May 31, 2011

Make your class a workshop

So you think a classroom that throws out the traditional methods of homework, bell work, worksheets and even grades sounds intriguing. There are several strategies to building this Results Only Learning Environment. One is to make your class a workshop.

What it looks like
Since converting my classroom into a ROLETM my room has desks scattered all over in pods of four or five. Bookcases line the walls, and student work is taped or stapled in no particular order from one corner to the next. Five computers are nestled snugly against one wall (I’m always trying to get more), and one or two carts are rolled someplace, holding student note books, paperbacks or art supplies we may be using for projects. I started the transition to more of a workshop setting a few years ago.

Rows of desks turned into pods. Although re-arranging desks is fairly simple, it can be quite daunting if you’ve lived in the row world your entire teaching career. At first, be careful to keep any potential behavior problems apart. As the year goes on, this won’t be a problem because you’ve thoroughly fanned your students’ intrinsic motivation and thrown out the worksheets and routines. A desired "good chaos" will begin to evolve in these cooperative groups, as students will discuss activities and projects they are engaged in.

A workshop setting embraces what can be the traditional teacher’s worst nightmare – movement. In the my-way-or-the-highway days, students were to remain glued to their seats. I would have literally glued them if I could have gotten away with it. A static classroom, in which only the teacher moves, is the epitome of the controlled environment. The theory is that if the students aren’t moving, there will be no problems, right? Of course, we know this isn’t true. Most bored students become unruly and they’ll find a way to disrupt, even if they decide to remain seated. In a ROLE, there’s no reason to fear movement, because students only move with a purpose. Remember, the class is project-based, removing the boring worksheets and homework

Be a part of it
Don’t forget that the teacher is part of the workshop. Be more than a leader; be a facilitator, a coach, a questioner and a partner. Any workshop will fail if the leader sits back and watches or, worse, roams around and does nothing more than hover over the participants. What I love most about the workshop setting in a results-only classroom is the freedom I have to build rapport with students. I glide around the room, while students are working. I’m much more than an observer, though.

Treat it like a party and mingle
If a student is updating a book plan, I stop to look in and ask about a particular title or to share my feelings on the book, if I’ve read it which in many cases I have. If a book chat is taking place in another group, I’ll sit at an open seat and be an active participant, adding to and pulling from each group member. “Oh, I nearly cried when Rue was dying,” I might add to a talk about Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. “I don’t think I’ve ever read such a powerful scene. How did you react to the way Collins’ handled Rue’s death?”

Make the transition
So, it's the end of another school year. Will you be ready to make your class a workshop next year?

May 30, 2011

Can parents stop high stakes testing?

Found this remarkable CNN video over at Joe Bower's blog. It really got me thinking. Teachers hate standardized testing, but there's little they can do to stop it.

What about parents, though? With more protests like the ones in the video, might enough voices be just what's needed to stamp out high stakes testing?

May 29, 2011

Narrative feedback over grades

The Results Only Learning Environment does away with useless points, percentages and letter grades, in favor of narrative feedback. This formative assessment tool encourages learning, as it eliminates the punishment that accompanies traditional grades. The video below, taken from, exemplifies narrative feedback, using a classroom web site. Of course, there are many ways to provide narrative feedback.

This type of assessment gets students thinking about learning outcomes, and makes them want to return to activities and projects and make the changes that are necessary to demonstrate mastery. Isn't it time for education to do away with grades, so real learning can take place.

May 28, 2011

More from the forthcoming book

My book, ROLE Reversal: How Results Only Learning Will Change Education As We Know It, is currently being reviewed by book publishers. I'm hoping it will be released this fall.

Yesterday, I shared the book's introduction and asked for your feedback. Your comment on that post would be very helpful.

Meanwhile, here's another brief selection from the book:

What Stakeholders Say

The first year I implemented a ROLE, I surveyed my students at the end of the school year, in order to get their honest opinions about what was a major change in teaching methods for them. Since I was the only teacher using results-only learning, my students were used to homework, tests, rows of desks and number and letter grades. I asked students to answer multiple choice survey questions about narrative feedback, year-long projects, the elimination of rules and other aspects of a ROLE. Since they didn’t put their names on the surveys, they were free to be as honest as they wanted.

Uncanny results

Of my 100 students 87 completed the survey. The results (no pun intended) were overwhelming. Ninety-nine percent of my students indicated a preference to results-only learning over traditional learning. A whopping 93 percent said narrative feedback was more valuable than number and letter grades. Ninety-five percent preferred project-based learning, and 84 percent said they believed rules and consequences were not necessary because students in a ROLE value learning and cooperation more than being disruptive.

It’s clear, based on this survey, student feedback provided in earlier chapters and the remarkable statistical improvements my students have made in a workshop setting, that results-only learning is popular and successful with students.
Results-only learning is revolutionary education reform that may scare traditional teachers.

What are your thoughts?

Update, March, 2012
The book, ROLE Reversal, is now under contract with ASCD and will be published in late 2012 or early 2013. I'll keep you posted on the release date.

May 27, 2011

Would you read this book?

Below is the introduction to my forthcoming book, ROLE Reversal: How Results Only Learning Will Change Education As We Know It. I'm wondering if it makes you want to read more and what else you'd like to know. I would truly appreciate any comment you leave.

The girl I’ll call Sasha was off to a rough start in her seventh grade year. The first grading period saw very little from Sasha. She completed roughly one-third of one major language arts project and did nothing on a second. Asked to review material covered on a web-based diagnostic tool, so she could retake it and improve her poor score, once again Sasha did not produce. In-class activities were done haphazardly, with little attention to detail. Feedback from the teacher, for the most part, was ignored.

At the end of the marking period, it was time for reflection, self-evaluation and a final grade. I met with Sasha, as I did with every student, and we discussed her production. When I asked Sasha for her thoughts, she admitted that the results were not what she had hoped for. She gave no excuses. Because the administration at the middle school where I teach mandates that teachers assign quarterly grades, I told Sasha that a formal grade had to go on the report card. This was a new concept, because there were no points, percentages or grades on any activity for the entire first nine weeks of school in our class.

“So put a grade on your production for Quarter One,” I said. Tears rolled down Sasha’s face, a heart wrenching sight, as I hated to see her punished by a grade. In between sobs, her chin resting weakly on her chest, Sasha whispered, “I guess it has to be an F.” When I asked if she was certain, Sasha nodded affirmatively. At this moment I realized that a Results Only Learning Environment would forever change how I taught and how my students learned.

The roles were reversing. Students were assessing their own learning, and their self-evaluations were providing me with the information I needed to create better learning opportunities in my classroom. Education was changing into something truly revolutionary.

One grading period later, Sasha was up to a C, and she continued to progress throughout the year. She is one of dozens of examples of students who have thrived in a unique classroom that ignores the fundamental methods that teachers across America use daily – worksheets, homework, multiple-choice tests, rewards and punishments and a standard grading system. This book will share many examples of students like Sasha, who have taken charge of their own learning and assessment in what I call a Results Only Learning Environment.

This transformative approach to teaching is based on research, theory and practice of people like, Daniel Pink, Alfie Kohn, Steven Krashen and Donalyn Miller. Although these authors and educators are referenced in several places throughout the book, most evidence of the effectiveness of results-only learning is based on my own practical experience and the almost uncanny success of my students.

Update: Since writing this post, I have signed a contract with ASCD to have the book published next year. I have a summer of 2012 deadline for the final revision. The book will be released in late 2012 or early 2013. I'll keep you updated along the way. Thanks for the support.

May 25, 2011

What have we learned about punishment?

I was browsing the commons on Flickr recently, and I came across this 1956 picture, taken in Richmond, Virginia. The picture got me to wondering how far we've come in more than half a century.

Old-school punishment

After all, in most schools, we still put elementary students in timeout, take away recess or make them change some color-coded card, indicating poor behavior.

We have our own detention centers at school, which we disguise with euphemisms like, Student Management Room.

We are 55 years removed from Richmond's Juvenile Detention Home, but how much have we learned?

May 24, 2011

Different paths, same outcome

Give four construction teams the exact same blueprint and identical step-by-step instructions, and they will likely build identical houses. This is how learning works in the traditional classroom.

The old-school way

A traditional teacher either lectures while students take notes or asks the students to copy instructions verbatim from a blackboard or overhead transparency. A task is given -- often in the form of a worksheet. Students are to apply the notes to the task, and each individual should reach the same result.

Of course, we know they rarely meet the objective, because they have no interest in a boring task, driven by rote memory. No thinking is necessary.

The ROLE way

A results-only classroom is different. In most cases, students work in small groups, and each group will choose a different path.  The final result of all groups may even look different, but the same learning outcome will be met by all individuals. They reach the objective through collaboration, autonomy and creativity. By choosing their own path, they build something unique, while real learning takes place.

What paths are your students taking?

May 23, 2011

No room for homework in the ROLE

Homework has been a staple of American education dating back to the one-room schoolhouse days. The effectiveness of this bizarre practice is rarely given a second thought. Pre-service teachers are instructed to give homework, and the habit is perpetuated. If you want to create a results-only classroom, you will have to commit to completely changing your approach to homework.

There is a myriad of research on homework, both for it and against it. I will not take space here to add to the research, but I would recommend Alfie Kohn’s The Homework Myth as the most thorough research on the subject and a treatise on what a monumental waste of time and energy homework is. For my part, I started phasing homework out of my class years ago.

Eliminating homework

Back then, many students were failing my class. In a failed attempt to help those students pass my class, I assigned less homework, because most of them weren’t completing it, and it was turning into something that was only lowering their grades. As my research on homework increased, I realized that my decision to decrease homework was the right one, even if my reasoning was somewhat flawed. What I realized when I began transforming my class to a Results Only Learning Environment is that traditional homework would not work – not just because it punishes students with constant zeroes but because it doesn’t fit into the project-based nature of a ROLE.

Traditional homework, which mostly requires note-taking, text work and rote memory, is not effective in project-based assessment. Plus, as Kohn demonstrates in The Homework Myth, there is little if any connection between traditional homework and achievement. This doesn’t mean my students will never work outside of class. They will, but they will choose when to do so and what kind of work to complete.

The Homework Challenge

Without getting too much into the homework debate, let me say that one of many inherent problems with homework is that it does not encourage autonomy, which, as you know by now, is of paramount importance in a results-only classroom. We want to tell students that their opinion is important, as is choosing how they learn. If we follow these declarations with “do-this-and-do-it-this-way” homework assignments, the results-only message becomes muddled, and any trust that has been built with students is eroded.

So, how do you let go of something you've done for so long? Easy. Check out my homework challenge linked here

Let me know how it goes.

The homework challenge

I introduced the homework challenge in an earlier post. The challenge will cure most of your “I-have-to-assign-homework” ailments. The challenge is based on my earlier assertion (borrowed from Alfie Kohn's The Homework Myth) that there is little if any connection between homework and achievement, and if you'll take an honest run at this little test, you'll see that this is true.

Getting started

Setting up the challenge is easy, if you are willing to stop assigning homework for one unit of study. Anyone can change their methods for two to four weeks. Be sure to select a unit that you have assessments already created. I use numerous web-based diagnostic tools, some of which I’ve had for years, so taking the challenge was easy for me. Of course, you can use a hard copy test or quiz too.

Now, teach your unit as you have in prior years. Use the same activities, worksheets, direct instruction, visual aids, and any other strategies you’ve used in the past. The key to the challenge, as you’ve likely guessed, is you have to assign no homework. Absolutely none. If going over homework in class the following day is part of the unit, simply replace that time with more in-class practice activities, enrichment or small-group discussion (the best choice in a ROLE). At the end of the unit, give students the same assessment you’ve used in the past.

Evaluating the challenge

An honest evaluation of the challenge can be done one of two ways. If you are taking this challenge well into the school year, you’ll have data on your current students. You will know how they have done on assessments, and you’ll know which students have consistently done homework and which have not. My guess is that students who consistently do homework will have done well on prior assessments, and these are likely your better students in terms of grades. I don’t have to quote research to tell you that students who complete their assignments typically get good grades, and those who do not do assignments usually get poor grades. (This is the problem with grades, a subject discussed at length here at ROLE Reversal)

With this in mind, when reviewing the results from the challenge unit test, there is no control group. In other words, I’m not suggesting that eliminating homework has a bigger effect on low-achieving students than it does on high-achieving students, when it comes to test results. In fact, what you’ll see in the results of the challenge is little change, in most cases. Most of your students will get the same kinds of test scores as they have throughout the year. Any change, I’m guessing, will be positive. Typically, the challenge yields slight increases for low achievers, because they are more confident, as they have not been beaten up by poor grades throughout the unit, due to not turning in nightly homework.

Although the challenge does not yield empirical data, it is definitely telling. Believe the results and stop assigning homework forever.

May 22, 2011

Results-only does not mean test results

In a stimulating TED discussion about a Results Only Learning EnvironmentTM, it was suggested that the phrase "results-only" can lead someone to think that the point of the phrase is that the process of learning is not important. In other words, test results might be all that matter.When it comes to a ROLE, this couldn't be more inaccurate.

Results-only learning, to be clear, means that mastery of a learning outcome is what matters above everything else. How a student gets there, in most cases, is irrelevant. Testing, in fact, rarely demonstrates mastery.

In a project-based, results-only classroom, teachers act more as facilitators, coaching students throughout the process. The teacher gives constant narrative feedback, guiding students to paths that eventually lead to the learning outcome. These may be multiple paths. Each student may take a different one, with a few detours. However, as long as they consider the feedback, revisit mini lessons and problem-solve, mastery is inevitable.

So, results-only learning is definitely about process. The result that is most important is never a test result. It's learning.

May 20, 2011

Do your students ask to retake tests?

One of my favorite things about a Results Only Learning Environment is how it fans the intrinsic motivation that is inside of all students. Educators often smother intrinsic motivation by punishing students with grades and rules -- things that only make young people hate learning.

When students are given autonomy, they soon want mastery (this is human nature, after all). When we choose to do things because we're interested in them, it's only a matter of time before we want to be good at them.

Under the right conditions, students want to improve

One of my favorite examples is when my students ask me to retake tests. Recently we took a year-end reading diagnostic, which measures students' Lexile measures against a similar test they take at the beginning of the year. We read all year, so the students want to improve. I talk up the Lexile as a solid barometer of reading ability; plus, it helps students find books that they'll understand and enjoy.

When we take the final reading test, many students ask if they can take it over, if their Lexile measure decreases. I recently had a student send me a message on our classroom web site, asking to retake the test. She told me she just had a bad day. "I know I'm a better reader than that," she said of her low score. Of course, she could retake it, I responded. That's how we operate in a ROLE.

When my tests were only about final evaluation and scores for a report card, students almost never asked to take the test over again.

May 19, 2011

ROLE strategies: talk less

For a successful Results Only Learning EnvironmentTM, teachers have to give up something most love to do -- talking. Obviously, you can't stop talking entirely, but you do need to talk less. I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve heard or read that lecturing to students of any age is a recipe for disaster, but even if you think you don’t lecture, I’d like to encourage you to talk less, anyway.

Teachers talk too much

Teachers talk; it’s simply in our nature. We give instructions – two and three times, because we don’t think our students are listening. We repeat a concept over and over, because three students had their heads down or weren’t looking in our direction. We dwell on the same visual aid, talking about every bullet point. We spend five minutes in closing, belaboring an earlier lesson for no good reason, other than to fill the time with sound. We talk and talk and talk. Sure, we’re told that lecturing is not good, but we continue. Why? The answer is simple. Talking makes us feel like we're in control.

Let the students talk instead

Research indicates that people remember about 10 percent of what they read, 20 percent of what they hear and 30 percent of what they see. However, they remember an almost uncanny 70 percent of what is discussed. If this is accurate, it seems that students will learn best when they share information in a cooperative setting – not when listening to teachers. So, in many cases, all you have to do is replace your own talking with silence and let the students do the rest.

It's not easy, and it takes practice. Think of ways to eliminate direct instruction with other teaching methods, and soon, you'll be talking less, your students will be talking more, and there will be more learning than ever in your class.

Other ROLE strategies

If you missed it, check out ROLE strategy 1: year-long projects

Don't miss the book

You can learn how to be successful, while almost completely eliminating direct instruction, in my soon-to-be-released book, ROLE Reversal: How Results-only Learning Will Change Education As We Know ItTM.

May 18, 2011

ROLE strategies: throw away the worksheets

Like most veteran teachers, for many years I had dusty worksheets and daily routines that made me comfortable, while boring my students into submission or, worse, into disruption. Routines and worksheets make a teacher’s life easy. Sure, you still have to deal with classroom management, parents, administrators and the myriad of unexpected stresses that may arise on any given day. The academic piece becomes easy, though, when the canned units and activities are in place.

New strategies
Reading all year
The shift to a ROLETM is not an easy one. What you’ll love about this system, though, is how these strategies will simplify many of the other difficulties that you may fear if you eliminate useless worksheets, homework and testing. Best of all, you can apply these ROLE strategiesTM to any subject or grade. During the next few posts, I'll outline these progressive methods.

Strategy 1: Incorporate and “coach up” the year-long project. Although I’m suggesting the elimination of the dull routine that we are taught to use back in our pre-service days, which I used to be a huge proponent of, the year-long project maintains a sense of structure and routine that will make the classroom run smoothly. The project can be anything; it just needs to be subject-related and something that can incorporate mini-lessons throughout the year.

Incorporate daily work from the project
The project should include something that students can work on every day. Of course, a year-long project must incorporate the autonomy that is critical to a results-only classroom.

What makes the year-long project so successful is that it is fundamental to the results-only philosophy that the teacher works all year to cultivate. If the project is discussed and celebrated constantly, and if there is enough freedom of choice in it to create a legitimate sense of ownership in each student, it will become an integral part of a project-based class, and your students will come to believe in it.

Say goodbye to bell work
If your day currently begins with bell work (a tedious practice), you can now replace it with the year-long project. Remember, in coaching intrinsic motivation and the results-only philosophy, you will teach your students to value production. As the school year moves forward, students will hunger for time to work on their projects.

Stay tuned for more strategies in our next posts.

May 17, 2011

Feedback and intrinsic motivation

The most critical part of a Results Only Learning EnvironmentTM is encouraging intrinsic motivation. It’s not as easy as defining it for students and saying that I want them to work hard and seek learning for learning’s sake, even though this is ultimately what I hope for. Intrinsic motivation has to be taught, re-taught and emphasized from the first day of school until the last day. It begins with the mantra, “Production, Feedback, Change."

The power of narrative feedback
I want students to value narrative feedback as an extension of an in-class lesson, so they can take the feedback and change the activity and improve it. Once students begin approaching learning this way, they will no longer look for points, percentages or letter grades on their projects and other activities. They will care only about the final results, which is what this type of education is all about.

What it looks like
Here are a few examples of narrative feedback that I have provided in my class:

Amber, I like your project so far. You are telling a very thought-provoking story. Some entries should be broken up, as they are a bit long. Also, check your facts; you mention Susan B. Anthony in an entry dated 1917. Anthony died in 1906. Well done overall, thus far, though.

Lucy, I love your story. Your character seems very real, with real emotion. Your writing is solid. Be careful, though, to proofread each entry carefully. For example, I saw this run-on in one of the early entries: “I heard a rumbling sound, I knew what was coming.”

This is a focus area for us, so be sure to correct it. Also, I'd like to see you start putting some of our vocabulary from either our vocab book or our literature book into your entries. Be sure to highlight these, if you do.
 Feedback like this helps fan the intrinsic motivation that I teach my students in the beginning of the year. The reward or punishment of a letter grade becomes less important than the specific, detailed feedback. Ultimately, students work harder, because they want the feedback.