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I have seen a blaze of anti-Common Core sentiment sweep through certain states. These groups that are protesting the Common Core are counting on you not doing your own research and thinking about the Common Core in-depth. There are several FALSE claims you will hear in relation to Common Core that you need to think about. You can verify this at www.corestandards.org.
First, the Common Core is not a national curriculum. The full name of Common Core is “Common Core State Standards” (aka CCSS) meaning they are benchmarks we want our children to achieve, but how to achieve them is left up to individual states and local communities. Many, many companies are competing for schools’ dollars by offering diverse and varied curricula if schools don’t want to write their own. The feds are not driving Common Core for implementation or for assessment.
Second, the Common Core does not dumb down the curriculum (the same people claiming we are dumbing down the curriculum also gripe that we are introducing difficult concepts too early—which is it?). On average, we see rigorous standards applied 1 year earlier than we were applying them under the Missouri Grade Level Expectations. Missouri has consistently had the 2nd and 3rd most rigorous state achievement test (MAP) in the nation and now we see an even more rigorous test coming next year. In fact, we just piloted the Common Core assessment in the district and students and teacher alike commented on how much harder the test was than the MAP. One question I saw was substantially different than the MAP test. On MAP, a kid would be asked a math problem and then given a set of choices: A, B, C, or D. On the Common Core test, I saw a 5th grader answering questions that went something like this, “Suzy was given the following math problem.” A word problem followed. “Suzy read the problem, formed a plan to answer the problem with six steps.” A numbered list of 6 steps followed. “Suzy got the following answer which was wrong. Find which step in Suzy’s method was wrong, explain why, and correct her answer.” Folks, a kid has to think a lot deeper to answer that type of questions than a multiple-guess test.
Third, there is a lot of other mumbo-jumbo being tossed around, but opponents keep piling up argument after argument against it until you aren’t even sure what they are referring to anymore. The argument expands to gripe about socialism, anti-Christian movements, abortion, tracking, cost, and I don’t know what else. But those things are other policy and legislative concerns that activists are lumping in with Common Core because they don’t understand it.
In a nutshell, here is a Common Core kindergarten standard:
RF.K.2(a): Recognize and produce rhyming words. The standard then recommends “Halfway Down” by A. A. Milne and “Singing Time” by Rose Fyleman although districts can use “Mary had a Little Lamb”, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, or any other district approved literature. The concept can be further developed through artwork, song, science, math, and vocabulary. The curriculum is developed at the local level while the assessment will be used to determine if a student can indeed recognize and produce a rhyming word.
Let’s try another one in 3rd grade:
RI.3.9: Compare and contrast the most important points and key details presented in two texts on the same topic. The standard recommends “Sarah, Plain and Tall” and “The Storm” although districts can choose any literature they want to have students compare and contrast. By the way, this is something we were trained heavily in during my doctoral program in order to conduct academic research…and here it is in 3rd grade Common Core!
L.5.5. Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings. Exemplar texts include “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “The Little Prince.” Informational texts include, “Who is Neil Armstrong?” and “Women Explorers of North and South America.” If we don’t like any of those, we can choose any literature we want.
Can you feel Obama’s fingertips reaching for your children’s minds yet? If you are confused where the socialist agenda is, I’m with you. But then again, no one has shown you what the real standards look like. Any standard can be written to reflect local control, with local lessons, local activities, and local formative assessments. The board will approve any curriculum that is generated by our own local teachers and reviewed by our own local administrators, myself included.
Finally, there are some real nice components of Common Core that I want to point out:
Reading is broken down into Literature, Informational Texts, and Foundational Skills. Writing, Speaking, Listening, and Language are strands of the standards. Reading and writing aren’t just isolated to classic works, but standards are given for reading to be taught in Social Studies classes, science, and other technical subjects.
Here is an example of the “Integration of Knowledge and Ideas” in grades 9 and 10. Standard RI.9-10.9: Analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”), including how they address related themes and concepts. These are four powerful, patriotic, truly American pieces of history that our kids should be grappling with. The teacher moves from the “sage on the stage” lecturing about what these pieces mean to the “guide on the side” helping students hold democratic readings and discussions about what these authors may have intended and what they were dealing with from a historical context. Students must “delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.”
The Common Core State Standards are designed to provide a framework of standards that are Internationally Benchmarked, rigorous, and broad enough to allow states and local boards of education create a locally controlled curriculum designed to meet the needs of local children. Go to www.corestandards.org and read through the standards to see for yourself. Nothing is perfect. Education is a practice. Common Core is another step forward in that practice. It isn’t evil, destructive, or anti-American. It is an opportunity for people with an axe to grind to use it as political smoke and mirrors to advance their own agenda. Don’t let the smoke get in your eyes.
There are a number of ways to work through assigned readings with our students, but we’ve always gravitated towards open-discussions. Though we prefer these over delivering lectures, seminar-style classrooms are not entirely unproblematic. Here are a few of the challenges we regularly encounter:
Recently, one of our colleagues told us about Highlighter, a free web application that actually addresses all of the challenges we mentioned above. Here’s how it works:
Highlighter lets teachers know exactly what sections of the course material is most engaging—or most confusing. Knowing this allows teachers to plan accordingly, clarify confusing sections, or expand on key concepts. No longer will you wonder if students have read the course material — now you’ll see they have highlighted, commented, shared and saved.
To learn more about Highlighter, you can watch a video by clicking here.
Recently, I worked with Steve Hargadon of Classroom 2.0 at an educational conference in Jacksonville, Florida. Steve is a marvelous conversationalist and has fantastic stories to share.
In the car on the way to the conference, Steve and I were discussing the “institution” of school and the “system” of school. The largest part of our conversation centered around the fact that we have, collectively as a nation, created a massive operation for educating children that does not work. Students are not graduating with the skills they need to be successful in the world they are graduating into. No surprise to many of you reading this--it isn’t “new” news. We know it’s not working.
The “institution” is the bureaucratic, policy side of public education that demands that “each get some.” The “system” is the mechanism for delivering the “some” to all. The good ideas that created the system and thus the institution around it are lost in the shuffle. Doing what’s best for kids and doing what’s fair for all have each become a separate megalopolis each on a separate continent.
Education has become so institutionalized that the act of “doing” something equates to readiness for the next checked off item on the “to do” list of instructional practice. The ebb and flow of “doing” becomes the barometer for success as measured by standardized high stakes tests that, in one moment, assess a student’s ability to “do school,” measure a teacher’s effectiveness, and be a checks and balances sheet to maintain the system as directed by the institution.
Note that in the previous paragraph, the word “learning” was not used. In a Huffington Post article from last March, Connie Yowell describes education as what institutions do and learning as what people do. What’s happening, though, is the system and the institution are methodically destroying learning. I think it’s high time we refocus on the learner.
My friend and colleague Jennifer Borgioli recently wrote a piece for the Gotham Schools blog about standardized testing, in the wake of the recent Common Core aligned New York state tests. In the blog post, she describes learning as a construct. We can measure variables that indicate that learning is happening but cannot quantify the whole of what learning means. In Jen’s words, we can’t “pull out a child’s brain, slap it on a scale, and say, yup, they’ve learned this much.”
The system and the institution would have you believe that it is possible to well quantify the learning with one high-stakes assessment that serves as a good indicator of year to year growth, how well a teacher teaches, and whether or not the school as a whole is an effective system. The problem is with the variables. In science, we draw conclusions based on the experimentation of one variable at a time, a process approach that helps winnow the possible outcomes of comparative observation. In our current model, the system and the institution are on a multi-variable train that not only amounts to bad science but, in turn, leads to bad practices.
Case in point: A few weeks ago, students in New York State took the first version of the new Common Core aligned tests. They were asked questions that were more rigorous than ever before in an attempt to measure the learning of the Common Core standards. The stories that came out of the woodwork over the course of the week involved students walking out of the test, kids crying, kids unable to finish, kids just giving up, etc. The test was designed to measure the degree to which the students met the Common Core standards. The test does not allow for variations in home environment, parental support, socioeconomic status, etc., all of which are variables that are not necessarily considered as important but in the end, majorly affect the data collected. (Other variables here would also include teacher support, teacher training, schools as systems supporting the standards versus pocket buy-in, etc.)
The test was designed to evaluate the system and perpetuate the institution. The tests in other states that are being designed to evaluate the “learning” are all heading in the same direction.
Do we want our students ready for college and careers? Absolutely.
Do we want them ready to meet the challenges of the world they will graduate into? You betcha.
Do we need assessment? Of course.
Do we want them suffering through assessments that were designed with the institution/system rather than the child in mind? Not at all.
Steve and I discussed how the people with the best ideas are usually not the ones running the companies that develop and market and sell the product that the idea people generated. Wonderful ideas are snagged up by companies or companies are created around them. In order to sell to the masses you need a system set up for production and delivery. You also need an institution to maintain and advance the ideas, normalizing everything for the benefit of impacting the most people possible to increase the bottom line over time.
The problem though, lies in the fact that once the ideas/learning lose the focus of priority in favor of the system or the institution because of a mistaken belief that “some” of the original ideas are best for “most” in the system, the system falters. How well does that work when the institution or the system becomes the priority? You tell me: Polaroid. Enron. Commodore. Hollywood Video. Madoff Investment Securities. The list is long...
Assessment is not bad. In a previous blog post, I wrote about why in the world we would practice for a game we never played or rehearse for a performance we never give? I also don’t disagree with checks and balances in the system, but the system must have integrity. That integrity lies in the priority of keeping the learner at the center. That means that we must not only find ways to more rationally assess students without causing complete psychological breakdowns on test days but also that we address some of the other variables that the system and the institution keep in the periphery, primarily poverty and family/environmental support.
Hmmm. “Test days.” Now that I’ve said those words specifically, perhaps that’s the beginning of the new conversation. Instead of the grimness of the dark and scary hell week of assessments, perhaps we start looking at what can be embedded in instruction. Perhaps we look at leveraging opportunities for choice and differentiated products through performance tasks and problem-based scenarios that not only generate a product but also are a launching pad for the next learning moment. These aren’t new ideas. I’m not innovating here. I am talking about something though that is difficult for institutionalized implementation. It is difficult for systemic production and delivery. It’s expensive and messy and would involve much more local control.
We can send a man to the moon but we are still having trouble negotiating the creation of a better assessment of student learning? I wonder how many one size fits all, end of the year, high stakes assessments those NASA engineers took before they were finally ready to, according to the system and the institution, design and implement their ideas? I wonder if Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would have been comfortable putting their lives on the line for a bunch of scientists that did REALLY well on their one moment in time, end of year state tests?
There are no easy answers here, I know that. But I also know that there are still kids at the heart of all of this. The institution and the system need to refocus on that. We have an unbelievable challenge and a massive obligation to get this right.
Originally blogged on Smartblogs.com/education. Portions added.
Upgrade Your Curriculum now available at the ASCD Bookstore
Arne Duncan recently gave a speech at the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting. In the speech he emphasized the importance of non-cognitive, or social and emotional skills stating, “We know . . . that the development of skills like grit, resilience, and self-regulation early in life are essential to success later in life.” He later continued,
Ultimately, a great education involves much more than teaching children simply to read, write, add, and subtract. It includes teaching them to think and write clearly, and to solve problems and work in teams. It includes teaching children to set goals, to persist in tasks, and to help them navigate the world.
Duncan’s words were not all that surprising considering his own U.S. Department of Education had just released a publication titled “Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance—Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century” a month earlier. Surprising or not, it is always good to hear that there is a push (with some real muscle behind it) for teaching these skills.
Duncan didn’t stop with simply promoting non-cognitive skill development, however. Instead, he went on to suggest,
. . . testing experts need to further expand the range of assessments in the years ahead by developing better, reliable, and valid assessments of children’s non-cognitive skills. This is the next frontier in assessment research—and it is hugely important to me.
I would love to see assessment experts work with schools and districts to develop more reliable, meaningful, and easy-to-administer assessments that help us understand whether we are teaching the non-cognitive skills that predict students’ success in college, careers, and life.
The whole idea of assessing non-cognitive skills is an interesting proposition in and of itself because it would require all teachers to actively teach these specific skills. It becomes even more interesting, however, when we realize that something must be done as a result of it. The reality is that just as with academic skills, an achievement gap will exist for non-cognitive skills. In fact, it’s already there. In Washington State the Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills (WaKIDS) revealed that only 74% of students demonstrated the characteristics of entering kindergartners in the area of social and emotional development. Kindergarten readiness in the area of cognitive development (which includes problem solving) was only 71%. Furthermore, similar to academic skills, these so-called soft skills become more sophisticated as one gets older. For example, whereas the ability to work cooperatively might mean simply joining in a game of tag for a kindergartener, it could mean building consensus for a project idea for a middle schooler. Therefore, the gap that exists in kindergarten will only widen unless intensive interventions are done.
This begs the question: If a student has low academic skills and low non-cognitive skills, will one be given priority in terms of time and resources?
This commentary examines criteria for selecting effective curricula and instructional models in a 21st century world, and also provides eight examples of relatively unknown yet powerful curricula-instructional programs that should be considered for adoption.
In the same way that it is hard to build a building without an architectural blueprint, so too it is hard for a teacher to be effective without strong curricula-instructional frameworks. Curricula/instructional frameworks lay out the goals, methods, strategies, approaches, assessments, and resources needed for successful teaching and learning. The better the framework, the more likely will be the sturdiness of the foundation and the effectiveness of instruction. The more that curricular-instructional models available to teachers are consistent with the goals and practices of the teacher and school, and the needs of students, the more likely it is that teaching will have good results.
Just imagine how an architectural blueprint influences and affects the construction of a building. Building construction based on a poor design may make it difficult to walk from one part of the building to another, make communication among building occupants difficult, make furniture arrangements impossible, make lighting too dark or too light, make the building safe or unsafe. In the same vein, a poorly designed curriculum may lead to too many unclear, vague goals that do not match student needs, include too much to teach, limit “deeper understanding” of a subject, teach the wrong skills, provide few connections between its different parts, have little meaning for learners, foster passive learning, and make alignment of content among teachers and grade levels difficult. When teachers work from poorly designed curricula and instructional frameworks, they have to work very hard to redo the curricular and instructional practices encouraged by these frameworks, and many times powerful learning is difficult if not impossible to create within the given framework.
What are the components of successful curriculum/instructional frameworks for teaching in a 21st century world? Some framework characteristics might include:
Teachers, schools and districts need to regularly review their curricular programs in order to update them and create programs more attuned to this new age that we live in. Ultimately, this will make a huge difference for children in this new age.
The following curricula and instructional models exemplify powerful “21st century” program elements built around many or most these criteria. You are probably unfamiliar with most or all of them. They, and programs like them, should become familiar to educators and achieve greater use throughout the educational community.
NOTE: Many of their descriptions are adapted from the program’s website.
1. LITERACY DEVELOPMENT
SERP-Word Generation for the Middle School
SERP - Word Generation is a research-based, highly motivating “vocabulary” development program for middle school students designed to teach words through language arts, math, science, and social studies classes. The program consists of weekly units, each of which introduces 5 high-utility target words through brief passages describing controversies currently under debate in this country. The paragraphs are intended to help students join ongoing "national conversations" by sparking active examination and discussion of contemporary issues. The target words are relevant to a range of settings and subject areas. The cross-content focus on a small number of words each week will enable students to understand the variety of ways in which words are related, and the multiple exposures to words will provide ample opportunities for deeper understanding.
The Word Generation program is designed to build academic vocabulary, i.e., words that students are likely to encounter in textbooks and on tests, but not in spoken language. Interpret, prohibit, vary, function, and hypothesis are examples. Academic vocabulary includes words that refer to thinking and communicating, like infer and deny, and words that are common across subjects, but hold different meaning depending on the subject, like element and factor. Both types of academic vocabulary are likely to cause problems with comprehension unless students have been taught how to deal with them.
For more information, go to: http://wg.serpmedia.org
For information about other SERP programs in development, go to: http://www.serpinstitute.org/2013/
Other literacy development programs you might want to examine:
Children’s Literacy Initiative (CLI) http://www.cliontheweb.org
Reading and Writing Workshop: http://readingandwritingproject.com/about/overview.html
100 Book Challenge: http://www.americanreading.com/products/100bc/
Touchstones discussion Project: http://www.touchstones.org
Jr Great Books Program:
2. CREATIVE THINKING
Design Thinking is a structured approach to generate and develop new ways to solve difficult problems and challenges. Design Thinking starts with a challenge, and then works through a series of steps to help find creative solutions to the challenge, such as empathy, interpretation, brainstorming and choosing alternatives, building models, and planning for implementation. The process can be used to help solve school challenges or world-wide challenges. It includes learning additional skills such as finding reliable information, developing surveys and questionnaires, and building interview skills. It can be adapted to be used with students at all ages.
Other creative thinking programs you might want to explore:
Creative Problem Solving: http://www.creativeeducationfoundation.org
The Future Problem Solving Program: http://www.fpspi.org
3. POSITIVE ATTITUDES, VALUES, AND COMMUNICATION SKILLS
Champions of Caring: Journey of a Champion Middle and High School Programs
The Journey of a Champion Middle Grades curriculum is a year-long course of study divided into 4 modules. It promotes academic excellence, character development, service-learning and citizenship. The curriculum is a catalyst for encouraging caring, thoughtfulness and good judgment through service and civic participation. Students gain civic engagement skills as they design community and school service projects. Civic skills developed include:
The Journey of a Champion High School Program is a character education and service-learning curriculum for students in grades 9-12. Through this program, students learn how to act as responsible, caring and involved citizens who respect themselves and others and succeed academically.
Journey of a Champion invites students to learn about and reflect on the challenges they and their contemporaries face. It places those challenges in a historical context and leads students to develop strategies and skills that will help them confront those challenges. The journey "destination" is students creating and planning sustainable service and civic participation. The curriculum affects positive change in students by:
For more information, go to: http://www.championsofcaring.org
Other programs to look at:
Second Step: http://www.cfchildren.org/second-step.aspx
4. ECONOMICS AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP
Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE)
Entrepreneurship education is a tool that can equip young people to not only start businesses and create jobs, but also to be opportunity-focused, flexible employees ready to fill existing jobs.
NFTE fosters the creation of entrepreneurship skills, businesses and the development of an adaptable, driven and opportunity-focused workforce that ultimately promotes economic stability. External research has shown that NFTE graduates start and maintain businesses at substantially higher rates than their peers. Other research findings indicate that students develop:
Working with schools in low-income communities where at least 50% of the students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, NFTE targets young people who are at risk of dropping out of school, and helps them graduate with their own personal plans for success. The program, Highly Academic, is a semester or year-long class with a NFTE-certified teacher who guides students through one of the curricula: Entrepreneurship: Owning Your Future or Exploring Careers for the 21st Century. Lessons include the concepts of competitive advantage, ownership, opportunity recognition, marketing, finance, and product development - and all tie back to core math and literacy skills. Lessons include field trips, games and experiential activities. Classes regularly have guest speakers. Students are paired with coaches who help students work on their business plans, and business plan competitions are judges by local entrepreneurs and business people.
Each young person who takes a NFTE class works toward completing a business plan, then goes on to present and defend it in a classroom competition. The winners of these competitions go on to compete in citywide or regional competitions, with the hopes of reaching our annual national competition.
For more information, go to: http://www.nfte.com
Other Economic-Entrepreneurial Programs:
General information about entrepreneurial education programs can be found at: http://www.entre-ed.org
Information about Economic and Financial Education resources can be found at: http://www.councilforeconed.org
5. INQUIRY-BASED SCIENCE
Full Options Science System (FOSS)
Science is an active enterprise, made active by our human capacity to think and “search for the truth”. Scientists value open communication, investigation, and good evidence for drawing conclusions. Scientific knowledge advances when scientists observe objects and events, think about how they relate to what is known, test their ideas in logical ways, and generate explanations that integrate the new information into the established order. Thus the scientific enterprise is both what we know (content) and how we come to know it (process). The best way for students to appreciate the scientific enterprise, learn important scientific concepts, and develop the ability to think critically is to actively construct ideas through their own inquiries, investigations, and analyses.
The FOSS program was created to engage students in these processes as they explore the natural world. FOSS program materials are designed to meet the challenge of providing meaningful science education for all students in diverse American classrooms and to prepare them for life in the 21st century. Development of the FOSS program was, and continues to be, guided by advances in the understanding of how youngsters think and learn.
FOSS K–6 is a complete program consisting of 26 modules for self-contained elementary classrooms. The components exclusive to K–6 are
FOSS Middle School components consist of nine units for students and their teachers in departmental science grades 6–8. Each unit requires 9–12 weeks to teach. The Middle School program includes the following five interconnected components:
Two components that apply to both FOSS K–6 and FOSS Middle School are the FOSS Assessment System and FOSSweb.com.
For more information, go to: http://www.fossweb.com
Other programs to consider:
Active Physics: (high school): http://its-about-time.com/htmls/ap.html
6. CONCEPTUALLY-ORIENTED MATHEMATICS
Cognitively Guided Instruction
Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI) is a professional development program that increases teachers’ understanding of the knowledge that students bring to the math learning process and how they can connect that knowledge with formal concepts and operations. The program is based on the premise that children throughout the elementary grades are capable of learning powerful unifying ideas of mathematics that are the foundation of both arithmetic and algebra. Learning and articulating these ideas enhance children's understanding of arithmetic and provide a foundation for extending their knowledge of arithmetic to the learning of algebra.
CGI is guided by two major ideas. The first is that children bring an intuitive knowledge of mathematics to school with them and that this knowledge should serve as the basis for developing formal mathematics instruction. This idea leads to an emphasis on working with the processes that students use to solve problems. The second key idea is that math instruction should be based on the relationship between computational skills and problem solving, which leads to an emphasis on problem solving in the classroom instead of the repetition of number facts, such as practicing the rules of addition and subtraction.
With the CGI approach, teachers focus on what students know and help them build future understanding based on present knowledge. The program aims to improve children's mathematical skills by increasing teachers' knowledge of students' thinking, by changing teachers' beliefs regarding how children learn, and by ultimately changing teaching practice. In 1996, CGI was extended into the upper elementary school levels to assist first through sixth grade teachers in integrating the major principles of algebra into arithmetic instruction.
There is no set curriculum. Teachers use the CGI framework with existing curriculum materials, or they use CGI principles to help develop their own math curriculum.
For more information, go to: http://www.promisingpractices.net/program.asp?programid=114#programinfo
Other math programs that might be considered:
Project Seed: http://projectseed.org
Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP)(High School): http://mathimp.org/general_info/intro.html
7. SOCIAL STUDIES/CIVICS PROGRAMS
Social Studies School Service
Social Studies School Service offers teachers, K-12, a variety of alternative and unique materials, programs, and curricula for social studies at all levels. The materials have been developed for the many aspects of social studies – government, history, geography, and civics – and often are interdisciplinary, incorporate conceptual understanding, develop research skills, big ideas and essential questions, and use data-based test questions (DBQ’s), performance tasks, and multiple readings. Catalogues of available materials are frequently sent out and shared.
For further information, go to: www.socialstudies.com
Other social studies/civics programs to consider:
Teacher’s Curriculum Institute social studies programs: www.teachtci.com
Center for Civic Education: http://new.civiced.org
Zinn Education: http://zinnedproject.org
A History of US: http://www.joyhakim.com/works.htm
The Choices Program (Middle and High School): http://www.choices.edu
8. STEM (SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, ENGINEERING, MATHEMATICS) PROGRAMS
Engineering is Elementary
EIE consists currently of twenty STEM units designed for the elementary grades. Each EIE unit ties in with an elementary science topic and is meant to be taught either concurrently or after students learn the appropriate science content in life science, earth and space science and physical science areas. Each unit has five “lessons” (lessons can be more than one day).
The units attempt to combine learning in a science area with engineering concepts. Engineering projects integrate other disciplines. Engaging students in hands-on, real-world engineering experiences can enliven math and science and other content areas. Engineering projects can motivate students to learn math and science concepts by illustrating relevant applications. They foster problem-solving skills, including problem formulation, iteration, testing of alternative solutions, and evaluation of data to guide decisions.
Learning about engineering increases students' awareness of and access to scientific and technical careers. The number of American citizens pursuing engineering is decreasing. Early introduction to engineering can encourage many capable students, especially girls and minorities, to consider it as a career and enroll in the necessary science and math courses in high school.
For more information, go to: http://www.eie.org/
Other STEM examples:
Engineer Your World: http://www.engineeryourworld.org (high school)
Project Lead the Way: http://www.pltw.org (high school)
Some Final Thoughts
Every school and district should have some mechanism to help staff members regularly review the many available potential curriculum and instructional programs and approaches, and to select those that provide students with opportunities based on the criteria suggested at the beginning of this commentary, such as focused, meaningful goals; targeted key skills, attitudes and values; multiple formative and summative assessment options; a focus on deeper learning; and active student engagement and inquiry.[i]
The programs listed above are only some examples of the many powerful curricula and instructional options that are often neglected and put into place too infrequently in schools and classrooms.[ii] Many others that meet the criteria cited above and match 21st century goals should be considered. Through continual review and renewal, every District should move towards having a set of powerful curricula and instructional programs, tied to appropriate staff development training, that help prepare students to live in a 21st century world.
We also now have the technology to develop curriculum review websites, comparable to Amazon’s book service and reviews or TripAdvisor’s travel site that rates hotels and bed and breakfasts in all parts of the world. The website should include a comprehensive set of curriculum programs, all reviewed by experts and rated by users. Such a site would provide educators with data that would be helpful in a curriculum review and renewal process.
[i] For additional information about curriculum renewal criteria and strategies, go to www.era3learning.org, then to resources, then to curriculum renewal, and then to the article by Elliott Seif, Reconfiguring Learning Through Curriculum Renewal (unpublished).
Recently, my 8th grade English language arts students were writing our guiding question at the beginning of class. This is a routine activity that takes about two minutes. Some students write faster than others and finish in as little as 60 seconds.
As I meandered my way around the tables, looking in and chatting with small groups and individuals, I noticed one student, who had finished the task and was copying a friend’s homework. “I see something important is due in science today,” I said. The two girls looked up sheepishly and nodded. The copier asked if I was going to take the papers. “Why?” I queried. “I’m not hurt by your cheating; you are.” The cheater only shrugged and went back to copying. Her cohort grinned and shrugged, right along.
Are educators responsible for cheating?
Research indicates that cheating is on the rise, especially in high schools and colleges. Donald McCabe, a Rutgers professor, believes rampant cheating is due to the stress of competition that schools present. “I don’t think there’s any question that students have become more competitive, under more pressure, and, as a result, tend to excuse more from themselves and other students, and that’s abetted by the adults around them,” McCabe told The New York Times last year.
McCabe and other luminaries, like Harvard researcher Howard Gardner, believe the Internet may also shoulder some of the blame. Students, they claim, don’t understand honor codes and plagiarism, so they are quick to “borrow” content they find in a simple Google search.
It’s not the Internet, it’s grades!
I would argue that there is a much larger root to this problem. When I asked the girls in my class why they were so willing to copy their science worksheet, they quickly acknowledged that they needed the points to maintain a good grade. “Hmm,” I wondered aloud, “you never cheat in my class. Why is that?” They didn’t contemplate the question for even two seconds. “There are no points or grades on your assignments,” the copier quickly said, “so there’s no reason to cheat.”
A smile quickly brightened my face. “So, what do I value?” I asked, beginning to move away, so I could engage another group of students. “Learning,” the two said, almost in unison.
So, would you like to eliminate cheating in your class? It’s easy! All you have to do is abolish grades. Give your students feedback about their work, and allow them the opportunity to revisit activities and projects and improve them, in order to indicate mastery learning.
Cheating will disappear, and, best of all, your students will become independent learners.
To learn more, get Mark Barnes' new book, Role Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in the Student-Centered Classroom (ASCD 2013) here.
What is the most important factor that contributes to student success? Teaching.
Full disclosure: I am a New York Network Team Representative that is charged with taking the message of NY State Ed back to my participating districts. I attend meetings in Albany several times a year and then share this information with the schools I work with and help them understand and implement all that is coming in the wake of Race to the Top.
I believe in helping teachers help students. I believe that students are the focus of everything I do. I believe that some of this initiative, including the new Standards, is working and is good but I also believe some of it is not. I believe that teachers are professionals that deserve better than they’ve been treated in the last couple of years (particularly in the media) and I believe that if we trust them with children, then we should trust them with how to instruct and assess those children as well. I believe in fairness and I believe in calling attention to inconsistencies, not for the sake of argument or anger, but for the sake of solving solvable problems and getting this right. I believe in our obligations to our children.
I also believe that NY State has an opportunity here to build a new bridge.
But first, a little background:
In August of 2011, I began attending the NY State Education Network Team Institutes--the first of many that I’ve attended where State Ed rolls out initiatives, resources, upcoming expectations, etc. At one of these meetings, I had the very good fortune of meeting Mr. Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, author of Driven By Data. Data Informed Inquiry models were to be part of our message that we took back to schools as schools were expected to form their own inquiry teams for the sake of letting the data guide instructional decisions. The assessments were meant to be more frequent and standards-based with a quick turnaround so that teachers could use the data and make necessary tweaks and improvements to the instructional program in the moment, rather than waiting until the end of the year to see if students “got it.”
The most important part of Santoyo’s message is transparency in the assessment. In order to do the deep analysis required, teachers must have the assessment in hand so that the skills that a student needs to answer the questions could be analyzed. Additionally, having the test in hand means that there are further opportunities for professional development around the structure of the test, the deconstruction of the questions for type and strategy, and the levels of cognition (Bloom’s, Webb’s, etc.) on the assessment and how those compare to the levels of cognition in instruction. Understanding by Design 101.
At these Network Team meetings, we spent HOURS understanding this methodology, preparing to turnkey it to our participating districts by exploring the models and creating our own data analysis spreadsheets and understanding protocols for data meetings. Throughout every single bit of this, we had the assessments in our hands. Again, let me say, WE. HAD. THE. ASSESSMENTS. IN. OUR. HANDS.
We taught our districts to do this exact same thing through their data meetings. Test in hand, begin analysis, use the observations to make changes in instruction to benefit students and their success.
This is not intended to give teachers ammunition for teaching TO the test, this is about understanding skills and strategies that enable students to be successful on assessments. This is not just about multiple choice either--it’s meant to analyze multiple types of assessments but to do so quickly so that students reap the benefits of deep understanding and teachers reap the benefits of planned student successes. This is an opportunity to leverage our professional development to do well what we were trained to do: TEACH.
Jump to now.
New York State just finished administering the first tests that are aligned with the Common Core. They were way more rigorous than previous assessments and both teachers and students struggled. Sometime over the summer, scores will be released, but the test will not.
The test will be embargoed and teachers will not be able to see it. State Ed Leadership will say that there are sufficient samples available online. They will say that there are curriculum modules to help with understanding skills and cognition to prepare for the assessments. They will say that it’s too time-consuming and expensive to share the tests as new ones will have to be developed.
They will also continue to promote Santoyo’s model on one hand, but deny teachers access to the central message of the model on the other hand. This is the inconsistency.
With all of the stress that teachers are under to both perform and be evaluated on that performance in ways they never have before, there needs to be some team-building going on, something that will bring everyone together for the sake of our students.
There is an opportunity here: Release the tests.
Teachers need an anchor right now, a shelter in the storm of changes. They need something concrete that will help them and their students be more successful and help them to feel that they have more control over the flawed teacher evaluation system currently in place. There are so many across the state just treading water and releasing the test would be a major lifeboat moment.
Many of the teachers I’ve talked with over the last couple of years of implementation will tell you that the Common Core Standards are not bad. They will tell you that with time and continued professional development that we can use those standards as a basis for modern learning practice and to prepare our kids to succeed in the world they will graduate into.
These teachers will tell you that data driven inquiry is important and that they agree that it is necessary. They will even tell you that they are fine with teacher evaluation and that, for the most part, there is a desire to improve professional practice and discover opportunities to do things better and implement new ideas.
They will also tell you that the current evaluation plan is inauthentic, inspiring a checklist of “to-dos” that meet the requirements of Race to the Top but do little to impact practice. They will tell you that a single test score has too many uncontrollable variables such as parent support, home environment, and poverty status to be a reliable measure for any part of a teacher’s evaluation. They will tell you that doing the same thing for all may be equal but it is not fair.
They will also tell you that it is difficult to prepare for an assessment when the potential exists for only a narrow secret set of assessed standards which in turn need broad preparation, leading to missed opportunities in instruction and inconsistent results.
Release the tests.
Teachers need to see that they are trusted and valued. They need to see that they are viewed as capable collaborators in this quest for college and career readiness. They need to see themselves as part of the whole team.
Release the tests.
Follow Mike on Twitter: @fisher1000
Upgrade Your Curriculum now available from ASCD.org
Not every student needs to prepare for a Google-like workplace. And, as popular as STEM is presently, most students don’t want to become software engineers or scientists. But every student, in any job, will collaborate as a member of a team. I once talked with a student who told me he wanted to be a Fed Ex driver. “Just drive around and deliver things,” he said, “No teamwork there.” I urged him to look at the handheld device carried by every driver—the one that communicates with a worldwide network and plugs the driver into a global team.
Every student needs to be prepared for that environment, partly for employment opportunity, but mainly because the deeply embedded mental model of learning and creating as an individual process is obsolete. No one, any longer, can isolate themselves from someone else’s knowledge base, and collaboration has shifted from its earlier incarnation as a social networking skill into the chief way in which we talk to one another in order to get things done. Powerful collaboration is driven by incisive communication—and out of that process come the very best expressions of innovation, creativity, and critical inquiry. In other words, collaboration is now the foundational 21st century skill.
Thinking that students are ‘naturals’ at this is a fallacy. High performance collaboration requires training and the development of key personal skills. For teachers, two initial steps will help launch this process. First, reframe the conversation by using the terminology of ‘teams,’ not group work. Think of your favorite sports team and now call them a ‘group.’ Feel the difference? Teams focus on accountability and commitment; they form for a purpose and operate through norms and shared expectations.
Second, import and adapt the high performance principles common in the work world to teams in the classroom. This requires time, good coaching skills, a relentless focus on the quality of interaction between students, and a set of team tools, including contracts, rubrics, and exercise. But the payoff is noticeable. Once students form teams over an extended period and begin to collaborate well, they learn more, get better at teaching others, produce more powerful products, and enjoy the process. Here are ten principles that can help you design high performance teams:
Thom Markham is a psychologist, school redesign consultant, and the author of the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for inquiry and innovation for K-12 educators. To download the tools mentioned in the blog, go to the PBL tools page on the website, www.thommarkham.com. If you can’t find what you need, contact him at email@example.com.
A high performance team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are equally committed to a common purpose, goals, and working approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable. Members of the team are deeply committed to one another’s personal growth and success (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993).
As I observe classrooms and visit schools, I am always looking for high performing teams. I am impressed by a fourth grade teacher who can differentiate, analyze assessment data, lead professional development, teach students to think outside the box, and integrate technology on a daily basis. However, I am in awe of high performing teams. In The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork, Maxwell (2001) wrote, “Communication increases commitment and connection; they in turn fuel action. If you want your team to perform at the highest level, the people on it need to be able to talk and to listen to one another” (p. 197). Does your professional learning team communicate on a regular basis? Do you plan to meet daily, weekly, or monthly? How often do you need to meet in order to make certain all students learn the essential learning outcomes?
High performing teams use the following strategies to take students to the next level:
Team norms are the foundation of a high performing team. Some teams feel like they can operate without norms, but conflict or a dysfunctional team member highlight the purpose of norms. When teams operate with norms, each member of the team understands how to communicate, how shared decisions will be handled, when to arrive for meetings, and how to professionally disagree. I have observed teams that developed norms five years ago, but they fail to revisit the team norms. When a new teacher moves from a different grade level or from another school district, it is difficult for the teacher to participate as a team member because the team norms are akin to living and working in a different country or culture. Solution Tree has developed a free online resource which supports the development of team norms titled, Developing Norms.
A precursor to improvement is a clear understanding of the goal. Educators often enter a new nine weeks and don’t pause to reflect on the current reality (i.e., Where are we? Where are we going? How will we get there?). If six eighth grade science teachers each develop their own goals and learning outcomes, is it likely that students will end up at the same place when they enter ninth grade science? Blanchard (2007) contends, “Goal setting is the single most powerful motivational tool in a leader’s toolkit” (p. 150). A school without clearly defined goals is like a ship without a rudder; it lacks direction and a slight wind could easily blow it off course (Wiles, 2009).
Teams set goals, companies strive to meet sales or production goals, and successful individuals monitor their diet, finances, time management, life-long learning, leadership growth, and other established goals. If school teams are aiming for student achievement, then they must become crystal clear on how to help each member of their school district meet the goal. DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker (2008) wrote, “One of the most pressing questions a school must consider as it attempts to build the collaborative culture of a PLC is not, ‘Do we collaborate?’ but rather, ‘What do we collaborate about?’” (p. 28). A lack of clarity on intended results is a barrier to growth and continuous improvement in schools.
One strategy that is overlooked in schools is the power of small wins. When I memorized 1 x 1 through 12 x 12, my second grade teacher gave me a poster autographed by a Razorback basketball player (talk about a small win)! Memorizing my multiplication facts did not make me a mathematician, but my teacher took time to recognize the small win each time a new student reached the goal. When I played high school basketball, the coach would require each member of the team to make ten free throws before we left practice. This was a small win and it was psychological. New York Times bestselling author Daniel Coyle wrote, “Perhaps most important, the “small-win” approach is aligned with the way your brain is built to learn: chunk by chunk, connection by connection, rep by rep. As John Wooden said, “Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts” (April, 2012).
School teams are implementing common formative assessments, the Common Core State Standards, technology integration, reading programs, literacy across the curriculum, character education programs, state initiatives, and more! Most teachers understand the importance of celebrating a small win with students. We need to use this same strategy when we work with our colleagues. Small wins are identified and celebrated by high performing school teams!
Meetings have become a burden to teachers. If a school still operates where each teacher believes, “These are my students and those are your students....” – Then, it will be difficult for teachers to see why they need to meet as a team. High performing teacher teams realize, “These are our students and this is our community.” High performing teams have a meeting agenda, clear meeting outcomes, and action items. If team members are arriving at each meeting asking what are we going to discuss today, then it won’t be a very good use of time.
Some of the best ideas at my elementary school come from team meetings. A collaborative team of teacher leaders, motivated by preparing all students for the next level, is a powerful force to reckon with. This is the scene that every taxpayer should demand from a public school. Schmoker (2005) wrote, “It starts with a group of teachers who meet regularly as a team to identify essential learning, develop common formative assessments, analyze current levels of achievement, set achievement goals, share strategies, and then create lessons to improve upon those levels.” That is the kind of school I want to send my children to.
Essential Learning Outcomes
Effective teams develop and agree to provide all students with essential learning outcomes. In the absence of learning outcomes, students receive a disjointed curriculum experience. Why do some teams skip this step if it is such an important part of teaching and learning? From my observations, developing essential learning outcomes involves trust, conflict, debate, time, and the ability to come to consensus. If teams lack trust or don’t schedule a weekly meeting, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to identify essential learning outcomes. Swan (2010) wrote, "Learning outcomes refer to the skills, knowledge, and attributes students should have upon completion of a particular course or program of study."
Wiggins and McTighe (2005), wrote, “In the absence of a learning plan with clear goals, how likely is it that students will develop shared understandings on which future lessons might build” (p. 21)? If teachers claim to operate as a professional learning team, but they lack clearly defined learning outcomes, then students will experience a disjointed curriculum. If goal-setting is important in athletics and on business teams, then professional learning teams must take time to see how the absence of essential learning outcomes can interfere with the team’s common purpose. Does your team have essential learning outcomes for each nine weeks or semester?
Sports fans love to analyze the greatest teams of all time. The New York Yankees have won more World Series than any team in baseball (27). UCLA men’s basketball team has won more NCAA National Championships than any other college basketball team in history (11). Ten of those championships were won under legendary coach John Wooden. The Pittsburgh Steelers have won more Super Bowls than any other NFL team (6). What makes a great team? Great teams are made of great individuals. Mark Sanborn outlines the “4 C’s of a Great Team Member (1:44).”
If you entered the field of education to make a difference, ask how your individual strengths can benefit the entire team. Michael Fisher (2010) wrote, "If your schools/districts are made up primarily of those with an ‘island mentality,’ then they need to join the continent.” High performing teams are needed in our schools. Students deserve our best and we can work more efficiently if we turn our school teams into high performing teams.
The current requirement that public and charter school students demonstrate their proficiency through standardized, top down tests has in many schools narrowed the curriculum, increased sterile test-prep classroom activities, and focused the public measurement of school and student success narrowly and imperfectly around a few traditional tests. This “test-centered” focus makes it more difficult for many schools to educate and assess students so that they are prepared for a world with exploding amounts of knowledge, fundamental changes in technology, and the new skill sets required for successful careers.
By contrast, a “learning-centered” focus starts with establishing meaningful, purposeful educational outcomes for a 21st century world, such as preparing students for both lifelong learning and citizenship, focusing on the development of key skills for a new era, and customizing learning in order to develop each student’s talents, interests and abilities.
Based on the above learning centered outcomes, here is a checklist of potential characteristics and qualities that we might expect to observe in classrooms, schools and districts:
√ A conscious effort to develop positive learning attitudes and values, such as curiosity, wonder, responsibility, motivation, persistence, effort makes a difference, and collaboration.
√A “deeper learning” curriculum in all subject areas, including the arts and social studies, that help students build focused networks of core background knowledge and understandings about the world around them.
√Inquiry based learning approaches that engage students in learning and support the development of critical learning skills, such as questioning and problem finding; reading for understanding; processing information and data; many types of writing; research and study skills; logical, inductive and creative thinking; discussion and presentation skills.
√Preparation for citizenship through rigorous, engaging, interactive history, geography, current events, and service-learning experiences.
√Customized learning opportunities that develop individual interests, talents and strengths, as when students can choose from an extensive array of classroom, school, curricular and extra-curricular activities and electives[i].
√ Research projects, field trips and other experiences that help students connect to “real world” events, activities, and individuals.
√ Internships and Internet course options for high school students that expand student horizons.
√An accountability system that uses multiple types of assessments to determine student progress and success[ii], such as writing of all kinds, research projects and performance tasks, essay tests, self-reflections, and plans for the future. Traditional tests are only a small part of the assessment process. Student portfolios – collections of student work - become part of a multi-faceted growth and evaluation process.
√Technology in the service of all of the above that supports students as they conduct research, process information, develop and write papers, collect work in electronic portfolios, create on-line presentations, conduct simulations, contact outside experts, and the like.
Does your classroom, school or district have a test-centered or a learning-centered approach to teaching and learning? Are the above components in place in your classroom-school-district? Not all of the checklist may be appropriate for your own situation, so feel free to adapt, change and add as necessary. Use this guide and checklist as a catalyst for your own thinking, discussion, and planning.
Many will say that these ideas are unrealistic in light of the current emphasis on standardized tests, state standards, and the Common Core standards. My view is that a systematic learning-centered education will provide a long-term vision of a good 21st century education that will be a framework for educating students for many years to come. With a meaningful and purposeful learning-centered framework, students will be well prepared for standardized tests, programs will satisfy Common Core standards requirements, and we will be ready for any other regulations and changes that come down the pike!
We can only hope that, instead of a test-centered approach, “learning-centeredness” -defining and implementing a set of 21st century student learning outcomes, assessments, and practices - will become the predominant educational focus for governments at all levels, the educational community, and the public at large in order to think about, define and plan for educational excellence in the future.
Elliott Seif is a long time educator, teacher, college professor, curriculum director, ASCD author, school volunteer, and Understanding by Design trainer. You can read more about this learning centered approach to education in a new age at his website: www.era3learning.org
[i] Thematic schools, such as schools for the arts, sciences, engineering, business, culinary arts, and the like, would be likely to customize according to their themes.
[ii] This broadened accountability system suggests a different way for individual classrooms, schools and districts to judge success and achievement. For example, school superintendents might present a more complex picture of accountability to the public and school board by providing examples of the types of student work completed at different levels (average, excellent, and poor, with percentages of each), examples of books read by students at different levels, sample self-reflections, student survey data, research paper examples, and student presentations. The same broad-based data might also be presented by schools and individual teachers. While this data may be harder to collect and summarize, they should give a much better picture of student success and achievement.
Many of us have heard the expression, “Too much of a good thing is bad for you”. It is no wonder that when people, groups, or organizations take things to the extreme, that misconceptions come about. Additionally, not every person is acquainted with every other person’s work. For example, I don’t know everything that a doctor does, so therefore, if the doctor is prescribing a lot of medication to patients, it may or may not be warranted, despite what my perception is around prescribing the medication.
Assessment is no different, and honestly, to some degree, standardized testing has earned itself a bad name. I’m not saying that I am a huge supporter of these types of tests, but with anything, they have their place and I suppose if utilized appropriately, could have some added value. For the general public, there is clearly not enough understanding about the types of assessments that provide educators information about student performance. Perhaps that is the first place to start.
Summative assessments have been likened by some educators, as an “autopsy” because of the finality of their administration and results. These types of tests, like so many high stakes state tests, often times are administered near the end of the year and by the time the results come back, do not offer educators a lot of time to go back and reteach or change instruction. Generally, these tests are for policy makers, who use the results to drive policy. Now, for some districts and states, these tests take up a small amount of time and schools work hard to use the information garnered from them to change instruction for the group that had taken them and also determine what they may do differently regarding instruction for the students coming to them. Other states use as many as 30 days to administer state driven tests, which seems to be the extreme and erodes from the amount of teaching time that classroom teachers have to engage with students.
Formative assessments, on the other hand, are likened to “check ups” because they are periodic, not final in nature, and provide teachers and instructors the opportunity to check in on student understanding and change the nature of their teaching before finally assessing students. They provide more opportunity for teachers to determine where students have clarity, and where they have gaps in understanding. Additionally, these formative assessments also are much shorter in length, and can be done quickly in the classroom with the teacher or team of teachers using results to quickly adjust teaching so to affect learning outcomes for students.
Universal screening tools are just that; screening tools. They provide an indicator that something might be needed on behalf of the student to help them be more successful. They are quick in nature, and usually administered across groups of students to determine if further probing may be needed. Some of these tools may be used to “progress monitor” children to see if changes in instruction produce changes in student learning.
In all three assessment scenarios, I always think about that expression, “Too much of a good thing is bad for you”. Massachusetts is a very MCAS driven state, with results being extremely public and along with other states, penalties being tied to lower than expected results for aggregate and disaggregated groups of students. While I do not believe in “teaching to a test”, I do believe in the following:
1. States need to be sure that their curriculum frameworks are at the LEAST, aligned to those national standards that have been designed to help students meet with success after leaving school (K-12).
2. School districts need to review curricula and ensure that they are not only aligned to state and national standards but that they are rigorous and engaging for learners.
3. Leaders in schools need to ensure that the district curricula is not only taught, but that structures are in place for those students that do not meet the standards, so that they have an opportunity to be retaught in a way that helps them reach the standard (RTI).
If the above three things happen, then in fact, teachers are teaching to the standards, which students should have mastered and then they are only needing to have some teaching around test taking strategies.
In the end, it really isn’t about the test, and I wouldn’t advocate teaching to one either. Additionally, that test is just one snapshot of a student’s performance and therefore, the formative assessments a classroom teacher gives, if aligned to the standards, shows a student’s performance over time and may indeed show a more robust picture of what kids know in regards to the standards.
Districts and states need to be smart about balanced assessment systems and not lose sight of the teaching that needs to take place with students. That teaching does not only mean academic standards, but citizenship, pro social skills, and all of the other teachable moments that help our students be well rounded, global citizens. While many of us may not like standardized tests, good practices help ensure that they aren’t the “standard” of how we assess our children on a regular basis.
NOTE: I recently posted a commentary on ASCD Edge (co-authored with Jay McTighe) identifying ten research-based beliefs about teaching and learning and their implications. #7 was:
Attitudes and values mediate learning by filtering experiences and perceptions. Therefore, teachers should understand how student attitudes and values influence learning and help students build positive attitudes towards learning.
This commentary elaborates on that belief, suggests its importance, and describes more ways to implement it.
In America, especially during the progressive education era and the “open education” years, building positive attitudes towards learning, motivating students, creating interest in learning, making learning relevant, and yes, even promoting the joy of learning were important aspects of educational planning, development and practice. The belief during these time periods was that building curiosity, expanding student interests, and making learning relevant and interesting would promote active student inquiry, build on a natural human inclination to learn, and help create an educational environment in which students would WANT to learn.
Unfortunately, this emphasis has been mostly lost, even negated, in the push for teaching “the basics”, often through worksheets and drills, and then with the more recent focus on passing high risk standardized tests, teaching skill based reading and math, and cutting back on “frills”, such as the arts and social studies. Today, it is hard to find schools where curiosity, interest in learning, being motivated to learn, and making learning joyful are as important as doing well on standardized tests, taking four years of English, or passing AP courses. These goals are also missing from any meaningful discussion about what we want to accomplish with our students, what we will assess, and what kind of learner we want to graduate.
Yet, if we really want to encourage students to learn, grow, succeed and achieve in a 21st century world, if we truly want them to be lifelong learners in a world of rapid change, social media, access to technology, and transformative job development, we will need to create a new and different kind of approach, one that puts curiosity, motivation, interest, and joy back into the learning equation. What primarily distinguishes our country from the rest of the world, what makes us unique, is not how well we take tests, but the unusual amount of curiosity, individual talent, creativity, ingenuity, and interest in learning and growing that comes from so many Americans and is developed in so many different ways. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were unusual not only because of their drive, but also because they were curious about how things worked and how they were able to learn about things they were passionately interested in. Bill Gates became interested in computers in part because the opportunity to work with computers was presented to him in high school outside of his regular courses. Steve Jobs created the diverse calligraphies found on the Apple computer because he took a calligraphy course that interested him after he had left the formal college world. Their natural leadership inclinations happened because they were curious about and interested in computers, and because they knew that, in order to keep pace with others, they needed to grow, adapt and change.
Unfortunately, due to the pressures to do well on standardized tests, to time spent on practicing for these tests, to the need to “get through” multiple topics required by coverage based standards, to the emphasis on getting more students to take AP courses, and so on, millions of children are lacking the kinds of positive learning experiences that support lifelong learning, increase curiosity, build individual talent, and make learning interesting, rewarding and just plain fun!
How do we promote a focus on developing the positive learning attitudes and values identified in this commentary? A good place for an individual teacher or a faculty to start is to first examine and explore the following questions: What motivated you in school? What did you enjoy doing? What interested you? What types of activities piqued your curiosity? Spurred you to continue learning and growing? My guess is that many teachers would say that they enjoyed learning because they were good and successful at it! They were rewarded for what they did. They did well on tests. They were encouraged to build on their strengths. They liked hands on activities and projects. They were given choices. Few would say that they enjoyed being reminded of their failures, that they liked taking multiple-choice tests or doing worksheets, that they liked reading textbooks, that they found enjoyment in doing an activity that they didn’t understand or was so far above their abilities that they had no chance at success. Most probably had mentors and supporters in times of difficulty. Most had at least a few teachers who encouraged them who were good at explaining difficult concepts or who helped them “learn how to learn”. The list of answers might be expanded through reading articles and books on how to build curiosity, motivation, individual talents, and interest in learning.
Once a list of answers is developed, then the following questions might be examined: What am I/are we currently doing that builds curiosity, interest, relevance, enjoyment, and the kinds of “learning to learn” skills and competencies that our students will need in the future? How do I/we implement and expand programs, approaches and activities in schools and classrooms that motivate and interest students in learning and create enjoyment?
Based on my own informal research and discussions of this topic with teachers and others, here are thirteen suggestions as food for thought:
In sum, a focus on how to create positive attitudes such as curiosity, interest, motivation and relevance leads to a very different way of thinking about school and classroom missions, outcomes, the learning environment, curriculum, instruction, and assessment. For example, instead of a focus on standardized tests passed by everyone, a portfolio assessment approach helps students focus on their individual strengths and reflect on what they have learned. Teachers concentrate on building student strengths rather than dwelling on their failures. Students are provided with opportunities to improve their work before they are graded. More choices and options are given to students in the form of classroom choices, electives, and enrichment activities. Some learning, such as research projects, is built around student interests. Many types of questions become more central to the learning experience. “Learning to learn” skills become a critical part of the classroom experience. There are more opportunities for students to make connections to the outside world in order to raise expectations and build motivation.
These ideas are just some of the starting points for your own discussion on how to develop positive attitudes towards learning and build the individual curiosity, skills, talents, and interests that will propel our students towards a better life, towards continued learning, and towards “pathways to student success” in a 21st century world. While this way of thinking might lead to a wide variety of suggestions and ideas, please remember: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.
[i] SQ3R is a study guide model that is focused around:
Surveying what you are reading;
Questions: Turn chapter and section headings, titles, subheadings into questions;
Read for the answers to each question;
Recite your answers after each section – orally ask yourself the questions and summarize your answers;
Review what you have learned.
Elliott Seif is a long time educator, teacher, college professor, curriculum director, ASCD author and Understanding by Design trainer. If you are interested in examining additional and related teaching and learning topics in order to help to prepare students to live in a 21st century world, go to his website at: www.era3learning.org
With state assessments in multiple states coming up soon, I thought I'd share some resources about assessments and test anxiety and opting out and those things related to assessments that have been in the news recently.
This blog post is meant to briefly address the recent “opt-out” concerns and provide resources so that the reader can make informed decisions. Some of the resources that I am sharing here will be easy to nitpick apart and cull details from that may seem inflammatory when pulled out of context and remixed and redistributed. I encourage any of you reading this to read closely what the text says explicitly, paying attention to words like “may” and “might” and “could.” These words are modal words of variability and as such, should be read with a menu of potential implications in mind--not a set in stone either/or scenario that the media tends to latch onto.
The major issue here is not really too much testing, it is academic integrity. That integrity extends over the whole of our educational system and has been in place ever since the notion of school was conceived. Teaching and learning without assessment is like preparing for a performance you never give. Like a book never published, like practicing on a field for a game never played. Integrity is disrupted when we only accomplish part of this process--education must be directed to its designed checkpoints--the assessments.
Students need opportunities to show what they know. The media and all others who are against the high stakes testing are really fighting the wrong battle. The “high stakes” part are labels attached to assessments recently and represent the usage of the data from the assessment to figure into student promotion, teacher evaluation, Title 1 funding, school effectiveness, etc. Those are external issues applied to assessments that have been in place for decades. These external issues are passed down to teachers and students which is what is causing the stress--not the assessment itself.
Additionally, because of the “high stakes” label, schools and teachers are participating in associated behaviors that represent what we should really be “opting out” of. Those behaviors include: test prep for weeks on end, multiple practice tests, teaching TO the test, traditional teaching throughout the school year and then a mad rush just before the assessment, negative assessment talk, misalignment in the rigor of instruction not matching the rigor of the assessment, misinforming or not informing parents about changes in standards and assessment in a timely manner and more. We maintain the “high stakes” label with all of these associated behaviors.
Last year, I wrote a blog post entitled “Ditch Test Prep.” Click the link and you can read what I wrote, but I encourage you to read the comments as well. All blog posts are invitations to conversations, not one-off publishing moments. The conversation in this particular blog post helped me shape my thinking around being what my colleague Jen Borgioli calls being “test-wise.”
In an effort to be more “test-wise,” I’d like to share the following resources:
Jen Borgioli’s Test Prep without Corruption Video Series on YouTube.
The actual document from the New York State Association of School Attorney’s about opting out.
My resources on Test Taking Skills (caveat: I used this stuff years ago and it has not been recently updated, but it represents perhaps a few different ways to approach embedding "test-wiseness.")
Please, continue to advocate for kids and their learning. Continue to do what you think is right for your children. But, be informed. Know what the real issues are. (For instance, I didn’t mention anything here about students being “overtested,” which the media would have you believe. If you think that, have you actually been in the schools looking at the way data is collected and used for instruction? If assessments are being done for the sake of “giving a test,” then perhaps the students are overtested. If the assessments are being used to shape instruction and give teachers an idea of the next instructional steps, then probably not.)
Our students need a chance to show what they know. We can talk about college and career readiness, we can talk about preparing kids for the world they will be graduating into, but I like to think about it like a ship we’re all on. Teachers are captains and the students are crew. If the students don’t ever get a chance to demonstrate the understanding of their learning, they will never be captains themselves. We need these assessments. We just don’t need all of the associated minutiae around them.
If you know of additional resources, please feel free to share them here!
It’s unfortunate, but every year we encounter struggling readers who have been lost in the shuffle or flown under the “reading radar” for years. So you can imagine how pleased we were to come across Spark it, a free reading assessment tool that not only evaluates readers’ skill level, but also offers recommendations for improvement and activities to develop their skills.
What impressed us about Spark It was its “user-friendliness.” As parents facilitate the four parts of the assessment, they’re guided by pop-up icons that tell them exactly what to do, when to do it and what they should say. Should parents experience any issues during the assessment, they can refer to the “tips” icon.
SparkIt assesses students’ proficiency in four areas:
Once the reading assessment is finished, you’ll receive instant results (see above picture) along with a personalized plan to help the reader improve his or her skills.
Attention to sociocultural capital in High-Performing High-Poverty Schools (HP2S) helps teachers understand where marginalized students are coming from. Teachers who share a sociocultural identity with students in the school may increase achievement in marginalized students (Chu Clewell & Campbell, 2007). Regardless of the focus on AYP in reading and math, ultimately, education is “the process of cultural transmission” (Rury, 2005, p. 10). The cultural resources imparted to students become capital “when they function as a ‘social relation of power’ by becoming objects of struggle as valued resources” (Swartz, 1997, p. 43). Cultural capital has a positive effect on all educational outcomes (Dumais, 2005). Acting as a resource for social power is why sociocultural capital is hoarded from marginalized groups by the dominant class. The power connected to cultural capital is a valuable resource “intersect[ing] with all aspects of cultural life” (p. 286). Bourdieu’s studies into capital have led him to believe that schools act as the main gatekeepers to capital giving the dominant class access to status, privilege, and symbolic power. “Schools offer the primary institutional setting for the production, transmission, and accumulation of various forms of cultural capital” (Swartz, 1997, p. 189) making restriction to capital through education a likely abuse by the privileged who already control education policy and practice (Nesbit, 2006). Even some reformers intent on social justice follow the dominant class way of thinking, valuing the expertise of professionals and managers over the working class, which presumes that “knowledge deficits” in the working class may be overcome through greater effort to move closer to dominant ideology (Livingstone & Sawchuk, 2005).
A long-term view of student success by educators recognizes that students are not blank slates waiting to be filled, but “are the products of many years of complex interactions with their family of origin and cultural, social, political, and educational environments” (Kuh et al., 2007, p. 5). The combined SES of students in the school along with differences in sociocultural capital is an important factor in student performance. The resulting push for accountability has narrowed education’s view of what schools should be doing down to reading, math, and science (Henig et al., 1999; Kuh et al., 2007; Rury, 2005).
Schools are middle class institutions where teachers have high levels of middle class sociocultural capital and reward students who have it, but may consciously or subconsciously discriminate against students who do not. When teacher and student capital is congruent, the performance of marginalized students is more likely to benefit. Popular society and specialists transmit values about the best way to raise children which is generally followed by middle class society aligning them with the beliefs of educational institutions. Working class parents are slower to change child-rearing practices to dominant practice keeping them out of sync with the school’s perception of the ideal home environment influencing teacher perception of the child and the child’s home life (Dumais, 2005; Lareau, 2003; Nesbit, 2006; Chu Clewell & Campbell, 2007).
The test scores of marginalized students would currently be lower if schools had not already been making progress at reducing the disadvantages of family educational background and SES previous to the passage of NCLB (Henig et al., 1999). Educational leaders, principals in particular, use an understanding of “cultural, social, and the promise of economic capital” to bring competing groups and individuals together to find common goals and shift marginalized interests to the center by “mutual choice” (Watkins & Tisdell, 2006, p. 156). Schools tap into a sense of agency in communities to bring about mutual choice to move toward federal goals, otherwise mandates like NCLB will ultimately get nowhere (Cohen & Ball, 1999, p. 23). Different forms of capital, but sociocultural capital in particular, can operate as lenses principals use to view particular educational contexts. A lens of the middle-class, white norm limits a school’s responsiveness to cultural capital possessed by students (Machtinger, 2007; Swartz, 1997).
Learning capacity is equivalent to intellectual capital (Livingstone & Sawchuk, 2005). All forms of capital are resources “that can be drawn on for social advancement” (Rury, 2005, p. 13). Bourdieu, one of the world experts on capital, believes there are four basic types of capital: economic, cultural, social, and symbolic with economic capital being the most important form in the United States followed by cultural (Swartz, 1997). While school cannot provide students with economic capital, schools can help students develop the other types of capital. Incongruence between the amount and type of capital students possess and the forms of capital valued in the school community can cause problems for the student (Kennedy et al., 2006).
Cultural capital has been defined in numerous ways. Church (2005) quotes Nieto’s definition of culture as
the ever-changing values, traditions, social and political relationships, and worldview created, shared, and transformed by a group of people bound together by a combination of factors that include a common history, geographic location, language, social class, and religion…Culture is dynamic; multi-faceted; embedded in context, influenced by social, economic, and political factors; created and socially constructed; learned; and dialectical (p. 48).
Or in other words: highly complex. Cultural capital comes in an objectified form such as works of art, an embodied form based in an appreciation and understanding of objectified cultural capital, and institutionalized form found in educational credits and degrees. Cultural capital is a resource used to gain or maintain power and privilege. Based on the assumption that certain attitudes, behaviors, and values are more admired and rewarded in society than others, dominant forms of cultural capital give students who possess them an advantage over marginalized students (Dumais, 2005; Rury, 2005).
Cultural capital, within the school setting, is the embodiment of the previous experience and learning of a community of people and influences how students accumulate, exchange, and utilize resources they gain from the school. Culture can be verbal facility, general cultural awareness, aesthetic preferences, scientific knowledge, and educational credentials and becomes a power source. Objectified cultural capital such as books, art, scientific instruments, and other tools require cultural abilities to use which can impact student engagement and parent involvement (Cohen & Ball, 1999; Stacey, 1996; Swartz, 1997). Parent access to the educational setting is also mediated by their personal experiences with school and other education-related institutions. In theU.S., where the dominant culture is not as strong as in other countries, cultural capital benefits both students from privileged backgrounds and all students who possess it allowing for “cultural mobility”. As cultural capital is distributed unevenly by society, schools make important decisions based on capital they have or capital they are trying to get which can be attributed to school failure as opposed to the limitations of individuals (Dumais, 2005; Lee & Bowen, 2006; Nasir & Hand, 2006; Schaughency & Ervin, 2006).
Coleman expands cultural and human capital theories into social capital which is a “community-based support-system network” that is context specific and has the two common elements of social structures and facilitation of individual and group actions within those structures. Social capital is a network of individual human capital. This view seems too limiting to the richness of cultural capital as described by Bourdieu (Musial, 1999). Social capital is the benefit derived from social networks and organizations including relationships within family and community that generates trust and schema to increase the capacity for collaboration (Dumais, 2005; Farmer-Hinton & Adams, 2006; Lee & Bowen, 2006; Rury, 2005; Zacharakis & Flora, 2005). Agents in the form of individuals and class will “struggle for social distinction” in a form of self-organization (Swartz, 1997). In this light, capital seems destined to be reproduced as “the quality of education children receive is directly related in part to the ability of parents to generate social capital” (Noguera, 2004, p. 2155).
Obviously, the forms of cultural, social, human, and economic capital are often interrelated. Cultural capital intersects with social capital to give agents more influence. This intersection means agency cannot be separated from the social and cultural contexts within the global environment in which it occurs. While social capital can be a means to a desirable end, the dominant class will most often prevail as they possess more capital (Lattuca, 2002; Lee & Bowen, 2006; Watkins & Tisdell, 2006).
More simply, “culture can be thought of as a set of behavioral characteristics or traits that are typical of a social group” (Rury, 2005, p. 9). The social setting is an organization of networks between social positions where dominant and marginalized groups compete for control of resources. Capital is specific to setting and does not exist without it. The education system reproduces social inequity where the possession of cultural capital leads to academic success. The most valuable form of capital in school is cultural capital congruent with capital valued within that particular school’s social setting (Dumais, 2005).
Whereas the social-constructivist perspective makes a distinction between the individual cognitive activities and the environment in which the individual is present, the socio-cultural perspective regards the individual as being part of that environment. Accordingly, learning cannot be understood as a process that is solely in the mind of the learner…Knowledge, according to this perspective, is constructed in settings of joint activity…Learning is a process of participating in cultural practices, a process that structures and shapes cognitive activity (De Laat & Lally, 2003, p. 14).
Nasir and Hand (2006) explain this complex interaction of social and cultural capital within specific environments as proof that educators need to attend to fostering agency in students’ focus on local problems. The number of students bringing middle class capital with them to school is decreasing and the number of students bringing sociocultural capital from the lower classes is increasing. “As in any demographic switch, the prevailing rules and policies eventually give way to the group with the largest numbers” (Payne, 2001, p. 79).
Engrained dispositions from previous experience can sub- or un-consciously limit student success. Called “habitus”, these dispositions provide the opportunity to mitigate cultural predispositions by structuring school situations and interactions with positive models and diversity-oriented experiences (Kuh et al., 2007). However, the concept of habitus does not account for the complexity and variety of hopes and dreams of different groups. Humanity is too varied and complex to be perfectly categorized into any model, but habitus does give a vocabulary to talk about how dominant and marginalized groups may be socialized starting at a young age. “Habitus…privileges the basic idea that action is governed by a ‘practical sense’ of how to move in the social world. Culture is a practical tool used for getting along in the social world” (Swartz, 1997, p. 115). Habitus is a collection of cultural habits.
Field is the social setting organized around types and combinations of capital which habitus operates. Schools act as a field for the competitive investment, exchange, and accumulation of various forms of capital (Swartz, 1997). Struggling within a local environment, schools should reflect the shifting community field. “Education clearly affects the course of social development, and schools reflect the influence of their immediate social context” (Rury, 2005, p. 1).
Schools are viewed as vehicles for individual social and economic mobility. The education field itself provides mobility of cultural capital for low SES/marginalized groups and is often one of few examples children and community members have of mobility and opportunity. This perception itself may create the reproduction of limited mobility in marginalized groups. In truth, some schools value cultural knowledge while others are more forgiving (Dumais, 2005; Henig et al., 1999; Johnson et al., 2000).
Empowerment of marginalized communities is collective, not individual. In order to realize change in the face of limited resources, communities rely on social capital for strength and agency. For school communities, this means that improved engagement can have profound consequences in improving achievement, agency, and equality (Schutz, 2006). Communalism helps build and accrue capital, generates “positive emotional energy”, and “may enhance motivation and engagement” (Seiler & Elmesky, 2007, p. 393). The social capital web is comprised of household, neighborhood, and school (Musial, 1999). But “working class peoples’ indigenous learning capacities…have been denied, suppressed, degraded or diverted within most capitalist schooling” (Livingstone & Sawchuk, 2005, p. 111). Overcoming cultural and historical differences “concerns activity and access to tools and mediated learning” (Portes, 2005, p. 176). Literacy, numeracy, and student well-being are practiced fluidly and dynamically across boundaries in social contexts. These pathways between family and community “need to be understood in out-of-home learning communities so that pedagogies, including assessment practices and the pedagogy of relationships can address the complexities related to children’s different life chances and ways of learning” (Kennedy et al., 2006, p. 16).
“Biological models of deficiency [such as the Bell curve have been] replaced by cultural deficit models” (Nasir & Hand, 2006, p. 451). Private and charter schools can stick to a particular ideology that does not have to concern itself with discipline, ideology, and related social problems. These schools are successful because the students who attend them possess congruent sociocultural capital. The success of private and parochial schools suggests these schools acting as self-organizing units self-organize around the sociocultural capital available within and surround them as opposed to the capital they possess being superior (Bower, 2006; Portes, 2005; Walk, 1998). Capacity becomes a non-issue in middle class schools because the ingredients for success already reside in the boundaries and pathways established within the school community.