John Spencer (@spencerideas) gave one of the best analogies I've ever heard last night on #IMMOOC, comparing the love of baseball to school. It was one of those moments where I thought to myself, “that describes the state of our educational system exactly.” John’s analogy was:
“If someone had given me a rulebook, I never would have fallen in love with the game of baseball. I had to watch it, experience it and participate in it."
This analogy causes me to think what schools have become, vs. what they need to be. I love innovation and innovative ideas. I have developed a passion for not just being innovative, but being better. I want to be better each class period, better each day, and better each year. Even with the drive for innovation we see emerging in education, I feel as there is a truth in education that has been somewhat lost. This truth is that, at its core, our schools need to be a place for students to have an experience unlike any other. Every other function and purpose of school will fall in behind the experience we create for kids. As I pursue this, I have had to ask myself hard questions, such as:
I am a firm believer this experience starts in the classroom, and spreads throughout the school. I cannot create an environment students want to be in if I marry my content to traditional methods day in and day out. Students know the game of school, and its time teachers introduce them to a new game with new experiences and new rules. For too long, we have only given students the rulebook without allowing them to experience the wonder and awe school can and should provide. This is where the concept of design thinking comes in, and the freedom each teacher has to create his or her own framework. The goal is to provide experience. If we provide the experience, students will fall in love with the process.
SHRINK THE WORLD
One of the things that has really become a focus for me in my classroom and with my students is the idea of shrinking the world. There is so much truth in the idea that tech does not necessarily equal innovation, and that just because it is new doesn’t make it better. However, there is also the reality that our students now have access to the entire world at their fingertips. With just the push of a button, students now have access to information, resources, and connections on the other side of the globe. I would absolutely encourage you to leverage this with your kids. Allow them to use their phones to document learning. I started doing this in my Science class, and students began putting together some amazing things. When doing research, talk to them about resources such as YouTube, social media, and blogs. Give students the freedom to create in the ways and with the apps they are good with. These types of things are the building blocks for providing awesome experiences, because it makes school part of the student’s real world. Don’t just do new things, do better things… but also leverage the tools students use everyday.
For the past week, I have really been reflecting on what it means to have an Innovators Mindset in the classroom. I am about one week removed from attending our state’s Technology in Education conference (ASTE), and listening to the best keynote address I’ve ever heard, courtesy of George Couros (@gcouros). George’s words, much like his book The Innovators Mindset, are full of inspiration and motivation. As an educator who wants to be non-traditional and continually think outside the box, I found myself asking what it meant to be innovative, and if I was innovative in my classroom. By definition, to be innovative is to introduce new ideas that are original and creative in thinking. I also think that any idea you can use to first engage students, and then empower them to higher thinking, is an innovative idea. I am admittedly just scratching the surface of what it means, and how, to be innovative. There is still so much for me to learn and put into practice; however, there are some things I have been trying to incorporate with my students to help them unlock their own innovators mindset. The one thing George Couros said that has stayed with me is, “the next big game-changer in education is not innovative technology, it is innovative educators”.
I am convinced one of the most innovative things you can do is build relationships and connect with kids. If being innovative means to introduce new and original ideas, then having positive relationships with your students are a pre-cursor to this. I believe that your classroom environment is first a product of your relationships with students, and second a product of the things you do and opportunities you give students. These two elements form a dynamic classroom, and go hand-in-hand, but do not undervalue the importance of first building relationships. Students are innovative by nature, and often times are creating and doing awesome things outside of school, whether through video, social media, video games, or other outlets. Positive relationships combined with classroom innovation result in genuine curiosity, genuine expectation, and genuine freedom to explore. This dynamic alone will curb a great deal of “fears” about digital citizenship and discipline, simply because of the environment you have created. The most innovative technology in the classroom will ultimately have little staying power with students without a teacher who has built relationships and shown students they want to give them freedom to create, explore, and innovate. Students continually receive feedback, just as teachers do, and I believe they respond more positively when the feedback is “I trust you and want to help unlock your creativity and passion”.
Recent project where students were to document their understanding of the structure of an atom. They were given the choice to use any device or means they wanted. When given choices to be innovative, students can do amazing things.
One of the biggest “buzz-phrases” in education right now is “meet students where they are”. This is true in many ways, including both meeting kids where they are academically and also where they are in the real world. Teachers can’t focus on empowering students without first engaging them. Over time, I have discovered the power behind student engagement, and how it is intertwined with relationships, classroom environment, and empowering students. Lately, the questions I have been asking myself have moved from “how can I bring innovation to my content” – to – “how can I bring content to various, innovative techniques?” Often times, in order to answer that question, I have to take risks in my classroom.
Risk-taking in the classroom is not something that should be feared, but rather something that should be embraced. I have taken quite a few risks over the last few months, whether it was a new activity, or a new digital tool we were going to try. I have learned how important it is to be honest and upfront with your students. I have often told them, “we are going to try this, because I think it could be really awesome… and if it doesn’t work, we’re going to try something else that could be really awesome.” Because I have built strong relationships, I am comfortable having those conversations with my students. It enforces to them that I want them to have an awesome experience in my classroom and that it is important to me they WANT to be there. Here are some possible classroom risks that you can take, and some of which I have done the past few months:
There are so many more ways to innovate and take risks in the classroom than what I have just mentioned. You are likely thinking of new stuff everyday, and wondering “will that work with my kids, because it could be awesome”. I would encourage you to take that risk. Creating a culture of risk taking in your classroom can often times be the key to unlocking students creativity and innovative mindsets. Go into this understanding that not every risk you take is going to pay off. There will be times when something seems like a good idea, and it completely falls flat. The awesome thing about creating a culture of risk-taking is that your students will eventually begin throwing out ideas and new things to try. Although that idea may frighten some, that’s exactly when you know students are engaged, taking charge of their learning, and pursuing their passions. An innovative mindset is always asking, “is there a better way?”
I dedicated my first blog post to the importance of becoming a “connected” educator. I will keep beating this drum as long as I can, mainly due to the difference it has made in my own life. Becoming a connected educator five months ago completely changed my paradigm and professional trajectory. Of all the benefits being connected has had for me, one of the most important has been the push to be innovative. We are truly affected by the environment we are in and who we surround ourselves with. Social media outlets, such as Twitter, have allowed me to surround myself with other educators who have an innovative mindset. Sure, there are tons of ideas, activities, and plans you can “steal” from each other when you are connected. However, the bigger thing for me is the growth mindset and motivation that is just a “push of a button” away. Every time I participate in a Twitter #edchat or read a blog post from a member of my #PLN (Professional Learning Network), I come away motivated and eager to continue to learn and grow. I have found I take this mindset into my classroom, and it is often the inspiration for many of the risks I take. I love reading about new ideas, techniques, practices, and risks that people are taking with their students. While I often times see something I like and try with my kids, I ALWAYS, walk away thinking about what I can do differently and how I can be more innovative in my classroom. We live in a time when we literally have the entire world at our fingertips, and continued growth and innovation demands we take advantage of that.
It’s important to me that my first blog address the issue of being connected and how it has changed my paradigm. My journey started 3 or 4 months ago, when I attended a conference where Jimmy Casas (@casas_jimmy) and Glenn Robbins (@Glennr1809) were speaking. Since joining Twitter at that conference, I have made more connections, gotten more ideas and feedback, and shared more successes than I did in the first 12 years of my teaching career. Although I will be forever grateful to Jimmy and Glenn for sharing their passion and motivating me to reach higher, the connections I have made, and continue to make, along the way are what define my journey. I am now more motivated than ever before. I have developed a growth mindset that remained dormant for way too long. That motivation and growth mindset have ultimately filtered down to the most important part of my job, my students.
Being Connected Creates Motivation
If there is one thing I have learned over the last three months, it’s that being connected leads to motivation. Nothing creates the desire to be great more than reading about what other great educators are doing. As my PLN grows, the motivation to make a difference and be great grows with it. When I read what other educators are doing, something sparks in me and I am motivated to bring those ideas into my classroom. Being connected makes me want to be a better teacher, leader, and in my case, parent. As I participate in different #edchats or read blogs by others, I am gripped by an inspiration that I often cannot find anywhere else. Because of the connections I have made on Twitter, I have developed a deep desire to break away from the status quo. Interacting with others via outlets such as Twitter and various blogs has given me the tools to avoid complacency. As a teacher, I impart something everyday to my students, whether intended or not. If I allow myself to remain in a state of complacency, then I will ultimately create an environment of complacency. By staying motivated both personally and professionally, I create an environment of motivation within my classroom.
Being Connected Creates A Growth Mindset
For a long time, I was under the illusion that I had a growth mindset. That’s not saying that I did not want to become a better teacher, but rather that any growth mindset I thought I had was actually lying dormant. As you become more connected, and find yourself becoming more motivated, a growth mindset will naturally begin to take shape. Becoming more connected has motivated me to grow as a teacher and leader. Twitter has allowed me to develop a unique PLN, which is vital to developing and maintaining a growth mindset. On a personal level, I have begun to develop a mindset of being both disciplined and intentional. As I see others who are intentional about how they spend their time, I am inspired to do the same. While most people understand the importance of personal growth, there is a unique desire and motivation to be great that occurs when you connect yourself with other like-minded people.
Professionally, becoming a connected educator has become one of the single most contributing factors to the development of my growth mindset. Interacting with my PLN, reading various blogs, and participating in #edchats on Twitter has instilled a desire in me to get better. I have a desire to grow within my role as teacher and leader. I am a firm believer that you cannot promote growth in others unless you are growing yourself. As a teacher, I cannot expect my students to embrace a growth mindset unless they see it modeled. If I want to help bring a change in the culture and trajectory of my school, then I must embrace change and be willing to grow. Being a connected educator, by nature, will continually create a growth mindset.
Being Connected Benefits Your Students
The motivation and growth mindset you begin to develop as a connected educator will ultimately filter down to your students. As I am motivated personally and professionally, I have seen a distinct difference in how I approach my classroom everyday. I am more inspired to see students, not only succeed, but enjoy the process of learning. Listening to and reading about what other connected teachers are doing in their class naturally promotes a desire to “raise the bar” for my students. Sharing my student’s successes, as well as reading about other student successes, pushes me to provide students with the best experience possible. Through Twitter, I have discovered different lessons and ideas that my students absolutely love! Not only do I get ideas from other educators, but also from places such as Twitter, blogs, and other organizations.
Becoming more connected has created a natural accountability for the environment I create in my classroom. The willingness to take risks that I have developed as a connected educator is vital to my student’s success. Student engagement is essential for continued growth, and being connected positions me to maximize engagement with my students.
Being Connected is a Choice
Sitting at that conference back in October, I was faced with a choice about becoming connected. I could either join Twitter, or not. To not get involved would have meant to keep the status quo, and the status quo was comfortable. Growth is impossible without change, and for me to grow, I knew something had to change. Those initial choices I made have created a desire to continually get better at what I do.
You can’t force others to choose to be connected. Live your passion. Make the choice to pursue greatness. Create environments that students can’t wait to be a part of. Let your choice to be a connected educator and leader lead to greatness. When others ask what drives and motivates you to do those things, tell your story. As you share your story, always remember, the most important connection you will ever make as a teacher is with your students.
Joe Robison is a Middle School Science Teacher in Valdez, Alaska. He is passionate about his family, his faith, and his job. His desire is to be a leader for his family, and an innovator in the workplace. He enjoys spending time with his beautiful wife, Wylie, and their five small children. You can follow Joe on Twitter @joerobison907.