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.

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