‘Real’ Critical Thinking

I recently participated in a workshop for those of us presenting staff development to our peers during our fall workshop this August. The session I am presenting is about fostering critical thinking skills in the classroom. It fits with the modern education trend toward “higher level thinking” and being able to explain, communicate, and justify your thoughts. In math class this means understanding the meaning behind all of the algorithms, theorems, or formulas we are teaching. It means allowing students to struggle (with guidance) rather than spoon feeding answers.

As I sat in the workshop we were asked to take a self-assessment that was supposed to measure our inclination toward critical thinking. It was a set of questions to reflect on how we tend to approach problems or information that is at odds with what we already believe to be true. After we took the reflection they asked how we could incorporate something like this into our fall workshop sessions, our building, or our classroom with students. The very first person that stood to talk said something like, these questions are pretty abstract so I think we could incorporate this if we simplified it a little and gave the students clearer, more specific directions. The second person stood and echoed the same thought. The facilitators of the session said…”great ideas!”

ARE YOU KIDDING ME? We just spent a half hour talking about getting kids to think more abstractly and deeper about questions and the first response is to simplify the questionnaire for the students. And what’s even worse is that no one in the workshop challenged this idea (including me). No one had the guts to say, if you’re going to do the exercise then give them the benefit of the doubt but don’t dumb it down, because that contradicts the whole idea.

Later in the workshop we were given time to plan with other presenters of the same subject area and modify with our own examples and anecdotes. We were told to add our own activities and power point slides (yes we are giving a critical thinking presentation with power point slides and yes I understand this contradiction and irony. The frustration is unbearable). The afternoon was spent finding interesting problems that we can give to our participants and then we would model how to facilitate critical thinking in the classroom as if they were our students. The problem with modeling critical thinking conversation with a bunch of math teachers using math problems…it’s easy. Math teachers love interesting math questions and will spend the entire session completely engaged. Oh, and they won’t learn anything about engaging students in algebra 1.

I have not solved this quandary yet. In fact, this post has sat in my ‘drafts’ for weeks while I though about this presentation. I have one more month to work with a colleague and figure it out and I plan on posting about the experience right after. Say tuned the week of August 3.



Technology Literacy

Is technology literacy  and institutional responsibility or an individual responsibility?

Schools are moving to a more digital landscape, some quicker than others. One-to-one initiatives are slowly becoming the norm in many districts across the country. Some prefer the tablets and provide students with iPads while others are purchasing Chromebooks. Other districts are taking the cost efficient but risky strategy of “bring your own device.” There are so many factors and variable involved in the move to toward 21st century skills and digital literacy that it can be difficult to keep up. As a member of our district’s strategic planning team, I co-chaired a committee charged with writing our strategies and plan concerning digital learning. Because many aspects were out of our committee’s control (e.g. purchasing devices, approving new tech, etc.), we focused on how to better utilize the tools and devices that were already available or soon to be available. We wanted our teachers and staff to be able to maximize our resources to improve classroom instruction.

There was one question that kept eating at me throughout the process. Every time we discussed any of the new technology or trends that were out there in education today we heard the same response. “I (we) would love to use that, but we’ve never been trained.” There is also the common response, “I (we) do not have time to learn all of this new tech stuff.” I had to ask myself, who is responsible for making sure teachers can use many of the tools that are currently available?

Staff Development?

One idea that kept creeping into the discussion was to include training for all of these new tools in our yearly staff development plan. Oh wait…we also have to include college and career readiness training, best teaching practices, Gallup Strengths, classroom management training, and on and on. There are only so many staff development hours set aside throughout the year and technology receives a small piece of that. Besides, there is simply too many options out there for teachers to possible provide training on everything.

Optional Training?

Another idea was to provide staff with optional training sessions held during off-contract or planning times throughout the year. This is a great idea for those who are highly motivated and have the free time available. The problem is providing trainers for these sessions during a time when budgets are shrinking.

The Solution

When I say this is the solution it by no means implies that we took this approach or that I have seen it work in practice. This is my own personal vision for how technology can grow and develop with a school system. If we decide that digital learning is important to our mission then it must become an expectation that much of the technology is self-taught by teachers and peers. This is an organic solution that starts with developing a culture centered around a clear vision for a forward-thinking digital climate. It must be expected that we aren’t going to waste staff development hours teaching a group of teachers how to open and respond to an email. We can’t plan staff development around the least common denominators that do not devote time to improving their craft in a way that includes technology. Administrators…hold your people accountable for identifying needs, researching solutions, and solving problems without the need for endless, structured staff development sessions aimed at improving the skills of those stuck in the 20th century. We must ask ourselves, how do our students know so much about this technology? Why do some teachers need very little formal training while others take months or years to catch up? The technology is out there and much of it is free to use, experiment with, and learn. Let’s stop wasting time and resources on those who refuse to take advantage of that fact.


Five Things Killing Your Staff Development

I’ve had the privilege of working for a school district that places a high value on staff development and staff training. Many resources and a lot of time is spent on research, training, and implementation of professional development initiatives. Overall, we have a wide range of learning opportunities for teachers and staff from the optional evening book study to the required, day-long sessions prior to the school year that we lovingly call “fall workshop.” I have also been fortunate enough to be presenter in many of these development sessions over the past five years. I have presented on everything from classroom management to best teaching practices that target literacy in math to google and technology training. I try to make every session unique and recognize that my audience is comprised of professional adults. I’ll get into individual sessions in a later post. However, through all of my experience I cannot get over the fact that something is missing from the K-12 development experience in most schools. Here are the top five things that have bothered me about professional development.

1. Timing

As a teacher, think about the time of year when you have the most time to reflect on your practices and change or tweak things about your teaching, curriculum, or materials. My guess is that you’re thinking about summer vacation or possibly spring break. Maybe there are other breaks throughout the year between semesters. Basically any time other than when classes are currently in session. Our time is taken by planning specific lessons, creating materials, IEP meetings, or grading and paperwork. Who has time to implement big, new ideas or learn about new technology when there is a class arriving in 8 minutes.

Now think about when staff development is scheduled. For our district it is the week prior to the start of fall semester, one day during the three-day fall break, and MLK day. Fall workshop falls after I just had two months worth of time to prepare to implement the ideas presented there. Fall break and MLK day staff development occurs as I am preparing to finalize my grading and feedback for the term and am in the middle of teaching a class that has already-established routines and structures. Administrators should reexamine the scheduling of professional development (especially when technology or new ideas are being introduced) to occur prior to extended breaks with time built in for implementation.

2. The Sessions are Too Long

This should be self explanatory. Most of the information from a staff development session can be shared in half the time that is actually used. It is not uncommon to attend 3 hour sessions in our district. We all know what the research tells us about the attention span and retention over that period of time.

A better use of this time would be a quicker informational session, some Q & A, and the time given to teachers for implementation or development of their own. I have always been intrigued by the new trend of hackathons used mainly by technology firms like Google and Facebook. Employees can choose their own topic and spend time learning and developing in that area. It may look different for teachers but the innovation and productivity would be much higher than a 3 hour lecture about how to teach vocabulary.

3. Developed for the Least Common Denominator

This is a trend that I am seeing more recently and tend to happen with technology training. Any innovative or forward-thinking educator will tell you, when it comes to technology the best way to learn is by doing and experimenting. But when we plan staff development for a new piece of tech we pack as many teacher into and auditorium as we can and go step-by-step. These steps turn into: “this is how you log on,” “this is which browser you use,” and stopping every 10 minutes to help those that cannot keep up or do not have even the most basic tech skills. The worst part…THIS IS REQUIRED!

It is abundantly clear that basic tech training can be and should be optional with more advanced sessions being offered at different times with tech-savvy teachers sharing ideas and hacks that they have learned by playing and experimenting in and out of the classroom. You cannot approach 21st century skills with traditional staff development techniques.

4. No Support or Follow-up

This is a scenario in which many teacher find themselves. They spend three hours or more different sessions over a staff development day (or multiple days). They go back to their classroom or building and begin looking over their materials. If it was technology training they log on and begin experimenting. Whoops…something went wrong. They didn’t think about this scenario in their classroom and are unsure how to approach it. They have an idea and aren’t sure if it is possible or how it fits with the new idea.

The session was taught by a fellow teacher that has no experience beyond what they shared during the session or perhaps someone from another department or building. They have their own classes to prepare and cannot offer the follow-up training or support for these types of problems. If there is not a system to support the staff development after the session then the likelihood of success is very low.

5. Adults are Taught like Students

Believe it or not, adult learning differently than high school students. Adult should have different expectations than high school students. Adults should be held to a different standard. First, they are self-directed learners. An overview of information and available support is often all that is necessary. The rest is up to the adult to explore the topic and learn what they feel is relevant to their situation. This is their career. They are paid to expand and strengthen their expertise. External motivation and strict oversight is not required and may undermine the process if they do not feel like they are being treated as professionals. Second, they depend highly on the relevance factor of the information. Young learners are in school to explore many different topics and grow their requisite knowledge base to be prepare for many careers. Adults require a more focused approach with information that can be used now.

If staff development is schools is taught like an extension of the high school classroom, you are devaluing your professional employees and they will become disengaged. Some of these five items are still present in the district in which I currently preform and participate in staff development while others are slowly getting better. A school can have the best information presented by the brightest employees but it must be done in a way that makes sense to the timeline and expertise of the staff as a whole.

– Lance