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Five Equity Moves

My daughter has a significant reading disability.  As a parent I found it difficult to imagine how hard school was for her since it had always come easily to me.  As teachers I think it is often difficult for us to imagine the lived experience of some of our students.  Most of us got into teaching because we liked learning and school.  We want to recreate our great experiences with learning for our students.  But it is difficult to recreate that exact experience when we don’t recognize that our students may be experiencing school differently than we did.   The equity question becomes how do I create that great learning experience for all students, not just the ones who learn like I did?

The problem is big.  And the more I learn the bigger it becomes.  However daunting the problem of equity in our schools is, there are four small moves (and one big one) teachers can make that begin to address the issue.

  1. Think about how you partner students.  My other daughter, who loved school and underlined all her titles in red, twice, used to come home sighing that she was partners with “Tyler” once again.  I wonder how Tyler felt.  What did the rest of the class notice, about both my daughter, and “Tyler”?  When we let students choose their partners you can watch the social power dynamics in the classroom right away.  There are the few students whom everyone clamours to partner with.   Students surround them, pleaing to be chosen.  There are the students who are never picked.  But if you visibly randomize how you group students it is an equity move.  What you are saying to your students is that everyone matters and everyone can be partners with everyone else.  On top of that, there is research to show that it works.
  2. Think about who gets to work with you at the guided learning table.  It is easy to always pull the same group of kids to work with you.  You want to strategically choose who works with you, and some students will need more support than others.  But that certainly sends a message to the whole class.  I worked with a teacher once who created an atmosphere in her class whereby it was “cool” to work with the teacher.  She often started the class working with a specific group, which she tried to change up regularly.  But then as seats at the table became available, other students would come to their table with their questions.  No longer was the guided learning table seen as the place for the “dumb” kids; needing help was for everyone.  Allowing all students access to work with you is an equity move.
  3. Think about open ended tasks.  Time and time again I have seen students who are working at a lower grade level sitting off to the side with a booklet of worksheets. These students are definitely not feeling part of the group although the booklet was created with the best of teacher intentions.  When we have a variety of leveled texts or when the math question is open-ended with multiple entry points or when the science experiment can be recorded in a different ways or when you can choose volleyball or beach volleyball or ping pong, we allow all students to participate at their own entry level.  When all students are part of the class, it is an equity move.
  4. Think about how you have students respond.  How often do you ask questions and have students raise their hands to respond?  Every time you choose one student to respond over another, someone  feels left out.  “The teacher never picks me…” and even if that is not true, that is how it feels.  Students will make up their own reasons as to why that is.  And what about the students who just aren’t raising their hand?  How do they feel?  You don’t have to give up the practice entirely but it is worth adding other strategies to your repertoire.  Turn and talk gives all students a chance to think about the question and participate in learning.  In number talks when students have the answer they put their thumb up by their chest.  This is a much more private gesture which does not stop other students from continuing to think because they see hands waving in the air.  Providing students with little white boards so that all students answer and hold up their boards is another one.  When all of your students are participating in answering the questions and doing the thinking, it is an equity move.
  5. Think about high expectations – really think about it.  We all bring preconceived ideas to our practice, even when we think we don’t.  When I think back to some of the students I have had over the years, I wonder if I really had high expectations for them or if I quickly categorized them into a group in my head and unintentionally lowered my standards.  It is hard to examine our own biases but they often get in the way of high expectations.  When we know a student belongs to a particular socio-economic group, or has a learning disability,  do we have certain expectations, even if we think we don’t?  So, although having high expectations for all is a phrase we throw about, I think it is harder to realize than we believe.  When we truly believe in high expectations for all students, and we teach in ways that allow students to access those high expectations, then it is an equity move.

 

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Making a “quarter turn” in your teaching practice: little changes that have huge impact

The year my daughter, Jill, turned 12 she discovered cheesecake.   Jill’s first 12 attempts at baking cheesecake were dismal failures and our family ate our fair share of under-cooked soupy cheesecakes and over-cooked dry cheesecakes and there was the one where she forgot the sugar.  Yet Jill forged ahead undaunted, convinced that the next cheesecake would be the perfect one.  And eventually it was.

All of us have had experiences of trying new skills and recognize that it takes time and patience to develop them.  Except, perhaps in our teaching practice where we are often unwilling to make changes or when we do try something new it doesn’t turn out like  the recipe, we go back to the old and comfortable way of doing things.  I’m not exactly sure what the difference between baking cheesecake and changing teaching practice is but I surmise the following:

  • We are emotionally tied to our practice and it defines us.  We don’t want to fail.
  • We feel that it is not just us, but our students, who will suffer if it doesn’t go well.
  • It feels like we lost time trying something new that didn’t work.

The reality is that our students don’t have access to our day plans and are probably unaware of when a lesson didn’t go as we thought it should.  And, if it isn’t going well and the teacher just stops and does something else (read a story, do jumping jacks, run around the school, play a game, start the homework early), the students will be just fine.

One of the problems with changes in teacher practice is that we often elect to make a 5 course meal, not a cheesecake.  Teachers often try, or administrators and districts suggest, big “blow up your course” changes.  That is hard work and more likely to have a lot of bumps along the way.  Instead I suggest the “quarter turn change”.  What change can you make that is small but that you think might have a huge impact?  What can you do that is just a slight deviation from how you normally do things?  When you make that change what happens with your students?  Does that little change inspire you to make another change?

A teacher I worked with, Karen, taught grade 6.  She wanted to move towards inquiry-based learning in her flight unit but was nervous about leaving something that was tried and true.  So I suggested a “quarter turn”.  She always taught her unit and then at the end culminated with a big “fly off” in the gym with student-made paper airplanes incorporating all the principles of flight.  The “quarter turn” was to start the unit with making a paper airplane.  Throughout the unit, taught the same way as always, students continued to refine their paper airplanes, tryout  modifications and share what they were discovering.  This small change had huge impact in both student engagement and learning.  We still had the big “fly off” at the end but the planes were of a much better quality and there was a great deal more pride in the students’ creations.  Plus, students were much better able to explain why their plane could fly.

A group of junior math teachers wanted to start spiraling their math course but it seemed like an overwhelming task ( TEDx talk). The “quarter turn” was to only spiral for 5 to 15 minutes a day.  We spent a morning exploring some short, fun and engaging activities students could do to increase conceptual understanding and fluency in math.  We played with creating human number lines to explore ordering and comparing numbers, we practiced number talks, we did some work with puzzle pieces on a hundreds board, we played some estimating games, and did activities such as building two digit numbers with only 6 base ten blocks.  Then we made a list of curriculum expectations that could be addressed with these types of short activities repeated many times over the course of the year.  Teachers went back to their math classrooms with a small change but the impact was huge:  students were engaged and loved the activities; teachers were covering curriculum expectations throughout the course of the year which freed more time for their longer units of study during the rest of the math black.

A secondary math team was not ready to dive into learning through problem solving full tilt but decided to start their unit on linear relations with one problem.  They called it their “mentor problem”.  Throughout the rest of the unit, which they taught as they always had, they returned to this “mentor problem” to highlight key concepts.  Students were better able to connect to these key concepts as they returned to their thinking during this one task over and over.  A “quarter turn” changed practice.

A grade eight teacher, Monica,  was intrigued with incorporating mindfulness into her classroom practice but wasn’t willing to “give up” 10 -15 minutes of instructional time a day.  So she made a “quarter turn” in her thinking.  She devoted the 10-15 minutes for one week only  to teaching some mindfulness practices but then turned it back to the students, allowing them the permission and space to take a mindful moment when they needed.  She was thrilled when those students who needed it, took their mindful moments and found that it did not interrupt the flow of her day.  Every few weeks she incorporated a whole class refresher mindfulness session to keep the thinking alive.  She didn’t need to blow up her program; her willingness to make a small adjustment in her own thinking about how to incorporate mindfulness into her program worked.

“Quarter turns” are bigger than “baby steps”.  I dislike that terminology because it is usually in relation to a top down change.  I often hear that a staff or a group of teachers or an individual teacher is making “baby steps” towards a new initiative.  It usually means that nothing of any significance is happening.  A “quarter turn” is teacher driven.

Like learning to make cheesecake, changing our practice and adopting new pedagogical ideas takes courage and time.  We need to give ourselves and the teachers we work with permission to make a “quarter turn”. Think of one small move you could make within your existing program that you think might make a big difference.  Give it a try and see what happens; no one will die and you might be surprised.

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Self-regulation does not mean being good when you are bored

When I am in a meeting (and I go to lots and lots of meetings) and there are challenges to solve, or the speaker is entertaining and has something to say that I am interested in, and when I get opportunities to talk about what I am learning, I am totally engaged.  I don’t check my email.  I don’t text my friends.  I don’t secretly hope my secretary will call with an emergency.  I don’t drink lots of coffee so that I have to visit the restroom.  On occasion I have to remind myself to listen to others when I am excited about the topic and be patient with others who may have a different viewpoint. My level of engagement and my ability to attend, though, is more about the content and structure of the meeting and my social and emotional skills are secondary.

Now, when I go to a meeting that is not engaging it is a different story altogether.  At first I try to be attentive but soon my attention wanders.  I  look around.  I check my phone.  I read my email. I even do my email if it won’t look too rude.  I play with anything I can find to fiddle with.  I get up and get more coffee.  I frequent the restroom. If you watched me you might think I have very poor self-regulation skills.

Self-regulation does not mean being good when you are bored.  Grit, perseverance and resilience are not skills that you develop in environments that are not conducive to obtaining them.  I worry that we are jumping on the bandwagon of teaching students skills they seem to be lacking before we examine whether the classroom environment we create may be a contributing factor.

Lest teachers feel I am picking on them, administrators tend to do the same thing.  We often look at our staff meetings and see that no one is participating or attentive and think, “Those teachers just don’t care.”  But perhaps they are not engaged.  Teachers care.

But this is difficult to do because it means we need to examine our own teaching and facilitation practices.  And when you are leading or teaching, you are usually engaged.  It is hard to step out of our own shoes and look at it from the participant’s perspective.  We are deeply tied to our work emotionally and therefore it is extremely difficult to examine our own practices.  So we often tend to blame the lack of engagement or poor behaviour on the participants.  I know as a beginning teacher my go-to response to a bad day was to change the seating plan.

Do kids need to learn to manage their emotions appropriately?  For sure.  Do teachers need to teach and support students to develop self-regulation?  Absolutely.  Is it worthwhile creating norms for adult working groups?  Yes.  But don’t jump to blame the participants for not using those skills when things don’t go as you wish.  Check and make sure that the lesson or the meeting was the very best ever. Seven year olds aren’t going to sit quietly if they have been on the carpet for a long time.  Fourteen year olds aren’t going to ignore their phones and friends if you have been lecturing for more than 15 minutes.  Adults are not going to engage in professional development if it is not relevant and interesting.    Sometimes I hear “Well, everything in life isn’t fun and kids need to learn to behave in those situations.”  Really?  The job of school is to train kids to be bored?  Workplace meetings need to be boring?  I don’t think so.

As educators we know more about how people learn and how to engage others in learning than most.   We have an obligation to ensure that happens every lesson, every meeting, every day.

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What can’t you ask Siri?

I can remember going to the library if I needed to know something.  We didn’t have Siri.

I can remember taking out a pad of paper to divide 7843 by 46.  We didn’t have Siri.

I can remember looking words up in a dictionary or thesaurus.  We didn’t have Siri.

I can remember waiting until the hour to hear the weather for the day.  We didn’t have Siri.

I can remember getting the newspaper off the front stoop in the morning.  We didn’t have Siri.

I used to know all my friends’ phone numbers.  We didn’t have Siri.

I can remember looking things up in an encyclopedia.  We didn’t have Siri.

I can remember feeling frustrated if I couldn’t remember the capital of Peru.  We didn’t have Siri.

Our students are growing up with Siri.  So much knowledge is at their fingertips, or rather in their phone.  You don’t even have to type to talk to Siri.  We hear all the time that education in the 21st century needs to change.  We know that education can no longer just be about the transmissions of facts.  We have Siri for that.  So what can’t Siri do?  Maybe that helps us to define what our students need to learn.

Siri can’t

  • solve problems,
  • think critically,
  • collaborate,
  • offer an alternative point of view,
  • compare and contrast,
  • add emotion to thinking,
  • create,
  • evaluate,
  • critically synthesize,
  • enjoy,
  • depict beauty and heartache,
  • find new problems to solve,
  • be a good citizen,
  • use examples from history to shape the future,
  • argue or debate,
  • define and defend an argument,
  • innovate

Perhaps we need to use Siri for some of the factual stuff so that our students can concentrate on these higher order thinking skills.  Instead of fighting against Siri, can we bring her into the fold?

That is not to say that I don’t believe that students should have some base knowledge.  It is inefficient to not have the most important facts of a discipline at your fingertips.  Students do need to be able to make mental math calculations, know the capital of Canada (if they live there or close by), know the parts of a cell to study biology, know how to read and construct a piece of writing for a variety of audiences and purposes.  A base knowledge of the “stuff” is important in being able to access the higher order thinking skills.

But now that we have Siri (and whoever or whatever her successor will be; and there will be one, perhaps before I finish typing this blog), the importance and the role we give to knowing the facts, has to change.  We have managed to embrace Siri in so many other facets of our lives: do you wait to the hour to know the weather forecast; do you look up trivia (or ask Siri) when out with friends: do you still memorize phone numbers?

It is hard to change how we think of education.  It is hard to believe that students will grow up to be just as successful as we are, without having the same educational experience that we did.  But my life with Siri is very much different than my life before her.  Our students will never know a life without Siri.  Why do we keep making them learn the stuff that they could just ask Siri?  Why don’t we free up their cognitive energy to solve problems, create, innovate, analyze, evaluate, collaborate….

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The “Best-Teacher-Ever” Feeling is the key to changes in practice

I love data – I’m a little geeky that way.  And for many years, as a school administrator, I believed that if teachers could just look at the data and see how their students were doing they would be galvanized into action!  What could I do in my classroom so that my students would improve?  Except it didn’t really happen that way.  Sure, for some teachers it made a difference.  But, on a larger scale I didn’t find that classroom data was providing the incentive for change.  However, over the years, as I have observed what does make a difference in changing practice,  I  have landed on something that has been occupying my thinking.  I call it the “I’m the best teacher ever” feeling.

Teachers care about what they do.  I don’t believe that we have very many teachers who wake up and decide to do a poor or mediocre job of teaching when they could choose to do a better one.  I believe that everyone is doing the best they can.  Why wouldn’t you?  And, I believe that teachers go home every night believing that they were competent at their job that day.  And so the world goes, day after day, school year after school year.

The magic happens, though, on the day that the teacher goes hope invigorated, excited and passionate.  The teacher goes home and says “I’m the best teacher ever!”.  We all know that feeling.   The one where the lesson goes well; the one where the students are engaged; the one when the parent writes the nice note.  When we design professional development that spurs the teacher to try something new, something not too crazy or complicated, something that we know will be successful, then the teacher goes home with the best-teacher-ever feeling.  That is a much better feeling than merely competent.  And, as human nature goes, the teacher will repeat that activity the following day in order to recreate the best-teacher-ever feeling again.  Practice starts to change.  The teacher starts to see his or her class in different ways.  The students are more engaged.  But, as life goes on, one day the lesson won’t go as well.  The teacher does not go home with the best-teacher-ever feeling but competent doesn’t cut it any more.  This is the point where teacher reflection really kicks in.  This is the point when the teacher is most likely to engage in professional inquiry.

When we can help teachers achieve the best-teacher-ever feelings, other things happen, too.  The rest of the teacher’s practice isn’t as enjoyable and he or she will begin to look for ways to change other areas of the day.  The best-ever-teacher will be excitedly talking about new ideas in the halls, in the staff room, on duty at recess.  Excitement breeds excitement and the best-teacher-ever will convince the other teachers to try something new.

So often we go to professional development workshops and come away with the BIG, BIG picture and it is too overwhelming.  We come away feeling that we have learned nothing but theory.  We come away believing that before we can embark on something new, we have to plan and plan and revise and plan.  It’s too much work in our busy lives to start something new with no real guarantee that it will work.  Or, we come away with a “must-do” (think posting learning goals and success criteria) that we comply with but the new practice doesn’t send us home with the best-teacher-ever feeling (not because it is a bad idea, necessarily, but because we are only complying).

I still love data.  And I still like to look at data with teachers and principals and almost anyone who will listen.  But the data alone won’t change practice of anyone in the educational system.  Students don’t change because of a mark-they change when a teacher takes an interest and helps them to improve right away.  Principals don’t change because of school scores – they change when they create a staff session where everyone leaves excited and then they see those changes in classrooms the very next day.  So the next time you design a lesson or design a PD opportunity, think about what can you help people leave with that will work tomorrow?   What can you help teachers do tomorrow so that they go home feeling like the best teacher ever?

 

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Teachers change their practice when their students are successful

I’ve been going to a lot of conferences lately, and watching a lot of video clips, about how leaders can influence change in teacher practice.  Mostly they are full of big ideas about collective inquiry, distributed leadership, forming relationships, using evidence-based practices, learning goals and success criteria, etc.  All of these big ideas are true.  But they are big ideas and sometimes big ideas are overwhelming to implement.

So I’ve been thinking what are ways of engaging teachers in changing practice which are not overwhelming but do lead teachers to changes in practice.  In the end, my experience is that teachers are learners and do want to do their very best for their students.  I do not adhere to the notion that we have great numbers of teachers who are resistant to new ideas.  I believe that the great majority of teachers walk in the school doors every day believing that they are teaching the best way they know how.  But I also believe that there are many teachers who are clinging to very traditional practices, probably because they appear to be working.  How does teacher practice change?

Teachers change their practice when they see that their students are successful or more engaged in learning after implementing change in practice.  When a teacher tries something new, and the lesson is successful, the teacher feels good.  The teacher goes home feeling like “this is the profession for me”!

However, often we ask teachers to change practice in ways that are not successful or make no difference.  Without a belief that the change will make a difference for an identified problem, teachers are most likely to simply comply:

  • Asking teachers to change assessment practices without changing pedagogy might mean they rename their quizzes formative assessments.
  • Asking teachers to have lots of anchor charts, without teachers understanding how the anchor chart scaffolds learning, results in lots of pretty anchor charts that rarely change.
  • Asking teachers to post learning goals and success criteria, without teachers actually changing how they plan, results in learning goals and success criteria that are often just the recipe for the day’s lesson.

Compliance is not change.

On the other hand, when teachers feel empowered to identify changes they’d like to make and try new ideas that they have identified as possible solutions, then they are more likely to change their practice.  Now, I don’t suggest that teachers who decide that the solution to a lack of student engagement is to feed them chocolate cake!  However, when teachers work collaboratively, with their principal at the table as an interested learner, identify aspects of their practice they’d like to change, look at some of the research or resources that might support that change, and then have the freedom to try it out, I’ve never never met a teacher who isn’t interested.

These conversations can come out of conversations which begin with:  What do you wish your students could do better?  Most teachers can identify an aspect of their course where students don’t seem to do as well as they’d like.  It might be a curriculum need or a behavioural/attitude need:

  • I wish my students knew their math facts.
  • I wish my students would persevere on challenging tasks.
  • I wish my students would write with more voice.
  • I wish my students thought critically about their reading.
  • I wish my students took more risks in solving problems.

The next step is to assess what the students are actually doing now, usually by looking at student work or by observations and conversations.  And then, teachers need to be empowered to try something new without feeling they are being judged, have timelines, or that there is a “right” way to do this.  But it is key that the teacher feels supported in the implementation of this new practice.  And this is the role of the principal as instructional leader; the principal needs to be interested in what is happening in the classroom, ask how the new practice is going, and be willing to offer suggestions and ideas as an interested co-learner not as a boss.

When teachers “play” with their practice and engage in thinking about what works, what doesn’t and what solves the problems they notice, then they change.  Success breeds success.  We need to be careful that our professional development ideas don’t bog teachers down to the extent that they comply rather than change.  If what teachers are asked to do, doesn’t have a fairly immediate effect on their practice, they aren’t likely to engage.  Who would?  But, when teachers implement ideas that they understand, that they choose, that they believe in, then their students will be successful.  Teachers change their practice when their students are successful.

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Go ahead and “teach to the test”; Assessment should be fair to kids

I do not like parallel parking and I avoid it at all costs.  However, when my kids were learning to drive, I taught them all how to parallel park because I knew it would be part of the road test.  It would not have been fair to my kids for them to take the test if they were not prepared. Assessment should be fair.

In Ontario the results of the EQAO spring assessments (grades 3, 6, 9 and 10) have been recently released and there is the usual chatter and angst and discussion about the validity of standardized testing.  Of course, we as teachers, feel joyful when our students do well and miserable when our students do poorly.  That makes sense; our students’ performance is, in part, a reflection on us as teachers.  But, we often go to great lengths to find other reasons to dismiss the testing.  That makes sense as well but it may not be productive.

There are things that happen with the EQAO assessments in Ontario that I do not like.  Individual school results are printed in the newspapers without taking into consideration a myriad of other factors.  In many boards, targets for individual schools are set, based on last year’s results.  And, a part of me does wonder if grade 3 students, eight year olds, are really able to  demonstrate their knowledge in that kind of setting.

However, there are things about the EQAO assessments I do like.  They are based on the Ontario curriculum and the questions, for the most part, are challenging for students.  The question I ask teachers all the time is:  would you be happy if all your students could answer these questions at the end of the year or are the questions unfair, pointless, and not based on the curriculum?  Invariably the answer is that the questions are fair and we would all be thrilled if our students could answer them.

So then, why not “teach to the test”?  The phrase “teach to the test” gets bandied about as if it were a bad thing.  And, if the test was simply full of  the same factual questions year after year, so that all teachers did all year long was to drill students on those questions, then I would agree that “teaching to the test” would be a waste of everyone’s time.  But the reality is that the test is based on the curriculum and the questions are designed so that we would be happy if our students could answer them.

Go ahead and teach to the test then, I say.  If you can do so, and your students are all successful, how is that a bad thing?  It is based on the curriculum so you know your students know their stuff.  The questions are designed to be challenging so you know your students are thinking and succeeding.  Your students will feel good about themselves during the test, because they will know how to do it, and afterwards when they get their results.  And you, the teacher, will feel good, because your efforts paid off.  Public confidence in education will be high.  Where’s the down side?

In Ontario, and most other jurisdictions with standardized testing, past tests and sample questions are available.  Neither the format or the type of question is a mystery.  The question then becomes:   are you teaching throughout the year in ways that make the assessment fair to your students?  

  • If you never ask questions during the year that are the same level of difficulty and complexity to the EQAO questions, then you aren’t being fair.
  • If your students have never seen a multiple choice type format prior to the standardized testing (and no one has ever told them that the very best wrong answer will be there), then you aren’t being fair.
  • If your students don’t know that it is okay to do the figuring out on a piece of scrap paper before choosing an answer in multiple choice (and many don’t know this), then you aren’t being fair.
  • If your math students are not given opportunities throughout the year to determine which manipulatives they will need, instead of you as the teacher telling them, then you aren’t being fair.  (Because during the assessment the student can go get a manipulative off the shelf but you can’t put it in front of them).
  • If your students never have to do work and solve problems independently, without you rescuing them, then you aren’t being fair.
  • If you don’t return to big key ideas multiple times throughout the year, then you aren’t being fair.
  • If you have never examined the scoring guides for the questions, so that you know the expectations, then you aren’t being fair.

I am definitely not advocating that students spend all year practicing pasts tests.  Nor am I advocating that teachers put lots of pressure on students with regards to the tests.  I am suggesting, however, that teachers not ignore the test.

Education is about the “what if”.  What if all of our students were to demonstrate high levels of competence on the standardized tests that we know are based on curriculum and demand our students to be critical thinkers?  We would all be thrilled. Assessment should be fair to students.  So, go ahead and teach your class so that all assessments are fair to them, even the standardized ones.

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Where did that teacher go? Helping students to make their own decisions

I was looking at some of the EQAO (Ontario’s standardized test in grades 3, 6, 9 and 10) questions in an attempt to understand why many of our students are not doing well.  The problems were hard!  They were tricky!  I actually had to read one of the grade 6 math questions a few times to figure out what to do!  And I think of myself as fairly competent in math, and quite literate.  When looking at some of the other questions in math I noticed that quite a few of the questions required me to perform multiple steps, think beyond one strand in mathematics.  In reading, the questions often required me to pull multiple sources of information together.  In writing, I had to determine the form based on the prompt; I wasn’t necessarily told what to do.

In a conversation with one of our elementary consultants, she expressed surprise that our students, in writing did not score very well in organization.  She said, “But our teachers teach writing forms to death!”  What was happening?

We, as educators, train our students to learn in particular ways. It could be that the way we organize curriculum delivery actually trains students NOT to think.  So when they go to write the EQAO assessment, or end of term exams, and have to think, have to pull multiple sources of information together, make decisions, our students don’t do so well.  Not because they are incapable, and not because we didn’t teach them the stuff, but because they have not been given opportunities to practice making their own decisions.  Let’s look at two examples:

When students learn writing through units that have students write one form of writing (letters, reports, procedural writing, etc.) over and over for many weeks, teachers end up making all the decisions, not the student.  The student isn’t faced with the challenge of determining the form best suited to the audience and the purpose.  Instead, the teacher has taken control of the most important aspect of the writing process and the student only needs to comply by writing in that form on a particular topic, not think.  It shouldn’t be surprising then that when faced with organizing his or her thoughts on a topic during an assessment (or even in real life) the student may be at loose ends.  Where did that teacher who tells me what to do go?

Problem-solving in mathematics classrooms is current practice but there are many misconceptions.  It is not problem-solving if the teacher guides the student through the problem.  It is not problem-solving if the student isn’t challenged.  It is not problem-solving if the student only works in groups and never independently. Students are assessed individually.  And, if every problem for the last 3 weeks has been about the same concept, it really isn’t problem solving.  It shouldn’t be surprising then that when faced with a year-end assessment or exam, many students are at loose ends.  Where did that teacher who tells me what to do go?

We may give lip service to critical thinking and open-ended tasks.  But I urge us all to think about whether our classroom practice is really training our students to be independent thinkers, or whether we actually train them to rely on our guidance.  It’s hard to be a teacher and watch your students struggle.  It’s hard to find that ”just right” amount of struggle.  But, standardized tests, like EQAO, end of semester exams, and real life, all depend on students being able to make their own decisions about what needs to be done.  Let’s help them to do that by providing them with many, many opportunities to do so throughout the course of the year.

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Changing the culture of implementation

Change is cultural.  We’d like to think that school change was about adding a new program, or providing new resources, or even hiring the “right” people.  But it’s not.  School change is about changing culture and that is hard-but not impossible. In fact, changing school culture results in increased motivation and enthusiasm.  Cultural change is energizing.

Let’s look at the mathematics crisis in Ontario.  It is not as if we have been giving teachers incorrect information over the last five years.  No, the information being rolled out to schools from boards of education and from the ministry is research-based, current pedagogy.  It is not as if we do not have the resources available in most schools, in most classrooms.  No, Ontario teachers have access to professional resources, professional development, additional qualification courses, math manipulatives.  It is not as if our Ontario math teachers are waking up every morning with an intention not to teach mathematics well.  No, most teachers that I meet are deeply committed to doing the best job they can.  It is not as if the demographic of students in Ontario has changed so radically that they are incapable to doing mathematics.

In order for there to be wide scale change, there needs to be a wide scale change in both beliefs and practices.  In order to have wide-scale change, there needs to be a change in both school and board culture with regards to the implementation of change.  Typically, in education, we focus efforts at the teacher level:  they go to professional learning, they get new resources, they are charged with change implementation.  eThere is a quick aside to the principal:  “Just be the instructional leader here and make sure it happens.”  And then, everyone crosses their fingers and hopes for the best.

Unfortunately, change in teacher practice is messy and hard.  It never happens like the video would have you believe. It almost never works out the first time.  Teachers have to risk losing the well-oiled machine of classroom management when implementing a new pedagogical practice.  Students, too, will be wary of new approaches.  And, so, change happens in a very ad hoc manner, landing in some places but not others.  In the face of messy, many individual teachers will abandon new practices or, adopt only parts of new practices that they think they understand.

But what if the implementation of change was a joint effort between all levels of the organization, both at the board and school level.  And that effort meant taking a real interest in the change, not just managing one’s respective part in the process.  For example:

  • Principals take the same amount of interest in learning about the instructional change as their teachers do.  They are not merely present but active learners.  They don’t abandon the learning to deal with a small recess issue; they participate actively in classrooms instead of sitting back; they try teaching; they read the same resources; they engage in authentic discussions about teacher lessons.
  • Principals actively monitor the change, and can do so because they understand what the change really needs to look like.  This monitoring involves using both qualitative and quantitative data. The data helps them to know where to focus support.
  • Teachers have the freedom to try out changes without the fear of being evaluated immediately.  There is recognition of the messiness.  The change process is honored over compliance.
  • Superintendents have authentic and deep conversations with both principals and teachers about the work they are doing.  Superintendents  are also learning alongside teachers and principals.
  • Professional development and training is not attended only by teachers but also by principals, vice-principals, and superintendents.  It is visibly obvious that the change is of interest to all.
  • The change is not invitational.  Throughout the organization there is a recognition that the change is important.  However, there is also recognition that the change will be big, and messy, and require support.  The support is not provided only through training and resources, but also through authentic interest and learning by all levels of the organization.

We think that change is scary.  But, my experience is that change is exciting.  Change in practice that affects student learning energizes teachers more than anything else I know. But, change is cultural not procedural.  So, ask yourselves, does educational change in my school/board/system create high levels of anxiety or high levels of energy?  If it isn’t creating high levels of energy, then chances are, the implementation of the change is not affecting culture.  And, in the end, there will be limited change.  However, change the culture of implementation, and everyone will be excited to be learning-students, teachers, principals and superintendents.

 

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Filed under classroom environment, pedagogy, school culture, school improvement plannig, Uncategorized

Sticky Learning

I recently gave a TEDx talk about this topic but for those of you who like to read….

Tradition and intuition play a big role in how we teach but our observations of student learning and research suggest that we might be wrong.  Traditionally we teach in units:  2, 4, or 6 weeks (albeit they sometimes stretch into 8 or even 10 weeks).  We think that if we teach the kids all they need to know about one subject (multiplication, persuasive writing, levers, time, the colour wheel etc) and give them lots of practice about this one topic, over and over again in a 2-4 week period of time, then they will learn the stuff.  Except, they don’t.  Students don’t tend to retain concepts they only learn once a year very well.

Our observations of student learning show us that this is true.  If you teach fractions, usually taught in a 4-6 week unit in the spring, you know this.  It feels like every year is like starting over.  I’m sure that you can think of many other concepts where the learning done last year doesn’t “stick”.

There is cognitive research that does tell us a lot about how people learn.  Two concepts, spaced learning and interleaving, are well-documented in the research but hold little traction in real classrooms.

We typically teach in a “massed” practice where we teach kids everything about one topic in a short period of time and then test them.  Students do well in testing situations immediately following the learning, but test them a few weeks later and they don’t remember very much.  However, when material is learned spaced over time, retention of concepts is much greater.  This positive effect has been documented in the literature since 1885!  John Hattie, in Visible Learning, listed it as the 13th most positive effect on learning out of 138 possibilities.  You may wish to consider what would happen if you took a big topic, like fractions or division or proportional reasoning, and instead of teaching it all at once, you spaced the learning out over multiple  opportunities over the course of the year.

We have found spacing the learning out to be very beneficial to our students.  For example, instead of our intermediate students reading just one novel over 6-8 weeks (and really, as a real reader, who does that except maybe for War and Peace?) our students read between 6 to 10 novels over the course of the year, spending between 2-3 weeks on each.  They learn all the same skills about analyzing literature, but they have multiple opportunities to practice the skills over the year.  We do the same in mathematics, returning to problems in proportional reasoning, for example, a few times every month instead of in a 3 week unit.

The other piece of research that has huge benefits for learning, but doesn’t really hold much traction in our school system, is interleaving.  We tend to block the curriculum into discrete units of study, studying each topic one at a time:  addition, subtraction, multiplication, division ; OR, fractions, decimals, percent; OR, persuasive writing, descriptive writing, report writing.  The problem, when students learn this way, is that they don’t learn to see the similarities and differences between the topics.  We hope they will make connections, but really it is left up to them to do it on their own.  When we teach like this it is called “blocked practice”.

But if you interleave the learning, you teach similar concepts all at the same time.  A writer’s workshop model allows students to explore a variety of forms of writing all within the context of writer’s craft.  If students were faced with problems in mathematics involving addition, subtraction, multiplication and division at the same time then they would be forced to develop an understanding of how the concepts are related and to know when to apply each concept.

I call teaching in this spaced and interleaved way spiralling.  While provincial and state curriculum  say they “spiral”, meaning that students learn about fractions, for example, once every year, I argue that the spiral loops are too big.  If we tighten the spiral so that students have many chances to learn the big ideas over the course of the year, I think we get to learning that is sticky.

Of course, spiralling is not easy to plan for.  Teachers like their units.  They like to be “done”.  Spiralling the curriculum really requires that teachers adopt a new mindset about curriculum design.  It isn’t easy…but the teachers that I work with wouldn’t ever go back to teaching traditionally in longer units.  Not only do we get sticky learning, but our students are much more engaged.  Every day is a new challenge for them and they have to apply their learning to specific and varied contexts.

If you want to give it a try, think about doing just a bit at a time instead of revamping your entire curriculum.  Try something new; no one will die.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under inquiry, pedagogy, school culture, school improvement plannig, Uncategorized