Words Get in the Way

by Robert Pondiscio
November 30th, 2012

This blog has long kvetched about the tendency to use terms like standards (what proficiencies kids should be able to demonstrate) and curriculum (the material that gets taught in class) interchangably.  Michael Goldstein, founder of Boston’s MATCH school observes that education lacks a common vocabulary, which makes life harder for teachers.  “They get bombarded all the time with new products, websites, software that all claim they can get students to ‘deeper learning.’ But without a common understanding of what actually qualifies, it’s hard to know if X even purports to get your kids where you want them to go,” he writes.

Goldstein compares education to medicine where there is broad agreement, for example, on the five stages of cancer–and that makes it easier for for medical professionals and patients to work together.  “When scientists come up with treatments,” he notes, “they often find them to be effective for cancers only in certain stages. So when they tell doctors: ‘treatment only effective for X cancer in stage two,’ everybody knows what that means.”

In education, no such common vocabulary exists.

“Our sector talks a lot of “Deeper Learning.” Or “Higher-Order Skills.”

“But what does that mean? There’s not a commonly-accepted terminology or taxonomy. Instead, there are tons of competing terms and ladders.

“In math, for example, here’s language that the US Gov’t uses for the NAEP test. Low, middle, and high complexity. I suppose they might characterize the “high” as “deeper learning.”

“Here’s Costa’s approach, a different 3 levels. Text explicit, text implicit, and activate prior knowledge. Again, perhaps the last is “deeper learning.”

“Here’s another take, more general than math-specific, from Hewlett.

“A software like MathScore has its own complexity ratings.

“And so on. You could find 10 more in 10 minutes of Googling.

Goldstein posts a question from Massachusetts’ MCAS tests, a perimeter question that shows four different rectangles and asks, “Which of these has a perimeter of 12 feet?”

“First you need to know what perimeter means. Second you need to know you that you need to fill in the “missing sides.” Third you need to know what to fill in, because you understand “rectangle.” Finally you need to add those 4 numbers. If you only understand 3 of the 4 ideas, you’ll get the question wrong.

“Does this question probe “deeper learning” for a 3rd grader? Who the heck knows?

If this strikes you as mere semantics, think again.  A lack of an agreed vocabulary — what is a “basic skill?”  What is “higher order thinking?” — is not merely irritating, it can lead to bad practice and misplaced priorities.   A third-grade teacher looking to remediate a lack of basic skills might seek help from a software product but she would have “no real idea on how ‘deep’ they go, or how ‘shallow’ they start,” Goldstein notes.  “No common language for ‘Depth’ or ‘Complexity.’”

I would add that the problem is more fundamental than that.  If a teacher is told “teach higher-order thinking” she might incorrectly assume that time spent on basic knowledge, math skills or fluency is a waste of time.  Or, in the worst case scenario, that reading comprehension or higher order thinking can be directly taught.  

In reality, without the basic skills and knowledge firmly in place, there’s no such thing as higher order anything and never will be.  Yet terms like “higher order thinking” and “complexity” are held up as the gold standard we should be teaching toward.  Basic knowledge and prerequisite skills are the unlovely companions of “drill and kill” rather than, say, ”fluency” or “automaticity.” Mischief and miplaced priorities are the inevitable result.

A common vocabulary of diagnosis and treatment would help. 

 

 

 

 

 

“No Younger People Need Apply”

by Robert Pondiscio
November 27th, 2012

The following help wanted ad appears on Craigslist in Portland, Oregon.

Editor needed…over 70 yrs. old (NOT an EMPLOYEE)


Date: 2012-11-11, 9:39AM PST
qqqrc-3402235700@job.craigslist.org[Errors when replying to ads?]


EDITOR NEEDED FOR LARGE NUMBER OF SHORT STORIES: Must be 70 years old (or older if adequately lucid) THIS IS NOT AN AD FOR AN “EMPLOYEE OR A CONTRACTOR” – AND…NO YOUNGER PEOPLE NEED APPLY! “Why? Simply because I advertised before, received 117 responses. . .and NONE were sufficiently conversant with the English language to achieve an acceptable level of editing. It appears that a preponderance of younger people have not been taught correct grammar and satisfactory writing skills. I have absolutely no interest in going through that exercise again. ENOUGH SAID!…And spare me your castigating comments! It is a waste of your time and mine.

(via jimromanesko.com)

All In

by Guest Blogger
November 21st, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

A lot has been made this year of the value of marshmallow tests, grit, and character in building a quality education. Every time I open my laptop, someone has forwarded an article or tagged me in a post about about the value of character in schools. When I closed the lid on my laptop this weekend, and finally got around to catching up on my NPR podcast listening, there it was again. Paul Tough, talking about his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character with Ira Glass on This American Life.” Tom Ashbrook, talking about the fact that schools are adding workouts, not for fitness, but for “Attention, Grit, and Emotional Control.” I had to retreat to a Freakonomics podcast about how to maximize my kids’ (read: my) Halloween candy haul (research for next year).

Don’t misunderstand – I’m not tired of the discussion; I think this focus on character in education is a fantastic turn of events. I’m thrilled. As more and more people come around to the value of character education, I sound less and less like the preachy schoolmarm on a weekend pass from the Big Woods.

For the past five years, I have been teaching at Crossroads Academy, a school that combines the Core Knowledge curriculum with a core virtues curriculum. I have to admit, I was not totally sure what I’d gotten myself into when I signed the contract for my first year. I figured I’d smile and nod, support the character education teachers in their efforts, and reap the benefits of teaching kids who attend a weekly character education class. It’s not as if this is my first brush with Aristotle’s Golden Mean, on the contrary – I’m one of the A-man’s biggest fans – and I can hold my own in a conversation about prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice.

But about six months into that first year, I noticed all that “character stuff” was leaking out of character education class and saturating every other subject. It was my students’ fault; they opened the floodgates. They talked about Atticus’ sense of justice in English class, Achilles’ lack of temperance in Latin class, Ghandi’s incredible fortitude in history class. This weekend, I was helping my third grade son study for his history test, and he told me that “the conspirators killed Caesar because he was not a good steward of Rome.”

Today, Core Knowledge drives my content, but character education and the core virtues drive my teaching, and my relationships with my students.

Well, most of the time. Like anyone who has been teaching the same classes for a while, I am apt to get lulled into a routine, particularly in November. The clocks have just changed, that certain slant of light has descended on New Hampshire, and it’s tempting to coast while I put my energy into writing report cards and recovering from the middle-school super-virus my students gave me last week. After all, it would be easy; my class materials have all those helpful notes and Post-Its in the margins, accumulated over years of discussion, the teacher’s manual of my Latin textbook sings its siren call…but drat. Just when I have checked out until after the holidays, my students foil my plans.

This week, I was hacking away at the huge pile of grading I have to get through before I can actually being to write grade reports, and I was getting sleepy. In my defense, Latin translations are a huge time suck because my students like to take full and creative advantage of Latin’s  relatively flexible word order. Nouns and verbs are never where I expect them to be, and the grading is slow going. Halfway through what felt like the bajillionth Latin test, I came across an incorrect answer, with an arrow pointing to a note in the margin:

Dear Mrs. Lahey. I know the answer to #4 is incorrect, but I accidentally saw the answer on your answer key, and I did not want to cheat. But I know the answer is “vobis” because “you” is plural, not singular.”

Needless to say, I gave her the two points, and promptly checked back in.

I am not naive enough to believe that character education alone can save America’s educational crisis, but I do know that this week’s headlines are full of bright, well-educated people who have sold virtue to purchase wealth. If character education manages to score some column inches on the front page between Jill Kelley and Lance Armstrong, and authors such as PaulTough and Diane Ravitch are brave enough to champion the cause of character in education, I’m all in.

Jessica Potts Lahey is a teacher of English, Latin, and composition at Crossroads Academy, an independent Core Knowledge K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. Jessica’s blog on middle school education, Coming of Age in the Middle, where this piece also appears, can be found at http://jessicalahey.com.

Myths Come From Values, Not From Ignorance

by CKF
November 19th, 2012

Today’s guest post is by Cedar Riener, assistant professor of Psychology at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia.  It originally appeared at Cedar’s Digest, Riener’s blog about “education reform, college teaching, history and philosophy of science” and other subjects. 

Like many interested in how we apply basic cognitive science to education, I was interested in the recent finding that many teachers still endorse many myths and misconceptions about neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Here is the original paper, and an excellent op-ed by Chris Chabris and Dan Simons in the Wall Street Journal. One interesting element of the experiment was that teachers who knew the most were also the most misinformed (from Chabris and Simons):

Ironically, in the Dekker group’s study, the teachers who knew the most about neuroscience also believed in the most myths. Apparently, teachers who are (admirably) enthusiastic about expanding their knowledge of the mind and brain have trouble separating fact from fiction as they learn. Neuromyths have so much intuitive appeal, and they spread so rapidly in fields like business and self-help, that eradicating them from popular consciousness might be a Sisyphean task. But reducing their influence in the classroom would be a good start.

I have spent a fair amount of time trying to change one of these myths, the learning styles myth, and I have learned some lessons that I think apply to the rest of them. By way of reference, here are a couple of past posts and writings of mine on the topic: Dialogue with a teacher who defended learning styles. An article (accessible to non-scientists) with Dan Willingham in Change Magazine (picked up by Andrew Sullivan!).

Despite my strong belief that these myths are have a pernicious effect on education, I think it is important not to simply dismiss those who hold them as ignorant or thoughtless. In fact, as this study showed, those who hold the myths are just as often the most thoughtful, reflective, and knowledgeable, rather than the least. How can a myth which seems to signify a lack of knowledge be an indicator of someone who is knowledgeable? Because many myths, and these myths in particular are rooted not in ignorance, but in strongly held values.

In the case of learning styles, many well-meaning people hold a strong value that all children can learn. I too hold this value. However, when we take this to its extreme, it becomes: all children can learn all content equally well and quickly. Unfortunately, this is false. There are differences in cognitive ability, which have consequences for how quickly and easily some children learn some material. the temptation of learning styles is partly a hope that students who struggle with a subject simply have not found the right “channel” yet. Their unlimited reservoir of intelligence simply hasn’t been tapped properly. Unfortunately, some of us have bigger reservoirs than others (although we do all have different reservoirs for different content).

To dismiss the learning styles myth, we have to let go of equating cognitive ability (or intelligence) with some sort of larger social value. Further, ability also does not have to stand in as potential. I may have little artistic ability, but if I was inspired to draw, struggled with  drawing classes for a few years, I have no doubt I could become a capable at drawing. We can nurture interest while acknowledging that some will struggle more than others. As I write in the links above, in confusing ability from style, the learning styles myth also distracts us from the dimensions that really matter, such as individual attention and presenting content to be interesting for all students.

Similarly, the “we only use 10% of our brain” myth reflects a belief that we have untapped potential. This is surely true. Most of us at any given moment we have an awareness that our mind is not as focused as it could be. This might be because many of us get to occasionally experience those great moments that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” when we are totally immersed in the task at hand. In all other times, we can observe our own mind wandering and feel the cognitive costs. We have also observed experts at work, doing things effortlessly which we could not even imagine. If we could only use 25% of our brain, that would be within our grasp! Like many brain myths, this doesn’t hold up to any scientific scrutiny. But the point is that most who endorse this myth in this see it as a neuroscientific translation of their belief in untapped cognitive potential. And they are right! We do have untapped potential. There doesn’t seem to be a limit to how much you can hold in your long term memory. And it seems to stay there forever! But this is not because we only use 10% of our brain.

My final point is that these myth studies often reveal language differences between scientists and the public. One of the myths in the study is the following:

“Environments rich in stimuli improve the brains of preschool children.”

A scientist such as myself might zero in on this and ask “hmm, what do they mean by stimuli?” I could follow the logic that I know certain interventions do help preschool children learn. I also know that a home environment rich in vocabulary helps some preschool children enter school with a larger vocabulary. This greater content knowledge has huge implication in elementary school. Like any kind of learning, there must be some sort of brain change involved. But the critical part of this myth is the “rich in stimuli.”  Simply adding stimulation (colors, mobiles, toys) does not improve your child’s brain. But to the teachers who endorsed this myth, I would imagine that it simply reads as “Good environments help the brains of preschool children.” This is obviously true, but it doesn’t begin to address what is good (or even what counts as environment).

This study (and those like it) show that scientists must be careful and sympathetic in explaining our research to the public. First, we need to recognize that the reason people hold myths is that these myths become attached to values. If we simply try to yank the myths away through overwhelming force of logic and evidence, without addressing the values, the myths simply won’t come off. I see this often with debates over evolution (and I try to apply it in my own classroom when we cover evolution). We need to make the case that one can accept evolution without giving up their sacred values. With learning styles, we need to show that we can still give individual attention and value each student’s contribution while letting go of the learning styles myth.

Second, we need to recognize that the way we use language is often different and sometimes more precise than popular usage. In psychology, this is often the same words (such as “intelligence” or “emotion” or “attention”). When people say “we only use 10% of our brain power” they they don’t mean that only 10% of the neurons are active, or that each neuron is only used 10% of the time it could be, or that each mitochondria in each neuron is only running at 10% of capacity. They mean that humans have untapped cognitive potential. Let’s join them in agreeing with that first, before explaining that in fact, even though you can always learn more, all of your brain is always on.

“No Professional Teacher Should Major in Education”

by Robert Pondiscio
November 13th, 2012

Sometimes, it takes someone outside the field of education to speak the truth.  Historian David McCullough says no professional teacher should major in education.

The award-winning biographer of Harry Truman and John Adams was profiled on CBS’ “60 Minutes” on Sunday, and his comments highlighted over at The Answer Sheet.  He notes that Americans are “historically illiterate” and tells the depressing story of meeting a student who “came up to me after one of my talks and said that until she heard me speak that morning she’d never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast.”

“And I thought, ‘What are we doing that’s so wrong, so pathetic?’ I tried it again at several other places, colleges and universities, same thing. Now, it’s not their fault. It’s our fault. And when I say our fault I don’t mean just the teachers. I mean the parents and grandparents. We have to take part. The stories around the family dinner table. I say bring back dinner if you want to improve how children get to know history.’

McCullough believes we need to “seriously revamp, the teaching of the teachers.”

“I don’t feel that any professional teacher should major in education. They should major in a subject, know something. The best teachers are those who have a gift and the energy and enthusiasm to convey their love for science or history or Shakespeare or whatever it is. ‘Show them what you love’ is the old adage. And we’ve all had them, where they can change your life. They can electrify the morning when you come into the classroom.

I’ve long favored organizing teacher training around subject matter, rather than what Leon Botstein once termed “the pseudoscience of pedagogy.”  I’ve also never been able to resist seeing teaching, like writing, not as a “profession” but as craft work.   The best writers and teachers master their subject, and then find their voice.

 

A Questionable Schema

by Robert Pondiscio
November 12th, 2012

Here’s a charming group of second graders singing the “Background Knowledge Song” to the tune of Oh My Darling, Clementine.

The words are a little difficult to understand, which might indicate the kids themselves aren’t entirely clear on the lyrics.  But the ditty seems to be a reading strategies lesson, reminding the kids to “check my schema” when they read to ensure comprehension.

“Think about all the things I know about the text before I read.
Building schema really helps me comprehend the words I read.
While I’m reading, I keep thinking ‘Does what I read make sense to me?’
If it doesn’t I check my schema, then I re-read carefully.

“Building schema, building schema
I do it every time I read.
Because it gives me background knowledge
For the next books that I read”

I don’t wish to be overly critical of an earnest attempt to make kids better readers.  But does it really help second graders’ comprehension to toss around (let alone sing about) terms like “building schema?”   I’m skeptical.  The word itself is more jargon than vocabulary.  Call it the Lipnicki Effect.  It’s cute, funny and sometimes impressive to hear arcane facts and fancy words come out of the mouths of small children, but is there any educational value?   Perhaps the better question is what’s the better use of instructional time:  teaching kids to activate their background knowledge when they read? Or actually building background knowledge?

Sorry, I meant schema.

 

A Good School Washed Away in the Storm

by Robert Pondiscio
November 7th, 2012

P.S. 333, the Goldie Maple School, is a Core Knowledge Official School in New York City.  It started the year with an enrollment of 578 children.  This morning, fewer than 30 showed up for the first scheduled day of class since hurricane Sandy punished the city eight days ago.

The school sits less than two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean in the Arverne section on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, a neighborhood that lay defenseless against the storm.  Hundreds of homes in the Rockaways were damaged or destroyed when a 12-foot storm surge submerged the slender spit of land in seawater and sand.   P.S. 333 was too badly damaged to occupy when New York City schools reopened this week–one of 79 schools in 44 buildings deemed unsafe.  The school’s temporary home, at least this week, is I.S. 126 in Long Island City, a school named after the late teacher’s union leader Albert Shanker, who taught and organized his colleagues there.

A school bus picked up the students for what turned out to be an hour and a half ride to the other side of the borough.  Only a handful made the trip.  P.S. 333’s principal, Angela Logan, was not surprised.  She can’t even estimate how many of her school’s families have left the neighborhood, for now or for good.  “When you look around, you don’t see people outside.  There’s no reason to come outside.  The stores are all gone.  There was a lot of looting and there’s a curfew in place,” she says.

I found Logan and her staff this morning in the third floor library of their temporary home.  They were not teaching.  They were working the phones, trying to find their students. “My teachers are calling right now to find out where are they and if they’re planning on coming to the relocation site.”  But even this temporary home is only temporarily theirs.  “They gave us this site this week,” she said.  “Next week we’re going to be at an elementary school and a middle school.”

It is unclear when their own building will be ready for use again.  The storm surge flooded the school’s basement destroying its boiler.  Water damaged the first floor. Power may be weeks away from being restored.  “The only thing I was told is that the boiler is definitely shot.  They’re thinking about putting a temporary generator and temporary boiler outside so it can power the building.  But they don’t know when they can do that,” Logan says.

P.S. 333 occupies a special place in the universe of Core Knowledge schools and the hearts of our staff.  It was one of the ten New York City pilot schools that road tested the Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program.  I’ve regularly brought visitors who are interested in the curriculum to observe K-2 classes there.  Thanks in part to the stellar results posted by teachers at Goldie Maple, CKLA is now being made available to schools statewide.  Indeed, the pilot was so successful that P.S. 333 continued to use the program even after the demonstration ended.  Their materials are still in the school in undamaged classrooms in the upper floors, but Logan and her staff are not able or even allowed to retrieve them.  “The Department of Ed said we’ll just purchase you new materials.  I guess for them that’s just easier,” she fumed.  “They have no idea we’re a Core Knowledge school.  I don’t need Dr. Seuss books.  I need the Romans and Greek books.”

Even that concern seems small right now.  With the loss of instructional time, the lack of continuity, and the disruption wrought by Sandy, Logan fears it will be a lost school year for many of her children, most of whom can ill afford it.  “How do you hold them accountable to sit there and learn when [the children are thinking] ‘I don’t have a house. When I go back home it’s freezing cold?’ Those kids are going to suffer,” she says.  Even after the all-clear is given and the school safe to occupy, there’s no way to know how many students will return. Some, perhaps most of the low-income families served by Logan’s school, will simply melt into the neighborhoods to which they’ve moved.  The scale of the dislocation is immense:  P.S. 333 is one of 11 schools in the Rockaways put out of commission by Sandy, and the smallest of them.  “No one’s talking about that right now.  What’s the reality for the kids that were on that Peninsula?”  She doesn’t know.

Logan is openly frustrated with city officials trying to give the impression that things are getting back to normal in New York City’s schools.  “You want to make it look good, but you’re not thinking about these kids,” she says.  That said, New York City is relocating more schools than Oklahoma City or Portland, Oregon has in total.

As Logan is speaking, a mother and small child wander toward us from the far end of the unfamiliar hallway that Al Shanker once roamed.  They look lost and bewildered.  “Look at the babies who’ve come,” she says.  “Some parents this morning were worried because their kids didn’t have their school uniforms.  They were washed away.  I’m like, ‘As long as you’re OK and your family’s OK.’  I just feel bad.”  Logan mumbles under her breath. “To think that’s something you’d think about right now.” She’s incredulous.  Close to tears.  “I just don’t know what to say.”

“You try to keep going, you try to move on,” Logan says.  “But this is crazy.”