Every year thousands of educators gather for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference eager to learn about the newest features in favorite apps and to glean ideas from one another about how to effectively teach in new ways. The conference seems to grow every year and there is palpable excitement from educators who finally get to commune with their “tribe” -- techy teachers from around the globe.
But many of the products currently being marketed to educators are firmly rooted in the current moment of education. For the most part, they focus on how to help educators do what they already do more efficiently. Or they offer flashy digital tools meant to engage learners presumed to have short attention spans, and entice teachers with the analytics under the hood. But too often the conversations around what educators can do with technology in their classrooms focus on the current moment in a system that almost no one thinks is perfect.
“I’m fascinated by trying to look forward rather than looking at what schools look like now,” said Alan November during a presentation at the conference. November has long been invested in education, first as a teacher and now has a consultant and speaker. He suggests that to fundamentally change, education leaders need to define a new role for learners and then hire teachers who can help nurture those qualities. With that in mind, November proposes seven questions that he thinks should become standard in the interviewing and hiring process.
Question #1: How do you teach students to become problem designers?
“After 40 years of technology, we are still spoon-feeding students problems to solve,” November said. He finds this ridiculous in an era when hiring managers and business leaders routinely say they are looking for employees who can define the problems the company faces and set about attacking them. But students don’t often get to practice defining the problems they will solve. And without exposure to this type of thinking they become dependent, knowing the teacher will do the hard work of devising problems for them.
November worked with a teacher, Jessica Caviness, who resisted the idea that students were capable of designing interesting problems for a long time. Finally she decided to give them a picture -- in this case a cup at a baseball game -- and asked students to come up with a problem for it that wasn’t the most obvious one.
Can u write the warm up question for tomorrow that goes with this cup? Involve volume somehow. pic.twitter.com/DYCXTpwK
— Jessica Caviness (@mrsjcaviness) April 12, 2012
The first student-generated problem she received was wonderfully complex:
— ⚡ K-T Fink ⚡ (@We_Shout) October 19, 2012
To figure out that answer, students needed to know much more than geometry. They needed to figure out the buoyancy of ice, the displacement of water, several things about volume in order to figure out how much is left, and some physics.
This was a spur-of-the-moment challenge, something Caviness devised while at a Rangers game, but students who followed her on Twitter immediately responded. And because students responded directly to Caviness’ original tweet, the whole class could see one another’s creations. And they were motivated to think more creatively about their own submissions because of what they saw. “And you see this cascading, of students inspiring students, and problems getting harder,” November said.
Letting students design their own problems can be tremendously motivating and fun for students, but it requires teachers who aren’t afraid to say they don’t know the answers. “I worry sometimes that this loss of control, this fear of a problem they can’t solve, is holding back some teachers,” November said. But when teachers don’t claim to have all the knowledge, it forces students to find answers, discover new pieces of information they will need, and to effectively use the internet as a powerful learning tool. The resources to extend their learning this way are at their fingertips.
“I am convinced in the age of the web, we need teachers who can teach students to be designers of problems,” November said.
Question #2: How do you manage your own professional growth?
It has become trendy to call teachers “lead learners,” but how do individual teachers ensure that they are continually learning both content and about their craft? Lack of professional development around technology integration or other new initiatives is a common gripe, but if the adults in schools want students to be lifelong learners they have to model taking that initiative for the children they teach.
“I worry a lot of teachers don’t manage their own professional growth,” November said. “They’re told go to this workshop. I’m very worried about that, even though it’s my primary business.”
There is a growing network of educators who are self-motivated to grow professionally, often spurred by technology. Increasingly, teachers are earning micro-credentials, participating in Twitter chats, finding other educators to learn from in personalized learning networks, attending math circles and generally widening their network of influencers.
Teachers who take that approach to their own careers will not only continue to improve their teaching, but they will inspire students as well.
Question #3: What are your expectations for student to self-assess their work and publish it for a wider audience?
John Hattie’s work indicates that self-assessment can have a significant impact on the quality of learning. It’s also a skill that pops up throughout life. And yet, in traditional school most assessment falls to the teacher and most student work is written for only the teacher to see.
November recommends a tool called Prism for students to self-assess, and for teachers to get a read on how students are doing. The teacher can paste any text into Prism and make a legend for highlights. For example, red might be the most difficult parts of the article, blue could be the key ideas, and yellow could be difficult vocabulary. Students can then go into the same article and highlight the reading using the code the teacher set out. This allows students to reflect on what they’re reading and what they understand, but it also gives the teacher a quick snapshot of concepts that need to be unpacked further.
Students can also see aggregated and anonymous data on what their peers highlighted, which can help break through the self-conscious refusal to ask questions. When kids know that others in the class also struggled, they are more likely to ask questions to clarify their own understanding.
Self-assessment with Prism could also be even more obvious. When student submit an essay, they could paste it into Prism and highlight the best parts of their writing or where they struggled. Teachers can not only see how students are thinking about their own work, but also give more targeted feedback that may mean more because of what the student has already invested.
In addition to helping students self-assess within a closed classroom setting, when students publish their work for a wider audience they receive feedback that feels more authentic and immediate because of its impact. The concept of a wider audience for student work is one that is growing popular among some educators, but how often is that audience global?
— Sarah Strong (@sstrong57) June 9, 2017
“Your ability to get feedback from around the world is an important skill that adds to the assessment of your work for your personal growth,” November said. He loves the example of fan fiction. Kids obsessed with characters from their favorite books write thousands of words in fan fiction and publish to online communities. In a presentation at a middle school, November was demonstrating to students how the sites work, praising the particular work of one writer who had clearly progressed over time, incorporating feedback from the comments on her writing to improve. Unbeknown to him, that girl was in the group and her friends soon let him know it.
After his talk was over, the girl’s teacher came up and scolded November for praising the girl. The teacher said she never did her work, never seemed to be fully present, and didn’t deserve praise in front of the other students. When November asked the student why she didn’t do her work, she gave him a revealing answer. She said every day she woke up and had to decide whether to publish for the world or for her teacher. The world was a lot more motivating.
Question #4: What does your global network look like?
Technology has made the world smaller and it is no longer impossible to learn alongside children on the other side of the world. That is a tremendous opportunity for cultural exchange, new friendships and exciting collaborations. But kids aren’t necessarily going to find those global connections on their own.
Kathy Cassidy, a first-grade teacher in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, is one of November’s favorite examples of how a globally connected teacher can open up the world to her students, no matter how young. Cassidy has a class Twitter account where students post their work, discuss their learning, and pose questions they want to pursue. They also follow other first-grade classrooms around the world.
We got comments today from Kenya Eng land and Malaysia. They are far away. By Lemmy
— Mrs. Cassidy's Class (@mscassidysclass) April 25, 2016
“The kids see amazing ideas from all over the world every week,” November said. Cassidy’s students often want to try those projects for themselves, but Cassidy always tells them she doesn’t know how to do it. That never stops them. They just say, “We don’t need you.”
For example, these globally connected first-graders set up a Skype conversation with students in Vietnam to ask how they made cameras out of junk. After getting some tips and completing their own versions, they tweeted pictures to their Vietnamese peers, along with thank-you notes. They also regularly tweet to authors and share how books inspire them.
— Mrs. Cassidy's Class (@mscassidysclass) January 8, 2016
“I only want teachers who have global networks and know how to use them to inspire students to go beyond what they themselves as teachers may be able to do,” November said.
Question #5: How do you give students an opportunity to contribute purposeful work to others?
There’s a lot of motivation research pointing to the power of purpose to drive learning. Humans evolved in communities and the desire to make a difference is a powerful motivator for many people. Unfortunately, academic culture often doesn’t seem to have a lot of purpose to students. The far-off goal of college doesn’t always seem real to many students, even if it has been hammered into them.
“We want to know we had value,” November said. “ At the end of the day, we want to know we made a difference.” Luckily, kids can learn a lot from being helpful with the guidance of a creative teacher.
Kindergartners in Loudoun County, Virginia, were studying orangutans, so their teacher set up a conference call with the zookeeper in Waco, Texas, where many orangutans live. The zookeeper told the kids that orangutans often acted naughty when they didn’t have anything to do, so over the next few months the kids designed puzzles and games for the orangutans to play. They shipped their games and then set up another video conference to watch the orangutans playing with what they had designed.
“There’s lots to do that I don’t think we’ve tapped, starting with very young children and going all the way through to make a difference,” November said.
Question #6: How do you teach students to learn what you don’t know?
Teachers spend a lot of time delivering content they already know to students for whom that information may be new. Far less often do teachers model how they themselves learn new things, in effect modeling how to learn.
This could be the perfect topic for a professional development workshop. That facilitator could give teachers a problem about which they know nothing, and ask them to figure it out. The adults would practice documenting the steps of their learning process so they can show students later. These are things teachers do every day out of curiosity or when planning lessons, but the steps aren’t always transparent to students. How do teachers search online effectively? How do they organize their information? How do they keep track of their sources? What questions do they ask themselves along the way to make sure their sources are valid or to push the research further?
David Malan, a Harvard computer science professor, told November that the biggest mistake he has made as a teacher was putting too much of his own work on his website for CS50, one of the college's most popular classes. He realized that linking only to his own class materials, notes and papers encouraged students to be dependent on him and didn’t reveal enough about how he learned and who inspires him. He wanted students to know about the powerful resources from around the world that have influenced his work, so he started linking to those instead.
“He was showing them how he learned, that these were resources that were helpful to him,” November said.
Question #7: How do you teach students to manage their own learning?
This is a crucial question to develop learner independence. Often students have experience managing their own learning in informal settings. When they play Minecraft (or any other video game), kids don’t wait for an adult to scaffold the learning -- they watch videos, talk to friends, and play around in the world until they figure it out. But that same sense of ownership doesn’t often play out in academic spaces, a missed opportunity for deep learning.
November has observed kids of all ages managing their own learning when they create video tutorials for their friends. Even when given a choice between a worksheet that would take 10 minutes to complete, and a tutorial video, kids will often choose hours of work to produce three good tutorial minutes. They do this because they feel their peers need them and the work has value. Students know the teacher already has the answers to the worksheet.
— John Massie (@UplandEdTech) September 21, 2016
Even more intriguing, students themselves say despite what seems like an altruistic act, making video tutorials benefits the maker the most. One little girl said, “I never really learned anything until I designed tutorials. It’s taught me a whole new way of learning.”
At the crux of all these hiring questions is a push to give students more messy problems. Too often students are asked to complete work that thousands of students have done before them, rather than adding, remixing or extending knowledge that already exists. For example, rather than asking students to make a PowerPoint presentation on Romeo and Juliet, what if they were asked to find five different existing presentations from five different countries representing different cultural interpretations of the play. They could then pick 10 slides from those decks to build their own argument around a theme like irony. To November, that is a worthwhile messy problem.
Many education discussions focus on how to best cover the curriculum. Challenges like time, space and system constraints are usually cited as impediments to getting through the required content in engaging and interesting ways. But, looked at differently, covering a set bucket of content could be seen as a straightforward proposition, although it doesn’t guarantee that students emerge on the other side as curious, connected, critical thinkers.
“What we need today, because there’s so much knowledge available to us all, what we need are teachers who are so inspiring that students go beyond the curriculum to seek out their own knowledge, to add value to the curriculum the teacher taught them,” November said. That’s the approach Harvard professor David Malan takes. When asked how he knows he’s a good teacher, he responded the only evidence that would convince him is if students bring outside learning to bear on what he has taught.
That’s a rigorous standard by which to measure effective teaching and requires a mindset switch about what education is for and how it will remain relevant to students growing up in a world that is more connected and less stable than ever before.