Friday, December 18, 2009

Iowa Core, in a Nutshell

I've had this conversation enough that it is time I posted it. For many educators, the Iowa Core Curriculum comes across as more confusing than it really is. Partly, that is due to problems with a roll-out, and another part due to questions about mandates and timelines. With non-educators (and many educators would openly admit, with them too), there is too much jargon that comes across as fluff, the eduspeak of those of us who have worked in education for a long time.

But at its heart, the Iowa Core Curriculum is really simple. Its really solid. And, there's little argument about it, even though there is consensus we could do a better job on these things. Here is the Iowa Core Curriculum, boiled down to seven basics:

1. We have to always be changing.
Because, the world is always changing. And we have tended to say that we're pretty good at what we do, which can create complacency. Eduspeak calls this the culture of continuous improvement, but basically it means we can't rest on our laurels. We have a process where we get better, going on all the time.

2. Change has to be based on data.
We can't make changes willy nilly. We have to seek data so that we can make a good decision. And most importantly, we have to know what kinds of data we seek. It isn't always the ITEDs. In fact, it usually shouldn't be. As schools, we have to be better at a) defining what we're after, b) knowing how you measure that, c) actually going out and measuring it, and d) interpreting it to make a decision... as opposed to twisting it to reinforce the decision we have already made.

3. We teach what we should be teaching.
The word thrown out here is alignment. The Iowa Core gives us essential skills and concepts for students to master. The problem is not that those are different than district's written standards and benchmarks... they usually aren't. The problem is, a district's standards and benchmarks are different than what actually goes on in their classrooms. We need to actually look in our classrooms and determine what is actually taught, what is "covered", and what is assumed to be covered by a different grade level.

4. We have good instruction and assessment when we teach, and we know what that means.

The Iowa Core identifies 5 characteristics of effective instruction. But even here, there isn't anything magical about these terms. They refer to teaching that is constructivist in learning. Deep learning. Less topics, higher-order thinking. More focus on analysis and creativity, less on rote memorization. Ongoing feedback, students driving the learning. Authentic learning environments, activities in the real world. And differentiation around a student's abilities, interests and prior knowledge.

Teachers have heard these buzzwords for years... the Iowa Core isn't new here. What's key is calibration. Can teachers look at a lesson being taught and identify if it is higher-order or not, how it can be more authentic, etc.

5. We develop 21st century skills in all that we do

Perhaps the biggest of buzzwords with the Iowa Core -- 21st century skills -- are actually well known. Show teachers a clip of a good lesson and they'll be able to identify the skills taking place, be they creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, communication, innovation, etc. The problem is we see them as a discreet skill, as though we need a separate lesson on creativity in our curriculum.

Rather, they should be the lens by which we look at all that we do. You've got a unit on polynomials, or structuring a paragraph, or the process of osmosis. Great. How good is that unit at developing creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, etc? How can you make it better at those? Each lesson, regardless of content area or age level, should have that as the implied focus, the universal outcome.

6. We need to work more closely with those outside school
And, that's not just communication. Are we actually collaborating with others, partnering with others? Parents, community groups, local businesses, other schools, government institutions, the list goes on and on. We need to admit as educators that we can't teach students the best by creating an insular environment. We teach better when we bring in external "teachers".

7. We need good leadership
None of the other things happen without good leaders. And leadership doesn't always come solely from administration. We need to be systematic about building leadership... it won't happen just on its own. We need to adopt attitudes of balanced leadership, giving other people the chance to lead in the areas of their strengths.

No one is saying we need poor leadership in schools, of course. But when we talk about a district that doesn't have quality leadership, we tend to throw up our hands. Not much we can do there.

That's the wrong attitude to take. Every school needs quality leadership. Therefore, we need to not just pay this lip service, but actually invest time and money into leadership development. Administrators and teachers alike. The Iowa Core emphasizes to districts that this is a priority.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Google Sketchup & Build Your Town

As I mentioned before, Google is partnering with the DE and AEAs to provide Google Sketchup to Iowa schools.

For teachers interested in using Google Sketchup but unsure of a hook to your classroom, you should know about the Model Your Town Contest from Google. The contest asks students to design 3d renderings of buildings in their towns via Sketchup, and then submit those for Google Earth.

Grant Wood AEA has taken the lead on this and is offering training for teachers in Google Earth. You can check out their website for more details about the project. Heartland AEA is developing an online course for Google Sketchup as well. Those interested to know more can contact me or Denise Krefting at the Heartland office.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

More from Will Richardson

Some more thoughts from Will:

On the Youtube video below: "We have now the tools where students can go, access the broadest of networks, asking help from strangers they have never met before. Youtube can be a method to get direct feedback on your performance."

"80% of students are involved in social networking, and an overwhelming majority of those (probably 95%) are not taught how to engage in it by an adult. You as an educator HAVE to teach my kids how to interact with adults online... its how they will learn in this world."

"Schools need to be learning communities not teaching communities."

"A new graduation requirement we should have: students will be able to create, navigate and grow their own personal learning network."

"The strength of a network is in diversity. Not diversity as we usually measure it, but diversity of ideas."

"I want my kids to fail safely somewhere using social media than never get the opportunity to interact with the world"

"Everywhere I go, teachers are fixated with units. Why? Why does everything have to be in a unit? We have a unit for this and a unit for that? The reality is, learning can't always be chunked. It's not units, it's the way we do things, our culture of learning."

Tim Limbert, technology director at Newell-Fonda, has an excellent write-up of the day

Jeff Dicks, superintendent at Newell-Fonda, reflects on the day and the implications for his district. Good quote of his to highlight:

I assure you, Newell-Fonda is listening to this conversation. Our laptop program was a great step in providing devices for each 9-12 student. Now we are seeing that is just a piece of the puzzle, and more important, we need to create a curriculum to support our access.

Scott McLeod's writeup for the day, parts one, two, and three.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Will Richardson: "You need to share more"

I'm still percolating thoughts from yesterday's session. Here are my biggest three.

We have a lot of enthusiasm from the represented districts about teaching in the 21st century. They want to gear instruction towards project-based learning. They want to embed technology. They want to prioritize creativity, innovation, and critical thinking. They want to connect with other schools. And, this enthusiasm--this willingness to try and risk failure--is absolutely critical for a district to be successful.

But, there is perhaps a perception of the districts that their involvement with a one-to-one means they are truly teaching in the 21st century. Will repeatedly mentioned purchasing the digital technology and using it is actually very easy. It is transforming the curriculum that is difficult. He asked where districts taught Wikipedia, or taught about sexting. He asked about authentic assessments and internships. And, the educators there realized, there is a way to go.

And this is a problem. When the Newell-Fonda's, Okoboji's, and Van Meter's of the state try new things, they don't have a model or blueprint to look at. They have to build the plane while flying it. And in addition, given their relative position to other districts, it does look like they are doing things very well.

These districts have to re-calibrate their understanding of effective teaching. No longer can they compare themselves to "business-as-usual" instruction that you might see in other Iowa districts... they have surpassed that. They now need to look at schools like the New Tech High school or Science Leadership Academy. They have to see how these schools go beyond having computers and using projects to fully improving instruction and assessment.

We have a lot of enthusiasm from the districts... much of the conversation was driven by them. But there wasn't much conversation from DE or AEA consultants (myself included). You could make too much of this, but the contrast with who was participating was striking.

My thought is this: Not every school has the leader who can vision schools functioning in the way Will Richardson talks about. We need statewide leadership to help promote one-to-one initiatives and not merely cheer lead. I'm not sure that has happened up until this point.

The biggest takeaway was Will's reflection, invaluable as an outside viewpoint looking in. He mentioned that the current work of the schools represented, and their leadership they are providing, is excellent. But, it is pockets of excellence at this point. Much as a district has an excellent teacher here and an excellent teacher there, if there are districts doing great things, it was apparent that they were in isolation from everyone else.

Will asked several superintendents how other people knew what they were doing, and the response was typically "Come visit us" or "Look at our website". Which isn't active sharing... it's passive sharing. A willingness to share doesn't mean anyone is going to do it. And this has been the downfall of our statewide efforts many times before.

Will mentioned Clay Shirky's analysis of what constitutes a community. Shirky writes that while networking and connecting is important, people mistake that for a community. True community starts with sharing, then moves to collaboration, then to collective action. Collective action is the place we want to be in Iowa, where we are moving forward all schools. How will we start the sharing?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Will Richardson visiting with Iowa Leaders today

Through CASTLE, I will be joining about 35 other people from education, administration, AEAs, the DE, higher education, and business to visit with Will Richardson. Will, who is a renowned blogger and author about 21st century education, will be addressing what leaders are currently doing to move forward education in Iowa... and what they should be doing more of.

I will admit, I'm very excited for the day. Scott McLeod is doing an excellent job of networking leaders in Iowa, and this day will be a chance for those leaders to connect and stretch each other's thoughts. Add to that Richardson, who stretches educator's thoughts for a living.

For those unfamiliar with Will Richardson, here are some of my previous posts about his work. He is an educational thinker I recommend every district put on their staff reading list.

Will Richardson
Your PLN
21st Century Skills = Fluff?
Using Wikipedia in the Classroom
The Digital Curriculum, Student Research, and Diigo
Paperless at Inservice
Pageflakes and iGoogle

Image from

Our chat space for the day
Our etherpad for the day
Our hashtag for the day

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

You never write anymore

I see it's been almost 2 weeks since the blog was updated, which I can only partly blame on Thanksgiving. Truth is, I have a list of topics that need addressing, but I haven't gotten to them.

The reason there haven't been as many posts recently is a sudden flurry in online content development projects for Iowa that I've been involved in. They include:

• An Iowa Core foundations module
• An online course for Google Sketchup & Earth
• An course on instructional design (one of several to be offered as part of a sequence of courses available for would-be online instructors)
• A repository of information and networking space for 1:1 schools in Iowa

The one I am most excited about right now is an online course Toy Waterman is focusing on, which uses Atomic Learning's individualized assessments. Teachers can take the assessment, and Atomic Learning will prescribe technology tutorials that are best for the teacher. What's more, the instructor of the course can prescribe their own tutorials.

The vision for this course is that districts will be able to host their own session of the course, not needing a teacher as much as a facilitator (the course is self-paced). So, when districts are struggling to figure out how to provide technology professional development during the year, especially individualized professional development, they can implement this course, and have teachers walk through the steps to improve their professional practice.

It goes beyond Atomic Learning. Toy is integrating resources on digital citizenship & internet safety to help teachers prepare lessons around those topics for students (a requirement for districts with e-rate), as well as an activity where participants apply their technological pedagogy to a lesson that integrates 21st century skills (by looking at the Iowa Core essential skills and concepts).

More to come on each.