Making Change Happen: 21st Century Skills and Meaningful Integration into the Classroom

Tme-at-eeobechnology keeps advancing, students keep changing, and the world we live in is vastly different than the one in which most of us seasoned educators completed our student teaching experiences. Yet in many ways, teacher preparation hasn’t reflected these changes. However, there are myriad excellent examples of students, teachers, and teacher educators engaging in truly 21st century teaching and learning. The challenge we face as a community of educators is being able to bring these innovative practices to all students, teachers, and teacher educators. It isn’t enough to simply tweet about technology-enhanced education to other educational technology converts.   How do we engage in a broad, open, inclusive, and effective push for cutting edge yet sustainable teaching and learning at both the k-12 and the postsecondary level?

21st century teaching and learning isn’t solely defined by technology, but certainly one cannot consider the art and science of teaching and learning in 2017 and beyond without considering the role that technology plays. In my own work as a teacher educator and an online professor, I have been advocating for intentional and frequent integration of technology into teacher education programs and k-12 classrooms. I’ve flipped my classroom, tried all sorts of technologies (and both succeeded and failed), and I’ve shared that work with my peers. As a result of this work, in the summer of 2016 I had the great privilege of being invited to attend an Innovators’ Summit focused on advancing the use of educational technology in teacher preparation, along with the Dean of the Rossier School of Education, Dr. Karen Symms Gallagher. I wrote up my reflections on this summit on my blog, and integrated this work into my work as a teaching professor.

Innovators’ Summit Attendees on the steps of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building inside the White House Complex.

I was thrilled when I then received an invitation to attend a second Innovators’ Summit at the White House in December of 2016. During this summit, I spent two days working with around 50 other teacher educators, professors, deans, k-12 educators, and policy makers from around the nation on the shared vision that was articulated in a U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology policy brief as follows:

Our students deserve to have teachers, including novice teachers, who are fully prepared to meet their needs. In today’s technology rich world, that means educators need to be prepared to meaningfully incorporate technology into their practice immediately upon entering the classroom. Our nation’s motivated and committed pre-service teachers deserve to be trained by faculty using technology in transformative ways that thoughtfully support and measure learning gains.

Faculty at schools of education across the country should operate with a common language and set of expectations for effective and active use of technology in Prekindergarten-grade 12 (P-12) and at postsecondary education levels. Further, schools of education should work with P-12 schools and school districts to provide meaningful opportunities for pre-service teachers, in-service teachers, school and district leadership, and faculty to co-learn and collaborate to better understand and use technology as a tool to transform teaching and learning experiences for learners of all ages. Given the rapid pace at which technology evolves, faculty need regular opportunities to both refresh their capacity and share innovative tools and strategies with other professors in the field to ensure their technology use is contributing to learning and achievement.

The U.S. Department of Education believes it is important that all programs responsible for pre-service teacher training prepare all graduates to effectively select, evaluate, and use appropriate technologies and resources to create experiences that advance student engagement and learning. We call upon leaders of teacher preparation programs to engage in concerted, programmatic shifts in their approach to pre-service teacher preparation.

This policy brief was based partially on our work at the Innovators’ Summit in June 2016, along with numerous other cutting edge educators from around the nation, and was made real by the incredible work of the Office of Educational Technology.

On page 13, the policy brief highlights the work of the faculty of the Rossier School of Education’s Master of Arts in Teaching program.  The course being discussed in the second paragraph is the EDUC 518: The Application of Theories of Learning to Classroom Practice course that I have led for the past several years; we have made significant changes to the course in that time.

To improve their own online instruction, full-time and adjunct faculty at the University of Southern California (USC) collaborated on a data-informed process of course redesign to better meet the needs of their students. USC realized that student feedback via surveys and exit interviews were paramount in enhancing the program with the latest technology and pedagogy. Using student responses, faculty members continue to develop an internal community of practice to give each other feedback on how to improve virtual classroom practices and learn about new techniques and technological tools. For example, faculty members developed a video-based onboarding process where new faculty can engage with multimedia, resources, and lesson plans. Looking ahead, faculty are working toward creating an inventive video-based professional development model for flipped learning as part of a new version of the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program.

Prior to these changes, online course deliverables consisted of five papers and asynchronous discussion boards. Today, students are working collaboratively on online-based documents, recording sample video lessons for constructive peer critique, providing and receiving virtual feedback from colleagues and professors, building dynamic concept maps via web presentation platforms, and learning through flipped instruction models. As more K-12 schools shift to variants of flipped instruction, USC faculty models this work for pre-service teachers and colleagues who increasingly recognize how these pre-recorded videos and prompts can maximize in-class instructional time at the K-12 level and in higher education.

As we engaged in the continuation of this work at the December Summit, what struck me the most was how much every single moment of each of these Summits was focused on making change happen. In academia, we often talk about the theoretical, or about the research, and debate the philosophy of Approach A versus Approach B. There certainly is value in those conversations. However, there is also the danger that the conversation never becomes action, that we only talk to those who agree with us, or that we wait for everything to become well defined and backed by big data before we make a move. The problem with that is that while academia and administration tend to move at a belabored pace, technological advances are happening now. While we are busy completing lit reviews and gaining IRB approval, students are out there in a 21st century world, with all of the opportunities and pitfalls that exist.

At this Innovator’s Summit, we were pushed hard to develop plans of action. We all brought considerable knowledge and expertise to the table. Our philosophical, theoretical, and research discussions always were crystallized into things to do. This itself is a transformative practice. Director of the Office of Educational Technology Joseph South told us, back in June, that President Obama likes to say to the experts he calls upon that “there is no other room.” Meaning, the experts who will make the change happen are right here, right now, in this room; that’s why we were asked to be there. There is no other room out there where other, better people are going to solve the problem for us. The onus is on us to make sure that positive change happens, and that the brilliant work being done all over the country by forward thinking educators is shared and expanded upon to the benefit of all students.

Me with Dr. Joseph South, the Director of the Office of Educational Technology.

So, we spent lots of time writing on sticky notes and chart paper (yes, yes, old school, I know), and snapping photos of innovative thoughts (there’s the technology for you). We got into groups and brainstormed, and then formed those brainstorms into concrete action plans. We focused our work around the following four principles established by the Office of Educational Technology:

  • Focus on the active use of technology to enable learning and teaching through creation, production, and problem-solving.
  • Build sustainable, program wide systems of professional learning for higher education instructors to strengthen and continually refresh their capacity to use technological tools to enable transformative learning and teaching.
  • Ensure pre-service teachers’ experiences with educational technology are program-deep and program-wide, rather than one-off courses separate from their methods courses.
  • Align efforts with research-based standards, frameworks, and credentials recognized across the field.
Me speaking to Summit attendees as the co-chair of the Active Use of Technology Workgroup about our action plan for moving forward with this work.

I was able to walk away from this two day experience with a set of concrete recommendations for my Dean, who was unfortunately unable to attend the December Summit, as well as a plan for reviewing the work our Master of Arts in Teaching Program faculty have been doing in revising our program.


On a larger scale, those of us who attended the Innovators’ Summit at the White House were also asked to commit ourselves to one of four workgroups organized around the four principles shared above. I am co-chairing the Active Use of Technology Workgroup, and I am excited to see what we are able to do with a motivated, focusewest-wing-selfie-2d group of experts on educational technology.

And of course, here’s the obligatory West Wing selfie:







Talking EdTech


Technology isn’t going to become any less omnipresent in our lives; with the rate at which technology advances, we actually have no idea what type of world our current students will enter when they are ready to pursue careers and make big decisions.  So how on earth do we prepare them for that?  How can we even begin to teach students about technology or prepare teachers to teach technology when we don’t know what technology will look like even a few years from now?

Recently, I’ve been fortunate to be able to engage in lots of great conversations with other professors, classroom teachers, and policy makers around educational technology, in an attempt to answer these questions.  A couple of months ago, I was invited to participate in a summit on innovation in educational technology in teacher preparation. There, I made connections and began conversations with other innovators and experts at all levels from k-16 and beyond. Those conversations have continued at a distance since then, up through this week. On Monday, I led a Twitter chat for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, centered around the active use of technology in teacher preparation. Yesterday I had an amazing conversation on the TeacherCast podcast about educational technology, social media, and a host of other related topics. These conversations are absolutely critical to improving both the teaching practice and teacher preparation programs.  It’s no secret that, while we do have plenty of rockstar teachers and professors out there using technology in active and transformative ways, we also have a lot of schools, teachers, and professors still approaching technology from an old-school mentality (pun very intended).

I want to share with you some of the key points that emerged, repeatedly, from these conversations.

Teaching and learning with technology should be a tool to enhance the active engagement of students.  Tech certainly doesn’t have to be integrated into every lesson, but there are many ways in which tech can expand the classroom outside of the 4 brick and mortar walls, can provide more interactive and relevant learning experiences, and can teach students the valuable technology skills that they are most likely to need in the future.

But wait, didn’t I just say we don’t know what technology will look like even a few years from now? I sure did. So that’s why technology needs to look less like:

  1. Teaching students to type on a keyboard.
  2. Teaching students to use PowerPoint, Word, and Excel.
  3. Having students use a sanitized and heavily blocked version of the Internet.

And more like:

  1. Exposing students to many different types of technology.
  2. Modeling how to learn a new technology by networking, searching, and transferring knowledge.
  3. Teaching students good judgment for who to interact with online and how much and what types of information to share.
  4. Teaching students about the various things that contribute to their digital identity.

The difference here is that one approach teaches specific technologies, while the other teaches skills that will (probably) transfer to any type of technology that is developed. We must teach students and preservice teachers how to learn about technology and how to have good judgment around technology.

Another major point that I want to emphasize after having had these conversations this week, is that we in the field of education need to have these active conversations regularly, and we need to be talking across disciplines and across institutions and grade levels. Professors need to be engaged in conversations with classroom teachers who are actually implementing this transformative, active technology. Classroom teachers need to be modeling for and supporting each other in their implementation of active, transformative tech. We need to all listen to k-12 students; we need to know how they are using the technology, what they would like to use the technology for, and how they imagine the technology growing.

I want to make the final point that we have passed the point at which implementing technology in every subject area is optional. The Common Core standards require technology implementation and instruction. The U.S. Department of Education expects that schools implement and instruct in transformative, active use of technology. Living and working in the modern United States practically requires the use of technology. Teachers and professors who avoid teaching with technology are doing a disservice to k-12 students and preservice teachers; we can no more decide to avoid teaching with technology than we can decide not to teach kids math or language arts.

The future is here. We must be prepared to teach in and for the future.

Coding Instead of Cursive

codingThere’s a great deal of debate in the education world about the death of cursive writing instruction.  Cursive lovers bemoan the excision of cursive from the curriculum, and are horrified at the thought that someday, these children will grow up and not be able to read their grandparents’ letters (nevermind that their grandparents are now Tweeting, Instagramming, and Snapchatting).

But what do they really need cursive for?  Important documents are no longer written in cursive.  When applying for most jobs, no one will ever see your handwriting until you’re hired, and even then they may never see it.  Signatures are generally written in cursive, but it’s generally a stylized, bastardized version of cursive.  So why are we clawing at cursive in a vain attempt to keep it in the curriculum?

My guess is that it’s a symbol of something larger.  A symbol of the death of letter writing, and handwritten Christmas cards. A last gasp of a slower, simpler time.  But the times, they are a changin’, and we need to face reality and change along with them.  Yes, knowing how to write in cursive is nice.  Nice, but not necessary.

So instead of allowing the instructional minutes that used to be devoted to teaching cursive to be co-opted into standardized test prep minutes, let’s do something innovative with them!  Let’s make cursive time into coding time.  Teachers, you don’t need to know how to code; you can learn along with your students.  No, making cursive time into coding time won’t turn your students into little professional programmers.  But what it WILL do is strengthen their math and logic skills, give them opportunities for creativity, and perhaps spark their interest in a future career.

Here are some outstanding resources for getting your students involved in coding:’s goal is to give every kid (especially females and students of color) the opportunity to learn computer science, especially coding. They have lots of great resources for educators who want to get involved.


Pluralsight provides online coding training courses for adults, but has a special free section devoted to teaching coding to kids for free.

Code Avengers

Code Avengers provides teachers with free access to coding courses, and provides students with 12 free hours of basic coding instruction, plus a free level 1 course.


Lightbot produces paid apps that teach coding skills through games for kids as young as 4 years old.  BUT, they also offer a free web-based game for Hour of Code, an initiative to provide all students with one hour of coding instruction.  Find the game here: Lightbot Hour of Code Game


Code Combat teaches coding through gaming!  There are 110+ free levels of the game for students, and teachers get free access as well.

Yes, actually. I AM a teacher.


In a recent blog post for the Huffington Post, Professor Keith M. Parsons from the University of Houston – Clear Lake sends a message to his students.  It’s gotten a lot of attention on social media, at least in my circles, and as a professor myself, I was interested in what he had to say.  After reading his post, however, I am disappointed that this type of teaching (yes, I said teaching), is being advocated by someone in an influential educational position.  Perhaps it is because I am a teaching professor in a school of education, but I couldn’t let this one slide.

Professor Parsons makes a few points in his blog post that he wishes to drive home to his students, and I’d like to address each one in turn.

First, Professor Parsons states, “I am your professor, not your teacher.”  He goes on to explain how teaching and professing are two completely different things, and that “it is no part of my job to make you learn.” He makes the case that teachers are measured by learning outcomes and standardized tests, and are held accountable for their students’ learning.  He argues that he has no obligation to ensure learning occurs for students.  So his argument appears to be that since he isn’t going to be held accountable for it, then student learning is none of his business. Rubbish.  Is this really the ideal to which we, as professors, should hold ourselves?  No one is going to check and see if your students are learning, so they sink or swim?

Professor Parsons also states that universities are old fashioned institutions, and that the idea that professors should make learning accessible to students, or, heaven forbid, student-centered, is “hogwash.”  He tells us that students need to “learn to listen.”  Professor Parsons needs to learn to listen to the vast body of research on student learning that says that student-centered learning is more effective than teacher-centered lecture; listen to those who are actually experts in the field of education who tell you that student centered learning improves student outcomes (Kember, 2008; Wright, 2011).  (Professor Parsons, I tossed in a couple of citations for you there, even though this is a blog post, because as a professor, I do share your love of citations.)  Yes, lectures can be captivating, but student-centered learning approaches are far from “hogwash.”  They help us create critical thinkers and patient problem solvers of our students.

Finally, Professor Parsons argues that the university is a different culture with different values.  In this, I agree.  The university setting does have different norms and values than the K-12 setting.  However, I disagree with the implication that the norms and values of the university setting are better.  The university setting is beginning to take lessons from the K-12 setting in ways that are beneficial for everyone; we’re improving teaching and learning, and providing a higher quality experience for our students, and the research supports that.

Parsons argues that students see the university as a place to get a credential, while he sees the university as being about education. I am baffled as to how Professor Parsons can refuse to accept the mountain of educational research on good pedagogy, and then state that universities are about education.  Professor Parsons, while he may choose to deny it, is most definitely a teacher, as are all other professors with students in their charge.  When you take on the honor of holding the education of a group of young people in your hands, you must also take on responsibility for their learning, even if no one will ever check up on you to see how well your students are learning.  If you choose to take on a profession that involves teaching students, then I beg you: teach them.  Engage with your students.  Listen to what they have to say.  Involve them in projects and experiences.  Make them argue ideas and invent solutions to problems.  Talk with them, not at them.  Support them.  Set high expectations, but provide support to reach those expectations.  Deeply reflect on your own teaching practice, and examine what you can improve.  Teaching should be a process of learning for both you AND your students.  For many years, the university system did an excellent job of meeting the needs of a very limited and privileged subset of the population, in a very different world.  Students today are not like the students of 30 years ago in some critically important ways.  Stop complaining about your students and accept that postsecondary education is, at least in this one respect, changing for the better.  Change with it, or become a relic of a system that doesn’t meet the needs of the population it purports to serve.

Kember, D. (2009). Promoting student-centred forms of learning across an entire university. Higher Education 58(1): 1–13.

Wright, G. B. (2011). Student-Centered Learning in Higher Education. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. 23 (3): 93–94.

3 Ways to Support Student-Parents Online

I teach in a Master of Arts in Teaching program, using an online platform (a Moodle-based LMS developed for us by the fabulous 2U, and Adobe Connect).  In this program, many of my students are also parents.  Since they’re also attending live classes over a webcam from home, this means that often their children are in the house with them.  Many professors in this setting take the approach of banning children, or in fact any potential distractions at all, from the classroom.  My approach is a bit different.  See, I’m a parent myself, and I believe that one of the big problems in our society is the disconnect between work life and family life; the idea that once you get to work you’re supposed to stop being a parent, but when you’re home with your family you should still be answering work email.  I think this is a damaging and stressful thing for parents, whether they’re at work or in an academic program, or as often happens, both.  So, instead, I choose to support my student parents in ways that not only improve their educational experience, but improve learning for other students and improve my experience as the instructor.  It’s my small act of rebellion against the societal encroachment of work and academia on family life.

First, I begin the term by encouraging new moms to feel free to breastfeed their children while in class.  Breastfeeding is normal and natural, and shouldn’t be treated any differently than bottle feeding a child.  Additionally, most states protect breastfeeding moms’ right to nurse in public or private places.  Now, my virtual classroom is neither a public nor a private space, but I’m choosing, as benevolent dictator of my virtual classroom, to make nursing accepted. It is basically not noticeable on camera anyway (we generally only see from the shoulders up), and it can make the new mom more relaxed and able to focus on the content.  Plus, we get to see those gorgeous squishy babies, and it builds our bond as a class.

Second, I tell parents that their children are welcome to join us in the class session.  They can sit in laps and observe, they can ask questions, and they can talk to us.  The vast majority of the time, this stops them from banging on the door and distracting their parent, and then the child either sits quietly and watches, gets bored and leaves, or engages in conversation with us.  Being an education program, this gives my other students a chance to talk to a young person about these ideas we’re learning about in class.  It enhances the conversation and does not distract from our learning.

Third, I allow people’s children to come first.  There is no situation when a class session should come before taking a child to the doctor, and yet I’ve had many students arrive in class and apologize because they might have to step away and clean up their vomiting child.  My response is always the same.  “Go take care of your child.  They need you, and the content will still be here later.”  All of our class sessions are recorded, so the parent/student can watch the class session later, and then meet with me during office hours to make sure they are confident in their mastery of the content of the missed session.  Yes, they miss a class session, but if I made them stay, they’d be behaviorally engaged at best.  Most likely, they’d be looking at the camera, but thinking about their child and listening and watching intently for the signs of worsening illness.  The student will get more from the class session if they can watch the recording and meet with me one on one later, than trying to struggle through the live session with a sick child.

I’ve found that each of these not only allows for a better educational experience for my student-parents, but it makes the teaching experience better for me.  Our online classes develop a stronger bond when we meet each other’s children and share these parts of our lives.  My students are more engaged when I let them deal with the issues that inevitably arise for parents, and work with their role as a parent instead of against it.

Dear failing student,


Dear failing student,
I’ve just discovered that you’re past the tipping point, and won’t pass my course.  I will spend all day thinking about you.  I’m so sad that your outcome in this course wasn’t positive.  I take it personally when even one of my students doesn’t succeed, even though I probably shouldn’t.  I know this is a big obstacle, because my course is required.  I’m a gatekeeper for the degree and the credential, which you have your sights set upon.
As tough as this may be for you, though, I hope it is also a positive experience.  I hope you learn from it, take the feedback you’ve gotten from me to heart, and use that feedback to improve your work.  I hope you don’t give up.
Sometimes it may seem, especially when I’m highlighting the errors in your paper, that I’ve got all the all the answers.  It might look like I’m doing things right and you’re doing things wrong.  What you don’t see, though, when you meet with me to go over your paper, are all of my failures.  I’ve failed plenty, and so has literally everyone who is successful at anything.  I love my career, and I have worked very hard to achieve my goal of becoming a teacher educator.  However, I never would have been on this path if I hadn’t failed, and failed hard.  Some of my failures were academic, some were professional, and some were personal.  Some were small, and some were large, but they all contributed to my growth as a person and as an educator.  In fact, these failures allowed me to learn more about myself and how to be successful than many of my successful endeavors ever did.
So when you look at this failure in your life, understand that this is but one twist in the road.  This failure is making you stronger, and more knowledgeable about yourself and about the world.
As long as you continue to persist, you are better for having failed.
Best wishes and Fight On!
Your Professor

Teachers instead of Tests

origin_14994024015It is no secret that I am no fan of standardized tests.  I strongly believe that they are killing public education, and I am terrified at what our educational system will look like in 20 years.  We desperately want to be the best, and so we devise test after test to hold students and teachers accountable.

Who is it that we think we need to hold accountable?  We have these mythical “bad teachers” who just aren’t doing their jobs.  Those teachers do exist, but they are a small percentage.  The vast majority of teachers out there are good teachers. Because, you see, teachers don’t become teachers for the money (or even for the summer breaks).  They become teachers because they have a passion for inspiring and educating young minds.

So, the powers that be convince themselves that it’s these “bad teachers” who need to be held accountable.  They need to be forced into teaching properly with test after test after test.  So, perhaps, there are a few teachers out there who were coasting along, and decided to step up their games when standardized testing was implemented.  What about all the rest of the teachers, though?  The vast majority who are GOOD TEACHERS?  The joy of teaching and learning is being replaced with test-prep booklets, scantron sheets, and proclamations from legislators and number crunchers who have never stood in front of a classroom but are oh so sure that they know how to measure good teaching.

And so good teachers find less and less joy in the classroom, on top of their already abysmal pay. They hear that if they don’t get certain scores on a test that they know is invalid, they might be laid off.  They might not be able to feed their families.  Is it any wonder that teachers are resorting to unethical practices to deal with these pressures?

It’s not just about the testing, either.  It’s the opportunity cost of all of this testing. It’s the things teachers can’t do because they’re teaching students to bubble properly.  It’s the 1.7 billion dollars that states spend on testing annually that could be spent on teachers.  What is the impact of these lost opportunities?

We don’t give teachers adequate support from paraprofessionals.

We don’t give teachers adequate time to plan or grade.

We don’t give teachers control over what happens in their classrooms.

We don’t give teachers opportunities for high quality professional development.

We don’t give teachers a chance to be part of a larger community of professionals.

We don’t pay teachers nearly enough.

We give teachers standards that don’t make sense, or are too numerous to address in a single year.

We give teachers textbooks that are substandard, and encourage them to teach from them.

We give teachers pacing plans that tell them which standard to teach on which day, as if we can somehow plan out in advance how a group of completely unique individuals will learn.

We give teachers piles of paperwork.

We give teachers meaningless meetings.

We give teachers 5 subjects to teach in 2.5 hours total per week.

We give teachers endless, flat tests that measure only a small percentage of what we want a high quality teaching and learning experience to be.

We give teachers scores from these tests and assume that they somehow reflect a teacher’s quality, when we know that this isn’t true.

All of these things detract from the ability of teachers to do what we really want them to do: create and deliver engaging, differentiated lessons for their students.

I tell my students all the time that when you’re trying to create a successful classroom, you can go one of two ways.  You can implement a system of rewards and punishments so that students will sit through your boring lessons attentively. Or, you can create engaging, interactive, relevant lessons so that students voluntarily participate and learn because they want more of that type of teaching and learning.  The first option is little more than putting out fires.  It will quickly suck the life out of you, and it leaves little room for creativity, interaction, and mutual learning and growth.  The second option helps both you AND your students to eagerly anticipate walking into the classroom each day.

We’re doing a large scale version of the first option in our public schools.  We dangle merit pay in front of teachers, and threaten them with pink slips if their students don’t perform well enough.  What if, instead, we took that 1.7 billion dollars, and we used it to do things like provide professional development, peer observation time, classroom materials, grading/planning time, or any of the other things that teachers need? What if we made sure that teachers were highly qualified, and then trusted them to do their jobs?

There are 98,817 public schools out there.  What could we do with that 1.7 billion if we divided it up among those schools? That’s just over $17,000 per year per school. Now, sure, $17,000 is a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things.  I would wager, though, that if allowed to spend that $17,000 themselves, teachers could find any number of productive uses for it.

$17,000 is a computer lab or a class set of iPads.

$17,000 is piles of books.

$17,000 is time for teachers to engage in collaborative planning.

$17,000 is sending a team of teachers to a professional conference.

$17,000 is musical instruments.

$17,000 can be a thousand useful things.

What isn’t useful is obstructive and invalid standardized testing.

“But we NEED to know if teachers are doing their jobs,” you say.  “What if kids aren’t learning?”  Well, if  you really don’t trust trained teachers and administrators to take care of themselves, then we’re going to need a lot MORE money.

$1.7 billion dollars won’t even come close.  You’re going to need trained observers at school sites.  You’re going to need to buy administrators and teachers out of time they are currently spending elsewhere so they can engage in peer observation.  You’re going to need assessment instruments that aren’t scored by a machine, which means training and paying professionals to hand-score each assessment.  You’re going to need assessments that reflect the unique needs of each school site.  You’re going to need assessments in multiple languages, because I don’t care how many times you make them take it, a math test in English can’t gauge the math skills of someone who is still learning English.  You’re going to need to implement dynamic assessment practices, which will involve training teachers on how to scaffold learners during assessments.

Or, we could just, you know, let teachers do their jobs.


photo credit: via photopin cc

How to be Successful in Grad School


I spent a lot of time in grad school (with the loans to prove it), and I’ve been teaching exclusively grad students for the last 5 years.  So, I fancy myself somewhat of an expert on how to be successful in grad school.  Now that the new academic year is almost upon us, here are some tips for getting the most out of your grad school experience:

1. At the beginning of the term, make a calendar of important information. Don’t just put it in your phone.  Print out, purchase, or copy an actual, physical calendar.  Write in every class session, note when assignments are due, and – and this is the most important part – note which days and times you will need to block off for study and writing in order to get the assignments completed.  If you have options about which assignments you complete and when, select the assignments that give you the most balanced calendar.  If your instructor offers advance feedback on assignments, write in the due dates for that, too.  Now post it somewhere where you can’t miss it.  The physical act of writing this all out will help you better grasp and remember your workload for the upcoming term.

2. Prior to your first class session, read and annotate the syllabus. Write down questions in the margins, and ask the professor your questions during the first class session.  Under no circumstances should you arrive to the first day of class without having done this.  This is for YOUR benefit, so that you are confident about all class policies and procedures moving forward.

3. Make checklists. Chances are, for each class you’re taking, the professor will have his or her own set of requirements for composing and submitting assignments.  If your professor doesn’t give you a checklist of these requirements, make one for yourself.  This will save you the grief later of having to dig through syllabi and notes to find out if a professor wants your paper saved as a PDF or a DOCX.

4. Make yourself known, for the right reasons. Speak up in class.  Ask questions.  Arrive early and stay a little late.  Don’t be forgettable.  When the time comes for a letter of recommendation to be written, you want to have a whole bunch of professors who all remember what a hard working, professional, and personable student you were.  Think of your courses kind of like a long job interview; you want to make the best impression possible. Now, some students are very memorable for the wrong reasons.  They flip out over tiny things.  They grade grub. They constantly ask for special treatment.  They email the professor weekly to ask when things are due, even though it’s in the syllabus.  Don’t be that student.  Be remembered because you were a thoughtful, hard working student who participated fully in the class.  I write much better letters for B students who worked their tails off and asked questions than I do for A students who coasted through and never spoke up in class.

5. Don’t be afraid to take risks.  Ask your professors if you can assist with their research.  Ask if you can do something above and beyond the norm for an assignment.  Have you been assigned a paper? Ask the professor if you can submit a multimedia presentation instead.  If you can show value and rigor in what you want to do, many professors will allow it.  At worst, they say no.  At best, you end up creating something unique and memorable while still learning the content.

6. Be a leader. Be the one who puts a study group together, or creates a video tutorial for other students who are having trouble.  Volunteer for leadership positions in student organizations.  If an organization doesn’t exist, create it.  Take an active role in improving the educational experience for yourself and your fellow students.

7. Read all the things. Yes, really, all of them.  Be smart about your reading, though.  Has your professor given you a list of key questions for each unit?  Great!  Read those questions FIRST, put each one on top of a big index card, and as you read, jot relevant information down on the appropriate card.  As you read, also make note of any additional questions or connections you have.  When you’re done, on a new sheet of paper, summarize your answer to each question in one or two sentences, and then list your remaining questions and connections.  Bring that with you to class with the goal of having each of those questions answered.  If they don’t get answered in class, stay after and ask the professor to either help you or recommend sources where you can find answers.  Don’t commit the cardinal sin of grad school reading: skimming the text an hour before the class.  You might as well not even bother.  You might remember just enough to fake your way through a class session, but you won’t remember that information long term.  Showing up to a class without doing the readings is scary, but completing a degree program and realizing you don’t actually know all that much is even scarier.  So what if you haven’t planned adequately and are left without enough time to read properly.  Show up to class and get what you can from it, and if the professor asks, or if you’re placed in small groups, ‘FESS UP.  Apologize for not being prepared, and ask if someone can help get you caught up.  Then plan properly for the next week.

8. Give yourself enough time to do it right. Everyone works at their own pace, but here’s my starting recommendation.  Allow 1 hour of reading time for each 15 pages of academic writing you need to read (less for fiction or nonfiction books for the layperson).  Allow 1 hour per 2 pages of academic writing you need to produce.  You may end up needing far more or far less time, but I can guarantee you an hour right before class isn’t going to cut it.

9. Form a support network. When you attend your first class session, look for the other people who are on the right track.  They’re the ones who are sitting near the front of the room (or who are always looking at the camera if you’re online).  They’re the ones actively taking notes and asking questions.  They’re the ones who ask the professor if they can turn in work early for review.  Surround yourself with people who want to be successful and are serious about their education.  Exchange contact information, and consider pooling class notes or proofreading each other’s work.  Go to these people first after you miss a class session and ask what you missed; as a side note, never, ever go to your professor when you’ve missed a class session and utter these words: “Did I miss anything important?” YES, the whole class was important!

10. When you find a professor you click with, stay in touch!  You can still get a lot out of the professor student relationship once a course has ended.  Need a letter of recommendation? Looking for a job?  Encountering a particularly challenging problem in the field? Experiencing success because of something you learned in his or her class?  Reach out to your professor and share that with him or her!  There is nothing I love more than hearing from former students!

This is my best advice for you.  However, there are a lot of different programs out there, with a lot of different professors.  So if you do none of the other things on this list, do this.  On the first day of class, ask your professor:

“What are the top 5 things I can do to get the most out of your class?”

Don’t ask how you can get an A.  That’s an entirely different question!


photo credit: JobyOne via photopin cc

Why I don’t lecture


As a professor in the Rossier School at USC, I occasionally get a question from a student that goes something like this:

“I enrolled in this program so that I could learn from the top-notch USC faculty.  So why am I spending most of my time talking to my classmates instead of listening to YOU tell us what is important for us to learn?”

I appreciate it when a student asks this question, because I think it takes guts to speak up when you think a learning experience isn’t working for you, or isn’t being productive.  I think it is an important question to ask.  WHY, when I have a very expensive and hard-earned set of letters after my name, would I sit back and let my students teach each other?  Why am I not bestowing this wisdom upon them? How are they getting their money’s worth out of a prestigious program from USC, when the professor isn’t the center of attention? Shouldn’t I be lecturing about Bandura and Piaget as so many of my academic predecessors have done?  Lecturing is a time-honored tradition in academia, so why am I not honoring it?

Here’s why.  I am not honoring it precisely because this is a prestigious USC program.  I am not honoring it because I have a great deal of knowledge about effective teaching and learning.  I am instead choosing to honor something different.  I choose instead to honor the idea that intelligent, hard-working students, with the facilitation of a learned professor, can achieve greater understanding of the content than if I were to lecture at them for 2 hours.  I choose to honor the research-supported idea that my expertise is better used in designing high-quality activities and coaching from the sidelines as my students struggle through  (and eventually master) the concepts than reading from a PowerPoint.

Sure, I do a bit of lecture here or there.  I occasionally spend 5 or 10 minutes explaining a particularly difficult concept, or sharing an anecdote about my own experience (my game show failure – below – as an example of the critical difference between “identify” and “recall” in terms of cognition is a favorite of mine).

The focus of each class session, however, is my students.  To that extent, here is my process for designing a class session.

1. Look at my notes from the previous year/term.  If I’ve taught a class previously, I most likely have a solid set of notes that tell me what concepts students struggled with, and which were easy to grasp.  I draw this information from class sessions, but also from out-of-class assignments.  For example, in the behaviorism unit of my Learning Theories course, students tend to struggle with the concept of negative reinforcement, so I always make sure to put that on the list of things to highlight during class.

2. Review the objectives for that unit.  I’ve either done the advance work myself, or another professor has, of making sure that the learning objectives for a given unit are well written and focused around real-world applicability of skills and concepts.  So all I need to do is look over these learning objectives and refresh my memory about what I want these students to be able to accomplish by the end of the unit. I drop these objectives into a PowerPoint.

3. I spend a few minutes jotting down the main points from the unit immediately preceding this one, so that at the beginning of the course I can reference this previous content for my students, thus activating their prior knowledge and preparing them to make connections between units instead of seeing each unit as isolated. I drop these points into the PowerPoint.

4. I come up with 3-4 small group or whole group activities that directly address the learning objectives.  These activities run the gamut from watching and responding to a TED talk (one of my favorites here), to planning a lesson, to responding to discussion questions in a modified jigsaw format, and more.  I put all of these activities into the PowerPoint, and I may use all or only a couple of them during the actual class session, depending on how the session goes.

5. I think through what information students will need to be readily available during these activities.  I then, generally, put that information into easily accessible slides or documents that they can refer to during the activities.  For example, in my unit on Social Cognitive Theory, I make sure to include a slide with the triadic reciprocity model.  Prior to the activity, I briefly explain the slide and encourage students to use it as a reference during their small group work.

6. I think through what students will need to be aware of in terms of assignments for the next unit or even the next few units, and I put some reminders for them into the PowerPoint. I try to always comment on how this week’s content relates to what is ahead, to further reinforce that connection between the units.

During the class session, I follow a few rules based on both my own research and 5 years of teaching in this online setting.

  • Wait as long as necessary for students to respond to questions, and provide clarification if needed.
  • Anything I plan on saying that I feel is important should be written somewhere in the classroom – either in the PowerPoint, the chat pod, or the notes pod.
  • Directions for small group work should be explicit and written, so that groups don’t veer off task.
  • Spend small group time jumping from group to group to observe and facilitate.  Take notes during this time on what is working and what isn’t.
  • BUT, don’t intervene unless it’s absolutely necessary.  Let them struggle, and only step in if they haven’t realized something isn’t working, or if they ask for help.
  • EXCEPT to provide positive reinforcement when students are doing something really well.
  • When students are in small groups, communicate via chat pod first.  When the professor starts talking, the students stop, so the professor jumping into a room, camera and sound on, can easily derail a group.
  • In the whole group, a student’s response ALWAYS comes before my response to a video, task, question, etc.
  • Do what you need to do to meet the learning objectives.  If that means spending 40 minutes on an activity that was supposed to take 20, then do that.  If that means adding or scrapping an activity, do that.  If that means making a whole group activity into a small group activity, or vice versa, do that.
  • As the professor, my role is to guide the students in reaching their own understanding of the content, not to tell them what my understanding of the content is.  As long as they leave the classroom with a conceptually accurate understanding of the content, then the class session has been successful.

This whole approach can make some students (and some professors) uncomfortable.  Most of us have been indoctrinated into the idea that the professor is a font of knowledge from which we should fill our cups.  My perspective, instead, is that professors merely show us how to turn on the faucet, and make sure our cup gets filled.  I’m certainly not a perfect professor, and I have a running list of things that I am trying to improve upon in my teaching. However, I strongly believe, based on both my own experience and on the body of sociocultural, constructivist, and social cognitive research that supports collaborative and student-centered learning, that this is the approach most likely to result in deep, meaningful learning experiences for my students.  In a setting like the one in the MAT@USC, this collaborative, student-centered approach is even more valuable.  It isn’t at all out of the ordinary in our program to have a small group made up of a twenty-something teaching English in South Korea, a mid-fifties retired former LAPD sergeant beginning a second career in the suburbs, a mid-thirties teacher’s aide in the United Arab Emirates, and a mid-forties veteran classroom teacher in an American high needs school.  All bring unique and valuable perspectives to what is happening in the classroom, and if the class session focused around my experiences and education, those critically valuable voices would be lost.  Taking a student-centered approach makes every single class session unique, and catered to the needs of the students in that session.

Fellow professors of education, what approach do you take to teaching your preservice teachers?  Preservice teachers, what approaches to teaching and learning do you find to be the most effective?


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