Friday, September 18, 2009

Wagner for those who missed it

Dr. Tony Wagner's presentation at the Polk County Convention Center on Wednesday was very well attended; packed actually (I almost didn't have a place to sit for lunch). Best about it was the high level of LEA participation. My former home district of Decorah sent a delegation to make the 3.5 hour trip to hear Wagner, and visiting with a couple of them, they said it was well worth it.

That's the critical piece. Those at the DE and the AEAs are familiar with the Wagner's work, but visiting with several teachers and administrators, the general consensus was that LEA educators were not. They had heard him mentioned and maybe had seen a list of his 7 survival skills, but had not read his books.

So for those educators on the front lines of changing our schools, hearing Wagner speak candidly about what schools need to do to change, giving many concrete examples of schools doing it now, and not slipping into "the sky is falling... we're so far behind" panic that other speakers are guilty of, was a potential vision-crystallizing event.

Unfortunately... not every LEA educator (or district for that matter) was able to attend. So, here's a primer of the basics of what he said, much of which can be grabbed by reading The Global Achievement Gap and Change Leadership.

There is a convergence in the skills needed for college, the work force, or to be a productive citizen... we don't prepare student for one or the other now. Those 7 survival skills, or the lack of them, is leading to higher dropout rates in high school and college (the US has slipped from #1 in the world at college completion in 1995 down to #13 in 2005). This is because students are not "college and work ready" when completing high school (white & Asian students = 37%, Aftrican American students = 20%, and Hispanic students = 16%).

Students in this day are motivated differently than students in past generations. That isn't to say they aren't motivated. They are motivated differently. Students are using the web for extending friendships, self-directed learning, and for self-expression. They are constantly connected (except in school), and have an accompanying need for instant gratification. And students are less interested in doing things for money as they are to making a difference... doing worthwhile work.

  1. Critical thinking/problem solving
  2. Collaboration across networks
  3. Agility and adaptability
  4. Initiative and entrepreneurialism
  5. Effective oral and written communication
  6. Accessing and analyzing information
  7. Curiosity and imagination
Not increased content standards, more testing, or smaller schools, at least not by themselves. They won't lead to improved performance alone.

Speaking of alone, teachers cannot work with little to no feedback on the quality of their lessons.

Wagner says "The challenge of change leadership is to create a 'system' for continuous improvement of teachers' lessons and supervision in a common vision of the performance standards students must meet."

1. Holding ourselves accountable for what matters most. Not focusing on AYP when graduation and college completion is more critical for student success than "proficiency". And using assessments that measure the 7 survival skills instead of content knowledge.

2. Doing the new work. Using constructivist learning strategies that emphasize the survival skills. This includes requiring all students to do internships or group service projects, because the learning is authentic.

3. Doing the new work... in new ways. Developing teacher collaborative teams, like professional learning communities. Utilizing video to tape teaching, and then reviewing the video to concretely see what's working and what isn't. And assuring every student has an adult advocate driven to make sure the child succeeds.

1. Use Data Strategically. This includes disaggregating the data and keeping it simple, but also dramatizing it to make real. Wagner shared the story of the "living bar graph", where an educator took 10 students with her to various community meetings and had 7 sit down to illustrate the point of the number who weren't ready for college. By doing so, community members would frequently come up to the educator on the street and ask the question "how are we doing this year? Are we improving?"

2. Create Consensus on Priorities through Dialogue. This means talking about what is important for students to know and be able to do when they graduate, and in light of that, what are the schools strengths and weaknesses. What should the school do to meet those needs?

3. Collect Qualitative Data. This means asking students and recent graduates for their perspective, especially on the schools strengths and weaknesses, what would be some things they would change, and what they feel good teaching looks like.

Wagner touched on several other topics which I'll touch base on in the future, including:
  • Unpacking what we mean by "critical thinking"
  • Calibrating "rigor" so that all educators have an understanding of what makes a lesson effective
  • How to use videotaping to improve professional practice
  • The purposes and best practices of a "learning walk"
  • Holding focus groups of students, and the questions to ask
  • Effective constructivist learning (avoiding the meaningless posterboard project)

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