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.