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How is knowledge constructed in school?

October 6, 2016

How is knowledge constructed in school?  Sounds like a simple question.  As a former science teacher, and someone who taught in a rather traditional fashion, I would have answered this question this way.  I (teacher) helped my students come to understand chemistry by presenting the ideas, laying out the story, challenging them with problems, asking them questions, structuring lab experiments to experience the concept, and evaluating their ability to retell the story the right way.  My knowledge and thinking of chemistry was passed along intact to them as a learner.  Like the chemistry text they used, I was a “real life, real-time” person they could interact with to learn the chemistry I understood. Without me, they could have learned most of the same chemistry just fine.

However, I now believe that in order for students to learn the chemistry deeply, they must construct new knowledge for themselves.  They need to make sense of the chemistry they are learning  in a way that is personal and meaningful to them.  We are co-constructors of the knowledge, understanding and skills they learn.  I am not simply imparting the knowledge to them, but more importantly, I am “tiling the soil” that is their learning.

One example for how different students construct their own meaning is illustrated in the concept maps shown below.  I gave students, in an online chemistry course I taught a few years ago, an assignment asking them to construct a concept map that demonstrated their understanding of polymer chemistry.  While the concepts maps have some similarities, there are significant differences in how these students made sense of the chemistry we learned.  There minds constructed the knowledge differently and emphasized certain parts more than others.  In addition, they each approached the design aspect of the assignment from a different point-of-view.



I have come to see the classroom as a place where teachers must try to see their students as “constructors” of the knowledge, understandings and skills we want them to learn.   They have to make meaning of the ideas for themselves.  I would encourage us to see ourselves as partners with them, not as people who pass knowledge down to them.

Clearly, this topic has many layers of complexity to it.  Having recently finished David Perkins book, Future Wise: Educating our Students for a Changing World, I have come to realize the value in thinking more deeply about what we teach, how we teach, and why we teach.  I would offer these three questions up to you to think about.  Dr. Perkins does a marvelous job of getting the reader to formulate answers to these questions, especially from the perspective of design.

Benevolence is the glue that binds us!

September 3, 2016

Where was the benevolence at St. George’s School in Rhode Island?  The New York Times and Richard Perez-Pena tell the story in the article, ‘Private Hell’: Prep School Sex Abuse Inquiry Paints Grim Picture.  With 51 students being abused by faculty in the 1970s and 1980s (the numbers may be higher), we can assume this faculty lacked benevolence.  They were a group that were unable to care for the well-being of the students placed in their charge.  They were a group of faculty that did not protect, but harmed the students in their care.

In her book, Trust Matters, Megan Tschannen-Moran, describes benevolence and trust in this way:

Trust (benevolence) rests on the assurance that one can count on the good will of another to act in one’s best interest, that the other will not exploit one’s vulnerability even when the opportunity is available.  (page 19)

Clearly, the moral fabric of St. George’s faculty was compromised by individuals who did not act in benevolent ways.  In fact, they “abused” students.

This isn’t the first time we have seen this in American schools.  On May 7, 2016 the Boston Globe published this article, Private Schools, Painful Secrets, by a team of investigative reporters.  The opening paragraph states:

More than 200 victims. At least 90 legal claims. At least 67 private schools in New England. This is the story of hundreds of students sexually abused by staffers, and emerging from decades of silence today.

Then in Newsweek, Sean Elder wrote the article, Horace Mann’s History of Sexual Abuse Won’t Go Away, which tells the story of a long trail of abuse at one of the most prestigious private schools in New York.  This builds on the story that Amos Kamil broke open in his stunning article, Prep School Predators, which appeared in the New York Times Magazine in June 2012.

All of these stories, and there are probably many more to chronicle, illustrate how easy it is to erode the fabric of trust that is the “glue” holding a community of people together.   As Megan Tschannen-Moran writes:

Schools need cohesive and cooperative relationships.  Trust is essential to fostering these relationships.

In Trust Matters, she writes about the five ingredients essential to building trust in a community.

  1. benevolence
  2. honesty
  3. openness
  4. reliability
  5. competence

Schools, in which faculty (or other employees) abuse students, struggle exhibiting these five ingredients as cherished community values.  Leaders in schools who face this reality should confront their school culture which has allowed these secrets to remain hidden.  Facing the truth head on may be the best way to rebuild a culture of trust that students deserve.





Five habits of the heart: the work of Parker Palmer

July 23, 2016

I attended an Academy for Leaders retreat in WI this past week, sponsored by the Center for Courage and Renewal.  We had the pleasure of spending a day with Parker Palmer (Parker), the author of Healing the Heart of Democracy: The courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit.  There are many glowing reviews of Parker’s book, so I won’t venture into that space.  However, I would like to share some important learnings from our time with him at the retreat.  Parker spent his day with us reflecting on his Five Habits of the Heart through the lens of personal stories.  I want to share and elaborate on some of the insights from his stories.

Learning from Parker is one of those experiences where you have to be in his presence.  So my descriptions will not do justice to his wisdom.  You can learn more by watching short video interviews with Parker on each habit of the heart (click here).  This would be a recommended way to learn because Parker has such a clear and compelling way to share his ideas and thoughts.

His five habits of the heart are:

  1. We must understand that we are all in this together.
  2. We must develop an appreciation of the value of “otherness.”
  3. We must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.
  4. We must generate a sense of personal voice and agency.
  5. We must strengthen our capacity to create community.

You can find a description of each habit of the heart in his book on page 45.

With regard to the first habit of the heart, Parker talked about the importance of being connected and knowing that through our togetherness we can accomplish great things, but that each person has to forge a unique path that fits a “life worth living.”  He posed this question to us: “what is it you can’t not do?”  The thing “we can’t not do” represents a window into our calling.  He suggested to us that while the journey to fulfill one’s calling might feel like swimming upstream at times, be protective of it.

His second habit of the heart was expressed through these words: “In learning to value otherness, we are learning to value the strength of diversity.”  He shared personal and interesting stories that illustrated for us what otherness meant to him.  He also suggested that we might be unable to connect to and understand otherness unless we could see ourselves as “other.”  If we see ourselves as the norm and everyone else as “other,” then it’s likely we will stand apart from them, seeing ourselves as superior.

I must first understand my own otherness. (Parker Palmer)

One way I thought about the second habit of the heart was through the lens of my “whiteness,” which could be perceived as a threat to an African-American person.  Unless I understand my “whiteness” deeply, I will not be able to deeply appreciate the value of their “blackness.”

yinyangThe image or metaphor that comes to mind with this second habit of the heart is the ying and yang symbol.  The concept illustrates how opposite or opposing forces are actually interconnected and part of a whole.  While each is distinct, the two can be integrated to represent wholeness.  For me, this helps illustrate what Parker meant by appreciating and understanding otherness.  While distinct, we are part of the larger whole of the human race.  It isn’t sufficient to merely understand the “other,” we have to understand how we are “other” as well.  When it comes to human cultures, no culture can be projected as the “norm.”  If our species is to survive for the long haul, then we must understand our otherness and work towards integration and wholeness.

The third habit of the heart has to do with being able to hold the tension between two polar opposites.  Our leadership team at Westminster has been studying the writings of Nick Petrie and working with him on a consulting basis.  In his work on leadership, he writes about the importance of navigating the tension between reflection and rumination, stability and change, or the work-life balance.  Handling each of these tensions requires an ability to “stand in the gap” between them, finding an equilibrium that promotes growth.

In his work on the third habit, Parker spoke about reclaiming the “beginner’s mind.”  His example was about coming fresh and new to a disagreement, not as an expert but as a beginner.  Often the beginner approaches the issue by hearing the other side, while the expert is more focused on framing the answer from a known point-of-view.  Approaching a tension from the beginner’s mind point-of-view might result in asking the question: what’s going on?  This open-ended question begs for more learning.

The fourth habit of mind has to do with developing and sharing our voice which leads to greater agency.  Parker writes, “expressing our version of the truth while checking and correcting it against the truths of others.” (page 45)  In his work with us he said: “The shaky voice is more trustworthy than the confident voice.”  The implication is that the authoritative voice is often closed to further learning, while the emerging voice is often eager to learn.  Parker encourages us to find our voice and use it for good purposes.  He writes:

And yet it remains possible for us, young and old alike, to find our voices, learn how to use them, and know the satisfaction that comes from contributing to positive change.

His fifth habit of the heart speaks to the importance of building community in all areas of our life.  However, building community does not happen independently of the other four habits of the heart.  A person needs to become self-actualized, understanding self and other, live into the tensions in life, be a team-player, and wisely use voice for inquiry and healing before building and living in community with others becomes a reality.  Parker writes:

It takes a village to raise Rosa Parks.  Without community, it is nearly impossible to exercise the “power of one” in a manner that multiplies.

He goes on to suggest that it took a community of people to convert her actions into social change.

While incorporating the five habits of the heart may seem like a long journey, Parker believes it is within the grasp of every person.  At the conclusion of the book on page 193 he asks a set of questions:

Are we faithful to the community on which we depend, to doing what we can in response to its pressing needs?  Are we faithful to the better angels of our nature and to what they call forth from us?  Are we faithful to the eternal conversation of the human race, to speaking and listening in a way that takes us closer to truth?  Are we faithful to the call of courage that summons us to witness to the common good, even against great odds?

He believes if we can answer these questions, using faithfulness as our guide, then there is hope that we can learn to live into wholeness in a “beloved community.”  (page 193)

Sadness fills my heart but I stand with a #calltoaction

July 16, 2016

The events that happened in Nice, France on Bastille Day bring sadness to my heart, especially as we witness the suffering of innocent people at the hands of terror.  Pictures of those killed in the attack, especially the ones lying on the street draped in a cover with a stuffed animal nearby, break open my heart.  All the human potential that was lost as a result of slaughtering innocent lives is hard to imagine or understand.

I have just finished a book by Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: the Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.  It is a powerful piece of writing.  Palmer’s insights into how we must live as a community of people are poignant, revealing his deep understanding of the human condition.

He closes his book with these words:

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr understood all of this deeply and well (his reference is to the full engagement in the living of our own lives).  He (Niebuhr) wrote the best words I know to bring this book to a close.

Here are those words.  When I read them they spoke to me about the challenge ahead as we try to make sense of the countless acts of terror around the world that have killed thousands of innocent lives and leave us on edge wondering can we learn to live together in peace?

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.  Nothing which is beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith.  Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.

(Parker references Niebuhr’s words from his book, The Irony of American History, 2008)

Managing classroom behavior with an APP, are we serious?

June 5, 2016

I assume we could all agree that the teaching profession faces many challenges: increasing class sizes with cuts in state funding; cyberbullying; designing for effective parent involvement; meeting NCLB expectations; aligning to the Common Core standards; designing interesting and relevant curricula; and salaries that don’t align with the complexity of the work.  (average starting teacher salary is $35,641 and average teacher salary is $53,649, (click here))

So while scanning Flipboard I came across this resource, promoted to solve a teacher’s daily challenge of managing classroom behavior.


Are we serious?  Improve classroom behavior with an APP!  Now I’m all for integrating technology in the classroom, but really, using an APP to “control” student behavior.  This illustrates why the teaching profession struggles being taken seriously.   We come up with the most ridiculous ideas for doing our profession’s work.  Let’s use our intellect, the research, and our understanding of child and adolescent behavior to give teachers the understanding and tools to help manage student behavior in the classroom.

Here are non-technological ways to help teachers improve their management of classroom behavior.

  1. Show all students that we care for them and know they have the potential to master the learning.
  2. Let’s not give up on any student no matter what the circumstances.
  3. Let’s work hard to design interesting, relevant and meaningful curriculum.  Most of the challenging behavior students demonstrate in the classroom comes from being disconnected from the learning.  If the learning is interesting, fun and engaging a student’s behaviors are focused on learning not misbehaving.
  4. Use strategies to build intrinsic motivation.  Extrinsic motivators, like class dojos, are ineffective, or at best inappropriate tools, for helping students develop self-monitoring skills that will serve them well beyond school.  Life is not full of “carrots and sticks” to shape our motivation and behavior.  So let’s not use them in our classrooms.
  5. Let’s realize that all “good student behavior” comes from effective adult role modeling in a student’s life.  So let’s design useful educational programs for parents and teachers that are research-based and will give them the necessary tools to understand what motivates a child or adolescent.
  6. Let’s understand that all good classroom management techniques are relational in nature.  The best teachers I know manage their classrooms well because they have the interpersonal and intrapersonal skills needed to work with students.

It’s not about an APP!  It’s about relating to students on a personal level, showing them you care and understand, and giving them interesting things to do that are appropriately challenging.

This APP is promoted on a website, SimpleK12: Professional Development in your Pajamas.   I think that’s part of the problem.   It’s very hard to take this website seriously.  No informed educator in the field of professional development (that I know) would suggest that you can do this “hard work” in your pajamas.  Good professional development is job-embedded, ongoing, requires the investment of hours of time and attention, and is tied to research being done in our profession.  I doubt it can be done well in pajamas.

So let’s not get pulled in by these seductive ads and ideas.  If you want to change your students’ behavior in the classroom (or any other important challenge you want to address), work hard, consult with trusted colleagues, and handle it interpersonally.  Don’t use an APP and don’t rely on the time you have in your pajamas!


@PaulTough on #Grit and Supporting Parents in Schools

May 22, 2016

Paul Tough wrote an interesting article in today’s New York Times Review entitled, To Help Kids Thrive, Coach Their Parents.   He references a 1986 study carried out in Jamaica that looked at different kids who fell into three study groups, each receiving a different type of intervention.  The intervention that had the greatest impact on kids’ lives was:

the one that received hourlong home visits once a week from a trained researcher who encouraged the parents to spend more time playing actively with their children: reading picture books, singing songs, playing peekaboo. (May 21, 2016)

I think we have always known that parents who play, read, and engage in a variety of ways with their children impact their development in significant ways.  Tough writes:

The Jamaica experiment helps make the case that if we want to improve children’s opportunities for success, one of the most powerful potential levers for change is not the children themselves, but rather the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of the adults who surround them.

Schools, especially those who serve students coming from underserved homes, should think about providing parent education, parent networking, and home visits as a way to help a family support their child’s growth.

I find Tough’s use of the term non-cognitive capacities instead of social-emotional skills an interesting construct.  In schools, we look for fancy programs to build “social-emotional skills” when we might be better served by looking at how to build “habits and mindsets.”  Different from skills like reading, which you never forget, non-cognitive capacities are contextual.  Whereas I might show some grit and perseverance in my science class because the teacher expresses an interest in me, I might withdraw and give up in my history class because the teacher doesn’t notice me or see talent in me.

These non-cognitive capacities are built early in a child’s life.  Parents play a central role in this work and sometimes need coaching, especially when they are consumed by other issues.  Tough refers to the importance of coaching parents in how to do this critical work.  He writes:

When parents get the support they need to create a warm, stable, nurturing environment at home, their children’s stress levels often go down, while their emotional stability and psychological resilience improve.

Later in the day, Paul Tough appeared on WABE’s Weekend All Things Considered.  The program, Teaching The Intangibles: How to Ingrain Grit In Students, revealed his insights into how schools and teachers can help students develop the habits of mind necessary to be successful in school and life.  While he focused on the supporting the development of non-cognitive capacities, he did not focus as much on the role of parents.  I would suggest reading his article and listening to the podcast to get the full picture of his point-of-view.

Listen to the Podcast

I think this is the important work in all schools and classrooms across America.

Teachers working on #teams can build a strong community of practice

May 14, 2016

There is excellent information in the literature that when schools provide time, space, and structure for their teachers to work on teams, doing meaningful work, the community of practice that results can improve instruction and student outcomes.  The time we allocate can come in a variety of configurations, such as grade-level planning meetings, meetings by discipline, or vertical planning meetings.  The space we provide for teachers to meet should be inviting, a professionally-oriented space that contains all the materials they need to take their ideas into action.  Finally, the structure we provide should guide teachers towards improving their practice, giving them sufficient flexibility to assess their students’ needs and progress while adjusting the pathways to better serve the needs of all students.

In ASCD’s recent edition of Educational Leadership, Naomi Theirs interviewed Richard DuFour for an article entitled, Educators Deserve Better.  I have always been impressed with Richard DuFour’s clarity of vision for effective team practice through a professional learning community structure.  As he spells out in the interview, there are two conditions that teacher teams must meet in order for their collaborative practice to make a difference.

First, absolute clarity about what they are collaborating on-what is the nature of the work, what is the right work.  Second, the support needed so they can succeed at what they are being asked to do.  (page 13)

The administrative leader provides the guidance and support for the second condition, time and space.  Administrators need to create the conditions, regular scheduled time for teacher teams to meet and a professional learning space that contains all the materials needed to launch ideas into action.  Leaders cannot take either of these responsibilities lightly.  Can you imagine Google, Apple, First Data, Facebook, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or any other excellent corporate or non-profit entity not supporting their teams with team to plan and a professional space in which to plan?  We know these organization invest heavily in supporting teams of people working collaboratively towards shared goals.  How do we measure up in our schools?  

Richard DuFour points out that schools and districts that have seriously invested in professional learning communities (PLC) have demonstrated significant progress in student improvement indicators.  However, teachers in PLCs don’t just meet to discuss random topics that surface in their work.  They meet with a common purpose and use agreed upon protocols.  

There has to be a common goal, a common accountability.  (page 13)

Teams have to set objectives and decide on important questions that they intend to address through their collaboration.  Here are some questions DuFour suggests teams use in setting up their work (page 13). 

  1. What do we expect students to learn in the course and in unit by unit?   We can think of this first question through the lens of what we want students to know, understand and be able to do (KUD).
  2. What evidence will they gather along the path of learning to be sure that students are mastery the targets we want them to hit?  He references the importance of teacher teams creating common formative assessments.  Creating these assessments helps teachers focus on the learning outcomes they expect from their students.  This evidence is what teacher teams use to make adjustments in their strategies to be sure all students are learning, whether they are struggling or advanced learners. 

The important work of teacher teams is to create a culture in which each teacher recognizes the strengths and challenges of every other member.  In order to move the team’s practice to new levels of competency, there has to be open and honest communication on the team.  Each person has to be willing to share his or her strengths to improve the team, as well as being willing to learn from other team member’s strengths.  “Rising tide raises all ships.”  In their HBR article, The Discipline of Teams, Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith distinguish between groups and teams.  On teams, individuals share leadership, are mutually accountable, share a common purpose, have collective work products, have open and honest conversations, engage in problem solving, evaluate their work products, and do “real work” together (page 113).  While DuFour does not elaborate extensively on “how” people work or the culture they create, Katzenbach and Smith provide that context.  So thinking about how their models could work seamlessly, side-by-side represents the answer to the question: How can we best create and support effective team cultures within our schools?

DuFour points out:

In schools that have sustained a commitment to the process (PLCs) over time, and have focused on the right work, it’s been terrific (the outcomes). (page 14)

What I like about the interview with DuFour is that he draws a clear dichotomy between teachers working on teams and teacher evaluation.  He points out that administrators should do the absolute minimum when it comes to “evaluating” teachers.  Administrators should invest all their energy into setting up and supporting an effective PLC structure.  If they do that really well, then teachers can “self-evaluate” and hold themselves accountable to the team.

The way we are going to improve schools is not by supervising and evaluating individual teachers into better performance’ it’s by creating a culture in which teams of teachers are helping one another get better.

For me, this is a powerful idea!  Help teachers shift from being groups of individuals working in silos to teams of teachers working on shared goals towards a common purpose.  Teachers should be accountable to one another, learning from one another what it takes to master the complex craft of teaching.  However, we cannot will this culture into existence.  Administrators, in collaboration with teachers, need to learn the strategies for working effectively on teams, implement them with fidelity, and practice being in open, honest dialogue with one another.  In DuFour’s world, it is very important that the conversations on teaching and learning be “evidence-based.”  If they’re structured this way, he writes:

The other thing is to train team leaders in terms of having difficult conversations and strategies for presenting things in a way that isn’t hurtful.  If conversations are actually based on evidence and you’ve got a leader who knows how to lead that discussion, you can move away from the gentlemen’s agreement that we won’t be critical of one another.  (page 15)

 But let’s not pretend that achieving this outcome is easy.  It takes patience, expert guidance, and lots of practice.  The pillar that holds up the whole structure is open, honest and respectful conversation between people.  Knowledgeable and sensitive administrators have to groom teachers at all levels to be leaders so that the school has a coalition of teachers who can take on these responsibilities within PLCs.

DuFour points out that principals and other school administrators need a ‘critical friends community’ in which they’re working through their own leadership challenges so they have the knowledge, support and bandwidth to effectively lead teachers into a PLC structure.  This is hard work that requires a high-level of commitment on the part of schools or school districts.  We have to invest energy and resources to achieve these important outcomes.

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