Because our middle level learners are ready for more independence, age-appropriate challenges, and they crave mastery of skills, we need to teach them differently. Middle level learners need to spend less time memorizing content and more time developing skills. They need to imagine more, choose more, produce more so that they like school more. A skill-centered curriculum, using content as a vehicle for skill development, is the future of middle level education.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Why kids in the middle grades need a skill-centered curriculum

Our schools simply do not do enough to engender a gratifying sense of independence that empowers young people, and tipping the scales towards a more skill-centered curriculum can change that. A curriculum centered around skill-development stands to make young people attach to their academic setting much more vigorously. If on a daily basis, kids are mastering skills and applying them to produce results, they will find the academic aspect of school as engaging or fulfilling as the social, artistic, and athletic aspects typically are. 

Kids love to master skills, because skills allow them to do things own their own. Now, if you work with kids ages 11-15, you know well that little makes them feel better than independence, and skill mastery is a great source of independence. When kids can do things on their own, they feel good about themselves, they feel empowered. A happy and empowered kid is one who will learn effectively and feel attached to his or her environment.

The shortcoming of a content-centered curriculum, as most middle school core academic classes are, is that it bores kids and alienates them from the potential value of subjects they are studying. Kids in this age group are not very interested in information that is not applicable: they want to know things so that they can do things with the information. A skill-centered curriculum uses the content as a medium for teaching the skills. As a result, kids interaction with the information is positive: it always leads to skill utilization and independent production.

So if we limit our content delivery to what facilitates skill development, and then spend our teaching time helpings kid master and apply skills, we will have kids who love being at school.

Monday, July 1, 2013

littleBits Delivers an Important Skill

Last week at Launch Education and Kids, I saw a really high quality presentation about littleBits. This is a company that has already been well funded and is marketing itself fairly broadly. The founder, Ayah Bdeir, had her company be a sponsor of Launch Education and Kids, and she presented at the opening as an example of an educational technology product that has both a clear educational mission and is experiencing some real success.

littleBits is brilliant. If you have not yet seen this circuit building Lego style activity set- they call it an "open source library of electronic modules that snap together with magnets for prototyping, learning and fun"- you need to check it out. It's attractive, easy to use, and really fun to play around with. The company seeks to help young people understand how circuitry works in the electonics around us. They have a strong commitment to empowering young people with concrete, interactive experiences that will help demystify what is both omnipresent and taken for granted. As kids build the snap together circuits, with pieces that are color coded for function, they can create light, sound, and motion outputs. The tactile element is obviously a great appeal, but the skill delivered here is not necessarily related to that- unless you have a class full of budding electricians.

The value of littleBits for the middle level learner is one of empowerment through demystification. We know how much this age group needs to feel control of their surroundings and how much they crave autonomy; the psychological effect of grasping how everyday objects work is really positive for them.  When circuitry, thus technology, can be explained as something physical, when it can be visualized and controlled on the most basic level, the world of the middle-level learner becomes less controlled by outside forces, less scary. It becomes less the source of disenfranchisement, less the object of self-protecting detachment. Seeing their world this way is a skill they need to master- and it certainly is a skill that middle level learners love to practice.

So my conclusion is that, if you are looking for educational technology that will engage your students on the level of meaningful skill development, littleBits is a winner  And as the company moves forward with their plans for leveled and programmable units, the product will grow even more valuable.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Linkbots are good for kids!

Today at Launch Education and Kids, I saw a presentation about a new modular robot product called Linkbots. They stretch the definition of robot, as each module looks more like a truncated soda can with flanges and a flat spot. Each module is  programmable and connectable and has a built-in rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery. The product is not being developed for the direct consumer, rather for educational settings, so its non-traditional appearance should not have an effect on its appeal. It uses C++ for programming  (with Java script version coming soon) and is highly adaptable.

Linkbots passes the skills test because programming is integrated and trial and error is a big part of the construction process. Middle level learners will love this because of the ability to customize form and function. It's already being delivered to some school settings, and with an imminent second round of funding (their presentation to panel of potential investors was really well received), they should be able to get the price point down to something more accessible to schools.

Barobo gets kids and technology together in an intellectual, experimental, and tactile way. Linkbots is a hearty product that will survive hands-on time with kids and deliver meaningful skill development.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Heading for Launch

I have been thinking a lot lately about the role of technology in the classroom.  I am particularly interested in exploring how the educational technology industry is approaching skill development. Technology is great for accessing information and creating documentation of content mastery, not to mention the proiliferation of "personal learning management" applications, but I want to see if anyone is tuned in to the possible market for technology products that engender skill development.

To that end, I am heading out to Launch Education, a two day conference in Mountain View, to see what is new in the industry. A number of educational technology pioneers and entreprenuers will be presenting their latest products and websites. I look forward to talking to a number of established companies and start-ups to see what they have to offer students. I plan to review some of the products and assess the general state of the educational technology industry in these pages in the coming weeks.

I am afraid that skill development is getting marginalized by the twin specters of highstakes testing and sexy technologies. While Common Core is an improvement over NCLB, it still requires excess attention to content digestion at the expense of process practicing. And the amount of resources- both monetary and temporal- that can readily be devoted to technology management with middle level learners further cuts in to teacher directed skill development. I am no Luddite, but I want to see the power of technology harnessed for deep learning , and I believe this a time-consuming and labor intensive process. Many schools are prioritizing technology acquistion over teacher training becuase of a societal preference for form over function. Or at least such a preference by those schools' most influential stakeholders...

It is an exciting time in education; I see a lot of signs that we are moving into a new period of reconceptualization of the currency of the classroom. Its not a revolution, but an evolution towards more compassionate, student-centered instruction.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Prezi and Skill Development

If you want your students to be excited about planning and creating well-organized and effective summative assessments, all the while developing deep thinking and communication skills, teach them Prezi. This “power point on steroids” presentation platform does more for student skill development than anything I have ever seen. Everything a student produces with Prezi has the potential to be poetry, essay, and painting; the process of building a Prezi exercises all the organizing, writing, and symbol creation abilities we want our young thinkers to develop. When they construct their presentations in Prezi, you get to watch them show their knowledge, their creativity, their independence, and their command of metaphor with enthusiasm.

Prezi should be in every classroom because of the skill development it affords students. The organizational components are similar to those in essay or Powerpoint planning; every lesson a teacher has ever given in outlining is applicable to Prezi construction. So as students are planning the progression of content delivery in a Prezi, they are developing their argument construction skills.

But Prezi’s innovative value is at the next layer of organization: at the visual representational level. The use of color, proportion, spatial relationships, and narrowing and expanding frame of reference (Zooming!) all cultivate abstract thinking skills and reinforce the idea of the visual power of message delivery.  A teacher who wants to develop expository writing skills in students can work on the fundamentals of creative writing (metaphor) and rhetoric (persuasion) at the same time. As I have played with it, the metaphorical possibilities in message creation with Prezi reminds me of free verse poetry or abstract painting.

Helping students cultivate their ability to understand the effectiveness of message delivery on multiple levels fosters communication and expression skills we want in our kids. The kicker, however, is that these are skills that students love to exercise when they have technological and visual components. Because choice and detail are such important elements of student ownership of project, offering that in the midst of an exercise in organization is brilliant. PPT brought us a ways from the essay, but Prezi “Zooms” kids to a whole new level of engagement in their own skill development.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Superimposing the Ego: The Primacy of Thoughtful Non-Academic Programming for Middle Level Learners

Thoughtful, proactive construction of middle school culture is extremely important, and non-academic programming is integral to that culture building. Given the developmental state of children in the middle years, their obsession with their immediate culture cannot be neglected by any institution that aspires to impart academic learning to them.

Culture resolves itself in a middle school, one way or the other. Legions of distinctively self-absorbed 11-14 year-olds cumulatively result in a palpable culture as their impulsivity and brazen gratification of ascending ids has primacy.  Anyone who has spent time in a middle school- especially this time of year- knows well the power of this. While student-centered academics must be in place to help channel these energies in the classroom, good affective programming and realistic adult-student interaction systems (discipline) are the key to making students feel both empowered and secure throughout the school day. Those of us who have stuck around middle schools do so for that inspiring blend of bravery and vulnerability, sincerity and clumsy affectation that the halls and classrooms exude. The best of us know we cannot fully control its sum, rather we actively seek ways to manage it to positive results. We admit the students will create the culture, but we know we can direct it.

The default culture of this age group- when more than a few members of it are together- is not positive; there is entirely too much insecurity and jockeying for position to preclude the accumulation of cruelties that serves to undermine its members’ collaborative and benevolent impulses. Programming that exercises the competitive and independent impulses must be thoughtfully facilitated to ensure the validation of the (often recessive) more benign instincts that we know we want our children to actualize in adulthood. In most settings, organized physical activity has been the ready answer to the question of what to do with adolescent energy, but the facilitators of athletic activities rarely have the degree of pedagogical understanding and discipline to deliver deep learning of the affective skills young people need. Athletics is an effective outlet for energy, but it just one of the building blocks- not the foundation- for some positive and inclusive culture. 

The skills we want our students to develop so that they can grapple with their conflicting impulses must be extant in our non-academic programming. If we want students to be collaborative, we must provide them with meaningful projects that only groups can accomplish. If we want them to be creative, we must present them with challenges that they can solve on their own. If we want them to be good communicators, we must facilitate opportunities for them to speak their minds. If we want them to be critical thinkers, we must present them with problems they care about to parse. If we want students to be inclusive, we must create experiences that highlight the value of individuality and difference. And if we want students to develop character, we must model it in our interactions with them and regularly point out examples of it in their actions.

So we must commit time and energy to multiple types of non-academic programming so that our students are most capable of feeling good about themselves and sharing their benign instincts more regularly. The culture they experience in this time will be their guide to the adult world and the palate of the skills needed in it.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Role of the Administrator in the Teacher Centered School

As we continue our discussion of the “Teacher-Centered School,” we want to clarify a few of its tenets. Any school that values the student-centered classroom and attempts to deliver constructivist learning, deep skill-development, and the products that result from meaningful work, need acknowledge the amount of teacher preparation time required to do this well. It involves a substantially greater amount- and different type- of work than preparing the traditional classroom requires. Such a school should consider explicitly embracing the practices that would truly make it teacher centered. These include: talking about teachers as facilitators of skill-development, not as transmitters of content knowledge; acknowledging just how preparation-heavy the truly student-centered curriculum is; employing people who are committed to actualizing the power of collaboration and community-building and nurturing their abilities to do so; structuring abundant time into the school-year and school-day for program development and culture-building; limiting administrator pay to no more than 150% of average teacher salary; and believing that bright, empowered teachers working in a collaborative setting are the most qualified people to direct the evolution of curriculum that will deliver the skills our young people will need to be fulfilled and constructive members of the communities they will inherit.

If our schools are truly going to be devoted to skill development, we have to rethink the roles the teacher and administrators play. The delivery of the 21st century skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, and technological sophistication is the most meaningful thing that our middle and high school settings can do for our young people, but the institutional culture in education is not currently designed to facilitate this. If we are going to have the kind of student-centered classrooms that can deliver meaningful experiences around skill mastery, our teachers must be prepared and supported in a way they have not yet been. This requires a new vision of the administrators’ roles in our schools. They will be the key to developing the teachers who will thrive in the teacher-centered school.

The primary leader of the school could be considered the “Vision Communicator on Chief.” This person speaks passionately and clearly about the values of the institution to the stakeholders who are not employees. His  ability to convey the primacy of skill development and skill mastery to those audiences will legitimize the novel structure of the school. Clarifying then just how this skill development is facilitated at the school leads to an explanation of exactly how teachers prepare to teach in this model. He must then also be excellent at communicating the value-added to the community. Conceptually, none of this is a radical departure from the standard role to the Head of School in independent schools, but in substance and magnitude of importance it is. It is imperative that the stakeholders of the teacher-centered school fully comprehend, accept, and support this process, as it necessitates a different- read, more involved, more highly administrated, more expensive- commitment than most of them are familiar with.  This leader fully understands- and adores- the philosophy and pedagogy behind the teacher-centered school and devotes his time to ensuring that all stakeholders have the opportunity to do likewise.

This leader works closely with what could be considered the “Substance Securer in Chief,” whose job it is to nurture teachers to develop and deliver a curriculum that will get the students mastering the skills. The analogue in independent schools is the Academic Dean or the Assistant Head for Academics, in the public realm it’s the Curriculum and Instruction coordinator. In the teacher-centered school, this administrator is a master coordinator and support person who fully understands how the curriculum can get delivered, thus what the faculty members need before they step inside the classroom.  Most of her time is spent facilitating the teacher growth, program-development, and culture-building that will deliver the product that the other administrator is presenting to the stakeholders.

This administrator must be very strategic and always be looking at issues from the perspective of backwards design, because she will have to design student and faculty scheduling with the grand end-goals in mind. To execute the job most effectively, this administrator should have three great strengths: she understands skill acquisition in adolescents, what teachers need to feel professional and supported, and believes that her faculty members have the ability to help each other maximize the potential of their subjects.  This person creates transparent structures that reveal the path from ideal to product and works to tweak these paths for the personalities she is serving. She is a master orchestrator of the preparation and work flow of the teachers, and revels in the behind the scenes elan needed to produce the coherent product that the stakeholders value.

Our schools succeed when we programmatically honor the abilities and inclinations of all their members- students, faculty, and administrators alike. When we figure out how to best to do that, we will have thriving institutions that send our young people into the world validated, compassionate, and skilled. Administrators in teacher-centered schools are poised to deliver on this.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Student-Centered Classrooms Happen Best in Teacher-Centered Schools


In this time of abundant school redesign, many of us are thinking about the ideals of student experience and how those might be made manifest in our existing schools or those we could start from scratch. For those of us with a progressive bent, the tenets of the student-centered classroom are an anchor to this. While this has spatial design and student-teacher ratio ramifications, we need to also think about the redesign of the teacher experience.  If we want to have authentically student-centered classrooms, we need to reconceive our school cultures in relation to what the job of teacher means to those who are filling it.

Student-centered classrooms are predicated on the philosophy that skills are best developed and knowledge best obtained when students are designing and producing products that require they show mastery of content and skills. This is an active paradigm- contructivism- which prizes collaboration, problem-solving, creativity, and application. Educators who have begun to fully actualize this model’s potential report unparalleled student-buy in and skill development and the evolution of a classroom culture that genuinely celebrates collaboration and independent thinking. Imagine how energizing and gratifying teaching would be if the same were asked of the educators? What if our schools could take their fundamental organizing cue from the culture of student-centered classrooms and were reconceived to be “teacher-centered” schools?

Let’s use project-based learning as the analogue to help us imagine how the teacher-centered school would function. PBL has four central tenants: student-choice is important; products must have a practical application; considerable programming time is devoted to individual or small group working time; and there is a facilitating presence which is supportive and evaluative. If you have taught in this way, you know well its power for creating student-buy in, skill development, and ultimately, community. You also know just how difficult it is to effectively orchestrate. And, you know how profoundly gratifying it is to see students engaged in the process of envisioning, creating, refining, and presenting their products for your summative assessments.

In the teacher-centered school, the daily classroom “teaching” is the summative assessment; that is when the fruits of the individual or group labor are made public, thus useful. What happens leading up to that is what makes the teacher-centered school so radically different: it dramatically increases the amount of teacher working time devoted to program development- and has administrators who are devoted to active facilitation of teacher collaboration and program design. The teacher-centered school assumes that teachers will be better at their jobs if they are endeavoring to produce content in a way that honors their intelligence, their drive to succeed, and their creative powers.

And because the teacher-centered school sees deep teacher success as the key to its viability- that is, the key to its delivery of deep student learning- it prioritizes the structured time needed for those endeavors. It’s not an add-on- it’s an integral component. It becomes part of the working day and the school year, and teachers are paid accordingly. This means that teachers have their “planning periods,” but are also meeting collaboratively after school, and that pre- and post-planning times in the summer are substantially expanded. They are working more hours, thus they would get paid more.  What creative, energetic educator would not sign up for that?

Could this be a paradigm for our future schools? Its’ power, in part, is that it elevates teaching and it would draw more of the creative class into the field. Most importantly, however, is that it would be one of the lynch-pins in creating the type of curriculum which will truly deliver the skill development and life-long learning that progressive school reformers value. Think about it, if you could start from scratch, wouldn’t you want to build a teacher-centered school?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

What's in a Name? Labels are Driving the Middle School Curriculum

We need to continue to refine our understanding of what form of education best serves children ages 10-14. Exciting work is being done on this front, but the scale of our misunderstanding of the task is belied by the nomenclature we use to label the schools that serve the group. Until we move away from the term “middle school,” students ages 10-14 will continue to experience a curriculum which is not truly for them.

Middle school used to be called junior high school, but that name fell out of favor as new understanding of the age group’s developmental realities suggested that there was more to its members than being just smaller versions of high schoolers. This was certainly a positive step in the evolution of the education of this age group. I would suggest, however, that the qualifier “middle” continues to suggest a limiting paradigm about their nature. “Middle” denotes an existence relative to two end members, an thereby connotes relative insignificance. That paradigm reveals the purgatorial state of the default educational philosophy for this age group: its need only be transitional, a bridge from the concrete years of elementary school to the elevated thought processes of high school.  Thus, we need only gradationally reform those sheltered, concrete thinkers into the schedule tolerant, information processors they will spend the last 4 years of their pre-college education being. As long as middle school remains defined by its adjacents- and charged with the task of serving them- we will continue to mis-educate the age group and neglect its most valuable attributes. As long as transition defines the curriculum, the specialness of the age group will not be honored. It's time for the developmental realities of the age group to drive the middle school curriculum.

I would suggest a new fundamental pedagogical paradigm for educating the age group. The result would be a 4 year program of spiraling skill development which brought students to a pinnacle state at age 14 that allowed them to really soak up the new skills and content offered in the secondary setting. This paradigm acknowledges that information retention is not a primary strength of the age group, but that collaboration, creative expression, boundary pushing, and content production are. With a goal of launching them into the next stage with maximum curiosity, self-confidence, affinity for institutions, and attachment to community, the new curriculum would be entirely skill driven. Content would matter only because it was an effective medium for skill development. Assessment would be practical: it would show skills being practiced. Knowledge attainment would only be contructivist. Teachers would be facilitators of skill absorption and monitors of student progress on the spiral. The daily experience would be meaningful to the individual students’ developmental realities. The curriculum would be driven by where the children are right then, not some distinctly foreign things they are in between.

When we commit to meeting our 10-14 year-olds where they are and to offer them the opportunity to daily practice the skills they are naturally developing, we will cultivate a culture of learners who want to embrace the challenges of the world they are growing into. Refining the label we place on the schools for that age child will come hand-in-hand with refining the attitude we take towards their educational experience. If we give them something that feels right to them, we ought to name it something that honors them What a nice gift for them- and for all of us who will come in contact with them.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Why Teach Science (process) to Middle Schoolers?

If your school is still teaching middle schoolers to memorize the periodic table and the muscles in the body and calling that science, it may be underutilizing that aspect of the curriculum. The true lessons of science for the decision-makers of the mid-21st century- aka, our current middle schoolers- is its' process: the deductive reasoning skills, the twin powers of curiosity and collaboration, and the deliberate thinking skills that repeated exposure to use of scientific process imbues.

The idea that so few kids begin high school with an avid interest in the sciences is surprising, given the suite of skills practicing scientists use. Real science is driven by curiosity- something children have in spades- furthered by the bantering about of ideas and insights- and banter is something every middle school classroom is full of- realized by the creation and execution of experiments- and that is always hands on- and culminates with hard-earned discovery and revelation, two things the boundary-pushing, challenge-hungry middle school mind craves. If middle school science were more like real science, wouldn’t our students love it? Wouldn’t it feel most natural to them? Wouldn’t they love their time at school?

Most science at the elementary and middle levels is taught by people who have not been practicing scientists, thus their understanding of the potential of the subject is limited. As a result, the middle school science students taught by these people are exercising parts of their brain that prepare them for managing information. They are certainly not learning to be practicing scientists- nor to be perceptive, creative problem-solvers who approach the pursuit of answers both deliberately and enthusiastically in all aspects of their lives.

The scientific mind is the original human mind: that which tries new things out of the necessity of saving its family, thrives with those ideas' successes, and corrects with their failures (when they were survived!). Such a mind flexes its' strengths in pursuit of solutions, and greatly appreciates its' accomplishments because they improve its' life. 60,000 years ago, these compulsions successfully propelled humanity forth from the cradle of Africa onward to the myriad new environments in which the species has come to thrive. Necessity was the driver for sure, but the behavioral- read, intellectual- adaptations honed along the way, are the offspring. 

The young adolescents of today both bear those adaptations and mirror that perpetual state of evolution, albeit compressed into years 10-15.  They are restless with cravings for novelty, thrilled by success at their own hands, and perpetually purposeful. In the limited environment of an institution- which is metaphorical- the best analog for the experience of saving your family is doing experimental science.  Its process of coming up with the idea for solving a problem, trying out the idea, experiencing the results of that attempt, and deciding whether or not it was a good idea in the first place is what the evolving human has done all along- and it is exactly what the evolving adolescent will find most satisfying today. 

So why teach science to middle schoolers? Because it is their birthright, it exercises their most human instincts, it validates their compulsions. Can you imagine how attached to school your middle school students would be if every day they were doing what was instinctual and validating? Can you imagine how positive they would feel about the institution that facilitated that? Can you imagine how fun they would be to hang around?

And can you imagine how strong our society would be in the middle of the 21st century if the middle schoolers of today carried forth that sense of validation and that good will towards educational institutions? That’s why we need to teach science process to middle schoolers.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

What drives a middle school curriculum?

What drives a middle school curriculum?

Why does deep skill development not dictate the middle school curriculum? Why are we stuck trying to force middle schoolers to absorb information when they could be practicing thinking and interacting skills? We do we insist the middle school day be broken into 50 minute chunks that ask them to transition to different environments and systems instead of allowing them to settle in to spaces that allow variation of activity without demanding navigation skills? Why do we squander the energetic good will, bravery, and creative potential of this age group for the sake of teaching them that mind-numbing data absorption is the predominant function of the educational system? What would middle school feel and look like if it honored the inherent strengths of our students, made them feel proud of their instincts for justice, ownership, and interdependence, and helped them hone those compulsions into practical, life skills? How good could middle school really feel?

These are the questions that lie at the heart of this Blog. Understanding our misconceptions of the 10-14 year old mind is the key to serving them better. And understanding the vision of world- and their place in it- that we project upon them through our educating institutions, is the key to changing how we educate them. And besides, anyone who has stepped out of the traditional paradigm and begun to engage with these people on terms that are natural to them know the great source of inspiration, hope, and entertainment they can be. Yes, I want middle schoolers to like school more- who doesn’t?- but as much as that, I want middle school teachers to like middle schoolers more!

When we think about educating students in the middle years- grades 5-8- we are beset with concern about the preparation they come to us with and the preparation with which we should send them off.  These are valid concerns; as educators, we all want to be part of a system that prepares young people for a successful life, so we want to work within a continuous program designed to meet their needs.  Unfortunately, this system is skewed towards the upper and lower ends- grades 1-4 and 9-12- and the students in the middle are neglected. While I would argue that our understanding of the intellectual and emotional needs of those two groups- thus the educational program perceived to best fit them- could evlove, that is not my field of expertise. So lets talk here about what can drive the middle school curriculum- through a series of philosophical postulations (posts- get it?) and practical suggestions. Join me because Life is a collaborative meritocracy: we get rewarded for what we do together!