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.