Most know that a real estate agent’s top three rules for buying a home or piece of property are location, location, location. This is due to the fact that while you can add a swimming pool, put granite counter tops in the kitchen, or tear out that orange, shag carpeting in the family room, the location of the house is pretty much set. As a result, factors beyond the state of the house or property such as having scenic views, a healthy job climate, and being close to destinations for recreation and public transportation all effect its value to a large degree.
Chambers of Commerce and Economic Development Agencies have also found these same rules for real estate hold true for talent attraction. While the number of Americans that move has fallen over the past decade and a half (according to 2016 Census Bureau data, approximately 4.7 Americans moved across state lines as compared with 7.5 million Americans in 1999), young, college-educated people are flocking to certain cities and metropolitan areas including Washington, San Francisco, Boston and San Jose at a high percentage (City Observatory, 2014). In each of these areas, 7.5% of the population is made up of college-educated, 25 to 34 year olds, well above the national average of 5.2% (City Observatory, 2014). These locations not only boast a thriving job market, but feature amenities that draw in young professionals such as a thriving downtown, bike sharing services, and easy access to outdoor recreation.
In light of the changing nature of how and where we work and the type of work we do, I would argue that this principle of “location” will need to become more central to the nature of teaching and learning. As local industries and jobs change and evolve at a quicker pace over time due to technology advances, automation, and the use of artificial intelligence, educational systems will need to have a tighter link with their communities in order to stay relevant. Place-based education, with its emphasis on “using the local community and environment as a starting point to teach concepts in language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, and other subjects” (Sobel, 2012), stresses the importance of location to the learning process. Yet, while place-based education is about utilizing and exploring the place around oneself (i.e. - investigating the health of a local stream, exploring local history, etc.), it does not necessarily put a similar amount of emphasis on “authenticity”. For example, in a place-based education unit students could investigate the ecosystem around their school, plant a garden outside of their classroom, and write poems on benches placed within a local forest preserve, but without a clear direction or purpose behind them they simply become activities related to the community, not authentic experiences connected to the community.
Toward a New Conception of "Place"
As a result, as opposed to defining place as one’s local community, I would argue that in designing learning experiences place should be thought of as the types of authentic connections one can make. Viewed from this perspective, “place” can generate three different types of connections, each of which has a different degree of authenticity:
Given these three different types of authentic connections (temporal, virtual, and local) that can be made, there are various ways that an educator can approach the design of a project. They could, for instance, look at what temporal connections exist that connect to the standards and skills they would like to teach and from there explore what virtual and local connections they could access. Conversely, educators could begin by exploring what local connections they could work with and whether any of the real-world issues they are facing relate to the standards and skills that they are expected to teach. Ether way, taking this approach to place within project design ensures that authenticity is front and center.
Sobel, D. (2012). Place-based Education: Connecting Classroom and Community. Retrieved June 20, 2017, from https://www.antioch.edu/new-england/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2017/02/pbexcerpt.pdf
City Observatory. (2014). Young and Restless. Retrieved June 20, 2017, from http://cityobservatory.org/ynr/
Every four years, the National Center for Education Statistics researches teacher attrition and mobility across the United States. According to their latest estimate, based on data from 2013, approximately 16% of teachers either move schools (8%) or leave the teaching profession altogether (8%) each year. While the popular perception is that the majority of educators that leave the profession each year are retirees, they in fact make up less than one-third of this group (Learning Policy Institute, 2016). According to the Learning Policy Institute (2016), a majority of teachers decide to leave due to dissatisfaction with the profession including “teaching conditions, administrative support, collegial opportunities, and teacher input into decision making”.
In the age of social-media, where everything and anything is posted online for others to view, educators have begun making their dissatisfaction with the profession public through open resignation letters published on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The content of many of these open letters is simply heart-breaking:
“In this disturbing era of testing and data collection in public schools, I have seen my career transformed into a job that no longer fits my understanding of how children learn and what a teacher ought to do in the classroom” (Susan Sluyter, 2014)
“Creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation, and innovation are being stifled in a misguided effort to fix what is not broken in our system of public education” (Gerald Conti, 2013)
“I can no longer be a part of a system that continues to do the exact opposite of what I am supposed to do as a teacher – I am supposed to help them think for themselves, help them find solutions to problems, help them become productive members of society. Instead, the emphasis on . . . high-stakes testing is creating a teach-to-the-test mentality for our teachers and stress and anxiety for our students” (Pauline Hawkins, 2014)
Current research from Michigan State University (Dunn, Deroo, and VanDerHeide, 2017) points to the fact that these public resignation letters contain much of the same motives and content: Educators post their letters online to gain a greater voice in the discussion of their profession and to express their dissatisfaction with their own and their students’ working and learning conditions.
These educators are not alone in their dissatisfaction with the current condition of the K-12 education system. According to the latest PDK (2016) survey of the nation’s attitudes toward public schools, just 25% of American’s give the nation’s schools a rating of either an “A” or “B”. While better than this rating, only 48% of the public believe their local, public school district deserves a rating of an “A” or “B” and 67% of parents believe that the school their oldest child attends deserves a rating of an “A” or “B”. Put another way, approximately 1/3 of parents with children that attend public schools, would give the school that their child attends a “C” or worse.
This dissatisfaction with and negative perception of the nation's public schools (along with other factors such as standardized testing being elevated as a way to evaluate student and educator performance (Richmond, 2013) has begun to affect the number of students that decide to pursue a career as a teacher while in college. Since 2009, teacher education enrollments have dropped by 35%, from 691,000 to 451,000 nationwide (Learning Policy Institute, 2016). To make matters worse, it is expected that K-12 student enrollment is projected to increase significantly nationwide, thus creating a greater demand for students to go into the teaching profession.
While these trends look rather uniform and clean when viewed at the national level, the picture becomes much more nuanced the closer you look. For example, while Oklahoma has been experiencing a “tremendous teacher shortage” (Camera, 2015), in other areas of the country 1,000’s of applicants apply for only a couple of teaching jobs (Merrow, 2015). In Michigan, while the K-12 student population is projected to decline by 6.3% by 2023 (NCES, 2015), the general population in Ottawa County (the fastest growing section of Michigan) is projected to increase by 12.7% by 2020 (Ottawa County, 2015). For areas of the country such as Oklahoma and Ottawa County that are looking to hire qualified teachers, the picture becomes even more complex when you begin to think about filling certain positions. While it may be relatively easy to find a candidate that is qualified to teach at the lower grades and has a English Language Arts background, candidates that are qualified to teach in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines or are bi-lingual are worth their weight in gold.
Creating a Culture of "Yes, and . . ."
As the competition for qualified and skilled educators heats up in certain districts and areas or our country, various strategic initiatives focussed on recruitment and retention are being implemented or suggested including increasing the compensation for teachers and support and mentoring for educators within their first years in the profession (Learning Policy Institute, 2016). While each of these initiatives will likely be necessary in order to attract and keep educators within the profession, there will also be increased pressure for individual districts and schools to differentiate themselves from others to make sure the best teachers come to and remain with them. A natural reaction to this might be to “bolt-on” additional programs and initiatives to what is already happening within the school or district (think STEM Programs, Early College Programming, International Baccalaureate Programs, etc.) in order to make it look more innovative and attractive.
While I am a huge proponent of many of these programs and initiatives, I believe that to stay competitive, schools and districts will need to stop worrying about what new program or initiative to bring in and start working to create a culture of “Yes, and . . .” within their environments. Each of the teachers mentioned previously that posted their resignation letters online did so because they felt they had a lack of voice in their profession. Within these public resignations it is clear that their view of teaching and learning and what is best for students conflicts with what they are expected to do within the classroom and school. From their point of view, there was not a way to resolve or reconcile this conflict, hence the need to resign.
What if the district and school that these teachers had worked in approached this conflict with an attitude of “Yes, and . . .”? Yes, we live in an era of increased accountability and standardized testing, and how can we still value and promote creativity and teacher autonomy? Yes, we want our students to demonstrate proficiency on a state assessment, and how can we help students learn to think for themselves and solve real-life, complex issues? While these issues are complex and to address them would require a great deal of planning and investigation, this is exactly how our best teachers want to be engaged by their district and school. By adopting a “Yes, and . . .” culture, districts and schools may be creating more work, but it will be the kind of work that will once again attract teachers to the profession and keep our best teachers engaged and satisfied.
Within Project Based Learning units, we often find that the middle section of a project (the time between an engaging entry-event and the presentation of the project to an authentic audience) can be a veritable no-man's land - one where if as an educator you do not have enough tools and strategies in your hip pocket to guide students, time (which we all know is hard to come by within the classroom) can easily be sucked away.
We have found that Design Thinking, specifically what we refer to as the Creative Sequence, provides just the right amount of structure for both educators and students during the research and development phase of a Project-Based Learning unit. In the Creative Sequence, there are six different phases that can be described in the following way for use within the classroom:
While this sequence was presented in a linear fashion, one could always go back and forth between stages (i.e. - if you realized that you did not have viable solutions you could go back to the Investigation Stage to collect more research).
The nice thing about utilizing this sort of a framework within the classroom is that it gives clear guidance to students while they are working through a project ("For the next two days we will be working through the Incubation Stage of the project and coming up with ideas based upon the research we uncovered.") and it helps educators get a better handle on how to allocate their all too precious face-to-face time with students.
The Creative Sequence and Collaborative Student Work
You may of thought as you read through the descriptions of the different stages of the Creative Sequence, "I really do (or do not) like this part". That sort of reaction is natural. Personally, if I could exist in the Investigation and Incubation Stages everyday, all day at my job, I would be in heaven.
The students within our classrooms have similar reactions. While some could come up with crazy and tangental ideas all-day, every-day, others just want to get to the solution that they had in their mind the second that the educator posed the driving question. The issue arises in collaborative work when students do not realize that they have these prebuilt dispositions toward different portions of the Creative Sequence that conflict with other team members (i.e. - I want to brainstorm while others just want to get to a solution).
As educators/facilitators, if we help students to uncover these dispositions for various phases of the Creative Sequence, share them with their team mates, and view them as strengths ("You know Jose, we are really going to need you for this part because you really like and are good at the Ideation Stage.") versus weaknesses ("Jose would you please stop wasting time coming up with ideas.") then collaborative group work can only be more effective. Likewise, by doing this students' understanding of and confidence in themselves only stands to be greater.
So, this begs the question, how as educators can we help students do this? One new tool that we just developed (we will be trying it out with students at the orientation for our summer programs next week), is a "Creative Sequence Scenario Assessment". This collection of six scenarios
gives students a chance to think through what they would do in different situations (including completing a project) and self-assess which sections of the Creative Sequence they are the most drawn to. Hopefully it will spark some rich discussions in groups as to what areas team members are strong in and where there might be some gaps within the group.
To download a copy of the booklet, click on the image below. As you look it over and/or utilize it within your school, classroom or wherever, let us know what you think.
(Click on the Picture Below to Download a Copy)
Charles Eames (the designer pictured above who developed some of the most iconic and beloved furniture designs for Herman Miller) once remarked that "I have never been forced to accept compromises, but I have willingly accepted constraints". In addition, on a separate occasion, Eames commented that "one of the few effective keys to the design problem [is] the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible [and their] willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints".
When I think about Project Based Learning (PBL) and its implementation within classrooms ranging from Kindergarten through Post-Secondary, my mind often comes back to this wisdom from Charles Eames. One of the central tenets of "Gold-Standard" PBL (as defined by the Buck Institute for Education) is "Student Voice and Choice" which is defined as students having input and control over various aspects of the project they are engaged in. This could range from students deciding on the protocols they will utilize to investigate the question at hand, to how they will demonstrate what they have learned, to what question(s) they investigate in the first place.
The peril with this element of PBL though is the fact that it is easy to fall into the trap that more student "voice" and "choice" must be better than less - in essence that students having no (or at least less) constraints must be good. It has to be better to give students absolute say and control over what their final products, performances, etc will be. It has to be better to let students have complete freedom over how they will conduct the investigation into the driving question related to their inquiry. Right? In my opinion, I think that (like in most real-life situations within schools and classrooms) it depends upon the students and their readiness to own more voice and choice within the process. Depending upon this readiness, it might be necessary to either impose more or less constraints on students within a project.
Recently, I came across a helpful analogy related to this within the book The Whole Brain Child, by Dr. Dan Siegel. Within the book, Siegel describes mental health as a "river of well being" where you are "more or less in flow" moving down the middle of the river and "[y]ou can be flexible and adjust when situations change". In essence, "[y]ou’re stable and at peace". Things tend to get out of whack when your canoe veers too close to one of two banks. The first is chaos where everything feels out of control. "Instead of floating in the peaceful river, you are caught up in the pull of the tumultuous rapids, and confusion and turmoil rule the day." The other bank is rigidity, the opposite of chaos. Upon this bank, control is imposed on everything and everyone around you and "you become completely unwilling to adapt, compromise, or negotiate".
Within our classrooms and schools when utilizing PBL, we need to find the appropriate place on the river for each of our students. Some of our students are ready to face the raging waters close to the shores of chaos (obviously with a watchful eye and guide) where there are less constraints while others need to be closer to the bank of rigidity until they are able to safely go out into the middle of the water. To take this analogy to its logical conclusion, the educator is essentially the "river guide" deciding where and when students are able to traverse different sections of the water.
So what constraints can educators work with when designing project-based units for their students? While there is no end to the possibilities, there are three main constraints that educators can work with to ensure that their students don't drift too close to the shores of chaos or rigidity.
Often it is easy to think that giving students more or additional time will generate better and deeper projects and understanding of content. While this may be true at times, giving students an appropriately short and intense window to complete their work in generally creates more focussed and intense work. For example, within our middle school IChallengeUth Program, educators guide students through investigating and proposing a solution to a real-life business issue or opportunity over the course of a week. While this may seem daunting, the partnering businesses have actually implemented many of the solutions that students have developed.
We believe that students learning how to conduct their own research, sift through information, and discern what is pertinent and what isn't is an essential skill and will only be more important in the future. With that being said, there are moments within the classroom where time is such a precious commodity that constraining how, where, and with whom students are conducting their investigations is necessary. In addition, if students have not had prior experience conducting their own authentic research, scaffolding them through this process is a necessity in order to ensure that the process does not devolve into chaos.
The one area of PBL that it is often most tempting to not have any constraints around is how students will demonstrate what they learned or their final, public product. While it sounds great in theory to not constrain what students will need to produce at the end of a PBL unit, without constraints students often spend excess time debating and going in circles around what they will create. While some of this conversation and debate is productive for students to have, at a certain point it begins to take away from the real learning and intentions that were driving the unit in the first place. Within our programming and work with educators, we have played with extremely tight constraints around products including "you need to present your final idea/concept on 5 large post-it notes" and "you will have 5 minutes to present your idea to an authentic audience". With that being said, we have always allowed room for educators and students to push outside of the boundaries of these constraints if they have a compelling reason. By doing this, the focus becomes a debate as to why they need to work outside of the constraints to portray their understanding or idea, and not about why they need to do something just because they want to.
Walking the Walk: Providing the Type of Support and Instruction for Educators that We Would Like to See in their Classrooms
Back in 2013, the Center for Public Education released a report entitled "Teaching the Teachers: Effective Professional Development in an Era of High Stakes Accountability". Of the findings within the report, it was stated that "[a]vailability of [professional development] alone is not an issue. In fact, in a recent study, researchers found that while 90 percent of teachers reported participating in professional development, most of those teachers also reported that it was totally useless (Darling-Hammond et al, 2009)" This is mostly due to the fact that many professional development workshops or programs for educators use the "spray and pray" (provide lots and lots of information and hope it sinks in), "sit and get" (listen to the expert and absorb their mastery), or "drive by" (one-time offerings) models for helping them develop new and often complex skills. Research has shown that professional development programs that engage educators in support and/or programming that averages 49 hours in length over six months to one year can increase student achievement (Yoon, Duncan, Lee, Scarloss, and Shapley, 2007), not the types of models listed previously.
More importantly though, the Common Core State Standards (which have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia) emphasize and will ultimately test for students being able to critically think and problem solve as opposed to being able to do low-level recall or procedural routines. As a result, the Center for Public Education report advocates, "teachers have to learn new ways to teach, ways to teach they likely never experienced themselves and that they rarely see their colleagues engage in. Creating this type of teacher development is one of the biggest challenges school districts face today".
So What Could Effective Educator PD Look Like?
Within futurePREP'd. we work with educators to help them experience and utilize three interrelated concepts: (1) Project Based Learning, (2) Design Thinking (what we often refer to as the Creative Sequence), and 21st century skills such as flexibility and adaptability and technology literacy (what we refer to as the Skills4Success). We do this by helping them uncover the basics behind each of these concepts, guiding them through solving a real-life issue for a local organization or business, having them work in a summer program in which they guide actual students that are similar to the students that they normally teach through the process of solving a real-life issue for a local organization or business (click here to see some of the final presentations from the High School program), and (finally) having then design and implement an experience for their own classrooms based upon what they learned. Overall, this entire process ranges from 60 hours for K - 5th grade educators to 120 hours for High School educators spread across six months.
Supporting Deeper Levels of Educator Learning
We have had some great success with this basic model of "gradual release of responsibility" in which educators practice and eventually take full responsibility for the instruction and practices that we would like them to use. Yet, maybe as a result of this success, another issue (albeit a good one) has cropped up: We have many enthusiastic and dedicated educators that have worked with us that want to continually deepen their practice around Project-Based Learning, Design Thinking, and 21st century skills.
As a result, this begs the question, how do we continue to nurture this passion and support these educators on their journey?
In order to address this question, this year we have decided to "walk the walk" with educators that are returning to us for a second year by modeling the type of support and instruction that we would like to see them provide for their students within their classrooms. As opposed to coming in with a set agenda for how our time with the educators will be spent (which, in all honesty, is something that we have done to varying degrees in the past) we have decided to let the actual goals, needs, current level of practice, and aspirations of the educators we are working with guide what we will do together. We are in the midst of kicking this process off with the educators this year and here is how we have structured it:
(Step 1) Bringing in Work that they have Tried in their Classrooms
For the first session with the returning educators, we asked them to bring examples of things that they tried within their classrooms. This included lesson plans, student work/products, pictures from the classroom, etc. We also asked the educators to bring these things in a "physical" format so that others could look at and interact with them.
(Step 2) Reflection on What they have Tried
In an open area, we had the educators post the work that they brought and do a variation of a SWOT analysis: (1) Strengths (What things went well? What did you and the students like?), (2) Weaknesses (What didn't go as expected? What could be improved?), (3) Opportunities (Are there any exciting opportunities that you could take advantage of?), and (4) Barriers (What are the things that are getting in the way?
(Step 3) Sharing of Work and SWOB Analysis and Looking for Areas of Focus
After everyone had their work posted and their SWOB analysis done, we went around as a group and heard about what each person had tried during the year and what they thought the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and barriers were related to their current practice. As opposed to passively listening to each person's description though, we had those that were not presenting listen for areas of interest that might serve as a focus for our work together throughout the rest of the year and the summer and jot each one down on a separate, large post-it note. This could be a weakness that someone mentioned that one found interesting, an opportunity that could be explored, or a barrier that needs to be addressed.
(Step 4) Sharing of Areas of Focus and Grouping
Once each educator had a chance to share the work that they had brought and their SWOB analysis, they had a moment or two to jot down any additional ideas that they had for areas of focus for the work ahead and then we shared out what areas of focus were identified. As ideas were shared, post-it notes were stuck to the wall and similar ideas and concepts were grouped around each other. After all of the post-it notes had been shared, a discussion was held around the meaning of the various groups and what the work ahead might look like based upon the discussion.
(Step 5) Design the Journey Ahead Based Upon the Information that was Uncovered
Now we are in the midst of the exciting (and difficult) portion of the process - designing the journey ahead for the returning educators. So far we have conducted this session with a group of returning elementary and middle school educators and in the next week we will be conducting it with another middle school group and a group of returning high school educators. Themes that have emerged fro the two groups that we have worked with include the desire to create a local network to gain access to authentic audiences and businesses for classrooms and helping educators (especially those that are on the same teaching team) who are not familiar with practices such as Project Based Learning and Design Thinking gain an appreciation and initial understanding for them.
While it definitely would have been easier to assume what the next level of work for these returning educators is and designed our supports and programming for them according to those assumptions, what we will be doing will ultimately be more authentic, more likely to address the actual needs and current level of understanding of the participating educators, and (as a result) more likely to affect the educators' practice. In the end, if we are not willing to do this for the educators that we work with, how can we expect them to do it with their own students?
In an interview posted recently at Big Think, Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, describes what he sees as the formula for creating winning teams. In this interview, he describes how Google held the hypothesis that in order to create great, productive teams you need to carefully curate who is a part of each team (i.e. - make sure that you have enough extroverts, balance personality types, etc.) The only problem was, after looking at data they were collecting on team effectiveness, they essentially found no correlation between who was on the team and how the team performed.
After this surprising revelation, Google began looking at how teams interacted instead and found that effective teams had two norms that they held sacred: (1) conversational turn taking (Does everyone at the table have a chance to speak up?) and (2) high social-sensitivity (Can I pick up on what you are thinking and feeling through non-verbal cues?) Duhigg goes on to explain that the goal of these norms is to create "psychological safety", the idea that even if I am not the foremost expert on something or may not have my ideas fully formed yet, it is safe (and encouraged) for me to share with the group.
In his New York Times Magazine article that expounds on this idea, Guhigg states that “[n]o one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home, but to be fully present at work, to feel ‘psychologically safe,’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations.” This concept of others understanding who we truly are and accepting of our contributions is supported by other research on building effective teams. According to Gratton and Erickson (2007), major initiatives require “complex teams” made up of diverse individuals from across the organization. The only problem is that diverse teams are also extremely hard to manage and to help stay productive. Gratton and Ericsson recommend that in order to combat this a "strong sense of community” should be cultivated through things such as “sponsoring events and activities that bring people together and help them get to know one another”.
So, How Does this Translate to Education?
If we are to create "psychological safety" within our systems, schools, and classrooms, then we need to make room for individuals to share their personality and inner life with others in a meaningful way. This may be self-evident, but in the current environment of high-stakes assessments and ever escalating curriculum demands this often seems like it is the last thing on one's mind.
So what could this look like within the education field?
Within the experiences that we provide for educators within futurePREP'd, we create psychological safety for participants and model how this could be done within their classrooms by having them purposefully experience a couple of simple (yet powerful) tools and protocols:
Within their research and work around The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner found that organizations that have shared values (employees know their own values, those of the organization, and how they overlap) foster strong feelings of personal effectiveness, caring and teamwork. We have found the same in our work with educators and students.
Within our work with educators we have them identify their own values through a set of "values cards" in which they select the top three that define who they are. They then talk with other educators about which three they chose and why they did not select others. This simple act of having individuals share who they are at their "core" helps engender trust and understanding within the group at a rapid pace. In addition, educators that have utilized this tool with students within their own classrooms have found similar results.
Personal Haikus and 6-Word Memoirs
Whenever we bring together a new group of educators, we like to have them share something personal about themselves with the group right from the get-go. This typically involves a crazy-tight constraint such as writing a Haiku about the craziest moment in their life or a six word memoir (Smith Magazine has a great site devoted to six word memoirs). We find that the imposed constraints of the task actually produce more creativity from individuals and help elicit memorable descriptions of who people are.
There are other protocols and tools that we use with educators and students including having individuals identify which of the 10 Faces of Innovation they believe they are most like and creating something (i.e. - a painting, poem, sculpture, etc.) that represents that and identifying and sharing what part of the Design Thinking Process they most identify with. Overall, we find this process of coming to a common understanding of who we each are to be essential to the work that we do.
How about you? What tools and techniques have you utilized to produce a "strong sense of community" and "psychological safety" within your team or classroom?
About Jason Pasatta
I am passionate about learning, design, and the potential that we all possess. Currently I am the Director of Innovation Services for the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District in West Michigan, where I the lead the development of new and innovative educational programs, supports, and systems.