Defining "mastery"

These days, educators are pelted with requirements for “proficiency,” “competency,” and “mastery” — yet few of us share a common definition of those terms. Do we reserve the term “mastery” for those at the very pinnacle of their crafts, for example? Or may I use it when I finally properly use my remote control?

At a workshop last week, I asked a group of teachers what they mean when they use the term “mastery.”

“Think of someone you know who does something really well,” I said. The achievement could be in any field, in school or out, and the person could be anyone, and any age. Then I posed these questions:

  • How long has the person been practicing that?
  • What does “mastery” look like at this person’s level?
  • Where would you put this person on the journey to being an “expert”?
  • What did this person’s skill level look like a few years ago?
  • What might this person be able to do a few years from now?

One man chose his own young son, who for the past two years has spent hours absorbed in fitting together wooden train tracks on the living room floor. The father noted that at four years old, the boy can make “complex, inter-connected branching lines” with “creative use of different track elements to solve construction problems.” Since the holidays, when the child received a few challenging new wooden pieces for his collection, he “suddenly has taken a big leap in complexity and problem-solving” and his dad now estimates his expertise level is “intermediate?”

At two, the boy “could only assemble simple tracks, required lots of adult assistance, and was easily frustrated.” But looking ahead a few years, his father imagines him building “multi-level (vertical) lines” that “incorporate logical, real-world considerations in track layout.”

The Chinese term kung fu, someone told me, means “excellence of effort given over considerable time.” That’s the way I like to think of “mastery,” and

I see this little boy as a small case study of what it requires of educators:

  • Plenty of time to play around and try things out,
  • Encouragement and support when frustration builds up, and
  • Slowly increasing opportunities for complexity, autonomy, and challenge.

I’m posting the exercise, “Defining Mastery,” under this blog’s Resources tab. Give it a try with some teaching colleagues or students, and please let me know what ideas it gives you!

How kids' voices can spark teacher learning

Why should educators listen closely to what students say? For the last few months, I’ve been posting here a collection of student voices from WKCD’s “Just Listen” series, organizing them into topics about which teachers care. It never fails to amaze me how right-on students are when they bring their real-life experiences to bear on those issues of teaching and learning.

So WKCD has started bringing these voices into workshops with teachers–and you can, too. Here are a few examples, in hopes that a faculty meeting might find them helpful as conversation-starters. Some examples:

Relationships that foster learning. We asked students, “When your teachers look at you, what do you think they see? When you look at your teachers, what do you see?” Kids tended to answer this question in terms of teacher-student relationships. Why not look together at this series of clips — and then ask a group of teaching colleagues, “What do you do to build relationships with students in the service of learning?”

Stretch, discovery, affirmation. When WKCD asked students, “Can you remember a time when something you experienced at school really made a difference to you or changed you in some way?” they often spoke of what we think of as “stretch” experiences. Take a look at this collection of student voices — then ask a group of teachers, “Have you seen students stretch, affirm, or discover themselves? What gave rise to that?”

“When’s the work good enough?” “Learning that lasts.” “Learning outside school.” Poring over 200 clips of student voices, we keep coming up with different themes as discussion prompts to spark thoughtful collegial conversations of the type we’ve see in our workshops.

So if you’re looking to focus a faculty meeting on a particular theme, drop me a line in the Reply box below. If we don’t already have a group of student voices on that topic, chances are that we can put one together and send you the link. Our goal is to get these voices heard, and get the dialogue started.

Of course, you can do the same thing just by bringing live students in to talk with faculty! But sometimes it’s easier to practice close listening with students you don’t see in class every day. “Just Listen” gives you a text to study closely, without preconceptions. (We’ll even provide a transcript if you like.)

Let me know how it goes!

Just Listen: Kids Talk About Getting "College Ready"

Just listen to what kids have been telling me about what it takes to get them “college ready”:

I’ve been in the field gathering students’ voices for the last few months, on a range of subjects having to do with their learning. Several times a week I’ll be posting a taste of the Just Listen clips that resulted.

Singly or together, these insights from youth give us a powerful look at what goes into motivation and mastery. If any of these ideas speak to you, please share them freely with others!

Take 10 minutes to watch the full series on college readiness

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Lighting up 'the dismal science'

economics illustrated coverA wonderful example of “deeper learning” by high school students is “Economics Illustrated,” a book self-published by 45 tenth grade students at High Tech High in San Diego. It consists of their short explanations of terms of art in the field of economics, accompanied by engaging articles that show how they relate to current events. Striking linoleum-block prints illustrate each entry, making the concepts even more memorable.

To make sure that every student understood all the economics terms and concepts involved, humanities teacher Dan Wise required each student to teach a lesson on the particular term he or she researched, with the associated writing and artwork as a handout. The student’s final grade on the project would partly depend on how well peers performed when quizzed on that material.

The accompanying artwork is extraordinary, developed with the coaching of Jeff Robin, High Tech High’s interdisciplinary artist and febrile teacher. Looking for a quick mental picture of how “adverse selection” works? Check out Maya Adkins’s affecting block print of a sick child home from school. A woman applying for a job, she wrote in her article, might not be planning to have a child, but “she is still punished because of asymmetric information” relating to the employer’s costs from maternity absences.

“Economics is called the Dismal Science,” commented one of the students, Kai Wells:

But with Economics Illustrated it was anything but. In this project we balanced writing, social science and art. Beforehand we may have had a basic understanding of economics, but nothing really beyond the clichés of the stock market. We learned about dozens of economic principles, ranging from everyday inflation to more cutting-edge regression analyses. We tried to get each article just perfect; my article on the Theory of Comparative Advantage is probably my most heavily edited piece to date. Some people had difficulties with the linoleum block carving, both in what to carve and how to carve it. In the end, though, we managed to create a stunning book that we can be proud of.

This book is a model in every possible way: for teachers, for students, and for anyone who’s looking to change the way schools organize themselves for learning. Check it out and make good use of it!

'Where Baghdad At?'

Why is it so hard to retain a mental picture of where countries fall on the map?! Although geography has been considered a core subject for generations, still the scandalous fact remains that at the height of our war in Iraq, only 37 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 could locate that country on a map.

The only kids I ever met who were outstanding at recalling their geography had learned it by playing with big wooden jigsaw puzzles, on the floor of a first-grade class in a public Montessori school in St. Louis, Missouri. (Hmmm, now just where is Missouri?) When I was introduced as a visiting journalist from Massachusetts, kids shot up hand from all over the room to name my neighboring states and their relative positions. One can speculate, as journalist Joshua Foer did recently in the New York Times magazine, that we’re wired to remember such information because our ancestral hunters and gatherers needed to find their way home.

Foer’s article goes on to describe in hilariously lewd detail a tried and true set of memory-skills techniques that the Romans used, and which may date back to 500 BC. His takeaway:

When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary and banal, we generally fail to remember them. . . . But if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonorable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable or laughable, that we are likely to remember for a long time.

One U.S. high school decided to try that out in this video posted the other day on SchoolTube, “Where Baghdad At?” It’s SchoolTube, so it’s not exceptionally base, dishonorable, or even unbelievable. But it did make me laugh–and it stuck in my mind.

What’s your best success with a “sticky memory” exercise? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the one that works best for me!

A researcher's Rx for "academic wellness"

Patricia Alexander is a professor in the Department of Human Development at the University of Maryland. But for years she taught in public and private schools, and she finds herself dismayed by the current press by policymakers for the quantification of what students learn in school.

It has become an educational myth, she maintains, that “school achievement” as defined by today’s high-stakes testing equates to learning. Other such myths: that the purposes of education are clear, and that “covering the curriculum” equates to teaching.

In fact, we’re probably headed down the wrong path altogether, she says, if we’re looking to develop “a populace with a hunger for knowledge, the ability to reflect deeply on critical issues, and the skills to deal effectively with the demands of a complex and rapidly changing world made more accessible as a result of a technological revolution.”

So Alexander turned her researcher’s eye on the problem. Developmentally speaking, she asked, what is required for a student to progress from “a state of naïveté” to some degree of competence in an academic domain like history, reading, or mathematics? And what can schools do to promote such development?

Alexander starts with the premise that learning is a lifelong journey. Proficiency or expertise, she asserts, cannot be realistically achieved in a typical K–16 education. “It is not the mission of K–16 teachers to create domain experts,” she declares.

But, she says, given the right conditions, learners can expect to cross the threshold into some level of competence by the time they graduate from college. “And thankfully,” she adds, “most students who have the benefit of a K-12 education can achieve at least fragile competence in most basic academic domains.”

Where do experts come from?

Competence may be the appropriate goal for the formative K-12 years. Nonetheless, Alexander says, elementary and secondary schools must also lay the foundations for expertise that may develop later.

With each year of school, our students should become “not only more knowledgeable, more capable of thinking critically and intensively, more hungry for understanding, and more interested in the domains or topics to which they are exposed, but also more emotionally healthy and socially competent.”

Those very qualities, research in cognitive psychology has shown, describe the journey toward expertise. And so Alexander set out to devise a map of how the learner’s journey looks, at every stage along the way.

Three kinds of systematic changes occur, she found, as we progress toward increased competence within recognized fields of study, or “domains.”

  • We increase our subject-matter knowledge. (This takes place broadly, within a domain of study, and also deeply, within a topic in that domain).
  • We increase our skills of “strategic processing.” That is, we first approach a particular problem at the surface level and gain some initial understanding of it. But then we find ways to go deeper. We may personalize or transform the problem, or make analogies between it and other problems we have seen. With time, we gain deeper understanding, which shows up initially as competence, and can develop into proficiency. Eventually, we may even become experts, contributing new knowledge to the field.
  • Our interest increases in what we are learning. Sometimes that interest comes from the situation in which a subject is presented. (Our physics teacher takes us roller-skating, for example.) In that case, interest might fade over the course of time. But sometimes the interest springs from some individual passion or affinity. Over the long term, Alexander maintains, these interests are more likely to develop into proficiency or expertise.

Across our life span, Alexander says, “the paths of knowledge, strategic processing, and interest interact and intertwine,” as learners journey toward competence or even expertise in an academic domain.

So she wants to see education as a developmental process, an ongoing journey to relish, rather than a year-by-year, course-by-course treatment of instructional content.

A prescription for ‘academic wellness’

Academic development is not “coldly cognitive,” Alexander asserts. It’s the “continual interplay of cognitive and motivational/emotional forces operating within a dynamic sociocultural context.” One might have many reasons for participating in it, including personal fulfillment.

Students, of course, come to school with differences in their knowledge, strategic abilities, motivations, and cognitive capabilities. So we must take proactive steps, Alexander says, to promote “academic wellness” in all students from the outset.

Especially at the start, when a learner is struggling to acclimate to a new field of knowledge, it’s important to have good coaching by a knowledgeable teacher. That coach can help us figure out what a task requires. He or she can explicitly coach us in habits of mind and learning strategies that work, spark our personal interest in the domain, and set goals we want to meet. With good coaching, we put in the effort and “work smart,” stretching beyond what we already know.

It’s easy to see where Alexander is going with her “Model of Domain Learning.” Cognitive, social, emotional, cultural, and physical factors, she believes, contribute to the motivation, and the mastery, that students display in school.

So why aren’t we paying more attention to those factors? Why not use student growth, not the school or the district, as our unit of analysis when we talk accountability?

For more, see Patricia A. Alexander’s 2010 article “Through Myth to Reality: Reframing Education as Academic Development,” in Early Education & Development, 21: 5, 633-651.

That 'tono' voice

At five, my daughter sometimes used to ask me why I was using that “tono” voice. (You know the voice, don’t pretend you don’t.) It usually brought me up short, but it also reminded me how much what we parents say—and how we say it—matters.

Even now that she’s grown up, she and I sometimes find ourselves remarking when one of us comes out with a “tono” voice. It’s become a habit to work together on that—and maybe not such a bad one!

In my last post here, I identified seven “life skills” that the parents I’ve been working with really wanted to see their children develop, with practice:

• Communication
• Courtesy
• Taking other perspectives
• Self-control
• Organization
• Time management
• Self-care

In our conversations, these parents are unpacking those skills, one by one. They’re looking at just what coaching kids need when they’re developing these skills—not just at school, but at home, with us as their guides.

For example, what communicative habits do we really care about in our children—so much that we are willing to model them ourselves, to break them down for kids, to help them practice their component parts, to encourage their progress, and to celebrate their success?

Here are some answers that we came up with:

We want kids to speak clearly, so we (and others) can understand them. We care about what tone of voice they use. And we want their words they choose to suit the occasion.

We also hope their body language—their posture, eye contact, expressions—will come across as respectful and appropriate.

And finally, we want them to listen attentively when others are speaking to them.

One thing that became apparent to us is that those skills carry over to many other realms. Teachers are always working on the same things in the classroom, for example. And when our kids grow up, good communication habits will serve them well whatever field they work in.

But parents are children’s first teachers. By the time our kids arrive at school, they sound and act like us, more than we even know. When they get mad, our words will come out of their mouths. When they interrupt, it’s because in our house it’s everybody’s habit.

So maybe our first job as coach is to monitor our own communication habits. And why not make that transparent to the kids? After all, it puts communication out there as something we all have to practice, all the time.

Dominique, who has a five-year-old boy, realized that to her chagrin. “I just tell him ‘can you make your bed?’ she said. “Sometimes I say please, and sometimes I don’t.”

However frustrating it may be at the time, practicing good communication habits at home pays off when our kids go out to school or other social contexts.

“People will say, ‘He’s such a pleasure to have over, he’s so polite!’” said Susan, who has a boy of nine. “I’m really surprised and happy to hear it, and when I tell him that the parents have said something to me, it has made a big difference to him.”

What are your family’s ways of practicing better communication? Send in your dilemmas and your stories. The rest of us would love to hear from you!

On children being gifted

As we busy ourselves in this season of gift-giving, I find myself reflecting on the children on whom we shower our love and presents. What gifts do they carry within them, from the moment that they arrive in our lives? What gifts from us will matter most in their lives?

The first question requires us to look closely, to listen well, to spend long hours just observing the young ones for whom we care, at work or at home. What lights up their eyes and draws them close in curiosity? What do they reveal of their thoughts, when they feel most at ease with us? What can we understand about them from watching their actions with others?

These, it seems to me, are the gifts that all children bring to us who watch over them and guide them. Like many other precious things, these gifts are fragile, all too easily crushed if we forget to pay attention to them. Every day, we must receive these gifts with wonder and gratitude, keep them safe and whole, burnish them into the glow of maturity that will someday shine from them.

The second question asks what gifts from us will matter most to children. Our very presence, I can’t help thinking, tops any “presents list.” Whatever their age, young people want us in their lives in just the ways they need right then. It’s often hard to tell what those ways are, of course—and so to give that gift requires us to listen well and watch, without pressure on them to perform for us but rather encouragement to be true to their best selves.

And yet I see one other gift being given to children by the adults whom I watch and admire most, whether they are teachers or parents. Piece by piece, you are building careful structures that help young people manage the work of living in this world.

I see the father who—instead of yelling at his kids in the morning chaos before the schoolbus arrives—has posted a simple checklist at eye-level in several key locations so that they can regulate their own preparations, starting the night before.

I see the teacher who sets aside twenty minutes at the end of class for students to begin their homework, so she can observe what baffles them and help them gain the traction to finish on their own.

I see the mother working two jobs who takes the time to read to her children every night. I see the coach who shows up every day after school, to teach kids how to play the game with both focus and good will.

Watching, listening, creating structures that nurture and sustain. Such simple gifts, yet so complex in the ways they all interact to shape a child’s life—and to bring light and hope and joy to our own.

May this season remind us again of the gifted children all around us, of what we owe to them, and of how our keeping watch can change the world. All my warmest wishes to you and the children for the year of growth ahead!

Why 'do it again' isn't enough

We really love that Lewis Black is thinking about how you get really good at something. (In his case, being hilarious.) And his cranky-funny take on that has a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of broken-record truth to it.

But it’s not quite fair to us learners that Black omits certain key steps, which turn that endless do-it-again practice into something really good. Something deliberate.

Critique, for example, is more than “You get smacked.” It’s a certain kind of smack: in the right direction, toward just the right thing to try, the next time you get up and do it again. Critique works best when it comes from someone who both builds on what you’re doing right and puts a finger on just where you need work. A good critique gives you the courage it takes to get up and try it again.

“Don’t whine to me ‘it’s hard,'” Black growls. But a good critique erases whining from the picture. It creates a crucial expectation inside us that we can succeed at the hard thing, if we try again, a little differently this time. And our sense that the coach cares lends a high value to that seemingly endless next try.

Great teachers are doing that kind of coaching . . . again and again and again and again and again. They do it because they’re watching their students so closely. And the teaching and learning is going in both directions.

'Only I can determine who I am!'

The pain and passion in these students’ voices bring into stark relief all the ways in which our current national policy obsession with testing and standardization strips youth of their motivation at school. How much more effort and practice they have clearly poured into making this performance piece! How powerful those energies would prove if our students could use them in their academic learning!

Cultivating, and expanding, student 'interests'

I received a reflective note about “student interests” from a student teacher named Douglas Hampton, who left an industry job in mid-career, to get a masters degree in teaching. As he gets to know his students this fall, he notices that many have only a limited idea of what the world of work might hold–and that it comes mostly from their environment or the media. “How do you expose students in a meaningful way to all the possible alternatives?” he asked.

For example, I am teaching math and economics and most of the curriculum feels distant to my students. The breadth of the subject is so extensive that teachers are limited in their ability to develop relevant connections to the real world. In geometry, there are a number of professional careers that extensively use this field of knowledge but my students do not appreciate it. Geometry is used by civil engineers, physicists, architects, surveyors, software engineers and graphic artists, but the students do not see the connections. . . . High school should be the place to investigate areas of interest, explore possibilities and develop good work habits. How do I allow my students to have the freedom to generate that spark that will ignite their interests? Math and economics by themselves do not capture the interest of most students.

I like that Douglas is talking about investigation and exploration in the same breath as he mentions “developing good work habits.” In the Practice Project that led to the book Fires in the Mind, students sometimes invited various highly accomplished adults into the classroom, interviewing them about “what it takes to get really good” in their fields. They might not have all wanted to be a top surgeon or auto mechanic, but the answers gave them material that we could then analyze, to think together about what are the common “habits of experts” and how they come about.

On Dan Meyer’s blog, he has another approach: get kids to speculate about the whys and hows of the world around them, using the language of math. He’s always suggesting ways to get kids themselves to puzzle through questions they generate when you bring in interesting photos, video clips, and the like to the classroom. Taking that tack is another fantastic way to get kids thinking about possible future careers. Whether it’s video game design, an election, or a construction project, once you get interested in the math and economics of how something works, you can start to talk about your own future place in that work, and what you might have to know and be able to do in order to take that place some day.

Finally, schools where students go out to do internships in the community are offering one of the most effective ways to broaden and create new learning from their interests. Watching, asking questions, and playing even a tiny role in the “real world” helps kids see first hand the work that goes on there, and how they might fit in. The best internship programs in schools bring students together once or twice weekly in a seminar where they reflect on what they’re seeing in the workplace, relate it to their academic learning, and think through the habits of mind and work that they require.

Do you have any examples to offer of how you cultivate student interests, or expand upon them? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best comments that come in.

In middle school, does a 'hater' motivate?

“You need a hater and you need a motivator,” a Chicago ninth grader named Lonya declares in chapter 3 of Fires in the Mind. “The person that’s telling you that you can’t do it–that’s your hater and you want to prove them wrong. And your motivator is the person that’s supporting you. You try your best so you can make your motivator proud.”

Erin Walker, a masters student at the University of Michigan who is preparing to teach middle school math, raised this interesting issue in a letter to me this week:

I personally identify with the idea of a hater and a motivator, but I am not confident that I would have been driven to work harder by a “hater” in 7th and 8th grade. I am doing my student teaching in an 8th grade mathematics classroom, and I am beginning to try to understand the psyche and motivational factors of that age group. I think the desire to defy and prove someone wrong maybe comes later, like early high school years. I think it is easy to quash the motivation of early adolescents because, at this point, they still submit to the authority of the teacher and the parent. The age of rebellion comes later.

I think gentle “hating” still has its place, and could be a great motivator in the classroom. Sometimes when I provide a challenge or a bonus question in my algebra class, I could say something to the effect of “I will be really impressed if you can answer this question because we have not mastered the skills to solve these kinds of problems.” I am not pointedly saying, “I don’t think you can do this,” but I am egging them on a little bit.

Erin makes a great point. In fact, not just middle schoolers but all of us have to believe we can succeed at something if we’re going to lift a finger to try. Perhaps Lonya, in ninth grade, believes that herself–so strongly that she can respond to a put-down with fierce determination to “prove them wrong.” And maybe that confidence was nurtured by some middle school teacher as perceptive and supportive as Erin. What are your thoughts on this?

Practice: We're in it together

Most of what we know, remember, and use, we didn’t learn by teachers and textbooks filling our empty heads, Marion Brady reminds us in an excellent recent blog post confronting current education “reforms.” Instead, we came to learning with our own ideas, opinions, explanations, beliefs and values. And then “we discovered real-world patterns and relationships — new knowledge that caused us to constantly rethink, reorganize, reconstruct, and replace earlier knowledge.”

That’s a very serious intellectual practice, worthy of 10,000 hours. (Translate: eight years of school!) And it takes a coach — someone to watch closely, suggesting just the next stretch a learner needs, at just the right moment. It’s a delicate business, not simple transfer of information– and it has everything to do with the learner’s motivation. As Brady puts it,

As is true of adults, kids’ ideas and beliefs become part of who they are, so attempts to change them may come across as attacks on their identity and be resisted.

That’s why teaching is such a complex, multi-step process, he says in this wonderful summary of what the good teacher practices every day. (Reminder: 10,000 hours is at least five or six years of teaching!)

The teacher has to (a) “get inside” that head to figure out what’s thought to be true, right, or important, (b) understand the kid’s value system well enough to offer ideas sufficiently appealing to warrant taking them seriously and paying attention, (c) choose language or tasks that question old ideas and clarify new ones, (d) get feedback as necessary to decide how to proceed, (e) load the whole process up with enough emotion to carry it past short-term memory, and (f) do this for a roomful of kids, no two of whom are identical.

The faces of students in our Practice Project lit up when they told me of the learning experiences that really stuck with them. Above all, it was hands-on projects, internships, and apprenticeships that led them to ask better questions, explore their subjects more deeply, and rise to the challenge of producing new knowledge.

Along the way, their level of engagement with adults also shifted in crucial ways. Learner and teacher were in it together. And it showed.

A grade 7 teacher tries "mastery learning"


Because “mastery learning” can be a great way to coach students through deliberate practice, I am always looking to hear from teachers who are doing it. Today I came across several wonderful posts on Edublogs by a teacher named Annette, who (along with her teaching buddy) tried out mastery learning with two 7th grade pre-algebra classes, starting in the second quarter of last year.

Though Annette says they are still fine-tuning their approach, I’m reprinting her reports in their entirety here, because they’re so worth talking about. The first report, from last May, describes in detail how the class worked, and explains how her team prepared. Keep reading to the end, and you’ll find her latest post telling how these students did on their standardized test results. Then please let us (and Annette) know what thoughts you have!
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1. Students are given assignments for the chapter up front. They know in advance what is required. They also know in advance how far they must progress in the quarter to earn an A, B, or C grade. (We don’t have D’s in our district.)

2. We do whole-class instruction in the form of notes for each section, plus spiraling review or activities. Students keep a composition book with these notes, that serve as their “directions.”

3. Students complete the assignments at their own pace. Solutions and answers are available. Students self-correct.

4. Presenting notes and finished work is their “ticket” to the quiz. We have a quiz after every 1-2 sections, depending on content.

5. A student must pass a quiz at 80% or better to be considered “proficient.” They cannot move on to the next section until they have passed the current one at 80%. If they do not pass the quiz, we take the time to see what things the student needs to work on, and give them additional practice based on that need. They may retest when they have completed the extra practice and are ready. Some will repeat this process a third or fourth time. Especially until they learn that “guessing” on a test doesn’t work.

6. Assignments don’t count in the gradebook until they have passed the quiz. Once passed, all assignments and quizzes are entered into ABI (online gradebook system).

Some things we have found:

• Students took a while to figure out that if they do it right the first time, it saves them a lot of work. They also discovered that just copying answers from the solutions guides, or back of the book was futile, because they need to show their work before it’s accepted. Also, they learned that doing “bogus” work and then just putting the right answer, doesn’t mean they will pass the test.

• We need to have two to three versions of the quizzes (this wasn’t too hard to do). They are short, 8-10 questions. I have the students correct their errors as part of their practice when they don’t pass a quiz.

• It requires some maturity and responsibility for students in 7th grade to take it seriously. In the beginning, many of them thought, “Cool, no homework!” Well, no assigned homework, anyway. Students have to work at home to stay on pace with the course as it is set up. Some do, some don’t. The ones that don’t are those that usually don’t do much homework anyway.

• We found that if we tied progress to grades (i.e. “By report cards, you have to be at section 3-7 for a “C”, 3-9 for a “B”, and 4-2 for an “A”) and posted that in advance, they knew exactly how much they had to accomplish. That was a really good incentive. It did make for a lot of last-minute work at report card time, but they learned it . . . isn’t that the goal?

• We found it was way better for us not to have to constantly grade homework and record assignments. Now we just record them when they pass the test. Homework is only worth one point. The test is worth double the number of questions (8 questions = 16 points). Next year, we are thinking since grades are based on how far you have progressed, we are only going to use 0, and 1. Pass/fail for the most part. Since passing means you have accomplished 80% or better, that’s all we really need to know.

• This year, we input every assignment into ABI so parents could see them at home. Next year, we think we will only input the quizzes. We have a Chapter Assignment sheet for the kids, and will get parents to sign it that so they will be informed. Still debating that one.

• We found that grading is both easier, and more informative for us. We have to stay on top of the quizzes, daily. This gives kids immediate feedback so they know the next day where they stand. But, usually I have about a dozen quizzes a day to grade, sometimes more. It doesn’t take long, and I don’t feel like I’m slogging through 80 of the same test over and over.

• Off-task behavior is consistently a challenge.

• Students are learning more from each other! They are consistently forming little groups and working together, without our intervention.

• We let kids who pass tests put their names on the board as “Movin’ UP!” Seventh graders love this. We also post the names weekly for all to see.

Best thing . . . we know our kids really well. At any point in time, we can tell you who struggles with what, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. And the kids know what they know . . . isn’t that what we want?

What about teacher preparation?

Much work went in up front. I had to determine exactly what I was going to cover, and how I was going to assess it for each section. Based on the assessments, I made a list of assignments for each section, usually two or three, some of which were done in class. To facilitate students keeping up or working ahead, I had to be at least two sections ahead of the highest kid.

I also put copies (PDFs) up of any assignments that were not in the textbook. This was made easier by using the CD-Roms that came with the textbook and uploaded easily. The supplemental materials had to be scanned and uploaded. A bit time consuming, but again, as long as I was a few steps ahead of the highest kid, it wasn’t too bad.

Grades: the same had to be done for the gradebook. All the assignments for the quarter were entered into the electronic gradebook in advance. This gave students and parents the list for working on assignments in a centrally located place kids can’t “lose.”

For kids who successfully finished early, it’s easy. Move on to the next section, use the examples from the book and try to figure it out on your own (which many could do) and I helped when possible, and they taught each other.

For the kids who were lagging behind, I tried to work with them in small groups or have advanced students work with them. But no matter what system, some kids just don’t do squat.

The Results Come In

As it turns out, my teaching partner and I had the HIGHER scores in the 7th grade department. Compared to the district as a whole, we were slightly above the average in every category. Not way above the average, but enough to be significant. And compared to our fellow teachers’ kids, we were significantly higher in several areas.

Because we started the model in the second quarter, mandating that some students start back at square one, we didn’t get as far in the curriculum as we were “supposed” to, but we felt we got through the stuff that was most important for the Algebra 1 concepts they needed as fundamentals. It was another reason to expect that we might be the cause of the decline in scores. To our surprise, the “Honors” Pre-Algebra class, which was whole chapters ahead of where we were all year, had the LOWEST scores on the state tests. We were floored.

On a personal level, my individual kids did OK. Almost all of them remained at the level they came in at, meaning they learned a year’s worth of material in the year that I had them. I had about a dozen who went up a level, and one kid went up two. I had two who went down one level, and I’m not sure why, as they were excellent students during the year. Four others went down, but I know why — they didn’t do a lick of work most of the year. My partner had very similar results for his class. Our colleagues had fewer moving up a level, and a few more moving down.

While it’s really too soon to make definitive statements, we feel like we did what we set out to do. We are still fine-tuning the system (more on that later) and are hoping that starting off at the beginning of the year will show more dramatic results on this year’s tests. Plus, we are anxious to see how our kids adapt to the Algebra I curriculum and if they were prepared enough to be successful as 8th graders. So while the jury is still out on that, we are thrilled that our kids didn’t go down, or cause the majority of the decline department-wide, and it has strengthened our resolve to continue improving how we teach and how kids learn.

(photo courtesy of Will Okun)

Planting the 'habits of experts'

A teacher from Vermont wrote in about discovering our “Habits of Experts” list last June, and using them to prompt reflective writing exercises that wrapped up his students’ year. That worked so well that now he wants to start the year with such work. Here are John’s thoughts–what would you add to them?

Ever since I encountered a discussion of the importance of metacognition in Arthur Costa’s Teaching for Intelligent Behavior, I have tried to encourage students to think about how they learn and how they can get better at it. Each year I tried different approaches that both encouraged metacognition and introduced the students to new ideas: Plato’s idea of the Form of the student, Pirsig’s idea of quality, Crawford’s idea of practical progress in excellence. These met with mixed results; I would say usually the students were tolerant but not enthusiastic!

This last school year I decided to try something new. I was struck by the list of “habits of experts” presented in Fires in the Mind. Near the end of the year I explained to the students what the book was about and asked them to think about how they had become more expert as learners in this course (a senior-level honors course). I presented them with the following prompt:

Think about your work in this class over this last year. Look at this list of habits of experts. Pick one of the habits and one incident or action by you in this class this year that shows that you have begun to develop the habits of an expert learner. Describe that incident or action. Make the description as detailed as possible so that the reader will fully understand why you chose this episode to illustrate your growing expertise.

The results were exactly what I hoped for: insightful, honest, real, and demonstrative of a mature self-awareness. Sara, for instance, wrote about how she had volunteered to be the mediator when the students had role-played a negotiation between the humans and animals in Animal Farm as part of a unit on negotiations. She had consciously sought out new challenges. Ian discussed how had decided to welcome critiques of his papers, even though up until then he had resisted the process. Nick had considered other perspectives in our studies of various theories of human nature and had found himself much more open to alternative views of political, economic, and other realities.

I think this would be much more effective if I were to give the list of habits of experts to the students at the start of the year, explain to them the sort of topics and activities I envisioned in the course throughout the year, and then ask them to write about their goals for personal growth as learners. With periodic check-ins, this should result in even more development of metacognitive abilities and conscious practice of intellectual skills.

Is homework "deliberate practice"?

Ideally, homework should be “deliberate practice,” targeting individual areas of need and pushing each student to a new place just within reach. But students tell me it rarely works that way.

The kids make their case in Chapter 8 of Fires in the Mind, part of which is adapted as “Show Us What Homework’s For” in the new September issue of Educational Leadership magazine. (If you can’t access the magazine article, you can download a free PDF of Chapter 8 on the Resources section of this blog.)

Cognitive researchers have specific criteria for the kind of practice that steadily makes people better at what they do. It would make sense if homework matched those criteria, but my research for “Fires in the Mind” shows that it usually doesn’t. For example:

  • Deliberate practice always has an express purpose, but students say they usually don’t know what its point is.
  • Deliberate practice is geared to the individual, but typically everyone gets the same homework tasks, no matter what they need to work on.
  • Deliberate practice involves attention and focus, but kids say they usually do their homework without thinking.
  • Deliberate practice requires repetition or rehearsal, but often kids tell me that they are repeating something just to get it over with, not to perfect and remember it.
  • Timing is important in deliberate practice, yet homework often takes more time than kids have for it.
  • Finally, although deliberate practice should lead to new skills, students say they don’t use it for anything after it’s done.

What would it take to turn homework into the kind of practice that would help students strengthen their skills and knowledge in academic subjects? Perhaps the most powerful steps in that direction would occur, I propose, when students think of homework as “getting good” at something–much like practice in athletics or the arts.

Let’s use this space to brainstorm some new ways to lift homework to a new level of deliberate practice. How are you already designing homework that accomplishes this? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the first three commenters who offer good examples here!

Social genius and 'disability'

I just caught up with Anderson Williams’s post about his “profound week with a group of students, both with and without intellectual disabilities, who are part of Project UNIFY through the Special Olympics.” Anderson, a youth development activist with an M.F.A., likened what these kids did to Picasso’s particular genius: deconstructing tired norms “to paint like a child.”

Williams saw a “social genius” in the social and educational world these youth built during their time together. Defying social and cultural norms, he says, they set out to develop more genuine friendships and achieve shared learning. He writes:

In this space, “otherness” of all types was set aside for the one-ness of youth. . . . The whole premise of their engagement defied our adult-driven society’s limiting expectations of youth and of disability and created a space for each person to be more fully himself/herself.

His examples reminded me of the advice “Dance like nobody’s watching.” These kids pulled off something that takes “courageous humanity,” he says. But getting good at it also takes practice, by adults as well as youth. Anderson reminds us that we need constantly to work toward

more inclusive systems and structures and broader awareness and understanding of all kinds of “differences” . . . rather than the separate educational and social worlds so many of [these youth] beautifully and painfully described. We must commit to revolutionizing the systems, formal and informal, that categorize, segregate, and separate our young people.

What are your experiences with helping young people “practice outside the lines” of what the larger society considers “excellence”? I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is among the best comments we receive.

For starters: Ask kids how they 'got good'

For the Practice Project that What Kids Can Do undertook last year, we asked close to 200 students to join us in a nationwide dialogue with teachers and parents about “what it takes to get good at something.”

They started by describing what they were already good at–often outside school!–telling how they got started and what kept them going when it got hard. Together, we figured out the “habits of experts” as they interviewed accomplished adults about their process and compared it to their own.

That led us to exciting insights about the very practical help they needed in order to move from novice level to mastery at school.It was a great conversation! In our new book Fires in the Mind, you can listen in on what they said in chapters like “Asking the Experts” and “Is Homework Deliberate Practice?”

In this video, I introduce the Practice Project and some of the students whose voices appear in the Fires in the Mind. Look inside the book and tell me what you think!