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. 






Meet Students Where They Are…And When They’re Ready

by Robert Pondiscio
January 25th, 2012

President Obama used his State of the Union address last night to propose requiring students to stay in high school until they either graduate or turn 18.  “We know that when students aren’t allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma,” he said.

Perhaps so, but let’s be honest:  what’s the value of a diploma that is conferred by coercion?  And where’s the win in forcing kids to stay in “dropout factory” schools against their will and where they get seat time and nothing of use or relevance?

Listening to the President, I was reminded of an idea floated by Michael Goldstein, founder of Boston’s MATCH Charter school a few years back.  In an email to the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews, Goldstein suggested that if kids are bound and determined to drop out, we should let them leave—and set aside the money saved as a kind of education IRA.  The funds would be waiting for the dropouts if or when they woke up to the benefit of further education or training.  In Goldstein’s view, a little taste of the dead-end life of a dropout would be a more powerful inducement to get an education than the exhortations of any teacher.

Here’s what Mike wrote in 2008:

“At first, for a Jonathan Lewis, nobody bugs you to get up in the morning. . . . You like it, freedom. After a few months, you realize you’re a loser, other people are going places but not you. You maybe get a job and it’s a boring security job at $8/hour. And, maybe by age 20, or 26, or whatever, some maturity. THEN a Jonathan Lewis can start over. He can use the set-aside money from the years of high school he missed for GED tutoring or perhaps special charter high schools set up for older students, then college or other higher ed. But he controls the money; he’s essentially buying the service. Other options could spring up. Maybe even [in] the junior/senior year, $30,000 could be given to the military, which could set up programs where a high school dropout could attend a military-run boot camp, get a degree, then enlist”

Goldstein correctly observed at the time that at present lots of kids merely go through the motions “but resist every effort to learn.”  Even if “Jonathan” manages to graduate, “he’s still a kid with very low academic skills. The win is not much of a win,” he wrote. “The option should be ‘Graduate from a high school which features only rigorous classes’ or ‘Bank the money we want to invest in your education and do your own thing for a while,’” Goldstein concluded.

I emailed Mike this morning to ask if hindsight and the President’s desire to raise the bar on compulsory education has altered his thinking at all. Nope. “I still like my idea more than President Obama’s,” he replied.  “I think it’s win-win-win for kids, teachers, and society.”  Finland only requires kids to stick around until 16 (“I thought everyone wants to copy Finland!” he writes).  More to the point, Goldstein cites a Rennie Center study that uncovered “little research to support the effectiveness of compulsory attendance laws” in decreasing the number of dropouts or increasing the graduation rate.

Most critically, Goldstein’s idea does not write off dropouts. Rather it “holds constant the amount of education that someone receives.”  Is it sometimes appropriate to delay spending on a resistant student at age 17 or 18, and instead spend on that same person a few years down the road?  Goldstein believes it is.

“Interesting that President Obama also called for government supported job training.  My proposal essentially self-funds a certain amount of job training for the least employable people.  It simply shifts a 17 year old from sitting in a required 11th grade history class in Raleigh where he is totally ignoring the teacher and possibly distracting other kids, to that same human being as a 22-year-old who might be sitting in a chosen community college class getting training on a technical job with Siemens with the same public dollars.”

Veteran teachers know that there is a subset of teenagers who simply do not want to be there, regardless of how hard their teachers work or how engaging their lessons might be.  Raising the compulsory age, like so many ideas in education, effectively translates to “work harder” and “engage more kids.”  By contrast, Goldstein’s idea makes good, intuitive sense.

A standard classroom homily is “Meet the students where they are.” To that we might add: “And when they are ready.”