Sunday, October 30, 2016

When Students are Thinking, Students are Learning

       I was recently introduced to a fantastic list of 100 questions that teachers can ask in mathematics class that will encourage students to think and reason and share their thoughts with each other.  A portion of these 100 questions are in the graphics in this post.  The rest can be found here.

       The questions are separated into categories that help students to:
  1. Work together to make sense of mathematics.
  2. Rely more on themselves to determine if something is mathematically correct.
  3. To reason mathematically.
  4. Evaluate their own processes and engage in productive peer interaction.
  5. Gain a better understanding with problem comprehension.
  6. Learn to conjecture, invent, and solve problems.
  7. Learn to connect mathematics, its ideas, and its applications.
  8. Persevere.
  9. Focus on the mathematics from activities.
       Every parent that has ever received the unimaginative response of "Fine." to the question, "How was school today." understands the frustration of trying encourage a dialogue with young people who are either unable or unwilling to do so.  Teachers face this dilemma every day.  Except, for teachers, their are tasked with making sure that the students are actually learning the content that they are teaching.  Teachers don't have the luxury of dismissing an uninformed, mono-syllabic response.  Hence teachers do their best to use strategies that will encourage students to share their thinking.  These questions help teachers to achieve this goal.

       Here is a sampling of some of these great, discourse-encouraging questions:

How would you explain _________ to someone who missed class today?

How did you reach that conclusion?

Can you think of a case where that wouldn't work?

Could you reword that in simpler terms?

How is your solution method the same as or different from (student)'s method?

How does this relate to ____________ ?

       These questions help students to understand that mathematics is not just a bunch of rules that lead to a single number answer.  We want students who are able to understand the reasoning behind the rules.  We want students to think and reason and discuss and struggle and fail and try again.  We want students to have strategies for finding solutions beyond just asking the teacher.  We want students to learn from each other, to recall past lessons, and to know how to check their own work.

       These questions are a great resource to our teachers.  When students are thinking, students are learning.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Time Has Come to Question Everything We Do in Education

Why is the school day six-and-a-half hours?

Why is the school year from September to June?

Why do have to use Carnegie Units in high school?

Why are grades so important?

Why does every class have to have a textbook?

Why do I have to use a pencil in math class?

Why does high school start so early in the day?

Why do schools compare themselves to each other?

Why do I have to memorize things that are easily found online?

Why does the teacher do most of the talking in class?

Why do we rank students in high school?

Why do we brag about high grades and not about high learning?

Why do have student desks and chairs?

Why do all of the chairs face in the same direction?

Why is there 14 years of schooling from Pre-K to high school graduation?


       Cars change; buildings change; clothes change; planes change: people change; the world changes.  Why don't schools change?  


Friday, October 21, 2016

The Struggle for Change in Our Schools

       This sign hung at the Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts this week during the annual MassCUE conference.  "MassCUE" stands for the Massachusetts Computer Using Educators.  The conference was also sponsored by the M.A.S.S. (that is, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents).  The sign begs the question, Why is it that schools (education) is not changing if everything around the schools are changing?  I think I know the answer...

       The sign reminds us that the world is changing.  Indeed it is.  The changes that have occurred in the world have been driven by market forces such as efficiencies in manufacturing.  They have been driven by technology such as computers and cell phones and the capacity of these technologies (and others) to accomplish tasks much faster and easier.  The sign says the workforce is changing.  One big factor is the lower demand for low-skill jobs.  Less workers are needed to do a job that took more workers a few decades ago.  This (again) is largely due to the creation of machines and equipment that have been built to do jobs faster and better than human workers ever could.

       The sign says that technology is changing.  Few would need any strong justification to argue this point.  Computer chips are constantly being made to be smaller and faster.  (Although this scenario may come to an end soon.)  Computers are smaller and more powerful.  And the applications of this great processing speed appear to be endless.  Finally, the sign suggests that students are changing.  Different clothes, different music, and (once again) technology available at every turn.  Of course, these "different" students are also living in this "different" world; so of course since they are living a different experience than their parents, it makes sense that students of today are different from students of 20 or 40 years ago.

       So why are we surrounded by change and yet we are stuck with relatively little change in our schools?  By "little change", I mean high school classes of about 30 students with one teacher doing most of the talking.  Course requirements nearly the same for all students, even though we have students with different needs and different abilities.  The school day has basically the same start and stop time as 50 years ago.  The school year is basically the same as 50 years ago.  (And not because of farming needs 100 years ago.)  I would argue that the changes to the world, the workforce, technology, and students occurred as a sort of evolution.  No one person or group of people orchestrated these changes.  They happened as a natural phenomenon of humans living on earth and trying to better their situation.  As a species, we are always looking for ways to improve our life and our surroundings.  So we develop better tables and better chairs and better cars and better watches and so on.  Each generation is a little better than the one before it for all of these things.  But a change in schools requires that we conscientiously do something.

       School change requires a community that wants the schools to change.  Someone has to propose the change (or changes).  Someone has to agree.  Then someone has to convince the school board.  And so on and so on.  In the end, while educators may see the need for change in our schools (and not all educators see this change), non-educators often don't see the need for this change.  The common expression is, "This is the way school was when I was a kid.  It was good enough for me, so it will be good enough for you."  The general public is weary of major changes.  Change is disruptive and unsettling.  It is uncomfortable.  People (as a group) don't generally want things to change.  They may accept changes that are forced upon them (such as a new cable company because the old one merged with the new one), but when given the choice it seems that most would vote against change.  This is why (in my opinion) schools are so slow to change.

       As an educator, it is frustrating because I sometimes wonder if we are preparing our students for anything more than higher-level coursework.  Are they learning the skills they need to succeed in the workforce of the 21st century?  Are they able to cope with the world that they will inherit?  Is a high GPA enough?  How do we help the public to embrace the sort of change that will benefit their children?

       Can we allow our schools to change?

Monday, October 17, 2016

High School Graduation Rates Continue to Rise

       In the 2014 - 2015 school year, the high school graduation rate rose to 83.2% according to the National Center for Education Statistics.  This is modern day, national success story.  Twenty years ago, the national high school graduation rate was only 71% and it only rose a couple of percentage points from the 1998 - 1999 school year to the 2005 - 2006 school year (to 73%).  In the past ten years this important statistic has risen ten percentage points.  This is an amazing accomplishment!

       Our educational system is big.  17,000 school districts; 100,000 schools; 50 million students; and 3 million teachers.  This accomplishment isn't due to the effort of just a couple of school districts; or even just a couple of states.  This incredible increase says that we as a country have made it a priority to do everything we can to see to it that students graduate.  We understand that the world that our students will inherit requires an educated mind if we want these future adults to succeed.  We have heard this message and we believe it and we have taken steps in every school to make this happen.

       Even among our nation's poor students the high school graduation rate has risen to 76.1% -- which is a higher percentage than the graduation rate of the whole population of students in 1999.  Imagine the better life that will exist for these students in their future -- all because their parents and teachers and schools wouldn't allow them to drop out.

       So often we hear only bad news about our public schools.  We only hear about students who don't succeed and schools that don't have certain programs and teachers that don't have the tools they need.  We should celebrate the great successes we've had (such as the highest graduation rate ever) because they tell us that we are headed in the right direction.  They tell us that our efforts have paid off.  They tell us that we have achieved great success.  In the entire history of American Education we have never had a graduation rate this high.  This is something that all of us can be proud of because all of us have had a hand in helping this to happen.

       So thank a teacher, keep pushing your child to do well in school, and recognize that our nation's schools are working hard everyday to improve the lives of our students; your children.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Schooling Isn't a Game to be Won

       Americans love competition.

       We follow sports teams.  We compare our Olympic medal count with those from other countries.  We brag about having faster cars and the newest cell phone, and the whitest teeth.  At times (it seems) everything is a competition; that we are always trying to surpass what our neighbors have or can do.

       This sense of competition (unfortunately) extends into our schools as well.  Our students want to know who got the highest test grade, who takes the most Advanced Placement courses; who got the best report card grades.  We are constantly comparing ourselves to each other.

       When it comes to schooling, I have a statement for our students (and their parents):

       School isn't a soccer game, it isn't the Olympics, and it isn't a Reality Show to be won.  School is about learning.  Some students will excel in some areas, some might excel in all areas (or appear to excel on all areas), and most will probably be average.  The goal for all of these students is to learn.

       The danger of the "competition" aspect of schooling is when students strive for high grades or correct answers by means that don't require a lot of learning.  Some students are good at "playing school"; they do what they need to do to get good grades (such as turning in homework and classwork on time and participating in class), but avoid actual studying and real learning.  They do this because of a misguided notion that the goal of school is getting good grades.  When student compete for "grades", they can miss the most important purpose of schooling which is learning.  In a classroom, this means that they are afraid to try new things or to offer suggestions or ideas for fear of being wrong (and perhaps labeled as "less smart").  This isn't what we want in our schools.

       Learning is a lifelong skill.  School cannot be a place where students merely learn how to do what they are told to do.  School has to be a place where the skill of learning is learned and understood.  A place where students learn how to problem solve and how to ask the right questions and how to access resources that they need.  Students shouldn't have to worry about doing better than other students.  They should only be concerned about learning.

       Let's make our schools a competition-free zone.  After all, there are plenty of other areas in a student's life where they can compete.  School should be one of them.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Why Can't High School Classrooms Be More Like Elementary Classrooms?

       Every level of schooling from elementary school to high school has its challenges.  Among them are teaching to the academic and age level of the students.  No one wants second graders to read high school level novels and it wouldn't be appropriate to take 15 minutes of class time to explain to high school students how to use scissors.

       However, when teachers create a learning environment in their classrooms there are some aspects of learning that are true for both elementary and high school students.  One of these is the idea that when students are engaged in their learning, they tend to do better.  There are plenty of reasons why this makes sense, and they apply to little kids as well as teenagers (and adults).

       In elementary school, while it may be true that the children are more excited about learning and school just because little kids are generally happy and willing to do what they are told to do; it is also true that their teachers work hard to make the learning engaging.  Look at this list of aspects of an elementary classroom, and consider which (if any) could not also be aspects of a high school classroom:

  • motivating posters on the walls
  • opportunities for students to be out of their seats often
  • opportunities for students to talk with each other during a lesson
  • working in whole groups
  • working in small groups
  • working individually
  • using educational technology
  • students given choices (perhaps about what to read or where to sit or how to solve a problem)
  • calling on every student every day
  • classwork that is challenging ("too easy" is boring and "too hard" can lead to disinterest)

       The things that make elementary classrooms fun and interesting can be replicated in our high schools.  High school students like to learn.  They also like to receive a gold star and a smiley face every once in a while.  They like to get out of their seats during a class activity and they like to ask questions of their peers to help them to understand a new concept.  High school students like motivational posters on the walls and they like to use educational technology.  All of these things keep high school students engaged in the learning process, even when the learning is difficult.

       There should be more similarities between our elementary and our high school classes when it comes to engaging students to learn.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Breaking News: High School Is Not Supposed to be Boring

       Too many parents have this idea that says, "If it was good enough when I was in high school, than it's good enough for my kids."  Of course, they hated it when they were in high school.  But for some reason, they are "OK" with the same boring classes and senseless assignments for their own children.

       I'm talking about high school classes with:

  • students sitting in rows
  • teacher always standing in the front of the room
  • worksheets, worksheets, worksheets
  • very little (or none) students discussing, asking questions, or working together
  • homework on stuff they already know how to do
  • no use of educational technology
       I've seen high school classrooms with multiple students who have their heads on their desks and the teacher seems to be "OK" with this.  Too many classes in which the teacher asks the class something like, "Do you understand?" and one student says "Yes" and the teacher assumes that everyone in the class understands.  And the students know that this is going to happen and they don't want to say out loud that they don't get it.  I've actually heard parents say to their children, "School is supposed to be boring.  That's just the way it is."  They believe this and (now) their children believe this.

       I've got breaking news for all of the parents and students who believe that school is supposed to be boring.

It does not have to be this way.

       Think about your favorite teacher in high school.  Or think about your child's favorite teacher in high school.  What makes this teacher so special?  Why does this teacher stand out among all of the high school teachers you've ever had?  Was he or she boring?  Do they appear to not care if you passed or failed?  Of course not.  We've got lots of high school teachers who work hard every day to engage their students in the learning.  They believe that it is their responsibility to ensure that all students are learning; and they understand that students cannot learn solely by sitting and listening.  

       Learning requires doing, talking, listening, questioning, arguing (at times), trying and failing and trying again.  Students need to get out of their seats during class from time to time (or everyday)--especially in high school classes that last 80 or 90 minutes.  High school students should work in small groups without the teacher for part of the class.  They do it in elementary school and middle school; so they can do it in high school too.  We have teachers who understand this very well and they establish a true learning environment in their classrooms.  Students know that these teachers really care about their learning and they make an effort to encourage the learning everyday.

       High school isn't supposed to be boring.  Learning rarely happens in the context of "boring".  Compliance may happen; memorization may happen; even decent grades may happen.  But learning won't happen.  And if learning isn't happening, then what's the point of school?

Monday, October 3, 2016

Three Years; 200 postings; 50,000 views

       Three years ago today I began this blog with the modest words below.  It has been a learning and a reflective experience to write about education in America.   I've considered some controversial topics and I've praised the many excellent people that work within the walls of our schools everyday. And I've receive great feedback from my readers; their stories and ideas.

       Thank you follow joining me in this journey.  There is always so much to do; so much to say.  And together we can do it all.

First Post from October 3, 2013

It's 6:30am; "No time like the present." (Right?)  So here is my first post; really my introduction to this blog.  This blog that I have said to myself for years (and to others) that I should write.  So here is the beginning.

The blog is called, What's So Good About about Education?.  The purpose (the vision) is to highlight the good things that occur in American education every single day.  There are lots of sources out there that talk about the bad things in education.  This would make the average person think that there is nothing good about education in America.  Well that's just not true.

In truth, I may talk about the good and the bad, but I want to stress that there is lots and lots of "Good" going on.  We need to acknowledge the hard work of teachers and the many, many successes of our students. 

I hope to  be able to do that.

Have a great school day America.  I know you will.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Good Enough Isn't Good Enough

       Schools, educators, teachers...they are never satisfied.  We are the ultimate Olympic athletes when it comes to our desire to constantly improve.  In education, "Good Enough" is never good enough.

       While it is often true--though not in all schools--that most students do fine; most students learn to read pretty well, most students move on to the next grade, most students graduate.  There are always some students that don't or that struggle to reach these accomplishments.  And even for those that do succeed, What is our standard for success?  Is it a passing grade?  Is it to barely exceed the minimum?  Is it to be merely good enough?

       The best teachers are constantly striving to find ways to reach all of their students.  The students that do what they are told and are able to "succeed" in school without much effort should be pushed to do more.  The students who always excel academically should be pushed to do more.  And the students that struggle to meet the minimum requirements should be given the help they need to do better.  All students can do better; all teachers can improve; all schools can strive for better results.

       The goal of school is learning.  But students approach this goal from many different viewpoints.  Some strive to be "Number 1"; some do their best everyday and accept that they may be stronger in some areas than in other areas; some students struggle in math but are good at reading; some students seem to struggle in all academic subjects but are talented in the arts.  And some students have been beaten down so often by their schooling experience that they have given up on trying.  All of these people come together in the typical public school and it is the job of the educators to more all of them forward.

       It is hard to have one policy or one standard that applies to everyone when "everyone" is so different.  Maybe the goal shouldn't be to reach a standard as much as it should be to improve based on whatever your starting point is.  If you come to 7th grade able to run a mile in 9 minutes and 36 seconds, maybe you should strive to end 7th grade with a time of 9 minutes flat or 8:30.  Similarly, if you begin 7th grade with a reading ability that is considered "average", may you should strive to end the school year above average in reading.  And if you are a teacher who always struggled to help those students who always want to sit in the back of the classroom and never participate, maybe you want to have the goal to encourage them to answer questions and to offer their ideas at least twice in every class.

       The goal isn't to be Number 1; the goal isn't to "win".  School is not a competition.  The goal is always to improve regardless of your starting point.  Nobody should accept "Good Enough" as good enough.

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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