How do I put students in charge of thinking in my classroom?

I spent the month of February in Oregon giving a series of workshops across the state.  But I didn’t do all the talking. I had many chances to listen to students, teachers, and administrators in a variety of settings – focus groups,  planning sessions and classrooms walk-throughs.

Img_0262One question posed by a teacher captured a central challenge to education in the 21st century – “How do I put students in charge of thinking in my classroom?”

<<< North Bend OR 4th graders investigate the phases of the moon

Accountability is here to stay. There’s no going back to the “bell curve” of academic winners and losers. Life-long learning dictates that children will need to become self-directed learners. But too many teachers feel compelled to rush through course material to cover a multitude of benchmarks and standards. For them, the demands of time and testing, limit their opportunities to teach to greater depth.

My workshops attempt to point a way out of this dilemma. We take the approach that instruction must be organized to help students gradually take responsibility for their learning. We focus on idea that learning is relevant to students when the student:

  • Understands how the information or skill has some application in their life.
  • Has an opportunity to try their own learning approaches, rather than just learn the facts.
  • Is not just learning content and skills, but is learning how they learn.

Teachers need support to make the transition to this style of instruction. Administrators  need to reinforce the idea that teaching for greater depth beats teaching to the test. The curricula needs to be compacted to provide more time for students to explore their own approaches. Staff development and curriculum resources need to target more rigorous and relevant instructional models.  Teachers should be given opportunities for faculty collegial interaction and classroom walk-throughs to showcase best practices.

These initiatives  come with a reciprocal accountability. Administrators support teachers to foster greater rigor and relevance in the classroom. In return, they can expect to see those strategies being utilized when they visit the classroom. 

I’m encouraged by the bright students and dedicated educators  I met in Oregon – working together to redefine the 21st century classroom.  As one teacher commented, “I realize that all children are capable of higher-level thinking. We need to continue teaching kids to think for themselves, teach each other, get involved… their futures depend on it.”

Rigor, Relevance and Reading for Content-Area Mastery

This week I’m presenting four workshops at the 2007 MAPSA Conference in Detroit Michigan.

Three sessions addressed “Rigor, Relevance and Reading for Content-Area Mastery” at elementary, middle and high school. The sessions demonstrated that teachers don’t have to sacrifice content to help their students achieve academic success. I featured practical examples of how teachers can support standards-based instruction in their subject area while improving student skills in vocabulary, comprehension and analysis. My goal is to present a session that is rigorous and relevant to teachers—we’ll actually use the strategies being promoted, not just talk about them!  Here’s the handout for these sessions.
Elementary Session (1.1 MB pdf)
Middle School Session (1.4 MB pdf)
High School Session (1.6 MB pdf)

I used my TurningPoint audience response system and posed questions which probed participant expectations of students and instructional strategies. The system allows me to capture participant thinking and use it foster some lively discussion and reflections. You have to model what you preach, so we worked through some higher-order thinking and problem solving ourselves. Thanks to Christina Stellers at Turning Point for supplying additional responders.

My fourth session was “Digital Publishing: Rigor, Relevancy and Literacy in Action.”   In case you haven’t heard – print on demand technology has made it possible to produce beautiful hard cover and paperback books without minimum runs or prohibitive upfront costs. Kids are motivated by producing books for an authentic audience. Publishing helps students master course content and develop project management and teamwork skills. The power of publishing enables students to think like writers, to apply their learning strategies and to organize and express their learning. It exemplifies the best of the information revolution –students as creators of content rather than as passive audience.

I featured two new products: FlipNLearn, is an innovative learning foldable that student design and print on school printers using specialty paper. EdteckPublisher – is book design software that allows students to design paperback books and then easily upload them for publication by digital on-demand press.
Publishing workshop handout (1.6 MB pdf)

350 Participants + Live Blog + Audience Responses System = Engaging Workshop

Ode07 Click Photo to enlarge. Showing collection of live audience response data.

This week I’m heading to Portland Oregon on behalf of the Oregon Department of Education (ODE). Over 350 educators from around the state are gathering at the Oregon Convention Center for a day-long session that will focus on rigor, relevance, reflection and 21st century literacy. The participants include teacher / administrator teams from middle and high schools from around the state as well as higher education, pre-service teachers and others. I want to offer participants a rigorous and relevant session that engages their thinking and provides them with practical ideas. I’ve tried to design a workshop that uses technology, content and structure to model the evolving nature of collaboration and creativity in the 21st century.

During the morning session I’ll guide the group through a consideration of rigor and relevance with a focus on what it can actually look like in the classroom. I’ll model a selection of practical strategies that they can use to build student skills in defining, summarizing and comparing. Teachers always like to leave with some practical ideas.

Next I’ll turn to 21st century literacy, with a focus on how the information world our students are raised in differs from our experience. We’ll consider how digital technologies are creating new opportunities for research, innovation, and collaboration. I’ll share some exciting opportunities in digital publishing that allow student to design and write for an authentic audience.

In the afternoon I’ll be joined by educators from two Oregon high schools who will share their success in managing education plans, profiles and student portfolios. The session will close with team time devoted to processing and reflection.

I felt it was important to model what we preach so I’m using two technologies to engage audience reflection and participation. All participants will have audience response units provided by TurningTechnologies. I’ll use them in to create a large-scale Socratic seminar that will gather audience opinion and search out area of consensus and disagreement.

Since large group discussion will be rather limited, I’ve also created a workshop blog that features reflective questions tied to the major themes in the workshop. It’s been up a week and already it’s drawing some thoughtful comments and suggestions for our agenda. Both the blog and the audience response system will serve as workshop evaluation tools. We’ll also use them to gather input for ODE and next steps for future conferences. You can visit the workshop blog for a detailed look at the program and presenters. I’ve uploaded my presentation with TurningPoint audience response data. (3.5MB pdf) Here’s the presentations by Rex Putnam High School and Colton School District (363kb pdf)

Teaching Innovation in Routine Schools?

Tough Choices or Tough Times
Tough Choices or Tough Times

On December 14, 2006,  the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, unveiled a report which should keep educators and policy-makers talking for months to come. Tough Choices or Tough Times, offers both a sober assessment of the challenge (Tough Times) and a radical proposal for reform of our educational system (Tough Choices). Executive Report  1.9MB pdf

Already the report is drawing both praise and heavy criticism. See: “U.S. Urged to Reinvent Its Schools” Education Week December 20, 2006. More 35kb pdf

The report assesses the demands of the information age / global economy against the current trends in American education. In our efforts to shore up the basic competencies of our students we have sacrificed creativity. Our schools have been taken over by the “test-prep” mentality. Typically that involves putting our student through relentless repetition of formulaic approaches to finding “the right answer.” More

As Washington considers the reauthorization of NCLB, I hope someone asks the question, “Why are we training our students to perform routine tasks, when routine work is increasingly done by machines and low-wage labor?”

As Tough Choices or Tough Times states, “A swiftly rising number of American workers at every skill level are in direct competition with workers in every corner of the globe. …If someone can figure out the algorithm for a routine job, chances are that it is economic to automate it. Many good well-paying, middle-class jobs involve routine work of this kind and are rapidly being automated.
…The best employers the world over will be looking for the most competent, most creative, and most innovative people  on the face of the earth and will be willing to pay them top dollar for their services. This will be true not just for the top professionals and managers, but up and down the length and breadth of the workforce.
…Strong skills in English, mathematic: technology and science, as well as literature, history, and the arts will be essential for many; beyond this, candidates will have to be comfortable with ideas and abstractions, good at both analysis and synthesis, creative and innovative, self-disciplined and well organized, able to learn very quickly and work well as a member of a team and have the flexibility to adapt quickly to frequent changes in the labor market as the shifts in the economy become ever faster and more dramatic.”

To prepare our students to lead productive and fulfilling lives, they will need both core competencies and opportunities to explore creative solutions that are “outside the box.” Let’s not forget “synthesis” – one of Bloom’s higher-order thinking skills. It’s been defined as: “Creatively or divergently applying prior knowledge and skills to produce a new or original whole.”

We can’t blame teachers for abandoning project-based learning when they get the message that we have to get “the scores up.” It’s time to refine our thinking about educational accountability.  We will need to produce a new generation of students with both solid skills and the ability to apply them in new and creative ways.

As the report concludes, “Creativity, innovation, and flexibility will not be the special province of an elite. It will be demanded of virtually everyone who is making a decent living, from graphic artists to assembly line workers, from insurance brokers to home builders.”

See new post “Teaching innovation in routine schools? Part II”

Foster Higher Order Thinkers

This week I was in the metro-Detroit area giving a workshop at the St. Clair County Regional Educational Service Agency in Maryville, MI. The one-day session was sponsored by the Successful Practices Network.

We focused on techniques for fostering student skills in higher-order thinking and problem solving.  Participants included high school teachers and administrators.  I used my TurningPoint audience response system and posed questions which probed participant expectations of students and instructional strategies. The system allows me to capture participant thinking and use it foster some lively discussion and reflections. You have to model what you preach, so we worked through some higher-order thinking and problem solving ourselves. Participant feedback on workshop strengths included:

“Practical strategies that can be immediately implemented.”
“The way Peter took us through the response process modeled the struggle our students would go though in class.”
“He challenged our thinking with the data we submitted with the response units.”
“We convinced ourselves that our students / all students can think and perform at higher level.”

Updated handout with audience response data Download pappas-handout-stclair.pdf 1.8 MB pdf.

For more information on TurningPoint contact Mike Venrose at