3 Tips to Help Students Rise Above the Echo Chamber

I recently had the opportunity to volunteer again as an exhibition mentor at my old IB PYP school. And, as usual, the children were brilliant, brimming with ideas and enthusiasm for taking the lead on their unit of inquiry.

But over the last few years, I’ve started to notice a puzzling trend: no matter how much research and exploring the kids do, and no matter how many counter-articles I suggest, the basic opinion they start with is often the opinion they end with (plus some charts and figures to support it). Why?

How do we help kids make the shift from searching out facts that support their existing opinions (something the internet is all-too-willing to give us all), to instead searching out the truth, even when the truth is surprising?

Here are 3 thoughts I’ve had since the end of this year’s exhibition (that hopefully I can better employ in mentoring next year!!). I would love to hear your suggestions, as well!

1. Model research that responds to the unexpected.

My first thought was on how we model research to our students. Most teachers extensively model how to find answers to their questions. But I wonder how often we show them what it looks like when we encounter an article or chart that assert alternative possibilities? Do we think aloud as we digest this new information, or do we discard it in our search for the information that backs us up? If the latter, I think we’re missing an important opportunity to teach students to be open to new ideas.

2.  Employ visible thinking protocols — especially “I used to think…Now I think…

This is a kind of mental scaffolding exercise to help students break down their thinking and how it is evolving. Reflecting not just what our opinions are, but on why we have them is crucial for healthy metacognition for us all!

3. Play the “Devil’s Advocate.”

I have had a tendency as my students’ mentor to help them find articles to help them find out more about their topic — which generally involves research on their existing opinions. But I have come to realize that what they need more from me as a mentor is just the opposite — to share resources that directly contradict their claims, encouraging deeper digging and questioning.

Videos like these from Futurism come to mind, especially since they start with phrases like “Despite what you might have heard…”

Genetically Modified Food Is a Great Advancement

Three Major Reasons Automation Won’t Leave You Unemployed

In this information age, it’s easy for all of us to get stuck in our own echo chambers of opinion. It’s crucial we help our students learn to rise above it now.

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An Open Teacher Appreciation Letter #TeacherMom

I dreaded kindergarten from the day my oldest was born.

I knew, even before the years of careful nurturing had even begun, that the day would come to let go. That I would go from knowing what she did every moment of every day to being totally in the dark for large swaths of time.

That darkness terrified me. Because no matter how much we chatted about her day, I knew much would remain undisclosed — even significant moments that she might not recognize yet as significant.

Now that she has almost finished first grade — her first year of being at school for a full school day — my fears have been greatly assuaged, first and foremost thanks to her phenomenal teachers that have taken the time to communicate and show they care.

So, especially with National Teacher Appreciation Week coming up next week, I’d like to say, thank you. 

Thank you for leveraging the most useful forms of communication to help us keep in touch, from notes home to Facebook Messenger (I especially loved the occasional photos of all things random, quirky, and awesome).

Thank you for that time you expressed a hope she was feeling better when she’d had a tough day.

Thank you for being understanding of the sometimes-graphic descriptions of all her experiences with vomit that she thoroughly enjoyed sharing. With the whole class.

Thank you for being there for her in all those endless details and difficulties of being 6 years old, from figuring out buying milk to learning to sit at the carpet to dealing with hurt feelings — all while teaching her to become more responsible for herself.

Thank you for seeing and nurturing her passions — even when it meant creating an extra folder just for her to organize her 20 page personal narrative.

Thank you. As teachers, we often refer to our students as “our kids.” Thank you for meaning it, and treating her as your own. And thank you to teachers everywhere who do the same.

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A How We Express Ourselves [In the 21st Century] Provocation

This is part of a series of of IB PYP units of inquiry provocations. For more, click here.

The IB PYP unit of “How We express ourselves centers around “An exploration of the way which we discover and express our nature, ideas, feelings, beliefs, and values through language and the arts.”

When I taught at a PYP school, I associated this mainly with communication mediums such as painting and poetry. But the more I think about how our world is evolving, the more I realize that “how we express ourselves” has boundless possibilities.

And it’s not just the fact that we have a large volume of choices that matters. It’s that, if we have a more open mind toward change, that volume can allow our children to shape their self-expression/communication –and with it, their futures — in ways that are unprecedented and literally world-changing.

With that in mind (and a bit of humor below), here are 3 resources to help your students inquire into the nature of how we express ourselves in a 21st century connected world.

Resource #1: The Moxie Institute‘s “The Adaptable Mind”

“The skills we need most in today’s world, in any profession, boil down to being human. Basically the qualities that machines don’t have…We’ve arrived at a time when your human skills are just as important as your knowledge.” (Curiosity, Creativity, Initiative, Multi-disciplinary thinking, Empathy).

Resource #2: “Rosie Revere, Engineer” by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts

picture via Amazon
picture via Amazon

Resource #3: Pixar’s “La Luna”

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“Taking Context Seriously” to Cultivate Student Ownership

In the video below (recently shared by AJ Juliani in my PLN — thanks, AJ!), Todd Rose shares the following story (starting at 22:07).

In the 1960’s scientists were puzzled why the infant reflex to “walk” disappears after around 2 months, later returning when they are ready to walk at around a year old. Based on a method of averages, they determined it had to do with the fact that our brains mature and therefore suppress that reflex. This belief ended up in pediatrics books, which landed babies getting checked for developmental brain delays and remediation if their reflex didn’t go away by 2 months. Fortunately, Esther Thelen later proved this false; by looking at individuals rather than averages, and by varying the contexts with each of these babies, she discovered that at 2 months of age, infants’ thighs simply get chubbier, rendering their legs too heavy to lift that way.

“So here we have this really complicated story about brain maturation that we’re sending kids off to remediation off of, when it turns out it has nothing to do with that, just by taking context seriously.”

As an educator, the phrase, “taking context seriously” jumps out to me. We know we are in the business of working with people. We know learning is a messy process. We know that we need to see our students as individuals first.

Yet all these truths seem to take a back seat when it comes to testing, GPAs, and report cards.

Why? Because we consistently sweep away that context of the individual in favor of finding and measuring up against that ever-supreme average.

 

Fortunately, research like Todd Rose’s is finally shedding light on just how misleading the average is when we are looking at the individual (he makes the point that it can still be very valuable when looking at large groups, but that when it comes to individuals, average does not exist). Though the longstanding belief has been that we use the “average” because it matches the largest number of people, the truth is that we are so complex that the average actually ends up matching virtually no one.

So in education, it’s when we “take context seriously” that we find out where a learner really is on their journey.

We take into account all the nuances and complexities of the individual to not only analyze just how far they’ve come (ie, taking into account poverty, developmental delays, etc) but to identify their strengths that will help them work toward mastery.

As Rose says later in the talk,

“Empower students with self-knowledge to make choices on their own behalf.”

We have the tools in our 21st century world to help our students understand their own contexts and leverage that knowledge to take ownership over their own learning process. We need to resist the idea that certain skills and knowledge need to be attained by certain, average benchmarks in time because these averages, in fact, apply to so few people.

Our individual contexts are just too unique to be lumped into the average.

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Note, at the end of the Google Talk, Rose addressed some excellent audience questions, including how we measure success in the education system in lieu of the average. Rose shares two fascinating possibilities I also wanted to share here:

1. As tech is giving us greater opportunities for individualized learning, we’ll soon see a shift, especially in higher-ed, toward “Micro-credentials and competency based measurements” instead of the traditional semesters/grades system.

2. We need to use clearly defined, competency-based outcomes to measure success. To know how well an individual is doing, we need benchmark them against their own progression in that competency, and you don’t have to look at anyone else’s progress to know that. (“A diploma with a 3.2 vs. “I have these competencies.””)

An Investment in Book Love: Reframing My Perspective #TeacherMom

Ahhh, book love. There’s nothing quite like watching my kids wade through stacks and stacks of books.

With 3 tiny humans in the house, I’ve long-since determined that all the frayed corners, torn pages, and disheveled shelves are simply signs of love and affection. Plus, I figured that, given that any attempts at order look a LOT like the meme below, what was the point?

I also firmly believe that to teach responsibility, we can’t be constantly cleaning up after/solving problems for our kids — if they want to be able to find all their books and keep them in good shape, they need to learn to take care of them, right?

But recently, all of this was set aside with a bout of spring cleaning which extended to sprucing up the books.

We sorted them by size…

…authors…

…and collections.

 

I knew it likely wouldn’t last, but it still felt nice to have them organized.

To my delight, I discovered an unexpected outcome after nap time/school. Though I didn’t add a single new book during this clean-up process, it was as if my kids were seeing them all anew. They spent the rest of the day exclaiming over books they thought were lost and enjoying entire collections or author groups.

Though I know details like right-side-up and spine out will still fall mostly to me, this experience has shown me that I can view my time spent here with a fresh perspective.

Until the day comes that my kids can fully exercise fine motor and organizational skills, shaping their reading environment is an investment on my part.

Meanwhile, I can still teach them responsible book care within their abilities — it does not need to be an all-or-nothing kind of approach. But if I get a new idea to present their books in a way that will spark renewed interest and book love, nothing should get in the way of that.

After all, if “doing for them what they cannot do for themselves” doesn’t extend to fostering deeper love of reading, what does?

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What About When They Don’t Choose What’s Best For Them? #DCSDBlogs Challenge

This is in response to the #DCSDblogs challenge prompt on sharing mistakes. (Note: While I’m not associated with the Davenport School District, I’m grateful for the warm invitation to participate in their blogging challenge, which is a wonderful initiative to encourage teacher blogging)!

We talk and share and write about giving students a voice and choice. To encourage them to own their learning process and make thoughtful, personal decisions along the way.

But after all the choices we give them, what happens when they don’t choose what’s best for them?

Like when you allow them to choose the classroom layout — and they choose rows, the most collaboration-unfriendly arrangement?

Or when you ask them for input on classroom management and rules — and they clamor to institute a stickers/candy/otherwise extrinsic-reward system?

Or when you turn time over to them to decide what kind of literacy word work task they will pursue — and they choose the option you know is least valuable to them right now?

In the past, when I encountered each of these, my response was to withdraw, clamp down control, or persuade.

But as I’ve learned from amazing teachers in my PLN (like Taryn BondClegg’s example when she encountered the exact experience of kids picking rows!), these, too, are precious learning opportunities. If we could just set aside our fears of falling behind or causing inconvenience, we might find a veritable goldmine of growth mindset/#FailForward/metacognition learning moments.

In the face of possible failure, if our response is to always snatch away the reins, our students will never have to opportunity to investigate and discover for themselves why and how these processes work. That means stepping aside and honoring their choices, no matter how painful it might be. 

Of course, sometimes their failures have more to do with our own failure — for instance, in the literacy example, we might not have done enough scaffolding to teach stamina, metacognition, or other tools to empower students to take informed action (see, “That Time I Failed at Inquiry“). In these instances, we can and should be constantly making adjustments in our approach as the teacher. But even when we’ve made mistakes, we should seize the opportunities to model our learning process!

In this way, the only real failure is when we try to mask it, hide it, or preempt it with control. Instead, let’s bring it into the light. Bring it into the learning.

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Ode to a Newly Crawling Baby #TeacherMom

“We call the early years formative. What is firing the brain? It’s nothing less than a sense of self. How does it feel to be me? How does it feel to be human? That’s what’s forming. Our sense of self and our sense of the world.”

via Case Wade

I see your joy. You sit up with a straight back, surveying the world from a perspective you’ve never seen.

I see your deliberation. You make a bee-line for the dog bowls every time we set you down, already knowing that if you do so stealthily enough, you’ll find a prize.

I see your intensity. You move from room to room and object to object, patting, squeezing, raspberry-blowing, all with an astonishingly palpable focus.

I see your relentlessness. You already possess an uncanny sense for the moments your parents most need a break, and will do just about anything to ensure you have our undivided attention.

“Learning isn’t having an agenda. It’s forming associations, recognizing when they discover. When they put things together they’ve never put together before.”

Most of all, I see your connection-building. You are already laying the foundation — with a magnitude I can scarcely comprehend — for the learning that will take place for the rest of your life. These connections, these moments of comprehension, are like golden threads criss-crossing all over our home, constantly reinforced as you feel your way across them again and again.

“The most important ingredient is the people who interact on a regular basis with young children. A baby does something, and the adult response to what the baby’s doing. It’s this back and forth responsiveness that’s absolutely essential for brain development.”

That I am an integral part of this process is humbling. You are reminding me of the connection between learning and relationships; of the need to learn when to set down the lists and sit down with the people. In this way, you are strengthening my ability to connect with those around me — as a parent, teacher, and human being.

So, little one, although I wish you’d sometimes slow down, I look forward to all we will continue to learn together.

Quotes from the documentary, The Beginning of Life, (streaming on Netflix) by filmmaker Estela Renner.

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