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

 

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?

Taking Climate Change Seriously in our Schools

I am one among the couple thousands of teachers sitting in awe as former US Vice president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore is passionately talking about climate change. We are at the Global Education & Skills Forum (GESF), just last week in Dubai. The theme of the conference is: How are we educating our children and young for 2030?

During the sessions, and lingering in the many hallway conversations, two themes keep standing out among the many issues facing education in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. One is technology. The other, climate change.

Will the world in 2030 be a better place for young people? This is the hot question at the GESF debate chamber just one day before Al Gore’s appearance. The main concern seems to be whether robots will eat up our jobs… and whether we will still have a planet to live on.

Is there a way to embrace technology to its greatest advantages, and still turn our eyes towards nature, environment and life? How do we make sure we do not deplete our resources before it is too late? These questions belong not only in political arenas or international summits: they must find their way to our classrooms. Here are some ideas on how to make it happen.

  1. Instill inspiration, not fear. One thing I learned from Al Gore is that, while the situation on climate change is serious, there are plenty of opportunities to take action and make a difference. Yes, it is crucial that our children get to know the facts – but only to understand the importance of intervention. Fear creates paralysis. Inspiration provokes change.
  2. Make climate change part of your curriculum. Otherwise it will not just pop in there. We incorporated the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals so they no longer are “special activities”, but a core part of our program. We even created our own textbooks, -just published- on Language and Communication, in which the SDGs –along with climate change- make a prominent appearance. You can always lean in great work already out there. In our case, we took Harvard Professor Fernando Reimers’ book on global citizenship “Empowering students to improve the world in 60 lessons” as a starting point.
  3. Take part in international projects. When kids find out there are many other classrooms and schools working towards the same goals, they will feel compelled to do their part – and gain a sense of belonging at the same time. Two great projects to consider are Koen Timmers’ Climate Action Project, and Aggeliki Pappa’s #SOS4LoveProject. Of course, you can also create your own!
  4. Make it personal, make it real. In other words, practice what you preach. Get your school – or at least your classroom!- to recycle. Explore the many things both adults and children can do (we like the resources from the American Museum of Natural History)
  5. Speak out. Change will only happen if we succeed in bringing along as many people as possible. Children can become the best climate change advocates: after all, they will be the ones inheriting the planet. Our school is preparing a TEDx event where our students will share many ideas about pressing issues – climate change being one of them. Students will get to develop public speaking skills – while defending the earth.

The best way to celebrate Earth Day on April 22nd is to know that we are already doing our share in nurturing the planet – inside and outside our schools.

 

As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: Taking Climate Change Seriously in our Schools.  What are your best Tips for Teaching About Climate Change in Your Classroom?

From Armand Doucet: Six things my students teach me

Armand Doucet is a Canadian teacher, Global Teacher Prize finalist and coauthor of the book “Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. As a guest blogger, he writes for our series “Six Things my Students Teach ME”

All students are curious. It’s up to me to personalize the content and make the classroom a safe place for them to want to ask questions.

Passion will get any student to push outside of their comfort zone and try to reach new heights.

To be human, first and foremost, don’t take myself too seriously and make sure that every day I greet them at the door with a smile asking them how they are doing.

That I am not the smartest person in my classroom, at first this scared me, but growing from the sage on the stage to the guide that will help open the doors for each student, gives them the chance to reach their true potential.

Leadership is doing what is best for my students, no matter what.

Teaching is not and will never be just the transfer of curriculum content you are a teacher 24/7, 365 days of the year and you will wear a different hat (sometimes many hats) for every student in your classroom. Don’t underestimate the impact of a conversation in the hallways, checking up on the child who has been sick or giving some positive feedback on the students last extra-curricular activity. Sometimes you are the only one paying attention.

Six things my students teach me

Don’t think the kids do all the learning at school. Teachers get their very good share of it as well. These are some of the most important things my students have taught me.

1. Curiosity fuels learning (Passion can take you a long way)

It is extremely difficult to teach bored brains – but it is nearly impossible to keep aroused minds from learning. For too long I strived to make my lessons perfect, structured and uneventful. I’m a recovering control freak, and those carefully planned lessons made me feel safe. But it was the times when something wild happened – usually by accident – that my students enjoyed and learned the most. Eventually, I began to plan my lessons in a very different way. Instead of thinking by means delivering content, I asked myself: How can I make this lesson enlightening and irresistible?

2. Movement wires the brain

Just about every time I tried to arrange my tiny students in a quiet and peaceful circle for reading, 3 year old Carolina would decide to run around us, her little feet pounding as fast as her heart. I tried everything to get her to sit and join the group, but most of the time I failed terribly. I gave up to her, mostly out of tiredness and fear of losing the rest of the class. It was my first year as a teacher and I was struggling to survive.

As weeks and months went by, I realized that even if apparently distracted, Carolina had listened to every word of the stories and remembered many details that even I had forgotten. At the same time, I began to notice a surprising pattern: the kids who moved the most in my class not only had better motor skills but also seemed more articulate than their peers. Movement feeds, grows and organizes your brain.  And better brains allow for better learning.

3. Curriculum must meet the child (not the other way around)

Too many classrooms resemble a frantic race in which all students must meet the curriculum as fast and efficiently as possible. Children are judged upon their ability and compliance to do so. Teachers are measured against how quickly and how many of their students achieve that goal. Curriculum becomes the ultimate god: the reason for schools’ existence, the shrine of the enlightened few and the penance of the troubled many. We push our kids to meet the curriculum, when we should be harnessing the curriculum to meet the individual child.

Our students are alive and changing, each one exquisitely unique. Shouldn’t they have their own path and pace to experience learning and knowledge?

Teaching for the curriculum (or the test) is not only ethically wrong, it is also pedagogically inefficient. Children, and the relationships we form with them, are much more important than the curriculum. I am not saying that content is irrelevant, and I am not implying than schools are little more than social clubs. But, if we are willing to go slow to then go fast, as Armand Doucet describes in our book “Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution”, the time spent developing relationships will pay off – and we may end up in much better terms with the curriculum as well.

4. School is Life

Have you ever noticed that we tend to speak to children in future tense – a lot? We tell them to eat well because then “you will grow healthy and strong”. We ask them to stop horsing around because “you will fall and hurt yourself”. We insist that they study because “school will prepare you for life”.

But school is life for our students -and they are living it right now.

I learned from my students that “now” is as important as “tomorrow”, if not more. Adults tend to live either howling the regrets of the past or shouldering the anxieties of the future. Children know better. So learn from your past and let it go. Allow your dreams and goals to propel you in motion. But live in the present, and be your very best today.

5.Teachers are still important. Technology is not a one-size-fits-all resource. Sometimes, plain old good paper, scissors, glue and tempera paint will awaken creativity more than any app could do. Screen time is no replacement for climbing a tree. And while technology surely empowers us to connect in many ways that were not possible before, there is still a world of unbeatable non-digital experiences – and no computer will ever replace teachers.

When I first designed my online History and Geography lessons for secondary school students, part of the plan was to eliminate classroom time completely for those subjects. Students would interact with me and among them exclusively online, much in the way I had completed my graduate degree. But very quickly I learned that my 12 to 15 year old students still needed live mentorship, and that they did better if they had it. My online course became a flipped classroom –technology is still big, but the teacher is still important.

6. Every child bears the seed of genius within. Each day I am reminded of just how amazing children are, and I marvel about the great privilege educators have in helping them achieve their dreams. And in doing so, we also grow into our own, never-ending human potential. In other words, learning makes us grow, but teaching makes us great.

Too poor to be bright?

He has not yet started school, but he is already behind. Barely six, he is still somewhat unaware of the many injustices to be faced in the world –many of them, hurting him directly.

One of the first injustices, at school, is that he is not up to speed with the other first graders. And, you know, it is not because he’s not smart. He is. But learning is nearly impossible when you are hungry or sick, and vey difficult when the environment is preventing you from reaching your potential. However, the world will see this child as stupid or lazy. That is the second injustice. The third one is that he will believe them.

In the first years of life, children’s brains develop furiously. A shortage of nutrients –for the body, the mind and the soul- can very likely impact the learning outcomes for disadvantaged children. Failing then is not due to lack of intelligence – but for lack of resources. And it is, also, because the school that should embrace our little boy is actually expecting him to fail.

Solving poverty is not the prerogative of educators. There are things we just can’t change. But there are many, many others we can.

First, let’s start with your classroom. It should provide all children with an environment rich in stimuli and opportunity. And when we say rich, we mean exuberantly opulent. Lots of books, plenty of experiences to nourish and satisfy a child’s curiosity. Even Spartan premises can accommodate powerful learning environments. You don’t need fancy equipment or luxurious facilities. The way you talk, the words you speak, the warmth in your voice, your enthusiasm and creativity are key. Add as many exciting and nurturing happenings as you can. Make your classroom a window to the world.

Secondly, beware of your expectations. If you are convinced, even before they had a chance to prove you wrong, that these children will fail, most likely, they will. And then you will become part of the problem. Don’t pity your disadvantaged students. Believe in them, and teach them the power of hard work and determination. Share stories of successful people that overcame great hardship. Don’t assume you know what they are going through because, most likely, you don’t.

Also, get involved in local community actions to end poverty and hunger. Inspire your students, of all backgrounds, to be compassionate and caring. Teach them not to let their minds fall prey of prejudice. Every child bears the seed of genius within, and disadvantaged children are not too poor to be bright – they are too precious to be lost.

 

As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: What Can Schools Do to Address Poverty? How do we instill inspiration in those who are economically and socially disadvantaged?