The Tyranny of Being On Task

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >



I remember when I was first teaching and was getting ready for my first official observation and evaluation. I was very nervous. My principal had told me she would be looking for a classroom where students were on task. Heaven forbid that any students were off task. I thought that if my classroom even hinted that some students were off task, I would never be a successful teacher, and perhaps told to leave the teaching profession.

I now know that it is unreasonable to ensure complete on task behavior from every student at all times, but back then I wanted a good evaluation, and I wanted my students to be on task so that they would learn and I could support them. Before the observation, I was told by my colleagues to have students quietly work on an assignment after I gave some instruction. “Don’t have them do group work. Don’t have them present. It’s too risky!” This advice seemed to be successful. When my principal came in, the students were quiet as I moved around to check in with them. After the observation, I was praised for my success in keeping students on task.

Many years later, I taught in a school with a focus on project-based learning. Learning was messy and conflicts emerged as students worked together to solve problems, but ultimately students succeeded. The meaning of “on task” was different there. Yes, there were times when students were off task and I needed to redirect them. Yet I struggled with the expectation of consistent on task behavior.

There seem to be forces in education that push us to make sure students are on task. Why do we attempt to meet that demand when we know it’s unreasonable? Why do we demand on task behavior when it is not equivalent to student engagement? Isn’t it OK for students to be off task from time to time? In fact, don’t students need time to be off task? To take it to another level, what if off task is really on task?

What Does the Science of the Brain Tell Us?
Adults have built executive functions of the brain, and we receive a dopamine reward when we do the right thing. Our students have not yet built up those functions. In the teenage years, students receive that same dopamine reward for very different behavior, when they take risks and explore. When a student does something that is a risk in the classroom, something we might consider off task behavior, they are doing so because they receive a dopamine reward for doing so. Science tells us that students will not only be off task on occasion but might even have strong motivations to behave that way.

What Can We Do?
Instead of working against off task behavior, we should embrace it and try to reframe it as an on task moment that is necessary and useful to our students. Judy Willis calls such moments brain breaks in her book Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning. She wants us to understand that such breaks are needed and are useful to students. They prevent the brain from becoming overloaded and give time for information to be processed and retained effectively. On a related note, Eric Jensen explains that movement gives new spatial meaning to information being processed, and increases oxygenation of the brain as well (subscription required).

We should explore ways to incorporate brain breaks more into our classroom routines and norms. Some other practical strategies include:

Be mindful of students’ attention span and chunk activities and tasks appropriately.
Break up tasks with conversations and checks for understanding.
Admit personal challenges and failures related to staying on task.
Meet with students one on one to discuss off task behavior rather than shame them.
Smile and laugh more.
Balance louder and quieter activities.
Move more.

Brain breaks are essential to classroom culture and student learning. These seemingly off task moments are truly on task because they provide a space for students to learn better, and take into account the fact that students are growing and maturing. Brain breaks are responsive to students and help us become allies of their behavior rather than punitive figures. In fact, brain breaks help us as educators to rethink the binary nature of on task and off task and to realize that all the work is on task and helpful to children as they learn and grow.

What brain breaks do you use in your classroom?

Tools for Student Self-Management

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >



As educators, we have so many tasks to handle each and every school day. Student absences, assessments, phone calls, meetings — these can pile up on our plates. Classroom management is often considered one of the tasks we need to take on. While this is true to some extent, perhaps we can take some of the classroom management load off the teacher and put it on the students themselves. Management doesn’t have to be, nor should it be, something teachers decide or handle on their own. Students should be invited into the process of managing learning in the classroom. Here are some tools many teachers have used to empower students to self-manage.

Team Operating Agreements
Agreements or contracts created or co-created with students can be a great tool to help them own their challenges when it comes to self-management. While you might have class or school norms, students may not find a true attachment to them. When students create norms, they are more likely to follow them. In addition, students can create norms and agreements that are personalized. While one team might need an agreement about keeping their hands and feet to themselves, another might need one about the free expression of ideas. Norms and agreements should meet the needs of students, not simply be imposed upon them. When students help create the norms, it’s more likely that they will meet the students’ needs.

Task Lists
In addition, students may need scaffolds to organize their thinking, planning, and overall work. They can use task lists to assign tasks to specific team members. Sometimes these sheets have places for teachers, team leaders, and others to sign off when tasks are completed. Scrumy is an online tool I have used with students to organize their work — it functions as an interactive planning tool. Task lists are also great tools for assessment and conversations on equitable collaboration.

Checklists and Rubrics
Of course, rubrics and checklists are tried-and-true tools for self-management. There is nothing new here, but it’s a good reminder that assessment tools are also great management tools. They promote reflection and goal setting, as well as ownership of the work. Checklists and rubrics are more powerful when they are co-created with students, as students tend to understand and take ownership of expectations. Keep checklists and rubrics available to students and plan intentional time for students to use them to assess themselves and their peers, to help manage projects, and to keep constant momentum in the learning process.

Time Management Logs
Using time management logs, students document how long they spend on specific tasks, assignments, or collaborative work. They can do this over the course of a week or longer. The intent is to document and then reflect upon the time they spend learning and working. The log may surprise students and inspire them to use their time more efficiently.

Flexible Seating and Spaces
I’m a big fan of classrooms that have a variety of places for students to work. Some students need quiet zones while others need collaborative tables. Some students work well with exercise balls as seats while others prefer standing desks. There are many possibilities for meeting students’ needs in classroom seating and arrangement. Meeting those needs can promote student ownership of how and where they work and learn. As the teacher, you can coach them through the process of selecting appropriate spaces to work and learn, and students will learn to self-manage this choice as well.

Reflection and Goal Setting
All of the tools above are completely ineffective unless they are paired with reflection time. Just as we take time to reflect on content learning, we also need to take time to reflect on the learning process. All of the tools above provide great opportunities for students to reflect on how they have learned in targeted ways and to set goals. Learning logs are a great tool for this as well, as they promote the process of learning, not just the product. Don’t forget reflection on self-management — it’s critical.

Remember, the greatest tool for management is engagement. Even when our students are engaged, they still need tools to manage themselves. Different tools work for different students, so try experimenting with a mix of the tools above to have students take more ownership of managing their learning process.

Go Slow to Go Fast

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >


Miller Go Slow Go Fast Rectangle
The beginning of a new school year brings both excitement and anxiety. We are excited to see our students and start on the path of learning for the year, but we are also stressed with the logistics of getting started. Room setups, technology infrastructure, processes, curriculum planning—we have a lot to do as educators to make the year start off in a positive and productive way. We are also pressured with the idea of limited time. “I only have a year to get through the curriculum” or “We need to start the unit now” may be some of the thoughts that creep into your mind. Breathe. Those things will come, but only if we take time to slow down. All of us—teachers, students, administrators, and parents—need to slow down at the beginning of the year.

What’s the Why?
Things happen so fast that we often forget to ask why? Between assemblies, field trips, meetings, and so forth, when do we take the time to ask why? Why are we doing this? What’s the reason behind this? Why is this useful? Tradition can be important, but it can also be a prisoner. If we commit to asking why, we commit to continuous improvement as a school and as teachers. When you explore the reasons for doing something, you will feel more confident in your decision and establish a sense of purpose. If there isn’t a why yet for something you do, maybe it is time to craft one. My team of instructional coaches sat down and created our shared purpose for how and why we work together so that all decisions are informed and aligned. Take some time to do the same before you make decisions or jump in. Slowing down to think about the why is crucial and important for school morale, mission, and vision.

Focus on Culture
This, of course, is nothing new, but it’s really important to take time to build and rebuild the culture of your school. Are there new issues around school culture to address? Are there school culture initiatives already in place to build upon? Consider addressing culture at both the school and classroom levels. Are they in alignment? Are students receiving mixed messages? There is and should always be time to slow down and focus on school culture. Take time daily, or perhaps take entire days, to work solely on culture. When you rush to the curriculum, you miss a valuable opportunity to set and sustain culture. When you focus on culture, student achievement will naturally follow suit.

Take Time for Yourself
Don’t forget about your personal life. Take care of your mental and physical health. Build in norms and routines to support yourself. Reflection is a way of thinking, and you may need to set sacred time aside for reflection as you start to get more and more busy with different tasks. What do you need to do to slow down and take care of yourself? Some of the teachers at my school and I meet regularly for mediation every Monday morning. Look at your week and find ways you can incorporate things that provide a sense of calm and focus.

Remember, we all need to go slow to go fast. When we take time for ourselves, our school and classroom culture, and our shared purpose, we can feel confident about our next steps.

Do No Harm: Flexible and Smart Grading Practices

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


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My Edutopia post When Grading Harms Student Learning generated a lot of buzz. Grading is an emotional subject, with strong-held opinions and ideas. I was really excited to see discussion on all sides of the issue. The best feedback for me was that, while many readers agreed with parts of the premise, I hadn’t been specific on support strategies. Thank you for that feedback — it was specific, actionable, and created the need and excitement for a follow-up post. While there are many tools out there that help address concerns around redoes, zeroes, not grading homework, and more, here are some of my favorites:

Address Behavioral Issues Affecting Academic Achievement
Points off for late work may not motivate students. I know that when I took points off for late work, some students just accepted their losses. It didn’t address the behavioral issue of late work. Similarly, it didn’t address the problem of incomplete work. I needed to figure out a way to motivate students without using points as a method. I had a form, similar to Myron Dueck’s late or incomplete assignment form (click the link and scroll down to Figure 1.3), which tried to address what was getting in the way of turning in work on time. Here, students identify those issues, from heavy course load to procrastination, and then set a new goal for completion. They also identify the support structure they might need. These forms are great behavioral issues assessments that are responsive and not punitive. It’s an approach that truly helps students to be ready for a future when it’s much more detrimental to turn in work late.

Request to Retest
This is a great way to put the student in the driver’s seat of what they’ll redo and how they’ll redo it. It puts the onus on them to be self-advocates for their learning and helps them set goals for improvement. In a request to retest form (PDF), students reflect on their score and the concepts or skills that they failed. They also identify next steps on how to improve their test. While this is specific to a more traditional test, it could also be used for other major assessments that have many components or concepts.

Redo Parts of an Assessment
Some assessments that we give students have very clear categories. For example, a history exam might assess multiple concepts or ideas, or an essay might assess thesis and organization. Here the data is easily disaggregated. If this is the case, you might have a student redo only the parts that he or she needs, leaving the rest as is. That also means that you have to re-grade or reassess much less. It saves you time as an educator and helps you really target your assessments. Again, this may not be a useful strategy for assessments that synthesize concepts or skills, but rather for assessments that can be easily disaggregated.

Reflect on Assessments
One strategy that I’ve seen many educators use is ongoing reflection throughout the assessment process, whether we’re talking about a small quiz or a major exam. For example, after students complete an assessment, they reflect and discuss questions such as:

Were you prepared for this test? How did you prepare?
How long did you study the material outside of class?
Did you feel more confident about some parts or sections than others?

These questions allow students to recognize their strengths and weakness in what they need to learn, and how they can better prepare to learn the material. What I also enjoy about this strategy is how it connects to behavioral issues that get in the way of academic achievement, addressing them directly in a non-punitive way. It also helps students and teachers plan for redoes that may not be full redoes, saving teachers and students time and stress.

Pick Your Battles
You know your curriculum. You know that some assessments and assignments are crucial in showing evidence of learning. Other assessments, mostly formative, are simply check-ins and don’t affect the grade much or at all. These smaller assessments may not be worthy of redoes or late/incomplete assignment forms. On the other hand, bigger, more comprehensive assessments may present better opportunities for offering redoes and addressing behavioral issues. As a master educator, you can pick your battles and focus on what matters most in terms of assessment. Use your best judgment!

Again, It’s About Hope
I hope that you find these tools useful in your classrooms. We need to be realistic and recognize that, no matter what we try, we may not get all students to do the work that we want in class. But we do have an opportunity to rethink how we assess students and create systems that allow for hope of achievement rather than relying on antiquated systems that haven’t met the needs of all students.

Voice and Choice: It’s More Than Just “What”

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


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As a PBL advocate, I know how important it is to have voice and choice in the learning environment. When I work with teachers, we always collaborate to design projects with the appropriate level of voice and choice for students, which depends on factors such as time of the year, age level, content, and many others.

There is never a one-size-fits-all method to voice and choice. It’s always contextualized to teacher and student lives and experiences. However, many times we oversimplify voice and choice to what students create in their project, or we simply forget that there are many possibilities. While having students express voice and choice in their products is one great option, let’s consider more opportunities to create engagement and student-centered learning.

More “What”
While product is the vehicle for showing content and learning, perhaps we can offer more choice in the content? This may not work in all cases, but it can certainly work when we have standards broad enough to allow students to select specific sub-content within the standard or learning outcome. Maybe we’d allow students to choose topics related to the skill. I know a teacher that let students analyze a variety of cell phone plans of their choice, but still demanded that they show the same skills in linear equations. This choice works well with skill-based learning outcomes and standards, but it’s not limited to those things. I know this isn’t a new idea, just a reminder that we might have more flexibility than we think in the content that students learn.

“Who”
Students can and should choose who they work with. However, take time with them to reflect on various prompts such as:

Who do you need to help?
Who can help you?
What are my strengths?
What are my areas of growth?

Prompts like these can help students make intentional decisions in the learning partners they choose and give them a powerful range of incentives. In addition, many times students create work for a variety of audiences. While we might choose that for them, we can also ask them to whom they want to present their work or with whom they will share their work.

“Why” and Purpose
Students always want to know why they’re learning material, and we often go to great lengths to make the learning relevant through the task itself or by trying to explain connections. Instead, we could partner with students in deciding the “why.” Ask them why they want to learn this material, or help them brainstorm ideas and then let them decide why they want to learn something. Students can become the driving force in the purpose of their learning: “I will learn this in order to _______” is a great sentence starter to give them more of a voice in the “why” of learning.

“Where”
Why do students always have to learn in the same place? Why at desks? Why not on the floor? Why not in the hallway? Why not at home? Why not on a field trip? Why not in the library? Why not in another classroom? More and more schools and experimenting with flexible spaces and learning environments — quiet corners, sitting and standing desks, conference-style areas, makerspaces, and more. We can offer more voice and choice to students by allowing them to decide where they want to learn. This can meet their social-emotional needs, foster engagement in learning, and create a space where learning is physically dynamic.

“When”
If we are personalizing learning, we need to be flexible about when students are creating work, when they are learning certain concepts, and even when they might turn work in. While this might be uncomfortable to consider, it’s a great area to stretch yourself as a teacher in giving up control and allowing students to take more of that control. Teachers can coach students to pick appropriate tasks for learning material, coach them to relearn material in a way that students want, and help them plan effective deadlines for work. Allowing students control over when they learn can create an environment where time is no longer the most important variable, and instead learning becomes the driving force.

Not only can voice and choice create more engagement in learning, but giving students agency can also empower them to become self-directed learners. Voice and choice can allow students to explore their passions and feel honored for their ideas and opinions. We should all be providing more voice and choice, not creating walls to stifle these things.

How do you or will you provide more voice and choice to your students?

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