How To Unblock Curiosity And Build Creativity

Curiosity might be the most important disposition of the new age. It guides the explorations of youth, it powers invention and creation, and fuels chapters of life long learning.

Cultivated through habits of inquiry, curiosity is easily dampened by stress—physical or physiological and blocked by a lack of permission—real or perceived. In an age where curiosity and creativity are more important than ever, pandemic challenges and inequitable conditions block employees and students from the luxury of curiosity.

The Building Blocks for Learning from Turnaround for Children is a framework for the development of skills children need for success in school and beyond. “Curiosity is at the top of the framework as a critical higher-order skill,” explained author Dr. Brook Stafford-Brizzard (now at CZI), “It’s more than wide-eyed wonder about the world, it’s the willingness and ability to explore, observe, take risks, follow the more difficult path.

All of the blocks in the framework contribute to supporting feeling safe to take risks. It starts with attachment and a sense of belonging, the self-awareness of triggers and blind spots, and the ability to self-regulate and tolerate the ambiguity.

“The effects of stress are many and they particularly affect foundational skill development (the bottom two rows of the framework) and this will affect the development of many of the higher-order skills including curiosity,” said Turnaround founder Dr. Pamela Cantor. “This is especially significant now.”

“When we think about COVID or any one of the many forms of traumatic experiences young people are having right now (whether in response to the national reckoning around systemic racism, a lack of connection to peer and school communities, or even gaps in their basic needs being met due to our economic crisis), we know that there will be an effect on learning,” said Cantor. “We will see it in children’s ability to focus and concentrate, on their working memory, how they regulate their emotions and behavior, and on their higher-order metacognitive skills like curiosity, civic identity, and self-direction.”

Curiosity is promoted by safety and security, belonging and attachment, permission, and opportunity–and that’s true at home, at school, and at work.

Curiosity Key to Innovation

“Curiosity is key to the invention of products and systems,” found Lemelson Foundation research. Especially when applied “in a sustained, disciplined, and programmatic way.”

This creativity–applied curiosity in a disciplined sustained way– combines the other top of the Building Blocks skills of self-direction and working with purpose (civic identity).

Successful “inventors are insatiable and unstoppable in their curiosity and their quest for ongoing improvements,” said Lemelson.

But curiosity and creativity aren’t for the rare inventor. Lemelson’s goal is “to convey that everyone can be inventive and invention is a process. Both invention and innovation derive from a healthy curiosity and an environment that supports asking questions and tinkering.”

Like Turnaround, to boost curiosity Lemelson points to a healthy environment free of fear with permission to ask questions. Unfortunately, this is rare at work. Surveymonkey found only 16% of employees believe curiosity is a reward–there’s little perceived value in asking questions or challenging the status quo.

Harvard’s Francesca Gino’s research produced similar findings, “In most organizations, leaders and employees alike receive the implicit message that asking questions is an unwanted challenge to authority. They are trained to focus on their work without looking closely at the process or their overall goals. But maintaining a sense of wonder is crucial to creativity and innovation. The most effective leaders look for ways to nurture their employees’ curiosity to fuel learning and discovery.”

Adobe research suggests that Gen Z students and teachers want more creativity in the classroom. Both agree it will be critical for career success and 93% of teachers recognize that creativity is going to play an integral role in solving many of the challenges the world faces today. And 92% of students said that developing intellectual curiosity is a priority.

A June Adobe study suggests that college admissions officers rate creative skills, with GPA and their interview, as one of the top three deciding factors.

If teachers, students, and employees get the importance of curiosity, it looks like we have a boss problem. Organizational leaders need to create safe spaces that permit curiosity. Schools need to use systems of tiered support to ensure that basic learner needs are met. They need brave leaders that focus on priority outcomes not just end of year grade level proficiency exams.

“Curiosity is much more important to an enterprise’s performance than was previously thought,” said Dr. Gino. “That’s because cultivating it at all levels helps leaders and their employees adapt to uncertain market conditions and external pressures.”

Four of Dr. Gino’s recommendations apply for any organizational leader: model inquisitiveness, emphasize learning goals, let employees (or learners) explore and broaden their interests, and have “Why?” “What if…?” and “How might we…?” days.

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Play, Play-Based Learning Important Now More Than Ever

As the pandemic stretches on, we have naturally heard of the many challenges related to distance learning. And when it comes to how to make learning and life better for our students, we typically hear about new tech applications, games, projects or even instructional approaches. And although those certainly have tremendous value, we may be ignoring one of the most impactful aspects of learning and wellness: PLAY.

Research-Based

Researchers contend that play, or play-based learning, are critical aspects of childhood development. And now, even more than ever, educators and others are coming together to promote the benefits of structured and intentional play. Neuroscientists have concluded that play-based learning positively affects the development of narrative language and acquisition of grammar, while also increasing children’s strength intellectually, physically, and socially-emotionally.

Technology Impact

In the fast-paced and tech-centric world, we live in, helping educators and parents recognize the importance of play is not only important but also critical to helping children reach their individual potential, according to Deb Lawrence, President of the International Play Association’s USA Branch.

Lawrence – who has spent over 35 years in the field of early care and education – says that even though educators and parents remember playing as young children, they have forgotten or are unaware of the real value of play in this technology-driven culture. “I’m really worried that today’s parents may think that our smartphones, tablets, and computers can replace the active play vital to our childhood, learning, and wellness,” said Lawrence.

Overscheduled

Beyond technology, Lawrence suggests that another barrier to children getting playtime is that we, as a culture, tend to overschedule children with too many extracurricular activities.

“Going from one adult structured activity, like soccer practice or dance class, to another adult structured activity is not play,” said Lawrence. “Getting back to what play is and why it is important can help educators and parents recognize that play is the purest form of learning.”

Lawrence says that age-appropriate, structured, and intentional play is active, hands-on, nature, and toy-oriented, and also includes the important aspect of allowing children to choose what they want to do without adult interference. “This is where learning occurs,” said Lawrence. “This type of play is not only fun, but also challenging, imaginative, and developmental.”

Play and Wellness

One of the big takeaways, according to Lawrence and others, is the fact that we need to explicitly create opportunities for young people to use less technology and be less absorbed in screen time.

Playmakers Institute’s Dr. Angie Nastovska says that unplugging and connecting with life have become harder than ever. With the current dominance of distance learning, she believes we are slowly impacting the quality of play and ultimately our kids’ development.

“The same parents that often took a strong stance against the negative effects of technology are now having to guide their children through online learning and screen time,” said Nastovska.

Nastovska suggests that play is the answer to the negative effects of isolation and fatigue from distance learning, as well as the already impactful effects of technology. “The global pandemic just accelerated our challenges and the future’s face of uncertainty,” said Nastovska. “This should serve as a reminder about what our kids need and how learning is much more than just a school-based endeavor.”

Other educators are also indicating that play is more crucial than ever. Lisa Latimer, a school director and play-based learning advocate with IPA USA, believes that we need to educate teachers and parents together on this phenomenon. “People need to look at play through a different lens and change how they think about play. It is not frivolous,” said Latimer.

Skills

However, Latimer sees an urgency here that extends beyond the pandemic and also relates to skills that young people need going forward. “To thrive in today’s fast-changing world, people of all ages must learn to think and act creatively — and the best way to do that is by focusing more on imagining, creating, playing, sharing, and reflecting, just as children do through play,” said Latimer.

But the pandemic also weighs on Latimer and she reiterates the importance now of how we help our children navigate through uncertain times. She believes that play serves as a necessary coping mechanism for anxiety and provides a buffer for stress, meltdowns, and negative feelings.

“Using play and a playful spirit as a means to let children work with changes and challenges as they occur helps children to make sense of the world around them,” said Latimer. “Now more than ever, play is crucial in the lives of our children.”

Final Word

Both for our current distance learning environments, as well as the post-pandemic lives we hope to return to, Lawrence has some very explicit advice for parents.

“Limit extracurricular activities to one activity per week, so children have plenty of time to play outside and to direct their own play,” said Lawrence. “Play with your child when they ask you to play, but let them lead the play.”

A Few Samples of Potential Play-Based Learning Activities:

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Why Must Literacy Be Reframed?

By: Gene M. Kerns, Ed.D. 

Imagine, in a year devoid of major financial market disruption, that you dutifully invested twice the amount you did the previous year into your retirement account, only to see that your account balance remained the same at year’s end. You doubled down on your investment strategy, yet it made no difference. How long would you continue that approach?

Or imagine working overtime only to find that your paycheck remained flat. Would you question the extra time you put in? Of course you would. Would you work overtime the following week? Probably not.

As educators, we want to know that our investments of time, energy, and resources pay reasonable dividends for our students. Well, it’s time for us to be honest and admit that we have a major literacy problem in the US: we have expended vast amounts of resources and have little to show for it. It appears that elements of our current approach to literacy are deeply flawed, yet we continue to make huge investments that yield little to no return.

So, what is the literacy challenge we face? Succinctly stated, it’s stunted reading growth for students after the late elementary years. One of the most commonly used measures of text complexity, which is used to evaluate both the difficulty of books and the reading abilities of students on the same scale, is the Lexile Framework created by MetaMetrics. The graph below depicts typical midyear Lexile measures across grades 2–12 for US students who range in performance from the 25th to the 75th percentile. In other words, this figure illustrates how a vast number of our students grow in terms of literacy.

What we see is consistent growth in the early grades that then levels off quite substantially in the later grades. To some degree, this is a normal pattern for cognitive development and not necessarily a cause for immediate concern. Students often see very large reading gains in the early years; the difference between a student’s reading skills in grade 1 and his or her reading skills in grade 2 will always be greater than the difference in the student’s reading skills between grades 10–11. That said, it is a sad state of affairs when the difference in ability between grade 7 and grade 12 is negligible. These five additional years of schooling typically do not substantially increase most students’ abilities to engage with more difficult texts.

Other data sets reflect this flatlining pattern. The most insightful may be results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) which document stagnant reading proficiency rates across decades. Unlike state tests that, in most cases, have changed drastically over the past 30 years, the NAEP benchmarks have remained relatively stable, and they depict a grim picture of abject flatlines.

Similarly, in most states, the highest rates of proficiency occur on grade 3 reading tests. Fewer students are then proficient by the end of grade 5, and still fewer in grade 8 and grade 10. Over the years of school, proficiency rates drop considerably, and the gap between the highest- and lowest-performing readers gets wider. On some level, many educators have recognized this pattern, and sadly—whether consciously or unconsciously—they have, in essence, accepted it.

There is another piece of this flatlining story that we must also acknowledge. When No Child Left Behind was enacted in 2001, many schools reacted by cutting time devoted to science, social studies, and anything other than ELA and mathematics in order to increase time for the assessed areas of ELA and mathematics. McMurrer (2007) notes there was a “47 percent reduction in-class time devoted to subjects beyond math and reading” (cited in Hirsch, 2017). By increasing our efforts in the name of literacy and by allocating nearly twice as much time for its study, did we see any substantive changes in students’ proficiency? No. And this reality should cause us to re-examine everything.

Continually stagnant rates of proficiency—even after many schools substantially increased the time devoted to ELA—clearly tell us that the way we are currently addressing literacy simply is not paying adequate dividends. E.D. Hirsch (2017) suggests that our current approach must be a “misconceived scheme,” because “the ‘accountability’ principles based on [it] have not induced real progress in higher-level reading competence.”

This brings to mind the familiar definition of insanity often attributed to Albert Einstein but actually written by novelist Rita Mae Brown—doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The “reading wars” debate about the best way to teach reading (whole language versus phonics) did not help, nor did the billions of dollars in spending authorized through Reading First, nor did the major reallocation of our most precious resource, time. All of this indicates that we are in desperate need of new insights around literacy. Our current approaches simply are not paying adequate dividends.

Researchers Jared Myracle, Brian Kingsley, and Robin McClellan (2019) conclude, “Alarm bells are ringing—as they should be—because we’ve gotten some big things wrong: Research has documented what works to get kids to read, yet those evidence-based reading practices appear to be missing from most classrooms.” So, how do we bring real change to an enormous and often deeply entrenched institution like K–12 education? In our new book, Literacy Reframed, my co-authors and I explore elements of the solution. Some of the most important aspects include:

  • New insights from cognitive science that help us to critically re-think our teaching practices.
  • How vast amounts of vocabulary can be efficiently acquired.
  • The critical and often underappreciated role of knowledge in reading comprehension.
  • The symbiotic relationship between reading and writing.
  • What we know and still need to learn about reading digitally.

While there are still many things to be learned and many discussions to be had, the good news is that there are some relatively simple things that we can do that will drastically improve student performance. It’s time for our hard work and investments to pay adequate dividends. It’s time for literacy to be reframed.

For more, see:


Gene M. Kerns, Ed.D. is the Vice President and Chief Academic Officer at Renaissance.

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References

Hirsch, E.D. (2017). Why knowledge matters: Rescuing our children from failed education theories. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Educational Press.

Myracle, J., Kingsley, B., & McClellan, R. (2019). We have a national reading crisis. Retrieved from: www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2019/03/07/we-have-a-national-reading-crisis.html


Invention Opportunity: Measuring What Matters

By: Devin Vodicka

Our current K-12 educational system continues to operate on a model of age-based cohorts where students matriculate through a set of disconnected experiences, organized by subject area for elementary schools and by courses for secondary schools, with a net result that few learners complete high school prepared for lifelong learning. This approach, initially inspired by the efficiencies of Prussian schools in the mid-1800s and cemented by the shifts to mass-produced education during industrialism, has outlived its utility and is in urgent need of systemic evolution.

The invention opportunity here is to create new policies, practices, and tools that encourage the development of purposeful goals tied to whole-child, competency-based learning progressions. Building on the successes that we see at the edges of innovation now, we can invent new models that elevate the desired outcomes from a knowledge-oriented perspective to one that includes knowledge, habits, and skills. We can move away from a myopic focus on high-stakes, episodic tests. We can eliminate harmful grading practices like averaging. We can reframe assessment as a means to an end as opposed to an end in and of itself.

These shifts were underway before the COVID-19 pandemic and our current context magnifies the need to make these changes now. Longstanding anchors of our test-focused system such as the SAT and ACT have been suspended or eliminated. Colleges such as the University of California system are adjusting admissions policies to de-emphasize standardized tests or even ignore them altogether. Advanced Placement tests were altered to the point that their value has come into question. International Baccalaureate exams were canceled. State testing, still the lynchpin of many K-12 accountability systems, was canceled.

Metrics that have been used by schools and districts as proxies of learning such as attendance were rendered impractical. Many systems changed their grading policies to a pass/fail or credit/no-credit system. In parallel with the ending of many familiar practices, suddenly most students were embedded in digital learning experiences, much of it with embedded, real-time feedback, where they also had the opportunity to engage in more self-directed learning.

In the span of several months in the springs of 2020, our K-12 system was suddenly unconstrained and freed of legacies in a way that had been almost inconceivable before the pandemic. What will fill the void? How will we know if students are learning? How will we know if schools are effective? Talk about an invention opportunity.

Measurement and Assessment: Five Guiding Principles

Before we go deeper into the invention opportunity, the following guiding principles are useful to provide context and also to illuminate some of the complexities as we consider how to reframe the role of assessment and effectively measure what matters.

Principle 1: We need to begin with our learners. Historically, we’ve taken an outside-in approach in education, beginning with the needs of policymakers and working from there to implement assessment systems “to” students. We need to be reversing that approach and beginning with the learners.  We must start by designing to inform learning and then move to accountability once we are confident that we’ve achieved the primary purpose of empowering our students. By orienting first to our learners, we ensure that the utility of the assessment is optimized for the person who stands to benefit the most. In addition, by beginning with the learner we can shift from the student being a passive recipient of an externally-imposed assessment to an active, co-constructor of assessment as part of a meaningful learning cycle.

Principle 2: There are two fundamentally different types of learning outcomes. It is important to be clear that some learning follows a fairly linear pathway where there are clear right and wrong answers. The former, which is referred to as “ladder” learning or as a technical problem, can be mastered and typically can be assessed using software. This technical learning tends to be oriented around knowledge acquisition. As an example, successfully completing two-digit multiplication is preceded by competence with one-digit multiplication.  In this mode of learning, the outcomes can be binary (mastered/not yet mastered or competent/not yet competent). These binary determinations are used to inform advancement and to certify competency.

Other learning is much more adaptive and contextual with multiple possible “solutions” to open-ended challenges. This type of learning, which is referred to as “knot” learning, typically cannot be mastered and competency progressions are nonlinear. Habits such as curiosity or creativity, for example, are deeply contextualized and dynamic. Inputs to inform progress are also more complex, requiring self-reflection, peer, observation, educator observation, and even external “expert” observation. As an example, a challenge tied to one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (such as “no poverty”) is unlikely to result in a binary outcome and the valuable outcomes are more directional than determinative. In this case, feedback is designed to inform ongoing growth in the learners’ knowledge, habits, and skills.

Principle 3: To empower lifelong learners we need to implement learning cycles that shift the leadership of the experiences from teacher-led to co-led and then to student-led. In this cycle, the student initially sees, owns, and then drives the learning. Evaluation and understanding are critical components of each of these cycles and they should be thoughtfully constructed to build capacity in learners to self-evaluate and increase self-awareness over time.  In other words, while the teacher is essential in the process, a key shift is to see the student as an active participant, co-constructor, and creator in all aspects of the learning cycle–including planning, engaging, evaluating, and understanding.

Combining these frameworks, I believe that we should be redesigning a system where the majority of student learning for the youngest learners is focused on teacher-led, technical learning and that by the time that they graduate from school the majority of their time should be focused on student-led, adaptive learning. The following graphs are intended to be directional and illustrative and not prescriptive.

Principle 4: When it comes to measurement and assessment, we should value volume over precision. Notwithstanding the flaws and massive variation that we see in grading practices, grade-point averages are consistently found to be better predictors of future performance than tests such as the SAT. As noted in a recent conversation with the University of Oregon professor David Conley, he pointed out that a single grade is the aggregate of multiple inputs and that a grade-point average is the aggregate of many grades. While there is less reliability (from a statistical perspective) in the inputs that inform a grade-point average, the multitude of inputs tends to have more value than a single, statistically-reliable exam. Conley refers to this concept as “high cumulative validity.”

Without getting into a prolonged explanation of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, we should be aware of the following:

  1. Measurement has an impact. With a firm understanding that the act of measurement affects what we are measuring, we need to be mindful of what we intend to measure when we will conduct the assessment, and what the implications of the measurement will be. While in many cases the act of observing and measuring can have a positive result (often referred to as the Hawthorne Effect), we must also be mindful of potential adverse impacts.  For example, when school accountability systems focused on standardized tests in language arts and mathematics, was there an appreciation for how that would result in a narrowing of the learner experience to exclude other subjects such as science, social studies, music, art, world languages, dance, and physical education? Was there an expectation that recess would be reduced or eliminated?
  1. Precise measurements often impede momentum. This means that burdensome assessments impede learning. Again, standardized tests are a prime example here.  When we spend weeks conducting these high-stakes assessments the learning essentially stops. We must ask ourselves if the information that we gain through these tests outweighs the benefits of the learning opportunities that are lost.
  1. Understanding the interplay between position and velocity, we can increase velocity (i.e., learning) by reducing the intensity of measurements (i.e., assessments). A minor adjustment to collecting less precise information more frequently can result in less interference and promote greater rates of ongoing learning.

Principle 5: Given the orientation to a high-volume of imprecise measurements, we should learn from the experiences with industrial-era grading and strictly avoid averages, particularly over extended durations of time. Decayed averages and power laws are more sound indicators of recent performance and widening the use of more sophisticated data collection systems makes these metrics accessible at the click of a button.

The Role of Technology

A note of caution is warranted here regarding the current potential for artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning algorithms as they relate to assessment. Since they rely on self-reference feedback loops, the value in this approach is only evident when there is a massive amount of data. For an individual learner, the only areas where there might exist such an abundance of information would at a granular level tied to “ladder” learning experiences focused on knowledge. Even in those cases, we have found that AI-informed insights are only valuable as input to an educator who should apply their own subjective perspective and observation to make any holistic determinations about performance. In terms of adaptive, knot-learning there is presently very little value in AI approaches due to limited data inputs coupled with the reality that adaptive learning is inherently contextualized. As a result, subjective observations tend to be far more valuable than AI inputs when it comes to informing complex problem-solving or the development of habits and skills.  In sum, computers and sophisticated analyses can be helpful tools but at this time it is imperative that we ensure that the technology is in service to humans. Reversing this ordering is unwise and potentially quite harmful.

Technology will be an accelerator. For example, on the Altitude Learning platform students can create their own learning cycles and the authoring tools make it easier to co-construct and assess valuable learning experiences. In addition, there are already several options on the market that provide a number of tools that simplify combinations of assessments to help understand mastery judgment milestones. Other tools combine adaptive and performance-based assessments. Eventually, we will see competency-tracking tools that incorporate learning that has been credentialed by multiple partners. These resources will evolve into the critical infrastructure for learner records and “mastery transcripts” that will replace our current models.

At all times, we should be placing the learner at the center of our decision-making as we determine the best approach. What will best serve the learner?  What will best promote ongoing learning? These are the questions that should guide our decisions around measurement and assessment.

Putting the Pieces Together: The Impact Framework

As I wrote in Learner-Centered Leadership, the post-industrial education system will require post-industrial measures of success. We can no longer rely on letter grades and seat time as proxies of learning – we are at a stage where evidence of mastery learning is clearly a better way to represent competence. A competency-based, learner-centered approach provides opportunities to extend beyond traditional academic outcomes and take into account alternative measures of progress, including habits and skills in social-emotional learning domains that will be essential for lifelong learning. We believe that post-industrial measures of success should also reflect the reality that individuals are situated in communities and have the responsibility to contribute not only to those communities but also to the broader social system.

Developing these post-industrial measures has not proven to be easy for a number of reasons:

  • An industrial set of measures is deeply ingrained in our systems and psyche
  • More expansive measures are largely unproven and immature
  • There is a lack of clarity regarding what these measures should be and how they should be brought together to provide an actionable and complete picture of progress

Even so, there is a widespread need for a method of measuring student progress that is more reflective of the whole-child outcomes we know are necessary for success. As a result, I engaged in a process to research existing models and to generate a synthesized impact framework that could serve as a framework for a holistic, learner-centered model.

The first step in developing the framework was to conduct a literature review and formulate an initial hypothesis (source materials are listed at the conclusion of this article). Based on the review of existing literature, the initial thinking was that a post-industrial education system should include measures situated at the levels of self, others, and community.

In the early stages of developing the framework, we sought feedback through consultations with both internal and external experts, teams of teachers from schools across the country, and we also conducted student forums.  Through these conversations, we were encouraged to avoid any system that would be used to rank, sort, or select opportunities.  Students, in particular, were mindful of how these outcomes could be “gamed” in various ways if they were used for accountability purposes.  In addition to these practical suggestions, the preponderance of the feedback was affirming with statements such as “I couldn’t agree more with everything you articulate in your framework” and “this is desperately needed.”

After the consultation phase, I refined the framework to include measures of agency, collaboration, and real-world problem solving, which correspond (respectively) to the levels of self, others, and community.

Agency

Defining Agency

Agency is fundamentally about learners demonstrating an ability to meet their unique, self-generated goals. While there is a developmentally appropriate sequence of educator-led to co-led to learner-led approaches, the overall trend should be in the direction of learners who co-create all aspects of their learning in a community context, including goal setting, planning, engagement, assessment, and reflection.

Measuring Agency

The process of measuring agency should take three forms:

  • Learner self-perception regarding the proportion of time that they spend driving their learning (self-referenced).
  • Competency-based evidence of mastery learning in academic domains such as language and literacy, mathematics, social studies, sciences, the arts, and physical wellness (criterion-referenced).
  • Growth and competency demonstration comparisons with other learners.  While this has typically taken the form of intermittent standardized tests, this will ideally emerge from the aggregation of daily learning interactions that form the basis of a comprehensive, valid, and reliable data set (norm-referenced, see “How to test less” for more information).

Collaboration

Defining Collaboration

Collaboration is an umbrella term that is used here to describe the set of habits and skills that are critical for social interaction.  There are various models of collaboration, such as the Character Lab set, which includes self-control, grit, curiosity, growth mindset, gratitude, purpose, social intelligence, and zest, or Covey’s “The Leader In Me” habits, which include being proactive, beginning with the end in mind, putting first things first, thinking win-win, seeking first to understand and then be understood, synergizing, and sharpening the saw.

Measuring Collaboration

Regardless of the model, collaboration is an area where measures of success cannot be represented through a competency-based or mastery model.  Developing these habits and skills is an ongoing process that can vary in different contexts.  As a result, measures of collaboration should be grounded in self-reflection, peer assessment, and educator observations that are aggregated over time to illustrate patterns and trends that inform ongoing development.  Such measures should encompass both the formal and informal collaborative opportunities that occur through peer interactions.  Additionally, these measures can be grounded in frameworks of developmentally-appropriate indicators such as those in the Essential Skills and Dispositions work.

Real-world problem solving (hereafter referred to as problem-solving)

Defining problem solving

Problem-solving occurs when the application of agency and collaboration results in improvements for the benefit of a community. Problem-solving can be grounded in project-based learning, service learning, challenge-based learning, or any number of models that extend the learning to authentic, real-world contexts. As an example, many schools are orienting students to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to provide a framework for contextualized problem-solving.

Measuring problem solving

The measurement of problem-solving may be achieved through expert feedback. This feedback may come through exhibitions of applied learning that rely on the learner to share their journey with experts who can provide meaningful feedback to validate impact and suggest the next steps. Portfolios are helpful references for these exhibitions, particularly insofar as they offer the right medium for demonstrations over time and the corresponding appropriate evaluations.

Conclusion: What’s Possible?

Just as the inputs are different in this post-industrial system, so too are the outputs — the “learner records.” Unlike report cards or transcripts that are historically organized by subjects or courses, the post-industrial, learner-centered system is organized around the learner. Holistic learner profiles, digital portfolios, and other portable learner records are designed to inform ongoing learning. We are on the cusp of an era where students will have a “data backpack” that will transform into a “digital briefcase” where their learning will extend beyond school on a cradle to career journey that focuses on lifelong learning.

It should be noted that there remains much work to be done to improve data interoperability in order for us to scale these practices. Even so, we are already seeing early movement from the initial “badging” efforts to add validation through blockchain to improve the credibility and trustworthiness of the certification. It is entirely possible that we will see significant progress on interoperability and validation in the very near future and we should not underestimate how these developments will accelerate an open-walled, ecosystem approach of any time, anywhere learning.

In addition to providing glimpses into the future of assessment through research and ideation, there are examples of these practices already underway in schools and districts across the United States. Tamim Academy, a network of Jewish Day Schools and a partner of Altitude Learning, has developed a set of learner outcomes that closely resemble the Impact Framework. Design 39 Campus (Poway Unified School District, San Diego County) and Odyssey STEM Academy (Paramount Unified School District, Los Angeles County) make extensive use of holistic learner profiles. El Segundo Unified School District (Los Angeles County) uses a scorecard aligned to their graduate profile to assess holistic competencies.

Intermediaries such as the San Diego County Office of Education are developing “universal transcript collaboratives” oriented around digital diplomas. Higher education innovators such as  the Minerva Project are developing high school programs that orient around transferable skills based on the learning sciences. Coursera and Google are rolling out certification programs to compete with traditional university models.  Employers like Walmart are creating “lifelong learning” programs.

The changes are already underway. These innovative models are solutions for the invention opportunity in front of us now.  Making these exceptional experiences the norm is on the horizon.

Margaret Wheatley encourages us to keep asking “What is possible?” In terms of the invention opportunity, it is clear that we can encourage the development of purposeful goals tied to whole-child, competency-based learning progressions. In fact, the movement is already underway. We can shift from a system over-anchored on assessment to one where learners and their learning is the focus. We can empower learners to see, own, and drive their learning, orienting to adaptive challenges that develop the knowledge, habits, and skills of all students.  By promoting agency, collaboration, and problem-solving our learners will learn how to learn, improving their metacognitive capabilities through lifelong learning. Our students will become changemakers, making their communities, our society, and our world a better place.  Isn’t that the purpose of education?  It is possible here. We need to embrace the invention opportunity together and we need to do it now.


References

Literature Review – Core resources

Additional resources

Learning Frameworks

Related resources:

Impact Framework Consultations:

  • Dr. Alan Daly, University of California San Diego
  • Andy Calkins, Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC)
  • Karen Cator, Digital Promise
  • Dr. Bror Saxberg, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative
  • Dr. Brooke Stafford-Brizard, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative
  • Sumeet Bakshi, Admissions Advisor
  • Jack McDermott, Panorama Education
  • Dr. Chris Cerf, Former Superintendent, Newark
  • Dr. Jon Snyder, Stanford University
  • Dr. Keith Nuthall, Principal, Odyssey STEM Academy
  • Kelly Young, Education Reimagined

Many thanks to Tom Vander Ark and to David Conley for their input and suggestions. This article would not be possible without their wisdom and expertise. 

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It’s Time to Learn AI, And It Just Got Easier Than Ever

It is nearly impossible to avoid AI these days. In conversation, it is described as a tool of the future, a tool of power, a tool of opportunity. Well, regardless of the view towards AI, it is something that is better to understand than ignore and it is something that, with understanding, will create and support countless jobs of the future. Fortunately, knowledge about AI — and the ability to design alongside it — is becoming increasingly accessible.

Tech giants around the world are acting swiftly to bring AI to the edge, and NVIDIA has a head start on many of them. The company started out focusing primarily on gaming, specifically in designing and manufacturing graphics processing units (GPUs). Since 2014, however, NVIDIA technology has expanded into sectors such as data centers, professional visualization, healthcare, and autonomous machines.

As AI proliferates, a new generation of students and developers will play a critical role in teaching and training autonomous machines and robots how to behave in the real world. NVIDIA is now taking its AI thought leadership further through the release of the NVIDIA Jetson Nano 2GB Developer Kit which offers “unprecedented, affordable access to state-of-the-art computer solutions for learning autonomy,” says Emilio Frazzoli professor of Dynamic Systems and Control at ETH Zurich.

With this cue card-sized AI embedded devkit, learners of all ages and backgrounds will have access to a powerful machine learning experience that makes creating autonomous robots easier than ever. Get inspired by community projects or follow along to fun step-by-step tutorials, such as this how-to for building a mini DIY autonomous racecar called Jetbot.

With the mutual goal of teaching a wide audience of students about robotics and AI, NVIDIA has partnered with the Duckietown project, which started as an MIT class in 2016 and has since evolved into an open-source platform for robotics and AI education, research and outreach. Duckietown offers hands-on learning activities in which students put AI and robotics components together to address modern autonomy challenges for self-driving cars. Solutions are implemented in the Duckietown robotics ecosystem, where the interplay among theory, algorithms and deployment on real robots is witnessed firsthand in a model urban environment.

Frazzoli added, “The Duckietown educational platform provides a hands-on, scaled-down, accessible version of real-world autonomous systems.”

To encourage educators to adopt STEM projects, NVIDIA has set up a free Jetson AI Course and Certifications program. Teachers can become certified as a Jetson AI Specialist or Jetson AI Ambassador by completing the Jetson AI Fundamentals course and publishing an open-source Jetson project as part of the assessment.

And, for educators to custom-build their AI courses, NVIDIA also offers freely available curriculum and open-source platforms.

The Jetson Nano 2GB Developer Kit has already begun to garner acclaim across the world:

Drew Farris, director of Analytics and AI Research at Booz Allen Hamilton, said: “At Booz Allen, we seek to empower people to change the world. We’re using NVIDIA Jetson to train new technical resources as AI becomes critical for enterprises and personnel leveraging AI to solve the most difficult global challenges.”

Jack Silberman, Ph.D., Lecturer, UC San Diego, Jacobs School of Engineering, Contextual Robotics Institute, said: “NVIDIA’s Jetson AI Certification materials thoroughly cover the fundamentals with the added advantage of hands-on project-based learning. I believe these benefits provide a great foundation for students to prepare for university robotics courses and compete in robotics competitions.”

Christine Nguyen, STEM curriculum director at Boys & Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania, said: “We know how important it is to provide all students with opportunities to impact the future of technology. We’re excited to utilize the NVIDIA Jetson AI Specialist certification materials with our students as they work toward becoming leaders in the fields of AI and robotics.”

“While today’s students and engineers are programming computers, in the near future they’ll be interacting with, and imparting AI to, robots,” said Deepu Talla, vice president and general manager of Edge Computing at NVIDIA. “The new Jetson Nano is the ultimate starter AI computer that allows hands-on learning and experimentation at an incredibly affordable price.”

Understanding the inner workings of AI is an essential skill of the present and will extend long into the future as well.

To learn more visit NVIDIA’s website.

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This post is sponsored by NVIDIA. If you’d like to learn more about our policies and practices regarding sponsored content, please email Mason Pashia.

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Harmonizing with Microcredentials: 7 Steps to Reimagining Your School’s Professional Learning

Over the past four stories, we’ve taken a look at how Harmony Public Schools, an extraordinarily innovative and hardworking group of educators, have fortified their teaching staff with a concentrated focus upon career advancement. Their commitment to awarding microcredentials aligned to career pathways is more than an act of good faith; it’s an investment in what makes Harmony so valuable to their entire learning community of nearly 100,000 staff, students, parents, and collaborators spread across Texas.

We’ve heard the voices representing these roles and have seen how the program has been well-received by the teachers participating and even the students on the receiving end of their action research projects. In short, the commitment to building these pathways and offering incentives to teachers to sharpen their skills has made Harmony stronger and more effective in delivering high quality learning experiences for their learners.

So, what if you would like to follow their lead in developing a new approach to professional learning for your educators? There are seven steps Harmony’s leadership has taken to make this shift.

1. Defining vision for a human capital investment plan

Any project of this scale requires a plan replete with a thoroughly engineered approach to defining the scope. What problems are being solved? And what deficiencies and inefficiencies would be eliminated? Harmony took their success from their prior grant-funded STEM program and thought out the long-term vision over a five-year plan for improvement laid out by their CEO, Fatih Ay. This document, informed by conversations representing all stakeholders, was the source for developing the microcredential program and clarified the project. The conversations include:

  • Evaluating the current state: They have learned at Harmony the current state often has some of the necessary pieces but working in silos and this needs to be addressed so they align on one another and work as gears propelling us forward.
  • Setting the vision for the future state: They knew they wanted to improve practice in each classroom. They also wanted to drastically improve retention of talent as teachers and administrators progress in their own career journeys.
  • Mapping out a plan to get there: Researching the means to accomplish what they want to deliver in teaching and learning was done so they could devise individualized pathways for their staff to prepare for those shared goals.

2. Choosing a microcredential system

Assessing elements that were already in place, the project team conducted a gap analysis for their processes and the needed system investment to operate it in a satisfactory way. For Harmony that meant partnering with BloomBoard to build the career pathways options and the modules that would constitute mastery to an end where promoting a Harmony staffer to a new leadership role would be a decision they could feel confident about. With the outcome and system pieces defined, the project team set about designing the program.

Each organization is unique with their own priorities and needs. It might be hard to find an off-the-shelf system where you can plug in all microcredentials into your career pathways. So start with your own organization looking at roles and job descriptions, define what excellence/success should look like for each role and then build out essential competencies and micro-credentials. One may find some ready to go microcredentials you can just take and plug into your system but it is likely that you’ll have to build some of your own desired competencies so the process looks more organic and appealing to your educators.

3. Building consensus & support

Harmony has a culture where taking on big projects is more the norm than the exception. Harmony curriculum director and grant facilitator, Robert Thornton said, “We make big launches, which is risky, but we listen to feedback and are quick to adapt to challenges with extra support, different expectations, or more clarity as needed.”

To support this culture of taking calculated risks on initiatives that will affect all in the extended Harmony network, leaders have worked hard to implement what they hear from the field. Burak Yilmaz, Harmony’s Director of Instruction said they prioritize, “…ongoing efforts to collect feedback and input, and when educators see that their input is making a difference, it impacts the consensus building positively. They are more open and positive to engagement.”

Asking more of the staff is always a sensitive topic for leaders. However at Harmony, they’ve built a culture of supporting teachers with efficient changes in direction and the microcredential and career pathways initiative was no different. Even so, such a program would only be successful if their teachers and administrators saw that this was a very realistic and approachable way to invest in themselves and their practice. Yilmaz expanded upon this saying, “As we get more input and consequently build more support systems to address educator needs, this is seen as an investment into their professional learning.”

4. Funding the program

Harmony has an excellent track record of winning grants for funding their initiatives. Without grant funding it might be more challenging to start such a journey, but looking at how much districts spend on professional development (PD) with little to no return, you realize it is worth the investment because ultimately the microcredentialing approach is more cost effective than the traditional PD costs. So with careful and strategic budget planning another school or district can use other funding sources (such as state funds like the Texas Education Agency affords schools here) and still make a difference converting long-term planning and spending into a similar investment in teachers and principals.

5. Implementing the project plan

With a funded plan and all stakeholders current with the timeline, Harmony’s central leadership brought in their school-level leaders across their entire network of schools. Sharing the project plan and delegating messaging responsibilities helped principals socialize the project as well as identify early hand-raisers from each building’s teaching staff. These “mavens” served as front-running examples for their peers, earning the first microcredentials and seeing how the strategy accounted for competencies they had already mastered. This accelerated the adoption by way of testimonials shared among peers.

By increasing support systems tailored to educator needs and challenges, implementation scale also increases and we get better success. Harmony’s “Share and Shine” method which was also highlighted in the previous Learner-Centered STEM series. For any new initiative, our approach is to share early successes in abundance and let those early champions shine under the spotlight. This approach provides acknowledgement and appreciation of our early adopters and motivates them to go further and deeper. It also gives critics and nay-sayers real insider examples of how this can be done successfully and turns them into advocates as well. “Share and Shine” builds optimism and expands our pool of early champions.

6. Change management

Like many schools, the culture of Harmony is one of high expectations for students and staff alike. Those high expectations apply consistently to supporting staff in the same manner staff would support those students. This means no teacher is left to fend for themselves. The program may be voluntary, but that’s to promote and recognize the agency of each educator to advance their own career by targeting mutually agreed upon skills to master. When things don’t go as planned, or a career pathway hits a snag while a staffer is attempting a module, leaders figure out who is struggling and why in order to intervene in a way in which the participant and the program are both tended to in a timely manner.

Harmony’s leaders have found over the years that when it comes to supporting teachers with their microcredentials, peer support is more valuable and effective. That is another testimony to Harmony’s teacher-led professional learning focus. Therefore, they have added a new support role for career pathways: Microcredential Ambassadors. These are teacher leaders who have already earned a bunch of microcredentials and are tasked with providing individual or group support to other teachers on their campuses to make their microcredentials experience more positive and help them cross the finish line.

7. Continued operation of project

When Harmony’s leaders approach a new initiative, they do so intentionally building upon existing work to fill gaps and revive the efficacy of those prior projects. When there’s a sizable overlap in these initiatives, they merge or collapse the projects to reduce overhead and burden on all resources. Therefore, as the microcredential program augmented their prior work establishing professional learning communities, that extended their professional learning work to shift to a project-based learning model. Undergirding all of these is their universal mission of creating a personalized learning experience for both teachers and students alike.

As microcredentials become a more integral part of Harmony’s professional learning culture, leaders see potential for other professional learning that can be augmented with microcredentials such as coaching, mentoring, SLOs, and even more traditional PD sessions. Harmony’s instructional leaders have learned how to align a PD session with a microcredential to give participants a more hands-on PD experience where they get to analyze their current reality, design and develop a plan or a solution to a problem, and as soon as they they leave that PD session, implement that plan in their classroom and then reflect, evaluating their practice, using the ADDIE design framework embedded into professional learning cycles.

ADDIE Design Diagram, from BloomBoard

This approach helps teachers complete half of their microcredential requirements within a PD session and complete the remainder when they return to the classroom armed with a plan of action.

Harmony continues to refine their enterprise resource planning and strategic investment in their talent, promoting from within and increasing the value of the learning experience for thousands of teachers and learners across the state of Texas.

Additional Resources


Teaching Through Change, Stories of Resilience: Austin ISD

Teachers across the nation are navigating a new normal and first-grade teacher Ms. Stacey Shapiro, of Austin Independent School District (AISD) in Austin, Texas, is no exception. AISD is a member of The Learning Accelerator’s Strategy Lab cohort, a network of seven districts that are planning for resilient and equitable futures, both in return-to-school preparations in response to COVID-19 and in seeking long-term sustainable change beyond the pandemic.

Shapiro has adapted to the change by becoming her own version of “Flat Mini Ms. Shapiro,” based on the famed literary character Flat Stanley. “Flat Mini Ms. Shapiro” is showing her students how to persevere through any adventure, no matter the obstacle, by focusing on her relationships with students and peers and taking time for self-care.

Build Positive Relationships: Students

As a 23-year teaching veteran, Shapiro understands the importance of personal relationships between teachers and students and among peers for creating a positive learning environment – even if virtual. “Relationships can only exist when there is trust. Having trust between the two of you, the teacher and the student, means that students are willing to try harder things. It means they are willing to think outside the box and learn to love school for themselves.”

Recognizing that relationship building would look different in a remote environment this school year, Shapiro spent the summer creating a toolkit for her students that would help them get to know each other. “I wanted fall to go smoothly so I sent students a Flat Mini Ms. Shapiro [a paper cutout of her] that allowed students to take pictures with the Mini Shapiro and send them to me. It was a great way for them to share their world with me.”

Creating Your Own “Flat Mini Ms. Shapiro”

  • Print out and laminate a colorful, flat version of yourself on cardstock
  • Use the “Flat Mini You” to attach to flyers, activity kits, invitations, and more to increase engagement
  • Invite students to take pictures with the “Flat Mini You” and send them to you via email, Seesaw, or your favorite learning platform

In addition, Shapiro also sent home a BINGO card that allowed students to show the things around their home and a mini-movie trailer to start building relationships.

Prior to COVID, Shapiro infused her love for being active with walks around the track with the students. Since the new socially distance measures, Shapiro has built connections with them by building a mini-track for her in-person students where they all run together on Fridays. To ensure that everyone, in and outside of the class feels connected, she incorporates time in the schedule for students to simply be social. “Every day, I start class with a 20 minute morning meeting to create space for each student to share and I have an activity focused on class community-building. We are on Zoom for two hours and it is important to make time for kids to tell me about their new puppy or Halloween costume and to remember that they recently had a soccer game that I need to ask them about. It’s nice to give time in the morning and afternoon for class meetings” said Shapiro.

Building Positive Relationships: Peers

Relationships are key and regardless of in-person, virtual, or something in between, teachers know they can’t do it alone this year. Just as student relationships are critical to an effective learning environment, so too are teacher-to-teacher relationships in creating a successful school. Now more than ever, teachers deeply need strong peer support. One mechanism for this is through Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). Districts are leaning on teacher leaders like Shapiro during this unique time to help new and experienced teachers adapt to new realities and instructional challenges.

When Shapiro was asked to create her “Lessons from the Field” series around getting started with distance learning for the first-grade teachers of AISD, she focused on giving them a starting point and access to immediate resources. “I loved getting to know and working with my peers. Since starting the series, so many teachers have reached out and want to continue. I am able to teach them and they teach others. It’s a joy to share what I’m doing and teachers share back ideas and resources with me. I’m so happy to help so many teachers, and in turn, students,” said Shapiro.

As a base to get teachers started, she used tools such as Google Docs, SeeSaw, and Canvas, created best practices for curriculum infused with community building, and developed virtual PLC sessions that allowed teachers to have voice and choice for sessions. In her training, she helped teachers to understand that although everything can’t be replicated in an online environment, curriculum and connections could still be authentic and engaging

Building Positive Relationships: Self

Through her work as a teacher leader and classroom instructor, Shapiro knows first hand how stressful teaching this year has been. She shares her self-care tips with her peers:

  1. Have socially distant meals with coworkers
  2. Focus on a healthy work/life balance
  3. Organize your must-dos and may dos – then prioritize
  4. Make exercise a priority to create a space to think and breathe
  5. Set routines and schedules
  6. Engage your passions (Ms. Shapiro’s is teaching a running class and training her kids to be marathon runners)

By building strong relationships with students, being an active member of a strong teacher community, and taking time for herself, Shapiro is making the most of this time of change. Although she doesn’t get to travel right now to amazing lands like Flat Stanley, “Flat Mini Ms. Shapiro” works tirelessly to create personalized and engaging educational spaces for students and help other teachers to become AISD heroes. The changes being made by Ms. Shapiro and other AISD educators will create district-wide progress and allow the system to better meet the needs of all students.

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Hybrid Instruction Creates More Time for Formative Assessments

The classrooms of fall 2020 have changed a great deal from those of late winter/early spring 2020. Many of the physical classroom spaces have only a teacher in them who is working virtually with students. Others have less than half the regular number of students in them. Where we once had students working together in small groups and pairs, we now see tape on the floor and across tables to ensure social distancing. Often the stress felt in the need to change pedagogical practices by teachers is palpable. The focus of the need for change is most notable in teachers asking about how to do student assessments in all virtual or hybrid classrooms.

When probing at whether teachers are looking for assistance with formative or summative assessments, the majority or asking how to give a “test” – summative assessment or a formalized diagnostic type of assessment.  The focus on formative assessments is not always paramount in the teacher’s minds, yet there is nothing we do as educators that is more powerful than a formative assessment. These daily or at least bi-weekly assessments help to determine what instruction should happen next in classrooms and what content needs to be taught and retaught. However, as teachers work face to face with students only 2 days per week or only virtually, the role of formative assessments becomes more critical than ever.

Creating a hybrid classroom that is rich in formative assessments is a necessity that is not that time consuming but will produce information about the progress of each student that will be more essential to the “in-person” classroom time than in prior years. For teachers to create classrooms that support hybrid learning involves working with teachers on developing a flipped learning mindset. Flipped learning is a pedagogical approach where the concept of new learning is done in an individual space rather than a group space. The group space time (in person in the classroom) becomes a dynamic space whereby students spend their time in the application of the new learning along with having time with the teacher to engage in creativity and group “think” about the learning.

Flipped learning changes the way teachers approach the planning and delivery of instruction. Planning times means creating resources for students to be exposed to the new learning through videos, computer applications, and other resources that will replace what the teacher has known as the “lecture” or “In-person delivery of new knowledge”. This concept often overwhelms teachers, but it doesn’t have to. We need to provide teachers with permission to use already existing high-quality instructional materials from others, including teachers, publishers, and software applications that can assist with reducing the burden of creating a new video done by the teacher for every class.

Once teachers have tried flipped learning, they find that they have much more time for formative assessments and are able to spend time working with students more at the individualized instructional level of each student.  These formative assessments may take many forms. There are the in-person traditional approaches of tickets out the door, short quizzes, classroom discussions, and questions and answers. In a hybrid classroom, the teacher may use these more traditional approaches but can also use online formative assessments like those inside applications such as Kahoot, NearPod, Flipgrid, Padlet, and Socrative. These are just a few of the apps that are available and all of these are free to educators. Each of these allows for the creation of electronic formative assessments that students may do online and during flipped learning as well in the classroom with technology support. Providing students with online formative assessments during their in-home/virtual classroom time allows for immediate feedback to the student and the teacher and helps the teacher maximize the focus of the in-person learning time.

Imagine your classroom with students coming in with background knowledge and at least exposure to the concepts that you will be working with them today. Allowing students to watch a video or explore a presentation before coming to class creates at least a foundation for moving students from the knowledge level to the application level at a more rapid pace. Further, imagine that after watching the video or exploring the presentation students completed a formative assessment that captured the level of retention of new or enhanced knowledge about a topic that allowed you to spend your in-person classroom time focused on just what students need to create knowledge at the application level that will ultimately move them more rapidly to mastery. Ah, hybrid instruction, I think I really like you!

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Why Mentorship Matters

By: Alexa Goins

It’s not always what you know. Sometimes, it’s who you know.

Mentorship has the power to shape the next generation of professionals in any industry, but that’s especially true in tech. For software engineers and UX designers, it can help boost confidence, offer job searching guidance, and advance overall career goals. Let’s explore mentorship’s role in tech and some best practices for facilitating a successful one.

College Alternatives and Mentorship

Non-traditional higher education and job readiness training programs are reinventing mentorship by providing new avenues for it. Many of these training programs are designed to give students more ownership of their studies and more hands-on career experience. This can be empowering as students are challenged to play an active role in gaining soft skills alongside technical knowledge.

Kenzie Academy is a tech and coding school that trains students for careers in UX design and software engineering. Part of our curriculum focuses on job readiness training through which we challenge students to network, learn how to interview, and draft career artifacts like cover letters, LinkedIn profiles, and resumes. They build relationships with our industry contacts through some of the job readiness programming as well.

Most recently, we’ve been making active efforts to increase our mentorship opportunities for our students. Relationship-building can be a game-changer in providing opportunities to those looking to grow in tech.

Mentorship Levels the Playing Field

Earlier this summer, various members of the tech community led a rallying cry, compelling leaders to examine the racial disparities in tech hiring and capital. Only 1 percent of startup founders who raised venture capital are Black, according to a joint study from RateMyInvestor and DiversityVC.

As a tech and coding academy, we saw it as critical to help our students build relationships with companies before they even graduate. Mentorship can play a pivotal role in establishing the connections that make it possible to make the hire and send the wire, and therefore, help diversify our industry. Our #MakeTheHire mentorship program pairs established tech professionals with Kenzie students in an effort to address the hiring disparities in the industry.

Mentorship can help here as it connects up-and-coming tech workers of all backgrounds with established leaders searching for new talent. We originally dreamt up #MakeTheHire as a way to introduce Black Kenzie students to the movers and shakers of the industry, though the program has since grown to include all of our students who are career-ready.

Mentorship Opens Doors & Facilitates Growth

Mentors offer their mentees access to unique networking opportunities. Mentees don’t just interact with their mentors; oftentimes, they connect with their mentor’s contacts as well. Those contacts help them build relationships that can land a job down the line, or simply get them connected to local organizations and groups.

In a mentorship, students are given first-hand experience in the professional world and, as a result, the opportunity to grow their work and technical skills. They’ll learn basic soft skills such as how to communicate well effectively, regardless of the medium. Kenzie Academy students are encouraged to take ownership of their work and be proactive in working towards their goals. Mentors can assist in meeting goals like resume completion, conduct mock technical and behavioral interviews, and assist with other job readiness training.

Best Practices for Tech Mentorships

Kenzie students are always ready for the right mentor, but our mentors have to be ready to provide the best experience. Here are some best practices.

For mentors:

  • Get to know your mentee. The best mentors ask their mentees to share their stories, their career motivations, and their questions and concerns around the job hunt.
  • Review their personal statement/cover letter, resume, and LinkedIn. Give them honest feedback on how to better position themselves to be attractive to employers.
  • Share your story. Your mentees want to learn from you! So, don’t hold back in telling your mentees about your experiences, how you got where you are today, what goals you’re currently working on, and where you plan to go. Hearing your story will excite them for their own tech journeys.
  • Set clear expectations. Let your mentees know your availability. Set expectations for how often you can meet and how often you can respond to emails. Also, let them know what you expect them to work on or prepare before the next session.

For mentees:

  • Be proactive. Your mentorship will only work if you do. Your mentor may be busy, so don’t be afraid to make the first move when it comes to scheduling your meetings. Don’t just send them your information; be proactive, propose a few times, be flexible and make the meeting happen.
  • Communicate. Communication is a two-way street so don’t wait for your mentor to reach out. The success of your mentorship will depend on your ability to communicate well to set up meetings and in letting your mentor know what you want to work on in your time with them. Advocate for yourself, always — your professional growth depends on it.
  • Send them your details. Don’t forget to send over your resume and a URL link to your LinkedIn profile before your first meeting. Your mentor can help personalize their advice to you once they have a better understanding of your professional background.
  • Ask questions. Your mentor has a lifetime of experience to share, so let your curiosity lead and ask questions. You’ll get the most out of your mentorship if you come to each session with an open mind, a notepad, and any topics you want to discuss.

Finding a Tech Mentorship

There are many ways students can find mentors in the tech industry. First, students should check to see if their school, bootcamp, professional organization, or academic program offers a mentoring program of any kind. If their school or place of work doesn’t offer a mentorship program, they can seek out third-party organizations that pair tech professionals with mentees. Finally, students can look into their own network (or build one through local or online organizations) to find mentoring opportunities.

Whether you’re an educator or tech professional, consider ways you can create mentorship opportunities for the next generation of industry leaders. Their voices, their work, and their talent matter. We can all do our part by lifting them up and using our knowledge and networks to prepare them for the future of work.

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About Kenzie Academy: Kenzie Academy is a tech and coding school with headquarters in Indianapolis, Ind. Kenzie arms people with an education for the future of work, especially those who have been underserved by traditional higher education. We offer online & in-person certification courses in Software Engineering and UX Design. We believe in providing quality and affordable tech education so students can graduate job-ready.

About the Author: Alexa Goins is the Content Marketer at Kenzie Academy. Before she joined the field of higher education marketing, she worked as a journalist and taught English in the South of France. When she’s not writing, you can find her reading non-fiction works, doing embodiment yoga, or planning her next trip to Paris. You can find more of her work at www.alexagoins.com.

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Focusing on Feedback: A Conversation with Amy Tepper and Patrick Flynn About Supporting Educators During Distanced Teaching

By: Adam Geller

Collecting evidence of teaching practice and providing feedback based on that evidence is critical to the professional learning process. For teachers to be successful—especially this year with distanced teaching—this is a practice that needs to be prioritized.

Amy Tepper and Patrick Flynn, educational coaches and co-authors of multiple books including Feedback to Feed Forward: 31 Strategies to Lead Learning, are experts on driving organizational change by helping teachers, instructional coaches, school leaders, and administrators through the feedback process. I recently had multiple conversations with them about how feedback impacts the teaching and learning process.

After first discussing the importance of understanding students’ emotional well-being in order to effectively lead student learning, they shared valuable tips and strategies on how coaches can use feedback to help teachers continuously improve their practice, especially now with many teaching remotely.

Now that we don’t have a traditional way of thinking about what teaching looks like, how can coaches still collect the evidence needed for feedback?

Flynn: There are eight strategies based on real experience inside classrooms that we cover in our books with three that we call the trifecta—look, listen, and interact. The whole idea is that everything we’re trying to collect should really be about the learning, specifically what and how learning is occurring. This includes understanding the learning in the context of the environment and the purpose of the lesson itself.

The idea of ‘look, listen, and interact’ really gives a platform to develop some of those core strategies, as well as those core look-fors as to what evidence to collect.

Building upon that, what does this look like for distanced teaching during the pandemic?

Tepper: Basically as coaches, you’re doing and looking for the same things—you’re looking at the learning taking place and how teachers are impacting the learning.

But what we need to think about now is what tools are available to help facilitate this process. For those who were already using video-based observation, this won’t feel like a big jump. For example, coaches can go and watch a teacher’s screencast of a quick mini-lesson or join Zoom conversations, and both of these would feel like comfortable steps.

The interaction part of the trifecta—after listening to a Zoom call and reading or looking at student work—can be more challenging however it can still be really rich. We should continue to think about how to use surveys or how to jump into a small group in Zoom as a leader, peer, or coach and engage with those learners while the teacher is in another group.

Interaction is still possible—teachers in synchronous settings are engaging with learners, and so can we as coaches.

Why is providing feedback so important in a time like this?

Flynn: It’s really important to consider the impact of feedback and how it is the driving force in a culture of learning. It is the mechanism that leaders, coaches, and educators can utilize collaboratively in many ways to build and cultivate a different mindset about the learning that needs to be occurring.

Feedback becomes the platform upon which professional learning can be designed specifically to address strengths that exist within a building, as well as the needs that exist within a building. So, when we think about our virtual environments now and we see the patterns of feedback that are coming out of any sort of information gathering or collaboration, we’re able to utilize that feedback and make it have an impact on the learning that’s happening.

Tepper: Feedback is equally as powerful when teachers are out of buildings, even though it might look a little different.

When many states dropped their teacher evaluation requirements (requirements which teachers may have had negative connotations and experiences about), it opened up this world where coaches can just get in and check out teaching and give good feedback. The whole process is all about growth and supporting teachers. So, we’re hopeful that from all of this, teachers will suddenly see feedback as a positive and that it can be a really positive experience for their professional growth.

For more, see:


Adam Geller is the author of “Evidence of Practice: Playbook for Video-Powered Professional Learning” and founder of Edthena, a teacher video observation and online collaboration platform for educators.

Amy Tepper and Patrick Flynn of Tepper and Flynn are educational coaches and co-authors of multiple books including Feedback to Feed Forward: 31 Strategies to Lead Learning. Follow them on Twitter at @ATep46 and @PatFlynn.

To watch more of this interview with Tepper and Flynn, visit the Edthena blog at https://blog.edthena.com/tepperandflynn.

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