Sunday, May 29, 2011

Different Expectations

I'm sure most teachers have had some variation of this experience:
It's time to review a homework assignment from the previous night.  One student has nothing but a blank paper.  When you ask that student for his/her homework, he/she says, "I didn't know how to do this."  You then respond with something like, "I can't give you credit because you made no attempt.  I expect you to at least try."
We expect our students to try things that are difficult.  We understand that learning takes effort at times, is sometimes difficult, and requires a certain level of perseverance.

Other times, we hear this:
I didn't have time to do my homework last night because I had to ___________________ (go to soccer practice, go shopping with mom, wash my hair, etc.)
We expect our students to make their job as a student a priority.  Spending time on other activities instead of homework is unacceptable.

Do we have the same expectations of ourselves?  

Most teachers acknowledge that today's student will graduate into a world where information is stored and accessed on-line.  Most agree that our student's jobs in the future will require the use of new technologies to video conference, collaborate with others in distant locations, quickly judge the validity of a great deal of information in short periods of time, and perform many other "21st century tasks."  Those who don't recognize these facts are either egregiously uninformed or delusional that the 1950's are going to make a comeback.  

Alek Shresta/
If we are truly preparing our students for the world in which they will live, our schools should incorporate the same technologies mentioned above.  Too often, they don't.  Even when students are able to use a computer in our classrooms, too often it is for standardized test preparation or as some form of digital babysitting where they spend a period playing an "educational" game that requires little thinking.  A look at a 2009 study by the National Center for Educational Statistics, Teachers’ Use of Educational Technology in U.S. Public Schools, shows how lacking we are.  85% of our high school classrooms never use videoconferencing.  66% of our high school teachers don't even have their students use a computer on a regular basis.  

I've heard two common responses from teachers when they discuss why they don't learn to use technology to teach the 21st century skills our students will need in their classrooms:  "I don't know how" and "There's no time."  If we don't accept these excuses from our students, why do we accept them from ourselves?  Isn't it our job to learn?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday's Five: Reasons I Love My Job

This week I asked for Friday's Five topic suggestions on the blog's Facebook page.  100% of those who responded asked me to list reasons why I love my job.  (We'll ignore for now that only one person responded.)  When faced with such an overwhelming percentage, I really have no choice but to give the people what they want.

If you'd like to make suggestions about future topics, discuss topics I bring up on the blog, or just make me happy that someone's on the other end reading my ramblings, make sure you click the "like" button on the right hand side of this page.  Also, don't be shy about sharing the blog and Facebook page with others.  Each post has buttons on the bottom that allow you to share several ways, including e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter.

For those of you unfamiliar with "Friday's Five", every week I'll be picking a new topic and listing five items that I think fit best.  Then I'll be asking you to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For past topics, check the Friday's Five page.

So, here they are:  5 reasons I love my job.

  1. I know I'm making a difference.  Without a doubt, this is the number one reason why I love teaching.  By teaching kids to think critically, by handling discipline situations with firmness and empathy, by having high expectations of all of my students, and by modeling professionalism and life-long learning, I truly believe I am giving my students the tools they will need to be successful. Notice that I didn't mention math and reading skills.  They are important, but, as I mentioned in my last post, they're not the most important thing that I teach, and they are certainly not what makes my job rewarding. 
  2. I get to serve my community.  Teaching in a small, rural town is much different than teaching in the suburbs or in the city.  I can't go anywhere in town without running into students, former students, parents of students, or others that know me as Mr. Soskil or Coach Soskil.  Despite the fact that our district has some of the lowest school taxes in the state, the economics of the area mean that our residents give a higher percentage of their income in school tax than most others in the state.  For these reasons, I enjoy being able to give back my neighbors.  I also feel extremely fortunate that almost all of the teachers I work with feel the same way, which is why most of them are involved in either volunteering, fund raising, or donating to non-profit organizations that help our community.  
  3. I enjoy my colleagues.  With very few exceptions, they share my passion for collaborating, learning, and helping the community.  I'd be lying if I said there were never any disagreements among the staff, but for the most part, our school is a very enjoyable place to work.  Plus, they put up with me, and nobody has keyed my car or slashed my tires yet.
  4. I get to spend a lot of time with my family.  If I had become a photographer, or chosen some office job instead of teaching, it's hard to imagine that I would get to spend the same amount of time with my wife and kids.  I get to spend most afternoons with my children.  Since my wife is a high school science teacher, we all have summers off together.  With the same vacations, we get to travel.  I know that years down the road when my kids are grown that this may not matter as much, but for now, I'm very appreciative that we get so much time together.  
  5. I'm constantly inspired by those around me.  The natural curiosity of my students inspires me to wonder about the world around me and learn.  Members of my Professional Learning Network (PLN), especially those in my Plurk network, inspire me to use new methods and technology in my lessons.  My colleagues' compassion inspires me to give more of myself to my students and the community.   It's a rare day that I'm not moved or impacted in some way by the comments or actions of someone I am in contact with because I am an educator.  
I could list many more reasons.  I'm blessed to have a job to which I look forward to going every day.

Now it's your turn.  Tell me in the comment section below why you love what you do.  Then share the blog with your colleagues and friends by using one (or more) of the buttons on the bottom of the post or re-plurking.  I'd love to hear from them as well.  

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Accountability and Teacher Evaluation

Like other parts of the country, New York City is having problems with obesity.  According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, childhood obesity is an epidemic, and 1 in 5 New York City kindergarten students are obese.
Photo: Flickr, Citizenactionny

Because of this, New York City is seriously looking at the lack of performance by city doctors, and demanding accountability.  A new test is being developed that will be taken by patients that will measure doctor effectiveness, and allow the city to get rid of the worst performing doctors.  These tests are meant to both evaluate doctors and create a system of accountability which will force doctors to do their jobs better. 

Every year patients will be given a Body Mass Index (BMI) test to determine how healthy they are.  At the end of the year, patients will be given the same test to see if their doctor has been effective in making them healthier.  Doctors who do well on the evaluations will be given bonus checks.  Doctors who have patients who score poorly on the evaluation for two years in a row will be banned from practicing in New York City, since they have proven to be ineffective.

If you haven't noticed by now, the above two paragraphs are total fabrication.  The very premise that we would evaluate doctors based on such tests is absurd.  To start with, the tests would define "health" in a ridiculously narrow way (only using BMI).  There are many factors that are out of the doctors' control when it comes to their patients' progress in staying healthy.  It would force the best doctors to ignore the patients who need them the most, since bad evaluations would mean less money and less job security.  Many doctors would choose to practice somewhere outside the city.  In all ways, this would be a terrible idea, and lead to a worse health care system for the city. 

Photo: Comstock/Thinkstock
Yet, this is exactly what New York City is proposing to do to evaluate teachers

If you want to evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher, evaluate their teaching.  I've heard the arguments against this:  it's too costly, administrators don't do a very good job at evaluating teachers, there's no way to hold teachers accountable if we don't in some way quantify their effectiveness with a number.  These are all hollow arguments.

If you want to get data cheaply, you get cheap data.  We should be using the best data to drive our instruction, not the cheapest and/or easiest to obtain. 

If administrators are doing a lousy job of identifying teachers who are using best practices, that's a good reason to put pressure on administrators to do a better job of evaluating teaching.  It's not a good reason to take away more learning time for our students to take tests and prepare for them. 

Some jobs do not relate well to the business world, and can't be quantified easily.  You can't judge the effectiveness of police officers by the number of arrests they make.  You've got to look at how well they deal with situations they face.  You can't judge the effectiveness of firefighters by how many fires they put out.  You've got to look at how well they fight the fires with which they are faced.  You can't judge teachers by how well their students do on standardized tests.  You've got to look at how well they teach the students that they are given.  Those students come with a variety of home situations, emotional issues, economic issues, and a plethora of other baggage that may affect how they score on tests.

The most important things we do in school can't be measured on a test.  Show me someone who disagrees, and I'll show you someone who doesn't know what's important.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Does Grading Impede Learning?

This morning, a colleague came to me for help.  She had an assignment for a graduate ed-tech course in which she needed to create a podcast that included background music using Audacity. 

I've worked with this teacher before on using technology in her classroom.  She took the 3-credit non-graded Ed-tech course that I offered in the winter.  I've seen her explore new technologies, experiment with sites in which she had no experience, and try new things in her classroom.

This morning, though, she was very nervous about using Audacity, even though she had been exposed to it before.  She even described to me her Friday afternoon, when her anxiety over creating the podcast brought her to tears.  I was wondering why she was having such a tough time until she made the following statement to me: 

"I always get this nervous when the assignment is graded."

How many of our students feel the same way? 

Sometimes, as educators, I think that we get confused into thinking our purpose is to evaluate our students rather than foster their learning.  It's a natural pitfall that's built into our educational system.  We evaluate students to determine who makes the honor roll.  We rank students' GPA for colleges and awards.  We assess children to the point of lunacy in order to measure the success of teachers, schools, and districts. 

I'm not advocating that we eliminate grades.  I'm just wondering if there's a way to take the focus off the grades and get it back on the learning. 

My son is finishing his last year of pre-school in a few weeks.  I'm amazed by how the majority of the kids in his pre-school class love to learn in that classroom.  Unfortunately, something happens between pre-school and high school which changes that.

When I think about some of the students in my class that are toughest to motivate, I can recall many times when they've come up to me with something they found interesting on the History Channel, or the internet, or something their father told them at his shop.  I'm forced to conclude that they haven't lost the motivation to learn.  They've lost the motivation to learn at school. 

There are probably many reasons for that loss of motivation.  How much of a factor is our current focus on grading?  How can we keep the natural wonder that most kids have in pre-school from vanishing as they progress through our schools?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Friday's Five: People Who Have Influenced Me

There have been many individuals that have had a great impact on my development as a teacher.  I can think of many colleagues, administrators, conference speakers, and educational leaders who have helped me to shape my personal philosophies, pedagogy, and practices.  Since our growth as professionals is something that never ends, I wanted to take some space on this week's Friday's Five to share some of the people that I have found inspirational.  I hope that you will take a moment to share some who have impacted you either in the comment section, or on the blog's Facebook page.

For those who missed last week's Friday's Five, every week I'll be picking a topic dealing with education and listing 5 things that I think fit that topic.  Last week's topic was web 2.0 tools.  If you've got suggestions for future topics, please share them with me on Plurk, Twitter, or Facebook.  After I give you my list, I'd like you to participate by sharing your ideas on the week's topic in the comment section.

As I said before, there have been many who have made an impact on me in my career.  Below are five, in no particular order.

1.  Dylan Wiliam - A few years ago I spent a week in Hershey, PA at the Governor's Institute for Data Driven Instruction.  One of the keynote speakers was Dylan Wiliam.  To say that his presentation influenced me would be a great understatement.  He convinced me of the need to change my lessons to include in-lesson formative assessment, and showed me ways how it could be done.  He introduced me to the concept of professional learning communities, and showed why they are so important.  He helped me to solidify my belief that the pedagogy we use in our classrooms is more important than any other factor in boosting student learning, and that putting focus on other areas just distracts us from what's important.

2.  Sir Ken Robinson - If tomorrow I was asked to choose the new United States Secretary of Education, SKR would be my choice.  I saw him deliver a keynote last year at the Pennsylvania Educational Technology Expo & Conference (PETE & C).  I don't think I've ever had the pleasure of listening to anyone else that understands the shortfalls of what we're doing in education and the direction we need to be headed in more that him.  Some of you may have seen the clip of a SKR talk that's been floating around the internet from RSA Animate.  If so, it's worth watching again.  If not, I promise it's worth watching.

If you want more SKR, watch his TED talk on how school kills creativity, or consider reading his book, The Element:  How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.

3.  Patti Duncan - Before attending a session she was giving at PETE & C in 2009, Patti and I had worked in the same district but only communicated via e-mail.  I wanted to meet her face-to-face and introduce myself, so I decided to drop in on her presentation on "Building a Professional Learning Network (PLN)."  It is probably the most important hour of my teaching career to this point.  Dylan Wiliam convinced me that collaborating w/ other teachers was important.  Patti showed me how to expand that collaboration globally through social networking.  Since that point, my PLN has become invaluable - a source of new ideas, inspiration, support, discussion of educational topics, and a place to get feedback on activities I try in my classroom.  Having a PLN of hundreds of teachers all over the globe has made me grow as a teacher in ways of which I never could have dreamed.  You can read Patti's DEN Blog here.

4.  Steve Leinwand - When my district was exploring ways to improve high school math achievement a few years ago, they brought Steve Leinwand in for a few hours in the summer to talk to the high school teachers about ways to change pedagogical practices in their classes.  I don't remember how I ended up in that session (since I teach 5th grade), but I'm sure glad that I did.  This is where I discovered the power of asking "why?" Steve's talk started me on the path toward demanding understanding from my students, and not just the correct answer.

5.  Dan Meyer - I came across Dan Meyer's blog about a year and a half ago when a member of my PLN shared one of his posts on Plurk.  His views on teaching math are visionary.  Many of the activities I have done with my math classes in the past year have been inspired by his posts.  To get an idea of his vision for how to change our math classes, take a look at his TED talk: Math Class Needs a Makeover.

Now it's your turn to share.  Who is someone that had an impact on your growth as a professional?  Let us know by leaving a comment.

Don't forget to re-Tweet, re-Plurk, or share this post on Facebook.  Like many of you, I love being exposed to new ideas and people who can help me grow.  The more people we can get contributing, the more amazing educators we can find to help us on our journey.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Math is Not about Numbers

Today, I came across an article today in Education Week entitled "Researchers Probe Causes of Math Anxiety."  It was a decent article.  There were a few insights I found interesting.

When I finished the article, I read the comments.  Michael P. Goldenberg, a math coach in Ann Arbor, Michigan said this:
The way most US teachers present the subject in K-12, it's about only or primarily the following: calculation, arithmetic, and speed (with accuracy, of course). None of those things are particularly what mathematicians deal with. No mathematician is judged by speed of calculations - arithmetic or otherwise. Calculation may not even be a particular strength of a professional mathematician. Mathematicians by and large deal with abstractions, patterns, connections. Of course, some deal with applications of mathematics to sciences and engineering and other "real world" problems and situations. But when it comes to pure calculation, it's hard to beat a computer for speed and accuracy. What the computer won't give is insight, leaps of heuristic thinking that connects seemingly unrelated ideas in two or more areas of mathematics, the recognition of underlying structural similarities, etc. Computers don't think.
I had been thinking of writing a post entitled "Math is Not about Numbers" for a while.  I actually started this post a week ago, and saved it as a half-completed draft.  I don't know, however, that I can say it any better than Michael P. Goldenberg did. 

In a few years all of my fifth grade students will be using a calculator and/or computer to do their calculations.  I refuse to spend an entire school year teaching them procedures to calculate.  I'm going to spend the majority of the time in my math classes teaching them to make connections, recognize patterns, and make predictions.  I'm going to teach them to do what computers can't - think.  I'm going to teach them math.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Wrong Direction

Photo Credit: SpreadTheMagic, Flickr
This morning, at 8:56 AM EDT, NASA launched the Space Shuttle Endeavor into orbit.  In July, NASA will launch Atlantis with four astronauts to the International Space Station.  After that, NASA will retire the shuttle fleet.  They are replacing it with nothing.

Instead, the United States will pay Russia over $50 million per astronaut to carry Americans round trip to the International Space Station.

In the 1950's and 1960's, the United States was faced with an educational crisis.  The Soviet Union had launched Sputnik, and Americans feared that the United States was on the verge of losing its grip as the world's superpower.  That fear led to the National Defense Education Act of 1958.  It led to education programs that were designed to foster a new generation of engineers.  It led to an increased focus on science and math in schools.  Money was earmarked for education, science, and research & development.  NASA was created.

A decade later there were Americans walking on the moon, a scientific achievement that no civilization before or since has been able to achieve.

Today, the United States has another educational crisis. In every study that's been done comparing the United States to other countries in science and math, we finish in the middle of the pack.  I referenced one of them in a blog post last week - the 2007 TIMSS Study.  We have fallen so far that we either cannot develop the technology to send our own astronauts into space, or we have lost the motivation.  Either way, the country that was built on scientific achievement, innovation, and invention is stagnating.

And what is the response?  How are we trying to improve education and technology to overcome this latest crisis? 

By cutting funding to education and firing teachers in record numbers.  By paying other governments to bring our astronauts into space. 

Instead of getting the best mathematicians and engineers to foster a new generation of innovators, a math/engineering teacher is the lowest paid profession out of all mathematics based professions.  You're not going to attract a lot of talent that way.  As a matter of fact, nearly a quarter of this year's Presidential Awards for Excellence in Math and Science will go unclaimed.

Image Source:

Instead of focusing on innovation, we focus on getting our students to master low-order thinking questions and fill in bubbles on standardized tests that are focused on evaluating teachers, not student learning.  Partially as a result, for the first time in 2009, more patents filed in the US Patent office went to foreigners than Americans

Instead of pooling the collective will of science, industry, government, and education to become great, we are floundering. 

In the 1950's and 1960's we made a commitment to education, innovation, and greatness.  We put a man on the moon in a decade.

If we keep on our current path, where will we be in a decade?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Absurd Contrasts


This morning, as I was reading the New York Times Education Section I came across an article called "Improving the Science of Teaching Science."  The following paragraph jumped out at me:
“As opposed to the traditional lecture, in which students are passive, this class actively engages students and allows them time to synthesize new information and incorporate it into mental model,” said Louis Deslauriers, a postdoctoral researcher who, with Ellen Schelew, a graduate student, taught the experimental classes. “When they can incorporate thing into a mental model, we find much better retention.”
The article went on to explain that when researchers compared classes where traditional lecture was used to classrooms that were collaborative and structured as mentioned above, students in the second group learned twice as much as students in the first.

As I read, I thought in my most sarcastic mental voice, "Really?  Students who collaborate, are actively engaged, and are synthesizing new information learn more than those who get talked at for hours on end?"

Take a second and think about how we teach our subjects and what those subjects look like outside of our classrooms.  There are some huge contrasts.

When scientists work, they are usually working in teams.  They have regular collaborative meetings to discuss how their work is progressing and how to improve their methodology and research.  They read a lot of research.  Most times they try things, they fail.  Those failures are learning experiences which help them guide their work going forward.

Now think of what science looks like in a typical classroom.  There's a textbook.  The teacher talks a lot about stuff in the textbook.  Students aren't allowed to research much.  Everything they need is provided in the textbook.  They may do some experiments, but failure is not an option if they want a good grade.  Most of their studying is done on their own, with the exception of a few very controlled labs where they may have one partner.

The contrast is absurd, and not just in science.

Why do people read outside of schools?  Either they read because they enjoy the content, or they read because they need the information that's in the material they are reading.  When you read to find information you need, how often do you thoroughly read the entire book/article/manuel/etc?  I would think that it happens rarely.  You usually find what you need and get on with whatever you were doing.

How do we teach reading in schools?  We spend weeks at a time forcing students to pick apart informational passages that contain information the student won't ever need and won't ever care about.  We force students to read "classics" that they hate.  Assignments that require research are usually on topics that the student doesn't care about and have been researched thousands of times before.

When we discuss teaching math, often the terms "real-world situations" or "real-life problems" are used. The very fact that we tell students that most of the math they learn is not for "real-life" is a huge problem.  How can we expect them to care or become emotionally invested if we tell them this?  We give them dozens of out-of-context calculations during the week, and then have a "real-world" problem that looks something like this:
Betty and Tracy planned a 5000km trip in an automobile with five tires, of which four are in use at any time. They plan to interchange them so that each tire is used the same number of kilometers. What is the number of kilometers each tire will be used? (Source - Word Problems for Kids)
Every student upon reading that problem is going to think, "This is math I am never going to use.  Why on earth would they need the tires to go the same number of km or spend the time to change them if none go flat?"

Many studies have shown that our students feel that school is not relevant and does not teach them what they will need to know in their lives outside of school.  Unfortunately, they may be more right than we want to admit.  Think about the skills and knowledge you use in your life.  How much of it did you learn in formal classrooms?  We need to spend more time teaching kids to find, analyze, and create knowledge instead of trying to fill their heads with facts.  We need to start teaching students in a way that reflects the world outside our classrooms.

Photo Credit -Thomas Favre-Bulle, Flickr

Friday, May 13, 2011

Friday's Five - Web 2.0 Tools

Today I'm going to start a new feature on the blog:  Friday's Five.  As a way to give readers more input and make this space a bit more collaborative, each Friday I'm going to pick a category and list 5 things that I think best fit.  Categories will vary widely, but will all be education-based.  We may explore favorite resources, best educational books, most memorable teaching experiences, reasons to use social-networking, or any other topic we happen to stumble upon.

I'd like you to help out in three ways.  First, I'd love to hear your ideas on the topic, so please leave your list in the comment section.  You don't need to list five, but give me your thoughts on my list and anything you think I missed.  Second, spread the word.  The more people we get collaborating, the more comprehensive our coverage of the topic will be.  Re-tweet or re-plurk the blog post, share the link on Facebook, or e-mail other educators that you think would be interested.  Third, please share ideas for future topics.  You can leave your ideas in the comment section, contact me on plurk, facebook, or twitter, or drop me an e-mail.

Today's topic is web 2.0 tools for the classroom.  The definition for web 2.0 varies depending on who you talk to, but basically these are free, easy to use internet-based tools that allow for innovation and collaboration in your classroom.  There are lots of great tools out there, so it's tough to narrow it down to just five.  Here's my five:

  1. Wikispaces - Wikis are an easy to use way to share student work, post information for your students, give students a chance to collaborate, and have a place to embed many other web 2.0 applications that you use in your classroom.  In the past few years my students have shared everything from videos explaining math concepts to research on current events in the Middle East on our class wiki.  One of my favorite uses is to post a picture of the notes on my white-board for students who were absent.  Basically, having this tool available for free has revolutionized how I teach and how my students learn. 
  2. VoiceThread - VoiceThread is a "collaborative, multi-media slideshow"according to its website, but that doesn't begin to describe the versatility of this tool.  It allows you to upload files ranging from pictures, to documents, to videos.  Then you, your students, and people all over the world (if you wish) can comment on them.  You can even upload your Powerpoint presentations and allow others to comment on each slide.
  3. Blabberize - This one's just plain fun.  Take a picture w/ a mouth and make it talk.  Want Thomas Jefferson to explain the Declaration of Independence, Pythagoras to explain his theorem, or a pig to explain how bacon is made?  This is your tool.  A favorite of my students.  
  4. Animoto - Animoto allows you to take pictures, add music, and create an incredible, edgy, slideshow of just about any topic you'd like in a matter of minutes.  The beauty here is that the finished product is extremely visually appealing and that creating a video is amazingly easy.  It has quickly become a favorite in my school.  Second graders have created videos for their math class, 3rd graders showed their progress in studies of Native American Culture, music students have created videos for Jazz Appreciation Month, and 5th graders have used it so show their knowledge of American History and Geometry.  
  5. Google Docs - Very similar to Microsoft Office, but free and collaborative!  Students can create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations just like they can in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, however they can share those creations with each other and work collaboratively on them.  Have them share their work with you, and you can see their progress and leave them notes on their work.
Now it's your turn.  What are your favorite Web 2.0 tools?  What are your thoughts on the ones I shared?  Leave me your ideas in the comment section, and please spread the word so that we can get as many educators sharing as possible.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Thinking: It's Not Just for the Smart Kids

Today I had the pleasure of spending the day at the Northeastern Intermediate Unit at a math training for elementary teachers.  The two Math Curriculum Specialists at NEIU, Karla and Leeta, do a great job and today was no exception.  There was lots of great discussion on how to structure lessons in ways that make math more rigorous and build conceptual understanding for students.

At one point in the training we were asked to classify different mathematical problems as requiring either "low-level thinking" or "high-level thinking."  At the conclusion of this we discussed why we chose the categories for each problem.  This conversation concerned me.

Many times other participants reasoned that a problem required high-level thinking for reasons such as these:
  • "None of my students could do that"
  • "That problem is really hard"
  • "There was more than one step"
To explain why they thought problems were low-level thinking problems, these explanations were given:
  • "My second graders can do that, so it can't require high level thinking"
  • "Everybody in my class could do this"
  • "That's something that's taught in the earlier grades"
What worries me about the above comments is that they imply that any multi-step problem makes students think at a higher level, that younger students shouldn't be required to think at higher levels, and that only our best students can reason mathematically.  These assumptions are simply false.

False assumption #1 - All multi step problems require higher thinking
It's dangerous to confuse the number of steps in a problem with how rigorous it is.  Higher-level thinking is analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating.  A bunch of steps that require nothing more than computation still allow a child to know nothing more than memorized procedures.  Little mathematical understanding is required.

We shouldn't confuse how difficult a problem is with how rigorous it is.  Students can struggle with problems for a variety of reasons: lack of vocabulary knowledge, reading problems, etc.  If you asked me to find the square root of (45x - 3/π), I would have a great deal of difficulty.  That doesn't mean that it requires analysis, synthesis, or evaluation.

False assumption #2 - High-level thinking should only be done in the upper grades
If we don't teach our students to think when they are in the lower grades, what makes us think that they will know how to do it when they get older?  One of the hardest things for me as a teacher is to get my students used to having to analyze and evaluate their thinking when I ask them "why?"  Students should be required to think at all times.

Too often we only give first grade students questions such as, 4+3=?

We should spend more time asking, "How many different ways can you make the number seven?"

The latter question is just as grade-level appropriate, and it allows students to think instead of just manipulating numbers to find the right answer.  It allows for learning, and not just memorizing. 

Don't think I'm saying that knowing math facts is not important.  It is.  But understanding math is important, also, and often ignored.

False assumption #3 - Only the smart kids are capable of mathematical reasoning
Again, I think this misunderstanding comes from the confusion between difficulty and rigor.  I would think that even struggling 5th grade students would be able to come up with several answers to the second question above with little difficulty.  That doesn't change the fact that it requires a different level of thinking than basic recall and/or calculation problems.  

Many elementary teachers struggle with math.  Many would even admit that they are not great at math.  We'll ignore the fact for right now that we'd find an elementary teacher who claims to not be able to pass an 8th grade reading test to be completely incompetent, but an elementary teacher who claims to not be able to do 8th grade math completely normal.  I'm sure that will be the subject of a future blog post.

Because of their own background, the way they were taught, and/or their perception that math is about numbers and getting correct answers (it's not), the belief is out there that our "smartest" kids are the only ones who are capable of being good at math. 

Math is not about numbers.  Being able to multiply numerators and denominators may get you the correct answer to a fraction multiplication problem, but it does not show that you understand what multiplying fractions really is, or what problems you face in your life that may require you to use this skill.  Being able to Divide, Multiply, Subtract, and Bring Down may get you the correct answer to a division problem, but it won't show that you know that division is putting items into equal groups. 

These memorized procedures aren't math, but in the United States we rarely require more than that from our students.  This was shown pretty clearly in the 2007 TIMMS study in which math and science teaching and learning were examined in countries around the globe.  The kids who aren't good at memorizing these procedures that we often teach out of context and without relevance are not bad at math. 

All students are capable of higher-level thinking.  Some are capable of doing this higher-level thinking with more difficult problems, but all students should be required to think.

The alternative is that we develop a generation of students who can't. 

Photo Credit - Sidereal

Friday, May 6, 2011

Bully-Free Schools

My students are in the process of writing essays for a contest in conjunction with our school's annual Peace Day celebration, which will be held on Tuesday.  The topic of the essay is "Bully-Free Schools."  I thought it fitting that I, too, share my thoughts on the subject.

Bullying is a hot topic.  Recently we've seen suicides and school shootings that resulted from students being bullied, an increase in cyber-bullying as students spend more time on-line, and new laws passed that give more responsibility to schools in stopping bullying.  No longer can a school claim that what happens outside of school is the responsibility of parents to deal with.  Any bullying that affects a student in school, regardless of where the bullying took place, must be investigated by the school.

Unfortunately, schools will never truly be "bully-free" because it is in the very nature of children to establish hierarchies and test boundaries.  It's naive to think that we can totally stop this from happening, and dangerous to get complacent.  We can certainly reduce bullying in our schools, though.  That's one reason that we need to focus energy on teaching students to respect each other.

We can start by modeling respectful behavior for them.  Unfortunately, many of our students are not fortunate enough to have this modeled at home.  If they cannot count on school being a place where adults treat each other with the utmost respect and professionalism, they may never see that modeled.  We should never underestimate our position as role-models for our students. 

It's also important that our students receive explicit instruction in how to handle conflict with others.  For the students without these skills being modeled at home, it is unreasonable to expect this skill to be present unless we teach it.  Emotional maturity is one of the most important skills that people of any age need to be successful.

With the increase of cyber-bullying, this explicit instruction must include on-line safety, proper digital citizenship, and lessons on how to resolve problems confronted in the realm of digital communications.  Parents must be made aware of the risks to their children, both from others and the danger that their child could harm him/herself.  Many students and parents are unaware of how easy it is to commit a variety of serious crimes by texting with a cell phone or communicating in a chat room.  Many are also unaware of how permanant those electronic communications are, and how they can have massively negative effects down the road.   

Finally, every adult in a school must make a commitment to protecting every student in that school.  All schools have anti-bullying policies.  The difference between the schools that have bullying problems and those where bullying is effectively handled is the enforcement of those policies.  Students learn quickly who will allow them to get away with bending the rules.  If there are weak links in the chain of enforcement, those students who have tendencies to bully will quickly find the places and times in school where they can belittle others.

While our schools will never be free of bullying, our students should know that we will make every effort to protect them, and that every incident of bullying in our schools will be addressed.  The more we create a school culture where respect is the norm, the less likely we are to have students acting in ways that are disrespectful.  The more everybody in a school teats others with respect, the less bullying will occur.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

What's the Purpose of Public Education?

What's the purpose of education in America?

It seems like such an easy question.  It seems like it should have an obvious, straightforward answer.

When the country was formed Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson argued that we should have free public education because our democracy depended on it.  We needed to have an educated electorate in order for people to make wise choices when they exercise their right to vote.

Yet in order to "improve education" in the past decade we have cut the amount of civics, history, and social studies we teach our students in order to teach more math and reading.

Businesses claim the purpose of education is to develop qualified workers so that our economy can grow.  Better educated workers result in better productivity for the businesses, better profits, and more money for everybody.

Yet, despite the fact that our most successful entrepreneurs were amazingly innovative and every business is looking for creative thinkers, we have made our classrooms devoid of innovation and creativity in order that our students are prepared to pass high-stakes standardized tests.

Parents and communities claim that it is our job to feed children breakfast, teach morals and responsibility, provide after-school activities and athletic programs, transport children to and from school,  prevent bullying in-school and on the internet, and counsel students who are in crisis.

Yet, school funding is being cut, and schools are being prevented from raising the tax revenue they need to accomplish all of these tasks.

Some claim that public schools should be a way for the poor to develop the skills and knowledge needed  to become economically successful in life.

Yet we are one of only a handful of industrialized nations in the world that provides the least amount of money to schools that need it most, and an abundance of money to schools in affluent areas.

Politicians are trying to sell us on many different magic bullet fixes to education right now:  Vouchers, alternative teacher certification, charter schools, small class size, eliminating tenure, etc.

None of them matter.  We can't begin to develop a good public education system until we identify the purpose of public education.  That's the discussion we need to be having.  What do we want from our schools?  What do we need as a country?

Once we do that, we can start to figure out how to build a great public education system that meets those needs.

Until that happens, it's just a bunch of political nonsense being tossed around to get politicians elected.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Need for Narrative

Our students think we're boring.

There's lots of reasons why that we have no control over.  Students are bombarded with stimuli from every direction from the second they step out of our classrooms to the second they enter in the morning.  It seems like they're playing games on portable devices, texting, watching TV, playing video games, listening to music, or all of the above just about every minute they are awake.  This is a product of the culture we live in.  We can argue about whether that's good or bad, but it won't change it, and it won't help us teach any better.

There is one thing that can't be argued, though.  Bored students are emotionally unengaged, and emotionally unengaged students don't learn.

Our real dilemma is that there's nothing especially exciting about most of the material we teach.

When I teach narrative writing and how to create plot to my students I often start with this short story:
One sunny day I went to the store.  The store was three blocks from my house.  When I got to the store I decided that I really wanted a pretzel stick.  The pretzel sticks cost 10 cents each.  I reached into my pocket, took out a dime and bought one.  I ate it.  Then I walked home.
I then ask them what they thought of my story.  They always tell me it's terrible.  When I ask why, they tell me it's because nothing happens.  It doesn't have a plot.  There's no problem, and thus, nothing in which to get interested.  It's impossible to make an emotional connection to the main character.

Too much of what we teach resembles that pretzel story.  Nothing interesting happens.

In his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James Loewen explains that textbook companies, in their quest to sell as many social studies textbooks as possible, have eliminated many of the stories that make history interesting.  Two that come to my mind quickly are the real story of Thanksgiving and Christopher Columbus's actions, but there are many, many more accounts of events in textbooks that range between skewed and downright false.  There's little doubt that real history would be less politically popular, tougher to sell for those textbook companies, and much more interesting to our students.

When we eliminate the controversy the plot is destroyed, and the narrative of our history is reduced to a series of boring facts.  Students are uninterested, and emotionally disconnected.

Math class needs narrative just as much.  Too often we give students procedures and hints to memorize along with pages of calculations, but no real reason to connect with the material.  It's not real to them.  Even the "word problems" in textbooks and on standardized tests are absurd failed attempts to make math "real."  Take the following problem that was on a recent state standardized test I administered:
You go to the store and buy a block of cheese that is a perfect cube.  How many faces, vertices, and edges does the cheese have?
Are we really expecting students to believe that this would happen in their lives?  Or that they would ever care how many faces, vertices, or edges their cheese would have?  It's what Jo Boaler describes as psuedocontext, and it's doing our students a disservice.

Let's stop giving students a multitude of calculations and stop giving them ridiculous problems that lead them to believe that math is something only used for obscure, unrealistic situations.  Like the great story, let's give them narratives where the main character, which in this case is them, has to overcome an interesting problem.  In the process there's a good chance we'll make math relevant to our students.

In the past few years, I've tried to make an effort to build more of these types of problems into my math class with varying degrees of success.  Some, like our Pi Day activity this year, have gone great.  Others, like a shipping problem I created, haven't gone nearly as well.  With each attempt, though, I've gotten better at forming the type of problem that both allows for great understanding of the topics we're learning and gives students a sense of purpose and emotional connection to the math.  There's no doubt from my experiences that students are more engaged with these types of challenges.

Student engagement in other subjects can be increased using many of the same ideas.  In reading, we often ask students to read informational and persuasive pieces in which they have no interest and no emotional investment.  Why not tell them a story, and then give them a problem they have to solve through research instead?  After all, there are only two real reasons we read outside of schools:  because we enjoy the material, and because we need to in order to get information for some real reason.  Shouldn't our reading classes in school start to reflect that?

The most interesting parts of life usually make great stories.  The most interesting teachers are usually great storytellers.  The most interested students are usually those who are most engaged with the material they are learning.  Let's bring the great narratives that make our lives interesting into our classrooms, and watch our students flourish.