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 he knows how, then he may not know of another way to present the lesson and (so) when a students doesn't get it, he just repeats the same thing (sometimes slower and louder).  This usually does not 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 cars...wow.  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.




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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