Reinventing the Game

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This post was written with Dr. Todd Schmidt (@tsschmidty); you can find his blog here.

In just a few short weeks, students all around the country will be getting ready to start school again. Invariably, on the first day, many teachers will go over the “rules.”  You know the ones…

  1. Raise your hand if you want to speak
  2. Stay seated
  3. Turn in your homework
  4. Follow directions...and so on...

These are some of the rules to that game we call school.  Follow the rules to the game and you might get out alive.  Don’t follow the rules and you can be labeled all sorts of things.  We value the compliant student...the one who doesn’t get into trouble...the one who completes their homework on time and regurgitates the right facts at the right time whether it be in multiple choice or essay format.

Like many educators, we were successful at playing the game.  Homework was completed, tests were studied for, and essays were turned in...but in reality, did we really learn how to “do” anything? Not really...we got the grades and our behavior was such that we almost never really got in trouble.


In the Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros talks about how we have conditioned kids to schooling when he writes, “accustomed to and successful in controlled learning environments, some students may fear being educated (and assessed) in any other way...If we really want to serve our students and help them to develop into leaders and learners of today and the future, taking risks in our practice is not encouraged but necessary (emphasis mine).”

For me (Todd), this upcoming year is about introducing Design Thinking via the ideas extolled by AJ Juliani and John Spencer in their book Launch.  More than Maker Space or Genius Hour, design thinking combines many of the tenets of Maker Spaces and Genius Hour and tries to expand it into other areas of the curriculum.  I am also trying to be purposeful and methodical as we implement this.  Rather than looking for flashy, the goal is to introduce and implement in a way that does not overwhelm either me or my staff.  In fact, we are taking an empty classroom and working as a school community to develop it into a lab where students have a say in what it looks like as well as what happens in there.  It will be a year-long journey that I intend on chronicling through this blog!

As we move forward, we want to create a new game where the innovators, disruptors, questioners, and staff members who allow students to break the mold are celebrated.  We have experienced a system where compliance rules and levels of authentic student engagement are not where we would like to see them.  We do not discount the importance of meeting standards, learning targets, and instructional objectives; however, we have an obligation to create authentic learning environments within our schools.  Our students deserve the chance to be excited about learning, growing, achieving, and improving.  Below are some thoughts of how to create this type of atmosphere for students.

Student Choice and Voice
Do students within your classroom/school have a voice?  Are they offered choices within their learning? There are a variety of ways to make that happen that do not require a lot of money or excessive planning...just time and a willingness to release some control to our students.  In both Kids Deserve It and Hacking Leadership, Todd Nesloney and Tony Sinanis describe a student-led EdCamp.  In essence, students showcase their passions and other students get to choose which sessions they attend.  The key is that students lead the sessions and other students have the choice to pick what they want to learn more about!

To promote student voice, choice, and higher levels of authentic student engagement, we introduced “passion projects” to a group of fourth grade students at one of my (Dan) schools.  These kids had the opportunity to choose something they were passionate about and would like to explore on a deeper level. They were given 45 minutes each day to do it.  Some chose to create a video using iMovie highlighting the amazing things taking place in their school through a series of interviews, pictures, and sound bites.  Others chose to learn about the intricacies of volcanoes and built fully-functional models to demonstrate their learning.  It was truly magical to see students so involved in their work while developing strong skills that will last a lifetime.  We will continue to promote passion projects in the coming year to increase student ownership of learning.  For additional ideas to promote student choice and voice in your classroom, please see: 5 Ways to Give Your Students More Voice and Choice via @WordLib of @edutopia.

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Image Credit: modifylifestyle.com
Creating the Conditions
Ms. Smith?” “Yes, Dan.” “Do you know who uses this quadratic equation in their daily work outside of an Algebra classroom?”  “Trust me and follow the formula and don’t forget, your homework is page 244 #’s 1-41 odd.”  Unfortunately this conversation happened many years ago and is all too common in classrooms today.  Students are inquisitive by nature and tend to ask an unbelievable amount of questions, particularly at a young age.  What generally happens over time is that our students stop asking so many questions within the school environment due to a number of reasons.  I contend that a strong part of this is they become conditioned to the game of school which includes covering the content, doing your homework, shutting your mouth, taking the test, and doing it all over again the next day.  This is not an indictment of teachers; rather, it is a criticism of a system that has not evolved to meet the needs of today’s learner.  It does not have to be this way.  We can create environments within our classrooms and schools where students are inquisitive, have permission to explore their passions, and the opportunity to question how specific content fits their plans for the future.  As leaders, it is our responsibility to remove barriers, celebrate risk-takers, and allow these approaches to take place within our schools.

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