Schedule in the deeper learning.

I recently read a post from my friend, Lee Fleming, about the challenges of 45-minute class periods, and it inspired me to dust off this blog post that has been sitting in draft mode for too long.

There’s a moment in PBL that I love. I do like the beginning of projects when students interact with an entry event and surface lots of good questions (need-to-knows), but that’s not my favorite moment. My favorite part comes after a project is underway. It happens after a teacher has provided a scaffolding activity (or workshop as we call it at NTN) to target a student need-to-know. And then, the students are asked to take that new understanding to help address the larger question or problem the project is centered around. Watching students make these attempts is my favorite. Initially, the attempts might be clumsy, but each clumsy attempt has the potential to turn into a powerful learning moment of deep connection with the concept being explored.  

To me, that’s the rub of PBL, or at least better PBL. It’s where the deeper learning happens. Summed up well by the National Research Council’s paper on developing transferable knowledge and skills: “The product of deeper learning is transferable knowledge, including content knowledge in a domain and knowledge of how, why, and when to apply this knowledge to answer questions and solve problems.” Transfer – that’s where it’s at for deeper learning.

Creating these types of learning experiences at scale in a school is hard work, but certainly achievable and absolutely worth pursuing. And I’ve been coming back to one structure in the secondary schools I’ve visited over the last 6 years that consistently makes and breaks opportunities for this kind of deeper learning: the schedule.

Let’s look at that deeper learning moment from above and see how that might play out in two different schedules, a 45-min period and a 90-min period.

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Here’s a few important differences in how things play out above:

  • In the 45-min period, students go from the workshop straight to the exit ticket! There’s no immediate chance for the students to experiment with that new skill in the project context and the teacher’s chance to assess students’ transfer ability gets delayed.
  • In the 45-min period, there is a 23-HOUR BREAK. Lots can happen in there – six other classes, band practice, stresses at home, etc. When they eventually do come back, who knows what knowledge/skills from the workshop stuck or got kicked out of a kid’s head.
  • The 45-minute approach asks for students to make double the transitions. (Class of 28 energetic youth) x (Number of Transitions Required) = Chaos Possibility Factor. The 90-minute block asks for less transitions, which takes me to my next point.
  • In the 90-minute block, students have 40% more structured work time. Wow. That affords students the chance to play around with the new skill they got in the workshop, to make some messy attempts at applying (aka transferring) it toward the project challenge, to get some feedback and support from peers and teacher, and to try again….all in the same continuous stretch of time. That additional time could be a great space for teachers to encourage students to go a little divergent with their thinking, knowing there’s more time for the thinking to converge back toward progress on the project.
  • There’s just more time and space to see, hear and respond to kids in the 90-minute block, without the next impending transition looming. That’s good for culture and relationships.

Coincidentally, ALL of this applies to the staff learning in your school too, where deeper learning should be the norm. You just can’t get very deep in a 30-minute after school PD. This might be worthy of a blog post of its own.

I value the notion that structures drive behaviors, and, if the behaviors we want are about deeper learning for students AND staff, getting the structure of the schedule right is time well spent.


Staff matters

Over the past month, I’ve enjoyed facilitating some reflective discussions with five very different schools (elementary, middle school, high school, rural, urban, etc.). As part of each of those conversations, they have checked back in on their Purpose & Mission. In each school, there was reflective discussion around the school’s mission specifically, reflecting on the “what” and “how” for their “why.”

Unprompted, when each school discussed their “what” and “how”, they all kept pointing to the dynamics within and culture of the staff as being critical to how effective they could be in making progress on their purpose. Yet that idea didn’t show up explicitly in any mission statements.

Maybe it comes across the wrong way to some stakeholders if a school’s mission says something about making sure “the staff are connected, challenged and honored.” Maybe someone could extend that thinking and read “this school cares more about the staff than my kids”? After all, a mission is supposed to be filled with pedagogical buzzwords (e.g. rigorous, PBL, student-centered). Right?  

I do think some of those buzzwords matter and should be part of a mission (assuming those words have depth in your school), but, after this last month, it’s been clear to me that a school’s mission should be about the students AND the staff in the building. And it’s important to say that publicly and explicitly, rather than keeping it as some hidden or implied truth.

My colleague, Jim May, and I put together a presentation of learning as part of our internal learning at New Tech Network. We used a couple of pictures to frame our presentation.

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In the above, the alien-ish looking figure on the left represents someone with influence on learning in a school (e.g. principal, instructional coach), the middle figure could be a teacher, and the students are on the right. As it suggests, the staff member in the middle is often positioned as just a means to an end, with the end being improved outcomes for students. And, of course, student outcomes are a worthwhile end to focus on.

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But, as this second picture suggests, what I’m arguing for here is that the outcomes for STAFF in a school building matter just as much. As Jim said well (which he’s known to do), it’s important we see staff as a “legitimate end unto themselves” rather than a means to an end. They are humans after all, who merit the same connection, challenge and honor we seek to provide students.

Show me a staff team that is connected meaningfully, challenged to learn deeply on a regular basis, and honored as individuals, and I’m confident the classrooms will mirror that.

So, include the focus on staff outcomes (collectively and individually) as part of your mission. Say it loud and proud. And then actually USE that mission to guide how you design what happens, or not, in your school.


Image icons from the Noun Project created by Stefan Parnarov, Stephanie Rusch, and Wilson Joseph.

Arguing with myself

I’ll confess that this post is equally influenced by what I see playing out around me in spaces that are not schools. But, as it always seems to, I can’t help but think about what it means for schools and learning.

I’ve recently taken a break from Facebook. While I’m grateful for the wide cross-section of views from friends and family, I had found myself on occasion too far down the rabbit hole of the comments section. (Where did the videos of kids and cats go in my feed?) And it was stirring up some unhealthy responses for me, so I needed a break. I’m sure there’s a fair amount of user error involved, but I think there’s also something else at play, with Facebook being just one venue where it’s playing out.

We’re more than happy to argue with each other, but much less eager to argue with ourselves.

It’s just so much easier to give into the reflex and lob out an argument against something or someone. You can do all of that without actually ever having to process ideas that don’t align with how you currently make sense of things.

The alternative, which is often not my first impulse, is to pause. In that pause, several things can happen. For one, you can actually listen and hear.  And then there’s also a chance to step back and look at your own thinking. Better yet, try arguing with yourself. Try earnestly to poke holes in your own thinking and see where you end up. That might land you exactly where your first reflex was, but it might create a noticeable shift in how you are making sense of things. Either way, there will be an increased depth and nuance to your thinking as a result of the process. Some, like Dewey, might just call that learning. And Kegan’s notion of growth comes to mind too.

I’ve got a long list of parenting fails, but one that I’m really hoping to get right with my kids is helping them develop “iceberg thinking.” My hope is that they will learn to appreciate that below the surface of what they see in interactions with someone or something, there lies a much more elaborate story, full of complexity, that is worth exploring. But if we don’t pause and get a view of our thinking in those interactions, we’ve just let a chance for learning, connection and growth to slip by.

So, start an argument…with yourself. Help your students figure out how to do that.  The process is worth the pause.

Side note – what does your “I’m arguing with myself” face look like? Mine closely resembles discomfort, which is not to be confused with my “it smells strange in here” face. 


Inspiration creates inspiration.

This morning we kicked off a session at #NTAC15 with a room full of 60 electives teachers from around the country who are learning more about project-based learning (PBL). The participants came from a wide range of subject areas across the spectrum of electives.

The day is a bit of a blur in looking back, but, by the afternoon, we ended up in some project ideation that was no less than inspiring. And I think that’s what sometimes gets left behind in the PBL equation through attempts to overly systematize the approach. No doubt you need those fundamental elements and strategies for PBL to meet your learning objectives, but a healthy dose of inspiration pushes toward a bolder set of outcomes for kids (and adults too).

Meeting with a local nursing home and its residents to design and build a flower garden on site. Reaching out to partner on marketing materials with a non-profit recently started by a young teenager whose life was altered by a drunk driver. Exploring how performed music can heal through interpreting a selection to be performed for patients at St Jude’s children’s hospital. Exploring the artistic style of Realism and biological habitats through development of educational signage for a riverfront park.

Some of these projects have already happened, and stories about those experiences were shared today. But some of these projects are just starting to take shape. And, with that inspiration built in, I’m confident that the stories to be told about those projects will also give me the chills.

Keep the inspiration coming.

Leave college to college.

In recent conversations with multiple high schools and high school leaders, AP courses and college credits continue to come up in discussion. In the thick of master scheduling for next year, these conversations have a sense of urgency and a sense of accountability based on what states/districts expect and require.

I’m over AP courses, and I’m starting to get a little tired of all the other college-credit-getting experiences (CCGEs…my acronym contribution to education) being pushed into high schools.

There’s plenty of good perspectives on how AP courses and overall AP course strategy has become disconnected from its original intent…here and here. Thinking WAY back to my own experience with AP, I took AP Physics and AP Calculus in high school. Having placed out of the first Engineering math course, I found myself as an awkward college freshman in a room full of primarily sophomores and juniors who had a much better handle on how college worked. My primary high school study strategy of cramming the 30 minutes on the morning of the test combined with an undeveloped sense of agency allowed me to barely get a C in that course.  The college physics course was a similar experience and nearly wrecked my high school love for the subject (we’ve since made up and are on speaking terms).

In a discussion with a high school principal a couple of weeks ago, I arrived at this realization: why are we all still trying to do college in high school when we don’t have high school right yet?

I love the basic idea of really cheap or free college credits for kids while in high school, particularly if it motivates a kid to attend college that would not have otherwise. But from what I’m seeing, there’s often a significant expense in that approach for the school/district and potentially the kid. Besides, there are other ways to get a student aware, eligible and prepared for post-secondary education.

What if we shifted all the efforts we put into AP and other CCGEs toward developing the skills and attributes a learner will need to be college/career ready and persist at the next level?  This would serve kids well in getting a deeper learning experience while in high school too, and maybe put us on a better path to actually getting high school and college right.

Recognizing there’s some top-down demands at play, we just need colleges, states, and districts to make meaningful advances in recognizing and appreciating young people who are truly learners rather than just transcript filler-uppers.

One other thing…how much inequity are “AP tracks” generating in districts?

All this feels like it needs a big restart at every level.

President Obama Visits Manor New Tech

Along with so many others, I was thrilled to watch President Obama’s press conference from Manor New Tech. In his speech, he pointed out so many of the great things that Manor New Tech is doing for kids. 

There was one part of the whole event that jumped out to me, and it was Jourdan Tucker, the young female student who sang the National Anthem. 

To take a step back, all of the New Tech Network employees were gathered in California for an annual meeting that happened to sync up with the Obama event. The morning icebreaker had been an activity on comfort zones, identified as red/yellow/green, and how certain scenarios push us into different comfort zones – singing in the shower vs singing for your family vs singing at a wedding…you get the idea. Through the exercise, we recognized, and were surprised at times by, what environments make people comfortable or uncomfortable. 

When it came time to watch the press conference, it was obvious that Jourdan had done some singing before. But, I would guess that singing the National Anthem with the President of the United States standing at the edge of the curtain behind you would push the most talented of singers into the red on the comfort zone scale.

But that’s what made Jourdan so impressive. She was in the red, but she “leaned in” to that discomfort and anxiety and knocked it out of the park, belting out a beautiful and touching National Anthem.

That’s what I want for my own kids and that’s what I want for all students – to gain the knowledge, skills, and self-awareness that will allow them to shine in the most challenging scenarios. The learning process should equip kids with more than just bubble sheet knowledge – they’ve got to have the mindset and skills to transfer that knowledge to another scenario, one that might be ill-defined and challenge them greatly. 

That’s why I’m happy to see schools like Manor New Tech being recognized for developing students’ knowledge of the material, but also the knowledge of themselves. I can only imagine how proud Jourdan’s parents and her school were of her. I sure was proud. 

success…by the book.

I’ve read more about education and learning, or anything that can drive these, in the last year than I ever did as a teacher. (Why is that? I’ll save that for another blog post.) In my reading, there’s an all too common scenario that plays out. The reading experience often goes like this: 

Thought-provoking questions…shocking data…fancy-worded strategy considerations…cut to story of some successful, high-ranking professional who makes a lot of money and then credits some formal/informal educational experience. (Too often this high-ranking professional seems to be a middle-aged white male from the technology industry.)

This raises some questions for me. Has our vision of success for our youth become too focused? Is this notion of success inclusive enough to drive changes in education that improve learning for ALL students? 

I think we should be aiming for changes in education that create a fulfilled citizenry, knowing that a version of success is sure to follow. Perhaps that fulfillment is achieved for some making obscene amounts of money executing leveraged buyouts or designing some new animation software. But, maybe that fulfillment looks different. 

Maybe that fulfillment is achieved as a firefighter, author of short stories, or an occupational therapist. What about a landscape designer, research scientist, coder, or even a teacher.

What stories are you telling to your students about success and/or fulfillment? Are these stories inspiring or confining to them? 

Let’s tell some more fulfillment stories instead of success stories. And let’s use more fulfillment stories to guide our transformations in education.