The Missing Conversation in Educational Policy: Student Engagement


This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post, an internet news and commentary website. The Education section features updated on college, teachers, and education reform, where I regularly contribute. View Original >


There are many educational policy issues manifesting themselves currently that are creating tensions and in some cases all out rebellion. One is of course standards, and more specifically, the Common Core. With this effort to standardize learning objectives, there is of course backlash. NBC News recently noted that many teachers and even parents are “rebelling” against them. Regardless of how you feel about the Common Core, it is a change for many educators, and change causes tension. In addition to the Common Core Standards, the Next Generation Science Standards are hot of the heels of the Common Core in terms of adoption. My home state of Washington recently announced they would adopt these standards. No doubt, there will be some backlash there as well.

Speaking of rebellion and backlash, standardized tests are also a source of rebelling. Teachers in Washington State garnered national attention when they decided they would not issue the standardized tests set forward by the state. The new Smarter Balance and PARCC assessments, aligned to the Common Core are the latest tests to receive this backlash. States like Georgia, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Alabama, and Pennsylvania have all backed out of issuing the new PARCC assessments.

With all these controversy and conversation around standards and testing, I feel there is a major issue that needs to be discussed from the Educational Policy perspective: Student Engagement. Why aren’t we creating policy that focuses on diverse ways to engage our diverse group of students? Standards in no way will solve the problem of engagement, nor will testing. Now I’m not saying it easy to legislate or create policy to drive engagement, but it certainly has not been at the forefront of the conversation. Why aren’t we creating policy to create professional learning experiences to arm teachers with a variety of techniques to engage students? Why aren’t we debating policy to shift towards personalized and competency-based pathways to differentiate instruction for all students? I have no answers, but I know there are pockets of excellence. I simply want Student Engagement to be as important at the forefront of our minds and conversations when we create policy that will affect our students.

Engagement and Compliance in the Classroom. They Aren’t the Same!


This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post, an internet news and commentary website. The Education section features updated on college, teachers, and education reform, where I regularly contribute. View Original >


As I travel and work with teachers to improve practice and increase student achievement, classroom management is often a topic we focus on in professional development. Whether managing a 1:1 classroom or understanding how a teacher manages a PBL project, teachers are always looking for best practices in how to make sure the classroom is managed effectively.

This topic is also coupled with the idea of engagement. We know that if we are engaging our students, then management issues are alleviated or disappear all together. Whenever I work with teachers I also make this statement:

“What is the best tool for management? Engaging curriculum and instruction!”

However, I’ve come to understand that the term “engagement” needs to be unpacked before addressing issues of management in the classroom. If you ask an educator, “What does engagement look like?” responses will surely vary. I remember when I first started teaching, and preparing for a classroom visit by my principal or supervising administrator. I always wanted to make sure the room was quiet in general, there were no outbursts and that students were silently working on their assignments at their tables. Now I realize these are not quality indicators of engagement. They are quality indicators of compliance, which is different.

Daniel Pink makes an significant quite in his video (and book) Drive, although his context is focus on the workplace. “Management is good if you want compliance, but if you want engagement, self-directed is better.” Here Pink reframes the whole conversation on what it means to be productive, contribute to a goal and do work.

I don’t want just compliance for my students. I want engagement. Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose are three ideas (borrowed from Pink) that can move our classrooms to focus on engagement, rather than on compliance. When we do, classroom management becomes a conversation about strategies to support learners, rather than a way to make them “follow the rules” in a one-size-fits-all model. Let’s reframe the conversation on classroom management, and instead focus on engagement first!

Let’s Truly Assess 21st Century Skills!


This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post, an internet news and commentary website. The Education section features updated on college, teachers, and education reform, where I regularly contribute. View Original >


21st century skills. Buzz word or reality? As I visit schools, I know many of them are teaching these skills. From critical thinking and problem solving, to technology literacy and collaboration, teachers are targeting these skills in the instructional process, and leveraging them in the curriculum. Many teachers are being called to teach these skills, and don’t know how to. I’ve done many workshops with teachers to arm them with these skills. However, there is one issue that seems to be a roadblock for true implementation: assessment.

I do know teachers are using rubrics and products to assess these skills. Some schools like High Tech High in San Diego have them in the grade book, but this is a rarity. This is a pocket of excellence. It shouldn’t be. When I was teaching at a project-based learning STEM school, we too wanted to teach and assess the skills of collaboration, critical thinking and communication. Now communication is naturally built into English language arts curriculum and the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts across all subjects. We had no problem assessing this, and leveraging it in the grade book. But what about a skill like collaboration? The Common Core does have a standard where students “participate in collaborative discussions,” and this is across all grade levels. However, collaboration is more than just discussions; it’s about creating together, coming to consensus and other quality indicators. Similarly with the 21st century skill of critical thinking, we can unpack our standards to find connections, but it feels like we are trying too hard. This is my struggle as an educator, and a struggle for many of the teachers I work with. We want to teach and assess 21st century skills, but we feel somewhat limited in our ability to do just that. We ran up against resistance with the district on truly assessing them in the grade book. We understood that if we truly valued 21st century skills, our assessment systems needed to model that. However, the system did not share that value the same way we did.

This is the biggest issue for teaching and assessing 21st century skills in our schools. We need our assessment systems to value them, and that means having them in the grade book. In my conversations with educators this is the biggest roadblock. For those educators that have the power to assess 21st century skills in the grade book, they create a culture where content is not king. Instead critical thinking is leveraged across the entire curriculum. Students have more buy in to collaborate, and they have quality indicators and targets to aim for in technology literacy. Through this true assessment of 21st century skills, we can re-frame what we value for our students, and really make them college and career-ready.

Teacher as Learning Designer


This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post, an internet news and commentary website. The Education section features updated on college, teachers, and education reform, where I regularly contribute. View Original >


The term “teaching” holds cultural images and schema that many us quickly tap into. I encourage anyone to google “teaching” or “teacher” and see the majority of images that pop up. You will most like see an individual at the front of the room, pointing to something on a board while talking to students. We know it isn’t like that all the time, and we also know this doesn’t work for our students. Many teachers have been pushed into a role where they are not being utilized for their expertise and skills. Through highly standardized curricula and pacing guides, teachers are told exactly how to teach, rather than being empowered to differentiate instruction and create engaging learning environments to meet the needs of their students. How do we not only clarify what teachers can and should do in the classroom and re-frame this conversation on the role and expertise of a teacher?

We use many terms to describe the work of teachers. From curriculum designer to facilitator of classroom work, there are many roles that teachers take on in the class. I believe there is one term that encapsulates and re-frames the work teachers do in the classroom:

Learning Designer. You might notice the clear parallel to the role of game designer. Just as game designers have a unique skills set and aptitude for designing games, teachers have specific skills and knowledge for designing learning. This term also reframes the role and expertise of teachers.

Teachers must intentionally think about the “big picture.” The objectives of the instructional unit are set and teachers must guide students to those objectives with creative, research-based strategies. Good teachers constantly reflect on their practice and use formative assessment to inform instruction. Through this, they use their creative skills and their instructional tool belt to try and innovate in the classroom, all with the focus of engagement and student achievement. Teachers use their knowledge of best practices and of their students to create instructional environments and assessments that meet their needs. Great teachers are allowing for voice and choice in performance assessments and projects, as well as games and technology. Teachers view the classroom, whether virtual or physical, as a place for possibilities to engage all students.

If you are teacher and you are trying to explain what you do, say, “I am a learning designer!” Teachers need to be empowered with a variety of instructional designers to meet the needs of all students. They need to be honored for their expertise to create creative and engaging learning environments. We can re-frame the concept of “teaching” to truly encapsulate all that teachers can and should do!

Education Can Learn From Games


This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post, an internet news and commentary website. The Education section features updated on college, teachers, and education reform, where I regularly contribute. View Original >


For those that follow my writing, speaking, and the like; you may know me for my advocacy of Game-Based Learning (GBL). I was a gamer as a kid, and, truth be told, I still am. I used to play World of Warcraft and other MMOs ritualistically. I binged on RPGs like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy. I became talented in FPS games like Left for Dead and Unreal Tournament. Games engaged me. They still do. My current game is XCom, although I am enjoying Casual games on my iPad as well.

In my teaching career, I experimented with games in the classrooms. I know my students played them. Many of my students played WoW. In fact, they would spend hours outside of school collaborating, questing and raiding. Ironically, they were having trouble collaborating with their teammates in class. There was a disconnect, and I wanted to rectify this by connecting the collaborative gaming environment to the classroom. Students were collaborating with each other outside of school. How could I get them them to use this skill they already had in the formal learning environment?

This moment illustrates a larger idea. What can we learn from games to improve our classrooms? Games are carefully and intentionally designed environments that create flow: the balance between challenge and progress. Great games are challenging, but not too difficult, and thus not boring. On the contrary, they have specific mechanics to create this game flow.

Freedom to Fail – This component is so powerful. I can guarantee that anyone who plays games has experienced this. When I am on the plane, I see people playing Angry Birds for hours on end. During that time, they are failing multiple times, and yet they still keep coming back to play. Why do we punish students when they practice? Why can’t we reward them at their best? Here’s an example to illustrate my point: A student is not doing so well on the practice worksheets and other assignments leading up to a test. However, the day of the test, this same student succeeds and gets an excellent score. You know what often happens; the students gets a grade for that learning component that is lower than the score on the test. Why? Because we average the work they did in the practice and learning phase with the summative test! To me, this seems unethical. Games don’t punish us for making mistakes in the learning process, Education shouldn’t punish kids for making these same mistakes. We should be creating a safe, engaging space where failure and learning from mistakes is just part of the process of learning.

Situated Learning and Complex Problem Solving – James Paul Gee in his book “What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy” illustrates this point well:

“An academic discipline, or any other semiotic domain, for that matter, is not primarily content, in the sense of facts and principles. It is rather primarily a lived and historically changing set of distinctive social practices. It is in these practices that ‘content’ is generated, debated, and transformed via certain distinctive ways of thinking, talking, valuing, acting, and, often, writing and reading.”

Learning is not just about knowing content. It’s about learning content and using it. Whether you are playing World of Warcraft or Halo, you are learning about this immersive environment that the game provides. You are learning player skills and using them. You are strategizing. You are solving complex problems. You might even be collaborating with other players. We should be creating learning environments in our classrooms that do the same, and creating assessments that value the same level and rigor of learning.

Personalized – We know we need to meet students where they are at and take them to new places in the learning process. All of our students are different and one-size does not fit all. Games meet the player where he/she is at. With complex mechanics, players are given just enough information, but also challenged enough to create appropriate rigor. Good teachers do this to. They differentiate-instruction through a variety of instructional strategies. They know their students through personal relationships as well as data. Games are focused on player needs and ability, education should do the same.

Of course, there are many other things to learn from games (I would love to see comments on this), but these are some of the key and most important ideas in my eyes. I’m not saying that games will solve all educational issues and challenges, but there are already good examples of teachers using games as part of the curriculum, and schools that have embraced game mechanics to create a learning model. We can learn from games and leverage them as tools and models to engage all students in learning. I’ll leave you with this parting quote from Jane McGonigal from her book “Reality is Broken.” Consider how we might create this for our students.

“A game is an opportunity to focus our energy, with relentless optimism, at something we’re good at (or getting better at) and enjoy. In other words, gameplay is the direct emotional opposite of depression.”

The Need for Practical PD for Blended Learning Educators


This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post, an internet news and commentary website. The Education section features updated on college, teachers, and education reform, where I regularly contribute. View Original >


Virtual Schools Symposium has once again come to a close this year. There were many sessions, talks, and workshops on a variety of subjects including curriculum and instruction, virtual school models, and competency-based pathways. One of the overarching, as well as focused subject, was around this question: How do we prepare educators to teach effectively in the blended learning environment?

This is not a new question. There have been concurrent sessions at past conferences, and there were sessions on the same subject at this year’s conference. Yet, educators are still looking for answers. There are some things we already know about the role of the teacher in the blended classroom in terms of best practices. We know the teacher becomes the facilitator. No longer is the teacher the sage on the stage in the blended learning classroom, but the guide on the side. We know teachers need training on the technology tools as well and innovative ways to use them. We know that teachers need to know the content and standards to target for instruction and assessment. We know teachers will need to look at data to best meet the needs of their students. However, there is a better way to address all of these concerns, in more holistic and synthesized way.

We need to provide teachers with practical professional development in learning models. When we focus on the model, we focus on all the concerns and best practices articulated above. When we teach these best practices in “silos,” teachers may or may not see how all the best practices and tools work together. Consider Project-Based Learning as an example.

Project Based Learning is a model that provides teachers with practical strategies to engage students. Teachers who are doing PBL in the blended learning environment carefully pick the digital tools to use with their students because these serve a purpose within the PBL project. They use it for collaborative purposes or as performance assessments, rather than simply using the tool for engagement. They learn best practices in management of the classroom that support the PBL learning environment. They differentiate instruction based on the needs of the students within the project. When teachers learn PBL and use it, it ties all the best practices of blended learning “in a bow” (for lack of a better term). More importantly, PBL contextualizes how to teach with practical steps and strategies. All the work that the blended teacher does with students makes sense.

Of course, there are other practical learning models out there, from authentic learning to game-based learning. If we invest in professional development for teachers on these practical and engaging models, teachers will learn all the best practices needed to facilitate a blended classroom. Let’s create a practical context for teachers to be the best blended learning educators.