New Leaders in Literacy

by Lisa Hansel
October 22nd, 2014

It used to be that advocating for building broad knowledge with a content-rich curriculum in the early grades was a lonely enterprise. No more! Whether it’s the focus on the early word gap or the Common Core’s explanation of literacy or the moral universe bending toward justice, knowledge is finally getting its due.

New reports from the National School Boards Association (NSBA), the Education Commission of the States (ECS), and the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) emphasize knowledge as a prerequisite to skills. In deference to the nature of the blogosphere, I’ve arranged them from shortest to longest.

In a new blog post and report, NSBA highlights the importance of nonfiction reading. The post takes on three widespread myths about the Common Core: that the standards push fictional literature out of the curriculum, that nonfiction doesn’t help prepare students for college, and that nonfiction is boring. Lovers of history, science, art, music, geography, civics, and Core Knowledge already know these claims are preposterous, but the post is worth a quick read. Here’s my favorite nugget: “Beth Deniell of Kennesaw State observed that the critics of informational reading ‘seem not to have considered that the contextual information students need in order to understand a literary work arrives in non-literary texts.’”

NSBA’s report takes a more data-oriented approach, showing that US students and adults lag behind in information reading ability. It will be eye-opening to anyone who thinks that life-long literacy—the type the enables prosperity and civic engagement—can be built on fiction alone.

For those new to building knowledge and literacy from preschool through third grade, ECS’s report is a great place to start. It moves rapidly through key points on everything from access to preschool and kindergarten to educational quality and continuity to financing and governance, and it offers snapshots of advances made by various states. With a state-level policymaker focus, the report only touches lightly on curriculum, but it does hit on the necessity of carefully sequencing learning experiences:

When children engage in a coherent set of high-quality P-3 learning experiences, the “fade out” effect (i.e., the notion that early gains in learning disappear later in school) is greatly diminished. Aligning standards, curricula and assessments ensures that young children engage in the right sequence of learning experiences at the right time. Alignment also ensures children are working toward building the set of skills and knowledge they will need as they move from a high-quality preschool to a high-quality full-day kindergarten and the early elementary grades. (p. 16)

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Happy reader courtesy of Shutterstock.

NAESP’s report is both the longest and most informative. It’s a real gem for preschool directors and elementary principals. The first two sections—on preschool to third grade continuity, curriculum, and instruction—are especially strong. A few highlights:

Longitudinal studies have shown that an integrated learning continuum for children from age three to grade three contributes to sustaining achievement gains made in prekindergarten programs. (p. 11)

Alignment of standards, instruction, assessment and professional development ensures that students enter each successive grade having the foundation and skills needed to succeed there. Such alignment can reduce unnecessary repetition in instruction and allow for coverage of more instructional topics. A successful Pre-K-3 learning community aligns standards with a sequenced, coherent curriculum that describes what should be taught in each grade and in each subject and makes clear what mastery of each subject means and how it looks. (p. 21)

Learning is cumulative: Early learning facilitates later learning, and children who already know something about a particular topic often have an easier time learning more about it….

Effective instructional leaders support two specific early reading abilities: decoding and comprehension. Decoding is the ability to identify the words on a page; comprehension is the ability to understand what those words mean…. Instructional leaders support teaching that builds comprehension through read-alouds in prekindergarten, kindergarten and first grade, which help children to build knowledge and vocabulary….

Effective Pre-K-3 instructional leaders know that to be successful in a variety of subjects in middle and high school, students also need to build a basis of prior knowledge in science, history, civics, the arts, physical education and social-emotional learning. (p. 22)

E­ffective principals … know that student engagement is essential and that significant learning happens through exploration and play, particularly in prekindergarten and kindergarten. Strategies used to ensure understanding of key content and concepts will, however, change as children progress from grade to grade. For instance, once children enter first and second grade, effective principals know that these strategies shift to more direct instruction, integrated into engaging and dynamic learning opportunities. (p. 23)

To each of these very strong reports, the one thing I would add is domain-based instruction. As the research appendix to the Common Core ELA and literacy standards states, “Word acquisition occurs up to four times faster … when students have become familiar with the domain of the discourse and encounter the word in different contexts…. Vocabulary development … occurs most effectively [when] domains become familiar to the student over several days or weeks” (Appendix A, p. 33). In essence, most vocabulary is not learned through vocab lists, dictionaries, and weekly quizzes. Those things can be useful, but the vast majority of words are learned through multiple exposures in multiple contexts.

The difference between domain-based instruction and widely used theme-based units is focus. While a theme might be friendship and cover everything from family members to pets to pen pals, a domain is much narrower, such as the solar system or early Asian civilizations. The benefit of the domain is that vocabulary and concepts are repeated, deepened, and expanded with a carefully selected set of texts and supporting activities. While a theme might offer a great variety of words and ideas, little is repeated often enough to be learned. A focused domain provides a more genuine opportunity to learn; students get the multiple contexts they need and teachers have several opportunities to differentiate instruction, allowing everyone to master the core concepts and vocabulary of the domain.

Ideally, all children would learn from a content-specific, domain-based, cumulative curriculum that begins in preschool and extends through elementary school. When the preschool is located in the elementary school, collaboration on curriculum is feasible. But coordinating among a disparate set of child care settings, preschool centers, and elementary schools can be next to impossible. When planning together is unlikely, the next-best option is a preschool through fifth-grade program that ensures one grade builds on the next even without teachers interacting. A coherent program can provide continuity in developing language skills, vocabulary, and broad knowledge even as it shifts from a play-oriented approach in preschool to a more academic approach in the upper elementary grades. (Interested? Give Core Knowledge Language Arts a try. Preschool through third grade can be downloaded for free, and several units from grades 4 and 5 are also now freely available.)

“Houston, we have a problem”

by Lisa Hansel
July 23rd, 2014

We do indeed have a crisis on our hands, but year after year we fail to diagnose and address it. With 21st century skills, learning styles, comprehension strategies, blame-the-teacher “reforms,” and dozens of other fads clouding our thinking, research-driven common sense improvements get little attention.

It’s frustrating, but our Core Knowledge community is dedicated to spreading the word on rigorous academics. For anyone out there who needs yet more evidence of the desperate need for building broad knowledge and skills, two new reports are worth examining.

“Just the facts, ma’am”

Cold, hard facts are what we get from ACT and Mathematica Policy Research. We learn (yet again) that there are massive disparities in preparation for college and kindergarten.

ACT’s The Condition of College & Career Readiness tackles the high school problem with stark graphics. The one below, showing the massive gaps among youth by race and ethnicity, is especially striking:

ACT 7-22-14 A

Then, a ray of hope. Taking a “core curriculum” in high school appears to greatly increase the odds that a young adult is well prepared. In the chart below, “Core” stands for core curriculum, which ACT defines as “4 years of English and 3 years each of mathematics, science, and social studies” in high school.

ACT 7-22-14 B

That gives us one clear step to take in closing college- and career-readiness gaps. But things are never so simple. You see, most students are already taking a core curriculum:

ACT 7-22-14 C

Clearly, all core curricula are not created equal. But we know better that to lay all blame at the high school doorstep. And in case we forget, Mathematica’s Kindergartners’ Skills at School Entry: An Analysis of the ECLS-K reminds us. This study is interesting because it does not look just at the usual race/ethnicity and income factors. Instead, it focuses on four specific “risk factors”: “the child lives in a single-parent household, the child’s mother has less than a high school education, the child’s household income is below the federal poverty line, and the primary language spoken in the home is not English.”

You may be surprised to see that nearly half—44%—of entering kindergartners face at least one of these risk factors:

Mathematica 7-22-14 A

Sadly, you may be even more surprised to see how devastating even just one risk factor is in terms of reading, math, and working memory:

Mathematica 7-22-14 B

Mathematica 7-22-14 C

(Note: IRT stands for “item response theory.” The children were given two-stage assessments in which their performance in the first stage determined the difficulty of the test items they were given in the second stage.)

If these two new reports tell us anything, it’s that we must intervene early. Gaps that exist at kindergarten entry still exist at the end of high school—ripe for replication when our underprepared young adults have children of their own.

“May the Force be with you”

Schools with coherent, cumulative curricula that build academic knowledge, vocabulary, and skills are intervening. Curriculum is not the solution, of course, but it is a necessary part of the foundation for student (and teacher) learning. Unfortunately, far too many school, district, and policy leaders are unaware of how to make their curricula stronger, much less how to harness a rigorous curriculum for benefits such as early identification of students’ needs and increased teacher collaboration. For those looking to take the first step, I strongly recommend Harvard’s Lead for Literacy series. In 16 one-page memos, Lead for Literacy clearly identifies best practices for literacy programs, assessments, professional development, and program selection. The series may not be as powerful as the Force, but they’ll give leaders a good shot at dramatically increasing students’ knowledge and skills, and enabling them to learn more both in and out of school.

Even in Kindergarten, Advanced Content Advances Learning

by Lisa Hansel
July 8th, 2014

In a must-read post last week, the Albert Shanker Institute’s Esther Quintero explored several studies showing that bringing more academic content into the early grades is beneficial for children. The final study she summarized, by Amy Claessens of the University of Chicago and Mimi Engel and Chris Curran of Vanderbilt University, particularly caught my eye. As Quintero wrote, this nationally representative study of kindergartners “found that all children, regardless of socioeconomic status or early childhood care experiences, ‘likely benefit from exposure to more advanced and less basic content.’ ”

That’s great, but it raises an obvious question: What is “advanced” content?

Quite reasonably, the researchers distinguished between basic and advanced content by assessing what the kids know:

Specific mathematics and reading content is considered to be basic or advanced depending on whether the majority of children had mastered that content at kindergarten entry. If over half of children entering kindergarten have mastered a particular content area, we define it as basic. Content that most children have not yet mastered is defined as advanced.

Using that gauge, here’s what was deemed basic and advanced:

Basic Math:

Count out loud

Work with geometric manipulatives

Correspondence between number and quantity

Recognizing and naming geometric shapes

Using measuring instruments

Identify relative quantity

Sort into subgroups

Ordering objects

Making/copying patterns

Advanced Math:

Know value of coins

Place value

Reading two-digit numbers

Recognizing ordinal numbers

Adding single-digit numbers

Subtracting single-digit numbers

Adding two-digit numbers

Subtracting two-digit numbers, without regrouping

 

 

Basic Reading:

Alphabet and letter recognition

Work on learning the names of the letters

Practice writing the letters of the alphabet

Writing own name

Advanced Reading:

Matching letters to sounds

Work on phonics

Common prepositions

Conventional spelling

Using context cues for comprehension

Read aloud

Read from basal reading texts

Read text silently

Vocabulary

That’s not as much detail as I’d like to see, but it is helpful. Kindergarten teachers could use it as a minimal checklist when first exploring new programs or revising their curriculum. Anything that does not cover at least this “advanced” content is not likely to be a good use of school time because advanced content benefitted all students—those who had and had not attended preschool, and those from high- and low-income families:

We find that all children, regardless of preschool experiences or family economic circumstances, benefit from additional exposure to advanced reading and mathematics content in kindergarten. Complicating these results, we find that most children gain less in mathematics and stagnate (at best) in reading with additional exposure to basic content…. Our study suggests that exposing kindergartners to more advanced content in both reading and mathematics would promote skills among all children.

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Advanced content courtesy of Shutterstock.

For making the most of the kindergarten year, an important first step may be ensuring that all teachers are aware of the benefits of advanced content. One component of this study is a survey of kindergarten teachers regarding their content coverage; it revealed that they spend far more time on basic content than on advanced content.

Time on content (days per month)

Basic math

9.79

Advanced math

6.46

Basic reading

18.06

Advanced reading

11.41

To be clear, these researchers are not calling for advanced content all the time. They note that basic content must be introduced often even just to segue to advanced content. Their recommendation is rather modest:

Our results indicate that shifting the content covered in a kindergarten classroom to 4 more days per month on advanced topics in reading or mathematics is associated with increased test score gains of about .05 standard deviations. While this is a modest gain, changing content coverage might be an inexpensive means of intervening…. Further, the consistently null (reading) or negative (math) effects of basic content in our study indicate that the often tricky issue of ‘‘finding the time’’ to implement curricular changes might be accomplished with relative ease in this case. Time on advanced content could be increased while time on basic content is reduced without the need to increase overall instructional time.

Four more days sounds reasonable to me. In reading, such a change would merely result in a roughly 50-50 split between basic and advanced content.

Although the researchers do not delve into it, there’s one more result from the kindergarten teacher survey that jumped out at me—the paltry amount of time devoted to science and social studies:

Time on subjects (minutes per week)

Lessons on math

186.18

Lessons on reading

292.33

Lessons on science

68.11

Lessons on social studies

74.74

You can check out pretty much any other post (including Quintero’s) on Core Knowledge’s blog to see why that’s of concern. If you’re interested in using an early grades reading program that is filled with “advanced” content and addresses science and social studies, we’ve got you covered.

Challenging Content In The Early Grades: What’s Not To Love?

by Guest Blogger
June 30th, 2014

By Esther Quintero

Esther Quintero is a senior research fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute. This post first appeared on the Shanker Blog.

The latest issue of The Progress of Education Reform (released a few days ago by the Education Commission of the States) rounds up some recent research supporting the case that “all children need high quality early science learning experiences” and “science supports children’s learning and school readiness in other areas.” The brief argues that even though science has not traditionally received the attention afforded to other preschool domains, such as literacy and mathematics, “science content and skills are critical and do not detract from literacy development; “in fact, [science] contributes to the goal that all children read with understanding by grade 3.”

These statements should come as no surprise. At the Institute, we have long advocated teaching rich, challenging content (including in English language arts, math and science) in the early years. Knowledge, which is what’s underneath words and vocabulary, is the foundation for acquiring more knowledge; it’s what allows us to read with understanding — or read to learn. This is important because it means that we must focus on teaching children about a wide range of interesting “stuff” – including, as the ECS report argues, early science. As I wrote elsewhere:

It’s important to start teaching knowledge in the early years and through oral language because children’s preexisting knowledge creates a framework that facilitates the acquisition of new information; knowing more words and concepts scaffolds children’s ability to slot novel information in the “right places,” and to learn related words and concepts more efficiently.

In fact, the idea of teaching “literacy” versus teaching “science” constitutes an unnecessary dichotomy and perhaps not the most useful lens to understand what is needed in early childhood education. Children need challenging content in every domain — be it science, math, English language arts, social studies, music, or the fine arts. Unfortunately, the ECS report notes, “very little science happens in early care settings, and what does happen tends to consist of single activities, disconnected from what came before and what will come next.”

This lack of curricular sequence and coherence is a problem because children learn faster and more independently when they are taught concepts that are related. When children learn words in isolation, with little attention paid to how they words fit within broader ideas, they do not understand their relationships and tend to forget them just as quickly as they learn them. By contrast, as Susan B. Neuman and Tanya S. Wright have argued in All About Words:

When we teach words in meaningful clusters, it creates a self-teaching device that supports independent learning. In a sense, you are building a powerful schema for children that will enable them to attend better to new words, understand them, and retain them in a way that is easily accessible for future reference.

For example, when we teach words such as coyote, giraffe, leopard, and rhinoceros in a meaningful semantic cluster, and teach children that they are all wild animals with a number of common features, children can begin to make the following generalizations about these animals: Wild animals are animals that live outside and away from people. Wild animals are not tame.

Then when children are introduced to a new wild animal, they already have a frame of reference where they can easily slot the new information, and make inferences and generalizations about it.

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Polar bears courtesy of Shutterstock.

A recent paper by Aubry L. Alvarez and Amy E. Booth (2014) from Northwestern University adds to this discussion in several ways. The authors looked at whether the inherent attraction of causal information could be used to motivate preschoolers’ task engagement. The researchers conducted an experiment where they looked at whether children would persist in a boring task for longer if they were assigned to different experimental conditions: children were given causally rich information as a reward, causally weak information as a reward, stickers, or no reward at all.

Results revealed a powerful influence of causally rich rewards on the number of times children were willing to complete the boring task.

Perhaps the most interesting finding is that “providing new knowledge per se as a reward was not enough to sustain children’s engagement.” Recall how ECS report pointed the disconnected nature of science activities in many early childhood settings. In these classrooms, children are probably receiving information that is new but not the kind of information that, according to the Alvarez and Booth study, would promote persistence and engagement.

According to the authors, this research “reveals the viability of causally rich knowledge-infused reward as an effective tool for enhancing task engagement in preschool-aged children,” “reinforces long-standing views of children as hungry to acquire causally rich information,” and “suggests a new approach to rewarding young children that has the potential to encourage (rather than detract from) a mind-set that embraces the pleasure and challenges of learning.”

My take away from this paper is that perhaps we should not think about academic content and student rewards separately. Wouldn’t an age-appropriate curriculum that is rich, challenging and carefully sequenced be a ‘rewards embedded curriculum’?

Another recent study supports the idea that exposing young children (in this case kindergartners) to more advanced rather than basic content “might promote the skills of all children and has the potential to sustain the benefits of preschool attendance.”

Using a nationally representative sample of kindergarteners, Amy Claessens (University of Chicago) Mimi Engel (Vanderbilt University) and Chris Curran (Vanderbilt University) explored “whether the reading and mathematics content taught in kindergarten might help to sustain the gains acquired through preschool participation.” The authors found “a consistent and positive effect of exposure to advanced content for all children in both reading and mathematics” and “a negative or, in the case of reading, often null effects of exposure to basic content.”

Although the researchers had predicted that children who did not attend preschool might benefit from receiving instruction that focused on basic content, the data did not support this hypothesis. Conversely, they found that all children, regardless of socioeconomic status or early childhood care experiences, “likely benefit from exposure to more advanced and less basic content.”

The authors concluded by noting that:

Shifting to more advanced academic content coverage in kindergarten classrooms is a potentially low-cost means for helping preschoolers sustain the academic benefits they acquired through preschool attendance while simultaneously garnering positive effects for children who begin kindergarten without that advantage.

In sum, teaching children interesting “stuff” that is challenging and coherently presented:

  • Sets the foundation for reading with understanding;
  • Supports children’s ability to learn faster and independently;
  • May make children more perseverant and more engaged in their learning;
  • May benefit all children, while also helping to sustain the benefits of pre-k into elementary school.

So, what’s not to love about a fun, challenging, well thought out and well taught curriculum in the early years?

 

Summer Slide: Denial Is Dangerous

by Lisa Hansel
June 18th, 2014

I’ll guess that pretty much all educators are aware of the “summer slide” or “summer learning loss.” Even if there is a teacher who hasn’t heard those terms, all teachers have to deal with the consequences—wasting 2 to 5 weeks each fall reteaching content and skills. Naively, I thought the reteaching ritual was so widely lamented that parents, too, were aware of the summer slide. So I was shocked to see that 61% of parents do not believe that their children decline in reading ability over the summer.

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Summer slide courtesy of Shutterstock.

The finding comes from a new survey of 1,014 parents with children ages 5–11. Conducted by Harris Interactive, it kicks off the summer campaign by Reading Is Fundamental and Macy’s to provide books to needy children.

Sadly, that 61% foreshadows all of the findings.

For example, playing outside is the top priority: “By a wide margin, parents of 5-11 year olds identify playing outside (49%) as the most important activity they want their child to do this summer. Reading books (17%) takes second place, followed by: relax and take it easy (13%), improve athletic skills (10%), travel (4%), work at a summer job (1%), and other activities (6%).” If forced to choose, I would also rank playing outside #1 and reading #2; I was lucky enough to do both pretty much every day as a kid. But reality settles in when we look at how kids are actually spending their time: “Parents of 5-11 year olds report that their child spent an average of 5.9 hours per week reading books last summer. This is lower than the time spent playing outdoors (16.7 hours), watching TV (10.8 hours), or playing video games (6.6 hours).” There’s a curmudgeonly voice in my head wondering how many of those outdoor hours were spent like this:

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“Playing outside” courtesy of Shutterstock.

Six hours a week is definitely not enough time reading. Sadly, I think it shows how few children are finding books they love and having that magical experience of being absorbed in another world. With the right book, six hours a day doesn’t feel like enough. But according to the survey, I’m in the minority here: “Nearly six in ten parents of children age 5-11 say their child does just the right amount of reading during the summer (59%).”

But wait; it gets worse. There’s a 7% gap in what parents most want their sons and daughters to do over the summer. The number jumped out at me because 7% is the spread between female and male college degree attainment (i.e., in 2013, among 25- to 29-year-olds, 37% of females but only 30% of males had a bachelor’s). In this survey of parents, 7% is the pro-reading bias of parents for daughters (i.e., 21% of parents said reading was the most important activity for their daughters, but only 14% said as much for their sons). Coincidence? Only kinda sorta. There are stark differences in girls’ and boys’ summer activities: “Girls … spent an average of 6.6 hours per week reading books last summer, significantly higher than the average time spent by boys (5.2 hours). By contrast, boys spent an average of 8.0 hours per week playing video games last summer, compared to just 5.2 hours among girls.”

In discussions of the summer slide, most emphasis seems to be on the disparities between more- and less-advantaged children. That emphasis is necessary: while advantaged children tend to make gains in reading each summer, disadvantaged children tend to fall behind. Research shows these disparities to be due not just to differences in parenting, but also differences in the libraries and book stores available in different communities. What this parent survey shows is a need to also emphasize disparities between boys and girls. Hour after hour, summer after summer, boys are falling behind.

Can Early Language Development Promote Children’s Psychological Wellbeing?

by Guest Blogger
May 28th, 2014

By Esther Quintero

Esther Quintero is a senior research fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute. This post first appeared on the Shanker Blog.

We know oral language is young children’s door into the world of knowledge and ideas, the foundation for reading, and the bedrock of all academic learning. But, can language also protect young kids against behavioral problems?

A number of studies have identified a co-occurrence of language delays and behavioral maladjustment, an association that remains after controlling for socio-demographic characteristics and academic achievement (here and here). However, most research on the issue has been cross-sectional and correlational making it hard to establish whether behavioral issues cause language delays, language delays cause behavioral issues, or another factor is responsible for both.

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Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

recent paper by Marc Bornstein, Chun-Shin Hahn, and Joan Suwalsky (2013) was able to shed some light on these questions concluding that “language competencies in early childhood keep behavioral adjustment problems at bay.” This is important given the fact that minority children raised in poverty tend to have smaller than average vocabularies and are also overrepresented in pre-K expulsions and suspensions.

Bornstein, Hahn, and Suwalsky examined several competing explanations using path analysis, a statistical method used to determine whether or not a data set fits well with a previously specified causal model. Path analysis is not intended to prove a causal relationship (although it can disprove one), but it illuminates chains of influence (or the sequence in which several dependent variables may shape a dependent measure).

The study analyzed two longitudinal cohorts of children looking at developmental pathways between children’s language skills and their behavioral adjustment in terms of internalizing (e.g., withdrawal, anxiety, self-consciousness, shyness) and externalizing (e.g., defiance, impulsivity, disruptiveness, aggression) behavior problems. The authors found strong evidence that weak early childhood language skills can predict later internalizing behavior problems.

The general cascading pattern observed in both cohorts indicated that language proficiency in early childhood affected behavioral adjustment in late childhood, which in turn contributed to behavioral adjustment in early adolescence. Framed in the positive, young children who are more competent verbally have fewer internalizing behavior problems later.

Links between language skills and behavior issues were documented, even after controlling for broad individual and family characteristics (i.e. poverty, nonverbal intelligence, aspects of mothers’ and children’s environments).

Importantly, “internalizing and externalizing behavior problems never predicted language.” The latter is interesting because we often talk about how children’s social-emotional development prepares them to be “ready to learn.” These findings, however, suggest that learning itself – i.e., oral language development – helps to strengthen young children’s socio-emotional development.

“But what is it about language that keeps some behavioral adjustment problems at bay?” – the authors ask.

Language is multidimensional, with receptive and expressive phonological, semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic components. We do not know exactly which language competencies or what about language competencies in early childhood keep behavioral adjustment problems at bay. This is a question for future research.

Finally, some of the study’s limitations: (1) a small sample size; (2) some generalizability concerns due to the characteristics of the sample and; (3) the possibility that relevant child characteristics (such as temperament) were not considered by the models.

The study is important because it suggests that “programs aimed at improving child language may also promote their psychological wellbeing” and that “an early focus on language may therefore yield a high return on investment in strategically timed and targeted interventions designed to ameliorate or obviate behavioral problems.”

Testing: From the Mouths of Babes

by Lisa Hansel
May 8th, 2014

“No one learns from state tests. It’s testing what you know. You’re not learning anything from it.”

 —12th grader

“I like math or spelling tests better [than state accountability tests] because you can study for them. For the [state accountability tests], I wonder what will be on them this time.”

 —5th grader

“I like pre- and post-tests because you get to see the progress you’ve made.”

—4th grader

Is it just me, or do these kids know a whole lot more about assessment and increasing educational achievement than most state and national policymakers? Far too many policymakers seem to have lost sight of the most important goal of assessment and accountability: increasing learning. They seem stuck on accountability for the sake of accountability, unwilling to ask whether assessment dollars could be used more effectively.

I’m not against accountability—and I think assessment is necessary—but I am for allocating time and money in the most effective ways. So I find these students’ thoughts, and the new study in which they appear, pretty compelling. The study is Make Assessment Matter, by the Northwest Evaluation Association in cooperation with Grunwald Associates LLC. It explores students’ (4th – 12th graders), teachers’, and administrators’ views on all sorts of testing—from classroom quizzes to state accountability tests. Conclusion: “There is an urgency felt on the part of students, teachers and district administrators to emphasize assessment for learning rather than for accountability. The overwhelming preference for all parties is that assessment results be used to inform learning.” Sadly, today’s state tests not only don’t inform learning, they seem to be impeding it: “teachers (70 percent) and district administrators (55 percent) … [say] that the focus on state accountability tests takes too much time away from learning.”

Think about the weeks that are lost to state accountability tests each year as you absorb these key findings:

On the one hand, the vast majority of students, boys and girls, say they try hard on most tests and care about doing well on tests, among other findings that indicate how seriously they take tests and learning. On the other hand, some boys (46 percent) and girls (39 percent) say that tests are a waste of time.

It’s clear that students feel that certain kinds of tests are not very relevant to their learning, and so it’s not surprising to hear some students identify tests as a waste of time. In tandem with other findings, the message is clear: students want high-quality, engaging assessments that are tightly connected to learning….

Like students, teachers and district administrators would prefer to focus on tests that inform student learning. Most teachers (54 percent), and the vast majority of district administrators (89 percent), say that the ideal focus of assessments should be frequently tracking student performance and providing daily or weekly feedback in the classroom. This sentiment tracks with students’ attitudes about tests. Students express overwhelming agreement that tests are important for helping them and their teachers know if they are making progress in their learning and for understanding what they are learning.

Teachers say that teacher-developed classroom tests, performance tasks and formative assessment practice work best for supporting student learning in their classrooms, while state accountability tests are the least effective.

For an assessment to matter, it has to be directly tied to what is being studied in the classroom. For students to care about it, they need to be able to study for it and use the results in meaningful ways.

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Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

That sounds perfectly reasonable to me. So, what are the logical implications for states? I see two options. One is to use Advanced Placement as a model: create detailed, content-specific courses and develop tests that only assess material in the course. I know it’s unheard of in state accountability testing, but I am actually being so crazy as to say that states should test students on the topics, books, people, ideas, events, etc. that they have been taught.

If state policymakers can’t stomach the idea of specifying the content to teach and test—if they can’t honor students’ desire to be tested in ways that inform learning—then they must honor students’ desire to not have their time wasted: make the tests zero stakes with zero test prep (like NAEP). Any test that is not tied to the specific content being studied in the classroom is a test of general knowledge and skills. Such a test can provide an informative snapshot of students’ and schools’ relative performance (and thus which schools and communities are in need of added supports). It can’t, however, indicate how any one student acquired her knowledge and skills (could be the teacher, the tutor that mom hired in October, the soccer coach who demands higher grades, the new librarian in town, finally being given eyeglasses, etc.). And therefore it can’t offer any precise indication of either teacher quality or how the student could improve. If a state wants to give a test that measures general abilities and provides nothing more than a snapshot and a trend line, that’s fine—provided the stakes and the prep time are minimized.

My preference, obviously, is for option one—especially if states would have the good sense to involve hundreds of educators in developing the specific content to be taught and assessed. Not only would the state-controlled, culminating test be useful for learning, in preparing for it teachers could use effective practices like frequent quizzing on essential content.

 

Making the Most of Kids’ “Why?” Phase

by Lisa Hansel
April 16th, 2014

“If you finish your peas, I’ll tell you why the sky is blue.”

“If you put your toys in the bin, I’ll explain why kangaroos have pouches.”

“If you brush your teeth, I’ll tell you why some Native Americans used to move frequently instead of building permanent homes.”

Win-win. Sounds too great to be true—but it might not be. A recent study finds that young children will voluntarily do a boring task if they are rewarded with “causally rich knowledge.”

Perhaps this should not come as a surprise. Young children are delightfully infamous for asking why over and over. Long ago, a walk along a river bank with one of my nieces became downright existential within 20 minutes. The sun, the moon, the water, the frogs, the people—why do they shine, sparkle, jump, talk … why are we all here…. I answered as best I could, took mental notes on books to buy, picked one topic to research together when we got home, and suggested we make dandelion bracelets.

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Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

 

Even if you’re not surprised by the main finding, this study is still worth a quick read. Why? (Sorry, couldn’t resist that.) Because the researchers tease out exactly what is motivating the three- and four-year-olds to persist with the boring task (putting 25 pegs in a peg board). The four conditions tested—no reward, stickers, causally rich information, and causally weak information—offer some interesting nuances. Stickers worked, of course, but not as well as you might guess. Being rewarded with causally rich knowledge was the only condition that significantly increased children’s persistence. (I’m dreaming of this headline: Sticker Sales Plummet: Teachers Say Rewarding Curiosity Is More Powerful than Gold Stars.)

Strikingly, causally weak information had no effect—the results were the same as in the no reward condition. Motivation came specifically from being told why—not merely being told that. To ensure that causal richness was the only distinguishing factor in the two knowledge conditions, the researchers created images of several animals and artifacts to show to the children and then carefully crafted descriptions. Here are two of the items invented for the study:

Knoweldge Reward

We shouldn’t ever make too much of one study, but this one does give teachers and caregivers some ideas to play with harmlessly. If you can get in the habit of focusing on causation while presenting information, you just might have a powerful tool. Among potential benefits, the researchers note that causally rich information might be useful as a reward for necessary-but-not-so-interesting tasks like “practicing penmanship or math facts” (of course, this study would have to be repeated to see if older children perceive such information as a reward). And, using information as a reward may help avoid the detriments to internal motivation that can arise with tangible rewards.

Stop Spinning Wheels, Start Spinning Webs

by Lisa Hansel
April 3rd, 2014

Last week I quoted a great piece by Annie Murphy Paul on the importance of analogies (and, by extension, broad knowledge for making analogies) for innovation. That piece left me thinking about one of my favorite analogies for what knowledge does for our ability to learn. Knowledge is like a spider’s web—the bigger your web (i.e., the more knowledge you have), the more new knowledge sticks to it. Credit here goes to Jessica Lahey, so I’ll gladly let her explain:

Remember when you were in high school or college, in that class where nothing seemed to stick? No matter how much you studied? For me, those classes were Indo-Iranian Mythology and Greek and Roman Mythology. I was overworked (long, not particularly interesting story), exhausted, and frustrated by my inability to keep it all in my head. I did not have enough of a knowledge base to be able to link the stories of Hera’s jealousy to Hercules’ labors to what it might mean if Atlas shrugged. These stories are all linked, and knowing one story helps me remember another because the details of those stories form a sticky net, like a spider web. Once I have accumulated enough threads of knowledge, my net is fine enough to catch the new fragments of knowledge that came drifting by.

And that’s when the magic begins. That’s when connections across subjects begin to happen, when a reading of Great Expectations can evolve into a discussion of the Victorian Era, Frankenstein, Icarus, the tower of Babel, and Prometheus unbound.

Of course, as Lahey knows well, we all start building our webs long before college. The more opportunities we have to learn, the bigger, stickier, and finer our webs will be. Lahey is making sure her children—and students—build webs that even a Darwin’s bark spider would be proud of:

My youngest son, Finnegan, is in third grade, at my Core Knowledge school. Three times a week, he leaves the comfort of his classroom and attends a bona fide history class. Not “social studies,” but capitol-H History class. Content. History. Facts.

This month, he’s learning about the Vikings and Rome, Leif Erickson and Julius Caesar. When he gets to fifth grade and Dr. Freeberg’s reading of The Odyssey, he will have a context for the journey of the hero, lust for power, and land, and exploration. This might evolve in to discussions of Napoleon, colonialism, and slavery. In sixth grade, when I finally get my pedagogical talons in him, his web will be sticky enough to hold on to Julius Caesar, the geography of the Roman Empire, the literal and figurative meaning of “alea iacta est” and the controversy surrounding the quote “Et tu, Brute?”

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Spider web at sunrise courtesy of Shutterstock.

Now, a new study, published in the April issue of Cognition, shows the early stages of web building. By 19 months, babies are already starting to use what they have learned to acquire new vocabulary. While the Cognition article is well worth purchasing, the summary by Northwest University’s news team offers a good overview:

Even before infants begin to talk in sentences, they are paying careful attention to the way a new word is used in conversations, and they learn new words from this information in sentences.

For example, if you take an infant to the zoo and say, “Look at the gorilla” while pointing at the cage, the infant may not know what exactly is being referred to. However, if you say, “Look! The gorilla is eating,” the infant can use the word that they do know—“eating”—to conclude that “gorilla” must refer to the animal and not, for example, the swing she is sitting on.

The zoo scenario mirrors the method the researchers used for their experiment. First, infants at ages 15 and 19 months were shown several pairs of pictures on a large screen. Each pair included one new kind of animal and a non-living object. Next, the objects disappeared from view and infants overheard a conversation that included a new word, “blick.” Finally, the two objects re-appeared, and infants heard, for example, “Look at the blick.”

“After overhearing this new word in conversation, infants who hear a helpful sentence such as ‘the blick is eating’ should look more towards the animal than the other, non-living object,” said Brock Ferguson, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Northwestern and lead author of the study. “We show that by 19 months, they do just that. In contrast, if infants heard the new word in an unhelpful sentence such as ‘the blick is over here’ during the conversation, they don’t focus specifically on the animal because, after all, in this kind of sentence, ‘blick’ could mean anything.”…

“What’s remarkable is that infants learned so much from hearing the conversation alone,” said Sandra Waxman, senior author of the study, the Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern. “This shows how attuned even very young infants are to the conversation around them. It also shows how well infants build upon what they do know to build their vocabulary.”

Between research like this, initiatives like Too Small to Fail, and advances like the Common Core standards calling for “content-rich curriculum,” perhaps eventually we’ll have a society in which all children have excellent opportunities to build their webs.

 

Stifling Innovation

by Lisa Hansel
March 28th, 2014

Here and there throughout March I’ve been reading the Partnership for 21st Century Skills’ “P21 BLOGAZINE,” a blog with a magazine-style approach in which the editor, Jim Bellanca, picks themes and invites authors to contribute relevant posts. In March, the theme has been creativity and innovation. While there were some points I agree with—particularly a concern that an over-emphasis on testing and the resulting narrowing of the curriculum will hinder creativity—there was much to question—particularly whether the child-directed, inquiry-driven approach that the authors favored would increase creativity.

For example, after the obligatory homages to Vygotsky and Dewey, there was the usual:

If our goal as educators is to develop a creatively skilled child, then inquiry-guided instruction that fosters imagination, emotional intensity, and curiosity should be infused into the curriculum. Our world is becoming increasingly complex, and therefore the need to teach students how to think and how to use their creative juices to address change must be a priority for our society. Teaching creative imagination should be a key component of 21st century learning.

There was also a more (let’s be polite and call it) creative formulation:

To prepare global, creative, and entrepreneurial talents, that is, everyone in the future, education should at first not harm any child who aspires to do so or suppress their curiosity, imagination, and desire to be different by imposing upon him or her contents and skills judged to be good for him or her by an external agency and thus depriving of the opportunities to explore and express on their own. In other words, we should at least allow Lady Gaga and the likes to exist without punishing them or locking them up in a classroom in the name of helping them to become successful. The most desirable education, of course, is one that enhances human curiosity and creativity, encourages risk-taking, and cultivates the entrepreneurial spirit in the context of globalization.

There were also statements, like this one, that left me perplexed:

Neuroscience research has found creative thinking to be a whole-brain activity leading us to understand that neural responses to creative endeavors can originate anywhere in the brain. The strength of the neural impulses actively transforms thinking and focus; otherwise, a person is just dreaming. These stronger impulses can lead students to persevere and to take educated risks.

Overall, there was very little sense that creativity has anything to do with knowledge or studying works of lasting beauty or building expertise through perspiration (that might be rewarded with inspiration). Although I had been planning to write a bit about how knowledge contributes to creativity and innovation, I’m happy to say that Annie Murphy Paul has done it for me—and done it better than I would have.

Paul was recently a keynote speaker at the Sandbox Summit, where the theme was “Innovation By Design.” The title of her blog post based on her talk, “The Key To Innovation: Making Smart Analogies,” pretty much says it all. There are no analogies without knowledge—and the broader and deeper one’s knowledge, the smarter one’s analogies will be.

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More knowledge, better analogies, brighter ideas (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

First, Paul takes care of widespread misconceptions:

There’s a popular notion that innovation arrives like a bolt out of the blue, as a radical departure from previous knowledge—when really, most new ideas are extensions, twists, variations on what’s come before. The skill of generating innovations is largely the skill of putting old things together in a new way, or looking at a familiar idea from a novel perspective, or using what we know already to understand something new.

Then she turns to the power of analogies:

In their book Mental Leaps: Analogy in Creative Thought, cognitive scientists Keith Holyoak and Paul Thagard point out how many intellectual advances through the ages have been built upon analogies:

The first-century Roman architect Vitruvius compared the sound of actors’ voices in an amphitheater to the movement of water in a pool, the first of many thinkers to compare sound waves to water waves.

The seventeenth-century scientist William Gilbert compared the earth to a magnet, advancing knowledge of the earth’s gravitational force.

The eighteenth-century chemist Antoine Lavoisier compared respiration to combustion, clarifying how breathing turns oxygen into carbon dioxide.

Even the great nineteenth-century biologist, Charles Darwin, built his theory of evolution on an analogy between artificial selection—the deliberate mating of animals by breeders—to the natural selection that goes on in the wild.

Finally, Paul explores the keys to using analogies well, including knowing when to set them aside. Are exploration and inquiry part of the process? Absolutely. But are classrooms and knowledge-building curricula stifling innovation? Absolutely not. Quite the contrary: knowledge prevents wasting resources on reinventing the wheel and enables productive, innovative connections to be drawn.