Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Teachers Don't Have All The Answers

Author’s Note: This post is cross-posted on Justin Birckbichler’s and Mari Venturino’s blogs.

The mantra of Breakout EDU is “It’s time for something different.” Breakout EDU is an immersive game-based platform that adapts the escape room concepts of problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration into an educational format. Players have to solve riddles to unlock a locked box. As we have shared in this post from Ditch That Textbook blog, we are thrilled to have the chance to live this motto as the Breakout EDU Digital team (in which we adapt the mechanics of Breakout EDU into a digital format). As we have evolved, iterated, and learned from that initial article, two situations have been brought to our attention time and time again. In this post and a follow up, we will examine these points and provide our response to them.

image source
With a Breakout EDU game using the box, setup instructions are provided. It gives the lock combinations, printable materials, and the paths the students follow to solve the riddles. You need these in order to facilitate the game. With the Breakout EDU Digital games, none of this is provided - everything is ready to go as soon as you enter the game.


Multiple times a week, we receive emails, tweets, Facebook messages, and other assorted communication from teachers asking for an answer key to the Digital games. When we receive these messages, we provide additional prompts and hints, but refuse to provide answer keys.


Why do we do this? Is it because we are evil and want you to suffer? Absolutely not - this is our contribution to the Breakout EDU mantra. For the bulk of the history of education, teachers have been viewed as the keepers of knowledge or the sage on the stage. In our opinion, this has gone on far too long. With the advent of the digital age, students have access to limitless amounts of information. Our roles as teachers need to change.


The “hidden curriculum” of soft skills is just as critical as the content we are mandated to teach. Words like rigor, growth mindset, resilience, and productive struggle thrown around as skills that students need to be successful in life, yet how often do we model this for our students? By not having access to an answer key, you are provided with a perfect opportunity to experience what a student feels when they first encounter a tough trigonometry problem. You're faced with a choice - put in effort to stretch your abilities to their fullest extent and grow your brain or email us for an answer (which is akin to flipping to the back of the textbook for the key.) Which would you prefer your students to do? Why do we not hold ourselves to that same standard?


You don't have to struggle alone - share your plight with your students. Challenge them to help you complete the puzzles. Students see things differently than adults; something that has stumped us for hours takes a matter of seconds for them. Imagine their moment of glorious success. They solved something their teacher couldn't.


But it's deeper than that. You were vulnerable with them. You shared your struggle. You modeled resiliency and a refuse to give up. You showed them that it's ok to ask for help; that it's ok to admit you don't always have all the answers. This is a bond that can't be forged by playing a video about famous figure who overcame adversity to reach success. They'll be more likely to let down their guard and ask you for help - and you'll understand their feelings even better.


By now you're thinking that this is easy for us to say - we have all the answers to the games. However, we've played other's games and been through this productive struggle.


And it's not just us who feel this way. For every few requests for answers, there’s one praising this dedication to doing something differently. We'll close with our favorite, which comes from Dr. Donovan DeBoer, superintendent of Parker School District in South Dakota:


One of my “mantras” has always been:  “The one that does the doing, does the learning.”  So when I was ever so close to our first teacher in-service days, and [Breakout EDU Digital] was one of the items I wanted to show my staff, I was very torn when I sent that dreaded, “I need help email.”  However, in true educator fashion, [Justin and Mari] did not oblige my begging of “cheats” to complete the task.  Instead, I was sent a very subtle hint and encouragement to complete the task.  

It was a great lesson for me as a leader of young people, and adults. It helped solidify my belief that if you want to learn, you have to do. 
Dr. DeBoer's faculty and students

It also proved to me how important collaboration is for our students.  I needed help, I didn’t necessarily want the answers, but I needed another brain (or 32). As I introduced the activity to my staff, I was short one lock code.  In the essence of time, we worked in groups on the digital breakout “Stranded on the Island.”  As time passed I witnessed adults, veteran teachers, cheer with excitement when they found a new clue, or figured out a code, and hide their answers to allow for others to feel the same thing when they found things on their own.   

Few more hours went by, in-service over, but I was still plugging away. I had to complete this thing.  That’s when the magic happened - one of my football coaches sent me a text. He had solicited a friend from hours away, that started working on it as well, and we finally cracked the mystery lock.   

The power of collaboration is real.  Shared suffering in the task, and then the jubilation we share in the accomplishment.  Two heads are better than one, and three better than two. Students need that time together, to share, to bounce ideas off one another, to enjoy the struggle together.   

More importantly, we have to have the patience to let learners learn.  They need to make mistakes, they need to learn from them, they need to talk it out with other people to learn the other side of communication not talked about “listening” to one another.  Then the “magic,” can happen.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Going Fourth Into a New Adventure

"Knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty."
-Jacob Bronowski


Just as I like to close each year with a reflection, I like to begin each year with goal setting. These posts are more for me to get my goals out on paper and to hold me accountable to a larger audience. So, if you’re reading this, check in with me on Twitter or email and ask me how I’m doing.

In addition to starting my fourth new school year, I am also starting at a new school in a new district (still in fourth grade!) Over the summer, I left my old district for a variety of reasons and joined my new one. After two weeks of teacher days, I am even more confident that I made the right choice. Stafford County Public Schools embraces the 4C skills (while also adding Citizenship and Wellness for a C5W framework,) promotes innovation, and supports a holistic and realistic view of teaching beyond testing. I got a chance to meet my new class during Open House this past week and I’m thrilled to spend the next year prepping my Agents of SHIELD for their future.


Without further ado, here are my goals for 2016-17:


  1. Student-led learning - Last year, my primary goal was to develop a student-led classroom, based on Learn Like a PIRATE by Paul Solarz. On the whole, it was a success, but I might have started too strong too fast. It did force the students to step up and take ownership of their learning at an accelerated rate, but more scaffolding may have been necessary. At the end of the year, I worked more purposely with groups and students worked independently with each other. I want to refine this so we hit the group running and keep up with it. I have a very different population of students this year and I already know they will do a fantastic job with it.
  2. 20Time - As I shared in a prior post, I have been constantly tweaking and adjusting Genius Hour in my classroom. This year, I want to do a major pivot. I want to have the students focus on one problem and develop a solution. I have completed reading The 20Time Project by Kevin Brookhouser and want to scale his ideas to elementary. To be perfectly honest, I am not sure exactly what this will look like. My schedule has larger chunks of time in it that will allow for uninterrupted time, but I do not know when it will be. Will it be a set day or will it be fluid? I want to start with the Bad Idea Factory and then move into brainstorming from there. I want to empower my students to be change agents from an early age.
  3. Instruction/Assessment Practices - I want to explore more purposeful usage of flipped classroom. Last year, I flipped my classroom for math and saw dramatic gains in students’ academic growth. (Side note - I really need to write a reflection post on my flipped classroom experiences.) I want to continue this, but it may look different. Some students may do the in class flip depending on their access and home, but I want to use the information I gather from observing flipping in a more intentional way. In general, I want to use small groups in both reading and math more purposefully. After three years of doing small group, I am finally coming to terms that I don’t need to meet with every differentiated group the same amount of time. I can meet with some groups more than others; as long as I am meeting each student’s individual needs. To further this, I want to refine my assessment practices. I am currently reading The Truth About Testing by James Popham and it has an interesting idea on pre/post testing. I am still trying to wrap my head around it, but I think it will allow me to be more purposeful in my instruction and quantifying growth.
  4. Growth Mindset - Although this has a tendency to be a buzzword when not used correctly, I am still including it as a goal. Our staff read Mindset by Carol Dweck this summer. My principal says that “it’s not a theme; it’s a practice.” I dabbled into growth mindset last year after taking an online course through Stanford and witnessed incredible things from my students. That was only for half the year and I was amazed. This year, I am starting with growth mindset on Day 1 and will continue all year. We’ll make an anchor chart and reinforce it, but I know it will make a difference.
  5. Vlogging - This goal is more for me than within the classroom walls. I did some vlogging during my Google Innovator experience and enjoyed it. This year, I want to vlog weekly as a powerful reflection tool. I’m not entirely sure what it will look like, but my general idea is a one video per week. This would include video snippets from the day, daily reflections, and other thoughts. These would all be strung together and posted on YouTube. I started a site (vlog.justinbirckbichler.com) to post all of these, but as I said, I’m not sure what it’ll look like or anything else. It’ll be brand new and I am looking forward to it.


As you may have noticed, I am not looking to redefine or implement a lot of new things this year. I think you can be good at many things or great at a few things. If I had to choose one word to define this next year, it would be REFINE. I want to refine my teaching and provide the best for my students. As the year goes on, I’m sure I’ll discover new ideas and I’ll add those in, but these five goals will be my guiding light for the year. I’m looking forward to a brand new fresh start and cannot wait to see what my students achieve this year.