Friday, February 1, 2013

The Purpose (AND LIMITS) of Models

Part 1: The Purpose of Models

I've been thinking about the power of models all week.  We have people modeling innovative practices, admonishments for administrators to be the modelers, teacher-leaders as models, and models for the newest reform of Iowa Schools.  Everyone needs to be able to make their ideas relevant and reasonable, and a model hits the best attributes of analogy, relevance, and critical ideas.

Models are a must, whether they are a 2-D photo, a drawing, touring Google Earth, or a mock guitar made of fishing line, PVC pipe and weights.  Models can be drawings, mock-ups, dioramas, or they can be digital.  They build on trends, or suggest possible futures.  How many kids get the chance to look at the guts of an actual atom? To see how CERN or other super colliders work?  How do you have a safe way to show kids beta or gamma decay?   Models to help kids explore, explain, suggest,  THINK.   They will analyze.  They will discuss.  The teacher moves along the exploration of ideas when there's a great model-and that's a much more rewarding and engaging job for professionals.

For the past week, my students explored the Tragedy of the Commons and population trends.

Population as a Type of Commons

I didn't need to lecture.   I teach intelligent kids.  They CAN think critically about the future. They formed their own opinions, and shared their solutions.   How powerful is that?

On Thursday, I talked with other chemistry teachers on Twitter about shifting away from lectures on #globalchem   Problem-solving requires more than feeding kids passive information.   It requires visualization and context. 


Today, my physics kids kept working with motion patterns.   We have used motion detectors to gather data, we look for mathematical representations, we graph, we walk.

Kinematic Motion Patterns

The model isn't the end.  It is the focus for learning.  The application of knowledge--how the gearing works on a transmission, or how splits are measured for a runner, or how different rates of acceleration affect total distance traveled--that's the real knowledge.  That's the prize I want my students to aim for in the end.

Part 2: Is it the Right Model?

But there is a problem with models, too.  And that problem seems to be getting in the way as I look at educational reform in Iowa this year.

What! you exclaim?  Look at all the collaboration that went into this.  The ISEA VIVA report spent hours which focuses on decentralized leadership.  It's redefining possible roles for teacher leaders.  Terry Branstad says we need teacher-leaders in each school.  We need new evaluations.  Isn't that going to reform education?

Maybe. It has many of the right conclusions:  use teacher skills, pay them for their expertise.  Unfortunately, it's based on the wrong model--a local factory that operates from 8-4 on one shift, with product outputs.  I want a network of partners focused on providing solutions that meet the needs of the students on a flexible time platform.  Isn't that the model we should look for to transform, rather than reform, schools?  Don't get me wrong--there will continue to be local schools, but they need to look, and act, differently.

Seth Godin nailed it in his latest article.   We are like the publishing industry as the internet came in and took away the value of paper. In the meantime, content has moved to free and open access.  Look at just five of the innovations that have worked in Iowa in the last five years:

  1. AIW(Authentic Intellectual Schools)/Japanese Lesson study, which allows teachers to plan, teach, and reflect on how to get better.  This process of metacognitive reflection is one of the most transformative tools available for teachers.  Check with the Dubuque, Collins-Maxwell, Griswold, South O'Brien....    FIVE cohorts have gone through this process, and yet this year's funding process has no funding to leverage expansion and collaborations among schools. 
  2. The IRIS project, which developed RTI/mentoring for struggling kids.  ICLE, the Daggett organization, used this data to define Effective Practices.  Ask Union School District or Bellevue about how this changed things.   Twenty schools took part in this project, and have knowledge to share about what struggling kids need.   Most likely, it's not more seat time.
  3. The IACOPI project, which stopped developing content curriculum by district and instead reached out to networks of educators across the state, transforming f2f interactions into blended combinations of collaboration with other students, other schools, and online.  More than 200 educators across the state stopped acting in isolation, and leveraged social media for personal growth,  digital interactions and models.  If you're on Twitter, you probably know twenty or more of them.
  4. We need a better definition of teacher leader that sees Iowa as a system of schools, rather than self-sufficient LEAs.  Look, for example at the New Teacher Center approach at Grant Wood AEA.  It has programs for new teachers, as well as mentors.  Mentors are taken out of the classroom for two years, teachers them to be great mentors and then allows them to work with 15 teachers across the area, building networks across LEAs. At that point, they go back into the classroom, and they are better teachers. The Center for Teaching Quality also has teacher-leaders, where teacherpreneurs are in the classroom for half-a-day, and are involved in improving their profession half-a-day. And Jim Knight's ideas on instructional coaching have been used by schools (and every AEA) across the state for integration specialist that can help teachers improve.  We have possibilities, but the current bill limits steps to local LEAs only and doesn't provide  collaborations from regional innovators--it provides dollars for loyalists who get along with everyone.  What a tragic move for small schools, which might only have one government teacher, or one industrial tech teacher or one world language instructor. The legislation currently on the table is too narrow.
  5. Competency-Based Education, which moves the bar away from the endless chase for letter grades and looks at the real prize:  knowledge.   This system has been used by elementary schools for longer than I can remember.   On an upper level, it's been hybridized with traditional grades, including the Archdiocese of Dubuque's focus on Mastery Learning in the early 1990s (Wahlert HS and Beckman HS).  Other schools followed with the CLI Model in the mid-2000s and onward (Glenwood, Independence and West Delaware), not moving kids out of a class until all the targets were reached.   It its current incarnation, Solon Community is redefining grades entirely.  At least they are moving towards long-tail education model that understands that teachers are not the font of all knowledge.
Transformation requires picking the right driver.

The bright spot in this year's legislative plan is the expansion of Iowa Learning Online, which provides extended access for kids and moves away from corporate solutions that send dollars out of Iowa to places like Connections Academy.  It's a homegrown solution focused on local coaches teamed with quality curriculum and technology integration. It leverages the excellence and work ethic of Iowa students and teachers.   It utilizes highly-qualified teachers for shortage areas.  It provides a type of differentiation for a kid that learns differently, or learns best independently.  It's project-based.

Do we really want to transform Iowa into greatness with innovations that work? Become a system of schools?  How would THAT model look?

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