Students still care deeply; encourage them to tune in!

Not long ago an executive at a large local company said to me, "Kids are truly just different these days. I see it in the young employees that I hire. You must see that all of the time, right?"

kids then kids now.jpg

I paused. It's something I tend to hear a lot, but not just from people outside of education. Those words have been spoken to me by numerous teachers over the years. These words tend to reflect a genuine belief and they are validated by some of the ways we view young people today.

Then I responded as I always do.  "No, I don't believe kids are different today than they ever were. Society has shifted. Parenting has shifted. Adult expectations of kids and our focus on nurturing young people's growth and potential has largely shifted. But kids have not fundamentally changed. And I know this because I have seen young people who light up, get motivated, and go all in on those things they truly get excited about, even with topics that wouldn't excite most adults at times. I witness it over and over in my work with teachers and students, and that proves to me that kids haven't fundamentally changed."

Put a student in a river with a kick net and a mission to find out which critters live in the river and what that tells us about the river's health. Place a student on a structured, purposeful web conference call with students from across town, across the country, or across the world. Ask them to identify a problem of significance to them in their world and then find a reasonable solution to solve it. Even more simply, challenge them to solve a series of riddles/clues in an in-class competition or an EduBreakout. Have them argue their side in an in-class discussion or socratic seminar, have them teach other students with an instructional flipped video that others will see, or create a presentation they will deliver to an audience of people that will listen and engage with their ideas. These are all examples of things I have seen in the last few years where students came passionately alive in their work.

students engaged.JPG

Kids still want to learn and grow...

We have to find ways to engage them!

No, I truly do not believe kids are different today. They may be a little harder to engage at times considering the outside forces we compete with: instantaneous feedback with friends on social media, the ability to binge watch the shows that suit their exacting interest on streaming services, or a constant stream of access to enticing games and music that are their constant companions.

While educators do have to compete with these forces for our students' attention, the kids themselves have not shifted. They are exploring the world, trying to find their place and purpose, and attempting to figure out what type of person they would most like to be. As educators, we have the opportunity to expose them to the things we are most passion about, opportunities and topics they have never experienced or heard of before, and we can be the ones to lead them down paths that they will continue on for the rest of their lives.

However, doing something of such significance might require us all to shift our approach to how we structure these learning opportunities. We have to think more like independent entrepreneurs trying to engage our customers, and less like members of an institution that requires our clients to attend.

Although our kids' ability to dig in deeply and do great work has not fundamentally changed, society has. And it has given ALL of us the opportunity to elect when we will be present and actively engaged, and when we will opt out. We have all benefited from, or fallen victim to that reality. And because we have this experience as consumers of the things we are most interested in, we can use that experience to think differently about how we can best reach our students. The challenge for educators is to find exciting, engaging, meaningful ways to get our students to tune in and give our inspiring "channels" a try.

Can challenge based learning find its way into our classrooms?

Brain research has proven to us that experiences we perceive negatively are far more likely to stay with us as we age. I guess that explains why I so clearly remember the feeling I had as a young person when it was indicated that I was incapable of doing something because of my age and/or inexperience. It often started with an intense tightening in my throat, and nearly explosive rage inside, although I never showed it, of course. It would have been disrespectful to do so.  But I probably had an almost intentional hurt look on my face, and neon red would glow from my cheeks to outwardly show the embarrassment I felt for being viewed as incapable to complete do any task.

Yes, I can remember the feeling well, even though I struggle to come up with specific examples of the things I was deemed not ready to take on.

I think the research overlooks another feeling, though. The feeling that comes along with being deemed ready to take on a major task. The feeling of having somebody clearly putting their faith in you to do something of importance or merit.

Think back. Do you remember those times in your life? I remember them clearly. Like the time my mom trusted me to stay with my younger brother while she ran to the store. Or the time my baseball coach turned over pitch calling to me behind the plate. Maybe it was the day my Dad trusted me to co-coach a little league game with him. Or the time that my principal allowed us to run a new class event that was previously outlawed because another student had made some very immature choices.

As I reflected on those times, something interesting struck me. School, the place that I spent so much of time at growing up, specifically my academic classes and teachers, are relatively void of any such experiences in my memory. I don’t remember too many times when my teachers were the ones challenging me to take a leap, to try something new, and to show that I was capable of something even I did not know I could do.

It seems sad to me that the people in my life who were directly responsible for my growth academically, never challenged me to take a big enough risk that I could recall clear examples. I can even come up with examples where the very same people, my teachers, challenged me in big ways outside of the classroom (in extracurriculars or sports). So, I know it was not an issue of personality that caused them to not offer these challenges to me and my classmates. Instead, it leaves me  wondering if the greater likelihood is that our classrooms were not designed to provide these kinds of opportunities for students. And in that design flaw, we miss an opportunity to connect authentically with our students and to give them skills and experiences where they can prove themselves.

Doesn’t that seem ridiculous?

With all that we, as educators, are charged with doing to help young people grow, the structure that drives what we do with them daily is not really designed to provide students with opportunities to prove themselves in ways that they will remember long after they are with us. They do not get many chances in our classrooms to show us they can handle the pressures and the responsibilities that come with taking on projects, challenges, and real-world struggles. And we KNOW that they would find interest in these types of opportunities, and we KNOW these are the skills that they will need moving forward, even if they forget parts of the content we are teaching them.

If we want to find ways for students to be more engaged in our classrooms, maybe that is where our change needs to start. And no standards or list of required activities can keep educators, some of the most innovative and scrappy people I know, from finding ways to inject those opportunities in our classrooms!

When Philosophers Code

Those of us who have never undertaken the discipline of developing technology at a deep, language-based, "nuts and bolts" level, often see what technology can do as a form of magic. The secrets behind how websites, apps, tools, and solutions are put together mystify us and seem almost separate from us. The skills needed to actually develop the tools seem unattainable.

Recently I had an opportunity to get an inside look at the world of professionals that are solutions engineers and technology developers at SafeNet, a technology consulting company in Milwaukee. Beyond the power of seeing a working environment outside of the educational space (something we see far too little of as educators), what most stuck with me was the diversity of pathways that these employees had taken to arrive on this career path in the technology industry.

One of our hosts was an accountant who had found a way to utilize macros in spreadsheets to make his job a little easier. We met an individual who was degreed for work in the exercise and fitness industry, but after only a few short years found himself returning to Milwaukee and landing in the technology industry. Another developer, now an engineer in charge of developing the cloud strategy for clients, was a philosophy major exploring a masters in philosophy. He took the road less traveled by most philosophers, though, and ended up in the tech industry as a developer.

Throughout the day the same message was repeated — work in the tech industry is not something that requires a lifetime of focus and commitment to the field. Students do not have to be intensely coding starting in middle school and then follow it up with a four year degree in computer science. The reality is that technology, at least in many cases, is an industry built upon the interest, passion, commitment, and self-starting mindset of individuals who learn the skills needed to become a developer.

Preparing Students for a Career in Technology

Over the course of our visit, our hosts shared with us a couple of keys that would ready our students for a career in technology. 

Exposure to Developing with Technology Matters

While educators may not feel comfortable with the deep level coding required to build custom applications, we still need to help students understand that technology is malleable, customizable, and accessible.  Some ways to do this on a surface level of development may be we allowing students to write formulas in spreadsheets, teaching them how to animate drawings or create customized animations in a program like Keynote, or develop websites and utilize embed code. Going a bit deeper, utilizing some basic coding apps or programs like Tynker, Scratch, or SWIFT Playgrounds are great ways to allow students to experience code safely and without a lot of teacher expertise required. Even utilizing resources like the Hour of Code are great ways to provide exposure to all students demonstrating the ab a deeper level of technology manipulation.

While the depth of coding may not be critical, it is key that we begin exposing students to the larger idea that they possess the abilities to manipulate technology more deeply than by simply changing default settings.

Project Work Matters

While some educators would be surprised to hear this, I swear this next statement to be true. One of the key players in hiring at SafeNet was asked what kind of educational background would be most relevant for students to have to be “employable” at the company. Her response was clear. Potential employees needed to have the skills needed to be a developer/coder. How they got those skills, what programs they attended, what degrees they held — all of these were largely irrelevant to her and the company.  “If you really want a competitive advantage, show us your project work. What have you done? What kinds of teams have you been a part of? Can you work on a team? What have you seen from start to finish? That is what we are truly interested in when we hire.” 

She went on to specify that the ability to work in a team, to be a part of the critical thinking process, to bring your experiences and abilities to the team — these were really the skills that they were looking for in a successful consultant. And she said it is largely the belief by many in the tech industry that no degree alone will give you that kind of experience and skill set. That is something that is learned from time-on-task engaging in authentic, meaningful, challenging projects. 

Are we giving students opportunities to build a portfolio of work that would fit this description? Is it work that they value enough to put in the time, energy, and commitment needed to be "all in" on the project. Passion for their work is something we can help students develop in classrooms today, simply by allowing them some choice in what they are working on, what the end product looks like, and the audience for which they are developing the project.

Additionally, do these projects incorporate a team element where each member of the team plays a critical role in the completion of the project? This is another simple shift we can make in classrooms today to make sure that work students do is, at times, reliant upon the work of others.

Fostering Creativity and Enhancing Communication

It is important to know that our focus in education on the four c's (creativity, communication, collaboration, critical thinking) are skills in high demand by employers. It was continually reiterated that innovative, outside-the-box thinking was the most important valued thinking on many projects in the tech industry. We may often think of creativity as an arts-focused endeavor, and in a way that applies here. More essential, though,  was the ability to take a tool, a programming language, an unrelated concept, and piece it all together in new, creative ways. Several SafeNet representatives talked about experiences where they had a limited knowledge base on the team, yet they were able to rethink how what they had could be utilized differently for a new purpose. This mental agility is something we can begin to develop in our students regardless of the age level or content we teach.

Clear, succinct, and ongoing communication is just as critical. Remember, most of the SafeNet employees we met said their consultants worked in teams, and they worked directly for clients. This means they have to be good at communicating: they have to listen closely, understand the clients needs, and ask questions to clarify. They have to engage in impromptu dialogue, read non-verbal cues, and anticipate needs and potential roadblocks. This is done verbally and in writing. And it is done daily with a wide variety of stakeholders, team members, and project managers.

If this does not fit your traditional vision of a programmer, that is because the technology industry has changed. While there are definitely many times when coders have to intensely work independently to write eye-blurring lines of detailed code, that is not the singular quality required of a programmer. They have to communicate with teams and clients regularly in order to be successful. And these are skills all educators can help to builds in any content area or age level.

Independent Work, Reliability, and Accepting Feedback Still Matter

One of the other keys that the team shared with us is that much of the work that successful employees in technology need to do is complete work that is done independently, on time, and under budget. While teamwork is important, many projects in the technology industry are broken into smaller components that individuals take on alone within an allotted time period. This is called AGILE development. There are other formulas for completing large project work, but the concept remains similar: take a big project, break it into smaller, more digestible chunks, develop, and then bring the work back to the team for feedback/critique.

Often there is a project lead who will give direction. Students need to take that direction and run with it. They will then need to take responsibility for their portion of the project, complete it independently, often within a window of one to two weeks, and then come back to the larger team with the completed work and present it to the team. At that time the team offers collective feedback about the direction of their individual work, assesses how it will fit into the larger app/program/tool they are building, and then the process begins again with the next part of  the project.

This feedback loop is an iterative process that requires independence, flexibility, and a willingness to fail fast and fail forward. Being "done" with the assigned portion of the project doesn't really exist until the project is turned over to the customer in its completed state. There are ongoing changes and tweaks to all code written throughout the development of the tool, and thus students have to learn to take constructive feedback in step if they want to be successful within the technology industry. While these may seem like skills we have been developing in students forever in schools, the underlying question for me is clear: Do the students enjoy the work they are doing enough to put the effort in to create something worth discussing with somebody else? And are they passionate enough about the work they are doing to want to improve it once they receive feedback? If those elements are missing, it is hard to teach them to iterate and continually improve their school work, yet those are the skills that were identified as necessary to a successful career in the tech industry.

Most Jobs Will Adopt the Tech Model

While our focus at SafeNet was talking about jobs in the technology industry, it is clear that technology has impacted nearly all business sectors. Technology will continue to evolve, spread, and root itself into more business models moving forward. According to code.org, we know that we already are not producing enough students to fill the technology and computer science jobs available in Wisconsin. Add to that the spread of technology focused jobs in more businesses, even if they are not jobs requiring deeper, language-based coding, and you have a scenario where many of our students would strongly benefit from having opportunities in school to build skill sets that allow them to feel confident enough to step forward and apply for jobs requiring them to engage with technology at levels beyond just knowing how to work with software and change basic user settings.

Screen Shot 2018-07-04 at 7.00.48 AM.png

Whether we are ready or not to teach many of these skills to students, our kids will require them as they enter the world of work. The good news is many of these skills are within most educators  wheelhouse to teach, if we are willing to make changes to shift to a more project based, collaboratively focused model of instruction.

Technology is not optional: Students NEED help to develop technical skills

The skills students have traditionally needed to be employable and successful at work are as important as ever. These are often referred to as soft skills, and as reported in this LinkedIn article, for entry level positions they were recently ranked in importance by potential employers in the following order: 1) Communication, 2) Organization, 3) Teamwork, 4) Social Skills, and 5) Punctuality.

Screen Shot 2018-04-27 at 2.22.41 PM.png

 

However, with the changing shift in the business landscape spurred by technology, two keys shifts are happening in what employers are looking for in potential employees.  One key shift is that more technical knowledge and skills are being required in ALL aspects of work.

By technical, we mean highly technical. Potential employees are increasingly being overlooked if they do not have skills such as an ability to collect and analyze data, write computer code, strategize how to best reach an audience digitally, and to quickly adapt to new digital tools and skills related to a rapidly changing job description. Many organizations have studied and reported what employers are most looking for, and regardless of who is reporting the findings, these seem to be pretty consistent themes. For further exploration, check out these articles from Forbes and Monster

Further emphasis on how important these very technical skills are to employers can be found from a statement published on Fortune.com, in a 2016 article former General Electric CEO, Jeff Immelt said: "If you are joining the company in your 20's, unlike when I joined, you are going to learn to code. It doesn't matter if you are in sales, finance, or operations. You may not end up being a programmer, but you will know how to code.

It is clear that there is strong trend in employment; there is wash between the always necessary soft skills employers have long valued and the technical skills that employees need to do their job in a highly technical society.  Even for employees in roles that are outward facing and customer focused, these people are far more likely to be communicating digitally, meeting via web conference software, and building digital training platforms for clients and customers. A blog post from LinkedIn identifies that these skill sets no longer independently exist, but instead merge together into the skills that employers most need from their future employees (our students). 

And the reality is that these are skills our students do not inherently, natively have by being born in an era of cell phones and social networks.

We Must Make Shifts in Practice to Embrace New Reality

We no longer live in a world where adopting technology as a part of our daily educational practice is optional. Students need to learn academic content, develop soft skills, and develop technical skills that will prepare them for their lives ahead. With the systemic changes made in our district to set the table for meaningful technology use, most barriers to adoption have been removed. The only barrier that still stands largely in the way of adoption, then, is our own decision to shift our teaching practice.

Screen Shot 2018-04-27 at 2.31.55 PM.png

For educators, it is no longer acceptable to simply opt-out of technology use in the classroom. The stakes are too high for students if we choose not to give them these experiences.

And assuming that students simply have the technical skills they need because they were born with technology -- well, that can debunked within a few minutes simply by asking students to do certain learning tasks with technology that focus on productivity, creation, and collaboration. They need support, encouragement, and advice on how to use technology purposefully and meaningfully, even if they are confident they know how to actually use the software and push the buttons.

Educators are at a point of decision: will we make the productive, meaningful use of technology in our classrooms a priority? Will we prepare our students for college and careers by challenging them to develop the soft skills needed while using the technology that will shape their future lives? The only thing stopping us from doing this today are the personal barriers that we have put up for ourselves. And the good news: when you are ready to take the next step and give kids these experiences, there are people in your communities willing to support you.

Start thinking smaller with technology

Screen Shot 2018-04-27 at 9.44.01 AM.png

Nobody likes to use technology when it slows us down. In fact, one goal for meaningful tech use is enhancing a learning experience while keeping the technology seemingly invisible. When technology does that for teachers and learners, it is worth its weight in gold.

However, when we reflect on the ways we most often use technology, the tools are often utilized as a capstone to learning -- a final end product. And that, while a really great way to use technology, well that can be cumbersome, heavy, and can ultimately slow us down.

While summative assessment is certainly an appropriate use of the tools students have, it doesn't take full advantage of what the tools offer us. In these cases, technology use becomes an event, not a way of doing our daily business.

The challenge is to find ways to use the efficiency and mobility of the iPad, along with its built-in tools, to get students interacting with and sharing their thinking daily. The goal is to make sure every student participates, every student engages, every student does the hard work of thinking, all while making a teacher's work in the process more efficient and timely.

Here are ideas you could use to think "small" with technology use in order to incorporate it into your daily learning plan. And the best news -- these tools are on your iPads already. No download needed!

Prior Knowledge & Post Reflections with Camera

In order to activate prior knowledge, educators often use a call and response with the class or group. This only gives some of the students an opportunity to engage their brain and show what they know.

Instead, have every student turn on the video camera on their iPad. Speaking in a six inch voice (direct students to talk into the microphone of the iPad for better audio), have every student record 30 seconds of video explaining what they know about the topic.

At the end of the lesson on the topic, have students listen to their original recording. Ask them to reflect on two key questions: 1) What do I know now that I didn't know earlier? and 2) What questions do I still have about this topic?

They could now share with a partner for a quick turn and talk session.

Finally, have the small group film one final 20 second video using the camera app. They will record the answers to these questions: 1) "One really important thing we learned today about this topic was..." and 2) "One question we still have about this topic is...".

Students can now AirDrop the video to their teacher as an exit ticket, and the teacher can quickly review the student's thinking and questions.

Low Tech to High Tech Reflection with Markup

Screen Shot 2018-04-27 at 9.20.41 AM.png

In most classrooms some amount of work is done on paper. Paper is a wonderful tool for learning. Of course, like anything, it has limitations.

In this technique we start from paper. We have students doing work and showing their learning on paper (this should feel fairly familiar).

Next we organize a quick museum walk or have students find a partner. The goal here is to have students look at each other's work in order to challenge their own understanding of the skill/topic, and to offer feedback to each other.  Using their iPad, they will take photos of at least one other student's written work (you may need to teach them how to focus and take a good picture).

Then, using the Markup tool in Photos (the place where your photos go on your iPad after you take them), have the students annotate their thinking over the top of the photo to determine key points about the work. This would be more efficient and meaningful if the teacher could provide some guiding questions for the feedback.

Finally, students can meet to share their thinking with the student who they are offering feedback to. They can AirDrop their annotated image to each other to serve as guidance as the student goes back to make changes to their work on paper.

Capturing the Learning Process

If the focus on the learning process is the key to the work students are doing, then let's use technology to help capture the process over time. This technique works whether you are working with non-digital tools (paper, construction materials, art materials, etc)  or working digitally.

The teacher starts by outlining the rules. Over the next period of time, students will hear a timer go off sporadically. This timer will be set by the teacher. When the timer goes off, the students simply need to snap a photo of their work at that time. Stop what they are doing momentarily, take a picture, and then get back to work.

Using the timer on the teacher's iPad (and AirPlay if an Apple TV is available in your room), the teacher will set the timer (you will have to determine the appropriate interval -- not so often that it interrupts thinking, but not so far apart that student progress will not be measured). As the teacher moves around the room and students work, the timer will keep pace. 

When the timer goes off, instruct students to capture their work using the camera, and then get back to work. The teacher will then reset the timer for a new interval (not all intervals have to be exactly the same).

Repeat this until the work period has completed.

Next, ask students to open the Photos app on the iPad. Have them start on their first photo of their work, and then scroll through. With each photo, ask the students to reflect on the process and what changes from photo to photo.  Maybe they will watch their drawing or artwork come to life. Maybe they will see their writing process unfold. Maybe they will identify their note taking or annotation process.

When we use technology to capture moments in time, we can start to uncover the process of learning, not just the end product.

They could share this reflection with a partner. They could use the Markup tool to annotate the changes. They could video record their reflections of the process. For more advanced users, you could use either full iMovie or iMovie trailers to document the learning process as well.

Any way it is achieved, the goal is to have the students reflect on their process, to think about what they did and how it impacted their final product, and to ultimately change their process (or understand their process) so they know themselves as learners.

Your iPad is your document camera

In a classroom where we need to make things visible for all of our students, or when we want to model a process for students, nothing beats a document camera.  They give us a live video feed that we can quickly and easily project to the class.

And the great news -- you already have a document camera available to you. It's your iPad.

Paired with an Apple TV and Airplay (for a wireless experience), or even hard wired into a projector, the camera app on the iPad gives us a live video feed that can be easily shared with the class.

The process is easy. Find, make, or buy a stand that will allow you to be hands-free with your iPad with whatever is below (or in front of) the camera. Then simply connect it to the projector and open the camera app.

IMG_6796.JPG

The trick is finding a great stand at a great (or no) price. You can buy iPad doc camera stands, but if you look around you'll probably find exactly what you need in your classroom or around the house/apartment.

The stand at right meets all of the requirements.

  • The stand must be sturdy. iPads are expensive, and setting them on a wobbly stand where they may fall is not a great idea!

 

  • It has openings at the top to safely set your iPad on while allowing the camera to peer through.

 

  • It lifts the iPad up from the "stage" below so you can fit objects of various sizes underneath.

 

  • There is a clear working area underneath to fit the demonstrator's hands. This is especially important when annotating text or "modeling" for students.
Screen Shot 2018-04-27 at 10.29.18 AM.png


So go ahead. Look around. What clever ideas have you had for making your own useful iPad document stand?

By the way, this is a GREAT design challenge for students. Set forth the design parameters (something similar to what we outlined above) and let students start thinking creatively.

 

Expertise worth paying for

As I get older, it's fair to say I'm becoming a bit more frugal. I realize how hard I work for what I earn, and I am constantly balancing the benefits of paying somebody else to do work that I know I could do on my own. (My maker mindset hasn't made this any easier -- a YouTube video, some tools and we can do just about anything!)

Recently I have had the chance to work with true experts in very different fields.

In my work life, I've had the chance to work with representatives from Qualtrics. This is a company that has invested millions in product development and testing, that has hired some of the brightest minds in the fields of research, computer science, data analysis, and that has brought all of that expertise together to develop a great product to help companies, schools, and students make accurate, data informed decisions. They have staked their reputation and the livelihoods of each of their employees on being the best at helping clients make the right decisions. It is quite a company, quite a product, and their expertise shines through in every interaction I have with the company.

In another part of my life, the home remodel of our kitchen, I have had the opportunity to work with a true craftsman. Randy is a person that is generations deep in his family knowledge and tradition of construction, both in rough and finish carpentry. He has spent his entire life deepening his knowledge, problem solving through projects, and honing his skills as a carpenter. His expertise and attention to detail day-in, day-out is the key to his ability to pay his bills, feed his family, and earn a living. His expertise shines through in every way as you watch him work.

This is not unlike the school systems we work in as educators. Educators and educational systems have a ton of expertise within them. We have people skills, content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, creativity, problem solving abilities. If school systems were companies for hire, there would be no competitor for many of the projects for which they were hired; the talent pool, expertise, and know-how of schools systems is just that rich. 

IMG_0998.jpg

True Expertise...

sometimes you get what you are willing to pay for!

However, even in schools, there are blind spots and areas where our lack of expertise shines through.  Perhaps it is realizing where these blind spots are within our systems, acknowledging where our weaknesses and  lack of expertise  shines through, and then finding/hiring those who can fill our gaps that is one of our greatest responsibilities as educational leaders. Why spend time writing surveys that won't yield the data we most need when there are people who can help us get the right answers out of the gate? Why throw darts at understanding the complexities of our relationships with our customers when there are people can help us understand the science of client wants and needs?

Or as my wife asks me: Why spend unnecessary time and money on materials putting in the finishing trim, when we can hire somebody who will make it look better than we ever would be able to?

She has a point.