13 Subversive Questions for the Classroom

At the end of my recent keynote on the power of reflection at TechitU, I closed by saying something to the effect “… as a teacher you get to reinvent yourselves every year … if you want to change the status quo at school, know that everything is conspiring against you … testing, parent expectations, curriculum mandates, etc … so perhaps you’ll need to be a bit subversive.”

If state testing went away tomorrow, would we actually teach differently?

Since I made that “subversive” comment, I’ve been thinking about reflective questions that would challenge the status quo in school. My list was getting rather long, so I decided to split it into two posts. This post focuses on reflective questions for teachers to consider when thinking about their approach to instruction. Its companion post, 14 Provocative Questions for the Faculty poses disruptive questions for teachers and administrators thinking about reforming their school at the program level.

  1. If a question has a correct answer, is it worth asking?
  2. If something is “Googleable” why would we spend precious class time teaching it?
  3. When we ask students to summarize, do we actually want to know what’s important to them?
  4. What do you suppose students think they are supposed to be doing when we ask them to analyze?
  5. Do you ever ask your students questions you don’t know the answer to? Why not?
  6. Think about all those things we teach kids claiming “you’ll need to know this someday.” With the exception of teaching it, when’s the last time you needed to know any of that stuff?
  7. Do your students need more information, or skills in how to critically evaluate the information that surrounds them?
  8. How much of what’s really important in life, is taught in a classroom?
  9. Why do we usually teach all the boring facts first and save the interesting stuff for later?
  10. When we cover material, what is it that we think we have accomplished?
  11. Is being told something the same as learning it?
  12. What would content area teaching look like if it were taught the way an art teacher teaches art?
  13. If state testing went away tomorrow, would we actually teach differently?

Add your subversive questions in the comment section below!

“Subversive” inspired by “Teaching As a Subversive Activity” by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. You should read it.

“13” is a cool number and people love reading blog posts that are enumerated lists.

Image credit: Banksy subversive street artist.

Rigor, Relevance, and Project Based Learning

Solar Sprint 2010 Chicago
Solar Sprint 2010 Chicago

I’m giving a daylong workshop (pdf) at the SW Wisconsin Business and Education Summit at the Lenz Conference Center at Southwest Tech in Fennimore WI. My workshop notes and resources are available here. For more of my posts on PBL click here.

Your students explore their world with an expectation of choice and control that redefines traditional notions of learning and literacy. Increasingly educators are discovering that they can motivate students with a PBL approach that engages their students with the opportunity to think like professionals while solving real-world problems. This workshop gives participants the why, what, and how (to get started) of PBL.

I’ll focus on six reasons why PBL can build skills and engage students.

  1. Traditional instruction is based on “teaching as telling.” PBL creates learning experiences.
  2. A new information “culture” demands a new literacy. PBL can build those skills
  3. We need to increase the rigor in the classroom. PBL moves students to higher levels of Blooms.
  4. PBL makes learning relevant – student take responsibility for their progress.
  5. Usually the audience for thinking is the teacher – PBL shifts the focus to real world application.
  6. Now that life’s become an open book test, memorizing facts and performing routine tasks are devalued.

You can follow the #PBL tweet stream at the visualizer below. Direct link to my visualizer at Wiffiti.

Image credit: flickr/Argonne National Laboratory

Teachers, Have the Courage to be Less Helpful

I’ve been thinking about the educational implications of passage in Tom Friedman’s recent editorial The Start Up of You. Here Friedman quotes a comment made to him by LinkedIn’s founder, Reid Hoffman.

“The old paradigm of climb up a stable career ladder is dead and gone,” he [Hoffman] said to me. “No career is a sure thing anymore. The uncertain, rapidly changing conditions in which entrepreneurs start companies is what it’s now like for all of us fashioning a career. Therefore you should approach career strategy the same way an entrepreneur approaches starting a business.”

So does that mean we’re supposed to prepare our students to become hi-tech startup entrepreneurs? I don’t think that’s realistic, or wise. But I do think that it should remind us that we need to craft learning environments that ask students to increasingly take responsibility for their learning – products, process and evaluation – and the type of deeper thinking and reflection called for in the Common Core standards.

“I want kids behaving like a journalist, like a scientist… not just studying it, but being like it.” ~ Larry Rosenstock, High Tech High

Unfortunately, most of our students get a steady diet of force-fed information and test taking strategies. We’re giving a generation of kids practice for predictable, routine procedures – and that happens across the “bell curve” from AP test prep to meeting minimal proficiency on NCLB-mandated tests.

If LinkedIn’s Hoffman is correct, it makes you wonder how our students are getting prepared for “uncertain, rapidly changing conditions?” School mission statements claim to foster “life-long learning,” but walk in most classrooms and you’ll see students hard at work on a task that’s been scripted by their teacher. Most likely they’re working to replicate a final product that’s already been prescribed (with rubrics) by their teacher.

If students are going to be productive in a dynamic society and workplace they will need to be agile, fluid learners. Students that are encouraged to explore their own approaches and reflect on their progress. Students who can work collaboratively with their peers to plan, implement and evaluate projects of their own design. As Larry Rosenstock of High Tech High put it, “I want kids behaving like a journalist, like a scientist… not just studying it, but being like it.”

Every summer, teachers get to re-invent themselves – to rethink their instructional approach. Here’s your essential question for the coming school year – “How can I stop scaffolding every task for students, and have the courage to be less helpful?” Does this seem like a crazy idea? Asking student to “figure it out themselves,” when every time you’ve given an assignment, you’ve been bombarded with trivial questions like, “… How long does it have to be? … What’s it supposed to look like?”

I think students have been taught that they work for the teacher and the grade. I’ll bet the most “what it supposed to look like” questions come from the “best” students who have learned that their averages are based on faithfully executing assigned work.

For a more on the benefits of “figuring it out for themselves” see my posts Don’t Teach Them Facts – Let Student Discover Patterns or The Four Negotiables of Student Centered Learning

So be courageous – remember, the same students who seem to be unable to function independently in school are highly motivated by the uncertainty of video game. You can retrain them to “figure it out” at school, as well.

Looking for a few practical ways to start? Here’s four ideas from “Student-Directed Learning Comes of Age: Teachers Adopt Classroom Strategies to Help Students Monitor Their Own Learning” by Dave Saltman in Harvard Education Letter, July/August 2011 [Summary courtesy of The Marshall Memo – a valuable weekly round-up of important ideas and research in K-12 education]

Moving Students Toward Directing Their Own Learning
“An insistent drumbeat of research findings, as well as newly adopted curriculum standards, continues to sound out a message to educators that the work of learning must be shifted from teachers to the ones doing the learning,” says teacher/writer Dave Saltman in this Harvard Education Letter article. “That’s because research and anecdotal evidence suggest that when students manage their own learning, they become more invested in their own academic success.” Saltman describes four approaches that develop self-direction:

Continue reading “Teachers, Have the Courage to be Less Helpful”

SmartPhone – Dumb School

Lockedphone This week I attended a panel discussion sponsored by Mobile Portland entitled “The Myth of Mobile Context.” I was treated to an all-star panel that tacked tough questions exploring challenges, opportunities, design considerations and the user experience in the mobile context.

Through the talk,  I kept thinking about a quote from my previous post – The Future of Schools – Three Design Scenarios

“With rare exceptions, schools currently treat the digital revolution as if it never happened. Computers, more often than not, still sit in dedicated rooms, accessible only with adult supervision.

… When students step out the door of the institution called school today, they step into a learning environment … in which one is free to follow a line of inquiry wherever it takes one, without the direction and control of someone called a teacher… If you were a healthy, self-actualizing young person, in which of these environments would you choose to spend most of your time?

… The more accessible learning becomes through unmediated relationships and broad-based social networks, the less clear it is why schools, and the people who work in them, should have such a large claim on the lives of children and young adults…”

While I’ve seen some cutting edge schools / teachers that have effectively embraced mobile technology and social networking, too many educators see smartphones as a distraction from learning. Many schools block Facebook, Twitter and the rest of social web as if it was pornography.

So where’s this put our students? For many it means that they must leave their smartphone at the classroom door and surrender themselves to an information culture controlled by the adults. What’s the mobile context in schools? Not much, it’s banned as subversive to learning.

Every day in school, students must “forget” about the information control and functionally their phone gives them to browse, research, monitor, network, shop and entertain. While they might view a photo just posted to Facebook from a friend’s mobile as the catalyst to a conversation, their teacher considers it a distraction from learning.

Mostly technology in school offers an “illusion of modernity” – automating routine tasks like word processing, or watching a teacher having fun at the smartboard. If students do get online in school – it often involves viewing “filtered” web content with limited functionality.  Of course students need lessons in “digital hygiene.” But curating all their web content and interactions doesn’t teach them responsible use, it just sequesters them behind a firewall. “Suspicion invites treachery” ~ Voltaire

When students do get on a school workstation (laptop or desktop) they quickly realize that it doesn’t “know” them as well as their phone does. Their personal device carries a wealth of information that’s important to them – contacts, photos, data, memories. To the school desktop, students are just a user on the network with a limited range of permissions. The biggest problem with the school computer is that it doesn’t do “place” at all. That’s a stark contrast to students’ mobiles, which geo-browse via the growing number of locational apps and geo-tagged information stream.

Mobile context in schools? Not much.

Maybe it was a bit harsh to entitle the post “Smart Phones – Dumb Schools.” But try doing without your smartphone tomorrow and see if that doesn’t feel like a pretty dumb idea.

For thoughful insights on the mobile web watch this great Slideshare by Yiibu.

Education for Innovation or More Test Prep?

Intel is hosting an education digital town hall at the Newseum that will explore new ways to “cultivate tomorrow’s thinkers and entrepreneurs to sustain economic and educational success.” (December 7 at 8:45 a.m. – 11:45 EST) Participants include Education Secretary Arne Duncan; Angel Gurria, the Secretary General of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development; Rob Atkinson with ITIF; and Tom Friedman of the New York Times.

Let’s see how the Duncan sidesteps the issue of testing and innovation – while US students spend endless hours honing their test taking skills, the demand for routine skills has disappeared from the workplace. Anyone know of a meaningful and rewarding career that looks like filling out a worksheet? Maybe Friedman will be willing to tackle the stifling impact of testing on creativity thinking among our students. For my thoughts on the subject, see my post “As NCLB Narrows the Curriculum, Creativity Declines

“Education for Innovation” a live digital town hall 

Watch the video here.

You can submit questions you would like the moderators, PBS NewsHour’s Gwen Ifill and Hari Sreenivasan, to discuss with the speakers. Then, vote the questions you like best to the top. Click here

You can join the for the live, interactive webcast on Tuesday, December 7 at 8:45 a.m. – 11:45 EST or join the conversation at Twitter/InnovationEcon use the hashtag #Ed4Innovation



More on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)

PISA is an assessment (begun in 2000) that focuses on 15-year-olds’ capabilities in reading literacy, mathematics literacy, and science literacy. PISA studied students in 41 countries and assessed how well prepared students are for life beyond the classroom by focusing on the application of knowledge and skills to problems with a real-life context. For a detailed example of how PISA assesses sequencing skills see my post “Why Don’t We Teach Sequencing Skills?


For more PISA questions in reading, math and science see my blog post “Are Students Well Prepared to Meet the Challenges of the Future?” You can find some great critical thinking questions to use with your students


Response to sample question
This short response question is situated in a daily life context. The student has to interpret and solve the problem which uses two different representation modes: language, including numbers, and graphical. This question also has redundant information (i.e., the depth is 400 cm) which can be confusing for students, but this is not unusual in real-world problem solving. The actual procedure needed is a simple division. As this is a basic operation with numbers (252 divided by 14) the question belongs to the reproduction competency cluster. All the required information is presented in a recognizable situation and the students can extract the relevant information from this. The question has a difficulty of 421 score points (Level 2 out of 6).