Thursday, April 28, 2011

Teaching a Commitment to Excellence

Can we teach students to commit themselves to excellence-to the pursuit of mastery?  When we celebrate and commend students who have committed themselves to excellence, does it increase the chance that they will continue to pursue mastery?
The characteristics of the work that we give students influence students’ level of engagement and the likelihood that students will commit themselves to excellence in completing the work.  In several other blog posts, I have reflected on how choice, affiliation, affirmation, and other design qualities increase engagement and encourage students to pursue mastery.  Clearly, a task can be intrinsically motivating.
Although we should provide students with intrinsically motivating work, providing the right kind of extrinsic motivation also plays an important role in teaching students to commit to excellence.  My previous blog post includes the text of remarks in which I commend students at the Virginia Odyssey of the Mind competition for their pursuit of mastery.

However, Dan Pink states us that extrinsic rewards can turn play into work.  He warns us about contingent rewards, what he refers to as if/then rewards-if you do this, then you get that.  He observes that if/then rewards can actually negatively affect motivation and narrow our thinking.  Nevertheless, regardless of whether you think we overemphasize grades, isn’t there still a role for extrinsic rewards that are not of the if-then type?
Shouldn’t we explicitly celebrate when students pursue mastery?  Shouldn’t we encourage students to take pride in their pursuit of excellence?  In addition to providing intrinsically motivating work, if our commendations contribute to students’ satisfaction with the pursuit of mastery, then we are teaching students to commit themselves to excellence.  Let’s look for opportunities in our classrooms, schools, and school districts to celebrate and commend students who have committed themselves to excellence.
How do you celebrate and commend students for pursuing mastery in your classroom, school, or school district?  How can we celebrate and commend students for committing themselves to excellence, while avoiding the pitfalls of which Dan Pink warns us?

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Joy of the Pursuit of Mastery: Remarks at the Virginia Odyssey of the Mind Awards Ceremony

To sum up this day in one word, WOW!  Today we have seen mouse-trap powered vehicles, complex machines, classical characters as tour guides, weight-bearing balsa wood structures, interesting series of changes, and money-making characters. WOW!
Odyssey of the Mind participants, I know that your performance today, and the preparation for today, has been very rewarding. However, I hesitate to use the word fun.  The word fun might suggest that it was fun like going to an amusement park, a movie theater, or a party.  Odyssey of the Mind is rewarding, even fun at times, but it also involves hard work. 

Participants, you should be proud of your pursuit of mastery.  Recognize that you never truly master Odyssey of the Mind, or any pursuit, for that matter.  As Daniel Pink observes, you can approach mastery, you can come close, but you never fully master a pursuit.  But, as I think you have discovered, the joy comes in the pursuit-in trying to get to mastery. 
One Odyssey of the Mind Coach posted an entry on my blog in which he described how his team of 5th grade students reacted when a vehicle they created broke during the competition.  He explained
how the students wisely set the car aside, completed the other required tasks, and then calmly working together to repair the vehicle and perform the task with 23 seconds remaining in the competition.  Overcoming challenges like this brings joy.  And participants, what brings you together-what unites you- is that you actually do find this to be fun, in a crazy sort of way.  It is fun working with others who share your crazy zeal-your passion for Odyssey of the Mind, your desire to overcome the challenges that Odyssey of the Mind throws your way.
So, during this ceremony, we recognize the winners in each of the categories.  Perhaps these teams have come the closest to mastery.  But all of you should be proud of your pursuit of mastery.  So savor these moments.  Cherish what you have accomplished during this pursuit.
I want to close with a challenge.  Commit yourselves to the quest for mastery, not just in Odyssey of the Mind, but in your other endeavors.  You will continue to see that the quest for mastery is incredibly rewarding.  Congratulations!
*Why is the work of Odyssey of the Mind so engaging?  Check out

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Blended Learning Varies in Effectiveness

Even when teachers skillfully tap into students' interest in digital tools to engage them in rigorous learning, their efforts may not include blended learning.  In a blog post today, Tom Vander Ark, a former Superintendent and the first Executive Director for Education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, responded to my recent blog post entitled Using Technology to Transform Teaching and Learning.  Tom suggests that we should not be satisfied with students' effective use of digital tools in traditional brick and mortar settings. Following up on his post on HuffPost Education, Tom advocates the use of a blended model, in which students spend at least a portion of the day in an online environment. 
Blended learning should be encouraged in the context of a larger vision for teaching and learning.  In my last post, I described how students' use of digital tools in York County, Virginia is promoted within the context of our vision for engaging students in rigorous work.  Just as one should not assume that the use of technology in traditional brick and mortar settings will automatically yield benefits, one should not make the same assumption with blended learning.  Not all blended learning opportunities are equal or equally valuable.  So, as we expand blended learning options, let's be clear regarding how they fit in a larger vision for teaching and learning.
Tom Vander Ark recognizes variations among blended learning options.  He notes that many of the big state and national online learning providers are a "first gen" version of blended learning, featuring mostly flat and sequential content.  They do not realize the potential for a student-centered, customized approach, as described by Tom. 

Tom praises blended models not only for improved learning, but also for improved productivity.  While blended models offer tremendous learning potential, effective blended models may not be any less expensive than traditional brick and mortar models.  Tom envisions an important role for teachers.  For example, they might  custom-craft a " tech-rich project-based environment  .  .  .  (and) teach small groups ready for a specific lesson."  Less effective blended models minimize the role of the teacher and student-teacher interaction.   Last week I facilitated a panel discussion regarding virtual learning options at the Virtual Learning Virginia Conference.  It was clear from panel discussions and informal conversations that some blended learning experiences are cheap, but lack much student-teacher interaction.

We (the York County School Division) offer more than fifty virtual courses to our students.  We have applied to the Virginia Department of Education for approval as a multi-division provider in order to work with other school districts in Virginia to serve their students.  However, I am even more enthusiastic about our initial steps with integrating virtual learning with the courses in our brick and mortar schools.  Several of our teachers of virtual courses are experimenting with using our digital learning platform as part of their more traditional courses.  Their students access web sites, videos, problems, and other content through our digital learning platform.  All of our middle school teachers of Spanish, Algebra, and Geometry include a virtual component in their courses.  For example, one middle school Algebra teacher held a videoconference with students via Elluminate in order to review for a mid-term exam.  Student posed questions orally and through the chat feature.  The teacher watched students attempt to solve problems, while also demonstrating solutions herself.  This videoconference and our other initial steps with blended learning reinforce our sense that blended models offer significant potential.

Where will our journey with blended models take us?  Tom writes, "The old elementary job of one teacher and 25 kids of  the same age but varying learning levels in the same room for 180 is too hard.  The old high school job of teaching five sections of 30 kids doesn’t work very well for students or teachers." He also calls for dynamic scheduling, team-based staffing, case-managed services, and competency-based assessments embedded in learning experiences.

I'm not sure what blended models will look like in a few years, but, as we move forward let's proceed within the context of a broader student-centered vision for teaching and learning.  Also, let's not overpromise in terms of the cost of effective blended models.  While blended models are not a cheap panacea, they offer substantial potential for engaging students in rigorous learning. 

Friday, April 1, 2011

Using Technology to Transform Teaching & Learning

Students’ use of digital tools should be promoted in the context of a broader vision of teaching and learning.  Without a broader vision, technology may merely automate what has always been done.  Using PowerPoint as part of a lecture is an example of automation, regardless of how interesting and informative the lecture is.  Similarly, students in a computer lab may complete the same problems that previous students solved on a worksheet.  With automation, nothing has really changed.   Techno-cheerleaders, as explained in the previous blog post, may assume that technology automatically yields benefits, but that is not the case.  
Focusing on a broader vision for teaching and learning increases the likelihood that technology will transform teaching and learning, rather than just automating old practices.  In York County, Virginia, our efforts to tap into students’ interest in digital tools are occurring in the context of our efforts to engage students in rigorous work.
Designing students’ work with digital tools so that it reflects the Schletchy Center’s design qualities helps us realize the potential of technology integration. 
Design Qualities That Promote Student Engagement
Product Focus:  Are digital tasks and activities structured so that what students learn is linked to a product, performance, or exhibition to which the student attaches personal value?  Tabb Middle School Algebra students recently created tutorials in Animoto to teach solving two-step equations, converting fractions to decimals, and other skills. They then posted the instructional videos on the class web site. 
Similarly, students in an Algebra class at York High School recently used cell phones, flip cameras, and video cameras to record the answers to an exam review on topics such as algebraic properties and solving inequalities.  They posted the videotaped answers on the class web site and on SchoolTube. 
The teachers report that their students took this work seriously because they wanted their explanations to be accurate and easy for their peers and others to understand.  As Alan November explains, publishing student work on the web gives students a compelling sense of leaving a legacy.  November states in Empowering Students with Technology,
As children grow up, they have a developmental need to know that they can make a difference and be productive in society.  Using communications technology to add value to the world is one way to teach students that they can make a difference and that their work is important.”  (p.43)
Affirmation of Performance:  Are we designing digital tasks and activities so that the work of students is visible to persons who are important to students?  Is it clear to students that the quality of their performance matters to peers and others whose opinions matter to students?  Students at the Waller Mill Elementary Fine Arts Magnet School are preparing for a film festival during which each class will screen one or more videos for popcorn-eating visitors, such as “Math Wars” and “Rock Cycle Video.”  Although Oscars will be awarded, the public display of work will be even more affirming. 
A fourth grade teacher at Bethel Manor Elementary School arranged a videoconference with one of her student’s parents who was deployed in the Middle East.  The student treasured reading a story that he had written to his deployed father.  She certainly felt affirmed by this school-to-family connection.
Affiliation:  Are we designing digital tasks so that students have the opportunity to work with peers, parents, outside experts, and other adults, including, but not limited to the teacher?  A Yorktown Middle School student loved connecting with survey respondents from throughout the world.  She created a health survey as part of the study on global obesity that she was doing for a culminating IB Middle Years Programme project.  She enlisted friends and staff members in seeking responses via e-mails and Twitter.  By the end of the first week, she received more than 200 responses from the United States, Canada, Korea, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.  Energized by the global affiliation through the survey, she is analyzing her results using Excel.
Novelty and Variety:  Are we giving students the opportunity to use a wide range of tools in a variety of ways?  Seventh grade English students at Grafton Middle School worked collaboratively with one another using a variety of tools (GoogleDocs, MovieMaker, PowerPoint and Audacity) to create and publish  presentations regarding the Holocaust. 
Choice:  Do our students have the opportunity to choose either what they are to learn or how they learn?  Students will be more engaged if they frame questions to answer and identify problems to solve  even with significant guidance and structure from the teacher. 
Authenticity:  Are we linking the work of students to topics of interest to students?  In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami, and the start of the nuclear crisis in Japan, York High School students videoconferenced with a teacher eighty miles from the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.  Student interest in the crisis in Japan drew them into this lesson.

Designing student work with digital tools that reflects rigor also helps realize the potential of technology integration.  In creating student work, we should focus on rigor as envisioned by Tony Wagner, rather than traditional notions of rigor which emphasize covering content.  Wagner emphasizes that in a rigorous school, student work involves the following skills:
·         Critical thinking and problem solving;
·         Collaboration across networks and leading by influence;
·         Agility and adaptability;
·         Initiative and entrepreneurialism;
·         Effective oral and written communication;
·         Accessing and analyzing information; and
·         Curiosity and imagination.

Skills:  Are we designing work with digital tools that requires problem solving, collaboration, adaptability, initiative, communication and other skills, often referred to as 21st century skills?  Students at Yorktown Middle School create a weekly, school-wide broadcast with news and feature stories.  The students choose story topics, write the scripts, film each segment, edit footage, and assess their broadcasts.  They overcome technical difficulties, cancelled interviews, and other challenges as they work to meet their deadlines.
These students have a sense of ownership of their work, rather than just seeing it as an assignment from their teacher.  Their teacher plays a key role, helping students choose story topics and suggesting approaches to stories for their consideration, but the students have a strong sense of responsibility for their learning and work.  This teacher’s approach reflects the philosophy that Alan November articulates as he advocates shifting control to students so that they own the learning.  As November observes, “the process of shifting control of who owns the problems can result in some of the most motivated and focused student work possible.”  (p.55)

The Rigor/Relevance Framework, developed by the International Center for Leadership in Education (, integrates the knowledge taxonomy and an application continuum.  The framework shows the connection between levels of rigor, as reflected by the knowledge taxonomy, and relevance, involving the application of knowledge and skills to solve real-world problems.  Applying knowledge to unpredictable situations is the highest level of application.

Rigor/Relevance:  Does student work with digital tools develop cognitive skills throughout the knowledge taxonomy and involve adaptation and application of knowledge and skills?  Fourth grade students at the Yorktown Elementary School Math, Science, and Technology Magnet participate in the Stock Market game ( Students manage a virtual portfolio, starting with a $100,000 balance, analyzing investment opportunities via the internet to assess which stocks to buy and sell to try to increase the value of their portfolio.  They work in teams, taking turns serving as captain, researcher, trader, and checker.  Cleary, they are applying knowledge and skills as they invest in the volatile, unpredictable stock market. 

These examples illustrate the power of promoting the use of digital tools in the context of a broader vision of teaching and learning.   They reflect an assumption that the use of digital tools is not the ultimate goal, but rather a means to an end.  As Alan November emphasizes in Empowering Students with Technology, “The real problem is not teaching technology skills.  Many of our students can learn about technology as fast as-if not faster than-adults.  What our students cannot learn on their own, and what makes teachers more important than ever, is the urgent need to teach critical thinking and global communication skills.” (p.32)  Clearly, using digital tools to engage students in rigorous work can help transform teaching and learning, rather than just automating old practices!