30 April 2009

Then What?

One of the topics that came up at work recently involved the various flavors of testing that our out there: diagnostic, progress-monitoring, formative, screening, summative, and so forth. For the most part, these are tests for teacher use...and yet, like most things in education, they are getting twisted into various purposes by other stakeholders.

For example, many elementary schools use the the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Learning Skills (DIBELS) test. These assessments are "a set of procedures and measures for assessing the acquisition of early literacy skills from kindergarten through sixth grade. They are designed to be short (one minute) fluency measures used to regularly monitor the development of early literacy and early reading skills." It's not a bad little tool as long as it stays in the hands of the classroom teacher. It's a simple and quick way to monitor progress on a limited set of skills.

But then what?

It's not enough to assess, we teachers need to know what to do with the information. If I know that my first grader is below the benchmark target for oral fluency, what do I do about that?

Beyond that, who else should be using the information from the assessment...and for what purposes? Does the school district have the right to monitor---and, in essence, judge teacher effectiveness---based on this sort of student progress measure? Or would that be a misuse of the data?

The more I think about these ideas, the more I am starting to realize that we as an educational system really need to identify what data is important to whom...and how it should be used. It's not enough to generate the numbers, any more than it is for a classroom teacher to just put grades in the gradebook and move on. But I'm not convinced that we really know what to do with all the data we generate. Who is it for? What does it mean? Why should we care about one measure more than another? Then what?

28 April 2009

Design in Mind

Pixar by M. Pollo CC-BY-NC-SA

Some of you may have seen the above picture before. It's been floating around for a bit. It is a shot of some of the offices at Pixar Studios. Below is a shot from the Google Offices.

Google Office by Albert Bredenham CC-BY-NC-SA

No doubt all of us have been in buildings that feel creative and energizing---places that inspire. I can think of very few of these which have been schools. No matter what you do to your classroom, there is not much getting away from the fact that we are working in an institutional setting. Ceiling levels are low...hard surfaces abound...and white walls are the order of the day.

I know the dismay I have each morning walking into the cubicle farm---and how differently I'd feel if the rabbit warren walls were developed into something more Pixar-like. It's a drag to have exist in a windowless space with nothing from the natural world to look at.

But what about our young minds? What is the impact to these designs on our students?

A recent article in Scientific American explores the relationship between living and working spaces and the mind. The article details the impact of ceiling height on creativity, the restorative effects of being able to look at a natural setting, the impact of lighting on circadian rhythms, and more. What would happen if we were intentional about using this sort of information when designing schools? Is it more motivating to adults and kids alike to think about coming to learn in a setting built to inspire?

There is something about having a personal connection to a particular place. Maybe that is the problem with most office areas: cubicles are all alike. Same height...same materials...same footprint. Those who work in them can add unique contributions, but there is no sense of individuality or the value of thought. Be the machine. Be on the "team." I would like to think that schools aren't training grounds for this, but until the buildings change, I'm not sure that we aren't closing minds within these concrete boxes.

26 April 2009

Immaterial Things

A couple of weeks ago, I asked you what you were generally looking for in a set of instructional materials. It's a conversation I've had with a lot of people recently, especially with regards to science materials.

Generally speaking, the answers about science stuff fall into two categories, depending upon the grade level someone teaches. Elementary teachers want to know that what they pull out of the kit/box is aligned to the standards, doesn't take a lot of time to set up/clean up, and works. They typically don't "plan" science lessons the way that they might for reading or math. They start with Lesson One in the teacher's guide and go along sequentially from there. Secondary teachers, on the other hand, are all about the mixing and matching. They don't start at Point A and go lesson by lesson in the exact format prescribed by the publisher's program to Point B. In the parlance of our Response to Intervention times, elementary teachers will teach a program with fidelity...secondary will not. Again, I am generalizing here---there are certainly exceptions to the rule.

I am still struggling with what we actually need instructional materials to do, especially after reading this Edutopia article on how textbook programs are developed. If they can all claim alignment...a research-base (whatever that means)...and a conceptual development (if taught with fidelity to the program), then what's the point of a big selection process? Do the nuances of what makes one program "better" than another become identified with the ancillary materials? At secondary, we can pretty well guarantee that even if the alignment, research, and concepts are strong, teachers won't follow the plan. I'm not going to claim that this is a bad idea---teachers need flexibility in order to differentiate for the needs of their students. I just think it's a faulty assumption on anyone's part that if they have instructional materials aligned to standards that there will be a positive impact on student achievement. Awesome materials in the hands of an inadequate teacher are no good...and poor materials in the hands of an outstanding instructor can be a thing of beauty.

It's not about the stuff. It's about what actually happens in a classroom. It's about the instruction, not the materials. How do we help those outside of the school understand that?

19 April 2009

Enjoy the Trip

Someone recently shared the link for the above video and I was enticed to watch it at first purely because I like Mythbusters and was interested in what Adam Savage had to share. It turns out that there is a pretty compelling story here: a teachable moment, as it were. Take 17 minutes and watch it all unfold.

You might say the story is about how Adam ended up making replicas of a Dodo bird's skeleton and the Maltese Falcon...but that is just a description of what's happening at the surface. Underneath is this passion and joy of learning...of taking a risk to try something new and the doors that it ended up opening. And most significantly, an understanding that the journey is the thing---not the destination. He points out at the end that "Achieving the end of the exercise was never the point of the exercise to begin with." Go, Adam, go!

I can't help but wonder about how this fits within schools these days. Are we more about the destination (the test, the grade, the diploma) than the journey along the way? What would happen if all of us had a "Creative Projects" folder that inspired us to keep learning and nurtured our passions?

17 April 2009

That's Just How They Roll

The photograph above is of a Tweenbot, a thesis project by Kacie Kinzer.

Tweenbots are human-dependent robots that navigate the city with the help of pedestrians they encounter. Rolling at a constant speed, in a straight line, Tweenbots have a destination displayed on a flag, and rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal.

Kinzer was interested to see how New Yorkers would interact with these new objects---and was surprised by what she observed. I find the project interesting on a variety of levels and thought it might be nice to share on this Friday. It's good to see student learning that is not only driven by some questions---but generates so many others.

15 April 2009

Ready, Set...

I don't think Washington is different from any other state when it comes to its current economic situation. We're in trouble---with the state facing a $9B shortfall in the next biennium. Budget cuts are getting ugly, especially for education. Of course, one of the first things to get thrown out is money for professional development. While various organizations scramble for the few dollars which will be left, I wonder if it's time to really scale up on-line forms of PD.

I was remembering two EdTech incarnations from the past year. They have been around for a few years, but this was my first year to "attend." The first was the K12 Online Conference. I was a bit sporadic in my presence there; however, that really didn't matter. Even now, you can go watch any presentation and learn to your heart's content. You can do so by yourself or with a learning circle in your building. Ditto for Educon. I liked being able to hang out on my couch on a Sunday morning, watching a UStreamed panel presentation and participating in the backchannel discussion with people from all over.

I believe that these formats would work just as well for other topics: science, math, art, primary, RtI, etc. Personally, I'd love to see more conferences and wiki "archives" like Educon. With fewer dollars for PD and an ever growing need for focus on student achievement, we have to find different ways to support teachers. What I wonder, however, is how many educators would be willing to participate in this way. It's different---it's asynchronous...it may be something you do by yourself (and therefore miss out on conversation)....it may not be as interactive in terms of getting questions answered. Does that make it too weird to engage with for the average (in terms of tech savvyness) teacher? If so, what sorts of supports do we need to put in place?

13 April 2009

Parents, Teachers, and Peers

The provocatively titled article "Do Parents Matter?" caught my eye last week. The snippet available in my Reader feed suggested that when it comes to child behaviour, peers (and teachers) have a larger impact than parents. After reading the interview, I have to say that the comments by readers are far more interesting than the article itself; however, I have still enjoyed the "What if's..." generated for me.

Here's the final piece of the interview printed by SciAm:

LEHRER: You emphasize the importance of teachers in shaping a child's development. How can we apply this new theory of child development to public policy?

HARRIS: I’ve put together a lot of evidence showing that children learn at home how to behave at home (that’s where parents do have power!), and they learn outside the home how to behave outside the home. So if you want to improve the way children behave in school—for instance, by making them more diligent and less disruptive in the classroom—then improving their home environment is not the way to do it. What you need is a school-based intervention. That’s where teachers have power. A talented teacher can influence a whole group of kids.

The teacher’s biggest challenge is to keep this group of kids from splitting up into two opposing factions: one pro-school and pro-learning, the other anti-school and anti-learning. When that happens, the differences between the groups widen: the pro-school group does well, but the anti-school group falls further and further behind. A classroom with 40 kids is more likely to split up into opposing groups than one with 20, which may explain why students tend to do better in smaller classes. But regardless of class size, some teachers have a knack for keeping their classrooms united. Teachers in Asian countries seem to be better at this than Americans, and I suspect this is one of the reasons why Asian kids learn more in school. No doubt there’s a difference in cultures, but maybe we could study how they do it and apply their methods here.

The tendency of kids to split up spontaneously into subgroups also explains the uneven success rate of programs that put children from disadvantaged homes into private or parochial schools. The success of these programs hinges on numbers. If a classroom contains one or two kids who come from a different background, they assimilate and take on the behaviors and attitudes of the others. But if there are five or six, they form a group of their own and retain the behaviors and attitudes they came in with.

I don't know how "true" the statements are---I haven't looked at the research. It does echo some of the things I've been reading about student motivation. What I'm seeing in the research literature is a general trend toward stating that classroom environment matters most (out of all possible factors). Students will adapt their behaviors to be in line with whatever the teacher emphasizes: valuing learning...or valuing grades.

It would appear that "assimilating" a couple of students would be easier than several kids. However, I'm left wondering about those classes I had where it really was one bad apple spoiling the rest---how incredible it was that the presence or absence of one student could have so much impact on the tenor of the class as a whole. Does that make me a bad teacher? Or was it a weak peer group? Perhaps something else made the difference in the dynamic?

I do think that parental expectations and support do have an enormous bearing on overall child development (as do genetics). But the classroom is a different sort of place: whatever baggage each of us brings from our homes has to some how fuse and meld into a larger social contract. This may be why teachers and peers can have such an enormous influence.

11 April 2009

Material Things

It was a long long week, and I do have a few posts percolating in my head. While those continue to brew, I was hoping for some of your ideas on instructional materials---any grade, any subject area.

As an educator, when your district or state is in the process of selecting materials for a grade/course that you teach, what do you expect from this curricular support?

Do you, for example, think that high quality assessments of all kinds (formative, diagnostic, progress-monitoring, summative...) should be pre-packaged for you? What about leveled readers, SPED support, intervention, and enrichment items to promote accessibility in your classroom? Do you want materials with lesson plans that are constructivist-style in their design?

Any curriculum materials out there can be "aligned," depending upon how loose you are with your terms. What I'm wondering, however, is whether or not we educators are on the lookout for "SuperMaterial!": something that can do everything for a classroom. We are purchasing just paper, print, and pixels, after all. They are not replacements for teachers. What is it that we need the materials to do?

04 April 2009

All Over Creation

This weekend, I've been watching the 100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders of the 80's on VH1. Being a product of the 80's, I have enjoyed the nostalgia. But I have also been thinking about the label of being a "one-hit wonder." Is that a positive or negative way to look at things? How amazing to create something that is loved by many people and over years and years in time. Is it a burden to then realize that you "peaked" long before your career was over?

I was reminded of this TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert. She wrote Eat, Pray, Love a few years ago. It's a book many (including me) adore. But she talks about the pressure that comes with having a hit...and people wondering what you will do next. She's been researching creativity and how it's been viewed in human history. If you have the time, I definitely recommend watching her presentation.

I am loathe to view Creativity as some sort of entity, and yet I can't deny that there does seem to be some sort of confluence of inspiration and being at the right time and in the right place that makes for a masterpiece---whether it's a one-off or one of many. Considering this, how do we best nurture the creative urges of our students?

03 April 2009

Can We "Think Globally"?

There was a discussion at work recently about some new "global" standards that are in development. These are not for the state, but will be put out by a private educational entity. Most people seemed really excited by the discussion. Me? Not so much.

I was remembering a former co-worker talking about a book or article he had read that made the case that the human brain just doesn't have the capacity to consider global ramifications of our actions. We were hunters and gatherers---we are adapted to focusing on local concerns and issues within our own territory. Even if technology is making the world "smaller," the fact is that most of us really do stay within a very small range. This doesn't mean that it is okay to be irresponsible with resources, but the basic understanding we need to have about our actions is that they have consequences (good and/or bad). That's it.

Can we teach children to "think globally"? Not little ones. Sure, they can learn geography and sociology/cultural information. But to actually conceptualize their relevance to the world at large? Well, you probably need some well-developed frontal lobes for that...so we're talking teenagers as the first potential batch of "global thinkers." And even then, do they have enough life experiences to make those connections?

At my advanced age, and with the advantages I've had in life, I'm not sure that even I can fully display an ability to think on such a large scale. I can wrap my mind around "actions/consequences." I understand that resources are finite. I have the capacity to make good choices within the locus of control that I have (including how I spend my money). Beyond that, I don't know how much more global I can be.

I'm just having a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea of having these targets. Do we need standards for being a global citizen? Do we need them just for American students...or do we expect Zimbabwe, Chile, Bosnia, and everyone else to have the exact same ones, too? If I live in a jungle in the Amazon, do I really need to think globally? Or do I just need to be responsible for myself and the environment around me? If everyone did this part, wouldn't we be acting globally? And wouldn't that be more important than just thinking about it?

02 April 2009

Settling the Score

When I changed to standards-based grading practices, I also changed my grading scale: no more percentages...no more "90%+ = A." Within the classroom, this was not such a dramatic shift. It didn't take long for kids to understand that on a 4-point scale, a four was not the same value as an "A" on a traditional scale...and that meeting the standard with a score of 3 was very desirable. Outside the classroom, this took a bit more explanation, but I have to say that I didn't have very many conversations about things simply because my reporting methods were still stuck in the 1890's. My students and I knew what the letter grade represented---we let other users make their own assumptions.

As more and more schools move to standards-based reporting, we are seeing more stories about confusion on the part of parents. From a recent NYT article about how Report Cards Give up A's and B's for 4's and 3's:

Educators praise [standards-based report cards] for setting clear expectations, but many parents who chose to live in Pelham because of its well-regarded schools find them confusing or worse. Among their complaints are that since the new grades are based on year-end expectations, 4s are generally not available until the final marking period (school officials are planning to tweak this aspect next year).

“We’re running around the school saying ‘2 is cool,’ ” said Jennifer Lapey, a parent who grew up in Pelham, “but in my world, 2 out of 4 is not so cool.”
Therein lies the primary issue. Everyone wants to make the scales equivalent. A parent thinks 2 out of 4 represents only 50% of the possible points...and that a four = an A. What the parent needs to understand that the scale really has a student goal of "3" (meeting standard). A student at Level Two is very nearly there. And 4's? They're not the goal. What's more, they may not be available for every standard. (For example, simple addition skills. Either you can add 1 + 1 or you can't. There's no above and beyond.) So, it sounds like the school has some parent education and communication issues to deal with. I do think that this will be a slow transition, but as these kinds of report cards are more and more common at elementary grade levels, parents will become more savvy.