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Get to know a #teacher for an #evaluation to be meaningful!

April 17, 2014

In a recent Education Week, Stephen Sawchuk wrote a piece, Tenn Teachers Union Takes Evaluation Fight Into the Courtroom, about the lawsuit that is challenging the legality of the value-added formula used in Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system.  After reading the article, I was left with the question: will our fixation on teacher accountability through the use of students’ achievement test scores on high-stakes standardized tests backfire?  In our haste to evaluate teachers I believe we have truly lost our way.  We seem to be like a ship without a rudder or a captain without a compass.  We have lost touch with the human side of teaching.  Are our principals and school leaders taking time to think whether they know their teachers well or whether they understand how to give effective, targeted, and growth-oriented feedback to teachers?  Would there be a need for value-added measures (VAM) of effectiveness if school leaders knew their school’s curricula well and understood how each of his or her teachers were going about designing an engaging and effective learning experience for all students?  I believe the answer to this question is that VAM would be unnecessary!

Think about this passage (click here) from the Ohio Department of Education regarding value-added measurements (VAM).

Value-added analysis is a statistical method that helps educators measure the impact schools and teachers have on students’ academic progress rates from year to year.  All Value-Added measures are not the same. In fact, Value-Added measures differ from state to state. Ohio has been careful to select a Value-Added measure that provides educators with information on how they can use data to focus instruction.

“All Value-Added measures are not the same,” how arbitrary does that make VAM if states take the liberty of defining value-added differently.  Shouldn’t good teaching in Ohio be measured similarly to good-teaching in any other state?  I mean if we believe it is important to have a common set of standards for learning that are the same across all states (Common Core), why not use criteria for measuring teacher effectiveness that are the same across all states.  The research on what it takes to be a good teacher is reasonably compelling and rich with suggestions.  Most importantly, we don’t need long checklists to define and evaluate good teaching.  See a previous post from the Center for Teaching on VAM (click here).

Should student feedback be a part of a comprehensive and effective evaluation/feedback system?  I certainly think so and in my conversations with other educators I find most people agree with that.  However, we have to include the voices of teachers in the conversation, as well as in their own evaluation.  The Center for Teaching posted a piece entitled, How do you measure good teaching?

We can do this work well if our vision is not clouded over by state or federal politics.  One thing is for certain, if the evaluation and feedback systems we design are not “human-centered” at their core, they will fail to change our profession.  Our goal should be how we guarantee a good teacher in every child’s classroom.  It can be done!

Other resources on supervision and evaluation:

Faculty Evaluation and Supervision, a Personal Story: Opus 1

A View from the Experts on Teacher Evaluation: Opus 2

Effective Supervision and Evaluation: The Self-Reflective Process

Teachers Crave Meaningful Feedback and Want to Learn!

Teaching: Is it Art or Not?


Are children born to be taught or born to learn?

April 12, 2014

Is this be a fundamental question that should guide our approach to designing 21st Century schools?  If the answer to the question is students are born to be taught, then we will design school, curriculum, space and schedules, according to the needs of educators.  Being taught implies that students are “passive bystanders” who pass through the system and get filled with knowledge.  Of course, students come to school to “learn” but how and what they learn is determined by teachers and outside curriculum development experts.  Consequently, what we determine students need to learn may not be relevant or connected to their experience, interests, or learning profiles.  Curriculum, space and schedules align to teachers’ needs not those of students.

On the other hand, if students are born to learn, then presumably we would put them at the center of the action.  Instead of being passive participators, students would be partners in the creation of a learning experience.  Curriculum would be designed with their experience, interests, and learning profiles in mind.  Schedules would be designed according to their developmental needs.  Learning spaces would be created that were engaging, flexible, and matched the type of learning experience in which they found themselves.  We wouldn’t design fixed learning spaces because each learning event, adapted to student interests and needs, would be unique requiring flexible spaces that could adjust to meet the demands of the learning.

Some would read this and suggest that the vision is soft and playful, rather than hard and rigorous.  Not so!  In creating learning experiences where students are required to think critically and creatively, problem find and problem solve in developmentally challenging situations, and demonstrate the understanding and skills they acquired, students would have to grapple with relevant and interesting content.  Exciting and relevant curriculum delivered in interesting and flexible learning spaces does not have to be anything less than rigorous.

In a study conducted by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University, they surveyed thousands of high school students regarding their engagement in school and found that 66% of students were bored with school on a regular basis.  Researchers were careful to select a student population that was representative.  So if two-thirds of students find school boring on a regular basis should we expect to graduate children who are creative, innovative, and ready to engage in the 21st Century economy and workplace?  I doubt it.  We need to rethink schooling by envisioning students as “born to learn,” not “born to be taught.”  A simple shift in mindset might result in the creation of more interesting schools that strive to meet the needs of ALL students.


Where does #dance come into this story of #innovation? A surprising ending!

April 8, 2014

Hugh Herr, an MIT professor and avid rock climber, lost his legs in 1982 as a result of frostbite from a rock climbing accident.  He is leading the effort to revolutionize bionic limb prototypes so that we no longer think about people who have lost limbs as being disabled.  His goal is to eradicate the idea that people who face challenging physical issues should be labelled as “disabled.”  Disabled is a result of technology that has yet to catch up to the needs humans have to realize their full potential.  In the first few minutes of his talk, I quickly realized that someone without the use of both “natural” legs could go places and do things that I could only dream of doing.  Amazing is the only word that comes to mind as I watched his innovative vision unfold.

While the first part of Dr. Herr’s talk is captivating and inspiring, I wondered where does the “dance” part of his talk’s title come into play.  Well, it’s the ending that tells the whole story.  If you are easily brought to tears then wait until the ending.  I am not easily brought to tears, but yesterday afternoon I was.  Enjoy his story, no doubt you will love the ending.


Making #mistakes can be healthy for #learning in school

April 1, 2014
The importance of getting that A+!

The importance of getting that A+!


On Edutopia’s Social and Emotional Blog, a recent piece, Teaching Students to Embrace Mistakes, was written by Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien. Thinking of some of our Design Teams in Atlanta K12 Design Challenge (@AK12DC), exploring the idea of how to change school culture so that parents, students and teachers think differently about the value of making mistakes on the learning journey.  Other Design Teams are working on challenges that involve student learning, their motivation and engagement. Engaging a student is about helping him or her first feel safe in their learning space, freeing him or her up from the pressure of being right, having the right answer, or pleasing parents, teachers and schools with good grades. If we want them to embrace mistakes we have to do two things: (1) remodel for them that mistakes are part of learning; and (2) create structures that do not penalize students for making mistakes. This will be a tall order for schools built on a feedback system that is about organizing students on a scale from failing to succeeding.  If any of us are put on a scale from failing to succeeding and reminded daily of our position, then we too would struggle embracing mistakes as part of learning.  Let’s put ourselves into our “students shoes,” experience what they experience when it comes to constantly being graded and put on a scale.  Who likes that?  We shouldn’t be surprised by the results of our actions.  But we can change the culture in our schools if we rethink our assessment and grading policies and practices.  Are you ready?


What do teachers think about the value of #designthinking #ak12dc

March 29, 2014

Here is what 85 teachers valued most about the design thinking process they learned over the course of five months @AK12DC.  With the help of a facilitator from Stanford’s we took them through the entire design thinking process.  They engaged in empathy, they developed point-of-view statements, they ideated their POVs, they prototyped their ideas and tested them with some users.  The Wordle below illustrates how they responded to the question: which 2-3 skills or activities from the January 14 Design Challenge Workshop or the March 21-22 Design Summit have been of most value or benefit to you?  Teachers learned so much by gaining empathy with the users they interviewed at their schools.  The eleven schools in Atlanta K12 Design Challenge selected different users to interview.  Some interviewed students, teachers, parents, or outside community members.  Regardless of who they interviewed, a great deal was learned about the challenge a school’s design team wanted to address by gaining empathy with their user.  In schools, to solve our most challenging problems, we need to go directly to our “users” and learn about their experience at our school.

Results of teacher responses to what they valued most.

Results of teacher responses to what they valued most.

Learn about writing beautiful and memorable sentences @npr

March 27, 2014

NPR’s All Things Considered aired a story, It was the best of sentences…, was a short and interesting story.  What goes into making a sentence beautiful?  What goes into making a sentence memorable?  This program briefly addresses the answer to those two controversial questions.  People interviewed on the program indicate that finding agreement on those two questions is not easy, but they go ahead and share the list of the ten best sentences in fiction and nonfiction from editors of the American Scholar magazine.

A few of the sentences were showcased in the 2 minute story, one was the last line from Toni Morrison’s book, Sula:

It was a fine cry–loud and long–but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow. (Sula, the best 20 lines from Toni Morrison’s books)

I was thinking what an interesting lesson for teachers to develop with their students.  My guess is that there are English or language arts teachers that already use this idea in their lesson planning.  What if we have students study the “best sentences” ever written and then learn how to write beautiful and memorable sentences?  Afterwards, teachers could have students recite their sentences…like a poetry reading.

As a result of learning how to construct beautiful and memorable sentences, would students learn how to write more effectively?  I am not a writing expert, but as I reflect on my own writing instruction, I was never “taught” how to write a beautiful and memorable sentence.  I still struggle with that today.


Art and Design Are Not Luxuries: #STEM to #STEAM

March 27, 2014

Bran Ferren is defined by a long series of descriptors.  Here is what appears in Wikipedia:

a technologist, artist, architectural designer, vehicle designer, engineer, lighting and sound designer, visual effects artist, scientist, lecturer, photographer, entrepreneur and inventor.

Some list!  When you watch his TED Talk, you will see why he could easily be defined in this way.  He references his role models, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Ben Franklin, the ultimate associative thinkers.  He speaks the time when he first saw the Pantheon and the life-changing influence it had on him at a young age.  No doubt his upbringing impacted the journey he took with his life.  His parents were artists and some of his important relatives were engineers.  So he was exposed to associative thinking early on in life.  Today he is the Chief Creative Officer of Applied Minds, which is a firm he co-founded that supplies organizations worldwide with help in the technology and design.

In his talk, he speaks about the vital connections between art, design and engineering.  Raised with artists and engineers, he learned how to connect ideas.   As a child he was encouraged to tinker and explore.  He comments that he learned about engineering, not at school, but tinkering at home.  Through other experiences his parents offered him, mostly on vacations, he learned about the connections between history, art and design.   As someone who grew up in Milwaukee and would head down to the Science and Industry Museum in Chicago quite frequently, Ferren references his endless wanderings through the London Science Museum, a place where he learned to appreciate the history of science and technology.

He then takes us on a journey through the Pantheon, “a temple for all the gods.  As a keen observer, he noticed the Pantheon was a cool and dark place.  The occulus, which piqued his curiosity, was a symbol, as well as an architectural focal point in his study of the intersection of art, design and engineering.  Drawn to the intricacies of the ceiling, he references Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome.  Fuller, another one of those “big thinkers,” was interested in the applications of technology, art, and design to building efficient, comfortable, and sustainable shelters.

In Ferren’s talk, he illustrates how the Pantheon’s dome is unique, “largest un-reinforced concrete dome every built.  He points out that it took “miracles” to make it possible.  The invention of super strong concrete and the know how to vary the concrete’s density as the designers moved up the dome.  This culminates in the occulus, an open window into the heavens.  The shaft of light through coming through the occulus was beautiful, and was part of the design.  The designers recognized that light was needed to appreciate the beauty inside the Pantheon.

The big takeaway from Ferren’s talk is that art, design, engineering, science, and math (STEAM) all work together.  He says:

I learned this via experience and the visit to the Pantheon.  These worlds were not incompatible.  When you combined their powers you got amazing things.

He references schooling in the following thought:

In school all of these subjects are treated as separate entities.   My teachers told me I had to get serious about and focus on one or the other discipline.  Urging me to specialize I learned to appreciate those folks who were not specialists, Michelangelo, Leonard da Vinci, and Ben Franklin.

To create these rare game-changers (Pantheon), you to have “five miracles” and rare individuals that are able to cross the boundaries of art, design and engineering.  These rare individuals notice when others have brought some of the miracles to bear.

They take other people’s obstacles and make them come to life, they are the individuals who bring together the miracles into the Pantheon

What is our modern-day Pantheon?  Ferren mentions the project to send a “man to the moon” and the smartphone, a device that he says will endure because it

connects everyone to both knowledge and each other

He then wonders whether another enduring object of the future will be the autonomous vehicle.  He sees it as:

  • saving tens of thousands of lives
  • conserving energy
  • addressing air pollution
  • cutting congestion
  • improving transportation

The five miracles needed to make autonomous vehicles the Pantheon of modern times are:

  1.  the GPS so you know where you are at any given time
  2. personal navigation systems that tell you where all the roads are
  3. wireless technology that keeps you in near continuous communication with high-performance computing networks and with other drivers so you can understand their intent
  4. HOV lanes as restricted roadways to test prototypes
  5. the sense recognition capability of the human driver to help onboard computers learn

I love when Ferren points out that “the ingredients for the next Pantheon are all around us.”  What we need are innovative thinkers (visionary people) to recognize them, people who have a multidisciplinary skill set (STEAM).   These people don’t just materialize from thin air, they have to be developed, supported and cared for as young people.  He mentions some qualities that these big thinkers, visionary people or associative thinkers need to possess:

  • the desire to discover their passions
  • the ability to work hard
  • the understanding that failure and perseverance are part of the journey to success
  • be able to identify and define their own role models
  • the belief in themselves (growth mindset)
  • the belief that anything is possible
  • the drive to define their own path even if different from that of their parents
  • the ability to pry themselves away from their modern miracles (smartphones, TV, video games, etc.) to appreciate the natural world and the beauty of design in nature.

Finally, he says that

art and design are not luxuries and not incompatible with science, technology and engineering.  They are essential to what makes us special.

My takeaway from Ferren’s talk was that schools have a significant responsibility to help students find their passion, develop the skill set needed to become “big thinkers,” and have the courage to create curricula that illustrate and foster the connections between disciplines.  We have to break down the silos that exist and help students become associative thinkers who can use science, technology, engineering, art and design and math to solve interesting and complex problems.  In addition, we have to help them develop the “habits of mind” and the communication skills, both oral and writing, to express themselves in creative ways.  The task is huge, but we can do it if we’re willing to challenge some of our traditions that keep us tied down, especially in the area of assessment and curriculum design.

What are your thoughts about these topics?


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