Jeff Utecht from Shifting Schools explores what student learning outcomes should be driving our teaching and learning plans. Can students find problems? Can students use everything at their disposal to drive their learning? What skills should students be developing? What role does the teacher take?
Find Jeff’s blogs, podcasts, videos and resources here.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Instructional coaches and leaders create the environment that supports teachers to continually imagine, grow and achieve. They model an excitement for learning that teachers in turn model for students. This podcast is dedicated to promoting the important aspects of instructional leadership. Thanks for listening.
Steve: 00:28 Stop worrying about getting through stuff. Joining our podcast today is Jeff Utecht. Jeff is with the Shifting Schools Group and he has a teaching background in the United States and internationally. I met Jeff first, through a podcast to podcast and blog to blog, we started following each other back and forth. Jeff says on his website that his goal is to work with educators to prepare students for their future and and not our past. So Jeff and I connected and decided we do a podcast back and forth for both of our sites. So I’m excited to him here with us today. And when he and I chatted, he came up with the title for today, “Stop Worrying About Getting Through Stuff” and that title would be good for me all the time. But in these current conditions, I think it’s perfect.
Jeff: 01:31 Well, thanks for having me. I like doing these podcast swaps and so I can be on your podcast and then if the listeners want to head over to Shifting Our School’s podcast, you can find it everywhere as well. They’ll get to hear you go ranting about PLCs so there’ll be two good rants from us today.
Steve: 01:50 I like it. So would you start by giving people a little bit about your background as to what drove you to focus on schools preparing kids for their futures and not our past?
Jeff: 02:06 Yeah, so I’ve been in education for 20 years. I taught for three years here in the United States, before my wife who was a school counselor moved overseas and taught internationally for 10 years. And I think it’s worth going through, especially where we are right now, because it leads into kind of what we’re doing. I was a fourth grade teacher, elementary ed background, and we moved in Saudi Arabia in 2002. And in 2002, we had some of the worst terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia. You might remember this is right after 9/11 terrorism in the middle east. And so two out of the three years were in Saudi Arabia. Our school gets shut down early and we have to figure out a way to graduate kids and still do school in times of need. So we were in virtual school in 2002.
Jeff: 02:53 Now remember 2002, you don’t have smart phones. There’s no such thing as an iPad. And we’re in Saudi Arabia, which means the best we
had was a 56K dial up modem. And the crazy part is we did it. We were able to get through this moment, we graduated our seniors on time and we were able to have virtual school. And it was fantastic. We set up a Moodle installation. If anybody remembers Moodle back in the day, it’s still out there. We’re able to actually get through stuff. And then my wife and I moved to Shanghai and we hit Shanghai about the same time SARS hit Shanghai. And as I’m working at Shanghai American school, all of a sudden the leadership is like “we could be shut down due to SARS. We need to figure something out.”
Jeff: 03:37 So I set up a Moodle installation and we started training all of our teachers on what would this look like if we had to go into remote learning? And so again, this is like 2006, 2007. The first iPhone I think had just come out, no iPad. We’re still working inside of China and we never did close, but we set up the structure. And to me, it was a momentum shift for our school and for a lot of international schools in the Asia region, because all of a sudden, we spent all this time and energy preparing for something that never happened. But we had Moodle set up and all of a sudden we were starting to use this idea of a learning management system. This is way before Google classroom. None of that’s been invented.
Jeff: 04:23 And it was just our open source, moodle install. And we started playing with that and we started looking at, okay, well, what, how does this change the way we can teach? And then my wife and I, we moved to Bangkok and teach at the international school of Bangkok and due to political unrest and some of the worst flooding in Bangkok, we actually closed for about a month and had to go remote learning again. This is like 2009, 2010 at this point. I mean, the moral of the story is you don’t want to be where Jeff Utecht is because it always seems to happen.
Steve: 04:51 [laughter] The crossed my mind Jeff.
Jeff: 04:53 [laughter] It’s unbelievable. And then of course, I now live in the States where my wife and I moved back in 2012 and where does COVID break out? In the United States, Seattle where I live.
Jeff: 05:04 And so I think part of it is, just being able to go through – my experiences have shown me that there is some real power in if we actually embrace technology in our classrooms. If we look for ways that it truly changes the way teaching and learning occurs. And I think that that to me is always been the power. I’ve had these opportunities to look through this from a different lens of, look what happened and look what we can do. If we really want to, we can change this thing. And I think the pandemic pointed that out and it was a pandemic, it was horrible. I was actually hired by the state of Washington and we ended up training over 22,000 teachers, just in my state alone, taking them through our trainings of like, okay, how do you move to remote?
Jeff: 05:49 And it’s different, right? It’s a pandemic. There’s a lot of different things. And I think what this pandemic really shined a light on is the inequities that were in education before the pandemic ever happened. I mean, they were already there. We just, all of a sudden had a light shined on them. I’m hearing this more and more from teachers, even this idea of, well, we weren’t getting through all the standards anyways, and now we’re taking a really close look at what are our priority standards or anchor standards. Everybody’s kind of got a different name for them, but like, what truly is it that kids are going to need? And then you start looking at even outside of education, what does the future hold for these kids? I mean, here in the US we’re looking at probably a workforce that 50% or so are going to forever have the option to work from home.
Jeff: 06:37 That’s a different skillset, right? And how are we preparing students when they’re not going into as many factories and they’re not
doing that, but you might only go to work for three days a week. And we’re still trying to figure that out. And the other part of it is, I’m seeing a lot of school districts and a lot of schools struggling because these kids had a year where they literally had to learn on their own. They had to set their own alarm clocks. They had to get up and get their work done and it was very loosely structured. And all of a sudden this year I’m hearing, and I don’t know what you’re hearing, but I’m hearing that kids are coming back into the classrooms and they don’t know how to act.
Jeff: 07:23 I’m wondering is part of it is, you just took a kid who figured out how to learn on their own, figured out how to structure and not all of them were successful at it, but they were out there figuring it out. And you now come in where there’s a bell that tells you when you can go to the bathroom, there’s a bell that tells you when you can eat, there’s a bell that tells you when it’s time to learn math and when it’s time to learn ELA. And I wonder if part of it is, is like for two years, these kids are like, “okay, but I’m not used to having to learn math at 9:00 AM. I do better learning math at 2:00 PM.” And for the last two years, I got to decide that. I think there’s just a lot of structural stuff that we’re really dealing with right now.
Steve: 08:01 Yeah. As I looked at what was happening, there’s a group of kids who actually did better in their learning during, being quarantined. And I was seeing it was two different groups. One is the group that the autonomy was just perfectly what they needed and they could actually say, I do not need to hear the teacher give these directions.
Jeff: 08:29 I’m talking to IB kids, AP students, I’m hearing the same thing. I’m having schools that are saying IB scores and AP scores didn’t drop.
Steve: 08:37 That’s right. Because those kids were all set for it. Then there’s another group of kids who were struggling with the social structures of school and they actually did better not having to deal with those peer pressures that we didn’t work with. Then on the other hand, there were whole group of kids through equity issues and and their parents not having the opportunities to be able to give them the support that the kids did. So then when we come back to school, it’s like, do we have to take away from some group in order to give the other group what they needed and instead of just being able to figure out how do we serve kids the best?
Jeff: 09:23 And I think that’s where we’re at. And I know that there’s so much pressure on teachers right now. I feel for teachers at the moment, because I think there’s two levels of pressure. There’s this pressure to “get back to normal.” But we all I think are feeling this pressure in this weight of the educational system that we just all went through something, and we’re still going through it. Like it’s not over, we’re still going through it. And we just know that something needs to be different. We’re not sure what it is yet, but I feel like there’s the day-to-day weight that we’re feeling, but there’s also like this thing wasn’t really working for every kid and if we go back, it’s not going to work for every kid. And I mean I think there’s little things that we’re starting to play with.
Jeff: 10:08 We both are hearing that IB kids, AP kids, really liked the autonomy. Well then why are we still putting them in? Why can’t those kids have a little bit different – or me as a teacher, I don’t need to lecture all da.? Like, hey, everything’s in Canvas, everything’s in Google classroom. I’m here to help and support you. Go watch the videos go. One of my goddaughters is a senior and she’s always struggled at math. She’s an AP math, the best she’s done in math is during the pandemic. And when I talk to her, she’s like, “well, I could slow it down. I wasn’t confined to my 15 minutes. I could go watch the videos as many times as I wanted to and I got a deeper understanding of how to do it.” And I’m like, that needs to be what’s in your class. Not like we’re back into 50 minutes, teachers standing in front. For that kid, right? For those kids that that works for.
Steve: 10:56 So Jeff, is the question we need to be asking is, what we’re really exploring is what it is that students should be learning and what are all the different opportunities we can give them for learning it? So it’s both content and pedagogy.
Jeff: 11:11 Yeah. And I think back to the title of this, this idea of stop trying to get through stuff. I think one of the big switches that we’re seeing, and it’s been a switch, and this has been, I’ve been drumming this in keynotes for the last five or 10 years is that we are living in a world – and this doesn’t sit well with a lot of people and I hope this raises some hairs on the back of your neck, because we need to be thinking about this stuff, right? We live in a world where content is mattering, less and less. And part of that’s because if you’re walking around with a cell phone in your pocket, you look up the stuff, the moment you need it. And that is creating a massive situation in our classrooms. And it’s not about me, me the teacher, it’s about I need to understand I am teaching a 13 year old an 11 year old, a 15 year old, who is used to just asking out in the open, hey, gee, what’s the capital of… and it just comes out of the air.
Jeff: 12:09 And so, I think one of the big shifts that we’re seeing as we get out of this is there needs to be less of a focus on the content that we actually teach and the skills that students need to access that content the moment that content is needed. So one of the questions that I keep going back with educators is, I don’t want kids to know math. I want kids to be able to think like a mathematician. Do you have the skills and the understanding to know that’s a place where I need an algebraic expression. I can figure out what the algebraic expression is. I just need to know this is a situation for it. Hey, that’s a situation where I need to multiply. Hey, that’s a situation where division works. Do you have the skill set to look at something?
Jeff: 12:55 And then you can go figure it out. Like I’ve got the calculator that actually do the multiplication, the division, and you know, a spreadsheet, that’ll do the algebraic expression for me. I’ve got those tools. But really what I’m looking for, is I’m looking for this idea of, do I have a skill set? And so one of the things I’m talking with teachers about is the question we need to be asking is this idea of, am I focused on the skills of math or the content of math? How do I get kids to think like a mathematician? Am I focused on getting kids to think like an author, think like a writer think like a historian? History is history is constantly changing. I mean, we’re discovering new stuff. It depends on what angle you want to look at history of where it’s at. I need kids to think through that stuff. So I really am focused on, do you have the skills to learn the moment knowledge is needed? Because we’re recreating what it means to be knowledgeable right now. Knowledgeable isn’t knowing a bunch of stuff for, are you smarter than a fifth grader being knowledgeable means I need to know something right now and do I have the skills and ability to go learn it? The moment I need it. That’s a knowledgeable person in 2021.
Steve: 14:11 It’s so funny that you bring up that are you a fifth grader piece – Joe Haasenstab, the guy who formed our company and I worked with him years ago, he used to always go crazy that nobody figured out how insulting that show was not to the adults they brought on, but to the kids.
Jeff: 14:33 [laughter] Yeah, that’s right.
Steve: 14:38 [laughter] Here’s the adult telling a kid, you can become the governor without knowing any of this, but your teacher’s still going
to give it to you for homework tomorrow.
Jeff: 14:48 used to watch that show, but I watched it with my laptop and I had teachers do it. We would play it like, we’re going to watch this segment, everybody grab your laptop. Why do these kids need to memorize this? We can look up all of these answers as quick as a kid hit a button. And so I think we’re going through this. We’ve known that for awhile. I think teachers really know, and we, as an education, we’ve known that, but all of a sudden, kids really needed to know it during the pandemic. There was this major shift and all of a sudden it was like, uh-oh, and as we’re coming back, I think we’re still working through it. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s the rubber band effect.
Jeff: 15:25 When the rubber band gets stretched, it’s going to snap back. It doesn’t snap back as far as it did when it was before the stretch, but it snaps back. And we’re in a little bit of a snap back and that’s okay. But the more I’m talking with teachers, I’m finding that people are having a really hard time in education to even try to be like, just something doesn’t feel right. I’m not sure what it is yet, but I’m like, yeah, this rubber band got stretched and we’re trying to figure out like, oh, some of that felt good, some of that didn’t feel good at all. Where do we go from here? And I think it’s going to be a couple of years before we kind of figured that out.
Steve: 15:58 Yup. And I think it’s everywhere so we probably shouldn’t be surprised that we’re trying to figure it out in in schools. Nothing’s feeling normal to anybody. I wrote a piece on how it’s really, how do you work with teachers for teachers to figure out where they want to focus their time and energy so that the pay off is both there for the kids and for the teacher. I think that too often, the teacher is invested in something that doesn’t create a reward for the teacher even if you achieve what it was you set out to do.
Jeff: 16:35 Yeah. Right now, my focus is having teachers look at like, okay, I have my lesson plan today. Is my focus on building a skill that a kid can take forward or as my focus on some content? And if the focus is on content, because we need to focus on it, how can you switch the question so that students have to have some type of skill to get to that content? Then it’s not me just going through a math problem on the board with them. One of the things I’m loving right now in math, because the way that I like to kind of talk with math teachers is, we need people who are problem solvers, but what we really need in the world right now is people who are problem finders.
Jeff: 17:19 And so how do you set up situations specifically, I’m going to use math as an example, but it would work anywhere. How do you set up situations where kids actually have to find the problem before they solve it? So I love setting up a classroom. If I’m a math teacher, kids are coming into my classroom, I’ve already solved the equation on the board. It might be the first time they’ve ever seen this equation. I’ve solved it but I did something wrong somewhere. In groups of three, what do you see? What do you notice? Where did I go wrong? You’ve got to find the problem. And then once you it, then we can talk about fixing it. And where that really hit me – quick story, where that really hit me as I was coming back from a flight somewhere internationally.
Jeff: 17:57 I ended up sitting next to an engineer that worked for Boeing. And the first thing that really frustrated me is she was like 26 or something like that.
Steve: 18:04 [laughter]
Jeff: 18:04 I was like, you’re a Boeing engineer. This just really frustrates me. And we were talking and were coming back from Japan. And you might remember this, their new airplane, the 787 Dreamliner, had a battery in the tail-end that kept catching on fire. And I was talking to her about it and she said, yeah, she’s like, here’s the problem. She was like, we couldn’t figure out what was causing the battery to overheat. We had the smartest people in all of Boeing trying to figure out what is causing is. We couldn’t find the problem. Once we found what the problem was, less than two weeks to fix it. You see solving the problem isn’t the hard part. It’s finding what’s causing the irritation. And I’ve always remembered that conversation, like, oh my gosh, that’s it. We need problem finders in this world. And then we get together like, hey, I found the problem, bring a bunch of smart people together, we can usually figure out a way to get out of the problem, but you’ve got to find the problem.
Steve: 18:59 So know that when you and I chat PLCs later, that’s the definition of a PLC.
Jeff: 19:06 I love it. And that’s why I’m excited about this.
Steve: 19:11 It’s a group of teachers being able to look at student learning and figure out what the problem is. Once they figure out what the problem is, then they can come up with a plan, a hypothesis that leads to testing it out. A thought that went through my head as I listened to some of the things that you already have have online, and as I was listening to today, I’m wondering if you’ve got a couple of suggestions for teachers who aren’t in a “system” that’s there yet. So what are the things that an individual classroom teacher can do to begin to stretch this and create those opportunities for kids even if the district’s still looking at a traditional scope and sequence?
Jeff: 20:07 Yeah. So that’s a really good question. I think there’s a couple small little things we can start doing now in our classroom. And part of it is just where we are right now in society where the internet is taking over everything that we do. And so I think one of those things is trying to turn everything into a skill. Like right now, I’m really focused on, okay, even in second grade, I need kids to be able to do X, Y, and Z. How do I make sure that I’m focused on the skill of reading, the skill of decoding? And really making sure that yeah, I’m doing this lesson and here are the skills. I could point out to you the skills that we’re working on, that I’m not really worried about this passage.
Jeff: 20:46 I’m worried about the kids getting these skills right at whatever level, whatever. So I think that’s one. I think the other thing that we need to really start working on it, even in kindergarten and first grade, is we need to start asking kids, how do you know that to be true? And this has to do with, we are for better or for worse raising a generation that is growing up on the internet. And for our generation, and I’m just going to assume you and I are roughly close to the same generation here. We were never told to look really critically at our sources of information. In my school, I was handed a textbook and it said, here is the truth that your district has bought for you. Whatever you read in here is true and accurate. We were never told to like really dig in and look at the authors of a textbook or where the company of that textbook comes from.
Jeff: 21:35 We were never asked to do that. And I think if one of the things we can do in our classroom is whenever students find something on the internet, the first question you ask them is how do you know that’s true? And they get really irritated with you, which means you’re on the right track. And I think just little things like that, because we all have kids searching the internet for something or doing a project and just asking kids like, how do you know that’s true? Where did you find it? Oh, you found it over at this website. Well, why do you trust that website? I love especially middle school, high school – why do you trust it? And it frustrates kids because kids don’t know. And the crazy thing, especially on the internet about this word trust, is it’s very unique to me personally.
Jeff: 22:20 And that’s what you have to try and get to is you have to try to get to a point where, well, I trust this link from the Seattle Times newspaper because I live in Seattle. The Seattle Times newspaper has been around for a hundred years nd so I’m going to trust their reporting. That doesn’t mean you, Steve, trust their reporting. You might have a totally different take on Seattle Times. But for me, I need to be able to explain out loud, teacher, this is why I trust this. And we gotta push kids to an area of just not grabbing the first link off of Google and saying, oh yeah, I found something. Well, how do you know it’s true? How do you know you can trust it? Did you find the same information on two other sites? Fantastic. Did you find this on BBC or CNN or pick whatever? Great. How do you know you can trust them? Who’s the author? You can push kids until they’re just so red in the face, but they need to. And do the same thing with your textbook. Grab the textbook, open it up to the authors.
Steve: 23:17 A history textbook would be a biggie.
Jeff: 23:19 It would be a huge one.
Steve: 23:21 It wouldn’t take a student very long to find conflicting data somewhere else and write back to the publisher of the textbook.
Jeff: 23:29 Yeah. Whose side are you going to believe? I mean, your whole entire history curriculum could be off whose side do you believe? But I think those are two small things. Stay focused on skills and anytime a kid turns in a website to you, the only question you have to start asking them is, well, how do you know it’s true? Why do you trust it? Those little questions have massive consequences.
Steve: 23:55 The second piece that you’re describing there is really, just a concrete example of a skill. So the fact that you stop and ask
yourself that question is a critical skill for our students students to be developing.
Jeff: 24:13 And I think we struggle with it. I still struggle with it as teachers, because when I did my report, I had the textbook, I had the
encyclopedia and maybe two books in the school library and that was it. I literally had four pieces of information to write my report. These kids got the world, you know? And so we have to ask different questions then our teachers asked of us.
Steve: 24:36 Yep. I love the first time I came across that phrase that you you gotta be able to ask Google proof questions. That pushes a kid to develop a skill. Jeff, I know you and I could go on longer than people are gonna want to listen here to a podcast so would you take a little bit of time to tell folks the kinds of things that you have at shifting schools and best ways for folks to check in with you?
Jeff: 25:10 Yeah, please do. If you’re interested in anything, you can head over to our website, shiftingschools.com, all one word. You can subscribe to the podcast where we do interviews like this. There’s also quite a few rants from me from time to time. So you can get those on the podcast as well. Because I was international for a long time, we have about 50/50 of international vs. US-based, which I think is quite nice because we still got a lot of friends and partners out there and very connected out there. We do a lot of professional development around just thinking a lot of this type of thinking stuff. So we’ve got a couple coming up. I do free webinars on YouTube. We live stream them on YouTube and Twitter and my Facebook page.
Jeff: 25:55 So usually once a month, we either have a guest or something like that going on, like right now, I got one coming up called, “what should you do in 2022,” which looks at some of these trends that we’re already talking about, like, okay, I’m a teacher or I’m a school leader, and I’m looking towards the future. What are the trends we’re seeing in education? And we’re going to be focusing specifically on technology coming out of the pandemic because it is in a different place. And so that’s a free webinar that’s coming up. We run professional development sessions. We run some one-off sessions on tech tools. I like to geek out every once in a while so we’ve got one coming up on Google my maps and how to start your own podcast. And so, we do stuff like that, so we’re around.
Steve: 26:35 I’m now following you to get the notices each time you post so we’ll also be sure to include the link to your to your website in the lead-in to this podcast.
Jeff: 26:48 Well, I appreciate it, Steve. Thank you so much for the time.
Steve: 26:50 Thank you. Thank you. Appreciate it.
Steve [Outro]: 26:53 Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to
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