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?

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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