Classroom Management in Age of Relationships

What is Classroom Management?

I have taught and administered in K-12 schools for 25 years. I have evolved over time, becoming more confidant, perhaps no more so than in the area of classroom management and learning how to maintain strong student relationships. It was natural for me to also teach graduate school at some point since virtually all teachers in California are required to obtain 30 graduate hours. I have taught Teaching of Reading, ESL/ELD/SDAIE, Educational Technology, and Educational Research. Yet one commonality had to do with the questions my students asked me on the first day of class.

Almost all of them were employed as K-12 teachers, and they wanted to know about classroom management. They did not want the theory. At least not at first. They wanted the nuts and bolts, the how-to, the step 1,2,3 of it all. So I built it into each course. What did I teach them about managing students? First, a little history and context….

Classroom management: engaging student inquiry

Classroom management is about actively engaging students

Some History

Prior to my own first day of teaching, I had planned for days. I barely slept that night. In college I had been a psychology major, and I had take very few education courses, thinking them extraneous. However, on my first day in teaching third grade, I found I only had 15 minutes of usable material. 25 eight-year-olds sat calmly looking for instructions on what to do next. I was up in the ethers, and they were on earth. What I also discovered on that day was that teaching is a living, breathing process. Yet one needs to plan everything.

Iteration #1: Just as no battle plan in war survives first contact with the enemy, in teaching no lesson plan survives first contact with students.

Plan, plan, plan, and be ready to discard at a moment’s notice. Yet teaching is about students and relationships, not just content. In Ithaca, New York, it all boiled down to a single needy boy in class named Ethan [name changed]. I had 25 students in that third grade classroom, and every one of them was unique. Some knew how to read, but others struggled with sounding out words. Some could write a full paragraph, but others could barely write letters without reversing them. Yet whatever they knew or did not know academically, they were young children looking for bonding, guidance and relationships.

Ethan was a lively, extremely impulsive boy in my class. He could barely contain his enthusiasm in all things. Sometimes his actions were entirely inappropriate. Yet as I learned more about him, I learned of a tragic family history that had altered how he behaved forever. His mother was murdered by his father right in front of him. He was now being raised by his grandmother.

I remember a class field trip I had arranged to a local meteorological station. As students began to get off the bus, my wife – who had volunteered to be a chaperone – jumped up. Someone had put their hand under her dress. We were both young and took it in stride. After the tour of the station, the children climbed back on the bus. Ethan ran up to us before boarding, “Do you want to know who did that to your dress? It was me!” He laughed gleefully and scampered onto the bus. My wife and I couldn’t help but laugh as well.

Ethan and I touched each other’s lives over the course of the school year. He was extremely bright, yet the trauma of witnessing his mother’s death was not something that would easily fade. He needed acceptance as a person, yet clear guidance in behavior. Both took time.

Other students in the class were nearly as complex. I learned over time that teaching is about developing relationships, not just about subjects and standards. If there is no meaningful relationship between teacher and student, then engagement in the learning process is severely diminished.

Iteration #2: In the classroom, the teacher and students learn together. They learn to move together as a single organism.

Some Management Guidelines

Many books and articles have been written about management. There are some good resources that I list below. However, my own approach can be stated simply.

  • Be authentic, be consistent, and be caring
  • Everyone can learn, but you have to make lessons engaging.
  • The classroom is a learning environment. Set high standards.
  • Develop relationships. Treat students with respect, and expect them to treat each other the same.
  • Keep rules simple. If you have more than fingers on your hands, it’s too many.

If you would like a useful article, try this from NEA. It is called Discipline Checklist: Socializing.

If you are a visual learner, then watch Classroom Management Techniques, a series of videos from Edutopia. You may also find this article very useful: Classroom Management: Resource Roundup.

Design for Effective Learning

Personalized Learning

At issue on today’s education world is how to develop higher order thinking in the midst of human diversity. To achieve that objective, one must consciously design lessons to maximize student learning.

Is there one right answer?

Does all learning need to look the same? How can it?

As the world becomes more complex, it becomes essential to require learners to solve complex problems. We need a method and framework that focuses on multiple pathways to mastery. This type of higher-order thinking and problem solving may be harder to assess, but it represents the future world of knowledge work.

Child learning by imagining possibilities

Child imagining possibilities

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an important framework for designing instructional goals, lessons and assessments. It helps us understand the Why, What and How of learning with an emphasis on multiple pathways. 

The link to personalized learning

How UDL can get you to personalized learning,” gives a very readable overview with concrete examples. I decided to share this with you, the reader, via Evernote. I wanted to illustrate the power of this great App for annotating and sharing ideas with others, and to improve the learning experience. 

Learn more about UDL and how you can use it in your classroom. There is no cost except time. Visit the Center for Applied Spatial Technology (CAST). It is the organization that developed and now promotes UDL. It is a leading framework in the educational reform movement. You can also follow on Twitter at @CAST_UDL.

Compare two different ways to share:

In the world of modern tech, there are at least two ways to do everything. That includes sharing:

My method: After I determined that the article was worth deep reading, I downloaded it with Evernote Clearly (a plugin for Chrome). I highlighted as I read. After I logged into my Evernote account, and I changed some font sizes, color and bold style to key concepts. I then shared it. You can share individual articles or whole Notebooks in Evernote (learn more). The beauty is that whenever I make a change to the annotation, the link is automatically updated for any readers. Imagine the power of that in the classroom!

Sharing and Content Curation in Education

The Evolution of Sharing and the Explosion of Content:
Mash-ups, Citizen Journalism, Citing Sources and Original Thought

Education offers multiple opportunities for taking sharing to the next level. The Internet gave birth to the World Wide Web in the early 1990’s with Mosaic and the Netscape web browser. The visual Web in turn gave birth to social media when Mark Zuckerberg first created Facebook. Social media and its many cousins are now an omnipresent part of the lives of most students and many teachers.

Using Social Media to share and curate content

The Sharing Wheel of Content Curation

For many years the emphasis in K-12 has been on obtaining information and then often regurgitating it or, as in the case of Common Core, testing for mastery.

The model of information sharing and curation appears to have shifted from linear hierarchy to a more organic or circular modality. How does this communication evolution impact the classroom?

What is the challenge for modern students in the 21st century? Will creativity and originality survive in a world of sharing, clones and wannabes?

A. Content Curation

Content curation is the first challenge of the 21st century communications shift. It has developed in response to the vast store of information now afforded by the Internet. If one looks at the various job boards, one can now find employment positions for content analysts. These are different folks than database administrators who manage the technology that underpins content and learning management systems.

Why you must curate content in 2015 is a well done article by Julia McCoy. It appeared in Search Engine Journal. McCoy clearly explains the necessity of managing the explosion of web content. She also provides free, cloud-based tools to accomplish that goal. However, one point that really grabbed me was her conclusion:

Though many new tools are appearing on a daily basis and making the job of content curation experts simpler, human involvement is still the most important factor for success.

Curation is only one aspect of managing vast information stores. In fact, the dilemma may be in the compulsion to manage and share as opposed to the creation of novel ideas or original analysis. We need a mental model. One of the most lucid is KQED Mind/Shift’s 4-part series by Justin Reich and Beth Holland (they are co-founders of EdTechTeacher).

The Mind/Shift Model of Curation, Creation and Connection

B. Levels of Sharing

Sharing is the second challenge of the 21st century communications shift. It needs to be seen as a gradient of experiences and interactions. Let’s differentiate between simple sharing (I found something cool); task-related sharing or collaboration to achieve an objective of goal; and the building of community.

  1. Simple sharing: little evaluation other than “liking” the item. Oftentimes there is little annotation. Current studies show that a large number of people typically share (for example, re-tweeting via Twitter) without even completely reading the article. This content surfing rides just above the surface waves of the content. A fascinating article by N. Bakshani entitled Binge Reading Disorder notes that the typical American reads more than 100,000 words a day. But does he or she actually understand even a fraction?
  2. Collaborative work: Sharing for the purpose of achieving a common objective is probably the new model of 21st century work. It is made possible by the “cloud.” Google Drive (often called Google Docs) has become a de facto standard for a collaborative workspace. Of course, there are other Apps as well. The point is that distance is no longer a limiting factor in work. Sharing at this level is more meaningful and typically produces a persistent product.
  3. Community: Over time the ability to share and collaborate can lead to persistent connections. One might call these communities. For example, it is interesting to see how Twitter Chats like #caedchat have evolved to become communities. Facebook friends and family setting has, for many, become the way to keep community alive when distance would otherwise prohibit regular interaction.

C. Creativity and Originality

Creativity is the third challenge of the 21st century communications shift. What is creativity? What does it mean to be original? In the context of the current blog, does over-sharing interfere with originality? Several issues and strategies offer some insights.

Project based learning

The movement to Project Based Learning (PBL) may offer some help into a higher level use of educational standards. The foundation of PBL might be said to be the driving question (sometimes called an essential question). The key point that differentiates it from lower order thinking is that a driving question is open-ended. It is not simply the search for one right answer. Because PBL admits to multiple right answers, it fosters greater creativity in inquiry as well as more original content creation.

Citizen Journalism

One might make the argument that citizen journalism began when the first user reported a breaking story on Twitter before the news rooms could put together their stories. It leads us to ask: What is journalism, and how does it relate to the world of high school students? Can a preconceived narrative interfere with an uncovering of facts? Is it more important to tell or story, or to tell the truth? Journalists put a lot of emphasis on getting the story first; yet more important is to get it right.

Given that many of the younger Millennial generation get their news from Bing, Yahoo, Twitter or an aggregator like Digg, it is important for educators to start developing lessons around standards of content curation and content creation.

Mash-ups, Paying Homage and YouTube

Kids love their music. Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams produced the hit song Blurred Lines in 2014. The family of Marvin Gaye said they had copied the guts of Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit song, Got to Give it Up. Thicke and Williams said they were paying homage to Marvin Gaye. However, the jury found in favor of the Gaye family, and Thicke and Williams were ordered to pay $7.3 million.

This raises the question: Where does homage end and infringement begin? Copyright has a long history. Many educators and others use short sections of copyrighted work under the doctrine of fair use. But can it survive the 21st century? By extension we can ask the same of sharing. There are excesses for sure. Yet where does sharing start, and when does it become simply copying?


We live in a rapidly changing world dominated by a flood of information, multi-leveled communication, and a wealth of sharing. It is an interwoven phenomenon of both process and content, and it is evolving rapidly. Teachers need to explore and understand how this evolution affects student behavior, student thought and classroom practices. The explosion of information as a practical matter requires both teachers and students to learn how to curate and to evaluate content. It requires that we explore models of sharing in education. When is an idea ours? When and how is it derived? Equal value has to be given to creativity and to one’s ability to use analytic skills.

Case Study in Narrative Seeking

The Rolling Stone case of errant reporting. The issue of sexual assaults on college campuses has been gaining quite a lot of traction recently as the public becomes more aware. In November 2014 Rolling Stone Magazine published an investigative piece about a purported gang rape on the campus of University of Virginia titled A Rape on Campus. The report outraged many. However, others dug deeper. After the Washington Post discovered many inconsistencies in the story – and after an in-depth investigation by the Columbia School of Journalism; and after an in-depth investigation by the local police department  – Rolling Stone Magazine retracted the story. The Columbia School of Journalism concluded:

Rolling Stone’s repudiation of the main narrative in “A Rape on Campus” is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking

In psychology the phenomenon of seeking out information and sources that confirm our previously held beliefs is called  “confirmation bias.” As such it definitely has a legitimate place in teaching students to cite and evaluate evidence to support their arguments.

Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

Reveal is produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting. The CIR originally produced the I Files. Check out some of their previous work.

The Shift in Privacy

This topic is really an extension of Levels of Sharing explored above. What people know about us has increased with the explosion of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media. What are the boundaries between you and me? Can we have any reasonable expectation of privacy in a world of ever present social media and the powerful algorithms of Google? It will have to be the topic of a future blog.

World without walls: Privacy may not be dead, but it has certainly altered. Most communication about which we are talking occurs in the cloud. The cloud, by definition, is somewhere out of our control. Transparency rules the day

Teaching inspiration

What if

Teaching Inspiration

I am a longtime educator. I have worked in K-12 for 25 years as both classroom teacher and administrator. I have taught college graduate course in educational technology, teaching of reading, action research and more. Over the years I have seen two repeating themes in young teachers: the need for classroom management strategies, and the almost insatiable appetite to believe that it would get easier.

I am also a parent of four children and grandparent to four more. That happens if you hang around long enough, and your children are inclined to repeat some of the same mistakes you made. I see how the nature vs. nurture dialectic plays out uniquely in each generation. The English literature teacher in me sees it like one of Shakespeare plays, a theme in variation, ever the same yet with stylistic differences.

The older I became, I have found that younger adults would often defer to me. Whether it is kindness or respect was sometimes hard to know. However, I definitely remember several adults who asked me if they should go into the teaching profession. My stock reply:

There are two things in this world I never suggest people do unless they feel called to it: having children, and teaching.

Perspective and Context

I entered teaching before I ever had my own children. I always knew I wanted children ever since I was young. I do not know if that is typical for a young man, or was it just an understanding that I had with myself in one of those intimate conversations in the mirror? When I was a teenager, I pictured myself becoming a doctor; maybe a surgeon. When I was even younger than that, I thought of my future self becoming a “scientist.” It seemed to wrap up all that I thought was important in “becoming a man.”

Fast forward to college. I became a Psychology major and English minor. It took six long years with multiple deviations on my path; I ran away from home at age 24 to get married. Then I took my first real job as a third grade teacher in Ithaca, New York. I made a staggering $6350 my first year. At least now I can say that was last century’s wages.

I remember that I came home and cried after my first two days on the job. Literally. I realized that my four years of college has not prepared me to deal with a room of 25 eight-year-olds. (Yes, class size was smaller then.) My wife told me I could not quit no matter how I felt. I had to stick it out for the year. I had signed a contract, and that contract spoke to my character.

My wife was finishing her four-year degree that Fall. We had one source of income. We had just settled into a life in snow-belt country. I stayed on the job. After the brief tears and doubts, I embraced the challenge.

Moment of Truth

I realized that I knew virtually nothing about how to teach reading. That was easily my first order of business The other was organizing the days into manageable chunks of instructional time. So one evening a week I got in the car and drove one hour to a Teaching of Reading class at Syracuse University. Because I had an actual teaching position, I found myself in the same class as “experienced teachers.” I was ever aware of the irony, yet I knew I had found my calling. I just desperately needed to know how to fulfill it.

Searching for Inspiration: The Not Yet of Mastery

Yes, we all need it: teachers, students, administrators, parents. Board of Education members and perhaps even a few politicians might need it – along with some backbone. But what is inspiration? Why do we need it?

Human beings are complex creatures, and teaching is one of the most complex acts of human engineering conceived. Taylor Mali lets us know what teachers really make.  Daniel Pink’s video explores what motivates us. Carol Dweck explores the growth mindset and the power of “not yet.”

We have free will, the ultimate in growth mindsets. With the ability to win big comes the chance to fail miserably. Our goals and objectives may be different, yet we have the near universal need to believe we are doing the right thing – regardless of the reasons. Doubt is a necessary part of human nature. We aspire, we choose, and we doubt. THe surest motivation is that which comes from within. We seek inspiration more than we seek answers.


Creating an engaging learning environment can be arguably said to be the teacher’s most difficult task. However, engaging students is a function of hard work by the teacher. It is not just exuberance. For example, Buck Institute of Education is a leading force in Project Based Learning. Projects are meant to invite participation. They typically begin with entry events. “Entry events should engage and intrigue, and provoke students to want to know more.” Feedback and tasks are thoughtful, genuine and have a linkage to that entry event. What a great philosophy of learning!

Imagination, Play and Control

Imagination is inspiration’s cousin. It often requires a period of fermentation. Sometimes it requires a certain amount of playfulness. It gives voice to our emotional nature. Like it or not, school is place where we learn to play and interact as well as solve problems and master content.

Google’s 20% genius time approach to stimulating engagement and achievement is based on the premise that if you allow your talent pool – whether engineers or students – some choice and control in what they create, they will turn out superior results. In Google’s case, they allow their engineers one day a week to work on projects of their own choice. Both Gmail and Google Talk were developed in this way. ESchoolNews writes a fascinating article about how two English teachers adapted this approach to their classes.

What if

Imagine what if. What if learning were inspired and engaging? What if students were motivated to learn? What if they could follow their interests? What if teachers felt supported, valued and had all the tools they needed? What if a child’s education were the most important thing in the world?


For further reading, check out “Half the World is Not Enough” by Lev Grossman. This Time Magazine article explores and dissects Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to get every human online.

The Classroom Feedback Loop


Reviewing, communicating and feedback.

When learning is the goal of any project, then teachers and students enter a constant feedback loop. How – and how often – that feedback is structured is essential to success. Educators refer to the importance of formative assessments that provide mid-course corrections rather than relying on final or summative assessments. How mid-course feedback occurs determines whether students actually understand where they are in the learning process.

In How Looking at Student Work Keeps Teachers and Kids on Track, Katrina Schwartz at Mind/Shift addresses the dilemma: most student work is only read by teachers. Not only that, but intermediate progress checks may be infrequent. One thing that research has shown is that good feedback needs to be targeted, specific and timely.

What is Good Feedback?

  • It is targeted. That is, it is linked to learning objectives.
  • It provides specific guidance to students.
  • It is timely.

Researchers such as Carol Dweck are working on helping students develop academic or growth mindset. It is important that students believe in their own ability to succeed. One thing Dweck notes is that students can influence their own learning.

Mindsets: How Students Can Influence Their Own Learning

  • Belonging to an academic community: feeling connected
  • Belief in the likelihood of success
  • The work has meaning and value
  • Belief that abilities and intelligence can grow with effort

When evaluating or reviewing student work, a rubric may be important, but it is not enough. When communicating with students, it is just as important to state why you, the teacher, are giving feedback at this point. It is how they will eventually internalize the ability to reflect on their own learning.

good, bad and the ugly

There is a critical difference between praise and feedback. Praise is not tied to learning results or performance, whereas feedback is. It is not a question of whether work is good or bad, but rather how the work expresses one’s goal. Feedback is an interactive, two-way street.

Sometimes teachers, parents and others are caught up in the dilemma of the good, the bad and the ugly.

Uncertain alliance

Many people have what can best be described  as an uncertain alliance with criticism. Rather than informing and strengthening a product, those in positions of authority who are giving feedback confuse the value of the person with the status of student work. Perhaps the question is whether the confusion is on the receiving end (the student) or the giving end (teacher). Nonetheless, it is a problem.

Students listen to their peers

Peer influence is huge with pre-teens and teenagers. Teachers can learn to leverage student feedback  by how they structure the learning environment in their classes. It is not always about whether the teacher is the only person who can give useful feedback, it is also about how students help each other understand.

work together


Art and Science of Teaching

The Art and Science of Teaching

I was intrigued by an article I read recently in The Atlantic. It was called The Future of College? by Graeme Wood (Aug 13, 2014). The Minerva Project has opened a new college in San Francisco. Or at least that is where its offices are located. It is hard to know if Minerva is actually anywhere in space.

It is a proprietary online model that leverages lessons learned from Skype, Khan Academy and Coursera. It is actually a for-profit accredited university. The CEO is youngish Ben Nelson whose goal is either to reform or to disrupt the liberal arts college model. Perhaps he simply wants to substitute online learning for face-to-face instruction.

Education in the modern world: What questions do we need to ask?

Some claim education is an art and a science. Nelson, the CEO of Minerva, has disputed this: “It’s a science and a science.” What do you think?

Pablo Picasso created a unique perspective of the world through “cubism,” his unique style of art. He once said of the modern technology, “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” What does that imply?

Is teaching art or science?Art or Science: What is the upshot?

Teaching is an ART in important ways:

  • It is humanistic, organic and inherently indeterminate.
  • Art is creative and often expressive. Material is organized in novel, artistic ways so that it stays fresh.
  • It is an interactive process of engagement between teacher and learner, or between person and subject.
  • Teachers relinquish creative control to students so that they can fulfill their own artistic side.
  • Art and Play live together in the same cognitive home.

Teaching is a SCIENCE in important ways:

  • It is predicated on scientific method.
  • It is based on the use of evidence.
  • One can test whether a lesson was successful.
  • It can be improved through research-based best practices.
  • It has elements that must be included in the formula for success such as planning, standards alignment, student feedback, and assessment.

Alternate Minds for an Evolving World

Our students are not ingredients in a stew recipe. Why do we need an educated public anyway?

“The Mind Is Not a Vessel That Needs Filling, But Wood That Needs Igniting”

Whether we attribute the above quote to Plutarch, Socrates or Yeats is immaterial. Teaching is the search for inspiration. It is a desire to invite students to take responsibility for their own learning, and to make that learning both more meaningful and more effective.

Continue reading

Problem and Solution

Problems with Solutions

Many times we are faced with what is clearly a problem, but we fail to find solutions. It often results from a failure to ask the right questions. As often happens, we confuse the metric with the causes of the problem.

The Nation’s Report Card

The United States annually administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). It is nicknamed the nation’s report card. It assesses what students know and can do in critical subject areas. The Christian Science Monitor recently released the results and analysis for the 2013 NAEP report card. Below are two selected quotes:

A full 25 percent of 12th-graders in 2013 scored below basic, compared with 20 percent in 1992, and just 37 percent scored at or above proficient, compared with 40 percent in 1992. Those scoring at the proficient level could answer questions requiring them to recognize the paraphrase of an idea from a historical speech and the interpretation of a paragraph in such a speech.

Scoring well on NAEP was strongly correlated with students who reported that reading isenjoyable,” said they “learn a lot” when they read, and said they regularly discuss what they read in class. [emphasis added]

The first paragraph clearly represents an educational problem. The second paragraph indicates a possible path to a solution. It is natural to ask, what are the root cause? What is going on here in these classrooms with these students? It might be the underlying instructional practice, it might be educational funding, it might be too much television and media consumption at the expense of reading, or it might be the result of shifting cultural-economic patterns in society. I am sure other options could be hypothesized as well.


Let’s concentrate on one problem reported in the findings: students have difficulty recognizing the paraphrase of an idea from a longer text. Instead of “paraphrase” we could easily substitute other words such as summary, main idea or gist. The natural question to ask is, what is the cause of this inability to synthesize knowledge into a paraphrase?

Then we can ask, how do we fix it? What is the solution? The key may lie in the second quote: scores of proficient and above were associated with enjoyment and value placed by students on reading. Just as importantly, they regularly discuss what they read in class. Teachers often do not have the luxury of extended analysis; Monday is around the corner.


On the road from problem to solution, there are some pitfalls.

  • Blame game:
    Unfortunately, once we think we have found or named a cause, we often look for someone to blame. This type of “accountability” finds much of its strength in sanctions and punitive responses. It finds it strength in fear. Blame is so unproductive, and it rarely leads to a solution.
  • Paralysis by analysis:
    Ok. Let’s think about this. Then let’s think some more. Too much analysis can lead to a failure to try to solve the problem. Sometimes empiricism is the best method for exploring solutions to complex problems: hypothesize, try something, observe results and then evaluate. Repeat.
  • Someday/ Monday:
    Teachers often do not have the luxury of extended analysis: someday someone will find an answer. However, on Monday all those students will show up in your classroom. The Someday/Monday dichotomy captures one of the core challenges in teacher professional development around education technology, but it also applies to general instructional strategies as well.


In first looking at the Nation’s Report Card summary, I must admit that it is easy to get overwhelmed. I decided to focus more on reading since it is a core skill. I have been a Reading Specialist and a high school English teacher during my career, so I have a natural interest in language and reading. In the elementary grades I found that teaching main idea was extremely challenging. It was no less so in high school. Why? I have learned that it does not exist as a discrete skill, but it is a set of thinking skills that are highly influenced by context.

The light went on for me as I thought about this. Main idea – or summary – was an analogue to Noam Chomsky’s theory of transformational grammar. (Don’t run! Let me explain – briefly!) I read Chomsky in my studies as a reading specialist. He was a linguist who posited that there was a deep structure to all grammatical structures within our brains. It reflected it self in multiple ways as part of the surface grammar – which always seemed to be in flux. That is why trying to teach grammar has been such a bear of a task.

When I taught English Language Learners in what were then called ESL classes, I learned that students acquired language. Through multiple variations in context and comprehensible input, they started to master the underlying grammar. In the same way, students learn to summarize or grasp the gist of passages through discussions of what the gist is. You might call this collaborative summarizing. In educational psychology one might call it the social construction of knowledge.

I had the opportunity to film some instructional practices in the classroom that offer instructional strategies that target the ability to summarize. It is not an innate ability. Rather it is a learned set of skills that require clear instruction, time and repeated practice. I learned a great deal as I filmed collaborative summarizing – in a third grade classroom and in a 7th grade classroom. The methods could easily be applied to high school. They are posted on YouTube; see below.

Comments on Coal Miners and Teachers

Many are familiar with the story of the canary and the coal mine. It is derived from actual historical practice. Coal mining has always been a dangerous trade. Early on the miners learned that a canary could be used as an early warning system, as a way to warn of deadly gases that had no smell. If the miners found that the canary in the cage had died, they then knew the air was bad, and it was time to get out or put on respirators.

The coal miners were practical people. They knew that some unseen thing existed below the surface that might kill them. They probably did not know that it was carbon monoxide. They used an empirical method that worked and saved lives. If a canary died, they did not blame the canary for not being strong enough. I taught for 25 years, and I believe that teachers are like coal miners: They show up everyday, mining minds, looking for practical methods that work. Like the miners, they make connections based on their observations.

When I reviewed the Nation’s Report Card, I connected the findings to the video work I had done as well as to my own teaching experiences. Collaborative summarizing works because students are social, and they want to learn and share. However, they need an instructional strategy to guide them. That is what good teaching is about. It is complex. It is empirical. It is a solution to the problem.

Education at the Crossroads of Humanity and Technology

Learning Redefined

Robert Gardner of Harvard has written extensively about multiple intelligences, a theory he developed in 1983. There is not just one way to be smart. There are many. The same might be said about learning. Is there one best way, or multiple ways? How is it that we define and measure it? The answers to those questions profoundly affect how we approach teaching and learning.

In what has been called The Second Machine Age, innovation has exploded exponentially. Globalization has continued to proliferate, and the world has become flatter. Robots do more and more of the work we once did. Big data has dramatically increased in its scope and dominance while privacy has been marginalized. As a result, the calculus of how we create, manufacture and implement has evolved. We find ourselves at a crossroads between technology and our humanity.

The modern classroom has become ground-zero for many of these changes. Before children ever even think of entering the work force, they enter our schools. Our teachers have been tasked with making sense of it all while managing the daily life of classroom activity. It is somewhat like the challenge of building an airplane while flying in it. Yet teachers persevere.

The students, of course, are the native inhabitants of the present. The future they face is partly the result of what we continually create for them in the classroom. Pedagogy has now become a proxy for social policy as we write the script for tomorrow.

We need the right questions

Pablo Picasso once said, “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” He had an unusual way to looking at the world. He inspired “Cubism,” an art movement that put a premium on subjective expression. He could portray the horror of war in Guernica or the tender bond between Mother and Child. Both paintings (shown below) might be asking deep questions that start with “Why?” Why is there war? How strong is the bond between mother and child? Why is it that both can live side by side in the same world?

Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1937)

Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1937)

Mother and Child (1921)

Mother and Child by Pablo Picasso (1921)

Learning is not just finding the answer. It is essential for students to learn how to ask and for teachers to learn how to guide them. Inquiry is both a skill-set and a mind-set. That often means that we challenge conventional wisdom. One of the goals of Common Core State Standards (CCSS), now adopted by 46 states, is to shift thinking. KQED’s Mind/Shift also provides a scaffold of ideas and research for transforming our thinking about learning.

Just what can machines teach us?

David Brooks wrote a fascinating article in the N. Y. Times, What Machines Can’t Do. He cites the changes in technology that appear to be propelling us into massive societal change – whether we want it or not. Yet he transforms that analysis into the often unasked question: What is it that we humans can do that machines cannot? The answers to the question yield significant consequences for educational practice.

What humans can do is pose questions. Perhaps the act of inquiry and choice is a necessary expression of our humanity. It was Socrates who once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  If we adapt that reasoning to the modern classroom, then we might derive these corollaries:

  • To know without doing is not understanding.
  • Higher order thinking without the “higher” is just a “lot” of lower order thinking.
  • To become a lifelong learner requires personal responsibility and internal motivation.
  • To pose relevant questions can be taught and learned.
  • There is no such thing as a foregone conclusion.
  • True inquiry must always admit to more than one right answer.

To think is to be.

It is the foundation of all knowledge. It is a paraphrase of what Descartes concluded when he said, “Cogito ergo sum.” It literally means, “I think. Therefore, I am.”

Learning by Inquiry: What is it to be human?

Let’s postulate for a minute that modern education should be driven by inquiry. We might additionally posit that “projects” are one of the most efficient methods for integrating raw knowledge into true understanding. We could then pose a series of “essential” or “driving” questions built around a scaffold of core questions relevant to a particular discipline. The questions could be a substitute for the traditional textbook “units.” We might then ask the essential question: “What is it to be human?”

An “essential question” is the foundation for a project-based learning (PBL) unit. It is important to understand that PBL has a great deal of specific content. Questions help organize the mind, and information that is unorganized quickly flees its home in “working memory” into the vast wasteland of something once memorized for a test. Inquiry based learning integrates perfectly into Common Core State Standards. (To learn more about PBL, visit Edutopia and Buck Institute.)

Let’s assume that we wanted to be somewhat practical in terms of adapting K-12 education to our changing world. Technology and the rise of digital materials are clearly impacting the modern classroom. The Second Machine Age (2014) by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT delivers an intriguing hypothesis regarding this digital revolution. If the first machine age (that is, the “industrial revolution”) began with the steam engine, then the second machine age has begun with the computer, cheap digital goods and globalization. We are at the cusp or “inflection point” – a period of exponential change – in our economy and society.

Implications for education

1. Implications for learning

It is clear that that the digital revolution has reached the classroom. One of the historical trends that The Second Machine Age describes is that of “lag.” After any new technology – whether electricity or computers – we have a period of time during which new “complements” or processes get developed. In this case, teachers have LCD projectors, students have tablets, and the schools have the Internet, digital textbooks and learning management systems. Learning is becoming more individually differentiated simply because it can become more differentiated.

Secondly, higher-order thinking (including the ability to innovate or be creative) have taken on increased importance. Project-inquiry and problem-solving are part of the trend. Because of the shift to analysis and inquiry – and the requirement that students defend their reasoning (cite from text or orally explain logic and connections) – students are often reaching different conclusions. That is because they often begin with different open-ended questions. This is the world of multiple right answers.

The increased use of collaboration by students has helped create a more “divergent thinking” model of teaching and learning. Believe it or not, the introduction of Common Core State Standards has provided a superior scaffold for inquiry and divergence because it focuses on standards rather than prescribing how things should be taught. As students collaborate, they share perspectives and broaden their own horizons. With modern technology it is even possible to easily collaborate across broad geographic boundaries. Indeed, collaboration and globalization is the current economic trend.

2. Implications for teaching

Schools now have the Internet, digital textbooks and learning management systems. They and their students increasingly store documents, resources and student work in the “cloud.” As personalized learning becomes more of a de facto reality, teachers have to shift to using technology as a matter of survival. Educational technology provides a set of tools necessary to master large amounts of content in their disciplines. It also allows teachers to manage learning, assignments and assessment in a way that was inconceivable before the current revolution

Having been in education for more than 25 years, my experience is that teachers deeply care about the children and adolescents in their class. If they don’t, then they generally find themselves in a different profession. However, it creates a dilemma when they see many children struggle. They can be caught between being a social worker and an instructor; between the art and science of pedagogy. Humanity meets policy in the classroom.

3. The implications for standardization and assessment

Taken together, the insights of Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”) and Picasso (“computers … can only give you answers”) offer a philosophical foundation of inquiry-based learning. To question is an essential expression of our humanity. What does it mean to be educated?

How we answer it has profound implications for our schools. It is important to note that a case of cognitive dissonance occurs. The question, “What should schools teach?” does not always correspond to the previous one, “What does it means to be educated?” Therefore, we need to ask, “Why not?”

The answer may partially lie in the convoluted and complex relationship between various stakeholders in K-12 education: teachers, parents and students as well as government and community. The incredibly passionate battle over Common Core State Standards (CCSS) may provide a living case history in the making. 45 states have adopted CCSS, and the battles in those states are far from over.  It is partly a battle over the role of assessment. Some refer to it as the runaway dominance of testing in controlling what happens in the classroom.

Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch railed against the over-emphasis on testing in Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010). (Check out her current blog about the difficulties in the New York rollout of CCSS.) The newest assessments for CCSS are computerized. That then spirals back to the questions: What will be the role of machines in our education? Where do we humans and our penchant for creativity fit in? Does everything need to be standardized?

Bill and Melinda Gates take the view of many in the business community about Common Core. That is, as a country we need to get our students ready to compete on the world stage. They say there are three myths that confuse the debate over America’s schools. Here they are:

  • Myth 1: parents haven’t been involved.
  • Myth 2: students need to take even more high stakes tests.
  • Myth 3: Common Core will limit teachers’ creativity and flexibility.

At the risk of having the reader believe the myths are facts, you may want to read the article. What is the final answer? Well, it depends on your question.

Do we belong to the whole?

American education has stood apart from society as a separate institution, often insulated from the outside world. Forces such as politics, the economy and “progress” have crashed at the sea walls of the schools, ebbing and flowing like tidal changes. Institutional change in school has lagged, but it has been steadily growing. The new machine age – our technological and economic revolution – is inevitably sweeping us all into its metaphoric bosom.

There is an implied “social contract” between educational institutions and society. The youth of today are tomorrow’s adults, business leaders, scientists and politicians. They are the fabric that will bind us. Yes, we belong to the whole. Like every generation before us, we need to do cherish what makes us unique. How we educate our youth today will define how humanity manifests itself tomorrow.

The Role of Thinking in Education

What is Thinking?

Teachers Ask Questions

When we think of our educational experiences, we often to questions that teachers have asked us. Memorable questions. Not, “What is your name?” Hopefully, something more insightful. Deeper. Engaging. Something requiring thinking work. Is the role of the teacher to impart information? Give answers? Or stimulate inquiry?

Much is written about “scaffolding” and “modeling” when we teach. These are instructional strategies. Experienced teachers provide frameworks for understanding by using concept maps like those in Inspiration, presenting information as an advanced organizer, or eliciting prior experience through quick-writes, or using an engaging entry event for a project based learning unit. There are many ways. However, what marks the great teacher is the ability to ask questions; to follow lines of student thinking; to engage in conversations of inquiry.

Students Ask Questions

Students also have their memorable moments in the classroom – experiences that resulted in an “Ah ha!” Students may seek answers, but it is at that moment of putting together the disparate pieces of the puzzle that the spirit of the philosopher is born.

Making Connections

I watched Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square today. It had a fascinating discussion about the relationship of neuroscience to public policy. In this case, the focus was Iran. One of the participants said that the human brain was consistent across all cultures even though behavior might be different. It made me think about making connections.

Are networks really analogies?

Good question. The Atlantic article about David Hostaedter, The Man Who Would Teach Machines to Think, states that thinking is about analogies. Some might call the author one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence. My concern, of course, is human intelligence. What is higher order thinking?

Rick’s Dimensions of Thinking: the HOT Chart

The following chart indicates the relationship between levels of analysis (often thought of as a hierarchy) and levels of connectedness (analogies, interrelationships, etc.).

  • Analysis
    • create or synthesize
    • evaluate
    • analyze
    • apply
    • understand
    • remember
  • Connectedness
    • created
    • connected
    • isolated
    • contrary



Dimensions of Thinking

Dimensions of Thinking

Thinking and Education

Few might argue that education has nothing to do with thinking. Yet the definition of thinking is still up for grabs in the minds of the average person. For many who are not in the school system, thinking becomes recollection, memory or focus to the task at hand – perhaps solving a problem. In general usage it is often a synonym for acquired skills. It is probably more likely to have to do with opinion than analysis. “Oh, I thought you meant ….”

Thinking burns calories. It is work. Teachers often prod their students with the command “Think!” when it is apparent that they have not. Bosses and sports coaches often do the same. Sometimes parents. When I was younger, my mother used to scold me: “I swear, if your head weren’t attached to your body, you’d forget it.” Now when I remember those earlier years, I realize that sometimes I just did not think things through.

As both a parent and a teacher, I learned that so much of thinking was developmental. As a teacher I learned that classroom activities had to be “developmentally appropriate.” When I read Piaget, I began to understand the developmental nature of our own psychology. What can be understood tomorrow may not be able to be grasped today.

The modern dilemma of education is that it is too often divorced from possibility of achieving mastery; too often ensnared in the emotional experience and trivia of everyday life.


The Role of Collaboration in Thinking

School is many things. It is more than bricks and mortar. It is a societal institution and a place of learning. Many will debate its goals and objectives, and many philosophers and researchers have pondered the intertwined relationship of teaching to learning. From my perspective, school is primarily about student learning.

Learning is not one-dimensional. Learning in school is social, emotional, physical and cognitive. School is also a developmental phenomenon. A six year old child is fundamentally different – perceives, reasons and acts differently – than a 13 year old teenager.

Let’s consider cognitive development: the development of the mind. Student learning has to be active to be effective. Active learning implies both inquiry and construction of knowledge. And it never occurs in isolation. In other words, learning occurs in a social context. That is how we learn point-of-view; it is how we learn to evaluate truth or falsehood.

Is evolution real? Which metaphor best applies to our age?

  • The widening gyre. Can we find the “eye” of the storm [the recursive gyre]. Relates to “flat” world.
  • The ladder. The upward mobility or evolutionary model. How does evolution work? Is it survival of the fittest?
  • The democratization of information and education (also applies to flat world). Does Occam’s Razor apply here, or its opposite, the explosion of many like resources; the “long tail” of education?
  • The Cambrian Explosion [source 2] of the Internet and its many “app” creatures. Somewhere about 530-580 million years ago a rapid, enormous jump in the number of new species occurred. It was called the Cambrian Explosion. Sometimes I look to science to help provide insight. We now have a large number of “apps” that might collectively called a “clade” [2]: all descended from a common ancestor, the Internet that was born in 1969.
  • Thinking – Does it evolve? What is its relation to language? Include a reference to The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains by Nicolas Carr (2011). [Listen to the NPR podcast.]

The Sub-Topics of this blog:

  • Bring [evolve] your pencil – It has now evolved and become the wireless tablet or a smartphone. Have students take notes; never listen passively.
  • Interaction – this includes both standard roll-overs and deeper interactivity that involves choice
  • Choice and flexibility – personal learning networks and the increased role of choice outside a locked-down curriculum. New tech has moved outside the Maginot Line (1) (2) of the redoubts of fixed-in-place learning resources.
  • Higher order thinking – All of the preceding lead to students (and teachers) increased moving up the ladder.
  • Active construction of knowledge – PBL is only one aspect. Learning is doing, and modern media allow greater ease in doing (clarify)
  • Feedback – Now with Google Drive; walled social networks like Edmodo; LMSs like Blackboard or Schoology; and a host of interactive apps like Evernote, Explain Everything, etc. – we are able to communicate in real time.

How Does One Integrate Social Media with Education?

With a multiplicity of tech tools at our disposal, we can embed inquiry in project based learning.  Students use technology tools, but the tools are a means to an end. The focus is the thinking that underlies inquiry and then the creation of final products that demonstrate learning while communicating in an authentic fahion.

Start with a broad open-ended “essential question” to focus the project. Such as question cannot have a single answer. “Fill in the bubble” is not allowed here! Perhaps we can ask something like, “What is the essence of democracy?”  Or “Does democracy require oversight?” You can ask, “Is privacy a right?” “What is a healthy ecosystem?” Or “When is too much enough?”

Require that students provide evidence for their thinking so that the argument or research can be evaluated. Require that the answer use the targeted tech tools; and the findings be “published.” Next, require interaction. Specifically, require that other students – collaborators – respond through comments or threaded discussion. I personally love Wikis as a way to build a portfolio of responses. Finally, build in assessment. Have students submit an individual written reflection to you of what they learned.  Include what worked, what didn’t work, and why.

Inspiration and Reflection

Web 2.0, or is it the Second Coming? Inspiration from from William Butler Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Source: The Second Coming by W. B. Yeats, Poem of the Week

Research on Identity and Imagination for Digital Natives

Here are some key works:

  • Impact of technology on the psyche of digital natives: The App Generation: Identity, Intimacy and Imagination (2013) by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis. Concepts (per YouTube lecture): discrete tasks; structured; icons are like “brands.” Life is a series of ‘apps’ culminating in a ‘super-app.’ Gardner noticed that today’s “app” kids have never gotten lost. Interesting finding.
    • Identity: Polished, packaged and risk-averse.
    • Intimacy: a few strong ties with many weak ties. Young people today are always connected; reluctant to be vulnerable; difficulty with eye contact. Are they “empathy-challenged?”
    • Imagination: looked at teen publications over 20 year period at 354 works. Graphic works:  Later works more fully rendered (significant). In written works: later works had less genre play; more mundane plots; more linear; language less formal.
    • Conclusions: We are becoming “app dependent.”
    • Continue YouTube at 32:53
  • Sociological Framework: The Lonely Crowd (1950) by David Riesman. Concepts of “inner directed” vs. “outer directed.”
  • Psychoanalytic framework: Childhood and Society (1950) by Erik Erikson. Concepts of identity and “role diffusion.”

Chicken or egg? The Relationship of Work and Education

Re-imagining education in the 21st century may require re-imagining work. Dave Coplin suggests that the social paradigm of collaboration has shifted. In the classical production era (call it when you will, but the entire latter half of the 20th century would qualify), workers would work in private, and they would then collaborate in limited ways. Now in the more open era, the concept of privacy has shifted. We work in public (in the cloud), and we then decide whom to block.


The Economist magazine, which I read, had an interesting article on “Private Parts,” The chart includes how different countries – and cultures – view privacy.

Public opinions on privacy



Collaboration at the Crossroads

An Explosion of Change

It is not about the tools.
Rather, it is about the evolution of thinking.

perspective put on new glasses

It’s a matter of perspective

Because technology in education moves at such a fast, fractious pace, it is sometimes hard to find the center. Temptations to try new tools and tricks abound, and it is easy to become distracted.

What is the big picture in education? When confused, I always return my focus to “student learning.”


A Collaborative Perspective

As much as the institution of schools may attempt to stand apart from the world around it, change is inevitable. School is more than bricks and mortar. It is a societal institution, a locus of learning. Indeed, with the rise of distance and blended learning models, one can see that school is gradually becoming less defined as a place with four walls and more defined as a collaborative space for building knowledge.

It is not just the technology that has evolved over the past decade, but the culture and social structure in which it is embedded has also developed. We are living in the midst of a major shift in access to information, knowledge creation, and communication. Perhaps it is something analogous to the Cambrian explosion , a period in earth evolution in which new life forms exploded onto the scene. Yes, students still come to class; we take attendance; we structure learning; we assess knowledge and needs. But new forms of life  – let’s call them “apps” – are emerging at an ever rapid pace.

In the world of apps, collaboration has evolved to become a more distributed function. Sound too abstract? It’s not. It just means that we are as likely to meaningfully connect with someone across the country as with someone at the desk next to us. The ubiquity of smartphones and tools like Twitter and Facebook abound as connection media. The use of newer platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat with teens is moving at the speed of fashion. What is a teacher or parent to do?

The Family that Tweets Together Stays Together.

“Retweeted by Mom? Teenagers might say they’d die of embarrassment. But teenagers who are connected with their parents via Twitter and other social media have better relationships with them, and fewer behavioral problems.” That is what a new study finds about families who embrace new forms of collaborating.

What about teachers? If students “speak in tech,” then shouldn’t teachers communicate or collaborate with them using that language as well? After all, modern kids live in this connected world. We need to teach them to think. We also need to help embed their reality in the context of genuine human relationships. That is both the heart and the art of teaching.

Does the classroom that tweets together also learn better together?

Think of tweeting as a metaphor of all social networking. Where you land on this question generally reflects your perspective on the role and impact of social networking on who we are. Nicholas Carr offered a very thoughtful exploration of this question in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010; 2011). The book has some excellent research. It is a quick read, but it raises many important questions. The New York Times Book Review accurately portrays the anxiety – and ambiguity – that Carr feels. One thing is clear: thinking itself has changed. Prefer a summary in cartoon format?

More In Depth

The following blog explores both the pros and cons of using social networking tools in the classroom. The non-profit ProCon.Org explores both sides of the broader debate, Are Social Networking Sites Good for Our Society?

For further exploration of the Someday/Monday phenomenon and role of technology in learning, check out KQED’s Mind/Shift blog.


Time to Dive In

Many teachers and administrators are ready to embrace technology now. Like many of those same educators, I don’t plan to give up my authority as a mentor to a program that someone else wrote. I don’t do that with textbooks. Why do it with anonymous content creators? However, I do plan to embrace its reality. More than anything else, teachers are pragmatists. They teach the students they have.

When Monday arrives, and the students are in their seats, it is time to teach – ready or not. Check out the Teq blog, 11 Things We Learned About Social Media in the Classroom. Here are some quick tips:

  • Share and collaborate online with teachers as well as students.
  • Provide access to resources.
  • Use Twitter as an Exit Slip.
  • Gather content with Pinterest.
  • Create a scavenger hunt with Instagram.

New Rules for Engagement

What is the answer to the shifting world of technology? Do we resist it or embrace it? Many educators, philosophers and researchers have pondered the intertwined relationship of teaching to learning. From my perspective, school is primarily defined by student learning, and learning is driven by inquiry. For learning to become knowledge, it requires active participants who are engaged. It all needs to be embedded in the real world.

In order to maintain engagement and higher level thinking, it is essential to build in collaboration at all levels: between students and students; between students and teachers; and between teachers and teachers.  It is how we learn point-of-view. It is how we learn to evaluate truth or falsehood. It is how we create knowledge.