Reach past knowing to imagining

“The technique is your base, and you build on that base and kind of grow up through it into creativity,” said Rosalie. At 16, she had already experienced that when she was performing in musical theater with the school drama club. That’s in fact how experts work–extending their competence by reaching beyond to something not previously imagined. So how can we move that into academics, organizing units and semesters so that students move from a base of fundamental techniques to reach the level of creativity?

Those who know, teach!

What would it take to invest students deeply in helping each other really understand the material? After reading Dan Pink’s post on “flipping homework” (described here), one algebra teacher posted a fascinating comment describing his out-of-the-box approach.

Every class day, this teacher gives a one-problem quiz. Afterward, the teacher readies those students who correctly solved the problem to help those who didn’t solve it, on the board.

Next, each student who still didn’t solve it gets help from those who solved it (either on the quiz or on the board) until all students understand the problem.

Exams are taken by only one student of the teacher’s choice. All students get the grade attained by that student.

The result? “Learning and exam preparation become a group effort, and all win or lose together,” wrote this teacher, identified in the comments only as Durfa.

I want to know more about this strategy of coaching collaboration and academic material at the same time! Do you know someone who has tried it, in any subject? How did it work out? Send in your example, and I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind. Those who know, teach!

Bringing practice back to class


What if kids listened to lectures on their own time, and spent class time in guided practice instead? (Dan Pink’s blog this week calls it “flipping homework.”)

That’s the technique used by many pioneering teachers, including Karl Fisch, a Colorado high school math teacher and blogger. He makes YouTube videos to explain key concepts and procedures to his algebra students—who view them after hours.

During class, students actively work on solving problems, collaborating in various ways as they try out the concepts for themselves.

Meanwhile, the teacher has the time to watch, assess, and coach kids as they puzzle through the problems in the moment. He can offer just the help that each needs in the moment, stretching their learning to the next step.

That approach makes sense for any subject (math, science, foreign languages, etc.) where a teacher wants to introduce background knowledge via direct instruction or sustained silent reading. Delivered during traditional “homework time,” that information has a chance to come alive the next day — and “stick” as kids make it their own in the messy, generative ways that deliberate practice demands.

Just today, Fisch’s students conducted a Skype interview with a geothermal engineer from the National Renewable Energy Lab — but as homework beforehand, they prepped for their interview by reading a package of background information. (Find out more here.)

Have you tried a strategy like this in your classroom? Do you have other ways you’re accomplishing the same goal? I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is among the best examples I receive.

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.

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.

Two smart guys telling it how it is

Mike Rose in his new blog-post talking about where people like us stand in “the technocratic and structural approach to education” that “has become the coin of the realm”:

Without a deep and specific understanding of the way children learn and the skill and art of teaching and how that skill and art develop, all the structural/technical reform in the world won’t be effective. It’s like trying to cure cancer without knowledge of cell biology.

And Hayes Mizell in Ed Week pushing for professional development that helps teachers gain that understanding:

Meaningful change means professional development driven by teachers’ understanding of their students’ learning challenges. Once this understanding is gained, teachers must commit to learning whatever is necessary to address these challenges and to continually refine their skills to increase their students’ performance.

Where and how are you moving toward these outcomes in your teaching practice? Please share your experience with us. I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best responses that come in.

Practice, performance, pride

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What a work of art these young performers have created on a street corner in Oakland! I can’t help but think of the hours they must have spent collaborating, breaking moves down, looking for patterns, using familiar moves in new ways, critiquing, revising, persisting, taking up new challenges . . . and a very public performance to take pride in at the end.

In short, they’ve been practicing an “expert process” that will serve them in many other contexts. Whatever it took to get it going, we should be studying it!

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!
——————————————————————————

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)

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!
——————————————————————————

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)

The ticket-roll as math practice

Once again today Dan Meyer’s terrific blog lends common sense and clarity to what it means to practice math at the high school level. “Mathematical notation isn’t a prerequisite for mathematical exploration,” he writes. “Mathematical notation can even deter mathematical exploration.” To illustrate, he uses a problem that starts by asking questions about a big roll of tickets:

When the textbook asks a student to “find the area of the annulus” in part (a) of the problem, there are at least two possible points of failure. One, the student doesn’t know what an “annulus” is. (Hand goes in the air.) Two, the student knows the term “annulus” but can’t connect it to its area formula. (Hand goes in the air.)

That’s the outcome of teaching the formula, notation, and vocabulary first: the sense that math is something to be remembered or forgotten but not created.

Meanwhile, let’s not kid ourselves. The area of an annulus isn’t difficult to derive. Let the student subtract the small circle from the big circle. Then mention, “by the way, this shape which you now feel like you own, mathematists call it an ‘annulus.’ Tuck that away.”

Similarly, if I give you this pattern, I know you can draw the next three pictures in the sequence. That’ll get old so I’ll ask you to describe the pattern in words. You’ll write out, “you add two tiles to the last picture every time to get the next picture.” I’ll show you how much easier it is to write out the recursive formula An+1 = An + 2. ¶ I’ll ask you to tell me how many tiles I’ll find on the 100th picture. You’ll get tired of adding two every time, and we’ll develop the explicit formula A = 2n + 3, which makes that task so much easier.

Terms like “explicit” and “recursive” and “annulus” can do one of two things to the exact same student: make the kid feel like a moron or make the kid feel like the master of the universe.

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.

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.

What do you practice as the year begins?

Our guest post today is by Rosa, a first-year teacher of fifth grade in an urban California school, who sent me these notes on her first week in the classroom. I was struck by how she had integrated the idea of “deliberate practice” into her first days with the children—carefully choosing what practice would lay a foundation for their year together, and paying close attention to her own practice, as well. I’d love to hear your own thoughts, and about what you’re practicing in your own first weeks with students!
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The main feeling I’m hanging on to from this week is the enormous responsibility and privilege of being THE 5th grade teacher to this class of students. All the energy I pour into them is returned in a way that’s so new to me–so different from student teaching last year. It feels energizing and restorative, and it reminds me why I want to do this.

Positive experiences from the week:

–LOTS of routines and procedures practice. I made a practice of timing students as they go through different transitions–we have our running times up on the board–they are motivated and excited to transition quickly and cleanly. I started the week by orchestrating those processes very closely, but as the week went on I turned over responsibility to them. The line was a struggle all week, but they are now walking in quiet, single file lines through the hallways (a major achievement for this class). I’m hoping to phase out my constant use of a clipboard and stern look in the halls.

–Students wrote about accomplishments and challenges from last year, and what they felt their most important goal for this year was. They shared this writing with partners in dyads, where one person talks and the other listens openly without commenting, and then they switch. Afterward, one girl said that she learned that she could say personal things in this class, and no one would make fun of her or talk about it with other people.

–We used that exercise as pre-writing for essays that they wrote about their hopes and dreams for this year. Each student wrote a few paragraphs about their hope for this year, one action they will take to accomplish their goal, one way their teacher can support them, a way their classmates can support them, and a way their families can support them. We will share these with partners and in author’s chair next week.

–For the first two days of school, I assigned students to eat in “lunch groups” of 4-6 students. Each lunch group had to sit and eat their lunch together and complete an assignment (I designated a leader in each group to carry a pencil and take notes on an index card). On the first day, their job was to make a list of ten things they all had in common. On Day 2, they discussed their hobbies and interests, and made a list of the most popular ones. After lunch, the leaders reported out. I stopped by the cafeteria on the second day to sit in on their conversations, and was happy to see students engaged with the assignment and each other–even the two new students in our class who came in not knowing anyone.

–We talked about what kind of class rules will support all of us in achieving our goals. We went through a process of individual brainstorming, sharing, consolidation, and voting, and ended up with 8 final class rules (too many, I know, but the vote was evenly split, and they were all great rules).

–We played “Zoom” a lot, a circle game where students pass a sound and gesture around the circle. Students love it, and often share ideas for how to make it go better and faster.

–We started every day with a “Math Talk,” where students individually write everything they can think of on a given topic (the number 24, 1/2, etc.), then share with a partner, then share with the whole group as I record their ideas exactly as they express them. They aren’t used to the idea of multiple strategies, or representing ideas in several ways, but I’m hopeful that this routine will help.

–We ended every day with a closing circle in which students reflected on one thing they learned, their favorite part of the day, something they were proud of, something they appreciated, something they’ll always remember, etc.

–Every day I read aloud “The Skirt” by Gary Soto, and they love it.

Students seem like they have a sense that this is a place where serious learning happens. They respond to my quiet signals and pointed looks, and seem to accept that I expect all of them to be engaged and on task.

And the negative…

–I focused too much on the negative this week: bench time at recess, calling parents for behavior problems, extremely strict line procedures without enough conversations about why it matters. I wanted to start off strict, clear, and consistent, but I forgot how much positive reinforcement I needed to do. I feel like we have a pretty well functioning class right now, but it doesn’t feel like a particularly family-like, safe, loving place. I feel really bad about that–it’s hard to wait until Tuesday to start making positive phone calls home, and letting the kids know how great they’re doing. I’m worried that I was too quick to give negative consequences, and I wonder if I did it calmly and non-emotionally enough. I’m obsessing about whether my teaching voice is authentic.

Even though visually it looks like the positives far outweigh the negatives, the negatives feel MUCH heavier in my heart and head right now. I need to shake off some of my self-doubt and desire for this classroom to immediately be everything that I dream of and want. These students and their families deserve the absolute best—it’s painful to be anything less.

The journey begins…

Does your homework look like this?

What should we change about the nuts and bolts of homework, after reading Benedict Casey’s excellent article in the New York Times summarizing the cognitive research into effective studying? Here’s my short version:

Study the same thing in different locations. Varying the setting seems to enrich the information in the brain, and make it harder to forget.

Vary the type of material studied in one session, to leave a deeper impression on the brain. Math students would attack a set of problems that require different types of calculations, rather than going through many that use the same formula. Foreign language students would alternate vocabulary, reading, and speaking. Music students would do scales, practice pieces, and rehearse rhythms. Art or literature students would review pieces from different genres, not focus on one writer or painter at a time.

Spread out the studying over time. Every time the brain revisits something after a break, its effort to “relearn” it seems to increase long-term recall. As Casey puts it, “The harder it is to remember something, the harder it is to later forget.”

Use frequent practice tests or quizzes. “Desirable difficulty,” as the researchers call it, makes things stick in the mind. The very effort of pulling out what we’ve learned means we’ll remember it later on.

If we take this research seriously, what would teachers do differently in assigning homework? What would parents change about the way they supervise it? Could students make such changes on their own, or do they need adults to cooperate? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best comments that come in this week.

Homework and the middle-school mind

My guest today is Dina Strasser, who teaches seventh grade English in upstate NY and whose blog The Line I depend upon for consistent and thoughtful insights on life in the middle school classroom. Dina’s taking my previous post on homework another welcome step here, as do several other teachers who comment on my original homework post here. Keep your ideas coming!
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Middle-school readerHOMEWORK! I think I may struggle with this morally more than other teachers, as my formative experience with assigning work outside of school came from my eight years as an ESL instructor. I started to call it the Second Shift Principle. If an ESL kid couldn’t do the homework around a parent’s absence due to a second job (or the student’s own “second shift,” often a load of housework and child care), then the homework wasn’t worth doing.

I transferred this philosophy to my new mainstream English classroom three years ago, and am deeply influenced by the complementary work of Cathy Vatterott at ASCD—her book Rethinking Homework is essential reading. My school, also, has a “no zero” policy, and de-emphasizes homework in the calculation of grades. I myself explicitly assign homework very sparingly, and grade homework minimally (5-10% of a grade), and only for completion. As Nicholas says so poignantly in Fires in the Mind, you don’t want homework to be like “a test that comes at the wrong time.”

As an English teacher, in fact, the only homework I assign on a regular basis is—you guessed it—reading. However, my reading follows the recommendations of Nancie Atwell; it is a pre-set time of 30 minutes per day, to be completed anywhere at any time, on the book or reading material of their choice. I like this kind of work because it solves so many homework issues right off the bat: it is (hopefully) enjoyable, flexible in how it can be completed (who doesn’t read on the bus once in a while?), and automatically differentiated for the kid.

Here, too, however, I struggle with some completion issues. Even self-directed reading, in a book a kid will enjoy, sometimes plays second fiddle not only to the scheduled lives our kids lead outside of school, but to much more sexy technological reading. In addition, and in a complicated twist on the information in Fires in the Mind, I find that if my kids don’t get some kind of grade on the reading, they have trouble seeing its worth. This is even if I explain every single day (and I do) that reading is just like free throws—it has to happen in order for it to improve. This is a shadow side of teaching middle school kids. They’ve been conditioned for several years by a learning culture which pins total value on extrinsic motivators such as grades, and they may not know how to articulate their desire for choice and meaning otherwise, like the older kids in Fires in the Mind.

So, as a middle school teacher experimenting with homework, I would be especially sensitive to the fact that while your kids are conducting “triage” based on what’s graded or not, what they’re actually expressing is a desire for the meaning and impact of the work to be clear. I hope to improve on my own homework in the coming year by asking for short reflections on the daily reading which we go over in conference weekly, targeted to what the kids individually feel they need practice on in reading, and including text and email options for turning those in. I am also excited to explain the differences between tech reading and “slow” reading for them, and validate them both—maybe by including a week’s worth of deliberate on-line reading practice for them each month. I’m sure that will get done!

Singing Pythagorus


Anyone who remembers the periodic table via Tom Lehrer’s wonderful song “The Elements” (below) will also appreciate this musical mnemonic ditty about the Pythagorean theorem, composed by a high school boy from Pendleton County (KY) High School. Does anyone else have a great one to contribute? (If you send yours in, we’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind.) And tell us: Does this kind of practice work for your students?

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!

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!

Basic skills, in a new light

Anyone who cares about things done well—and what kind of practice goes into that—should take a look at Mike Rose’s call for “a sea-change in the way we think about instruction in basic skills” to under-prepared young adults.

His inspiring commentary, just published in the Chronicle of Higher Education and on his blog, pushes back against the prevailing belief that remediation in math, reading, and writing academic is low-status teaching to low-status students. And he challenges the assumption that students must plow through the smallest units of learning before they work up to challenging thinking.

Rose knows better. A brilliant writer himself, he has also long taught remedial college writing. His many books (such as Possible Lives) reveal how alive he is to the intelligence evidenced in the actions and insights of people of every background, whether or not it comes from formal schooling.

Here he calls for a prestigious national institution—“The Smithsonian of Basic Skills”—that would devote itself to the theory and practice of how we develop and learn these critical skills. He asks:

If a young adult is having trouble with fractions, for example, how did his misunderstandings and flawed procedures develop? What formal or informal mathematical knowledge does he have that can be tapped? How does one access that cognitive history and lead the student to analyze and remedy it? How, then, does one proceed to teach in a way appropriate to an adult with that history?

I love these questions, and of course they also apply to teaching students at earlier ages. They are, in fact, fundamental to the purpose of our Practice Project at WKCD.

We start with conversations that draw forth what students already know and care about. Then we lead the student to analyze and remedy that cognitive history. With practice—at the important things, in the right way—students get better and better at the fundamental concepts that transcend academic disciplines and fields of work.

So what are the important things, and what’s the right way to practice them? For my part, I want to spend time in “The Smithsonian of Basic Skills” finding out! Meanwhile, how do you teach basic skills to your students, while keeping them deeply involved in interesting work? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best replies we receive.

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.

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.

Summer learning for kids

In a neighbor’s kitchen last summer, I noticed a couple of colorful handwritten checklists, each with about 25 items, which her two kids had posted on the refrigerator door. In big letters at the top they had printed, “Things I want to do this summer!”

Those dreams were filled with energy and exploration—from “make $ to buy a new bike” to “sleep out in a tent.” Okay, some were pretty clearly daydreams, but others could be carried out with only modest parental time and resources.

And if the right supports are there, it’s plans like these that make summer a time of enormous opportunity for growth and learning.

But with youth programs getting the ax and summer youth employment at an all-time low, by this week plenty of parents are worrying about what their kids are doing during these long hot days.

Camp, enrichment programs, or summer school aren’t in the schedule for three out of four schoolchildren nationwide, according to a new study by the Afterschool Alliance—even though more than half of their parents would send them, if they could.

We parents have seen for ourselves the consequences of a summer spent sleeping late and whiling away the lazy hours with television or video games. And the research backs that up: Without effective summer learning opportunities, most students fall more than two months behind in math between June and September. Low-income children also lose two to three months in reading every summer—so that by the end of fifth grade, they are nearly three years behind their high-income peers.

Part of the solution for worried parents is to push national, city, and school district officials to prioritize high-quality summer opportunities for students. A bill is now stalled in the U.S. Senate that would provide $1 billion over ten years to fund 350,000 summer jobs for teenagers and young adults ages 14 through 24.

But parents can’t wait to solve the immediate problem that faces them over the next seven or eight weeks. Over my next several posts, I’ll propose some practical activities that can keep kids active and stimulated, learning and growing, on their own or with others.

Step 1: Sit down with your kids to brainstorm their own list! If you listen with interest and don’t put down their ideas, at least some of their dreams will intersect with real-world possibilities. The goal: By summer’s end, they’ll be able check off at least some of the items they post on your refrigerator door.

Watch for the suggestions coming up in my next posts. Meanwhile, leave your own ideas in the Comment column! I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is one of the best suggestions received!

Doing the math

Riley Lark is a high school math teacher, five years into the profession. He loves his job: teaching kids to “translate reality into math and back,” with “little tools like factoring, graphing, and logarithms.”

But his kids have even more important things to practice in the long hours they spend in school, Riley believes. It’s also his job to teach them responsibility, respect, curiosity, investigative skills, teamwork skills, and the attitude that their mistakes and lack of knowledge are actually key elements of learning.

Luckily, he says, “it turns out that math is a great medium through which to teach these things.”

So on Riley’s blog, he and a handful of math teachers are sharing their lesson plans, techniques, philosophies, exams, and project ideas with a self-reflective thoughtfulness and humor that makes you feel like you’ve made great new friends. His July “Virtual Conference on Soft Skills” is currently bringing their voices together in a grassroots PD that has the ambiance of a terrific conversation in the shade of a summer lawn.

For example, Dan Goldner tells what he’s learned from the times when, without warning, a class shuts down completely in a “soft mutiny” — silent, disengaged, blank, unwilling to say what’s going on.

“The non-communicative aspect of the soft mutiny makes it hard to know just what’s going on,” Goldner writes, as he describes how he works his way out of the quicksand, trying not to take it personally:

• Ask the students “What would be most helpful for you now?” This gives students input and control without forcing them to voice their own sense of being lost, or, if they’re mad at me or feel I’m doing poorly, without forcing them to say things they think might upset me or hurt me. This question got useful answers that moved the class forward about 50% of the times I asked it.

• If that question gets no response, then make a transition to another mode, activity, or task. Acknowledge that “This isn’t working. Let’s shift to a different approach altogether.” This gives everyone a way to leave behind the “stuck” feeling.

I love seeing these teachers work through the problems of effective teaching together. Completely committed to fostering quantitative reasoning, they dedicate themselves equally to building confidence and leadership in their students. On both sides of that equation, they give kids plenty of respect — and practice.

If you have great examples of that kind of teaching (whatever your subject area), send them in! I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best replies we receive.

TIP! Play it out

“That’s not fair!” “We were there first!” Creative play gives kids practice in negotiating, pretending and imagining, rethinking and revising, arguing and demonstrating, taking leaps, inventing new realities beyond self-interest and kinship. It’s crucial daily practice in democratic habits, says Deborah Meier in Playing for Keeps, her new book with Brenda Engel and Beth Taylor about a public school playground.

What sticks with you from school?

As the school year ends in this “accountability” era, we’re pressed even more to test and summarize and analyze what students know and can do. But it’s also the season of high school reunions—and I’m always struck by what people remember most, 5 and 10 and 20 years out, about their learning in those adolescent years.

A friend passed along this email from her brother (class of 1992), who went with a few of his high school drama club friends to take a last look at their old auditorium, slated for demolition in a major renovation. “The evening proved to be much more emotional than I had expected,” he writes:

It didn’t hit me in the lobby, or even when I walked into the auditorium with the orange seats. But it started to hit me when I walked up the stairs on far stage right, the same stairs that G. walked up after he fell off the stage at the end of “You Can’t Take It With You.” It hit me when I walked backstage and saw that it looked almost identical … the toolroom in which something may or may not have happened between M. and A., the chaotic placement of wood in those shelves, the makeup room. … It hit me as I sat on the edge of the stage, with my feet dangling over, looking out to the orange seats and thinking about the crew meetings in which the honchos would be sitting on the stage and the crew would be sitting in the first couple rows of seats.

Later, I would walk around the mostly-unchanged high school, struck by how emotionless it was for me. (The only thing that moved me was how the student artwork in that first floor hallway was unchanged from when we were there.) But of course most of the high school was just a place where we took classes. That theatre was . . . not to be too cheesy, but that theatre was where I became the man I am today. That was where we channeled our passion, our energy and learned how to cope, how to negotiate, how to motivate, how to make something happen. That theatre was home, in some ways as much as [our family home] was for me.

Reading this, I thought about what kids like this are actually rehearsing in all those hours of absorbing “non-academic” activities—whether in the arts, sports, or other areas. What they learned, Ted Sizer used to say, constituted the “residue” of a high school education: what remains long after we have forgotten everything we studied for the tests.

How much higher could the stakes rise, than to show that kids know “how to cope, how to negotiate, how to motivate, how to make something happen”?

What did you learn in your high school years that made you who you are today? Please share your answer in the comment box below! I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best comment we receive.