Homework Balance, Part 2

In my first installment about Homework, I referenced Karl Taro Greenfeld in “My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me” regarding his 7 day experience doing the same homework as his daughter received at school. His article strongly showed how homework can turn a student’s school day into a 10+ hour work day, or 56+ hour work week, including weekends. The National PTA recommends that his 8th grader should have a total of 80 minutes of work per school day, instead of the 3+ hours she currently has.

However any of us believe about what a daily homework load should be, there is another element of homework that is perhaps the core to determining the value of homework: Quality of Purpose.

What purpose does homework serve—or possibly, what purpose should it serve?

What purpose does homework serve? Karl hints at this when he talks to the teachers about the workload, and with varying success, gets a reduction by some. But what if the homework is not all necessary? Or, what if the assignment is too complex for a student’s readiness on that night? There have been several studies about homework that find that good value can come from the effort. Some of this research is explained for easy understanding in the classic book, Classroom Strategies that Work. It’s further addressed in an Ed Leadership article on ASCD: “The Case for and Against Homework” by Robert J. Marzano and Debra J. Pickering. As with the book, the article offers the significant impact that homework can have on learning–when it is purposeful, time appropriate, and practice for feedback. Depending on the study, the percentile gains of homework on learning ranges from 8% to 28%.

In essence, homework is a great vehicle for feedback to students about what they do and do not understand from instruction. It’s even better when customized or differentiated. Here’s how it works:

  1. Content is delivered.
  2. Students grapple with the concepts and/or skills under teacher supervision
  3. Formative assessment data is collected by teacher to determine understanding by all students.
  4. Support instruction is used to support students who struggle and those who demonstrate quick mastery.
  5. Homework is assigned, sometimes differentiated based on steps 3 and 4.
  6. Students use homework to practice the skills and concepts. Build their understanding.
  7. On the next day, teacher and students review the homework as a formative assessment to gage how much more support and practice students need before progressing to the next concept.

Steps 3 and 4 are critical to supporting and meeting student needs. To not do those steps is like expecting someone–after one instructional session–know how to:

  • drive a car or truck using a stick shift
  • create inquiry-based, project-based Learning unit
  • perform as a character in a play with excellent communication and acting skills
  • understand how to graph an equation for a purpose
  • write a persuasive article that includes a counter argument

You get the picture. While some few can perform at a high level after one session, most of us mortals need opportunities to explore through practice. Homework is that opportunity to practice, and steps 3 and 4 help ensure that the work is targeted and customized (differentiated) based on the student’s skill level.

When some teachers say that there is no time to do steps 3 and 4, homework becomes a game of Roulette—no one knows where the ball will land, more off the mark than on.  The irony is that the time spent checking for understanding during the lesson saves time later because students are assigned work that they fits their needs. Otherwise, students may be given work that is too complex to their current skill level, and they become confused and lose confidence. This results in a wider gap of understanding that leads to more instructional time needed to “catch up” students with the curricular pace.

What purpose should homework serve?math

Another aspect of homework that happens is its role as practice or assessment. While homework can serve both purposes, the primary role is typically practice. Students need opportunities to “tryout” the skills taught in class to see what they understand and what—at first—they “knew” and realize they did not know. At the next class session, a review of the work gives teachers formative feedback as to what needs remain to provide additional support. When looking at the effect size implications shared earlier, practice followed by feedback can have a significant and positive impact because students have a safe environment to explore and take risks in grappling with the task. Some of my children’s best learning experiences have come from teachers who understand the emphasis and power of practice. Students develop confidence to take risks and explore. They learn perseverance when the teacher, after reviewing the work, expects the students to address the errors either individually or in collaborative groups. These experiences prepare students to do better on the graded assessments.

Sometimes this “practice” message gets muddied when homework is graded for correct answers, before students have the chance to check their understanding and get scaffold support from the teacher. Testing should only occur when students are expected to have had substantive support to be able to demonstrate understanding of the concepts or skills, not when they’ve just been introduced on the same day. One of my kids intuitively understands the writing craft quickly and easily. Math is not so easily picked up. My wife and I give lots of support at home as best we understand the concepts. Once, when we encouraged our child to circle the practice problems that were the biggest struggle so as to ask the teacher for guidance. The problems were not done at home because no one understood them well enough to offer support. The homework was scored for accuracy. The problems left blank to get support were marked incorrect and awarded a zero.  Message: homework is a quiz of what students pick up from that day’s lesson, and should result in 100% correct answers.

To be transparent, I do not believe in scoring homework. Feedback is all that’s needed. For those who argue that points need to be assigned else students will not do the work, my grudging suggestion is assign points for completion, which could be part of an assessment of perseverance or grit. This could encourage students to do all the work, and get the needed practice, but not penalized them for not having all the correct answers. Why would they if the concepts were just recently introduced?

Ask any group of educators about how many believe that students learn at different rates and paces. The answer I get from groups is an emphatic “Yes.” Not one person has ever said that all students learn at the same rate and pace. Given this common belief, how can we fairly grade students for initial work on skills and concepts? The result creates grade fog where what student’s real knowledge is obscured by grading that does not match the expected outcome. For example, one of my kids was earning a C in English. Homework scores were very low due to accuracy of the answers—all work was fully completed. On the test based on the content that included the homework, my child scored an 86%. Which is the stronger indicator of understanding—the homework assignments or the summative assessment covering the content spanning all of the homework assignments?

A good formative learning activity is to allow students revise their homework after reviewing the concept and/or skill that they struggle with. This gives them a chance to show what they really understand. I remember my high school Algebra class. My teacher would give us homework and grade it the next day for accuracy. When he reviewed the homework with us, I understood my errors and could complete similar work with 100% accuracy. Unfortunately I had no opportunity to show that I “got it” because the teacher moved on to the next concept. Such practice is a disservice to getting accurate data on where our students are at with their skills. For those who are very concerned about standardized test results, data accuracy is important for predicting pass rates and what students still need. For students, an accurate message is critical to building and maintaining their confidence in the subject for tackling future work.

For teachers who understand the logic of homework as practice of the day’s instruction, or review for an upcoming assessment, the change in process is easy to do, and is a powerful message to supporting a positive learning culture. Purposeful homework helps students grapple with the learning targets. As a practice session, teachers can determine the workload amount that is narrowly focused and requires the minimal time outside of class so as to stay under the recommended time frame of nightly workload.

For parents who understand the logic of homework, the conversation with teachers becomes clearer, although not always easier. Inquire about the purpose of the homework helps gauge if the workload is appropriate. Teachers may not always agree with your argument but at least they will be able to give a clearer message. If homework is graded for accuracy, this is a more serious problem. Unfortunately, as I noted before, such a practice is an accepted option at some schools, and is viewed as a teacher’s pedagogical philosophy. You may not be able to convince them of the obvious error of this approach, and should not use up valuable time and relationship capital. Instead, focus on the supports that the teacher has in place or should put in place to give your child the differentiated help so as the learning happens.

At the end of the day, everyone wants the students to succeed. Striking a good balance with homework purpose and workload can lead to a positive learner experience.

The Homework Balance, Pt 1

The Homework Balance

In the October issue of Atlantic Monthly, Karl Taro Greenfeld in “My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me” wrote about an experiment he did. For one week he experienced the homework load that his daughter brought from her middle school. Each day, for 7 days, he followed the assignment list that she brought home, including the weekend. His typical night was 3 hours of study time. It appears, and Karl doesn’t say explicitly, that the clocked hours were his, and that his daughter may have been spending more time than him.

The questions the article seems to pose are:shutterstock_79376380

  • How much homework is enough, and when does it become too much?
  • What purpose does homework serve—or possibly, what purpose should it serve?

One unintended opportunity of this one-week experiment was collaborative conversations between father and daughter. Their rich conversation about the assignments probably deepened his daughter’s understanding of the content. The experience, by Karl’s admission, raised his understanding of the classwork, which helped him to advocate for his daughter during the Middle School’s parent-teacher conference—because he understood the workload and scope to clearly articulate concerns in ways that could lead to a productive conversation. Having sat at both ends of the table as a teacher and parent, addressing student needs at a conference works well when both parties see the issues and needs in a similar student context. Parent(s) and teacher may not agree about what’s needed at first, but shared understanding of the situation and the impact on learning can lead to some interesting answers, especially if everyone is will to collaborate.

How much homework is enough, and when does it become too much?

This is a question that many grapple with. Giving lots of homework may seem a good thing when considering that the typical school calendar is about 180 out of 365 days, content expectations per grade level continues to expand and become more complex each decade, and school staff are judged by the results of state standardized tests. A form of the following question is asked If not more homework, then how do we ensure that students get  (not deeply learn) all that they need to know? The answer, as Karl Greenfeld discovered is telling. When he struggled with conjugation of various verb tenses, he asks help from his daughter about the meaning of such a verb as tener:

“[S]he repeats “Memorization, not rationalization. She doesn’t know what the words mean (p. 83).”student 4

When any of us feel overwhelmed with work and deadlines we can go into survival mode. Students are no different. It’s difficult to learn something deeply if the time frame does not allow for it. Sure, we can pull late or all-nighters, but those have an inevitable toll on our physical and mental well being to maintain high performance. The work quality becomes shallow so that there is time to get it all done. Another consequence is that students will do what easier work for themselves first and push back the tasks that challenge them to learn. The result is that the most complex work is dealt with when the student is the most tired and not as mentally sharp.

The National Parent Teachers Organization recommends a sliding scale for the amount of homework assigned based on 10 minutes per grade level per night. Period.

“How much homework is too much? Both National PTA and the National Education Association endorse the 10-minute rule, which states that the maximum amount of homework (all subjects combined) should not exceed 10 minutes per grade level per night. That is, a 1st-grader should have no more than 10 minutes of homework, a 6th-grader no more than 60 minutes, and a 12th-grader no more than two hours” (Reference).

This makes communication vital among teachers of a grade level team so that students are not overloaded with homework. On average, students in Middle School will take 6 classes: The core–Math, Science, English, and Social Studies—and electives such as Health, Foreign Language, or Art, etc. In High School, students are looking at a minimum of 6 classes. When a classroom teacher assigns homework that they estimates will take an hour to complete, multiply that by 4 core classes and students could be looking at 4 hours of homework, possibly longer for content areas that they struggle with and homework given by electives such as Spanish in the case of Karl’s daughter’s Spanish work. A solution that I’ve seen several staffs take is to designate certain days of the week as for homework by specific courses. For example, Math may be Tuesday and Thursday. For those who balk at this idea because of a belief that their subject is critical for content coverage, consider the above look at how students, when overwhelmed with work, go into survival mode and complete work at a more superficial level or just push off such lengthy work to last, which leads to lesser focus on quality by the student.

Parents can be an important source of support because they see the workload that their children bring home. Where a teacher’s is understandably focused on student development in their course, parents have a balcony view of what is being assigned across the student’s courses.  Surveying parents or listening to their concerns on homework load is important. Students are another source. It’s sometimes difficult to feel sympathy when students complain in class about being overloaded with work—okay, it’s always feels difficult to feel sympathy—because we expect them to “complain” about homework. But such feedback is worth at least investigating. If other teachers are assigning major homework at the same time, that can be as stressful as taking major exams in all courses during the same week. The difference is that major exams happen 8 to 18 weeks apart. Homework may be assigned daily. Student complaints is a signal to check in with other teachers about assignment loads, and possible coordination on scheduling. Remember the recommendations of 10 minutes per grade level per night.

Taking these steps will help students balance their time so that homework from each subject is given a more quality attention because students would have more energy. There is another factor to fine-tune homework time so that students get the most out of the time taken on the assignments. This is the question of purpose, which will be addressed in the next post.

Nurturing Student Voices

Voice is a powerful tool that cannot be silenced. During the Arab Spring of 20012 this was demonstrated in the way that Twitter was used to communicate among the protesters and with the world media. And as with other social media, it continues to have an impact. Wherever there is a place where voice and choice is stifled or controlled, people find back channels to communicate. Self expression occurs in many other ways.

  • Have a cause or business idea that you want to generate support for? These sites enables like-minded people to present a unified front (Change.org) or generate funding to start a business or concept (Kickstarter).
  • Product Reviews – Most cyber stores encourage consumers to post their ratings of products and/or services. Consider Yelp, Amazon, Good Reads, or Yahoo Movies. Anyone can post their opinion. And, the readers of the reviews can rate the reviewer for their content.
  • Many news sources and blogs provide comments about the article. Readers can join the conversation either by posting responses or using social network tools to “like” or forward an article to be shared with others, or an idea in Pinterest. Youtube brings messaging through a more media friendly and savy approach. Some of the most active communities for information exchange are the discussion boards for gaming.

The power of voice influence adult and children’s life in many ways.students5

Think about what can make a job fulfilling. It may the ability to determine how work gets done, the autonomy to plan and design work to reach a desired result. If I have expertise in an area, I’m encouraged or allowed to decide how to reach objectives. If I lack background knowledge I can choose how best to learn what I need to know, whether it be a seminar, videos, readings, study group, interviewing mentors, or a combination–all this through a global community via online networks and resources. Few people get their learning needs met by being a captive audience for a one-way presentation.

Yet this is what school life can be for students beginning in upper elementary and continuing through the levels of college degrees. Students are drivers of their learning when left to themselves. My kids coordinate groups for planning and construction of communities across different software platforms. How? They use their online networks of friends and experts (also known as strangers with knowledge), watch videos, and read posts on various discussion boards.  They willingly spend hours on these tasks and acquiring the requisite knowledge. That’s motivation. Often times educators struggle with the question of how to get students motivated to take responsibility for their academics, and fully participate in the work that will lead to them getting an education. “How do we motive students?” That’s the question that is debated and explored.students7

I think this is the wrong question.

Students, like adults, need avenues of voice that includes them as a partner or leader of their work. Rather than asking how do we motivate students to take responsibility of their learning, we should be asking, how do we give students voice? How do we, as educators, give up control, and facilitate support of students as they drive towards learning in whatever context that supports them? When we work “alongside” students, their learning deepens because the focus is on what they–as collegial partners–express their needs.

The reality is that when student voice is held secondary to what the educational system thinks, then they take their voice underground. The unspoken norms take over, such as completing assignments to check off a to-do list, rather than learning the concepts. Or, spending as minimal time as it takes to complete tasks so that they can spend hours doing the things that they love.

There are many ways to nurture student voice. Here are a few to consider…

  • Classroom Norms generated by the students
    Facilitate conversation where the students reflect on what makes for a positive and supportive learning community. Then have them generate a list of norms. The wording should be positive and focus on characteristics of the community they want to be part of. For example:
    – Every voice is valued and needed
    – Listening helps everyone to feel heard
    – Talk after 2 others share
  • Facilitate a student evaluation of an instructional activity, unit, or project
    Student feedback is valuable for knowing what worked or did not work for them. Do activities where they share what they liked, would suggest changed, and recommend eliminating. Teachers have many instructional tools. Some that work one year, may not the next. Best to know early in the year what is helping students learn.
  • Allow students to work at their own pace
    Students tend to be at different levels of skill and knowledge during any given unit of study. It’s about Differentiated Instruction (Resource site). Structure learning experiences so that advanced learners are working on complex work that will stretch their growth, and not doing work that’s the same as others–because it’s easier to manage. Have students who struggle get the scaffolds they need so that they can do interesting and complex work. Just know that on any given unit, different students will struggle and others will excel. When a student who struggles asks to do more challenging work, let them with support. Learners surprise us all the time in a good way when we give them the opportunity.

How do you nurture voices of young people in school–and outside of school?

Grace under a microscope

“It’s important to remember that when things go wrong, keep it positive. The students are watching how you respond to the situation.”

I’m paraphrasing my colleague’s comment, which was one of those statements that made me pause. It’s such an obvious concept, yet how often do we forget in the moment that there are others who will notice and learn from our reaction. In sports, we hear about how a team reflects the coach’s personality? Or how about the athletes who lead their team through adversity to victory. They were “cool under pressure.” How did they learn to become that way? Who were their role models?

Experience is a great teacher, and classroom teachers have a huge influence on students learning to handle pressure with calm and grace. Home life has a huge impact. As a single parent with a teenage, my mom was a positive influence on me by her “zone-like” mode she’d get into when dealing with stressful situations. Every student has positive and challenging home-lives that influence their response to when things go wrong. But while some students’ lives at home can set up potentially huge obstacles, time spent with teachers has a major impact. How we deal with minor disruptions is perhaps slightly more important than the major ones because they happen on a daily basis. Sometimes I catch myself muttering under my breath, and realize that others nearby are listening. Students tend to have our backs and seeing our actions may then reflect our anxiety or response. It is a teachable moment to presume positive intent—even when there seems no logic to believe—and problem solve the issue in a proactive approach, and keep the negative out of our words or body language.

Skeptical? What are your memories of your classroom teachers? I remember my Social Studies and Science teachers who taught 7th and 8th grade. Social Studies seemed filled with calm chaos where learning was done with humor and stories about life. Science was clinical, steady, and predictable in a good way. Amid heated debates on Social Studies issues, there was a sense of respect and openness to ideas–this reflected the manner in which the teacher presented topics with openness to all viewpoints. In 8th grade Science, after a massive teacher strike was resolved, and students returned to school after missing major instructional time, my teacher laid out a plan for how we’d complete our coursework. In hindsight, I can only imagine how much the “adjustments” must have disturbed her professionally at cuts of essential content. Yet in both cases, what we saw as students was a smoothly run learning experiences. They were professionals  showing a composure for responding to major disruptions and being flexible in problem solving–all handled with calm and grace.eye

The skills that enable someone to handle situations with a positive public face–even when the feelings inside may be completely different–can be learned. The alternative may occur perhaps as frequently through the daily disruptions that is part of life, especially schools. Educators should continue to provide an environment and an example that helps students thrive–and make their thinking process transparent to students…

Because they are watching you all the time…and learning.


Navigating Our airports

Navigating airports requires a strong skill set of Global Competencies–Communication, Collaboration, and Critical Thinking. Some airports can be intimidating. The expansiveness of an airport is less of an issue than the methods for getting to gates in different terminals. Consider these examples:questionpath1

Atlanta (ATL)
There are six terminals, connected by a train system that makes frequent stops at each location. Each stop is on a straight line. If you know the terminal and gate destination, find your way to the underground train system, ride to the stop, and then take an up escalator. Read the signs to go left or right for the gate choice. It’s pretty fast. I should know as my connections are frequently 30-40 minutes between different terminals.

Dallas (DFW)
Dallas has a train system that is above the terminals, and circles the airport to the various stops. The waits are probably only 3-5 minutes at most, but the travel speed is plodding. Fortunately, if you’re flying on one airline, you’ll stay in one terminal. Most of the time.

Detroit (DTW)
I love this airport for it’s straight forward layout. There are two major structures–one for Delta and one for the other airlines. The shops and restaurants meet needs. It’s not like the mall-like experience of Minneapolis (MSP), ATL, and DFW. The only problem comes if your connections includes Delta and another airline. You have to know the system for getting a shuttle that takes you between McNamara (Delta) and North Terminal (all other airlines). It’s not walkable. If you’re in a hurry, take a cab.

Millions of travelers navigate airports every day. Most of us have a home base airport that we develop familiarity, and develop our travel skills that we apply when arriving at “other” airports. Even experienced travelers can find themselves in an airport for the first time, and must draw upon their skills honed from previous stops.

Education is similar. Students learn content and thinking skills that they should be able to transfer when they are living their lives outside of the safe confines of their school. Academia for  the sake of it creates a disconnect for students. This is why purposeful learning helps students connect the value of curriculum to navigating the “airports” that they find themselves in. It is not just answering the question, how do I use these Math skills or persuasive skills outside of school. It is also about how do I…questionpath2

  • problem solve a situation where the initial answers do not apply or is not what the client (audience) wants or needs
  • collaborate with a team to ensure that the best thinking and solutions are proposed and crafted for the best outcome possible
  • communicate my thinking so as to give and receive relevant feedback, or to help others understand the solutions or teachings that I can provide

Students need to “work” with content and skills to fit their needs, and not just repeat the knowledge and steps that one follows just because. Very few things in life remain consistently predictable that someone can “follow the script” and not have to think outside of the box. The exception might be Orlando Airport, but I think that only applies for those going on a Disney vacation. The only thinking during travel to and from their properties is, well,… I can’t think of a problem that Disney has not addressed.

I recently flew to Newark (EWR) for the first time. The signage confused me so that I ended up going to the baggage area in a futile search for the rental car area. Most airports direct you to the baggage area for finding the rental car counters (RIC), trains (SFO), buses (LAX), or garage (BNA). In Newark, this was not the case. I had to “work” the situation, and not just go on autopilot. After navigating more signs, some guesswork, and asking assistance from airport staff and other travelers, I found the train system that took me to the rental car location.

In classrooms, students need similar experiences with the “work”. Give them a “twist” in their application of content such as a client who does not like the initial product or proposal, or new guidelines are added later in the course that will require changes in the work. Such situations to students may feel frustrating and create anxiety, which is exactly what we want them to experience in a setting where a teacher can coach them through the process. Better to happen at school than for students to be stuck in some unfamiliar location where no coaching is available.

This summer, my kids traveled by themselves to visit friends in another state. At the airport, they had to navigate their way through security and find the correct terminal and gate for their flight without any directions from me. Their terminal was not in a straightforward location. They navigated each challenge using the skills and coaching provided in the past, and found their gate. I’m looking forward to taking them to an unfamiliar airport where they will find more success and confidence to find their way. Their school experiences have impacted their ability to navigate real world situation. Most of their studies has been mostly project based learning and/or inquiry based.

For all students, Communication, Collaboration, and Critical Thinking are integral parts of the experiences they need through the airports in their lives. We need to do as much of these experiences during the long impactful hours at school, in addition to what happens at home. Someday, the current students will pilot our future.

Why Concept Learning?

I noticed a tutor working with a student at a Starbucks. I’ve brought my own kids to such places for tutoring help. Nothing like a beverage to ignite academic thinking. Long division was the focus of the student. She looked to be a tween or young teen, and she looked stressed.

math“I don’t get it,” She said pointing to the math problem on the paper. “Why do I only deal with the first two digits, and not the entire number?”

The tutor reassured her that the rest of the number–4 digits–should be ignored until the first step was completed. Only then would the address the next digit. For example, if the problem was divide 25 into 8050, just divide 25 into 80, and. . . well you get the idea. If not, please try the Khan Academy video at the end of this blog.

The tutor was doing what most of us would have done–Teach the system step by step. Math in the U.S. tends to be about the steps. Memorize the math facts like multiplication and learn the steps to solving problems. This was documented in a TIMSS study which is explained in Education World– “Math Education in the U.S., Germany, and Japan: What Can We Learn from This?” The trouble with this approach was that the student’s question was not being answered:

“Why do I only deal with the first two digits, and not the entire number?”

She needed to understand the concepts that underlined the meaning and purpose for long division. Maybe explaining how division is about finding how many groups of “something” there are. For example, dividing 850 by 25 gives me 34 “somethings”. Or to put into context, if I have 850 mini candy bars and 25 tables to divide the sweets amongst, my calculations would lead to placing 34 candies on each table.

Once the student understands the concept of division as finding how many “somethings” in a group, she might be on her way to having context for the steps. Of course she might understand even better if she could see a visual of the description and possibly do some work with manipulatives.

A concept-based approach increases students’ understanding of facts and skills in a context for “Why.” This approach can liberate curriculum and instruction of standards. Unpacking standards for the core concepts enables teachers and students to find relevant connections to their lives, and that of a community. For example, a 4th grade team of teachers took required curriculum around the early explorers of the Americas, and transformed it into having students investigating the value of exploration of the solar system and/or the Earth’s ocean depths. By understanding the motivations, characteristics, and successes of explorers in ancient history, students will look at the concept of exploration as it applies to contemporary needs. The teachers soon realized that by focusing on Exploration as a concept, students could consider how they are explorers when visiting a new place, and how scientists explore the microorganisms world when seeking cures for diseases and maladies. In the course of the 4th grade team’s exploration, they tied together Social Studies and Language Arts, with the possibility of incorporating Math and Science curriculum.

The team of 4th grade teachers proved what I’ve often seen. Using a concept-based approach builds connections for helping students understand “Why” so that they can do the steps and see how they can use them in meaningful ways in their lives.

When I left the cafe, the students looked unconvinced by the tutor’s assurances. “Keep pushing the question, Why,” I silently encouraged her. Keep pushing the question, and maybe she or the tutor would explore a different path to explaining the steps through a concept that made clearer sense.

Note: Two places where you might explore Concept-Based Learning are…

Lynn Erickson – Stirring the Head, Heart, and Soul: Redefining Curriculum, Instruction, and Concept-Based Learning

Grant Wiggens and Jay McTighe – Understanding by Design

Belly Up to the Genius Bar

I’m at the Genius Bar of the Apple Store to get help with my laptop. As usual the customer service is top notch. I’ve had two service staff assist me, and done so in a collaborative way. Both are supporting other customers at the same time that they are helping me, yet I do not feel neglected or that I’m losing time when they work with others. Why is that?

As a diagnostic runs on my laptop, the two support staff are only a few feet away talking with other customers, and I notice that they occasionally look over to check the progress bar on my computer screen. Suddenly a message in all caps fills the screen about a software problem. I’ve dug into the guts of computers (PCs) to replace hard-drives, memory, and power sources, and explored operating system options and control panels without hesitation. That warning in large bold text raised my heartbeat with dread as one of the support staff. He must have noticed my concern because he used an analogy to explain the potential problem and the recommended options. Frankly, I understood only half of what was said, but my anxiety minimized at his attempt to soothe, as he communicated calm and “no worries.” This is huge considering that I’m proceeding to reformat my hard-drive.

Here are some questions that the experience evokes for me:

How can customer support provide high quality service that…

  • engages clients into the support dialog?
  • assists multiple clients simultaneously?
  • ensures clients leave with answers they can work with?

I should point out that service I’m getting at the store inside Briarwood Mall is what I’ve experienced at other Apple stores in Michigan and during my travels to other states like Delaware and California. I can only speak to my experience. Unsatisfying outcomes can happen everywhere. Yet I hear similar stories about good service from others. I’ve had good service from other businesses, but, with only a few exceptions, no where else can I say that the same level of quality was consistent regardless of who I talked to or what location I visited.

Apple staff utilize several Global Skills (21st Century Skills) to great effect:

  • Communicating with understanding
  • Collaborating through influencing across networks
  • Problem solving through Think Alouds

There are other skills that could be added but the current list represents elements that are critical to develop in students across the globe.

Communicating with Understanding

On the surface, communication seems pretty straightforward. Yet there is a subtle quality to this skill that makes some more successful than others. Compare the customer service at Apple with another tech store or a department store. Often times the “consistent” experience is not the same. Talking to the Apple support staff, I felt like I had their complete attention and that they would patiently listen to my concerns, and include me in the diagnostic dialog. At other tech competitor stores, the conversation with the support staff, while polite and professional, seemed in “Fix it” mode. This often meant, I felt rushed to describe the problem before the staff “took over.”

When teaching our students, communication with understanding should be modeled after “Seek to understand before being understood” (Stephen Covey). Habit #5 helps us understand through the eyes (perspective) of others, which can lead to creating paths of solution and innovation that are mutually understood and supported. Students engage more into learning experiences where they feel heard and understood. The result is they have a voice in the work to be done.

Presentations should not be the only mode of communication practice, nor its cousins–debates and classroom discussions. Dialog through listening is a critical tool for students to learn how to communicate with understanding. Active listening skills help others in the conversation to feel that they are being heard. If in the classroom and at staff meetings listening strategies are used with reflection, the result would be greater depth of understanding and inquiry into content–and the related context to apply such communication skills in their lives outside of school. Some support activities include: Fish Bowl (site 1 & site 2), Chalk TalkSave the Last Word for Me, and Final Word). A result is that when students get jobs, their skill-set will be a powerful asset to clients and/or customers returning for future service.

Collaboration through Influencing across NetworksInfluencing across networks

Collaboration is when two or more people work together towards achieving a shared outcome. There is an interdependent element to collaboration that is heightened when a person or group draw upon their contacts and resources to assist with completing the task or project, what Tony Wagner calls “Influencing across networks.”

From the moment I entered the Apple store until I left, the staff’s goal seemed to be that at no time would I be unsupported and that my needs would get addressed before I left. Here’s what it looked like:

I’m greeted at the store entrance by a sales rep. On sharing that I had a Genius Bar appointment regarding laptop issues, the person led me to one of the schedulers. I had already signed in using my app, but I’d not shared this information because I was curious what would happen. The scheduler immediately notified me that I was signed in and informed me that my support person would be there presently. At this point, the scheduler paused while making eye contact that encouraged me to speak in case perhaps I had a sales question while I waited. No names announced on an intercom like a cattle call. I suspect that they take pictures of customers, because a support tech approached me using my name. In the process of assisting with my support needs, the tech brought in another tech to ensure that the diagnostic software was properly run–I suspect it was a learning opportunity for the first tech. From that point on, both techs supported me, while assisting others when a diagnostic process was running on my computer.

There are those in education that express concerns that students are not learning enough about working with others through collaboration, while others fear that the skills for learning how to work alone is being sacrificed. In today’s globally competitive society, both are needed. Students need in-depth understanding on how to collaborate towards a common goal, instead of just cooperating on parts but leaving the problems and challenges for completion to others. This is where Tony Wagner’s Influencing across Networks helps. In collaborative work, each person takes on responsibilities that they are expected to complete themselves.

In doing our best work, we will pull in people and resources that can help us do a great job. For example, I recently developed a 5 week elementary school project under contract. I reached out to several people who I knew to have expertise in areas that could help raise the quality of the product. I got great advice and leads that helped me to deliver a high quality project. This included a valuable experience when my boss coordinated a feedback session with national experts in curriculum. We met virtually and they gave me feedback on the project that I used when working on revisions. Such networks can be used for individual assignments and to help teammates to complete the shared outcomes.

Given a complex problem, students need experiences where they can identify when to bring in others to help and when not to. Also important is recognizing when support is no longer needed by a teammate, and encouraging the person towards the solo work, while being available if help is required. At the Apple Store, the staff’s collaborative support functioned smoothly and effectively as staffing and resources flowed in and out as needed. It was like a perfectly played band, where each instrument played pitch perfect and in tune with each other, so that the audience experienced a quality performance.

Problem Solving through Think Alouds

Working out a solution is a standard outcome that all businesses seek to achieve. From a customer service perspective, not all approaches are equal. For example, even if say three competitor tech stores had a 100% success rate at solving the same computer problems, I would choose Apple’s approach. Typically, the problem solving process is that the consumer brings a computer to the store, tells the tech the problem, and answers a couple of questions. The tech then takes the computer into the backroom to run diagnostics and find a solution to the problem. It reminds me of the movie “The Wizard of Oz” where the great and powerful Oz does his work behind a curtain, until the dog Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal the true wizard.

Not so at an Apple store. Yes, their techs do at times take equipment into the back room, but this is not their primary step. Their starting point for solving the problem is by involving the client. They explain every step so that the customer builds an understanding of the problem-solving process. Most times the issues are solved with the customer, who feels like they contributed–at least I do.  If the support tech decides to take the computer into the back room, the client will be invested and have a certain level of understanding about why.

A powerful teaching practice is called Think Alouds. It’s where the teacher models thinking when solving a problem or demonstrating a critical thinking skill. It might be used when working through a math problem, constructing an effective counter argument in an essay, or conducting an experiment using the Scientific Method. Coaching students on becoming proficient in Think Alouds goes a long way to helping them strengthen reflective thinking, problem solving, and communicating to clients–like me– at an Apple Store.

Colleges and especially businesses need people who have these skills…

  • Communicating with understanding
  • Collaborating through influencing across networks
  • Problem solving through Think Alouds

Think about when as a customer you had a problem in need of solving. What has been your experience at different stores? The key element is that the store or chain provides the same consistent system of service, or does it largely depend on where, when, and who you go to. For your own exploration of these skills, I invite you to visit your local Apple Store and speak to someone from the Genius Bar. During a student’s education, what if they learned these skill sets early on and practiced them often–what kind of challenges could they handle?

Inspiring the Writer in everyone

The Window activity was taught to me by Sally Jessup, my close friend and colleague. She had a gift for recognizing in others a capacity that they did not always see in themselves. The Window activity, as she designed it, is a powerful tool for inspiring writing in all people. She understood that writing skills are a constant struggle that many people grapple with, primarily because of their own negative self perceptions regarding their capacity. To understand the value of the Window activity, context is needed regarding the complex challenges that remain mostly uncovered in education.

Writing is a challenge for students. The writing process, particularly revision and reflection, is the elephant in every classroom from Kinder to college. Most teachers say that students need to use the writing process to become skillful writers, but few take the time to teach the craft, or do not know how. Through my teaching career, I’ve discovered that many students do not see themselves as good writers. For some, the fear of writing is nearly phobic.


A further complication is that many teachers who teach writing do not view themselves as writers. During some of the workshops I facilitate, I survey the staff: “Raise your hand if you view yourself as a writer?” The number of raised hands has been consistent: 10% or less.

When I worked on my Masters in English, I’d taught three years as a History teacher. Early on my graded papers were returned drenched in red inked corrections. This discovery that my writing was not as good as I thought was sobering. I’m thankful to those professors who (with extended patience) helped me realize I had work to do, and then when I showed a desire to improve–I was going to become an English teacher after all–they set me on a path towards lifelong development of my writing. Disclaimer: the red ink drenching worked for me but could shut down others.

That graduate school experience startled me with an epiphany that has stayed with me ever since: Writing is a muscle that gets stronger with thoughtful practice. Without development or usage, writing skills atrophy. The good news is that it’s never too late to improve one’s writing. Great writers are not born (sorry Stephen King), they work relentlessly and thoughtfully at their craft.

Sally Jessup understood the need for thoughtful practice. She also understood that writing needed to be purposeful and engaging. The Window activity provided the opportunity for all of these factors. A value added is that the Window activity opens conversations with students to mediate their negative self-perceptions as a writer.


The Window Activity

I’m including the directions for the Window activity in this link. Before you read the linked file that you’ve just clicked (if you’re like me) or watch the video version, I invite you to learn about the Window Activity by doing it. What follows is an example that I encourage you to experience for yourself. Try the writing exercise after each step. It’ll help you understand the anxiety and the benefits. Let’s begin…

Focus of activity: Celebrating Independence Day

Driving Question: How might rituals for celebration (like Independence Day) strengthen a community or nation?

Step One: Introduction

You are in an empty room. It has no door. The only light comes through the blinds of a single window. In a moment, I will raise the blinds so that through the closed window you will see a scene. Be ready to study the scene.



Step Two: Brainstorming

I’m going to raise the blind. When I do, study the picture…

Describe what you see. If you run out of ideas from one part of the scene, look at a different section of the picture and continue to add details to your description.

Use the Fastwrite approach

Write without stopping–pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Set timer for 4 minutes. Start it and write. If you get stuck on an idea, look at a different part of the picture for more detail ideas. While you look repeatedly write the word: rituals.

For this activity, rituals is the trigger word. A trigger word relates to the theme or a concept of the activity or project that keeps students thinking about the reason behind the work.

Study the picture below,

        start the 4 minute timer,..

                 and begin writing…Now…

Insert picture through a window.

July 4th 2010 Parade in Cayucos, CA - an exhibition of Americana

Step Three: Communicating through the Senses

I’m going to open the window. This lets in the breeze and other senses. Describe details in the picture using sensory details: sound, smell, taste, touch, and sight. Try to use mostly the senses other than sight where possible. If you like a challenge, try to include many taste details (Note: taste sense is closely related to smell details).

Use the Freewrite approach

You may take pauses during writing to think about how you want to choose words for the sensory detail. Set timer for 6-8 minutes.

Study the picture below

       start the 6-8 minute timer,…

                and begin writing…Now…

July 4th 2010 Parade in Cayucos, CA - an exhibition of Americana




Step Four: Becoming part of the scene

You are being transported through the window and into the scene. Choose your location and role. Write in narrative format as if you are part of the scene. Use sensory details as part of your narrative. Writing in 1st person perspective is recommended. You may use fast or freewrite format for 5-10 minutes.

Study the picture below…

         start the 5-10 minute timer,…

                  and begin writing…Now…

July 4th 2010 Parade in Cayucos, CA - an exhibition of Americana



The next step is to have participants share their 2nd or 3rd writing piece with 1-3 others. The expressions of pleased surprise at the quality of the writing is common. I never get tired of seeing people having the epiphany that they can write better than they thought.

Please post your writing from step 3 or 4 in the comment section below. It will be great to see what you craft, and how you might use this with others. The excitement and confidence in writing that this activity generates is exactly how Sally Jessup (RIP 2012) had intended. So lets inspire others to discover the writer inside them.


Communication = Voice

Student voice in learning is a reoccurring topic for me. At every workshop I do, voice becomes an integrated action item that teachers grapple with. This was the case during my sessions at the PBL World Conference in Napa, CA. Fostering student voice is a critical key to enabling them to effect their learning experiences.shutterstock_97877219

The concept of student voice presented itself in realtime for me with an incident while on my way home from the conference — at San Francisco International Airport’s security line. It shed a light about communication = voice. Or in this case,

communication ≠ voice.

A mother struggled with her 5 year-old son in front of me at the security check. I don’t know why the boy was upset. Perhaps he was antsy or a little cranky. Of course, what 5 year old wouldn’t be antsy from the excitement of an airplane trip or cranky from being anywhere at 5 a.m.? I know that I was tired from getting up too early in the morning.

As the boy bawled, his harried mother seemed to talk to herself about how the 5 year-old’s behavior could repeat itself each time they came through the airport. I wondered what went through the boy’s mind? For him to reacts so strongly with tears, what were his unsolicited thoughts about the “airport trips” or the security line? Could the simple truth be that the mother’s emotions were affecting the son? It reminded me of being a teacher coming to work each day. It’s so important for educators to put themselves into a positive and supportive frame of mind when meeting with students. Students may come to school antsy, cranky, stressed or even upset about baggage from home. So how we treat them can either put them at ease or cast grease on fire. Students respond well to their needs being understood and when their voice is respected.

With the 5 year-old in full crying mode, the mother asked for his backpack. The crowded security line moved slowly as security people shouted reminders about emptying pockets, shoes and belts off, and laptops placed in a separate bin. The noise probably did not help matters for the boy or his Mom. He gripped his backpack, twisting back and forth like a running back protecting the football from a defense looking to force a fumble. Only in this case, there was only the mother. Time must have felt short standing by the conveyor belt–Faces, and some stares, everywhere. Without words or explanation of purpose or need, she pulled the pack from his clinging hands and placed it on the conveyer belt. Watching the bag move away from him, the boy cried harder and tried to grab for the bag. The mother blocked his every move. He seemed to think that the pack was going somewhere without him. In this case, that was partly true. When it disappeared into the x-ray box it seemed like the boy was forlorn. Once through his own security mini-cave, he sought out his pack, fingers clinging to the grill that prevented him from his prize.  Could this entire scene have been avoided if the boy was told what happens to the bag as it traveled into the x-ray box? Would he be reassured if told that he’d be rejoined to it on the other side of the security checkpoint? If his antsy behavior was recognized as a need for understanding and acknowledged as legitimate concern, could his energy been channeled without hard words or silent reproach? Perhaps if the boy was allowed to share his thoughts about the trip and was allowed to help put the bag on the conveyor belt, he might have behaved differently.

In schools, teachers get to know their students. The good teachers use that knowledge to help students to play a constructive role in their learning. Sometimes this feels hard when time is short and students ignore our “authority.” Sometimes it appears easier to try controlling a student’s behavior by denying them their voice as an equal partner in problem solving the issues or collaborating on productive end. Sir Ken Robinson offers a great gardening metaphor about teachers nurturing students:


Unfortunately, there are some adults who knowingly press a student’s buttons, which escalates negative drama until the young person has a predictable explosive reaction.. Yet the resulting work is much more difficult and can spin widely out of anyone’s “control.” Everyone loses in that situation

During the Differentiated Instruction workshop, the participants explored how students’ lives outside of school become important data for supporting them in the classroom. One elementary teacher shared a story about one of her students. During work she noticed that a boy was not paying attention. He was drawing pictures that depicted anger towards himself and his home life. When she tried to engage him into the work he was unresponsive. She then asked him, “What would you like to do right now?” He wanted to learn about legends. So she focused the lesson on legends. The boy actively participated with the rest of the students, and the learning objectives were still met.shutterstock_97781975-1

Crisis averted.

Allowing the student to have a say in what he needed was a critical awareness. Also powerful was the teacher’s adaptability and openness to foster the student’s voice to bring him into the learning. Think of what future ripples of effect that could come from that experience for the boy, and the unspoken message to the rest of the students.

Communication = Voice

But only if the relationship matter…

Hip Hop Genius Innovates Education

PBL World 2013 is meeting the highest expectations as conference that redefines thinking about learning. Today’s keynote, Sam Seidel, talked about how the business of education can be re-invented, and he showed how it’s being done.

Sam Seidel, author of Hip Hop Genius, shared his life’s passion for Hip Hop, and how he combines that passion with engaging students into curriculum. How? They communicate through the language of Hip Hop messages and products intended to move people to take action. Now some would say, “Creating rap songs to demonstrate content is done all the time. What’s the difference.” If I’d not seen Sam’s examples or heard him tell his stories, I probably would be saying the same thing. Having students write rap songs to tell content, has seemed to be over done, unoriginal, and most of all lacked any real purpose than to provide an alternative means to express traditional school work. But,…

Sam Seidel talked about an amazing school in St. Paul, MN called the High School for the Recording Arts (HSRA) where students create music — based on content knowledge — to make a difference in the world.

Here’s an example of a project the students did for State Farm Insurance about education. The work was connected to an English course. This is part of a campaign called 26 Seconds where every 26 seconds a student drops out of school.

The Other Side by The Groove

Wishing on Stars by Molly

The school exemplifies what it means to educate students and not be fettered by chains of…

“I don’t have the resources…”

“My kids can’t do this…”

“I have standards to cover…”

” ________________…”

Sam Seidel’s message was a wakeup call to all educators that a key to education is to innovate learning opportunities so that students can succeed. He gave three guiding ideas: Make project units real world so that the work has real value to others; the work is real to students, not just playing school by doing assignments for its own sake; and that the work be relevant for today’s needs.

The only obstacle to making this type of experience happen are the ones that we as educators put in front of students. It’s time to change that. Begin with a new beat…

To learn more:

High School for the Recording Artists – Student Voices – School History

Sam Seidel – TwitterHip Hop Genius – Article by Suzie Boss