It’s time to kick the IDK bucket

Students say “I don’t know” all too often, and some teachers call them out for doing so. Now, we can kick the IDK bucket. Connie Hamilton explains in this excerpt from Hacking Questions: 11 Answers That Create a Culture of Inquiry in Your Classroom.

The Problem: Students use “I don’t know” responses as a way out

No matter the reason, IDK answers are a problem in the classroom. Accepting them as responses only magnifies the problem. Students learn that if they wish to avoid effort or risk, the ticket is “I don’t know.”

Sometimes these words are stated explicitly. Other times, they offer dead silence, leaving the teacher wondering what to do next. Wait it out? Move on to someone else? Offer a hint?

What makes this problem even more complex is that we are often unsure of why students are unwilling to take a risk and engage in thought.

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Some are so automatic in their responses that we wonder if they really do not know how to respond, or are just shy, or are actively disengaged. Matching our reaction to the reasoning behind a student’s IDK allows us to react appropriately—and control who is holding that cognitive baton.

The Hack: Kick the IDK bucket

We set ourselves up to kick the IDK bucket by identifying the root cause for the “I don’t know” response. You see, we cannot assume that IDK means the student really does not know something.

Sure, that’s a potential trigger, but it isn’t the only one. Each reason has a different solution.

Creating a classroom where students feel safe about taking risks doesn’t happen without purposeful efforts by the teacher to create the culture.

The careful pairing of problems with counteractions will send the IDK bucket to the graveyard. Picture a cognitive baton. Your key to reducing the number of IDKs in your classroom is to keep the cognitive baton in the student’s possession. The person holding the cognitive baton is the person doing the most mental work.

Why are the students trying to rid themselves of the cognitive baton? One reason is that many students have come to believe that the game of school is about knowing answers. The narrative on this must change.

Students do not have to know the answers. They just cannot be satisfied with not knowing them. In short, IDK should be a rise to action, not an end result. We need to see this as a starting point, rather than a final answer.

There are bound to be underlying reasons why they are unwilling to take a chance. “I don’t know” is safe from the risk of being wrong. It does not require vulnerability. It does not draw the spotlight. No easy, one-size-fits-all answer exists here.

Facing an IDK situation does not trigger one specific formulaic procedure for overcoming it. We have to consider multiple reasons why a student might be avoiding answering or giving a wrong answer.

When students can identify the root cause of their IDK, and find a way around it, they are one step closer to removing the barriers that are delaying their understanding.

Creating a classroom where students feel safe about taking risks doesn’t happen without purposeful efforts by the teacher to create the culture. How we respond to students when they don’t know an answer says a lot about whether we value learning . . . or just the right answer.

Accessing the student’s reasoning for the IDK helps the teacher determine whether the student lacks confidence, was disengaged, has a misconception, or is really lost on a particular concept.

What You Can Do Tomorrow

Use a physical object as your cognitive baton. Use a ball, stuffed animal, or actual baton to designate a speaker. I use an actual cognitive baton or a think stick. Having students hold an object when they have the floor provides a visual and kinesthetic reminder that it is their turn to contribute their thoughts.

Be ready with encouraging responses that keep the baton in their hands. If a student gives an IDK, use these prompts to help organize the student’s thinking. Do not dummy down a question or begin to answer it for the student. Keep these IDK bucket-kicker questions prepped and ready:

  • What would you say if you did know?
  • What can you rule out?
  • What are you thinking so far?
  • Think aloud. Let us hear what your brain is processing.
  • Tell us what parts you’re sure of and what parts you’re still working through.
  • What part has you stuck?

Invite students to qualify their thoughts. You can hear a lack of confidence in a student’s words. In these cases, students use IDK to avoid committing to an answer they aren’t sure about. When you suspect a student is reticent to reply, instead of affirming or redirecting the answers, encourage qualifiers like:

  • Right now, I’m thinking . . .
  • Based on the little bit I know currently . . .
  • I might change my mind later, but here’s where I am now . . .
  • I’m still thinking this through . . .
  • I’m not exactly sure, so let me take a shot at it . . .

Seek qualifiers instead of commitments. Perfectionists live within our classroom walls. These students have the most trouble committing to their answers because they are still wrestling with the notion that it is acceptable not to know. These students can be 95-percent confident in their thinking and still offer an IDK in place of taking a risk. An answer for these students is to create a mathematical win-win. Ask them to estimate the likelihood that their response is correct. Encourage them to share their thinking, and leave the door open for it to be wrong by quantifying it.

Allow questions as responses. Rather than demanding an answer, invite students to share questions they have about a question. This gives them a chance to gain clarity and deepen knowledge through effective questioning.

Acknowledge students for their effort, not their answers. Praising learners for correct answers can discourage students from taking risks. Many students use this praise to define themselves. They personalize correct/incorrect answers in a way that supports a fixed mindset that they either are smart or not smart…. Effort, persistence, creative thinking, problem-solving, and reflection are all traits that will serve students long past knowing the answer to question number four.

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Read the entire hack in Hacking Questions 

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Are Teachers Doing Enough for Gen Alpha?

Are you teaching Generation Alpha with Baby Boomer content? Educators are faced with new challenges from the generation that may live into the 22nd century. How can teachers cope?

Here’s what Michael Fisher and Elizabeth Fisher, authors of Hacking Instructional Design, say about planning for the future, so we can better meet the needs of Gen Alpha.

The Problem: Contemporary Students Aren’t Interested in Traditional Constructs 

Depending on when you open this book for the first time, at least eighteen years have gone by since the beginning of the 21st century. Eight years ago, we saw the ending of Generation Z, those children who were born between 1995 and 2010. They are now in our classrooms and have been for some time. Since 2010, more than thirty million more children have been born, and they represent a brand-new generation: Generation Alpha.

Gen Alpha is also known as the Global Generation or Generation Glass. They will be the most technologically literate generation in all human history. These are the children of Gen Xers and Millennials and they will live into the 22nd century.

What this generation can do with technology will be mind-blowing, but many will lack skills like persistence and the ability to manage impulsivities.

The problem is that we haven’t let go of the past. These Alphas are already in our classrooms, albeit at younger grade levels, and we’re still working to get where we should have been a decade ago. We are preparing for Generation Alpha while still considering Generation Z’s needs, while using Generation X’s resources, and Baby Boomer’s content.

It boggles our minds when we walk into schools where they tout their readiness for the 21st century. We’re almost 20 years in … and readiness should have happened already!

The Hack: Create an Alpha-Balanced Curriculum

The people in the Alpha Generation, as a function of the world they were born into, are going to have very specific needs. Teachers will need to examine their curricula for opportunities to engage this generation of learners, and this includes all access to everything all the time. No more computer lab Thursdays. No more coming to school just to receive knowledge and information. No more limitations on what if or what’s next.

Gen Alpha will also insist on being entrepreneurial. Think back to the Hack on Context. This is where the rubber meets the road for Gen Alphas. They will want to learn, apply, and create in many learning situations where the creation or the deliverable is relevant to other audiences—and specifically paying audiences. They will want to create content of substance and worth that they can share with the world, not just turn in to the teacher.

Generation Alpha will increasingly need to see a high degree of equilibrium between their worlds outside of school and how they interact and learn inside of school.

This generation is perfectly at home online. In fact, even the youngest members are already fluent in a multitude of devices and can search by voice for just about anything they want, from making slime to finding out how to play a new game or discovering the quickest way to clean something up that they don’t want Mom or Dad to find first.

Let us reiterate here: these Gen Alphas don’t need to know how to read to begin searching digital devices. Traditional print literacy is no longer the main literacy entry point. (It’s still super important, though!)

Gen Alphas, while a well-connected generation, will not necessarily have the same social skills as previous generations. They are comfortable and will seek out online interactors—at the expense of physical/live human interactions. Because of this, teachers will need to be cognizant of soft skills like the Habits of Mind, as well as what Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves describe as social and human capital.

The planned curriculum for these students should be in balance with these needs. Teachers need to care about the world their students are currently living in and the world they will graduate into. Knowing the above, in partnership with existing instructional practices, creates a contemporary curriculum that is inclusive of Generation Alpha’s needs and the responsibilities of the teacher.

What we’ve done up until now in education has worked for the majority of students. However, those methods and practices will wane in effectiveness as time moves forward.

What You Can Do Tomorrow

  • Plan for 24/7 access across multiple devices. Teachers will need to be more considerate of skills rather than content. The What is out there already. The How and the Why are still critically important. Devices are a requirement in the classroom, just as paper or pencils or chairs are choice items. Contemporary learners need experiences with all these materials, including different types of devices that allow for different functions: tablets for portability, and laptops and desktops for more powerful research, writing, and product-making. Note that we are not suggesting they should be on the device 24/7, just that those devices must be available when needed. Start planning for a way to make this happen.
  • Plan to create products of value. Teachers will need to consider learning outcomes where students can demonstrate learning in innovative and creative ways. Students will want to create these demonstrations of learning for a much wider audience (see the Hack on Ultima Thule) and perhaps for a chance to make money or a difference.
  • Start collaborating when thinking critically and creatively. Teachers will need to provide opportunities for digital interactions, virtual connections, making, prototyping, gaming, video production, virtual destinations, coding, and more! All of these “hot” activities in education boil down to decisions that children make and the outcomes or consequences of those decisions. These different opportunities invite students to be metacognitive, high-level thinkers who reflect on their decisions and choose more wisely.
  • Plan to teach more soft skills. What this generation can do with technology will be mind-blowing, but many will lack skills like persistence and the ability to manage impulsivities—dispositions that are focal points in the previously mentioned Habits of Mind. With everything available all the time, students develop habits that keep them from exploring and discovering. Alexa and Siri are only going to help students to a point, and then students need to navigate learning, communication, and collaboration in ways that technology is currently eroding in human interactions. Be prepared to help them with these skills so they can move forward into the world purposefully and successfully.

Final Thoughts

Generation Alpha, and by extension, Millennials and Generation Z, will increasingly need to see a high degree of equilibrium between their worlds outside of school and how they interact and learn inside of school.

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Throw Out Your Office Referral; Circle Up Instead

Traditional discipline calls for rules and consequences, detentions, suspensions, and other carrots and sticks. Most teachers and school leaders know this ancient system does not work. What’s the answer to poor student behavior and school and class disruption? It may be as simple as inviting students to Circle Up!

In this excerpt from Hacking School Discipline: 9 Ways to Create a Culture of Empathy and Responsibility using Restorative Justice, teachers and school leaders Nathan Maynard and Brad Weinstein explain how the Circle Up restorative practice can help you reimagine school discipline and build a community of learners, filled with students who are always responsible and accountable for their own behaviors.

The Problem: Classroom Issues Aren’t Dealt With in the Classroom

The negative behavior du jour can bring your lesson to a skidding halt and put you in a predicament. You are pressured to address the problem quickly and appropriately, with all eyes on you. The quickest and easiest solution is a referral to the office.

After all, you have a whole class to teach, a new activity to pass out, emails to answer, and daily attendance to take. We all get it. But how can we expect our students to do any better in the classroom if we just remove them when they do something wrong?

When the student returns from his field trip to the office or from in-school suspension, the behavior has been addressed, but the relationship has not. There may still be tension between the student and the teacher or the student and the classmates.

Best of all, circles invite shared power and responsibility.

You haven’t addressed any harm the student might have caused to the class as a whole, and that leaves the classroom climate damaged. The entire class is still sitting on the edge of a knife, and will be distracted by the tension.

The answer? Fix it—within the classroom. And to make sure it sticks, involve the entire class.

The Hack: Circle Up

The first thing that we as teachers need to do is to stop offering students the easy way out through removal from class.

Many school districts maintain a goal of keeping the students in the classroom, where they’re adding to and taking advantage of the learning experience. When kids are in class, we see higher attendance rates, increased test scores, and positive climates.

Give restorative justice to your students today

That goes away the second we send kids to the principal’s office for misbehaving.

Instead of giving them that out, seek new ways of handling bad behavior, including classroom circles. These circles allow you to enforce the classroom expectations without losing one of your community members.

As you might expect, circles are gatherings in which all participants sit in a circular shape facing each other to facilitate open, direct communication. Circles provide a safe and supportive space where everyone can talk freely about sensitive topics, work through differences, and build consensus. Best of all, circles invite shared power and responsibility.

This is a collective investment into building culture.

Circles don’t have to be used only during times of conflict, either. Start your class with a “check-in circle” as a great way to begin the day, and invite students to share their feelings and listen to others.

  • Have all the students sit in a circle.
  • Teachers should include themselves in the circle to signal that they are facilitators and listeners during these gatherings, not authority figures.
  • Start with a check-in question, such as “What’s one interesting thing you read online yesterday?”
  • Add mindfulness exercises to help release tension and build focus on the present moment.
  • Devote at least five minutes to circle time each morning, and gradually expand as students get more comfortable, or decrease the time if you have other items on your agenda that take priority.
  • Always allow students to opt out if they choose. Remember that restorative practices center around respect.

What You Can Do Tomorrow

Create a safe place. Students should be able to sit face-to-face in a circle, either at their desks or in free-standing chairs, and should feel safe doing so—and safe in the circle itself. Establish right away that this is a no-judgment zone; there will be no assumptions or subjective statements, and the students can feel physically safe.

Establish expectations. Use a “talking piece” as the identifier for the person who currently holds the floor. This keeps everyone from talking at once. Set strict guidelines for “facts only” talk. Tell students that they can openly discuss issues, but only if they use affirmative “I” statements.

Promote communication. Praise open dialogue and productive conversations, and thank anyone who feels comfortable enough to share. Example: “Wow, that must have been tough to admit in front of everyone that you feel embarrassed coming into class sometimes. Thank you for letting us know. I appreciate you.”

This is a collective investment into building culture. It invites shared power into misbehavior, creating a strong sense of classroom community.

Praise empathy. Praise any student who demonstrates empathy, to help build appreciation for it. When students can recognize emotions, their emotional literacy goes up and this helps them build a circle that cultivates empathy. This also trains students how to use empathy in other situations.

Overcoming Pushback

Circles take away from lesson time. Yes, they do. It’s by far the largest con of holding a circle. The great thing is that you are in charge of when they occur. You can call an audible to get the class back on track, like “ELMO” (Enough, Let’s Move On), or simply pause.

This takes too long. Investment in classroom climates and school cultures doesn’t pay off overnight. The time you put into facilitating a circle is advantageous to your climate, the students, and the number of redirections you will have to do in the future. We normally start the school year using one to two restorative circles per week. By the end of the first quarter, we’ve seen the use of circles go down to one every other week, and then even less.

Isn’t this a collective punishment? This is a collective investment into building culture. It invites shared power into misbehavior, creating a strong sense of classroom community. The classroom community promotes self-responsibility and effective action after a circle takes place. Instead of viewing it as a punishment, frame it as an opportunity for all students to be heard and for behaviors to improve.

This excerpt from Hacking School Discipline is published with permission from Times 10 Publications. 

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Find 8 more ways to create a culture of empathy and responsibility with restorative justice in Hacking School Discipline, by Nathan Maynard and Brad Weinstein.

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Teaching, Running, and Chasing Greatness

The Running Begins, by Mike Roberts

The year was 2007. I was an out-of-shape and overweight thirty-three-year-old, and in an attempt to turn my health around, I decided I was going to run from my house to the local high school, run four laps around the track, then head back home. All told, this journey should have been about 1.5 miles. Having never run more than a mile in my life, and that in eighth grade PE, I wasn’t prepared for the challenge that I had laid out.

Nonetheless, I jumped into my basketball shorts (I was still a weekend warrior basketball player, despite my weight), laced up my high-tops, and headed out the door, ready to turn my life around. I didn’t even make it to the high school. Nope, before I even made it to the end of my street, I felt like my heart was going to burst out of my chest and my calves were going to explode like microwaved hot dogs.

I was sweating more than I thought was humanly possible, and being that I had never run any type of long distance in my life, I was clueless about bringing water with me to cool me down (not that I even had a water bottle at the time). Simply put, my body just wasn’t ready for what I was asking it to do, and rather than risking what I felt was certain death, I turned around and walked home.

But as I shuffled back toward my house, gasping for air, I tried to look at things from a positive perspective. I reminded myself that the quarter mile I’d just finished was still the farthest I had run during the past twenty years. Granted, it was a total disaster, but it was something. And while I didn’t know it at the time, that was the run that started my running journey.

Broken but not defeated

I decided to give running another shot a few days later. This time, based on the previous failure, I cut my goal down to only two laps around the track. I knew that if I wanted running to become a part of my daily life, I would have to be patient and let it come to me little by little, and this new goal seemed much more manageable than the previous one.

And yet again, I didn’t even make it to the high school before fatigue set in. But rather than turning around, I decided to keep going. Unable to run, I slowly crossed the street, regaining my breath little by little with each step. A few minutes later, with my breathing a bit more under control, I found myself standing on the track of the high school. And while the next ten minutes included a combination of running, walking, and resting, I was somehow able to complete two laps around the track.  It was a small victory, to say the least, but a victory nonetheless. As for the walk home, well, let’s just say I didn’t set any speed records.

Three years of commitment, screwups, and microscopic improvements. And it was worth every step!

Over the next few weeks and months, courtesy of twice-a-week training, my speed and mileage began to inch up. And while the gains were slow, I had decided that if I wanted to get into shape, running was going to play a role in my transformation. To help, I set a goal of increasing my weekly mileage by one mile per week. This not only helped me get out the door on a regular basis, but also provided me with a target that was both manageable and within reason.

While an additional mile per week might not sound like much, it definitely added up. In fact, by the end of my third month of running, I was putting in twenty-five miles per week. Twenty-five miles per week!

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That was well beyond anything I’d ever thought I could do when I was walking back from the school on that first day! It was also when I first gave some thought to running a marathon. But just as a reminder, a marathon is 26.2 miles—all at once!

So while I felt a sense of accomplishment about my twenty-five-mile week, I also knew there was still a lot of work to do if I hoped to cross a marathon finish line in the future.

As it turns out, a marathon, like most things worth doing, takes time and effort to prepare for, and it took me almost three years from that initial run before I toed the starting line of my first marathon.

Three years of commitment, screwups, and microscopic improvements. And it was worth every step!

The Final Kick: College and Student Teaching

For me, teaching began in much the same way as running. I was near the end of my junior year of college, and while I had officially declared myself an English major with a history minor, I still didn’t have a clue as to what I was going to do after graduation. In the back of my mind, I had always considered teaching as an option, but I wasn’t sure if I was “grown up” enough for such a serious job.

When I began my senior year, I decided to dip my foot into the teaching waters by registering for the Introduction to Education class offered at my school. I thought I could use the class as a barometer to see whether or not I should pursue teaching as a career. At best, it would light my fire and start me on my teaching journey. At worst, I would drop the class and continue trying to figure out my direction.

I also discovered that this teaching thing might be worth pursuing.

I don’t remember much about that first class, except that quite a bit of information was shared about educational theory. I remember feeling like a lot of talking was going on, without much being said. Looking back, I realize that my boredom stemmed from the fact that I didn’t care much about theorists from the past. What I wanted to talk about was the future of education, including all of the cool ways school could be used to improve society. I wanted to discuss my innovative ideas regarding how I’d run my class, and hoped to hear how other people envisioned schools of the future as well.

And while the thought of being a teacher had drawn me to the class, I was still looking for that extra push to really sell me on the idea . . . and theory from the past wasn’t doing it for me. So I walked out. Yep, I didn’t even make it through the entire class. But over the course of the next week, as I sat through my English and history classes, I couldn’t shake the idea, or more accurately the feeling, that I should at least reconsider being a teacher.

So, like on my first run, I decided that though my career in education wasn’t off to a great start, I’d give it another shot. And while the second class wasn’t what I’d call the most exhilarating educational experience of my life, I did manage to make it through the entire session. And by the time the semester was over, I had not only learned a thing or two about the history of education . . . I also discovered that this teaching thing might be worth pursuing.

There’s more to chasing greatness

For the rest of this Mile and more from Chasing Greatness, read the description and take a look inside here.

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It’s time to allow the F word in your classroom

When someone asks how your day was, do you say, “it was so satisfying?” Do you exit a roller coaster and exclaim, “That was a very satisfying ride?” When you last dined at a 5-star restaurant, did you tell the server that you just couldn’t wait for a satisfactory meal?

Hopefully, you answered no to all of these questions. Hopefully, your day, your roller coaster ride, and your fine dining experience were wonderful, amazing and, most important, involved the F word — FUN!

For most people, yearning for fun is a basic response to many situations. Shouldn’t this be true in teaching and learning?

The answer seems obvious, but I learned recently that many teachers believe that it’s more important for learning to be satisfying, rather than fun. Witness this Twitter conversation:

The article that inspired the Tweet was by a blogger, suggesting that it’s not important for learning to be fun. If you read the comments on the Tweet linked above, you’ll see that some people agree with the blogger, while others believe academics should be both meaningful and fun. Here’s one example from that Twitter conversation:

Why does school have to be “fun”? So many educators sacrifice learning for activities that are “fun” but that don’t support the instructional core. How about school should be meaningful?

Here’s another tweet from the same thread:

I definitely prefer satisfying as it connotes a long term feeling and memory. Fun is just a split second like a laugh after a joke. Satisfying feeds the soul.

I emphasized more than once that there is rarely a time that learning can’t be both meaningful and fun. Granted, it took me a long time as a classroom teacher to understand this.

When I finally learned that making lessons and assignments fun would entice even the most reluctant learner, everything changed in my classroom, and the F word became the standard in my classroom.

Bring on the F word

Mike Roberts, author of Hacking Classroom Management, is a big fan of the F word. Here’s what he writes about it in his book:

At South Bonneville Jr. High in the mid 1980s, Mrs. Rowberry’s room was the place to be! In the mornings, she would open her classroom early so we could hang out. At lunch, after chowing down our food, we would head to her room and draw pictures on her chalkboard. And during class, well, that’s when things really got interesting.

I remember her telling us stories about her childhood. She also gave us a few minutes each week to share the latest (appropriate) joke we had heard. I think of the times she had her husband come to class and play songs for us on his guitar, and us making up geography lyrics based on some of the most popular songs of the time.

Click cover image and look inside now

And more than anything else, I remember wanting to impress her, because I didn’t want to be the reason that the fun would end. So while it was fun that drew me in, it was my respect for her that kept me in check.

Current high school junior Sydney Young understands the connection that Mrs. Rowberry made with her students, and she sees the benefits that come from weaving fun into the daily curriculum. “Fun related to the material, such as watching a video, hearing jokes, or getting on a tangent all feel like off-task fun, but actually lead me to make new connections, enjoy the material, and spend time processing the information.

“The best classes I’ve had blended the curriculum with a perfect combination of fun and mini-celebrations, and it’s that combination that led me to be successful that class,” Young says. She adds that the value that comes from these experiences runs much deeper than simply gaining a better understanding of the content.

“During these activities and celebrations, I connect with students I might not normally speak with, which increases my confidence about participating in discussions or presenting because I feel as though I am amongst a large group of friends.”

Mrs. Rowberry knew how to use the “F” word in her class, and Sydney sees its benefit from the student perspective as well. Are you willing to add the “F” word to your class?

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