A few loose thoughts from the past week

Firstly, I want to thank those who have encouraged me to write more and share more of the issues in education that I learn about as I work with students and teachers. It seems that as I’ve made more of an effort to write, I’ve found more opportunities. Here are three different thoughts I’ve put to writing this week that I’ll share here.

“It’s a great day for a ball game; let’s play two!”

Last week the baseball player, Ernie Banks passed away. Here’s what I felt compelled to write the next day after being reminded about his legacy during a radio report:

If you aren’t familiar with this former baseball player, please find any brief obituary. Here’s what I’d like to celebrate about him: Win or lose Ernie loved his job and made an effort to share his optimism with those around him- fans, teammates, or reporters. I think this is a legacy I can aspire to. I’m going to make an effort, and I encourage each of you, to show up for work with Ernie’s level of enthusiasm and gratitude. I am very lucky that everyday I can be with compassionate and committed co-workers and endlessly fascinating students, and I will do what I can to let those around me on our campus that no matter how exciting or mundane the task at hand we are at the forefront of excitement and innovation in education.

The following Monday, Banks’ legacy was summed up this way: He was one of the all-time greatest ball players, among baseball’s inner circle of the best of the best. Yet, he will be remembered as a great person who did what he could to bring joy to those around him.

Want Relevance and Rigor? Immerse your school in current global affairs and global competency

I had an opportunity to apply for a scholarship to travel abroad for a week. The application gave me the opportunity to write about the importance of global competency and 21st century skills (which I hope to further define in future posts). In 400 words or less, here’s what I had to say about this.

Two of my roles in the school are instructional coach and classroom teacher and I use both roles to promote global competency and teach 21st century skills. In my AP Physics and AP Statistics classrooms I seek to have students investigate issues from around the globe. For example, in Physics we can study the use of rolling water containers to prevent women from needing to carry water for hours every day. In Statistics, we regularly use global data such as education levels or public health to learn about concepts like linear regression, finding summary statistics, and testing for statistical significance. In addition to understanding about the world, I want my students to be confident problem solvers who can direct their own inquiry, recognize the impact of multiple perspectives, communicate to a diverse audience, and be empowered that they can use their skills to take actions to improve their community. An important part of developing global competency is using technology and collaboration. For this I use Google Docs and Google Sheets to help students collaborate online with each other and learn how to share scientific data. I have introduced flipped classroom resources so that students understand that learning does not have to be confined to when they are in a school.

As an instructional leader I’ve made an effort to empower our school faculty to teach 21st century skills and promote global competency in their own classrooms. We have a school-wide focus on global citizenship and I make an effort to support teachers in making their lessons better in the following four ways: Include student choice, make the student task authentic to the work real professionals do, include a significant global issue, and require students to present or exhibit their work to a real-world audience.

Assessing and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom

Our campus faculty is reading the Rick Wormeli book, Fair Isn’t Always Equal in anticipation for his visit to San Antonio February 18th. The principal and I have worked together to help teachers process the book and in our next faculty meeting I will be facilitating our discussion of Chapter’s 5 and 6 about tiering assessments and designing good test questions. As a way of pre-thinking each faculty member is bringing three ideas they learned, two ideas they found interesting, and 1 question they still have. As a way of giving you a glimpse into how I am currently thinking about my classroom practice here’s my response to the three prompts:

3 Things I found out:

1. For tiering to be effective, it is best to stay focused on one concept or task for students to learn. When there are multiple learning objectives then it is harder to understand what level different students need to be working at and to make the objectives and purpose of tiering clear to students.

“To avoid a potential pitfall with tiering, be sure to stay focused on one concept or task” pg 57

2. Because feedback is so important to students and a key skill for differentiated instruction it is better to have shorter assessments more frequently instead of longer assessments over time. For one thing, longer, more complex assessments take more time to grade, thus making the feedback less immediate and useful to students. Additionally, shorter assessments make it easier to zero in on what students know and do not know. This in turn, makes the learning objectives clearer to students and makes it easier to know what to do next to reach the targeted level of mastery.

“In order to get an accurate rendering of students’ mastery and support the emphasis on formative assessment mentioned earlier, smart teachers give multiple, smaller, and focused tests over the course of the grading period…” pg 84

 3. For tests to be valid measures of understanding, students must have a clear idea of the format. For example if students are going to be asked to identify if a math problem is impossible to solve using only the given information, then students should have been exposed to this possibility leading up to the assessment and be familiar with how to recognize and respond to it. This aligns to the idea presented earlier in the book that to be clear about the objectives assessed, give students a blank copy of the test at the beginning of the unit and ask them to look it over to see what is coming next.

“We don’t call for an approach on a test question that wasn’t practiced by students extensively during our lessons” pg. 83

2 Interesting Things:

1. Frank Williams’s Taxonomy of Creativity immediately made me think of ways my classes may be boring to students, and ways that I could make it more engaging. I firmly believe that the best scientists are creative individuals and creativity is necessary for using the tools of math and science to their fullest potential. The go-tool method I use for increasing engagement is puzzling or challenging lab setups, but I would really enjoy having my students work their way through the taxonomy after a complex topic like conservation of energy has been introduced.

2. The discussion questions at the end of Chapter 5 were really interesting to me. I think I struggle with delivering the right amount of rigor to each student. The AP objectives are rigorous, but sometimes I feel that students are left behind as a topic is introduced and developed, and then half the class is stuck waiting, while I loop back to catch up those students who are struggling. While there’s intent to differentiate, often as I try to respond to the needs of some of my students, I pull the whole class into work that they aren’t ready for or already have learned.

1 Question I still have:

Is it best for students that I impose a uniform time limit (except for those with disabilities) under the justification that they need to be prepared for the time limits of the AP test, even though some students would be able to earn higher scores if I let them stay in class to finish the test? Will they cheat if I let them go to their next two classes and then come back at lunch or after school to finish a test?

 

Unpacking from SRI’s Winter Meeting

I’m on the airplane from Tucson to San Antonio as I begin this, and if all goes well I’ll be done before I’m told to “stow electronic devices.” However for this entry that may not be possible. What I would like to do is capture how my time was spent at SRI’s Winter Meeting: what I talked with others about, what I learned, and what I’m now aspiring to (in CFG work we call this What, So What, and Now What).

In general, I want my entries on this web site to help other educators think about their practice and share the ideas and actions that make a difference for students. For that to happen I understand that my writing should be brief and to the point. 20 or more paragraphs chronicling two and half days of learning is not likely to lead those who find this to urge friends and colleagues to come read what I’ve written and join the conversation in comments. So this post is for me- and maybe any supervisors who are wondering if it was a good idea to allow me to be off campus for two days to participate in the Winter Meeting.

Place

We began our conference by hearing from the principal of a charter high school in downtown Tucson. Carrie welcomed us to the meeting, shared our meeting’s theme, and encouraged us use our time well. What stood out to me from her opening remarks was her enjoyment at having so many (200? 400? 800? I couldn’t really count) of us gathered together in her hometown. She shared 5 words whose usage and meaning illuminate the Place where we were gathered. By introducing Place as a theme for our meeting a couple of big ideas about people and society were able to surface in my mind. The five words she shared with us to help us understand Tucson were mariachi, Sonoran, saguaro, roadrunner, and border.

The first big idea is that people want to be a part of a community. By this, I mean that I believe that people want to unify with those who they have something in common for the purpose of friendship, support, and inspiration. There are few things more natural for communities to form around than proximity. Though we don’t always form a community with those we live near as adults, the majority of the student population in schools is defined solely by geography. I think this point is important because it reminds me that even when students seem to have little in common and seem to be incapable of learning together there may be a common bond through the idea of Place that can be a starting point for building a classroom culture.

Secondly, the idea of Place reminded me of something I believe to be at the root of transformational education. I think transformational education is a fascinating concept to explore further, and since it likely means something different to me than it does to you, I think I should explain it a little bit more. The basic idea is that no matter what our role in the education system we all we want to make a change in a student, in a teacher, or in a system. For the change to take place it is necessary to understand the context that we want to make a change in. The discussion of Place at the opening of our conference reminded me that learning about the Place our students live and learn is essential to effectively enacting any changes.

Be Kind

Our keynote speaker was Jeanette Maré who founded Ben’s Bells Project and works to sustain and grow the project. Ben’s Bells is a project unique to Tucson that was created as Jeanette was coping with the loss of her son, Ben. As the anniversary of his passing approach she and her friends and family decided to honor Ben by creating chimes made of a bell and painted ceramic patterns that could be placed around Tucson. The bells included the phrase “Be Kind” and those who received them were asked to perform an act of kindness for another in the community and pass the kindness on. Over the years, Jennifer and Tucson have come to discuss and learn what it means to be kind. How it is an expression of love and a way to show unity that goes beyond being nice. Indeed sometimes being kind means offering critical feedback or helping someone make a better choice.

The most important piece of her talk to us was that she has found in both her work and her research on the mind that kindness is a skill to be learned and practiced. We don’t automatically know how to be kind to each other but we can learn if we have kindness modeled for us and are provided a trusting environment to practice kindness. It was fascinating to consider kindness in the context of schools. If we all aspire to have a school where students are kind to each other then what steps do we need to take to teach them how to do it?

Here are six additional points about kindness she wanted us to take away:

  • Kindness is within our power
  • Kindness honors personality and honors connection
  • Kindness builds trusts
  • Kindness is fierce
  • Kindness is intentional, it is a way of responding rather than reacting
  • Kindness is selfish, it changes us first

And finally, 3 questions for us to bring back to our schools. She began with these questions to help us focus on her presentation and make meaning of it. If you are with me still, consider answering one or more of these questions with a comment below.

  1. Is my school a kind place for all?
  2. What steps can I take for my students to be kind?
  3. What can I do to restore hope?

Who we are and what we do best

Our small group was eager to work together. From the start it was noticeable how enthusiastic the participants were to be learning from each other. A simple activity like going around the circle introducing ourselves led to praise being tossed around our table like a beach ball at an Angels’ baseball game. The affirmation continued as we moved into a norming process, discussed CFG work and protocols and prepared to have our first structured conversation- a tuning of adult work for a school leader preparing to lead her school community in a revision of the school mission statement.

The old mission statement had been created 10 years ago as the school was created. It was successful and useful for shaping and guiding the board, faculty and students who were building a community. And now that the school was ten years old its leader believed that it was time to reevaluate if the mission was still saying the right thing. Our group used a process of examining the mission statement, asking clarifying questions, comparing the mission statement to six goals and values for the school community and providing warm and cool feedback. Finally we were able to hear from the school leader and what next steps she was considering.

One of the outstanding phrases that arose from this discussion was that she wanted a mission statement that could show the community “who we are and what we do best.” Another participant in the group later used the idea of a mission statement being a gate to the community. These two ideas clicked in my mind as I thought of my classroom communities and my broader school community. My aspiration from this discussion was to try to come up with a way to succinctly summarize what takes place in my classroom. I feel like my classrooms have been lacking clarity around what the purpose for our learning is. I have a long list of performance outcomes, AP objectives and the goal that I “want students to be prepared when you take these classes in college.” But how much more powerful and useful would it be if we could have a single statement that we can point to each day that reminds us that I should take pride in the tasks I ask my students to complete and students should take pride that they are not just getting new facts in their head but are changing themselves into better mathematicians, better scientists and better citizens. This point was significantly emphasized in our closing keynote and I hope to articulate more about it.

To close this section, I love the ideas behind the school’s mission and I’d like to leave the complete statement and the goals/values here as well:

We strive to be a community of learners in which all members use their minds well and care about one another. We engage with challenging academics and the unique resources of our city and region in order to become active citizens and responsible stewards of our work.

School Goals/Values (I’ll use the school’s headings, and then give a brief statement in my own words of what it represents.)

  1. Personalization– every individual on our community matters and we will all treat each other accordingly.
  2. Challenging academic curriculum– Students will engage in meaningful tasks to learn important content
  3. Community connections– students will understand the community around them and engage in it responsibly
  4. Student leadership– students will take responsibility and show initiative to improve the school and community
  5. Diversity– we will honor the multiple perspectives that our diverse population brings and our curriculum will reflect our cultural diversity
  6. Institutional advancement– our school will use resources responsibly in a manner that supports growth and innovation.

The Issaquah

Following a brief break after our discussion using the Tuning protocol we next decided to look at school leader’s dilemma using the Issaquah protocol. I love this protocol because of a wonderful CFG leader I met in Boston last year who loved this protocol and sold me on it. Now, anytime this protocol comes up in CFG work I remember how much I enjoyed my small group in Boston 2014. So naturally when our small group facilitator asked for a volunteer to facilitate the Issaquah I volunteered.

In essence the dilemma we discussed was this. How do you give support to those educators who need it, but are already stretched to their limits and beyond in terms of time and workload? Two wonderful things happened during our discussion. First, I made a mistake in the protocol. Others in the group would probably just say that I made a choice in facilitating to depart from the protocol as written, but it wasn’t intentional and I regretted making that departure. This was wonderful for multiple reasons. I’ve learned something from this mistake. I’ve talked about it, reflected upon it and I will be more careful in reading protocols so that if I depart from how it’s written it will be a deliberate choice. Additionally, this mistake gave us a chance to talk as a group about facilitating and mistakes and to hopefully support others as they take risks in facilitating discussion.

My second wonderful thing from the discussion was the group’s kindness as I received praise from others in the group. I wasn’t sure if I would share publicly that it made me feel good for others to tell me they thought I was an excellent facilitator. It seems a little bit vain and it’s not really a surprising insight to say that telling people they did something well makes them happy. But I think there’s further implications that make me want to include it in this too-long reflection. The kind words of my group are what are giving me the courage to make my thoughts public. I want to sustain a conversation about transformational learning communities fiercely committed to educational equity and excellence and spread the value of CFG to those who may have never heard of it. It is because of the support of those I worked with this week that I believe that I can use Complementarity to do this.

As for the dilemma we discussed, I am taking two thoughts on this back to San Antonio. The first is that even if someone is out of time, it’s worth it to force the time to be carved out if the conversation and support is authentic, collaborative, and transformational. The other thought is that as an instructional leader I need to be more sensitive to the needs of the teachers around me. Perhaps they aren’t knocking on my office door asking for help, but if I can be a greater presence in their classrooms and have a better understanding of their strengths and weakness then I can offer the right kind of support for them.

Our first day of work together ended after we discussed this dilemma, and though I’d love to share the learning that took place as a cohort of us from San Antonio ate, walked, and talked together, I’ll save it for a second reflection on the other day and half of Winter Meeting.

An Opportunity

I spent the weekend at a meeting of educators from around the country in Tucson, Arizona. The meeting was organized by the School Reform Initiative, a national organization that “creates transformational learning communities fiercely committed to educational equity and excellence.” It is hard to explain to people who are used to conferences and workshops how the experience of educators at Winter Meeting is essentially different from those types of professional development. The essential structure of our two and a half days together is a group of 10 to 12 professionals who represent a diverse range of age, experience, ethnicity and roles in our education system. I happened to be in a group of 11 with educators from Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia, New York, and Massachusetts.

In addition to the time spent in this group, I heard from two keynote speakers at the open and close of the meeting and spent Friday morning visiting City High School and learning about how they use Community Day to connect students to the city around them and encourage students to collaborate across grade levels outside of the usual classroom structure. What’s further remarkable about the Winter Meeting is that the scheduled time to meet is not nearly enough to contain the questions and conversation that my colleagues and I wanted to have. An apparently innocuous question to someone I’ve just met like, “how did you become a teacher?” lead to a pretty significant conversation about school culture and expectations for our students.

As our small group finished our last session together we each took turns sharing how our weekend has affected or changed us. My response:

I used to think that because I worked with fantastic colleagues who shared my vision of serving students through empathy, innovation, and collaboration I did not needed a wider network of support during the year. Now I think that connecting with individuals from other parts of the country has the potential to push my thinking in a way that will make me a more effective classroom teacher and instructional leader. I think there is an opportunity to use technology and social media to make this much more likely.

So my first action based off this closing thought is to write about my learning and my commitment to share it. My second action is to invite more people to visit this site and continue the conversation. My hope is that as I try to regularly highlight the questions and answers that my job raises for me there will be a positive ripple that moves out from me, to the students and teachers at my school, to educators around the country who can be renewed and excited by conversations about equity and excellence in education.

Websites about teaching and learning that are good and powerful have the following traits I aspire for Complementarity to develop. They give an honest description of what happens in the school or classroom and the emotions that those events evoke, and yet, do not violate anyone’s right to privacy. All of the writing is infused with a sense of joy about being paid to spend time with students and learning new things about the world together. Finally there is a space for a community to have conversations and for people to give and receive critical feedback. Feel free to share my writing and leave comments in any way that furthers the conversation about teaching and learning. I hope that this site can become a useful addition to the many conversations taking place online.

Can the model for great classrooms can be found in pre-k and kinder?

The 2013-2014 school year has been underway for about 3 weeks now.  I have been teaching a class of 21 eleventh and twelfth grade students, my daughter has started 4th grade and my son has been in preschool after being taken care of at home for the last two years.  My mother made a career in early child development, coordinating child care services for an urban county in the San Francisco Bay Area and teaching college courses part time.  I mention this because I was raised learning about the importance of pre-k and kinder education and how it fits in to the work done in elementary, middle, and high schools.

So before I write more about elementary and secondary classrooms, I thought I’d start with a few things worth sharing about the education of three, four, and five year-olds.  Sir Ken Robinson shared in one of his recent TED talks that tests for creativity given to five year olds produce higher scores than the tests given to 10 year olds.  In essence he argues that formal schooling reduces the ability of kids to ask questions, be creative, and learn for themselves.  This got me thinking that if inquiry, creativity, and self-directed learning are things I value in secondary students, then perhaps some reflection of what these traits look like in pre-kinder classes could help me articulate to the teachers I work with what traits we want to see in their classroom.

So in what ways are pre-k students creative?  The first thing that comes to mind is what I hear and see when kids have time to play by themselves.  Sticks can turn into swords, blocks can turn into houses, and kids can turn into talking ponies (my family has been on a My Little Pony kick for a while now).  Kids are not limited by what they have to play with, and will simply imagine that whatever they need is what they have.  There are no constraints on their creativity until an adult tells them that the time has come to stop playing.

Is there an “educational value” to this kind of creativity?  Certainly there is for pre-k and kinder students.  If they are trying to engage in this sort of play with others, then they learn important social skills as well as develop the language capabilities to communicate effectively.  If a student is engaged in creative play by themselves, then I believe that children are learning an important lesson about independence, and that the act of imagining and creating is intrinsically rewarding.

Is there a way to allow elementary, middle, and high school students to engage in this kind of creativity in their education?  A school can help support student creativity by ensuring that there is adequate time for recess, art, and music.  Clubs and organizations will often allow creative students to have an outlet for their passions.  However, I would like to see the goal of creativity embraced as an essential part of the core curriculum.  The Common Core won’t do this, and it’s not likely to be a part of any college readiness initiative like AP and IB programs.  Instead, we need the individual classroom teachers to understand what it means for a scientist to be creative or a mathematician to be creative or a social scientist to be creative or a reader and writer to be creative.  Once the classroom teacher understands creativity, then they can build it into their program.  I’ll close this section by saying this, most math and science teachers cry a little inside (sometimes very deep inside) when they hear a student say that they don’t like math or science because they are a “creative person” as though the two were mutually exclusive.

A Brief Post About Types of Teaching and Kinds of Teachers

I got a recap from a friend of some of what Dr. Schmoker presented this week and the recap included phrases like “he’s for traditional learning” and “he thinks constructivist learning is misguided.”  Through future posts I’ll be sharing my own vision for effective classrooms and schools and I’d like to think that this vision defies description by any shortcut labels (otherwise, why spend time blogging about it when I could just write on my About Page that I  believe in constructivist learning).  Furthermore, as I consider excellent lesson ideas and classroom philosophy, I’ll be referring to many of these styles of teaching.  So for the sake of my own clarity, here are some terms I may use regarding classrooms and what they mean to me:

Traditional classroom, traditional methods, traditional teaching

All of these terms mean to me that the teacher knows something that the students need.  The job of the teacher is transfer this information to the students, give them an opportunity to practice it (hopefully working higher and higher up Bloom’s Taxonomy), and assign grades based on how much they learned and how quickly they learned it and to what extent they can transfer their learning to new and creative situations.  This does not exclude the possibility that teachers are flipping classrooms, using rich technological methods for student to practice and demonstrate understanding, or using a variety of strategies to make learning engaging for students.

In my opinion this approach emphasizes learning content at the expense of creativity, inquiry, and self-directed learning.  Which if you are suburban school or a school serving mostly high income families with highly motivated students then this approach will likely lead to students who thrive.  And if you feel your job is to fill your students with facts so they stand out on AP tests, and can succeed in rigorous college courses, then chances are these methods will work well for you.  However, I believe that the disturbing drop out rate in urban high schools will never fully be fixed until urban middle school teachers let go of these methods.

Differentiated instruction (mostly a synthesis of what I’ve taken from the books by Carol Ann Tomlinson)

Students come into a unit of instruction with different levels of readiness, different interest in learning and using the content, and different ways that are most effectie for them to learn and demonstrate learning.  A classroom that effectively uses differentiated instruction is frequently assessing these three things about students and then differentiating either the content that students are developing in their work, or the process through which students learn, or the products that students create to demonstrate their understanding.  Differentiation and traditional teaching are not exclusive of each other.  It is reasonable and likely in today’s classrooms that a teacher can believe that they hold the content that students must learn, and that different students will acquire this knowledge through different content, process, or products based on their readiness, interest, and learning style.

Inquiry Learning/Constructivist learning

The key difference between what I’m labeling as inquiry learning and what I’m labeling as traditional learning is that in inquiry learning the subject matter content that students are working with is less important than the deeper understandings behind the content and the methods used to explore those deeper understandings.

For example, if I’m teaching an algebra class as an inquiry/constructivist teacher, then I would approach the content “students can solve systems of linear equations using a variety of methods” differently than a traditional classroom teacher would.  This classroom would focus much more on what it means to find a solution.  There would not be any example or problem given in class that did not have an authentic context around it and students would start by being given a guess and check strategy from the teacher.   From there students would work through examples of increasing complexity, finding shortcuts to guess and check methods, keeping track of solutions that seem to work, and situations where a strategy is no longer effective.  Then, students and teachers would work together to communicate the working strategies as a set of rules.  There may not be time to construct the methods of graphing, substitution, and elimination through inquiry and collaborative problem solving, so maybe students can’t use the elimination technique as well as students in the traditional classroom.  However, math class is suddenly about a lot more than learning techniques for solving equations.  It’s about exploring why equations are used in the first place and how to effectively understand and communicate mathematical processes.

Project Based Learning/Problem Based Learning (PBL)

The technical distinction between these two terms aren’t too important to me, and I believe mostly based on the titles of books that help teachers effectively use these methods.  PBL classrooms or PBL units are designed to ensure that the instruction and assessment of students involves students working on creating a project or solving a problem and then presenting their solution to an outside audience.  In order to create a high quality product, students are required to explore the necessary content.    If modeled and explained poorly, project based learning is easy for traditional teachers to dismiss, but if implemented faithfully the best aspects of traditional learning, inquiry learning, and differentiated instruction are naturally included.

Standards Based Assessment/Standards Based Grading/Mastery Grading

I wrote above that a traditional classroom assigns grades based on the amount of the required content learned, and the time in which it was learned.  Standards Based Grading (SBG) is based on the idea that grades should be solely based on how much of what a student needs to learn, the student learned.  So students are given a list at the beginning of grading period of what objectives they are supposed to demonstrate mastery of.  The teacher teaches the objectives and when a student is able to demonstrate mastery (or when the teacher recognizes a need to assess), they complete an assessment task assigned by the teacher.  Students who aren’t successful on a given task can get more instruction and then try again.  Participation in class activities, and completion of homework do not contribute to the “grade” a student earns (although a teacher should be giving significant formative feedback about the quality of student work) but rather steps that are required to be completed before a student can attempt an assessment.

I believe I first learned about SBG from Rick Wormeli and his book Fair Isn’t Always Equal about effective assessment in a differentiated classroom.  I further refined my understanding of SBG from Dan Meyer who fully explained his methods in his blogs.  I’m proud that two colleagues of mine are converting to SBG this school year, and I’m a little ashamed that in my own AP Stats class, I decided not use SBG because I didn’t feel comfortable changing the grading policies that I felt were effective for this class in previous years.  Essentially, I may have allowed what I felt was good enough in my classroom to prevent me from a change that may have made my classroom great.

Wrapping up

Every year I have been teaching, I can generally point to a significant change in my practice that led to an improvement in student learning in my class.  The biggest philosophical question that drives me to consider a change in my practice is:

Are students using the time in my classroom well?

Because of this question, I’ve sought out lessons that increase the rigor of my class. I’ve sought to ensure that in every class every student has a chance to read, write, and talk about what they are thinking and learning.  I’ve paid attention to what kinds of activities engage students and increase intrinsic motivation for learning math and science.  And I’ve paid attention to the classroom culture and establishing norms that allow everyone (including me) to do his or her best work.  In my vision for a well run classroom, the needs of the teacher, student, and content will require changes in how instruction takes place and a teacher should feel like they have the licence and ability to shift instructional strategies based on their professional judgement.  This is what I consider the Art and Science of Teaching, and I hope this blog can facilitate a conversation among professionals about how they serve their students well.

Your comments are always welcome

Focus: What matters in science education

In June of 2011, my school district invited Dr. Schmoker to speak to all campus administrators and gave a copy of his book, Focus, to all participants in the workshop.  Given the format of the book, I turned directly to his chapter on science and read his vision for a science classroom.  His vision is supported both by research and by interviews with science students and scientists.  However, I was very concerned with what would happen if that vision became the norm for American science education.

I found out that Dr. Schmoker is again visiting educators in my city, and will be extending his work based on the book Focus.  When I saw this news I was reminded of my reaction to his chapter about science, and decided this time to write a rebuttal to some of the points in his chapter.

As I read the chapter, these are the main arguments that stand out to me:

  1. Students are not learning enough science the way classes are traditionally taught.
  2. Science classes are traditionally based on hands on activities to generate student interest and observe phenomena and lecture to clarify concepts.  In addition science classes tend to be a mile wide and an inch deep, a popular expression for trying to cover too much material and only giving everything superficial coverage.
  3. If students instead spent the majority of their time reading, discussing, and writing about important scientific concepts they will know more science, be able to interact with the content, enjoy class more, and be better prepared for future science courses.

Within the first few pages of the chapter it is clear that Dr. Schmoker and I have very different beliefs about what it means to “learn science.”  For Dr. Schmoker learning science seems to mean filling your brain with facts and understating the models and processes that are created to explain natural phenomena.  To me learning science means learning how to create models and how to observe the facts that are written about in textbooks.

Before I explain why this difference in what it means to learn science is so important, let me explain the ways in which I agree with the science chapter in Focus.

First, science textbooks are generally underused in science classes.  For the reasons cited in the chapter, teachers need to take more time to teach students how to learn from textbooks and increase their capacity to understand news and magazine articles written about science.

Next, my experience affirms that daily writing by students is essential to allow students to make connections and understand content as well as to give teachers a concrete way to assess mastery and give students useful feedback.  It would serve students well to have 6 to 10 good short answer (three to 5 sentences) questions on a test rather than 50 multiple choice items.

Finally, I agree with the book’s primary complaints about labs.  Many, most, or all (depending on the skill of the teacher) science labs do not allow students to raise questions about how things work, they do not allow students to apply a newly learned concept to an authentic problem solving situation, and they do not allow students to make inductive connections between results measured in a lab and the natural processes in the world.

From this common ground let me raise my concern.  The most important improvement that needs to be made in science classrooms is to increase the quality of labs, the quality of student writing about labs, and the quality of teacher feedback on student lab work.  I am afraid that instructional leaders who read this chapter on science will throw out the baby with the bathwater so to speak, and in an effort to end the practice of bad labs that are not conducive to science education, they will not help teachers develop the good labs that are essential to quality science education.  Improving labs is paramount to actually making a difference in students’ attitude towards science, their ability to make sense of science content, and our nation’s capacity to produce scientists.

There are two negative trends that this Schmoker’s vision for science is intended to end. The first is that the number of young people going into STEM careers is not meeting the demand necessary for the United States to remain at the forefront of technological innovation and global problem solving.  The second trend is that other nations are scoring significantly higher than ours in international measures of science content learning.

From the chapter it would seem Schmoker thinks the reason for the first trend is that students do not have the necessary content understanding to enter those fields.  My experience with students indicates that they are choosing to not enter those fields because their science classes are either too difficult or too boring, or (sadly) for various reasons teachers mentor them away from advanced science coursework in high school.  While increasing the focus on literacy will help reduce the problems of students finding science content inaccessible, if the teacher does not regularly (40 to 50 percent of the time) include lab activities then students will not realize why being a scientist is fun and rewarding.  Although scientists may enjoy reading books and articles about their area of expertise, that is not why they entered into the field.   The fun and reward of being a scientist is in discovering that from our chaotic and complex real world, we can create and manipulate simple models.

The science chapter in Focus makes a contrasting point.  The article includes quotes from an astronomer, and biologist, and reflections from two individuals about what was lacking in their high school science preparation.  All of these quotes point to the idea that what these individuals wanted from school was a chance to read and discuss interesting science content, not “measuring, pouring, and filling in of blanks.”

A number of people who enter in teaching, do so after excelling in school and being excellent students.  They then tend to feel most comfortable teaching in the ways that they were taught and then face a moment when they realize that those “traditional” methods are not effective for a significant number of their students.  In a similar way, I think that the scientists and students in this chapter who claim to be more excited by reading about science in action rather than experimenting in the classroom represent a specific learning style, and it would be ill advised to assume that what excites them would work for low-income minority students.

The best and brightest science students at my school have grown up doing the hands-on activities with their parents or on their own and never needed a classroom to show them that science is fun and exciting.  They already get what makes science exciting, because they grew up in a culture that reinforced scientific thought.  It is very likely that students who are white, suburban, or wealthy will grow up exposed to science and do not need a science teacher to give them opportunities to do experiments and make models.  In my case, I had two uncles who were geologists and my mom’s best friend was a chemist.  I grew up with my parents teaching me to explore nature and ask questions.  I went to college after high school planning on being a research scientist.  And it did not matter whether my high school science classes were any good.

If science classes in high school focused more on having students perform authentic experiments rather than on learning the content, our students will find the subject more appealing. For students who do not grow up being taught to think scientifically by their family, this is clearly true.  I promise you that a low income inner-city school that reduced labs to 10 to 20 percent of the instructional time so that extra time could be spent on learning content through literacy would have test scores that skyrocket and student interest in the subject plummet.

To be frank, the science classroom described in Focus sounds boring.  When a student walks into a science classroom and sees the following agenda:

  1. Journal Prompt
  2. Close reading
  3. Socratic discussion
  4. Reflection

They are not going to be excited about class that day, and if what they remember most about their high school science classes is reading and discussion, they are not going to want a career as a scientist.  Pretty much every student I have taught is disappointed when they come to class if there isn’t a lab that day.

Being good at reading and writing about science is of zero use to students if they do not understand that science is a process of determining truth through experimental means and that this is what makes science fun and rewarding.  If a school is truly committed to educational equity, then they need a science program that will teach low income and minority students what it looks like and feels like to investigate scientific concepts through measurement and experimentation with classroom models.  If schools don’t include regular high quality inquiry than professional scientists and engineers will continue to predominantly be nerdy white kids who grew up getting science kits from their relatives for Christmas and taking apart their parents old computers during summer vacation.

Perhaps giving lab work half of the instructional time puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to international test scores.  However, this is where American universities have an opportunity and a responsibility.  If me and my fellow high school teachers produce students who are interested in being scientists and know how to learn science through text, writing, discussion, and experimentation then the colleges can use a core sequence that delivers all of the concepts, facts, and technical skills that are necessary for science employment.  Because honestly, it’s never been the expectation that high schools would produce workforce ready scientists.

I’m sure that there are college professors who observe students from other countries who come to our colleges as freshmen having memorized trends of the periodic table, the names of all stages of cellular respiration and reproduction, and the difference between diffraction and interference.  They are disappointed that American kids don’t seem as “well prepared” and want secondary teachers to do a better job of delivering their content so it sticks.  They are probably aware of international tests which show how little American students have memorized compared to their peers.  However, just as secondary school teachers get students from a variety of backgrounds and differentiate to meet their needs, there is no reason that college instructors shouldn’t be expected to do the same thing.  To be disappointed that American students don’t recall some science facts on international tests or in their freshmen classes is like being disappointed that a student compared Maya Angelou to Bob Dylan in high school instead of memorizing Robert Frost’s “Two Roads Diverged.”

In conclusion, we all know a great writer is not just someone who constructs pleasing sentences.  A great historian is not just someone who knows all the details about past events, and a great mathematician is not just someone who is great at solving equations.  Likewise, a great scientist is not just someone who reads and understands scientific texts and journals.  Our goal should be to produce students who are capable of being great scientists. Different schools and teachers are realizing this at different rates- indeed the educational inequity in our society seems to be that classrooms in schools for wealthy students tends to focus on the skills and ideas that produce great thinkers and problem solvers, while classrooms in poorer schools are more likely to get bogged down in learning “just the facts.”

My hope is that when well-intentioned researches and writers discuss reducing the amount lab experiences and increasing the amount of reading, science teachers and educational leaders will be able to advocate for a balanced approach: For 50 to 60 percent of class students are reading, writing, and discussing.  For 40 to 50 percent of the time students are questioning, building, troubleshooting, measuring, analyzing, and problem solving.

The book, Focus, provoked me to consider my practice and how to make it stronger and for that I am thankful.  I hope that others who read it will also be as thoughtful in considering all of the implications.  Clearly, I’ve made many generalizations and assertions based on my 14 years in the classroom rather than research.  If there’s any research that supports or refutes my claims I’d be grateful for the feedback.  Likewise let me know what you think is most important in a science classroom.

A simple physics problem

I was reading about the San Francisco Forty-NIners ground-breaking ceremony for the new stadium in Santa Clara.  An article from the Sacramento Bee’s 49ers blog discussed the measures taken in contstruction and design to make it more environmentally friendly and energy efficient.

One of the signature features will be a living green roof, which is supposed to help the building itself use less energy.  Here’s the physics problem:

“One of the problems Jack Hill, the project executive for the 49ers’ new $1.2 billion stadium, currently is facing is how to transport 2,000 tons of dirt and top soil 150 feet in the air.”

So how much energy is required to transport that mass of soil up 150 ft?    Is it even possible that the building’s energy usage would be reduced enough by the green roof to ofset the energy cost of the roof’s construction?

Naturally, I’ll answer the first question in metric units:

1.8 x 10^6 kg * 9.8 m/s/s * 46 m = 8.1 x 10^8 J = 225 kWh

So what?  Looks like I have reason to contact some Environmental Science students and see what they make of this, either that or pay more attention to my home energy bill.  The 225 number doesn’t seem that huge, so eventhough it may be difficult and time consuming to get the soil on the roof, in a back-of-the-envelop conservation-of-mechanical-energy sort of way its not too much trouble to get the soil up there.

Essential topics in physics

I asked my students at the end of the 2011-2012 school year what they thought was the most important physics concepts taught.  Here are some of their responses

Their choice

justification

Newton’s Laws “fundamental to all things and is everywhere you look”
Radiation and Radioactivity better informed about what is dangerous and what isn’t
Conservation of Energy “People know there are limited resources but may not realize the significance of changing one energy form into another”
Basic Kinematics used in understanding motion
Momentum, Inertia, Relative Motion “If everyone had a working knowledge of those concepts the number of idiotic drivers on the road would decrease greatly”
Basic Forces “better understand some of the aspects of their daily life”
Newton’s 3 laws “they affect everyone… give everyone a greater understanding of the world around them”
Position/velocity/and acceleration “Most visible in people’s everyday lives.  This may get them thinking scientifically about other phenomenon”
Newton’s laws “Helps people predict the motion of objects in everyday situations”
Momentum or similar “People should know how things move, especially their car
Newton’s Laws “Improve safety” “Newton’s laws can be applied to many everyday things that we do”
Thermodynamics Integral to many things we take for granted in society

Assessing Essential Concepts in Quantum Theory

In last Sunday’s NY Times magazine, David Javerbaum wrote an outstanding opinion piece titled A Quantum Theory of Mitt Romney. The article uses key concepts from quantum physics and uses them to show how the quirks of Mitt Romney (or the most commonly portrayed stereotypes of Mitt) make perfects sense through the lens of quantum physics. One of my favorite aspects of this piece is that he uses the favorite phrase of mine, Complementarity, in his description. I worry the word is in danger of being lost as modern physics seems to be leaving the Copenhagen Interpretation in the past. Yet the concept has helped define my pragmatic, harmony-seeking, outlook on life and conflict.

But anyways… A physics teacher/blogger/tweeter I follow commented that the article provides evidence of the author’s understanding of physics. So that gets me thinking about teaching and assessment. If an instructor does an outstanding job of teaching and explaining the concepts of quantum theory, then the student should be able to write a comparable essay comparing any person or thing to a quantum phenomenon.

For example, my first thought was to create a quantum theory for toddlers (or more specifically, my almost-three-year-old son). If you understand concepts like entanglement, superposition, probability, etc. and you’ve ever spent extended time around a toddler, you should be able to see how the essay practically writes itself.

In the past, after teaching Physics 1 students about wave/particle duality, part of my assessment was to require students to develop an analogy using an everyday experience or idea that exhibits a dual nature to explain the nature of light. I now see how the concept can go much further.

The article tries to use quantum mechanics concepts to explain Mitt Romney. In the physics classroom could we give kids the article and use Mitt Romney to explain the quantum mechanics concepts? Then we can ask students to discuss who or what they would explain using quantum concepts. I imagine kids explaining their relationship with their parents, or the interactions within cliques using these concepts. Presto, there’s your final assessment over the QM unit.

Comment starters:

What do you think about using this article in physics classrooms?

What analogies do you think kids would want write about?

What complex aspect of your life do you think you could explain using quantum mechanics?