Saturday, March 28, 2015

Learning vs. The Appearance of Learning


       How do you know if you've learned something?  Think of yourself and your own experiences.  It could be in school or in college or at home or at work or at the beach or anywhere.  Think about something you know and understand very well--how did you learn that?  Think about a time when someone tried to teach you something--like how to wash clothes, or how to fix something, or how to download a file on a computer.  How do you know when you have learned something?  How can you prove that you have learned something?

       Now let's look at our students (and our schools) and the question  becomes, How do we (the educators) know that our students are actually learning?  How can we prove or demonstrate that they have actually learned something?  And does this "proof" really demonstrate learning; or does it merely give the appearance of learning?  

       Do grades accurately measure learning?  Do tests accurately measure learning?  Do performance tasks accurately measure learning?  Can we use multiple such data points to measure true learning?  Maybe we can.  What if schools come up with a system of classwork and homework and written tests and verbal tests and formative tests and performance tasks and standardized tests; and we put all of the information from these multiple sources into a "bowl" and mix all of these multiple results together and then we make a determination of the level of learning attained by each student?  Since students demonstrate true knowledge and understanding in different ways, this method would allow each student to demonstrate what they know and are able to do.

       Of course, I am describing exactly the method that our public schools use to help us to make these determinations of learning.  Often, sadly, the end result of this process is a single letter grade.  So the challenge is, Does this single letter grade accurately describe the student's ability?  When it does, we have succeeded in communicating real learning; when it doesn't we have only communicated the appearance of learning.

       So the next question is: Who cares if the "B" or the "A" represents real learning or the appearance of learning.  If a child receives the same rewards (such as college admittance), then it doesn't matter if the learning was real or perceived.  The difference is, real learning is lasting and real learning can lead to future learning that builds on previous learning.  The mere appearance of learning is fleeting.  Eventually the student will reach a point where he or she will no longer be able to keep up the appearance of learning.

       This occurs in our students' P-12 schooling experience as they move up in the grades.  So often we hear parents say that they child did so well in school in earlier grades and was unable to continue to do well in later grades.  Of course, there are many reasons for this to occur, but one of these reasons is the issue of actual learning vs the appearance of learning.  This is a particular problem for over 50% of students that go to college.  They get accepted to a college and they cannot complete their degree program (sometimes they cannot complete their first full year of college) because their P-12 grades gave them and their parents only the appearance that they were learning.

       As a country, we can argue (and we do) over the purpose and validity of testing and grades and homework and course content and so many other aspects of our P-12 experience.  I believe that such arguments are generally good for the democratic purpose and I hope that such well-meaning arguments lead to better schools.  However, I would contend that such arguments should focus on helping our students to truly learn and attain knowledge.  When we (for instance) argue against a particular test because we fear that it will expose that our students are not as able as we want to think that they are, I would suggest that that is the wrong reason for refusing such a test.  

       As hard as it can be for some of us, we have to be honest with ourselves and with our children.  The goal shouldn't be to "win" at all costs.  The goal should be to learn.  School shouldn't be a competition against each other.  School should be about learning--and only about learning.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Good Teachers Demand High Quality Performance from Their Students

       When you think about your favorite teacher, was he/she also your easiest teacher?  Was it the teacher that let you do whatever you wanted to do?  Was it the teacher that handed out grades like candy, but didn't care much about how much or how well you learned the course content?

       The pedagogical term "a warm demander" has existed within the teaching profession for quite a few years at this point (see Ed. Leadership article from 2008).  The term was coined by J. Kleinfeld in 1975.  It refers to a teaching personality that makes an emotional connection with students, but also expects high academic and behavioral results from students.  This teaching technique has been praised as being particularly effective for poor and minority students; students who have historically achieved at much lower rates than their middle-class, white peers.  (see Becoming Warm DemandersCaring Teachers, and Warm Demander Pedagogy)

       A famous example of the warm-demander teacher is Jaime Escalante.  He taught Calculus in Los Angeles.  Many of his students were poor and struggled with mathematics.  His caring yet demanding personality helped his students to achieve great results.

       Some teachers would argue that their job is only to teach and not to develop caring relationships with their students.  But I would counter-argue that only a part of a teacher's job is to teach.  The more important part is to ensure that students are learning.  This, indeed, is the hard part of teaching.  There is no single teaching strategy that is effective for all students when it comes to ensuring that learning is taking place.  Instead, we have to look to our colleagues and look to research and look to best practices to find these most effective teaching strategies.

       We know that students respond better to those teachers that show a genuine interest in them.  Students want to make their teachers proud of them--especially the teachers that really care.  Teachers that that understand their content and do not understand the need to connect with their students, often see lower academic results from their students.  And teachers that are very caring and friendly with their students but demand only low-level skills (similarly) see low academic results.

       It takes both: Warm and Demanding.

Monday, March 23, 2015

We Offer Opportunity

       We have all heard the expression, "Opportunity Knocks".  It conjures up images of something good coming your way.  It could be a new friend, a promising new relationship, a new job, or a chance to get some thing that you've always wanted.

       "Opportunity Knocks" also implies that this good thing is offered to you, but it is not thrust upon you.  You can take it or you can leave it.  As adults, we sometimes lament the opportunities that were offered to us that we did not accept.  We also (in hindsight) sometimes realize opportunities that we were offered and didn't recognize them as opportunities at the time.

       Our public schools offer opportunity to our students.  The opportunity to learn, to grow, to be responsible citizens, to be successful...  The process of educating children is long; it is divided into different school levels and different subjects.  It is offered by different people at different times.  It probably doesn't look like an opportunity some of the time.  But it is.

       We owe it to our students to help them to see the opportunity that is being offered to them.  We don't want them to have regrets of denying this opportunity later in their life.  We are the adults, we have the wisdom of years; the long view.  We have the moral authority to understand (as best as we can) how students think and how they learn.  We need to know how we can talk with them to make them understand the opportunity that is being offered to them today and everyday that they are in school.

       Public schools have many responsibilities to our students and to our society.  Teaching is only part of our job.  Ensuring that the learning is taking place is the (much more) important part of the job.

       Opportunities that come from our public schools should not be in disguise.  They should be made apparent and obvious to all of our students.  We want them to take advantage of these educational opportunities and we want them to grow and improve because of these opportunities.


Friday, March 13, 2015

The Most Epic Pi Day Ever!

Not since March 14, 1915 has Pi Day been this epic!

       Oh yeah.  You know it.  Pi Day this year is going to be a big one.  3.14.15  The stars are aligned; the digits are aligned.  It is going to be bigger the Super Bowl of Mathematics--a national holiday for mathematics teachers everywhere!

       In my school district, we are celebrating with a major celebration.  We are running the Pi-K race with 400 participants.

       There will be a pie eating contest.  We are looking forward to the Einstein look-alike contest (Albert Einstein was born on March 14th.)  And we will have activities for children of all ages.

       So let's hear it for the one, the only, the irrational, the never ending, the number Pi


Saturday, March 7, 2015

Blood Donors and Students: Doing the Right Thing

       I've been a blood donor since I was 18 years old.

       Over the years, I've grown more and more impressed with the blood donation system in the United States and Canada via the America's Blood Centers and the American Red Cross.  They have a difficult and (yet) very important job.

       Here is the difficult part:

       Imagine if you had the job of trying to convince people to volentarily have a needle stuck in their arm?  They would also have to answer a lot of personal questions about their past travels--especially if it included travel to certain countries--and questions about their possible drug use and even their sex lives and sex partners.  As compensation for going through this ordeal, donors would receive a hearty "Thank You", a bottle of water, a snack, and occasionally a free T-shirt.  No money; no raise; no notoriety.  In fact, friends and neighbors would probably question your reasons for doing such a thing if you were a blood donor.  And if all of this wasn't tough enough, only 38% of the U.S. population is eligible to give blood (source) because of various health and risk factors.

       Here is the important part:

       Blood can not be manufactured.  The only way hospitals and medical centers can get blood is from people donating blood.  Blood is needed everyday for accident victims, people with Sickle cell disease, and people with cancer (source).  Over 15 million blood units are needed in the U.S. and Canada every year.  To make matters even more dire, blood can only be stored for up to 42 days (see chart).

       Hence, maintaining an adequate blood supply is difficult to do, and very important to be done.  It is so important that is worth the effort of many people throughout the country to continually seek to find more and better methods of encouraging people to donate blood and to improve the blood donation process.

       When I look at our public schools and their mission, I see many parallels to the efforts for encouraging more blood donors.  Our public schools (also) have a difficult and important job to do.  We accept students into our schools with many and varied backgrounds.  Some are poor and ill-equipped to find success in the academics of traditional schooling; some are new to our country and are trying to learn English while also trying to learn math, science, and social studies.  Some schools have few needed supplies and some classrooms have large numbers of students.  Some teachers are very well prepared to educate their students and some are not as well prepared to do this job.

       Yet, few would argue that the need for an educated public is important.  It is important for the individual and it is important for the society at large.  Hence, it is worth the struggle and the effort to continually search for ways to successfully educate all of our students.

       This belief in the importance of education is certainly shared by educators; but we often find it difficult to convince some students and their parents.  Like blood donors, we don't offer our students money or prizes for obtaining a good education.  Instead, we offer them hope for a better future.  We do our best to help our students to see the value in learning.

       Education is (indeed) the art of selling students (and parents and communities) the future value of learning.  It isn't the grades or the GPA or the credits earned.  It isn't "doing what you're told because, 'I say so'".  Learning is it's own reward.  Learning is the right thing to do because it helps you and everyone around you to be an educated person.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Are the new PARCC and Smarter Balanced Tests Too Difficult?

       Public schools across the country are now using the new PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments in Mathematics and English/Language Arts in grades 3 to high school.  Aside from the political commentary about these tests, some teachers have concerns that they are too difficult for their students.  Along with this concern comes concerns about hurting students' self-esteem, battling parents' perceptions of their children's abilities, and aligning earned course grades with earned PARCC and Smarter Balanced scores.

       I have heard and read comments that say that these tests are good for students who are very strong academically, but that they are inappropriate for students who are average or below average.  Sometimes parents have commented on sample problems and have stated that they are too hard for the students.

       The standards that these tests are written to are aligned to world-class education standards.  I realize that "world-class" is a buzz word, but I agree that these standards (and associated tests) represent an uptick with regard to rigor compared to those that they are replacing.  We know that too many of our students get good grades in elementary and middle school and then struggle with subjects in high school.  Or, they do fine (in terms of course grades) even through high school, but then they do poorly on the SAT or ACT.  We also know that many students graduate from high school, go to college, and do not graduate from college. (see college graduation rates)

       Hence, public schools are faced with this problem of students who appear to be learning and doing well in school, but then struggle with learning later.  We addressed this problem by incorporating tougher standards and putting in place assessments to see if the students are attaining these tougher standards.  In my opinion, this needs to happen; this must happen.  Nobody wants to see their own child struggling.    But we have to realize that this is already happening:

  • poor SAT/ACT scores
  • low AP scores
  • high percentages of students taking remedial math and english courses in college
  • students dropping out of college before earning a degree
       Until now, we have always been able to say "my kid gets good grades in school, so none of these other things matter to me".  But we have been fooling ourselves.  

       If we want students to be successful, we have to raise the standards (as we've done) and we have to insist on continually high standards throughout P-12 education.  This must happen.  Better education leads to better lives for our future adults--which leads to a better society for all of us.

       The tests are not too difficult.  We must, must, must insist on high standards, and we must do everything we can to help our students to achieve these higher standards.  I believe that our public schools will do exactly this in the years to come.  We will meet this challenge and we will raise student achievement and we will help to produce a society of educated people who are not afraid to face challenges, find solution, and succeed.

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...

Teach100 blog