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.”

The two key ingredients of real problem-solving

A quick word about dissent.

During a recent conversation with a teacher-friend I we stumbled into an area of conversation that allowed me to see dissent through the lens of leadership and problem-solving in a way that I hadn’t before.

Acceptance of dissent isn’t a new idea in leadership. Lots of writers talk about the need for leaders to appreciate it… here’s an example.

“Defining effective leadership as appreciating resistance is another on of those remarkable discoveries: dissent is seen as a potential source of new ideas and breakthroughs. The absence of conflict can be a sign of decay.”

– Michael Fullan (From Leading In A Culture of Change, 2001, pg 74.)

We were talking about problems that tend to have some pretty zealous advocates. For the sake of exploring a concrete situation, I’ll choose one for an example. How about student retention? This is a topic that can bring some energy out of some folks. It’s an important conversation, too. What happens when a student finishes a school year without meeting the minimum expectations to complete the grade/course they are in?

To push them forward would mean pushing the student forward into academic challenges that they likely aren’t prepared to tackle.

And making student repeat grades has just not been an effective solution according to ASCD, Education Week, John Hattie, etc…

So, when a district sits down to really solve this problem, they need to accept that they probably are going to need to choose a third option. Carelessly moving the student on is probably a poor choice. Making the student repeat the grade is also a poor choice.

The better option, the third choice, the one that will work better, is likely going to have to be crafted on site and with the resources available helping to guide the process.

This is where I began to see the need for two very distinct groups of people.

One group of people creates the boundaries… I’ll call them the idealists. These are the people who say, “We can’t retain them. We can’t. I don’t care what we do, but we aren’t retaining them. It doesn’t work.” Every issue has these people. Most of us can become these people when the issue at hand strikes us right. Luckily, they seem to be essential to the process. They also happen to be very frustrating to people who either disagree or just don’t see the issue as important.

The main issue with these folks is that zeal often doesn’t really solve problems. It creates boundaries for the solution, but (in the case of our example issue) simply eliminating retention doesn’t actually solve the problem of students falling behind. It just eliminates a series of potential solutions.

So, we need to bring in the dissenters… I think of them as the holders of the “yeah, buts…”

“We can’t hold them back.”

“Yeah, but they are still behind in their learning, so we can’t just move them on.”

Now… at this moment… as long as neither the idealist or the dissenter storms out of the room, the real problem-solving work can begin. The boundaries are set, the reality checker is in place and now the focus can turn to the ACTUAL problem In the case of promotion v. retention, it’s the fact that students are making it to the end of the school year not ready to move on.

And that takes some deliberate focus and patience. The zealous boundary-setters don’t want to hear about “yeah, buts…”. The dissenters tire quickly of the perceived inflexibility of the idealists. But I’m not sure real solutions to tricky, messy problems are more likely than when these folks can unify around a common goal.

American education (shoot, American culture as a whole) has a whole variety of problems that we are having trouble solving because the zealous idealists and the persistent dissenters have such a hard time embracing the valuable contribution that each other makes in the course of creating real solutions.

But real solutions… solutions that are effective and sustainable… probably require the active presence of both.

What does “College Readiness” really mean for math class? I mean… really…

This post has questions. No answers in this post. Just questions.

I just spent the better part of a day exploring the SAT test (which Michigan has recently adopted as the test that all high school juniors will take as a “college readiness” test.)

I also read this Slate article which speaks to people who feel like they aren’t “math people.”

As I continue to listen to various groups chime in with that they think kids need with respect to the mathematics portions of our various educational systems, there seem to be a few ideas that are coming out.

The first two are usually close-to-unanimously agreed upon.

  1. All young people… ALL… young people have a God-given right to a high-quality education.
  2. A high-quality education includes a significant amount of mathematics beyond basic numeracy.

Beyond that, the overarching ideas push into value-based philosophies about what the author or speaker believes are in the best interest of American young people. These are definitely thoughts where two reasonable people could find areas of disagreement.

3.  An education earns the title “high-quality” when the receiver can use it to                    successfully take the desired next steps after it’s done. “Next steps” are                      generally considered one of the following: A. going to college, B. going to                    work, C. going into the military, D. starting a family or E. any combination                    thereof. No one necessarily more noble or challenging than the others.

4. The overseers of those areas are the authority on what is required to be                     able to successfully join those communities. College professors, business                   leaders, military leaders, and church leaders all have a reasonable                             expectation that they would influence the courses of study that lead into                     those individual arenas.

If we push these thoughts to the next level, it becomes reasonable to assume that college professors, business leaders, military leaders and church leaders are going to quite often disagree on the necessary requirements for an education to be considered “successful”. What’s more, there will be large segments of the general public who would prefer one or two of those get a larger say than the others. Certain groups of people would prefer that college professors should have the last say. The incredible number of religious private schools speak volumes to our public’s desire to allow their particular faith to have the ultimate say in the educational program.

And math doesn’t get a free pass in these disagreements. You will see wide differences in the types of mathematical content that are preferred as well as the instructional and assessment methods. The nationwide introduction of Common Core has demonstrated that math curriculum can trigger some very negative responses from significant portions of the American public.

And the fact that nationwide, our school systems are “public” empowers the general public to have a say. In fact, this is often a tricky balancing act for education professionals. There is a certain amount of background knowledge necessary to make sound decisions within the field of education. But, practically every single adult walking the streets has a decade (give-or-take a year or two) of experience within the field of education. There is a certain amount of boldness that that kind of familiarity breeds.

Result: Everyone has an opinion on how education should look. And that opinion is largely based on the relative satisfaction that the opinion-bearer feels when he/she reflects on his/her past experiences.

That is a very good thing with some inconvenient consequences. One of those inconvenient consequences arises when legislators get involved. The American public has an oddly-trusting, yet often cynical relationship with their elected officials. Most people have very few good things to say about them. But when it comes to their own personal beliefs about society, getting their views enshrined into law become the highest priority. You can see this on both sides of the political spectrum. These institutions disgust us and we don’t trust them, but we want them on our side. It’s an odd paradox.

This paradox extends into the fields of education where, at least here in Michigan, the state government has made several plays that are tipping the scales in terms of which of the aforementioned groups is getting the state favor. As a result, “College-and-Career Readiness” is becoming cliche.

But our familiarity with it doesn’t mean that we have any idea what to do with it. Moreover, it doesn’t even mean that the general public has agreed upon definitions of “college ready” or “career ready.” The state has just solidified those two arenas as the goals.

It’s our job as educators to figure out how we are setting up our classrooms, schools, and districts to maximize our impact on young people toward those goals.

In my next post, I am going to lay out the primary issue that is creating this inner conflict I feel…

Reading.

The thing about technology…

My mind is in this place because a technological tool that I’m working on today has made my workday somewhat frustrating and largely unproductive (at least in the area that this tool is needed). Here are my thoughts on this issue:

For me, it’s easy to forget that learning happens through tools.

Pencils, books, sheets of paper, raising your hand, desks, chairs, crayons, etc. These are all tools. Tools that have become ubiquitous. They are practically synonymous with the classroom. At one point or another students have to learn how to use these tools, but the mechanisms we have for teaching their use is pretty standard fare.

Modern technology has the ability to change that, but we mustn’t rest behind the often erroneous assumption that young people are just naturally good at using technology. It’s likely true that most 14-year-olds would be more comfortable navigating an iPhone than most 75-year-olds, but let’s not translate that into 14-year-olds naturally being equipped to adapt to a learning management system like Moodle or a application like Desmos. They might not be.

Educational leaders need to remember the same thing about their instructional staffs. If there are tools that we are asking teachers to use, there needs to be time, support, and feedback dedicated to learning the tool in addition to learning the function that the tool serves.

Assessment and data analysis are two separate areas of understanding (despite the fact that they often get talked about together) and the tool(s) through which those get done might add one or more separate areas of understanding.

If we are asking teachers to use a tool (like Data Director or Illuminate Education) to create assessments to gather data for the sake of analyzing it later, we are asking teachers to perform in three distinct areas: gathering data, analyzing data, and using the tech tool.

It’s no different if we are asking the students to complete a learning activity on Desmos that they will explore on an iPad. It’s important for a teacher to be very clear about the number of distinct understandings that will serve as prerequisites to the mathematical knowledge at the end of that lesson.

The game of teaching and learning is changing. I talk to a lot of teachers that are intimidated by technology. It makes sense. There is plenty enough to try to manage and understand as it is. If we could stick to pencils and paper at least the tools will be familiar.

And I work to help make instructional and assessment technology seem more realistic. And I feel like It is important to make memories of the frustration I’m feeling right now to remind me that for some teachers and students, this is actually a pretty normal feeling.

Direct Instruction vs. Inquiry: The What and the When

In my last post, I looked at the characteristics of high-quality classroom instruction and discussed why I felt like those were essential regardless of the model any given teacher used. There were some excellent comments left after I posted that, so I’d encourage you to go join the conversation.

What I didn’t discuss is the role of inquiry and the role of direct instruction. Each tool that gets wielded in a classroom is build to do a certain type of work. To maximize the effect, each tool must be used to do the job for which it was created. Direct instruction does one type of work. Inquiry does a different type of work. In order to highlight this difference, let’s consider a content standard.

Give examples of linear equations in one variable with one solution, infinitely many solutions, or no solutions. Show which of these possibilities is the case by successively transforming the given equation into simpler forms, until an equivalent equation of the form x = a, a = a, or a = b results (where a and b are different numbers).

CCSS 8.EE.C.7.A

Consider how we’d assess this standard. The students need to “give examples of”, which means they need to actively create something and explain why it’s the right kind of something. But, the explanation is predetermined. They can’t explain it anyway they want (according to the standard, at least). They need transform their example to match one of the stated forms.

So, the final assessment of that standard (if we choose to assess it to the letter, so to speak), would include three equations that the student created and then evaluated in a standardized way to support their claim that their equations had one solution, infinitely many solutions and no solutions respectively.

From my perspective, anytime the students are going to be expect to create something on the assessment, they will need some time to freely explore. You can’t assess a student on something they’ve not gotten the chance to practice. So, if you want them to create on the assessment, they need to practice creating. But we aren’t assessing their ability to create just ANYTHING. We want them to create strategically.

There’s also that standardized evaluation process they’ll use on the equations they’ve created. While there may be some value in allowing the students to explore a variety of different, homemade ways to tell what their equations are going to do, in the end, we are going to ask them all to do the same thing. They need to be taught this process.

Also, we need to make sure everyone is on the same page with the words “equation,” “solution”, and “variable.”

Hang on… I need a quote.

“[Highly-effective teachers] provided support by teaching new material in manageable amounts, modeling, guiding student practice, helping students when they made errors and providing sufficient practice and review.”

“Many of these teachers also when on to experimental hands-on activities, but they always did the experimental activities after, not before, the basic material was learned.”

– Barak Rosenshine

Based on his research, Rosenshine is saying that inquiry can work provided students possess the appropriate background knowledge.

He isn’t the only one to say stuff like this.

“[Content and creativity] drive each other. Students need a certain amount of content to be creative. Increased creativity drives deeper understanding of the content.

“Algorithms and problem-solving are related to one another. Algorithms are the product of successful problem solving and to be a successful problem solver one often must have knowledge of algorithms.”

– Dr. Jamin Carson

And also…

“Students need to be flexible problem solvers. We know that one thing that separates high-achieving students from low-achieving students in elementary school, is that the students who are successful can flexibly use numbers.”

– Dr. Jo Boaler

This idea can be found within a variety of researchers in high-quality math instruction. Students need to explore. They absolutely do. They need to freely explore and play with the math.

But in order for that to be effective as a learning tool, it really, really helps to have sufficient background knowledge. Be it the knowledge of algorithms helping to support and drive the problem-solving process, the math facts giving the elementary students flexibility, or in the case of our example 8th grade standard, a solid understanding of “variable”, “equation”, and “solution” to give the sufficient foundation on which to build their exploration.

So, for this standard, I would probably recommend a direct instruction introduction to the standard that ends with making sure that all students are clear on the three essential vocab words as well as the evaluation process.

Then, I’d move to an structured inquiry activity that led them through a chance to practice creating their own equations and evaluating them eventually leading them to make some generalizations about what equations look like when they have one solution, infinitely many solutions, or no solutions. I see the possibility for some small group discussions, reporting out… possibly a Google Sheet or some white boards and a gallery walk, etc.

And from my chair, this exercise through this standard demonstrates the bigger picture. It isn’t whether or not inquiry or direct instruction should be used in eighth grade.

It’s about what we are going to ask the students to do and which of those models supports the students best at which point during the instruction.

It’s not about which. It’s about what… and when.

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Quotes taken from:

Rosenshine, Barak (2012) “Principles of Instruction”, published in American Educator, Spring 2012 edition. Quote taken from Pg 12-19, 39. Quote taken from pg 12.

Carson, Jamin (2007). “A Problem With Problem Solving: Teaching Thinking Without Teaching Knowledge.” Published in The Mathematics Educator, Vol. 17, No. 2, Pg 7-14. Quote taken from pg 11.

StanfordSCOPE interview with Professor Jo Boaler. Quotes taken from times 2:40-3:20 in the video.