Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Future Schools: It's All About the Learning

       In the future, our middle and high schools won't use grades and grading--at least not the way we think of grades and grading today.  Parents will brag about what their children are learning.  As the school year ends, students will reflect on what they learned--rather than on the grades they got.  Colleges will identify qualified applicants based on what they have learned in their P-12 schools.

      Students will move at their own pace; some will finish high school when they are 16 and some finish when they are 21--and both are perfectly acceptable.  There will be an appreciation for the value of education throughout our society; and all students will feel valued in their schools.  Teachers will teach classes and help individuals; sometimes face-to-face and sometimes online.  "Sit-and-get" lecture will be replaced with active learning that includes students working and learning together--actually talking with each other during school.  Questions will be asked and problems will be solved everyday.  Students will view effort and struggle as value and necessary elements of the learning process.

       Computers and tablets will be viewed as tools for learning and for gaining information.  Students will find the data and facts that they need to make conclusions and to discover new things; to prove theorems and to create stories and art; to publish, to communicate with their learning team, and to keep lists of further areas of inquiry.

       Some students are already enjoying this school experience; for others it probably sounds like a fantasy.  I believe that current elementary school students will see pieces of this future school before they graduate and their children will see this school system as normal.  Our society can not accept an outdated system to prepare our students for their futures.  Change is not a luxury; it is a necessity.  It's not about being #1 in the world; it's about doing what's right for the next generation.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

When You're Learning And You Know It

When you're learning and you know it shout "Hooray".
When you're learning and you know it shout "Hooray".
When you're learning and you know it, then your face will really show it.
When you're learning and you know it shout "Hooray".

       It's a good feeling to learn something.  A good teacher will help students to recognize when they learn something and will praise them for their efforts in the learning process.  But a good teacher won't artificially praise students for little, minor steps or for mindless efforts to complete an assignment.  This sort of artificial recognition, though intended to benefit and encourage children, is not as good as when a teacher helps a child to know that effort and hard work--no matter the outcome--is praiseworthy.

       Sometimes students have a fixed mindset and they don't believe that they are able to learn.  These students need teachers to help them to realize that they are able to learn anything and that their effort will lead to achievement.  Even student with high achievement could have a fixed mindset and these students are less likely to take risks and try new things for fear of losing the title of "smart".  And when they stop trying, they stop learning and they stop growing intellectually.

       So when your students learn something, tell them to shout "Hooray".  Their brains are growing and their future is bright.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Kids are Great

       As an educator that works with adolescents all of the time, I never like it when I hear other people saying negative things about teenagers--as if every single teenager is a drunk and a drug user and out all night causing havoc (with the possible exception of the children of the people who make these statements).  Well I'm here to tell you that it's not true.  Kids are great.

       And I'm not the only person who thinks so; just look at the stats:

  • In 2015, 90.7% of high schools students didn't smoke (source)
    • In 2011 this number was 84.2%
    • In 1996 this number was 78% (source)
  • In 2013, 65% of high schools students never drank alcohol
    • 79% of high schools students didn't binge drink alcohol (source)
  • In 2014 among 12th graders:
    • 96.4% didn't use Ecstacy
    • 96.7% didn't use OxyContin
    • 97.4% didn't use Cocaine
    • 98.1% didn't use Inhalants (source)
  • In 2014, 97% of teenagers were not arrested for any crime (source)
       These are the stats you never hear about on the TV news and you never read in the newspaper.  Most teenagers are good kids.  They follow the rules, they don't get into trouble, they make us proud. And its not like they don't have stress in their, relationships, chores, family life.  Kids are great.  And they can really party!  (just kidding)  

       We've got great kids.  And we should say so every once in while.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Why Do You Remember Your SAT Score?

       What's your social security number?  What is your phone number?  How tall are you?  When were you born?  What did you get on your SATs?  Huh??  Why is your SAT score is a number that you memorize every bit as much as your phone number?  I can't find any survey data that says the percentage of adults who recall their SAT score (from among adults who have taken the SAT), but my own anecdotal evidence suggests that it is very high.  I dare say that a far majority--maybe more than 75%--of adults who have taken the SAT more than 20 years ago can still recall their score today.


        Why is this number, this score--which has no power whatsoever in lives of people in their 30s and 40s--so ingrained in our memories?  It's just a number that (years ago) described our ability to do high school mathematics and our knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, and reading comprehension.  It won't get us a raise or a promotion twenty-plus years later.  There's no college admission counselor to impress when you're in your late 30s.   We're certainly not going to get any reward or trophy or recognition of any kind.

       So why is your SAT score so important to you that you remember it for your whole life?  Why?  I have a theory....  At the time we took the SAT, everyone around us made a big deal about it.  It was billed as the most important test we will ever take.  They said, "Your life depends on it."  (Or something to that effect.)  It was like training for the Olympics.  The test date was on our mind for weeks before.  We thought and thought and thought about it.  We worried about it.  It was a sort of a milestone in our young lives; like getting our driver's license.  We might have taken it more than once because someone said that that was a good idea.  It was an accomplishment akin to graduating from high school or running a mile in six minutes or going out on your first date.

       I think that taking the SATs was billed as such a huge event in our lives, that most of us figured it was important enough to remember our scores.  But, I fear, that it also produced a generation of people that valued test scores over actual learning.  Today in education, we are trying to change this thinking.

       Today educators value frequent formative assessment over the results of unit tests and final exams.  We value multiple data points over the "one big test".  We value a combination of conceptual understanding and procedural knowledge over the mere regurgitation of facts.  Learning and the measurement of learning has come a long way.  Some colleges don't even use the SAT as a consideration for admission.  Others use it as one of many factors for making the admission decision.

       Aside from the college admission process, your SAT score really isn't very important in your life.  Americans are competitive people.  We like to win.  We don't want people to pass us on the highway; we don't want to lose a promotion to someone else; we don't want our lawn to look worse than our neighbor's lawn.  We have to stop competing for everything.  Your SAT score does not define who you are.  You won't "win" or "lose" anything because of your SAT score; especially twenty-plus years after you take the SAT.

       There are lots of experiences that most adults would gladly like to forget about their high school experiences.  Your SAT score should be one of them.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Education that REALLY Prepares Our Students

       This week I've had the great fortune of attending the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Annual Meeting.  Many subject areas hold these types of large, national conferences to help teachers and supervisors and school board members and principals to grow professionally and help students to achieve.

       I attended one particular session that discussed the need for our schools to examine the needs of the world that we live in and to make appropriate changes to the education that we provide to our students--the adults and workforce of the next generation.  The speaker was Diane Briars; President of NCTM.  She referenced the book Education for Life and Work (2012) that discussed the sort of competencies that will increase in the near future.  These include:

  • non-routine analytic skills
  • non-routine interactive skills
  • thinking
  • reasoning
  • expressing information to others
  • interpreting information and responding appropriately

       Math teachers know that we teach reasoning and problem solving and analytic thinking.  But we currently teach these skills under the guise of Algebra and Geometry courses.  Is there a better way?  Would it be better to teach these skills within a context rather than strictly in the abstract?  And what about the actual teaching strategies that are employed when presenting such content to students?  Ms. Briars cited a study from 2014 that stated students learn better in active learning classrooms than they do in the traditional lecture-type classrooms.  Active-learning classrooms would use strategies such as: (i) Occasional group problem solving, (ii) Tutorials completed during class, (iii) Use of personal response systems, and (iv) Increased emphasis on student discourse including student-to-student discourse and teacher-to-student discourse.

       Finally, in the report titled, A Common Vision , the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) states that the status quo of teaching mathematics to our undergraduate students is no longer acceptable given that so many students struggle to complete the first one or two mathematics classes offered to them.  We need to see cooperation between the P-12 system and the collegiate system to create courses and course pathways that help students to learn the skills they need to learn to be successful in the world they will inherit.  One possible solution is to offer math courses that are not based on Algebra or Calculus--considering that the content learned in these classes is not necessary for the majors that some of our students seek.  For instance, Journalism may not need to know Calculus, but they will need to know statistics and how to interpret data.  

       From time to time, great institutions need to examine their work in light of the goals that they seek to achieve.  Education is one of those great institutions.  Such change should not be rare but (indeed) should be ongoing.  We no longer live in the 1920s or the 1960s or even in the 2000s.  We have an obligation to prepare our students for their world.  

Monday, April 11, 2016

"I Can Barely Read"

       "I can barely read."  

       You never hear anyone ever say this with pride.


       Last week I attended a Professional Learning session about Blended Learning.  Three English teachers were presenting.  One of them said, "...and we're all English teachers, so when we put grades into the grade book, we are all bad at math so we look for shortcuts."

       I am a mathematics supervisor and everyone in the room knows who I am.  When the teacher made this statement about being bad at math, another teacher looked at me and sort of made a face that said, "I think you just insulted the math supervisor who is sitting over there."  The speaker saw this face and looked at me; and then other people in the room began to realize what was going on.  Slowly people started to laugh at the slightly embarrassing situation that this teacher put herself in.

       I didn't want this presenter to feel bad so--with everyone looking at me and wondering how I was going to react--I said, "It's OK."  And then I said (with great pride), "I can barely read."  And the whole room broke out in a loud laugh.

       Why is it perfectly acceptable in our society for grown, educated people to say (out loud and in front of other grown, educated people), "I can't do math."?  But it is completely unacceptable and cause for embarrassment to say (in front of other people; and with great pride), "I can't read."  Why aren't people embarrassed that they can't do math in the same way they would be embarrassed to not being able to read?

       Teachers, parents, coaches, and all leaders need to speak up when they hear children (and adults) proudly saying that they can't do math.  It reinforces to students that it is OK to be bad at math.  This leads to students who refuse to put in the effort to learn mathematics.  Students begin to believe that they really can't do math AND they believe that this is perfectly OK and it's not OK.

       Math is important.  Math is reasoning.  Math is thinking.  Math is problem solving.  Math is perseverance in the presence of difficult situations.  And everyone can do math.

       What you say is important.  People are listening.  If you would never say, "I can't read.", then don't ever say, "I can't do math."

Saturday, April 9, 2016

We Don't Want Teachers - We Want Effective Teachers

       The United States has over three million teachers.

       Public, private, elementary, secondary...approximate 1% of the population of the United States are teachers.  With fifty million students, we need a lot of teachers.

       And considering the importance of education, we (particularly) need good, effective teachers.  We need teachers who do their best to understand how their students think and how they learn.  We need teachers who understand the content that they teach, but mostly we need teachers who want to work with children; we need teachers who like to work with children.

       Over my career, I've noticed a subtle difference between wanting to be a teacher and wanting to be an effective teacher.  Our best teachers are also good learners.  They study their craft; they learn from other teachers; they seek information about adolescents and how the brain works.  No one is born with this knowledge; it takes time and effort to gain this level of expertise.  And most people never know the hard work that went into making these teachers so effective.

       In the book Linking Teacher Evaluation and Student Learning, authors Pamela Tucker and James Stronge give the following list of attributes of effective teachers:

  • Have formal teacher preparation training.
  • Hold certification of some kind (standard, alternative, or provisional) and are certified within their fields.
  • Have taught for at least three years.
  • Are caring, fair, and respectful.
  • Hold high expectations for themselves and their students.
  • Dedicate extra time to instructional preparation and reflection.
  • Maximize instructional time via effective classroom management and organization.
  • Enhance instruction by varying instructional strategies, activities, and assignments.
  • Present content to students in a meaningful way that fosters understanding.
  • Monitor students' learning by utilizing pre- and postassessments, providing timely and informative feedback, and reteaching material to students who did not achieve mastery.
  • Demonstrate effectiveness with the full range of student abilities in their classrooms, regardless of the academic diversity of the students.
  •        Everyone wants their children to have effective, caring teachers.  Class time is valuable learning time and effective teachers make the best use of this time.

           Is your child's teacher effective?

    Friday, April 8, 2016

    Encouraging a Growth Mindset for your Students

           Growth Mindset is an understanding that you can learn and achieve anything if you are willing to work and practice and study and try.  A student's ability to learn is not predetermined from birth.

           This is an important concept for teachers who seem to always have some students who believe that they are not born with the skills necessary to learn.  A common saying among some students is, "I don't have a math brain.", meaning, "I don't have the ability to learn math regardless of the extent of my efforts."  We know now that this is not true.  But teachers are often faced with the prospects of needing to convince some of their students that this is not true.
           This chart is filled with suggestions for helping students to view their perceived obstacles in a different way.  Part of a teacher's job is to motivate their students to do their best everyday.  The more that we can convince students and then demonstrated to students that effort leads to (at least some level of) success, the more we are able to create a learning atmosphere in which students believe that they can learn.

           Growth Mindset is for weak and strong students alike.  We also have students who have been successful in the traditional school setting who don't have a growth mindset.  These students may have been praised for their "smarts" and they may be afraid to try something new for fear of not succeeding.  This limits their ability to grow.  Hence, encouraging a growth mindset is for all students and not just for a few.  Our best teachers have always been encouraging a growth mindset.  We have all had teachers who were able to convince us to try and to work hard in the belief that we would eventually succeed.  We need to see this occurring much more often in our classrooms.


    Wednesday, April 6, 2016

    Teachers Learning from Colleagues

           The National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics have just released a new feature on their website called It Worked!.  Stories and videos of Math Coaches talk about situations that have occurred in our public schools in which professionals learn from other professionals and (together) they gain more experiences and expand their abilities to help students to learn.

           The opportunity to hear from colleagues is a valuable professional learning opportunity.  Teachers and Teacher Specialists grow in their profession in many ways:  coursework, membership in professional communities, reading journals and articles.  But to hear from a colleague is particularly nice because we can see ourselves in their stories and in their situations.  We can think about similar situations that we have encountered and how we might handle those situations.

           The It Worked! feature is filled with Elementary and Secondary examples of how mathematics coaches faced challenges and found productive ways to address them.  NCSM is to be commended for building this community of professionals that has the capacity to assist other professionals in a profound way.  It is important for our leaders--at all levels--to share their knowledge and their experiences.  You never know who will hear your story and will use it for their own professional growth.


    Tuesday, April 5, 2016

    Blended Learning - 21st Century Schools

           For the past two decades we (in education) have been talking about 21st century schools.  I've read books about it; I've attended lectures; I've read articles; I've had numerous conversations.  The crucial need to end our 19th century, factory-model schools and begin to give our students the school experience that will (best) prepare them for the world that they will inherit has been upon us for a long time.

           When I look at the trend toward Blended Learning, I see the 21st century school that I've always imagined.

    • Students are learning at their own pace.
    • Teachers can give better individual feedback.
    • Students have choices of how they learn best.
    • More student-to-student discussion
    • More emphasis on learning and less emphasis on grading
    • More student engagement
    • Less discipline issues because less students being bored in class
    • Better preparation for college and career
      • Research skills
      • Personal responsibility for learning
      • Working in teams and working individually
           Change is always hard.  But change that helps students to be better learners is change that is necessary.  Blended Learning should become the norm in our public schools.  The traditional classroom of sitting in rows and listening to lectures is not the best way to learn anymore.

           Take some time and learn about Blended Learning.  It is the right thing for our students for today and for tomorrow.

    Monday, April 4, 2016

    Mondays and Other Great Opportunities


           I think Mondays get a bad rap.

           Like New Year's Day and your birthday and the first day of school, Mondays can be important (and frequent) firsts.  They are opportunities to begin something great; to get a fresh start.  Everyone is well rested from their two-day vacation and filled with stories of their adventures over the weekend.  Mondays can be the days to move on from the trails and tribulations of the past week and begin anew.

           How do you begin the school week in your classroom?  What is your goal for the week?  How do you greet your students on Mondays?

           In the same way that (we know) students tend to be more attentive in the beginning of every class, we have a unique opportunity on every Monday to take advantage of the "newness" of the week and to start something exciting.

    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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