Engagement and Compliance in the Classroom. They Aren’t the Same!


This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post, an internet news and commentary website. The Education section features updated on college, teachers, and education reform, where I regularly contribute. View Original >


As I travel and work with teachers to improve practice and increase student achievement, classroom management is often a topic we focus on in professional development. Whether managing a 1:1 classroom or understanding how a teacher manages a PBL project, teachers are always looking for best practices in how to make sure the classroom is managed effectively.

This topic is also coupled with the idea of engagement. We know that if we are engaging our students, then management issues are alleviated or disappear all together. Whenever I work with teachers I also make this statement:

“What is the best tool for management? Engaging curriculum and instruction!”

However, I’ve come to understand that the term “engagement” needs to be unpacked before addressing issues of management in the classroom. If you ask an educator, “What does engagement look like?” responses will surely vary. I remember when I first started teaching, and preparing for a classroom visit by my principal or supervising administrator. I always wanted to make sure the room was quiet in general, there were no outbursts and that students were silently working on their assignments at their tables. Now I realize these are not quality indicators of engagement. They are quality indicators of compliance, which is different.

Daniel Pink makes an significant quite in his video (and book) Drive, although his context is focus on the workplace. “Management is good if you want compliance, but if you want engagement, self-directed is better.” Here Pink reframes the whole conversation on what it means to be productive, contribute to a goal and do work.

I don’t want just compliance for my students. I want engagement. Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose are three ideas (borrowed from Pink) that can move our classrooms to focus on engagement, rather than on compliance. When we do, classroom management becomes a conversation about strategies to support learners, rather than a way to make them “follow the rules” in a one-size-fits-all model. Let’s reframe the conversation on classroom management, and instead focus on engagement first!

Let’s Truly Assess 21st Century Skills!


This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post, an internet news and commentary website. The Education section features updated on college, teachers, and education reform, where I regularly contribute. View Original >


21st century skills. Buzz word or reality? As I visit schools, I know many of them are teaching these skills. From critical thinking and problem solving, to technology literacy and collaboration, teachers are targeting these skills in the instructional process, and leveraging them in the curriculum. Many teachers are being called to teach these skills, and don’t know how to. I’ve done many workshops with teachers to arm them with these skills. However, there is one issue that seems to be a roadblock for true implementation: assessment.

I do know teachers are using rubrics and products to assess these skills. Some schools like High Tech High in San Diego have them in the grade book, but this is a rarity. This is a pocket of excellence. It shouldn’t be. When I was teaching at a project-based learning STEM school, we too wanted to teach and assess the skills of collaboration, critical thinking and communication. Now communication is naturally built into English language arts curriculum and the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts across all subjects. We had no problem assessing this, and leveraging it in the grade book. But what about a skill like collaboration? The Common Core does have a standard where students “participate in collaborative discussions,” and this is across all grade levels. However, collaboration is more than just discussions; it’s about creating together, coming to consensus and other quality indicators. Similarly with the 21st century skill of critical thinking, we can unpack our standards to find connections, but it feels like we are trying too hard. This is my struggle as an educator, and a struggle for many of the teachers I work with. We want to teach and assess 21st century skills, but we feel somewhat limited in our ability to do just that. We ran up against resistance with the district on truly assessing them in the grade book. We understood that if we truly valued 21st century skills, our assessment systems needed to model that. However, the system did not share that value the same way we did.

This is the biggest issue for teaching and assessing 21st century skills in our schools. We need our assessment systems to value them, and that means having them in the grade book. In my conversations with educators this is the biggest roadblock. For those educators that have the power to assess 21st century skills in the grade book, they create a culture where content is not king. Instead critical thinking is leveraged across the entire curriculum. Students have more buy in to collaborate, and they have quality indicators and targets to aim for in technology literacy. Through this true assessment of 21st century skills, we can re-frame what we value for our students, and really make them college and career-ready.

Education Can Learn From Games


This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post, an internet news and commentary website. The Education section features updated on college, teachers, and education reform, where I regularly contribute. View Original >


For those that follow my writing, speaking, and the like; you may know me for my advocacy of Game-Based Learning (GBL). I was a gamer as a kid, and, truth be told, I still am. I used to play World of Warcraft and other MMOs ritualistically. I binged on RPGs like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy. I became talented in FPS games like Left for Dead and Unreal Tournament. Games engaged me. They still do. My current game is XCom, although I am enjoying Casual games on my iPad as well.

In my teaching career, I experimented with games in the classrooms. I know my students played them. Many of my students played WoW. In fact, they would spend hours outside of school collaborating, questing and raiding. Ironically, they were having trouble collaborating with their teammates in class. There was a disconnect, and I wanted to rectify this by connecting the collaborative gaming environment to the classroom. Students were collaborating with each other outside of school. How could I get them them to use this skill they already had in the formal learning environment?

This moment illustrates a larger idea. What can we learn from games to improve our classrooms? Games are carefully and intentionally designed environments that create flow: the balance between challenge and progress. Great games are challenging, but not too difficult, and thus not boring. On the contrary, they have specific mechanics to create this game flow.

Freedom to Fail – This component is so powerful. I can guarantee that anyone who plays games has experienced this. When I am on the plane, I see people playing Angry Birds for hours on end. During that time, they are failing multiple times, and yet they still keep coming back to play. Why do we punish students when they practice? Why can’t we reward them at their best? Here’s an example to illustrate my point: A student is not doing so well on the practice worksheets and other assignments leading up to a test. However, the day of the test, this same student succeeds and gets an excellent score. You know what often happens; the students gets a grade for that learning component that is lower than the score on the test. Why? Because we average the work they did in the practice and learning phase with the summative test! To me, this seems unethical. Games don’t punish us for making mistakes in the learning process, Education shouldn’t punish kids for making these same mistakes. We should be creating a safe, engaging space where failure and learning from mistakes is just part of the process of learning.

Situated Learning and Complex Problem Solving – James Paul Gee in his book “What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy” illustrates this point well:

“An academic discipline, or any other semiotic domain, for that matter, is not primarily content, in the sense of facts and principles. It is rather primarily a lived and historically changing set of distinctive social practices. It is in these practices that ‘content’ is generated, debated, and transformed via certain distinctive ways of thinking, talking, valuing, acting, and, often, writing and reading.”

Learning is not just about knowing content. It’s about learning content and using it. Whether you are playing World of Warcraft or Halo, you are learning about this immersive environment that the game provides. You are learning player skills and using them. You are strategizing. You are solving complex problems. You might even be collaborating with other players. We should be creating learning environments in our classrooms that do the same, and creating assessments that value the same level and rigor of learning.

Personalized – We know we need to meet students where they are at and take them to new places in the learning process. All of our students are different and one-size does not fit all. Games meet the player where he/she is at. With complex mechanics, players are given just enough information, but also challenged enough to create appropriate rigor. Good teachers do this to. They differentiate-instruction through a variety of instructional strategies. They know their students through personal relationships as well as data. Games are focused on player needs and ability, education should do the same.

Of course, there are many other things to learn from games (I would love to see comments on this), but these are some of the key and most important ideas in my eyes. I’m not saying that games will solve all educational issues and challenges, but there are already good examples of teachers using games as part of the curriculum, and schools that have embraced game mechanics to create a learning model. We can learn from games and leverage them as tools and models to engage all students in learning. I’ll leave you with this parting quote from Jane McGonigal from her book “Reality is Broken.” Consider how we might create this for our students.

“A game is an opportunity to focus our energy, with relentless optimism, at something we’re good at (or getting better at) and enjoy. In other words, gameplay is the direct emotional opposite of depression.”

The Need for Practical PD for Blended Learning Educators


This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post, an internet news and commentary website. The Education section features updated on college, teachers, and education reform, where I regularly contribute. View Original >


Virtual Schools Symposium has once again come to a close this year. There were many sessions, talks, and workshops on a variety of subjects including curriculum and instruction, virtual school models, and competency-based pathways. One of the overarching, as well as focused subject, was around this question: How do we prepare educators to teach effectively in the blended learning environment?

This is not a new question. There have been concurrent sessions at past conferences, and there were sessions on the same subject at this year’s conference. Yet, educators are still looking for answers. There are some things we already know about the role of the teacher in the blended classroom in terms of best practices. We know the teacher becomes the facilitator. No longer is the teacher the sage on the stage in the blended learning classroom, but the guide on the side. We know teachers need training on the technology tools as well and innovative ways to use them. We know that teachers need to know the content and standards to target for instruction and assessment. We know teachers will need to look at data to best meet the needs of their students. However, there is a better way to address all of these concerns, in more holistic and synthesized way.

We need to provide teachers with practical professional development in learning models. When we focus on the model, we focus on all the concerns and best practices articulated above. When we teach these best practices in “silos,” teachers may or may not see how all the best practices and tools work together. Consider Project-Based Learning as an example.

Project Based Learning is a model that provides teachers with practical strategies to engage students. Teachers who are doing PBL in the blended learning environment carefully pick the digital tools to use with their students because these serve a purpose within the PBL project. They use it for collaborative purposes or as performance assessments, rather than simply using the tool for engagement. They learn best practices in management of the classroom that support the PBL learning environment. They differentiate instruction based on the needs of the students within the project. When teachers learn PBL and use it, it ties all the best practices of blended learning “in a bow” (for lack of a better term). More importantly, PBL contextualizes how to teach with practical steps and strategies. All the work that the blended teacher does with students makes sense.

Of course, there are other practical learning models out there, from authentic learning to game-based learning. If we invest in professional development for teachers on these practical and engaging models, teachers will learn all the best practices needed to facilitate a blended classroom. Let’s create a practical context for teachers to be the best blended learning educators.

Online Education: A Word of Caution


This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post, an internet news and commentary website. The Education section features updated on college, teachers, and education reform, where I regularly contribute. View Original >


Online education is becoming a legitimate and viable option for education systems around the country. Both colleges and secondary schools are offering classes to students. In fact many states and schools are requiring students to take some method of mode of online learning. New York made major changes around seat time and face-to-face contact between student and teacher. The state’s intentions are good. They want to move away the focus from seat time, and they want to offer courses that might be hard to offer in certain areas of the state to all students. With all these innovative systemic changes, one might think we are completely on the right track. I offer a word of caution.

Online education is in danger of replicating a system that isn’t working. Yes, I wrote it. With all the potential for innovation that online education has to offer, we have fallen into the pitfall of replication. The keyword is “danger.” There is much that online education can do to innovate the education system, and much that has already been done as a result. Yet most of the actual courses and pedagogical structures that are in place are simply replicating the traditional style of education.

What’s the biggest positive effect of online education? It is causing schools to reevaluate and seek to answer the question: “Why do students need and want to go our schools?” In addition, online education is focusing on the learning, not time, a movement toward competency-based pathways, especially those championed by iNACOL, and moving conversations about student achievement in the right direction. Teaching and learning can be tailored to the specific student. Students complete work at their own pace and seek feedback and instruction as they need, rather than when the teacher decides. Students are immersed in a variety of technology tools and media, allowing for different ways to learn content.

With all these positive implications and results, what is missing? The pedagogical structures for most online courses is traditional and does not meet the needs of all students and the variety of learning styles that they come with. Although there might be a variety of media types, such as videos or music or reading, the lesson design is still in the “sage on the stage” mode, where the course knows the content and pushes it out on students. Although students might be asked to show what they know in different modalities, from a collage to a podcast, they mimic low-level performances of regurgitating knowledge for the teacher to assess. Grading practices are often poor, with arbitrary point values being given, rather than focus on the standards. Well-designed rubrics are not present for students, and if they are, the students are left to their devices to understand it. Revision mimics a typical essay from school, where only one draft is required. Although there might be discussion boards or other social media to collaborate, collaborative assessments and work are not present to create a true need to collaborate. Discussions boards, for example, are treated as a summative assessment, points in the grade book. Shouldn’t it instead be used for the purpose is was created? It should be a place where collaboration and wrestling with rigorous questions can occur, not a punitive measure to “cattle prod” students into doing work. Courses are often not culturally responsive, nor are teachers trained in culturally responsive teaching and what it looks like online.

The good news is that there are some innovators out that are truly looking at online education to implement proven pedagogical practices that seek to engage students. Some schools are using project-based learning as their focus to create a need to know the online content and demand that students innovate and collaborate together, whether fully online or in a hybrid model. Game-based learning courses are starting to be developed where students engage in missions to learn important content and skills where timely feedback and incentives are the norm. Some online courses are completely standards-based, where students are graded on learning targets, not simply time and work.

What should you take away from this? We can do better. Parents should be asking tough questions around these concerns when they consider signing up their student for online classes. Course providers should be trying new and innovative practices and consider culture in the course design. Teachers need to trained in these new pedagogical methods, so that professional resources includes not only strategies and tools for teaching online, but a push toward an innovative art of teaching. All stakeholders should be actively involved in collaborating on courses with the content developers and push back when they see “the same old thing.” Our students deserve the best possible education, not simply a replication of a system that has not served all our students.



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