Thursday, June 16, 2011

Text of my talk on "the passion-driven school"

Below is the text of the presentation I gave my school board on Monday, June 13. I have the video that my son took on his Ipod, but we're having some trouble getting it up to YouTube.

Bringing Passion Into School

What I'd like to ask of you tonight is to come on a little journey of possibilities, to open our minds to new ideas about how to do school. As I continue, many things may come up in your mind, obstacles, problems, ways that you believe what I'm suggestiong would never work in the current system. Before we confront these challenges, I'd like to ask you to stay open to the journey, if just for the moment. I think it's important at least for us as a group to correctly identify the both the problems and the possibilities ahead of us. If we find that together we are asking the same questions, we will stand a chance of coming up with solutions that work for all of us.

The problem...the need

Here are some of the realities of our situation, not limited to our students but the status of students in general:

*Students are unqualified for jobs i.e. Basic reading, writing, etc.
*Students are not ready for college work
*There is a need for the skill of collaboration.
*The half-life of any skill today is very short. We have to move from being accustomed to a certain level of stability in what skills the world requires to a world of perpetual flux and change. There is a need for innovation, production, evaluation in a continuous loop.
*Corporations want workers who can do more than do as they are told; they need workers who can ask good questions. We are training students only to answer questions, and only in one way.
*In a bad job market, motivation to succeed in school plummets. We need to focus even harder on what ignites individual students and how they can use their ideas and their passions to make their way in the world.
*Any others?

There is a need for us to radically change how we do school.

We need to use the ignition that students carry inside them as a tool, a weapon against apathy, and against the detachment from who they have the potential to become that is the result of continual disengagement.. If we make their passions the lodestar that we follow we can have schools full of kids who feel connected and valued. Students will be able to lead themselves even to where we believe they need to go.

From an educator friend:
"I started school in the mid-50's and can tell you that school was awful back then. I happened to be a perfect school person - all A's - the..."right" learning styles. But it wasn't great for me either. And I remember my classmates who suffered humiliation every day and felt like failures. When we graduated from 8th grade there were several kids in my class who couldn't read and had basically failed in everything relating to school. Of course, that made them think they were failures in everything, even though I remember thinking they were so much smarter than I in science, history, and general info - they just couldn't show it in the way the teachers wanted it. I could read, write, and memorize - and that is the magic formula! No matter that the Einsteins of the world are sitting next to me being crushed."

The need for change comes from who these students are:

*Children have passions, they have expertise, things they are good at and proud of. They also have beliefs, strong feelings about right and wrong. Students need, first and foremost, to be heard, and their passions and expertise acknowledged. *Kids need to know that they matter, their ideas and passions matter, and what they believe in matters.
*Students need to have a home base of knowledge that has been generated by their own passion and makes sense to them. Littkey -- "Nothing you hand a kid to learn will be as important (to them) as what' s already inside them, and if you let them start from there, they will learn more than you could have ever taught them." (Note: "start from.")
*Students are exposed to a curriculum that is driven by the one size fits all model that we've set up for them. Testing does not set up for innovation.
*Discipline -- children are rebellious against the small rules, because they don't understand that what they are feeling comes from the frustration of not being heard. It is reasonable to not want to learn from someone who won't hear you, acknowledge who you are, what makes you special and strong in your own way.

As a result of the above, by middle school there is a free-floating kind of rebelliousness. Students can't learn in a classroom full of grudges.

Phil Schlechtly, author of Leading for Learning, Engaging Students, Working on the Work paraphrase: "Using the traditional model to teach innovation is like using the internal combustion engine to get to the moon. It's a perfectly good tool for the job it is built to do, but our needs in education now are not what they were when we developed this model, which happened 75 or 100 or 150 years ago, depending on who you are reading. The traditional model was built to educate people ENOUGH for what they had to do, and was designed for around 10% of the people in it to succeed in it, more or less."

The traditional system probably never had a goal of high scholastic achievement for everyone; it was acceptable for a long time that many kids would leave school and get a factory or farm or white-collar job. It takes a different system to educate a higher percentage of people in it. The globalization of the economy as well as the recession have made it necessary to bring out the innovator in all our students. We need to change our culture of learning; much of what we offer kids has to come from a thorough understanding of who each of them are.

We have to find ways of teaching the kids who would have ordinarily taken other routes, and the best way to do that is to tap into their passions. There are certainly kids who do well in the traditional model, but often these students have found their ignition -- maybe from their home environment, maybe by a chance connection to a caring teacher, maybe from any number of other possible influences.

We have to have the connection between a child's passions and what she learns about NOT take place due to happenstance but by intent. If we build on what kids bring with them to school, we can educate those who the traditional model left behind. If we don't, kids will continue to disconnect and detach themselves from learning, and severely limit their own futures. Or we can shift focus from teaching content to helping kids become who they are.

Generational issues

Douglas Adams:
"I've come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things."

This sets up a bit of tension between the over-thirty-fives and the 0-15s.

Why is this important? First, because of how we not only reject some uses of technology but designate them as against the natural order of things. The defining characteristic of this generation is its connectivity, which makes about as much sense to some of us as rock music did to those who were old folks in the 60s. Video games. Texting. Facebook. Twitter. The tension between the generations makes the use of these things by our children seem rebellious, even dangerous, so there is an us v. them atmosphere.

Wouldn't it be better to let kids take the lead and use technology for learning, in all the ways they can think of, even if we have to sit back bemused and a little frightened and wondering if the world is going to end? The way kids learn now may be different but it make sense on terms of their natural order.

We have to acknowledge a generation gap, and a gap in understanding between our students and ourselves. Students in school now are digital natives. (define--Web, telephony) There is a huge divide between natives and immigrants, and we need to acknowledge these differences.

The second reason Adams' rules are important is because it's not just talking about technology but how kids' minds and motivation seem to come from a very different place than when we were kids. These rules can also be applied to how schools look at how kids learn and how teachers teach. It may seem to a teacher that changing from how they teach now to what this generation requires is against their "natural order of things," but we need to adapt to them.

Digital Natives (Marc Prensky, Teaching Digital Natives)

*Do not want to be lectured to.
*Want to be respected, to be trusted, and to have their opinions valued and count.
*Want to follow their own interests and passions.
*Want to create, using the tools of their time.
*Want to work with their peers on group work and projects (and prevent slackers from getting a free ride).
*Want to make decisions and share control. (me: They need to be a part of the establishment of rules of behavior, so that each school year the rules are mutually created, agreed-upon and signed-off by every student.)
*Want to connect with their peers to express and share their opinions, in class and around the world. They want to cooperate and compete with each other.
*Want an education that is not just relevant, but real. (relevant is good, real is better.) (cite micro-lending organization, real-estate brochures)

Remember, WE created the world that these natives live in. If we don't like or understand how they relate to and interact with the world, who do we blame? We can find fault with their constant multi-tasking, seeming short attention span and lack of focus on old-fashioned ways of learning, but it is our generation that made the situation. Rather than shake our heads and ban this and ban that and worry about what video games are doing to their minds, and fret about bullying in texting, lets find how to bring interactivity into the classroom, make them happy, give us peace of mind, and strengthen their learning.

If we are frightened about what risk kids run when they engage in social media, we need to make it a learning experience and a topic for discussion. Let kids teach us how they want to use social media and work out together how to make sure it's safe. It's better than banning it from school and letting kids run these risks without scrutiny.

Teaching and learning

How do teachers need to change to make the switch to creating classrooms centered on passion and innovation?

Robert Talbot, teacher/blogger: It seems to me that we fill the spaces that our students have with all kinds of programming — more topics, more homework, more of everything — until there is no space left to fill, and then when there is time to discuss anything students want, they'd rather stay silent. The passion has been beaten out of them. Might students benefit from a little more space, a little more time to play, and a lot less time trying to get to the next topic or the next example or prepare for the next test?

What does a passion-driven classroom look like?
Nancy, teacher, from a blog comment In that space, we scatter resources and ideas for the learner. We teach them how to find information, how to verify the source, how to think critically about what is said, how to share what they are learning. We ask them what they are thinking, what they believe, what they think of opposing concepts, what they will share with someone else that day... It's about thinking, developing, becoming, changing. Not about formulating a myopic vision of a single topic.

*Teachers have to be learners. We need to make a transition from talking about teaching to talking about learning.
Will Richardson, author and consultant on educational technology:"When we say "teacher," what we are really saying is "the person in the classroom to whom students look for knowledge" or something like that. In the traditional classroom that almost all of us grew up in, the teacher was the focal point, the decision maker, the director, the assessor. Teachers, well, teach, or try to. We hire teachers based on how well they know their subject matter and how well we think they can deliver it to students. Teaching, the way most of us see it, is all about imparting knowledge in a planned, controlled way... in a world where knowledge is abundant, is that still the case? In a world where, if we have access, we can find what we need to know, doesn't a teacher's role fundamentally change? Isn't it more important that the adults we put into the rooms with our kids be learners first? Real, continual learners? Real models for the practice of learning? People who make learning transparent and really become a part of the community?"
*Teachers have to be comfortable with not being in complete control in the classroom
*Teachers have to have a reasonable number of students so that individual connections can be made
*Teachers have to become digital immigrants to better understand and guide the digital natives.
*Teachers have to model being passionate. Talk about their passions even if it's not in the subject area they teach.

How to do it

Again, we have to have the connection between a child's passions and what she learns about NOT take place due to happenstance but by intent.

Finding passion:

*Talk to their parents -- "listening conferences" at the beginning of every school year and occasionally during it; include parents in the discussion with students of who they are, what energizes and what depletes them.
*Create an atmosphere where passions are respected, and children who might not be able to identify their passion will start to consider what it might be;
*Ask good open-ended questions one-on-one -- develop teachers' active listening skills so they can home in on what energizes a student;
*Have a routine of open-ended discussions with the class and see where it goes, see what's on kids' minds and what would be a fruitful way to explore it.
*Allow them time to do what they want -- "innovation day," "Google 20% time"
*Instead of an academic fair, have an identity fair -- posters and displays where kids show who they are.
*Have teachers show what they are passionate about;
*Use existing tools and curricula designed to find kids' passions -- review of literature

Fires in the Mind
Kids participated in "The Practice Project," an examination of how to achieve mastery. (How mastery plays into the standards-based system -- does the traditional model teach for mastery? Nuh-uh)
The basics of this approach are from a Talent Code view of learning--ignition, deep practice, master coaching. The kids in the Practice Project have become experts on expertise through studying their own efforts to achieve mastery, interviewing experts on how they got there, observing one another, writing and discussing all aspects of achieving mastery.
The simple act of learning how the brain works and what's going on when you experience frustration helps kids get through tough times of learning, and their understanding of how the brain works means that all children will come to understand that they can achieve mastery, whether their talent is inborn or not.

Your Child's Strengths

Every moment you spend working with a child on what they do not do well is a moment not spent working on what they do well. The former may seem a necessary thing, but what is sacrificed is a child's passion and wonder, replacing that with depletion. What if there was a different way?
All kids have strengths whether they realize it or not, and we need to find them and focus on them, bring them out, extend their strengths to new areas of study and activity. Examples: editing, playwriting
Children area already experts at things; they come into school with knowledge and skills-- find out what children's expertise is and build on it. (examples: some may not seem relevant to school but are important to the kids, i.e. getting home safe; some are very much applicable to school such as poetry)
Jenifer Fox, Your Child's Strengths: "We must really start believing in the inherent worth of each child if we are to have any hope for their healthy future. If we could do this, school could become a journey, an exploration, rather than an evaluation that lasts eighteen years. Think about it—sixteen years of someone telling you what is right and what is wrong about you. And throughout, you've never had an ounce of input into the discussion. Imagine if this were happening to you in your workplace; imagine if you never set any of the goals or expectations, and you never had the opportunity to disagree. We could never fathom success in such a repressive environment for ourselves, so why do we think it is healthy for our children?"
Passion-Driven Classroom
"Clubhouse learning" - using individual passions to form club-like groups within one's classroom.
SEM model
"The SEM provides enriched learning experiences and higher learning standards for all children through three goals; developing talents in all children, providing a broad range of advanced-level enrichment experiences for all students, and providing advanced follow-up opportunities for young people based on their strengths and interests. The SEM focuses on enrichment for all students through high levels of engagement and the use of enjoyable and challenging learning experiences that are constructed around students' interests, learning styles, and preferred modes of expression."

Big Picture --
Littkey on rigor:
"At the Met, the activity is defined by the student's interests, and this fact alone leads to a more rigorous learning environment than you will see in most traditional high schools. When a student stays up until 2:00 a.m. reading a book that he chose and writing a paper on it that he assigned himself, that is rigor. When a student spends months studying Spanish and raising money to travel to Costa Rica to sork alongside an environmental scientist to help save the rain forest, that is rigor. When you watch how our students prepare for their exhibitions -- rehearsing process -- yhou are seeing rigor. Some people mistake not having a standardized curriculum for not having standards. But I believe we set very high standards for our students -- and most of them begin early on to set the same standards for themselves."

There is a debate in education over whether students need a good grounding up to a certain level in certain traditional subject areas, and what is necessary or unnecessary to learn. There is a feeling that by insisting on covering even the material that kids just don't want to learn no matter how real or exciting you try to make it you are doing more damage than anything else, creating a sense of failure in children that will spill over into all areas of their work.

What are the sacred cows, and where do we need to rethink the curriculum? Some insist that algebra isn't nearly as important as people say it is, and that statistics trumps algebra in terms of usefulness. I think a high school current events class that chooses events in the news to follow and connect to events in history is absolutely critical. All of us have our sacred cows, ideas on what needs to be kept in and what can be knocked out of the curriculum.

I'm not asking us to completely reinvent our curriculum according to our own ideas of what subjects are untouchable and which are expendable. I do recommend more flexibility in what we teach, according to what may most successfully connect kids to learning, what taps into teachers' passions, what can be made relevant or better still, real, to students. I think curriculum that says, cover a lot of material and dig deeply into what you love makes sense. It makes even more sense still if you enter into these curriculum areas with kids with whom you have already established a trusting relationship. I also ask you to find space and time to fit in self-directed learning, learning that respects and honors what children feel most driven to learn.


It is not my intention to recommend that we should turn our schools into models where kids learn anything they want to and not a second before they are ready. The opening of young minds to skills and concepts, books, cultures, events in history that they might not have encountered had they been left entirely to their own devices has a place in public education -- as long as children are given the freedom to learn in their own way, a way that is relevant and as close to real as possible.

What I hope to convey to you is a strong sense of hopefulness, an excitement about the prospect that our schools can brim over with the joy of learning that comes from the deepest places inside our children -- an ongoing celebration of who they are and what they can do. It may seem impossible, but I believe we shouldn't be happy until we devise a school children will want to go to on Saturdays.

We as adults need to learn to respect the richness of what lies in their hearts and minds as children. In view of the world we have created for them and what will be asked of them as they move into it, we must devise an education that honors who they are. I would urge us to make space and time to bring out their strengths, follow their passions and hone the skills that will make them the people they want to be.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Making the case....

On Monday, June 13 I'll be giving a talk to my School Board on the "Passion-Driven School." We're making plans to move toward a standards-based system, and I'm going to call for the inclusion of some system for finding interests/passions of children and giving them the time and resources within the system to pursue them.

There's a lot of support on my Board, but there will be objections that I'm trying to anticipate. One is: "In a passion-driven, personalized school, what happens with the kid who just doesn't feel like learning math or science? We've hired these teachers, and we can't just get rid of them. We have all this curriculum and we can't just forget about it!"

There's a strong feeling in my district that if you don't make kids do things they don't want to do, the whole system will spin out of control and kids won't learn anything.

I could use all the input I can get -- my talk will go through some of the neuroscience of education, the need for transformation, need to respect kids, the role of teachers, etc.

I have a pretty good grounding in the reasons for the passion-driven classroom, having read lots of books, read lots of teacher blogs over the last months and done a bunch of writing on it. But when I sit in front of parents and traditional teachers my mind goes blank, or I lose my temper, one or the other. So I need help.

Any input would be so helpful!