Monday, December 28, 2015

Top Five Posts of 2015

       As I finish my second full year of blogging, I'd like to take a look back at 2015 and the five posts that got the biggest response from my readers.  But first I'd like to thank some of the many fellow bloggers that I've read and (sometimes) responded to over this year.  These professionals have caused me to pause and think about the various issues in public education that (perhaps) need to be changed; or that need to at least be debated.  I've also read many, many inspiring stories about teachers who work very hard--with little recognition--to help their students to succeed.

       Thank you to Alice Keeler, Starr Sackstein, Justin Tarte, Annie Murphy Paul, and Daisy Dyer Duerr.  I used to think that these were Super-Hero People who had some special gift or ability in the area of education.  But I've come to understand that they are just regular people like you and me who are eager to share their thoughts and ideas with the rest of us.  I, for one, am extremely grateful to include them among my professional learning community.  (And so are tens of thousands of other educators who follow these folks!)  I am continually inspired by your words; you keep me going and keep me writing.  Thank you.


       Here are my top five posts from 2015:

#5) Open Letter to Teachers

       This was the second (and most popular) of a three-part series of Open Letters to the three most important stakeholders in our educational system: Students, Teachers, and Parents.  I wrote this "letter" to teachers on the eve of the 2015 - 2016 school year.  It was published on August 19th.  In it, I talked about how excited teachers are when a new school year begins--something, I bet, a lot of students don't realize.  I wrote about the tough job of teaching and I applauded the men and women who accept this responsibility.    Sometimes being a teacher involves difficult conversations with students about the need to continually struggle to learn something that isn't easy at first. Teachers shape the minds that shape the future of our country.  Teachers' influence over student achievement is well documented.  We always need great teachers.

#4) Learning vs. The Appearance of Learning

       Published on March 28th, this is an issue in which I feel very deeply.  The issue of the best way to measure learning and the problem (at times) of students appearing to be learning well (i.e. - getting good grades) but its only an appearance and it isn't real learning.
       I feel that P-12 education is the time when we have to be honest with students and their parents.  We don't want students to believe that they are achieving at a high level only to learn later in life (perhaps while sitting in a college class) that the grades they earned in high school did not represent their true ability.  The job of schools is to help students to learn.  We need to use multiple measures to get a true picture of their level of learning.  "Getting-a-good-grade" is not the job of schools.

#3) We Should Value Good Thinking More Than We Value Good Memorizing

       This post, from May 29th, quotes from Dr. Jo Boaler and Cathy Seeley.  In it, I talk about how our students'  thinking should be rewarded more than their ability to memorize math facts.  Sometimes elementary children who are very good at memorizing their multiplication facts (and recited them quickly) are viewed as being more able than students who cannot do this.  But we really don't students who can merely memorize facts.  What we really want is students who can think and reason and build on known facts to gain further knowledge.  Sometimes students memorize facts without knowing why the facts are true.  Later in their P-12 education they struggle because of this lack of understanding.  The goal isn't speed; the goal is learning.

#2)  No More Worksheets

       I began this post (from April 3rd) with a simple question:

Does you your child's mathematics teacher assign a lot of worksheets for homework and classwork?

If the answer is YES - Not a very effective teacher.
If the answer is NO - Likely to be a more effective teachers.

       Of course, this is an exaggeration, but the point is that this staple of P-12 education (the worksheet) should be a thing of the past.  They are boring; they are very un-engaging; and they de-emphasize thinking over mere "following steps".  They represent the opposite of what we want to see in our classrooms today.  Students should be spending class time reasoning and thinking and debating; they should be sharing ideas and thoughts.  They should hear from other students.  By the response I got from my readers, I'm thinking that this idea is not as radical as it may sound to some.

#1)  Growth Mindset Teachers

       This post had the most views of any post I've written since I started blogging more than two years ago (142 posts).  I talked about the idea of Growth Mindsets as created by Carol Dweck.  Specifically I talked about teachers who have the mindset that says anyone can learn.  These teachers help their students to understand that learning is always possible; productive struggle is a good thing; and their past negative learning experiences does not predict their future learning.

       Thank you to everyone who have shared this journey of learning and thinking with me in 2015.  The best of us are always trying to improve and to learn more.  Continue on and find your way to be the best educator you can be.

       All the best!

Peter Cincotta

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Students Remember the Fun Stuff

       I remember my Algebra 1 teacher taking off his shoes and socks in class one day.  He did it to demonstrate the need to do certain things in a proper order--otherwise, it just doesn't work.  The Algebra lesson probably had something to do with Order of Operations, but the real lesson was to complete each step in a process in the correct order.

       That lesson happened over 30 years ago and I still remember it because it was a little silly; a little goofy.  It wasn't a lecture; it wasn't a worksheet; it wasn't the normal classroom.  It was strange and odd and that it probably why I remember it.  As an educator (now), I think I also remember this event in class because it showed me that my teacher was willing to be a little silly to make a point.  He didn't have to be the Big Formal Authority in the classroom at every second of the class.  He was allowed to have some fun with his class--and still be a great teacher.

       I often tell teachers that it is not our job to entertain.  But it is part of our responsibility to motivate students to do their best.  Students don't think in educational terms such as "student engagement", "participatory learning", and "stations".  Most students just this fun.  It's not a show; it's not entertainment.  "Fun" to students is when the math class or the English class involves the students in the learning.  Its when students are not forced to stay seated for the whole period; to listen and not talk for the whole period; to take notes and learn on their own for the whole period.

      What students call "fun", teachers call "good teaching".  You don't have to be an entertainer to be a good, engaging teacher.  Chances are most teachers are already excited about the content that they teach.  The job is to convey that excitement to your students.  Involve them in the learning.  Allow for time out of their seats; time to talk and argue with other students; time to think and create and share their thoughts and ideas.

       Students don't just "like" the class better when they are involved, they actually "learn" better.  And isn't that the whole point of school in the first place?

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Passion to Make Education Better

       I often say to my children, "It takes less time to do the thing I'm asking you to do than it takes to argue about it."  Am I allowed to say this to adults who are critical of public education?

       Of course, I don't mind if people disagree with decisions made about their child's school or school district.  But mere negative comments don't usually help to make our schools better.  If everyone who disagreed with a school-level decision, instead, were to offer a possible solution, or make an effort to understand the reasons behind the decision, or step up to make things better we could accomplish a lot.  We can help to improve attitudes about public schools AND we can help to improve our schools.

       We want people to be passionate about their local schools and we want people to be partners with their schools.  Education is important.  It's more important than sports; it's more important than grades; it's more important than social status.  Education helps everyone: students, businesses, society.  The effort to improve schools has to be a group effort.

       Be passionate about education.  We need you.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Teachers That Inspire Students

       Who is your hero?

       Who do you look up to?

       This is a very common essay question for students at all levels.  The list of people who fill the pages of these essays is long: parents, athletes, friends, teachers, grandparents, historical figures, authors, poets, leaders,....  The world is full of inspiring people.  It is easy to think of such a person and maybe difficult to think of only one such person.

       These people make us believe that we can do anything.  They help us to overcome obstacles, to work harder, and to be better people.  They ask for very little in return--usually nothing.  They come to mind during the times in our lives when we think that we can't go on or we can't achieve.  They are our own, personnel superheroes.

       Most people can think of a teacher who has inspired them.  Usually a teacher who demanded high performance and worked hard to help you to achieve.  Our favorite teacher(s) were the people who believed we can do more than we believed we ourselves could do.

       Teachers that inspire students to do their best are the teachers that every parents wants their children to have.  They make learning adventurous, exciting, and thrilling.  They give their students the tools to tackle difficult problems and the self confidence to keep trying when they don't "get it" the first time.

       Be the teacher that inspires your students.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Soft Skills Education

       Our public schools' biggest offering is opportunity.  Students learn from qualified professionals and from a long list of course offerings--probably the longest at the high school level.  But we are not just teaching our students the R's, we are preparing them for the adult world.  This means that we are also tasked with teaching our students the so-called "soft skills".  Here is a short list of some of these skills:

  • Listening 
  • Presentation Skills 
  • Giving Feedback 
  • Decision Making 
  • Inspiring 
  • Persuasion 
  •  Interpersonal Relationships 
  • Dealing with Difficult People 
  • Conflict Resolution 
  • Self Confidence 
  • Resilience 
  • Assertiveness 
  • Friendliness 
  • Empathy 
  • Problem Solving 
  • Critical Thinking 
  • Organization 
  • Planning 
  • Scheduling 
  • Time Management
       Employers tell us that high school and college graduates who have these soft skills are much more likely to be successful employees than those who don't.  Students aren't "graded" on these skills in school, however many of these skills are incorporated into classrooms as rules of behavior (friendliness, conflict resolution, planning), suggested steps in completing assignments (decision making, resilience, organization), and learning strategies (problem solving, critical thinking, giving feedback).

       Students who are successful and confident usually possess these skills at a high level.  Students who are only concerned with the "book work" of school may possess the knowledge needed for their future, but they may also struggle with relationships with their co-workers.  This "soft-skills" education is an important part of our school system.  The ability of our students to get along with other students and to organize their thoughts, ideas, and lives is all a part of growing up and being responsible.  

       And everyone gets to receive this education for free in our public schools.  

Friday, November 27, 2015

Tinkering Around the Edges Isn't Sufficient for Significant Improvement in Our Schools

       There's a joke among some educators that says if a child doesn't understand the lesson, then we will just say it again slower and louder.

       It's not a funny joke.  In fact its really sort of a put down to teachers who struggle to help students to learn.  If the teacher presented the lesson in the best way she knows how, then she may not know of another way to present the lesson and (so) when a students doesn't get it, she just repeats the same thing (sometimes slower and louder).  This usually doesn't help the student to learn any better than the first time, but it does lead to frustration for both the student and the teacher.

       These situations are far too common in our nation's classrooms today.  Improving these situations is haphazard at best.  Sometimes some students try harder; sometimes some teachers try different strategies.  But most of the time, instructional change is small (or absent) and academic results remain the same.

       Still, this doesn't happen from a lack of trying.  Plenty of teachers (most teachers) try very hard to learn more and to improve every year.  They read books; they attend conferences; they take classes; they join Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) within their school or school system or online.

       Change is hard, and improving academic results for student groups that have historically struggled in the traditional school system is a complex problem.  It isn't the sort of problem that can be solved by tinkering around the edges; and by not causing some level of discomfort for people who insist that everything is fine the way it is now.

       I believe that we have the knowledge and the research to know what must be done to improve education outcomes for the students that we aren't reaching today.  These strategies and policies are available for everyone to see.  A short list of books from a variety of sources provides the answers we seek.  Here are some of them:

  1.  The Results Fieldbook: Practical Strategies from Dramatically Improved Schools, by Mike Schmoker
  2.  Whatever It Takes: How Professional Learning Communities Respond When Kids Don't Learn, by Richard DuFour
  3.  School Leadership that Works: From Research to Results, by Robert Marzano
  4.  Teacher Leadership that Strengthens Professional Practice, by Charlotte Danielson
  5.  Failure is Not an Option: Six Principles that Guide Student Achievement in High-Performing Schools, by Alan Blankstein

       However, I also believe that the change we need involves the hard work of constant improvement.  It requires schools to dig deep into the standards and objectives that are taught everyday and to ask questions such as, 
  • What is the best way to teach this objective to students?
  • What strategies should we use?
  • What activities are best?
  • How do we reach a classful of students with different learning styles?
  • How do we assess student understanding?
  • How do we assess the success of the decisions we made for this lesson?
       This is complex work and it requires effective collaboration among teachers--no one should have to do this on their own.  If we are successful, it will take a generation to complete this transformation of our schools.  During that time, we will have to contend with a lot of resistance from educators and non-educators alike.  However, this is an effort that is worth the years of hard work.  This is an effort that today's teachers can look back on and be proud to say, "I was there when the hard work was done."

       Tinkering around the edges isn't enough anymore.  It's time to do what we tell our students to do--Work hard and you will see the rewards in your future.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

It's Time for Our Schools to Leave the 20th Century

       You know the old joke about Rip Van Winkle and schools?  He falls asleep for a hundred years and upon waking up he sees everything he used to know has changed dramatically.  The houses look so different.  The clothes that people wear are very different.  And the  Then he finds a school and walks inside.  He goes into a classroom and he is comforted to see that schools and classrooms haven't changed a bit.

       We educators don't think this is very funny.

       In fact, it is embarrassing for us carry out the important work of education today in the same way that we did this work 50 or 30 or even 20 years ago.  Doing so ignores the research about learning that has been done over the past few decades.  It ignores the research about how the brain reacts to the stimuli that occurs in classrooms.

       For instance, we know that most students can't learn to the best of their ability strictly by sitting in class for a whole class period and listening to the teacher talking (and taking notes).  We know that students are more engaged when they have the opportunity to participate verbally and when they have a chance to get up out of their seat and participate physically in some way.  We have technology that we didn't have (even 20) years ago that can be tapped to help our students to prepare for the information world that they will enter after high school.

        We are not preparing our students by merely teaching them to read, write, and do arithmetic.  These things are important, but they are not enough.  Memorizing facts long enough to get a good test grade will not prepare our children for the world that they will inherit.  Our schools have the responsibility to mirror the society that our students will experience.

       Twentieth Century schooling is not what our students need.  Most of them have never even lived in the 20th century.  I believe that our current education leaders understand this need for our schools to change.  Part of the responsibility of our public schools is to explain this need for change to our parents and to our communities.  Staying the same is easy; change is hard.  Schools often face opposition from communities who tend to say that "The old way was good enough for me and it's good enough for our kids."  We need to make the case against this sort of thinking.

       Someone needs to speak for our students and for their futures.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Improving Education is Harder than Going to the Moon

       I often hear people say, "We have been able to send men to the moon.  Why can't we improve education?"  The implication, of course, is that the effort to send people to the moon is certainly more difficult than educating children.  So if we could do that, why can't we accomplish this--much easier--task?

       I would contend that improving education for all students is much more difficult than--the extremely complex of task of--sending people to the moon because (even today) educators are dealing with many more "unknowns" than NASA had in 1969.

       I doubt that anyone at Mission Control watched the Apollo capsule heading toward the moon thinking, "I'd say that we have a 20% chance of missing the moon by a hundred thousand miles."  They knew how far away the moon was; they knew the amount of force needed to break out of the earth's atmosphere; they knew how much food the astronauts needed.  It was certainly a complex task.  Mistakes were surely made and some things certainly went wrong.  But the Apollo 11 team that dealt with the physics of sending people to the moon were dealing with plenty of known quantities.

       In contrast, improving education involves our--still evolving--knowledge of how students learn.  Brain research is currently taking place and reporting new findings every year.  We have to contend with understanding the best way to motivate students and the best way to teach students.  And, of course, students aren't robots with the same abilities and the same limitations.  We have students from rich and poor families with different views of the benefits of education.  We have students from different home-life situations in which some are very supportive and some lack any sort of structure.

       It would make more sense to compare the effort to improve learning with the effort to cure cancer.  Over the years and decades, both of these fields have experienced progressed, but neither of these fields have been able to claim a complete victory.  Our understanding of cancer cells has certainly improved from 100 and 50 and even ten years ago, but we don't know enough to know how to stop their growth throughout the body.  Similarly, our understanding of how students learn has improved, but we are yet to find a school model--or even an education model--that best addresses the needs of all of our students.

       Improving education is a complex problem.  We see small improvements from time to time; and we see isolated pockets of (what appear to be) great success from time to time.  But we still have more to learn before this problem can be solved.  We have to continue to build on the successes of the past (and present) to reach the day when all students will receive the full education that they deserve and all students will reach their full potential.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Group work is a Necessity for Students

       Our school district recently had an essay contest in which students were asked to describe their Ideal Math Class.  Submissions came in from students in grades 4 to 12.  Nearly every student said that they wanted to work in groups for at least a portion of the class time.  Students want to have the opportunity to ask each other questions and to share their ideas with a small group of peers.

       In fact, the benefits of group work in the classroom are well known.  The Center for Innovation in the Research and Teaching has compiled the following list of benefits of group work:

  • Students able to take ownership of the subject matter.
  • Students develop communication and teamwork skills.
  • Content is reinforced as students work together and "teach" each other.  This improves understanding through additional discussion and explanation.
  • Content may be broken down into parts.  This allows students to tackle larger and more complex problems and assignments than they would be able to do individually.
  • Students can work together to pool their expertise, knowledge and skills.
  • Students hold one another responsible and accountable.
  • Teaches students to plan more effectively and manage their time.
  • Instructors benefit by seeing students approach problems in novel and unique ways. This can improve the instructor's perspective and make their future teaching more effective.

  • Instructors are able to have the content reinforced by giving the students ways to apply what they have learned in a collaborative setting.

       As teachers, we want students to have different learning experiences.  We know that all students do not learn best by merely listening to the teacher and taking notes.  We want students to learn how to learn and one way to do that is to give them these opportunities in the controlled atmosphere of the classroom.

       "Group work" is a general term that can be implemented in many ways in the classroom.  The Cornell University Center for Teaching Excellence has suggested many ways for teachers to incorporate group work into their lessons.  Marzano lists cooperative learning as one of his Nine High Yield Instructional Strategies.  

       Group work breaks the mold of the traditional teaching model that keeps the teacher in the front of the room all the time and the students in neat rows of desks and (usually) not talking very much.  Group work requires planning and preparation on the teacher's part.  It also requires teachers to allow some productive, learning noise to be part of their typical class on a regular basis.

       As we prepare our students for the world of work, we need to give them opportunities to work and to learn with their peers as this will (very likely) be a part of their own professional experiences as adults.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Crack the Code of Learning

       How does a teacher enable students to learn?  How do students learn?  How do people learn?  Teachers who seek to reach their students struggle with these questions all of the time.  Experience (and research) tell us that students learn differently.  When we teach a lesson to 30 students; some get it right away, some get part of it, some don't get it at all.  How is that possible?  All of the students heard the same lesson; yet not all of the students had the same level of "Learning".

       This can lead to a difficult and awkward situation in which the teacher feels offended that the his or her efforts went to naught; and the student feels embarrassed that he or she wasn't able to learn as well as other students.  Our best teachers understand that all students don't learn in the same way and (so) they try to find different ways to present information.  They present is verbally; they present it visibly on a whiteboard on a screen; they use videos; they have students read some information; they have other students explain their thinking; and so on.  We use these different strategies to keep the class interesting and to increase student engagement.  But we also do this because we know that all students won't learn the same way and we need to find a way to present the content in different ways so that we reach all of our students.

       Einstein has been associated with the quote, "I never teach my pupils, I only provide the conditions in which they can learn."  I don't know if he really said this, but the statement may be correct.  It may be that no teacher can actually MAKE students learn.  It may be that the best we can do is to encourage students to learn.  We do this by getting to know our students very well and using this knowledge to include into our lessons those aspects that our students will find interesting.  If the students are interested than they are more apt to try their best even if the learning is difficult.

       Still, even when we understand about different learning styles and the value of good relationships with students, teachers are still faced with some topics that seem to be difficult for many students.  Once again we struggle to crack this code of learning.  How do teachers help students to understand complex topics?  Indeed, this is the art of teaching.  Some teachers are better at this than other teachers.  In my experience, the teachers who are able to reach the most students are the teachers who learn from their own experiences (including their own failures) and who seek input from other teachers via conversations with colleagues, reading journals and research, and taking courses about learning.

       Learning isn't a complete mystery--but it isn't a completely solved mystery either.  Current research about how the brain works will help to answer some of our questions.  Collaboration with professional teachers helps too.  Teaching is rewarding and (at times) frustrating.  As we learn more about the process of learning we will have more teachers with greater abilities to address the needs of more and more of our students.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

PARCC Results are all about Learning

       2010 - Common Core Standards go public
       2010 to 2014 - School systems throughout the country align courses to these updated standards
       2014 - PARCC Field Test takes place in all "PARCC" states
       2015 - First full administration of the PARCC assessments
       Fall 2015 - We get to see the results of the PARCC assessments

       I feel like I'm the only person who is happy to see the results from these new tests.  Once again, the press is constantly talking about bad results, bad tests, bad schools.  To me, these results are all about learning.  They tell us how well our students are learning based on the world-class standards that are being taught in our classrooms.  Isn't this what we really want???

       It doesn't help to compare our students to each other in their school or to the students in the school on the other side of town.  The comparison that matters is the comparison to the standards.  This comparison will help us to know if our children are ready for the academic demands of college level work and for the societal demands of a career.

       School is supposed to be about learning.  The PARCC results give us a measure of this learning.  This is a good thing.  Up until today, we've had far too many students graduating from high school and believing that they were ready for college only to face a harsh reality that their high school did not prepare them as well as they thought.  Too many students begin college and don't finish college.

       Today, thanks to PARCC results (and other data points), our students and their parents will get a true measure of their ability--as early as in third grade.  And there will be time while our children are still in P-12 school for them to get help and for them to raise their abilities.

       PARCC results are a good thing.  Learning is a good thing.

       Don't you want to know if your child's true level of learning?

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Teachers that Promote a Growth Mindset

       Every teacher has had "the phone call" with parents in which the teacher says,  Your child has the ability, she just needs to apply herself.  And then the teacher and parent (typically) talk about school rules involving turing work in on time and not talking in class.  Essentially, we are saying to the child, We're the adults.  These are the rules.  If you don't follow the rules, then you will get a bad grade.  (Of course, if the student was concerned about her grade, we wouldn't have this discussion in the first place.)

       There are a lot of "old school" problems with that phone conversation.

  1. The conversation emphasizes following rules and getting grades, and there is very little talk about actual learning.
  2. The first part of the famous teacher line is, Your child has the ability....  If the child already has the ability to do the work, then the solution to the problem should concentrate on why the child isn't doing what she is already capable of doing.
       We know that (as adults) there are lots of things that we have the ability to do and yet we don't do them--or we delay doing them for as long as possible.  Mowing the grass, doing the dishes, admitting we're wrong about something.  We have the ability to do all of these things, but we need some sort of motivation to actually take the time to do them.  Students are the same way.  The old adult (or teacher) response of "I'm the adult and I say so." may force children to do something, but it certainly doesn't motivate them to do their best.

       Growth Mindset theory tells us that when students believe that effort will lead to result, they are more likely to try new things and are less worried about making mistakes because they believe that these setbacks are just part of the process of learning new things.  I've recently been introduced to the website Mindset Kit.  This site is dedicated to helping teachers, parents, and students to understand what Growth Mindset is and how to help students to develop good, healthy Growth Mindsets.

       One simple strategy that every teacher can do is called Praise the Process.  When a student is doing some classwork, or offers an answer or an idea in class, the teacher response by praising the thinking that went into the student's effort rather responding to the correctness or the incorrectness of the student's work or response.  This simple strategy helps the student to know that their effort is important towards that eventual goal of learning the skill or concept.
       Mindset Kit has excellent resources for parents.  Teachers can refer parents to this site for parents who ask, "How can I help my child to do her best?"  There is a brief quiz on different statements of praise that parents can say to their children that will promote a Growth Mindset.  And there are other typical daily activities in which a parent's reaction will help their children to understand (for instance) that making mistakes is great for helping your brain to learn.

       Our best teachers already know how to encourage their students to do their best everyday--even when they don't want to.  It's the same as when a parent tries to distract their child away from something that is bothering him and towards something that he would like.  Growth Mindset strategies help teachers to do this while also helping their students to see the value in effort.

       Here's another quote I hear from parents all of the time, "I can't believe my child is doing so well in (insert course subject here) class in school.  He has never done well in that class before."  You can bet that this child has a teacher that knows how to motivate students.  Her class is interesting and students are engaged in the adventure of learning.  

       After all, they already have the ability.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Learning is a Social Activity

       Learning is a social activity.

       A quick search of respected sources such as General Psychology, Psychology Today (article by Dr. Matthew J. Edlund, and one of my favorite education writers Annie Murphy Paul will help all of us to understand that the best learning requires active participation by the learner.  (View an excellent talk by Dr. Paul here.) The old days of "sit and get", don't-talk-in-class, teacher-in-the-front-of-the-room-doing-all-of-the-talking have been shown to be effective for an incredibly small percentage of our students.

     The problem is that most of our current teachers grew up in a school setting in which less student talk was the norm.  The teacher was the sole source of knowledge in the classroom and the students were discouraged from sharing their thoughts and ideas with each other.  Hence, many current classrooms engage in this same classroom structure that existed 20 and 40 and 60 years ago.  "It was good enough for me, and so it will be good enough for my students" as the thinking goes.

       This is a problem because the old model of presenting information to students and basically asking them to memorize it isn't enough for the workforce of today--and it isn't completely necessary in the age of the internet.  We are able to obtain facts very easily now.  The challenge to our teachers is to help our students to use that information to make connections to other information; to build things; to create things; and to solve problems.

       This requires our teachers to have a knowledge of how students learn and to use that knowledge to create lessons that incorporate the strategies that are most effective in helping our students to learn.
       This also requires teachers to be comfortable with students talking to each other in class; students getting out of their seats to share information and ideas with other students; and students making mistakes (and learning from these mistakes) during class time.  Some teachers struggle with this "active learning" approach because of the fear that such a classroom atmosphere would be difficult to manage.  Such an environment in the classroom requires planning and structure and good communication between the teacher and the students.  Students need to understand the objectives of the activities and they need to be accountable for doing their part.  Yet, this is the classroom that most students will tell you that they want.  And they want it because they struggle with learning through a strict sit-and-listen-and-take-notes sort of classroom.

       Learning is a social activity no matter where the learning takes place.  Adults who learn via asking questions and reading information and watching others and making mistakes and asking more questions, etc.; should not expect students to learn any differently.

       And if students aren't learning, then what's the point of school?

Friday, October 9, 2015

Five Steps to Effective Schools

       I should have titled this post, Five Humongous Mountains to Traverse that Lead to Effective Schools.  But anyone who has ever worked within our public school system already knows that the best results only ever come from hard work and massive efforts.

       As I think about what is necessary for any school or school system to be truly effective, I keep coming down to these five propositions:

  1. The purpose of school is learning.
  2. Teachers facilitate learning.
  3. #2 (above) requires a great understanding of how students learn.
  4. Teachers plan lessons that include strategies that are effective in helping students to learn based on the students' learning styles.  (That is, based on #3 above.)
  5. Students learn.

The Purpose of School is Learning

       Some people might have trouble accepting this first proposition.  The time and effort we put into sports and activities (and worrying about grades) may certainly lead some to believe that schools have other purposes or (at least) competing purposes.  

       These other purposes are wonderful and they help to make "school" a welcoming place.  They give our students a sense of being part of the community and they teach our students that the world is full of opportunities.  Still, I believe that the true purpose of school is learning.  It's not grades, it's not sports, it's not standing-in-lines and doing-what-you're-told and putting-your-name-in-the-upper-right-hand-corner-of-the-page.  The purpose of school is learning.

Teachers Facilitate Learning

       Some teachers feel that their job is to teach and their students' jobs are to learn.  I believe that teachers' main job is to facilitate learning.  If students aren't learning, then what's the point--what are we doing day in and day out?  Teaching is (of course) a big part of the job, but if we believe that the purpose of school is learning (see #1 above), then we must believe that student learning is a crucial part of every teacher's responsibility.

       The difficulty in traversing this mountain is nestled in the fact that we can't force anybody to do anything.  If we have a student (or many students) who  refuse to accept the opportunity for learning we (as teachers) are limited in our ability to make this happen.  Yet, I would ask, What does a good parent do when her child refuses to go to sleep at bedtime?  Does she give up?  Does she allow the child to do that which she knows is not in his best interests?  No.  She reads on to my next proposition [!] .

Understanding How Students Learn

       Let's face it...the first two mountains were molehills relative to mountain #3.  In fact, I would guess that 90% of teachers are in full agreement with the first two propositions.  It is this third proposition in which our journey across toward effective schools really begins to get difficult.  Indeed, we have some great teachers who have been teaching for over ten and 20 years who still struggle with this question: How Do Students Learn?

       From my point of view, I believe that a full understanding of how students learn requires formal training (or professional development) and experience.  No new teacher is fully prepared for the job of teaching, because a new teacher cannot fully understand how students learn without having the experience of interacting with students and making instructional decisions based on those interactions.

       Resources on the science of learning are plentiful.  An excellent list of fairly recent breakthroughs in our understanding of learning can be found here.  Edutopia compiled an excellent list of brain-based learning resources recently.  Here is an excellent blog on the Science of Learning.  If you want to dive deep into this subject, the National Academies Press put out a full volume on How People Learn.  Teachers can take courses about how students learn and learning theory, and teachers can seek out information from these and other sources to build their knowledge about how students learn.  

       If teachers are to succeed in facilitating learning, they must have a working knowledge of how students learn.  Hence, my third proposition is likely to be the biggest barrier to effective schools.  It is hard for individual teachers to gain the volume of knowledge needed to be very successful on this front; and it takes to time and experience for teachers to use and to fine tune this knowledge.  I believe that most of our good teachers are perpetually improving their skills at understanding how students learn.  Teacher that do not view this skill as necessary will forever be only marginally effective and will prevent our public schools from achieving their primary objective: Learning.

Use Knowledge of How Students Learn to Plan Effective Lessons with Effective Strategies

       This step goes hand-in-hand with #3 (above).  In practice, teachers gain an understanding of their students, search for strategies and activities that they feel would be engaging for their students, and then plan their lessons to incorporate their strategies and activities.  After teaching the lesson, the teacher evaluates its effectiveness and (perhaps) makes some adjustments for the next time that this lesson is taught.

       Matching effective strategies to the learning abilities of the students is difficult, complex work.  Indeed, this is the hard part of teaching and a major stumbling block in our efforts to be as effective as we can be.  This is where the "science" of teaching appears to become much more of an "art".  It is where individual teachers interact with individual students.  This complex work (in my opinion) requires teachers to work in groups and in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) to gain the knowledge and experiences from many professionals in order to build on each teacher's knowledge and experience.

Students Learn

       The end result successfully completing steps 1 through 4 is student learning.  For some schools, this finish line far from view and much work is needed to begin to see this end result.  For others, this goal is well within view and is getting closer each school year.

       The first step to any problem is identifying the problem and then to identify a path to solving the problem.  These five steps will definitely lead to effective schools.  Achieving these five steps requires significant effort.  We have to be a team of teachers and administrators and researchers and parents and community.  All of our schools can be effective schools.

       Our students deserve nothing less than our collective best.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Teaching Mathematics For Understanding

       There has been a lot of debate in the U.S. about our student's ability in mathematics for the past decades--certainly for my entire career (which started in the 1980's). How do we compare with students in other countries? (see PISA results - 36th out of 70 for mathematics in 2012)  How do we compare with each other state-by-state?  (see NAEP results from 2013)

       What are the causes for these discrepancies?  What do other countries do differently compared to what we do in the U.S.?

       Ask a hundred people and (it seems) you would get a hundred answers.  Everything from "nothing's wrong" to "the system is broken".  Everyone has their point of view; there are experts on both sides of the every argument.

       Recently, I've read two sources on this issue that make a lot of sense to me.  The first is from Phil Daro.  He makes the point that many mathematics teachers in America have the goal of teaching students how to get the right answer.  In other countries the mathematics teachers have the goal of teaching students how to understand particular mathematical concepts.

       This makes sense to me because I've been that mathematics teacher and I've seen that mathematics teacher among my colleagues.  While I believe that our teachers want their students to understand and to gain a conceptual understanding, they are often fighting a battle against an accountability system that seems to reward "correct answers" more than awarding "correct understanding".  (Although the new PARCC and Smarter Balance assessments may have found a balance between these two competing forces.)  We are also fighting a culture of students who avoid the struggles needed understand these concepts and (instead) seek shortcuts for getting the right answer.

       The second source is an article by the education writer Amanda Ripley.  She took the PISA math test in an effort to understand the sort of thinking that it requires of students.  She also interviewed exchange students who spent time in schools in other countries.  From these interviews, she repeatedly heard these students remark about the following three differences between schools in the United States and schools in higher achieving countries.  These are:

  1. School is harder. There's less homework but the material is more rigorous. People take education more seriously, from selecting the content to selecting the teachers.
  2. Sports are just a hobby. In the U.S., sports are a huge distraction from the business of school, but that's not the case in other countries.
  3. Kids believe there's something in it for them. The students in other countries deeply believe that what they are doing in school affects how interesting their lives were going to be. Even if they don't like a class, they see their education as a stepping stone to their future.

       I believe that we have to take a honest look at ourselves here in the U.S. and be open to these differences if we are ever to see a significant rise in the achievement of our students.  Our current climate of new standards and new assessments provide to us an opportunity to make this huge adjustment in our teaching and in our understanding of the true purpose of our mathematics class rooms.

       We can do this.  We must do this.  We must do better.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Motivated to Learn

       I often say to new teachers that it may not be your job to entertain your students, but it is certainly part of your job to motivate your students.
       We know that actual "teaching" is only a part of a teachers job.  The most major part of the job is ensuring that students are learning.  Our best teachers know that most students don't learn strictly by listening.  Learning requires doing, talking, asking questions, making mistakes, and doing some more.  Teachers plan lessons that keep their students engaged.

       Strategies to keep students motivated include lots of basic things such as:

  1. Calling on students every class (preferably at least three times each class),
  2. Allowing opportunities for students to get out of their seats during every class,
  3. Playing games that require students to understand the objective for the day to do well in the game, 
  4. Asking a lot of "Why" questions that require students to think and to explain their thinking,
  5. Allowing students choices to demonstrate their learning.
       Students can't learn if they are not motivated to learn.  Requiring students to sit still and listen to the teacher for 45 minutes or 50 minutes or 90 minutes is not an effective way to instill true learning.

       What do you do to motivate your students to do their best everyday?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Bammy Awards

       Since I started this blog two years ago, from time to time I'd see something about this thing called The Bammy Awards.  I remember that I first saw it on the webpage of one of my favorite online colleagues Daisy Dyer Duerr.  As I continued to make connections via twitter and via reading other great blogs about education, The Bammy Awards would continue to pop up; and they were always linked to something great about public schools.

       Since my blog is all about the great things that are happening  in our public schools, it is time for me to do my part to spread the word about The Bammy Awards--which has the very same mission of spreading the word about the great people that work very hard to make our public schools the best they can be.  The Bammy Awards strive to reverse the narrative that is so often in the public press and minds that says our schools are always failing and our students are sub-standard.

       The Bammy Awards recognize the exceptional collaborators, contributors, and role models in our public schools.  Awards are given in more than 20 categories for teachers, superintendents, principals,  support staff, parent leaders, researchers, bloggers, and more.

       This video shows the 2015 finalists and winners--although everyone making it to the finalist list is truly a winner and a strong supporter of our public schools.


       I would encourage everyone to learn the rules for nominating a educator you know who deserves a Bammy Award.  Everyone can contribute their voice to the process by either nominating someone (or themselves) or by voting for a nominee.  We know that great work is happening in our public schools everyday and I believe that everyone needs to hear about these great, hard-working people who are doing these great thing.

       Learn about the Bammy Awards; and read the articles and blogs that are put out by the nominees and finalists.  Join the twitter chats with these wonderful educators.  You will grow in your knowledge of our education system and in your abilities to help children to improve.  We can't do it alone; we need each other.  The Bammy Awards are helping to bring us together and to share the great news about our great public schools!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Are Your Students Obsessed with Grades?

       Here's a quick checklist to see if your students are obsessed with grades:

  1. They are constantly asking, "Is this going to be graded?"
  2. They refuse to do anything if it is not being graded.
  3. They ask for "extra credit" or make-up work at the end of the marking term to raise their grade to the next letter grade.
  4. They only see the grade at the top of their returned work and ignore the helpful comments that the teacher has written.
  5. They try to memorize the information they need to know for tests.
  6. They follow procedures in mathematics for unknown reasons just to get the right answer.
       In short, students who are obsessed with grades are just "going through the motions" at school; they do what they're told, but they learn very little.  And when they take a test that can't be beat by memorizing (like a final exam) they show their true ability or lack thereof.  The challenge for these students is to do as little as possible to earn the grade they want.


       School is supposed to be all about learning.  If students aren't learning, than we are wasting their time.  And if we are (somehow) justifying how these grades-obsessed students are getting A's and B's, then we are giving them (and their parents) a false sense of accomplishment.  Eventually someone will tell these students the truth about their academic abilities, and it would be a shame if they are in college (and paying for college) when they are hit with this truth-bomb.

       Teachers can help their students to de-emphasize grades by praising them for their thinking and reasoning.  They can emphasize learning by asking students to explain how they got the right answer instead of just accepting the right answer and moving on.  Formative assessments that require thinking and reasoning and justifying instead of just repeating information tell students that memorizing isn't good enough.

       We have to help students to be less obsessed about grades.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

We Are a Community of Learners

       Teaching students is not like like building a model airplane.  We don't have distinct steps to follow that will lead to a completed project in the end.  Students learn differently; they come to school with different experiences and different abilities.  Good teaching requires an understanding of the learners in each classroom and daily lesson plans that are designed to help those learners.

       Good teachers understand the difficulty of reaching each individual student and they seek out the best strategies from experts in the field of education and from the teacher across the hall.  We (educators) are a community of learners.  We have to be.  We can't learn everything from experience and we can't figure out everything on our know.  We can't be experts in child psychology and special education and mathematics and English Language Learners and student engagement and formative assessment and ....  We need each other to be the best teachers we can be for our students.

       After more than 25 years in education, I am still learning and improving by listening and reading and following other educators just like me who have something great to share.  Here is my short list of excellent sources of information for educators who strive to make a difference with their students and who seek to improve their abilities every year:
  1. Annie Murphy Paul - The Brilliant Blog
    1. Her recent writings on how to using testing as a learning tool (aka - formative assessments) are informative and eye-opening to those who only see testing as an end-of-unit assessment.  She has also recently released an e-course that will show parents, teachers, and school leaders how to implement testing strategies as opportunities for student learning and growth.
  2. Robert Marzano - Marzano Research
    1. Great professional development information for teachers and for whole schools on topics ranging from Student Engagement to Assessment and Grading to Instructional Strategies to Teacher Effectiveness.  Don't let the "research" part scare you; Marzano provides effective tools and ideas that are simple to understand and to implement.
  3. Doug Lemov - Teach Like a Champion
    1. Excellent tips that any teacher can use to improve student learning and student motivation.
  4. Starr Sackstein - Changing the World, One Mind at a Time
    1. Great ideas and thoughts from a National Board Certified Teacher
    2. Lots of great recent blog posts about emphasizing learning and de-emphasizing grading

       And teachers don't have to go online to find excellent educators to collaborate with; look to your administrators, and district and state-level leaders.  Find ways to collaborate with teachers in other school buildings in your school district.  There is great value in learning from other professions.  I would say that it is a necessary element for teachers who strive to improve year after year.

     We are a community of learners.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

World-Class Education

       I'm not a competitive person.

       I'm one of those people who sees the value in the journey and believes that there is something to be learned from every situation.   And, "Who Cares" if I did better or worse than the next guy.

       As our public schools are taking their first steps to endeavor to teach our students at the same academic level with the highest performing countries in the world, we stand to learn much from our colleagues.  True learning is a complex process and enabling true learning via classroom instruction is an evolving process.  No single teacher can do it alone; we need the expertise that we can only gain from working together.

       This isn't going to happen if we are constantly concerned with gaining some sort of higher ranking than our neighboring school.  This can only be accomplished through hard work and constant dialogue with the teacher across the hall in-between classes; and during department and team meetings; and in the evenings via twitter chats and reading blogs and paging through journals and taking classes and...

       We are at a major turning point in public education in the United States.  We are making an honest attempt to raise standards and examine our teaching strategies.  We know that change is hard.  In fact I believe that the difficulty involved in this process of change is the piece that has prevented us from moving forward in the past and what may halt the process this time as well.

       The struggle to raise standards requires everyone to take an honest look their current abilities: teachers and students.  We can't be overly concerned about grades and we certainly can't be concerned about beating the next guy (or the next school) in some sort of artificial competition.  We will have a few years of teachers and students with the same abilities that are judged on different standards.  We are truly "raising the bar" and we have to expect some period of time before we are all able to clear that bar.

       It will happen, but it will take time and cooperation and hard work.  It isn't enough (anymore) for students to merely "do what they are told" in school.  They have to actually learn and use what they learn during the learning of future topics.  Teachers need to not only teach but also determine how well their students are learning--everyday.  Parents need to accept the results of standardized testing and encourage their children to ask questions and to spend more time reading and practicing and understanding.

       No one every became an olympic athlete without years of training.  That's what we are trying to do.  We want our students to compare with the best students in the world.  We want them to leave high school with multiple opportunities because they have the abilities to truly do whatever they want to do.  It's a marathon, not a sprint.

       So start stretching--we are in "training" mode.  And we need time to improve.

Public Schools and Choice

       Is it true that public school kids and their public school parents don't have choices?  I'm sure that I will expose my igno...

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