student-driven learning. 

To better understand the need for a shift, we could ask ourselves what we are shifting away from. So let’s imagine the opposite. I’m going to overstate the contrast here a bit, but I think my list is a good discussion starter. In short, the WEF is recommending we do less of this:

  • Depersonalized learning that maintains the myth of students learning in sync;
  • Focus on recall and the insistence of “eyes on your own paper” / “do your own work;” and
  • Content from a worn out canon determined by institutional inertia, which limits the creativity of schools and teachers.

Does this second list describe too much of the way we go about education? Does it describe what you see and hear, what you perhaps feel pulled into more often than you would like? 

Do systems like off-the-shelf and/or standardized curricula, bell schedules, assessment regimes, curriculum mapping, over-reliance on rubrics and other accepted teaching practices pull us toward the second list, the list of WEF opposites? 

And what are we to do about it?

The authors of the report note that “Much work is being done by private sector chief human resource officers on customizing work experiences to enable lifelong learning and integrating alternative work models to improve flexibility” (Schools of the Future, 2020 p. 11). They refer to a table in an earlier WEF publication (Shaping People Strategie in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, 2019) about the “changing nature of how learning is approached in an organization” (p. 18). They report again on a shift:

From Know-it-all mindset … to Learn-it-all mindset

From Planned learning programs … to Lifelong learning culture

FromPeriodic learning … to Continuous learning

From Company-directed learning … to Self-driven learning

From Homogenous learning … to Personalized learning

Are we doing our part by preparing students for an adult life characterized by the right hand column above? I’m frankly worried that it is too easy to make parallels between much of our current teaching and learning with the column on the left. For starters:

We as teachers may not feel comfortable in an environment where we are not the expert, limiting the chances we provide to explore with students, to allow them to teach us, to be learners side by side. Our assessments reinforce this know-it-all mindset because they are overwhelmingly about being right or wrong, black or white, true or false. (See Elon Musk’s entrance exam to his school, Ad Astra, for a refreshing contrast.)

Further, our curriculum and instruction is full of planned learning, in quite specific and predictable periods (grade 10 biology, grade 11 chemistry, grade 12 physics – sound familiar?), overwhelmingly decided by the “company” and certainly favoring a particular style of learning at a predetermined pace. 

Companies are shifting. I believe schools are trying to shift, too. In schools, however, there is less fear of shareholders, competition, and going bust. There is perhaps too much room to be cautious, changing perhaps so slowly that it’s hard to notice much change at all.

Self-paced, student-driven, collaborative learning that creates lifelong learners is not unattainable if we let go of the assumptions and practices that constrain us most. Be courageous to identify those assumptions and practices and to openly question them. If you are a teacher, create the conditions the WEF is recommending, when and where you can. If you are an administrator, avoid the temptation to sound smart by reciting yesterday’s “knowns.” They are safe, yes. But they are hamstringing us, and worse, our students. When you can, be bold. Be just a bit more outspoken about how teaching and learning can fulfill the promise of self-regulated learners. 

Or, I suppose, let companies re-educate adults who didn’t get the right hand column from us when they were students.

World Economic Forum. (2020). Schools of the Future: Defining New Models of Education for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Geneva, Switzerland.

World Economic Forum. (2019). WHR4.0: Shaping People Strategies in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Geneva, Switzerland.

A semantic difficulty for school reform

Paul is working with ScrumAlliance on the first agile certification specifically for educators: the Agile Certified Educator. 

For the better part of a year I’ve been working with a small group on a new approach to teaching and learning. At least, we believe it is new. But sometimes we question ourselves.

Here’s the issue.

As we move away from the norm – away from our regular experience with education – we start introducing more and more new terminology to describe our vision. It doesn’t take long before what we’ve written isn’t terribly clear, because of the new terminology. We then rewrite using terminology more familiar to us as educators. Then the text is clearer, but … we find that it is clearer because readers relate with the text by understanding it as their regular experience with education. And that’s not the goal.

This in turns introduces a new level of concern for us. Originally we were worried that using language common to education would impede readers understanding the unique quality of what we are proposing. So we introduced new terms, which make what we are saying hard to understand, leading us back to common terminology, which waters down our vision. As we continued working, we began sliding back and forth along this continuum.

Now we have to ask ourselves if our vision may simply not be all that grandiose a departure from our regular experience of education because of our ability to move back and forth on a continuum. If on one end of our semantic continuum we are able to describe in words familiar to educators what is already familiar in practice, is the other end of the continuum, expressed in unfamiliar terms, actually different in practice? Are we really breaking new ground or are we just renaming things? (We believe we are going beyond renaming.)

I imagine this is a common problem with new ideas. Namely, there isn’t quite the right words to describe them. New terms sound contrived and are hard to understand. Current terms reinforce current understandings, which isn’t really the point. Arriving at any understanding tends to mean arriving at current understanding. Again, not the point.

Maybe this is what folks mean when they say they can’t describe something, but they’ll know it when they see it. And maybe that provides a bit of the answer to the problem. We need more people actually seeing the different teaching and learning we are writing about. We may need examples of what this new manner of teaching and learning is before we try so hard to describe it. Short of actually experiencing it, perhaps we move forward by describing real examples more and the theory less. Then with time the terminology may come.

Interested in pulling agility into education? Contact Paul at pmagnuson@las.ch.


Are we helping students get comfortable with change? Part 2

with Bill Tihen, Software Developer at Garaio, Bern, and former teacher and IT director at LAS 

See Part 1 with this same title, in which Bill and I point out the irony that our busy academic schedules, created and driven by our push to cover lots of material efficiently, squeeze out exploration and making mistakes. If our argument is correct – that not having space for exploration may contribute to lower quality learning – well, we have a problem. Maybe we’ve been shooting ourselves in the foot for so long that we don’t even notice the pain we’re causing.

Practice with trial and error, mistakes, and deadends

To address the lack of exposure to setbacks and mistakes that characterize many traditional classrooms, I, Bill, adopted a routine that is both manageable (i.e. not so new to students that it throws them for a serious loop) and likely to create a culture that can start changing their school-created aversion to mistakes.

For example, in a STEAM class, I like to check-in with student groups in the first five to ten minutes of class by asking them about their next steps. I don’t want to tell them what to do next, but I do want to know what they are planning to do next so I can plan whereI might be needed most during class.

Similarly, I like students to finish their self-guided work five to ten minutes before the end of class so they have time to tell me what they discovered and what they are planning to do next class period. I do this by talking with each student work group. We focus on talking about mistakes as learning opportunities, because they are part of the discovery. Mistakes are expected. We learn from them. That message has to get across.

“It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”

Bill Gates [source]

Students need to stop and reflect regularly in order to adjust their plans. Although this seems obvious, it is crazy rare among students. They have very little practice making their own plans, let alone refining their plans as they work. Like we’ve argued above, students have internalized an expectation that the teacher should provide all the guidance. We shouldn’t wonder too long why students focus on being right and being efficient instead of learning and improving. The way we do school has taught them over and over that right and efficient equals success.

Bill tries to counter this “follower” mindset by encouraging students to identify (and act) on these things: 

  • their most important success and their most important problem;
  • the conditions that are supporting their progress;
  • the conditions that are creating a current problem or a likely future problem; and
  • the things that will help them the most, e.g. what is their plan to make current good work better and to deal with challenges.

I mentioned that as students leave class they share with me their action plan for the next class. In this manner they can arrive at the next class with their plan in mind so they can start without direction from me. 

They tell me what they will do during the next class. This might be about their group dynamics, but it should also touch on the next small step of their work. Since it doesn’t come naturally to students who are used to waiting for the teacher to direct their work, students need practice. 

I set up their practice with three guidelines for an action plan: 

  • it should be an experiment. Students should be able to say what they will do, and for how long – preferably in a short cycle;
  • it should be a small bet (meaning it is no a big deal if it doesn’t work); and
  • It should pass the “live” test and fail the “dead” test.

This last requirement needs a little more explanation. 

The live person test means that whatever their action plan is, it must be something that a live – a real – person can actually do, without superhero powers. It must be something reasonable to do.

At the same time, their plan must fail the dead person test, meaning it must be something that a dead person cannot do! For example, a group of middle schoolers might say that their action plan is to fight less. But that isn’t valid, because it fails the dead person test. While it’s a good idea, dead people don’t fight either, so they need to reframe their action plan into what they will actually do when they disagree.

Do this with a regular rhythm, with a visual checklist that both teachers and students readily see, and the students will get quite good at learning the basics of self-regulation.

Are we helping students get comfortable with change? Part 1

with Bill Tihen, Software Developer at Garaio, Bern, and former teacher and IT director at LAS 

We want – or we should want – to give our students safe experiences to deal with change, whether it is changing their approach, changing the way they perceive things, or changing themselves. Because if there is one thing we can predict they are going to have to be good at, it’s dealing with change. 

“Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be.” – John Wooden [source]

If you aren’t sure that you agree, think about the last time you were working with colleagues who have difficulty changing their approach, their perception, or themselves. When we think of  recent examples in our own work lives, our  shoulders stiffen and feelings of stress well up inside. You probably have a similar reaction. But then ask yourself: how often did our schooling focus on getting comfortable with change?

The message to students we have historically sent – and continue to send – is to “get it right the first time,” not because we don’t believe in teaching about change, but because the curriculum is a list of things to learn. It’s a checklist of content for a particular subject (multiplied by 6 or 7 to cover the traditional subject areas). This checklist approach to content crowds out a focus on skills, e.g. learning to deal with change, to grow from change, and to accept that change is constant. 

Buy in through choice

Students will get practice dealing with change if we build the need for change into our instruction. Instead of trying to be efficient, which tends to make us avoid student exploration, we might be well served to ease up a bit and give them time for discovery.

But they won’t just start doing this without our help. 

First, with our focus on speed, coverage, quantity, right answers, assessment, and rankings, we’ve trained students not to explore. Mistakes = bad, right answer = good. In perhaps one of the biggest educational ironies imaginable, what we might include in best practice might actually reduce student thinking. Imagine if that’s really the case.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” –Thomas Edison [source]

Second, we will have to work on school culture, not just content goals, to build a safe environment in which to explore. Exploration means making mistakes, which means freedom to make those mistakes, which comes with safety and trust.

And third, we’ll have to include in that culture a desire to persevere, to work through setbacks. Mistakes need to be motivating, not demotivating.

To do this, students must be engaged, which is often easiest if students have a real and significant choice in setting their own goals. We have unfortunately made choice difficult, what with our long list of adult-determined goals. Where is there room for students to learn to set their own goals, relevant to their own drive?

We clearly have work to do. 

Some thoughts on what that might look like in the next blog …