Author Archives: Mike Muir

About Mike Muir

I'm an educator interested in collaborating with other educators on engaging all learners, proficiency-based learning, technology's role in learning, and leadership for school change.

Do One Small Thing!

A fellow educator recently asked if i had a suggestion for one small thing a teacher could make that would have a big impact down Impact students by doing the right small things.the road. I had two: 

  1. Treat your students “as if.” As if they are capable. As if they are trying to do the right thing. As if they are nice and kind. As if they are bright. As if they are likable and lovable. As if they are worthy of your every effort to support their success in school. The irony is that the more you treat them “as if” the more they act “as if.
  2. Spend less time thinking about why students should learn your content and more time wondering why would they want to. This is NOT a suggestion that students should only learn what they want to, but rather how might we spark curiosity, wonder, and interest in the content we’re working with them to learn (especially if we think they SHOULD learn our content!).

Honoring Controversy – The Series

School Administrators working on controversyOne of the truly challenging parts of leading large-scale school change is how upset some people can be about the change (School Change Truth 2 reminds us that people seem to abhor change). Large-scale school change, especially paradigm shifting change, invariably generates controversy. 

The question is how to deal with it. Understandably, many of us don’t like confrontation and would rather not deal with it or hope that it will simply go away. 

But this is one instance where ignoring the situation will not make it go away and will likely make it worse. What to do?

The Series:

How well your initiative deals with controversy and critics will depend on how calm you remain, how productively you listen to your critics, and how good you get at determining when to simply acknowledge a critique and when to do something about it.

How We Listen Matters

Adding the “barking dogs who bite” parent, mentioned in the previous post, to the design team taught us something else about dealing with controversy. The way critical community members deliver their message, especially when they are forceful or angry, can keep us from listening productively to their message

For example, we certainly intended to use iPad apps to reinforce letter formation and spelling. The way angry parents were telling us we shouldn’t use tablets to teach young learners had us dismissing them (and their message) as extremist. 

But then a small statement in an otherwise enflamed tirade made me realize that they thought we were going to teach students to handwrite only using the devices! 

It had never occurred to us that we should be directly stating that the correct way (the only way) to properly teach handwriting was with pencil and paper. Once we made that statement, they cooled quite a bit. We were debating the benefits of using apps to reinforce letter formation when what no one had said (and needed to be said) was that handwriting needed to be taught with pencil and paper. It was so obvious to us, we never thought to say it. 

But listening productively to the critics (even when it’s hard) told us the message we should be sharing.

Similarly, when working with a middle school to implement interdisciplinary, project-based learning, our group talked a lot about problem-solving, connecting learning to the students’ world, and active learning. Critics were angry because they saw us throwing out the curriculum and dismissing Math, English, Science, and Social Studies. It was a lesson in how listening productively to your critics can also tell you when you’re using the wrong words or wording.

Of course we were teaching Math, English, Science, and Social Studies! 

But in our excitement about the learning power of connecting subjects and using projects and active learning, we had said nothing about the content students would be learning. Our critics quieted and were less frequent when we started talking about how we could make Math more meaningful by using it to address issues in Science and Social Studies, and how applying reading and writing to solving real world problems makes learning the reading and writing skills more meaningful to students, and how active, hands on learning strategies, help students better learn Math, English, Science, and Social Studies. 

Our critics helped us know what we were not saying that would be helpful and what terms we were using that were generating less buy-in, than other terms that helped promote buy-in.

Barking Dogs and Barking Dogs Who Bite

Thinking of school change from the framework of being intentional and rational about moves and counter moves, as mentioned in the previous post, can be helpful. Remember, a confrontational and forceful community member perceives their job as saying whatever it takes to have you NOT make the school change you are in the process of making.

Part of thinking through moves and counter-moves is knowing when you can and should ignore the issue, or take no action, and when you must do something, perhaps quickly. You have to be able to distinguish between “barking dogs” and “barking dogs that bite.” Many of the critics of the primary grade iPad initiative in Auburn said their piece, then went away. But we had one parent who kept returning to the school committee and to other community groups to blast the initiative. Her arguments were starting to gain traction, even though to those of us implementing the initiative none of them had any credence or basis in fact. She had become a barking dog that bites.

My superintendent was surprised by my solution. I put the parent on our design team. My superintendent wasn’t so sure about the move but trusted that I knew what I was doing. I’m not so sure that I knew what I was doing at the time (and frankly, part of it was the old “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”), but my instinct proved correct. The parent saw how decisions were made and saw that “what was good for children” was at the heart of what we were doing.

She also had a voice in our decisions (as did every design team member) and was now in the position of not being able to pontificate at a board meeting about what she thought we should or shouldn’t do, but now had to work with the team to convince us to do what she thought was right. When her ideas were what one might call extreme or crazy, she was only one voice and her ideas didn’t go far. When her ideas were on point, we collaborated on finding the right way to address the idea. She made quality contributions to the design and implementation of the initiative and even became a cautious supporter, advocating for continued funding for the project at budget time!

Dealing with Controversy Requires the Right Mindset and Temperment

As discussed in the previous post, large-scale school change, especially paradigm shifting change, invariably generates controversy. The question is how to deal with it. Understandably, many of us don’t like confrontation and would rather not deal with it or hope that it will simply go away. 

But this is one instance where ignoring the situation will not make it go away and will likely make it worse. What to do?

The first step is, to the greatest extent you can, to not take it personally. If you care deeply about your initiative, which is often the case when you play a strong role in designing or implementing an initiative, it’s hard not to take the criticisms and concerns personally, especially the ones that seem unrealistic and crazy or when the community member is so angry or forceful in their convictions. It’s almost impossible to avoid taking it personally when they make it personal about you (I once had a parent at a school committee meeting attack me by name and try to shame me for supporting our work).

It’s critical to remain calm. This is not simply an issue between you and the angry community member. There are others watching. Some will agree with the community member. Some will think that the community member is being unreasonable and will sympathize with you (perhaps feeling bad that you have to sit through this onslaught!). In many cases, you can simply thank them for sharing their perspective and let their comments (and how they were delivered) stand on their own.

If you respond too strongly, sharply, or angrily, no matter how justified you may be to feel these things, you are the one whose argument loses every time. It doesn’t matter that the community member thinks they are correct and is being angry or forceful, when you lose it, you lose your supporters. It is for them and for you that you remain calm, no matter what.

If possible, provide a counter example. When Maine decided to be the first 1-to-1 laptop initiative in the country (The Maine Learning Technology Initiative, MLTI) by providing all 7th and 8th grade teachers and students laptops, WiFi, and training (probably the largest middle school initiative in the country!), teachers, principals, and tech directors were highly anxious. At the time (2001), no other state was doing this. Few schools across the country were doing this. Then-Governor King got calls saying that if he wanted to improve Maine’s economy, he should give every middle school student a chainsaw, not a laptop. He even got death threats!

Even caring educators’ imaginations were rife with worries about all the bad things that might happen: students going to inappropriate sites, students being distracted from focusing on learning activities, equipment not working properly when needed, laptops going missing. As a new initiative, it’s hard to counteract supposition because there may be no counter-examples to point to. Fighting supposition with supposition is difficult (”My belief it won’t happen should be stronger than your belief it will happen!”).

But he had the advantage of having one middle school, Piscataquis Community Middle School in Guilford, Maine, who had initiated 1-to-1 laptops with their eighth grade earlier that year.

When a critic shared their worst fears about what would happen when every seventh and eighth grade teacher and student had an internet-connected laptop, Governor King could publicly turn to the Guilford teachers and say, “I see this person’s concern. Has this been an issue with your program?” The teachers could then state that it has not been, or if it had, what the scope of the problem had been and what their solution was. It also helped that the response came from someone other than the governor. It wasn’t just the program advocate’s response, but a response from someone who is already doing the work. Bottom line, those teachers, in this instance, had more credibility with the critics than the governor did.

Keep in mind, too, that your critics aren’t trying to ruin your day. Initiatives are “initiatives” because they are new. They haven’t been done much (if at all) before. They aren’t “tried and true.” And they are unlikely to be what your stakeholders and learning community have experienced in school. As I pointed out previously, all they have to work from is supposition and their imagination, both of which are charged by emotion. And without real counter-examples, you are fighting an uphill battle. Trying to debate an emotional worry without real counter-examples is simply a debate of opinions and in the end will simply give credence to the critic’s concern. I’m reminded of a Facebook meme: “That is a very well laid out rational point, but I will still hold to my emotional opinion based on no facts or evidence.” 

In such a situation, remaining outwardly calm and simply thanking them for sharing and letting their comments stand on their own is the only practical path forward for you.

That can be quite discouraging, feeling like you have no way to parry what you perceive to be an irrational assault on your initiative. Maybe this will help. I was working with a small group creating a career academy for challenging and at-risk students in a mid-sized city. It became quite a political hot potato, and, as the superintendent’s project, a pawn in battles between the superintendent and other groups (having little to do with the school itself). My colleague had friends–who were not connected to the school project–over socially one evening and was telling them about our challenges in that district. One of the friends was a veteran combat pilot now working as a commercial airline pilot. He told my colleague, “You know, they only shoot at you when you’re over the target.” It became a metaphor that has energized me through this and other initiatives since!

I also find it helpful to think of implementing an initiative in the midst of controversy a bit like chess, as a complex game of moves and counter-moves to win the game. I don’t so much want you to start thinking of implementing your initiative as a game or to turn this into another situation where someone wins and someone loses. But the framework of being intentional and rational about moves and counter moves is a helpful one. Remember, a confrontational and forceful community member perceives their job as saying whatever it takes to have you NOT make the school change you are in the process of making.

In the next post, we’ll explore sizing up the individuals expressing concern about your initiative.

School Change Generates Controversy

One of the truly challenging parts of leading large-scale school change is how upset some people can be about the change (School Change Truth 2 reminds us that people seem to abhor change). Some parents worry their children won’t do as well as they do now. Some teachers worry about the work and adjustments they’ll have to make with the change, or fear they’ll fail at the initiative or that it’s another initiative they’re expected to implement well without adequate training or support. Some just think that the initiative doesn’t look “like school,” so you’re clearly doing it wrong! 

Parents will resist and fight back against the change. Teachers will resist and fight back against the change. Community members will resist and fight back against the change. Some directly: telling you –or your superintendent or the school committee–exactly what they don’t like about the initiative or what their worries and concerns are. Others are less direct, telling you what they think will make you stop or change your mind, rather than telling what they really fear, or that they don’t want to put the effort into the change. And if your initiative is the kind that few others have implemented to date, and you have no examples to point to, then your stakeholder group has only their imagination, good and bad. And some of those stakeholders will rail against the worst their imaginations can come up with! Without counter-examples, you have no proof they are wrong.

When Auburn Schools ventured to be the first district to have a district-wide 1-to-1 kindergarten iPad initiative, there were no other kindergarten iPad initiatives to point to. We had educators and partners who were excited about the opportunity. Our imaginations told us about all the good that was possible from such an effort. But we also had some angry community members who came to testify at school committee meetings about all the worst things their imaginations could conjure:

  • We would reduce the number of teachers and just teach students through online learning
  • Students would spend all their time on the tablets and would no longer play outside, draw with crayons, sculpt with clay, sing songs, or sift through sand
  • Predators would get to the children through the cameras on the devices
  • The kindergarteners would spend all their time playing games they downloaded or going through Facebook instead of doing the learning activities
  • Students eyes would go bad using the tablet screens, and they would all need glasses
  • The children would never learn to write with pencil and paper 

Many years later, none of these predictions came to fruition. But that didn’t stop them from being hot topics in the beginning. (In fact, back then I blogged, “Rumor of our Locking Students in Closets with iPads Are Greatly Exaggerated!“)

Large-scale school change, especially paradigm shifting change, invariably generates controversy. The question is how to deal with it. Understandably, many of us don’t like confrontation and would rather not deal with it or hope that it will simply go away. 

This series will help address how to deal with the controversy your initiative generates.

Focus on 6 High-Impact Motivation Strategies

Teachers struggle to reach seemingly unmotivated students. It is true that the degree to which students are “self motivated” is a key factor of student academic success, and it is probably true that we cannot actually motivate students. This is the old idea that we can lead a horse to water, but we cannot make him drink.

The idea falls flat, however, when it is accompanied with the assumption that there is nothing teachers can do to help students be more self-motivated. This is compounded by the fact that teachers too often try low-impact or no-impact motivation strategies thinking they will help (probably because they are used so often and seem to have legitimacy, even if they don’t work well). These low-impact/no-impact motivators include grades, detentions for not doing homework, bribery rewards, showing enthusiasm, being nice to students, or statements like “you’re going to need this in high school (or college, or work, etc),” or “it’s going to be on the state test.” 

The good news is that there are, in fact, at least 6 high-impact strategies for creating the conditions for student to be self motivated. This is the idea that we may not be able to make a horse drink, but we can certainly salt his oats.

6 High-Impact Motivation StrategiesOne approach to creating the conditions for student self motivation are the 6 Meaningful Engaged Learning Focus Strategies which grew out of me dissertation so long ago. Schools working to improve student motivation, engagement, and achievement concentrate on balancing six focus areas:

  • Inviting Schools
  • Learning by Doing
  • Higher Order Thinking
  • Student Voice & Choice
  • Real World Connections
  • Continuous Improvement

Here’s a brief overview of each strategy.

Inviting Schools: Sometimes, it may seem like this one has little to do with academics or engaging students in learning, but positive relationships and a warm, inviting school climate are perhaps the single most important element to implement if you are working to reach hard to teach students. I have heard over and over again from the students I have worked with that they won’t learn from a teacher who doesn’t like them (and it doesn’t take much for a student to think the teacher doesn’t like her!). It’s important for everyone in the school to think about how to connect with students and how to create a positive climate and an emotionally and physically safe environment. Adult enthusiasm and humor go a long way, and teachers are well served to remember that one “ah-shucks!” often wipes out a thousand “at-a-boys!”

Learning by Doing: When you realize that people learn naturally from the life they experience every day, it won’t surprise you that the brain is set up to learn better through real experiences, in other words, active, hands-on endeavors. Many students request less bookwork and more hands-on activities. The students I studied were more willing to do bookwork if there was a project or activity as part of the lesson. Building models and displays, field trips and fieldwork, hands-on experiments, and craft activities are all strategies that help students learn.

Higher Order Thinking: It may seem counterintuitive, but focusing on memorizing facts actually makes it hard for students to recall the information later. That’s because the brain isn’t accustomed to learning facts out of context. Higher order thinking (e.g. applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating, within the New Bloom’s Taxonomy) requires that learners make connections between new concepts, skills, and knowledge and previous concepts, skills, and knowledge. These connections are critical for building deep understanding and for facilitating recall and transfer, especially to new contexts. Remembering things is important and a significant goal of education, but remembering is the product of higher order thinking, not the other way around. Involving students in comparing and contrasting, drama, and using metaphors and examples are strategies to move quickly into higher order thinking.

Student Voice & Choice: Few people like being told what to do, but in reality, we all have things we have to do that may not be interesting to us or that we would not choose to do on our own. Nowhere is this truer than for children in school. So, how can we entice people to do these things? We often resort to rewards or punishments when we don’t know what else to do, but other blog posts discuss just how counterproductive and highly ineffective they are. Instead, provide students voice and choice. Let them decide how they will do those things. This doesn’t mean allowing students to do whatever they want, but it means giving them choices Let students design learning activities, select resources, plan approaches to units, provide feedback about how the course is going, and make decisions about their learning.

Continuous Improvement: Continuous Improvement takes skilled guidance, direction, and coaching from thoughtful teachers, who will place emphasis on assessing frequently, providing timely formative feedback, coaching, motivating and nudging, and monitoring of progress. Learners need to know what they are aiming at (clear picture of the learning target), and to see fairly immediately how they did with meeting the target. They can gather the feedback themselves, or a guide or coach can provide the feedback (or both). But that feedback needs to be as immediate as possible, and needs to be detailed enough to lead to improved performance. Learners need the opportunity to make corrections on their next turn (and, therefore, need opportunities for next turns!), and the next turn needs to be soon after the current turn. This isn’t about letting students just try and try and try until they get it. To focus on “re-do’s” is to focus on the wrong part. It is about strategically leveraging the clear target and the detailed feedback to improve performance.

Real World Connections: This focus area is often a missing motivator for students. Schools have long had the bad habit of teaching content out of context. Unfortunately, this approach produces isolated islands of learning, and often makes it easy to recall information learned only when they are in that particular classroom, at that time of day; they are not as able to apply the information in day-to-day life. When learning is done in context, people can much more easily recall and apply knowledge in new situations (transfer). Making real world connections isn’t telling students how the content they are studying is used in the “outside world.” It’s about students using the knowledge in the authentic ways people use the knowledge outside of school. Effective strategies include finding community connections, giving students real work to do, and finding authentic audiences for work (think project-based, problem-based, and challenge-based learning).

These six focus areas aren’t new material; they are a synthesis of what we’ve known about good learning for a long time. The model is comprehensive, developed from education research, learning theories, teaching craft, and the voices of underachieving students.

But it is important to keep in mind that students need some critical mass of these strategies to be motivated. Teachers sometimes get discouraged when they introduce a single strategy and it doesn’t seem to impact their students’ motivation. The trick then isn’t to give up, but rather to introduce more of the strategies.