A Conversation with Will Richardson

@MrBrettClark 6 Comments

A couple of weeks ago I had the honor of sitting down and having a conversation with Will Richardson via Skype.  Will was gracious enough to allow me to interview him for this blog post.  Now, as a disclaimer, I was a math major in college, I taught math for nine years before becoming an eLearning coach, and have no idea how to conduct a real interview.

I sought out Will for a number of reasons.  I first heard Will speak at Solution Tree's Author Speak in Indianapolis.  I have since followed him on twitter, and read his blog post on a regular basis.  Will is also going to be a keynote speaker at my district's regional eLearning conference in July. He recently wrote a blog post about "Bold" schools and it was this post that inspired me to reach out to him to find out more about how we can move from "Old" schools to "Bold" schools.

For the sake of this post, all the questions will be in bold, W = Will's answers, B = my thoughts/responses to Will's responses.

With all of the issues facing education (i.e. testing, poverty, digital divide, budgets), where do we start when transitioning from an "old" school to a "bold" school?

Will:I'm coming to the conclusion more than anything else that the starting point has to be two fold.

1: Bringing everyone to the point where they have a pretty clear understanding of the context of what's happening right now and by everyone I mean everyone from the students, parents, teachers admins to the cafeteria workers and custodians. What I find still after speaking for 7 years IS that I go to a lot of places and people look at me like I have three heads when I say, "hey, things are really changing from a learning and education stand point" because they don't realize it.  They don't see it. They don't get the big picture sense of the challenges that are presenting themselves to schools right now. There is no question that schools are in for a huge challenge over the next 20 years.

If the values we have in schools continues to be the way we have currently defined, which is passing some state test, and getting to all those common standards, then I really think that technology will be able to do that better than teachers at the end of the day. If it's about passing algebra or passing some content based science test then there's going to be technology that is going to be able to personalize it for students that cater to their strengths and remediate their weaknesses in a way a teacher can't because he or she has 30+ kids in their classroom.

This is the big challenge that not too many people have come to grips with yet.  There are a lot of people in this country that want to do that.  They want to define education the way it's always been defined and then use technology to deliver it in a much more personalized way.

So we need to redefine our values.  I know that our value is not in content any longer and we spend a lot of time on content. We have to have conversations with people in our communities to make sure that we are clear what the real value of school is right now. What I think the real value of school is right now is not about content knowledge but about helping kids to become learners, helping kids to change the world, making school authentic and real world.  Where what we ask the kids to has meaning and importance.  Getting kids ready for the real world.  Spending our time developing disposition and literacies in kids that will allow kids to flourish in a world where they can learn anything they want, whenever they want.  That's the big difference, they don't need to come to us to learn this stuff anymore.  What they need to come to us is to learn how to learn it.  We're not spending enough time on that because we're still mired in this content knowledge, delivering the curriculum model.  Which was understandable in a time where teachers and knowledge was scarce but that's not the case anymore.

Brett: I found myself on that day, and still today agreeing with so much of what Will and I talked about.  If we allow the direction of education to continue to be centered around testing and success be defined by how our students do on a test, then one day we will be replaced by technology.  If all we are doing are giving our kids "hoop jumping" skills, then we are doing our students a huge diservice.  Think about when you learned how to learn.  When did that occur?

Our students don't need somebody that can just feed them information, their phone can do that, Khan Academy can do that. What our students need are teachers who can help them learn how to learn, how to find their niche in this world, and how make a difference.  I like to think of teachers as the chief learners and also as a talent scout.

I understand why so many teachers teach to the test, because that's how we are evaluated.  I also understand the fear many of us face when we start to move away from that style of teaching.  Which lead me to my next question.

In the age of accountability that we live in, how do you help teachers combate the fear of moving away from teaching to the test?

W: Our challenge as individuals right now is that we live in this transition moment where we're going to be required to do two things at the same time.  One thing is we are going to have to make sure kids can pass the test and meet all those traditional objectives because everyone is asking us to do that and can't not do that.  We can't just walk into school tomorrow and say that we're not worrying about the test because we don't think it's a real indicator of who you are as a learner and all of those arguments we have against the test. In the end, we still have to help kids pass the test because that's the current expectation.  The other thing we have to do is we have to do the thing you and I are talking about even though nobody is asking us to do it.  There's no test for "are you a learner?" "are you self directed?". There's not test for these other things, yet those are the skills that are more important than most of the stuff that we are delivering in a content sense in the curriculum.  I may be way out there on this but I really think that 75% of all the things we ask every kid to do in schools is ridiculous.  That's not to say that some kids in schools need or want every part of the curriculum but the idea that every child needs ever part of the curriculum is ridiculous.  What every child needs is the disposition to learn, to be patient problem solvers, to understand and embrace failure.

What I say to teachers is A) welcome to it, sorry, but you're in this moment of big change. There's not much anyone can do about it.  In the end, you have a choice, you can stick in it and help your kids navigate through it or you can go do something else. That is a choice you have. B) If you really want to understand this stuff, and get to the point where you understand passing the test and learning how to learn are not mutually exclusive.  Then what you have to do is you have to put the work in for yourself.  You have to take the time to develop this disposition in yourself that you can learn whatever you want, whenever you want, with whomever you want around the world.  Then to really understand that on a practical level so you can bring that into a classroom in a way that accomplishes both goals of passing the test and learning how to learn. Is that hard to do?  Yeah, it's really hard to do. I'm at the point now where I don't think we have a choice. I don't think there is an option.

B:  To me, this is exactly where we are at.  Unfortunately, we are caught in a time of transition.  I honestly think, that in 10 to 15 years from now we will have moved away from being test-centered.  However, we are in the middle of this great change and we have the amazing opportunity to leverage technology in a way that helps students pass a test, and still provide a place where kids can learn how to learn, become patient problem solvers, and understand and embrace failure.

You mentioned earlier that the place to start is two fold.  The first is starting conversations with everyone in the community about where we are at in education, what is the second?

W: To change your personal practice around learning.  Each of us as individual learners need to fully understand what learning looks like in these context in order to become more effective teachers, if that's the right word.  Even though we're teachers and that comes with a lot of baggage that I'm sure is good thing right now.  Because being a teacher implies I have something to teach you. In most people's brain that plays out that I have some content knowledge or expertise to teach you.  Where I think we (teachers) need to be learners first and be the learning experts in our communities.

B:  This point speaks to the idea that I've always believed; if you want to see great change, you must first start with yourself.  If we are going to change the way education is perceived, and believe me, we will, then we must first start by changing ourselves.  We must change the way we learn and we must change our role in the classroom. No longer are teachers the keepers of knowledge but we are all learners.  There are ways to make sure our students pass the test and still provide authentic learning environments for our students.  It is certainly not easy but there are schools that are doing this. Which lead me to my final question for Will.

What is the most successful school you've seen and why have they been successful?

W: For me it's a pretty easy question, it's Science Leadership Academy in Philly with Chris Lehmann. He's just doing amazing stuff.  All the 9 things I listed as being "bold" are all things Chris is doing.  He's created a model for what schools need to look like.  The key word there is "created".  He hasn't moved the school to the model.  He built the school in the model.  So, the question is, how do schools that are already established get there?  That's what I'm trying to find out.

If you're looking for a school that was built to be a "bold" school, then it's Science Leadership Academy in Philly, no question. They're a 1:1 school, they are problem based, inquiry based, they throw huge questions at their kids, they don't deliver much of an education at all, kids are creating their own curriculum, and teachers are there to facilitate and lend their expertise.   They do that subtle dance to take that learning environment and still make sure they pass the Pennsylvania state test but also walk away with this global network learning context.  The real strength of the school is that the adults are all learners.

B: This is exactly the kind of person I want to be and the kind of school I want for my own kids.  I think the school I send my kids to is getting there.  They aren't there yet, but they are getting closer every year. I invited will out to visit their school and I hope he gets to come.

I think the key to all of this, as Will pointed out, is getting everyone on board.  Throughout the conversation and after reflecting on it over the past two weeks, I wonder if it's just easier to start a new school with people who already think this way as opposed to trying to turn a school around.  I am with Will on this journey to find out how we can take established, traditional schools, and turn them into schools that better serve our kids.

I was honored to interview such a great educator.  I leave you with one more quote from Will as we wrapped up our conversation.

W:  We (teachers) really have to learn how to take ourselves out of this process as much as we can and be the guides, the learning experts, the inquiry experts, the ones who know how to ask great questions and keep motivating kids, but are not delivering much of anything at all.


My Views on Creating a Student-Centered Classroom

@MrBrettClark 4 Comments

Recently I worked with a team of coaches (@twilhelmus, @lawilhelmus, @MrBrianBobbitt, @juliesteve4, @TechECoach, @mrg_3, and @stacymath7) and put on a days worth of professional development on creating the student-centered classroom.  I was honored to kick off the day with a short talk about creating the student-centered classroom.  Here it is: It's about 10 minutes long.  Go ahead and watch it, I'll wait.

10 minutes later...

Thanks for watching it and I hope you enjoyed it. You can find my Jux presentation here. There are a couple of things I'd like to expand on if you don't mind. Even if you didn't watch the video, these will still make sense to you...I hope.

I can not tell you how to create a student-centered classroom...but please don't stop reading.

This is crucial to me because I have found that most people want somebody to give them the answers.  The reason why our students suffer from can-you-please-just-give-us-the-answer-itis, is because they are human.  It's the same reason adults suffer from the same problem.  I hate being told by the doctor, "Try taking this and if there is still a problem in a couple of weeks, come back and see me." Wait! You mean this might not fix me!  We like certainty and comfort.  So lets not get upset when our students ask us to just give them the answers because we tend to do the same thing.

However, back to my point, creating a student-centered classroom is a lot like parenting.  There are a lot of right ways to do it and a lot of wrong ways to do it.  The one thing is, there isn't just one way to do it.  So, you have to just look at what other people are doing and see what applies to your students. 

However, this would be a useless blog if I didn't at least give you, what I think, are a couple of great places to start.

A great place to start is by asking yourself this question, How long can I talk about my students without bringing up appearance, test scores, or academic ability?  The longer you can talk about your students without bringing these things up is a great test of how well you know your students.  Now yes, those things I mentioned are part of who our students are, but are they the most important things? To me, creating a student-centered classroom is about relationship and not just about creating assignments around students' interest.  The quickest way to lose a classroom is to reduce our students down to a number.  The kids we are entrusted with are people with hopes, dreams, fears, and doubt.  They want to know that you are just as interested in them becoming the best than can be as a person as much as you are interested in if they pass your class or not.

Three things that tell me if a classroom isn't student-centered. 1) The majority of the lessons are exactly the same as they were last year.  2) The teachers only idea of being student-centered is having a story problem with a basketball in it because one of his or her students is on the team. 3) The students have no choice or voice.

Creating a student-centered classroom requires the teacher to relinquish control.  

Noooooo!  If I relinquish control I'll have anarchy in my classroom! They'll never do anything!  It'll be a free-for-all!  Ok, I'll put away my mocking voice, and move on.  Yes, I know this is hard.  It's hard for teachers people to relinquish control and it's hard for students people to take control.  Again, for the most part, we are happy to let people tell us what to do.  Some of the best behaved classrooms are full of teachers who are great at setting clear expectations and students who more than happy to "play school".

My friend Tim Wilhelmus is great at talking about giving students choice and voice.  This is where the work is to be done.  What can we do to give the students choice and voice in their own learning? To me this depends on the students and the teacher.  Again, there is not one way to create this.  Choice can be given to students by allowing them to pick how they learn the material and what direction they go in their learning. Voice can be given by allowing students to pick how they are assessed and who they share their work with.

Make your classroom like a birthday party for your students.

If you took the time to watch the video above and have made it this far in this post, thank you. At the end of my talk I mentioned my nephew Gentry and how his birthday party screamed Gentry. Everything about it was centered around him.  In a few months his twin sisters will get the same treatment.  Every kid deserves his or her day! I have no doubt that my nephew isn't the only kid in this world that received a Star Wars Lego set for his birthday.  However, I doubt no two gifts were wrapped the exact same way.  Every 7th grader in Indiana might be taught how to "write and solve two-step linear equations" but that doesn't mean that knowledge has to be wrapped the same way.  

Every thing we do should speak to our students that we are honoring them as individuals.  

I wish I had more for you.  I wish I could tell you exactly what to do to make your classes student-centered.  I really did because I have struggled with the same thing.  You won't succeed every time, but you will fail if you never try.  It won't be easy.  You'll fight to give up control and the students who love to "play school" will fight you about being asked to take control.  However, in the end, the fight will be worth it because you'll be able to go home and rest knowing you did what was best for your students and they will leave your classes with a greater grip on what it means to be a life-long learner.

So, help me out here in the comment section.  What have you done this year to make your classroom student-centered? What are some ways you have given your students choice and voice? 

Also, for a great example of a student-centered classroom, check out Josh Stumpenhorst's Innovation Day. 


Why I Love My PLN

@mr_brett_clark 2 Comments

I love learning knew things and pushing myself to try something new.  This week I decided to dive into the world of creating photo prompts.  I was inspired by my friend John Spencer.  He has a fantastic tumblr of photo prompts that you can find here.  He also pointed me to Luke Neff who has an amazing page of photo prompts you can find here.

This is why I love my PLN.  It's people like John that push me to learn and to step out of my comfort zone.  This experience also allowed me to tap into my past because there was a time in my life when I thought I was going to be an English teacher.  I even job-shadowed a high school english teacher when I was in seventh grade.

A PLN is great for finding resources, words of encouragement, friendships, and it pushes you to be more. Google might be where I go when I need to find a fact, but when I need more than that, I turn to my PLN.

Speaking of Google, here is my first attempt at being an undercover math teacher.

If I ever go back to the classroom, I will certainly use photo prompts.  Thank you John for helping me improve as an educator!