Category Archives: Uncategorized

Another Adventure; Same Mission

I have a new job. Well, I have a new employer.

I recently joined GEAR UP Maine. GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) is that federal grant program  that increases the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education.

The traditional approach to GEAR UP programs provide academic supports so students are both academically ready for college and can graduate on time. It provides opportunities to parents and students, such as tutoring, campus visits, and financial aid workshops, to help them view college and post-secondary education as a real possibility.

Maine is going further by leveraging several Multiple Pathway pilot programs of school-design, shared leadership training, and supports for proficiency-based education.

My position is Proficiency-based Education Specialist. I’m working to support our over-tasked, under-resourced schools with frameworks, tools, and supports right-sized for their context. In addition, we’ve identified a couple promising practices we’re helping some of our schools implementing: experiential math, and student micro-credentials to certify learning outside the classroom.

I have joked for a while now that for the last 20 years I’ve really only had one job: helping schools figure out how to reach disengaged learners, students in poverty, and youth from rural, isolated areas. I just keep changing who pays me!

Well, this change to GEAR UP Maine certainly fits the bill!

What Makes for Good Learning Experiences?

The more we try to to help build the talents of every student and help every learner succeed in school, the more we have to be deliberate about creating good learning experiences in our classrooms. I have certainly added to the conversation about what I believe gives students good learning experiences.

The roots of those ideas are not just my own experiences as a learner and a teacher, and not just conducting research and reviewing research, but from actually asking people about their own good learning experiences. The Good Learning Experiences Activity is one of the ways I have explored different people’s perspectives on how they think they learn well.

The Process

learn-939239_960_720Gather a group of stakeholders: student, teachers, administrators, parents, community members. 

“Think of a good learning experience,” the script for the activity begins. “It can be in school, or out of school. It can be when your grandfather taught you how to cast a fly rod, or when your teacher worked with you to write that really good essay. But think of a time when you had an ‘aha!’ or something finally made sense, or you could finally do something. Think of a good learning experience.”

I give small groups of participants a few minutes to share their stories. Next, I ask them to jot down on scratch paper what it was that made it a good learning experience. What were the characteristics of the experience? After a few more minutes to share their lists with their neighbors, we compile a class list on chart paper, an overhead, or on a projected computer.


Before reading on, just take a second to think about a good learning experience of your own, and what it was that made that a good learning experience.


I have conducted the activity with people of nearly every age group: upper elementary students, middle school students, high school students, college students, teachers, parents, and community members. Only a few participants have ever stated that they can’t think of any good learning experience. Many of the learners state that their best learning experiences have taken place outside of school. No one has ever said that their best learning experience came from a terrific lecture, or an interesting textbook, or an engaging worksheet (although I believe each of these can be a useful teaching tool when applied wisely).

Having conducted this activity with so many groups, I am intrigued by the results. I was surprised to find that, regardless of the group involved, there were common elements with other groups’ lists. Since 1992, I informally tracked the results and found that certain characteristics of good learning experiences come up in nearly every list:

  • The work was well connected to other ideas and to the real world
  • The content of the learning experience was personally relevant, interesting, useful, or meaningful to the learner
  • The learner had choices, shared authority, control, and responsibility
  • The learning was hands-on and experiential
  • The learner learned from and taught others
  • The learner had the support of a patient, supportive, and nurturing mentor
  • The learning was individualized and although there were standards for the work, the learner could meet them in his or her own way
  • There was a positive aesthetic component to the experience: it was fun or left the learner feeling good
  • The experience helped the learner understand him or herself
  • The learner had success and accomplishment with challenging work

Now, these are my words synthesizing the lists I have collected over the two and a half decades I’ve been doing this activity. Certainly elementary students aren’t going to use these word exactly. But doesn’t this list reflect what has made your own good learning experiences good?

Much can be learned by investigating how students believe they learn well. What better source for finding out what motivates students to learn than themselves?

But with knowledge comes responsibility. If you know what makes for good learning experiences, don’t you now have an obligation to ensure that you model these in our own teaching? – Or at least start learning how to do these in the classroom?


(Note: I have been with educators who have used the prompt “think of a good experience” or “think of a good school experience”, and it never gets to the right information about when people learn well. If you are considering doing this activity with your own students, teachers, or parents, I highly recommend that you stick with the prompt “think of a good learning experience.”)

Are We Talking Technology or Are We Talking Learning

More and more, educators are recognizing that the true value of technology isn’t learning how to use the tools and devices, but rather using the tools and devices to learn (see here, here, and here).

Even a recent meta analysis of the research on 1to1 learning environments shows that when the studies focused simply on the presence of technology, there was no real improvement in learning. Yet, when a study focused on how the devices were used, certain types of use (those focused on effective instructional practices), there was a real improvement in learning.

We will never be successful having our technology help improve student learning if we continue to primarily discuss the technology.  Our technology conversations must focus on the kinds of learning we want for students. After all, if the goal of our technology initiative is simply to make sure that students have technology, when we are successful, all we have are students with devices (and perhaps distracted students at that!).

The good news is that Maine’s statewide BrightBytes data on technology and learning show that students and teachers feel they are encouraged to use their technology for learning:

Teachers and students encouraged to use tech for learning

But those data also show that, although we’ve done a pretty good job of teaching teachers and students how to use the devices and tools, we have a ways to go for implementing those tools and devices for learning:

Knowing skills and using for learning

So, our state data reinforce the need for our push for “More Verbs, Fewer Nouns” – our need to talk less about the devices and tools and more about the way we want to use them.

How can you tell if you are talking about Tech or talking about Learning?

You are talking about tech when you talk about the following:

  • Cost of devices
  • How easy it is (or isn’t) to manage
  • Wanting same device/platform K-12
  • Teaching skills or about the tools (out of context)
  • Tips and Tricks PD
  • Latest Gimmick/Gadget PD

And you are talking about learning when you talk about the following:

  • Specific academic content focus
  • Used meaningfully for learning task
  • Beyond facts to deeper understanding, to creativity and complex reasoning
  • Student engagement
  • Teaching tech skills as foundation to completing learning activity
  • PD on good instruction (with tech)

There is no doubt that we need “noun people” as part of ensuring technology is used purposefully for learning. We still need a technology infrastructure to support the learning activities for which we want to use technology. In the Maine Learning Technology Framework, they refer to that as Learning-Focused Access.

In Taking Classroom Tech Use to the Next Level: Specific Traits to Look For, the author points out that Alan November recommends six questions to determine if technology adds any value to the learning:

  1. Did the assignment create capacity for critical thinking on the Web?
  2. Did the assignment reach new areas of teaching students to develop new lines of inquiry?
  3. Are there opportunities to broaden the perspective of the conversation with authentic audiences from around the world?
  4. Is there an opportunity for students to publish (across various media) with an opportunity for continuous feedback?
  5. Is there an option for students to create a contribution (purposeful work)?
  6. Were students introduced to the best example in the world of the content or skill?

OoAnd the author points out, “Three of the most important traits they look at when evaluating a lesson are whether it is discipline specific, promotes critical thinking and whether technology is used in transformative ways.”

One approach to making sure that your education technology conversations are well grounded in learning is to create a shared vision for learning with a diverse group of stakeholders (at least including educators, students, parents, and community members). That shared vision isn’t a vision for the school or a vision for education technology, but rather a vision for the kids of learning experiences the school community want for its students.

Here are two easy-to-implement strategies for creating a shared vision for learning. Neither takes a lot of time to implement. One asks participants to think about a preferred future for children they care about and then the kinds of learning that they would need to be doing now to achieve that perfected future. The other asks participants to think about a good learning experience and then about the characteristics of that experience.



Ed Tech Research is Clear: Owning a Device Does Not Improve Learning

Scanning the media on education technology could easily lead one to believe we are wasting our money when putting devices into the hands of students.

Whether it is districts that have had disturbing problems trying to implement technology for learning (such as here, or here), or folks who tell us why we shouldn’t have devices in school, or schools that have decided that technology is too disruptive and have banned it, or authors who caution about the over-promising with technology (such as here, or here), it is not surprising that we are dubious of investing in education technology, and wonder “why bother?”

Digital LearningOn the other hand, educators in Washington County, PA, find that their devices benefit students, and in Auburn, ME, educators found that when they carefully selected apps aligned to their curriculum or participated in professional learning focused on using apps to build conceptual understanding of mathematics, student learning improved.

So what’s different between these two groups?

From my perspective, each of these instances are really just reflections of either the problems we experience when we focus on the device more than we do the learning, or the benefits of doing the reverse (the notion of “more verbs, fewer nouns”). It is ludicrous to look inside a classroom and decide if technology is a waste of investment or a distraction without also investigating how we are using them for learning. Simply having technology does not improve learning.

And there are plenty of authors and organizations out there who are anxious to help us be successful with education technology:

Here is our advice to your school when considering the value of your education technology:

  • If the goal of your technology initiative is to provide students with technology, then all you will end up with is students with devices (and probably distracted, off-task students at that).
  • Your technology initiative should consider the kinds of learning experiences you want for your students and the supports you put in place to help teachers create those experiences.
  • Keep in mind that student distraction is almost never a device problem. It is almost always a boredom problem. We must stop blaming technology and get better at engaging students with our teaching.
  • Make classroom management in technology rich classrooms a part of your school’s professional learning plan. Support teachers in developing strategies beyond sending kids to the principal and requesting that devices be locked and blocked.
  • When reviewing research on technology in schools, ask yourself if the study simply looks at the presence of technology, or if it looks at how the technology was used. Further, did the study measure student engagement? Don’t put too much value in the incomplete studies – we already know that owning devices doesn’t improve learning.

In short, start with the pedagogy, then think about the devices.




Let’s Focus on the Learning

As you move through the state and talk with educators about their technology initiatives, too often the conversations have focused on laptops and tablets and folks wondering if we could find devices that were less expensive.

Is it possible that in their thinking, all laptops and devices were created equal, in such a way that the only variable is cost?

Possibly it is the wrong conversation completely. The conversation shouldn’t be about price; it should be about value.

We may have missed the boat on the value conversation when we started spending too much time talking about the technology and the tools, or about providing technology and procurement.

We need to spend most of our time talking about what kinds of learning we would like to make happen with the technology. You can only get to the value conversation when you can discuss what you want to do with the devices and compare different devices and tools around how well suited they are to those purposes.

A really wonderful professor of elementary educational technology, Ralph Granger, used to say, “When you go to the hardware store to buy a new drill bit, you don’t really want a drill bit. You want a hole.” When it comes to educational technology, we need to talk less about our “drill bits” and more about the “holes” we want.

Or as Marc Prensky says, we need more verbs and fewer nouns.

And, as TPACK reminds us, when we align our educational arrows, we are talking about content, pedagogy, and technology (What instructional strategies might we use to teach this learning target, and what role could our devices play?).

How are you prepared to help make our educational technology conversations focus more on learning?

Organizing Early to Avoid Device Breakage and Misuse

We had an interesting experience last year, at Auburn Middle School, related to iPad breakage and misuse.

AMS has six teams (3 7th & 3 8th). Last June, when we collected the iPads, we found that some teams had quite high breakage and misuse rates, and some had quite low breakage and misuse rates.

And what we saw right away was that the low-rate teams had done some things that the high-rate teams had not:

  • Worked on classroom culture (code of collaboration, rules, procedures, mutual respect, etc. – in general, not  iPad specific) before distributing iPads
  • Had a shared vision for learning
  • Had clear expectations for students for iPad use (actively taught them and re-taught them when needed)
  • Had clear expectations of teachers to use the iPads in class regularly for meaningful (to the students) learning activities 
  • Were thoughtful about including motivation and engagement strategies when designing learning activities (including those that include the iPad)
  • Responded to misuse in measured ways that were geared more toward getting students on track for appropriate use than on punishment

This was a great reminder of the success strategies from the beginning of MLTI (the original page seems to be gone, but Deer Isle has reposted it). The state MLTI team uncovered these strategies from visiting schools across the state and finding patterns among successful and more challenged schools. AMS’s trend data was almost the same as the original MLTI discovery: do these things, have low breakage/misuse; don’t do these things and have high breakage/misuse.

It confirms the conclusion from more than a decade ago that breakage/misuse is primarily a function of leadership and teacher practice. 

I’m not dumping on or blaming folks who have that higher rate. I’m much more interested in all of us learning from these kinds of experiences, so we can help all schools implement the more productive strategies and be more successful.


On Transitioning – Not Jumping Straight from the Traditional to the New

In my experience, the biggest mistake we make with large scale school change, like with Customized Learning, is thinking that we should, or need to, make the change all at once.  One day we’re living in the old; the next we’re living in the new. Part of that mistake is thinking that the initiative is one monolithic thing (that can just be turned on or off!), rather than something made up of many interconnected parts; also, it is thinking we should do it all at once, rather than phasing in the work.

But another piece is misunderstanding the nature of transitioning from the traditional to the new.

Let me show you what I mean.

Put your hands on the table about 18 inches apart, edge of your hand touching the table and palms facing each other (like you are measuring some fish you caught!).

We're here now, and want to end up here.Your left hand is where we are today. A group of students are taught the content at the same time (regardless of the pace they are learning it). They all learn it the same way. They all take the assessment at the same time. Grades are F to A, based on that assessment. Learning and assessment are based more on activities than they are learning targets; based more on building foundational knowledge (recall) than they are about both foundational knowledge and putting that knowledge to use (both recall and complex reasoning).

Your right hand is where we want to end up.  Learning is the constant and time is the variable (pace is based on how fast the student learns the material – with lots of teacher nudging and coaching, of course). Everyone learns the same content, but they learn it in a way that works well for them. Assessments are taken when the student is ready. Scoring (grades) is 1 to 4 based on the learner’s level of proficiency with the learning target. The student doesn’t move on until they are proficient with the content and there are multiple ways a student might demonstrate that proficiency. Proficiency requires being able to put the knowledge to use, not simply recall the related foundation knowledge.

But notice, your hands aren’t touching.  They’re 18 inches apart. We think it will take us about 5 years to transition from where we are now (left hand) to where we want to be (right hand).

And here is where we misunderstand transitioning. 

We get frustrated with teachers, or think they are doing it wrong if they are still doing parts from the traditional system. 

Instead, we should be expecting a mix of the old and the new that is (more or less) proportionate to how far along with the transition we are.

Now tap your right hand about a third of the way from your left hand. This is where we would be about a third into the transition. The problem is that some will expect that change to look just like where we want to end up. But it’s only a third of the way there. In reality, we should expect it to look mostly like the transitional system and only a little like the new system. If we were two-thirds along the transition, we’d expect it to still look some like the traditional system, but more like the new system.

Student progress trackingFor example, let’s say we are talking about learning progress management, and we are about a third of the way along our transition from what we used to do to the new system we want (keeping in mind that “a third” is metaphorical, simply to make a point). We would expect that a teacher might be keeping track of which unit or chapter each student is in the text (maybe with charts on the wall), students take the chapter test when they are ready, and grades are recorded in the electronic grade book (e.g. PowerSchool). The traditional pieces are that “the curriculum” is the textbook, that the text (and teacher mini lessons, we presume) are the primary approach to learning, and students are earning traditional grades. The new parts include keeping track of where students are in their learning, and students have some flexibility of pace.  

But if we were 2/3rds along, we might expect that the teacher would be using an online learning progress management system (e.g. Educate/Empower) to make sure that both she and her students know the full curriculum and which learning targets they are currently working on, is keeping track of which learning targets each student has demonstrated proficiency on, and the teacher then translates that information into an A through F for the report card each quarter. The traditional pieces include the A to F grades, and report cards each grading period. The new pieces include the transparent curriculum, keeping track of proficiency of learning targets,  and “grades” based on proficiency, rather than performance on assignments and activities.

Notice, more traditional and a little new early in the transition and a little traditional and more new later in the transition.

The big idea here is that we shouldn’t expect what teachers are doing to look entirely like the new system until the new system is fully implemented.

Additionally, if we’re just starting a transition, it needs to be ok that most of what we are doing looks like the traditional system. And even when we’re pretty far along with the change, we need to remember that there will still be elements of the traditional mixed in with the new.

From a leadership perspective, our biggest job is supporting teachers through the initiative toward a high level of implementation. And a major component of that is having realistic expectations of those teachers, based on how far along with the transition they currently are.


Benefits of Attending Auburn’s Leveraging Learning iPad Institute

Auburn Schools (ME), an early adopter of 1to1 iPads in primary grades, hosts the annual Leveraging Learning Institute on the topic. Registration for the Nov 12-14 Institute opens at noon (ET) on August 21.

Dr. David Murphy, RSU 44 Superintendent (Bethel, ME), has sent a team to the Institute every year. In this video, he discusses both what his district has gotten from attending the Institute, and the benefits of sending a team of teachers, administrators, tech integrators, and technicians.


Registration is limited to 135, so be sure to register early. Districts are encouraged to send teams, and the Institute is structured to support teamwork (but individuals are welcome, too!).

This year, we are expecting the Institute to be internationally rich! More than a third of our participants are likely to be educators from outside the United States. What a great opportunity to share your experiences and learn from educators from across the country and around the world!

Learn more by visiting the Leveraging Learning Hold the Date Page.  We hope to see you at the Institute!


The (New) Evolving Face of Professional Development

We’ve been thinking a lot lately about professional development. 

We’re working on a comprehensive project to define a professional learning curriculum related to our strategic initiatives (Customized Learning, Tech for Learning, etc), build modules and professional learning playlists around those learning targets, and provide a system for certifying teachers for their accomplishments and for what they know and can do. And I have written before about how our thinking about professional development has evolved over time.

This post captures our current (Summer 2014) thinking on the topic.

Not only are we recognizing that we just don’t have enough resources and opportunities to do traditional “everyone in the same room” professional development, but we have started thinking differently about the purpose of those workshops and other whole-group PD.

Until recently, I used to think of whole-group PD as the end. Teachers attend the PD session and they would leave being proficient at the skill taught in the session, ready and able to implement it well in their classroom.

Now, I think of whole-group PD as just the beginning, an opportunity to introduce a group to a new idea and get them all “on the same page” before they begin working in their own classrooms at learning how to implement the skill well. This is especially important given that the work we’ve been doing lately around Customized Learning, including teaching with iPads, is new to teachers (they haven’t experienced this themselves as learners) and have to invent many of the pieces. 

And that idea, the idea that these new skills are complex, and need inventing and development, and later need practice, and that teachers need to be supported throughout their work to get good at them, has us thinking about workshops as just one small piece of professional development.

For us, professional development for our teachers needs to include some fluid combination of these components:

  • “Same Page” Trainings – These are introductory workshops, getting teachers on the same page about a new set of concepts, skills, or strategies they will be working to implement.
  • Lesson Invention & Tryouts – There is much to this new system that needs to be designed or invented (or at least adapted for our schools). The work teachers do to design, invent, prototype, refine, perfect, and share these systems and strategies is valuable professional learning for all of us. Embedded in this idea is the notion of continuous improvement, and the chance to try a skill in the classroom, reflect on how it went and how it could be done better, and then try it out again with the improvements (play-debrief-replay).
  • Coaching & Feedback – Keeping with the idea of continuous improvement, this includes any Technology Integrator, Instructional Coach, administrator, or peer who models lessons or strategies, co-designs or plans with the teacher, observes, and/or provides formative feedback to support the teacher’s professional growth.
  • Teacher Face-to-Face Time – Teachers need time to sit with other teachers to share experiences, ideas, and resources, as well as to ask questions and seek support. They need a chance to share things that they have tried that worked, and to seek assistance with those things they are still challenged by. And the notion of “face-to-face” can extend well beyond her school or district via the blogs and social networks the teacher builds and follows.
  • On-Demand Modules & Play Lists – Instead of having to wait for a workshop, or for the Tech Integrator or Instructional Coach to visit her classroom, these how-to articles, lessons, short courses, videos, and other digital resources are available to a teacher as she needs them.
  • Answering “But What Does It Look Like?” – Simply stated, this is models & examples: a curated collection of possible classroom visits, videos, photos, and articles, etc., to help teachers develop a sense of what an aspect of the initiative would look like in action. Teachers often have an intellectual understanding of what they are being asked to do, but not a practical understanding.  These models and examples play a critical role in helping them move to the point of being able to try this new idea in their own classroom.
Of course, now we have to figure out how to do all of these well…. 

Does Technology Improve Learning – No! A Keynote

I recently had the honor of keynoting at the Illinois Computing Educators (ICE) conference.

My message was that technology alone will not improve learning; only teachers improve learning. But technology can be wonderful tool for teachers and for students under the guidance of teachers.

Watch the keynote here. And related resources are down below.


If we want to leverage technology well for learning, then these are the components we should attention to:

  • Focus on Learning
  • Deliberate, Shared Leadership
  • Community Engagement
  • How You REALLY Protect Stuff
  • Support the Heck Out of Folks





Community Engagement:

Supporting Educators (Professional Development):