Not the Only Way: Authentic vs. Compliant Learning

“Authentic learning is not discovered in a textbook, but rather at the crossroads of contemporary societal issues and student passion.”- Aaron Duff

When I (Joshua) tell people that I am a middle school administrator, I usually get the same responses.

“God bless you!”

“I could never do that!”

Which eventually leads to,

“Have schools and students changed much?”

Often, after hearing this line of questioning, I wonder how it would be to be a middle school student now.  As a middle school student, I viewed my school as an irrelevant and inapplicable entity due to the extremely monotonous exercises, which lacked an explanation of real-world application. Each class was a carbon copy of the other and the classrooms, teachers, and students participated in similar traditional patterns and rituals. Students were observers of a dictated, fact-based instruction, which relied heavily on the use of teacher lectures, packets, and textbooks. The lessons were linear with a determined outcome. The experience proved compliance was the greatest quality for a student to possess for success.

My view of school was extremely jaded until I took a class on Shakespeare. I really don’t know the reasons why I took the course since, at that time, my reading material consisted of sports magazines and comic books. My teacher, Mr. Wasmund, had an amazing way of reading the material with passion, explaining the meaning behind the language used in the text, relating the stories to current events and creating a desire to read more. It was very apparent that Mr. Wasmund was motivated by the love for the material, the relationships built with his students and the grit shown by his students on a daily basis. The learning environment was about sharing ideas, collaborating on projects, debating confrontational topics, and performing the Shakespearean plays. For the first time, I wasn’t worried about my grade in a class. The growth of knowledge was natural. After experiencing a new way of teaching, hope began to grow in the knowledge that learning could be fun and voluntary.

Aaron Duff’s quote depicts the direct relationship of authentic learning through societal events and beliefs with student convictions, passions, and interest. If teachers can consistently establish the relevant purpose of each lesson, students will create connections between their skills, personal talents, and current issues.  The classroom is no longer a setting only to gain information. Instead, the learning environment is an opportunity to relate to real-world problems, partnered with purposeful roles, current data sources and expanded audiences for immediate feedback.

I (Jeff) have had the opportunity to spend the majority of my education career working with middle school students as a teacher and an administrator. Middle schoolers have no fear in sharing their honest opinion for good or bad about a class or teacher, call it – no filter. They never seem to mind pulling back the curtain and letting you know the teachers and content that they connect with the most. Middle school is a time when students are motivated by self-interest and as educators, rather than seeing that as a deficit, we have a tremendous opportunity to tap into the power of that potential to engage learning. Students in these middle years are passionate, curious, increasingly reflective, and are starting to question the world as they develop their own identity. This is a good thing. As Josh shared, relationships are the gateway to unlocking learning for kids today, now more than ever. Kids don’t learn from teachers they don’t like. Period. Once teachers foster the relationship, they have the power to move students towards authenticity. Let me share a few additional ways we begin to move students on the path towards engagement.

3 Ways To Encourage Authentic Engagement for Our Kids Starting Now…

Discover Rather than Cover

Often in education, we have covered a lot of material in the name of learning, throwing out curricular spitballs hoping something will stick. Great curriculum only becomes meaningful for students when the instruction engages them in the process. Using essential questions (Understanding By Design) is critical to keeping students grounded in the process of their own learning. Many educators may say they feel limited by the standards they must teach. I would suggest that we are only as limited as we are making for kids. It becomes a question of “how” you are going to teach a concept or skill that is most relevant.

One way to move students to personal engagement is through competition and gamification. For example, this past week I walked into a 6th-grade social studies classroom to witness latitude and longitude demonstrated in a friendly game of Battleship. This teacher could have used a worksheet and students would have been compliant, but instead, she met kids where they were at! They went home with a story and an experience that they will remember and ground their learning to apply to future situations.

Cross Curricular Connections

The learning becomes more authentic when it doesn’t “stand alone” for students. Our kids can easily compartmentalize content if we do not create connections or applications across broad subject areas. For example, I can remember a student saying, “ why are we talking about science in our history class? The greater question should be, “why are we not?” Our students are grounded in deeper learning when we create transference of an idea or skill across multiple contexts. Our goal should be for students to see concepts that move freely in and outside of one content area to the next. If you are not already doing this, consider how your team could move towards this alignment at least 1-2 times this school year. This could be a skill you want to strengthen such as writing across the curriculum or conceptual collaboration that all content areas can explore.

Learning Beyond the Threshold

We don’t have to struggle to create connections for our students. On any given day you can engage students by creating real-world connections through novelty and current events. We do not need to be afraid to integrate everything from fidgets to pop culture to societal struggles in our conversations with kids. They are looking to help us make sense of their world. We don’t have to act like the standards are separate and apart from kid’s experiences, because they are not. For example, are you using writing prompts that pull in current events or grappling with ethical questions that stir healthy discourse between your students?  In Denis Sheeran’s book, Instant Relevance, he further expands the practical ways to engage learners and I would encourage you to check it out!

Ultimately, students are hungry, eager, and deserve to move beyond “compliant” at worst and “comfortable” at best to embrace learning as their own. We have a captive audience every day in our schools for upwards of 8 or more hours, don’t waste a single minute. This year, let’s set a goal that we will not bore students with one more piece of seat work that is about ensuring we are keeping kids busy. Our learners need to connect their passions with meaningful experiences that translate into authentic engagement! Embrace the challenge and commit to never going back to just “ok.”

-Jeff and Josh

*this is also cross posted as a featured blog at leadupnow.com


Joshua Stamper is currently the Assistant Principal at Renner Middle School in Plano, TX. For further reading by Joshua, check out his posts at joshstamper.blogspot.com or on Twitter @Joshua__Stamper

Assessments: Left Behind

Written by Nathan Lang and Jeff Veal, co-founders of LeadUpNow and #LeadUpChat

We can’t argue that there is a movement to change the landscape of education. Just google search differentiated instruction, authentic learning, or project based learning and you’ll get a plethora of search results. Blogs, models, theories, strategies, challenges and evidence, they’re all there to help support teachers move forward so that students are prepared for the college and career.

But there is still an aspect of the Big Three (Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment) that is left behind. Yes, Curriculum and Instruction have been upgraded to the iPhone 6 Plus, while Assessment is still at a Nokia flip phone. Why is Assessment so antiquated in it’s ways and how do we overhaul it?

It’s the same reason Captain Kirk always flew the Enterprise. (Well, yes there was that one time with the Klingon Bird of Prey…). They’ve upgraded the specs and standards, and installed fancier torpedoes and faster warp drives. But in the end, it it still the Enterprise. It’s all Kirk has ever known.  Even though we have seen teaching strategies come and go, the “test” is all we have ever known.  Many, will say that standardized testing is the reason classroom assessments are “left behind.” It’s time to leave that excuse behind.

The Way It Was…

When we were in school, we probably learned for one of two (or both) reasons. They make the teacher (or our parents) happy. Or earn a high grade (via an assessment/assignment). We wanted directions spelled out and wanted to know exactly what it took to earn an A or high favor with the teacher. This made us “good students.” We knew what the teacher wanted and when it was due. We rarely bought in to the assignment, as it was a means to an end. Why would we take ownership over something that had no personal value to us.  Why would we give more than expected? Be creative? Be rebellious?

The Way It Can Be…

Until now. We now know the impact now of self-directed learning.  Which in turn impacts assessment. Let’s ponder two possibilities…

Create Conditions for Students to Self Assess

If we are self-directed learners, we thrive and crave on feedback. Let’s say we’ve bought into authentic, learner centered instruction.  The data we collect from an assessment can help to inform next steps for students in the learning process but it doesn’t exclusively guide student learning.

A key condition that our students need as they become self directed is autonomy. The teacher as coach or facilitator is more than wordsmithing, but an imperative for the assessment culture to change on any campus. Increasingly teachers serve as coaches to help students take personal ownership. Student autonomy is about providing space and time for connections with ideas and concepts. Self assessments push students as they have to analyze and answer questions exercising their ability to be problem solvers. Additionally, when we foster conditions in our classrooms and school buildings for students to think critically about their own learning we communicate something powerful about the role of reflection. Today’s teacher coach gives permission for reflection to occur and isn’t quick  to “move on” in order to cover the next unit, slow down and savor the learning.

Use Data as a Strategy Tool

There are multiple strategies we can employ such as the power in using student data journals. A data journal can guide students to literally capture the big picture of their goals, outcomes, and feel personal success. The data collected in a journal can drive students to ask reflective questions about their progress. Data can be a powerful tool to help students in the journey of learning, but the constant stream of benchmarks and other “assessments” misses the rich landscape of possibilities. Assessments that are only teacher generated make for an anemic student and not reflective of the whole student.

The Way It Will Be?

Are we still asking students to use an iPhone 6 Plus Monday through Thursday and then asking them to use a Nokia Flip phone on Friday. It’s time to reassess our assessments.  It’s time to provide meaningful feedback in a way that motivates students to strive for awesome. Not to please the teacher, but to push themselves to achieve their learning goals and beyond. We must go beyond.

As the landscape of learning is changing we are certain of one thing…we are done with traditional, regular maintenance quiz/test checks, which not only lack inspiration, but does little to spur students to spiral deeper learning connections. Assessments themselves should ignite learning not extinguish it.

This post is the result of a broader conversation from our Instructional Leadership Series “Rules of Engagement” at #LeadUpChat. Thank you to all the educators who see education differently. 

The Hard Truths of Leadership

The following reflections are a compilation of reflections by Bethany Hill and myself.

When you think about it, teams are actually everywhere. And I’m not necessarily referring to the typical sports teams that dominate the American consciousness when the concept of a team is discussed. A family unit thrives as a team. Service, church, and civic organizations touch thousands of lives as teams. Musicians who play and perform together do so as a team. Aside from the Lone Ranger (who interestingly had a trusty steed that he depended on), the majority of the world’s work force function in teams. They are all around us at all times, but sometimes difficult to see because they are often so close in sight. Think of the phrase “Can’t see the forest for the trees”.

Team dynamics are a very interesting thing because every member brings something unique to the table. On high functioning teams, diverse strengths and a strong commitment to put students first often leads to an outcome of team-work, dream-work.

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Over the years, I have had the personal joy of working on multiple highly functioning and collaborative teams. There was much sharing and encouragement for professional growth. We studied student data together to identify our students’ needs and worked cohesively to design engaging units of study. We were empowered by leaders that allowed teammates to lead with their strengths.

During my years as an educator I also worked on teams and have observed teams from the outside looking in that wrestled with dysfunction. It threatened to barricade the team from accomplishing their goals. These teams function more-or-less as a group of individuals who work next to each other and often uncomfortably bump into each other rather than cohesively pursuing a goal with excellence. Kind of like kids can sometimes do in a sandbox, you get the idea. This reminds me of Roland Barth’s metaphor of collegiality comparing sandboxes and beehives in his book Improving Schools from Within. Linked here is a great article written by Barth for ASCD titled Improving Relationships Within the Schoolhouse for more on the topic.

Recently, the John Maxwell Team shared several honest truths during a Twitter #LeadUpChat about the way teams function and work together. Bethany and I were equally inspired by their truths that day! Our hope is that, like us, you are also inspired by Maxwell’s wisdom to build teams that collaborate at the highest levels in spite of the inevitable challenges that arise.

The first is this, “The team cannot continually cover up its weakness.” The team has to honestly face up to weaknesses that exist. No excuses, no matter what! Own the weakness and see it as a grand opportunity to innovate. If the team is always glossing over weaknesses it will never get better. Don’t be the team with their head buried in the sand! Confront weakness respectfully and in a timely way. When you consider this wisdom in the context of schools, the stakes are incredibly high, and I’m not referring to mandated high stakes testing! I’m talking about the education of our nation’s most precious resource, our children.

The next truth John Maxwell Team shared was this, “When the team you have doesn’t match up to the team of your dreams there are two choices: give up your dream or grow up your team.”  Only two choices exist here because doing mediocre work is NOT an option. That actually falls in the category of “give up your dream”.  When the team settles for less than collaborative, supportive, collegial functioning, that’s a give up! Educators, we chose to pursue this noble profession in response to following a personal dream. None of us are willing to give up our dream of impacting our world by educating the next generation therefore growth is our only option! Team growing can come in many forms such as spending social time together to forge trusting relationships, spurring one another on in professional growth, welcome colleagues into your classroom to coach and give you feedback, using protocols to facilitate cohesive team communication, examining student data and flexibly sharing students across classrooms, and so on… What would you add? What have you tried?

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As Heidi stated earlier, she and I were very inspired by the #Leadupchat discussion and felt it deserved more reflection on our part. One particular truth that resonates within me is the following:

“You lose the respect of the best when you don’t deal properly with the worst.”

All teams must have a variety of personalities and strengths in order to function properly. There will be people who are somewhat hesitant of the team vision, and that is perfectly normal. We need these people in order to challenge our action plan and to become more grounded in our goals/beliefs. When the hesitance turns to resistance, we begin to lose ground toward the common goal and vision. Negativity, including resistance to change, disrespect toward others, gossip, etc., can intoxicate a culture. Leaders must face these issues head on without hesitation in order to preserve the health of the organization. The more negative conditions become, the more difficult it becomes to keep the trust and respect of the people impacted by them. When problems within are addressed, the people feel protected. Teams are stronger when leaders have the hard conversations. This forces the naysayers to jump on the bus, or find new one! Connections with people support our ability to have hard conversations, thus making our efforts to move the group forward more seamless. In John Maxwell’s book Everyone Communicates, Few Connect, he states, “Connecting increases your influence in every situation.” This cannot be more true! Our ability to connect is directly related to our ability to influence others.

The following clip gives a glimpse of Maxwell’s thinking about connections and influence:

 

Our last truth from the John Maxwell Team is, in my opinion, the most difficult and profound.

The strength of the team is impacted by its weakest link.

Many leaders will tell you their experiences of being forced to focus on the people who tend to be the weakest or who cause the most conflict within a team. I have found myself in this trap of losing my focus of the entire team. It is easy to become burdened by negative and resistant people. Our strongest team members surely feel alienated by the fact that they do what’s right and beyond, yet at times the focus of the team becomes the few individuals who are not on board. Leaders must be constantly testing the waters for negativity and discomfort from team members who feel threatened by others. It is crucial to know your weakest link and use that knowledge to drive your efforts in supporting that person or group. Once identifying the weakest link, ask yourself these questions:

*Why is this person a weak link?

*Does this person KNOW he/she is a weak link?

*Where do I desire this person to be?

*Where does this person desire to be?

*What are this person’s strengths, and how can I use them to coach him/her?

We can look the other way, or we can face the weak links, assess the situation, and establish an action plan for support. The goal is to coach the weak links, leading the UP to improvement and growth. The alternative is to coach them OUT and on to a new path better suited for them. I believe strongly in the ability to lead UP. We can use or ability to connect to influence in a positive way. It all begins with our relationships with the people around us. Strong and lasting relationships foster the ability to lead UP, and allow others to grow into leaders themselves.

In summary, we must remember the impact we have as leaders. Through a fearless nature, a strong vision, and the ability to connect, we can influence in ways we never imagined. It comes down to knowing people and appreciating where they are in their own development. When we establish that, we can face the hard conversations that will help us all reach a common vision. After all, #KidsDeserveIt!

Special thanks to:
My co-author Bethany Hill  (@bethhill2829)
Quotes shared from The John Maxwell Team (@JohnMaxwellTeam)
#LeadupChat and LeadUpNow (@Leadupchat)

It’s Not About You Anymore

“How May I Serve You?” 

We love those 5 simple words when we order at a restaurant or check into a hotel. Our brains and emotions get excited knowing we are about to enjoy an experience that brings us comfort, after all we are paying for it!  Culturally we are surrounded by everything designed to make our lives easier, more comfortable, just plan convenient. We are catered to by businesses promising to make everything more comfortable from the pillows we sleep on, to the noise canceling headphones providing just the optimal experience to our ears. I will be the first to admit I have spent good money on experiences and products, all in the name of making my life easier. However, as I reflect on my life as an educator, having traveled from the classroom to the role of administrator I am struck by a few observations concerning convenience and today’s educational landscape.

A different Vantage Point

In our quest to make our lives easier what if it is actually hurting us? What if comfortable is actually toxic to our drive to ensure that we don’t just do “ok”? What if convenience kills our spirit to work harder?

I have sat through many interviews. You want to know who stand out to me, the candidate who  has a history of going above and beyond, where they share they have/will do whatever it takes to meet the needs of students. You bet I am looking for the person who gets “it.” Those kind of teachers you don’t have to train them in it, that is how they are hardwired. Don’t get me wrong, teaching is not your life, it is a part of life. Many of us have families, passions, and interests outside of education, as we should. BUT…

When we step across the threshold of the school building door each day we need to remember, “it’s not about us anymore.” We are 100% here for kids.

It’s not about you or me, but “us” doing what it takes, rolling up our sleeves, to ensure that every student gets what they need. Maybe we have tried 17 different strategies to help a student be successful, it’s time to try #18. We won’t quit until we get it right. It is the teacher who realizes that this a calling, a profession built on making sure others get better, not just being ok with ok.

The Challenge 

I am proud to be apart of a school that does not thrive or promote a “blame culture.” The type of culture that consistently complains about why kids are not succeeding. Let’s be clear… Bad parents have always existed, there has always been economic disparity, and kids have always been irresponsible. We might feel the reality of those factors more today than ever but we must offer real solutions.

The solution = You! 

I know, crazy right! The teacher is still the best promise for student success today. Even more powerful are teachers who band together to form an interdependent team, believing that all of us together are better than any single one of us. Teachers are the ones who have the opportunity speak truth, hope, and light into students. What if we truly embraced that customer service serveperspective, “how may I serve you?” The “you” being all our stakeholders from students to parents to our community. There are so many wonderfully hard working teachers who are doing this already but what if as a profession we were honest that we could go even further to ensuring all kids grow and succeed at their own level.

It will take a lot of hard work but I am convinced if we will walk into our schools each day saying (maybe literally outloud), “It’s not about you anymore,” that a culture of affirmation and achievement will soar!

Growing Together, Jeff

*Dedicated to the reflections that result from my strong PLN #Leadupchat and those who help to make me sharper as a learner and leader.