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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

From Soil to the Sun: CBE as a Blended Pedagogy Journey

Since arriving at Shelby County four years ago, I have been challenged in ways I did not expect.  Naturally, my role requires knowledge of blended learning best practices, and to keep up with the constantly changing world of edtech.  However, I have also learned about other pedagogies that may be enabled by technology but also exist outside of it: personalized learning, project based learning, and standards based grading, to name just three.

In the spring of 2017, Shelby County created its Profile of a Graduate with the input of our community stakeholders (parents, business owners, students, admin, and teachers).  It answers a simple sounding question:  What do we want a Shelby County graduate to be?   In short, we want them to be (clockwise from top) Critical Thinkers, Responsible Collaborators,   Lifelong Learners, Effective Communicators, Global Citizens, and Inspired Innovators.

More information about our six major competency domains is here.

By thinking through the lens of "life readiness" (which includes but goes beyond "college and career readiness"), we realized that students should demonstrate mastery of key competencies, not merely mastery of academic standards.  That's not to say academic standards are unimportant!  Rather, Core Content becomes the means to an end instead of an end in itself; true mastery can be demonstrated when the application of learned standards are effectively achieved.

Allow me a tangental metaphor.  Soon we will talk trees, but for now, let's talk cars.

Think of tires as standards.  As educators in a traditional teacher-centered system, we have become excellent tire salespeople.  We bring our customer-students into the store-school, describing the various tires in detail.  We implore to the students: Memorize the sizes!  Take note of the thread depth!   (Not very deep, truth be told.)  We obsess over the PSI as if numbers tell the entire story -- a 32 (or 100%, or an A+) is likely ideal, but truth be told, a 25 (70%, a passing grade of D-) will likely get you from point A to B, so long as you stay on the smooth roads...assuming the tires ever hit the roads, of course.

Our students may know tons of facts about tires -- and yet, because they haven't had to use the tires in any meaningful way, the knowledge is void of context or validity.  Meaningful application of knowledge is key.  When standards matter is when the rubber meets the road.  We really need all four (ELA, math, social studies, science) to make a car go -- thinking of content in silos is as useful in real life as driving with one tire.

In order to move students past being tire consumers, we need alignment.  Competencies provide this sense of purpose, a context for the standards to function inside.  Without alignment to competencies, the tires may pull the car in random directions.   If you have no standards, alignment matters little if you're sitting on just your hubcaps.  The synergy between the tires and the alignment -- the transformational relationship of standards and competencies -- is what can make competency-based education (CBE) so impactful, and therefore makes learning an act of creation instead of consumption.  Now the only thing left to do before embarking on our road trip is to have a destination.  And here is where the Profile of a Graduate's necessity emerges.  It becomes the goal we want our academic system to aspire towards.

But who is driving the car in competency based education?  The student should be, of course!  Certainly there are moments when a teacher-instructor gives tips from the shotgun seat or talks about the rules of the road, but if the student isn't ultimately driving the car, we can never truly say they have demonstrated mastery.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled blog entry!  With the Profile of the Graduate as our true north, our newest Strategic Leadership Plan (planned last fall, and goes into effect next school year) will focus on transforming Shelby County into a CBE system.   Luckily, we have made good learning partnerships, both outside of the state (such as Envision and EdLeader21) and within. In fact, one key Kentucky partner is Trigg County.  Trigg and Shelby County are the only two districts in the state that were recently approved for a CBE pilot:

I name dropped Envision earlier, and here is a good segue into discussing a book many leaders in Shelby are currently reading: Transforming Schools by Bob Lenz, with Justin Wells and Sally Kingston.  (Lenz is the cofounder of Envision Education and Wells was the first English teacher of its first school.)  The book, along with other professional development, is certainly helping me see how CBE is the natural culmination of our various initiatives from the last several years.  At a recent Shelby admin "lead and learn," we read the book's opening chapters and gathered in teams to ponder the question of how all of our endeavors fit together.  My group included principals Jennifer Cox and Susie Burkhardt.  Each group was handed slips of paper with various educational pedagogies, initiatives and terms.  Our goal was to organize this in a way we thought best, while also considering an analogy that creatively addressed their relationship.  Once the three of us collaborated on a hierarchal design, I suggested we called it "From Soil to the Sun."

As you can see from the image above, we started with the roots: the essentials that educators needed to learn in order for our system-tree to live.  Without a solid foundation in competency, CBE, mastery learning and personalized learning, it would be very difficult for our tree to grow!  Borrowing from the Transforming Schools book, we believe the center trunk is Envision's "Know-Do-Reflect" triangle, from where three major branches jut out:
  • "The prepared graduate knows the content and the discrete skills of her academic subjects" [acquired via self-paced learning, mastery scales that define accomplishment, and backward designed units].  
  • "She can do what typical college courses demand...using her intellectual, interpersonal, and executive skills to make things happen"  [applied knowledge via workplace learning, project based learning, performance based assessment, exhibitions, and portfolios].
  • Lastly, "she has the ability to reflect, a habit of self-awareness and revision that sets her on the path of continued growth" [as done on, or through, the 4 C's, Defense of Learning, portfolio Artifacts, and various Rubrics] (page 24).   
But at least as important as the roots, trunk and branches is where the tree is growing towards, and this ideal goal -- our system's sun -- is our Profile of a Graduate.   Note that the tree can't quite hit the sun. What makes the competencies of a Profile of a Graduate so powerful is this: while mastery of these competencies may designate completion and validity for a SCPS diploma, the competencies should continually be applied throughout the lifetime of the graduate.  We hope not only to grow graduates, but grow perpetual learners who (to quote a favorite phrase of our superintendent Dr. Neihof) are always in the act of becoming.

Certainly our group's organization and tree analogy are not meant to be the final word.  Indeed, as other groups shared their visual representations, we had some healthy debate and discussion on how they saw things differently.  What was most important to me and others was the process of reflecting on several seemingly disparate pedagogies and educational terms and seeing how well they blend into a CBE system.   Seen in this (sun)light, competency-based education becomes a natural, organic evolution of what came before, not a tree separate from the rest of the educational forest.  

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

OER: Gooru and Teacher Advisor with Watson

Open Education Resources (OER) have been around for several years.  What does OER mean? As defined by the Office of Educational Technology,  OER differs from materials that are simply free and available online in one key way: they are "openly licensed," which means they can be remixed, reused, and repurposed.   (For a great introduction to OER, check out the Office's launch packet and follow the hashtag #GoOpen.)

While OER could conceivably be any kind of openly licensed educational material, it is most often seen as curriculum and lesson plans.   This is the great promise of OER: what teachers used to have to pay to get can now be acquired for free and reimagined as they see best.   And yet, OER is not as pervasive as you would think.  If there is teacher reluctance to use open education resources, it's not from lack of stuff -- it's from overabundance.  You can access thousands of OER materials with a general Internet search engine query, but it's often difficult to know the wheat from the chafe, or drill down to specific parts you may need.  In an educational world where a teacher ideally tries to personalize learning for all levels of students and needs a variety of materials, OER can be a godsend, until you see it as a time consuming process with little if any assurance how it is vetted.

Ironically, there are those who saw a profitable opportunity in open education resources.  Some sites collate and organize OER into a user-friendly platform -- for a fee.  However, I want to share two sites that are curating OER at no cost which I have found very useful:  Gooru and Teacher Advisor with Watson. (No relation!)

Gooru has OER curriculum from partners such as EngageNY, Summit Public Schools and Next Gen Personal Finance, but also has vetted material submitted by individual teachers.    (I briefly talked about Summit's personalized learning platform in December 2016, but Gooru allows you access to their curriculum without having to go through their learning management system.)  Teachers and students can create accounts via their emails or through a Google account.  Teachers can then create classrooms of students to assign whole "courses" or customize their own, including adding their own content.   Yet Gooru is more than a great curation tool. It really shines in its Learning Navigator, which "offers personalized pathways to help students reach their learning goals."  This includes assessments (where teachers can see results in real time) as well as the ability for a student to self-pace.  A video overview of the Learning Navigator is below (1:41):

Teacher Advisor with Watson is powered by IBM's Watson AI, which makes searches more intuitive and powerful.  It is currently limited to K-5 math curriculum, but according to a representative, it will soon be expanding both in grade levels and content.   Unlike Gooru (with its student accounts, digital classrooms and Learning Navigator), the audience for Teacher Advisor is, as the name implies, only teachers.  It too has excellent OER material, with partners that include EngageNY and Teaching the Core.  The site is easy to navigate, and you can quickly get to specific kind of resources by type (categorized as Standards, Lessons, Activities and Strategies), including an impressive bank of instructional videos.  For any materials you download, you can find them under "My Library" in your account profile.  As Teacher Advisor incorporates a greater span of material, it will likely grow as an indispensable first stop of OER curation.  Here's a brief video overview (1:38):

The Internet was pitched to the world as a free and open marketplace of ideas and materials.  OER has much promise to fulfill the educational part of that ideal, so long as tools like Gooru and Teacher Advisor with Watson make that dream an easy to navigate reality.

Do you have a favorite OER you use?  Share in the Comments!

Sunday, March 4, 2018


Edtech can provide many opportunities for deeper learning, but there are times as a teacher that you also appreciate having effective tools for classroom management.  There are lots of useful examples out there, but they usually fall in two categories: each tool lives in a separate space, OR if you find a tool that collects them in one space, there are encumbrances (premium features cost you money, it involves installing a program, and so on).

And that is what makes ClassroomScreen pretty amazing.  Not only is it free, it is completely web based, so no programs to download.  That also makes it work on the fly anywhere -- including on Chromebooks!

How does it work?  ClassroomScreen can live inside the normal size of an open tab, but you can also make it full screen.  It is basically a suite of simple, extremely useful "widgets," including:
  • Clock (12 or 24 hour, with calendar)
  • Timer (countdown or stopwatch)
  • Traffic Light.  As the site mentions, you could use this several ways: a visual reminder of voice level expectations, whether you can ask the teacher a question, or by students to indicate their understanding of the current concept or whether they need teacher help.  (This student example shows how ClassroomScreen could be a useful student-centered tool as well!)
  • Work Symbols (quick visual of your current student expectations)
  • Text box
  • Drawing (a whiteboard-like function, available small size and full screen)
  • QR code (put in a URL, instantly ready to scan!)
  • Sound Level (set the sensitivity and acceptable classroom noise level)
  • Random Name & Dice. You can type or upload a .txt file to randomly pick from a list (of student names, terms, etc.), but be advised it forgets the list when you close the tab. The dice tool rolls one, two or three six-sided dice.
  • Background.  You can choose from several defaults or upload your own image.
ClassroomScreen has an international connection -- the inventor is Laurens Koppers, a teacher from the Netherlands -- so it's probably not a surprise that the site can be quickly changed to different languages, as shown below:

ClassroomScreen in Spanish mode, one of several dozen choices.  What a useful tool for ELL!

One thing that may not be as intuitive is how to close a widget; it's not on the pop up widget itself, but by clicking on the red X on the appropriate button in the bottom row.

You can have two of the same widget at the same time! Once one is running, click the "+1" to make two of the same widget appear on the screen; click "-1" to make one of them go away.  Clicking the red X closes both widgets.

One last widget is Exit Poll (a button in the lower right corner of the screen).  While input is anonymous, it can give you a quick emoticon-based survey of the classroom.   Note the poll input can only be done at one device (as opposed to students "voting" over the Internet); for example, students would have to walk up to their teacher's touchscreen display to vote by touching the appropriate emoticon.  You could also use this as an "entrance poll" to preassess learning, as part of a debate on a topic, or as a "catch and release" moment in workshop.

ClassroomScreen has a great video overview (2:20) of the site:

How could you use it?  While ClassroomScreen doesn't need a touchscreen display, several features like the Draw widget and Exit Poll make this a natural pairing.   

The Traffic Light example mentioned above is the start of how ClassroomScreen could become student-centered with some creativity or app smashing.  For example, via Google Casting, a student could share their Drawing or Text response to the teacher's display.  If the student publishes something with a URL, they could share the product by quickly making a QR that could be scanned by the teacher or other students who walk by his or her device.  (Remember QR Code Generator as a way of scanning QR codes without installing a program.)

Note that you can open ClassroomScreen in multiple tabs, which means you could potentially flip between tabs to give instruction for multiple groups at once.

Downsides?  It's hard to find fault with a free program with so many widgets in one convenient place.  A screen shot feature would be nice, so you could save work.  If you use the Random Name app with the same roster, it may seem annoying that the site "forgets," but I recommend keeping your .txt files in an easy to access folder on your desktop. 

Have any creative tips and tricks on how to use ClassroomScreen? Share in the Comments below!

Special thanks to Val Curtis; it was through a retweet of her first "Learning in the Loo" that I discovered ClassroomScreen!