Teaching Thinking (and Other Critical Skills)!

Teaching Thinking!  Is this an impossible task?

Clearly the work of teachers and parents is to help students become better thinkers, problem solvers, and communicators.  We want students to become more creative and critical in their thinking.  It is challenging work.  How do you support students in becoming true inquirers who are curious, interested, and capable of asking probing questions?  How do we support students as they engage with their own thinking?  How do we help students develop resilience?

True Resilience!

True Resilience!  (www.jscottfitness.com)

Below is a “story” that I’ve held onto for years. I remember hearing this story when my own children were young boys.  I found a source of the story online as a letter to the editor to the New York Times.

The following letter to the editor appeared in the New York Times on January 18, 1988

‘Izzy, Did You Ask a Good Question Today?’

Isidor I. Rabi, the Nobel laureate in physics who died Jan. 11 (1988), was once asked, ”Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?”

His answer has served as an inspiration for me as an educator, as a credo for my son during his schooling and should be framed on the walls of all the pedagogues, power brokers and politicians who purport to run our society.

The question was posed to Dr. Rabi by his friend and mine, Arthur Sackler, himself a multitalented genius, who, sadly, also passed away recently. Dr. Rabi’s answer, as reported by Dr. Sackler, was profound: ”My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn Continue reading

“It’s Confusing”: One Parent’s Honest Response

After an evening presentation to a group of Grade 11 parents last week during which we laid out the roadmap for current 11th graders as they navigate the IB, the college search, the essays, the Internal Assessments, the Mock exams, the college applications, the SAT prep, the SAT exams, the decisions, the deadlines, the co-curricular options, the need for balance, the need to take responsibility, the need to stay close as a family, and the need to breathe…..parents were asked to offer a word or phrase to capture how they (the parents) felt at that moment.

“It’s confusing”, said one parent.

These 16 year olds who will turn 17 as Grade 11 students are setting out on an incredibly intense course of activity over the coming months.  They join thousands of other young people at this impressionable age in taking charge of the list above. This week they start that process with the PSAT exam and their first quarter progress report for Grade 11.  This is a first glance at how many of them are achieving in the IB Diploma Program.  The fun begins.  Parents must find ways to support and bolster their child during these challenging times.  Kids need parental support.  Being informed of the challenges and the roadmap that lies ahead for kids is really important for parents.  The stress, anxiety, and pressure is very real and must be managed.  Parents are critical to the management of the challenges.

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Apart from the intensity of school responsibilities, most Grade 11 students are begging for more freedom from their parents.  Extended curfews, more freedom to roam on Friday evenings, greater privileges are requested.  Parents must navigate these difficult and challenging parental decisions.  Its’ not easy, in fact, it’s confusing.   Most parents are often in some form of negotiation with their kids.  It is part of parenting and part of navigating the teenage years.  It’s important.

When this parent used the word confusing, however, I read into his response another source of confusion.  It’s confusing parenting 16 year olds.  It’s confusing parenting a 16 year old child Continue reading

A “Bubble” Called School

Our students live in a bubble called school.  They are sheltered, protected, and innocent.  While our IB MYP and bubblesDiploma Program strive to develop internationalism in our students and strengthen their learner profile attributes, our students are sheltered from so many realities of the world.  I am worried.

There is a war against ISIS, a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Boko Haram steals “our girls” in Nigeria, Egypt is struggling as democracy has slipped away, the intractable Israeli/Palestinian problem persists, Ebola devastates parts of West Africa, climate change threatens the globe.  Wars, beheadings, kidnappings, disease, and natural disasters: where do you start with generating understanding?  It struck me the other day that there are probably students of mine who are viewing some of the graphic videos posted on youtube coming out of the middle east.  How do they make sense of this violence?  I am worried.

What do our students know (and care) about these challenges in the world?  As we develop and nurture our students as critical thinkers, problem solvers, and inquirers who are compassionate and empathetic, how are we helping them learn about and make sense of current events, current news stories, and the state of the world?

My hunch is that some of our students have an idea about the events around the world.  However, most middle and high school students are so caught up in their own worlds of social engagement with peers that dismissing the news is easy to do.  Most are probably innocently naïve about events in the world.  Frankly, and in my Continue reading

Student Engagement: Are They or Aren’t They Engaged?

How do you know when students are truly engaged?  How do you know when a school community is truly engaged?  Partly you “just know” intuitively. When I walk into classrooms it’s pretty evident when students are truly engaged.  Leaning in, asking questions, participating, excited, lost in the dialogue and the give and take of the moments.  It’s always pretty clear.  There’s a sense of purposefulness to what is happening.  The art of teaching is truly evident when a teacher orchestrates those moments of full engagement.  It’s really special to see, and more importantly, to feel.  Engagement is felt.  To the contrary, boredom and non-engagement can also be felt.  And it’s deadly. I’m lucky.  I have many opportunities to visit classrooms.  Students at LCS are most often engaged. Sometimes the engagement is about compliance but many times it’s engagement with enthusiasm, with a sense of purpose and excitement.  This is high level and with strong meaning.  I was watching Grade 11 student presentations the other day in a Global Politics class.  They were so knowledgeable, articulate, and confident in their presentations.  I was impressed, and the audience of students were equally impressed.  It was purposeful and challenging.  

But what is the link between engagement and learning?  There is some ambiguity around engagement.  Students can look completely engaged but is the task really worthy of the intense engagement? Are students merely complying?  Continue reading

Transition in International Schools

This is a note relevant for the “Leavers”, “Stayers”, and “Newbies”.  You know who you are in an international school.

Transience in international schools is part of the landscape.   The end of another school year is approaching.    Almost all international educators and membes of an international community will be transitioning in the coming months.  Whether you are leaving or staying, you are transitioning.   Transition is something to think carefully about. Inevitably transition comes with a specific collection of emotions, actions, and characteristic behaviors.  It’s natural to “pull back” if you are leaving.  It’s also natural to “pull back” if you are a Stayer, surrounded by Leavers.  Sometimes this is simply to protect oneself from the discomfort that comes with being left behind.

The transition from being a “newbie” in a school community to being a ‘veteran” after one year, while preparing to support the transition of next year’s newbies is also a pattern to consider.  Transition may become more complicated when you are a veteran of the school, or a host country teacher who has been part of a specific school for many years and will now see another “flock” of newbies arrive, two years after the last newbies arrived and two months after they have left!  People come and go.   It’s the nature of an international school.

I urge people to remain as present as possible.  How do you want to “show up” at work amongst peers in the final weeks? My hope is that members of the community remain as connected as possible as the year draws to a close.  Students and families deserve the best, and most focused, attention and all educators deserve the best from one another each and every day.   Pay close attention to your actions, your thoughts, and your feelings over the coming weeks.   All need to manage personal responses to the multiple transitions.

The fact is that it takes an entire faculty to build and sustain programs for students in schools.  Commitment and dedication to students and learning must be kept in the forefront.

 

Leading Adult Learning – 6 Reflections!

There have been many days as an educator when I’ve lamented the culture of compliance we foster in schools.  Yes, we aspire towards a culture of curiosity and creativity but, in reality, we also perpetuate a culture of

imagescompliance with our learners.   Is it inevitable?  If there is an inevitability about such a culture with students, is the same to be said for teachers as learners?  Do we build a system in which the default for adult learners is compliance?  If we want kids to become enquirers and creative problem solvers, and independent learners, shouldn’t the same be true for teachers?  In reality if teachers aren’t learning, then students aren’t learning.

Ken Robinson says that “curiosity is the engine of achievement”.  Therefore, if we foster curiosity, motivation, and independent thinking, achievement will follow.  This is true for students and adults.

How do we get the best learning out of the adults in our schools?

A few ideas to remember as a leader and facilitator of adult learning in schools include:

  1. Serve as a role model for learning.  Demonstrating enthusiasm and role modeling as a learner is critical.  Sharing articles, insights, and generating excitement around learning is contagious.  Passionate and committed learners become learning leaders and role models for others!
  2. Accept that the continuum for adult learning is variable. Adults, as kids, are in various stages of development.  Adults early in their professional lives may bring different skills and approaches to learning as opposed to a highly experienced professional.  Differentiating opportunities and accepting the wide range of differences is important.  Avoiding judgments is vital.  We all learn at different rates and with different comfort levels.
  3. Recognize that some days (weeks, months) are better than others for learning.  Teaching is stressful and some parts of a school year are better than others.  The stress of responsibilities for grading, report writing, parent conference preparation, unit planning, holiday concerts, etc.  There are certain dead zones when focused adult learning just isn’t really possible! But, there are other Continue reading

A Faculty and A Garden!

My faculty is a vegetable patch.  A garden patch of plants with an array of personalities and skills with different needs, styles, strengths, offerings, and flavors that always need tending.  My faculty, my vegetable patch, always needs tending.  It’s hard work – you reap what you sow.    I’ve gardened in my past life as a teacher in rural Vermont – preparing, planting, tending, and harvesting.  It’s hard work. You reap what you sow is a truism for gardening and “principaling”.

Preparing garden beds in the Spring was always a challenge.  I remember breaking out the roto-tiller and turning over the soil.  If you started too early, the soil was too wet and muddy.  The tiller would inevitably get stuck in the wettest corner of the garden.  Gathering pick-up loads of manure to mix in the soil was always essential.   Once the soil was prepared and beds for planting were made, it was time to plant and watch the personalities take shape!

As with any faculty I’ve got a slew of personalities and faculty with wide ranging experiences, background, styles and needs.   They mimic the classic vegetables in my Vermont gardens.

Tomatoes off the vine were always a huge treat.  But, they were a little trickier to grow.  They easily suffered early damage from frost if not protected.  They needed careful tending in the early days.   Late frosts in early June could damage tomato plants so one needed to cover them up at night with buckets.  Some faculty need a bit of protection early in their years but, with the right conditions, can produce succulent tomatoes by mid-July. Continue reading

Maintain Focus on Instruction!

I believe that focusing attention on  high leverage instructional practices impacts learning, adult

LCS Faculty dialogue - Instructional Principles for English Language Learners

LCS Faculty dialogue – Instructional Principles for English Language Learners

learning and student learning.  That is my intent and this is influencing recent topics at faculty professional learning meetings.

What are those instructional practices that we are exploring?

Earlier this year, I asked  faculty to set two professional goals related to the following areas. These areas were identified as potential high leverage practices related to research from John Hattie.

 

 

Identifying Learning GoalsSetting clear learning expectations

Appropriate level of challenge for students

Clear success criteria (exemplars, rubrics, etc)

Feedback processes 

Clear exemplars

Clear and specific feedback

Use of formative assessment

 

Questioning techniquesTeacher talk & Thinking time

High level questioning and discourse within classroom

Classroom positioning and classroom discourse

 

Simply put, if teachers do these things well, students learning will improve!

 

Great teaching is hard. It requires intense thought, planning, and instinct. We are trying to maintain a focus in the Secondary School on several specific areas that, if done well, are definite elements of great teaching!

  • Clear learning goals & targets.
  • Clear language goals & targets (“all teachers are teachers of language”)
  • Goals & targets for students that are appropriately challenging.
  • Scaffolded instruction to support students in meeting targets
  • Differentiated opportunities to support students (“differentiation is a mindset”)
  • Formative assessment that provides clear and specific feedback
  • Minimizing teacher talk and maximizing classroom discourse

If we work hard to become even better at our craft and expand our understanding, knowledge, and skills in these areas, we will be better teachers and student learning improves.  This is my belief.

I think finding and maintaining a focus around instructional strategies and best practices is incredibly challenging.  If teachers can really try to find those few areas to focus upon, latch onto, dig into their professional learning, and experiment with then adult learning will take place.  If adults learn and expand professionally, student learning expands.

“Learning for All” Includes Parents!

Everyone in a school community is learning.  That’s the bottom line.  Clearly students are learning (we hope!) and, in my schools where I am determined to lead, teachers are learners.  If they aren’t learning, they aren’t on the essential path of continuous improvement.   As well, and equally important, parents should be learning.  Parents should be engaged as learners and much of this ongoing learning can, and should, be focused upon their children.  The art and science of parenting is often described as the most difficult job one will ever love.  For non-parents, it might be hard to get one’s head around that last sentence!

So, if parents need to be learners where do they learn about their kids and parenting?  I do remember when my kids were young (they’re now in their 20’s) and our bedside tables were loaded with parenting books.  They were of some use, some of the time.  For me, the best learning came from conversations.  Conversations with my wife, conversations with friends with kids, and conversations among other adults who concurrently shared the challenge of parenting. It didn’t matter if we were good friends or shared similar values, expectations, or approaches to parenting.  What mattered in those conversations was that we shared the love of parenting. You learn alot from listening to others talk about the challenges they face as parents.  In my experience as a school Principal, just about all parents care deeply about what lies ahead for their kids and how best to respond as parents.  Many are open and eager to engage in conversations to explore ideas and hear about the approaches from others.

I have facilitated numerous parent discussions in workshops and evening presentations over the past 15 years.  I believe schools have an obligation to support parents in their learning.  Promoting evening workshops facilitated by administrators, teachers or counselors is always appreciated and always provides strong support for parent learning.  Moreover, it builds bridges between the school and the parent community. It is important!

Last week, our counselors facilitated another such evening (I contributed to a degree).  Below is a .pdf of the presentation. It’s worth reviewing.

ParentingTeens-LCSNov2013 pdf

As well, I believe in trying to provide solid resources to parents.  There is so much online for parents to review.  Here’s an absolutely terrific site for parents.  So much is addressed within this site and this organization.  It is rich with potential.   Here’s the Common Sense link:

http://www.commonsensemedia.org/advice-for-parents

This web site is a truly excellent site!  As well, check out the links on my blog for parents and students. There are many resources that I have tried to identify for parents and students.

Finally, another site that I found through my twitter feed in recent days is this:

http://dreamweavelearn.wordpress.com/2013/11/10/the-question-of-when/

This has little to do with direct parenting, but it is a really interesting site, very provocative!  I’ve been passing it along to teachers and colleagues in recent days.

Stay connected and continue to communicate with your friends, your school, and, most importantly, your children.  Communication, honesty, trust, integrity are the essential ingredients. Ensuring there is a communicative relationship is the most important advice and the most essential skill in the tough job description of parenting!

Finally, yet another link to a brilliant article that every parent should read is this one:

Passion of Parenting 

If you take anything from this blog post as a parent, take this article!

What do you do to grow your knowledge and understanding of parenting? Who are your resources?  If you are an administrator, are you connecting and supporting parents in their challenging roles? If you are a parent, with whom are you exploring ideas and approaches?  How are you learning and making those connections?

Motivation, Self Directed Learning & Resilience

In two weeks our Grade 12 students will participate in a special workshop led by Mr Lance King (www.taolearn.com).  The title of the workshop is Building Exam Confidence. Mr King is known for his provocative thinking around teaching and learning.  He focuses an audience on supporting students in becoming lifelong learners who regulate their own learning and learn independently. In a workshop for teachers last year, he challenged educators to clarify the “real purpose, the overall aim of school”.   Is it about getting into a good college? Is it about finding a good job? Is it about producing life long learners?  How do we help students become intrinsically motivated for learning?  What’s the role of teachers in supporting students in becoming independent, self directed learners?

In his faculty presentation he highlighted three important areas for students to really develop.  These were self belief (also known as self-efficacy), strategies for learning how to learn (learning how to reflect on strengths and chart an individual learning path), and learning how to “fail well” (learning to be resilient and reflective).

How do you develop the self-belief that you are capable of achieving success?  For some it’s about seeing role models around them, someone who helps establish aspirations.  Supporting the development of self-confidence and self-worth in students is an essential part of the work of a parent and a teacher.

As an individual, how do you respond to learning challenges?  How do you learn best?  How do you respond to the challenge of learning something new?  How do you react to challenges?

  • What is the hardest thing you have ever done?
  • What is your strategy to do something hard?
  • How did you get yourself to do that hard thing?
  • Can you analyze your strategy and break it down?

Thinking about how you learn best is part of becoming an independent learner.

How motivated to learn are you? How do you respond when you aren’t successful?  Do you want to overcome obstacles? How resilient are you?  Do you  FAIL WELL when you don’t achieve the goal you set for yourself?  In his research, he found students who “fail well”:

  1. acknowledged they had some failure,
  2. looked back at their failure,
  3. analyzed results,
  4. analyzed strategy,
  5. put in place a new strategy and had another go.

They did not blame the school, or the system, or others.  They moved forward without getting caught up in the drama of failure.

In his upcoming workshop for students, the focus will be upon developing confidence, specific strategies for learning, and resilience in the face of challenges to cope with the academic workload and demands of the IB.  Challenging yourself and overcoming obstacles in your learning journey is important.  Schools must create safe places in order to allow students to accept challenge, fail with challenge, and recover to learn from setbacks.  Very few people find success in life without feeling “knocked back” at some point or other.

The timing of challenges for Grade 12 students is ripe for a focused workshop experience that will give students an opportunity to reflect and consider what lies ahead in the very near future!  The first semester of Grade 12 is a notorious time during which layers of challenge are placed upon already weighted shoulders.  How you respond and manage provides multiple opportunities for learning.