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The opposite of boredom is not entertainment

Boredstudent

George Couros recently wrote about an article in the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Ed. Magazine titled Bored Out of Their Minds. He included a quote but I would have picked a different one:

But the biggest shift we need,” Rose believes, is much more elemental. “We need to get away from thinking that the opposite of ‘bored’ is ‘entertained.’ It’s ‘engaged.’” It’s not about pumping cartoons and virtual reality games into the classroom, it’s about finding ways to make curriculum more resonant, personalized, and meaningful for every student. “Engagement is very meaningful at a neurological level, at a learning level, and a behavioral level. When kids are engaged, life is so much easier.”

Confronted with the apathy of their own students, I have heard countless educators do everything possible to point the finger elsewhere. They blame digital technology and television, they complain about ‘this generation of kids,’ and they say stuff like “What do they want me to do? Get up there and dance?” All of those are the wrong focus.

As teachers, we are primarily responsible – along with our students and with our administrators – for creating learning environments of relevance and meaning. That doesn’t mean ‘entertaining’ kids. That means engaging kids by giving them work worth doing. That means addressing the age old student questions of “Why do I need to know this?” and “Why should I care about this?” and “How is this relevant to my life, now or later?”

Robert Fried stated:

[A]mid all the accounts … of kids complaining to each other about how bored they are with many of their classes, why do we accept this so passively, without arguing for the right to be learning something of value? [The Game of School, p. xii]

We can do better.

Image credit: Konrad-Adenauer-Gemeinschaftshauptschule Wenden

Bribing children to take our tests

Bribe

It’s standardized testing season again in American schools. And that means it’s also time for many schools to bribe and punish their children into submission because those tests are ones they don’t want to take.

Over the past couple of decades, the political stakes attached to standardized testing have accelerated greatly. So too have teachers’ and administrators’ concerns about their schools’ scores. As a result, there now exists a staggering range of ‘motivational’ efforts that attempt to get students in a positive mindset about testing. For instance, a search for ‘test prep rally’ on YouTube returns over 250 videos of school plays, lip synced songs, and ‘Slam the Exam’ concerts. On Pinterest and at Teachers Pay Teachers, educators can download and attach to candy over 40 different cute, motivational phrases such as ‘You were MINT to succeed’ or ‘You’re a STARBURST of knowledge’ or ‘It’s CRUNCH time. Show what you know!’ At Minds in Bloom, schools can get tips about costuming, audience participation, songs, dances, cheers, jokes, skits, videos, and slide presentation decks for their own test prep rallies. They also can hire the Morris Brothers to perform original songs and share their testing strategies and stress reduction tips. Or they can tap into the numerous other web sites that will help them implement raffles, revise song lyrics, make posters with test taking tips, and stage Are You Smarter Than Your Teachers? game shows.

More troublesome are the post-test ‘celebrations of learning’ that are available only to certain children. A Colorado school made the news recently for its plans to reward those students who show up for every testing day and ‘try their hardest’ (one can only imagine how that will be measured), despite state laws that allow students to opt out of state testing without penalty. As Alfie Kohn reminded us long ago, the withholding of a reward is most certainly a punishment, particularly in the eyes of young children. Is it kind and sensible for educators to preclude from the fun those children who exercised their legally-protected rights? Similarly, I know of a school in Iowa that kept half a dozen of its eight hundred students back from its trip to the video game / bowling / laser tag center because the principal felt that they hadn’t given their best effort on the state exams. Do you think those students ‘learned their lesson’ and will ‘try harder’ next year? Or will they merely be resentful and see the punishment as just another example of their school’s lack of support for their learning challenges?

The justification in all of these cases is that the tests are ‘important,’ that the schools can face potential penalties for poor performance or lack of participation, and that students need to take the assessments seriously. But how seriously should the students take them? After all, our children don’t get any noticeable, tangible benefits from these exams. It’s not as if they can get the questions afterward, see what they missed, get timely feedback on how they did, and get learning assistance from their teachers. All they receive is a meaningless-to-them set of numbers, bar charts, and percentile rankings 4 to 6 months later, typically in their next year of schooling when it’s much too late to really be helpful. And if they attempt to discuss in any way what the questions were and how they think they should have solved them, they get in trouble for ‘cheating’ or ‘violating test security.’ Moreover, the testing windows are artificial events that get inserted into – and usually disrupt the pacing and flow of – the school year. They also often suck up all of the school computers and Internet bandwidth for weeks on end, taking away technology-enriched learning opportunities.

Let’s face it, these assessments are rarely seen by children as a natural outgrowth of their learning. Instead, they are high pressure, high stress activities that are forced upon them by their school systems. These tests are for adults, plain and simple. And while some students may be eager to please their teachers or ‘help out’ their school, it’s hard to argue with those who weigh differently where they want to place their time, effort, energy, and attention. After all, if we have to bribe or punish our students into taking our exams, that’s probably a sign that we need more meaningful assessments…

What do test prep and student ‘motivation’ efforts look like in your school?

[A modified version of this post is at TrustED under the title, Test prep rallies, ’slam the exam’ concerts, and other testing season follies

Image credit: BRIBE, Alpha Bravo Foxtrot

Lecturing v. active learning

Annie Murphy Paul said:

a growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students. This is not a matter of instructor bias; it is the lecture format itself — when used on its own without other instructional supports — that offers unfair advantages to an already privileged population.

The partiality of the lecture format has been made visible by studies that compare it with a different style of instruction, called active learning. This approach provides increased structure, feedback and interaction, prompting students to become participants in constructing their own knowledge rather than passive recipients.

Research comparing the two methods has consistently found that students over all perform better in active-learning courses than in traditional lecture courses. However, women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation students benefit more, on average, than white males from more affluent, educated families.

via https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/13/opinion/sunday/are-college-lectures-unfair.html

“I tried giving my students some agency two years ago and it didn’t work”

Basalt

A couple of months ago I keynoted a STEM conference in Syracuse, New York. I talked a lot about the power of student agency and tried to give numerous, concrete examples of student-directed project- and inquiry-based learning in practice. We discussed the idea that the global innovation economy is pushing the skill sets of creativity, communication, critical thinking, and collaborative problem-solving much deeper into the labor pool than ever before. I also shared that the research on motivation and engagement from Deci & Ryan, Hallie, and others shows quite clearly that autonomy and self-direction are fundamental human needs that we violate to the detriment of both our students and our proclaimed academic goals.

During one of our conversation periods a secondary science teacher said to me, “I tried giving my students some agency two years ago and it didn’t work.” I did my best to quash my initial reaction of dismay that students lacked more opportunities for autonomy in his classroom and instead asked some follow-up questions. He shared with me that he taught earth science, that there was a mandatory segment of the curriculum on rock identification that was a significant component of the state exam, and that every year students were less than enthused about the unit (to be charitable). Two years ago he apparently had tried to give his students some choice in terms of both how they learned the material and their final work products but apparently student disinterest in the unit topic and/or how he framed the work were enough to overcome his early attempts at giving his students some agency and it went miserably. So he shut it down, returned to a very traditional structure of presentation and examination, and now was very skeptical of claims by myself or others that giving kids some voice and choice in their learning could be productive.

I couldn’t help but feel sad for this teacher. He took a small risk and it didn’t go well so he retreated back to his age-old practices, frustrated and resentful of others who preached something different. Numerous questions and concerns flashed through my mind as we interacted, few of which could be addressed in that venue at that time.

As school leaders, we must provide much greater support to our teachers as we ask them to initiate new instructional practices and ’transform school.’ I hear repeatedly from principals and superintendents that they supposedly have given their educators permission to be risk-takers. But it is not enough for school leaders to just give encouragement or permission. Our teachers deserve specific, concrete instructional (re)design strategies and techniques; short-cycle feedback loops; ongoing conversation with teaching peers about successes and failures; and long-term, follow-up activities that ensure implementation success. We also have to create organizational systems that foster ongoing innovation cultures rather than momentary risk-taking, including educator resilience and learning from failure. And we have to continually and critically interrogate our own internal culture, climate, messaging, reward systems, and other leadership practices that reinforce the status quo and mitigate our alleged ‘permission to take risks.’ During my short conversation with this teacher, it became clear that very few of these were in place in his school, which meant that from the start he was almost certain to fail. None of that was his fault, of course; it was the fault of the system in which he was embedded and the leaders of that system.

That science teacher in New York – the one who didn’t really know how to implement what he was trying and also didn’t have enough resilience to learn from his attempt and try again – represents countless other teachers all across the country. We have well-meaning educators everywhere who want to do right by kids and who want to innovate but lack the essential supports necessary to move their practice forward in ways that we are asking of them. Combine this lack of leadership and organizational support with compulsory topics of study (rock identification!) and compulsory exams (accountability!) that often don’t intersect with students’ interests or passions and it’s no wonder that we see so little innovation in our classrooms.

Dr. Richard Elmore, Gregory R. Anrig Research Professor at Harvard University, has written extensively about the concept of reciprocal accountability. Essentially, the idea is that for every increment of performance that school leaders and policymakers demand from teachers, they have at least an equal responsibility to provide them with the capacity to meet that expectation. We violate this capacity requirement daily in our school systems, piling mandate upon expectation upon wishful thinking without ever creating the concurrent support systems. Until we leaders take seriously our obligations of reciprocal accountability and capacity-building, we’re never going to see wide scale implementation of the changes so desperately needed in our classrooms and school systems.

Image credit: Basalt, David Ellis

Is the emphasis in your school on punishment and compliance or autonomy and dignity?

Deluxe teacher grading kit

When I was in high school, we didn’t have an ‘open campus.’ We were supposed to stay at school and eat our lunches in the cafeteria. Many of us would drive off anyway, hoping that we could make it back in time for our next class. We often were late because of the distance between our school and the fast food joints. But since I ran with a crowd of ‘good kids’ who got high grades and were heading off to college, we could stroll into class late – sometimes with coffee or an ice cream cone for our teachers – and suffer no adverse consequences. At the time I was blissfully unaware of the privilege I enjoyed simply by being a white, male, middle class, high-achieving student (or that I ‘earned’ by being mostly compliant).

Fast forward thirty years… Today we see a number of ‘no excuses discipline’ schools – particularly in urban school districts – that punish students for the slightest noncompliance. Tardy to class? Shoelace untied? Not walking quietly enough? Failing to follow the taped line in the hallway? A stripe on your sock? Slouching? The wrong color undershirt? Not raising your hand with a straight elbow? Rolled-up sleeves on your school uniform? Not tracking the speaker with your eyes? ‘Willful defiance,’ however arbitrarily defined? Yelling, shaming, assignments that get ripped up, public tracking charts, demerits, detention, suspension, expulsion, and numerous other academic and disciplinary punishments await…

Critics of these schools note that the children who attend them invariably are ‘other people’s children.’ They’re not the children of the white middle class. They’re typically black, brown, and poor. And the folks who often are the strongest advocates of these kinds of schools would never, ever send their own children there. But, you know, ‘those children’ need more structure. ‘Those children’ need that kind of discipline because they don’t get it at home. Hey, don’t blame us, those parents ‘chose’ that kind of environment for their children. And so on…

But here’s the thing: educators and parents who are aghast at these ‘no excuses’ schools need to recognize that most traditional schools aren’t much better. The discipline may be slightly less draconian for most students, but the heavy emphasis on punishments and rewards remains for virtually all students. In most schools students lack significant agency, are told what to do nearly every minute of every day, rarely have meaningful choice or input into their own learning environments, and are punished by teachers and/or administrators if they don’t comply with whatever is demanded of them. Students can tell you how disrespectful, disempowering, and apathy-inducing these environments can be. It’s pretty stifling to have so little choice in what you learn. And it can be soul-killing to be 17 years old and still need permission to use the bathroom. So, yes, like for myself, the ‘good kids’ may be afforded a smidgen of leeway and autonomy that seems utterly lacking in the ’no excuses’ schools. And, yes, traditional schools – back in my day and now – may be a little less worrisome because the penalties usually are slightly less severe. But when it comes to our disciplinary practices, we need to climb down from our pedestals because the differences are mostly a matter of degree, not orientation.

My University of Colorado Denver faculty colleague, Dr. Manuel Espinoza, has been talking with us about the concept of student dignity – about the idea of affording students basic, inalienable rights of autonomy and respect. Not because they comply with our demands. Not because we bribed or forced them. Not because the economic need for self-directed workers has never been higher. But simply because our children are human beings – precious, unique individuals – who deserve to be cherished and treated as such rather than as mere objects of our desires for control and order (no matter how well-meaning our motives are). To quote Manuel, “What would it mean for schools to treat children as if they were of supreme value, of invaluable exchange?” And, no, this doesn’t mean chaos and anarchy in our schools…

Learning environments that empower students as meaningful contributors and choice-makers – that recognize and treat students as worthy of basic dignity – look very different than those that view students as unable or unwilling partners and/or problems to be managed. Which views predominate in your school system? And before you answer, ask yourself 1) what alternatives to punishment/reward disciplinary systems do you see around you, 2) how many times a day and in how many ways is a student’s basic dignity disrespected, 3) what happens when a student disagrees or doesn’t comply with a classroom or school behavior policy, and 4) who gets to make and enforce the policies in the first place.

Schools are supposed to help students master the dominant information landscape of their time

Our new information landscape is digital bits in the ether instead of ink dots on paper. There is no foreseeable future in which we go back to analog. One of schools’ primary tasks is to help students master the dominant information landscape of their time. Schools are knowledge institutions preparing students to do knowledge work. So let’s be clear about what our new information landscape looks like:

Our new information landscape

The characteristics of our new information landscape listed on the right side have seismic implications for how we communicate, collaborate, connect, and create. These new characteristics are transforming every single information-oriented industry, upending business models, and destroying traditionally-dominant enterprises. Our new information landscape requires citizens and workers who are fluent with technology tools and online environments and is reshaping how we learn, interact, gain the attention of others, and engage in civic togetherness.

The schools that are doing a good job of preparing students for the right side of this chart are few and far between. Many are still arguing whether technology should even be in schools and/or are trying their best to lock down students’ access to digital environments as tightly as possible. We are hobbling our own children’s life success.

What are we waiting for? How many more children will we disadvantage? How many more generations of students are we going to turn out who are primarily prepared for the world of yesterday?

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The chasm between math research and classroom practice

Elementary student multiplication problems

Steve Leinwand and Steve Fleischmann said:

In mathematics instruction, a chasm exists between research and practice. For evidence of this gap, look no further than the mismatch between what research says about developing students’ conceptual mathematics understanding and what we actually do. An example is the way we teach math content in elementary and middle schools. A growing body of promising research shows that if initial instruction focuses exclusively on procedural skills, then students may have difficulty developing an understanding of math concepts.

AND

On post-tests, the students who received only meaningful, or relational, instruction performed better in applying the procedure and solving the equations. In contrast, the students who first received procedural instruction on how to solve an equation tended to resist new ideas and appeared to apply procedures without understanding. [emphasis added]

AND

the form of instruction humorously but accurately characterized as yours is not to reason why, just invert and multiply may not enhance the performance of many students. Alternatively, instruction that places a premium from the start on meaning and conceptual understanding may improve classroom productivity.

And yet, despite Common Core and other efforts, our procedural emphases still persist in many, many math classrooms. And parents clamor for them.

FYI, this is from twelve (12!) years ago…

via http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept04/vol62/num01/-Teach-Mathematics-Right-the-First-Time.aspx

Image credit: maths, Shaun Wood

Headwinds or tailwinds?

Against the wind | Vinoth Chandar, photographer

David Brooks said over at the New York Times:

The crucial social divide today is between those who feel the core trends of the global, information-age economy as tailwinds at their backs and those who feel them as headwinds in their face.

And that’s really it, isn’t it?

We have a majority of schools and leaders and educators and policymakers for whom the rapid changes around us feel like strong headwinds, negative forces that continually buffet them in the face. Technology that expands access to others… An ever-shifting, complex, hyperconnected information landscape… The ability to learn whatever we want at any time, in any place, on any path, at any pace… Global economic competition and cooperation… These are all seen as dilemmas. As problems that must be managed and minimized. As destructive challenges to retreat from, often because of a deep longing for a nostalgic yesteryear that was simpler, easier, and allegedly ‘better.’

And then we have the minority of schools and leaders and educators and policymakers for whom the rapid changes around us feel like tailwinds at their back, propelling them forward into unique opportunities to rethink education and do better by kids. These are places that are diving into the constructive complexities and emerging with new beliefs and new mindsets and new practices. They are finding ways to enable deeper thinking and greater student agency and more authentic work – and utilizing digital technologies all along the way to help facilitate and enhance these new forms of learning and teaching.

The headwinds people could learn a lot from the tailwinds people. They could garner ideas about how to pilot new initiatives. How to plant seeds of innovation and grow them in productive ways. How to move more quickly in order to be more relevant. How to empower children and youth and teachers in ways that were unimaginable just a few decades ago. And so on…

Likewise, the tailwinds people could learn from the headwinds people. How to proceed thoughtfully. How to recognize the potential negatives and address rather than ignore them. How to validate the felt needs of communities without being dismissive. How not to get too far ahead of others who just aren’t there yet. And so on…

Ultimately the future lies with the tailwinds people, of course. ‘The future’ always wins. Whether we embrace the world around us or resist it with both heels dug in, the forces of technology, globalization, and learning possibility inevitably will carry the day. As I said in a long ago blog post

I think it is becoming increasingly clear that our current system of education is going to go away. There are simply too many societal pressures and alternative paradigms for it to continue to exist in its current form.

The only question, then, is: How long are we going to thrash around before we die?

Where do you fall? How do you and your educators and your schools and your communities view the changes around us? As headwinds or tailwinds? Or something else?

Image credit: Against the wind, Vinoth Chandar

Congratulations, we killed kindergarten

Commentsonkindergartenworksheets

Apparently between 1998 and 2010 we killed kindergarten. Lots more testing. Much less music and art. Fewer centers and unstructured play time. Fewer student-driven activities. Greater disregard for young children’s variation in development. More emphasis on teacher-directed instruction and textbooks and worksheets…

We knew this but now it’s not just widespread anecdotes. We now have comprehensive research on data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.

We should be ashamed of ourselves.

Comments credit: Winter math and literacy packet NO PREP (Kindergarten)

Getting children excited to stand in line

The Hechinger Report profiled a teacher who uses the Class Dojo behavior modification software to “get children excited about things like staying in line.”

Really? Yeah, I’m sure kids are “excited” to be manipulated into compliance. I call BS.

Also, I’m pretty sure that our global economic and social transformations are being driven by creative innovators, not compliant rule-followers…