Tag Archives: learning

The hidden cost of an achievement-oriented curriculum

Rainesford Stauffer said:

As children, we’re trained to avoid failure, not learn from it. It’s presented as a sign of inadequacy, even worthlessness. I think this is the hidden cost of a K-12 curriculum that is achievement-oriented. Failure is never presented to us as a different kind of educational experience, a universal (and ceaseless) part of being human.

via https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/17/opinion/dropping-out-of-college-into-life.html

If I was teaching Social Studies today…

Chichen Itza

Some folks know that I started my education career as a middle school Social Studies teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina. If I was still doing that now, I would be incredibly excited because so many wonderful resources would be available to my classroom. For instance, if I was teaching Social Studies today…

My students and I definitely would be tapping into an incredible diversity of online resources. The American Historical Association offers over one thousand Civil War newspaper editorials, for example. It also offers a YouTube channel on which historians discuss their work, making history come alive for contemporary youth. The UC Davis California History Social Science Project frames current events within their historical context, connecting students’ present to the past. Like many teachers, I would tap into the the Library of Congress, which would give me tips for teaching with primary sources, including quarterly journal articles on topics such as integrating historical and geographic thinking. We’d also have access to historical documents from the British Museum – such as notes from an English merchant in Syria in 1739 – and to the prisoner of war archives from the Red Cross. Washington University in St. Louis has an amazing collection of interviews from the Great Depression. And, if I was stuck for an idea for class, I could access the Social Studies lesson plans at Educade or the 400+ lesson plans at the EDSITEment! web site from the National Endowment for the Humanities, including a very popular set for AP U.S. History.

Instead of being limited to my teaching and our textbook, we’d have access to an entire planet of experts. We could participate in a number of free Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), including over a dozen on Chinese History from Harvard University. We could listen to podcasts on the geography of world cultures from Stanford University. We could learn about maps and the geospatial revolution from a professor at Penn State University. And so on… 

Without a doubt we would be living on Pinterest since it has dozens of pinboards – and tens of thousands of pins – related to history, including awesome resource sets from the Stanford History Education Group. We could search for pins on Native American history, Middle East cultures, Japanese history, government, geography, sociology, psychology, economics, and numerous other topics. Additionally, we could make our own sets related to local class topics and presentations using a friendly curation tool like Educlipper

My class would be in YouTube heaven. Whether we were watching National Park videos from the 1930s, digging through World War I and World War II videos from the National Archives, or perusing the channels of the Presidential Libraries, we’d tap into the incredible diversity of historical sources that can be accessed with a few clicks of the mouse.

Over on Flickr, my students and I would be looking at Industrial Revolution photos from the University of British Columbia, Matthew Brady’s Civil War photos from the National Archives, news photos from the 1910s from the Library of Congress, and Great Depression photos from the New York Public Library. We’d also check out the historical photos of Texas, Mexico, and Teddy Roosevelt from Southern Methodist University and the World War II advertisements and posters from the Library Company of Philadelphia. We’d examine historical images of Native American life from the Museum of Photographic Arts, other historical photos from the U.K. National Archives, and maybe dig through the 5.3 million book images from the Internet Archive. 

We’d have a variety of Social Studies simulations and games available to us. For instance, we could use the Civilization video games to learn and blog about political power and civics. We could find history games at Playing History or Flight to Freedom. We could engage in government simulations at GovGames or iCivics or Cyber Nations. We also could learn through ‘serious games’ about world issues, including poverty in Haiti, farming in the developing world, the impacts of the oil industry on our environment, or the 1979 revolution in Iran.

Even more exciting than what is available for us to peruse and consume, however, would be the technologies that allow us to interact, create, make, and do things together. Let’s take maps, for example. As fun as it is to explore the maps collection of the British Library, it’s even better when we roll up our sleeves and get to work. So I’d acquaint my students with mapping tools like OverlapMaps to improve their geographical sense of scale. Or I would send them to interact with the historical geography atlas of the United States from the University of Richmond, where they could trace the geography of the women’s suffrage movement over time. We could explore the Farm Security Administration photos from Yale University, perhaps drilling all the way down to a particular county. We’d learn how to make our own maps using Google’s mapping tools, then check out the maps that others have made. We’d add photos to our maps and investigate other mapping tools as well, including possibly making floor plans of locally-significant buildings. We might even take a cue from Michael Hathorn’s high school history students in Hartford, Vermont and use tools like Google SketchUp to make a historical model of our city or town.

On the podcasting front, we would listen to Social Studies podcasts such as Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and Mr. Hunt’s Geography podcast. We’d subscribe to feeds and listen to podcasts from the U.S. government as well. As part of our class, I’d model to my students how to set up RSS readers and subscribe to podcasts, which they then could extend to other classes and their extracurricular interests and hobbies. We also would watch TED and TEDx talks like those from David Christian, Niall Ferguson, and Kirk Citron. We’d learn about historical 3D mapping from Eric Sanderson, the digital re-imagining of Gettysburg from Anne Knowles, escaping the Khmer Rouge from Sophal Ear, and the decline of violence from Steven Pinker. We’d also look at some teacher- and student-created video channels like HipHughesHistory and the Lens on Climate Change project. Then we could either host our own TEDxYouth event or perhaps create our own podcasting and/or video channel.

Other initiatives might include participating with other youth across the country in KQED Learning’s Do Now Roundups, discussing important political and societal issues. Like the 4e Gymnasium school in Amsterdam, we could use Facebook’s Timeline tool to make historical timelines on topics such as the Soviet Union, inventions, fashion, or Magellan’s voyage. We could use Minecraft to design our own self-sustainable towns. We could play Fantasy Geography. We could create our own social justice project like Bill Ferriter’s middle schoolers. And we could go on virtual field trips to expand our global awareness, visiting famous government sites as well as places like Pompeii, Stonehenge, and Colonial Williamsburg. We also could immerse ourselves in virtual reality stories from the New York Times.

Indeed, the more I could put my students to work, the better. As John Dewey noted, we learn what we do. So my students would do Social Studies, not just read about it. One inspiration would be the entirely-student-run Online Model United Nations. Another would be Wayland (MA) High School’s yearly student history projects, in which students engage in digital storytelling projects, scanning historical images and creating audio podcasts, interviewing local Vietnam-era veterans, and analyzing the papers of the commander of the Dachau concentration camp after its liberation. Maybe my students would write their own textbooks like those at Beachwood (OH) Middle School. They could make a local history wiki or, even better, make contributions to our global information commons by directly creating and editing Wikipedia pages. They could participate as ‘citizen-historians’ in crowdsourced projects such as those from HistoryPin, the University of Iowa Libraries DIYHistory project, or the Washington State Historical Society’s Civil War Pathways Project

As a teacher I’d have numerous resources available to help me use all of these technologies and digital environments effectively. From Jeremiah McCall’s book and website, Gaming the Past, to Historical Thinking Matters to TeachingHistory, I would have access to incredible thinking and teaching from educators, historians, geographers, and other social scientists. I could utilize the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media software tools for historical research. I could incorporate Stanford University’s amazing library of historical critical thinking assessments at Beyond the Bubble. I could garner ideas from the City University of New York’s American Social History Project. And I could tap into the American Historical Association’s suggestions for teaching difficult legal or political topics or teaching with new media

If we want our students to understand and appreciate history, they need to DO history. If we want them to learn and care about government, they need to DO government. If we want them to be good citizens, they need to BE active citizens. As Dan Carlin noted, we have a tremendous ability (and obligation) to energize and engage our students in Social Studies. It’s never been a better time to be a teacher in this area and I could easily share numerous other resources on these topics. Many Social Studies teachers aren’t aware of the vast diversity of online resources to them. What are your favorite online Social Studies resources that we could share with them?

Image credit: Chichén Itza, Daniel Mennerich

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

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.


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]


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

New literacies, anyone?

Iowa Core

The Iowa Department of Education is soliciting feedback on the state’s literacy standards. Here’s the comment I left:

The Iowa Literacy Standards represent traditional, foundational conceptions of literacy. They do NOT reflect the 21st century literacy standards articulated by NCTE, however. Nor do they reflect digital and online multimedia literacies related to interactive media (see, e.g., the interactive storytelling and virtual reality narratives created by The New York Times), transmedia, augmented or virtual reality, and other evolving mechanisms for presenting information and conveying narratives. In short, the Iowa Literacy Standards do a decent job of articulating old literacies but not what the scholars call ‘new literacies.’ As such, we continue to prepare students for yesterday, not today and tomorrow…

And, no, the separate and thus non-integrated 21st century skills section of the Iowa Core is not enough.

Don’t underestimate Kelly Tenkely

Anastasis 02

It would be very easy to underestimate Kelly Tenkely. She’s young, she’s hip, she’s got a style sense that I’ll never have even if I live four lifetimes. It would be very easy to say, “Who is this woman?” and dismiss her out of hand.

But before you do, read her blog post on what’s sacred in education. And remember that most of the structures that you have in place in your school are a result of institutional inertia and deliberate choices, not legal requirements. And then read it again.

What could you do differently? Are you even trying?

Image credit: Anastasis Academy

3 killers of student creativity and ownership

Three killers of student creativity and ownership:

    1. The teacher and textbook are always right.
    2. There is a correct answer and it’s your job to find, regurgitate, and/or comply with it.
    3. If you question either #1 or #2, you get in trouble.

(these apply to behavior too, not just learning)

The Des Moines Register’s editorial on student retention is lazy and irresponsible

Dr. John Hattie, Professor of Education at the University of Auckland, spent 15 years synthesizing the vast body of peer-reviewed, meta-analytical research pertaining to student achievement. In his highly-acclaimed book, Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, he highlighted 138 different factors that can influence student learning success. Grade-level retention was one of only five factors that negatively impacts student achievement. Let me repeat that in case you missed it: grade-level retention is one of the few school factors that actually decreases student academic success.

Hattie went on to state:

It would be difficult to find another educational practice on which the evidence is so unequivocally negative. (p. 99)


The only question of interest relating to retention is why it persists in the face of this damning evidence. (p. 98)

Back in January 2014, I noted that

Study after study, researcher after researcher, finds the same few things about retention:

  • No long-term achievement gains. Being retained does not increase academic achievement in the long run. Let’s say that again: being retained does NOT increase academic achievement in the long run. Sometimes we see short-term score bumps but they always wash out by the upper grades. This is true even in Florida, whose educational ‘miracle’ Iowa is apparently desperate to emulate despite having better overall academic achievement, high school graduation rates, etc. A quick comparison of NAEP proficiency rates shows that Florida may have found ways to artificially inflate its 4th grade reading scores – results always look better when low-achievers have been removed from the grade cohort and/or students have had an extra year of schooling – but by 8th grade its students revert back to the lower half of the national rankings. [Quick aside: if Iowans want to reclaim our place at the top of the state education rankings, shouldn’t we be adopting practices of the states that do better, not worse, than us?] This means that – despite intuition and anecdotes to the contrary – there are no long-term achievement differences between students who are retained and those who are ‘socially promoted.’ One more time in case it’s not clear: “there are more positive effects in the long term for promoted students than for retained students – even when matched for achievement at the time of decision to retain or promote” (Hattie, p. 97).
  • Significantly higher dropout rates. Students who are retained don’t do any better academically in the long run but they do have a significantly higher risk of dropping out. For example, one study showed that 65% to 90% of overage children in grade 9 do not persist to graduation. Retention has found to be a stronger predictor of student dropout than socioeconomic status or parental education. That extra year is a killer – literally – when it comes to retained students’ secondary school completion rates. Florida’s graduation rate is 43rd in the country, while Iowa’s is 5th. Again, why are we emulating downward?
  • Lower life success. Retention has been shown to negatively impact long-term life success factors such as postsecondary education attendance, pay per hour, and employment competence ratings. Retained students also are more likely to display aggression during adolescence.
  • No increase in motivation. Retention – or the threat of retention – is not a motivating force for students. Students don’t try harder and aren’t motivated to do better after they’re retained. Instead, retention greatly diminishes student self-concept and impairs self-efficacy. Just to make clear how wrong DE’s statement is, research shows that students would rather wet themselves in class in front of their peers than be retained.
  • Discriminatory impacts. Students of color are four times as likely to be retained as their White counterparts, even when they exhibit the same academic achievement. Students in poverty also are more likely to be retained than their more affluent peers. The burdens that come with being retained are borne primarily by those students whom already are traditionally-disadvantaged by existing schooling practices.

So there we have it: incredible damage to students’ self-concept, substantial increases in students’ dropout rates, and significant reductions in students’ future life success – with bonus discriminatory impacts! – all for the mere potential of a statistically-manipulable, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t test score bump for interstate bragging rights. And, if that weren’t enough, we also get to pay more and get a worse outcome! It would be difficult to envision an educational practice that has less going for it than retention. And yet it is now enshrined into Iowa law, to be made operational (and, apparently, rationalized) by our Department of Education. [One final aside: DE also tries to justify retention because “we really want to get parents to take their child’s literacy development very, very seriously.” Most parents care very much about their children’s literacy development, of course. Parents of struggling readers need help and support, not blame or stigmatization or penalization of their children.

Similarly, I said back in April 2012:

Please realize that it doesn’t matter how many safeguards are put into place before retention occurs. The issue is the retention itself, not the procedures that lead up to it.

The proposed interventions in early grades for struggling readers are desirable and necessary. But, plain and simple, retention hurts kids. It has no proven long-term benefit and many long-term harmful consequences. If you want to ensure that students don’t leave elementary school illiterate, hire a personal tutor for academically-struggling 4th graders. It would be cheaper than paying for their repeated 3rd grade year.

In that January 2014 blog post I said that

Retention is not a policy unknown. Even the laziest of reporters or legislators can do a quick Google Scholar search and see that decades of peer-reviewed studies are clear that retention hurts kids and will hurt Iowa.

As evidenced by today’s editorial favoring student retention, apparently even that quick Google Scholar search was too much for the editors at The Des Moines Register. Citing a poll of Iowa citizens (that they commissioned) and a quote from Governor Branstad – both of which are disproven by actual data – appears to be all of the effort that they were willing to make as they lazily and irresponsibly ignored the vast weight of research and data on this issueStudents rate grade-level retention as a life stressor on par with losing a parent and going blind. Retention flies in the face of both overwhelming research and day-to-day evidence that children learn at different rates. But clearly none of this matters to the Register editors. Unless we want to be like Mississippi, the children of Iowa deserve better from our state’s flagship paper. 

Mackenzie Ryan retention 'loophole' tweet

Image credit: Mackenzie Ryan, Des Moines Register education reporter

P.S. Whatever mechanisms exist in Iowa law for third grade students to avoid being retained are the result of knowledgeable parents, educators, and policymakers advocating against proven-to-be-harmful policy. They’re not ‘loopholes.’ They represent sound educational practice backed by data.

[And, yes, the Iowa Reading Research Center should have written this instead of me.]

The biggest indictment of our schools is not their failure to raise test scores

The latest results are available from the annual Gallup poll of middle and high school students. Over 920,000 students participated last fall. Here are a couple of key charts that I made from the data:

 2015 Gallup Student Poll 1

[download a larger version of this image]

 2015 Gallup Student Poll 2

[download a larger version of this image]

The biggest indictment of our schools is not their failure to raise test scores above some politically-determined line of ‘proficiency.’ It’s that – day in and day out – they routinely ignore the fact that our children are bored, disengaged, and disempowered. We’ve known this forever, but we have yet to really care about it in a way that would drive substantive changes in practice. The disenfranchisement of our youth continues to happen in the very institutions that are allegedly preparing them to be ‘life long learners.’

See also