Friday, November 20, 2020
Friday, November 13, 2020
- Kids having a lively discussion about a topic that has nothing to do with what they’re supposed to be talking about
- Kids having a discussion about the intended topic but saying things that don’t make a lot of sense
- One kid holding forth while a partner just listens—or stares into space
- Both kids staring into space, waiting for the teacher to say that time is up
Still, teachers can read aloud or explain a concept to the entire class, and pause periodically to ask questions designed to check comprehension, focus attention on what’s important, and prompt analysis. A whole-class discussion can’t involve every student, but the teacher can expand the possibilities—and keep students on their toes—by calling on kids who haven’t necessarily raised their hands. Further questioning can encourage students to respond to others’ ideas and get a true conversation going. Once students seem to have a basic grasp of the subject matter and possible interpretations, a turn-and-talk activity might be appropriate.
One other potentially powerful and underused interactive technique that reaches all students is writing. That may not look like it involves interaction, but writers are inevitably trying to communicate with a reader. Writing requires much of the same cognitive work that underlies what scientists call the protégé effect--the boost to comprehension and retention of information that occurs when one person explains something to another. The caveat is that writing is far more difficult than speaking or even reading. Inexperienced writers need to be guided through carefully crafted activities that free up enough cognitive capacity to allow them to grapple with the material they’re writing about.
That’s challenging but far from impossible. Instead of repeatedly having students turn and talk—and running the risk that the talk will lead nowhere or not even happen—teachers could sometimes ask them to take a few minutes to reflect and write.
Friday, November 6, 2020
This week’s article summary is School Reading Classes Still in a Slump Without more Social Studies.
An article summary from a month ago focused on the importance of background content/prior knowledge as a significant benefit to reading comprehension, and the one a few weeks ago focused on how superficial and incomplete most of today’s history textbooks are.
This article focuses on how American schools devote 40% more class time to learning to read compared to other countries. This high percentage is unquestionably influenced by high-stakes math/literacy testing mandated by our federal and state governments.
The article’s author, an avid student of history, makes the case for how students by studying more history in school will increase their content knowledge, which in turn will raise their reading comprehension scores.
I agree with him up to a point. While content knowledge is good (and helps us answer questions on Jeopardy), a perplexing question is what constitutes accurate, truthful history.
As I read the article, I couldn’t help but think the author loves history yet also thinks of it from a one-dimensional, one-perspective manner. Too often we learn only one diluted version of history.
I agree with him that history can be exciting and thought-provoking, but it needs to push and challenge students by going beyond the superficial. We need to guide students to actively ask questions like ‘Whose experiences and perspectives are lacking’ and ‘In what way might this text skew the full story or omit disturbing events for the sake of narrative/thematic flow?’
I grew up in Cold Spring Harbor, a small town on Long Island Sound. In colonial times, it was a whaling village. When I was a kid, my town was a popular tourist stop with lots of quaint antique stores and even a small but popular museum on the history of whaling. From my kid’s perspective, my town’s history was bucolic.
Imagine my surprise when as an adult I learned that my idyllic hometown in the early 20th century was the infamous epicenter of American eugenics studies and research. (For those who don’t know, eugenics was the racist belief that Nordic whites were genetically superior to other people.) While textbooks commonly attached eugenics to Nazi Germany, America’s part is never covered.
As a history major in college, I read a lot of textbooks but by the time I was a junior and senior and taking discussion-based seminar classes, I mostly read primary sources, especially novels, to get a fuller view and feel of the time period. Nevertheless, what I read was mostly a white, male, Eurocentric perspective. Well-written books with provocative ideas but hardly the only perspective.
So while I agree that content knowledge is important, we also need to teach kids to think for themselves, and to not assume what they read is the complete story. We all benefit from healthy skepticism of what we read, hear, and see--today more than ever. Superficial textbooks can help kids grow their content knowledge, but whose content knowledge?
From an early age, I have been a social studies nerd. Elementary school lessons on Civil War battles, besieged presidents, and westward expansion thrilled me.
So I am sad to learn that, according to a recent study, U.S. elementary schools are spending only 28 minutes a day on my favorite subject, while English language arts gets two hours and math almost an hour and a half.
The authors of the report say the puny history lessons are bad for reading achievement. “On average, students who receive an additional thirty minutes of social studies instruction per day . . . in grades 1-5 outperform in reading students with less social studies time. Social studies is the only subject with a clear, positive, and statistically significant effect on reading improvement.”
E.D. Hirsch and others have been pointing out for decades that children need more background information to become good readers. Yet the conventional wisdom still rules. Kids just need more reading instruction, we are told. That approach has left 2/3s of 4th and 8th graders not reading proficiently.
“Social studies has long been neglected in American primary school,” the authors say. “Elementary teachers are often taught that students should ‘first learn to read, so they can read to learn,’ even though youngsters can learn a lot about the world before they can decode.”
Other developed countries devote much less time to literacy classes than we do. American schools spend about 40% of class time on reading. In Japan, the number is only 24%. In Germany, it is 20%, in Finland 24% and in Canada 27%.
Part of the blame is the belief among many people that reading, beyond decoding, really is a skill independent of knowledge. School districts brag about their big blocks of time for reading instruction without bothering to see whether they work. Federal policy may have contributed to this trend by mandating annual state testing in reading and math.
Virginia’s annual state history tests were much admired around the country, but the scores were disappointing, perhaps because too little time was devoted to teaching social studies. The state solved the problem by killing state history tests. The English language arts exams remain.
This study notes a contrary trend in Louisiana. It is putting out reading assessments that align with the state’s English language arts and social studies curriculums. Natalie Wexler, author of “The Knowledge Gap,” said that literacy curriculums that incorporate social studies content may be the way to go.
“I’ve seen second-graders who are using that kind of curriculum eager to find out who won the War of 1812,” Wexler said. “They were also learning lots of other history and geography.
Could rebel teachers sneak more intriguing lessons on history and politics into the English curriculum? My grandsons often leave their school backpacks lying around. I will search them in hopes of finding unauthorized lessons on the Alamo and Teapot Dome.
Friday, October 30, 2020
This week's article summary is Let's Read, Listen, and Connect to Bridge Political Differences.
As we still have a few more days remaining of this acrimonious presidential election, this essay from the President of NAIS is not only timely but also provides pragmatic suggestions for how we as a country can begin to move beyond the current climate of fanatical partisanship that divides and separates us.
In my classroom-teaching days whenever a presidential election came along, I would discuss with my 8th-grade students the differences between the Republican and Democrat political parties. I’d start by drawing a horizontal line entitled Forms of Government on the classroom whiteboard; on one end I’d write ‘Anarchy’ and on the other ‘Totalitarianism.’ I’d ask my students to give me examples of each, and they typically focused on anarchy’s absence of government and unlimited individual freedoms and totalitarianism’s complete government control and severe restriction of individual freedoms. 8th graders quickly saw the disadvantages of either extreme.
Then I’d asked them to place Democracy, which tries to find that delicate balance between an effective government that ensures individual rights, on the horizontal line. Democracy isn’t perfect—think of Churchill’s famous quote “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”—but my students understood its ideals.
Then I’d ask them about what they knew or had heard about the platforms of the Republican and Democrat parties in America. They brought up taxes, social services, gay rights, prayer in school, military spending, abortion, etc.
Finally, I had them place both parties on the whiteboard’s horizontal line. Invariably the class agreed that both parties were very close to the middle where they had placed Democracy. Their collective a-ha moment was the realization that Democrats and Republicans were much more similar than different when compared to other forms of government.
As you’ll see in the article, our entire country needs an a-ha moment.
And maybe what we do in elementary school can lead the way.
We teach our students to listen and to have respectful, civil discussions. We guide them to think using multiple perspectives. We help them see that the world is not a binary—with only zero/sum, either/or choices--but a kaleidoscope of difference, variety, and nuance. We encourage them to have an open mind, to withhold judgment, and to remain life-long learners on a continual search for truth. We ask them to seek commonalities and to celebrate differences. We guide them to be fair, honest, responsible, and kind. And most importantly we challenge ourselves and their parents to role model all the above in not only our words but our actions.
It’s been challenging to remain positive and upbeat as we continue to live through this pandemic and this vitriolic presidential election. (Won’t we all breathe a collective sigh of relief when political ads stop?)
Still, the reason I teach and the reason I love elementary school is our focus is on hope, optimism, and possibilities!
I grew up in an era when arguing about politics over dinner was a friendly family sport. Although these discussions were often passionate, we would always end amicably, agreeing to disagree. The arguments did not focus on political party positions but rather on issues. Today, political tensions are at an all-time high, and what used to be friendly banter can now devolve into heated debates that rip families, friends, and colleagues apart.
USC has measured the change over time in political polarization, specifically the number of Republicans who lie to the right of the most right-leaning Democrats and the number of Democrats who lie to the left of the most left-leaning Republicans. Currently, the overlap is close to zero while in the 1960s it was about 50%; ideological moderates in both parties have seemingly disappeared.
Are we really so divided on issues though? Or could this be more perception than reality? A new report by the University of Pennsylvania suggests that "Democrats and Republicans both think that the divide between them is more than twice what it actually is." The study reveals “an opportunity to address a range of false beliefs that Americans hold about each other that lead to fear, distrust, and hostility.”
Opinion leaders can begin to stop the spread of polarizing rhetoric and do much to change hearts and minds. Community leaders can create awareness campaigns about partisan misperceptions through voter’s guides and outreach to faith and cultural communities. Individually, we need to really listen to those who see issues differently than us and find areas of agreement.
In our school communities, we can and must work to facilitate effective dialogue so that we can create healthy cultures for students and adults. Moral Reframing is one technique. The way people typically approach political persuasion is that they talk about their own reasons for holding given political positions, but this neglects the fact that the person you’re talking with often has very different moral values, very different psychological makeup, and a very different social background. Moral Reframing is rooted in empathy: if you want to begin to change someone’s mind, you should make your argument from an understanding of their values, not your own. This technique can bring people together on a range of issues, like economic inequality, environmental protection, and same-sex marriage.
Today, people tend to read and watch those sources that confirm their point of view; by doing so, we’re training ourselves to struggle speaking with someone with different values. We can begin by reading as much as possible on views that are opposing to our own.
Many schools are already doing this work successfully, but we must continue to grow if we are to become communities in which respect, empathy, and mutual trust are the foundation. We are learning communities first and foremost. Let’s put that muscle to work in bridging political divides.
Friday, October 23, 2020
When I lived in Oklahoma, I taught 8th-grade history at a K-12 independent school. I taught World History up to the Renaissance where the 9th-grade history class began.
Friday, October 16, 2020
Friday, October 9, 2020
This week’s article summary is How to Unlock Students' Internal Drive for Learning.
Daniel Pink’s book Drive posits that three needs motivate adults in both their personal and professional lives: autonomy (the desire to direct our own lives), mastery (the dedication to improve in areas that matter to us), and purpose (the need to contribute to something bigger than ourselves).
In schools, student motivation is typically separated into intrinsic (from within) and extrinsic (from outside). While parents/teachers strive for their children/students to develop intrinsic motivation, we invariably resort to providing extrinsic incentives and punishments.
As the article explores, though, the problem with extrinsic motivators like grades, praise, and rewards is they don’t support children developing agency, self-confidence, and the fortitude to handle challenges and missteps, and too often even lead to loss of engagement and inquisitiveness—with the reward the goal, not the learning. At our Admissions Open Houses, prospective parents are surprised when I tell them that kids often lose interest in school as early as 3rd grade when school becomes a chore to be endured rather than an unfolding adventure of discovery.
When we provide a classroom and learning experiences that foster intrinsic motivation, our students, as the article says, work harder, learn more deeply, and voluntarily and eagerly take on tougher challenges (cue to our Program Pillars!). By giving more student voice and choice, by emphasizing the process as much as the final product of learning, by including student self-reflection, teachers help maintain student interest, support their agency development, and foster intrinsic motivation.
Realistically, extrinsic motivators won’t ever disappear: for parents and teachers sometimes they are easier and more convenient to use. Yet both parents and teachers need to make sure they’re providing opportunities that foster intrinsic motivation development.
When Destiny Reyes started elementary school, she felt highly motivated. Like most young children, she liked learning new things, and she excelled at school. She got good grades and reveled in her success. She was at the top of her class, and she proved herself further by testing into a competitive, private middle school. But there it wasn’t as easy to be at the top of the class, and her excitement about school – and learning – subsided. Eventually, she says, nothing motivated her. She went to school because she had to.
Destiny, 18, is like most students in the United States. Surveys reveal a steady decline in student engagement throughout middle and high school, a trend that Gallup deemed the “school engagement cliff.” The most recent data found that 74% of fifth graders felt engaged, while the same was true of just 32% percent of high school juniors.
One of the key components of engagement is students’ excitement about what they learn. Yet most schools extinguish that excitement.
It all comes down to motivation. In many schools, students do their work because their teachers tell them to. For students like Destiny, getting a good grade and outshining their peers – not learning itself – becomes the goal of school. For other students, they need minimum grades to be on sports teams or participate in extracurricular activities or please their parents, and that becomes their motivation. Students who do their work because they’re genuinely interested in learning the material are few and far between.
But that’s exactly backwards.
Decades of research, both about educational best practice and the way the human brain works, say extrinsic motivators are dangerous. Offering students rewards for learning creates reliance on the reward. If they becomes less interesting to the student or disappear entirely, the motivation does, too. That’s what happened to Destiny in middle school when she no longer got the reward of being celebrated as the top of her class.
Inspiring students’ intrinsic motivation to learn is a more effective strategy to get and keep students interested. Students actually learn better when motivated this way. They put forth more effort, tackle more challenging tasks, and end up gaining a more profound understanding of the concepts they study.
The problem is that the balance, in most schools, is way off. While some schools around the country are trying to personalize learning and, in doing so, to tap into students’ interests, Stipek estimates that most teaching minimizes students’ internal desire to learn.
That’s not the case everywhere, though. Destiny’s trajectory of diminishing engagement took a turn in high school. Instead of getting increasingly uninterested and disconnected from school, she became more engaged. That’s because she enrolled in the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, a public high school district in Rhode Island. The Met is at the extreme when it comes to tapping into intrinsic motivation. Students don’t take traditional classes. They spend virtually all of their time learning independently, with support from advisors or at internships. Students all have individual learning plans and accumulate credits toward traditional subject areas through projects, self-directed study, internship experience and dual enrollment with local colleges. Almost everything they do, all day, connects to a personal goal or something they’re interested in.
Education researchers have been studying student motivation for decades, identifying the best classroom strategies to promote an intrinsic drive to learn. The Met puts many of them to use: Students learn through real-world, hands-on problem-solving:
- They tackle open-ended assignments that require sustained effort
- They get the power to choose what and how they learn
- They finish projects with something to show for their learning in portfolios and concrete products; they set their own academic goals
- They need never focus more on a grade than the process of learning because they don’t get traditional grades.
All of these things come straight out of playbooks for inspiring intrinsic motivation. And the impact on students can be profound.
One challenge for schools trying to spark intrinsic motivation is to make sure that fun, engaging lessons also bring academic rigor. Several studies have found that projects and hands-on activities can be effective at intrinsically motivating students, but don’t actually result in substantive learning.
This comes down to teacher preparation and school design. Teachers aren’t trained to design academically rigorous lessons that motivate students in the right way. And schools aren’t set up to give teachers the time to do so. It is possible, though.
And because it’s hard, it’s necessarily risky. Many teachers are afraid to experiment with this work. The accountability movement, where states hold schools to strict standards for student performance on standardized tests, put a damper on teaching methods that prioritize intrinsic motivation. Accountability is important but has prompted teachers to focus on test prep. That prioritizes the testing outcome – the grade – rather than the learning process, a surefire way to kill students’ sense of intrinsic motivation.
Researchers have found that one consequence of using grades to motivate students is that they stop challenging themselves for fear of trying something hard and failing at it.