Monday, November 30, 2015

Cool, Sexy & Fun! Time to Re-Brand Our Standards

Lately I’ve been thinking about the great American songbook, that collection of standard-setting tunes that have inspired generations, while setting the bar for newcomers. Then I got to listen to some friends perform a selection of those standards for an audience of hundreds; their masterful playing evoked the cool of Miles, the sexy of Holiday, and the humor of Hank.

All this has got me thinking: How in the world have we so botched the marketing of what should be learning’s foundation, our standards?

To make my point, take a trip with me back to 1983. I was sixteen and living in Oregon for the summer, when I got a call from my then twenty-one-year-old cousin, who offered me tickets to a rock & roll concert, my first, if I could get to Seattle for the show. Forty-eight hours later I found myself walking toward the stage, ticket in hand, stunned when I sat down in the center aisle, a mere 20 feet from the action.

And then the lights dropped, the crowd erupted, and out walked Neil Young, who sat himself in a semi-circle of the most beautiful objects I’d ever seen, a collection of honey-hued acoustic guitars; he played each, along with haunting harmonicas. Next he sat at a battered piano, over which hung a Count Dracula-like chandelier, and sang of silver seeds flying into the sun. And for an encore? Neil Young and the Shocking Pinks, an eight-piece Rockabilly band, decked out in matching pink tuxedos and pompadoured hair.

My brain was never the same. This show became my standard bearer for all future musical experiences, and it fueled a passion to learn how to make music that packed this kind of emotional punch, a fire that still burns strong today, 32 years later.

For most educators, somewhere along our paths we’ve had our “Neil Young” experiences with our disciplines, transformative encounters that caused us to fall for what we teach. These standard bearing experiences—a life-changing novel, a nature-inspired awakening, a mind-bending museum visit—inspired us to pursue our discipline, practicing, struggling, and ultimately reveling in the understanding and competence we gained.

And yet, we’ve allowed education standards to become associated with tedium and test taking, rather than passion and elegance. We’ve allowed them to become checklists of proficiency rather than steps to excellence.

What can we do to put the cool, sexy, and fun back into our standards?

Begin with Our Disciplines at Their Finest
Learning requires a massive output of energy. Our brains won’t generate this energy supply without a desirable destination in mind, one well worth the inconveniences that go along with getting there. The more vivid and pleasurable the destination, the more energy our brains will commit to the process of making the trip, regardless of the hurdles.

In his book Brain Rules, John Medina urges educators to apply this principle: whole before parts. The brain works better when it sees the big picture—where the learning is headed—before engaging in the minutia and headaches of an arduous journey. Too often our standards are like so many pieces of Humpy Dumpty, broken and fragmented into jigsaw-sized puzzle pieces. Rather than asking our students to do what all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not, we should begin with Humpty Dumpty himself, in his whole-egged, awe-inspiring self, atop that wall.

Forecast the Upcoming, Multi-Disciplinary Performance
Whenever we experience an inspiring example of our discipline at work in the world, the discipline is interacting with other disciplines. Always. So if we’re going to expect students to imitate what our standard bearers do, we should expect students to perform in the world in ways that embody the habits, ideas, and skills that connect our disciplines.

So imagine and design performance-based assessments with your colleagues, within and across disciplines, and fuel your students’ learning with visions of how today’s practice connects to that upcoming, multi-disciplinary performance. And please: beware of creating too many of these. One well-designed assessment of this type per year could fuel a year’s work of focused practice and preparation.

Model What We Seek
Teachers who model and exude a joy, pleasure, and enthusiasm for their discipline—treating it like a great friend that their students just must meet and get to know—are more effective than those teachers who don’t. Be the type of learner you want your learners to become; model for them the thrill and satisfaction of the discipline. Help them understand that the challenges and frustration that attend the learning process are so worth the effort!

So let the re-branding begin, and let’s take back our standards, keeping in mind the enduring wisdom of a standard-bearer himself, Antoine de Saint-Exupery,

“If you want to build a ship, 
don’t drum up people to collect wood and assign tasks,
but rather teach them to long for the sea.”

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Personalization Won't Work without Standards: Time to Pause for the Cause?

After a good decade of teaching hard, Epiphany #1: Learning—the enduring, meaningful kind—almost always gets messy fast, going the way of the unexpected, regardless of how hard I work, how well I prepare, and how many resources my learners and I command. 

So I began to plan, and put time aside for, the inevitable: my learners and I needing, from time to time, to slow down and determine where we were and why, before we decided what to do next. We came to depend on these time outs to reconnect with each other and re-orient ourselves to where we were headed. Over time, we referred to these time outs as taking a pause for the cause.

When my learners and I first started pausing for the cause, everyone felt relief, but then it wasn’t so clear what it was we should be doing to reconnect and re-orient. Make up missed homework? Revise a paper? Catch up on reading? Time, once again, evaporated, and though it had been nice to slow down for a day, we never made enough progress. Epiphany #2: There must be clarity about the cause to make the pause worthwhile.

Slowly (the multiple-years kind of slowly), I realized that my knee-jerk resistance to standards had blinded me to their power to personalize instruction—to determine with learners what particular paths they would find or make to travel to the desired destination.  Without wisely-chosen standards as our glowing beacon, my learners and I, no matter how many times we slowed down to regroup, inevitably found ourselves wrecked again on the shoals of confusion and fatigue.

Accepting this counterintuitive finding—that learning targets pointing to a well-chosen standard provide the clarity that enables personalization to become feasible—challenged an idea I’d previously clung to: standards cause standardization. Over time, though, I’ve changed my mind; without the rudder of explicit learning targets, aligned to a standards’ glowing beacon, learners and teachers are doomed to lose each other and their way while crossing the sea of learning experiences.

And then, finally, Epiphany #3: Most days should include at least a few moments for these types of time outs. Waiting weeks or even months to pause for the cause is a sure way to lose the cause. While at first these regular pauses may seem like they’re slowing down learning, over time they create a culture of coherence, which builds confidence and stamina in learners, who begin to find the feeling for the learning, which enables them to sustain and manage longer periods of practice because they can see that glowing beacon getting closer.  

Going the way of the unexpected—following our learners where they need to go to get to their destination—can feel chaotic and downright scary at times, especially if we’re not clear about what matters most. And even when we think we are clear about what matters most, we continue to find at least a few confused and fatigued learners still struggling to find their ways. At least I do.

I thank my lucky stars that early in my career my mentors insisted that I get clear about what mattered most in my setting, not to standardize learning, but so I could then communicate this to my learners, and begin an ongoing dialogue with them about what they and I could do to help them find and make their ways to those vital outcomes. Trying to personalize instruction for classrooms full of students without first establishing the explicit and measurable learning outcomes that matter most, would be like trying to sail hundreds of ships across the ocean, without a single rudder or compass.  

While it’s never tidy, how far and fast and to what end my learners travel depends on how well—or in some cases, how poorly—I’ve applied this principle: Enduring, meaningful learning almost always gets messy fast, going the way of the unexpected, so expect the unexpected; create time and structures that enable learners and educators to regularly reconnect with each other and re-orient themselves to the explicit learning outcomes that matter most.

Is the learning you’re leading going the way of the unexpected? Of course it is. Perhaps it’s time to pause for the cause.