Back on the show: it’s Bill Rich! But first:
Lovely listeners, a few episodes ago, we turned fifty. Fifty! Can you imagine?
It took us a hot minute (and um, more math than we’d care to discuss) to figure that out but this is the season that took us to FIFTY EPISODES. And we are so grateful to all of you for making that journey with us. It has been so powerful to hear from all of you that you are listening, you are pondering, and you’re enjoying this podcast as much as we’re enjoying making it. Heart. Felt. Thanks.
And to that end, in this episode, we welcome back the very FIRST guest we ever had on the show: Bill Rich.
Along with the redoubtable Susan Hennessey, Bill runs the Tarrant Institute Learning Lab, now accepting applications for its fifth year, and a whole riot in its own right. Bill and I talked about The Culture Code in the very first episode of vted Reads, back when it was still part of the late great 21st Century Classroom.
Bill is back.
And this time, we’re talking about Giving Students a Say: Smarter Assessment Practices to Empower and Engage, by Myron Dueck. We firmly believe this book can help educators unlock a more powerful arena for respecting student voice, even if the title itself… just might be a misnomer.
I’m Jeanie Phillips and this is the end of the third season(!) of vted Reads: a show by, for, and with Vermont educators.
Jeanie: I’m Jeanie Phillips and welcome to #vted Reads. We’re here to talk books for educators, by educators, and with educators. Today, I’m with Bill Rich, and we’ll be talking about Giving Students a Say: Smarter Assessment Practices to Empower and Engage by Myron Dueck. Thanks so much for joining me, Bill. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.
Bill: Well, my claim to fame is I was your first guest for episode number one. So I appreciate being invited back, congratulations. And I taught in Vermont schools for 16 years as Language Arts and Social Studies teacher in middle and high school. And then decided I was going to take a different path and work from outside schools to try to make them better inside. So I founded Red House Learning committed to using what we know about the brain to improve what we do in our schools.
In addition to working with schools long-term and conducting workshops and writing about that topic, I am the Co-Director of the Learning Lab with Susan Hennessey, your colleague. And I’ll probably say a little bit more about that program. But it really embodies a lot what this book is about, but for adults. I also co-direct with Tim O’Leary, What’s the Story, which tries to put all these brain-based design principles into action in a way that can be great for students and helpful to teachers looking for a better way.
Jeanie: You wear many hats, and yes, you were my first ever guest. My first pilot of Vermont Ed Reads where we talked about The Culture Code.
What a fabulous book. I’ve actually given that book to many people as a gift. I liked it so much. And now we’re at the — this is the last episode of season three, you’re our 52nd guest!
Bill: Season three. Wow, I can’t wait for that door prize.
Jeanie: So this is our 52nd episode. And we almost — we hadn’t counted and suddenly I was like, oh my gosh, we’ve reached 50, who knew, I had done this 50 times. And so thanks for coming back and for choosing this book.
Before we launch into it, I want to ask what you’re reading right now.
Bill: Oh, I’m on the tail end of a tear of reading nonfiction books about breathing and breath. That started with a book by Wim Hof, called The Wim Hof Method. And then James Nestor’s book Breath. And then a guy named Patrick McKeown in the Oxygen Advantage. I was a mediocre athlete throughout my schooling years. And I have learned, I was a horrible breather. I was never taught accurately, neither was anybody really how to breathe correctly at rest and well in performance, and they are fascinating books, I’d highly recommend them.
Jeanie: My son has been talking to me about this. So thank you for adding to the books. I’m going to get them for his birthday.
Bill: Yeah, I’ve got a few more we can talk offline later.
Jeanie: Yeah. Love those suggestions. So just before we started the podcast, you read a little excerpt from Myron Dueck, Giving Students a Say, and it was from page eight. It was all about student voice and incorporating student voice. And as you were reading, it was just a really powerful section. But I kept thinking, we’re always talking about student voice. This book talks about student voice all the time.
And I want to turn that on its head, and I want to stop talking about student voice and start talking about teacher listening, or teacher hearing, or like, teacher not voice. And I’m wondering your thoughts on that.
Like, why do we frame it as what students are doing, when really students are doing that all the time, and how do we reframe it, so it’s like what we’re doing with their voice. Jamila Lyiscott, who I’m a big fan of says, if you think you’re giving students a voice, you’ve got it wrong. They’ve already got a voice. And so I wondered about that. That’s what was going through my brain and my heart: wait a minute, this isn’t about student’s voice, this is about teachers’ ears?
Bill: I think that’s a great comment. And you know, in this book, John Hattie is referred to quite a bit. And he has quoted as saying, really, we just need to shut up a lot more. But there are good reasons why that doesn’t happen, and why we have to adopt some language of marginalized groups, right, let’s give voice to the voiceless. Well, maybe, there’s a problem even with that sentiment in itself, right.
But in terms of that concept, I think a nice way to invert it. Because if you think about what teachers go through, what the way they experience school, the way school incentivizes them to talk a lot, the way school incentivizes them to show they are being rigorous. And in this country, that means go fast, and go far, regardless of whether people are keeping up with you.
In that system, you could get in trouble pretty quickly, if you stop talking, and just start listening all the time, that could be a monkey wrench in the system. And it’s one of the reasons why, despite the fact that we know formative assessment is one of the best strategies to improve learning, it throws a monkey wrench into the pacing guide, because everybody’s a little different. And if we’re really going to do formative assessment that means it’s going to get messier than we’re ready to explain our content with. May I drift on this a little more or are you ready to go on to?
Jeanie: No, please, because I think you really nailed it. Especially when I was a new teacher, I thought my job was to talk a lot, right? Like, there’s this archetype or this like concept we inherit from schooling itself of like, we are doing our job if we’re talking, so please riff on.
Bill: I want to do it in a way that helps teachers experience it as learners, rather than them being the one that’s kind of violating what we know about learning, which is that humans construct their own learning. It’s not a transaction. You can listen to somebody else’s expertise, and get glimpses of it. And that’s wonderful when you listen to somebody’s voice. But it should come with a flashing warning, temporary access only. Right?
Like, okay, I can hear this. And it’s making sense to me now. And nobody has this guy’s question. He’s on a roll, like I’m really loving it, but you’re not learning, you’re listening. And those are related skills. But let me put it a different way and rooted in my own failure.
Susan Hennessy and I, who we both we direct and design this Learning Lab that came out of us working in a couple of schools. The learning curve has gotten steeper and steeper for teachers in Vermont with Act 77. And we were both being honest with each other and saying, you know, showing up at a faculty meeting once a month, or maybe even in service for a half a day, it’s insufficient, and it’s way far away from where the real decisions in the classroom are getting made.
And so both of us were getting uncomfortable with the idea that we’re kind of taking up a lot of their precious time, and we’re giving them good ideas, and they’re liking everything. Oh, you guys are great. That was really nice. But it’s disconnected from the classroom. And so we just got a blank piece of paper and said, what would PD look like if it were really listening to teachers and being driven by their most pressing timely questions?
Like, what would it look like to invert that where we would show up working with teachers and feel like, actually, this is really working great? This is right the content.
And that’s why we ended up creating Learning Lab, because Learning Lab is returning to student teaching for a year, you get a year to luxuriate in you and your students being the curriculum.
And you and your students together identify an inquiry question. There’s transparency about pedagogy. And there’s partnership with students. And boy to be working with 20 or so adults who are all partnering with their students. And they’re all sharing with each other, not what they thought of chapter four that we assigned on teaching theory, no, on in the fourth week of school, how did it go with you to plan, and what’s the mess now or what’s the success?
And that’s the vibrancy that gets learning on fire, right? It’s real, like this is about what’s going on now. And that’s the vital ingredient missing in most schools due to our very good intentions to clean learning up and make it efficient. So we can all just explain these things to the students and move them through rather than no, no, we need to make the space for their voices and their learning. And it’s messy, and it’s hard to measure with a pacing guide. But boy, you get that EKG out and the hearts are thumping, like people are leaning in and excited because it’s what their brains were designed to do. How do we help each other with our most pressing questions to lead more satisfying lives? Not in eight years after I’m out of college?
Right now, when I’m nervous about this date I’m trying to have for this weekend that my friend and I got in a fight the other day, and I don’t know how to handle the play. Okay, here we go. Let’s make some room for that. And then, of course, we’re going to teach mathematics, but within the context of those relationships and knowing students, and that’s what will make the mathematics happen. But if it’s just as charging ahead without, I mean, giving students a say almost sounds trite, like, oh, let’s give them a say, what do you all think?
Let’s invite them to the table. Well, they were there for five minutes and then we did everything else. Now what would happen if you really partnered with students, and created a transparent environment where they weren’t running the show, we’re still the professional, we’ve got to make decisions, but I do think that would elicit their highest energies, if they really felt they were co-creating with us.
Jeanie: So I’m hearing so many things, and I want to just process some of them. And one is a friend of mine, Mike Martin, always says the one who does the talking does the learning. And it occurs to me that this book, and also Learning Lab are about making space for learners, whether those learners are students or teachers to do the talking to own the learning. And so having visited Learning Lab and worked with Learning Lab teachers over the years here and there, I know that you make lots of space for your teachers to learn from each other. And so when you said its like, it’s like student teaching again, it isn’t, right.
It’s not the worst of student teaching where you’re like, ah, how am I going to apply this? It’s actually like student teaching better, because you actually have enough experience in the classroom. I mean, you have people who have years and years and years and years and years of experience, and so much expertise learning together in Learning Lab. But it’s like student teaching when you can actually learn. Like it’s a do over where you actually get to do the learning you wish you had done before.
Bill: Oh, I’m so glad you clarified that we always go to that because the mental model is it’s hard to get past the typical course experience, right? The syllabus, and this year, the theory or the products. You’re right. It’s student teaching if student teaching were really great. First of all, it’s all year.
Second of all, you already cut into what you’re doing a little bit. So it’s not as if you’re brand new. And it’s the gift of really having a chance. And you don’t have to know at the beginning of it. But what’s the question? What’s something we want to try to take on this year to get better at and learn about, and that sense of adventure and inquiry with students, even if it’s just a small slice of the experience it transfers over to other areas because they didn’t realize the way we were thinking about these things. So yeah, inviting them in on it.
Jeanie: Well, and so that gets to the very beginning of this book. It quotes John Hattie, on page five.
“Students are the best people to report on themselves.”
And it occurs to me in this conversation with you that student can mean middle schooler, but student can also be adult learner. And so I think that’s really connected to the author’s, elevator pitch for this book. And I just wondered if you’d unpack that quote a little bit: “students are the best people to report on themselves?”
Bill: Yeah, there are a couple of dimensions. So this one is just obvious, right? If you’re really working with somebody and wondering how their learning is going, asking them. But for some people, they’re a little suspicious of that. Well, if I just ask them, like, are they to be honest? Or like, are they how do I really know? I bring people back to is a wonderful book called How People Learn, which has been updated a few times. It’s really a meta-analysis using a lot of cognitive science and other fields related to education.
But the three findings that are present in all of those iterations of the book, one of them is begin with the learner’s conceptions, right. And so that’s as true September 1, as June 1. Begin with it.
Well to know their conceptions, whether it’s about what you’re teaching this day, or what’s going on in their life, you really have to spend some time listening. And what we learn over time is some students are very negative and critical of themselves, their conception of what they’re sharing shows, while they’re hard on themselves, and they don’t quite see some of the strengths they have.
Others have a pretty elevated sense of themselves and what they’re capable of doing. But remarkably, and he has a line about this in the book. Remarkably, from that age up, most people have a really good sense of how their performance and they’re accurate when they describe it, which makes me wonder, imagine if we didn’t do all this testing, we just stayed in conversation with them, and had them develop portfolios of what they were learning, rather than really hardly ever talking with them about these things.
Jeanie: That makes me think about my own experience as a student where I thought of assessment as tests or essays, written things I had to turn in. And either I thought of it as a gotcha moment. Like for my world history class, where the professor was really boring, and I didn’t want to learn dates, and I had to take this multiple-choice, it was going to gotcha let me know that I didn’t remember the dates, or as a moment to shine. Like, sometimes I knew, like, oh, this is the place where I’m going to do really well.
And other times, it was like, ah, I either have to cram all night, so that I’m prepared to meet this gotcha. I’m not going to do very well. And I think so much of when I was teaching at Green Mountain, even when I tried to shift what assessment look like when I was teaching students, they still had those conceptions of assessment as gotcha. Assessment is like judgment.
And Dueck says his goal is to develop assessment capable learners. And I feel like that would have challenged me to get beyond this idea of like, I’m going to be judged, and I’m either going to shine or fail.
Bill: Yeah, that’s an interesting phrase: “assessment capable learners.” One, I’m just going to step back from the book, and then I’m going to drop right back in, I think that’s on page six, where that phrase comes from.
When I think of assessment capable what I think of is that a person as they’re going through a learning experience, they have this meta-conversation going on with themselves, right? There’s a sense of awareness:
“Ooh, here is the part where I’m getting scared. This isn’t making sense. And yet they’re skilled enough to know this is the part where I ask questions, or you know what, I just stick with it for a little while, like this is the wobbly part. This is where I need to ask for help. But I know what my next step is this, right? So I’m going to resist that inner voice that sometimes I succumb to become paralytic, and instead of just going to, okay, that’s going on, and somebody who’s assessment cable.”
And the interesting thing is, we are brilliant at this until we get to school. I mean, if you watch somebody learn before they’re told to sit in a row and in a seat and start learning the same thing all at the same time. Talk about assessment! Literally just look at somebody learn to talk, just look at somebody learn to walk and look at the energy that they bring to it.
Because there’s this real “man, I want to get done with this dragging my butt across the floor thing, I want to get to that table and grab my juicy.” Well, they don’t need a rubric. Okay, they don’t need a checklist, they might need a little help from us. If anything, we need to hold them back because they might get hurt. They’re so enthusiastic for what they’re learning.
But in a very well-intended effort, as teachers, we create conditions that often, unfortunately, and ironically, cultivate learned helplessness. Oh, school is where you kind of sit and wait until somebody tells you what to do. And by the way, you don’t really have to do it the first time, because they’ll come back and tell you to do it again.
And before you know it school is not where my energetic learning is going on. This is that place where I don’t really have a lot of impact on what’s happening. And so I’m moving into compliance mode. Just like an exhausted teacher who comes into in-service in the fall and learns this year, we have three new goals, we’re doing this, we’re doing this, we’re doing this, even though last year, we did this, this and this.
And that didn’t go so well. And we didn’t finish it. We’re just moving on. We’re all humans, right? If the targets keep changing, if we’re not part of creating the targets, what do we do? We learn a very important life skill: how to get this crap done without taking too much out of our personal lives, so that we can get the things that matter.
And I’d say the tragedy of our continually outdated operating system in school is the opportunity cost of having so many students in learned helplessness mode, and so many students not realizing their best selves, and saving that for things that are happening outside of school. It’s awful.
Jeanie: Yeah, I really appreciate that. And it really jives with what the book called success. The things successful learners do. One is they understand the learning process. Two. they accept it as worthy of their time and effort, right? If it’s not relevant to them, if it doesn’t motivate them, that they can’t be successful learners. And then three, they feel like it’s possible to work towards success. Like the finish line isn’t so far out that they’re never going to reach it.
And I really appreciated that conception, because I feel like it wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I became a successful learner. Even though, I looked successful in schooling, right. I certainly had the right GPA. And all the teachers thought of me as successful. I didn’t actually understand the learning process or feel like it was worthy of my time or feel empowered until I was much older. I wonder if you have an example either from Learning Lab or from other work about what this looks like in a middle school classroom?
Bill: Oh, sure. Where to begin, so many examples, I’ll try to go with the most fresh ones. Considering the year we just had, one teacher at the Learning Lab decided they came in with a different inquiry question. But then once the year was kind of settling or unsettling out, however you want to describe it, she really recognize the there was a need in her students to have a space to discuss more regular their emotions. And so it’s kind of SEL, Social-Emotional Learning. And so she boldly created an inquiry question that had to do with throughout the year, I’m going to more deliberately make space for teaching about Social-Emotional Learning. And so she did. And then at first, it was a little flat, right a little bit like the first sharing circle that Myron Dueck describes in the book like, and then she found what really gave it legs was when she decided, I’m going to open up about how I’m doing.
And this is risky, right. This is I’m going to share what this is like and share a little bit, what I was like at their age, she said, that’s what made all of a sudden, everything, transforming work. Because all of a sudden, we were in this together. It’s not like it was being done to the students. And fast forward a few months, students are looking forward to these discussions, they’re getting credibly in-depth, they’re really getting to know each other well enough, so much so that it’s starting to spill over to some other classrooms and teachers. And anyway, the teacher ended up getting invited to present to the whole faculty to share some of that.
I think the key piece, whether it’s elementary, middle, or high school, doesn’t have to be Social-Emotional Learning. But the piece that she did, she was transparent with the students about what she was trying to learn. And then when it was getting a little flat, she really opened up with them about that. Rather than I’m going to go home and drink three cups of coffee, and then really come up with a great plan and then have my heartbroken Friday when I do it all alone. Again, no, put the cards on the table, let the students have a say with you, and take it from there.
Jeanie: So one of the things I’m hearing in that, and maybe it’s because this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, is vulnerability, and the capacity to be vulnerable with students. And I, as you know, was a school librarian. And so the thing about school librarians is that we’re all about the learning process. And we’re generalists, so we don’t know everything. But we typically can help students get there because we’re really good at processing. So kids used to come in all the time and whether they were working on something for physics or AP history or tech arts, they would have a question I’d be like, no, I don’t know. But I know we can figure this out together, right.
And I feel like one of the things we have to sort of toss is this notion that we have to be content experts, as educators, and sort of be more open with our students and vulnerable, whether it’s about Social-Emotional Learning or geometry, about the things we don’t know. But that we are sure that we are lifelong learners, and that we can learn that thing.
Bill: Yes, I’m right with you. The analogy I’ve been using lately when I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had a chance to work for a long time in school systems and work hard to make them better from within as a teacher, and I’ve had some success with the things I feel really good at. But the success was always limited, because the operating system going on at school, there’s only so much you can do within that. And I would say one of the most challenging things for teachers to be able to even practice, even if they want to, it’s hard for them to make it happen is how to make space for being clear in your outcomes. But be less clear about how you and your students are going to get there.
To really make space for, and I’ve come to believe the best learning conditions, there’s a healthy dose of improvisation going on every day. And then there’s a healthy dose of we are co-making this a little bit. And by the way, I’m the teacher, I can show you my outcomes. I can communicate here’s what matters most in my mind, some kind of performance they are getting ready for. But let me show all these pages here. They’re blank. Like, I’m going to share with you my ideas. I’m going to hear from you.
But this idea of improv is terrifying for an actor who has only worked off scripts, right to move into improv. But improv doesn’t mean you’re just winging it. Improv is another set of guidelines. You’re being deliberate about how, but the idea that that’s what gets the pulse going. That’s what gets the engagement, the idea of — wait a minute, this guy really is out on a limb with us. Like, he really hasn’t planned this thing out.
Jeanie: Okay, wait, we got into process and it was a little bit…
Bill: Yeah, yeah.
Jeanie: Because I have a kid who knew exactly which teachers he could get off base and which questions to ask or which topics to bring up, so that he didn’t actually have to do work. So I want to be clear about what we’re talking about here. Because one of the things you and I agree on is that there are limitations to this text, this book we’re reading and there are real positives. And one of the positives for me is that Dueck breaks down how we can take standards or proficiencies and break them into learning targets that really speak to our students and break them apart into knowledge targets, reasoning targets, skill targets, and product targets, Sort of like a KUD (know, understand, do).
We can get really specific about what are the outcomes we’re looking for from students. And so for me, the use of those is that it’s clear for students, but it’s also clear for me as a teacher, so that I know. I have done this as a teacher, I have been the teacher who says, well, we always do the apple unit. And we do we go to the apple picking place and we pick the apples and we read the book. But there’s no clear outcome for — where it’s fun, right? The apples are great, the book is great, but what’s the outcome? And so I just want to like say, there has to be this both/and of yes, improvisation because we have to constantly be gauging where our learners are, and riffing based on where they are and where they need to be. But also, we got to have a clear place we’re getting to.
Bill: Yes, absolutely. There’s a paradox that work here that often gets missed, right. I am a firm believer in backwards design, absolutely committed to the arduous and endless process. And I want to emphasize this endlessness of being clear about what matters most. Like I don’t think you ever graduate from that school of one knowing what it is, and being able to communicate effectively. So I think we’re always working that side of the street. But the paradox here is we are planning and designing as best we can. And then when we meet our learners we make space for the improvisation, right.
We don’t take all the oxygen out of the room. And I’ll give you an answer, because an example or two. I think we asked too much and too little of students in schools. We ask too much of them, because we ask them to do far too many things that violate biologically the way they learn. So in other words, we’re taxing their natural way of learning is tax throughout the day, right. So that’s asking a lot of them to do that.
But we tend to ask too little of them. We tend to make the standards. We’re trying to get everybody to succeed. So we try to make sure it’s not too complicated. We shoot for that middle ground, right. And we get lost on those learning targets sometimes as a result, but if the idea were let’s replay it, okay. I’m going to design as best as I can.
Let’s use What’s the Story, for example. Students know coming in and if they didn’t know, they learn very quickly, oh, I have all year to make a documentary film. Well, ask any filmmaker how long it takes them to make a documentary film, like that’s a big! That’s — you’re asking a lot of students, they’ve got a research, but you know what? And we’ve laid out what that general sequence looks like. However, what do you want to research? Well, here’s the improv, right. Okay, well, who’s your audience going to be? But I want to change the world. Okay, that’s a big audience, right. You might need five years for that documentary. You only have one year, we’ll be free and know it.
The stake is put in the ground where we’re trying to get to, but we’re not telling them what the title is. We’re not telling them what the topic is. We’re not telling them who to call, like, these are things we’re going to be in dialogue with them for them to figure out. But if the stake in the sand is everybody’s going to know, to put a comma before a conjunction, to join two independent clauses, like if that’s the target, and that’s our rallying cry, well, you can give students a say and how you want to teach them about conjunctions, and independent clauses, but like, that’s going nowhere fast.
However, when they’re writing their script for their documentary films, and we’re editing their scripts, and we’re showing them where commas go, all of a sudden, all that stuff starts to make sense in the context of they’re trying to create something beautiful that they care about. And they need our help to get that done. That’s where the improv and the dance happens. But if you don’t have that ecosystem of like, where we’re headed, what the product is, how we’re going to work together, improv can turn into, Socrates gone bad.
Jeanie: I really appreciate that. And I’m hearing two things. One is I recently had a conversation with Alex Shevrin Venet about her book, Equity Centered Trauma Unformed Education. And one of the things she keeps in mind as she’s planning is this both/and of predictability, like where are the routines and the predictable things, and flexibility.
And what I’m hearing from you here is that both/and have predictability and flexibility. I’m also hearing like, we think about this at the Terrant Institute all the time, which is, a lot of times we hear from folks that we need to build skills before kids can do real meaningful work.
And we’re really trying to push people to do real meaningful work as a way to build skills. And it reminds me of a quote from page 69 of the book, where the author where Dueck gives an example of real work in elementary schools, but the quote is from Greg McKeown. I’m probably getting it wrong.
“What if schools eliminated busy work and replaced it with something that made a difference to the whole community.?
I feel like that bells should chime at the end of that quote.
Bill: One of Grant Wiggins most read blog post was late in his life. And the title is something like what if everything we know about curriculum is wrong. And what he makes the point is, and it’s kind of related, you’re familiar with Dan Meyer, the wonderful math teacher is kind of wonderful TED talk that basically shows these math books, they put all this scaffolding in, that kind of ruins the jumping into the deep end of the pool and just figuring stuff out? But what Grant Wiggins says is when you look at how learning really works, it’s through engaging in real out in the world activities.
And the byproduct is all these things that we’re trying to teach students. So for example, and we’ve heard this model before, it’s simple, but it’s a good one, like in schools, and I’m being a little facetious here. Okay, we’re going to teach them how to ride a bike. Okay, before you can get on that bike, you just memorize the parts of the bike. Okay, there is the bicycle. There’s this, there is the right? This is my first computer teacher. Now granted, computers were brand new, so all of us were friends. It was like they were in the boxes. But before we can open that there is a mouse, and we’re thinking like animals are going to be jumping out of this thing.
Like we’re learning all this vocabulary. But we forget our biological inheritance long before the first school was ever created. There were human beings doing spectacular learning, and how are they doing that in their communities engaged with figuring out the most pressing issues by socializing with each other? And the better we did that our lives would get a little bit better. And that’s what we’re really good at, like working together in our communities, listening to each other, sharing all of our insights. If somebody goes down, hey, here’s some help for you. Because I mean, it’s that fiery interaction with each other.
We’re more engaged with making a difference in our worlds and in our world, so desperately need schools to be more like that. That talent sitting in our schools, the sixth graders who are ready to perform at a higher level than people I’ve taught in graduate school. I mean, I’m beginning to get too excited. We’ve drifted away from the book. But I really just think all of our jobs, students and teachers, are so much harder, because again, we’re violating laws of learning. We’re making learning happen in an environment that is well intended, but it has inadvertently poisoned the learning well. And it just makes us keep working harder and harder to try to make it better rather than wait a minute, wait a minute, we just keep slapping new software on this old hard drive.
Okay, we’ve got this. We’ve got PLPs. We’ve got this. We’ve got formative assessment. We’ve got different. We’ve got personalization. And we have this incredible architecture of language that we have put around this system. But it’s all this language that’s trying to give students a say, in a system that’s not made for students to have a say.
Jeanie: Well, so I want to go back to the bike analogy, though. Because I think that that’s because I live in a neighborhood now. I moved last summer, and I live in a neighborhood with sidewalks. And I live in this glorious little community with so many children. And one of the things, I am envious of both for myself and my son, are these stride bikes. You know what I’m talking about?
Bill: Oh, yes. Yeah, amazing.
Jeanie: They’re like for three-year-old to, I see three-year-olds and four-year-old scareening down the sidewalk all the time on these stride bikes that I didn’t know existed when I was a mother of a young person. And the thing that it made me think about is these learning targets again, and getting specific. So I don’t need to know how to fix the chain on my bike, or even fix a flat, because I have people in my life that do that for me, thank goodness. But the things you do need to like achieve in order to ride a bike are balance, right. So you have to be able to balance, I probably need to know the word pedal so that I can know how to push on the pedal. I probably need to know about the concept of brakes, but we could totally take those concepts and put them in those in that learning target formula of knowledge targets. I need to know where the pedals are, where the brakes are – reasoning targets.
I need to know when to use the brakes, when to pedal: skill targets. I need to know how to balance. And then product targets is like that actual riding the bike. And what I’m watching is — I’m watching these kids on these stride bikes really working on that skill target of just balance. They’re not working on pedaling, they’re not working on braking. Sometimes they look like they’re going to have horrific falls. And I imagine sometimes they do, but like they also go careening down and having a blast and managed to do just fine. And so it just makes me think about what you’re saying about our sort of broken ways of moving too fast and muddling up the learning targets and messing with our natural capacity to learn. It made me think about those young people, little toddlers on their bikes.
Bill: Yes, absolutely. I love the image of those. And to extend this just a little bit more, if you are really teaching this that the temptation of a teacher might be to just interject ourselves too much with too much information. Okay, let’s reflect about balance, chains, parts of the bike. Sometimes learners just need space to perform.
Jeanie: Sometimes they need to fall.
Bill: And just let them talk to each other, right. They’ll figure, but if we say here’s the rubric, here are the targets. Now I want you to keep this in mind before you even get going. You can congest somebody if you’re teaching somebody how to hit a baseball, you know a couple of things for them to keep an eye on the ball, but just let them with a few times, let them kind of like they need to figure this out. And if we over coach or if we over anticipate, what we’re going to teach them to do is every time they start to struggle, they just look around like where’s the struggle? Now we need more space to figure things out.
Jeanie: I totally agree. And I watched the best parents, my neighbors are amazing parents. And I watch them like let this little neighbor go careening knowing quite possibly she could fall, but they don’t stand in the way and say no, I’m not going to let you go down this little hill on the sidewalk, because you might fall, right. They let it be okay that maybe she’s going to stop or fall or cry a little.
Bill: Hey Jeanie, have you read the book Duct Tape Parenting? You’re familiar with that one?
Jeanie: No, I should have.
Bill: It’s a great book. But the theme of the book is, so often in the name of efficiency, we intervene and smooth things out for youngsters, while we’re parenting, to not contend with embarrassment, right. Or they’re missing the bus or this. But we end up undermining resiliency in the name of efficiency, right. I’m going to zip that code up. Paying like, I’ve got six checklists, I’ve gotten everything set to get them out the door. And by gum, I’m not going to be late to work .
Okay, well, you do that. But when they’re 25, and in the basement, say mom says, “dinner’s ready.” You know, it’s, there’s a cost to this. And the same is true with school. There’s so many efficiencies built in, really, you’ve kind of got to work hard. It’s not easy not to succeed in school, but you really have to work hard to not make your way through school, right. Because people will take care of you. They’ll just, they’ll just keep moving you on.
Even to the point for some learners, they’re even a little embarrassed of themselves. Really, I just get to keep doing this. And you keep moving me along. I mean, somebody’s not going to intervene here.
Jeanie: Yeah, well, and so we’re jumping ahead, we can jump all around, though. Chapter Four really highlights a ton of the brain research about learning and when I was reading it, I was thinking of you and in-services that I’ve been at where you are presenting. And about a course I took with you. And it made me think earlier when you talked about learning is messy and inefficient. And we really do try to smooth it over, make it cleaner. I think I’m going to stop saying we, I remember being an educator who tried to make things less messy, more efficient. And I really thought about I think they even in the one of the sections of that chapter talk about Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.
And about purposefully introducing what the phrase he uses, I think its friction, purposely introducing friction and slowing down the learning process, so that we’re able to get students to real learning instead of shallow performance.
Bill: Yeah, that’s, that’s great. I love that. I know, I think this is the Bjork brothers are quoted in here as well. And, one of the images, they’re quoted in that book, Talent Code, and they talk about, when learning is working, it’s like you’re climbing an icy hill with the wind against your face, and you’re falling down. But then you make it a few steps, but then you fall down again and go down a cliff. So like, when it’s really happening, it’s not a feeling that people want to be thrust into.
It’s a feeling that, for example, often when I work with groups of teachers, we just do practice with recall, right. Very simple strategy, but we’re just going to pause, we’ve been waiting for 15 minutes, if you had to say, what’s the most important thing? What would you say it is? Or if I’m there a week later. Hi, everyone, just in 50 words, what do you remember from what we did together last time. And what happens for lots of people in that situation is they try to remember, and they can’t, and they go, so I can’t remember, I’m just going to sit here and be quiet, somebody will fill in the gap.
But I always challenge people, that thing that just happened, where you went to find it in your brain, and it didn’t come there automatically, teaching your students how to sit in that uncomfortable space. And really ask themselves, why can’t I remember that? What could I do next time to encode my experience? Like, what are the tricks, right? So that I can say, I need to be more intentional, while I’m going, because if people get used to you regularly asking them, what did we do last time?
And instead of just letting the eager beaver who has a good recall, but really asking people, if you ask people, most people don’t have a lot of recall strength like most people don’t walk around with. Oh, here’s how I need to encode this, as I’m experiencing this so that I can remember it later. And that is a huge life strategy to have. Because again, our brains will trick us. I’m going to remember this, this is feeling fresh, like we forget our working memory is pitifully small. And it’s most of us have to get, at least for me, you get to get older before it’s like, wait a minute, if I don’t write this down, slow this down. Like I’m not going to remember this, or I’m just going to have to cram it later.
But we know that most of what we experience is in our brains.
“So it’s not hard to get things in a person’s brain. What’s hard is teaching them how to retrieve things from their brain.”
And I think for me, in my early years of teaching, I focus far too much. I’m trying to get things into their brains, and far too little on helping them excavate along the way and not wait for the end of unit tests. Like let’s practice now. What do you remember from yesterday? What do we, because regularly I’ll work with teachers and I’ve been there too? They’re like, I don’t know. They’re like nothing sticks. They can’t, they can’t remember any of it, then there might be lots of reasons for that. One might be because it’s not very sticky. One might be like they are paying attention just not to you, because somehow they have other things that are still more important.
So some of it’s on the teacher side of the street. But the other is, I bet you if you ask them, what are your top five strategies for when you’re listening? In order to encode your experience in a way that makes it retrievable, later. I’m telling you, most people, you ask that question. They don’t they don’t have those strategies. Because, again, we don’t teach people how to really listen to encode in order to get what’s going on.
Jeanie: That’s so interesting to me on so many levels. I’m thinking of my friend Rhiannon Kim, who had us in a class we are taking do this thing where we are listening, and what did she call it? And we’re really in our brain. We’re saying the words you say, and I find when I’m listening really well now I do that. I’m like, sort of repeating what you’re saying in my brain to make it — to make sure I’m listening. And I just loved when she did that, because nobody ever teaches you how to listen, right? Like how to listen really well. But I’m also thinking about, okay, bear with me.
Bill: Sure, yes.
Jeanie: I’m thinking about in this book, there’s a lot of places where Dueck talks about how we need to struggle. He cites all sorts of studies where kids who struggle to come up with an answer to a problem, even if it’s the wrong answer, learn the right answer better because of their chance to struggle. And again, and again, he comes up with that. And I’m thinking about my own life. And it’s hard to pinpoint, like specific learning processes and maybe this is part of the problem of teaching is so much of learning feels like mystery because once you’ve learned it, you’re like, how did I not know that before. But I think about the most memorable moments in my life, they’re often from hardship.
It’s like the backpacking trip where it rained the whole time, or where somebody got hurt. And we had to figure out how to climb over the mountain with their pack as well and go back and get them, and get help. Like those are moments of joy even though at the time they were really struggle. And so on Page 12, I love this story from the second chapter of this book about this guy named Joe De Sena. Joe De Sena creates these races called Death Races that people sign up and pay money for. And I know people who sign up for these things, part of what they’re paying money for is like to move concrete blocks to the top of a mountain, right?
And there’s so much about this, that people like only 20% of the people finish. They’re designed to break people, he says, and there are so many things about this, you can see why people do this. It’s because in the end, even if we think we don’t love struggle, struggle really feeds us as humans, right? Like overcoming struggle is a huge part of our satisfaction, our growth, our learning. It’s what we remember, right?
But also, and so in some ways, he’s creating this really powerful learning experience. But one of the reasons why Dueck uses this as an example is because people who sign up often don’t know when the race starts, when the race is finished, when the finish line is always moving. Nothing’s clear about it. And so they feel like it breaks them mentally and emotionally and physically, because they have no clear conceptions of where they’re headed. And so it’s like the both/and of like, yes, first part is really good, but the lack of clarity, he’s also drawing similarities to our education system that are not so good.
Bill: No, absolutely. And I was doing some writing a while ago. And sometimes you get on a roll with that. And one of the pieces that came out as I was describing learning was this idea of just how wild learning really is. And by wild — in addition to being like wild man, like it is wild in that sense, if you pay to choose the brain, but just know in terms of no, it’s skittish. It’s we’ve got to be very careful. You do one little wrong move, then the learning is going to hide under a rock and won’t come out for the rest of class, one sarcastic comment, right?
So with some learners like you got to be really cautious, but on the other hand, we love novelty. And if you look at the history of humankind, and some of this has been awful and terrible. But it is the engagement with the wrongness of our worlds that does really bring out our best. And I’m not one of those people against the self-esteem movement who complains everybody gets a trophy, like I’m not one of those. I think we’ve come a long ways toward making schools more humane places that anticipate the neurodiversity and the range of experiences that ride to school, right.
So I’m not suggesting we make school into a Hunger Games situation.
I do think that at learning’s peril, we disconnect what we’re teaching from what our students are really experiencing in their world.
And although I taught this year, I didn’t go through with people who were in the public school system day in and day out. So I have just a slight taste of what people went through. But to see the number of people who, because of the constraints this year decided I need to do something a little different. Like, we need to make sense of what’s going on. And at least made a day or an hour a day, we’re just going to and I just think that we forget how much stress everybody’s gone through in a good day as this planet is hurtling around the sun. And there are crises in our students’ lives every year that merit us slowing down and having at least part of every day to how are we really doing.
And I think if we spend more time investing in that, and never losing touch with that, our students could help us understand how to make school be more meaningful for all of us.
Jeanie: Yes, I really hope we don’t go back to the old way of doing things. I think there’s so much that we learned through COVID that can improve schooling, teaching, and learning. What you just said reminded me that when Dueck breaks down learning targets, part of what he encourages teachers to do is to include his students writing their own personal targets. So not only co-creating those learning targets with students so that they are knowledge, reasoning skill, and product targets, but also having students have an opportunity to be really specific about their personal interests in relation to whatever the standard is.
Bill: Yes, I love his examples in the book of that. And I think it’s a great idea. And I’ve had success with doing things like that. The proviso, I would give though, is that sometimes when we invite students to have a say, we sometimes forget, there’s been a monologue going on for most of their day. So their voice might be a little rusty at the moment.
However, it’s like, I don’t know, I gave him choice. But they just saw because then I don’t know what to do with choice that will, okay. Okay, so it didn’t work that day. But the idea of continuing to go to the well, and I do think the beginning of the year is the best time to kind of set the stage for committing to that kind of approach.
But just for those people who if they read this book, they’re like, I tried it, but it just didn’t work. Just keep in mind the larger context of what’s going on, because often it’s not because they don’t have a voice. It’s not because they can’t express their voice. And it’s not because they can’t even direct more of their learning. It’s just they’re not as customed to that being what happens in school.
Jeanie: We’ve developed compliance in them. We meaning educators, like our schools, schools that use PBIS are definitely relying on kids being compliant, right. We’ve taught them a whole system of compliance. Those muscles may have atrophied.
Jeanie: It takes a while to build up that strength again. I have experienced that as an educator back when I was at Green Mountain, I was like, but what are you interested in? Kids were like what? Nobody’s ever asked me that before. I’ve experienced that as a student, I’ve been the student who you read from earlier who’s like, no, I don’t need to learn this. I just need to get this done because it’s due. I’ve worked with teachers who are dealing with students who they say aren’t self-directed, but it’s because they’ve been in situations where what’s demanded of them is not engagement, but compliance.
Bill: I mean, I know one of the ways I like to approach thinking about what was a different operating system really looks like because I think it’s hard when we’re in an operating system that our culture has been steeped in for so long. Even when you think you can understand it, you underestimate the number of ways that is shaping you. For example, what if school is a place where students come to study.
What if school were place where students came to be studied?
And what if schools were places like all of our adult expertise, we’ve got it. We’ve got mathematicians, we have scientists, we have like all that’s part of this, right? We’re not saying we’re getting rid of content, but how do we keep it the center of our intense and growing curiosity from year to year? How is this unfolding story developing? How is Sarah doing now? She’s in fourth grade. Oh, my God, we knew this about her in first grade, she had this interest. We know she struggles with this. Her mom was very sick. But how do we have the arc of that story just get more textured as we go.
That book that he mentioned, what is it getting rid of averages that what’s the name of the title of that book he refers to?
Jeanie: Yes, it’s Todd Rose’s The End of Average. I love that book.
Bill: You know that book analogy, which has been around for a while, and people refer to it. But the idea of jaggedness right, so this idea of one of the strategies in the book, which I love the spider map image he’s got in there.
But how do we I’m going to connect jaggedness to this. I was just saying and again, another play for us reimagining personalized learning plans. But what if there was a place that every year, our goal was that students felt better known and understood at the beginning of every year? What would really happen?
So we by the time they got into middle school, and before they came in, we knew them in their full jaggedness, right? We didn’t need ninth and 10th grade to figure that out like we really knew who they were. We’re still going to teach math, we’re going to teach these different things. However, we’re going to do it through the lens of who these students are in settings times in places that make sense. Boy, if we just did that, I know, I know this is true for me. And since I’ve done activities with educators, the proof is over and over again. All of us bring our best learning self in conditions where they’re people paying attention to us, admiring us and seeing things in us that we’re not quite seeing yet.
It’s that expectancy effect, right? Pygmalion effect, almost, like if people are looking at, “Oh, you’re Bill, I’ve heard about you, you’ve got this, your starting with this?” Oh, and you know, one thing I’ve noticed in you like, really, you know I am you know, I know for me high school, it was pillar, right?
Jeanie: I just got to say, you just nailed me. 100%, like if somebody comes up to me and says, “oh, Jeanie Phillips. Hi, I’ve heard about you.” I’m all in.
Bill: And you kind of like me, let’s go.
Jeanie: You heard about me and you want to talk to me? I’m all in. I mean, no, it’s true. Like if somebody sees you, being seen is huge.
Being been is everything.
And if somebody sees me, I’m all in. I want to be your friend, hello!
Bill: Have I ever told you this story that Carol Tomlinson relayed? This is a lot of years ago, but she was describing, she just been watching the Summer Olympics. And she said, it was that one where they have to swim four times, you go to one side of the pool. I don’t know how long the pool is. So I’m making this up. But it seems like a long ways to me. You got to go all the way to one, then the other, then the other side, we got three of those little turns. And at the end, there was a gentleman swimming from a landlocked country in Africa, who had learned to swim just in the last year, right.
So he’s up representing, kind of like the Jamaican Bobsled team. And by the time he finishes his first lap and a half, everybody else is finished with it.
So he finishes his second lap, turns,and he starts his third lap, slowly exhausted, looking out of breath. And the crowd starts getting a little bit louder. And then he gets close, he starts this fourth lap, the crowd is on their feet roaring. And they get him all the way to the end, and they pull him out of the pool. He’s nearly sick from the exhaustion and the camera man comes up to him and he’s catching his breath.
And the woman says, “I got to tell you, you just learned how to swim. You look exhausted, like, how did you even do that? How did you even finish?”
And he said, “how can you stop when everybody’s cheering for you?”
Bill: Right and this is where so much learning goes wrong. Which is that we’re kind of in a deficit-based system, like here are all the things, I don’t know. And our job is to get these into them before they leave us as opposed to – wait a minute. These things will happen, right but who are they? What are they able to do? And how do they sense? Hey listen, even though last year you started the fire in the bathroom, even though last year your mother died, even though last year the teacher you made quit because you were so miserable. It’s a New Year, Johnny and this is the year we think it’s going to happen.
Let us not succumb to those negative senses because the students pick up on those. But if we really remain in that, I’m not saying pollyannish here, I’m saying eyes wide open to who people are and letting them know, we see the full range. But always coming with a sense of this is it’s going to happen. That’s okay. So okay, let’s go this, we’ve got our next step. Let’s take it buddy.
Jeanie: This is reminding me of a book I read years ago, I think it’s called Spark. And it was also about learning. And one of the examples that stuck with me is the PE teacher who put heart rate monitors on kids and had this complete paradigm shift. That the kid who was working the hardest wasn’t the kid who ran the mile the fastest. The kid who was working the hardest was like your swimmer, was often the person coming in last.
I think we see this in schools all the time. There are kids who get straight A’s, or who are knocking the ball out of the park, who are putting in very little effort and there are kids who are putting in a ton of effort and not knocking the ball out of the park. And how do we start to see? How do we start to look past that, and make sure that everybody is getting an opportunity to effort and to grow?
It also reminds me of this phrase that’s used in the book that I feel like I learned from you.
The Latin derivation of assessment means to sit beside.
And to me what you’re talking about is sitting beside. You can’t sit beside and not to get to know a kid, not see the effort, not see where the friction is happening. And maybe there’s too much friction or too little friction.
Bill: Yes, absolutely. I know. On the one hand, I think in the book by Dueck, he talks about somebody is talking about being Hockey coach. He says, sometimes when we’re planning, we get this expert blind spot where we want great hockey players. So if we’re an English teacher, we have great readers and writers, we’re thinking about all these things. But we forget, people who become really great at something, they make mistakes, but they’re encouraged to succeed through them. And then they learn how to succeed through them.
But somebody was celebrating, like one of their students said, hey, I can put on my skates. And on the one hand, was kind of disappointing. I want them to be able to do a left-hand pass. Hey, but you know what, he’s able to put a skate on, like that wasn’t able to happen two days ago. And maybe if we could celebrate that a little bit more.
And similarly, those who have the private hockey camps, they’ve been training for it with their parents resources. How do we get them in circumstances where they’re feeling an equitable amount of disequilibrium. That they they’ve got that to where that they understand having this kind of privilege, the awesome responsibility of this in terms of the common good.
And rather than, well, you’re fast, you’re great. Let’s get you in the high track with all the special right like. Well, wait a minute, wait a minute. We’re poisoning that person by doing that to them as much as we are by not celebrating the person who just learned to tie their skates?
Jeanie: Yes, we’ve been talking for a while.
Bill: We didn’t talk much about the book.
Jeanie: No, we sure have all these ideas are in the book. I guess I want to ask, is there something about, is there a limitation to the book? Or is there something that’s frustrating for you about this book, that doesn’t quite sit right? And then I’m going to ask you after that, because we’re not just going negative Nelly, what idea you most want to convey from the book?
Bill: Sure, the piece of the book that frustrated me, I’m going to speak from a professional place. From my own personal experiences, I’m so exhausted continually trying to support teachers who are exhausted because they’re trying to do everything their school was telling them to do. Which includes a lot of contradictory messages like: take care of your students. Make sure they’re all okay. Make sure every student is listened to. And common assessments, we got to make sure we got the common assessments and we’ve got. Our fidelity to our math program. And we need to make sure we’re in the Caulkins genre. Okay, I’ve got to do that.
Okay, interims are due, so parent conferences are coming. So you need to talk with parents and make sure you hit on this. And you’ve given them a grade, it is this. There’s just so much for us to do and what we continue to do is continue to try to make a little bit better the current system we’re trapped in rather than figuring out how do we step away from this, and begin now with a blank canvas, right. We can’t do that.
But how do we really stop trying to be everything to everybody, and begin to have much more collective efficacy as faculties?
Like wait a minute, there are only so many hours in the day. How do we do this in a way that’s more humane and more in partnership with our students? And in my mind, how do we do this in a way that’s not getting them ready to have a successful life later, but helps them begin to feel what a successful life feels like right now?
But how do we help them? And for some, that means making sure they’ve got the nourishment they need so that they can have the energy in which to even arrive at class and do the mental activity. And for others, it’s how to help them experience some challenges and difficulties that are maybe beyond the scope of what they’re accustomed to. So my frustration with the book is that, it’s also the thing I really love about the book, I see the arc of a teacher doing his damnedest to try to get students to buy into more what’s going on.
However, he’s doing it within a system that regularly poisons the well left or right. And so it requires the teacher to do this Herculean effort on top of a system that’s making it so.
The impact is not going to be very big if you invite them to be part of the assessment process, if they haven’t been invited into a whole lot more of other things.
So I’d say that’s my frustration is the focus on the assessment piece is powerful, lots of great strategies. But again, it’s a piece of the puzzle and so great, you can modify this piece of the puzzle. But that doesn’t shift what the puzzle box is, you’re just playing around with one little piece you’re carving. So what I wish for Myron Dueck, the author and other teachers is, how do we step back and really change the puzzle we’re doing altogether, rather than just focusing on how to get students to participate more in the assessment process.
Jeanie: Right and I always want books like this to tell me which half of the puzzle pieces, I can just throw in the trash.
Bill: Right, right. Yes.
Jeanie: So what’s your number one takeaway, or the one thing you would suggest that readers really pay attention to if they dive into this book?
Bill: Well, the idea, I love the title. This concept of sitting next to students more often to listen more. So when he talks about giving students a say, he’s really done a beautiful job showing, okay, if you’re like most schools, you’ve moved to some form of proficiencies, or standards, right, that’s kind of at the center of things. Now, how do you get students to really digest those with you and really be part of understanding what those are? And how do you let students take part in even adding, subtracting, making sense of those?
What most excites me is I think teachers who don’t have the power in their individual system to upgrade their systems, operating system right, they’re in the system, they’re in and this is where it is. I think he gives so many great practical ideas for how to make assessment work in a way that students are more part of it. But to connect it to the thing, I get frustrated by the book, I wish we could reconsider the whole operating system. And then think about how to partner with students about everything, not just about how to get them more involved in an assessment process that’s happening in a schema that’s already been pre-determined.
or: Yes, I feel like one of the things I want to say that we didn’t really talk about a great deal were at all is that this book does have chapters both on revising, or remodeling and building a fairer grading system and engaging students in self-reporting. And so I know a lot of Vermont schools are really interested in reporting systems and there are some valuable things in there even though we didn’t dive in. Because I think both of us are more interested in the learning than the reporting.
Bill, I can’t thank you enough for joining me again. The Culture Code episode is still one of people’s favorites and one of my favorites.
Bill: I didn’t know that. Great, great.
Jeanie: I have you be my first guest, and then my 52nd guest on the podcast. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to learn from you and talk with you. Thank you so much.
Bill: Yes, thank you. It’s always a pleasure, Jeanie and here’s to your next 52, 53 wherever you are.
Jeanie: That exhausts me just thinking around it.
Bill: Let’s reframe that, you’re doing great amazing work, whatever your next step is, I’m here to support you.
Jeanie: Well, thank you for sitting alongside me. Have a great day, Bill. Thank you so much.
Bill: Yes, you too, Jeanie. Take care.