A year’s worth of questions

For the past two semesters, I’ve been in lots of mid-Michigan classrooms. As I observed teachers teach, I wrote down my questions. I wrote them down in a little black book that fit in my back pocket.

The questions serve for good reflection. They have more to do with my developing understanding than they do the teachers’ performances. That isn’t to say that sometimes I didn’t see stuff that needed to be fixed up. I did. But these questions were often meant to guide my own thinking.

Here are some of the questions I asked and the observations I made.

“How do we sell screeners?”

“What’s the role of balance?”

“Do you believe in growth mindset? It should follow then that something is true that doesn’t currently make sense to you. Probably more than one. Who do you trust to give you that growth?”

“How do you download the interactive whiteboard lesson?”

“Seems like students with speech disabilities might struggle with “stretch out the word.”

“What are the expectations with iPads?”

“Could students fill out an online form instead?”

“How could we up the engagement?”

“Don’t say this: ‘I need to pull up my rubric so I can grade you’. Say instead: ‘I want to document the different pieces of your presentation.’ ”

“Presentations are tough. That was largely wasted time. How to do better?”

“They aren’t sure what to do. And they are having a hard time staying in their seats.”

“It’s loud, but to be fair, the center activities are somewhat loud… and the parent volunteer isn’t managing the volume at all.”

“Teachers who are trying to recover their classroom management will become cold… tough… no-nonsense. Does that help?”

“What if you think-pair-share…? This is too rich an activity to only have a handful of confirmed engagements.”

“What about those four kids in the back?”

“Teacher seemed to feel her control slipping, so she went heavily to individual. Calling on kids as a control piece.”

“Big question: What is the learning target of this lesson?”

” ‘I’m going to let Mikayla have some think time here.’ What if they were all solving the problem while Mikayla was thinking?”

“What is the group’s cue that they should talk?”

“Blurting out is a problem because so many want to participate. Could they?”

“It included this beautiful moment when the teacher actually said, “Gimme fiv… oh.” and was surprised when the kids were all on task.”

“Teacher never raises her voice… on the contrary, when a kid needs more attention, she seems to get quieter.”

“Big issue here is that the students aren’t responding.”

Growth Mindset – It’s not that simple


Photo Credit:  Flickr user “WoodleyWonderWorks”

I am often not on the intellectual cutting edge. Pretty much any idea that I’ve had, someone else has had before. Usually lots of people, actually.

This discussion of growth mindset is no different. The Atlantic (specifically Christine Gross-Loh) and the Harvard Business Review (written by Growth Mindset author Carol Dweck) beat me to this one. And that’s okay. They have folks whose job it is to write. I do this as a hobby. I’m just grateful for their shoulders to stand on.

Growth Mindset is becoming a fad. Of course, Dr. Carol Dweck (who is responsible for coining the term and the supporting research) understands this better than anyone. What will happen to the term “growth mindset” when it gets unleashed on the public and Twitter gets a hold of it?

Well, certainly the nuance is gone. The public arena (and it’s right arm: social media) tends to treat nuanced arguments like they belong on a dollar-store clearance rack. So, at the very least, you can count on growth mindset being over-simplified (probably quite significantly at that).

With over simplification comes the inevitable misunderstanding. If all you know about this idea a series of talking points laid out 140-characters at a time, the chances of you missing an essential component are quite good. Of course accidental misunderstanding is independent to one’s confidence to propagate their (mis)understandings on the topic.

And of course, researchers have a love-hate relationship with this phenomena. On one hand, they are getting often getting criticized for statements made by people who don’t really understand the actual point they are making. Not fair, but common. (Ask our Lord Jesus Christ, Charles Darwin, Martin Luther…).

On the other hand, your idea becoming a household-familiar is evidence of success. The constant (though flawed) propagation of your idea means you’ve created something that’s resonated with the masses. (Or, as Chamillionare said, “Weird Al isn’t going to do a parody of your song if you’re not doing it big.”)

And of course, this explains why growth mindset is talked about with such a wide range of implications. Sometimes, it takes more than Yoda and Darth Vader posters to explain complex topics… particularly topics wrapped around the way an individual sees the world around them.

Says Dweck (in The Atlantic article), “Many people understood growth mindset deeply and implemented it in a very sophisticated and effective way. However, there were many others who understood it in a way that wasn’t quite accurate, or distilled it down to something that wasn’t quite effective, or assimilated it into something they already knew.”

As with most things, in order to experience the full benefit, there needs to be fidelity with the implementation. Otherwise, what gets left out might be the thing that makes it effective.

From The Atlantic article:

But Dweck recently noticed a trend: a widespread embrace of what she refers to as “false growth mindset”—a misunderstanding of the idea’s core message. Growth mindset’s popularity was leading some educators to believe that it was simpler than it was, that it was only about putting forth effort or that a teacher could foster growth mindset merely by telling kids to try hard. A teacher might applaud a child for making an effort on a science test even if he’d failed it, for instance, believing that doing so would promote growth mindset in that student regardless of the outcome.

Or as Dweck says later in the piece:

another misunderstanding [of growth mindset] that might apply to lower-achieving children is the oversimplification of growth mindset into just [being about] effort. Teachers were just praising effort that was not effective, saying “Wow, you tried really hard!” But students know that if they didn’t make progress and you’re praising them, it’s a consolation prize. They also know you think they can’t do any better.

So, there’s a little more to fostering Growth Mindset than “praise the effort, not the outcome.” A lot more, it turns out. From Dweck’s article in Harvard Business Review:

“Even if we correct these misconceptions, it’s still not easy to attain a growth mindset. One reason why is we all have our own fixed-mindset triggers. When we face challenges, receive criticism, or fare poorly compared with others, we can easily fall into insecurity or defensiveness, a response that inhibits growth. Our work environments, too, can be full of fixed-mindset triggers.”

It involves really understanding our own inner balance of fixed and growth mindsets. Growth mindset isn’t the easiest way. It’s the most valuable way. Are you sure you really want a growth mindset? Remember, thinking you’ve maxed out your ability provides a neat little excuse to only “do your best” as opposed to what WMU football coach PJ Fleck regularly calls “changing your best.” And even if you are convinced in the value of growth mindset, you still have to convince your students.

Dweck beat me to that one, too. From the Atlantic article:

Finally we talked about why someone would want a growth mindset. We realized that some kids would be overjoyed to hear you can develop your intellectual abilities, but others might not think it was the most exciting thing. So we then had a whole section on why you might want to develop your mind. Teenagers are really excited about the idea that they can do something to make the world a better place. So we asked them what they want to make their contribution to in the future—family, community, or societal problems—and then talked about how having a strong mind could help them make their future contribution.

Nestled deep within growth mindset is “growth”. Growth toward what? Well, certainly away from what we currently are (because it’s not good enough yet) toward something else (presumably something better.) This mindset is fundamentally at odds with a philosophy that says, “Don’t worry. You’re perfect just the way you are.” If that were true, why would we need growth? Why are we trying like crazy to help our students “grow”? Why should we be trying like crazy to model that in ourselves?

Certainly because we’re not all “perfect just the way we are.” In fact, in a time of struggle, it might be more helpful to be told, “perfect or not, you’re not stuck the way you are. You can be more. I’ll help you. And if you try for it, your effort will be rewarded.” That’s what growth  mindset brings to the table.

So, how do you operationalize that? We’ll have to save that for another post. (Although, as usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts.)


Zooming In, Zooming Out: On Education Research (and Religion)


U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate Chris Desmond. (RELEASED)

Feedback. Various researchers have stated that effective feedback should be of the “what’s next?” variety. Good feedback helps people see “what’s next?”

But what if the feedback is corrective? Is the revision of the previous attempt implicitly the “what’s next”? What if it wasn’t implicit? What if the teacher explicitly told the student to revise? Then does it become better feedback? What if the feedback isn’t directly related to the content, but instead the organization of their work? Does that reduce the quality of the feedback since the correction is toward a non-content goal?

What if? What about that? How about this?

These have been the conversations in which I’ve found myself several times over the last few weeks. My mind has been racing. Not only to understand the intense scrutiny with which we are examining teacher moves, but also to convince myself that these types of conversations are valuable.

Lines of questioning like I mentioned above are like zooming really far in on a certain single aspect of teaching and for a moment exploring it in isolation. Treating it like it is the only factor that matters in order to understand that one thing completely. As though, for a moment, all that mattered was good feedback. Or formative assessment. Or opportunities to respond.

The fact is that these different aspect of teaching and learning don’t exist in isolation. That’s one of the unrelenting truths of the classroom. Opportunities to respond and feedback depend on the quality of the classroom management. Good feedback depends, at least partly, on effective working relationships with students. And good formative assessment is quite dependent on the skill of assessment writing.

So, does the essential interconnectedness of these different elements of good instruction mean that we shouldn’t separate them out and examine each one? Well, not so fast. It’s true that lines of questioning like that can go on for a long time and in the end, we’ve created some pretty well-defined boundaries around things like feedback, or formative assessment, or opportunities to respond. But, I think we need to suspend our disbelief for a moment to understand that these types of conversations ARE important.

I repeat: These conversations are important to have and I believe more practitioners should be having them. There are a variety of terms that we use as educators that are common AND really poorly defined. Feedback is an excellent example, but also terms like “mastery”, “high standards”, even words like “compassion” get used with widely different understandings and thus widely different corresponding behaviors.

But these are words that have meanings and corresponding behaviors that will improve students’ lives and school experiences when done properly (and will have limited effects when done poorly.) There isn’t always an A-for-effort when it comes to teacher moves. “I tried to give good feedback” is noble, but “I gave good feedback” is more effective for student learning. And switching from the former to the latter will require locking down what effective feedback is and what it is not. This is true for any number of teacher moves from instruction to assessment to classroom management to communication.

But we can’t stay zoomed in. I credit a colleague for saying, “Education research is about constantly zooming in and then zooming out. Getting narrow and then widening your view. You work to create definitions, then you zoom out to see those definitions in context.”

This discussion isn’t entirely different from the back-and-forth required to become effective practioners of most religions. Most of the religions that I am even surface-level familiar with have this same back-and-forth between the experiential, spiritual, the perhaps undefinable side with the clinical, dogmatic and well-defined side.

For example, some religions practice fasting from food and drink for different times of the year. Further, some fast from meat and dairy on the ground that for a given time, they shouldn’t eat “animal products.”

What about eggs? Eggs aren’t meat or dairy, but they are clearly an animal product.

What about fish? Depends on how you define “meat.”

What about honey? Are bees animals? Is honey a “product” of that animal?

What about soy milk? It’s not an animal product, but it’s feels kinda like cheating. Is the goal to make do without milk? Or simply to not consume the animal product?

And when should do children start this? Should infants suspend nursing during the fasts because it’s milk? Or are infants exempt? If infants are exempt, what about their mothers who are needing to keep their diet somewhat consistent to stay well-nourished to feed their infants? When would the religious leaders guide the parents to start having the children begin fasting?

See? It all gets very clinical quite quickly. By asking such questions, we’ve allowed ourselves to zoom all the way into the nitty gritty details about this one aspect of the spiritual experience. And quite frankly, that’s okay as long as we remember that the  clinical exists to enable us to serve the bigger picture better. The point of fasting (at least as far as I’ve understood it) is to be able to pray better. That’s what we see when we zoom back out.

And being willing to help practitioners dig through the nitty-gritty can be a way to honor the sincerity of their devotion. They want to do the very best job they can and they have questions. That’s okay. It’s okay if they want to zoom in and examine the different elements of the work they are trying to do. We should encourage them to do that inasmuch as it is providing effective supports to their efforts toward the bigger-picture goals.

And this brings us back to the classroom. Classroom teachers should be encouraged to zoom in on the finer details of their work, too. The zooming in provides definitions and supports techniques. The zooming out provides context. Zooming in is where the fine-tuning occurs. Zooming out is where we learn how those updated practices look amidst the sea of other factors. Do we really have time? What will that activity look like the way my desks are configured? When will I be able to provide feedback to the second and third step of the project for each group?

It takes both. Neither is good enough on their own. They aren’t enemies, but rather they complement one another. And when we gain an appreciation of the place, value, and role of the zoom-in and the zoom-out, then we can start to use them both to make our work better and better.

The Role of Feedback

I had to learn this lesson the hard way.

In the fall of 2012, we had to part ways with our Geometry textbook. We replaced it piece-by-piece by what became our Geometry Course It was definitely a net positive for everyone involved, but as you might expect, it didn’t come without some growing pains.

As it turns out, in order write a decent course, it helps to know a little something about how young people learn. When I built in the activities that made up the course, I tried my best to pay attention to what the students would be doing. What was my target content and how was I giving the students a valuable experience with that content that would help reduce as many barriers as I could to the learning. I tried to pay attention to foundation knowledge, reviewing old content and building in new understanding in reasonable chunks with practice.

What would the handouts look like? What should the wording be? What sequence will I ask the questions? How many practice problems should they have? What type of product should they produce?

I thought of all of these things. The first year, there were lots of positive signs, but I still noticed students struggling in areas that I wasn’t expecting. The students were getting better at verbalizing their thoughts both in writing and speaking. They were using the vocab fairly well. But they struggled in ways that after a while, got pretty predictable. It started to seem like the more extensive the paper-and-pencil process, the more likely the students were to struggle, and not just clumsy-style, like in ways that seemed to suggest that they didn’t really know how to complete the process.

What I never thought of: How am I going to build in opportunities for the students to receive feedback on the products they were producing?

As the year progressed, the seemed to get better and better at discussing the math and using the words, sometimes with some wonderful results, but that was because the whole time they were talking, I was walking around talking with them. Interacting, correcting verbiage, modeling effective uses of the essential vocab and connecting it back to the problem. I was responding to their curious looks and asking them to clarify their confusion. These were my favorite times in math class. So I did them as often as I could.

No wonder they showed growth in this way.

But what was I doing once they completed a handout like this? That first year, a whole lot of nothing. We moved on. Or we would discuss the broad topics and I would pose a problem like this with a mind to formatively assess their progress.

But I wouldn’t simply show them the answers. I forgot about the feedback. And it got in the way.

A few quotes from Dr. John Hattie on this topic:

“In short, receiving appropriate feedback is incredibly empowering. Why? Because it enables the individual to move forwards, to plot, plan, adjust, rethink, and thus exercise self-regulation in realistic and balanced ways.”

“Imagine a group of students who are about to embark on a series of lesson, and during these early experiences we pause and show them the various way they will be successful at the end of the lessons, or tell them how they will know when they have been successful in these lessons. The is a relatively cheap investment, takes little time, but of course, it provides teachers with a challenge – that of working alongside the students to maximize the number who reach the success criteria.”

“When we interview students on what they understand by feedback and why it is important to them, on theme emerges almost universally: they want to know how to improve their work so that they can do better next time.”

“The feedback you offer your students provides the tools they need to be able to perceive the immediate path ahead, and so decide that it is really worth effort.”

Second year we determined that we were going to have an answer key (and if possible two or three) so that the feedback could start by them checking their answers. I instructed them to ask anytime they had questions (even if the question was “mine looks different than yours, but I still think it’s right.” I actually rather like that question.) Dr. Hattie is indeed right that that was a cheap investment. My goal was for every student to get to compare his/her solutions to the correct ones. It slowed progress a bit through a lesson the first time a bit. But I had to do significantly less reteaching, so I got that time back.

When the students were left to practice and then draw their own conclusions about their own comfort level of their progress, I had forgotten one rather important understanding that both myself and the students were largely aware of. They mostly lacked the expertise to properly determine whether or not they should feel comfortable with the work they just completed.

But given the appropriate feedback, they can see where they were successful, were their focus needs to be for future success and how much room their is between the two.

Quotes taken from Chapter 8 of Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn by John Hattie and Gregory Yates. Routledge Publishing – 2014