Year of Collaboration

The year ends today and I’ve spent some of this Christmas break looking at old pictures. I came across this picture from our trip to Vietnam in 2010:

It got me thinking about a couple of different things regarding teaching and growing as a learner.

The first thing that strikes me is no matter how much I try, I cannot work alone. This home is isolated yes, but they can still connect with others by hopping into the boat and sailing off.

Unfortunately, education is turning into a more and more isolated profession for a myriad of reasons, one of those being technology integration. Doors are staying closed, poor practice is continuing, and collaboration is waning in many schools. Professional development is losing value and relevance in many schools, which is driving people to web resources like Twitter.

(Keep in mind, this is simply my observation. I know not all schools are in this situation, but I think we can agree that it isn’t difficult to find at least one colleague that feels that way about teaching.)

Since this is a year-end post, I might as well throw in a new year prediction. The last few years have seen incredible advances in technology and connectivity. The connections I made in 2011 are invaluable to me and I am still returning to Twitter for inspiration and collaboration. I don’t think the value of those connections is waning at all. I’ve found some amazing people that formed the foundation of my PLN, and I feel fortunate that others feel the same way about me as I’m added to theirs. Connections are continuing, but my network for change is still limited.

I think 2012 will be the year of local collaboration. I know collaboration happens frequently in schools, but I think 2012 will show an explosion of local, “grassroots” growth and development. Rather than working as individuals to connect with others digitally, I think schools will begin connecting different groups across the world and then bring that group’s expertise to bear in their locale.

However, local collaboration isn’t going to take place of its own accord. There need to be local leaders willing to step out and take risks. Stephen Harris, principal of Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning said it well in a recent Connected Principals blog post: “Do then think.” Don’t take blind risks, but plan for intentional, meaningful change in schools and then work together with the people around you to make it happen. I can discuss change in my school with friends across the world on Twitter, but when it comes down to it, change won’t happen without the help of colleagues across the hall.

2011 was fantastic, and I’m excited about beginning 2012. Take a risk and connect with someone in you building to find ways to make progress in your buildings. If we all work hard at home, we might see the broad change we’ve been talking about for so long.

A Year of Learning

As the year winds down, I find myself thinking frequently about all the change I’ve gone through. This post doesn’t have a particular theme or any real deep insights…more of a year-in-review.

— This time last year, I was in Thailand riding an elephant. It was probably one of the best experiences I’ve ever had and I think about it frequently. If anyone ever asks you to go to Thailand, stop what you are doing, and get on the airplane. You won’t regret it.

— I feel very blessed to have a home in the United States, but some days (many days) I do wish I lived a simpler life. Having the opportunity to travel within Asia really gave me perspective on how much I take for granted. I’m much more aware of the luxuries I have access to and I try and share that with my students, but it is very hard to communicate that feeling to others.

— Moving back to the US from abroad had more culture shock involved than moving abroad from the US.

— The power of connections through social media cannot be ignored. I searched for work for six months before connecting with Brett Clark in Evansville, IN. He contacted me to Skype into a learning session on the Flipped Classroom and it ended up being an interview for my current position. For that, I am extremely thankful.

— American public schools are in need of innovators and our students need people that care about more than standardized test scores. Learning has been killed by testing and I refuse to let the status quo proliferate in my classroom.

— Sometimes the best thing we can do for our schools is be present. We don’t always need to be vocal about making changes. Change happens naturally from practice, not from always being “that guy.” Cause more ripples in the pond…don’t drop bombs all the time.

— I need to celebrate failure as much as (more than?) successes. That is including student failure alongside my own. I have been extremely aware of learning through mistakes lately.

— Learning is important to me, but I need to take times to step back and let my brain rest.

— When I let my brain rest, it usually means my body is working hard. I helped build a garage last weekend and it was great to be outside working with my hands, even though I know nothing about building anything more substantial than a pillow fort.

— My wife and I did homemade Christmas gifts this year and I am thinking about making that the norm rather than a one-time deal. We still bought small gifts for one another, but the bulk of our gift-giving was DIY. I feel much more excited about giving this year than I have in the past.

— Driving between our families’ homes is tiring, but it is so nice to be able to actually drive between homes during the break.

— I have a lot of work coming up once break is over, but that is a full week away. Right now, I am home, with my family, and that is where I need to be.

Take time this year to be present. Don’t just exist in the room, but invest in your parents, your spouse, your kids, or whoever you’re with. Be intentional about looking people in the eye and connecting this year. Focus on the same with your students when we go back to school. But above all: continue to learn, continue to grow.

I Am Responsible

I recently overheard a conversation in which two teachers were discussing a particular student that came to school and simply “existed.” He didn’t engage, didn’t turn work in, and didn’t seem to have any interest in learning. The conversation ended with: “Why does he even come to school?”

It is easy to jump into teacher mode to answer that question. We see the value in life-long learning and the intrinsic value of education. We know that sometimes, the stuff we learn in school does come back to haunt us. But, many times, much of what we’re teaching kids (the curriculum) won’t come back around, especially in the sciences.

So, my question is, who is at fault? Is it the student’s fault for not caring, or is it my fault for poor teaching?

Why are the mitochondria important? What does it matter to me if plant cells use sunlight to smash carbon dioxide and water into sugars? What is so special about DNA?

These are questions kids ask every day in their heads, and they’re questions we tend to gloss over.

I believe part of the answer to this problem lies in choice. When content is dictated and isolated, we’re taking away opportunities for deeper questions. But, part of changing that paradigm is giving up some control. We have to be okay with kids asking hard questions…even questions we don’t know the answer to. Push learning by taking seemingly unrelated concepts and asking the kids to synthesize and theorize the connections. Celebrate mistakes and failure; encourage collaboration and debate.

We are partially responsible for the disengagement of many kids in our schools. The plow through finals week has been bringing me back to that truth. I keep asking myself why we put kids through a multiple choice test to see what they know. Even essay questions are limited in scope as they still rely on recall of facts.

I would much rather see what they can do. But, that transition is difficult…and scary.

I don’t know the student from the story at the top of the page, but I do have students that are in similar places. Disconnected, irrelevant information isn’t interesting to them…why is that such a surprise? The times I’ve given choice and freedom are when I’ve gotten some great response. I’m still responsible for dragging a few through the mud, but at least they’re more open to letting me drag them.

The Flipped Class is Here to Stay

…or, “The Difference Between a Fad and a Usable, Meaningful Tool is the Teacher.”

I missed #EdChat…again. It’s one of the downsides of living just inside the Central Time Zone border. The 12PM EdChat is during a class, before my lunch hour. The evening EdChat is during the dinner hour, before my work block at home. It’s a no win situation.

It does provide me a chance, though, to scan through the feeds and see some of the comments made during the hour. I can also always go back and read the archive maintained by the amazing Jerry Swiatek. I noticed a couple of tweets immediately this evening when I was catching up concerning the Flipped Classroom, which prompted this post.

I think the flipped classroom is here to stay for a variety of reasons, but I’ll narrow it down to the top three or four I end up discussing most frequently.

1) The Flipped Classroom is more than watching Khan Academy videos at home every night.

This is probably the biggest argument I get against the Flipped Classroom…all we’re doing is moving class time into homework time (I’m not going to get in the homework argument right now). The short answer is yes, we do move instruction to time outside of class, but it is so much more than simply throwing video into the mix. I’m sure that most of the time I’m preaching to the choir on this blog, but we all know that “technology integration” is a much bigger challenge than putting a YouTube video on your class website for kids to watch.

The use of video-as-instruction was best described by my friend, Ramsey Musallam. He says that the purpose of the video is to offset the cognitive load that comes along with learning new material.

There are times where direct instruction (or lecture…you choose) is appropriate for the task you are trying to accomplish (see paragraph 4, about linear regression). We are simply using video to remove that portion of direct instruction. We can then maximize collaboration, interaction, and synthesis of new material or content during class because we aren’t spending 30-40 minutes lecturing at the front.

I teach in an urban district where biology isn’t really important to many of my kids. The flipped classroom helps me increase engagement and interest because they can choose when to do their work. They’ve never been given this choice…they’ve never had the opportunity to set their own schedule (within reason…there is much more than what I’m speaking to at the moment) and because I am trusting them, they are learning about things that matter to them. I truly don’t believe my classes would look the way they do if I were the one driving instruction all day, every day.

2) The Flipped Classroom promotes bad pedagogy.

I agree totally with this statement. I would also argue that traditional classrooms can promote bad pedagogy, but we don’t make a big fuss over those because they’re “tried and tested teachers.” We should always be trying to improve our pedagogy, regardless of what we call our method. The Flipped Classroom does not make you a magical and inspiring teacher…your kids might resent your more for it because you’re pushing them to go beyond the give-and-take education they’ve had up until now.

Looking at the class time we’re opening up by time-shifting content delivery, good teachers will fill it with learning experiences, labs, discussions, problem-solving, assimilation work, and creative work that expands upon and enhances the content. Regardless of the methods, we should be providing those opportunities for learners in our schools. But, we either A) waste time with lecture in class, or B) have the time, but choose to fill it with worksheets because they’re easier.

I can be a bad teacher regardless of what methods I choose to use. Pedagogy must come first, and the flipped classroom is not excused from that expectation.

3) The Flipped Classroom can’t work for English and Social Studies, so it won’t ever become a major tool.

While I do agree that the flipped class is mostly centered in science and math right now, I do know of many other classes in the humanities (English, history, reading or writing workshop classes, economics) that are using flipped classroom ideas.

Remember, the flipped classroom isn’t a prescribed methodology…it is an ideology that uses technology to expand the classroom and allow more time for inquiry, discussion, debate…fill in the rest for your particular class. It is a choice to offset as much direct instruction in a medium that is appropriate for your learners. That may be videos, it may be articles, it might be a project. It doesn’t matter how it is being done, but rather that it is being done at all.

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Now, back to my title. Notice that the constant in each section above is a teacher that is working hard for their students. We are not replacing the teacher with the soft glow of a computer screen. We are not relegating kids to computer labs and cubicles. The teacher is present and active…a member of the learning community. Rather than being a dispenser of information, the teacher is an active learner with the group. We are there for support and guidance, not as sages or simply another reference. Our questioning and probing should drive deeper understanding and ownership if the content.

Fads come and go because while they’re fun and work to help engagement in the moment, they don’t do much to push learning in the long run. Meaningful change happens when teachers, students, parents, administrators, and other community members come together to support student growth in any form.

The Flipped Classroom isn’t a passing phase…I think it is a middle-ground from 100% lecture-driving instruction to a mix of direct instruction, creative thinking, collaborative learning, and application of content. I am only in my third year of teaching, so I feel extremely fortunate to have found this so early. This is all I know, and it makes sense to me. For those of you that have been teaching for 10, 20, or even 30 years, the Flipped Classroom is a great bridge to more student-led classes.

There is a continually growing network of people from around the world and across all content that are looking for your expertise. Check the Flipped Class Network out and see what is really going on behind the scenes.

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For a longer, more in-depth look at the Flipped Classroom, you can read The Flipped Class Manifest written by myself and others that address the issues above and more.

New Flipped Class Article

I co-wrote an article on the flipped classroom with several other outspoken flipped class advocates. It is posted on thedailyriff.com, but I can point you to the original document if you would rather read it there. The authors were:

Myself

Aaron SamsTwitter

Jon BergmannTwitter

Karl FischTwitter

Dan SpencerTwitter

Troy CockrumTwitter

Ramsey MusallamTwitter

Jerry OvermyerTwitter

You can read the article here on The Daily Riff.