Parents: 11 Questions to promote learning over grades.


What if it isn’t about the grades?

Questions to promote learning over grades.jpg

This post originally started here, as a list of dreamer questions I came up with a few years ago and finally got around to posting. Once posted, I felt a few deserved a bit more thinking.

I’ve struggled with this problem for quite some time. I fear we’ve trained kids to do school rather than learn. And my personal problem within this is a seemingly hyper-focus on grades, driven either by the students OR we’ve taught them to value this as motivation.

For us within education, I know there are so many things we need to do to move the focus away from grades and towards the learning. Report cards, summative assessments, silo units, and reporting restrictions are just some of the areas we in the business need to address. However, these are for another time. This post is for the parents.

Parents: Here are 11 questions to ask your child to move the focus away from the grades and towards the learning.

How did you grow your brain today?

I adore the work of Jo Boaler – Stanford professor of mathematics – and her work bringing brain theory to the instruction of mathematics. Particularly exciting is her thinking about the brain’s plasticity and the idea that you can grow your brain. Basically her work tells us, as parents, teachers, educators, mentors to young people, that mistakes and struggle help grow your brain.

This question helps students focus on this struggle – and the positive outcomes of this struggle. Let’s celebrate the mistakes and struggle that grow your brain, and that aren’t celebrated in what Jo Boaler calls our “performance culture”.  We tend to focus on the end product: the tests, the games, the final point in the journey. Rather we also need to celebrate all the struggle along the way.

What did you struggle with today?

There should be a sense of urgency in today’s education. We have so much good work to do, and not a lot of time to do this in. If students aren’t working hard, and struggling, then we are wasting our time. Did your child waste their time today or did they engage in some meaningful struggle today? If they didn’t struggle, then why not? What can they do to make this happen tomorrow?

This question builds off the work of Carol Dweck and Growth Mindset. Growth Mindset is the attitude that seeks out challenges, that embraces mistakes and failures as opportunities to learn. Students with a Growth Mindset tend to be more resilient when facing obstacles and know that struggle leads to success.

This struggle has shown to connect to success in school. Students with a fixed mindset: those who believe that intelligence is fixed and pre-determined, that there is nothing you can do to change this (those who believe that there are “math people”, and therefore those who aren’t good at math), these students tend not to perform well in school in that they avoid challenges: they see these as a threat to there own intelligence. If you struggle then you mustn’t be smart.

Having a fixed mindset is limiting to students. We know that students who embrace a growth mindset will seek out struggles because they know that this struggle with help make them smarter. If you aren’t struggling then you aren’t getting any smarter!

What risks did you take?

Connecting these previous ideas of brain growth and struggle, to the ideas of innovation and creativity is this: taking risks in your learning is so important. Ask your child what risks they took: in what they created, produced, attempted, tried. Did they go outside of their comfort zone and try something new?

Our current fascination with STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) is really about getting students to solve problems, designing solutions and coming up with new and innovative products. This type of thinking involves taking risks.

These risks can extend to solving problems in math, creating writing texts, reading new-to-you books, etc. Taking risks is so important in today’s classrooms, and we need our students to do more of this.

What questions did you ask today?

Questions prompt wonder, inquiry, and an approach to our world. What were they curious about? What did they want to know? And then, what did they do with this wonder?

Our world is a fascinating place. Let’s together foster this wonder.

What mistakes did you make today?

This question connects to both Growth Mindset and brain theory. Let’s get away from our obsession with our Performance Culture, where the final event is what is most important. Let’s start valuing the learning journey, and celebrate these mistakes as opportunities to learn.

So this isn’t a celebration of failure, but rather a celebration of our response to these mistakes. What mistakes did you make today? What did you then do about it?

And mistakes are not about giving up – students with a fixed mindset believe this. Mistakes are a chance to double down and try something new. Students with a growth mindset relish these opportunities to try again – to improve and get smarter.

Did you fail forward today?

This question comes from education’s current love-affair with design thinking and the fantastic book Launch by the brilliant John Spencer and AJ Juliana. This idea of failing forward is crucial to the design process, but can be extended to just about anything in school. Did you try something and it didn’t work? What did you do then to move your process forward? How did you respond to this failure to create something better?

This could apply to a design task (the marble got stuck in the marble run; the car didn’t go as far as it needed to; the bridge didn’t support the necessary load before collapsing) or to a performance task (the free-throw didn’t go into the basket; the character in the short story doesn’t have a convincing problem). These failures are opportunities to move forward in the design process. Again – how did your child respond to failure?

What problems did you find today?

Teachers love students who solve problems: ones that dig into the challenges presented. However, moving towards an ever-changing future, we need people who will seek out new PROBLEMS to then solve.

I absolutely adore the work of George Couros – both his blog and is book The Innovator’s Mindset. His work is really for educators, but his thinking towards seeking problems is really inspiring. Let’s have kids embrace this approach: there are problems that need YOU to solve them. What are these problems?

As schools lean towards more inquiry, we are looking to students to identify these problems and fully engage in solving these. There are no shortages of examples of students finding a problem and then changing the world to solve it. What I love is the empowerment involved in solving these problems. We need our students to believe that they too can change our world!

What solutions did you try today?

Is your child currently working towards solving problems? What did they try? Did they work? Why or why not?

This thinking helps students look forward. This helps students think about their process, in a world obsessed with products. As an educator, I’ve moved from a product driven approach (now we’re all going to make a PowerPoint!) to a process-driven approach (let’s learn how to revise our work to better engage our audience!). I believe the process is the most important part of the learning journey. Let’s keep the focus on the learning.

Did you get any feedback today?

Teachers now are in the business of providing feedback. We know that student thinking stops when a grade is given. We know that learning never stops. Improving never stops. Why does the thinking stop?

Personally, I spend a lot of time giving feedback (both formal written and informal on-the-fly conversations) and I want students to apply that feedback. This feedback is designed to move the thinking forward. But if this feedback is given with a grade, students ignore the feedback and only focus on the grade – and then the learning stops. A grade for most means that the learning is over.

Again, I know we in education are guilty of fostering this love of grades. I struggle with balancing the need to let students know where they are currently, in relation to the standard (grades) and what they need to do to improve (feedback). I’m guilty of providing feedback along with a grade, though I know that this almost cancels each other out. In education, we know that the most effective way to deliver feedback is to give just feedback. We know this: “Overall, detailed, descriptive feedback was found to be most effective when given alone, unaccompanied by grades or praise.”

So let’s celebrate feedback. Let’s view feedback alone as valuable and something then to apply. Stop asking what grade did you get, start asking what feedback did you get?

Did you meet any of your goals today?

Some feedback is in the the form of goals – something to work towards. To have students fully engaged in their own learning, they should have goals that they are working towards. How are they doing in working towards these goals? Have they reached their goals? If yes, what’s next? If not, what are they going to do about it?

Did you strengthen any of your weaknesses today?

I’ve mentioned our obsession with performance culture before. We celebrate the end product, but little attention is often paid to the struggle along the way.

I’m convinced that we are moving towards what I call a “Harry Potter” culture. In this fantastic series, our titular hero Harry turns out to be a phenom the FIRST time he rides a broom – not only besting his nemesis Draco Malfoy (who presumable spent years on a broom previous to this) as well as jumping the cue as is and instantly making the Quidditch team, something rare for a person so young.

Our popular culture celebrates our American Idol winners, our YouTube stars, giving us the false impression that fame is something easier to attain, rather than acknowledging all the hard work that is necessary.

Sometimes our schools over-emphasis our strengths and talents and ignores our weaknesses. When I taught Grade 1, many years ago, I had a student in Kindergarten who was a reading prodigy. She was reading advanced novels and her parents were looking to have her put into Grade 1, skipping a grade. She spent a week in my class, after which I met with the administrative team and parents to offer my advice. I told them that her strengths were beyond my class, but her weaknesses were below Grade 1 level: She was reading beyond my students, but couldn’t yet hold a pencil or use scissors. This was a revelation to the parents, in that they were over-emphasizing her strengths and ignoring her weaknesses.

I see this today in my own students: students who avoid feedback, and tasks they perceive as difficult in favour of their strengths. We need to balance our focus to include the weaknesses of our students along with what they are doing to strengthen these weaknesses.

Final Thoughts

I know we have a lot of do in shifting focus towards the learning. For too long, grades have given us a quick short-hand way of understanding how students are doing in school. Let’s now look beyond the grades and focus on the learning. These questions will help us in education make this shift.


What If?

Been challenged to create a blog post under 200 words, responding to the following prompt for the IMMOOC course I’m taking:

3. Which “what if” question challenges your thinking in the Innovator’s Mindset? What would you add to the list of what ifs?

A few years ago, during a trip to the dog park, my brain was racing and dreaming, and I came up with the following “What Ifs” that I felt could push my practice forward. It is amazing to come back and reflect.

What if the classroom walls were for the learning?
What if I had nothing to prove?
What if math was art?
What if school was for self directed learning as well?
What if it wasn’t the child’s fault?
What if all students could be successful?
What if school was a place of challenge AND joy?
What if students ran to school?
What if school met the needs of every student?
What if school was a safe place?
What if we all looked out for each other?
What if the classroom belonged to the students?
What if students were in charge of their own learning?
What if mistakes were the most important part of learning?
What if we used technology to transform how and what we learn?
What if it wasn’t about grades?


Self-Directed AND District-Focused PD?

This is a response to the awesome post 43 Things We Need To Stop Doing In Schools which contains, among many awesome things, this gem:

34) Going towards a total self-directed PD model for teachers. While I do believe choice for teachers in what they learn about and how (passion projects, PLCs, etc.) is incredibly important, there also need to be some district-wide goals and focal points that we are all working on. That is how we move an entire community forward as opposed to just perpetuating pockets of awesome within our schools. 

I am going to begin to understand why this resonates so much with me.

I believe our board has been guilty of islands of awesome-ness for quite some time, most obvious with our technology use. There are many people separately doing amazing things, and this exists in all areas and levels. One of most exciting things about our new superintendent is that she is promising focus and cohesion within our buildings and staff.

I’ve often felt like I’ve been on an island, and the longer I teach, I fear the less I am willing to swim off that island – and I don’t know why.

School improvement has fascinated me lately. I think there needs to be a space within my annual learning for both my own passions and the school/board goals. I’m determined to find myself something in each PD session I attend. But I think there needs to be something that finds me within these PD sessions.

My last BCI (Building Collaborative Inquiry) was a struggle to this end. I made effective use of the time and money spent of my time, and am working towards my own goals that fit within the school’s plan. But what I would like is Professional Development that meets my own needs.

The problem I seem to have is that I am moving forward based on my own evaluation of my work towards these goals. I know my areas of improvement but the only way I know of how I am doing is my own self-assessment. So what if I had feedback and goals attached to that?

Am I looking for more and unnecessary evaluation? No. What I am looking for is a focused approach to school improvement. This calls for an instructional leader who moves the PD accordingly. Much like the way I’ve got an idea of where my students are (focused observations and timely data) I wonder if today’s leaders can somehow get the same thing? Then I’ve got PD that meets my needs.


Making Innovation Easier

What has changed in our world today that not only makes innovation easier to do, but is also necessary for our students?

I’ve been thinking a lot about technology lately, and specifically (as it ties into my MOOC on The Innovator’s Mindset) on how it fosters innovation in my teaching.

But specifically, I’m haunted by the pendulum allegations that cell phones have no place in the classroom. I get nervous when I hear public outcry against cell phones, and by extension, technology.

I’ve long since embraced technology. At the beginning, I foolishly thought it was a tool of engagement (if you use technology, the kids will pay attention!) but have since evolved this thinking into accepting technology as an integral tool in our lives – one that must be leveraged for sophisticated purposes. Now I feel myself moving towards DEMANDING technology use in our schools. How are we still having these conversations about technology use? These powerful devices, that a lot of our students have, that can fit into our pockets, that are more powerful than the technology used to put people on the moon – how are we still not embracing these?

So with that in mind, I wanted to think about HOW technology is making innovation easier.

But first, some background. Innovation, as defined by George Couros, is this: “Innovation as a way of thinking that creates something new and better.” I think this is important. Sometimes new isn’t necessarily better. But I believe that this act of creation is important, this act of innovation and imagination is critical. Yes, I believe that we are preparing our students for a world of problems that don’t yet exist. And yes, I do see the irony of this statement, having worked in the field of education that is preposterously slow to change. How is it that classes and schools still look like this?!?

So here are my thoughts on how technology is making innovation happen in my classroom.

1. Access to information

Students have incredible access to information. And this has fundamentally shifted my place within the classroom. This has been especially evident when I recently started teaching science. Being a science teacher comes with all sorts of expectations and baggage. I love fostering the inherent curiosity of our world, but I don’t know everything about everything – but I don’t have to. I do have to know how to access technology, how to foster inquiry, and how to ask un-google-able questions. My favourite part of my day is when I can say, “I don’t know. Let’s find out!”.

Now I know that having access to information doesn’t necessarily lead to innovation – but it should. Innovation isn’t necessarily creating something new. It could be taking an existing idea/product and changing it – presumably to make it better. A few years ago, I had a student that shared the same sense of humour – which was sealed by his insistence of adding Bluetooth to unnecessary products – often with hilarious results. We both recognized that sometimes unnecessary innovation was frivolous.

But sometimes looking for answers is a part of the innovation process. Which leads me to my next thought.

2. Process over Products

I need to be clear here. I too get excited about innovative products. But I still think the process of innovation is much more important – which can be seen in our current Design Thinking and STEM excitement. However, this goes back to our Science Fair days – when the process/thinking should have been celebrated, but too often it was the product.

Technology helps in this process in that it makes it easier. Publishing a writing piece is now easier when there are so many tools to help in the planning, research, revision and publishing stages. Though paper and pencil is important, leveraging technology makes this process easier.

In my writing focus now, we are looking at the process of revision: making big changes to improve the writing. So many were loathe to engaged in the rough draft/good copy nonsense – and for good reason. If they were using a document processor, how easy it to copy and paste paragraphs, move and improve ideas?

too much technology

This was my favourite moment of the week. This is a student using his laptop, iPad and phone (I staged the second laptop because I thought it was funny). But how incredible is this? This is one of the most innovative students I’ve worked with, leveraging his technology for very sophisticated purposes. He isn’t distracted because he is engaged. He’s engaged because we are working to create irresistibly engaging learning experiences for him.

Here’s to looking forward!


School From Scratch?

I’ve just joined a MOOC with the incredible @gcouros around the book “The Innovator’s Mindset” – fantastic!

Part of the expectations in this MOOC is to blog regularly – and goodness knows I need that pressure!

Today’s thought:  If you started a school from scratch, what would you see as necessary, and what would you take out from what we currently do?

I’ve often thought about starting my own school, so the following is a rambling of some of my thoughts!

I’ve always wanted the day to go longer. Why are we 9-3 when the working world is 9-5? This more time could allow us to relax the pace, and then add more meaningful curriculum. One of my practicum placement schools had an extra half hour for some of the days. The students used this time to attend a language class of their choosing. Think what we could do with more time! We could build in more meaningful trades time (think shop for elementary school), more choice for younger kids, maybe a more balanced arts curriculum. Amazing!

I could also see a re-do on the reporting criteria. I feel that especially in math, the silos of strands lead to silos of teaching. If we are heading towards more innovation in schools, then why not a more innovative assessment reporting practice?

I would do away with class placements based on production date. I say this not to hold kids back, to move more kids on. What if we had a more flexible and fluid grouping models? What if we had students move through mastery instead of moving by birth date?

I would stress the process in education, rather than the product. Instead of asking “What did you make today?”, we’d be asking “How did you think today?” This is particularly fascinating to me lately, and I want to come back to this idea throughout this MOOC.

Of course, dreaming this big comes with a practicality limitation. I’m not sure how this could play out, but its fun to dream!