Monday, December 28, 2015

Planning Assessments

I’m going to break down the way in which I devise formative assessments to determine whether my students are meeting a learning objective I have defined. The course I will be teaching is college-level History of Christianity and the students are prison inmates in a community ministry program.

The objective is: Identify the relevant characteristics of a new independent group (Protestant denomination) that formed as a result of decisive differences with the mother church. By formative assessment, I mean bite-sized opportunities to grasp how well the students understand the material we’re covering while we’re covering it.

The formative assessments I will use are:
  • Assess an ‘opening thoughts’ writing assignment: at the start of the class, the students will write on a card, what they found interesting or relevant in the reading. I will collect the cards and use them as the basis for a brief discussion of several of the points raised, asking the contributor to elaborate, and then another student to suggest what they’d add or revise about what’s been said. This will help me tune the lesson to areas that actually matter to these students, who could use affirmation and anything that would bolster their motivation.
  • Ask questions of students throughout the open-book discussion: I’ll have a series of discussion points which I’ll introduce as questions to both engage students and help me gauge the level of understanding in the room.
  • Assess an in-class ‘very short essay’ writing assignment: realistically, my evaluation wouldn’t happen until after the class. This exercise, early in the term, is designed to help me understand where each student is in terms of writing and analytical capability, in advance of the first major writing assignment.
  • Revisit the key topics with a series of quick questions at the end of class: for those topics that will appear later on a summative assessment (an exam), I’ll ask for definitions or a quick explanation of their significance. This will help the students to grasp what “big idea” really matter in this course.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Applying Standards

I just completed a series of activities unpacking a standard, backwards mapping, and writing objectives. The logic of this sequence is very clear to me, and I am fully bought into it. Whatever complaints are voiced about Common Core in the public sphere, I now, through completing this exercise, have a full appreciation of standards-based teaching and learning. I think the bellyaching comes out of ignorance – people don’t understand what standards are about, and assume Common Core is dictating content.

Anyway, I find the process gets more difficult as you progress through it. The starting point, unpacking a standard, is a pretty simple exercise, in my view. But that’s not to understate its importance. What I found was that a well-written standard is a very powerful, highly compact distillation and call to action. If it is not that, it needs a rewrite. If it is, it provides the rationale for teacher and student to be in the classroom.

Backwards mapping, in which you define and design proficiencies, assessments, and learning experiences to fulfill the standard, was also pretty clear sailing. If you know the material, it’s a fulfilling imaginative exercise to plug in content and activities that have the effect of building up student knowledge and capability to achieve the standard. 

Where I got into difficulty was in defining SMART objectives to promote student learning related to a standard, in two respects. Using a college-level course made it difficult. I think if I had used a Common Core standard would have been an easier exercise. One problem was that the standard I chose was very content-oriented, and very high-level stuff (“be able to recognize how Christianity’s internal struggles have impacted the church”). I mean, to demonstrate achievement of that, you’ve pretty much had to progress through the whole course. And college-level teaching to adults is just going to have fewer touch points with individual students than K-12. So the examples I gave seemed a bit strained – I tried to consistently deal with factional division of the church, and perhaps I was being overly specific and too high-level. I don’t know.

And some of the SMART objectives I found hard to meaningfully define for the activities I created. In particular, I found “Attainable” pretty confounding, and “Targeted/Timely” got a pretty generic definition in most cases. While I’m glad I’m getting the chance to develop my curriculum plans for this course in this way, it’s probably not the easiest starting point for me to master the pedagogica concepts.

Standards and Backward Mapping

The following is an exercise in which I describe some components intended to achieve a standard for a college-level course I'll be teaching to prison inmates starting in January. The course is History of Christianity II: Reformation to the Present. Specifically, we'll look at several proficiencies, assessments, and learning experiences designed to fulfill the standard.

The standard is:
  • "be able to recognize how Christianity’s internal struggles have impacted the church." 
You can learn more about the standard here

Here are three proficiencies that students should achieve to meet this standard:
  • Identify the two main perspectives on any divisive issue around which a group formed in opposition to the prevailing orthodox view (example: the appropriate age for baptism in the sixteenth century)
  • Identify a new independent grouping that formed as a result of these differences
  • Express in written or verbal form an understanding of the significance a breakaway sect or denomination
Here are three assessments that will indicate that students have met the standard:
  • A one-page reflection paper on how a specific historical instance of factional division within the church had a long-term effect or legacy
  • A series of questions on the mid-term exam that probe specific knowledge of important instances of sectarian formation
  • Observation of student answers and engagement during class discussions which address the existence of opposition from within the church to some aspect of the subject under consideration (there are many instances)
And here are three learning experiences or activities that will help students develop the knowledge and skills to meet the standard:
  • An in-class reading and discussion of a primary document such as a section of a formally adopted confession of faith addressing an issue on which groups split irreconcilably
  • An in-class “Socratic Dialogue” in which we seek to arrive at a consensus answer to a question around which historical divisions were apparent, such as the appropriate age for baptism.
  • An in-class debate between students representing the views of specific historical leaders, one side from the church hierarchy and the other spearheading a breakaway grouping.
The preceding has been an example of how to develop course plans by working backwards from the standard, which should have the effect of focusing greater attention on the purpose of any activity and enabling us to better judge its efficacy in achieving its intended goals.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Applying Classroom Rules and Procedures

Providing positive reinforcement to students who are following class rules and procedures, and consequences to students who are not, is essential to creating a well-functioning learning environment. It begins with setting the tone and the expectations from the outset, with well-defined rules preferably reinforced by collaboration and agreement by the students in the rule-making. From there, it’s a matter of well-tuned awareness and consistent and immediate application of responses to behavior observed in the classroom. Setting up the expectation that behavior will not go unnoticed, un-commented on, un-reacted to puts the students in the position of unambiguous responsibility for their own destiny, which is ultimately empowering.

Things will come up. Most dramatically, the teacher’s conduct seeks to prevent these things from spinning out of control. But it’s also just about knowing what’s going on, such as picking up on what kids are bringing into the classroom from outside, and knowing what responses are effective. I see my ideal default state as being that I act in a state of withitness: occupying the whole room; observing proactively; reacting with cues both verbal and nonverbal, directed at acknowledging what I’m seeing and steering it back to a reasonably level state.

When a student is deserving of positive feedback…
I’ll offer direct, private acknowledgment. Even as the class proceeds, I’ll seek to provide a nonverbal cue or a quiet word with that student, without drawing attention to the exchange.

I may look to give rewards, which may be symbolic gestures or material goods, but I expect to operate more in the territory of added privileges or choices.

I will endeavor to call or email home regularly to acknowledge the good things I’m seeing.

When a student’s behavior needs to be reined in…

At times, I may let the student express their frustration (to me or the group), if that allows the emotion to “drain off.” For this to be effective, the student needs to get right back on task after that release is allowed.

I’ll use humor, which can ease the reasons for anxiety and reinforce my leadership/control. It’s important that my humor not convey a sarcastic tone.

If the whole class is starting to grow restless, I’d be inclined to divert and re-direct into an activity that re-focuses their interest and attention. I’d want to do that in a way that isn’t obvious to them, or show an obvious pattern of doing so.

I’ll say “no” when that’s what needs to be heard. A responsible adult creating boundaries can be reassuring. Consequences encourage responsible decision-making.

More than anything, I’ll be sympathetic. That cannot solve every situation, but it can create the conditions that make for fewer such situations. I’ll encourage students, and “catch the child doing something good.” I’ll remember to highlight positive gains by pointing to concrete examples of their praiseworthy work or accomplishment, as opposed to offering personal praise, which can be hard or awkward to receive.

What’s most essential is the actions a teacher can take in the moment, proactively, exerting a kind of compassionate control, and offering both positive and negative reinforcement so that the students can see before them something to strive for, reasons to want what good behavior and performance can bring them. I know that achieving consistent, effective engagement in this way is an area of learning for me. But the value of it is such is that, for the benefit of oneself as well as one’s students, one would not want to operate in the classroom without it.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Teacher methods to support high student performance

I'm going to consider here how a teacher’s expectations can either support or curb high student performance, using three real-life videos: In one, a 5th/6th grade STEM class, the students construct roller coasters to meet certain engineering requirements, with limited resources and a high level of teamwork. In another, third-graders learn math in Chinese, following the repetitive instruction methods popular in China. In a third, a high school class is led in their studies by a teacher using the Whole Brain Teaching methods.

I see in these three examples a pretty clear progression from higher to lower teacher expectations of student performance, and also some philosophical differences about how effective learning takes place.

It’s hard to find fault with the roller coasters example. The teacher expects, even demands high performance from the students, in that they must work together in quite a sophisticated manner to complete the project successfully. She has a clear methodology, even a worldview, about generating high student performance. This is visible in norms and procedures like the autonomous learning and valuing of student ideas in “chiming,” when students share their challenges and respond, without the teacher’s involvement; doing individual engineering sketches, then “selling” their ideas to others, then having to create a group sketch; adding in constraints that require tricky problem solving, particularly limiting materials, which must be “bought” with a budget; and requiring defined roles that match learning styles to students’ individual strengths in the jobs they choose, such as recorder to capture ideas, and accountant to manage the finances.

The whole approach is summed up in the teacher’s statement that a key is to see students welcoming problems, which signals that they are creating lifelong problem-solvers.

All of this responsibility assumes excellent student behavior, which is in fact visible in the video. I expect that much of this agreeable behavior is “inherited” by this teacher from prior enriching school, home, and community environments; we see here a student body that appears to be pretty uniformly white, with subtle signals of privilege.

The Chinese-language math class is quite a different scenario. When I first watched it, the methods were a bit impenetrable to me, yet the teacher seemed to be acting as wizard, prompting all the students to follow along in boisterously reciting their figures. An understanding of standard Chinese methods of math instruction helps explain what is happening. Quoting from The Conversation’s Explainer: what makes Chinese maths lessons so good?:

In order to understand multiplication, pupils have to memorise the multiplication rhyme: “four times eight is 32, five times eight is 40” and so on, which was invented by ancient Chinese scholars 2,200 years ago. The cultural traditions of Chinese maths education lead people to believe that routine practice is the most efficient way to learn.

So this is rote learning with a great deal of repetition. But there’s more: you also see all the students repeating their answers together in an enthusiastic, compliant, and skilled manner. You can imagine the student who doesn’t know the answer able to recite it anyway, just by going along with what the others are saying. Again quoting The Conversation:

China uses whole-class instruction, engaging all students in the material and prompting feedback. This is different to the UK model teaching of maths, which is more focused on small groups and individual attention.

I could imagine that in this way a high overall level of math proficiency is attained, as results in China attest. One might suppose that in China, the highest achievers would be less challenged, though the societal focus on math would seem to allow them many other avenues to take them further.

Here, though, we are observing an American class, largely African-American, in Chinese-language immersion, and I would think that this method is doubly valuable, as it also does a good job of instilling language learning. One might argue that the Chinese system produces a blend of high academic expectation with perhaps low expectations of student behavior (as individual expression is buried) that are just neatly circumvented with rigidly repetitive norms and procedures. But I think that when transposed into this US context, the virtues are quite clear. Behavior expectations are being instilled in an early grade at the same time that math and language skills are being effectively drilled in. In my perfect school, by the time these students get to 5th and 6th grade, they are emerging into classes more in the style exemplified in the roller coaster example.

And that brings us to the third example, Whole Brain Teaching. Here we see an entirely African-American high school class being led with gusto in a collection of attention-focusing methods, often using their bodies, with arms in motion following repetitive motions, accompanied by a kind of sing-song vocal repetition of the teacher’s words. The students are attentive and engaged while having fun, but let’s be honest: the basic content the teacher is providing makes it clear that these students are operating at an academic level below that of the roller coaster 6th graders.

So what is going on here? A review of the Whole Brain Teaching website shows a lot of techniques for turning around difficult class environments, with unruly, distracted and distracting kids, by capturing their attention and holding it using methods that have been shown to effectively make use of the human brain’s tendencies to focus and lose focus. Here are a couple of examples:

Whenever you want your students to pay close attention to an important point, say, "Hands and eyes!"  Your students respond, "hands and eyes!," fold their hands and stare at you intensely…. 

To get my classes’ attention I simply say ‘Class!’ and then they reply ‘Yes!’. Next is the catch, the hook that makes this fun, and gets them invested in it in a way that has them looking at me and grinning rather than continuing their conversations.

When I say ‘Class!’ and they say ‘Yes!’ they have to say it the way I said it. If I say ‘Classity-class-class!’ they have to say ‘Yessity-yes-yes!’. If I say it loudly, they have to respond loudly. If I whisper, they respond in a whisper. They have to match my tone and intensity.
Why is the Class-Yes, in terms of brain structure, so effective?  The neo-cortex, the part of your brain behind your forehead, controls, among other things, decision making.  Think of the neo-cortex as an executive, organizing other brain areas for complex tasks.  When the teacher says, "Class!" and students respond "Yes!," you have, in effect focused your students' neo-cortices on what you're going to say next.

To employ these methods is to impose a strong set of norms and expectations. I can see how having mastery of some of these techniques would be very useful in any classroom, when you’re needing to decisively refocus attention.

At the same time, the starting question – “How do you get cooperation from your class?” – assumes the worst. It’s a management technique for pulling a class out of a state of mass-ADD-like chaos. Hey, this is the reality is some schools. These techniques are needed. And the method does involve a series of escalating expectations over the course of a school year. So, one really hopes that this is a path to a better normal, in which higher expectations can be introduced. And yet – the  imposition of these techniques imposes low expectations from the start, it seems to  me. How do students in such a class really progress out of that? In the case of these high school students, I regret to say, it’s at a rather late grade to have any expectation that they’re going to be presented with higher expectations before they graduate.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Academic expectations of teachers, schools, and parent in the US

Let’s consider the academic expectations of teachers, schools, and parents. I hope to teach internationally, but not knowing where that path might take me, I’m going to report on the United States.

The US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2011 report for 4th and 8th grade math and science proficiency ranks the US within OECD countries. The report shows that for 4th grade math, US student performance is very solid, above all countries except the several chart-busting leaders in east Asia. By 8th grade, the US results drop a bit, but still position the cohort of US students as a strong leader internationally. There is a persistent racial disparity within these results, with African American and Latino students underperforming. The results are very similar for science learning.

The OECD’s 2012 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) report, the premier international benchmark for ranking of 15-year-old student achievement in reading, mathematics, science and problem-solving within OECD countries, puts the United States slightly below the middle of the pack in all subjects, with a lower-than-average mean score and a higher share of low achievers. The US is in just about the same position with respect to students’ engagement, drive and self-beliefs. You could say that by the middle of high school our students and schools are striving for middling performance.

So as US students progress into high school, their overall performance in math and science slumps rather badly relative to their achievements at earlier grades. I sought to find out why. The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research April 2014 Research Brief Free to Fail or On-Track to College: Why Grades Drop When Students Enter High School and What Adults Can Do About It focuses on the distinct fact that attendance and study habits decline from eighth to ninth grade. Its conclusions are: declines in academic effort explain the decline in grades; less adult monitoring at school makes it possible for students to reduce effort; and school and teacher practices make a difference in the course grades ninth-graders receive, even among students with similar prior performance. They say:

[S]tudents’ grades are strongly affected by their high school context, as well as by their ex­periences in individual classrooms with individual teachers. The ways that teachers and schools monitor students and provide instructional support may help to explain these differences.

They also argue that teacher support can sustain student effort and grades, finding that pass rates, grades, and student attendance are better at schools and classrooms where students report high levels of student-teacher trust and teacher support. They define teacher academic support as clear explanations, regular updates on progress, and help with specific academic problems.

Finally, they assert that school structures can prevent declining academic behaviors, meaning that school policies can promote effective monitor­ing and support of academic behaviors, beyond the efforts provided by individual teachers.

Obviously, there are other factors that affect how any school or teacher strives for performance, and there are two that I think are worth mentioning here. First, that US teachers' salaries relative to per capita GDP, which correlates fairly well with student academic performance, is somewhat below the middle of the OECD nations’ pack. A formula for increasing success would ideally involve moving the pay scale up significantly.

My own view, in line with these findings, is that it is very important that a teacher sets high academic and behavioral expectations for students. And while everything “the system” (including the school culture, the school administration, the parents, the community’s standards and funding, the state and national educational policies) does certainly greatly influences the teacher’s response to this challenge, the teacher has decisive actions to take. If he/she cannot find herself sufficiently supported to prioritize his/her own unique daily role in setting the context for high performance, then he/she would be better off finding another job and letting the community figure out what more they need to do.

And yet… “the system” in the US allows some communities to languish with far less enriching support than others. This leads to my second factor, that greater equity in the allocation of educational resources (between richer and poorer communities) also correlates fairly well with overall academic performance, and in this respect the US is well towards the low end of the scale in international comparisons. So, sadly, the schools that need this kind of smart teacher involvement in expectations and outcomes most are the ones least able to hold onto teachers who can deliver.

This certainly accords with my personal observations. I see in front of me private schools and public schools, and while most of the private schools I see really understand these points and nourish the teacher’s capacity to cater to high performance, for the public schools it’s all about the school district’s wealth demographics and resulting application of resources. Right within minutes of where I live, I can point to prosperous school districts that do really well for their students, and poor districts that have a mighty struggle on their hands every school day.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Establishing a Positive Classroom Climate

I wouldn’t be getting into teaching if I didn’t highly value caring for others as an aspect of the work I do. I like the ethical guidance that says that our task is basically to heal the world, and I see that assignment primarily as involving helping those around you to flourish (having first taken care of yourself). I got tired of work that has me almost exclusively in front of a computer. I wanted a new career working more with people, and I’m very motivated by imparting knowledge/insight/meaning. And I also wanted some kind of caring role involved. Teaching fits these parts together.

The goal is to create a positive classroom climate. Now comes the interesting part. Me with a class of 20 kids, some of them challenging my control, others beating each other up emotionally just outside of my view. And suppose many of them are not from my cultural background, which is predominantly white and rural, with quite a lot of exposure to privilege. I have to admit, imposing authority hasn’t been my modus operandi in life. But I understand that it’s the necessary other half of the coin for guiding with empathy to be effective. To be trusted to resolve interpersonal problems fairly, to take care of a student in need, the students’ experience needs to be contained within a boundary of active control. The caring and concern needs to be distributed so that each student feels that he/she is an equal recipient of it.

Rules can be bent, in a sense. That is, before imposing a disciplinary rule, the teacher can pull the student aside to a one-to-one chat about what’s going on with that student. Almost certainly, if the teacher is not an out-of-touch authoritarian to begin with, the acting out is going to be more about the student’s situation than about the teacher or the class. The teacher’s task is to get some clue from the student “what’s going on.” Best to get it from the student him/herself. Then a meaningful resolution can be built around that understanding.

I was thinking of the horrible video that emerged this week of the white school cop throwing the black girl out of her seat. There’s a lot that can and should be said about that, and I’m not intending to blame the teacher, but with this topic on my mind, I’ve asked myself, what might lead up to such a situation? Ideally, the teacher would not have had to ask the cop into the classroom to intervene, right? But there’s this disruptive student, not relinquishing the cellphone in class. The things one would hope the teacher would have implemented before things got to this point include: having an agreement that the students have bought into, about no phones in class; making an effort to get to know something about each student; watching out for students who are inclined to be disruptive and focusing extra attention on them to better understand what’s triggering them; and finding a strategy to overcome their resistances.

The main idea is to show the students that they are part of creating the positive climate. It can mean involving them in defining class rules or agreements. Then, when students break these rules, they all have more of a stake in where the situation leads. And this allows the teacher’s response, if it’s more compassionate than literalistic, to be seen as restorative and intentional, rather than as reneging on applying the rules.

With respect to bullying, I like the idea of “zero indifference” – never letting disrespectful conduct go unaddressed; always naming and respond to behaviors. It’s not about punishment. It’s about making every incident of the conduct consequential, modeling concern.

Concerning bias and respecting different cultural backgrounds, the recommendations are to provide safe spaces where students are seen, valued, cared for and respected. If you show you value students’ lives and identities, and commit to avoiding and challenging stereotypes, you are creating conditions in which misunderstandings have less chance of arising or sticking.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Our digital profiles and the lifelong task of curating them

In this education future-cast I look at how a new lifelong task of curating our digital profiles, along with increasingly sophisticated employment testing, relate to identity formation and the mission of educators. It calls for authentic self-discovery of an individual’s gifts and temperament.There is a risk of cautious conformism. What if someone’s best potential is somehow related to a way of not ‘fitting in’? How can teachers help guide young people into this new world?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Students’ Use of Mobile Devices for Learning

Mobile devices (smartphones, tablets, smartwatches) might not have been around when you grew up, but they are going to be on the educational scene from now until… forever. And on balance, this is going to be a good thing.

I say that even though I’m quite cautious and skeptical about the digital world children enter into nowadays. I am dismayed when I see a five-year-old plunked down with an iPad, playing games for hours on end. As far as I’m concerned, that kid’s mind is far better served by being engaged in the world around him/herself, especially plain old leaves, dirt, sticks, grass. If that’s not available, a book to look at, an art project, building blocks. I don’t believe parents genuinely hand their kids these electronic devices to make them smarter – what they’re doing is buying some time off from minding the kid. And that’s totally understandable and okay! 

Yet… I’ve come to think that a period of ‘mindlessly’ watching TV – my own parents’ answer to the kid time-drain – is in some ways better than a tablet, especially when good videos are selected by the parents. Sure, kids’ TV is passive, and often not very enlightening. But my concern with tablets and the like is that these devices are so immersive that they are certainly shaping the brain of their young users, in ways we don’t even understand. Later on, we’ll see that the time they spend checked out of the real world and into the virtual shaped their character – in ways we don’t yet know. It’s an experiment. Young minds are malleable, and there are many ways our modern world drives a kind of distance between us as we grow up that would be alien to earlier generations. 

Okay, that’s my skepticism, and it is mostly concerned with the exposure of the youngest ages, say up until 8. But let’s consider the world of the 7th grade teacher. Pretty certain, every kid in his/her class will have put in substantial time on an interactive device – a game console, a computer, a phone, a tablet. They’re natives. It’s no good denying it; now the question becomes, how do we channel the time they’re going to spend online anyway into activities that are most beneficial, most educational for them? There are a couple of tricky parts to this: How to slip that objective in there without making it boring and easily rejected in favor of a favorite game? And how to know that the activity is beneficial? 

For the teacher, these are such crucial questions, because as soon as the kids are out of the classroom, these digital diversions immediately become their go-to activities. What we want is market share in their head space (permit me some jargon; it’s actually serious, because that’s what all the advertisers in the world are grappling for, 24/7). Building some of this digital/mobile activity into homework and classroom activity is the way to take some of that territory.

Conversely, because of their already-blossoming “addiction” to these devices, allowing the students to engage in absorbing problem-solving and learning activities on them is a surefire way to increase the students' interest in and commitment to the business the class is conducting. Don’t you suppose they’d rather work on that iPad assignment than the one that requires them to crack open a book or put pen to paper?

We should also bear in mind that the fields of authentically researched and validated project-based learning and educational gaming are coming into full renaissance now. Increasingly, researchers and developers are producing online activities that are substantially outperforming traditional means for teaching certain subjects, as measured by resulting test scores. For learning certain things, the digital game medium is just better than a great teacher in the same room. 

And there’s efficiency: as a teacher trainee, I’ve been assigned a lot of online reading, videos, and such. When I’m commuting or standing in a line, I can just pull out my phone, access my next reading assignment, and get right to it. That convenience makes me want to do it right now, because I know I’ll have to take care of it at some point, and right here and now I have some time to burn. Later, it’ll surely get in the way of whatever else I’d rather be doing. 

So, teacher, how best to seize this opportunity?

  •  Only do what is reasonably accessible to all your students. The activity must reduce the “digital divide” (by which less privileged kids get less access), not increase it. If it fails this test, don’t do it.
  • Make it project-based. Learning through projects that require problem-solving sticks far better than rote learning, and digital media can excel at this.
  • Make it game-based. A good game requires experimentation, and delivers stages of advancement and reward that propel the learner forward.
  • Test it out. You need to avoid technical hindrances that could derail an otherwise great project.
  • Go with what’s proven, and with what works for you. Rely on what’s been tried and well-reviewed; and if you have a different reaction, move on to something else.
  • Make the kids figure it out. They are your best resource for finding ways to keep the project moving forward – they are natives, after all; they enjoy the challenge; and they learn from it.
  • Go with easy. If something isn’t working, reach for the alternative. Better yet, rely on your kids to do that.
  • Make the kids help each other. Collaboration should be built into the assignment. And more advanced students should get credit for helping others who need guidance.
  • Make it measurable. There should be good ways to assess what’s been learned.

So, what’s a good mobile-based activity? Likely it will be exploratory and collaborative, and engage students’ problem-solving skills.

I recently led students in a “functional geography” activity, in which they used tablets to capture photos and audio narrations to describe particular locations and the purposes for which they’re used. Then they sent this field material in, and edited it together in a voicethread. This was a project that involved creativity, collaboration, and quite a lot of problem-solving as they worked out how to get the material onto one device, then send it to another. They learned to act fast, to find work-arounds when they hit a roadblock, to perform, and to use their devices in productive ways they’ve never encountered before.

A friend of mine has his students create a podcast about some aspect of their family history. While much of the editing might happen on a laptop, the capturing of this material is most easily done with any mobile digital device that can capture sound and send it elsewhere. And when the student needs to transcribe the interview, s/he can easily do it at home using this device, not having to wait for one of the two computers in the classroom to become available. The efficiencies these devices enable make the project more practical to achieve in a reasonable amount of time, without getting tangled up in technicalities. 

This stuff isn’t the future; it’s the present. And with a bit of inventiveness, combined with a thoughtful consideration of educational objectives, it’s going to make for better schooling.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Special Education Referrals in a Westchester School District

I spoke with the lead special education administrator of a school district in Westchester County, New York, Kristie. It was the first week of school and she was pressed for time, so one of the strong impressions the conversation left me with, in addition to her obvious professionalism, was how much specialized jargon was flowing off her tongue. Since it’s all new to me, I was scrambling to keep up as she gave me a quick introduction into how special education is a highly regulated, highly organized system with crucial accountabilities.

A student may be identified for special education referral either by the parents or by school staff, and these two paths each have their own requirements. In either case, the staff takes an individualized approach to determine what sort of supports they can build appropriate for the student.

Much of what happens in the referral process is mandated by state and federal law. For example, the Response to Interventions (RTI) spells out a clear process to follow, beginning with collecting data that would demonstrate initial eligibility. The RTI process will move the student into one of three tiers. But Kristie made clear to me that the state does not dictate how they intervene, such as what courses they provide. For example, the district has a special resource room for intake called Bridges, which is not based on any legal requirement, but is modelled on their own choices of best practices.

And this goes some way to explaining the school administration's directive for special education. The administrators make it their business to continually analyze their continuum of services, from the least restrictive, most inclusive ways available to other approaches as needed. This is a well-resourced district with the capacity to keep an eye open for innovations they can add, in a field that seems to be in a state of ongoing development, with a steady stream of new research, assistive technologies, and piloting methodologies.

If the student is “classified” as a result of the referral, s/he is then under the responsibility of the Committee on Special Education (CSE) and is given case manager. The whole process of evaluations and committee reviews ensues. If not, their case is sent back to what they call the “building level,” meaning the team of educators in the student’s school building, who manage this student along with all the others, though one presumes with a closer, more specialized level of attention.
Students identified for special education are provided with a continuum of services at the elementary and secondary levels, ranging from teacher-direct interventions to out-of-district placement if necessary. The CSE team determines what’s appropriate in each case, including social-emotional developmental needs, and develops a plan to suit.

Parents are deeply involved. If the referral is initiated from within the school, parents are informed early and kept aware throughout the process. Either way, once a student is classified, consultations with parents are a constant feature, with weekly conversations at a minimum between a learning specialist or psychologist and the parent, and a robust online portal providing the parent with extensive access including real-time tools.

I was curious about the social-emotional component of a special education student’s predicament, whatever their particular needs may be. The philosophy overall is to take a student-centered approach, in which students take responsibility for their own learning and development to the maximum extent. They seek to enable student activity that is less directed by the teacher, more self-directed.

I then spoke to two veteran high school teachers from the same district. When I asked Dean and Renee how they identify a student for special education, it became apparent that that rarely happens at the high school level – almost always, the referral will already have been made in earlier grades. So students tend to come under their supervision already under the management of the CSE. The teachers then tend to jump into an RTI process that is already well defined.

As they get more involved in the case, they observe actively, and when they notice things, they bring their findings to the team meetings to talk about it as a group. They then try approaches in the classroom that they have reason to expect to be of value. They then collect data and go through several cycles of reporting and adjusting. When something isn’t working, this triggers them to try a different level of intervention, and this escalation may continue as long as necessary.

The teachers know a student is struggling when they see poor reading comprehension; a student who is grades below age in reading & writing; and obvious problems with math comprehension. They most often attribute these observed qualities to slow mental processing and weak memory. They recognize that there are many causes of these conditions – neurological, hearing impairment, learning difficulties, and often physical causes.

On the subject of emotional handicaps, I thought both teachers initially indicated that they tend to stay away from handling that. When I sought a further explanation, they clarified that it’s not that such cases go untouched, but rather that emotionally fragile kids are handled more as the special province of psychological staff, such as clinicians who conduct psychological testing and work directly on conditions like anxiety. They also noted that in their experiences, the attempt is made to address such conditions earlier, in middle school.

I asked whether referrals ever seem to come as a surprise to the parents. Again, this is not a process these teachers handle much, but they think it rarely comes as much of a surprise to parents of student at the high school level.

When I asked whether alternate methods of instruction are tried before referring the student for special education, the answer I got, which really referred to the RTI, indicated to me that at the age they’re teaching, students are pretty clearly segregated already in the minds of the teachers into those who have been classified in special education and those not. They did describe how highly individualized the RTI approach is for each student. It might involve calling the parent once a week, making a homework schedule, giving the kid more attention if s/he’s having hard time reading. Their perspectives seemed to be very much formed by the RTI process, with its weekly committee meetings examining different cases; a large reference list of different interventions depending on the student; and an iterative process of the committee recommending an intervention, the teacher and student trying it, and reporting back.

What I have reported here may not be news to the reader, but for me, as I have not been involved in any of this before, it was quite an education into both the formal process and the perspectives and approaches of teaching and administrative staff concerning special education. Attending to special needs has to be a significant chunk of a teacher’s time, and the collaborative accountability is quite intensive. I think that a teacher has to adopt a really positive attitude about his/her contribution to the student’s growth to incorporate this special attention seamlessly into his/her complete range of responsibilities. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

What is "Innovative Teaching and Learning"?

"Innovative Teaching and Learning" is a buzzword set of practices in education these days, backed by Microsoft research and advocacy. Here's an infographic giving a brief overview of what it's about:

Innovative Teaching and Learning Infographic

One important finding backing up this approach is that the quality of an educator’s assignment strongly predicts the quality of the work that a student does in response. Greater than 90% of variation in student work scores was accounted for by differences across assignments, not by differences across students for the same assignment.

Brief History of US Education Law Pertaining to Student Testing

How have federal education laws acted to move us to today’s testing/assessment regime?

Here I look at four laws:
  • Elementary and Secondary Education Act, 1965 (ESEA)
  • Goals 2000: Educate America Act, 1994
  • The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB)
  • American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA)
... and you'll see how since the 1980s, the direction towards more testing with the purpose of enhancing school accountability has been continuous throughout different presidential administrations.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Why are the Common Core Standards So Closely Linked with High-Stakes Testing that Many Parents Find Onerous and Odious?

It seems to me that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are tightly fused in the public’s mind with increased and more stringent standardized testing, and that this close association with testing has created a lot of resistance to Common Core. Here in New York that's certainly the case, with this year (2014-15, the first year common-core-oriented tests have been introduced) 20% of students/parents opting out of the testing.
I've been holding a minimally informed view that the standards are a reasonably good idea undermined in the public perception by being saddled with contentious assessments that may be serving other purposes entirely. I wanted to take a closer look. How real is that linkage between CCSS and onerous assessment? What caused that perception to arise? And how are the major educational organizations responding to it? I looked at the websites of some of the major US educational organizations to find out. 

I began with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, because it gives the appearance of being the central online advocacy force on behalf Common Core. So I was surprised to find it did not have a lot to say about the assessment side of the coin. They emphasize that data collection is not required, but up to each state individually. Perhaps they are reluctant to wade into the controversy, but if so, my casual observation of P.R. strategy tells me they’re dropping the ball, because the perception “out there” is so strong that Common Core is all about the testing and “teaching to the test.” And that’s ironic because, by the definition of Common Core’s learning objectives, one would expect the methods for assessing achievement to be quite different from and more meaningful than the customary, rote-questions, fill-in-the-bubble methods. They need to address the controversy if they want to make a stronger case for CCSS and help get it through this difficult roll-out.

Before going any further, it’s worth quoting this concise statement by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) as to what Common Core is basically about:

The Common Core State Standards have the potential to transform teaching and learning and provide all children with the problem-solving, critical-thinking and teamwork skills they need to compete in today’s changing world. This approach to learning moves away from rote memorization and endless test-taking and toward deeper learning.

The AFT is very supportive of Common Core. But they strongly assert that there is a need to extensively field-test the assessments before rolling them out. They make the comparison with how businesses methodically field- and market-test their products before introducing them, to prevent commercial failures. The implication is, why would education administrators handle such a large and important “product roll-out” any differently, and risk blowing the necessary positive impression and goodwill? They suggest a moratorium on the testing, asserting that it is too rushed, and they also argue against jumping into using test result to determine such things as student advancement or penalties or rewards for school performance.

I’m sure I’m not the first one to make this comparison, but this “botched roll-out” thing reminds me of the drastic effect the failed opening days of the Obamacare online exchanges had. It just gives the whole project a bad image, painting program elements that are totally unrelated to the testing problem and otherwise potentially easily accepted with the same discolored broad brush.  

The National Education Association (NEA) stakes out a position close to identical to the AFT’s. They are very opposed to high-stakes testing, and one gets the sense they are representing a group of teachers who are weary not only of having to teach with these test in mind but also of being associated by default with standardized testing, as if it was somehow their idea. They propose delaying any testing until the teaching side is rolled out smoothly. Indeed, they published an article back in 2012 expressing concern that when the tests arrived, they could undermine the effort to establish Common Core.

All these organizations point supportively to the “next generation of assessments” being produced by Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) for some states and the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) for others. I did not find either the SBAC or PARCC website particularly informative on the subject of the timing of initial testing and what effect is was having on public support for the Common Core, but at least PARCC was direct and explicit in stating that their assessment project is all about supporting implementation of Common Core. 

So at least they are not abashed about it, and I get the sense that they are earnest, research-based, and creative about getting the assessments right. But they do not seem to address the issue of timing or argue that allowing more time to pass would be a good thing. I imagine that, like the Obamacare administrators, they have been under tremendous pressure to get it done and out yesterday, to (theoretically) lend credibility to the whole project and generate an evidence base. But that pressure is probably also coming from political interests wanting to use results to “incentivize” schools and teachers, long before the linkage between test results and appropriate consequences can be demonstrated.

PARCC has an interesting description of how the two major evidence-based principles on which the standards are based are focus and coherence. It is not my topic here and I don’t have time to discuss it, but they do a careful and effective job of explaining how this is a rational and testable basis to do assessment better than it has been done in the past.  It lends confidence about the project in the long term, but will they get there before the political winds change, weighed down with negative impressions?

I presume PARCC and SBAC are predominantly researchers into effective educational methods and assessment design, rather than interest groups pushing for testing in the ways it is sometimes used to reward and punish schools and teachers. It’s not clear whether or not they are supportive of the immediate requirement of using the tests in the initial implementation of Common Core standards.

So who is? I’m guessing it’s political leaders more than anyone else, but to finish my roundup, I took a look at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). A section of their website titled “Standards, Assessment & Accountability” ties these subjects more closely together than any other source I examined. By “Accountability,” they mean consequences for professional educators and institutions for their results. So I’m guessing they have a strong interest in seeing to it that these three aspects are very tightly knitted together. They do come across as a group of technocratic believers, particularly in their statement about accountability, which seems to be their culminating, unifying concern – and which likely plays best with the political class. No mention of a testing moratorium there.


Tim Walker. (October 16, 2013). 10 Things You Should Know About the Common Core. Retrieved from

Tim Walker. (December 11, 2012). Beyond the Bubble: Schools Get Ready for Common Core Assessments. Retrieved from

Common Core State Standards Tools & Resources. (2015). Retrieved from

FAQs about the Common Core State Standards. (2015). Retrieved from

Standards, Assessment & Accountability. (2015). Retrieved from

Testing. (2015). Retrieved from