Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Great Teachers are Constantly Improving

       The best teachers are constantly improving.  "Good enough" isn't good enough for them.  The world is changing and teachers need to change as well.  The traditional classroom that your parents had when they were in school should not be the classroom of today.

       Here is a short list of characteristics of teachers that work to be their best for their students:

  • The student is the center of the learning experience; not the teacher.
  • We want students to demonstrate what they know and are able to do.  It's not enough for students to merely sit and listen and take notes.
  • Learning new tech resources for use as instructional tools in the classroom and as learning tools for students.
  • Less paper and more use of digital resources
  • Using Twitter to connect with other educators and to learn with other educators.
  • Learning about and implementing student engagement strategies in the classroom.
       The need to improve is necessary because students learn differently.  Teaching in a single style may be OK for some students, but it is not sufficient to reach all of our students.  When students struggle to learn, teachers need to use different strategies to help them.  We often joke that repeating the same information SLOWER and LOUDER is not an effective strategy for students who didn't "get it" the first time.  Part of the journey toward being an effective teacher is learning about your students and discovering better ways to help them to learn.

       Teachers learn from a variety of sources.  Over 50% of teachers earn a Master's degree at some point in their teaching career.  Teachers take online courses, teachers read journals.  But most of all, teachers talk with other teachers--online and in person--to learn from their experiences and improve their skills.  Teachers who strive to improve are better teachers for their students.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

When Students are Engaged, Grades Don't Matter

       My daughter's girl scout group had their annual Thinking Day recently.  Thinking Day is a special annual day when Girl Scouts around the world think of each other and express their thanks and appreciation for the International Girl Scouts organization.  Since my daughter is in high school, her group was tasked with creating a game or activity for the younger girl scouts to do.  They decided to do a Lifesize Hungry Hungry Hippo game.

       The game has four competitors who begin the game in one corner of a square floor space with lots of small balloon in the middle of the square.  Each competitor is on a scooter facing the middle of the square and holds a laundry basket.  An older girl pushes the competitors towards the middle of the square and their job is to capture as many balloons as possible with their laundry baskets.  A jump rope is tied to each scooter and the older girls pull the competitors back to their original corner and collect the balloons they have captured.  This continues for one minute.  The person with the most balloons wins.

       My daughter set up a white board to keep track of the number of balloon caught by each competitor.  But after a few rounds it became clear that no cared who "won" the game because it was so much fun just to play the game.  The points didn't matter.  There was a line of girls waiting to play the game.  Girls came back again and again to play Hungry Hungry Hippos.  Parents were taking pictures and videos.  The game is fun and exciting and full of action.  Everyone could participate and everyone had fun.

       In education circles, we refer to this scenario as Student Engagement.  When students are engaged in the activity that takes place in their classroom, the "grade" becomes much less important and the "learning" becomes much more important.  Students want to finish the task or express their viewpoint or add to the discussion.  They become so engrossed in the activity that other matters such as grades and the remaining time in the class and social media and all of the things that distract students when they are bored suddenly become invisible.

       This sort of engagement doesn't have to be a rare occurrence for our students in school.  In fact, teachers who understand the value of student engagement strive to find and to create activities that engage their students intellectually and emotionally and even physically everyday.  Students who are engaged are more likely to do their best everyday.  They are less likely to zone out and doze off in class.   Some strategies for engaging students are simple and basic such as:

  • calling on every students every day
  • allowing a time in every class for students to get out of their seat
  • getting to know every students and establishing a good relationship with each student
  • dividing each class period into several 5 to 15 minute sections with different activities in each class section (such as: whole group discussion, individual work, small group work)
Other strategies involve more preparation such playing a game to review material, using manipulatives in a math lesson, students using technology for part of a lesson.  The 20th century classroom with a teacher doing all of the talking is not the best way to conduct a classroom if you want all students to achieve.  When students are engaged, students are learning.  While teachers are not responsible for creating an entertaining environment in their classroom, they are responsible for motivating their students to do their best.

       Every student should be Hungry Hungry for learning.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Let's Hear It for G.L.A.M. - Girls Love Advanced Mathematics

      One of the elementary schools in my district organized a lunchtime group for their Math League.  After a few meetings, the adviser for this group received an email from the parent to say that her daughter didn't want to participate anymore.  This was the fourth girl to drop out.  Yikes!  This was a problem and while the teacher didn't want to require students to miss their recess and lunch to attend this voluntary group, she also had a concern that her girls (and only girls) were leaving.

       The teacher held a special meeting with the girls that left the group and the girls that remained in the group.  She asked them why they thought there were fewer girls than boys in the Math League.  This is what she heard:

  1. Girls might not think they are smart enough or able to do the math work.
  2. Girls were concerned that the boys would say that they aren't smart enough.
  3. Girls start to believe it when they constantly hear that they aren't as good as boys in math.
       The teacher knew this wasn't true, but she observed that the boys were less concerned about getting the wrong answers.  They would try and take risks and the girls weren't (generally) willing to take these risks.  The teachers suggested that they create a girls-only lunch group on the day before the Math League meeting.  The girls liked this idea and came up with the name G.L.A.M - Girls Love Advanced Mathematics.

       After a while, the girls became more and more confident in their math abilities.  This led to them taking more chances in the whole group.  If one teacher in every elementary school could change the thinking about girls and math with a just a few girls, then we can change this thinking among a whole generation of people.  We know that girls begin their lives with the same potential as boys when it comes to learning mathematics (or any subject) and it is only the environment in which they live that seeks to change this potential.

       So let's start a G.L.A.M. group in every elementary school.  What are we waiting for?

Thursday, February 9, 2017

High School Should Not be a GPA Competition

       You may need good grades to get accepted to college.  But what you really need is good learning (and a good ability to learn) to graduate from college.  Lots of people go to college, but not a lot of people graduate from college.  A study completed in 2015 found that only 52.9% of students who began college in 2009 had earned a college degree by 2015.  This means that even if we allow students an additional two years to complete a 4-year degree, we are still have only barely half of the students graduating from college.  (Imagine the outcry if the high school graduation rate was 50%!)

       Another study has found that one reason for this dismal college graduation rate is a lack of preparation in secondary schools.  As a educator with 30 years of secondary school experience, I would suggest that it isn't so much that we don't prepare students well, but instead (perhaps) we struggle in our communication with students (and with their parents) when we talk about their actual academic ability.

       First of all, our grading system probably doesn't tell the whole story.  Grades are often the primary communication tool that a school has with its students (and their parents) about how well they are doing.  High grades imply high ability and low grades imply low ability.  But is this always true?  And what to medium grades imply?  We don't have a uniform method for determining grades from school district to school district, so does a "B" mean the same thing in every high school in America?

       Secondly, we have high school graduation requirements that are developed in each state in the United States.  Different states have different requirements; although there may be similarities.  But the bigger issue (to me) is:  Is "Graduating from high school" the same as "Being prepared for college"?  Should we have one set of criteria that says "This is sufficient for high school graduation." and another set of (higher level) criteria that says "This is sufficient for good preparation for college."  I think a lot of people feel that if they graduate from high school, then they are prepared for college-level work.  But this isn't always true.

       Hence, high school should not be a place where we only care about getting good grades and getting a high Grade Point Average (GPA).  That might be good enough to get you recognized in high school; and good enough to get accepted to college.  But students who only know how to get good grades without an accompanying ability to learn, will struggle in college.

       Everything in life isn't a competition.  Your education is one of these things.  It doesn't matter if you come in first place.  What matters is that you learn well.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Value of Reasoning in an Era of Fake News and Alternative Facts

       What do you believe?  Why do you believe it?  How do you decide what you believe?  Is there a difference between your perception of something and the actual truth?  Have you ever thought something was true for a long time only to discover what you thought was true (for months or years) turned out to be false the whole time?

       The old adage is "Don't believe everything you read."  This is valuable advice today just as much as it was in the past.  The Information Age not only increased the volume of information coming at us on a daily basis, it also increased the sources that create and publish this information.  Ordinary individuals can write blogs (case in point: me [!]) as easily as large institutions.  Information may or may not be vetted and fact-checked before being published.

       Another common source of information is friends and family; people you trust.  But what if your circle of friends and family is composed of lots of people that are just like you?  They look like you; they talk like you; they think like you.  You go through your life talking to these people and hearing the same things all of the time and eventually you believe that all people believe this.  But when you reference "all people", what you really mean is "all of the people that I know"--which is probably a subset of (say) all of the people in your town or all of the people in your country.  This phenomenon is knows as the Echo Chamber.

       Wikipedia defines Echo Chamber as a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a defined system.  Although the free flow of ideas via the internet might have lessened this effect, some have found that the internet has only amplified the Echo Chamber effect.

       Hence, we now live in an age in which the ability to weed out truth and facts may be harder than ever before.  Students, perhaps particularly teenagers, can become easy victims of believing in partial truths, fake news, and so called alternative facts.  This is why we need to teach students to question the things they read; to consider the source of their information; and to seek other points of views or at least other sources to confirm or to deny what they hear, see, or read.  Reasoning (the action of thinking about something in a logical, sensible way) is a skill that is more important today than ever before.  Our openness to consider other views influences our openness to people, places, foods, and experiences.

       We can't move forward and solve problems as a people or as a country, if we aren't able to fully understand the issues that we face.  Reasoning is a valuable skill.  Like any other skill, reasoning requires opportunities for practice to get good at it.  Schools should be able to provide these opportunities.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Learning and Thinking - (getting the right answer isn't good enough anymore)

       Learning and thinking have always been closely linked.  But sometimes, in our schools, we only achieve the appearance of learning--often accompanied by very little thinking.  This problem has been recognized by educators for a long time.  In recent years, however, we have been addressing this issue on various fronts.

       Let me begin by explaining what I mean by the term Appearance of Learning.  This is when students get good grades, but their actual learning is very low.  The grade to the students and to their parents makes it appear as if they have learned a lot, but the attainment of those grades may have been based partly on non-academic measures such as good behavior or mere compliance with rules such as turning in homework on time.  This is a problem because when students move on to more complicated coursework that requires previous knowledge, they struggle due to never actually learning the earlier content in the first place.

     Over the past few years, there has been a stronger attempt to balance the need for teaching skills (such as solving an equation) with the need for teaching conceptual understanding (such as using an equation to solve a problem).  This sort of "teaching" is different from when our students' parents were in school--a time in which just-getting-the-answer might have seemed good enough.  Today we know that this isn't good enough.  Students going to college and students going to work need skills and knowledge beyond merely doing what they are told to do.  Today's world demands more from our citizens.

       Our schools recognize this need and we are trying to make changes to address this challenge.  It's hard to change a system of 100,000 schools, 50,000,000 students, and 3,000,000 teachers.  But (indeed) this change is already happening.  What we used to call a "computer room" is now just about any classroom in the building.  Classrooms with students sitting in nice, neat, straight rows that discouraged collaboration among students have been replaced with classrooms with tables or desks arranged in groups to encourage students to work together and ask questions of each other and learn together.  Grades for non-academic behaviors (mentioned above) are strongly discouraged so that a student's grade can more accurately reflect his/her ability in the content.  Finally, student engagement strategies and growth mindset strategies are constantly being discussed and implemented.  These reflect our knowledge of the best way that students learn.  No longer do we expect everyone to learn strictly by listening to the teacher and taking notes.

       Indeed, the change to an educational system that requires more from our high school graduates is well underway.  The past is in the past and we're not going back.  Those that choose not to change risk creating a generation that is ill prepared for the challenges that they will face.  Learning, thinking, reasoning, and problem solving will be more and more integrated into our schools.

       You're welcome.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Evaluating Teachers

       Learning is highly dependent on the skills and abilities of the teacher.  According to Hattie, the following influences rank very high in their ability to raise student achievement:
  • teacher estimates of achievement
  • collective teacher efficacy
  • teacher credibility
  • classroom discussion
  • teacher clarity
  • improved classroom instruction
       Since we know that teachers influence student outcomes, we want to be sure that our teachers are the best that they can be.  Hence, teachers are evaluated on a regular basis to be sure the they are effective and (hopefully) are improving.

       A common tool that some school use to evaluate teachers is the Charlotte Danielson Framework for Teaching.  This tool, updated in 2013, looks at the job of teachers in four different domains:
  1. Planning and Preparation
  2. The Classroom Environment
  3. Instruction
  4. Professional Responsibilities
Each of these four domains are further divided into five or six components that zero in on specific factors that influence effective teaching.  When this Framework is used to evaluate teachers, each component of each domain is considered and teachers are provided with a plethora of useful feedback.  It is this feedback, along with conversations between the teacher and the evaluator, that lead to continuous improvement among our teachers.

       Different school systems use different processes for evaluating teachers.  However, all school systems recognize the value of teacher evaluations.  Schools change.  New materials, new technology, new information about how students learn; all combine together and require teachers to change what they do from time to time.  No one wants a teacher who has used the same materials for 20 years; or who hasn't changed their teaching strategies (or improved their teaching strategies) for 20 years.  We want teachers that recognize the needs of their students and adjust their teaching accordingly.

       Teacher evaluations are an important part of the teaching profession.  The improvement that we seek in our students, we also seek in our teachers.

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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