Why should we ask questions?

A couple weeks ago, the boys and I were driving in and around Brunswick, Maine trying to find someplace to stop for breakfast. We passed a church sign that asked “Does God have a big toe?” and both boys started laughing uncontrollably.

I asked Henry what the sign was asking. “It’s asking if God has a big toe.” I pressed Henry on what the sign was asking and after two or three back-and-forths, he figured out that I wasn’t asking him to tell me what the sign said but instead trying to get him to figure out what it meant. Now, we both missed parts one and two of this sermon and weren’t going to be stopping in on part three, but I shared my best guess with Henry, that the minister giving this sermon was trying to talk about God as both divine and human. The religion behind the question was really irrelevant here, but we were in agreement that the thought-provoking question had more “curb appeal” than any idea shared as a statement of fact.

We decided to drive to Portland to get donuts and continued to talk about questions and started talking about school while Will napped. I asked Henry if he remembered the inquiry-based units at his old school. As an IB school, Units of Inquiry were a staple of the Primary Years Program, the IB program for the youngest learners. Henry loved any time he worked with these inquiry units, and he said that it was because they were learning about important concepts while trying to answer a question, doing authentic research without textbooks and working together to [my words] create understanding. Then, as different groups would share their research, it would push the whole group’s understanding and continuing research further, culminating in a presentation of the knowledge the class had developed.

I loved teaching in the IB’s programs because, eventually, everything I taught was rooted in inquiry, even in the high school grades. My students and I learned together through questions, answers, solutions, and more questions.   And while I’m no longer at an IB school, the IB had a profound impact on the way I teach. I still do some work for the IB as a consultant and workshop leader and it is so energizing to watch a teacher – and even better a whole school district – get how shifting towards and inquiry-based model can have a profound impact on their students’ learning.

And we’ve all been told that Kindergarten is the high-water point of education, as kids start school knowing that the way to learn anything is to ask questions. Slowly, as years pass and grades progress, we teach the questions out of them unless whatever we’re talking about is going to be on the test. We should be doing better than that, and I’d argue that even a school that already values the importance of student inquiry could do an even better job at it.

So here we are at the start of a new school year, and I wonder how well I’ll do in the third year of the exciting adventure I’m on in helping a faculty let their students ask more questions and find their own answers.


On the evening before something new

I’ve been saving a post by Seth Godin in an open tab ever since first reading it, presumably for right now. It’s the night before I start a new job1. Nerves, butterflies, whatever you want to call it… it’s all for a reason.

The unknowable path
…might also be the right one.
The fact that your path is unknowable may be precisely why it’s the right path.
The alternative, which is following the well-lit path, offers little in the way of magic.
If you choose to make art, you are no longer following. You are making.

1As of tomorrow, I’ll be the founding director of the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning at Ridgefield Academy in Ridgefield, CT. It’s a great opportunity, a big move for the family, and it’s all terribly exciting.

Museum Trips #throughglass – American Museum of Natural History (@amnh)

Following up on our trip to the Met earlier this week, yesterday we took the boys to hang out with friends at the American Museum of Natural History. It’s been my favorite museum since I was their ages, and love it as much as I ever did. Sure enough, the trip didn’t disappoint… it never does.

When I first got the Glass invitation, one of the first things I thought of was how cool it would be if Will got to run (er, walk cautiously and carefully, that is) through the hall of dinosaurs recording everything #throughglass. (The other was to capture a kids-eye-view of unwrapping Christmas presents, but that didn’t work out. At all.) Quickly, though, the thought of putting such expensive eyewear on his face made me nervous (since, like many five-year-olds, he tends to inexplicably fall more often than he should). So Henry was my next target partner-in-crime, but he refuses to put the things on, ridiculing me whenever I do. (He also yells “OK, Glass, take a picture!” whenever I wear them, trying to get them to take pictures that I didn’t intend.

So I’m finding some problems with Glass because they’re just not socially-acceptable to wear in public, and for them to gain traction in the mainstream – in more than just a “hey, check this out” kind of way – they need to look better, work more easily, hold a charge more consistently, etc. One of the things that Glass does have going for it is that, if you can get the one person willing to put aside social graces, you can have them screenshare their way through some pretty fantastic places, or even send several of them out (when they get less expensive, of course) and keep track of live feeds from different groups.

But back to the museum – and what a museum trip it was. A great exhibit on The Power of Poison, the Hall of Ocean Life, the Discovery Room, the Hall of Dinosaurs, all with good friends and funny kids. Couldn’t ask for a better Saturday afternoon.

20140104_134346_213 20140104_134628_517 20140104_135040_480 20140104_135236_220 20140104_135518_990 20140104_135718_846 20140104_140106_374 20140104_140509_598 20140104_141443_302 20140104_141704_398 20140104_145528_417 20140104_150225_363 20140104_150403_154 20140104_150531_696 20140104_150947_981 20140104_151302_104 20140104_151343_997 20140104_151637_644 20140104_151702_834 20140104_152053_623 20140104_152218_557 20140104_152346_118 20140104_155253_378 20140104_161002_823 20140104_161151_543 20140104_164230_139 20140104_164534_991 20140104_164912_444 20140104_165052_956 20140104_165105_927 20140104_165159_290 20140104_165452_257 20140104_165625_135 20140104_165653_549 20140104_165759_530 20140104_170141_983 20140104_170340_291


BONUS: Glass, when powered on and plugged in to power, automatically backs up media to a private space on Google+, and sometimes picks a photo or two to make “Auto Awesome.” Here’s what happened to one of my photos (but you can’t see the animated snow falling on it like it does in G+):

Museum trips #throughglass – Metropolitan Museum of Art (@metmuseum)

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve had the chance to experiment with Google Glass. I’m not even sure I thought it would be worth checking out, but when the invitation came, I felt like it would be something worth doing – this video did a lot to make me think that there were real possibilities for Glass in the classroom, and that made it instantly interesting to me.

Mat Honan, in a recent post to Wired’s Gadget Lab titled “I, Glasshole: My Year With Google Glass” sums things up nicely:

The future is on its way, and it is going to be on your face. We need to think about it and be ready for it in a way we weren’t with smartphones. Because while you (and I) may make fun of glassholes today, come tomorrow we’re all going to be right there with them, or at least very close by. Wearables are where we’re going. Let’s be ready.

But what can you actually do with Glass? Right now, I’m not sure. I can ask it to look things up for me, but that would require talking to my glasses – talking to my phone was enough of a nerd-hurdle to clear, and talking to glasses feels so much worse. I can use it to show me interesting things nearly, which is pretty cool. I can also use it to give me directions and actually put them in front of my face, which is great.

One thing it’s great for is taking photos and videos and sharing them via Google+, Twitter, or email. It’s also pretty good for Google Hangouts (but for anyone to see me, I need to be standing in front of a mirror, which I normally don’t have handy). I can really see using media and hangouts together to give as close to an field trip-like visit to all sorts of places without actually having to be there. That example video I linked to above wasn’t lying – this could be very cool.

The other day, we took the boys to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and here’s what we saw. Some highlights for them were the Christmas tree, Henry with Henry VIII’s suit of armor, the Temple of Dendur, and the mummies, while I was particularly taken with a couple of sculptures, particularly one of St. Bartholomew carrying his skin around.

Not too shabby, but I need to get over the awkwardness of wearing Glass around to capture more #throughglass. The future is coming, and it might even be here. “Let’s be ready.”

20131231_124843_358 20131231_125046_679 20131231_125444_822 20131231_130003_853 20131231_131335_534 20131231_132138_659 20131231_132309_880 20131231_132614_404 20131231_132712_849 20131231_133055_670 20131231_133149_344 20131231_133342_185 20131231_133914_521 20131231_134008_708 20131231_134731_978 20131231_134805_637 20131231_135026_467 20131231_135442_220

The Evolution of an Idea

This past Saturday was a hugely successful EdCamp NYC – thanks to everyone who came out and made it a fun and educational day. I mean, seriously — look at that session board!

One session that I got to sit in on was one on Rube Goldberg machines that spanned the digital and physical worlds, run by Jaymes Dec and Dylan Rider. It was a great session with lots of hands on work, and it stressed the importance of collaborating, ideating, and having fun in the classroom. Take a look at what happened below and tell me that there wasn’t real learning going on, even in the midst of fun, balloons, and lots of trial and error.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Did we ultimately reach our goal of popping the balloon? Not exactly… though we did build a terrifying contraption that got part of the job done.




As it turned out, our spiky friend did his job. I mean look at this balloon… not so smug after we found several small but deadly puncture holes in his side. Success!



schools should be so much more

FF35EF3B-B81B-4E3A-B958-D56ABB1A43AB E93459CB-E34C-42C1-959B-474E33599211 BB403E66-DB9C-4862-9E34-D9259DEE393F AC62D385-016F-4CC3-947E-1D1D68C9D7EE 2659D675-2762-4B77-8C01-DCFCBA96022B 5A890DDB-78D4-4280-AE7E-15DC6DB60784 5A6A7151-B291-4DC2-A6B5-8715402BCAF3 7F3A955F-0F8A-42FE-B3F5-748A957A441C

Schools are for so much more than academics.

This past weekend, I had the chance to leave the city and get some fresh air and see three schools in Vermont while visiting friends and their new baby. Hooray for long weekends!

Though one of the school visits was really just to take in a Renaissance fair that was being held on that campus and another was to take in a harvest festival — and, frankly, when you’re in Vermont in mid-October, that’s what you do — I got the chance to spend a lot of time on the campus of the third. What struck me is how much more there is to a school than the teaching and learning. And I don’t mean that in a “hey, there’s community service, too!” or “we have an advisory program!” kind of way, but more in a “there’s so much about living that students need to learn” kind of way.

From signs that question ignorance to seeing cows in a campus barn that sees shifts of student workers; big school festivals had have a gigantic sense of community that went beyond any one school and its teachers, students, and parents; places to have fun and rest and be in nature; to tables and chairs that so seamlessly use the natural resources around them, everything that I saw had so much to do with non-academic teaching and learning. And because I wasn’t used to any of it, I feel like I learned so much in three days about how where we are can dramatically affect who we are and what/how we learn.

So we already know that schools need to be places of as much social and emotional learning as academic learning, but there has to be more to it than that. How do we teach kids about who, how, and what to be? (And, perhaps more personally relevant, how do you do that in the confines of a small school building… you know, one that doesn’t have a barn or a lake?)

building better wagons

2E6672CD-BE92-4F42-BE13-E3F32830AD90I’m obsessed with printing Klein bottles, “a surface in which notions of right and left cannot be consistently defined.” I suppose that I like them for how weird they are, how there isn’t supposed to be a beginning or end, and, really, how cool they look. While my prints of these bottles are mostly relegated to designs that I’ve found online, the design and fabrication of such a shape seems ripe for some interdisciplinary work at the intersection of science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.

STE(A)M is another one of those educational “innovations” that I wrote about yesterday, though I don’t like talking about it as an innovation when working within and between these subject areas should be the norm rather than something special. I get that the acronym has a big fan, but the problem with STE(A)M is that it puts a focus on certain subject areas and ignores others. Why aren’t we paying similar attention to how English and history studies could and should be paired so that they spiral together? Or what about the interplay between English and technology, or physical education and math, or heck, just about any other combination of subjects?

At school, we’re working on crafting a statement that explains the work that we’re doing with STE(A)M, and I keep getting hung up on the lack of truly transdisciplinary focus that includes all subject areas. As my friend and colleague, Chris Beddows, wrote on his great new IB Primary Years Program-focused blog:

Now we are not saying we are becoming a ‘STEAM School’  - we are, and continue to be, committed to the standards and mission of the IB. We are proud to be an IB world school. However, STEAM is an approach to teaching and learning that will truly enhance our program of inquiry. It is also a way that we can continue to strengthen and develop our links throughout all three programs we offer at school. These links are clear to see. You just have to look at the program models from the IB. Within each there are the phrases ‘approaches to teaching’ and ‘approaches to learning’.

Each one of the IB program models emphasizes a well-rounded education and, as Chris mentioned, separate but related foci on approaches to teaching and approaches to learning. What I think we’re finding is that STE(A)M is a great way to frame our first concerted effort at interdisciplinary work (though our lower school, and I suspect many lower schools, have been doing such work for a long time), but there’s a lot more to truly great teaching and learning than the acronym. Interdisciplinary work that scaffolds through all our grades, that broadens in scope and breadth, and that informs — but doesn’t constrain — what we do in our classrooms is becoming the new hallmark that we are striving towards.

Who doesn’t love a good acronym? But teaching and learning shouldn’t be constrained by the letters that we choose to use in an easy to remember word, just as it shouldn’t hitch its wagon to every cool-sounding “innovative” educational movement.

Why do we need to hitch our wagons to movements?


(I don’t know where this graphic originally came from, but thanks for sharing it, Karen Blumberg.)

A couple of years ago, social media was supposed to be the thing that unlocked so much potential in education. We can communicate with each other online! Revolutionary! No it wasn’t, no it isn’t. It’s the way people go about their every day anyway.

Then the maker movement came with its emphasis on creation, which was supposed to unlock the practical, engaging, and innovative. This works, and it’s great, but it’s also almost exactly how kids play anyway when given the chance.

Design thinking is all the rage now, and we’ve taken a meta view to creation, focusing on the process of creation and making it ok to fail safe in our classrooms. It’s a great thing and all, but I think the empathetic element of DT is actually something that’s been missing from most education for a while. This feels a lot more like we’ve restored some balance in our classrooms more than anything else.

So… what’s going to be next? And how revolutionary will it really be?

Each of these three things — maybe a snapshot of some educational trends from the last five years or so — is nothing new or revolutionary. What they do more than anything else is move classrooms from a one-and-done model of assessment and proof of knowledge (“Oh, you got an 55 on your math test? Then you know 55% of math.”) and make them more in line with how the rest of the world works — more than one chance to do something, often with a chance to have a little fun while you’re doing it.

The true innovation in these three examples was the reintroduction of real-world relevance and immediate engagement into classrooms that needed it. A student should never have to ask “Why am I learning this?” or “What does this have to do with what I’m learning in that other class?” If we’re not making that clear, then we’re doing our students a disservice, just as we’re doing them a disservice by asking them to operate, between the hours of 8 and 3 on weekdays, in a way that is fundamentally different from the way that they would ordinarily get things done. We should be making our guiding questions, significant concepts, or whatever else you want to call them make sense for our students, and making sure that they can see how the things that they learn in one classroom connect to another.

So students should know that social media today is not only a great way to communicate — both personally and with the rest of the world — but that it’s also the modern day equivalent of American Revolution-era pamphleteering. They should know that people have been making things using trial and error and iteration, and also trying to design better solutions to real problems for a long time. And they should know that empathy isn’t a new thing, and in fact is something that should never have been out of any discussions.

A very wise and now-retired colleague once told me, as we were making a push for rapidly increased technology integration, “Young teachers won’t have an easier time using technology in their classrooms. Good teachers will.” So let’s all be good teachers who know what will work and how to use it. Whatever comes next, let’s just figure out how to let common sense guide us past the restrictions of practicality. I bet we’ll have more fun with it, have an easier time trying, failing, and improving with it, making better teaching and learning experiences for everyone involved.

education vs. learning

photo by emagic: http://www.flickr.com/photos/emagic/64112550/

I normally don’t wait three months to write about something that bugs me. At the time, I thought it would pass, but that was May 21. It’s now almost August 21 and I can’t quite shake how bothered I was… still am… by some things that I heard at the The Future of Learning event at the 92nd Street Y put on by THINKR.

My notes are sketchy… thoughts with no names, really… but I remember continually being struck by the idea that was shared by most, though not all, of the panel: education and learning are different things and at odds with each other. As someone who spends at least some of every day in a classroom – and spend every day working alongside, talking to, and breaking bread with teachers who give all that they have for the students that they teach – I’m going to caution everyone against ever buying completely into this idea.

According to this line of thinking, education is a means to an end, a linear and degree-oriented experience, a mandate rather than a choice, that exists for three reasons:

  1. It’s a coming of age ritual
  2. To expand minds, make better citizens
  3. To prepare you for your economic life

That’s it? Really? Whether one is talking about K-12 or higher ed, that list makes up an extremely narrow view of education, one that doesn’t pay enough attention to fostering intellectual curiosity, community-building, and life-changing experiences that I know that I had during any of my stints as a student and that I hope to help my students have.

But, sure, not all learning takes place in a classroom. Like anyone who self-identifies as a lifelong learner, I love making sure that I’m never in the same place, always learning something new, always trying something that I haven’t tried before. But I think that, rather than separate learning and education, we might want to instead think more about informal education. Does all “education” have to be teacher-student oriented, or is there room for non-classroom experiences to be part of one’s overall education and not necessarily something that falls into a separate “education” bucket. Where do we make room for informal educational experiences in what we do every day in the classroom?

The idea that “educational institutions aren’t good at teaching skills that students need” is ridiculous. You don’t only see student engagement and achievement ”when you are learning something based on your creative ideas.” There are better teachers, better schools, even better students, but to come to the conclusion that all of formal education is worthless because it is all available somewhere else is, I think, missing the point.

“What do I want to learn tomorrow?” That’s the question that makes post-education institutions (places like General Assembly and Skillshare, which were both represented at the panel, as well as even more ad hoc experiences) so valuable right now.  But I think that question gets so much traction because it’s one that adults can ask and pursue at any time and make something happen. So how do we make it possible for students to ask the same question? What happens when a whole class of students asks “What do I want to learn today?” (Tomorrow? P’shaw…)

Authentic. Challenging. Relevant. Timely. When we mix any of these adjectives into what we do in the classroom, we can build learning experiences that have as much engagement and achievement as specific courses that one can pay $25 to take at any number of online avenues, even when it’s in the context of mandatory, linear, degree-focused education. There are completely separate discussions to have around this one that involve credentialing, badging, and alternative delivery of courses, but I think they’re all at least in the same ballpark, or at least will be when the focus is not on why education is but instead on how and what education is. And what if we stopped treating education and learning as two different things, and made sure that the understood definitions of both were broad enough to incorporate formal and informal experiences, and even back up the notion that one can engage in both an education and in learning something at the same time?

As we race to the start of another school year, I’m ripping apart what I’ve done in the past, coming up with new projects and a two new curricula for the two courses that I’ll be teaching this year, and I know that many other teachers are doing the same. I’ve got my ideas about making it possible for my students to ask and answer “What do I want to learn today?” every day, and I’m using that question to guide some regular writing this year. What are you doing to make the same possible? What does it look like when your students can ask the same?

Approaches to Teaching and Outcome-Based Plans… and STEM again



© International Baccalaureate Organization 2012


I’ve been trying to come up with talking points for expanding our lower school STEM initiative into a broader K-8 program, and, as my previous post gave away, hopefully re-framing it into more of a holistic approach to both technology integration and the intersection of those specific subjects into the rest of the curriculum. Moving this program into our middle school is going to be a challenge because we’re not only expanding past self-contained classrooms for a bell schedule and roving packs of students, but also because we’re now looking at eight separate disciplines of the IB Middle Years Program instead of cross-curricular Program of Inquiry in the Primary Years Program. Yesterday, I noticed that all four of the new program models released earlier this year have Approaches to Teaching in the concentric circle closer to the learner. This felt like opportunity to re-center the discussion around how we teach instead of what we teach, if only I could find more information about what the IB’s definition of Approaches to Teaching actually meant.

Unfortunately, I can’t find much.

From the announcement of the new program models, it seems that the definition shifts slightly from program to program.

  •  PYP: “The three components of the PYP curriculum cycle (written, taught and assessed) nowembodied in Approaches to Teaching, aligns with MYP, DP and IBCC programmes. It
    reinforces the PYP pedagogy of authentic learning that is inquiry-based and conceptually
  • MYP: “Approaches to teaching—this emphasizes the MYP pedagogy, including collaborative, authentic learning through inquiry.”
  • DP: “Approaches to teaching and learning are included in the inner circle of the model demonstrating the DP’s commitment to particular pedagogical approaches to teaching and to developing particular skills for learning.”
  • IBCC: There isn’t anything that specifically addresses Approaches to Teaching in that document.

At least in the PYP and MYP, which coincidentally happen to be the grades we’re looking to expand our STEM push throughout, there is a focus on inquiry and authentic learning being at the heart of teaching and learning (though I must admit to being a bit discouraged at not only the lack of information but also the lack of standardization of how Approaches to Teaching – or is that Approaches to teaching? – is treated as formal terminology, and how the Diploma Program seems to only give it a passing glance). It sure sounds as though if we keep doing what we’re already meant to be doing, we shouldn’t need to reinvent the wheel. This doesn’t have to become something where our lower school and middle school teams (and high school beyond them) need to fuss with criteria, transitions, and formalizing something new, and it instead can help us focus on the intersections of subjects and how we purposefully incorporate technology, not to serve any particular disciplines but instead because it’s how we want our students to learn.

If programmatic differences aren’t going to be a problem in widespread adoption of our STEM initiative (or any other initiative to come down the road), I think we’re going to need to redefine success. In broad strokes, we should be able to identify the outcomes that we expect our teaching and learning to conform to and define how a student at our school will learn on a daily basis and trust that we’re already doing a good enough job meeting our program criteria to remove that as our daily foci. “Students are encouraged to create something every day” or “Every classroom will be a safe space to learn from mistakes” or even “Each unit of study will sit at the intersection of at least three subjects” might be better ways to measure success on a school-wide level than referring to any bulleted list of standards to adhere to, especially when we’re supposed to be doing that anyway. How else can you make the transition from a school that meets requirements to a school that transforms what teaching and learning looks like?

So… any IB educators care of weigh in on the definition of Approaches to Teaching? Or is this simply too broad (and important) to be contained in just one part of a model of learning?