Educon 2023: Where Conversations and Dialogue Are the Heart of Education

This year my students and I returned to Educon, the national education conference focused on progressive conversations about how we might improve education for all people. We had planned two conversations and both were geared to have high levels of student engagement.

Transparent and Dehydrated: Innovating with a Minimum Viable Curriculum

Our first sessions was geared towards opening the curriculum document for NOVA Lab and having members of the audience help us suck out some of the curricular water that had bloated the system. (I’ve written about that before and finally decided to take my own advice.). While the attendance was small, our troop of students had ample time to present their projects, both present and past, and create awareness for the good things they are doing. Our audience engaged us in frequent questions that helped us not only explain the methods and content of the class, but which also helped us understand the privilege it is to be able to have a class like this. Challenging the staid and standard curriculum is not something allowed, it seems, in most inner city districts. This opened an entirely new perspective about how systems suppress innovation in order to maintain dependencies and suppress upward mobility.

Gradelessness & Microdocumentation of Learning: Assessment through Learning Journeys

This session saw our largest audience ever at Educon, about 11 people. Ok, so that seems small, but with about 15 different conversations running during each session, it’s not easy to get a huge audience. Regardless, the attendees were engaged, asked hard questions, and received a huge amount of documentation via the sliidedeck we’d constructed. Students again had a huge role, culling data from “Big Paper” recordings of initial readings, creating a list of discussion topics, and also helping to describe the different ways we have attempted, in both my English and Innovation classes, to capture student Learning Journeys.

This session also allowed us to explore how we’ve been using Unrulr.com to capture learning journeys throughout the year so far. While my system for pulling in Unrulr is not where I want it to be, the success I’ve had with it has allowed me to showcase the beauty of cultures of commenting and communities of feedback like nothing else.

In the decade or so since I first started attending Educon, I have had the pleasure to meet with like minded educators who have helped shape my own learning journey. It is my hope that, by bringing students to Educon and allowing them to discuss their learning, the systems of both my own classes and the school in general, we are able to influence others and learn from others in ways that not only question why things are the way they are, but empower us all to make them better.

Redefining Reading

Agree here wholeheartedly. What a door of opportunity that the NCTE has finally recognized (formally) as “open” for so so long.

The PVLEGS Blog

[This was originally published at the HMH Shaped Blog. I am reposting it in response to the NCTE’s recent position statement which includes these lines:

My wife recently rediscovered her grandmother’s copy of The Scarlet Letter. The edition was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1892. My first thought was, “We’re rich!” It turns out that an 1892 edition is not worth a lot, however. First editions of the book have some value, but first editions are from 1850. This led to my second thought: “This book was written a long time ago!” And that led to these questions:

  • Why is this book still a part of the curriculum in many high schools? Has nothing been written in the last 169 years that has as much or more value than this book?
  • Are we doing unto others what has been done unto us and missing a bigger picture?
  • Is there…

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Teaching and Learning through Conceptual Understanding: an Example

This past summer I had the opportunity to take a “curriculum camp” with Julie Stern, Trevor Aleo, Kayla Duncan and the whole “Learning that Transfers” crew. Learning that Transfers is the umbrella organization for Julie and the team’s work in Conceptual Understanding.

This is not an informative post on Teaching for Conceptual Understanding. For that powerful method, I’d suggest you visit the Learning that Transfers team at their website. Also, follow the hashtag #LTT on Twitter. This is a post about a technique I used to great effect with my 10th grade English students that is based on the LTT team’s teachings in their amazing book, Learning that Transfers. However, for a quick overview, this video below will serve well.

My students and I started the year with a reading of Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (HATSOS). Rather than read the novel as I had in previous years, by splitting the class into groups and having them read by focusing on allegory, satire, the Hero’s Journey, and allusion, I taught them a few key concepts.

Concepts are like nodes on the cognitive web of discrete information. Where a fact about rocks, for example, would be “Wissahickon schist” or “Baltimore Gneiss”, the concept, or node, that connects them is “metamorphic rocks.” So concepts, at least in one formation, are a type of classification. But it goes deeper than that. Concepts act as containers for ideas and actions. Thus, in any young adult novel, one could probably read the novel and identify numerous instances of identity formation. Thus, “identity” becomes a key conceptual lens to read though when reading books like Huck Finn, Invisible Man, The Joy Luck Club.

In our study of HATSOS I identified 5 key concepts: Truth, Identity, Power, Language, all of which orbit around the ultimate concept of “Story” itself. I then divided students into groups in which they would read and annotate the text in groups with their similar concept partners. We did this by using the social annotation application, Perusall.

About 3/4 of the way through the book, I asked students to create a series of three observations about how their concept was crucial to the development of the story so far. Those observations could also be things they’d learned by reading in this way that could be applied to the world outside the text.

Next, students moved into their concept groups and wrote their observations on to post-it notes (one observation per post-it). These were then placed onto special boards I have for just such purposes (they’re called “gator boards”).

Finally, and this is the most important part, after each group had placed all its post-it notes, groups rotated and visited the three other groups’ boards. There, they read the observations and collected two or three observations about the novel through this lens that they found interesting. As a final act, each group had to leave behind a new observation that connected their personal concept, with the other group’s concept.

I know it is impossible to read though just one conceptual lens when more are given; obviously students were always aware of the presence of the other concepts in the story. But by having them focus first through one lens and then giving them a chance to step back and see the novel in a wider sense, understanding better how their peers were reading similarly and differently, students became primed to jump into making deeper conceptual connections within the novel and in the world itself.

This “carousel,” produced some of the most impactful observations at the end of the novel when students engaged in thinkpieces, a type of “essaying,” through exploring their responses to questions they formed using the question stems from http://www.learningthattransfers.com.

Author’s copy of handout from http://www.learningthattransfers.com

Innovation: “This Must Be the Place”

We keep trying to push innovation. Let’s not forget millions of artists around the world have been innovative for time immemorial. This is about one who embodies so much of innovation’s intent.

Innovation Lab

When I was barely in 9th grade, I first encountered the music of Talking Heads. It was the summer of 1983, andSpeaking in Toungeswas on heavy rotation on my Sony Walkman as I sat on a rusting, red Wheel Horse tractor cutting acres of grass for my house and my neighbor’s.

Hours of idle passes over a baseball-sized swath of backyard were filled with sounds I’d never heard. Drums from foreign lands, rhythms that challenged the common tempos of rock music, and a heavy funk that would lead me straight into Parliament and the mysteries of that genre’s dank goodness.

But more than anything, that summer began my life-long love of Talking Heads and their enigmatic frontman, David Byrne. It wasn’t long before the brilliance ofStop Making Sense assailed the ears and eyes, and I was convinced that if I never saw this band live I would…

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What Counts and What Matters in Learning?  (Contrary to over a century of practice, it is not really the grades.)

(This post was originally published in July of 2018 on the website of the design consultancy, Form and Faculty.)

Since April of 2017 I have been reading about and, now, practicing gradeless-ness in my high school 9th and 10th grade English classes.  Sure, I know that such a practice is not new, at least not in independent schools, but what I did not know was how widespread the practice had become in public-school classrooms around the nation.  The Facebook group, “Teachers Throwing Out Grades“, and more recently, the group “Teachers Going Gradeless” have been incredibly active in promoting this movement, and its history is as old as our system of public schooling itself.  While seemingly counterintuitive, given most Americans’ experiences in public school, going gradeless is a key aspect of the move to deeper learning.

Learning≠Making the Grade

The research on grades is fairly clear:  little to no evidence exists to support grading as having a significant impact on student learning (Listen to Scott Looney’s podcast on this–referenced in a previous post).  In fact, most of the research on grades fails to return any positive advantage in terms of learning.  The real impact of  our obsession with grades and grade point averages is that parents and students have become more focused on the grade than they are on learning.  The persistent pursuit of the A+, of meeting the requirements the system demands, not only diminish the human desire of learning for learning’s sake, it perverts the very enterprise of public education.

Florida National University

Of course, designers and most students of the arts are familiar with such a situation, for we are practiced in creating our own criteria for success, undergoing countless critiques, and we are driven to learn through iteration.

That schools and universities across the nation have put serious research and funds behind shifting the goal of education from grade point averages to actual assessment of learning is heartening and indicative of a larger shift in education in general:  a shift from superficial achievement to deeper learning.

Curiosity, Relationships, and the Depths of Learning

Deeper learning labels teaching methodologies seeking student mastery of content knowledge by, among other things, engaging them in collaborative work that demands creative and critical thinking, increasing student voice and communication…all through real world learning, through projects whose relevance is not merely found in a letter grade, but in making a real-world impact.

https://www.innovationtraining.org/steps-to-design-thinking/

The confluence of these current educational initiatives with design thinking is clear:  If all learning is based in relationships either between the learner and others, or between the learner and the things they want to learn, then all learning begins in curiosity…in finding a problem…an itch to scratch.  The building of a relationship (be it a learning relationship or otherwise) begins in empathy.  The learning that derives out of empathy is then driven by a deep curiosity.  All these states are not unique to school and its insistence on lesson plans, disciplines, class periods, etc.  They are innately part of what it means to be a human being.  And, perhaps most importantly, they cannot be reduced to the quotidian, to mere numbers on a data set of evaluation.

Form and Faculty is founded on the knowledge that design and the mindsets of design thinking are innately human, and that it is the learner’s human right to express his or her desires as the impetus for learning in the first place.  Our own work and the work we do for others always begins from a human-centered orientation.  For in the end our work would matter little if we did not believe our users mattered.  And our work would count for little if we did not take into account the humanity of our clients.