This sign warns you not to touch it. Its only purpose is to dictate how you should handle (or not handle) it. The sign has no function outside of letting you know it exists. The only ‘work’ it does is self-created and has no benefits beyond that.
Don’t be this sign.
Create value for others.
Exist with purpose.
Let othersrecognize your work.
This might be the second in a non-consecutive series about signs and what they can teach us about education, leadership, and life.
Somewhere in the science standards for your state, it probably addresses the ideas of accuracy and precision. If you Google these terms, you’ll see countless articles, videos, examples, lesson plans, etc. Let me give you a really basic summary.
Accuracy is how close a measurement is to the accepted/desired/expected value. Precision is how close together each measurement is to the other measurements.
Assume for the following example that my car’s speedometer is properly calibrated. If my speedometer reads 65 mph and I pass a speed limit sign that measures my car’s speed and it says 65 mph, the measurement seems accurate. If I pass that same sign while going 65 mph five days in a row and it reads 65 mph all five days, I assume that the sign is both precise and accurate.
If I were to pass that sign at 65 mph and everyday it read 83 mph, it would be precise, but not accurate. If for five days I passed that sign at 65 mph and it read 43, 60, 11, 99, and 3 mph, it would be neither accurate nor precise.
Now to education.
An assessment might be a precise measurement tool: a student with a specific ability level might score the same over and over.
An assessment might be an accurate measurement tool: a student who has an expected ability level might receive a score that matches that level.
But neither of these really captures the most important aspect of the assessment: is it measuring something we actually value or just something that is easily measured? A cursory knowledge of photosynthesis or an understanding of our place and impact on this planet? Solving for congruent parts of triangles or financial literacy and the long term consequences of mismanaging credit? Understanding the mood of an epic poem or being able to evaluate the legitimacy of a source of information? How to sit still and quiet in a room for hours on end or how to properly manage your attention in a world full of distractions?
This post was based on a quote from an episode of the podcast Freakonomics, where Dr. Mitchel Resnick (a professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab) stated the following, “Schools end up focusing on the things that are most easily assessed, rather than focusing on the things that are most valuable for kids and valuable for thriving in today’s society. So what we need to do is to focus more on trying to assess the things we value rather than valuing the things that are most easily assessed.” Thanks to @mres (a fellow ISTE Making It Happen Award Winner) for the inspiration.
The next time you are starting a large project (or unit plan or scheduling a year of activities) and feel overwhelmed, do the following before you over-react: break it down. Don’t take a huge leap and try to figure out what the exact first step in the process would be. Don’t go from the idea for a new type of transportation infrastructure to trying to figure out what the first step is to make it happen. It’s just too big of a leap and I guarantee that where you think you need to start and where you actually need to start are worlds apart.
Break the project into four general sections or areas of responsibility, and then throw away the three least important or least pressing. Okay, don’t throw them away. Just push them to the side and don’t look at them again right now.
Then break down that one section into three or four pieces. Get rid of the least important or least pressing. I think you see where this is going.
Continue this process until you’ve arrived at the core principle of the project; the lever that will help propel your project in the right direction.
Now, think of the steps to achieve only this one deliverable or one idea. That’s where you start, start with your lever.
At the end of this exercise, you’ll have two things: a reasonably precise and accurate vision of where to begin, and (if you choose to put all of the ‘thrown away’ ideas back together) an outline of the overall arc the project will take.
I’m tired of hearing that education hasn’t changed in the last hundred years or that education is broken. If you search the phrase ‘education hasn’t changed’, you’ll see articles from reputable educational institutions and publications that assert that education is the same now as it was 50, 100, or 400 years ago. Or that the system is broken. Or they show an image of a classroom from the 1800s next to a picture of a classroom from today to show they are ‘the same’.
A few quick thoughts:
Education has changed.
Teachers aren’t physically disciplining students like they used to.
Everyone is allowed to attend school now.
Students aren’t leaving school at age 8 to go work in the mines.
Students in some of the worst areas of the country have the ability to get exposed to some truly innovative programs that they would never have had access to before.
While some classrooms might be set up the same, there are also welding programs, video game programming courses, entrepreneurial studies, graphic design labs, and so much more.
Teachers are learning more about cognitive psychology and leveraging these ‘brain science’ techniques to become more effective educators.
Teachers are analyzing data to help pinpoint weaknesses in their students learning and address them before they become permanent misconceptions.
Teachers are leveraging exciting new technologies to help differentiate instruction to vast numbers of students.
The list could go on, but I’ll stop here because I think you understand.
Showing that a room looks similar to a room from 100 years ago doesn’t mean that the field hasn’t changed.
Show a stadium or coliseum from 100 or 1000 years ago that shows seats in an oval around a central point of interest, this isn’t evidence that ‘sports and entertainment haven’t changed’.
Showing that an operating room was a table in the middle of a room 100 years ago and still is that way today doesn’t prove that ‘medicine hasn’t changed’.
Is education broken? Of course not.
Are there ways we can improve education? Of course. And we will.
A safe way to explore danger is generally fun. People don’t flock to roller coasters because they really love physics and mechanics being put on display. They’re not huge fans of larger than life examples of kinetic and potential energy.
People go on roller coasters because they are a safe way to explore high speeds, sharp turns, and flipping upside down. Because you are strapped in with an oversized foam mechanical arm in a machine that you’ve seen do the same loop 400 times while you waited on line, it takes most of the danger out of the equation and makes way for the thrills. If you were loosely buckled into a car taking turns at 70mph on a winding mountain road with a cliff on one side, you wouldn’t be so excited.
This also translates to other forms of entertainment- take TV as an example. To get more specific- crime dramas are wildly popular. For many people who watch them, this is the only way they will experience these dangerous, high octane situations. While it might be exciting to binge watch Criminal Minds and see a bevy of disturbing felonies unfold, it is from the comfort of your bed where you’re definitely NOT eating the entire sleeve of Chips Ahoy… it was only half-full when you opened it. The point being, it’s a safe way to explore danger.
This activation of your ‘fight or flight’ response from a safe place also has its drawbacks. People can become desensitized to the actual danger in the behavior. Think of violent video games or the news or videos of people falling- when you are exposed to the concepts over and over again, the actual danger and consequences which would happen in the real world start to lose their meaning.
Nowhere is this on display more plainly that in the digital worlds we all live within. Negative comments on a video or social media page that people wouldn’t dream of saying in person come flying out. Because someone is sitting safely in their chair, they think it’s funny to spew hatred online- where they think there are no consequences. Students casually comment about bringing guns to school or about bombs as if those words carry no weight. They wouldn’t dream of saying any of it aloud to an adult, but it’s safe online. Watch them be shocked as the police come to the door and charge them with a felony. They think because they are at home on their phone eating dinner with their family that those words don’t carry weight, that people will know that they aren’t serious, that it was ‘just for fun’.
The roller coaster problem is great for theme parks but can wreak havoc in our day-to-day lives. Recognizing dangerous behaviors that have become normalized through ‘safe’ means is a vital skill. Sometimes putting words to it is the first step… and analogies help. Next time you get ready to write a negative email or post online, think of the rollercoaster.
The first time I saw one of these oddly specific speed limit signs, it was on my way into an interview at a country club for an Assistant Golf Professional job. The specificity of the number really made me think. For the rest of my drive in, I couldn’t figure it out.
Why 17 MPH? Why not 15 or 20? What does 17 MPH even feel like? Does the number 17 mean something specific to this country club? Was it founded in 1917? Was the founder born in 1917?
All of a sudden in dawned on me: the point of the sign is to specifically make you spend time thinking about and paying close attention to your speed. If you see 15, you ignore it and go 25. If you see 30, 40 is your chosen speed. If you see 17, you go 17 (at least for a little while). It stands out because it is so specific and unusual. A sign that people generally pay very little attention to becomes a talking point and all of a sudden everyone knows how fast you can go on that road.
We can take advantage of this same idea in education. When my students were working on a task and it was timed (as most of the activities in my class were), they had 78 seconds to write down their reflection. There was 32 seconds to find a partner and decide on a topic. We are taking an 109 second brain break, so take some deep breaths and relax before we get back into the review.
People pay no attention to a 1 minute or 3 minute timer because it’s predictable. You end up herding cats trying to get everyone back and on task. Tell them they need to be back in their group in exactly 67.6 seconds and odds grow exponentially that they’ll be back on time. Eyes stay glued on the timer.
Let’s learn from the Speed Limit 17 sign.
If you keep things unusual and specific in your classroom, interest and engagement go up. That content that you spent time planning and reworking to get it just right- it will be attended to because it isn’t just another worksheet with 20 questions on it. It’s a free response to summarize the last chapter of the book in 74 words; no more, no less. Does it really matter that it be 74 and not 75 or 73- no. But your students just summarized the main idea or central theme of a text, which also happens to be the standard that you are practicing that day.
This might be the first in a non-consecutive series about signs and what they can teach us about education, leadership, and life.
If differentiating learning is so important, why do we put such an emphasis on students learning the same concepts in the same courses at the same time across teachers, schools, and districts? Which of these interests is most important? Which provides the most value to our kids?
People tend to use terms like ‘everyone’, ‘most’, and ‘a lot’ to refer to almost any number of items. These words have been rendered almost useless because of the lack of specificity.
EVERYONE has a beard these days.
A LOT of people show up late to work.
MOST of the kids had the flu.
What is the tipping point that brings the number from SOME PEOPLE to everyone? Is it quantifiable? It all depends on context. If there are only two variables, beard or no beard, it should take a fairly significant percentage to get there. If there are a lot of variables, color of shirts, A LOT of yellow shirts might only be 10% because of the number of options. Next time, make people clarify when they make those broad generalizations.
MOST of my students are reading below grade level.
Really? How many?
A LOT of people that I talked to said that this 1 to 1 program isn’t working.
Do tell. How many? Using what criteria?
EVERYONE uses that shortcut to get it done.
Wow, everyone? So no one completes the process as written?
Don’t fall into this habit. Using actual numbers and percentages is much more meaningful. Data shouldn’t be summarized using such vague terms if you want it to be impactful.
I’m going to break the normal style for tonight to share why I’m writing.
Part of our job is to get better at our job- to continuously improve. In my role in education and my role in my business, communication is one of the most vital skills, but can be difficult to practice. One of the best ways I’ve found to practice and reflect on new learning is to write, to synthesize the ideas into a meaningful post. While we do it regularly in writing emails and memos and action plans, we rarely deliberately practice. Well… this is my deliberate practice, where I’ll be synthesizing my thoughts. I hope you follow along and enjoy it.
And if you find a little value along the way – even better!
The line that appeals most depends on the desired outcome and the variables surrounding your expectations. If the desired outcome is a bagel sandwich on the way to work, then slow speed is not an option- the choice is really between cheap or good (I’ll choose good and pay a little more). When creating the strategic plan for your organization, quality is top of the list, so the choice is between speed and cost (both financial and human capital). The choice is yours.
I’ve got another ten pages or so about this sign and the workplace, but I’ll spare you from that… for now!
Practice is undeniably important. HOW people practice is even more impactful. When Tiger Woods hires a swing coach, that coach doesn’t just tell Tiger to hit more golf balls. The best swing coaches know body mechanics and the physics of a golf swing and can pinpoint the motions that cause issues with ball flight. They assign specific drills and workout regimens to address the shortcomings and nuances of each swing. Tiger can then work towards that one specific gain to help get the overall mechanics back on track. This is deliberate practice.
As with sports, an important aspect of many jobs is the embedded notion that people should be improving the necessary skill set for that work. For some roles, the practice needed to improve is well-known and clearly defined based on the details of the position. People generally understand sports examples of practice but struggle to relate it back to occupations. While just gaining more experience in a field can be helpful, it’s the deliberate practice that really makes a difference.
For educators, this means taking one skill, one pedagogical technique or tool, one research-based practice, one tip from your cognitive psychology class from two decades ago, and then making a plan to improve. Note: THIS WON’T ALWAYS ALIGN WITH YOUR ORGANIZATION’S IDEA OF IMPROVEMENT. In fact, it rarely does. You’re not doing this for your organization (although they benefit of course), you’re doing it for your students and for yourself. Don’t forget that Tiger Woods didn’t just take more swings to become the best, he took a targeted approach to improvement.
For a decision-maker in an organization, it becomes convoluted and more difficult to pinpoint. At the executive level, the most important skill to hone might be decision-making, managing people/projects, or collaboration. Prototyping and pilot programs are great ways to test the impact of a decision, but still come at a cost and pilot programs don’t always scale well. So what does deliberate practice look like for the executive? In some instances, there is just no substitute for experience. Making decisions, living with the outcomes, and embracing a growth mindset to learn from mistakes become some of the most valuable tools in the toolbox.
There are two effects from my cognitive psychology class (WaHoo-Wa) that were triggered by a recent sentence in The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker (you MUSTread it). She states that people remember the first 5%, the last 5%, and the climactic moments in a story or conversation or talk. In cognitive psych, the first two are known as primacy and recency.
The primacy effect is that you remember things at the beginning of a list (or conversation or speech, etc) because they occurred first. It is the in this transition into the idea that you root that thought or memory. The recency effect is the idea that you also tend to remember the items that occurred last. What does this mean for a psych undergrad? It means before you know about this concept, you will do an experiment where someone reads you a list of 15 or 20 words and you will have to list all of the words you remember. When your list has only words from the beginning and the end of the list, then the professor will explain that this phenomenon is called primacy and recency. In the real world, this means that when someone watches a keynote speech at a conference, they will remember the opening and a few early points and the closing when they try to explain the speech later that week to their colleagues.
Priya Parker adds another layer to this onion in the idea that people also remember climactic moments of the event. If there is a moment in the middle of a story when the speaker suffers enormous hardship or a moment of great surprise, people are also likely to remember these sections of the story. Moments of great importance are considered such for a reason.
I look to take this one step further. In addition to primacy, recency, and climactic events, people will also remember those items that are most relatable for them regardless of position in the story or level of excitement/importance. If, in the middle of the keynote address at your college commencement speech, the speaker referenced his cousin’s cat DelRoy and you happen to have a cousin named DelRoy who looks just like a cat, you’ll remember that moment in the speech for the rest of your life. Now, there are parts of this idea you can plan for and manipulate and those you cannot. Mentioning your cousin’s cat DelRoy is not likely to trigger a memory for most people in your crowd or classroom, but rooting a story in a prevailing news story of the time or an idea from popular culture can help trigger this last effect. Are these ideas of connecting learning to prior knowledge or authentic experience starting to sound familiar?
What does this have to do with education?
In designing a curriculum, unit, lesson, or even segment of a lesson, it is vital to know and understand how the mind works to help manipulate the engagement level of the audience and the retention of those packets of learning. Brain science (aka cognitive psych) is becoming more and more prevalent in teaching and learning circles because of the profound impact these concepts have in the classroom. If a teacher layers climactic moments and connections to pop culture into the middle of a lesson, they may be able to facilitate the retention of more than just the primacy and recency effects. When you plan your next story or meeting agenda or keynote or nugget of instruction, think about ‘the first, the last, the wow, and the connection’.
In a recent Twitter chat called #FLEdChat on the topic of Lesson Planning, Curriculum Writing, and Instructional Design, Alaska educator Joe Robison (@joerobison907) tweeted, “My lessons differ each year because the world changes…”
Joe knows and embraces what often goes overlooked. Lessons can be rooted in the standards but still applicable to the ever-elusive real-world. A teacher who understands this concept knows that an idea in isolation will never really embed itself into a student’s understanding. Until that idea has something to grab hold of, a previous experience or something out in the real world, it is lost. Learning needs to be relevant and anchored to prior knowledge to truly be internalized.
While it seems like such a simple thought, it can be extrapolated out and is a key factor for many different decision-makers and stakeholders. A director in an organization can’t make the same decision on the same issues each time because the world that the decision is impacting has changed. There are always new factors to consider and an effective leader will know that each decision needs to be made independent of past decisions. While the past decisions are one factor to be considered, all of the other data points that guided that decision must be reconsidered because the world is dynamic.
A program or project conceived and implemented in one economic climate needs to be re-evaluated as time goes on and situations change for both the organization and the world around it. Laws change, the economy changes, the climate changes (or DOES it?), and organizations need to adapt.
The work changes because the world changes… thanks, Joe.
There is always a goal for gathering. Inviting friends over for dinner can serve to build and continue relationships and ongoing dialogues. Attending a professional conference can serve to grow a knowledge base or collaborate/communicate with colleagues. These goals can be formal or informal, specific or general, short-term or long-term- the list goes on and on.
The most effective gatherings, the ones that people remember, have a clear and specific goal. The most effective gatherings make decisions based on the goal. The most effective gatherings stay true to the goal.
A meeting is just one type of gathering. It shouldn’t play by different rules.
If the goal is of a meeting is to brainstorm solutions to a recent software implementation failure, the meeting ends when the brainstorming is complete. If the goal of a meeting is to make a decision on the color palette for a logo, the meeting ends when the palette is chosen. Don’t hold your colleagues hostage as you try to fit multiple (newly identified) purposes into that time.
“I really wish we used the full four hours for that even though we got what we needed in the first ten minutes.” – No one ever
Think about the amount of time people spend consuming content and media in all its forms and flavors- taking in the latest blockbuster about a future dystopian society, watching cat videos on YouTube, or binge-watching 7 seasons of Game of Thrones. Most people choose what they will consume and enjoy consuming that content (or they are totally and hopelessly addicted to it).
Now imagine being a student who, in addition to that time spent consuming engaging content and media at home, are then consuming additional content for 7.5 hours/day in areas that they aren’t passionate about or that they struggle in.
Now imagine that instead of consuming 70 hours of content per week, students were given more and more opportunities to CREATE and DISCOVER.
An engaged reader might ask how many hours the ideal split is for creating and consuming. A better writer and researcher might give you statistics on the amount of time spent consuming versus the time spent creating.
This much is true: we can do better. Create more, consume less. Give our students the chance to MAKE something today.
Decision-makers in an organization contribute to culture change every day. Each choice is an opportunity to shift mindsets. If the organization has an overarching culture of rash decision-making and skipping vital steps, each choice is an opportunity to turn that culture around. Take the time necessary to make an educated, data-driven decision. Take the time necessary to engage stakeholders. Take the time necessary to brainstorm, ideate, iterate, prototype, pilot, and otherwise put choices through their paces.
Public spaces, like anything else, are evaluated for their effectiveness. The Project for Public Spaces (pps.org) uses a toll called the Place Diagram. It’s a tool that allows for the evaluation and consideration not just of the measurable items in a space, but also those intangibles. It’s important to consider all facets of the space- not just how many benches, but is it a welcoming space? These items are considered in The Place Diagram.
So often in education, only the measurable items are considered in evaluating a space even though much more goes into the learning culture of a school. There might be 1:1 computers at the school, but is the gentleman sitting at the reception desk warm and inviting to people who walk through the door. Does he de-escalate parents who come in heated or is he essentially just a check-in system? Below is a model for education that takes (and will take) these into account as it is further fleshed out. For now, the biggest departure in this from other tools out there is that 1.) this doesn’t generate a score or rating (which some people hate and some people love), 2.) it takes intangibles into account like The Place Diagram, and 3.) it is meant to be used to generate conversation about schools/learning environments, not grade them. A model for continuous improvement that doesn’t require quantification is a rare thing.
One of the cornerstones of this model is the inclusion of relationships to the evaluation of the school. While there may not be a lot of measurable parts and pieces to relationships, they speak volumes about the quality of teacher and the quality of the school. What could you provide as an artifact of the quality of relationships in your classroom school?
Focus is a funny thing- you can force someone to focus by telling them not to with the classic, “Don’t think about pink elephants,” line. But focus is also like a muscle- you can strengthen it over time if you’re willing to put in the work. If you are trying to get more muscle definition, you can sit in the gym for hours day after day and move iron plates around OR you can enroll in a program or hire a personal trainer who can target the gains you want to make in specific areas. The same is true for focus- you can read about it online, watch others, and hope to improve over time OR you can seek out an expert in cognition or psychology and target specific gains.
The final option for improving focus is to ask your 5-year-old what it means to focus after they shush you and tell you “I’m just getting focused.” I was so intrigued, that I ironically interrupted his focus to ask him about focus. “How do you do that? What do you do to get focused?” I asked. After about a full fifteen seconds of silence and making ‘thinking faces’, he responded. “I think of the direction I want to go.”
Nothing could be more wrong. Learning doesn’t have a stopping point or a finish line. Learning happens every day for everyone.
Learning happens deliberately: when you read a book or a blog or a tweet.
Learning happens accidentally: when you trip over an uneven spot in the sidewalk on your way to work.
Learning happens formally: when you enroll in a MOOC or a university.
Learning happens informally: through conversations with your daughter when she tells you, “You’re an adult- you don’t need to learn, Dad,” and you engage in a fifteen minute conversation about learning with your 6-year-old.
The big question is: are you ready and open to learning?
Learning isn’t something that just happens to you. It’s something you set out to do. There is intention in learning. There is design.
I have embarked on a journey of intentional, deliberate practice this year in the field of project management to help increase my productivity and precision at work. Part of this course is a book that could seemingly put War and Peace to shame: The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). Picture a full-sized paperback dictionary (unabridged), but with even more words you don’t know and then remove the definitions. This is the PMBOK. This is not a book you can simply crack open 10 years out of school and breeze through on a Saturday. To tackle this level of work- this level of learning- you need to layout your path and truly design your learning.
There is so much you need to know to effectively design your learning:
What learning styles are most beneficial to you?
What motivates you?
What time of day are you most focused?
What time of day are you most distracted?
Where is your ideal place to learn?
Do you prefer to sit or stand?
What method do you most like to ingest your content?
How often do you need to attend to the material to learn?
Are you a solo learner or collaborative?
Do you prefer to learn in a series of short sprints or one marathon session?
Honestly, this list doesn’t even scratch the surface of the qualities you must consider to optimally design your learning, but it’s a start. Back to the PMBOK- I was reading/taking notes on our big, heavy, wooden back table that is covered with butcher paper. We’ve got three kids, so it’s best to cover a table with butcher paper instead of trying to keep it safe from the kids. So when I say I was taking notes onthe table, I mean writing directly on the paper covering the table, not in a notebook or anywhere else. I am writing it down to help me to interact with the text and help remember it, not to go back and reference it later. When two of my kids came out and saw this, they did what a 5- and 6-year-old do best, asked questions and joined in the fun. The conversation with my daughter really caught me off-guard. She asked me what I was doing and I told her I was learning.
My 6-year-old daughter then said, “You’re an adult, you don’t need to learn,” and it really struck me.
My 6-year-old daughter then said, “You’re an adult, you don’t need to learn,” and it really struck me. I immediately stopped what I was doing to jot it down and also really process her idea- her notion that because I am an adult, I already know a lot of different things and why would I want/need to know any more.
And then I was brought right back to this idea of designed learning when my kids wanted to join in and ‘take notes like me’. How they took notes says so much about them and about how they will eventually choose to design their own learning. I should also state that neither of them asked me how I was taking notes, what I wrote down, or anything else- they just started writing. First, my 5-year-old son, my lefty. Three things really jumped out about his natural style based on this seemingly simple act. Take a look at the picture of the notes below… what jumps out at you?
Here were my big three takeaways:
He chose to write on an area of the table that already had a ton of paint and markers on it, he didn’t bother looking for a fresh, clean area to work on.
While there was a lot of different information on the pages, he chose to focus on the headings and their numbering system rather than the lengthy paragraphs.
There wasn’t much of a rhyme or reason to his margins, alignment, size, etc.
Now to my 6-year-old daughter’s work, my daredevil risk-taker. What are your big take-aways from this one?
So here’s what I saw:
Clean area of the paper, no colors, no other writing.
She picked one sentence and stuck with that, then stopped and just read the other pages as I read them.
Almost perfect rectangular section of notes, consistent size, margins, etc.
Didn’t miss a single letter, all copied correctly.
What do you think these very early, totally self-directed sections of notes tell you about the kids?P