Is there a problem?

Everybody hates to be tested – especially in public.

But almost anyone loves to solve a problem. That is why some of us spend so much time over the Sunday crossword puzzle (or the game of choice on your tablet). But when the problems we tackle are relevant, when the solutions we reach actually improve our life or somebody else’s, then the feeling of accomplishment is tenfold.

Schools were first designed as places where learning “for tomorrow” would happen. Tests were needed to make sure that the students had really acquired the knowledge that was being transferred into them. Once teachers could acknowledge, via the evidence of the written test, that students could at least reproduce on paper the concepts that had been drilled on their brains, their work was done.

It didn’t really mattered if just a couple of days later all those “learnings” had been utterly forgotten or disregarded.

In life, we learn by doing. We find out what works and what doesn’t. We need knowledge, of course, but we know that data must be used to be valuable. Unused knowledge is like unspoken words: they might be there but they need to get out to do their work.

If you want to play the violin, it is useful to get a hold on concepts and techniques – but unless you put your hands to the instrument, you will never produce music.

Problem (or project) based learning is much more like learning to play an instrument, only that it contemplates you as a part of an orchestra from the very beginning. You need to do your part but you must also work with others to create magic.

PBL takes its time, and, because it’s centered in the students and their interests, it can many times move away from the curriculum we are required to teach – which is not necessarily a bad thing.  PBL requires careful planning and lots of flexibility.

Recently, at our school, Colegio Valle de Filadelfia in Aguascalientes, México, we began to teach our students about the SDGs – the UN Sustainable Development Goals. When talking about goal #12, “Responsible consumption and production”, we challenged 7thto 9thgrade students to think about the things they use and consume every day and how they could be improved in a way that benefits the planet.  Students worked in groups to identify possible problematic products and to brainstorm for solutions.

Our team at the National Science and Technology week

One group looked closely at something each one of them used everyday, most of the day: a pencil.  They wondered how many trees were cut to produce the pencils they were using (about 82,000 a year, in the US alone). They wondered, could there be a better way? After trial and error, they came up with a pencil made with crushed, fallen tree leaves and other natural components. They submitted their project to a science contest and eventually the team was invited by the government of our state to present their idea at the National Science and Technology week. They spent five days presenting to authorities and visitors alike. Previously, one of the team members, a seventh grader called Natalia, spoke about their project in a TEDx talk – which of course was a new challenge on its own, one that required honing of other set of knowledge and skills, such as writing (for her script) and public speaking.

Our students had a stand where they presented their project to visitors

Not every day is a PBL day, but many are, in some way or another.

Here are the things you should keep in mind when working global project based learning in your classroom or school

  1. Kids should be part of identifying the problem – that way it will be relevant for them and will not feel like a script they must follow. Give the students some context, of course. When we asked our kids to identify things in everyday use that could be improved to benefit the planet, we gave them a very specific context from where to start. We did not just tell them, “Think about any problem you might want to solve”.
  2. Students should work in groups. PBL is mostly a collaborative model – being able to pick from many brains makes it much more engaging and productive. And of course, kids develop social skills as well.
  3. There should always be an outcome –even if it is just an idea that still needs to be implemented. It is OK if the problem is not entirely solved, but we should feel one step closer to finding solutions. Sometimes, just creating awareness about an issue is an improvement.

PBL is an opportunity to use knowledge and skills and put them in action towards a goal. Note that the key word here is “opportunity”, as opposed to obligation. PBL is not a test. It might very well be used to qualitatively evaluate how kids apply and create knowledge, but it is, above all, a new and engaging learning experience.

As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: What does a high quality, global PBL program look like in your classroom?

MEXICO: How much time should K-12 students spend at school during a calendar year?

Mexican students are beaming with happiness.

Well, at least that’s what OECD’s PISA found. In fact, in their report for Student Well Being, Mexico ranks at the top of OECD countries, with 58.5% of them claiming they are “very satisfied with life”.

But at the same time, Mexico has consistently ranked at the very bottomof academic achievement among OECD countries. In all three domains (Reading, Math and Science) less than 1% of students are top performers. There’s nothing here to be happy about.

Could Mexicans improve their education outcomes by lengthening the amount of time students spend learning, in and out of school? It is not likely.

We are already devoting a larger share of time studying, well above OECD’s average of 44 hours a week, but significatively below top performers like Korea.

Eduardo Andere, a Mexican researcher specializing in comparative education, strongly disagrees with making school days longer in order to improve performance.  What good could it come from increasing the dosage of bad education? That, by itself, will not turn a deficient education into a good one. In fact, it could be even worse.

Even more time of a good education will not necessarily result in better academic achievement. According to the OECD, “increasing learning time alone, such as by making school days or years longer, or shortening lunch breaks, is not enough to improve student outcomes. The question is whether more time leads to fatigue, boredom and burnout, or to productive and effective learning”(p. 2)

If more time spent at school is not the answer, then what to do? Every country is different, of course, but in the case of Mexico, poverty and inequity play a major role in academic achievement. Andere (2014) states that for too long we have believed that education will solve the problem of poverty, but it seems more likely to be the other way around. At the very least, it is a two-way road.

Erradicating poverty and inequity are goals well beyond the reach of any school teacher. Changing the education system to allow for better opportunites is too high a task for the everyday educator. But we have our classrooms and our students, and, at least there, we can make a difference.

At Colegio Valle de Filadelfia, where I teach, school days are longer that the Mexican average by about 7 hours per week. However, this time is not all spent in academic activities. We have a wide array of learning opportunities that range from music and art to coding, genius time and Maker Space. Students develop different skills and interact with peers and kids of other ages. And yes, they score well above the national average in standardized tests. Although we could not pinpoint the exact causes, I am sure they are not necessarily related to more time spent in school. I suspect it could have much more to do with how we spend that time and where do our students come from.

Let’s make the most of the time (however big or little) that we have at school. If we are able to promote joyous, engaging learning in (almost) every minute, our kids will fare much better – not only in PISA, but, most importantly, in life.

 

As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: How much time should K-12 students spend at school during a calendar year?

 

References:

Andere, E. (2014) La Escuela Rota: Sistema y Política en contra del Aprendizaje en México. Siglo XXI Editores.

OECD (2017), PISA 2015 Results (Volume III): Students’Well-Being, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264273856-en

OECD (2017) PISA Country Note, México. Retrieved on September 1st, 2018, from https://www.oecd.org/pisa/PISA-2015-Mexico.pdf

OECD (2017) Pisa in Focus #73 Do students spend enough time learning?

http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/744d881a-en

 

Managing Conflict in the Classroom

Every classroom is a tiny world in itself. Even if your class is small, the conflagration of different ideas, ways of living, personalities and traits are all fertile ground for conflict. If you add up diversity into the equation then the chance for conflict multiplies.

Conflict is a constant of life – an unavoidable beast that shows its head often, even in the most caring relationships. It is usually pretty small at the beginning, but, if allowed to grow, it can reach gigantic proportions and have nasty consequences. Friendships are lost, families are strained, marriages dissolve, people get killed and countries go to war – all because of unresolved conflict.

At school, conflict can have serious consequences as well – from academic disruption to escalated violence.

While there is no way to completely avoid conflict, there are some strategies to help our students – and ourselves – cope with the stress and reach common ground.

I will focus on prevention first. A well-managed classroom with clear expectations for everyone, a resourceful teacher and a good social climate are less likely to breed conflict. If kids learn to manage their own emotions and actions, even when conflict arises, it will be much easier to resolve.

Emotional wellbeing.

Emotion plays a huge role in conflict. Minds are stubborn, emotions are contumacious. Minds can be brought about using strong, reasonable arguments. Emotions are relentless. An emotionally unstable individual lives in constant internal conflict. Grievances with others are even more difficult to resolve.  If we promote a culture of emotional well being in our classrooms, not only conflicts will diminish: we will all be happier.  Getting to know each other in the class and creating strong human connections are key. Mindfulness, meditation and yoga can also help. And remember: As a teacher, you should care for your own well being as well.

Storytelling and role-playing.

Either as part of a dedicated curriculum in conflict prevention and resolution, or using examples from history to illustrate how conflict shaped important outcomes for humanity – many times in positive ways – students can learn that we grow not by avoiding conflict, but by learning to handle it in life. The advantage of using story telling and role playing is that, being emotionally unattached to the characters represented, our minds can easily let reason flow. At the same time, we can feel, through empathy, the emotions that the characters on both sides of the argument felt while in conflict.

Once conflict arises we should acknowledge it and holding it from escalating. When I was a starting my teaching career I used to disregard conflict. In those days I thought that delivering the curriculum was my most important responsibility, and I was unwilling to devote the precious time it took to address conflict – time I was “robbing” from instruction. So I succumbed to the popular belief that if we let children resolve their own problems, they usually do.

Only they don’t.

Many children (and, should we say, adults) lack the skills to successfully resolve conflict. If left to their own means, it is very likely that the stronger-willed student will prevail.  Yes, most disagreements will not escalate into conflict – but if the do, we need to be ready to step in.

Peer mediation

I’ve read about many schools that have adopted this approach, in which voluntary students are trained to facilitate the resolution of disputes among their peers. I can’t say I’ve tried it, but, at least informally, many times a student or group of students have helped dissolve conflict.

Write about it

Other times I’ve asked the involved students to write about the conflict. They should include not only their side of the story and how they feel, but also what they believe the other person is standing for and what could be the possible solutions. Writing forces them to self reflect and organize their ideas in a way a third person can read and understand. It also gives them the time to cool off.

Can we make it work?

It is human nature. There are some issues in which we might never be able to see eye to eye.  But even in those instances, we can “agree to disagree”, we can find common ground through tolerance and respect.  Yes, we can almost always make it work – not by thinking alike but by recognizing the right that each of us has to our identity and beliefs.

I now know better. Delivering the curriculum is not, by far, my most important job as a teacher.

It is to teach my students to embrace who they are, respect others and forever strive to grow.

 

 

As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: how classrooms are teaching the skills to resolve tensions and conflicts so as to find the “common ground” in an increasingly diverse world?

Literacy skills for a new world

The mainstream way in which we teach our kids to read and write has changed very little in several centuries. It is, perhaps, the only teaching practice that remains unchanged as time goes by – or the one that has changed the least.

Yes, there have been some strikes of innovation here and there – but at the end, we end up doing practically the same things that have been done for ages: we teach the letters, their sounds, and the way they interact with each other. We start at six, sometimes a little later or a little earlier. We follow the same steps with all children. We make them drill and repeat. Until they can read. Or not.

Some might say, if this method is still being used across centuries, it must be tried and true. It means it works, and therefore we should keep teaching that way. Right?

Wrong. I believe our traditional systems are somewhat successful in teaching kids to read and write. But they are an absolute failure in creating readers and writers.

There is a difference between being able to read and being an avid reader.  UNESCO reports that the world literacy rate is nowadays around 86%. In my country, México, as it is in the United States, almost 100% of people 15 years old and older are literate. However, in México, 55% of the population in this group did not read a single book last year. The same is true for almost a third of Americans. At the same time, UNESCO reports that 6 out 10 children “are not learning a minimum in reading and math”

The world is changing rapidly. Our students need to become life-long learners if they are to keep up the pace with the challenges that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is already presenting them.

If you want life-long learners, then you need life-long readers.  It is that simple.

What are we doing wrong?

I believe that our education systems are teaching our kids too little, too late and too badly – at least regarding early literacy instruction.

For centuries it has been believed that tiny children cannot, and should not, be taught to read. Many have warned us against the perils of teaching a child who is “not ready”. But children are born with brains primed for language. And reading is language.

Instead of taking advantage of the powerful and plastic brains of tiny kids, we make them wait six longs years before giving them the gift of literacy. We wait until their brains are no longer as eager for language as they were on their first years of life. We allow the window of easy, meaningful language learning to fade away.

Of course, if we tried to teach a 3-year old to read in the same fashion that we have been teaching our 6 year olds, he would most certainly hate it. This is because the traditional techniques for reading instruction break apart language, presenting letters –devoid of meaning- instead of words within a context. By the way, I do not believe that we should teach the six year old this way, either.

What should we do instead?

Babies begin to learn to talk at birth – reading should not be different. We can expose tiny children to lots and lots of words, oral and written. We speak to our babies in high pitch, with lots of intonation and color. We should present reading words the same way, in large print, very brief sessions, and with great enthusiasm. When kids are young they are able to absorb huge amounts of information easily if presented properly.

We should begin early, exposing our children to a rich vocabulary within their context, enjoying language. Reading and playing are not opposing terms. They are not mutually-excluding activities. Reading is a gift and a privilege, not a task or a punishment.

Early reading could also be the answer to inequity, a way to reduce or even eliminate achievement gaps. Poor kids are lagging behind their affluent peers by the time they enter school. First grade is already too late for them to catch up.

Before becoming a teacher, I taught my own kids to read at home, at a young age, following the programs of The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential. The easy and joyful learning I witnessed made me fall in love with teaching.  I the following 20 years, I have taught, directly or indirectly, hundreds of little kids to read way before the age of six – and watched in awe as they became avid readers.

Last month I began a project that will last a couple of years: I will travel to as many countries as possible, visiting schools and talking to teachers, to learn how little kids are learning to read around the world, and write a book about those experiences.  Finland is, according to UNESCO, the most literate country in the world – and the place where I decided to go first.

Here is an excerpt of my interview with a very experienced Finnish teacher, Kirsti Savikko (in English, with Spanish subtitles)

New literacy practices need to be generated in our schools – and I believe that will happen somewhat soon, as brain research and innovative technologies evolve. Whether on a book or a screen, those who read will be able to rise above the uncertainties ahead. The world, now more than ever, will belong to readers.

—————

As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: To what extent do you believe the literacy skills required for a new world will be more or less the same as they were before? Will new literate practices need to be generated and does that mean that new literacies be required?  If so, what do you think these new literacies will be and how can they be learned?

Could, Should or When will Artificially Intelligent replace teachers?

This month we welcome a guest post by Armand Doucet

 

Could AI robots replace teachers?  Should AI robots replace teachers? Thanks to advances in robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), virtual reality and sensor technology, they probably could.  But, should they?

Well, that depends upon your goal. If your goal is to save money (ok, massive amounts of money), operate schools all year round, keep non-unionized ‘staff’ on campus 24 hours a day to deliver the curriculum or meet with parents, then your answer is Yes! But if your goal is to have master teachers utilizing pedagogy based on assessment of their students, seizing ‘teachable moments’ that have nothing to do with the curriculum and everything to do with humanity, then your answer must be Hell, no!

Personally, I think we need to be cautious and ETHICAL when experimenting with the digital age. I refer you to AI Twitter account that had to be shut down within 24 hours because it became offensive and tweeted inflammatory and hate-filled messages. In all fairness, that incident said more about the twitter trolls and society in general than it did about AI.

Other scary thoughts for a classroom:

-Stepford Wives type robot – benevolent, obedient and perfectly calculated delivering curriculum content with a smile, standardization. Any lifelong professional educator will tell you that teaching is (INSERT SARCASM HERE) monotonous, humorless and repetitive profession. I’m sure students are going to be submissive, self-motivated and excited to perform their daily task.

– Robocop robot – the judge, jury and executioner programmed with data from prejudices of a bygone era in the hallways

– Megatron robot – programmed to a dictators every whim, pushing the world further apart through racist and sexist populist agenda subjugating (and I dare say brain washing) of millions

– IRobot – The scariest of them all, the robot that deviates from his programming because we really don’t understand what happens with the “black box” and its self-learning.

You need to understand, I am not a Luddite. However, very large ethical questions needs to be debated and answered throughout the process of integration to protect our students. It needs to be fast, but done well. The digital age tools used in our classroom should be created hand in hand with our teachers and other developmental experts such as cognitive psychologist, social workers etc. and the students data protected like Fort Knox.

I firmly believe that technology has a supporting role in education. I myself use it in multiple ways including assessment, attendance, recording students’ self-reflections, and helping me personalize the curriculum for each of my students. If you look closely at the research, you will see that teacher-directed instruction combined with inquiry-based instruction at the appropriate time, is what is best for children. So teaching is both an art and a science. It requires solid pedagogical knowledge, good judgement and empathy.

So where does the digital age fit in the classroom? It’s already here!  AI can write personalized text books, it can learn a curriculum, and then adapt the presentation to best fit each student. It can be a translator for immigrant students. Sensory technology can track attendance in schools. Avatars can showcase a world 2000km away through virtual reality.

Where could it fit in the classroom?  I can foresee R2D2 taking care of formative assessment and handing the data to the teacher. C-3PO could do instant translations for your diversified classroom when they do collaboration, instantly helping with inclusion. Not a Star Wars fan, Ironman utilization of holograms to showcase the inner workings of organ or his use of his personal assistant to make multiple avatars function personalizing some curriculum to elementary students via their passions.

Where should it fit in the classroom? That question is best left to the voter and taxpayer, but I know where it shouldn’t fit: at the front of the room taking the place of a human being.

I am not an expert in AI or robotics. But, I am a teacher. I believe there is a place in our classrooms for the digital age that greatly benefit both teacher and student.  You and I must work together to create platforms and support systems that educate, protect and provide the humanistic elements to our students.

There’s a robot in my backpack

Kids today are armed with technological superpowers. If they own a cell phone – and many, if not most of them, do- they already have a mighty computer in their pockets. It will really not be too long before they also have a robot in their backpacks. And get along with it pretty well.

Will that robot become their teacher?

Not likely. It has been said widely enough that many jobs are in route to extinction at the Fourth Industrial Revolution – and it may very well be so. But the jobs that are most likely to disappear are the ones that can be automated. If our work as teachers was to put kids together at a huge assembly line called the “School Factory”, then maybe, yes, we should be worried.

But kids are not furniture, cars, toys, or any piece of merchandise, for that matter, that can be mass-produced to a standard. And a teacher’s job is not the repetitive task many believe it to be, as if we were just filling little brains one after the other. “First grade teachers put in reading and writing, second grade teachers cement addition and subtraction, third grade teachers put in the times tables…” and so on.

Education is a tailor-made suit. It must fit each child precisely – and adjust while she is growing.  It is not perfect – in fact it is usually unpredictable, messy and complex – but it is also beautiful and profoundly uplifting.

Every teacher that is true to his calling is an artist, every child, a collective masterpiece. One in which the creation is also creator.

But times are indeed changing, and teachers will need to adapt and grow, not for fear of being replaced by robots – that won’t happen, I am certain. However, as Trucano (2015) writes: teachers who don’t use technology will be replaced by teachers who do.

Too often we have been caught up in the discussions of what studentsneed to thrive in a challenging, ever changing world. That is a discussion worth having, of course, but let’s not forget about the teachers. What kind of teachers will continue to flourish in the Fourth Industrial Revolution?This is an important question.

 

 Dead man walking

Are you a teacher in need of strong survival skills? You are in good company. Here, some suggestions that might just keep us off the “job death row”:

  • Be willing to do more.Technology will do us the great favor of unburdening us from many boring and time consuming administrative tasks – but we should spend that extra time learning how to manage and create stimulating environments using that same technology – and how to be better teachers overall. Strong teaching and digital skills are your best bet against extinction.
  • Get out of the classroom and collaborate.Gone are the days of the solitary teacher with a classroom as her undisputable kingdom. Your colleagues are no longer the lords of neighboring castles, ready to go to war if their imaginary borders felt threatened. And more importantly, your students are not your subjects, condemned by divine right to be your loyal servants. Your word, my dear, is not law. So go ahead and open the frontiers of your mind, expand your reach and allow yourself to be invaded: by new ideas, practices, pedagogies, methodologies, unconventional courses and subjects. Let yourself free of the tyranny of teaching to the test.
  • Be human.This is, after all, your most important differentiator against robots! Take time to develop and nurture relationships – with students, parents and other teachers. Be loyal and humble. Show your feelings, as they don’t expose our weaknesses, but strengthen our ties. Grow alongside your students. You, too, have a potential that deserves to be fulfilled.

And about that robot peeking out from the backpack: welcome it to the classroom, the schoolyard and the hallways. Who knows? Maybe we will learn to co-exist and co-create.

 

References:

Trucano, M. (2015) “Will technology replace teachers? No, but…” World   Bank. Edutech.    http://blogs.worldbank.org/edutech/tech-and-teachers. Retrieved on May 21st, 2018.

As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: What kind of teachers will continue to flourish in the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

A Holistic Learning Approach in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: The best, the worst, and the future

“Strong academic skills alone are not enough for young people to become successful adults”, states a recent publication from the University of Chicago. The report, entitled “Foundatons for Young Adult Success: A Developmental Framework”, then goes to stress what is important: “experiences combining action and reflection (to) help children develop a set of critical skills, attitudes, and behaviors”  and “supportive relationships and an abundance of these developmental experiences through activities inside and outside of school.” (2015, Nagaoka et al)

Fair enough. But, how can these findings translate to real ife in classrooms around the planet? How are the world’s teachers helping their students face the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? And why are most educational systems still focusing on accountability measures when research clearly shows a different pathway to success?

The accelerated pace of technological advancement implies a choking pressure on education. Now schools must have a lab were students can experiment with drones and virtual reality, or else they are declared outdated and unmodern. But, in truth and honesty, how many schools, public or private, can afford such labs? Very, very few. And for the many others left to watch from the verge of modernity, what is left?

There is hope. “Even in environments devoid of technology, excellent pedagogy is still leading to astonishing student learning outcomes”. (Guerra, in Doucet et al, 2018, p. 40) Just as academics are not enough and everything to achieve student success, technology is neither the magic answer for education.

Last month, our book “Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Standing at the precipice” was launched at the Global Education & Skills Forum in Dubai.  Among the many questions lurking around education today, we wanted to explore how are we preparing our youth for 2030 and beyond – with or without technology, and above academics and accountability. For my chapter, “Education Today: A collection of snapshots”, I interviewed experts, researchers and teachers from around the globe, and ended up with a collection of “best and worst educational practices” in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The worst

As reported in our book, there is a consensus on “the dark side”:

  • Static learning vs. engaged learning,
  • Treating schools as factories or bussinesses
  • Too much “curriculum- oriented instruction”
  • One-size-fits-all teaching
  • Teaching to the test

The Best

  • Balance of cognitive and non cognitive learning
  • Focusing in teachers’ quality as opossed to teachers’ perfomance
  • Empowering students
  • Using a wide inventory of teaching strategies – with, or without, technology
  • Building strong relationships with students

The future

“What, then, should students learn to be better equipped for the challenges of our times and for the future? A whole new world opens. Teachers’ responses were as enthusiastic as theywere diverse: global citizenship, soft skills, environmental awareness, digital literacy, critical thinking, relationships, teamwork, entrepreneurship, and even meditation!” (Guerra, in Doucet et al, 2018, p.39)

Koen Timmers and Armand Doucet sum it up nicely:

“As the world continues to become more globalized and interconnected, the ability to understand diverse perspectives and work with those that have divergent worldviews will become increasingly important.

Without great pedagogy, technology integration is worthless.”

 

References:

Doucet, A., Evers, J.,  Guerra, E., Lopez, N., Soskil, M.,  & Timmers, K. (2018) Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Standing at the precipice. London, Routledge Education.

Nagaoka et al (2015) Foundatons for Young Adult Success: A Developmental Framework. University of Chicago. Retrieved on April 24th, 2018 from https://consortium.uchicago.edu/publications/foundations-young-adult-success-developmental-framework

 

As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: What should a holistic approach to learning look like and how do we shift the focus from the accountability measures in existence now to ones that are relevant for all students in a changing world?