The factory model of public education has to die – the sooner the better. On a recent tour of our district's ELL program, I had the golden opportunity to walk through multiple buildings over two days looking through the same lens. This is golden for a few reasons – it disciplines me to be in buildings, it allows for a better understanding of how a district program is being implemented across the district, and it allows me to see many teachers delivering instruction in a short period of time. While I was there to observe the ELL classrooms in action, I couldn't resist the urge to step into every classroom that had an open door. At the end of the tour I had briefly observed no less than 70 classrooms in action. My conclusion was the same as it has been in every school I have worked…
Years ago I served as the head coach of a high school varsity soccer team. The position included building feeder programs, and I quickly found myself running summer camps for kids of all ages. The first 10 minutes of a soccer camp for elementary aged kids taught me a key lesson that I have never forgotten: little kids need to be engaged in productive doing – or their doing will be counter-productive! Because I'm not the quickest learner, it took me a while to translate this to the varsity level, but eventually I did figure it out. The outcome results of my practices (how well our team played at game time) depended on clarity of focus on the objectives, viewing every minute as gold, and on how many touches each player had on the ball. I figured out that drills in small groups resulted in more touches than one or two lines. I figured out that pre-teaching some group leaders before practice (or after practice the day before) resulted in a crisper drill that wasted fewer precious minutes. I figured out that players could easily translate concepts from small group games into the full field so I really didn't need to do full field practice much at all – resulting in more touches. I figured out that routine drills focused on core concepts and skills made for efficient warm ups, cool downs, and transitions since they didn't require any explanation once they were routine. I am proud to share that the feeder programs grew and players learned spiralled core skills and concepts through each level resulting in state championships after I had left (yes I prefer to think that it was due to my work with the younger kids – not the arrival of the much more brilliant coach…).
So I said I'm not the quickest learner. Indeed, it took me a few years of teaching and coaching to have the sudden realization that… drum role… all of the strategies I had used to be a better soccer coach applied directly to being a classroom teacher. Small and strategic groups, core
routines for core learning, utilize student leaders, make sure every student has a ball and more touches, eliminate waiting in line, use protocols, keep score in practice, blow the whistle – freeze – now reflect, etc… I realized that every time I asked the class a question expecting one student to raise a hand the other 29 were "waiting in line." My classroom was almost entirely absent of productive doing. Of course I taught high school, so the students were well trained to be compliant by that time and making them wait in line was normal. No doubt the system had weeded the rest out by the time they got to me…
As has been true for a century, my tour of our schools confirms that we continue to produce experts of line waiting. Our students today graduate experts of raising their hand, portraying a fascade of engagement, and well rehearsed - factory like - repetitive behaviors such as filling in blanks, circling T or F, coloring maps, and answering recall questions at the end of textbook sections. The percentage of precious minutes in a school day (about 400) actually
spent touching the ball or "productively doing" is fair at best. The vast majority of those 400 minutes is spent in transition, lunch, classroom start up, review, or practicing one of the factory skills mentioned already. I observed very few engaging in meaningful small group debate, doing academic writing, practicing articulated meta-cognitive strategies to improve reading skills, or synthesizing meaningful strands of content. The students were demonstrating excellent line waiting skills and superb compliance to factory like routines.
If we want line waiting experts, we are delivering on that expectation beautifully. If we want students who research, collaborate, think strategically, and create knowledge, we must reorganize the classroom to practice those skills. Every minute is gold, we need far more touches on the ball, and we need laser sharp focus on objectives – both in process and in content. If we can do this out on the field, isn't it reasonable to think we can do this in the classroom?
Thanks to fellow administrator Dave Meister, I ran across this Ted video. This is a thoughtful, reflective math teacher speaking about the work he does to engage students in mathematics. Great stuff!! Dan Meyer presents his thoughts on his blog, dy/dan.
So this one caught my attention. I support the guy and have percieved him to be an advocate of education and of 21st century literacy. The lesson – sound bites taken out of context kill the real message. I agree with Obama that authentic, productive discourse is crucial to the success of democracy but I also believe that 21st century technologies may actually improve that level of discourse in America. What do you think?
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Ira David Socal, researcher at Michigan State University, shares a thought provoking slide show on what he calls "Toolbelt Theory." Yes I have a obsession for power tools and toolbelts, but in this case, it's about the heart of his message. The newest post on his blog SpeEdChange correctly nails reading, writing, and arithmetic (the 3 Rs) down as the means to a greater end. Too often we educators focus on these three skills as the primary goal of education resulting in students who find no reason to participate and prolific disengagement. Frankly, lessons focused on how to make sense of little symbols on a page aren't that interesting… Learning is fascinating when it results in something significant, life changing, or meaningful. Reading, writing, and thinking mathmatically allow our students to discover this magic - it's our job to set their sights on the right goal. They will be passionate about learning the critical tools if the goal is cool enough!!
"Research tells us that students who take Algebra II or who successfully complete 3 – 4 years of high school math have a much better chance of success in college." Does anyone else find this all too common statement by legislators and so called "education leaders" a bit shallow? Haven't college bound students (and those who are successful in college) always completed higher level course work across most subjects areas? Leaders and lawmakers have shifted some of the focus of public education discourse towards a negative and unproductive path - specifically in the areas of math and science. The incredibly important issue of better preparing students for a 21st century economy will not be answered by simple minded, silver bullet actions such as increasing enrollment in AP classes or making all 8th graders take Algebra I. The call for change to improve student achievement demands far deeper, far richer, and far more meaningful conversation.
I am not suggesting that math and science aren't important subjects (or that all students should be required to study Greek). The question is not whether to teach math and science but, rather, what to teach and how. How many students graduate from high school today knowing how to solve algebra problems by rote, but do not understand math as a way of thinking about how to solve problems? Similarly, how many high school students take three years of science – including biology, chemistry, and physics – but do not know what the scientific method is and how to use it, as we saw in the AP chemistry class described at the beginning of the last chapter? We keep hearing that all students need more math and science courses, but I believe that all students need more engaging and relevant math and science courses. The question is: What should all high school graduates know in order to be literate in math and science as disciplines of problem solving?
Wagner gets it. Preparing students to do well on a test is, well, not that tough – and not enough. It simply requires getting a copy of the test and drilling through the concepts and the answers with the students. The insistance on using such tests to measure school performance by those advocating for NCLB and more AP test prep is sorely short sighted. The 21st century economy will require students to do far more than is asked for on these tests and yet the political focus on these tests is driving dollars and attention to, well, the test scores. In the end, we are becoming more and more sophisticated at test preparation and less focused on preparing for what comes after the test… life.
Wagner's call for rigorous dialogue focused on aligning curriculum and school practices with 21st century work place requirements is on the mark. Much more important than taking a few tests, students need to be prepared to think, write, speak, collaborate, research, investigate, synthesize, and create in jobs that are not even invented yet. School performance needs to be measured by how well students are prepared for 21st century success through assessment practices that are rigorous, capture depth and nuance, and well aligned to modern day work place skills, content, and concepts. A look at Wagner's work is a good place to start that conversation.
If you're thinking about i-pods in the classroom, this resource is for you!! Might we finally be getting to a real, afforable 1-1 tool?
Rather than look only at what teachers are doing, I try to assess what students are being asked to do: the specific skills and knowledge that students are expected to master and the level of intellectual challenge in the lesson. What the teacher does is the means by which the students learn – not the end… I have consistently found that the kinds of questions students are asked and the extent to which a teacher challenges students to explain their thinking or expand on their answers are reliable indicators of the level of intellectual rigor in a class. If the questions require only factual recall – which is most often the case – then students are probably not being asked to do very much in the way of reasoning, analysis, or hypothesizing – and the primary skill being taught is memorization. If I see this pattern in a number of classes, then I can reliably predict how well a school's students might perform on an essay exam or how well prepared they are for college. p. 52-53
How would Wagner evaluate your classroom? Out of the approximately 250 minutes a week in your class, are students doing more factual recall or are they analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating? How many papers – real papers – are students asked to write in a semester? Are students frequently engaged in rigorous discussion and debate, possibly in small groups so all are engaged instead of just a few, and asked to support their arguments? Wagner's questions and statements seem to line up directly with the Rigor and Relevance framework being used in our school… Thoughts?
The current obsession with measuring learning certainly has some benefits (accountability is good), but it also comes with some serious drawbacks, since it diminishes all the forms of learning, like arts education, that can't be translated into a score on a multiple choice exam. That's why the research cited above is so important: it helps us appreciate the "soft" skills that we tend to neglect.
But I think that even this clinical evaluation of arts education misses an important benefit: self-expression. I shudder to think that second graders, at least in most schools, are never taught the value of putting their mind on the page. They are drilled in spelling, phonetics and arithmetic (the NCLB school day must be so tedious), and yet nobody ever shows them how to take their thoughts and feelings and translate them into a paragraph or a painting. We assume that creativity will take care of itself, that the imagination doesn't need to be nurtured. But that's false. Creativity, like every cognitive skill, takes practice; expressing oneself well is never easy.
Are we teaching children the essential 21st century skills of self expression, creativity, and design? How do we "double the time" for reading and math skills to make AYP and still deliver on what is presented in Lehrer's post as critical learnings for all kids? What are your thoughts?
The maturation of the human mind recapitulates its evolution, so the first parts of the brain to evolve – the motor cortex and brain stem – are also the first parts to mature in children. Those areas are fully functional by the time humans hit puberty. In contrast, brain areas that are relatively recent biological inventions – such as the frontal lobes – don't finish growing until the teenage years are over. The prefrontal cortex is the last brain area to fully mature (p. 114).
This developmental process holds the key to understanding the behavior of adolescents, who are much more likely than adults to engage in risky, impulsive behavior… A recent study by neuroscientists at Cornell, for example, demonstrated that the nucleus accumbens, a brain area associated with the processing of rewards – things like sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll – was significantly more active and mature in the adolescent brain than the prefrontal cortex was, that part of the brain that helps resist such temptations. Teens make bad decisions because they are literally less rational (p. 114).
The problem-solving abilities of working memory and the prefrontal cortex are a crucial aspect of human intellingence. Numerous studies have found strong correlations between scores on tests of working memory and tests of general intelligence. Being able to hold more information in the prefrontal cortex, and being able to hold on to that information for longer, means that brain cells are better able to form useful associations. At the same time, the rational brain must also stringently filter out all extraneous thoughts, since they might lead to unhelpful connections. Unless you are disciplined about what you choose to think about – you won't be able to effectively think through your problem. You'll be so overwhelmed by all those incoming ideas that you'll never be able to figure out which ones are genuine insights (p. 131).
Anyone else think we should be paying attention to these developments?
One of the joys of being a principal is walking the halls and listening in on classrooms each day. During one of my recent strolls I was intrigued by the fact that nearly every classroom I walked by had a teacher in it talking at students. Some may not think twice about this piece of trivia, however this simple mind can't reconcile the misalignment of our school goals and these actions…
Our main school goal is focused squarely on increasing student achievement. It indicates that the ACT Explore test is the tool for measuring achievement, however we clearly pay attention to the MN MCA tests, the NWEA MAP tests, common local assessments and student grades also. The vast majority of these assessments test the ability of students to think, write, apply, make decisions, and solve problems. Not one of the assessments tests our students' ability to sit and listen or to take notes. Does the contradiction between what we ask students to do each day and what they must do on these assessments raise a red flag for anyone else?
Certainly some who are reading this post are already crying "over simplification" or "yeah, but students need content with which to do those activities." No doubt – but the goal here is to honestly reflect on what we do with students each day during the 7 hours that we have them – and to figure out how to get better results at game time. I have often reflected on how working as a soccer coach helped me enormously as a classroom teacher. As a coach it was easy to connect game time (the assessment) to what I taught and had students do in practice. It felt so natural to reflect on the last game with the students, to watch film, to discuss mistakes and missed opportunities, and then to translate that into "curriculum" to teach and drills to practice before the next game. As a teacher, I taught and taught and taught and wondered why they didn't get it. There was no film, no dialogue with them about what needed to be learned or practiced, no structured reflection on how to learn the material, and certainly no dialogue about the upcoming game… or assessment. That would be like giving away the answers!
So… what do those tests actually assess? How much do we practice what we expect at game time? What percentage of a student's day should be spent practicing – actually doing the cognitive activities we require on those assessments? In education circles we like to gripe about "teaching to the test" and how bad that is. Interestingly, it seems we do just that in most other areas of life. We practice for the assessment, the game, the performance, the challenge. To this soccer coach it seems crazy NOT to teach to and practice for the test. In fact, we coaches even scout the upcoming team on our schedule hoping to fine tune our strategies and increase our chances of a strong performance!! What if we did the same in the classroom? Maybe we should scout the MCA game, the NWEA game, and the ACT game! What if, like good coaches, we spent more time practicing in classrooms and less time giving direct instruction? Coaches know that players in line for a drill is a waste of precious practice time. Players must all be doing all of the time (well executed drills don't require waiting in line). What if we eliminated "waiting in line" in the classroom? What if we used film, writing, blogs, pictures, and other strategies to facilitate more reflection on the process with students? What if we invited students into the conversation about what good performance looks like, how to handle mistakes, and how to take advantage of opportunities? What if we were coaches in the classroom, using formative assessments to drive our curriculum and practices ultimately shooting for a strong performance in the playoffs (summative assessment)?
I'm hopeful that my strolls later in the year will be full of students reading, debating, thinking, writing, speaking, discussing, and problem solving. If I remember right, those were on the last scouting report I looked at…